The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
THE BANNER OF THE RED CROSS
Returning in desperation to his estate, Don Marcelo Desnoyers saw huge automobiles and men on horseback, forming a very long convoy and completely filling the road. They were all going in his direction. At the entrance to the park a band of Germans was putting up the wires for a telephone line. They had just been reconnoitering the rooms befouled with the night's saturnalia, and were ha-haing boisterously over Captain von Hartrott's inscription, "Bitte, nicht plundern." To them it seemed the acme of wit--truly Teutonic.
The convoy now invaded the park with its automobiles and trucks bearing a red cross. A war hospital was going to be established in the castle. The doctors were dressed in grayish green and armed the same as the officers; they also imitated their freezing hauteur and repellent unapproachableness. There came out of the drays hundreds of folding cots, which were placed in rows in the different rooms. The furniture that still remained was thrown out in a heap under the trees. Squads of soldiers were obeying with mechanical promptitude the brief and imperious orders. An odor of an apothecary shop, of concentrated drugs, now pervaded the quarters, mixed with the strong smell of the antiseptics with which they were sprinkling the walls in order to disinfect the filthy remains of the nocturnal orgy.
Then he saw women clad in white, buxom girls with blue eyes and flaxen hair. They were grave, bland, austere and implacable in appearance. Several times they pushed Desnoyers out of their way as if they did not see him. They looked like nuns, but with revolvers under their habits.
At midday other automobiles began to arrive, attracted by the enormous white flag with the red cross, which was now waving from the castle tower. They came from the division battling beyond the Marne. Their metal fittings were dented by projectiles, their wind- shields broken by star-shaped holes. From their interiors appeared men and more men; some on foot, others on canvas stretchers--faces pale and rubicund, profiles aquiline and snubby, red heads and skulls wrapped in white turbans stiff with blood; mouths that laughed with bravado and mouths that groaned with bluish lips; jaws supported with mummy-like bandages; giants in agony whose wounds were not apparent; shapeless forms ending in a head that talked and smoked; legs with hanging flesh that was dyeing the First Aid wrappings with their red moisture; arms that hung as inert as dead boughs; torn uniforms in which were conspicuous the tragic vacancies of absent members.
This avalanche of suffering was quickly distributed throughout the castle. In a few hours it was so completely filled that there was not a vacant bed--the last arrivals being laid in the shadow of the trees. The telephones were ringing incessantly; the surgeons in coarse aprons were going from one side to the other, working rapidly; human life was submitted to savage proceedings with roughness and celerity. Those who died under it simply left one more cot free for the others that kept on coming. Desnoyers saw bloody baskets filled with shapeless masses of flesh, strips of skin, broken bones, entire limbs. The orderlies were carrying these terrible remnants to the foot of the park in order to bury them in a little plot which had been Chichi's favorite reading nook.
Pairs of soldiers were carrying out objects wrapped in sheets which the owner recognized as his. These were the dead, and the park was soon converted into a cemetery. No longer was the little retreat large enough to hold the corpses and the severed remains from the operations. New grave trenches were being opened near by. The Germans armed with shovels were pressing into service a dozen of the farmer-prisoners to aid in unloading the dead. Now they were bringing them down by the cartload, dumping them in like the rubbish from some demolished building. Don Marcelo felt an abnormal delight in contemplating this increasing number of vanquished enemies, yet he grieved at the same time that this precipitation of intruders should be deposited forever on his property.
At nightfall, overwhelmed by so many emotions, he again suffered the torments of hunger. All day long he had eaten nothing but the crust of bread found in the kitchen by the Warden's wife. The rest he had left for her and her daughter. A distress as harrowing to him as his hunger was the sight of poor Georgette's shocked despondency. She was always trying to escape from his presence in an agony of shame.
"Don't let the Master see me!" she would cry, hiding her face. Since his presence seemed to recall more vividly the memory of her assaults, Desnoyers tried, while in the lodge, to avoid going near her.
Desperate with the gnawings of his empty stomach, he accosted several doctors who were speaking French, but all in vain. They would not listen to him, and when he repeated his petitions they pushed him roughly out of their way. . . . He was not going to perish with hunger in the midst of his riches! Those people were eating; the indifferent nurses had established themselves in his kitchen. . . . But the time passed on without encountering anybody who would take pity on this old man dragging himself weakly from one place to another, in the misery of an old age intensified by despair, and suffering in every part of the body, the results of the blows of the night before. He now knew the gnawings of a hunger far worse than that which he had suffered when journeying over the desert plains--a hunger among men, in a civilized country, wearing a belt filled with gold, surrounded with towers and castle halls which were his, but in the control of others who would not condescend to listen to him. And for this piteous ending of his life he had amassed millions and returned to Europe! . . . Ah, the irony of fate! . . .
He saw a doctor's assistant leaning up against a tree, about to devour a slab of bread and sausage. His envious eyes scrutinized this fellow, tall, thick-set, his jaws bristling with a great red beard. The trembling old man staggered up to him, begging for the food by signs and holding out a piece of money. The German's eyes glistened at the sight of the gold, and a beatific smile stretched his mouth from ear to ear.
"Ya," he responded, and grabbing the money, he handed over the food.
Don Marcelo commenced to swallow it with avidity. Never had he so appreciated the sheer ecstasy of eating as at that instant--in the midst of his gardens converted into a cemetery, before his despoiled castle where hundreds of human beings were groaning in agony. A grayish arm passed before his eyes; it belonged to the German, who had returned with two slices of bread and a bit of meat snatched from the kitchen. He repeated his smirking "Ya?" . . . and after his victim had secured it by means of another gold coin, he was able to take it to the two women hidden in the cottage.
During the night--a night of painful watching, cut with visions of horror, it seemed to him that the roar of the artillery was coming nearer. It was a scarcely perceptible difference, perhaps the effect of the silence of the night which always intensifies sound. The ambulances continued coming from the front, discharging their cargoes of riddled humanity and going back for more. Desnoyers surmised that his castle was but one of the many hospitals established in a line of more than eighty miles, and that on the other side, behind the French, were many similar ones in which the same activity was going on--the consignments of dying men succeeding each other with terrifying frequency. Many of the combatants were not even having the satisfaction of being taken from the battle field, but were lying groaning on the ground, burying their bleeding members in the dust or mud, and weltering in the ooze from their wounds. . . . And Don Marcelo, who a few hours before had been considering himself the unhappiest of mortals, now experienced a cruel joy in reflecting that so many thousands of vigorous men at the point of death could well envy him for his hale old age, and for the tranquillity with which he was reposing on that humble bed.
The next morning the orderly was waiting for him in the same place, holding out a napkin filled with eatables. Good red-bearded man, helpful and kind! . . . and he offered him the piece of gold.
"Nein," replied the fellow, with a broad, malicious grin. Two gleaming gold pieces appeared between Don Marcelo's fingers. Another leering "Nein" and a shake of the head. Ah, the robber! How he was taking advantage of his necessity! . . . And not until he had produced five gold coins was he able to secure the package.
He soon began to notice all around him a silent and sly conspiracy to get possession of his money. A giant in a sergeant's uniform put a shovel in his hand. pushing him roughly forward. He soon found himself in a corner of the park that had been transformed into a graveyard, near the cart of cadavers; there he had to shovel dirt on his own ground in company with the indignant prisoners.
He averted his eyes so as not to look at the rigid and grotesque bodies piled above him at the edge of the pit, ready to be tumbled in. The ground was sending forth an insufferable odor, for decomposition had already set in in the nearby trenches. The persistence with which his overseers accosted him, and the crafty smile of the sergeant made him see through the deep-laid scheme. The red-beard must be at the bottom of all this. Putting his hand in his pocket he dropped the shovel with a look of interrogation. "Ya," replied the sergeant. After handing over the required sum, the tormented old man was permitted to stop grave-digging and wander around at his pleasure; he knew, however, what was probably in store for him--those men were going to submit him to a merciless exploitation.
Another day passed by, like its predecessor. In the morning of the following day his perceptions, sharpened by apprehension, made him conjecture that something extraordinary had occurred. The automobiles were arriving and departing with greater rapidity, and there was greater disorder and confusion among the executive force. The telephone was ringing with mad precipitation; and the wounded arrivals seemed more depressed. The day before they had been singing when taken from the vehicles, hiding their woe with laughter and bravado, all talking of the near victory and regretting that they would not be able to witness the triumphal entry into Paris. Now they were all very silent, with furrowed brows, thinking no longer about what was going on behind them, wondering only about their own fate.
Outside the park was the buzz of the approaching throng which was blackening the roads. The invasion was beginning again, but with a refluent movement. For hours at a time great strings of gray trucks went puffing by; then regiments of infantry, squadrons, rolling stock. They were marching very slowly with a deliberation that puzzled Desnoyers, who could not make out whether this recessional meant flight or change of position. The only thing that gave him any satisfaction was the stupefied and downcast appearance of the soldiers, the gloomy sulks of the officers. Nobody was shouting; they all appeared to have forgotten their "Nach Paris!" The greenish gray monster still had its armed head stretched across the other side of the Marne, but its tail was beginning to uncoil with uneasy wrigglings.
After night had settled down the troops were still continuing to fall back. The cannonading was certainly coming nearer. Some of the thunderous claps sounded so close that they made the glass tremble in the windows. A fugitive farmer, trying to find refuge in the park, gave Don Marcelo some news. The Germans were in full retreat. They had installed some of their batteries on the banks of the Marne in order to attempt a new resistance. . . . And the new arrival remained without attracting the attention of the invaders who, a few days before, would have shot him on the slightest suspicion.
The mechanical workings of discipline were evidently out of gear. Doctors and nurses were running from place to place, shouting orders and breaking out into a volley of curses every time a fresh ambulance load arrived. The drivers were commanded to take their patients on ahead to another hospital near the rear-guard. Orders had been received to evacuate the castle that very night.
In spite of this prohibition, one of the ambulances unloaded its relay of wounded men. So deplorable was their state that the doctors accepted them, judging it useless for them to continue their journey. They remained in the garden, lying on the same stretchers that they had occupied within the vehicle. By the light of the lanterns Desnoyers recognized one of the dying. It was the secretary to His Excellency, the Socialist professor who had shut him in the cellar vaults.
At the sight of the owner of the castle he smiled as though he had met a comrade. His was the only familiar face among all those people who were speaking his language. He was ghastly in hue, with sunken features and an impalpable glaze spreading over his eyes. He had no visible wounds, but from under the cloak spread over his abdomen his torn intestines exhaled a fatal warning. The presence of Don Marcelo made him guess where they had brought him, and little by little he co-ordinated his recollections. As though the old gentleman might be interested in the whereabouts of his comrades, he told him all he knew in a weak and strained voice. . . . Bad luck for their brigade! They had reached the front at a critical moment for the reserve troops. Commandant Blumhardt had died at the very first, a shell of '75 taking off his head. Dead, too, were all the officers who had lodged in the castle. His Excellency had had his jaw bone torn off by a fragment of shell. He had seen him on the ground, howling with pain, drawing a portrait from his breast and trying to kiss it with his broken mouth. He had himself been hit in the stomach by the same shell. He had lain forty-two hours on the field before he was picked up by the ambulance corps. . . .
And with the mania of the University man, whose hobby is to see everything reasoned out and logically explained, he added in that supreme moment, with the tenacity of those who die talking:
"Sad war, sir. . . . Many premises are lacking in order to decide who is the culpable party. . . . When the war is ended they will have to . . . will have to . . ." And he closed his eyes overcome by the effort. Desnoyers left the dead man, thinking to himself. Poor fellow! He was placing the hour of justice at the termination of the war, and meanwhile hundreds like him were dying, disappearing with all their scruples of ponderous and disciplined reasoning.
That night there was no sleep on the place. The walls of the lodge were creaking, the glass crashing and breaking, the two women in the adjoining room crying out nervously. The noise of the German fire was beginning to mingle with that of other explosives close at hand. He surmised that this was the smashing of the French projectiles which were coming in search of the enemy's artillery above the Marne.
For a few minutes his hopes revived as the possibility of victory flashed into his mind, but he was so depressed by his forlorn situation that such a hope evaporated as quickly as it had come. His own troops were advancing, but this advance did not, perhaps, represent more than a local gain. The line of battle was so extensive! . . . It was going to be as in 1870; the French would achieve partial victories, modified at the last moment by the strategy of the enemies until they were turned into complete defeat.
After midnight the cannonading ceased, but silence was by no means re-established. Automobiles were rolling around the lodge midst hoarse shouts of command. It must be the hospital convoy that was evacuating the castle. Then near daybreak the thudding of horses' hoofs and the wheels of chugging machines thundered through the gates, making the ground tremble. Half an hour afterwards sounded the tramp of multitudes moving at a quick pace, dying away in the depths of the park.
At dawn the old gentleman leaped from his bed, and the first thing he spied from the cottage window was the flag of the Red Cross still floating from the top of the castle. There were no more cots under the trees. On the bridge he met one of the doctors and several assistants. The hospital force had gone with all its transportable patients. There only remained in the castle, under the care of a company, those most gravely wounded. The Valkyries of the health department had also disappeared.
The red-bearded Shylock was among those left behind, and on seeing Don Marcelo afar off, he smiled and immediately vanished. A few minutes after he returned with full hands. Never before had he been so generous. Foreseeing pressing necessity, the hungry man put his hands in his pockets as usual, but was astonished to learn from the orderly's emphatic gestures that he did not wish any money.
"Nein. . . . Nein!"
What generosity was this! . . . The German persisted in his negatives. His enormous mouth expanded in an ingratiating grin as he laid his heavy paws on Marcelo's shoulders. He appeared like a good dog, a meek dog, fawning and licking the hands of the passer- by, coaxing to be taken along with him. "Franzosen. . . . Franzosen." He did not know how to say any more, but the Frenchman read in his words the desire to make him understand that he had always been in great sympathy with the French. Something very important was evidently transpiring--the ill-humored air of those left behind in the castle, and the sudden servility of this plowman in uniform, made it very apparent. . . .
Some distance beyond the castle he saw soldiers, many soldiers. A battalion of infantry had spread itself along the walls with trucks, draught horses and swift mounts. With their pikes the soldiers were making small openings in the mud walls, shaping them into a border of little pinnacles. Others were kneeling or sitting near the apertures, taking off their knapsacks in order that they might be less hampered. Afar off the cannon were booming, and in the intervals between their detonations could be heard the bursting of shrapnel, the bubbling of frying oil, the grinding of a coffee-mill, and the incessant crackling of rifle-fire. Fleecy clouds were floating over the fields, giving to near objects the indefinite lines of unreality. The sun was a faint spot seen between curtains of mist. The trees were weeping fog moisture from all the cracks in their bark.
A thunderclap rent the air so forcibly that it seemed very near the castle. Desnoyers trembled, believing that he had received a blow in the chest. The other men remained impassive with their customary indifference. A cannon had just been discharged but a few feet away from him, and not till then did he realize that two batteries had been installed in the park. The pieces of artillery were hidden under mounds of branches, the gunners having felled trees in order to mask their monsters more perfectly. He saw them arranging the last; with shovels, they were forming a border of earth, a foot in width, around each piece. This border guarded the feet of the operators whose bodies were protected by steel shields on both sides of them. Then they raised a breastwork of trunks and boughs, leaving only the mouth of the cylindrical mortar visible.
By degrees Don Marcelo became accustomed to the firing which seemed to be creating a vacuum within his cranium. He ground his teeth and clenched his fists at every detonation, but stood stock-still with no desire to leave, dominated by the violence of the explosions, admiring the serenity of these men who were giving orders, erect and coolly, or moving like humble menials around their roaring metal beasts.
All his ideas seemed to have been snatched away by that first discharge of cannon. His brain was living in the present moment only. He turned his eyes insistently toward the white and red banner which was waving from the mansion.
"That is treachery," he thought, "a breach of faith."
Far away, on the other side of the Marne, the French artillery were belching forth their deadly fire. He could imagine their handiwork from the little yellowish clouds that were floating in the air, and the columns of smoke which were spouting forth at various points of the landscape where the German troops were hidden, forming a line which appeared to lose itself in infinity. An atmosphere of protection and respect seemed to be enveloping the castle.
The morning mists had dissolved; the sun was finally showing its bright and limpid light, lengthening the shadows of men and trees to fantastic dimensions. Hills and woods came forth from the haze, fresh and dripping after their morning bath. The entire valley was now completely exposed, and Desnoyers was surprised to see the river from the spot to which he had been rooted--the cannon having opened great windows in the woods that had hid it from view. What most astonished him in looking over this landscape, smiling and lovely in the morning light, was that nobody was to be seen--absolutely nobody. Mountain tops and forests were bellowing without anyone's being in evidence. There must be more than a hundred thousand men in the space swept by his piercing gaze, and yet not a human being was visible. The deadly boom of arms was causing the air to vibrate without leaving any optical trace. There was no other smoke but that of the explosions, the black spirals that were flinging their great shells to burst on the ground. These were rising on all sides, encircling the castle like a ring of giant tops, but not one of that orderly circle ventured to touch the edifice. Don Marcelo again stared at the Red Cross flag. "It is treachery!" he kept repeating; yet at the same time he was selfishly rejoicing in the base expedient, since it served to defend his property.
The battalion was at last completely installed the entire length of the wall, opposite the river. The soldiers, kneeling, were supporting their guns on the newly made turrets and grooves, and seemed satisfied with this rest after a night of battling retreat. They all appeared sleeping with their eyes open. Little by little they were letting themselves drop back on their heels, or seeking the support of their knapsacks. Snores were heard in the brief spaces between the artillery fire. The officials standing behind them were examining the country with their field glasses, or talking in knots. Some appeared disheartened, others furious at the backward flight that had been going on since the day before. The majority appeared calm, with the passivity of obedience. The battle front was immense; who could foresee the outcome? . . . There they were in full retreat, but in other places, perhaps, their comrades might be advancing with decided gains. Until the very last moment, no soldier knows certainly the fate of the struggle. What was most grieving this detachment was the fact that it was all the time getting further away from Paris.
Don Marcelo's eye was caught by a sparkling circle of glass, a monocle fixed upon him with aggressive insistence. A lank lieutenant with the corseted waist of the officers that he had seen in Berlin, a genuine Junker, was a few feet away, sword in hand behind his men, like a wrathful and glowering shepherd.
"What are you doing here?" he said gruffly.
Desnoyers explained that he was the owner of the castle. "French?" continued the lieutenant. "Yes, French." . . . The official scowled in hostile meditation, feeling the necessity of saying something against the enemy. The shouts and antics of his companions-at-arms put a summary end to his reflections. They were all staring upward, and the old man followed their gaze.
For an hour past, there had been streaking through the air frightful roarings enveloped in yellowish vapors, strips of cloud which seemed to contain wheels revolving with frenzied rotation. They were the projectiles of the heavy German artillery which, fired from various distances, threw their great shells over the castle. Certainly that could not be what was interesting the officials!
He half shut his eyes in order to see better, and finally near the edge of a cloud, he distinguished a species of mosquito flashing in the sunlight. Between brief intervals of silence, could be heard the distant, faint buzz announcing its presence. The officers nodded their heads. "Franzosen!" Desnoyers thought so, too. He could not believe that the enemy's two black crosses were between those wings. Instead he saw with his mind's eye, two tricolored rings like the circular spots which color the fluttering wings of butterflies.
This explained the agitation of the Germans. The French air-bird remained motionless for a few seconds over the castle, regardless of the white bubbles exploding underneath and around it. In vain the cannon nearest hurled their deadly fire. It wheeled rapidly, and returned to the place from which it came.
"It must have taken in the whole situation," thought the old Frenchman. "It has found them out; it knows what is going on here."
He guessed rightly that this information would swiftly change the course of events. Everything which had been happening in the early morning hours was going to sink into insignificance compared with what was coming now. He shuddered with fear, the irresistible fear of the unknown, and yet at the same time, he was filled with curiosity, impatience and nervous dread before a danger that threatened and would not stay its relentless course.
Outside the park, but a short distance from the mud wall, sounded a strident explosion like a stupendous blow from a gigantic axe--an axe as big as his castle. There began flying through the air entire treetops, trunks split in two, great chunks of earth with the vegetation still clinging, a rain of dirt that obscured the heavens. Some stones fell down from the wall. The Germans crouched but with no visible emotion. They knew what it meant; they had been expecting it as something inevitable after seeing the French aeroplane. The Red Cross flag could no longer deceive the enemy's artillery.
Don Marcelo had not time to recover from his surprise before there came a second explosion nearer the mud wall . . . a third inside the park. It seemed to him that he had been suddenly flung into another world from which he was seeing men and things across a fantastic atmosphere which roared and rocked and destroyed with the violence of its reverberations. He was stunned with the awfulness of it all, and yet he was not afraid. Until then, he had imagined fear in a very different form. He felt an agonizing vacuum in his stomach. He staggered violently all the time, as though some force were pushing him about, giving him first a blow on the chest, and then another on the back to straighten him up.
A strong smell of acids penetrated the atmosphere, making respiration very difficult, and filling his eyes with smarting tears. On the other hand, the uproar no longer disturbed him, it did not exist for him. He supposed it was still going on from the trembling air, the shaking of things around him, in the whirlwind which was bending men double but was not reacting within his body. He had lost the faculty of hearing; all the strength of his senses had concentrated themselves in looking. His eyes appeared to have acquired multiple facets like those of certain insects. He saw what was happening before, beside, behind him, simultaneously witnessing extraordinary things as though all the laws of life had been capriciously overthrown.
An official a few feet away suddenly took an inexplicable flight. He began to rise without losing his military rigidity, still helmeted, with furrowed brow, moustache blond and short, mustard- colored chest, and gloved hands still holding field-glasses and map-- but there his individuality stopped. The lower extremities, in their grayish leggings remained on the ground, inanimate as reddening, empty moulds. The trunk, in its violent ascent, spread its contents abroad like a bursting rocket. Further on, some gunners, standing upright, were suddenly stretched full length, converted into a motionless row, bathed in blood.
The line of infantry was lying close to the ground. The men had huddled themselves together near the loopholes through which they aimed their guns, trying to make themselves less visible. Many had placed their knapsacks over their heads or at their backs to defend themselves from the flying bits of shell. If they moved at all, it was only to worm their way further into the earth, trying to hollow it out with their stomachs. Many of them had changed position with mysterious rapidity, now lying stretched on their backs as though asleep. One had his uniform torn open across the abdomen, showing between the rents of the cloth, slabs of flesh, blue and red that protruded and swelled up with a bubbling expansion. Another had his legs shot away, and was looking around with surprised eyes and a black mouth rounded into an effort to howl, but from which no sound ever came.
Desnoyers had lost all notion of time. He could not tell whether he had been rooted to that spot for many hours or for a single moment. The only thing that caused him anxiety was the persistent trembling of his legs which were refusing to sustain him. . . .
Something fell behind him. It was raining ruin. Turning his head, he saw his castle completely transformed. Half of the tower had just been carried off. The pieces of slate were scattered everywhere in tiny chips; the walls were crumbling; loose window frames were balancing on edge like fragments of stage scenery, and the old wood of the tower hood was beginning to burn like a torch.
The spectacle of this instantaneous change in his property impressed him more than the ravages of death, making him realize the Cyclopean power of the blind, avenging forces raging around him. The vital force that had been concentrated in his eyes, now spread to his feet . . . and he started to run without knowing whither, feeling the same necessity to hide himself as had those men enchained by discipline who were trying to flatten themselves into the earth in imitation of the reptile's pliant invisibility.
His instinct was pushing him toward the lodge, but half way up the avenue, he was stopped by another lot of astounding transformations. An unseen hand had just snatched away half of the cottage roof. The entire side wall doubled over, forming a cascade of bricks and dust. The interior rooms were now exposed to view like a theatrical setting--the kitchen where he had eaten, the upper floor with the room in which he descried his still unmade bed. The poor women! . . .
He turned around, running now toward the castle, trying to make the sub-cellar in which he had been fastened for the night; and when he finally found himself under those dusty cobwebs, he felt as though he were in the most luxurious salon, and he devoutly blessed the good workmanship of the castle builders.
The subterranean silence began gradually to bring back his sense of hearing. The cannonading of the Germans and the bursting of the French shells sounded from his retreat like a distant tempest. There came into his mind the eulogies which he had been accustomed to lavish upon the cannon of '75 without knowing anything about it except by hearsay. Now he had witnessed its effects. "It shoots TOO well!" he muttered. In a short time it would finish destroying his castle--he was finding such perfection excessive.
But he soon repented of these selfish lamentations. An idea, tenacious as remorse, had fastened itself in his brain. It now seemed to him that all he was passing through was an expiation for the great mistake of his youth. He had evaded the service of his country, and now he was enveloped in all the horrors of war, with the humiliation of a passive and defenseless being, without any of the soldier's satisfaction of being able to return the blows. He was going to die--he was sure of that--but a shameful death, unknown and inglorious. The ruins of his mansion were going to become his sepulchre. . . . And the certainty of dying there in the darkness, like a rat that sees the openings of his hole being closed up, made this refuge intolerable.
Above him the tornado was still raging. A peal like thunder boomed above his head, and then came the crash of a landslide. Another projectile must have fallen upon the building. He heard shrieks of agony, yells and precipitous steps on the floor above him. Perhaps the shell, in its blind fury, had blown to pieces many of the dying in the salons.
Fearing to remain buried in his retreat, he bounded up the cellar stairs two steps at a time. As he scudded across the first floor, he saw the sky through the shattered roofs. Along the edges were hanging sections of wood, fragments of swinging tile and furniture stopped halfway in its flight. Crossing the hall, he had to clamber over much rubbish. He stumbled over broken and twisted iron, parts of beds rained from the upper rooms into the mountain of debris in which he saw convulsed limbs and heard anguished voices that he could not understand.
He leaped as he ran, feeling the same longing for light and free air as those who rush from the hold to the deck of a shipwreck. While sheltered in the darkness more time had elapsed than he had supposed. The sun was now very high. He saw in the garden more corpses in tragic and grotesque postures. The wounded were doubled over with pain or lying on the ground or propping themselves against the trees in painful silence. Some had opened their knapsacks and drawn out their sanitary kits and were trying to care for their cuts. The infantry was now firing incessantly. The number of riflemen had increased. New bands of soldiers were entering the park--some with a sergeant at their head, others followed by an officer carrying a revolver at his breast as though guiding his men with it. This must be the infantry expelled from their position near the river which had come to reinforce the second line of defense. The mitrailleuses were adding their tac-tac to the cracks of the fusileers.
The hum of the invisible swarms was buzzing incessantly. Thousands of sticky horse-flies were droning around Desnoyers without his even seeing them. The bark of the trees was being stripped by unseen hands; the leaves were falling in torrents; the boughs were shaken by opposing forces, the stones on the ground were being crushed by a mysterious foot. All inanimate objects seemed to have acquired a fantastic life. The zinc spoons of the soldiers, the metallic parts of their outfit, the pails of the artillery were all clanking as though in an imperceptible hailstorm. He saw a cannon lying on its side with the wheels broken and turned over among many men who appeared asleep; he saw soldiers who stretched themselves out without a contraction, without a sound, as though overcome by sudden drowsiness. Others were howling and dragging themselves forward in a sitting position.
The old man felt an extreme sensation of heat. The pungent perfume of explosive drugs brought the tears to his eyes and clawed at his throat. At the same time he was chilly and felt his forehead freezing in a glacial sweat.
He had to leave the bridge. Several soldiers were passing bearing the wounded to the edifice in spite of the fact that it was falling in ruins. Suddenly he was sprinkled from head to foot, as if the earth had opened to make way for a waterspout. A shell had fallen into the moat, throwing up an enormous column of water, making the carp sleeping in the mud fly into fragments, breaking a part of the edges and grinding to powder the white balustrades with their great urns of flowers.
He started to run on with the blindness of terror, when he suddenly saw before him the same little round crystal, examining him coolly. It was the Junker, the officer of the monocle. . . . With the end of his revolver, the German pointed to two pails a short distance away, ordering Desnoyers to fill them from the lagoon and give the water to the men overcome by the sun. Although the imperious tone admitted of no reply, Don Marcelo tried, nevertheless, to resist. He received a blow from the revolver on his chest at the same time that the lieutenant slapped him in the face. The old man doubled over, longing to weep, longing to perish; but no tears came, nor did life escape from his body under this affront, as he wished. . . . With the two buckets in his hands, he found himself dipping up water from the canal, carrying it the length of the file, giving it to men who, each in his turn, dropped his gun to gulp the liquid with the avidity of panting beasts.
He was no longer afraid of the shrill shrieks of invisible bodies. His one great longing was to die. He was strongly convinced that he was going to die; his sufferings were too great; there was no longer any place in the world for him.
He had to pass by breaches opened in the wall by the bursting shells. There was no natural object to arrest the eye looking through these gaps. Hedges and groves had been swept away or blotted out by the fire of the artillery. He descried at the foot of the highway near his castle, several of the attacking columns which had crossed the Marne. The advancing forces were coming doggedly on, apparently unmoved by the steady, deadly fire of the Germans. Soon they were rushing forward with leaps and bounds, by companies, shielding themselves behind bits of upland in bends of the road, in order to send forth their blasts of death.
The old man was now fired with a desperate resolution;--since he had to die, let a French ball kill him! And he advanced very erect with his two pails among those men shooting, lying down. Then, with a sudden fear, he stood still hanging his head; a second thought had told him that the bullet which he might receive would be one danger less for the enemy. It would be better for them to kill the Germans . . . and he began to cherish the hope that he might get possession of some weapon from those dying around him, and fall upon that Junker who had struck him.
He was filling his pails for the third time, and murderously contemplating the lieutenant's back when something occurred so absurd and unnatural that it reminded him of the fantastic flash of the cinematograph;--the officer's head suddenly disappeared; two jets of blood spurted from his severed neck and his body collapsed like an empty sack.
At the same time, a cyclone was sweeping the length of the wall, tearing up groves, overturning cannon and carrying away people in a whirlwind as though they were dry leaves. He inferred that Death was now blowing from another direction. Until then, it had come from the front on the river side, battling with the enemy's line ensconced behind the walls. Now, with the swiftness of an atmospheric change, it was blustering from the depths of the park. A skillful manoeuver of the aggressors, the use of a distant road, a chance bend in the German line had enabled the French to collect their cannon in a new position, attacking the occupants of the castle with a flank movement.
It was a lucky thing for Don Marcelo that he had lingered a few moments on the bank of the fosse, sheltered by the bulk of the edifice. The fire of the hidden battery passed the length of the avenue, carrying off the living, destroying for a second time the dead, killing horses, breaking the wheels of vehicles and making the gun carriages fly through the air with the flames of a volcano in whose red and bluish depths black bodies were leaping. He saw hundreds of fallen men; he saw disembowelled horses trampling on their entrails. The death harvest was not being reaped in sheaves; the entire field was being mowed down with a single flash of the sickle. And as though the batteries opposite divined the catastrophe, they redoubled their fire, sending down a torrent of shells. They fell on all sides. Beyond the castle, at the end of the park, craters were opening in the woods, vomiting forth the entire trunks of trees. The projectiles were hurling from their pits the bodies interred the night before.
Those still alive were firing through the gaps in the walls. Then they sprang up with the greatest haste. Some grasped their bayonets, pale, with clamped lips and a mad glare in their eyes; others turned their backs, running toward the exit from the park, regardless of the shouts of their officers and the revolver shots sent after the fugitives.
All this occurred with dizzying rapidity, like a nightmare. On the other side of the wall came a murmur, swelling in volume, like that of the sea. Desnoyers heard shouts, and it seemed to him that some hoarse, discordant voices were singing the Marseillaise. The machine-guns were working with the swift steadiness of sewing machines. The attack was going to be opposed with furious resistance. The Germans, crazed with fury, shot and shot. In one of the breaches appeared a red kepis followed by legs of the same color trying to clamber over the ruins. But this vision was instantly blotted out by the sprinkling from the machine guns, making the invaders fall in great heaps on the other side of the wall. Don Marcelo never knew exactly how the change took place. Suddenly he saw the red trousers within the park. With irresistible bounds they were springing over the wall, slipping through the yawning gaps, and darting out from the depths of the woods by invisible paths. They were little soldiers, husky, panting, perspiring, with torn cloaks; and mingled with them, in the disorder of the charge, African marksmen with devilish eyes and foaming mouths, Zouaves in wide breeches and chasseurs in blue uniforms.
The German officers wanted to die. With upraised swords, after having exhausted the shots in their revolvers, they advanced upon their assailants followed by the soldiers who still obeyed them. There was a scuffle, a wild melee. To the trembling spectator, it seemed as though the world had fallen into profound silence. The yells of the combatants, the thud of colliding bodies, the clang of arms seemed as nothing after the cannon had quieted down. He saw men pierced through the middle by gun points whose reddened ends came out through their kidneys; muskets raining hammer-like blows, adversaries that grappled in hand-to-hand tussles, rolling over and over on the ground, trying to gain the advantage by kicks and bites.
The mustard-colored fronts had entirely disappeared, and he now saw only backs of that color fleeing toward the exit, filtering among the trees, falling midway in their flight when hit by the pursuing balls. Many of the invaders were unable to chase the fugitives because they were occupied in repelling with rude thrusts of their bayonets the bodies falling upon them in agonizing convulsions.
Don Marcelo suddenly found himself in the very thick of these mortal combats, jumping up and down like a child, waving his hands and shouting with all his might. When he came to himself again, he was hugging the grimy head of a young French officer who was looking at him in astonishment. He probably thought him crazy on receiving his kisses, on hearing his incoherent torrent of words. Emotionally exhausted, the worn old man continued to weep after the officer had freed himself with a jerk. . . . He needed to give vent to his feelings after so many days of anguished self-control. Vive la France! . . .
His beloved French were already within the park gates. They were running, bayonets in hand, in pursuit of the last remnants of the German battalion trying to escape toward the village. A group of horsemen passed along the road. They were dragoons coming to complete the rout. But their horses were fagged out; nothing but the fever of victory transmitted from man to beast had sustained their painful pace. One of the equestrians came to a stop near the entrance of the park, the famished horse eagerly devouring the herbage while his rider settled down in the saddle as though asleep. Desnoyers touched him on the hip in order to waken him, but he immediately rolled off on the opposite side. He was dead, with his entrails protruding from his body, but swept on with the others, he had been brought thus far on his steady steed.
Enormous tops of iron and smoke now began falling in the neighborhood. The German artillery was opening a retaliatory fire against its lost positions. The advance continued. There passed toward the North battalions, squadrons and batteries, worn, weary and grimy, covered with dust and mud, but kindled with an ardor that galvanized their flagging energy.
The French cannon began thundering on the village side. Bands of soldiers were exploring the castle and the nearest woods. From the ruined rooms, from the depths of the cellars, from the clumps of shrubbery in the park, from the stables and burned garage, came surging forth men dressed in greenish gray and pointed helmets. They all threw up their arms, extending their open hands:-- "Kamarades . . . kamarades, non kaput." With the restlessness of remorse, they were in dread of immediate execution. They had suddenly lost all their haughtiness on finding that they no longer had any official powers and were free from discipline. Some of those who knew a little French, spoke of their wives and children, in order to soften the enemies that were threatening them with their bayonets. A brawny Teuton came up to Desnoyers and clapped him on the back. It was Redbeard. He pressed his heart and then pointed to the owner of the castle. "Franzosen . . . great friend of the Franzosen" . . . and he grinned ingratiatingly at his protector.
Don Marcelo remained at the castle until the following morning, and was astounded to see Georgette and her mother emerge unexpectedly from the depths of the ruined lodge. They were weeping at the sight of the French uniforms.
"It could not go on," sobbed the widow. "God does not die."
After a bad night among the ruins, the owner decided to leave Villeblanche. What was there for him to do now in the destroyed castle? . . . The presence of so many dead was racking his nerves. There were hundreds, there were thousands. The soldiers and the farmers were interring great heaps of them wherever he went, digging burial trenches close to the castle, in all the avenues of the park, in the garden paths, around the outbuildings. Even the depths of the circular lagoon were filled with corpses. How could he ever live again in that tragic community composed mostly of his enemies? . . . Farewell forever, castle of Villeblanche!
He turned his steps toward Paris, planning to get there the best way he could. He came upon corpses everywhere, but they were not all the gray-green uniform. Many of his countrymen had fallen in the gallant offensive. Many would still fall in the last throes of the battle that was going on behind them, agitating the horizon with its incessant uproar. Everywhere red pantaloons were sticking up out of the stubble, hobnailed boots glistening in upright position near the roadside, livid heads, amputated bodies, stray limbs--and, scattered through this funereal medley, red kepis and Oriental caps, helmets with tufts of horse hair, twisted swords, broken bayonets, guns and great mounds of cannon cartridges. Dead horses were strewing the plain with their swollen carcasses. Artillery wagons with their charred wood and bent iron frames revealed the tragic moment of the explosion. Rectangles of overturned earth marked the situation of the enemy's batteries before their retreat. Amidst the broken cannons and trucks were cones of carbonized material, the remains of men and horses burned by the Germans on the night before their withdrawal.
In spite of these barbarian holocausts corpses were every where in infinite numbers. There seemed to be no end to their number; it seemed as though the earth had expelled all the bodies that it had received since the beginning of the world. The sun was impassively flooding the fields of death with its waves of light. In its yellowish glow, the pieces of the bayonets, the metal plates, the fittings of the guns were sparkling like bits of crystal. The damp night, the rain, the rust of time had not yet modified with their corrosive action these relics of combat.
But decomposition had begun to set in. Graveyard odors were all along the road, increasing in intensity as Desnoyers plodded on toward Paris. Every half hour, the evidence of corruption became more pronounced--many of the dead on this side of the river having lain there for three or four days. Bands of crows, at the sound of his footsteps, rose up, lazily flapping their wings, but returning soon to blacken the earth, surfeited but not satisfied, having lost all fear of mankind.
From time to time, the sad pedestrian met living bands of men-- platoons of cavalry, gendarmes, Zouaves and chasseurs encamped around the ruined farmsteads, exploring the country in pursuit of German fugitives. Don Marcelo had to explain his business there, showing the passport that Lacour had given him in order to make his trip on the military train. Only in this way, could he continue his journey. These soldiers--many of them slightly wounded--were still stimulated by victory. They were laughing, telling stories, and narrating the great dangers which they had escaped a few days before, always ending with, "We are going to kick them across the frontier!" . . .
Their indignation broke forth afresh as they looked around at the blasted towns--farms and single houses, all burned. Like skeletons of prehistoric beasts, many steel frames twisted by the flames were scattered over the plains. The brick chimneys of the factories were either levelled to the ground or, pierced with the round holes made by shells, were standing up like giant pastoral flutes forced into the earth.
Near the ruined villages, the women were removing the earth and trying to dig burial trenches, but their labor was almost useless because it required an immense force to inter so many dead. "We are all going to die after gaining the victory," mused the old man. "The plague is going to break out among us."
The water of the river must also be contaminated by this contagion; so when his thirst became intolerable he drank, in preference, from a nearby pond. . . . But, alas, on raising his head, he saw some greenish legs on the surface of the shallow water, the boots sunk in the muddy banks. The head of the German was in the depths of the pool.
He had been trudging on for several hours when he stopped before a ruined house which he believed that he recognized. Yes, it was the tavern where he had lunched a few days ago on his way to the castle. He forced his way in among the blackened walls where a persistent swarm of flies came buzzing around him. The smell of decomposing flesh attracted his attention; a leg which looked like a piece of charred cardboard was wedged in the ruins. Looking at it bitterly he seemed to hear again the old woman with her grandchildren clinging to her skirts--"Monsieur, why are the people fleeing? War only concerns the soldiers. We countryfolk have done no wrong to anybody, and we ought not to be afraid."
Half an hour later, on descending a hilly path, the traveller had the most unexpected of encounters. He saw there a taxicab, an automobile from Paris. The chauffeur was walking tranquilly around the vehicle as if it were at the cab stand, and he promptly entered into conversation with this gentleman who appeared to him as downcast and dirty as a tramp, with half of his livid face discolored from a blow. He had brought out here in his machine some Parisians who had wanted to see the battlefield; they were reporters; and he was waiting there to take them back at nightfall.
Don Marcelo buried his right hand in his pocket. Two hundred francs if the man would drive him to Paris. The chauffeur declined with the gravity of a man faithful to his obligations. . . . "Five hundred?" . . . and he showed his fist bulging with gold coins. The man's only response was a twirl of the handle which started the machine to snorting, and away they sped. There was not a battle in the neighborhood of Paris every day in the year! His other clients could just wait.
And settling back into the motor-car, Desnoyers saw the horrors of the battle field flying past at a dizzying speed and disappearing behind him. He was rolling toward human life . . . he was returning to civilization!
As they came into Paris, the nearly empty streets seemed to him to be crowded with people. Never had he seen the city so beautiful. He whirled through the avenue de l'Opera, whizzed past the place de la Concorde, and thought he must be dreaming as he realized the gigantic leap that he had taken within the hour. He compared all that was now around him with the sights on that plain of death but a few miles away. No; no, it was not possible. One of the extremes of this contrast must certainly be false!
The automobile was beginning to slow down; he must be now in the avenue Victor Hugo. . . . He couldn't wake up. Was that really his home? . . .
The majestic concierge, unable to understand his forlorn appearance, greeted him with amazed consternation. "Ah. Monsieur! . . . Where has Monsieur been?" . . .
"In hell!" muttered Don Marcelo.
His wonderment continued when he found himself actually in his own apartment, going through its various rooms. He was somebody once more. The sight of the fruits of his riches and the enjoyment of home comforts restored his self-respect at the same time that the contrast recalled to his mind the recollection of all the humiliations and outrages that he had suffered. . . . Ah, the scoundrels! . . .
Two mornings later, the door bell rang. A visitor!
There came toward him a soldier--a little soldier of the infantry, timid, with his kepis in his hand, stuttering excuses in Spanish:-- "I knew that you were here . . . I come to . . ."
That voice? . . . Dragging him from the dark hallway, Don Marcelo conducted him to the balcony. . . . How handsome he looked! . . . The kepis was red, but darkened with wear; the cloak, too large, was torn and darned; the great shoes had a strong smell of leather. Yet never had his son appeared to him so elegant, so distinguished- looking as now, fitted out in these rough ready-made clothes.
"You! . . . You! . . ."
The father embraced him convulsively, crying like a child, and trembling so that he could no longer stand.
He had always hoped that they would finally understand each other. His blood was coursing through the boy's veins; he was good, with no other defect than a certain obstinacy. He was excusing him now for all the past, blaming himself for a great part of it. He had been too hard.
"You a soldier!" he kept exclaiming over and over. "You defending my country, when it is not yours!" . . .
And he kissed him again, receding a few steps so as to get a better look at him. Decidedly he was more fascinating now in his grotesque uniform, than when he was so celebrated for his skill as a dancer and idolized by the women.
When the delighted father was finally able to control his emotion, his eyes, still filled with tears, glowed with a malignant light. A spasm of hatred furrowed his face.
"Go," he said simply. "You do not know what war is; I have just come from it; I have seen it close by. This is not a war like other wars, with rational enemies; it is a hunt of wild beasts. . . . Shoot without a scruple against them all. . . . Every one that you overcome, rids humanity of a dangerous menace."
He hesitated a few seconds, and then added with tragic calm:
"Perhaps you may encounter familiar faces. Family ties are not
always formed to our tastes. Men of your blood are on the other
side. If you see any one of them . . . do not hesitate. Shoot! He
is your enemy. Kill him! . . . Kill him!"