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FRANKLY, I don't regret those four days in prison. They gave me a magnificent cold (for I am permitted to remark that the disciplinary establishment is lacking in comfort) but they inspired me with efficacious, with edifying, reflections. Can I still cry out against injustice, when I know that I am indebted to it for inestimable insights and benefits? No, I don't regret having, at the age of forty-six years, made the acquaintance of what we have agreed to call "the damp straw of the dungeons." But let us take up the affair at the beginning.
When the sergeant, who is not at all a bad man and who has been saddened by bladder trouble, came and said to me, "Monsieur Bouin, you are to have four days of prison," I experienced at first an astonishment that was mixed with incredulity. Still, it was morning and the sergeant, who never jokes before he has got his bearings, added with a mournful air: "There was a guard duty that ought to have been taken by one Bouin and was not taken. Perhaps it wasn't you, my poor Monsieur Bouin, that skipped your guard, but it's certainly you who are to have the four days in prison."
The sergeant was silent. I felt a certain weakness in the pit of my stomach, and a very disagreeable feeling of heat in my cheeks. Up to the first days of the war my life had been peaceful and happy; there were some emotions I was not used to; for all that, I was none the less sure that I was indignant now, keenly indignant.
"Sergeant," I said, "it's impossible! I stood my guard at the ambulance day before yesterday, and I shall stand it again to-morrow. But I was not assigned to guard duty last night, I assure you."
I must have been trembling and quite red, for the sergeant looked at me for several seconds in a pitying silence. Then he said: "Wait; I am going to see the officer of the administration," And he went out.
I set to work once more, polishing the parquet floor. It is very fatiguing work for a man who has spent all his life in the study of mathematics; but in the month of September, 1914, a great spirit of resolution and sacrifice animated every Frenchman who amounted to anything. I had volunteered to serve my country humbly, proudly, to the limit of my strength, and since the appeal was made chiefly to my physical strength, I polished the floor every day with enthusiasm. On this particular morning I found that I was rubbing it with frenzy, so much so that great drops of sweat began to blur my work. I was disturbed by this but satisfied: you water your native soil with whatever you can; don't you?
The sergeant came back.
"Monsieur Bouin," said he, "the four days are indeed for you, and it's a dirty trick they 're playing you. Just lately there has come into the service a volunteer doctor with your name who has not yet received his rank. Since he is acting as a major, he doesn't do night work. But the secretaries, who never know anything, put him on guard duty just the same, and it was this guard that was not mounted. Do you see? Then the officer with three stripes ordered the four days in prison. They pointed out to him that he couldn't punish the doctor, who had nothing to do with that work. The punishment has been placed upon the roll for some one named Bouin; and as it must be carried out, it appears that you are the one to suffer."
I was holding in my hand one of those sticks on the end of which the floor-polishers stick a bit of wax. I was so completely stupefied that I let this object fall. The walls of the echoing chamber indiscreetly emphasized this clumsiness with a clatter as loud as a box on the ear. I was very miserable.
"Go and see the officer yourself," said the sergeant, with an air of being deeply moved. "I myself must go away now; I have some signatures."
I placed the brush and stick in a corner, and went off toward the office, buttoning my waistcoat with trembling fingers; for my calm of manner is only assumed and I was experiencing some difficulty in retaining control over myself.
I knew the officer: he was an old Alsatian whom the war had dragged out of a mayor's office, where he was enjoying the leisure of his retreat. He had struck me as not at all a bad man, or even a trouble-maker; I did not despair of making him yield and seeing him give way before the evidence.
"Ah, it's you, Bouin," he said, calmly. "'Well, you are to have four days in prison. You will begin at noon."
"Monsieur l'officier," I said, "I am indeed Bouin, Leon Bouin, and--"
He cut my words short:
"The first name is of no account. There was no first name written on the roll. You saw 'Bouin'; it was your business simply to go."
"Monsieur l'officier, my days of guard duty have been regularly fixed for the last two weeks. I had not noticed--"
The little man stood up, and I saw that he was so short as to be almost ridiculous. He advanced upon me with a sort of stuttering anger that seemed to be all tangled up with his mustache.
"A punishment has been imposed," he said; "it must be carried out. Well! You must bear it. What is your profession?"
"Professor of mathematics; enlisted voluntarily."
He responded with an air of concentration: "Just because you enlisted voluntarily, you needn't imagine you are going to have everything your own way here. Men of education like yourself ought to set a good example. Be advised by me; do your four days, my boy."
"But, Monsieur l'officier--"
"Take my advice and do them: it isn't at such a moment as this, when the enemy is still at the very gates of the capital, that you should spread among us the seeds of insubordination."
"But, Monsieur l'officier, discipline--"
Deep, regular lines appeared on his forehead and around his mouth. Then he rolled out in a heavy, disdainful, melancholy tone:
"Discipline! You don't know what it is. You will never know what it is! Do your four days!"
From the gesture that accompanied these words I realized that I must go. Thereupon some astonishing words came out of my mouth:
"Monsieur l'officier, I shall lodge a complaint with the head doctor--"
The little man ran his hands through his papers. "That's right! That's right! Just another troublesome fuss! And they expect to win victory with men like this! Get out! Get out!"
I had an impression that he was groaning and I found myself in the corridor. A water-pipe ran along it half-way up the wall, and the water was flowing softly through it with a soft murmur that seemed as if it had been part of that silence since the beginning of the world.
I went back to my work, staggering.
At this time the third division had M. Briavoine as managing doctor. You know what a charming and sympathetic man this eminent physician is. Heavens! what an engaging way he had of entirely believing everything he said, and how I loved to see those deep lines about his eyes and across his large, open forehead whenever he smiled!
M. Briavoine was in his office when I went in; but on this day no smile occupied that face which was so full of wrinkles and majesty.
"No, no!" he was saying to his assistants. "Dufrêne has the rank of général; that's quite true! But as for me, I am Briavoine; simply that!"
This firm declaration was received in respectful silence. The fame of M. Briavoine extended beyond the continent. He had made himself illustrious in the delicate art of helping infants into the world, and it was into his hands that many princesses had painfully delivered the crowned fruit of their loins.
I was so much occupied with my own fate that I began to cross that room without any real or apparent aim; and as I was doing so I stepped very clumsily on the feet of M. Briavoine.
"Be careful, my friend," that courteous man remarked to me, good-naturedly.
M. Briavoine's great urbanity, the pleasantness of his voice, the exquisite correctness of his gesture, poured healing waters over my wounded self-esteem. I sank back with gratitude and modesty into a corner of the office where the papers were being sorted. And I thought, "How polite that man is and what a broad point of view he has!"
Little by little I regained possession of myself and began to listen to the conversation of the officers, who were gathered in the room, with what soon became a most keen interest.
They were expecting, on that very day, the visit of the medical inspector-general, Dufrêne. This important personage was accustomed to exhibit himself before the army with a spirit and audacity that were worthy of the greatest praise but were nevertheless the object of the liveliest criticism.
M. Briavoine took off his jacket with its officer's stripes; gold and silver adorned the sleeves.
"Give me a smock," he said. "Monsieur Dufrêne wishes to be received by his subordinates in regimental dress, but the requirements of our profession demand the use of a blouse."
A slight breath of rebellion stirred the atmosphere of the room. There rose a murmur among M. Briavoine's assistants, in which one could distinguish irony, bitterness, and a sort of hiss. The master, clad in white, flung a satisfied look over his person.
"I shall," he declared, "receive Dufrêne at the very outset in a blouse, without a képi, and if he thinks it suitable to object that this isn't according to regulations, he will find not simply a subordinate but some one who knows how to keep up his own end. I serve my country in a way that is indisputably disinterested; accordingly, I don't wish to be pestered. What have I to expect? I have my marshal's baton as an officier de complément, and my work in civil life has brought me all the honors to which I can aspire."
At these words, which were so full of justice, we saw Professor Proby come in. He was a tall man, with a muddy complexion and a glance full of gravity that bordered on dullness. He usually expressed himself in vociferations, breaking up his sentences with all sorts of interjections and monosyllables that completely destroyed its sense. He plunged into the conversation with the grace of a buffalo:
"Hell! What's this I hear? Well, well; I don't care a hang about him, I! Now! He knows quite well that-- What? I am Paul Proby, I am! And I belong to the Academy, I do! And, anyway, he knows perfectly well that--Look here! I'm a member of the Academy. As for me, in matters like this. . . ."
It was true: Professor Proby honored the Academy with his assistance. He tapped his foot, making the glittering spurs jingle, and rattling the sumptuous pieces of an outfit that he had taken out of his wardrobe at the beginning of the great war.
"Dufrêne, now," he continued--"I have always been on good terms with him; but it doesn't do for him--What?--to put us all out. Isn't that so?"
M. Briavoine, who was a man of tact, felt that the conversation was straying from the subject. With one stroke of the oar he swung the skiff back into deep water.
"It is not a question of persons here, but a question of principle. We are not, like our enemies, a brutally subjected people."
This général consideration immediately perfumed with philosophy the sunny air of the little chamber. Every face was attentive, and the spirit of rebellion took on an appearance of good order and seriousness.
Ever since my interview with the administrative officer, one word had been dancing in my head, and I repeated it mechanically, dissecting the syllables with an obsessed anxiety.
I had the sudden impression that this word was going to be pronounced, that it was ripe for the occasion, big and growing bigger, that it was coming out of my head, that it was going to escape and circulate among all those mouths that were talking there.
"One cannot," said M. Briavoine, "ask from the French that passive acceptance of uncontrolled authority. I will confess without shame that our race is the least disciplined in the world, the most intoxicated with independence."
"Authority, like alcohol, is a poison that makes men mad," said a young man, who concealed a keen glance behind his spectacles.
"Assuredly," replied the master. "As for discipline. . . ."
I gave a veritable sigh of relief. There it was. The word had come out, and I watched it roll about outside me with a mingled feeling of deliverance and curiosity. I looked at the distinguished obstetrician with real gratitude. My inner satisfaction was so strong that, in spite of my very humble position in the army, I took the liberty of giving M. Briavoine a plain sign of approval. But approbation is pleasant, no matter from how humble a source, and M. Briavoine gave me a flash of one of those smiles of which his beard was full.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "discipline is not a French virtue. But, thank God, we have others; and permit me to affirm that our critical spirit alone, for example--that spirit which is so fine, so keen and delicate--is worth more than all the ponderous qualities of our enemies.
The entrance of Dr. Coupé had passed almost unnoticed in the général absorption. By the side of his colleagues this excellent old man seemed like a last year's leaf which the storm seeks violently to shake from its fastenings. He hesitated for several seconds between an inborn terror of authority and a certain taste for argument. The vehemence of the opinions he heard being voiced gave him no liberty of choice; and the dried leaf was whirled away in the gust.
"We are ready to give our blood, if they ask us," announced Dr. Coupé, laying down a principle; "but, by heaven, they must ask us politely!"
"Ha! That's the least we must have, courtesy!" growled Professor Proby. "I am very respectful of discipline, I am; on condition--What? what? We must insist upon courtesy in these matters."
"Do you know what Dufrêne did day before yesterday?" hazarded an imposing personage, who was endeavoring by a skilful effort of his neck and chin to keep his beard in a horizontal position, and who gained an exceptional majesty from this attitude. "Just listen," and he began to relate, in the midst of a concert of protests and laughter, the last little scandal hatched out by those imaginations which the reading of the most glorious and agonizing communiques of the war cannot satiate.
There were about fifteen officers in this room. Four or five of them were counted among what are called the princes of science. The war had given me a unique opportunity to approach these distinguished personalities, and I assure you I experienced a quite justifiable emotion at hearing them talk so freely before me.
My conversation that morning with the administrative officer had greatly upset me. Mathematics gives the spirit unconquerable habits of order. I am, unfortunately, a single man, but I have serious and reasonable ideas about society and the family. I know that great mathematicians have dreamed about triangles that would not have three sides, or of parallel lines that would meet in infinity. I am not even capable of following these masters over such ground. Perhaps I am even too old now to venture along such lines. What can you expect? I find I am satisfied with what I know. In browsing through my library, turning over my note-books, I have always experienced a reassuring sense of discipline. Moreover, the study of mathematics gives one a logical sense. But what had happened to me that morning was not logical; or, to put it in other words, it was not just. And the idea that the reign of order could demand something illogical, that, in the midst of all the confusion of the war, seemed to me the worst sort of incoherence.
So you may imagine the relief, almost the intoxication, which I experienced at hearing these eminent men justify the insubordination of my conduct. I listened to their words, punctuating them with approving nods of my head. I felt keen and almost trembling joy, a joy mixed with pride and superstitious terror.
Little by little I became aware that this last emotion was stronger than the others. I dreaded lest I had been almost too right; without knowing about my case, these gentlemen were giving it too ardent an approval. This verbal exalting of insubordination caused me exquisite discomfort, almost anguish. Though I was reduced to silence by respect, yet for all that I did not cease mentally to exhort them to be calm, and I kept saying to myself: "Careful! careful! Be cool, gentlemen! be cool!"
Such was the state of my mind when, amid the tumult of voices, we heard the ring of a bell, the bell of the entrance office. Then there fell a strange silence.
"Monsieur le Principal," said the sergeant, appearing in the doorway, "the car of Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général has been signaled at the gate."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed he whom every one familiarly called Papa Coupé. Then, with a mechanical gesture, he adjusted his képi on his head and took a step toward the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Professor Proby, in a haughty but uncertain voice.
"I am going to receive him on the front steps," the good man replied
"What! But there are people to do that. We can wait for him in our own quarters."
"You mustn't think of it," said M. Coupé, "the custom--"
"It's because--that fellow--I, you know, I used to call him just Dufrêne, in civil life," grumbled the big beard with the muddy complexion. "And I maintain that--yes!--in this matter!"
"It's necessary," M. Briavoine decided; "as a matter of politeness. Let us go to the steps. By the way, give me my coat."
"Don't you wish to keep on your blouse, my dear master?" asked the young man with the sharp glance.
"Of course; but I should be afraid of catching cold. Give me my képi also: I can't cross the garden with my head uncovered."
M. Briavoine turned toward me.
"My friend," he said, "will you be good enough to get the register for observations and come with me." Then he repeated, as he put on his cap, "There's no point in catching cold."
A shaft of hot sunlight was coming in through the open window. It struck me that M. Briavoine had nothing to fear from the cold, and I secured the register.
The group of officers were now descending the main stairway with a tumult of voices and boots.
It seemed to me that a slight anxiety tempered the warmth of their discourse. As we arrived under the balcony I heard M. Briavoine say to M. Coupé: "This is the first time since the war began that I have met the medical inspector-general Dufrêne." He added, not without a certain gravity: "Vernier, will you be good enough to go up again to the quarters and see if the non-commissioned officers' hall has been swept? Just a few minutes ago there was some cotton waste lying about."
"As for that," grumbled Proby, "he has no right to come this way and put us all out, for that's the only way he will be received! We'll tell him, eh! we'll tell him all we have on our minds."
"For my part," interrupted Papa Coupé, "I sha'n't hesitate a moment to demand important changes in the arrangements of my service."
As we were nearing the grand entrance Professor Proby had a sudden change of mind and, taking aside one of his assistants who was wearing a blouse, he said to him:
"Look here, you; hurry up and put on your full-dress uniform: it will be more suitable."
The inspector-general's automobile had just stopped before the steps. It opened like the bursting of a dry fruit and expelled its contents on the asphalt.
Oh! what an impressive personage! He was tall and of what seemed to me enormous proportions. A square face of the type which we have agreed to call martial; strongly marked features, where the nails and fingers of the sculptor had passed and repassed; as for the nose, the thumb must have lingered there, shortening it and slightly crushing the flesh. Stiff tufts of white hair, of that quality which seems reserved for aged army men, a mustache, and a little beard. He wore the général's uniform of former days which many have given up, as they give up ancient ideas, with difficulty. Gold, jewelry, velvet, and silk braidings enveloped the body so ostentatiously that the imagination could hardly conceive, under this barbaric splendor, the lungs, the muscles, the bones, and the old skin covered with gray hairs, that were actually there.
From under his tufted eyebrows there darted a glance which was at once violent, inquisitive, and full of inexpressible pride.
He came forward in solemn silence.
I expected a sharp clash of personalities; as a matter of fact, from that moment on things happened that remain in my memory as if enveloped in a mysterious mist.
All the men there, with a single movement, placed their bodies in position, and I saw them execute the military salute according to the principles they patiently teach in the barracks to recruits from the country.
Their faces contracted almost imperceptibly, their flashing eyes took on a dull, fixed luster. Ten centuries of an imposed and accepted custom swallowed up and suddenly froze their joints, muscles, and souls.
A breeze passed, whirling away a bit of thistledown; and as I saw it dance off, as high as my head, I thought, I know not why, of that critical spirit which is so fine, so free, so delicate. It disappeared in a gust, and we heard the buzzing of a big insect loaded down with pollen.
I was stupefied. A long moment passed before the snowy mustache decided to give out the words, "Good-day, gentlemen!"
The visitation began in the rooms which were crowded with the wounded from the Battle of the Marne. There lay young men who had found themselves face to face with war and who seemed to have calmly recognized in it the ancient demon of the species. They spoke of it at this time just as they still speak of it now, when three years of blood, suffering, and cruelty have decimated, mutilated, and broken them.
But no one was concerned with these souls. The sheets were pulled back, the dressings were opened, the wounds were uncovered. They were nothing any more but cases and lesions.
A sort of scientific discussion seemed imminent, which I was awaiting with the liveliest curiosity. As I have already said, there were princes of science present. They came on the field with points of view that seemed to me profoundly independent, keen, even aggressive. And, owing to this, I foresaw a fine tilting of lances.
M. Dufrêne leaned over a thigh in which a machine gun had dug a black, quivering hole.
"What do you put on that, Proby?" he asked. Professor Proby flung himself into a detailed explanation of the way in which he handled such wounds.
"With these," he said, "I have been accustomed for thirty years to use tents, and I have spoken on this subject before the Academy of Medicine--How's that?--And nothing else has given me such good results, because--"
The interesting discussion had reached this point when the inspector rapped dryly with his pencil on the wounded man's bedside table.
"Make haste, Proby, my friend," he said, in a calm and cutting voice.
Proby gave a slight start and announced once more: "For more than thirty years, I have always used tents--"
"Believe me, Proby, we've had enough of that! You will put no more tents in wounds; do you understand? Is that clear?"
M. Dufrêne turned his back and began to examine the next wounded man.
I took a stealthy look at Professor Proby's face. I was sure the respectable academician was going to jump with rage. The beautiful scientific controversy, awaited so eagerly, was at last going to join issue--the issue of its ideas, like glittering blades, before me. I waited, holding my breath.
In a religious silence the academician replied, "Very well, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général."
I looked at all the faces, one after another. It seemed to me that a glove had been thrown into the ring and that some one was going to pick it up with an audacious courtesy. But all eyes revealed an expression at once vague and attentive. Professor Proby took a few steps after the inspector. He repeated mechanically, "Very well, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général."
Thirty years of practice and experience had vanished like an extinguished light.
M. Dufrêne went from bed to bed with a ponderous majesty. "You were wrong to operate on that man," he said; "you would have done better to temporize."
At other times he would say with approval, "There is a result that justifies our great methods!"
For the most part he criticized without restraint: "Why have you not used my apparatus, the Dufrêne apparatus? I wish you to use that apparatus here."
Then a murmur would arise, full of assents and promises. To everything Proby replied punctiliously: "Yes, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général. Quite so, Monsieur le Medicin inspecteur général."
Dr. Coupé, very red, lost himself in words of approval that seemed much like excuses.
I watched M. Briavoine; he was nodding his head regularly up and down and murmuring with dignity, "Evidently, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général."
In fact, these latter words kept returning to everybody's lips, pronounced in reply to the least monosyllable, spoken with a mechanical promptness that was almost like stuttering, so that every phrase, every reply, seemed to end in that ritual sound, "Mossinspecteurjral."
M. Dufrêne appeared less and less able to contain the lyrical triumph that possessed him. With an increasing frequency and volubility he spoke of himself and his works. It seemed to me that he had a tendency to qualify as "very French," as "national," and at times as "the genius of the race," methods and ideas which were strictly personal to him. This effort to be objective bore, nevertheless, only the faintest relation to modesty.
At one moment this imposing personage came toward me, without seeing me, and with such impetuosity that I drew hastily to one side, as one does for a locomotive. Even I uttered, on this occasion, a few hasty words that turned out to be these: "Pardon me, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général."
Never in my obscure life as a teacher had I had the chance to observe at close quarters and listen to a military man of such importance. I had held conversations with reservists who had been transformed in their appearance during their periods of military service, but I had known only through reading or the imagination the virile silhouette of the true old soldier. Watching and listening to this doctor in boots, I was saying to myself: "At last! That one's authentic!" I was stunned, crushed. I was able, nevertheless, to draw from this state of mind a feeling of security and confidence, and I would conclude at each moment: "What brass! What brass! But with fellows like that victory is sure, at least."
The inspector had seized a fountain-pen and was covering the walls with schemas. He was showing in precise formulas how he wished us to think and act henceforth. After each of his assertions his audience would chant the liturgical response, "Yes, Mossinspecteurjral."
"You must remember," he said, "that you are soldiers before everything else. When you assumed the uniform you assumed responsibilities. Scientific independence must bow before the necessity of a general method. Personal experience must abdicate before discipline."
At this simple injunction personal experience did abdicate before discipline. With one voice the least disciplined race in the world replied, "Unquestionably, Monsieur le Médecin inspecteur général."
The young man with spectacles was standing near me, his hands hanging, his eyes on the sheath of his sword. I heard him murmur in the ear of a neighbor these strange words, "Times have changed: this man's day has arrived."
His words seemed to me out of place. Nevertheless, they had the effect of bringing me out of my torpor, and I began to reflect, hard, on the unbelievable phenomenon that was developing in front of me.
This phenomenon was entering its critical stage. The inspector was examining a large room where surgical dressings were made.
"This hall," he said, "is spacious and well arranged. It was laid out under my instructions in 'ninety-five, when I was reorganizing the hospital. Indeed, the whole establishment is in a satisfactory condition. Have you anything to complain of, Coupé?"
Dr. Coupé grew red, looked troubled, and finally declared, "Nothing at all, Mossinspecteurjral."
M. Briavoine, who was also consulted, seemed to reflect and then replied that there was nothing to be desired.
As for Professor Proby, he came out of his coma and hastened to stammer: "Oh! as to that--but everything is all right, Mossinspecteurjral."
One phrase of M. Briavoine's came back to my mind. I saw him again buttoning up his smock and saying, "What have I to expect?" I looked now with profound astonishment at his attentive face, at his whole respectful bearing. I looked, too, at his colleagues, and as I considered all these men who expected nothing from their renunciation, and who were abdicating so completely, in such bewilderment, I conceived an immense admiration for them and I caught the true sense of the word "discipline." But the conceptions of the intelligence are often betrayed by other less noble impulses; at this very moment I had difficulty in restraining a strong desire to laugh.
M. Dufrêne had stopped in the middle of the ward. Fifty wounded men lay there, some of them talking in low voices, others groaning at intervals, still others wandering in delirium. The inspector clapped his hands and at once there was complete silence. The least disciplined race in the world ceased to be delirious or to complain.
"Soldiers," he said in a formidable voice, "the Government of the Republic has sent me here--me--to be among you all and to see how you are cared for. You may judge of the solicitude of the Republic where you are concerned."
From one end of the hall to the other, heads were raised, necks stretched, and all those who still had a breath left in their lungs answered together, "Thank you, General."
M. Dufrêne moved away. Behind him the least disciplined race in the world moved in good order down a stairway that led to the gardens.
I still followed, at the tail of the throng.
The shadow of the stairway enveloped me, and before my dazzled eyes there began to dance a number of multicolored interrogation-points. They vanished, and I had a vision of a great theater in which men appeared in turn, said what had been taught them, and went off together in line, in good order, some still talking, others executing dances, others carrying burdens, still others dying. On the pediment was engraved a word that I could not manage to decipher, but which suddenly became luminous when I heard the young man in spectacles say in a low voice to his companion:
"It's a convention, a striking convention, just one of the many conventions of life. It's very curious, but not more so than the one that compels us to arrange the words of our conversations in such and such an order."
We reached the garden. The green and amber-colored light of the beautiful late summer's day dispelled all my dreams.
The inspector had grouped all his auditors about him and was saying:
"You, Coupé, I congratulate warmly. And when I do so, I am not unaware of the profound satisfaction I cause you."
M. Dufrêne was not mistaken, for the excellent Dr. Coupé was blushing to the roots of his white hair with pleasure.
There were other congratulations. There was also some censure. Those who had been praised found themselves surrounded by a flattering group. Those who had been blamed experienced both humiliation and isolation. Thus, for instance, a little later we saw Professor Proby withdraw, alone and shamefaced, like a school-boy who has been sent into a corner.
M. Briavoine with his own hands shut the door of the automobile. As the car was about to start, the phenomenon of the salute occurred again: every left arm fell straight down the length of the body, all the right arms rose together. The least disciplined race in the world stiffened into the prescribed attitude. The automobile went off, honking.
"In spite of everything, he is a very remarkable man," said Dr. Coupé, who seemed to be awakening out of a deep slumber. And he repeated, "Yes, in spite of everything." Among the group I noticed the personage with the horizontal beard. That beautiful beard of his seemed to insist on sloping toward his chest; he set it back at its usual level with a deliberate movement of his chin, and declared: "He was certainly very kind; but I shall not hesitate, when the opportunity comes, to tell him frankly what I think."
"Certainly," said M. Briavoine, "one should never carry obedience to the point of giving up one's power of judgment."
They all had the air of men who have been intoxicated by a subtle poison but who are little by little coming back to their senses.
The perfumed breeze wandered over the lawn. I saw a mad little piece of thistle-down, winged and flaky, pass before my eyes. With a skilful gesture M. Briavoine caught it, as if it were a fly, and looked at it dreamily as he completed his thought.
"With us," he said, "discipline doesn't exclude the critical spirit."
I saw, indeed, that the critical spirit had come back.
The group dispersed. I contemplated the points of my shoes. The register for observations weighed down my arm, and I was trying to understand, to understand, when a hand fell heavily upon my shoulder:
"Well! You're not in prison, my boy! That's right! That's right!"
Red and apoplectic, the officer of the administration was contemplating me with a furious look, in the depths of which there was a sort of lugubrious appeal. He added: "Lodge your complaint! We'll see!"
I raised my eyes toward the facade of the building. It was ornamented with a clock.
Then, bringing my heels together, raising my right hand to the height of my képi, I replied simply:
"Monsieur l'officier, I shall not lodge a complaint. It is five minutes of twelve. By noon I shall be in prison."
The whole bull-dog face relaxed. I thought he was going to thank me. He contented himself with stammering, "That's something like!"
He went off. I made my way without laughing toward the disciplinary section.
You know the rest. I spent four days and four nights there. It was about the middle of September. At that moment the finest soldiers of France were accomplishing such a task that an immense sigh of relief rose up from the entire a country. It was in a prison that I, too, was permitted to offer to these men my humble prayer of thanksgiving. I made in those four days a thousand very curious reflections. But I shall tell you about that another time.