The Victorious Penance
IT never occurred to Pierre Duval, as he trudged those long kilometers toward the front, that he was doing a penance.
The joy of a mind made up is a potent cordial.
The greetings of comrades on the road put gladness into his heart and strength into his legs.
It was a hot and dusty journey, and a sober one. But it was not a sad one. He was going toward that for which he was born. He was doing that which France asked o£ him, that which God told him to do. Josephine would be glad and proud of him. He would never be ashamed to meet her eyes. As he went, alone or in company with others, he whistled and sang a bit. He thought of "L'Alouette' a good deal. But not too much. He thought also of the forts of Douaumont and Vaux.
"Dame!" he cried to himself. "If I could help to win them back again! That would be fine! How sick that would make those cursed Boches and their knock-kneed Crown Prince!"
At the little village of the headquarters behind Verdun he found many old friends and companions. They greeted him with cheerful irony.
"Behold the prodigal! You took your time about coming back, didn't you? Was the hospital to your taste, the nurses pretty? How is the wife? Any more children? How goes it, old man?"
"No more children yet," he answered, grinning; "but all goes well. I have come back from a far country, but I find the pigs are still grunting. What have you done to our old cook?"
"Nothing at all," was the joyous reply. "He tried to swim in his own soup and he was drowned."
When Pierre reported to the officer of the day, that busy functionary consulted the record.
"You are a day ahead of your time, Pierre Duval," he said, frowning slightly.
"Yes, sir," answered the soldier. "It costs less to be a day ahead than a day too late."
"That is well," said the officer, smiling in his red beard. "You will report tomorrow to your regiment at the citadel. You have a new colonel, but the regiment is busy in the old way."
As Pierre saluted and turned to go out his eye caught the look of a general officer who stood near, watching, lie was a square, alert, vigorous man, his face bronzed by the suns of many African campaigns, his eyes full of intelligence, humor, and courage. It was Guillaumat, the new commander of the Army of Verdun.
"You are prompt, my son," said he, pleasantly, "but you must remember not to be in a hurry. You have been in hospital. Are you well again? Nothing broken?"
"Something was broken, my General," responded the soldier, gravely, "but it is mended."
"Good!" said the general. "Now for the front, to beat the Germans at their own game. 'We shall get them.' It may be long, but we shall get them?'
That was the autumn of the offensive of 1916, by which the French retook, in ten days, what it had cost the Germans many months to gain.
Pierre was there in that glorious charge in the end of October, which carried the heights of Douaumont and took six thousand prisoners. He was there at the recapture of the Fort de Vaux which the Germans evacuated in the first week of November. In the last rush up the slope, where he had fought long ago, a stray shell, an inscrutable messenger of fate, coming from far away, no one knows whence, caught him and ripped him horribly across the body.
It was a desperate mass of wounds. But the men of his squad loved their corporal. He still breathed. They saw to it that he was carried back to the little transit hospital just behind the Fort de Souville.
It was a rude hut of logs, covered with sand-bags, on the slope of the hill. The ruined woods around it were still falling to the crash of far-thrown shells. In the close, dim shelter of the 'tuner room Pierre came to himself.
He looked up into the face of Father Courcy. A light of recognition and gratitude flickered in his eyes. It was like finding an old friend in the dark.
"Welcome! -- But the fort?" he gasped.
"It is ours," said the priest.
Something like a smile passed over the face of Pierre. He could not speak for a long time. The blood in his throat choked him. At last he whispered: "Tell Joséphine -- love."
Father Courcy bowed his head and took Pierre's hand. "Surely," he said. "But now, my dear son Pierre, I must prepare you."
The struggling voice from the cot broke in, whispering slowly, with long intervals:
"Not necessary .... I know already .... The penance .... France .... Jeanne d'Arc … It is done."
A few drops of blood gushed from the comer of his mouth. The look of peace that often comes to those who die of gunshot wounds settled on his face. His eyes grew still as the priest laid the sacred wafer on his lips. The broken soldier was made whole.