They have taken us farther back than usual to a field depot so that we can be re-organized. Our company needs more than a hundred reinforcements.
In the meantime, when we are off duty, we loaf around. After a couple of days Himmelstoss comes up to us. He has had the bounce knocked out of him since he has been in the trenches and wants to get on good terms with us. I am willing, because I saw how he brought Haie Westhus in when he was hit in the back. Besides he's decent enough to treat us in the canteen when we are out of funds. Only Tjaden is still reserved and suspicious.
But he is won over, too, when Himmelstoss tells us that he is taking the place of the sergeant-cook who has gone on leave. As a proof he produces on the spot two pounds of sugar for us and a half-pound of butter specially for Tjaden. He even sees to it that we are detailed the next two or three days to the cook-house for potato and turnip peeling. The grub he gives us there is real officers' fare.
Thus momentarily we have the two things a soldier needs for contentment: good food and rest. That's not much when one comes to think of it. A few years ago we would have despised ourselves terribly. But now we are almost happy. It is all a matter of habit--even the frontline.
Habit is the explanation of why we seem to forget things so quickly. Yesterday we were under fire, to-day we act the fool and go foraging through the countryside, to-morrow we go up to the trenches again. We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed long ago. I soon found out this much:--terror can be endured so long as a man simply ducks;--but it kills, if a man thinks about it.
Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us through safely, so we turn into wags and loafers when we are resting. We can do nothing else, it is a sheer necessity. We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here.
Kemmerich is dead, Haie Westhus is dying, they will have a job with Hans Kramer's body at the Judgment Day, piecing it together after a direct hit; Martens has no legs any more, Meyer is dead, Max is dead, Beyer is dead, Hammerling is dead, there are a hundred and twenty wounded men lying somewhere or other; it is a damnable business, but what has it to do with us now--we live. If it were possible for us to save them, then it would be seen how much we cared--we would have a shot at it though we went under ourselves; for we can be damned quixotic when we like; fear we do not know much about--terror of death, yes; but that is a different matter, that is physical.
But our comrades are dead, we cannot help them, they have their rest--and who knows what is waiting for us? We will make ourselves comfortable and sleep, and eat as much as we can stuff into our bellies, and drink and smoke so that hours are not wasted. Life is short.
The terror of the front sinks deep down when we turn our backs upon it; we make grim, coarse jests about it, when a man dies, then we say he has nipped off his turd, and so we speak of everything; that keeps us from going mad; as long as we take it that way we maintain our own resistance.
But we do not forget. It's all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don't like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces. Even so we cannot hold out much longer; our humour becomes more bitter every month.
And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.
The days, the weeks, the years out here shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear, we shall have a purpose, and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us, the years at the Front behind us:--against whom, against whom?
Some time ago there was an army theatre in these parts. Coloured posters of the performances are still sticking on a hoarding. With wide eyes Kropp and I stand in front of it. We can hardly credit that such things still exist, A girl in a light summer dress, with a red patent-leather belt about her hips! She is standing with one hand on a railing and with the other she holds a straw hat. She wears white stockings and white shoes, fine buckle shoes with high heels. Behind her smiles the blue sea with white-horses, at the side is a bright bay. She is a lovely girl with a delicate nose, red lips, and slender legs, wonderfully clean and well cared for, she certainly baths twice a day and never has any dirt under her nails. At most perhaps a bit of sand from the beach.
Beside her stands a man in white trousers, a blue jacket, and sailor's cap; but he interests us much less.
The girl on the poster is a wonder to us. We have quite forgotten that there are such things, and even now we hardly believe our eyes. We have seen nothing like it for years, nothing like it for happiness, beauty and joy. That is peace-time, that is as it should be; we feel excited.
"Just look at those thin shoes though, she couldn't march many miles in those," I say, and then begin to feel silly, for it is absurd to stand in front of a picture like this and think of nothing but marching.
"How old would she be?" Kropp asks.
"About twenty-two at the most," I hazard.
"Then she would be older than us! She is not more then seventeen, let me tell you!"
It gives us goose flesh.
"That would be good, Albert, what do you think?"
He nods. "I have some white trousers at home too."
"White trousers," say I, "but a girl like that--"
We look askance at one another. There's not much to boast of here--two ragged, stained, and dirty uniforms. It is hopeless to compete.
So we proceed to tear the young man with the white trousers off the hoarding, taking care not to damage the girl. That is something toward it.
"We could go and get deloused, anyway," Kropp then suggests.
I am not very enthusiastic because it doesn't do one's clothes any good and a man is lousy again inside two hours. But when we have considered the picture once more, I declare myself willing. I go even farther.
"We might see if we could get a clean shirt as well--"
"Socks might be better," says Albert, not without reason.
"Yes, socks too perhaps. Let's go and explore a bit."
Then Leer and Tjaden stroll up; they look at the poster and immediately the conversation becomes smutty. Leer was the first of our class to have intercourse, and he gave stirring details of it. After his fashion he enjoys himself over the picture, and Tjaden supports him nobly.
It does not distress us exactly. Who isn't smutty is no soldier; it merely does not suit us at the moment, so we edge away and march off to the de-lousing station with the same feeling as if it were a swell gentlemen's outfitters.
The houses in which we are billeted lie near the canal. On the other side of the canal there are ponds flanked with poplars;--on the other side of the canal there are women too.
The houses on our side have been abandoned. On the other side though one occasionally sees inhabitants.
In the evening we go swimming. Three women come strolling along the bank. They walk slowly and don't look away, although we have no bathing suits.
Leer calls out to them. They laugh and stop to watch us. We fling remarks at them in broken French, anything that comes into our heads, hastily and all jumbled together, anything to detain them.
They are not specially wonderful pieces, but then where are such to be had about here?
There is one slim little brunette, her teeth gleam when she laughs. She has quick movements, her dress swings loosely about her legs. Although the water is cold we are very jovial and do our best to interest them so that they will stay. We try to make jokes and they answer with things we cannot understand; we laugh and beckon. Tjaden is more crafty. He runs into the house, gets a loaf of army bread and holds it up.
That produces a great effect. They nod and beckon us to come over. But we don't dare to do that. It is forbidden to cross to the opposite bank. There are sentries on all the bridges. It's impossible without a pass. So we indicate that they should come over to us; but they shake their heads and point to the bridge. They are not allowed to pass either. They turn back and walk slowly down the canal, keeping along the tow-path all the way. We accompany them swimming. After a few hundred yards they turn off and point to a house that stands a little distance away among the trees and shrubbery.
Leer asks if they live there.
They laugh--sure, that's their house.
We call out to them that we would like to come, sometime when the guards cannot see us. At night. To-night.
They raise their hands, put them together, rest their faces on them and shut their eyes. They understand. The slim brunette does a two-step. The blonde girl twitters: "Bread--good--"
Eagerly we assure them that we will bring some with us. And other tasty bits too, we roll our eyes and try to explain with our hands. Leer nearly drowns trying to demonstrate a sausage. If it were necessary we would promise them a whole quartermaster's store. They go off and frequently turn and look back. We climb out on the bank on our side of the canal and watch to see whether they go into the house, for they might easily have been lying. Then we swim back.
No one can cross the bridge without leave, so we will simply have to swim over to-night. We are full of excitement. We cannot last out without a drink, so we go to the canteen where there is beer and a kind of punch.
We drink punch and tell one another lying tales of our experiences. Each man gladly believes the other man's story, only waiting impatiently till he can cap it with a taller one. Our hands are fidgety, we smoke countless cigarettes, until Kropp says: "We might as well take them a few cigarettes too." So we put some inside our caps to keep them.
The sky turns apple-green. There are four of us, but only three can go; we must shake off Tjaden, so ply him with rum and punch until he rocks. As it turns dark we go to our billets, Tjaden in the centre. We are glowing and full of a lust for adventure.
The little brunette is mine, we have settled all that.
Tjaden drops on his sack of straw and snores. Once he wakes up and grins so craftily that we are alarmed and begin to think he is cheating, and that we have given him the punch to no purpose. Then he drops back again and sleeps on.
We each get hold of a whole army loaf and wrap it up in newspaper. The cigarettes we put in too, as well as three good rations of liver-sausage that were issued to us this evening. That makes a decent present.
We stow the things carefully in our boots; we have to take them to protect our feet against treading on wire and broken glass on the other bank. As we must swim for it we can take no other clothes. But it is not far and quite dark.
We make off with our boots in our hands. Swiftly we slip into the water, lie on our backs and swim, holding the boots with their contents up over our heads.
We climb out carefully on the opposite bank, take out the packages and put on our boots. We put the things under our arms. And so, all wet and naked, clothed only in our boots, we break into a trot. We find the house at once. It lies among the trees. Leer trips over a root and skins his elbows.
"No matter," he says gaily.
The windows are shuttered. We slip round the house and try to peer through the cracks. Then we grow impatient. Suddenly Kropp hesitates: "What if there's a Major with them?"
"Then we just clear off," grins Leer, "he can try to read our regimental numbers here," and smacks his behind.
The door of the court-yard stands open. Our boots make a great clatter. The house door opens, a chink of light shines through and a woman cries out in a scared voice.
"Ssh, ssh! camerade--bon ami--" we say, and show our packages protestingly.
The other two are now on the scene, the door opens and the light floods over us. They recognise us and all three burst into laughter at our appearance. They rock and sway in the doorway, they laugh so much. How supple their movements are.
"Un moment--" They disappear and throw us bits of clothing which we gladly wrap round ourselves. Then we are allowed in. A small lamp burns in their room, which is warm and smells a little of perfume. We unwrap our parcels and hand them over to the women. Their eyes shine, it is obvious that they are hungry.
Then we all become rather embarrassed. Leer makes the gestures of eating, and then they come to life again and bring out plates and knives and fall to on the food, and they hold up every slice of livered sausage and admire it before they eat it, and we sit proudly by.
They overwhelm us with their chatter;--we understand very little of it, but we listen and the words sound friendly. No doubt we all look very young. The little brunette strokes my hair and says what all French women say: "La guerre--grand malheur--pauvres garcons--"
I hold her arm tightly and press my lips into the palm of her hand. Her fingers close round my face. Close above me are her bewildering eyes, the soft brown of her skin and her red lips. Her mouth speaks words I do not understand. Nor do I fully understand her eyes; they seem to say more than we anticipated when we came here.
There are other rooms adjoining. In passing I see Leer, he has made a great hit with the blonde.
He's an old hand at the game. But I--I am lost in remoteness, in weakness, and in a passion to which I yield myself trustingly. My desires are strangely compounded of yearning and misery. I feel giddy, there is nothing here that a man can hold on to. We have left our boots at the door, they have given us slippers instead, and now nothing remains to recall for me the assurance and self-confidence of the soldier; no rifle, no belt, no tunic, no cap. I let myself drop into the unknown, come what may--yet, in spite of all, I feel somewhat afraid.
The little brunette contracts her brows when she is thinking; but when she talks they are still. And often sound does not quite become a word but suffocates or floats away over me half finished; an arch, a pathway, a comet. What have I known of it--what do I know of it?--The words of this foreign tongue, that I hardly understand, they caress me to a quietness, in which the room grows dim, and dissolves in the half light, only the face above me lives and is clear.
How various is a face; but an hour ago it was strange and it is now touched with a tenderness that comes, not from it, but from out of the night, the world and the blood, all these things seem to shine in it together. The objects in the room are touched by it and transformed, they become isolated, and I feel almost awed at the sight of my clear skin when the light of the lamp falls upon it and the cool, brown hand passes over it.
How different this is from the conditions in the soldiers' brothels, to which we are allowed to go, and where we have to wait in long queues. I wish I never thought of them; but desire turns my mind to them involuntarily and I am afraid for it might be impossible ever to be free of them again.
But then I feel the lips of the little brunette and press myself against them, my eyes close, I want it all to fall from me, war and terror and grossness, in order to awaken young and happy; I think of the picture of the girl on the poster and, for a moment, believe that my life depends on winning her. And if I press ever deeper into the arms that embrace me, perhaps a miracle may happen....
So, after a time we find ourselves reassembled again. Leer is in high spirits. We pull on our boots and take our leave warmly. The night air cools our hot bodies. The rustling poplars loom large in the darkness. The moon floats in the heavens and in the waters of the canal. We do not run, we walk beside one another with long strides.
"That was worth a ration-loaf," says Leer.
I cannot trust myself to speak, I am not in the least happy.
Then we hear footsteps and dodge behind a shrub.
The steps come nearer, close by us. We see a naked soldier, in boots, just like ourselves; he has a package under his arm, and gallops onward. It is Tjaden in full course. He has disappeared already.
We laugh. In the morning he will curse us.
Unobserved, we arrive again at our sacks of straw.
I am called to the Orderly Room. The Company Commander gives me a leave-pass and a travel-pass and wishes me a good journey. I look to see how much leave I have got. Seventeen days--fourteen days leave and three days for travelling. It is not enough and I ask whether I cannot have five days for travelling. Bertinck points to my pass. There I see that I am not to return to the front immediately. After my leave I have to report for a course of training to a camp on the moors.
The others envy me. Kat gives me good advice, and tells me I ought to try to get a base-job. "If you're smart, you'll hang on to it."
I would rather not have gone for another eight days; we are to stay here that much longer and it is good here.
Naturally I have to stand the others drinks at the canteen. We are all a little bit drunk. I become gloomy: I will be away for six weeks--that is lucky, of course, but what may happen before I get back? Shall I meet all these fellows again? Already Haie and Kemmerich have gone--who will the next be?
As we drink, I look at each of them in turn. Albert sits beside me and smokes, he is cheerful, we have always been together;--opposite squats Kat, with his drooping shoulders, his broad thumb, and calm voice--Müller with the projecting teeth and the booming laugh; Tjaden with his mousey eyes;--Leer who has grown a full beard and looks at least forty.
Over us hangs a dense cloud of smoke. Where would a soldier be without tobacco? The canteen is his refuge, and beer is far more than a drink, it is a token that a man can move his limbs and stretch in safety.
We do it ceremonially, we stretch our legs out in front of us and spit deliberately, that is the only way. How it all rises up before a man when he is going away the next morning!
At night we go again to the other side of the canal. I am almost afraid to tell the little brunette that I am going away, and when I return we will be far from here; we will never see one another again. But she merely nods and takes no special notice. At first I am at a loss to understand, then it suddenly dawns on me. Yes, Leer is right: if I were going up to the front, then she would have called me again "pauvre garÃ§on"; but merely going on leave--she does not want to hear about that, that is not nearly so interesting. May she go to the devil with her chattering talk. A man dreams of a miracle and wakes up to loaves of bread.
Next morning, after I have been de-loused, I go to the rail head. Albert and Kat come with me. At the halt we learn that it will be a couple of hours yet before the train leaves. The other two have to go back to duty. We take leave of one another.
"Good luck, Kat: good luck, Albert."
They go off and wave once or twice. Their figures dwindle. I know their every step and movement; I would recognise them at any distance. Then they disappear. I sit down on my pack and wait.
Suddenly I become filled with a consuming impatience to be gone.
I lie down on many a station platform; I stand before many a soup-kitchen; I squat on many a bench;--then at last the landscape becomes disturbing, mysterious, and familiar. It glides past the western windows with its villages, their thatched roofs like caps, pulled over the whitewashed, half-timbered houses, its corn-fields, gleaming like mother-of-pearl in the slanting light, its orchards, its barns and old lime trees.
The names of the stations begin to take on meaning and my heart trembles. The train stamps and stamps onward. I stand at the window and hold on to the frame. These names mark the boundaries of my youth.
Smooth meadows, fields, farm-yards; a solitary team moves against the sky-line along the road that runs parallel to the horizon--a barrier, before which peasants stand waiting, girls waving, children playing on the embankment, roads, leading into the country, smooth roads without artillery.
It is evening, and if the train did not rattle I should cry out. The plain unfolds itself.
In the distance, the soft, blue silhouette of the mountain ranges begins to appear. I recognise the characteristic outline of the Dolbenberg, a jagged comb, springing up precipitously from the limits of the forests. Behind it should lie the town.
But now the sun streams through the world, dissolving everything in its golden-red light, the train swings round one curve and then another;--far away, in a long line one behind the other, stand the poplars, unsubstantial, swaying and dark, fashioned out of shadow, light, and desire.
The field swings round as the train encircles it, and the intervals between the trees diminish; the trees become a block and for a moment I see one only--then they reappear from behind the foremost tree and stand out a long line against the sky until they are hidden by the first houses.
A street-crossing. I stand by the window, I cannot drag myself away. The others put their baggage ready for getting out. I repeat to myself the name of the street that we cross over--Bremer-strasse--Bremerstrasse-- Below there are cyclists, lorries, men; it is a grey street and a grey subway;--it affects me as though it were my mother.
Then the train stops, and there is the station with noise and cries and signboards. I pick up my pack and fasten the straps, I take my rifle in my hand and stumble down the steps.
On the platform I look round; I know no one among all the people hurrying to and fro. A red-cross sister offers me something to drink. I turn away, she smiles at me too foolishly, so obsessed with her own importance: "Just look, I am giving a soldier coffee!"--She calls me "Comrade," but I will have none of it.
Outside in front of the station the stream roars alongside the street, it rushes foaming from the sluices of the mill bridge. There stands the old, square watch-tower, in front of it the great mottled lime tree and behind it the evening.
Here we have often sat--how long ago it is--; we have passed over this bridge and breathed the cool, acid smell of the stagnant water; we have leaned over the still water on this side of the lock, where the green creepers and weeds hang from the piles of the bridge;--and on hot days we rejoiced in the spouting foam on the other side of the lock and told tales about our school-teachers.
I pass over the bridge, I look right and left; the water is as full of weeds as ever, and it still shoots over in gleaming arches; in the tower-building laundresses still stand with bare arms as they used to over the clean linen, and the heat from the ironing pours out through the open windows. Dogs trot along the narrow street, before the doors of the houses people stand and follow me with their gaze as I pass by, dirty and heavy laden.
In this confectioner's we used to eat ices, and there we learned to smoke cigarettes. Walking down the street I know every shop, the grocer's, the chemist's, the baker's. Then at last I stand before the brown door with its worn latch and my hand grows heavy. I open the door and a strange coolness comes out to meet me, my eyes are dim.
The stairs creak under my boots. Upstairs a door rattles, someone is looking over the railing. It is the kitchen door that was opened, they are cooking potato-cakes, the house reeks of it, and to-day of course is Saturday; that will be my sister leaning over. For a moment I am shy and lower my head, then I take off my helmet and look up. Yes, it is my eldest sister.
"Paul," she cries, "Paul--"
I nod, my pack bumps against the bannisters; my rifle is so heavy.
She pulls a door open and calls: "Mother, mother, Paul is here."
I can go no further--mother, mother, Paul is here.
I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and rifle. I hold them as tight as I can, but I cannot take another step, the staircase fades before my eyes, I support myself with the butt of my rifle against my feet and clench my teeth fiercely, but I cannot speak a word, my sister's call has made me powerless, I can do nothing, I struggle to make myself laugh, to speak, but no word comes, and so I stand on the steps, miserable, helpless, paralysed, and against my will the tears run down my cheeks.
My sister comes back and says: "Why, what is the matter?"
Then I pull myself together and stagger on to the landing. I lean my rifle in a corner, I set my pack against the wall, place my helmet on it and fling down my equipment and baggage. Then I say fiercely: "Bring me a handkerchief."
She gives me one from the cupboard and I dry my face. Above me on the wall hangs the glass case with the coloured butterflies that once I collected.
Now I hear my mother's voice. It comes from the bedroom.
"Is she in bed?" I ask my sister.
"She is ill--" she replies.
I go into her, give her my hand and say as calmly as I can: "Here I am, Mother."
She lies still in the dim light. Then she asks anxiously: "Are you wounded?" and I feel her searching glance.
"No, I have got leave."
My mother is very pale. I am afraid to make a light.
"Here I lie now," says she, "and cry instead of being glad."
"Are you sick, Mother?" I ask.
"I am going to get up a little to-day," she says and turns to my sister, who is continually running to the kitchen to watch that the food does not burn: "And put out that jar of preserved whortleberries--you like that, don't you?" she asks me.
"Yes, Mother, I haven't had any for a long time.
“We might almost have known you were coming," laughs my sister, "there is just your favourite dish, potato-cakes, and even whortleberries to go with them too."
"And it is Saturday," I add.
"Sit here beside me," says my mother.
She looks at me. Her hands are white and sickly and frail compared with mine. We say very little and I am thankful that she asks nothing.
What ought I to say? Everything I could have wished for has happened. I have come out of it safely and sit here beside her. And in the kitchen stands my sister preparing supper and singing.
"Dear boy," says my mother softly.
We were never very demonstrative in our family; poor folk who toil and are full of cares are not so. It is not their way to protest what they already know. When my mother says to me "dear boy," it means much more than when another uses it. I know well enough that the jar of whortleberries is the only one they have had for months, and that she has kept it for me; and the somewhat stale cakes that she gives me too. She must have got them cheap some time and put them all by for me.
I sit by her bed, and through the window the chestnut trees in the beer garden opposite glow in brown and gold. I breathe deeply and say over to myself:--"You are at home, you are at home." But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano--but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.
I go and fetch my pack to the bedside and turn out the things I have brought--a whole Edamer cheese, that Kat provided me with, two loaves of army bread, three-quarters of a pound of butter, two tins of livered sausage, a pound of dripping and a little bag of rice.
"I suppose you can make some use of that--"
"Is it pretty bad for food here?" I enquire.
"Yes, there's not much. Do you get enough out there?"
I smile and point to the things I have brought. "Not always quite as much as that, of course, but we fare reasonably well."
Erna takes away the food. Suddenly my mother seizes hold of my hand and asks falteringly: "Was it very bad out there, Paul?"
Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could never realise it. And you never shall realise it. Was it bad, you ask.--You, Mother,--I shake my head and say: "No, Mother, not so very. There are always a lot of us together so it isn't so bad."
"Yes, but Heinrich Bredemeyer was here just lately and said it was terrible out there now, with the gas and all the rest of it."
It is my mother who says that. She says: "With the gas and all the rest of it." She does not know what she is saying, she is merely anxious for me. Should I tell her how we once found three enemy trenches with their garrison all stiff as though stricken with apoplexy? against the parapet, in the dug-outs, just where they were, the men stood and lay about, with blue faces, dead.
"No Mother, that's only talk," I answer, "there's not very much in what Bredemeyer says. You see for instance, I'm well and fit--"
Before my mother's tremulous anxiety I recover my composure. Now I can walk about and talk and answer questions without fear of having suddenly to lean against the wall because the world turns soft as rubber and my veins become brimstone.
My mother wants to get up. So I go for a while to my sister in the kitchen. "What is the matter with her?" I ask.
She shrugs her shoulders: "She has been in bed some months now, but we did not want to write and tell you. Several doctors have been to see her. One of them said it is probably cancer again."
I go to the district commandant to report myself. Slowly I wander through the streets. Occasionally someone speaks to me. I do not delay long for I have little inclination to talk.
On my way back from the barracks a loud voice calls out to me. Still lost in thought I turn round and find myself confronted by a Major. "Can't you salute?" he blusters.
"Sorry, Major," I say in embarrassment, "I didn't notice you."
"Don't you know how to speak properly?" he roars.
I would like to hit him in the face, but control myself, for my leave depends on it. I click my heels and say: "I did not see you, Herr Major."
"Then keep your eyes open," he snorts. "What is your name?" I give it.
His fat red face is furious. "What regiment?"
I give him full particulars. Even yet he has not had enough. "Where are you quartered?"
But I have had more than enough and say: "Between Langemark and Bixschoote."
"Eh?" he asks, a bit stupefied.
I explain to him that I arrived on leave only an hour or two since, thinking that he would then trot along. But not at all. He gets even more furious: "You think you can bring your front-line manners here, what? Well, we don't stand for that sort of thing. Thank God, we have discipline here!"
"Twenty paces backwards, double march!" he commands.
I am mad with rage. But I cannot say anything to him; he could put me under arrest if he liked. So I double back, and then march up to him. Six paces from him I spring to a stiff salute and maintain it until I am six paces beyond him.
He calls me back again and affably gives me to understand that for once he is pleased to put mercy before justice. I pretend to be duly grateful. "Now, dismiss!" he says. I turn about smartly and march off.
That ruins the evening for me. I go back home and throw my uniform into a corner; I had intended to change it in any case. Then I take out my civilian clothes from the wardrobe and put them on.
I feel awkward. The suit is rather tight and short, I have grown in the army. Collar and tie give me some trouble. In the end my sister ties the bow for me. But how light the suit is, it feels as though I had nothing on but a shirt and underpants.
I look at myself in the glass. It is a strange sight. A sunburnt, overgrown candidate for confirmation gazes at me in astonishment My mother is pleased to see me wearing civilian clothes; it makes me less strange to her. But my father would rather I kept my uniform on so that he could take me to visit his acquaintances.
But I refuse.
It is pleasant to sit quietly somewhere, in the beer garden for example, under the chestnuts by the skittle-alley. The leaves fall down on the table and on the ground, only a few, the first. A glass of beer stands in front of me, I've learned to drink in the army. The glass is half empty, but there are a few good swigs ahead of me, and besides I can always order a second and a third if I wish to. There are no bugles and no bombardments, the children of the house play in the skittle-alley, and the dog rests his head against my knee. The sky is blue, between the leaves of the chestnuts rises the green spire of St. Margaret's Church.
This is good, I like it. But I cannot get on with the people. My mother is the only one who asks no questions. Not so my father. He wants me to tell him about the front; he is curious in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no longer have any real contact with him. There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realise he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?
So I confine myself to telling him a few amusing things. But he wants to know whether I have ever had a hand-to-hand fight. I say "No," and get up and go out.
But that does not mend matters. After I have been startled a couple of times in the street by the screaming of the tramcars, which resembles the shriek of a shell coming straight for one, somebody taps me on the shoulder. It is my German-master, and he fastens on me with the usual question: "Well, how are things out there? Terrible, terrible, eh? Yes, it is dreadful, but we must carry on. And after all, you do at least get decent food out there, so I hear. You look well, Paul, and fit. Naturally it's worse here. Naturally. The best for our soldiers every time, that goes without saying."
He drags me along to a table with a lot of others. They welcome me, a head-master shakes hands with me and says: "So you come from the front? What is the spirit like out there? Excellent, eh? excellent?"
I explain that no one would be sorry to be back home.
He laughs uproariously. "I can well believe it! But first you have to give the Froggies a good hiding. Do you smoke? Here, try one. Waiter, bring a beer as well for our young warrior."
Unfortunately I have accepted the cigar, so I have to remain. And they are all so dripping with good will that it is impossible to object. All the same I feel annoyed and smoke like a chimney as hard as I can. In order to make at least some show of appreciation I toss off the beer in one gulp. Immediately a second is ordered; people know how much they are indebted to the soldiers. They argue about what we ought to annex. The head-master with the steel watch-chain wants to have at least the whole of Belgium, the coal-areas of France, and a slice of Russia. He produces reasons why we must have them and is quite inflexible until at last the others give in to him. Then he begins to expound just whereabouts in France the breakthrough must come, and turns to me:
"Now, shove ahead a bit out there with your everlasting trench warfare--Smash through the johnnies and then there will be peace."
I reply that in our opinion a break-through may not be possible. The enemy may have too many reserves. Besides, the war may be rather different from what people think.
He dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. "The details, yes," says he, "but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey. You do your duty, you risk your lives, that deserves the highest honour--every man of you ought to have the Iron Cross--but first of all the enemy line must be broken through in Flanders and then rolled up from the top."
He blows his nose and wipes his beard. "Completely rolled up they must be, from the top to the bottom. And then to Paris.”
I would like to know just how he pictures it to himself, and pour the third glass of beer into me. Immediately he orders another.
But I break away. He stuffs a few more cigars into my pocket and sends me off with a friendly slap. "All of the best! I hope we will soon hear something worth while from you."
I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.
I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me. For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here.
They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, only with words, yes, that is it--they feel it, but always with only half of themselves, the rest of their being is taken up with other things, they are so divided in themselves that none feels it with his whole essence; I cannot even say myself exactly what I mean.
When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, about their occupations, I feel an irresistible attraction in it, I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man's life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and the star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches.--They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise. I must think of Kat and Albert and Müller and Tjaden, what will they be doing? No doubt they are sitting in the canteen, or perhaps swimming--soon they will have to go up to the front-line again.
In my room behind the table stands a brown leather sofa. I sit down on it.
On the walls are pinned countless pictures that I once used to cut out of the newspapers. In between are drawings and postcards that have pleased me. In the corner is a small iron stove. Against the wall opposite stand the book-shelves with my books.
I used to live in this room before I was a soldier. The books I bought gradually with the money I earned by coaching. Many of them are secondhand, all the classics for example, one volume in blue cloth boards cost one mark twenty pfennig. I bought them complete because it was thoroughgoing, I did not trust the editors of selections to choose all the best. So I purchased only "collected works." I read most of them with laudible zeal, but few of them really appealed to me. I preferred the other books, the moderns, which were of course much dearer. A few I came by not quite honestly, I borrowed and did not return them because I did not want to part with them.
One shelf is filled with school books. They are not so well cared for, they are badly thumbed, and pages have been torn out for certain purposes. Then below are periodicals, papers, and letters all jammed in together with drawings and rough sketches.
I want to think myself back into that time. It is still in the room, I feel it at once, the walls have preserved it. My hands rest on the arms of the sofa; now I make myself at home and draw up my legs so that I sit comfortably in the corner, in the arms of the sofa. The little window is open, through it I see the familiar picture of the street with the rising spire of the church at the end. There are a couple of flowers on the table. Pen-holders, a shell as a paper-weight, the ink-well--here nothing is changed.
It will be like this too, if I am lucky, when the war is over and I come back here for good. I will sit here just like this and look at my room and wait.
I feel excited; but I do not want to be, for that is not right. I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.
It occurs to me that I must go and see Kemmerich's mother;--I might visit Mittelstaedt too, he should be at the barracks. I look out of the window;--beyond the picture of the sunlit street appears a range of hills, distant and light; it changes to a clear day in autumn, and I sit by the fire with Kat and Albert and eat potatoes baked in their skins.
But I do not want to think of that, I sweep it away. The room shall speak, it must catch me up and hold me, I want to feel that I belong here, I want to hearken and know when I go back to the front that the war will sink down, be drowned utterly in the great home-coming tide, know that it will then be past for ever, and not gnaw us continually, that it will have none but an outward power over us.
The backs of the books stand in rows. I know them all still, I remember arranging them in order. I implore them with my eyes: Speak to me--take me up--take me, Life of my Youth--you who are care-free, beautiful--receive me again-- I wait, I wait.
Images float through my mind, but they do not grip me, they are mere shadows and memories.
My disquietude grows.
A terrible feeling of foreignness suddenly rises up in me. I cannot find my way back, I am shut out though I entreat earnestly and put forth all my strength.
Nothing stirs; listless and wretched, like a condemned man, I sit there and the past withdraws itself. And at the same time I fear to importune it too much, because I do not know what might happen then. I am a soldier, I must cling to that.
Wearily I stand up and look out of the window. Then I take one of the books, intending to read, and turn over the leaves. But I put it away and take out another. There are passages in it that have been marked. I look, turn over the pages, take up fresh books. Already they are piled up beside me. Speedily more join the heap, papers, magazines, letters.
I stand there dumb. As before a judge.
Words, Words, Words--they do not reach me.
Slowly I place the books back in the shelves.
Quietly, I go out of the room.
Still I do not give up hope. I do not indeed, go to my room any more, but comfort myself with the thought that a few days are not enough to judge by. Afterwards--later on--there is plenty of time for that.
So I go over to see Mittelstaedt in the barracks, and we sit in his room; there is an atmosphere about it that I do not like but with which I am quite familiar.
Mittelstaedt has some news ready for me that electrifies me on the spot. He tells me Kantorek has been called up as a territorial.
"Just think of it," says he, and takes out a couple of good cigars, "I come back here from the hospital and bump right into him. He stretches out his paw to me and bleats: 'Hullo Mittelstaedt, how are you?'--I look at him and say: Territorial Kantorek, business is business and schnapps is schnapps, you ought to know that well enough. Stand to attention when you speak to a superior officer.' You should have seen his face! A cross between a dud and a pickled cucumber. He tried once again to chum up. So I snubbed him a bit harder. Then he brought up his biggest guns and asked confidentially: 'Would you like me to use my influence so that you can take an emergency-exam.?' He was trying to remind me of those things, you know. Then I got mad, and I reminded him of something instead. Territorial Kantorek, two years ago you preached us into enlisting; and among us there was one, Joseph Behm, who didn't want to enlist. He was killed three months before he would have been called up in the ordinary way. If it had not been for you he would have lived just that much longer. And now: Dismiss. You will hear from me later.' It was easy to get put in charge of his company. First thing I did was to take him to the stores and fit him out with suitable equipment. You will see in a minute."
We go to the parade ground. The company has fallen in, Mittelstaedt stands them at ease and inspects.
Then I see Kantorek and am scarcely able to stifle my laughter. He is wearing a faded blue tunic. On the back and in the sleeves there are big dark patches. The tunic must have belonged to a giant. The black, worn breeches are just as much too short; they reach barely halfway down his calf. The boots, tough old clod-hoppers, with turned-up toes and laces at the side are much too big for him. But as a compensation the cap is too small, a terribly dirty, mean little pill-box. The whole rig-out is just pitiful.
Mittelstaedt stops in front of him: "Territorial Kantorek, do you call those buttons polished? You seem as though you can never learn. Inadequate, Kantorek, quite inadequate--"
It makes me bubble with glee. In school Kantorek used to chasten Mittelstaedt with exactly the same expression--"Inadequate, Mittelstaedt, quite inadequate."
Mittelstaedt continues to upbraid him: "Look at Boettcher now, there's a model for you to learn from."
I can hardly believe my eyes. Boettcher is there too, Boettcher, our school porter. And he is a model! Kantorek shoots a glance at me as if he would like to eat me. But I grin at him innocently, as though I do not recognise him any more.
Nothing could look more ludicrous than his forage-cap and his uniform. And this is the object before whom we used to stand in anguish as he sat up there enthroned at his desk, spearing at us with his pencil for our mistakes in those irregular French verbs with which afterwards we made so little headway in France. That is barely two years ago--and now here stands Territorial Kantorek, the spell quite broken, with bent knees, arms like pothooks, unpolished buttons and that ludicrous rig-out--an impossible soldier. I cannot reconcile this with the menacing figure at the schoolmaster's desk. I wonder what I, the old soldier, would do if this skinful of woe ever dared to say to me again: "BÃ¤umer, give the imperfect of 'aller.'"
Then Mittelstaedt makes them practise skirmishing, and as a favour appoints Kantorek squad leader.
Now, in skirmishing the squad leader has always to keep twenty paces in front of his squad; if the order comes "On the march, about turn," the line of skirmishers simply turns about, but the squad leader, who now finds himself suddenly twenty paces in the rear of the line, has to rush up at the double and take his position again twenty paces in front of the squad. That makes altogether forty paces double march. But no sooner has he arrived than the order "On the march, about turn," comes again and he once more has to race at top speed another forty paces to the other side. In this way the squad has merely made the turn-about and a couple of paces, while the squad-leader dashes backwards and forwards like a fart on a curtain-pole. That is one of Himmelstoss' well-worn recipes.
Kantorek can hardly expect anything else from Mittelstaedt, for he once messed up the latter's chance of promotion, and Mittelstaedt would be a big fool not to make the best of such a good opportunity as this before he goes back to the front again. A man might well die easier after the army has given him just one such stroke of luck.
In the meantime Kantorek is dashing up and down like a wild boar. After a while Mittelstaedt stops the skirmish and begins the very important exercise of creeping.
On hands and knees, carrying his gun in regulation fashion, Kantorek shoves his absurd figure over the sand immediately in front of us. He is breathing hard, and his panting is music.
Mittelstaedt encourages Kantorek the territorial with quotations from Kantorek the schoolmaster. "Territorial Kantorek, we have the good fortune to live in a great age, we must brace ourselves and triumph over hardship."
Kantorek sweats and spits out a dirty piece of wood that has lodged in his teeth.
Mittelstaedt stoops down and says reproachfully: "And in the trifles never lose sight of the great adventure, Territorial Kantorek!"
It amazes me that Kantorek does not explode with a bang, especially when, during physical exercises, Mittelstaedt copies him to perfection, seizing him by the seat of his trousers as he is pulling himself up on the horizontal bar so that he can just raise his chin above the beam, and then starts to give him good advice. That is exactly what Kantorek used to do to him at school.
The extra fatigues are next detailed off. "Kantorek and Boettcher, bread fatigue! Take the handcart with you."
A few minutes later the two set off together pushing the barrow. Kantorek in a fury walks with his head down. But the porter is delighted to have scored light duty.
The bakehouse is away at the other end of the town, and the two must go there and back through the whole length of it.
"They've done that a couple of times already," grins Mittelstaedt. "People have begun to watch for them coming."
"Excellent," I say, "but hasn't he reported you yet?"
"He did try. Our C. O. laughed like the deuce when he heard the story. He hasn't any time for schoolmasters. Besides, I'm sweet with his daughter."
"He'll mess up the examination for you."
"I don't care," says Mittelstaedt calmly. "Besides, his complaint came to nothing because I could show that he had had hardly anything but light duty."
"Couldn't you polish him up a bit?" I ask.
"He's too stupid, I couldn't be bothered," answers Mittelstaedt contemptuously.
What is leave?--A pause that only makes everything after it so much worse. Already the sense of parting begins to intrude itself. My mother watches me silently;--I know she counts the days;--every morning she is sad. It is one day less. She has put away my pack, she does not want to be reminded by it.
The hours pass quickly if a man broods. I pull myself together, and go with my sister to the slaughter-house to get a pound or two of bones. That is a great favour and people line up early in the morning and stand waiting. Many of them faint.
We have no luck. After waiting by turns for three hours the queue disperses. The bones have not lasted out.
It is a good thing that I get my rations. I bring them to my mother and in that way we all get something decent to eat.
The days grow ever more strained and my mother's eyes more sorrowful. Four days left now. I must go and see Kemmerich's mother.
I cannot write that down. This quaking, sobbing woman who shakes me and cries out on me: "Why are you living then, when he is dead?"--who drowns me in tears and calls out: "What are you there for at all, child, when you --"--"
"--who drops into a chair and wails: "Did you see him? Did you see him then? How did he die?"
I tell her he was shot through the heart and died instantaneously. She looks at me, she doubts me: "You lie. I know better. I have felt how terribly he died. I have heard his voice at night, I have felt his anguish--tell the truth, I want to know it, I must know it."
"No," I say, "I was beside him. He died at once."
She pleads with me gently: "Tell me. You must tell me. I know you want to comfort me, but don't you see, you torment me far more than if you told me the truth? I cannot bear the uncertainty. Tell me how it was and even though it will be terrible, it will be far better than what I have to think if you don't."
I will never tell her, she can make mincemeat out of me first. I pity her, but she strikes me as rather stupid all the same. Why doesn't she stop worrying?
Kemmerich will stay dead whether she knows about it or not. When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual. So I say rather impatiently: "He died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite calm."
She is silent. Then she says slowly: "Will you swear it?"
"By everything that is sacred to you?"
Good God, what is there that is sacred to me?--such things change pretty quickly with us.
"Yes, he died at once."
"Are you willing never to come back yourself, if it isn't true?"
"May I never come back if he wasn't killed instantaneously."
I would swear to anything. But she seems to believe me. She moans and weeps steadily. I have to tell how it happened, so I invent a story and I almost believe it myself.
As I leave she kisses me and gives me a picture of him. In his recruit's uniform he leans on a round rustic table with legs made of birch branches. Behind him a wood is painted on a curtain, and on the table stands a mug of beer.
It is the last evening at home. Everyone is silent. I go to bed early, I seize the pillow, press it against myself and bury my head in it. Who knows if I will ever lie in a feather bed again?
Late in the night my mother comes into my room.
She thinks I am asleep, and I pretend to be so. To talk, to stay awake with one another, it is too hard.
She sits long into the night although she is in pain and often writhes. At last I can bear it no longer, and pretend I have just wakened up.
"Go and sleep, Mother, you will catch cold here."
"I can sleep enough later," she says.
I sit up. "I don't go straight back to the front, mother. I have to do four weeks at the training camp. I may come over from there one Sunday, perhaps."
She is silent. Then she asks gently: "Are you very much afraid?"
"I would like to tell you to be on your guard against the women out in France. They are no good."
Ah! Mother, Mother! You still think I am a child--why can I not put my head in your lap and weep? Why have I always to be strong and self-controlled? I would like to weep and be comforted too, indeed I am little more than a child; in the wardrobe still hang short, boy's trousers--it is such a little time ago, why is it over?
"Where we are there aren't any women, Mother," I say as calmly as I can.
"And be very careful at the front, Paul."
Ah, Mother, Mother! Why do I not take you in my arms and die with you. What poor wretches we are!
"Yes Mother, I will."
"I will pray for you every day, Paul."
Ah! Mother, Mother! Let us rise up and go out, back through the years, where the burden of all this misery lies on us no more, back to you and me alone, mother!
"Perhaps you can get a job that is not so dangerous."
"Yes, Mother, perhaps I can get into the cookhouse, that can easily be done."
"You do it then, and if the others say anything--"
"That won't worry me, mother--"
She sighs. Her face is a white gleam in the darkness.
"Now you must go to sleep, Mother."
She does not reply. I get up and wrap my cover round her shoulders.
She supports herself on my arm, she is in pain. And so I take her to her room. I stay with her a little while.
"And you must get well again, Mother, before I come back."
"Yes, yes, my child."
"You ought not to send your things to me, Mother. We have plenty to eat out there. You can make much better use of them here."
How destitute she lies there in her bed, she that loves me more than all the world. As I am about to leave, she says hastily: "I have two pairs of under-pants for you. They are all wool. They will keep you warm. You must not forget to put them in your pack."
Ah! Mother! I know what these under-pants have cost you in waiting, and walking, and begging! Ah! Mother, Mother! how can it be that I must part from you? Who else is there that has any claim on me but you. Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.
"Good-night, my child."
The room is dark. I hear my mother's breathing, and the ticking of the clock. Outside the window the wind blows and the chestnut trees rustle.
On the landing I stumble over my pack, which lies there already made up because I have to leave early in the morning.
I bite into my pillow. I grasp the iron rods of my bed with my fists. I ought never to have come here. Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless;--I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.
I ought never to have come on leave.