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"REALLY and truly," said Paradis, my neighbor in the ranks, "believe me or not, I'm knocked out--I've never before been so paid on a march as I have been with this one, this evening."
His feet were dragging, and his square shoulders bowed under the burden of the knapsack, whose height and big irregular outline seemed almost fantastic. Twice he tripped and stumbled.
Paradis is tough. But he had been running up and down the trench all night as liaison man while the others were sleeping, so he had good reason to be exhausted and to growl "Quoi? These kilometers must be made of india-rubber, there's no way out of it."
Every three steps he hoisted his knapsack roughly up with a hitch of his hips, and panted under its dragging; and all the heap that he made with his bundles tossed and creaked like an overloaded wagon.
"We're there," said a non-com.
Non-coms. always say that, on every occasion. But--in spite of the non-com.'s declaration--we were really arriving in a twilight village which seemed to be drawn in white chalk and heavy strokes of black upon the blue paper of the sky, where the sable silhouette of the church--a pointed tower flanked by two turrets more slender and more sharp--was that of a tall cypress.
But the soldier, even when he enters the village where he is to be quartered, has not reached the end of his troubles. It rarely happens that either the squad or the section actually lodges in the place assigned to them, and this by reason of misunderstandings and cross purposes which tangle and disentangle themselves on the spot; and it is only after several quarter-hours of tribulation that each man is led to his actual shelter of the moment.
So after the usual wanderings we were admitted to our night's lodging--a roof supported by four posts, and with the four quarters of the compass for its walls. But it was a good roof--an advantage which we could appreciate. It was already sheltering a cart and a plow, and we settled ourselves by them. Paradis, who had fumed and complained without ceasing during the hour we had spent in tramping to and fro, threw down his knapsack and then himself, and stayed there awhile, weary to the utmost, protesting that his limbs were benumbed, that the soles of his feet were painful, and indeed all the rest of him.
But now the house to which our hanging roof was subject, the house which stood just in front of us, was lighted up. Nothing attracts a soldier in the gray monotony of evening so much as a window whence beams the star of a lamp.
"Shall we have a squint?" proposed Volpatte.
"So be it," said Paradis. He gets up gradually, and hobbling with weariness, steers himself towards the golden window that has appeared in the gloom, and then towards the door. Volpatte follows him, and I Volpatte.
We enter, and ask the old man who has let us in and whose twinkling head is as threadbare as an old hat, if he has any wine to sell.
"No," replies the old man, shaking his head, where a little white fluff crops out in places.
"No beer? No coffee? Anything at all--"
"No, mes amis, nothing of anything. We don't belong here; we're refugees, you know."
"Then seeing there's nothing, we'll be off." We right-about face. At least we have enjoyed for a moment the warmth which pervades the house and a sight of the lamp. Already Volpatte has gained the threshold and his back is disappearing in the darkness.
But I espy an old woman, sunk in the depths of a chair in the other corner of the kitchen, who appears to have some busy occupation.
I pinch Paradis' arm. "There's the belle of the house. Shall we pay our addresses to her?"
Paradis makes a gesture of lordly indifference. He has lost interest in women--all those he has seen for a year and a half were not for him; and moreover, even when they would like to be his, he is equally uninterested.
"Young or old--pooh!" he says to me, beginning to yawn. For want of something to do and to lengthen the leaving, he goes up to the goodwife. "Good-evening, gran'ma," he mumbles, finishing his yawn.
"Good-evening, mes enfants," quavers the old dame. So near, we see her in detail. She is shriveled, bent and bowed in her old bones, and the whole of her face is white as the dial of a clock.
And what is she doing? Wedged between her chair and the edge of the table she is trying to clean some boots. It is a heavy task for her infantile hands; their movements are uncertain, and her strokes with the brush sometimes go astray. The boots, too, are very dirty indeed.
Seeing that we are watching her, she whispers to us that she must polish them well, and this evening too, for they are her little girl's boots, who is a dressmaker in the town and goes off first thing in the morning.
Paradis has stooped to look at the boots more closely, and suddenly he puts his hand out towards them. "Drop it, gran'ma; I'll spruce up your lass's trotter-cases for you in three secs."
The old woman lodges an objection by shaking her head and her shoulders. But Paradis takes the boots with authority, while the grandmother, paralyzed by her weakness, argues the question and opposes us with shadowy protest.
Paradis has taken a boot in each hand; he holds them gingerly and looks at them for a moment, and you would even say that he was squeezing them a little.
"Aren't they small!" he says in a voice which is not what we hear in the usual way.
He has secured the brushes as well, and sets himself to wielding them with zealous carefulness. I notice that he is smiling, with his eyes fixed on his work.
Then, when the mud has gone from the boots, he takes some polish on the end of the double-pointed brush and caresses them with it intently.
They are dainty boots--quite those of a stylish young lady; rows of little buttons shine on them.
"Not a single button missing," he whispers to me, and there is pride in his tone.
He is no longer sleepy; he yawns no more. On the contrary, his lips are tightly closed; a gleam of youth and spring-time lights up his face; and he who was on the point of going to sleep seems just to have woke up.
And where the polish has bestowed a beautiful black his fingers move over the body of the boot, which opens widely in the upper part and betrays--ever such a little--the lower curves of the leg. His fingers, so skilled in polishing, are rather awkward all the same as they turn the boots over and turn them again, as he smiles at them and ponders--profoundly and afar--while the old woman lifts her arms in the air and calls me to witness "What a very kind soldier!" he is.
It is finished. The boots are cleaned and finished off in style; they are like mirrors. Nothing is left to do.
He puts them on the edge of the table, very carefully, as if they were saintly relics; then at last his hands let them go. But his eyes do not at once leave them. He looks at them, and then lowering his head, he looks at his own boots. I remember that while he made this comparison the great lad--a hero by destiny, a Bohemian, a monk--smiled once more with all his heart.
The old woman was showing signs of activity in the depths of her chair; she had an idea. "I'll tell her! She shall thank you herself, monsieur! Hey, Josephine!" she cried, turning towards a door.
But Paradis stopped her with an expansive gesture which I thought magnificent. "No, it's not worth while, gran'ma; leave her where she is. We're going. We won't trouble her, allez!"
Such decision sounded in his voice that it carried authority, and the old woman obediently sank into inactivity and held her peace.
We went away to our bed under the wall-less roof, between the arms of the plow that was waiting for us. And then Paradis began again to yawn; but by the light of the candle in our crib, a full minute later, I saw that the happy smile remained yet on his face.