“Bras cassé” originally appeared in La Revue socialiste in November, 1895. The author was Paule Mink (sometimes “Minck,” 1839–1901), born Adèle Paulina Mekarska, a French radical and feminist whose early political work seems to have been in the mutualist women’s organizations that thrived at various times, despite Proudhon’s severe and very public flounderings on questions of gender, sexuality and the family. I have a collection of Mink’s political writings requested through interlibrary loan, and a couple of things, including a discussion of abortion rights from the 1890s, slated for translation for a future project. In the meantime, here’s another lovely, if not cheerful, tale of proletarian woe. As someone who did a lot of work on formula fiction in a past academic life, the mix of romantic and coming-of-age conventions in this strike me as well-selected to tell the story of a strong man in a weak position.
A TRUE STORY.
Fruit of the sewer or flower of love, stream-scum or hedge-bud, result of a brutal crossroads passion or of naive tenderness: what was his origin? He did not know…
Picked up in the street, one morning, between a pile of rubbish and some rubble from demolition, abandoned like a small cat someone wants to be rid of, he was carried to the alms-house, and then placed among some farmers who raised him, giving him bread, in exchange, when he got to be a little bigger, for a labor that was very hard for a child, but who never had for him either affection or caresses.
He had a roof, under which he could lie down, and a portion of the soup, but not of the familial affection. Mama!… that word, cuddly and sweet, the first stammering of every little one, he had never murmured except in the fever dreams of his abandoned childhood…
He had never known the soft maternal embrace, nor the supreme happiness of tears shed and quickly dried by the kisses of the one who makes a soul bloom by giving all the love in her heart.
Alone, he had always been alone.
Yet he wanted so much to love! He felt a great void in him, a vague melancholy that nothing could console.
When he was bigger and took a state job, the gloom of his isolation increased still more. With youth raising feelings in him which gripped his heart and smothered it. His comrades in the workshop all had brothers, sisters, a mother — a mother! — and he was alone in the midst of all these loves.
Often on returning to his small room, cold and naked, he would throw himself on his bed, sobbing sorrowfully, biting his pillow in despair when he heard to children of the house laugh and embrace.
How often tears mounted to his eyes in seeing a mother on the arm of her son, a little sister on her big brother’s knee! And he always went alone through life, without his heart being able to expand with any tenderness.
When he was twenty years old, his horizon brightened: love shone down on him its prism of happiness, his life was transfigured.
A little working-woman, fresh, pure and beautiful, loved the orphan and gave him all her heart.
To love, and to be loved! Him, the found child, the abandoned!… To have someone of his own, whose whole life was his, who had smiles and kisses for him, when thus far all these joys had been unknown to him!…
That was for him an infinite euphoria, a superhuman happiness!
The young man attached himself with an intense to this woman, whom he made his fiancée, giving her his whole soul, devoting to her his entire existence.
And what superb plans they made!… Yes, she would be his wife, the dear girl whom he loved, the companion of his life, the other half of himself! He delivered up all his heart to her and consecrated to her his whole existence. He, the result of a failure of love, did not want to fail the one who relied on him. He would marry her, and right away. Their little household would be poor, but oh so happy! With courage and strong arms one needn’t fear poverty. Wasn’t that right? Talented locksmith that he was, he could earn well for his wife and children. His children! These words made a tear tremble in his eye, which shone then with happiness: his children!… Oh! How he would love them, his dear little alls! He who had not been loved and who had suffered so much from it! What a sweet, happy life he would make for them and their mother!…
These thoughts spun him, but with joy and endless laughter.
His heart filled with happiness, he fervently redoubled his work, to earn the means to set up his household; and the future appeared to him happy and clear, all lit by the sun.
One obstacle arose that stood between him and this fine plans: he could not be married until he had performed his military service. He had no mother, but he still had a motherland.
He despaired; to go, to leave his beloved, for two or three long years, to live against amidst often hostile strangers, without affection, without tenderness!… He joined his regiment filled with sadness, and dark forebodings: his Marie, would he ever see her again? What kisses, what tears, what oaths were exchanged! She promised to wait for him, to keep him in her heart, to write him often; but two years of separation is so long for those who love!…
He was big, and robust; they put him in the cavalry, he who did not like horses, who even had an instinctive fear of them! So much the worse; he had perform his service regardless; “What a fine thing the army would be, if we occupied ourselves with the tastes and the caprices of the soldiers,” said the captains.
To mount a horse! A painful and difficult exercise, especially for he who had never engaged in it!… Awkward, mixed-up, he did not know how to mount or how to dismount, or how to keep himself on this enormous beast who reared and frightened him at time.
One day an arrogant and brutal junior officer assisted in the equitation exercises that filled the young man with so much fear.
— Ah! you’re afraid of the beast. You blasted idiot, said the officer, you’ll see.
He came up close to the young cavalier, and commanded that someone tie his hands behind his back and make him mount a horse without saddle or cover: To harden him, he said, laughing.
Despite his supplications, his fright, the unfortunate was obliged to jump thus a large ditch more than a meter wide.
— I beg of you, my lieutenant, implored the frozen soldier.
— Do it, you blasted animal!
The poor man resisted, begged.
— But I’ll be hurt! I’ll crack my head! He cried, his face drawn and pale.
— You will jump, I tell you, even if you jump clean out of your skin!
And giving a blow from the whip to the flank of the horse, which took of at a gallop, the officer uttered a well-chosen oath.
The obstacle was clear once, then twice; at the third attempt a terrible crack, followed by a frightful cry was heard: the unfortunate horseman had fallen from the horse and his right arm was snapped clean above the elbow…
They carried to the infirmary the young soldier whose broken arm hung piteously.
The amputation was considered necessary, and the entire arm was cut off.
Le patient courageously endured the operation, but after it he had an intense fever and was soon delirious. Always he called for his fiancée, his Marie, with painful sobs.
For long days, his life was in danger. He recovered, but he was one-armed, crippled for ever…
In the dreary hospital room he paced sadly, thinking of his beloved; since he was in convalescence, this was his only thought: thus maimed, he could no longer work!… his life was now finished; for him there was no more future, no more love, no more marriage, no more children, never, never!… All his dreams of happiness, so sweetly caressed, were destroyed!…
A shiver shook him… To live now, he must beg… To beg!… to live by holding out his hand! He whose sturdy arms and courage to work would have guaranteed a life and dignity for himself and his family, who had never lowered himself before anyone!… No, no, such a life could not be endured… He must then end it, and as quickly as possible.
Oh! the dreams of yesteryear! Their pretty nest, the cradles! All that was gone, was broken, destroyed by the violence and brutality of a minor officer!
His heart gripped by pain, he sent a letter to his fiancée by a comrade, to recount his accident, tell her that he could no longer marry her and address to her a tender and final adieu…
A terribly breaking ran then through all his being; he, the pariah, the orphan who had never been loved, he would have to renounce that love which was his life! Alone, he would always be alone!… Never again would there be smiles for him, never tenderness, never joy… The gloom of his sad youth enveloped him anew… It was too much!
His head on fire, with faltering steps he wandered the barracks, seeking a rifle. He found one, belonging to a sentinel, leaning against a wall, close to the door. He took it quickly, and sat down on a stone, securing it between his trembling legs; with his good hand he lowered the hammer and took the shot. A detonation rang out… He fell, his head shattered…
The brutal officer, whose hardness of heart had caused the death of the unfortunate one, was simply placed under arrest for one month.
Was that enough to pay for the death of a man?
Soon afterward he was promoted: it is necessary to teach the soldiers to respect commands.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]