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Volpatte and Fouillade
AS we reached quarters again, some one cried: "But where's Volpatte?"--"And Fouillade, where's he?"
They had been requisitioned and taken off to the front line by the 5th Battalion. No doubt we should find them somewhere in quarters. No success. Two men of the squad lost!
"That's what comes of lending men," said the sergeant with a great oath. The captain, when apprised of the loss, also cursed and swore and said, "I must have those men. Let them be found at once. Allez!"
Farfadet and I are summoned by Corporal Bertrand from the barn where at full length we have already immobilized ourselves, and are growing torpid: "You must go and look for Volpatte and Fouillade."
Quickly we got up, and set off with a shiver of uneasiness. Our two comrades have been taken by the 5th and carried off to that infernal shift. Who knows where they are and what they may be by now!
We climb up the hill again. Again we begin, but in the opposite direction, the journey done since the dawn and the night. Though we are without our heavy stuff, and only carry rifles and accouterments, we feel idle, sleepy, and stiff; and the country is sad, and the sky all wisped with mist. Farfadet is soon panting. He talked a little at first, till fatigue enforced silence on him. He is brave enough, but frail, and during all his prewar life, shut up in the Town Hall office where he scribbled since the days of his "first sacrament" between a stove and some ageing cardboard files, he hardly learned the use of his legs.
Just as we emerge from the wood, slipping and floundering, to penetrate the region of communication trenches, two faint shadows are outlined in front. Two soldiers are coming up. We can see the protuberance of their burdens and the sharp lines of their rifles. The swaying double shape becomes distinct--"It's them!"
One of the shadows has a great white head, all swathed--"One of them's wounded! It's Volpatte!"
We run up to the specters, our feet making the sounds of sinking in sponge and of sticky withdrawal, and our shaken cartridges rattle in their pouches. They stand still and wait for us. When we are close up, "It's about time!" cries Volpatte.
"You're wounded, old chap?"--"What?" he says; the manifold bandages all round his head make him deaf, and we must shout to get through them. So we go close and shout. Then he replies, "That's nothing; we're coming from the hole where the 5th Battalion put us on Thursday."
"You've stayed there--ever since?" yells Farfadet, whose shrill and almost feminine voice goes easily through the quilting that protects Volpatte's ears.
"Of course we stayed there, you blithering idiot!" says Fouillade. "You don't suppose we'd got wings to fly away with, and still less that we should have legged it without orders?"
Both of them let themselves drop to a sitting position on the ground. Volpatte's head--enveloped in rags with a big knot on the top and the same dark yellowish stains as his face--looks like a bundle of dirty linen.
"They forgot you, then, poor devils?"
"Rather!" cries Fouillade, "I should say they did. Four days and four nights in a shell-hole, with bullets raining down, a hole that stunk like a cesspool."
"That's right," says Volpatte. "It wasn't an ordinary listening-post hole, where one comes and goes regularly. It was just a shell-hole, like any other old shell-hole, neither more nor less. They said to us on Thursday, 'Station yourselves in there and keep on firing,' they said. Next day, a liaison chap of the 5th Battalion came and showed his neb: 'What the hell are you doing there?'--'Why, we're firing. They told us to fire, so we're firing,' I says. 'If they told us to do it, there must be some reason at the back of it. We're wanting for them to tell us to do something else.' The chap made tracks. He looked a bit uneasy, and suffering from the effects of being bombed. 'It's 22,' he says."
"To us two," says Fouillade, "there was a loaf of bread and a bucket of wine that the 18th gave us when they planted us there, and a whole case of cartridges, my boy. We fired off the cartridges and drank the booze, but we had sense to keep a few cartridges and a hunch of bread, though we didn't keep any wine."
"That's where we went wrong," says Volpatte, "seeing that it was a thirsty job. Say, boys, you haven't got any gargle?"
"I've still nearly half a pint of wine," replies Farfadet. "Give it to him," says Fouillade, pointing to Volpatte, "seeing that he's been losing blood. I'm only thirsty."
Volpatte was shivering, and his little strapped-up eyes burned with fever in the enormous dump of rags set upon his shoulders. "That's good," he says, drinking.
"Ah! And then, too," he added, emptying--as politeness requires--the drop of wine that remained at the bottom of Farfadet's cup, "we got two Boches. They were crawling about outside, and fell into our holes, as blindly as moles into a spring snare, those chaps did. We tied 'em up. And see us then--after firing for thirty-six hours, we'd no more ammunition. So we filled our magazines with the last, and waited, in front of the parcels of Boche. The liaison chap forgot to tell his people that we were there. You, the 6th, forgot to ask for us; the 18th forgot us, too; and as we weren't in a listening-post where you're relieved as regular as if at H.Q., I could almost see us staying there till the regiment came back. In the long run, it was the loafers of the 204th, come to skulk about looking for fuses, that mentioned us. So then we got the order to fall back--immediately, they said. That 'immediately' was a good joke, and we got into harness at once. We untied the legs of the Boches, led them off and handed them over to the 204th, and here we are."
"We even fished out, in passing, a sergeant who was piled up in a hole and didn't dare come out, seeing he was shell-shocked. We slanged him, and that set him up a bit, and he thanked us. Sergeant Sacerdote he called himself."
"But your wound, old chap?"
"It's my ears. Two shells, a little one and a big one, my lad--went off while you're saying it. My head came between the two bursts, as you might say, but only just; a very close shave, and my lugs got it."
"You should have seen him," says Fouillade, "it was disgusting, those two ears hanging down. We had two packets of bandages, and the stretcher-men fired us one in. That makes three packets he's got rolled round his nut."
"Give us your traps, we're going back."
Farfadet and I divide Volpatte's equipment between us. Fouillade, sullen with thirst and racked by stiff joints, growls, and insists obstinately on keeping his weapons and bundles.
We stroll back, finding diversion--as always---in walking without ranks. It is so uncommon that one finds it surprising and profitable. So it is a breach of liberty which soon enlivens all four of us. We are in the country as though for the pleasure of it.
"We are pedestrians!" says Volpatte proudly. When we reach the turning at the top of the hill, he relapses upon rosy visions: "Old man, it's a good wound, after all. I shall be sent back, no mistake about it."
His eyes wink and sparkle in the huge white clump that dithers on his shoulders--a clump reddish on each side, where the ears were.
From the depth where the village lies we hear ten o'clock strike. "To hell with the time," says Volpatte "it doesn't matter to me any more what time it is."
He becomes loquacious. It is a low fever that inspires his dissertation, and condenses it to the slow swing of our walk, in which his step is already jaunty.
"They'll stick a red label on my greatcoat, you'll see, and take me to the rear. I shall be bossed this time by a very polite sort of chap, who'll say to me, 'That's one side, now turn the other way--so, my poor fellow.' Then the ambulance, and then the sick-train, with the pretty little ways of the Red Cross ladies all the way along, like they did to Crapelet Jules, then the base hospital. Beds with white sheets, a stove that snores in the middle of us all, people with the special job of looking after you, and that you watch doing it, regulation slippers--sloppy and comfortable--and a chamber-cupboard. Furniture! And it's in those big hospitals that you're all right for grub! I shall have good feeds, and baths. I shall take all I can get hold of. And there'll be presents--that you can enjoy without having to fight the others for them and get yourself into a bloody mess. I shall have my two hands on the counterpane, and they'll do damn well nothing, like things to look at--like toys, what? And under the sheets my legs'll be white-hot all the way through, and my trotters'll be expanding like bunches of violets."
Volpatte pauses, fumbles about, and pulls out of his pocket, along with his famous pair of Soissons scissors, something that he shows to me: "Tiens, have you seen this?"
It is a photograph of his wife and two children. He has already shown it to me many a time. I look at it and express appreciation.
"I shall go on sick-leave," says Volpatte, "and while my ears are sticking themselves on again, the wife and the little ones will look at me, and I shall look at them. And while they're growing again like lettuces, my friends, the war, it'll make progress--the Russians--one doesn't know, what?" He is thinking aloud, lulling himself with happy anticipations, already alone with his private festival in the midst of us.
"Robber!" Feuillade shouts at him. "You've too much luck, by God!"
How could we not envy him? He would be going away for one, two, or three months; and all that time, instead of our wretched privations, he would be transformed into a man of means!
"At the beginning," says Farfadet, "it sounded comic when I heard them wish for a 'good wound.' But all the same, and whatever can be said about it, I understand now that it's the only thing a poor soldier can hope for if he isn't daft."
* * * * * *
We were drawing near to the village and passing round the wood. At its corner, the sudden shape of a woman arose against the sportive sunbeams that outlined her with light. Alertly erect she stood, before the faintly violet background of the wood's marge and the crosshatched trees. She was slender, her head all afire with fair hair, and in her pale face we could see the night-dark caverns of great eyes. The resplendent being gazed fixedly upon us, trembling, then plunged abruptly into the undergrowth and disappeared like a torch.
The apparition and its flight so impressed Volpatte that he lost the thread of his discourse.
"She's something like, that woman there!"
"No," said Fouillade, who had misunderstood, "she's called Eudoxie. I knew her because I've seen her before. A refugee. I don't know where she comes from, but she's at Gamblin, in a family there."
"She's thin and beautiful," Volpatte certified; "one would like to make her a little present--she's good enough to eat--tender as a chicken. And look at the eyes she's got!"
"She's queer," says Fouillade. "You don't know when you've got her. You see her here, there, with her fair hair on top, then--off! Nobody about. And you know, she doesn't know what danger is; marching about, sometimes, almost in the front line, and she's been seen knocking about in No Man's Land. She's queer."
"Look! There she is again. The spook! She's keeping an eye on us. What's she after?"
The shadow-figure, traced in lines of light, this time adorned the other end of the spinney's edge.
"To hell with women," Volpatte declared, whom the idea of his deliverance has completely recaptured.
"There's one in the squad, anyway, that wants her pretty badly. See--when you speak of the wolf----"
"You see its tail----"
"Not yet, but almost--look!" From some bushes on our right we saw the red snout of Lamuse appear peeping, like a wild boar's.
He was on the woman's trail. He had seen the alluring vision, dropped to the crouch of a setting dog, and made his spring. But in that spring he fell upon us.
Recognizing Volpatte and Fouillade, big Lamuse gave shouts of delight. At once he had no other thought than to get possession of the bags, rifles, and haversacks--"Give me all of it--I'm resting--come on, give it up."
He must carry everything. Farfadet and I willingly gave up Volpatte's equipment; and Fouillade, now at the end of his strength, agreed to surrender his pouches and his rifle.
Lamuse became a moving heap. Under the huge burden he disappeared, bent double, and made progress only with shortened steps.
But we felt that he was still under the sway of a certain project, and his glances went sideways. He was seeking the woman after whom he had hurled himself. Every time he halted, the better to trim some detail of the load, or puffingly to mop the greasy flow of perspiration, he furtively surveyed all the corners of the horizon and scrutinized the edges of the wood. He did not see her again.
I did see her again, and got a distinct impression this time that it was one of us she was after. She half arose on our left from the green shadows of the undergrowth. Steadying herself with one hand on a branch, she leaned forward and revealed the night-dark eyes and pale face, which showed--so brightly lighted was one whole side of it--like a crescent moon.
I saw that she was smiling. And following the course of the look that smiled, I saw Farfadet a little way behind us, and he was smiling too. Then she slipped away into the dark foliage, carrying the twin smile with her.
Thus was the understanding revealed to me between this lissom and dainty gypsy, who was like no one at all, and Farfadet, conspicuous among us all--slender, pliant and sensitive as lilac. Evidently----!
Lamuse saw nothing, blinded and borne down as he was by the load he had taken from Farfadet and me, occupied in the poise of them, and in finding where his laden and leaden feet might tread.
But he looks unhappy; he groans. A weighty and mournful obsession is stifling him. In his harsh breathing it seems to me that I can hear his heart beating and muttering. Looking at Volpatte, hooded in bandages, and then at the strong man, muscular and full-blooded, with that profound and eternal yearning whose sharpness he alone can gauge, I say to myself that the worst wounded man is not he whom we think.
We go down at last to the village. "Let's have a drink," says Fouillade. "I'm going to be sent back," says Volpatte. Lamuse puffs and groans.
Our comrades shout and come running, and we gather in the little square where the church stands with its twin towers--so thoroughly mutilated by a shell that one can no longer look it in the face.