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


Cuvelier the Cuirassier

IT's heavy on my heart, the story of the cuirassier Cuvelier. M. Poisson is not a bad man, far from it! He's just a little too old, you see!

We ought not to go to war, with all those old men! You know how much it has cost us. And the most curious thing about it, Monsieur, is that the whole world knows it; for at last they're sending them all off in limousines, those fellows, one after the other. But don't let's talk about that; it's almost politics, and I know it doesn't concern me.

As for M. Poisson, he has one supreme fault: he drinks. Aside from that he's not, as I have said, a bad sort of man. But, believe me, when a man's constitution is saturated with little drinks, and still more with big drinks, it ends by being ruined, that constitution. M. Poisson drinks, and that is very unfortunate for a person who occupies an important position.

And then there's another thing to note about him he's not like the rest of us civilians. Indeed, he's a unique specimen. You get the impression that for M. Poisson the world is divided into two parts. On the one side are all those who are above him. When he turns toward that side he salutes and says: "Certainly, General; quite so, Colonel!" On the other side are all those who are inferior to him. When he looks in that direction he grows red and begins to shout: "Shut up! Hold your tongue!" and all sorts of things like that. I believe at bottom he is right, and that you have to be like that in affairs of this sort. So, I repeat, he's not so much bad as timid. He shouts out that way just to show that he isn't afraid.

But, after all, these are military matters and in a way they don't concern us. Let us talk of something else. It is a principle of mine never to talk of things which are, in their own way, sacred.

What I have personally to reproach M. Poisson with is his having put me in the morgue, in the "amphi," as he called it--I, who can write a round hand, a slanting hand, a Gothic hand, a flowing hand, and more than a dozen others; I, who might have made such an admirable office secretary!

Imagine a reception like this: I arrive with my helmet, my duffle-bag, my whole outfit. They send me into a barrack and say to me, "The head doctor's in there."

At first I see nothing. M. Poisson is buried up to his hair in his papers; all I can hear is a faint asthmatic breathing, like the sound of the wind through the keyholes. All at once he emerges from his nest and looks at me. I see an old fellow, rather stout and with rather short legs, who impresses me as not being very clean about his person, with his nails ringed with black and too much skin on the tops of his hands, a wrinkled face covered with red blotches. He looks at me, but he acts as if he did not see me. As for me, I look him in the face and this is what I see: a nose covered with little varicose veins, bluish cheeks, too much skin hanging down under this chin, like the muzzle of some animal, and two trembling pouches under the eyes which look like two little glasses of whisky, two pouches you feel like pricking with a pin.

He looks at me again, spits on the ground, and says, "Yes."

I speak up, "Exactly, Monsieur le Médecin-chef."

Then he begins to shout, with the voice of a sputtering old man: "Can't you see I'm not talking to you? Hold your tongue! Can't you see I'm up to my ears with this offensive going on and the wounded and all this red tape?"

What do you think I ought to reply? I stand at attention and say again, "Yes, Monsieur le Médecin-chef!"

Then he lights a cigarette and begins to say, "hum! hum!" for, kindly note, his chest is never clear, thanks to that alcohol.

Whereupon an officer comes in. M. Poisson cries out:

"That you, Perrin? Ah! my dear fellow, leave me in peace! With all this business going on, you can see quite well my back's fairly broken with work. Look here. Look at this paper of mine. Nineteen! I'll never get through. Nineteen!"

The officer takes me by the arm and says, "Yes, but here we have reinforcements!"

Then M. Poisson comes up, stares in my face, and roars, with that breath of his smelling like the bottom of a barrel:

"Ship him off to the morgue! They need some one at the morgue; very well! send him to the 'amphi.' He can help Tanquerelle. That's the thing! To the 'amphi'! and don't bother me with any more interruptions like this!"

Ten minutes later the "amphi" has appropriated me.

Monsieur, it made me miserable. I have a good enough disposition, but that's no sort of life, moving dead men all day long. And such dead men!--the flower of the country, annihilated in a way you wouldn't believe it possible the human body could be annihilated.

Tanquerelle had been bookkeeper in a pork-butcher's shop. There was another fellow who drank! They made him do all the dirty work because he drank, and they gave him drink under the pretext that he did all the dirty work. Well, don't let's talk any more about that. That question of alcoholism, unfortunately, doesn't concern me!

Tanquerelle was no sort of company; he was a calamity, a scourge, a perfect nuisance, as people say. When he was on the water-wagon he didn't talk, but he was never on the water-wagon. His usual habit was to talk every kind of nonsense, the drunkard's reflections that are very painful to hear in the presence of the dead.

They say, Monsieur, that corpses don't amount to much, and that when you get used to living with them, you come to look on them as if they were so many stones. Well, that was not the case with me. All these corpses I passed my days with finally came to seem to me like companions. Some of them I enjoyed; I almost hated to see them go. Sometimes, when I clumsily struck one of them with my elbow, I had to restrain myself from saying, "I beg pardon, my friend!" I kept looking at them, with their hands covered with callous spots, their poor feet tough and horny from having been dragged about over the roads, and all these things touched my heart.

I would see a cheap ring on some finger, a birthmark on the skin, an old scar, sometimes even a bit of tattooing--one of those things, in a word, from which a man does not separate himself even in death: his poor gray hair, the lines in his face, the remains of a smile about his eyes, more often the stamp of terror. And all that would set my brain working. I would read their stories in their bodies, think of all the things they had seen with those eyes, think how they had worked with those arms I saw there, and how some one had kissed their lips, and how vain they had been of their mustaches, or their beards, on which I now saw the lice crawling, chilled by the coldness of the skin. I thought of these things while I was sewing them up in the heavy canvas; and it filled me with a sadness that was really surprising, for at bottom I did not dislike it.

But I see I am drifting into philosophy. Enough! I'm not a philosopher to allow myself to bore you.

I believe I was speaking to you about the cuirassier Cuvelier? Well, let's return to the story of the cuirassier Cuvelier.

It goes back to the May attacks. I assure you I didn't loaf during those months! The number of dead men that passed through my hands! Their wives and mothers may set their minds at rest: I did my duty as best I could. They all went off, their mouths closed with chin-straps, their hands crossed on their breasts--whenever, that is, they still had hands and chins--and I sewed them up carefully. I say nothing of their eyes: I wasn't able to close them; it's too late for that when they reach the "amphi." Oh, I took good care of them, those dead men of mine!

Well, one day they brought me one who had no label. The face had been very much injured and he wore bandages pretty much everywhere on his legs and arms; but there was no label, no tag on his wrist, nothing!

I put him to one side and sent to notify the head doctor.

In a moment the door opened and M. Poisson appeared.

He always holds himself very well when he has just put a drink behind his nose: I'm aware of it, however, from the little ways he has of coughing, spitting on the ground, and jerking his cross about; for you know he is an officer of the Legion of Honor.

"You have one fellow here that isn't accounted for?" he said to me.

"Monsieur le Médecin-chef, I don't know that he's not accounted for, but he doesn't carry any identification tag."

"That isn't all," continued M. Poisson, "I see you have eight corpses here--just wait a minute--" He pulled out of his pocket a little piece of rumpled paper and turned it all about; then he shouted: "Seven! Only seven! You ought to have only seven corpses. You are a swine! Who gave you that dead man there? I don't want him! He's not on the list. Where in the devil did he come from, that dead one?"

I began to tremble, and replied, stammering: "I didn't notice which stretcher-bearers brought him here."

"Ah! You didn't notice! And what do you want me to do with him, with that fellow? In the first place, what's his name?"

"But, Monsieur le Médecin-chef, that is exactly what we don't know; he's not identified."

"Not identified! Well, that's a nice mess! You'll hear from me about this! Ah, I don't like this sort of business! To begin with, follow me."

And so we set off from barrack to barrack, M. Poisson asking at each door: "Is it you who are sending us dead men without papers?"

As you may well imagine, all M. Poissons subordinates, when they were questioned in this fashion, made themselves small, as people say. Some of them wriggled out from under; others took fright. They all, without exception, replied: "An unidentified dead man? Oh! Monsieur le Médecin-chef, he surely did not come from us!"

M. Poisson began to breathe painfully; he wheezed like a foundered horse; he spat all about him; his voice, because of his anger, no longer resembled anything human: it was a worn-out voice, positively in holes and tatters.

In spite of his bad character, he ended by making me sorry for him, the poor old man!

He went back to his office, with me still at his heels, and flung himself upon his papers; he dug about in them like a water-spaniel in the mud. Then, with splutterings of rage, he continued:

"Look here! one thousand, two hundred and thirty-six have come in. Five hundred and sixty-one have gone out. Do you understand? At present there are six hundred and seventy-four here. Now we have it! There's one lacking, and that fellow's the extra one. And we don't know who he is! We're in a nice mess! a nice mess!"

I confess that M. Poisson's assurance impressed me. I was particularly surprised at the precision of the figures he gave. It's really remarkable, Monsieur, to see the order that reigns in military affairs; you can always, for example, speak exactly: of a hundred stretchers twenty-five have been lost, not one more, not one less; or a thousand wounded have been brought in of whom fifty are dead and the nine hundred and fifty others are still living. From this point of view that mathematical order is well worth the trouble of writing all the papers they do write. As I listened to M. Poisson making his calculations, I realized how much in the way my poor corpse was.

The head doctor repeated, "We're in a nice mess!" Then he said again, "Come with me!" and he went out.

Here was M. Poisson starting off again, to the right and the left. I followed him, hanging my head, and feeling myself gradually becoming infected with his fever. He stopped every officer he met.

"I've had enough of this sort of business! Come and see if that dead man didn't come from your men this time."

He even went into the operating-rooms and questioned the surgeons: "It wasn't you who sent me a dead man without a tag?"

And all the time he kept bringing out his little rumpled paper and penciling on it a number or a cross.

Toward evening he turned on me a pair of eyes with borders like a York ham, and said:

"As for you, you can go back to the amphi! You'll hear from me again!"

I returned to the amphi and sat down sadly. They had brought in three new corpses. Tanquerelle and the carpenter were screwing down their coffin-lids.

On the table, wrapped up temporarily in a tent canvas, the unknown dead man was awaiting a decision. Tanquerelle was quite drunk and was singing the "Missouri," which isn't the thing to do when you are occupied with corpses. I went and lifted up the tent canvas, and I took a long look at the stiff body. The whole of the wounded face was wrapped up in cloths. One could see a few locks of light-colored hair. As for the rest, it might have been any corpse whatever, yours or mine, Monsieur.

Night had fallen. The door opened and M. Poisson appeared, with a lantern, accompanied by another officer. He seemed calm and hiccoughed a little, like a man who has just dined well.

"You're a fool!" he said to me. "You didn't even have the sense to see that that body there is the body of the cuirassier Cuvelier."

"But, Monsieur le Médecin-chef---"

"Hold your tongue! It's the cuirassier Cuvelier."

He approached the table, measured the corpse with his eye, and exclaimed:

"Unquestionably! He's tall enough to be a cuirassier. You see, Perrin, the cuirassier Cuvelier was brought in by the ambulance the day before yesterday. According to the register, he has not gone out. But he is no longer undergoing treatment; therefore he is dead, and that is he over there. Obvious enough!"

"Quite obvious!" said Perrin. "It is undoubtedly he."

"Isn't it?" went on M. Poisson. "It's Cuvelier; that's perfectly plain. Poor devil! Now let's go to bed." Then he turned to me: "You're to put him in his coffin and glue on the lid, 'Cuvelier, Edouard, Ninth Cuirassiers.' And, mind you, no more of this sort of business."

The gentlemen went out. I put the cuirassier Cuvelier in a coffin and went to spend a few hours on my pallet.

The next morning I was getting ready to nail down the coffin-lid of Cuvelier, Edouard, when I saw M. Poisson coming in again. His face was not so calm as the evening before.

"Wait a little before you have that fellow buried," he said to me.

He walked around the end of the bier, chewing the end of a cigarette, agitated by a catarrh that seemed as old as humanity; in short, he had so disturbed an air that I saw clearly that he had not made up his mind to thrust Cuvelier into eternity just that way. That was not to be: the dead man had thwarted our plans, he did not mean to let himself be engulfed. I don't know whether M. Poisson had a lofty conception of his duty or simply a fear of complications, but at this moment he filled me with a poignant sympathy.

He turned toward me and as if he did not want to be alone. "Come," he said; "come along with me again."

So off we went again through the barracks. M. Poisson would go in and say:

"Pavilion Eight? Is this a pavilion for the severely wounded? You haven't the cuirassier Cuvelier here?"

The men in the pavilion would consult together and answer, "No."

We would go on.

M. Poisson would begin again: "Pavilion Seven? Have you a man named Cuvelier here, belonging to the Ninth Cuirassiers?"

"No, Monsieur le Médecin-chef."

Then M. Poisson would say triumphantly: "Of course! They can't have him, and it's because he's dead. I do this to satisfy my conscience. That's the way I am."

We ran into M. Perrin.

"You see, Perrin," the head doctor said to him, in order to be quite easy in my mind I am looking through the wards to see if there isn't a Cuvelier there. And there isn't. Of course I look only in the wards for the seriously wounded; I'm no fool! If he's dead, he must have been seriously wounded."

"That's plain," said M. Perrin.

When we had visited all the pavilions M. Poisson erected his head, which made all sorts of folds in the skin that hung down under his chin, and concluded thus:

"It's certainly Cuvelier! This is what it means to have system! In my hospital things don't go on as they do in the hospitals of those damn fools Pouce and Viellon."

"Perhaps, just the same," said M. Perrin, "you ought to enquire among the slightly wounded, just for the sake of prudence."

"Oh, well, if you wish!" said M. Poisson, carelessly.

And we turned our steps toward the pavilion of the "Evacuables."

We went in; we asked the usual question. No one answered. Just as we were going out M. Poisson repeated, "Cuvelier isn't here?"

Then we heard some one suddenly cry out, "Yes, Cuvelier is here!" And a big curly-haired fellow rose up out of his bed, brandishing a hand that wore a very small bandage.

Then matters became tragic. M. Poisson turned a deep purple, like a man struck with apoplexy. He spat two or three times in rapid succession. He struck the flaps of his pockets and said hoarsely:

"Good enough! So he turns out to be alive, that fellow!"

"Cuvelier," returned the other; "that's me!"

"Cuvelier, Edouard'?"

"Edouard, yes."

"Of the Ninth Cuirassiers?"

"Exactly, of the Ninth Cuir!"

M. Poisson went out like a madman, followed by M. Perrin, followed by me. He marched to the morgue, planted himself before the bier, sputtered all over his jacket, and said simply, "If it's not Cuvelier, then we have to begin all over again."

Ah, Monsieur! what a day! What a memory! The offensive was going on all this whole time. The dead completely filled the small quarters that had been reserved for them. But the real life of the department seemed to be suspended.

Have you ever seen ships halted in the midst of a river and stopping all the traffic? Well, our unknown corpse was like that. It was stranded across the current of our work and threatened to interfere with everything, beginning with the health of the unhappy M. Poisson, who talked of getting himself evacuated.

He would come at all times to take a glance at the body, which had quietly begun to decompose. He would look at it fixedly, as if he hoped to make the dead break its silence.

During the afternoon I had a few moments of peace. M. Poisson was taking his siesta. Toward six o'clock he reappeared, and I had difficulty in recognizing him. His hands were almost washed, his beard trimmed, he wore a white collar and had the breath of a man who has just cleared his mouth with a glass of good old wine.

"Well, come now!" he said to me; "haven't you finished nailing up the German's coffin yet? You're not a perfect fool, are you?"

"But, Monsieur le Médecin-chef--"

"Shut up! And make a plate quickly: 'German subject, unknown.' Understand?"

M. Perrin had just come in. The two officers took one more look at the corpse.

"You can see it's a Boche," said M. Poisson.

"Yes, look at that blond hair."

"Perrin, you ought to have thought of it sooner," added the head doctor.

The gentlemen were about to go out when Poisson turned back.

"After all, take him out of the coffin. He's a German; let him be buried without one, in the usual way."

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