The Book of the Homeless/The Brothers
I'm not fond of telling this story, said the General, because each time, like the old fool I am, it brings tears to my eyes … but the best of France is in it.
It's about two boys, astonishingly gifted, full of heart and brains, that nobody could meet without liking. I knew them when they were tiny little fellows. At the time war broke out, the younger one, François, had just passed his examinations for St. Cyr. He had no time to enter; he was rushed along in the wholesale promotion and made second lieutenant then and there. Fancy what it meant to him—epaulettes and battles at nineteen! His elder brother, Jacques, a boy of twenty,—a really remarkable fellow in his studies, was hard at work in the Law School, where he had taken honors. He went off to the front as second lieutenant, too.
The two brothers were thrown together for the first time in the same brigade of the "iron division," as it was called—the younger in the 26th of the line, the other in the 27th. They were quartered in a ruined village, and each day they met, making themselves liked everywhere and enjoying a great popularity with the soldiers on account of their youth and friendliness.
It soon got round that the St. Cyr boy's regiment was going to get some hot fighting. Jacques said nothing, but he went to his colonel and asked for permission to take the place of his brother, whom he considered too little prepared for what promised to be a violent engagement.
The colonel recognized the generosity of this request, but he cut the young man short.
"An officer can't be transferred from his own corps to another," he said.
The day fixed for the attack came. The first company—François' company—was sent ahead to skirmish. It was simply mowed down. Another followed, and then another. They finally had to fall back, leaving their dead and part of the wounded on the field. The little second lieutenant was not among those who returned. Two days later our men took the offensive again. The elder brother, storming the German trenches with his regiment, passed close by the body of his little François as it lay there all shot to pieces. A bit farther on, a bullet caught him in the shoulder.
His captain ordered him back to have the wound dressed; he refused, kept on, and was hit full in the forehead.
The bodies were taken up and carried back to the ruins of the village. The sappers of the 26th said:
"He was a fine fellow, that little second lieutenant. He shan't go underground without a coffin, at any rate. Let's make one for him."
And they began sawing and hammering.
Then the men of the 27th put their heads together and said:
" There must be no difference between the two brothers. We might as well make a coffin for our lieutenant, too."
By nightfall, when they were ready to bury the brothers side by side, an old woman spoke up. She was a wretched old creature, so poor and broken that she stubbornly refused to leave the village. "I 've lived here, I'll die here," she kept on saying. She lay huddled up on some straw in her little hovel, and her only food was the leavings of the soldiers.
When she saw the bodies of the two lads and understood what was going on, she said:
"Wait a minute before you nail the covers on. I'm going to fetch something." She hobbled away, fumbled around in the straw she slept on, and pulled out a piece of cloth that she was keeping for her shroud.
"They shan't nail those boys up with their faces against the boards. I want to shroud them," she said.
She cut the shroud in two and wrapped each in a half of it. Then she kissed each one of them on the forehead, saying,
"That's for your mother, dearie."
No one spoke when the General ended. And he was not the only one to have wet eyes. In each of our hearts there was a prayer for France.
de l' Académie Française