Officially I’m dead. Their hope is past.
How long I stood as missing! Now, at last
Look in my face no likeness can you see,
No tiny trace of him they knew as “me”.
How terrible the change!
Even my eyes are strange.
So keyed are they to pain,
That if I chanced to meet
My mother in the street
She’d look at me in vain.
When she got home I think she’d say:
“I saw the saddest sight to-day
A poilu with no face at all.
Far better in the fight to fall
Than go through life like that, I think.
Poor fellow! how he made me shrink.
No face. Just eyes that seemed to stare
At me with anguish and despair.
This ghastly war! I’m almost cheered
To think my son who disappeared,
My boy so handsome and so gay,
Might have come home like him to-day.”
I’m dead. I think it’s
better to be dead
When little children look at you with dread;
And when you know your coming home again
Will only give the ones who love you pain.
Ah! who can help but shrink? One cannot blame.
They see the hideous husk, not, not the flame
Of sacrifice and love that burns within;
While souls of satyrs, riddled through with sin,
Have bodies fair and excellent to see.
Mon Dieu! how different we all would be
If this our flesh was ordained to express
Our spirit’s beauty or its ugliness.
(Oh, you who look at me with fear to-day,
And shrink despite yourselves, and turn away
It was for you I suffered woe accurst;
For you I braved red battle at its worst;
For you I fought and bled and maimed and slew;
For you, for you!
For you I faced hell-fury and despair;
The reeking horror of it all I knew:
I flung myself into the furnace there;
I faced the flame that scorched me with its glare;
I drank unto the dregs the devil’s brew
Look at me now for you and you and you. . . .)
. . . . .
I’m thinking of the time we said good-by:
We took our dinner in Duval’s that night,
Just little Jacqueline, Lucette and I;
We tried our very utmost to be bright.
We laughed. And yet our eyes, they weren’t gay.
I sought all kinds
of cheering things to say.
“Don’t grieve,” I told them. “Soon the time will pass;
My next permission will come quickly round;
We’ll all meet at the Gare du Montparnasse;
Three times I’ve come already, safe and sound.”
(But oh, I thought, it’s harder every time,
After a home that seems like Paradise,
To go back to the vermin and the slime,
The weariness, the want, the sacrifice.
“Pray God,” I said, “the war may soon be done,
But no, oh never, never till we’ve won!”)
Then to the station quietly we walked;
I had my rifle and my haversack,
My heavy boots, my blankets on my back;
And though it hurt us, cheerfully we talked.
We chatted bravely at the platform gate.
I watched the clock. My train must go at eight.
One minute to the hour. . . we kissed good-by,
Then, oh, they both broke down, with piteous cry.
I went. . . . Their way was barred; they could not pass.
I looked back as the train began to start;
Once more I ran with anguish at my heart
And through the bars I kissed my little lass. . . .
Three years have gone; they’ve waited day by day.
I never came. I did not even write.
For when I saw my face was such a sight
I thought that I had better. . . stay away.
And so I took the name of one who died,
A friendless friend who perished by my side.
In Prussian prison camps three years of hell
I kept my secret; oh, I kept it well!
And now I’m free, but none shall ever know;
They think I died out there. . . it’s better so.
To-day I passed my wife in widow’s weeds.
I brushed her arm. She did not even look.
So white, so pinched her face, my heart still bleeds,
And at the touch of her, oh, how I shook!
And then last night I passed the window where
They sat together; I could see them clear,
The lamplight softly gleaming on their hair,
And all the room so full of cozy cheer.
My wife was sewing, while my daughter read;
I even saw my portrait on the wall.
I wanted to rush in, to tell them all;
And then I cursed myself: “You’re dead, you’re dead!”
God! how I watched them from the darkness there,
Clutching the dripping branches of a tree,
Peering as close as ever I might dare,
And sobbing, sobbing, oh, so bitterly!
But no, it’s folly; and I mustn’t stay.
To-morrow I am going far away.
I’ll find a ship and sail before the mast;
In some wild land I’ll bury all the past.
I’ll live on lonely shores and there forget,
Or tell myself that there has never been
The gay and tender courage of Lucette,
The little loving arms of Jacqueline.
A man lonely upon a lonely isle,
Sometimes I’ll look towards the North and smile
To think they’re happy, and they both believe
I died for France, and that I lie at rest;
And for my glory’s sake they’ve ceased to grieve,
And hold my memory sacred. Ah! that’s best.
And in that thought I’ll find my joy and peace
As there alone I wait the Last Release.