33 Days

Free 33 Days by Leon Werth

Book: 33 Days by Leon Werth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Leon Werth
    A half hour later two more soldiers entered the courtyard. Madame Soutreux had not welcomed us with such unreserved, expansive kindness. She became animated; she was in a state of jubilation. And I wondered whether her jubilation came from speaking with Germans or speaking German. I came to wonder whether Madame Soutreux wasn’t simply obsessed with foreign languages. That was when I witnessed one of those spectacles that make you say I can’t believe my eyes. Madame Soutreux came back from the cellar and she was carrying two glasses and a bottle of champagne. She poured it into the glasses herself and handed them to the two soldiers. And she watched them drink with a smiling tenderness.
    “ Goot kvality  …,” said one of the soldiers to thank her.
    That’s exactly what happened.
    An hour later, another soldier entered the yard. He wasn’t as lucky: The Soutreux woman wasn’t there; he got only water.
    He was sweating and reeling, not from drunkenness but from fatigue. Arms outstretched, he held two canteens toward us. I still don’t know what he meant by this gesture. Was he asking where the well was? Or, as warlord, was he ordering us to bring him water, to fill them ourselves? Aufresne took the canteens, went to the well, refilled them and brought them back to the soldier. His face was tense, flushed, but not one of those that is easily read. Aufresne and I never exchanged a word about it, then or later. I think he was saying to himself, “I’m obeying the law of the conqueror … I’m giving in to coercion.”
    I’m saying to myself, “I would sooner get myself killed than gofind water for this soldier.” I’m sincere and I’m lying. Had the soldier pointed his gun at me, I’d have gone to the well and brought back the canteens. The truth is, at that moment and no other, this soldier and no other would have gone to the well to refill his own canteens without a word had I pointed the way. But everything would have been different had the soldier been a drunk thug or had headquarters decided to instill terror.
    A childish discussion … you might say. A trivial event, but the discussion is essential. Dignity isn’t measured arithmetically. The smaller the event, the better one grasps the nuances of freedom and dignity. I sensed at that moment that I belonged to a people who were recognizing nuances. I remembered that while I was doing my military service an adjutant called to me in the courtyard and ordered me to go to his room and polish his shoes. I refused. Having exhausted threats of the rigors of the Military Code, he gave in to astonishment and a sort of curiosity that I must call psychological. I explained to him that the act of shining shoes seemed in no way beneath me, that I willingly polished my barracks mate’s shoes if he was late for inspection or too drunk to do this task himself, but I would not be ordered to shine shoes. I was not shot or punished.
    At nightfall, the bombardment begins again. I forgot to say that the house wasn’t built on a cellar; what I called a cellar earlier was only a kind of storage space at ground level. We took shelter there, the Aufresnes and us, Madame Soutreux and the Lerouchon woman. That’s when we saw two soldiers appear suddenly out of the darkness. I don’t know whether they were two from that afternoon—the ones who got wine or the ones who got champagne—or two new ones, whether their coming is their own idea or if some authority sent them. I don’t know and I’ll never know. The soldiers explain in German to Soutreux and Lerouchon that the house is endangered by the shellfire, that it is reckless to stay here, and they signal all of us to follow them.
    So here we are under the Germans’ protection. I very much want to stay behind. But I think I ought to choose the least risk for my wife. And anyway, Lerouchon, the good girl, is shouting at me, “So come … it has nothing to do with politics …” I don’t know whethermy

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