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EUDORE sat down awhile, there by the roadside well, before taking the path over the fields that led to the trenches, his hands crossed over one knee, his pale face uplifted. He had no mustache under his nose--only a little flat smear over each corner of his mouth. He whistled, and then yawned in the face of the morning till the tears came.
An artilleryman who was quartered on the edge of the wood--over there where a line of horses and carts looked like a gypsies' bivouac--came up, with the well in his mind, and two canvas buckets that danced at the end of his arms in time with his feet. In front of the sleepy unarmed soldier with a bulging bag he stood fast.
"Yes," said Eudore; "just back."
"Good for you," said the gunner as he made off.
"You've nothing to grumble at--with six days' leave in your water-bottle!"
And here, see, are four more men coming down the road, their gait heavy and slow, their boots turned into enormous caricatures of boots by reason of the mud. As one man they stopped on espying the profile of Eudore.
"There's Eudore! Hello, Eudore! hello, the old sport! You're back then!" they cried together, as they hurried up and offered him hands as big and ruddy as if they were hidden in woolen gloves.
"Morning, boys," said Eudore.
"Had a good time? What have you got to tell us, my boy?"
"Yes," replied Eudore, "not so bad."
"We've been on wine fatigue, and we've finished. Let's go back together, pas?"
In single file they went down the embankment of the road--arm in arm they crossed the field of gray mud, where their feet fell with the sound of dough being mixed in the kneading-trough.
"Well, you've seen your wife, your little Mariette--the only girl for you--that you could never open your jaw without telling us a tale about her, eh?"
Eudore's wan face winced.
"My wife? Yes, I saw her, sure enough, but only for a little while--there was no way of doing any better--but no luck, I admit, and that's all about it."
"How? You know that we live at Villers-l'Abbaye, a hamlet of four houses neither more nor less, astraddle over the road. One of those houses is our café, and she runs it, or rather she is running it again since they gave up shelling the village.
"Now then, with my leave coming along, she asked for a permit to Mont-St-Eloi, where my old folks are, and my permit was for Mont-St-Eloi too. See the move?
"Being a little woman with a head-piece, you know, she had applied for her permit long before the date when my leave was expected. All the same, my leave came before her permit. Spite o' that I set off--for one doesn't let his turn in the company go by, eh? So I stayed with the old people, and waited. I like 'em well enough, but I got down in the mouth all the same. As for them, it was enough that they could see me, and it worried them that I was bored by their company-how else could it be? At the end of the sixth day--at the finish of my leave, and the very evening before returning--a young man on a bicycle, son of the Florence family, brings me a letter from Mariette to say that her permit had not yet come----"
"Ah, rotten luck," cried the audience.
"And that," continued Eudore, "there was only one thing to do.--I was to get leave from the mayor of Mont-St-Eloi, who would get it from the military, and go myself at full speed to see her at Villers."
"You should have done that the first day, not the sixth!"
"So it seems, but I was afraid we should cross and me miss her--y'see, as soon as I landed, I was expecting her all the time, and every minute I fancied I could see her at the open door. So I did as she told me."
"After all, you saw her?"
"Just one day--or rather, just one night."
"Quite sufficient!" merrily said Lamuse, and Eudore the pale and serious shook his head under the shower of pointed and perilous jests that followed.
"Shut your great mouths for five minutes, chaps."
"Get on with it, petit."
"There isn't a great lot of it," said Eudore.
"Well, then, you were saying you had got a hump with your old people?"
"Ah, yes. They had tried their best to make up for Mariette--with lovely rashers of our own ham, and plum brandy, and patching up my linen, and all sorts of little spoiled-kid tricks--and I noticed they were still slanging each other in the old familiar way! But you talk about a difference! I always had my eye on the door to see if some time or other it wouldn't get a move on and turn into a woman. So I went and saw the mayor, and set off, yesterday, towards two in the afternoon--towards fourteen o'clock I might well say, seeing that I had been counting the hours since the day before! I had just one day of my leave left then.
"As we drew near in the dusk, through the carriage window of the little railway that still keeps going down there on some fag-ends of line, I recognized half the country, and the other half I didn't. Here and there I got the sense of it, all at once, and it came back all fresh to me, and melted away again, just as if it was talking to me. Then it shut up. In the end we got out, and I found--the limit, that was--that we had to pad the hoof to the last station.
"Never, old man, have I been in such weather. It had rained for six days. For six days the sky washed the earth and then washed it again. The earth was softening and shifting, and filling up the holes and making new ones."
"Same here--it only stopped raining this morning."
"It was just my luck. And everywhere there were swollen new streams, washing away the borders of the fields as though they were lines on paper. There were hills that ran with water from top to bottom. Gusts of wind sent the rain in great clouds flying and whirling about, and lashing our hands and faces and necks.
"So you bet, when I had tramped to the station, if some one had pulled a really ugly face at me, it would have been enough to make me turn back.
"But when we did get to the place, there were several of us--some more men on leave--they weren't bound for Villers, but they had to go through it to get somewhere else. So it happened that we got there in a lump--five old cronies that didn't know each other.
"I could make out nothing of anything. They've been worse shelled over there than here, and then there was the water everywhere, and it was getting dark.
"I told you there are only four houses in the little place, only they're a good bit off from each other. You come to the lower end of a slope. I didn't know too well where I was, no more than my pals did, though they belonged to the district and had some notion of the lay of it--and all the less because of the rain falling in bucketsful.
"It got so bad that we couldn't keep from hurrying and began to run. We passed by the farm of the Alleux---that's the first of the houses--and it looked like a sort of stone ghost. Bits of walls like splintered pillars standing up out of the water; the house was shipwrecked. The other farm, a little further, was as good as drowned dead.
"Our house is the third. It's on the edge of the road that runs along the top of the slope. We climbed up, facing the rain that beat on us in the dusk and began to blind us--the cold and wet fairly smacked us in the eye, flop!--and broke our ranks like machine-guns.
"The house! I ran like a greyhound--like an African attacking. Mariette! I could see her with her arms raised high in the doorway behind that fine curtain of night and rain--of rain so fierce that it drove her back and kept her shrinking between the doorposts like a statue of the Virgin in its niche. I just threw myself forward, but remembered to give my pals the sign to follow me. The house swallowed the lot of us. Mariette laughed a little to see me, with a tear in her eye. She waited till we were alone together and then laughed and cried all at once. I told the boys to make themselves at home and sit down, some on the chairs and the rest on the table.
"'Where are they going, ces messieurs?' asked Manette.
"'We are going to Vauvelles.'
"'Jésus!' she said, 'you'll never get there. You can't do those two miles and more in the night, with the roads washed away, and swamps everywhere. You mustn't even try to.'
"'Well, we'll go on to-morrow, then; only we must find somewhere to pass the night.'
"'I'll go with you,' I said, 'as far as the Pendu farm--they're not short of room in that shop. You'll snore in there all right, and you can start at daybreak.'
"'Right! let's get a move on so far.'
"We went out again. What a downpour! We were wet past bearing. The water poured into our socks through the boot-soles and by the trouser bottoms, and they too were soaked through and through up to the knees. Before we got to this Pendu, we meet a shadow in a big black cloak, with a lantern. The lantern is raised, and we see a gold stripe on the sleeve, and then an angry face.
"'What the hell are you doing there?' says the shadow, drawing back a little and putting one fist on his hip, while the rain rattled like hail on his hood.
"'They're men on leave for Vauvelles--they can't set off again to-night--they would like to sleep in the Pendu farm.'
"'What do you say? Sleep here?--This is the police station--I am the officer on guard and there are Boche prisoners in the buildings.' And I'll tell you what he said as well--'I must see you hop it from here in less than two seconds. Bonsoir.'
"So we right about face and started back again--stumbling as if we were boozed, slipping, puffing, splashing and bespattering ourselves. One of the boys cried to me through the wind and rain, 'We'll go back with you as far as your home, all the same. If we haven't a house we've time enough.'
"'Where will you sleep?'
"'Oh, we'll find somewhere, don't worry, for the little time we have to kill here.'
"'Yes, we'll find somewhere, all right,' I said. 'Come in again for a minute meanwhile--I won't take no--and Mariette sees us enter once more in single file, all five of us soaked like bread in soup.
"So there we all were, with only one little room to go round in and go round again--the only room in the house, seeing that it isn't a palace.
'Tell me, madame,' says one of our friends, 'isn't there a cellar here?'
"'There's water in it,' says Mariette; 'you can't see the bottom step and it's only got two.'
"'Damn,' says the man, 'for I see there's no loft, either.'
"After a minute or two he gets up: 'Good-night, old pal,' he says to me, and they get their hats on.
"'What, are you going off in weather like this, boys?'
"'Do you think,' says the old sport, 'that we're going to spoil your stay with your wife?'
"'But, my good man----'
"'But me no buts. It's nine o'clock, and you've got to take your hook before day. So good-night. Coming, you others?'
"'Rather,' say the boys. 'Good-night all.'
"There they are at the door and opening it. Mariette and me, we look at each other--but we don't move. Once more we look at each other, and then we sprang at them. I grabbed the skirt of a coat and she a belt--all wet enough to wring out.
"'Never! We won't let you go--it can't be done.'
"'But me no buts,' I reply, while she locks the door."
"Then what?" asked Lamuse.
"Then? Nothing at all," replied Eudore. "We just stayed like that, very discreetly--all the night--sitting, propped up in the corners, yawning--like the watchers over a dead man. We made a bit of talk at first. From time to time some one said, 'Is it still raining?' and went and had a look, and said, 'It's still raining'--we could hear it, by the way. A big chap who had a mustache like a Bulgarian fought against sleeping like a wild man. Sometimes one or two among the crowd slept, but there was always one to yawn and keep an eye open for politeness, who stretched himself or half got up so that he could settle more comfortably.
"Mariette and me, we never slept. We looked at each other, but we looked at the others as well, and they looked at us, and there you are.
"Morning came and cleaned the window. I got up to go and look outside. The rain was hardly less. In the room I could see dark forms that began to stir and breathe hard. Mariette's eyes were red with looking at me all night. Between her and me a soldier was filling his pipe and shivering.
"Some one beats a tattoo on the window, and I half open it. A silhouette with a streaming hat appears, as though carried and driven there by the terrible force of the blast that came with it, and asks----
"'Hey, in the café there! Is there any coffee to be had?'
"'Coming, sir, coming,' cried Mariette.
"She gets up from her chair, a little benumbed. Without a word she looks at her self in our bit of a mirror, touches her hair lightly, and says quite simply, the good lass----
"'I am going to make coffee for everybody.'
"When that was drunk off, we had all of us to go. Besides, customers turned up every minute.
"'Hey, la p'tite mère,' they cried, shoving their noses in at the half-open window, 'let's have a coffee--or three--or four'--'and two more again,' says another voice.
"We go up to Mariette to say good-by. They knew they had played gooseberry that night most damnably, but I could see plainly that they didn't know if it would be the thing to say something about it or just let it drop altogether.
"Then the Bulgarian made up his mind: 'We've made a hell of a mess of it for you, eh, ma p'tite dame?'
"He said that to show he'd been well brought up, the old sport.
"Mariette thanks him and offers him her hand---'That's nothing at all, sir. I hope you'll enjoy your leave.'
"And me, I held her tight in my arms and kissed her as long as I could--half a minute--discontented--my God, there was reason to be--but glad that Mariette had not driven the boys out like dogs, and I felt sure she liked me too for not doing it.
"'But that isn't all,' said one of the leave men, lifting the skirt of his cape and fumbling in his coat pocket; 'that's not all. What do we owe you for the coffees?'
"'Nothing, for you stayed the night with me; you are my guests.'
"'Oh, madame, we can't have that!'
"And how they set to to make protests and compliments in front of each other! Old man, you can say what you like--we may be only poor devils, but it was astonishing, that little palaver of good manners.
"'Come along! Let's be hopping it, eh?'
"They go out one by one. I stay till the last. Just then another passer-by begins to knock on the window--another who was dying for a mouthful of coffee. Mariette by the open door leaned forward and cried, 'One second!'
"Then she put into my arms a parcel that she had ready. 'I had bought a knuckle of ham--it was for supper--for us--for us two--and a liter of good wine. But, ma foi! when I saw there were five of you, I didn't want to divide it out so much, and I want still less now. There's the ham, the bread, and the wine. I give them to you so that you can enjoy them by yourself, my boy. As for them, we have given them enough,' she says.
"Poor Mariette," sighs Eudore. "Fifteen months since I'd seen her. And when shall I see her again? Ever?-- It was jolly, that idea of hers. She crammed all that stuff into my bag----"
He half opens his brown canvas pouch.
"Look, here they are! The ham here, and the bread, and there's the booze. Well, seeing it's there, you don't know what we're going to do with it? We're going to share it out between us, eh, old pals?"