‘He’s quiet as he sits, shivering slightly from the cold,’ observed the sympathetic prison guard. Hugging his uniform more closely to his core and rubbing his hands together in a vain attempt to kindle some little warmth in the bitter, icy night, the kind-hearted Frenchman (known to all as Jacques) cast a long and sensitive gaze across the small cell.
Saddened, his eyes rested, soft and unobtrusive, on the hunched figure before him: the shoulders were sagging; the arms were supported by two thin hands cupping the elbows; the head was hung wearily so that Jacques could not tell whether the man’s eyes were alert, or aware of their shabby surroundings and (though even a more intuitive observer would never deduce this from his study) the man’s mind, at this stage, was barren.
His eyes, the spectator mistakenly imagined, must be closed to immediate circumstances whilst those before were contemplated. The torment leading up to his choice, then the execution of the long deliberated action; the relief of the escape but then all the regret that must have followed as reality, a tidal wave, hit. Since, unable to think deeply on any theme but that of his own dishonour, the subject of Jacques’ observations had endeavoured to keep all thoughts at bay. So perfectly did the state of his subconscious mirror that image of the pale feather associated with his crime, so evocative of that white plume was the picture of his thoughts.
‘He was too young, really, to know what he was doing,’ Jacques imagined the pitying gossips of the ill-fated man’s home town to lament. No subsequent thought on the matter; no realistic insight as to the true gravity of the situation.
Jacques’ unconscious sigh in contemplating such idiocy produced but a further retreat into himself by the poor prisoner.
‘You’ll be stationed at the small training camp at Amiens come next week, Private Dubois,’ the commanding officer had told Jacques months before. On the front line, this promise had seemed to him such a glorious guarantee of his safety, so much threatened in previous days. His imminent escape had livened his spirits no end, despite his confusion upon finding that he was to be the only one of his battalion to move elsewhere. When questioned, Sergeant Moreau had been evasive and ambiguous; for what role Jacques was intended he could not exactly decipher, concluding only that he had been deliberately chosen because of his physical superiority to the others, having always been muscular, in conjunction with (Moreau had hinted) his contrastingly gentle nature.
Completing this umpteenth commission at the new camp, it was long since Jacques had realised his unpleasant purpose there.
The figure seated in front of him stirred once more, and Jacques was tugged back to the present. Reminded of the man’s regrettable situation, he could not help but speculate whose fate was really worse: one who suffers a tormented night, to have his distress swiftly discontinued early the next morning, or one who must examine and thus endure some share in this agony for an unknown number of twilights, to become free to bask in the enjoyment of any activity he may choose at the rise of the each sun.
Jacques, who then marvelled at the strength of these condemned creatures, who admired those showcasing such an ability to amplify the resonance of their misery by maintaining a collected silence, and who esteemed those who exemplified their feverish resentment in low, barely audible moans, grieved tenderly. His own fortitude he never distinguished; his stability he did not see crumbling. At this early stage, when Jacques may have been relocated at any moment, and back to fighting for King and country, the signs had not begun to manifest themselves. Not until years later, when young Jacques became old, and the care of a wife and child was entrusted to him, would the full impact of the responsibility he must then tolerate be known to his once mighty, now fragile, mind.
For the present though, we saw Jacques reasonably content, familiar enough with his position to allow a degree of resignation to have settled in, and further indulging in picturing the larger impression which this fellow’s condemnation would have.
‘I can’t imagine how she’s coping,’ Jacques pictured the compassionate neighbour sighing, nodding simultaneously to the boy’s poor mother as she passed. What torment she must have been feeling: half delirious with the shame, and yet painfully, defiantly proud of her baby, just like always. Just like any mother, of any boy, in any circumstance. Rational modesty defined her person, widow her marital status, but absurd, rebellious affection her heart.
She’d struggle to maintain the high standards of correspondence and sociability in the village where everyone knew her son’s disgrace; the same community who with jubilant delight cheered off her pride and joy as he marched with his battalion, who promised to welcome him with open arms whenever his return may be, now shunned her company and denied their knowing him.
Not yet a man, but a soldier still, his departure must have brought tears to the eyes of the fussing, maternal ladies and the young girls alike, yet now the older visibly stiffened at her presence, and the younger bashfully recoiled from her society. All eluded any affiliation with the mother, perhaps more violently than they might the son, personal and emotional detachment being more straightforward a matter when the association with the crime (if so it is to be defined) is thus some small part removed and indirect. The superior pretensions of those human embodiments of arrogant ignorance could surely not go wholly unacknowledged; the scorn of imagined supremacy must be harsh to the alienated woman. Their disdainful whispers were rifles.
As to the lady herself, outward strength prevented her from breaking down, where inner surrender quelled her tears.
Sluggish shuffling now begun to surround the cell which Jacques and his captive occupied, and he was forced to reluctantly relinquish his quiet imaginings. This indicated the awakening of the soldiers in the bunkers around; the compassionate guard knew that five men in particular would be more disinclined to exit their beds on this morning.
The weary soldier was relieved from his position; the dull-eyed criminal was led to an adjacent field and the heavy black blindfold tied around his eyes. From then and all eternity following, the offender would be denied the indulgence of admiring the clear sky, thronged that day with ashen clouds. The men lined up facing him, each surveying the floor below. Silence fell, thick and uncomfortably cumbersome; a further burden upon the heavy heart of the scarred and wounded, brave Jacques, who paused his retreat as the arms were raised in unison, the aim taken in sickening harmony.
How many miles from home her boy would lie, both on his last, and all subsequent evenings the mother did not long dwell upon as a rule, and the conclusion of there being no final goodbye, once drawn, was little ruminated upon in general. But both were earnestly considered that night, amid silent sobs, by the frail woman who knew this to be the chosen hour.
The full scope and scale of the events which bred the crime of this man, Jacques knew, would never be fully understood by any who had not experienced a part of them, yet few would hesitate to righteously advocate this termination of the life faithfully – fatally – pledged to his King and country.
Of all the acquaintances of the young man’s lifetime, two may be classified as the most significant in this tale, simply by their being considered in the greatest quantity by the otherwise void vacancy of his resigned mind in the final hours. To the first (whose contemplation was borne out of circumstance only) this result was saddening; to the second (whose occupancy in the mind of the man during these last minutes was not a debut, but a consequence of the most strongly founded attachment) this outcome was shattering.
Once the deed was done, to one, the face bore the expression of an anonymous soldier; to the other, the worn, ever-beloved features of a treasured infant. To the world, however, all significance which the empty countenance would ever hold was in its being on the corpse of a coward.