NEAR THE SACRED GROTTO
"I am now devoting myself to the taube," he announced. "It appears from four to five with the precision a punctilious guest coming to take tea."
Every afternoon at the appointed hour, a German aeroplane was flying over Paris dropping bombs. This would-be intimidation was producing no terror, the people accepting the visit as an interesting and extraordinary spectacle. In vain the aviators were flinging in the city streets German flags bearing ironic messages, giving accounts of the defeat of the retreating army and the failures of the Russian offensive. Lies, all lies! In vain they were dropping bombs, destroying garrets, killing or wounding old men, women and babes. "Ah, the bandits!" The crowds would threaten with their fists the malign mosquito, scarcely visible 6,000 feet above them, and after this outburst, they would follow it with straining eyes from street to street, or stand motionless in the square in order to study its evolutions.
The most punctual of all the spectators was Argensola. At four o'clock he was in the place de la Concorde with upturned face and wide-open eyes, in most cordial good-fellowship with all the bystanders. It was as though they were holding season tickets at the same theatre, becoming acquainted through seeing each other so often. "Will it come? . . . Will it not come to-day?" The women appeared to be the most vehement, some of them rushing up, flushed and breathless, fearing that they might have arrived too late for the show. . . . A great cry--"There it comes! . . . There it is!" And thousands of hands were pointing to a vague spot on the horizon. With field glasses and telescopes they were aiding their vision, the popular venders offering every kind of optical instruments and for an hour the thrilling spectacle of an aerial hunt was played out, noisy and useless.
The great insect was trying to reach the Eiffel Tower, and from its base would come sharp reports, at the same time that the different platforms spit out a fierce stream of shrapnel. As it zigzagged over the city, the discharge of rifles would crackle from roof and street. Everyone that had arms in his house was firing--the soldiers of the guard, and the English and Belgians on their way through Paris. They knew that their shots were perfectly useless, but they were firing for the fun of retorting, hoping at the same time that one of their chance shots might achieve a miracle; but the only miracle was that the shooters did not kill each other with their precipitate and ineffectual fire. As it was, a few passers-by did fall, wounded by balls from unknown sources.
Argensola would tear from street to street following the evolutions of the inimical bird, trying to guess where its projectiles would fall, anxious to be the first to reach the bombarded house, excited by the shots that were answering from below. And to think that he had no gun like those khaki-clad Englishmen or those Belgians in barrick cap, with tassel over the front! . . . Finally the taube tired of manoeuvering, would disappear. "Until to-morrow!" ejaculated the Spaniard. "Perhaps to-morrow's show may be even more interesting!"
He employed his free hours between his geographical observations and his aerial contemplations in making the rounds of the stations, watching the crowds of travellers making their escape from Paris. The sudden vision of the truth--after the illusion which the Government had been creating with its optimistic dispatches, the certainty that the Germans were actually near when a week before they had imagined them completely routed, the taubes flying over Paris, the mysterious threat of the Zeppelins--all these dangerous signs were filling a part of the community with frenzied desperation. The railroad stations, guarded by the soldiery, were only admitting those who had secured tickets in advance. Some had been waiting entire days for their turn to depart. The most impatient were starting to walk, eager to get outside of the city as soon as possible. The roads were black with the crowds all going in the same directions. Toward the South they were fleeing by automobile, in carriages, in gardeners' carts, on foot.
Argensola surveyed this hegira with serenity. He would remain because he had always admired those men who witnessed the Siege of Paris in 1870. Now it was going to be his good fortune to observe an historical drama, perhaps even more interesting. The wonders that he would be able to relate in the future! . . . But the distraction and indifference of his present audience were annoying him greatly. He would hasten back to the studio, in feverish excitement, to communicate the latest gratifying news to Desnoyers who would listen as though he did not hear him. The night that he informed him that the Government, the Chambers, the Diplomatic Corps, and even the actors of the Comedie Francaise were going that very hour on special trains for Bordeaux, his companion merely replied with a shrug of indifference.
Desnoyers was worrying about other things. That morning he had received a note from Marguerite--only two lines scrawled in great haste. She was leaving, starting immediately, accompanied by her mother. Adieu! . . . and nothing more. The panic had caused many love-affairs to be forgotten, had broken off long intimacies, but Marguerite's temperament was above such incoherencies from mere flight. Julio felt that her terseness was very ominous. Why not mention the place to which she was going? . . .
In the afternoon, he took a bold step which she had always forbidden. He went to her home and talked a long time with the concierge in order to get some news. The good woman was delighted to work off on him the loquacity so brusquely cut short by the flight of tenants and servants. The lady on the first floor (Marguerite's mother) had been the last to abandon the house in spite of the fact that she was really sick over her son's departure. They had left the day before without saying where they were going. The only thing that she knew was that they took the train in the Gare d'Orsay. They were going toward the South like all the rest of the rich.
And she supplemented her revelations with the vague news that the daughter had seemed very much upset by the information that she had received from the front. Someone in the family was wounded. Perhaps it was the brother, but she really didn't know. With so many surprises and strange things happening, it was difficult to keep track of everything. Her husband, too, was in the army and she had her own affairs to worry about.
"Where can she have gone?" Julio asked himself all day long. "Why does she wish to keep me in ignorance of her whereabouts?"
When his comrade told him that night about the transfer of the seat of government, with all the mystery of news not yet made public, Desnoyers merely replied:
"They are doing the best thing. . . . I, too, will go tomorrow if I can."
Why remain longer in Paris? His family was away. His father, according to Argensola's investigations, also had gone off without saying whither. Now Marguerite's mysterious flight was leaving him entirely alone, in a solitude that was filling him with remorse.
That afternoon, when strolling through the boulevards, he had stumbled across a friend considerably older than himself, an acquaintance in the fencing club which he used to frequent. This was the first time they had met since the beginning of the war, and they ran over the list of their companions in the army. Desnoyers' inquiries were answered by the older man. So-and-so? . . . He had been wounded in Lorraine and was now in a hospital in the South. Another friend? . . . Dead in the Vosges. Another? . . . Disappeared at Charleroi. And thus had continued the heroic and mournful roll-call. The others were still living, doing brave things. The members of foreign birth, young Poles, English residents in Paris and South Americans, had finally enlisted as volunteers. The club might well be proud of its young men who had practised arms in times of peace, for now they were all jeopardizing their existence at the front. Desnoyers turned his face away as though he feared to meet in the eyes of his friend, an ironical and questioning expression. Why had he not gone with the others to defend the land in which he was living? . . .
"To-morrow I will go," repeated Julio, depressed by this recollection.
But he went toward the South like all those who were fleeing from the war. The following morning Argensola was charged to get him a railroad ticket for Bordeaux. The value of money had greatly increased, but fifty francs, opportunely bestowed, wrought the miracle and procured a bit of numbered cardboard whose conquest represented many days of waiting.
"It is good only for to-day," said the Spaniard, "you will have to take the night train."
Packing was not a very serious matter, as the trains were refusing to admit anything more than hand-luggage. Argensola did not wish to accept the liberality of Julio who tried to leave all his money with him. Heroes need very little and the painter of souls was inspired with heroic resolution, The brief harangue of Gallieni in taking charge of the defense of Paris, he had adopted as his own. He intended to keep up his courage to the last, just like the hardy general.
"Let them come," he exclaimed with a tragic expression. "They will find me at my post!" . . .
His post was the studio from which he could witness the happenings which he proposed relating to coming generations. He would entrench himself there with the eatables and wines. Besides he had the plan-- just as soon as his partner should disappear--of bringing to live there with him certain lady-friends who were wandering around in search of a problematical dinner, and feeling timid in the solitude of their own quarters. Danger often gathers congenial folk together and adds a new attractiveness to the pleasures of a community. The tender affections of the prisoners of the Terror, when they were expecting momentarily to be conducted to the guillotine, flashed through his mind. Let us drain Life's goblet at one draught since we have to die! . . . The studio of the rue de la Pompe was about to witness the mad and desperate revels of a castaway bark well- stocked with provisions.
Desnoyers left the Gare d'Orsay in a first-class compartment, mentally praising the good order with which the authorities had arranged everything, so that every traveller could have his own seat. At the Austerlitz station, however, a human avalanche assaulted the train. The doors were broken open, packages and children came in through the windows like projectiles. The people pushed with the unreason of a crowd fleeing before a fire. In the space reserved for eight persons, fourteen installed themselves; the passageways were heaped with mountains of bags and valises that served later travellers for seats. All class distinctions had disappeared. The villagers invaded by preference the best coaches, believing that they would there find more room. Those holding first-class tickets hunted up the plainer coaches in the vain hope of travelling without being crowded. On the cross roads were waiting from the day before long trains made up of cattle cars. All the stables on wheels were filled with people seated on the wooden floor or in chairs brought from their homes. Every train load was an encampment eager to take up its march; whenever it halted, layers of greasy papers, hulls and fruit skins collected along its entire length.
The invaders, pushing their way in, put up with many annoyances and pardoned one another in a brotherly way. "In war times, war measures," they would always say as a last excuse. And each one was pressing closer to his neighbor in order to make a few more inches of room, and helping to wedge his scanty baggage among the other bundles swaying most precariously above. Little by little, Desnoyers was losing all his advantage as a first comer. These poor people who had been waiting for the train from four in the morning till eight at night, awakened his pity. The women, groaning with weariness, were standing in the corridors, looking with ferocious envy at those who had seats. The children were bleating like hungry kids. Julio finally gave up his place, sharing with the needy and improvident the bountiful supply of eatables with which Argensola had provided him. The station restaurants had all been emptied of food.
During the train's long wait, soldiers only were seen on the platform, soldiers who were hastening at the call of the trumpet, to take their places again in the strings of cars which were constantly steaming toward Paris. At the signal stations, long war trains were waiting for the road to be clear that they might continue their journey. The cuirassiers, wearing a yellow vest over their steel breastplate, were seated with hanging legs in the doorways of the stable cars, from whose interior came repeated neighing. Upon the flat cars were rows of gun carriages. The slender throats of the cannon of '75 were pointed upwards like telescopes.
Young Desnoyers passed the night in the aisle, seated on a valise, noting the sodden sleep of those around him, worn out by weariness and exhaustion. It was a cruel and endless night of jerks, shrieks and stops punctuated by snores. At every station, the trumpets were sounding precipitously as though the enemy were right upon them. The soldiers from the South were hurrying to their posts, and at brief intervals another detachment of men was dragged along the rails toward Paris. They all appeared gay, and anxious to reach the scene of slaughter as soon as possible. Many were regretting the delays, fearing that they might arrive too late. Leaning out of the window, Julio heard the dialogues and shouts on the platforms impregnated with the acrid odor of men and mules. All were evincing an unquenchable confidence. "The Boches! very numerous, with huge cannons, with many mitrailleuse . . . but we only have to charge with our bayonets to make them run like rabbits!"
The attitude of those going to meet death was in sharp contrast to the panic and doubt of those who were deserting Paris. An old and much-decorated gentleman, type of a jubilee functionary, kept questioning Desnoyers whenever the train started on again--"Do you believe that they will get as far as Tours?" Before receiving his reply, he would fall asleep. Brutish sleep was marching down the aisles with leaden feet. At every junction, the old man would start up and suddenly ask, "Do you believe that we will get as far as Bordeaux?" . . . And his great desire not to halt until, with his family, he had reached an absolutely secure refuge, made him accept as oracles all the vague responses.
At daybreak, they saw the Territorialists guarding the roads. They were armed with old muskets, and were wearing the red kepis as their only military distinction. They were following the opposite course of the military trains.
In the station at Bordeaux, the civilian crowds struggling to get out or to enter other cars, were mingling with the troops. The trumpets were incessantly sounding their brazen notes, calling the soldiers together. Many were men of darkest coloring, natives with wide gray breeches and red caps above their black or bronzed faces.
Julio saw a train bearing wounded from the battles of Flanders and Lorraine. Their worn and dirty uniforms were enlivened by the whiteness of the bandages sustaining the wounded limbs or protecting the broken heads. All were trying to smile, although with livid mouths and feverish eyes, at their first glimpse of the land of the South as it emerged from the mist bathed in the sunlight, and covered with the regal vestures of its vineyards. The men from the North stretched out their hands for the fruit that the women were offering them, tasting with delight the sweet grapes of the country.
For four days the distracted lover lived in Bordeaux, stunned and bewildered by the agitation of a provincial city suddenly converted into a capital. The hotels were overcrowded, many notables contenting themselves with servants' quarters. There was not a vacant seat in the cafes; the sidewalks could not accommodate the extraordinary assemblage. The President was installed in the Prefecture; the State Departments were established in the schools and museums; two theatres were fitted up for the future reunions of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Julio was lodged in a filthy, disreputable hotel at the end of a foul-smelling alley. A little Cupid adorned the crystals of the door, and the looking-glass in his room was scratched with names and unspeakable phrases-- souvenirs of the occupants of an hour . . . and yet many grand ladies, hunting in vain for temporary residence, would have envied him his good fortune.
All his investigations proved fruitless. The friends whom he encountered in the fugitive crowd were thinking only of their own affairs. They could talk of nothing but incidents of the installation, repeating the news gathered from the ministers with whom they were living on familiar terms, or mentioning with a mysterious air, the great battle which was going on stretching from the vicinity of Paris to Verdun. A pupil of his days of glory, whose former elegance was now attired in the uniform of a nurse, gave him some vague information. "The little Madame Laurier? . . . I remember hearing that she was living somewhere near here. . . . Perhaps in Biarritz." Julio needed no more than this to continue his journey. To Biarritz!
The first person that he encountered on his arrival was Chichi. She declared that the town was impossible because of the families of rich Spaniards who were summering there. "The Boches are in the majority, and I pass a miserable existence quarrelling with them. . . . I shall finally have to live alone." Then he met his mother-- embraces and tears. Afterwards he saw his Aunt Elena in the hotel parlors, most enthusiastic over the country and the summer colony.
She could talk at great length with many of them about the decadence of France. They were all expecting to receive the news from one moment to another, that the Kaiser had entered the Capital. Ponderous men who had never done anything in all their lives, were criticizing the defects and indolence of the Republic. Young men whose aristocracy aroused Dona Elena's enthusiasm, broke forth into apostrophes against the corruption of Paris, corruption that they had studied thoroughly, from sunset to sunrise, in the virtuous schools of Montmartre. They all adored Germany where they had never been, or which they knew only through the reels of the moving picture films. They criticized events as though they were witnessing a bull fight. "The Germans have the snap! You can't fool with them! They are fine brutes!" And they appeared to admire this inhumanity as the most admirable characteristic. "Why will they not say that in their own home on the other side of the frontier?" Chichi would protest. "Why do they come into their neighbor's country to ridicule his troubles? . . . Possibly they consider it a sign of their wonderful good-breeding!"
But Julio had not gone to Biarritz to live with his family. . . . The very day of his arrival, he saw Marguerite's mother in the distance. She was alone. His inquiries developed the information that her daughter was living in Pau. She was a trained nurse taking care of a wounded member of the family. "Her brother . . . undoubtedly it is her brother," thought Julio. And he again continued his trip, this time going to Pau.
His visits to the hospitals there were also unavailing. Nobody seemed to know Marguerite. Every day a train was arriving with a new load of bleeding flesh, but her brother was not among the wounded. A Sister of Charity, believing that he was in search of someone of his family, took pity on him and gave him some helpful directions. He ought to go to Lourdes; there were many of the wounded there and many of the military nurses. So Desnoyers immediately took the short cut between Pau and Lourdes.
He had never visited the sacred city whose name was so frequently on his mother's lips. For Dona Luisa, the French nation was Lourdes. In her discussions with her sister and other foreign ladies who were praying that France might be exterminated for its impiety, the good senora always summed up her opinions in the same words:--"When the Virgin wished to make her appearance in our day, she chose France. This country, therefore, cannot be as bad as you say. . . . When I see that she appears in Berlin, we will then re-discuss the matter."
But Desnoyers was not there to confirm his mother's artless opinions. Just as soon as he had found a room in a hotel near the river, he had hastened to the big hostelry, now converted into a hospital. The guard told him that he could not speak to the Director until the afternoon. In order to curb his impatience he walked through the street leading to the basilica, past all the booths and shops with pictures and pious souvenirs which have converted the place into a big bazaar. Here and in the gardens adjoining the church, he saw wounded convalescents with uniforms stained with traces of the combat. Their cloaks were greatly soiled in spite of repeated brushings. The mud, the blood and the rain had left indelible spots and made them as stiff as cardboard. Some of the wounded had cut their sleeves in order to avoid the cruel friction on their shattered arms, others still showed on their trousers the rents made by the devastating shells.
They were fighters of all ranks and of many races--infantry, cavalry, artillerymen; soldiers from the metropolis and from the colonies; French farmers and African sharpshooters; red heads, faces of Mohammedan olive and the black countenances of the Sengalese, with eyes of fire, and thick, bluish blubber lips; some showing the good-nature and sedentary obesity of the middle-class man suddenly converted into a warrior; others sinewy, alert, with the aggressive profile of men born to fight, and experienced in foreign fields.
The city, formerly visited by the hopeful, Catholic sick, was now invaded by a crowd no less dolorous but clad in carnival colors. All, in spite of their physical distress, had a certain air of good cheer and satisfaction. They had seen Death very near, slipping out from his bony claws into a new joy and zest in life. With their cloaks adorned with medals, their theatrical Moorish garments, their kepis and their African headdresses, this heroic band presented, nevertheless, a lamentable aspect.
Very few still preserved the noble vertical carriage, the pride of the superior human being. They were walking along bent almost double, limping, dragging themselves forward by the help of a staff or friendly arm. Others had to let themselves be pushed along, stretched out on the hand-carts which had so often conducted the devout sick from the station to the Grotto of the Virgin. Some were feeling their way along, blindly, leaning on a child or nurse. The first encounters in Belgium and in the East, a mere half-dozen battles, had been enough to produce these physical wrecks still showing a manly nobility in spite of the most horrible outrages. These organisms, struggling so tenaciously to regain their hold on life, bringing their reviving energies out into the sunlight, represented but the most minute part of the number mowed down by the scythe of Death. Back of them were thousands and thousands of comrades groaning on hospital beds from which they would probably never rise. Thousands and thousands were hidden forever in the bosom of the Earth moistened by their death agony--fatal land which, upon receiving a hail of projectiles, brought forth a harvest of bristling crosses!
War now showed itself to Desnoyers with all its cruel hideousness. He had been accustomed to speak of it heretofore as those in robust health speak of death, knowing that it exists and is horrible, but seeing it afar off . . . so far off that it arouses no real emotion. The explosion of the shells were accompanying their destructive brutality with a ferocious mockery, grotesquely disfiguring the human body. He saw wounded objects just beginning to recover their vital force who were but rough skeletons of men, frightful caricatures, human rags, saved from the tomb by the audacities of science--trunks with heads which were dragged along on wheeled platforms; fragments of skulls whose brains were throbbing under an artificial cap; beings without arms and without legs, resting in the bottom of little wagons, like bits of plaster models or scraps from the dissecting room; faces without noses that looked like skulls with great, black nasal openings. And these half-men were talking, smoking, laughing, satisfied to see the sky, to feel the caress of the sun, to have come back to life, dominated by that sovereign desire to live which trustingly forgets present misery in the confident hope of something better.
So strongly was Julio impressed that for a little while he forgot the purpose which had brought him thither. . . . If those who provoke war from diplomatic chambers or from the tables of the Military Staff could but see it--not in the field of battle fired with the enthusiasm which prejudices judgments--but in cold blood, as it is seen in the hospitals and cemeteries, in the wrecks left in its trail! . . .
To Julio's imagination this terrestrial globe appeared like an enormous ship sailing through infinity. Its crews--poor humanity-- had spent century after century in exterminating each other on the deck. They did not even know what existed under their feet, in the hold of the vessel. To occupy the same portion of the surface in the sunlight seemed to be the ruling desire of each group. Men, considered superior human beings, were pushing these masses to extermination in order to scale the last bridge and hold the helm, controlling the course of the boat. And all those who felt the overmastering ambition for absolute command knew the same thing . . . nothing. Not one of them could say with certainty what lay beyond the visible horizon, nor whither the ship was drifting. The sullen hostility of mystery surrounded them all; their life was precarious, necessitating incessant care in order to maintain it, yet in spite of that, the crew for ages and ages, had never known an instant of agreement, of team work, of clear reason. Periodically half of them would clash with the other half. They killed each other that they might enslave the vanquished on the rolling deck floating over the abyss; they fought that they might cast their victims from the vessel, filling its wake with cadavers. And from the demented throng there were still springing up gloomy sophistries to prove that a state of war was the perfect state, that it ought to go on forever, that it was a bad dream on the part of the crew to wish to regard each other as brothers with a common destiny, enveloped in the same unsteady environment of mystery. . . . Ah, human misery!
Julio was drawn out of these pessimistic reflections by the childish glee which many of the convalescents were evincing. Some were Mussulmans, sharpshooters from Algeria and Morocco. In Lourdes, as they might be anywhere, they were interested only in the gifts which the people were showering upon them with patriotic affection. They all surveyed with indifference the basilica inhabited by "the white lady," their only preoccupation being to beg for cigars and sweets.
Finding themselves regaled by the dominant race, they became greatly puffed up, daring everything like mischievous children. What pleased them most was the fact that the ladies would take them by the hand. Blessed war that permitted them to approach and touch these white women, perfumed and smiling as they appeared in their dreams of the paradise of the blest! "Lady . . . Lady," they would sigh, looking at them with dark, sparkling eyes. And not content with the hand, their dark paws would venture the length of the entire arm while the ladies laughed at this tremulous adoration. Others would go through the crowds, offering their right hand to all the women. "We touch hands." . . . And then they would go away satisfied after receiving the hand clasp.
Desnoyers wandered a long time around the basilica where, in the shadow of the trees, were long rows of wheeled chairs occupied by the wounded. Officers and soldiers rested many hours in the blue shade, watching their comrades who were able to use their legs. The sacred grotto was resplendent with the lights from hundreds of candles. Devout crowds were kneeling in the open air, fixing their eyes in supplication on the sacred stones whilst their thoughts were flying far away to the fields of battle, making their petitions with that confidence in divinity which accompanies every distress. Among the kneeling mass were many soldiers with bandaged heads, kepis in hand and tearful eyes.
Up and down the double staircase of the basilica were flitting women, clad in white, with spotless headdresses that fluttered in such a way that they appeared like flying doves. These were the nurses and Sisters of Charity guiding the steps of the injured. Desnoyers thought he recognized Marguerite in every one of them, but the prompt disillusion following each of these discoveries soon made him doubtful about the outcome of his journey. She was not in Lourdes, either. He would never find her in that France so immeasurably expanded by the war that it had converted every town into a hospital.
His afternoon explorations were no more successful. The employees listened to his interrogations with a distraught air. He could come back again; just now they were taken up with the announcement that another hospital train was on the way. The great battle was still going on near Paris. They had to improvise lodgings for the new consignment of mutilated humanity. In order to pass away the time until his return, Desnoyers went back to the garden near the grotto. He was planning to return to Pau that night; there was evidently nothing more to do at Lourdes. In what direction should he now continue his search?
Suddenly he felt a thrill down his back--the same indefinable sensation which used to warn him of her presence when they were meeting in the gardens of Paris. Marguerite was going to present herself unexpectedly as in the old days without his knowing from exactly what spot--as though she came up out of the earth or descended from the clouds.
After a second's thought he smiled bitterly. Mere tricks of his desire! Illusions! . . . Upon turning his head he recognized the falsity of his hope. Nobody was following his footsteps; he was the only being going down the center of the avenue. Near him, in the diaphanous white of a guardian angel, was a nurse. Poor blind man! . . . Desnoyers was passing on when a quick movement on the part of the white-clad woman, an evident desire to escape notice, to hide her face by looking at the plants, attracted his attention. He was slow in recognizing her. Two little ringlets escaping from the band of her cap made him guess the hidden head of hair; the feet shod in white were the signs which enabled him to reconstruct the person somewhat disfigured by the severe uniform. Her face was pale and sad. There wasn't a trace left in it of the old vanities that used to give it its childish, doll-like beauty. In the depths of those great, dark-circled eyes life seemed to be reflected in new forms. . . . Marguerite!
They stared at one another for a long while, as though hypnotized with surprise. She looked alarmed when Desnoyers advanced a step toward her. No . . . No! Her eyes, her hands, her entire body seemed to protest, to repel his approach, to hold him motionless. Fear that he might come near her, made her go toward him. She said a few words to the soldier who remained on the bench, receiving across the bandage on his face a ray of sunlight which he did not appear to feel. Then she rose, going to meet Julio, and continued forward, indicating by a gesture that they must find some place further on where the wounded man could not hear them.
She led the way to a side path from which she could see the blind man confided to her care. They stood motionless, face to face. Desnoyers wished to say many things; many . . . but he hesitated, not knowing how to frame his complaints, his pleadings, his endearments. Far above all these thoughts towered one, fatal, dominant and wrathful.
"Who is that man?"
The spiteful accent, the harsh voice with which he said these words surprised him as though they came from someone else's mouth.
The nurse looked at him with her great limpid eyes, eyes that seemed forever freed from contractions of surprise or fear. Her response slipped from her with equal directness.
"It is Laurier. . . . It is my husband."
Laurier! . . . Julio looked doubtfully and for a long time at the soldier before he could be convinced. That blind officer motionless on the bench, that figure of heroic grief, was Laurier! . . . At first glance, he appeared prematurely old with roughened and bronzed skin so furrowed with lines that they converged like rays around all the openings of his face. His hair was beginning to whiten on the temples and in the beard which covered his cheeks. He had lived twenty years in that one month. . . . At the same time he appeared younger, with a youthfulness that was radiating an inward vigor, with the strength of a soul which has suffered the most violent emotions and, firm and serene in the satisfaction of duty fulfilled, can no longer know fear.
As Desnoyers contemplated him, he felt both admiration and jealousy. He was ashamed to admit the aversion inspired by the wounded man, so sorely wounded that he was unable to see what was going on around him. His hatred was a form of cowardice, terrifying in its persistence. How pensive were Marguerite's eyes if she took them off her patient for a few seconds! . . . She had never looked at him in that way. He knew all the amorous gradations of her glance, but her fixed gaze at this injured man was something entirely different, something that he had never seen before.
He spoke with the fury of a lover who discovers an infidelity.
"And for this thing you have run away without warning, without a word! . . . You have abandoned me in order to go in search of him. . . . Tell me, why did you come? . . . Why did you come?". . .
"I came because it was my duty."
Then she spoke like a mother who takes advantage of a parenthesis of surprise in an irascible child's temper, in order to counsel self- control, and explained how it had all happened. She had received the news of Laurier's wounding just as she and her mother were preparing to leave Paris. She had not hesitated an instant; her duty was to hasten to the aid of this man. She had been doing a great deal of thinking in the last few weeks; the war had made her ponder much on the values in life. Her eyes had been getting glimpses of new horizons; our destiny is not mere pleasure and selfish satisfaction; we ought to take our part in pain and sacrifice.
She had wanted to work for her country, to share the general stress, to serve as other women did; and since she was disposed to devote herself to strangers, was it not natural that she should prefer to help this man whom she had so greatly wronged? . . . There still lived in her memory the moment in which she had seen him approach the station, completely alone among so many who had the consolation of loving arms when departing in search of death. Her pity had become still more acute on hearing of his misfortune. A shell had exploded near him, killing all those around him. Of his many wounds, the only serious one was that on his face. He had completely lost the sight of one eye; and the doctors were keeping the other bound up hoping to save it. But she was very doubtful about it; she was almost sure that Laurier would be blind.
Marguerite's voice trembled when saying this as if she were going to cry, although her eyes were tearless. They did not now feel the irresistible necessity for tears. Weeping had become something superfluous, like many other luxuries of peaceful days. Her eyes had seen so much in so few days! . . .
"How you love him!" exclaimed Julio.
Fearing that they might be overheard and in order to keep him at a distance, she had been speaking as though to a friend. But her lover's sadness broke down her reserve.
"No, I love you. . . . I shall always love you."
The simplicity with which she said this and her sudden tenderness of tone revived Desnoyers' hopes.
"And the other one?" he asked anxiously.
Upon receiving her reply, it seemed to him as though something had just passed across the sun, veiling its light temporarily. It was as though a cloud had drifted over the land and over his thoughts, enveloping them in an unbearable chill.
"I love him, too."
She said it with a look that seemed to implore pardon, with the sad sincerity of one who has given up lying and weeps in foreseeing the injury that the truth must inflict.
He felt his hard wrath suddenly dwindling like a crumbling mountain. Ah, Marguerite! His voice was tremulous and despairing. Could it be possible that everything between these two was going to end thus simply? Were her former vows mere lies? . . . They had been attracted to each other by an irresistible affinity in order to be together forever, to be one. . . . And now, suddenly hardened by indifference, were they to drift apart like two unfriendly bodies? . . . What did this absurdity about loving him at the same time that she loved her former husband mean, anyway?
Marguerite hung her head, murmuring desperately:
"You are a man, I am a woman. You would never understand me, no matter what I might say. Men are not able to comprehend certain of our mysteries. . . . A woman would be better able to appreciate the complexity."
Desnoyers felt that he must know his fate in all its cruelty. She might speak without fear. He felt strong enough to bear the blow. . . . What had Laurier said when he found that he was being so tenderly cared for by Marguerite? . . .
"He does not know who I am. . . . He believes me to be a war-nurse, like the rest, who pities him seeing him alone and blind with no relatives to write to him or visit him. . . . At certain times, I have almost suspected that he guesses the truth. My voice, the touch of my hands made him shiver at first, as though with an unpleasant sensation. I have told him that I am a Beigian lady who has lost her loved ones and is alone in the world. He has told me his life story very sketchily, as if he desired to forget a hated past. . . . Never one disagreeable word about his former wife. There are nights when I think that he knows me, that he takes advantage of his blindness in order to prolong his feigned ignorance, and that distresses me. I long for him to recover his sight, for the doctors to save that doubtful eye--and yet at the same time, I feel afraid. What will he say when he recognizes me? . . . But no; it is better that he should see, no matter what may result. You cannot understand my anxiety, you cannot know what I am suffering."
She was silent for an instant, trying to regain her self-control, again tortured with the agony of her soul.
"Oh, the war!" she resumed. "What changes in our life! Two months ago, my present situation would have appeared impossible, unimaginable. . . . I caring for my husband, fearing that he would discover my identity and leave me, yet at the same time, wishing that he would recognize me and pardon me. . . . It is only one week that I have been with him. I disguise my voice when I can, and avoid words that may reveal the truth . . . but this cannot keep up much longer. It is only in novels that such painful situations turn out happily."
Doubt suddenly overwhelmed her.
"I believe," she continued, "that he has recognized me from the first. . . . He is silent and feigns ignorance because he despises me . . . because he can never bring himself to pardon me. I have been so bad! . . . I have wronged him so!". . .
She was recalling the long and reflective silences of the wounded man after she had dropped some imprudent words. After two days of submission to her care, he had been somewhat rebellious, avoiding going out with her for a walk. Because of his blind helplessness, and comprehending the uselessness of his resistance, he had finally yielded in passive silence.
"Let him think what he will!" concluded Marguerite courageously. "Let him despise me! I am here where I ought to be. I need his forgiveness, but if he does not pardon me, I shall stay with him just the same. . . . There are moments when I wish that he may never recover his sight, so that he may always need me, so that I may pass my life at his side, sacrificing everything for him."
"And I?" said Desnoyers.
Marguerite looked at him with clouded eyes as though she were just awaking. It was true--and the other one? . . . Kindled by the proposed sacrifice which was to be her expiation, she had forgotten the man before her.
"You!" she said after a long pause. "You must leave me. . . . Life is not what we have thought it. Had it not been for the war, we might, perhaps, have realized our dream, but now! . . . Listen carefully and try to understand. For the remainder of my life, I shall carry the heaviest burden, and yet at the same time it will be sweet, since the more it weighs me down the greater will my atonement be. Never will I leave this man whom I have so grievously wronged, now that he is more alone in the world and will need protection like a child. Why do you come to share my fate? How could it be possible for you to live with a nurse constantly at the side of a blind and worthy man whom we would constantly offend with our passion? . . . No, it is better for us to part. Go your way, alone and untrammelled. Leave me; you will meet other women who will make you more happy than I. Yours is the temperament that finds new pleasures at every step."
She stood firmly to her decision. Her voice was calm, but back of it trembled the emotion of a last farewell to a joy which was going from her forever. The man would be loved by others . . . and she was giving him up! . . . But the noble sadness of the sacrifice restored her courage. Only by this renunciation could she expiate her sins.
Julio dropped his eyes, vanquished and perplexed. The picture of the future outlined by Marguerite terrified him. To live with her as a nurse taking advantage of her patient's blindness would be to offer him fresh insult every day. . . . Ah, no! That would be villainy, indeed! He was now ashamed to recall the malignity with which, a little while before, he had regarded this innocent unfortunate. He realized that he was powerless to contend with him. Weak and helpless as he was sitting there on the garden bench, he was stronger and more deserving of respect than Julio Desnoyers with all his youth and elegance. The victim had amounted to something in his life; he had done what Julio had not dared to do.
This sudden conviction of his inferiority made him cry out like an abandoned child, "What will become of me?" . . .
Marguerite, too--contemplating the love which was going from her forever, her vanished hopes, the future illumined by the satisfaction of duty fulfilled but monotonous and painful--cried out:
"And I. . . . What will become of me?" . . .
As though he had suddenly found a solution which was reviving his courage, Desnoyers said:
"Listen, Marguerite: I can read your soul. You love this man, and you do well. He is superior to me, and women are always attracted by superiority. . . . I am a coward. Yes, do not protest, I am a coward with all my youth, with all my strength. Why should you not have been impressed by the conduct of this man! . . . But I will atone for past wrongs. This country is yours, Marguerite; I will fight for it. Do not say no. . . ."
And moved by his hasty heroism, he outlined the plan more definitely. He was going to be a soldier. Soon she would hear him well spoken of. His idea was either to be stretched on the battlefield in his first encounter, or to astound the world by his bravery. In this way the impossible situation would settle itself-- either the oblivion of death or glory.
"No, no!" interrupted Marguerite in an anguished tone. "You, no! One is enough. . . . How horrible! You, too, wounded, mutilated forever, perhaps dead! . . . No, you must live. I want you to live, even though you might belong to another. . . . Let me know that you exist, let me see you sometimes, even though you may have forgotten me, even though you may pass me with indifference, as if you did not know me."
In this outburst her deep love for him rang true--her heroic and inflexible love which would accept all penalties for herself, if only the beloved one might continue to live.
But then, in order that Julio might not feel any false hopes, she added:--"Live; you must not die; that would be for me another torment. . . . But live without me. No matter how much we may talk about it, my destiny beside the other one is marked out forever."
"Ah, how you love him! . . . How you have deceived me!"
In a last desperate attempt at explanation she again repeated what she had said at the beginning of their interview. She loved Julio . . . and she loved her husband. They were different kinds of love. She could not say which was the stronger, but misfortune was forcing her to choose between the two, and she was accepting the most difficult, the one demanding the greatest sacrifices.
"You are a man, and you will never be able to understand me. . . . A woman would comprehend me."
It seemed to Julio, as he looked around him, as though the afternoon were undergoing some celestial phenomenon. The garden was still illuminated by the sun, but the green of the trees, the yellow of the ground, the blue of the sky, all appeared to him as dark and shadowy as though a rain of ashes were falling.
"Then . . . all is over between us?"
His pleading, trembling voice charged with tears made her turn her head to hide her emotion. Then in the painful silence the two despairs formed one and the same question, as if interrogating the shades of the future: "What will become of me? murmured the man. And like an echo her lips repeated, "What will become of me?"
All had been said. Hopeless words came between the two like an obstacle momentarily increasing in size, impelling them in opposite directions. Why prolong the painful interview? . . . Marguerite showed the ready and energetic decision of a woman who wishes to bring a scene to a close. "Good-bye!" Her face had assumed a yellowish cast, her pupils had become dull and clouded like the glass of a lantern when the light dies out. "Good-bye!" She must go to her patient.
She went away without looking at him, and Desnoyers instinctively went in the opposite direction. As he became more self-controlled and turned to look at her again, he saw her moving on and giving her arm to the blind man, without once turning her head.
He now felt convinced that he should never see her again, and became oppressed by an almost suffocating agony. And could two beings, who had formerly considered the universe concentrated in their persons, thus easily be separated forever? . . .
His desperation at finding himself alone made him accuse himself of stupidity. Now his thoughts came tumbling over each other in a tumultuous throng, and each one of them seemed to him sufficient to have convinced Marguerite. He certainly had not known how to express himself. He would have to talk with her again . . . and he decided to remain in Lourdes.
He passed a night of torture in the hotel, listening to the ripple of the river among its stones. Insomnia had him in his fierce jaws, gnawing him with interminable agony. He turned on the light several times, but was not able to read. His eyes looked with stupid fixity at the patterns of the wall paper and the pious pictures around the room which had evidently served as the lodging place of some rich traveller. He remained motionless and as abstracted as an Oriental who thinks himself into an absolute lack of thought. One idea only was dancing in the vacuum in his skull--"I shall never see her again. . . . Can such a thing be possible?"
He drowsed for a few seconds, only to be awakened with the sensation that some horrible explosion was sending him through the air. And so, with sweats of anguish, he wakefully passed the hours until in the gloom of his room the dawn showed a milky rectangle of light, and began to be reflected on the window curtains.
The velvet-like caress of day finally closed his eyes. Upon awaking he found that the morning was well advanced, and he hurried to the garden of the grotto. . . . Oh, the hours of tremulous and unavailing waiting, believing that he recognized Marguerite in every white-clad lady that came along, guiding a wounded patient!
By afternoon, after a lunch whose dishes filed past him untouched, he returned to the garden in search of her. Beholding her in the distance with the blind man leaning on her arm, a feeling of faintness came over him. She looked to him taller, thinner, her face sharper, with two dark hollows in her cheeks and her eyes bright with fever, the lids drawn with weariness. He suspected that she, too, had passed an anguished night of tenacious, self-centred thought, of grievous stupefaction like his own, in the room of her hotel. Suddenly he felt all the weight of insomnia and listlessness, all the depressing emotion of the cruel sensations experienced in the last few hours. Oh, how miserable they both were! . . .
She was walking warily, looking from one side to the other, as though foreseeing danger. Upon discovering him she clung to her charge, casting upon her former lover a look of entreaty, of desperation, imploring pity. . . Ay, that look!
He felt ashamed of himself; his personality appeared to be unrolling itself before him, and he surveyed himself with the eyes of a judge. What was this seduced and useless man, called Julio Desnoyers, doing there, tormenting with his presence a poor woman, trying to turn her from her righteous repentance, insisting on his selfish and petty desires when all humanity was thinking of other things? . . . His cowardice angered him. Like a thief taking advantage of the sleep of his victim, he was stalking around this brave and true man who could not see him, who could not defend himself, in order to rob him of the only affection that he had in the world which had so miraculously returned to him! Very well, Gentleman Desnoyers! . . . Ah, what a scoundrel he was!
Such subconscious insults made him draw himself erect, in haughty, cruel and inexorable defiance against that other I who so richly deserved the judge's scorn.
He turned his head away; he could not meet Marguerite's piteous eyes; he feared their mute reproach. Neither did he dare to look at the blind man in his shabby and heroic uniform, with his countenance aged by duty and glory. He feared him like remorse.
So the vanquished lover turned his back on the two and went away with a firm step. Good-bye, Love! Goodbye, Happiness! . . . He marched quickly and bravely on; a miracle had just taken place within him! he had found the right road at last!
To Paris! . . . A new impetus was going to fill the vacuum of his objectless existence.