The war was not going to be so cruel as they all had at first imagined. The days had passed by, and the movements of the troops were beginning to be less noticeable. As the number of men diminished in the streets, the feminine population seemed to have increased. Although there was great scarcity of money, the banks still remaining closed, the necessity for it was increasingly great, in order to secure provisions. Memories of the famine of the siege of '70 tormented the imagination. Since war had broken out with the same enemy, it seemed but logical to everybody to expect a repetition of the same happenings. The storehouses were besieged by women who were securing stale food at exorbitant prices in order to store it in their homes. Future hunger was producing more terror than immediate dangers.
For young Desnoyers these were about all the transformations that war was creating around him. People would finally become accustomed to the new existence. Humanity has a certain reserve force of adaptation which enables it to mould itself to circumstances and continue existing. He was hoping to continue his life as though nothing had happened. It was enough for him that Marguerite should continue faithful to their past. Together they would see events slipping by them with the cruel luxuriousness of those who, from an inaccessible height, contemplate a flood without the slightest risk to themselves.
This selfish attitude had also become habitual to Argensola.
"Let us be neutral," the Bohemian would say. "Neutrality does not necessarily mean indifference. Let us enjoy the great spectacle, since nothing like it will ever happen again in our lifetime."
It was unfortunate that war should happen to come when they had so little money. Argensola was hating the banks even more than the Central Powers, distinguishing with special antipathy the trust company which was delaying payment of Julio's check. How lovely it would have been with this sum available, to have forestalled events by laying in every class of commodity! In order to supplement the domestic scrimping, he again had to solicit the aid of Dona Luisa. War had lessened Don Marcelo's precautions, and the family was now living in generous unconcern. The mother, like other house mistresses, had stored up provisions for months and months to come, buying whatever eatables she was able to lay hands on. Argensola took advantage of this abundance, repeating his visits to the home in the avenue Victor Hugo, descending its service stairway with great packages which were swelling the supplies in the studio.
He felt all the joys of a good housekeeper in surveying the treasures piled up in the kitchen--great tins of canned meat, pyramids of butter crocks, and bags of dried vegetables. He had accumulated enough there to maintain a large family. The war had now offered a new pretext for him to visit Don Marcelo's wine- vaults.
"Let them come!" he would say with a heroic gesture as he took stock of his treasure trove. "Let them come when they will! We are ready for them!"
The care and increase of his provisions, and the investigation of news were the two functions of his existence. It seemed necessary to procure ten, twelve, fifteen papers a day; some because they were reactionary, and the novelty of seeing all the French united filled him with enthusiasm; others because they were radical and must be better informed of the news received from the government. They generally appeared at midday, at three, at four and at five in the afternoon. An half hour's delay in the publication of the sheet raised great hopes in the public, on the qui vive for stupendous news. All the last supplements were snatched up; everybody had his pockets stuffed with papers, waiting anxiously the issue of extras in order to buy them, too. Yet all the sheets were saying approximately the same thing.
Argensola was developing a credulous, enthusiastic soul, capable of admitting many improbable things. He presumed that this same spirit was probably animating everybody around him. At times, his old critical attitude would threaten to rebel, but doubt was repulsed as something dishonorable. He was living in a new world, and it was but natural that extraordinary things should occur that could be neither measured nor explained by the old processes of reasoning. So he commented with infantile joy on the marvellous accounts in the daily papers--of combats between a single Belgian platoon and entire regiments of enemies, putting them to disorderly flight; of the German fear of the bayonet that made them run like hares the instant that the charge sounded; of the inefficiency of the German artillery whose projectiles always missed fire.
It was logical and natural that little Belgium should conquer gigantic Germany--a repetition of David and Goliath--with all the metaphors and images that this unequal contest had inspired across so many centuries. Like the greater part of the nation, he had the mentality of a reader of tales of chivalry who feels himself defrauded if the hero, single-handed, fails to cleave a thousand enemies with one fell stroke. He purposely chose the most sensational papers, those which published many stories of single encounters, of individual deeds about which nobody could know with any degree of certainty.
The intervention of England on the seas made him imagine a frightful famine, coming providentially like a thunder-clap to torture the enemy. He honestly believed that ten days of this maritime blockade would convert Germany into a group of shipwrecked sailors floating on a raft. This vision made him repeat his visits to the kitchen to gloat over his packages of provisions.
"Ah, what they would give in Berlin for my treasures!" . . .
Never had Argensola eaten with greater avidity. Consideration of the great privations suffered by the adversary was sharpening his appetite to a monstrous capacity. White bread, golden brown and crusty, was stimulating him to an almost religious ecstasy.
"If friend William could only get his claws on this!" he would chuckle to his companion.
So he chewed and swallowed with increasing relish; solids and liquids on passing through his mouth seemed to be acquiring a new flavor, rare and divine. Distant hunger for him was a stimulant, a sauce of endless delight.
While France was inspiring his enthusiasm, he was conceding greater credit to Russia. "Ah, those Cossacks!" . . . He was accustomed to speak of them as intimate friends. He loved to describe the unbridled gallop of the wild horsemen, impalpable as phantoms, and so terrible in their wrath that the enemy could not look them in the face. The concierge and the stay-at-homes used to listen to him with all the respect due to a foreign gentleman, knowing much of the great outside world with which they were not familiar.
"The Cossacks will adjust the accounts of these bandits!" he would conclude with absolute assurance. "Within a month they will have entered Berlin."
And his public composed of women--wives and mothers of those who had gone to war--would modestly agree with him, with that irresistible desire which we all feel of placing our hopes on something distant and mysterious. The French would defend the country, reconquering, besides the lost territories, but the Cossacks--of whom so many were speaking but so few had seen--were going to give the death blow. The only person who knew them at first hand was Tchernoff, and to Argensola's astonishment, he listened to his words without showing any enthusiasm. The Cossacks were for him simply one body of the Russian army--good enough soldiers, but incapable of working the miracles that everybody was expecting from them.
"That Tchernoff!" exclaimed Argensola. "Since he hates the Czar, he thinks the entire country mad. He is a revolutionary fanatic. . . . And I am opposed to all fanaticisms."
Julio was listening absent-mindedly to the news brought by his companion, the vibrating statements recited in declamatory tones, the plans of the campaign traced out on an enormous map fastened to the wall of the studio and bristling with tiny flags that marked the camps of the belligerent armies. Every issue of the papers obliged the Spaniard to arrange a new dance of the pins on the map, followed by his comments of bomb-proof optimism.
"We have entered into Alsace; very good! . . . It appears now that we abandon Alsace. Splendid! I suspect the cause. It is in order to enter again in a better place, getting at the enemy from behind. . . . They say that Liege has fallen. What a lie! . . . And if it does fall, it doesn't matter. Just an incident, nothing more! The others remain . . . the others! . . . that are advancing on the Eastern side, and are going to enter Berlin."
The news from the Russian front was his favorite, but obliged him to remain in suspense every time that he tried to find on the map the obscure names of the places where the admired Cossacks were exhibiting their wonderful exploits.
Meanwhile Julio was continuing the course of his own reflections. Marguerite! . . . She had come back at last, and yet each time seemed to be drifting further away from him. . . .
In the first days of the mobilization, he had haunted her neighborhood, trying to appease his longing by this illusory proximity. Marguerite had written to him, urging patience. How fortunate it was that he was a foreigner and would not have to endure the hardship of war! Her brother, an officer in the artillery Reserves, was going at almost any minute. Her mother, who made her home with this bachelor son, had kept an astonishing serenity up to the last minute, although she had wept much while the war was still but a possibility. She herself had prepared the soldier's outfit so that the small valise might contain all that was indispensable for campaign life. But Marguerite had divined her poor mother's secret struggles not to reveal her despair, in moist eyes and trembling hands. It was impossible to leave her alone at such a time. . . . Then had come the farewell. "God be with you, my son! Do your duty, but be prudent." Not a tear nor a sign of weakness. All her family had advised her not to accompany her son to the railway station, so his sister had gone with him. And upon returning home, Marguerite had found her mother rigid in her arm chair, with a set face, avoiding all mention of her son, speaking of the friends who also had sent their boys to the war, as if they only could comprehend her torture. "Poor Mama! I ought to be with her now more than ever. . . . To-morrow, if I can, I shall come to see you."
When at last she returned to the rue de la Pompe, her first care was to explain to Julio the conservatism of her tailored suit, the absence of jewels in the adornment of her person. "The war, my dear! Now it is the chic thing to adapt oneself to the depressing conditions, to be frugal and inconspicuous like soldiers. Who knows what we may expect!" Her infatuation with dress still accompanied her in every moment of her life.
Julio noticed a persistent absent-mindedness about her. It seemed as though her spirit, abandoning her body, was wandering to far-away places. Her eyes were looking at him, but she seldom saw him. She would speak very slowly, as though wishing to weigh every word, fearful of betraying some secret. This spiritual alienation did not, however, prevent her slipping bodily along the smooth path of custom, although afterwards she would seem to feel a vague remorse. "I wonder if it is right to do this! . . . Is it not wrong to live like this when so many sorrows are falling on the world?" Julio hushed her scruples with:
"But if we are going to marry as soon as possible! . . . If we are already the same as husband and wife!"
She replied with a gesture of strangeness and dismay. To marry! . . . Ten days ago she had had no other wish. Now the possibility of marriage was recurring less and less in her thoughts. Why think about such remote and uncertain events? More immediate things were occupying her mind.
The farewell to her brother in the station was a scene which had fixed itself ineradicably in her memory. Upon going to the studio she had planned not to speak about it, foreseeing that she might annoy her lover with this account; but alas, she had only to vow not to mention a thing, to feel an irresistible impulse to talk about it.
She had never suspected that she could love her brother so dearly. Her former affection for him had been mingled with a silent sentiment of jealousy because her mother had preferred the older child. Besides, he was the one who had introduced Laurier to his home; the two held diplomas as industrial engineers and had been close friends from their school days. . . . But upon seeing the boy ready to depart, Marguerite suddenly discovered that this brother, who had always been of secondary interest to her, was now occupying a pre-eminent place in her affections.
"He was so handsome, so interesting in his lieutenant's uniform! . . . He looked like another person. I will admit to you that I was very proud to walk beside him, leaning on his arm. People thought that we were married. Seeing me weep, some poor women tried to console me saying, 'Courage, Madame. . . . Your man will come back.' He just laughed at hearing these mistakes. The only thing that was really saddening him was thinking about our mother."
They had separated at the door of the station. The sentries would not let her go any further, so she had handed over his sword that she had wished to carry till the last moment.
"It is lovely to be a man!" she exclaimed enthusiastically. "I would love to wear a uniform, to go to war, to be of some real use!"
She tried not to say more about it, as though she suddenly realized the inopportuneness of her last words. Perhaps she noticed the scowl on Julio's face.
She was, however, so wrought up by the memory of that farewell that, after a long pause, she was unable to resist the temptation of again putting her thought into words.
At the station entrance, while she was kissing her brother for the last time, she had an encounter, a great surprise. "He" had approached, also clad as an artillery officer, but alone, having to entrust his valise to a good-natured man from the crowd.
Julio shot her a questioning look. Who was "he"? He suspected, but feigned ignorance, as though fearing to learn the truth.
"Laurier," she replied laconically, "my former husband."
The lover displayed a cruel irony. It was a cowardly thing to ridicule this man who had responded to the call of duty. He recognized his vileness, but a malign and irresistible instinct made him keep on with his sneers in order to discredit the man before Marguerite. Laurier a soldier!--He must cut a pretty figure dressed in uniform!
"Laurier, the warrior!" he continued in a voice so sarcastic and strange that it seemed to be coming from somebody else. . . . "Poor creature!"
She hesitated in her response, not wishing to exasperate Desnoyers any further. But the truth was uppermost in her mind, and she said simply:
"No . . . no, he didn't look so bad. Quite the contrary. Perhaps it was the uniform, perhaps it was his sadness at going away alone, completely alone, without a single hand to clasp his. I didn't recognize him at first. Seeing my brother, he started toward us; but then when he saw me, he went his own way . . . Poor man! I feel sorry for him!"
Her feminine instinct must have told her that she was talking too much, and she cut her chatter suddenly short. The same instinct warned her that Julio's countenance was growing more and more saturnine, and his mouth taking a very bitter curve. She wanted to console him and added:
"What luck that you are a foreigner and will not have to go to the war! How horrible it would be for me to lose you!" . . .
She said it sincerely. . . . A few moments before she had been envying men, admiring the gallantry with which they were exposing their lives, and now she was trembling before the idea that her lover might have been one of these.
This did not please his amorous egoism--to be placed apart from the rest as a delicate and fragile being only fit for feminine adoration. He preferred to inspire the envy that she had felt on beholding her brother decked out in his warlike accoutrement. It seemed to him that something was coming between him and Marguerite that would never disappear, that would go on expanding, repelling them in contrary directions . . . far . . . very far, even to the point of not recognizing each other when their glances met.
He continued to be conscious of this impalpable obstacle in their following interviews. Marguerite was extremely affectionate in her speech, and would look at him with moist and loving eyes. But her caressing hands appeared more like those of a mother than a lover, and her tenderness was accompanied with a certain disinterestedness and extraordinary modesty. She seemed to prefer remaining obstinately in the studio, declining to go into the other rooms.
"We are so comfortable here. . . . I would rather not. . . . It is not worth while. I should feel remorse afterwards. . . . Why think of such things in these anxious times!"
The world around her seemed saturated with love, but it was a new love--a love for the man who is suffering, desire for abnegation, for sacrifice. This love called forth visions of white caps, of tremulous hands healing shell-riddled and bleeding flesh.
Every advance on Julio's part but aroused in Marguerite a vehement and modest protest as though they were meeting for the first time.
"It is impossible," she protested. "I keep thinking of my brother, and of so many that I know that may be dying at this very minute."
News of battles were beginning to arrive, and blood was beginning to flow in great quantities.
"No, no, I cannot," she kept repeating.
And when Julio finally triumphed, he found that her thoughts were still following independently the same line of mental stress.
One afternoon, Marguerite announced that henceforth she would see him less frequently. She was attending classes now, and had only two free days.
Desnoyers listened, dumbfounded. Classes? . . . What were her studies? . . .
She seemed a little irritated at his mocking expression. . . . Yes, she was studying; for the past week she had been attending classes. Now the lessons were going to be more regular; the course of instruction had been fully organized, and there were many more instructors.
"I wish to be a trained nurse. I am distressed over my uselessness. . . . Of what good have I ever been till now?" . . .
She was silent for a few moments as though reviewing her past.
"At times I almost think," she mused, "that war, with all its horrors, still has some good in it. It helps to make us useful to our fellowmen. We look at life more seriously; trouble makes us realize that we have come into the world for some purpose. . . . I believe that we must not love life only for the pleasures that it brings us. We ought to find satisfaction in sacrifice, in dedicating ourselves to others, and this satisfaction--I don't know just why, perhaps because it is new--appears to me superior to all other things."
Julio looked at her in surprise, trying to imagine what was going on in that idolized and frivolous head. What ideas were forming back of that thoughtful forehead which until then had merely reflected the slightest shadow of thoughts as swift and flitting as birds? . . .
But the former Marguerite was still alive. He saw her constantly reappearing in a funny way among the sombre preoccupations with which war was overshadowing all lives.
"We have to study very hard in order to earn our diplomas as nurses. Have you noticed our uniform? . . . It is most distinctive, and the white is so becoming both to blondes and brunettes. Then the cap which allows little curls over the ears--the fashionable coiffure-- and the blue cape over the white suit, make a splendid contrast. With this outfit, a woman well shod, and with few jewels, may present a truly chic appearance. It is a mixture of nun and great lady which is vastly becoming."
She was going to study with a regular fury in order to become really useful . . . and sooner to wear the admired uniform.
Poor Desnoyers! . . . The longing to see her, and the lack of occupation in these interminable afternoons which hitherto had been employed so delightfully, compelled him to haunt the neighborhood of the unoccupied palace where the government had just established the training school for nurses. Stationing himself at the corner, watching the fluttering skirts and quick steps of the feminine feet on the sidewalk, he imagined that the course of time must have turned backward, and that he was still but eighteen--the same as when he used to hang around the establishments of some celebrated modiste. The groups of women that at certain hours came out of the palace suggested these former days. They were dressed extremely quietly, the aspect of many of them as humble as that of the seamstresses. But they were ladies of the well-to-do class, some even coming in automobiles driven by chauffeurs in military uniform, because they were ministerial vehicles.
These long waits often brought him unexpected encounters with the elegant students who were going and coming.
"Desnoyers!" some feminine voices would exclaim behind him. "Isn't it Desnoyers?"
And he would find himself obliged to relieve their doubts, saluting the ladies who were looking at him as though he were a ghost. They were friends of a remote epoch, of six months ago--ladies who had admired and pursued him, trusting sweetly to his masterly wisdom to guide them through the seven circles of the science of the tango. They were now scrutinizing him as if between their last encounter and the present moment had occurred a great cataclysm, transforming all the laws of existence--as if he were the sole survivor of a vanished race.
Eventually they all asked the same questions--"Are you not going to the war? . . . How is it that you are not wearing a uniform?"
He would attempt to explain, but at his first words, they would interrupt him:
"That's so. . . . You are a foreigner."
They would say it with a certain envy, doubtless thinking of their loved ones now suffering the privations and dangers of war. . . . But the fact that he was a foreigner would instantly create a vague atmosphere of spiritual aloofness, an alienation that Julio had not known in the good old days when people sought each other without considering nationality, without feeling that disavowal of danger which isolates and concentrates human groups.
The ladies generally bade him adieu with malicious suspicion. What was he doing hanging around there? In search of his usual lucky adventure? . . . And their smiles were rather grave, the smiles of older folk who know the true significance of life and commiserate the deluded ones still seeking diversion in frivolities.
This attitude was as annoying to Julio as though it were a manifestation of pity. They were supposing him still exercising the only function of which he was capable; he wasn't good for anything else. On the other hand, these empty heads, still keeping something of their old appearance, now appeared animated by the grand sentiment of maternity--an abstract maternity which seemed to be extending to all the men of the nation--a desire for self-sacrifice, of knowing first-hand the privations of the lowly, and aiding all the ills that flesh is heir to.
This same yearning was inspiring Marguerite when she came away from her lessons. She was advancing from one overpowering dread to another, accepting the first rudiments of surgery as the greatest of scientific marvels. At the same time, she was astonished at the avidity with which she was assimilating these hitherto unsuspected mysteries. Sometimes with a funny assumption of assurance, she would even believe she had mistaken her vocation.
"Who knows but what I was born to be a famous doctor?" she would exclaim.
Her great fear was that she might lose her self-control when the time came to put her newly acquired knowledge into practice. To see herself before the foul odors of decomposing flesh, to contemplate the flow of blood--a horrible thing for her who had always felt an invincible repugnance toward all the unpleasant conditions of ordinary life! But these hesitations were short, and she was suddenly animated by a dashing energy. These were times of sacrifice. Were not the men snatched every day from the comforts of sensuous existence to endure the rude life of a soldier? . . . She would be, a soldier in petticoats, facing pain, battling with it, plunging her hands into putrefaction, flashing like a ray of sunlight into the places where soldiers were expecting the approach of death.
She proudly narrated to Desnoyers all the progress that she was making in the training school, the complicated bandages that she was learning to adjust, sometimes over a mannikin, at others over the flesh of an employee, trying to play the part of a sorely wounded patient. She, so dainty, so incapable in her own home of the slightest physical effort, was learning the most skilful ways of lifting a human body from the ground and carrying it on her back. Who knew but that she might render this very service some day on the battlefield! She was ready for the greatest risks, with the ignorant audacity of women impelled by flashes of heroism. All her admiration was for the English army nurses, slender women of nervous vigor whose photographs were appearing in the papers, wearing pantaloons, riding boots and white helmets.
Julio listened to her with astonishment. Was this woman really Marguerite? . . . War was obliterating all her winning vanities. She was no longer fluttering about in bird-like fashion. Her feet were treading the earth with resolute firmness, calm and secure in the new strength which was developing within. When one of his caresses would remind her that she was a woman, she would always say the same thing,
"What luck that you are a foreigner! . . . What happiness to know that you do not have to go to war!"
In her anxiety for sacrifice, she wanted to go to the battlefields, and yet at the same time, she was rejoicing to see her lover exempt from military duty. This preposterous lack of logic was not gratefully received by Julio but irritated him as an unconscious offense.
"One might suppose that she was protecting me!" he thought. "She is the man and rejoices that I, the weak comrade, should be protected from danger. . . . What a grotesque situation!" . . .
Fortunately, at times when Marguerite presented herself at the studio, she was again her old self, making him temporarily forget his annoyance. She would arrive with the same joy in a vacation that the college student or the employee feels on a holiday. Responsibility was teaching her to know the value of time.
"No classes to-day!" she would call out on entering; and tossing her hat on a divan, she would begin a dance-step, retreating with infantile coquetry from the arms of her lover.
But in a few minutes she would recover her customary gravity, the serious look that had become habitual with her since the outbreak of hostilities. She spoke often of her mother, always sad, but striving to hide her grief and keeping herself up in the hope of a letter from her son; she spoke, too, of the war, commenting on the latest events with the rhetorical optimism of the official dispatches. She could describe the first flag taken from the enemy as minutely as though it were a garment of unparalleled elegance. From a window, she had seen the Minister of War. She was very much affected when repeating the story of some fugitive Belgians recently arrived at the hospital. They were the only patients that she had been able to assist until now. Paris was not receiving the soldiers wounded in battle; by order of the Government, they were being sent from the front to the hospitals in the South.
She no longer evinced toward Julio the resistance of the first few days. Her training as a nurse was giving her a certain passivity. She seemed to be ignoring material attractions, stripping them of the spiritual importance which she had hitherto attributed to them. She wanted to make Julio happy, although her mind was concentrated on other matters.
One afternoon, she felt the necessity of communicating certain news which had been filling her mind since the day before. Springing up from the couch, she hunted for her handbag which contained a letter. She wanted to read it again to tell its contents to somebody with that irresistible impulse which forestalls confession.
It was a letter which her brother had sent her from the Vosges. In it he spoke of Laurier more than of himself. They belonged to different batteries, but were in the same division and had taken part in the same combats. The officer was filled with admiration for his former brother-in-law. Who could have guessed that a future hero was hidden within that silent and tranquil engineer! . . . But he was a genuine hero, just the same! All the officials had agreed with Marguerite's brother on seeing how calmly he fulfilled his duty, facing death with the same coolness as though he were in his factory near Paris.
He had asked for the dangerous post of lookout, slipping as near as possible to the enemy's lines in order to verify the exactitude of the artillery discharge, rectifying it by telephone. A German shell had demolished the house on the roof of which he was concealed, and Laurier, on crawling out unhurt from the ruins, had readjusted his telephone and gone tranquilly on, continuing the same work in the shelter of a nearby grove. His battery, picked out by the enemy's aeroplanes, had received the concentrated fire of the artillery opposite. In a few minutes all the force were rolling on the ground--the captain and many soldiers dead, officers wounded and almost all the gunners. There only remained as chief, Laurier, the Impassive (as his comrades nicknamed him), and aided by the few artillerymen still on their feet, he continued firing under a rain of iron and fire, so as to cover the retreat of a battalion.
"He has been mentioned twice in dispatches," Marguerite continued reading. "I do not believe that it will be long before they give him the cross. He is valiant in every way. Who would have supposed all this a few weeks ago?" . . .
She did not share the general astonishment. Living with Laurier had many times shown her the intrepidity of his character, the fearlessness concealed under that placid exterior. On that account, her instincts had warned her against rousing her husband's wrath in the first days of her infidelity. She still remembered the way he looked the night he surprised her leaving Julio's home. His was the passion that kills, and, nevertheless, he had not attempted the least violence with her. . . . The memory of his consideration was awakening in Marguerite a sentiment of gratitude. Perhaps he had loved her as no other man had.
Her eyes, with an irresistible desire for comparison, sought Julio's, admiring his youthful grace and distinction. The image of Laurier, heavy and ordinary, came into her mind as a consolation. Certainly the officer whom she had seen at the station when saying good-bye to her brother, did not seem to her like her old husband. But Marguerite wished to forget the pallid lieutenant with the sad countenance who had passed before her eyes, preferring to remember him only as the manufacturer preoccupied with profits and incapable of comprehending what she was accustomed to call "the delicate refinements of a chic woman." Decidedly Julio was the more fascinating. She did not repent of her past. She did not wish to repent of it.
And her loving selfishness made her repeat once more the same old exclamation--"How fortunate that you are a foreigner! . . . What a relief to know that you are safe from the dangers of war!"
Julio felt the usual exasperation at hearing this. He came very near to closing his beloved's mouth with his hand. Was she trying to make fun of him? . . . It was fairly insulting to place him apart from other men.
Meanwhile, with blind irrelevance, she persisted in talking about Laurier, commenting upon his achievements.
"I do not love him, I never have loved him. Do not look so cross! How could the poor man ever be compared with you? You must admit, though, that his new existence is rather interesting. I rejoice in his brave deeds as though an old friend had done them, a family visitor whom I had not seen for a long time. . . . The poor man deserved a better fate. He ought to have married some other woman, some companion more on a level with his ideals. . . . I tell you that I really pity him!"
And this pity was so intense that her eyes filled with tears, awakening the tortures of jealousy in her lover. After these interviews, Desnoyers was more ill-tempered and despondent than ever.
"I am beginning to realize that we are in a false position," he said one morning to Argensola. "Life is going to become increasingly painful. It is difficult to remain tranquil, continuing the same old existence in the midst of a people at war."
His companion had about come to the same conclusion. He, too, was beginning to feel that the life of a young foreigner in Paris was insufferable, now that it was so upset by war.
"One has to keep showing passports all the time in order that the police may be sure that they have not discovered a deserter. In the street car, the other afternoon, I had to explain that I was a Spaniard to some girls who were wondering why I was not at the front. . . . One of them, as soon as she learned my nationality, asked me with great simplicity why I did not offer myself as a volunteer. . . . Now they have invented a word for the stay-at- homes, calling them Les Embusques, the hidden ones. . . . I am sick and tired of the ironical looks shot at me wherever I go; it makes me wild to be taken for an Embusque."
A flash of heroism was galvanizing the impressionable Bohemian. Now that everybody was going to the war, he was wishing to do the same thing. He was not afraid of death; the only thing that was disturbing him was the military service, the uniform, the mechanical obedience to bugle-call, the blind subservience to the chiefs. Fighting was not offering any difficulties for him but his nature capriciously resented everything in the form of discipline. The foreign groups in Paris were trying to organize each its own legion of volunteers and he, too, was planning his--a battalion of Spaniards and South Americans, reserving naturally the presidency of the organizing committee for himself, and later the command of the body.
He had inserted notices in the papers, making the studio in the rue de la Pompe the recruiting office. In ten days, two volunteers had presented themselves; a clerk, shivering in midsummer, who stipulated that he should be an officer because he was wearing a suitable jacket, and a Spanish tavern-keeper who at the very outset had wished to rob Argensola of his command on the futile pretext that he was a soldier in his youth while the Bohemian was only an artist. Twenty Spanish battalions were attempted with the same result in different parts of Paris. Each enthusiast wished to be commander of the others, with the individual haughtiness and aversion to discipline so characteristic of the race. Finally the future generalissimos, decided to enlist as simple volunteers . . . but in a French regiment.
"I am waiting to see what the Garibaldis do," said Argensola modestly. "Perhaps I may go with them."
This glorious name made military service conceivable to him. But then he vacillated; he would certainly have to obey somebody in this body of volunteers, and he did not believe in an obedience that was not preceded by long discussions. . . . What next!
"Life has changed in a fortnight," he continued. "It seems as if we were living in another planet; our former achievements are not appreciated. Others, most obscure and poor, those who formerly had the least consideration, are now promoted to the first ranks. The refined man of complex spirituality has disappeared for who knows how many years! . . . Now the simple-minded man climbs triumphantly to the top, because, though his ideas are limited, they are sure and he knows how to obey. We are no longer the style."
Desnoyers assented. It was so; they were no longer fashionable. None knew that better than he, for he who was once the sensation of the day, was now passing as a stranger among the very people who a few months before had raved over him.
"Your reign is over," laughed Argensola. "The fact that you are a handsome fellow doesn't help you one bit nowadays. In a uniform and with a cross on my breast, I could soon get the best of you in a rival love affair. In times of peace, the officers only set the girls of the provinces to dreaming; but now that we are at war, there has awakened in every woman the ancestral enthusiasm that her remote grandmothers used to feel for the strong and aggressive beast. . . . The high-born dames who a few months ago were complicating their desires with psychological subtleties, are now admiring the military man with the same simplicity that the maid has for the common soldier. Before a uniform, they feel the humble and servile enthusiasm of the female of the lower animals before the crests, foretops and gay plumes of the fighting males. Look out, master! . . . We shall have to follow the new course of events or resign ourselves to everlasting obscurity. The tango is dead."
And Desnoyers agreed that truly they were two beings on the other side of the river of life which at one bound had changed its course. There was no longer any place in the new existence for that poor painter of souls, nor for that hero of a frivolous life who, from five to seven every afternoon, had attained the triumphs most envied by mankind.