A kind of torpor seemed to hang over the battle-field. Sometimes, a perpendicular column of smoke rose up, in the motionless distance, and the detonation reached us a little while afterwards, as if astray, and ashamed of outraging the radiant silence.
It was one of the fine days of the summer of 1915, one of those days when the supreme indifference of Nature makes one feel the burden of war more cruelly, when the beauty of the sky seems to proclaim its remoteness from the anguish of the human heart.
We had finished our morning round when an ambulance drew up at the entrance.
“Doctor on duty!”
I went down the steps. The chauffeur explained:
“There are three slightly wounded men. I am going to take on further, and then there are some severely wounded ...”
He opened the back of his car. On one side three soldiers were seated, dozing. On the other, there were stretchers, and I saw the feet of the men lying upon them. Then, from the depths of the vehicle came a low, grave, uncertain voice which said:
“I am one of the severely wounded, Monsieur.”
He was a lad rather than a man. He had a little soft down on his chin, a well-cut aquiline nose, dark eyes to which extreme weakness gave an appearance of exaggerated size, and the grey pallor of those who have lost much blood.
“Oh! how tired I am!” he said.
He held on to the stretcher with both hands as he was carried up the steps. He raised his head a little, gave a glance full of astonishment, distress, and lassitude at the green trees, the smiling hills, the glowing horizon, and then he found himself inside the house.
Here begins the story of Gaston Leglise. It is a modest story and a very sad story; but indeed, are there any stories now in the world that are not sad?
I will tell it day by day, as we lived it, as it is graven in my memory, and as it is graven in your memory and in your flesh, my friend Leglise.
Leglise only had a whiff of chloroform, and he fell at once into a sleep closely akin to death.
“Let us make haste,” said the head doctor. “We shall have the poor boy dying on the table.”
Then he shook his head, adding:
“Both knees! Both knees! What a future!”
The burden of experience is a sorrowful one. It is always sorrowful to have sufficient memory to discern the future.
Small splinters from a grenade make very little wounds in a man’s legs; but great disorders may enter by way of those little wounds, and the knee is such a complicated, delicate marvel!
Corporal Leglise is in bed now. He breathes with difficulty, and catches his breath now and again like a person who has been sobbing. He looks about him languidly, and hardly seems to have made up his mind to live. He contemplates the bottle of serum, the tubes, the needles, all the apparatus set in motion to revive his fluttering heart, and he seems bowed down by grief. He wants something to drink, but he must not have anything yet; he wants to sleep, but we have to deny sleep to those who need it most; he wants to die perhaps, and we will not let him.