Octave Mirbeau: A sudden vision of Death, red Death standing on a chariot, drawn by rearing horses, which was sweeping down on us, brandishing his scythe
From Calvary (1886)
Translated by Louis Rich
In front of the house a crowd was waiting. A long line of human beings, wan and worn out, some standing with fixed looks, others sitting on the ground, sad with stooped and pointed shoulders, their heads buried in their hands. Death had already laid its terrible hand upon these emaciated countenances, these scraggy frames, these members which hung loose, devoid of blood and marrow. And confronted with this heartbreaking sight, I forgot my own suffering, and my heart was touched with pity. Three months were sufficient to break down these robust bodies, inured to labor and fatigue!…Three months! And these young men who loved life, these children of the soil who grew up as dreamers in the freedom of the fields, trusting in the goodness of nature, these youths were done for!…To the marine who dies is given the sea as a burying place; he descends into eternal darkness to the rhythm of its murmuring waves. But these!…A few more days of grace perhaps, and then these tatterdemallions will suddenly tumble down into the mud of a ditch, their corpses delivered, up to the fangs of prowling dogs and to the beaks of nightbirds.
On the threshold I met a peasant woman who asked me:
“Is this the place where you can see the doctor.”
“Women now!” growled the adjutant. “What do you want now?”
“Beg pardon, excuse me, Doctor,” rejoined the peasant woman, who came up very timidly. “I came for my son who is a soldier.”
“Tell me now, old woman, am I here to keep track of your son, or what?”
With her hands crossed on the handle of her umbrella, timorous, she examined the place about her.
“It seems like he is very sick, my son is, very, very sick…And so I came to see if he was not around here, Doctor.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Riboulleau.”
“Riboulleau…Riboulleau!…That may be…look in that pile there.”
The attendant who was broiling his pudding turned his head.
“Riboulleau,” he said, “why he has been dead three days already…”
“What is that you are saying?” cried the peasant woman whose sunburned face suddenly became pallid. “Where did he die?… Why did he die, my little darling boy.”
The adjutant intervened, and rudely pushing the old woman toward the door, shouted:
“Go on, go on, no scenes around here! Well, he is dead—and that is all there is to it.”
“My little darling boy! My little darling boy!” wailed the old woman in a heart-breaking manner.
I walked away with a heavy heart and felt so discouraged that I was asking myself whether it was not better to put an end to it all at once by hanging myself on the branch of a tree or by blowing my brains out with the gun. While I was going to my tent, stumbling on the way, I was hardly paying any attention to the little soldier who, having stopped at the foot of a pine tree, had opened his abscess with his knife himself, and, pale, with sweat drops rolling all over his forehead, was bandaging his bleeding wound.
We looked at one another perplexed, with a sort of anguish in our hearts, which came as a result of our knowledge that the Prussians were very near, that war was going to begin for us in earnest the very next day, today perhaps. And I had a sudden vision of Death, red Death standing on a chariot, drawn by rearing horses, which was sweeping down on us, brandishing his scythe. As long as the actual fighting was only a remote possibility we wanted to be in it, first for reasons of patriotism, enthusiasm, then out of mere braggadocio, later because we were nervously exhausted and wearisome and saw in it a way out of our misery. Now when the opportunity offered itself, we were afraid; we shuddered at the mere mention of it. Instinctively my eyes turned toward the horizon, in the direction of Chartres. And the fields seemed to me to conceal a secret, unknown terror, a fearful uncertainty, which lent to things a new aspect of relentlessness. Over yonder, above the blue line of trees, I expected to see helmets spring up suddenly, bayonets flash, the thundering mouths of cannons spurt fire. A harvest field, all red under the sun, appeared to me like a pond of blood. Hedges strung themselves out into armies, joined ranks, crossed one another like regiments, bristling with arms and standards and going through various evolutions before the battle. The apple trees looked frightened like cavalry men thrown into disorder.
“Break the circle — march!” shouted the lieutenant.
Stupefied, with swinging arms, we were standing on one place for a long time, a prey to some vague misgiving, trying to pierce in thought this terrible line on the horizon, behind which was now being realized the mystery of our fate. In this disquieting silence, in this sinister immobility, only carts and herds were passing by, more numerous, more hurried and pressed than ever. A flock of ravens, which came from yonder like a black vanguard, spotted the skies, thickened, distended and, stringing itself out into a line, turned aside, floating above us like a funeral cloak, then disappeared among the oak trees.