Every Sunday, as soon as they were free, the little soldiers would go for a walk. They turned to the right on leaving the barracks, crossed Courbevoie with rapid strides, as though on a forced march; then, as the houses grew scarcer, they slowed down and followed the dusty road which leads to Bezons.
They were small and thin, lost in their ill-fitting capes, too large and too long, whose sleeves covered their hands; their ample red trousers fell in folds around their ankles. Under the high, stiff shako one could just barely perceive two thin, hollow-cheeked Breton faces, with their calm, naive blue eyes. They never spoke during their journey, going straight before them, the same idea in each one's mind taking the place of conversation. For at the entrance of the little forest of Champioux they had found a spot which reminded them of home, and they did not feel happy anywhere else.
At the crossing of the Colombes and Chatou roads, when they arrived under the trees, they would take off their heavy, oppressive headgear and wipe their foreheads.
They always stopped for a while on the bridge at Bezons, and looked at the Seine. They stood there several minutes, bending over the railing, watching the white sails, which perhaps reminded them of their home, and of the fishing smacks leaving for the open.
As soon as they had crossed the Seine, they would purchase provisions at the delicatessen, the baker's, and the wine merchant's. A piece of bologna, four cents' worth of bread, and a quart of wine, made up the luncheon which they carried away, wrapped up in their handkerchiefs. But as soon as they were out of the village their gait would slacken and they would begin to talk.
Before them was a plain with a few clumps of trees, which led to the woods, a little forest which seemed to remind them of that other forest at Kermarivan. The wheat and oat fields bordered on the narrow path, and Jean Kerderen said each time to Luc Le Ganidec:
"It's just like home, just like Plounivon."
"Yes, it's just like home."
And they went on, side by side, their minds full of dim memories of home. They saw the fields, the hedges, the forests, and beaches.
Each time they stopped near a large stone on the edge of the private estate, because it reminded them of the dolmen of Locneuven.
As soon as they reached the first clump of trees, Luc Le Ganidec would cut off a small stick, and, whittling it slowly, would walk on, thinking of the folks at home.
Jean Kerderen carried the provisions.
From time to time Luc would mention a name, or allude to some boyish prank which would give them food for plenty of thought. And the home country, so dear and so distant, would little by little gain possession of their minds, sending them back through space, to the well-known forms and noises, to the familiar scenery, with the fragrance of its green fields and sea air. They no longer noticed the smells of the city. And in their dreams they saw their friends leaving, perhaps forever, for the dangerous fishing grounds.
They were walking slowly, Luc Le Ganidec and Jean Kerderen, contented and sad, haunted by a sweet sorrow, the slow and penetrating sorrow of a captive animal which remembers the days of its freedom.
And when Luc had finished whittling his stick, they came to a little nook, where every Sunday they took their meal. They found the two bricks, which they had hidden in a hedge, and they made a little fire of dry branches and roasted their sausages on the ends of their knives.
When their last crumb of bread had been eaten and the last drop of wine had been drunk, they stretched themselves out on the grass side by side, without speaking, their half-closed eyes looking away in the distance, their hands clasped as in prayer, their red-trousered legs mingling with the bright colors of the wild flowers.
Towards noon they glanced, from time to time, towards the village of Bezons, for the dairy maid would soon be coming. Every Sunday she would pass in front of them on the way to milk her cow, the only cow in the neighborhood which was sent out to pasture.
Soon they would see the girl, coming through the fields, and it pleased them to watch the sparkling sunbeams reflected from her shining pail. They never spoke of her. They were just glad to see her, without understanding why.
She was a tall, strapping girl, freckled and tanned by the open air--a girl typical of the Parisian suburbs.
Once, on noticing that they were always sitting in the same place, she said to them:
"Do you always come here?"
Luc Le Ganidec, more daring than his friend, stammered:
"Yes, we come here for our rest."
That was all. But the following Sunday, on seeing them, she smiled with the kindly smile of a woman who understood their shyness, and she asked:
"What are you doing here? Are you watching the grass grow?"
Luc, cheered up, smiled: "P'raps."
She continued: "It's not growing fast, is it?"
He answered, still laughing: "Not exactly."
She went on. But when she came back with her pail full of milk, she stopped before them and said:
"Want some? It will remind you of home."
She had, perhaps instinctively, guessed and touched the right spot.
Both were moved. Then not without difficulty, she poured some milk into the bottle in which they had brought their wine. Luc started to drink, carefully watching lest he should take more than his share. Then he passed the bottle to Jean. She stood before them, her hands on her hips, her pail at her feet, enjoying the pleasure that she was giving them. Then she went on, saying: "Well, bye-bye until next Sunday!"
For a long time they watched her tall form as it receded in the distance, blending with the background, and finally disappeared.
The following week as they left the barracks, Jean said to Luc:
"Don't you think we ought to buy her something good?"
They were sorely perplexed by the problem of choosing something to bring to the dairy maid. Luc was in favor of bringing her some chitterlings; but Jean, who had a sweet tooth, thought that candy would be the best thing. He won, and so they went to a grocery to buy two sous' worth, of red and white candies.
This time they ate more quickly than usual, excited by anticipation.
Jean was the first one to notice her. "There she is," he said; and Luc answered: "Yes, there she is."
She smiled when she saw them, and cried:
"Well, how are you to-day?"
They both answered together:
"All right! How's everything with you?"
Then she started to talk of simple things which might interest them; of the weather, of the crops, of her masters.
They didn't dare to offer their candies, which were slowly melting in Jean's pocket. Finally Luc, growing bolder, murmured:
"We have brought you something."
She asked: "Let's see it."
Then Jean, blushing to the tips of his ears, reached in his pocket, and drawing out the little paper bag, handed it to her.
She began to eat the little sweet dainties. The two soldiers sat in front of her, moved and delighted.
At last she went to do her milking, and when she came back she again gave them some milk.
They thought of her all through the week and often spoke of her: The following Sunday she sat beside them for a longer time.
The three of them sat there, side by side, their eyes looking far away in the distance, their hands clasped over their knees, and they told each other little incidents and little details of the villages where they were born, while the cow, waiting to be milked, stretched her heavy head toward the girl and mooed.
Soon the girl consented to eat with them and to take a sip of wine. Often she brought them plums pocket for plums were now ripe. Her presence enlivened the little Breton soldiers, who chattered away like two birds.
One Tuesday something unusual happened to Luc Le Ganidec; he asked for leave and did not return until ten o'clock at night.
Jean, worried and racked his brain to account for his friend's having obtained leave.
The following Friday, Luc borrowed ten sons from one of his friends, and once more asked and obtained leave for several hours.
When he started out with Jean on Sunday he seemed queer, disturbed, changed. Kerderen did not understand; he vaguely suspected something, but he could not guess what it might be.
They went straight to the usual place, and lunched slowly. Neither was hungry.
Soon the girl appeared. They watched her approach as they always did. When she was near, Luc arose and went towards her. She placed her pail on the ground and kissed him. She kissed him passionately, throwing her arms around his neck, without paying attention to Jean, without even noticing that he was there.
Poor Jean was dazed, so dazed that he could not understand. His mind was upset and his heart broken, without his even realizing why.
Then the girl sat down beside Luc, and they started to chat.
Jean was not looking at them. He understood now why his friend had gone out twice during the week. He felt the pain and the sting which treachery and deceit leave in their wake.
Luc and the girl went together to attend to the cow.
Jean followed them with his eyes. He saw them disappear side by side, the red trousers of his friend making a scarlet spot against the white road. It was Luc who sank the stake to which the cow was tethered. The girl stooped down to milk the cow, while he absent-mindedly stroked the animal's glossy neck. Then they left the pail in the grass and disappeared in the woods.
Jean could no longer see anything but the wall of leaves through which they had passed. He was unmanned so that he did not have strength to stand. He stayed there, motionless, bewildered and grieving-simple, passionate grief. He wanted to weep, to run away, to hide somewhere, never to see anyone again.
Then he saw them coming back again. They were walking slowly, hand in hand, as village lovers do. Luc was carrying the pail.
After kissing him again, the girl went on, nodding carelessly to Jean. She did not offer him any milk that day.
The two little soldiers sat side by side, motionless as always, silent and quiet, their calm faces in no way betraying the trouble in their hearts. The sun shone down on them. From time to time they could hear the plaintive lowing of the cow. At the usual time they arose to return.
Luc was whittling a stick. Jean carried the empty bottle. He left it at the wine merchant's in Bezons. Then they stopped on the bridge, as they did every Sunday, and watched the water flowing by.
Jean leaned over the railing, farther and farther, as though he had seen something in the stream which hypnotized him. Luc said to him:
"What's the matter? Do you want a drink?"
He had hardly said the last word when Jean's head carried away the rest of his body, and the little blue and red soldier fell like a shot and disappeared in the water.
Luc, paralyzed with horror, tried vainly to shout for help. In the distance he saw something move; then his friend's head bobbed up out of the water only to disappear again.
Farther down he again noticed a hand, just one hand, which appeared and again went out of sight. That was all.
The boatmen who had rushed to the scene found the body that day.
Luc ran back to the barracks, crazed, and with eyes and voice full of tears, he related the accident: "He leaned--he--he was leaning--so far over--that his head carried him away--and--he--fell--he fell----"
Emotion choked him so that he could say no more. If he had only known.
Return to the Guy de Maupassant library , or . . . Read the next short story; Useless Beauty