FROM BELFORT TO RHEIMS

The camp was pitched in the centre of a fertile plain at a mile or so
from Mulhausen, in the direction of the Rhine. In the twilight of a
sultry day in August, under the dull sky, across which heavy clouds
were drifting, the rows of shelter-tents could be seen stretching out
amid a broad expanse of ploughed land. At regular intervals along the
front gleamed the piles of arms, guarded by sentinels with loaded
rifles, who stood there stock-still, their eyes fixed dreamily on the
violet-tinted mist which was rising from the great river on the far
horizon.

The men had arrived from Belfort at about five o’ clock. It was now
eight, and they had only just received their rations. The firewood,
however, had apparently gone astray, for none had been distributed, so
that there was neither fire nor _soupe_. The men had been obliged to
munch their hard, dry biscuit, washing it down with copious draughts
of brandy, which had dealt the last blow, as it were, to their failing
legs, already nerveless through fatigue. Near the canteen, however,
beyond the stacks of arms, two men were stubbornly endeavouring to
light some green wood–a pile of young tree trunks, which they had cut
down with their sword-bayonets, and which obstinately refused to blaze.
Merely a coil of thick black smoke of lugubrious aspect ascended from
the heap into the evening air.

There were here only 12,000 men, all that General Félix Douay had
with him of the Seventh Army Corps. The first division, summoned by
MacMahon the day before, had started for Frœschweiler; the third was
still at Lyons; and the general had resolved to leave Belfort and
advance to the front with merely the second division, supported by
the reserve artillery and an incomplete division of horse. Camp fires
had been signalled at Lorrach, and the Sub-Prefect of Schelestadt
had telegraphed that the Prussians were about to cross the Rhine at
Margolsheim. The general, who realised how dangerous was his isolated
position at the extreme right of the other army corps, with none of
which he was in communication, had hastened his advance to the frontier
the more rapidly, as news had reached him, the day before, of the
disastrous surprise of Weissenburg. Even supposing he did not have to
resist an attack on his own lines, it was now to be feared that he
might at any moment be called upon to support the First Army Corps.[1]
That very day–that disquieting, stormy Saturday, August 6–there must
have been fighting somewhere, most probably near Frœschweiler. There
were signs of it in the air, in the heavy, restless sky across which
there now and again swept a chilly shudder–a sudden gust of wind which
passed by moaning, as if with anguish. For the past two days the troops
had been convinced that they were advancing to battle. They one and all
expected to find the Prussians in front of them at the end of their
forced march from Belfort to Mulhausen.

The daylight was waning, when, from a distant corner of the camp, the
tattoo sounded–a roll of the drums followed by a bugle call, faint
as yet, wafted away, as it was, through the open air. It was heard,
however, by Jean Macquart,[2] who had been endeavouring to strengthen
his tent by driving the pickets deeper into the ground, and who now
rapidly rose to his feet. Still bleeding from the grievous tragedy in
which he had lost Françoise, his wife, and the land she had brought
him in marriage, he had left Rognes, and, although nine-and-thirty
years of age, had re-enlisted at the first rumour of war. Immediately
enrolled, with his old rank of corporal, in the 106th Regiment of the
Infantry of the Line, then being brought up to its full strength, Jean
sometimes felt astonished to find himself again in uniform–he who had
been so delighted to leave the service after the battle of Solferino,
so pleased to cease playing the swashbuckler, the part of the man who
kills. But what is a fellow to do when he has no trade or profession
left him, neither wife nor even a scrap of property that he can call
his own in all the wide world, and when grief and rage bring his heart
with a leap into his very throat? Surely he has a right to trounce
his country’s enemies, especially if they plague him. Besides, Jean
remembered the cry he had raised: ‘Ah! dash it all, he would defend the
old soil of France, since he no longer had courage enough to till it!’

On rising up he glanced at the camp, where a final stir was being
occasioned by the passage of the tattoo party. Some men were running to
their quarters; others, already drowsy, sat up or stretched themselves
out with an air of irritated weariness; whilst Jean, the patient
fellow, awaited the roll-call with that well-balanced tranquillity of
mind which made him such a capital soldier. His comrades said he would
probably have risen rapidly in rank had he been more of a scholar, but
it happened that he only just knew how to read and write, and he did
not even covet a sergeant’s stripes. He who has been a peasant always
remains one.

Jean was concerned at the sight of the green logs which were still
smoking, and called to the two men–Loubet and Lapoulle, both belonging
to his squad–who were desperately endeavouring to kindle the fire:
‘Just let that be. You’re poisoning us with that smoke.’

Loubet, who was lithe and active, with the look of a wag, sneeringly
replied, ‘It’s catching alight, corporal; I assure you it is.’ And
giving his comrade Lapoulle a push, he added, ‘Here, _you_, why don’t
you blow?’

In point of fact, Lapoulle, a perfect colossus, was exhausting himself
in his efforts to raise a tempest, with his cheeks puffed out like
goat-skins full of liquor, his whole face suffused by a rush of blood,
and his eyes red and full of tears. Two other men of the squad,
Chouteau and Pache–the former of whom lay on his back like a lazybones
fond of his ease, whilst the other had assumed a crouching posture that
he might carefully repair a rent in his trousers–were greatly amused
by the fearful grimace which that brute Lapoulle was making, and burst
at last into a roar of laughter.

Jean let them laugh. There would, perhaps, not be many more
opportunities for gaiety; and despite the serious expression which
sat on his full, round, regular-featured face, he was by no means a
partisan of melancholy. Indeed, he closed his eyes readily enough
whenever his men wished to amuse themselves. However, another group
now attracted his attention. For nearly an hour one of the privates
of his squad, Maurice Levasseur, had been chatting with a civilian, a
red-haired individual, looking some six-and-thirty years of age, with a
good-dog-Tray sort of face, and large blue goggle eyes–short-sighted
eyes, which had led to his being exempted from military service. A
quartermaster of the reserve artillery, who with his dark moustache and
imperial had a bold confident air, had joined the couple; and the three
of them tarried there, making themselves at home.

To spare them a reprimand, Jean, in his obliging way, thought it his
duty to intervene. ‘You would do well to leave, sir,’ he said to the
civilian. ‘Here comes the tattoo, and if the lieutenant saw you—-‘

Maurice did not let him finish. ‘Don’t go, Weiss,’ said he; and,
addressing the corporal, he dryly added, ‘This gentleman is my
brother-in-law. The colonel knows him, and has given him permission to
remain in camp.’

Why did this peasant, Jean Macquart, whose hands still smelt of the
dungheap, interfere in a matter that did not concern him? thought
Maurice. He, who had been called to the bar during the previous autumn,
and who, on joining the army as a volunteer, had been forthwith
enrolled in the 106th of the Line, thanks to the colonel’s protection,
and without having to undergo the usual probation at the depôt–carried
his knapsack willingly enough; but, at the very outset, a feeling of
repugnance, of covert revolt, had turned him against this illiterate
corporal, the clodhopper who commanded him.

‘All right,’ retorted Jean, in his quiet way. ‘Get yourselves caught. I
don’t care a rap.’

Then he abruptly faced about on finding that Maurice had not told him
a fib; for at that very moment the colonel, M. de Vineuil, whose long
yellow face was intersected by bushy white moustaches, passed by with
that grand aristocratic air of his, and acknowledged the salute of
Weiss and Maurice with a smile. The colonel was walking rapidly towards
a farmhouse which peeped out from among some plum trees on the right
hand, a few hundred paces away. The staff was installed there for the
night, but no one knew whether the commander of the Army Corps–struck
down by the grievous tidings that his brother had been killed at
Weissenburg[3]–was there or not. Major-General Bourgain-Desfeuilles,
to whose brigade the 106th Regiment belonged, was, however, assuredly
at the farm, brawling no doubt according to his wont, with his huge
belly swaying to and fro atop of his diminutive legs, and with his face
highly coloured, like the face of one fond of the table, who is not
troubled with any excess of brains. There was an increasing stir around
the farmhouse; every minute or so estafettes were galloping off and
returning; and feverish, indeed, were the long hours of waiting for the
belated telegrams that were expected to bring news of the great battle,
which since daybreak everyone had deemed inevitable and proximate.
Where had it been fought, and how had it resulted? By degrees, as the
night fell, it seemed as though the spirit of anxiety were brooding
over the orchards, over the scattered stacks, and around the cow-sheds,
spreading itself out on all sides like a shadowy sea. The men told one
another that a Prussian spy had been caught prowling about the camp,
and had been conducted to the farm to be questioned by the general. If
Colonel de Vineuil ran there so fast it was, perhaps, because he had
received a telegram.

Meanwhile, Maurice Levasseur had begun to chat again with his
brother-in-law Weiss, and his cousin Honoré Fouchard, the
quartermaster. The tattoo party, coming from afar off with its numbers
gradually strengthened, passed near them, drumming and trumpeting
in the melancholy twilight peacefulness; and yet they did not seem
to hear it even. Grandson of a hero of the First Napoleon’s armies,
Maurice was born at Le Chêne Populeux, in the Argonne. His father,
being turned away from the paths of glory, had sunk down to a meagre
tax-collectorship; and his mother, a peasant woman, had expired in
bringing him and his twin sister, Henriette, into the world. If Maurice
had enlisted in the army, it was because of grave offences, the outcome
of a course of dissipation in which his weak, excitable nature had
embarked at the time when he had repaired to Paris to read for the
bar, and when his relatives had pinched and stinted themselves to
make a gentleman of him. But he had squandered their money in gaming,
on women, and on the thousand and one follies of the all-devouring
city, and his conduct had hastened his father’s death. His sister,
after parting with her all to pay his debts, had been lucky enough to
secure a husband, that honest fellow Weiss, an Alsatian of Mulhausen,
who had long been an accountant at the refinery of Le Chêne Populeux,
and was now an overseer in the employ of M. Delaherche, owner of one
of the principal cloth-weaving establishments of Sedan. Maurice, who
with his nervous nature was seized as promptly with hope as with
despair, who was both generous and enthusiastic, but utterly devoid of
stability–the slave indeed of each shifting, passing breeze–imagined
that he was now quite cured of his follies. Fair and short, with an
unusually large forehead, a small nose and chin, and generally refined
features, he had grey, caressing eyes, in which there gleamed at times
a spark of madness.

Weiss had hastened to Mulhausen on the eve of hostilities, having
suddenly become desirous of settling some family affair; and if he had
availed himself of Colonel de Vineuil’s kindness, in order to shake
hands with his brother-in-law, Maurice, it was because the colonel
happened to be the uncle of young Madame Delaherche, a pretty widow,
whom the cloth merchant of Sedan had married the year before, and whom
both Maurice and Henriette had known when she was a child, her parents
then being neighbours of their own. Besides the colonel, Maurice had
come across another of Madame Delaherche’s connections in the person
of Captain Beaudoin, who commanded his company, and who had been this
lady’s most intimate friend, it was insinuated, at the time when she
was Madame Maginot of Mézières, wife of M. Maginot, inspector of the
State forest.

‘Mind you kiss Henriette for me,’ said Maurice, again and again–he
was, indeed, passionately fond of his sister–‘tell her she will have
every reason to be pleased, and that I want to make her proud of me.’

Tears filled his eyes as he thought of his foolish conduct in Paris;
but his brother-in-law, touched in his turn, changed the conversation
by saying to Honoré Fouchard, the artilleryman: ‘The first time I pass
by Remilly I shall run up and tell uncle Fouchard that I saw you and
found you well.’

Uncle Fouchard, a peasant with a little land of his own, who plied
the calling of itinerant village butcher, was a brother of Maurice’s
mother. He lived at Remilly, right at the top of the hill, at four
miles or so from Sedan.

‘All right,’ said Honoré, quietly; ‘the old man doesn’t care a rap
about me, but, if it pleases you, you can go to see him.’

Just at that moment there was a stir in front of the farmhouse, and
they saw the prowler–the man accused of being a Prussian spy–come
out, accompanied by an officer. He had no doubt produced some papers,
related some plausible tale or other, for he was no longer under
arrest–the officer was simply turning him out of the camp. At that
distance, in the impending darkness, one could only vaguely distinguish
his huge, square-built figure and tawny head. Maurice, however,
impetuously exclaimed: ‘Look there, Honoré. Isn’t that fellow like the
Prussian–you know the man I mean–Goliath?’

The quartermaster started on hearing this name, and fixed his ardent
eyes upon the supposed spy. This mention of Goliath Steinberg, the
slaughterman, the rascal who had made bad blood between himself and
his father, who had robbed him of his sweetheart Silvine, had revived
all the horrible story–the filthy abomination that still caused him
so much suffering–and he felt a sudden impulse to run after the man
and strangle him. But the spy, if such he was, had already passed
beyond the camp lines, and, walking rapidly away, soon vanished in the
darkness of the night.

‘Oh! Goliath,’ muttered Honoré; ‘it isn’t possible. He must be over
there with the others. Ah! if ever I meet him—-‘

And with a threatening gesture he pointed to the darkening horizon, the
violet-tinted eastern sky which to him meant Prussia.

They all relapsed into silence, and the tattoo was again heard afar
off, at the other end of the camp. ‘Blazes!’ resumed Honoré, ‘I shall
get into trouble if I’m not back for the roll call. Good night.
Good-bye to all!’ Then having once more pressed Weiss’s hands he
hastily strode away towards the hillock where the reserve artillery was
massed; he had not again mentioned his father, nor had he even sent any
message to Silvine, whose name burnt his lips.

A few minutes had elapsed, when a bugle call was heard on the left,
near the quarters of the second brigade. Another bugle nearer at hand
replied. Then a third rang out, afar off. They were all sounding, far
and near, when Gaude, the bugler of Jean’s company, made up his mind to
discharge a volley of sonorous notes. He was a big, skinny, sorrowful,
taciturn man, without a hair on his chin, and blew his instrument with
the lungs of a whirlwind.

Sergeant Sapin, an affected little fellow, with big dreamy eyes,
began to call the roll, shouting out the men’s names in a shrill
voice, whilst they, having drawn near to him, made answer in a variety
of tones, now akin to the sound of a violoncello and now to that
of a flute. A break, however, suddenly occurred in the responses.
‘Lapoulle!’ repeated the sergeant, shouting as loud as he could.
There was still no answer, and Jean had to rush to the pile of green
logs, which Lapoulle, egged on by his comrades, was still obstinately
trying to ignite. Stretched there on his stomach, with his face quite
scorched, he continued blowing away the smoke of the blackening wood.

‘Thunder!’ shouted Jean, ‘just leave that alone and answer to your
name.’

Lapoulle sat up with a bewildered air, then appeared to understand, and
finally bellowed ‘Present!’ in a voice so like that of a savage that
Loubet fell flop on the ground, so amazingly funny did he consider the
incident. Pache, who had finished his sewing, replied to his name in a
scarcely audible voice as though he were mumbling a prayer. Chouteau,
without even rising, let his answer drop disdainfully from his lips,
and then stretched himself out more comfortably. Meanwhile, Rochas,
the lieutenant on duty, stood waiting, motionless, a few yards off.
When the roll had been called, and Sergeant Sapin came to tell him that
there was no one missing, he protruded his chin in the direction of
Weiss, who was still chatting with Maurice, and growled from under his
moustache, ‘There’s even one man too many. Why on earth is that fellow
here?’

‘He has the colonel’s permission, sir,’ explained Jean, who had
overheard the question.

Rochas shrugged his shoulders, and, without replying, began walking
up and down in front of the tents pending the time to turn in, whilst
Jean, worn out by the day’s march, sat down not far from Maurice,
whose words reached him without any intentional listening on his part,
occupied as he was with vague dim reflections that were germinating in
the depths of his slow, dull brain.

Maurice was a believer in war, which he considered to be
inevitable–necessary, even, to the existence of nations. This
doctrine had imposed itself upon him since he had adopted the theory
of evolution, which already at that time impassionated young men of
culture. Is not life itself an incessant battle, which does not flag,
even for a second? Continuous fighting, the victory of the fittest, the
maintenance and renewal of strength by action, and the resuscitation of
juvenescent life from death itself–are not these the very essence of
the natural law? Maurice remembered the great transport that had buoyed
him up when, with the view of atoning for his errors, he had thought of
becoming a soldier and hurrying to the frontier. Possibly the voters
of the Plebiscitum, though surrendering themselves to the Emperor, had
not really desired war. Maurice himself, but a week previously, had
declared that such a war as was being spoken of would be both culpable
and idiotic. People were then discussing the candidature of a German
prince to the Spanish throne, and in the confusion which gradually
arose it seemed as if everybody were in the wrong. No one could say
precisely from which side the provocation had come, and only the
inevitable remained, the fatal law which at a given hour impels one
people against another. Then a great thrill swept through Paris, and
Maurice in his mind’s eye still beheld the scenes of that torrid night,
the boulevards a human sea, the bands of men who waved their torches
and shouted: ‘To Berlin! To Berlin! To Berlin!’ And he again saw a tall
woman[4] with a sculptural figure and a queenly profile mount on a
carriage-box in front of the Hôtel de Ville, and, swathed in the folds
of a tricolour flag, chant the ‘Marseillaise.’ Was all that a lie? Had
not the heart of Paris really beaten that night?

As was always the case with Maurice, however, after this nervous
excitement there had come long hours of fearful wavering and disgust.
His arrival at the barracks, the adjutant to whom he had reported
himself, the sergeant who had provided him with his uniform, the
stinking and repulsively filthy dormitory, the rough familiarity of
his new companions, the mechanical exercises which had exhausted his
limbs and rendered his brain so heavy–all these had been unpleasant
experiences. In less than a week, however, he had become accustomed to
his new life, and displayed no further repugnance for it. And, indeed,
when the regiment at last set out for Belfort, enthusiasm again seized
hold of him.

From the very outset he had felt confident of victory. The Emperor’s
plan was quite clear to him. Four hundred thousand men were to cross
the Rhine before the Prussians were ready, and by a bold, vigorous
dash to separate Northern from Southern Germany; whilst, at the same
time, thanks to some brilliant success, Austria and Italy would
speedily be compelled to ally themselves with France. Had it not been
rumoured, too, at one moment, that the Seventh Army Corps, to which
Maurice’s regiment belonged, was to put to sea at Brest in view of
landing in Denmark and creating a diversion which would compel Prussia
to immobilise one of her armies? She was to be surprised, overwhelmed
on every side, crushed in a few weeks’ time. There was to be a mere
military promenade–from Strasburg to Berlin. Since that period of
waiting at Belfort, however, Maurice had been distracted by anxiety.
The Seventh Corps, whose allotted task was to watch the outlets of the
Black Forest, had reached Belfort in fearful confusion, deficient in
men, and lacking everything. It was necessary to wait for the third
division to arrive from Italy.[5] The second cavalry brigade had to
remain at Lyons, as some rioting was feared there; and three batteries
of artillery had actually gone astray, no one knew where. Moreover,
the corps was in an extraordinary state of destitution. The magazines
of Belfort, which were to have supplied all requisites, proved to be
empty; there were no tents, no pots or pans, no flannel waistbands,
no pharmaceutical supplies, no field smithies, no horse-locks, not an
ambulance attendant, nor an artificer. At the last moment, too, it was
discovered that the indispensable spare mechanism for thirty thousand
chassepots was wanting, and it became necessary to send an officer to
Paris, whence he returned with barely sufficient for five thousand
weapons, and he had had the utmost difficulty in obtaining even these.

On the other hand, Maurice was particularly worried by the inaction of
the army. What! they had been there a fortnight–why did they not march
forward? He fully realised that each day’s delay was an irreparable
blunder, an opportunity of victory irretrievably lost. And, confronting
the plan he had dreamt of, there rose up the reality, the blundering
fashion in which this plan had been executed. Of this he was as yet
but anxiously and dimly conscious; it was only at a later period
that he knew the truth–the Seventh Army Corps écheloned or rather
disseminated along the frontier from Metz to Bitche and from Bitche
to Belfort–the regiments invariably below their assumed strength,
there being at best but 230,000 men, when it was supposed that there
were 430,000; the generals jealous of one another, each bent on
gaining his own marshal’s _bâton_ without helping his neighbour; the
most fearful lack of foresight, mobilisation and concentration being
carried out simultaneously to gain time, but resulting in inextricable
confusion; and above all else that creeping paralysis, originating in
high quarters, with the ailing Emperor, who was incapable of prompt
decision, and which was to spread over the entire army, disorganise
and annihilate it, and toss it to the most fearful disasters,
without any possibility of its defending itself. And yet, above the
secret disquietude of those days of waiting, there still lingered an
instinctive confidence in victory.

Suddenly, on August 3, the news of the victory of Saarbrucken, gained
the day before, burst upon one. Nobody knew whether it was a great
victory or not, but the newspapers were brimful of enthusiasm. So
Germany was invaded at last. This was the first step in the glorious
march; and then began the legend of the Prince Imperial, who had
calmly picked up a bullet on the battle field. Two days later, when
the surprise and crushing reverse of Weissenburg became known, a cry
of rage arose from every breast. Five thousand Frenchmen, caught in an
ambuscade, had for ten long hours gallantly resisted five-and-thirty
thousand Prussians–this evidently demanded vengeance! The commanders
had no doubt been guilty in not keeping a better look-out, and in not
foreseeing what had happened; but everything was about to be remedied.
MacMahon had summoned the first division of the Seventh Army Corps; the
First Corps was to be supported by the Fifth;[6] and at the present
time, no doubt, the Prussians had recrossed the Rhine with the bayonets
of the French linesmen in their loins. And the thought that there
must have been some furious fighting that very day, the increasing,
feverish longing for news, all the prevailing anxiety grew and spread
under the broad pale heavens.

Thus it was that Maurice discoursed to Weiss.

‘Ah!’ he added, ‘they must certainly have received a good licking
to-day.’

Instead of replying, Weiss nodded his head with a thoughtful air. He
also was looking towards the Rhine–towards the east, where night had
now completely fallen, and where the sky, darkened as with mystery, had
the aspect of a great black wall. Since the last bugle calls of the
mustering, a profound silence had been falling over the drowsy camp,
disturbed only by the footsteps and converse of a few belated soldiers.
A light, looking like a twinkling star, had just been placed in the
room of the farmhouse where the staff officers sat keeping their vigil,
waiting for the telegrams which arrived at intervals, bringing as yet
only ambiguous tidings. The fire of green wood had been abandoned at
last, but some dense, funereal smoke still ascended from it, and was
driven away by the breeze over the restless farm and towards the sky,
where it dimmed the early stars.

‘A licking!’ repeated Weiss, at last. ‘God grant it!’

Jean, who was still seated a few steps away, pricked up his ears;
and Lieutenant Rochas, noticing the accent of doubt that quivered in
Weiss’s wish, stopped short to listen.

‘What, do you lack confidence?’ Maurice resumed; ‘do you think a defeat
possible?’

His brother-in-law stopped him with a gesture, his hands trembling, his
good-natured face suddenly convulsed and quite pale. ‘A defeat! Heaven
shield us from it! I belong to this part of the country, you know. My
grandfather and grandmother were murdered by the Cossacks, in 1814, and
whenever I think of invasion my hands clench instinctively, and I feel
inclined to go and fight the enemy in my frock-coat, just as I am! But
a defeat–no, no, I won’t believe it possible!’

He became calmer, and his shoulders drooped as though he felt
oppressed. ‘All the same,’ he resumed, ‘I am not at ease. I know
Alsace well; I have just travelled through the province on business,
and have seen things which stared our generals in the face, but which
they refused to see. We Alsatians certainly desired war with Prussia;
we have long been awaiting an opportunity to pay off old scores. But
that did not interfere with our friendly intercourse with Baden and
Bavaria. We most of us have friends or relatives just across the
Rhine. We thought that, like ourselves, they dreamed of curbing the
unbearable pride of the Prussians. Calm and resolute as we usually are,
we have, nevertheless, been seized with impatience and disquietude for
a fortnight past, on seeing how everything has gone from bad to worse.
Ever since the declaration of war the enemy’s cavalry scouts have been
allowed to come and terrify our villages, reconnoitre the country, and
cut the telegraph wires. Baden and Bavaria are rising, masses of troops
are marching through the Palatinate, and the information that has come
in from all sides, from the fairs and the markets, shows that the
frontier is menaced. But when the frightened villagers and their mayors
come and tell all this to the passing officers, the latter shrug their
shoulders and think these peasants are mere poltroons troubled with
hallucinations. The enemy is far away! Ah! the truth is we ought not to
have lost an hour, whereas days and days go by. What can we be waiting
for? For the whole of Germany to fall upon us?’

He spoke in a low, sorrowful voice, as though repeating things that he
had long thought out: ‘Ah! Germany, I know it well, and the pity is
that you others seem to know as little about it as you know of China.
Do you remember my cousin Gunther, Maurice, the young fellow who came
to shake hands with me last spring at Sedan? He is my cousin on the
women’s side. My mother and his are sisters; she was married at Berlin,
and he is a true Prussian; he hates France. He is now serving as a
captain in the Prussian Guards. On the evening when I saw him Off at
the railway station–I still seem to hear him–he said to me in that
rasping voice of his: “If France ever declares war against us she will
be beaten.”‘

Lieutenant Rochas had, so far, restrained himself, but on hearing this
he stepped forward with a furious air. He was a tall, thin fellow,
nearly fifty years old, with a long, battered, tanned, smoked face. His
huge, hooked nose fell over a large mouth–expressive both of violence
and kindliness–above which bristled his coarse grey moustache. ‘What
the —- are you about,’ he thundered, ‘discouraging our men like that?’

Without taking part in the dispute, Jean considered the lieutenant
to be in the right. Though astonished by the long delays and the
prevailing confusion, he had never doubted that they would give the
Prussians a fearful thrashing. It was sure and certain, indeed, since
he and his comrades had been sent there for no other purpose.

‘But I don’t want to discourage anyone,’ replied Weiss, somewhat
taken aback. ‘On the contrary, I wish everyone knew what I know, for
forewarned is forearmed. But listen, Germany—-‘

Then, with that sober-minded air of his, he explained his fears: the
victory of Sadowa had brought Prussia increased power, a national
movement was placing her at the head of the other German States, a
vast empire was in progress of formation, men were seized with an
enthusiastic, irresistible impulse to secure the unification of the
Fatherland. Thanks to the system of compulsory military service the
whole nation was up in arms, fully instructed, well disciplined,
provided with a powerful war material, trained also to European
warfare, and still flushed with the glory of its triumph over Austria.
The intelligence and moral strength of this army were also to be
noted; nearly all the commanders were young men, and took their
orders from a generalissimo who seemed destined to revolutionise the
entire art of war, whose prudence and foresight were perfect, and
whose perspicuity was marvellous. Then, confronting Germany, Weiss
boldly depicted France: the Empire greatly aged, still acclaimed, as
witness the Plebiscitum,[7] but rotten at the basis, having weakened
love of country by destroying liberty, and having reverted to liberal
courses when these could be of no avail but could only accelerate its
fall; and exposed, moreover, to crumble away as soon as it ceased
to encourage the appetite for enjoyment which itself had fostered.
The army, still laden with the laurels of the Crimea and Italy, was
certainly splendidly brave; but the system of allowing men to escape
service by a pecuniary payment had tampered with its efficiency; and
it had been abandoned to the routine of the Algerian school, and was
far too confident of victory to make any real effort for proficiency
in the new science of war. Finally, the generals, for the most part of
indifferent merit, were consumed by rivalry, whilst some were crassly
ignorant, and at the head of them there was the Emperor, ailing and
hesitating, deceived by others and deceiving himself as to the outcome
of this frightful adventure, into which they all plunged like blind
men, without any attempt at serious preparation, and amid universal
bewilderment and confusion, like that of a scared flock driven to the
slaughter-house.

Rochas stood there listening, agape, with his eyes wide open and his
terrible nose contracted. Suddenly, however, he made up his mind to
laugh, with a huge laugh that distended his jaws from ear to ear. ‘What
are you cackling there? What does all this humbug mean?’ he shouted.
‘There’s no sense in it; it is too stupid for anyone to trouble his
head about. Go and tell it to the marines if you like, but not to me;
no, not to me. I’ve seen twenty-seven years’ service!’

So saying, he struck his chest with his clenched hand. The son of a
journeyman mason from the Limousin country, Rochas had been born in
Paris, and not caring for his father’s calling had enlisted when he
was only eighteen. A true soldier of fortune, he started off with
his knapsack, gaining a corporal’s stripes in Algeria, rising to the
rank of a sergeant at Sebastopol, and promoted to a lieutenancy after
Solferino. Fifteen years of hardship and heroic bravery was the price
he had paid to become an officer, but he was so painfully ignorant that
it was certain he would never be made a captain.

‘Come, sir,’ said he to Weiss, ‘although you know everything, here’s
something you don’t know. At Mazagran–I was barely nineteen at the
time–we were only one hundred and twenty-three men, neither more nor
less, yet we held out during four days against twelve thousand Arabs.
Yes, indeed, for years and years out there in Africa, at Mascara,
Biskra, and Dellys, then too in Khabylia, and later on at Laghouat, if
you had only been with us, sir, you would have seen how all those dirty
blackamoors skedaddled as soon as ever we appeared. And at Sebastopol,
sir–ah! dash it, it can’t be said that we had an easy time of it out
there. Gales strong enough to tear the very hair out of your head, such
bitter cold and ceaseless alerts, and then, at the very end, everything
blown into the air by those savages! But all the same we made them
dance–dance to our tune in our own frying pan. And then Solferino–you
were not there, sir, so why do you speak of it? Ah! it _was_ warm at
Solferino–though there fell more water from the sky that day than
you have seen fall in all your life–and a nice dressing we gave the
Austrians. You should have seen how they ran away from our bayonets,
how they galloped and pushed one another aside to run the faster, as if
they were on fire!’

He was brimming over with delight, and all the old military gaiety
of France rang out in his triumphant laugh. This was the legend–the
French trooper marching victoriously all over the world with his
sweetheart on one hand and a glass of good wine in the other; the
universe conquered whilst singing a drinking refrain. A French corporal
and four men, and lo! immense armies of foreigners bit the dust.

But he suddenly thundered out: ‘Beaten, France beaten! Those Prussian
pigs beat such men as we!’ Then stepping up to Weiss he caught hold
of a lapel of his coat. His tall, slim, knight-errant style of figure
expressed profound contempt for any enemy, no matter who that enemy
might be, and supreme indifference as to conditions of time and place.
‘Listen to me, sir,’ he said; ‘if the Prussians dare to come here we
will escort them home again–we’ll kick them all the way back–all the
way back to Berlin. You hear me!’

Then he waved his hand superbly, with the serenity of a child, the
candid conviction of the innocent babe that knows nothing and fears
nothing. ‘_Parbleu_!’ he added. ‘That’s how it is, because it can’t be
otherwise.’

Dazed and almost convinced, Weiss hastily declared that he asked for
nothing better. As for Maurice, who held his tongue, not daring to
speak out before his superior, he ended by laughing in unison with
him. That devil of a lieutenant, stupid though he was, had warmed his
heart. Jean, too, with a nod of the head, had approved each of the
lieutenant’s words. He also had fought at Solferino, when it rained
so heavily. Moreover, that was the proper way to speak. If all the
officers had spoken like that, the men would not have cared a fig about
there being no pots or pans, or flannel waistbands.

For some time past the night had completely fallen, and in the darkness
Rochas continued waving his long arms. He had never spelt through
more than one book–a volume on the victories of Napoleon I. that had
found its way from a pedlar’s box into his knapsack–and unable to
calm himself he vented all his science in this impetuous outburst: ‘At
Castiglione, Marengo, Austerlitz and Wagram we thrashed the Austrians!
At Eylau, Jena, and Lutzen we thrashed Prussia! At Friedland,
Smolensko, and the Moskowa we thrashed the Russians! We thrashed
Spain and England everywhere! We thrashed the whole world, right and
left, from top to bottom. Yet to-day you say we are to be thrashed
ourselves! Why? How? Has the world suddenly been changed?’

He drew himself still more erect, raising his arm like a flag-staff.
‘Listen, there has been fighting to-day, and the staff are waiting for
news. Well, I’ll tell you what news will come! The Prussians have been
thrashed–thrashed to such a point that they have neither arms nor legs
left them, thrashed to such a degree that only crumbs of them remain
for us to sweep away!’

At that moment a loud, dolorous cry resounded under the sombre heavens.
Was it the plaintive note of some night bird? Was it the sobbing voice
of Mystery coming from afar? The whole camp, shrouded in darkness,
shuddered at the sound, and the disquietude fostered by the delay in
the arrival of the expected despatches became more intense, feverish,
and widespread. The flame of the candle that illuminated the anxious
vigil of the staff had shot up higher, and now it was shining erect,
without a flicker, like the flame of a taper beside a death-bed.

But it was ten o’clock; and Gaude, springing from the dark ground where
he had been lost to view, was the first to sound the signal for the men
to retire for the night. Far and near, the other bugles replied, till
the sound gradually died away in a faint flourish, as though the very
instruments were drowsy. Then Weiss, who had lingered there so long,
affectionately pressed Maurice to his heart, and bade him be brave and
hopeful. He would kiss Henriette for him, and say all manner of kind
things to uncle Fouchard.

Just as he was going off a rumour sped through the camp causing a
feverish agitation: Marshal MacMahon had gained a great victory, it
was said; the Crown Prince of Prussia and 25,000 men had been taken
prisoners; the enemy had been driven back, annihilated, leaving his
guns and baggage in the hands of the French.

‘Of course!’ exclaimed Rochas in his thundering voice; and running
after Weiss, who, quite delighted, was hastening away towards
Mulhausen, he added: ‘We’ll kick them all the way back, sir, all the
way back!’

A quarter of an hour later, however, a despatch announced that the army
had been obliged to abandon Wœrth,[8] and was in full retreat. Ah!
What a night! Rochas, overcome by sleep, had wrapped himself in his
cloak, and as often happened was slumbering on the ground, disdaining
any shelter. Maurice and Jean had slipped into the tent, where, with
their heads resting on their knapsacks, Loubet, Chouteau, Pache, and
Lapoulle had already settled themselves. There was just room for six
men, provided they curled up their legs. At the outset Loubet enlivened
all these hungry fellows by convincing Lapoulle that some fowls would
be given out at ration time, next day; they felt so tired, however,
that they were soon snoring, careless whether the Prussians came
or not. Jean remained for a moment quite motionless, pressed close
against Maurice. Despite his great fatigue he could not get to sleep,
for everything that Weiss had said of the innumerable, all-devouring
German nation, that was up in arms against France, was revolving in
his brain; and he realised that his companion also was awake, thinking
of the self-same things. Suddenly Maurice drew back impatiently, and
Jean divined that he inconvenienced him. The instinctive enmity and
repugnance, due to difference of class and education, that separated
the peasant from the young man of culture, assumed a form of physical
dislike. It filled Jean with a feeling of shame and secret sadness,
and he tried to make himself small, as it were, to escape the hostile
contempt that he divined in Maurice. The night was freshening, but
inside the tent, with all these closely packed bodies, the atmosphere
became so stifling that Maurice, seized with feverish exasperation, at
length bounded outside, and stretched himself on the ground a few paces
off. Jean, feeling quite wretched, sank into a kind of semi-somnolence,
full of unpleasant dreams, in which his sorrow that nobody cared for
him was mingled with the apprehension of a terrible misfortune, which
he fancied he could hear galloping along, afar off, in the depths of
the Unknown.

Several hours must have elapsed, and the whole black, motionless
camp seemed to be annihilated beneath the oppressive weight of that
dense, evil night, heavy with something fearful which was as yet
without a name. Every now and again there was an upheaval of that
sea of darkness, a sudden groan resounded from some invisible tent,
the gasp of some soldier in a fitful dream. Then there came noises
that were not easily recognised, the snorting of a horse, the clash
of a sabre, the hasty footsteps of some belated prowler–all those
commonplace sounds which acquire at times a menacing sonority. Suddenly
a great glow blazed forth near the canteen. The front was brilliantly
illuminated, and the piles of arms could be seen with ruddy reflections
streaking the burnished barrels of the guns, as if with trickling
runnels of freshly shed blood. The sentinels stood out dark and erect
amid this sudden conflagration. Was this the enemy, whose appearance
the officers had been predicting for two days past, and to meet whom
they had marched expressly from Belfort to Mulhausen? Then, amid a
great crackling and sparkling, the flame suddenly went out. After
smouldering for hours, the pile of green wood, with which Lapoulle and
Loubet had busied themselves so long, had all at once blazed up and
burnt away as though it had been so much straw.

Alarmed by the bright glow, Jean in his turn had precipitately bounded
out of the tent, and in doing so he narrowly missed stumbling over
Maurice, who lay there, looking on, with his head resting upon his
elbow. The night had already fallen again, more dense than ever, and
the two men remained there stretched on the bare ground, at a few paces
from one another. In front of them, in the depths of the gloom, there
still shone the window of the farmhouse, illumined by that solitary
candle that looked like a funeral taper. What could be the time? Two
o’clock, three o’clock perhaps. The staff had certainly not gone to
bed. One could hear the brawling voice of General Bourgain-Desfeuilles,
who was quite exasperated by this long vigil, which he had only been
able to endure thanks to multitudinous cigars and glasses of grog.
Fresh telegrams were arriving, and matters must be getting worse, for
the shadowy estafettes could be indistinctly seen galloping hither and
thither like men deranged. Stamping and swearing could be heard; then
came a stifled gasp like that of a dying man, followed by a fearful
silence. Had the end come at last? An icy chill had swept over the
camp, weighed down by sleep and anguish.

Just then, as a slim, tall, shadowy figure walked past them rapidly,
both Jean and Maurice recognised Colonel de Vineuil. He was with
Surgeon-Major Bouroche, a stout man with the head of a lion. They were
exchanging disconnected words in an undertone, words but imperfectly
articulated, like those one sometimes hears in dreams: ‘It came from
Basle–our first division is destroyed–twelve hours’ fighting, the
entire army in retreat.’ The colonel stopped short, and called to
another shadowy figure, slight, nimble, and dapper, that was hastily
approaching, ‘Is that you, Beaudoin?’

‘Yes, colonel.’

‘Ah! my poor friend. MacMahon has been beaten at Frœschweiler, Frossard
is beaten at Speichern, De Failly hemmed in between them, gave neither
any support. At Frœschweiler we had but a single corps engaged
against an entire army. Prodigies of valour, but everything was swept
away–rout and panic, and France open to the invader.’

His sobs were choking him, and the words he added died away as he
and his shadowy companions disappeared, melting as it were in the
surrounding darkness.

Maurice had sprung from the ground, shuddering from head to foot. ‘My
God!’ he stammered.

And he found nothing else to say, whilst Jean, with an icy chill at his
heart, muttered: ‘Ah! What cursed luck! That gentleman, your relative,
was right, after all, when he said they were stronger than we are.’

Maurice, quite beside himself, felt inclined to strangle Jean. The
Prussians stronger than the French! The thought made his pride revolt.
But the sober-minded, stubborn peasant was already adding–‘Still it
doesn’t much matter. A man doesn’t give in just for one blow. We shall
have to hit them back.’

A tall figure had just sprung up in front of them, and they recognised
Rochas, still draped in his cloak. The fugitive noises, perhaps even
the passing breath of defeat, had roused him from his heavy slumber.
He questioned them, determined to know the truth, and when, with great
difficulty, he understood what had happened, an expression of profound
stupefaction appeared in his empty child-like eyes. Again and again he
repeated: ‘Beaten! beaten! How’s that? Beaten–_why_?’

The night had been pregnant with the anguish of this disaster. And now
in the east appeared the dawn, an ambiguous dawn, infinitely sad, that
whitened the tents full of sleepers, among whom one could now dimly
descry the cadaverous-looking faces of Loubet and Lapoulle, Chouteau
and Pache, who were still snoring with their mouths wide open. The
aurora of a day of mourning was rising amid the soot-tinted mists that
had ascended from the distant river.

Towards eight o’clock the heavy clouds were dissipated by the sun, and
the bright, hot August Sunday shone upon Mulhausen, nestling amid the
broad fertile plain. From the camp, now wide awake and buzzing with
life, one could hear the bells of all the parish churches ringing out
in full peal through the limpid atmosphere. Fraught though it was with
a terrible disaster, this beautiful Sunday was a gay one, and the sky
had a festive brilliancy.

When Gaude suddenly sounded the call to rations, Loubet affected great
astonishment. What would there be? Some of that fowl which he had
promised to Lapoulle the night before? Born amid the Paris Halles,
in the Rue de la Cossonnerie, Loubet was the chance offspring of a
market woman, and had enlisted, so he expressed it, for money’s sake,
after trying in turn a variety of callings. Fond of his stomach, he
had a keen scent for dainty morsels, so he went off to see the rations
distributed, whilst Chouteau, the artist–in reality a house painter
of Montmartre–a handsome man and a revolutionist, who was furious at
having been kept in the army after completing his time, began chaffing
Pache, whom he had caught saying his prayers, on his knees, behind the
tent. Pache, a sorry-looking little fellow with a pointed head, coming
from some far-away village in Picardy, submitted to the chaffing with
the patient gentleness of a martyr. He, and that colossus Lapoulle–a
brutish peasant reared amid the Sologne marshes, and so stupendously
ignorant that on joining the regiment he had asked to be shown the
King–were the butts of the squad.

Although the news of the disaster of Frœschweiler had been current
since the reveille, the four men laughed together, and set about their
accustomed tasks with the indifference of machines. A bantering growl
of surprise was heard when Corporal Jean, accompanied by Maurice, came
back from the rationing with some firewood. So the supply which the men
had vainly awaited the evening before in order to cook their _soupe_
had arrived at last. There had merely been twelve hours’ delay.

‘A good mark for the commissariat!’ exclaimed Chouteau.

‘Never mind, we’ve got it now!’ said Loubet. ‘You shall see what a
capital _pot-au-feu_ I’ll make you.’

He willingly took charge of the cooking as a rule; and the others
thanked him for doing so, for he was a capital cook. But on
these occasions he would overwhelm Lapoulle with extraordinary
fatigue-duties. ‘Go and fetch the champagne,’ he would say to him,
‘go and fetch the truffles.’ That morning a comical idea, worthy of
a Parisian _gamin_ poking fun at a fool, came into his head: ‘Make
haste!’ he cried; ‘give me the fowl.’

‘The fowl–why, where is it?’

‘Why, there, on the ground. The fowl I promised you, the fowl the
corporal brought.’ So saying he pointed to a large white stone lying at
their feet.

Lapoulle, quite amazed, ended by picking up the stone and turning it
over in his hands.

‘Now then, wash it! Wash the feet and the neck,’ called Loubet, ‘and
use plenty of water, lazybones.’ Then, by way of a joke and because
the idea that they were going to have some _soupe_ made him quite gay
and facetious, he flung the stone into the pot full of water: ‘That
will flavour the broth nicely. What, didn’t you know it? Don’t you know
anything, pighead? You shall have the parson’s nose; you will see how
tender it is.’

All the other men of the squad were splitting at sight of the
expression on the face of Lapoulle, who, convinced at last, was
already licking his lips. Ah! that rascal Loubet, there was no chance
of catching the blues in his company. When the fire crackled in the
sunlight and the pot began to sing, the whole squad, ranged around it
like worshippers, visibly brightened as they watched the meat dancing
on the water, and sniffed the nice smell that began to spread. They had
felt fearfully hungry since the night before, and the idea of feeding
took precedence of everything else. The army had been beaten, but all
the same they must fill their stomachs. From one end to the other of
the camp the fires were flaming and the pots boiling, and a voracious
delight displayed itself while the bells continued clearly pealing from
every steeple in Mulhausen.

Just as nine o’clock was about to strike, however, a sudden stir
spread through the camp; officers hurried hither and thither, and
Lieutenant Rochas, on receiving instructions from Captain Beaudoin,
passed in front of the tents of his section.

‘Now then, fold up everything, pack up everything; we are starting.’

‘But the _soupe_?’

‘You’ll have it another day. We start at once.’

Gaude’s bugle now rang out imperiously. Consternation and covert rage
were general. What! must they start off without a bite, without waiting
even an hour, by which time the _soupe_ might be eatable? All the same
the squad wished to drink the broth, but as yet it was merely so much
water, whilst the uncooked meat was like tough leather between the
men’s teeth. Chouteau growled angry words, and Jean had to intervene
to hasten the preparations for departure. What could there be such a
tremendous hurry about that they should have to rush off in that style,
without an opportunity even to recruit their strength? Some said they
were about to march against the Prussians, to revenge the previous
day’s defeat; but Maurice, on hearing this, incredulously shrugged his
shoulders. In a quarter of an hour the camp was raised, the tents were
folded and strapped to the knapsacks, the guns were shouldered, and
nothing remained on the bare ground save the expiring breakfast fires.

General Douay had determined on an immediate retreat, for some serious
reasons. The Sub-Prefect of Schelestadt’s despatch, already three days
old, had been confirmed. Telegrams stated that Prussian camp-fires had
again been seen threatening Markolsheim, and that an army corps of the
enemy was crossing the Rhine at Huningen. Full and precise details
were at hand; cavalry and artillery had been observed, with infantry
marching from all directions to their rallying point. An hour’s delay,
and the line of retreat on Belfort would assuredly be intercepted. As
a result of the defeats of Weissenburg and Frœschweiler, the general,
isolated, adrift in his advanced position, now had no alternative but
to fall back in all haste, especially as the morning’s tidings were
worse even than those of the night before.

The staff set out ahead at a rapid trot, spurring their horses onward
and in dread lest they should be outstripped and find the Prussians
already at Altkirch. General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, foreseeing a
hard march, took the precaution to pass through Mulhausen, where
he breakfasted copiously, cursing the scramble all the while. And
Mulhausen, as the officers rode through it, wore a sorrowful aspect. At
news of the retreat the townsfolk poured into the streets, lamenting
the sudden departure of the troops whose protection they had so
pressingly implored. So they were to be abandoned, and all the valuable
supplies accumulated at the railway station were to be left for the
enemy; even the town itself would perhaps be merely a captured town
before the evening. Along the country roads, the villagers and the
peasants dwelling in wayside homesteads also hurried to their doors in
astonishment and dismay. So the regiments they had seen marching to
battle only the day before were already retreating, flying from the
enemy without even having fought! The commanders were gloomy, and
without answering any questions urged on their horses, as though the
very fiend were at their heels. Was it true then that the Prussians had
crushed the army, and were pouring forth from all sides into France
like the waters of a swollen river? And, infected with the growing
panic, the peasants fancied they could hear the distant roll of the
invasion travelling through the atmosphere and roaring louder and
louder every moment. Then carts were filled with furniture, houses were
swiftly emptied, and families fled one after another by the roads along
which fear was galloping.

In the confusion of the retreat, whilst skirting the canal from the
Rhone to the Rhine, the 106th was brought to a halt near the bridge,
after covering only the first thousand yards of the march. The marching
orders, given badly enough, had been even worse executed, and had
resulted in the whole of the Second Division crowding together at this
spot. The passage was so narrow–barely sixteen feet–that the defiling
seemed likely to last for ever.

Two hours elapsed and the 106th was still waiting there, facing the
interminable stream of troops that flowed past it. Standing under the
fiery sunrays with their knapsacks on their shoulders and their arms
grounded, the men at last waxed indignant in their impatience.

‘It seems we belong to the rear-guard,’ said Loubet in that waggish
voice of his.

‘They are having a fine game with us, letting us roast here,’ cried
Chouteau in a rage; ‘we were the first to arrive, we ought to have gone
on ahead.’

At sight of the broad fertile plain and the level roads intersecting
the hop grounds and fields of ripe corn, on the other side of the
canal, it was now quite apparent that they were retreating, returning
indeed along the same route they had come by the day before, and as
this was realised jeers and furious scoffing sped through the ranks.

‘So we are taking to our heels,’ resumed Chouteau. ‘Well, this march to
meet the enemy, which they have been dinning into our ears since the
other morning, is a precious funny one. Really now, this is too much
bluster! We arrive, and then back we bolt without even having time to
eat anything.’

At this, the men began to laugh again in their bitter rage, and
Maurice, who stood near Chouteau, admitted he was in the right. As
they had been kept standing there like posts for a couple of hours why
hadn’t they been allowed to cook their _soupe_ quietly and eat it? They
were getting hungry again, and felt the more rancorous that their pots
should have been upset before the _soupe_ was ready, as they could
not understand the need of all this haste, which seemed to them both
cowardly and stupid. Well, they were fine hares and no mistake.

However, Lieutenant Rochas began to trounce Sergeant Sapin for the
disorderly bearing of his men; and hearing the noise, Captain Beaudoin,
as dapper as ever, drew near: ‘Silence in the ranks!’

Jean, who like a well-disciplined veteran soldier held his peace,
was looking at Maurice, who seemed amused by Chouteau’s malignant,
passionate raillery: and he was astonished that a gentleman who had
received so much schooling should approve of things which, however true
they might be, were certainly not things to be said. If each soldier
began blaming the generals and giving his opinion, they would certainly
not get on together.

At last, after waiting another hour, the 106th was ordered to advance.
The bridge, however, was still so crowded with the fag end of the
division that the most deplorable disorder was created. Several
regiments became intermingled; some companies were carried along and
got across, whilst others, driven to the edge of the roadway, had to
stay there marking time. And to make matters worse, a squadron of
cavalry insisted on passing, driving the laggards who were already
falling out of the ranks of the infantry into the neighbouring fields.
After an hour’s marching, quite a large party of stragglers stretched
along the road, crawling and dawdling at their ease.

It was thus that Jean found himself in the rear, adrift with his
squad, which he had not cared to leave, in the depths of a hollow
road. The 106th had disappeared, not another man nor an officer of the
company was to be seen–only solitary soldiers, a medley of strange
men exhausted at the very outset of the march, and who were walking
along leisurely wheresoever the paths might lead them. The sunrays
were overpowering, it was extremely hot, and the knapsacks, rendered
the heavier by the tents and all the complicated paraphernalia that
swelled them out, weighed terribly on the men’s shoulders. Many of
these stragglers were not habituated to carrying them, and were
inconvenienced too by their thick, campaigning great-coats, which
seemed to them like leaden vestments. All at once a pale little
linesman, whose eyes were full of tears, stopped short and flung his
knapsack into a ditch with a deep sigh of relief, the long breath which
the man who has been agonising draws as he feels himself coming back to
life.

‘He’s in the right,’ muttered Chouteau, though he himself continued
marching along with his shoulders bending under the knapsack’s weight.
Two other men, however, having disburdened themselves, he could no
longer hold out. ‘Ah: curse it!’ he cried, and with a jerk of his
shoulders he tossed his knapsack on to the bank. Half a hundredweight
on his shoulders–no, thanks. He had had enough of it. They were not
beasts of burden that they should have to drag such things about.

Immediately afterwards Loubet imitated him, and compelled Lapoulle to
do the same. Pache, who crossed himself each time they came upon a
wayside cross, unfastened the straps of his knapsack, and carefully
deposited it at the foot of a low wall, as if intending to come back
and fetch it. And Maurice alone was still laden when Jean, on turning
round, saw what his men had done.

‘Take up your knapsacks. I shall have to pay for it if you don’t.’

The men, however, without as yet openly revolting, trudged on silently,
with an evil expression on their faces, as they pushed the corporal
before them along the narrow road.

‘Take them up or I shall report you!’

These words stung Maurice as though he had been lashed with a whip
across the face. Report them! What! that brute of a peasant report
them, because the poor fellows, feeling their muscles quite crushed,
had eased themselves? And in a fit of feverish irritation he also
unbuckled his straps, and with a defiant look at Jean, let his knapsack
fall by the roadside.

‘All right,’ calmly said the corporal, realising the futility of a
struggle; ‘we will settle all that this evening.’

Maurice’s feet caused him intense suffering. They were swelling in his
coarse hard shoes, to which he was not habituated. He was far from
robust, and though he had rid himself of his knapsack he could still
feel a smarting sore on his spine, the unbearable hurt occasioned by
his burden. Now, too, the mere weight of his gun, no matter how he
carried it, made his breath come short and fast. But he was yet more
distressed by the moral agony he experienced, for he was in one of
those crises of despair to which he was subject. All at once, without
possible resistance on his part, he would see his will-power collapse,
and give way to evil instincts and self-abandonment, that subsequently
made him sob with very shame. His errors in Paris had never been
aught but the madness of ‘his other self’ as he expressed it, of the
weak-minded fellow, capable of any degraded action, that he became in
moments of low-spiritedness. And since he had been dragging himself
along, under the overpowering sun, in this retreat which resembled
a rout, he had become but a unit of the dawdling, disbanded flock
spread over the roads. It was the countershock of the defeat, of the
thunderbolt that had fallen leagues away, and the echo of which was
following close at the heels of these panic-stricken men who fled
without having seen an enemy. What could be hoped for now? Was it not
all over? They were beaten, and there was nothing to do but to lie down
and die.

‘All the same,’ shouted Loubet with that market boy’s laugh of his;
‘all the same we are not going to Berlin.’

‘To Berlin! to Berlin!’ Maurice again heard the cry bellowed forth
by the swarming crowd on the Boulevards during that night of mad
enthusiasm that had determined him to enlist. But the wind had changed
into a tempestuous squall, there had been a terrible veering, and
the very temperament of the French race was symbolised by the heated
confidence which at the first reverse had suddenly collapsed into the
despair now galloping among these vagrant, dispersed soldiers who were
vanquished without having fought.

‘This popgun of mine jolly well hurts my arms,’ resumed Loubet, as
he again changed his chassepot from one shoulder to the other. ‘A
nice toy, indeed, to carry about with one.’ And then alluding to the
money he had received as a substitute[9] he added: ‘All the same,
only fifteen hundred francs for such a trade as this–it’s a regular
swindle. That rich bloke whose place I’ve took must be smoking some
nice pipes by his fireside, while I’m off to get my head cracked.’

‘I had finished my time,’ growled Chouteau, ‘and I was just about to
slope, but on account of this war they made me stay. Ah! what cursed
bad luck to stumble into such a swinish business as this.’

He was balancing his rifle with a feverish hand, and suddenly he threw
it, with all his strength, over a hedge. ‘There,’ said he, ‘that’s the
place for the dirty thing.’

The gun spun round twice, and then fell in a furrow, where it lay
motionless, stretched out like a dead body. Other guns were already
flying through the air to join it, and the field was soon strewn with
prostrate weapons looking sadly stiff in their abandonment under the
oppressive sun. What with hunger torturing their stomachs, their
shoes which injured their feet, this march which filled them with
suffering, and the unforeseen defeat threateningly pursuing them, the
men were seized as it were with epidemic madness. They could not hope
for anything now; the generals bolted, the commissariat did not even
feed them; and what with weariness and worry they experienced a desire
to have done with the whole business before even beginning it. And
that being so, the chassepot might as well join the knapsack. So with
imbecile rage, and with the jeers of madmen amusing themselves, the
laggards, scattered in endless file far away into the country, sent
their guns flying into the fields.

Before ridding himself of his weapon, Loubet twirled it round and round
like a drum-major’s cane. Lapoulle, seeing his comrades fling their
guns away, fancied no doubt it was a new drill exercise, and imitated
them. Pache, however, with a confused consciousness of his duty,
which he owed to his religious education, refused to do so, and was
bespattered with insults by Chouteau, who called him a parson’s drudge.
‘There’s a black-beetle for you,’ said the house painter. ‘Well, go and
serve mass, as you’re afraid to do like your comrades.’

Maurice, who was very gloomy, marched on in silence, his head bent
under the fiery sun. Amid a kind of nightmare, brought on by his
atrocious weariness, and peopled with phantoms, he advanced as if bound
for some abyss lying ahead; and he, the man of education, experienced
a subsidence of all his culture, an abasement that lowered him to the
bestial level of the wretches surrounding him. ‘Ah! you are right,’ he
suddenly said to Chouteau.

He had already deposited his gun on a pile of stones, when Jean, who
had vainly been trying to prevent the arms being thrown away in this
abominable fashion, perceived him, and darted towards him.

‘Take up your gun at once; at once, you hear me!’ cried the corporal,
his face suffused by a rush of terrible anger. Usually so calm and
conciliatory, he now had flaming eyes, and his voice thundered.
His men, who had never seen him like this before, stopped short in
surprise. ‘Take up your gun at once, or you’ll have to deal with me.’

Maurice, quivering with excitement, let but one word fall which he
sought to render insulting: ‘Clodhopper!’

‘Yes, that’s it; I’m a clodhopper, and you are a gentleman, you are!
And for that very reason you’re a pig, a dirty pig. I tell you so to
your face.’ At this some hooting was heard, but the corporal continued
vehemently: ‘When a man’s educated, he shows it. If we are peasants and
brutes you ought to set us a good example, you who know more than we
do. Take up your gun, I say, or I’ll have you shot when we halt.’

Maurice, already conquered, had picked up his gun. Tears of rage
obscured his eyes. He resumed his march, staggering like a drunken man
amid his comrades, who now jeered at him for having given in. Ah! that
Jean, Maurice hated him with an inextinguishable hatred, struck as he
was in the heart by this severe lesson which he felt to be deserved.
And when Chouteau growled out that when men had a corporal like that
they waited for a day of battle to lodge a stray bullet in his head,
Maurice, quite maddened, distinctly saw himself smashing Jean’s skull
behind a wall.

A diversion occurred, however. Loubet noticed that during the quarrel
Pache also had ended by getting rid of his gun, gently depositing it at
the foot of a bank. Why had he done this? He did not try to explain,
but laughed slyly, in the somewhat shame-faced style of a good little
boy detected in his first fault. Then, very gay and quite revived, he
marched on with his arms swinging; and along the endless roads, between
the fields of ripe corn and the hop grounds that followed one another,
ever the same, the straggling march continued, and the laggards without
knapsacks or guns were now but a tramping crowd, a medley of scamps and
beggars, at whose approach the frightened villagers closed their doors.

Just then an unforeseen meeting put the finishing touch to Maurice’s
rage. A dull, continuous rumbling was heard from afar; it was the
reserve artillery, which had been the last to start, and the first
detachment of which suddenly debouched round a turn of the road,
the laggard linesmen having barely time to throw themselves into
the fields. There was an entire artillery regiment of six squadrons
marching in column, the colonel in the centre and each officer in
his place, and they all clattered along at equal, carefully observed
distances, each accompanied by its caisson, horses, and men. And in
the fifth squadron Maurice recognised his cousin Honoré’s gun. The
quartermaster was there, proudly erect on his horse, to the left of
the front driver, Adolphe, a stalwart, fair-complexioned man, who
bestrode a sturdy chestnut, which admirably matched the off-horse
trotting beside it; whilst Adolphe’s chum, Louis, the gunner, a dark
little fellow, would be seen among the six men seated in pairs on the
ammunition boxes. They all seemed to have grown taller to Maurice, who
had become acquainted with them at the camp, and the gun, drawn by its
four horses and followed by its caisson, to which six other horses
were harnessed, appeared to him as dazzling as a sun, well groomed and
furbished, idolised by all its people, man and beast, who clung to it
as it were with the discipline and attachment of a gallant family; and
fearfully was Maurice’s suffering increased when he saw his cousin
Honoré dart a contemptuous glance at all the laggards, and then look
quite stupefied on perceiving him among this flock of unarmed men.
The defiling was nearly over already. The train of the batteries, the
ammunition and forage waggons, the field smithies passed by; and then
in a last cloud of dust came the spare men and horses, who vanished
from sight at another bend of the road, amid the gradually subsiding
clatter of wheels and hoofs.

‘Pooh!’ said Loubet, ‘it’s easy enough to swagger when you travel about
in a carriage.’

The staff had found Altkirch unoccupied. There were no Prussians there
as yet. Still fearing, however, that he was being pursued, and that the
enemy might appear at any moment, General Douay had determined upon
pushing on to Dannemarie, where the first detachments only arrived at
five in the evening. Eight o’clock had struck, and night was gathering
in, when the regiments, in frightful confusion and reduced to half
their strength, commenced preparations for bivouacking. The men were
quite exhausted, sinking both with hunger and fatigue. The laggards,
the lamentable and interminable tag-rag and bobtail of the army, the
cripples and mutineers scattered along the roads, continued arriving,
now one by one, now in little bands, until ten o’clock, and had to
search in the darkness for their companies which they could not find.

As soon as Jean had joined his regiment he went to look for Lieutenant
Rochas to report to him all that had happened, and found him and
Captain Beaudoin conferring with the colonel at the door of a little
inn, all three of them visibly preoccupied about the roll call, and
anxious as to what had become of their men. At the first words the
corporal addressed to the lieutenant, Colonel de Vineuil, overhearing
him, made him approach and relate everything. There was an expression
of deep despondency on the colonel’s yellow face, lighted by eyes that
seemed all the blacker on account of the whiteness of his thick snowy
hair and long drooping moustaches.

‘Half a dozen of these scamps must be shot, sir,’ exclaimed Captain
Beaudoin, without waiting for M. de Vineuil to give his opinion.

Lieutenant Rochas nodded assent, but the colonel made a gesture of
helplessness: ‘There are too many of them. Nearly seven hundred. How
could you manage–whom could you select? Besides, to tell the truth,
the general won’t have it. He’s quite paternal, and says he never
punished a single man in Algeria. No, no; I can do nothing. It’s
terrible.’

‘It _is_ terrible,’ boldly rejoined the captain, ‘it’s the end of
everything.’

Jean was retiring, when he heard Surgeon-Major Bouroche, whom he
had not seen, growl in an undertone on the threshold of the inn that
without discipline and punishments the army was done for. Before a week
was over the men would be kicking their officers, whereas if a few of
these fine fellows had been shot at once, the others, perhaps, would
have profited by the lesson.

Nobody was punished. With commendable forethought some officers of
the rear-guard escorting the army train had caused the knapsacks and
guns bestrewing either side of the roads to be picked up. Only a small
number was missing, and the men were re-armed at daybreak, furtively
as it were, so as to hush up the affair. Orders had been given to
raise the camp at five o’clock, but the men were roused at four, and
the retreat on Belfort was hastened, the commanders being convinced
that the Prussians were now only two or three leagues away. The men
had to content themselves with biscuit, and with nothing to warm their
stomachs they remained quite foundered after that brief, feverish
night. And again that morning anything like an orderly march was
prevented by the precipitate departure.

The day was an infinitely sad one, far worse than the day before. The
character of the scenery had changed; they had entered a mountainous
country, the roads climbed and descended slopes planted with fir trees;
and the narrow valleys, bushy with furze, were spangled with golden
flowers. But across that stretch of country so bright in the August
sunrays, panic, growing more and more frenzied, had been sweeping since
the previous day. A fresh despatch, instructing the mayors to warn the
inhabitants to place their valuables in safety, had brought the general
terror to a climax. Was the enemy at hand then? Would they even have
time enough to escape? And they all fancied they could hear the roar of
the invasion coming nearer and nearer; that sound like the dull roll of
an overflowing river which had been swelling in volume ever since their
departure from Mulhausen, and which now, at each village they came to,
was increased by some fresh scene of terror, fraught with wailing and
uproar.

Maurice marched along like a somnambulist, with his feet tingling, and
his shoulders crushed by his gun and knapsack. He no longer thought
of anything; at the sights that met his gaze he fancied himself in
a nightmare; and he was no longer conscious of his comrades’ tramp,
realising merely that Jean was at his side, worn out with the same
weariness and the same grief as himself. The villages they passed
through presented a lamentable, pitiful aspect, such as to fill the
heart with poignant anguish. As soon as the retreating troops, the
worn-out, footsore, straggling soldiers appeared, the inhabitants began
to bestir themselves, and hasten their flight. They had felt so easy
in mind only a fortnight previously; all Alsace, indeed, had awaited
the war with a smile, convinced that the fighting would take place in
Germany. But now France was invaded, and the tempest was falling upon
their heads, around their houses, and over their fields like one of
those terrible hail and thunder storms which ruin an entire province in
a couple of hours.

Before the doors of the houses, amid a scene of fearful confusion,
men were loading carts and piling up articles of furniture, careless
whether they broke them or not; and from the upper windows women flung
out a last mattress or lowered a baby’s cradle which had been well-nigh
forgotten. And the baby having been strapped inside it, the cradle was
perched atop of the load, among the upturned legs of the chairs and
tables. In another vehicle, standing behind, the poor, infirm, old
grandfather was being bound to a wardrobe that he might be carted away
like some household utensil. Then there were those who had no cart,
and who piled a few goods and chattels into a wheelbarrow, and others
who went off with simply a bundle of clothes under their arm, and
others too who had only thought of saving their parlour clock, which
they pressed to their hearts as though it had been an infant. It was
impossible to remove everything, and many articles of furniture and
heavy bundles of linen lay abandoned in the ditches. Some folks before
leaving fastened up their homes, and the houses with their doors and
shutters securely closed looked quite dead; but the majority of the
people, in their haste and the despairing conviction that everything
would be destroyed, left their old homesteads open, with doors and
windows gaping widely; and these poor empty houses, through which
the wind could blow as it listed, and whence the very cats had fled,
shuddering at what was about to happen, were the saddest of all, sad
like the houses of a captured town depopulated by fright. At each
succeeding village the spectacle became more and more pitiable, the
number of those who were moving and hastening away became larger and
larger, and there was shaking of fists, swearing of oaths, and shedding
of tears amid all the growing scramble and confusion.

But it was especially whilst he followed the high road through the
open country that Maurice felt his anguish stifling him. As they
drew nearer to Belfort the train of runaways closed up and became a
continuous procession. Ah! the poor people who imagined they would find
a shelter-place under the walls of the stronghold. The man belaboured
the horse, and the woman followed, dragging the children with her.
Entire families, bending beneath their burdens, and with the little
ones, who were unable to keep up, lagging behind, were hastening over
the blinding white roads which the fiery sun was heating. Many of the
fugitives had taken off their shoes that they might cover the ground
more rapidly, and were walking along barefooted; and mothers with their
dress-bodies unfastened were giving the breast to crying infants,
without pausing for a moment in their march.

In the panic-fraught breeze which dishevelled their hair and lashed
their hastily donned garments, many of the runaways looked round with
scared faces, and made gestures with trembling hands as though to shut
out all view of the horizon. Others, farmers, accompanied by all their
servants, were hastening across the fields, driving before them their
herds and flocks–their sheep, cows, oxen and horses, which they had
turned out with blows from their sheds and stables. They were making
for the mountain gorges, the high table-lands, the deserted forests,
and the sight of them recalled the memory of those great migrations
of ancient times, when invaded nations made way for the conquering
barbarians. They intended to live under canvas in some lonely rock-girt
spot, so far from the roads that not one of the enemy’s soldiers would
dare to approach it. And the flying clouds that enveloped them were
soon wafted away behind the clumps of fir trees, whilst the lowing of
the cattle and the thuds of their hoofs grew more and more indistinct.
Meantime, the flood of vehicles and wayfarers pressed along the road,
hampering the march of the troops and becoming, as one approached
Belfort, so compact and strong–with a force like the irresistible
current of a spreading torrent–that the soldiers were repeatedly
compelled to halt.

During one of those brief halts Maurice beheld a scene which he long
remembered, as one might remember a blow dealt one in the face. There
was a solitary house by the roadside, the abode of some poor peasant,
whose meagre patch of land stretched behind it. Firmly rooted to
his native soil, this man had been unwilling to leave his fields,
feeling that if he did so he must needs tear his flesh to shreds. So
he remained there, and could be seen crouching on a bench in a low
room, whence with empty eyes he watched the passing soldiers, whose
retreat was about to place his ripe corn at the mercy of the invader.
Beside him stood a young woman, his wife, with a child in her arms,
whilst another child was pulling at her skirts; and all three, mother
and children, were sobbing and moaning. Suddenly, however, the door
was roughly flung open, and on the threshold appeared the grandmother,
a tall, thin, aged woman, who was furiously flourishing her bare arms
which looked like knotted cords. Her grey hair, escaping from under
her cap, was waving round her gaunt head, and so intense was her rage
that the words she shouted were half-stifled in her throat, whence
they escaped but indistinctly in an agonising hiccough. At first the
soldiers began to laugh. The old lunatic had a fine phiz! But some
of her words reached them, and they heard that she was shouting:
‘Blackguards! brigands! cowards! cowards!’

In a more and more piercing voice she spat forth, as it were, that
insulting epithet–coward. And then the laughter ceased, and a great
chill sped through the ranks. The men lowered their heads and looked
elsewhere.

‘Cowards! cowards! cowards!’

Suddenly the old woman appeared to increase in stature. She raised her
spare, tragic figure, draped in a shred of a dress, to its full height;
and waving her long arm from west to east with so comprehensive a
gesture that it seemed to embrace the entire heavens, she shouted: ‘The
Rhine is not there, you cowards–the Rhine is over _there_. Cowards!
cowards!’

At last they were resuming their march, and Maurice, whose glance
at this moment fell upon Jean’s face, saw that the corporal’s eyes
were full of tears. He was thunderstruck, and his own suffering was
increased at the thought that even this brutish peasant had felt
the insult–an unmerited one, but to which they must needs submit.
Everything then seemed to crumble away in Maurice’s poor, aching head,
and, overcome both by physical and moral suffering, he could never
remember how he had finished the march.

The Seventh Army Corps had required an entire day to cover the fourteen
or fifteen miles separating Dannemarie from Belfort; and night was
again falling and it was very late when the troops were able to
prepare their bivouacs under the walls of the fortress, on the very
spot whence they had started four days previously to march against the
enemy. Despite the lateness of the hour and their great weariness,
the men insisted on lighting their fires and cooking their _soupe_.
It was the first time, for four days, that they had something warm
to swallow. And squatting around the fires in the freshening night
air, they were all dipping their noses into their basins, and grunts
of content were rising on all sides, when a rumour circulated, burst
upon, spread through, and stupefied the camp. Two fresh telegrams had
arrived at brief intervals. The Prussians had not crossed the Rhine at
Markolsheim, and there was no longer a single Prussian at Huningen. The
passage of the Rhine at Markolsheim, the pontoon bridge thrown across
the river at night, thanks to powerful electric lights–all those
alarming stories were mere dreams, the unaccountable hallucinations of
the sub-prefect of Schelestadt. As for the army corps that threatened
Huningen, the famous army corps of the Black Forest, which had made
all Alsace tremble, this was composed of a petty detachment of
Wurtembergers–two battalions of foot and a squadron of horse–who by
skilful tactics, repeated marching and counter-marching, sudden and
unforeseen apparitions, had created a belief in the presence of thirty
or forty thousand men. To think the Dannemarie Viaduct had narrowly
escaped being blown up that morning! Twenty leagues of prosperous
country had been ravaged through an idiotic panic, for no reason
whatever; and at thought of all they had seen that dreadful day–the
inhabitants flying in terror, driving their cattle into the mountains,
and the stream of furniture-laden vehicles flowing towards the town
amid a troop of women and children–the soldiers felt thoroughly
enraged, and vented their anger in exasperated jeers.

‘It’s altogether too funny,’ stammered Loubet, with his mouth full, as
he flourished his spoon. ‘So that was the enemy we were taken to fight?
There was nobody at all. Twelve leagues forward and twelve back, and
not even a mouse anywhere. All that for nothing–for the mere pleasure
of getting in a funk!’

Then Chouteau, who was noisily cleaning his basin, soundly rated the
generals without naming them: ‘The hogs! What idiots they are! As timid
as hares. As they bolted like that when there was nobody, what would
they have done had they found a real army in front of them?’

Another armful of wood had been flung on the fire that they might
enjoy themselves around the tall leaping flame, and Lapoulle, whilst
warming his legs, with an air of ecstasy, burst into an idiotic laugh
at Chouteau’s remarks, though he could not understand them; whereupon
Jean, who had hitherto turned a deaf ear to the chatter, ventured to
say paternally: ‘Can’t you be quiet? If you were overheard there might
be some unpleasantness.’ He, himself, with his simple common sense, was
disgusted with the stupidity of the commanders. Still, he must enforce
respect, and as Chouteau continued growling, he stopped him by saying,
‘Silence! Here’s the lieutenant. Address yourself to him if you have
any remark to make.’

Maurice, who sat apart from the others in silence, had lowered his
head. This was the end of everything! They were only at the beginning
of the war, but it was all over. The indiscipline and mutinous
behaviour of the men at the very first reverse had already turned the
army into a mere mob without a tie to bind it together, but thoroughly
demoralised and ripe for every catastrophe. They, beneath Belfort, had
not seen a single Prussian, yet they were already beaten.

The monotonous days that followed were fraught with uneasiness and the
tedium of waiting. To occupy the time of his men General Douay made
them toil at the defensive works of the fortress, which were still far
from completed. They turned up the soil and split the rocks. Meanwhile,
no news came. Where was MacMahon? What was taking place under Metz?
The most extravagant rumours circulated; only a few Paris newspapers
reached the troops, and these, by their contradictory statements,
increased the black anxiety amid which they were struggling. Twice had
the general written asking for orders, and without even receiving an
answer. However, on August 12, the Seventh Corps was at last completed
by the arrival of its third division from Italy.[10] Still even now the
general only had two divisions with him, for the first one, beaten at
Frœschweiler, had been carried off in the rout, and it was not known
where the current had cast it. At last, after a week of abandonment, of
complete separation from the rest of France, a telegram brought orders
for departure. The men were delighted, anything was preferable to
the blank life they were leading. And whilst they were getting ready
speculations were indulged in. No one knew where they were going. Some
said they were to be sent to Strasburg to defend it, while others
talked of a bold dash into the Black Forest to intercept the Prussian
line of retreat.

Next morning the 106th was among the first regiments to start,
packed in cattle trucks. The one in which Jean’s squad found itself
installed was so full that Loubet pretended there wasn’t even room
to sneeze. Rations, as usual, had been distributed amid great
disorder, and the men, having received in brandy what they ought to
have received in food, were nearly all drunk–drunk with a violent,
brawling intoxication which vented itself in obscene songs. As the
train travelled on they could no longer see one another, owing to the
smoke of their pipes, which filled the truck as with fog. It was also
unbearably hot there, owing to the fermentation of all these closely
packed bodies, and as they sped along vociferous cries poured out of
the black flying vehicle, drowning the sound of the wheels, and dying
away afar off in the mournful country. It was only on reaching Langres
that the men realised they were being taken back to Paris.

‘Ah! Thunder!’ repeated Chouteau, who, by the might of his glib tongue,
already reigned undisputed master of his little corner, ‘sure enough,
we shall be drawn up at Charentonneau to prevent Bismarck from taking a
nap at the Tuileries.’

The others roared, thinking this very droll, though they could not say
why. However, the slightest incidents of the journey–the sight of some
peasants posted beside the line, of the groups of anxious people who,
in the hope of obtaining news, were waiting at the smaller stations
for the trains to pass, the view, too, of all that region of France
scared and quivering in presence of the invasion–sufficed to provoke
hooting, shouting, and deafening laughter. And in the gust of wind that
swept by as the engine forged onward, amid the rapid view they obtained
of the train enveloped in smoke and noise, those that had hastened to
the stations received full in the face the howls of these men, all
food for powder, who were being carried along at express speed. At
one station, however, where they stopped, three well-dressed ladies,
rich _bourgeoises_ of the town, who distributed bowls of broth to the
soldiers, met with great success. The men cried as they thanked them,
and kissed their hands.

But farther on, the filthy songs and the savage yells burst forth
again. Shortly after passing Chaumont the train met another one full
of some artillerymen who were no doubt being taken to Metz. Speed had
just been slackened, and the soldiers of the two trains fraternised
amid a fearful clamour. It was, however, the artillerymen, doubtless
more intoxicated than the others, who carried off the palm by shaking
their fists out of the trucks and raising this cry with such despairing
violence that it drowned everything else: ‘To the slaughter! slaughter!
slaughter!’

It seemed as if a great chill, an icy wind from a charnel-house were
passing by. There was a sudden brief silence, amid which one heard
Loubet jeering: ‘The comrades are not gay.’

‘But they are in the right,’ rejoined Chouteau, in his tavern-orator’s
voice; ‘it’s disgusting to send a lot of brave chaps to get their
heads cracked on account of some dirty business they don’t know a word
about.’ And he continued talking in the same strain. This incapable
workman of Montmartre, this lounging, dissipated house-painter, who
had badly digested some scraps of speeches heard at public meetings,
and who mingled revolutionary clap-trap with the great principles
of equality and liberty, played the part of the perverter. He knew
everything, and indoctrinated his comrades, especially Lapoulle,
whom he had promised to make a man of: ‘Eh, old fellow? It’s simple
enough. If Badinguet and Bismarck have a row together let them settle
it between them with their fists, instead of troubling hundreds of
thousands of men who don’t even know one another, and have no wish to
fight.’

The whole truck-load laughed, feeling amused and subjugated, and
Lapoulle, who did not even know who Badinguet[11] was, and who could
not even have said whether he was fighting for an Emperor or a King,
repeated, with that overgrown-baby air of his: ‘Of course, with their
fists–and a glass of wine together afterwards.’

But Chouteau had turned towards Pache, in view of taking him in hand.
‘And you–you’re religious–Well, your religion forbids fighting. So
why are you here, you idiot?’

‘Well,’ replied Pache, taken aback, ‘I’m not here to please myself.
Only the gendarmes—-‘

‘The gendarmes! Humbug! Who cares a rap for the gendarmes? Do you
know, you others, what we ought to do if we were the right sort? Why,
by-and-by, when we get out, we ought to slope–yes, quietly slope and
leave that fat hog Badinguet and his clique of twopenny-halfpenny
generals to settle matters as they please with their dirty Prussians.’

Bravos resounded, the work of perversion was proceeding, and then
Chouteau triumphed, parading his theories, in which were confusedly
mingled the Republic, the rights of man, the rottenness of the
Empire, which must be overthrown, and the treachery of all the
generals who commanded them, and each of whom, as it had been proved,
had sold himself for a million! He, Chouteau, proclaimed himself a
revolutionist: Loubet also knew what his opinions were, he was in
favour of grub and nothing else; but the others did not know whether
they were Republicans or not, or even in what fashion a man might be
a Republican. Nevertheless, carried away by Chouteau’s oratory, they
all railed at the Emperor, the officers, the whole cursed show, which
they were bent on abandoning at the double-quick the first time they
felt worried. While fanning their increasing intoxication, Chouteau
stealthily watched Maurice, the gentleman, whom he was enlivening,
and whom he felt so proud indeed to have on his side that at last,
to impassion him the more, he fell upon Jean, who with his eyes half
closed had until now stood there amid all the noise, motionless and as
if asleep. If Maurice harboured any spite against the corporal for the
bitter lesson the latter had given him in forcing him to pick up his
gun, now was the time to urge the one against the other.

‘And there are folks I know, who talked of having us shot,’ resumed
Chouteau, threateningly. ‘Dirty curs who treat us worse than brute
beasts, and who can’t understand that when a man has had enough of his
sack and his popgun he pitches the whole lot into the fields. Well,
comrades, what would those curs say if we pitched _them_ on to the line
now that we have them comfortably in a corner? Is it agreed, eh? We
must make an example if we don’t want to be plagued any more with this
beastly war. To death with Badinguet’s vermin! To death with the dirty
curs who want us to fight!’

Jean had become very red–red with the rush of blood which rose to his
cheeks in his rare moments of anger; and close pressed though he was by
his companions, he managed to draw himself up, hold out his clenched
fists, and protrude his flaming face with so terrible an air that
Chouteau turned quite pale.

‘Thunder! just you shut up!’ cried the corporal. ‘I’ve said nothing for
hours past, for there are no commanders left, and I can’t even send you
to the lock-up. I know well enough I should have rendered a big service
to the regiment by ridding it of a filthy blackguard like you. But
never mind, as punishment is mere humbug, you’ll have to deal with me.
I’m not a corporal now, but simply a chap you pester, and who’ll shut
your jaw for you. You filthy coward, you won’t fight, and you try to
prevent others from fighting! Just say all that again, and you’ll feel
my fists.’ All the men in the truck had already turned round, stirred
by Jean’s gallant defiance, and deserting Chouteau, who stammered and
drew back at sight of his adversary’s big fists. ‘And I don’t care a
rap for Badinguet any more than you do,’ resumed Jean; ‘I’ve never
cared a rap for politics, for either Republic or Empire, and when I
tilled my field I never wished but one thing, everybody’s happiness,
good order, and prosperity everywhere, the same as I wish now. No doubt
it does plague one to have to fight, but all the same the rascals as
try to discourage one when it’s already so hard to behave properly
ought to be stuck against a wall and shot. Dash it all, friends!
doesn’t your blood boil when you’re told that the Prussians are here in
France, and that we’ve got to bundle them out!’

In that easy way in which crowds change sides, the soldiers now began
to acclaim Jean as he repeated his oath to break the skull of the first
man in his squad who talked of not fighting. Bravo, corporal! That was
the style! Bismarck’s hash would soon be settled! In the midst of the
savage ovation, Jean, who had calmed down, said to Maurice politely, as
though he were not addressing one of his men, ‘You can’t be on the side
of the cowards, sir–we haven’t fought yet, but we’ll end by licking
them some day, those Prussians.’

At these words Maurice felt a sunray glide into his heart. He was
disturbed, humiliated. So this Jean was not a mere rustic. Maurice
remembered the fearful hatred that had consumed him when he picked up
his gun after throwing it down in a moment of self-abandonment. But
he also remembered how startled he had been at seeing the two large
tears that stood in the corporal’s eyes when the old grandmother, with
streaming grey hair, was insulting them and pointing to the Rhine afar
off beyond the horizon. Was it the fraternity born of fatigue and pain,
endured in common, that was carrying his rancour away? Belonging as he
did to a Bonapartist family, Maurice had never dreamt of the Republic
otherwise than in theory; his inclinations were rather in favour of
the Emperor personally, and he was a partisan of the war, war being
in his mind an essential condition of the life of nations. Now, all
of a sudden, hope was coming back to him in one of those veerings of
the mind to which he was so subject; whilst the enthusiasm which one
evening had impelled him to enlist again beat within him, filling his
heart with confidence in victory.

‘Certainly, corporal,’ he answered gaily, ‘we’ll lick them!’

With its load of men, enveloped in the dense smoke of their pipes, and
the stifling heat of their closely packed bodies, the cattle truck
rolled and rolled along, greeting the anxious crowds at the stations
and the haggard peasants posted along the hedges with obscene songs and
drunken clamour. On August 20 they reached the Pantin station, just
outside Paris, and the same night they started off again, quitting the
train on the morrow at Rheims, _en route_ for the camp of Châlons.

Maurice was greatly surprised when, on detraining at Rheims, the 106th
received orders to encamp there. Were they not going to join the army
at Châlons then? And a couple of hours later, when his regiment had
piled arms at a league from the city, over towards Courcelles, amid
the vast plain skirting the canal from the Aisne to the Marne, his
astonishment increased on learning that the entire army of Châlons had
been falling back since the morning and would bivouac on this very
spot. And, indeed, tents were being pitched from one end of the horizon
to the other, as far away as St. Thierry and La Meuvillette, and even
beyond the high road to Laon; and the fires of all four army corps
would be blazing there that same evening. Evidently enough, the plan of
taking up a position under Paris, there to await the Prussians, had
prevailed, and Maurice was delighted, for was not this plan the wisest?

He spent most of the afternoon of August 21 in strolling through the
camp in search of news. Great latitude was allowed, there seemed less
discipline than ever, and the men went off and came back just as
they pleased. Maurice himself was able to return to Rheims to cash
a post-office order for a hundred francs which he had received from
his sister. Whilst there he entered a café, where he heard a sergeant
talking of the factious disposition of the eighteen battalions of the
Garde Mobile of the Seine, which had been sent back to Paris. The sixth
battalion had almost murdered its officers. At Châlons the generals had
constantly been insulted, and since the Frœschweiler defeat the men no
longer saluted MacMahon. The café was filling with chatterers, and a
violent discussion arose between two peaceful civilians respecting the
number of men that the marshal might have under his orders. One of the
disputants talked of 500,000 men, which was absurd. The other, more
sensible, passed the four corps in review: the Twelfth, completed with
difficulty at the camp by means of marching regiments and a division of
Marine Infantry; the First, the disbanded remnants of which had been
arriving since August 14, and were now being more or less successfully
reorganised; then the Fifth, defeated without having fought, carried
away and broken up in the rout; and the Seventh, just arriving, which
was likewise in a demoralised state, and lacked its first division,
mere shreds of which it had now found at Rheims. Altogether there were
at the utmost 120,000 men, including the Bonnemain and Margueritte
divisions of the reserve cavalry. However, the sergeant having mixed
himself up in the dispute, alluding to the army with furious contempt
as a mere jumble of men, a flock of innocents led by idiots to the
slaughter, the two civilians became alarmed and took themselves off,
fearing lest they might be compromised.

Maurice followed their example, and endeavoured to obtain some
newspapers. He filled his pockets with every number he could buy,
and read them as he walked along under the spreading trees of the
magnificent promenades that engirdle the town. Where could the German
armies be? It seemed as if they had been lost. Two of them, no doubt,
were near Metz–the first, under General Steinmetz, watching the
fortress; the second, under Prince Frederick Charles, trying to make
its way up the right bank of the Moselle so as to cut off Bazaine’s
communications with Paris. But where–so confused and contradictory
were the newspaper statements–could the third army really be–the
army of the Crown Prince of Prussia, victorious at Weissenburg and
Frœschweiler, and launched in pursuit of the First and Fifth French
corps? Was it still camping at Nancy, or was it on the point of
reaching Châlons that the camp should have been so hastily abandoned,
and the magazines, accoutrements, forage, quite an incalculable wealth
of supplies, fired and destroyed? There was the same confusion, and
the same contradictory suppositions were indulged in with respect
to the plans of the French generals. Hitherto separated from the
rest of the world, it was only now that Maurice learnt what had been
occurring in Paris–the thunderbolt of defeat falling on a people
confident of victory, the terrible emotion in the streets, the
convocation of the Chambers, the fall of the Liberal ministry[12] that
had organised the Plebiscitum, and the Emperor’s deposition from the
post of commander-in-chief, which he had been obliged to surrender to
Marshal Bazaine. The Emperor had been at the camp of Châlons since
August 16, and all the papers spoke of a great council held there on
the 17th, and attended by Prince Napoleon and several generals. None
of the accounts agreed, however, as to the decisions that had been
arrived at, apart from the incidents that had immediately followed,
such as the appointment of General Trochu as governor of Paris and of
Marshal MacMahon as commander of the army of Châlons, which implied
the complete effacement of the Sovereign. A general scare, prodigious
irresolution, conflicting plans following swiftly one upon the
other–all these could be divined. But ever the same question arose in
Maurice’s mind: Where were the German armies? Who were right–those who
pretended that Bazaine’s movements were free, and that he was effecting
his retreat by way of the northern fortresses, or those who asserted
that he was already blockaded under Metz? There were persistent rumours
of gigantic battles, heroic struggles sustained during an entire week,
from the 14th to the 20th, but from these there was evolved only a
formidable echo of conflict, waged far away.

His legs sinking from fatigue, Maurice seated himself at last on a
bench. The town around him seemed to be living its daily life. Nurses
were minding children under the beautiful trees, and petty cits were
slowly taking their usual walk. Maurice scanned his papers again, and
in doing so came upon an article he had not previously noticed in one
of the most fiery of the Republican opposition journals. This threw
a vivid light on the situation. At the council held at the camp of
Châlons on August 17, so this newspaper asserted, the retreat of the
army upon Paris had been decided on, and General Trochu’s appointment
as governor of the capital had been made solely with the view of
preparing the Emperor’s return. But the newspaper added that these
decisions had been frustrated by the attitude which the Empress-Regent
and the new ministry[13] had taken up. According to the Empress Eugénie
a revolution was certain if the Emperor returned to Paris. ‘He would
not reach the Tuileries alive,’ she was asserted to have said. And
she obstinately insisted on a forward march, on MacMahon effecting
a junction, despite every obstacle, with the army of Metz; in which
views she was supported by the minister of war, General de Palikao, who
had planned a victorious, lightning march for MacMahon, so that the
latter might join hands with Bazaine. Gazing dreamily in front of him,
with his paper lying on his knees, Maurice now fancied that he could
understand everything: The two conflicting plans; MacMahon’s hesitation
to undertake this dangerous flank march with such indifferent troops;
and the impatient, increasingly fretful orders which reached him from
Paris, urging him into this madly rash adventure. Whilst picturing the
tragical struggle, Maurice had a clear vision of the Emperor, deprived
of his imperial authority which he had confided to the Empress-Regent,
and divested of the supreme command of the army which he had entrusted
to Marshal Bazaine, so that he had now become a mere nothing–a vague,
undefined shadow of an Emperor, a nameless and cumbersome inutility,
whom no one knew what to do with, whom Paris rejected, and who no
longer had any place in the army since he had undertaken not to give it
a single order.

On the following morning, when Maurice awoke after a stormy night,
which he had spent rolled up in his blanket outside his tent, he was
relieved to hear that the plan of retreating upon Paris had gained the
upper hand. There was some talk of a fresh council held the previous
evening, which had been attended by the ex-vice-Emperor,[14] M.
Rouher, whom the Empress had despatched to head quarters in view of
hastening the march upon Verdun, but whom Marshal MacMahon seemed to
have convinced of the danger that would attend such a movement. Had
any bad news of Bazaine come to hand? No one dared to assert this.
However, the absence of news was sufficiently significant. All the
officers with any common sense pronounced themselves in favour of
waiting for the enemy under Paris; and, feeling convinced that he and
his comrades would begin falling back the very next day, since it was
said that orders to that effect had been issued, Maurice in his delight
determined to satisfy a childish craving. He wished, once in a way, to
escape the mess-platter and to breakfast somewhere at a cloth-spread
table, with a bottle of wine, a decanter of water, and a plate before
him–all the things which it seemed to him he had been deprived of for
many months. He had some money in his pocket, so he slipped away with a
beating heart, as if bent on some spree, and began to search about him
for an inn.

It was on the outskirts of the village of Courcelles, beyond the canal,
that he found the breakfast he had dreamt of. He had been told the day
before that the Emperor had taken up his quarters at a private house in
this village, and having strolled there out of curiosity, he remembered
having noticed at the corner of a couple of roads a tavern with an
arbour, where dangled some beautiful bunches of grapes already ripe and
golden. There were some green-painted tables under the creeping vine,
and through the open doorway of the spacious kitchen one could espy
the loud-ticking clock, the cheap coloured prints pasted on the walls,
and the fat hostess attending to the roasting-jack. A bowling alley
stretched in the rear of the house, and the whole place had the gay,
attractive, free-and-easy aspect of an old-fashioned _guinguette_.

A well-built, full-breasted girl, who showed her white teeth, came to
ask Maurice if he wished to breakfast.

‘Of course I do. Give me some eggs, a chop, and some cheese–and
some white wine.’ Then calling her back he asked, ‘Isn’t the Emperor
quartered in one of those houses?’

‘Yes, in the one in front of us; but you can’t see it–it is behind the
trees that rise above that high wall.’

Maurice then installed himself in the arbour, took off his belt
that he might be more at his ease, and selected a table on which the
sunrays, filtering through the vine leaves, were casting golden spots.
His eyes kept on returning to that high yellow wall which screened
the Emperor from view. The house was indeed a hidden and mysterious
one; not even the tiles of the roof could be seen. The entrance was
on the other side, facing the village street–a narrow street, where
neither shop nor even window was to be seen, for it wound along between
monotonous blank walls. The grounds in the rear of the house looked
like an ait of dense verdure amid the neighbouring buildings. Among
these, on the other side of the highway, Maurice noticed a large
courtyard surrounded by stables and coach-houses, and filled with vans
and carriages, amid which men and horses were continually coming and
going.

‘And are all those traps for the Emperor?’ Maurice jokingly asked the
servant, as she spread a clean white cloth on his table.

‘Yes, for the Emperor and no one else,’ she answered, with a gay
sprightly air, pleased to have an opportunity of showing her fresh
white teeth. Then she began to enumerate all there was; having learnt
this, no doubt, from the grooms who had been coming to drink at the
tavern since the day before. To begin with, there was the staff of
twenty-five officers, the sixty Cent-Gardes, the escort-detachment of
Guides,[15] the six Gendarmes of the provostship service; then the
household, comprising seventy-three persons, chamberlains, valets
and footmen, cooks and scullions; next four saddle-horses and two
carriages for the Emperor, ten horses for the equerries, and eight for
the outriders and grooms, without counting forty-seven posting horses;
then a _char à bancs_ and twelve baggage vans, two of which, reserved
to the cooks, had excited the girl’s admiration by the large quantity
of kitchen utensils, plates, and bottles that could be seen inside
them, all in beautiful order. ‘Ah! sir,’ she said to Maurice, ‘I never
saw such saucepans before! They shine like the sun! And there are all
sorts of dishes and vessels, and things I can’t even tell the use of!
And wine, too–bordeaux, and burgundy, and champagne enough to give a
splendid wedding feast.’

Well pleased at sight of the clean white cloth and the light golden
wine sparkling in his glass, Maurice ate a couple of boiled eggs with
a gluttonous enjoyment he had never before experienced. Whenever he
turned his head to the left he obtained, through one of the entrances
to the arbour, a view of the vast tent-covered plain, the swarming city
that had just sprung up amid the stubble between Rheims and the canal.
Only a few meagre clumps of trees dotted the grey expanse, where three
mills upreared their slender arms. Above the confused roofs of Rheims,
intermingled with the crests of chestnut trees, the colossal pile of
the cathedral stood out in the blue atmosphere, looking, though far
away, quite gigantic by the side of the low houses. And, on seeing it,
recollections of schoolboy days came back to Maurice. Lessons that
he had learnt and hemmed and hawed over returned to his mind: the
coronations of the French Kings in Rheims Cathedral, the holy oil,
Clovis, Joan of Arc–all the departed glories of ancient France.

Then, again thinking of the Emperor hidden away in that modest private
house so discreetly closed, Maurice turned his eyes once more on the
high yellow wall, and was surprised to read on it the inscription,
‘Vive Napoléon!’ traced in huge letters with a bit of charcoal,
beside some clumsy obscene drawings. The rain had washed away the
yellow distemper that had previously concealed the writing, and the
inscription was evidently an old one. How singular to find upon that
wall this acclamation, born of the warlike enthusiasm of long ago,
and intended, undoubtedly, for the uncle, the conquering Napoleon,
not his nephew! At sight of it, all Maurice’s childhood arose before
him, carolling in his mind, and again he listened to the tales of
his grandfather, a soldier of the Grand Army. His mother was dead,
and his father had been obliged to accept a post of tax collector,
no opportunities for winning glory being vouchsafed to the sons of
the heroes of France after the fall of the First Empire. And the
grandfather lived with them on a most meagre pension, fallen to the
level of this modest home, and having but one consolation, that of
recounting his campaigns to his grandchildren, the twins, boy and girl,
each with the same fair hair, and whose mother he, in some measure,
was. He would seat Henriette on his left knee, and Maurice on his
right, and then, during long hours, there followed Homeric tales of
battle.

These tales did not seem to belong to history; different periods
were blended, and all the nations of the earth met together in one
great, fearful collision. The English, the Austrians, the Prussians,
the Russians passed by–now in turn, now all at the same time–just
as alliances willed it, and without it being possible to say why some
were beaten rather than others. But beaten they were, inevitably
beaten in advance by a great dash of heroism and genius which swept
armies away as if they had been merely chaff. There was Marengo, the
classical engagement on level ground, with the long lines of troops
skilfully deployed, and the faultless retreat in échelon order of the
battalions so silent and impassive under fire. This was the legendary
battle lost at three o’clock, won at six; the battle when eight hundred
grenadiers of the Consular Guard arrested the onslaught of the entire
Austrian cavalry; when Desaix came up to meet his death and to change
an impending rout into an immortal victory. Then there was Austerlitz,
with its beautiful sun of glory shining through the wintry mist;
Austerlitz, commencing with the capture of the plateau of Pritzen and
ending with the terrifying disruption of the ice on the frozen lakes,
when an entire Russian army corps, men and horses, sank into the water
amid a frightful crash; whilst the god-like Napoleon, who had naturally
foreseen everything, completed the disaster with his round shot. Next
there was Jena, where Prussia’s power was entombed; at first, the
skirmishers firing through the October fog, and Ney, by his impatience,
almost compromising everything; then Augereau’s advance that extricated
Ney, the great onslaught, so violent that it swept away the enemy’s
entire centre; and finally the panic, the _sauve-qui-peut_ of an
over-vaunted cavalry, whom the French Hussars mowed down like ripe
oats, strewing the romantic valley with men and horses. Then there was
Eylau–Eylau, the abominable–the most bloody of battles, when such was
the slaughter that the hideously disfigured bodies lay on the ground
in heaps; Eylau, blood red under its snow storm, with its mournful
cemetery of heroes; Eylau still loudly re-echoing the thunderous charge
of Murat’s eighty squadrons, which cut right through the Russian army
and strewed the field with such a depth of corpses that even Napoleon
himself wept at the sight.

Then there was Friedland, the fearful trap into which the Russians,
like a flight of careless sparrows, again fell; Friedland, the
strategical masterpiece of that Emperor who knew everything and could
do everything. At first the French left wing remained motionless and
imperturbable, whilst Ney, having captured the town, was destroying
the bridges; then the French left wing rushed upon the enemy’s right,
throwing it into the river, overwhelming it in the inextricable
position into which it had been forced; and so much slaughter had to
be accomplished that the French were still killing the foe at ten
o’clock at night. Next there was Wagram–the Austrians wishing to
cut the French off from the Danube, and repeatedly reinforcing their
left wing so that they might overcome Masséna, who, being wounded,
reclined in a carriage whilst commanding his troops; and meantime the
artful, Titanic Napoleon allowed the Austrians to pursue this course
till all at once the terrible fire of a hundred guns rained upon their
weakened centre, sweeping it more than a league away; whereupon their
left wing, terrified at its isolation, and already falling back before
Masséna, who had retrieved his earlier reverses, carried off with it
the remainder of the Austrian army with devastation akin to that caused
by a breaking dyke. And at last there was the Moskowa, when the bright
sun of Austerlitz shone out again for the last time, a terrible _mêlée_
of men, with all the confusion born of vast numbers of antagonists and
of stubborn courage, hillocks carried under an incessant fusillade,
redoubts captured by assault at the bayonet’s point, repeated offensive
returns of the enemy, who disputed the ground inch by inch, and such
desperate bravery on the part of the Russian Guards that the furious
charges of Murat, the simultaneous thunder of three hundred guns, and
all the valour of Ney, the triumphant prince of the day, were needed
to secure victory. But whatever the battle was, the flags were stirred
by the same glorious fluttering in the evening air; the same shouts of
‘Vive Napoléon!’ resounded when the bivouac fires were being lighted on
the conquered positions; France was everywhere at home–a conqueress
who marched her invincible eagles from one end of Europe to the other,
and who needed but to set her foot on the soil of foreign kingdoms for
the humbled nations to sink into the ground!

Less intoxicated by the white wine that sparkled in his glass than by
the glorious memories carolling in his mind, Maurice was finishing
his chop when his glance fell upon two ragged, mud-stained soldiers,
who looked like bandits weary of roaming the highways; and on hearing
them question the servant girl respecting the precise positions of the
regiments encamped alongside the canal, he called out to them, ‘Eh,
comrades, here! You belong to the Seventh Corps, don’t you?’

‘Of course–to the first division,’ replied one of the men; ‘there’s
no mistake about it I warrant you. The best proof is, I was at
Frœschweiler, where it wasn’t cold by any means. And the comrade here
belongs to the First Corps–he was at Weissenburg, another filthy hole!’

Then they told their tale, how both being slightly wounded they had
fallen in the panic and the rout, lying half dead with fatigue in a
ditch, and then dragging themselves along in the rear of the army,
forced by exhausting attacks of fever to linger behind in the towns,
and so belated at last that they were now only just arriving, somewhat
restored to health, and bent upon joining their squads. Maurice, who
was about to tackle a piece of Gruyère cheese, noticed, with his heart
oppressed, the envious glances which they darted at his plate. ‘Some
more cheese, and some bread and some wine!’ he called. ‘You’ll join me,
comrades, eh? I stand treat! Here’s to your health!’

They sat down delighted; and Maurice, with an increasing chill at his
heart, noted to what a lamentable condition they had fallen, with no
weapons, and with their overcoats and red trousers fastened with so
many bits of string, and patched with so many different shreds of
cloth that they looked like pillagers–gipsies who had donned some old
garments stolen from corpses on the battlefield.

‘Ah! curse it, yes!’ resumed the bigger of the two, with his mouth
full. ‘It wasn’t all fun over there. You should have seen it. Just tell
your tale, Coutard.’

Then the little one, gesticulating with a hunk of bread in his hand,
began his story: ‘I was washing my shirt while the _soupe_ was being
got ready–we were in a beastly hole, a regular funnel with big woods
all round it which enabled those swinish Prussians to creep up on all
fours without our knowing it–then, just at seven o’clock, their shells
began falling in our pots. We rushed to arms in a jiffy, curse it!
and up to eleven o’clock we fancied we were giving them a downright
licking–but there weren’t more than five thousand of us, you must
know, and fresh detachments of those pigs kept constantly coming up. I
was on a little hill, lying down behind a bush, and in front of me and
right and left of me I could see them marching up, swarming like ants,
like lines of black ants that never came to an end. Well, you know, we
couldn’t help thinking that the commanders were regular duffers to have
shoved us into such a wasp’s nest, far away from our comrades, and to
leave us there too, to be crushed without any help coming. Then, in the
midst of it all, our general, that poor devil General Douay,[16] who
was neither a fool nor a capon, was hit by a ball and toppled over with
his legs in the air. His account was settled! All the same, we still
held out, but there were too many of them, and we had to slope. Next we
fought in an inclosure, and defended the station with such a thundering
row going on that one was quite deafened. Then, I hardly know, but the
town must have been captured, and we found ourselves on a mountain–the
Geissberg they call it, I think–and there, having entrenched ourselves
in a kind of château, we kept on potting those pigs. They jumped into
the air as we hit them, and it was a sight to see how they came down
again on their snouts. But it was all no good; they kept on coming
up till they were quite ten to one, and with as many guns as they
wanted.[17] It is all very well to be brave, but bravery in an affair
like that simply means leaving one’s carcase on the field. Well, we
were quite in a jelly at last, and we had to take ourselves off. All
the same, our officers showed themselves regular duffers–didn’t they,
Picot?’

There was a pause. Picot, the taller of the two men, drained a glass
of white wine, and then, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand,
rejoined: ‘Of course. It was the same at Frœschweiler. Only idiots
would have thought of giving battle with affairs in such a state. My
captain, an artful little beggar, said so. The truth is, the commanders
can have known nothing. An entire army of those beasts fell on us when
we were barely forty thousand. No fighting was expected that day, it
seems; but the battle began little by little, without the officers
wanting it. Of course, I didn’t see everything, but I know well enough
that the dancing went on all day, and that just when one thought it had
ended the music began afresh. First at Wœrth, a pretty little village
with a comical steeple, covered with earthenware tiles, which make it
look like a stove. The devil, too, if I know why we were ordered out
of Wœrth in the morning, for afterwards we had to fight, tooth and
nail, to try and recapture it. But we didn’t succeed. Ah! my boys,
we did have a job there. You should have seen all the bellies ripped
open and the brains scattered about. It was incredible. Then we had a
set-to round another village–Elsasshausen, a beastly name to remember.
We were being mowed down by a lot of guns which were firing at their
ease from another cursed hill, which we had also given up in the
morning. And then it was that I saw, yes, I myself saw the charge of
the Cuirassiers. Ah! how the poor devils did get themselves killed! It
was pitiful to send men and horses charging over such ground as that, a
slope covered with scrub and full of ditches. And, besides, worse luck,
it could be of no earthly use. All the same, however, it was brave, it
was a grand sight to see. And after that? Well, after that it seemed
as if we had no other course but to try and take ourselves off. The
village was burning like tinder, the Badeners, the Wurtembergers, and
the Prussians–the whole band, in fact–one hundred and twenty thousand
of those beasts, had ended by surrounding us. But we didn’t go off. The
music began again round Frœschweiler. The plain truth is, MacMahon may
be a duffer, but he’s plucky. You should have seen him on his big horse
in the midst of the shells! Any other man would have bolted at the
outset, thinking it no shame to refuse battle when one isn’t in force.
But he, as the fighting had begun, determined to let the skull-cracking
go on to the bitter end. And he managed it, too! In Frœschweiler we
weren’t like men fighting; we were like animals, eating one another.
For a couple of hours the gutters ran with blood—-. And then? Well,
we had to skedaddle at last! And to think we learned just then that we
had overthrown the Bavarians on our left! Ah! curse it, if we, too, had
only had a hundred and twenty thousand men, if we had only had enough
guns and not quite such duffing officers!’

Still exasperated and violently inclined, Coutard and Picot, in their
ragged uniforms grey with dust, were cutting themselves hunks of bread
and bolting big bits of cheese, whilst venting their nightmare-like
souvenirs under the beautiful vine with its ripe grapes spangled
with golden darts by the sun. They had now come to the fearful rout
that had followed the battle; the disbanded, demoralised, hungry
regiments fleeing through the fields; the high roads one stream of
men, horses, carts, and guns in frightful confusion; all the wreckage
of an annihilated army, lashed onward in its retreat by the mad blast
of panic. Since they had not been able to fall back in good order
and defend the passages of the Vosges, where ten thousand men might
have stopped a hundred thousand, at least they might have blown up
the bridges and filled up the tunnels. But the generals bolted in
the universal scare, and such a tempest of stupefaction swept along,
carrying off both vanquishers and vanquished, that for a moment the two
conflicting armies lost one another–MacMahon hurrying in the direction
of Lunéville, whilst the Crown Prince of Prussia was looking for him
in the direction of the Vosges. On August 7 the remnants of the First
French Army Corps swept through Saverne like a muddy, overflowing
stream laden with wreckage. On the 8th, the Fifth Corps fell in with
the First at Saarburg, like one torrent flowing into another. The
Fifth Corps was also in full flight, beaten without having fought, and
carrying along with it its commander, that sorry General de Failly,
who was distracted to find that the responsibility of the defeat
was ascribed to his inaction. On the 9th and 10th the flying gallop
continued, a mad _sauve-qui-peut_, in which no one halted even to look
round. On the 11th, in the pouring rain, they descended towards Bayon,
so as to avoid Nancy, which was falsely rumoured to be in the enemy’s
hands. On the 12th they encamped at Haroué; on the 13th at Vicherey;
and next day they reached Neufchâteau, where the railway at last
gathered together this drifting mass of men, who, during three entire
days, were shovelled into the trains, so that they might be conveyed
to Châlons. Four-and-twenty hours after the last train had started the
Prussians came up.

‘Ah! cursed luck!’ concluded Picot. ‘We had to use our legs, and no
mistake. And we two had been left at the infirmary.’

Coutard was just emptying the bottle into his comrade’s glass and his
own: ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘we took ourselves off, and we’ve been on the road
ever since. All the same, however, one feels better now that one can
drink to the health of those that haven’t had their skulls cracked.’

Maurice now understood everything. After so stupidly allowing
themselves to be surprised at Weissenburg, the crushing, lightning
stroke of Frœschweiler had fallen on the French, its sinister glare
casting a vivid light upon the terrible truth. France was not ready,
she had neither cannon, nor men, nor generals; and the enemy, treated
with such contempt, proved to be strong and solid, innumerable,
perfect alike in discipline and tactics. Through the weak screen
formed of the seven French Army Corps, disseminated between Metz and
Strasburg, the foe had literally punched his way. Of a certainty France
would now be left to her own resources; neither Austria nor Italy would
join her; the Emperor’s plan had crumbled away through the delay in
the operations and the incapacity of the commanders. And even fatality
was working against the French, accumulating mishaps and deplorable
coincidences, and enabling the Prussians to carry out their secret
plan, which was to cut the French armies in two and throw one portion
of them under Metz, that it might be isolated from the rest of France,
whilst they–the invaders–marched upon Paris, after destroying the
other portion. Already, at this stage, everything was mathematically
clear. France was bound to be beaten, through causes the inevitable
effects of which were already apparent; and this war was but a conflict
between unintelligent bravery on the one hand, and superiority of
numbers and calm methodical strategy on the other. Dispute about it as
one might later on, in any and every case, no matter what might have
been done, defeat was a fatal certainty, predetermined by the laws that
rule the world.

Suddenly, as Maurice’s dreamy eyes wandered away, they espied those
words, ‘Vive Napoléon!’ traced in charcoal on the high yellow wall in
front of him. He experienced an unbearable feeling of uneasiness at
the sight; a sudden burning pang shot through his heart. So it was
true that France, the France of the legendary victories, that had
marched with beating drums through Europe, had now been thrown to
the ground by a petty nation which it had despised. Fifty years had
sufficed to change the world, and defeat was falling heavy and fearful
on those who had once been conquerors. Maurice remembered all that
his brother-in-law Weiss had told him on that night of anguish before
Mulhausen. Yes, Weiss alone had shown any prescience, guessing the
slow, hidden causes of the decline of France, perceiving what a breeze
of youth and strength was blowing from Germany. One warlike age was
ending; another was beginning. Woe to those who halt in the continuous
effort which nations must make; victory belongs to those who march in
the van, to the most accomplished, the healthiest, and the strongest!

Just then a girl’s screams were heard. Lieutenant Rochas, like a
conquering trooper, was kissing the pretty servant in the smoky
old kitchen, brightened by cheap coloured prints. He stepped into
the arbour and ordered coffee, and, having overheard the last words
of Coutard and Picot, he gaily remarked, ‘Pooh! my lads, all that’s
nothing. It’s only the beginning of the dance; you’re going to see the
revenge we’ll have now. So far, they’ve been five to one. But it’s all
going to change, take my word for it. There are three hundred thousand
of us here. All the movements we are making, and which you don’t
understand, are to draw the Prussians down on us, whilst Bazaine, who’s
watching them, takes them in flank. Then we’ll just squash them–like
this fly.’

As he spoke he crushed a passing fly with a loud clap of his hands;
and he talked on gaily, believing, in his childish simplicity, in the
success of this easy plan, and having recovered all his pristine faith
in the invincibility of bravery. He obligingly acquainted the two
soldiers with the exact positions of their regiments, and then, feeling
quite happy, he sat himself down with a cigar between his teeth, in
front of his cup of coffee.

‘The pleasure has been mine, comrades,’ replied Maurice to Coutard
and Picot, as, in taking themselves off, they thanked him for the
cheese and the bottle of wine. He also had ordered some coffee, and he
sat there looking at Rochas, and sharing his good humour, though he
was surprised that an officer should talk of three hundred thousand
men when they were barely more than one hundred thousand, and that
he should consider the crushing of the Prussians between the army of
Châlons and the army of Metz such a remarkably easy affair. But, on
the other hand, Maurice felt such a need of illusions! Might he not
continue hoping in victory, when the glorious past was carolling so
loudly in his memory? The old _guinguette_ had such a joyous aspect
too, with its creeping vine, whence dangled the clear sun-gilt grapes
of France! Once more did Maurice experience an hour’s confidence rising
above all the secret sadness that had slowly gathered in his heart.

As he sat there he noticed an officer of Chasseurs d’Afrique ride
past at a rapid trot, followed by his orderly, and disappear round
the corner of the silent house occupied by the Emperor. Then, as the
orderly returned alone, and halted with both horses at the door of the
tavern, Maurice gave a cry of surprise: ‘What, Prosper! Why, I thought
you were at Metz!’

The newcomer was a simple farm-hand of Remilly, whom Maurice had known
when a child, at the time when he went to spend his holidays at uncle
Fouchard’s. Having been taken at the conscription, Prosper had already
spent three years in Algeria when the war broke out, and, with his long
thin face and his supple sturdy limbs, with which he was wonderfully
adroit, he looked to great advantage in his sky-blue jacket, his full
red trousers with blue stripes, and his ample red woollen sash. ‘What!
Monsieur Maurice,’ he said. ‘Here’s an unexpected meeting!’

He did not hurry to join his friend, however, but forthwith took the
steaming horses to the stable, eyeing his own mount with quite a
paternal air. It was love of horseflesh, dating from childhood, from
the time when he had taken the teams to the fields, that had induced
him to enter the cavalry service. ‘We’ve just come from Monthois, ten
leagues at a stretch,’ he said to Maurice, when he returned, ‘and
Zephyr needs a feed.’ Zephyr was his horse. For his own part he refused
to eat anything, and would only accept some coffee. He had to wait
for his officer, who, on his side, had to wait for the Emperor. They
might be five minutes there, or two hours, there was no telling, so
his officer had told him to bait the horses. Then as Maurice, whose
curiosity was roused, questioned him as to why the officer wanted
to see the Emperor, he replied; ‘I don’t know–some commission of
course–some papers to hand in.’

Rochas was eyeing Prosper with a softened glance, the sight of the
chasseur uniform having revived his own recollections of Algeria. ‘And
where were you, out there, my lad?’ he asked.

‘At Medeah, sir.’

Medeah! Thereupon they began talking together like comrades, all
regulations notwithstanding. Prosper had grown accustomed to that
Algerian life of constant alerts, a life spent on horseback, the
men setting out to fight as they might have set out on some hunting
excursion, some great _battue_ of Arabs. There was but one platter for
each ‘tribe'[18] of six men; and each ‘tribe’ was a family, one member
of which did the cooking, whilst another did the washing, and the
others pitched the tents, groomed the horses, and furbished the arms.
They rode on through the morning and afternoon, laden with weighty
burdens, in a heat as heavy as lead. Then in the evening they lighted
large fires to drive away the mosquitoes, and gathered around to sing
songs of France. During the clear, star-spangled nights it was often
necessary to get up to quiet the horses, who, incommoded by the warm
breeze, would suddenly begin to bite one another and tear up their
pickets, neighing furiously. Then, too, there was the coffee, a great
affair, the delicious coffee which they crushed in a pan and strained
through one of their red regulation sashes. But there were also the
black days, spent far from all human habitations, face to face with
the enemy. Then there were no more camp-fires, no more songs, no more
sprees. They suffered fearfully at times from thirst, hunger, and
lack of sleep. Yet all the same they were fond of that adventurous
life full of unexpected incidents, that skirmishing warfare so well
adapted to deeds of personal bravery, and as amusing as the conquest
of some island of savages, enlivened by razzias or wholesale pillaging
expeditions, and by the petty thefts of the marauders, many of whose
cunning exploits had become quite legendary, and made even the generals
laugh.

‘Ah!’ said Prosper, suddenly becoming grave; ‘it’s not the same here;
we fight differently.’

In reply to further questions from Maurice, he then related their
landing at Toulon, and their long and wearisome journey to Lunéville.
It was there they had heard of Weissenburg and Frœschweiler. He hardly
recollected their line of route after that; they had gone, he thought,
from Nancy to St. Mihiel, and then on to Metz. A great battle must have
been fought on the 14th, for the horizon was aglow with fire; for his
own part, however, he had only seen four Uhlans behind a hedge. On the
16th there had been more fighting, the guns had begun thundering at six
in the morning, and he had heard say that the dance had begun again
on the 18th, more terrible than ever.[19] The Chasseurs d’Afrique,
however, were then no longer with the army, for on the 16th, whilst
they were drawn up along a road near Gravelotte, waiting for orders,
the Emperor, who was driving off in a carriage, took them along with
him to escort him to Verdun. A nice ride that was, more than twenty-six
miles at a gallop, with the fear that the Prussians might intercept
them at every turn of the road.

‘And Bazaine?’ asked Rochas.

‘Bazaine? It’s said he was devilish pleased that the Emperor had taken
himself off.’

The lieutenant wished to know, however, if Bazaine were approaching,
and Prosper could only reply by a gesture. Who could tell? He and his
comrades had spent long days marching and counter-marching in the
rain, in reconnoitring, and on outpost duty–and without once seeing
an enemy. They now belonged to the army of Châlons. His regiment, with
two others of Chasseurs and one of Hussars, formed the first division
of the reserve cavalry, and were commanded by General Margueritte, of
whom Prosper spoke with enthusiastic affection. ‘Ah! the devil,’ said
he, ‘there’s a lion for you! But what good is it?–so far they’ve never
known what to do with us except to send us floundering through the mud.’

A pause followed, and then Maurice talked about Remilly and uncle
Fouchard, and Prosper expressed his regret at not being able to go
and shake hands with Honoré, the quartermaster, whose battery must
be stationed more than a league away, on the other side of the road
to Laon. Hearing a horse snort, however, he rose and hurried off
to satisfy himself that Zephyr wanted nothing. It was the time for
coffee and for something short to help it down, and soldiers of all
arms and all ranks were now invading the tavern. There was not an
unoccupied table, and bright was the display of uniforms amid the green
vine-leaves flecked with sunshine. Surgeon-Major Bouroche had just
seated himself beside Rochas, when Jean appeared and addressed himself
to the lieutenant: ‘The captain will expect you at three o’clock, for
orders, sir.’

Rochas nodded, as much as to say that he would be punctual, and Jean,
instead of immediately retiring, turned to smile at Maurice, who was
lighting a cigarette. Since the scene in the train, there was a tacit
truce between the two men, as though they were studying one another in
a more and more kindly way.

Prosper, who had just returned, now exclaimed impatiently: ‘I shall
have something to eat if my officer doesn’t come out of that shanty.
It’s disgusting; the Emperor may not be back before to-night.’

‘I say,’ exclaimed Maurice, whose curiosity was again aroused, ‘it’s
perhaps some news of Bazaine that you’ve brought?’

‘Perhaps so. They were talking about him at Monthois.’

Just then there was a sudden stir, and Jean, who had been standing
at one of the entrances of the arbour, turned round and said: ‘The
Emperor!’

They all sprang to their feet. Between the poplars lining the white
high road there appeared a platoon of Cent-Gardes still correctly
dressed in their luxurious, resplendent uniforms, with large golden
suns glittering upon their breastplates. In the open space behind
them came the Emperor on horseback, escorted by his staff, which was
followed by a second detachment of Cent-Gardes. Everyone uncovered,
and a few acclamations were heard; and the Emperor raised his head as
he passed by, so that one could clearly see his face, drawn and very
pale, with dim wavering eyes which appeared full of water. He seemed as
if he were waking out of a doze, smiled faintly at sight of the sunlit
tavern, and then saluted.

Meantime, Bouroche had darted at Napoleon the quick glance of an
experienced practitioner, and Jean and Maurice, who were standing in
front of the surgeon, distinctly heard him growl: ‘There’s a nasty
stone there, and no mistake.’ And then he completed his diagnosis in
two words, ‘_Done for_!’

Jean, with his narrow-minded common-sense, had shaken his head
sorrowfully; what fearful bad luck for an army to have such a chief
as that! Ten minutes later, when Maurice, after shaking hands with
Prosper, went off delighted with his nicely served breakfast, to stroll
about and smoke some more cigarettes, he carried away with him the
recollection of that pale, dim-eyed Emperor, passing by on horseback
at a jog-trot. So that was the conspirator, the dreamer deficient in
energy at the decisive moment. He was said to be kind-hearted, to be
quite capable of great and generous ideas, and, silent man that he
was, to have a very tenacious will; and he was also undoubtedly very
brave, disdainful of danger, like a fatalist always ready to accept his
destiny. But in great crises he seemed struck with stupor, paralysed
as it were in presence of accomplished facts; and thenceforward he was
unable to contend against evil fortune. Maurice wondered if this were
not some special physiological condition which agony had aggravated; if
the disease from which the Emperor was evidently suffering were not the
cause of the growing indecision and incapacity that he had displayed
since the outset of the campaign. In that way, everything would have
been explained. A grain of sand in a man’s flesh, and empires totter
and fall!

Quite a stir suddenly arose in camp that evening after the roll call,
the officers running hither and thither, transmitting orders, and
arranging everything for the men’s departure next morning at five
o’clock. With mingled surprise and disquietude, Maurice learnt that
everything was again changed, and that instead of falling back on
Paris they were about to march on Verdun, in view of joining Bazaine.
A rumour circulated that a despatch had arrived from the latter
during the day, announcing that he was effecting his retreat; and
Maurice then remembered Prosper and the officer he had come with from
Monthois, perhaps to bring the Emperor a copy of this despatch. Thus
the Empress-Regent and the Council of Ministers, so frightened at the
thought of the Emperor’s return to Paris, and so obstinately bent
upon throwing the army forward at any cost in order that it might
make a supreme attempt to save the dynasty, had triumphed at last
over the perpetual hesitation of Marshal MacMahon. And that wretched
Emperor, that poor devil who no longer had any place in his own empire,
was to be carried off like a useless, cumbersome parcel among the
baggage-train of his troops, condemned–oh! the irony of it–to drag
after him all his Imperial household, his bodyguards, his carriages,
his horses, his cooks, his vans full of silver saucepans and sparkling
wine of Champagne–in a word, all the pomp of his bee-spangled,
imperial robes, which could now only serve to sweep up the blood and
mire that covered the high-roads of defeat!

At midnight, Maurice had not yet got to sleep. Feverish insomnia,
fraught with ugly dreams, made him turn over and over in the tent.
At last he ended by coming outside, and felt relieved on standing
up and inhaling the cold, wind-swept air. The sky was covered with
huge clouds, the night was becoming very dense, with an infinitely
mournful darkness, which the last expiring fires along the camp
front faintly illumined with star-like lights. And amidst the black,
silent peacefulness one could detect the slow breathing of the
hundred thousand men who were lying there. Then Maurice’s anguish
became quieted, and a feeling of fraternity came to him, of indulgent
affection for all those living sleepers, thousands of whom would soon
be sleeping the sleep of death. After all, they were good fellows.
They were scarcely disciplined; they got drunk, and they robbed; but
what sufferings had they not already endured, and what excuses there
were for them in the Downfall of the entire nation! Among them there
remained but a small number of the glorious veterans of Sebastopol and
Solferino, mingled with men who were but lads, and incapable of any
prolonged resistance. These four army corps, hastily assembled and
reorganised, without any solid ties to bind them together, formed, so
to say, the army of despair, the expiatory flock which was to be sent
to the sacrifice in an endeavour to avert the anger of Destiny. And
this army must climb its Calvary to the bitter end, paying, with the
red flood of its blood, for the faults of everyone, and attaining to
fame by the very horror of the disasters that awaited it.

Meditating thus in the depths of the quivering darkness, Maurice became
conscious of the great duty that lay before him. He no longer indulged
the braggart hope of repeating the legendary victories. This march upon
Verdun was a march to Death, and he accepted it with stout and cheerful
resignation, since die he must.

The camp was raised on Tuesday, August 23, at six o’clock in the
morning, and the hundred thousand men of the army of Châlons set out
on the march, flowing away in an immense stream, like some human river
resuming its torrential course after expanding for a time into a lake.
Despite the rumours current the evening before, it was a thorough
surprise to many of the men to find that, instead of continuing their
movement of retreat, they now had to turn their backs on Paris, and
march towards the East–towards the Unknown.

At five o’clock in the morning, the Seventh Army Corps had not received
any cartridges. For two days past the artillerymen had been exhausting
themselves in removing their horses and _matériel_ from the railway
station, which was encumbered with supplies sent back from Metz. And
it was only at the last moment that the vans laden with the ammunition
were discovered among the fearful jumble of trains, and that a fatigue
company, of which Jean formed part, was able to remove some 240,000
cartridges in hastily requisitioned vehicles. Jean distributed the
regulation hundred cartridges to each of the men of his squad at the
very moment when Gaude, the company’s bugler, began to sound the march.

The 106th did not have to pass through Rheims. Its orders were to skirt
the town and make for the Châlons high road. Once again, however, the
commanders had neglected to regulate the men’s departure at proper
intervals, and, as the four army corps set out at the same time,
extreme confusion arose when they debouched from the various bye-roads
into the highways they were to follow in common. At every moment the
artillery and cavalry intercepted the infantry, and compelled the
latter to halt. Entire brigades had to wait for an hour in ploughed
fields, and with arms grounded, until the roads should become clear.
The worst was that a frightful storm burst some ten minutes after the
start–a perfect deluge, which fell during more than an hour, soaking
the men to the skin and rendering their heavy capotes and knapsacks
still more oppressive. The 106th, however, was able to resume its march
just as the rain was ceasing; whilst some Zouaves, who were still
obliged to wait in a field hard by, devised, by way of taking patience,
a little pastime to amuse themselves–that of assailing one another
with balls of earth, huge lumps of mud, the splashing of which on the
uniforms of those who were hit provoked uproarious laughter. Almost
immediately afterwards the sun reappeared, the triumphant sun of a warm
August morning. Then gaiety returned, the men steamed–much as washing
steams before the fire–and they were soon dry, looking like so many
dirty dogs pulled out of a pond, and joking with one another respecting
the hard crusty mud that dangled from their red trousers. It was still
necessary to stop and wait at each cross road, but at last there came a
final halt at the end of one of the Rheims suburbs, just in front of a
tavern, which never seemed to empty.

It then occurred to Maurice to stand treat to the squad by way of
wishing them all good luck–‘if you’ll allow it, corporal,’ said he.

After hesitating for a moment, Jean accepted a drop of something short.
Loubet and Chouteau were there, the latter slyly respectful since he
had seen Jean’s fists so near his face; and Pache and Lapoulle were
there also, good fellows both of them, when others did not set them
agog. ‘To your health, corporal!’ said Chouteau, in an unctuous voice.

‘To yours, and may we all bring our heads and feet back,’ politely
replied Jean, amid an approving titter.

The others were starting, however, and Captain Beaudoin had already
drawn near, apparently greatly shocked, and bent on reprimanding the
tipplers, whereas Lieutenant Rochas, indulgent when his men were
thirsty, affected to look in another direction. And now they sped along
the road to Châlons, an endless ribbon, edged with trees and stretching
in a straight line right across the vast plain, with stubble extending
far away on either side, and dotted here and there with lofty ricks and
wooden mills, whose sails were turning. More to the north were rows
of telegraph posts, indicating other roads on which the dark lines
of other troops on the march could be discerned. Several regiments
also cut across the fields in dense masses. In the van, on the left,
a brigade of cavalry trotted along, quite dazzling in the sunlight.
And the entire horizon, at other times so blank, so mournfully empty
and limitless, became animated and populous with these streams of men
gushing forth from all directions, these apparently inexhaustible
myriads that poured, as it were, out of some gigantic ant-hill.

At about nine o’clock the 106th wheeled to the left, quitting the
road to Châlons for another straight, endless, ribbon-like highway,
conducting to Suippe. The men were marching in two open files, leaving
the centre of the road clear. The officers walked along there at their
ease, and Maurice noticed how strongly their thoughtful air contrasted
with the good humour and satisfied sprightliness of the men, who were
as pleased as children to find themselves on the march again. The squad
being almost at the head of the regiment, he also obtained a distant
view of M. de Vineuil, and was greatly struck by the gloomy carriage
of the colonel’s tall, stiff frame, which swayed with the motion of
his horse. The band had been packed off to the rear among the sutlers’
carts. And accompanying the division came the ambulance vans and
equipage train, followed by the convoy of the entire army corps, the
forage waggons, the provision vans, the baggage waggons, a stream of
vehicles of every description, more than three miles in length, and
looking like an interminable tail when, at the few bends of the road,
it was possible to obtain any view of it. A herd of cattle brought up
the extreme rear in the far distance–a straggling drove of big oxen
stamping alone in a cloud of dust; the live, whip-driven meat, as it
were, of some warlike migratory people.

Meanwhile, Lapoulle from time to time hoisted up his knapsack by dint
of shrugging his shoulders. Under pretence that he was stronger than
his comrades, he was often laden with the utensils of the squad, such
as the large stew-pot and the water-can. On this occasion he had also
been entrusted with the company’s spade, which he had been told it
was an honour to carry. He did not complain, however; in fact, he
was laughing at a song with which Loubet, the tenor of the squad,
was enlivening the long tramp. Loubet’s knapsack, by the way, was
celebrated for its contents, which comprised something of everything:
linen, spare shoes, needles and thread, brushes, chocolate, a metal
cup, a spoon and fork, without counting the regulation provisions,
biscuits and coffee; and, although he also had his cartridges inside
it, and a rolled blanket, a shelter tent and pegs strapped to it
outside, the whole seemed to be wonderfully light, so accomplished was
he in the art of packing.

‘A beastly part!’ muttered Chouteau, from time to time, as he cast a
disdainful glance at the mournful plains of ‘la Champagne pouilleuse.’

The vast expanses of chalky soil still stretched out on either side in
endless monotony. Not a farm nor a human being was to be seen; nothing
but some flights of crows dotting the grey immensity. Afar off, on the
left, some dark green pine woods crowned the gentle undulations that
limited the horizon; whilst on the right a long line of trees indicated
the course of the river Vesle; and on that side, for the last league or
so, some dense smoke had been seen rising from behind the hills, its
mingled coils at last blotting out the horizon with the huge, frightful
cloud of a conflagration.

‘What’s burning over there?’ the men asked on every side.

The explanation promptly sped from the van to the rear of the column.
It was the camp of Châlons which had been blazing for two days past,
set on fire, as it was said, by the Emperor’s orders, so that the
wealth of supplies gathered together there might not fall into the
enemy’s hands. The rear-guard cavalry had been instructed to fire both
a huge wooden building called the Yellow Magazine, which was full of
tents, pickets, and matting, and another large closed shed known as
the New Magazine, in which shoes, blankets and mess utensils were
stored in sufficient quantities to equip another hundred thousand men.
The ricks of forage, which had also been fired, smoked like gigantic
torches; and the army, now marching across the vast, dreary plain,
became sadly silent at sight of the livid, whirling smoke-clouds, which
spread out from behind the distant hills, and slowly covered the sky
with a veil of irreparable mourning. Under the glaring August sun no
sound was to be heard save the regular tramp-tramp of the march, but
the men’s faces were persistently turned towards the spreading smoke,
which during another league or so seemed to be pursuing the column as
though to enshroud it in the cloudy gloom of disaster.

Gaiety returned at the midday halt, when the men, whilst eating a
morsel, sat and rested on their knapsacks among some stubble. The large
square biscuits were simply intended for steeping in the _soupe_, but
the little round ones were for eating dry, and, being light and crisp,
were quite nice. Their only fault was that they made one terribly
thirsty. At his comrades’ request, Pache now sang a hymn, which the
squad took up in chorus. Jean, smiling good-naturedly, let them do so,
whilst Maurice grew more and more confident at sight of the general
flow of spirits, the good order, and good humour that prevailed during
this first day of the march. And the remainder of the allotted distance
was accomplished in the same vigorous fashion, though the last five
miles proved very trying. They had left the village of Prosnes on their
right, and had quitted the high road to cut across some uncultivated
ground, a sandy _lande_ planted with copses of pine trees, between
which wound the entire division, followed by the interminable convoy,
the men sinking in the sand up to their ankles. The solitude now
seemed to have become more vast, and the only living creatures they
encountered were some emaciated sheep, guarded by a big black dog.

At last, at about four o’clock, the 106th halted at Dontrien, a village
on the banks of the Suippe. The little river meanders between tufts of
foliage, and the old church stands in a graveyard, which a gigantic
horse-chestnut tree fairly covers with its spreading shade. The
regiment pitched its tents in a sloping meadow on the left bank of the
stream. According to the officers, the four army corps would bivouac
that night along the line of the Suippe from Auberive to Heutrégiville,
by way of Dontrien, Béthiniville and Pont-Faverger, with a front
extending along a distance of nearly five leagues.

Gaude immediately sounded the call to rations, and Jean, the great
purveyor in ordinary, ever on the alert, had to hurry off, taking
Lapoulle with him. They returned in half an hour’s time with a rib of
beef and a faggot of wood. Three oxen of the drove that followed in
the rear of the army had already been slaughtered and cut up. Lapoulle
then had to go off again to fetch the bread which had been baking since
noon in the village ovens. Excepting wine and tobacco, which were never
once distributed during the whole period, there was on this occasion an
abundance of everything.

Jean, on his return, had found Chouteau engaged in pitching the tent
with Pache’s assistance. He looked at them for a moment like an
experienced old soldier who considered they were making a mess of the
job, and finally remarked: ‘Well, that’ll do since it’s going to be
fine to-night. But if it were windy we should all be blown into the
river. I shall have to teach you how to pitch the tent properly.’

Then he thought of sending Maurice to fetch some water in the large
can, but he saw that the young fellow had seated himself on the grass,
and had taken off his shoe to examine his right foot. ‘Hallo! what’s
up?’ asked Jean.

‘The counter has rubbed the skin off my heel. My other shoes were going
to pieces, and at Rheims, stupidly enough, I chose these because they
were just my size. I ought to have taken a larger pair.’

Kneeling down, Jean took hold of Maurice’s foot and turned it round as
gently as though he were dealing with a child. ‘It isn’t a laughing
matter,’ he said, shaking his head; ‘you must be careful. A soldier who
can’t depend on his feet may just as well be chucked on a rubbish heap.
My captain was always saying, out in Italy, that battles are won with
men’s legs.’

Thereupon, Jean sent Pache to fetch the water, which, after all, was an
easy task, since the river was only some fifty yards away. Meantime,
Loubet, having lighted the wood in a hole which he had dug in the
ground, was able to set the large pot upon it, dropping the meat, which
he had skilfully secured together with string, into the warm water.
Then came the blissful enjoyment of watching the _soupe_ boil. Fatigue
duties being over, all the men of the squad, full of tender solicitude
for the cooking meat, had stretched themselves on, the grass around the
fire. Like children and savages, brutified by this march towards the
Unknown with its uncertain morrow, they now seemed to care for nothing
but eating and sleeping.

Maurice, however, had found in his knapsack one of the newspapers he
had bought at Rheims, and Chouteau on seeing it exclaimed: ‘Is there
any news of the Prussians? You must read it to us.’

Under Jean’s steadily increasing authority the men were now getting
on fairly well together; and Maurice obligingly began to read all
the interesting news, whilst Pache, the squad’s needlewoman, mended
a tear in his overcoat for him, and Lapoulle cleaned his gun. First
of all there was an account of a great victory gained by Bazaine, who
was said to have thrown an entire Prussian army corps headlong into
the stone quarries of Jaumont; and this imaginary narrative[20] was a
dramatically circumstantial one; the enemy’s men and horses were said
to have been crushed to death among the rocks, annihilated in fact, to
such a degree, that not one whole body was left for burial! Then came
copious particulars respecting the pitiful condition of the German
armies since they had entered France. Badly fed and badly equipped, the
men had fallen into a state of complete destitution, and, stricken with
fearful maladies, were dying _en masse_ by the wayside. Another article
related that the King of Prussia had the diarrhœa, and that Bismarck
had broken his leg in jumping out of the window of an inn where some
Zouaves had almost caught him. That was capital! Lapoulle laughed from
ear to ear, whilst Chouteau and the others, who did not for one moment
entertain the shadow of a doubt, felt wondrous bold at the idea that
they would soon be picking up Prussians like sparrows in a field after
a hailstorm. But it was especially Bismarck’s fall that amused them.
The Zouaves and the Turcos were plucky devils, and no mistake. All
sorts of legends were current concerning these fellows, who not merely
made Germany tremble but angered her as well. It was disgraceful, so
the German papers declared, that a civilised nation should employ
such savages in her defence. And although these so-called savages had
already been decimated at Frœschweiler, it seemed to the French as if
they were still intact and invincible.

Six o’clock was striking from the little steeple of Dontrien when
Loubet called: ‘The _soupe_ is ready!’ The squad seated itself devoutly
round the pot. At the last moment Loubet had been able to procure some
vegetables from a peasant living close by, so that the broth had a fine
scent of carrots and leeks, and was as soft to the palate as velvet.
Then Jean, the distributor, had to divide the meat into strictly equal
portions, for the men’s eyes were aglow, and there would certainly have
been much growling had any one portion appeared to be in the smallest
degree larger than the others. Everything was devoured, the men gorging
themselves to their very eyes.

Even Maurice felt replete and happy, no longer thinking of his foot,
the smarting of which was passing away. He now accepted this brutish
comradeship, principles of equality being forced upon him, by the
physical needs of their common life. That night, too, he enjoyed the
same sound slumber as his five companions, the whole lot of them being
heaped together in the tent, well pleased at feeling themselves warm
whilst the dew was falling so abundantly outside. It should be added
that Lapoulle, egged on by Loubet, had removed some large armfuls of
straw from a neighbouring rick, and on this the six men snored as
comfortably as though they had been provided with feather beds. And
in the clear night, along the pleasant banks of the Suippe, flowing
slowly between the willows, the camp fires of those hundred thousand
men illumined the five leagues of plain from Auberive to Heutrégiville,
like trailing stars.

Coffee was made at sunrise, the grains being pounded in a platter
with the butt of a gun, and thrown into boiling water, to which a
drop of cold water was added in order to precipitate the grounds. The
sun rose that morning with regal magnificence, amid great clouds of
gold and purple. Maurice, however, no longer looked at the horizon
or the sky, and only Jean, like the thoughtful peasant he was, gazed
with an expression of uneasiness at this ruddy dawn which betokened
rain. Indeed, before they started, when the bread baked the day before
had been given out, and Loubet and Pache had fastened the three long
loaves which the squad received to their knapsacks, he blamed them for
having done so. The tents were already folded, however, and everything
had been strapped to the knapsacks, so that he was not listened to.
Six o’clock was striking from all the village steeples when the army
set out again, gallantly resuming its forward march in the early
hopefulness of this new day.

To reach the road from Rheims to Vouziers the 106th almost immediately
began cutting along by-ways and ascending slopes of stubble. This
lasted during more than an hour. Lower down, towards the north,
Béthiniville, where the Emperor was said to have slept, could be seen
embowered in trees. Then, on reaching the Vouziers road, they again
found themselves among plains similar to those of the day before. The
last sorry fields of ‘la Champagne pouilleuse’ were here spread out in
all their dispiriting monotony. A meagre stream, the Arne, now flowed
on the left, whilst the vast expanse of barren land stretched away on
the right, so flat that the distance of the horizon was considerably
increased. The soldiers passed through some villages, St. Clément,
with its only street winding along the road, and St. Pierre, a large
place inhabited by well-to-do folks, who had barricaded their doors and
windows. The men halted at about ten o’clock near another village, St.
Etienne, where, to their great delight, they were able to procure some
tobacco. The Seventh Corps had now become divided into several columns,
and the 106th marched on with merely a battalion of foot Chasseurs and
the reserve artillery behind it. Vainly did Maurice turn round at the
bends of the road, in the hope of seeing the immense convoy which had
so greatly interested him the day before; the herds were no longer
there, and he could only espy the cannon which–as they rolled over
this low level plain–looked larger than they really were, seeming not
unlike dark grasshoppers with unusually long legs.

After passing St. Etienne, however, the road became frightful; it
ascended by gentle winding slopes through large barren fields dotted
with little woods of pine trees, ever the same, and which, with
their foliage of a blackish green, looked infinitely mournful amid
the expanse of white soil. The troops had not passed through such
a desolate scene before. Badly metalled, moreover, and softened by
the last rains, the road was a perfect bed of mud, of liquefied grey
argil, to which the feet adhered as to pitch. The fatigue of marching
consequently became extreme, and the exhausted men no longer made way.
As a crowning worry, violent showers suddenly began to fall. But little
more was needed, and the artillery, which had stuck in the mire, would
have remained there.

Out of breath, and infuriated with his crushing burden, Chouteau, who
was carrying some rice distributed to the squad, flung it away at a
moment when he thought himself unobserved. But Loubet had seen him, and
remarked: ‘That’s a dirty trick to play, for it means short commons for
everyone.’

‘Humbug!’ replied Chouteau; ‘there’s plenty of everything, so we can
get some more when we halt.’

Influenced by this specious reasoning, Loubet, who was carrying the
bacon, rid himself of his burden in his turn.

Meantime, as his heel had again become inflamed, Maurice experienced
increasing suffering, and he dragged his leg along so painfully that
Jean, becoming more and more solicitous concerning him, ventured to
ask: ‘Aren’t you all right? Has it begun again?’ Then, when a brief
halt was ordered, just to give the men breathing time, he proffered
some good advice: ‘Take your shoes off and walk barefooted. The fresh
mud will take the smarting away.’

Indeed, in this fashion Maurice was able to keep up with the others
without much difficulty; and he felt profoundly grateful to Jean. It
was real luck that the squad should have such a corporal as that, a man
who had served before, and who was up to all the tricks of the trade:
an uncultured peasant, no doubt, but all the same a thorough good
fellow.

It was late when, after crossing the road from Châlons to Vouziers,
and diving by a rapid descent into the ravine of Semide, they reached
Contreuve, where they were to bivouac. The country was now changing;
they were already in the Ardennes, and from the far-stretching, barren
hills above the village, which were selected as the camping ground of
the Seventh Corps, one could discern the valley of the Aisne afar off,
obscured by the pale shower-laden clouds.

At six o’clock, as Gaude had not yet sounded the call to rations, Jean,
by way of occupying his time, and anxious, too, on account of the
strong wind which was rising, determined to pitch the tent himself.
He showed his men that they ought to select a somewhat sloping site,
fix the pegs slantwise, and dig a little trench round the canvas
for the rain-water to run into. On account of his foot Maurice was
exempted from all fatigue duties, and he simply looked on, surprised
at the intelligent skill which that sturdy, heavy-looking fellow Jean
displayed. For his own part, he was physically overcome by fatigue, but
his spirits were buoyed up by the hope that was now returning to every
heart. They had done a terrible lot of marching since leaving Rheims,
thirty-eight miles in two days. If they maintained the same speed,
going straight before them, they must certainly succeed in overthrowing
the second German army and joining hands with Bazaine, before the
third one, under the Crown Prince of Prussia, who was said to be at
Vitry-le-François, was able to reach Verdun.

‘Hallo! Are they going to let us die of hunger?’ asked Chouteau, when
seven o’clock came, and no rations had yet been distributed.

Jean had prudently told Loubet to light a fire and set the large pot,
full of water, on it; and as they had no wood he discreetly shut his
eyes whilst Loubet, by way of procuring some, tore down several palings
inclosing a neighbouring garden. When Jean began to talk, however, of
cooking some rice and bacon, it became necessary to confess that the
rice and bacon had remained behind, on the muddy road near St. Etienne.
Chouteau lied with effrontery, swearing that the packet of rice must
have slipped off his knapsack without his noticing it.

‘You pigs!’ exclaimed Jean, infuriated, ‘to throw food away when there
are so many poor devils with their stomachs empty!’

Then, too, with regard to the bread, the men had not listened to him
at starting; and the three loaves fastened to the knapsacks had been
thoroughly soaked by the showers, softened to such a degree that they
were now like so much pap and quite uneatable. ‘A nice pickle we’re
in!’ repeated Jean; ‘we had everything we wanted, and now we haven’t
even a crust! What hogs you fellows are!’

Just then a bugle call summoned the sergeants to orders, and the
melancholy-looking Sapin came in to inform the men of his section that,
as no distribution of rations could take place, they must content
themselves with their field supplies. The convoy, it was said, had
remained behind on the road on account of the bad weather, and the
drove of cattle had gone astray owing to conflicting orders. It was
learnt, later on, that as the Fifth and Twelfth Corps had marched
that day in the direction of Rethel, where head quarters were to
be established, all the provisions in the villages, as well as the
inhabitants, who were feverishly anxious to see the Emperor, had flowed
towards that town; so that the country lying before the Seventh Corps
was virtually drained of everything. There was no more meat, no more
bread, and there were even no more people. To make the destitution
complete, the commissariat supplies had been sent to Le Chêne Populeux
through a misunderstanding. Great throughout the campaign was the
despair of the wretched commissaries, against whom the soldiers were
for ever crying out, though, often enough, their only fault was that
they punctually reached appointed places where the troops never arrived.

‘Yes, you dirty pigs!’ repeated Jean, quite beside himself, ‘it serves
you right! You are not deserving of the trouble I’m going to take to
try and find something for you; because, after all, it’s my duty not
to let you kick the bucket on the road.’ Thereupon he started on a
journey of discovery, like every good corporal should do under the
circumstances, taking with him Pache, whom he liked on account of his
gentleness, though he considered him far too fond of priests.

Meantime, Loubet had noticed a little farmhouse standing two or three
hundred yards away, one of the last houses of Contreuve, where, it
seemed to him, a good deal of business was being done. Calling Chouteau
and Lapoulle, he said to them: ‘Let us have a try. I fancy we can get
some grub over there.’

Maurice was left to mount guard over the pot of boiling water, with
orders to keep the fire alight. He had seated himself on his blanket,
with his shoe off so that the sore on his heel might dry. He was
interested at the sight which the camp presented with all the squads
at sixes and sevens since they had learnt that there would be no
distribution of provisions. He became conscious that some of the troops
were always short of everything, whilst others lived in abundance; in
fact, it all depended on the foresight and skill of the corporals and
the men. Amid the stir and bustle around him, he noticed, on glancing
between the tents and the piles of arms, that some fellows had not even
been able to light a fire, and that others, resigning themselves to
circumstances, had already retired for the night; whilst others again,
on the contrary, were eating, he could not tell what, but doubtless
something nice, with keen appetite and relish. He was also struck by
the beautiful order that prevailed among the reserve artillery encamped
on a hill above him. As the sun set, it shone forth between two clouds,
casting a glow over the guns, which the artillerymen had already
carefully cleansed of all the mud that they had been splashed with
during the march.

Meantime the commander of the brigade, General Bourgain-Desfeuilles,
had installed himself comfortably at the little farmhouse whither
Loubet and his comrades had betaken themselves. The general had found
a fairly good bed there, and was seated before an omelet and a roast
fowl, which had put him in an excellent humour; and Colonel de Vineuil
having come to speak to him respecting some matter of detail, he had
invited him to stay and dine with him. So they both sat there eating,
waited upon by a big, fair fellow, who had only been three days in the
farmer’s employ, and who declared himself to be an Alsatian refugee,
carried away in the rout of Frœschweiler. The general talked openly
in presence of this man, commented on the march of the troops, and
then, forgetting that the fellow did not belong to the Ardennes, began
questioning him respecting the roads and the distances. Painfully
affected by the thorough ignorance which the general’s questions
revealed, the colonel, who, for his part, had formerly resided at
Mézières, supplied some precise particulars, whereupon the general
vented his feelings in the exclamation: ‘How idiotic it all is! How can
one fight in a country one knows nothing whatever about?’

The colonel made a vague, despairing gesture. He knew very well that
maps of Germany had been distributed to all the officers as soon as
ever war was declared, whereas not one of them had a map of France in
his possession. All that the colonel had seen and heard during the past
month, had contributed to overwhelm him. Somewhat weak, and of limited
capacity, liked rather than feared by his men, he no longer felt able
to exercise authority; of all his powers, courage alone remained to him.

‘Can’t one even dine quietly?’ suddenly shouted the general. ‘What are
they brawling about? Here, you, the Alsatian, go and see what it all
means.’

The farmer, however, made his appearance, exasperated, gesticulating
and sobbing. He was being plundered–some Chasseurs and Zouaves were
pillaging his house. Being the only person in the village who had any
eggs, potatoes, and rabbits to dispose of, he had been foolish enough
to think of doing a bit of trade. Without cheating the men overmuch,
he pocketed their money and handed over his goods; so much so that his
customers, becoming more and more numerous, at last quite bewildered
and overwhelmed him, and ended by pushing him aside and taking whatever
they could lay their hands on without paying him another copper. If
so many peasants, during the war, hid all they possessed and refused
the soldiers at times even a drink of water, it was through fear of
the slow, irresistible onslaught of some such human tide, which, once
admitted, might sweep them out of doors and carry away their homes.

‘Ah! my good fellow, just let me be!’ replied the general to the
complaining farmer, with an air of displeasure. ‘We should have
to shoot a dozen of those rascals every day, and we can’t do it.’
Thereupon he ordered the door to be shut, so that he might not be
obliged to act rigorously, whilst the colonel explained that no rations
having been distributed, the men were hungry.

Meantime, Loubet had found a field of potatoes near the house, and had
rushed at it in company with Lapoulle, both of them tearing up the
plants, grubbing up the potatoes with their hands, and filling their
pockets with them. But on hearing Chouteau, who was looking over a
low wall, whistle to them to approach, they ran up, and at the sight
they beheld vented their feelings in exclamations. A flock of a dozen
magnificent geese was promenading majestically in a narrow courtyard.
The men at once held council, and Lapoulle was prevailed upon to jump
over the wall. There was a terrible fight; the goose he seized almost
bit off his nose with its terrible shear-like bill, whereupon he caught
it by the neck and tried to strangle it, whilst it dug its powerful
webbed feet into his arms and stomach. At last he had to crush its head
with a blow of his sturdy fist, but even then it continued struggling
and he made all haste to decamp, followed by the other birds of the
flock, who were tearing his legs.

As the three men returned, with the goose and the potatoes stowed away
in a sack, they met Jean and Pache coming back, well pleased, on their
side, with the result of their expedition, for they were laden with
four new loaves and a cheese, purchased of a worthy old peasant woman.
‘The water’s boiling, so we’ll make some coffee,’ said the corporal.
‘We have some bread and some cheese–it’ll be a regular feast.’

But he suddenly perceived the goose stretched out at his feet, and
could not help laughing. He felt the bird in a knowing way, and was
quite overcome with admiration. ‘The devil!’ said he, ‘she’s plump and
no mistake. She must weigh about twenty pounds.’

‘We happened to meet her,’ explained Loubet with that waggish air of
his, ‘and she desired to make our acquaintance.’

Jean waved his hand, as much as to say that he did not wish to know any
more. Men must live, and, besides, why shouldn’t these poor devils, who
could hardly remember what poultry tasted like, have a bit of a treat
once in a way? Loubet was already lighting a bright fire, whilst Pache
and Lapoulle tore the feathers off the bird, and Chouteau ran up to
the artillery camp to ask for a piece of string. When he returned he
hung the goose from a couple of bayonets in front of the bright fire,
and Maurice was appointed to give it a dig now and then, so as to make
it turn. The fat fell into the squad’s platter placed underneath, and
the entire regiment, attracted by the savoury smell, formed a circle
around. And what a feast there was! Roast goose, boiled potatoes,
bread and cheese! When Jean had cut up the bird, the squad began
gorging. There was no question of portions, they one and all tucked
away till they could eat no more; and a piece was even presented to the
artillerymen who had provided the string.

It happened that evening that the officers of the regiment had to fast.
Owing to wrong directions, the sutler’s van had gone astray; it had
no doubt followed the great convoy. Although the men suffered when no
rations were given out, they generally ended by securing something
to eat–they helped one another, the soldiers of each squad shared
whatever they happened to have; but the officer, isolated, left to his
own resources, had no alternative but to starve when the canteen did
not turn up. Accordingly, Chouteau, who had heard Captain Beaudoin
complaining of the disappearance of the provision van, began to sneer
and jeer when–whilst tackling some of the goose’s carcass–he saw
the captain pass by with a proud, stiff air. ‘Look at him,’ he said,
tipping the others a wink. ‘See how he’s sniffing. He’d give five
francs for the parson’s nose.’

They all began to laugh at the captain’s hunger, for he was not popular
among his men; they considered him too young and too severe, too
prone to reprimand them unnecessarily. It seemed for a moment as if
he intended to reprove the squad for the scandal which that goose of
theirs was causing; but the fear no doubt of showing how hungry he was,
induced him to walk off with his head erect as if he had seen nothing.
As for Lieutenant Rochas, who was also feeling terribly hungry, he
meandered round the fortunate squad, laughing in a good-natured way. He
was greatly liked by his men, first because he execrated that puppy,
the captain, who owed his rank as an officer to his attendance at the
military school of St. Cyr, and, secondly, because in time past he
had carried the knapsack like themselves. And yet he was not always a
pleasant customer to deal with, being at times so coarse and insulting
in his language that he positively deserved cuffing. After exchanging
glances with his comrades, by way of consulting them, Jean rose up and
induced Rochas to follow him behind the tent. ‘Beg pardon, sir,’ he
said, ‘but without offending you, may we offer you some of this?’ And
thereupon he passed him a large piece of bread with a platter on which
was one of the goose’s legs, atop of half a dozen large potatoes.

Again that night the squad needed no rocking to sleep. The six men
digested that bird with their fists clenched. They owed thanks to the
corporal for the firm manner in which he had pitched their tent, for
they were not even aware of a violent squall which blew over the camp
at about two o’clock in the morning, accompanied by driving rain. Some
tents were carried away, and the men, starting from their sleep, were
soaked through, and had to run hither and thither in the darkness; but
the squad’s tent resisted the onslaught of the wind, and the men were
comfortably under cover with not a drop of water to inconvenience them,
thanks to the little trenches into which the rain dribbled.

Maurice awoke at daybreak, and, as the march was not to be resumed
before eight o’clock, he decided to climb the hill where the reserve
artillery was encamped, so as to shake hands with his cousin Honoré.
After that good night’s rest his foot caused him less pain. He was
struck with admiring astonishment on seeing how well the park was
dressed, the six guns of each battery correctly aligned and followed by
the caissons, ammunition, and forage vans, and field smithies. Farther
off, the picketed horses were neighing with their heads turned towards
the rising sun. And Maurice immediately found Honoré’s tent, thanks to
the orderly system that allots one row of tents to the men of each gun;
so that the number of guns is clearly indicated by the aspect of an
artillery encampment.

The artillerymen were already up, and were taking their coffee, when
Maurice arrived and found that a quarrel had broken out between
Adolphe, the front driver, and his chum Louis, the gunner. They had
got on very well together, except with regard to messing, during the
three years that they had chummed together–according to the system
by which, in the French artillery, a driver and a gunner are coupled.
Louis, who was very intelligent, and the better educated of the two,
cheerfully accepted the state of dependence in which every mounted man
keeps the footman his comrade, and he pitched the tent, performed the
fatigue duties, and looked after the _soupe_, whilst Adolphe, with an
air of superiority, simply attended to his two horses. At the same
time, however, Louis, who was dark and thin and afflicted with an
excessive appetite, revolted when his comrade, a tall fellow with bushy
fair moustaches, presumed to help himself like a master. That morning,
for instance, the quarrel had arisen through Louis accusing Adolphe of
drinking all the coffee which he, Louis, had made. It became necessary
to reconcile them.

Every morning, immediately after the reveille, Honoré went to have a
look at his gun, and saw that the night dew was carefully wiped from
it in his presence, just as though it were a question of rubbing down
some favourite horse, for fear lest it should catch cold. And he was
standing there, like a father, watching the gun shine in the clear
atmosphere of the dawn, when he recognised Maurice: ‘Hallo!’ he said;
‘I knew that the 106th was near by. I received a letter from Remilly,
yesterday, and I meant to have gone down to you. Let’s go and drink a
cup of white wine.’

So that they might be alone together, he took him towards the little
farmhouse plundered the day before, whose peasant owner, altogether
incorrigible and still eager for gain, had now tapped a cask of
white wine in view of playing the taverner. He served the liquor
on a plank outside his door, at a charge of four _sous_ the glass,
being assisted in the work by the man whom he had engaged three days
previously, the colossal, fair-haired Alsatian. Honoré and Maurice were
already chinking glasses, when the eyes of the former fell upon the
so-called refugee. For an instant he scanned his face with an air of
stupefaction. Then he swore a terrible oath: ‘By the thunder of God!
Goliath!’

He sprang forward, wishing to seize the scamp by the throat, but the
farmer, imagining that his house was about to be pillaged afresh,
darted back and barricaded the door. There was a moment’s confusion,
and all the soldiers present rushed forward, whilst the infuriated
quartermaster almost choked himself with shouting: ‘Open! open! you
cursed fool! The fellow’s a spy; I tell you, he’s a spy!’

Maurice no longer doubted it. He had fully recognised the man who
had been set at liberty at the camp of Mulhausen for lack of proof
against him, and this man was Goliath, whom old Fouchard of Remilly
had formerly employed. When the farmer, however, was at last prevailed
upon to open his door, they searched the farm in vain, the so-called
Alsatian had disappeared. That good-natured looking, fair-haired
colossus, whom General Bourgain-Desfeuilles had questioned to no
purpose whilst dining the day before, and in whose presence he had
carelessly confessed his own ignorance and bewilderment, had gone off!
The rascal had no doubt jumped out by a back window, which was found
open, but it was in vain that they scoured the surrounding fields; huge
though he was, the fellow had vanished like smoke.

Maurice was obliged to lead Honoré away, for in his despair the
quartermaster was on the point of telling his comrades more than was
advisable of certain sad family affairs which they had no need to know.
‘Thunder! I should have so liked to strangle him!’ said Honoré; ‘I was
the more enraged against him on account of the letter I’ve received.’
Then, as they had both seated themselves against a rick at a few steps
from the farmhouse, he handed the letter in question to Maurice.

That love affair between Honoré Fouchard and Silvine Morange was but
the old, old story. She, a dark-complexioned girl, with beautiful
submissive eyes, had, when very young, lost her mother, a workwoman
employed at a factory at Raucourt. She was a natural child, and Dr.
Dalichamp, her godfather, a worthy man who was always ready to adopt
the offspring of the poor creatures he attended, had found her a
situation as servant girl with Fouchard, the father. The old peasant,
who in his eagerness for gain had turned butcher, hawking his meat
through a score of surrounding villages, was certainly frightfully
avaricious, and a pitiless hard master as well; but the doctor reasoned
that he would watch over the girl, and that she, providing she worked
well, would at all events not lack her daily bread. In any case, she
would escape the loose life of the factory. Then it naturally came
to pass that young Fouchard and the little servant girl fell in love
with one another. Honoré was sixteen when she was twelve, and when
she was sixteen he was twenty. Then, when he drew his number at the
conscription, he was delighted to find it a good one, and determined to
marry her. There had never been any impropriety between them; Honoré
was, indeed, of a calm, thoughtful disposition, and at the most they
had kissed each other in the barn. However, when Honoré broached the
subject of the marriage to his father, the latter was exasperated, and
stubbornly declared that it should not take place whilst he was living.
Still, he kept the girl in his service, thinking, perhaps, that the
young fellow’s fancy would pass off; hoping, too, possibly, for things
that did not happen. Two years went by, and Honoré and Silvine still
loved each other, and longed to marry; but at last there was a terrible
scene between the father and the son, and the latter, unable to remain
any longer in the house, enlisted, and was sent to Algeria, whilst
the old man obstinately kept his servant girl, with whom he was well
satisfied.

Then came to pass that frightful thing that wrecked poor Silvine’s
life. She had sworn to wait for Honoré, but a fortnight after his
departure she became the prey of Goliath Steinberg–the Prussian, as he
was called–a tall, genial-looking chap, with short, fair hair, and a
pink, smiling face, who had been in Fouchard’s employ as farm-hand for
some months already, and had become Honoré’s comrade and confidant. Had
old Fouchard stealthily brought this to pass? Had there been seduction
or violence? Silvine herself no longer knew; she was overwhelmed.
Becoming _enceinte_, however, she accepted the necessity of marrying
Goliath, and he, with a smiling face, agreed to it; but he repeatedly
postponed the date of the ceremony, until at last, on the very eve of
Silvine’s accouchement, he suddenly disappeared. It was reported later
on that he had found a situation at another farm in the direction of
Beaumont. Since then three years had elapsed, and nobody at Remilly
imagined that this worthy fellow, Goliath, so attentive to the girls,
was simply one of the spies with whom Germany had peopled the Eastern
provinces of France. When Honoré in Algeria heard of what had happened,
it was as if the fierce tropical sun had stretched him prostrate by
dealing him a burning blow on the nape of the neck. He remained for
three months in the hospital, but would never apply for a furlough to
go home, through fear lest he should again meet Silvine and see her
child.

The artilleryman’s hands trembled whilst Maurice was reading the
letter. It was a letter from Silvine, the first and only one she had
ever written to him. What feeling had prompted her to write it–she,
so submissive and silent, but whose beautiful black eyes acquired
at times an expression of wondrous resolution, despite her perpetual
servitude? She simply said that she knew he had gone to the war, and
that as she might never see him again she felt too much sorrow at the
thought that he might die fancying she no longer loved him; but she did
love him, and had never loved anyone but him; and she repeated this,
over and over again, throughout four long pages, constantly making use
of the same words, but not seeking to excuse herself or even to explain
what had happened. And not a word did she say of the child; her letter
was but a farewell, full of infinite tenderness.

Maurice, in whom his cousin had formerly confided, felt deeply touched
on reading what Silvine had written. On raising his eyes, he saw that
Honoré was in tears, and he embraced him like a brother. ‘My poor
Honoré,’ he said.

The quartermaster was already gulping down his emotion, however, and he
carefully replaced the letter on his chest, and then again buttoned up
his uniform. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it upsets one. Ah! if I could only have
strangled that bandit! Well, we shall see.’

The bugles were now sounding the signal for raising the camp, and they
both had to run to their tents. The preparations for departure dragged
on, however, and the men had to wait till nearly nine o’clock before
receiving orders to start. Hesitation seemed to have again seized
hold of the commanders: there was no more of that fine resolution
shown during the first two days, when the Seventh Corps had covered
eight-and-thirty miles in a couple of marches. Singular and disquieting
information had been circulating since daybreak; the other three
army corps, it appeared, had been marching northward, the First to
Juniville, and the Fifth and the Twelfth to Rethel, an illogical march
which could only be explained by a need of obtaining supplies. Were
they not to continue their advance upon Verdun? Why was a day lost?
The worst was that the Prussians could not be far off, now, for the
officers had warned their men not to straggle, as any laggards might be
carried off by the reconnoitring parties of the enemy’s cavalry.

It was now the 25th of August, and subsequently, on recollecting
Goliath’s disappearance, Maurice felt convinced that this scamp was one
of the men who supplied the enemy’s staff with the precise information
respecting the march of the army of Châlons, which determined the
sudden change of front carried out by the third German army. The Crown
Prince left Revigny on the very next day, and the necessary evolutions
at once began for that flank attack, that gigantic scheme of encircling
the French troops by dint of forced marches, effected in admirable
order through Champagne and the Ardennes. Whilst the French were
hesitating and oscillating on the spot where they found themselves, as
though suddenly struck with paralysis, the Germans, surrounded by an
immense circle of light cavalry beating the country, marched as many
as twenty-five miles a day, driving the flock of men whom they were
hunting towards the forests on the frontier.[21]

However, the Seventh Corps set out at last, on that morning of the
25th of August, and, wheeling to the left, simply covered the two
short leagues separating Contreuve from Vouziers; whilst the Fifth and
Twelfth Corps remained at Rethel, and the First halted at Attigny.
Between Contreuve and the valley of the Aisne there were some more
plains as barren as ever. As the men approached Vouziers, the road
wound between stretches of grey soil and desolate hillocks, without
a house or even a tree in sight, nothing but mournful desert-like
scenery; and the march, short as it was, was accomplished in a weary,
dispirited fashion, which lengthened it terribly. At noon the 106th
halted on the left bank of the Aisne, the men forming their bivouacs
on high barren ground, the last spurs of which overlooked the valley.
Thence they kept watch over the Monthois road, which skirts the river,
and by which they expected to see the enemy appear.

Maurice was altogether stupefied when he suddenly noticed General
Margueritte’s division–all the reserve cavalry, charged to support the
Seventh Corps and to reconnoitre on the army’s left flank–approaching
by way of this Monthois road. It was rumoured that it was proceeding
up-country towards Le Chêne Populeux. But what could be the object in
thus weakening the Seventh Corps, the only wing of the army that was
threatened? Why were these two thousand horsemen, who should have been
sent to reconnoitre the country for leagues around, suddenly ordered
to the very centre of the French forces, where they could be of no use
whatever? The worst was that they came up in the midst of the manœuvres
which the Seventh Corps was executing, and almost cut its columns in
twain–men, guns, and horses being mingled in inextricable confusion.
Some of the Chasseurs d’Afrique had to wait a couple of hours just
outside Vouziers.

Whilst they were there, Maurice chanced to recognise Prosper, who had
halted his horse beside a pool, and they were able to have a short chat
together. The Chasseur seemed dazed and stupefied; he had understood
nothing and seen nothing since leaving Rheims–yes, though, he had, he
had seen another couple of Uhlans, beggars who appeared and disappeared
without anyone knowing where they came from or whither they went.
All manner of stories were already being told of them; four Uhlans
galloped into a town with revolvers in their hands, rode through it,
and conquered it, twelve miles ahead of their army corps. They were
everywhere, preceding the columns like buzzing bees, forming, so to
say, shifting curtains, behind which the infantry dissembled its
movements and marched along in perfect security as in time of peace.
And Maurice felt a pang at his heart as he glanced at the road covered
with Chasseurs and Hussars, whose services were so indifferently
utilised.

‘Well, till we meet again,’ said he, shaking hands with Prosper;
‘perhaps they need you up there all the same.’

But the Chasseur seemed disgusted with the sorry work he was ordered
to do, and as he stroked Zephyr with a mournful air, he answered:
‘Oh, humbug! they kill the horses and do nothing with the men. It’s
disgusting.’

That evening, when Maurice took off his shoe to look at his heel, which
was throbbing quite feverishly, he tore away a piece of skin. Some
blood spurted from the wound, and he gave a cry of pain. Jean, who
was there, was affected with anxious compassion: ‘I say, it’s getting
serious,’ he exclaimed; ‘you’ll be laid up. It must be attended to. Let
me see to it.’

Kneeling down, he then washed the sore, and dressed it with a strip of
clean linen, which he took out of his knapsack. There was something
motherly in his gestures; he displayed all the gentleness of an
experienced man whose big fingers can acquire a delicate touch whenever
occasion requires. An invincible feeling of affection stole over
Maurice, and his eyes became dim. It was as if he had found a brother
in this peasant, whom he had formerly execrated, and whom he had still
despised only the day before. ‘You’re a good fellow,’ he said. ‘Thanks,
old man.’

Then Jean, looking very happy, responded with his quiet smile: ‘Now,
youngster, I’ve still some tobacco left. Will you have a cigarette?’