A BID FOR FREEDOM

Amid the smoke and thunder of the cannonade, during the interminable
day of the battle, Silvine, quivering from head to foot at thought
of Honoré, had not ceased gazing towards Sedan from that hill of
Remilly, where stood old Fouchard’s little farm. And on the morrow her
anxiety had increased, augmented by the impossibility of obtaining any
accurate tidings from the Prussians guarding the roads, who refused to
answer any questions, being, moreover, themselves ignorant of what was
happening. The bright sunshine of the previous day had disappeared,
showers had fallen, and the valley now wore a gloomy aspect in the
livid light.

Towards evening old Fouchard, who, in his intentional silence, was
also feeling worried, though he thought but little of his son, being
indeed more anxious to know how the misfortunes of others would
affect himself, was standing on his threshold waiting for something
to turn up, when he noticed a big fellow in a blouse, who had been
prowling along the road for a moment or so with an embarrassed air. On
recognising him, the old man’s surprise was so intense, that although
three Prussians were passing at the time he called in a loud voice:

‘Hullo, Prosper! Is it you?’

With an energetic wave of the arm the Chasseur d’Afrique abruptly
silenced him. Then, drawing near, he answered in an undertone:
‘Yes, it’s I. I’ve had quite enough of fighting for nothing, so I
skedaddled–and, I say, father Fouchard, you don’t want a farm-hand, do
you?’

At this the old man immediately regained all his prudent reserve. It so
happened that he did want somebody, but it would not serve his purpose
to say so. ‘A hand? Why, no–not just now. But come inside all the
same, and drink a glass of wine. I’m not going to leave you on the road
like that.’

In the living-room was Silvine, just setting the _soupe_ on the fire,
with little Charlot laughing and frolicking, and hanging to her skirts.
She did not at first recognise Prosper, although he had formerly been
in service with her; but, in fact, it was only on bringing a couple
of glasses and a bottle of wine that she took a good look at him; and
then she at once raised a cry, and, with thoughts only for Honoré,
exclaimed: ‘Ah! you’ve come back from it, haven’t you? Is Honoré all
right?’

Prosper was on the point of answering when he hesitated. For two days
past he had been living in a dream, amid a violent succession of
ill-defined events which had left no precise impression on his memory.
He certainly thought that he had seen Honoré stretched dead upon a
cannon, but he would not have sworn it; and why should he grieve folks
when he was not certain? ‘Honoré,’ he muttered, ‘I don’t know, I can’t
say.’

She looked at him fixedly and insisted: ‘Then you haven’t seen him?’

Shaking his head, and slowly waving his hands, he answered: ‘You are
mistaken if you think one can be certain of anything. So many things
happened, so many things! Why, of all that cursed battle I couldn’t
tell you so long, even to save my life! No, not even tell the places
I passed through. ‘Pon my word it makes one an idiot.’ He drank a
glass of wine and remained sitting there, quite downcast, with dreamy
eyes peering, as it were, into the depths of his memory. ‘All I can
remember,’ he resumed, ‘is that night was already falling when I
recovered consciousness. The sun was still high up in the sky when I
fell, whilst we were charging. I must have been lying there for hours
with my right leg caught under poor Zephyr, who had been hit full in
the chest. There was nothing at all pleasant, I can assure you, in
my position, with heaps of dead comrades round me, and not so much
as a live cat to be seen, and with the prospect, too, of kicking the
bucket myself if nobody came to pick me up. I tried ever so gently to
release my thigh, but it was no go, Zephyr was as heavy as five hundred
thousand devils. He was still warm. I fondled him, called him, spoke
endearing words to him, and then something happened, do you know, that
I shall never forget. He opened his eyes and tried to raise his poor
head, which was lying on the ground beside mine. And we had a chat
together. ‘My poor old fellow,’ I said to him, ‘I don’t say it to
reproach you, but is it because you want me to kick the bucket with you
that you hold me down so tight?’ Of course he didn’t answer yes, but,
all the same, I read in his eyes the grief he felt at leaving me. And
I don’t know how it happened, whether he did it on purpose, or whether
it was only a convulsion, but he gave a sudden start which threw him
on one side. And I was then able to get up, ah! in a fearful state,
with my leg as heavy as lead. But no matter, I took Zephyr’s head in
my arms and went on talking to him, telling him all my heart could
think of–that he was a good horse, and that I was very fond of him and
should always remember him. He listened to me and seemed so pleased!
Then he gave another start and died; his big eyes, which hadn’t ceased
looking at me, became quite blank all at once. It’s funny, too, and
you won’t believe me, but the plain truth is he had big tears in his
eyes–my poor Zephyr, he wept as though he were one of us.’

Weeping himself, almost choking with grief, Prosper had to pause.
He drank another glass of wine and then resumed his narrative in
imperfect, disjointed phrases. Night had drawn in, only a red ray of
light had remained, on a level with the battlefield, throwing the giant
shadows of the dead horses far over the ground. He, no doubt, had for
a long time remained with Zephyr, unable to depart on account of the
heaviness of his leg. Then he had been set on his feet by a sudden
sensation of terror, a pressing desire to remain alone no longer, but
to find himself again among some comrades in order that he might feel
less afraid. In this wise the forgotten wounded had dragged themselves
along from the ditches, the bushes, all the lonely nooks on every side,
searching for companionship, gathering together in groups, little
parties of four or five, for it seemed to them less hard to suffer and
die in company. And in this wise too, Prosper, whilst hobbling through
the wood of La Garenne, fell in with two soldiers of the 43rd, who had
not received so much as a scratch, but had hidden themselves there
like hares, waiting for the night. On learning that he knew the road
they explained their idea to him, which was to escape into Belgium,
making their way to the frontier, through the woods, before daylight.
He at first refused to guide them, for he would rather have betaken
himself direct to Remilly, certain as he was that he would find an
asylum there. But how could he procure a blouse and trousers? Besides
how could he hope to get past the numerous Prussian pickets between the
wood of La Garenne and Remilly? He would have had to cross the entire
valley. So he finally consented to guide his two comrades. His leg
having become inflamed they halted at a farm to let him rest, and were
lucky enough to obtain some bread there. Nine o’clock was striking from
a distant steeple when they set out again. The only serious danger in
which they found themselves was at La Chapelle, where they fell into
the midst of a hostile picket-guard, which rushed to arms and fired
into the darkness whilst they, on their side, threw themselves on their
stomachs, crawled and galloped along on all fours beneath the whizzing
bullets. After that experience they did not again venture out of the
woods, but groped along, with fumbling hands and ears on the alert,
until at the turn of a path they crawled up stealthily and sprang upon
the shoulders of a forlorn sentinel whose throat they ripped open with
a knife. And then the roads proved free and they continued on their
way, laughing and whistling. At about three in the morning they reached
a little Belgian village, where a good-natured farmer on being aroused
at once opened his barn, in which they fell sound asleep upon trusses
of hay.

The sun was already high when Prosper awoke. On opening his eyes he
found his comrades still snoring and perceived the farmer harnessing a
horse to a large tilted cart, laden with bread, rice, coffee, sugar,
all sorts of provisions in fact, hidden underneath sacks of charcoal.
And he learnt that the worthy fellow had two married daughters at
Raucourt in France, to whom he was about to take these provisions,
knowing them to be absolutely destitute since the Bavarians had passed
through the town. He had obtained the safe-conduct necessary for his
purpose early that morning.

Prosper was at once seized with an uncontrollable desire to share
the cart seat with the farmer, and return to that secluded spot over
yonder, nostalgia for which was already filling his heart with anguish.
It was all so simple–he would alight at Remilly through which the
farmer must needs pass. And in three minutes it was settled, the
coveted trousers and blouse were lent to him, the farmer gave out
everywhere that he was his man, and at about six in the evening he
alighted in front of the village church, having only been stopped some
two or three times on the road by the Prussian pickets.

‘Yes, I’d had enough of it,’ Prosper repeated after a pause. ‘If they
had only put us to some use, like over yonder, in Algeria; but to be
always cantering up and down doing nothing, to feel that one serves no
earthly purpose–all that ends by becoming unbearable. Besides, now
that my poor Zephyr’s dead I should be all alone. The only thing I can
do is to go back to the fields. That’s better than being a prisoner of
the Prussians, eh? You have some horses, father Fouchard, you shall see
if I’m fond of them and can take care of them?’

The old man’s eyes glistened. He chinked glasses again, and without any
show of eagerness, completed the business: ‘Well, as it will be doing
you a service, I’ll agree to it–I’ll take you. But as to wages, you
mustn’t talk of them, mind, till the war’s over, for I really don’t
need any one, and the times are so hard.’

Meanwhile Silvine, seated with Charlot on her lap, had not taken her
eyes off Prosper; and, now, on seeing him rise with the intention of
going to the stables to make the acquaintance of the horses there, she
once more asked him: ‘And so you haven’t seen Honoré?’

This question, so abruptly repeated, made Prosper start, as though it
had suddenly thrown a flood of light upon a dim corner of his memory.
He once more hesitated, but finally decided to speak out: ‘Well, I
didn’t want to grieve you just now,’ said he, ‘but I fancy Honoré must
have remained yonder—–‘

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, I think the Prussians did for him–I saw him lying back on a
cannon, with his head raised and a hole just below his heart.’

Silence fell. Silvine had become frightfully pale, and old Fouchard,
quite thunderstruck, set his glass, which he had just filled with the
wine remaining in the bottle, upon the table again. ‘You are sure of
that?’ the young woman asked in a choking voice.

‘Well, as sure as one can be of anything one sees. It was on a little
hillock just beside three trees, and it seems to me I could go there
with my eyes shut.’

To her it seemed as though everything had crumbled away. Her lover,
who had forgiven her, who had bound himself to her by a promise, whom
she was to have married as soon as he got his discharge at the end of
the war! And now they had killed him, and he was lying yonder with a
hole below his heart! Never before had she felt such love for him. So
intense was her desire to gaze upon him again, and, despite everything,
secure him for herself even beneath the sod, that she was thoroughly
aroused from her customary passivity. Roughly setting Charlot on the
floor, she exclaimed: ‘Well, I myself will only believe it when I’ve
seen it. Since you know where it is, you shall take me there. And if
it’s true, if we find him, we’ll bring him back here.’

Tears were stifling her, and she sank upon the table, quivering with
prolonged sobs, whilst the child, stupefied at being so roughly treated
by his mother, likewise burst into tears. Then taking the little
one in her arms again and pressing him to her heart she stammered
distractedly: ‘My poor child! my poor child!’

Old Fouchard was still in a state of consternation. Despite
appearances, he was, in his own fashion, attached to his son. Old
memories must have come back to him from long, long ago, from the days
when his wife was living, when Honoré still went to school, for two big
tears welled from his red eyes and coursed down the tanned parchment of
his cheeks. He had not wept for ten years or more. Then oaths escaped
his lips, and he ended by getting quite angry respecting that son of
his whom he would never see again: ‘Curse it! It upsets a man–to have
but one lad, and for them to kill him.’

When some measure of calmness had returned, however, Fouchard was
extremely annoyed at finding that Silvine still talked of going over
yonder in search of Honoré’s body. Without further lamentation,
preserving indeed a despairing, invincible silence, she persisted in
her resolve; and he no longer knew her, usually so docile, performing
any task assigned to her without complaint, whereas now those large,
submissive eyes of hers, which sufficed for the beauty of her face, had
acquired an expression of fierce decision, whilst her brow remained
pale, as with the pallor of death, beneath her mass of thick dark
hair. She had already torn a red wrapper from her shoulders and went
to dress herself in black from head to foot, like a widow. In vain did
Fouchard dwell upon the difficulty of the search, the dangers which she
would be exposed to, the faint hope there was of finding the body. No
matter, she even ceased answering him at last, and he realised that
she would go off of her own accord and do something rash if he did not
take steps in the matter, a prospect which disquieted him the more as
trouble might ensue with the German authorities. Accordingly he made up
his mind to go and see the mayor of Remilly, who was a distant cousin
of his, and between them they concocted a plausible story: Silvine was
said to be Honoré’s widow, and Prosper passed as being her brother, so
that the Bavarian colonel, quartered at the Cross-of-Malta inn below
the village, willingly drew up a safe-conduct, authorising the brother
and sister to bring back the husband’s body provided they could find
it. By this time night had drawn in, and the only thing to which the
young woman would consent was to defer the journey until sunrise.

On the morrow Fouchard would not allow a horse to be put to one of
his large carts, for fear lest he should never see either beast or
vehicle again. Who could tell, indeed, whether the Prussians would
not confiscate them both? At last, however, he consented, with an ill
grace, to lend a little grey donkey and its cart, which, though small,
was yet large enough to carry a corpse. At great length he then gave
instructions to Prosper, who, although he had slept well, seemed very
thoughtful and anxious. Now that, rested and freed from excitement,
he tried to remember the spot where he had seen Honoré lying, he
doubted whether he would be able to find it, and the prospect of this
expedition disturbed him. At the last moment Silvine went to fetch the
blanket from her own bed, folded it up, and laid it in the cart; and
she was already starting, when she ran back to kiss little Charlot:
‘I leave him in your care, father Fouchard; mind that he doesn’t get
playing with the lucifers.’

‘Yes, yes, you needn’t be anxious.’

The preparations had lasted a long time, and it was nearly seven
o’clock when Silvine and Prosper descended the steep slopes of Remilly
behind the narrow cart which the little grey donkey drew along with its
head hanging low. It had rained heavily during the night, the roads
were like rivers of mud, and large livid patches of cloud were scudding
across the gloomy sky.

Desirous of taking the shortest route, Prosper had adopted the idea of
passing through Sedan. Before reaching Pont-Maugis, however, the cart
was stopped and detained during more than an hour by a Prussian picket,
and only when the _laissez-passer_ had circulated among four or five
officers was the donkey able to resume its journey, it being stipulated
that the party should make the round by way of Bazeilles, which was
reached by a cross-road on the left. No reason was assigned for this
stipulation, but doubtless the officers wished to avoid increasing the
crush which prevailed in the town. Whilst Silvine was crossing the
Meuse, over the railway bridge, that fatal bridge which the French had
neglected to blow up, and for which, albeit, the Bavarians had paid so
terrible a price, she espied the corpse of an artilleryman coming down
stream with the current, in a sauntering sort of way. Caught by a tuft
of herbage, it remained for a moment motionless, then suddenly swung
round and started off again.

Bazeilles, which the donkey crossed at a walk from end to end, was a
picture of destruction, of all the abominable havoc that devastating
war can wreak when with the fury of a blizzard it sweeps through a
land. The dead had already been picked up, not a single corpse remained
on the paved highway of the village, and the rain was washing away the
blood. Some puddles, however, were still quite red, and beside them
lay suspicious remnants, things which looked like shreds of flesh,
with what seemed to be hair adhering to them. But the appalment which
froze every heart came from the sight of the ruins–the ruins of that
village which three days previously had worn such a smiling aspect
with its pleasant houses girt with gardens, and which now had crumbled
to the ground, annihilated, displaying but scraps of walls blackened
by the flames. The church, a huge funeral pile of smoking beams, was
still burning in the centre of the Place, whence arose a stout column
of black smoke which spread out on high like a great tuft of mourning
plumes above a hearse. Entire streets had disappeared, nothing remained
on either hand–nothing but piles of calcined stones fringing the
gutters amid a mass of soot and cinders, a thick, inky mud, which
spread over everything. At the various crossways the corner houses
had been razed to the ground, carried away as it were by the fiery
blast which had blown past these spots. Other houses had suffered less
grievously, one had by chance remained standing, isolated; whilst those
on its right and left seemed to have been hacked by shrapnel, their
upreared carcases resembling gaunt skeletons. And everything exhaled an
unbearable stench, the nauseating smell of fire, especially the acrid
odour of the petroleum with which the floorings had been deluged. Then,
too, there was the mute desolation of the household goods which the
villagers had tried to save, the poor articles of furniture that had
been flung from the windows and shattered by their fall; the crippled
tables with broken legs, the wardrobes with their sides ripped open
and their chests rent asunder, the linen, too, lying here and there,
torn and soiled, with all the woeful residue of the pillage melting
away in the rain. And, on glancing behind one gaping house-front and
between some fallen flooring, one could espy a clock standing upon a
mantelpiece that still adhered to the wall of an upper storey.

‘Ah! the brutes!’ growled Prosper, whose soldier’s blood rose hotly to
his brain at sight of such abomination.

He clenched his fist, and Silvine, herself very pale, had to quiet him
with a glance each time that they came upon a sentry by the roadside.
The Bavarians had indeed placed sentinels near the houses which were
still burning, and these men, with fixed bayonets and loaded guns,
seemed to be protecting the fires in order that the flames might
complete their work. With a threatening gesture, a guttural cry when
he had to deal with any obstinate person, the sentry drove back both
the mere sightseers and the interested parties who were prowling
around. Clusters of villagers had collected at a distance and stood
there in silence, looking on and quivering with restrained rage. One
woman, quite young, with dishevelled hair and in a mud-stained dress,
obstinately remained in front of the heaped-up, smoking remnants of a
little house, the live cinders of which she wished to search although
the sentinel sternly forbade her approach. It was said that this
woman’s little child had been burnt to death in the house. And, all at
once, as the Bavarian brutally pushed her aside, she turned round and
spat all her furious despair in his face, assailing him with insults
which reeked of blood and filth, foul, obscene words which eased her
feelings. He probably did not understand her, but falling back gazed at
her with an uneasy air until three of his comrades ran up and freed him
from the woman, whom they dragged away, howling. A man and two little
girls, who, all three, had fallen on the ground from sheer fatigue and
wretchedness, were sobbing in front of the ruins of another house, not
knowing where to go, having indeed seen all they possessed fly away
in smoke and cinders. A patrol, however, came along and dispersed the
villagers, and then the road again became deserted save for the stern,
gloomy sentinels, who glanced vigilantly to right and left intent upon
enforcing their iniquitous orders.

‘The brutes! the brutes!’ repeated Prosper in a low growl. ‘It would be
a treat to strangle a few of them.’

Silvine again silenced him. She was shuddering. A dog, shut up in a
cart-house spared by the fire, forgotten there for a couple of days
past, was howling, raising a continuous plaint, so doleful that a
kind of terror sped athwart the low hanging sky whence some fine
grey rain had just begun to fall. And at that moment, whilst passing
the park of Montivilliers, they came upon a ghastly spectacle; three
large tumbrels laden with corpses were standing there, one behind the
other–scavengers’ tumbrels, into which, as they pass along the streets
of a morning, it is customary to shovel all the refuse of the previous
day; and in a like manner they had now been filled with corpses;
stopping each time that a body was flung into them, and starting
off again with a great rumbling of wheels to halt once more farther
on–in this wise scouring the whole of Bazeilles, until they fairly
overflowed with heaped-up corpses. And now, motionless, by the wayside,
they were waiting to be taken to the public ‘shoot,’ the neighbouring
charnel-place. Feet protruded from them, upreared in the air; and a
head, half-severed from the trunk, hung over the side of one of the
vehicles. And when the three tumbrels again set out, jolting along
through the puddles, a long, livid, pendent hand began rubbing against
one of the wheels, which in its revolutions gradually wore it away,
stripped it first of its skin, and then consumed it to the bone.

The rain ceased falling when they reached the village of Balan, where
Prosper prevailed on Silvine to eat some bread, which he had taken the
precaution to bring with him. It was already eleven o’clock. As they
were drawing near to Sedan they were stopped by another Prussian post,
and, this time, there was a terrible to-do, for the officer in command
flew into a passion and even refused to return the _laissez-passer_,
which, speaking in perfect French, he declared to be a forgery. By
his orders some soldiers pushed the donkey and the little cart under
a shed. What was to be done? How were they to continue their journey?
Silvine was in despair, when an idea came to her on recollecting cousin
Dubreuil, that well-to-do relative of old Fouchard’s, with whom she was
acquainted, and whose residence, the Hermitage, was only a few hundred
yards away, beyond the lanes overlooking the suburb. Perhaps the German
officer might listen to a man of means like him. So, leaving the
donkey, she took Prosper with her, for the officer contented himself
with impounding the vehicle and the moke, and allowed the young couple
to go free. They ran on and found the gate of the Hermitage wide open,
and as they entered the avenue of ancient elms they were greatly
astonished by a spectacle which they descried in the distance. ‘The
deuce!’ said Prosper, ‘here are some fellows having a high time of it!’

A joyous party appeared to be assembled on the fine gravel of the
terrace, below the house-steps. Some arm-chairs and a sofa, upholstered
in sky-blue satin, were ranged around a table with a marble top, thus
forming a strange, open-air drawing-room, which the rain must have
been drenching since the day before. A couple of Zouaves, wallowing
at either end of the sofa, appeared to be splitting with laughter;
whilst a little Linesman, leaning forward in an arm-chair, looked as
though he were holding his sides. All three had their elbows resting
in a nonchalant way on the arms of their seats; whilst a Chasseur was
holding out his hand as though to take a glass from the table. They had
apparently emptied the cellar, and were having a spree.

‘How is it they are still here?’ muttered Prosper, becoming more and
more stupefied as he drew nearer. ‘The devils! are they doing this to
show their contempt for the Prussians?’

All at once, however, Silvine, whose eyes were dilating, shrieked and
made a gesture of horror. The soldiers did not stir–they were dead!
The two Zouaves, stiffened and with twisted hands, had no faces left
them; their noses had been torn off, their eyes driven out of their
sockets. The laugh of the Linesman who was holding his sides, was
due to a bullet which had split his lips, breaking his teeth. And
atrocious, indeed, was the sight which these poor wretches presented,
seated there, as though chatting together, in the rigid postures of
lay figures, with their eyes glassy, and their mouths wide open, each
and all of them icy cold and for ever motionless. Had they, whilst yet
alive, dragged themselves to that spot that they might die together?
Was it the Prussians, who, by way of a grim joke, had picked them up
and seated them there in a convivial circle, as though in derision of
French gaiety?

‘A queer amusement all the same,’ resumed Prosper, turning pale. And
looking at the other corpses strewn across the avenue, beneath the
trees and over the lawns, at the thirty brave fellows or so among whom
lay Lieutenant Rochas, riddled with bullets and swathed in the colours
of his regiment, the Chasseur added with a serious, almost reverential
air: ‘There’s been some hard fighting here. I hardly think we shall
meet the gentleman you want to find.’

Silvine was already entering the house, through whose shattered windows
and gaping doorways the damp atmosphere freely penetrated. Evidently
enough, there was nobody there; the occupants must have gone away prior
to the battle. However, she obstinately made her way to the kitchen,
and on entering it again raised a cry of fright. Two bodies had rolled
under the sink–a Zouave, a well-built man with a black beard, and a
brawny Prussian with red hair. They were locked together in a savage
embrace; the Frenchman’s teeth had bitten into the German’s cheek, and
their stiffened arms had in no degree relaxed their grasp, but were
still bending and cracking each other’s broken spine, uniting them both
in such an intricate knot of everlasting fury, that they must needs be
buried together.

Since there was nothing they could do in that empty house, which death
alone now tenanted, Prosper made all haste to lead Silvine away. On
returning, in despair, to the outpost where the donkey and the cart
had been detained, they were lucky enough to find there a general who
was visiting the battlefield. He wished to see the _laissez-passer_
which the stern officer commanding the post had confiscated, and having
read it he returned it to Silvine with a gesture of commiseration, as
though to say that this poor woman should be allowed to go on her way
in search of her husband’s body. Thereupon, without tarrying, she and
her companion, followed by the little cart, went off towards the Fond
de Givonne, permission to pass through Sedan having been again refused
them.

They turned to the left in view of reaching the plateau of Illy by
the road passing through the wood of La Garenne. But here again they
were delayed, and a score of times did they despair of getting through
the wood, so many were the obstacles they met with. At every step the
trees, cut down by the shells, barred the road like fallen giants.
This, indeed, was the bombarded forest, through which as through some
square of the Old Guard of steadfast, veteran firmness, the cannonade
had swept, destroying venerable lives. On all sides were prostrate
trunks, stripped, pitted, rent like human breasts. This scene of
destruction, with its multitude of massacred branches shedding tears
of sap, was fraught with the same heartrending horror as a field of
human battle. And there were also corpses; the corpses of soldiers who
had fallen beside the trees as by the side of comrades. A lieutenant
was lying there, with his mouth quite bloody and with both hands still
clawing the soil and tearing up tufts of grass. Farther on a captain
had passed away, stretched upon his stomach, and with his head upraised
to bellow forth his pain. Others seemed to be sleeping among the
bushes, whilst a Zouave, whose blue sash had caught fire, had had his
beard and hair entirely burnt. And all along the narrow woodland road,
it repeatedly became necessary to push the corpses on one side so that
the donkey might continue on its way.

All at once, however, on reaching a little valley, the horror came to
an end. The battle had, doubtless, taken another direction, leaving
this delightful nook unscathed. Not a twig of the trees had been
broken, not a drop of blood had stained the moss. A beck flowed past
through duckweed, and lofty beech trees shaded the path which skirted
it. With the freshness of the running water, the quivering silence
of the greenery, the spot was fraught with a penetrating charm, an
adorable peacefulness.

Prosper stopped the donkey in order that it might drink from the
stream. ‘Ah! how pleasant it is here!’ he said, thus spontaneously
giving expression to his relief.

Silvine glanced around her with astonished eyes, anxious at finding
that she also felt refreshed and almost happy. Why should this secluded
nook wear such an aspect of peaceful felicity when all was mourning
and suffering around it? She made a despairing, eager gesture. ‘Quick!
quick! let us get on. Where is it? Where did you see Honoré?’

Fifty yards farther on, as they at last arrived at the plateau of Illy,
the level plain suddenly spread itself out before them. This time
they had come to the real battlefield, the bare expanse of country
stretching away to the horizon under the great wan sky, whence frequent
showers were streaming. No heaps of dead were to be seen. All the
Germans must have been already buried, for not one of them remained
among the scattered corpses of the French strewn along the roads,
over the stubbles, and in the hollows, according to the phases of the
struggle. The first corpse they came upon was that of a sergeant, a
superb, sturdy young fellow whose face was peaceful, with parted lips
which seemed to be smiling. A hundred paces farther on, however, they
saw another corpse lying across the road and this was frightfully
mutilated, with the head half carried away and the shoulders splashed
with brain-matter. Then, after passing the solitary corpses, they came
upon little clusters of dead here and there. They saw seven kneeling
in a line, with their guns raised to their shoulders, who had been
shot dead whilst in the act of firing; whilst near them had fallen
a non-commissioned officer in the posture of one giving the word of
command. The road then followed a narrow ravine, and horror again took
possession of them, for an entire company seemed to have fallen here,
annihilated by shrapnel. The trench-like hollow was filled with bodies,
men who had slipped, toppled over, and become entangled together, some
with severed limbs, and others with twisted hands, which had clawed the
yellow bank in their futile efforts to save themselves from falling. A
black band of crows flew away as Silvine and Prosper approached; and
swarms of flies were already buzzing over the bodies, flocking to the
spot in thousands, all eager to drink the fresh blood flowing from the
wounds.

‘Where is it, where is it?’ repeated Silvine.

They were now skirting a ploughed field covered with knapsacks, of
which some regiment, hard pressed by the enemy, must have rid itself
in a fit of panic. The _débris_ strewing the soil indicated various
episodes of the struggle. Scattered _képis_ looking like large
poppies with shreds of uniforms, epaulettes and belts, all covering a
field of beets, denoted a fierce hand-to-hand encounter, one of the
few close tussles engaged in during that formidable artillery duel
which had lasted for twelve long hours. But it was more particularly
against broken or abandoned weapons that one stumbled at almost every
step–sabres, bayonets, chassepots, in such great numbers that they
seemed as it were the fruit of the earth, a crop that had sprouted
from the soil on some day of abomination. Pans and cans also littered
the roadways, together with all sorts of things that had fallen from
the rent knapsacks–rice, brushes, and cartridges. And field followed
field amid the same immense devastation, fences torn down, trees
scorched as though they had been set on fire, the very soil furrowed
by the shells, or so trodden underfoot, so hardened, so ravaged by the
gallop of masses of men, that it seemed as though it must for evermore
remain unproductive. And while the rain blurred everything with its wan
moisture, a persistent smell arose, the smell peculiar to battlefields,
which stink of fermenting straw and burning cloth, a commingling of
filth and gunpowder.

Weary of these fields of death, through leagues and leagues of which
it seemed to her she had been marching, Silvine gazed around her with
growing anguish; ‘Where is it? where is it, then?’

But no answer came from Prosper, who was growing uneasy. For his own
part, he was upset less by the sight of his dead comrades than by that
of the horses, the poor horses prone on their sides, such numbers of
which they encountered. Some were really pitiable to see, lying in
frightful postures with heads torn off and flanks ripped open, giving
egress to their entrails. Several, stretched upon their backs and
displaying their huge bellies, upreared their four stiffened legs like
posts. The boundless plain was quite bumpy with these stricken steeds.
Some of them were not yet dead though they had been in agony for two
days past; and at the faintest sound, they raised their pain-racked
heads, wagging them to right and left, and then letting them fall
again; whilst others, remaining motionless, gave vent at times to a
loud call, that plaint of the dying horse, so peculiar, so frightfully
dolorous, that the very atmosphere quivered at the sound. And Prosper,
with his heart lacerated, bethought himself of Zephyr, fancying that he
would perhaps see him again.

All at once he felt the ground shaking as under the gallop of a furious
charge. He looked round, and barely had time to call to his companion:
‘The horses! the horses! Run behind that wall!’

A hundred chargers or so, all riderless, and some still laden with
heavy kits, were rushing from the summit of a neighbouring slope,
rolling towards them at a hellish pace. These were the mounts which
had lost their riders in the fight Remaining on the field, they had
instinctively collected together, and having neither hay nor straw,
they had for a couple of days past been cropping the scanty grass,
pulling the hedges to pieces, and gnawing the bark of the trees. And
now, whenever hunger pricked them like a spur, they started off all
together at a mad gallop, and charged across the blank, silent country,
crushing the dead, and finishing off the wounded.

The herd was drawing near, and Silvine only had time to pull the donkey
and the little cart behind the low wall: ‘Good heavens! they will break
everything!’

The horses, however, had leapt the barrier; there was merely a roll of
thunder as it were, and then they were galloping off, plunging into a
hollow road which stretched away to the verge of a wood, behind which
they disappeared.

Having led the donkey back into the track, Silvine insisted upon
Prosper answering her: ‘Come, where is it?’

Turning and surveying the horizon on every side, he answered: ‘There
were three trees–I must find them–a fellow doesn’t see very clearly,
you know, when he’s fighting, and it isn’t easy afterwards to find out
the road one took.’

Then, on perceiving some people on his left, two men and a woman, it
occurred to him to question them. But the woman fled at his approach,
and the men warned him away with threatening gestures. Others whom
he saw, clad in sordid garments, inexpressibly filthy, and with the
suspicious-looking faces of bandits, were careful to avoid him,
slinking away between the bushes like crawling, crafty animals. And on
noticing that the dead, in the rear of these evil-looking men, were
shoeless, displaying their bare white feet in the grey light, he ended
by realising that these prowlers were some of the tramps following
the hostile armies, plunderers of corpses, predatory German Jews,
who had entered France in the wake of the invasion. One tall, thin
fellow darted away ahead of him at a gallop, with a sack burdening his
shoulders, and stolen silver and stolen watches jingling in his pockets.

A lad of thirteen or fourteen allowed Prosper to approach him, however,
and protested loudly when the Chasseur, finding that he was French,
began overwhelming him with reproaches: What! couldn’t a chap earn
his living, then? For his part, he was simply picking up chassepots,
and received five sous for each one that he found. That same morning,
having fled from his village with his stomach empty since the previous
day, he had hired himself out to a man from Luxemburg who had
contracted with the Prussians to collect the rifles scattered over
the battlefield. The Germans, indeed, feared that if the weapons were
picked up by the frontier peasants, they would be carried off into
Belgium, and sent back into France by another route, and thus quite a
crowd of poor devils was now hunting for the guns, seeking for so many
five-sous, rummaging among the herbage, like the peasant-women who may
be seen bending double in the meadows whilst searching the grass for
dandelions.

‘A dirty trade!’ Prosper growled.

‘Well, a chap must eat,’ the youngster answered. ‘I’m not robbing
anyone.’

Then, as he did not belong to that district, and could not give any
information, he pointed out a little farmhouse, near by, where he had
seen some people a short time before. Prosper thanked him and was going
off to join Silvine again, when he caught sight of a chassepot half
buried in a furrow. His first thought was to say nothing about it, but
all at once he retraced his steps, and despite himself exclaimed: ‘Hi!
there’s one here, that will make five sous more for you.’

As they drew near to the farm, Silvine noticed some other peasants
who were digging a long trench with picks and spades. These were
immediately under the orders of German officers, who, with nothing more
formidable than switches in their hands, stood by, stiff and silent,
watching the work. The inhabitants of all the surrounding villages had
in this way been requisitioned to bury the dead; for it was feared
that the rainy weather would hasten the mortification of the corpses.
Near the trench were two carts laden with dead bodies, which a gang of
men was removing and swiftly depositing in the cavity, placing them
side by side in serried array, and without troubling to search their
garments or even to look at their faces. And in the rear of the first
party three other men, provided with large shovels, were covering the
row of corpses with a layer of earth, so thin and scanty, however, that
it was already cracking under the action of the rain. So hastily and
carelessly was the work done, indeed, that before a fortnight was over
a pestilence would be rising from every chink. Silvine could not resist
halting beside the trench and gazing at the poor wretches who were
laid in it. She was shuddering with a horrible fear, an idea that she
recognised Honoré in each blood-smeared face that her eyes fell upon.
Was not that he–that unfortunate fellow who had lost his left eye, or
that other one, perhaps, with the broken jaw? If she did not speedily
find him on that endless, indefinite plateau, he would assuredly be
taken from her beyond power of recovery, and buried all of a heap with
the others. Accordingly she ran off to join Prosper, who had gone on
to the farm-gate with the donkey: ‘Good Lord, where is it, then? Ask,
question the people!’

Apart, however, from a servant-woman and her child who had made their
way back from the woods, where they had almost perished of hunger
and thirst, there were only some Prussian soldiers at the farm. It
was a nook suggestive of patriarchal simplicity, of honest rest
following upon the fatigues of the past few days. Some of the Germans
were carefully brushing their tunics, which they had hung on the
clothes-lines. Another, skilful with his needle, had almost finished
darning a hole in his trousers; whilst in the middle of the courtyard
the cook of the party had lighted a large fire, on which the evening
repast was boiling in a huge pot, which exhaled a pleasant smell of
bacon and cabbage. The conquest was already being organised with
perfect tranquillity and discipline. These men, smoking their long
pipes, might have passed for peaceful civilians who had just returned
home. On a bench at the door a brawny, carroty-haired fellow had taken
the servant’s child–a little chap of five or six–in his arms, and was
dandling him playfully, speaking German words of endearment to him,
vastly amused to see the urchin laugh at this harsh-syllabled foreign
language which he did not understand.

Prosper, however, at once turned his back upon the farm for fear of
some fresh mishap. But these Prussians were evidently good-natured
fellows; they smiled at sight of the little moke, and did not even
trouble to ask for the _laissez-passer_.

Then came a wild march. On the sun appearing for a moment between two
clouds they saw that it was already low on the horizon. Would night
fall and surprise them in that endless charnel-place? Then a fresh
shower obscured the sun, and all around them there remained but the
pale infinitude of rain, a fine spray which blotted out everything,
the roads, the fields, and the trees. The donkey was still trotting at
the same slow pace behind them, carrying his head low, and dragging
the little cart along with the resigned gait of a docile animal. They
went northward, they came back towards Sedan, no longer knowing what
direction they were taking; and twice they retraced their steps on
recognising certain spots which they had previously passed. They were
doubtless going round and round; and at last, overcome by despair and
exhaustion, they halted at a crossway where three roads met, and stood
there in the pelting downpour, lacking both strength of mind and body
to pursue their search any farther.

To their surprise, however, they suddenly heard some groans, and on
trudging as far as a lonely cottage, on their left, they found two
wounded men lying in a room. All the doors were open, and these men had
seen nobody, not a soul, during the two days that they had been lying
there, shivering with fever, and without even having their wounds
dressed. Thirst was consuming them, torturing them the more acutely
as the rain was streaming all around them, and they could hear it
pattering loudly on the window-panes. Neither could move, and both at
once raised a cry of ‘Water! water!’ that distressful, longing cry with
which the wounded always pursue the passer-by whenever the faintest
sound of steps rouses them from their lethargy.

When Silvine had brought them some water, Prosper, who in the more
severely wounded of the two men had recognised a comrade, a Chasseur
d’Afrique of his own regiment, realised that they could not be far from
the ground over which Margueritte’s division had charged. He questioned
the poor fellow, who, with a vague wave of the arm, ended by answering
affirmatively, ‘It was over yonder, on the left, after passing a large
field of lucern.’ Provided with this information, Silvine wished to
start off again at once. Some men were passing, picking up the dead,
and having called to them in order that they might come to succour the
two wounded soldiers, she took hold of the donkey’s bridle and began
dragging the animal over the slippery ground, all eagerness to make her
way yonder past that field of lucern.

All at once Prosper halted. ‘It must be hereabouts. Look! there are the
three trees on the right. Do you see the ruts too? And yonder there’s a
broken caisson. We’ve reached the spot at last.’

Quivering from head to foot, Silvine darted forward and examined two
corpses, two artillerymen who had fallen by the wayside. ‘But he’s not
here, he’s not here!’ she exclaimed. ‘You must have made a mistake.
Yes, you must have fancied it, your eyes must have deceived you.’

Little by little a mad hope, a delirious joy was gaining upon her.
‘Suppose you were mistaken. What if he should be alive? And of course
he must be alive since he’s not here.’

But, all at once, she groaned aloud. Turning round, she had found
herself on the very spot where the battery had been established.
The scene was a frightful one, the ground cut up and rent as by an
earthquake, with wreckage lying all around, and corpses thrown upon
their stomachs, their backs, their sides, in horrifying postures; their
arms twisted, their legs doubled under them, their heads askew, their
white teeth showing in their mouths, which howling had distended.
A corporal had expired with both hands pressed upon his eyelids in
a paroxysm of fright, as though to shut out all view of what was
happening. Some gold coins, which a lieutenant had carried in a belt
about his body, had fallen from it, oozing forth with his blood, and
lay scattered among his bowels. The two chums, Adolphe the driver, and
Louis the gun-layer, with their eyes protruding from their sockets,
were still clasped in a fierce embrace, one atop of the other, coupled
even in death. And at last there was Honoré, lying upon his crippled
gun as on a bed of honour, struck both in the flank and the shoulder,
but with his face unscathed and handsome with its expression of anger,
whilst his eyes were still turned in the direction of those Prussian
batteries yonder.

‘Oh! my friend,’ sobbed Silvine, ‘my friend!’

She had fallen upon her knees on the drenched ground, with clasped
hands, in an outburst of mad grief. That name of friend, the only one
that came to her lips, told of all the affection she had lost in losing
that excellent young fellow, so good, so kind, who had forgiven her
and consented, despite everything, to make her his wife. And now her
hope was ended, her life was over. Never had she loved another, never
would she cease to love _him_. The rain was abating, and a flock of
crows whirling and croaking above the three trees, alarmed her like a
threat of evil. Did they want to take him from her once more, that dear
one, dead, alas! whom she had only found again with so much difficulty?
She had dragged herself to him, on her knees, and was driving away the
greedy flies that buzzed above his blankly staring eyes, whose glance
she still obstinately sought.

But her anxiety took another turn when between Honoré’s clenched
fingers she espied some blood-stained paper. With gentle jerks, she
tried to pull it from him; but the dead man would not release it, his
fingers grasped it so tightly that it could only have been torn from
him in shreds. It was the letter he had preserved under his shirt,
against his skin, the letter she had written to him, which he had thus
pressed as in a farewell clasp, amid the final throes of his agony. And
when she had recognised it, there stole through all her affliction a
profound and penetrating joy. She was quite overcome on finding that
he had died thinking of her. Yes, most certainly, she would leave that
dear letter in his hand, she would make no further effort to take it
from him since he was so stubbornly bent on carrying it with him to
the grave. A fresh flow of tears relieved her: warm, gentle tears
were these. She had risen to her feet and she kissed his hands, she
kissed his brow, repeating ever the same infinitely loving word: ‘My
friend–my friend.’

Meanwhile, however, the sun was sinking, and Prosper had gone to fetch
the blanket, which he spread upon the ground. Then, slowly, reverently,
they both raised Honoré’s body, laid it on the blanket, and carried it,
wrapped in the folds of the covering, to the little cart. The rain was
already threatening again, and, mournful little _cortège_ that they
formed, they were starting off once more across that accursed plain,
when all at once they heard a rolling, rumbling noise, as of thunder.
Then again did Prosper call: ‘The horses! the horses!’

It was another charge of those famished, wandering cavalry mounts which
had remained at large. They were approaching this time over a vast
level stretch of stubble, in a deep mass, with their manes streaming in
the wind and their nostrils covered with foam; and an oblique ray of
the red sun threw the shadow of their frantic gallop clean across the
plateau to its farther end. Silvine had immediately sprung in front of
the cart, her arms uplifted, as though to stop them, with a gesture of
furious affright. Fortunately, some rising ground turned them aside and
they swerved to the left, otherwise they must have crushed everything.
The ground fairly shook beneath their mad scamper, and their hoofs
sent the stones flying like grape-shot, one pebble wounding the little
donkey on the head. Then they were lost to view in the depths of a
ravine.

‘It’s hunger that makes them gallop like that,’ said Prosper. ‘Poor
animals!’

Having bandaged the donkey’s head with her handkerchief, Silvine again
took hold of the bridle and the dismal little _cortège_ once more
traversed the plateau on its return journey of a couple of leagues or
so to Remilly. At every few steps Prosper halted to gaze at the dead
horses, his heart heavy at the thought of going off like that, without
having again seen Zephyr.

A little below the wood of La Garenne, they were turning to the left
with the intention of taking the road they had followed in the morning,
when a German outpost demanded their _laissez-passer_, and instead of
turning them away from Sedan ordered them to pass through the town
under penalty of being arrested. There was no questioning this new
order, besides it shortened the journey by a mile and a half, which
they were glad of, weary as they felt in every limb.

Inside Sedan, however, their progress was greatly impeded. As soon
as they were within the fortifications they found themselves in a
foul atmosphere reeking with filth. For three days the town had
been the cesspool of a hundred thousand men; and to complete the
insufferable stench there were the carcases of the horses, which had
been slaughtered and cut up on the various open spaces, and whose
entrails were now rotting in the sunlight, their heads, their bones
lying here and there about the pavements and swarming with flies. A
pestilence would assuredly break out if proper diligence were not shown
in sweeping into the sewers all those horrible beds of manure which in
the Rue du Ménil, the Rue Maqua, and even on the Place Turenne were a
quarter of a yard high. As it happened, printed notices placarded by
the German authorities already requisitioned the inhabitants for the
following day, ordering all of them, no matter what their position
might be, workmen, shopkeepers, merchants, and magistrates, to assemble
with brooms and shovels and set about this necessary work, under threat
of heavy penalties if the town were not clean by the evening. And the
chief judge of the local court was already to be seen at his door,
scraping the pavement and throwing the filth into a barrow, with a
fire-shovel!

Silvine and Prosper, who had turned into the High Street, could walk
but slowly through the fœtid slime. Moreover, a great commotion reigned
in the town, and at every moment the road was blocked. The Prussians
were now searching the houses for such of the French soldiers as had
hidden themselves, obstinately intent on not surrendering. At about
two o’clock on the previous day, when General de Wimpffen had returned
from the château of Bellevue after signing the capitulation there,
a rumour had circulated that the captive army was to be confined on
the peninsula of Iges, until convoys could be organised to escort it
to Germany. Merely a few officers intended to avail themselves of
the clause which accorded them their liberty on condition that they
pledged their word in writing not to serve again during the war. Among
these, it appeared, there was only one general–Bourgain-Desfeuilles,
who alleged his rheumatism as an excuse. And that same morning he
had been saluted with jeers and hisses on taking his departure from
the Golden Cross Hotel in a vehicle. Since dawn the operation of
disarming the French troops had been in progress; the soldiers having
to defile across the Place Turenne, and throw their guns and bayonets
in a pile which, amid a crashing like that of old iron, kept rising
higher and higher in one corner of the square. A detachment of German
troops was assembled there under the orders of a young officer, a
tall, pale fellow in a sky-blue tunic, a plumed cap and white gloves,
who superintended the disarmament with an air of haughty smartness.
A Zouave having refused, with a mutinous gesture, to surrender his
chassepot, the officer gave orders for his removal, exclaiming, in
perfect French: ‘That man to be shot at once!’ With dejected faces
the other Frenchmen continued defiling, throwing their guns upon the
pile with a mechanical gesture, anxious as they were to have done with
it all. But how many there were who no longer had any weapons, whose
chassepots lay scattered over the country-side! And how many who were
hiding since the previous day, in the vain hope of escaping surrender
amid the inexpressible confusion. The houses they had invaded still
swarmed with these obstinate fellows, who refused to answer when called
and squeezed themselves into corners, imagining that they would not be
found there. The German patrols which scoured the town came upon some
of the vanquished hidden under articles of furniture. Others who had
taken refuge in cellars refused to come out even when discovered, and
the patrols at last fired upon them through the vent-holes. Never was
there such a man-hunt, such an abominable _battue_.

On reaching the bridge over the Meuse the donkey was stopped by the
crush there. A suspicious officer, commanding the picket, which guarded
the bridge, fancied that the little cart might be leaving the town
with some bread or meat, and wished to make sure of its contents. When
he had pulled the blanket aside and saw the corpse, he gazed at it
for an instant as though thunderstruck; then with a wave of his arm
he signed that the vehicle might proceed on its way. But it was still
impossible to advance, in fact the obstruction was increasing. A German
detachment was conducting one of the first convoys of prisoners to
the peninsula of Iges. There seemed no end to this flock of captives.
Onward they pressed, hustling one another, treading on one another’s
heels, with their uniforms in tatters, their heads bowed, their eyes
darting hangdog, sidelong glances, their backs bent and their arms
swinging listlessly, like the vanquished men they were, no longer
possessed of even a knife to cut their own throats with. The harsh
voices of their guards rang out urging them onward, like whips raining
lashes through their silent scramble, amid which the only sound was
the plashing of their heavy shoes in the thick mud. Another shower had
begun to fall, and there could be no more sorrowful sight than that
flock of vanquished soldiers, trudging along in the rain, like tramps
and beggars of the highways.

All at once Prosper, who, like the old Chasseur d’Afrique he was, felt
his heart beating so violently with restrained rage that it seemed
likely to burst, nudged Silvine in order to call her attention to two
of the passing soldiers. He had recognised Maurice and Jean, marching
fraternally, side by side, among their comrades; and the little cart
having resumed its journey in the wake of the convoy, he was able to
follow the two friends with his eyes as far as the suburb of Torcy,
whilst they proceeded along the level road which conducts to Iges
between gardens and plots of vegetables.

‘Ah!’ murmured Silvine, lowering her eyes upon Honoré’s corpse,
profoundly distressed by all she had seen. ‘Perhaps the dead are the
happier.’

Nightfall surprised them at Wadelincourt, and it had long since been
pitch dark when they once more reached Remilly. Old Fouchard was
stupefied on beholding his son’s corpse, for he had felt certain that
it would not be found. For his own part he had employed his day in
driving a good bargain. Officers’ horses, stolen on the battlefield,
were being readily sold at twenty francs apiece, and he had given but
five-and-forty francs for three of them.

There was such a scramble whilst the column of prisoners was leaving
Torcy that Maurice was separated from Jean. And, run as he might
afterwards, he only lost himself the more. When he at last reached the
bridge thrown across the canal at the base of the peninsula of Iges, he
found himself among some Chasseurs d’Afrique and was unable to rejoin
his regiment.

The bridge was defended by a couple of guns pointed towards the
peninsula; and the Prussian staff had turned a private residence, just
beyond the canal, into a guard-house, where was stationed a commandant
appointed to receive and guard the prisoners. The formalities were of
a very summary description; the men arriving were simply counted like
sheep, just as they came along, but little attention being paid either
to the different uniforms or the different numbers; and the various
flocks having scrambled past began to encamp wheresoever the chances of
the road led them.

Maurice thought he might venture to apply to a Bavarian officer who sat
there, astride a chair, smoking: ‘In which direction, sir, shall I find
the 106th of the Line?’

Was this officer an exception to the rule, and did he not understand
French? Or did he think it amusing to send a poor devil of a prisoner
astray? At all events he smiled, raised his hand and signed to Maurice
to go straight on.

Although Maurice belonged to that part of the country he had never
previously set foot on the peninsula, and he walked onward upon a
journey of discovery much as though he had been thrown by a squall upon
some far-away island. He at first skirted Glaire Tower, a handsome
estate on his left, whose little park, planted beside the Meuse, was
extremely charming. Then the road followed the river which flowed by
on the right hand, below steep and lofty banks. Little by little the
road sloped upwards, winding round the hillock in the centre of the
peninsula; and here were some old quarries, excavations towards which
strayed narrow pathways. Farther on stood a mill beside the water.
Then the road turned, and came back to the village of Iges, built on
a slope and connected with the opposite bank of the Meuse by a ferry
just in front of the spinning works of St. Albert. Finally patches of
cultivated ground and meadows were spread out–quite an expanse of
flat, treeless land, limited by the rounded loop of the river. In vain
did Maurice scan the undulating hill slope: he could only see some
artillery and cavalry taking up their quarters there. Thereupon he
again made inquiries, applying to a corporal of Chasseurs d’Afrique,
who, however, could tell him nothing. Night was gathering and, feeling
weary, he sat down for a moment on a mile-stone.

Then, in the despair which all at once came over him, he perceived
across the Meuse those accursed fields where he had fought two days
before. In the waning light of that rainy day everything had a livid
hue–a dismal, mud-smeared vista was offered to his eyes. The defile
of St. Albert, the narrow road by which the Prussians had approached,
skirted the loop of the river as far as some whitish quarry pits.
The crests of the wood of La Falizette waved beyond the slopes of
the Seugnon hill; and almost in front of him, just a little on the
left, was St. Menges with its road sloping down to the ferry. In the
centre, just opposite, rose the Hattoy hill. Illy was far away in the
rear. Fleigneux nestled behind a bend of the ground; whilst Floing was
nearer in, on the right hand. He recognised the field in which he had
waited, for so many hours, lying among the cabbages; the plateau which
the reserve artillery had attempted to defend; and the crest where he
had seen Honoré expire, stretched upon his shattered gun. And all the
abomination of the disaster seemed to be coming to life again, filling
him with anguish and disgust till he felt sick at heart.

A fear lest he should be overtaken by the darkness induced him to
resume his search. Perhaps the 106th was camping on the low ground,
beyond the village. But he only found some prowlers there, and
accordingly resolved to make the circuit of the peninsula, following
the loop of the river. Whilst crossing a potato field he took the
precaution to tear up some of the plants and fill his pockets with
potatoes; they were not yet ripe, but he had nothing else to eat, for
it unluckily happened that Jean had taken charge of the two loaves
which Delaherche had given them when starting. What especially struck
Maurice was the large number of horses he met on the bare land sloping
gently, from the central hillock, to the Meuse in the direction of
Donchery. Why had all these animals been brought there? How were they
to be fed? Black night had fallen when he reached a little wood,
beside the water, where he was surprised to find the Cent-Gardes of
the Emperor’s escort already installed, drying themselves around large
fires. These ‘gentlemen,’ who thus camped apart from the other troops,
had good tents, pots full of boiling _soupe_, and even a cow, tethered
to a tree. Maurice at once noticed that they gazed askance at him,
wretched-looking Linesman that he was, with his uniform in tatters and
covered with mud. Still they allowed him to cook his potatoes among
the ashes of one of their fires; after which, withdrawing to a tree
a hundred yards away, he sat himself down to eat. It was no longer
raining, the sky had cleared and the stars were shining very brightly
in the depths of the bluey darkness. He then reflected that it would be
best for him to spend the night there, and to resume his search in the
morning. Besides he was quite overcome with fatigue, and the tree would
always afford him some shelter should the rain begin falling again.

He did not manage to sleep, however, haunted as he was by thoughts of
that vast prison open to the night air, in which he realised he was
confined. The Prussians had displayed remarkable acumen in driving
thither the eighty thousand men who remained of the army of Châlons.
The peninsula was a league[37] or so in length, with a width of about
a mile, ample space in which to pen the immense disbanded flock of
vanquished soldiers. And Maurice clearly realised that water surrounded
them without a break, the loop of the Meuse winding round them on three
sides, whilst at the base of the peninsula was the derivational canal,
linking the two adjacent river-beds. At this point only was there an
outlet, the bridge guarded by a couple of cannon. And thus, despite
its extent, nothing would be easier than to guard this camp. He had
already noticed the German sentries, who had been posted in a cordon on
the opposite bank of the Meuse, near the water’s edge, at intervals of
fifty yards or so, with orders to fire upon every man who might try to
escape by swimming across the river. Uhlans, moreover, galloped along
in the rear connecting the various pickets; and farther away, scattered
over the country-side, were the black lines of the Prussian regiments,
so that a triple living enceinte penned in the captive army.

At present, however, although insomnia kept his eyes wide open, Maurice
could only see the darkness, amid which the bivouac fires were being
lighted, together with the silhouettes of the motionless sentries,
ranged beyond the pale ribbon of the Meuse. These sentries stood there
erect and black in the starlight, and at regular intervals Maurice
heard their guttural call, a threatening watch-cry which died away,
afar off, amid the loud gushing of the river. As he heard those harsh
foreign syllables speeding along beneath a lovely starlit night of
France, all the nightmare of two days previously was born anew within
him; he once more seemed to behold all that he had again seen whilst
it was light an hour or so previously–that plateau of Illy still
strewn with slain, those accursed outskirts of Sedan, where a world
had crumbled away. Lying on the damp soil at the verge of the wood,
his head resting on the root of a tree, he again sank into the despair
which had taken possession of him on Delaherche’s sofa the previous
morning; and that which now tortured him, increasing the anguish of his
pride, was the question of the morrow, a desire to measure the depth
of that great Downfall, to ascertain amid what ruins that world of
yesterday had sunk. Was that abominable war not over, as the Emperor
had surrendered his sword to King William? But he remembered what two
Bavarian soldiers had said whilst conducting him and his comrades to
Iges: ‘We all in France, we all to Paris!’ Amid his semi-somnolence
there came to him a sudden vision of what was happening–the Empire
swept away, carried off by universal execration; the Republic
proclaimed amidst an outburst of patriotic fever; the shadows of the
Legend of ’92 arising, the soldiers of the _levée en masse_, the
armies of volunteers driving the invader from the soil of France. And
everything was intermingled in his poor, ailing head–the demands
of the victors; the harshness of the conquest; the obstinacy of the
vanquished, intent on resisting even to the last drop of their blood;
and the captivity reserved to those eighty thousand men, of whom he was
one, first on that peninsula, and then in the fortresses of Germany
during weeks, months, and perhaps years. Everything was splitting to
pieces–falling for evermore into the depths of limitless misfortune.

The call of the sentries, growing gradually louder and louder, burst
forth in front of him and then slowly died away, afar off. He had
awakened from a short doze, and was turning over on the hard ground
when the profound silence was suddenly rent by the report of a
firearm. Then a death-rattle sped through the black night, and there
came a sound of splashing water, the brief struggle of a body sinking
head-foremost in the stream. Some unlucky fellow had, no doubt, been
hit by a bullet in the chest, whilst attempting to escape by swimming
across the Meuse.

At sunrise on the morrow Maurice arose. The sky was clear, and he was
eager to join Jean and his comrades. For a moment he had an idea of
again scouring the interior of the peninsula, but on reflection he
resolved to complete his round. And just as he again reached the bank
of the canal, he perceived the remnants of the 106th, a thousand men
or so, encamped on the bank, which was screened only by a meagre row
of poplars. Had he turned to the left on the previous day instead of
going straight before him he would at once have overtaken his regiment.
Indeed, nearly all the infantry were heaped together here, along that
bank stretching from Glaire Tower to the château of Villette, another
country seat, surrounded by a few old houses, in the direction of
Donchery; and they were all bivouacking near the bridge, near the only
outlet, in that same instinctive desire for liberty which causes a
flock of sheep to press near the gate of the fold.

At sight of Maurice, Jean raised a cry of delight: ‘Ah! here you are at
last! I fancied you were in the river.’

With the corporal were the remaining men of his squad, Pache and
Lapoulle, Loubet and Chouteau, who, after sleeping here and there
under the doorways of Sedan, had eventually been swept together by the
Prussian patrols. So far as their company was concerned, the corporal
was the only superior they had left them, for death had carried
away Sergeant Sapin, Lieutenant Rochas, and Captain Beaudoin; and
although the victors had abolished all distinctions of rank among the
prisoners, deciding that they henceforth owed obedience only to the
German officers, the four men had none the less drawn together around
Jean, knowing that he was prudent and experienced, a man to cling to
in difficult circumstances. And thus, that morning, in spite of the
stupidity of some and the ill will of others, concord and good humour
were paramount among the little party. To begin with, Jean had found
them a spot between two water furrows where the ground was almost dry;
and since they had only half a shelter tent left between them all, they
had here stretched themselves out to pass the night. Then, too, Jean
had just managed to procure some wood and a pot, in which Loubet had
made them some nice warm coffee, which had quite inspirited them. The
rain was no longer falling, the day seemed likely to be a very fine
one, and they still had a little biscuit and bacon left; moreover, as
Chouteau remarked, it was delightful to have no orders to obey, and to
be able to loaf about just as one chose. They were captives, no doubt,
but all the same there was plenty of room. Besides, in two or three
days’ time they would be off on the road to Germany. And thus that
first day, September 4, which chanced to be a Sunday, proved a gay one.

Maurice, himself, in better spirits since he had joined his comrades,
experienced but little suffering, save such as was caused him by the
Prussian bands, which played throughout the afternoon on the other side
of the canal. There was psalm-singing in chorus towards the evening;
and, beyond the cordon of sentries, the German soldiers strolled to and
fro in little groups, slowly and loudly chanting in celebration of the
Sabbath.

‘Oh, that music!’ Maurice exclaimed at last in his exasperation. ‘It
pierces me through and through.’

Jean, whose nerves were less susceptible, shrugged his shoulders:
‘Well, they have good reason to be pleased. Besides, they perhaps think
that they are entertaining us. The day hasn’t been an unpleasant one,
we mustn’t grumble.’

At the fall of night, however, the rain came down again. It was a
perfect disaster. Some soldiers had taken possession of the few
abandoned houses on the peninsula. A few others had managed to set up
tents. But the greater number, lacking any kind of shelter, destitute
even of blankets, had to spend the night in the open air under the
torrential downpour. At about one in the morning, Maurice, who had
dozed off with fatigue, awoke, and found himself in a perfect lake.
The water furrows, swollen by the rain, had overflowed, submerging the
ground where he had stretched himself to sleep. Chouteau and Loubet
were swearing with rage, whilst Pache began shaking Lapoulle, who was
still sound asleep amid all this flood. Then Jean, bethinking himself
of the poplars planted alongside the canal, hastened to them for
shelter with his men, who, bending down, spent the remainder of that
frightful night with their backs against the trunks, and their legs
doubled under them to protect them from the big rain drops.

And the morrow and the following day proved really abominable; so heavy
and so frequent were the showers that the men’s clothes never once had
time to dry. Famine was beginning, too; there was not a biscuit, not
a bit of bacon, not a grain of coffee left. During those two days,
the Monday and the Tuesday, they lived on potatoes stolen from the
neighbouring fields; and even these became so scarce at the close of
the second day that men with money bought them at the rate of five sous
apiece. It is true that bugles sounded to rations, and the corporal had
in all haste repaired to a large shed at Glaire Tower, where, so it was
rumoured, rations of bread were being distributed. But on the first
occasion he had waited there to no purpose for three hours, and on the
second he had had a quarrel with a Bavarian. The French officers being
unable to do anything to assist their men, in the powerless position
to which they were reduced, it really seemed as though the German
staff had herded the vanquished army together there in the rain with
the intention of starving it to death. No steps apparently were taken,
not an attempt was made to feed those eighty thousand men, whose agony
was now beginning in that frightful hell which was to acquire the name
of the Camp of Misery, a name of woe which in after times the bravest
could not recall without a shudder.

On returning from his long, useless waits before the shed, Jean, as a
rule so calm, flew into quite a passion. ‘Are they playing the fool
with us, sounding to rations like that when there’s nothing? I’m dashed
if I’ll trouble to go there again.’

And yet at the first call he again hastened thither. These regulation
bugle-calls were positively inhuman, and they produced another result
which wrung Maurice’s heart. Each time that the bugles sounded, the
abandoned French horses, at large on the other side of the canal,
galloped up and leaped into the water, as excited by those well-known
flourishes as by the prick of the spur. Exhausted by hunger, however,
they were mostly carried off by the current, few of them managing
to reach the bank of the peninsula. They could be seen struggling
lamentably, and so large a number of them was drowned that at last
their floating, inflated carcases obstructed the canal. As for those
that managed to land, they were seized with madness, as it were, and
galloped away across the waste fields.

‘Some more meat for the crows!’ said Maurice sorrowfully, remembering
the horses that he had already seen in such alarming numbers during the
first night of his captivity. ‘If we remain here many days longer, we
shall all be eating one another. Ah! the poor animals.’

The Tuesday proved, indeed, terrible. Jean, who was getting seriously
anxious at Maurice’s feverish condition, compelled the young fellow
to wrap himself in a shred of a blanket which he had purchased from
a Zouave for ten francs: whilst, for his own part, with his overcoat
soaked like a sponge, he remained all night exposed to the downpour to
which there was no cessation. The position under the poplars became
untenable, a river of mud was streaming along on all sides, and the
earth was so gorged, so saturated, that it now retained the water on
its surface in deep puddles. The worst was that the six men had their
stomachs empty, their evening meal having been limited to two beets,
which for lack of dry wood they had not even been able to cook. And the
sweetish roots, fresh though they were to the palate, had developed an
insupportable burning sensation in their stomachs. Moreover, dysentery
was now breaking out, caused by fatigue, bad living, and incessant
dampness. With his back to the trunk of the same tree as Maurice, and
with his legs quite under water, Jean stretched out his hand a dozen
times that night to make sure that the young fellow had not uncovered
himself in his agitated slumber. Since Maurice had saved him from the
Prussians, by carrying him in his arms across the plateau of Illy, the
corporal had been paying back his debt a hundredfold. Without reasoning
what he did, he freely gave himself to Maurice, entirely forgot himself
in his affection for him. It was an unmeasured, ever active attachment
on the part of this peasant, who was but slightly removed from the
soil, and could not even find words to express his feelings. For
Maurice, he had already taken food from his own mouth, as the men of
the squad expressed it; and now, had there been need of it, he would
have given him his skin as a covering, to protect his shoulders, and
warm his feet. And amid all the savage egotism that surrounded them,
amid the suffering of appetite, maddened by hunger, he was possibly
indebted to his self-abnegation for the unexpected advantage that he
reaped in retaining his quiet good-humour, and good health; for he
alone still gave proof of strength, and lost but little of his wits.

Thus it happened that, after that fearful night, he put into execution
an idea that had been haunting him. ‘I say, youngster,’ said he to
Maurice, ‘as we get nothing given us to eat, and are being forgotten,
so it seems, in this cursed hole, we must bestir ourselves a bit, if we
don’t want to die of hunger. Can you walk?’

The sun was fortunately shining again and had made Maurice feel quite
warm. ‘Oh! yes, I can walk well enough,’ said he.

‘Then we’ll go on a journey of discovery. We have some money, and we
shall have to be precious unlucky if we don’t find something to buy.
And we mustn’t burden ourselves with the others, they are not straight
enough, let them take care of themselves.’

He was, in fact, disgusted with the crafty egotism of Loubet and
Chouteau, who stole whatever they could lay their hands on and never
shared anything with their comrades. And in the same way there was
nothing to be done with either that brute Lapoulle or that black-beetle
Pache.

So Jean and Maurice went off by the road which the latter had already
followed, alongside the Meuse. The park and house of Glaire Tower were
already devastated and pillaged, the lawns ravined as by a storm,
the trees felled, and the buildings invaded. A crowd of ragged,
mud-splashed soldiers, with hollow cheeks and eyes that glittered with
fever, were camping there in gipsy fashion, living like wolves in the
filthy rooms, which they were afraid to leave lest they should lose
their places for the night. On the slopes farther on Jean and Maurice
passed through the cavalry and artillery, formerly so smart and jaunty,
but now sadly down-fallen, disorganised by the torture of hunger which
maddened the horses and scattered the men over the fields in plundering
bands. Outside the mill, on their right hand, they saw a procession of
artillerymen and Chasseurs d’Afrique slowly defiling along: the miller
was selling them flour at the rate of a franc for every two handfuls
which he emptied into their handkerchiefs. The fear, however, of having
to wait too long for any of this, induced Jean and Maurice to proceed
farther on; besides they hoped that they might find something better
in the village of Iges. And they were in consternation when they had
visited the hamlet and found it bare and desolate, just like some
Algerian village after a flight of locusts has fallen upon it. Not a
crumb remained there, neither bread, nor vegetables, nor meat; it was
as though the wretched houses had been scraped bare with the finger
nails. It appeared that General Lebrun had taken up his quarters at the
mayor’s. To facilitate the provisioning of the troops he had vainly
endeavoured to organise a system of tickets, the value of which would
have been reimbursed by the State after the war; but no provisions were
obtainable, money was utterly useless. On the previous day a biscuit
had fetched two francs, a bottle of wine seven francs, a small liqueur
glass of brandy one franc,[38] and a pipeful of tobacco half a franc.
And now officers had to mount guard over the general’s quarters and the
adjacent hovels, with drawn swords, for frequent bands of prowlers
burst open the cottage doors, stealing even the colza oil from the
lamps and drinking it!

Three Zouaves called to Maurice and Jean in the idea that if five of
them banded together they might bring some enterprise or other to
success. ‘Come with us!’ they cried. ‘There are some horses kicking the
bucket, and if we could only get some dry wood—-‘

But Maurice and Jean did not go, and the Zouaves rushed upon a
peasant’s house, broke open the cupboards and tore the thatch off the
roof. Some officers, however, came up at a run, threatening them with
their revolvers, and put them to flight.

Finding the few people who had remained at Iges as wretched and as
hungry as the soldiers themselves, Jean regretted that he had disdained
the flour at the mill: ‘We must go back, perhaps there’s still some
left,’ said he.

Maurice, however, was growing so weary, so exhausted by hunger, that
Jean left him in a quarry hole, sitting on a rock in full view of the
far-spreading horizon of Sedan. For his own part, after a wait of
three-quarters of an hour he at last returned with a duster full of
flour. They could devise no other plan than to eat it as it was by
the handful. It wasn’t nasty, in fact it had no smell and merely the
insipid taste of dough. This breakfast, though a poor one, revived them
somewhat. And they were even lucky enough to find on the rock a pool of
rain water, fairly clean, with which they quenched their thirst.

However, on Jean proposing that they should stay and spend the
afternoon there, Maurice made a violent gesture of refusal. ‘No, no,
not here! It would make me ill if I had that long before my eyes.’ So
saying, he pointed with his trembling hand to the immense horizon, the
Hattoy hill, the plateaux of Floing and Illy, the wood of La Garenne,
all those hateful fields of slaughter and defeat. ‘Just now whilst
I was waiting for you,’ he added, ‘I had to turn my back on it all,
for I should have ended by howling with rage, yes, howling like an
exasperated dog. You can’t imagine the pain it gives me, it drives me
mad!’

Jean gazed at him, astonished that his pride should bleed like that,
anxious too on again espying in his eyes that wild, mad look which he
had previously noticed in them. He thought it best to treat the matter
lightly: ‘Well, we can easily settle all that,’ said he, ‘we’ll go to
another part.’

Then they wandered about until evening, wheresoever the paths led
them, visiting the low ground of the peninsula in the hope that they
might still find some potatoes there. The artillerymen, however,
had appropriated the ploughs and turned up the fields, reaping and
gleaning and taking everything away. They thereupon retraced their
steps, and again passed through idle, agonising flocks of captives,
soldiers who were promenading their hunger, strewing the soil with
their numbed bodies, falling from sheer exhaustion by hundreds in the
broad sunlight. Not an hour went by but Jean and Maurice themselves
were overcome and had to sit down. Then all at once exasperation set
them on their feet again, and they once more began prowling round as
though spurred on by the instinct of the animal that seeks its food.
This agony seemed to have been lasting for months, yet the minutes were
rapidly flying by. In the fields in the direction of Donchery, they
were frightened by the wandering horses, and had to seek shelter behind
a wall, where they remained for a long time in an exhausted state,
gazing with dim eyes at those maddened animals tearing along against
the red background of the sunset.

As Maurice had foreseen, the thousands of horses which had been led
into captivity with the army, and could not be fed, proved a source of
daily increasing danger. They had first eaten the bark of the trees,
then they had attacked the trelliswork, the fences, all the planks
they came upon, and now they were becoming cannibals. They could be
seen throwing themselves upon one another and tearing off the hair of
each other’s tails, chewing it furiously with foaming jaws. But it
was especially at night time that they became terrible, as though the
darkness oppressed them with a nightmare. They gathered together in
bands and rushed upon the few tents that had been pitched, attracted by
the straw there. In vain had the men lighted large fires to keep them
away; these fires only seemed to excite them the more. Their neighing
was so dolorous, so frightful at times that it seemed like the roaring
of wild beasts. Driven away, they returned yet more numerous and more
ferocious. And at every moment there sped through the darkness the long
cry of agony of some soldier gone astray whom they had knocked over and
crushed in their wild gallop.

The sun was still above the horizon when Jean and Maurice, on their way
back to the camping ground, were surprised to come upon the four men of
their squad, crouching in a ditch as though plotting some evil stroke.
Loubet at once called to them, and Chouteau proceeded to explain:
‘It’s about to-night’s dinner,’ said he. ‘We shall all end by kicking
the bucket, we haven’t had anything to eat for six-and-thirty hours.
But there are some horses, you know, and as horseflesh is by no means
bad—-‘

‘Eh, you’ll join us, corporal, won’t you?’ broke in Loubet, ‘for with
such a big animal to handle, the more we are the better it will be.
Look! there’s one over yonder whom we’ve been watching for an hour or
so–that big roan who seems ailing. It will be easier to finish him
off.’

So saying, he pointed to a horse which had just fallen from hunger
at the edge of a ravaged field of beets. Lying on its side, the
animal from time to time raised its poor head, breathing loudly and
mournfully, and gazing around with glassy eyes.

‘Ah! what a time to wait!’ growled Lapoulle, tortured by his voracious
appetite: ‘I’ll go and settle him, shall I?’

Loubet prevented him, however: No, thanks! They were not at all anxious
to have a row with the Prussians, who, under penalty of death, had
forbidden the prisoners to kill a single one of the horses, for fear
lest the abandoned carcase might foment a pestilence. It was necessary
to wait till night had closed in. And this was why they were all four
gathered in that ditch, watching with glittering eyes which did not
stir from the animal.

‘I say, corporal,’ suddenly asked Pache in a somewhat faltering voice,
‘you are a man of ideas, couldn’t you kill him without hurting him?’

With a gesture of revolt Jean declined the cruel task. Kill that poor,
agonising beast? No, no! His first impulse was to flee and carry
Maurice away with him, so that neither might take any part in that
frightful butchery. But at sight of his companion’s pallor he scolded
himself for his sensibility. After all, animals were intended for the
food of man. A fellow ought not to let himself die of hunger when there
was meat available. And pleased to see that Maurice was some what
inspirited by the prospect of dining, he put on a good-humoured air and
answered: ‘Well, no, I have no idea as to that, and if he’s got to be
killed without being hurt—-‘

‘Oh! I don’t care a fig about that,’ interrupted Lapoulle, I’ll manage
it, you’ll see.’

When Jean and Maurice had seated themselves in the ditch, the waiting
was resumed. From time to time one of the party rose up to make sure
that the horse was still on the same spot, stretching its neck towards
the fresh breezes from the Meuse, towards the setting sun, as though
to drink in the life that lingered there. Then, as the twilight slowly
fell, all six men rose up to continue their savage watch, impatient
for the laggard night, and glancing on all sides with wild anxiety to
ascertain if anyone were observing them.

‘Ah! dash it!’ suddenly exclaimed Chouteau, ‘now’s the time.’

The surrounding landscape was still broadly defined in the equivocal
owl’s light which now prevailed. And Lapoulle ran up the first,
followed by the five others. He had picked up a large round stone in
the ditch, and he rushed upon the horse and began to batter its skull,
with his arms stiffly outstretched as though they had formed a club.
At the second blow, however, the horse made an attempt to get up.
Chouteau and Loubet, standing over its legs, were trying to hold them
down, and calling to the others to help them. The animal neighed in a
terrified, dolorous, almost human voice, struggled to rise, and would
have shattered them like glass had it not been already half dead of
starvation. Its head continued moving, and Lapoulle’s blows missed
their aim, so that he was unable to despatch it.

‘Curse it! how hard the brute’s bones are! Hold him so that I can
settle him.’

Jean and Maurice, whose hearts were frozen, did not hear Chouteau
calling to them, but stood by with hanging arms, unable to make up
their minds to intervene. And, all at once, Pache dropped upon his
knees–in an instinctive impulse of religious pity–joined his hands,
and began stammering prayers such as are said at the bedside of the
dying.

Once more did Lapoulle miss his aim, merely tearing off one of the ears
of the wretched horse, which fell back, giving vent to a loud cry.

‘Wait a bit,’ growled Chouteau. ‘We must settle him, or we shall be
caught. Don’t let go, Loubet.’

He had just taken his knife from his pocket, a little knife, the blade
of which was not much longer than the finger. And, stretched upon the
animal’s body, with one arm passed round its neck, he dug this blade
into the live flesh, and searched it, cutting and hacking, until he
had found and severed the artery. He had bounded aside when the blood
spurted forth, gushing as from a pipe, whilst the animal’s feet stirred
feebly, and great convulsive shudders coursed over its skin. Nearly
five minutes elapsed before it was dead. Its large dilated eyes were
turned, with an expression of doleful fright, upon the haggard men who
were waiting for its death. At last they grew dim, and, all at once,
their light was extinguished. Pache was still upon his knees stammering
a prayer.

When the animal no longer stirred, they were greatly embarrassed as to
how they could cut a nice joint off it. Loubet, who had plied every
calling, certainly pointed out how they ought to proceed if they wanted
to secure the fillet; but it was dark, and having nothing but that
little knife, he proved a clumsy butcher, and fairly lost himself amid
all that warm flesh, still palpitating with life. And the impatient
Lapoulle, having decided to help him by opening the belly, when there
was no necessity to do so, the carnage became something abominable; all
was ferocious haste amid the spilt blood and strewn entrails; they were
like wolves raking the carcase of the prey with their fangs.

‘I don’t know what piece it can be,’ at last said Loubet, rising up,
his arms laden with a huge chunk of meat. ‘At any rate, there’s enough
here to fill us up to our eyes.’

Overcome with horror, Jean and Maurice averted their heads. Hunger was
torturing them, however, and they followed the band when it galloped
away in dread lest it should be surprised near the slaughtered horse.
Chouteau, by the way, had just made a find–two large beets, which had
been overlooked in the field, and which he carried away. To disburden
his arms Loubet flung the meat upon Lapoulle’s shoulders, whilst Pache
carried the squad’s pot which they had been lugging about with them so
as to have it handy should their hunt be successful. And the six men
galloped and galloped along without drawing breath, as though they were
being pursued.

All at once, however, Loubet stopped his comrades. ‘This is stupid; the
question is, where are we going to cook it?’

Jean, who was recovering his wits, suggested the quarries, which were
not more than three hundred yards away; in one or another of the
cavities there they could kindle a fire without being seen. When they
reached the spot, however, all sorts of difficulties arose. First
came the question of wood. Fortunately they discovered a roadmender’s
barrow, the planks of which Lapoulle split with his heels. Then there
was no drinkable water. The little pools of rain-water had been dried
up by the sun during the afternoon. No doubt there was a pump, but it
was much too far away, at Glaire Tower; and besides, to get any water
from it you had to join a procession and wait for hours, and might deem
yourself fortunate if, just as your turn had come to fill your tin,
some comrade did not upset it with his elbow in the scramble. As for
the few wells in the neighbourhood, these had been dry for a couple
of days past, and the buckets only brought up so much mud. Thus the
only available water was that of the Meuse, the bank of which was just
across the road.

‘I’ll go there with the pot,’ suggested Jean.

But the others protested. ‘No, no, we don’t want to be poisoned, the
river’s full of corpses.’

This was true, large numbers of dead men and horses were drifting down
the Meuse. They passed by at every moment, inflated, green, already
mortifying. Many of them had caught in the herbage near the banks, and
remained there, poisoning the atmosphere, whilst the current stirred
them with a continuous quivering. And nearly all the soldiers who
had drunk of that abominable water had been seized with nausea and
dysentery, following upon frightful colics.

Still they had to resign themselves to it, Maurice explaining that it
would hardly be dangerous after being boiled. ‘Then I’ll go,’ repeated
Jean, taking Lapoulle with him.

Black night had fallen by the time the pot, full of meat and water,
had been got on the fire. Loubet had peeled the beets to cook them
in the broth; ”twould make a ragout fit for the other world,’ he
remarked. And they all of them urged on the flames, slipping the
remnants of the barrow under the pot, whilst their big shadows danced
about in a fantastic way in the depths of the rocky cavity. At last it
became impossible for them to wait any longer, they threw themselves
on the filthy broth and tore the meat to pieces with their trembling,
clutching fingers, too impatient even to use Chouteau’s little knife.
But, despite all their efforts, their stomachs rose. It was the lack
of salt that caused them the most disgust; their stomachs refused to
retain that insipid, pappy beetroot, that half-cooked glutinous flesh
with an argillaceous flavour. They almost immediately began to vomit.
Pache could not go on eating, Chouteau and Loubet heaped insults on
that brute of a horse which they had had so much trouble to kill, and
which now made their stomachs ache. Lapoulle was the only one who dined
copiously; however, he almost died of it during the night, after he
had gone back with the three others to sleep under the poplars of the
canal.

On the way, Maurice, catching hold of Jean’s arm, had, without
speaking, dragged him into a by-path. He felt furiously disgusted with
his comrades, and had formed the plan of sleeping in the little wood
where he had spent his first night on the peninsula. The idea was a
good one, and Jean strongly approved of it when he stretched himself in
the sloping soil, which he found quite dry, under the thick foliage.
They remained there till it was broad daylight, falling even into a
deep sleep which brought them back some strength.

The next day was Thursday, but they no longer knew how they were
living, they simply felt pleased at observing that the fine weather
seemed to have set in again. Despite Maurice’s repugnance, Jean
prevailed on him to return to the canal bank to see if their regiment
would not leave the peninsula that morning. Every day now some of the
prisoners, columns a thousand and twelve hundred strong, were being
sent off to the German fortresses. A couple of days previously, in
front of the Prussian guard-house, Jean had seen a convoy of officers
and generals who were going to Pont-à-Mousson to take the train there.
A feverish, furious longing to get away from that frightful Camp of
Misery prevailed among one and all. Ah! if their own turn could only
have come, thought Maurice and the corporal; and they were quite in
despair when they found the 106th still encamped on the canal bank, in
the growing disorder caused by so much suffering.

That day, however, they thought they would succeed in getting something
to eat. Quite a trade had sprung up since the morning between the
prisoners and the Bavarians on the other side of the canal. Money
was flung to the latter in handkerchiefs, which were thrown back
wrapped round some coarse brown bread or common damp tobacco. Even the
prisoners who had no money managed to secure something by throwing
over their white regulation gloves, which seemed to have taken the
Bavarians’ fancy. For a couple of hours this barbarous mode of exchange
was kept up all along the canal, across which packets were continually
flying. However, when Maurice flung over a five-franc piece, wrapped
in his necktie, the Bavarian who sent him a loaf in exchange threw it
in such a clumsy or tricky fashion that it fell flop into the water,
whereat the Germans burst into a loud guffaw. Twice did Maurice repeat
the experiment, and twice the loaf sent back to him dived into the
canal. On hearing the roars of laughter which arose, some Bavarian
officers ran up and prohibited their men from selling anything to the
prisoners under penalty of severe punishment. The traffic then ceased,
and Jean had to exert himself to calm Maurice, who was shaking his
fists at those thieves yonder, shouting to them to throw him back his
five-franc pieces.

In spite of its bright sunshine the day proved a terrible one. There
were two alerts, two bugle calls, on hearing which Jean hastened to
the shed, where rations were said to be distributed. But on both
occasions, he only secured some digs in the ribs, during the scramble.
The Prussians, so remarkably well organised themselves, continued
displaying a brutal indifference with regard to the vanquished army.
Generals Douay and Lebrun having protested against this inhuman
treatment, they certainly sent a few sheep and some cart-loads of
bread to the peninsula, but there was such an absence of method and
precaution that the sheep were carried off and the carts ransacked as
soon as they had crossed the bridge, so that the troops encamped more
than a hundred yards away were no better off than before. In fact,
the prowlers and pillagers were about the only ones who succeeded
in filling their maws. Jean scented the trick, and ended by leading
Maurice towards the bridge, so that they might wait and watch there for
the arrival of provisions.

It was already four o’clock and they had as yet eaten nothing that
lovely, sunshiny day, when all at once they were delighted to catch
sight of Delaherche. A few of the townspeople of Sedan had, with
great difficulty, obtained permission to go and see the prisoners, to
whom they carried provisions; and Maurice had several times already
expressed surprise at receiving no news of his sister. As soon as they
espied Delaherche, carrying a large basket and with a loaf of bread
tucked under either arm, they sprang forward to meet him, but once
again they came up too late. Such was the rush, indeed, that the basket
and one of the loaves vanished without the manufacturer himself being
able to understand how they had been torn away from him.

Eager as he was for popularity, he had crossed the bridge with a smile
on his lips and an air of affable good fellowship, but now he was
altogether upset and stupefied. ‘Ah! my poor friends,’ he stammered.

Jean had already taken possession of the remaining loaf, and
vigorously defended it; and whilst he and Maurice were devouring the
bread by the roadside, Delaherche told them the news. His wife, thank
Heaven! was very well; but he was anxious about the colonel, who
had become extremely depressed, although Madame Delaherche, senior,
continued keeping him company from morn till night.

‘And my sister?’ asked Maurice.

‘Your sister, ah yes! She came with me, it was she who brought the two
loaves. Only she had to stay yonder, on the other side of the canal.
Beg as we might, the sentries would not let her pass. The Prussians,
you know, have given strict orders that women are not to be allowed on
the peninsula.’

Then he went on talking of Henriette and of her futile endeavours to
see her brother and assist him. One day, in the streets of Sedan,
chance had brought her face to face with cousin Gunther, the captain in
the Prussian Guards. He was passing along with that stern forbidding
air of his, pretending not to recognise her, and she herself, feeling
her heart rise as though she were in presence of one of her husband’s
murderers, had at the first moment hastened her steps. Then in a sudden
veering which she could not account for, she had turned back after him,
and in a harsh, reproachful voice, had told him everything, especially
how her husband had been shot at Bazeilles. And on thus hearing of his
relative’s frightful death, he had made but an ambiguous gesture; it
was the fortune of war, he also might have been killed. His soldier’s
face barely twitched as he learnt the news. Then, when she spoke to him
of her brother who was a prisoner, begging that he would intervene so
that she might obtain permission to see him, he refused to do so. Such
intervention was not allowed, he said; the orders were strict; and he
spoke of his superior’s orders as though they were Divine commandments.
On leaving him, Henriette clearly realised that he deemed himself a
justiciar, and was swayed by all the intolerance and arrogance of an
hereditary enemy, who had grown up hating the race which he was now
chastising.

‘Well,’ concluded Delaherche, ‘at all events you will have had some
little to eat this evening. What worries me is that I fear I sha’n’t be
able to get another permit to come here.’

He then asked them if they had any commissions, and obligingly took
charge of some letters, written in pencil, which other soldiers
confided to him, for the Bavarians had been seen laughing and lighting
their pipes with the missives which they had promised to forward.
Then, whilst Maurice and Jean were accompanying him back to the bridge,
he suddenly exclaimed: ‘Look! there’s Henriette yonder. Can’t you see
her waving her handkerchief?’

Indeed, among the throng behind the line of sentinels, a thin little
face could be espied, a white speck, as it were, palpitating in the
sunlight. Greatly affected, with their eyes moist, both soldiers
immediately raised their arms and answered with an energetic wave of
the hand.

The morrow, a Friday, proved the most fearful day that Maurice had
spent on the peninsula. True enough, after passing another quiet night
in the little wood, he had been lucky enough to get some bread to
eat; Jean having discovered an old woman at the château of Villette
who had some for sale, at the moderate price of ten francs the pound.
Later on that day, however, they both witnessed a frightful scene, the
nightmare-like memory of which long haunted them.

Chouteau had noticed the previous evening that Pache no longer
complained, but was going about with a lightsome, contented air, like
a man who has eaten his fill. The idea at once occurred to him that
the slyboots must have a hidden store somewhere; and he was confirmed
in this impression in the morning when he saw Pache go off for nearly
an hour, and come back smiling slyly, with his mouth still full. Some
windfall must certainly have come to him; he had probably got hold of
some provisions or other in one of the scrambles. Thereupon Chouteau
set himself the task of stirring up Loubet and Lapoulle, especially the
latter. ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘what a dirty cur that fellow Pache must be, to
have some grub and not to share it with his comrades. I’ll tell you
what, we’ll follow him this evening. We’ll just see if he’ll dare to
gorge himself all alone, when other poor devils are kicking the bucket
all round him.’

‘Yes, yes, we’ll follow him!’ Lapoulle angrily repeated. ‘We’ll just
see what it means.’

So saying, the colossus clenched his fists, maddened by the idea of
getting something to eat. He experienced even greater suffering than
the others, on account of his terrible appetite; indeed, his torment
became at times so intense that he had even tried to chew the grass. He
had secured nothing else to eat since two days previously, since the
night, in fact, when the horseflesh and beetroot had given him such a
frightful attack of dysentery. Despite his great strength, he was so
clumsy with his big limbs that he had not been able to secure anything
when the provision carts were pillaged. He would now have given his
blood for a pound of bread.

When night was falling Pache glided away among the trees of Glaire
Tower, and the three others cautiously crept after him. ‘We mustn’t
rouse his suspicions,’ repeated Chouteau. ‘Be careful, he might look
back.’

However, after going another hundred yards or so, Pache evidently
fancied himself alone, for he began walking rapidly without casting
a glance behind. They were thus easily able to follow him to the
neighbouring quarries, and came up behind him just as he was moving two
large stones to take a half loaf of bread from under them. This was all
that remained of his hoard, just enough to make one more meal.

‘You dirty black-beetle!’ shouted Lapoulle. ‘So that’s why you hide
yourself, is it? You’ll just give me that. It’s my share.’

Give his bread, indeed! Why should he give it? However puny he might
be, his anger made him draw himself erect, pressing the bread to his
heart with all the strength he possessed. He, also, was hungry. ‘Mind
your own business!’ he answered, ‘it’s mine!’

Then, at sight of Lapoulle’s raised fist, he darted away, galloping
down from the quarries towards the bare fields in the direction of
Donchery. The three others pursued him, panting, as fast as their legs
could carry them. He gained ground, however, being lighter than they
were, so frightened too, and so bent on not losing his bread, that
it seemed as though the wind were carrying him away. He had already
gone more than a thousand yards, and was nearing the little wood on
the river bank, when he overtook Jean and Maurice, who were returning
to their night quarters there. As he rushed by he raised a cry of
distress, whilst they, astounded at sight of this man-hunt so wildly
galloping past them, stopped short at the edge of a field, where they
remained watching. And thus it was that they saw everything.

Stumbling against a stone, Pache unhappily fell to the ground. The
three others were already coming up, swearing and howling, maddened by
their run, like wolves overtaking their prey.

‘Give it me, thunder!’ shouted Lapoulle, ‘or I’ll settle your hash!’
And he was again raising his fist when Chouteau, after opening the
little knife that had served to slaughter the horse, passed it to him,
exclaiming: ‘Here! take the knife.’

Meantime, however, Jean had darted forward to prevent an affray.
He also was losing his head, and talked of sending them all to the
guard-room; whereat Loubet, with an evil grin, told him he must be a
Prussian, for there were no officers left, so to say, the Prussians
alone now exercising authority.

‘D—-!’ repeated Lapoulle, ‘will you give me that bread?’

Despite the terror that blanched his face, Pache hugged the bread yet
more closely to his chest, with the obstinacy of a famished peasant,
who will never part with anything belonging to him.

‘No!’

Then in a trice it was all over; the brute planted the knife in his
throat with such violence that he did not even raise a cry. His arms
relaxed, and the hunk of bread rolled to the ground, into the blood
that had spurted from the wound.

At sight of this mad, imbecile murder, Maurice, hitherto motionless,
seemed all at once to lose his reason. Shaking his fists at the three
men, he called them assassins with such vehemence that his frame shook
from head to foot. Lapoulle, however, did not even seem to hear him.
Still crouching on the ground near the corpse, he was devouring the
blood-splashed bread with an air of fierce stupor, as though stunned by
the loud noise of his own jaws; and he appeared so terrible whilst he
thus satisfied his craving appetite, that Chouteau and Loubet did not
even dare to ask him for their share.

Night had now completely gathered in, a clear night with a beautiful
starry sky; and Maurice and Jean, who had betaken themselves to the
little wood, were soon only able to see Lapoulle, who went wandering up
and down the river-bank. Chouteau and Loubet had disappeared, they had
no doubt gone back to the canal-bank, uneasy with regard to that corpse
which they were leaving behind them. Lapoulle, on the contrary, seemed
afraid to go and join his comrades. Oppressed by the weight of that
big chunk of bread which he had swallowed too fast, he was now, too,
after the dizziness of the murder-moment, seized with an anguish which
made motion a necessity; and not daring to turn back along the road,
across which the corpse was lying, he tramped incessantly along the
steep river-bank, with a wavering, irresolute step. Was remorse already
dawning in the depths of that dark soul? Or was it not simply the fear
of discovery? He paced up and down like a wild beast before the bars
of its cage, with a sudden, growing longing to flee, a longing which
was painful like a physical ailment, and which he felt would cause his
death if he did not satisfy it. Quick, quick, he must at once get out
of that prison where he had killed. And yet, despite that eager desire,
he all at once sank down, and for a long time remained wallowing among
the rushes on the bank.

Meantime Maurice, in his horror and disgust, was saying to Jean:
‘Listen, I can’t stay here a moment longer. It will drive me mad, I
assure you–I’m astonished that my body has held out–my health is not
so bad–but I’m losing my head, I’m losing it sure enough–I shall
be lost if you leave me another day in this hell. Let’s get off, I
beg of you, let’s get off.’ And thereupon he began unfolding various
extravagant plans of escape which he had formed. They would swim across
the Meuse, spring upon the sentinels, and strangle them with a bit
of rope which he had in his pocket; or else they would stone them to
death; or else bribe them and put on their uniforms so as to make their
way through the Prussian lines.

‘Be quiet, youngster,’ repeated Jean, despairingly. ‘It frightens me to
hear you say such foolish things. Is there any sense in it all, is it
possible to get away as you think? Wait till to-morrow, we’ll see what
happens. And now don’t talk about it any more.’

For his own part, although his heart was overflowing with anger and
disgust, although he was greatly weakened by privation, he still
retained his common sense amid all that nightmare-kind of life which
verged on the profoundest depths of human misery. And as his comrade
became more and more desperate and wished to fling himself into the
Meuse, he had to hold him back and even do him violence, alternately
scolding and supplicating, with tears standing in his eyes. ‘There!
look!’ he exclaimed all at once.

The water had just splashed, and they saw that Lapoulle had made up his
mind to slip into the river after doffing his capote, for fear lest
it might impede his movements. His shirt could be plainly descried,
forming a whitish spot on the bosom of the black, flowing water. He was
swimming slowly upstream, doubtless on the look-out for some spot where
he might land. Meantime, on the opposite bank, the slim silhouettes
of the motionless sentinels could be plainly distinguished. Then,
all at once, a flash rent the night asunder, and a report crackled,
re-echoing as far as the rocks of Montimont. The river merely bubbled
as though struck downward by a pair of oars, and that was all; forsaken
and inert, Lapoulle’s body, the white speck on the dark water, began
floating away, carried along by the current.

At daybreak on the morrow, which was Saturday, Jean again brought
Maurice back to the camping-ground of the 106th in the hope that they
might be leaving the peninsula that day. But there were no orders; it
seemed as though the regiment had been forgotten. Many had now taken
their departure, the camp was emptying, and those who were still left
in it sank more and more deeply into the blues. For eight long days
insanity had been germinating and spreading in that hell. The rain, no
doubt, had given over, but the oppressive, burning sunlight had only
wrought a change of torture. The excessive heat put the finishing touch
to the men’s exhaustion, and imparted an alarming epidemical character
to the attacks of dysentery. What with nausea and diarrhœa, this army
of sick men quite poisoned the atmosphere in which it lived. It was no
longer possible to skirt the banks either of the Meuse or the canal, so
foul had become the stench of the drowned horses and soldiers rotting
among the herbage. Moreover, the horses which had died of starvation
lay putrefying in the fields, exhaling such a pestilence that the
Prussians began to fear for themselves, and bringing picks and shovels,
compelled the prisoners to bury the bodies.

That Saturday, by the way, the famine ceased. As their numbers were
now greatly reduced, and provisions were coming in from all sides, the
captives passed, all at once, from extreme destitution to the most
abundant plenty. There was no lack of bread or meat, or even wine, and
they ate from dawn till sunset, to the point of killing themselves.
Night fell and some were still eating, and even went on eating till the
following morning. And naturally enough many of them gave up the ghost.

Throughout the day Jean’s one preoccupation was to keep a watch on
Maurice, for he realised that the young fellow was now ripe for any
extravagant action. Heated by wine he had even talked of cuffing a
German officer in order that he might be sent away. Accordingly, in the
evening, having discovered a vacant corner in the cellar of one of the
outbuildings of Glaire Tower, Jean thought it prudent to go and sleep
there with his companion, in the hope that the latter would be calmed
by a good night’s rest. But it proved the most fearful night of their
whole sojourn in the camp, a perfect night of horrors, during which
they were not once able to close their eyes. Other soldiers helped to
fill the cellar, and among them were two men lying side by side in the
same corner, and dying of dysentery. As soon as the darkness had come,
these two did not cease complaining, with hollow groans, inarticulate
cries, followed at last by a death-rattle which became louder and
louder, sounding so awful in the pitchy darkness that the other men who
were lying there, longing to sleep, became quite enraged, and called to
the dying soldiers to hold their peace. But the latter did not hear,
and the rattle went on, ceasing for a moment perhaps every now and
then, but suddenly breaking forth anew, and then drowning every other
sound; whilst, in the intervals, the drunken clamour of the comrades
who were still eating, unable to satisfy themselves, was wafted from
without.

Then Maurice’s agony began. He had tried to flee from that plaint of
atrocious pain, which brought the sweat of anguish to his brow; but
whilst he was rising and fumbling he stumbled over some outstretched
limbs and fell to the ground again, walled up, as it were, with those
dying men. And he made no further attempt to escape. A vision of the
whole frightful disaster was rising up before him, from the time of
their departure from Rheims to the crushing blow of Sedan. It seemed
to him also as though the passion of the Army of Châlons were only
that night coming to an end, amid the inky blackness of that cellar,
resounding with the death-rattle of those two soldiers who prevented
their comrades from sleeping. The army of despair, the expiatory
flock, offered up as a holocaust, had, at each of its Stations,[39]
paid for the faults of all with the red flood of its blood. And, now,
ingloriously slaughtered and beslavered, it was sinking to martyrdom
beneath a more brutal chastisement than it had deserved. ‘Twas too
much, Maurice was boiling over with anger, hungering for justice,
burning to avenge himself on Destiny.

When the morning twilight appeared one of the two soldiers was dead,
but the other’s throat was still rattling.

‘Come on, youngster,’ said Jean, gently; ‘we’ll go and get some fresh
air, that will be best.’

Strolling along in the pure morning air, which was already warm, they
skirted the steep river-bank till they again found themselves near the
village of Iges. And then Maurice suddenly became more excited than
ever, shaking his fist at the far-spreading, sunlit horizon of the
battlefield, which was spread out before him, the plateau of Illy just
opposite, St. Menges on his left, and the wood of La Garenne on his
right hand.

‘No, no!’ he cried. ‘I cannot–I cannot bear the sight of all that any
longer! It pierces my heart and drives me mad! Take me away, take me
away at once!’

That day was again a Sunday; the pealing of church bells was wafted
from Sedan, and a German regimental band could already be heard playing
in the distance. However, there were still no orders for the 106th,
and, frightened by Maurice’s growing delirium, Jean made up his mind
to try a plan which he had been nursing since the previous day. On
the road, in front of the German guard-house, preparations were being
made for the departure of another regiment, the 5th of the Line. Great
confusion prevailed in the column, which an officer, who spoke very
indifferent French, could not succeed in counting. And thereupon Jean
and Maurice, having torn off both the collars and buttons of their
uniforms, in order that the number of their regiment might not betray
them, slipped into the midst of the throng, crossed the bridge, and
thus at last found themselves on the road. The same idea must have
occurred to Chouteau and Loubet, whom they espied behind them, glancing
nervously on either side, like the murderers they were.

Ah! how great was the relief of those first happy moments! Now that
they were outside their prison, it seemed like a resurrection, a return
to living light and boundless air, the flowery awakening of every hope.
And whatever might be their misfortunes now, they feared them not, they
could afford to laugh at them, for had they not emerged unscathed from
the frightful nightmare of the Camp of Misery?

That morning, for the last time, had Jean and Maurice heard the gay
calls of the French bugles, and now they were marching along the
road to Germany among the drove of prisoners, which was preceded and
followed by platoons of Prussian soldiers, others of whom, with fixed
bayonets, kept a watch upon the captives on either hand. And now they
only heard the shrill, dismal notes of the German trumpets at each
guard-post that they passed.

Maurice was delighted to find that the column turned to the left, so
that it would evidently pass through Sedan. Perhaps he would be lucky
enough to catch a glimpse of his sister there. However, the three-mile
march from the peninsula of Iges to the town, sufficed to damp the
joy he felt at having emerged from that cesspool where he had been
agonising for nine long days. This pitiable convoy of prisoners, of
disarmed soldiers with hanging arms, led away like so many sheep, at a
hasty, timorous scamper, was but a fresh form of torture. Clad in rags,
soiled with the filth in which they had been abandoned, emaciated by
more than a week’s privation, they now looked like so many vagabonds,
suspicious tramps picked up along the roads by some scouring party of
gendarmes. By the time they had reached the suburb of Torcy, where men
paused on the side-walks and women came to their doors to gaze at them
with an expression of gloomy compassion, Maurice already felt stifling,
and bowed his head, his mouth twitching with the bitterness of his
sensations.

Jean, however, endowed with a practical mind and a tougher skin,
thought only of their foolishness in neglecting to bring a couple of
loaves of bread away with them. In the wild haste of their departure
they had come away, indeed, with their stomachs empty, and hunger
was once again weakening their legs. Other captives must have been
similarly situated, for many of them held out money, begging the people
of Torcy to sell them something. One very tall fellow, who looked
extremely ill, waved a bit of gold, with his long arm raised over the
heads of the soldiers of the escort, and was in despair that he could
find nothing to buy. Just then Jean, who was watching, espied a dozen
loaves in a pile, outside a baker’s shop, some little distance ahead.
Before any of the others he threw down a five-franc piece, intending
to take a couple of the loaves. Then, as one of the Prussian soldiers
brutally pushed him back, he obstinately made an effort to regain his
money. But the captain in charge of the column, a bald-headed little
man with a brutal face, was already rushing up. Raising his revolver
with the butt downward over Jean’s head, he declared with an oath
that he would split the skull of the first man who dared to stir. And
thereupon they all bent their backs and lowered their eyes, continuing
their march with a subdued tramp, the quailing submissiveness of a
flock of sheep.

‘Oh! how I should like to slap him,’ muttered Maurice savagely, ‘box
his ears, and smash his teeth with a back-hander.’

From that moment he could not bear to look at that captain, whose
scornful face he so desired to smack. They were now entering Sedan,
crossing the bridge over the Meuse, and not a moment passed without
some fresh scene of brutality. A woman, a mother doubtless, was
desirous of embracing a young sergeant, but was pushed back so
violently with the butt of a gun, that she fell to the ground. On the
Place Turenne some well-to-do townsfolk were belaboured because they
compassionately threw provisions to the prisoners. In the High Street
one of the captives, having slipped down in trying to take a bottle
of wine offered to him by a lady, was kicked to his feet again. And
although, during the last eight days, Sedan had frequently seen the
miserable herds of the defeat driven through its streets in this same
brutal fashion, it could not accustom itself to the spectacle, but at
each fresh _défilé_ was stirred by a fever of compassion and resentment.

Jean, who by this time had grown calm again, was, like Maurice,
thinking of Henriette; and, all at once, too, the idea that they might
see Delaherche occurred to him. He nudged his comrade and remarked:
‘Keep your eyes open by-and-by if we pass down the street.’

And, indeed, as soon as they entered the Rue Maqua, they caught sight
of several heads peering forth from one of the monumental windows
of the factory, and as they drew nearer, they recognised Delaherche
and his wife Gilberte, with their elbows resting on the window bar,
whilst behind them stood Madame Delaherche senior, erect, with a stern
expression on her face. They all three had some loaves with them, and
these Delaherche flung to the famished captives who were holding up
trembling, imploring hands.

Maurice immediately noticed that his sister was not one of the party;
whilst Jean, on seeing so many loaves rain down, became all anxiety,
fearing that none would remain for them. He waved his arm frantically
and called: ‘For us! For us!’

The Delaherches evinced an almost joyous surprise. Their faces, pale
with pity, immediately brightened, and gestures expressive of their
pleasure at the meeting escaped them. Gilberte herself wished to throw
the last loaf into Jean’s arms, and did so in such a charmingly awkward
way that she could not restrain a pretty laugh at her own expense.

Unable to halt, Maurice turned his head, and with the greatest rapidity
called in an anxious, questioning tone: ‘And Henriette? Henriette?’

Delaherche answered in a long phrase which was drowned by the tramping
of the men. He must have realised that the young fellow had not heard
him, for immediately afterwards he began making a variety of signs,
pointing especially towards the South. However, the column was already
entering the Rue du Ménil, and the factory façade was lost to sight,
together with the three heads protruding from the window, and a hand
which was waving a handkerchief.

‘What did he say to you?’ asked Jean.

Maurice, sorely worried, was still vainly looking behind him. ‘I don’t
know, I didn’t understand–I shall be anxious now, as long as I don’t
get some news.’

And meantime the tramping continued, the Prussians hastened the march
with the brutality of conquerors, and the wretched flock, stretched
into a narrow file, passed out of Sedan by the Ménil Gate, scampering
along like sheep in fear of the dogs.

As they passed through Bazeilles, Jean and Maurice bethought themselves
of Weiss, and looked for the ashes of the little house which had been
so valiantly defended. During their sojourn at the Camp of Misery some
comrades had told them of the devastation of the village, the fires and
the massacres, but the sight they beheld surpassed all the abomination
they had pictured. Although twelve days had now elapsed since the
disaster, the piles of ruins were still smoking. Many damaged walls had
fallen in, and in all this village of two thousand souls there were now
not ten houses standing. The captive soldiers were consoled somewhat,
however, on meeting numerous barrows and carts full of Bavarian
helmets and rifles, which had been picked up since the struggle. This
proof that a large number of these cut-throats and incendiaries had
been slain, in some measure relieved the prisoners’ feelings.

They were to halt at Douzy, nominally for the purpose of breakfasting,
and did not get there without having suffered. Exhausted, indeed, by
their long fast, the captives were speedily fatigued. Those who had
gorged themselves with food on the previous day, became giddy and
heavy, and felt their legs sink beneath them; their gluttony, far
from restoring their lost strength, had, in fact, only weakened them
the more. And so, when the column halted in a meadow on the left of
the village of Douzy, the unfortunate fellows flung themselves on the
grass, lacking even the energy to eat. There was no wine, and some
charitable women who endeavoured to approach, bringing a few bottles,
were driven away by the sentries. One of them, badly frightened, fell
and sprained her ankle, and then there were cries and tears, quite a
revolting scene, whilst the Prussians, who had confiscated the bottles
of wine, proceeded to drink their contents. This tender compassion
of the peasants for the poor soldiers who were being led away into
captivity, was constantly manifested along the route; but on the other
hand they were said to display great harshness towards the general
officers. A few days previously the inhabitants of that very village of
Douzy had hissed a convoy of generals who were proceeding on parole to
Pont-à-Mousson. The roads were not safe for officers; men in blouses,
soldiers who had escaped the foe, or who had possibly deserted before
the fight, sprang upon them with pitchforks to massacre them, shouting
that they were cowards and had sold themselves; thus helping to ingraft
that legend of treachery which twenty years later still caused the
folks of these districts to speak with execration of all who were in
command during that disastrous campaign.

Seated on the grass, Maurice and Jean ate half of their loaf, and
were luckily able to wash it down with a drop of brandy, with which a
worthy farmer managed to fill a flask they had. Then the starting off
again proved a terrible business. They were to sleep at Mouzon, but
although the march was a short one, the effort they must needs make
appeared more than they could accomplish. They were unable to rise
without groaning, to such a point were their weary limbs stiffened by
the slightest rest. Several men whose feet were bleeding took off their
boots to be able to resume the march. Dysentery was still wreaking
havoc among them; they had gone but a thousand yards or so when a first
man fell and was pushed against the wayside bank. Farther on two others
sank down beside a hedge, and it was night before an old woman came
along and succoured them. Those who kept up were tottering, leaning
on sticks which the Prussians, possibly in a spirit of derision, had
allowed them to cut on the verge of a little wood. They had become a
mere band of beggars covered with sores, emaciated, and scarce able
to breathe. Yet their custodians continued treating them with great
brutality; those who stepped aside even to satisfy a want of nature
were whacked into the ranks again. The escort-platoon in the rear had
orders to drive on the laggards at the bayonet’s point. A sergeant
having refused to go any farther, the captain commanded two of his
men to catch hold of him under the arms, and drag him along till he
consented to walk afresh. Especially were the captives tortured by that
bald-headed little officer, whose face they longed to slap, and who
abused his knowledge of French to insult them in their own language, in
curt galling phrases, as cutting as the lashes of a whip.

‘Oh! how I should like to hold him,’ Maurice passionately repeated,
‘hold him, and drain him of all his blood, drop by drop.’

The young fellow could no longer endure it all; he suffered, however,
far more from the anger he was compelled to restrain than from physical
exhaustion. Everything exasperated him, even those jarring calls of the
Prussian trumpets at which, in his enervated condition, he could have
howled like a dog. He felt that he should be unable to accomplish this
cruel journey without getting his skull cracked. Even now in passing
through the smallest hamlets he experienced intense suffering at sight
of the women who looked at him with so deep an expression of pity. What
would it be then when they got to Germany, and the townsfolk scrambled
to see them, and greeted them, as they greeted the other prisoners,
with insulting laughter? He pictured the cattle-trucks in which they
would be heaped together, the nauseating abominations and tortures of
the road, the dreary life in the fortresses under the snow-laden sky of
winter. No, no! rather death at once, rather the risk of leaving his
skin at the turn of a road on the soil of France than rot over yonder,
in some black casemate, possibly for long months.

‘Listen,’ said he, in a low voice to Jean, who was walking beside him,
‘we’ll wait till we pass a wood, and then we’ll jump aside and slip
between the trees. The Belgian frontier isn’t far, we shall surely find
some one or other to guide us.’

Jean shuddered; despite the feeling of revolt which was making him also
dream of escape, he yet retained his calmer, more practical mind. ‘You
are mad,’ he said. ‘They would fire on us, and we should both be shot.’

But there was a chance that they might not be hit, retorted Maurice;
besides, even supposing they were shot down, well, so much the better.

‘But supposing we escaped,’ continued Jean, ‘what would become of us in
our uniforms? You can see very well that the country is covered with
Prussian pickets. It would, at any rate, be necessary to have some
other clothes. Yes, it’s too dangerous, youngster. I can’t let you do
anything so foolish.’

It became necessary that he should restrain the young fellow, and
whilst he strove to calm him with chiding but affectionate words, he
caught hold of his arm and pressed it closely to his side, so that
they appeared to be mutually supporting one another. They had taken
but a few steps, however, when some words exchanged in an undertone
behind them made them turn their heads. The whisperers were Chouteau
and Loubet, who had started from the peninsula that morning at the
same time as themselves, and whom they had hitherto avoided. The two
rascals were now at their heels, however, and Chouteau must have heard
what Maurice had said of trying to escape through a plantation, for he
adopted the idea on his own account. ‘I say,’ he muttered, craning his
head forward so that they felt his breath on their necks, ‘we’ll join
you. That idea of sloping’s a capital one. Some of the comrades have
already gone off, and we certainly can’t let ourselves be dragged like
so many dogs to the country where these pigs live. Is it agreed, eh?
Shall we four fellows take a breath of fresh air?’

Maurice was again growing feverish, and Jean turned round to say to the
tempter: ‘Well, if you’re in a hurry, you can go on in front. What do
you hope for?’

Under the corporal’s searching gaze, Chouteau became disconcerted, and
imprudently let the cat out of the bag. ‘Well! it would be easier if
there were four of us,’ said he. ‘One or two would always manage to get
off.’

Thereupon, with an energetic shake of the head, Jean altogether
declined taking part in the venture. He mistrusted Monsieur Chouteau,
said he, and feared some act of treachery. However, he had to exert all
his authority over Maurice to prevent the young fellow from yielding to
his desire, for just then an opportunity presented itself; they were
passing a very leafy little wood, which was merely separated from the
road by a field thickly dotted with bushes. To gallop across that field
and disappear in the thickets, would not that mean safety and freedom?

Loubet had so far said nothing. Firmly resolved, however, not to go and
moulder in Germany, he was sniffing the air with his restless nose,
and watching for the favourable moment with those sharp eyes of his,
like the crafty fellow he was. Doubtless he relied on his legs and his
artfulness, which had so far always helped him out of his scrapes. And
all at once he made up his mind. ‘Ah! dash it! I’ve had enough. I’m
off.’

At one bound he had sprung into the neighbouring field, and Chouteau,
following his example, galloped off beside him. Two men of the escort
at once started in pursuit, without either of them thinking of stopping
the runaways with a bullet. It was all over so quickly that at the
first moment one could hardly understand what had happened. However,
it seemed as though Loubet, who had taken a zigzag course through the
bushes, would certainly escape, whereas Chouteau, who was less nimble,
already appeared on the point of being recaptured. But with a supreme
effort he all at once gained ground, and, on overtaking his comrade,
contrived to trip him up. And then, whilst the two Prussians were
springing upon the prostrate man to hold him down, the other bounded
into the wood and disappeared. A few shots were fired after him, the
escort suddenly remembering its needle-guns, and a _battue_ was even
attempted among the trees, but with no result.

Meanwhile the two German soldiers were belabouring the prostrate
Loubet. The captain had rushed to the spot, quite beside himself, and
shouted that an example must be made; at which encouragement the men
continued raining such savage kicks and blows with the butts of their
guns upon the recaptured prisoner, that, on being raised from the
ground, he was found to have his skull split and an arm broken. Before
they reached Mouzon he expired in the little cart of a peasant, who had
been willing to take him up.

‘There, you see,’ Jean contented himself with muttering in Maurice’s
ear.

They both darted towards the impenetrable wood a glance which expressed
all their hatred of the bandit who was now galloping off in liberty;
and they ended by feeling full of pity for the poor devil, his victim;
a lickerish tooth, no doubt, not of much value certainly, but all the
same good company, full of expedients, and by no means a fool. Yet his
fate had shown that no matter how artful a man might be, he inevitably
found his master and came to grief at last.

In spite of this terrible lesson, however, Maurice, on reaching Mouzon,
was still haunted by that fixed idea of escaping. They were all so
frightfully weary on their arrival that the Prussians had to help them
pitch the few tents which were placed at their disposal. The camp was
formed near the town, on some low, marshy ground, and the worst was
that another column having occupied the same spot on the previous day,
it was covered with filth, to protect themselves from which the men had
to spread out a number of large flat stones, which they luckily found
in a heap, near by. The evening proved less trying, as the watchfulness
of the Prussians relaxed somewhat when their captain had gone off to
take up his quarters at an inn. The sentries began by letting some
children throw apples and pears to the prisoners, and at last even
allowed the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to enter the camp, so that
there was soon quite a little crowd of improvised hawkers there, men
and women, selling bread, wine, and even cigars. All those who had any
money ate, drank, and smoked, and in the pale twilight the scene was
like some corner of a village market, full of noisy animation.

Maurice, however, seated behind one of the tents, was growing more and
more excited, again and again saying to Jean: ‘I cannot stand it any
longer. I shall bolt as soon as it is dark. To-morrow we shall be going
farther and farther away from the frontier, and it will then be too
late.’

‘All right, we’ll try it then,’ at last replied Jean, unable to resist
the young fellow’s entreaties any longer, and giving way, on his own
side, to this same haunting idea of escape. ‘We shall soon see if we
leave our skins behind us.’

From that moment, however, he began scanning all the vendors around
him. Some comrades had procured blouses and pants, and it was rumoured
that some charitable folks of Mouzon had got together large stocks of
clothes in view of facilitating the escape of the captives. Jean’s
attention was almost immediately attracted by a pretty girl, a tall
stag-eyed blonde of some sixteen summers, who had on her arm a basket,
in which three loaves of bread were to be seen. She did not call out
what she had for sale like the others did, but stepped along in a
hesitating way, with a smile which, although engaging, was somewhat
tinged with anxiety. Jean gazed steadily in her face, and at last
their eyes met, and for a moment commingled. Then the pretty girl
came forward, still smiling in her embarrassed way: ‘Do you want some
bread?’ she asked.

Jean did not answer, but questioned her with a wink. And as she nodded
her head in an affirmative way, he popped the question in a very low
voice: ‘There are some clothes?’

‘Yes, under the loaves,’ she answered, thereupon making up her mind to
call out: ‘Bread! bread! Who’ll buy bread?’

When Maurice, however, wished to slip twenty francs into her hand,
she hastily withdrew it, and ran off, leaving them the basket. Still,
before she disappeared, they saw her turn round and dart on them the
tender, sympathetic laugh of her lovely eyes.

Although they had the basket they were still as perplexed as ever. They
had strayed from their tent, and were so bewildered that they could
not find it again. Where should they stow themselves away? How could
they change their clothes? It seemed to them that everyone was prying
into that basket, which Jean was carrying in such an awkward manner,
and could plainly detect what it contained. At last, however, they made
up their minds, and entered the first empty tent they came upon, where
in desperate haste each of them divested himself of his regimentals
and slipped on a pair of trousers and a blouse. They placed their
uniforms under the loaves in the basket and left the latter in the
tent. However, they had only found one cap among the garments provided,
and this Jean had compelled Maurice to put on. For his own part, he
was bareheaded, and, exaggerating the danger, he fancied himself lost.
So he was still lingering there, wondering how he could obtain any
headgear, when the idea suddenly came to him to buy the hat of a dirty
old man whom he saw selling cigars. ‘Three sous apiece, Brussels
cigars, five sous a couple, Brussels cigars!’

There had been no customs’ service on the frontier, since the battle of
Sedan, so that Belgian articles were flooding the country-side without
let or hindrance. The ragged old fellow had already realised a handsome
profit, but he nevertheless manifested exorbitant pretensions when he
understood why Jean wished to buy his hat, a greasy bit of felt with a
hole in the crown. A couple of five-franc pieces had to be handed him
before he would part with it, and even then he whimpered that he should
certainly catch cold.

Another idea, however, had just occurred to Jean, that of purchasing
the remainder of the old fellow’s stock in trade, the three dozen
cigars or so which he was still hawking through the camp. And having
accomplished this, the corporal in his turn began walking about, with
the old hat drawn over his eyes, whilst in a drawling voice he called:
‘Three sous a couple, three sous a couple, Brussels cigars!’

This meant salvation, and he signed to Maurice to walk on before him.
The young fellow, by great good fortune, had just picked up an umbrella
dropped or forgotten by one of the hawkers, and as a few drops of rain
were falling, he quietly opened it so that it might screen him whilst
passing the line of sentinels.

‘Three sous a couple, three sous a couple, Brussels cigars!’ cried
Jean, who in a few minutes had rid himself of his stock. The other
prisoners laughed and pressed around him; here at all events, said
they, was a reasonable dealer who didn’t rob poor folks! Attracted too
by the cheapness of the cigars some of the Prussians even approached,
and Jean had to supply them. He manœuvred so as to pass the guarded
camp-line, and eventually sold his two last cigars to a big-bearded
Prussian sergeant, who did not speak a word of French.

‘Don’t walk so quick, dash it all!’ he repeated as he walked on behind
Maurice; ‘you’ll get us caught if you do.’

Their legs were almost running away with them, and only a great effort
induced them to pause for a moment on reaching a crossway, where some
clusters of people were standing outside an inn. Some French gentlemen
were there, peaceably chatting with several German soldiers; and Jean
and Maurice pretended to listen and even ventured to say a few words
about the rain, which it seemed likely would fall heavily during the
night. Meantime, a fat gentleman, who was among the persons present,
looked at them so persistently that they trembled. As he ended,
however, by smiling in a good-natured way, they ventured to ask him in
an undertone: ‘Is the road to Belgium guarded, sir?’

‘Yes, but go through that wood and then bear to the left, across the
fields.’

When they found themselves in the wood, amid the deep, dark silence
of the motionless trees, when they could no longer hear a sound, when
nothing more stirred and they believed that they were really saved, a
feeling of extraordinary emotion threw them into one another’s arms.
Maurice wept, sobbing violently, whilst tears slowly gathered in
Jean’s eyes and trickled down his cheeks. Their nerves were relaxing
after their prolonged torments, they hopefully thought that perhaps
suffering would now take some compassion on them and torture them no
longer. And meantime they clasped each other closely in a distracted
embrace, fraught with the fraternity born of all that they had suffered
together; and the kiss that they exchanged seemed to them the most
loving, the most ardent of their life, a kiss such as they would never
receive from a woman, the kiss of immortal friendship exchanged in the
absolute certainty that their two hearts no longer formed but one, for
ever and ever more.

‘Youngster,’ resumed Jean in a trembling voice, when they had ceased
clasping one another, ‘it’s already a good deal to be here, but we are
not at the end of the job. We must take our bearings a little.’

Although he was not acquainted with this point of the frontier, Maurice
declared that they need only go on before them; and thereupon gliding
along, one behind the other, they stealthily made their way to the
verge of the plantations. Here they remembered the directions given
them by the obliging fat gentleman, and resolved to turn to the left
and cut across the stubble. But they almost at once came upon a road
edged with poplars, and perceived the watchfire of a Prussian picket
barring the way. A sentinel’s bayonet glistened in the firelight; the
other men were chatting and finishing their evening meal. At this sight
Jean and Maurice at once retraced their steps and again plunged into
the wood, with the fear of being pursued. They fancied indeed they
could hear voices and footsteps behind them, and continued beating
about the thickets during more than an hour, losing all idea of the
directions they took, turning round and round, at times breaking into
a gallop like hares scampering under the bushes, and at others stopping
short and perspiring with anguish in front of some motionless oak trees
which they mistook for Prussians. And at last they once more debouched
into the road lined with poplars, at ten paces or so from the sentinel,
and near the other men who were now quietly warming themselves around
the watchfire.

‘No luck!’ growled Maurice, ‘it’s an enchanted wood.’

This time, however, they had been heard. They had broken a few twigs in
passing, and some stones were rolling away. And as, upon hearing the
sentinel’s ‘_Wer da_?’ they immediately took to their heels without
answering, the picket rushed to arms and fired in their direction,
riddling the thicket with bullets.

‘Curse it!’ swore Jean in a hollow voice, restraining a cry of pain.
The calf of his left leg had received a stinging blow, not unlike the
cut of a whip, but so violent that it had thrown him to the ground
against a tree.

‘Are you hit?’ asked Maurice anxiously.

‘Yes, in the leg–it’s done for.’

They both listened again, panting, with the fear of hearing the tumult
of pursuit at their heels. But no further shots were fired, and nothing
more stirred in the great quivering silence, which was falling around
them again. The Prussians evidently did not care to venture among the
trees. However, in trying to set himself erect Jean was hardly able to
restrain a groan. Maurice held him up, and asked:

‘Can you walk?’

‘I’m afraid not.’ He, as a rule so calm, was now becoming enraged. He
clenched his fists, and felt inclined to hit himself: ‘Ah! good Lord!
how fearfully unlucky to get one’s leg damaged when there’s so much
running to be done! I may just as well fling myself on a rubbish heap
at once! Go on by yourself.’

Maurice, however, contented himself with answering gaily: ‘How silly
you are!’

He had taken his friend by the arm and was now helping him along, both
of them being eager to get away. By an heroic effort they had managed
to take a few steps, when they again halted, alarmed at seeing a house
in front of them, a little farm, so it seemed, on the verge of the
wood. There was no light in any of the windows, the yard-gate was
wide open, and the building looked black and empty. And when they had
mustered sufficient courage to enter the yard, they were astonished
to find a horse standing near the house, saddled and bridled, but with
nothing to show why or how it had come there. Perhaps its master would
soon return; perhaps he was lying behind some bush with his head split.
But whatever the truth was, they never learned it.

A new plan, however, had suddenly dawned on Maurice’s mind and quite
inspirited him. ‘Listen,’ said he, ‘the frontier is too far away;
and besides, we should really require a guide to reach it. But if we
went to Remilly now, to uncle Fouchard’s, I’m sure that I could take
you there with my eyes shut, for I know all the lanes and by-ways. Is
it agreed, eh? I’ll hoist you on to this horse, and we’ll get uncle
Fouchard to take us in.’

Before starting, however, he wished to examine Jean’s leg. There
were two holes in it, so that the bullet must have passed out again,
probably after fracturing the tibia. Fortunately, the hæmorrhage was
but slight, and Maurice contented himself with binding his handkerchief
tightly round the calf of the leg.

‘Go on by yourself!’ repeated Jean.

‘Be quiet, you silly!’

When Jean was firmly perched on the saddle Maurice took hold of the
horse’s bridle and they started off. It must now have been about eleven
o’clock, and he hoped to accomplish the journey in three hours, even
should he have to walk the horse the entire distance. But all at once
he relapsed into despair at thought of a difficulty which had not
previously occurred to him. How would they be able to cross over to the
left bank of the Meuse? The bridge at Mouzon must certainly be guarded.
At last he remembered that there was a ferry lower down at Villers, and
deciding to chance it, in the hope that they would at last meet with a
little luck, he directed his course towards that village through the
meadows and ploughed fields on the right bank. All went fairly well at
first; they merely had to avoid a cavalry patrol, which they escaped
by remaining motionless for a quarter of an hour or so, in the shadow
thrown by a wall. The only worry was that, the rain having begun to
fall again, walking became very difficult for Maurice, who had to
trudge through the heavy soil of the drenched fields, beside the horse,
which was fortunately a good-natured, docile animal. At Villers luck
did at first declare itself in their favour, for, although the hour was
late, the ferryman had but a few minutes before brought a Bavarian
officer across the river, and was able to take them aboard at once,
and land them on the opposite bank without difficulty. It was only at
the village of Villers that their terrible troubles began, for they
here narrowly missed falling into the clutches of the sentries who were
posted at intervals right along the road to Remilly. They, therefore,
again had to take to the fields and trust to the chances of the little
lanes and narrow pathways, which often were scarcely practicable.
Occasionally some trivial obstacle would compel them to take a most
circuitous course; still they contrived to make their way over ditches
and through hedges, and at times even forced a passage through some
thick plantation.

Seized with fever amid the drizzling rain, Jean had sunk across the
saddle in a semi-conscious state, clinging with both hands to the
horse’s mane, whilst Maurice, who had slipped the reins round his right
arm, had to support his friend’s legs in order to prevent him from
falling. Over more than a league of country, during nearly a couple
of hours, was this exhausting march kept up, amid incessant jolting
and slipping, both the horse and the men losing their balance again
and again, and almost toppling over together. They became a picture
of abject wretchedness; all three of them were covered with mud, the
animal’s legs trembled, the man he carried lay upon him inert, like
a corpse that had just given up the ghost, whilst if the other man,
distracted and haggard, still managed to trudge along, it was solely
through an effort of his fraternal love. The dawn was breaking; it was
about five o’clock when they at last arrived at Remilly.

In the yard of his little farmhouse overlooking the village, near the
outlet of the defile of Haraucourt, old Fouchard was already loading
his cart with two sheep which he had slaughtered the previous day. The
sight of his nephew in so sorry a plight upset him to such a point
that after the first words of explanation he brutally exclaimed: ‘Let
you stay here, you and your friend? To have a lot of worry with the
Prussians; no, no, indeed! I’d rather kick the bucket at once.’

All the same, he did not dare to prevent Prosper and Maurice from
taking Jean off the horse and laying him on the large table in the
living-room. The wounded man was still unconscious, and Silvine went to
fetch her own bolster and slipped it under his head. Meanwhile uncle
Fouchard continued growling, exasperated at seeing this fellow on his
table, which, said he, was by no means the proper place for him. And
he asked them why they did not at once take him to the ambulance, since
they were lucky enough to have an ambulance at Remilly, in the disused
school-house, which had once formed part of an old convent. It stood
near the church and contained a large and commodious gallery.

‘Take him to the ambulance!’ protested Maurice, in his turn, ‘for the
Prussians to send him to Germany as soon as he’s cured, since all the
wounded belong to them! Are you joking with me, uncle? I certainly
didn’t bring him here to give him back to them.’

Things were getting unpleasant, and Fouchard talked of turning them out
of the house, when all at once Henriette’s name was mentioned.

‘Eh, what–what about Henriette?’ asked the young man.

He ended by learning that his sister had been at Remilly since a couple
of days, having become so terribly depressed by her bereavement that
she now found life at Sedan, where she had lived so happily with her
husband, quite unbearable. A chance meeting with Dr. Dalichamp of
Raucourt, whom she knew, had induced her to come and stay in a little
room at Fouchard’s, with a view of giving all her time to the wounded
at the neighbouring ambulance. This occupation, she said, would divert
her thoughts. She paid for her board, and was the source of many little
comforts at the farm, so that the old man looked on her with a kindly
eye. Everything was first-rate when he was making money.

‘Oh, so my sister’s here!’ repeated Maurice. ‘So that’s what Monsieur
Delaherche meant by that wave of the arm which I couldn’t understand.
Well, as she’s here, it will all be easy. We shall stay.’

Thereupon, despite his fatigue, he himself resolved to go and fetch
her from the ambulance where she had spent the night, and his uncle
meantime grew the more angry because he could not take himself off
with his cart and his two sheep, to ply his calling as an itinerant
butcher through the surrounding villages, until this annoying affair
was settled.

When Maurice came back with Henriette, they surprised old Fouchard
carefully examining the horse which had carried Jean to the farm and
which Prosper had just led into the stable. The animal was no doubt
tired out, but it was a sturdy beast, and Fouchard liked the look of
it. Thereupon, Maurice told him with a laugh that he might keep it
if it pleased him, whilst Henriette drew him aside and explained that
Jean would pay for his lodging, and that she herself would take charge
of him and nurse him in the little room behind the cowhouse, where
certainly no Prussian would go to look for him. The old man remained
sullen, hardly believing as yet that he would derive any real profit
from the business; still, he ended by climbing into his cart and
driving off, leaving Henriette free to do as she pleased.

With the assistance of Silvine and Prosper, Henriette then got the room
ready, and had Jean carried to it and laid in a clean, comfortable bed.
Opening his eyes, the corporal looked round him, but seemed to see
nobody, and merely stammered a few incoherent words. Maurice was now
quite overwhelmed by the reaction following on his exhausting march;
however, whilst he was finishing a bit of meat and drinking a glass of
wine, Dr. Dalichamp came in, as was his custom every morning, prior to
visiting the ambulance; and, thereupon, the young fellow, anxious to
know what injury Jean had received, found strength enough to follow the
doctor and his sister to the bedside.

M. Dalichamp was a short man with a big round head. His hair and
fringe of beard were getting grey; his ruddy face, like the faces of
the peasants, with whom he mixed, had become hardened by his constant
life in the open air, for he was always on the road to alleviate
some suffering or other. His keen eyes, obstinate nose, and kindly
mouth told what his life had been–the life of a thoroughly worthy,
charitable man, inclined, at times, to be rather headstrong. He was
not, as a doctor, endowed with genius, but long practice had made him a
first-rate healer.

‘I’m much afraid that amputation will be necessary,’ he muttered, when
he had examined Jean, who was still dozing; whereupon Maurice and
Henriette were greatly grieved. However, the doctor added, ‘Perhaps we
may manage to save that leg, but in that case he will need very careful
nursing, and it will be a long job. At present he is in such a state
of physical and moral prostration that the only thing is to let him
sleep. We’ll see how he is to-morrow.’ Then, having dressed the wound,
he interested himself in Maurice, whom he had formerly known as a lad.
‘And you, my brave fellow, you would be better in bed than on that
chair,’ he said.

The young man was gazing fixedly in front of him, with his eyes afar,
as though he did not hear. Fever was mounting to his brain in the
intoxication of his fatigue, an extraordinary nervous excitement, the
outcome of all the sufferings, all the disgusting experiences he had
passed through since the outset of the campaign. The sight of his
agonising friend, the consciousness of his own defeat, the idea that he
was unarmed, good for nothing, having nothing left him but his skin,
the thought that so many heroic efforts had merely resulted in such
misery–all filled him with a frantic longing to rebel against Destiny.
At last he spoke: ‘No, no! it is not finished yet! No, indeed! I must
go away. Since he must lie there now for weeks and perhaps for months,
I cannot stay. I must go away at once. You will help me, doctor, won’t
you? You’ll find me some means of escaping and getting back to Paris?’

Henriette, who was trembling, caught him in her arms. ‘What is that you
say? Weak as you are, after suffering so dreadfully? But I mean to keep
you–I will not let you go! Haven’t you paid your debt to France? Think
of me a little–think that I should be all alone, and that now I have
only you left me!’

Their tears mingled. They embraced distractedly, with that tender
adoring affection which unites twins more closely than others, as
though it originated prior even to birth. Far from becoming calmer,
however, Maurice grew still more excited. ‘I assure you that I _must_
go!’ he stammered. ‘They are waiting for me. I should die of anguish if
I did not go! You cannot imagine how my brain boils at the thought of
remaining here in peace and quietness. I tell you that it cannot end
like this–that we must avenge ourselves–on whom or what I know not,
but, at any rate, obtain vengeance for so many misfortunes, so that we
may yet have the courage to live!’

Dr. Dalichamp, who had been watching the scene with keen interest, made
Henriette a sign not to answer. Maurice would no doubt be calmer when
he had slept; and he slept indeed all through that day and through
the following night–in all more than twenty hours–without moving a
finger. However, when he awoke the next morning, his resolution to
go away came back, unshakeable. His fever had subsided, but he was
gloomy, restless, eager to escape from all the tempting inducements to
a quiet life that he divined around him. His tearful sister realised
that it would be useless to insist. And Dr. Dalichamp, when he came
that day, promised to facilitate his flight by means of the papers of
an ambulance assistant, who had recently died at Raucourt: Maurice was
to don the grey blouse with the red-cross badge, and go off through
Belgium to make his way back to Paris, which was still open.

He did not leave the farm all that day, but hid himself there, waiting
for the night. He scarcely opened his mouth, and then only to ascertain
if he could induce Prosper to go away with him. ‘Aren’t you tempted to
go and see the Prussians again?’ he asked.

The ex-Chasseur d’Afrique, who was finishing some bread and cheese, set
his fist on the table with his knife upraised.

‘Well, for what we saw of them it’s hardly worth while,’ he answered.
‘Since cavalrymen are nowadays good for nothing except to get
themselves killed when it’s all over, why should I go back? ‘Pon my
word, no, they disgusted me too much in not giving me any decent work.’
There was a pause, and then he resumed, doubtless in order to silence
the voice of his soldier’s heart: ‘Besides, there’s too much work to
be done here, now. The ploughing is just coming on, later on there’ll
be the sowing. We must think of the soil, too, eh? It’s all very well
to fight, but what would become of us if we didn’t plough? You will
understand very well that I can’t turn the work up. Not that old
Fouchard’s a good master, for I don’t expect I shall ever see any of
his brass, but the horses are beginning to know and like me, and this
morning, ‘pon my word, whilst I was up yonder in the old enclosure, I
looked down on that cursed Sedan, and felt quite comforted at finding
myself with my horses, driving my plough all alone, in the sunshine.’

Dr. Dalichamp arrived in his gig at nightfall. He wished to drive
Maurice to the frontier himself. Old Fouchard, delighted to find that,
at any rate, one of the men was taking himself off, went to watch on
the road, so as to make sure that no patrol was lurking there; whilst
Silvine repaired some rents in the old ambulance blouse with the
red-cross badge. Before starting, the doctor again examined Jean’s
leg, and as yet he could not promise to save it. The wounded man was
still in a somnolent state, recognising nobody, and not saying a word.
And thus it seemed as though Maurice must go off without exchanging a
farewell with his comrade. On leaning forward to embrace him, however,
he suddenly saw him open his eyes, and move his lips. ‘You are going?’
asked Jean in a weak voice, adding, as the others expressed their
astonishment: ‘Oh! I heard you very well, though I couldn’t stir. But
since you are going, old man, take all the money with you. It’s in my
trousers’ pocket.’

Each of them now had about a couple of hundred francs left of the
treasury money, which they had shared together. ‘The money!’ exclaimed
Maurice; ‘but you need it more than I do. My legs are all right! With
a couple of hundred francs I’ve ample to take me to Paris and get my
skull cracked, which, by the way, won’t cost me anything. Well, all the
same, till we meet again, old man, and thanks for all your kindness and
good counsel, for, if it hadn’t been for you, I should certainly be
lying at the edge of some field like a dead dog.’

Jean silenced him with a gesture. ‘You don’t owe me anything–we are
quits,’ said he; ‘the Prussians would have picked _me_ up over there,
if you hadn’t carried me away on your back. And again, the other day,
too, you saved me from their clutches. That’s twice you’ve paid me, and
it’s rather my turn to risk my life for _you_. Ah! I shall be anxious
now at not having you with me any longer.’ His voice was trembling, and
tears started from his eyes: ‘Kiss me, youngster.’

And they kissed; and, as it had been in the wood on the night of their
escape, their embrace was instinct with the fraternity born of the
dangers that they had incurred together, during those few weeks of
heroic life in common, which had united them far more closely than
years of ordinary friendship could have done. The days of starvation,
the sleepless nights, the excessive fatigues, the constant peril of
death–with all of these was their emotion fraught. Can two hearts
ever take themselves back when by a mutual gift they have thus been
blended together? Nevertheless, the kiss which they had exchanged
amid the darkness of the trees had partaken of the new hope that
flight had opened to them; whereas this kiss, now, quivered with the
anguish of parting. Would they meet again, some day? And how–in what
circumstances of grief or joy?

Dr. Dalichamp, who had climbed into his gig again, was already calling
Maurice. Then, with all his soul, the young fellow at last embraced
his sister, Henriette, who, extremely pale in the black garments of
her widowhood, was looking at him and silently weeping. ‘I confide my
brother to you,’ said he; ‘take good care of him, and love him, as I
love him myself!’

Jean’s room, a large chamber with a tiled floor and lime-washed walls,
had formerly been used as a fruitery. You could still detect there the
pleasant scent of apples and pears, and the only furniture was an iron
bedstead, a deal table and two chairs, together with an old walnut
wardrobe, wonderfully deep and containing a multitude of things. The
quietness was profoundly soothing; only a few faint sounds from the
adjacent cowhouse could be heard, the occasional lowing of cattle and
the muffled stamping of their hoofs. The bright sunshine came in by the
window, which faced the south. Merely a strip of slope could be seen,
a cornfield skirted by a little wood. And this mysterious closed room
was so hidden away from every eye that no stranger could even have
suspected its existence.

Henriette immediately settled how things were to be managed. In view
of avoiding suspicions it was arranged that only she and the doctor
should have access to Jean. Silvine was never to enter the room unless
she were called–for instance, at an early hour in the morning when the
two women tidied the place; after which the door remained as though
walled up, throughout the day. If the wounded man should need anyone
at night-time, he would merely have to knock on the wall, for the room
occupied by Henriette was adjacent. And thus it came to pass that
after many weeks of life amid a violent multitude, Jean suddenly found
himself separated from the world, seeing no one but the doctor and that
gentle young woman whose light footsteps were inaudible. And whilst she
ministered to his wants with an air of infinite goodness, he again saw
her as he had espied her on the first occasion, at Sedan, looking like
an apparition, with small and delicate features save that her mouth was
somewhat large, and with hair the hue of ripened grain.

During the earlier days the wounded man’s fever was so intense that
Henriette scarcely left him. Dr. Dalichamp dropped in every morning,
under pretence of fetching her to go to the ambulance with him; and
he would then examine Jean’s leg and dress it. After fracturing the
tibia, the bullet had passed out again, and the doctor was astonished
at the bad appearance of the wound, and was afraid there might be some
splinter there–though in probing he was unable to detect any–which
would necessitate an excision of the bone. He had spoken on the subject
to Jean, but the latter revolted at the thought of having his leg
shortened and going lame all the rest of his life: no, no, indeed, he
would rather die at once than become a cripple. The doctor therefore
simply kept the wound under observation, dressing it with lint
soaked in olive oil and phenic acid, after inserting a gutta-percha
drainage-tube, so that the pus might flow away. At the same time,
however, he warned Jean that if he did not perform an operation the
cure would probably take a very long time. Yet it happened that the
fever abated during the second week, when the state of the wound also
became more favourable–at least so long as the patient remained quite
still.

Henriette’s intercourse with Jean was then regulated in a systematic
way. Habits came to them both; it seemed to them as though they had
never lived otherwise, as though they would go on living like that
for ever. She gave him all the time that she did not devote to the
ambulance, saw that he ate and drank at regular hours, and helped
him to turn over with a strength of wrist that would never have been
suspected in a woman with such slender arms. At times they chatted,
but during the earlier period they more often remained together
without speaking. Yet they never seemed to be bored. It was a very
calm, reposeful life for both of them–for him crippled by the battle,
and for her in her widow’s gown, and with her heart crushed by her
bereavement. He had felt somewhat intimidated at first, for he was
fully conscious that she was his superior, almost a lady, whereas he
had never been anything but a mere peasant and soldier. He could barely
read and write. However, he had felt more at his ease on finding that
she treated him like an equal, without any display of pride. And this
emboldened him to show himself as he really was, intelligent after
a fashion, thanks to his sober common-sense. To his astonishment,
moreover, he would often feel less coarse and heavy than formerly,
full of new ideas that he had never dreamt of before. Was this the
outcome of the abominable life that he had been leading for two months
past? It was as though he were emerging refined from all his physical
and moral sufferings. He regained, however, a still greater measure
of self-possession on realising that she did not know much more than
he did. Her mother’s death had turned her when very young into a
little housewife, with three men, as she put it, to take care of–her
grandfather, her father, and her brother–so that she had not had
much time for schooling. Reading, writing, a rudimentary knowledge of
spelling and cyphering–beyond that she did not go. And, therefore, if
she still somewhat intimidated Jean, if she still appeared to him to
be above all others of her sex, it was simply because he knew her to
be superlatively good, endowed with extraordinary courage, albeit she
appeared to be merely a retiring little woman taking her pleasure in
the petty duties of life.

They agreed together at once, whilst chatting about Maurice. If she
thus devoted herself to Jean it was indeed because she looked upon him
as Maurice’s brother and friend, as the worthy protector who had helped
and succoured him, and to whom she in her turn was paying a debt of
gratitude. She was indeed full of gratitude, of affection which grew
and grew as she learnt to know him better, simple and sensible as he
was, with a sound, sober head; and he, whom she nursed as though he
were a child, was on his side contracting a debt of infinite gratitude
towards her and would have kissed her hands for each cup of broth that
she brought to him. The bond of affectionate sympathy uniting them grew
closer every day in the profound solitude in which they lived, with
the same anxieties to trouble them. When they had exhausted Jean’s
reminiscences, the particulars which she was never weary of asking for
respecting that woeful march from Rheims to Sedan, the same question
invariably came back again: What was Maurice doing? Why did he not
write? Was Paris completely invested, since no more news had reached
them? They had so far received but one letter from the young fellow,
written from Rouen three days after he had left them, and in this he
had explained how, after a most circuitous journey, he had just reached
that town, in view of making his way to Paris. And there had been
nothing further for an entire week–he was now altogether silent.

When Dr. Dalichamp had dressed Jean’s leg in the morning he liked to
linger there for a few minutes. And he even dropped in occasionally
of an evening, when he would stay for a longer time. He was their only
link with the world, that vast outside world, now all topsy-turvy with
catastrophes. The only news they obtained came through him. He had an
ardent, patriotic heart, which overflowed with anger and grief at the
news of each defeat; and he spoke of little else but the invading march
of the Prussians, who since the battle of Sedan had been gradually
spreading over France like the waves of some black, rising sea. Each
day brought its grief, and the doctor, quite overwhelmed, would often
linger on one of the two chairs beside the bed, relating with trembling
gestures how the situation was becoming more and more serious. He
often had his pockets full of Belgian newspapers, which he left behind
him. And thus after the lapse of weeks the echoes of each successive
disaster penetrated to that lonely room, drawing the two poor suffering
creatures shut up there yet closer together, in the bonds of a common
anguish.

And it was in this wise that Henriette read to Jean, from sundry old
newspapers, an account of the events which had taken place around
Metz–the great, heroic battles, which at an interval of one day on
each occasion had been thrice renewed. These battles were already
five weeks old, but Jean was still ignorant of them, and listened
to the accounts in the newspapers with his heart oppressed at
finding that the same misery and defeat, that had caused him so much
suffering, had befallen his comrades over yonder. Whilst Henriette
clearly articulated each sentence in the somewhat singsong voice of
an attentive school-girl, the melancholy story slowly unfolded itself
amid the quivering silence of the room. After Frœschweiler, after
Spichern, at the moment when the vanquished First Corps was carrying
off the Fifth in its rout, such consternation prevailed that the other
corps, écheloned from Metz to Bitche, wavered and fell back, eventually
concentrating in advance of the intrenched camp of Metz, on the right
bank of the Moselle. But how much precious time had been lost in
accomplishing this junction of forces when the retreat on Paris, now
bound to prove a difficult operation, ought to have been hastened with
all despatch! The Emperor had been obliged to surrender the supreme
command to Marshal Bazaine, to whom every one looked for victory, and
then on August 14 came the battle of Borny,[40] when the army was
attacked just as it was at last making up its mind to cross over to
the left bank of the stream. It had two German armies against it–that
of Steinmetz, motionless in front of the intrenched camp which it was
threatening, and that of Frederick Charles, which, after crossing the
river higher up, was approaching along the left bank to cut Bazaine
off from the rest of France. The first shots were only fired at three
in the afternoon and the victory proved a barren one, for although the
French corps remained in possession of their positions, they found
themselves immobilised on the two banks of the Moselle, whilst the
turning movement of the second German army was completed. Then on the
16th came Rézonville: all the corps at last landed on the left bank
of the river, the third and fourth alone lagging behind, belated by
the frightful block at the intersection of the roads of Etain and
Mars-la-Tour which had been intercepted early in the morning by an
audacious attack of the Prussian cavalry and artillery. A slowly
fought, confused battle was this engagement of Rézonville, which up to
two o’clock in the afternoon Bazaine might yet have won, since he had
but a handful of men to overthrow, but which he ended by losing through
his inexplicable dread of being cut off from Metz. And it was also a
battle of immense extent, spread over leagues of hills and plains,
where the French, attacked in front and in flank, performed prodigies
of valour to avoid marching forward, giving the enemy the requisite
time to concentrate, and themselves helping on the Prussian plan, which
was to force them back upon the other bank of the river. At last, on
the 18th, after the French had returned to positions in advance of the
intrenched camp, there came St. Privât, the supreme struggle, a line of
attack over eight miles long, two hundred thousand Germans, with seven
hundred guns against one hundred and twenty thousand Frenchmen with
only five hundred guns, the Germans facing Germany, the French facing
France, as though the invaders had become the invaded, in the singular
displacement of forces that had taken place. And after two o’clock the
fight became a most terrible _mêlée_, the Prussian Guard repulsed,
cut to pieces, Bazaine long victorious, strong in the unshakeable
firmness of his left wing, until towards evening his weaker right wing
was obliged to abandon St. Privât, amidst horrible carnage, carrying
away with it the entire army, beaten, thrown back under Metz, enclosed
henceforth in a circle of iron.

At each moment, whilst Henriette was reading, Jean interrupted her to
say: ‘And to think we others had been expecting Bazaine ever since
leaving Rheims!’

The marshal’s despatch of the 19th, the morrow of the battle of St.
Privât, in which he spoke of resuming his movement of retreat by way
of Montmédy–that despatch which had determined the forward march of
the army of Châlons–appeared to be simply the commonplace report of
a beaten general, desirous of attenuating his defeat. Later on, but
only on the 29th, when the news of the approach of an army of succour
had reached him through the Prussian lines, he certainly did attempt a
last effort, at Noiseville, on the right bank of the Moselle, but so
feebly that on September 1, the very day when the army of Châlons was
crushed at Sedan, that of Metz fell back, definitely paralysed, dead
so to say for France. And the marshal, who, so far, had proved himself
merely an indifferent captain, neglecting to march on when the roads
were open, but afterwards really hemmed in by superior forces, was now,
under the sway of political preoccupations, on the point of becoming a
conspirator and a traitor.

In the newspapers, however, that Dr. Dalichamp brought with him,
Bazaine still figured as the great man, the brave soldier from whom
France yet awaited salvation. Jean asked Henriette to read him certain
passages over again, so that he might clearly understand how it was
that the third German army, commanded by the Crown Prince of Prussia,
had been able to pursue them, whilst the first and the second were
blockading Metz, both of them so strong in men and guns that it had
been possible to draw and detach from them that fourth army,[41] which,
under the orders of the Crown Prince of Saxony, had given the finishing
stroke to the disaster of Sedan. Then, having at last grasped these
facts, on the bed of pain to which his wound confined him, he forced
himself despite everything to be hopeful: ‘So that’s why we weren’t
the stronger,’ said he. ‘But no matter, there are figures given there:
Bazaine has a hundred thousand men, three hundred thousand rifles,
and more than five hundred guns; of course he means to deal them some
crushing blow of his invention.’

Henriette nodded, falling in with his opinion so as not to sadden him.
She could not follow all these complicated movements of troops, but
she felt that misfortune was inevitable. As a rule her voice remained
quite clear; she could have gone on reading for hours, simply happy at
the thought that she was interesting him. But at times, whilst perusing
some narrative of slaughter, she all at once began to stammer and her
eyes filled with a sudden flow of tears. Doubtless she had just thought
of her husband shot down over yonder, and kicked against the wall by
the Bavarian officer.

‘If it grieves you too much, you mustn’t read any more battles to me,’
said Jean in surprise.

But, gentle and complaisant, she at once recovered her self-possession:
‘No, no; excuse me, I assure you that it interests me too.’

One evening, during the early days of October, whilst a violent wind
was blowing out of doors, she came back from the ambulance and entered
the room in a state of great emotion: ‘Here’s a letter from Maurice!’
she exclaimed. ‘The doctor received it to-day and has just given it to
me!’

They both had been growing more and more anxious each morning on
finding that the young man still gave no sign of life; and now that for
a whole week rumours had been circulating that Paris was completely
invested they were quite in despair at receiving no tidings, wondering
in their anxiety what could have become of him after his departure from
Rouen. His silence was now explained to them, however; the letter which
Henriette brought home with her, written to Dr. Dalichamp from Paris,
on September 18, the very day when the last trains left for Havre, had
made a tremendous round, only reaching its destination by a miracle,
after going astray a score of times.

‘Ah! the dear fellow!’ exclaimed Jean in delight. ‘Make haste and read
it to me.’

The wind was increasing in violence, and the window was rattling as
though it were being battered with a ram. Henriette placed the lamp on
the table near the bed, and, seated so close to Jean that her wavy hair
brushed against his, she began to read Maurice’s letter. It was very
snug and pleasant in that quiet room whilst the tempest was raging out
of doors.

In the letter, which was a long one, covering eight pages, Maurice
began by explaining that immediately on his arrival in Paris, on
September 16, he had been fortunate enough to get enrolled in a Line
regiment. Then he reverted to the past, and in extremely feverish
language detailed all that he had learnt of the events of that terrible
month: Paris growing calmer after the woeful stupor of Weissenburg and
Frœschweiler, then swiftly indulging in the hope of revenge, falling
into fresh illusions, believing in Bazaine as a commander, in the
_levée en masse_, the imaginary victories, the wholesale slaughtering
of Prussian troops which even ministers themselves announced in the
Chamber of Deputies. And, all at once, he explained how, on September
3, the thunderbolt of Sedan had fallen upon Paris: every hope
shattered, the ignorant, confiding city overwhelmed by the crushing
blow of destiny; the shouts of ‘Dethronement! Dethronement!’ bursting
forth on the Boulevards that same evening; the short, lugubrious night
sitting of the Corps Législatif at which Jules Favre had read out
his proposal for the deposition which the people demanded; then, on
the morrow, September 4, the Downfall of a world, the Second Empire
carried away amid the smash-up of its vices and its faults; the
entire population in the streets, a torrent of half a million of men
filling the Place de la Concorde, in the broad sunshine, and flowing
at last across the bridge to the gates of the Corps Législatif, which
were protected merely by a handful of soldiers who raised the butts
of their guns in the air. Then the crowd bursting the doors open
and invading the Chamber, whence Jules Favre, Gambetta, and other
deputies of the Left soon started to proclaim the Republic at the
Hôtel-de-Ville, whilst a little door of the Louvre, facing the Place
Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, was being set ajar to give egress to the
Empress-Regent, who came forth clad in black, accompanied by a single
female friend, both of them trembling, fleeing, cowering in a cab which
jolted them away, afar from those Tuileries through which the crowd was
now streaming. And on that same day Napoleon III. had quitted the inn
at Bouillon, where he had spent his first night of exile, on the way to
Wilhelmshohe.

With a thoughtful expression on his face Jean interrupted Henriette:
‘So we now have a Republic, then. So much the better if it helps us to
lick the Prussians.’ However, he shook his head doubtfully, for during
his peasant life he had always been told bad things of the Republic.
Besides, it seemed to him that they all ought to agree together, and
unite in presence of the enemy. Yet it was certainly necessary that
there should be a new government of some kind, since the Empire was
shown to be rotten, and nobody would tolerate it any longer.

Then Henriette read the end of the letter, which mentioned the approach
of the German armies. On September 13, the day when a delegation of
the Government of National Defence had established its quarters at
Tours, they had advanced as near as Lagny, on the east of Paris. On
the 14th and 15th they were almost at the city gates, at Créteil and
Joinville-le-Pont. Yet on the 18th, on the morning when he had written,
Maurice still refused to believe in the possibility of completely
investing Paris, swayed as he once more was by superb confidence,
regarding the projected siege as an insolent, hazardous attempt, which
would break down before three weeks were over; relying, too, on the
armies of succour which the provinces would undoubtedly send, without
mentioning the army of Metz, which he imagined to be already on the
march by way of Verdun and Rheims. Nevertheless, the links of the iron
chain had met, and encompassed Paris; and now, separated from the whole
world, the city had become but the great prison of two millions of
living beings, whence came no sound, nothing but a death-like silence.

‘Ah! my God!’ murmured Henriette with anguish at her heart. ‘How long
will it all last, and shall we ever see him again?’

A squall was bending the trees afar off, and drawing groan after groan
from the old timbers of the farmhouse. If the winter should prove a
severe one, how the poor soldiers would suffer, starving and tireless,
and fighting in the snow!

‘All the same,’ concluded Jean, ‘it’s a very nice letter, and it’s
pleasant to have heard from him! One must never despair.’

Then, day by day, the month of October went by, with the sky ever grey
and mournful, and the wind merely abating, to come back before long
with darker and darker flights of clouds. Jean’s wound was cicatrising
very, very slowly; the drainage-tube did not yet discharge the healthy
pus which would have enabled the doctor to remove it, and the wounded
man had become greatly enfeebled, but still obstinately refused to
undergo any operation, for fear lest he should remain a cripple.
And the long hours of resigned waiting which sudden fits of anxiety
occasionally disturbed now seemed to lull that little room to sleep;
that little, lonely room which the news of the world reached but at
long intervals and even then distantly, vaguely, like the visions one
tries to recall on awaking from a nightmare. The abominable war was
continuing somewhere yonder, with its massacres and disasters, but the
exact truth they never learned; they heard nothing but the loud, hollow
clamour of slaughtered France. And now the wind was carrying the leaves
away under the livid sky, and there were long deep spells of silence
over the country-side, athwart which only sped the cawing of the crows,
presaging a bitter winter.

The ambulance, which Henriette seldom left except to keep Jean company,
had now become a frequent subject of conversation between them. He
questioned her when she came in of an evening, learnt to know each of
her charges, wished to be informed which of them were dying and which
were getting well; and she, with her heart full of all these matters,
did not cease speaking of them but recounted in great detail all that
she did during the day. ‘Ah!’ she frequently repeated, ‘the poor
children, the poor children!’

This was not the ambulance of raging battle, the ambulance where fresh
blood flowed, and where the flesh amputated by the surgeon was ruddy
and healthy. It was the ambulance infected by hospital gangrene,
reeking of fever and death, damp with the exhalations of the patients
who were slowly attaining convalescence and of those who were dying by
inches. Dr. Dalichamp had had the greatest difficulty in procuring the
necessary beds, mattresses, and sheets; in order to provide for his
patients, to supply them with bread, meat and dried vegetables, not
to mention compresses, bandages and other appliances, he was forced
to accomplish a fresh miracle every day. As the Prussians, now in
possession of the military hospital of Sedan, refused him everything,
even chloroform, he obtained all his supplies from Belgium. Yet he
tended German as well as French wounded, and among others a dozen
Bavarians who had been picked up at Bazeilles. The foes who had rushed
so frantically at one another’s throats were now lying side by side
reconciled by their common sufferings. And what an abode of horror
and wretchedness that ambulance was–established in two long rooms of
the disused school-house, each containing some fifty beds over which
streamed the broad pale light admitted by the lofty windows!

Ten days after the battle some more wounded men had been brought
thither, forgotten ones who had been discovered in out-of-the-way
corners. Four of them had remained since the fight in an empty house
at Balan, without any medical attendance, living no one knew how,
but probably by the charity of some neighbour; and their wounds were
swarming with maggots, and they died poisoned by their filthy sores.
A purulence which nothing could check was wafted hither and thither,
emptying rows of beds. At the very door an odour of necrosis caught you
at the throat. The wounds were suppurating, drop after drop of fœtid
pus was exuding from the drainage-tubes. It was often necessary to open
the healing flesh again in order to extract splinters of bone, the
presence of which had not been previously suspected. Then an abscess
would form, some flux which broke out in another part of the body.
Exhausted and emaciated, ashen pale, the poor wretches endured every
torture. Some of them, prostrate, scarce breathing, lay all day long
upon their backs with their eyelids closed and blackened, like corpses
already half-decomposed. Others, denied the boon of sleep, agitated by
restless insomnia, bathed in sweat, grew wildly excited as though the
catastrophe had struck them mad. But whether they were violent or calm,
as soon as the shivering of the infectious fever seized them, they were
doomed–the end came, the poison triumphed, flying from one to another
and carrying them all off in the same stream, as it were, of victorious
gangrene.

But there was especially one awful room, the infernal room as it
was called, set apart for those whom dysentery, typhus, and variola
had attacked. There were many who had the black pox, and these were
restless, cried out in ceaseless delirium, and rose up erect in their
beds looking like spectres. Others, wounded in the lungs, racked by
frightful coughs, were dying of pneumonia. Others again, who howled,
obtained no relief except from the refreshing cold water which was
allowed to trickle on their wounds. And the hour when their wounds
were dressed was the hour which they all waited for, the only time
when a little calmness was restored, when the beds were aired, when
the sufferers, stiffened by remaining so long without moving, were
eased by a change of position. And this was also the dreaded hour,
for not a day went by but the doctor, whilst examining the sores, was
grieved to notice some bluey specks, the marks of invading gangrene on
some poor devil’s skin. The operation would take place on the morrow.
Another bit of leg or arm was cut away. And sometimes the gangrene
ascended yet higher, and amputation had to be repeated, until the whole
limb had been lopped off. Then perhaps the sufferer’s entire body was
attacked, became covered with the livid spots of typhus, and he had to
be removed, staggering, dizzy, and haggard, into the inferno where he
succumbed, his flesh already dead, exhaling a corpse-like smell before
he even began to agonise.

Every evening on her return home, Henriette answered Jean’s questions
in the same tremulous tone of emotion: ‘Ah, the poor children, the poor
children!’

And the particulars she gave were ever the same; each day brought
similar torments in that inferno. An arm had been amputated at the
shoulder, a foot had been cut off, the resection of a humerus had
been performed; but would these means suffice to arrest gangrene or
purulent infection? Another man, too, had been buried, more frequently
a Frenchman, at times a German. Not a day went by but a coffin, formed
of four planks hastily knocked together, left the school-house in the
twilight, accompanied by a single ambulance attendant, and often by
Henriette herself, unwilling as she was that a fellow-creature should
be poked away under the ground like a dog. Two trenches had been dug in
the little cemetery of Remilly; and they all slept there side by side,
the Germans in the trench on the left, the French in that on the right,
reconciled together under the sod.

Though he had never seen them, Jean had ended by becoming interested in
some of the wounded and would ask for news of them: ‘And how is “Poor
child” getting on to-day?’

‘Poor child’ was a little infantryman, a soldier of the 5th of the
Line, who had volunteered for the war and was not yet twenty years
of age. The nickname of ‘Poor child’ had stuck to him because he
incessantly employed it in referring to himself; and one day on being
asked the reason of this, he had answered that his mother had always
called him in that fashion. And indeed he was a poor child, for he was
dying of pleurisy, brought on by a wound in the left side.

‘Ah! the dear lad,’ said Henriette, who felt quite a motherly affection
for him: ‘he’s not at all well, he coughed all day. It pains my heart
to hear him.’

‘And your bear–your Gutmann?’ resumed Jean with a faint smile. ‘Is the
doctor more hopeful?’

‘Yes, perhaps he will be saved, but he suffers horribly.’

Great as was their compassion, neither of them could speak of Gutmann
without a kind of emotional gaiety. On the very first day that the
young woman had gone to the ambulance, she had been thunderstruck at
sight of this Bavarian soldier, in whom she recognised the red-haired,
red-bearded man, with big blue eyes and square-shaped nose, who had
carried her off in his arms at Bazeilles, whilst her husband was being
shot. He also recognised her, but he could not speak, for a bullet,
penetrating by the back of the neck, had carried away half of his
tongue. And after recoiling with horror during the first two days,
shuddering involuntarily each time that she approached his bed, she had
been conquered by the despairing, gentle glances with which he watched
her. Was he no longer then the monster with blood-splashed hair,
and eyes inverted with rage, who haunted her with such a frightful
recollection? She had to make an effort to recognise him in this
unfortunate man with such a good-natured air, who proved so docile
too, amid his atrocious sufferings. The nature of his affliction, one
of by no means frequent occurrence, his sudden distressing infirmity,
touched the entire ambulance with compassion. They were not even sure
that his name was Gutmann, he was simply called so because the only
sound he could manage to utter was a grunt of two syllables which
formed something like that name. With regard to other matters, it was
surmised that he was married and had children. He must have understood
a few words of French, for he replied at times with an energetic nod of
the head. Married? Yes, yes! Children? Yes, yes! Moreover, the emotion
he displayed one day on seeing some flour had prompted the supposition
that he might be a miller. But that was all. Where was the mill? In
what far-away village of Bavaria were his little ones and his wife now
weeping? Would he die without being identified, without a name, leaving
those who belonged to him over yonder for ever waiting for his return?

‘Gutmann kissed his hand to me to-day,’ Henriette told Jean one
evening. ‘I can no longer give him anything to drink or render him
the slightest service, but he raises his fingers to his lips, with a
fervent gesture of gratitude.–You mustn’t smile, it’s too dreadful, it
is like being buried before one’s time.’

Towards the end of October Jean’s condition had improved, and the
doctor consented to remove the drainage-tube, though he still continued
anxious. And yet the wound appeared to be cicatrising pretty swiftly.
Jean was then allowed to get up, and would spend long hours walking
about the room and sitting at the window, where he was saddened by the
sight of the flying clouds. Then he began to feel bored and talked
of employing himself in some way, of rendering himself useful at the
farm. One of his secret worries was the question of money, for he
realised that his two hundred francs must have been entirely spent
during the six long weeks that he had lain in bed. If old Fouchard
continued showing him a pleasant face it must be that Henriette was
paying for his board and lodging. This thought greatly worried him,
though he lacked the courage to bring about an explanation; and thus he
experienced much relief when it was agreed that he should be passed off
as a new hand, entrusted, like Silvine, with a part of the house-duties
whilst Prosper attended to the outdoor work.

Hard though the times were, a hand the more was none too many at
Fouchard’s, for the old fellow’s affairs were prospering. Whilst the
entire country was groaning in agony, bled in every limb, he had
contrived to extend his butcher’s business to such a point that he now
slaughtered three and four times as many animals as formerly. It was
said that he had entered into a superb contract with the Prussians
already on August 31. He, who on the 30th had defended his door, gun
in hand, refusing to sell even a crust of bread to the men of the
Seventh Corps, shouting to them that his house was quite empty, had on
the morrow, upon the arrival of the first German soldiers, exhumed all
sorts of provisions from his cellars and brought back perfect flocks
and herds from the mysterious nooks where he had concealed them. And
since then he had become one of the principal purveyors of meat to the
German armies, displaying wonderful artfulness in disposing of his
stock and in getting paid for it between a couple of requisitions.
Others suffered from the often brutal demands of the conquerors, but so
far he had not supplied a bushel of flour, a cask of wine, or a quarter
of beef without obtaining hard cash in return. Folks talked a good
deal about it in Remilly, and it was considered scandalous on the part
of a man who had just lost his son in the war, his son whose grave he
did not even visit, Silvine being the only person who kept it trim and
neat. Yet, all the same, the old fellow was respected for the talent
he displayed in making money at a time when others, thought to be very
shrewd, were being stripped to the skin. For his own part, on hearing
of the tittle-tattle, he shrugged his shoulders in a jeering way, and
like the obstinate man he was, whose broad back could well bear the
weight of a little abuse, he contented himself with growling: ‘Patriot!
patriot! why, I’m more of a patriot than all of them put together! Is
it patriotic to gorge the Prussians with food for nothing? I make them
pay for everything. You’ll all see, you’ll all see, by-and-by.’

Jean had only been up and about again for a couple of days when he
remained too long on his legs and the doctor’s secret fears were
realised: the sore reopened, inflammation caused the leg to swell
and the wounded man had to take to his bed again. Dalichamp ended
by suspecting the presence of a splinter of bone, which the efforts
made during a couple of days’ exercise had served to liberate. He
searched the wound for it and succeeded in extracting it. But all this
caused Jean a great shock and brought on a violent fever, which again
exhausted him. Never before indeed had his weakness been so great.
Henriette, like the faithful nurse she was, resumed her place in his
room, which was becoming quite dismal now that the winter was setting
in. They were in the early days of November, the east wind had already
brought them a fall of snow, and it was bitterly cold on the tiled
floor between those four bare walls. As there was no chimney in the
room, they decided to set up a stove, the snorting of which somewhat
enlivened their solitude.

The days passed by monotonously, and this first week of Jean’s relapse
was certainly both for himself and Henriette the most melancholy of
their long, enforced intimacy. Would their sufferings never terminate?
Would danger ever and ever reappear, without any hope of an end to
all their wretchedness? At every hour their thoughts flew away to
Maurice, from whom they had received no further tidings. Yet it was
said that others received letters, tiny notes brought them by carrier
pigeons. Doubtless some German bullet had killed, aloft in the open
sky, the bird that had been bringing them their supply of joy and love.
Everything seemed to become more distant, to fade away and disappear
in the depths of the early winter. The war rumours now only reached
them after long intervals; the few newspapers which Dr. Dalichamp still
brought with him were often a week old. Thus their sadness was due less
to certain knowledge than to what they did not know but divined, to the
long death-cry which, despite everything, they could instinctively
hear piercing through the silence of the country around the farm.

One morning the doctor arrived looking terribly upset and with his
hands trembling. He pulled a Belgian newspaper from his pocket and
flinging it on the bed exclaimed: ‘Ah, my poor friends, France is dead,
Bazaine has betrayed us!’

Jean, who was dozing, propped up by a couple of pillows, awoke at once:
‘How, betrayed?’

‘Yes, he has delivered up Metz and the army. It’s the blow of Sedan
all over again, and this time it’s the rest of our flesh and our blood
that has gone!’ Then taking up the newspaper again he read: ‘One
hundred and fifty thousand prisoners, one hundred and fifty-three
eagles and colours, five hundred and forty-one field guns, seventy-six
mitrailleuses, eight hundred fortress guns, three hundred thousand
rifles, two thousand army service vans, the _matériel_ of eighty-five
batteries—-‘

And he continued giving particulars: Marshal Bazaine, shut up with
his army in Metz, reduced to a powerless state, making no effort to
break through the iron circle that encompassed him; his systematic
intercourse with Prince Frederick Charles, his ambiguous, hesitating
political combinations, his ambition to play a decisive part which
he did not appear, however, to have well determined; then all the
complicated negotiations, the despatch of equivocal, lying emissaries
to Count von Bismarck, King William, and the Empress-Regent, who
ultimately refused to treat with the enemy on the basis of a cession of
territory; and then the inevitable catastrophe, destiny completing its
work, famine breaking out in Metz, compulsory capitulation, commanders
and soldiers reduced to accept the harsh terms of the victors. France
no longer had an army![42]

‘Curse it!’ swore Jean in a hollow voice. He did not yet understand
everything, but until that moment he had continued in the belief that
Bazaine was the great captain, the one possible saviour of France. ‘And
what’s to be done now?’ he gasped. ‘What is becoming of them in Paris?’

The doctor, as it happened, was just coming to the news from Paris,
which was disastrous. He called attention to the fact that his
newspaper bore the date of November 5. Metz had surrendered on October
27, and the news had only been known in Paris on the 30th. After the
repulses at Chevilly, Bagneux, and La Malmaison, after the fight
and loss of Le Bourget, these tidings from Metz had fallen like a
thunderbolt on the despairing population, which was already irritated
by the weakness and impotence of the Government of National Defence.
And thus, on the morrow, October 31, quite an insurrection had broken
out, an immense crowd assembling on the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville,
invading the building, and detaining as prisoners the members of the
Government whom the National Guard did not deliver till late at night
and then only because they feared the triumph of the revolutionaries
who demanded the Commune.[43] And to this account of the affair the
Belgian newspaper appended some extremely insulting remarks concerning
the great city of Paris, which civil war was rending when the enemy was
at its gates. Was not this the final decomposition, the puddle of blood
and mire into which this falling world must ultimately sink?

‘It’s quite true,’ muttered Jean, who was extremely pale, ‘they
oughtn’t to fight among themselves when the Prussians are there.’

Henriette, who had so far said nothing, not wishing to meddle in these
political matters, was now, however, unable to restrain the cry of her
heart. She was thinking of her brother! ‘Good heavens! I hope that
Maurice, who is so excitable, won’t mix himself up in all those things.’

There was a pause, and then that ardent patriot, the doctor, resumed:
‘No matter, other soldiers will spring up if there be none left. Metz
has surrendered, Paris itself may surrender, but even that won’t be the
end of France. The chest’s all right, as our peasants say, and we shall
still survive.’

It could be seen, however, that he was forcing himself to be hopeful.
He spoke of the new army now being formed on the Loire, whose first
operations in the direction of Artenay had not proved very fortunate:
however, it would soon become inured to warfare and march to the help
of Paris. The doctor was particularly excited by the proclamations in
which Gambetta, who had left Paris on October 7, and two days later
had established himself at Tours, called all citizens under arms, in
language at once so virile and so sensible that the entire country was
surrendering itself to his dictatorship. And was it not also proposed
to form another army in the North, and yet another one in the East–to
make soldiers spring from the ground by the mere power of faith? It
was the awakening of the provinces, the unconquerable determination to
create and provide everything that was lacking, and to fight on to the
last copper and the last drop of blood.

‘Hum!’ the doctor added, as he rose to go away, ‘I myself have often
condemned patients who were on their legs again a week afterwards.’

‘Well, make haste and cure me, doctor, so that I may return to my
duties,’ said Jean smiling.

However, both he and Henriette were greatly saddened by all these evil
tidings. That same evening there was another snowstorm, and next day,
when Henriette came back from the ambulance shivering, she announced
that Gutmann was dead. The bitter cold was decimating the wounded,
emptying rows upon rows of beds. The wretched dumb soldier with the
tongueless mouth had agonised during two long days. Henriette had
remained at his bedside during his last hours, unable to resist the
supplicating glances he had turned towards her. He spoke to her with
his tearful eyes, perhaps trying to tell her his real name, and the
name of the distant village where his wife and little ones were waiting
for him. And he passed away, unknown, sending her with his twitching
fingers a last farewell kiss, as though to thank her for all her
kindness. She alone accompanied his body to the cemetery, where the
frozen earth, the heavy foreign soil mingled with lumps of snow, fell
with a dull sound upon his deal coffin.

Then on her return the next evening she exclaimed: ‘”Poor child” is
dead!’ For this one she was weeping: ‘If you could only have seen him
in his delirium. He called me “Mamma! mamma!” and stretched out such
loving arms that I had to take him on my knees. Ah! the poor fellow!
suffering had so wasted him that he weighed no heavier than a little
boy. And I rocked him in my arms so that he might die relieved–yes,
I rocked him whilst he called me mother, though I am but a few years
older than he was. He wept, poor fellow, and I could not help weeping
myself and am still weeping now.’ Her sobs were suffocating her and she
had to pause. ‘When he died,’ she resumed, ‘he stammered that nickname
of his: “Poor child! poor child!” Ah, yes indeed, they are poor
children, all of them, all those brave fellows, some of them so young,
whom your abominable war maims and mangles, whom it condemns to so much
suffering before they are laid in the ground!’

And now not a day went by but Henriette came home distracted by some
fresh agony; and the sufferings of others seemed to link her and Jean
closer together during the sad hours when they were so much alone in
that large, peaceful room. And yet those hours were also very sweet
ones, for affection had come to them, a fraternal affection, as they
thought, between their two hearts which had slowly learned to know
one another. He, of such a thoughtful nature, had risen to a higher
level during their continuous intimacy; she, finding him so good and
reasonable, no longer remembered that he was but one of the humble,
and had driven the plough before he carried the knapsack. They agreed
together very well, they got on capitally, as Silvine expressed it with
her grave smile. No embarrassment had ever arisen between them whilst
she nursed him. Invariably clad in the black garments of her widowhood,
it seemed as though she had ceased to be a woman.

And yet, during the long afternoons when he found himself alone, Jean
could not help pondering on it all. His feeling towards her was one of
infinite gratitude, a kind of devout respect that would have impelled
him to brush aside any idea of love as sacrilegious. Still he reflected
that had he had such a woman as her for his wife, one so loving, so
gentle, and so helpful, life would have become an earthly paradise.
His earlier misfortunes, the evil years he had spent at Rognes, his
disastrous marriage, the tragic death of his wife, all the past came
back to him with regretfulness for love, and a vague confused hope of
wooing happiness once more. He closed his eyes, allowed himself to
sink into a semi-somnolent state, and then confusedly pictured himself
at Remilly, married afresh, and owning a field or two, which would
suffice to provide for a couple of honest, unaspiring folks. The vision
was so slight, so vague, that it could most certainly never have any
existence. Indeed, he deemed himself henceforth incapable of any warmer
feeling than friendship, and if he were so attached to Henriette it
was, he thought, simply because he was Maurice’s brother. Nevertheless,
this hazy dream of marriage at last became a consolation as it were,
one of those fancies with which one cheers the hours of sadness, though
one knows that they can never be realised.

No such thoughts, however, had for a moment presented themselves to
Henriette’s mind. The atrocious tragedy of Bazeilles had lacerated her
heart, and if any relief, any fresh affection were penetrating it, it
could only be without her knowledge, by a stealthy march like that of
the germinating seed, whose hidden labour there is nothing to reveal.
She was ignorant even of the pleasure she at last took in remaining for
hours beside Jean’s bed, reading to him those newspapers which brought
them, however, only sadness. Never had the slightest warmth come to
her hand when it brushed against his; never even had thought of the
morrow left her in a dreamy mood, with a wish to be loved again. And
yet it was only in that room that she forgot, and felt consoled. When
she was there, busying herself with her gentle activeness, her heart
grew calmer; it seemed to her as though her brother would soon come
back again, that everything would be arranged, and that it would end
by their all being happy together, never to part again. And she would
speak of all this without feeling in any wise embarrassed, so natural
did it seem to her that things should end in this way; and never did
she think of questioning herself any further, utterly ignorant as she
was that she had chastely bestowed her heart.

One afternoon, however, as she was about to return to the ambulance,
the terror that froze her at sight of a Prussian captain and two other
officers whom she found in the kitchen revealed to her the great
affection that she felt for Jean. These officers had evidently heard of
the wounded man’s presence at the farm, and had come to fetch him–he
would inevitably be dragged away, carried off into captivity in the
depths of some German fortress. She listened, trembling, with her heart
beating loudly.

The captain, a stout man, who spoke French with scarcely any foreign
accent, was violently upbraiding old Fouchard: ‘It cannot go on like
this,’ he said; ‘you are playing the fool with us! I came in person to
warn you that should it occur again I shall make you responsible, and
take steps to punish you.’

The old man, although he was really very cool and collected, affected
the bewilderment of one who fails to understand, with his mouth agape
and his arms hanging: ‘What is it, sir, what is it?’

‘Don’t get my blood up; you know very well that the three cows you sold
us last Sunday were rotten–yes, rotten–or rather diseased; killed by
some disgusting complaint–for the meat has quite poisoned my men, and
two of them must now be dead.’

At this Fouchard put on an air of virtuous indignation: ‘Rotten?
My cows rotten! Such beautiful meat; meat fit to be given to an
_accouchée_ to restore her to health and strength!’ Then he whimpered
and thumped himself on the chest, and declared that he was an honest
man, and would rather cut off some of his own flesh than sell any bad
meat. He was known, and for thirty years that he had been a butcher
there was nobody in the world who could say that he had not always
given good weight and good quality. ‘Those cows were as healthy as
they could be, sir, and if your men have had the stomach-ache, it must
surely be because they ate too much; unless some villains dropped some
poison in the pot—-‘

He poured forth such a flood of words, indulged in such ridiculous
suppositions that the captain, quite beside himself, hastily
interrupted him: ‘That will do! You are warned, so take care! And now
another matter: We suspect all of you here, in this village, of lending
assistance to the Francs-tireurs of the Dieulet Woods, who killed
another of our sentries only the night before last. You hear me? well,
mind you take care!’

When the Prussians had gone away old Fouchard shrugged his shoulders
and sneered with profound contempt. Diseased animals indeed? why of
course he sold them diseased animals, he didn’t sell them anything
else! All the carrion that the peasants brought him, whatever died
of disease and was picked up in the ditches–wasn’t that good enough
for those dirty hounds? Turning towards Henriette, whose fears had
been relieved on discovering what purpose it was that had brought the
Prussians there, he tipped her a wink and muttered with a chuckle of
triumph: ‘And to think, little one, that some folks say I’m not a
patriot. Why don’t they do as I do, cram those brutes with bad meat and
pocket their silver? Not a patriot, indeed! Why, I shall have killed
more of them with my rotten cows than many soldiers will have killed
with their chassepots!’

However, when Jean came to hear of the affair he felt very uneasy.
If the German authorities suspected the inhabitants of Remilly of
harbouring the Francs-tireurs of the Dieulet Woods they might at any
time make a perquisition and discover him. The idea of compromising
those who had sheltered him, of causing Henriette the slightest worry,
was more than he could bear, and he was anxious to leave the farm at
once. So pressing, however, were the young woman’s entreaties, that
she prevailed on him to stay a few days longer, for his wound was
cicatrising but slowly, and his legs were not yet strong enough to
enable him to join one of the campaigning regiments either in the North
or on the Loire.

Then, until mid-December, came the most nipping, dismal, heartrending
days of their solitude. The cold had become so intense that the stove
no longer warmed the big, bare room. Whenever they looked out of the
window at the thick snow covering the ground they bethought themselves
of Maurice, buried over yonder in frozen, lifeless Paris, whence no
certain tidings reached them. The same questions were ever on their
lips: What was he doing? Why did he give no sign of life? They did
not dare to express their horrible fears–he might be wounded, ill,
perhaps dead. The vague, scanty information which from time to time
still reached them through the newspapers was not of a nature to
reassure them. After various reports of so-called successful _sorties_,
invariably contradicted as time went on, there had come a rumour of a
great victory gained at Champigny, on December 2, by General Ducrot.
But they afterwards learned that he had been obliged to recross the
Marne on the morrow, abandoning the positions he had conquered to the
foe. And now at each hour the bonds that were strangling Paris pressed
more and more tightly round her, famine was beginning, potatoes as
well as cattle and horses had been requisitioned, gas was no longer
supplied to private consumers, and the streets were soon plunged
at night-time into perfect darkness, through which, ere long, the
bombarding shells were to wing their lurid flight. And now Jean and
Henriette never warmed themselves, never ate without being haunted by
thoughts of Maurice and those two millions of living beings shut up in
that gigantic tomb.

From all sides, moreover, from Northern as from Central France, the
tidings were becoming more grievous. In the North the Twenty-second
Army Corps, formed of Mobile Guards, depôt companies, officers and
soldiers who had escaped the disasters of Sedan and Metz, had been
obliged to abandon Amiens and fall back in the direction of Arras; and
Rouen in its turn had just fallen into the enemy’s hands, no serious
effort to defend it having been made by that handful of demoralised,
disbanded men. In Central France, the victory of Coulmiers, gained on
November 3 by the Army of the Loire, had given birth to ardent hopes:
Orleans having been reoccupied and the Bavarians put to flight, a
forward march would ensue by way of Etampes, and Paris would speedily
be delivered. But on December 5, Prince Frederick Charles recaptured
Orleans, and cut the Army of the Loire in two, three of its corps
withdrawing towards Vierzon and Bourges whilst the two others under
the orders of General Chanzy fell back, step by step, as far as Le
Mans, during an entire week of incessant marching and fighting. The
Prussians were everywhere–at Dijon as well as at Dieppe, on the road
to Le Mans as well as at Vierzon. And then, too, almost every morning
there resounded the distant crash of some stronghold capitulating
under the shells. Strasburg had succumbed already on September 28,
after forty-six days of siege and thirty-seven days of bombardment,
its ramparts pounded, its monuments riddled by nearly two hundred
thousand projectiles. The citadel of Laon had previously blown
up, Toul also had capitulated; and then came a dismal procession
of surrenders:–Soissons, with one hundred and twenty-eight guns;
Schelestadt, with one hundred and twenty; Verdun, which mounted one
hundred and thirty-six; Neuf Brisach, one hundred; La Fère, seventy;
Montmédy, sixty-five. Thionville, mounting its two hundred and fifty
cannon, was in flames; Phalsburg, defended by five and sixty guns, only
opened its gates during the twelfth week of its furious resistance.
It seemed as though the whole of France were burning, crumbling, and
sinking amid the rageful cannonade.[44]

One morning when Jean insisted on starting off Henriette caught hold of
his hands and detained him with a despairing grasp. ‘No, no,’ said she,
‘do not leave me all alone, I beg of you; you are still too weak, wait
for a few days, only for a few days longer; I promise that I will let
you start when the doctor says you are strong enough to fight.’