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In the Earth
THE great pale sky is alive with thunderclaps. Each detonation reveals together a shaft of red falling fire in what is left of the night, and a column of smoke in what has dawned of the day. Up there--so high and so far that they are heard unseen--a flight of dreadful birds goes circling up with strong and palpitating cries to look down upon the earth.
The earth! It is a vast and water-logged desert that begins to take shape under the long-drawn desolation of daybreak. There are pools and gullies where the bitter breath of earliest morning nips the water and sets it a-shiver; tracks traced by the troops and the convoys of the night in these barren fields, the lines of ruts that glisten in the weak light like steel rails, mud-masses with broken stakes protruding from them, ruined trestles, and bushes of wire in tangled coils. With its slime-beds and puddles, the plain might be an endless gray sheet that floats on the sea and has here and there gone under. Though no rain is falling, all is drenched, oozing, washed out and drowned, and even the wan light seems to flow.
Now you can make out a network of long ditches where the lave of the night still lingers. It is the trench. It is carpeted at bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out it smells of the night's excretions. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath.
I see shadows coming from these sidelong pits and moving about, huge and misshapen lumps, bear-like, that flounder and growl. They are "us." We are muffled like Eskimos. Fleeces and blankets and sacking wrap us up, weigh us down, magnify us strangely. Some stretch themselves, yawning profoundly. Faces appear, ruddy or leaden, dirt-disfigured, pierced by the little lamps of dull and heavy-lidded eyes, matted with uncut beards and foul with forgotten hair.
Crack! Crack! Boom!--rifle fire and cannonade. Above us and all around, it crackles and rolls, in long gusts or separate explosions. The flaming and melancholy storm never, never ends. For more than fifteen months, for five hundred days in this part of the world where we are, the rifles and the big guns have gone on from morning to night and from night to morning. We are buried deep in an everlasting battlefield; but like the ticking of the clocks at home in the days gone by--in the now almost legendary Past--you only hear the noise when you listen.
A babyish face with puffy eyelids, and cheek-bones as lurid as if lozenge-shaped bits of crimson paper had been stuck on, comes out of the ground, opens one eye, then the other. It is Paradis. The skin of his fat cheeks is scored with the marks of the folds in the tent-cloth that has served him for night-cap. The glance of his little eye wanders all round me; he sees me, nods, and says-- "Another night gone, old chap."
"Yes, sonny; how many more like it still?"
He raises his two plump arms skywards. He has managed to scrape out by the steps of the dug-out and is beside me. After stumbling over the dim obstacle of a man who sits in the shadows, fervently scratches himself and sighs hoarsely, Paradis makes off--lamely splashing like a penguin through the flooded picture.
One by one the men appear from the depths. In the corners, heavy shadows are seen forming--human clouds that move and break up. One by one they become recognizable. There is one who comes out hooded with his blanket--a savage, you would say, or rather, the tent of a savage, which walks and sways from side to side. Near by, and heavily framed in knitted wool, a square face is disclosed, yellow-brown as though iodized, and patterned with blackish patches, the nose broken, the eyes of Chinese restriction and red-circled, a little coarse and moist mustache like a greasing-brush.
"There's Volpatte. How goes it, Firmin?"
"It goes, it goes, and it comes," says Volpatte. His heavy and drawling voice is aggravated by hoarseness. He coughs--"My number's up, this time. Say, did you hear it last night, the attack? My boy, talk about a bombardment--something very choice in the way of mixtures!" He sniffles and passes his sleeve under his concave nose. His hand gropes within his greatcoat and his jacket till it finds the skin, and scratches. "I've killed thirty of them in the candle," he growls; "in the big dug-out by the tunnel, mon vieux, there are some like crumbs of metal bread. You can see them running about in the straw like I'm telling you."
"Who's been attacking? The Boches?"
"The Boches and us too--out Vimy way--a counterattack--didn't you hear it?"
"No," the big Lamuse, the ox-man, replies on my account; "I was snoring; but I was on fatigue all night the night before."
"I heard it," declares the little Breton, Biquet; "I slept badly, or rather, didn't sleep. I've got a doss-house all to myself. Look, see, there it is--the damned thing." He points to a trough on the ground level, where on a meager mattress of muck, there is just body-room for one. "Talk about home in a nutshell!" he declares, wagging the rough and rock-hard little head that looks as if it had never been finished. "I hardly snoozed. I'd just got off, but was woke up by the relief of the 129th that went by--not by the noise, but the smell. Ah, all those chaps with their feet on the level with my nose! It woke me up, it gave me nose-ache so."
I knew it. I have often been wakened in the trench myself by the trail of heavy smell in the wake of marching men.
"It was all right, at least, if it killed the vermin," said Tirette.
"On the contrary, it excites them," says Lamuse; "the worse you smell, the more you have of 'em."
"And it's lucky," Biquet went on, "that their stink woke me up. As I was telling that great tub just now, I got my peepers open just in time to seize the tent-cloth that shut my hole up--one of those muck-heaps was going to pinch it off me."
"Dirty devils, the 129th." The human form from which the words came could now be distinguished down below at our feet, where the morning had not yet reached it. Grasping his abundant clothing by handsful, he squatted and wriggled. It was Papa Blaire. His little eyes blinked among the dust that luxuriated on his face. Above the gap of his toothless mouth, his mustache made a heavy sallow lump. His hands were horribly black, the top of them shaggy with dirt, the palms plastered in gray relief. Himself, shriveled and dirtbedight, exhaled the scent of an ancient stewpan. Though busily scratching, he chatted with big Barque, who leaned towards him from a little way off.
"I wasn't as mucky as this when I was a civvy," he said.
"Well, my poor friend, it's a dirty change for the worse," said Barque.
"Lucky for you," says Tirette, going one better; "when it comes to kids, you'll present madame with some little niggers!"
Blaire took offense, and gathering gloom wrinkled his brow. "What have you got to give me lip about, you? What next? It's war-time. As for you, bean-face, you think perhaps the war hasn't changed your phizog and your manners? Look at yourself, monkey-snout, buttock-skin! A man must be a beast to talk as you do." He passed his hand over the dark deposit on his face, which the rains of those days had proved finally indelible, and added, "Besides, if I am as I am, it's my own choosing. To begin with, I have no teeth. The major said to me a long time ago, 'You haven't a single tooth. It's not enough. At your next rest,' he says, 'take a turn round to the estomalogical ambulance.'"
"The tomatological ambulance," corrected Barque.
"Stomatological," Bertrand amended.
"You have all the making of an army cook--you ought to have been one," said Barque.
"My idea, too," retorted Blaire innocently. Some one laughed. The black man got up at the insult. "You give me belly-ache," he said with scorn. "I'm off to the latrines."
When his doubly dark silhouette had vanished, the others scrutinized once more the great truth that down here in the earth the cooks are the dirtiest of men.
"If you see a chap with his skin and toggery so smeared and stained that you wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole, you can say to yourself, 'Probably he's a cook.' And the dirtier he is, the more likely to be a cook."
"It's true, and true again," said Marthereau.
"Tiens, there's Tirloir! Hey, Tirloir!"
He comes up busily, peering this way and that, on an eager scent. His insignificant head, pale as chlorine, hops centrally about in the cushioning collar of a greatcoat that is much too heavy and big for him. His chin is pointed, and his upper teeth protrude. A wrinkle round his mouth is so deep with dirt that it looks like a muzzle. As usual, he is angry, and as usual, he rages aloud.
"Some one cut my pouch in two last night!"
"It was the relief of the 129th. Where had you put it?"
He indicates a bayonet stuck in the wall of the trench close to the mouth of a funk-hole--"There, hanging on the toothpick there."
"Ass!" comes the chorus. "Within reach of passing soldiers! Not dotty, are you?"
"It's hard lines all the same," wails Tirloir. Then suddenly a fit of rage seizes him, his face crumples, his little fists clench in fury, he tightens them like knots in string and waves them about. "Alors quoi? Ah, if I had hold of the mongrel that did it! Talk about breaking his jaw--I'd stave in his bread-pan, I'd--there was a whole Camembert in there, I'll go and look for it." He massages his stomach with the little sharp taps of a guitar player, and plunges into the gray of the morning, grinning yet dignified, with his awkward outlines of an invalid in a dressing-gown. We hear him grumbling until he disappears.
"Strange man, that," says Pépin; the others chuckle. "He's daft and crazy," declares Marthereau, who is in the habit of fortifying the expression of his thought by using two synonyms at once.
* * * * * *
"Tiens, old man," says Tulacque, as he comes up. "Look at this."
Tulacque is magnificent. He is wearing a lemon-yellow coat made out of an oilskin sleeping-sack. He has arranged a hole in the middle to get his head through, and compelled his shoulder-straps and belt to go over it. He is tall and bony. He holds his face in advance as he walks, a forceful face, with eyes that squint. He has something in his hand. "I found this while digging last night at the end of the new gallery to change the rotten gratings. It took my fancy off-hand, that knick-knack. It's an old pattern of hatchet."
It was indeed an old pattern, a sharpened flint hafted with an old brown bone--quite a prehistoric tool in appearance.
"Very handy," said Tulacque, fingering it. "Yes, not badly thought out. Better balanced than the regulation ax. That'll be useful to me, you'll see." As he brandishes that ax of Post-Tertiary Man, he would himself pass for an ape-man, decked out with rags and lurking in the bowels of the earth.
One by one we gathered, we of Bertrand's squad and the half-section, at an elbow of the trench. Just here it is a little wider than in the straight part where when you meet another and have to pass you must throw yourself against the side, rub your back in the earth and your stomach against the stomach of the other.
Our company occupies, in reserve, a second line parallel. No night watchman works here. At night we are ready for making earthworks in front, but as long as the day lasts we have nothing to do. Huddled up together and linked arm in arm, it only remains to await the evening as best we can.
Daylight has at last crept into the interminable crevices that furrow this part of the earth, and now it finds the threshold of our holes. It is the melancholy light of the North Country, of a restricted and muddy sky, a sky which itself, one would say, is heavy with the smoke and smell of factories. In this leaden light, the uncouth array of these dwellers in the depths reveals the stark reality of the huge and hopeless misery that brought it into being. But that is like the rattle of rifles and the verberation of artillery. The drama in which we are actors has lasted much too long for us to be surprised any more, either at the stubbornness we have evolved or the garb we have devised against the rain that comes from above, against the mud that comes from beneath, and against the cold--that sort of infinity that is everywhere. The skins of animals, bundles of blankets, Balaklava helmets, woolen caps, furs, bulging mufflers (sometimes worn turban-wise), paddings and quiltings, knittings and double-knittings, coverings and roofings and cowls, tarred or oiled or rubbered, black or all the colors (once upon a time) of the rainbow--all these things mask and magnify the men, and wipe out their uniforms almost as effectively as their skins. One has fastened on his back a square of linoleum, with a big draught-board pattern in white and red, that he found in the middle of the dining-room of some temporary refuge. That is Pépin. We know him afar off by his harlequin placard sooner even than by his pale Apache face. Here is Barque's bulging chest-protector, carven from an eiderdown quilt, formerly pink, but now fantastically bleached and mottled by dust and rain. There, Lamuse the Huge rises like a ruined tower to which tattered posters still cling. A cuirass of moleskin, with the fur inside, adorns little Eudore with the burnished back of a beetle; while the golden corselet of Tulacque the Big Chief surpasses all.
The "tin hat" gives a certain sameness to the highest points of the beings that are there, but even then the divers ways of wearing it--on the regulation cap like Biquet, over a Balaklava like Cadilhac, or on a cotton cap like Barque--produce a complicated diversity of appearance.
And our legs! I went down just now, bent double, into our dug-out, the little low cave that smells musty and damp, where one stumbles over empty jam-pots and dirty rags, where two long lumps lay asleep, while in the corner a kneeling shape rummaged a pouch by candle-light. As I climbed out, the rectangle of entry afforded me a revelation of our legs. Flat on the ground, vertically in the air, or aslant; spread about, doubled up, or mixed together; blocking the fairway and cursed by passers-by, they present a collection of many colors and many shapes--gaiters, leggings black or yellow, long or short, in leather, in tawny cloth, in any sort of waterproof stuff; puttees in dark blue, light blue, black, sage green, khaki, and beige. Alone of all his kind, Volpatte has retained the modest gaiters of mobilization. Mesnil André has displayed for a fortnight a pair of thick woolen stockings, ribbed and green; and Tirette has always been known by his gray cloth puttees with white stripes, commandeered from a pair of civilian trousers that was hanging goodness knows where at the beginning of the war. As for Marthereau's puttees, they are not both of the same hue, for he failed to find two fag-ends of greatcoat equally worn and equally dirty, to be cut up into strips.
There are legs wrapped up in rags, too, and even in newspapers, which are kept in place with spirals of thread or--much more practical--telephone wire. Pépin fascinated his friends and the passers-by with a pair of fawn gaiters, borrowed from a corpse. Barque, who poses as a resourceful man, full of ideas--and Heaven knows what a bore it makes of him at times!--has white calves, for he wrapped surgical bandages round his leg-cloths to preserve them, a snowy souvenir at his latter end of the cotton cap at the other, which protrudes below his helmet and is left behind in its turn by a saucy red tassel. Poterloo has been walking about for a month in the boots of a German soldier, nearly new, and with horseshoes on the heels. Caron entrusted them to Poterloo when he was sent back on account of his arm. Caron had taken them himself from a Bavarian machine-gunner, knocked out near the Pylônes road. I can hear Caron telling about it yet--
"Old man, he was there, his buttocks in a hole, doubled up, gaping at the sky with his legs in the air, and his pumps offered themselves to me with an air that meant they were worth my while. 'A tight fit,' says I. But you talk about a job to bring those beetle-crushers of his away! I worked on top of him, tugging, twisting and shaking, for half an hour and no lie about it. With his feet gone quite stiff, the patient didn't help me a bit. Then at last the legs of it--they'd been pulled about so-- came unstuck at the knees, and his breeks tore away, and all the lot came, flop! There was me, all of a sudden, with a full boot in each fist. The legs and feet had to be emptied out."
"You're going it a bit strong!"
"Ask Euterpe the cyclist if it isn't true. I tell you he did it along of me, too. We shoved our arms inside the boots and pulled out of 'em some bones and bits of sock and bits of feet. But look if they weren't worth while!"
So, until Caron returns, Poterloo continues on his behalf the wearing of the Bavarian machine-gunner's boots.
Thus do they exercise their wits, according to their intelligence, their vivacity, their resources, and their boldness, in the struggle with the terrible discomfort. Each one seems to make the revealing declaration, "This is all that I knew, all I was able, all that I dared to do in the great misery which has befallen me."
* * * * * *
Mesnil Joseph drowses; Blaire yawns; Marthereau smokes, "eyes front." Lamuse scratches himself like a gorilla, and Eudore like a marmoset. Volpatte coughs, and says, "I'm kicking the bucket." Mesnil André has got out his mirror and comb and is tending his fine chestnut beard as though it were a rare plant. The monotonous calm is disturbed here and there by the outbreaks of ferocious resentment provoked by the presence of parasites--endemic, chronic, and contagious.
Barque, who is an observant man, sends an itinerant glance around, takes his pipe from his mouth, spits, winks, and says-- "I say, we don't resemble each other much."
"Why should we?" says Lamuse. "It would be a miracle if we did."
* * * * *
Our ages? We are of all ages. Ours is a regiment in reserve which successive reinforcements have renewed partly with fighting units and partly with Territorials. In our half-section there are reservists of the Territorial Army, new recruits, and demi-poils. Fouillade is forty; Blaire might be the father of Biquet, who is a gosling of Class 1913. The corporal calls Marthereau "Grandpa" or "Old Rubbish-heap," according as in jest or in earnest. Mesnil Joseph would be at the barracks if there were no war. It is a comical effect when we are in charge of Sergeant Vigile, a nice little boy, with a dab on his lip by way of mustache. When we were in quarters the other day, he played at skipping-rope with the kiddies. In our ill-assorted flock, in this family without kindred, this home without a hearth at which we gather, there are three generations side by side, living, waiting, standing still, like unfinished statues, like posts.
Our races? We are of all races; we come from everywhere. I look at the two men beside me. Poterloo, the miner from the Calonne pit, is pink; his eyebrows are the color of straw, his eyes flax-blue. His great golden head involved a long search in the stores to find the vast steel-blue tureen that bonnets him. Fouillade, the boatman from Cette, rolls his wicked eyes in the long, lean face of a musketeer, with sunken cheeks and his skin the color of a violin. In good sooth, my two neighbors are as unlike as day and night.
Cocon, no less, a slight and desiccated person in spectacles, whose tint tells of corrosion in the chemical vapors of great towns, contrasts with Biquet, a Breton in the rough, whose skin is gray and his jaw like a paving-stone; and Mesnil André, the comfortable chemist from a country town in Normandy, who has such a handsome and silky beard and who talks so much and so well--he has little in common with Lamuse, the fat peasant of Poitou, whose cheeks and neck are like underdone beef. The suburban accent of Barque, whose long legs have scoured the streets of Paris in all directions, alternates with the semi-Belgian cadence of those Northerners who came from the 8th Territorial; with the sonorous speech, rolling on the syllables as if over cobblestone, that the 144th pours out upon us; with the dialect blown from those ant-like clusters that the Auvergnats so obstinately form among the rest. I remember the first words of that wag, Tirette, when he arrived--"I, mes enfants, I am from Clichy-la-Garenne! Can any one beat that?"--and the first grievance that Paradis brought to me, "They don't give a damn for me, because I'm from Morvan!"
* * * * * *
Our callings? A little of all--in the lump. In those departed days when we had a social status, before we came to immure our destiny in the molehills that we must always build up again as fast as rain and scrap-iron beat them down, what were we? Sons of the soil and artisans mostly. Lamuse was a farm-servant, Paradis a carter. Cadilhac, whose helmet rides loosely on his pointed head, though it is a juvenile size--like a dome on a steeple, says Tirette--owns land. Papa Blaire was a small farmer in La Brie. Barque, porter and messenger, performed acrobatic tricks with his carrier-tricycle among the trains and taxis of Paris, with solemn abuse (so they say) for the pedestrians, fleeing like bewildered hens across the big streets and squares. Corporal Bertrand, who keeps himself always a little aloof, correct, erect, and silent, with a strong and handsome face and forthright gaze, was foreman in a case-factory. Tirloir daubed carts with paint--and without grumbling, they say. Tulacque was barman at the Throne Tavern in the suburbs; and Eudore of the pale and pleasant face kept a roadside café not very far from the front lines. It has been ill-used by the shells--naturally, for we all know that Eudore has no luck. Mesnil André, who still retains a trace of well-kept distinction, sold bicarbonate and infallible remedies at his pharmacy in a Grande Place. His brother Joseph was selling papers and illustrated story-books in a station on the State Railways at the same time that, in far-off Lyons, Cocon, the man of spectacles and statistics, dressed in a black smock, busied himself behind the counters of an ironmongery, his hands glittering with plumbago; while the lamps of Bécuwe Adolphe and Poterloo, risen with the dawn, trailed about the coalpits of the North like weakling Will-o'-th'-wisps.
And there are others amongst us whose occupations one can never recall, whom one confuses with one another; and the rural nondescripts who peddled ten trades at once in their packs, without counting the dubious Pépin, who can have had none at all. (While at the depot after sick leave, three months ago, they say, he got married--to secure the separation allowance.)
The liberal professions are not represented among those around me. Some teachers are subalterns in the company or Red Cross men. In the regiment a Marist Brother is sergeant in the Service de Santé; a professional tenor is cyclist dispatch-rider to the Major; a "gentleman of independent means" is mess corporal to the C.H.R. But here there is nothing of all that. We are fighting men, we others, and we include hardly any intellectuals, or men of the arts or of wealth, who during this war will have risked their faces only at the loopholes, unless in passing by, or under gold-laced caps.
Yes, we are truly and deeply different from each other. But we are alike all the same. In spite of this diversity of age, of country, of education, of position, of everything possible, in spite of the former gulfs that kept us apart, we are in the main alike. Under the same uncouth outlines we conceal and reveal the same ways and habits, the same simple nature of men who have reverted to the state primeval.
The same language, compounded of dialect and the slang of workshop and barracks, seasoned with the latest inventions, blends us in the sauce of speech with the massed multitudes of men who (for seasons now) have emptied France and crowded together in the North-East.
Here, too, linked by a fate from which there is no escape, swept willy-nilly by the vast adventure into one rank, we have no choice but to go as the weeks and months go--alike. The terrible narrowness of the common life binds us close, adapts us, merges us one in the other. It is a sort of fatal contagion. Nor need you, to see how alike we soldiers are, be afar off--at that distance, say, when we are only specks of the dust-clouds that roll across the plain.
We are waiting. Weary of sitting, we get up, our joints creaking like warping wood or old hinges. Damp rusts men as it rusts rifles; more slowly, but deeper. And we begin again, but not in the same way, to wait. In a state of war, one is always waiting. We have become waiting-machines. For the moment it is food we are waiting for. Then it will be the post. But each in its turn. When we have done with dinner we will think about the letters. After that, we shall set ourselves to wait for something else.
Hunger and thirst are urgent instincts which formidably excite the temper of my companions. As the meal gets later they become grumblesome and angry. Their need of food and drink snarls from their lips--"That's eight o'clock. Now, why the hell doesn't it come?"
"Just so, and me that's been pining since noon yesterday," sulks Lamuse, whose eyes are moist with longing, while his cheeks seem to carry great daubs of wine-colored grease-paint.
Discontent grows more acute every minute.
"I'll bet Plumet has poured down his own gullet my wine ration that he's supposed to have, and others with it, and he's lying drunk over there somewhere."
"It's sure and certain"--Marthereau seconds the proposition.
"Ah, the rotters, the vermin, these fatigue men!" Tirloir bellows. "An abominable race--all of 'em--mucky-nosed idlers! They roll over each other all day long at the rear, and they'll be damned before they'll be in time. Ah, if I were boss, they should damn quick take our places in the trenches, and they'd have to work for a change. To begin with, I should say, 'Every man in the section will carry grease and soup in turns.' Those who were willing, of course----"
"I'm confident," cries Cocon, "it's that Pépère that's keeping the others back. He does it on purpose, firstly, and then, too, he can't finish plucking himself in the morning, poor lad. He wants ten hours for his flea-hunt, he's so finicking; and if he can't get 'em, monsieur has the pip all day."
"Be damned to him," growls Lamuse. "I'd shift him out of bed if only I was there! I'd wake him up with boot-toe, I'd ----"
"I was reckoning, the other day," Cocon went on; "it took him seven hours forty-seven minutes to come from thirty-one dug-out. It should take him five good hours, but no longer."
Cocon is the Man of Figures. He has a deep affection, amounting to rapacity, for accuracy in recorded computation. On any subject at all, he goes burrowing after statistics, gathers them with the industry of an insect, and serves them up on any one who will listen. Just now, while he wields his figures like weapons, the sharp ridges and angles and triangles that make up the paltry face where perch the double discs of his glasses, are contracted with vexation. He climbs to the firing-step (made in the days when this was the first line), and raises his head angrily over the parapet. The light touch of a little shaft of cold sunlight that lingers on the land sets a-glitter both his glasses and the diamond that hangs from his nose.
"And that Pépère, too, talk about a drinking-cup with the bottom out! You'd never believe the weight of stuff he can let drop on a single journey."
With his pipe in the corner, Papa Blaire fumes in two senses. You can see his heavy mustache trembling. It is like a comb made of bone, whitish and drooping.
"Do you want to know what I think? These dinner men, they're the dirtiest dogs of all. It's 'Blast this' and 'Blast that'--John Blast and Co., I call 'em."
"They have all the elements of a dunghill about them," says Eudore, with a sigh of conviction. He is prone on the ground, with his mouth half-open and the air of a martyr. With one fading eye he follows the movements of Pépin, who prowls to and fro like a hyaena.
Their spiteful exasperation with the loiterers mounts higher and higher. Tirloir the Grumbler takes the lead and expands. This is where he comes in. With his little pointed gesticulations he goads and spurs the anger all around him.
"Ah, the devils, what? The sort of meat they threw at us yesterday! Talk about whetstones! Beef from an ox, that? Beef from a bicycle, yes rather! I said to the boys, 'Look here, you chaps, don't you chew it too quick, or you'll break your front teeth on the nails!'"
Tirloir's harangue--he was manager of a traveling cinema, it seems--would have made us laugh at other times, but in the present temper it is only echoed by a circulating growl.
"Another time, so that you won't grumble about the toughness, they send you something soft and flabby that passes for meat, something with the look and the taste of a sponge--or a poultice. When you chew that, it's the same as a cup of water, no more and no less."
"Tout ça," says Lamuse, "has no substance; it gets no grip on your guts. You think you're full, but at the bottom of your tank you're empty. So, bit by bit, you turn your eyes up, poisoned for want of sustenance."
"The next time," Biquet exclaims in desperation, "I shall ask to see the old man, and I shall say, 'Mon capitaine'----"
"And I," says Barque, "shall make myself look sick, and I shall say, 'Monsieur le major'----"
"And get nix or the kick-out--they're all alike--all in a band to take it out of the poor private."
"I tell you, they'd like to get the very skin off us! ""And the brandy, too! We have a right to get it brought to the trenches--as long as it's been decided somewhere--I don't know when or where, but I know it--and in the three days that we've been here, there's three days that the brandy's been dealt out to us on the end of a fork!"
* * * * * *
"There's the grub!" announces a poilu [note 1] who was on the look-out at the corner.
And the storm of revilings ceases as if by magic. Wrath is changed into sudden contentment.
Three breathless fatigue men, their faces streaming with tears of sweat, put down on the ground some large tins, a paraffin can, two canvas buckets, and a file of loaves, skewered on a stick. Leaning against the wall of the trench, they mop their faces with their handkerchiefs or sleeves. And I see Cocon go up to Pépère with a smile, and forgetful of the abuse he had been heaping on the other's reputation, he stretches out a cordial hand towards one of the cans in the collection that swells the circumference of Pépère. after the manner of a life-belt.
"What is there to eat?"
"It's there," is the evasive reply of the second fatigue man, whom experience has taught that a proclamation of the menu always evokes the bitterness of disillusion. So they set themselves to panting abuse of the length and the difficulties of the trip they have just accomplished: "Some crowds about, everywhere! It's a tough job to get along--got to disguise yourself as a cigarette paper, sometimes."--"And there are people who say they're shirkers in the kitchens!" As for him, he would a hundred thousand times rather be with the company in the trenches, to mount guard and dig, than earn his keep by such a job, twice a day during the night!
Paradis, having lifted the lids of the jars, surveys the recipients and announces, "Kidney beans in oil, bully, pudding, and coffee--that's all."
"Nom de Dieu!" bawls Tulacque. "And wine?" He summons the crowd: "Come and look here, all of you! That--that's the limit! We're done out of our wine!"
Athirst and grimacing, they hurry up; and from the profoundest depths of their being wells up the chorus of despair and disappointment, "Oh, Hell!"
"Then what's that in there?" says the fatigue man, still ruddily sweating, and using his foot to point at a bucket.
"Yes," says Paradis, "my mistake, there is some."
The fatigue man shrugs his shoulders, and hurls at Paradis a look of unspeakable scorn--"Now you're beginning! Get your gig-lamps on, if your sight's bad." He adds, "One cup each--rather less perhaps--some chucklehead bumped against me, coming through the Boyau du Bois, and a drop got spilled." "Ah!" he hastens to add, raising his voice, "if I hadn't been loaded up, talk about the boot-toe he'd have got in the rump! But he hopped it on his top gear, the brute!"
In spite of this confident assurance, the fatigue man makes off himself, curses overtaking him as he goes, maledictions charged with offensive reflections on his honesty and temperance, imprecations inspired by this revelation of a ration reduced.
All the same, they throw themselves on the food, and eat it standing, squatting, kneeling, sitting on tins, or on haversacks pulled out of the holes where they sleep--or even prone, their backs on the ground, disturbed by passers-by, cursed at and cursing. Apart from these fleeting insults and jests, they say nothing, the primary and universal interest being but to swallow, with their mouths and the circumference thereof as greasy as a rifle-breech. Contentment is theirs.
At the earliest cessation of their jaw-bones' activity, they serve up the most ribald of raillery. They knock each other about, and clamor in riotous rivalry to have their say. One sees even Farfadet smiling, the frail municipal clerk who in the early days kept himself so decent and clean amongst us all that he was taken for a foreigner or a convalescent. One sees the tomato-like mouth of Lamuse dilate and divide, and his delight ooze out in tears. Poterloo's face, like a pink peony, opens out wider and wider. Papa Blaire's wrinkles flicker with frivolity as he stands up, pokes his head forward, and gesticulates with the abbreviated body that serves as a handle for his huge drooping mustache. Even the corrugations of Cocon's poor little face are lighted up.
Bécuwe goes in search of firewood to warm the coffee. While we wait for our drink, we roll cigarettes and fill pipes. Pouches are pulled out. Some of us have shop-acquired pouches in leather or rubber, but they are a minority. Biquet extracts his tobacco from a sock, of which the mouth is drawn tight with string. Most of the others use the bags for anti-gas pads, made of some waterproof material which is an excellent preservative of shag, be it coarse or fine; and there are those who simply fumble for it in the bottom of their greatcoat pockets.
The smokers spit in a circle, just at the mouth of the dug-out which most of the half-section inhabit, and flood with tobacco-stained saliva the place where they put their hands and feet when they flatten themselves to get in or out.
But who notices such a detail?
* * * * * *
Now, àpropos of a letter to Marthereau from his wife, they discuss produce.
"La mère Marthereau has written," he says. "That fat pig we've got at home, a fine specimen, guess how much she's worth now?"
But the subject of domestic economy degenerates suddenly into a fierce altercation between Pépin and Tulacque. Words of quite unmistakable significance are exchanged. Then--"I don't care a what you say or what you don't say! Shut it up!"--"I shall shut it when I want, midden!"--"A seven-pound thump would shut it up quick enough!"--"Who from? Who'll give it me?"--"Come and find out!"
They grind their teeth and approach each other in a foaming rage. Tulacque grasps his prehistoric ax, and his squinting eyes are flashing. The other is pale and his eyes have a greenish glint; you can see in his blackguard face that his thoughts are with his knife.
But between the two, as they grip each other in looks and mangle in words, Lamuse intervenes with his huge pacific head, like a baby's, and his face of sanguinary hue: "Allons, allons! You're not going to cut yourselves up! Can't be allowed!"
The others also interpose, and the antagonists are separated, but they continue to hurl murderous looks at each other across the barrier of their comrades. Pépin mutters a residue of slander in tones that quiver with malice--
"The hooligan, the ruffian, the blackguard! But wait a bit! I'll see him later about this!"
On the other side, Tulacque confides in the poilu who is beside him: "That crab-louse! Non, but you know what he is! You know--there's no more to be said. Here, we've got to rub along with a lot of people that we don't know from Adam. We know 'em and yet we don't know 'em; but that man, if he thinks he can mess me about, he'll find himself up the wrong street! You wait a bit. I'll smash him up one of these days, you'll see!"
Meanwhile the general conversation is resumed, drowning the last twin echoes of the quarrel.
"It's every day alike, alors!" says Paradis to me; "yesterday it was Plaisance who wanted to let Fumex have it heavy on the jaw, about God knows what--a matter of opium pills, I think. First it's one and then it's another that talks of doing some one in. Are we getting to be a lot of wild animals because we look like 'em?"
"Mustn't take them too seriously, these men," Lamuse declares; "they're only kids."
"True enough, seeing that they're men."
* * * * * *
The day matures. A little more light has trickled through the mists that enclose the earth. But the sky has remained overcast, and now it dissolves in rain; With a slowness which itself disheartens, the wind brings back its great wet void upon us. The rain-haze makes everything clammy and dull--even the Turkey red of Lamuse s cheeks, and even the orange armor that caparisons Tulacque. The water penetrates to the deep joy with which dinner endowed us, and puts it out. Space itself shrinks; and the sky, which is a field of melancholy, comes closely down upon the earth, which is a field of death.
We are still there, implanted and idle. It will be hard to-day to reach the end of it, to get rid of the afternoon. We shiver in discomfort, and keep shifting our positions, like cattle enclosed.
Cocon is explaining to his neighbor the arrangement and intricacy of our trenches. He has seen a military map and made some calculations. In the sector occupied by our regiment there are fifteen lines of French trenches. Some are abandoned, invaded by grass, and half leveled; the others solidly upkept and bristling with men. These parallels are joined up by innumerable galleries which hook and crook themselves like ancient streets. The system is much more dense than we believe who live inside it. On the twenty-five kilometers' width that form the army front, one must count on a thousand kilometers of hollowed lines--trenches and saps of all sorts. And the French Army consists of ten such armies. There are then, on the French side, about 10,000 kilometers [note 2] of trenches, and as much again on the German side. And the French front is only about one-eighth of the whole war-front of the world.
Thus speaks Cocon, and he ends by saying to his neighbor, "In all that lot, you see what we are, us chaps?"
Poor Barque's head droops. His face, bloodless as a slum child's, is underlined by a red goatee that punctuates his hair like an apostrophe: "Yes, it's true, when you come to think of it. What's a soldier, or even several soldiers?--Nothing, and less than nothing, in the whole crowd; and so we see ourselves lost, drowned, like the few drops of blood that we are among all this flood of men and things."
Barque sighs and is silent, and the end of his discourse gives a chance of hearing to a bit of jingling narrative, told in an undertone: "He was coming along with two horses--Fs-s-s--a shell; and he's only one horse left."
"You get fed up with it," says Volpatte.
"But you stick it," growls Barque.
"You've got to," says Paradis.
"Why?" asks Marthereau, without conviction.
"No need for a reason, as long as we've got to."
"There is no reason," Lamuse avers.
"Yes, there is," says Cocon. "It's--or rather, there are several."
"Shut it up! Much better to have no reason, as long as we've got to stick it."
"All the same," comes the hollow voice of Blaire, who lets no chance slip of airing his pet phrase--"All the same, they'd like to steal the very skin off us!"
"At the beginning of it," says Tirette, "I used to think about a heap of things. I considered and calculated. Now, I don't think any more."
"Nor me either."
"I've never tried to."
"You're not such a fool as you look, flea-face," says the shrill and jeering voice of Mesnil André. Obscurely flattered, the other develops his theme----
"To begin with, you can't know anything about anything."
Says Corporal Bertrand, "There's only one thing you need know, and it's this; that the Boches are here in front of us, deep dug in, and we've got to see that they don't get through, and we've got to put 'em out, one day or another--as soon as possible."
"Oui, oui, they've got to leg it, and no mistake about it. What else is there? Not worth while to worry your head thinking about anything else. But it's a long job."
An explosion of profane assent comes from Fouillade, and he adds, "That's what it is!"
"I've given up grousing," says Barque. "At the beginning of it, I played hell with everybody--with the people at the rear, with the civilians, with the natives, with the shirkers. Yes, I played hell; but that was at the beginning of the war--I was young. Now, I take things better."
"There's only one way of taking 'em--as they come!"
"Of course! Otherwise, you'd go crazy. We're dotty enough already, eh, Firmin?"
Volpatte assents with a nod of profound conviction. He spits, and then contemplates his missile with a fixed and unseeing eye.
"You were saying?" insists Barque.
"Here, you haven't got to look too far in front. You must live from day to day and from hour to hour, as well as you can."
"Certain sure, monkey-face. We've got to do what they tell us to do, until they tell us to go away. "
"That's all," yawns Mesnil Joseph.
Silence follows the recorded opinions that proceed from these dried and tanned faces, inlaid with dust. This, evidently, is the credo of the men who, a year and a half ago, left all the corners of the land to mass themselves on the frontier: Give up trying to understand, and give up trying to be yourself. Hope that you will not die, and fight for life as well as you can.
"Do what you've got to do, oui, but get out of your own messes yourself," says Barque, as he slowly stirs the mud to and fro.
"No choice"--Tulacque backs him up. "If you don't get out of 'em yourself, no one'll do it for you. "
"He's not yet quite extinct, the man that bothers about the other fellow."
"Every man for himself, in war!"
"That's so, that's so."
Silence. Then from the depth of their destitution, these men summon sweet souvenirs--"All that," Barque goes on, "isn't worth much, compared with the good times we had at Soissons."
"Ah, the Devil!"
A gleam of Paradise lost lights up their eyes and seems even to redden their cold faces.
"Talk about a festival!" sighs Tirloir, as he leaves off scratching himself, and looks pensively far away over Trenchland.
"Ah, nom de Dieu! All that town, nearly abandoned, that used to be ours! The houses and the beds----"
"And the cupboards! "
"And the cellars!"
Lamuse's eyes are wet, his face like a nosegay, his heart full.
"Were you there long?" asks Cadilhac, who came here later, with the drafts from Auvergne.
The conversation had almost died out, but it flames up again fiercely at this vision of the days of plenty.
"We used to see," said Paradis dreamily, "the poilus pouring along and behind the houses on the way back to camp with fowls hung round their middles, and a rabbit under each arm, borrowed from some good fellow or woman that they hadn't seen and won't ever see again."
We reflect on the far-off flavor of chicken and rabbit. "There were things that we paid for, too. The spondu-licks just danced about. We held all the aces in those days."
"A hundred thousand francs went rolling round the shops."
"Millions, oui. All the day, just a squandering that you've no idea of, a sort of devil's delight."
"Believe me or not," said Blaire to Cadilhac, "but in the middle of it all, what we had the least of was fires, just like here and everywhere else you go. You had to chase it and find it and stick to it. Ah, mon vieux, how we did run after the kindlings! "
"Well, we were in the camp of the C.H.R. The cook there was the great Martin César. He was the man for finding wood! "
"Ah, oui, oui! He was the ace of trumps! He got what he wanted without twisting himself."
"Always some fire in his kitchen, young fellow. You saw cooks chasing and gabbling about the streets in all directions, blubbering because they had no coal or wood. But he'd got a fire. When he hadn't any, he said, 'Don't worry, I'll see you through.' And he wasn't long about it, either."
"He went a bit too far, even. The first time I saw him in his kitchen, you'd never guess what he'd got the stew going with! With a violin that he'd found in the house!"
"Rotten, all the same," says Mesnil André. "One knows well enough that a violin isn't worth much when it comes to utility, but all the same----"
"Other times, he used billiard cues. Zizi just succeeded in pinching one for a cane, but the rest--into the fire! Then the arm-chairs in the drawing-room went by degrees--mahogany, they were. He did 'em in and cut them up by night, case some N.C.O. had something to say about it."
"He knew his way about," said Pépin. "As for us, we got busy with an old suite of furniture that lasted us a fortnight."
"And what for should we be without? You've got to make dinner, and there's no wood or coal. After the grub's served out, there you are with your jaws empty, with a pile of meat in front of you, and in the middle of a lot of pals that chaff and bullyrag you!"
"It's the War Office's doing, it isn't ours."
"Hadn't the officers a lot to say about the pinching? "
"They damn well did it themselves, I give you my word! Desmaisons, do you remember Lieutenant Virvin's trick, breaking down a cellar door with an ax? And when a poilu saw him at it, he gave him the door for firewood, so that he wouldn't spread it about."
"And poor old Saladin, the transport officer. He was found coming out of a basement in the dusk with two bottles of white wine in each arm, the sport, like a nurse with two pairs of twins. When he was spotted, they made him go back down to the wine-cellar, and serve out bottles for everybody. But Corporal Bertrand, who is a man of scruples, wouldn't have any. Ah, you remember that, do you, sausage-foot!"
"Where's that cook now that always found wood?" asks Cadilhac.
"He's dead. A bomb fell in his stove. He didn't get it, but he's dead all the same--died of shock when he saw his macaroni with its legs in the air. Heart seizure, so the doc' said. His heart was weak--he was only strong on wood. They gave him a proper funeral--made him a coffin out of the bedroom floor, and got the picture nails out of the walls to fasten 'em together, and used bricks to drive 'em in. While they were carrying him off, I thought to myself, 'Good thing for him he's dead. If he saw that, he'd never be able to forgive himself for not having thought of the bedroom floor for his fire.'--Ah, what the devil are you doing, son of a pig?"
Volpatte offers philosophy on the rude intrusion of a passing fatigue party: "The private gets along on the back of his pals. When you spin your yarns in front of a fatigue gang, or when you take the best bit or the best place, it's the others that suffer."
"I've often," says Lamuse, "put up dodges so as not to go into the trenches, and it's come off no end of times. I own up to that. But when my pals are in danger, I'm not a dodger any more. I forget discipline and everything else. I see men, and I go. But otherwise, my boy, I look after my little self."
Lamuse's claims are not idle words. He is an admitted expert at loafing, but all the same he has brought wounded in under fire and saved their lives. Without any brag, he relates the deed--"We were all lying on the grass, and having a hot time. Crack, crack! Whizz, whizz! When I saw them downed, I got up, though they yelled at me, 'Get down!' Couldn't leave 'em like that. Nothing to make a song about, seeing I couldn't do anything else,"
Nearly all the boys of the squad have some high deed of arms to their credit, and the Croix de Guerre has been successively set upon their breasts.
"I haven't saved any Frenchmen," says Biquet, "but I've given some Boches the bitter pill." In the May attacks, he ran off in advance and was seen to disappear in the distance, but came back with four fine fellows in helmets.
"I, too," says Tulacque, "I've killed some." Two months ago, with quaint vanity, he laid out nine in a straight row, in front of the taken trench. "But," he adds, "it's always the Boche officer that I'm after."
"Ah, the beasts!" The curse comes from several men at once and from the bottom of their hearts.
"Ah, mon vieux," says Tirloir, "we talk about the dirty Boche race; but as for the common soldier, I don't know if it's true or whether we're codded about that as well, and if at bottom they're not men pretty much like us."
"Probably they're men like us," says Eudore.
"Perhaps!" cries Cocon, "and perhaps not."
"Anyway," Tirloir goes on, "we've not got a dead set on the men, but on the German officers; non, non, non, they're not men, they're monsters. I tell you, they're really a specially filthy sort o' vermin. One might say that they're the microbes of the war. You ought to see them close to--the infernal great stiff-backs, thin as nails, though they've got calf-heads."
"And snouts like snakes."
Tirloir continues: "I saw one once, a prisoner, as I came back from liaison. The beastly bastard! A Prussian colonel, that wore a prince's crown, so they told me, and a gold coat-of-arms. He was mad because we took leave to graze against him when they were bringing him back along the communication trench, and he looked down on everybody--like that. I said to myself, 'Wait a bit, old cock, I'll make you rattle directly!' I took my time and squared up behind him, and kicked into his tailpiece with all my might. I tell you, he fell down half-strangled."
"Yes, with rage, when it dawned on him that the rump of an officer and nobleman had been bust in by the hobnailed socks of a poor private! He went off chattering like a woman and wriggling like an epileptic----"
"I'm not spiteful myself," says Blaire, "I've got kiddies. And it worries me, too, at home, when I've got to kill a pig that I know--but those, I shall run 'em through--Bing!--full in the linen-cupboard."
"Not to mention," says Pépin, "that they've got silver hats, and pistols that you can get four quid for whenever you like, and field-glasses that simply haven't got a price. Ah, bad luck, what a lot of chances I let slip in the early part of the campaign! I was too much of a beginner then, and it serves me right. But don't worry, I shall get a silver hat. Mark my words, I swear I'll have one. I must have not only the skin of one of Wilhelm's red-tabs, but his togs as well. Don't fret yourself; I'll fasten on to that before the war ends."
"You think it'll have an end, then?" asks some one.
"Don't worry!" replies the other.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, a hubbub has arisen to the right of us, and suddenly a moving and buzzing group appears, in which dark and bright forms mingle.
"What's all that?"
Biquet has ventured on a reconnaissance, and returns contemptuously pointing with his thumb towards the motley mass: "Eh, boys! Come and have a squint at them! Some people!"
"Oui, some gentlemen, look you. Civvies, with Staff officers."
"Civilians! Let's hope they'll stick it!" [note 3]
It is the sacramental saying and evokes laughter, although we have heard it a hundred times, and although the soldier has rightly or wrongly perverted the original meaning and regards it as an ironical reflection on his life of privations and peril.
Two Somebodies come up; two Somebodies with overcoats and canes. Another is dressed in a sporting suit, adorned with a plush hat and binoculars. Pale blue tunics, with shining belts of fawn color or patent leather, follow and steer the civilians.
With an arm where a brassard glitters in gold-edged silk and golden ornament, a captain indicates the firing-step in front of an old emplacement and invites the visitors to get up and try it. The gentleman in the touring suit clambers up with the aid of his umbrella.
Says Barque, "You've seen the station-master at the Gare du Nord, all in his Sunday best, and opening the door of a first-class compartment for a rich sportsman on the first day of the shooting? With his 'Montez, monsieur le Propritaire!'--you know, when the toffs are all togged up in brand-new outfits and leathers and ironmongery, and showing off with all their paraphernalia for killing poor little animals!"
Three or four poilus who were quite without their accouterments have disappeared underground. The others sit as though paralyzed. Even the pipes go out, and nothing is heard but the babble of talk exchanged by the officers and their guests.
"Trench tourists," says Barque in an undertone, and then louder--"This way, mesdames et messieurs"--in the manner of the moment.
"Chuck it! " whispers Farfadet, fearing that Barque's malicious tongue will draw the attention of the potent personages.
Some heads in the group are now turned our way. One gentleman who detaches himself and comes up wears a soft hat and a loose tie. He has a white billy-goat beard, and might be an artiste. Another follows him, wearing a black overcoat, a black bowler hat, a black beard, a white tie and an eyeglass.
"Ah, ah! There are some poilus," says the first gentleman. "These are real poilus, indeed."
He comes up to our party a little timidly, as though in the Zoological Gardens, and offers his hand to the one who is nearest to him--not without awkwardness, as one offers a piece of bread to the elephant.
"He, he! They are drinking coffee," he remarks.
"They call it 'the juice,'" corrects the magpie-man.
"Is it good, my friends?" The soldier, abashed in his turn by this alien and unusual visitation, grunts, giggles, and reddens, and the gentleman says, "He, he! " Then, with a slight motion of the head, he withdraws backwards.
The assemblage, with its neutral shades of civilian cloth and its sprinkling of bright military hues--like geraniums and hortensias in the dark soil of a flowerbed--oscillates, then passes, and moves off the opposite way it came. One of the officers was heard to say, "We have yet much to see, messieurs les journalistes."
When the radiant spectacle has faded away, we look at each other. Those who had fled into the funk-holes now gradually and head first disinter themselves. The group recovers itself and shrugs its shoulders.
"They're journalists," says Tirette.
"Why, yes, the individuals that lay the newspapers. You don't seem to catch on, fathead. Newspapers must have chaps to write 'em."
"Then it's those that stuff up our craniums?" says Marthereau.
Barque assumes a shrill treble, and pretending that he has a newspaper in front of his nose, recites--"'The Crown Prince is mad, after having been killed at the beginning of the campaign, and meanwhile he has all the diseases you can name. William will die this evening, and again to-morrow. The Germans have no more munitions and are chewing wood. They cannot hold out, according to the most authoritative calculations, beyond the end of the week. We can have them when we like, with their rifles slung. If one can wait a few days longer, there will be no desire to forsake the life of the trenches. One is so comfortable there, with water and gas laid on, and shower-baths at every step. The only drawback is that it is rather too hot in winter. As for the Austrians, they gave in a long time since and are only pretending.' For fifteen months now it's been like that, and you can hear the editor saying to his scribes, 'Now, boys, get into it! Find some way of brushing that up again for me in five secs, and make it spin out all over those four damned white sheets that we've got to mucky.'"
"Ah, yes!" says Fouillade.
"Look here, corporal; you're making fun of it--isn't it true what I said?"
"There's a little truth in it, but you're too slashing on the poor boys, and you'd be the first to make a song about it if you had to go without papers. Oui, when the paper-man's going by, why do you all shout, 'Here, here'?"
"And what good can you get out of them all?" cries Papa Blaire. "Read 'em by the tubful if you like, but do the same as me--don't believe 'em!"
"Oui, oui, that's enough about them. Turn the page over, donkey-nose."
The conversation is breaking up; interest in it follows suit and is scattered. Four poilus join in a game of manille, that will last until night blacks out the cards. Volpatte is trying to catch a leaf of cigarette paper that has escaped his fingers and goes hopping and dodging in the wind along the wall of the trench like a fragile butterfly.
Cocon and Tirette are recalling their memories of barrack-life. The impressions left upon their minds by those years of military training are ineffaceable. Into that fund of abundant souvenirs, of abiding color and instant service, they have been wont to dip for their subjects of conversation for ten, fifteen, or twenty years. So that they still frequent it, even after a year and a half of actual war in all its forms.
I can hear some of the talk and guess the rest of it. For it is everlastingly the same sort of tale that they get out of their military past;--the narrator once shut up a bad-tempered N.C.O. with words of extreme appropriateness and daring. He wasn't afraid, he spoke out loud and strong! Some scraps of it reach my ears----
"Alors, d'you think I flinched when Nenoeil said that to me? Not a bit, my boy. All the pals kept their jaws shut but me; I spoke up, 'Mon adjudant,' I says, 'it's possible, but----'" A sentence follows that I cannot secure----"Oh, tu sais, just like that, I said it. He didn't get shirty; 'Good, that's good,' he says as he hops it, and afterwards he was as good as all that, with me."
"Just like me, with Dodore, 'jutant of the 13th, when I was on leave--a mongrel. Now he's at the Panthéon, as caretaker. He'd got it in for me, so----"
So each unpacks his own little load of historical anecdote. They are all alike, and not one of them but says, "As for me, I am not like the others."
* * * * * *
The post-orderly! He is a tall and broad man with fat calves; comfortable looking, and as neat and tidy as a policeman. He is in a bad temper. There are new orders, and now he has to go every day as far as Battalion Headquarters. He abuses the order as if it had been directed exclusively against himself; and he continues to complain even while he calls up the corporals for the post and maintains his customary chat en passant with this man and that. And in spite of his spleen he does not keep to himself all the information with which he comes provided. While removing the string from the letter-packets he dispenses his verbal news, and announces first, that according to rumor, there is a very explicit ban on the wearing of hoods.
"Hear that?" says Tirette to Tirloir. "Got to chuck your fine hood away!"
"Not likely! I'm not on. That's nothing to do with me," replies the hooded one, whose pride no less than his comfort is at stake.
"Order of the General Commanding the Army."
"Then let the General give an order that it's not to rain any more. I want to know nothing about it."
The majority of Orders, even when less peculiar than this one, are always received in this way--and then carried out.
"There's a reported order as well," says the man of letters, "that beards have got to be trimmed and hair got to be clipped close."
"Talk on, my lad," says Barque, on whose head the threatened order directly falls; "you didn't see me! You can draw the curtains!"
"I'm telling you. Do it or don't do it--doesn't matter a damn to me."
Besides what is real and written, there is bigger news, but still more dubious and imaginative--the division is going to be relieved, and sent either to rest--real rest, for six weeks--or to Morocco, or perhaps to Egypt.
Divers exclamations. They listen, and let themselves be tempted by the fascination of the new, the wonderful.
But some one questions the post-orderly: "Who told you that?"
"The adjutant commanding the Territorial detachment that fatigues for the H.Q. of the A.C."
"For the what?"
"For Headquarters of the Army Corps, and he's not the only one that says it. There's--you know him-- I've forgotten his name--he's like Galle, but he isn't Galle--there's some one in his family who is Some One. Anyway, he knows all about it."
"Then what?" With hungry eyes they form a circle around the story-teller.
"Egypt, you say, we shall go to? Don't know it. I know there were Pharaohs there at the time when I was a kid and went to school, but since--"
"To Egypt!" The idea finds unconscious anchorage in their minds.
"Ah, non," says Blaire, "for I get sea-sick. Still, it doesn't last, sea-sickness. Oui, but what would my good lady say?"
"What about it? She'll get used to it. You see niggers, and streets full of big birds, like we see sparrows here."
"But haven't we to go to Alsace?"
"Yes," says the post-orderly, "there are some who think so at the Pay-office."
"That'd do me well enough."
But common sense and acquired experience regain the upper hand and put the visions to flight. We have been told so often that we were going a long way off, so often have we believed it, so often been undeceived! So, as if at a moment arranged, we wake up.
"It's all my eye--they've done it on us too often. Wait before believing--and don't count a crumb's worth on it."
We reoccupy our corner. Here and there a man bears in his hand the light momentous burden of a letter.
"Ah," says Tirloir, "I must be writing. Can't go eight days without writing."
"Me too," says Eudore, "I must write to my p'tit' femme."
"Is she all right, Mariette?"
"Oui, oui, don't fret about Mariette."
A few have already settled themselves for correspondence. Barque is standing up. He stoops over a sheet of paper flattened on a note-book upon a jutting crag in the trench wall. Apparently in the grip of an inspiration, he writes on and on, with his eyes in bondage and the concentrated expression of a horseman at full gallop.
When once Lamuse--who lacks imagination--has sat down, placed his little writing-block on the padded summit of his knees, and moistened his copying-ink pencil, he passes the time in reading again the last letters received, in wondering what he can say that he has not already said, and in fostering a grim determination to say something else.
A sentimental gentleness seems to have overspread little Eudore, who is curled up in a sort of niche in the ground. He is lost in meditation, pencil in hand, eyes on paper. Dreaming, he looks and stares and sees. It is another sky that lends him light, another to which his vision reaches. He has gone home.
In this time of letter-writing, the men reveal the most and the best that they ever were. Several others surrender to the past, and its first expression is to talk once more of fleshly comforts.
Through their outer crust of coarseness and concealment, other hearts venture upon murmured memories, and the rekindling of bygone brightness: the summer morning, when the green freshness of the garden steals in upon the purity of the country bedroom; or when the wind in the wheat of the level lands sets it slowly stirring or deeply waving, and shakes the square of oats hard by into quick little feminine tremors; or the winter evening, with women and their gentleness around the shaded luster of the lamp.
But Papa Blaire resumes work upon the ring he has begun. He has threaded the still formless disc of aluminium over a bit of rounded wood, and rubs it with the file. As he applies himself to the job, two wrinkles of mighty meditation deepen upon his forehead. Anon he stops, straightens himself, and looks tenderly at the trifle, as though she also were looking at it.
"You know," he said to me once, speaking of another ring, "it's not a question of doing it well or not well. The point is that I've done it for my wife, d'you see? When I had nothing to do but scratch myself, I used to have a look at this photo"--he showed me a photograph of a big, chubby-faced woman--"and then it was quite easy to set about this damned ring. You might say that we've made it together, see? The proof of that is that it was company for me, and that I said Adieu to it when I sent it off to Mother Blaire."
He is making another just now, and this one will have copper in it, too. He works eagerly. His heart would fain express itself to the best advantage in this the sort of penmanship upon which he is so tenaciously bent.
As they stoop reverently, in their naked earth-holes, over the slender rudimentary trinkets--so tiny that the great hide-bound hands hold them with difficulty or let them fall--these men seem still more wild, more primitive, and more human, than at all other times.
You are set thinking of the first inventor, the father of all craftsmen, who sought to invest enduring materials with the shapes of what he saw and the spirit of what he felt.
* * * * * *
"People coming along," announces Biquet the mobile, who acts as hall-porter to our section of the trench-- "buckets of 'em." Immediately an adjutant appears, with straps round his belly and his chin, and brandishing his sword-scabbard.
"Out of the way, you! Out of the way, I tell you! You loafers there, out of it! Let me see you quit, hey!" We make way indolently. Those at the sides push back into the earth by slow degrees.
It is a company of Territorials, deputed to our sector for the fortification of the second line and the upkeep of its communication trenches. They come into view--miserable bundles of implements, and dragging their feet.
We watch them, one by one, as they come up, pass, and disappear. They are stunted and elderly, with dusty faces, or big and broken-winded, tightly enfolded in greatcoats stained and over-worn, that yawn at the toothless gaps where the buttons are missing.
Tirette and Barque, the twin wags, leaning close together against the wall, stare at them, at first in silence. Then they begin to smile.
"March past of the Broom Brigade," says Tirette.
"We'll have a bit of fun for three minutes," announces Barque.
Some of the old toilers are comical. This one whom the file brings up has bottle-shaped shoulders. Although extremely narrow-chested and spindle-shanked, he is big-bellied. He is too much for Barque. "Hullo, Sir Canteen!" he says.
When a more outrageously patched-up greatcoat appears than all the others can show, Tirette questions the veteran recruit. "Hey, Father Samples! Hey, you there!" he insists.
The other turns and looks at him, open-mouthed.
"Say there, papa, if you will be so kind as to give me the address of your tailor in London!"
A chuckle comes from the antiquated and wrinkle-scrawled face, and then the poilu, checked for an instant by Barque's command, is jostled by the following flood and swept away.
When some less striking figures have gone past, a new victim is provided for the jokers. On his red and wrinkled neck luxuriates some dirty sheep's-wool. With knees bent, his body forward, his back bowed, this Territorial's carriage is the worst.
"Tiens!" bawls Tirette, with pointed finger, "the famous concertina-man! It would cost you something to see him at the fair--here, he's free gratis!"
The victim stammers responsive insults amid the scattered laughter that arises.
No more than that laughter is required to excite the two comrades. It is the ambition to have their jests voted funny by their easy audience that stimulates them to mock the peculiarities of their old comrades-in-arms, of those who toil night and day on the brink of the great war to make ready and make good the fields of battle.
And even the other watchers join in. Miserable themselves, they scoff at the still more miserable.
"Look at that one! And that, look!"
"Non, but take me a snapshot of that little rump-end! Hey, earth-worm!"
"And that one that has no ending! Talk about a sky-scratcher! Tiens, là, he takes the biscuit. Yes, you take it, old chap!"
This man goes with little steps, and holds his pickax up in front like a candle; his face is withered, and his body borne down by the blows of lumbago.
"Like a penny, gran'pa?" Barque asks him, as he passes within reach of a tap on the shoulder.
The broken-down poilu replies with a great oath of annoyance, and provokes the harsh rejoinder of Barque: Come now, you might be polite, filthy-face, old muck-mill!"
Turning right round in fury, the old one defies his tormentor.
"Hullo!" cries Barque, laughing, "He's showing fight; the ruin! He's warlike, look you, and he might be mischievous if only he were sixty years younger!"
"And if he wasn't alone," wantonly adds Pépin, whose eye is in quest of other targets among the flow of new arrivals.
The hollow chest of the last straggler appears, and then his distorted back disappears.
The march past of the worn-out and trench-foul veterans comes to an end among the ironical and almost malevolent faces of these sinister troglodytes, whom their caverns of mud but half reveal.
Meanwhile, the hours slip away, and evening begins to veil the sky and darken the things of earth. It comes to blend itself at once with the blind fate and the ignorant dark minds of the multitude there enshrouded.
Through the twilight comes the rolling hum of tramping men, and another throng. rubs its way through.
They march past with faces red-brown, yellow or chestnut, their beards scanty and fine or thick and frizzled, their greatcoats yellowish-green, and their muddy helmets sporting the crescent in place of our grenade. Their eyes are like balls of ivory or onyx, that shine from faces like new pennies, flattened or angular. Now and again comes swaying along above the line the coal-black mask of a Senegalese sharpshooter. Behind the company goes a red flag with a green hand in the center.
We watch them in silence. These are asked no questions. They command respect, and even a little fear.
All the same, these Africans seem jolly and in high spirits. They are going, of course, to the first line. That is their place, and their passing is the sign of an imminent attack. They are made for the offensive.
"Those and the 75 gun we can take our hats off to. They're everywhere sent ahead at big moments, the Moroccan Division."
"They can't quite fit in with us. They go too fast--and there's no way of stopping them."
Some of these diabolical images in yellow wood or bronze or ebony are serious of mien, uneasy, and taciturn. Their faces have the disquieting and secret look of the snare suddenly discovered. The others laugh with a laugh that jangles like fantastic foreign instruments of music, a laugh that bares the teeth.
We talk over the characteristics of these Africans; their ferocity in attack, their devouring passion to be in with the bayonet, their predilection for "no quarter." We recall those tales that they themselves willingly tell, all in much the same words and with the same gestures. They raise their arms over their heads--"Kam'rad, Kam'rad!" "Non, pas Kam'rad!" And in pantomime they drive a bayonet forward, at belly-height, drawing it back then with the help of a foot.
One of the sharpshooters overhears our talk as he passes. He looks upon us, laughs abundantly in his helmeted turban, and repeats our words with significant shakes of his head: "Pas Kam'rad, non pas Kam'rad, never! Cut head off!"
"No doubt they're a different race from us, with their tent-cloth skin," Barque confesses, though he does not know himself what "cold feet" are. "It worries them to rest, you know; they only live for the minute when the officer puts his watch back in his pocket and says, 'Off you go!'"
"In fact, they're real soldiers."
"We are not soldiers," says big Lamuse, "we're men." Though the evening has grown darker now, that plain true saying sheds something like a glimmering light on the men who are waiting here, waiting since the morning. waiting since months ago.
They are men, good fellows of all kinds, rudely torn away from the joy of life. Like any other men whom you take in the mass, they are ignorant and of narrow outlook, full of a sound common sense--which some-times gets off the rails--disposed to be led and to do as they are bid, enduring under hardships, long-suffering.
They are simple men further simplified, in whom the merely primitive instincts have been accentuated by the force of circumstances--the instinct of self-preservation, the hard-gripped hope of living through, the joy of food, of drink, and of sleep. And at intervals they are cries and dark shudders of humanity that issue from the silence and the shadows of their great human hearts.
When we can no longer see clearly, we hear down there the murmur of a command, which comes nearer and rings loud--"Second half-section! Muster!" We fall in; it is the call.
"Gee up!" says the corporal. We are set in motion. In front of the tool-depot there is a halt and trampling. To each is given a spade or pickax. An N.C.O. presents the handles in the gloom: "You, a spade; there, hop it! You a spade, too; you a pick. Allons, hurry up and get off."
We leave by the communication trench at right angles to our own, and straight ahead towards the changeful frontier, now alive and terrible.
Up in the somber sky, the strong staccato panting of an invisible aeroplane circles in wide descending coils and fills infinity. In front, to right and left, everywhere, thunderclaps roll with great glimpses of short-lived light in the dark-blue sky.
[note 1:] The popular and international name for a French soldier. Its literal meaning is 'hairy, shaggy," but the word has conveyed for over a century the idea of the virility of a Samson, whose strength lay in his locks.--Tr.
[note 2:] 6250 miles.
[note 3:] Pourvu que les civils tiennent. In the early days of the war it was a common French saying that victory was certain--"if the civilians hold out."--Tr.