The Wounded

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Ceremony-2:81890-Le Monde Illustré

The Wounded[1]

A dark, narrow road, monotonously sad like almost all of them in this melancholic land. A tall, wide door topped by an iron cross is built into the wall: it is the hospital. Even though the ancient building looks gloomy and the façade appears forbidding, the impression is completely different when the heavy doors turn on their hinges.

The ceiling is a grill to make it easier for the caretakers to watch.   Except that beyond this grill is a huge vista of light and space, trees and grass, a ranging park that is not kept up, which means that it is very beautiful. It does not look very much like the courtyards of our hospitals in Paris where chestnut trees shrivel up in the courtyards, huddled together under their hoods of gray planks, and anemic buds vegetate under their white cotton nightcaps. This park here is full of people right now. On the huge stone benches the sick—or rather the convalescents—welcome their visitors.

The gentle sunbeams cast the rose of recovery in their cheeks. But to the left, near a door on the ground floor, a crowd is huddled together, convulsed by waves of weeping. They do not see the joyful sky or the flourishing nature. Their eyes, like their thoughts, are desperately focused on that opening that they take turns going through in groups of three or four, no more.

They are the families of the victims. A mass of women of all ages; children looking dazed and instinctively serious; the elderly who lean against the walls to relieve their rusty knees. Not a word of anger but a humble and almost fatalistic resignation. Tears roll, heavy and slow, down their wrinkled faces, but their staring eyes do not turn away from that doorway whose access is so desired. He is or they are in there!

Through the open windows, almost at ground level, I am amazed that the relatives cannot recognize their men, make a sign to him, a tender gesture, giving some precious although distant comfort. I will find out why soon enough…

Monsieur Cenas, one of the young doctors from town, who has treated the victims with so much sill and urgency, and the director of the hospital come to meet me: the first to welcome me and the second to guide me. A little behind them stood an old nun. On her naïvely honest face I can read her mind like an open book. Her passionate sympathy has brought her here, but how should she welcome this terrible “red” who was the editor of Le Cri du Peuple, who will remain socialist to the end, how should she welcome her passion?

I go up to her and hold out my hand? “My dear mother, I thank you with all my heart for your devotion to the poor and unfortunate.”

Her eyes fill with tears (mine, too) and she leads me gently to the room where the wounded lie.

#

Once through the door, I stop, choked by a cry of horror!

Men! These are men—these monsters, this slag, these nameless beings! They have no noses, no eyes, no ears! Nothing but a black scab leaking puss and streaked with blood.

They are lined up in two not very long but seemingly endless rows, their Harlequin masks made darker still by the white sheets and the white curtains. This is the first room; three more are full.

They look like tortured negroes with their hair frizzled by the firedamp on their charred leather skin and their huge, swollen lips oozing purple. Their cottony stumps shake feebly like the limbs of a crushed animal. You would think that they had just been snatched from a commander’s whip, from a master’s cruelty or from the tortures of hell!

They endure them!

Under the veil of gauze that protects the gnawed away faces of the most injured from the annoying flies, sudden twitches belie their unspeakable suffering. Others shake from head to toe with tetanic contractions—the pain twists their faces into hideous grimaces like Japanese scarecrows.

One of them is laughing silently, a stranger whom no one has identified. Death is playing with him… With the tip of its invisible finger Death is tickling his chin like happy mothers tease a child to make it smile—the child whom they raise here so that when he is around twenty years old the scourge can make of him what it has made of this one! And he twists and turns while the poison he breathed in eats away at his guts and he slowly decays…

It is an incomparable horror! I go to make the rounds of the beds, stopping at each one, talking with the relatives who are here and giving them what the generosity of the readers of Le Gaulois have given me because the semi-corpses are no longer able to see or hear.

But I am wrong! In this darksome pillory two tiny lights emerge, two luminous dots, alive, intelligent and staring at me. The tumid mouth cracks open and voice—what a voice! Oh mercy! As feeble as the breath and formed out of muffled sighs—says dimly, “Thank you.”

They have all their wits about them. They hear, they see, they savor the pain in its most subtle refinements. And even those who are about to die have their souls galvanized by hope…

I do the best I can to give them some.

These beings, so strong less than a week ago, as fragile today as newborn babies, listen avidly to the words of comfort that I whisper in their ears.

Tears of hope filter through the slits of their eyes; their flesh shivers and warms up under the pressure of my hand. I gently squeeze their wrists since their poor fists are wrapped in oiled cotton.

And some of them make me feel terribly sorrowful because while their entire soul vibrates with the desire to live, the gangrene is slowly, relentlessly gnawing away at their bodies.

Sometimes I lean over the graves. One man—the board says forty years old, although they all look the same age with the same face—tall, strong, hardy, seems to drink in my words. His lips are less hindered than the others. He stammers, pleading and energetic at the same time, “I’m going to die, aren’t I? I don’t want to die. I have seven children. The Good Lord wouldn’t want me to die… it would be unfair. He wouldn’t want that, would he?”

And I answer him, respectful of this faith nonetheless, with the supreme consolation for a dying man, “No, my friend, he wouldn’t want that.”

Right next to him is a young man eighteen years old, of all the least burned on the outside, but the most burned of all, perhaps, on the inside, sobbing and weeping. Standing next to him, with a grave and constant motion of her hand to ward off the tormenting flies stands his mother, a tall, old craftswoman, haughty and stiff under her white hair. “Oh, mama, I’m going to die. What will become of all you in the house when I’m not around? There’s eight more, my God, who are going to die because I’m going to die.”

“Don’t cry, my boy,” she replies, as stoic as a biblical matriarch, “you’re not going to get better if you keep worrying yourself like that.”

I look at her. She is not crying, no, but she is clenching her jaws, her cheeks are trembling and her eyes have dark rings around them from the effort of her will not to break down in despair.

A pregnant woman sits at the head of the bed, staring at the floor with her arms hanging down. There are six children around her. The oldest girl, who must be ten, is holding the youngest in her arms, who is still almost in swaddling clothes. They have not moved, the poor children, as a flash of madness passes over the face of their mother, still not moving…

In the three other rooms I face the same spectacle, the same ghastly wounds, the same panicked families, the same stinking, unbreathable atmosphere of phenol and putrefaction.

There are forty wounded.

“How many of them did you save?” I asked the doctor.

“Half… maybe!”

#

Now I go to the night shelter run by Léon Portier, the distinguished and eloquent attorney, the pride of the Saint Etienne bar.

In spite of his efforts the Charity Hospitality House in Saint Etienne, which has just started, is hardly rich. It is a poor house that the poor find asylum in.

There are five wounded men set up as best as possible at the last minute on the bunks of the needy.   I will not describe them to you; I cannot find the words. One has his thumb free, saved by a miracle. He is the only one that can take the donation. A glimmer of joy blooms on his hideous face, making the scabs of coal and blood that are covering it crack in places. He wants to thank me and those on behalf of whom I give: “You’re very kind and they’re very good.” They are you, readers of Le Gaulois, and it is true, to relieve these miseries, to comfort these unfortunates.

I thank you more than I can say! According to my calculation, I think that we can give one louis [20 F] per child. But I am also counting as children the elderly parents whose breadwinner is lying in the mine; the poor older folks who are so frail that their son or grandson took the responsibility and became in turn the real head of the family. I am right, aren’t I?

#

P.S. I will give you daily updates about my rounds of assistance because I am going in person to the house of every victim.

Fraternity with the poor, when you are amidst their suffering, is not made of money alone.

 

Next:  7-On the Frontlines

[1] Le Gaulois, August 3 1890.

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