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The Anger of Volpatte
WHEN Volpatte arrived from his sick-leave, after two months' absence, we surrounded him. But he was sullen and silent, and tried to get away.
"Well, what about it? Volpatte, have you nothing to tell us?"
"Tell us all about the hospital and the sick-leave, old cock, from the day when you set off in your bandages, with your snout in parenthesis! You must have seen something of the official shops. Speak then, nome de Dieu!"
"I don't want to say anything at all about it," said Volpatte.
"What's that? What are you talking about?"
"I'm fed up--that's what I am! The people back there, I'm sick of them--they make me spew, and you can tell 'em so!"
"What have they done to you?"
"A lot of sods, they are!" says Volpatte.
There he was, with his head as of yore, his ears "stuck on again" and his Mongolian cheekbones--stubbornly set in the middle of the puzzled circle that besieged him; amid we felt that the mouth fast closed on ominous silence meant high pressure of seething exasperation in the depth of him.
Some words overflowed from him at last. He turned round--facing towards the rear and the bases--and shook his fist at infinite space. "There are too many of them," he said between his teeth, "there are too many!" He seemed to be threatening and repelling a rising sea of phantoms.
A little later, we questioned him again, knowing well that his anger could not thus be retained within, and that the savage silence would explode at the first chance.
It was in a deep communication trench, away back, where we had come together for a meal after a morning spent in digging. Torrential rain was falling. We were muddled and drenched and hustled by the flood, and we ate standing in single file, without shelter, under the dissolving sky. Only by feats of skill could we protect the bread and bully from the spouts that flowed from every point in space; and while we ate we put our hands and faces as much as possible under our cowls. The rain rattled and bounced and streamed on our limp woven armor, and worked with open brutality or sly secrecy into ourselves and our food. Our feet were sinking farther and farther, taking deep root in the stream that flowed along the clayey bottom of the trench. Some faces were laughing, though their mustaches dripped. Others grimaced at the spongy bread and flabby meat, or at the missiles which attacked their skin from all sides at every defect in their heavy and miry armor-plate.
Barque, who was hugging his mess-tin to his heart, bawled at Volpatte: "Well then, a lot of sods, you say, that you've seen down there where you've been?"
"For instance?" cried Blaire, while a redoubled squall shook and scattered his words; "what have you seen in the way of sods?"
"There are----" Volpatte began, "and then--there are too many of them, nom de Dieu! There are----"
He tried to say what was the matter with him, but could only repeat, "There are too many of them!" oppressed and panting. He swallowed a pulpy mouthful of bread as if there went with it the disordered and suffocating mass of his memories.
"Is it the shirkers you want to talk about?"
"By God!" He had thrown the rest of his beef over the parapet, and this cry, this gasp, escaped violently from his mouth as if from a valve.
"Don't worry about the soft-job brigade, old cross-patch," advised Barque, banteringly, but not without some bitterness. "What good does it do?"
Concealed and huddled up under the fragile and unsteady roof of his oiled hood, while the water poured down its shining slopes, and holding his empty mess-tin out for the rain to clean it, Volpatte snarled, "I'm not daft---not a bit of it--and I know very well there've got to be these individuals at the rear. Let them have their dead-heads for all I care--but there's too many of them, and they're all alike, and all rotters, voilà!"
Relieved by this affirmation, which shed a little light on the gloomy farrago of fury he was loosing among us, Volpatte began to speak in fragments across the relentless sheets of rain----
"At the very first village they sent me to, I saw duds, and duds galore, and they began to get on my nerves. All sorts of departments and sub-departments and managements and centers and offices and committees--you're no sooner there than you meet swarms of fools, swam-ms of different services that are only different in name-enough to turn your brain. I tell you, the man that invented the names of all those committees, he was wrong in his head.
"So could I help but be sick of it? Ah, mon vieux," said our comrade, musing, "all those individuals fiddle-faddling and making believe down there, all spruced up with their fine caps and officers' coats and shameful boots, that gulp dainties and can put a dram of best brandy down their gullets whenever they want, and wash themselves oftener twice than once, and go to church, and never stop smoking, and pack themselves up in feathers at night to read the newspaper--and then they say afterwards, 'I've been in the war!'"
One point above all had got hold of Volpatte and emerged from his confused and impassioned vision: "All those soldiers, they haven't to run away with their table-tools and get a bite any old way--they've got to be at their ease--they'd rather go and sit themselves down with some tart in the district, at a special reserved table, and guzzle vegetables, and the fine lady puts their crockery out all square for them on the dining-table, and their pots of jam and every other blasted thing to eat; in short, the advantages of riches and peace in that doubly-damned hell they call the Rear!"
Volpatte's neighbor shook his head under the torrents that fell from heaven and said," So much the better for them."
"I'm not crazy----" Volpatte began again.
"P'raps, but you're not fair."
Volpatte felt himself insulted by the word. He started, and raised his head furiously, and the rain, that was waiting for the chance, took him plump in the face. "Not fair--me? Not fair--to those dung-hills?"
"Exactly, monsieur," the neighbor replied; "I tell you that you play hell with them and yet you'd jolly well like to be in the rotters' place."
"Very likely--but what does that prove, rump-face? To begin with, we, we've been in danger, and it ought to be our turn for the other. But they're always the same, I tell you; and then there's young men there, strong as bulls and poised like wrestlers, and then--there are too many of them! D'you hear? It's always too many, I say, because it is so."
"Too many? What do you know about it, vilain? These departments and committees, do you know what they are?"
"I don't know what they are," Volpatte set off again, "but I know----"
"Don't you think they need a crowd to keep all the army's affairs going?"
"I don't care a damn, but----"
"But you wish it was you, eh?" chaffed the invisible neighbor, who concealed in the depth of the hood on which the reservoirs of space were emptying either a supreme indifference or a cruel desire to take a rise out of Volpatte.
"I can't help it," said the other, simply.
"There's those that can help it for you," interposed the shrill voice of Barque; "I knew one of 'em----"
"I, too, I've seen 'em!" Volpatte yelled with a desperate effort through the storm. "Tiens! not far from the front, don't know where exactly, where there's an ambulance clearing-station and a sous-intendance--I met the reptile there."
The wind, as it passed over us, tossed him the question, "What was it?"
At that moment there was a lull, and the weather allowed Volpatte to talk after a fashion. He said: "He took me round all the jumble of the depot as if it was. a fair, although he was one of the sights of the place. He led me along the passages and into the dining-rooms of houses and supplementary barracks. He half opened doors with labels on them, and said, 'Look here, and here too--look!' I went inspecting with him, but he didn't go back, like I did, to the trenches, don't fret yourself, and he wasn't coming back from them either. don't worry! The reptile, the first time I saw him he was walking nice and leisurely in the yard--'I'm in the Expenses Department,' he says. We talked a bit, and the next day he got an orderly job so as to dodge getting sent away, seeing it was his turn to go since the beginning of the war.
"On the step of the door where he'd laid all night on a feather bed, he was polishing the pumps of his monkey master--beautiful yellow pumps--rubbing 'em with paste, fairly glazing 'em, my boy. I stopped to watch him, and the chap told me all about himself. Mon vieux, I don't remember much more of the stuffing that came out of his crafty skull than I remember of the History of France and the dates we whined at school. Never, I tell you, bad be been sent to the front, although he was Class 1903, [note 1] and a lusty devil at that, he was. Danger and dog-tiredness and all the ugliness of war--not for him, but for the others, oui. He knew damned well that if he set foot in the firing-line, the line would see that the beast got it, so he ran like hell from it, and stopped where he was. He said they'd tried all ways to get him, but he'd given the slip to all the captains, all the colonels, all the majors, and they were all damnably mad with him. He told me about it. How did he work it? He'd sit down all of a sudden, put on a stupid look, do the scrim-shanker stunt, and flop like a bundle of dirty linen. 'I've got a sort of general fatigue,' he'd blubber. They didn't know how to take him, and after a bit they just let him drop--everybody was fit to spew on him. And he changed his tricks according to the circumstances, d'you catch on? Sometimes he had something wrong with his foot--he was damned clever with his feet. And then he contrived things, and he knew one head from another, and how to take his opportunities. He knew what's what, he did. You could see him go and slip in like a pretty poilu among the depot chaps, where the soft jobs were, and stay there; and then he'd put himself out no end to be useful to the pals. He'd get up at three o'clock in the morning to make the juice, go and fetch the water while the others were getting their grub. At last, he'd wormed himself in everywhere, he came to be one of the family, the rotter, the carrion. He did it so he wouldn't have to do it. He seemed to me like an individual that would have earned five quid honestly with the same work and bother that he puts into forging a one-pound note. But there, he'll get his skin out of it all right, he will. At the front he'd be lost sight of in the throng of it, but he's not so stupid. Be damned to them, he says, that take their grub on the ground, and be damned to them still more when they're under it. When we've all done with fighting, he'll go back home and he'll say to his friends and neighbors, 'Here I am safe and sound,' and his pals'll be glad, because be's a good sort, with engaging manners, contemptible creature that he is, and--and this is the most stupid thing of all--but he takes you in and you swallow him whole, the son of a bug.
"And then, those sort of beings, don't you believe there's only one of them. There are barrels of 'em in every depot, that hang on and writhe when their time comes to go, and they say, 'I'm not going,' and they don't go, and they never succeed in driving them as far as the front."
"Nothing new in all that," said Barque, "we know it, we know it!"
"Then there are the offices," Volpatte went on, engrossed in his story of travel; "whole houses and streets and districts. I saw that my little corner in the rear was only a speck, and I had full view of them. Non, I'd never have believed there'd be so many men on chairs while war was going on----"
A hand protruded from the rank and made trial of space-- 'No more sauce falling"--"Then we're going out, bet your life on it." So "March!" was the cry.
The storm held its peace. We filed off in the long narrow swamp stagnating in the bottom of the trench where the moment before it had shaken under slabs of rain. Volpatte's grumbling began again amidst our sorry stroll and the eddies of floundering feet. I listened to him as I watched the shoulders of a poverty-stricken overcoat swaying in front of me, drenched through and through. This time Volpatte was on the track of the police----
"The farther you go from the front the more you see of them."
"Their battlefield is not the same as ours."
Tulacque had an ancient grudge against them. "Look," he said, "how the bobbies spread themselves about to get good lodgings and good food, and then, after the drinking regulations, they dropped on the secret wine-sellers. You saw them lying in wait, with a corner of an eye on the shop-doors, to see if there weren't any poilus slipping quietly out, two-faced that they are, leering to left and to right and licking their mustaches."
"There are good ones among 'em. I knew one in my country, the Côte d'Or, where I---- "
"Shut up!" was Tulacque's peremptory interruption; "they're all alike. There isn't one that can put another right."
"Yes, they're lucky," said Volpatte, "but do you think they're contented? Not a bit; they grouse. At least," he corrected himself, "there was one I met, and he was a grouser. He was devilish bothered by the drill-manual. 'It isn't worth while to learn the drill instruction,' he said, 'they're always changing it. F'r instance, take the department of military police; well, as soon as you've got the gist of it, it's something else. Ah, when will this war be over?' he says."
"They do what they're told to do, those chaps," ventured Eudore.
"Surely. It isn't their fault at all. It doesn't alter the fact that these professional soldiers, pensioned and decorated in the time when we're only civvies, will have made war in a damned funny way."
"That reminds me of a forester that I saw as well," said Volpatte, "who played hell about the fatigues they put him to. 'It's disgusting,' the fellow said to me, 'what they do with us. We're old non-coms., soldiers that have done four years of service at least. We're paid on the higher scale, it's true, but what of that? We are Officials, and yet they humiliate us. At H.Q. they set us to cleaning, and carrying the dung away. The civilians see the treatment they inflict on us, and they look down on us. And if you look like grousing, they'll actually talk about sending you off to the trenches, like foot-soldiers! What's going to become of our prestige? When we go back to the parishes as rangers after the war--if we do come back from it--the people of the villages and forests will say, "Ah, it was you that was sweeping the streets at X----!" To get back our prestige, compromised by human injustice and ingratitude, I know well,' he says, 'that we shall have to make complaints, and make complaints and make 'em with all our might, to the rich and to the influential!' he says."
"I knew a gendarme who was all right," said Lamuse. "'The police are temperate enough in general,' he says, 'but there are always dirty devils everywhere, pas? The civilian is really afraid of the gendarme,' says he, 'and that's a fact; and so, I admit it, there are some who take advantage of it, and those ones--the tag-rag of the gendarmerie--know where to get a glass or two. If I was Chief or Brigadier, I'd screw 'em down; not half I wouldn't,' he says; 'for public opinion,' he says again. 'lays the blame on the whole force when a single one with a grievance makes a complaint.'"
"As for me," says Paradis, "one of the worst days of my life was once when I saluted a gendarme, taking him for a lieutenant, with his white stripes. Fortunately--I don't say it to console myself, but because it's probably true--fortunately, I don't think he saw me."
A silence. "Oui, 'vidently," the men murmured; "but what about it? No need to worry."
* * * * * *
A little later, when we were seated along a wall, with our backs to the stones, and our feet plunged and planted in the ground, Volpatte continued unloading his impressions.
"I went into a big room that was a Depot office--bookkeeping department, I believe. It swarmed with tables, and people in it like in a market. Clouds of talk. All along the walls on each side and in the middle, personages sitting in front of their spread-out goods like waste-paper merchants. I put in a request to be put back into my regiment, and they said to me, 'Take your damned hook, and get busy with it.' I lit on a sergeant, a little chap with airs, spick as a daisy, with a gold-rimmed spy-glass--eye-glasses with a tape on them. He was young, but being a re-enlisted soldier, he had the right not to go to the front. I said to him, 'Sergeant!' But he didn't hear me, being busy slanging a secretary--it's unfortunate, mon garçon,' he was saying; 'I've told you twenty times that you must send one notice of it to be carried out by the Squadron Commander, Provost of the C.A., and one by way of advice, without signature, but making mention of the signature, to the Provost of the Force Publique d'Amiens and of the centers of the district, of which you have the list--in envelopes, of course, of the general commanding the district. It's very simple,' he says.
"I'd drawn back three paces to wait till he'd done with jawing. Five minutes after, I went up to the sergeant. He said to me, 'My dear sir, I have not the time to bother with you; I have many other matters to attend to.' As a matter of fact, he was all in a flummox in front of his typewriter, the chump, because he'd forgotten, he said, to press on the capital-letter lever, and so, instead of underlining the heading of his page, he'd damn well scored a line of 8's in the middle of the top. So he couldn't hear anything, and he played hell with the Americans, seeing the machine came from there.
"After that, he growled against another woolly-leg, because on the memorandum of the distribution of maps they hadn't put the names of the Ration Department, the Cattle Department, and the Administrative Convoy of the 328th D.I.
"Alongside, a fool was obstinately trying to pull more circulars off a jellygraph than it would print, doing his damnedest to produce a lot of ghosts that you could hardly read. Others were talking: 'Where are the Parisian fasteners?' asked a toff. And they don't call things by their proper names: 'Tell me now, if you please, what are the elements quartered at X----?' The elements! What's all that sort of babble?" asked Volpatte.
"At the end of the big table where these fellows were that I've mentioned and that I'd been to, and the sergeant floundering about behind a hillock of papers at the top of it and giving orders, a simpleton was doing nothing but tap on his blotting-pad with his hands. His job, the mug, was the department of leave-papers, and as the big push had begun and all leave was stopped, he hadn't anything to do--'Capital!' he says.
"And all that, that's one table in one room in one department in one depot. I've seen more, and then more, and more and more again. I don't know, but it's enough to drive you off your nut, I tell you."
"Have they got brisques?" [note 2]
"Not many there, but in the department of the second line every one had 'em. You had museums of 'em there--whole Zoological Gardens of stripes."
"Prettiest thing I've seen in the way of stripes," said Tulacque, "was a motorist, dressed in cloth that you'd have said was satin, with new stripes, and the leathers of an English officer, though a second-class soldier as he was. With his finger on his cheek, he leaned with his elbows on that fine carriage adorned with windows that he was the valet de chambre of. He'd have made you sick, the dainty beast. He was just exactly the poilu that you see pictures of in the ladies' papers--the pretty little naughty papers."
Each has now his memories, his tirade on this much-excogitated subject of the shirkers, and all begin to overflow and to talk at once. A hubbub surrounds the foot of the mean wall where we are heaped like bundles, with a gray, muddy, and trampled spectacle lying before us, laid waste by rain.
"----orderly in waiting to the Road Department, then at the Bakery, then cyclist to the Revictualing Department of the Eleventh Battery."
"----every morning he had a note to take to the Service de l'Intendance, to the Gunnery School, to the Bridges Department, and in the evening to the A.D. and the A.T.--that was all."
"----when I was coming back from leave,' said that orderly, 'the women cheered us at all the level-crossing gates that the train passed.' 'They took you for soldiers,' I said."
"----'Ah,' I said, 'you're called up, then, are you?' 'Certainly,' he says to me, 'considering that I've been a round of meetings in America with a Ministerial deputation. P'raps it's not exactly being called up, that? Anyway, mon ami,' he says, 'I don't pay any rent, so I must be called up.' 'And me----'"
"To finish," cries Volpatte, silencing the hum with his authority of a traveler returned from "down there," "to finish, I saw a whole legion of 'em all together at a blow-out. For two days I was a sort of helper in the kitchen of one of the centers of the C.O.A., 'cos they couldn't let me do nothing while waiting for my reply, which didn't hurry, seeing they'd sent another inquiry and a super-inquiry after it, and the reply had too many halts to make in each office, going and coming.
"In short, I was cook in the shop. Once I waited at table, seeing that the head cook had just got back from leave for the fourth time and was tired. I saw and I heard those people every time I went into the dining-room, that was in the Prefecture, and all that hot and illuminated row got into my head. They were only auxiliaries in there, but there were plenty of the armed service among the number, too. They were almost all old men, with a few young ones besides, sitting here and there.
"I'd begun to get about enough of it when one of the broomsticks said, 'The shutters must be closed; it's more prudent.' My boy. they were a lump of a hundred and twenty-five miles from the firing-line, but that pock-marked puppy he wanted to make believe there was danger of bombardment by aircraft----"
"And there's my cousin," said Tulacque, fumbling, "who wrote to me--Look, here's what he says: 'Mon cher Adolphe, here I am definitely settled in Paris as attaché to Guard-Room 60. While you are down there. I must stay in the capital at the mercy of a Taube or a Zeppelin!'"
The phrase sheds a tranquil delight abroad, and we assimilate it like a tit-bit, laughing.
"After that," Volpatte went on, "those layers of soft-jobbers fed me up still more. As a dinner it was all right--cod, seeing it was Friday, but prepared like soles à la Marguerite--I know all about it. But the talk!----"
"They call the bayonet Rosalie, don't they?"
"Yes, the padded luneys. But during dinner these gentlemen talked above all about themselves. Every one, so as to explain why he wasn't somewhere else, as good as said (but all the while saying something else and gorging like an ogre), 'I'm ill, I'm feeble, look at me, ruin that I am. Me, I'm in my dotage.' They were all seeking inside themselves to find diseases to wrap themselves up in--'I wanted to go to the war, but I've a rupture, two ruptures, three ruptures.' Ah, non, that feast!--'The orders that speak of sending everybody away,' explained a funny man, 'they're like the comedies,' he explained, 'there's always a last act to clear up all the jobbery of the others. That third act is this paragraph, "Unless the requirements of the Departments stand in the way."' There was one that told this tale, 'I had three friends that I counted on to give me a lift up. I was going to apply to them; but, one after another, a little before I put my request, they were killed by the enemy; look at that,' he says, 'I've no luck!' Another was explaining to another that, as for him, he would very much have liked to go, but the surgeon-major had taken him round the waist to keep him by force in the depot with the auxiliary. 'Eh bien,' he says, 'I resigned myself. After all, I shall be of greater value in putting my intellect to the service of the country than in carrying a knapsack.' And him that was alongside said, 'Oui,' with his headpiece feathered on top. He'd jolly well consented to go to Bordeaux at the time when the Boches were getting near Paris, and then Bordeaux became the stylish place; but afterwards he returned firmly to the front--to Paris--and said something like this, 'My ability is of value to France; it is absolutely necessary that I guard it for France.'
"They talked about other people that weren't there--of the commandant who was getting an impossible temper, and they explained that the more imbecile he got the harsher he got; and the General that made unexpected inspections with the idea of kicking all the soft-jobbers out, but who'd been laid up for eight days, very ill--'he's certainly going to die; his condition no longer gives rise to any uneasiness,' they said, smoking the cigarettes that Society swells send to the depots for the soldiers at the front. 'D'you know,' they said, 'little Frazy, who is such a nice boy, the cherub, he's at last found an excuse for staying behind. They wanted some cattle slaughterers for the abattoir, and he's enlisted himself in there for protection, although he's got a University degree and in spite of being an attorney's clerk. As for Flandrin's son, he's succeeded in getting himself attached to the roadmenders.--Roadmender, him? Do you think they'll let him stop so?' 'Certain sure,' replies one of the cowardly milksops. 'A road-mender's job is for a long time.'
"Talk about idiots," Marthereau growls.
"And they were all jealous, I don't know why, of a chap called Bourin. Formerly he moved in the best Parisian circles. He lunched and dined in the city. He made eighteen calls a day, and fluttered about the drawing-rooms from afternoon tea till daybreak. He was indefatigable in leading cotillons, organizing festivities, swallowing theatrical shows, without counting the motoring parties, and all the lot running with champagne. Then the war came. So he's no longer capable, the poor boy, of staying on the look-out a bit late at an embrasure, or of cutting wire. He must stay peacefully in the warm. And then, him, a Parisian, to go into the provinces and bury himself in the trenches! Never in this world! 'I realize, too,' replied an individual, 'that at thirty-seven I've arrived at the age when I must take care of myself!' And while the fellow was saying that, I was thinking of Dumont the gamekeeper, who was forty-two, and was done in close to me on Hill 132, so near that after he got the handful of bullets in his head, my body shook with the trembling of his."
"And what were they like with you, these thieves?"
"To hell with me, it was, but they didn't show it too much, only now and again when they couldn't hold themselves in. They looked at me out of the corner of their eyes, and took damn good care not to touch me in passing, for I was still war-mucky.
"It disgusted me a bit to be in the middle of that heap of good-for-nothings, but I said to myself, 'Come, it's only for a bit, Firmin.' There was just one time that I very near broke out with the itch, and that was when one of 'em said, 'Later, when we return, if we do return.'--NO! He had no right to say that. Sayings like that, before you let them out of your gob, you've got to earn them; it's like a decoration. Let them get cushy jobs, if they like, but not play at being men in the open when they've damned well run away. And you hear 'em discussing the battles, for they're in closer touch than you with the big bugs and with the way the war's managed; and afterwards, when you return, if you do return, it's you that'll be wrong in the middle of all that crowd of humbugs, with the poor little truth that you've got.
"Ah, that evening, I tell you, all those heads in the reek of the light, the foolery of those people enjoying life and profiting by peace! It was like a ballet at the theater or the make-believe of a magic lantern. There were--there were--there are a hundred thousand more of them," Volpatte at last concluded in confusion.
But the men who were paying for the safety of the others with their strength and their lives enjoyed the wrath that choked him, that brought him to bay in his corner, and overwhelmed him with the apparitions of shirkers.
"Lucky he doesn't start talking about the factory hands who've served their apprenticeship in the war, and all those who've stayed at home under the excuse of National Defense, that was put on its feet in five secs!" murmured Tirette; "he'd keep us going with them till Doomsday."
"You say there are a hundred thousand of them, flea-bite," chaffed Barque. "Well, in 1914--do you hear me?--Millerand, the War Minister, said to the M.P.'s, 'There are no shirkers.' "
"Millerand!" growled Volpatte. "I tell you, I don't know the man; but if he said that, he's a dirty sloven, sure enough!"
* * * * * *
"One is always," said Bertrand, "a shirker to some one else."
"That's true; no matter what you call yourself, you'll always---always--find worse blackguards and better blackguards than yourself."
"All those that never go up to the trenches, or those who never go into the first line, and even those who only go there now and then, they're shirkers, if you like to call 'em so, and you'd see how many there are if they only gave stripes to the real fighters."
"There are two hundred and fifty to each regiment of two battalions," said Cocon.
"There are the orderlies, and a bit since there were even the servants of the adjutants."--"The cooks and the under-cooks."--"The sergeant-majors, and the quartermaster-sergeants, as often as not."--"The mess corporals and the mess fatigues."--"Some office-props and the guard of the colors."--"The baggage-masters." "The drivers, the laborers, and all the section, with all its non-coms., and even the sappers."--"The cyclists." "Not all of them."--"Nearly all the Red Cross service."--"Not the stretcher-bearers, of course; for they've not only got a devilish rotten job, but they live with the companies, and when attacks are on they charge with their stretchers; but the hospital attendants."
"Nearly all parsons, especially at the rear. For, you know, parsons with knapsacks on, I haven't seen a devil of a lot of 'em, have you?"
"Nor me either. In the papers, but not here."
"There are some, it seems."--"Ah!"
"Anyway, the common soldier's taken something on in this war."
"There are others that are in the open. We're not the only ones."
"We are!" said Tulacque, sharply; "we're almost the only ones!"
He added, "You may say--I know well enough what you'll tell me--that it was the motor lorries and the heavy artillery that brought it off at Verdun. It's true, but they've got a soft job all the same by the side of us. We're always in danger, against their once, and we've got the bullets and the bombs, too, that they haven't. The heavy artillery reared rabbits near their dug-outs, and they've been making themselves omelettes for eighteen months. We are really in danger. Those that only get a bit of it, or only once, aren't in it at all. Otherwise, everybody would be. The nursemaid strolling the streets of Paris would be, too, since there are the Taubes and the Zeppelins, as that pudding-head said that the pal was talking about just now."
"In the first expedition to the Dardanelles, there was actually a chemist wounded by a shell. You don't believe me, but it's true all the same--an officer with green facings, wounded!"
"That's chance, as I wrote to Mangouste, driver of a remount horse for the section, that got wounded--but it was done by a motor lorry."
"That's it, it's like that. After all, a bomb can tumble down on a pavement, in Paris or in Bordeaux."
"Oui, oui; so it's too easy to say, 'Don't let's make distinctions in danger!' Wait a bit. Since the beginning, there are some of those others who've got killed by an unlucky chance; among us there are some that are still alive by a lucky chance. It isn't the same thing, that, seeing that when you're dead, it's for a long time."
"Yes," says Tirette, "but you're getting too venomous with your stories of shirkers. As long as we can't help it, it's time to turn over. I'm thinking of a retired forest-ranger at Cherey, where we were last month, who went about the streets of the town spying everywhere to rout out some civilian of military age, and he smelled out the dodgers like a mastiff. Behold him pulling up in front of a sturdy goodwife that had a mustache, and he only sees her mustache, so he bullyrags her-- 'Why aren't you at the front, you?'"
"For my part," says Pépin, "I don't fret myself about the shirkers or the semi-shirkers, it's wasting one's time; but where they get on my nerves, it's when they swank. I'm of Volpatte's opinion. Let 'em shirk, good, that's human nature; but afterwards they shouldn't say, 'I've been a soldier.' Take the engagés, [note 3] for instance----"
"That depends on the engagés. Those who have offered for the infantry without conditions, I look up to those men as much as to those that have got killed; but the engagés in the departments or special arms, even in the heavy artillery, they begin to get my back up. We know 'em! When they're doing the agreeable in their social circle, they'll say, 'I've offered for the war.'-- 'Ah, what a fine thing you have done; of your own free will you have defied the machine-guns! '--'Well, yes, madame la marquise, I'm built like that!' Eh, get out of it, humbug!"
"Oui, it's always the same tale. They wouldn't be able to say in the drawing-rooms afterwards, 'Tenez, here I am; look at me for a voluntary engagé!'"
"I know a gentleman who enlisted in the aerodromes. He had a fine uniform--he'd have done better to offer for the Opéra-Comique. What am I saying--'he'd have done better?' He'd have done a damn sight better, oui. At least he'd have made other people laugh honestly, instead of making them laugh with the spleen in it."
"They're a lot of cheap china, fresh painted, and plastered with ornaments and all sorts of falderals, but they don't go under fire."
"If there'd only been people like those, the Boches would be at Bayonne."
"When war's on, one must risk his skin, eh, corporal?"
"Yes," said Bertrand, "there are some times when duty and danger are exactly the same thing; when the country, when justice and liberty are in danger, it isn't in taking shelter that you defend them. On the contrary, war means danger of death and sacrifice of life for everybody, for everybody; no one is sacred. One must go for it, upright, right to the end, and not pretend to do it in a fanciful uniform. These services at the bases, and they're necessary, must be automatically guaranteed by the really weak and the really old."
"Besides, there are too many rich and influential people who have shouted, 'Let us save France!--and begin by saving ourselves!' On the declaration of war, there was a big rush to get out of it, that's what there was, and the strongest succeeded. I noticed myself, in my little corner, it was especially those that jawed most about patriotism previously. Anyway, as the others were saying just now, if they get into a funk-hole, the worst filthiness they can do is to make people believe they've run risks. 'Cos those that have really run risks, they deserve the same respect as the dead."
"Well, what then? It's always like that, old man; you can't change human nature."
"It can't be helped. Grouse, complain? Tiens! talking about complaining, did you know Margoulin?"
"Margoulin? The good sort that was with us, that they left to die at le Crassier because they thought he was dead?"
"Well, he wanted to make a complaint. Every day he talked about protesting against all those things to the captain and the commandant. He'd say after breakfast, 'I'll go and say it as sure as that pint of wine's there.' And a minute later, 'If I don't speak, there's never a pint of wine there at all.' And if you were passing later you'd hear him again, 'Tiens! is that a pint of wine there? Well, you'll see if I don't speak! Result--he said nothing at all. You'll say, 'But he got killed.' True, but previously he had God's own time to do it two thousand times if he'd dared."
"All that, it makes me ill," growled Blaire, sullen, but with a flash of fury.
"We others, we've seen nothing--seeing that we don't see anything--but if we did see----!"
"Old chap," Volpatte cried, "those depots--take notice of what I say--you'd have to turn the Seine, the Garonne, the Rhone and the Loire into them to clean them. In the interval, they're living, and they live well, and they go to doze peacefully every night, every night!"
The soldier held his peace. In the distance he saw the night as they would pass it--cramped up, trembling with vigilance in the deep darkness, at the bottom of the listening-hole whose ragged jaws showed in black outline all around whenever a gun hurled its dawn into the sky.
Bitterly said Cocon: "All that, it doesn't give you any desire to die."
"Yes, it does," some one replies tranquilly. "Yes, it does. Don't exaggerate, old kipper-skin."
[note 1:] Thirty or thirty-one years old in 1914.--Tr.
[note 2:] A-shape badges worn on the left arm to indicate the duration of service at the front.--Tr.
[note 3:] Soldiers voluntarily enlisted in ordinary times for three. four, or five years. Those enlisted for four or five year' have the right to choose their arm of the service, subject to conditions.--