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From Civilization: 1914-1917, by Georges Duhamel, 1918


The Lady in Green

I CAN hardly say why I liked Rabot.

Every morning, going and coming in the room about my duties, I perceived Rabot, or rather Rabot's head and, less plainly, Rabot's eye, concealing itself among the tumbled bedclothes. He had a little the air of a guinea-pig hiding under its straw and watching you anxiously.

Each time, in passing, I made Rabot a familiar sign that consisted in energetically closing my left eye and pursing my lips. At once Rabot's eye closed, digging a thousand wrinkles in that withered invalid's face of his, and that was all: we had exchanged our salutations and our confidences.

Rabot never laughed. He had been brought up as a charity child and one surmised that he had never had enough milk when he was little; you never make up for it if those early meals have been too scanty.

Rabot was red-headed, with a sallow complexion bespattered with freckles. His head was so small that he resembled at once a rabbit and a bird. When any stranger addressed a word to him, his lower lip began to tremble and his chin rumpled up like a walnut. We had to explain to him at first that no one was going to strike him.

Poor Rabot! I don't know what I would have given to see him laugh! As it was, everything conspired to make him weep. He had fearful, interminable dressings, repeated every day for months; he was compelled to remain motionless, which prevented him from playing with his comrades; and then, besides, he didn't know how to play anything and wasn't very much interested in anything.

I was, I think, the only one to reach any sort of intimacy with him; and, as I have said, this consisted mainly of winking my left eye whenever I passed within reach of his bed.

Rabot did not smoke. Whenever the cigarettes were distributed, he took his share and played with them a moment, moving his big, thin fingers which had lost their shape from lying in bed. The fingers of a sick laborer are not beautiful; when they have lost their hardness and robustness they no longer look like anything at all.

I believe that Rabot would have liked to offer his good cigarettes to his neighbors; but it's so difficult to speak, above all to give somebody something. So the cigarettes became covered with dust on the little board, and Rabot remained stretched out on his back, quite thin and straight, like a straw swept away by the torrent of the war, not understanding anything of what was going on.

One day an officer of the general staff entered the ward and approached Rabot.

"Is it this one here?" he said. "Good! I've come to bring him the military medal and the war-cross."

He gave Rabot a little paper to sign and left him face to face with the trinkets. Rabot did not smile. He placed the box in front of him on the coverlet and gazed at it from nine o'clock in the morning till three in the afternoon.

At three o'clock the officer came back and said:

"I was mistaken; there has been an error. They were not for Rabot, these decorations, they were for Raboux."

Then he took back the medal-case, tore up the receipt, and went on.

Rabot wept from three o'clock in the afternoon till nine in the evening, the hour at which he settled down for sleep. The next day he began to weep again, the first thing in the morning. M. Gassin, who is a good chief, went off to the General Staff and came back with a medal and a cross exactly like the others; he even gave Rabot a new paper to sign.

Rabot stopped crying. A shadow remained on his face, however--a shadow that betrayed a lack of confidence, as if he feared that one day or another they would come and take his trinkets away from him again.

Several weeks went by. I often glanced at Rabot's face, and I tried to imagine what a smile would make it look like. I hoped in vain; it was evident that Rabot did not know how to smile, that his face wasn't made for such things. It was then that the lady in green appeared.

She entered one fine morning, by one of the doors, like anybody else. But she wasn't like anybody else: she had the air of an angel, a queen, a doll. She was not dressed like the nurses who worked in the wards, nor like the mothers and the wives who came to visit their sons or their husbands when they were wounded. She didn't even look like one of the ladies one meets in the street. She was much more beautiful, much more majestic. She made me think rather of those fairies, those splendid images you see on great colored calendars, beneath which the artist has written, "Reverie," or "Melancholy," or, more often, "Poetry."

She was surrounded by handsome, well-dressed officers, who seemed very attentive to her least words and were showering upon her the liveliest signs of admiration.

"Come in, Madame," one of them said to her, "since you wish to see some of the wounded."

She took two steps into the ward, stopped suddenly, and said in a deep voice, "The poor fellows!" Every one in the ward pricked up his ears and opened his eyes. Mery laid down his pipe; Tarrissant shifted his crutches, with him a sign of emotion; Domenge and Burnier stopped playing cards and glued their hands against their stomachs least any one should see them inadvertently. Poupot did not move, because he is paralyzed; but one could see plainly that he was listening with all his might.

The lady in green walked first up to Sorri, the negro. "Your name is Sorri?" she said, consulting the label.

The black man nodded his head. The lady in green continued, in a tone as sweet and melodious as that of the ladies who play in the theater: "You have come to fight in France, Sorri, and you have left behind your beautiful land, the cool, fragrant oasis in the fiery desert of sand. Ah! Sorri! How beautiful are those African evenings when the young women appear along the palm-tree walk, like somber statues, bearing on their heads aromatic pitchers filled with honey and the milk of the cocoa.,"

The officers emitted a charmed murmur, and Sorri, who understands French, uttered, as he wagged his head, the word, "Cocoa . . . cocoa."

Then the lady in green glided on over the pavement. She came to Rabot and perched calmly at the foot of his bed, like a swallow on a telegraph-wire.

"Rabot," she said, "you are a brave man!"

Rabot did not reply, but in his usual fashion, he shut his eyes tight, like a child who is afraid he is going to be slapped.

"Ah, Rabot!" said the lady in green, "what recognition ought we not to give you, you men who preserve unimpaired for us our sweet France! But, Rabot, you know already the greatest recompense of all: Glory! The rapturous ardor of combat! The exquisite anguish of bounding forward with bayonet glittering in the sun; the voluptuous delight of plunging the avenging steel in the bleeding flank of the enemy; and then the suffering, divine because it is endured for all; the holy wound which of a hero makes a god! Ah! what beautiful memories, Rabot!"

The lady in green was still, and a religious silence reigned in the ward.

And then occurred something altogether unexpected. Rabot ceased to resemble himself. All his features drew together, violently agitated in a manner that was almost tragic. A hoarse voice issued in jerks from his skeleton-like chest, and all the world could see that Rabot was laughing.

He laughed for more than three-quarters of an hour. The lady in green had long since left and Rabot was still laughing, by fits, as if he were coughing his last cough, as if he were in the throes of death.

After that it was as if something had changed in Rabot's life. When he was on the point of weeping and felt pain, one could always make him forget it and extort a little smile from him by saying in time: "Rabot! They're going to send for the lady in green."

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