THAT morning Jean and Maurice heard the gay sound of French bugles for the last time, and now they were marching along the road to Germany in the herd of prisoners, preceded and followed by detachments of Prussian soldiers while others guarded them on either side with fixed bayonets. Now all they heard at each post was German trumpets with their brassy, dreary sound.
Maurice was glad to see that the column was turning left and going through Sedan. Perhaps he would be lucky enough to catch one more glimpse of his sister Henriette. But the five kilometres between the Iges peninsula and the town were enough to take the edge off his joy at feeling himself out of the sink of filth in which he had suffered nine days of torment. But this pathetic convoy of prisoners was a new kind of torture, with these weaponless men dangling their useless hands, being driven like sheep with hurried and frightened steps. Dressed in rags, filthy from having been left in their own excrement, emaciated after fasting for over a week, they looked like nothing but a lot of vagrants and suspicious characters that the police had roped in from the streets. From Torcy onwards, as men stood still and women came to the doors to stare at them with sullen sympathy, Maurice was overcome with shame and looked down at the ground, a bitter taste in his mouth.
Jean, more down-to-earth and more thick-skinned, was only concerned with their silliness in not having brought away a loaf each. In the sudden scurry of their departure they had even left without eating anything, and now once again hunger was tiring them out. Other prisoners must have been in the same state, for many were holding out money and begging to be sold something. One very tall man in particular, who looked terribly ill, was waving a gold coin with his long arm over the heads of the escorting soldiers, and despairing of finding anything to buy. Then it was that Jean, who was certainly on the look-out, spotted in the distance a pile of a dozen loaves in front of a baker’s shop. Quickly, before the others, he threw down five francs and tried to pick up two of the loaves. Then as the Prussian near him brutally shoved him back, he insisted on trying at any rate to recover his money. But already the captain in charge of the column was running up. He was a bald-headed little man with an arrogant face, and he threatened Jean with the butt of his revolver and swore he would crack open the skull of the first man who dared to move. They all lowered their heads and looked down, and the march continued with the thud of feet and the resentful submissiveness of a herd of animals.
‘Oh to give that one a clout!’ Maurice muttered furiously. ‘A good back-hander and ram his teeth in!’
After that he couldn’t bear the sight of this captain, with his supercilious face that cried out to be hit. Now that they were entering Sedan proper over the Meuse bridge, the scenes of brutality recurred, and there were more of them. A woman, probably a mother, wanted to kiss a young sergeant and was pushed away so violently with a rifle-butt that she fell on the ground. On the Place Turenne the townspeople were rough-handled because they threw food to the prisoners. In the Grande-Rue one of the prisoners slipped down as he was taking a bottle a lady gave him, and was kicked to his feet again. For a whole week now Sedan had been witnessing this human livestock from the defeat being driven along with sticks, but could not get used to it, and with each new lot was moved by a sullen fever of pity and revolt.
Jean was thinking of Henriette too, and then he suddenly thought of Delaherche. He nudged his friend.
‘I say, keep your eyes open in a minute if we go along that street!’
And indeed, as soon as they entered rue Maqua, they caught sight of several heads hanging out of one of the enormous windows of the mill. Then they recognized Delaherche and his wife Gilberte leaning out, with the tall, austere figure of Madame Delaherche standing behind them. They had some loaves of bread and he was throwing them down to the hungry men holding out shaky, imploring hands.
Maurice at once saw that his sister was not there, but Jean was worried at the speed with which the loaves were flying, and afraid there would be none left for them. He waved his arms and yelled:
‘Save some for us! Save some for us!’
It was almost a happy surprise for the Delaherches. Their sombre, compassionate faces lit up and they could not restrain gestures of joy at the meeting. Gilberte insisted on throwing the last loaf into Jean’s arms, which she did with such charming clumsiness that she burst into a peal of pretty laughter.
Not being able to stop, Maurice turned round backwards and as he went along shouted an anxious question:
‘What about Henriette? Henriette?’
Delaherche answered with a long sentence, but his voice was lost in the tramp of feet. He must have realized that the young man had not caught what he said, for he made many signs, and repeated one especially, southwards. But already the column was entering rue du Ménil, and the façade of the factory, with the three heads leaning out, disappeared, but a hand still waved a handkerchief.
‘What did he say?’ asked Jean.
Maurice was very upset and still vainly looking back.
‘I don’t know, I didn’t understand… Now I shall be worried so long as I don’t get any news.’
The tramp went on, with the Prussians hurrying them up with the arrogance of conquerors, and the herd left Sedan by the Ménil gate, in a thin line, scampering along as though it was being worried by the hounds.
When they went through Bazeilles Jean and Maurice thought of Weiss and looked for the ashes of the little house that had been so valiantly defended. At the Camp of Hell they had been told about the devastation of the village, the fires and the massacres, but what they saw was worse than their most horrible dreams. After twelve days the heaps of ruins were still smoking. Tottering walls had fallen and not ten houses were left intact. They did find some consolation in the numbers of barrows and carts they saw full of Bavarian helmets and rifles picked up after the battle. This proof that they had killed a lot of these murderers and fire-raisers was some comfort.
The halt for lunch was to be at Douzy. They did not reach there without considerable suffering because the prisoners tired very quickly in their half-starved condition. Even the ones who had blown themselves out with food the day before were giddy, liverish and tired; for, far from restoring their lost strength, this gluttony had weakened them still more. And so when they stopped in a meadow to the left of the village the poor devils dropped on the grass, too dispirited to eat. There was no wine, and kind women who had tried to come with bottles were chased away by the guards. One of them fell and twisted her ankle, and there were cries and tears and a harrowing scene while the Prussians, who had confiscated the bottles, drank them. This pity and kindness of the countryfolk towards the wretched soldiers who were being taken away into captivity was manifest at every step, but it was said that they treated the generals with surly rudeness. Here in Douzy only a day or two earlier the inhabitants had booed a party of generals going on parole to Pont-à-Mousson. The highways were not safe for officers – men in overalls, escaped soldiers, possibly deserters, went for them with pitchforks and tried to kill them as if they were cowards and traitors, and this legend of the betrayal was still, twenty years later, to condemn all officers who had worn epaulettes to the execration of this part of the country.
Maurice and Jean ate half their loaf, which they were lucky enough to wash down with a sip or two of the brandy with which a friendly farmer had managed to fill their bottle. But the terrible thing was to set off again. They were to sleep at Mouzon, and although it was a short lap the effort involved seemed too dreadful. Men couldn’t get up without crying out because the shortest rest made their weary limbs go so stiff. Many had bleeding feet and took off their boots so as to go on walking. They were still ravaged by dysentery, and one fell out after the first kilometre and had to be left propped against a bank. Two others collapsed by a hedge a little further on, and were only picked up that evening by an old woman. Everybody was staggering and using sticks which the Prussians had let them cut at the edge of a wood – in derision, no doubt. They were now a mere rabble of tramps, covered with sores, emaciated and gasping for breath. And the brutalities went on, men who fell out, even for a call of nature, being chased back with blows. The escort platoon bringing up the rear had orders to hurry along any laggards by sticking a bayonet up their behinds. A sergeant refused to go any further, and the captain made two men seize him under the arms and drag him along until he decided to walk again. That was the worst torment of all, the face you wanted to hit, the little bald-headed officer who took advantage of his good French to insult the prisoners in their own language in biting, lashing phrases like strokes with a whip.
‘Oh!’ Maurice raged again. ‘Oh to get hold of that man and let out all his blood, drop by drop!’
He was at the end of his tether and more sick with anger than with fatigue. Everything was getting him down, even the harsh blarings of the Prussian trumpets, which so upset him physically that he could have howled like a wild beast. He would never reach the end of this cruel journey without getting himself murdered. Already as they went through the tiniest hamlets he suffered agonies as he saw women looking at him with pity. What would it be like when they got into Germany and the people in the towns would jostle each other in their desire to greet him with jeering laughter? He conjured up visions of the cattle-trucks into which they would be herded, the disgusting conditions and tortures of the journey and the miserable existence in fortresses under a wintry, snow-laden sky. No, no, rather death straight away, better to risk leaving one’s body there at the corner of some road on French soil than rot over there in some black hole in a fortress, perhaps for months!
‘Look here,’ he whispered to Jean who was walking at his side, ‘we’ll wait until we’re going past some wood and then jump into the trees. The Belgian frontier isn’t far away, and we are sure to find someone to take us there.’
Jean, whose mind was cooler and clearer, recoiled at the idea in spite of the feeling of revolt that was making him, too, think about escape.
‘Are you crazy? They’ll shoot us, and there we’ll both stay.’
But Maurice pointed out that there was a chance of the bullets going wide, and after all, if they were shot, well, that would be that!
‘All right,’ Jean went on, ‘but what would happen to us then, in our uniforms? You can see perfectly well that the whole place is full of Prussian outposts. At any rate we should have to have different clothes… It’s too dangerous, lad, and I’ll never let you do anything so barmy.’
He had to hold him back, take a grip of his arm and keep it close to him as though they were holding each other up, while he went on calming him down in his rough and ready but affectionate way.
Some whispering behind their backs just then made them look round. It was Chouteau and Loubet, who had got away from Iges that morning at the same time as themselves, and whom so far they had avoided. Now these two gentry were treading on their heels. Chouteau must have overheard Maurice’s words, with his plan to escape through a wood, for he took it up himself and murmured into their ears:
‘Look here, we’re in on this. It’s a grand idea to fuck off. Some of the blokes have got away already, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves be dragged like a lot of dogs to the country of those bastards… So what about it for the four of us – O.K. to go for a stroll and take the air?’
Maurice was getting excited again, and Jean had to turn round and say to the tempter:
‘If you’re in a hurry, run along… What hopes do you think you’ve got?’
Chouteau was a bit put out by the straight look Jean gave him. He let out the real reason for his insistence.
‘Well, if there were four of us it would be easier… Then one or two would be sure to get away.’
So with a firm shake of the head Jean turned it down altogether. He didn’t trust that gentleman, as he always said, and was afraid of some dirty trick. He had to use all his authority over Maurice to stop him from giving in because there was an obvious chance just then as they were passing a very dense wood, with only one field full of gorse between it and the road. Did not salvation consist in running across that field and disappearing in the thicket?
So far Loubet had said nothing. His twitching nose was testing the wind, his keen, artful eyes were watching out for the right moment, in his clear determination not to go and moulder in Germany. He would have to trust to his legs and his cunning, which had always got him out of scrapes. He suddenly made up his mind.
‘Fuck it, I’ve had enough! I’m off!’
He leaped with one bound into the field and Chouteau imitated him, running at his side. Two of the escorting Prussians at once gave chase, but neither thought of stopping them with a bullet. The scene was so brief that they hardly took it in. Loubet, zigzagging through the gorse, was certainly going to get away, but Chouteau, who was not so agile, was already on the point of being recaptured when, with a supreme effort, he dived between his companion’s legs and brought him down; and while the two Prussians rushed to hold that man on the ground Chouteau darted into the wood and disappeared. A few shots went off when they remembered their rifles. There was even a half-hearted beat through the trees, though to no purpose.
But the two soldiers went for Loubet on the ground. The captain rushed over in a furious temper, talking of making an example, and with this encouragement kicks and blows with rifle-butts continued to rain down until, by the time the poor creature was picked up, he had one arm broken and his head split open. Before they reached Mouzon he died in a little cart in which some peasant had agreed to take him.
‘You see what I mean,’ was all Jean murmured in Maurice’s ear.
The look they both cast at the impenetrable wood expressed their loathing of the criminal now running away in freedom, while in the end they felt full of pity for his victim, poor devil, who was a slippery customer and not much cop to be sure, but all the same a lively chap, resourceful and no fool. So however clever you were you got your packet sometime!
At Mouzon, in spite of this terrible object-lesson, Maurice was once again plagued by his obsession to escape. They were now in such a state of weariness that the Prussians had to help their prisoners to put up the few tents available. The camp site was in a low-lying and marshy position near the town, and the worst of it was that as another party had camped there the day before the ground was almost covered with excrement – it was a real cesspool, disgustingly filthy. They had to keep themselves out of it by putting on the ground some big flat stones which fortunately they discovered not far away. But the evening was not so bad, as the Prussians relaxed their discipline a little now that the captain had disappeared, presumably to some inn. First of all the sentries did not object when some children threw the prisoners some fruit, apples and pears, over their heads. Then they allowed people from round about to come into the camp, and soon there was a crowd of impromptu dealers, men and women, selling bread, wine and even cigars. Everyone who had any money was eating, drinking and smoking. In the fading evening light it looked like the corner of a fair, busy and noisy.
But behind their tent Maurice was getting worked up again, and saying over and over again to Jean:
‘I can’t stand any more, I’m off as soon as it’s dark… Tomorrow we shall get further away from the frontier and it will be too late.’
‘All right, let’s go,’ Jean said, for his own resistance was wearing down and he, too, was giving in to this mania for escape. ‘We shall soon know if it costs us our lives.’
But he did begin to examine the people selling their wares round about. Some of the men had got hold of working smocks and trousers, and it was rumoured that kindly disposed people had set up real depots of clothing to help prisoners to escape. And then almost at once his attention was caught by a pretty girl, tall and fair, with lovely eyes, who looked about sixteen, and who was holding a basket with three loaves in it. She was not crying her wares like the others, and had an attractive but self-conscious smile and was walking nervously. He looked hard at her and their eyes met and held each other’s for a moment. Then she came over with the diffident smile of a pretty girl asking if she could help.
‘Do you want some bread?’
He did not answer, but made a little questioning sign. When she nodded he ventured to whisper very softly:
‘Got any clothes?’
‘Yes, under the bread.’
Then she made up her mind to cry her wares very loud: ‘Bread! Bread! Who wants to buy bread?’ But when Maurice tried to slip her twenty francs she quickly drew back her hand and ran off, leaving the basket behind. But they saw her look back and give them an affectionate and deeply concerned smile with her beautiful eyes.
Now that the basket was theirs Jean and Maurice found themselves in a terrible fix, for they had wandered a long way from their tent and simply could not find it, so flustered were they. Where could they go and how could they change clothes? They felt that everybody’s eyes could peer into this basket that Jean was carrying so awkwardly, and see what was inside it. So they made up their minds and went into the first empty tent they could find, and there each frantically slipped on a pair of trousers and a smock, and hid their uniform things under the bread. They abandoned the lot. But they had only found one woollen cap, which Jean forced Maurice to put on. He thought being bareheaded far more dangerous than it really was, and gave himself up for lost. While he was hanging about looking for something to put on his head it occured to him to buy the hat of a scruffy old man selling cigars.
‘Three sous each, two for five, Brussels cigars!’
Since the battle of Sedan the customs regulations had broken down, and all the Belgian riff-raff came in freely. The old man in rags had been making a very handsome profit, but that did not prevent his haggling for large sums when he understood why they wanted to buy his hat, a greasy felt one with a hole right through. He only parted with it for two five-franc pieces, moaning that he was sure he would catch a cold.
Jean, moreover, had thought up something else, which was to buy his stock from him as well, the three dozen cigars he was still hawking round. And so, with no more ado, he pulled the hat down over his eyes and called out in a sing-song voice:
‘Three sous for two, three sous for two, Brussels cigars!’
This time it was deliverance. He made signs for Maurice to go on ahead. Maurice had had the good fortune to pick up an umbrella, and as it was spitting with rain he calmly put it up to go through the line of pickets.
‘Three sous for two, three sous for two, Brussels cigars!’
In a few minutes Jean got rid of his wares. They hurried on, laughing: at any rate there was somebody who sold things cheap and didn’t swindle poor people! Interested by the cheapness, some Prussians came up as well, and he had to have dealings with them. He had manoeuvred so as to pass through the enemy lines, and sold his last two cigars to a big bearded sergeant who couldn’t speak a word of French.
‘Not so fast, for God’s sake!’ Jean kept saying behind Maurice’s back. ‘You’ll give us away!’
Yet despite themselves they quickened their pace. They had to make an immense effort to stop for a moment at the corner of two roads among groups of people standing about in front of a pub. Townsfolk were chatting away with German soldiers, looking quite unconcerned. They pretended to listen, and even risked throwing in a word or two about the rain which might start again and go on all night. One man, a stoutish party, kept his eye on them all the time and made them tremble. But as he smiled very kindly they risked it, and whispered:
‘Sir, is the road to Belgium guarded?’
‘Yes, but go through this wood first, and then turn left across the fields.’
In the wood, in the great dark stillness of the trees, when they could not hear a sound and nothing stirred and they thought they were secure, an extraordinary emotion made them fall into each other’s arms. Maurice was crying like a child, and tears rolled slowly down Jean’s cheeks. It was the reaction after their long torment, the joy of telling themselves that suffering might perhaps take pity on them at last. They hugged each other in a passionate embrace, made brothers by all they had gone through together, and the kiss they exchanged seemed the gentlest yet the strongest in their lives, a kiss the like of which they would never have from a woman, undying friendship and absolute certainty that their two hearts were henceforth one for ever.
‘My dear boy,’ Jean said in a shaky voice when they had let each other go, ‘it’s already a great deal to be here, but we’re not through yet… We ought to take our bearings.’
Although he did not know this bit of the frontier, Maurice swore it was all right to go straight ahead. So they very carefully slipped along, one after the other, until they came to the edge of the woods. Then, bearing in mind the directions given by the helpful man, they wanted to turn left and cut across the fields. But as they came to a road lined with poplars they saw the fires of a Prussian post barring the way. The light gleamed on a sentry’s bayonet, and the soldiers were talking while finishing their supper. So they went back on their tracks and buried themselves in the woods in terror of being pursued. They thought they could hear voices and footsteps, and beat about in the bushes for nearly an hour, losing all sense of direction, turning round in circles, sometimes tearing off at a gallop like animals fleeing through the undergrowth and sometimes standing quite still, sweating with nerves, faced by motionless oaks they took for Prussians. Finally they came out again on to the poplar-lined road ten paces from the sentry and near the soldiers who were peacefully having a warm.
‘Our luck’s out!’ muttered Maurice. ‘This wood’s bewitched!’
This time they had been heard. Branches had been snapped and stones dislodged. As, challenged by the sentry, they began to run without answering, the whole post took up arms and shots were fired which whistled through the thicket.
‘Oh Christ!’ Jean swore under his breath, stifling a cry of pain.
He had felt a whiplash on his left calf, and it was so violent that it made him fall against a tree.
‘Got you?’ Maurice anxiously asked.
‘Yes, in the leg. I’m done for!’
They were still listening, panting with fear of hearing the Prussians in full chase behind them. But the shooting had stopped and nothing was stirring again in the great eerie silence. Clearly the post was not anxious to get involved among the trees.
Jean tried to stand up and stifled a groan. Maurice held him up.
‘Can’t you walk any more?’
Normally so placid he began to fly into a rage. He clenched his fists and could have hit himself.
‘Oh Lor, oh Lor! Of all the bloody bad luck! To go and get your leg mucked up just when you’ve got to run!… Really it’s enough to make you go and chuck yourself in the shit! You go on alone.’
Maurice laughed gaily and just said:
He took his arm and helped him along, for they both were anxious to get away from there. After a few painful steps done with a heroic effort, they stopped and were again disturbed as they saw a house in front of them, a kind of little farmhouse on the edge of the wood. There was no light in the windows but the gate into the yard was wide open, showing the building black and empty. When they plucked up enough courage to venture into this farmyard they were astonished to find a horse, all saddled ready, with nothing to show the why and the wherefore of its being there. Perhaps the owner was coming back, perhaps he was lying behind some bush with a bullet through his head. They never knew.
Maurice had a sudden idea which seemed to make him quite jolly.
‘Look here, the frontier is too far away, and besides, we should certainly have to have a guide. But suppose we were to make for Uncle Fouchard’s at Remilly. I could really take you there with my eyes shut, for I know even the little by-roads inside out… Isn’t that an idea? I’m going to lift you up on to this horse, and Uncle Fouchard is sure to take us in.’
First he wanted to have a look at the leg. There were two holes, the bullet must have come out again after breaking the tibia. There was very little bleeding, and he simply bandaged the calf tightly with a handkerchief.
When Jean had been comfortably settled in the saddle Maurice took the horse’s reins and they set off. It must have been about eleven, and he reckoned he could do the journey easily in three hours, even if they only went at a walking pace. But for a moment he was dashed when he thought of an unforeseen difficulty: how were they going to cross the Meuse and get over to the left bank? The bridge at Mouzon was guarded for certain. But then he remembered that there was a ferry downstream at Villers, and so he made his way to this village more or less by dead reckoning across the
fields and ploughed land on the right bank, hoping luck would be on their side. Everything went pretty well at first, and they only had one patrol of cavalry to avoid, and that they did by staying quite still for nearly a quarter of an hour in the shadow of a wall. Rain was falling again and walking became very trying for him as he was obliged to tramp in sodden earth beside the horse, which fortunately was a very good fellow of a horse and very docile. At Villers luck really was on their side, for the ferry at this late hour happened to have just brought over a Bavarian officer, and so could take them at once to the other side with no trouble. The dangers and fatigues only really began at the village, and they nearly stayed there for good in the hands of sentries stationed along the Remilly road. Once again they took to the fields, going where the little paths took them, narrow paths hardly used. The slightest obstacles forced
them to make enormous detours. They crossed hedges and ditches and cut through impenetrable thickets. Jean, now feverish in the drizzling rain, was slumped over the saddle, half fainting and clinging with both hands to the horse’s mane, while Maurice, with the reins over his right arm, had to hold on to his friend’s legs to prevent him from slipping off. For nearly a league and two more hours this exhausting journey dragged on, with jolts, sudden slips and loss of balance which every minute almost threw over the horse and the two men. They were the most miserable little procession imaginable, mud-stained, the horse tottering, the man he was carrying inert and looking as if he had breathed his last, and the other man wild-eyed and haggard, only kept going by brotherly love. Day was breaking, and it must have been about five when at last they reached Remilly.
In the yard of his little farm which overlooked the village as you emerged from the Haraucourt defile, old Fouchard was loading on to his cart two sheep killed the day before. The sight of his nephew in such a sorry set-up was such a shock to him that after the first words of explanation he brutally exclaimed:
‘What, me keep you and your friend here? And get myself into trouble with the Prussians? Oh no, certainly not! I’d rather die straight away!’
Yet he dared not prevent Maurice and Prosper from getting Jean down from the horse and laying him on the big kitchen table. Silvine ran off and got her own bolster, which she slipped under the wounded man’s head, for he was still unconscious. But the old boy, annoyed at seeing this man on his table, grumbled away, saying that he was very uncomfortable like that and why didn’t they take him straight to the field hospital, as they were lucky enough to have one at Remilly, near the church, in the old schoolhouse which had once been a convent and in which there was a very convenient large hall.
‘To the hospital!’ It was Maurice’s turn to object. ‘For the Prussians to send him off to Germany when he’s better, since every wounded man belongs to them!… What do you take me for, uncle? I haven’t brought him all the way here so as to give him up to them!’
Things were turning ugly and Uncle Fouchard was talking of turning them out when the name of Henriette was mentioned.
‘Henriette! What’s that?’ asked Maurice.
He then learned that his sister had been at Remilly since the day before yesterday, being so mortally heartbroken by her loss that to live in Sedan, where she had been so happy, had become unthinkable. A chance meeting with Dr Dalichamp of Raucourt, whom she knew, had made her decide to come and live at Uncle Fouchard’s in one little room and devote her whole time to the wounded in the neighbouring field hospital. It was the only thing, she said, that would take her mind off it all. She paid for her keep and as she contributed all sorts of comforts at the farmhouse the old man looked on her with a kindly eye. When there was something to be made out of it things were always lovely.
‘Oh, so my sister’s here! So that’s what Monsieur Delaherche meant by the big gesture I couldn’t understand! Oh well, if she’s here it goes without saying, we stay!’
At once he insisted on going himself, tired as he was, to find her at the hospital, where she had been on duty all night, and his uncle fumed because now he could not get away with his cart and two sheep on his butcher’s round through the villages until this dratted business of the wounded man who had landed on him was settled.
When Maurice brought back Henriette they caught old Fouchard carefully looking over the horse that Prosper had taken to the stable. A very tired animal, but jolly strong, and he liked the look of it! The young man laughed as he said he would make him a present of it. Henriette meanwhile took her uncle to one side and explained that Jean would pay, and that she would look after him in her little room behind the cowshed where certainly no Prussian would ever go and look for him. Old Fouchard, sulking and still unconvinced that there would be any real profit for him in all this, did eventually jump into his cart and go off, leaving her to do as she thought fit.
Then, with the help of Silvine and Prosper, Henriette only took a few minutes to rearrange her room and have Jean carried there, where he was put into a clean bed, but still he gave no sign of life beyond a few vague mutterings. He opened his eyes and looked round but did not appear to see anybody. Maurice was just finishing a glass of wine and a bit of meat and was suddenly overcome with fatigue, when Dr Dalichamp came, as he did every morning on his way to the hospital, and Maurice did just find the strength to go with him and his sister to the wounded man’s bedside, in his anxiety to find out.
The doctor was a short man with a big round head fringed by greying hair and beard. His fresh face had gone leathery like those of the peasants, with his continual open-air life of journeys to alleviate suffering, and his keen eyes, inquisitive nose and kindly mouth spoke of the whole life of a good, charitable man, a bit off the target sometimes, and no medical genius, but long experience had made him an excellent healer.
Having examined the still semi-conscious Jean he murmured:
‘I’m afraid there’ll have to be an amputation.’
This was grievous news to Maurice and Henriette. But he did add:
‘Perhaps it will be possible to save his leg, but it will need a great deal of care and it will be a very long job… Just now his vitality and morale are in such a low state that the only thing to do is to let him sleep… We’ll see tomorrow.’
Having dressed the wound he turned his attention to Maurice, whom he had known as a child long ago.
‘And you too, my boy, would be better in a bed than on that chair.’
The young man stared straight in front of him with unseeing eyes, as though he had not heard. In his utterly exhausted state his own feverishness was coming back in the form of abnormal nervous excitement due to all the accumulated sufferings and revulsions since the beginning of the campaign. The sight of his stricken friend, the sense of his own defeat, naked, disarmed, good for nothing, the thought that so many heroic efforts had ended in such distress, all threw him into a frantic need to rebel against fate. Then at length he answered:
‘No, no! It’s not all over, no! I’ve got to go… No, as he has got to be here for weeks and perhaps months I can’t stay, I must go at once. You will help me, won’t you, doctor? You will give me the means to escape and get back to Paris.’
Terrified, Henriette threw her arms round him.
‘What are you talking about? Weak as you are, after going through so much! I shall keep you here, I’ll never let you go! Haven’t you paid your debt? Think of me as well, you are leaving me alone and now I’ve nobody left but you.’
They wept together. They kissed each other desperately with that adoring love of twins, closer than normal love as if it dated from before birth. But he worked himself up more and more.
‘But I tell you, I must go… They’re waiting for me and I should die of distress if I didn’t go. You can’t imagine what a ferment goes on inside me at the thought of staying inactive. It can’t end up like this, I tell you, we must have our revenge, but on whom, on what? I’ve no idea, but we must have our revenge for so much suffering, so as to find once again the courage to live!’
Dr Dalichamp, who was watching the scene with keen interest, made a sign to prevent Henriette from answering. When Maurice had had some sleep he would no doubt be calmer, and indeed he did sleep all that day and the following night, for more than twenty hours without moving a finger. Nevertheless, when he woke on the following morning, his resolve to go away was still there and unshakable. There was no more feverishness, but he was gloomy, restless and anxious to escape from all the temptations to a quiet life that he felt round him. His sister wept but realized that she must not insist. And Dr Dalichamp, when he came, promised to facilitate his flight, using the papers of an ambulance man who had died at Raucourt. Maurice would put on the grey shirt and red-cross armband and go through Belgium and thence back to Paris, which was still open.
He did not leave the farmhouse that day, but remained in hiding, waiting for night. He hardly opened his mouth, but he did try to take Prosper with him.
‘Look, aren’t you tempted to go back and see the Prussians again?’
The ex-Chasseur d’Afrique, who was finishing some bread and cheese, lifted his knife in the air.
‘Well, from what we’ve seen of them it’s not much use… Since the cavalry is no good for anything except to get killed after it’s all over, what do you want me to go back for? Oh no, I’ve got so fed up with them never giving me anything worth doing!’
After a pause he went on, possibly to stifle the misgivings in his soldier’s heart:
‘Besides, there’s too much work to do here. The big ploughing is coming soon, and then there will be the sowing. You’ve got to think of the land as well, haven’t you? Because of course it’s all very well to fight, but what would become of us all if we didn’t plough the fields?… You see, I can’t just leave the job. It isn’t that old Fouchard is much good, for I very much doubt whether I shall ever see the colour of his money, but the animals are beginning to take to me, and really this morning when I was up there in the Vieux-Clos and looked down at that bloody old Sedan in the distance I felt jolly glad to be on my own again in the bright sunshine with my animals and pushing my plough!’
As soon as it was dark Dr Dalichamp was there with his trap. He proposed to drive Maurice himself as far as the frontier. Fouchard, glad to see the back of one at least, went down to keep an eye on the road to make sure that no patrol was about, while Silvine finished mending the ambulance man’s old shirt and putting the red-cross armband on the sleeve. Before they left the doctor examined Jean’s leg again and could not yet promise to save it. The wounded man was still in a state of complete somnolence, recognizing nobody and not speaking. Maurice was going to leave without saying good-bye, but when he bent down to give him a kiss he saw him open his eyes very wide, his lips moved and he said in a weak voice,
And as they were all surprised:
‘Yes, I heard you all but I couldn’t move… Maurice, you take all the money. Look in my trouser pocket.’
There remained about two hundred francs each out of the money from the regimental cash, which they had shared.
‘Money!’ Maurice expostulated. ‘But you need it more than I do, for I’ve got my two legs. With two hundred francs I’ve got enough to get me back to Paris, and to be killed after that won’t cost me anything… But we’ll be seeing each other again, my dear Jean, and bless you for all the sensible and good things you’ve done, for without you I should certainly now be in some field like a dead dog.’
Jean stopped him with a gesture.
‘You don’t owe me anything, we’re quits. I’m the one the Prussians would have picked up out there if you hadn’t carried me on your back. And only yesterday again you got me out of their clutches. You’ve paid twice over and it should be my turn to give my life for you… Oh I’m going to be miserable at not still being with you!’
His voice faltered and his eyes filled with tears.
‘Kiss me, boy.’
They kissed each other, and as in the woods the day before there was in this kiss a brotherly love born of dangers shared, of these few weeks of heroic life in common which had united them more intimately than years of ordinary friendship could have done. Days without food, nights without sleep, exhaustion, ever-present death, all played a part in their affection. Can two hearts ever take themselves back again when a mutual gift has thus welded them to each other? But the kiss exchanged in the darkness among the trees had been full of the new hope opened up by escape, whereas this one now was full of the anguish of parting. Would they see each other again some day? And how, in what circumstances of grief or joy?
Dr Dalichamp was already in his trap and calling Maurice, who put all his soul into a final embrace with his sister Henriette. She looked at him through silent tears, very pale in her widow’s black.
‘I’m putting my brother in your care… Look after him and love him as I do.’