The day was drawing to an end, and from a remote corner of the camp the rattling drums and the shrill bugles sounded retreat, the sound dying away faintly in the distance on the still air of evening. Jean Macquart, who had been securing the tent and driving the pegs home, rose to his feet. When it began to be rumored that there was to be war he had left Rognes, the scene of the bloody drama in which he had lost his wife, Francoise and the acres that she brought him; he had re-enlisted at the age of thirty-nine, and been assigned to the 106th of the line, of which they were at that time filling up the cadres, with his old rank of corporal, and there were moments when he could not help wondering how it ever came about that he, who after Solferino had been so glad to quit the service and cease endangering his own and other people’s lives, was again wearing the capote of the infantry man. But what is a man to do, when he has neither trade nor calling, neither wife, house, nor home, and his heart is heavy with mingled rage and sorrow? As well go and have a shot at the enemy, if they come where they are not wanted. And he remembered his old battle cry: Ah! bon sang! if he had no longer heart for honest toil, he would go and defend her, his country, the old land of France!
When Jean was on his legs he cast a look about the camp, where the summons of the drums and bugles, taken up by one command after another, produced a momentary bustle, the conclusion of the business of the day. Some men were running to take their places in the ranks, while others, already half asleep, arose and stretched their stiff limbs with an air of exasperated weariness. He stood waiting patiently for roll-call, with that cheerful imperturbability and determination to make the best of everything that made him the good soldier that he was. His comrades were accustomed to say of him that if he had only had education he would have made his mark. He could just barely read and write, and his aspirations did not rise even so high as to a sergeantcy. Once a peasant, always a peasant.
But he found something to interest him in the fire of green wood that was still smoldering and sending up dense volumes of smoke, and he stepped up to speak to the two men who were busying themselves over it, Loubet and Lapoulle, both members of his squad.
“Quit that! You are stifling the whole camp.”
Loubet, a lean, active fellow and something of a wag, replied:
“It will burn, corporal; I assure you it will—why don’t you blow, you!”
And by way of encouragement he bestowed a kick on Lapoulle, a colossus of a man, who was on his knees puffing away with might and main, his cheeks distended till they were like wine-skins, his face red and swollen, and his eyes starting from their orbits and streaming with tears. Two other men of the squad, Chouteau and Pache, the former stretched at length upon his back like a man who appreciates the delight of idleness, and the latter engrossed in the occupation of putting a patch on his trousers, laughed long and loud at the ridiculous expression on the face of their comrade, the brutish Lapoulle.