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"IT's foggy. Would you like to go?"
It is Poterloo who asks, as he turns towards me and shows eyes so blue that they make his fine, fair head seem transparent.
Poterloo comes from Souchez, and now that the Chasseurs have at last retaken it, he wants to see again the village where he lived happily in the days when he was only a man.
It is a pilgrimage of peril; not that we should have far to go--Souchez is just there. For six months we have lived and worked in the trenches almost within hail of the village. We have only to climb straight from here on to the Béthune road along which the trench creeps, the road honeycombed underneath by our shelters, and descend it for four or five hundred yards as it dips down towards Souchez. But all that ground is under regular and terrible attention. Since their recoil, the Germans have constantly sent huge shells into it. Their thunder shakes us in our caverns from time to time, and we see, high above the scarps, now here now there, the great black geysers of earth and rubbish, and the piled columns of smoke, as high as churches. Why do they bombard Souchez? One cannot say why, for there is no longer anybody or anything in the village so often taken and retaken, that we have so fiercely wrested from each other.
But this morning a dense fog enfolds us, and by favor of the great curtain that the sky throws over the earth one might risk it. We are sure at least of not being seen. The fog hermetically closes the perfected retina of the Sausage that must be somewhere up there, enshrouded in the white wadding that raises its vast wall of partition between our lines and those observation posts of Lens and Angres, whence the enemy spies upon us.
"Right you are!" I say to Poterloo.
Adjutant Barthe, informed of our project, wags his head up and down, and lowers his eyelids in token that he does not see.
We hoist ourselves out of the trench, and behold us both, upright, on the Béthune road!
It is the first time I have walked there during the day. I have never seen it, except from afar, the terrible road that we have so often traveled or crossed in leaps, bowed down in the darkness, and under the whistling of missiles.
"Well, are you coming, old man?"
After some paces, Poterloo has stopped in the middle of the road, where the fog like cotton-wool unravels itself into pendent fragments, and there he dilates his sky-blue eyes and half opens his scarlet mouth.
"Ah, la, la! Ah, la, la!" he murmurs. When I turn to him he points to the road, shakes his head and says, "This is it, Bon Dieu, to think this is it! This bit where we are, I know it so well that if I shut my eyes I can see it as it was, exactly. Old chap, it's awful to see it again like that. It was a beautiful road, planted all the way along with big trees.
"And now, what is it? Look at it--a sort of long thing without a soul--sad, sad. Look at these two trenches on each side, alive; this ripped-up paving, bored with funnels; these trees uprooted, split, scorched, broken like faggots, thrown all ways, pierced by bullets--look, this pock-marked pestilence, here! Ah, my boy, my boy, you can't imagine how it is disfigured, this road!" And he goes forward, seeing some new amazement at every step.
It is a fantastic road enough, in truth. On both sides of it are crouching armies, and their missiles have mingled on it for a year and a half. It is a great disheveled highway, traveled only by bullets and by ranks and files of shells, that have furrowed and upheaved it, covered it with the earth of the fields, scooped it and laid bare its bones. It might be under a curse; it is a way of no color, burned and old, sinister and awful to see.
"If you'd only known it--how clean and smooth it was!" says Poterloo. "All sorts of trees were there, and leaves, and colors--like butterflies; and there was always some one passing on it to give good-day to some good woman rocking between two baskets, or people shouting [note 1] to each other in a chaise, with the good wind ballooning their smocks. Ah, how happy life was once on a time!"
He dives down to the banks of the misty stream that follows the roadway towards the land of parapets. Stooping, he stops by some faint swellings of the ground on which crosses are fixed--tombs, recessed at intervals into the wall of fog, like the Stations of the Cross in a church.
I call him--we shall never get there at such a funeral pace. Allons!
We come to a wide depression in the land, I in front and Poterloo lagging behind, his head confused and heavy with thought as he tries in vain to exchange with inanimate things his glances of recognition. Just there the road is lower, a fold secretes it from the side towards the north. On this sheltered ground there is a little traffic.
Along the hazy, filthy, and unwholesome space, where withered grass is embedded in black mud, there are rows of dead. They are carried there when the trenches or the plain are cleared during the night. They are waiting--some of them have waited long--to be taken back to the cemeteries after dark.
We approach them slowly. They are close against each other, and each one indicates with arms or legs some different posture of stiffened agony. There are some with half-moldy faces, the skin rusted, or yellow with dark spots. Of several the faces are black as tar, the lips hugely distended--the heads of negroes blown out in goldbeaters' skin. Between two bodies, protruding uncertainly from one or the other, is a severed wrist, ending with a cluster of strings.
Others are shapeless larvae of pollution, with dubious items of equipment pricking up, or bits of bone. Farther on, a corpse has been brought in in such a state that they have been obliged--so as not to lose it on the way--to pile it on a lattice of wire which was then fastened to the two ends of a stake. Thus was it carried in the hollow of its metal hammock, and laid there. You cannot make out either end of the body; alone, in the heap that it makes, one recognizes the gape of a trouser-pocket. An insect goes in and out of it.
Around the dead flutter letters that have escaped from pockets or cartridge pouches while they were being placed on the ground. Over one of these bits of white paper, whose wings still beat though the mud ensnares them, I stoop slightly and read a sentence--"My dear Henry, what a fine day it is for your birthday!" The man is on his belly; his loins are rent from hip to hip by a deep furrow; his head is half turned round; we see a sunken eye; and on temples, cheek and neck a kind of green moss is growing.
A sickening atmosphere roams with the wind around these dead and the heaped-up debris, that lies about them--tent-cloth or clothing in stained tatters, stiff with dried blood, charred by the scorch of the shell, hardened, earthy and already rotting, quick with swarming and questing things. It troubles us. We look at each other and shake our heads, nor dare admit aloud that the place smells bad. All the same, we go away slowly.
Now come breaking out of the fog the bowed backs of men who are joined together by something they are carrying. They are Territorial stretcher-bearers with a new corpse. They come up with their old wan faces, toiling, sweating, and grimacing with the effort. To carry a dead man in the lateral trenches when they are muddy is a work almost beyond human power. They put down the body, which is dressed in new clothes.
"It's not long since, now, that he was standing," says one of the bearers. "It's two hours since he got his bullet in the head for going to look for a Boche rifle in the plain. He was going on leave on Wednesday and wanted to take a rifle home with him. He is a sergeant of the 405th, Class 1914. A nice lad, too."
He takes away the handkerchief that is over the face. It is quite young, and seems to sleep, except that an eyeball has gone, the cheek looks waxen, and a rosy liquid has run over the nostrils, mouth, and eyes.
The body strikes a note of cleanliness in the charnel-house, this still pliant body that lolls its head aside when it is moved as if to lie better; it gives a childish illusion of being less dead than the others. But being less disfigured, it seems more pathetic, nearer to one, more intimate, as we look. And had we said anything in the presence of all that heap of beings destroyed, it would have been "Poor boy!"
We take the road again, which at this point begins to slope down to the depth where Souchez lies. Under our feet in the whiteness of the fog it appears like a valley of frightful misery. The piles of rubbish, of remains and of filthiness accumulate on the shattered spine of the road's paving and on its miry borders in final confusion. The trees bestrew the ground or have disappeared, torn away, their stumps mangled. The banks of the road are overturned and overthrown by shell-fire. All the way along, on both sides of this highway where only the crosses remain standing, are trenches twenty times blown in and re-hollowed, cavities--some with passages into them--hurdles on quagmires.
The more we go forward, the more is everything turned terribly inside out, full of putrefaction, cataclysmic. We walk on a surface of shell fragments, and the foot trips on them at every step. We go among them as if they were snares, and stumble in the medley of broken weapons or bits of kitchen utensils, of water-bottles, fire-buckets, sewing-machines, among the bundles of electrical wiring, the French and German accouterments all mutilated and encrusted in dried mud, and among the sinister piles of clothing, stuck together with a reddish-brown cement. And one must look out, too, for the unexploded shells, which everywhere protrude their noses or reveal their flanks or their bases, painted red, blue, and tawny brown.
"That's the old Boche trench, that they cleared out of in the end." It is choked up in some places, in others riddled with shell-holes. The sandbags have been torn asunder and gutted; they are crumbled, emptied, scattered to the wind. The wooden props and beams arc splintered, and point all ways. The dug-outs are filled to the brim with earth and with--no one knows what. It is all like the dried bed of a river, smashed, extended, slimy, that both water and men have abandoned. In one place the trench has been simply wiped out by the guns. The wide fosse is blocked, and remains no more than a field of new-turned earth, made of holes symmetrically bored side by side, in length and in breadth.
I point out to Poterloo this extraordinary field, that would seem to have been traversed by a giant plow. But he is absorbed to his very vitals in the metamorphosis of the country's face.
He indicates a space in the plain with his finger, and with a stupefied air, as though he came out of a dream-- "The Red Tavern!" It is a flat field, carpeted with broken bricks.
And what is that, there? A milestone? No, it is not a milestone. It is a head, a black head, tanned and polished. The mouth is all askew, and you can see something of the mustache bristling on each side--the great head of a carbonized cat. The corpse--it is German-- is underneath, buried upright.
"And that?" It is a ghastly collection containing an entirely white skull, and then, six feet away, a pair of boots, and between the two a heap of frayed leather and of rags, cemented by brown mud.
"Come on, there's less fog already. We must hurry."
A hundred yards in front of us, among the more transparent waves of fog that are changing places with us and hide us less and less, a shell whistles and bursts. It has fallen in the spot we are just nearing. We are descending, and the gradient is less steep. We go side by side. My companion says nothing, but looks to right and to left. Then he stops again, as he did at the top of the road. I hear his faltering voice, almost inaudible---"What's this! We're there--this is it----"
In point of fact we have not left the plain, the vast plain, seared and barren--but we are in Souchez!
The village has disappeared, nor have I seen a village go so completely. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, and Carency. these still retained some shape of a place, with their collapsed and truncated houses, their yards heaped high with plaster and tiles. Here, within the framework of slaughtered trees that surrounds us as a spectral background in the fog, there is no longer any shape. There is not even an end of wall, fence, or porch that remains standing; and it amazes one to discover that there are paving-stones under the tangle of beams, stones, and scrap-iron. This--here--was a street.
It might have been a dirty and boggy waste near a big town, whose rubbish of demolished buildings and its domestic refuse had been shot here for years, till no spot was empty. We plunge into a uniform layer of dung and debris, and make but slow and difficult progress. The bombardment has so changed the face of things that it has diverted the course of the millstream, which now runs haphazard and forms a pond on the remains of the little place where the cross stood.
Here are several shell-holes where swollen horses are rotting; in others the remains of what were once human beings are scattered, distorted by the monstrous injury of shells.
Here, athwart the track we are following, that we ascend as through an avalanche or inundation of ruin, under the unbroken melancholy of the sky, here is a man stretched out as if he slept, but he has that close flattening against the ground which distinguishes a dead man from a sleeper. He is a dinner-fatigue man, with a chaplet of loaves threaded over a belt, and a bunch of his comrades' water-bottles slung on his shoulder by a skein of straps. It must have been only last night that the fragment of a shell caught him in the back. No doubt we are the first to find him, this unknown soldier secretly dead. Perhaps he will be scattered before others find him, so we look for his identity disc--it is stuck in the clotted blood where his right hand stagnates. I copy down the name that is written in letters of blood.
Poterloo lets me do it by myself--he is like a sleepwalker. He looks, and looks in despair, everywhere. He seeks endlessly among those evanished and eviscerated things; through the void he gazes to the haze of the horizon. Then he sits down on a beam, having first sent flying with a kick a saucepan that lay on it, and I sit by his side. A light drizzle is falling. The fog's moisture is resolving in little drops that cover everything with a slight gloss. He murmurs, "Ah, la, la!"
He wipes his forehead and raises imploring eyes to me. He is trying to make out and take in the destruction of all this corner of the earth, and the mournfulness of it. He stammers disjointed remarks and interjections. He takes off his great helmet and his head is smoking. Then he says to me with difficulty, "Old man, you cannot imagine, you cannot, you cannot----"
He whispers: "The Red Tavern, where that--where that Boche's head is, and litters of beastliness all around, that sort of cesspool--it was on the edge of the road, a brick house and two out-buildings alongside--how many times, old man, on the very spot where we stood, how many times, there, the good woman who joked with me on her doorstep, I've given her good-day as I wiped my mouth and looked towards Souchez that I was going back to! And then, after a few steps, I've turned round to shout some nonsense to her! Oh, you cannot imagine! But that, now, that!" He makes an inclusive gesture to indicate all the emptiness that surrounds him.
"We mustn't stay here too long, old chap. The fog's lifting, you know."
He stands up with an effort--"Allons."
The most serious part is yet to come. His house----
He hesitates, turns towards the east, goes. "It's there--no, I've passed it. It's not there. I don't know where it is--or where it was. Ah, misery, misery!" He wrings his hands in despair and staggers in the middle of the medley of plaster and bricks. Then, bewildered by this encumbered plain of lost landmarks, he looks questioningly about in the air, like a thoughtless child, like a madman. He is looking for the intimacy of the bedrooms scattered in infinite space, for their inner form and their twilight now cast upon the winds!
After several goings and comings, he stops at one spot and draws back a little-- "It was there, I'm right. Look--it's that stone there that I knew it by. There was a vent-hole there, you can see the mark of the bar of iron that was over the hole before it disappeared."
Sniffling he reflects, and gently shaking his head as though he could not stop it: "It is when you no longer have anything that you understand how happy you were. Ah, how happy we were!"
He comes up to me and laughs nervously: "It's out of the common, that, eh? I'm sure you've never seen yourself like it--can't find the house where you've always lived since--since always----"
He turns about, and it is he who leads me away:
"Well, let's leg it, since there is nothing. Why spend a whole hour looking at places where things were? Let's be off, old man."
We depart--the only two living beings to be seen in that unreal and miasmal place, that village which bestrews the earth and lies under our feet.
We climb again. The weather is clearing and the fog scattering quickly. My silent comrade, who is making great strides with lowered head, points out a field: "The cemetery," he says; "it was there before it was everywhere, before it laid hold on everything without end, like a plague."
Half-way, we go more slowly, and Poterloo comes close to me-"You know, it's too much, all that. It's wiped out too much--all my life up to now. It makes me afraid--it is so completely wiped out."
"Come; your wife's in good health, you know; your little girl, too."
He looks at me comically: "My wife--I'll tell you something; my wife----"
"Well, old chap, I've seen her again."
"You've seen her? I thought she was in the occupied country?"
"Yes, she's at Lens, with my relations. Well, I've seen her----ah, and then, after all, zut!--I'll tell you all about it. Well, I was at Lens, three weeks ago. It was the eleventh; that's twenty days since."
I look at him, astounded. But he looks like one who is speaking the truth. He talks in sputters at my side. as we walk in the increasing light----
"They told us--you remember, perhaps--but you weren't there, I believe--they told us the wire had got to be strengthened in front of the Billard Trench. You know what that means, eh? They hadn't been able to do it till then. As soon as one gets out of the trench he's on a downward slope, that's got a funny name."
"Yes, that's it; and the place is as bad by night or in fog as in broad daylight, because of the rifles trained on it before hand on trestles, and the machine-guns that they point during the day. When they can't see any more, the Boches sprinkle the lot.
"They took the pioneers of the C.H.R., hut there were some missing, and they replaced 'em with a few poilus. I was one of 'em. Good. We climb out. Not a single rifle-shot! 'What does it mean?' we says, and behold. we see a Boche, two Boches, three Boches, coming out of the ground--the gray devils!--and they make signs to us and shout 'Kamarad!' 'We're Alsatians,' they says. coming more and more out of their communication trench--the International. 'They won't fire on you, up there,' they says; 'don't be afraid, friends. Just let us bury our dead.' And behold us working aside of each other, and even talking together since they were from Alsace. And to tell the truth, they groused about the war and about their officers. Our sergeant knew all right that it was forbidden to talk with the enemy, and they'd even read it out to us that we were only to talk to them with our rifles. But the sergeant he says to himself that this is God's own chance to strengthen the wire, and as long as they were letting us work against them, we'd just got to take advantage of it,
"Then behold one of the Boches that says, 'There isn't perhaps one of you that comes from the invaded country and would like news of his family?'
"Old chap, that was a bit too much for me. Without thinking if I did right or wrong, I went up to him and I said, 'Yes, there's me.' The Boche asks me questions. I tell him my wife's at Lens with her relations, and the little one, to. He asks where she's staying. I explain to him, and he says he can see it from there. 'Listen,' he says, 'I'll take her a letter, and not only that, but I'll bring you an answer.' Then all of a sudden he taps his forehead, the Boche, and comes close to me--'Listen, my friend, to a lot better still. If you like to do what I say, you shall see your wife, and your kids as well, and all the lot, sure as I see you.' He tells me, to do it, I've only got to go with him at a certain time with a Boche greatcoat and a shako that he'll have for me. He'd mix me up in a coal-fatigue in Lens, and we'd go to our house. I could go and have a look on condition that I laid low and didn't show myself, and he'd be responsible for the chaps of the fatigue, but there were non-coms. in the house that he wouldn't answer for--and, old chap, I agreed!"
"That was serious."
"Yes, for sure, it was serious. I decided all at once. without thinking and without wishing to think, seeing I was dazzled with the idea of seeing my people again; and if I got shot afterwards, well, so much the worse-- but give and take. The supply of law and demand they call it, don't they?
"My boy, it all went swimmingly. The only hitch was they had such hard work to find a shako big enough, for, as you know, I'm well off for head. But even that was fixed up. They raked me out in the end a lousebox big enough to hold my head. I've already some Boche boots--those that were Caron's, you know. So, behold us setting off in the Boche trenches--and they're most damnably like ours--with these good sorts of Boche comrades, who told me in very good French--same as I'm speaking--not to fret myself.
"There was no alarm, nothing. Getting there came off all right. Everything went off so sweet and simple that I fancied I must be a defaulting Boche. We got to Lens at nightfall. I remember we passed in front of La Perche and went down the Rue du Quatorze-Juillet. I saw some of the townsfolk walking about in the streets like they do in our quarters. I didn't recognize them because of the evening, nor them me, because of the evening too, and because of the seriousness of things. It was so dark you couldn't put your finger into your eye when I reached my folk's garden.
"My heart was going top speed. I was all trembling from head to foot as if I were only a sort of heart myself. And I had to hold myself back from carrying on aloud, and in French too, I was so happy and upset. The Kamarad says to me, 'You go, pass once, then another time, and look in at the door and the window. Don't look as if you were looking. Be careful.' So I get hold of myself again, and swallow my feelings all at a gulp. Not a bad sort, that devil, seeing he'd have had a hell of a time if I'd got nailed.
"At our place, you know, same as everywhere in the Pas de Calais, the outside doors of the houses are cut in two. At the bottom, it's a sort of barrier, half-way up your body; and above, you might call it a shutter. So you can shut the bottom half and be one-half private.
"The top half was open, and the room, that's the dining-room, and the kitchen as well, of course, was lighted up and I heard voices.
"I went by with my neck twisted sideways. There were heads of men and women with a rosy light on them, round the round table and the lamp. My eyes fell on her, on Clotilde. I saw her plainly. She was sitting between two chaps, non-coms., I believe, and they were talking to her. And what was she doing? Nothing; she was smiling, and her face was prettily bent forward and surrounded with a light little framework of fair hair, and the lamp gave it a bit of a golden look.
"She was smiling. She was contented. She had a look of being well off, by the side of the Boche officer, and the lamp, and the fire that puffed an unfamiliar warmth out on me. I passed, and then 1 turned round, and passed again. I saw her again, and she was always smiling. Not a forced smile, not a debtor's smile, non, a real smile that came from her, that she gave. And during that time of illumination that I passed in two senses, I could see my baby as well, stretching her hands out to a great striped simpleton and trying to climb on his knee; and then, just by, who do you think I recognized? Madeleine Vandaërt, Vandaërt's wife, my pal of the 19th, that was killed at the Maine, at Montyon.
"She knew he'd been killed because she was in mourning. And she, she was having good fun, and laughing outright, I tell you--and she looked at one and the other as much as to say, 'I'm all right here!'
"Ah, my boy, I cleared out of that, and butted into the Kamarads that were waiting to take me back. How I got back I couldn't tell you. I was knocked out. I went stumbling like a man under a curse, and if any-body had said a wrong word to me just then----! I should have shouted out loud; I should have made a row, so as to get killed and be done with this filthy life!
"Do you catch on? She was smiling, my wife, my Clotilde, at this time in the war! And why? Have we only got to be away for a time for us not to count any more? You take your damned hook from home to go to the war, and everything seems finished with; and they worry for a while that you're gone, but bit by bit you become as if you didn't exist, they can do without you to be as happy as they were before, and to smile. Ah, Christ! I'm not talking of the other woman that was laughing, but my Clotilde, mine, who at that chance moment when I saw her, whatever you may say, was getting on damned well without me!
"And then, if she'd been with friends or relations; but no, actually with Boche officers! Tell me, shouldn't I have had good reason to jump into the room, fetch her a couple of swipes, and wring the neck of the other old hen in mourning?
"Yes, yes; I thought of doing it. I know all right I was getting violent, I was getting out of control.
"Mark me. I don't want to say more about it than I have said. She's a good lass, Clotilde. I know her, and I've confidence in her. I'm not far wrong, you know. If I were done in, she'd cry all the tears in her body to begin with. She thinks I'm alive, I admit, but that isn't the point. She can't prevent herself from being; well off, and contented, and letting herself go, when she's a good fire, a good lamp, and company, whether I'm there or not----"
I led Poterloo away: "You exaggerate, old chap; you're getting absurd notions, come." We had walked very slowly and were still at the foot of the hill. The fog was becoming like silver as it prepared for departure. Sunshine was very near.
* * * * * *
Poterloo looked up and said, "We'll go round by the Carency road and go in at the back." We struck off at an angle into the fields. At the end of a few minutes he said to me, "I exaggerate, you think? You say that I exaggerate?" He reflected. "Ah!" Then he added, with the shaking of the head that had hardly left him all the morning, "What about it? All the same, it's a fact----"
We climbed the slope. The cold had become tepidity. Arrived on a little plateau--"Let's sit here again before going in," he proposed. He sat down, heavy with the world of thought that entangled him. His forehead was wrinkled. Then he turned towards me with an awkward air, as if he were going to beg some favor: "Tell me, mate, I'm wondering if I'm right."
But after looking at me, he looked at everything else, as though he would rather consult them than me.
A transformation was taking place in the sky and on the earth. The fog was hardly more than a fancy. Distances revealed themselves. The narrow plain, gloomy and gray, was getting bigger, chasing its shadows away, and assuming color. The light was passing over it from east to west like sails.
And down there at our very feet, by the grace of distance and of light, we saw Souchez among the trees-- the little place arose again before our eyes, new-born in the sunshine!
"Am I right?" repeated Poterloo, more faltering, more dubious.
Before I could speak he replied to himself, at first almost in a whisper, as the light fell on him-- "She's quite young, you know; she's twenty-six. She can't hold her youth in, it's coming out of her all over, and when she's resting in the lamp-light and the warmth, she's got to smile; and even if she burst out laughing, it would just simply be her youth, singing in her throat. It isn't on account of others, if truth were told; it's on account of herself. It's life. She lives. Ah, yes, she lives, and that's all. It isn't her fault if she lives. You wouldn't have her die? Very well, what do you want her to do? Cry all day on account of me and the Boches? Grouse? One can't cry all the time, nor grouse for eighteen months. Can't be done. It's too long, I tell you. That's all there is to it."
He stops speaking to look at the view of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, now wholly illuminated.
"Same with the kid; when she found herself alongside a simpleton that doesn't tell her to go and play with herself, she ends by wanting to get on his knee. Perhaps she'd prefer that it was her uncle or a friend or her father--perhaps--but she tries it on all the same with the only man that's always there, even if it's a great hog in spectacles.
"Ah," he cries, as he gets up and comes gesticulating before me. "There's a good answer one could give me. If I didn't come back from the war, I should say, 'My lad, you've gone to smash, no more Clotilde, no more love! You'll be replaced in her heart sooner or later; no getting round it; your memory, the portrait of you that she carries in her, that'll fade bit by bit and another'll come on top of it, and she'll begin another life again.' Ah, if I didn't come back!"
He laughs heartily. "But I mean to come back. Ah, yes! One must be there. Otherwise--I must be there, look you," he says again more seriously; "otherwise, if you're not there, even if you're dealing with saints and angels, you'll be at fault in the end. That's life. But I am there." He laughs. "Well, I'm a little there, as one might say!"
I get up too, and tap him on the shoulder. "You're right, old pal, it'll all come to an end."
He rubs his hands and goes on talking. "Yes, by God! it'll all finish, don't worry. Oh, I know well there'll be hard graft before it's finished, and still more after. We've got to work, and I don't only mean work with the arms.
"It'll be necessary to make everything over again. Very well, we'll do it. The house? Gone. The garden? Nowhere. All right, we'll rebuild the house, we'll remake the garden. The less there is the more we'll make over again. After all, it's life, and we're made to remake, eh? And we'll remake our life together, and happiness. We'll make the days again; we'll remake the nights.
"And the other side, too. They'll make their world again. Do you know what I say?--perhaps it won't be as long as one thinks----"
"Tiens! I can see Madeleine Vandaërt marrying another chap. She's a widow; but, old man, she's been a widow eighteen months. Do you think it's not a big slice, that, eighteen months? They even leave off wearing mourning, I believe, about that time! People don't remember that when they say 'What a strumpet she is,' and when, in effect, they ask her to commit suicide. But mon vieux, one forgets. One is forced to forget. It isn't the people that make you forget; you do it yourself; it's just forgetfulness, mind you. I find Madeleine again all of a sudden, and to see her frivvling there it broke me up as much as if her husband had been killed yesterday--it's natural. But it's a devil of a long time since he got spiked, poor lad. It's a long time since, it's too long since. People are no longer the same. But, mark you, one must come back, one must be there! We shall be there, and we shall be busy with beginning again!"
On the way, he looks and winks, cheered up by finding a peg on which to hang his ideas. He says-- "I can see it from here, after the war, all the Souchez people setting themselves again to work and to life-- what a business! Tiens, Papa Ponce, for example, the back-number! He was so pernickety that you could see him sweeping the grass in his garden with a horsehair brush, or kneeling on his lawn and trimming the turf with a pair of scissors. Very well, he'll treat himself to that again! And Madame Imaginaire, that lived in one of the last houses towards the Chateau de Carleul, a large woman who seemed to roll along the ground as if she'd got casters under her big circular petticoats. She had a child every year, regular, punctual--a proper machine-gun of kids. Very well, she'll take that occupation up again with all her might."
He stops and ponders, and smiles a very little--almost within himself: "Tiens, I'll tell you; I noticed---it isn't very important, this," he insists, as though suddenly embarrassed by the triviality of this parenthesis---"but I noticed (you notice it in a glance when you're noticing something else) that it was cleaner in our house than in my time----"
We come on some little rails in the ground, climbing almost hidden in the withered grass underfoot. Poterloo points out with his foot this bit of abandoned track, and smiles; ''That, that's our railway. It was a cripple, as you may say; that means something that doesn't move. It didn't work very quickly. A snail could have kept pace with it. We shall remake it. But certainly it won't go any quicker. That can't be allowed!"
When we reached the top of the hill, Poterloo turned round and threw a last look over the slaughtered places that we had just visited. Even more than a minute ago, distance recreated the village across the remains of trees shortened and sliced that now looked like young saplings. Better even than just now, the sun shed on that white and red accumulation of mingled material an appearance of life and even an illusion of meditation. Its very stones seemed to feel the vernal revival. The beauty of sunshine heralded what would be, and revealed the future. The face of the watching soldier, too, shone with a glamour of reincarnation, and the smile on it was born of the springtime and of hope. His rosy cheeks and blue eyes seemed brighter than ever.
We go down into the communication trench and there is sunshine there. The trench is yellow, dry, and resounding. I admire its finely geometrical depth, its shovel-smoothed and shining flanks; and I find it enjoyable to hear the clean sharp sound of our feet on the hard ground or on the caillebotis--little gratings of wood, placed end to end and forming a plankway.
I look at my watch. It tells me that it is nine o'clock, and it shows me, too, a dial of delicate color where the sky is reflected in rose-pink and blue, and the fine fret-work of bushes that are planted there above the marges of the trench.
And Poterloo and I look at each other with a kind of confused delight. We are glad to see each other, as though we were meeting after absence! He speaks to me, and though I am quite familiar with the singsong accent of the North, I discover that he is singing.
We have had bad days and tragic nights in the cold and the rain and the mud. Now, although it is still winter, the first fine morning shows and convinces us that it will soon be spring once more. Already the top of the trench is graced by green young grass, and amid its new-born quivering some flowers are awakening. It means the end of contracted and constricted days. Spring is coming from above and from below. We inhale with joyful hearts; we are uplifted.
Yes, the had days are ending. The war will end, too, que diable! And no doubt it will end in the beautiful season that is coming, that already illumines us, whose zephyrs already caress us.
A whistling sound--tiens, a spent bullet! A bullet? Nonsense--it's a blackbird! Curious how similar the sound was! The blackbirds and the birds of softer song, the countryside and the pageant of the seasons, the intimacy of dwelling-rooms, arrayed in light--Oh! the war will end soon; we shall go back for good to our own; wife, children, or to her who is at once wife and child, and we smile towards them in this young glory that already unites us again.
At the forking of the two trenches, in the open and on the edge, here is something like a doorway. Two posts lean one upon the other, with a confusion of electric wires between them, hanging down like tropical creepers. It looks well. You would say it was a theatrical contrivance or scene. A slender climbing plant twines round one of the posts, and as you follow it with your glance, you see that it already dares to pass from one to the other.
Soon, passing along this trench whose grassy slopes quiver like the flanks of a fine horse, we come out into our own trench on the Béthune road, and here is our place. Our comrades are there, in clusters. They are eating, and enjoying the goodly temperature.
The meal finished, we clean our aluminium mess-tins or plates with a morsel of bread. "Tiens, the sun's going!" It is true; a cloud has passed over and hidden it. "It's going to splash, my little lads," says Lamuse "that's our luck all over! Just as we are going off!"
"A damned country!" says Fouillade. In truth this Northern climate is not worth much. It drizzles and mizzles, reeks and rains. And when there is any sun it soon disappears in the middle of this great damp sky.
Our four days in the trenches are finished, and the relief will commence at nightfall. Leisurely we get ready for leaving. We fill and put aside the knapsacks and bags. We give a rub to the rifles and wrap them up.
It is already four o'clock. Darkness is falling quickly, and we grow indistinct to each other. "Damnation. Here's the rain!" A few drops and then the downpour. Oh, la, la, la! We don our capes and tent-cloths. We go back unto the dug-out, dabbling, and gathering mud on our knees, hands, and elbows, for the bottom of the trench is getting sticky. Once inside, we have hardly time to light a candle, stuck on a bit of stone, and to shiver all round--"Come on, en route!"
We hoist ourselves into the wet and windy darkness outside. I can dimly see Poterloo's powerful shoulders; in the ranks we are always side by side. When we get going I call to him, "Are you there, old chap?"--"Yes, in front of you," he cries to me, turning round. As he turns he gets a buffet in the face from wind and rain, but he laughs. His happy face of the morning abides with him. No downpour shall rob him of the content that he carries in his strong and steadfast heart; no evil night put out the sunshine that I saw possess his thoughts some hours ago.
We march, and jostle each other, and stumble. The rain is continuous, and water runs in the bottom of the trench. The floor-gratings yield as the soil becomes soaked; some of them slope to right or left and we skid on them. In the dark, too, one cannot see them, so we miss them at the turnings and put our feet into holes full of water.
Even in the grayness of the night I will not lose sight of the slaty shine of Poterloo's helmet, which streams like a roof under the torrent, nor of the broad back that is adorned with a square of glistening oilskin. I lock my step in his, and from time to time I question him and he answers me--always in good humor, always serene and strong.
When there are no more of the wooden floor-gratings, we tramp in the thick mud. It is dark now. There is a sudden halt and I am thrown on Poterloo. Up higher we hear half-angry reproaches--"What the devil, will you get on? We shall get broken up!"
"I can't get my trotters unstuck!" replies a pitiful voice.
The engulfed one gets clear at last, and we have to run to overtake the rest of the company. We begin to pant and complain, and bluster against those who are leading. Our feet go down haphazard; we stumble and hold ourselves up by the wails, so that our hands are plastered with mud. The march becomes a stampede, full of the noise of metal things and of oaths.
In redoubled rain there is a second halt; some one has fallen, and the hubbub is general. He picks himself up and we are off again. I exert myself to follow Poterloo's helmet closely that gleams feebly in the night before my eyes, and I shout from time to time, "All right?"--"Yes, yes, all right," he replies, puffing and blowing, and his voice always singsong and resonant.
Our knapsacks, tossed in this rolling race under the assault of the elements, drag and hurt our shoulders.
The trench is blocked by a recent landslide, and we plunge unto it. We have to tear our feet out of the soft and clinging earth, lifting them high at each step. Then, when this crossing is laboriously accomplished, we topple down again into the slippery stream, in the bottom of which are two narrow ruts, boot-worn, which hold one's foot like a vice, and there are pools into which it goes with a great splash. In one place we must stoop very low to pass under a heavy and glutinous bridge that crosses the trench, and we only get through with difficulty. It obliges us to kneel in the mud, to flatten ourselves on the ground, and to crawl on all fours for a few paces. A little farther there are evolutions to perform as we grasp a post that the sinking of the ground has set aslope across the middle of the fairway.
We come to a trench-crossing. "Allons, forward! Look out for yourselves, boys!" says the adjutant, who has flattened himself in a corner to let us pass and to speak to us. "This is a bad spot."
"We're done up," shouts a voice so hoarse that I cannot identify the speaker.
"Damn! I've enough of it, I'm stopping here," groans another, at the end of his wind and his muscle.
"What do you want me to do?" replies the adjutant, "No fault of mine. eh? Allons, get a move on, it's a bad spot--it was shelled at the last relief!"
We go on through the tempest of wind and water. We seem to be going ever down and down, as in a pit. We slip and tumble, butt into the wall of the trench, into which we drive our elbows hard, so as to throw ourselves upright again. Our going is a sort of long slide, on which we keep up just how and where we can. What matters is to stumble only forward, and as straight as possible.
Where are we? I lift my head, in spite of the billows of rain, out of this gulf where we are struggling. Against the hardly discernible background of the buried sky, I can make out the rim of the trench; and there, rising before my eyes all at once and towering over that rim, is something like a sinister doorway, made of two black posts that lean one upon the other, with something hanging from the middle like a torn-off scalp. It is the doorway.
I lower my head and see no more; but again I hear the feet that sink in the mud and come out again, the rattle of the bayonets, the heavy exclamations, and the rapid breathing.
Once more there is a violent back-eddy. We pull up sharply, and again I am thrown upon Poterloo and lean on his back, his strong back and solid, like the trunk of a tree, like healthfulness and like hope. He cries to me, "Cheer up, old man, we're there!"
We are standing still. It is necessary to go hack a little--Nom de Dieu!--no, we are moving on again!
Suddenly a fearful explosion falls on us. I tremble to my skull; a metallic reverberation fills my head; a scorching and suffocating smell of sulphur pierces my nostrils. The earth has opened in front of me. I feel myself lifted and hurled aside--doubled up, choked, and half blinded by this lightning and thunder. But still my recollection is clear; and in that moment when I looked wildly and desperately for my comrade-in-arms, I saw his body go up, erect and black, both his arms outstretched to their limit, and a flame in the place of his head!
[note 1:] All these high roads are stone-paved, and traffic is noisy.-- Tr.