Derancourt never talked of himself, much less of his misfortune. I knew from his comrades that he had fought near Longwy, his native town, and that he had lain grievously wounded for nine days on the battlefield. He had seen his father, who had come to succour him, killed at his side; then he had lain beside the corpse, tortured by a delirious dream in which nine days and nine nights had followed one upon the other, like a dizziness of alternate darkness and dazzling light. In the mornings, he sucked the wet grass he clutched when he stretched out his hands.
Afterwards he had suffered in Germany, and finally he had come back to France, mutilated, covered with wounds, and knowing that his wife and children were left without help and without resources in the invaded territory.
Of all this Derancourt said not a word. He apparently did not know how to complain, and he contemplated the surrounding wretchedness with a grave look, full of experience, which would have seemed a little cold but for the tremulous mobility of his features.
Derancourt never played, never laughed. He sought solitude, and spent hours, turning his head slowly from side to side, contemplating the walls and the ceiling like one who sees things within himself.
The day came when we had to operate on Derancourt, to make his stump of a thigh serviceable.
He was laid on the table. He remained calm and self-controlled as always, looking at the preparations for the operation with a kind of indifference.
We put the chloroform pad under his nose; he drew two or three deep breaths, and then a strange thing happened: Derancourt began to sob in a terrible manner, and to talk of all those things he had never mentioned. The grief he had suppressed for months overflowed, or rather, rushed out in desperate, heartrending lamentations.
It was not the disorderly intoxication, the muscular, animal rebellion of those who are thrown into this artificial sleep. It was the sudden break-up of an overstrained will under a slight shock. For months Derancourt had braced himself against despair, and now, all of a sudden, he gave way, and abandoned himself to poignant words and tears. The flood withdrew suddenly, leaving the horrible, chaotic depths beneath the sea visible.
We ceased scrubbing our hands, and stood aghast and deeply moved, full of sadness and respect.
Then some one exclaimed:
“Quick! quick! More chloroform! Stupefy him outright, let him sleep.”
“But a man can’t be paralysed by a little hole in his back! I tell you it was only a bullet. You must take it out, doctor. Take it out, and I shall be all right.”
Thus said a Zouave, who had been lying helpless for three days on his bed.
“If you knew how strong I am! Look at my arms! No one could unhook a bag like me, and heave it over my shoulder—tock! A hundred kilos—with one jerk!”