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from Stepsons of France (orig. ed. 1917, this ed. 1925)
JEAN JACQUES DUBONNET had distinguished himself that day, and he lay on his bed that night and cried. His companion, old Jean Boule, in that little hut of sticks and banana-leaves, had just been congratulating him on the fact that he had almost certainly won himself the croix de guerre or the médaille militaire for his distinguished bravery. And he had burst into tears, his body shaken with great rending sobs.
John Bull was not only a gentleman; he was a person of understanding and sympathy, and he had suffered enough, and seen enough of suffering, to feel neither surprise, disgust, nor contempt.
"God! Oh, God! I am a coward. I am a branded coward!" blubbered the big man on the creaking bed of boughs and boxes.
Was this fever, reaction, drink, le cafard, or what?
Certainly Dubonnet had played the man, and shown great physical courage that day against the Sakalaves, the brave Malagasy savages who have given Madame la Republique a good deal of trouble and annoyance, and filled many a shallow grave with the unconsidered carcases of Marsouins1 and Légionnaires in the red soil of Madagascar. As the decimated Company had slowly fallen back from the ambush in the dense plantations of the lovely Boueni palms, Lieutenant Roberte had fallen, shot through the body by a plucky Sakalave who had deliberately rested his prehistoric musket on his thigh and discharged it at a dozen yards range, himself under heavy fire. With insulting howls of "Taim-poory, taim-poory," half a dozen of the enemy had sprung at the fallen man, when Dubonnet, rushing from cover, had shot two in quick succession, bayoneted two others, kicked violently in the face a fifth, who stooped over the Lieutenant with a coupe-coupe, and then, swinging his Lebel by the butt, had put up so good a fight that he had driven the savages back and had then partly dragged and partly carried his officer with him, to where the Company could rally, re-form, and make their stand to await reinforcements. Undeniably Dubonnet had risked his life to save that of his officer, and had fought with very great courage and determination or he could never have reached the rallying-place with an unconscious man, when so many of his comrades could not reach it at all.
Yet there he lay, weeping like a child, and calling upon his Maker to ease his guilty bosom of the burden it had borne so long the knowledge that he was a "branded" coward.
It was terribly, cruelly hot in the tiny hut, and, to John Bull, who arose from his camp-bed of packing-case boards, it seemed even hotter outside, as he went to fetch the hollow bamboo water-"bottle" which hung from the tree under which the hut was built. Was it possible that the Madagascan moon gave out heat-rays of its own, or reflected those of the sun as it did the rays of light? It really seemed hotter in the moonlight than out of it.... Carrying the bamboo water-receptacle, a cylinder as tall as himself really a pipe with one end sealed with gum, wax, or clay, when a joint of the stem does not serve the purpose the Englishman passed in through the doorless doorway and delivered an ultimatum.
"Whatever may be the trouble, mon ami, weeping will not help it. Enough! . . . Sit up and tell me all about it, or I'll wash you off that bed like the insect you're pretending to be. . . . Now then a drink or a drenching?"
"Give me a drink for the love of God!" said Dubonnet, sitting up. "Absinthe, rum, cognac anything," and he clutched at the breast of his canvas shirt as though he feared it might open and expose his breast.
"Yes. Good cold water," replied John Bull.
"Cold water!" mocked the other between sobs. "Cold Englishman! Cold water!" and he bowed his head on his knees and groaned and wept afresh.
The old soldier carefully poured water from the open end of the great pipe into a gamelle, and offered it to the other, who drank feverishly. "Are you wounded in the chest, there?" he asked.
This cafard, the madness that comes upon soldiers who eat out their hearts in the monotony of exile and wear out their stomachs and brains in the absinthe-shop, takes strange forms and reduces its victims to queer plights. How should le Légionnaire Jean Jacques Dubonnet, Soldat première classe, recommended for decoration for bravery in the field, be a coward?
"Oh, merciful God help me to bear it. I am a Coward a branded Coward!" wailed the huddled figure on the rickety, groaning bed.
"See here, comrade," said John Bull, overcoming a certain slight, but perceptible, repugnance, and placing an arm across the bowed and quivering shoulders, "I am no talker, as you are aware. If it would give you any relief to tell me all about it rest assured that no word of it will ever be repeated by me. It may ease you. I may be able to help or comfort. Many Légionnaires, some on their deathbeds, have felt the better for telling me of their troubles. . . . But do not think I want to pry." . . .
Swiftly the wretched man turned, flung his arms about the Englishman's neck, and kissed him.
John Bull forbore to shudder. (Heavens! How different is the excellent French poilu from the British Tommy!) But if he could bring peace and the healing, soothing sense of confession, if not of anything approaching absolution, to this tortured soul, the night would have been well spent better spent than in sleep, though he was very, very tired.
"I will tell you, mon ami, and will pray to you then to give me comfort or a bullet in the temple. A little accident as you clean your rifle! I cannot do it. I dare not do it and no bullet will touch me in battle as you have seen to-day. I live to die, and am too big a coward to take my life. . . . I am a branded coward. . . . See! See!" and he tore open the breast of his shirt. At once he closed it again, and hugged himself.
"No, no! I will tell you first," he cried.
The madness of le cafard, no doubt. The man had only recently been drafted to the VIIth Company from the depôt, and had appeared a morose, surly, and unattractive person, friendless and undesirous of friends. Accident had made him the stable-companion of the Englishman in this little damp fever-stricken hell in the reeking corner of the Betsi-misarake district, in which the remains of the Company were pinned. . . .
The deplorable and deploring Dubonnet thrust his grimy fists into his eyes and across the end of his amorphous nose, as, with a sniff which militated against the romantic effect of the declaration, he said, "I swear I loved her. I loved her madly. It was my unfortunate and uncontrollable love that caused the trouble in the first place. . . . But it was her fault too, mind you! Why couldn't she have told me she had a husband, away at Lyons, finishing his military service a husband whom she had not seen for six months, and whom she would not see for another six? . . . Too late the fool confessed it a month before he was coming, and a couple of months before something else was coming! And he famous, as I learned too late, for having all the jealous hate of Hell in his heart, if she so much as looked at another man. He, a porter of the Halles, notorious for his quarrelsomeness and for his fearful strength and savage temper. She hated him nearly as much as she feared him and me, me she loved to distraction. And I her. . . . Believe me, she was the loveliest flower-seller in Paris with a foot and ankle, an eye, a figure, ravishing, I tell you . . . and he would break her neck when he saw how she was and stab me to the heart. She would never have told him it was I she loved, but those others would for dozens knew that she was my amie, and many in my gang did not love me. I am not of those whom men love but women, ah! and there were jealous ones in our ruelle who would have gone far to see her beauty spoiled and my throat cut. . . . It was all her fault, I say! Did she not deceive me in hiding the fact that she had a husband? She deceived us all. But when this scélérat should turn up from Lyons, and find her at her pitch or in the flower-market, would any of them have held their tongues? . . . Can you not see it? . . . The crowd at the door, the screams as he entered and dragged her out into the gutter by the hair, his foot on her throat . . . and, afterwards his knife at my breast. . . . Would any of the gang have stood by me? No, they would have licked their chops and goaded him on . . . and, oh God, I am a coward. . . . I can fight when my blood is up and I have to struggle for my life. . . . I can fight as one of a regiment, a company, a crowd, all fighting side by side, each defending the other by fighting the common foe. . . . I can take my part in a mélée and I can do deeds then that I do not know I have done till afterwards.... I can fight when the tiger in me is aroused and has smelt blood but I am a coward if I am alone. I, alone, dare not fight one man alone. . . . Were I being tracked alone through the jungle here by but one of the six men I attacked to-day, my knees would knock together and my legs would refuse to bear me up. I should flee if they would carry me, flee shrieking, but they would not bear me a hundred metres. They would collapse, and I should lie shuddering with closed eyes, awaiting the blow. I can hunt with the pack but I cannot be hunted. No When our band waylaid the greasy bourgeois as he lurched homeward from his restaurant in the Place Pigalle or his Montmartre cabaret, I was as good an apache as any in the gang, and struck my blow with the best; but if it was a case of a row with the agents de police, and we were being individually shadowed, my heart turned to water, and I lay in bed for days. In a fair fight between about equal numbers of anarchists and apaches on the one hand, and messieurs les agents on the other, if it came upon us suddenly as they raided our rookery, I could play a brave man's part in the rush for the street; but I cannot be the hunted one I cannot fight alone with none on either side of me. Oh God, I am a coward," and the wretch again buried his face in his knees and wept and sobbed afresh.
A common, cowardly gutter-hooligan apparently; an apache, a Paris street-wolf, and, like all wolves, braver in the pack than when alone; but in John Bull's gaze there was more of pity than anything. Suppose he, John Bull, had been born in a foul corner of some filthy cellar beneath a Paris slum? Would he have been so different? Was the man to blame, or the Fate that gave him the ancestry and environment that had made him precisely what he was?
"You will be called out before the battalion and decorated with the cross or the médaille, mon ami, for your heroism to-day. Put the past behind, and let your life re-date from the day the Colonel pins the decoration on your breast. Begin afresh. You will carry about with you always the visible sign and recognition that you are a hero there on your breast, I say."
With a shriek of "What do I bear on my breast now?" the ex-apache tore open his shirt and exposed two strips of strong linen sticking-plaster, each some ten inches long and two inches wide, that lay stuck horizontally across his broad chest.
What was this? Had he two ghastly gashes beneath the plaster? Had all that he had been saying been merely the delirium of a badly-wounded man? Seizing the ends, the apache tore them violently from his skin, and, by the light of the little lamp, John Bull saw, deeply branded, and most skilfully tattooed in the ineradicable burns, the following words (in French):
The Englishman recoiled in horror, and the other thought it was in contempt.
"Where are your fine phrases now?" he snarled, with concentrated bitterness. "'You will carry about with you always the visible sign and recognition that you are a hero,'" he mocked. "I do indeed! . . . Oh God, take it from me. Let me sleep and wake to find it gone, and I will become a monk and wear out my life in prayer," . . . and he threw himself face-downward on the bed and tore the covering of his straw pillow with his teeth.
"See, mon ami," said John Bull, "the médaille will be above that. It will be superimposed. It will bury that beneath it. Let it bury it for ever. That is of the past the médaille is of to-day and the glorious future. That is man's revenge the cruel punishment and vengeance of an injured brute. The médaille is man's reward the glad recognition of those who admire courage." . . .
"It is not the husband's work," growled Dubonnet. "He never caught me. My own gang did that my comrades my friends! Think of their loathing and contempt, their hatred and disgust, that they could do that to a man and leave him to live. Think of it! And I dare not kill myself and meet her. I am a coward. I fear Death himself, and I fear her reproachful eyes still more. . . . I am a coward and I am a liar. I broke my faith and word and trust to her and I feared the death that she welcomed because I was by her side to share it. She drank the poison in her glass, threw herself into my arms, and bade me drink mine and come with her to the Beyond, where no brutal, hated husband could drag her from me to his own loathed arms.... And I did not. I could not. She died in my arms with those great reproachful eyes on mine, and whispered, 'Come with me, my Beloved. I am afraid to go alone.' And when I would not, she cursed me and died. And I let her go alone I, who had planned our double suicide, our glorious and romantic suicide in each other's arms that we might not have to part, might not have to face her husband's wrath, might be together for all time, though it were in hell. . . . Before she drank, she blessed me. Before she died, she cursed me and still I could not drink. . . . And now I have not the courage to go on living, and I have not the courage to take my life.... And they are going to brand me as a hero, are they? . . . That on my coat and this beneath it!" and peals of hysterical laughter rang out on the still night.
"Yes that on your coat," said the Englishman. "Does it count for nothing? Let the one balance the other. Put the past behind you and start afresh.... Can you bear pain? Physical pain, I mean?"
"Is not all my life a pain? did I not have to bear the pain of being branded with a red-hot iron? What is physical pain compared with what I bear night and day remorse, self-loathing, the fear of the discovery of this by my comrades? How much longer will it be before some prying swine sees these strips and refuses to believe they hide wounds laughs at my tale of attempted suicide in a fit of cafard hara-kiri self-mutilation with a knife." . . .
"Because, if you can face the pain, we can obliterate that. We can remove the record of shame, and you can wear the record of courage and duty without fear of discovery of the . . ."
"What do you say?" cried Dubonnet, as the words penetrated his anguished and self-centred mind. "What? Remove it? How in the name of God?"
"Burn it out as it was burnt in," was the cool reply. "I will do it for you if you ask me to . . . The pain will be ghastly and the mark hideous but it will be a mark and nothing else. Anyone seeing it will merely see that you have been severely burnt and they'll be about right."
Dubonnet sat up.
"You could and would do that?" he said.
"Yes. I should make a flat piece of iron red-hot and lay it firmly across the writing. It would depend on you whether it were successful or not, and would be a good test of nerve and courage. Have it done and make up your mind that cowardice and treachery were burnt out with the words. Then start life afresh and win another decoration." . . .
"There are anæsthetics," whimpered Dubonnet. "Chloroform." . . .
"Not for Legionaries in Madagascar," was the reply. "Unless you'd like to go to Médecin-Major Parme with your story and ask him to operate, to oblige a young friend?"
Dubonnet shivered, and then spat. "Médecin-Major Parme!" he growled.
"If you like to wait a few weeks or months or years, you may have the opportunity and the money to buy chloroform," continued the Englishman, "or the means for making local injections of cocaine or something; but I suggest you make a kind of sacrament of the business have the damnable thing burnt out precisely as it was burnt in, and as you clench your teeth on the bullet in manly silence and soldierly stoicism, realize it is the past that is being burnt also, and that the good fire is burning out all that makes you hate yourself and hate life. Let it be symbolic."
John Bull knew his man. He had met his type before. Too much imagination; too little ballast; the material for a first-class devil, or a first-class man; swayed and governed by his symbols, shibboleths, and prejudices; the slave and victim of an idée fixe. . . . If he could get him to undergo this ordeal, he would emerge from it a new man a saved man. An anæsthetic would spoil the whole moral effect. If he would face the torture and bear it, he would regard himself as a brave man, just as surely as he now regarded himself as a coward. He would recover his self-respect, and he would be brave because he believed himself to be brave. It would literally be his regeneration and salvation.
"It would hurt no more in the undoing than it did in the doing," he continued.
The poor wretch shuddered.
"She had written a few words of farewell to one or two," he said, "and told how we were going to die together, and when and where. . . . Her mother and some others burst in and found me with her body in my arms and my untasted poison beside me. . . . I went mad. I raved. I denounced myself. A vile woman who had once loved me, jeered at me and bade me drink my share and rid the world of myself. . . . I could not. . . . My own gang bound me on my bed, and one of them brought an old chisel and the half of an iron pipe split lengthways. With the straight edge and the semicircular one, they did their work. I was their prisoner for ah! how long? And then they tattooed the scars not satisfied with their handiwork as it was. . . . Before her husband found me I had fled to the shelter of the Legion. . . . I told the surgeon at Fort St. Jean that it was done by a rival gang because I had pretended to join them and did not. He gave me a roll of the sticking-plaster and advised me, for my comfort, to hide my 'endossement' as he brutally called it." . . .
"Well, now get rid of it," interrupted John Bull. "The flat iron clamp, binding the corners of that packing-case, would be the very thing. You are not a coward. You proved that to-day. Prove it more highly to-night, and, when they decorate you, let there be a still more honourable decoration beneath the scars of a great victory. . . . Come on." . . .
When old Jean Jacques Dubonnet fell, many years later, at Verdun, the Colonel of his battalion, on hearing the news, remarked, "I have lost my bravest soldier."
The marks of a terrible burn on his chest were almost obliterated by German bullets and bayonets.
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