He could speak a little French, which he utilised strictly for his material wants, to say, for instance, “A little more cotton-wool under the foot, Monsieur,” or, “Have I any fever to-day?”
Apart from this, he always showed us the same icy face, the same pale, hard eyes, enframed by colourless lashes. We gathered, from certain indications, that the man was intelligent and well educated; but he was obviously under the domination of a lively hatred, and a strict sense of his own dignity.
He bore pain bravely, and like one who makes it a point of honour to repress the most excusable reactions of the martyred flesh. I do not remember ever hearing him cry out, though this would have seemed to me natural enough, and would by no means have lowered Monsieur Spat in my opinion. All I ever heard from him was a stifled moan, the dull panting of the woodman as he swings his axe.
One day we were obliged to give him an anaesthetic in order to make incisions in the wounds in his leg; he turned very red and said, in a tone that was almost imploring: “You won’t cut it off, gentlemen, will you?” But no sooner did he regain consciousness than he at once resumed his attitude of stiff hostility.
After a time, I ceased to believe mat his features could ever express anything but this repressed animosity. I was undeceived by an unforeseen incident.
The habit of whistling between one’s teeth is a token, with me as with many other persons, of a certain absorption. It is perhaps rather a vulgar habit, but I often feel impelled to whistle, especially when I have a serious piece of work in hand.
One morning accordingly, I was finishing Vize-Feldwebel Spat’s dressing, and whistling something at random. I was looking at his leg, and was paying no attention to his face, when I suddenly became curiously aware that the look he had fixed upon me had changed in quality, and I raised my eyes.
Certainly, something very extraordinary had taken place: the German’s face glowed with a kind of warmth and contentment, and was so smiling and radiant that I hardly recognised it. I could scarcely believe that he had been able to improvise this face, which was sensitive and trustful, out of the features he generally showed us.
“Tell me, Monsieur,” he murmured, “it’s the Third Symphony, isn’t it, that you are ... what do you call it?—yes ... whistling.”
First, I stopped whistling. Then I answered: “Yes, I believe it is the Third Symphony”; then I remained silent and confused.
A slender bridge had just been flung across the abyss.
The thing lasted for a few seconds, and I was still dreaming of it when once more I felt an icy, irrevocable shadow falling upon me— the hostile glance of Herr Spat.
It is a common saying that all men are equal in the presence of suffering, but I know very well that this is not true.