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FROM this point onwards we are in sight of the enemy observation-posts, and must no longer leave the communication trenches. First we follow that of the Pylônes road. The trench is cut along the side of the road, and the road itself is wiped out; so are its trees. Half of it, all the way along, has been chewed and swallowed by the trench; and what is left of it has been invaded by the earth and the grass, and mingled with the fields in the fullness of time. At some places in the trench--there, where a sandbag has burst and left only a muddy cell--you may see again on the level of your eyes the stony ballast of the ex-road, cut to the quick, or even the roots of the bordering trees that have been cut down to embody in the trench wall. The latter is as slashed and uneven as if it were a wave of earth and rubbish and dark scum that the immense plain has spat out and pushed against the edge of the trench.
We arrive at a junction of trenches, and on the top of the maltreated hillock which is outlined on the cloudy grayness, a mournful signboard stands crookedly in the wind. The trench system becomes still more cramped and close, and the men who are flowing towards the clearing-station from all parts of the sector multiply and throng in the deep-dug ways.
These lamentable lanes are staked out with corpses. At uneven intervals their walls are broken into by quite recent gaps, extending to their full depth, by funnelholes of fresh earth which trespass upon the unwholesome land beyond, where earthy bodies are squatting with their chins on their knees or leaning against the wall as straight and silent as the rifles which wait beside them. Some of these standing dead turn their blood-bespattered faces towards the survivors; others exchange their looks with the sky's emptiness.
Joseph halts to take breath. I say to him as to a child, "We're nearly there, we're nearly there."
The sinister ramparts of this way of desolation contract still more. They impel a feeling of suffocation, of a nightmare of falling which oppresses and strangles: and in these depths where the walls seem to be coming nearer and closing in, you are forced to halt, to wriggle a path for yourself, to vex and disturb the dead, to be pushed about by the endless disorder of the files that flow along these hinder trenches, files made up of messengers, of the maimed, of men who groan and who cry aloud, who hurry frantically, crimsoned by fever or pallid and visibly shaken by pain.
* * * * * *
All this throng at last pulls up and gathers and groans at the crossways where the burrows of the Refuge open out.
A doctor is trying with shouts and gesticulations to keep a little space clear from the rising tide that beats upon the threshold of the shelter, where he applies summary bandages in the open air; they say he has not ceased to do it, nor his helpers either, all the night and all the day, that he is accomplishing a superhuman task.
When they leave his hands, some of the wounded are swallowed up by the black hole of the Refuge; others are sent back to the bigger clearing-station contrived in the trench on the Béthune road.
In this confined cavity formed by the crossing of the ditches, in the bottom of a sort of robbers' den, we waited two hours, buffeted, squeezed, choked and blinded, climbing over each other like cattle, in an odor of blood and butchery. There are faces that become more distorted and emaciated from minute to minute. One of the patients can no longer hold back his tears; they come in floods, and as he shakes his head he sprinkles his neighbors. Another, bleeding like a fountain, shouts, "Hey, there! have a look at me!" A young man with burning eyes yells like a soul in hell, "I'm on fire!" and he roars and blows like a furnace.
* * * * * *
Joseph is bandaged. He thrusts a way through to me and holds out his hand: "It isn't serious, it seems; good-by," he says.
At once we are separated in the mob. With my last glance I see his wasted face and the vacant absorption in his trouble as he is meekly led away by a Divisional stretcher-bearer whose hand is on his shoulder; and suddenly I see him no more. In war, life separates us just as death does, without our having even the time to think about it.
They tell me not to stay there, but to go down into the Refuge to rest before returning. There are two entries, very low and very narrow, on the level of the ground. This one is flush with the mouth of a sloping gallery, narrow as the conduit of a sewer. In order to penetrate the Refuge, one must first turn round and work backwards with bent body into the shrunken pipe, and here the feet discover steps. Every three paces there is a deep step.
Once inside you have a first impression of being trapped--that there is not room enough either to descend or climb out. As you go on burying yourself in the gulf, the nightmare of suffocation continues that you progressively endured as you advanced along the bowels of the trenches before foundering in here. On all sides you bump and scrape yourself, you are clutched by the tightness of the passage, you are wedged and stuck. I have to change the position of my cartridge pouches by sliding them round the belt and to take my bags in my arms against my chest. At the fourth step the suffocation increases still more and one has a moment of agony; little as one may lift his knee for the rearward step, his back strikes the roof. In this spot it is necessary to go on all fours, still backwards. As you go down into the depth, a pestilent atmosphere and heavy as earth buries you. Your hands touch only the cold, sticky and sepulchral clay of the wall, which bears you down on all sides and enshrouds you in a dismal solitude; its blind and moldy breath touches your face. On the last steps, reached after long labor, one is assailed by a hot, unearthly clamor that rises from the hole as from a sort of kitchen.
When you reach at last the bottom of this laddered sap that elbows and compresses you at every step, the evil dream is not ended, for you find yourself in a lone but very narrow cavern where gloom reigns, a mere corridor not more than five feet high. If you cease to stoop and to walk with bended knees, your head violently strikes the planks that roof the Refuge, and the newcomers are heard to growl--more or less forcefully, according to their temper and condition--"Ah, lucky I've got my tin hat on:"
One makes out the gesture of some one who is squatting in an angle. It is an ambulance man on guard, whose monotone says to each arrival, "Take the mud off your boots before going in." So you stumble into an accumulating pile of mud; it entangles you at the foot of the steps on this threshold of hell.
In the hubbub of lamentation and groaning, in the strong smell of a countless concentration of wounds, in this blinking cavern of confused and unintelligible life, I try first to get my bearings. Some weak candle flames are shining along the Refuge, but they only relieve the darkness in the spots where they pierce it. At the farthest end faint daylight appears, as it might to a dungeon prisoner at the bottom of an oubliette. This obscure vent-hole allows one to make out some big objects ranged along the corridor; they are low stretchers, like coffins. Around and above them one then dimly discerns the movement of broken and drooping shadows, and the stirring of ranks and groups of specters against the walls.
I turn round. At the end opposite that where the faraway light leaks through, a mob is gathered in front of a tent-cloth which reaches from the ceiling to the ground, and thus forms an apartment, whose illumination shines through the oily yellow material. In this retreat, anti-tetanus injections are going on by the light of an acetylene lamp. When the cloth is lifted to allow some one to enter or leave, the glare brutally besplashes the disordered rags of the wounded stationed in front to await their treatment. Bowed by the ceiling, seated, kneeling or groveling, they push each other in the desire not to lose their turn or to steal some other's, and they bark like dogs, "My turn!"--"Me!"----"Me!" In this corner of modified conflict the tepid stinks of acetylene and bleeding men are horrible to swallow.
I turn away from it and seek elsewhere to find a place where I may sit down. I go forward a little, groping, still stooping and curled up, and my hands in front.
By grace of the flame which a smoker holds over his pipe I see a bench before me, full of beings. My eyes are growing accustomed to the gloom that stagnates in the cave, and I can make out pretty well this row of people whose bandages and swathings dimly whiten their beads and limbs. Crippled, gashed, deformed, motionless or restless, fast fixed in this kind of barge, they present an incongruous collection of suffering and misery.
One of them cries out suddenly, half rises, and then sits down again. His neighbor, whose greatcoat is torn and his head bare, looks at him and says to him--"What's the use of worrying?"
And he repeats the sentence several times at random, gazing straight in front of him, his hands on his knees. A young man in the middle of the seat is talking to himself. He says that he is an aviator. There are burns down one side of his body and on his face. In his fever he is still burning; it seems to him that he is still gnawed by the pointed flames that leaped from his engine. He is muttering, "Gott mit uns!" and then, "God is with us!"
A zouave with his arm in a sling, who sits awry and seems to carry his shoulder like a torturing burden, speaks to him: "You're the aviator that fell, aren't you?"
"I've seen--things " replies the flying-man laboriously.
"I too, I've seen some!" the soldier interrupts; "some people couldn't stick it, to see what I've seen."
"Come and sit here," says one of the men on the seat to me, making room as he speaks. "Are you wounded?"
"No; I brought a wounded man here, and I'm going back."
"You're worse than wounded then; come and sit down."
"I was mayor in my place," explains one of the sufferers, "but when I go back no one will know me again, it's so long now that I've been in misery."
"Four hours now have I been stuck on this bench," groans a sort of mendicant, whose shaking hand holds his helmet on his knees like an alms-bowl, whose head is lowered and his back rounded.
"We're waiting to be cleared, you know," I am informed by a big man who pants and sweats--all the bulk of him seems to be boiling. His mustache hangs as if it had come half unstuck through the moisture of his face. He turns two big and lightless eyes on me, and his wound is not visible.
"That's so," says another; "all the wounded of the Brigade come and pile themselves up here one after another, without counting them from other places. Yes, look at it now; this hole here, it's the midden for the whole Brigade."
"I'm gangrened, I'm smashed, I'm all in bits inside," droned one who sat with his head in his hands and spoke through his fingers; "yet up to last week I was young and I was clean. They've changed me. Now, I've got nothing but a dirty old decomposed body to drag along."
"Yesterday," says another, "I was twenty-six years old. And now how old am I?" He tries to get up, so as to show us his shaking and faded face, worn out in a night, to show us the emaciation, the depression of cheeks and eye-sockets, and the dying flicker of light in his greasy eye.
"It hurts!" humbly says some one invisible.
"What's the use of worrying?" repeats the other mechanically.
There was a silence, and then the aviator cried, "The padres were trying on both sides to hide their voices."
"What's that mean?" said the astonished zouave.
"Are you taking leave of 'em, old chap?" asked a chasseur wounded in the hand and with one arm bound to his body, as his eyes left the mummified limb for a moment to glance at the flying-man.
The latter's looks were distraught; he was trying to interpret a mysterious picture which everywhere he saw before his eyes-- "Up there, from the sky, you don't see much, you know. Among the squares of the fields and the little heaps of the villages the roads run like white cotton. You can make out, too, some hollow threads that look as if they'd been traced with a pin-point and scratched through fine sand. These nets that festoon the plain with regularly wavy marks, they're the trenches. Last Sunday morning I was flying over the firing-line. Between our first lines and their first lines, between their extreme edges, between the fringes of the two huge armies that are up against each other, looking at each other and not seeing, and waiting--it's not very far; sometimes forty yards, sometimes sixty. To me it looked about a stride, at the great height where I was planing. And behold I could make out two crowds, one among the Boches, and one of ours, in these parallel lines that seemed to touch each other; each was a solid, lively lump, and all around 'em were dots like grains of black sand scattered on gray sand, and these hardly budged--it didn't look like an alarm! So I went down several turns to investigate.
"Then I understood. It was Sunday, and there were two religious services being held under my eyes--the altar, the padre, and all the crowd of chaps. The more I went down the more I could see that the two things were alike--so exactly alike that it looked silly. One of the services--whichever you like--was a reflection of the other, and I wondered if I was seeing double. I went down lower; they didn't fire at me. Why? I don't know at all. Then I could hear. I heard one murmur. one only. I could only gather a single prayer that came up to me en bloc, the sound of a single chant that passed by me on its way to heaven. I went to and fro in space to listen to this faint mixture of hymns that blended together just the same although they were one against the other; and the more they tried to get on top of each other, the more they were blended together up in the heights of the sky where I was floating.
"I got some shrapnel just at the moment when, very low down, I made out the two voices from the earth that made up the one--'Gott mit uns!' and 'God is with us!'--and I flew away."
The young man shook his bandage-covered head; he seemed deranged by the recollection. "I said to myself at the moment, 'I must be mad!'"
"It's the truth of things that's mad," said the zouave.
With his eyes shining in delirium, the narrator sought to express and convey the deep disturbing idea that was besieging him, that he was struggling against.
"Now think of it!" he said. "Fancy those two identical crowds yelling things that are identical and yet opposite, these identical enemy cries! What must the good God think about it all? I know well enough that He knows everything, but even if He knows everything, He won't know what to make of it."
"Rot!" cried the zouave.
"He doesn't care a damn for us, don't fret yourself."
"Anyway, what is there funny about it? That doesn't prevent people from quarreling with each other--and don't they! And rifle-shots speak jolly well the same language, don't they?"
"Yes," said the aviator, "but there's only one God. It isn't the departure of prayers that I don't understand; it's their arrival."
The conversation dropped.
"There's a crowd of wounded laid out in there," the man with the dull eyes said to me, "and I'm wondering all ways how they got 'em down here. It must have been a terrible job, tumbling them in here."
Two Colonials, hard and lean, supporting each other like tipsy men, butted into us and recoiled, looking on the ground for some place to fall on.
"Old chap, in that trench I'm telling you of," the hoarse voice of one was relating, "we were three days without rations, three full days without anything--anything. Willy-nilly, we had to drink our own water, and no help for it."
The other explained that once on a time he had cholera. "Ah, that's a dirty business--fever, vomiting, colics; old man, I was ill with that lot!"
"And then, too," suddenly growled the flying-man, still fierce to pursue the answer to the gigantic conundrum, "what is this God thinking of to let everybody believe like that that He's with them? Why does He let us all--all of us--shout out side by side, like idiots and brutes, 'God is with us!'--'No, not at all, you're wrong; God is with us'?"
A groan arose from a stretcher, and for a moment fluttered lonely in the silence as if it were an answer.
* * * * * *
Then, "I don't believe in God," said a pain-racked voice; "I know He doesn't exist--because of the suffering there is. They can tell us all the clap-trap they like, and trim up all the words they can rind and all they can make up, but to say that all this innocent suffering could come from a perfect God, it's damned skull-stuffing."
"For my part," another of the men on the seat goes on, "I don't believe in God because of the cold. I've seen men become corpses bit by bit, just simply with cold. If there was a God of goodness, there wouldn't be any cold. You can't get away from that."
"Before you can believe in God, you've got to do away with everything there is. So we've got a long way to go!"
Several mutilated men, without seeing each other, combine in head-shakes of dissent "You're right," says another, "you're right."
These men in ruins, vanquished in victory, isolated and scattered, have the beginnings of a revelation. There come moments in the tragedy of these events when men are not only sincere, but truth-telling, moments when you see that they and the truth are face to face.
"As for me," said a new speaker, "if I don't believe in God, it's----" A fit of coughing terribly continued his sentence.
When the fit passed and his cheeks were purple and wet with tears, some one asked him, "Where are you wounded?"
"I'm not wounded; I'm ill."
"Oh, I see!" they said, in a tone which meant "You're not interesting."
He understood, and pleaded the cause of his illness:
"I'm done in, I spit blood. I've no strength left, and it doesn't come back, you know, when it goes away like that."
"Ah, ah!" murmured the comrades--wavering, but secretly convinced all the same of the inferiority of civilian ailments to wounds.
In resignation he lowered his head and repeated to himself very quietly, "I can't walk any more; where would you have me go?"
* * * * * *
A commotion is arising for some unknown reason in. the horizontal gulf which lengthens as it contracts from stretcher to stretcher as far as the eye can see, as far as the pallid peep of daylight, in this confused corridor where the poor winking flames of candles redden and seem feverish, and winged shadows cast themselves. The odds and ends of heads and limbs are agitated, appeals and cries arouse each other and increase in number like invisible ghosts. The prostrate bodies undulate, double up, and turn over.
In the heart of this den of captives, debased and punished by pain, I make out the big mass of a hospital attendant whose heavy shoulders rise and fall like a knapsack carried crosswise, and whose stentorian voice reverberates at speed through the cave. "You've been meddling with your bandage again, you son of a lubber, you varmint!" he thunders. "I'll do it up again for you, as long as it's you, my chick, but if you touch it again, you'll see what I'll do to you!"
Behold him then in the obscurity, twisting a bandage round the cranium of a very little man who is almost upright, who has bristling hair and a beard which puffs out in front. With dangling arms, he submits in silence. But the attendant abandons him, looks on the ground and exclaims sonorously, "What the ----? Eh, come now, my friend, are you cracked? There's manners for you, to lie down on the top of a patient!" And his capacious hand disengages a second limp body on which the first had extended himself as on a mattress; while the mannikin with the bandaged head alongside, as soon as he is let alone, puts his hands to his head without saying a word and tries once more to remove the encircling lint.
There is an uproar, too, among some shadows that are visible against a luminous background; they seem to be wildly agitated in the gloom of the crypt. The light of a candle shows us several men shaken with their efforts to hold a wounded soldier down on his stretcher. It is a man whose feet are gone. At the end of his legs are terrible bandages, with tourniquets to restrain the hemorrhage. His stumps have bled into the linen wrappings, and he seems to wear red breeches. His face is devilish, shining and sullen, and he is raving. They are pressing down on his shoulders and knees, for this man without feet would fain jump from the stretcher and go away.
"Let me go!" he rattles in breathless, quavering rage. His voice is low, with sudden sonorities, like a trumpet that one tries to blow too softly. "By God, let me go, I tell you! Do you think I'm going to stop here? Allons, let me be, or I'll jump over you on my hands!"
So violently he contracts and extends himself that he pulls to and fro those who are trying to restrain him by their gripping weight, and I can see the zigzags of the candle held by a kneeling man whose other arm engirdles the mutilated maniac, who shouts so fiercely that he wakes up the sleepers and dispels the drowsiness of the rest. On all sides they turn towards him; half rising, they listen to the incoherent lamentations which end by dying in the dark. At the same moment, in another corner, two prostrate wounded, crucified on the ground, so curse each other that one of them has to be removed before the frantic dialogue is broken up.
I go farther away, towards the point where the light from outside comes through among the tangled beams as through a broken grating, and stride over the interminable stretchers that take up all the width of the underground alley whose oppressive confinement chokes me. The human forms prone on the stretchers are now hardly stirring under the Jack-o'-lanterns of the candles; they stagnate in their rattling breath and heavy groans.
On the edge of a stretcher a man is sitting, leaning against the wall. His clothes are torn apart, and in the middle of their darkness appears the white, emaciated breast of a martyr. His head is bent quite back and veiled in shadow, but I can see the beating of his heart.
The daylight that is trickling through at the end, drop by drop, comes in by an earth-fall. Several shells. falling on the same spot, have broken through the heavy earthen roof of the Refuge.
Here, some pale reflections are cast on the blue of the greatcoats, on the shoulders and along the folds. Almost paralyzed by the darkness and their own weakness, a group of men is pressing towards the gap, like dead men half awaking, to taste a little of the pallid air and detach themselves from the sepulcher. This corner at the extremity of the gloom offers itself as a way of escape, an oasis where one may stand upright, where one is lightly, angelically touched by the light of heaven.
"There were some chaps there that were blown to bits when the shells burst," said some one to me who was waiting there in the sickly ray of entombed light. "You talk about a mess! Look, there's the padre hooking down what was blown up."
The huge Red Cross sergeant, in a hunter's chestnut waistcoat which gives him the chest of a gorilla, is detaching the pendent entrails twisted among the beams of the shattered woodwork. For the purpose he is using a rifle with fixed bayonet, since he could not find a stick long enough; and the heavy giant, bald, bearded and asthmatic, wields the weapon awkwardly. He has a mild face, meek and unhappy, and while he tries to catch the remains of intestines in the corners, he mutters a string of "Oh's!" like sighs. His eyes are masked by blue glasses; his breathing is noisy. The top of his head is of puny dimensions, and the huge thickness of his neck has a conical shape. To see him thus pricking and unhanging from the air strips of viscera and rags of flesh, you could take him for a butcher at some fiendish task.
But I let myself fall in a corner with my eyes half closed, seeing hardly anything of the spectacle that lies and palpitates and falls around me. Indistinctly I gather some fragments of sentences--still the horrible monotony of the story of wounds: "Nom de Dieu! In that place I should think the bullets were touching each other.-- "His head was bored through from one temple to the other. You could have passed a thread through."
"Those beggars were an hour before they lifted their fire and stopped peppering us." Nearer to me some one gabbles at the end of his story, "When I'm sleeping I dream that I'm killing him over again!"
Other memories are called up and buzz about among the buried wounded; it is like the purring of countless gear-wheels in a machine that turns and turns. And I hear afar him who repeats from his seat, "What's the use of worrying?" in all possible tones, commanding a pitiful, sometimes like a prophet and anon like one shipwrecked; he metrifies with his cry the chorus of choking and plaintive voices that try so terribly to extol their suffering.
Some one comes forward, blindly feeling the wall with his stick, and reaches me. It is Farfadet! I call him, and he turns nearly towards me to tell me that one eye is gone, and the other is bandaged as well. I give him my place, take him by the shoulders and make him sit down. He submits, and seated at the base of the wall waits patiently, with the resignation of his clerkly calling, as if in a waiting-room.
I come to anchor a little farther away, in an empty space where two prostrate men are talking to each other in low voices; they are so near to me that I hear them without listening. They are two soldiers of the Foreign Legion; their helmets and greatcoats are dark yellow.
"It's not worth while to make-believe about it," says one of them banteringly. "I'm staying here this time. It's finished--my bowels are shot through. If I were in a hospital, in a town, they'd operate on me in time, and it might stick up again. But here! It was yesterday I got it. We're two or three hours from the Béthune road, aren't we? And how many hours, think you, from the road to an ambulance where they can operate? And then, when are they going to pick us up? It's nobody's fault, I dare say; but you've got to look facts in the face. Oh, I know it isn't going to be any worse from now than it is, but it can't be long, seeing I've a hole all the way through my parcel of guts. You, your foot'll get all right, or they'll put you another one on. But I'm going to die."
"Ah!" said the other, convinced by the reasoning of his neighbor. The latter goes on-- "Listen, Dominique. You've led a bad life. You cribbed things, and you were quarrelsome when drunk. You've dirtied your ticket in the police register, properly."
"I can't say it isn't true, because it is," says the other; "but what have you got to do with it?"
"You'll lead a bad life again after the war, inevitably; and then you'll have bother about that affair of the cooper."
The other becomes fierce and aggressive. "What the hell's it to do with you? Shut your jaw!"
"As for me, I've no more family than you have. I've nobody, except Louise--and she isn't a relation of mine, seeing we're not married. And there are no convictions against me, beyond a few little military jobs. There's nothing on my name."
"Well, what about it? I don't care a damn."
"I'm going to tell you. Take my name. Take it-- I give it you; as long as neither of us has any family."
"Yes; you'll call yourself Leonard Carlotti, that's all. 'Tisn't a big job. What harm can it do you? Straight off, you've no more convictions. They won't hunt you out, and you can be as happy as I should have been if this bullet hadn't gone through my magazine."
"Oh Christ!" said the other, "you'd do that? You'd--that--well, old chap, that beats all!"
"Take it. It's there in my pocket-book in my greatcoat. Go on, take it, and hand yours over to me--so that I can carry it all away with me. You'll be able to live where you like, except where I come from, where I'm known a bit, at Longueville in Tunis. You'll remember that? And anyway, it's written down. You must read it, the pocket-book. I shan't blab to anybody. To bring the trick off properly, mum's the word, absolutely."
He ponders a moment, and then says with a shiver "I'll p'raps tell Louise, so's she'll find I've done the right thing, and think the better of me, when I write to her to say good-by."
But he thinks better of it, and shakes his head with an heroic effort. "No--I shan't let on, even to her. She's her, of course, but women are such chatterers!"
The other man looks at him, and repeats, "Ah, nome de Dieu!"
Without being noticed by the two men I leave the drama narrowly developing in this lamentable corner and its jostling and traffic and hubbub.
Now I touch the composed and convalescent chat of two poor wretches-- "Ah, my boy, the affection he had for that vine of his! You couldn't find anything wrong among the branches of it----"
"That little nipper, that wee little kid, when I went out with him, holding his tiny fist, it felt as if I'd got hold of the little warm neck of a swallow, you know."
And alongside this sentimental avowal, here is the passing revelation of another mind: "Don't I know the 547th! Rather! Listen, it's a funny regiment. They've got a poilu in it who's called Petitjean, another called Petitpierre, and another called Petitlouis. Old man, it's as I'm telling you; that's the kind of regiment it is."
As I begin to pick out a way with a view to leaving the cavern, there is a great noise down yonder of a fall and a chorus of exclamations. It is the hospital sergeant who has fallen. Through the breach that he was clearing of its soft and bloody relics, a bullet has taken him in the throat, and he is spread out full length on the ground. His great bewildered eyes are rolling and his breath comes foaming. His mouth and the lower part of his face are quickly covered with a cloud of rosy bubbles. They place his head on a bag of bandages, and the bag is instantly soaked with blood. An attendant cries that the packets of lint will be spoiled, and they are needed. Something else is sought on which to put the head that ceaselessly makes a light and discolored froth. Only a loaf can be found, and it is slid under the spongy hair.
While they hold the sergeant's hand and question him, he only slavers new heaps of bubbles, and we see his great black-bearded head across this rosy cloud. Laid out like that, he might be a deep-breathing marine monster, and the transparent red foam gathers and creeps up to his great hazy eyes, no longer spectacled.
Then his throat rattles. It is a childish rattle, and he dies moving his head to right and to left as though he were trying very gently to say "No."
Looking on the enormous inert mass, I reflect that he was a good man. He had an innocent and impressionable heart. How I reproach myself that I sometimes abused him for the ingenuous narrowness of his views, and for a certain clerical impertinence that he always had! And how glad I am in this distressing scene--yes, happy enough to tremble with joy--that I restrained myself from an angry protest when I found him stealthily reading a letter I was writing, a protest that would unjustly have wounded him! I remember the time when he exasperated me so much by his dissertation on France and the Virgin Mary. It seemed impossible to me that he could utter those thoughts sincerely. Why should he not have been sincere? Has he not been really killed today? I remember, too, certain deeds of devotion, the kindly patience of the great man, exiled in war as in life--and the rest does not matter. His ideas themselves are only trivial details compared with his heart--which is there on the ground in ruins in this corner of Hell. With what intensity I lamented this man who was so far asunder from me in everything!
Then fell the thunder on us! We were thrown violently on each other by the frightful shaking of the ground and the walls. It was as if the overhanging earth had burst and hurled itself down. Part of the armor-plate of beams collapsed, enlarging the hole that already pierced the cavern. Another shock--another pulverized span fell in roaring destruction. The corpse of the great Red Cross sergeant went rolling against the wall like the trunk of a tree. All the timber in the long frame-work of the cave, those heavy black vertebrae, cracked with an ear-splitting noise, and all the prisoners in the dungeon shouted together in horror.
Blow after blow, the explosions resound and drive us in all directions as the bombardment mangles and devours the sanctuary of pierced and diminished refuge. As the hissing flight of shells hammers and crushes the gaping end of the cave with its thunderbolts, daylight streams in through the clefts. More sharply now, and more unnaturally, one sees the flushed faces and those pallid with death, the eyes which fade in agony or burn with fever, the patched-up white-bound bodies, the monstrous bandages. All that was hidden rises again into daylight. Haggard, blinking and distorted, in face of the flood of iron and embers that the hurricanes of light bring with them, the wounded arise and scatter and try to take flight. All the terror-struck inhabitants roll about in compact masses across the miserable tunnel, as if in the pitching hold of a great ship that strikes the rocks.
The aviator, as upright as he can get and with his neck on the ceiling, waves his arms and appeals to God, asks Him what He is called, what is His real name. Overthrown by the blast and cast upon the others, I see him who, bare of breast and his clothes gaping like a wound, reveals the heart of a Christ. The greatcoat of the man who still monotonously repeats, "What's the use of worrying?" now shows itself all green, bright green, the effect of the picric acid no doubt released by the explosion that has staggered his brain. Others--the rest, indeed--helpless and maimed, move and creep and cringe, worm themselves into the corners. They are like moles. poor, defenseless beasts, hunted by the hellish hounds of the guns.
The bombardment slackens, and ends in a cloud of smoke that still echoes the crashes, in a quivering and burning after-damp. I pass out through the breach; and still surrounded and entwined in the clamor of despair, I arrive under the free sky, in the soft earth where mingled planks and legs are sunk. I catch myself on some wreckage; it is the embankment of the trench. At the moment when I plunge into the communication trenches they are visible a long way; they are still gloomily stirring, still filled by the crowd that overflows from the trenches and flows without end towards the refuges. For whole days, for whole nights, you will see the long rolling streams of men plucked from the fields of battle, from the plain over there that also has feelings of its own, though it bleeds and rots without end.