One Man's Initiation-1917 - novelonlinefull.com
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Three French infantrymen came into the cafe, shaking the rain off their shoulders.
"Nothing to drink but champagne at four francs fifty," shouted Howe.
"Dirty night out, isn't it?"
"We'll drink that, then!"
Howe and Randolph moved up and they all sat at the same table.
"Fortune of war?"
"Oh, the war, what do you think of the war?" cried Martin.
"What do you think of the peste? You think about saving your skin."
"What's amusing about us is that we three have all saved our skins together," said one of the Frenchmen.
"Yes. We are of the same cla.s.s," said another, holding up his thumb.
"Mobilised same day." He held up his first finger. "Same company." He held up a second finger. "Wounded by the same sh.e.l.l.... Evacuated to the same hospital. Convalescence at same time.... Reforme to the same depot behind the lines."
"Didn't all marry the same girl, did you, to make it complete?" asked Randolph.
They all shouted with laughter until the gla.s.ses along the bar rang.
"You must be Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan."
"We are," they shouted.
"Some more champagne, madame, for the three musketeers," sang Randolph in a sort of operatic yodle.
"All I have left is this," said the withered woman, setting a bottle down on the table.
"Is that poison?"
"It's cognac, it's very good cognac," said the old woman seriously.
"C'est du cognac! Vive le roi cognac!" everybody shouted.
"_Au plein de mon cognac Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon, Au plein de mon cognac Qu'il fait bon dormir._"
"Down with the war! Who can sing the 'Internationale'?"
"Not so much noise, I beg you, gentlemen," came the withered woman's whining voice. "It's after hours. Last week I was fined. Next time I'll be closed up."
The night was black when Martin and Randolph, after lengthy and elaborate farewells, started down the muddy road towards the hospital.
They staggered along the slippery footpath beside the road, splashed every instant with mud by camions, huge and dark, that roared grindingly by. They ran and skipped arm-in-arm and shouted at the top of their lungs:
"_Aupres de ma blonde, Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon, Aupres de ma blonde, Qu'il fait bon dormir._"
A stench of sweat and filth and formaldehyde caught them by the throat as they went into the hospital tent, gave them a sense of feverish bodies of men stretched all about them, stirring in pain.
"A car for la Ba.s.see, Ambulance 4," said the orderly.
Howe got himself up off the hospital stretcher, shoving his flannel shirt back into his breeches, put on his coat and belt and felt his way to the door, stumbling over the legs of sleeping brancardiers as he went. Men swore in their sleep and turned over heavily. At the door he waited a minute, then shouted:
"Too d.a.m.n sleepy," came Randolph's voice from under a blanket.
"I've got cigarettes, Tom. I'll smoke 'em all up if you don't come."
"All right, I'll come."
"Less noise, name of G.o.d!" cried a man, sitting up on his stretcher.
After the hospital, smelling of chloride and blankets and reeking clothes, the night air was unbelievably sweet. Like a gilt fringe on a dark shawl, a little band of brightness had appeared in the east.
"Some dawn, Howe, ain't it?"
As they were going off, their motor chugging regularly, an orderly said:
"It's a special case. Go for orders to the commandant."
Colours formed gradually out of chaotic grey as the day brightened. At the dressing-station an attendant ran up to the car.
"Oh, you're for the special case? Have you anything to tie a man with?"
"It's nothing. He just tried to stab the sergeant-major."
The attendant raised a fist and tapped on his head as if knocking on a door. "It's nothing. He's quieter now."
"What caused it?"
"Who knows? There is so much.... He says he must kill everyone...."
"Are you ready?"
A lieutenant of the medical corps came to the door and looked out. He smiled rea.s.suringly at Martin Howe. "He's not violent any more. And we'll send two guardians."
A sergeant came out with a little packet which he handed to Martin.
"That's his. Will you give it to them at the hospital at Fourreaux? And here's his knife. They can give it back to him when he gets better. He has an idea he ought to kill everyone he sees.... Funny idea."
The sun had risen and shone gold across the broad rolling lands, so that the hedges and the poplar-rows cast long blue shadows over the fields.
The man, with a guardian on either side of him who cast nervous glances to the right and to the left, came placidly, eyes straight in front of him, out of the dark interior of the dressing-station. He was a small man with moustaches and small, good-natured lips puffed into an o-shape.