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WE are waiting for daylight in the place where we sank to the ground. Sinister and slow it comes, chilling and dismal, and expands upon the livid landscape.
The rain has ceased to fall--there is none left in the sky. The leaden plain and its mirrors of sullied water seem to issue not only from the night but from the sea.
Drowsy or half asleep, sometimes opening our eyes only to close them again, we attend the incredible renewal of light, paralyzed with cold and broken with fatigue.
Where are the trenches?
We see lakes, and between the lakes there are lines of milky and motionless water. There is more water even than we had thought. It has taken everything and spread everywhere, and the prophecy of the men in the night has come true. There are no more trenches; those canals are the trenches enshrouded. It is a universal flood. The battlefield is not sleeping; it is dead. Life may be going on down yonder perhaps, but we cannot see so far.
Swaying painfully, like a sick man, in the terrible encumbering clasp of my greatcoat, I half raise myself to look at it all. There are three monstrously shapeless forms beside me. One of them--it is Paradis, in an amazing armor of mud, with a swelling at the waist that stands for his cartridge pouches--gets up also. The others are asleep, and make no movement.
And what is this silence, too, this prodigious silence? There is no sound, except when from time to time a lump of earth slips into the water, in the middle of this fantastic paralysis of the world. No one is firing. There are no shells, for they would not burst. There are no bullets, either, for the men----
Ah, the men! Where are the men?
We see them gradually. Not far from us there are some stranded and sleeping hulks so molded in mud from head to foot that they are almost transformed into inanimate objects.
Some distance away I can make out others, curled up and clinging like snails all along a rounded embankment, from which they have partly slipped back into the water. It is a motionless rank of clumsy lumps, of bundles placed side by side, dripping water and mud, and of the same color as the soil with which they are blended.
I make an effort to break the silence. To Paradis, who also is looking that way, I say, "Are they dead?"
"We'll go and see presently," he says in a low voice; "stop here a bit yet. We shall have the heart to go there by and by."
We look at each other, and our eyes fall also on the others who came and fell down here. Their faces spell such weariness that they are no longer faces so much as something dirty, disfigured and bruised, with blood-shot eyes. Since the beginning we have seen each other in all manner of shapes and appearances, and yet--we do not know each other.
Paradis turns his head and looks elsewhere.
Suddenly I see him seized with trembling. He extends an arm enormously caked in mud. "There--there----" he says.
On the water which overflows from a stretch particularly cross-seamed and gullied, some lumps are floating, some round-backed reefs.
We drag ourselves to the spot. They are drowned men. Their arms and heads are submerged. On the surface of the plastery liquid appear their backs and the straps of their accouterments. Their blue cloth trousers are inflated, with the feet attached askew upon the ballooning legs, like the black wooden feet on the shapeless legs of marionettes. From one sunken head the hair stands straight up like water-weeds. Here is a face which the water only lightly touches; the head is beached on the marge, and the body disappears in its turbid tomb. The face is lifted skyward. The eyes are two white holes; the mouth is a black hole. The mask's yellow and puffed-up skin appears soft and creased, like dough gone cold.
They are the men who were watching there, and could not extricate themselves from the mud. All their efforts to escape over the sticky escarpment of the trench that was slowly and fatally filling with water only dragged them still more into the depth. They died clinging to the yielding support of the earth.
There, our first lines are; and there, the first German lines, equally silent and flooded. On our way to these flaccid ruins we pass through the middle of what yesterday was the zone of terror, the awful space on whose threshold the fierce rush of our last attack was forced to stop, the No Man's Land which bullets and shells had not ceased to furrow for a year and a half, where their crossed fire during these latter days had furiously swept the ground from one horizon to the other.
Now, it is a field of rest. The ground is everywhere dotted with beings who sleep or who are on the way to die, slowly moving, lifting an arm, lifting the head.
The enemy trench is completing the process of foundering into itself, among great marshy undulations and funnel-holes, shaggy with mud: it forms among them a line of pools and wells. Here and there we can see the still overhanging banks begin to move, crumble, and fail down. In one place we can lean against it.
In this bewildering circle of filth there are no bodies. But there, worse than a body, a solitary arm protrudes, bare and white as a stone, from a hole which dimly shows on the other side of the water. The man has been buried in his dug-out and has had only the time to thrust out his arm.
Quite near, we notice that some mounds of earth aligned along the ruined ramparts of this deep-drowned ditch are human. Are they dead--or asleep? We do not know; in any case, they rest.
Are they German or French? We do not know. One of them has opened his eyes, and looks at us with swaying head. We say to him, "French?"--and then, "Deutsch?" He makes no reply, but shuts his eyes again and relapses into oblivion. We never knew what he was.
We cannot decide the identity of these beings, either by their clothes, thickly covered with filth, or by their head-dress, for they are bareheaded or swathed in woolens under their liquid and offensive cowls; or by their weapons, for they either have no rifles or their hands rest lightly on something they have dragged along, a shapeless and sticky mass, like to a sort of fish.
All these men of corpse-like faces who are before us and behind us, at the limit of their strength, void of speech as of will, all these earth-charged men who you would say were carrying their own winding-sheets, are as much alike as if they were naked. Out of the horror of the night apparitions are issuing from this side and that who are clad in exactly the same uniform of misery and mud.
It is the end of all. For the moment it is the prodigious finish, the epic cessation of the war.
I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.
The wind is rising, and its icy breath goes through our flesh. On the wrecked and dissolving plain, flecked with bodies between its worm-shaped chasms of water, among the islands of motionless men stuck together like reptiles, in this flattening and sinking chaos there are some slight indications of movement. We see slowly stirring groups and fragments of groups, composed of beings who bow under the weight of their coats and aprons of mud, who trail themselves along, disperse, and crawl about in the depths of the sky's tarnished light. The dawn is so foul that one would say the day was already done.
These survivors are migrating across the desolated steppe, pursued by an unspeakable evil which exhausts and bewilders them. They are lamentable objects; and some, when they are fully seen, are dramatically ludicrous, for the whelming mud from which they still take flight has half unclothed them.
As they pass by their glances go widely around. They look at us, and discovering men in us they cry through the wind, "It's worse down yonder than it is here. The chaps are falling into the holes, and you can't pull them out. All them that trod on the edge of a shell-hole last night, they're dead. Down there where we're coming from you can see a head in the ground, working its arms, embedded. There's a hurdle-path that's given way in places and the hurdles have sunk into holes, and it's a man-trap. Where there's no more hurdles there's two yards deep of water. Your rifle? You couldn't pull it out again when you'd stuck it in. Look at those men, there. They've cut off all the bottom half of their great-coats--hard lines on the pockets--to help 'em get clear, and also because they hadn't strength to drag a weight like that. Dumas' coat, we were able to pull it off him, and it weighed a good eighty pounds; we could just lift it, two of us, with both our hands. Look--him with the bare legs; it's taken everything off him, his trousers, his drawers, his boots, all dragged off by the mud. One's never seen that, never."
Scattered and straggling, the herd takes flight in a fever of fear, their feet pulling huge stumps of mud out of the ground. We watch the human flotsam fade away, and the lumps of them diminish, immured in enormous clothes.
We get up, and at once the icy wind makes us tremble like trees. Slowly we veer towards the mass formed by two men curiously joined, leaning shoulder to shoulder, and each with an arm round the neck of the other. Is it the hand-to-hand fight of two soldiers who have overpowered each other in death and still hold their own, who can never again lose their grip? No; they are two men who recline upon each other so as to sleep. As they might not spread themselves on the falling earth that was ready to spread itself on them, they have supported each other, clasping each other's shoulder; and thus plunged in the ground up to their knees, they have gone to sleep.
We respect their stillness, and withdraw from the twin statue of human wretchedness.
Soon we must halt ourselves. We have expected too much of our strength and can go no farther. It is not yet ended. We collapse once more in a churned corner, with a noise as if one shot a load of dung.
From time to time we open our eyes. Some men are steering for us, reeling. They lean over us and speak in low and weary tones. One of them says, "Sie sind todt. Wir bleiben hier." (They're dead. We'll stay here.) The other says, "Ja," like a sigh.
But they see us move, and at once they sink in front of us. The man with the toneless voice says to us in French, "We surrender," and they do not move. Then they give way entirely, as if this was the relief, the end of their torture; and one of them whose face is patterned in mud like a savage tattooed, smiles slightly.
"Stay there," says Paradis, without moving the head that he leans backward upon a hillock; "presently you shall go with us if you want."
"Yes," says the German, "I've had enough." We make no reply, and he says, "And the others too?"
"Yes," says Paradis, "let them stop too, if they like." There are four of them outstretched on the ground. The death-rattle has got one of them. It is like a sobbing song that rises from him. The others then half straighten themselves, kneeling round him, and roll great eyes in their muck-mottled faces. We get up and watch the scene. But the rattle dies out, and the blackened throat which alone in all the big body pulsed like a little bird, is still.
"Er ist todt!" (He's dead) says one of the men, beginning to cry. The others settle themselves again to sleep. The weeper goes to sleep as he weeps.
Other soldiers have come, stumbling, gripped in sudden halts like tipsy men, or gliding along like worms, to take sanctuary here; and we sleep all jumbled together in the common grave.
* * * * * *
Waking, Paradis and I look at each other, and remember. We return to life and daylight as in a nightmare. In front of us the calamitous plain is resurrected, where hummocks vaguely appear from their immersion, the steel-like plain that is rusty in places and shines with lines and pools of water, while bodies are strewn here and there in the vastness like foul rubbish, prone bodies that breathe or rot.
Paradis says to me, "That's war."
"Yes, that's it," he repeats in a far-away voice, "that's war. It's not anything else."
He means--and I am with him in his meaning--"More than attacks that are like ceremonial reviews, more than visible battles unfurled like banners, more even than the hand-to-hand encounters of shouting strife, War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the belly, mud and dung and infamous filth. It is befouled faces and tattered flesh, it is the corpses that are no longer like corpses even, floating on the ravenous earth. It is that, that endless monotony of misery, broken, by poignant tragedies; it is that, and not the bayonet glittering like silver, nor the bugle's chanticleer call to the sun!"
Paradis was so full of this thought that he ruminated a memory, and growled, "D'you remember the woman in the town where we went about a bit not so very long ago? She talked some drivel about attacks, and said, 'How beautiful they must be to see!'"
A chasseur who was full length on his belly, flattened out like a cloak, raised his bead out of the filthy background in which it was sunk, and cried, 'Beautiful? Oh, hell! It's just as if an ox were to say, 'What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle driven forward to the slaughter-house!'" He spat out mud from his besmeared mouth, and his unburied face was like a beast's.
"Let them say, 'It must be,'" he sputtered in a strange jerky voice, grating and ragged; "that's all right. But beautiful! Oh, hell!"
Writhing under the idea, he added passionately, "It's when they say things like that that they hit us hardest of all!" He spat again, hut exhausted by his effort he fell back in his bath of mud, and laid his head in his spittle.
* * * * * *
Paradis, possessed by his notion, waved his hand towards the wide unspeakable landscape. and looking steadily on it repeated his sentence, 'War is that. It is that everywhere. What are we, we chaps, and what's all this here? Nothing at all. All we can see is only a speck. You've got to remember that this morning there's three thousand kilometers of equal evils, or nearly equal, or worse."
"And then," said the comrade at our side, whom we could not recognize even by his voice, "to-morrow it begins again. It began again the day before yesterday, and all the days before that!"
With an effort as if he was tearing the ground, the chasseur dragged his body out of the earth where he had molded a depression like an oozing coffin, and sat in the hole. He blinked his eyes and tried to shake the balance of mud from his face, and said, "We shall come out of it again this time. And who knows, p'raps we shall come out of it again to-morrow! Who knows?"
Paradis, with his back bent under mats of earth and clay, was trying to convey his idea that the war cannot be imagined or measured in terms of time and space. "When one speaks of the whole war," he said, thinking aloud, 'it's as if you said nothing at all--the words are strangled. We're here, and we look at it all like blind men."
A bass voice rolled to us from a little farther away, "No, one cannot imagine it."
At these words a burst of harsh laughter tore itself from some one. "How could you imagine it, to begin with, if you hadn't been there?"
"You'd have to be mad," said the chasseur.
Paradis leaned over a sprawling outspread mass beside him and said, "Are you asleep?"
"No, but I'm not going to budge." The smothered and terror-struck mutter issued instantly from the mass that was covered with a thick and slimy horse-cloth, so indented that it seemed to have been trampled. "I'll tell you why. I believe my belly's shot through. But I'm not sure, and I daren't find out."
"No, not yet," says the man. "I'd rather stop on a bit like this."
The others, dragging themselves on their elbows, began to make splashing movements, by way of casting off the clammy infernal covering that weighed them down. The paralysis of cold was passing away from the knot of sufferers, though the light no longer made any progress over the great irregular marsh of the lower plain. The desolation proceeded, but not the day.
Then he who spoke sorrowfully, like a bell, said. "It'll be no good telling about it, eh? They wouldn't believe you; not out of malice or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn't. When you say to 'em later, if you live to say it, 'We were on a night job and we got shelled and we were very nearly drowned in mud,' they'll say, 'Ah!' And p'raps they'll say. 'You didn't have a very spicy time on the job.' And that's all. No one can know it. Only us."
"No, not even us, not even us!" some one cried.
"That's what I say, too. We shall forget--we're forgetting already, my boy!"
"We've seen too much to remember."
"And everything we've seen was too much. We're not made to hold it all. It takes its damned hook in all directions. We're too little to hold it."
"You're right, we shall forget! Not only the length of the big misery, which can't be calculated, as you say, ever since the beginning, but the marches that turn up the ground and turn it again, lacerating your feet and wearing out your bones under a load that seems to grow bigger in the sky, the exhaustion until you don't know your own name any more, the tramping and the inaction that grind you, the digging jobs that exceed your strength, the endless vigils when you fight against sleep and watch for an enemy who is everywhere in the night, the pillows of dung and lice--we shall forget not only those, but even the foul wounds of shells and machine-guns, the mines, the gas, and the counter-attacks. At those moments you're full of the excitement of reality, and you've some satisfaction. But all that wears off and goes away, you don't know how and you don't know where, and there's only the names left, only the words of it, like in a dispatch."
"That's true what he says," remarks a man, without moving his head in its pillory of mud. When I was on leave, I found I'd already jolly well forgotten what had happened to me before. There were some letters from me that I read over again just as if they were a book I was opening. And yet in spite of that, I've forgotten also all the pain I've had in the war. We're forgetting-machines. Men are things that think a little but chiefly forget. That's what we are."
"Then neither the other side nor us'll remember! So much misery all wasted!"
This point of view added to the abasement of these beings on the shore of the flood, like news of a greater disaster, and humiliated them still more.
"Ah, if one did remember!" cried some one.
"If we remembered," said another, "there wouldn't be any more war."
A third added grandly, "Yes, if we remembered, war would be less useless than it is."
But suddenly one of the prone survivors rose to his knees, dark as a great bat ensnared, and as the mud dripped from his waving arms he cried in a hollow voice, "There must be no more war after this!"
In that miry corner where, still feeble unto impotence, we were beset by blasts of wind which laid hold on us with such rude strength that the very ground seemed to sway like sea-drift, the cry of the man who looked as if he were trying to fly away evoked other like cries: "There must be no more war after this!"
The sullen or furious exclamations of these men fettered to the earth, incarnate of earth, arose and slid away on the wind like beating wings--
"No more war! No more war! Enough of it!"
"It's too stupid--it's too stupid," they mumbled.
'What does it mean, at the bottom of it, all this?--all this that you can't even give a name to?"
They snarled and growled like wild beasts on that sort of ice-floe contended for by the elements, in their dismal disguise of ragged mud. So huge was the protest thus rousing them in revolt that it choked them.
"We're made to live, not to be done in like this!"
"Men are made to be husbands, fathers--men, what the devil!--not beasts that hunt each other and cut each other's throats and make themselves stink like all that."
"And yet, everywhere--everywhere--there are beasts, savage beasts or smashed beasts. Look, look!"
I shall never forget the look of those limitless lands wherefrom the water had corroded all color and form, whose contours crumbled on all sides under the assault of the liquid putrescence that flowed across the broken bones of stakes and wire and framing; nor, rising above those things amid the sullen Stygian immensity, can I ever forget the vision of the thrill of reason, logic and simplicity that suddenly shook these men like a fit of madness.
I could see them agitated by this idea--that to try to live one's life on earth and to be happy is not only a right but a duty, and even an ideal and a virtue; that the only end of social life is to make easy the inner life of every one.
"To live!"--"All of us!"--"You!"--"Me!"
"No more war--ah, no!--it's too stupid--worse than that, it's too----"
For a finishing echo to their half-formed thought a saying came to the mangled and miscarried murmur of the mob from a filth-crowned face that I saw arise from the level of the earth-- "Two armies fighting each other--that's like one great army committing suicide!"
* * * * * *
"And likewise, what have we been for two years now? Incredibly pitiful wretches, and savages as well, brutes, robbers, and dirty devils."
"Worse than that!" mutters he whose only phrase it is.
"Yes, I admit it!"
In their troubled truce of the morning, these men whom fatigue had tormented, whom rain had scourged, whom night-long lightning had convulsed, these survivors of volcanoes and flood began not only to see dimly how war, as hideous morally as physically, outrages common sense, debases noble ideas and dictates all kind of crime, but they remembered how it had enlarged in them and about them every evil instinct save none, mischief developed into lustful cruelty, selfishness into ferocity, the hunger for enjoyment into a mania.
They are picturing all this before their eyes as just now they confusedly pictured their misery. They are crammed with a curse which strives to find a way out and to come to light in words, a curse which makes them to groan and wail. It is as if they toiled to emerge from the delusion and ignorance which soil them as the mud soils them; as if they will at last know why they are scourged.
"Well then?" clamors one.
"Ay, what then?" the other repeats, still more grandly. The wind sets the flooded flats a-tremble to our eyes, and falling furiously on the human masses lying or kneeling and fixed like flagstones and grave-slabs, it wrings new shivering from them.
"There will be no more war," growls a soldier, "when there is no more Germany."
"That's not the right thing to say!" cries another. "It isn't enough. There'll be no more war when the spirit of war is defeated." The roaring of the wind half smothered his words, so he lifted his head and repeated them.
"Germany and militarism"--some one in his anger precipitately cut in--"they're the same thing. They wanted the war and they'd planned it beforehand. They are militarism."
"Militarism--" a soldier began again.
"What is it?" some one asked.
"It's--it's brute force that's ready prepared, and that lets fly suddenly, any minute."
"Yes. To-day militarism is called Germany."
"Yes, but what will it be called to-morrow?"
"I don't know," said a voice serious as a prophet's.
"If the spirit of war isn't killed, you'll have struggle all through the ages."
"We must--one's got to----"
"We must fight!" gurgled the hoarse voice of a man who had lain stiff in the devouring mud ever since our awakening; "we've got to!" His body turned heavily over. "We've got to give all we have, our strength and our skins and our hearts, all our life and what pleasures are left us. The life of prisoners as we are, we've got to take it in both hands. You've got to endure everything, even injustice--and that's the king that's reigning now--and the shameful and disgusting sights we see, so as to come out on top, and win. But if we've got to make such a sacrifice," adds the shapeless man, turning over again, "it's because we're fighting for progress, not for a country; against error, not against a country."
"War must be killed," said the first speaker, "war must be killed in the belly of Germany!"
"Anyway," said one of those who sat enrooted there like a sort of shrub, "anyway, we're beginning to understand why we've got to march away."
"All the same," grumbled the squatting chasseur in his turn, "there are some that fight with quite another idea than that in their heads. I've seen some of 'em, young men, who said, 'To hell with humanitarian ideas'; what mattered to them was nationality and nothing else, and the war was a question of fatherlands--let every man make a shine about his own. They were fighting, those chaps, and they were fighting well."
"They're young, the lads you're talking about; they're young, and we must excuse 'em."
"You can do a thing well without knowing what you are doing."
"Men are mad, that's true. You'll never say that often enough."
"The Jingoes--they're vermin," growled a shadow.
Several times they repeated, as though feeling their way, "War must be killed; war itself."
"That's all silly talk. What diff does it make whether you think this or that? We've got to be winners, that's all."
But the others had begun to cast about. They wanted to know and to see farther than to-day. They throbbed with the effort to beget in themselves some light of wisdom and of will. Some sparse convictions whirled in their minds, and jumbled scraps of creeds issued from their lips.
"Of course--yes--but we must look at facts--you've got to think about the object, old chap."
"The object? To be winners in this war," the pillar-man insisted, "isn't that an object?"
Two there were who replied together, "No!"
* * * * * *
At this moment there was a dull noise; cries broke out around us, and we shuddered. A length of earth had detached itself from the hillock on which--after a fashion--we were leaning back, and had completely exhumed in the middle of us a sitting corpse, with its legs out full length. The collapse burst a pool that had gathered on the top of the mound, and the water spread like a cascade over the body and laved it as we looked.
Some one cried, "His face is all black!"
"What is that face?" gasped a voice.
Those who were able drew near in a circle, like frogs. We could not gaze upon the head that showed in low relief upon the trench-wall that the landslide had laid bare. "His face? It isn't his face!" In place of the face we found the hair, and then we saw that the corpse which had seemed to be sitting was broken, and folded the wrong way. In dreadful silence we looked on the vertical back of the dislocated dead, upon the hanging arms, backward curved, and the two outstretched legs that rested on the sinking soil by the points of the toes. Then the discussion began again, revived by this fearful sleeper. As though the corpse was listening they clamored-- "No! To win isn't the object. It isn't those others we've got to get at--it's war."
"Can't you see that we've got to finish with war? If we've got to begin again some day, all that's been done is no good. Look at it there!--and it would be in vain. It would be two or three years or more of wasted catastrophe."
* * * * * *
"Ah, my boy, if all we've gone through wasn't the end of this great calamity! I value my life; I've got my wife, my family, my home around them; I've got schemes for my life afterwards, mind you. Well, all the same, if this wasn't the end of it, I'd rather die."
"I'm going to die." The echo came at that moment exactly from Paradis' neighbor, who no doubt had examined the wound in his belly. "I'm sorry on account of my children."
"It's on account of my children that I'm not sorry," came a murmur from somewhere else. "I'm dying, so I know what I'm saying, and I say to myself, 'They'll have peace.'"
"Perhaps I shan't die," said another, with a quiver of hope that he could not restrain even in the presence of the doomed, "but I shall suffer. Well, I say, 'more's the pity,' and I even say 'that's all right'; and I shall know how to stick more suffering if I know it's for something."
"Then we'll have to go on fighting after the war?"
"You want more of it, do you?"
"Yes, because I want no more of it," the voice grunted. "And p'raps it'll not be foreigners that we've got to fight?"
A still more violent blast of wind shut our eyes and choked us. When it had passed, and we saw the volley take flight across the plain, seizing and shaking its muddy plunder and furrowing the water in the long gaping trenches--long as the grave of an army--we began again.
"After all, what is it that makes the mass and the horror of war?"
"It's the mass of the people."
"But the people--that's us!"
He who had said it looked at me inquiringly.
"Yes," I said to him, "yes, old boy, that's true! It's with us only that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war. War is made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers only. It is we who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood, all of us, and each of us is invisible and silent because of the immensity of our numbers. The emptied towns and the villages destroyed, they are a wilderness of our making. Yes, war is all of us, and all of us together."
"Yes, that's true. It's the people who are war; without them, there would be nothing, nothing but some wrangling, a long way off. But it isn't they who decide on it; it's the masters who steer them."
"The people are struggling to-day to have no more masters that steer them. This war, it's like the French Revolution continuing."
"Well then, if that's so, we're working for the Prussians too?"
"It's to be hoped so," said one of the wretches of the plain.
"Oh, hell!" said the chasseur, grinding his teeth. But he shook his head and added no more.
"We want to look after ourselves! You shouldn't meddle in other people's business," mumbled the obstinate snarler.
"Yes, you should! Because what you call 'other people,' that's just what they're not--they're the same!"
"Why is it always us that has to march away for everybody?"
"That's it!" said a man, and he repeated the words he had used a moment before. "More's the pity, or so much the better."
"The people--they're nothing, though they ought to be everything," then said the man who had questioned me, recalling, though he did not know it, an historic sentence of more than a century ago, but investing it at last with its great universal significance. Escaped from torment, on all fours in the deep grease of the ground, he lifted his leper-like face and looked hungrily before him into infinity.
He looked and looked. He was trying to open the gates of heaven.
* * * * * *
"The peoples of the world ought to come to an understanding, through the hides and on the bodies of those who exploit them one way or another. All the masses ought to agree together."
"All men ought to be equal."
The word seems to come to us like a rescue.
"Equal--yes--yes--there are some great meanings for justice and truth. There are some things one believes in, that one turns to and clings to as if they were a sort of light. There's equality, above all."
"There's liberty and fraternity, too."
"But principally equality!"
I tell them that fraternity is a dream, an obscure and uncertain sentiment; that while it is unnatural for a man to hate one whom he does not know, it is equally unnatural to love him. You can build nothing on fraternity. Nor on liberty, either; it is too relative a thing in a society where all the elements subdivide each other by force.
But equality is always the same. Liberty and fraternity are words while equality is a fact. Equality should be the great human formula--social equality, for while individuals have varying values, each must have an equal share in the social life; and that is only just, because the life of one human being is equal to the life of another. That formula is of prodigious importance. The principle of the equal rights of every living being and the sacred will of the majority is infallible and must be invincible; all progress will be brought about by it, all, with a force truly divine. It will bring first the smooth bed-rock of all progress--the settling of quarrels by that justice which is exactly the same thing as the general advantage.
And these men of the people, dimly seeing some unknown Revolution greater than the other, a revolution springing from themselves and already rising, rising in their throats, repeat "Equality!"
It seems as if they were spelling the word and then reading it distinctly on all sides--that there is not upon the earth any privilege, prejudice or injustice that does not collapse in contact with it. It is an answer to all, a word of sublimity. They revolve the idea over and over, and find a kind of perfection in it. They see errors and abuses burning in a brilliant light.
"That would be fine!" said one.
"Too fine to be true!" said another.
But the third said, "It's because it's true that it's fine. It has no other beauty, mind! And it's not because it's fine that it will come. Fineness is not in vogue, any more than love is. It's because it's true that it has to be."
"Then, since justice is wanted by the people, and the people have the power, let them do it."
"They're beginning already!" said some obscure lips.
"It's the way things are running," declared another.
"When all men have made themselves equal, we shall be forced to unite."
"And there'll no longer be appalling things done in the face of heaven by thirty million men who don't wish them."
It is true, and there is nothing to reply to it. What pretended argument or shadow of an answer dare one oppose to it--"There'll no longer be the things done in the face of heaven by thirty millions of men who don't want to do them!"
Such is the logic that I hear and follow of the words, spoken by these pitiful fellows cast upon the field of affliction, the words which spring from their bruises and pains, the words which bleed from them.
Now, the sky is all overcast. Low down it is armored in steely blue by great clouds. Above, in a weakly luminous silvering, it is crossed by enormous sweepings of wet mist. The weather is worsening, and more rain on the way. The end of the tempest and the long trouble is not yet.
"We shall say to ourselves," says one, "'After all, why do we make war?' We don't know at all why, but we can say who we make it for. We shall be forced to see that if every nation every day brings the fresh bodies of fifteen hundred young men to the God of War to be lacerated, it's for the pleasure of a few ringleaders that we could easily count; that if whole nations go to slaughter marshaled in armies in order that the gold-striped caste may write their princely names in history, so that other gilded people of the same rank can contrive more business, and expand in the way of employees and shops--and we shall see, as soon as we open our eyes, that the divisions between mankind are not what we thought, and those one did believe in are not divisions."
"Listen!" some one broke in suddenly.
We hold our peace, and hear afar the sound of guns. Yonder, the growling is agitating the gray strata of the sky, and the distant violence breaks feebly on our buried ears. All around us, the waters continue to sap the earth and by degrees to ensnare its heights.
"It's beginning again."
Then one of us says, "Ah, look what we've got against us!"
Already there is uneasy hesitation in these castaways' discussion of their tragedy, in the huge masterpiece of destiny that they are roughly sketching. It is not only the peril and pain, the misery of the moment, whose endless beginning they see again. It is the enmity of circumstances and people against the truth, the accumulation of privilege and ignorance, of deafness and unwillingness, the taken sides, the savage conditions accepted, the immovable masses, the tangled lines.
And the dream of fumbling thought is continued in another vision, in which everlasting enemies emerge from the shadows of the past and stand forth in the stormy darkness of to-day.
* * * * * *
Here they are. We seem to see them silhouetted against the sky, above the crests of the storm that beglooms the world--a cavalcade of warriors, prancing and flashing, the charges that carry armor and plumes and gold ornament, crowns and swords. They are burdened with weapons; they send forth gleams of light; magnificent they roll. The antiquated movements of the warlike ride divide the clouds like the painted fierceness of a theatrical scene.
And far above the fevered gaze of them who are upon the ground, whose bodies are layered with the dregs of the earth and the wasted fields, the phantom cohort flows from the four corners of the horizon, drives back the sky's infinity and hides its blue deeps.
And they are legion. They are not only the warrior caste who shout as they fight and have joy of it, not only those whom universal slavery has clothed in magic power, the mighty by birth, who tower here and there above the prostration of the human race and will take their sudden stand by the scales of justice when they think they see great profit to gain; not only these, but whole multitudes who minister consciously or unconsciously to their fearful privilege.
"There are those who say," now cries one of the somber and compelling talkers, extending his hand as though he could see the pageant, "there are those who say, 'How fine they are!'"
"And those who say, 'The nations hate each other!'"
"And those who say, 'I get fat on war, and my belly matures on it!'"
"And those who say, 'There has always been war, so there always will be!'"
"There are those who say, 'I can't see farther than the end of my nose, and I forbid others to see farther!'"
"There are those who say, 'Babies come into the world with either red or blue breeches on!'"
"There are those," growled a hoarse voice, "who say, 'Bow your head and trust in God!'"
* * * * * *
Ah, you are right, poor countless workmen of the battles, you who have made with your bands all of the Great War, you whose omnipotence is not yet used for well-doing, you human host whose every face is a world of sorrows, you who dream bowed under the yoke of a thought beneath that sky where long black clouds rend themselves and expand in disheveled lengths like evil angels--yes, you are right. There are all those things against you. Against you and your great common interests which as you dimly saw are the same thing in effect as justice, there are not only the sword-wavers, the profiteers, and the intriguers.
There is not only the prodigious opposition of interested parties--financiers, speculators great and small, armorplated in their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and their faces shut up like safes.
There are those who admire the exchange of flashing blows, who hail like women the bright colors of uniforms; those whom military music and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with brandy; the dizzy-brained, the feeble-minded, the superstitious, the savages.
There are those who bury themselves in the past, on whose lips are the sayings only of bygone days, the traditionalists for whom an injustice has legal force because it is perpetuated, who aspire to be guided by the dead, who strive to subordinate progress and the future and all their palpitating passion to the realm of ghosts and nursery-tales.
With them are all the parsons, who seek to excite you and to lull you to sleep with the morphine of their Paradise, so that nothing may change. There are the lawyers, the economists, the historians--and how many more?--who befog you with the rigmarole of theory, who declare the inter-antagonism of nationalities at a time when the only unity possessed by each nation of to-day is in the arbitrary map-made lines of her frontiers, while she is inhabited by an artificial amalgam of races; there are the worm-eaten genealogists, who forge for the ambitious of conquest and plunder false certificates of philosophy and imaginary titles of nobility. The infirmity of human intelligence is short sight. In too many cases, the wiseacres are dunces of a sort, who lose sight of the simplicity of things, and stifle and obscure it with formulae and trivialities. It is the small things that one learns from books, not the great ones.
And even while they are saying that they do not wish for war they are doing all they can to perpetuate it. They nourish national vanity and the love of supremacy by force. "We alone," they say, each behind his shelter, "we alone are the guardians of courage and loyalty, of ability and good taste!" Out of the greatness and richness of a country they make something like a consuming disease. Out of patriotism--which can be respected as long as it remains in the domain of sentiment and art on exactly the same footing as the sense of family and local pride, all equally sacred--out of patriotism they make a Utopian and impracticable idea, unbalancing the world, a sort of cancer which drains all the living force, spreads everywhere and crushes life, a contagious cancer which culminates either in the crash of war or in the exhaustion and suffocation of armed peace.
They pervert the most admirable of moral principles. How many are the crimes of which they have made virtues merely by dowering them with the word "national"? They distort even truth itself. For the truth which is eternally the same they substitute each their national truth. So many nations, so many truths; and thus they falsify and twist the truth.
Those are your enemies. All those people whose childish and odiously ridiculous disputes you hear snarling above you--"It wasn't me that began, it was you!"--"No, it wasn't me, it was you!"--"Hit me then!"--"No, you hit me!"--those puerilities that perpetuate the world's huge wound, for the disputants are not the people truly concerned, but quite the contrary, nor do they desire to have done with it; all those people who cannot or will not make peace on earth; all those who for one reason or another cling to the ancient state of things and find or invent excuses for it--they are your enemies!
They are your enemies as much as those German soldiers are to-day who are prostrate here between you in the mud, who are only poor dupes hatefully deceived and brutalized, domestic beasts. They are your enemies, wherever they were born, however they pronounce their names, whatever the language in which they lie. Look at them, in the heaven and on the earth. Look at them, everywhere! Identify them once for all, and be mindful for ever!
* * * * * *
"They will say to you," growled a kneeling man who stooped with his two bands in the earth and shook his shoulders like a mastiff, 'My friend, you have been a wonderful hero!' I don't want them to say it!
"Heroes? Some sort of extraordinary being? Idols? Rot! We've been murderers. We have respectably followed the trade of hangmen. We shall do it again with all our might, because it's of great importance to follow that trade, so as to punish war and smother it. The act of slaughter is always ignoble; sometimes necessary, but always ignoble. Yes, hard and persistent murderers, that's what we've been. But don't talk to me about military virtue because I've killed Germans."
"Nor to me," cried another in so loud a voice that no one could have replied to him even had he dared; "nor to me, because I've saved the lives of Frenchmen! Why, we might as well set fire to houses for the sake of the excellence of life-saving!"
"It would be a crime to exhibit the fine side of war, even if there were one!" murmured one of the somber soldiers.
The first man continued. "They'll say those things to us by way of paying us with glory, and to pay themselves, too, for what they haven't done. But military glory--it isn't even true for us common soldiers. It's for some, but outside those elect the soldier's glory is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war. In reality, the soldier's sacrifice is obscurely concealed. The multitudes that make up the waves of attack have no reward. They run to hurl themselves into a frightful inglorious nothing. You cannot even heap up their names, their poor little names of nobodies."
"To hell with it all," replies a man, "we've got other things to think about."
"But all that," hiccupped a face which the mud concealed like a hideous hand, "may you even say it? You'd be cursed, and 'shot at dawn'! They've made around a Marshal's plumes a religion as bad and stupid and malignant as the other!"
The man raised himself, fell down, and rose again. The wound that he had under his armor of filth was staining the ground, and when he had spoken, his wide-open eyes looked down at all the blood he had given for the healing of the world.
* * * * * *
The others, one by one, straighten themselves. The storm is falling more heavily on the expanse of flayed and martyred fields. The day is full of night. It is as if new enemy shapes of men and groups of men are rising unceasingly on the crest of the mountain-chain of clouds, round about the barbaric outlines of crosses, eagles, churches, royal and military palaces and temples. They seem to multiply there, shutting out the stars that are fewer than mankind; it seems even as if these apparitions are moving in all directions in the excavated ground, here, there, among the real beings who are thrown there at random, half buried in the earth like grains of corn.
My still living companions have at last got up. Standing with difficulty on the foundered soil, enclosed in their bemired garb, laid out in strange upright coffins of mud, raising their huge simplicity out of the earth's depths-- a profoundity like that of ignorance--they move and cry out, with their gaze, their arms and their fists extended towards the sky whence fall daylight and storm. They are struggling against victorious specters, like the Cyranos and Don Quixotes that they still are.
One sees their shadows stirring on the shining sad expanse of the plain, and reflected in the pallid stagnant surface of the old trenches, which now only the infinite void of space inhabits and purifies, in the center of a polar desert whose horizons fume.
But their eyes are opened. They are beginning to make out the boundless simplicity of things. And Truth not only invests them with a dawn of hope, but raises on it a renewal of strength and courage.
"That's enough talk about those others!" one of the men commanded; "all the worse for them!--Us! Us all!" The understanding between democracies, the entente among the multitudes, the uplifting of the people of the world, the bluntly simple faith! All the rest, aye, all the rest, in the past, the present and the future, matters nothing at all.
And a soldier ventures to add this sentence, though he begins it with lowered voice, "If the present war has advanced progress by one step, its miseries and slaughter will count for little."
And while we get ready to rejoin the others and begin war again, the dark and storm-choked sky slowly opens above our heads. Between two masses of gloomy cloud a tranquil gleam emerges; and that line of light, so blackedged and beset, brings even so its proof that the sun is there.