Next> | <Prev | ToC
TIME did not hang heavy in Revaud's room.
The rumbling of the war, the sound of the convoys marching past, the epileptic shocks of the cannonade, all the whistlings and pantings of the great machine of slaughter, reached his windows and shook them with an exhausted fury, as the ineffectual echoes of a tempest outside penetrate the depths of a crevasse. But this uproar fell as familiarly on the ear as the very pulse-beats of the wretched world, and time did not hang heavy in Revaud's room.
It was a long, straight chamber in which there were four beds and four men. Nevertheless, it was called "Revaud's room," for Revaud's personality completely filled it, as if it had been a coat cut to his measure. At the beginning of November there had been all sorts of villainous plots set on foot by Corporal Têtard to make Revaud change his room, and the plots succeeded. The poor man was hoisted to the upper floor, to a big dormitory of twenty beds, a splendid desert, with nothing intimate about it, ravaged by a hard and cruel light. In three days, by a sort of spontaneous decision of his soul and body, Revaud had wasted away in such an alarming fashion that it had been necessary to take him down in haste, behind his own door, to the back of his room, where the winter light came in filtered and full of a sort of indulgence.
That's how matters stood; when a man who was really seriously wounded, a very special case, was brought to the division, they would at once beg Mme. Baugan to take the matter up with Revaud. Revaud had to be coaxed a little, but he would always end by saying: "All right, all right! Good heavens! I don't care! Put the fellow in my room, of course."
And Revaud's room was always full. In order to get there, it was not enough to have a mere broken collar-bone, or a smashed foot, or a little unimportant amputation of an arm. You must have "something strange and extraordinary the matter with you," a gap in the little intestine, for example, or a lesion of the spinal marrow, or you must be one of those cases where the "skull is crushed flat."
"In here," Revaud would say with pride, "in here we are all very rare cases."
There was Sandrap, a little man from the North, with a nose as round as a young apple, with beautiful, soft, light-gray eyes. He had been wounded three times and used to say every morning: "They'd be struck all of a heap, those Boches, if they could see me now!"
There was Remusot, who had a great wound in his breast. It made a sound like "faouaou-raou-aou, faouaou-raouaou," and Revaud had said on the very first day:
"That's a queer noise you make! Do you do it with your mouth?"
The other had whispered in a toneless voice, "It's my breath trying to get through my ribs."
Finally there was Mery, whose spinal column had been broken by an explosive, and who "had no more feeling left in the whole lower half of his body than if it had not belonged to him."
All this little world of men lived on their backs, each in his place, in a general promiscuity of odor, noise, and sometimes thought. They knew one another by their voices rather than by sight, and Sandrap had been there a whole week before Revaud, seeing him pass on the stretcher close to his bed, on his way to be dressed, suddenly called out to him:
"Look here, Sandrap, you certainly have a funny sort of head! And you have a funny kind of hair, too!"
Mme. Baugan would arrive at eight o'clock, and she would at once begin to scold: "It smells bad here. Oh, oh! my poor Revaud!"
Revaud would evade the question.
"It's all right," he would say. "I've slept all right. I've nothing to complain of as far as that goes. I've slept all right."
Mme. Baugan would bustle about, getting fresh clothes and water; she would set about Revaud's toilet as if he were a child.
All at once, however, seized with shame and a sort of despair, the wounded man groaned:
"Madame Baugan, you mustn't be angry with me: I wasn't like this in civil life!"
Mme. Baugan began to laugh, and Revaud, without waiting, began to laugh too, for his whole face and his whole soul were made for laughter and he loved to laugh, even in the midst of the worst torment.
Having found that this reply pleased her, he brought it out often, and he would say to every one who came over to him, referring to his great misfortune, "I wasn't like that in civil life, you know."
The happiest phrases have only an hour's success. Revaud, who had brains, saw clearly that the moment was approaching when it would no longer do to affirm that "he had not been like that in civil life." It was then that he received the letter from his father. It arrived unexpectedly, one morning when he had just had his big old-fashioned French mustache cut, out of pure whim, after the American fashion. The whole hospital was sneaking past the corner of the door to have a peep at Revaud, who looked like some very sick foreign gentleman. He turned the letter over in his fingers, deformed by poverty and hard work, then he said with an air of uneasiness: "What are they after me now for, with that letter?"
Revaud was married; but as he had been six months without word from his wife, he had grown comfortably used to his isolation. He was in his own room, behind his own door, and he wasn't looking for a quarrel with any one. Why, then, should they send him a letter?
"What are they after me for now?" he repeated. And he held the letter out for Mme. Baugan to read to him.
It was a letter from Revaud's father. In ten lines of elaborate handwriting, full of thin strokes, heavy strokes, embellishments and flourishes, the old man announced that he was going to make him a visit at a near but unspecified date.
Once more Revaud found in laughter the ultimate object of his life. The whole day he played carelessly with the letter and cheerfully showed it to people, saying: "We're going to have a visit. My father's coming to see us."
Then he would add, confidentially: "My father's quite well off, you know, but he has had misfortunes. Just wait till you see my father; he has a whole bag full of tricks, that man has; and, besides, he wears a stiff collar."
Revaud ended by limiting all characterizations of his father's personality to this last statement: "My father! You wait and see: he wears a stiff collar."
The days passed, and Revaud spoke so often of his father that in the end he didn't know whether the visit had taken place or not. And so, by a special grace of heaven, Revaud never noticed that his father had not come to see him. Later, to signify this remarkable period, he would use words that sounded very big, and would say, "It was at the time of my father's visit."
Revaud was spoiled; he had no lack of cigarettes or company, and he would say with an air of satisfaction: "In this hospital I'm the charculot," by which he meant, the favorite little chick. Well, Revaud wasn't hard to please: it was enough for Tarrissant to appear between his crutches for the dying man to exclaim: "There's some one else coming to see me! I tell you I'm the charculot in here!"
Tarrissant had undergone the same operation as Revaud. It was a complicated affair which had taken place in the knee. Only, the operation had been very successful with Tarrissant and a good deal of a failure with Revaud; "for it all depends on the blood."
Even about the operation itself Revaud would have his joke: his knee had "dried up." He would look at Tarrissant, and, comparing himself with the convalescent, he would conclude without further comment:
"We are both of us dried up. Only, I'm a fool as well. And besides I've worked too much."
It was the only allusion that Revaud ever made to the disgrace of his marriage and to his life of hard work.
But then, really, why should one think of all those things? Hasn't a man trouble enough with a leg like that?
In the evening every one would make little preparations for the night, just like people who are getting ready for a journey. Remusot would receive an injection in his thigh and at once, bathed in sweat, he would enter a paradise where the fever displayed to him things that he was never willing to repeat to any one. Mery would have a big bowlful of his nightly concoction of herbs prepared for him, and placed where he could reach it by merely stretching out his hand. Sandrap would smoke his last cigarette, and Revaud would ask for his cushion. It was a little packet of cotton that was placed by his side. Only when he had it would Revaud consent to say: "That's all right, boys, you can go now." And after that, they would wander through a sleep as dense and terrible as a forest strewn with ambushes, each one steering his own way, as he pursued his dreams. While their spirits were taking flight, their four bodies lay immovable, lighted by a small night-lamp. When a night watchman came, in his shuffling slippers, put his head in at the door, and heard the tormented breathings of these four, or surprised at times the wide-eyed, unseeing gaze of Remusot, he would think suddenly, as he watched these human relics cast up on a lee shore, of a shipwrecked raft, a raft drifting over the rolling ocean, with four human beings in distress.
The windows of the room continued to vibrate, as if in complaint, with the noise of the war. Sometimes, in the long night, the war would seem to pause, like a wood-cutter who stops to breathe between two blows of his axe.
Then they would awake, in this deep, deep silence, in a strange distress, and they would think of all that happens on the battle-field, of the hour when men no longer hear anything.
The winter dawn would appear, grudgingly, like a lazy, untidy slattern who gets up late. The attendants would come to wash the floors. They would blow out the dying night-lamp, smelling evilly out of its last remnant of oil. Then would come the toilet, and then all the pains and groans the dressings.
At times, in the midst of the usual daily occupations, the door would open majestically and they would see a general enter, followed by the officers of his staff. He would stop short at the very threshold, half choked by some overpowering odor, then he would advance a little way into the room and ask who these men were. The doctor would whisper a few words in his ear, and the general would reply simply: "Ah! good! Very good!"
When he had gone out, Revaud would always remark, with an air of assurance: "That general never comes here without making me a visit. I know him very well."
After that there would be something to talk about the whole day.
A good many majors came, too, and some of them carried themselves very smartly. They would look at the charts tacked up on the walls, and say: "Well, well! They make a good showing in spite of it."
One day one of them was looking at Mery. He was a very great doctor who had a white beard, an immense waist-line, many crosses on his breast and the pink neck of a man who is always well fed. He had a kindly manner and an air of pity. In fact he said:
"Poor devil! Ah! But just suppose such a thing were to happen to me!"
But as a rule, nobody came, absolutely nobody, and the day, like the meat at meal-time, could be got through only by being cut up into an infinity of little morsels.
One day there was an event: Mery was carried off to be photographed by the X-ray. He reappeared, satisfied, saying, "That doesn't hurt, anyway!"
Another time they cut off Revaud's leg. He accepted it, murmuring:
"Well, at least I did my best to keep that leg! But such is life! Go ahead, my poor man!"
He had one more laugh yet; and no one ever has laughed or ever will laugh as Revaud laughed that day!
So they cut off his leg. The finest blood of France was shed once more. But this took place between four walls, in a little room as white as a dairy, and no one knew anything about it.
Revaud was put to bed again behind his door. He came to himself like a child and said:
"Yes, indeed! They certainly got me excited about that leg, and no joke!"
Revaud passed a fairly good night, and when Mme. Baugan entered the room the next morning, he said to her, in his usual way: "Quite well, Madame Baugan! I've slept all right!"
He said this, and then his head slipped to one side; he opened his mouth gradually, and he died without any more ado.
Mme. Baugan cried out: "Poor Revaud! Why, he's dead!"
She kissed his forehead and then at once she began to prepare him for burial; for the day's work is long and there is never any time to lose.
Mme. Baugan dressed Revaud, and she grumbled over it too, for it was not easy to put clothes on the corpse.
Sandrap, Mery, and Remusot said not one word. The rain trickled down the windows, which continued to tremble with the roar of the guns.