"NO ONE WILL KILL HIM"
"An exceptionally brave fellow," concluded the influential man. "I have read what his chiefs say about him. At the head of his platoon, he attacked a German company; he killed the captain with his own hand; he did I don't know how many more brave things besides. . . . They have presented him with the military medal and have made him an officer. . . . A regular hero!"
And the rapidly aging father, weeping with emotion, but with increasing enthusiasm, shook his head and trembled. He repented now of his momentary lack of faith when the first news of his wounded boy reached him. How absurd! . . . No one would kill Julio; his heart told him so.
Soon after, he saw him coming home amid the cries and delighted exclamations of the women. Poor Dona Luisa wept as she embraced him, hanging on his neck with sobs of emotion. Chichi contemplated him with grave reflection, putting half of her mind on the recent arrival while the rest flew far away in search of the other warrior. The dusky, South American maids fought each other for the opening in the curtains, peering through the crack with the gaze of an antelope.
The father admired the little scrap of gold on the sleeve of the gray cloak, with the skirts buttoning behind, examining afterwards the dark blue cap with its low brim, adopted by the French for the war in the trenches. The traditional kepi had disappeared. A suitable visor, like that of the men in the Spanish infantry, now shadowed Julio's face. Don Marcelo noted, too, the short and well- cared-for beard, very different from the one he had seen in the trenches. The boy was coming home, groomed and polished from his recent stay in the hospital.
"Isn't it true that he looks like me?" queried the old man proudly.
Dona Luisa responded with the inconsequence that mothers always show in matters of resemblance.
"He has always been the living image of you!"
Having made sure that he was well and happy, the entire family suddenly felt a certain disquietude. They wished to examine his wound so as to convince themselves that he was completely out of danger.
"Oh, it's nothing at all," protested the sub-lieutenant. "A bullet wound in the shoulder. The doctor feared at first that I might lose my left arm, but it has healed well and it isn't worth while to think any more about it."
Chichi's appraising glance swept Julio from head to foot; taking in all the details of his military elegance. His cloak was worn thin and dirty; the leggings were spatter-dashed with mud; he smelled of leather, sweaty cloth and strong tobacco; but on one wrist he was wearing a watch, and on the other, his identity medal fastened with a gold chain. She had always admired her brother for his natural good taste, so she stowed away all these little details in her memory in order to pass them on to Rene. Then she surprised her mother with a demand for a loan that she might send a little gift to her artilleryman.
Don Marcelo gloated over the fifteen days of satisfaction ahead of him. Sub-lieutenant Desnoyers found it impossible to go out alone, for his father was always pacing up and down the reception hall before the military cap which was shedding modest splendor and glory upon the hat rack. Scarcely had Julio put it on his head before his sire appeared, also with hat and cane, ready to sally forth.
"Will you permit me to accompany you? . . . I will not bother you."
This would be said so humbly, with such an evident desire to have his request granted, that his son had not the heart to refuse him. In order to take a walk with Argensola, he had to scurry down the back stairs, or resort to other schoolboy tricks.
Never had the elder Desnoyers promenaded the streets of Paris with such solid satisfaction as by the side of this muscular youth in his gloriously worn cloak, on whose breast were glistening his two decorations--the cross of war and the military medal. He was a hero, and this hero was his son. He accepted as homage to them both the sympathetic glances of the public in the street cars and subways. The interest with which the women regarded the fine- looking youth tickled him immensely. All the other military men that they met, no matter how many bands and crosses they displayed, appeared to the doting father mere embusques, unworthy of comparison with his Julio. . . . The wounded men who got out of the coaches by the aid of staffs and crutches inspired him with the greatest pity. Poor fellows! . . . They did not bear the charmed life of his son. Nobody could kill him; and when, by chance, he had received a wound, the scars had immediately disappeared without detriment to his handsome person.
Sometimes, especially at night, Desnoyers senior would show an unexpected magnanimity, letting Julio fare forth alone. Since before the war, his son had led a life filled with triumphant love- affairs, what might he not achieve now with the added prestige of a distinguished officer! . . .
Passing through his room on his way to bed, the father imagined the hero in the charming company of some aristocratic lady. None but a feminine celebrity was worthy of him; his paternal pride could accept nothing less. . . . And it never occurred to him that Julio might be with Argensola in a music-hall or in a moving-picture show, enjoying the simple and monotonous diversions of a Paris sobered by war, with the homely tastes of a sub-lieutenant whose amorous conquests were no more than the renewal of some old friendships.
One evening as Don Marcelo was accompanying his son down the Champs Elysees, he started at recognizing a lady approaching from the opposite direction. It was Madame Laurier. . . . Would she recognize Julio? He noted that the youth turned pale and began looking at the other people with feigned interest. She continued straight ahead, erect, unseeing. The old gentleman was almost irritated at such coldness. To pass by his son without feeling his presence instinctively! Ah, these women! . . . He turned his head involuntarily to look after her, but had to avert his inquisitive glance immediately. He had surprised Marguerite motionless behind them, pallid with surprise, and fixing her gaze earnestly on the soldier who was separating himself from her. Don Marcelo read in her eyes admiration, love, all of the past that was suddenly surging up in her memory. Poor woman! . . . He felt for her a paternal affection as though she were the wife of Julio. His friend Lacour had again spoken to him about the Lauriers. He knew that Marguerite was going to become a mother, and the old man, without taking into account the reconciliation nor the passage of time, felt as much moved at the thought of this approaching maternity as though the child were going to be Julio's.
Meanwhile Julio was marching right on, without turning his head, without being conscious of the burning gaze fixed upon him, colorless, but humming a tune to hide his emotion. He always believed that Marguerite had passed near him without recognizing him, since his father did not betray her.
One of Don Marcelo's pet occupations was to make his son tell about the encounter in which he had been hurt. No visitor ever came to see the sub-lieutenant but the father always made the same petition.
"Tell us how you were wounded. . . . Explain how you killed that German captain."
Julio tried to excuse himself with visible annoyance. He was already surfeited with his own history. To please his father, he had related the facts to the senator, to Argensola and to Tchernoff in his studio, and to other family friends. . . . He simply could not do it again.
So the father began the narration on his own account, giving the relief and details of the deed as though seen with his own eyes. . . .
He had to take possession of the ruins of a sugar refinery in front of the trench. The Germans had been expelled by the French cannon. A reconnoitring survey under the charge of a trusty man was then necessary. And the heads, as usual, had selected Sergeant Desnoyers.
At daybreak, the platoon had advanced stealthily without encountering any difficulty. The soldiers scattered among the ruins. Julio then went on alone, examining the positions of the enemy; on turning around a corner of the wall, he had the most unexpected of encounters. A German captain was standing in front of him. They had almost bumped into each other. They looked into each other's eyes with more suspense than hate, yet at the same time, they were trying instinctively to kill each other, each one trying to get the advantage by his swiftness. The captain had dropped the map that he was carrying. His right hand sought his revolver, trying to draw it from its case without once taking his eyes off his enemy. Then he had to give this up as useless--it was too late. With his eyes distended by the proximity of death, he kept his gaze fixed upon the Frenchman who had raised his gun to his face. A shot, from a barrel almost touching him . . . and the German fell dead.
Not till then did the victor notice the captain's orderly who was but a few steps behind. He shot Desnoyers, wounding him in the shoulder. The French hurried to the spot, killing the corporal. Then there was a sharp cross-fire with the enemy's company which had halted a little ways off while their commander was exploring the ground. Julio, in spite of his wound, continued at the head of his section, defending the factory against superior forces until supports arrived, and the land remained definitely in the power of the French.
"Wasn't that about the way of it?" Don Marcelo would always wind up.
The son assented, desirous that his annoyance with the persistent story should come to an end as soon as possible. Yes, that was the way of it. But what the father didn't know, what Julio would never tell, was the discovery that he had made after killing the captain.
The two men, during the interminable second in which they had confronted each other, had showed in their eyes something more than the surprise of an encounter, and the wish to overcome the other. Desnoyers knew that man. The captain knew him, too. He guessed it from his expression. . . . But self-preservation was more insistent than recollection and prevented them both from co-ordinating their thoughts.
Desnoyers had fired with the certainty that he was killing someone that he knew. Afterwards, while directing the defense of the position and guarding against the approach of reinforcements, he had a suspicion that the enemy whose corpse was lying a few feet away might possibly be a member of the von Hartrott family. No, he looked much older than his cousins, yet younger than his Uncle Karl who at his age, would be no mere captain of infantry.
When, weakened by the loss of blood, they were about to carry him to the trenches, the sergeant expressed a wish to see again the body of his victim. His doubt continued before the face blanched by death. The wide-open eyes still seemed to retain their startled expression. The man had undoubtedly recognized him. His face was familiar. Who was he? . . . Suddenly in his mind's eye, Julio saw the heaving ocean, a great steamer, a tall, blonde woman looking at him with half-closed eyes of invitation, a corpulent, moustached man making speeches in the style of the Kaiser. "Rest in peace, Captain Erckmann!" . . . Thus culminated in a corner of France the discussions started at table in mid-ocean.
He excused himself mentally as though he were in the presence of the sweet Bertha. He had had to kill, in order not to be killed. Such is war. He tried to console himself by thinking that Erckmann, perhaps, had failed to identify him, without realizing that his slayer was the shipmate of the summer. . . . And he kept carefully hidden in the depths of his memory this encounter arranged by Fate. He did not even tell Argensola who knew of the incidents of the trans-atlantic passage.
When he least expected it, Don Marcelo found himself at the end of that delightful and proud existence which his son's presence had brought him. The fortnight had flown by so swiftly! The sub- lieutenant had returned to his post, and all the family, after this period of reality, had had to fall back on the fond illusions of hope, watching again for the arrival of his letters, making conjectures about the silence of the absent one, sending him packet after packet of everything that the market was offering for the soldiery--for the most part, useless and absurd things.
The mother became very despondent. Julio's visit home but made her feel his absence with greater intensity. Seeing him, hearing those tales of death that her husband was so fond of repeating, made her realize all the more clearly the dangers constantly surrounding her son. Fatality appeared to be warning her with funereal presentiments.
"They are going to kill him," she kept saying to Desnoyers. "That wound was a forewarning from heaven."
When passing through the streets, she trembled with emotion at sight of the invalid soldiers. The convalescents of energetic appearance, filled her with the greatest pity. They made her think of a certain trip with her husband to San Sebastian where a bull fight had made her cry out with indignation and compassion, pitying the fate of the poor, gored horses. With entrails hanging, they were taken to the corrals, and submitted to a hurried adjustment in order that they might return to the arena stimulated by a false energy. Again and again they were reduced to this makeshift cobbling until finally a fatal goring finished them. . . . These recently cured men continually brought to her mind those poor beasts. Some had been wounded three times since the beginning of the war, and were returning surgically patched together and re-galvanized to take another chance in the lottery of Fate, always in the expectation of the supreme blow. . . . Ay, her son!
Desnoyers waxed very indignant over his wife's low spirits, retorting:
"But I tell you that Nobody will kill Julio! . . . He is my son. In my youth I, too, passed through great dangers. They wounded me, too, in the wars in the other world, and nevertheless, here I am at a ripe old age."
Events seemed to reinforce his blind faith. Calamities were raining around the family and saddening his relatives, yet not one grazed the intrepid sub-lieutenant who was persisting in his daring deeds with the heroic nerve of a musketeer.
Dona Luisa received a letter from Germany. Her sister wrote from Berlin, transmitting her letters through the kindness of a South American in Switzerland. This time, the good lady wept for some one besides her son; she wept for Elena and the enemies. In Germany there were mothers, too, and she put the sentiment of maternity above all patriotic differences.
Poor Frau von Hartrott! Her letter written a month before, had contained nothing but death notices and words of despair. Captain Otto was dead. Dead, too, was one of his younger brothers. The fact that the latter had fallen in a territory dominated by their nation, at least gave the mother the sad comfort of being able to weep near his grave. But the Captain was buried on French soil, nobody knew where, and she would never be able to find his remains, mingled with hundreds of others. A third son was wounded in Poland. Her two daughters had lost their promised lovers, and the sight of their silent grief, was intensifying the mother's suffering. Von Hartrott continued presiding over patriotic societies and making plans of expansion after the near victory, but he had aged greatly in the last few months. The "sage" was the only one still holding his own. The family afflictions were aggravating the ferocity of Professor Julius von Hartrott. He was calculating, in a book he was writing, the hundreds of thousands of millions that Germany must exact after her triumph, and the various nations that she would have to annex to the Fatherland.
Dona Luisa imagined that in the avenue Victor Hugo, she could hear the mother's tears falling in her home in Berlin. "You will understand, Luisa, my despair. . . . We were all so happy! May God punish those who have brought such sorrow on the world! The Emperor is innocent. His adversaries are to blame for it all . . ."
Don Marcelo was silent about the letter in his wife's presence. He pitied Elena for her losses, so he overlooked her political connections. He was touched, too, at Dona Luisa's distress about Otto. She had been his godmother and Desnoyers his godfather. That was so--Don Marcelo had forgotten all about it; and the fact recalled to his mental vision the placid life of the ranch, and the play of the blonde children that he had petted behind their grandfather's back, before Julio was born. For many years, he had lavished great affection on these youngsters, when dismayed at Julio's delayed arrival. He was really affected at thinking of what must be Karl's despair.
But then, as soon as he was alone, a selfish coldness would blot out this compassion. War was war, and the Germans had sought it. France had to defend herself, and the more enemies fell the better. . . . The only soldier who interested him now was Julio. And his faith in the destiny of his son made him feel a brutal joy, a paternal satisfaction almost amounting to ferocity.
"No one will kill HIM! . . . My heart tells me so."
A nearer trouble shook his peace of mind. When he returned to his home one evening, he found Dona Luisa with a terrified aspect holding her hands to her head.
"The daughter, Marcelo . . . our daughter!"
Chichi was stretched out on a sofa in the salon, pale, with an olive tinge, looking fixedly ahead of her as if she could see somebody in the empty air. She was not crying, but a slight palpitation was making her swollen eyes tremble spasmodically.
"I want to see him," she was saying hoarsely. "I must see him!"
The father conjectured that something terrible must have happened to Lacour's son. That was the only thing that could make Chichi show such desperation. His wife was telling him the sad news. Rene was wounded, very seriously wounded. A shell had exploded over his battery, killing many of his comrades. The young officer had been dragged out from a mountain of dead, one hand was gone, he had injuries in the legs, chest and head.
"I've got to see him!" reiterated Chichi.
And Don Marcelo had to concentrate all his efforts in making his daughter give up this dolorous insistence which made her exact an immediate journey to the front, trampling down all obstacles, in order to reach her wounded lover. The senator finally convinced her of the uselessness of it all. She would simply have to wait; he, the father, had to be patient. He was negotiating for Rene to be transferred to a hospital in Paris.
The great man moved Desnoyers to pity. He was making such heroic efforts to preserve the stoic serenity of ancient days by recalling his glorious ancestors and all the illustrious figures of the Roman Republic. But these oratorical illusions had suddenly fallen flat, and his old friend surprised him weeping more than once. An only child, and he might have to lose him! . . . Chichi's dumb woe made him feel even greater commiseration. Her grief was without tears or faintings. Her sallow face, the feverish brilliancy of her eyes, and the rigidity that made her move like an automaton were the only signs of her emotion. She was living with her thoughts far away, with no knowledge of what was going on around her.
When the patient arrived in Paris, his father and fiancee were transfigured. They were going to see him, and that was enough to make them imagine that he was already recuperated.
Chichi hastened to the hospital with her mother and the senator. Then she went alone and insisted on remaining there, on living at the wounded man's side, waging war on all regulations and clashing with Sisters of Charity, trained nurses, and all who roused in her the hatred of rivalry. Soon realizing that all her violence accomplished nothing, she humiliated herself and became suddenly very submissive, trying with her wiles, to win the women over one by one. Finally, she was permitted to spend the greater part of the day with Rene
When Desnoyers first saw the wounded artilleryman in bed, he had to make a great effort to keep the tears back. . . . Ay, his son, too, might be brought to this sad pass! . . . The man looked to him like an Egyptian mummy, because of his complete envelopment in tight bandage wrappings. The sharp hulls of the shell had fairly riddled him. There could only be seen a pair of sweet eyes and a blond bit of moustache sticking up between white bands. The poor fellow was trying to smile at Chichi, who was hovering around him with a certain authority as though she were in her own home.
Two months rolled by. Rene was better, almost well. His betrothed had never doubted his recovery from the moment that they permitted her to remain with him.
"No one that I love, ever dies," she asserted with a ring of her father's self-confidence. "As if I would ever permit the Boches to leave me without a husband!"
She had her little sugar soldier back again, but, oh, in what a lamentable state! . . . Never had Don Marcelo realized the de- personalizing horrors of war as when he saw entering his home this convalescent whom he had known months before--elegant and slender, with a delicate and somewhat feminine beauty. His face was now furrowed by a network of scars that had transformed it into a purplish arabesque. Within his body were hidden many such. His left hand had disappeared with a part of the forearm, the empty sleeve hanging over the remainder. The other hand was supported on a cane, a necessary aid in order to be able to move a leg that would never recover its elasticity.
But Chichi was content. She surveyed her dear little soldier with more enthusiasm than ever--a little deformed, perhaps, but very interesting. With her mother, she accompanied the convalescent in his constitutionals through the Bois de Boulogne. When, in crossing a street, automobilists or coachmen failed to stop their vehicles in order to give the invalid the right of way, her eyes shot lightning shafts, as she thundered, "Shameless embusques!" . . . She was now feeling the same fiery resentment as those women of former days who used to insult her Rene when he was well and happy. She trembled with satisfaction and pride when returning the greetings of her friends. Her eloquent eyes seemed to be saying, "Yes, he is my betrothed . . . a hero!" She was constantly arranging the war cross on his blouse of "horizon blue," taking pains to place it as conspicuously as possible. She also spent much time in prolonging the life of his shabby uniform--always the same one, the old one which he was wearing when wounded. A new one would give him the officery look of the soldiers who never left Paris.
As he grew stronger, Rene vainly tried to emancipate himself from her dominant supervision. It was simply useless to try to walk with more celerity or freedom.
"Lean on me!"
And he had to take his fiancee's arm. All her plans for the future were based on the devotion with which she was going to protect her husband, on the solicitude that she was going to dedicate to his crippled condition.
"My poor, dear invalid," she would murmur lovingly. "So ugly and so helpless those blackguards have left you! . . . But luckily you have me, and I adore you! . . . It makes no difference to me that one of your hands is gone. I will care for you; you shall be my little son. You will just see, after we are married, how elegant and stylish I am going to keep you. But don't you dare to look at any of the other women! The very first moment that you do, my precious little invalid, I'll leave you alone in your helplessness!"
Desnoyers and the senator were also concerned about their future, but in a very definite way. They must be married as soon as possible. What was the use of waiting? . . . The war was no longer an obstacle. They would be married as quietly as possible. This was no time for wedding pomp.
So Rene Lacour remained permanently in the house on the avenida Victor Hugo, after the nuptial ceremony witnessed by a dozen people.
Don Marcelo had had dreams of other things for his daughter--a grand wedding to which the daily papers would devote much space, a son-in- law with a brilliant future . . . but ay, this war! Everybody was having his fondest hopes dashed to pieces every few hours.
He took what comfort he could out of the situation. What more did they want? Chichi was happy--with a rollicking and selfish happiness which took no interest in anything but her own love- affairs. The Desnoyers business returns could not be improved upon;--after the first crisis had passed, the necessities of the belligerents had begun utilizing the output of his ranches, and never before had meat brought such high prices. Money was flowing in with greater volume than formerly, while the expenses were diminishing. . . . Julio was in daily danger of death, but the old ranchman was buoyed up by his conviction that his son led a charmed life--no harm could touch him. His chief preoccupation, therefore, was to keep himself tranquil, avoiding all emotional storms. He had been reading with considerable alarm of the frequency with which well-known persons, politicians, artists and writers, were dying in Paris. War was not doing all its killing at the front; its shocks were falling like arrows over the land, causing the fall of the weak, the crushed and the exhausted who, in normal times, would probably have lived to a far greater age.
"Attention, Marcelo!" he said to himself with grim humor. "Keep cool now! . . . You must avoid Friend Tchernoff's four horsemen, you know!"
He spent an afternoon in the studio going over the war news in the papers. The French had begun an offensive in Champagne with great advances and many prisoners.
Desnoyers could not but think of the loss of life that this must represent. Julio's fate, however, gave him no uneasiness, for his son was not in that part of the front. But yesterday he had received a letter from him, dated the week before; they all took about that length of time to reach him. Sub-lieutenant Desnoyers was as blithe and reckless as ever. They were going to promote him again--he was among those proposed for the Legion d'Honneur. These facts intensified Don Marcelo's vision of himself as the father of a general as young as those of the revolution; and as he contemplated the daubs and sketches around him, he marvelled at the extraordinary way in which the war had twisted his son's career.
On his way home, he passed Marguerite Laurier dressed in mourning. The senator had told him a few days before that her brother, the artilleryman, had just been killed at Verdun.
"How many are falling!" he said mournfully to himself. "How hard it will be for his poor mother!"
But he smiled immediately after at the thought of those to be born. Never before had the people been so occupied in accelerating their reproduction. Even Madame Laurier now showed with pride the very visible curves of her approaching maternity, and Desnoyers noted sympathetically the vital volume apparent beneath her long mourning veil. Again he thought of Julio, without taking into account the flight of time. He felt as interested in the little newcomer as though he were in some way related to it, and he promised himself to aid generously the Laurier baby if he ever had the opportunity.
On entering his house, he was met in the hall by Dona Luisa, who told him that Lacour was waiting for him.
"Very good!" he responded gaily. "Let us see what our illustrious father-in-law has to say."
His good wife was uneasy. She had felt alarmed without knowing exactly why at the senator's solemn appearance; with that feminine instinct which perforates all masculine precautions, she surmised some hidden mission. She had noticed, too, that Rene and his father were talking together in a low tone, with repressed emotion.
Moved by an irresistible impulse, she hovered near the closed door, hoping to hear something definite. Her wait was not long.
Suddenly a cry . . . a groan . . . the groan that can come only from a body from which all vitality is escaping.
And Dona Luisa rushed in just in time to support her husband as he was falling to the floor.
The senator was excusing himself confusedly to the walls, the furniture, and turning his back in his agitation on the dismayed Rene, the only one who could have listened to him.
"He did not let me finish. . . . He guessed from the very first word. . . ."
Hearing the outcry, Chichi hastened in in time to see her father slipping from his wife's arms to the sofa, and from there to the floor, with glassy, staring eyes, and foaming at the mouth.
From the luxurious rooms came forth the world-old cry, always the same from the humblest home to the highest and loneliest:--
"Oh, Julio! . . . Oh, my son, my son! . . .