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Love and Ponceau
I HAD been at the hospital of Saint-Mandé for perhaps two or three days when Ponceau was brought there.
I have only confused memories of this period of my life. For a good while I had been lying in a field of oats near Charny; then I had slipped into a sort of dream, in which I saw my broken arm turn green, turn black, become so heavy and swollen that it filled the whole world, while I felt myself fastened to it like a pigmy to a mountain.
All this came to an end in a comfortable bed in the midst of a great bare room, painted seagreen.
I had been put under chloroform and they had made great openings in my arm, out of which came, every day, fragments of bone, blood, pus, quantities of repellent things that smelt bad.
To be brief, when I began to be conscious of what was about me, the first thing that met my eyes, unless I am mistaken, was Ponceau.
As he appeared to me that day, Ponceau was a big, fair-haired boy, a little too plump, with a discolored little beard and large eyes, very large eyes, which I saw were continually moving. I was lying on my back, but I had only to turn my head to see my room-mate, who was also lying on his back and quite motionless, except for those big eyes that moved all the time.
I couldn't help asking him suddenly: "What are you looking at, up there?" He said, "What?" and then answered, with an absorbed air, "The sun."
Indeed, I saw on the ceiling a beam of sunlight that moved from left to right; as I was very tired, I involuntarily began to gaze at it and follow it with my glance. At the end of a moment I asked:
"You can't turn your head?"
"No, I can't," he said; "it hurts my leg."
"What's your name?"
"Mine? Ponceau, Emile."
He said no more; a major had just entered, calling out: "Stretcher-bearers! Stretcher-bearers! Bring in the next one."
The "next one" was Ponceau. He was seized by four men and placed on a sort of rolling bed, which we all held in horror and which we called the "omnibus."
I heard Ponceau cry out in a slightly befuddled voice that seemed to come out of his cheeks: "Oh, no! Gently there! Gently, those swollen . . ."
Then, hearing nothing more, I became absorbed again in contemplating the spots of sunlight.
I don't remember how long it was before they brought the "omnibus" back with Ponceau on it, or rather a sort of Ponceau, a poor fellow with a violet face, breathing loudly, babbling, snoring, with clenched fists and exhaling an odor of chloroform, an evil odor to which I have now taken an intense dislike.
The whole of his left leg was enveloped in a great zinc dressing. They placed him in bed; he was limp as a rag and it occurred to me that I must have had the same look, myself, two days before. The idea that it might happen again chilled the skin on my cheeks and gave me cramps in my toes.
Ponceau finally came to. He stammered, casting wild glances all about him: "Ah! my poor fellow! My poor fellow!"
In the evening he was able to talk, and he gave me some details. He had been wounded at Château-Thierry. A bursting shell had injured his thigh. He suffered a great deal and had the impression that this thigh was "not getting on half as well as it should."
Unfortunately, this impression of Ponceau's seemed to me quite justified. A melancholy period began for us both, made up of incessant suffering, monotonous, regular as the military life itself.
I was too ill to be interested in many things: the red-head opposite screamed all night, and the Algerian Touïtou kept bringing us bonbons, saying: "Well, how goes it?" Those are the clearest of my memories. But I knew all about Ponceau; for when my arm was conveniently placed on the edge of the bed, I had only to look to see him; he was my natural horizon.
Ponceau suffered, too, but not in the same way that I did. I was like a woman in childbirth: with every pain I felt myself taking a step toward recovery. As for Ponceau, one would have said, on the contrary, that every new pain took a little more flesh off his bones. Each morning the stretcher-bearers came to get us. They usually carried me out on a stretcher; Ponceau would go off on the "omnibus." We would meet again in the room for surgical dressings. My arm was certainly not handsome, but it seemed a charming thing beside Ponceau's thigh. That had a hideous wound, large enough to hold a soldier's képi,--great greenish wound, with the bone broken at the bottom.
It is useless to tell you what passed in that famous room. As for me, I let out several good screams. And, by heaven! I don't blush for them; for I've heard many another man scream, and some of them the bravest, too, beginning with my Ponceau.
After the dressing we had a little time, which was the best part of the day. Mme. Briant would come to feed us--oh! not much: an egg, a little soup, a few grapes. Mme. Briant is one of my happy memories of the war. Slender as a young girl, with big, timid eyes. There was one who didn't pose as a strong-minded woman! As soon as you began to scream her eyes would grow red and fill with tears, so that you finally had to restrain yourself in order not to cause her pain.
About the middle of the afternoon the fever would begin. We would stop talking and lie watching the ceiling. I felt as if I had a hideous headache just behind my eyes; I couldn't endure the light. I felt myself being filled up, swollen up with something stronger than I, like anger or fear; it would let up at about eleven or twelve at night, leaving me trembling all over.
But Ponceau was growing thin with extraordinary rapidity. His round face had become hollow, and a mass of wrinkles appeared in it. His eyes remained enormous, and seemed quite out of keeping with his face.
Then his cramps began. They attacked him nearly every minute and tortured his broken thigh. As long as the crisis lasted he would press his lips, which were cracked with fever, tightly together. When it was over, he would say, as he always did: "Ah! My poor fellow! my poor fellow!"
You may have noticed that when people are very wretched they call others "my poor friend," or "my poor sir," as if these latter were to be pitied.
Ponceau was given morphine, at first once, then twice or even three times a day. His eyes would take on a strange look; they. would always seem to be seeing something beyond what they were looking at. He would dream out loud and murmur: "If only she were here. If only she could come and see me."
Ponceau was in no condition to make confidences, and I did not presume to ask him for them.
One morning, the major with five stripes, the good "Papa Coupé," looked at Ponceau's leg and said: "Put him to sleep!"
Once again Ponceau came back from the operating-room with a foamy mouth and a contorted face. They had taken out a great piece of bone. The cramps disappeared, but Ponceau did not seem able to get any better.
In the afternoon he asked for Mme. Briant, and collecting his wits, dictated several touching little letters, all addressed to the same person. I learned in this way that Ponceau had gone to the war, leaving his young wife in Ferte-Milon, in the Aisne, and that, having had no news of her at all, he was writing at random, wherever he thought she might have taken refuge.
I understood the sort of anguish with which he kept repeating: "If only she were with me! If only I knew where she is!"
But the days passed and I realized with sorrow that Ponceau was going to die. He did not always recognize me and would sink into a sort of desperate agony, talking like a child, saying, "Dodo, bobo," refusing all food and abandoning himself to fate like a man who has lost all hope.
It was then that a miracle happened. On a certain Thursday I had gone peacefully to sleep, digesting the first lunch that was worthy of the name, when I was awakened by the sound of a soft conversation beside me. They were speaking in low voices and that was precisely what had awakened me. I at once thought, "Ponceau is dead!" and I opened my eyes.
Ponceau was not dead. Between his bed and mine there was a woman sitting, a very attractive little woman with chestnut-colored hair and a very white face. She was clasping one of Ponceau's hands in one of hers; the other lay on her knee, and I saw that it was trembling continually, although almost imperceptibly.
But what astonished me was the face of my comrade. To say that he had suddenly grown fatter would seem exaggerated; yet that was the impression he gave me. As for being flushed, he was, and not with the tint of fever but with a healthy color that I had never seen in him. And as for the wrinkles, I think he had hardly half as many as before.
He noticed that I was awake and called over to me: "Gustave! Here's my wife! She's found again!"
I was presented to Mme. Ponceau. She had gentle eyes that were quite moist, and I saw that she was with difficulty restraining a strong desire to weep. But it would not have done to weep before Ponceau; he was radiant. The young woman had drawn out of her little bag a beautiful bunch of grapes and some cakes, and the dying man began to eat them.
"Do you like them? I don't even know what they are. I took anything that came. I was out of my mind."
He replied between two mouthfuls, "They're delicious!"
Whereupon Mme. Ponceau kissed his hand and said, "He's so good! so good!"
Ponceau urged the cakes upon me, and then he explained: "You see she didn't wait for the Boches. She skipped off to Brittany. The whole trouble was to find each other again."
It was not enough for them to find each other again. He had to live now, and Ponceau went through some terrible days. Love had performed a miracle; but every day the fever returned to the assault. Then love repeated its miracle, and so things went.
As the condition of the wounded man was considered very grave, Mme. Ponceau was permitted to come every day. She would enter as soon as they were willing to open the door to her; she would sit down between the two beds, take her husband's hand in her own, and stay there till evening. Sometimes Ponceau was in pain; then they would not talk. She would merely look at him in a fervent, determined way, and I think that look did the man as much good as the quarts of serum they injected into him, drop by drop, through the skin of his abdomen.
Toward five, a polite but irascible little officer would come through the room.
"Come, Madame, you must go; time's up."
Ponceau would get angry and dart fiery glances in all directions.
"Five minutes more still! Come, she doesn't disturb any one, poor little thing." And he would add, in a low voice: "Did you see that fine fellow? He had his nerve with him! He wants to separate me from my wife."
At times the officer would add some remark concerning discipline: "Madame, do not put your bag on the bed of the wounded man."
Ponceau would snap peevishly, "Put it on Gustave's bed!"
The other would continue, "Madame, take your bag off the bed of that other wounded man."
Then Ponceau would say, in an amiable tone: "Well, give it to this polite officer. He'll hold it while we kiss each other."
Ponceau's wound suppurated a great deal. At times he would remark shyly: "I am afraid that doesn't smell very good. It's not my fault; it's the disease."
And he would look at her with anxious eyes. But she would always answer that she noticed absolutely nothing.
She brought him flowers. Above all, she brought him her loving, tearful glance, which possessed all sorts of powers. One day he exclaimed:
"Look here, Gustave! It seems to me that they're not giving me any more of their blessed injections."
It was true. They had taken away his morphine without his seeming to notice it. He concluded, with a restrained enthusiasm: "You see! There are two of us now to pack away my misery!"
When his wife had left he demanded my opinion: "She's pretty; isn't she?"
And he no longer said anything to me without adding, "You who haven't any wife, poor fellow!"
One day they perceived that Ponceau was distinctly better, and they spoke of no longer permitting his wife's visits, except twice a week.
Ponceau wept for a whole morning the real tears of a child, which left his big eyes swollen, filled his nose with water, and completely disfigured him.
Papa Coupé, who was very fond of Ponceau, came in in a great rage. As he was always at odds with the administration, he seized the opportunity to demand that Ponceau should be transferred to the supplementary hospital in the Rue des Petites-Ecuries, where he often went to operate and where he reigned as king.
"You must bring Gustave along, too," Ponceau ventured.
"We'll bring him," said Papa Coupé.
And it was thus that we quitted the hospital of Saint-Mandé.
The Rue des Petites-Ecuries was a Garden of Eden for us.
Supplementary Hospital No. 335 had been set up in a Hungarian hotel which had been sequestrated at the beginning of the war. It was supported by the contributions of a group of rich women who acted as nurses and filled the house with movement, grace, and powerful perfumes.
We were received by Mme. Potocka, the directress.
She was a former beauty, with a regular, rather heavy profile, a large bust, and gestures which were authoritative, maternal, and slightly languorous.
Mme. Potocka was waiting for us on the ground floor. She took her place beside us in the elevator and we felt ourselves ascending.
"An elevator!" Ponceau exclaimed to me. "That will be mighty good for me with my game leg."
We stopped at the second floor. An enchanting spectacle awaited us there. There were thirty or so beautiful ladies, each one better dressed than the others. They surrounded our stretchers with a whirling whiteness that dazzled and even deafened us a little.
Only with great difficulty was Papa Coupé able to restore calm in this lovely multitude.
"Come, ladies, come! Allow us to take the wounded men to the surgical dressing-room. There will be enough for all."
An excellent gray-haired person leaned solicitously over my stretcher. She addressed M. Coupé in a supplicating voice, tinged with a foreign accent:
"Tell me, Doctor! is this the one who is to be my own little blessé?"
"Madame Prosteanu, you must address yourself to Madame the Directress."
The directress had her own ideas. She consulted her books and said, "If you approve, Doctor, we will put these two in Room Sixteen."
And so it was that we were confided to the care of Mlle. Caporal. Room 16 was a hotel room, and a luxurious one, with two good brass beds and a couple of arm-chairs.
The next morning Mme. Ponceau took her place in one of these chairs, and she came back faithfully to sit there every day.
As for me, I soon made the acquaintance of the other arm-chair. My arm was not healed, but I was getting on fairly well. I began to get up and profited by my opportunity to visit the whole house. It was in January, 1915. Long months had gone by since we had been wounded. As for me, I was to remain paralyzed always. Ponceau's wound was beginning to get well, though his leg resembled nothing human. He no longer had any thigh, if you can say so; the knee began right up at the hip and the rest was misshapen, fleshless, almost transparent, it was so thin.
I confess that for my part I should have much preferred a good artificial leg to such a limb. I say this and then you look at my arm and it occurs to you that in place of such a rag you would prefer a wooden arm, with beautiful nickel joints. Which proves that it is very hard really to put yourself in the place of any one else.
Ponceau's leg was no longer in its cast; it wore only a simple bandage. For several days Ponceau seemed gloomy to me, and one morning he said:
"My wife hasn't yet seen what's left of my leg. If only it doesn't horrify her!"
I advised him to get Mme. Ponceau accustomed to the sight and the idea of it.
I shall always remember the poor boy, as he stammered, hesitatingly, that very evening:
"Look, Francoise, it isn't very . . . very beautiful; but I'm going to show you my leg."
He pulled the sheet back carefully and revealed first the bandage, then the entire leg.
I was standing at the foot of the bed. I saw Mme. Ponceau give a little trembling smile and answer in a heavenly voice:
"But, my darling, you can hardly see anything wrong with it!" Then she kissed him, saying, "The main thing is that you are saved."
Ponceau was saved. From that time on he hadn't the least fear, the least mental reservation. His happiness was complete. All life opened out before him. He took on weight. This obliterated, one by one, the lines in his face. Every morning he would sing "La Riviera" at the top of his lungs; and when Mlle. Caporal would object he would exclaim, "It's just high spirits!"
Mlle. Caporal was a pretty, dark-haired girl, who had known what sorrow is. When Mme. Ponceau came in the nurse would look at her with the interested, indulgent, sympathetic air of a big sister who knows what love is and has suffered herself. Then she would go out on the tips of her toes, breathing deep sighs of resignation.
In the afternoon I would usually go out and walk about the house, leaving the married pair to their artless happiness.
Sometimes I would meet the old officer who was in charge of the military administration. He hardly ever came out of his office, where he spent dismal hours, a victim of endless papers of which he had a superstitious and servile fear.
He would always make the same reflection to the surgeons: "Yes, indeed! I should much prefer to operate, too. You have nothing but a moral responsibility."
And he would return to verify his "cases" and to cover the bottom of his sheets with cabalistic signatures.
Mme. Potocka was the head of the house. It was her dream to impose an iron discipline on all her nurses, whom she saw for the most part divided between a great need for devotion and the tyranny of worldly habits.
"Do be more simple in your dress!" she would say to Mlle. Flegenheim, a pretty Jewess with scarlet lips. Which did not prevent Mme. Potocka from covering her own copper-colored hair with a new cap every day, one that was every day whiter, better embroidered, and with larger wings.
Sometimes I would go into the operating-room where our dear Papa Coupé was enthroned.
It was in vain for Mme. Potocka to cry, "Not more than two ladies in the operating-room!" It was always before a numerous and highly perfumed audience that the shell-splinter, finally extracted from the living flesh of the wounded man, would fall tinkling into the basin. Then a murmur of admiration would arise: "Oh! Doctor! Doctor! That was admirable!"
And Papa Coupé would laugh naively, with an air of saying, "That's just the sort I am!"
The conjugal happiness of Ponceau caused a great deal of talk in the house. I was often stopped on the stairs by M. Potocki, an aged civilian, a little doll of a man, an idiot of a millionaire, who would ask:
"How is your comrade getting on? You know, Boisseau, Pinceau, Boursault? You know! Poor boy, he has a very charming young wife."
Mme. Potocka had unreservedly granted her high protection to Ponceau's wife. So the latter enjoyed every favor in the establishment that was compatible with a vestige of military life.
It was in the midst of general enthusiasm that Ponceau took his first steps. They had offered him a magnificent pair of crutches, and he leaned on them with an anxious, intoxicated air, while the unfortunate leg swung back and forth, like a badly hung puppet. All those ladies were crowded together in the corridor and it was a question which one was to help the wounded man to move; Francoise Ponceau followed, her hands clasped, pale with fright and emotion.
From this day on Ponceau would get up for two or three hours every afternoon, and things were at this stage when a famous incident occurred.
On each floor of the hotel there was a large landing where the ladies would gather as soon as they had finished their work. You would hear them chatting there about strategy, gowns, surgery, charities, and the big shops.
Lovely eyes made to watch tennis-balls or appreciate the shade of a scarf were now reflecting with a determined gravity the hideousness of the surgical dressing-room, of amputated arms, of gaping skulls. Beautiful mouths, made for eating rare fruits and forming gracious words of love, pronounced with authority phrases like "amputation of the shoulder" or "gangrene of the leg." The war had not transformed life: it had added itself to life, augmented it, bringing into it mourning, unknown terrors, passionate duties, a tragic and romantic opportunity to multiply one's destiny.
But along these paths of the war, bloody and ringing with the cries of stricken men, drifted a feminine perfume that had not changed and was as precious, childish, and intoxicating as ever.
On the first floor Mme. Seigneuret was enthroned. Her husband was at the front, in a regulating-station, "very closely watched by the enemy aviators." Nevertheless Mme. Seigneuret did not lose her head; she knew how to disguise her distress and show that she was resigned in advance to all the blows of fate.
Now, one day, when I was talking with this charming woman, busily explaining to her the exact extent of the perils that menaced M. Seigneuret, I saw Mme. Potocka hurrying down the stairs, with as much precipitation as elegance would permit.
"Come here, my dear Odette, I have something to tell you," she said breathlessly to Mme. Seigneuret.
At that moment there was a little baby-faced blonde on the landing who for four months had been wasting away in the corridors of the hotel, consumed by a mystic need of devoting herself and caring for the wounded.
"Mlle. Neveu," said the directress, "won't you go and see whether your man with the amputated arm wishes to dine in the refectory or in his room?" Mlle. Neveu moved off like an angelic vision, and Mme. Potocka continued: "You can imagine I couldn't explain it to you before that child. It's about Ponceau."
I had moved away and pretended to be watching the movements of the elevator, without, however, losing a word of the conversation.
"Just think, my dear, Ponceau has asked my permission to go out some afternoon, to see his wife, in private. There! You understand?"
"What! with his leg!" exclaimed Mme. Seigneuret, softly.
"Of course, yes! With his leg! He couldn't leave it here; could he?"
At this moment Mme. Prosteanu approached, accompanied by a stout woman, still attractive, who, if I remember rightly, was called Mme. Lestourneau.
In a few words these ladies were told the news.
"That poor boy," added Mme. Potocka, "has explained to me, as best he could."
"And he has suffered so much!"
"Oh! undoubtedly he deserves it," declared the directress.
"But then with his leg! Think! With his leg!" persisted Mme. Seigneuret.
"Come now," broke in Mme. Potocka, "he shouldn't be deprived for his whole life of embracing his wife, just because he has a deformed leg."
In a few minutes the "Ponceau affair" had made the rounds of the establishment.
They were talking about it, guardedly, on all the floors, in all the corridors. The news went up and down with the elevator; it slipped into the rooms where the ladies were keeping watch, it was murmured even in the operating-room.
At every instant I would hear a feminine voice whisper in a feminine ear, "Have you heard?"
"About Ponceau, you know: the thigh case, in Room Sixteen."
"Oh! yes! Poor boy! I know. After all, he certainly deserves it."
"Just think, six months! And how he has suffered!"
"Oh! he's better; but even so, with that leg!"
"That's true, with a leg like that. Just think!"
The ladies did not fail to think. In my opinion they thought a little too much, and I felt slightly irritated at seeing the private affairs of my poor Ponceau blazoned out just as if they were in the newspapers.
The matter remained strictly among the married women. When Mlle. Neveu or Mlle. Flegenheim or the other young girls appeared, all mouths shut so tightly, by a concerted agreement, that these children would immediately ask, "What is happening? Is there any news about the blessé in Room Sixteen?" And as no one answered, they only conceived a livelier curiosity.
Toward evening Papa Coupé made his appearance. I heard the noise of a great discussion he was having with the directress.
"Oh! no, Doctor," she was saying "you mustn't bring us any appendicitis cases here; they're not interesting enough. Only the wounded; we don't want any but the wounded."
"But, Madame," the good man apologized, "by curing an appendix we are giving back a gun to France."
"Yes, but it's far less interesting than our dear blessés. By the way, have you heard--about Ponceau?"
"The mutilated men can still do their duty by their country: they have given it their blood; now they can give it their sons!"
Dr. Guyard gave a sort of lecture on the subject, in the midst of an attentive group: "Every time I save a man's life by cutting off his leg, I think before anything else of the race."
"Are you sure, Doctor," Mme. Seigneuret asked, obstinately, "that the children who arrive won't also have their arms or their legs--"
I returned to my room, in two minds between a desire to laugh and a genuine annoyance. The sight of Ponceau calmed me. He had just parted from his dear wife and was smoking Egyptian cigarettes, lying on his back, altogether blissful.
Besides, he had nothing to say to me. He seemed the only person who was ignorant of the agitation that was shaking the whole house.
In the evening Mme. Potocka came to see him.
"It's all arranged, Ponceau. I have taken your permission up to be signed. It will be for Friday."
"You are very kind, Madame. Many thanks !" Mme. Potocka went out, with a smile that was full of indulgence and encouragement.
Perhaps Ponceau expected that I would say something to him; but as I remained silent he contented himself with murmuring:
"A permit, my dear fellow. My first permit. That's something like!"
The next day, Thursday, witnessed the growth, the efflorescence of a magnificent exaltation. At his awakening Ponceau found himself the possessor of a great bottle of eau de Cologne. Almost every minute the door of Room 16 would open and a lady would come in, upon futile futile pretext:
"Would you like some illustrated papers?"
"Mademoiselle Caporal, shall we send the barber for your blessés?"
Mlle. Caporal assented. She seemed to have been informed of what was going on, and that was not surprising; for she was no longer a child, she had a certain experience of life.
The barber came up. Ponceau had his hair cut, his head shampooed, his mustaches slightly trimmed. He received all these attentions quite naturally and without noticing the enthusiasm of which he was the object.
Mme. Prosteanu came and sat down familiarly on the edge of the bed, in her usual way. She brought Ponceau the very last word in confectionery, a cardboard shell filled with chocolate drops. When the wounded man thanked her in confusion, the old lady answered in a maternal voice, "Take it out with you tomorrow. You can offer some to your charming little wife."
I went out into the corridor and began my daily promenade. Dr. Guyard was leaning over the stairs and calling to Mme. Potocka "No! Certainly not! You can't give him a bath, because his leg isn't healed. But have him well soaped in warm water."
And Ponceau was soaped in warm water and rubbed with eau de Cologne.
Mme. Ponceau came in the afternoon. She was overwhelmed with all sorts of hints. But, like her husband, she was plunged in a tranquil ecstasy and did not seem to notice the excitement that reigned about her.
In this way Thursday passed. Ponceau slept the sleep of innocence. It is doubtful if sleep showed the same generosity toward all other creatures that night.
On Friday morning the directress made a new appearance.
"Ponceau," she said, "I have been seeing about a carriage. It will be waiting for you at the door just after twelve o'clock."
Dr. Guyard came himself to arrange the dressing with Mlle. Caporal. Instead of a gauze bandage the good young lady wrapped about Ponceau's thigh a marvelous band of soft flannel which she fastened with a gilded pin ornamented with tiny purple beads.
It was a long time since Ponceau had had any military clothes, as he had dressed for his room in nothing but sumptuous striped pajamas. A little before lunch Mlle. Caporal brought him a pair of red trousers, such as non-commissioned officers wear, a thoroughly cleaned overcoat, and the képi of an artilleryman--articles chosen from the best-furnished shelves of the hospital store-room. The whole house wore a slightly festive air. People would greet each other, saying:
"He really looks very well."
"Then it's to-day?"
"Yes, he goes out at noon. He'll be back for supper."
Ponceau ate that day, by special favor, the menu of the officers: a chicken wing and some rice pudding. They also gave him a cup of strong coffee and a half-glass of champagne. He took everything with candid satisfaction, saying:
"It isn't like Saint-Mandé here: they know how to do things well."
A little before noon he appeared in the corridor. The entire personnel of the hospital, to the last one, had gathered there.
Mme. Prosteanu surreptitiously fastened a little bunch of flowers to his coat, saying, "You will look like a bridegroom."
And Ponceau climbed up into the carriage, where the beautiful, calm smile of his young wife awaited him.
I passed the afternoon wandering about the hotel, smoking cigarettes. Outside, it was a white, cold winter's day; but the house, overheated by the breath of the furnace, seemed congested. A stormy atmosphere, saturated with nervousness, prevailed in it.
All the ladies were assembled on the landings or in the sitting-rooms. There was none of the usual loud conversation and laughter. There was nothing but absent-minded smiles. They talked in little groups, with lowered voices. The young girls kept apart from the groups of married women, saying ostentatiously, "Oh! I beg your pardon," which showed that they were perfectly well aware of what was going on. They also had little secret meetings, in which mysterious conversations took place.
Time passed slowly and heavily. It dragged over the benches, stopped on the steps of the staircase, seemed absolutely motionless at the half-open doors.
Every one had a restless, impatient air, as if they were waiting for the denouement of some delicate situation.
Mme. Prosteanu suddenly pulled out her watch and said, "It's three o'clock!"
A profound silence greeted these simple words, and the perfumed air seemed suddenly peopled with all sorts of released dreams. One would have said that the human imagination had spread itself abroad through it, impregnated it, even given it a fragrance of its own.
"My ears are buzzing," said Mme. Lestourneau, naively.
"It's true, it's very warm," remarked Mme. Seigneuret, "and I have a tingling in my legs."
Mlle. Caporal withdrew, on the pretext of an indisposition. Mme. Prosteanu, sunk in a sofa, was talking gravely with a distinguished-looking person, whom I heard murmur in a mournful voice as I passed:
"Monsieur Gastinel is always the best of husbands, but it isn't as it was in the first days of our marriage."
Mme. Potocka was leaning on the railing of the staircase, talking with young Mme. Coutourieux.
"I haven't always been fortunate in my confinements," she said. "I suffered a great deal with my last boy, especially during the first months."
And Mme. Coutourieux replied, "Motherhood is a sacred function."
Then all at once she moved away, as if overcome with emotion.
"Where are you going?" asked the directress.
"I'm going to do my massaging," the young woman replied, abruptly.
Outwardly there was no thought of Ponceau at all. But he filled the house from garret to cellar, and they were thinking of him while they believed they were thinking of themselves.
A little time passed, and Mme. Prosteanu, drawing out her watch again, exclaimed, "Well! It's after four o'clock!"
This was the signal for a sort of relaxing. All the ladies found something to do and seized the occasion to move about.
I had the impression of a general lassitude and a vague melancholy. A sort of charm had just been broken. Something in the world was finished and they turned the page sadly.
Mme. Seigneuret rose, stretching her beautiful arms.
"Oh! What a horrible war!" she exclaimed. With extreme candor, Mme. Lestourneau remarked, "Ponceau will soon be back."
At once the entire company pretended suddenly to remember Ponceau: "Why, yes! That's so! That poor Ponceau!"
Mme. Potocka was clever enough to say: "That good Ponceau! We had forgotten all about him. .. ."
But a presence of mind like that was not equally developed in them all; in consequence, a few moments later, we heard the youthful voice of Mlle. Flegenheim cry out, "There he is! There he is!"
A carriage had just stopped before the hotel. And it was indeed he.
There was a general scamper to the stairways. Ponceau appeared, hopping clumsily on his crutches amid the snowy blouses.
He was smoking a big cigar. His color had been heightened by the cold outside. His eyes were full of an immense good nature, an immense happiness, and a permanent astonishment.
"Are you pleased with your permission, Ponceau?" Mme. Potocka asked, discreetly.
"Indeed, yes, Madame."
Then the elevator seized Ponceau and snatched him brutally away from the curiosity of all. It was in Room 16 that we met again.
As we were dining Ponceau said to me: "I've seen the Bois de Boulogne! That's a great sight, old fellow, eh! A great sight! It's ripping to be alive still, old fellow, and to have your dear little wife!"
He made me no other confidence, and I never knew exactly how he spent his first furlough. That evening in bed, as he was unfolding the newspapers, he suddenly exclaimed, "You can't guess what I found in the pocket of my overcoat! A bottle of Melissa water! I don't know why they made me a present of that! But it mustn't be thrown away: we'll uncork it and have a good drink."