THE STORY OF AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT DURING THE WAR
TO THE READER
This book is not a novel, but rather the confession of a free spirit telling of its mistakes, its sufferings and its struggles from the midst of the tempest; and it is in no sense an autobiography either. Some day I may wish to write of myself, and I will then speak without any disguise or feigned name. Though it is true that I have lent some ideas to my hero, his individuality, his character and the circumstances of his life are all his own; and I have tried to give a picture of the inward labyrinth where a weak spirit wanders, feeling its way, uncertain, sensitive and impressionable, but sincere and ardent in the cause of truth.
Some chapters of the book have a family likeness to the meditations of our old French moralists and the stoical essays of the end of the XVIth century. At a time resembling our own but even exceeding it in tragic horror, amid the convulsions of the League, the Chief-Magistrate Guillaume Du Vair wrote his noble Dialogues, "De la Constance et Consolation es Calamites Publiques," with a steadfast mind. While the siege of Paris was at its worst he talked in his garden with his friends, Linus the great traveller, Musee, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and the writer Orphee. Poor wretches lay dead of starvation in the streets, women cried out that pike-men were eating children near the Temple; but with their eyes filled with these horrible pictures these wise men sought to raise their unhappy thoughts to the heights where one can reach the mind of the ages and reckon up that which has survived the test. As I re-read these Dialogues during the war I more than once felt myself close to that true Frenchman who wrote: Man is born to see and know everything, and it is an injustice to limit him to one place on the earth. To the wise man the whole world is his country. God lends us the world to enjoy in common on one condition only, that we act uprightly.
[Footnote 1: This Introduction was published in the Swiss newspapers in December, 1917, with an episode of the novel and a note explaining the original title, L'Un contre Tous. "This somewhat ironical name was suggested—with a difference—by La Boetie's Le Contr' Un; but it must not be supposed that the author entertained the extravagant idea of setting one man in opposition to all others; he only wishes to summon the personal conscience to the most urgent conflict of our time, the struggle against the herd-spirit."]
This book is not written about the war, though the shadow of the war lies over it. My theme is that the individual soul has been swallowed up and submerged in the soul of the multitude; and in my opinion such an event is of far greater importance to the future of the race than the passing supremacy of one nation.
I have left questions of policy in the background intentionally, as I think they should be reserved for special study. No matter what causes may be assigned as the origins of the war, no matter what theses support them, nothing in the world can excuse the abdication of individual judgment before general opinion.
The universal development of democracies, vitiated by a fossilized survival, the outrageous "reason of State," has led the mind of Europe to hold as an article of faith that there can be no higher ideal than to serve the community. This community is then defined as the State.
I venture to say that he who makes himself the servant of a blind or blinded nation,—and most of the states are in this condition at the present day,—does not truly serve it but lowers both it and himself; for in general a few men, incapable of understanding the complexities of the people, force thoughts and acts upon them in harmony with their own passions and interests by means of the falsehoods of the press and the implacable machinery of a centralised government. He who would be useful to others must first be free himself; for love itself has no value coming from a slave.
Independent minds and firm characters are what the world needs most today. The death-like submission of the churches, the stifling intolerance of nations, the stupid unitarianism of socialists,—by all these different roads we are returning to the gregarious life. Man has slowly dragged himself out of the warm slime, but it seems as if the long effort has exhausted him; he is letting himself slip backward into the collective mind, and the choking breath of the pit already rises about him. You who do not believe that the cycle of man is accomplished, you must rouse yourselves and dare to separate yourselves from the herd in which you are dragged along. Every man worthy of the name should learn to stand alone, and do his own thinking, even in conflict with the whole world. Sincere thought, even if it does run counter to that of others, is still a service to mankind; for humanity demands that those who love her should oppose, or if necessary rebel against her. You will not serve her by flattery, by debasing your conscience and intelligence, but rather by defending their integrity from the abuse of power. For these are some of her voices, and if you betray yourself you betray her also.
SIERRE, March, 1917.
Agenor Clerambault sat under an arbour in his garden at St. Prix, reading to his wife and children an ode that he had just written, dedicated to Peace, ruler of men and things, "Ara Pacis Augustae." In it he wished to celebrate the near approach of universal brotherhood. It was a July evening; a last rosy light lay on the tree-tops, and through the luminous haze, like a veil over the slopes of the hillside and the grey plain of the distant city, the windows on Montmartre burned like sparks of gold. Dinner was just over. Clerambault leaned across the table where the dishes yet stood, and as he spoke his glance full of simple pleasure passed from one to the other of his three auditors, sure of meeting the reflection of his own happiness.
His wife Pauline followed the flight of his thought with difficulty. After the third phrase anything read aloud made her feel drowsy, and the affairs of her household took on an absurd importance; one might say that the voice of the reader made them chirp like birds in a cage. It was in vain that she tried to follow on Clerambault's lips, and even to imitate with her own, the words whose meaning she no longer understood; her eye mechanically noted a hole in the cloth, her fingers picked at the crumbs on the table, her mind flew back to a troublesome bill, till as her husband's eye seemed to catch her in the act, hastily snatching at the last words she had heard, she went into raptures over a fragment of verse,—for she could never quote poetry accurately. "What was that, Agenor? Do repeat that last line. How beautiful it is." Little Rose, her daughter, frowned, and Maxime, the grown son, was annoyed and said impatiently: "You are always interrupting, Mamma!"
Clerambault smiled and patted his wife's hand affectionately. He had married her for love when he was young, poor, and unknown, and together they had gone through years of hardship. She was not quite on his intellectual level and the difference did not diminish with advancing years, but Clerambault loved and respected his helpmate, and she strove, without much success, to keep step with her great man of whom she was so proud. He was extraordinarily indulgent to her. His was not a critical nature—which was a great help to him in life in spite of innumerable errors of judgment; but as these were always to the advantage of others, whom he saw at their best, people laughed but liked him. He did not interfere with their money hunt and his countrified simplicity was refreshing to the world-weary, like a wild-growing thicket in a city square.
Maxime was amused by all this, knowing what it was worth. He was a good-looking boy of nineteen with bright laughing eyes, and in the Parisian surroundings he had been quick to acquire the gift of rapid, humorous observation, dwelling on the outside view of men and things more than on ideas. Even in those he loved, nothing ridiculous escaped him, but it was without ill-nature. Clerambault smiled at the youthful impertinence which did not diminish Maxime's admiration for his father but rather added to its flavour. A boy in Paris would tweak the Good Lord by the beard, by way of showing affection!
Rosine was silent according to her habit; it was not easy to know her thoughts as she listened, bent forward, her hands folded and her arms leaning on the table. Some natures seem made to receive, like the earth which opens itself silently to every seed. Many seeds fall and remain dormant; none can tell which will bring forth fruit. The soul of the young girl was of this kind; her face did not reflect the words of the reader as did Maxime's mobile features, but the slight flush on her cheek and the moist glance of her eyes under their drooping lids showed inward ardour and feeling. She looked like those Florentine pictures of the Virgin stirred by the magical salutation of the Archangel. Clerambault saw it all and as he glanced around his little circle his eye rested with special delight on the fair bending head which seemed to feel his look.
On this July evening these four people were united in a bond of affection and tranquil happiness of which the central point was the father, the idol of the family.
He knew that he was their idol, and by a rare exception this knowledge did not spoil him, for he had such joy in loving, so much affection to spread far and wide that it seemed only natural that he should be loved in return; he was really like an elderly child. After a life of ungilded mediocrity he had but recently come to be known, and though the one experience had not given him pain, he delighted in the other. He was over fifty without seeming to be aware of it, for if there were some white threads in his big fair moustache,—like an ancient Gaul's,—his heart was as young as those of his children. Instead of going with the stream of his generation, he met each new wave; the best of life to him was the spring of youth constantly renewed, and he never troubled about the contradictions into which he was led by this spirit always in reaction against that which had preceded it. These inconsistencies were fused together in his mind, which was more enthusiastic than logical, and filled by the beauty which he saw all around him. Add to this the milk of human kindness, which did not mix well with his aesthetic pantheism, but which was natural to him.
He had made himself the exponent of noble human ideas, sympathising with advanced parties, the oppressed, the people—of whom he knew little, for he was thoroughly of the middle-class, full of vague, generous theories. He also adored crowds and loved to mingle with them, believing that in this way he joined himself to the All-Soul, according to the fashion at that time in intellectual circles. This fashion, as not infrequently happens, emphasised a general tendency of the day; humanity turning to the swarm-idea. The most sensitive among human insects,—artists and thinkers,—were the first to show these symptoms, which in them seemed a sort of pose, so that the general conditions of which they were a symptom were lost sight of.
The democratic evolution of the last forty years had established popular government politically, but socially speaking had only brought about the rule of mediocrity. Artists of the higher class at first opposed this levelling down of intelligence,—but feeling themselves too weak to resist they had withdrawn to a distance, emphasising their disdain and their isolation. They preached a sort of art, acceptable only to the initiated. There is nothing finer than such a retreat when one brings to it wealth of consciousness, abundance of feeling and an outpouring soul, but the literary groups of the end of the XIXth century were far removed from those fertile hermitages where robust thoughts were concentrated. They cared much more to economise their little store of intelligence than to renew it. In order to purify it they had withdrawn it from circulation. The result was that it ceased to be perceived. The common life passed on its way without bothering its head further, leaving the artist caste to wither in a make-believe refinement. The violent storms at the time of the excitement about the Dreyfus Case did rouse some minds from this torpor, but when they came out of their orchid-house the fresh air turned their heads and they threw themselves into the great passing movement with the same exaggeration that their predecessors had shown in withdrawing from it. They believed that salvation was in the people, that in them was virtue, even all good, and though they were often thwarted in their efforts to get closer to them, they set flowing a current in the thought of Europe. They were proud to call themselves the exponents of the collective soul, but they were not victors but vanquished; the collective soul made breaches in their ivory tower, the feeble personalities of these thinkers yielded, and to hide their abdication from themselves, they declared it voluntary. In the effort to convince themselves, philosophers and aesthetics forged theories to prove that the great directing principle was to abandon oneself to the stream of a united life instead of directing it, or more modestly following one's own little path in peace. It was a matter of pride to be no longer oneself, to be no longer free to reason, for freedom was an old story in these democracies. One gloried to be a bubble tossed on the flood,—some said of the race and others of the universal life. These fine theories, from which men of talent managed to extract receipts for art and thought, were in full flower in 1914. The heart of the simple Clerambault rejoiced in such visions, for nothing could have harmonised better with his warm heart and inaccurate mind. If one has but little self-possession it is easy to give oneself up to others, to the world, to that indefinable Providential Force on whose shoulders we can throw the burden of thought and will. The great current swept on and these indolent souls, instead of pursuing their way along the bank found it easier to let themselves be carried ...Where? No one took the trouble to ask. Safe in their West, it never occurred to them that their civilisation could lose the advantages gained; the march of progress seemed as inevitable as the rotation of the earth. Firm in this conviction, one could fold one's arms and leave all to nature; who meanwhile was waiting for them at the bottom of the pit that she was digging.
As became a good idealist, Clerambault rarely looked where he was going, but that did not prevent him from meddling in politics in a fumbling sort of way, as was the mania of men of letters in his day. He had his word to say, right or wrong, and was often entreated to speak by journalists in need of copy, and fell into their trap, taking himself seriously in his innocent way. On the whole he was a fair poet and a good man, intelligent, if rather a greenhorn, pure of heart and weak in character, sensitive to praise and blame, and to all the suggestions round him. He was incapable of a mean sentiment of envy or hatred, and unable also to attribute such thoughts to others. Amid the complexity of human feelings, he remained blind towards evil and an advocate of the good. This type of writer is born to please the public, for he does not see faults in men, and enhances their small merits, so that even those who see through him are grateful. If we cannot amount to much, a good appearance is a consolation, and we love to be reflected in eyes which lend beauty to our mediocrity.
This widespread sympathy, which delighted Clerambault, was not less sweet to the three who surrounded him at this moment. They were as proud of him as if they had made him, for what one admires does seem in a sense one's own creation, and when in addition one is of the same blood, a part of the object of our admiration, it is hard to tell if we spring from him, or he from us.
Agenor Clerambault's wife and his two children gazed at their great man with the tender satisfied expression of ownership; and he, tall and high-shouldered, towered over them with his glowing words and enjoyed it all; he knew very well that we really belong to the things that we fancy are our possessions.
Clerambault had just finished with a Schilleresque vision of the fraternal joys promised in the future. Maxime, carried away by his enthusiasm in spite of his sense of humour, had given the orator a round of applause all by himself. Pauline noisily asked if Agenor had not heated himself in speaking, and amid the excitement Rosine silently pressed her lips to her father's hand.
The servant brought in the mail and the evening papers, but no one was in a hurry to read them. The news of the day seemed behind the times compared with the dazzling future. Maxime however took up the popular middle-class sheet, and threw his eye over the columns. He started at the latest items and exclaimed; "Hullo! War is declared." No one listened to him: Clerambault was dreaming over the last vibrations of his verses; Rosine lost in a calm ecstasy; the mother alone, who could not fix her mind on anything, buzzing about like a fly, chanced to catch the last word,—"Maxime, how can you be so silly?" she cried, but Maxime protested, showing his paper with the declaration of war between Austria and Servia.
"War with whom?"—"With Servia?"—"Is that all?" said the good woman, as if it were a question of something in the moon.
Maxime however persisted,—doctus cum libro,—arguing that from one thing to another, this shock no matter how distant, might bring about a general explosion; but Clerambault, who was beginning to come out of his pleasant trance, smiled calmly, and said that nothing would happen.
"It is only a bluff," he declared, "like so many we have had for the last thirty years; we get them regularly every spring and summer; just bullying and sabre-rattling." People did not believe in war, no one wanted it; war had been proved to be impossible,—it was a bugbear that must be got out of the heads of free democracies ... and he enlarged on this theme. The night was calm and sweet; all around familiar sounds and sights; the chirp of crickets in the fields, a glow-worm shining in the grass,—delicious perfume of honey-suckle. Far away the noise of a distant train; the little fountain tinkled, and in the moonless sky revolved the luminous track of the light on the Eiffel Tower.
The two women went into the house, and Maxime, tired of sitting down, ran about the garden with his little dog, while through the open windows floated out an air of Schumann's, which Rosine, full of timid emotion, was playing on the piano. Clerambault left alone, threw himself back in his wicker chair, glad to be a man, to be alive, breathing in the balm of this summer night with a thankful heart.
Six days later ... Clerambault had spent the afternoon in the woods, and like the monk in the legend, lying under an oak tree, drinking in the song of a lark, a hundred years might have gone by him like a day. He could not tear himself away till night-fall. Maxime met him in the vestibule; he came forward smiling but rather pale, and said: "Well, Papa, we are in for it this time!" and he told him the news. The Russian mobilisation, the state of war in Germany;—Clerambault stared at him unable to comprehend, his thoughts were so far removed from these dark follies. He tried to dispute the facts, but the news was explicit, and so they went to the table, where Clerambault could eat but little.
He sought for reasons why these two crimes should lead to nothing. Common-sense, public opinion, the prudence of governments, the repeated assurances of the socialists, Jaures' firm stand;—Maxime let him talk, he was thinking of other things,—like his dog with his ears pricked up for the sounds of the night ...Such a pure lovely night! Those who recall the last evenings of July, 1914, and the even more beautiful evening of the first day of August, must keep in their minds the wonderful splendour of Nature, as with a smile of pity she stretched out her arms to the degraded, self-devouring human race.
It was nearly ten o'clock when Clerambault ceased to talk, for no one had answered him. They sat then in silence with heavy hearts, listlessly occupied or seeming to be, the women with their work, Clerambault with his eyes, but not his mind, on a book. Maxime went out on the porch and smoked, leaning on the railing and looking down on the sleeping garden and the fairy-like play of the light and shadows on the path.
The telephone bell made them start. Someone was calling Clerambault, who went slowly to answer, half-asleep and absent so that at first he did not understand; "Hullo! is that you, old man?" as he recognised the voice of a brother-author in Paris, telephoning him from a newspaper office. Still he could not seem to understand; "I don't hear,—Jaures? What about Jaures?...Oh, my God!" Maxime full of a secret apprehension had listened from a distance; he ran and caught the receiver from his father's hand, as Clerambault let it drop with a despairing gesture. "Hullo, Hullo! What do you say? Jaures assassinated!..." As exclamations of pain and anger crossed each other on the wire, Maxime made out the details, which he repeated to his family in a trembling voice. Rosine had led Clerambault back to the table, where he sat down completely crushed. Like the classic Fate, the shadow of a terrible misfortune settled over the house. It was not only the loss of his friend that chilled his heart,—the kind gay face, the cordial hand, the voice which drove away the clouds,—but the loss of the last hope of the threatened people. With a touching, child-like confidence he felt Jaures to be the only man who could avert the gathering storm, and he fallen, like Atlas, the sky would crumble.
Maxime rushed off to the station to get the news in Paris, promising to come back later in the evening, but Clerambault stayed in the isolated house, from which in the distance could be seen the far-off phosphorescence of the city. He had not stirred from the seat where he had fallen stupified. This time he could no longer doubt, the catastrophe was coming, was upon them already. Madame Clerambault begged him to go to bed, but he would not listen to her. His thought was in ruins; he could distinguish nothing steady or constant, could not see any order, or follow an idea, for the walls of his inward dwelling had fallen in, and through the dust which rose, it was impossible to see what remained intact. He feared there was nothing left but a mass of suffering, at which he looked with dull eyes, unconscious of his falling tears. Maxime did not come home, carried away by the excitement at Paris.
Madame Clerambault had gone to bed, but about one o'clock she came and persuaded him to come up to their room, where he lay down; but when Pauline had fallen asleep—anxiety made her sleepy—he got up and went into the next room. He groaned, unable to breathe; his pain was so close and oppressive, that he had no room to draw his breath. With the prophetic hyper-sensitiveness of the artist, who often lives in tomorrow with more intensity than in the present moment, his agonised eyes and heart foresaw all that was to be. This inevitable war between the greatest nations of the world, seemed to him the failure of civilisation, the ruin of the most sacred hopes for human brotherhood. He was filled with horror at the vision of a maddened humanity, sacrificing its most precious treasures, strength, and genius, its highest virtues, to the bestial idol of war. It was to him a moral agony, a heart-rending communion with these unhappy millions. To what end? And of what use had been all the efforts of the ages? His heart seemed gripped by the void; he felt he could no longer live if his faith in the reason of men and their mutual love was destroyed, if he was forced to acknowledge that the Credo of his life and art rested on a mistake, that a dark pessimism was the answer to the riddle of the world.
He turned his eyes away in terror, he was afraid to look it in the face, this monster who was there, whose hot breath he felt upon him. Clerambault implored,—he did not know who or what—that this might not be, that it might not be. Anything rather than this should be true! But the devouring fact stood just behind the opening door.... Through the whole night he strove to close that door ...
At last towards morning, an animal instinct began to wake, coming from he did not know where, which turned his despair towards the secret need of finding a definite and concrete cause, to fasten the blame on a man, or a group of men, and angrily hold them responsible for the misery of the world. It was as yet but a brief apparition, the first faint sign of a strange obscure, imperious soul, ready to break forth, the soul of the multitude ... It began to take shape when Maxime came home, for after the night in the streets of Paris, he fairly sweated with it; his very clothes, the hairs of his head, were impregnated. Worn out, excited, he could not sit down; his only thought was to go back again. The decree of mobilisation was to come out that day, war was certain, it was necessary, beneficial; some things must be put an end to, the future of humanity was at stake, the freedom of the world was threatened. "They" had counted on Jaures' murder to sow dissension and raise riots in the country they meant to attack, but the entire nation had risen to rally round its leaders, the sublime days of the great Revolution were re-born ...Clerambault did not discuss these statements, he merely asked: "Do you think so? Are you quite sure?" It was a sort of hidden appeal. He wanted Maxime to state, to redouble his assertions. The news Maxime had brought added to the chaos, raised it to a climax, but at the same time it began to direct the distracted forces of his mind towards a fixed point, as the first bark of the shepherd's dog drives the sheep together.
Clerambault had but one wish left, to rejoin the flock, rub himself against the human animals, his brothers, feel with them, act with them.... Though exhausted by sleeplessness, he started, in spite of his wife, to take the train for Paris with Maxime. They had to wait a long time at the station, and also in the train, for the tracks were blocked, and the cars crowded; but in the common agitation Clerambault found calm. He questioned and listened, everybody fraternised, and not being sure yet what they thought, everyone felt that they thought alike. The same questions, the same trials menaced them, but each man was no longer alone to stand or fall, and the warmth of this contact was reassuring. Class distinctions were gone; no more workmen or gentlemen, no one looked at your clothes or your hands; they only looked at your eyes where they saw the same flame of life, wavering before the same impending death. All these people were so visibly strangers to the causes of the fatality, of this catastrophe, that their innocence led them like children to look elsewhere for the guilty. It comforted and quieted their conscience. Clerambault breathed more easily when he got to Paris. A stoical and virile melancholy had succeeded to the agony of the night. He was however only at the first stage.
The order for general mobilisation had just been affixed to the doors of the Mairies. People read and re-read them in silence, then went away without a word. After the anxious waiting of the preceding days, with crowds around the newspaper booths, people sitting on the sidewalk, watching for the news, and when the paper was issued gathering in groups to read it, this was certainty. It was also a relief. An obscure danger, that one feels approaching without knowing when or from where, makes you feverish, but when it is there you can take breath, look it in the face, and roll up your sleeves. There had been some hours of deep thought while Paris made ready and doubled up her fists. Then that which swelled in all hearts spread itself abroad, the houses were emptied and there rolled through the streets a human flood of which every drop sought to melt into another.
Clerambault fell into the midst and was swallowed up. All at once. He had scarcely left the station, or set his foot on the pavement. Nothing happened; there were no words or gestures, but the serene exaltation of the flood flowed into him. The people were as yet pure from violence; they knew and believed themselves innocent, and in these first hours when the war was virgin, millions of hearts burned with a solemn and sacred enthusiasm. Into this proud, calm intoxication there entered a feeling of the injustice done to them, a legitimate pride in their strength, in the sacrifices that they were ready to make, and pity for others, now parts of themselves, their brothers, their children, their loved ones. All were flesh of their flesh, closely drawn together in a superhuman embrace, conscious of the gigantic body formed by their union, and of the apparition above their heads of the phantom which incarnated this union, the Country. Half-beast, half-god, like the Egyptian Sphinx, or the Assyrian Bull; but then men saw only the shining eyes, the feet were hid. She was the divine monster in whom each of the living found himself multiplied, the devouring Immortality where those about to die wished to believe they would find life, super-life, crowned with glory. Her invisible presence flowed through the air like wine; each man brought something to the vintage, his basket, his bunch of grapes;—his ideas, passions, devotions, interests. There was many a nasty worm among the grapes, much filth under the trampling feet, but the wine was of rubies and set the heart aflame;—Clerambault gulped it down greedily.
Nevertheless he was not entirely metamorphosed, for his soul was not altered, it was only forgotten; as soon as he was alone he could hear it moaning, and for this reason he avoided solitude. He persisted in not returning to St. Prix, where the family usually stayed in summer, and reinstalled himself in his apartment at Paris, on the fifth floor in the Rue d'Assas. He would not wait a week, or go back to help in the moving. He craved the friendly warmth that rose up from Paris, and poured in at his windows; any excuse was enough to plunge into it, to go down into the streets, join the groups, follow the processions, buy all the newspapers,—which he despised as a rule. He would come back more and more demoralised, anaesthetised as to what passed within him, the habit of his conscience broken, a stranger in his house, in himself;—and that is why he felt more at home out of doors than in.
Madame Clerambault came back to Paris with her daughter, and the first evening after their arrival Clerambault carried Rosine off to the Boulevards. The solemn fervour of the first days had passed. War had begun, and truth was imprisoned. The press, the arch-liar, poured into the open mouth of the world the poisonous liquor of its stories of victories without retribution; Paris was decked as for a holiday; the houses streamed with the tricolour from top to bottom, and in the poorer quarters each garret window had its little penny flag, like a flower in the hair.
On the corner of the Faubourg Montmartre they met a strange procession. At the head marched a tall old man carrying a flag. He walked with long strides, free and supple as if he were going to leap or dance, and the skirts of his overcoat flapped in the wind. Behind came an indistinct, compact, howling mass, gentle and simple, arm in arm,—a child carried on a shoulder, a girl's red mop of hair between a chauffeur's cap and the helmet of a soldier. Chests out, chins raised, mouths open like black holes, shouting the Marseillaise. To right and left of the ranks, a double line of jail-bird faces, along the curbstone, ready to insult any absent-minded passer-by who failed to salute the colours. Rosine was startled to see her father fall into step at the end of the line, bare-headed, singing and talking aloud. He drew his daughter along by the arm, without noticing the nervous fingers that tried to hold him back.
When they came in Clerambault was still talkative and excited. He kept on for hours, while the two women listened to him patiently. Madame Clerambault heard little as usual, and played chorus. Rosine did not say a word, but she stealthily threw a glance at her father, and her look was like freezing water.
Clerambault was exciting himself; he was not yet at the bottom, but he was conscientiously trying to reach it. Nevertheless there remained to him enough lucidity to alarm him at his own progress. An artist yields more through his sensibility to waves of emotion which reach him from without, but to resist them he has also weapons which others have not. For the least reflective, he who abandons himself to his lyrical impulses, has in some degree the faculty of introspection which it rests with him to utilise. If he does not do this, he lacks good-will more than power; he is afraid to look too clearly at himself for fear of seeing an unflattering picture. Those however who, like Clerambault, have the virtue of sincerity without psychological gifts, are sufficiently well-equipped to exercise some control over their excitability.
One day as he was walking alone, he saw a crowd on the other side of the street, he crossed over calmly and found himself on the opposite sidewalk in the midst of a confused agitation circling about an invisible point. With some difficulty he worked his way forward, and scarcely was he within this human mill-wheel, than he felt himself a part of the rim, his brain seemed turning round. At the centre of the wheel he saw a struggling man, and even before he grasped the reason for the popular fury, he felt that he shared it. He did not know if a spy was in question, or if it was some imprudent speaker who had braved the passions of the mob, but as cries rose around him, he realised that he, yes he, Clerambault, had shrieked out: ... "Kill him." ...
A movement of the crowd threw him out from the sidewalk, a carriage separated him from it, and when the way was clear the mob surged on after its prey. Clerambault followed it with his eyes; the sound of his own voice was still in his ears,—he did not feel proud of himself....
From that day on he went out less; he distrusted himself, but he continued to stimulate his intoxication at home, where he felt himself safe, little knowing the virulence of the plague. The infection came in through the cracks of the doors, at the windows, on the printed page, in every contact. The most sensitive breathe it in on first entering the city, before they have seen or read anything; with others a passing touch is enough, the disease will develop afterwards alone. Clerambault, withdrawn from the crowd, had caught the contagion from it, and the evil announced itself by the usual premonitory symptoms. This affectionate tender-hearted man hated, loved to hate. His intelligence, which had always been thoroughly straightforward, tried now to trick itself secretly, to justify its instincts of hatred by inverted reasoning. He learned to be passionately unjust and false, for he wanted to persuade himself that he could accept the fact of war, and participate in it, without renouncing his pacifism of yesterday, his humanitarianism of the day before, and his constant optimism. It was not plain sailing, but there is nothing that the brain cannot attain to. When its master thinks it absolutely necessary to get rid for a time of principles which are in his way, it finds in these same principles the exception which violates them while confirming the rule. Clerambault began to construct a thesis, an ideal—absurd enough—in which these contradictions could be reconciled: War against War, War for Peace, for eternal Peace.
The enthusiasm of his son was a great help to him. Maxime had enlisted. His generation was carried away on a wave of heroic joy; they had waited so long—they had not dared to expect an opportunity for action and sacrifice.
Older men who had never tried to understand them, stood amazed; they remembered their own commonplace, bungling youth, full of petty egotisms, small ambitions, and mean pleasures. As they could not recognise themselves in their children they attributed to the war this flowering of virtues which had been growing up for twenty years around their indifference and which the war was about to reap. Even near a father as large-minded as Clerambault, Maxime was blighted. Clerambault was interested in spreading his own overflowing diffuse nature, too much so to see clearly and aid those whom he loved: he brought to them the warm shadow of his thought, but he stood between them and the sun.
These young people sought employment for their strength which really embarrassed them, but they did not find it in the ideals of the noblest among their elders; the humanitarianism of a Clerambault was too vague, it contented itself with pleasant hopes, without risk or vigour, which the quietude of a generation grown old in the talkative peace of Parliaments and Academies, alone could have permitted. Except as an oratorical exercise it had never tried to foresee the perils of the future, still less had it thought to determine its attitude in the day when the danger should be near. It had not the strength to make a choice between widely differing courses of action. One might be a patriot as well as an internationalist or build in imagination peace palaces or super-dreadnoughts, for one longed to know, to embrace, and to love everything. This languid Whitmanism might have its aesthetic value, but its practical incoherence offered no guide to young people when they found themselves at the parting of the ways. They pawed the ground trembling with impatience at all this uncertainty and the uselessness of their time as it went by.
They welcomed the war, for it put an end to all this indecision, it chose for them, and they made haste to follow it. "We go to our death,—so be it; but to go is life." The battalions went off singing, thrilling with impatience, dahlias in their hats, the muskets adorned with flowers. Discharged soldiers re-enlisted; boys put their names down, their mothers urging them to it; you would have thought they were setting out for the Olympian games.
It was the same with the young men on the other side of the Rhine, and there as here, they were escorted by their gods: Country, Justice, Right, Liberty, Progress of the World, Eden-like dreams of re-born humanity, a whole phantasmagoria of mystic ideas in which young men shrouded their passions. None doubted that his cause was the right one, they left discussion to others, themselves the living proof, for he who gives his life needs no further argument.
The older men however who stayed behind, had not their reasons for ceasing to reason. Their brains were given to them to be used, not for truth, but for victory. Since in the wars of today, in which entire peoples are engulfed, thoughts as well as guns are enrolled. They slay the soul, they reach beyond the seas, and destroy after centuries have passed. Thought is the heavy artillery which works from a distance. Naturally Clerambault aimed his pieces, also the question for him was no longer to see clearly, largely, to take in the horizon, but to sight the enemy,—it gave him the illusion that he was helping his son.
With an unconscious and feverish bad faith kept up by his affection, he sought in everything that he saw, heard, or read, for arguments to prop up his will to believe in the holiness of the cause, for everything which went to prove that the enemy alone had wanted war, was the sole enemy of peace, and that to make war on the enemy was really to wish for peace.
There was proof enough and to spare; there always is; all that is needed is to know when to open and shut your eyes ...But nevertheless Clerambault was not entirely satisfied. These half-truths, or truths with false tails to them, produced a secret uneasiness in the conscience of this honest man, showing itself in a passionate irritation against the enemy, which grew more and more. On the same lines—like two buckets in a well, one going up as the other goes down—his patriotic enthusiasm grew and drowned the last torments of his mind in a salutary intoxication.
From now on he was on the watch for the smallest newspaper items in support of his theory; and though he knew what to think of the veracity of these sheets, he did not doubt them for an instant when their assertions fed his eager restless passion. Where the enemy was concerned he adopted the principle, that the worst is sure to be true—and he was almost grateful to Germany when, by acts of cruelty and repeated violations of justice, she furnished him the solid confirmation of the sentence which, for greater security, he had pronounced in advance.
Germany gave him full measure. Never did a country at war seem more anxious to raise the universal conscience against her. This apoplectic nation bursting with strength, threw itself upon its adversary in a delirium of pride, anger and fear. The human beast let loose, traced a ring of systematic horror around him from the first. All his instinctive and acquired brutalities were cleverly excited by those who held him in leash, by his official chiefs, his great General Staff, his enrolled professors, his army chaplains. War has always been, will forever remain, a crime; but Germany organised it as she did everything. She made a code for murder and conflagration, and over it all she poured the boiling oil of an enraged mysticism, made up of Bismarck, of Nietzsche, and of the Bible. In order to crush the world and regenerate it, the Super-Man and Christ were mobilised. The regeneration began in Belgium—a thousand years from now men will tell of it. The affrighted world looked on at the infernal spectacle of the ancient civilisation of Europe, more than two thousand years old, crumbling under the savage expert blows of the great nation which formed its advance guard. Germany, rich in intelligence, in science and in power, in a fortnight of war became docile and degraded; but what the organisers of this Germanic frenzy failed to foresee was that, like army cholera, it would spread to the other camp, and once installed in the hostile countries it could not be dislodged until it had infected the whole of Europe, and rendered it uninhabitable for centuries. In all the madness of this atrocious war, in all its violence, Germany set the example. Her big body, better fed, more fleshly than others, offered a greater target to the attacks of the epidemic. It was terrible; but by the time the evil began to abate with her, it had penetrated elsewhere and under the form of a slow tenacious disease it ate to the very bone. To the insanities of German thinkers, speakers in Paris and everywhere were not slow to respond with their extravagances; they were like the heroes in Homer; but if they did not fight, they screamed all the louder. They insulted not only the adversary, they insulted his father, his grandfather, and his entire race; better still they denied his past. The tiniest academician worked furiously to diminish the glory of the great men asleep in the peace of the grave.
Clerambault listened and listened, absorbed, though he was one of the few French poets who before the war had European relations and whose work would have been appreciated in Germany. He spoke no foreign language, it is true; petted old child of France that he was, who would not take the trouble to visit other people, sure that they would come to him. But at least he welcomed them kindly, his mind was free from national prejudices, and the intuitions of his heart made up for his lack of instruction and caused him to pour out without stint his admiration for foreign genius. But now that he had been warned to distrust everything, by the constant: "Keep still,—take care," and knew that Kant led straight to Krupp, he dared admire nothing without official sanction. The sympathetic modesty that caused him in times of peace to accept with the respect due to words of Holy Writ the publications of learned and distinguished men, now in the war took on the proportions of a fabulous credulity. He swallowed without a gulp the strange discoveries made at this time by the intellectuals of his country, treading under foot the art, the intelligence, the science of the enemy throughout the centuries; an effort frantically disingenuous, which denied all genius to our adversary, and either found in its highest claims to glory the mark of its present infamy or rejected its achievements altogether and bestowed them on another race.
Clerambault was overwhelmed, beside himself, but (though he did not admit it), in his heart he was glad.
Seeking for someone to share in his excitement and keep it up by fresh arguments, he went to his friend Perrotin.
Hippolyte Perrotin was of one of those types, formerly the pride of the higher instruction in France but seldom met with in these days—a great humanist. Led by a wide and sagacious curiosity, he walked calmly through the garden of the centuries, botanising as he went. The spectacle of the present was the object least worthy of his attention, but he was too keen an observer to miss any of it, and knew how to draw it gently back into scale to fit into the whole picture. Events which others regarded as most important were not so in his eyes, and political agitations appeared to him like bugs on a rose-bush which he would carefully study with its parasites. This was to him a constant source of delight. He had the finest appreciation of shades of literary beauty, and his learning rather increased than impaired the faculty, giving to his thought an infinite range of highly-flavoured experiences to taste and compare. He belonged to the great French tradition of learned men, master writers from Buffon to Renan and Gaston Paris. Member of the Academy and of several Classes, his extended knowledge gave him a superiority, not only of pure and classic taste, but of a liberal modern spirit, over his colleagues, genuine men of letters. He did not think himself exempt from study, as most of them did, as soon as they had passed the threshold of the sacred Cupola; old profesor as he was, he still went to school. When Clerambault was still unknown to the rest of the Immortals, except to one or two brother poets who mentioned him as little as possible with a disdainful smile, Perrotin had already discovered and placed him in his collection, struck by certain pictures, an original phraseology, the mechanism of his imagination, primitive yet complicated by simplicity. All this attracted him, and then the man interested him too. He sent a short complimentary note to Clerambault who came to thank him, overflowing with gratitude, and ties of friendship were formed between the two men. They had few points of resemblance; Clerambault had lyrical gifts and ordinary intelligence dominated by his feelings, and Perrotin was gifted with a most lucid mind, never hampered by flights of the imagination. What they had in common were dignity of life, intellectual probity, and a disinterested love of art and learning, for its own sake, and not for success. None the less as may be seen, this had not prevented Perrotin from getting on in the world; honours and places had sought him, not he them; but he did not reject them; he neglected nothing.
Clerambault found him busy unwinding the wrappings with which the readers of centuries had covered over the original thought of a Chinese philosopher. At this game which was habitual with him, he came naturally to the discovery of the contrary of what appeared at first to be the meaning; passing from hand to hand the idol had become black.
Perrotin received Clerambault in this vein, polite, but a trifle absent-minded. Even when he listened to society gossip he was inwardly critical, tickling his sense of humour at its expense.
Clerambault spread his new acquisitions before him, starting from the recognised unworthiness of the enemy-nation as from a certain, well-known fact; the whole question being to decide if one should see in this the irremediable decadence of a great people, or the proof, pure and simple, of a barbarism which had always existed, but hidden from sight. Clerambault inclined to the latter explanation, and full of his recent information he held Luther, Kant and Wagner responsible for the violation of Belgian neutrality, and the crimes of the German army. He, however, to use a colloquial expression, had never been to see for himself, being neither musician, theologian, or metaphysician. He trusted to the word of Academicians, and only made exceptions in favour of Beethoven, who was Flemish, and Goethe, citizen of a free city and almost a Strassburger, which is half French,—or French and a half. He paused for approbation.
He was surprised not to find in Perrotin an ardour corresponding to his own. His friend smiled, listened, contemplated Clerambault with an attentive and benevolent curiosity. He did not say no, but he did not say yes, either, and to some assertions he made prudent reservations. When Clerambault, much moved, quoted statements signed by two or three of Perrotin's illustrious colleagues, the latter made a slight gesture as much as to say: "Ah, you don't say so!"
Clerambault grew hotter and hotter, and Perrotin then changed his attitude, showing a keen interest in the judicious remarks of his good friend, nodding his head at every word, answering direct questions by vague phrases, assenting amiably as one does to someone whom one cannot contradict.
Clerambault went away out of countenance and discontented, but a few days later he was reassured as to his friend, when he read Perrotin's name on a violent protestation of the Academies against the barbarians. He wrote to congratulate him, and Perrotin thanked him in a few prudent and sibylline words:
"DEAR SIR,"—he affected in writing the studied, ceremonious formulas of Monsieur de Port-Royal—"I am ready to obey any suggestions of my country, for me they are commands. My conscience is at her service, according to the duty of every good citizen."
One of the most curious effects of the war on the mind, was that it aroused new affinities between individuals. People who up to this time had not a thought in common discovered all at once that they thought alike; and this resemblance drew them together. It was what people called "the Sacred Union." Men of all parties and temperaments, the choleric, the phlegmatic, monarchists, anarchists, clericals, Calvinists, suddenly forgot their everyday selves, their passions, their fads and their antipathies,—shed their skins. And there before you were now creatures, grouped in an unforeseen manner, like metal filings round an invisible magnet. All the old categories had momentarily disappeared, and no one was astonished to find himself closer to the stranger of yesterday than to a friend of many years' standing. It seemed as if, underground, souls met by secret roots that stretched through the night of instinct, that unknown region, where observation rarely ventures. For our psychology stops at that part of self which emerges from the soil, noting minutely individual differences, but forgetting that this is only the top of the plant, that nine-tenths are buried, the feet held by those of other plants. This profound, or lower, region of the soul is ordinarily below the threshold of consciousness, the mind feels nothing of it; but the war, by waking up this underground life, revealed moral relationships which no one had suspected. A sudden intimacy showed itself between Clerambault and a brother of his wife whom he had looked upon until now, and with good reason, as the type of a perfect Philistine.
Leo Camus was not quite fifty years old. He was tall, thin, and stooped a little; his skin was grey, his beard black, not much hair on his head,—you could see the bald spots under his hat behind,—little wrinkles everywhere, cutting into each other, crossing, like a badly-made net; add to this a frowning, sulky expression, and a perpetual cold in the head. For thirty years he had been employed by the State, and his life had passed in the shadow of a court-yard at the Department. In the course of years he had changed rooms, but not shadows; he was promoted, but always in the court-yard, never would he leave it in this life. He was now Under-Secretary, which enabled him to throw a shadow in his turn. The public and he had few points of contact, and he only communicated with the outside world across a rampart of pasteboard boxes and piles of documents. He was an old bachelor without friends, and he held the misanthropical opinion that disinterested friendship did not exist upon earth. He felt no affection except for his sister's family, and the only way that he showed that was by finding fault with everything that they did. He was one of those people whose uneasy solicitude causes them to blame those they love when they are ill, and obstinately prove to them that they suffer by their own fault.
At the Clerambaults no one minded him very much. Madame Clerambault was so easy-going that she rather liked being pushed about in this way, and as for the children, they knew that these scoldings were sweetened by little presents; so they pocketed the presents and let the rest go by.
The conduct of Leo Camus towards his brother-in-law had varied with time. When his sister had married Clerambault, Camus had not hesitated to find fault with the match; an unknown poet did not seem to him "serious" enough. Poetry—unknown poetry—is a pretext for not working; when one is "known," of course that is quite another thing; Camus held Hugo in high esteem, and could even recite verses from the "Chatiments," or from Auguste Barbier. They were "known," you see, and that made all the difference.... Just at this time Clerambault himself became "known," Camus read about him one day in his favourite paper, and after that he consented to read Clerambault's poems. He did not understand them, but he bore them no ill will on that account. He liked to call himself old-fashioned, it made him feel superior, and there are many in the world like him, who pride themselves on their lack of comprehension. For we must all plume ourselves as we can; some of us on what we have, others on what we have not.
Camus was willing to admit that Clerambault could write. He knew something of the art himself,—and his respect for his brother-in-law increased in proportion to the "puffs" he read in the papers, and he liked to chat with him. He had always appreciated his affectionate kind-heartedness, though he never said so, and what pleased also in this great poet, for great he was now, was his manifest incapacity, and practical ignorance of business matters; on this ground Camus was his superior, and did not hesitate to show it. Clerambault had a simple-hearted confidence in his fellow-man, and nothing could have been better suited to Camus' aggressive pessimism, which it kept in working order. The greater part of his visits was spent in reducing Clerambault's illusions to fragments, but they had as many lives as a cat, and every time he came it had to be done over again. This irritated Camus, but secretly pleased him for he needed a pretext constantly renewed to think the world bad, and men a set of imbeciles. Above all he had no mercy on politicians; this Government employee hated Governments, though he would have been puzzled to say what he would put in their places. The only form of politics that he understood was opposition. He suffered from a spoiled life and thwarted nature. He was a peasant's son and born to raise grapes, or else to exercise his authoritative instincts over the field labourers, like a watch-dog. Unfortunately, diseases of the vines interfered and also the pride of a quill-driver; the family moved to town, and now he would have felt it a derogation to return to his real nature, which was too much atrophied, even if he had wished it. Not having found his true place in society, he blamed the social order, serving it, as do millions of functionaries, like a bad servant, an underhand enemy.
A mind of this sort, peevish, bitter, misanthropical, it seems would have been driven crazy by the war, but on the contrary it served to tranquilise it. When the herd draws itself together in arms against the stranger it is a fall for those rare free spirits who love the whole world, but it raises the many who weakly vegetate in anarchistic egotism, and lifts them to that higher stage of organised selfishness. Camus woke up all at once, with the feeling that for the first time he was not alone in the world.
Patriotism is perhaps the only instinct under present conditions which escapes the withering touch of every-day life. All other instincts and natural aspirations, the legitimate need to love and act in social life, are stifled, mutilated and forced to pass under the yoke of denial and compromise. When a man reaches middle life and turns to look back, he sees these desires marked with his failures and his cowardice; the taste is bitter on his tongue, he is ashamed of them and of himself. Patriotism alone has remained outside, unemployed but not tarnished, and when it re-awakes it is inviolate. The soul embraces and lavishes on it the ardour of all the ambitions, the loves, and the longings, that life has disappointed. A half century of suppressed fire bursts forth, millions of little cages in the social prison open their doors. At last! Long enchained instincts stretch their stiffened limbs, cry out and leap into the open air, as of right—right, do I say? it is now their duty to press forward all together like a falling mass. The isolated snow-flakes turned avalanche.
Camus was carried away, the little bureaucrat found himself part of it all and without fury or futile violence he felt only a calm strength. All was "well" with him, well in mind, well in body. He had no more insomnia, and for the first time in years his stomach gave him no trouble—because he had forgotten all about it. He even got through the winter without taking cold—something that had never been heard of before. He ceased to find fault with everything and everybody, he no longer railed at all that was done or undone, for now he was filled with a sacred pity for the entire social body—that body, now his, but stronger, better, and more beautiful. He felt a fraternal bond with all those who formed part of it by their close union, like a swarm of bees hanging from a branch, and envied the younger men who went to defend it. When Maxime gaily prepared to go, his uncle gazed at him tenderly, and when the train left carrying away the young men, he turned and threw his arms round Clerambault, then shook hands with unknown parents who had come to see their sons off, with tears of emotion and joy in his eyes. In that moment Camus was ready to give up everything he possessed. It was his honey-moon with Life—this solitary starved soul saw her as she passed and seized her in his arms.... Yes, Life passes, the euphoria of a Camus cannot last forever, but he who has known it lives only in the memory of it, and in the hope that it may return. War brought this gift, therefore Peace is an enemy, and enemies are all those who desire it.
Clerambault and Camus exchanged ideas, and to such an extent that finally Clerambault could not tell which were his own, and as he lost footing he felt more strongly the need to act; for action was a kind of justification to himself.... Whom did he wish to justify? Alas, it was Camus! In spite of his habitual ardour and convictions he was a mere echo—and of what unhappy voices.
He began to write Hymns to Battle. There was great competition in this line among poets who did not fight themselves. But there was little danger that their productions would clog men's memories in future ages, for nothing in their previous career had prepared these unfortunates for such a task. In vain they raised their voices and exhausted all the resources of French rhetoric, the "poilus" only shrugged their shoulders.
However people in the rear liked them much better than the stories written in the dark and covered with mud, that came out of the trenches. The visions of a Barbusse had not yet dawned to show the truth to these talkative shadows. There was no difficulty for Clerambault, he shone in these eloquent contests. For he had the fatal gift of verbal and rhythmical facility which separates poets from reality, wrapping them as if in a spider's web. In times of peace this harmless web hung on the bushes, the wind blowing through it, and the good-natured Arachne caught nothing but light in her meshes. Nowadays, however, the poets cultivated their carniverous instincts—fortunately rather out of date—and hidden at the bottom of their web one could catch sight of a nasty little beast with an eye fixed on the prey. They sang of hatred and holy butchery, and Clerambault did as they did, even better, for he had more voice. And, by dint of screaming, this worthy man ended by feeling passions that he knew nothing of. He learned to "know" hatred at last, know in the Biblical sense, and it only roused in him that base pride that an undergraduate feels when for the first time he finds himself coming out of a brothel.
Now he was a man, and in fact he needed nothing more, he had fallen as low as the others.
Camus well deserved and enjoyed the first taste of each one of these poems and they made him neigh with enthusiasm, for he recognised himself in them. Clerambault was flattered, thinking he had touched the popular string. The brothers-in-law spent their evenings alone together. Clerambault read, Camus drank in his verses; he knew them by heart, and told everyone who would listen to him that Hugo had come to life again, and that each of these poems was worth a victory. His noisy admiration made it unnecessary for the other members of the family to express their opinion. Under some excuse, Rosine regularly made a practice of leaving the room when the reading was over. Clerambault felt it, and would have liked to ask his daughter's opinion, but found it more prudent not to put the question. He preferred to persuade himself that Rosine's emotion and timidity put her to flight. He was vexed all the same, but the approval of the outside world healed this slight wound. His poems appeared in the bourgeois papers, and proved the most striking success of Clerambault's career, for no other work of his had raised such unanimous admiration. A poet is always pleased to have it said that his last work is his best, all the more when he knows that it is inferior to the others.
Clerambault knew it perfectly well, but he swallowed all the fawning reviews of the press with infantile vanity. In the evening he made Camus read them aloud in the family circle, beaming with joy as he listened. When it was over he nearly shouted:
In this concert of praise one slightly flat note came from Perrotin. (Undoubtedly he had been much deceived in him, he was not a true friend.) The old scholar to whom Clerambault had sent a copy of his poems did not fail to congratulate him politely, praising his great talent, but he did not say that this was his finest work; he even urged him, "after having offered his tribute to the warlike Muse, to produce now a work of pure imagination detached from the present." What could he mean? When an artist submits his work for your approval, is it proper to say to him: "I should prefer to read another one quite different from this?" This was a fresh sign to Clerambault of the sadly lukewarm patriotism that he had already noticed in Perrotin. This lack of comprehension chilled his feeling towards his old friend. The war, he thought, was the great test of characters, it revised all values, and tried out friendships. And he thought that the loss of Perrotin was balanced by the gain of Camus, and many new friends, plain people, no doubt, but simple and warm-hearted.
Sometimes at night he had moments of oppression, he was uneasy, wakeful, discontented, ashamed; ... but of what? Had he not done his duty?
The first letters from Maxime were a comforting cordial; the first drops dissipated every discouragement, and they all lived on them in long intervals when no news came. In spite of the agony of these silences, when any second might be fatal to the loved one, his perfect confidence (exaggerated perhaps, through affection, or superstition) communicated itself to them all. His letters were running over with youth and exuberant joy, which reached its climax in the days that followed the victory of the Marne. The whole family yearned towards him as one; like a plant the summit of which bathes in the light, stretching up to it in a rapture of mystic adoration.
People who but yesterday were soft and torpid, expanded under the extraordinary light when fate threw them into the infernal vortex of the war, the light of Death, the game with Death; Maxime, a spoiled child, delicate, overparticular, who in ordinary times took care of himself like a fine lady, found an unexpected flavour in the privations and trials of his new life, and wondering at himself he boasted of it in his charming, vainglorious letters which delighted the hearts of his parents.
Neither affected to be cast in the mould of one of Corneille's heroes, and the thought of immolating their child on the altar of a barbaric idea would have filled them with horror; but the transfiguration of their petted boy suddenly become a hero, touched them with a tenderness never before felt. In spite of their anxiety, Maxime's enthusiasm intoxicated them, and it made them ungrateful toward their former life, that peaceful affectionate existence, with its long monotonous days. Maxime was amusingly contemptuous of it, calling it absurd after one had seen what was going on "out there."
"Out there" one was glad to sleep three hours on the hard ground, or once in a month of Sundays on a wisp of straw, glad to turn out at three o'clock in the morning and warm up by marching thirty kilometres with a knapsack on one's back, sweating freely for eight or ten hours at a time.... Glad above all to get in touch with the enemy, and rest a little lying down under a bank, while one peppered the boches.... This young Cyrano declared that fighting rested you after a march, and when he described an engagement you would have said that he was at a concert or a "movie."
The rhythm of the shells, the noise when they left the gun and when they burst, reminded him of the passage with cymbals in the divine scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. When he heard overhead as from an airy music-box the buzzing of these steel mosquitoes, mischievous, imperious, angry, treacherous, or simply full of amiable carelessness, he felt like a street boy rushing out to see a fire. No more fatigue; mind and body on the alert; and when came the long-awaited order "Forward!" one jumped to one's feet, light as a feather, and ran to the nearest shelter under the hail of bullets, glad to be in the open, like a hound on the scent. You crawled on your hands and knees, or on your stomach, you ran all bent doubled-up, or did Swedish gymnastics through the underbrush ... that made up for not being able to walk straight; and when it grew dark you said: "What, night already?—What have we been doing with ourselves, today?" ... "In conclusion," said this little French cockerel, "the only tiresome thing in war is what you do in peace-time,—you walk along the high road."
This was the way these young men talked in the first month of the campaign, all soldiers of the Marne, of war in the open. If this had gone on, we should have seen once more the race of barefooted Revolutionaries, who set out to conquer the world and could not stop themselves.
They were at last forced to stop, and from the moment that they were put to soak in the trenches, the tone changed. Maxime lost his spirit, his boyish carelessness. From day to day he grew virile, stoical, obstinate and nervous. He still vouched for the final victory, but ceased after a while to talk of it, and wrote only of duty to be done, then even that stopped, and his letters became dull, grey, tired-out.
Enthusiasm had not diminished behind the lines, and Clerambault persisted in vibrating like an organ pipe, but Maxime no longer gave back the echo he sought to evoke.
All at once, without warning, Maxime came home for a week's leave. He stopped on the stairs, for though he seemed more robust than formerly, his legs felt heavy, and he was soon tired. He waited a moment to breathe, for he was moved, and then went up. His mother came to the door at his ring, screaming at the sight of him. Clerambault who was pacing up and down the apartment in the weariness of the long waiting, cried out too as he ran. It was a tremendous row.
After a few minutes there was a truce to embraces and inarticulate exclamations. Pushed into a chair by the window with his face to the light, Maxime gave himself up to their delighted eyes. They were in ecstasies over his complexion, his cheeks more filled out, his healthy look. His father threw his arms around him calling him "My Hero"—but Maxime sat with his fingers twitching nervously, and could not get out a word.
At table they feasted their eyes on him, hung on every word, but he said very little. The excitement of his family had checked his first impetus, but luckily they did not notice it, and attributed his silence to fatigue or to hunger. Clerambault talked enough for two; telling Maxime about life in the trenches. Good mother Pauline was transformed into a Cornelia, out of Plutarch, and Maxime looked at them, ate, looked again.... A gulf had opened between them.
When after dinner they all went back to his father's study, and they saw him comfortably established with a cigar, he had to try and satisfy these poor waiting people. So he quietly began to tell them how his time was passed, with a certain proud reserve and leaving out tragical pictures. They listened in trembling expectation, and when he had finished they were still expectant. Then on their side came a shower of questions, to which Maxime's replies were short—soon he fell silent. Clerambault to wake up the "young rascal" tried several jovial thrusts.
"Come now, tell us about some of your engagements.... It must be fine to see such joy, such sacred fire—Lord, but I would like to see all that, I would like to be in your place."
"You can see all these fine things better from where you are," said Maxime. Since he had been in the trenches he had not seen a fight, hardly set eyes on a German, his view was bounded by mud and water—but they would not believe him, they thought he was talking "contrariwise" as he did when he was a child.
"You old humbug," said his father, laughing gaily, "What does happen then all day long in your trenches?"
"We take care of ourselves; kill time, the worst enemy of all."
Clerambault slapped him amicably on the back.
"Time is not the only one you kill?"—Maxime drew away, saw the kind, curious glances of his father and mother, and answered:
"Please talk of something else," and added after a pause:
"Will you do something for me?—don't ask me any more questions today."
They agreed rather surprised, but they supposed that he needed care, being so tired, and they overwhelmed him with attentions. Clerambault, however, could not refrain from breaking out every minute or two in apostrophes, demanding his son's approbation. His speeches resounded with the word "Liberty." Maxime smiled faintly and looked at Rosine, for the attitude of the young girl was singular. When her brother came in she threw her arms round his neck, but since she had kept in the background, one might have said aloof. She had taken no part in her parents' questions, and far from inviting confidence from Maxime she seemed to shrink from it. He felt the same awkwardness, and avoided being alone with her. But still they had never felt closer to each other in spirit, they could not have borne to say why.
Maxime had to be shown to all the neighbours, and by way of amusement he was taken out for a walk. In spite of her mourning, Paris again wore a smiling face; poverty and pain were hidden at home, or at the bottom of her proud heart; but the perpetual Fair in the streets and in the press showed its mask of contentment.
The people in the cafes and the tea-rooms were ready to hold out for twenty years, if necessary. Maxime and his family sat in a tea-shop at a little table, gay chatter and the perfume of women all about him. Through it he saw the trench where he had been bombarded for twenty-six days on end, unable to stir from the sticky ditch full of corpses which rose around him like a wall.... His mother laid her hand on his, he woke, saw the affectionate questioning glances of his people, and self-reproached for making them uneasy, he smiled and began to look about and talk gaily. His boyish high spirits came back, and the shadow cleared away from Clerambault's face; he glanced simply and gratefully at Maxime.
His alarms were not at an end, however. As they left the tea-shop—he leaning on the arm of his son—they met a military funeral. There were wreaths and uniforms, a member of the Institute with his sword between his legs, and brass instruments braying out an heroic lamentation.
The crowd drew respectfully to either side, Clerambault stopped and pointedly took off his hat, while with his left hand he pressed Maxime's arm yet closer to his side. Feeling him tremble, he turned towards his son, and thought he had a strange look. Supposing that he was overcome he tried to draw him away, but Maxime did not stir, he was so much taken aback.
"A dead man," he thought. "All that for one dead man!... and out there we walk over them. Five hundred a day on the roll, that's the normal ration."
Hearing a sneering little laugh, Clerambault was frightened and pulled him by the arm.
"Come away!" he said, and they moved on.
"If they could see," said Maxime to himself, "if they could only see!... their whole society would go to pieces,... but they will always be blind, they do not want to see ..."
His eyes, cruelly sharpened now, saw the adversary all around him,—in the carelessness of the world, its stupidity, its egotism, its luxury, in the "I don't give a damn!", the indecent profits of the war, the enjoyment of it, the falseness down to the roots.... All these sheltered people, shirkers, police, with their insolent autos that looked like cannon, their women booted to the knee, with scarlet mouths, and cruel little candy faces ... they are all satisfied ... all is for the best!... "It will go on forever as it is!" Half the world devouring the other half....
They went home. In the evening after dinner Clerambault was dying to read his latest poem to Maxime. The idea of it was touching, if a little absurd.—In his love for his son, he sought to be in spirit, at least, the comrade of his glory and his sufferings, and he had described them,—at a distance—in "Dawn in the Trenches." Twice he got up to look for the MS., but with the sheets in his hand a sort of shyness paralysed him, and he went back without them.
As the days went by they felt themselves closely knit together by ties of the flesh, but their souls were out of touch. Neither would admit it though each knew it well.
A sadness was between them, but they refused to see the real cause, and preferred to ascribe it to the approaching reparation. From time to time the father or the mother made a fresh attempt to re-open the sources of intimacy, but each time came the same disappointment. Maxime saw that he had no longer any way of communicating with them, with anyone in the rear. They lived in different worlds ... could they ever understand each other again?... Yet still he understood them, for once he had himself undergone the influence which weighed on them, and had only come to his senses "out there," in contact with real suffering and death. But just because he had been touched himself, he knew the impossibility of curing the others by process of reasoning; so he let them talk, silent himself, smiling vaguely, assenting to be knew not what. The preoccupations here behind the lines filled him with disgust, weariness, and a profound pity for these people in the rear—a strange race to him, with the outcries of the papers, questions from such persons—old buffoons, worn-out, damaged politicians!—patriotic braggings, written-up strategies, anxieties about black bread, sugar cards, or the days when the confectioners were shut. He took refuge in a mysterious silence, smiling and sad; and only went out occasionally, when he thought of the short time he had to be with these dear people who loved him. Then he would begin to talk with the utmost animation about anything. The important thing was to make a noise, since one could no longer speak one's real thoughts, and naturally he fell back on everyday matters. Questions of general interest and political news came first, but they might as well have read the morning paper aloud. "The Crushing of the Huns," "The Triumph of the Right," filled Clerambault's thoughts and speeches, while he served as acolyte, and filled in the pauses with cum spiritu tuo. All the time each was waiting for the other to begin to talk.
They waited so long that the end of his leave came. A little while before he went, Maxime came into his father's study resolved to explain himself:
"Papa, are you quite sure?" ...
The trouble painted on Clerambault's face checked the words on his lips. He had pity on him and asked if his father was quite sure at what time the train was to leave and Clerambault heard the end of the question with an only too visible relief. When he had supplied all the information—that Maxime did not listen to—he mounted his oratorical hobby-horse again and started out with one of his habitual idealistic declamations. Maxime held his peace, discouraged, and for the last hour they spoke only of trifles. All but the mother felt that the essential had not been uttered; only light and confident words, an apparent excitement, but a deep sigh in the heart—"My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken us?"
When Maxime left he was really glad to go back to the front. The gulf that he had found between the front and rear seemed to him deeper than the trenches, and guns did not appear to him as murderous as ideas.
As the railway carriage drew out of the station he leaned from the window and followed with his eyes the tearful faces of his family fading in the distance, and he thought:
"Poor dears, you are their victims and we are yours."
The day after his return to the front the great spring offensive was let loose, which the talkative newspapers had announced to the enemy several weeks beforehand. The hopes of the nation had been fed on it during the gloomy winter of waiting and death, and it rose now, filled with an impatient joy, sure of victory and crying out to it—"At last!"
The first news seemed good; of course it spoke only of the enemy's losses, and all faces brightened. Parents whose sons, women whose husbands were "out there" were proud that their flesh and their love had a part in this sanguinary feast; and in their exaltation they hardly stopped to think that their dear one might be among the victims. The excitement ran so high that Clerambault, an affectionate, tender father, generally most anxious for those he loved, was actually afraid that his son had not got back in time for "The Dance." He wanted him to be there, his eager wishes pushed, thrust him into the abyss, making this sacrifice, disposing of his son and of his life, without asking if he himself agreed. He and his had ceased to belong to themselves. He could not conceive that it should be otherwise with any of them. The obscure will of the ant-heap had eaten him up.
Sometimes taken unawares, the remains of his self-analytical habit of mind would appear; like a sensitive nerve that is touched,—a dull blow, a quiver of pain, it is gone, and we forget it.
At the end of three weeks the exhausted offensive was still pawing the ground of the same blood-soaked kilometres, and the newspapers began to distract public attention, putting it on a fresh scent. Nothing had been heard from Maxime since he left. They sought for the ordinary reasons for delay which the mind furnishes readily but the heart cannot accept. Another week went by. Among themselves each of the three pretended to be confident, but at night, each one alone in his room, the heart cried out in agony, and the whole day long the ear was strained to catch every step on the stair, the nerves stretched to the breaking point at a ring of the bell, or the touch of a hand passing the door.
The first official news of the losses began to come in; several families among Clerambault's friends already knew which of their men were dead and which wounded. Those who had lost all, envied those who could have their loved ones back, though bleeding, perhaps mutilated. Many sank into the night of their grief; for them the war and life were equally over. But with others the exaltation of the early days persisted strangely; Clerambault saw one mother wrought up by her patriotism and her grief to the point that she almost rejoiced at the death of her son. "I have given my all, my all!" she would say, with a violent, concentrated joy such as is felt in the last second before extinction by a woman who drowns herself with the man she loves. Clerambault however was weaker, and waking from his dizziness he thought:
"I too have given all, even what was not my own."
He inquired of the military authorities, but they knew nothing as yet. Ten days later came the news that Sergeant Clerambault was reported as missing from the night of the 27-28th of the preceding month. Clerambault could get no further details at the Paris bureaus; therefore he set out for Geneva, went to the Red Cross, the Agency for Prisoners,—could find nothing; followed up every clue, got permission to question comrades of his son in hospitals or depots behind the lines. They all gave contradictory information; one said he was a prisoner, another had seen him dead, and both the next day admitted that they had been mistaken.... Oh! tortures! God of vengeance!... He came back after a fortnight from this Way of the Cross, aged, broken-down, exhausted.
He found his wife in a paroxysm of frantic grief, which in this good-natured creature had turned to a furious hatred of the enemy; she cried out for revenge, and for the first time Clerambault did not answer. He had not strength enough to hate, he could only suffer.
He shut himself into his room. During that frightful ten days' pilgrimage he had scarcely looked his thoughts in the face, hypnotised as he was, day and night by one idea, like a dog on a scent,—faster! go faster! The slowness of carriages and trains consumed him, and once, when he had taken a room for the night, he rushed away the same evening, without stopping to rest. This fever of haste and expectation devoured everything, and made consecutive thought impossible,—which was his salvation. Now that the chase was ended, his mind, exhausted and dying, recovered its powers.
Clerambault knew certainly that Maxime was dead. He had not told his wife, but had concealed some information that destroyed all hope. She was one of those people who absolutely must keep a gleam of falsehood to lure them on, against all reason, until the first flood of grief is over. Perhaps Clerambault himself had been one of them, but he was not so now; for he saw where this lure had led him. He did not judge, he was not yet able to form a judgment, lying in the darkness. Too weak to rise, and feel about him, he was like someone who moves his crushed limbs after a fall, and with each stab of pain recovers consciousness of life, and tries to understand what has happened to him. The stupid gulf of this death overcame him. That this beautiful child, who had given them so much joy, cost them so much care, all this marvel of hope in flower, the priceless little world that is a young man, a tree of Jesse, future years ... all vanished in an hour!—and why?—why?—
He was forced to try to persuade himself at least that it was for something great and necessary. Clerambault clung despairingly to this buoy during the succeeding nights, feeling that if his hold gave way he should go under. More than ever he insisted on the holiness of the cause; he would not even discuss it; but little by little his fingers slipped, he settled lower with every movement, for each new statement of the justice of his cause roused a voice in his conscience which said:
"Even if you were twenty thousand times more right in this struggle, is your justification worth the disasters it costs? Does justice demand that millions of innocents should fall, a ransom for the sins and the errors of others? Is crime to be washed out by crime? or murder by murder? And must your sons be not only victims but accomplices, assassinated and assassins?..."