List Of Contents | Contents of The New Book Of Martyrs, by Georges Duhamel
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But suddenly he calls me. Great dark hollows appear under the
smiling eyes. A livid sweat bathes his forehead.

"Come, come!" he says. "Something terrible is taking hold of me.
Surely I am going to die."

We busy ourselves with the poor paralysed body. The face alone
labours to translate its sufferings. The hands make the very
slightest movement on the sheet. The bullets of the machine-gun
have cut off all the rest from the sources of life.

We do what we can, but I feel his heart beating more feebly; his
lips make immense efforts to beg for one drop, one drop only from
the vast cup of air.

Gradually he escapes from this hell. I divine that his hand makes
a movement as if to detain mine.

"Stay by me," he says; "I am afraid."

I stay by him. The sweat no longer stands on his brow. The
horrible distress passes off. The air flows again into the
miserable breast. The gentle eyes have not ceased to smile.

"You will save me after all," he says; "I have had too miserable a
life to die yet, Monsieur."

I press his hand to give him confidence, and I feel that his hard
hand is happy in mine. My fingers have groped in his flesh, his
blood has flowed over them, and this creates strong ties between
two men.

Calm seems completely restored. I talk to him of his beautiful
native place. He was a baker in a village of Le Cantal. I passed
through it once as a traveller in peace time. We recall the scent
of the juniper-bushes on the green slopes in summer, and the
mineral fountains with wonderful flavours that gush forth among
the mountains.

"Oh!" he exclaims, "I shall always see you!"

"You will see me, Mercier?"

He is a very simple fellow; he tries to explain, and merely adds:

"In my eyes. ... I shall always see you in my eyes."

What else does he see? What other thing is suddenly reflected in
his eyes?

"I think ... oh, it is beginning again!"

It is true; the spasm is beginning again. It is terrible. In spite
of our efforts, it overcomes the victim, and this time we are

"I feel that I am going to die," he says.

The smiling eyes are still fixed imploringly upon me.

"But you will save me, you will save me!"

Death has already laid a disfiguring hand on Mercier.

"Stay by me."

Yes, I will stay by you, and hold your hand. Is there nothing more
I can do for you?

His nostrils quiver. It is hard to have been wretched for forty
years, and to have to give up the humble hope of smelling the
pungent scent of the juniper-bushes once more. ...

His lips contract, and then relax gradually, so sadly. It is hard
to have suffered for forty years, and to be unable to quench one's
last thirst with the wonderful waters of our mountain springs. ...

Now the dark sweat gathers again on the hollow brow. Oh, it is
hard to die after forty years of toil, without ever having had
leisure to wipe the sweat from a brow that has always been bent
over one's work.

The sacrifice is immense, and we cannot choose our hour; we must
make it as soon as we hear the voice that demands it.

The man must lay down his tools and say: "Here I am."

Oh, how hard it is to leave this life of unceasing toil and

The eyes still smile feebly. They smile to the last moment.

He speaks no more. He breathes no more. The heart throbs wildly,
then stops dead like a foundered horse.

Mercier is dead. The pupils of his eyes are solemnly distended
upon a glassy abyss. All is over. I have not saved him. ...

Then from those dead eyes great tears ooze slowly and flow upon
his cheeks. I see his features contract as if to weep throughout

I keep the dead hand still clasped in mine for several long



We were going northward by forced marches, through a France that
was like a mournful garden planted with crosses. We were no longer
in doubt as to our appointed destination; every day since we had
disembarked at B----our orders had enjoined us to hasten our
advance to the fighting units of the Army Corps. This Army Corps
was contracting, and drawing itself together hurriedly, its head
already in the thick of the fray, its tail still winding along the
roads, across the battle-field of the Marne.

February was closing in, damp and icy, with squalls of sleet,
under a sullen, hideous sky, lowering furiously down to the level
of the ground. Everywhere there were graves, uniformly decent, or
rather according to pattern, showing a shield of tri-colour or
black and white, and figures. Suddenly, we came upon immense
flats, whence the crosses stretched out their arms between the
poplars like men struggling to save themselves from being
engulfed. Many ancient villages, humble, irremediable ruins. And
yet here and there, perched upon these, frail cabins of planks and
tiles, sending forth thin threads of smoke, and emitting a timid
light, in an attempt to begin life again as before, on the same
spot as before. Now and again we chanced upon a hamlet which the
hurricane had passed by almost completely, full to overflowing
with the afflux of neighbouring populations.

Beyond P----, our advance, though it continued to be rapid, became
very difficult, owing to the confluence of convoys and troops. The
main roads, reserved for the military masses which were under the
necessity of moving rapidly, arriving early, and striking
suddenly, were barred to us. From every point of the horizon
disciplined multitudes converged, with their arsenal of formidable
implements, rolling along in an atmosphere of benzine and hot oil.
Through this ordered mass, our convoys threaded their way
tenaciously and advanced. We could see on the hill sides, crawling
like a clan of migrating ants, stretcher-bearers and their dogs
drawing handcarts for the wounded, then the columns of orderlies,
muddy and exhausted, then the ambulances, which every week of war
loads a little more heavily, dragged along by horses in a steam of

From time to time, the whole train halted at some cross-road, and
the ambulances allowed more urgent things to pass in front of
them--things designed to kill, sturdy grey mortars borne along
post haste in a metallic rumble.

A halt, a draught of wine mingled with rain, a few minutes to
choke over a mouthful of stale bread, and we were off again,
longing for the next halt, for a dry shelter, for an hour of real

Soon after leaving C----we began to meet fugitives. This
complicated matters very much, and the spectacle began to show an
odious likeness to the scenes of the beginning of the war, the
scenes of the great retreat.

Keeping along the roadsides, the by-roads, the field-paths, they
were fleeing from the Verdun district, whence they had been
evacuated by order. They were urging on miserable old horses,
drawing frail carts, their wheels sunk in the ruts up to the nave,
loaded with mattresses and eiderdowns, with appliances for eating
and sleeping, and sometimes too, with cages in which birds were
twittering. On they went, from village to village, seeking an
undiscoverable lodging, but not complaining, saying merely:

"You are going to Verdun? We have just come from X----. We were
ordered to leave. It is very difficult to find a place to settle
down in."

Women passed. Two of them were dragging a little baby-carriage in
which an infant lay asleep. One of them was quite young, the other
old. They held up their skirts out of the mud. They were wearing
little town shoes, and every minute they sank into the slime like
ourselves, sometimes above their ankles.

All day long we encountered similar processions. I do not remember
seeing one of these women weep; but they seemed terrified, and
mortally tired.

Meanwhile, the sound of the guns became fuller and more regular.
All the roads we caught sight of in the country seemed to be
bearing their load of men and of machines. Here and there a horse
which had succumbed at its task lay rotting at the foot of a
hillock. A subdued roar rose to the ear, made up of trampling
hoofs, of grinding wheels, of the buzz of motors, and of a
multitude talking and eating on the march.

Suddenly we debouched at the edge of a wood upon a height whence
we could see the whole battle-field. It was a vast expanse of
plains and slopes, studded with the grey woods of winter. Long
trails of smoke from burning buildings settled upon the landscape.
And other trails, minute and multi-coloured, rose from the ground
wherever projectiles were raining. Nothing more: wisps of smoke,
brief flashes visible even in broad daylight, and a string of
captive balloons, motionless and observant witnesses of all.

But we were already descending the incline and the various planes
of the landscape melted one after the other. As we were passing
over a bridge, I saw in a group of soldiers a friend I had not met
since the beginning of the war. We could not stop, so he walked
along with me for a while, and we spent these few minutes
recalling the things of the past. Then as he left me we embraced,
though we had never done so in times of peace.

Night was falling. Knowing that we were now at our last long lap,
we encouraged the worn-out men. At R----I lost touch with my
formation. I halted on the roadside, calling aloud into the
darkness. An artillery train passed, covering me with mud to my
eyes. Finally, I picked up my friends, and we marched on through
villages illumined by the camp fires which were flickering under a
driving rain, through a murky country which the flash of cannon
suddenly showed to be covered with a multitude of men, of horses,
and of martial objects.

It was February 27. Between ten and eleven at night we arrived at
a hospital installed in some wooden sheds, and feverishly busy. We
were at B----, a miserable village on which next day the Germans
launched some thirty monster-shells, yet failed to kill so much as
a mouse.

The night was spent on straw, to the stentorian snores of fifty
men overcome by fatigue. Then reveille, and again, liquid mud over
the ankles. As the main road was forbidden to our ambulances there

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