You can be a virgin in horror the same as in sex. How, when I left the Place Clichy, could I have imagined such horror? Who could have suspected, before getting really into the war, all the ingredients that go to make up the rotten, heroic, good-for-nothing soul of man? And there I was, caught up in a mass flight into collective murder, into the fiery furnace . Something had come up from the depths, and this is what happened.
The colonel was still as cool as a cucumber. I watched him as he stood on the embankment, taking little messages sent by the general, reading them without haste as the bullets flew all around him, and tearing them into little pieces. Did none of those messages include an order to put an immediate stop to this abomination? Did no top brass tell him there had been a misunderstanding? A horrible mistake? A misdeal? That somebody’d got it all wrong, that the plan had been for maneuvers, a sham battle, not a massacre! Not at all! “Keep it up, colonel! You’re doing fine!” That’s what General des Entrayes, the head of our division and commander over us all, must have written in those notes that were being brought every five minutes by a courier who looked greener and more shitless each time. I could have palled up with that boy, we’d have been scared together. But we had no time to fraternize.
So there was no mistake? So there was no law against people shooting at people they couldn’t even see! It was one of the things you could do without anybody reading you the riot act. In fact, it was recognized and probably encouraged by upstanding citizens, like the draft, or marriage, or hunting! No two ways about it. I was suddenly on the most intimate terms with war. I’d lost my virginity. You’ve got to be pretty much alone with her as I was then to get a good look at her, the slut, full face and profile. A war had been switched on between us and the other side, and now it was burning! Like the current between the two carbons of an arc lamp! And this lamp was in no hurry to go out! It would get us all, the colonel and everyone else; he looked pretty spiffy now, but he wouldn’t roast up any bigger than me when the current from the other side got him between the shoulders.
There are different ways of being condemned to death. Oh! What wouldn’t I have given to be in jail instead of here! What a fool I’d been! If only I had had a little foresight and stolen something or other when it would have been so easy and there was still time. I never think of anything. You come out of jail alive, out of a war you don’t! The rest is blarney.
If only I’d had time, but I didn’t. There was nothing left to steal. How pleasant it would be in a cozy little jailhouse, I said to myself, where the bullets couldn’t get in. Where they never got in! I knew of one that was ready and waiting, all sunny and warm! I saw it in my dreams, the jailhouse of Saint-Germain to be exact, right near the forest. I knew it well, I’d often passed that way. How a man changes! I was a child in those days, and that jail frightened me. Because I didn’t know what men are like. Never again will I believe what they say or what they think. Men are the thing to be afraid of, always, men and nothing else.
How much longer would this madness have to go on before these monsters dropped with exhaustion? How long could a convulsion like this last? Months? Years? How many? Maybe till everyone’s dead? All these lunatics? Every last one of them? And seeing that events were taking such a desperate turn, I decided to stake everything on one throw, to make one last try, to see if I couldn’t stop the war, just me, all by myself! At least in this one spot where I happened to be.
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