The Great Lottery
NOW that we are at war, that our young men are volunteering or cheerfully accepting the draft which is to tell each one what the country expects of him, the agitation of mothers is something which at times gives pause. In some this agitation is tragic, hut heroic. In others it is suffering accepted with resignation. And there is a third category, a small one, where the maternal instinct is so strong as to curdle into revolt. I know of one woman whose mind seems to have lost balance before the peril which has thus come to her son. When she speaks the word "Allies," it is with an inflection so full of venom and hatred that it leaves one with a little shudder along the spine. I have no doubt that if this unhappy mother could kill all Frenchmen, all Englishmen, all Italians, and all Russians by pressing a button, she would press the button.
At first I was surprised at what seemed to me the exaggeration in all three manifestations—till I talked with some of these mothers. Then I found that each thought her son or her sons doomed to die. The heroic mother was offering the life of her son to the country, the resigned mother was yielding the life of her son to the country, the rebellious mother was in revolt at the thought that the country was taking away the life of her son. And each and every one felt that her son was going to his death.
Now, that is not true at all, and to reassure those who have exaggerated ideas of what the war may do to us all in the way of creating voids about us, I am going to tell the history of a group of young Frenchmen with whom I was closely acquainted before war broke upon their country and of whose fortunes I have kept close watch since. I shall tell what happened to this group—the loss and the gain, for there has been gain as well as loss.
In taking the history of a group of Frenchmen as an example of what we in America have to expect, I am painting this expectation in the blackest hue possible. For it is not at all likely that the United States will be called upon for an effort anywhere equal to that of France, of the sacrificial France which has borne for three years, almost alone for the first two, the brunt of Germania's assault of civilization—an assault formidable not only in its mere weight, but in the sinister cunning of its method and the evil foresight of its preparation.
WHERE I learned to know the group of which I am about to tell was on a small island of the Marne, near Paris, where they spent their Sundays and holidays, and where I, too, came to spend my Sundays and holidays during a two years' stay in France before the war. They were all small people, artisans and clerks, but tipped with the flame of beauty, and possessed of an admirable and gay wisdom when it came to arranging their lives. For instance, with their small salaries and earnings—salaries and earnings which would be viewed with contempt on this side of the pond—they managed to have this little house on a little island of the Marne for their week-ends, and on the coast of Brittany a big, abandoned farmhouse where they passed their two or three weeks' vacation in the summer. I went to the island of the Marne and to the farm in Brittany, and lived more happily than I ever did before or have done since; for they seemed to have discovered the secret—beauty in simplicity and abundance through measure.
They were crazy over sports—lesthey called them. On the island they had boats and shells; they rowed, paddled, swam, ran, jumped, swung on bars and parallels. But they had kept in all this the element of fun; they had not allowed les spores to become a sort of gloomy and desperate striving to beat the other fellow or Father Time, who at length beats us all. Also, they were not afraid to eat a little and to drink a little and to smoke a little. On the contrary, the preparation of the déjeuner was a pleasing rite. It was done outdoors, camping fashion, and a vague reminiscence of tales made it a point of honor to use no paper to start the fire, but only shavings whittled with a knife from a carefully selected dead branch. There was, however, always some hors-d'œuvre, with a broil and a salad made inevitably delicious by the profound salad-making instinct of the race. The meal was always leisurely, ensparkled with bright wit, and with every bit of the food and the wit enjoyed to the limit. The small stone house—the cou-cou they called it—boasted of a diminutive cellar. Out of its cool darkness, on special occasions, a bottle would be drawn, to be uncorked reverently, and poured out ceremoniously into glasses, which presently would be raised in courteous toasts. The wine was a five-franc champagne, but it bubbled as no ambrosia ever bubbled; and, oh, the sweet, joyous simplicity of this little rite, performed under the trees, by the curving, smooth, green current, and, oh, the joyous simplicity, the gay innocence, with which this race, so very old and so very wise, has learned to live!
They were all socialists or gentle anarchists, and, of course, anti-militarists. War was a monstrosity, and hence—that was the logic, you remember, long ago—impossible. When, having read that day some incredibly arrogant and violent articles in German newspapers, I asked one of them what the French proletariate would do in case of war with Germany, he answered, with the marked approval of the others:
"Why, if any one tried to force us into a war with Germany, we would walk to the frontier unarmed, put out our hands to the Germans, and say: 'Here we are. You see we are good fellows like you. We do not want to fight; you do not want to fight. Let 's shake hands.’"
It is on such gentle living, happiness, and—innocence (innocence is the only word describing it) that the war fell with its Iron teeth and its claws.
THE principal members of the group were Pierre Raymond, Charles Navarre, Theodore Rouffeau, and Paddy Halsey, called Paddy l'Anglais, or the Englishman.
Charles Navarre was the best athlete and the most reckless of the band, a swimmer, an oarsman, a gymnast, never content except at some trick where one's neck is forfeit, a lover of the sun, of the air, the rain, the wind, the out-of-doors, of the perfection of his body, and withal rather a gloomy Gus, subterraneously unhappy. He was what the French call un inquiet—an unquiet, a tormented one. He had a dark visage, with soft, brown eyes, a brooding countenance, which yet had only treasures of kindness, of good will, honesty, and perfect courtesy. The ideal had touched him with its wing as it passed, leaving him at outs with the world as it is. Often I thought that the particular disadvantage with which he wrestled was of being miscast—in the wrong rôle and the wrong play. He loved horses and dogs; liked to play the savage with few clothes, making his own fire, facing nature with his own ingenuity. He would have made a perfect pioneer, I thought, in the United States, say, in the forties. But I don't know. He possessed other traits which might not have fitted there. For instance, at intervals so fatally regular that we awaited the coming of each one with a smile he fell in love. These were not trifling passions, either. even though temporary: each he took hard, emerging smoked and scorched. Also, he had been pricked by art. His education had been technical; he was a mechanical draftsman and he hated his education and his job, and painted secretly, without any hope, because he had begun too late. He had a fine way with children, a joyous and tender understanding of their small souls, but had, of course, none of his own. A complex and puzzling character on one side, but once you had him on sea or river, mountain or tree-top, simply a boy, a sunny boy and admirable companion.
Navarre and Pierre Raymond were close friends. They had met in Indo-China, whither both had elected to do their military service in the colonial army. Together with strong dissimilarities, there was a resemblance between them in that neither found himself quite at home on this planet. Unlike Navarre, who was dark, Raymond was fair. He was blue-eyed and slight, and dreamed where the other brooded. He was the only son of prudent bourgeois people, and had been raised in cotton, unfitted for the realities of life. He was tormented by a yearning of beauty and cursed with a double love—a love of music that had not allowed him to become a big painter, a love of painting that had held him from being a big musician. He was a remarkable pianist, but it was his guitar and his voice we enjoyed most; often, up in Brittany, we followed processionally his tinkling instrument beneath the moon, along the cliffs to an old plateau haunted by druids, there to listen to his gay-sad songs of old France. A troubadour he would have been if born at the proper time. As it was, he had narrowly escaped making a mess of his life. Returning to France after his two years' soldiering (as band-master!) in the colonies, at the age of twenty-three, he was a slave of absinthe and opium. This, with his lack of any practical knowledge, with his pride, had sent him rolling fast toward the gutters of Paris. A woman had saved him.
This writing was to be only about men, but I find that some men (all men, perhaps) are explainable only through woman, and I am impelled to place here a portrait of little Maria Raymond, the savior, a most difficult thing to do; for what is more difficult than the description of goodness? How to tell of Maria Raymond without falling into abysses of sentimentality? By being brief, I suppose. Well, to be brief, she is a miracle. Her infancy was passed in a foundling asylum, her childhood in the home of a humble peasant; she is as elegant and chic as a Parisian lady; she is electric with a rapid intuition which makes her mistress of all the arts and all the sciences; and she is good. Good, I mean, not in the conventional way, but good in a manner which cares not at all for the welfare of her own soul; good in a daring, delightful, imprudent, immoral fashion. She is a small dynamo of energetic goodness radiating its white-heat activity for the good of others and never pulling a long face (dynamos seldom do); a little self-sacrificer without ever a tear of self-pity or self-thought, but always with a gay humming at her heart and a joyous laugh in her throat and a bold flame in her eye.
Well, fate had brought her and Raymond together. She had picked up the slipping man and had set him on his feet. With vast patience she had stood by him as little by little he freed himself from the clutches of the two monsters which had hold of him; then she had found for him a place in society. She was a tapestry-worker; she made use of his ability to draw, of his artistic taste, and soon they were not only man and wife, but partners in an enterprise. He designed the tapestry designs which she executed. His life was solved.
And yet not quite. A restlessness, curiosities, still remained in him. He was a curious mixture: a realist when it came to seeing and describing the present world, one who saw all its evils uncompromisingly, who saw them black, a vociferating anarchist at times; he was a persistent and gentle idealist when it came to viewing the future. It was he who, speaking of the impossibility of future war, had said: "If they [the directing powers] tried to drive us into war, we would all go to the frontier unarmed, and put out our empty hands and say, 'See, we are good fellows just like you, and don't want to fight.’" His two years' military service he considered as an unjust servitude at the memory of which he still vibrated with indignation and insulted pride.
On one side Navarre was Raymond's closest friend, and on the other, Theodore Rouffeau. The latter and Raymond had once made a Homeric concert tour through the small towns of France. They had starved extravagantly on that tour. Raymond, the more sensitive by much, would threaten suicide. "Ah, mon cochon," Theodore would cry, "you speak to me of suicide! As if the thing was n't arriving fast enough as it is!" And he would take Raymond out into the wheat-fields and force him to chew the raw grain. Raymond would beg off, would rebel, but the other would hold him to it. "Go on, now! Eat another ear! One more ear, or I brain you!" And thus he had jostled his comrade through the bad pass, and had brought him back to Paris—Paris and Maria. I suspect the little woman had then kept both men alive for a time. Despite this, Rouffeau was somewhat jealous of Maria in her friendship for Raymond. He was a short man, with small, roguish eyes, a bald head, and an immense beard, who delighted in clothing himself in bizarre fashion, played the clown constantly, and kept us all laughing, willy-nilly, with his enormous indecencies. He also was married, also to a miracle, a little lady from the faubourgs, the Paris slums, who had the soft voice, the poise, the gentle manner of a duchess, and he loved her exceedingly, and on that side also was just a bit jealous. Like the others, he was a social rebel, but in a different fashion. All he asked was to be let alone to live his happy, harmless, small life; monstrous interferences, like military service, were—monstrous, and war unthinkable. He had been to England when young, without a cent, and had swept the London streets behind its proud horses. Doing so, he had learned English, a queer cockney, Whitechapel English, which had served him later in obtaining his present situation as clerk salesman in a trunk- and-valise shop of the boulevards much frequented by English and Americans, and to the proprietor of which English was English, without any distinctions. There one could see Theodore Rouffeau, in the week-time, decorously frocked, his beard raked and lustrous. But on Sundays, at Nogent on the Marne, he wore old corduroys, a red-flannel shirt, a "coo-boy" hat, and his beard bristled to the four winds like that of the fairy-tale giant who nested birds in his.
This brings me down to Paddy Halsey, or Paddy l'Anglais, as they called him. He was a most amusing combination. He had the long head, the lantern-jaws, the straw-colored hair, the long teeth, and the pinched nose of the pure Anglo-Saxon; yet when he opened his mouth, it was to hurl the most startlingly Parisian French, a vigorous French, tinged with the argot of the faubourgs, and when one got him to speak English, he showed an inability to roll the delicately tongued English "r" which was the joy of at least one of us. It was a delight to steer him till he would have to say "railroad." "Wail-woad," he would pronounce it. But of his Frenchification he was altogether unaware, and he fought fiercely and steadfastly to remain the true Briton. He wore Bond Street clothes and went to the Episcopal Church. He had come to France when one month old. England had changed since then, but he clung to the England that had been when he was one month old, thinking it the only England, and, superbly ignorant of Lloyd-George and the income tax, was Tory, middle class, and eighteen-seventy. In that group of young French anarchists, with their audacity of thought and speech which attacked everything, he remained tranquilly what he was, no more affected than a block of granite. At the bottom he held the Anglo-Saxon contempt of the Latin. Said he to me once, speaking of French statesmen: "They are very clever, yes. But would n't it be far better were they a little less clever and more God-fearing?"
Besides these four, Raymond, Navarre, Rouffeau, and Paddy, there were others in the group who in some way range themselves a bit on one side. There was Paul, a blond giant from the north of France. He was a notary's clerk, but his parents had been peasants, and peasant he was in his money-tightness and a sort of reasoned selfishness just saved from being unpleasant by a strict sense of justice. Then there was Jean Bart, altogether another matter. He had a shock of black hair which fell over his eyes like a pony's forelock, and the eyes beneath were amused and roguish. He lived a roguish life, too. He was an artist, but too gaily skeptical to take his art seriously. Some time before, he had worked his way clean around the world, stoking, painting, doings of all things, and now, back at Créteil on the Marne, seemed to be there for good. He was a wonderful diver; if we dropped a knife, anything, in the river, we sent him after it. He could stay an unconscionable time under water and come up breathing easy; also he had a weird facility with tipsy canoes and other acrobatic craft. He could let himself be upset in the most unbalanced of périssoires, and manage to right it, bail it, and get in again without touching land! He passed his time on the river in picturesque dishabille and looked like an idealized South Sea Islander. But this was not his only pastime.
If this paper is to have any value, it will be if it follows fact absolutely; so I am going to follow fact and go on and tell more of Jean Bart. Down the river a little ways from us a man named Guilleaume had a summer house—a man we did not like. We had taken a trip with him once, up the Marne to Meaux and beyond, before we knew him well and because he owned a four-oared barge we needed. He was fat and lazy and selfish; on the entire trip he had not done one single thing for any one but himself; and furthermore, although at every stop, at every portage, at every dam, we tumbled into the fresh, green current for a swim—this Guilleaume had not taken one swim or taken one bath. A loose-fibered fellow he was, disgusting to us. Well, he had—such perverse arrangements are frequent in this life—a pretty wife, and, I am sorry to say it, the roguish Jean Bart made love to her. He lived at the house of these two, seemingly much amused at the incongruity of the situation, at the hospitable stupidity of the fat husband, worrying little, assured of bed, board—et le reste, as the French say. We could not help rather siding with him and taking a certain discreet pleasure in what we guessed; but on the whole it is not a pretty story, not at all, and I am giving it out merely as a proof of my sincerity and my rigorous exactitude.
Also on the outside of the picture's focus was another man who came rowing down-stream now and then and visited us. He was Charles Navarre's brother-in-law, and Charles Navarre hated him. He hated him for his beard, for his bourgeois prudence, for his small wisdom, for his heaviness, his contented materialism—for everything. As for us, we found him a rather heavy man, but a harmless, good fellow, all in all, to be forgiven for his lack of brilliancy, since he was not, after all, of our own coruscating generation, but of that which preceded us drably. He was well in the forties; he was unathletic; he was an old fogy. Thus was the group as I knew it before the war. I am going to tell now just exactly what has happened to it during the war as an example of what any one in the group may have to expect.
WHEN the war broke out, Navarre, Raymond, and Rouffeau were called out the first day. Paddy, being an Englishman, was liable to no call, and Paul, gigantic that he was, had never served on account of some fancied defect of his eyes. But Paddy, without saying a word, immediately enlisted in the Foreign Legion; and Paul, after several weeks of misery and indecision, tortured with self-contempt at finding himself idle while all his comrades were in peril, volunteered in the artillery.
THE first ones to be struck were, strangely enough, Jean Bart, the rogue with the pony forelock, and Guilleaume, the husband whom he was despoiling in so gay a manner. The latter, as I have already hinted, did not have our respect, our friendship, or our sympathy. We had found him fat, lazy, selfish, vulgar, of the earth earthy. So the news of his death came as a strange shock, and the irony of the fate which had made of that flabby character our group's first sacrificial hero as something that twisted deep at all of us. He had been killed in the first big battle, at Charleroi. For days I had before me a clear picture of his death. How much he must have suffered! From his life of ease he had suddenly been thrown into a uniform and hard boots; a sixty-pound pack had been placed upon his back, and then he had marched, marched, marched, under broiling suns, in parching dust, and also under the stars, for thus the soldiers of France had had to march to meet the treacherous attack coming through Belgium after they had massed on Alsace. Then had come the battle—to him so unfit for all battles. In my vision I saw him running, running—running in an extremity of terror. I saw him throw himself down into a ditch and grovel there, all huddled as small as possible, his eyes closed. And I saw the deep, gray waves passing over him, bawling Teuton after bawling Teuton sticking a bayonet into him in passing. I could hear his first terrible scream, less of pain than of despair, as the first pointed thing searched his squirming vitals. Maybe, with a supreme effort he had sprung outside and had knelt in supplication, in grotesque supplication, on the side of the ditch. Or perhaps—
Or perhaps—who knows? I have seen so many wondrous transformations in the fusing heat of this catastrophe, perhaps there had come to this soft man at the last a flame of courage. Perhaps this soft man rose up straight at the end, and died standing, in nobility.
Anyway, while he was dying, his rival—how ridiculous the word in the circumstance!—was being made prisoner. And prisoner he still is somewhere in dark Germany, resigned, I 'll wager, smiling, and philosophical, his roguish wit undaunted. But, I often ask myself, what will happen when he returns? The young woman he loved, a young widow now, is there in Paris. Will they meet when he returns, and what will the meeting be? Is he still in her eyes the handsome chevalier; or, in her imagination, is it the other one who now towers a hero, transformed, all his earthly blemishes gone, and is it the lover who has become the contemptible one, whom she sees ever with both hands stuck up in the air? Or even if such an upsetting has not taken place in her mind, and they do meet and they do love, will not that one who died at Charleroi forever hover about and between them, poisoning their love, poisoning their life?
Paddy, the Englishman, as I have said, had enlisted in the Foreign Legion. He was sent to Toulouse to train with other recruits, and in six weeks was sent to the front. It was after the Battle of the Marne, when France, out of guns, out of munitions, poor in men, was forming that line clear to the sea which stands to this day, and was doing it by sending everything up there, pell-mell and desperately, just in time to hold Germany's second tremendous effort on the Yser, after the fall of Antwerp. Material was wanting; the deficiency had to be made up by sacrificing men. It was the beginning of underground warfare; the trenches were shallow and insufficient, the winter cold and wet, the troops poorly provisioned and clothed; a terrible time in which, still more than in the Battle of the Marne, still more than at Verdun, France displayed its heroism. Paddy had a hard time of it. The Foreign Legion is hardly a bed of roses. Many of his associates were Apaches or men of doubtful past; his officers were old professionals, used to such soldiers, with little time to think or to make subtle distinctions between idealistic volunteers and their old hard men, who could be handled only through a brutal discipline. Paddy suffered in body, but especially in his sense of dignity and justice. And then he was wounded. It was a very little wound, hardly a scratch, made by a shrapnel-ball that had lost its force. But Paddy refused to treat it as a wound; and one morning the pale dawn after a sleepless night revealed his arm swollen to the arm-pit. He was taken to one of those terrible hospitals of the first months of the war, where anesthetics, bandages, all the essentials, were lacking, where operations were sometimes performed with tools hastily dragged from an automobile tool-box. There they amputated the middle finger of his right hand. But the infection spread, and he nearly died.
Well, he did not die. He is now alive, and alive with a life, you may believe, a thousand times more precious than if he had not come so near losing it, than it would be if for weeks it had not taken the form of feverish torture. He had been réformé. He is back where he started, a civilian; back where he started, but minus a finger. And yet you would not say he had lost out in the experience. Not if you could see the grave happiness in his eyes, that weight of satisfaction you can divine in him, the consciousness, of which he can never be robbed, of having risked and suffered for an idea, of having given of himself for the sake of something not himself.
As for Charles Navarre, our prize athlete and gymnast, some six months before the war he seemed to have found his place in society. He had become a "monitor" at the Rheims College of Athletes. This was an institution endowed by a rich marquis for the physical regeneration of France. For France at that time thought itself physically degenerate and morally decadent. She was persuaded this was the case, for had not the whole world said it to her to her face in a perseverant reiteration lasting some forty years, ever since eighteen-seventy? The world was talking through its hat; it had been influenced by the cunning, patient, and sinister campaign of Germany, by the hypocrite, scandalized, and pinched exclamations of Tory England—the England of Salisbury and the Boer War, the England which then deucedly resembled the Prussia it is now fighting, the England, gone now, gone for good a decade before this war, the England gone forever, we hope. As a matter of fact, France's exquisite civilization had not hurt her at all. Civilization does not hurt; it is only returns to barbarism such as the famed Teutonic Kultur which hurt. France, despite its art, the gentleness of its civilization, was still iron at the core, as the bawling Teutons have discovered to their cost, as the shocked Englishmen have discovered to their rescue. But France before the war thought itself in the abyss, and the Rheims College of Athletes was one of the efforts made to derrick her out of the abyss. There Navarre had found his vocation, which, as he put it to me in a letter, was to "construct men." He had always shown love and gentleness toward children and a marvelous understanding of them. He now specialized upon building up children—building them up into fine men and women. The ideals at the college were those of ancient Greece—sun, freedom of limb, beauty of line. We would see him once in a while on his vacation, and he looked like a browned god.
Well, when the war broke out, Navarre had a broken arm in a sling, something gained him in one of his crazy gymnastic feats; and so fate withdrew him from the frightful mêlée of the first days, when France, enthusiastic, tumultuous, and unprepared, was shattering itself against the granite of Teutonic system, and falling like an innocent into the traps long set for it with evil meditation. When he had recovered, he was put into the quartermaster's department, again out of danger for some time. This did not suit him a bit, though, and within a month he had rejoined a battery of seventy-fives at the front. The artillery, it is popularly supposed, suffers little in this war. This is largely true of the heavy; when it comes to the seventy-fives, they are kept close to the actual fracas and used somewhat as machine-guns. Besides, there is in every battery one dangerous post; it is that of officier de liaison, the man who keeps the artillery in close communication with the infantry. He who has that work must be ceaselessly on the go between the cannon and the troops. Over ground savagely beaten, straight through tornado and tornado of infernal fire, he must wend his way with the message that may mean the poor trench soldier's life, which may mean the turning of the battle. Well, Navarre volunteered to be one of these men, and one of them he was for two years in the worst sectors, through the great Champagne drive, the attack on Verdun, and the Somme offensive.
I saw him once during that time. It was after the Champagne drive, and he was on a four days' furlough. He wired to me, and I met him in Paris, and went out to Créteil, the little island on the Marne. It was a beautiful summer day, and we passed every hour of it doing just the things we had been wont to do in the happy days of peace. We launched some of the skiffs,—they lay unvarnished and cracking on the horses beneath the shed, just as they had been put away the Sunday before war's thunderbolt,—we rowed, we swam, we threw the shot, we jumped, we vied in friendly rivalry. But how changed the relation between us! In the old days, to all these young fellows, I had been haloed a bit by my far origin in a strange, far country; I had enjoyed a rather meretricious repute as a "sportsman émerité" from the land of "les sports;" they had looked up to me because of those few shreds of technical athletic skill (the crawl stroke, the ability to catch a ball, and to bat it, etc.), which I brought to them from that region of the world where surely the corporal games have been taken most seriously and studied most scientifically. But now—why, I trotted alongside of him like a child alongside a god! Literally, he seemed seven feet tall to me, and I about seven inches. He was taciturn, as are all those who return from the trenches, bearing, as they do, secrets not fit for the living, but only for the dead and those, like them, consecrated to death. It was a gentle silence; his brown eyes shone softly; yet there was a somberness about it all, a velvety somberness. Lord! how small I was, how insignificant I felt, and what a passionate envy possessed me! I could swim my perfected crawl against him all I wished; nothing would ever restore again my fled superiority. For he had developed a soul since last I had seen him; his soul was fifty thousand times the size of mine; and I would never be able to catch up.
At the present time, I am happy to say, he has been transferred to a post where for the moment he is out of danger. On the day he passed with me in Créteil he deceived me in two particulars. First of all, all that day he carried in his pocket—not on his chest, but in his pocket—the croix de guerre just given him for extraordinary valor. I learned of it only when I saw the citation in the newspapers, and when I taxed him later with his lack of frankness, he said: "For an artillery-man to have the croix de guerre, that 's a blague, a bad joke. No artillery-man should have the medal till every one of those poor devils of infantrymen has his." And he has persevered in his refusal to wear this emblem so greatly prized. He deceived me again by failing to announce his impending marriage, to which I was called by telephone the next day. His wandering, but always violent, affections had found the final harbor for which so strenuously and so blindly they had sought so long; he was marrying a charming, gifted, and very intelligent young woman, a school-teacher and also an athlete, since she danced the recreated Greek dances most beautifully. Since that he has become the father of a little girl, and has been transferred out of the first lines. France, in its great struggle, has now called upon its eighteen-year-old boys; but before sending them to the front, it is doing everything to make them fit for that hard life. And Navarre has been chosen as one of the men who develop those boyish bodies through careful and graduated physical exercises, something at which he had become an expert at Rheims and for which, with his patience, his love of the young, his passion for corporeal beauty, he is eminently fit. May he stay there to the end!
As can be seen, this, the daredevil of the group, has so far come through unscathed. So has its clown, Rouffeau, had the same good fortune. Held in a reserve corps till after the Battle of the Marne, after that, as infantryman, he fought the first winter of the trenches. I saw him after this first winter; he had not changed a bit. No patriotic fervor from him, no sacrificial flame. War was still to him a supreme idiocy, his officers were imbeciles, and very proudly he repeated his old slogan. "As for me, as things are in this country, I 'd just as leave be German as French," something which by this time was such a blasphemy it should have made all who heard him shudder. But they did n't. For in him the blackest saying rang with a resonant gaiety that captivated every one. He had had a hard time of it, for six months in a trench in water to the knees, in an infamous sea of mud. Of this he gave us a most naturalistic narrative and description, one, I suppose, which really was war as war is. Only we did not want to know of war as war is. At that juncture, for the sake of France, for the sake of all civilization, it was absolutely necessary that every one should deceive himself a bit as to what war is. I came out of the meeting with Rouffeau in absolute consternation.
"If things are like that, or if there are many men like that," I said, "then France is truly gone."
My companion, a Russian, walked along beside me silent a moment, then said:
"You don't understand the French. That is all talk, this stuff of Rouffeau. The French are supercritical, they keep the independence of their minds; but also, when they act, they are usually moved by the profound instincts of the race, even though their minds stand off and criticize. Now, to Rouffeau, this war is a supreme idiocy. He had no sentiment or faith in future existence. To him the only life is this present life on earth, and he wants to hold on to it. He wants to live. Not only for himself, understand, but for his wife and especially for his little baby girl. So he is beside himself with rage and disgust at seeing this life, the only thing he owns, placed in jeopardy by what he thinks are merely the intrigues of wilful higher-ups who themselves hold their skins out of it. But listen well to his description of the fighting, and you 'll notice one thing. That he is fighting just like the rest, just as well as the rest, with a sort of gay courage, in fact, that many others may lack. When the battle is on, you see, he is French; he is a part of France, and no longer Rouffeau, with the mind that pierces both shams and respectable illusions. Well, in Rouffeau you have the average Frenchman, and the reason why the Frenchman is so little understood, and the reason for that costly mistake of our German friends, who, with all their spying, their card-indexes, have gone so monumentally wrong in their prognosis in calculating they could push into the heart of France as though through butter."
I thought for a moment, and saw that indeed he was right. Rouffeau, with all his criticism of the quartermaster's department, of the generals, the colonel, and every one else, even while accusing his lieutenant of wearing a black cloak at night and his sergeant of yelling from behind a tree, "Forward, you cowards! Forward!" in a description of a charge, would say:
"Well, we run forward a few steps, bend low, then throw ourselves down on our bellies, nose in the mud; then up again a few steps, and down again. 'Tat-tat-tat-tat,' the machine-guns go, and nom de Dieu, how we hug the ground! We nearly enter it. Then up again a few steps; and that 's all. It is n't a bit more interesting than that." And of the trenches: "You know, those Germans they are much better soldiers than we are. Yes, they are. But they have one dirty habit: often they bury their dead right in their trench. We got in a German trench one day. We 'd sniff and sniff; it was terrible. Then one of us scratched the mud, and a foot showed. 'Ah, the pig!' we cried. 'There he is, the pig,' and tried to cover him up deeper. But soon we saw there were others; the whole bottom of the trench, the walls, were stuffed with half-covered dead. "You hated him for his picture, which spoiled the war for you; but certainly in nothing that he said was there the slightest sign that he was not doing his part. He betrayed himself despite himself.
Well, he went back to the front after his four days' leave, and a few weeks later he was back, pleased as Punch. He had been transferred to the artillery; he was being trained as a chauffeur of tractors used to draw the big pieces into position. His whole attitude was changed; he was enchanté. He was learning something new, something useful. After the war, he assured us, he was going to run a taxi-cab. He could already take his machine apart; he loved it. To drive a machine, he explained, that was far different from sticking in a trench (he said it as though he were to drive his cannon-tractor up and down the rue Rivoli). And then, he added in lower tone to me, "That way one doesn't kill any poor devils like one's self." He confided further that in all the time he had served in the infantry he had always tried to shoot so as not to hurt any one.
"I was n't going to be bothered the rest of my life with a recollection like that," he concluded.
During his entire stay, this time, he was the harlequin of old days. Every one who could went to the station to see him off for his second going, and he left in a tempest of laughter.
Well he is still laughing and intact, though he has been in the Somme offensive and at Verdun.
Paul, too, has so far come through unscathed. As has been said, he volunteered a few weeks after the start of the war. He trained a few weeks longer, in the light artillery, and has been at the front ever since, though I have been able to keep less close watch of him than of the others, for, since going, he has been acting upon a singular theory.
"Since one is liable to pass almost any instant," he announced, "what is the use of bothering one's friends? I 'm going to write to no one, and expect no one to write to me." And so he has done.
This is of a piece with the conduct of another friend of mine, Mirande, the caricaturist. Here was one who hated war and all violence, noise, and brutality. Yet when, the war having come, he was placed in a territorial regiment which was seeing no active service, he asked to be sent to the front, and has been at Verdun ever since. And when the system of furloughs was instituted, allowing each man to spend four days with his family about every four months, he refused his leave and stayed where he was. "No," he wrote, "since the life we live is one of brutes, and since I have become used to it, I 'm going to stay brute till the end of the war." He also has come through without a scratch so far and, incidentally, has rid himself of an old and stubborn dyspepsia.
I now come to the case of Raymond, the most interesting case, perhaps, of the lot. Before the war he was a pale intellectual, a fervent idealist, hater of war and all ferocities, touched by the love of beauty just enough to make the ordinary pursuits of our civilization a bore and an abomination to him, one who had come very near sinking altogether in the abyss and who, rescued by the wise tenderness of a woman, had yet not quite found his right place in life. When very young he had served in the colonial infantry. When the mobilization was declared, he was still attached to that corps, and he was sent to the rear as carporal-fourier, a sort of half-clerkish position, in which he had charge of equipping the soldiers who in a constant stream were being sent to the regiment at the front to fill its losses. Of the entire little group he seemed the safest, ensconced in a forgotten corner. All those who knew him, who knew his anti-military views and his hatred of servitude, congratulated him.
But he was undergoing a moral transformation. The first I knew of it was through his wife. She had sent him, as all the wives of France, and the mothers and sisters were doing, a package of woolens, tobacco, chocolate, and small dainties to supplement the rigorous soldier's fare. He returned them all to her.
"Send them to my comrades at the front," he wrote, "I 'd be ashamed, I, at my shamefully soft post, to be thus coddling myself while my old friends are risking their lives."
A few months after this he was home on a four days' leave. I found him much tormented with his inactivity—not his inactivity, but his removal from peril and hardship, while so many were in danger and living hard. He was thinking of asking to be sent to the front. He asked for my opinion. I countered him with a question.
"Are you useful where you are?"
He answered on his parole d'honneur that he was. He was working eighteen hours a day; he had found the office in great disorder, and had reorganized it. There was no doubt he was useful; but still, but still—violà, his life was not in danger, and all the lives of all his comrades were. I said:
"If you are useful, stay where you are. Leave it to your superiors to decide where you serve best."
I could see that this heartened him. But not for long. On his next leave I discovered in him the same state of mind as on his first, but intensified. He despised himself. It was really a piteous struggle he was going through. On one side a meticulous conscience was keeping him in contempt of himself, on the other hand, he feared. He owned sensitive nerves, a high-strung nature raw to all impacts of pain, of violence, of noise, even. Add to this a vivid imagination, one that pictured exactly to him the terror and the horrors of the front, or which even magnified them terrifically. Again I tried to calm his scruples by declaring that in such a gigantic thing as this war every one could not fight, that some must stay behind, more useful there than holding a gun.
"I think all that, too," he said, "but all the same"—He turned a wan smile on me. "When I am all through telling myself all this, my soul yells. 'Sophistry!' it yells."
Well, he went away again, still in torment, and then in a few days came the news. He had volunteered to go to the front. And he had done so in the worst possible conditions. The high command was forming in the colonial arms at the time thirty regiments of shock. They were to be composed half of Senegalese negroes, half of the most desperately reckless white men, and were to be thrown into any breach opened by a regular drive, to pass clear through or be annihilated. Raymond had volunteered to go as sergeant in one of these regiments. In any regiment the position of sergeant, as well as lieutenant, is an unhealthy one, for when a section leaves the trench for a charge, it is etiquette that its sergeant be the first one out. In this particular body of troops, though, it was a sort of glorified suicide.
They gave him a new leave just before the departure of the force, a favor which had the character of those small kindnesses yielded on the last day to one about to be hanged. But he came looking not as one condemned, but as one for whom life had opened. He wore a new horizon-blue uniform, with a sergeant's chevrons, in which he looked very handsome. He was still the finely gentle, sensitive personality we had known; but he was happy, full of a cool tranquillity he had never known before.
Well, he departed. Luck was still with him, though. At the front his talents for accurate observation were discovered, allied to his craftsman's skill at drawing, and he was transferred to the colonel's staff. He went through the big Champagne offensive prodigal of himself, carrying orders under streams of fire, spending terrible nights in shell-holes. Twice he came back on leave, and the first time he was a second lieutenant, and the second time he was a first lieutenant. Again he was transferred, this time to the aeronautic department, his duty being to rise in captive balloons to observe. Just lately he has been wounded. I have the letter of his little wife before me. A fragment of shell went clean through his right thigh, embedding itself in the left. He was up in a balloon at the time. Feeling his consciousness slipping, with the last of his strength he gathered the sketches he had been making through the day, let loose the parachute, and descended to earth, reaching it virtually a dead man. But he is recovering. Here is a part of the letter:
"You know, he was very, very badly touched." The French, moved by a sort of vast spiritual modesty, never refer to themselves as wounded, but merely as touché,—touched or tipped,—no matter what the terrible nature of the hurt. "The piece of shell went right through the right thigh and into the left. By a providential hazard, the bone was not touched, so that he will be able to walk as before, once he is cured. But he lost a terrible amount of blood,—a few drops more would have done for him, the surgeon says,—and the infection resulting from the pieces of uniform carried into the wound was one which gave way only after a long, desperate fight. He is so weak and wan now, my Chauquette! And so vexed at having been wounded; at having been wounded so foolishly, that is what he calls it! He was just on the point of being made a captain, and this will retard his promotion; that is all he sees to the things. But I can tell that away inside of him he is deliriously happy, deliriously happy to have been so useful, to have found himself so courageous. And I am, too, though I weep a little sometimes when I see him so weak and so pale, so like a little child."
I now come to the last man of the group, one not quite of it, yet on the outskirts of it, and this ends my enumeration as it began, an irony—the old irony of the Fates. You remember my speaking of that man, a brother-in-law of Navarre, an elderly, heavy man with a beard, living a small and sheltered and prudent life, a character as far removed from heroics as a flat, distended old slipper is from the boots of a musketeer. Well, on that day when Navarre was on leave, and we had gone to the small island on the Marne to live over again the old days, this man appeared as we lunched under the trees. There was a considerable company, Navarre's three sisters being there with the girl who was to become his wife the next day, and also the wives of Raymond and Rouffeau; and there was a deal of gentle gaiety. When he suddenly appeared, somehow he threw a subtle somberness on the scene. He was in a sergeant's uniform, and we knew that since the beginning of the war he had been stationed in an interior town far from the battle-line, drilling recruits. He sat with us some time, chatted in his usual manner, a little heavy, but kindly, then finally rose, shook hands with all of us, and said good-by. And it was only after he had been gone some time that I suddenly realized where he was going. He had been ordered to the front.
Well, he reached the front, and just as he reached the front, his regiment was ordered into the first-line trenches. And as he came into the first-line trench a bullet—a cunning sharp-shooter's bullet or a wild-spent bullet—struck him in the shoulder, twisted in its course, and touched the spine. Within an hour he was dead. It had taken just that long to transmute this burly, ordinary man into one of France's million sacrificial heroes.
And that is all. I shall not draw conclusions. The reader, however, can make the calculations of risks and perils, and see something else besides, perhaps.