We travel for several days. The first aeroplanes appear in the sky. We roll on past transport lines.
Guns, guns. The light railway picks us up. I search for my regiment. No one knows exactly where it lies. Somewhere or other I put up for the night, somewhere or other I receive provisions and a few vague instructions. And so with my pack and my rifle I set out again on the way.
By the time I come up they are no longer in the devastated place. I hear we have become one of the flying divisions that are pushed in wherever it is hottest. That does not sound cheerful to me.
They tell me of heavy losses that we have been having. I enquire after Kat and Albert. No one knows anything of them.
I search farther and wander about here and there; it is a strange feeling. One night more and then another I camp out like a Red Indian. Then at last I get some definite information, and by the afternoon I am able to report to the Orderly Room.
The sergeant-major detains me there. The company comes back in two days' time. There is no object in sending me up now.
"What was it like on leave?" he asks, "pretty good, eh?"
"In parts," I say.
"Yes," he sighs, "yes, if a man didn't have to come away again. The second half is always rather messed up by that."
I loaf around until the company comes back in the early morning, grey, dirty, soured, and gloomy. Then I jump up, push in amongst them, my eyes searching. There is Tjaden, there is Müller blowing his nose, and there are Kat and Kropp. We arrange our sacks of straw side by side.
I have an uneasy conscience when I look at them, and yet without any good reason. Before we turn in I bring out the rest of the potato-cakes and jam so that they can have some too.
The outer cakes are mouldy, still it is possible to eat them. I keep those for myself and give the fresh ones to Kat and Kropp.
Kat chews and says: "These are from your mother?"
"Good," says he, "I can tell by the taste."
I could almost weep. I can hardly control myself any longer. But it will soon be all right again back here with Kat and Albert. This is where I belong.
"You've been lucky," whispers Kropp to me before we drop off to sleep, "they say we are going to Russia."
To Russia? It's not much of a war over there.
In the distance the front thunders. The walls of the hut rattle.
There's a great deal of polishing being done. We are inspected at every turn. Everything that is torn is exchanged for new. I score a spotless new tunic out of it and Kat, of course, an entire outfit. A rumour is going round that there may be peace, but the other story is more likely--that we are bound for Russia. Still, what do we need new things for in Russia? At last it leaks out--the Kaiser is coming to review us. Hence all the inspections.
For eight whole days one would suppose we were in a base-camp, there is so much drill and fuss. Everyone is peevish and touchy, we do not take kindly to all this polishing, much less to the full-dress parades. Such things exasperate a soldier more than the front-line.
At last the moment arrives. We stand to attention and the Kaiser appears. We are curious to see what he looks like. He stalks along the line, and I am really rather disappointed; judging from his pictures I imagined him to be bigger and more powerfully built, and above all to have a thundering voice.
He distributes Iron Crosses, speaks to this man and that. Then we march off.
Afterwards we discuss it. Tjaden says with astonishment: "So that is the All-Highest! And everyone, bar nobody, has to stand up stiff in front of him!" He meditates: "Hindenburg too, he has to stand up stiff to him, eh?"
"Sure," says Kat.
Tjaden hasn't finished yet. He thinks for a while and then asks: "And would a king have to stand up stiff to an emperor?"
None of us is quite sure about it, but we don't suppose so. They are both so exalted that standing strictly to attention is probably not insisted on.
"What rot you do hatch out," says Kat. "The main point is that you have to stand stiff yourself."
But Tjaden is quite fascinated. His otherwise prosy fancy is blowing bubbles. "But look," he announces, "I simply can't believe that an emperor has to go to the latrine the same as I have."
"You can bet your boots on it."
"Four and a half-wit make seven," says Kat. "You've got a maggot in your brain, Tjaden, just you run along to the latrine quick, and get your head clear, so that you don't talk like a two-year-old."
"But what I would like to know," says Albert, "is whether there would not have been a war if the Kaiser had said No."
"I'm sure there would," I interject, "he was against it from the first."
"Well, if not him alone, then perhaps if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No."
"That's probable," I agree, "but they damned well said Yes."
"It's queer, when one thinks about it," goes on Kropp, "we are here to protect our fatherland.
And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who's in the right?"
"Perhaps both," say I without believing it.
"Yes, well now," pursues Albert, and I see that he means to drive me into a corner, "but our professors and parsons and newspapers say that we are the only ones that are right, and let's hope so;--but the French professors and parsons and newspapers say that the right is on their side, now what about that?"
"That I don't know," I say, "but whichever way it is there's war all the same and every month more countries coming in."
Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.
"Mostly by one country badly offending another," answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.
Then Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. "A country? I don't follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat."
"Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?" growls Kropp, "I don't mean that at all. One people offends the other--"
"Then I haven't any business here at all," replies Tjaden, "I don't feel myself offended."
"Well, let me tell you," says Albert sourly, "it doesn't apply to tramps like you."
"Then I can be going home right away," retorts Tjaden, and we all laugh, "Ach, man! he means the people as a whole, the State--" exclaims Müller.
"State, State"--Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, "Gendarmes, police, taxes, that's your State;--if that's what you are talking about, no, thank you."
"That's right," says Kat, "you've said something for once, Tjaden. State and home-country, there's a big difference."
"But they go together," insists Kropp, "without the State there wouldn't be any home-country."
"True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren't asked about it any more than we were."
"Then what exactly is the war for?" asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. "There must be some people to whom the war is useful."
"Well, I'm not one of them," grins Tjaden.
"Not you, nor anybody else here."
"Who are they then?" persists Tjaden. "It isn't any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already."
"I'm not so sure about that," contradicts Kat, "he has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books."
"And generals too," adds Detering, "they become famous through war."
"Even more famous than emperors," adds Kat.
"There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that's certain," growls Detering.
"I think it is more of a kind of fever," says Albert. "No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn't want the war, the others say the same thing--and yet half the world is in it all the same."
"But there are more lies told by the other side than by us," say I; "just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits."
Müller gets up. "Anyway, it is better that the war is here instead of in Germany. Just you look at the shell-holes."
'True," assents Tjaden, "but no war at all would be better still."
He is quite proud of himself because he has scored for once over us volunteers. And his opinion is quite typical, here one meets it time and again, and there is nothing with which one can properly counter it, because that is the limit of their comprehension of the factors involved. The national feeling of the tommy resolves itself into this--here he is. But that is the end of it; everything else he criticises from his own practical point of view.
Albert lies down on the grass and growls angrily: "The best thing is not to talk about the rotten business."
"It won't make any difference, that's sure," agrees Kat.
To make matters worse, we have to return almost all the new things and take back our old rags again. The good ones were merely for the inspection.
Instead of going to Russia, we go up the line again. On the way we pass through a devastated wood with the tree trunks shattered and the ground ploughed up.
At several places there are tremendous craters. "Great guns, something's hit that," I say to Kat.
"Trench mortars," he replies, and then points up at one of the trees.
In the branches dead men are hanging. A naked soldier is squatting in the fork of a tree, he still has his helmet on, otherwise he is entirely unclad. There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing.
"What can that mean?" I ask.
"He's been blown out of his clothes," mutters Tjaden.
"It's funny," says Kat, "we have seen that several times now. If a mortar gets you it blows you clean out of your clothes. It's the concussion that does it."
I search around. And so it is. Here hang bits of uniform, and somewhere else is plastered a bloody mess that was once a human limb. Over there lies a body with nothing but a piece of the underpants on one leg and the collar of the tunic around its neck. Otherwise it is naked and the clothes are hanging up in the tree. Both arms are missing as though they had been pulled out. I discover one of them twenty yards off in a shrub.
The dead man lies on his face. There, where the arm wounds are, the earth is black with blood.
Underfoot the leaves are scratched up as though the man had been kicking.
"That's no joke, Kat," say I.
"No more is a shell splinter in the belly," he replies, shrugging his shoulders.
"But don't get tender-hearted," says Tjaden.
All this can only have happened a little while ago, the blood is still fresh. As everybody we see there is dead we do not waste any more time, but report the affair at the next stretcher-bearers'
post. After all it is not our business to take these stretcher-bearers' jobs away from them.
A patrol has to be sent out to discover just how strongly the enemy position is manned. Since my leave I feel a certain strange attachment to the other fellows, and so I volunteer to go with them.
We agree on a plan, slip out through the wire and then divide and creep forward separately. After a while I find a shallow shell-hole and crawl into it. From here I peer forward.
There is moderate machine-gun fire. It sweeps across from all directions, not very heavy, but always sufficient to make one keep down.
A parachute star-shell opens out. The ground lies stark in the pale light, and then the darkness shuts down again blacker than ever. In the trenches we were told there were black troops in front of us. That is nasty, it is hard to see them; they are very good at patrolling, too. And oddly enough they are often quite stupid; for instance, both Kat and Kropp were once able to shoot down a black enemy patrol because the fellows in their enthusiasm for cigarettes smoked while they were creeping about. Kat and Albert had simply to aim at the glowing ends of the cigarettes.
A bomb or something lands close beside me. I have not heard it coming and am terrified. At the same moment a senseless fear takes hold of me. Here I am alone and almost helpless in the dark--
perhaps two other eyes have been watching me for a long while from another shell-hole in front of me, and a bomb lies ready to blow me to pieces. I try to pull myself together. It is not my first patrol and not a particularly risky one. But it is the first since my leave, and besides, the lie of the land is still rather strange to me.
I tell myself that my alarm is absurd, that there is probably nothing at all there in the darkness watching me, otherwise they would not be firing so low.
It is in vain. In whirling confusion my thoughts hum in my brain--I hear the warning voice of my mother, I see the Russians with the flowing beards leaning against the wire fence, I have a bright picture of a canteen with stools, of a cinema in Valenciennes; tormented, terrified, in my imagination I see the grey, implacable muzzle of a rifle which moves noiselessly before me whichever way I try to turn my head. The sweat breaks out from every pore.
I still continue to lie in the shallow bowl. I look at the time; only a few minutes have passed. My forehead is wet, the sockets of my eyes are damp, my hands tremble, and I am panting softly. It is nothing but an awful spasm of fear, a simple animal fear of poking out my head and crawling on farther.
All my efforts subside like froth into the one desire to be able just to stay lying there. My limbs are glued to the earth. I make a vain attempt;--they refuse to come away. I press myself down on the earth, I cannot go forward, I make up my mind to stay lying there.
But immediately the wave floods over me anew, a mingled sense of shame, of remorse, and yet at the same time of security. I raise myself up a little to take a look round.
My eyes burn with staring into the dark. A star-shell goes up;--I duck down again.
I wage a wild and senseless fight, I want to get out of the hollow and yet slide back into it again; I say "You must, it is your comrades, it is not an idiotic command," and again: "What does it matter to me, I have only one life to lose--"
That is the result of all this leave, I plead in extenuation. But I cannot reassure myself; I become terribly faint. I raise myself slowly and reach forward with my arms, dragging my body after me and then lie on the edge of the shell-hole, half in and half out.
There I hear sounds and drop back. Suspicious sounds can be detected clearly despite the noise of the artillery-fire. I listen; the sound is behind me. They are our people moving along the trench.
Now I hear muffled voices. To judge by the tone that might be Kat talking.
At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.
I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;--I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.
Cautiously I glide out over the edge and snake my way forward. I shuffle along on all fours a bit farther, I keep track of my bearings, look around me and observe the distribution of the gunfire so as to be able to find my way back. Then I try to get in touch with the others.
I am still afraid, but it is an intelligent fear, an extraordinarily heightened caution. The night is windy and shadows flit hither and thither in the flicker of the gunfire. It reveals too little and too much. Often I pause, stock still, motionless, and always for nothing. Thus I advance a long way and then turn back in a wide curve. I have not established touch with the others. Every yard nearer our trench fills me with confidence;--and with haste, too. It would be bad to get hit now.
Then a new fear lays hold of me. I can no longer remember the direction. Quiet, I squat in a shell-hole and try to locate myself. More than once it has happened that some fellow has jumped joyfully into a trench, only then to discover that it was the wrong one.
After a little time I listen again, but still I am not sure. The confusion of shell-holes now seems so bewildering that I can no longer tell in my agitation which way I should go. Perhaps I am crawling parallel to the lines, and that might go on for ever. So I crawl round once again in a wide curve.
These damned rockets! They seem to burn for an hour, and a man cannot make the least movement without bringing the bullets whistling round.
But there is nothing for it, I must get out. Falteringly I work my way farther, I move off over the ground like a crab and rip my hands sorely on the jagged splinters, as sharp as razor blades. Often I think that the sky is becoming lighter on the horizon, but it may be merely my imagination. Then gradually I realise that to crawl in the right direction is a matter of life or death.
A shell crashes. Almost immediately two others. And then it begins in earnest. A bombardment.
Machine-guns rattle. Now there is nothing for it but to stay lying low. Apparently an attack is coming. Everywhere the rockets shoot up. Unceasing.
I lie huddled in a large shell-hole, my legs in the water up to the belly. When the attack starts I will let myself fall into the water, with my face as deep in the mud as I can keep it without suffocating. I must pretend to be dead.
Suddenly I hear the barrage lift. At once I slip down into the water, my helmet on the nape of my neck and my mouth just clear so that I can get a breath of air.
I lie motionless;--somewhere something clanks, it stamps and stumbles nearer--all my nerves become taut and icy. It clatters over me and away, the first wave has passed. I have but this one shattering thought: What will you do if someone jumps into your shell-hole?--Swiftly I pull out my little dagger, grasp it fast and bury it in my hand once again under the mud. If anyone jumps in here I will go for him. It hammers in my forehead; at once, stab him clean through the throat, so that he cannot call out; that's the only way; he will be just as frightened as I am; when in terror we fall upon one another, then I must be first.
Now our batteries are firing. A shell lands near me. That makes me savage with fury, all it needs now is to be killed by our own shells; I curse and grind my teeth in the mud; it is a raving frenzy; in the end all I can do is groan and pray.
The crash of the shells bursts in my ears. If our fellows make a counter-raid I will be saved. I press my head against the earth and listen to the muffled thunder, like the explosions of quarrying--and raise it again to listen for the sounds on top.
The machine-guns rattle. I know our barbed wire entanglements are strong and almost undamaged;--parts of them are charged with a powerful electric current. The rifle fire increases.
They have not broken through; they have to retreat.
I sink down again, huddled, strained to the uttermost. The banging, the creeping, the clanging becomes audible. One single cry yelling amongst it all. They are raked with fire, the attack is repulsed.
Already it has become somewhat lighter. Steps hasten over me. The first. Gone. Again, another.
The rattle of machine-guns becomes an unbroken chain. Just as I am about to turn round a little, something heavy stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me into the shell-hole, slips down, and lies across me I do not think at all, I make no decision--I strike madly home, and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses. When I recover myself, my hand is sticky and wet.
The man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry, a thunder--but it is only my heart pounding. I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with earth, stab him again, he must be quiet, he is betraying me; now at last I regain control of myself, but have suddenly become so feeble that I cannot any more lift my hand against him.
So I crawl away to the farthest corner and stay there, my eyes glued on him, my hand grasping the knife--ready, if he stirs, to spring at him again. But he won't do so any more, I can hear that already in his gurgling.
I can see him indistinctly. I have but one desire, to get away. If it is not soon it will be too light; it will be difficult enough now. Then as I try to raise up my head I see it is impossible already. The machine-gunfire so sweeps the ground that I should be shot through and through before I could make one jump.
I test it once with my helmet, which I take off and hold up to find out the level of the shots. The next moment it is knocked out of my hand by a bullet. The fire is sweeping very low to the ground. I am not far enough from the enemy line to escape being picked off by one of the snipers if I attempt to get away.
The light increases. Burning I wait for our attack. My hands are white at the knuckles, I clench them so tightly in my longing for the fire to cease so that my comrades may come.
Minute after minute trickles away. I dare not look again at the dark figure in the shell-hole. With an effort I look past it and wait, wait. The bullets hiss, they make a steel net, never ceasing, never ceasing.
Then I notice my bloody hand and suddenly feel nauseated. I take some earth and rub the skin with it; now my hand is muddy and the blood cannot be seen any more.
The fire does not diminish. It is equally heavy from both sides. Our fellows have probably given me up for lost long ago.
It is early morning, clear and grey. The gurgling continues, I stop my ears, but soon take my fingers away again, because then I cannot hear the other sound.
The figure opposite me moves. I shrink together and involuntarily look at it. Then my eyes remain glued to it. A man with a small pointed beard lies there; his head is fallen to one side, one arm is half-bent, his head rests helplessly upon it. The other hand lies on his chest, it is bloody.
He is dead, I say to myself, he must be dead, he doesn't feel anything any more; it is only the body that is gurgling there. Then the head tries to raise itself, for a moment the groaning becomes louder, his forehead sinks back upon his arm. The man is not dead, he is dying, but he is not dead.
I drag myself toward him, hesitate, support myself on my hands, creep a bit farther, wait, again a terrible journey of three yards, a long, a terrible journey. At last I am beside him.
Then he opens his eyes. He must have heard me, for he gazes at me with a look of utter terror.
The body lies still, but in the eyes there is such an extraordinary expression of fright that for a moment I think they have power enough to carry the body off with them. Hundreds of miles away with one bound. The body is still perfectly still, without a sound, the gurgle has ceased, but the eyes cry out, yell, all the life is gathered together in them for one tremendous effort to flee, gathered together there in a dreadful terror of death, of me.
My legs give way and I drop on my elbows. "No, no," I whisper.
The eyes follow me. I am powerless to move so long as they are there.
Then his hand slips slowly from his breast, only a little bit, it sinks just a few inches, but this movement breaks the power of the eyes. I bend forward, shake my head and whisper: "No, no, no," I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him, I stroke his forehead.
The eyes shrink back as the hand comes, then they lose their stare, the eyelids droop lower, the tension is past. I open his collar and place his head more comfortably.
His mouth stands half open, it tries to form words. The lips are dry. My water bottle is not there.
I have not brought it with me. But there is water in the mud, down at the bottom of the crater. I climb down, take out my handkerchief, spread it out, push it under and scoop up the yellow water that strains through into the hollow of my hand.
He gulps it down. I fetch some more. Then I unbutton his tunic in order to bandage him if it is possible. In any case I must do it, so that if the fellows over there capture me they will see that I wanted to help him, and so will not shoot me. He tries to resist, but his hand is too feeble. The shirt is stuck and will not come away, it is buttoned at the back. So there is nothing for it but to cut it open.
I look for the knife and find it again. But when I begin to cut the shirt the eyes open once more and the cry is in them again and the demented expression, so that I must close them, press them shut and whisper: "I want to help you, Comrade, camerade, camerade, camerade--" eagerly repeating the word, to make him understand.
There are three stabs. My field dressing covers them, the blood runs out under it, I press it tighter; there; he groans. That is all I can do. Now we must wait, wait.
These hours.... The gurgling starts again--but how slowly a man dies! For this I know--he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. If only I had not lost my revolver crawling about, I would shoot him.
Stab him I cannot.
By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. Hunger devours me, I could almost weep for something to eat, I cannot struggle against it. Again and again I fetch water for the dying man and drink some myself.
This is the first time I have killed with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing. Kat and Kropp and Müller have experienced it already, when they have hit someone; it happens to many, in hand-to-hand fighting especially-- But every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.
I would give much if he would but stay alive. It is hard to lie here and to have to see and hear him.
In the afternoon, about three, he is dead.
I breathe freely again. But only for a short time. Soon the silence is more unbearable than the groans. I wish the gurgling were there again, gasping, hoarse, now whistling softly and again hoarse and loud.
It is mad, what I do. But I must do something. I prop the dead man up again so that he lies comfortably, although he feels nothing any more. I close his eyes. They are brown, his hair is black and a bit curly at the sides.
The mouth is full and soft beneath his moustache; the nose is slightly arched, the skin brownish; it is now not so pale as it was before, when he was still alive. For a moment the face seems almost healthy;--then it collapses suddenly into the strange face of the dead that I have so often seen, strange faces, all alike.
No doubt his wife still thinks of him; she does not know what has happened. He looks as if he would have often have written to her;--she will still be getting mail from him--To-morrow, in a week's time--perhaps even a stray letter a month hence. She will read it, and in it he will be speaking to her.
My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts. What would his wife look like?
Like the little brunette on the other side of the canal? Does she belong to me now? Perhaps by this act she becomes mine, I wish Kantorek were sitting here beside me. If my mother could see me--.
The dead man might have had thirty more years of life if only I had impressed the way back to our trench more sharply on my memory. If only he had run two yards farther to the left, he might now be sitting in the trench over there and writing a fresh letter to his wife.
But I will get no further that way; for that is the fate of all of us: if Kemmerich's leg had been six inches to the right: if Haie Westhus had bent his back three inches further forward-- ***
The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: "Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up--take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now."
It is quiet, the front is still except for the crackle of rifle fire. The bullets rain over, they are not fired haphazard, but shrewdly aimed from all sides. I cannot get out.
"I will write to your wife," I say hastily to the dead man, "I will write to her, she must hear it from me, I will tell her everything I have told you, she shall not suffer, I will help her, and your parents too, and your child--"
His tunic is half open. The pocket-book is easy to find. But I hesitate to open it. In it is the book with his name. So long as I do not know his name perhaps I may still forget him, time will obliterate it, this picture. But his name, it is a nail that will be hammered into me and never come out again. It has the power to recall this for ever, it will always come back and stand before me.
Irresolutely I take the wallet in my hand. It slips out of my hand and falls open. Some pictures and letters drop out. I gather them up and want to put them back again, but the strain I am under, the uncertainty, the hunger, the danger, these hours with the dead man have made me desperate, I want to hasten the relief, to intensify and to end the torture, as one strikes an unendurably painful hand against the trunk of a tree, regardless of everything.
There are portraits of a woman and a little girl, small amateur photographs taken against an ivy-clad wall. Along with them are letters. I take them out and try to read them. Most of it I do not understand, it is so hard to decipher and I scarcely know any French. But each word I translate pierces me like a shot in the chest;--like a stab in the chest.
My brain is taxed beyond endurance. But I realise this much, that I will never dare to write to these people as I intended. Impossible. I look at the portraits once more; they are clearly not rich people. I might send them money anonymously if I earn anything later on. I seize upon that, it is at least something to hold on to. This dead man is bound up with my life, therefore I must do everything, promise everything in order to save myself; I swear blindly that I mean to live only for his sake and his family, with wet lips I try to placate him--and deep down in me lies the hope that I may buy myself off in this way and perhaps even get out of this; it is a little stratagem: if only I am allowed to escape, then I will see to it. So I open the book and read slowly:--GÃ©rard Duval, compositor.
With the dead man's pencil I write the address on an envelope, then swiftly thrust everything back into his tunic.
I have killed the printer, GÃ©rard Duval. I must be a printer, I think confusedly, be a printer, printer --"--"
By afternoon I am calmer. My fear was groundless. The name troubles me no more. The madness passes. "Comrade," I say to the dead man, but I say it calmly, "to-day you, to-morrow me. But if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you, taken life--and from me--? Life also. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again."
The sun strikes low, I am stupefied with exhaustion and hunger. Yesterday is like a fog to me, there is no hope of ever getting out of this. I fall into a doze and do not at first realise that evening is approaching. The twilight comes. It seems to me to come quickly now. One hour more.
If it were summer, it would be three hours more. One hour more.
Now suddenly I begin to tremble; something might happen in the interval. I think no more of the dead man, he is of no consequence to me now. With one bound the lust to live flares up again and everything that has filled my thoughts goes down before it. Now, merely to avert any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: "I will fulfil everything, fulfil everything I have promised you--" but already I know that I shall not do so.
Suddenly it occurs to me that my own comrades may fire on me as I creep up; they do not know I am coming. I will call out as soon as I can so that they will recognise me. I will stay lying in front of the trench until they answer me.
The first star. The front remains quiet. I breathe deeply and talk to myself in my excitement: "No foolishness now, Paul--Quiet, Paul, quiet--then you will be saved, Paul." When I use my Christian name it works as though someone else spoke to me, it has more power.
The darkness grows. My excitement subsides, I wait cautiously until the first rocket goes up.
Then I crawl out of the shell-hole. I have forgotten the dead man. Before me lies the oncoming night and the pale gleaming field. I fix my eyes on a shell-hole; the moment the light dies I scurry over into it, grope farther, spring into the next, duck down, scramble onward.
I come nearer. There, by the light of a rocket I see something move in the wire, then it stiffens and I lie still. Next time I see it again, yes, they are men from our trench. But I am suspicious until I recognise our helmets. Then I call. And immediately an answer rings out, my name: "Paul--Paul--"
I call again in answer. It is Kat and Albert who have come out with a stretcher to look for me.
"Are you wounded?"
We drop into the trench. I ask for something to eat and wolf it down. Müller gives me a cigarette. In a few words I tell what happened. There is nothing new about it; it happens quite often. The night attack is the only unusual feature of the business. In Russia Kat once lay for two days behind the enemy lines before he could make his way back.
I do not mention the dead printer.
But by next morning I can keep it to myself no longer. I must tell Kat and Albert. They both try to calm me. "You can't do anything about it. What else could you have done? That is what you are here for."
I listen to them and feel comforted, reassured by their presence. It was mere drivelling nonsense that I talked out there in the shell-hole.
"Look there for instance," points Kat.
On the fire-step stand some snipers. They rest their rifles with telescopic sights on the parapet and watch the enemy front. Once and again a shot cracks out.
Then we hear the cry: "That's found a billet!"
"Did you see how he leapt in the air?" Sergeant Oellrich turns round proudly and scores his point. He heads the shooting list for to-day with three unquestionable hits.
"What do you say to that?" asks Kat.
"If he keeps that up he will get a little coloured bird for his buttonhole by this evening," says Albert.
"Or rather he will soon be made acting sergeant-major," says Kat.
We look at one another. "I would not do it," I say.
"All the same," says Kat, "It's very good for you to see it just now."
Sergeant Oellrich returns to the fire-step. The muzzle of his rifle searches to and fro.
"You don't need to lose any sleep over your affair," nods Albert.
And now I hardly understand it myself any more.
"It was only because I had to lie there with him so long," I say. "After all, war is war."
Oellrich's rifle cracks out sharply and dry.
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