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


The Egg

WE were badly off, hungry and thirsty; and in these wretched quarters there was nothing!

Something had gone wrong with the revictualing department and our wants were becoming acute. Where the sorry place surrounded them, with its empty doors, its bones of houses, and its bald-headed telegraph posts. a crowd of hungry men were grinding their teeth and confirming the absence of everything:-- "The juice has sloped and the wine's up the spout, and the bully's zero. Cheese? Nix. Napoo jam, napoo butter on skewers."

"We've nothing, and no error, nothing; and play hell as you like, it doesn't help."

"Talk about rotten quarters! Three houses with nothing inside but draughts and damp."

"No good having any of the filthy here, you might as well have only the skin of a bob in your purse, as long as there's nothing to buy."

"You might be a Rothschild, or even a military tailor, but what use'd your brass be?"

"Yesterday there was a bit of a cat mewing round where the 7th are. I feel sure they've eaten it."

"Yes, there was; you could see its ribs like rocks on the sea-shore."

"There were some chaps," says Blaire, "who bustled about when they got here and managed to find a few bottles of common wine at the bacca-shop at the corner of the street."

"Ah, the swine! Lucky devils to be sliding that down their necks."

"It was muck, all the same, it'd make your cup as black as your baccy-pipe."

"There are some, they say, who've swallowed a fowl."

"Damn," says Fouillade.

"I've hardly had a bite. I had a sardine left, and a little tea in the bottom of a bag that I chewed up with some sugar."

"You can't even have a bit of a drunk--it's off the map."

"And that isn't enough either, even when you're not a big eater and you're got a communication trench as flat as a pancake."

"One meal in two days--a yellow mess, shining like gold, no broth and no meat--everything left behind."

"And worst of all we've nothing to light a pipe with."

"True, and that's misery. I haven't a single match. I had several bits of ends, but they've gone. I've hunted in vain through all the pockets of my flea-case--nix. As for buying them it's hopeless, as you say."

"I've got the head of a match that I'm keeping." It is a real hardship indeed, and the sight is pitiful of the poilus who cannot light pipe or cigarette but put them away in their pockets and stroll in resignation. By good fortune, Tirloir has his petrol pipe-lighter and it still contains a little spirit. Those who are aware of it gather round him, bringing their pipes packed and cold. There is not even any paper to light, and the flame itself must be used until the remaining spirit in its tiny insect's belly is burned.

As for me, I've been lucky, and I see Paradis wandering about, his kindly face to the wind, grumbling and chewing a bit of wood. "Tiens," I say to him, "take this."

"A box of matches!" he exclaims amazed, looking at it as one looks at a jewel. 'Egad! That's capital! Matches!"

A moment later we see him lighting his pipe, his face saucily sideways and splendidly crimsoned by the reflected flame, and everybody shouts, "Paradis' got some matches!"

Towards evening I meet Paradis near the ruined triangle of a house-front at the corner of the two streets of this most miserable among villages.

He beckons to me. "Hist!" He has a curious and rather awkward air.

"I say," be says to me affectionately, but looking at his feet, "a bit since, you chucked me a box of flamers. Well, you're going to get a bit of your own back for it. Here!"

He puts something in my hand. "Be careful!" he whispers, "it's fragile!"

Dazzled by the resplendent purity of his present. hardly even daring to believe my eyes, I see--an egg!

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