Henri Troyat: Thoughts stop with a shock: War!
From Sowing and Harvest (1953)
Translated by Lily Duplaix
Amelie wouldn’t listen to the idea of war. Amid the uproar around her, she held the child she bore as a pledge of security. A world prepared for birth, she thought, could not welcome death.
“France doesn’t want war,” said the painter. “It’s Russia. They have too many strikes there. They don’t know what to do with the workmen so they send them to the slaughterhouse.”
Amelie looked at a newspaper stand lighted by a lamp. Big headlines jumped from the page: “ARMED VIGIL IN EUROPE!” “CIVILIZATION AT EDGE OF A CRATER!” She walked heavily, clutching Pierre’s arm. Around them the multitude breathed regularly and patiently trod the ground. Where were all these people going? No one seemed to know. They were hurrying along, not strolling. They were in the street because they could no longer stay home. They were all talking of the same thing.
The ringing sound of hammers on iron broke through her profound sleep. For a moment she thought she was a little girl again. The lavender lozenges on the faded yellow paper, the ray of sunshine through the disjointed shutters, the small table covered with ink and school notebooks – all confirmed the illusion. She rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. The noise of the hammers sounded louder. Jerome and Denis were at work in the forge. She felt happy. Then her thoughts stopped with a shock: War! she hung on that terrible word.
Wasn’t it strange that they had taken Abbé Pradinas and that he, Jerome, was left? The priest they had sent as a substitute was old and half deaf…He felt stronger at fifty than a lot of young puppies they were sending to the front. He had been too young for the war of seventy and he was too old for the war of fourteen. But what did age mean? He detested the Army, but he felt uncomfortable in his privileged position – almost as if he had stolen Pierre’s place beside Amelie. He was being foolish and he knew it. Amelie herself would never have such a thought. But, all the same, he felt guilty in her presence. He thought of her alone in that room, waiting for her child to be born, while the father might already be dead. He clenched his fists. His uselessness, his impotence were hateful to him. He wished he could complain to Abbé Pradinas. He would have liked to ask a few questions about this slaughter which so dishonoured the Christian world. If there were a God, why did He allow this?
“My poor Antonin! They’ve taken you away and you will never be among us again. And I can not even see you in death. We must have the wake without you. We will weep your absent body. Nothing is left for your poor mother.
“Calm down, Matilde,” mumbled M. Ferriere. “It doesn’t do any good upsetting yourself like that.”
“You must remember it’s for France!” whispered Calamisse.
She raised her head and sniffled loudly. “Yes, of course.”
“You have given your son to France,” said M. Calimisse more loudly.
“I gave nothing. They took him.”