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The man lay on a cot near a window in one of the wards of the French army hospital at Toulon. Dr. Dumain, who was showing me through the hospital and who had been called away to attend a delirious patient in another ward, had told me that the man's name was Bonnot, and that he had shot himself in the breast two days before in the barracks at the fort.
I had started after the doctor, thinking to take advantage of the opportunity to make my escape—I had had enough of hospital for the day—and had nearly reached the door, when a hoarse, agitated voice sounded from behind.
I halted. The man on the cot had turned his head to look at me with eyes that positively startled me with their expression of poignant, intense suffering.
The outline of his body under the white sheet and the knotty appearance of his arms, which lay outside, showed him to be a big, muscular fellow; his bare shoulders were brown and massive. His chest and neck were swathed in bandages; but these details did not enter my consciousness till later.
My whole attention was centered on his eyes, that burned like twin fires of agony; and I told myself that no physical pain could produce so keen a torment. As I looked, one great, brown arm was outstretched toward me.
"Monsieur, s'il vous plait," he murmured.
I walked to the cot. "What is it—a drink of water?"
He shook his head. "No. I am not thirsty, monsieur, except here—" he laid his hand on his breast—"for death." The eyes flashed. "Monsieur is English?"
"No. I am an American—a war correspondent. Is there anything—"
"So much the better," he interrupted. "Monsieur, will you do me a kindness? I dare not ask anyone here—they are all French—they would laugh at me in scorn—"
"But you yourself are French," I observed, considerably mystified.
"No!" he shouted with sudden fierceness. Then, glancing quickly at the three patients at the other end of the ward, he lowered his voice to a savage murmur.
"No!" he repeated. "Or, if I am, I am Bonnot first. You will understand when I tell you, and I must tell you—I must tell some one. It is a long story—the doctor may return soon. Will you listen, monsieur?"
I nodded, wondering. And that is how I came to hear the story of Joseph Bonnet.
Before I go further, I want to say that it is made public with the full and free consent of his poor old mother, whom I saw a week later at the address in Paris which he gave me. I can really see no disgrace in it for him, nor for anyone else.
As nearly as possible I shall tell it in his own words; but if you would realize to what degree the story affected me, you must remember the bare, dreary hospital ward, the white sheet and bandages, the great, brown arms tossed about in feverish gestures, the burning eyes, intense with suffering.
Throughout, his voice was low and hoarse, packed with feeling; now and then, when he paused to clear his throat, the muscles of his face jerked with pain from a self-inflicted wound.
But he kept steadily on to the end. As I remember it, I did not once interrupt him.
I was born in Alsace (he began), in the town of Colmar, about fifteen miles from the French border. We were both born there—my brother Théodore and I. I was six years the elder.
When Théodore was only ten months old our father died—he was a carpenter, I don't remember him very well—and our mother was forced to go to work. She was never very strong, and she had a hard time of it.
So when some German friends, who had been very kind to us, decided to return to Frankfort and offered to take Théodore along as their own son, mother let him go. He was a little over a year old then.
Not long after that she and I went to Paris, walking all the way. There she did a little better, and managed somehow to send me to school; she could never get enough together to send for Théodore, hard though she tried.
Finally I went to work. But I always hated Paris, and I never got along very well.
Once mother and I made a visit to Germany, and found that Théodore was a student at a university. We saw that he was happy and well fixed, and didn't try to get him to return with us. But it was curious how well I seemed to remember him. He was a fine young fellow, and I was proud of him. I thought it strange that my own brother should talk with a German accent.
I think it was in 1909 that Théodore came to Paris. I mean the last time; he had been there to visit us several times before. I was twenty-nine then. He never explained his business any further than to say he was sent by the German government to conduct some sort of scientific investigation. I never caught on to things very well. He stayed two years, till August 1911.
Once I found a lot of maps and plans in his room, with names of Paris forts and suburbs and roads scattered all over them; but I didn't think anything of it. In fact, I didn't know what they were at the time.
Those two years were happy ones for all three of us. Théodore was even kinder to mother than I was, and so jolly he used to make the tears run down her face from laughing so hard. I don't think a man ever loved another man better than I loved him. I guess there were tears on my face, too, the day he left Paris.
In 1911, just after Théodore returned to Germany, I joined the army.
At last I found a job that suited me, though it didn't pay very well—just enough so mother didn't have to work after taking a little out for myself. Théodore was sending her money then, too.
Six months after I enlisted I won a prize for artillery marksmanship; in a year I was made a corporal and was sent to Boulogne. I was transferred to Toulon in April 1913, and in the very first target practise I came out the head of the list.
You know, monsieur, they anchor a small fleet of boats carrying a low, mud-colored sail about the size of a torpedo boat. I hit it ten times at five kilometers without a miss.
They made me a sergeant for that, and put me in charge of Battery No. 3 on the second tier of the main embankment. You can see it from the window there—just under the flag on the right of the middle traverse.
So, you see, I was doing pretty well, getting a hundred and fifty francs a month and studying to take the examination for chief gunner, which is a fine job.
This summer, in July it was, three months ago, I began to get ready to send to Paris for mother, so she could be near me here in Toulon. She never liked Paris any better than I did.
But then the war came and I had to give that up.
A day or two after war was declared, about half the force at the fort was transferred to the field division and sent to the front. Every man of us wanted to go; but, of course, some had to stay.
We had enough to do. The colonel gave us target practise every other day, and set up double watches everywhere; so we barely had time to sleep and eat.
But nobody grumbled. All we talked about was how we'd like to get a chance at the Germans. I caught the fever from the rest of them, and every day at morning quarters I was hoping I'd be picked out to go to the front. I knew I was the best gunner in the whole battalion, and I couldn't understand why I hadn't been sent before. It was just chance, I guess.
It went on like that for two months, and every day we were getting more excited, what with the despatches from Lille and Rheims and Louvain, and the little speech the colonel made every morning at quarters.
What spare time we had we'd sit around in the barracks singing the "Marseillaise," and our talk was bloodthirsty.
One morning—last Monday it was, the 5th of October—the orderly came to the gun room where I was to say that there was a visitor in the office asking to see me. I followed him, wondering who it could be.
It was my brother Théodore.
I had not seen him for nearly a year, and we embraced each other joyfully. I thought he had been to Paris, and asked about mother, but he said he had come straight from Frankfort, through Switzerland. He said he hadn't seen any of the fighting, having passed south of the lines.
"It was the only way I could make it," he explained. "And since I had to pass within fifty miles of Toulon on my way to Paris, I thought I might as well make a detour and see you. I was drafted for the German army a week ago in Frankfort, and I had a hard time to escape."
As he said this his eyes refused to meet mine; but I thought it was because he had to confess being a deserter, though I could see no shame in that.
Could I blame my own brother for refusing to fight against France?
Of course the first thing I thought of was that he should enlist in the coast defense here in Toulon in my company. But he refused, saying that he wanted to go to Paris first and see mother, and that when he did enlist he wanted to go to the front.
I could understand that well enough, so I didn't press the matter. We talked for an hour or so about the old days together, then I asked if he wouldn't like to look around the fortifications.
"Yes, that would be amusing," he replied, without showing any particular interest.
I went off to get permission of the officer of the day, who happened to be Captain Janvour, a good friend of mine.
"You know, Bonnot," he said, when I had saluted and made my request, "the colonel has given very strict orders about visitors. Everyone is under suspicion in time of war. But I suppose—you say he is your brother?"
"Yes, sir. My brother Théodore."
"You will vouch for him?"
I hesitated a moment; after all, Théodore was from Germany. But I shook the thought off impatiently. Bah! My own brother!
"I will vouch for him, sir," I replied.
"Then it's all right. You are a man to be trusted, Bonnot. Here, orderly! Give Bonnot a ticket."
It so happened that I was free till the two o'clock watch, so we had plenty of time. I took him first to Embankment A, the one on the right with the disappearing guns.
It didn't seem to me at the time that he was very much interested, asking very few questions and talking mostly about the old days in Paris; but I remembered afterward that his eyes kept darting from one side to the other like a searchlight.
From there we crossed the traverse over to the main embankment, stopping to look at the new orillons that have been built in since the beginning of the war. He asked some questions about them, and I explained how they had been substituted for the old extension of the bastion face to guard against an enfilade of the second tier of gun rooms.
By eleven o'clock we had been all over the fort from one end to the other, even including the decoy embankment by the—but that is not for you to know, monsieur. I took delight in explaining everything, for Théodore had always been so much brighter than I that I was proud to show I knew something, too.
I telephoned to the barracks to arrange for him to eat with me at the gunners' table, then we went to my gun room to wait for noon mess.
There are three 42-centimeter breech loaders in the room under my charge. They are the kind with the Reffye mechanism—the best guns in the fort, monsieur. I had two gunners and five privates under me, and we had the best record in the battalion.
I explained the guns to Théodore, unlocking the breechblock and showing how the projectile and charge are lifted from the loading-carriage and inserted in the bore.
He got upon the sighting platform and looked through.
"Good Heavens!" he exclaimed, "I had no idea they were so big! Why, a man could crawl in there, and he wouldn't have to wriggle much, either."
"Not I," I replied, laughing. "I've tried it. But you might."
You see, monsieur, Théodore was a little fellow compared to me; for I am of a good size.
Then we climbed upon the parapet together like two boys, and looked out across the sea with my glass. Just as we jumped down again into the gun room I heard a footstep at the door, and looked up to see Chanin, a gunner from Embankment A.
He looked a little surprised at sight of Théodore, then turned to me.
"Been looking for you all over the barracks, Bonnot. The captain has sent orders to stack up in the magazines for two o'clock practise. Come on if you want to finish before noon."
Chanin trotted away, grumbling something about the captain always finding a job just before messtime.
"What's up?" asked Théodore, grinning.
I explained that we had to prepare the ammunition for afternoon target practise. "It won't take long," I added; "half an hour at the most. You can come along if you want to."
He said he would rather wait for me in the gunroom, so I went off alone after promising to return to take him to mess.
In the magazine I found a squad of privates and three or four gunners filling up the loading-carriages and wheeling them into place.
"Who's your friend?" asked Chanin, as I crossed to the projectile rail and began loosening the hold screws.
I told him it was my brother from Paris.
"Your brother? Didn't know you had one. How long is he going to stay?"
I swung a projectile into place as I answered:
"Till this evening."
"Well," said Chanin, who was a good-hearted fellow, "if I had known that I wouldn't have bothered you. We can handle this alone, can't we, boys? You go on back, Bonnot, and visit with your brother. I'll load your carriages for you."
I protested a little just to be polite, but he insisted; and some of the others did, too.
So I got permission from the lieutenant in charge, put on my shirt and jacket, and went back to join Théodore. I had been gone about ten minutes.
I was a little surprised to find that the door of the gun room was shut tight, for I was certain that I had left it open when I left. But, not thinking much about it, I pushed it back and entered.
As I did so I heard a little cry of surprise. It came from Théodore.
He was standing in the corner by a block of concrete, facing toward the wall, only his head was turned to the door. His face was flushed, and there was a queer expression in his eyes. One hand was thrown back against the wall, and in the other—the right—he was clutching something white.
Something—I guess it was the look in his eyes—seemed to tell me everything in a flash. And then suddenly they changed, and I saw that he was aware that I knew.
For a long time we stood looking at each other in silence, neither one of us moving a muscle. He looked straight in my eyes, and I looked straight back; but I felt something coming up into my throat and choking me, and he seemed to be a long way off.
When I spoke my voice sounded strange and queer.
"Théodore," I said, "what have you got in your hand?"
He didn't answer. I made a step or two forward, then stopped. All the time we were looking straight at each other. His cheeks had gone white, and his lips were drawn tight together. Then suddenly his face relaxed, and he came forward, holding out his hand.
"There," he said calmly, "you may as well look at it."
I took it—a small pad of white paper with a leather back. A glance was enough. There were notations and abbreviations in German, but I understood the diagrams and figures: "3-35X10—4-20X8—30 paces—625X15—40 paces—7-15X15." And so on. Two pages of the pad were filled.
I remember that even then I was conscious of a feeling of wonder that he could guess so accurately, for of course he had had no opportunity to measure anything, since he had not been alone for a second except in the gun room.
It was a long time before I could raise my eyes from the pad of paper. I felt as a man must feel when he reads his own death sentence. I knew that Théodore was looking at me, but I could not look at him.
Then his voice came:
"Bien?" He had always had a funny way of saying that. "Bien?" Like a child impatient and amused and angry all at once.
"Bon Dieu, Théodore!" I cried, half sobbing. "You—a traitor!"
At that he drew himself up. "I am no traitor," he said proudly. "I am an officer of the German army."
"You are a spy!" I exclaimed fiercely. "And you come here—you betray me, your brother—At least you try, for you have failed—"
Excerpted from Target Practice by Rex Stout. Copyright © 1997 Carroll & Graf Publishers. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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