The Green Confessional
FOR a long time the soldier remained silent. His head was bowed, His shoulders drooped. His hands trembled between his knees. He was wrestling with himself. "No," he cried, at last, "I cannot, I dare not tell you. Unless, perhaps "his voice faltered -- " you could receive it under the seal of confession? But no. How could you do that? Here in the green woods? In the open air, beside a spring? Here is no confessional."
"Why not?" asked Father Courcy. "It is a good place, a holy place. Heaven is over our heads and very near. I will receive your confession here."
The soldier knelt among the flowers. The priest pronounced the sacred words. The soldier began his confession:
"I, Pierre Duval, a great sinner, confess my fault, my most grievous fault, and pray for pardon." He stopped for a moment and then continued, "But first I must tell you, Father, just who I am and where I come from and what brings me here."
"Go on, Pierre Duval, go on. That is what I am waiting to hear. Be simple and very frank."
"Well, then, I am from the parish of Laucourt, in the pleasant country of the Barrois not far from Bar-sur-Aube. My faith, but that is a pretty land, full of orchards and berry-gardens! Our old farm there is one of the prettiest and one of the best, though it is small. It was hard to leave it when the call to the colors came, two years ago. But I was glad to go. My heart was high and strong for France. I was in the Nth Infantry. We were in the center division under General Foch at the battle of the Marne. Fichire! but that was fierce fighting! And what a general! He did not know how to spell 'defeat.' He wrote it 'victory.' Four times we went across that cursed Marsh of Saint-Gond. The dried mud was trampled full of dead bodies. The trickling streams of water ran red. Four times we were thrown back by the Boches. You would have thought that was enough. But the general did not think so. We went over again on the fifth day, and that time we stayed. The Germans could not stand against us. They broke and ran. The roads where we chased them were full of empty wine-bottles. In one village we caught three officers and a dozen men dead drunk. Bigré what a fine joke!"
Pierre, leaning back upon his heels, was losing lines in his recital. His face lighted up, his hands were waving. Father Courcy bent forward with shining eyes.
"Continue," he cried. "This is a beautiful confession -- no sin yet. Continue, Pierre."
"Well, then, after that we were fighting here and there, on the Aisne, on the Ailette, everywhere. Always the same story-Germans rolling down on us in flood, green-gray waves. But the foam on them was fire and steel. The shells of the barrage swept us like hailstones. We waited, waited in our trenches, till the green-gray mob was near enough. Then the word came. Sapristi! We let loose with mitrailleuse, rifle, field-gun, everything that would throw death. It did not seem like fighting with men. It was like trying to stop a monstrous thing, a huge, terrible mass that was rushing on to overwhelm us. The waves tumbled and broke before they reached us. Sometimes they fell flat. Sometimes they turned and rushed the other way. It was wild, wild, like a change of the wind and tide in a storm, everything tom and confused. Then perhaps the word came to go over the top and at them. That was furious. That was fighting with men, for sure -- bayonet, revolver, rifle-butt, knife, anything that would kill. Often I sickened at the blood and the horror of it. But something inside of me shouted: 'Fight on! It is for France. It is for "L'Alouette," thy farm; for thy wife, thy little ones. Wilt thou let them be ruined by those beasts of Boches? What are they doing here on French soil? Brigands, butchers, Apaches! Drive them out; and if they will not go, kill them so they can do no more shameful deeds. Fight on! So I killed all I could."
The priest nodded his head grimly. "You were right, Pierre; your voice spoke true. It was a dreadful duty that you were doing. The Gospel tells us, if we are smitten on one cheek we must turn the other. But it does not tell us to turn the cheek of a little child, of the woman we love, of the country we belong to. No! that would be disgraceful, wicked, un-Christian. It would be to betray the innocent! Continue, my son."
"Well, then," Pierre went on, his voice deepening and his face growing more tense, "then we were sent to Verdun. That was the hottest place of all. It was at the top of the big German drive. The whole sea rushed and fell on us -- big guns, little guns, poison-gas, hand-grenades, liquid fire, bayonets, knives, and trench-clubs. Fort after fort went down. The whole pack of hell was loose and raging. I thought of that crazy, chinless Crown Prince sitting in his safe little cottage hidden in the woods somewhere -- they say he had flowers and vines planted around it -- drinking stolen champagne and sicking on his dogs of death. He was in no danger. I cursed him in my heart, that blood-lord! The shells rained on Verdun. The houses were riddled; the cathedral was pierced in a dozen places; a hundred fires broke out. The old citadel held good. The outer forts to the north and east were taken. Only the last ring was left. We common soldiers did not know much about what was happening. The big battle was beyond our horizon. But that General Pétain, he knew it all. Ah, that is a wise man, I can tell you! He sent us to this place or that place where the defense was most needed. We went gladly, without fear or holding back. We were resolute that those mad dogs should not get through. 'They shall not pass[' And they did not pass!"
"Glorious!" cried the priest, drinking the story in. "And you, Pierre? Where were you, what were you doing?"
"I was at Douaumont, that fort on the highest hill of all. The Germans took it. It cost them ten thousand men. The ground around it was like a wood-yard piled with logs. The big shell-holes were full of corpses. There were a few of us that got away. Then our company was sent to hold the third redoubt on the slope in front of Fort de Vaux. Perhaps you have heard of that redoubt. That was a bitter job. But we held it many days and nights. The Boches pounded us from Douaumont and from the village of Vaux. They sent wave after wave up the slope to drive us out. But we stuck to it. That ravine of La Caillette was a boiling caldron of men. It bubbled over with smoke and fire. Once, when their second wave had broken just in front of us, we went out to hurry the fragments down the hill. Then the guns from Douaumont and the village of Vaux hammered us. Our men fell like nine-pins. Our lieutenant called to us to turn back. Just then a shell tore away his right leg at the knee. It hung by the skin and tendons. He was a brave lad. I could not leave him to die there. So I hoisted him on my back. Three shots struck me. They felt just like hard blows from a heavy fist. One of them made my left arm powerless. I sank my teeth in the sleeve of my Hentenant's coat as it hung over my shoulder. I must not let him fall off my back. Somehow -- knows how -- I gritted through to our redoubt. They took my lieutenant from my shoulders. And then the light went out."
The priest leaned forward, his hands stretched out around the soldier. "But you are a hero," he cried. "Let me embrace you!"
The soldier drew back, shaking him head sadly. "No," he said, his voice breaking -- , "no, my father, you must not embrace me now. I may have been a brave man once. But now I am a coward. Let me tell you everything. My wounds were bad, but not desperate. The brancardiers carried me down to Verdun, at night, I suppose, but I was unconscious; and so to the hospital at Vaudelaincourt. There were days and nights of blankness mixed with pain. Then I came to my senses and had rest. It was wonderful. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. Would God it had been so! Then I should have been with my lieutenant. They told me he had passed away in the redoubt. But that hospital was beautiful, so clean and quiet and friendly. Those white nurses were angels. They handled me like a baby, I would have liked to stay there. I had no desire to get better. But I did. One day several officers visited the hospital. They came to my cot, where I was sitting up. The highest of them brought out a Cross of War and pinned it on the breast of my nightshirt.' 'There,' he said, "you are decorated, Pierre Duval! You are one of the heroes of France. You are soon going to be perfectly well and to fight again bravely for your country.' I thanked him, but I knew better. My body might get perfectly well, but something in my soul was broken. It was worn out. The thin spring had snapped. I could never fight again. Any loud noise made me shake all over. I knew that I could never face a battle -- impossible! I should certainly lose my nerve and run away. It is a damned feeling, that broken something inside of one. I can't describe it."
Pierre stopped for a moment and moistened his dry lips with the tip of his tongue.
"I know," said Father Courcy. "I understand perfectly what you want to say. It was like being lost and thinking that nothing could save you; a feeling that is piercing and dull at the same time, like a heavy weight Pressing on you with sharp stabs in it. It was what they call shellshock, a terrible thing. Sometimes it drives men crazy for a while. But the doctors know what to do for that malady. It passes. You got over it."
"No," answered Pierre, "the doctors may not have known that I had it. At all events, they did not know what to do for it. It did not pass. It grew worse. But I hid it, talking very little, never telling anybody how I felt. They said I was depressed and needed cheering up. All the while there was that black snake coiled around my heart, squeezing tighter and tighter. But my body grew stronger every day. The wounds were all healed. I was walking around. In July the doctor-in-chief sent for me to his office. He said: 'You are cured, Pierre Duval, but you are not yet fit to fight. You are low in your mind. You need cheering up. You are to have a month's furlough and repose. You shall go home to your farm. How is it that you call it? ' I suppose I had been babbling about it in my sleep and one of the nurses had told him. He was always that way, that little Doctor Roselly, taking an interest in the men, talking with them and acting friendly.! said the farm was called "L'Alouette," --rather a foolish name. ' Not at all,' he answered; 'it is a fine name, with the song of a bird in it. Well, you are going back to "L'Alouette," to hear the lark sing for a month, to kiss your wife and your children, to pick gooseberries and currants. Eh, my boy, what do you think of that? Then, when the month is over, you will be a new man. You will be ready to fight again at Verdun. Remember they have not passed and they shall not pass! Good luck to you, Pierre Duval.' So I went back to the farm as fast as I could go."
He was silent for a few moments, letting his thoughts wander through the pleasant paths of that little garden of repose. His eyes were dreaming, his lips almost smiled.
"It was sweet at "L'Alouette," very sweet, Father. The farm was in pretty good order and the kitchen-garden was all right, though the flowers had been a little neglected. You see, my wife, Joséphine, she is a very clever woman. She had kept up the things that were the most necessary. She had hired one of the old neighbors and a couple of boys to help her with the plowing and planting. The harvest she sold as it stood. Our yoke of cream-colored oxen and the roan horse were in good condition. Little Pierrot, who is five, and little Josette, who is three, were as brown as berries. They hugged me almost to death. But it was Joséphine herself who was the best of all. She is only twenty-six, Father, and so beautiful still, with her long chestnut hair and her eyes like brown stones shining under the waters of a brook. I tell you it was goal to get her in my arms again and feel her lips on mine. And to wake in the early morning, while the birds were singing, and see her face beside me on the white pillow, sleeping like a child, that was a little bit of Paradise. But I do wrong to tell you of all this, Father."
"Proceed, my big boy," nodded the priest. "You are saying nothing wrong. I was a man before I was a priest. It is all natural, what you are saying, and all according to God's law -- no sin in it. Proceed. Did your happiness do you good?"
Pierre shook his head doubtfully. The look of dejection came back to his face. He frowned as if something puzzled and hurt him. "Yes and no! That is the strange thing. It made me thankful -- that goes without saying. But it did not make me any stronger in my heart. Perhaps it was too sweet. I thought too much of it. I could not bear to think of anything else. The idea of the war was hateful, horrible, disgusting. The noise and the dirt of it, the mud in the autumn and the bitter cold in the winter, the rats and the lice in the dugouts! And then the fury of the charge, and the everlasting killing, killing, or being killed! The danger had seemed little or nothing to me when I was there. But at a distance it was frightful, unendurable. I knew that I could never stand up to it again. Besides, already I had done my share enough for two or three men. Why must I go back into that hell? It was not fair. Life was too dear to be risking it all the time. I could not endure it. France? France? Of course I love France. But my farm and my life with Joséphine and the children mean more to me. The thing that made me a good soldier is broken inside me. It is beyond mending."
His voice sank lower and lower. Father Courcy looked at him gravely.
"But your farm is a part of France. You belong to France. He that saveth his life shall lose it!"
"Yes, yes, I know. But my farm is such a small part of France. I am only one man. What difference does one man make, except to himself? Moreover, I had done my part, that was certain. Twenty times, really, my life had been lost. Why must I throw it away again? Listen, Father. There is a village in the Vosges, near the Swiss border, where a relative of mine lives. If I could get to him he would take me in and give me some other clothes and help me over the frontier into Switzerland. There I could change my name and find work until the war is over. That was my plan. So I set out on my journey, following the less-traveled roads, tramping by night and sleeping by day. Thus I came to this spring at the same time as you by chance, by pure chance. Do you see?"
Father Courcy looked very stem and seemed about to speak in anger. Then he Shook his head, and said, quietly: "No, I do not see that at all. It remains to be seen whether it was by chance. But tell me more about your sin. Did you let your wife, Joséphine, know what you were going to do? Did you tell her good-by, parting for Switzerland?"
"Why, no! I did not dare. She would never have forgiven me. So I slipped down to the post-office at Bar-sur-Aube and stole a telegraph blank. It was ten days before my furlough was out. I wrote a message to myself calling me back to the colors at once. I showed it to her. Then I said good-by. I wept. She did not cry one tear. Her eyes were stars. She embraced me a dozen times. She lifted up each of the children to hug. me. Then she cried: 'Go now, my brave man. Fight well. Drive the damned Boches out. It is for us and for France. God protect you. Au revoir!' I went down the road silent. I felt like a dog. But I could not help it."
"And you were a dog," said the priest, sternly. "That is what you were, and what you remain unless you can learn to help it You lied to your wife. You forged; you tricked her who trusted you.
You have done the thing which you yourself say she would never forgive. If she loves you and prays for you now, you have stolen that love and that prayer. You are a thief. A true daughter of France could never love a coward to-day."
"I know, I know," sobbed Pierre, burying his face in the weeds. "Yet I did it partly for her, and I could not do otherwise."
"Very little for her and a hundred times for yourself," said the priest, indignantly. "Be honest. If there was a little bit of love for her, it was the kind of love she did not want. She would spit upon it. If you are going to Switzerland now you are leaving her forever. You can never go back to Joséphine again. You are a deserter. She would cast you out, coward!"
The broken soldier lay very still, almost as if he were dead. Then he rose slowly to his feet, with a pale, set face. He put his hand behind his back and drew out a revolver. "It is true," he said, slowly, "I'm a coward. But not altogether such a coward as you think, Father. It is not merely death that I fear. I could face that, I think. Here, take this pistol and shoot me now! No one will know. You can say you shot a deserter, or that I attacked you. Shoot me now, Father, and let me out of this trouble."
Father Courcy looked at him with amazement. Then he took the pistol, uncocked it cautiously, and dropped it behind him. He turned to Pierre and regarded him curiously. "Go on with your confession, Pierre. Tell me about this strange kind of cowardice which can face death."
The soldier dropped on his knees again and went on, in a low, shaken voice: "It is this, Father. By my broken soul, this is the very root of it. I am afraid of fear."
The priest thought for an instant. "But that is not reasonable, Pierre. It is nonsense. Fear cannot hurt you. If you fight it you can conquer it. At least you can disregard it, march through it, as if it were not there."
"Not this fear," argued the soldier, with a peasant's obstinacy. "This is something very big and dreadful. It has no shape, but a dead-white face and red, blazing eyes full of hate and scorn. I have seen it in the dark. It is stronger than I am. Since something is broken inside of me, I know I can never conquer it. No, it would wrap its shapeless arms around me and stab me to the heart with its fiery eyes. I should turn and run in the middle of the battle. I should trample on my wounded comrades. I should be shot in the back and die in disgrace. O my God! my God! who can save me from this? It is horrible. I cannot bear it."
The priest laid his hand gently on Pierre's quivering shoulder. "Courage, my son!"
"I have none."
"Then say to yourself that fear is nothing."
"It would be a lie. This fear is real."
"Then cease to tremble at it; kill it."
"Impossible. I am afraid of fear."
"Then carry it as your burden, your cross. Take it back to Verdun with you."
"I dare not. It would poison the others. It would bring me to dishonor."
"Pray to God for help."
"He will not answer me. I am a wicked man. Father, I have made my confession. Will you give me a penance and absolve me?"
"Promise to go back to the army and fight as well as you can."
"Alas! that is what I cannot do! My mind is shaken to pieces. Whither shall I turn? I can decide nothing. I am broken. I repent of my great sin. Father, for the love of God, speak the word of absolution."
Pierre lay on his face, motionless, his arms stretched out. The priest rose and went to the spring. He scooped up a few drops in the hollow of his hand. He sprinkled it like holy water upon the soldier's head. A couple of tears fell with it.
"God have pity on you, my son, and bring you back to yourself. The word of absolution is not for me to speak while you think of forsaking France. Put that thought away from you, do penance for it, and you will be absolved from your great sin."
Pierre turned over and lay looking up at the priest's face and at the blue sky with white clouds drifting across it. He sighed. "Ah, if that could only be! But I have not the strength. It is impossible."
"All things are possible to him that believeth. Strength will come. Perhaps Jeanne d'Arc herself will help you."
"She would never speak to a man like me. She is a great saint, very high in heaven."
"She was a farmer's lass, a peasant like yourself. She would speak to you, gladly and kindly, if you saw her, and in your own language, too. Trust her."
"But I do not know enough about her."
"Listen, Pierre. I have thought for you. I will appoint the first part of your penance. You shall take the risk of being recognized and caught. You shall go down to that village there and visit the places that belong to her -- her basilica, her house, her church. Then you shall come back here and wait until you know -- until you surely know what you must do. Will you promise this?"
Pierre had risen and looked up at the priest with tear-stained face. But his eyes were quieter.
"Yes, Father, I can promise you this much faithfully."
"Now I must go my way. Farewell, my son. Peace in war be with you." He held out his hand.Pierre took it reverently.
"And with you, Father," he murmured.