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THE weather was appalling. Water and wind attacked the passers-by; riddled, flooded, and upheaved the roads.
I was returning from fatigue to our quarters at the far end of the village. The landscape that morning showed dirty yellow through the solid rain, and the sky was dark as a slated roof. The downpour flogged the horse-trough as with birchen rods. Along the walls. human shapes went in shrinking files, stooping, abashed, splashing.
In spite of the rain and the cold and bitter wind, a crowd had gathered in front of the door of the barn where we were lodging. All close together and back to back, the men seemed from a distance like a great moving sponge. Those who could see, over shoulders and between heads, opened their eyes wide and said, "He has a nerve, the boy!" Then the inquisitive ones broke away, with red noses and streaming faces, into the down-pour that lashed and the blast that bit, and letting the hands fall that they had upraised in surprise, they plunged them in their pockets.
In the center, and running with rain, abode the cause of the gathering--Fouillade, bare to the waist and washing himself in abundant water. Thin as an insect, working his long slender arms in riotous frenzy, he soaped and splashed his head, neck, and chest, down to the upstanding gridirons of his sides. Over his funnel-shaped cheeks the brisk activity had spread a flaky beard like snow, and piled on the top of his head a greasy fleece that the rain was puncturing with little holes.
By way of a tub, the patient was using three mess-tins which he had filled with water--no one knew how--in a village where there was none; and as there was no clean spot anywhere to put anything down in that universal streaming of earth and sky, he thrust his towel into the waistband of his trousers, while the soap went back into his pocket every time he used it.
They who still remained wondered at this heroic gesticulation in the face of adversity, and said again, as they wagged their heads, "It's a disease of cleanliness he's got."
"You know he's going to be carpeted, they say, for that affair of the shell-hole with Volpatte." And they mixed the two exploits together in a muddled way, that of the shell-hole, and the present, and looked on him as the hero of the moment, while he puffed, sniffled, grunted, spat, and tried to dry himself under the celestial shower-bath with rapid rubbing and as a measure of deception; then at last he resumed his clothes.
* * * * * *
After his wash, Fouillade feels cold. He turns about and stands in the doorway of the barn that shelters us. The arctic blast discolors and disparages his long face, so hollow and sunburned; it draws tears from his eyes, and scatters them on the cheeks once scorched by the mistral; his nose, too, weeps increasingly.
Yielding to the ceaseless bite of the wind that grips his ears in spite of the muffler knotted round his head, and his calves in spite of the yellow puttees with which his cockerel legs are enwound, he reenters the barn, but comes out of it again at once, rolling ferocious eyes, and muttering oaths with the accent one hears in that corner of the land, over six hundred miles from here, whence he was driven by war.
So he stands outside, erect, more truly excited than ever before in these northern scenes. And the wind comes and steals into him, and comes again roughly, shaking and maltreating his scarecrow's slight and flesh-less figure.
Ye gods! It is almost uninhabitable, the barn they have assigned to us to live in during this period of rest. It is a collapsing refuge, gloomy and leaky, confined as a well. One half of it is under water--we see rats swimming in it--and the men are crowded in the other half. The walls, composed of laths stuck together with dried mud, are cracked, sunken, holed in all their circuit, and extensively broken through above. The night we got here--until the morning--we plugged as well as we could the openings within reach, by inserting leafy branches and hurdles. But the higher holes, and those in the roof, still gaped and always. When dawn hovers there, weakling and early, the wind for contrast rushes in and blows round every side with all its strength, and the squad endures the hustling of an everlasting draught.
When we are there, we remain upright in the ruined obscurity, groping, shivering, complaining.
Fouillade, who has come in once more, goaded by the cold, regrets his ablutions. He has pains in his loins and back. He wants something to do, but what?
Sit down? Impossible; it is too dirty inside there. The ground and the paving-stones are plastered with mud; the straw scattered for our sleeping is soaked through, by the water that comes through the holes and by the boots that wipe themselves with it. Besides, if you sit down, you freeze; and if you lie on the straw, you are troubled by the smell of manure, and sickened by the vapors of ammonia. Fouillade contents himself by looking at his place, and yawning wide enough to dislocate his long jaw, further lengthened by a goatee beard where you would see white hairs if the daylight were really daylight.
"The other pals and boys," said Marthereau, "they're no better off than we are. After breakfast I went to see a jail-bird of the 11th on the farm near the hospital. You've to clamber over a wall by a ladder that's too short--talk about a scissor-cut!" says Marthereau, who is short in the leg; "and when once you're in the hen-run and rabbit-hutch you're shoved and poked by everybody and a nuisance to 'em all. You don't know where to put your pasties down. I vamoosed from there, and sharp."
"For my part," says Cocon, "I wanted to go to the blacksmith's when we'd got quit of grubbing, to imbibe something hot, and pay for it. Yesterday he was selling coffee, but some bobbies called there this morning, so the good man's got the shakes, and he's locked his door."
Lamuse has tried to clean his rifle. But one cannot clean his rifle here, even if he squats on the ground near the door, nor even if he takes away the sodden tent-cloth, hard and icy, which hangs across the doorway like a stalactite; it is too dark. "And then, old chap, if you let a screw fall, you may as well hang yourself as try to find it, 'specially when your fists are frozen silly."
"As for me, I ought to be sewing some things, but--what cheer!"
One alternative remains--to stretch oneself on the straw, covering the head with handkerchief or towel to isolate it from the searching stench of fermenting straw, and sleep. Fouillade, master of his time to-day, being on neither guard nor fatigues, decides. He lights a taper to seek among his belongings, and unwinds the coils of his comforter, and we see his emaciated shape, sculptured in black relief, folding and refolding it.
"Potato fatigue, inside there, my little lambs!" a sonorous voice bellows at the door. The hooded shape from which it comes is Sergeant Henriot. He is a malignant sort of simpleton, and though all the while joking in clumsy sympathy he supervises the evacuation of quarters with a sharp eye for the evasive malingerer.
Outside, on the streaming road in the perpetual rain. the second section is scattered, also summoned and driven to work by the adjutant. The two sections mingle together. We climb the street and the hillock of clayey soil where the traveling kitchen is smoking.
"Now then, my lads, get on with it; it isn't a long job when everybody sets to---- Come--what have you got to grumble about, you? That does no good."
Twenty minutes later we return at a trot. As we grope about in the barn, we cannot touch anything but what is sodden and cold, and the sour smell of wet animals is added to the vapor of the liquid manure that our beds contain.
We gather again, standing, around the props that hold the barn up, and around the rills that fall vertically from the holes in the roof--faint columns which rest on vague bases of splashing water. "Here we are again!" we cry.
Two lumps in turn block the doorway, soaked with the rain that drains from them--Lamuse and Barque. who have been in quest of a brasier, and now return from the expedition empty-handed, sullen and vicious. "Not a shadow of a fire-bucket, and what's more, no wood or coal either, not for a fortune." It is impossible to have any fire. "If I can't get any, no one can," says Barque, with a pride which a hundred exploits justify.
We stay motionless, or move slowly in the little space we have, aghast at so much misery. "Whose is the paper?"
"It's mine," says Bécuwe.
"What does it say? Ah, zut, one can't read in this darkness!"
"It says they've done everything necessary now for the soldiers, to keep them warm in the trenches. They've got all they want, and blankets and shirts and brasiers and fire-buckets and bucketsful of coal; and that it's like that in the first-line trenches."
"Ah, damnation!" growl some of the poor prisoners of the barn, and they shake their fists at the emptiness without and at the newspaper itself.
But Fouillade has lost interest in what they say. He has bent his long Don Quixote carcase down in the shadow, and outstretched the lean neck that looks as if it were braided with violin strings. There is something on the ground that attracts him.
It is Labri, the other squad's dog, an uncertain sort of mongrel sheep-dog, with a lopped tail, curled up on a tiny litter of straw-dust. Fouillade looks at Labri, and Labri at him. Bécuwe comes up and says, with the intonation of the Lille district, "He won't eat his food; the dog isn't well. Hey, Labri, what's the matter with you? There's your bread and meat; eat it up; it's good when it's in your bucket. He's poorly. One of these mornings we shall find him dead."
Labri is not happy. The soldier to whom he is entrusted is hard on him, and usually ill-treats him--when he takes any notice of him at all. The animal is tied up all day. He is cold and ill and left to himself. He only exists. From time to time, when there is movement going on around him, he has hopes of going out, rises and stretches himself, and bestirs his tail to incipient demonstration. But he is disillusioned, and lies down again, gazing past his nearly full mess-tin.
He is weary, and disgusted with life. Even if he has escaped the bullet or bomb to which he is as much exposed as we, he will end by dying here. Fouillade puts his thin hand on the dog's head, and it gazes at him again. Their two glances are alike--the only difference is that one comes from above and the other from below.
Fouillade sits down also--the worse for him!--in a corner, his hands covered by the folds of his greatcoat, his long legs doubled up like a folding bed. He is dreaming, his eyes closed under their bluish lids; there is something that he sees again. It is one of those moments when the country from which he is divided assumes in the distance the charms of reality--the perfumes and colors of l'Hérault. the streets of Cette. He sees so plainly and so near that he hears the noise of the shallops in the Canal du Midi, and the unloading at the docks; and their call to him is distinctly clear.
Above the road where the scent of thyme and immortelles is so strong that it is almost a taste in the mouth, in the heart of the sunshine whose winging shafts stir the air into a warmed and scented breeze, on Mont St. Clair, blossoms and flourishes the home of his folks. Up there, one can see with the same glance where the Lake of Thau, which is green like glass, joins hands with the Mediterranean Sea, which is azure; and sometimes one can make out as well, in the depths of the indigo sky, the carven phantoms of the Pyrenees.
There was he born, there he grew up, happy and free. There he played, on the golden or ruddy ground; played--even--at soldiers. The eager joy of wielding a wooden saber flushed the cheeks now sunken and seamed. He opens his eyes, looks about him, shakes his head, and falls upon regret for the days when glory and war to him were pure, lofty, and sunny things.
The man puts his hand over his eyes, to retain the vision within. Nowadays, it is different.
It was up there in the same place, later, that he came to know Clémence. She was just passing, the first time, sumptuous with sunshine, and so fair that the loose sheaf of straw she carried in her arms seemed to him nut-brown by contrast. The second time, she had a friend with her, and they both stopped to watch him. He heard them whispering, and turned towards them. Seeing themselves discovered, the two young women made off, with a sibilance of skirts, and giggles like the cry of a partridge.
And it was there, too, that he and she together set up their home. Over its front travels a vine, which he coddled under a straw hat, whatever the season. By the garden gate stands the rose-tree that he knows so well--it never used its thorns except to try to hold him back a little as he went by.
Will he return again to it all? Ah, he has looked too deeply into the profundity of the past not to see the future in appalling accuracy. He thinks of the regiment, decimated at each shift; of the big knocks and hard he has had and will have, of sickness, and of wear----
He gets up and snorts, as though to shake off what was and what will be. He is back in the middle of the gloom, and is frozen and swept by the wind, among the scattered and dejected men who blindly await the evening. He is back in the present, and he is shivering still.
Two paces of his long legs make him butt into a group that is talking--by way of diversion or consolation--of good cheer.
"At my place," says one, "they make enormous loaves, round ones, big as cart-wheels they are!" And the man amuses himself by opening his eyes wide, so that he can see the loaves of the homeland.
"Where I come from," interposes the poor Southerner, "holiday feasts last so long that the bread that's new at the beginning is stale at the end!"
"There's a jolly wine--it doesn't look much, that little wine where I come from; but if it hasn't fifteen degrees of alcohol it hasn't anything!"
Fouillade speaks then of a red wine which is almost violet, which stands dilution as well as if it had been brought into the world to that end.
"We've got the jurançon wine," said a Béarnais, "the real thing, not what they sell you for jurançon, which comes from Paris; indeed, I know one of the makers."
"If it comes to that," said Fouillade, "in our country we've got muscatels of every sort, all the colors of the rainbow, like patterns of silk stuff. You come home with me some time, and every day you shall taste a nonsuch, my boy."
"Sounds like a wedding feast," said the grateful soldier.
So it comes about that Fouillade is agitated by the vinous memories into which he has plunged, which recall to him as well the dear perfume of garlic on that far-off table. The vapors of the blue wine in big bottles, and the liqueur wines so delicately varied, mount to his head amid the sluggish and mournful storm that fills the barn.
Suddenly he calls to mind that there is settled in the village where they are quartered a tavern-keeper who is a native of Béziers, called Magnac. Magnac had said to him, "Come and see me, mon camarade, one of these mornings, and we'll drink some wine from down there, we will! I've several bottles of it, and you shall tell me what you think of it."
This sudden prospect dazzles Fouillade. Through all his length runs a thrill of delight, as though he had found the way of salvation. Drink the wine of the South--of his own particular South, even--drink much of it--it would be so good to see life rosy again, if only for a day! Ah yes, he wants wine; and he gets drunk in a dream.
But as he goes out he collides at the entry with Corporal Broyer, who is running down the street like a peddler, and shouting at every opening, "Morning parade!"
The company assembles and forms in squares on the sticky mound where the traveling kitchen is sending soot into the rain. "I'll go and have a drink after parade," says Fouillade to himself.
And he listens listlessly, full of his plan, to the reading of the report. But carelessly as he listens, he hears the officer read, "It is absolutely forbidden to leave quarters before 5 p.m. and after 8 p.m.," and he hears the captain, without noticing the murmur that runs round the poilus, add this comment on the order: "This is Divisional Headquarters. However many there are of you, don't show yourselves. Keep under cover. If the General sees you in the street, he will have you put to fatigues at once. He must not see a single soldier. Stay where you are all day in your quarters. Do what you like as long as no one sees you--no one!"
We go back into the barn.
* * * * * *
Two o'clock. It is three hours yet, and then it will be totally dark, before one may risk going outside without being punished.
Shall we sleep while waiting? Fouillade is sleepy no longer; the hope of wine has shaken him up. And then, if one sleeps in the day, he will not sleep at night. No! To lie with your eyes open is worse than a nightmare. The weather gets worse; wind and rain increase, without and within.
Then what? If one may not stand still, nor sit down, nor lie down, nor go for a stroll, nor work--what?
Deepening misery settles on the party of benumbed and tired soldiers. They suffer to the bone, nor know what to do with their bodies. "Nom de Dieu, we're badly off!" is the cry of the derelicts--a lamentation, an appeal for help.
Then by instinct they give themselves up to the only occupation possible to them in there--to walk up and down on the spot, and thus ward off anchylosis.
So they begin to walk quickly to and fro in the scanty place that three strides might compass; they turn about and cross and brush each other, bent forward, hands pocketed--tramp, tramp. These human beings whom the blast cuts even among their straw are like a crowd of the wretched wrecks of cities who await, under the lowering sky of winter, the opening of some charitable institution. But no door will open for them--unless it Le four days hence, one evening at the end of the rest, to return to the trenches.
Alone in a corner, Cocon cowers. He is tormented by lice; but weakened by the cold and wet he has not the pluck to change his linen; and he sits there sullen, unmoving--and devoured.
As five o'clock draws near, in spite of all, Fouillade begins again to intoxicate himself with his dream of wine, and he waits, with its gleam in his soul. What time is it?--A quarter to five.--Five minutes to five.--Now!
He is outside in black night. With great splashing skips he makes his way towards the tavern of Magnac, the generous and communicative Biterrois. Only with great trouble does he find the door in the dark and the inky rain. By God, there is no light! Great God again, it is closed! The gleam of a match that his great lean hand covers like a lamp-shade shows him the fateful notice--"Out of Bounds." Magnac, guilty of some transgression, has been banished into gloom and idleness!
Fouillade turns his back on the tavern that has become the prison of its lonely keeper. He will not give up his dream. He will go somewhere else and have vin ordinaire, and pay for it, that's all. He puts his hand in his pocket to sound his purse; it is there. There ought to be thirty-seven sous in it, which will not run to the wine of Prou, but----
But suddenly he starts, stops dead, and smites himself on the forehead. His long-drawn face is contracted in a frightful grimace, masked by the night. No, he no longer has thirty-seven sous, fool that he is! He has forgotten the tin of sardines that he bought the night before--so disgusting did he find the dark macaroni of the soldiers' mess--and the drinks he stood to the cobbler who put him some nails in his boots.
Misery! There could not be more than thirteen sous left!
To get as elevated as one ought, and to avenge himself on the life of the moment, he would certainly need--damn'ation--a liter and a half, In this place, a liter of red ordinary costs twenty-one sous. It won't go.
His eyes wander around him in the darkness, looking for some one. Perhaps there is a pal somewhere who will lend him money, or stand him a liter.
But who--who? Not Bécuwe, he has only a marraine [note 1:] who sends him tobacco and note-paper every fortnight. Not Barque, who would not toe the line; nor Blaire, the miser--he wouldn't understand. Not Biquet, who seems to have something against him; nor Pépin who himself begs, and never pays, even when he is host. Ah, if Volpatte were there! There is Mesnil André, but he is actually in debt to Fouillade on account of several drinks round. Corporal Bertrand? Following on a remark of Fouillade's, Bertrand told him to go to the devil, and now they look at each other sideways. Farfadet? Fouillade hardly speaks a word to him in the ordinary way. No, he feels that he cannot ask this of Farfadet. And then--a thousand thunders!--what is the use of seeking saviors in one s imagination? Where are they, all these people, at this hour?
Slowly he goes back towards the barn. Then mechanically he turns and goes forward again, with hesitating steps. He will try, all the same. Perhaps he can find convivial comrades. He approaches the central part of the village just when night has buried the earth.
The lighted doors and windows of the taverns shine again in the mud of the main street. There are taverns every twenty paces. One dimly sees the heavy specters of soldiers, mostly in groups, descending the street. When a motor-car comes along, they draw aside to let it pass, dazzled by the head-lights, and bespattered by the liquid mud that the wheels hurl over the whole width of the road.
The taverns are full. Through the steamy windows one can see they are packed with compact clouds of helmeted men. Fouillade goes into one or two, on chance. Once over the threshold, the dram-shop's tepid breath, the light, the smell and the hubbub, affect him with longing. This gathering at tables is at least a fragment of the past in the present.
He looks from table to table, and disturbs the groups as he goes up to scrutinize all the merrymakers in the room. Alas, he knows no one! Elsewhere, it is the same; he has no luck. In vain he has extended his neck and sent his desperate glances in search of a familiar head among the uniformed men who in clumps or couples drink and talk or in solitude write. He has the air of a cadger, and no one pays him heed.
Finding no soul to come to his relief, he decides to invest at least what he has in his pocket. He slips up to the counter. "A pint of wine--and good."
"You, mon garçon, you're from the South," says the landlady, handing him a little full bottle and a glass, and gathering his twelve sous.
He places himself at the corner of a table already overcrowded by four drinkers who are united in a game of cards. He fills the glass to the brim and empties it, then fills it again.
"Hey, good health to you! Don't drink the tumbler!" yelps in his face a man who arrives in the dirty blue jumper of fatigues, and displays a heavy cross-bar of eyebrows across his pale face, a conical head, and half a pound's weight of ears. It is Harlingue, the armorer.
It is not very glorious to be seated alone before a pint in the presence of a comrade who gives signs of thirst. But Fouillade pretends not to understand the requirements of the gentleman who daIlies in front of him with an engaging smile, and he hurriedly empties his glass. The other turns his back, not without grumbling that "they're not very generous, but on the contrary greedy, these Southerners."
Fouillade has put his chin on his fists, and looks unseeing at a corner of the room where the crowded poilus elbow, squeeze, and jostle each other to get by.
It was pretty good, that swig of white wine, but of what use are those few drops in the Sahara of Fouillade? The blues did not far recede, and now they return.
The Southerner rises and goes out, with his two glasses of wine in his stomach and one sou in his pocket. He plucks up courage to visit one more tavern, to plumb it with his eyes, and by way of excuse to mutter, as he leaves the place, "Curse him! He's never there, the animal!"
Then he returns to the barn, which still--as always--whistles with wind and water. Fouillade lights his candle, and by the glimmer of the flame that struggles desperately to take wing and fly away, he sees Labri. He stoops low, with his light over the miserable dog--perhaps it will die first. Labri is sleeping, hut feebly, for he opens an eye at once, and his tail moves.
The Southerner strokes him, and says to him in a low voice, "It can't be helped, it----" He will not say more to sadden him, but the dog signifies appreciation by jerking his head before closing his eyes again. Fouillade rises stiffly, by reason of his rusty joints, and makes for his couch. For only one thing more he is now hoping--to sleep, that the dismal day may die, that wasted day, like so many others that there will be to endure stoically and to overcome, before the last day arrives of the war or of his life.
[note 1:] French soldiers have extensively developed a system of corresponding with French women whom they do not know from Eve and whose acquaintance they usually make through newspaper advertisements. As typical of the latter I copy the following: "Officier artilleur, 30 ans, désire correspondance discrète avec jeune marraine, femme du monde. Ecrire," etc. The "lonely soldier" movement in this country is similar.--Tr.