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THEY have been summoned to appear at noon, but many of them will have to wait until nightfall.
They are assembled before the door of the building, collected together like a dark pool; there are splashes of them in the garden where a few groups are strolling about.
It is an afternoon in February. The heavy, troubled sky stretches away unbroken. It is swollen with such sad thoughts that it cannot concern itself with the little happenings here below. The wind is surly. It must know what is going on up there, but it tells nothing. It does not even convey the low rumblings of the guns; we are too far away; we must forget.
The wind is entangled between the buildings; it turns on itself like a wild animal caught in a trap.
The men pay no attention to the wind, nor to the sky, nor to the harsh winter light: they are thinking of themselves.
They do not know one another; they have nothing in common but the reason that has brought them together. They have a troubled, worn-out air, and yet they are unable to seem indifferent. To any one who looks at them carefully, however, there is something that unites them: it is a sort of absence of physical well-being, an unhealthy look about their bodies--too much fat, or too little, eyes lighted up by fever, at times an all too evident infirmity, more often gray skins, irradiated by poor blood. Never a joyous relaxing of healthy muscles: the whole assembly are as heavy as machines.
Some of the men, depressed at being part of a herd, and because it's a relief to one's pride, have begun to talk; others, also from pride, are silent.
There are clerks among them, professional men, workmen, intellectuals, veiling with an eyeglass glances that are full of bitterness and wearing their hair long.
All of them are smoking. It has never been more evident that tobacco is a remedy for the soul against itself.
From time to time two or three men approach the grill of the garden and disappear for a few moments. They come back, wiping their mouths, their breath heavy with the strong odor of spirits.
Several times an hour the gate opens. A gendarme appears and calls out some names. Those who are called cut through the crowd as if they were drawn by wires. The corners of their mouths are a little tightened. They assume an unconcerned, or weary, or grumbling air; and pass through under the archway.
They no longer see the February sky, they no longer breathe the wind, intoxicated with its odors of the cold: they are crowded together in an evil-smelling corridor, the walls of which, painted in nameless colors, secrete a slimy sweat. They kick their heels there for some time, then another door opens. A gendarme counts them off by the dozen, like fruit, or like animals, and pushes them into the great hall where the business is going on.
Immediately a violent odor of man assails their nostrils. At first they do not discern very clearly whence comes the strange agitation that reigns in this place. But no time is given them to reflect.
And then what good would it do to reflect? Does not one immense groan rise from the whole sick land--an appeal, the death-rattle of a drowning people?
What good would it do to reflect? Does the frenzied whirlwind reflect which, roaring on its way, ravages the old world? No, truly, the times are not suited to reflection.
You must undress quickly and take your place in line.
The hall is vast and hostile. Its walls are decorated with maxims, with the busts of unknown men; in the center there is a table like that of a court of justice.
A personage is enthroned there who lifts aloft a rather disdainful white head, in which one distinguishes fatigue and obstinacy. Obscure supernumeraries are waiting upon him. Before the table are two spiritless men in white blouses, one old and withered, the other still young and with an absorbed face.
The men advance in lines toward each of the white blouses; they walk one behind the other, like suppliants before the altar of an angry God. They do not know what to do with their arms.
They are not the flower of the race: long ago the finest men of the country went to live over there, in mud up to their waists, as quick to peril as cats.
For a long time there has lain in the farmer's winnowing-basket nothing but common straw and dust; and it is this he is ransacking with eager hands in the hope of finding a few scattered grains.
The men are not cold: a roaring furnace flings along the floor a breath as hot as the sirocco. Many are trembling, however, and they have goose-flesh, like people who are not used to being naked. They stand first on one leg, then on the other, place their hands flat against their hips, then let them fall, ashamed of their own touch. But other distresses await them: they soon cease to reach for their pockets or to assume attitudes. In a corner near the entrance a gendarme is manhandling a wretched little clerk who is slow in undressing; he never thought he would have to take off his socks and drawers; he is obliged to, and in despair he draws out two dirty feet.
The personages in blouses perform their tasks with a sort of feverish haste, like men who work by the piece.
A few summary questions, and at once they stretch out their hands, they touch, they feel.
The subject is rather pale. A warm dew pearls his temples. He stammers and speaks entreatingly. Then, when he is questioned again, he replies with confidence.
"You have nothing wrong with you? Do you cough?"
"No doubt you also have palpitations'?"
"Yes, a good many palpitations."
"And pains in your joints?"
"Yes, pains in my joints, particularly."
"Your digestion isn't good?"
"No, my digestion is never good."
The man seems quite reassured. He replies with a sort of enthusiasm, like some one who is at last understood. But suddenly the old doctor shrugs his shoulders and uncovers the trap:
"Evidently you have everything the matter with you. Well, you shall be sent into active service."
The man staggers slightly and groans, in a colorless voice:
"But surely you know very well--"
"You have too many things the matter with you. Well, you have nothing at all the matter with you. Go along! Active service."
The man in the other white blouse is struggling with a fat old fellow with a wrinkled abdomen, who is hiding part of his body with both hands. He explains something in a low voice and escapes precipitately to put on his stiff-bosomed shirt and a coat which is decorated with the palms of the Academy.
At times one of the assistants coughs, and at once a storm of coughing sweeps over the assembly like a gust of wind.
A big, jovial fellow with gray hair comes out of the shadow. With a sort of disgust every one makes way for him. In consequence he addresses his neighbors: "Well, what of it? It's nothing but skin-spots."
Behind him, sunk down on a bench, an elongated individual who might be of any age between twenty and sixty is carefully undressing himself. His face is pitiful, he seems submerged to the very lowest depths of human distress. He takes off an unbelievable number of garments and pieces of knitted underwear, and finally pathetic things appear--flannel chest-protectors, sachets, scapulars, clusters of medals. He arranges all these things on the bench; the clothes fall and are trodden underfoot by the new arrivals. The ageless man turns quite pale, as if they were walking over the secrets of his life, his very pride.
The sound of a discussion interrupts the humming silence. The old doctor exclaims, in a furious voice:
"I tell you I hear nothing!"
With his two hands he leans on the shoulders of a puny little fellow, as frail as a toothpick, who seems overwhelmed.
With one word the puny little man is precipitated into active service, and he goes off far more anxious, more shivery, more terrified than he will ever be out in the open field facing the machine guns.
At the other end of the room, however, a new phenomenon is occurring.
"I tell you I can march!" protests a decayed voice, wasted by some unknown malady.
"No," replies the young doctor, "be reasonable and go back to your family. We will take you later when you are quite well."
"If you don't want me it's because I'm done for. But I tell you I have reasons for going to the front, instead of staying at home to be bawled at every day."
A brief silence falls over everything; the echo of a drama is prolonged in it. The man is manifestly very ill. His chest is horrible to see and heaves with an agitated breathing. He can scarcely hold himself up on his swollen legs, which are veined with purple.
"Rejected!" cries the judge.
And the unfortunate man returns to his clothes, his shoulders drooping, his glance dazed like that of a slaughtered ox.
The man following is a fatalist: he refuses to discuss his lot.
"That isn't going to prevent you from serving!"
"Oh, the devil! Do whatever you like!"
"Well, then, active service!"
"If you like! I don't give a hang!"
And he retires immediately, bound over, like one who has staked his future on a toss.
All who pass leave in the hall a little of the strong odor they have of unwashed men. It's a strange fact, but they all have a fetid breath; on this day, at least, they have eaten too quickly, digested their food poorly, smoked too much, drunk too much. From all these mouths there comes forth the same hot, sour breath which betrays the same emotion, the same derangement of the mechanism.
Little by little the atmosphere of the hall thickens. The lamps, which have been lighted early, seem padded with a sticky mist that makes everything damp. But above all, in this air there is something more secret, something more troubled, less evident; it is like an overcharge of nerves, a dust of broken wills, a detritus of the imagination, left behind here by these men who strip themselves naked, who are afraid, who wish, who don't wish, who agonizingly measure their resistance and the sacrifices they must make, who struggle, tugging at their oars, against the rushing flood of destiny.
The men in the blouses continue to toil heroically, in the midst of these human bodies. They never cease feeling, handling, judging. They dig the tips of their fingers into the flesh of the shoulders, into the flanks, into the fat of the buttocks; they pinch the biceps between the thumb and the middle finger, move the joints, look at the teeth and the insides of the eyelids, pull the hair, tap the chest, as custom-house men tap a barrel. Then they make the men walk from left to right and from right to left, they make them lean over, straighten up, kneel down.
At times it is as if a little fresh air ran through the room. Two well-built young men protest their conscription! One can hardly understand how they happen to be there at all. The entire tribunal looks at them in amazement; they are like nuggets in the midst of a handful of mud.
They pass with a proud, slightly forced smile. Once more there begin to file past pathetic uglinesses, despairs, incurable and violated timidities. This tribunal makes one think of a rugged cliff against which, like sea-birds driven by the tempest, these bewildered beings come to wound themselves.
The doctors show signs of exhaustion. The older of the two, who is a little deaf, plunges into the work like a wild boar in the underbrush. The younger one is in a visible state of suffering and irritation. He has the troubled, anxious look of one who is doing a work which he hates and to which he cannot reconcile himself.
And always the human flesh flows past; from the same corner of the room keeps arriving the uninterrupted file of human bodies, advancing with soft steps over the floor.
Sacred human flesh--holy substance that serves thought, art, love, all that is great in life--you are nothing but a vile, malodorous paste that one takes in one's hands with disgust, to judge whether or not it is fit for killing!
A persistent and general headache sets in.
The company goes on with its duties as if in a dream, with the silences, the slow moments, the black intervals of bad dreams. Two hours more pass in this way.
Then, abruptly, we hear some one say: "There are the last ten!"
They come in and take off their clothes in their turn. They have waited so long that they seem crushed with weariness, stupefied, prostrated. They accept the decisions without opposition, like the blow of a fist on the neck; and they go out hastily, without speaking to one another, without looking at one another.
The members of the tribunal wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate; they sign the papers ceremoniously, and disperse.
It is night. The wind has fallen. A fog, reeking with factory smoke, still covers the town. At the foot of a street-lamp one of the last men to be judged is vomiting, convulsively, the glasses of wine he has drunk during the afternoon. The street is dark and deserted.