They scrambled over the bank of the way-side, entered a thicket and, side by side on the old dead leaves through which violets showed their buds, they stretched themselves out. The first songs of the birds and the distant thuds of the guns mingled with the village bells that were proclaiming the festival of the morrow. The luminous air vibrated hope, faith, love, death. Notwithstanding the solitude they spoke in whispers. Their hearts were oppressed: by happiness? or by sorrow? They could not have told. They were submerged in their dream. Lucile, immobile, stretched out, her arms close to her body, her eyes open, absorbed and gazing at the sky, felt rising in her a hidden suffering which since the morning she forced herself to drive away in order not to mar the joy of the holiday. Pierre laid his head on Luce's knees in the hollow of her skirt like a child who goes to sleep with its face close couched against the warmth of the stomach. And Luce without a word caressed with her hands the ears and eyes, the nose and lips of her beloved one. Dear spiritual hands which seemed, as in the tales about fairies, to have little mouths at the finger-tips! And Pierre, a thinking piano, divined the meaning of the little waves that sped under the tips, the emotions that passed through the soul of his darling. He heard her sigh before she had begun to sigh. Luce had raised herself with her body leaning forward and, with breathing oppressed, she moaned in a whisper:
"Pierre, oh, Pierre!"
Pierre looked at her troubled.
"Oh, Pierre! What are we, anyway?... What is it they want of us?... What do we want?... What is this going on within us? These guns, these birds, this war, this love.... These hands, body, eyes.... Where am I?... and what am I?"
Pierre, who did not recognize this expression of bewilderment in her, wanted to take her in his arms. But she repulsed him.
And hiding her face in her hands she thrust face and hands together into the grass. Pierre was upset and begged of her:
He thrust his head close to that of Luce.
"Luce," he repeated, "what's the matter with you? Is it against me?"
She raised her head.
And he saw tears in her eyes.
"Are you in trouble?"
"I don't know."
"Ah, I'm ashamed," she said....
"Ashamed? About what?"
She fell silent.
Since the morning she had been haunted by a sorrowful memory, painful and degrading; her mother, crazed by the poison that crept about in the promiscuous conditions of the factories made for luxury and for murder, in those human vats, no longer kept up any restraint upon herself. At home she had indulged in a scene of furious jealousy with her lover, without caring if her daughter heard; and Luce had learned that her mother was with child. For her this was like a blot that extended to herself, whose entire love, whose love for Pierre was polluted thereby. That is why when Pierre had approached her she had repulsed him; she was ashamed of herself and of him.... Ashamed of him? Poor Pierre!...
He remained there, humiliated, and not daring to budge any more. She was struck with remorse, smiled in the midst of tears and, resting her head on Pierre's knees, said:
"It is my turn!"
Still disquieted, Pierre smoothed her hair as one pets a cat. He murmured:
"Luce, what is all this? Tell me...."
"Nothing," she responded. "I've seen sorrowful things."
He had too much respect for her secrets to insist. But Luce went on a few minutes later:
"Ah, there are moments.... One is ashamed to belong to mankind."
"Yes," said he.
And after a silence, bending over, he said very low:
Luce sprang up impetuously, threw herself on Pierre's neck, repeating:
And their mouths found each other.
The two children felt the need of consoling one another, both of them. Without saying it aloud they were thinking:
"Luckily we are going to die! The most frightful thing would be to become one of those men who are proud of being man—to destroy, to render vile...."
Lips touching lips, eyelashes brushing eyelashes, they plunged their gaze one in the other, smiling and with a tender pity. They did not tire of that divine sentiment which is the purest form of love. At last they tore themselves from their contemplation and Luce, with eyes again serene, perceived once more the gentle hue of the sky, the sweetness of the renewing trees and the breath of flowers.
"How lovely it all is!" she exclaimed.
She was thinking:
"Why are things so beautiful? And we so poor, so mediocre, so ugly! (unless it be you, my love, unless it be you!) ..."
She gazed at Pierre again:
"Pshaw! What are others to me?"
And with the magnificent illogicality of love she burst out laughing, sprang up with a leap, rushed into the wood and cried: "Catch me, catch me!"
They played like two children all the rest of the day. And when they were very tired they returned with slow steps toward the valley filled like a basket with the sheaves of the setting sun. Everything they savored seemed new to them—with one heart for two, with two bodies for one.
* * * * *
THEY were five friends about the same age, met together at the house of one of them, five young comrades at their studies whom a certain conformity of mind and a first sorting out of opinions had grouped together apart from the rest. And yet no two of them who thought the same way. Beneath the pretended unanimity of forty millions of Frenchmen there are forty million brains that keep right to themselves. Thought in France is like the country, a state composed of small properties. From one bit of farm to the other the five friends tried to exchange their ideas across the hedge. But they did that only to affirm themselves more imperatively in their several opinions, each for himself. Each one, for that matter, liberal in mind, and, if not all of them republicans, all foes of intellectual or social reaction, or any backward return.
Jacques See was the most blazingly in favor of the war. This generous young Jew had espoused all the passions the spirit of France contained. All through Europe his cousins in Israel espoused like him the causes and the ideas of their adopted countries. Moreover, according to their method, they even had a tendency toward an exaggeration of whatever they adopted. This fine fellow, with ardent but rather heavy voice and look, with his regular features as if marked with a stamp imposed, was more pronounced in his convictions than was needful, and violent in contradiction. According to him, all that was necessary was a crusade made by the democracies to deliver the nations and extinguish war. Four years of the philanthropic slaughterhouse had not convinced him. He was one of those who will never accept the flat contradiction of facts. He had a twofold pride, the secret pride of his race, which race he wished to rehabilitate, and his pride personal that wanted to prove itself right. He wished this all the more because he was not entirely sure of it. His sincere idealism served as a screen against exacting instincts too long suppressed and to a need for action and adventure, which was no less sincere.
Antoine Naude, he too, was for the war. But that was because he could not do otherwise. This big honest young bourgeois, with his rosy cheeks, placid and keen, who had a short breath and rolled his r with the pretty grace of the provinces of the Centre, contemplated with a quiet smile the enthusiastic transports of his friend See; or else he knew how on occasion to make him climb a tree with a careless word;—but the big, lazy fellow took precious care not to follow him up! What is the use of getting in a sweat for or against what does not depend upon ourselves? It is only in the tragedies that one finds the heroic and loquacious conflict between duty and one's pleasure. When we have no choice, we do our duty without wasting words. It was no jollier on that account. Naude neither admired nor recriminated. His good sense told him that, once the train started and the war in motion, it was necessary to roll along with it; there was no other position to take. As for searching after the responsibilities, that was merely time lost. When I am forced to fight it gives me a gay outlook, a pretty consolation, to know that I might have not fought—if things had really been ... what they haven't been!
The responsibilities? Now for Bernard Saisset they were exactly the primordial question; he was obstinate in disentangling that knot of snakes; or rather, like a little Fury, he brandished the snakes above his head. A frail boy, distinguished looking, impassioned, too many nerves, burning with a too lively sensitiveness of the brain, belonging to the wealthy bourgeoisie and an old republican family which had played a part in the highest offices of State, he professed, through reaction, all the ultra-revolutionary passions. He had inspected too near at hand the masters of the day and what they brought forth. He accused all the governments—and by preference his own. He talked of nothing any more but of syndicalists and bolsheviki; he had just made a discovery of them and he fraternized with them, as if he had known them from infancy. Without knowing too well which, he saw no remedy save in a total upset of society. He hated war; but he would have sacrificed himself with joy in a war between classes—a war against his own class, a war against himself.
The fourth in the group, Claude Puget, sat by at these jousts of words with a cold and somewhat disdainful attention. Coming from the very undermost bourgeoisie, poor, uprooted from his province by a passing inspector of schools who remarked his intelligence, prematurely deprived of the intimate influence of his family, this winner of a Lycee scholarship, accustomed to depend upon himself alone, to live only with himself, merely lived by himself and for himself. An egotistic philosopher given to analysis of the soul, voluptuously immersed in his introspection like a big cat curled up in a ball, he was not moved at all by the agitation of the others. These three friends of his who never could agree among themselves he put in the same bag—with the "populars." Did not all three forfeit their social rank by wishing to partake in the aspirations of the mob? Truth to say, the mob was a different crowd for each of them. But for Puget the crowd, whatever it might be, was always wrong. The crowd was the enemy. The intellect should remain alone and follow its particular laws and found, apart from the vulgar crowd and the State, the small and closed kingdom of thought.
And Pierre, seated near the window, distractedly looked out of doors, and dreamed. Generally speaking, he mingled in these juvenile assaults with passion. But today it seemed to him a humming of idle words which he listened to from so far away, oh, so far away! in a bored and mocking demi-torpidity. Plunged in their discussions, the others were a long while in remarking his muteness. But at last Saisset, accustomed to find in Pierre an echo of his verbal bolshevisms, was astonished at failing to hear it reverberate any more and put the question to him.
Pierre waked up in a hurry, reddened, smiled and asked:
"What were you talking about?"
They were most indignant.
"Why, you haven't been listening to anything!"
"What, then, were you brooding about?" asked Naude.
A little confused, a little impertinent, Pierre replied:
"About the springtide. It has come back all right without your permission. It will clear out without our help."
All of them crushed him with their disdain. Naude taunted him as a "poet." And Jacques See as a poseur.
Puget alone fixed his eyes on him with curiosity and irony in them, his wrinkled eyes with their cold pupils.
"What?" questioned Pierre, rather amused.
"Beware of the wings!" said Puget. "It's the nuptial flight. It only lasts one hour."
"Life does not last much more," said Pierre.
* * * * *
DURING Passion Week they saw one another every day. Pierre went to see Luce in her isolated house. The thin and hungry garden was waking up. They passed the afternoon there. They felt now an antipathy toward Paris and the crowd, against life also. At certain moments even, a moral paralysis kept them silent, immovable, one close to the other, without a wish to stir. A strange feeling was at work in both of them. They were afraid! Fear—in the measure that the day approached when they should give themselves the one to the other—fear through excess of love, through the purification of soul which the ugly things, the cruelties, the shameful facts of life frightened, and which, in an intoxication of passion and melancholy, dreamed of being delivered from it all.... They said nothing about it to each other.
The most of their time they passed in babbling gently about their future lodgings, their work in common, their little household. They arranged in advance, down to the smallest item of their installation, the furniture, the wall papers, the spot for each object. A true woman, the evocation of these tender nothings, intimate and familiar images of daily life, moved Luce sometimes to tears. They tasted the exquisite small joys of the hearth of the future.... They knew that nothing of that sort would occur—Pierre through the presentiment of his native pessimism—Luce through the clairvoyance of love which understood the practical impossibility of the marriage.... That is why they hasted to enjoy it in their dream. And each concealed from the other the certainty felt that it would not be anything else but a dream. Each one believed that this secret was personal and watched, deeply touched, over the other's illusion.
When they had exhausted the mournful delights of the impossible future they were overcome with fatigue, as if they had lived through all of it. Then they rested themselves, seated under the arbor with the dried-up vines, while the sun melted the congealed sap; and, Pierre's head on Luce's shoulder, they listened dreamily to the humming of the earth. Behind the passing clouds the young sun of March played bo-peep, laughed and disappeared. Clear sunrays, somber shadows ran across the plain as in a soul run joys and sorrows.
"Luce," said Pierre abruptly, "don't you recollect?... It was long, long ago.... Even then we were like this...."
"Yes," said Luce, "that's true. All of it, I remember all.... But where were we?..."
They amused themselves by trying to recall under what shapes they had known one another before. Already as human beings? Perhaps. But certainly at that time Pierre was the girl and Luce the lover.... Birds in the air? When she was a small child her mother told Luce that she had been a little wild goose that had fallen down the chimney; ah! she had thoroughly broken her wings!... But where particularly they enjoyed finding themselves again was in the elementary fluid forms that penetrate one another, twist about and untwist like the volutes of a dream or else of smoke: white clouds that dissolve in the gulf of the sky, little waves that play about, the rain on the soil, the dew on the bush, seeds of dandelion that swim at the beck of the air.... But the wind carries them away. Provided it does not begin to blow again and that we shall not lose each other any more for all eternity!...
But he decided:
"As for me, I believe that we never did quit one another; we were together just as we are now, lying against each other; only, we were asleep and we dreamed dreams. From time to time we awake.... With difficulty.... I feel your breath, your cheek against mine.... One makes a great effort; we bring our mouths together.... One falls back asleep.... Darling, darling, I am here, I hold your hand, don't let me go!... Now it is not quite yet the hour, spring hardly shows the end of his icy nose...."
"Like yours," said Luce.
"Very soon we shall awake on a fine summer's day...."
"We ourselves shall be that fine day of summer," says Luce.
"The warm shade of the limetrees, the sun through the branches, the bees that sing...."
"The peach on the warm wall and its perfumed pulp...."
"The noon spell of the harvesters and their golden sheaves...."
"The lazy cattle that chew their cud...."
"And at evensong, by the sunset like a flowerset pool, the liquid light that runs across the tops of the fields...."
"Yes, we shall be everything," quoth Luce, "everything that is good and sweet to see and to have, to kiss and to eat, to touch and inhale.... What's left over we shall leave to them," she added, pointing to the city and its smoke wreaths.
She laughed. Then, kissing her friend, she said:
"We have chanted our little duet well. What do you say, my friend Pierrot?"
"Yea, verily, Jessica," he replied.
"My poor Pierrot," she returned, "we are none too well equipped for this world, where people know how to sing nothing else but the Marseillaise!..."
"Good enough if they even knew how to sing that!"
"We have got off at the wrong station, we left the train too early."
"I'm afraid," said Pierre, "that the next station would have been still worse. Can you see us, my darling, in the social fabric of the future—the hive they promise us, where none will have the right to live except for the queen bee's service or for the republic?"
"Laying eggs from morning to night like a mitrailleuse or from morning to night licking the eggs of others.... Thank you for that choice!" said Luce.
"Oh, Luce, little ugly one, how ugly you talk," said Pierre laughing.
"Yes, it's very bad, I know it. I am good for nothing. Nor you either, my friend. You are just as ill fitted for killing or maiming men as I am for sewing them up again, like those wretched horses when they are ripped up at the bullfights, so that they can serve again at the next affray. We two are useless beings and dangerous, who have the ridiculous, criminal pretention to live only in order to love those we do love, likewise my little lover lad and my friends, honest people and little children, the good light of the day, also good white bread and everything that is pretty and right for me to put in my mouth. It's shameful, it's shameful! Blush for me, Pierrot!... But we shall be well punished! There is going to be no place for us in that factory of the State, without rest and without truce, which the earth will be soon.... Luckily we shall not be here!"
"Yes, what happiness!" quoth Pierre.
"If in thine arms, O Lady of my heart, I die, to greater fame I'll not aspire, Content upon thy bosom to expire Whilst kissing thee and thus from living part...."
"Well, little darling, what sort of a fashion is that?"
"Nevertheless it is after a good old French mode. It's by Ronsard," said Pierre:
"...else I would only claim A century hence, sans glory and sans fame Slothful to die upon thy lap, Cassandra...."
"A hundred years!" sighed Luce. "He doesn't ask much!..."
"Or I mistake, or more delights are heaped In death like that than all the honors reaped By Caesar great or firebolt Alexander."
"Naughty, naughty, naughty little scamp! have you no shame? In this epoch of heroes!"
"There are too many," said Pierre. "I would rather be a little fellow who loves, a babe of a man."
"The babe of a woman who still has on his lips the milk from my breast," cried Luce, seizing him round the neck. "My babe, my own!"
* * * * *
SURVIVORS of those days who, since then, have been witness to the dazzling change of fortune, will have forgotten doubtless the menacing heavy flight of the dark wing which, during that week, covered the Ile de France and touched Paris with its shadow. Joy does not take further stock in past trials.—The German drive reached the line of its summit between Holy Monday and Holy Wednesday. The Somme traversed, Bapaume, Vesle, Guiscard, Roye, Noyon, Albert carried. Eleven hundred guns taken. Sixty thousand prisoners.... Symbol of the land of grace trampled upon, on Holy Tuesday died Debussy the harmonious. A lyre that is snapped.... "Poor little expiring Greece!" What will remain of it? A few chiseled vases, a few perfect stelae which the grass will invade from the Path of Tombs. Immortal vestiges of ruined Athens....
As from the height of a hill, Pierre and Luce watched the shadow that moved upon the town. Still wrapped in the rays of their love, they waited without fear for the end of the brief day. Now they would be two in the night. Like to the evening Angelus there rose up to them, conjured up, the voluptuous melancholy of the lovely chords of Debussy which they had so greatly loved. More than it had ever done in any other time, music responded to the need of their hearts. Music was the only art which rendered the voice of the delivered soul behind the screen of forms.
On Holy Thursday they walked, Luce on Pierre's arm and holding his hand, along the streets of the suburb, soused with the rain. Gusts of wind scurried over the moistened plain. They noted neither rain nor wind, neither the hideousness of the fields nor the muddy ways. They seated themselves on the low wall of a park, a section of which had recently fallen in. Under Pierre's umbrella, which scarcely protected her head and shoulders, Luce, her legs hanging down and her hands wet, her rubber coat all steeped, looked at the water dripping down. When the wind stirred the branches a little fire of drops sounded "clop, clop!" Luce was silent, smiling, tranquilly luminous. A profound joy bathed them.
"Why does one love so much?" said Pierre.
"Ah, Pierre, you do not love me so very much if you ask that."
"I ask you that," said Pierre, "in order to make you say what I know just as well as you."
"You want me to give you some compliments. But you'll be neatly caught. For if you know why I love you, I for my part do not know why."
"You don't know?" said Pierre in consternation.
"Why no!" (She was laughing in her sleeve.) "And there is no need at all why I should know. When one asks why something is, it means that one is not sure about it, that the thing is not good. Now that I do love, no more why! No more where or when or for, nor how either! My love is, my love is! All beside may exist if it cares to."
Their faces kissed each other. The rain took advantage of that, gliding under the awkward umbrella in order to brush with its fingers their hair and cheeks; between their lips they drank in a little cold drop.
"But the others?"
"What others?" quoth Luce.
"The poor," answered Pierre. "All those who are not us?"
"Let them do as we do! Let them love!"
"And be loved? Luce, all the world can not do that."
"Why, no. You don't realize the value of the gift you have made me."
"To give one's heart to love, one's lips to the beloved is to give one's eyes to the light; it isn't giving, it's taking."
"There are blind people."
"We cannot cure them, Pierrot. Let's do the seeing for them!"
Pierre remained silent.
"What are you thinking of?" asked she.
"I am thinking that on this day, very far from us, very near, He suffered the Passion, He who came on earth to cure the blind."
Luce took his hand:
"Do you believe in Him?"
"No, Luce, I believe no longer. But he remains always the friend of those he has accepted, even once, at his table. And you, do you know him?"
"Hardly," responded Luce. "They never talked to me about him. But without knowing him I love him.... For I know that he loved."
"Not as we do."
"Why not? We ourselves have a poor little heart that knows only how to love you, my love. But He; He loved all of us. But it's always the same love."
"Would you like we should go tomorrow," asked Pierre, much moved, "in honor of His death?... I was told that they will have fine music at Saint Gervais!"
"Yes, I would love well to go to church with you on that day. I am sure He will give us welcome. And being nearer to Him, one is nearer each to the other."
They fell silent.... Rain, rain, rain. The rain falls. The night falls.
"At this hour tomorrow," said she, "we shall be down there."
The fog was penetrating. She gave a little shudder.
"Darling, you are not cold?" he asked, disquieted.
"No, no. Everything is love to me. I love everything and everything loves me. The rain loves me, the wind loves me, the gray sky and the cold—and my little greatly beloved...."
* * * * *
FOR Holy Friday the heavens remained clothed in their long gray veils; but the air was soft and calm. In the streets one saw flowers, jonquils, stocks. Pierre took a few which she kept in her hand. They followed the peaceful Quai des Orfevres and passed along the base of pure Notre-Dame. The charm of the Old City, clothed in a discreet light, surrounded them with its noble gentleness. On the Place Saint Gervais pigeons flew up under their feet. They followed them with their eyes about the facade of the church; one of the birds settled on the head of a statue. At the top of the steps to the parvis before the church, as they were about to enter, Luce turned about and perceived in the midst of the crowd a few steps away a little girl with reddish hair, about a dozen years old, leaning against the portal, both arms raised above her head, who was looking at them. She had the fine and somewhat archaic face of some little cathedral statue, with an enigmatic smile, graceful, shrewd and tender. Luce smiled also at her while calling Pierre's attention to her. But the little girl's gaze passed over her head and suddenly changed to fright. And hiding her face in her hands the child vanished.
"What is the matter with her?" asked Luce.
But Pierre did not look.
They entered. Above their heads the dove was cooing. Last noise from outside. The voices of Paris were quenched. The fresh air ceased. The hangings of the organ, the lofty vaultings, the curtain of stones and sounds parted them from the world.
They installed themselves in one of the side aisles between the second and the third chapel on the left as you enter. In the hollow of a pier both of them crouched, seated on some steps, hidden from the rest of the assembly. Turning their backs to the choir, on raising their eyes they saw the summit of the altar, the crucifix and the stained windows of a lateral chapel. The beautiful old chants wept out their pious melancholy. They were holding hands, the two little pagans, before the Great Friend, in the church all swathed in mourning. And both of them at the same time murmured in a low voice:
"Great Friend, before your face I take him, I take her. Unite us! You see our hearts."
And their fingers remained joined and interlaced like the straw of a basket. They were one single flesh which the waves of music passed through with their shivering notes. They took to dreaming, as if they lay in the same bed.
Luce saw again in her thought that little girl with reddish hair. And behold it seemed to her that she recalled how she had seen her before in a dream the past night. She could not reach the point of knowing whether that was actually true, or if she were projecting the vision of the present back to the past slumber. Then, weary of the effort, her thoughts allowed themselves to float.
Pierre pondered over the days of his short, expended life. The lark that rises from the misty plain to reach the sun.... How far it is! How high it is! Will it ever be reached?... The fog thickens. There is no earth any more, there are no heavens any more. And strength gives out.... Suddenly, while beneath the vault of the choir a Gregorian vocalise trickled down, the jubilant song gushed forth, and out from the shadows emerges the little shivering form of the lark that swims on the sea of light without shore....
A pressure of their fingers recalled to them that they were swimming together. They found themselves again in the darkness of the church, closely pressed together, listening to the beautiful chants; their hearts melted with love and touched the summits of the purest joy. And both of them desired—they prayed—never to descend to earth again.
At that moment Luce, who had just kissed her dear little comrade with a passionate glance—(his eyes half closed and his lips parted, he appeared lost in an ecstasy of happiness and raised his head in a rush of thankful joy toward that supreme Power which we look for instinctively on high)—Luce saw with terror, in the red and gilded window of the chapel, the face of the reddish-haired child of the parvis who was smiling at her. And as she sat mute, frozen with astonishment, she saw once more on that strange visage the same expression of fright and of pity.
And at the same instant the great pier against which they leaned their backs moved, and down to its very base the entire church trembled. And Luce, whose heart beats deadened in her the crash of the explosion and the shrieks of the crowd, threw herself without having time to fear or to suffer upon Pierre, in order to cover him with her body like a hen with her brood—upon Pierre, who with closed eyes was smiling with happiness. With a maternal movement she clasped the dear head against her bosom and that with all her power; and, coiled upon him, her mouth on his neck, they shrank together to their utmost.
And the massive pier crumbled down upon them with one crash.