“Don’t be afraid,” I say to him.
“Oh, I’m not afraid!”
And he adds proudly:
“When a chap has lived on Hill 108, he can’t ever be afraid of anything again.”
“Then why do you wince?”
“It’s just my head moving back of its own accord. I never think of it.”
And it is true; the man is not afraid, but his flesh recoils.
When the bandage is properly adjusted, what remains visible of Groin’s face is young, agreeable, charming. I note this with satisfaction, and say to him:
“There’s not much damage done on this side. We’ll patch you up so well that you will still be able to make conquests.”
He smiles, touches his bandage, looks at his mutilated arm, seems to lose himself for a while in memories, and murmurs:
“May be. But the girls will never come after me again as they used to...”
“The skin is beginning to form over the new flesh. A few weeks more, and then a wooden leg. You will run along like a rabbit.”
Plaquet essays a little dry laugh which means neither yes nor no, but which reveals a great timidity, and something else, a great anxiety.
“For Sundays, you can have an artificial leg. You put a boot on it. The trouser hides it all. It won’t show a bit.”
The wounded man shakes his head slightly, and listens with a gentle, incredulous smile.
“With an artificial leg, Plaquet, you will, of course, be able to go out. It will be almost as it was before.”
Plaquet shakes his head again, and says in a low voice:
“Oh, I shall never go out!”
“But with a good artificial leg, Plaquet, you will be able to walk almost as well as before. Why shouldn’t you go out?”
Plaquet hesitates and remains silent.
Then in an almost inaudible voice he replies:
“I will never go out. I should be ashamed.”
Plaquet will wear a medal on his breast. He is a brave soldier, and by no means a fool. But there are very complex feelings which we must not judge too hastily.
In the corner of the ward there is a little plank bed which is like all the other little beds. But buried between its sheets there is the smile of Mathouillet, which is like no other smile.
Mathouillet, after throwing a good many bombs, at last got one himself. In this disastrous adventure, he lost part of his thigh, received several wounds, and gradually became deaf. Such is the fate of bombardier-grenadier Mathouillet.
The bombardier-grenadier has a gentle, beardless face, which for many weeks must have expressed great suffering, and, which is now beginning to show a little satisfaction.
But Mathouillet hears so badly that when one speaks to him he only smiles in answer.