He brandishes the lantern angrily, and thrusts out his chin to show us the advancing figures: two men are carrying a stretcher on which lies a big body wrapped in a coarse winding sheet. The two men are weary, and set the stretcher down carefully in the mud.
“Is it Fumat?”
“Yes. He has just died, very peacefully.”
“Where are you going?”
“There is no place anywhere for a corpse. So we are taking him to the chapel in the burial-ground. But he is heavy.”
“We will give you a hand.”
Philippe and I take hold of the stretcher. The men follow us in silence. The body is heavy, very heavy. We drag our sabots out of the clay laboriously. And we walk slowly, breathing hard.
How heavy he is! ... He was called Fumat ... He was a giant. He came from the mountains of the Centre, leaving a red-tiled village on a hill-side, among juniper-bushes and volcanic boulders. He left his native place with its violet peaks and strong aromatic scents and came to the war in Artois. He was past the age when men can march to the attack, but he guarded the trenches and cooked. He received his death-wound while he was cooking. The giant of Auvergne was peppered with small missiles. He had no wound at all proportionate to his huge body. Nothing but splinters of metal. Once again, David has slain Goliath.
He was two days dying. He was asked: “Is there anything you would like?” And he answered with white lips: “Nothing, thank you.” When we were anxious and asked him “How do you feel?” he was always quite satisfied. “I am getting on very well.” He died with a discretion, a modesty, a self-forgetfulness which redeemed the egotism of the universe.
How heavy he is! He was wounded as he was blowing up the fire for the soup. He did not die fighting. He uttered no historic word. He fell at his post as a cook. ... He was not a hero.
You are not a hero, Fumat. You are only a martyr. And we are going to lay you in the earth of France, which has engulfed a noble and innumerable army of martyrs.
The shadow of the trees sweeps like a huge sickle across space. An acrid smell of cold decay rises on the night. The wind wails its threnody for Fumat.
“Open the door, Monsieur Julien.”
The lout pushes the door, grumbling to himself. We lay the body on the pavement of the chapel.
Renaud covers the corpse carefully with a faded flag. And suddenly, as if to celebrate the moment, the brutal roar of guns comes to us from the depths of the woods, breaks violently into the chapel, seizes and rattles the trembling window-panes. A hundred times over, a whole nation of cannon yells in honour of Fumat. And each time other Fumats fall in the mud yonder, in their appointed places.
They ought not to have cut off all the light in this manner, and it would not have been done, perhaps, if ...