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"THEY say you sell shoe-laces," said Martin, his eyes blinking in the faint candlelight.
Crouched in the end of the dugout was a man with a brown skin like wrinkled leather, and white eyebrows and moustaches. All about him were piles of old boots, rotten with wear and mud, holding fantastically the imprints of the toes and ankle-bones of the feet that had worn them. The candle cast flitting shadows over them so that they seemed to move back and forth faintly, as do the feet of wounded men laid out on the floor of the dressing-station.
"I'm a cobbler by profession," said the man. He made a gesture with the blade of his knife in the direction of a huge bundle of leather laces that hung from a beam above his head. "I've done all those since yesterday. I cut up old boots into laces."
"Helps out the five sous a bit," said Martin, laughing.
"This post is convenient for my trade," went on the cobbler, as he picked out another boot to be cut into laces, and started hacking the upper part off the worn sole. "At the little hut, where they pile up the stiffs before they bury them--you know, just to the left outside the abri--they leave lots of their boots around. I can pick up any number I want." With a clasp-knife he was cutting the leather in a spiral, paring off a thin lace. He contracted his bushy eyebrows as he bent over his work. The candlelight glinted on the knife blade as he twisted it about dexterously.
"Yes, many a good copain of mine has had his poor feet in those boots. What of it? Some day another fellow will be making laces out of mine, eh?" He gave a wheezy, coughing laugh.
"I guess I'll take a pair. How much are they?"
The coins glinted in the light of the candle as they clinked in the man's leather-blackened palm.
"Good-bye," said Martin. He walked past men sleeping in the bunks on either side as he went towards the steps.
At the end of the dugout the man crouched on his pile of old leather, with his knife that glinted in the candlelight dexterously carving laces out of the boots of those who no longer needed them.