The Little Angel and Other Stories/The Marseillaise
He was a nonentity, with the soul of a hare and the shameless endurance of a beast of burden. When the malicious irony of fate cast his lot in among our black ranks, we laughed like maniacs at the thought that such absurd inept mistakes could actually be made. As for him, well—he cried. And never have I met with a man of so many tears, flowing so freely—from eyes and nose and mouth. He was like a sponge saturated with water, and then squeezed. In our ranks I have seen, indeed, men who wept, but then their tears were fire, from which even fierce wild beasts would run away. These manly tears aged the faces, but made the eyes young again. Like lava released from the red-hot bowels of the earth, they burnt an indelible track, and buried under themselves whole cities of worthless devices and shallow cares. But when this fellow began to weep, only his nose grew red, and his handkerchief became wet. Probably he used to hang out his handkerchiefs on a line to dry; how otherwise could he have supplied himself with so many?
During the whole time of exile he was continually applying to the authorities, real and imaginary, bowing, and weeping, and swearing that he was innocent, entreating them to have pity upon his youth, and promising all his life never to open his mouth except in petition and gratitude. But they laughed at him, even as did we, and called him "the wretched little pig," and would call out to him:
"Piggy, come here!"
And he would obediently run to their cell, expecting each time to hear news of his restoration to his native land. But they were only joking. They knew, as well as we did, that he was innocent. But they thought by his torments to intimidate other little pigs, as though they were not cowardly enough already. He would also come to us, impelled by an animal dread of solitude. But our faces were stern, and locked against him, and in vain he sought for the key. At an utter loss what to do, he would call us his dear comrades and friends. But we would shake our heads and say:
"Look out! Some one will hear you!"
And he was not ashamed to glance round at the door—the little pig!
Well! Could we possibly contain ourselves? No, we laughed with mouths long accustomed to laughter. Then he, emboldened and comforted, would sit down nearer to us, and converse, and weep about his dear books, which he had left upon the table, and about his mamma and little brothers, of whom he did not know whether they were alive or dead of fear and grief.
Towards the end we refused to associate with him any longer. When the hunger-strike began he was seized with terror—the most inexpressibly comical terror. He was evidently very fond of his stomach, poor little pig, and he was terribly afraid of his dear comrades, and also of the authorities. He wandered about among us in a state of perturbation, continually passing his handkerchief over his forehead, upon which something had exuded—was it tears or perspiration? Then he asked me in an irresolute manner:
"Shall you starve long?"
"For a long time," I sternly replied.
"But will you not eat anything on the sly?"
"Our mammas will send us pies," I acquiesced in all seriousness. He looked at me in doubt, nodded his head and went away with a sigh.
The next day, green as a paroquet with fear, he answered:
"Dear comrades! I also will starve with you."
We replied with one voice: "Starve by yourself!"
And he did starve! We did not believe it, just as you will not believe it: we thought that he ate something on the sly, and so too thought our guards. And when towards the end of the strike he fell ill of famine-typhus, we only shrugged our shoulders and said:
"Poor little Pig!"
But one of us—he who never laughed—said grimly: "He is our comrade, let us go to him."
He was delirious, and his incoherent ravings were as piteous as the whole of his life. He talked of his dear books, of his amma and brothers; he asked for tarts, cold as ice, tasty tarts; and he swore that he was innocent, and begged for pardon. He called on his native country—his dear France, and damn the weakness of the human heart! he rent our souls with that cry of "Dear France."
We were all in the room when he lay a-dying. He recovered his consciousness before death, and silent he lay, so small, so weak; and silent stood we his comrades. We all to a man heard him say: "When I am dead sing over me the Marseillaise."
"What dost thou say?" we exclaimed, with a shock of mingled joy and rising anger.
He repeated: "When I am dead sing over me the Marseillaise."
And it happened for the first time that his eyes were dry, but we wept, wept one and all: and our tears burned like fire from which fierce wildbeasts do flee.
He died, and we sang over him the Marseillaise. With lusty young voices we sang that great song of freedom; and threateningly the ocean re-echoed it to us, and the crests of its waves bore to his dear France pale terror, and blood-red hope.
And he became ever our watchword, that nonentity with the body of a hare, and of a beast of burden—but with the great soul of a man! On your knees, comrades and friends!
We sang! At us the rifles were aimed, while their locks clicked ominously, and the sharp points of the bayonets were menacingly turned towards our hearts. But ever louder and more joyfully resounded the threatening song, while the black coffin swayed in the tender hands of stalwarts.
We sang the Marseillaise!