The soldier Jean Liotard lay, face to the earth, by the bank of the river Drôme. He lay where the grass and trees ended, and between him and the shrivelled green current was much sandy foreshore, for summer was at height, and the snows had long finished melting and passing down. The burning sun had sucked up all moisture, the earth was parched, but to-day a cool breeze blew, willow and aspen leaves were fluttering and hissing as if millions of tiny kisses were being given up there; and a few swathes of white cloud were drawn, it seemed—not driven—along the blue. The soldier Jean Liotard had fixed his eyes on the ground, where was nothing to see but a few dry herbs. He had "cafard," for he was due to leave the hospital to-morrow and go up before the military authorities, for "prolongation." There he would answer perfunctory questions, and be told at once: Au dépôt; or have to lie naked before them that some "major" might prod his ribs, to find out whether his heart, displaced by shell-shock, had gone back sufficiently to normal position. He had received one "prolongation," and so, wherever his heart now was, he felt sure he would not get another. "Au dépôt" was the fate before him, fixed as that river flowing down to its death in the sea. He had "cafard"—the little black beetle in the brain, which gnaws and eats and destroys all hope and heaven in a man. It had been working at him all last week, and now he was at a monstrous depth of evil and despair. To begin again the cursed barrack-round, the driven life, until in a month perhaps, packed like bleating sheep, in the troop-train, he made that journey to the fighting line again—"À la hachette—à la hachette!"
He had stripped off his red flannel jacket, and lay with shirt opened to the waist, to get the breeze against his heart. In his brown good-looking face the hazel eyes, which in these three God-deserted years had acquired a sort of startled gloom, stared out like a dog's, rather prominent, seeing only the thoughts within him—thoughts and images swirling round and round in a dark whirlpool, drawing his whole being deeper and deeper. He was unconscious of all the summer hum and rustle—the cooing of the dove up in that willow tree, the winged enamelled fairies floating past, the chirr of the cicadas, that little brown lizard among the pebbles, almost within reach, seeming to listen to the beating of summer's heart so motionless it lay; unconscious, as though in verity he were again deep in some stifling trench, with German shells whining over him, and the smell of muck and blood making fœtid the air. He was in the mood which curses God and dies; for he was devout—a Catholic, and still went to Mass. And God had betrayed the earth, and Jean Liotard. All the enormities he had seen in his two years at the front—the mouthless mangled faces, the human ribs whence rats would steal; the frenzied tortured horses, with leg or quarter rent away, still living; the rotted farms, the dazed and hopeless peasants; his innumerable suffering comrades; the desert of no-man's land; and all the thunder and moaning of war; and the reek and the freezing of war; and the driving—the callous perpetual driving, by some great Force which shovelled warm human hearts and bodies, warm human hopes and loves by the million into the furnace; and over all, dark sky without a break, without a gleam of blue, or lift anywhere—all this enclosed him, lying in the golden heat, so that not a glimmer of life or hope could get at him. Back into it all again! Back into it, he who had been through forty times the hell that the "majors" ever endured, five hundred times the hell ever glimpsed at by those députés, safe with their fat salaries, and their gabble about victory and the lost provinces, and the future of the world—the Canaille! Let them allow the soldiers, whose lives they spent like water—"les camarades" on both sides—poor devils who bled, and froze, and starved, and sweated—let them suffer these to make the peace! Ah! What a peace that would be—its first condition, all the sacred politicians and pressmen hanging in rows in every country; the mouth fighters, the pen fighters, the fighters with other men's blood! Those comfortable citizens would never rest till there was not a young man with whole limbs left in France! Had he not killed enough Boches, that they might leave him and his tired heart in peace? He thought of his first charge; of how queer and soft that Boche body felt when his bayonet went through; and another, and another. Ah! he had "joliment" done his duty that day! And something wrenched at his ribs. They were only Boches, but their wives and children, their mothers—faces questioning, faces pleading for them—pleading with whom? Ah! Not with him! Who was he that had taken those lives, and others since, but a poor devil without a life himself, without the right to breathe or move except to the orders of a Force which had no mind, which had no heart, had nothing but a blind will to go on, it knew not why. If only he survived—it was not possible—but if only he survived, and with his millions of comrades could come back and hold the reckoning! Some scare-the-crows then would waggle in the wind. The butterflies would perch on a few mouths empty at last; the flies enjoy a few silent tongues! Then slowly his fierce unreasoning rancour vanished into a mere awful pity for himself. Was a fellow never again to look at the sky, and the good soil, the fruit, the wheat, without this dreadful black cloud above him, never again make love among the trees, or saunter down a lighted boulevard, or sit before a café, never again attend Mass, without this black dog of disgust and dread sitting on his shoulders, riding him to death? Angels of pity! Was there never to be an end? One was going mad under it—yes, mad! And the face of his mother came before him, as he had seen her last, just three years ago, when he left his home in the now invaded country, to join his regiment—his mother who, with all his family, was in the power of the Boche. He had gone gaily, and she had stood like stone, her hand held over her eyes, in the sunlight, watching him while the train ran out. Usually the thought of the cursed Boches holding in their heavy hands all that was dear to him, was enough to sweep his soul to a clear, definite hate, which made all this nightmare of war seem natural, and even right; but now it was not enough—he had "cafard." He turned on his back. The sky above the mountains might have been black for all the joy its blue gave him. The butterflies, those drifting flakes of joy, passed unseen. He was thinking: No rest, no end, except by walking over bodies, dead, mangled bodies of poor devils like himself, poor hunted devils, who wanted nothing but never to lift a hand in combat again so long as they lived, who wanted—as he wanted—nothing but laughter and love and rest! Quelle vie! A carnival of leaping demonry! A dream—unutterably bad! "And when I go back to it all," he thought, "I shall go all shaven and smart, and wave my hand as if I were going to a wedding, as we all do. Vive la France! Ah! what mockery! Can't a poor devil have a dreamless sleep!" He closed his eyes, but the sun struck hot on them through the lids, and he turned over on his face again, and looked longingly at the river—they said it was deep in mid-stream; it still ran fast there! What was that down by the water? Was he really mad? And he uttered a queer laugh. There was his black dog—the black dog off his shoulders, the black dog which rode him, yea, which had become his very self, just going to wade in! And he called out:
"Hé! le copain!" It was not his dog, for it stopped drinking, tucked its tail in, and cowered at the sound of his voice. Then it came from the water, and sat down on its base among the stones, and looked at him. A real dog was it? What a guy! What a thin wretch of a little black dog! It sat and stared—a mongrel who might once have been pretty. It stared at Jean Liotard with the pathetic gaze of a dog so thin and hungry that it earnestly desires to go to men and get fed once more, but has been so kicked and beaten that it dare not. It seemed held in suspense by the equal overmastering impulses, fear and hunger. And Jean Liotard stared back. The lost, as it were despairing look of the dog began to penetrate his brain. He held out his hand and said: "Viens!" But at the sound the little dog only squirmed away a few paces, then again sat down, and resumed its stare. Again Jean Liotard uttered that queer laugh. If the good God were to hold out his hand and say to him: "Viens!" he would do exactly as that little beast; he would not come, not he! What was he too but a starved and beaten dog—a driven wretch, kicked to hell! And again, as if experimenting with himself, he held out his hand and said: "Viens!" and again the beast squirmed a little further away, and again sat down and stared. Jean Liotard lost patience. His head drooped till his forehead touched the ground. He smelt the parched herbs, and a faint sensation of comfort stole through his nerves. He lay unmoving, trying to fancy himself dead and out of it all. The hum of summer, the smell of grasses, the caress of the breeze going over! He pressed the palms of his outstretched hands on the warm soil, as one might on a woman's breast. If only it were really death, how much better than life in this butcher's shop! But death, his death was waiting for him away over there, under the moaning shells, under the whining bullets, at the end of a steel prong—a mangled, fœtid death. Death—his death, had no sweet scent, and no caress—save the kisses of rats and crows. Life and Death what were they? Nothing but the preying of creatures the one on the other—nothing but that; and love, the blind instinct which made these birds and beasts of prey. Bon sang de bon sang! The Christ hid his head finely nowadays! That cross up there on the mountain top, with the sun gleaming on it—they had been right to put it up where no man lived, and not even a dog roamed, to be pitied! "Fairy tales, fairy tales," he thought; "those who drive and those who are driven, those who eat and those who are eaten—we are all poor devils together. There is no pity, no God!" And the flies drummed their wings above him. And the sun, boring into his spine through his thin shirt, made him reach for his jacket. There was the little dog, still, sitting on its base, twenty yards away. It cowered and dropped its ears when he moved; and he thought "Poor beast! Someone has been doing the devil's work on you, not badly!" There were some biscuits in the pocket of his jacket, and he held one out. The dog shivered, and its thin pink tongue lolled out, panting with desire, and fear. Jean Liotard tossed the biscuit gently about half way. The dog cowered back a step or two, crept forward three, and again squatted. Then very gradually it crept up to the biscuit, bolted it, and regained its distance. The soldier took out another. This time he threw it five paces only in front of him. Again the little beast cowered, slunk forward, seized the biscuit, devoured it; but this time it only recoiled a pace or two, and seemed, with panting mouth and faint wagging of the tail, to beg for more. Jean Liotard held a third biscuit as far out in front of him as he could, and waited. The creature crept forward and squatted just out of reach. There it sat, with saliva dripping from its mouth; seemingly it could not make up its mind to that awful venture. The soldier sat motionless; his outstretched hand began to tire; but he did not budge—he meant to conquer its fear. At last it snatched the biscuit. Jean Liotard instantly held out a fourth. That too was snatched, but at the fifth he was able to touch the dog. It cowered almost into the ground at touch of his fingers, and then lay, still trembling violently, while the soldier continued to stroke its head and ears. And suddenly his heart gave a twitter, the creature had licked his hand. He took out his last biscuit, broke it up, and fed the dog slowly with the bits, talking all the time; when the last crumb was gone he continued to murmur and crumple its ears softly. He had become aware of something happening within the dog—something in the nature of conversion, as if it were saying: "O my master, my new master—I worship, I love you!" The creature came gradually closer, quite close; then put up its sharp black nose and began to lick his face. Its little hot rough tongue licked and licked, and with each lick the soldier's heart relaxed, just as if the licks were being given there, and something licked away. He put his arms round the thin body, and hugged it, and still the creature went on feverishly licking at his face, and neck, and chest, as if trying to creep inside him. The sun poured down, the lizards rustled and whisked among the pebbles; the kissing never ceased up there among the willow and aspen leaves, and every kind of flying thing went past drumming its wings. There was no change in the summer afternoon. God might not be there, but Pity had come back; Jean Liotard no longer had "cafard." He put the little dog gently off his lap, got up, and stretched himself. "Voyons, mon brave, faut aller voir les copains! Tu es à moi." The little dog stood up on its hind legs, scratching with its forepaws at the soldier's thigh, as if trying to get at his face again; as if begging not to be left; and its tail waved feverishly, half in petition, half in rapture. The soldier caught the paws, set them down, and turned his face for home, making the noises that a man makes to his dog; and the little dog followed, close as he could get to those moving ankles, lifting his snout, and panting with anxiety and love.
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