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From Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, by Henri Barbusse, 1917



WE are enthroned in the back yard. The big hen, white as a cream cheese, is brooding in the depths of a basket near the coop whose imprisoned occupant is rummaging about. But the black hen is free to travel. She erects and withdraws her elastic neck in jerks, and advances with a large and affected gait. One can just see her profile and its twinkling spangle, and her talk appears to proceed from a metal spring. She marches, glistening black and glossy like the love-locks of a gypsy; and as she marches, she unfolds here and there upon the ground a faint trail of chickens.

These trifling little yellow balls, kept always by a whispering instinct on the ebb-tide to safety, hurry along under the maternal march in short, sharp jerks, pecking as they go. Now the train comes to a full stop, for two of the chickens are thoughtful and immobile, careless of the parental clucking.

"A bad sign," says Paradis; "the hen that reflects is ill." And Paradis uncrosses and recrosses his legs. Beside him on the bench, Blaire extends his own, lets loose a great yawn that he maintains in placid duration, and sets himself again to observe, for of all of us he most delights in watching fowls during the brief life when they are in such a hurry to eat.

And we watch them in unison, not forgetting the shabby old cock, worn threadbare. Where his feathers have fallen appears the naked india-rubber leg, lurid as a grilled cutlet. He approaches the white sitter, which first turns her head away in tart denial, with several "No's" in a muffled rattle, and then watches him with the little blue enamel dials of her eyes.

"We're all right," says Barque.

"Watch the little ducks," says Blaire, "going along the communication trench."

We watch a single file of all-golden ducklings go past--still almost eggs on feet--their big heads pulling their little lame bodies along by the string of their necks, and that quickly. From his corner, the big dog follows them also with his deeply dark eye, on which the slanting sun has shaped a fine tawny ring.

Beyond this rustic yard and over the scalloping of the low wall, the orchard reveals itself, where a green carpet, moist and thick, covers the rich soil and is topped by a screen of foliage with a garniture of blossom, some white as statuary, others pied and glossy as knots in neckties. Beyond again is the meadow, where the shadowed poplars throw shafts of dark or golden green. Still farther again is a square patch of upstanding hops, followed by a patch of cabbages, sitting on the ground and dressed in line. In the sunshine of air and of earth we hear the bees, as they work and make music (in deference to the poets), and the cricket which, in defiance of the fable, sings with no humility and fills Space by himself.

Over yonder, there falls eddying from a poplar's peak a magpie--half white, half black, like a shred of partly-burned paper.

The soldiers outstretch themselves luxuriously on the stone bench, their eyes half closed, and bask in the sunshine that warms the basin of the big yard till it is like a bath.

"That's seventeen days we've been here! After thinking we were going away day after day!"

"One never knows," said Paradis, wagging his head and smacking his lips.

Through the yard gate that opens on to the road we see a group of poilus strolling, nose in air, devouring the sunshine; and then, all alone, Tellurure. In the middle of the street he oscillates the prosperous abdomen of which he is proprietor, and rocking on legs arched like basket-handles, he expectorates in wide abundance all around him.

"We thought, too, that we should be as badly off here as in the other quarters. But this time it's real rest, both in the time it lasts and the kind it is."

"You're not given too many exercises and fatigues."

"And between whiles you come in here to loll about."

The old man huddled up at the end of the seat--no other than the treasure-seeking grandfather whom we saw the day of our arrival---came nearer and lifted his finger. "When I was a young man, I was thought a lot of by women," he asserted, shaking his head. "I have led young ladies astray!"

"Ah!" said we, heedless, our attention taken away from his senile prattle by the timely noise of a cart that was passing, laden and laboring.

"Nowadays," the old man went on, "I only think about money."

"Ah, oui, the treasure you're looking for, papa."

"That's it," said the old rustic, though he felt the skepticism around him. He tapped his cranium with his forefinger, which he then extended towards the house. "Take that insect there," he said, indicating a little beast that ran along the plaster. "What does it say? It says, 'I am the spider that spins the Virgin's thread.'" And the archaic simpleton added, "One must never judge what people do, for one can never tell what may happen."

"That's true," replied Paradis politely. "He's funny," said Mesnil André, between his teeth, while he sought the mirror in his pocket to look at the facial benefit of fine weather. "He's crazy," murmured Barque in his ecstasy.

"I leave you," said the old man, yielding in annoyance.

He got up to go and look for his treasure again, entered the house that supported our backs, and left the door open, where beside the huge fireplace in the room we saw a little girl, so seriously playing with a doll that Blaire fell considering, and said, "She's right."

The games of children are a momentous preoccupation. Only the grown-ups play.

After we have watched the animals and the strollers go by, we watch the time go by, we watch everything.

We are seeing the life of things, we are present with Nature, blended with climates, mingled even with the sky, colored by the seasons. We have attached ourselves to this corner of the land where chance has held us back from our endless wanderings in longer and deeper peace than elsewhere; and this closer intercourse makes us sensible of all its traits and habits. September--the morrow of August and eve of October, most affecting of months--is already sprinkling the fine days with subtle warnings. Already one knows the meaning of the dead leaves that flit about the flat stones like a flock of sparrows.

In truth we have got used to each other's company, we and this place. So often transplanted, we are taking root here, and we no longer actually think of going away, even when we talk about it.

"The 11th Division jolly well stayed a month and a half resting," says Blaire.

"And the 375th, too, nine weeks!" replies Barque, in a tone of challenge.

"I think we shall stay here at least as long--at least, I say."

"We could finish the war here all right."

Barque is affected by the words, nor very far from believing them. "After all, it will finish some day, what!"

"After all!" repeat the others.

"To be sure, one never knows," says Paradis. He says this weakly, without deep conviction. It is, however, a saying which leaves no room for reply. We say it over again, softly, lulling ourselves with it as with an old song.

* * * * * *

Farfadet rejoined us a moment ago. He took his place near us, but a little withdrawn all the same, and sits on an overturned tub, his chin on his fists.

This man is more solidly happy than we are. We know it well, and he knows it well. Lifting his head he has looked in turn, with the same distant gaze, at the back of the old man who went to seek his treasure, and at the group that talks of going away no more. There shines over our sensitive and sentimental comrade a sort of personal glamour, which makes of him a being apart, which gilds him and isolates him from us, in spite of himself, as though an officer's tabs had fallen on him from the sky.

His idyll with Eudoxie has continued here. We have had the proofs; and once, indeed, he spoke of it. She is not very far away, and they are very near to each other. Did I not see her the other evening, passing along the wall of the parsonage, her hair but half quenched by a mantilla, as she went obviously to a rendezvous? Did I not see that she began to hurry and to lean forward, already smiling? Although there is no more between them yet than promises and assurances, she is his, and he is the man who will hold her in his arms.

Then, too, he is going to leave us, called to the rear, to Brigade H.Q., where they want a weakling who can work a typewriter. It is official; it is in writing; he is saved. That gloomy future at which we others dare not look is definite and bright for him.

He looks at an open window and the dark gap behind it of some room or other over there, a shadowy room that bemuses him. His life is twofold in hope; he is happy, for the imminent happiness that does not yet exist is the only real happiness down here.

So a scanty spirit of envy grows around him. "One never knows," murmurs Paradis again, but with no more confidence than when before, in the straitened scene of our life to-day, he uttered those immeasurable words.

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