WAR! Every one knows it, every one says so. It would be madness not to believe it. And yet, in spite of all, we hardly feel excited; we don’t believe it ! War, the Great European War — no, it can’t be true !
But why shouldn’t it be true ?
Blood, money, and more and more blood! And then we have so often heard people say: “Now there’ll be war,” and nevertheless we remained at peace. And it will be so this time. Europe is not going to become a shambles because an Austrian Archduke happens to have been murdered.
And yet, what are we hourly expecting as we sit here in nervous idleness in the barracks, unless it is the order for general mobilization? Sergeants of all ages arrived yesterday at Le Mans, and every train to-day has brought others. Since r6veille a man dressed in coarse corduroy has stood at the window watching the artillerymen and horses coming and going in the square. Every now and then he takes a brandy-flask from his pocket and hai a pull at it.
I was lying on my bed. Hutin, the chief layer of the first gun, was spread-eagled on his, smoking, his knees in the air and his heels drawn up under him. Noticing that my pack was crooked, I got up, mechanically, and put it straight.
“Come and have a drink!”
The barrack square was less noisy than usual. There were no drivers just returned from the polygon unharnessing their teams in front of the stables. No word of command was heard from officers directing firing practice underneath the plane-trees. In a corner one of the guards of the artillery park was oiling his guns. A cavalryman, both hands in his pockets and the reins slung over one arm, was leading his horse to the trough or the forge. Over by the wall of the remount stables, in the full glare of the sun, a few orderlies were grooming their horses in a listless fashion. A continuous stream of men on their way to and from the canteen — like a black line of insects crossing a white gravel path — marked out one of the diagonals of the square. In front of the canteen there was a scramble for drinks. It was hot.
Midday, and we are still waiting for news. Suppose all this should only turn out to be another false alarm!
White-clad gunners, with nothing to do as there is no firing practice, are strolling about the courtyard in search of news. In the Place de la Mission inquisitive onlookers press close up to the railings; it is difficult to say why. The majority of them are women. In front of them a few gunners pass with a smile and a swagger, already assuming the air of brave defenders.
Near the guard-house which serves as a visitors’ room, but where no visitors are allowed to enter on account of the fleas which infest it at this time of year, wives, mothers, sisters, and friends have come to see their soldiers. All make a brave attempt to hide their feelings. But their expression betrays their anxiety, which has lined their foreheads and sharpened their features. There are dark rings round their eyes, and the eyes themselves are restless and sunken. They continually avert their gaze, lest the fears and forebodings which no one can banish should be read in their faces. When they go away, through the little door under the chestnut-trees, after having watched the soldiers disappear down the passage at the end of the barracks, their feelings suddenly find vent in a sob, at which they are themselves surprised. Rapidly, and almost shamefacedly, pressing a rolled-up handkerchief to their lips, they turn aside into the Rue Chanzy, as if all the men there did not understand their trouble …
At four o’clock I went out with Sergeant Le Mee by special permission of the Captain. We went to my room in the Rue Mangeard to leave Le Mee’s outdoor uniform there, together with a bag and some papers.
We were about to have dinner. I had just uncorked a bottle of old claret, when Le Mee caught hold of my arm.
Up from the street a loud murmur came through the open window. At the same moment something magnetic, indefinable and yet definite, shot through both of us. We looked at each other, I with the bottle held to the brim of the glass.
Le Mee nodded assent, and we hurried to the window. In the street below, near the artillery barracks, surged a dense crowd. All faces reflected the same expression of stupor, anxiety, and bewilderment. In the eyes of all shone the same strange gleam. Women’s voices were heard — voices that quavered and broke…
“Well, Le Mee, here’s to your health and let’s hope that in a few months we shall have another drink together!”
“Here’s luck to us both!”
Grasping our swords we ran back to the barracks. That night we once again slept in our beds.