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THE twilight of evening was coming near from the direction of the country, and a gentle breeze, soft as a whisper, came with it.
In the houses alongside this rural way--a main road, garbed for a few paces like a main street--the rooms whose pallid windows no longer fed them with the limpidity of space found their own light from lamps and candles, so that the evening left them and went outside, and one saw light and darkness gradually changing places.
On the edge of the village, towards the fields, some unladen soldiers were wandering, facing the breeze. We were ending the day in peace, and enjoying that idle ease whose happiness one only realizes when one is really weary. It was fine weather, we were at the beginning of rest, and dreaming about it. Evening seemed to make our faces bigger before it darkened them, and they shone with the serenity of nature.
Sergeant Suilhard came to me, took my arm, and led me away. "Come," he said, "and I'll show you something."
The approaches to the village abounded in rows of tall and tranquil trees, and we followed them along. Under the pressure of the breeze their vast verdure yielded from time to time in slow majestic movements.
Suilhard went in front of me. He led me into a deep lane, which twisted about between high banks; and on each side grew a border of bushes, whose tops met each other. For some moments we walked in a bower of tender green. A last gleam of light, falling aslant across the lane, made points of bright yellow among the foliage, and round as gold coins. "This is pretty," I said.
He said nothing, but looked aside and hard. Then he stopped. "It must be there."
He made me climb up a bit of a track to a field, a great quadrangle within tall trees, and full of the scent of hay.
"Tiens!" I said, looking at the ground, "it's all trampled here; there's been something to do."
"Come," said Suilhard to me. He led me into the field, not far from its gate. There was a group of soldiers there, talking in low voices. My companion stretched out his hand. "It's there," be said.
A very short post, hardly a yard high, was implanted a few paces from the hedge, composed just there of young trees. "It was there," he said, "that they shot a soldier of the 204th this morning. They planted that post in the night. They brought the chap here at dawn, and these are the fellows of his squad who killed him. He tried to dodge the trenches. During relief he stayed behind, and then went quietly off to quarters. He did nothing else; they meant, no doubt, to make an example of him."
We came near to the conversation of the others. "No. no, not at all," said one. "He wasn't a ruffian, he wasn't one of those toughs that we all know. We all enlisted together. He was a decent sort, like ourselves, no more, no less--a bit funky, that's all. He was in the front line from the beginning, he was, and I've never seen him boozed, I haven't."
"Yes, but all must be told. Unfortunately for him, there was a 'previous conviction.' There were two, you know, that did the trick--the other got two years. But Cajard, [note 1] because of the sentence he got in civil life couldn't benefit by extenuating circumstances. He'd done some giddy-goat trick in civil life, when he was drunk."
"You can see a little blood on the ground if you look," said a stooping soldier.
"There was the whole ceremonial," another went on, "from A to Z--the colonel on horseback, the degradation; then they tied him to the little post, the cattle-stoup. He had to be forced to kneel or sit on the ground with a similar post."
"It's past understanding," said a third, after a silence, "if it wasn't for the example the sergeant spoke about."
On the post the soldiers had scrawled inscriptions and protests. A croix de guerre, cut clumsily of wood, was nailed to it, and read: "A. Cajard, mobilized in August, 1914, in gratitude to France."
Returning to quarters I met Volpatte, still surrounded and talking. He was relating some new anecdotes of his journey among the happy ones.
[note 1:] I have altered the name of this soldier as well as that of the village.--H. B.