Papers were piled up everywhere. There was no sense of discipline, but great friendliness, and a desire to collaborate. I was amazed at first at the lack of personal criticism, of personalities of any kind. Though even that crept in later, among so many other regrettable things. Once, during the first days, before I had got out of bad habits, I said, standing leaning on the rail of one of the galleries which overhung the central lounge:.
Complete cessation of interest in the eyes, and my interlocutor turned away to something of more importance. I learned not to do it. Afterwards, I didn't feel that way anymore.
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It all faded in so much friendliness, and we talked only politics and felt sure of the revolution. Those were early times. On the other side of the square, above the theatre, there was always a crowd of people on the three flights of stairs. We had to go up and down about two or three times a day, to fetch documents or ask questions. People poured up and down all day long, giving in their names for adherence, coming to ask after their sons at the front, coming to touch militia pay, coming for information. There was no sort of control.
Anyone came in, and strolled about the room, while two or three comrades sat behind typewriters here and there and took down names and paid out money. People crowded in the windows and leaned for hours on the sills, looking up and down the Ramblas in the sun. A general atmosphere of good cheer reigned. Two or three militia-men sat in arm-chairs near the door, playing with the children or swinging their white canvas shoes. The absence of bureaucracy was enchanting. Up three steps behind the big room, seething like a railway station, and behind a glass door was the small den into which the Executive Committee could just manage to squeeze themselves.
There was nothing of a holy of holies about this room, and nobody was awed by the idea of going to talk to the committee. People knocked and went in whenever they felt like it. When there were more people than the members of the committee inside, everybody had to stand up and leave the door open for the overflow. Afterwards, they put someone on duty outside the door, to find out why people wanted to come in, and sift some of them. I came up one day and found a peasant waiting to get in. He was standing there obstinately in front of the guard, his feet in flat Catalan sandals with blue ribbons winding round the leg and ankle, and a broad hat held in both hands.
I'll go in now. He was broad-shouldered and upright. Often things happened like that at first, but less afterwards. The party became more and more bureaucratic as time went on, and soon, what with the official participation in the government and the arrival of minor personalities from much more tepid parties in other countries, a way was opened to formalities and all kinds of red tape.
The net of bureaucracy began spreading everywhere. Lunch arrived at two o'clock, often rushed up on trays to the crowded inner room where the session continued unbroken over the plates of food. At the local we worked on a boring system of meal tickets. Someone was charged with giving these out every noon to all demanders and you were not supposed to be served with food unless you could show one.
Whenever the tickets were given to one of our Catalan comrades to distribute, they were almost always lost or too few, or else the comrade went away somewhere else and forgot to give them out. I have annoying memories of long waits in front of the firmly closed dining-room doors, when time was precious and appetites sharp. One is not born Catalan with impunity. Anyone could eat in Barcelona. You only had to go to a local and ask for a ticket and it was given to you. There was nothing of charity about it, just the normal rights of everybody all free and equal.
At every meal we sat down hundreds strong, with all kinds of people who were not party members and of whom we often knew nothing. The food was plentiful but nearly always began with beans. The Germans hated beans. But they were always much too hungry to go without them. One day the first provision ship arrived.
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Everyone was excited, and we all wondered what it would bring. That ship promptly landed five thousand kilos of beans on the quay. When we heard this good news, a wan look overspread the German faces. They afterwards decided to form an Anti-Bean League. We made our first broadcast one day, over a tentative post an electrician comrade had set up in a small cottage.
That was a great day. Later, when we began to take over many buildings, and participated in the Generality, and had expanded so much, we had broadcasting stations everywhere, and gave big daily broadcasts, and it all became part of the routine. It was the beginning that was the excitement. Seeing a waiter brushing eagerly over a shining counter with his broom, or hurrying towards you with a tray above his head like a ship under full sail, one notices with ease and delight that the old pence-crawling and servility is dead for ever, and instead a man is going about his work, himself master of all he surveys were it not that mastery like ownership has faded away into disuse in this new world and the words have lost their sense and vigour.
He is working now, as you might be tapping a typewriter. Afterwards, sitting sipping out of a glass and probably noticing that your feet are dusty, you decide to have a shoe-shine, if you are not wearing canvas slippers. We used to sit chatting to the shoe-shiners, who are mostly Anarchists, while they squatted at our feet moving their black, deft fingers round our shoes or pulling a taut rag over the toe-caps with balanced, sawing gestures.
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The shiner returned it to me with a flourish. I felt prickly with shame. On another counter are thick-set doughnuts full of yellow jam, plum-cake, crystallised fruits, cream horns, nut-biscuits and marzipan patties. Here we ate steak sandwiches, and sat under the brim of the lamp while in the recesses up and down the aisle people with secrets whispered together. Besides them, often a bearded militia-man rose from a group round a table, and coming over to us saluted with his clenched fist and said:.
You excuse this boring formality, of course, comrade? You remember all those Nazi-looking types who used to live under the protection of the German Embassy? We're getting most of them put out of the country by this time, but it has made us perhaps a little too careful over all foreigners. Relations between the Catalans and the foreign comrades were becoming a little strained about that time, through no fault of the Catalans.
The Catalans, whom the long struggle for freedom from the hampering backwardness of the rest of Spain has rendered apt to fall back on to nationalism, given the excuse, reacted with wounded dignity mixed with a peck of chauvinism. Here the young schoolmasters of the revolution were usually gathered, their eager faces studying plans for schools and educational schemes which they spread out over the tables, or making up the format of scholastic reviews.
At other tables, the representatives of the English Press, a poor, grey-looking group, sipped cocktails and failed to make contact with the highly-charged atmosphere. Sometimes I sat down at their table for a short while and talked to them. They understood nothing of what was really going on, and cared less. They talked mostly personalities. I came away tired with the stings of their little individual hates. I had the impression of a closed citadel, impenetrable to new life.
At other tables, people would come in, flushed and loud-voiced, from a meeting somewhere. The party orators were always there for a moment or two, coming back in a car with a streaming red flag on the bonnet from a town in the north or a village where the peasants had stampeded and shouted themselves hoarse with excitement.
I remember Pilar Santiago, coming back after speaking at Port Bou and falling down in a heap on one of the horsehair sofas. Everyone was tired out and happy. She had on striped stockings, and flat shoes like boats, and a sleeveless dress, and looked so beautiful, with her head like a violent-lipped angel. They felt it all. It's wonderful, I see everything I say coming true. But sometimes there are terrible moments, like to-day, when I was speaking about our children and the Fascists, and I could not stop the tears from running and running down my face.
Nevertheless, it was noticeable that the militia-men back from the front always spent their first morning or afternoon's leave seated on the broad terrace in the sun and watching the life of the Ramblas, which reached its most lively and vivid at this point. Inside, there was certainly something unprepossessing about the clients.
They were too smooth, and had rings on fat white hands. A delightful smell of fresh-ground coffee floated in the air. In another room at the back there were little gilt chairs round marble tables, and exotic birds flying about in an aviary which occupied the whole of one of the walls.
Later, our nights ended inevitably at the press, but in these early days we had no other offices but our bedrooms, and there we sat until the small hours, slamming at typewriters in the unshaded glare of an electric bulb, while the street roared by below the window and finally ebbed and eddied into silence.
There was a scarcity of arms. The F. Day after day we assembled in the courtyard and stood about for hours in the burning sun. Towards evening we were dismissed home to our quarters, and it was for to-morrow. Other parties were in the same plight. Even the F. Our group made up the International Lenin Column. About fourteen different countries were represented in the Column under the command of Russo, an Italian who had served as an officer with the Italian army in pre-Mussolini days. Russo was tall and swarthy and came from Naples. He had slightly dead, bloodshot eyes, always half closed, and used to remark readily:.
They say I'm sympathetic and take me into their confidence. Second in command was Calero, a barrister from Murcia. His red hair was thinning now on top but his eyes were bright and shining, rolling like blue marbles on fire in the darkness when, with the lights turned down over a rum punch, we sat round listening to poems. His beautiful voice vibrated then like a stringed instrument. Calero lived at home, and only came daily to the local, but Russo lived in like the rest of us and was supposed to be quartered in barracks.
We ate sitting in opposite rows on wooden benches, and had tin plates, and cups the size of little soup tureens. One cup did for every five men. The food was better than at the local, but we had to serve ourselves. The afternoons were long, with nowhere to sit in the courtyard except the hot stones, and political quarrels were always breaking out among the groups of men who squatted under the arches.
We had been given khaki clothes by this time, and red flannel neckerchiefs, and light shiny belts with little boxes on them for our ammunition. Later came the tin hats, and on the last day, arms at last. When they began to be handed out to us, and we knew we were going to the front at last, we climbed aboard some old Ford lorries that were standing in the yard and stood up with our guns in our hands and cheered and cheered.
That was at four o'clock in the afternoon. It was nine at night before we got going. By that time we were tired, and our first enthusiasm had worn away. The miles to the station were heavy going, though the people cheered. We had packs on our backs, with straps that cut into the shoulders, and as we marched down the Ramblas in the half dark quickly gathering, the women who lined the way thrust flowers into the barrels of our rifles.
We moved between a hedge of clenched fists, our own tired fists raised intermittently. The night drew down as we neared the station. The shoes of the horses in the cavalry detachment struck sparks off the road. As we climbed into the train, people swarmed into the station after us, on to the narrow platform, and stood there shaking our hands and laughing and shouting to us as we leaned out of the windows. A little boy got aboard somehow, and hid among the packs in the corridor. We were going to Huesca, though we looked as if we were going to a fair.
We were going to the front, and would reach it quicker than we thought. Barcelona offered us its homage as if we were a whole army arriving in triumph but really we were only a single column, the third column of the P. We were sure we were going to win, and woe to him who doubted. The train was as long as a minister's title. Ours was completely lacking in romantic melancholy. We had no time to be sad. Who would have thought of being sad, in any case, while people looked at you with such envy that their eyes might have snatched your rifles from your hands, people who will be coming to join you to-morrow?
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Sabadell , Lerida, Barbastro, and other villages, received us triumphantly. Lovely girls came to the train carrying flowers in one hand and a ham in the other, and gave them to us with their most revolutionary smiles. Our journey seemed like a ride in a tram, the enthusiasm of the people made it seem so short. Here we left the train in the morning, only to take it again in the afternoon. Was it a counter-order or war tactics?
Only the command knew, and we did not find out. A return to the train once more; but now we found that our train, which had lost nothing in size, had been bereft of the splendour of first, second, and third class. We were in a cattle train, and the atmosphere let us know it. We sang to cheer ourselves. Everyone had to take his turn at singing, and the defaulter suffered a forfeit voted by the majority.
This was generally to fetch water at the next stop, or to walk on all fours, or else to recite a prayer, and the latter seemed a large punishment for so small a sin as having failed to sing a song, apart from the fact that many had sincerely forgotten all their prayers. Did we, I thought, seem anything at all like the vandal red Marxist hordes about whom Franco talks on Radio Seville? We were more like children.
We reached Barbastro. Eat and sleep as quickly as possible, was the order given out that night. We accomplished it. We slept in an empty convent, lying in rows on the floor of a dormitory on mattresses. A noise woke me suddenly only an hour later. A light moved near the door, whispers, and something glinted on a blade. There were uniformed figures in the doorway. A night raid. An indescribable scene of confusion and excitement followed. This was succeeded by hilarity or groans of bad temper at having been wakened when we discovered that the intruders were part of our cavalry who had come out by another way.
Alcala del Obispo is a little village of the kind which abound in Spain to-day: a tower which was once a church, and the ruins of some farms. It was seven o'clock in the morning, and there were more than five hundred of us, but I have yet to see a village with so many hotels. From every house there came:. Come in, anyway, and we'll fix you up somehow.
Half an hour later, the entire company was settled in and sat down before the sweet-smelling cups of coffee which awaited us. And after that, rest. I still remember that knowing smile which greeted my remark that if I slept now I shouldn't be able to sleep at night. We used the wooden painted statues of the saints to light the fires for cooking our meals.
They had been thrown out into the square when the church was burnt. Now there was a shortage of wood, so one day we chopped up St. Eduvige, virgin and martyr, and the next day Anthony of Padua, and even St. Apapucio, until it came to the turn of the patron Saint and bishop of the village. Well, if she knew the weight of that lump of wood and had been forced to carry it round the town on church festival days every time there was a procession I said to another woman, who was leaning against a lintel with her arms folded over her heavy breasts:. My man and my sons have got work now.
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We don't have to go short any more. But I do know that those wooden saints have been good for something at last. Everything is run according to bugle blasts, and I begin slowly to get used to this new language. When, in the middle of the day, the bugle sounds, I have not much difficulty in knowing that it is for lunch. But when we had a second bugle blast right in the middle of the meal, I failed to understand at all. Many others, besides ourselves, were novices. I think that they and I will not easily forget that first moment when we climbed into the lorries which were to take us over the four miles which lay between us and the firing-line.
It was one o'clock of the afternoon, and hot. We followed the main road, and then turned off into a smaller road. We were leaving the flat, Aragonese plain and the ground began to undulate, running towards some foothills, and beyond them, mountains. The road was white, dust rose heavily round the wheels of the lorries. On either hand, the landscape stretched away, savage and sterile, covered with thorns and thistles.
From time to time, a bouquet of trees bordered the road. Sometimes there was a house, or a man ploughing. At the comer of a field, the inevitable dog awaited the return of the plough, a pool of saliva gathering below his hanging tongue. As we went on, we could hear the stamp of the cannon growing louder with every minute, and the clicking of the machine-guns. Every time the ground rose up a little, Huesca appeared suddenly within sight, a city drawn in white chalk, and we seemed to be looking at it near and clear as though through a spy-glass. The next moment the ground would dip again, and so we continued to lose and find Huesca in this way on our horizon.
It was seated on a slight hill. On the way other lorries passed us. When we saw them coming, in a veil of dust, full of soiled militia-men, we raised our fists and shouted out to them:. We saluted the peasants, too, whom we saw from time to time standing on the edge of the fields. They looked at us with their deep, placid stare, standing immobile, and then remembered suddenly and raised a hasty fist like a stage monkey who has almost forgotten his part. We sang a bit and laughed too much, as always when one is a little afraid.
Some of us, who had never had a gun in our hands before, were learning hastily how to load and unload and take aim white the vehicle jolted on. In a moment we turned a bend in the road and saw that the lorries ahead of us had already drawn up. The men were getting down from them.
It is really the front, now. The sudden stop, which threw us on to each other, served to hide our emotion. Eleven lorries were lined up along the edge of the road. They had taken advantage of a group of trees in order to remain hidden from the Fascist aeroplanes. We formed up in fours. The day, with a high blue sky, seemed like a bowl of silence, pierced now and then by a shot from the cannon. The machine-guns, making a noise like typewriters, continued champing, but seemed like a noise outside the bowl, they were so little able to impose themselves in the absolute quiet of the day.
Over there, the black wings of one or two Fascist aeroplanes were drawing arcs on the edge of the sky. A wire fence, dividing off the fields, and the mountain slope before us, are all that remain to divide us from the firing-line. But now we learn that we are not to climb that slope until tomorrow. We are emergency forces, waiting in the rear. We all piled through the wires in the fence, and began looking for a place protected by trees in which to camp. We threw ourselves down on the ground here and there in the shade, with nothing to do until new orders should come through. It was hot and dry.
Some men went for water, and now that the first emotion had been appeased we began to think about our interrupted meal and to tighten our belts. Calero, coming round and slapping us all on the shoulders, told us we would eat the meal of our lives in Huesca to-morrow. He was standing a little way off, surveying a group who were being given a tardy lesson in the manipulation of fire-arms, and told me that the big attack on Huesca was probably due tomorrow.
We began to climb the slope of the steep hill towards the sound of the guns. Before we had gone a hundred yards, I had had to stop three times to pick the prickles out of my canvas shoes. Those shoes had seemed so serviceable in Barcelona. One or two more prickles, and we reached the firing-line. I seemed to have seen it all before, though in what film it was hard to place.
It was the most conventional war scene imaginable. We had reached a line of men, who were stretched out on their stomachs on the ground, their guns to their checks, while at an interval of every twenty-five yards or so a machine-gun had been planted. Five hundred yards beyond them we could see Monte Aragon. The fortress, which had held out during the whole of the Carlist War and remained unshaken by all previous revolutions, presented its broad, crenelated face to our guns. As we reached the first machinegun, which was hidden by a high boulder, a long hurrah broke out which wavered over the line of men like wind over corn, and I saw that one of the towers had been blown to pieces.
We were on the crest of the hills, and the fortress rested on the knees of an opposite hill, a valley lying in between. To our left was Huesca, and its lower-lying district had just caught fire from our bombs. Thick plumes of smoke mounted slowly against a blue screen of sky. Three of our aeroplanes winged over the edge of the town, and after their passage a spout of fire sprang up so high that for an instant the clouds were gilded.
Our hill sloped away and back to the left, and there, where the firing line curved back about a hundred yards, the artillery was at work, tirelessly loosing flights of ammunition against Huesca and Monte Aragon. Looking down towards them, I saw the snout of cannon protruding here and there among the trees, and a few figures of men. Suddenly an antiaircraft gun vomited about an inch probably 50 yards away from an aeroplane and left a smoke bubble to float in the air. The aeroplane buzzed on undisturbed. As we stood near the machine-gun, sheltered by the stone, I saw a stout person strolling along with perfect composure in the firing-line, stopping from time to time to take notes and look through a pair of field glasses.
I learned in a minute that it was Pico, of our Executive Committee. Everybody was giving him advice. Pico muttered something or other, took down a few more notes, and, obedient like a big child, got down behind the stone. An aeroplane flew past, swooping down so low that we could hear the pilot calling out to us that the electric plant of Huesca had been hit. The sergeant of the machine-gun section was a German Jew.
We stood chatting to him until it was time to relieve the posts. He did not have far to go to find the men who were to take over. They were there already, lying asleep on the ground, one by each gun ready to take his turn. There were two men to every gun, and one fired for four hours while the other slept, and then they changed. They had been like that for five days and nights, without stopping, without ever moving away from their posts.
The sergeant went up to each man in turn, and touched him in a friendly way on the shoulder, or lifted his head in his hands, and said in his strong, gutteral Spanish:. The men crawled up immediately, like sleep walkers, and took the guns, and their predecessors fell asleep instantly. I shall never forget the face of utter fatigue on a Catalan boy, almost a child, the lids of his blue eyes swollen and red with the strain, who could not wait for the sergeant to come and wake up his partner, and how he dropped the gun and rolled over on to his side, like a bundle of something broken, and slept.
I did not wait for the sergeant, either. I seized the place the boy had left and threw myself face downwards in line between the two sleepers. Resting on my elbows, I pressed the butt of the gun against my shoulder and fired the first real shot I had ever fired in all my life. We slept that night rolled up in rugs on the side of the mountain, and it was certainly not the next day that we were to have our grand meal in Huesca. For that reason, the sound of a bugle blowing at the unprecedented hour of 8 a. The only excuse for such a bugle tall was a pressing attack of the enemy. As the enemy seemed to be nowhere at hand, once the first moment of alarm had passed and we found ourselves safe, a huge murmur of resentment began, which looked as though it would be slow in dying.
We're only asking for the right to rest. You've chosen the wrong place for resting this time. Just have a look over there. See them? Well, those 'planes are Fascist. We threw ourselves down again under the shadow of a tree, trying to catch up with the sleep which had eluded us.
I felt bruised all over. My hip-bone seemed to have been boring into the mountainside all night, and my bones ached to the marrow. I had never before realised how hard the earth can be. Suddenly there was another bugle-call. This time we were all on our feet in one act, our mess-kits in our hands.
A man was leading a line of mules up the slope towards us, and they were loaded with provisions. We gathered round him when he stopped by the ambulance, which was camouflaged under some trees about yards back from the firing line. How many are we? There are ten in the ambulance, and how many more of you are here?
She had moved off a short distance from us, and was squatting with her trousers down and her bare buttocks shining very white in the sun. The eggs gave rise, of course, to all the obvious Spanish puns, of which the women comrades were the butt as well as poor comrade Isidor, with his long tapering neck and too pale hands. I took a man before I took a gun. The day seemed as though it would be calm. We left the others in our sector and set out alone. There was little movement. We had not much difficulty in getting from one of our outposts to the next. We were going to Tierz, and went along, dodging behind the clumps of trees to avoid the shots on the way, and trying to make ourselves very small and thin and quick at the uncovered places.
Tierz is the last little village before reaching Huesca, hanging to the hem of Monte Aragon's skirts. By going in a straight line from where we set out it could be reached in ten minutes on foot. However, a straight line would have taken us past Monte Aragon which, although we had already taken it from the Fascists in our press, was in actual fact to wait a week longer before our militias ratified the news. The three men looked out at us, the chauffeur with his long sallow face, and two passengers, one of whom was also dark and, like the chauffeur, obviously not Catalan and the other thin and young with light eyes set flush with his face.
The dark man opened the door for us without a word, and a few minutes later we reached La Granja de Huesca. As we stopped the car to ask the way again, I got out for a moment to ask Villalba for details for the newspapers. He had fallen asleep like a log, on the spot, two hours after La Granja had been conquered. I had a camera which they had given me for my reporting. His name is Andres Mas, and they call him the Black Cat. You'll be hearing about him, and all they say about his courage and the deeds he has done is true. From there on it's a plain, and the car would be a perfect bull's-eye.
You've got the enemy on all sides of you. The two men in the car were doctors, and the back of the car was full of medical equipment and supplies. Our conversation took on a general interest concerning a little pile of ashes which we passed on the side of the road, with a partially burned crucifix, which the fire had not managed totally to destroy, sticking up out of it. This was all that remained of the priest of La Granja. We knew that La Granja was only two miles from Huesca, but coming round a bend in the road we saw Huesca so near to us that, although we were all aware of what town it was, we couldn't help asking each other:.
There was nobody to ask this time. There was only a waste of solitude and the silence of the sun. Our throats went dry when, yards away, a sharp fusillade proved that we had overshot the turn. We swallowed hard and went back, burning the road with our hasty tyres. Nothing tickles the appetite like a nervous shock, and the dinner we ate in Ballestar, having finally found the path, was certainly one of the best I have eaten in all my life.
None of us were able quite to get rid of a nervous and somewhat childish giggle, which pursued us throughout the meal, and throughout the time we spent after it, drinking the new wine of the district. I felt the simile to be well chosen, even if he had said it because he was a doctor. By the time the meal was over, we felt we had known each other all our lives. The chauffeur was particularly unbending, possibly because he came from Andalucia. Our comrades seemed to have been overcome by their lunch.
They had wandered away afterwards to sleep, and now it was already four o'clock in the afternoon and none of them had shown up. We determined to start off, and were walking down the street when I suddenly saw them coming along, yawning, and with their eyes still half shut. They were profuse in excuses, especially the chauffeur. We began to walk to Tierz, each of us piled up with as many of the medical supplies as we could carry.
The captain of the column which was occupying Tierz joined us. He was also bound for the same place and proposed to walk along with us. We were very glad of this, and joyfully loaded his broad back and chest with as many parcels as we could persuade him to carry. He made us take our guns with us, too, against the danger, and this made the trip very heavy going.
We walked out of Ballestar, walking directly towards Monte Aragon. The castle surged up at us, seeming very near now, and the little road appeared to be bringing it on top of us. The path, which still bore traces of a plough, went up and down, dipping and rising, and was sometimes bordered by low bushes behind which, by bending a little, we could feel ourselves in comparative safety.
We went along in Indian file, and when we came to the open spaces which offered no protection the captain, who was ahead, speeded up the pace. At the same moment a few bullets began to fly. Eventually we reached a plantation of maze and there we felt a little more sheltered. Ahead of me, I could hear the captain telling some- thing to the chauffeur:. He's a most unrepentant huntsman. He winged five of our men this week already in the little spot we've just crossed.
But he can only hit a target if people are walking in a group, because he's shooting at metres. I know all about the business from a prisoner we took this morning. It appears that this priest perches himself up in one of the trees of that little copse every day, with his gun and his pipe and enough ammunition and tobacco to last the day. They bring his food to him, and I hear that he's even built a little platform in the tree for himself, and a rest for his gun.
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We keep on walking towards Monte Aragon. By this time it is only four hundred yards away, and we are very relieved when the path takes a bend to the right and we make our entry into Tierz. It is hidden in a little valley, behind a fold in the ground, and we come upon it suddenly by surprise. Tierz is a diminutive village, and like all the small villages of Aragon, it is made of stone, and coloured a doubtful white.
Two streets present themselves for your selection, but it is needless to hesitate over the choice. They both lead you faithfully to the square in front of the church, which is the centre of the town. On either side of the square, the large, clumsy houses look as if they had been built by children: two holes, a door and a window, and another hole, the chimney, and nothing more. Before reaching the church square, we cross four or five little streets which pass us with an abrupt, clear white sweep down to the river.
The church has been burned, and in the square a nymph continues to blow water out of a vague hole in her face. As we reached the square, a strange sight caught my eye. Two women were walking towards us, pressed close in the lea of the houses, swathed in splendid dressing-gowns and their feet in embroidered slippers.
You must get to know them, because the Swiss girl speaks such good English. When the presentations were done, we found that one was a militia woman, and the other a nurse, the wife of an Italian anti-Fascist who was chief of a patrol. I think there are still one or two dressing-gowns left among the things we requisitioned in the Mayor's house. We have to go and declare ourselves at the People's Committee.
But we could go down to the river with you just for a minute, to have a look. The captain slipped off to interview a batch of prisoners, and we, the two doctors, and the chauffeur went down towards the river with the women. We came out suddenly on to the bank of the river. It was full of naked militia-men, leaping about and laughing and throwing water at each other.
The sun was sliding and slipping off their shining backs and stomachs, and their legs flashed about like long pale fish in the water. One man was lying on his back in midstream. He began beating the water with his arms and feet until it churned up like whipped cream and spirted at his comrades like soda out of a siphon. They splashed back at him in turn, or ran away shouting.
Further along, other slim, bare men were climbing about on each other's shoulders and diving off noisily. For a moment I did not look at the other two women. I could feel them standing beside me on the bank, their brilliant draperies moving in slow, colourful folds in the wind. The men in the water were jumping up and down, waving and calling out to them to come in and join them.
Suddenly, they both opened their clothes and threw them away and dashed past me. They went down the bank into the water, their naked bodies glowing an ardent amber colour in the sunlight. The doctors, the chauffeur, and we two, stood looking at them and waiting there with nothing to say. Only the chauffeur at last recovered something of his Andalusian loquacity. The Swiss woman came towards us, her arms making curves through the air as she lifted them alternately out of the water, the drops spraying off, and at each stroke half her body rising above the surface, showing her ripe breasts.
When she came to where we were, she caught hold of a boulder with both hands, and lay there in the water looking up at us. Her long muscular legs floated out behind her.
They're quite harmless. Of course sometimes one or other of them does a little masturbation, but so respectfully that one has really nothing to say. Suddenly, an intense sound of murmuring filled the air. I looked up. It was going too fast to see the markings on the wings. The machine flew on, disappeared in the direction of Monte Aragon, only to come back flying much lower.
Meanwhile a lively discussion had broken out in the water. Fascist or not? But a big dark boy, with his body burnt brown, rushed up out of the river and began climbing into his trousers. Two minutes later the aeroplane was back again, flying much lower and showing its black wings. Everyone fled out of the water.
I looked round anxiously for a place of refuge and we both began running towards the bridge. I thought we would get under it. As we reached it a wet hand clasped mine and pulled me back. The aeroplane laid a couple of eggs and flew off. Afterwards we heard that they had fallen further away, on the other side of the village, and had injured a child and killed a mule. I left my companion with the women and I went to declare our arrival at the People's Committee. Among the ungainly houses there was one of gracious build, two storeyed, which had formerly belonged to the Mayor.
It belonged now to the People's Committee. I went in. It had all the usual modern conveniences such as running water, and an air of ease and luxury. There was a court behind it, and a terrace hung with vines where wicker chairs stood waiting in the shade. I went up. At the entrance to a room on the second floor a guard tried to stop me going in.
A massive table occupied the centre of the room, which was large, and preciously furnished with carved seventeenth century pieces. The captain was seated at the table, with another man at his side, and two soldiers were standing facing them from across the breadth of the table. These soldiers belonged to a batch taken from the enemy. I came in for the end of the interrogatory.
Go to your family in Barcelona, or join up with our forces and fight? I always wanted to, anyway. When the soldiers had gone, the captain turned round to me and presented the man seated beside him as the Political Commissar. We talked, and the commissar explained to me:. We have been judging them to-day. We mean to make sound revolutionaries of them, let us hope. Oh, the soldiers are no problem at all. The problem in this case is an officer and a lawyer whom we have captured. He can walk. You know what it would be if we sent him to Barcelona.
And anyway, prisoners don't exist in a civil war, nobody keeps them, so it has to come to the same thing in the end, sooner or later. We'll go and see him at the hospital. I'm as hungry as a hunter. The hospital was the old school-house. There were still two or three sums on the blackboard, and rows of beds had replaced the rows of benches in the form-room.
The Fascist officer had very black hair and a dark, fattish face. He looked smooth and well-polished, his hair plastered down.
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Don't disturb yourself. The prisoner replied to everything in a neutral tone. Perhaps if I'd been in Barcelona I might have been on your side. The officer swallowed once or twice. He looked down at the sheet and drew the edge of it along between his fingers. Then his eyes slipped round towards the soldier, who was lying there on the other bed. The soldier's eyes had not left the officer during all the time of the cross-examination.
He ends by giving us the details. He opened the door, and called out to the little militia-girl who was on duty to help the nurse in the hospital. Presently she brought in a bottle of water and a glass, and administered to the prisoner, looking conscientious and child- like with her freckled nose and the sleeves of the khaki blouse rolled up to show her fat brown arms. The officer closed his eyes a second, as though pulling himself together for an effort, and then opened them and asked:. Anyway, I want to ask you if you will please be so kind as to send on to my wife and my mother the two letters you allowed me to write to them.
And let me thank you for the kindness I have received at your hands. I spoke about it in the letters I wrote, and told them how surprised I was because we always hear that you are vandals who ill-treat and torture their prisoners. Those are the kind of stories which can only be told to ignorant peasants. And this morning you were insulting the man and wanting to tear his eyes out. You know it isn't.
And anyway, I don't like tubby men. But I don't want them to kill him. There was nothing the commissar could say. So he tweaked her nose affectionately, and we went away. I have never understood for what perverse reason prisoners are shot at dawn. They are allowed to see the beginning of a new sun before they are killed. Perhaps it is to give them the illusion that they have lived a day longer.
That particular execution was fixed for five o'clock, and the sun was coming up already behind Monte Aragon when we reached the courtyard. We waited there, making the best of the excuse which the early cold gave us for shutting our- selves away from the prisoner's gaze inside the folds of our cloaks. He came forward slowly, between two guards, leaning on a cane. He was draped in a blanket. It was just before they fired that we saw him stagger and seem about to fall. The little militia-girl ran forward to him with one of the wicker chairs, and pushed it behind his knees.
This was how it happened that he died seated, and his cane made a long rattling slap as it rolled over and over towards us down the gentle slope of the stone paving. Almost every night it was the small hours before I slept. The night was absolutely silent under the windows, only broken once or twice by a whistle blowing to stop a car for inspection.
He must have run up the stairs. I thought he smelt odd. We brought him back, we thought it seemed better that way. My eyes felt rubbed with sandpaper. Robert had been one of our friends, politically and otherwise. He was twenty-two. I remember getting to know him on the first floor of the local when a pile of books had been put out for us to read and everybody was scrambling for them.
We quarrelled because he would not give it up. Robert was the only one they got. He lay out on the road for hours before we could get back to him. We thought he might be alive still, but he was shot in the head. The house was still and dark when we went along the corridors and down the stairs, but there was a curious kind of whispering noise everywhere. Somehow it must have filtered round the international dormitories already that someone had died.
The noise made it sound as though the building were sighing in its sleep. It was a full-moon night, and through the glass doors the hall was white. We went out into the Ramblas in front of the local. An open van was standing near, shadowless in the bright clear night. Inside it, four militia-men were standing at the four corners, facing outwards, the bulwarks of the van reaching to their thighs. We went slowly up, and a man who was there let down the end edge of the van like a flap. An odd-shaped packet filled the middle space between the four guards, done up in red. We brought him here before taking him to the hospital so that the comrades should see him.
A number of other people had come out of the local by this time. They stood about on the steps for a moment, and then gathered round. Two militia-men sprang up into the van and began unfolding the red cloth. A stranger, rather dark-skinned, with a big belly, was lying stiffly there. I thought at first it couldn't be Robert. Robert's face was turned away over his shoulder, with an expression of surprised pain round the mouth, and his two fists were clenched and lifted tightly towards his heart.
I began to be able to identify him. Stelio, the Italian doctor, squatted down on the floor of the van and put his forefinger into the wound. It went in its whole length. We stood round stricken and did not speak any more. They would be going out to the front in a new group. Some of them were young and had never seen death before. Presently the ambulance drew up, and we transferred the body into it on a stretcher and ourselves followed to the hospital in a car.
It was the Clinic Hospital which included the Morgue, and we drove a long way to reach it. We drove into a cobbled court. Beyond that was the building, which looked like a barracks with its many windows and bald front. A line of steps led down into the stone-vaulted basement, and I followed the men who were carrying the stretcher down it.
Blood and water was running down the sloping floor into a grating. At first I couldn't believe they were real people. I went from one to another and stared. They looked like lay figures, just as stuff and the same colour. There was a man lying near the door, with a haughty expression on his face, the grey hair sweeping back in a mane from his forehead, and his nose thin and curved. Another whose face struck me was a little man, who seemed to sleep, his cheek nestled down into his shoulder.
He, and a fat man on the floor with his legs flung out sideways as though he were dancing, were the only ones who seemed a little real. Two or three men were on guard, and helped us to lay Robert on the end of one of the tables, though it seemed awful to leave him there. We talked to them about all the bodies. We are always discovering some who are hidden away. We put up their photographs on the wall outside the hospital, to notify anybody who wants to claim them, but people are afraid of acknowledging those kind of friends and relations.
He took me up into the courtyard again, and by the light of a lamp showed me rows of photo- graphs of every kind of dead body which were tacked up on the wall under a pillared arcade. I longed to ask him why they all had their shoes and stockings off, but did not dare. One of the militia-men who had accompanied us came up the steps from the basement as we stood talking there and joined us. We had to come back there again the next afternoon, to fetch Robert in his coffin to the cemetery. The party came in large numbers from the local to share in the procession, and the wide court of the hospital in the sunshine was full of herds of people.
The building was sand yellow by day. I was surprised to see guards lined up on the steps of the Morgue, and the people filing down between them into the basement. Robert had been put into another room already. I wondered why they were all going down, and joined the line, forgetting the strange indifference of Spanish peoples to their own death and the powerful attraction that death itself exercises over them. The Morgue was quite a show that afternoon. Everything had been washed down, and the dead lined up as neatly as possible.
The tables had been pulled out from the walls so that one could walk all the way round them and two guards, planted in the centre of the floor, were directing the circulation to the right:. They all passed along, people of every age, and sort, and I saw pairs of very young lovers, holding each other by the hand and going to the Morgue as they might have gone to the zoo. Some wounded comrades from the Inter- national Column were being treated upstairs in the clinic Hospital itself, and I went in to see them.
The Arab boy had been shot in the chest, and he lay flat in his bed, his eyes shut and his face an unhealthy dust colour. His breath came out of his open mouth in a rough, whistling way. Farther along the ward was the Belgian miner, propped up on his pillows, with his arm and one shoulder done up in plaster of Paris. His yellow hair had grown long and untidy. You see, they made quite a do at home when I came out here, and all the boys at Charleroi got together and stumped up the money for the fare because they wanted to send someone to represent us miners in the revolution, and of course we're too poor all to come.
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