Then I would speak to him, saying things that were kindly meant but futile, because conversation is impossible between a man who is being whirled along by the waters of a torrent, and one who is seated among the rushes on the bank. Madelan did not listen to me, and he continued his strange colloquy with the other. He did not want us or any one else; he had ceased to eat or to drink, and relieved himself as he lay, asking neither help nor tendance.
One day, the wind blew the door of the room to, and there was no key to open it. A long ladder was put up to the window, and a pane of glass was broken to effect an entrance. Directly this was done, Madelan was heard, continuing his dream aloud.
He died, and was at once replaced by the man with his skull battered in, of whom we knew nothing, because when he came to us he could neither see nor speak, and had nothing by way of history but a red and white ticket, as large as the palm of a child’s hand.
This man spent only one night in the room, filling the silence with painful eructations, and thumping on the partition which separated him from my bed.
Listening alertly, with the cold air from the open window blowing on my face, I heard in turn the crowing of the cocks in the village, the irregular breathing of Philippe, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion not far from me, and the blows and the death-rattle of the man who took so long to die. He became silent, however, in the morning, when the wind began to drop, and the first detonation of the day boomed through the vault-like quiet of the darkness.
Then we had as our neighbour the hospital orderly, Sergeant Gidel, who was nearing his end, and whose cruel hiccough we had been unable to alleviate for a week past. This man knew his business, he knew the meaning of probe, of fever, of hardened abdomen. He knew too that he had a bullet in the spinal cord. He never asked us for anything, and as we dared not tell him lies, we were overcome by a kind of shame in his presence. He stayed barely two days in the room, looking with dim eyes at the engravings on the walls, and the Empire bureau on which vases were piled.
But what need is there to tell of all those whom this unhappy room swallowed up and ejected?
We have no lights this evening. ... We must learn to do without them. ... I grope my way along the passages, where the wind is muttering, to the great staircase. Here there is a fitful lamp which makes one prefer the darkness. I see the steps, which are white and smeared with mud, pictures and tapestries, a sumptuous scheme of decoration flooded at the bottom by filth and desolation. As I approach the room where the wounded are lying, I hear the calm sound of their conversation. I go in quietly. They cease talking; then they begin to chat again, for now they know me.
At first one can only distinguish long forms ranged upon the ground. The stretchers seem to be holding forth with human voices. One of these is narrating: