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IT is an easy enough matter to die; but at least you should have the good taste to choose your spot. With us it is not as it is in China, where the dead are the lords of the empire and occupy almost more space than the living. In our land you must know how to die opportunely; otherwise the living look at you askance and say: "What good is that corpse?--There's no room for it here!"
In 1915 I was going through a sort of probation at the regulating-station of X. and I was on duty there three or four times a week. To be on duty meant chiefly to be on hand, and incidentally to assume certain little colorless duties of supervising and giving information. It is the usual thing for the officer of the guard to have his quarters in a dismal little office adjoining the lamp-room. There he can champ his bit at his leisure and watch the military trains go by crowded with men who have been tested by ten months in the field and who sing as they go from one hell to another; for in war men don't look far ahead: as soon as they get away from the guns they abandon themselves trustfully to the delights of living.
One Saturday evening, then, I was stretched out on the straw mattress which took the place of a cot and which was swarming with mice. I could hear these amiable little beasts disporting themselves three thumb-lengths from my ear, as I lay listening absent-mindedly to the sounds about me. They were the sounds of every great station: whistlings, cluckings, puffings, the shriekings of windlasses and cranes, the vibrations of stretched wires, the clatter of the semaphores, the distant reverberations of colliding cars. But with them were mingled a sound and rhythm that were purely military: the measured tramp of a detachment on the march, the calls of the sentinels, orders being given, the ringing of bells; in fact, every manner of thing that indicates the empire of armed force over the industrial system.
I had reached this point in my meditations when I saw Corporal Bonardent entering my retreat with a blinding acetylene torch in his hand.
"I hear you, Bonardent."
"One of the guards of the commissarial train has got himself run over by Semi-permanent Sanitary Convoy Number Seventeen. Seems rather a pity."
"We'll go and see, Corporal."
Two men awaited me outside with a stretcher. The night was magnificent, scarcely troubled by the lurid, nervous electricity of the station.
"It's at La Folie," said Bonardent. "It's a good bit from here."
La Folie was a railway crossing, about fifteen hundred meters distant. Of one of the workmen I enquired the way and we set out.
The marvelous thing about a great station is that an order of supreme, commanding importance, an order that regulates the fury of moving masses, can present itself in all the appearance of a tangled maze of confusion. We began to walk along by interminable lines of cars. They seemed to have been forgotten there since the beginning of the war. One would have said from their stiffened axles, their rust-eaten joints, that they had been long out of use; but all at once the torch would light up an open doorway and you would see heaps of soldiers sleeping in the straw, or the stupid eyes of animals. There were compartments transformed into offices on wheels, where secretaries stupefied themselves among masses of papers, by the cozy light of some flowered lamp-shade; and you realized that the formidable administrative machine was ruling over the railways as it rules in its monstrous fashion all the way from the trenches to the clothing-shops in the farthest Pyrenees.
At times, as we crossed the large, dark open spaces, we would attempt to slip between two trains that seemed sunk in an eternal slumber; but suddenly, without our seeing a soul, the trains would begin to move and would come together with a crash of iron couplings. Farther on we had to stop to let the sanitary convoys file past. At that time many of them were far from comfortable, and as they passed they would send us a broadside of racking coughs and whiffs of chlorine that smelled horribly of the hospital. Elsewhere there were herds of stubby mortars lashed fast to trucks, legions of rolling kitchens, machines the use of which it was impossible to guess, and all sorts of war material to which the night gave a fantastic appearance. Big, smoky rotundas sheltered the crouching locomotives that snorted under the livid glare of the arc-lights. To recall the life of former days, there were also suburban trains which carried sleepy passengers and expresses that passed through the chaos of rails like the crack of a whip. In short, the tumultuous mingling of military life and civil routine.
At last we reached La Folie. It was an important center of tracks, wheels, junctions, and cables. Three old workmen lived there in a hut. They were in their shirt-sleeves, turning cranks, pushing levers, directing with a calm experience all the moving forces that were tangled together in this spot. They made me think of those old-time foremen in whom long practice takes the place of genius and who keep the business going while their employers give themselves up to a life of pleasure.
Above the noise and rumbling rose triumphantly the patient clicking of the telegraph.
"We've come to take him away," said Bonardent.
"Ah! poor soul! He's there under the sack, and everywhere else, worse luck!"
We entered the zone occupied by the corpse. I say "zone" intentionally, for the unfortunate man had been cut up and scattered about like a handful of grain in the sowing.
"Father in heaven!" said one white-haired workman. "He got down from his carriage without looking around. He made a mistake there! Too many things are moving about in this neighborhood. A man ought never to leave his place."
The face of the dead man was intact; but sixty cars had passed over his body, slashing him crosswise from feet to shoulder. We picked up the debris, here and there, on all sides, fragments of bleeding flesh, entrails, and I remember finding a hand closed over a cheese. Death had surprised the man while he was eating.
It seems unbelievable, but the material of the coat had held; it concealed the hideous destruction of the body. Turning it about gently, I saw a military tag on which one could still read the name Lamailleux.
"I believe," said Bonardent, "we have the whole of him now."
An electric bulb perched high overhead lighted with a succession of jerks; it seemed to be agitated by an exasperating tic.
We decided to take a short cut on our return, through the "Artillery," a vast sub-section where the munition trains were lined up. But as we approached the tracks, a sentinel appeared.
"Halt! The countersign!"
Not one of us had thought of it. The territorial held his gun across the passage. He was inflexible:
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but you must go through somewhere else. Those are the orders."
A wide detour brought us into the presence of another sentinel.
"The password, please? No one allowed through the Artillery without the password!"
"My friend, we are carrying a corpse."
I raised the corner of the sack and uncovered the bluish face. Under the acetylene light one could make out, through the confusion of bloody clothes, a bit of pale skin and some tattooed letters. The sentinel made a grimace of horror but said, nevertheless:
"Lieutenant, you must go through over by the main tracks. It's not possible here."
We plunged again into the labyrinth of rails, accompanied by the clattering of signals and the sonorous rumbling of trains. At times the exhausted stretcher-bearers would stop and set down the litter on the slag in order to spit carefully in their hands. Then long passenger-trains would pass by us, and in their brightly lighted interiors we would see women reading and holding lovely sleeping children in their arms.
At last I saw the lanterns of the quai.
"Where shall we carry the corpse?" I asked Bonardent.
"Don't know, Lieutenant."
After some reflection I presented myself at the freight office. There was a more or less indeterminate establishment there, where all the wreckage thrown up by the maelstrom of the station was gathered together--strayed packages, men without employment, animals without masters, material without a destination, and, when necessary, corpses. A gendarme was smoking a cigarette before the door.
"There's no room to-day, Lieutenant. The place is filled with refugees from the North, with their children and their bundles."
I said a few words of encouragement to my men and decided to go to the "isolés."
The pavilion of the "isolés" was filled with detachments that were rejoining their corps. The men were sleeping in heaps on the straw.
"Oh! you must see it's quite impossible to put that in with the men." said an adjutant, shaking his head. He added, as if to excuse himself: "Put yourself in my place, Lieutenant. I have no orders. I can't take charge of a corpse without orders."
I had sat down on a stone. The tired stretcher-bearers mopped their foreheads and muttered the words, "A drink!". I could make out the shapeless mass of Lamailleux, who seemed quite indifferent as to his ultimate place of crucifixion and awaited his final bourn with the sovereign patience of the dead.
"Perhaps you don't know the station very well," the adjutant remarked to me, "but there is a disciplinary section for the trainmen quartered here. If you wish, I'll go and see."
I let him go and began to smoke, contemplating the night, which was beautiful and warm. The serenity of nature said as clearly as the agitation of men: "What does that troublesome fellow want with his corpse?" And an insect, in ecstasy in the grass, lifted his shrill voice like a tiny being who imagines that the whole world is his and was made for him.
The adjutant appeared out of the shadow.
"It's very unfortunate, but there's a fellow in there who has been imprisoned for drunkenness. He has vomited in the disciplinary station and is carrying on like the devil."
"All right," I said. "We'll go and see the director."
The director was asleep. His assistant was reading some illustrated papers. Just as I began to tell my story he asked my advice about cutting out and pasting on the walls some of the little ladies of the "Vie Fantaisiste," of which he seemed to be an inveterate reader. As I maintained a rather morose air, he said, by way of digression:
"As for this sad story, it's a great pity that the hospital is at the other end of the town. You can't go there at this hour. So put that thing in a compartment till to-morrow morning, my dear fellow."
Having relieved himself of all responsibility with this bright idea, the young man glued his nose once more to his pictures.
At that time they had not yet built in the regulating stations those great board and cardboard hospitals that we now see everywhere. I did not consider his idea of the compartment for two seconds. In imagination I could see my improvised morgue setting out at night, bearing my corpse with it. It was madness!
I went to see the postmen. They were sorting the mail, singing in an undertone: "C'est moi qui suis Nénesse." There wasn't room for a rat in their tiny quarters, and at once it was plain that the whole matter was outside their province.
From that place I came out in a decided state of weariness. Truly, no one was interested in my dead man. I grumbled to myself: "Why why, Lamailleux, did you have to die in a spot where there is no room for corpses, at an hour when no one has time to trouble about them?" But even as I said this I felt, none the less, that a certain solidarity had been born between these remains and myself, and I looked at them as at something you don't know what to do with, but which belongs to you just the same and in spite of all.
"Where shall we carry the poor man?" said Bonardent.
Then the simplest idea occurred to me: "Follow me!"
Very quietly we returned to the lamp-room.
"No room here, Lieutenant."
"Keep right ahead, Corporal!"
I had the stretcher carried into the little room that was reserved for my own use.
"Now put it down there, by the side of my mattress, and go to bed."
The men went out, shaking their heads with astonishment. I remained alone with Lamailleux and stretched myself out on my blanket. The war had already taught me to live and sleep in the company of the dead, and I was astonished that I had not thought at once of so natural a solution.
For a long time, by the light of the candle, I looked at that fearful bundle that was my companion for the night. As yet there was no odor. I blew out the candle and was able to muse at my leisure.
From second to second there fell from the stretcher, with a faint sound, a drop of something that must be blood. For a long moment I occupied myself with counting the drops while I reflected on many dreary things, the times we live in, for instance. The loud whistles of the engines were rending the darkness of space and I had already counted several hundred drops when I sank into a sleep which, like that of my companion, was without dreams.