THE NEW BOOK OF MARTYRS
By Georges Duhamel
Translated by Florence Simmonds
THROUGHOUT OUR LAND THE STORY OF CARRE AND LERONDEAU MEMORIES OF THE MARTYRS THE DEATH OF MERCIER VERDUN THE SACRIFICE THE THIRD SYMPHONY GRACE NIGHTS IN ARTOIS
THE NEW BOOK OF MARTYRS
THROUGHOUT OUR LAND
From the disfigured regions where the cannon reigns supreme, to the mountains of the South, to the ocean, to the glittering shores of the inland sea, the cry of wounded men echoes throughout the land, and a vast kindred cry seems to rise responsive from the whole world.
There is no French town in which the wounds inflicted on the battle-field are not bleeding. Not one which has not accepted the duty of assuaging something of the sum of suffering, just as it bears its part in the sum of mourning; not one which may not hear within its own walls an echo of the greater lamentation swelling and muttering where the conflict seems to rage unceasingly. The waves of war break upon the whole surface of the country, and like the incoming tide, strew it with wreckage.
In the beds which the piety of the public has prepared on every side, stricken men await the verdict of fate. The beds are white, the bandages are spotless; many faces smile until the hour when they are flushed with fever, and until that same fever makes a whole nation of wounded tremble on the Continent.
Some one who had been visiting the wounded said to me: "The beds are really very white, the dressings are clean, all the patients seem to be playing cards, reading the papers, eating dainties; they are simple, often very gentle, they don't look very unhappy. They all tell the same story... The war has not changed them much. One can recognise them all."
Are you sure that you recognise them? You have just been looking at them, are you sure that you have seen them?
Under their bandages are wounds you cannot imagine. Below the wounds, in the depths of the mutilated flesh, a soul, strange and furtive, is stirring in feverish exaltation, a soul which does not readily reveal itself, which expresses itself artlessly, but which I would fain make you understand.
In these days, when nothing retains its former semblance, all these men are no longer those you so lately knew. Suffering has roused them from the sleep of gentle life, and every day fills them with a terrible intoxication. They are now something more than themselves; those we loved were merely happy shadows.
Let us lose none of their humble words, let us note their slightest gestures, and tell me, tell me that we will think of them together, now and later, when we realise the misery of the times and the magnitude of their sacrifice.
THE STORY OF CARRE AND LERONDEAU
They came in like two parcels dispatched by the same post, two clumsy, squalid parcels, badly packed, and damaged in transit. Two human forms rolled up in linens and woollens, strapped into strange instruments, one of which enclosed the whole man, like a coffin of zinc and wire.
They seemed to be of no particular age; or rather, each might have been a thousand and more, the age of swaddled mummies in the depths of sarcophagi.
We washed, combed, and peeled them, and laid them very cautiously between clean sheets; then we found that one had the look of an old man, and that the other was still a boy.
Their beds face each other in the same grey room. All who enter it notice them at once; their infinite misery gives them an air of kinship. Compared with them, the other wounded seem well and happy. And in this abode of suffering, they are kings; their couches are encircled by the respect and silence due to majesty.
I approach the younger man and bend over him.
"What is your name?"
The answer is a murmur accompanied by an imploring look. What I hear sounds like: Mahihehondo. It is a sigh with modulations.
It takes me a week to discover that the boyish patient is called Marie Lerondeau.
The bed opposite is less confused. I see a little toothless head. From out the ragged beard comes a peasant voice, broken in tone, but touching and almost melodious. The man who lies there is called Carre.
They did not come from the same battlefield, but they were hit almost at the same time, and they have the same wound. Each has a fractured thigh. Chance brought them together in the same distant ambulance, where their wounds festered side by side. Since then they have kept together, till now they lie enfolded by the blue radiance of the Master's gaze.
He looks at both, and shakes his head silently; truly, a bad business! He can but ask himself which of the two will die first, so great are the odds against the survival of either.
The white-bearded man considers them in silence, turning in his hand the cunning knife.
We can know nothing till after this grave debate. The soul must withdraw, for this is not its hour. Now the knife must divide the flesh, and lay the ravage bare, and do its work completely.
So the two comrades go to sleep, in that dreadful slumber wherein each man resembles his own corpse. Henceforth we enter upon the struggle. We have laid our grasp upon these two bodies; we shall not let them be snatched from us easily.
The nausea of the awakening, the sharp agony of the first hours are over, and I begin to discover my new friends.
This requires time and patience. The dressing hour is propitious. The man lies naked on the table. One sees him as a whole, as also those great gaping wounds, the objects of so many hopes and fears.
The afternoon is no less favourable to communion, but that is another matter. Calm has come to them, and these two creatures have ceased to be nothing but a tortured leg and a screaming mouth.
Carre went ahead at once. He made a veritable bound. Whereas Lerondeau seemed still wrapped in a kind of plaintive stupor, Carre was already enfolding me in a deep affectionate gaze. He said:
"You must do all that is necessary."
Lerondeau can as yet only murmur a half articulate phrase:
"Mustn't hurt me."
As soon as I could distinguish and understand the boy's words, I called him by his Christian name. I would say:
"How are you, Marie?" or "I am pleased with you, Marie."
This familiarity suits him, as does my use of "thee" and "thou" in talking to him. He very soon guessed that I speak thus only to those who suffer most, and for whom I have a special tenderness. So I say to him: "Marie, the wound looks very well today." And every one in the hospital calls him Marie as I do.
When he is not behaving well, I say:
"Come, be sensible, Lerondeau."
His eyes fill with tears at once. One day I was obliged to try "Monsieur Lerondeau," and he was so hurt that I had to retract on the spot. However, he now refrains from grumbling at his orderly, and screaming too loudly during the dressing of his wound, for he knows that the day I say to him "Be quiet, Monsiuer"—just Monsiuer—our relations will be exceedingly strained.
From the first, Carre bore himself like a man. When I entered the dressing ward, I found the two lying side by side on stretchers which had been placed on the floor. Carre's emaciated arm emerged from under his blanket, and he began to lecture Marie on the subject of hope and courage.... I listened to the quavering voice, I looked at the toothless face, lit up by a smile, and I felt a curious choking in my throat, while Lerondeau blinked like a child who is being scolded. Then I went out of the room, because this was a matter between those two lying on the ground, and had nothing to do with me, a robust person, standing on my feet.
Since then, Carre has proved that he had a right to preach courage to young Lerondeau.
While the dressing is being prepared, he lies on the ground with the others, waiting his turn, and says very little. He looks gravely round him, and smiles when his eyes meet mine. He is not proud, but he is not one of those who are ready to chatter to every one. One does not come into this ward to talk, but to suffer, and Carre is bracing himself to suffer as decently as possible.
When he is not quite sure of himself, he warns me, saying:
"I am not as strong as usual to-day."
Nine times, out of ten, he is "as strong as usual," but he is so thin, so wasted, so reduced by his mighty task, that he is sometimes obliged to beat a retreat. He does it with honour, with dignity. He has just said: "My knee is terribly painful," and the sentence almost ends in a scream. Then, feeling that he is about to howl like the others, Carre begins to sing.
The first time this happened I did not quite understand what was going on. He repeated the one phrase again and again: "Oh, the pain in my knee!" And gradually I became aware that this lament was becoming a real melody, and for five long minutes Carre improvised a terrible, wonderful, heart-rending song on "the pain in his knee." Since then this has become a habit, and he begins to sing suddenly as soon as he feels that he can no longer keep silence.
Among his improvisations he will introduce old airs. I prefer not to look at his face when he begins: "Il n'est ni beau ni grand mon verre." Indeed, I have a good excuse for not looking at it, for I am very busy with his poor leg, which gives me much anxiety, and has to be handled with infinite precautions.
I do "all that is necessary," introducing the burning tincture of iodine several times. Carre feels the sting; and when, passing by his corner an hour later, I listen for a moment, I hear him slowly chanting in a trembling but melodious voice the theme: "He gave me tincture of iodine."
Carre is proud of showing courage.
This morning he seemed so weak that I tried to be as quick as possible and to keep my ears shut. But presently a stranger came into the ward. Carre turned his head slightly, saw the visitor, and frowning, began to sing:
"Il n'est ni beau ni grand mon verre."
The stranger looked at him with tears in his eyes but the more he looked, the more resolutely Carre smiled, clutching the edges of the table with his two quivering hands.
Lerondeau has good strong teeth. Carre has nothing but black stumps. This distresses me, for a man with a fractured thigh needs good teeth.
Lerondeau is still at death's door, but though moribund, he can eat. He attacks his meat with a well-armed jaw; he bites with animal energy, and seems to fasten upon anything substantial.
Carre, for his part, is well-inclined to eat; but what can he do with his old stumps?
"Besides," he says, "I was never very carnivorous."
Accordingly, he prefers to smoke. In view of lying perpetually upon his back, he arranged the cover of a cardboard box upon his chest; the cigarette ash falls into this, and Carre smokes without moving, in cleanly fashion.
I look at the ash, the smoke, the yellow, emaciated face, and reflect sadly that it is not enough to have the will to live; one must have teeth.
Not every one knows how to suffer, and even when we know, we must set about it the right way, if we are to come off with honour. As soon as he is on the table, Carre looks round him and asks:
"Isn't there any one to squeeze my head to-day?"
If there is no answer, he repeats anxiously:
"Who is going to squeeze my head to-day?"
Then a nurse approaches, takes his head between her hands and presses.... I can begin; as soon as some one is "squeezing his head" Carre is good.
Lerondeau's method is different. He wants some one to hold his hands. When there is no one to do this, he shrieks: "I shall fall."
It is no use to tell him that he is on a solid table, and that he need not be afraid. He gropes about for the helpful hands, and cries, the sweat breaking out on his brow: "I know I shall fall." Then I get some one to come and hold his hands, for suffering, at any rate, is a reality....
Each sufferer has his characteristic cry when the dressing is going on. The poor have only one, a simple cry that does service for them all. It makes one think of the women who, when they are bringing a child into the world, repeat, at every pain, the one complaint they have adopted.
Carre has a great many varied cries, and he does not say the same thing when the dressing is removed, and when the forceps are applied.
At the supreme moment he exclaims: "Oh, the pain in my knee!"
Then, when the anguish abates, he shakes his head and repeats:
"Oh, that wretched knee!"
When it is the turn of the thigh, he is exasperated.
"Now it's this thigh again!"
And he repeats this incessantly, from second to second. Then we go on to the wound under his heel, and Carre begins:
"Well, what is wrong with the poor heel?"
Finally, when he is tired of singing, he murmurs softly and regularly:
"They don't know how that wretched knee hurts me... they don't know how it hurts me."
Lerondeau, who is, and always will be, a little boy compared with Carre, is very poor in the matter of cries. But when he hears his complaints, he checks his own cries, Borrows them. Accordingly, I hear him beginning:
"Oh, my poor knee!... They don't know it hurts!"
One morning when he was shouting this at the top of his voice, I asked him gravely:
"Why do you make the same complaints as Carre?"
Marie is only a peasant, but he showed me a face that was really offended:
"It's not true. I don't say the same things."
I said no more, for there are no souls so rugged that they cannot feel certain stings.
Marie has told me the story of his life and of his campaign. As he is not very eloquent, It was for the most part a confused murmur with an ever-recurring protestation:
"I was a good one to work, you know, strong as a horse."
Yet I can hardly imagine that there was once a Marie Lerondeau who was a robust young fellow, standing firm and erect between the handles of a plough. I know him only as a man lying on his back, and I even find it difficult to picture to myself what his shape and aspect will be when we get him on his feet again.
Marie did his duty bravely under fire. "He stayed alone with the wagons and when he was wounded, the Germans kicked him with their heavy boots." These are the salient points of the interrogatory.
Now and again Lerondeau's babble ceases, and he looks up to the ceiling, for this takes the place of distance and horizon to those who lie upon their backs. After a long, light silence, he looks at me again, and repeats:
"I must have been pretty brave to stay alone with the wagons!"
True enough, Lerondeau was brave, and I take care to let people know it. When strangers come in during the dressings, I show them Marie, who is making ready to groan, and say:
"This is Marie—Marie Lerondeau, you know. He has a fractured thigh, but he is a very brave fellow. He stayed alone with the wagons."
The visitors nod their heads admiringly, and Marie controls himself. He blushes a little, and the muscles of his neck swell with pride. He makes a sign with his eyes as if to say: "Yes, indeed, alone, all alone with the wagons." And meanwhile, the dressing has been nearly finished.
The whole world must know that Marie stayed alone with the wagons. I intend to pin a report of this on the Government pension certificate.
Carre was only under fire once, and was hit almost immediately. He is much annoyed at this, for he had a good stock of courage, and now he has to waste it within the walls of a hospital.
He advanced through a huge beetroot field, and he ran with the others towards a fine white mist. All of a sudden, crack, he fell! His thigh was fractured. He fell among the thick leaves, on the waterlogged earth.
Shortly afterwards his sergeant passed again, and said to him:
"We are going back to our trench, they shall come and fetch you later."
Carre merely said:
"Put my haversack under my head."
Evening was coming on; he prepared, gravely, to spend the night among the beetroots. And there he spent it, alone with a cold drizzling rain, meditating seriously until morning.
It was fortunate that Carre brought such a stock of courage into hospital, for he needs it all. Successive operations and dressings make large drafts upon the most generous supplies.
They put Carre upon the table, and I note an almost joyful resolution in his look. To-day he has "all his strength, to the last ounce."
But just to-day, I have but little to do, not much suffering to inflict. He has scarcely knitted his brows, when I begin to fasten up the apparatus again.
Then Carre's haggard face breaks into a smile, and he exclaims:
"Finished already? Put some more ether on, make it sting a bit at least."
Carre knows that the courage of which there was no need to-day will not, perhaps, be available to-morrow.
And to-morrow, and for many days after, Carre will have to be constantly calling up those reserves of the soul which help the body to suffer while it waits for the good offices of Nature.
The swimmer adrift on the open seas measures his strength, and strives with all his muscles to keep himself afloat. But what is he to do when there is no land on the horizon, and none beyond it?
This leg, infected to the very marrow, seems to be slowly devouring the man to whom it belongs; we look at it anxiously, and the white-haired Master fixes two small light-blue eyes upon it, eyes accustomed to appraise the things of life, yet, for the moment, hesitant.
I speak to Carre in veiled words of the troublesome, gangrenous leg. He gives a toothless laugh, and settles the question at once.
"Well, if the wretched thing is a nuisance, we shall have to get rid of it."
After this consent, we shall no doubt make up our minds to do so.
Meanwhile Lerondeau is creeping steadily towards healing.
Lying on his back, bound up in bandages and a zinc trough, and imprisoned by cushions, he nevertheless looks like a ship which the tide will set afloat at dawn.
He is putting on flesh, yet, strange to say, he seems to get lighter and lighter. He is learning not to groan, not because his frail soul is gaining strength, but because the animal is better fed and more robust.
His ideas of strength of mind are indeed very elementary. As soon as I hear his first cry, in the warm room where his wound is dressed, I give him an encouraging look, and say:
"Be brave, Marie! Try to be strong!"
Then he knits his brows, makes a grimace, and asks:
"Ought I to say 'By God!'?"
The zinc trough in which Marie's shattered leg has been lying has lost its shape; it has become oxydised and is split at the edges; so I have decided to change it.
I take it away, look at it, and throw it into a corner. Marie follows my movements with a scared glance. While I am adjusting the new trough, a solid, comfortable one, but rather different in appearance, he casts an eloquent glance at the discarded one, and his eyes fill with copious tears.
This change is a small matter; but in the lives of the sick, there are no small things.
Lerondeau will weep for the old zinc fragment for two days, and it will be a long time before he ceases to look distrustfully at the new trough, and to criticise it in those minute and bitter terms which only a connoisseur can understand or invent.
Carre, on the other hand, cannot succeed in carrying along his body by the generous impulse of his soul. Everything about him save his eyes and his liquid voice foreshadow the corpse. Throughout the winter days and the long sleepless nights, he looks as if he were dragging along a derelict.
He strains at it... with his poignant songs and his brave words which falter now, and often die away in a moan.
I had to do his dressing in the presence of Marie. The amount of work to be got through, and the cramped quarters made this necessary. Marie was grave and attentive as if he were taking a lesson, and, indeed, it was a lesson in patience and courage. But all at once, the teacher broke down. In the middle of the dressing, Carre opened his lips, and in spite of himself, began to complain without restraint or measure, giving up the struggle in despair.
Lerondeau listened, anxious and uneasy; and Carre, knowing that Marie was listening, continued to lament, like one who has lost all sense of shame.
Lerondeau called me by a motion of his eyelids. He said:
And he added:
"I saw his slough. Lord! he is bad."
Lerondeau has a good memory for medical terms. Yes, he saw Carre's slough. He himself has the like on his posterior and on his heel; but the tear that trembles in the corner of his eye is certainly for Carre.
And then, he knows, he feels that HIS wounds are going to heal.
But it is bad for Marie to hear another complaining before his own turn.
He comes to the table very ill-disposed. His nerves have been shaken and are unusually irritable.
At the first movement, he begins with sighs and those "Poor devils!" which are his artless and habitual expressions of self-pity. And then, all at once, he begins to scream, as I had not heard him scream for a long time. He screams in a sort of frenzy, opening his mouth widely, and shrieking with all the strength of his lungs, and with all the strength of his face, it would seem, for it is flushed and bathed in sweat. He screams unreasonably at the lightest touch, in an incoherent and disorderly fashion.
Then, ceasing to exhort him to be calm with gentle and compassionate words, I raise my voice suddenly and order the boy to be quiet, in a severe tone that admits of no parleying...
Marie's agitation subsides at once, like a bubble at the touch of a finger. The ward still rings with my imperious order. A good lady who does not understand at once, stares at me in stupefaction.
But Marie, red and frightened, controls his unreasonable emotion. And as long as the dressing lasts, I dominate his soul strenuously to prevent him from suffering in vain, just as others hold and grasp his wrists.
Then, presently, it is all over. I give him a fraternal smile that relaxes the tension of his brow as a bow is unbent.
A lady, who is a duchess at the least, came to visit the wounded. She exhaled such a strong, sweet perfume that she cannot have distinguished the odour of suffering that pervades this place.
Carre was shown to her as one of the most interesting specimens of the house. She looked at him with a curious, faded smile, which, thanks to paint and powder, still had a certain beauty.
She made some patriotic remarks to Carre full of allusions to his conduct under fire. And Carre ceased staring out of the window to look at the lady with eyes full of respectful astonishment.
And then she asked Carre what she could send him that he would like, with a gesture that seemed to offer the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them.
Carre, in return, gave her a radiant smile; he considered for a moment and then said modestly:
"A little bit of veal with new potatoes."
The handsome lady thought it tactful to laugh. And I felt instinctively that her interest in Carre was suddenly quenched.
An old man sometimes comes to visit Carre. He stops before the bed, and with a stony face pronounces words full of an overflowing benevolence.
"Give him anything he asks for.... Send a telegram to his family."
Carre protests timidly: "Why a telegram? I have no one but my poor old mother; it would frighten her."
The little old gentleman emerges from his varnished boots like a variegated plant from a double vase.
Carre coughs—first, to keep himself in countenance, and, secondly, because his cruel bronchitis takes this opportunity to give him a shaking.
Then the old gentleman stoops, and all his medals hang out from his tunic like little dried-up breasts. He bends down, puffing and pouting, without removing his gold-trimmed KEPI, and lays a deaf ear on Carre's chest with an air of authority.
Carre's leg has been sacrificed. The whole limb has gone, leaving a huge and dreadful wound level with the trunk.
It is very surprising that the rest of Carre did not go with the leg.
He had a pretty hard day.
O life! O soul! How you cling to this battered carcase! O little gleam on the surface of the eye! Twenty times I saw it die down and kindle again. And it seemed too suffering, too weak, too despairing ever to reflect anything again save suffering, weakness, and despair.
During the long afternoon, I go and sit between two beds beside Lerondeau. I offer him cigarettes, and we talk. This means that we say nothing, or very little.... But it is not necessary to speak when one has a talk with Lerondeau.
Marie is very fond of cigarettes, but what he likes still better is that I should come and sit by him for a bit. When I pass through the ward, he taps coaxingly upon his sheet, as one taps upon a bench to invite a friend to a seat.
Since he told me about his life at home and his campaign, he has not found much to say to me. He takes the cakes with which his little shelf is laden, and crunches them with an air of enjoyment.
"As for me," he says, "I just eat all the time," and he laughs.
If he stops eating to smoke, he laughs again. Then there is an agreeable silence. Marie looks at me, and begins to laugh again. And when I get up to go, he says: "Oh, you are not in such a great hurry, we can chat a little longer!"
Lerondeau's leg was such a bad business that it is now permanently shorter than the other by a good twelve centimetres. So at least it seems to us, looking down on it from above.
But Lerondeau, who has only seen it from afar by raising his head a little above the table while his wounds are being dressed, has noticed only a very slight difference in length between his two legs.
He said philosophically:
"It is shorter, but with a good thick sole...."
When Marie was better, he raised himself on his elbow, and he understood the extent of his injury more clearly.
"I shall want a VERY thick sole," he remarked.
Now that Lerondeau can sit up, he, too, can estimate the extent of the damage from above; but he is happy to feel life welling up once more in him, and he concludes gaily:
"What I shall want is not a sole, but a little bench."
But Carre is ill, terribly ill.
That valiant soul of his seems destined to be left alone, for all else is failing.
He had one sound leg. Now it is stiff and swollen.
He had healthy, vigorous arms. Now one of them is covered with abscesses.
The joy of breathing no longer exists for Carre, for his cough shakes him savagely in his bed.
The back, by means of which we rest, has also betrayed him. Here and there it is ulcerated; for man was not meant to lie perpetually on his back, but only to lie and sleep on it after a day of toil.
For man was not really intended to suffer with his miserable, faithless body!
And his heart beats laboriously.
There was mischief in the bowel too. So much so, that one day Carre was unable to control himself, before a good many people who had come in.
In spite of our care, in spite of our friendly assurances, Carre was so ashamed that he wept. He who always said that a man ought not to cry, he who never shed a tear in the most atrocious suffering, sobbed with shame on account of this accident. And I could not console him.
He no longer listens to all we say to him. He no longer answers our questions. He has mysterious fits of absence.
He who was so dignified in his language, expresses himself and complains with the words of a child.
Sometimes he comes up out of the depths and speaks.
He talks of death with an imaginative lucidity which sounds like actual experience.
Sometimes he sees it... And as he gazes, his pupils suddenly distend.
But he will not, he cannot make up his mind....
He wants to suffer a little longer.
I draw near to his bed in the gathering darkness. His breathing is so light that suddenly, I stop and listen open-mouthed, full of anxiety.
Then Carre suddenly opens his eyes.
Will he sigh and groan? No. He smiles and says:
"What white teeth you have!"
Then he dreams, as if he were dying.
Could you have imagined such a martyrdom, my brother, when you were driving the plough into your little plot of brown earth?
Here you are, enduring a death-agony of five months swathed in these livid wrappings, without even the rewards that are given to others.
Your breast, your shroud must be bare of even the humblest of the rewards of valour, Carre.
It was written that you should suffer without purpose and without hope.
But I will not let all your sufferings be lost in the abyss. And so I record them thus at length.
Lerondeau has been brought down into the garden. I find him there, stretched out on a cane chair, with a little kepi pulled down over his eyes, to shade them from the first spring sunshine.
He talks a little, smokes a good deal, and laughs more.
I look at his leg, but he hardly ever looks at it himself; he no longer feels it.
He will forget it even more utterly after a while, and he will live as if it were natural enough for a man to live with a stiff, distorted limb.
Forget your leg, forget your sufferings, Lerondeau. But the world must not forget them.
And I leave Marie sitting in the sun, with a fine new pink colour in his freckled cheeks.
Carre died early this morning. Lerondeau leaves us to-morrow.
MEMORIES OF THE MARTYRS
Were modesty banished from the rest of the earth, it would no doubt find a refuge in Mouchon's heart.
I see him still as he arrived, on a stretcher full of little pebbles, with his mud be-plastered coat, and his handsome, honest face, like that of a well-behaved child.
"You must excuse me," he said; "we can't keep ourselves very clean."
"Have you any lice?" asks the orderly, as he undresses him.
Mouchon flushes and looks uneasy.
"Well, if I have, they don't really belong to me."
He has none, but he has a broken leg, "due to a torpedo."
The orderly cuts open his trouser, and I tell him to take off the boot. Mouchon puts out his hand, and says diffidently:
"Never mind the boot."
"But, my good fellow, we can't dress your leg without taking off your boot."
Then Mouchon, red and confused, objects:
"But if you take off the boot, I'm afraid my foot will smell...."
I have often thought of this answer. And believe me, Mouchon, I have not yet met the prince who is worthy to take off your boots and wash your humble feet.
With his forceps the doctor lays hold carefully of a mass of bloody dressings, and draws them gently out of a gaping wound in the abdomen. A ray of sunshine lights him at his work, and the whole of the frail shed trembles to the roar of the cannon.
"I am a big china-dealer," murmurs the patient. "You come from Paris, and I do, too. Save me, and you shall see.... I'll give you a fine piece of china."
The plugs are coming out by degrees; the forceps glitter, and the ray of sunshine seems to tremble under the cannonade, as do the floor, the walls, the light roof, the whole earth, the whole universe, drunk with fatigue.
Suddenly, from the depths of space, a whining sound arises, swells, rends the air above the shed, and the shell bursts a few yards off, with the sound of a cracked object breaking.
The thin walls seem to quiver under the pressure of the air. The doctor makes a slight movement of his head, as if to see, after all, where the thing fell.
Then the china-dealer, who noted the movement, says in a quiet voice:
"Don't take any notice of those small things, they don't do any harm. Only save me, and I will give you a beautiful piece of china or earthenware, whichever you like."
The root of the evil is not so much the shattered leg, as the little wound in the arm, from which so much good blood was lost.
With his livid lips, no longer distinguishable from the rest of his face, and the immense black pupils of his eyes, the man shows a countenance irradiated by a steadfast soul, which will not give in till the last moment. He contemplates the ravages of his body almost severely, and without illusion, and watching the surgeons as they scrub their hands, he says in a grave voice:
"Tell my wife that my last thoughts were of her and our children."
Ah! it was not a veiled question, for, without a moment's hesitation, he allows us to put the mask over his face.
The solemn words seem still to echo through the ward:
"Tell my wife..."
That manly face is not the face of one who could be deceived by soft words and consoling phrases. The white blouse turns away. The surgeon's eyes grow dim behind his spectacles, and in solemn tones he replies:
"We will not fail to do so, friend."
The patient's eyelids flutter—as one waves a handkerchief from the deck of a departing steamer—then, breathing in the ether steadily, he falls into a dark slumber.
He never wakes, and we keep our promise to him.
A few days before the death of Tricot, a very annoying thing happened to him; a small excrescence, a kind of pimple, appeared on the side of his nose.
Tricot had suffered greatly; only some fragments of his hands remained; but, above all, he had a great opening in his side, a kind of fetid mouth, through which the will to live seemed to evaporate.
Coughing, spitting, looking about with wide, agonised eyes in search of elusive breath, having no hands to scratch oneself with, being unable to eat unaided, and further, never having the smallest desire to eat—could this be called living? And yet Tricot never gave in. He waged his own war with the divine patience of a man who had waged the great world war, and who knows that victory will not come right away.
But Tricot had neither allies nor reserves; he was all alone, so wasted and so exhausted that the day came when he passed almost imperceptibly from the state of a wounded to that of a dying man.
And it was just at this moment that the pimple appeared.
Tricot had borne the greatest sufferings courageously; but he seemed to have no strength to bear this slight addition to his woes.
"Monsieur," stammered the orderly who had charge of him, utterly dejected, "I tell you, that pimple is the spark that makes the cup overflow."
And in truth the cup overflowed. This misfortune was too much. Tricot began to complain, and from that moment I felt that he was doomed.
I asked him several times a day, thinking of all his wounds: "How are you, old fellow?" And he, thinking of nothing but the pimple, answered always:
"Very bad, very bad! The pimple is getting bigger."
It was true. The pimple had come to a head, and I wanted to prick it.
Tricot, who had allowed us to cut into his chest without an anaesthetic, exclaimed with tears:
"No, no more operations! I won't have any more operations."
All day long he lamented about his pimple, and the following night he died.
"It was a bad pimple," said the orderly; "it was that which killed him."
Alas! It was not a very "bad pimple," but no doubt it killed him.
Mehay was nearly killed, but he did not die; so no great harm was done.
The bullet went through his helmet, and only touched the bone. The brain is all right. So much the better.
No sooner had Mehay come to, and hiccoughed a little in memory of the chloroform, than he began to look round with interest at all that was happening about him.
Three days after the operation, Mehay got up. It would have been useless to forbid this proceeding. Mehay would have disobeyed orders for the first time in his life. We could not even think of taking away his clothes. The brave man never lacks clothes.
Mehay accordingly got up, and his illness was a thing of the past.
Every morning, Mehay rises before day-break and seizes a broom. Rapidly and thoroughly, he makes the ward as dean as his own heart. He never forgets any corner, and he manages to pass the brush gently under the beds without waking his sleeping comrades, and without disturbing those who are in pain. Sometimes Mehay hands basins or towels, and he is as gentle as a woman when he helps to dress Vossaert, whose limbs are numb and painful.
At eight o'clock, the ward is in perfect order, and as the dressings are about to begin, Mehay suddenly appears in a fine clean apron. He watches my hands carefully as they come and go, and he is always in the right place to hand the dressing to the forceps, to pour out the spirit, or to lend a hand with a bandage, for he very soon learned to bandage skilfully.
He does not say a word; he just looks. The bit of his forehead that shows under his own bandages is wrinkled with the earnestness of his attention—and he has those blue marks by which we recognise the miner.
Sometimes it is his turn to have a dressing. But scarcely is it completed when he is up again with his apron before him, silently busy.
At eleven o'clock, Mehay disappears. He has gone, perhaps, to get a breath of fresh air? Oh, no! Here he is back again with a trayful of bowls. And he hands round the soup.
In the evening he hands the thermometer. He helps the orderlies so much that he leaves them very little to do.
All this time the bones of his skull are at work under his bandages, and the red flesh is growing. But we are not to trouble about that: it will manage all alone. The man, however, cannot be idle. He works, and trusts to his blood, "which is healthy."
In the evening, when the ward is lighted by a night-light, and I come in on tiptoe to give a last look round, I hear a voice laboriously spelling: "B-O, Bo; B-I, Bi; N-E, Ne, Bobine." It is Mehay, learning to read before going to bed.
A lamp has been left alight, because the men are not asleep yet, and they are allowed to smoke for a while. It would be no fun to smoke, unless one could see the smoke.
The former bedroom of the mistress of the house makes a very light, very clean ward. Under the draperies which have been fastened up to the ceiling and covered with sheets, old Louarn lies motionless, waiting for his three shattered limbs to mend. He is smoking a cigarette, the ash from which falls upon his breast. Apologising for the little heaps of dirt that make his bed the despair of the orderlies, he says to me:
"You know, a Breton ought to be a bit dirty."
I touch the weight attached to his thigh, and he exclaims:
"Ma doue! Ma doue! Caste! Caste!"
These are oaths of a kind, of his own coining, which make every one laugh, and himself the first. He adds, as he does every day:
"Doctor, you never hurt me so much before as you have done this time."
Then he laughs again.
Lens is not asleep yet, but he is as silent as usual. He has scarcely uttered twenty words in three weeks.
In a corner, Mehay patiently repeats: "P-A, Pa," and the orderly who is teaching him to read presses his forefinger on the soiled page.
I make my way towards Croin, Octave. I sit down by the bed in silence.
Croin turns a face half hidden by bandages to me, and puts a leg damp with sweat out from under the blankets, for fever runs high just at this time. He too, is silent; he knows as well as I do that he is not going on well; but all the same, he hopes I shall go away without speaking to him.
No. I must tell him. I bend over him and murmur certain things.
He listens, and his chin begins to tremble, his boyish chin, which is covered with a soft, fair down.
Then, with the accent of his province, he says in a tearful, hesitating voice:
"I have already given an eye, must I give a hand too?"
His one remaining eye fills with tears. And seeing the sound hand, I press it gently before I go.
When I put my fingers near his injured eye, Croin recoils a little.
"Don't be afraid," I say to him.
"Oh, I'm not afraid!"
And he adds proudly:
"When a chap has lived on Hill 108, he can't ever be afraid of anything again."
"Then why do you wince?"
"It's just my head moving back of its own accord. I never think of it."
And it is true; the man is not afraid, but his flesh recoils.
When the bandage is properly adjusted, what remains visible of Groin's face is young, agreeable, charming. I note this with satisfaction, and say to him:
"There's not much damage done on this side. We'll patch you up so well that you will still be able to make conquests."
He smiles, touches his bandage, looks at his mutilated arm, seems to lose himself for a while in memories, and murmurs:
"May be. But the girls will never come after me again as they used to..."
"The skin is beginning to form over the new flesh. A few weeks more, and then a wooden leg. You will run along like a rabbit."
Plaquet essays a little dry laugh which means neither yes nor no, but which reveals a great timidity, and something else, a great anxiety.
"For Sundays, you can have an artificial leg. You put a boot on it. The trouser hides it all. It won't show a bit."
The wounded man shakes his head slightly, and listens with a gentle, incredulous smile.
"With an artificial leg, Plaquet, you will, of course, be able to go out. It will be almost as it was before."
Plaquet shakes his head again, and says in a low voice:
"Oh, I shall never go out!"
"But with a good artificial leg, Plaquet, you will be able to walk almost as well as before. Why shouldn't you go out?"
Plaquet hesitates and remains silent.
Then in an almost inaudible voice he replies:
"I will never go out. I should be ashamed."
Plaquet will wear a medal on his breast. He is a brave soldier, and by no means a fool. But there are very complex feelings which we must not judge too hastily.
In the corner of the ward there is a little plank bed which is like all the other little beds. But buried between its sheets there is the smile of Mathouillet, which is like no other smile.
Mathouillet, after throwing a good many bombs, at last got one himself. In this disastrous adventure, he lost part of his thigh, received several wounds, and gradually became deaf. Such is the fate of bombardier-grenadier Mathouillet.
The bombardier-grenadier has a gentle, beardless face, which for many weeks must have expressed great suffering, and, which is now beginning to show a little satisfaction.
But Mathouillet hears so badly that when one speaks to him he only smiles in answer.
If I come into the ward, Mathouillet's smile awaits and welcomes me. When the dressing is over, Mathouillet thanks me with a smile. If I look at the temperature chart, Mathouillet's smile follows me, but not questioningly; Mathouillet has faith in me, but his smile says a number of unspoken things that I understand perfectly. Conversation is difficult, on account of this unfortunate deafness—that is to say, conversation as usually carried on. But we two, happily, have no need of words. For some time past, certain smiles have been enough for us. And Mathouillet smiles, not only with his eyes or with his lips, but with his nose, his beardless chin, his broad, smooth forehead, crowned by the pale hair of the North, with all his gentle, boyish face.
Now that Mathouillet can get up, he eats at the table, with his comrades. To call him to meals, Baraffe utters a piercing cry, which reaches the ear of the bombardier-grenadier.
He arrives, shuffling his slippers along the floor, and examines all the laughing faces. As he cannot hear, he hesitates to sit down, and this time his smile betrays embarrassment and confusion.
Coming very close to him, I say loudly:
"Your comrades are calling you to dinner, my boy."
"Yes, yes," he replies, "but because they know I am deaf, they sometimes try to play tricks on me."
His cheeks flush warmly as he makes this impromptu confidence. Then he makes up his mind to sit down, after interrogating me with his most affectionate smile.
Once upon a time, Paga would have been called un type; now he is un numero. This means that he is an original, that his ways of considering and practising life are unusual; and as life here is reduced entirely to terms of suffering, it means that his manner of suffering differs from that of other people.
From the very beginning, during those hard moments when the wounded man lies plunged in stupor and self-forgetfulness, Paga distinguished himself by some remarkable eccentricities.
Left leg broken, right foot injured, such was the report on Paga's hospital sheet.
Now the leg was not doing at all well. Every morning, the good head doctor stared at the swollen flesh with his little round discoloured eyes and said: "Come, we must just wait till to-morrow." But Paga did not want to wait.
Flushed with fever, his hands trembling, his southern accent exaggerated by approaching delirium, he said, as soon as we came to see him.
"My wish, my wish! You know my wish, doctor."
Then, lower, with a kind of passion:
"I want you to cut it off, you know. I want you to cut this leg. Oh! I shan't be happy till it is done. Doctor, cut it, cut it off."
We didn't cut it at all, and Paga's business was very successfully arranged. I even feel sure that this leg became quite a respectable limb again.
I am bound to say Paga understood that he had meddled with things which did not concern him. He nevertheless continued to offer imperative advice as to the manner in which he wished to be nursed.
"Don't pull off the dressings! I won't have it. Do you hear, doctor? Don't pull. I won't have it."
Then he would begin to tremble nervously all over his body and to say:
"I am quite calm! Oh, I am really calm. See, Michelet, see, Brugneau, I am calm. Doctor, see, I am quite calm."
Meantime the dressings were gradually loosening under a trickle of water, and Paga muttered between his teeth:
"He's pulling, he's pulling.... Oh, the cruel man! I won't have it, I won't have it."
Then suddenly, with flaming cheeks:
"That's right. That's right! See, Michelet, see, Brugneau: the dressings have come away. Sergeant, Sergeant, the dressings are loosened."
He clapped his hands, possessed by a furtive joy; then he suddenly became conscious, and with a deep furrow between his brows, he began to give orders again.
"Not any tincture of iodine to-day, doctor. Take away those forceps, doctor, take them away."
Meanwhile the implacable forceps did their work, the tincture of iodine performed its chilly function; then Paga yelled:
"Quickly, quickly. Kiss me, kiss me."
With his arms thrown out like tentacles, he beat upon the air, and seized haphazard upon the first blouse that passed. Then he would embrace it frantically.
Thus it happened that he once showered kisses on Michelet's hands, objects by no means suitable for such a demonstration. Michelet said, laughing:
"Come, stop it; my hands are dirty."
And then poor Paga began to kiss Michelet's bare, hairy arms, saying distractedly:
"If your hands are dirty, your arms are all right."
Alas, what has become of all those who, during days and nights of patient labour, I saw gradually shaking off the dark empire of the night and coming back again to joy? What has become of the smouldering faggot which an ardent breath finally kindled into flame?
What became of you, precious lives, poor wonderful souls, for whom I fought so many obscure great battles, and who went off again into the realm of adventure?
You, Paga, little fellow, where are you? Do you remember the time when I used to dress your two wounds alternately, and when you said to me with great severity:
"The leg to-day, only the leg. It's not the day for the foot."
Sergeant Lecolle is distinguished by a huge black beard, which fails to give a ferocious expression to the gentlest face in the world.
He arrived the day little Delporte died, and scarcely had he emerged from the dark sleep when, opening his eyes, he saw Delporte die.
I went to speak to him several times. He looked so exhausted, his black beard was so mournful that I kept on telling him: "Sergeant, your wound is not serious."
Each time he shook his head as if to say that he took but little interest in the matter, and tried to close his eyes.
Lecolle is too nervous; he was not able to close his eyes, and he saw Delporte dead, and he had been obliged to witness all Delporte's death agony; for when one has a wound in the right shoulder, one can only lie upon the left shoulder.
The ward was full, I could not change the sergeant's place, and yet I should have liked to let him be alone all day with his own pain.
Now Lecolle is better; he feels better without much exuberance, with a seriousness which knows and foresees the bufferings of Fate.
Lecolle was a stenographer "in life." We are no longer "in life," but the good stenographer retains his principles. When his wounds are dressed, he looks carefully at the little watch on his wrist. He moans at intervals, and stops suddenly to say:
"It has taken fifty seconds to-day to loosen the dressings. Yesterday, you took sixty-two seconds."
His first words after the operation were:
"Will you please tell me how many minutes I was unconscious?"
I first saw Derancourt in the room adjoining the chapel. A band of crippled men, returning from Germany after a long captivity, had just been brought in there.
There were some fifty of them, all looking with delighted eyes at the walls, the benches, the telephone, all the modest objects in this waiting-room, objects which are so much more attractive under the light of France than in harsh exile.
The waiting-room seemed to have been transformed into a museum of misery: there were blind men, legless and armless men, paralysed men, their faces ravaged by fire and powder.
A big fellow said, lifting his deformed arm with an effort:
"I tricked them; they thought to the end that I was really paralysed. I look well, but that's because they sent us to Constance for the last week, to fatten us up."
A dark, thin man was walking to and fro, towing his useless foot after him by the help of a string which ran down his trouser leg; and he laughed:
"I walk more with my fist than with my foot. Gentlemen, gentlemen, who would like to pull Punch's string?"
All wore strange costumes, made up of military clothing and patched civilian garments.
On a bench sat fifteen or twenty men with about a dozen legs between them. It was among these that I saw Derancourt. He was holding his crutches in one hand and looking round him, stroking his long fair moustache absently.
Derancourt became my friend.
His leg had been cut off at the thigh, and this had not yet healed; he had, further, a number of other wounds which had closed more or less during his captivity.
Derancourt never talked of himself, much less of his misfortune. I knew from his comrades that he had fought near Longwy, his native town, and that he had lain grievously wounded for nine days on the battlefield. He had seen his father, who had come to succour him, killed at his side; then he had lain beside the corpse, tortured by a delirious dream in which nine days and nine nights had followed one upon the other, like a dizziness of alternate darkness and dazzling light. In the mornings, he sucked the wet grass he clutched when he stretched out his hands.
Afterwards he had suffered in Germany, and finally he had come back to France, mutilated, covered with wounds, and knowing that his wife and children were left without help and without resources in the invaded territory.
Of all this Derancourt said not a word. He apparently did not know how to complain, and he contemplated the surrounding wretchedness with a grave look, full of experience, which would have seemed a little cold but for the tremulous mobility of his features.
Derancourt never played, never laughed. He sought solitude, and spent hours, turning his head slowly from side to side, contemplating the walls and the ceiling like one who sees things within himself.
The day came when we had to operate on Derancourt, to make his stump of a thigh serviceable.
He was laid on the table. He remained calm and self-controlled as always, looking at the preparations for the operation with a kind of indifference.
We put the chloroform pad under his nose; he drew two or three deep breaths, and then a strange thing happened: Derancourt began to sob in a terrible manner, and to talk of all those things he had never mentioned. The grief he had suppressed for months overflowed, or rather, rushed out in desperate, heartrending lamentations.
It was not the disorderly intoxication, the muscular, animal rebellion of those who are thrown into this artificial sleep. It was the sudden break-up of an overstrained will under a slight shock. For months Derancourt had braced himself against despair, and now, all of a sudden, he gave way, and abandoned himself to poignant words and tears. The flood withdrew suddenly, leaving the horrible, chaotic depths beneath the sea visible.
We ceased scrubbing our hands, and stood aghast and deeply moved, full of sadness and respect.
Then some one exclaimed:
"Quick! quick! More chloroform! Stupefy him outright, let him sleep."
"But a man can't be paralysed by a little hole in his back! I tell you it was only a bullet. You must take it out, doctor. Take it out, and I shall be all right."
Thus said a Zouave, who had been lying helpless for three days on his bed.
"If you knew how strong I am! Look at my arms! No one could unhook a bag like me, and heave it over my shoulder—tock! A hundred kilos—with one jerk!"
The doctor looked at the muscular torso, and his face expressed pity, regret, embarrassment, and, perhaps, a certain wish to go away.
"But this wretched bullet prevents me from moving my legs. You must take it out, doctor, you must take it out!"
The doctor glances at the paralysed legs, and the swollen belly, already lifeless. He knows that the bullet broke the spine, and cut through the marrow which sent law and order into all this now inanimate flesh.
"Operate, doctor. Look you, a healthy chap like me would soon get well."
The doctor stammers vague sentences: the operation would be too serious for the present... better wait....
"No, no. Never fear. My health is first-rate. Don't be afraid, the operation is bound to be a success."
His rugged face is contracted by his fixed idea. His voice softens; blind confidence and supplication give it an unusual tone. His heavy eyebrows meet and mingle under the stress of his indomitable will; his soul makes such an effort that the immobility of his legs seems suddenly intolerable. Heavens! Can a man WILL so intensely, and yet be powerless to control his own body?
"Oh, operate, operate! You will see how pleased I shall be!"
The doctor twists the sheet round his forefinger; then, hearing a wounded man groaning in the next ward, he gets up, says he will come back presently, and escapes.
The colloquy between the rival gods took place at the foot of the great staircase.
The Arab soldier had just died. It was the Arab one used to see under a shed, seated gravely on the ground in the midst of other magnificent Arabs. In those days they had boots of crimson leather, and majestic red mantles. They used to sit in a circle, contemplating from under their turbans the vast expanse of mud watered by the skies of Artois. To-day, they wear the ochre helmet, and show the profiles of Saracen warriors.
The Algerian has just been killed, kicked in the belly by his beautiful white horse.
In the ambulance there was a Mussulman orderly, a well-to-do tradesman, who had volunteered for the work. He, on the other hand, was extremely European, nay, Parisian; but a plump, malicious smile showed itself in the midst of his crisp grey beard, and he had the look in the eyes peculiar to those who come from the other side of the Mediterranean.
Rashid "behaved very well." He had found native words when tending the dying man, and had lavished on him the consolations necessary to those of his country.
When the Algerian was dead, he arranged the winding-sheet himself, in his own fashion; then he lighted a cigarette, and set out in search of Monet and Renaud.
For lack of space, we had no mortuary at the time in the ambulance. Corpses were placed in the chapel of the cemetery while awaiting burial. The military burial-ground had been established within the precincts of the church, close by the civilian cemetery, and in a few weeks it had invaded it like a cancer and threatened to devour it.
Rashid had thought of everything, and this was why he went in search of Monet and Renaud, Catholic priests and ambulance orderlies of the second class.
The meeting took place at the foot of the great staircase. Leaning over the balustrade, I listened, and watched the colloquy of the rival gods.
Monet was thirty years old; he had fine, sombre eyes, and a stiff beard, from which a pipe emerged. Renaud carried the thin face of a seminarist a little on one side.
Monet and Renaud listened gravely, as became people who were deciding in the Name of the Father. Rashid was pleading for his dead Arab with supple eloquence, wrapped in a cloud of tobacco-smoke:
"We cannot leave the Arab's corpse under a wagon, in the storm. ... This man died for France, at his post.... He had a right to all honours, and it was hard enough as it was that he could not have the obsequies he would surely have had in his own country."
Monet nodded approvingly, and Renaud, his mouth half open, was seeking some formula.
It came, and this was it:
"Very well, Monsieur Rashid, take him into the church; that is God's house for every one."
Rashid bowed with perfect deference, and went back to his dead.
Oh, he arranged everything very well! He had made this funeral a personal matter. He was the family, the master of the ceremonies, almost the priest.
The Algerian's body accordingly lay in the chapel, covered with the old faded flag and a handful of chrysanthemums.
It was here the bearers came to take it, and carry it to CONSECRATED GROUND, to lie among the other comrades.
Monet and Renaud were with us when it was lowered into the grave. Rashid represented the dead man's kindred with much dignity. He held something in his hand which he planted in the ground before going away. It was that crescent of plain deal at the end of a stick which is still to be seen in the midst of the worm-eaten crosses, in the shadow of the belfry of L——.
There the same decay works towards the intermingling and the reconciliation of ancient symbols and ancient dogmas.
Nogue is courageous, but Norman; this gives to courage a special form, which excludes neither reserve, nor prudence, nor moderation of language.
On the day when he was wounded, he bore a preliminary operation with perfect calm. Lifting up his shattered arm, I said:
"Are you suffering very much?" And he barely opened his lips to reply:
"Well... perhaps a bit."
Fever came the following days, and with it a certain discomfort. Nogue could not eat, and when asked if he did not feel rather hungry, he shook his head:
"I don't think so."
Well, the arm was broken very high up, the wound looked unhealthy, the fever ran high, and we made up our minds that it was necessary to come to a decision.
"My poor Nogue," I said, "we really can't do anything with that arm of yours. Be sensible. Let us take it off."
If we had waited for his answer, Nogue would have been dead by now. His face expressed great dissatisfaction, but he said neither yes nor no.
"Don't be afraid, Nogue. I will guarantee the success of the operation."
Then he asked to make his will. When the will had been made, Nogue was laid upon the table and operated upon, without having formulated either consent or refusal.
When the first dressing was made, Nogue looked at his bleeding shoulder, and said:
"I suppose you couldn't have managed to leave just a little bit of arm?"
After a few days the patient was able to sit up in an arm-chair. His whole being bore witness to a positive resurrection, but his tongue remained cautious.
"Well, now, you see, you're getting on capitally."
"Hum... might be better."
Never could he make up his mind to give his whole-hearted approval, even after the event, to the decision which had saved his life. When we said to him:
"YOU'RE all right. We've done the business for YOU!" he would not commit himself.
"We shall see, we shall see."
He got quite well, and we sent him into the interior. Since then, he has written to us, "business letters," prudent letters which he signs "a poor mutilated fellow."
Lapointe and Ropiteau always meet in the dressing ward. Ropiteau is brought in on a stretcher, and Lapointe arrives on foot, jauntily, holding up his elbow, which is going on "as well as possible."
Lying on the table, the dressings removed from his thigh, Ropiteau waits to be tended, looking at a winter fly walking slowly along the ceiling, like an old man bowed down with sorrow. As soon as Ropiteau's wounds are laid bare, Lapointe, who is versed in these matters, opens the conversation.
"What do they put on it?"
"Well, only yellow spirit."
"That's the strongest of all. It stings, but it is first-rate for strengthening the flesh. I always get ether."
"Ether stinks so!"
"Yes, it stinks, but one gets used to it. It warms the blood. Don't you have tubes any longer?"
"They took out the last on Tuesday."
"Mine have been taken away, too. Wait a minute, old chap, let me look at it. Does it itch?"
"Yes, it feels like rats gnawing at me."
"If it feels like rats, it's all right. Mine feels like rats, too. Don't you want to scratch?"
"Yes, but they say I mustn't."
"No, of course, you mustn't.... But you can always tap on the dressing a little with your finger. That is a relief."
Lapointe leans over and examines Ropiteau's large wound.
"Old chap, it's getting on jolly well. Same here; I'll show you presently. It's red, the skin is beginning to grow again. But it is thin, very thin."
Lapointe sits down to have his dressing cut away, then he makes a half turn towards Ropiteau.
"You see—getting on famously."
Ropiteau admires unreservedly.
"Yes, you're right. It looks first-rate."
"And you know... such a beastly mess came out of it."
At this moment, the busy forceps cover up the wounds with the dressing, and the operation comes to an end.
"So long!" says Lapointe to his elbow, casting a farewell glance at it. And he adds, as he gets to the door:
"Now there are only the damned fingers that won't get on. But I don't care. I've made up my mind to be a postman."
Bouchenton was not very communicative. We knew nothing of his past history. As to his future plans, he revealed them by one day presenting to the head doctor for his signature a paper asking leave to open a Moorish cafe at Medea after his recovery, a request the head doctor felt himself unable to endorse.
Bouchenton had undergone a long martyrdom in order to preserve an arm from which the bone had been partially removed, but from which a certain amount of work might still be expected. He screamed like the others, and his cry was "Mohabdi! Mohabdi!" When the forceps came near, he cried: "Don't put them in!" And after this he maintained a silence made up of dignity and indolence. During the day he was to be seen wandering about the wards, holding up his ghostly muffled arm with his sound hand. In the evening, he learned to play draughts, because it is a serious, silent game, and requires consideration.
Now one day when Bouchenton, seated on a chair, was waiting for his wound to be dressed, the poor adjutant Figuet began to complain in a voice that was no more than the shadow of a voice, just as his body was no more than the shadow of a body.
Figuet was crawling at the time up the slopes of a Calvary where he was soon to fall once more, never to rise again.
The most stupendous courage and endurance foundered then in a despair for which there seemed henceforth to be no possible alleviation.
Figuet, I say, began to complain, and every one in the ward feigned to be engrossed in his occupation, and to hear nothing, because when such a man began to groan, the rest felt that the end of all things had come.
Bouchenton turned his head, looked at the adjutant, seized his flabby arm carefully with his right hand, and set out. Walking with little short steps he came to the table where the suffering man lay.
Stretching out his neck, his great bowed body straining in an effort of attention, he looked at the wounds, the pus, the soiled bandages, the worn, thin face, and his own wooden visage laboured under the stress of all kinds of feelings.
Then Bouchenton did a very simple thing; he relaxed his hold on his own boneless arm, held out his right hand to Figuet, seized his transparent fingers and held them tightly clasped.
The adjutant ceased groaning. As long as the silent pressure lasted, he ceased to complain, ceased perhaps to suffer. Bouchenton kept his right hand there as long as it was necessary.
I saw this, Bouchenton, my brother. I will not forget it. And I saw, too, your aching, useless left arm, which you had been obliged to abandon in order to have a hand to give, hanging by your side like a limp rag.
To be over forty years old, to be a tradesman of repute, well known throughout one's quarter, to be at the head of a prosperous provision-dealer's business, and to get two fragments of shell—in the back and the left buttock respectively—is really a great misfortune; yet this is what happened to M. Levy, infantryman and Territorial.
I never spoke familiarly to M. Levy, because of his age and his air of respectability; and perhaps, too, because, in his case, I felt a great and special need to preserve my authority.
Monsieur Levy was not always "a good patient." When I first approached him, he implored me not to touch him "at any price."
I disregarded these injunctions, and did what was necessary. Throughout the process, Monsieur Levy was snoring, be it said. But he woke up at last, uttered one or two piercing cries, and stigmatised me as a "brute." All right.
Then I showed him the big pieces of cast-iron I had removed from his back and his buttock respectively. Monsieur Levy's eyes at once filled with tears; he murmured a few feeling words about his family, and then pressed my hands warmly: "Thank you, thank you, dear Doctor."
Since then, Monsieur Levy has suffered a good deal, I must admit. There are the plugs! And those abominable india-rubber tubes we push into the wounds! Monsieur Levy, kneeling and prostrating himself, his head in his bolster, suffered every day and for several days without stoicism or resignation. I was called an "assassin" and also on several occasions, a "brute." All right.
However, as I was determined that Monsieur Levy should get well, I renewed the plugs, and looked sharply after the famous india-rubber tubes.
The time came when my hands were warmly pressed and my patient said: "Thank you, thank you, dear Doctor," every day.
At last Monsieur Levy ceased to suffer, and confined himself to the peevish murmurs of a spoilt beauty or a child that has been scolded. But now no one takes him seriously. He has become the delight of the ward; he laughs so heartily when the dressing is over, he is naturally so gay and playful, that I am rather at a loss as to the proper expression to assume when, alluding to the past, he says, with a look in which good nature, pride, simplicity, and a large proportion of playful malice are mingled:
"I suffered so much! so much!"
He was no grave, handsome Arab, looking as if he had stepped from the pages of the "Arabian Nights," but a kind of little brown monster with an overhanging forehead and ugly, scanty hair.
He lay upon the table, screaming, because his abdomen was very painful and his hip was all tumefied. What could we say to him? He could understand nothing; he was strange, terrified, pitiable....
At my wits' ends, I took out a cigarette and placed it between his lips. His whole face changed. He took hold of the cigarette delicately between two bony fingers; he had a way of holding it which was a marvel of aristocratic elegance.
While we finished the dressing, the poor fellow smoked slowly and gravely, with all the distinction of an Oriental prince; then, with a negligent gesture, he threw away the cigarette, of which he had only smoked half.
Presently, suddenly becoming an animal, he spit upon my apron, and kissed my hand like a dog, repeating something which sounded like "Bouia! Bouia!"
Gautreau looked like a beast of burden. He was heavy, square, solid of base and majestic of neck and throat. What he could carry on his back would have crushed an ordinary man; he had big bones, so hard that the fragment of shell which struck him on the skull only cracked it, and got no further into it. Gautreau arrived at the hospital alone, on foot; he sat down on a chair in the corner, saying:
"No need to hurry; it's only a scratch."
We gave him a cup of tea with rum in it, and he began to hum:
En courant par les epeignes Je m'etios fait un ecourchon, Et en courant par les epeignes Et en courant apres not' couchon.
"Ah!" said Monsieur Boissin, "you are a man! Come here, let me see."
Gautreau went into the operating ward saying:
"It feels queer to be walking on dry ground when you've just come off the slime. You see: it's only a scratch. But one never knows: there may be some bits left in it."
Dr. Boussin probed the wound, and felt the cracked bone. He was an old surgeon who had his own ideas about courage and pain. He made up his mind.
"I am in a hurry; you are a man. There is just a little something to be done to you. Kneel down there and don't stir."
A few minutes later, Gautreau was on his knees, holding on to the leg of the table. His head was covered with blood-stained bandages, and Dr. Boussin, chisel in hand, was tapping on his skull with the help of a little mallet, like a sculptor. Gautreau exclaimed:
"Monsieur Bassin, Monsieur Bassin, you're hurting me."
"Not Bassin, but Boussin," replied the old man calmly.
"Well, Boussin, if you like."
There was a silence, and then Gautreau suddenly added:
"Monsieur Bassin, you are killing me with these antics."
"Monsieur Bassin, I tell you you're killing me."
"Just a second more."
"Monsieur Bassin, you're driving nails into my head, it's a shame."
"I've almost finished."
"Monsieur Bassin, I can't stand any more."
"It's all over now," said the surgeon, laying down his instruments.
Gautreau's head was swathed with cotton wool and he left the ward.
"The old chap means well," he said, laughing, "but fancy knocking like that... with a hammer! It's not that it hurts so much; the pain was no great matter. But it kills one, that sort of thing, and I'm not going to stand that."
There is only one man in the world who can hold Hourticq's leg, and that is Monet.
Hourticq, who is a Southerner, cries despairingly: "Oh, cette jammbe, cette jammbe!" And his anxious eyes look eagerly round for some one: not his doctor, but his orderly, Monet. Whatever happens, the doctor will always do those things which doctors do. Monet is the only person who can take the heel and then the foot in both hands, raise the leg gently, and hold it in the air as long as it is necessary.
There are people, it seems, who think this notion ridiculous. They are all jealous persons who envy Monet's position and would like to show that they too know how to hold Hourticq's leg properly. But it is not my business to show favour to the ambitious. As soon as Hourticq is brought in, I call Monet. If Monet is engaged, well, I wait. He comes, lays hold of the leg, and Hourticq ceases to lament. It is sometimes a long business, very long; big drops of sweat come out on Monet's forehead. But I know that he would not give up his place for anything in the world.
When Mazy arrived at the hospital, Hourticq, who is no egoist, said to him at once in a low tone:
"Yours is a leg too, isn't it? You must try to get Monet to hold it for you."
If Bouchard were not so bored, he would not be very wretched, for he is very courageous, and he has a good temper. But he is terribly bored, in his gentle, uncomplaining fashion. He is too ill to talk or play games. He cannot sleep; he can only contemplate the wall, and his own thoughts which creep slowly along it, like caterpillars.
In the morning, I bring a catheter with me, and when Bouchard's wounds are dressed, I apply it, for unfortunately, he can no longer perform certain functions independently.
Bouchard has crossed his hands behind the nape of his neck, and watches the process with a certain interest. I ask:
"Did I hurt you? Is it very unpleasant?"
Bouchard gives a melancholy smile and shakes his head:
"Oh, no, not at all! In fact it rather amuses me. It makes a few minutes pass. The day is so long...."
THOUGHTS OF PROSPER RUFFIN
... God! How awful it is in this carriage! Who is it who is groaning like that? It's maddening! And then, all this would never have happened if they had only brought the coffee at the right time. Well now, a wretched 77... oh, no! Who is it who is groaning like that? God, another jolt! No, no, man, we are not salad. Take care there. My kidneys are all smashed.
Ah! now something is dripping on my nose. Hi! You up there, what's happening? He doesn't answer. I suppose it's blood, all this mess.
Now again, some one is beginning to squeal like a pig. By the way, can it be me? What! it was I who was groaning! Upon my word, it's a little too strong, that! It was I myself who was making all the row, and I did not know it. It's odd to hear oneself screaming.
Ah! now it's stopping, their beastly motor.
Look, there's the sun! What's that tree over there? I know, it's a Japanese pine. Well, you see, I'm a gardener, old chap. Oh, oh, oh! My back! What will Felicie say to me?
Look, there's Felicie coming down to the washing trough. She pretends not to see me.... I will steal behind the elder hedge. Felicie! Felicie! I have a piece of a 77 in my kidneys. I like her best in her blue bodice.
What are you putting over my nose, you people? It stinks horribly. I am choking, I tell you. Felicie, Felicie. Put on your blue bodice with the white spots, my little Feli... Oh, but... oh, but...!
Oh, the Whitsuntide bells already! God—the bells already... the Whitsun bells... the bells....
I remember him very well, although he was not long with us. Indeed I think that I shall never forget him, and yet he stayed such a short time....
When he arrived, we told him that an operation was necessary, and he made a movement with his head, as if to say that it was our business, not his.
We operated, and as soon as he recovered consciousness, he went off again into a dream which was like a glorious delirium, silent and haughty.
His breathing was so impeded by blood that it sounded like groaning; but his eyes were full of a strange serenity. That look was never with us.
I had to uncover and dress his wounds several times; and THOSE WOUNDS MUST HAVE SUFFERED. But to the last, he himself seemed aloof from everything, even his own sufferings.
"Come in here. You can see him once more."
I open the door, and push the big fair artilleryman into the room where his brother has just died.
I turn back the sheet and uncover the face of the corpse. The flesh is still warm.
The big fellow looks like a peasant. He holds his helmet in both hands, and stares at his brother's face with eyes full of horror and amazement. Then suddenly, he begins to cry out:
"Poor Andre! Poor Andre!"
This cry of the rough man is unexpected, and grandiose as the voice of ancient tragedians chanting the threnody of a hero.
Then he drops his helmet, throws himself on his knees beside the death-bed, takes the dead face between his hands and kisses it gently and slowly with a little sound of the lips, as one kisses a baby's hand.
I take him by the arm and lead him away. His sturdy body is shaken by sobs which are like the neighing of a horse; he is blinded by his tears, and knocks against all the furniture. He can do nothing but lament in a broken voice:
"Poor Andre! Poor Andre!"
La Gloriette is amongst the pine-trees. I lift up a corner of the canvas and he is there. In spite of the livid patches on the skin, in spite of the rigidity of the features, and the absence for all time of the glance, it is undoubtedly the familiar face.
What a long time he suffered to win the right to be at last this thing which suffers no more!
I draw back the winding-sheet. The body is as yet but little touched by corruption. The dressings are in place, as before. And as before, I think, as I draw back the sheet, of the look he will turn on me at the moment of suffering.
But there is no longer any look, no longer any suffering, no longer even any movements. Only, only unimaginable eternity.
For whom is the damp autumn breeze which flutters the canvas hung before the door? For whom the billowy murmur of the pine-trees and the rays of light crossed by a flight of insects? For whom this growling of cannon mingling now with the landscape like one of the sounds of nature? For me only, for me, alone here with the dead.
The corpse is still so near to the living man that I cannot make up my mind that I am alone, that I cannot make up my mind to think as when I am alone.
For indeed we spent too many days hoping together, enduring together, and if you will allow me to say so, my comrade, suffering together. We spent too many days wishing for the end of the fever, examining the wound, searching after the deeply rooted cause of the disaster—both tremulous, you from the effort to bear your pain, I sometimes from having inflicted it.
We spent so many days, do you remember, oh, body without a soul ... so many days fondly expecting the medal you had deserved. But it seems that one must have given an eye or a limb to be put on the list, and you, all of a sudden, you gave your life. The medal had not come, for it does not travel so quickly as death.
So many days! And now we are together again, for the last time.
Well! I came for a certain purpose. I came to learn certain things at last that your body can tell me now.
I open the case. As before, I cut the dressings with the shining scissors. And I was just about to say to you, as before: "If I hurt you, call out."
At the edge of the beetroot field, a few paces from the road, in the white sand of Champagne, there is a burial-ground.
Branches of young beech encircle it, making a rustic barrier that shuts out nothing, but allows the eyes and the winds to wander at will. There is a porch like those of Norman gardens. Near the entrance four pine-trees were planted, and these have died standing at their posts, like soldiers.
It is a burial-ground of men.
In the villages, round the churches, or on the fair hill-sides, among vines and flowers, there are ancient graveyards which the centuries filled slowly, and where woman sleeps beside man, and the child beside the grandfather.
But this burial-ground owes nothing to old age or sickness. It is the burial-ground of young, strong men.
We may read their names on the hundreds of little crosses which repeat daily in speechless unison: "There must be something more precious than life, more necessary than life... since we are here."
THE DEATH OF MERCIER
Mercier is dead, and I saw his corpse weep.... I did not think such a thing possible. The orderly had just washed his face and combed his grey hair.
I said: "You are not forty yet, my poor Mercier, and your hair is almost white already."
"It is because my life has been a very hard one, and I have had so many sorrows. I have worked so hard... so hard! And I have had so little luck."
There are pitiful little wrinkles all over his face; a thousand disappointments have left indelible traces there. And yet his eyes are always smiling; from out his faded features they shine, bright with an artless candour and radiant with hope.
"You will cure me, and perhaps I shall be luckier in the future."
I say "yes," and I think, "Alas! No, no."
But suddenly he calls me. Great dark hollows appear under the smiling eyes. A livid sweat bathes his forehead.
"Come, come!" he says. "Something terrible is taking hold of me. Surely I am going to die."
We busy ourselves with the poor paralysed body. The face alone labours to translate its sufferings. The hands make the very slightest movement on the sheet. The bullets of the machine-gun have cut off all the rest from the sources of life.
We do what we can, but I feel his heart beating more feebly; his lips make immense efforts to beg for one drop, one drop only from the vast cup of air.
Gradually he escapes from this hell. I divine that his hand makes a movement as if to detain mine.
"Stay by me," he says; "I am afraid."
I stay by him. The sweat no longer stands on his brow. The horrible distress passes off. The air flows again into the miserable breast. The gentle eyes have not ceased to smile.
"You will save me after all," he says; "I have had too miserable a life to die yet, Monsieur."
I press his hand to give him confidence, and I feel that his hard hand is happy in mine. My fingers have groped in his flesh, his blood has flowed over them, and this creates strong ties between two men.
Calm seems completely restored. I talk to him of his beautiful native place. He was a baker in a village of Le Cantal. I passed through it once as a traveller in peace time. We recall the scent of the juniper-bushes on the green slopes in summer, and the mineral fountains with wonderful flavours that gush forth among the mountains.
"Oh!" he exclaims, "I shall always see you!"
"You will see me, Mercier?"
He is a very simple fellow; he tries to explain, and merely adds:
"In my eyes.... I shall always see you in my eyes."
What else does he see? What other thing is suddenly reflected in his eyes?
"I think... oh, it is beginning again!"
It is true; the spasm is beginning again. It is terrible. In spite of our efforts, it overcomes the victim, and this time we are helpless.
"I feel that I am going to die," he says.
The smiling eyes are still fixed imploringly upon me.
"But you will save me, you will save me!"
Death has already laid a disfiguring hand on Mercier.
"Stay by me."
Yes, I will stay by you, and hold your hand. Is there nothing more I can do for you?
His nostrils quiver. It is hard to have been wretched for forty years, and to have to give up the humble hope of smelling the pungent scent of the juniper-bushes once more....
His lips contract, and then relax gradually, so sadly. It is hard to have suffered for forty years, and to be unable to quench one's last thirst with the wonderful waters of our mountain springs....
Now the dark sweat gathers again on the hollow brow. Oh, it is hard to die after forty years of toil, without ever having had leisure to wipe the sweat from a brow that has always been bent over one's work.
The sacrifice is immense, and we cannot choose our hour; we must make it as soon as we hear the voice that demands it.
The man must lay down his tools and say: "Here I am."
Oh, how hard it is to leave this life of unceasing toil and sorrow!
The eyes still smile feebly. They smile to the last moment.
He speaks no more. He breathes no more. The heart throbs wildly, then stops dead like a foundered horse.
Mercier is dead. The pupils of his eyes are solemnly distended upon a glassy abyss. All is over. I have not saved him....
Then from those dead eyes great tears ooze slowly and flow upon his cheeks. I see his features contract as if to weep throughout eternity.
I keep the dead hand still clasped in mine for several long minutes.
We were going northward by forced marches, through a France that was like a mournful garden planted with crosses. We were no longer in doubt as to our appointed destination; every day since we had disembarked at B——our orders had enjoined us to hasten our advance to the fighting units of the Army Corps. This Army Corps was contracting, and drawing itself together hurriedly, its head already in the thick of the fray, its tail still winding along the roads, across the battle-field of the Marne.
February was closing in, damp and icy, with squalls of sleet, under a sullen, hideous sky, lowering furiously down to the level of the ground. Everywhere there were graves, uniformly decent, or rather according to pattern, showing a shield of tri-colour or black and white, and figures. Suddenly, we came upon immense flats, whence the crosses stretched out their arms between the poplars like men struggling to save themselves from being engulfed. Many ancient villages, humble, irremediable ruins. And yet here and there, perched upon these, frail cabins of planks and tiles, sending forth thin threads of smoke, and emitting a timid light, in an attempt to begin life again as before, on the same spot as before. Now and again we chanced upon a hamlet which the hurricane had passed by almost completely, full to overflowing with the afflux of neighbouring populations.
Beyond P——, our advance, though it continued to be rapid, became very difficult, owing to the confluence of convoys and troops. The main roads, reserved for the military masses which were under the necessity of moving rapidly, arriving early, and striking suddenly, were barred to us. From every point of the horizon disciplined multitudes converged, with their arsenal of formidable implements, rolling along in an atmosphere of benzine and hot oil. Through this ordered mass, our convoys threaded their way tenaciously and advanced. We could see on the hill sides, crawling like a clan of migrating ants, stretcher-bearers and their dogs drawing handcarts for the wounded, then the columns of orderlies, muddy and exhausted, then the ambulances, which every week of war loads a little more heavily, dragged along by horses in a steam of sweat.
From time to time, the whole train halted at some cross-road, and the ambulances allowed more urgent things to pass in front of them—things designed to kill, sturdy grey mortars borne along post haste in a metallic rumble.
A halt, a draught of wine mingled with rain, a few minutes to choke over a mouthful of stale bread, and we were off again, longing for the next halt, for a dry shelter, for an hour of real sleep.
Soon after leaving C——we began to meet fugitives. This complicated matters very much, and the spectacle began to show an odious likeness to the scenes of the beginning of the war, the scenes of the great retreat.
Keeping along the roadsides, the by-roads, the field-paths, they were fleeing from the Verdun district, whence they had been evacuated by order. They were urging on miserable old horses, drawing frail carts, their wheels sunk in the ruts up to the nave, loaded with mattresses and eiderdowns, with appliances for eating and sleeping, and sometimes too, with cages in which birds were twittering. On they went, from village to village, seeking an undiscoverable lodging, but not complaining, saying merely:
"You are going to Verdun? We have just come from X——. We were ordered to leave. It is very difficult to find a place to settle down in."
Women passed. Two of them were dragging a little baby-carriage in which an infant lay asleep. One of them was quite young, the other old. They held up their skirts out of the mud. They were wearing little town shoes, and every minute they sank into the slime like ourselves, sometimes above their ankles.
All day long we encountered similar processions. I do not remember seeing one of these women weep; but they seemed terrified, and mortally tired.
Meanwhile, the sound of the guns became fuller and more regular. All the roads we caught sight of in the country seemed to be bearing their load of men and of machines. Here and there a horse which had succumbed at its task lay rotting at the foot of a hillock. A subdued roar rose to the ear, made up of trampling hoofs, of grinding wheels, of the buzz of motors, and of a multitude talking and eating on the march.
Suddenly we debouched at the edge of a wood upon a height whence we could see the whole battle-field. It was a vast expanse of plains and slopes, studded with the grey woods of winter. Long trails of smoke from burning buildings settled upon the landscape. And other trails, minute and multi-coloured, rose from the ground wherever projectiles were raining. Nothing more: wisps of smoke, brief flashes visible even in broad daylight, and a string of captive balloons, motionless and observant witnesses of all.
But we were already descending the incline and the various planes of the landscape melted one after the other. As we were passing over a bridge, I saw in a group of soldiers a friend I had not met since the beginning of the war. We could not stop, so he walked along with me for a while, and we spent these few minutes recalling the things of the past. Then as he left me we embraced, though we had never done so in times of peace.
Night was falling. Knowing that we were now at our last long lap, we encouraged the worn-out men. At R——I lost touch with my formation. I halted on the roadside, calling aloud into the darkness. An artillery train passed, covering me with mud to my eyes. Finally, I picked up my friends, and we marched on through villages illumined by the camp fires which were flickering under a driving rain, through a murky country which the flash of cannon suddenly showed to be covered with a multitude of men, of horses, and of martial objects.
It was February 27. Between ten and eleven at night we arrived at a hospital installed in some wooden sheds, and feverishly busy. We were at B——, a miserable village on which next day the Germans launched some thirty monster-shells, yet failed to kill so much as a mouse.
The night was spent on straw, to the stentorian snores of fifty men overcome by fatigue. Then reveille, and again, liquid mud over the ankles. As the main road was forbidden to our ambulances there was an excited discussion as a result of which we separated: the vehicles to go in search of a by-way, and we, the pedestrians, to skirt the roads on which long lines of motor-lorries, coming and going, passed each other in haste like the carriages of an immense train.
We had known since midnight where we were to take up our quarters; the suburb of G——was only an hour's march further on. In the fields, right and left, were bivouacs of colonial troops with muddy helmets; they had come back from the firing line, and seemed strangely quiet. In front of us lay the town, half hidden, full of crackling sounds and echoes. Beyond, the hills of the Meuse, on which we could distinguish the houses of the villages, and the continuous rain of machine-gun bullets. We skirted a meadow strewn with forsaken furniture, beds, chests, a whole fortune which looked like the litter of a hospital. At last we arrived at the first houses, and we were shown the place where we were expected.
There were two brick buildings of several storeys, connected by a glazed corridor; the rest of the enclosure was occupied by wooden sheds. Behind lay orchards and gardens, the first houses of the suburb. In front, the wall of a park, a meadow, a railway track, and La Route, the wonderful and terrible road that enters the town at this very point.
Groups of lightly wounded men were hobbling towards the hospital; the incessant rush of motors kept up the feverish circulation of a demolished ant-hill.
As we approached the buildings, a doctor came out to meet us.
"Come, come. There's work enough for a month."
It was true. The effluvium and the moans of several hundreds of wounded men greeted us. Ambulance No——, which we had come to relieve, had been hard at it since the night before, without having made much visible progress. Doctors and orderlies, their faces haggard from a night of frantic toil, came and went, choosing among the heaps of wounded, and tended two while twenty more poured in.
While waiting for our material, we went over the buildings. But a few days before, contagious diseases had been treated here. A hasty disinfection had left the wards reeking with formaline which rasped the throat without disguising the sickly stench of the crowded sufferers. They were huddled round the stoves in the rooms, lying upon the beds of the dormitories, or crouching on the flags of the passages.
In each ward of the lower storey there were thirty or forty men of every branch of the service, moaning and going out from time to time to crawl to the latrines, or, mug in hand, to fetch something to drink.
As we explored further, the scene became more terrible; in the back rooms and in the upper building a number of severely wounded men had been placed, who began to howl as soon as we entered. Many of them had been there for several days. The brutality of circumstances, the relief of units, the enormous sum of work, all combined to create one of those situations which dislocate and overwhelm the most willing service.