It was terribly unfortunate, everyone agreed, when General DuFarb took ill in the final months of the war. Things had been going so splendidly, dispatches from the countryside simply pulsating with grand news. How sad, then, that the general, a man known for his love of good conversation and pretty women, couldn’t partake of the festive atmosphere of the capital.
The loss was felt especially keenly at the tables of the better elements of the populace, where the general was famous as a raconteur. It was considered one of the best pleasures of society to witness him in his element after an elegant dinner, savoring a good brandy and a thin cigar, his head thrown slightly back as he surveyed his audience. He was a handsome man, trim and muscular even in his middle age, and with strong, smooth features that radiated confidence and leadership. “Well, now that you mention it,” he would begin in response to a gentle prompt, “it does bring to mind one particularly delicate situation.” Then he would be off on an electrifying tale of peril, valor, and bloodshed, his audience open-mouthed and completely absorbed until, with a small laugh, he would take a sip of his drink and shrug. “We all got a bit lucky that day, I imagine,” he would say, though nobody present believed that luck had anything to do with it.
So powerful were the general’s stories that after such a night it wasn’t uncommon for the attendees to have troubling but thrilling dreams of themselves, seated at the helm of some titanic, clanking engine of war, harrowing shadowy hordes of enemies under a blackening sky. They would awake drenched with sweat but exhilarated, their eyes still squinting through imagined crosshairs, fingers twitching on chimerical triggers.
The people of the town, secure in their belief in the general’s invincibility, waited patiently for his triumphant reappearance among them. But days passed and then weeks, and still his condition seemed not to improve. The nature of the illness was a tightly guarded secret; the only barometer of his health was that he remained shut up in his villa with his staff, completely isolated from the world at large. “The situation must be awfully grave,” the townspeople all agreed, looking at each other over their plates of beef and duck, “that a man like the general would miss out on such fine times.” The times were fine indeed, the news from the front growing better by the day. Their enemies were decimated and fractured. Complete victory, it was increasingly clear, was all but guaranteed.
It became a matter of civic pride to make some effort to nurse the general back to health, in spite of the fact that nobody was allowed to see him and the nature of his condition was unknown. An informal competition sprang up, with all of the general’s admirers vying to outdo each other with gifts. It was routine to see some elegant couple or other walking tentatively up to the door of the villa (still, it was widely acknowledged, the handsomest in town, with its immaculate white walls and gay blue accents) carrying, with a mixture of shyness and pride, a basket of gifts.
“The general is still unable to receive visitors,” Colonel Plessy would say, upon opening the door. The colonel, the general’s closest aide, was a stout, genial man with wide, waxed mustaches and a florid face that somehow mixed happiness at the military victories with a sadness at his master’s state. “But, ah, cognac and chocolates. He will be so pleased.” The basket would be whisked away and the door quickly shut. The incident would be casually mentioned at the next cocktail party or dinner gathering, with hints dropped that the great man had granted them a brief audience, though, of course, they were sworn to military secrecy about the whole thing.
In the final days of the war, happy rumors began to fly through the town—the general was recovering. He was planning a party, the most important gathering, perhaps, in the history of the city. Finally, they would all be able to share their gratitude with the great man himself. Citizens retrieved their best finery from storage. Dresses and jewelry were agonized over. The town’s tailors were put to work sewing severe, military-cut suits for the men, while the women vied to see whose dress would make her the most fanciful and alluring flower. Invitations were eagerly awaited—greeted with excited shouts when they appeared, mourned bitterly and secretly when they did not.
The night of the event came at last, and the anointed arrived at the general’s villa. They were ushered by an honor guard of handsome young soldiers into the grand hall, where tables were filled with platters of rich food and tall decanters of red wine. People milled around with barely suppressed excitement. That they should be blessed with the chance to see the great man in person—how fortunate they all were! They exchanged glowing looks and spoke in voices that vibrated with the knowledge of their special place in the world.
The double doors at the far end of the hall swung open, the military cortege snapped to attention, and General DuFarb strode in, followed closely by Colonel Plessy. “It is as if he had never been ill,” people whispered among themselves, and, indeed, he looked vigorous and healthy, his gray hair still thick, his face clear and unblemished. He surveyed the room with his sharp eyes, and each of those gathered felt touched personally by his gaze. The crowd surged to him, people jostling each other to get a little bit closer. The boldest of them offered their congratulations on the conduct of the war, compliments on the brilliance of its pursuit, expressions of gratitude for the great man’s service.
The general smiled and nodded to each person but didn’t speak. The aide watched the whole thing, beaming with happiness. As the initial excitement passed, a silence fell over the crowd, and everyone stood poised, their eyes on the general. The room was completely quiet for a minute and then two. Finally, the general exchanged a glance with his aide and then opened his mouth to address the gathering.
What came from his mouth was not his usual smooth baritone, however, but a scream. And not the scream of a grown man, but that of a child, a child in tremendous pain. It began long and high, and then faded into small, inconsolable sobs and gasps. The general, whose face remained composed, turned to the aide.
“As you can see,” the aide said, “the general is still somewhat beset with his illness, and has some difficulty speaking. If I may be allowed to clarify his remarks, he said that he is most pleased to see all of his wonderful friends again. And he is glad to observe,” and here the aide gave a little smile, “that our waistlines, at least, have survived the trials of war largely unscathed.” There was a silence, and then people gave a small laugh at the witticism. There was a genial elbowing of some of the stouter members of the gathering.
The general cleared his throat, and the attendees turned expectant gazes toward him. He gave a little cough. The aide held a silver tray under his chin, and the general spit out a large quantity of metal, shrapnel and spent bullets, some of which seemed, to the closer spectators, to be covered in blood. “How wonderful it is,” the aide said, “to be in such amiable company on this, the eve of our crowning success.”
A small ripple of pleasure passed through the audience. The general gave a spasmodic, gurgling moan, the sound of a man drowning in his own fluids. “Please, my friends,” the aide said, “tonight is not my night, but yours. We have endured this terrible war together, and together let us taste the fruits of our righteousness.”
The hall erupted into spontaneous applause. Men slapped each other on the back and cheered. A pretty young woman, the daughter of the third-richest man in town, stepped up to the general and took his hand. “Thank you so much,” she said. “For all of us, thank you.” The general smiled. His throat and chest worked convulsively for a bit, and he vomited into the girl’s palm a wet and stinking pile of entrails.
“No, thank you,” the aide said. “Thank you for your steadfastness, your courage, and, most of all, your beauty.” The general smiled, his lips and teeth moist and red. The woman clutched the viscera to her chest, her eyes shining. Bits of flesh dripped from her fingers, staining her dress and running down between her breasts, as all looked on with a combination of admiration and envy.