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As we were taking our places at table M. Gilbert asked, "For what hour have they set the burial of Lieutenant Limberg?"
"Three o'clock, Monsieur," the faithful Auguste replied to the head doctor; "an infantry guard has been asked for; it will be furnished by the lieutenant's own battalion. This battalion is unloading guns and ammunition at Morcourt."
"Good! Ask Bénezech to come here."
And we gave ourselves up to the bitter-sweet joys of a cucumber salad. September was passing, but the brazier of the Somme had redoubled its fury. The grumbling of the guns filled all space, exactly as if a drama were taking place in the bowels of the earth. We were rather stupefied after having passed several sleepless nights, nights spent in struggling against this torrent of blood and in rescuing the human wreckage from it. Lieutenant Limberg was one of the saddest cases; we had taken him in tow three weeks before and all at once he had slipped his cable, struck down by a nasty case of meningitis, stammering, dreaming the most extravagant things out loud--things that made him hideous and gave death the appearance of some frightful comedy.
There is nothing more painful, nothing that offends the soul more, than to watch the ravings and sufferings of these men who have been wounded in the head, to see a young lad of twenty degenerate. How many times, wearing myself out in the midst of these shameful spectacles, have I wished that those who hold in their hands the destiny of peoples might be allowed to contemplate them. But let's speak no more of that. Alas! we can never give imagination to those who don't possess it. Let's speak no more of that, and return to the burial of Limberg.
We were struggling with a tough slice of beef, when Bénezech entered.
The Abbé Bénezech, a hospital nurse of the second class, performed several functions, including those of secretary and chaplain. He was a plump man with a slow wit and a majestic chin. He allowed his beard to grow untended and felt very keenly the lack of those little attentions at which devoted parishioners are so adept. Far too holy a man to attach much importance to matters of his toilet, he had gradually turned into a sort of neglected old bachelor. He practised patience, waiting until they should return him to the delicate ministrations of his parish.
"Bénezech," said M. Gilbert, familiarly, "at what hour are you to bury Lieutenant Limberg?"
"At three o'clock, Monsieur le Médecin-chef."
"The body is laid out?"
"It's been placed in the tortoise."
"Good! Was the lieutenant a Catholic?"
"Oh, yes, indeed, Monsieur! Thanks be to God, I gave him the communion yesterday!"
"Then everything's all right. Thank you, Bénezech."
The attendant went out. We returned to our somnolent state and to a dish of noodles which was well calculated to discourage the appetite. When the meal was about over, an orderly entered and handed a card to M. Gilbert.
"The officer," he added, "insists on seeing you at once."
M. Gilbert returned the card with the attentive air of a man who is falling asleep.
"Well," he sighed, "bring him in here, then." And he added, as he turned toward us, "Second-lieutenant David. Do you know him? No?"
The second-lieutenant was already pushing open the door. He wore a little infantryman's cap over his tightly crisped hair. Heavy lips, a tiny curled mustache, the magnificent dark eyes of a Smyrniot merchant, a suggestion of obesity, short plump hands.
"Monsieur le Médecin-chef," he said, "my battalion is going up into the line and I have profited by our passing to ask you for permission to see one of your wounded, my best friend, Lieutenant Limberg."
M. Gilbert, who had a mobile little nose, expressed by a slight gymnastic turn of that organ that he was very much disturbed.
"Give the lieutenant a chair," he began, with the presence of mind of a man who knows how to announce painful news. Then he continued: "My poor friend, what I must tell you about Lieutenant Limberg is very sad: the unfortunate man had a very severe wound in the head, and . . ."
"He is dead?" asked the infantry officer, in a colorless voice.
"Yes, he is dead. We are to bury him to-day at three o'clock."
Lieutenant David remained for some time without moving. A nervous twitching began to agitate one side of his face. He seemed overcome and mopped his forehead, damp with sudden sweat. We respected this very evident grief. At the end of a moment he rose, gave the military salute, and prepared to take his leave.
"Excuse me, Monsieur," he said; "he was my best friend."
With a preoccupied air he extended to all of us a fat, moist hand, and was about to go out, when he stopped a moment on the threshold.
"One word more, Monsieur le Médecin-chef: my friend Limberg was an Israelite. I myself am an Israelite. It is perhaps not immaterial to tell you this."
And he went out. There was a brief silence; then M. Gilbert began, with an accelerated rhythm, to rap the table with the handle of his knife.
"What was it he said? Limberg a Jew? This is too much! Call Bénezech."
M. Gilbert was a headstrong man, violent, explosive in his reactions. He seemed to have forgotten the heat, his lassitude, his digestion. With a furious ardor he flung little bread-balls into all the corners of the room. He had the concentrated, terrible air of a cartridge that feels the fuse burning. He stopped Bénezech short on the doorsill by a display of his vocal resources that left no room for doubt as to his own feelings.
"Ah! It's you! Well! You were going to get me into a nice mess again!"
"Monsieur le Médecin-chef!"
"Lieutenant Limberg, yes! Very well! He was a Jew, and you were going to make me bury him a Catholic!"
"Exactly, a Jew!"
The abbé gave a smile of supreme incredulity: "He was not a Jew, Monsieur le Médecin-chef, for I gave him the holy communion only yesterday."
M. Gilbert stopped short, like a horse face to face with a wheelbarrow. Then he murmured, as if in a dream, "Yes . . . Well, it looks as if some one were making a fool of me."
"Oh! Monsieur le Médecin-chef!" protested the abbé, and he raised his hands, palms to the front, with a grace surprising in a soldier who cheerfully wore his puttees in corkscrews about his ankles.
"You have given him the communion," continued M. Gilbert; "yes, evidently. But what did he say about it?"
"I don't know just what he could have said," interrupted the faithful Auguste, "seeing that he hasn't been able, for more than ten days past, to talk reasonably."
"That's true!" remarked M. Gilbert. "What do you say to that, Bénezech?"
"I am amazed, Monsieur le Médecin-chef. I should never have insulted him by asking him, especially in the sad condition in which he was. Besides, he came here with several holy medals about his neck. I myself gave him several and he received them very gladly."
"Evidently," said M. Gilbert, "all this is not very clear. You tell me Limberg was a Catholic. Very well! I have just been assured from another quarter that he was a Jew. First of all, you are to send for the rabbi of the stretcher-bearers' division. Afterward, to make more sure, send a cyclist to Limberg's battalion, at Morcourt. We shall find out from the corps."
Bénezech went out, raising his hands several times, his fingers spread, in token of embarrassment.
"Let's go to the tortoise," suggested M. Gilbert, getting up from the table.
It was an unused tent, full of holes, under which the religious ceremonies were performed and where the corpse was placed on its bier.
Limberg's coffin was lying there on two boxes, wrapped in an old flag. A ray of sunlight, filled with a twinkling whirlwind of gnats, cut the shadow obliquely. A few chickens were picking at the fine gravel. This funereal spot seemed like a haven of calm on the edge of the tumult of the war.
An attendant came in, stuck two candles on the table, lighted them, and placed a crucifix between them.
"The devil!" said M. Gilbert. "Affairs like this are a perfect nuisance!"
As we were coming out of the tent we perceived Bénezech and the cyclist. Bénezech's very beard looked triumphant. With his fingers to his képi he saluted like one giving a benediction, and said in a celestial voice:
"Information from the battalion, Monsieur le Médecin-chef: Lieutenant Limberg was a Catholic."
"By the twenty gods!" exclaimed M. Gilbert. "You have a written note?"
"No," answered the cyclist, "the officers simply consulted together and replied that he was Catholic. As for that, you can see these gentlemen at once; they are coming for the burial with the guard of infantry."
M. Gilbert pawed the ground. He was quite red and the end of his nose made little spasmodic movements which announced the imminence of a decision.
"May I prepare for the service?" asked Bénezech, with the candid, restrained air of a man who will not abuse a victory.
"What?" said M. Gilbert, "the service? Prepare for it! Prepare for it! I have my own idea now."
The faithful Auguste, who had left us a few minutes before, came back, examining a bundle of envelopes.
"I have looked through the personal belongings of the lieutenant," he said. "There is nothing conclusive except this post-card signed by a certain Monsieur Blumenthal who calls Lieutenant Limberg his cousin. Blumenthal! That's Jewish."
"Perhaps," said M. Gilbert, "but that makes no difference to me now. I've got an idea of my own."
"It is true," continued Auguste, hesitatingly, "we could still have the coffin opened."
"No, that would tell nothing," broke in M. Gilbert. "And besides, I tell you once more, I have my own idea. Let's get to work."
Thereupon we returned to our work, which continued until half-past two. At this moment the orderly reappeared:
"Monsieur le Médecin-chef, it's the Jewish chaplain, I understand. He wishes to see you."
"I'm coming," said the chief.
He put on his handsome képi with its four stripes, took off his blouse, and went out.
From the window I watched the arrival of the divisional rabbi. I saw him get down from what looked like a junk-dealer's cart, hitched to a knockkneed mule. With his black skullcap, his long flowing beard, his tall swaying body, his frock-coat, his staff, he made me think of the Jews of the popular romances. He seemed very old and descended from the cart-step with the majesty of a patriarch.
Full of curiosity, I went out to see a little of what was going on. Twenty steps from the cart, at a turn of the path, I saw the rabbi again, without at first recognizing him. He had a curling black beard, a slight figure, a great deal of assurance, the smile of an Assyrian god, and something in his eyes that was like a reflection of the Eastern Mediterranean.
I went around a shed and found myself suddenly nose to nose with the chief and the Jewish chaplain. I saw at once that I had been twice mistaken: he was neither the Wandering Jew of the newspaper romances nor the Levantine Semite of the great ports of commerce. He was a man of the world, without any definite age, wearing eyeglasses, with a studious and attentive air and something distant and professorial about him: the "distinguished" manner of a fellow of the university. He spoke the slightly cosmopolitan French of a learned man who understands six or eight languages and pronounces none of them quite correctly.
"Inteet, Monsieur le het doctor," he was saying, "we haf many Limpergs in the East. I know seferal such families myself."
"That is quite possible," replied M. Gilbert, courteously. "To be brief, I have made a certain decision. Come this way, chaplain."
We made our way slowly toward the tent. As we were just about there, the ground shook under the rapid beat of a little band of soldiers on the march and the infantry guard appeared. Several officers followed at a distance. Every one halted before the tent and we saw Bénezech come out. He had covered his jacket with an ancient surplice, which looked like a veteran not only of this present war but of all the wars of the last century.
"Gentlemen," said the head doctor, gravely, "a very annoying thing has happened. We cannot find out with absolute certitude what the religion of Lieutenant Limberg was. The information you sent us seems to show that he was a Catholic."
"And even a communicant," added Bénezech in the brief silence that fell.
"May I ask you on what you based your information?"
The officers looked at one another as if taken by surprise.
"By Jove!" said one of them, "he never told us he was a Jew!"
"Well, I know one certain fact," said a captain. He went to mass with me several times."
"But, confound it!" shouted M. Gilbert, "that roves nothing! I often go myself, from time to time. It's true," he added, "I am not a Jew. As for Limberg, one of his most intimate friends came to see me this very day; he told me that the lieutenant was an Israelite."
A new silence fell. The infantry were forming groups in the avenue. The audience had a hesitating, troubled air. The two priests had not yet looked at each other and seemed to be giving great attention to the officers' uniforms.
Just then two stretcher-bearers came out of the tent, carrying on a litter the bier with its tricolor draperies. They took three steps and, suddenly, there was the corpse between the priest and the rabbi. M. Gilbert stopped them with a gesture.
"Gentlemen," said the head doctor, in the voice of a sage who is remembering Solomon, "gentlemen, since we are in doubt, I have decided that Lieutenant Limberg shall be buried according to both the Catholic and the Hebrew rites. In that way there will be no error, only an excess of zeal. We know that God will recognize His own. These gentlemen will perform in turn. I believe that I am doing a just and wise thing."
The officers shook their heads in a way not to express any sort of opinion. The two priests for the first time looked at each other. They exchanged glances across the coffin and bowed as if they had never seen each other before. They both assumed, spontaneously, a curious smile; but the eyes had no part in it: they gazed at each other like two persons of the same family who, having fallen out twenty centuries before, have met again at the house of some business man.
The stake between them was not a soul, but this box with its rigid body, disfigured by ten days of agony, this box covered with the symbolic cloth which the breeze stirred lightly.
The two priests looked at each other with interest for a long moment. On one side the country cure, with the heavy limbs of a peasant, on the other the refined, cosmopolitan rabbi, with his complex smile, as old as the Bible.
"It's true," whispered the faithful Auguste into my ear, "Bénezech gets them a great deal oftener than the other fellow; he could afford to let him have one from time to time."
"Keep still, you!" said M. Gilbert, who had overheard. "You are an idiot to talk like that: this is a very serious matter."
Bénezech had just given a slight shrug with his shoulders; he lowered his eyes and stammered:
"Monsieur le Médecin-chef, if Lieutenant Limberg was really an Israelite, I think it better for me to retire."
"Do as you think best, Bénezech," said M. Gilbert.
The rabbi continued to smile. He had the patient face of a believer who knows that the Messiah has already failed once to be at the rendezvous and that perhaps it will be necessary to wait for him a few million years longer.
"Then," said Bénezech, quite low, "I withdraw, Monsieur le Médecin-chef." He took a few steps, and we heard him murmur as he moved off: "The main thing is for him to have received the communion; and he has received it, twice."
The rabbi still smiled, as if he were thinking to himself, "As for me, I stay."
M. Gilbert made a gesture. We heard the shout of an order, and every one lifted his hand to his képi.