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THE BURIAL FIELDS
The automobile was going slowly forward under the colorless sky of a winter morning.
In the distance, the earth's surface seemed trembling with white, fluttering things resembling a band of butterflies poised on the furrows. On one of the fields the swarm was of great size, on others, it was broken into small groups.
As the machine approached these white butterflies, they seemed to be taking on other colors. One wing was turning blue, another flesh-colored. . . . They were little flags, by the hundreds, by the thousands which palpitated night and day, in the mild, sunny, morning breeze, in the damp drip of the dull mornings, in the biting cold of the interminable nights. The rains had washed and re-washed them, stealing away the most of their color. Some of the borders of the restless little strips were mildewed by the dampness while others were scorched by the sun, like insects which have just grazed the flames.
In the midst of the fluttering flags could be seen the black crosses of wood. On these were hanging dark kepis, red caps, and helmets topped with tufts of horsehair, slowly disintegrating and weeping atmospheric tears at every point.
"How many are dead!" sighed Don Marcelo's voice from the automobile.
And Rene, who was seated in front of him, sadly nodded his head. Dona Luisa was looking at the mournful plain while her lips trembled slightly in constant prayer. Chichi turned her great eyes in astonishment from one side to the other. She appeared larger, more capable in spite of the pallor which blanched her olive skin.
The two ladies were dressed in deepest mourning. The father, too, was in mourning, huddled down in the seat in a crushed attitude, his legs carefully covered with the great fur rugs. Rene was wearing his campaign uniform under his storm coat. In spite of his injuries, he had not wished to retire from the army. He had been transferred to a technical office till the termination of the war.
The Desnoyers family were on the way to carry out their long-cherished hope.
Upon recovering consciousness after the fatal news, the father had concentrated all his will power in one petition.
"I must see him. . . . Oh, my son! . . . My son!"
Vain were the senator's efforts to show him the impossibility of such a journey. The fighting was still going on in the zone where Julio had fallen. Later on, perhaps, it might be possible to visit it. "I want to see it!" persisted the broken-hearted old man. It was necessary for him to see his son's grave before dying himself, and Lacour had to requisition all his powers, for four long months formulating requests and overcoming much opposition, in order that Don Marcelo might be permitted to make the trip.
Finally a military automobile came one morning for the entire Desnoyers family. The senator could not accompany them. Rumors of an approaching change in the cabinet were floating about, and he felt obliged to show himself in the senate in case the Republic should again wish to avail itself of his unappreciated services.
They passed the night in a provincial city where there was a military post, and Rene collected considerable information from officers who had witnessed the great combat. With his map before him, he followed the explanations until he thought he could recognize the very plot of ground which Julio's regiment had occupied.
The following morning they renewed their expedition. A soldier who had taken part in the battle acted as their guide, seated beside the chauffeur. From time to time, Rene consulted the map spread out on his knees, and asked questions of the soldier whose regiment had fought very close to that of Desnoyers', but he could not remember exactly the ground which they had gone over so many months before. The landscape had undergone many transformations and had presented a very different appearance when covered with men. Its deserted aspect bewildered him . . . and the motor had to go very slowly, veering to the north of the line of graves, following the central highway, level and white, entering crossroads and winding through ditches muddied with deep pools through which they splashed with great bounds and jar on the springs. At times, they drove across fields from one plot of crosses to another, their pneumatic tires crushing flat from the furrows opened by the plowman.
Tombs . . . tombs on all sides! The white locusts of death were swarming over the entire countryside. There was no corner free from their quivering wings. The recently plowed earth, the yellowing roads, the dark woodland, everything was pulsating in weariless undulation. The soil seemed to be clamoring, and its words were the vibrations of the restless little flags. And the thousands of cries, endlessly repeated across the days and nights, were intoning in rhythmic chant the terrible onslaught which this earth had witnessed and from which it still felt tragic shudderings.
"Dead . . . dead," murmured Chichi, following the rows of crosses incessantly slipping past the sides of the automobile.
"O Lord, for them! . . . for their mothers," moaned Dona Luisa, renewing her prayers.
Here had taken place the fiercest part of the battle--the fight in the old way, man to man outside of the trenches, with bayonets, with guns, with fists, with teeth.
The guide who was beginning to get his bearings was pointing out the various points on the desolate horizon. There were the African sharpshooters; further on, the chasseurs. The very large groups of graves were where the light infantry had charged with their bayonets on the sides of the road.
The automobile came to a stop. Rene climbed out after the soldier in order to examine the inscriptions on a few of the crosses. Perhaps these might have belonged to the regiment they were seeking. Chichi also alighted mechanically with the irresistible desire of aiding her husband.
Each grave contained several men. The number of bodies within could be told by the mouldering kepis or rusting helmets hanging on the arms of the cross; the number of the regiments could still be deciphered between the rows of ants crawling over the caps. The wreaths with which affection had adorned some of the sepulchres were blackened and stripped of their leaves. On some of the crucifixes, the names of the dead were still clear, but others were beginning to fade out and soon would be entirely illegible.
"What a horrible death! . . . What glory!" thought Chichi sadly.
Not even the names of the greater part of these vigorous men cut down in the strength of their youth were going to survive! Nothing would remain but the memory which would from time to time overwhelm some old countrywoman driving her cow along the French highway, murmuring between her sobs. "My little one! . . . I wonder where they buried my little one!" Or, perhaps, it would live in the heart of the village woman clad in mourning who did not know how to solve the problem of existence; or in the minds of the children going to school in black blouses and saying with ferocious energy--"When I grow up I am going to kill the Boches to avenge my father's death!"
And Dona Luisa, motionless in her seat, followed with her eyes Chichi's course among the graves, while returning to her interrupted prayer--"Lord, for the mothers without sons . . . for the little ones without fathers! . . . May thy wrath not be turned against us, and may thy smile shine upon us once more!"
Her husband, shrunken in his seat, was also looking over the funereal fields, but his eyes were fixed most tenaciously on some mounds without wreaths or flags, simple crosses with a little board bearing the briefest inscription. These were the German bodies which seemed to have a page to themselves in the Book of Death. On one side, the innumerable French tombs with inscriptions as small as possible, simple numbers--one, two, three dead. On the other, in each of the spacious, unadorned sepulchres, great quantities of soldiers, with a number of terrifying terseness. Fences of wooden strips, narrow and wide, surrounded these latter ditches filled to the top with bodies. The earth was as bleached as though covered with snow or saltpetre. This was the lime returning to mix with the land. The crosses raised above these huge mounds bore each an inscription stating that it contained Germans, and then a number--200 . . . 300 . . . 400.
Such appalling figures obliged Desnoyers to exert his imagination. It was not easy to evoke with exactitude the vision of three hundred carcasses in helmets, boots and cloaks, in all the revolting aspects of death, piled in rows as though they were bricks, locked forever in the depths of a great trench. . . . And this funereal alignment was repeated at intervals all over the great immensity of the plain!
The mere sight of them filled Don Marcelo with a kind of savage joy, as his mourning fatherhood tasted the fleeting consolation of vengeance. Julio had died, and he was going to die, too, not having strength to survive his bitter woe; but how many hundreds of the enemy wasting in these awful trenches were also leaving in the world loved beings who would remember them as he was remembering his son! . . .
He imagined them as they must have been before the death call sounded, as he had seen them in the advance around his castle.
Some of them, the most prominent and terrifying, probably still showed on their faces the theatrical cicatrices of their university duels. They were the soldiers who carried books in their knapsacks, and after the fusillade of a lot of country folk, or the sacking and burning of a hamlet, devoted themselves to reading the poets and philosophers by the glare of the blaze which they had kindled. They were bloated with science as with the puffiness of a toad, proud of their pedantic and all-sufficient intellectuality. Sons of sophistry and grandsons of cant, they had considered themselves capable of proving the greatest absurdities by the mental capers to which they had accustomed their acrobatic intellects.
They had employed the favorite method of the thesis, antithesis and synthesis in order to demonstrate that Germany ought to be the Mistress of the World; that Belgium was guilty of her own ruin because she had defended herself; that true happiness consisted in having all humanity dominated by Prussia; that the supreme idea of existence consisted in a clean stable and a full manger; that Liberty and Justice were nothing more than illusions of the romanticism of the French; that every deed accomplished became virtuous from the moment it triumphed, and that Right was simply a derivative of Might. These metaphysical athletes with guns and sabres were accustomed to consider themselves the paladins of a crusade of civilization. They wished the blond type to triumph definitely over the brunette; they wished to enslave the worthless man of the South, consigning him forever to a world regulated by "the salt of the earth," "the aristocracy of humanity." Everything on the page of history that had amounted to anything was German. The ancient Greeks had been of Germanic origin; German, too, the great artists of the Italian Renaissance. The men of the Mediterranean countries, with the inherent badness of their extraction, had falsified history. . . .
"That's the best place for you. . . You are better where you are buried, you pitiless pedants!" thought Desnoyers, recalling his conversations with his friend, the Russian.
What a shame that there were not here, too, all the Herr Professors of the German universities--those wise men so unquestionably skilful in altering the trademarks of intellectual products and changing the terminology of things! Those men with flowing beards and gold-rimmed spectacles, pacific rabbits of the laboratory and the professor's chair that had been preparing the ground for the present war with their sophistries and their unblushing effrontery! Their guilt was far greater than that of the Herr Lieutenant of the tight corset and the gleaming monocle, who in his thirst for strife and slaughter was simply and logically working out the professional charts.
While the German soldier of the lower classes was plundering what he could and drunkenly shooting whatever crossed his path, the warrior student was reading by the camp glow, Hegel and Nietzsche. He was too enlightened to execute with his own hands these acts of "historical justice," but he, with the professors, was rousing all the bad instincts of the Teutonic beast and giving them a varnish of scientific justification.
"Lie there, in your sepulchre, you intellectual scourge!" continued Desnoyers mentally.
The fierce Moors, the negroes of infantile intelligence, the sullen Hindus, appeared to him more deserving of respect than all the ermine-bordered togas parading haughtily and aggressively through the cloisters of the German universities. What peacefulness for the world if their wearers should disappear forever! He preferred the simple and primitive barbarity of the savage to the refined, deliberate and merciless barbarity of the greedy sage;--it did less harm and was not so hypocritical.
For this reason, the only ones in the enemy's ranks who awakened his commiseration were the lowly and unlettered dead interred beneath the sod. They had been peasants, factory hands, business clerks, German gluttons of measureless (intestinal) capacity, who had seen in the war an opportunity for satisfying their appetites, for beating somebody and ordering them about after having passed their lives in their country, obeying and receiving kicks.
The history of their country was nothing more than a series of raids--like the Indian forays, in order to plunder the property of those who lived in the mild Mediterranean climes. The Herr Professors had proved to their countrymen that such sacking incursions were indispensable to the highest civilization, and that the German was marching onward with the enthusiasm of a good father sacrificing himself in order to secure bread for his family.
Hundreds of thousands of letters, written by their relatives with tremulous hands, were following the great Germanic horde across the invaded countries. Desnoyers had overheard the reading of some of these, at nightfall before his ruined castle. These were some of the messages found in the pockets of the imprisoned or dead:--"Don't show any pity for the red pantaloons. Kill WHOMEVER YOU CAN, and show no mercy even to the little ones." . . . "We would thank you for the shoes, but the girl cannot get them on. Those French have such ridiculously small feet!" . . . "Try to get hold of a piano.". . . "I would very much like a good watch." . . . "Our neighbor, the Captain, has sent his wife a necklace of pearls. . . . And you send only such insignificant things!"
The virtuous German had been advancing heroically with the double desire of enlarging his country and of making valuable gifts to his offspring. "Deutschland uber alles!" But their most cherished illusions had fallen into the burial ditch in company with thousands of comrades-at-arms fed on the same dreams.
Desnoyers could imagine the impatience on the other side of the Rhine, the pitiful women who were waiting and waiting. The lists of the dead had, perhaps, overlooked the missing ones; and the letters kept coming and coming to the German lines, many of them never reaching their destination. "Why don't you answer! Perhaps you are not writing so as to give us a great surprise. Don't forget the necklace! Send us a piano. A carved china cabinet for the dining room would please us greatly. The French have so many beautiful things!" . . .
The bare cross rose stark and motionless above the lime-blanched land. Near it the little flags were fluttering their wings, moving from side to side like a head shaking out a smiling, ironical protest--No! . . . No!
The automobile continued on its painful way. The guide was now pointing to a distant group of graves. That was undoubtedly the place where the regiment had been fighting. So the vehicle left the main road, sinking its wheels in the soft earth, having to make wide detours in order to avoid the mounds scattered about so capriciously by the casualties of the combat.
Almost all of the fields were ploughed. The work of the farmer extended from tomb to tomb, making them more prominent as the morning sun forced its way through the enshrouding mists.
Nature, blind, unfeeling and silent, ignoring individual existence and taking to her bosom with equal indifference, a poor little animal or a million corpses, was beginning to smile under the late winter suns.
The fountains were still crusted with their beards of ice; the earth snapped as the feet weighed down its hidden crystals; the trees, black and sleeping, were still retaining the coat of metallic green in which the winter had clothed them; from the depths of the earth still issued an acute, deadly chill, like that of burned-out planets. . . . But Spring had already girded herself with flowers in her palace in the tropics, and was saddling with green her trusty steed, neighing with impatience. Soon they would race through the fields, driving before them in disordered flight the black goblins of winter, and leaving in their wake green growing things and tender, subtle perfumes. The wayside greenery, robing itself in tiny buds, was already heralding their arrival. The birds were venturing forth from their retreats in order to wing their way among the crows croaking wrathfully above the closed tombs. The landscape was beginning to smile in the sunlight with the artless, deceptive smile of a child who looks candidly around while his pockets are stuffed with stolen goodies.
The husbandmen had ploughed the fields and filled the furrows with seed. Men might go on killing each other as much as they liked; the soil had no concern with their hatreds, and on that account, did not propose to alter its course. As every year, the metal cutter had opened its usual lines, obliterating with its ridges the traces of man and beast, undismayed and with stubborn diligence filling up the tunnels which the bombs had made.
Sometimes the ploughshare had struck against an obstacle underground . . . an unknown, unburied man; but the cultivator had continued on its way without pity. Every now and then, it was stopped by less yielding obstructions, projectiles which had sunk into the ground intact. The rustic had dug up these instruments of death which occasionally had exploded their delayed charge in his hands.
But the man of the soil knows no fear when in search of sustenance, and so was doggedly continuing his rectilinear advance, swerving only before the visible tombs; there the furrows had curved mercifully, making little islands of the mounds surmounted by crosses and flags. The seeds of future bread were preparing to extend their tentacles like devil fish among those who, but a short time before, were animated by such monstrous ambition. Life was about to renew itself once more.
The automobile came to a standstill. The guide was running about among the crosses, stooping over in order to examine their weather-stained inscriptions.
"Here we are!"
He had found above one grave the number of the regiment.
Chichi and her husband promptly dismounted again. Then Dona Luisa, with sad resolution, biting her lips to keep the tears back. Then the three devoted themselves to assisting the father who had thrown off his fur lap-robe. Poor Desnoyers! On touching the ground, he swayed back and forth, moving forward with the greatest effort, lifting his feet with difficulty, and sinking his staff in the hollows.
"Lean on me, my poor dear," said the old wife, offering her arm.
The masterful head of the family could no longer take a single step without their aid.
Then began their slow, painful pilgrimage among the graves.
The guide was still exploring the spot bristling with crosses, spelling out the names, and hesitating before the faded lettering. Rene was doing the same on the other side of the road. Chichi went on alone, the wind whirling her black veil around her, and making the little curls escape from under her mourning hat every time she leaned over to decipher a name. Her daintily shod feet sunk deep into the ruts, and she had to gather her skirts about her in order to move more comfortably--revealing thus at every step evidences of the joy of living, of hidden beauty, of consummated love following her course through this land of death and desolation.
In the distance sounded feebly her father's voice:
The two elders were growing impatient, anxious to find their son's resting place as soon as possible.
A half hour thus dragged by without any result--always unfamiliar names, anonymous crosses or the numbers of other regiments. Don Marcelo was no longer able to stand. Their passage across the irregularities of the soft earth had been torment for him. He was beginning to despair. . . . Ay, they would never find Julio's remains! The parents, too, had been scrutinizing the plots nearest them, bending sadly before cross after cross. They stopped before a long, narrow hillock, and read the name. . . . No, he was not there, either; and they continued desperately along the painful path of alternate hopes and disappointments.
It was Chichi who notified them with a cry, "Here. . . . Here it is!" The old folks tried to run, almost falling at every step. All the family were soon grouped around a heap of earth in the vague outline of a bier, and beginning to be covered with herbage. At the head was a cross with letters cut in deep with the point of a knife, the kind deed of some of his comrades-at-arms--"DESNOYERS." . . . Then in military abbreviations, the rank, regiment and company.
A long silence. Dona Luisa had knelt instantly, with her eyes fixed on the cross--those great, bloodshot eyes that could no longer weep. Till then, tears had been constantly in her eyes, but now they deserted her as though overcome by the immensity of a grief incapable of expressing itself in the usual ways.
The father was staring at the rustic grave in dumb amazement. His son was there, there forever! . . . and he would never see him again! He imagined him sleeping unshrouded below, in direct contact with the earth, just as Death had surprised him in his miserable and heroic old uniform. He recalled the exquisite care which the lad had always given his body--the long bath, the massage, the invigorating exercise of boxing and fencing, the cold shower, the elegant and subtle perfume . . . all that he might come to this! . . . that he might be interred just where he had fallen in his tracks, like a wornout beast of burden!
The bereaved father wished to transfer his son immediately from the official burial fields, but he could not do it yet. As soon as possible it should be done, and he would erect for him a mausoleum fit for a king. . . . And what good would that do? He would merely be changing the location of a mass of bones, but his body, his physical semblance--all that had contributed to the charm of his personality would be mixed with the earth. The son of the rich Desnoyers would have become an inseparable part of a poor field in Champagne. Ah, the pity of it all! And for this, had he worked so hard and so long to accumulate his millions? . . .
He could never know how Julio's death had happened. Nobody could tell him his last words. He was ignorant as to whether his end had been instantaneous, overwhelming--his idol going out of the world with his usual gay smile on his lips, or whether he had endured long hours of agony abandoned in the field, writhing like a reptile or passing through phases of hellish torment before collapsing in merciful oblivion. He was also ignorant of just how much was beneath this mound--whether an entire body discreetly touched by the hand of Death, or an assemblage of shapeless remnants from the devastating hurricane of steel! . . . And he would never see him again! And that Julio who had been filling his thoughts would become simply a memory, a name that would live while his parents lived, fading away, little by little, after they had disappeared! . . .
He was startled to hear a moan, a sob. . . . Then he recognized dully that they were his own, that he had been accompanying his reflections with groans of grief.
His wife was still at his feet, kneeling, alone with her heartbreak, fixing her dry eyes on the cross with a gaze of hypnotic tenacity. . . . There was her son near her knees, lying stretched out as she had so often watched him when sleeping in his cradle! . . . The father's sobs were wringing her heart, too, but with an unbearable depression, without his wrathful exasperation. And she would never see him again! . . . Could it be possible! . . .
Chichi's presence interrupted the despairing thoughts of her parents. She had run to the automobile, and was returning with an armful of flowers. She hung a wreath on the cross and placed a great spray of blossoms at the foot. Then she scattered a shower of petals over the entire surface of the grave, sadly, intensely, as though performing a religious rite, accompanying the offering with her outspoken thoughts--"For you who so loved life for its beauties and pleasures! . . . for you who knew so well how to make yourself beloved!" . . . And as her tears fell, her affectionate memories were as full of admiration as of grief. Had she not been his sister, she would have liked to have been his beloved.
And having exhausted the rain of flower-petals, she wandered away so as not to disturb the lamentations of her parents.
Before the uselessness of his bitter plaints, Don Marcelo's former dominant character had come to life, raging against destiny.
He looked at the horizon where so often he had imagined the adversary to be, and clenched his fists in a paroxysm of fury. His disordered mind believed that it saw the Beast, the Nemesis of humanity. And how much longer would the evil be allowed to go unpunished? . . .
There was no justice; the world was ruled by blind chance;--all lies, mere words of consolation in order that mankind might exist unterrified by the hopeless abandon in which it lived!
It appeared to him that from afar was echoing the gallop of the four Apocalyptic horsemen, riding rough-shod over all his fellow-creatures. He saw the strong and brutal giant with the sword of War, the archer with his repulsive smile, shooting his pestilential arrows, the bald-headed miser with the scales of Famine, the hard-riding spectre with the scythe of Death. He recognized them as only divinities, familiar and terrible-which had made their presence felt by mankind. All the rest was a dream. The four horsemen were the reality. . . .
Suddenly, by the mysterious process of telepathy, he seemed to read the thoughts of the one grieving at his feet.
The mother, impelled by her own sorrow, was thinking of that of others. She, too, was looking toward the distant horizon. There she seemed to see a procession of the enemy, grieving in the same way as were her family. She saw Elena with her daughters going in and out among the burial grounds, seeking a loved one, falling on their knees before a cross. Ay, this mournful satisfaction, she could never know completely! It would be forever impossible for her to pass to the opposite side in search of the other grave, for, even after some time had passed by, she could never find it. The beloved body of Otto would have disappeared forever in one of the nameless pits which they had just passed.
"O Lord, why did we ever come to these lands? Why did we not continue living in the land where we were born?" . . .
Desnoyers, too, uniting his thoughts with hers, was seeing again the pampas, the immense green plains of the ranch where he had become acquainted with his wife. Again he could hear the tread of the herds. He recalled Madariaga on tranquil nights proclaiming, under the splendor of the stars, the joys of peace, the sacred brotherhood of these people of most diverse extraction, united by labor, abundance and the lack of political ambition.
And as his thoughts swung back to the lost son he, too, exclaimed with his wife, "Oh, why did we ever come? . . ." He, too, with the solidarity of grief, began to sympathize with those on the other side of the battle front. They were suffering just as he was; they had lost their sons. Human grief is the same everywhere.
But then he revolted against his commiseration. Karl had been an advocate of this war. He was among those who had looked upon war as the perfect state for mankind, who had prepared it with their provocations. It was just that War should devour his sons; he ought not to bewail their loss. . . . But he who had always loved Peace! He who had only one son, only one! . . . and now he was losing him forever! . . .
He was going to die; he was sure that he was going to die. . . . Only a few months of life were left in him. And his pitiful, devoted companion kneeling at his feet, she, too, would soon pass away. She could not long survive the blow which they had just received. There was nothing further for them to do; nobody needed them any longer.
Their daughter was thinking only of herself, of founding a separate home interest--with the hard instinct of independence which separates children from their parents in order that humanity may continue its work of renovation.
Julio was the only one who would have prolonged the family, passing on the name. The Desnoyers had died; his daughter's children would be Lacour. . . . All was ended.
Don Marcelo even felt a certain satisfaction in thinking of his approaching death. More than anything else, he wished to pass out of the world. He no longer had any curiosity as to the end of this war in which he had been so interested. Whatever the end might be, it would be sure to turn out badly. Although the Beast might be mutilated, it would again come forth years afterward, as the eternal curse of mankind. . . . For him the only important thing now was that the war had robbed him of his son. All was gloomy, all was black. The world was going to its ruin. . . . He was going to rest.
Chichi had clambered up on the hillock which contained, perhaps, more than their dead. With furrowed brow, she was contemplating the plain. Graves . . . graves everywhere! The recollection of Julio had already passed to second place in her mind. She could not bring him back, no matter how much she might weep.
This vision of the fields of death made her think all the more of the living. As her eyes roved from side to side, she tried, with her hands, to keep down the whirling of her wind-tossed skirts. Rene was standing at the foot of the knoll, and several times after a sweeping glance at the numberless mounds around them, she looked thoughtfully at him, as though trying to establish a relationship between her husband and those below. And he had exposed his life in combats just as these men had done! . . .
"And you, my poor darling," she continued aloud. "At this very moment you, too, might be lying here under a heap of earth with a wooden cross at your head, just like these poor unfortunates!"
The sub-lieutenant smiled sadly. Yes, it was so.
"Come here; climb up here!" said Chichi impetuously. "I want to give you something!"
As soon as he approached her, she flung her arms around his neck, pressed him against the warm softness of her breast, exhaling a perfume of life and love, and kissed him passionately without a thought of her brother, without seeing her aged parents grieving below them and longing to die. . . . And her skirts, freed by the breeze, molded her figure in the superb sweep of the curves of a Grecian vase.
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