One Man's Initiation-1917 - novelonlinefull.com
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"After another six months you'll know why it can't go on."
"I don't know; it suits me all right," said the man on the other side of Martin, a man with a jovial red rabbit-like face. "Of course, I don't like being dirty and smelling and all that, but one gets accustomed to it."
"But you are an Alsatian; you don't care."
"I was a baker. They're going to send me to Dijon soon to bake army bread. It'll be a change. There'll be wine and lots of little girls.
Good G.o.d, how drunk I'll be; and, old chap, you just watch me with the women...."
"I should just like to get home and not be ordered about," said the first man. "I've been lucky, though," he went on; "I've been kept most of the time in reserve. I only had to use my bayonet once."
"When was that?" asked Martin.
"Near Mont Cornelien, last year. We put them to the bayonet and I was running and a man threw his arms up just in front of me saying, 'Mon ami, mon ami,' in French. I ran on because I couldn't stop, and I heard my bayonet grind as it went through his chest. I tripped over something and fell down."
"You were scared," said the Alsatian.
"Of course I was scared. I was trembling all over like an old dog in a thunderstorm. When I got up, he was lying on his side with his mouth open and blood running out, my bayonet still sticking into him. You know you have to put your foot against a man and pull hard to get the bayonet out."
"And if you're good at it," cried the Alsatian, "you ought to yank it out as your Boche falls and be ready for the next one. The time they gave me the Croix de Guerre I got three in succession, just like at drill."
"Oh, I was so sorry I had killed him," went on the other Frenchman.
"When I went through his pockets I found a post-card. Here it is; I have it." He pulled out a cracked and worn leather wallet, from which he took a photograph and a bunch of pictures. "Look, this photograph was there, too. It hurt my heart. You see, it's a woman and two little girls. They look so nice.... It's strange, but I have two children, too, only one's a boy. I lay down on the ground beside him--I was all in--and listened to the machine-guns tapping put, put, put, put, put, all round. I wished I'd let him kill me instead. That was funny, wasn't it?"
"It's idiotic to feel like that. Put them to the bayonet, all of them, the dirty Boches. Why, the only money I've had since the war began, except my five sous, was fifty francs I found on a German officer. I wonder where he got it, the old corpse-stripper."
"Oh, it's shameful! I am ashamed of being a man. Oh, the shame, the shame ..." The other man buried his face in his hands.
"I wish they were serving out gniolle for an attack right now," said the Alsatian, "or the gniolle without the attack 'd be better yet."
"Wait here," said Martin, "I'll go round to the cope and get a bottle of fizzy. We'll drink to peace or war, as you like. d.a.m.n this rain!"
"It's a shame to bury those boots," said the sergeant of the stretcher-bearers.
From the long roll of blanket on the ground beside the hastily-dug grave protruded a pair of high boots, new and well polished as if for parade.
All about the earth was scarred with turned clay like raw wounds, and the tilting arms of little wooden crosses huddled together, with here and there a bent wreath or a faded bunch of flowers.
Overhead in the stripped trees a bird was singing.
"Shall we take them off? It's a shame to bury a pair of boots like that."
"So many poor devils need boots."
"Boots cost so dear."
Already two men were lowering the long bundle into the grave.
"Wait a minute; we've got a coffin for him."
A white board coffin was brought.
The boots thumped against the bottom as they put the big bundle in.
An officer strode into the enclosure of the graveyard, flicking his knees with a twig.
"Is this Lieutenant Dupont?" he asked of the sergeant.
"Yes, my lieutenant."
"Can you see his face?" The officer stooped and pulled apart the blanket where the head was.
"Poor Rene," he said. "Thank you. Good-bye," and strode out of the graveyard.
The yellowish clay fell in clots on the boards of the coffin. The sergeant bared his head and the aumonier came up, opening his book with a vaguely professional air.
"It was a shame to bury those boots. Boots are so dear nowadays," said the sergeant, mumbling to himself as he walked back towards the little broad shanty they used as a morgue.
Of the house, a little pale salmon-coloured villa, only a sh.e.l.l remained, but the garden was quite untouched; fall roses and bunches of white and pink and violet phlox bloomed there among the long gra.s.s and the intruding nettles. In the centre the round concrete fountain was no longer full of water, but a few brownish-green toads still inhabited it.
The place smelt of box and sweetbriar and yew, and when you lay down on the gra.s.s where it grew short under the old yew tree by the fountain, you could see nothing but placid sky and waving green leaves. Martin Howe and Tom Randolph would spend there the quiet afternoons when they were off duty, sleeping in the languid sunlight, or chatting lazily, pointing out to each other tiny things, the pattern of snail-sh.e.l.ls, the glitter of insects' wings, colours, fragrances that made vivid for them suddenly beauty and life, all that the sh.e.l.ls that shrieked overhead, to explode on the road behind them, threatened to wipe out.
One afternoon Russell joined them, a tall young man with thin face and aquiline nose and unexpectedly light hair.
"Chef says we may go en repos in three days," he said, throwing himself on the ground beside the other two.
"We've heard that before," said Tom Randolph. "Division hasn't started out yet, ole boy; an' we're the last of the division."
"G.o.d, I'll be glad to go.... I'm dead," said Russell.
"I was up all last night with dysentery."
"So was I.... It was not funny; first it'd be vomiting, and then diarrhoea, and then the sh.e.l.ls'd start coming in. Gave me a merry time of it."
"They say it's the gas," said Martin.
"G.o.d, the gas! Turns me sick to think of it," said Russell, stroking his forehead with his hand. "Did I tell you about what happened to me the night after the attack, up in the woods?"
"Well, I was bringing a load of wounded down from P.J. Right and I'd got just beyond the corner where the little muddy hill is--you know, where they're always sh.e.l.ling--when I found the road blocked. It was so G.o.d-d.a.m.ned black you couldn't see your hand in front of you. A camion'd gone off the road and another had run into it, and everything was littered with boxes of sh.e.l.ls spilt about."
"Must have been real nice," said Randolph.
"The devilish part of it was that I was all alone. Coney was too sick with diarrhoea to be any use, so I left him up at the post, running out at both ends like he'd die. Well ... I yelled and shouted like h.e.l.l in my bad French and blew my whistle and sweated, and the d.a.m.ned wounded inside moaned and groaned. And the sh.e.l.ls were coming in so thick I thought my number'd turn up any time. An' I couldn't get anybody. So I just climbed up in the second camion and backed it off into the bushes.... G.o.d, I bet it'll take a wrecking crew to get it out...."
"That was one good job.