Home > Uncategorized > Octave Mirbeau: Stupidly, unconsciously, I had killed a man whom I loved, a man with whom my soul had just identified itself

Octave Mirbeau: Stupidly, unconsciously, I had killed a man whom I loved, a man with whom my soul had just identified itself

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Octave Mirbeau: Selections on war

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Octave Mirbeau
From Calvary (1886)
Translated by Louis Rich

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Hardly had I time enough to squat down behind the oak tree, when on the road, at a distance of twenty paces in front of me, there suddenly appeared a large shadow, surprisingly immobile, like an equestrian statue of bronze, and this enormous shadow which obtruded itself almost entirely upon the brightness of the eastern sky was terrible to behold…The man appeared to me superhuman, inordinately large against the sky!…He wore the flat cap of the Prussians, a long black cloak, under which the chest was bulging out greatly. Was he an officer or a plain soldier? I did not know, for I could not distinguish any insignia of rank on the dark uniform…His features, at first indistinct, became more accentuated. He had clear eyes, very limpid, a broad beard, his bearing bespoke youthful strength; his face breathed power and kindness along with something noble, audacious and sad which struck me. Holding his hand flat on his thigh, he studied the country before him, and his horse scraped the ground with its hoofs and puffed long streams of vapor in the air through its quivering nostrils…Evidently this Prussian was reconnoitering, he came to observe our position, the nature of the ground; undoubtedly a whole army was swarming behind him, waiting for a signal from this man to throw themselves on the plain!…

Well hidden in my woods, with rifle ready, I was watching him…He was handsome indeed, life flowed abundantly in this robust body…What a pity! He kept on studying the country, and it seemed to me as though he were studying it more like a poet than a soldier…I detected a sort of emotion in his eyes…Perhaps he forgot why he had come here and allowed himself to be fascinated by the beauty of this virginal and triumphant dawn. The sky became all red, it blazed up gloriously, the awakened fields unrolled themselves in the distance, emerging one after another from their veil of mist, rose-colored and blue, which floated like long scarves ruffled by invisible hands. The trees were dripping dew, the hovels separated themselves from the pink and blue background, the dove-cot of a large farm whose new tile roofs began to glitter, projected its whitish cone into the purple glare of the east…Yes, this Prussian who started out with the notion to kill, was arrested, dazzled and reverently stirred by the splendor of a new-born day, and his soul for a few minutes was the captive of love.

“Perhaps it’s a poet,” I said to myself, “an artist; he must be kind, since he is capable of tenderness.”

And upon his face I could see all the emotion of a brave man which agitated him, all the tremors, all the delicate and flitting reactions of his heart, moved and fascinated…I feared him no longer. On the contrary, a sort of infatuation drew me towards him, and I had to hold on to the tree to keep myself from going to this man. I would have liked to speak to him, to tell him that it was well that he contemplated the heaven thus, and that I liked him because of his receptiveness to beauty…But his face grew sombre, a sadness stole into his eyes…Ah, the horizon over which they swept was so far, so far away! And beyond that horizon there was another and further on, still another! One had to conquer all that!…When was he to be relieved of his duty ever to spur his horse on through this nostalgic territory, always to cut a way through ruins and through death, always to kill, always to be cursed!…

And then, undoubtedly, he was thinking of the things he had left behind; of his home resounding with the laughter of his children, of his wife, who was waiting for him and praying to God while doing so…Will he ever see her again?…I was sure that at this very moment he was recalling the most fugitive details, the most childish habits of his life at home … a rose plucked one evening, after dinner, with which he adorned the hair of his wife, the dress which she wore when he was leaving, a blue bow on the hat of his little daughter, a wooden horse, a tree, a river view, a paper knife!… All the memories of his joys came back to him, and with that keenness of vision which exiled persons possess, he encompassed in a single mental glance of despondency all those things by means of which he had been happy until now…

The sun rose higher, rendering the plain larger, extending the distant horizon still farther…I felt a compassion for this man and I loved him…yes I swear I loved him!…Well, then, how did that happen?…A detonation was suddenly heard, and at that very moment I caught sight of a boot in the air, of a torn piece of a military cloak, of a mane flying about wildly on the road…and then nothing, I heard the noise of a blow with a sabre, the heavy fall of a body, furious beats of a gallop…then nothing…My rifle was warm, and smoke was coming out of it…I let it fall to the ground…Was I the victim of hallucination?…Clearly not. Of the large shadow which rose skyward at the middle of the road like an equestrian statue of bronze there was left but a small corpse all black, stretched out face downward, with crossed arms…I recalled the poor cat that my father had killed, when with fascinated eyes she had been following the flight of a butterfly…

Stupidly, unconsciously, I had killed a man whom I loved, a man with whom my soul had just identified itself, a man who in the dazzling splendor of the rising sun was retracing the purest dreams of his life!… Perhaps I had killed him at the very moment that that man had said to himself: “And when I shall see her again at home…” Why? For what reason? Since I loved him, since, if soldiers had menaced him, I would have defended him! Why of all men was it he I assassinated? In two bounds I was beside this man; I called him…he did not move. My bullet had pierced his neck under the ear, and blood was gushing from an opened vein with a gurgling sound, collecting into a red pool and sticking to his beard…With trembling hands I raised him slowly, his head swung from side to side, fell back, inert and heavy…I felt his chest where the heart was: it beat no longer…Then I raised him again, supporting his head with my knees, and suddenly I saw his eyes, his two clear eyes which looked at me sadly, without hatred, without reproach, his two eyes which seemed to be alive!…I thought I was going to faint, but gathering all my strength in a supreme effort, I clasped the dead body of the Prussian, placed it right in front of me and pressing my lips against this bleeding face from which long, purple threads of congealed slaver were hanging, I desperately kissed it!…

From this moment on I don’t remember anything…I see again smoky fields covered with snow, and ruins burning incessantly, ever recurring dismal flights, delirious marches during the night, confusion at the crossroads congested with ammunition wagons, where the dragoons with drawn swords were driving their horses right into our midst and trying to cut a way through the wagons; I see again funeral carriages, followed by dead bodies of young men which we buried in the frozen ground, saying to ourselves that tomorrow would be our turn; I see again, near the cannon carriages, large carcasses of horses dismembered by howitzer shells, stiff, cut up, over which we used to quarrel in the evening, from which we used to carry away, into our tents, bleeding portions which we devoured growling, showing our teeth like wolves!…And I see again the surgeon, with sleeves of his white coat rolled up, pipe in mouth, amputating on a table, in a farmhouse, by the smoky light of a tallow candle, the foot of a little soldier still wearing his coarse shoes!…

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