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NO, old fellow, the war hasn't changed everything.
You didn't know M. Perrier-Langlade? He was what is called a great organizer. Happening, for example, on some place where everything seemed to be going well, where every one believed he understood his work and was doing it in the best possible way, M. Perrier-Langlade, who possessed an original idea of practical reality, would point out that everything was going badly. He would at once change the position of every object and the function of every man. He would walk about, gripping in his right hand a cane which was in a way his working instrument and with which he played like a fencer or the leader of an orchestra: he would touch everything with this irritated cane, and let fall orders like a rain of hail. An organization upon which his genius had been exercised would take several weeks to return to its normal functioning and recover its former prosperity.
M. Perrier-Langlade had ideas of his own, and that's always a serious matter. Men of power who have ideas will never admit that simple mortals can have any. The way to get on with M. Perrier-Langlade was to act so that he imagined he himself had conceived the ideas that you wished ardently to see carried out. Even that did not always work, for this elect spirit had a happy habit of changing his ideas several times a day, a trait that reveals a great generosity of temperament. He was a man always being upset by some whirlwind. As he couldn't do anything properly by himself, he had none too scrupulous a notion of the relations that unite the act and the idea. But that's the price you pay for holding a position of power, and besides, M. Perrier-Langlade was a great organizer.
He loved figures. Let us do him this justice; he handled them with an audacious mastery. He saw in them a profound significance that will forever escape souls as little mathematical as ours.
I had seen M. Perrier-Langlade only from a distance and rarely, when it fell to my lot to have an interview with him. Whew! that is a good deal to say, considering the modesty of my rank; I should say I was permitted to hear M. Perrier-Langlade speak close at hand, and to profit from the sort of information that constituted the most important expressions of his personality.
It occurred last winter, during those weeks when it was very cold. For fifteen days an east wind had been blowing, as cutting as the law and as dispiriting, too.
This cold and this wind had been the cause of an epidemic of fires at the front. People had filled to the bursting-point any number of little epileptic stoves which from time to time communicated their fever to the end wall of a barrack. The flame would put its nose outside, the wind would snatch at it, twist it, inflate it like a veil, and that would usually cost five or six thousand francs' worth of wood, paper, canvas, and various other materials. When the Germans saw one of these fires within gunshot, they would send along a few shells with the charitable design of helping to ward off the disaster. Why not? You make war or you don't make war. And the unhappy world is making it: there can be no doubt of that.
We had lost in this way several outhouses and barracks which were fortunately isolated, and these accidents had helped to advertise our presence, when one night, toward one o'clock in the morning, a fire, a serious fire, broke out in Ambulance 521, which we could see on the plain about three or four kilometers away from us.
We had put on our sabots and gone out to watch the spectacle: the vast leaping brazier, the country stiff with blue frost, the moonlight, which the wind seemed to ripple like water, the reflection of the flames over the countryside, as bleak as Siberia and gaping with the old trenches of 1915.
Our hearts were wrung at the thought of what might be going on down there, but we dared not leave our division.
We were wise not to: toward three o'clock a troop of automobiles came tooting up to the doors. They brought us a part of the wounded who had been snatched out of the catastrophe.
They were taken down from the cars. Poor things, they behaved very well. There were two with fractured skulls, a blind man, a man with an amputated leg, another with a broken leg, and several others less gravely wounded. They had lost in the fire everything they possessed as soldiers--that is to say, the little canvas bags which were fastened to their cots and in which they placed their knives, their match-boxes, three or four old letters, and a stub of a pencil. I repeat, they behaved very well, but they were a pitiful sight; for they gave the impression of men who have waited a long time on their straw mattresses, in the midst of the flames, thinking to themselves: "If they don't come after me right away, in five minutes it will be too late."
We put them to bed and warmed them up. They needed it. I remember that the one with the broken leg was wearing a sort of dressing, wadded with cotton, in which little icicles were glistening. In short, it was all very dismal.
The night was spent in these duties and the morning found us chatting about a big bowl of coffee. The wounded men had begun to doze. It was almost warm in their barrack. We had given them cotton caps, knitted woolen underwear, and a big cup of scalding hot condensed milk; and they were sleeping with one eye open, so to speak, like men who are thinking: "Phew! That's the second time I've been pulled out. I've got to look out for the third!"
It was then, old fellow, that M. Perrier-Langlade appeared on the scene.
I had gone out, I don't know why, and was walking in my sabots over the crusted snow, when I saw a luxurious automobile stop by the roadside. The door flew open and M. Perrier-Langlade burst out, buried under a sumptuous mantle of fur.
I said to myself: "Ah! that's good! There's Monsieur Perrier-Langlade, come to comfort those poor devils of ours."
I had a hundred meters to go. I flung myself dizzily over the piles of snow and arrived, somewhat out of breath, just in time to stand at attention before the door. M. Perrier-Langlade stamped his foot.
"What!" he exclaimed, "no one here to receive me when I get down from the car'?"
"I beg your pardon, Monsieur le Principal--"
"Be silent! You can see well enough there is no one! Last night you received some wounded from Five-twenty-one. I went myself to see that fire. I went at two o'clock in the morning, at the risk of catching pneumonia. But that's not all: I wish to have some one here to receive me when I get down from my car. If you had not been here, there would have been no one, and it would never do for me to wait in cold like this. You are to place an orderly here, to be on duty permanently."
"Be silent! How many wounded did you receive last night?-"
"Thirteen, Monsieur le Principal. It is true that--"
"Wait! Thirteen! Thirteen!"
M. Perrier-Langlade began to repeat this number over and over as if to himself. It was evident that this simple word suggested all sorts of profound thoughts to his mind. I don't know what stupid need to talk made me open my mouth just then.
"Nevertheless, please observe, Monsieur le Princip--"
"Be silent!" he said angrily. "Thirteen! Thirteen!"
I felt greatly confused and relapsed into silence. It did not last long. Ravier arrived at full speed; he had noticed the automobile and had rushed over. He stopped short five paces away, his heels sinking in the crackling snow, and saluted.
"There you are," remarked M. Perrier-Langlade, "and it's none too soon. How many wounded men have you received here whom you ought not to have received?"
Ravier flung me a despairing glance. I showed him my open hand with the fingers spread, and Ravier, who had not lost all his wits from surprise, replied at once:
"Five, Monsieur le Princip--"
A bellow from M. Perrier-Langlade cut his words short.
"Five! Five!" said he. "So it's not thirteen; it's five!"
I jumped as if some one had stuck a hat-pin into my back.
"But please observe, Monsieur le Principal, that it's not--"
"Be silent!" he said again, with calm authority. "Five! Five!"
And he began to repeat this word with an air that was at once Olympian and indulgent, like some one who cannot be angry with other men because they are ignorant of the supreme joys of the philosophy of mathematics.
We were looking at each other, full of consternation, when we heard the clicking of a pair of sabots, and good M. Morgue appeared, his nose red with cold, his stiff little beard, like a brush of fine mist, jerking out in front of him with the rhythm of his panting breath.
"Ah! at last!" exclaimed M. Perrier-Langlade. "At last you are here, Monsieur Morgue! Be good enough to tell me how many men you have actually in hospital in your barracks."
"Twenty-eight, Monsieur le Principal."
"There now! There now! It's neither thirteen nor five, it's twenty-eight! Twenty-eight! And I suspected it."
We examined one another in turn, as if struck with imbecility. M. Perrier-Langlade, carried away in sublime meditation, was walking up and down, repeating: "Twenty-eight! Twenty-eight!"
I noticed that his voice had a rustic quality and was not devoid of good nature. For a long time he repeated, at first shaking his head, then with increasing jubilation: "Twenty-eight! Twenty-eight!" and I felt certain that in his mouth the numbers did not have the same meaning that they have in yours or mine.
At last he saluted us abruptly, with a commanding and imperious courtesy: "Au revoir, gentlemen! Twenty-eight! Twenty-eight!"
And he went off to his automobile, rubbing his hands one against the other, with the savage joy of a man who carries with him an absolute certitude.