THE HORRORS OF BAZEILLES

Weiss was fast asleep in his little room at Bazeilles, where all
was dark, when a sudden disturbance made him spring out of bed. He
listened, and heard the roar of cannon. Groping for the candle, he
lighted it, and on looking at his watch found it was four o’clock;
the dawn was scarcely breaking. He hastily put on his eye-glasses
and scanned the high street–the Douzy road, which runs through the
village–but the atmosphere there seemed full of thick dust, and
nothing could be distinguished. He thereupon entered the adjoining
room, the window of which overlooked the meadows on the side of the
Meuse, and realised that the morning mist was rising from the river,
obscuring the horizon. The guns were thundering more and more loudly
from over yonder, across the water, but were hidden from view by the
foggy veil. All at once a French battery replied with such a crash, and
at so short a distance away, that the walls of the little house fairly
shook.

Weiss’s abode was nearly in the centre of Bazeilles, on the right-hand
side, near the Place de l’Eglise. It stood back a little from the
highway which it faced, and comprised a ground floor and upper floor,
the latter being lighted by three windows and surmounted by a garret.
In the rear there was a rather large garden, which sloped down towards
the meadows, and whence the view extended over the immense panorama
of hills from Remilly to Frénois. With the fervour of one who has but
recently become a householder, Weiss had remained on his legs till
nearly two o’clock in the morning, burying all his provisions in the
cellar, and placing mattresses before all the windows, with the view
of shielding his furniture as much as possible from the enemy’s fire.
He felt enraged at the idea that the Prussians might come and pillage
this house, which he had so long coveted, which he had acquired with so
much difficulty, and which he had had the enjoyment of during, as yet,
so brief a space of time.

All at once he heard some one calling to him from the road: ‘I say,
Weiss, do you hear?’

He went down, and on opening the door found Delaherche, who had spent
the night at his dyeworks, a large brick building, separated from the
house merely by a party wall. All the workmen had already fled through
the woods into Belgium, and the only person who remained to protect the
place was the door-portress, a mason’s widow, named Françoise Quitard.
She, poor, trembling, scared creature, would have fled with the others
had it not been for her boy, little Auguste, a lad some ten years of
age, who was so ill with typhoid fever that he could not be removed.

‘I say,’ resumed Delaherche, ‘do you hear? It’s beginning nicely–it
would be prudent for us to get back to Sedan at once.’

Weiss had formally promised his wife that he would leave Bazeilles as
soon as there was any serious danger, and he was quite resolved to keep
his promise. So far, however, merely a long-range artillery engagement
was being fought, in a more or less random fashion, through the morning
mist.

‘Wait a bit,’ the book-keeper replied, ‘there’s no hurry.’

Delaherche’s curiosity was so acute and restless that it had almost
lent him some courage. He had not closed his eyes during the night,
being greatly interested in the defensive preparations that were being
made by the French troops. Foreseeing that he would be attacked at
daybreak, General Lebrun, who commanded the Twelfth Army Corps, had
employed the night in entrenching himself in Bazeilles. Orders had been
given him that he must at any cost prevent the enemy from occupying
the village, and accordingly barricades had been thrown up across the
high road and the side streets, each house had been garrisoned, and
each lane and garden transformed into a fortress. And the men, quietly
roused in the inky darkness, were already at their posts at three in
the morning, each with ninety cartridges in his pouch and with his
chassepot freshly lubricated. Thus it happened that the enemy’s first
cannon shot surprised nobody; and the French batteries, posted in the
rear between Balan and Bazeilles, immediately answered it, more by way
of announcing their presence, however, than for any serious purpose,
for the firing was mere guess work and could hardly prove effective in
such a fog.

‘The dyeworks will be vigorously defended,’ resumed Delaherche. ‘I’ve
got an entire section there. Come and see.’

Forty and odd men of the Marine Infantry had indeed been posted there,
under the command of a lieutenant, a tall, fair fellow, very young,
but with an energetic, stubborn expression of countenance. His men
had already taken possession of the building, and whilst some of them
loopholed the shutters on the first floor, others embattled the low
wall of the courtyard overlooking the meadows in the rear. It was in
the courtyard that Delaherche and Weiss found the lieutenant, who was
vainly trying to distinguish the enemy’s positions through the morning
mist.

‘What a horrid fog!’ he muttered. ‘We can’t fight groping.’ And
immediately afterwards, without the slightest transition, he inquired:
‘What day is it?’

‘Thursday,’ replied Weiss.

‘Thursday–oh, yes! The devil take me, but we live as though the world
no longer existed.’

At that moment, amid the thundering of the guns, which did not for a
moment cease, a lively fusillade burst forth on the outskirts of the
meadows, some two or three hundred yards away. And just then there was
a sudden change in the surroundings, similar to a transformation scene
at a theatre–the sun arose, the vapour from the Meuse flew away in
fragments like shreds of delicate muslin, and a blue sky of spotless
limpidity appeared to view. A delightful morning was heralding in a
glorious summer day.

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Delaherche, ‘they are crossing the railway bridge–do
you see them trying to gain ground along the line? What crass stupidity
on our part–the bridge ought to have been blown up!’

The lieutenant made a gesture of anger. The mine was laid, he related,
but, on the previous day, the commanders had forgotten to fire it,
after the men had fought during four long hours to recapture this very
bridge. ‘It’s our cursed luck,’ he added curtly.

Weiss remained silent, gazing at the scene and trying to understand
it. The French occupied a very strong position in Bazeilles. Built on
either side of the road from Sedan to Douzy, the village overlooked
the plain; and apart from this road, turning to the left and passing
in front of the Château, there was only one other, branching out to
the right, and leading to the railway bridge. It was, therefore,
necessary for the Germans who were now advancing to cross the meadows
and cultivated fields, all the vast open expanse edging the Meuse and
the railway line. The enemy’s prudence being well known, it seemed
unlikely that the real attack would take place on this side, and yet
dense masses of men were still coming up by way of the bridge, and
this, despite all the havoc wrought in their ranks by the French
mitrailleuses posted on the outskirts of the village. Those who
succeeded in crossing the bridge immediately threw themselves in
skirmishing order among the few pollard willows rising here and there,
until the columns managed to reform, and again press forward. It was
from this direction that came the fusillade of increasing intensity
that had begun to crackle just as the mist rose.

‘Hallo!’ remarked Weiss, ‘those fellows are Bavarians–I can tell it by
their helmets.’

At the same time it seemed to him that some other columns, half
hidden by the railway line, were pressing onward, on the right, and
endeavouring to reach some distant trees, whence, by an oblique
movement, they might again descend upon Bazeilles. Should they succeed
in thus sheltering themselves in the park of Montivilliers, the
village might be captured. This was vaguely but promptly realised by
Weiss. However, as the front attack was becoming more determined, he
ceased thinking of it. He had abruptly turned towards the heights
of Floing, which rose up on the north, above the town of Sedan. A
battery installed there had just opened fire, puffs of smoke could be
seen ascending in the bright sunlight, and the detonations could be
distinctly heard.

‘Hum,’ said Weiss, ‘the dance will be a general one.’

The lieutenant, who was looking in the same direction, made a vigorous
gesture of assent, and added: ‘But Bazeilles is the important point.
The issue of the battle will be decided here.’

‘Do you really think so?’ Weiss asked.

‘There’s no doubt about it. The marshal himself must certainly have
that opinion, for he came here last night to tell us that we must
fight to the last man rather than let the enemy take the village.’

Weiss shook his head, however, scanned the horizon around him, and
then, in a hesitating way, as though he were talking to himself,
remarked: ‘Well, no–no–I hardly fancy that–I’m afraid of something
else–something I hardly dare say—-‘ He spoke no further, but held
out his arms as though they were the branches of a vice; and then
turning towards the north, he brought his hands together as if the
vice-chops had suddenly met. In this fashion he expressed the fears
that had been troubling him since the previous day, fears based on his
knowledge of the country, and on everything that he had observed of
the march of the hostile armies. And even now, when the broad plain
expanded in the radiant sunshine, his eyes returned once more to the
hills on the left bank of the river, over which, throughout an entire
day and an entire night, there had marched such an interminable, black
swarm of German troops. A battery was firing from the left of Remilly,
but the one whose shells were beginning to fall at Bazeilles was
installed at Pont-Maugis on the bank of the river. Weiss folded his
eye-glasses one over the other, and held them to one eye that he might
the more effectually explore the wooded slopes. However, he could only
see the white puffs of smoke with which the guns were, each minute,
capping the heights. What had become, then, of the human torrent which
had streamed along those hills? All that he could distinguish, after
prolonged scrutiny, was a cluster of horses and uniforms–some general
and his staff, no doubt–perched at the corner of a pine wood on the
Marfée hill, above Noyers and Frénois. Farther on was the loop of
the Meuse, barring the west; and on this side the only possible line
of retreat on Mézières lay along the narrow road passing through the
defile of St. Albert, between the river and the forest of the Ardennes.
On the previous day, chancing to meet a general in a hollow road of
the valley of Givonne–a general who he afterwards learnt was Ducrot,
the commander of the First Corps–Weiss had ventured to speak to him
of this one possible line of retreat. Unless the troops immediately
retired by the road in question, if they waited until the Prussians had
crossed the Meuse at Donchery and intercepted the passage of the river,
they would certainly find themselves immobilised, brought to a stand
at the Belgian frontier. That same evening, moreover, it had already
seemed too late to effect the movement, for the Uhlans were reported
to be in possession of the Donchery bridge–another bridge which had
not been blown up, in this case through forgetfulness to bring the
powder required for the purpose. And now, thought Weiss despairingly,
the whole stream of men, the great black swarm, must be crossing the
plain of Donchery on its way towards the defile of St. Albert, with
its advance guard already threatening St. Menges and Floing, whither
he had conducted Jean and Maurice the previous night. He could espy
the distant steeple of Floing looking like a fine white needle in the
brilliant sunlight.

On the east was the other branch of the vice. Although Weiss could
descry the line of battle of the Seventh Corps, stretching on the
northern side from the plateau of Illy to that of Floing, and
ineffectually supported by the Fifth Corps, posted as a reserve force
under the ramparts, it was impossible for him to tell what was taking
place on the east, where the First Corps was drawn up in the valley
of Givonne from the wood of La Garenne to the village of Daigny.
However, the guns were already thundering in that direction, and it
seemed as if an engagement were being fought in the Chevalier Wood
in front of the village. And Weiss was the more disquieted as some
peasants had already, on the previous day, reported the arrival of the
Prussians at Francheval, so that the movement which was being effected
on the west by way of Donchery was also being effected on the east by
way of Francheval; and it seemed certain that the vice-chops would
eventually meet at the Calvary of Illy, on the northern side, should
the all-enveloping march on either hand not be promptly stayed. He knew
nothing of military science; he had simply his common sense to guide
him, but he trembled at sight of that huge triangle, one side of which
was formed by the Meuse, whilst the other two were represented by the
Seventh Corps on the north, and the First on the east; the Twelfth
posted at Bazeilles on the south, occupying the extreme angle, and all
three turning the back to one another and awaiting, nobody knew how or
why, the foe who was now coming up on every side. And in the centre, in
the depths of a pit as it were, was the town of Sedan, armed with guns
that were past service, and having neither a supply of ammunition nor a
supply of food.

‘Don’t you see,’ said Weiss, repeating the gesture he had previously
made–his arms stretched out and his finger-tips meeting–‘that’s how
it will be if your generals don’t take care–the enemy are playing with
you at Bazeilles.’

He explained himself, however, in a confused, unsatisfactory manner,
and the lieutenant, not being acquainted with the district, failed
to understand him, and impatiently shrugged his shoulders, full of
disdain for this spectacled civilian, who claimed to know better than
Marshal MacMahon. On Weiss repeating that the attack upon Bazeilles was
probably only a feint, intended to conceal the enemy’s real design, the
young officer became quite irritated, and exclaimed: ‘Pray mind your
own business. We are going to drive your Bavarians into the Meuse, and
they’ll learn what it is to play with us.’

The enemy’s skirmishers seemed to have drawn somewhat nearer during the
last minute or two, and several bullets having struck the brick wall
of the dyeworks with a dull thud, the French soldiers began to return
the fire, sheltered by the low wall of the courtyard. The clear, sharp
report of a chassepot resounded every second.

‘Drive them into the Meuse–yes, no doubt,’ muttered Weiss, ‘and pass
over them and march back on Carignan–that would be a good idea.’
Then addressing Delaherche, who in his fear of the bullets had hidden
himself behind the pump, he added: ‘All the same, the proper plan
was to have hurried off to Mézières yesterday evening. I should have
preferred that if I’d been in the place of the generals. However, one
must fight now, for retreat is not longer possible.’

‘Are you coming?’ asked Delaherche, who, despite his ardent curiosity,
was beginning to blanch. ‘If we stay here much longer we sha’n’t be
able to get back to Sedan.’

‘Yes, wait a minute. I’ll go with you.’

Then, in spite of the danger to which he exposed himself, Weiss rose on
tip-toe, obstinately bent on finding out how matters were progressing.
On the right were the meadows flooded by order of the Governor of
Sedan, quite a large lake protecting the town from Torcy to Balan. A
delicate azure tint suffused the broad sheet of unruffled water in
the early sunlight. But the lake did not stretch far enough to cover
the outskirts of Bazeilles, and the Bavarians, advancing through the
grass, had indeed drawn nearer, taking advantage of every ditch and
every tree they came upon. They were now, perhaps, five hundred yards
away, and Weiss was struck with the slowness of their movements,
the patient manner in which they gradually gained ground, exposing
themselves as little as possible. Moreover, a powerful artillery was
supporting them, and at each moment shells came hissing through the
fresh, pure atmosphere. Weiss raised his eyes and saw that the battery
of Pont-Maugis was not the only one that was firing on Bazeilles;
two others, planted midway up the Liry hill, had also opened fire,
not merely cannonading the village, but sweeping the bare ground of
La Moncelle farther on, where the reserves of the Twelfth Corps were
posted, and even the wooded slopes of Daigny, occupied by a division
of the First Corps. And, indeed, flames were now flashing from all
the hill-crests on the left bank of the river. The guns seemed to
spring out of the soil. At each moment the circle of fire extended–at
Noyers a battery was firing on Balan, at Wadelincourt a battery was
firing on Sedan itself, and at Frénois, just below the Marfée hill,
a formidable battery was hurling shells right over the town, shells
which went plunging and bursting among the troops of the Seventh Corps
on the plateau of Floing. And it was with terrified anguish that
Weiss now gazed on those slopes that he loved so well, those rounded
hills which fringed the valley afar off with so gay a greenery, and
which he had never imagined could serve any other purpose than that
of delighting the eyesight; but now, all at once, they had become, as
it were, a fearful, gigantic fortress, ready to pulverise the futile
fortifications of Sedan.

He suddenly raised his head on seeing a little plaster fall to the
ground. A bullet had chipped it off the front of his house, which he
could perceive above the party-wall. ‘Are those brigands going to
demolish my house?’ he growled, feeling greatly annoyed.

Just then, however, he was astonished to hear a slight noise behind
him, and on turning round he saw a soldier falling on his back with
a bullet in the heart. For a moment the poor fellow’s legs were
stirred by a supreme convulsion, but death came so swiftly that his
face retained its peaceful, youthful expression. This was the first
man killed; Weiss, however, was most disturbed by the clatter of the
soldier’s chassepot, which as it escaped from his hands rebounded on
the paving-stones of the yard.

‘Oh! I’m off,’ stammered Delaherche. ‘If you won’t come I shall go
alone.’

The lieutenant, whom the presence of these civilians disturbed,
intervened approvingly: ‘Yes, gentlemen, you had better go away. We may
now be attacked at any moment.’

Thereupon, after glancing once more at the meadows, where the Bavarians
were still gaining ground, Weiss made up his mind to follow Delaherche.
But, on reaching the street, he paused to double-lock the door of
his house, and when he again rejoined his companion an unforeseen
spectacle once more stayed their flight. The Place de l’Eglise, some
three hundred yards away, at the end of the road, was at that moment
being attacked by a strong column of Bavarians debouching from the
Douzy highway. After a time the regiment of Marine Infantry, entrusted
with the defence of the Place, appeared to slacken fire as though to
let the foe advance, but, all at once, when the German column was
massed in front of the French, the latter resorted to a strange and,
on the enemy’s part, evidently unexpected manœuvre. The Marines sprang
on one or the other side of the way, a large number of them flinging
themselves upon the ground; and then, through the space thus suddenly
opened, the French mitrailleuses, in position at the other end of the
road, rained a perfect storm of bullets upon the foe. The hostile
column was virtually swept away, and the Marines thereupon bounded to
their feet and charged the scattered survivors of the Bavarian force at
the bayonet’s point, bringing many of them to the ground and throwing
the others far back. And twice again was this same manœuvre repeated,
and with the same success. Three women, who had remained in a little
house at the corner of a lane, could be seen tranquilly installed at
one of the windows there, laughing and clapping their hands at the
sight, and looking indeed as much amused as though they were at a
theatre.

‘Ah! dash it!’ suddenly said Weiss; ‘I forgot to lock up my cellar and
take the key. Wait a bit. I sha’n’t be a second.’

As this first attack seemed to have been repulsed, Delaherche, whose
curiosity once more began to gain the upper hand, was in less haste
to get away. Standing outside the dyeworks, he began talking to the
portress, who had stepped to the threshold of the room she occupied, on
the ground floor.

‘You ought to come away with us, Françoise,’ he said. ‘It’s not right
for a woman to remain here all alone in the midst of such horrible
things.’

She raised her trembling arms and answered: ‘Ah, sir, I should
certainly have gone away if it hadn’t been for my little Auguste, who’s
so ill. Will you come in and look at him, sir?’

He did not go in, but craned his neck forward and shook his head
ominously as he espied the lad lying in a clean white bed, with the
purple flush of fever suffusing his face, whilst with flaming eyes he
looked fixedly at his mother.

‘But now I think of it,’ said the manufacturer, ‘why don’t you take him
away? I’ll fix you up at Sedan. Wrap him in a warm blanket, and come
with us.’

‘Oh! it can’t be done, sir. The doctor told me it would kill the boy
to move him. If only his poor father were still alive. But there are
only we two left, and, needing one another as we do, we must be very
careful. And, after all, perhaps those Prussians won’t do any harm to a
lone woman and a sick child.’

At this moment Weiss returned, delighted at having made every door in
his house secure. ‘They’ll have to smash everything if they want to get
in,’ said he. ‘And now let’s get off. It won’t be an easy job–we had
better keep close to the houses or we may be hit by a bullet.’

The enemy was, indeed, evidently preparing a fresh attack, for the
fusillade was increasing in violence, and there was no pause now in the
hissing of the shells. A couple of the latter had already fallen in the
road about a hundred yards away, whilst a third had plunged into the
soft soil of a neighbouring garden without bursting.

‘I must say good-bye to your little Auguste, Françoise,’ resumed Weiss.
‘Oh! he doesn’t look so bad now; in a couple of days he’ll be out of
danger. Well, keep your spirits up. Mind you go indoors at once. Don’t
venture out here.’

At last the two men turned to go off.

‘Good-bye, Françoise.’

‘Good-bye, gentlemen.’

But at that very moment there was a terrible crash. After overthrowing
one of the chimneys of Weiss’s house, a shell had fallen on the
footway, where it burst with so fearful an explosion that every
window-pane near by was shivered to pieces. For a moment a mass of
thick dust, a cloud of heavy smoke obscured everything. Then the front
of the dyeworks reappeared, displaying a gaping aperture, and across
the threshold of her room lay Françoise, dead, her backbone broken,
and her head crushed–now merely a bundle of human rags, covered with
blood, and hideous to behold.

Weiss rushed up furiously. He was stammering, and oaths alone could
give expression to his feelings: ‘Curse them! Curse them!’ he shouted.
Yes, she was indeed dead. He had stooped down and felt her hands. As
he was rising again his eyes encountered the blotched face of little
Auguste, who had raised his head to look at his mother. The lad said
nothing, he did not shriek or cry, but his large eyes, full of fever,
were quite dilated as they gazed upon that frightfully mangled body,
which he could no longer recognise. ‘Curse them!’ shouted Weiss at
last, ‘so now they are killing women!’

He had again drawn himself erect, and he shook his fist at the
Bavarians, whose helmets were once more appearing to view in the
direction of the church. Then the sight of the roof of his house, half
broken in by the fallen chimney, put the finishing touch to his mad
exasperation. ‘You dirty blackguards!’ he shouted, ‘you kill women and
you knock my house to pieces! No, no, it is impossible, I can’t go off
like that; I shall stay!’

He darted into the courtyard of the dyeworks, and bounded back again,
carrying the chassepot and cartridge pouch of the dead soldier. For
use on important occasions, when he was desirous of seeing anything
very distinctly, he always carried a pair of spectacles in his pocket,
though he seldom wore them through a coquettish regard for the feelings
of his young wife. Now, however, he promptly took off his folding
glasses and put on his spectacles; and then this stout civilian, whose
good-natured, full face was quite transfigured by anger, who looked
almost comical yet superb in his heroism, began to fire, aiming at the
detachment of Bavarians massed at the end of the street. It was in his
blood, as he was wont to say; he had longed to stretch some of them on
the ground ever since hearing the stories of 1814, related to him in
his childish days, in his Alsatian home.

‘Ah! the dirty blackguards, the dirty blackguards!’

And still he kept on firing–so rapidly in fact that the barrel of his
chassepot began to burn his fingers.

Everything now betokened a terrible attack. The fusillade had ceased
on the side of the meadows. The Bavarians had become masters of a
narrow stream fringed with poplars and pollard willows, and were
preparing to assault the houses defending the Place de l’Eglise. Their
skirmishers had prudently fallen back, and now the sunshine alone
was drowsily streaming in a golden sheet over the immense grassy
expanse, flecked here and there with black patches–the corpses of
the soldiers who had been killed. And accordingly, the Lieutenant of
Marine Infantry, realising that danger would henceforth come from the
side of the street, evacuated the courtyard of the dyeworks, leaving
merely a sentry there; and speedily ranged his men along the side-walk,
informing them that should the enemy obtain possession of the Place de
l’Eglise they were to barricade themselves inside the building, on the
first floor, and defend it as long as they had a cartridge left them.
The men fired as they pleased, lying on the ground, screened by border
stones and profiting by the slightest projections of the buildings; and
along the broad, deserted highway, bright with sunshine, there now sped
a perfect hurricane of lead, with streaks of smoke–a hailstorm, as it
were, driven along by a violent wind. A girl was seen to dart madly
across the road without receiving any injury; then an old peasant in
a blouse, stubbornly bent upon taking his horse into the stable, was
struck by a bullet in the forehead, the force of the shock throwing him
into the middle of the road. Moreover, the roof of the church had just
been broken in by a shell, and two other projectiles had set fire to
some houses, whose timbers crackled and blazed in the broad sunlight.
And the sight of that poor creature, Françoise, pounded to pieces near
her ailing child, of the peasant lying in the road with the bullet
in his skull, of the damaged church and the flaming houses, put the
finishing touch to the wrath of the inhabitants, who, rather than fly
to Belgium, had preferred to stay and meet death in their modest homes.
And men of the middle classes and sons of toil, men in coats and men
in blouses, fired on the enemy from their windows with a fury akin to
madness.

‘Ah! the bandits!’ suddenly exclaimed Weiss. ‘They have got round. I
saw them running along the railway line. There! can’t you hear them
over yonder on the left?’

A fusillade had indeed just broken out in the rear of the park of
Montivilliers which skirted the road. If the foe should secure
possession of that park Bazeilles would be captured. The violence of
the firing proved, however, that the Commander of the Twelfth Corps had
foreseen this movement on the enemy’s part, and that the park was being
defended.

‘Take care, you clumsy chap!’ suddenly exclaimed the lieutenant,
forcing Weiss to draw back close to the wall; ‘you’ll be cut in half!’

Though he could not help smiling at this big spectacled fellow, he had
begun to feel interested in him, doubtless on account of the bravery
he displayed; and, hearing a shell coming, he had in a fraternal way
pushed him on one side. The projectile fell a dozen paces off, and,
in bursting, covered them both with splinters. The civilian, however,
remained erect without a scratch, whereas the unfortunate lieutenant
had both legs broken. ‘Ah! curse it!’ he muttered. ‘I’m done for.’

He had been thrown down on the side-walk, and he instructed his men to
place him in a sitting posture with his back against a door, near the
spot where the corpse of that unfortunate woman Françoise was stretched
across the threshold of her room. And the lieutenant’s young face still
retained its stubborn, energetic expression. ‘It’s of no consequence,
my lads,’ said he. ‘Listen to me. Fire at your ease, don’t hurry–I’ll
tell you when the time comes to charge them.’

And thus, with his head erect, watching the distant movements of the
foe, he continued commanding his men. Another house across the road
caught fire. The crackling of the fusillade and the loud explosions
of the shells rent the dust-and-smoke-pervaded atmosphere. Men were
toppling over at each street corner, and wherever the dead had
fallen–now singly, now in clusters–there were dark spots splashed
with blood; whilst over and above the village arose a frightful,
growing clamour, the threatening uproar of thousands of men rushing on
a few hundred brave fellows who were resolved to die.

And now Delaherche, who had repeatedly called to Weiss, asked him
for the last time: ‘Are you coming? No? So much the worse, but I’m
off–good-bye!’

It was about seven o’clock, and he had already delayed his departure
longer than was prudent. So far as there were houses skirting the
road, he took advantage of their projections and recesses, bolting
into a doorway or behind a wall each time there was a volley. And so
rapidly did he glide along, with all the suppleness of a snake, that
he was surprised to find himself still so young and nimble. But on
reaching the limits of Bazeilles, when it became necessary that he
should follow the bare, deserted road, swept by the Liry batteries
for a distance of three hundred yards, he fairly shivered, albeit he
was perspiring from every pore. For a moment or two, bending low, he
continued advancing along a ditch, then all at once he broke into a mad
gallop and rushed straight before him along the road, with detonation
after detonation resounding like thunderclaps in his ears. His eyes
were burning, and he fancied he was running through flames. It seemed
to last an eternity; but all at once he espied a small house on his
left, and promptly darted towards it. Once sheltered by its walls he
felt a tremendous weight uplifted from his chest. There were several
people near him, men on foot and men on horseback. At first he failed
to distinguish any of them, but as he recovered his self-possession the
sight he beheld filled him with astonishment.

Was not that the Emperor and his staff? He hesitated to answer the
query affirmatively, although, since he had almost spoken to Napoleon
at Baybel, he had flattered himself he should at once recognise him
anywhere. Then he suddenly opened his mouth and looked on gaping. Yes,
it was indeed Napoleon III., to all appearance taller now that he was
on horseback,[26] and with his moustaches so carefully waxed, and his
cheeks so highly coloured that Delaherche immediately came to the
conclusion that he had sought to make himself look young again–in a
word, that he had made himself up for the occasion like an actor. Ay,
without doubt he had caused his valet to paint his face so that he
might not appear among his troops spreading discouragement and fright
around him with his pale, haggard countenance distorted by suffering,
his contracted nose, and dim, bleared eyes. And warned, at five
o’clock, that there was fighting going on at Bazeilles, he had set out
thither, silent and mournful like a phantom, but with his cheeks all
aglow with rouge.

On the way some brickworks afforded a shelter. The walls on one side
were being riddled by the bullets raining upon them; and shells were at
every moment falling on the road. The entire escort halted.

‘It is really dangerous, sire,’ said some one; but the Emperor turned
round, and with a wave of the hand simply ordered his staff to draw up
in a narrow lane skirting the works, where both men and horses would be
completely hidden. ‘It’s really madness, sire–we beg you, sire—-‘

However, he simply repeated his gesture, as though to say that the
appearance of a number of uniforms on that bare road would certainly
attract the attention of the hostile batteries on the left bank of the
Meuse. And then, all alone, he rode forward amid the bullets and the
shells, without evincing any haste, but still and ever in the same
mournful, indifferent manner, as though he were going in search of
Destiny. And doubtless, he could hear behind him that implacable voice
that had ever urged him forward, the voice that rang out from Paris,
calling: ‘March, march, die like a hero on the corpses of your people,
strike the whole universe with compassionate admiration, so that your
son may reign!’ And forward he went, slowly walking his horse. For
nearly a hundred yards he thus continued advancing; and then he halted
to await the fate that he had come in search of. The bullets whistled
by like an equinoctial gale, and a shell burst near him covering him
with earth. Yet still he remained there waiting. His charger’s mane
stood up, the animal was quivering all over, instinctively recoiling
at thus finding itself in the presence of death which passed by every
moment, unwilling, however, to touch either man or beast. And then,
after that infinite period of waiting, the Emperor, realising like the
resigned fatalist he was, that it was not there he should find his
destiny, quietly rode back again, as though he had merely gone forward
to reconnoitre the exact positions of the German batteries.

‘What courage you have shown, sire! But we beg of you not to expose
yourself again!’

However, with another wave of the hand he summoned the members of
his staff to follow him, now sparing them no more than he had spared
himself; and off he rode across the fields, over the bare ground of La
Rapaille towards the position of La Moncelle. On the way a captain of
the escort fell dead, and two horses were killed under their riders.
The regiments of the Twelfth Corps, before which Napoleon passed, saw
him appear and vanish like a spectre; not once was he saluted nor once
acclaimed.

Delaherche witnessed all this, and it made him shudder, especially
when he reflected that on leaving the brickworks he should again find
himself in the open, exposed to all the projectiles. So he lingered
there, listening to some officers who had remained behind, their horses
having been previously shot under them.

‘I tell you he was killed on the spot,’ said one; ‘a shell cut him in
half.’

‘No, no. I myself saw him carried off. He was merely wounded–a
splinter of a shell in the hip—-‘

‘At what time did it occur?’

‘At about half-past six, an hour ago. It was in a hollow road over
yonder, near La Moncelle.’

‘And was he taken back to Sedan?’

‘Certainly, he’s there now.’

Whom could they be speaking of? All at once Delaherche realised that
they must be referring to Marshal MacMahon, wounded whilst on his way
to the outposts. The marshal wounded! Such was our cursed luck, as
the lieutenant of Marine Infantry had said. And the manufacturer was
reflecting on the consequences of this unfortunate casualty when an
estafette galloped by with reins down, and shouted to a comrade whom he
recognised: ‘General Ducrot is commander-in-chief. The entire army is
to concentrate at Illy, to retreat on Mézières!’

The next moment the estafette was already far away, entering Bazeilles
under a fire of increasing intensity, and Delaherche, scared by the
extraordinary tidings that had reached him in such rapid succession,
and liable to find himself caught in the midst of the retreating
troops, at last made up his mind to start off again, and ran all the
way to Balan, whence he managed to reach Sedan without any very great
difficulty. And, meantime, the estafette was still galloping through
Bazeilles, seeking the commanders that he might give them their orders.
And the tidings were also galloping along–Marshal MacMahon wounded,
General Ducrot appointed commander-in-chief, the whole army to fall
back on Illy!

‘What! what are they saying?’ exclaimed Weiss, already black with
powder. ‘Retreat on Mézières at this time of day? Why, it’s madness;
the army could not possibly get through!’

He was in despair, full of remorse that he himself had advised that
very course the day before, and had advised it precisely to General
Ducrot, who was now invested with the supreme command. Certainly, on
the previous day there was no other reasonable plan to follow. The army
ought to have retreated, retreated immediately by the defile of St.
Albert. But at the present time the road must be intercepted by all
that black swarm of Prussians that had streamed along, over yonder,
towards the plain of Donchery. And, madness for madness, the only truly
valiant, desperate course was to hurl the Bavarians into the Meuse,
pass over them, and march once more on Carignan.

Hitching up his falling spectacles every minute with a touch of
his finger-tips, Weiss explained the position of affairs to the
lieutenant, who was still seated there with his limbs shattered
and his back against the door. He was now looking extremely pale,
however–indeed he was dying from loss of blood. ‘I assure you that I’m
right, lieutenant,’ said Weiss. ‘Tell your men to keep firm. You can
see that we are victorious. Another effort and we shall fling them into
the Meuse.’

The second attack of the Bavarians had, in fact, just been repulsed.
The mitrailleuses had again swept the Place de l’Eglise, with such
effect that the enemy’s dead now lay there in heaps, which rose up
here and there like barricades; and the disbanded foe, charged at the
bayonet’s point, was now being driven from all the lanes into the
meadows, where there began a flight towards the river, that would
assuredly have become a rout if the Marines, already extenuated and
decimated, had been supported by fresh troops. On the other hand, the
fusillade in the park of Montivilliers was coming no nearer, making it
evident that the wood might be cleared of the enemy if reinforcements
only came up.

‘Tell your men to charge them, lieutenant!’ suddenly shouted Weiss; ‘at
the bayonet’s point!’

The lieutenant, now of a waxy whiteness, still had sufficient strength
left him to murmur in a dying voice: ‘You hear, my lads; at them with
the bayonet!’

And those were his last words. He expired with his stubborn head still
erect and his eyes open, gazing on the battle. Flies were already
buzzing around and settling on Françoise’s shapeless head, whilst
little Auguste, lying in bed, a prey to feverish delirium, was calling
and asking for something to drink in a low, supplicating voice: ‘Wake
up, get up, mother–I’m thirsty, I’m so thirsty.’

However, General Ducrot’s orders were peremptory, and the officers had
to command a retreat, lamenting that they were prevented from profiting
by the advantage they had just gained. Plainly enough, the new
commander, full of fears with regard to the enemy’s turning movement,
was disposed to sacrifice everything to a mad attempt to escape his
clutches. So the Place de l’Eglise was evacuated, the troops fell back
from lane to lane, and the road was soon empty. Women could be heard
wailing and sobbing, and men swore and shook their fists in their anger
at being thus abandoned. Many of them shut themselves in their houses,
determined to defend them and die.

‘Oh! I’m not going off like that!’ exclaimed Weiss, quite beside
himself. ‘I prefer to leave my carcase here. We’ll see if they’ll come
to smash my furniture and drink my wine.’

He had completely given himself up to his rage, to the unquenchable
fury of battle. The thought of the foreigner entering his house,
sitting in his chair, and drinking out of his glass made his whole body
revolt, and drove away all thoughts of his accustomed life, his wife,
and his business affairs, all the prudence that he usually displayed
like a sensible petty _bourgeois_. And now he shut himself, barricaded
himself, inside his house, walking up and down like a caged animal,
proceeding from room to room, and making sure that every aperture was
properly closed. He counted his cartridges, and found he had about
forty left. Then, as he was giving a last glance over towards the
Meuse to make certain that no attack was to be feared by way of the
meadows, the spectacle furnished by the hills on the left bank once
more arrested his attention. The position of the German batteries was
clearly indicated by the puffs of smoke ascending from them; and above
the formidable battery of Frénois, on the verge of a little wood on the
Marfée hill, he again espied that same cluster of uniforms which he had
already seen, but now looking larger than on the previous occasion,
and so brilliant in the broad sunlight that, on placing his folders
in front of his spectacles, he could distinguish the gold or brass of
epaulettes and helmets.

‘The dirty blackguards! The dirty blackguards!’ he repeated, shaking
his fist at the group.

It was King William of Prussia who was perched up there, on the Marfée
hill, with his staff. He had already, at seven o’clock, arrived
there from Vendresse, where he had slept, and there he was, well out
of harm’s way, with the valley of the Meuse, the whole unbounded
battlefield spread out below him. The vast panorama extended from one
horizon to another, and he looked down upon it from the hill as upon a
gala performance from a throne reared in some gigantic court-box.

Sedan, with the geometrical lines of its fortifications bathed on the
south and the west by the flooded meadows and the river, stood out in
the centre against the dark background of the Ardennes Forest, which
draped the horizon as with a curtain of antique greenery. Houses were
already blazing at Bazeilles, where all was misty with the dust of
battle. Then, on the east, from La Moncelle to Givonne, only a few
regiments of the Twelfth and First French Corps could be seen, looking
like lines of insects as they crossed the stubble, and now and again
disappearing in a narrow valley where some hamlets were also hidden;
and, farther on, the ground rose again, and pale-tinted fields could
be perceived, blotched with the green mass of the Chevalier Wood. The
Seventh French Corps was especially well in view on the north, with
its regiments represented by numerous black specks moving hither and
thither over the plateau of Floing, a broad band of dark grey soil,
which descended from the little wood of La Garenne to the herbage on
the river bank. Beyond were Floing, St. Menges, Fleigneux, and Illy,
all the villages scattered across the surging expanse, quite a rugged
region, intersected by steep escarpments. And on the left, also, was
the loop of the Meuse, with its slow waters glittering like new silver
in the clear sunlight, and its long languid bend forming the peninsula
of Iges, and intercepting all communication with Mézières save on one
point, where, between the farther bank and the impassable forest, there
opened the only entrance to the defile of St. Albert.

The hundred thousand men and the five hundred guns of the French army
were heaped together, brought to bay within the triangle; and when the
King of Prussia turned his eyes westward he perceived another plain,
that of Donchery, with bare fields spreading out towards Briancourt,
Marancourt, and Vrignes-aux-Bois, an infinite expanse of grey soil
dusty under the blue sky; and when he turned to the east he also
beheld, confronting the confined French lines, another immense open
expanse, with an abundance of villages, first Douzy and Carignan, and
then, ascending northwards, Rubécourt, Pourru-aux-Bois, Francheval, and
Villers-Cernay, till at last there came La Chapelle, near the Belgian
frontier. And all this surrounding ground belonged to him, and as he
pushed forward at his pleasure the two hundred and fifty thousand men
and the eight hundred guns of his armies, he could, at one glance,
survey their invading march. The Eleventh German Army Corps was, on
the one hand, already advancing on St. Menges, whilst the Fifth Corps
was at Vrignes-aux-Bois, and the division of Wurtembergers was waiting
near Donchery; and although, on the other side, the King’s view was
somewhat obstructed by the trees and hills, it was yet easy for him to
realise the movements that were being accomplished. He had just seen
the Twelfth German Corps enter the Chevalier Wood, and he knew that
the Guard must by this time have reached Villers-Cernay. And the army
of the Crown Prince of Prussia on the left, and the army of the Crown
Prince of Saxony on the right, formed, as it were, the two branches of
the vice which were opening and ascending with irresistible force to
meet over yonder; whilst on their side the two Bavarian Army Corps were
rushing upon Bazeilles.

And, at King William’s feet, the German batteries, disposed in an
almost uninterrupted line from Remilly to Frénois, were now thundering
without cessation, covering La Moncelle and Daigny with shells, and
sweeping the plateaux on the north with other projectiles which passed
right over the town of Sedan. As yet it was hardly more than eight in
the morning, and the King was already waiting for the inevitable result
of the battle, his eyes fixed on the gigantic chessboard before him,
his mind busy with the movements of that human dust, the bellicose
madness of those few black specks which here and there dotted the
surface of smiling and eternal nature.

At daybreak, in the thick fog enveloping the plateau of Floing, Bugler
Gaude sounded the reveille with all the strength of his lungs. But the
moisture with which the atmosphere was densely impregnated, so deadened
the joyous call that it failed to awaken the men of the company, most
of whom, lacking even the energy to pitch their tents, had rolled
themselves in the canvas or stretched themselves in the mud. They were
lying there, already looking like corpses with their pallid faces
hardened by weariness and sleep, and to rouse them it became necessary
to shake them one by one, when they sat up with the air of men just
resuscitated from the grave, quite livid, and with their eyes full of
terror at the thought of life.

Maurice was awakened by Jean. ‘What’s up? Where are we?’ he stammered
as he glanced in a scared way on either side, perceiving nothing but
the grey sea in the depths of which he was apparently plunged, with the
shadowy forms of his comrades floating around him. It was impossible
to see twenty yards ahead, so that he could not take his bearings. He
had not the faintest notion as to the whereabouts of Sedan. At that
moment, however, the sound of a cannonade, somewhere far away, fell on
his ears: ‘Ah! it’s for to-day–so we are going to fight. So much the
better, we must make an end of it all.’

The men around him said the same: on all sides there was a gloomy
satisfaction, a longing to escape from that interminable nightmare,
and to come face to face with those Prussians, whom, at the outset,
they had gone in search of, and then had fled from during so many weary
hours. At last they would be able to fire on the foe and disburden
themselves of those cartridges which they had brought from such a
distance without an opportunity of burning even one of them. This time
everybody realised that battle was inevitable.

However, the guns of Bazeilles were thundering more and more loudly,
and Jean, who stood there listening, inquired: ‘Where are they firing?’

‘I fancy it’s near the Meuse,’ replied Maurice; ‘but the deuce take me
if I know where I am.’

‘Listen, youngster,’ now said the corporal, ‘you must keep beside me
to-day, for a fellow needs to know something about these affairs if he
doesn’t want to get injured. I’ve been through the mill before, and
I’ll keep my eyes open for both of us.’

In the meantime the squad was beginning to growl, furious at the
thought that they had nothing warm to comfort their stomachs with. It
was impossible to light any fires without any dry wood, and in such
filthy weather too. Thus, at the very moment when the battle was about
to commence, the great, imperious, paramount belly-question came to the
fore once more. Perhaps they were heroes–some of them at any rate–but
before and above everything else they were maws. Eating was indeed the
one all-important question, and how lovingly they skimmed the pot on
the days when there was some good _soupe_, and how angry they waxed,
like children and savages, when there was a scarcity of rations!

‘No grub, no fighting,’ declared Chouteau; ‘I’ll be blowed if I risk my
skin to-day!’

This big, lanky house-painter, this fine speechifier from Montmartre,
this public-house theorist who marred the few reasonable ideas that
he had picked up here and there, by blending them with a frightful
mixture of trash and lies, was again showing himself in the colours
of a revolutionist. ‘Besides,’ continued he, ‘haven’t they played the
fool with us, telling us that the Prussians were dying of hunger and
illness, that they hadn’t even got any shirts left, and were to be met
on the roads grimed with dirt and as tattered as paupers?’

This made Loubet laugh, like the _gamin_ he was whose life had been
spent amid all the hole-and-corner avocations of the Paris markets.

‘But it’s all rot,’ continued Chouteau, ‘it’s we who are kicking the
bucket, dying of misery, with our shoes full of holes and our clothes
so ragged that anyone might be tempted to give us a copper out of
charity. And then too those big victories! Ah! the humbugs, to tell us
that they had taken Bismarck prisoner and knocked a whole army head
over heels into a stone quarry. Ah! they have played the fool with us
and no mistake.’

Pache and Lapoulle listened, clenching their fists and nodding
their heads with an air of fury. Others also were enraged, for
the everlasting lies of the Paris newspapers had ended by having
a disastrous effect. Confidence was dead; no belief remained in
anything. The minds of these big children, at the outset so fertile in
extraordinary hopes, were now filled with maddening nightmares.

‘Of course, and it’s simple enough,’ resumed Chouteau. ‘It’s easily
understood since we’ve been sold–you fellows know it as well as I do.’

Every time that he heard this, Lapoulle in his childish simplicity felt
quite exasperated. ‘Sold, eh?’ said he. ‘Ah! what rogues some people
are.’

‘Yes, sold like Judas sold his Master,’ muttered Pache, his mind always
full of biblical reminiscences.

Chouteau was triumphing: ‘It’s simple enough,’ said he, ‘everyone
knows the figures. MacMahon was paid three millions of francs, and the
generals had a million apiece to bring us here. It was all settled in
Paris last spring; and a rocket was sent up last night as a signal that
all was ready, and that the others could come and take us.’

The arrant stupidity of this invention revolted Maurice. Chouteau had
formerly amused him, almost won him over by his Parisian ‘go;’ but
for some time past he had been unable to stomach this perverter, this
ne’er-do-well, who railed at everything so as to disgust the others.
‘Why do you tell such absurd stories?’ he exclaimed; ‘you know very
well there’s no truth in it at all.’

‘No truth in it? What! it isn’t true that we have been sold? It
wouldn’t be surprising if a toff like you happened to belong to that
band of swinish traitors. If that’s the case,’ continued Chouteau,
stepping forward in a threatening way, ‘you had better say so, Mr.
Gentleman, because we can settle your hash at once, without waiting for
your friend Bismarck.’

The others also were beginning to growl, and Jean thought it his duty
to intervene: ‘Keep quiet, all of you: I’ll report the first one who
stirs.’

But Chouteau, with a sneer, began to hoot him. He didn’t care a rap
for his report. He’d fight or not, just as he pleased, and they’d
better not bother him, for his cartridges would do just as well for
others as for the Prussians. Now that the battle was beginning, the
little discipline that fear had still maintained would be swept away.
What could they do to him? He meant to skedaddle as soon as he had had
enough of it. And he went on talking in an insulting fashion, exciting
the others against the corporal, who suffered them to die of hunger.
Yes, it was Jean’s fault if the squad had had nothing to eat for three
days past, whereas the comrades had _soupe_ and meat. Mr. Jean and the
toff, however, had gone to feast with some wenches. Yes, indeed, others
had seen their goings-on at Sedan.

‘You’ve spent the squad’s money,’ shouted Chouteau at last; ‘you
daren’t deny it, you cursed jobber!’

Matters were getting serious. Lapoulle clenched his fist, and even
Pache, usually so gentle but now maddened by hunger, demanded an
explanation of Jean. The only sensible one was Loubet, who began to
laugh, saying that it was idiotic for Frenchmen to fall out when the
Prussians were there close by. He wasn’t a partisan of quarrelling
either with fists or with guns, and, alluding to the few hundred francs
he had received as a substitute, he added: ‘Well, if they fancy my
skin’s worth no more than that I’ll undeceive them. I’m not going to
give them more than their money’s worth.’

Maurice and Jean, however, exasperated by Chouteau’s idiotic onslaught,
replied in violent terms, and were spurning the charges levelled at
them, when all at once a loud voice rang out through the fog: ‘What’s
the row there? Who are the stupid clowns disputing like that?’

Then Lieutenant Rochas appeared to view, with his cap discoloured
by the rain, his overcoat merely retaining a button here and there,
and the whole of his lank, awkward person in a pitiable condition
of neglect and wretchedness. And yet he had none the less assumed a
victorious swagger, his moustaches bristling and his eyes flaring.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Jean, quite beside himself, ‘it’s these men who
are shouting that we are sold. Yes, they say our generals have sold us.’

To the narrow mind of Rochas this idea of treachery did not appear
altogether unreasonable, for it explained defeats which he did not
consider admissible. ‘Well, what the deuce is it to them if they _have_
been sold?’ he answered. ‘What business is it of _theirs_? At any rate,
it doesn’t alter the fact that the Prussians are here now, and that we
are going to give them one of those lickings that are remembered.’

Afar off, behind the dense curtain of mist, the guns of Bazeilles did
not cease thundering. And impulsively thrusting out his arms, the
lieutenant added, ‘Ah! this time there’s no mistake. We are going to
drive them home again with the butt-ends of our rifles.’

To his mind the thunder of the cannonade effaced all the past: the
delays and uncertainties of the march, the demoralisation of the
troops, the disaster of Beaumont, and even the last agony of the forced
retreat upon Sedan. Since they were about to fight, was not victory a
certainty? He had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, he retained all
his braggart contempt for the enemy, his absolute ignorance of the new
methods of warfare, his unswerving conviction that an old soldier of
the Crimea, Italy, and Algeria could not be beaten. It would be really
too droll if he were to undergo that experience at his age.

A laugh suddenly parted his jaws from ear to ear. And, like the worthy
fellow he was, he now did his men one of those good turns which made
them like him so much despite the manner in which he occasionally rated
them. ‘Listen, my lads,’ said he, ‘instead of disputing, it’s much
better to drink a drop together. Yes, I’m going to stand treat, and you
can drink my health.’

Thereupon, from a deep pocket of his overcoat, he produced a bottle of
brandy, adding, with that triumphant air of his, that it was a present
from a lady. This was not so surprising, as during the previous day
he had been seen in a tavern at Floing making himself quite at home
there with the servant girl on his knees. And now the soldiers laughed
heartily, and held out their tin bowls, into which he gaily poured the
liquor.

‘You must drink to your sweethearts, my lads, if you have any, and you
must drink to the glory of France. That’s all I care about. Here’s to
jollity!’

‘You’re right, sir; here’s to your health and everybody’s!’

They all drank together, reconciled and warmed by the liquor. It was
really very kind of the lieutenant to have treated them to that drop
of ‘short’ in the early cold before they advanced on the enemy. And
Maurice felt the alcohol descending into his veins, again bringing
warmth and the semi-intoxication of illusion. Why should they not
defeat the Prussians after all? Had not battles their surprises in
reserve, sudden, unexpected transitions at which History remained
astonished? Besides, that devil of a fellow, Rochas, declared that
Bazaine was on his way to join them, and was expected to come up before
nightfall. And he intimated that the information could be positively
relied upon, for he had it from a general’s aide-de-camp; and although
he stretched his arm towards Belgium, to point out by what direction
Bazaine was approaching, Maurice surrendered himself to one of those
crises of hope without which he was unable to live. After all, perhaps
the _revanche_ was really at hand.

‘Pray, sir, what are we waiting for?’ he ventured to ask; ‘aren’t we
going to march?’

Rochas made a gesture as if to say that he was without orders. Then,
after a pause, he added: ‘Has anyone seen the captain?’

Nobody replied. Jean remembered that during the night he had espied him
slinking away in the direction of Sedan; however, a prudent soldier
should never let it appear that he has seen a superior apart from the
service. So he had decided to hold his tongue, when, on turning round,
he perceived a shadowy form approaching beside a hedge. And, thereupon,
he exclaimed: ‘Here he comes!’

It was indeed Captain Beaudoin, who astonished everybody with his
irreproachable get-up, contrasting in such a marked degree with the
deplorable condition of the lieutenant. His uniform was nicely brushed,
his boots were beautifully polished, and there was something quite
coquettish, something suggestive of _galanterie_ about his white hands,
his curled moustaches, and the vague perfume of Persian lilac that he
diffused around him, reminding one of a pretty woman’s well-appointed
dressing-room.

‘Hallo!’ sneered Loubet; ‘so the captain has found his baggage again.’

Nobody smiled, however, for the captain was known not to be an easy
customer. He was execrated by his men, whom he kept at a distance. A
regular vinegar-bottle, as Rochas put it. Since the earlier defeats he
had seemed quite offended, and the disaster, which everybody foresaw,
appeared to him above all things improper. A Bonapartist by conviction,
having had a prospect of rapid and high advancement before him, backed
up as he was by several influential Parisian _salons_, he felt that
his fortune was sinking in the mud and mire of this disastrous war. It
was said that he possessed a very pretty tenor voice, to which he was
already deeply indebted. Moreover, he was not without intelligence,
though he knew nothing of his profession, being simply desirous of
pleasing, and when necessary proving very brave, without, however,
displaying any excessive zeal.

‘What a fog!’ he quietly remarked, feeling more at his ease now that he
had found his company, which he had been looking for during the last
half-hour, almost fearing that he had lost himself.

However, orders had at length arrived, and the battalion immediately
advanced. Fresh clouds of mist must have been ascending from the Meuse,
for the men almost had to grope their way through a kind of whitish
dew, falling upon them in fine drops. And Maurice was struck by the
sudden apparition of Colonel de Vineuil, who, erect on his horse,
rose up before him at the corner of a road; the old officer looking
very tall and very pale, motionless like a marble statue of despair,
and the animal shivering in the early cold with dilated nostrils
which were turned towards the cannon over yonder. And Maurice was yet
more struck when, at ten paces in the rear, he espied the regimental
colours carried by the sub-lieutenant on duty, and looking, amid the
soft, shifting white vapour, like a trembling apparition of glory,
already fading away in the atmosphere of dreamland. The gilded eagle
was drenched with water, and the tricoloured silk, embroidered with
the names of victories, soiled by smoke, and perforated with ancient
wounds, seemed to be paling in the mist; well-nigh the only brilliant
touches, amid all this obliteration, being supplied by the enamel
points of the Cross of Honour, which was hanging from the tassel of the
flag.

The colonel and the colours disappeared, hidden by a fresh wave of
mist, and the battalion still continued advancing, as though through
a mass of damp cotton-wool, and without the men having the faintest
notion whither they were going. They had descended a narrow slope,
and were now climbing a hollow road. Then all at once resounded the
command, ‘Halt!’ And there they remained, their arms grounded, their
knapsacks weighing down their shoulders, and with strict orders not
to stir. They were probably on a plateau, but it was still quite
impossible to distinguish anything twenty paces away. It was now seven
o’clock; the cannonade seemed to have drawn nearer; fresh batteries,
installed closer and closer to one another, were now firing from the
other side of Sedan.

‘Oh! as for me,’ suddenly said Sergeant Sapin to Jean and Maurice,
‘I shall be killed to-day.’ He had not opened his mouth since the
reveille. Judging by the expression of his thin face, with its large,
handsome eyes, and small, contracted nose, he had been absorbed in a
painful reverie.

‘What an idea!’ protested Jean. ‘Can any of us say what will happen to
us? It’s all chance.’

The sergeant, however, shook his head as though absolutely convinced of
what he had said. ‘For my part,’ he added, ‘it’s as good as done. Yes,
I shall be killed to-day.’

Some of the men now turned round and asked him if he had dreamt it. No,
he hadn’t dreamt anything; only he felt it _there_. ‘And all the same,
it worries me,’ said he, ‘for I was going to be married as soon as I
got my discharge.’

Again his eyes wavered; all his past life rose up before him. The son
of a Lyons grocer in a small way of business, spoilt by his mother,
who was dead, and unable to get on with his father, he had remained
in the regiment disgusted with everything, but unwilling to be bought
out. Then, on one occasion, whilst away on leave, he had come to an
understanding with one of his cousins and had arranged to marry her.
And then he had again begun to take an interest in life, and the pair
of them had laid many happy plans for going into business together with
the help of the small sum that the girl was to bring as a dowry. He, on
his side, had received some education, and was fairly proficient in the
three R’s. For a year past his only thoughts had been for the future
felicity he had planned.

All at once he shuddered, shook himself as though to get rid of his
fixed idea, and then calmly repeated: ‘Yes, it’s a beastly worry; but I
shall be killed to-day.’

None of the others spoke; the spell of waiting continued. They were not
aware whether they were facing or turning their backs on the enemy.
Vague sounds occasionally emerged from the depths of the fog–the
rumbling of wheels, the tramp of a mass of men, the distant trot of
horses; sounds produced by the movements of the troops which the fog
was hiding, all the evolutions of the Seventh Army Corps, now taking
up its line of battle. During the last minute or so, however, it had
seemed as if the vapour were becoming less dense. Fragments of it
arose, looking like pieces of muslin, and patches of the horizon were
disclosed, still dim, however, of a gloomy blue, like that of deep
water. And it was at one of these moments when the atmosphere was
clearing that they saw the regiments of Chasseurs d’Afrique, belonging
to Margueritte’s division, pass by like phantom horsemen. Erect in
their saddles, with their short, light-blue jackets and their broad red
sashes, the Chasseurs urged on their mounts, animals of slender build,
who were half hidden beneath the cumbersome kits they carried. Behind
one squadron came another, and after emerging for a moment from the
haze where all was vague, they passed into it again as though melting
away under the fine rain. Doubtless they had been in the way, and were
being sent farther off, those in command not knowing what to do with
them, as had been the case ever since the outset of the campaign. They
had scarcely been employed on reconnoitring duties at all, and as soon
as an engagement began they were promenaded from valley to valley,
valuable, yet useless.

As Maurice looked at them he thought of Prosper. ‘Hallo!’ he muttered,
‘perhaps he’s over there.’

‘Who?’ asked Jean.

‘That fellow from Remilly, whose brother, the Franc-tireur, we met at
Oches.’

The Chasseurs had passed on, however, and then came another gallop,
that of a general’s staff descending the sloping road. Jean recognised
Bourgain-Desfeuilles, the commander of their brigade, who was waving
his arm in a furious manner. So he had at last deigned to quit the
Golden Cross Hotel, and his bad humour plainly indicated how annoyed
he was at having had to rise so early, after being so badly lodged and
wretchedly fed. His voice could be distinctly heard, thundering out:
‘Well, d—- it, the Moselle or the Meuse, at any rate the water that’s
there!’

However, the mist was at length rising. As at Bazeilles, there was a
sudden transformation scene, a radiant spectacle gradually disclosed
to view, as when the drop-curtain slowly ascends towards the flies.
The sunrays were brightly streaming from the blue vault, and Maurice
immediately recognised the spot where they were waiting. ‘Ah!’ said he
to Jean, ‘this is what they call the plateau of Algeria. You see that
village in front of us, on the other side of the valley, that’s Floing.
That one, farther off, is St. Menges; and there, farther still, is
Fleigneux. Then, right away, in the forest of the Ardennes–those trees
on the horizon–comes the frontier.’

With his hand outstretched he continued giving his explanations. The
plateau of Algeria, a strip of muddy soil, rather less than two and
a half miles in length, sloped gently from the wood of La Garenne
towards the Meuse, from which some meadows parted it. It was here that
General Douay had disposed the Seventh Corps, in despair that he had
not sufficient men to defend so long a line as that allotted to him, or
to establish a solid connection with the First Corps, whose positions,
perpendicular to his own, extended along the valley of the Givonne from
the wood of La Garenne to Daigny.

‘Ah! you see how vast it is, eh?’ said Maurice, turning round, and with
a wave of the hand embracing the entire horizon. From the plateau of
Algeria the whole immense field of battle stretched out towards the
south and the west. First there was Sedan, whose citadel could be seen
rising above the housetops; then came Balan and Bazeilles, hazy with
smoke; and, in the rear, the heights on the left bank of the Meuse, the
Liry, Marfée and Croix-Piau hills. But the view was more particularly
extensive on the west, in the direction of Donchery. The loop of the
Meuse bounded the peninsula of Iges as with a light ribbon, and over
there one could plainly detect the narrow Route de St. Albert, running
between the bank and a steep height, which, somewhat farther on, was
crowned by the little wood of Le Seugnon, a spur of the woods of La
Falizette. The road to Vrignes-aux-Bois and Donchery passed over the
summit of the height at a spot known as the Crossway of the Red House.

‘And in that direction, you know, we could fall back on Mézières,’ said
Maurice. But at that very moment a first cannon shot was fired from
St. Menges. Shreds of fog were still trailing in the depths, and a
vague mass of men could just be espied marching along the defile of St.
Albert. ‘Ah! there they are!’ resumed Maurice, instinctively lowering
his voice, and without naming the Prussians. ‘Our line of retreat is
cut off!’

It was not yet eight o’clock. The cannonade, which was increasing in
violence in the direction of Bazeilles, could now also be heard on the
east, in the valley of the Givonne, which they were unable to see.
At this moment, indeed, the army of the Crown Prince of Saxony was
emerging from the Chevalier Wood and advancing upon the First Corps in
front of Daigny. And now that the Eleventh Prussian Corps, marching
upon Floing, was opening fire on General Douay’s troops, the battle had
begun on all sides, from north to south, over an expanse of several
leagues.

Maurice had just realised what a deplorable blunder had been made in
not withdrawing upon Mézières during the night. And although he had
only a dim notion as to what might be the exact consequences of the
blunder, he was instinctively apprehensive of danger, and gazed with
disquietude at the neighbouring heights overlooking the plateau of
Algeria. Allowing that they might not have had sufficient time to
retreat on Mézières, why, at all events, had they not occupied those
heights, with their backs to the frontier, so that they might, at all
risks, have made their way into Belgium in the event of a defeat? Two
points appeared particularly threatening, the round Hattoy hill, above
Floing on the left, and the so-called Calvary of Illy, crowned by a
stone cross rising between two lime trees. On the previous day General
Douay had sent a regiment to occupy the Hattoy hill, but this isolated
position being considered dangerous the men had fallen back at dawn.
As for the Calvary of Illy, its defence had been entrusted to the left
wing of the First Army Corps. All the vast bare expanse, dented with
deep valleys from Sedan to the Ardennes, was there; and evidently the
key of the position was at the foot of that cross and those two lime
trees, whence one could sweep all the surrounding country.

Two more artillery reports were now heard. Then came the roar of
several pieces fired simultaneously, and this time a puff of smoke was
seen to ascend from a little hill on the left of St. Menges. ‘Ah!’ said
Jean, ‘it’s our turn now.’

Nothing was seen of any projectile, however. The men, still standing
there stock-still, with their arms grounded, had no other pastime than
that of contemplating the fine order of the Second Division, drawn
up in front of Floing, and with its left wing thrown forward in the
direction of the Meuse, to meet any attack on that side. The Third
Division was deploying on the east as far as the wood of La Garenne,
below Illy; whilst the first, cut up at Beaumont, was in the rear,
forming a second line. The Engineers had been engaged all night in the
preparation of defensive works, and were still digging shelter-trenches
and raising breast-works, when the Prussians began firing.

A fusillade broke out in the lower part of Floing, but soon ceased, and
just then Captain Beaudoin’s company received orders to fall back a
distance of some three hundred yards. The men had just reached a large
square field of cabbages, when the captain curtly commanded them to lie
down. They had to obey, although the order was by no means a pleasant
one. The abundant dew had quite soaked the cabbages, on whose thick
leaves of a greenish gold there lingered large drops of as brilliant
and as pure a water as diamonds. ‘Sight at four hundred yards!’ called
the captain.

Maurice thereupon rested the barrel of his chassepot on a cabbage
in front of him. Lying there, on the soil, he could no longer see
anything save a confused stretch of ground streaked here and there with
greenery, and nudging Jean, who was on his right hand, he asked him
what they were doing in that field. Jean, experienced in such matters,
pointed out to him a battery which was being established on a hillock
near at hand. Plainly enough they had been placed there to support that
battery. Thereupon Maurice, inquisitive as to whether Honoré was at the
battery in question, scrambled to his feet; but the reserve artillery
was in the rear, beyond a clump of trees.

‘Thunder!’ shouted Rochas, ‘lie down at once!’

Before Maurice had again stretched himself on his stomach a shell
passed by, hissing, and from that moment there was no pause in the
arrival of the projectiles. The correct range, however, was but slowly
found; the first shells fell far beyond the French battery, which also
opened fire, whilst others, which sank into the soft soil, did not
explode, so that for some time there was any number of jokes about the
clumsiness of those sauerkraut-eating gunners.

‘Why, their artillery fire is a mere flash in the pan!’ said Loubet.

Then Chouteau indulged in a disgusting joke, and Lieutenant Rochas
joined in with the remark, ‘There! I told you those fools couldn’t even
point a gun!’

One shell, however, burst some ten paces away, covering the company
with mould, and although Loubet called to his comrades in a bantering
way to get their brushes out of their knapsacks, Chouteau, who was
turning quite pale, held his peace. He had never been under fire
before, neither had Pache nor Lapoulle, nor, indeed, any man of the
squad excepting Jean. Their eyes blinked and grew dim, whilst their
voices became shrill and faint as though they had a difficulty in
speaking. Maurice, who still retained some measure of self-possession,
endeavoured to analyse his sensations: he was not yet frightened, for
he did not think he was in danger, and all that he experienced was
a slight uneasiness in the epigastrium, whilst his head gradually
emptied, so that he could not connect his ideas. All the same, however,
his hopefulness had been increasing like growing intoxication ever
since he had observed with so much wonderment the capital order of
the troops. He had reached a state when he no longer had any doubt of
victory, provided they could only charge the enemy with cold steel.

‘Hallo!’ he muttered; ‘what a lot of flies there are.’ Thrice already
he had heard a buzzing sound.

Jean could not help laughing. ‘No,’ said he; ‘they are bullets.’

Other light buzzing sounds swept by, and now all the men of the squad
turned their heads, greatly interested. It was an irresistible impulse,
and one after another they lifted up their necks, unable to keep still.

‘I say,’ said Loubet to Lapoulle, by way of amusing himself with the
simpleton, ‘whenever you see a bullet coming you’ve only got to put a
finger in front of your nose–like that–it cuts the air apart, and the
bullet passes on the right or the left.’

‘But I don’t see them coming,’ said Lapoulle, whereupon everybody
roared.

‘Oh my! he doesn’t see them! Keep your lamps open, you fool! Why, there
comes one–and there’s another. Didn’t you see that one? It was a green
bullet.’

And thereupon Lapoulle opened his eyes as wide as he could, and kept
one finger uplifted in front of his nose, whilst Pache, touching the
scapular he wore, wished he were able to extend it like a breastplate
over his chest.

Rochas, who had remained standing, exclaimed all at once in his
bantering way: ‘You’re not forbidden to salute the shells, my lads, bub
never mind about the bullets, there are too many of them.’

At that moment a splinter of a shell shattered the head of a soldier in
the front rank. He was not even able to cry out: there was a spurt of
blood and brain-matter–that was all.

‘Poor devil!’ quietly said Sergeant Sapin, who was very calm and very
pale; ‘whose turn next?’

But they could no longer hear one another; and it was indeed especially
the frightful uproar that distressed Maurice. The battery near by
was firing without a pause, with a continuous roar which shook the
ground; and the mitrailleuses, rending the air asunder, were even
more insufferable. How long were they going to lie among those
cabbages? There was still nothing to be seen; nothing was known. It
was impossible to form the slightest idea of the battle; was it even
a real battle, a great one? All that Maurice could distinguish above
the smooth line of the fields before him was the round, wooded summit
of the Hattoy hill, far away and still deserted. Not a Prussian was
to be seen on the horizon. Only some puffs of smoke arose, wafted for
a moment in the sunlight. Then, as he turned his head, he was greatly
astonished on perceiving in the depths of a sequestered valley,
sheltered by rugged slopes, a peasant who was calmly pursuing his
avocation–guiding a plough drawn by a big white horse. Why should the
man lose a day? Corn would not cease growing, the human race would not
cease living, because a few thousand men happened to be fighting.

Consumed by impatience, Maurice rose to his feet, and at a glance he
again saw the batteries of St. Menges, which were cannonading them,
crowned with tawny smoke; and he also again beheld the road from St.
Albert now blocked with Prussians, the indistinct swarming of an
invading horde. Jean, however, swiftly caught hold of his legs and
dragged him to the ground. ‘Are you mad?’ said the corporal; ‘you’ll be
potted.’

On his side Rochas began to swear: ‘Lie down at once! What the deuce
does the fellow mean, trying to get killed when he hasn’t been ordered
to do so?’

‘But you’re not lying down, sir,’ said Maurice.

‘Oh! in my case it’s different; it’s necessary that I should know
what’s passing.’

Captain Beaudoin also remained bravely erect. But he did not open his
mouth to speak to his men, to whom nothing attached him; and it seemed
as if he were unable to keep still, for again and again did he tramp
from one end of the field to the other.

And meantime the waiting continued, nothing came. Maurice was
suffocating beneath his knapsack, which, in his horizontal position,
so wearisome after a time, was weighing heavily on his back and chest.
The men had been particularly cautioned that they were not to rid
themselves of their knapsacks until the last extremity.

‘I say, are we going to spend the whole day here?’ Maurice ended by
asking Jean.

‘Perhaps so. At Solferino, I remember, we spent five hours lying in
a carrot-field with our noses on the ground.’ And then, like the
practical fellow he was, Jean added: ‘But what are you complaining of?
We are not badly off. There’ll always be time enough for us to expose
ourselves. Everyone has his turn, you know. If we all got ourselves
killed at the beginning there would be no one left for the finish.’

‘Ah!’ suddenly interrupted Maurice, ‘look at that smoke on the Hattoy
hill. They’ve captured it; they’ll be leading us a nice dance now.’

For a moment the sight he beheld supplied some food for his anxious
curiosity, into which the first quiver of fear was stealing. He could
not take his eyes off the round summit of that hill, the only acclivity
that he could perceive, above the fleeting line of fields, level with
his eye. It was, however, much too far away for him to distinguish the
gunners of the batteries that had just been established there by the
Prussians, and, indeed, he only saw the puffs of smoke rising at each
fresh discharge above a plantation, which probably concealed the guns.

As Maurice had instinctively divined, the capture of this position,
the defence of which General Douay had been compelled to renounce,
was a very serious matter. The Hattoy hill commanded the surrounding
plateaux, and when the German batteries installed there opened fire on
the Second Division of the Seventh Corps, they speedily decimated it.
The enemy’s practice was now much improved, and the French battery,
near which Beaudoin’s company was lying down, had a couple of gunners
killed in rapid succession. A splinter at the same time wounded a
quartermaster-corporal of the company, whose left heel was carried
clean away, and who began shrieking with pain as though he had suddenly
gone mad.

‘Shut up, you brute!’ shouted Rochas. ‘Is there any sense in making
such a row over a flea-bite?’

Suddenly calmed, the wounded man became silent, and sank into a
senseless immobility, with his foot in his hand.

And, meanwhile, the formidable artillery duel, growing more and more
serious, steadily went on over the heads of the prostrate regiments,
across the hot, mournful stretch of country where no one was to be
seen in the fierce sunlight. There seemed to be nothing but this
thunder, this destructive blizzard rushing backwards and forwards
athwart the deserted expanse. And hours and hours were to elapse before
it ceased. But the superiority of the German artillery was already
becoming manifest; nearly all of their percussion shells exploded at
tremendous distances, whereas the French shells, on the fuse system,
did not travel nearly so far, and more frequently than otherwise
burst in the air before reaching their destinations. And, meantime,
for Captain Beaudoin’s men there was no resource but that of trying
to make themselves as small as possible in the furrows in which they
were lying, close-pressed to the soil. They were not even able to ease
themselves, intoxicate themselves, shake off their thoughts by firing a
few shots. For whom could they fire at, since there was still nobody to
be seen along the blank horizon?

‘Aren’t we going to fire?’ Maurice kept on repeating, quite beside
himself. ‘I’d give five francs to see one of those Prussians appear.
It’s exasperating to be fired at like that without being able to reply.’

‘Don’t be in a hurry, the time may come,’ replied Jean, quietly.

However, the gallop of horses on their left made them turn their heads,
and they recognised General Douay, who, followed by his staff, had
ridden up to ascertain how his troops were behaving under the terrible
fire from the Hattoy hill. He seemed satisfied, and was giving a few
orders, when General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, in his turn, debouched from
a hollow road. ‘Carpet-general’ though he was, he trotted along with
careless indifference amidst all the projectiles, obstinately clinging
to his Algerian practices, and having failed to profit by any of the
lessons of the war. He was gesticulating after the fashion of Rochas,
and shouting: ‘I’m waiting for them. We’ll see how it will be when
we get to close quarters by-and-by.’ Then, catching sight of General
Douay, he rode up to him: ‘Is it true, general, that the marshal’s
wounded?’

‘Yes, it is, unfortunately. I received a line from Ducrot just now,
telling me that the marshal had selected him to take command of the
army.’

‘Ah! so it’s Ducrot! And what are the orders?’

The commander of the Seventh Corps made a gesture of despair. He had
realised, already on the previous day, that the army was lost if it
remained at Sedan, and he had urged again and again, but vainly, that
the positions of St. Menges and Illy ought to be occupied in view of
insuring a means of retreating upon Mézières.

‘Ducrot reverts to our plan,’ he said, in answer to
Bourgain-Desfeuilles. ‘The entire army is to concentrate on the plateau
of Illy.’ And then he repeated his gesture as though to say that it was
too late!

The roar of the cannon drowned many of his words; still the sense of
them reached Maurice’s ears distinctly enough, and he was quite scared.
What! Marshal MacMahon was wounded, General Ducrot commanded in his
stead, the entire army was to retreat to the north of Sedan, and the
poor devils of soldiers who were getting themselves killed were in
utter ignorance of all these important matters! And they were playing
this fearful game at the mercy of a chance accident, dependent on the
fancies of a fresh leader! He divined the confusion, the final disarray
into which the army was falling, without a commander, without a plan,
dragged first one way and then another, whilst the Germans never
deviated, but went straight towards their goal with the precision of
machinery.

General Bourgain-Desfeuilles was already riding away when he was
imperatively recalled by his superior, who had just received another
message, brought to him by a Hussar, covered with dust.

‘General! general!’ shouted Douay, whose voice, in his surprise and
emotion, thundered so loudly that it resounded above all the roar of
the artillery. ‘General, it is no longer Ducrot who commands, but
Wimpffen! Yes, he arrived yesterday, at the very moment of the Beaumont
rout, to take De Failly’s place at the head of the Fifth Corps–and he
writes me that he has a letter from the Minister of War placing him at
the head of the army in the event of any vacancy in the command–and
the orders to retreat are cancelled, we are to regain and defend our
original positions.’

General Bourgain-Desfeuilles was listening with dilated eyes.
‘Thunder!’ he exclaimed at last, ‘we ought to know what we are to
do–though for my own part I don’t care a rap!’

Then away he galloped, really indifferent as to the issue of the
affair, having merely viewed the war at the outset as a means of
rapidly attaining to divisional rank, and now simply desiring that this
stupid campaign should be brought to an end as soon as possible, since
it gave so little satisfaction to everybody.

And now the men of Beaudoin’s company burst into a derisive laugh.
Maurice said nothing, but he shared the opinion of Chouteau and Loubet,
who began to jeer and joke, pouring forth their contempt. Right
wheel, left wheel, go as you’re told. Nice commanders they had, and
no mistake; commanders who agreed so well together, and who didn’t
want all the blanket to themselves–oh! no, of course not! When men
had such generals as those, wasn’t it best to go off to bed? Three
commanders-in-chief in the space of a couple of hours, three fine
fellows who didn’t know what ought to be done, and each of whom gave
different orders! Really, it was enough to make you feel exasperated,
enough to demoralise a saint! And then those fatal charges of treason
cropped up afresh–Ducrot and Wimpffen were like MacMahon, they wanted
to earn Bismarck’s three millions!

General Douay had halted at some little distance in advance of his
staff, and there he remained quite alone, gazing at the Prussian
positions, and absorbed in a reverie of infinite sadness. For a long
time he continued scanning the Hattoy hill, the shells from which were
falling close around him. Then, after turning towards the plateau of
Illy, he summoned an officer to carry an order to a brigade of the
Fifth Corps, which he had obtained from General de Wimpffen the day
before, and which connected him with Ducrot’s left wing. And he was
distinctly heard to remark: ‘If the Prussians should obtain possession
of the Calvary we could not hold out here for an hour; we should be
thrown back on Sedan.’

Thereupon he went off, disappearing with his escort at a bend of the
hollow road, whilst the enemy’s fire increased in intensity. Very
possibly he had been remarked.

And now the shells, which hitherto had simply been coming from the
front, began raining on the left flank as well. The fire of the
batteries at Frénois, and of another battery established on the
peninsula of Iges, was crossing that from the Hattoy hill. And the
projectiles fairly swept the plateau of Algeria. The men, occupied in
watching what was going on in front, now had this flank fire to alarm
them, and, exposed to two dangers, were at a loss how to escape from
either. In rapid succession three men were killed, whilst two who were
wounded shrieked aloud.

And it was now that Sergeant Sapin met the death he expected. He had
turned round, and, when it was too late to avoid the shell, he saw it
coming. ‘Ah! there it is,’ he simply said. There was a look, not of
terror, but of profound sadness on his little pale face, in his large
handsome eyes. His belly was ripped open, and he began to moan: ‘Oh!
don’t leave me here! take me to the ambulance I beg of you–take me
away.’

Rochas wished to silence him, and in his brutal fashion was about to
tell him that when a man was mortally wounded he had no business to put
a couple of comrades to unnecessary trouble. Suddenly, however, the
grim lieutenant was stirred by pity, and exclaimed: ‘Wait a moment, my
poor fellow, till the bearers come for you.’

But the wretched man continued moaning, and began to weep, distracted
that the longed-for happiness should be fleeing away with the flow of
his blood. ‘Take me away,’ he begged, ‘take me away.’

Thereupon Captain Beaudoin, whose excited nerves were doubtless
exasperated by this plaint, called for a couple of men to carry the
sergeant to a little wood near by, where there was a field ambulance.
Anticipating their comrades, Chouteau and Loubet at once bounded to
their feet and took up the sergeant, one holding him under his armpits
and the other by his feet. Then off they carried him at a run. On the
way, however, they felt him stiffening, expiring in a last convulsion.

‘I say,’ said Loubet, ‘he’s dead. Let’s drop him.’

But Chouteau refused to do so, exclaiming in a fury: ‘Just you run on,
you lazybones. Do you think I’m such a fool as to drop him here for the
captain to call us back?’

Accordingly they went on their way with the corpse until they reached
the little wood, where they flung it at the foot of a tree. Then they
went off, and were not seen again until the evening.

The firing was now becoming more and more violent, the battery which
the company was supporting having been reinforced by a couple of
guns; and, in the increasing uproar, fear, mad fear, at last took
possession of Maurice. At the outset he had been free from the cold
perspiration that was now issuing from every pore of his skin, from the
painful weakness that at present he felt in the pit of his stomach,
the well-nigh irresistible inclination that he experienced to rise up
and rush away shrieking. And doubtless all this was but the result of
reflection, as often happens with delicate, nervous natures. Jean,
however, was watching him, and as soon as he detected this crisis of
cowardice by the troubled wavering of his eyes, he caught hold of him
with his strong hand, and roughly prevented him from stirring. And,
in a fatherly way, he whispered insulting words in his ear, trying to
make him feel ashamed of himself, for he knew that insults, and at
times even kicks, are needed to restore some men’s courage. Others also
were shivering. Pache had his eyes full of tears, and gave vent to a
gentle, involuntary plaint, like the wailing of a little child, which
he was altogether unable to restrain. And Lapoulle’s vitals were so
stirred that he was taken quite ill. Several other men were similarly
distressed, and the scene which ensued led to much hooting and jeering,
the effect of which was to restore everybody’s courage.

‘You wretched coward!’ Jean repeated to Maurice, ‘mind you don’t behave
like them–I’ll punch your head if you don’t behave properly.’

He was in this manner warming the young fellow’s heart, when all at
once, at some four hundred yards in front of them, they perceived
a dozen men in dark uniforms emerging from a little wood. At last,
then, there were the Prussians–easily recognisable by their spiked
helmets–the first Prussians they had seen within range of their
chassepots since the outset of the campaign. Other squads followed the
first one, and in front of them one could see the little clouds of dust
thrown up by the shells. Everything was very small, yet delicately
precise; the Prussians looked like so many little tin soldiers set
out in good order. However, as the shells from the French batteries
rained upon them in increasing numbers, they soon fell back again,
disappearing behind the trees.

But Captain Beaudoin’s men had seen them, and fancied they could see
them still. The chassepots had gone off of their own accord. Maurice
was the first to fire. Jean, Pache, Lapoulle, all the others followed
his example. There had been no command to fire; in fact, the captain
wished to stop it, and only gave way on Rochas making a gesture
implying that it was absolutely necessary the men should thus ease
their feelings. So at last they were firing, employing those cartridges
which they had been carrying in their pouches for more than a month
past, without an opportunity of burning a single one of them. Maurice,
especially, was quite enlivened. Thus occupied, he forgot his fright.
The detonations drove away his thoughts. Meantime, the verge of the
wood remained desolate. Not a leaf was stirring there, not a Prussian
had reappeared, yet the men continued firing at the motionless trees.

Then, all at once, having raised his head, Maurice was surprised to
see Colonel de Vineuil on his big horse, only a few paces away; both
man and beast looking as impassive as though they were of stone. With
his face to the foe, the colonel remained there, whilst the bullets
rained around him. The entire regiment must now have fallen back to
this point, other companies were lying down in neighbouring fields,
and the fusillade was spreading right along the line. And, slightly in
the rear, Maurice also saw the colours, borne aloft by the strong arm
of the sub-lieutenant, who carried them. But they were no longer the
phantom colours which the morning fog had obscured. The gilded eagle
was shining radiantly under the fierce sunbeams, and vividly glared
the silk of the three colours, despite all the glorious wear and tear
of bygone battles. Against the bright blue sky, amid the wind of the
cannonade, the flag was waving like a flag of victory.

And now that they were fighting, why should not victory be theirs?
With desperate, maddened rage, Maurice and his comrades continued
burning their cartridges, shooting at the distant wood, where twigs and
branches were slowly and silently raining upon the ground.

Henriette was unable to sleep that night. She was worried by the
thought that her husband was at Bazeilles so near the German lines. In
vain did she repeat to herself the promise he had made her to return
at the first sign of danger; and in vain at each moment did she pause
in her work to listen, fancying she could hear him coming. Towards ten
o’clock, when it was time for her to go to bed, she opened the window,
and remained there, looking out, with her elbow resting on the sill.

The night was very dark, and down below she could scarcely distinguish
the pavement of the Rue des Voyards, a narrow, gloomy passage hemmed
in by old houses. The only light was a smoky, star-like lamp some
distance away, in the direction of the college. And from the depths
beneath there ascended a cellar-like, saltpetrous smell, the occasional
caterwauling of some angry tom, the heavy footfall of some soldier who
had lost his way. Moreover, unaccustomed noises resounded through Sedan
behind her, sudden gallops, continuous rumblings, which sped along like
threats of death. She listened, with her heart beating loudly, but
still and ever she failed to recognise the steps of her husband coming
round the corner.

Hours went by, and she became anxious concerning the distant glimmers
which she could espy along the country side, beyond the ramparts.
It was so dark that she had to picture the situation of the various
localities. That huge pale sheet down below was evidently the water
covering the flooded meadows. But what was that fire which she had
seen flare up and then die away, over yonder, doubtless on the Marfée
hill? And there were other fires flaming all along the hills, at
Pont-Maugis, Noyers, and Frénois, mysterious fires vacillating above
an innumerable multitude, swarming there in the darkness. But it was
especially the extraordinary sounds which she heard that made her
start and tremble–the tramping of a people on the march, the panting
of horses, the clang of arms, quite a chevachie passing along afar
off, in the depths of that dim inferno. Suddenly the booming of
a cannon resounded, one formidable, frightful report, followed by
perfect silence. It froze all the blood in her veins. What could it
be? A signal, no doubt–a signal that some movement had succeeded, an
announcement that they were ready over yonder, and that the sun might
now rise when he pleased.

At about two in the morning Henriette, still dressed, threw herself
upon her bed, neglecting even to close the window. She was quite
overcome with fatigue and anxiety. What could be the matter with her,
that she should now be shivering with fever like that–she, as a rule,
so calm, with so light a step that one heard her no more than if she
had not existed? She slept painfully, numbed as it were, but with a
persistent consciousness of the catastrophe that weighed so heavily
in the black atmosphere. All at once, in the midst of her uneasy
slumber, the voice of the cannon was heard again; dull, distant reports
resounded; and now the firing went on regularly, stubbornly, without
cessation. She sat up on her bed shuddering. Where was she? She no
longer recognised, no longer even saw the room, which seemed to be full
of dense smoke. Then all at once she understood that the mist rising
from the neighbouring river must have entered through the open window.
Outside, the guns were now sounding more frequently. She sprang off the
bed and hastened to the window to listen.

Four o’clock was striking from one of the steeples of Sedan. The
morning twilight was breaking, dim, undecided in the dun-coloured mist.
It was impossible to see anything; she could no longer distinguish
even the college buildings a few yards away. Where were they firing,
good heavens? Her first thought was for her brother, Maurice, for the
reports were so deadened by the fog that they seemed to her to come
from the north, right over the town. Then, however, it appeared certain
that the firing was in front of her, and she trembled for her husband.
Yes, the firing was undoubtedly at Bazeilles. For a few moments,
however, she felt reassured, for it seemed to her, every now and then,
as though the reports were, after all, coming from her right. Perhaps
they were fighting at Donchery, where the bridge, as she was aware,
had not been blown up. And now the most frightful perplexity took
possession of her–were they firing from Donchery or from Bazeilles?
It was impossible for her to tell, there was such a continuous buzzing
in her ears. At last her anguish of mind became so acute that she
felt unable to remain waiting there any longer. She quivered with an
unrestrainable desire to know the truth at once, and throwing a shawl
over her shoulders she went out in search of information.

She hesitated for a moment as she reached the Rue des Voyards down
below, for the town still seemed so black in the opaque fog that
enveloped it. The morning twilight had not yet reached the damp
pavement between the smoky old house-fronts. The only persons she
perceived as she went along the Rue au Beurre were two drunken Turcos
with a girl, inside a low tavern where a candle was flickering. She
had to turn into the Rue Maqua to find some animation–soldiers whose
shadows glided furtively along the footways: cowards, possibly, in
search of a hiding place; together with a big cuirassier who had lost
himself, and who knocked at each door he came to, searching for his
captain; and there was also a stream of civilians, perspiring with fear
at the idea that they had so long delayed their departure, and packing
themselves closely in carts, to see if there were still time to get to
Bouillon in Belgium, whither half of Sedan had been emigrating for two
days past.

Henriette was instinctively bound for the Sub-Prefecture, where she
felt certain she would gain some information; and, to avoid being
accosted, the idea occurred to her of cutting through the side
streets. But she was unable to pass along the Rue du Four and the Rue
des Laboureurs: they were blocked with cannon, endless rows of guns,
caissons, and ammunition waggons, which had been huddled together there
the day before, and seemed to have been forgotten. There was not even
a sentry mounting guard over them; and the sight of all that gloomy,
unutilised artillery, slumbering in abandonment in the depths of those
deserted by-ways, chilled Henriette’s heart. She now had to retrace her
steps by way of the Place du Collège towards the high street, where,
outside the Hôtel de l’Europe, she saw some orderlies holding horses,
and waiting for a party of field officers, whose voices resounded
loudly in the brightly illuminated dining-room. People were still more
plentiful on the Place du Rivage and the Place Turenne, where groups
of anxious townsfolk, women and children, were mingled with scared,
disbanded soldiers, going hither and thither; and she saw a general
rush swearing out of the Golden Cross Hotel and gallop off in a rage at
the risk of knocking everybody down. For a moment she seemed to think
of entering the town-hall; however she ultimately turned into the Rue
du Pont-de-Meuse to reach the Sub-Prefecture.

And never before in her eyes had Sedan presented such a tragic aspect
as that which it now wore in the dim, dirty morning twilight, full of
fog. The houses seemed to be dead; many of them were empty, abandoned
a couple of days since; and others, where fear-fraught insomnia could
be divined, remained hermetically closed. With all those streets
still half deserted, peopled merely with anxious shadows, traversed
by abrupt departures in the midst of all the laggard soldiers who had
been roaming about since the previous day, it was a morning to make
one fairly shiver. The light would gradually increase, and by-and-by
the town would be crowded, submerged by the impending disaster; but as
yet it was only half-past five, and so far one could barely hear the
cannonade, its booming being deadened by the lofty black houses.

Henriette was acquainted with the daughter of the door-portress at
the Sub-Prefecture. Rose was the girl’s name; she was a pretty,
delicate-looking, little blonde, and worked at Delaherche’s factory.
When Henriette stepped into the lodge the mother was not there, but
Rose greeted her with her accustomed amiability. ‘Oh, my dear lady, we
can no longer keep on our legs,’ said she; ‘mother has had to go and
lie down a little. Just fancy, what with all the comings and goings, we
have had to remain on foot all night!’

And without waiting for any questions she rattled on and on, feverishly
excited by the many extraordinary things that she had seen since the
day before. ‘The marshal has slept well,’ she said. ‘But that poor
Emperor! No, you can’t imagine how dreadfully he suffers! Last night
I went up to help give out some linen, and just as I was passing
through a room next to the dressing-room I heard some moaning–oh! such
dreadful moaning, as though somebody was dying. It made me tremble
all over; and it froze my heart when I learned it was the Emperor. It
appears he has a dreadful illness which makes him cry out like that. He
restrains himself when anybody’s there, but as soon as he’s alone it
masters him, and he calls out and complains–it’s enough to make your
hair stand on end.’

‘Do you know where they are fighting this morning?’ interrupted
Henriette.

Rose dismissed the question, however, with an impatient wave of the
hand. ‘So you understand,’ said she, ‘I wanted to know how he was, and
I went up four or five times during the night and listened, with my ear
to the partition–and each time that I went I heard him moaning and
complaining, and he didn’t cease, he didn’t close his eyes for a moment
all night long, I’m sure of it. How terrible, isn’t it, to suffer
like that with all the worry he has? For everything’s in confusion, a
regular scramble. They all seem to have lost their senses! The doors do
nothing but bang, fresh people are always coming. Some of them fly in
a rage, and others cry. The house is quite topsy-turvy; everything’s
being pillaged. I assure you I saw some officers drinking out of the
bottles last night, and some of them even went to bed in their big
boots. And after all it’s the Emperor who’s the best of the lot, and
who takes up the least room in the little corner where he hides himself
to moan.’

Then, as Henriette repeated her question, Rose replied: ‘Where they
are fighting? It’s at Bazeilles–they’ve been fighting there since
daybreak! A soldier on horseback came to tell the marshal, and he at
once went to the Emperor to let him know. The marshal has already been
gone some ten minutes or so, and I think the Emperor’s going to join
him, for they are dressing him upstairs. I was up there just now, and I
caught sight of his valet combing and curling him, and doing all sorts
of things to his face.’

Henriette, however, now had the information she desired, and therefore
turned to go: ‘Many thanks, Rose, I’m in a hurry,’ she said; whereupon
the young girl, complaisantly accompanying her as far as the street,
replied: ‘Oh, I’m quite at your service, Madame Weiss. I know that one
can tell _you_ everything.’

Henriette quickly returned to her home in the Rue des Voyards. She felt
convinced that she would now find her husband there; and, reflecting
that he would be alarmed by her absence, she hastened her steps. She
raised her head as she drew near to the house, almost fancying that
she could see him leaning out of the window, watching for her. But
no, there was nobody at the window, which was still wide open. And
when she had climbed the stairs, and given a glance into each of
the three rooms, she stopped short thunderstruck, her heart filled
with anguish at only finding there that same icy fog, deadening the
incessant commotion of the cannonade. They were still firing over
yonder, and, for a moment, she returned to the window. The morning mist
still reared its impenetrable veil, but now that she was informed she
immediately realised that the struggle was going on at Bazeilles; she
could distinguish the crackling of the mitrailleuses, and the crashing
volleys of the French batteries, replying to the distant volleys of
the German ones. It seemed, too, as though the detonations were coming
nearer; the battle was, every minute, growing more and more violent.

Why did not Weiss return? He had promised so positively that he
would come back at the first attack. Henriette’s disquietude was
increasing; she pictured obstacles: the road might be cut, perhaps the
shells already rendered a retreat too dangerous. And perhaps, too, an
irreparable misfortune had happened. But she dismissed that thought,
sustained by hope which urged her to action. For a moment she thought
of going to Bazeilles, of starting to meet her husband. Then she
hesitated, for they might cross one another on the way, and what would
become of her if she should miss him? And how alarmed he would be if
he came home and did not find her there! On the other hand, however,
bold as it was to think of going to Bazeilles at such a moment, it
seemed to her a natural course to follow–the proper course, indeed,
for an active woman like herself, who did whatever was requisite in
her household affairs without asking for instructions. And besides,
wherever her husband was, she ought to be there too; that was the long
and short of it.

All at once, however, possessed by a fresh idea, she left the window,
saying:

‘And Monsieur Delaherche–I must see.’

It had just occurred to her that the manufacturer also had spent the
night at Bazeilles, and that if he had returned he would be able to
give her some news of her husband. She swiftly went downstairs again,
and this time, instead of passing out by way of the Rue des Voyards,
she crossed the narrow yard of the house, and followed the passage
leading to the large factory buildings, whose monumental façade
overlooked the Rue Maqua. As she reached the old central garden, now
paved with stones, and retaining only a lawn girt round with superb
trees, gigantic elms of the last century, she was greatly surprised
at sight of a sentry mounting guard in front of the closed doors of a
coach-house. Then she suddenly remembered why he was there. She had
learnt the day before that the treasury chest of the Seventh Army Corps
had been deposited there, and she experienced a singular feeling at
thought of all that gold, millions of francs, so it was said, hidden
away in that coach-house, whilst they were already killing one another
over yonder.

However, at the moment when she was beginning to ascend the servant’s
staircase, on her way to Gilberte’s room, she met with a fresh
surprise, indeed so unforeseen an encounter that she hastily stepped
down the three stairs which she had already climbed, doubting whether
she would still dare to go and knock at the door above. A soldier, a
captain, had just tripped past her as lightly as a fleeting apparition,
and yet she had had sufficient time to recognise him, having met him
at Gilberte’s house at Charleville in the days when she–Gilberte–was
still Madame Maginot. Henriette took a few steps across the courtyard,
and looked up at the two lofty bedroom windows, the shutters of which
were still closed. Then, having come to a decision, she climbed the
stairs.

A friend since childhood, quite intimate with Gilberte, she
occasionally went to chat with her of a morning; and she intended,
on reaching the first landing, to knock, as was her wont, at the
dressing-room door. But she found that it had been left ajar, and she
merely had to push it open and cross the dressing-room to reach the
bedchamber, an extremely lofty apartment, from the ceiling of which
descended flowing curtains of red velvet, enveloping a large bedstead.
All was quiet in this room, the atmosphere of which was saturated with
a vague perfume of lilac; there was merely a sound of calm breathing,
and even that was so faint as to be scarcely audible.

‘Gilberte!’ called Henriette, gently. In the dim light that filtered
through the red curtains drawn before the windows she could see her
friend’s pretty round head, which had slipped from off the pillow and
was resting on one of her bare arms, whilst all around streamed her
beautiful black hair, which had become uncoiled. ‘Gilberte!’

The young woman moved, stretched herself, but did not at first open her
eyes. All at once, however, raising her head and recognising Henriette,
she exclaimed: ‘Why, is it you? What o’clock is it?’

When she learnt that six was striking she felt uncomfortable, and in
order to hide it began jesting, asking whether that were a proper time
to come and awaken people. Then, at the first question respecting her
husband, she exclaimed: ‘But he hasn’t come home. I hardly expect he
will be here before nine o’clock. Why should he come back so early?’

And as she still continued smiling in her sleepy torpor, Henriette had
to insist: ‘But I tell you that they have been fighting at Bazeilles
since daybreak, and as I am very anxious about my husband—-‘

‘Oh! my dear,’ exclaimed Gilberte, ‘there is no occasion for anxiety.
My husband is so prudent that he would have been here long ago had
there been the slightest danger. As long as you don’t see him you may
be quite easy.’

Henriette was impressed by this remark. Delaherche was certainly not
the man to expose himself unnecessarily. And, thereupon, feeling
reassured, she approached the windows, drew back the curtains, and
threw the shutters open. The ruddy light from the sky where the sun was
now beginning to show itself, gilding the fog, streamed into the room.
One of the windows remained slightly open, and now in this large, warm
chamber, so close and suffocating a moment previously, the cannon could
be distinctly heard.

Sitting up, with one elbow buried in the pillow, Gilberte gazed at the
sky with her pretty, expressionless eyes. Her chemise had slipped from
one of her shoulders, and her skin looked beautifully pink and delicate
under her scattered locks of black hair. ‘And so they are fighting,’
she murmured. ‘Fighting so early! How ridiculous it is to fight!’

Henriette, however, had just espied a pair of gloves, military gloves,
lying forgotten upon a side table, and at this significant discovery
she could not restrain a start. Then Gilberte flushed a deep crimson,
and drawing her friend to the side of the bed, in a confused, coaxing
way, she hid her face against her shoulder. ‘I felt you must know
it, that you must have seen him,’ she murmured; ‘you must not judge
me too severely, darling. I have known him so long. You remember, at
Charleville, I confessed to you—-.’ And then, lowering her voice,
she continued, with a touch of emotion through which there stole,
however, something like a little laugh: ‘You do not know how he spoke
to me when I met him again yesterday. And, only think, he has to fight
this morning, and perhaps he will be killed. What could I do?’ She
had simply wished that he might be happy before he went to risk his
life for his country on the battlefield. And such was her bird-like
giddiness, that it was this which somehow made her smile, despite all
her confusion. ‘Do you condemn me?’ she asked.

Henriette had listened to her with a grave expression on her face. Such
things surprised her; she could not understand them. Doubtless she
herself was different. Her heart was with her husband and her brother
over yonder, where the bullets were raining. How was it possible to
slumber peacefully, or think of passion, and smile and jest when loved
ones were in peril?

‘But your husband, my dear, and that young fellow too; does it not stir
your heart not to be with them?’ she said. ‘Think of it; they may be
brought back to you, dead, at any moment.’

With a wave of her beautiful bare arm Gilberte swiftly drove the
frightful vision away. ‘Good heavens! what’s that you say? How cruel of
you to spoil my morning for me like that. No, no, I won’t think of it;
it is too dreadful.’

Then even Henriette could not help smiling. She remembered their
childhood, when Gilberte had been sent for the benefit of her
health to a farm near Le Chêne Populeux; her father, Commander de
Vineuil–Director of Customs at Charleville since his retirement from
the army in consequence of his wounds–having felt the more anxious
about her when he had found her coughing, as he was haunted by the
remembrance of his young wife, carried off by phthisis a short time
previously. Gilberte was then only nine years old, but she was already
a turbulent coquette, fond of juvenile theatricals, invariably wishing
to play the part of the queen, draped in all the scraps of finery
she could find, and carefully preserving the silver paper wrapped
round her chocolate in order to make crowns and bracelets of it. And
she had remained much the same when in her twentieth year she had
become the wife of M. Maginot of Mézières, an inspector of the State
forests. Mézières, which is cramped up within its ramparts, was not
to her liking; she infinitely preferred the open, fête-enlivened
life of Charleville, and continued residing there. Her father was
no longer alive and she enjoyed complete liberty, her husband being
such a perfect cipher that she in nowise troubled herself about him.
Provincial malignity had bestowed many lovers upon her at that time,
but although, by reason of her father’s old connections and her
relationship to Colonel de Vineuil, she lived amid a perfect stream of
uniforms, she had really had but one weakness, and that for Captain
Beaudoin. She was not of a perverse nature; she was simply giddy, fond
of pleasure, and, if she had erred, it certainly seemed to be because
of the irresistible need she experienced to be beautiful and gay.

‘It was very wrong of you,’ said Henriette, at last, with a grave look.

She might have said more, but Gilberte with one of her pretty caressing
gestures closed her mouth. And there they remained, neither speaking
any further, but linked in an affectionate embrace albeit so dissimilar
from one another. They could hear the beating of each other’s hearts,
and might have realised how different was their language–the one the
heart of a woman who gave herself up to mirth, who wasted and frittered
away her life; the other a heart that was bound up in one unique
devotion, full of the great, mute heroism of a strong and lofty soul.

‘It’s true; they are fighting,’ Gilberte at last exclaimed. ‘I must
make haste and dress.’

The detonations seemed to have been growing louder since silence had
reigned in the room. Gilberte sprang out of bed, and, unwilling to
summon her maid, asked Henriette to help her. She put on a dress and a
pair of boots, so that she might be ready either to receive or to go
out, and she was hastily dressing her hair–indeed, had almost finished
doing so–when there came a knock at the door, and, on recognising the
voice of old Madame Delaherche, she ran to open it. ‘Certainly, mother
dear, you can come in,’ she said, and with her usual thoughtlessness
she ushered her mother-in-law into the room, forgetting that the gloves
were still lying on the side-table.

In vain did Henriette dart forward to take and throw them behind an
arm-chair. They must have been seen by the old lady, for she stopped
short as if she were stifling, as though unable to catch her breath.
But at last, after glancing around the room, she said: ‘So Madame Weiss
came up to wake you. Were you able to sleep, then?’

She had evidently not come for the mere purpose of talking in that
strain. Ah! that unfortunate second marriage which her son had insisted
upon, despite all her remonstrances, which he had contracted after
twenty years of frigid matrimony with a skinny, sulky wife! During
all that time he had been so sensible and reasonable, and then, all
at once, at fifty years of age, he had been carried away by quite a
youthful desire for that pretty widow, so frivolous and gay. She, the
mother, had vowed that she would watch over the present, and now
here was the past coming back again! But ought she to speak out? Her
presence in the house nowadays was like a silent blame, and she almost
always remained in her own room occupied with her devotions. This time,
however, the wrong was so serious that she resolved to warn her son.

‘You know that Jules has not come back?’ said Gilberte.

The old lady nodded. Since the beginning of the cannonade she had felt
anxious, and had been watching for her son’s return. She was, however,
a brave mother. And now she remembered for what reason she had come
upstairs. ‘Your uncle, the colonel,’ she said to her daughter-in-law,
‘has sent us Major Bouroche with a note in pencil, asking if we will
allow an ambulance to be installed here. He knows that we have plenty
of room in the factory, and I have already placed the drying room and
the courtyard at the gentlemen’s disposal. Only, you ought to come
down.’

‘Oh! at once, at once!’ said Henriette, stepping forward, ‘we will
help.’

Gilberte herself gave signs of emotion, and became quite enraptured
with the idea of playing the nurse, which to her was a novel part. She
barely took time to fasten a strip of lace over her hair, and the three
women thereupon went down.

Scarcely had they reached the spacious porch, when, the gate being
open, they saw that a crowd had assembled in the street. A low vehicle
was slowly approaching, a kind of tilted cart drawn by one horse,
which a lieutenant of Zouaves was leading. They at once thought that a
wounded man was being brought to them.

‘Yes, yes, it’s here; come in!’

But they learned that they were mistaken. The wounded man lying in the
cart was Marshal MacMahon, whose left hip had been half carried away by
a splinter of a shell, and who, after a first dressing at a gardener’s
little house, was now being taken to the Sub-Prefecture. His head was
bare, he was half undressed, and the gold embroidery of his uniform
was soiled with dust and blood. He did not speak, but he had raised
his head and was glancing vaguely around him. On perceiving the three
women who stood there painfully impressed, their hands clasped at sight
of the great misfortune that was passing–the whole army struck in the
person of its commander at the very first shells fired by the foe–he
made a slight inclination of the head, smiling feebly in a paternal
way. Some of the bystanders respectfully uncovered, whilst others
bustled about, relating that General Ducrot had just been appointed
commander-in-chief. It was now half-past seven o’clock.

‘And the Emperor?’ asked Henriette of a bookseller who was standing at
his door near by.

‘He passed about an hour ago. I followed him, and saw him go off by the
Balan gate. There’s a report that a cannon ball has carried off his
head.’

At this, however, a grocer over the way became quite indignant. ‘It’s
all a pack of lies,’ said he. ‘Only brave men come to any harm.’

The cart conveying the marshal was now drawing near to the Place du
Collège, where it became lost to view amid a swelling crowd, through
which the most extraordinary rumours from the battlefield were already
circulating. The fog was at last dispersing, and the streets were
filling with sunlight.

‘Now, ladies, it isn’t outside, but here that you are wanted,’ a gruff
voice suddenly called from the courtyard.

They all three went in again, and found themselves in presence of Major
Bouroche, who had already flung his uniform in a corner and donned a
large white apron. Above all this whiteness, as yet unspotted, that
huge head of his, covered with coarse bristling hair, that lion-like
countenance was glowing with haste and energy. And so terrible did he
seem to them, that they at once became his slaves, obedient to his beck
and call, and bustling about to satisfy him.

‘We have nothing,’ said he; ‘give me some linen. Try and find me some
more mattresses. Show my men where the pump is.’ And thereupon they ran
hither and thither, and multiplied themselves as though they were his
servants.

It was a capital idea to select the factory for an ambulance. Merely
in the drying room, a vast hall with large windows, there was ample
space to make up a hundred beds, and an adjoining shed would suit
remarkably well as an operating room. A long table had just been placed
in it; the pump was only a few steps off, and the men who were but
slightly wounded could wait on the lawn near by. And, moreover, it was
all so very pleasant with those beautiful old elms, which spread such
delightful shade around.

Bouroche had preferred to establish his quarters inside Sedan
immediately; for he foresaw the massacre, the fearful onslaught which
would eventually throw the troops into the town. He had therefore
contented himself with leaving a couple of field ambulances with the
Seventh Corps in the rear of Floing; and the injured men, after having
their wounds summarily dressed there, were to be sent on to him.
All the bearer-squads had remained with the troops for the purpose
of picking up the wounded on the field, and the entire transport
_matériel_–stretchers, waggons, vans–was with them. And, on the
other hand, excepting a couple of assistant surgeons, whom he had left
in charge of the field-ambulances, Bouroche had brought with him to
the factory his entire medical staff, two second-class surgeons, and
three under-assistant surgeons, who would no doubt suffice for the
operations that might have to be performed. He also had with him three
apothecaries and a dozen infirmary attendants.

However, he did not cease fuming, for he could never do anything
otherwise than in a passionate way: ‘What the deuce are you up to? Just
place those mattresses closer together! We’ll lay some straw in that
corner if necessary!’ he shouted.

The cannon was growling, and he knew very well that work–waggon-loads
of mangled, bleeding flesh–would be arriving at the factory in a few
moments; so with violent haste he got everything ready in the large
hall which as yet was empty. Then, other preparations had to be made
under the shed, the pharmaceutical and dressing chests were opened
and set out on a plank, with packets of lint, rollers, compresses,
linen-cloths, and fracture bandages; whilst on another plank, beside
a large pot of cerate and a bottle of chloroform, the cases of bright
steel instruments were spread out–the probes, forceps, catlings,
scissors, saws, quite an arsenal of everything pointed and cutting,
everything that searches, opens, gashes, slices, and lops off. There
was, however, a lack of basins.

‘You must have some pans or pails, or earthenware pots,’ said Bouroche;
‘give us whatever you like. Of course we are not going to smear
ourselves with blood up to our eyes. And some sponges, too; try and get
me some sponges.’

Old Madame Delaherche went off at once, and returned with three
servant girls carrying all the pans she could find. Gilberte, standing
meanwhile before the instrument cases, signed to Henriette to approach,
and, with a faint shudder, showed her the terrific arsenal. And then
they remained standing there in silence, holding each other by the
hand, their grasp pregnant with all the vague terror and anxious pity
that agitated them.

‘Ah! my dear, just think of having a leg or an arm cut off!’

‘Poor fellows!’

Bouroche had just placed a mattress on the long table in the shed,
and was covering it with some oilcloth, when the stamping of horses
was heard under the porch. It was the first ambulance waggon entering
the courtyard. The ten men, seated face to face in the vehicle, were,
however, only slightly wounded: a few who were injured in the head had
their foreheads bandaged, whilst each of the others had an arm in a
sling. They alighted with a little assistance, and the inspection at
once began.

Whilst Henriette was gently helping a young fellow, with a bullet in
his shoulder, to take off his capote, an operation which drew from
him many cries of pain, she noticed the number of his regiment on his
collar. ‘Why, you belong to the 106th,’ said she; ‘are you in Captain
Beaudoin’s company?’

No, he was in Captain Ravaud’s, he replied; but all the same he knew
Corporal Jean Macquart, and he felt certain that the latter’s squad had
not yet taken part in the fighting. This information, vague as it was,
sufficed to make the young woman quite cheerful: her brother was alive
and she would feel altogether at her ease as soon as she had kissed her
husband, whose arrival she was still every minute expecting.

At this moment, however, as she raised her head she was thunderstruck
to see Delaherche standing in a group a few paces off, engaged in
recounting all the terrible dangers through which he had just passed on
his way back from Bazeilles. How did he happen to be there? She had not
seen him come in.

‘Isn’t my husband with you?’ she asked.

Delaherche, however, whom his mother and wife were complaisantly
questioning, was in no hurry to answer her. ‘Wait a bit,’ said he, and
returning to his narrative he continued: ‘I was nearly killed a score
of times between Bazeilles and Balan. There was a perfect hurricane of
bullets and shells. And I met the Emperor–oh! he was very brave–and
then I ran from Balan here—-‘

‘My husband?’ asked Henriette, shaking his arm.

‘Weiss? Why, he stopped there.’

‘Stopped there!’

‘Yes; he picked up a dead soldier’s chassepot, and he’s fighting!’

‘Fighting, how’s that?’

‘Oh! he was quite mad! He wouldn’t come, though I asked him over and
over again to do so, and at last, of course, I left him—-‘

Henriette was gazing at Delaherche with fixed, dilated eyes. A pause
ensued, during which she quietly made up her mind. ‘Then I’m going
there,’ she said.

Going there, indeed! But it was impossible, senseless. And again did
Delaherche talk of the bullets and shells that were sweeping the road.
Gilberte, too, again took hold of her hands, this time to detain her;
whilst old Madame Delaherche did all she could to show her how blindly
rash her project was. But with that unpretending, gentle air of hers,
she repeated: ‘It is of no use talking to me; I am going.’

And she became obstinate, and would take no advice, accept nothing
but the strip of black lace that covered Gilberte’s head. Hoping
that he might still convince her of her folly, Delaherche ended by
declaring that he would accompany her at least as far as the Balan
gate. However, he had just caught sight of the sentry who, amid all the
confusion occasioned by the establishment of the ambulance, had not
ceased marching slowly up and down in front of the coach-house, where
the treasure chest of the Seventh Corps was deposited; and suddenly
remembering it, and feeling anxious for its safety, Delaherche went to
glance at the coach-house door by way of making sure that the millions
were still there. Henriette, meanwhile, turned towards the porch.

‘Wait for me!’ exclaimed the manufacturer. ‘Upon my word you are every
bit as mad as your husband!’

It so happened that another ambulance cart was just then arriving,
and they had to step aside to let it pass. It was a smaller vehicle
than the first, on two wheels only, and contained a couple of men both
severely wounded and lying on sacking. The first, who was taken out
with every kind of precaution, appeared to be one mass of bleeding
flesh; one of his hands was shattered, and his side had been ripped
open by a splinter of a shell. The other had his right leg crushed.
He was immediately laid up on the oilcloth, covering the mattress on
the long table, and Bouroche began to perform his first operation,
whilst his assistants and the attendants hurried hither and thither.
Meanwhile, old Madame Delaherche and Gilberte sat on the lawn, busily
rolling linen bands.

Delaherche overtook Henriette just outside. ‘Now surely, my dear Madame
Weiss,’ said he, ‘you are not going to do anything so rash–how can you
possibly join Weiss over there? Besides, he can’t be there now, he must
have come away; no doubt he’s returning through the fields. I assure
you you cannot possibly get to Bazeilles.’

She did not listen to him, however; she hastened her steps and turned
into the Rue du Ménil to reach the Balan gate. It was nearly nine
o’clock, and nothing in the aspect of Sedan now suggested that black
shivering of a few hours previously, that lonesome, groping awakening
amid the dense fog. At present an oppressive sun clearly outlined the
shadows cast by the houses, and the paved streets were obstructed by an
anxious crowd through which estafettes were continually galloping. The
townsfolk clustered more particularly around the few unarmed soldiers
who had already come in from the battle, some of them slightly wounded,
others shouting and gesticulating, in an extraordinary state of nervous
excitement. And yet the town would almost have worn its everyday aspect
had it not been for the closed shops, the lifeless house-fronts, where
not a shutter was opened; and had it not been also for the cannonade,
that incessant cannonade, that shook every stone, the roadways, the
walls, and even the slates of the house-roofs.

A most unpleasant conflict was going on in the mind of Delaherche.
On the one hand was his duty as a brave man, which required that he
should not leave Henriette; on the other, his terror at the thought
of going back to Bazeilles, through the shells. All at once, just as
they were reaching the Balan gate, they were separated by a stream of
mounted officers, returning from the fight. There was quite a crush of
townsfolk near this gate, waiting for news; and in vain did Delaherche
run hither and thither, looking for the young woman; she was gone,
she must have already passed the rampart, and was doubtless hurrying
along the road. He did not allow his zeal to take him any farther, but
suddenly caught himself exclaiming: ‘Ah! well, so much the worse; it’s
too stupid!’

And then he began strolling through Sedan, like an inquisitive
_bourgeois_ bent on missing none of the sights, though to tell the
truth he was now labouring under increasing disquietude. What would
be the end of it all? Would not the town suffer a great deal if the
army were beaten? Such were the questions he put to himself; but the
answers remained obscure, being almost wholly dependent on the course
that events might take. Nevertheless, he began to feel very anxious
about his factory, his house property in the Rue Maqua, whence, by the
way, he had been careful to remove all his securities, burying them in
a safe place. At last he repaired to the town-hall, where, finding the
municipal council assembled _en permanence_, he lingered a long while,
without, however, learning anything fresh, except that the battle was
progressing unfavourably. The army no longer knew whom to obey–drawn
back as it had been by General Ducrot during the two hours when he
had exercised the chief command, and suddenly thrown forward again by
General de Wimpffen, who had succeeded him; and these incomprehensible
veerings, these positions which had to be reconquered after being
abandoned, the utter absence of any plan, any energetic direction, all
combined to precipitate the disaster.

Delaherche next went as far as the Sub-Prefecture to ascertain whether
the Emperor had returned. But here they could only give him news of
Marshal MacMahon, who, having had his wound, which was of but little
gravity, dressed by a surgeon, was now lying quietly in bed. At about
eleven o’clock, however, whilst Delaherche was again roaming the
streets, he was stopped for a moment in the Grande Rue, just in front
of the Hôtel de l’Europe, by a cortège of dusty horsemen, who were
slowly walking their dejected steeds. And at the head of the party he
recognised the Emperor, who was now returning to his quarters after
spending four hours on the battlefield. Decidedly, death had not
been willing to take him. The perspiration caused by the anguish of
that long ride through the defeat, had made the paint trickle from
his cheeks, and softened the wax of his moustaches, which were now
drooping low, whilst his cadaverous countenance expressed the painful
stupor of mortal agony. An officer, who alighted at the hotel, began
to explain to a cluster of townsfolk that they had ridden all along
the little valley from La Moncelle to Givonne, among the troops of
the First Corps, whom the Saxons had thrown back on to the right bank
of the stream; and they had returned by way of the hollow road of the
Fond-de-Givonne, which was already so obstructed that had the Emperor
desired to proceed once more to the front, he could only have done so
with very great difficulty. Besides, what would have been the good of
it?

Whilst Delaherche was listening to these particulars a violent
explosion shook the entire neighbourhood. A shell had just carried
away a chimney in the Rue Ste.-Barbe near the Keep. There was quite
a _sauve-qui-peut_, and women were heard shrieking. For his own part
he had drawn close to a wall, when all at once another detonation
shattered the window panes of a neighbouring house. Matters were
becoming terrible if the enemy were bombarding Sedan, and he hastened
as fast as he could to the Rue Maqua, seized with so pressing a desire
to ascertain the truth that, without pausing for a moment, he darted up
the stairs to a terrace on the roof, whence he could overlook the town
and its environs.

He almost immediately felt somewhat reassured. The fight was being
waged over the housetops. The German batteries of La Marfée and Frénois
were sweeping the plateau of Algeria beyond the town. For a moment
Delaherche even became quite interested in watching the flight of the
shells, the long curved sweep of light smoke which they left above
Sedan, like a slender track of grey feathers scattered by invisible
birds. At first it seemed to him evident that the few shells which had
damaged some of the roofs around him were simply stray projectiles.
The town was not as yet being bombarded. On a more careful inspection,
however, it occurred to him that these shells must have been aimed in
reply to the infrequent shots fired by the guns of Sedan itself. He
then turned round and began to examine the citadel on the northern
side–a formidable, complicated mass of fortifications, huge pieces
of blackened wall, green patches of glacis, a swarming of geometrical
bastions, prominent among which were the threatening angles of three
gigantic horn-works, Les Ecossais, Le Grand Jardin, and La Rochette;
whilst on the west, like a Cyclopean prolongation of the defences,
came the fort of Nassau, followed by that of the Palatinate, above
the suburb of Le Ménil. This survey left him a melancholy impression,
however. All these works were enormous, yet how child-like! Of what
possible use were they nowadays, when artillery could so easily send
projectiles flying from one horizon to the other? Moreover, they were
not armed, they had neither the guns, nor the ammunition, nor the
men that were needed to turn them to account. Barely three weeks had
elapsed since the Governor had begun to organise a national guard,
formed of volunteer citizens, for the purpose of working the few guns
that were in a serviceable condition. It thus happened that three
cannon were firing from the Palatinate fort, and perhaps half a dozen
from the Paris gate. As, however, the ammunition was limited to seven
or eight charges per gun, it was necessary to husband it, so that a
shot was only fired every half-hour or so, and then simply for honour’s
sake; for the projectiles did not carry the required distance, but fell
in the meadows just in front, for which reason the enemy’s disdainful
batteries merely replied at long intervals, and as though out of
charity.

It was those batteries of the foe that interested Delaherche. His keen
eyes were exploring the slopes of the Marfée hill, when he suddenly
remembered that he had a telescope which, by way of amusement, he had
in former times often pointed on the environs from that very terrace.
He fetched it and set it in position, and whilst he was taking his
bearings, slowly moving the instrument so that the fields, trees, and
houses passed in turn before him, his eyes fell on the same cluster of
uniforms, grouped at the corner of a pine wood, above the great battery
of Frénois, that Weiss had faintly espied from Bazeilles. Delaherche,
however, thanks to the magnifying power of his telescope could have
counted the officers of this staff, so plainly did he see them. Some
were reclining on the grass, others stood up, grouped together, and
in advance of them was one man, all by himself, lean and slim, in a
uniform free from all showiness, but whom he instinctively divined to
be the master. It was, indeed, the King of Prussia, barely half an inch
high, like one of those diminutive tin soldiers that children play
with. Delaherche only became quite certain of it later on; still, from
that moment he scarcely took his eyes off that tiny little fellow whose
face, the size of a pin’s head, appeared simply like a pale spot under
the vast blue heavens.

It was not yet noon; the King was verifying the mathematical,
inexorable march of his armies since nine o’clock. They were ever
pressing onward and onward, following the routes traced out for them,
completing the circle, and raising, step by step, around Sedan their
wall of men and iron. That on the left, which had proceeded by way
of the level plain of Donchery, was still debouching from the defile
of St. Albert, passing beyond St. Menges, and beginning to reach
Fleigneux; and in the rear of his Eleventh Corps, hotly grappling with
General Douay’s troops, the King could distinctly see the stealthy
advance of his Fifth Corps, which, under cover of the woods, was making
for the Calvary of Illy. And meantime batteries were being added to
batteries, the line of thundering guns was incessantly being prolonged,
and the entire horizon was gradually becoming one belt of flames. The
army on the right hand henceforth occupied the whole valley of the
Givonne; the Twelfth German Corps had seized La Moncelle, and the Guard
had just passed through Daigny, and was already ascending the banks of
the stream, also marching upon the Calvary of Illy, after compelling
General Ducrot to fall back behind the wood of La Garenne. One more
effort and the Crown Princes of Prussia and Saxony would join hands
over yonder, amid those bare fields on the very verge of the forest of
the Ardennes. South of Sedan one could no longer perceive Bazeilles; it
had disappeared in the smoke of the burning houses, in the dun-coloured
dust of a furious struggle.

And the King was tranquilly looking on, waiting as he had waited since
the early morning. One, two, perhaps three hours must still elapse:
it was merely a question of time, one wheel was impelling another,
the pounding machine was at work, and would complete its task. The
battlefield was now contracting under the infinite expanse of sunny
sky; all the furious _mêlée_ of black specks was tumbling and settling
closer and closer around Sedan. In the town some window panes were
aglow; it seemed as though a house were burning on the left, near the
Faubourg de la Cassine. Far around, however, in the once more deserted
fields, towards Donchery and towards Carignan, there was a warm,
luminous peacefulness that stretched in the powerful noontide glow over
the clear waters of the Meuse, over the trees so pleased with life, the
large fertile expanses of arable land, and the broad emerald meadows.

The King, in a few words, had just asked for some information. He
wished to know every move that was made, hold in his hand, as it were,
the human dust that he commanded on that colossal chessboard. On his
right a flight of swallows, frightened by the cannonade, rose whirling,
ascended to a great height, and vanished southward.

Henriette was at first able to walk rapidly along the road leading to
Balan. It was barely more than nine o’clock, and for some distance the
broad paved highway, edged with houses and gardens, was still free;
though towards the village it was becoming more and more obstructed
by the flight of the inhabitants and the movements of the troops. At
each fresh stream of the crowd that she encountered, she pressed close
against the walls, or glided hither and thither, invariably contriving
to pass on, no matter what obstacles there might be. And slight of
figure as she was, unobtrusive, too, in her dark dress, with her
beautiful fair hair and her little pale face half-hidden by Gilberte’s
black lace _fichu_, she escaped the notice of those she met; and
nothing was able to stay her light and silent steps.

At Balan, however, she found the road barred by a regiment of Marine
Infantry–a compact mass of men who were waiting for orders, under the
shelter of some large trees which hid them from the enemy. She rose
on tip-toe, but the column was of such length that she could not even
see the end of it. Nevertheless, she tried to slip by, seeking to make
herself even smaller than she was. Elbows pushed her back, however; the
butt-ends of guns digged her in the sides, and when she had taken a
score of steps, loud shouts and protests rose up around her. A captain
turned his head and angrily demanded: ‘Here! woman, are you mad? Where
are you going?’

‘I am going to Bazeilles.’

‘What! to Bazeilles?’

A general roar of laughter ensued. The men pointed her out to one
another, and jested. The captain, whom her answer had also enlivened,
exclaimed: ‘Well, if you are going to Bazeilles you ought to take us
with you, little one! We were there just now, and I hope we are going
to return there. But I warn you that it’s warm.’

‘I am going to Bazeilles to join my husband,’ declared Henriette in a
gentle voice, her pale blue eyes retaining their expression of quiet
decision.

At this the men ceased laughing; and an old sergeant extricated her
from the ranks and compelled her to retrace her steps. ‘You can see
very well, my poor child,’ said he, ‘that it is impossible for you to
pass. It isn’t a woman’s place to be at Bazeilles just now. You’ll find
your husband again later on. Come, be reasonable!’

She had to give way, and step back to the rear of the column; and
there she remained standing, at each minute rising upon tip-toe to
look along the road; for she was stubbornly bent upon resuming her
journey as soon as this became possible. From the talk around her she
derived some knowledge of the situation. Several officers were bitterly
complaining of the orders to retreat which had caused them to abandon
Bazeilles at a quarter-past eight that morning, when General Ducrot on
succeeding the marshal had resolved to concentrate the entire army upon
the plateau of Illy. The worst was that the First Corps in surrendering
the valley of the Givonne to the Germans, had fallen back too soon, so
that the Twelfth Corps, already hotly attacked in front, had also been
overlapped on the left. And, now that General de Wimpffen had succeeded
General Ducrot, the original plan was again in the ascendant, and
orders were coming to reconquer Bazeilles at any cost, and to throw the
Bavarians into the Meuse. Was it not really idiotic, however, that they
should have had to abandon this position, and now have to reconquer it
when it was in possession of the enemy? They were quite willing to give
their lives, but not for the mere fun of doing so.

All at once there was a great rush of men and horses, and General de
Wimpffen galloped up, erect in his stirrups, his face aglow and his
voice greatly excited as he shouted: ‘We cannot fall back, my lads;
it would be the end of everything. If we must retreat we will retire
on Carignan and not on Mézières. But we will win! You beat them this
morning, and you will beat them again!’

Then away he galloped, going off by a road that ascended towards
La Moncelle; and the rumour spread that he had just had a violent
discussion with General Ducrot, during which each had upheld his own
plan and attacked the other’s; one declaring that a retreat on Mézières
had been an impossibility since the night before, whilst the other
predicted that if they did not now retire to the plateau of Illy the
entire army would be surrounded before evening. And they also accused
one another of knowing neither the district nor the real state of the
troops. The worst was, that both of them were in the right.

For a moment or so, pressing as was Henriette’s desire to go forward,
her attention had been diverted from her purpose. She had just
recognised some fugitives from Bazeilles stranded by the roadside–a
family of poor weavers, the husband, the wife and their three girls,
the eldest of whom was only nine years old. They were so overcome, so
utterly distracted by weariness and despair, that they had been able to
go no farther, but had sunk down against a wall. ‘Ah! my dear lady,’
said the woman to Henriette, ‘we have nothing left. Our house, you
know, was on the Place de l’Eglise. A shell set it on fire, and I don’t
know how the children and we two didn’t leave our lives there.’

At this remembrance the three little girls again began sobbing and
shrieking, whilst the mother, with the gestures of one deranged, gave a
few particulars of their disaster: ‘I saw the loom burn like a faggot
of dry wood,’ said she; ‘the bed, the furniture flamed up faster than
straw–and there was the clock too; yes, the clock which I didn’t even
have time to carry away with me.’

‘Thunder!’ swore the man, with his eyes full of big tear-drops, ‘what
on earth will become of us?’

To tranquillise them, Henriette replied in a voice that quivered
slightly: ‘At all events, you are together; neither of you has come to
any harm, and you have your little girls with you too. You must not
complain.’

Then she began to question them, anxious to know what was taking place
at Bazeilles, whether they had seen her husband there, and what had
been the condition of her house at the time they came away. In their
shivering fright, however, they gave contradictory answers. No, they
had not seen Monsieur Weiss. But at this, one of the little girls
declared that she _had_ seen him; he was lying on the footway, said
she, with a big hole in his head. Her father thereupon gave her a smack
to teach her not to tell such stories, for a story it was, undoubtedly.
As for the house, that must have been standing when they came away; in
fact, they now remembered noticing, as they passed it, that the door
and the windows were all carefully closed, as if nobody were there.
Besides, at that time, the Bavarians were only in possession of the
Place de l’Eglise, and they had to conquer the village, street by
street, house by house. Since then, however, they must have made no
little progress, and at the present time, no doubt, all Bazeilles was
on fire.[27] And the wretched couple continued talking of all these
things with fumbling gestures of fear, evoking the whole frightful
vision of flaming roofs, flowing blood, and corpses strewing the ground.

‘And my husband?’ repeated Henriette.

They no longer answered her, however; they were sobbing, with their
hands before their eyes. And she remained there consumed by atrocious
anxiety, but erect and without weakening, merely a faint quiver causing
her lips to tremble. What ought she to believe? In vain did she repeat
that the child must have been mistaken; still and ever she seemed to
see her husband lying across the road with a bullet in his head. Then,
too, she was disquieted on thinking of the house where, so it seemed,
every shutter was closed. Why was that? Was he no longer there? All
at once a conviction that he was dead froze her heart to the core.
Perhaps, though, he was only wounded, and at this thought her urgent
longing to go there and be with him seized hold of her once more, and
so imperiously that she would again have tried to make her way through
the ranks of the soldiers had not the bugles at that moment sounded the
advance.

Many of the young fellows gathered together here had come from Toulon,
Rochefort, or Brest, barely drilled, without ever having fired a shot
in their lives, and yet they had been fighting since the morning as
bravely and as stoutly as veterans. They, who had marched so badly
from Rheims to Mouzon, weighed down by the unwonted task, were proving
themselves the best disciplined, the most fraternally united of all
the troops–linked together in presence of the enemy by a solid bond
of duty and abnegation. The bugles had merely to sound and they were
returning to the fight, marching once more to the attack despite all
the anger that swelled their veins. Thrice had they been promised the
support of a division which did not come, and they felt that they were
being abandoned, sacrificed. To send them back to Bazeilles, like this,
after making them evacuate the village, was equivalent indeed to asking
each one of them for his life. And they all knew it, and they all gave
their lives without a thought of revolting. The ranks closed up, and
they advanced beyond the trees that screened them, to find themselves
once more among the bullets and the shells.

Henriette gave a deep sigh of relief. So at last they were marching!
She followed, hoping to reach Bazeilles in company with the troops, and
quite prepared to run, should they, on their side, do so. But they had
already halted again. The enemy’s projectiles were now fairly raining
around them, and to reoccupy Bazeilles each yard of the road had to
be conquered, the lanes, houses, and gardens recaptured both on the
right and on the left. The men in the first ranks had opened fire, and
they now only advanced by fits and starts, long minutes being consumed
in overcoming the slightest obstacles. And Henriette soon realised
that she would never get there if she continued remaining in the rear
waiting for victory. So she made up her mind, and threw herself between
two hedges on the right hand, taking a path that descended towards the
meadows.

Her project now was to get to Bazeilles by way of those vast
pasture-lands skirting the Meuse. But she had no very distinct idea how
she should manage this, and all at once she found her way barred by a
little sea of still water. It was the inundation, the defensive lake
formed by flooding the low ground, which she had altogether forgotten.
For a moment she thought of retracing her steps; then, skirting the
edge of the water, at the risk of leaving her shoes in the mud, she
continued on her way through the drenched grass, in which she sank up
to her ankles. This was practicable for a hundred yards or so; but she
was then confronted by a garden wall. The ground descended at this
spot, and the water washing the wall was quite six feet in depth. So
it was impossible to pass that way. She clenched her little fists, and
had to put forth all her strength to bear up against this crushing
disappointment and refrain from bursting into tears. However, when
the first shock was over, she skirted the inclosure and found a lane
running along between some scattered houses. And she now thought
herself saved, for she was acquainted with that labyrinth, those bits
of tangled paths whose skein, perplexing though it was, ended at last
at the village.

So far there had been no shells to impede her progress, but all at
once, with her blood curdling and her face very pale, she stopped short
amid the deafening thunderclap of a frightful explosion, the blast of
which enveloped her. A projectile had just burst a few yards ahead. She
looked round and examined the heights on the left bank of the river,
where the smoke of the German batteries was ascending to the sky; then
realising whence the shell had come, she once more started off, with
her eyes fixed upon the horizon, watching for the projectiles so as to
avoid them. Despite the mad temerity of her journey she retained great
_sang-froid_, all the brave tranquillity that her little housewife’s
soul was capable of showing. Her desire was to escape death, to find
her husband, and bring him away that they might yet live together and
be happy. The shells were now falling without a pause, and she glided
along close to the walls, threw herself behind border-stones, and took
advantage of every nook that afforded the slightest shelter. But at
last there came an open space, a stretch of broken-up road which was
already covered with splinters; and she was waiting at the corner of
a shed, when all at once, level with the ground, she espied a child’s
inquisitive face peeping out of a hole. It was a little boy some
ten years old, barefooted, and wearing simply a shirt and a pair of
tattered trousers–some ragamuffin of the roads whom the battle was
greatly amusing. His narrow black eyes were sparkling with delight, and
at each detonation he gleefully exclaimed: ‘Oh! how funny they are!
Don’t move, there’s another one coming! Boum! Didn’t that one make a
row? Don’t move! Don’t move!’ And, for his own part, he would dive into
his hole, reappear raising his wren-like head, and then dive again each
time a projectile fell.[28]

Henriette now remarked that the shells were coming from the Liry hill,
and that the batteries of Pont-Maugis and Noyers were firing only on
Balan. She could distinctly perceive the smoke of each discharge, and
almost immediately afterwards she heard the hissing of the shell,
followed by the detonation. A short pause must have occurred in the
firing, for at last she could only see some light vapour which was
slowly dispersing.

‘They must be drinking a glass,’ said the youngster; ‘make haste, give
me your hand; we’ll get off.’

He took her hand and forced her to follow him, and bending low they
both galloped, side by side, across the open space. At its farther
extremity, as they were throwing themselves for shelter behind a rick,
they glanced round and saw another shell arrive, which fell right upon
the shed, at the very spot where they had been waiting a moment before.
The crash was frightful, the shed itself fell in a heap to the ground.

At this spectacle the urchin danced with senseless delight, considering
it extremely funny. ‘Bravo! there’s a smash! All the same, it was time
we crossed!’

And now Henriette, for a second time, came upon impassable
obstacles–garden walls with never a lane between them. Her little
companion, however, kept on laughing, and declared that it was easy
enough to pass if one chose to do so. Climbing on to the coping of a
wall he assisted her over, and they jumped down into a kitchen garden
among beds of beans and peas. There were walls all round, and in order
to get out again they had to pass through a gardener’s low house.
Whistling and swinging his arms, the lad went on ahead, showing no
surprise at anything he saw. He opened a door, found himself in a room,
and made his way into another one, where an old woman, probably the
only living creature who had remained in the place, was standing near a
table with a look of stupor. She gazed at these two strangers who were
thus passing through her house; but she did not say a word to them, nor
did they speak to her. Once out of the house they found themselves in a
lane which for a moment they were able to follow. Then, however, came
other obstacles, and for half a mile or more, according to the chances
of the road they contrived to make for themselves, it was frequently
necessary to climb over walls or creep through gaps in hedges, and
pass out by cart-shed doors, or ground-floor windows, by way of taking
a short cut. They could hear dogs howling, and once they were almost
knocked down by a cow, which was fleeing at a mad gallop. However, they
must have been getting nigh, for a smell of fire was wafted to them,
and large stretches of ruddy smoke were every minute veiling the sun,
like light, wavy fragments of crape.

All at once, however, the urchin stopped, and, confronting Henriette,
inquired: ‘I say, Madame, pray where are you going like that?’

‘You can see very well. I’m going to Bazeilles.’

He whistled and burst into a shrill laugh, like a scapegrace playing
the truant from school, and having a fine time of it: ‘To Bazeilles!
Oh! that’s not my direction. I’m going another way. Good day.’

And thereupon he turned on his heels and went off as he had come, and
she never knew where he had sprung from or whither he went. She had
found him in a hole, and she lost sight of him round a corner, and
never set eyes upon him again.

Henriette experienced a singular sensation of fear when she once more
found herself alone. No doubt that puny child had scarcely been of any
protection, but his chatter had diverted her thoughts. And now she,
who was naturally so brave, had begun to tremble. The shells were no
longer falling, the Germans had ceased firing on Bazeilles, no doubt
for fear of killing their own men, who were masters of the village.
But for a few minutes already she had heard the whistling of bullets,
that blue-bottle kind of buzzing which she had been told about, and
recognised. So confused were all the noises of the rageful fight
afar off, so violent was the universal clamour, that she could not
distinguish the crackling of the fusillade. All at once, whilst she
was turning the corner of a house, a dull thud resounding near her ear
abruptly arrested her steps. A bullet had chipped some plaster from
the corner of the house-front, and she turned very pale. Then, before
she had time to ask herself if she would have sufficient courage to
persevere, it seemed to her as though she were struck on the forehead
by a blow from a hammer, and she fell on both knees, half stunned. A
second bullet, in ricochetting, had grazed her forehead just above the
left eyebrow, badly bruising it, and carrying away a strip of skin. And
when she withdrew her hands which she had raised to her forehead, she
found them red with blood. Beneath her fingers, however, she had felt
her skull intact, quite firm; and to encourage herself she repeated
aloud: ‘It is nothing, it is nothing. Come, I am surely not frightened;
no, I am not frightened.’

And ’twas true; she picked herself up, and henceforth walked on
among the bullets with the indifference of one detached from herself,
who has ceased to reason and gives her life. And she no longer even
sought to protect herself, but went straight before her with her
head erect, hastening her steps only because of her desire to reach
her destination. The projectiles were falling and flattening around
her, and she narrowly missed being killed a score of times without
apparently being aware of it. Her lightsome haste, her silent feminine
activeness seemed to assist her as it were, to render her so slight
and so agile amid the peril that she escaped it. At last she had
arrived at Bazeilles, and she at once cut across a field of lucern to
reach the high road which passes through the village. Just as she was
turning into it, on her right hand, a couple of hundred paces away,
she recognised her house, which was burning, the flames not showing
in the brilliant sunlight, but the roof already half fallen in, and
the windows vomiting big whirling coils of black smoke. Then a gallop
carried her along; she ran breathlessly.

At eight o’clock, Weiss had found himself shut up there, separated from
the retreating troops. Immediately afterwards it had become impossible
for him to return to Sedan, for the Bavarians, streaming forth from the
park of Montivilliers, intercepted the road. He was alone, with his
gun and his remaining cartridges, when he suddenly espied at his door
a small detachment of soldiers, who, parted from their comrades, had
remained behind like himself, and were seeking some place of shelter
where they might, at any rate, sell their lives dearly. He hastily
went down to open the door, and the house henceforth had a garrison:
a captain, a corporal, and eight men, all of them beside themselves,
quite maddened, and resolved upon no surrender.

‘What! are you one of us, Laurent?’ exclaimed Weiss, surprised to see
among the soldiers a young man in blue linen trousers and jacket, who
carried a chassepot which he had picked up beside some corpse.

Laurent, a tall, thin fellow, thirty years of age, was a journeyman
gardener of the neighbourhood. He had lately lost his mother and his
wife, both carried away by the same malignant fever. ‘Why shouldn’t I
be one of you?’ he answered. ‘I’ve only my carcase left, and I can very
well give it. Besides, it amuses me, you know, for I’m not a bad shot,
and it would be good sport to bring down one of those brutes each time
I fire.’

Meanwhile, the captain and the corporal had already begun to inspect
the house. Nothing could be done on the ground floor, so they contented
themselves with pushing a quantity of furniture before the door
and the windows, with the view of barricading them as stoutly as
possible. Then they organised the defence in the three little rooms
on the first floor and the garret up above; approving, by the way, of
the preparations that Weiss had already made, the mattresses placed
against the shutters, and the loopholes devised in the latter between
the transverse laths. Whilst the captain was venturing to peep out to
examine the surroundings, he heard a child calling and crying. ‘Who’s
that?’ he asked.

Then Weiss, in his mind’s eye, again espied poor little Auguste in
the adjacent dyeworks, his face purple with fever as he lay between
his white sheets asking for something to drink, and calling for his
mother, who could never more answer him; for she was lying across the
tiled threshold with her head smashed to pieces. And as this vision
rose up before him he made a sorrowful gesture, and replied: ‘It’s a
poor little fellow whose mother has been killed by a shell, and who is
crying there, next door.’

‘Thunder!’ muttered Laurent. ‘What a price we shall have to make them
pay for it all!’

As yet only some stray bullets had struck the house-front. Weiss and
the captain, accompanied by the gardener and two soldiers, had gone up
to the garret, whence they could keep watch over the road. They could
see it obliquely as far as the Place de l’Eglise, which was now in the
possession of the Bavarians, who only continued advancing, however,
with great difficulty and extreme caution. A handful of soldiers, at
the corner of a lane, kept them at bay during nearly a quarter of
an hour, with so galling a fire that there was soon quite a heap of
slain. Then, at the other corner, there was a house which they had to
secure possession of before proceeding any farther. At one moment, as
the smoke blew off, a woman could be espied firing with a gun from
one of the windows. It was the house of a baker; some other soldiers
had been forgotten there, mingled with the occupants; and when the
place was at last captured by the foe, loud shouts resounded, and a
frightful scramble whirled to the wall over the way–a rush, amid
which the woman’s skirt and a man’s jacket and bristling white hair
suddenly appeared to view. Then came the sound of platoon firing, and
blood spurted to the coping of the wall. The Germans were inflexible;
every person, not belonging to the belligerent forces, who was captured
with arms in his hand, was shot down there and then, as having placed
himself beyond the pale of the law of nations. And their wrath was
rising in presence of the furious resistance offered by the village.
The frightful losses they had sustained during nearly five hours’
combat urged them on to atrocious reprisals. The gutters were running
red with blood, corpses were barring the streets, and some crossways
were like charnel-houses, whence the rattle of death could be heard
ascending to the sky. And they were seen to throw lighted straw into
each house they carried by force. Some of them ran about with torches,
others smeared the walls with petroleum, and soon entire streets were
on fire–Bazeilles blazed.

At last, in the central part of the village there only remained
Weiss’s house, with its closed shutters, that retained the threatening
appearance of a citadel resolved upon no surrender.

‘Attention! here they come,’ exclaimed the captain.

A volley from the garret and the first-floor stretched on the ground
three of the Bavarians who were stealthily advancing close to the
walls. The others thereupon fell back, placing themselves in ambush
at the corners of the road, and the siege of the house began, such a
shower of bullets pelting the front that one might have thought there
was a hailstorm. For nearly ten minutes this fusillade went on without
cessation, denting the plaster without doing much damage. One of the
two soldiers, whom the captain had taken with him into the garret,
imprudently showed himself, however, at a dormer window, and was
instantly killed by a bullet, which struck him full in the forehead.

‘Curse it! that’s one less!’ growled the captain. ‘Be cautious, we are
not numerous enough to get ourselves killed for the fun of the thing.’
He himself had taken a chassepot, and was firing from behind a shutter.

Laurent, the gardener, particularly excited his admiration. On his
knees, as though he were stalking game, with the barrel of his gun
resting in a narrow loophole, the young fellow only fired when he was
sure of bringing down his man, and he himself predicted the result of
each shot before it took effect. ‘That little blue officer over there,’
said he, ‘in the heart. That other one, the skinny chap, farther off,
between the eyes. That fat fellow with the carroty beard–I can’t stand
him–in the stomach.’

And the man he named invariably fell, struck in the very spot he had
mentioned; and he quietly continued firing, without the least haste,
having plenty of work before him, as he said, and requiring, indeed,
more time than he could command, to pick them all off in that fashion.

‘Ah! if I could only see,’ Weiss kept on repeating, in a furious
voice. He had just broken his spectacles, and was in despair at this
untimely accident. Certainly, he still had his eye-glasses, but with
the perspiration that was streaming down his face he was unable to
fix them firmly on his nose; and in a feverish state, with his hands
trembling, he frequently fired quite at random. Increasing passion was
now sweeping away all that remained of his accustomed calmness.

‘Don’t be in such a hurry; it does no good,’ remarked Laurent. ‘There!
see that one who no longer has his helmet, at the corner by the
grocer’s. Aim at him carefully. Why! that’s first rate; you have broken
his leg! See how he’s floundering about in his blood.’

Weiss, who was rather pale, looked at the man, and muttered, ‘Finish
him off.’

‘Waste a bullet? Not if I know it! Far better bring down another one.’

The attacking party had observed the galling fire directed upon them
from the garret windows. Not one of their men could advance without
being hit, and accordingly they brought up some fresh troops, who
received orders to riddle the roof with bullets. The garret then became
altogether untenable. The slates were transpierced as easily as though
they had been mere sheets of paper; and, with a buzzing like that of
bees, the projectiles flew into the attic here, there, and everywhere.
At each moment the defenders were in danger of being killed.

‘Let’s go down,’ said the captain. ‘We can still hold out on the first
floor.’ As he was stepping towards the ladder, however, a bullet struck
him in the groin and he fell: ‘Too late! Curse it!’ he muttered.

With the help of the remaining soldier, Weiss and Laurent insisted upon
carrying him down, although he told them not to waste time in attending
on him. His account was settled, he remarked, and he might just as well
kick the bucket up there as down below. However, when they had laid him
on a bed, in a room on the first floor, he became desirous of still
directing the defence.

‘Fire into the lot of them–don’t trouble about anything else. They
are too prudent to risk coming forward as long as your fire doesn’t
slacken.’

And, indeed, the siege of the little house continued as though it
were to last for ever. A score of times it seemed upon the point of
being carried by the tempest of lead that assailed it; but through the
hurricane and the smoke it again and again appeared to view, still
standing, dented, perforated, and lacerated, but none the less vomiting
bullets from every aperture. Exasperated at losing so many men, at
being kept so long at bay by such a paltry shanty, the assailants were
fairly howling with rage, but they continued firing from a distance,
lacking the courage to rush forward and burst open the door and windows
below.

‘Look out!’ suddenly exclaimed the corporal; ‘a shutter is falling.’

The violence of the bullets had, indeed, torn one of the shutters from
its hinges. Weiss, however, darted forward, pushing a wardrobe against
the window, and Laurent, in ambush behind it, was able to continue
firing. One of the soldiers, whose jaw had been shattered, was lying
at his feet losing a great quantity of blood. Another, hit by a bullet
in the throat, rolled over to the wall, beside which he lay with a
convulsive shudder shaking him from head to foot, whilst from his
parted lips escaped an endless rattle. Without counting the captain,
who–lying on the bedstead with his back resting against the head
of it–was already too weak to speak, but still gave some orders by
signs–there were at present only eight of them left. And now the three
rooms on the first floor were, like the garret, becoming untenable, for
the mattresses had been reduced to shreds, and no longer kept out the
projectiles; at each moment bits of plaster fell from the walls and the
ceiling, corners were chipped off the articles of furniture, whilst the
wardrobe was being slit and rent as though with a hatchet. Worst of
all, however, ammunition was failing.

‘What a pity!’ growled Laurent; ‘it’s been going on so well.’

‘Wait a bit!’ replied Weiss, as an idea flashed through his mind.

He had just remembered the dead soldier lying in the garret upstairs,
and he went up to search the body and take the cartridges that must be
upon it. He found that a large piece of the roof had now fallen in,
and he could see the blue sky, a bright sunshiny expanse, at sight of
which he was very much astonished. To avoid being killed he dragged
himself over the floor on his knees, and when he had secured the
cartridges, some thirty or thereabouts, he made all haste and bounded
down again.

Whilst he was dividing these new supplies with the gardener, however,
one of the soldiers gave a shriek and fell on his knees. There were now
only seven, and a moment afterwards there were only six of them left,
for the corporal was hit in the left eye by a bullet, which blew out
his brains.

From that moment Weiss was no longer conscious of anything. He and
the five others continued firing like madmen, consuming the remaining
cartridges without a thought even of the possibility of surrendering.
The tiled floors of the three little rooms were now littered with
remnants of furniture. Corpses blocked the doorways, and in one corner
a wounded man was giving vent to a frightful, continuous moan. Wherever
they stepped blood stuck to the soles of their shoes; and some of
it, after coursing through the rooms, was even trickling down the
staircase. Moreover, it was no longer possible to breathe up there; the
atmosphere was dense and hot with powder-smoke, a pungent, nauseating
dust plunging them into almost complete obscurity, which was streaked,
however, by a ruddy flame each time a shot was fired.

‘Thunder!’ exclaimed Weiss; ‘why, they are bringing cannon!’

It was true. Despairing of reducing the handful of madmen, who thus
delayed their advance, the Bavarians were now placing a gun in position
at the corner of the Place de l’Eglise. And the honour thus shown them,
that artillery pointed at them from over yonder, made the besieged
furiously mirthful. They jeered contemptuously: Ah! those dirty
cowards with their cannon! Laurent, meanwhile, was still on his knees,
carefully aiming at the gunners and bringing a man down at each shot he
fired, so that for a time the gun could not be worked; in fact, five or
six minutes elapsed before the first discharge. And even then, the gun
being pointed too high, merely a strip of the roof was carried away.

But the end was at hand. In vain did they search the dead; there was
not a cartridge left! Haggard and exhausted, the six men fumbled here
and there, seeking for something which they might fling from the
windows to crush the enemy. One of them, on showing himself at a
window, vociferating and brandishing his fists, was riddled by a volley
of lead, and then only five of them were left. What could they do? Go
down–try to escape by way of the garden and the meadows? But at that
moment there was a loud uproar below, and men streamed furiously up the
stairs. The Bavarians had at last crept round the house, broken open
the back door, and invaded the ground floor. A terrible _mêlée_ ensued
in the little rooms, among the corpses and the shattered furniture.
The chest of one of the French soldiers was transpierced by a bayonet
thrust, and the two others were taken prisoners, whilst the captain,
who had just vented his last gasp, lay there with his mouth open and
his arm still raised, as though to give an order.

However, a German officer, a stout, fair man, armed with a revolver,
and whose bloodshot eyes seemed to be starting from his head, had
caught sight of Weiss and Laurent, the one in his black coat and the
other in his blue linen jacket, and savagely asked them in French: ‘Who
are you? What the —- are you doing here?’

Then, seeing that they were black with powder, he realised the truth,
and stammering with fury, heaped insults upon them in German. He had
already raised his weapon to blow their brains out, when the soldiers
he commanded rushed forward, caught hold of the two civilians and
pushed them before them down the stairs. The two men were carried
along by the human wave which flung them upon the road, where they
rolled over as far as the opposite wall, amid such vociferous shouts
that the voices of the officers could be no longer heard. Then, during
two or three minutes which elapsed whilst the stout fair officer
was endeavouring to clear a space, in view of proceeding with their
execution, they were able to pick themselves up and look about them.

Other houses were now blazing–all Bazeilles was becoming a furnace.
Flames were beginning to stream through the lofty windows of the
church. Some soldiers were driving an old lady out of her house after
compelling her to give them some matches that they might set her bed
and her curtains on fire. What with all the lighted wisps of straw
flung here and there, and all the petroleum poured upon the walls, the
conflagrations were spreading from street to street. It was warfare as
waged by savages–savages infuriated by the duration of the struggle,
and avenging their dead, their heaps of dead over whom they had to
march. Bands of men were yelling amid the smoke and the sparks, amid
all the fearful uproar compounded of dying groans and shrieks, falling
walls, and discharges of musketry. They could scarcely see one another;
large clouds of livid dust, impregnated with an insufferable stench
of fat and blood, as though laden indeed with all the abominations of
the massacre, flew up, obscuring the sun. And they were still killing,
still destroying in every corner; the human beast was let loose, all
the idiotic anger, all the furious madness of man preying upon man.

And, at last, in front of him, Weiss could see his own house burning.
Soldiers had hurried up with torches, and others were feeding the
flames with the remnants of the furniture. The ground floor speedily
blazed, and the smoke poured forth from all the gaping wounds of the
roof and the front. The adjacent dyeworks, too, were already catching
fire; and–oh, the pity of it!–little Auguste, lying in bed, delirious
with fever, could still be heard calling for his mother, whose skirts
were beginning to burn as her corpse, with its head pounded to pieces,
lay there across the threshold.

‘Mother, I’m so thirsty; mother, give me some water.’

But the flames roared, the plaint ceased, and then nothing could be
distinguished save the deafening hurrahs of the conquerors!

All at once, however, above every noise, above all the shouting, there
arose a terrible cry. It was Henriette arriving–Henriette, who had
just espied her husband standing with his back to a wall, in front of a
platoon which was loading its weapons.

She sprang upon his neck: ‘My God! what is it? They are not going to
kill you!’

Weiss gazed at her in stupefaction. ‘Twas she, his wife whom he had so
long desired, whom he had adored with such idolising tenderness. And
with a shudder he awoke, distracted, to the awful reality. Why had he
tarried there firing upon the foe instead of returning to her, as he
had sworn to do? His lost happiness flashed before his dizzy eyes; they
were to be torn asunder, parted for evermore. Then he was struck by
the sight of the blood upon her forehead, and in a mechanical voice he
stammered, ‘Are you wounded? It was madness for you to come—-‘

With a wild gesture, however, she interrupted him. ‘Oh! me; it’s
nothing, a mere scratch–but you, why are they keeping you? I won’t
have them shoot you!’

The officer who was struggling in the middle of the obstructed road,
trying to clear a space so that the platoon might fall back a few
paces, turned round on hearing the sound of voices; and when he
perceived the woman hanging on the neck of one of the prisoners, he
again savagely shouted in French: ‘No, no–no humbug, please! Where
have you come from? What do you want?’

‘I want my husband.’

‘Your husband, that man there? He has been condemned; justice must be
done.’

‘I want my husband.’

‘Come, be reasonable–move aside, we don’t wish to do you any harm.’

‘I want my husband.’

Renouncing his attempts at persuasion, the officer was about to give
orders that she should be torn from the prisoner’s arms, when Laurent,
hitherto silent and impassive, ventured to intervene: ‘I say, captain,
it was I who knocked so many of your men over, and it’s right enough
that you should shoot me. Besides, I’ve nobody to think of, neither
mother, nor wife, nor child–but this gentleman’s married–why not let
him go, and settle my affair?’

‘What’s that tomfoolery!’ yelled the captain, quite beside himself;
‘are you making fun of me? Here! a man here to take this woman away.’

He had to repeat the order in German, whereupon a soldier stepped
forward, a short, broad-chested Bavarian, whose enormous head was bushy
with carroty beard and hair, amidst which one could only distinguish
a broad square-shaped nose, and a pair of big blue eyes. He was a
frightful object, stained all over with blood, looking like some bear
from a mountain cavern–one of those hairy monsters, red with the blood
of the prey whose bones they have just been crunching.

‘I want my husband; kill me with my husband!’ repeated Henriette, in a
heartrending cry.

But, dealing himself heavy blows on the chest with his clenched fist,
the officer declared that he was not a murderer, and that if there were
some who slaughtered the innocent, he at all events was not one of
them. She had not been condemned, and he would cut off his hand rather
than touch a hair of her head.

Then, as the soldier was approaching her, Henriette distractedly coiled
her limbs round Weiss: ‘Oh! I beseech you, dear, keep me, let me die
with you.’

Weiss was shedding big tears, and without answering was trying to
unloosen the unhappy woman’s convulsive grasp upon his shoulder and his
loins.

‘Do you no longer care for me,’ she pleaded, ‘that you wish to die
without me? Keep me here; it will tire them out, and they will shoot us
both.’

He had now succeeded in detaching one of her little hands, and was
pressing it to his mouth, covering it with kisses, whilst still
striving to loosen the grasp of the other one.

‘No, no! Keep me,’ she cried, ‘I want to die.’

At last, however, after infinite trouble, he held both her hands in his
own. And, hitherto silent, having purposely refrained from answering
her, he now said but three words: ‘Farewell, dear wife!’

He himself had thrown her into the arms of the Bavarian who carried her
away. She struggled and shrieked, whilst the soldier, doubtless for
the purpose of calming her, gave vent to a stream of gruff words. With
a violent effort she had managed to disengage her head, and she saw
everything.

In less than three seconds it was over. Weiss, whose glasses had
slipped down while he was parting from his wife, had hastily set them
on his nose again, as though he wished to look death full in the face.
He stepped back and leant against the wall, with his arms crossed;
and this stout peaceable fellow, in his coat torn to shreds, had a
wildly excited face, aglow with all the beauty of courage. Near him
was Laurent, who had contented himself with shoving his hands into his
pockets. The cruel scene, the abominableness of those savages who shot
men down before the very eyes of their wives, seemed to fill him with
indignation. He drew himself up, scanned the firing party, and in a
contemptuous tone spat forth the words: ‘You filthy pigs!’

But the officer had raised his sword, and the two men fell like logs,
the gardener with his face on the ground, the book-keeper on his flank,
alongside the wall. The latter, before expiring, experienced a final
convulsion, his eyelids blinked, his mouth writhed. Then the officer
stepped up to him, and stirred him with his foot, desirous of making
sure that he was quite dead.

Henriette had seen everything: those dying eyes seeking for her, that
frightful quiver of the death-pangs, that big boot pushing the corpse
aside. She did not cry out, but she silently, furiously bit at what was
near her mouth; and it was a hand that her teeth caught hold of. The
Bavarian roared, the pain was so atrocious. He threw her down, almost
felling her. Their faces met, and never was she able to forget that red
hair and beard splashed with blood, and those blue eyes dilated and
swimming with fury.

Later on, Henriette could not clearly remember what had happened after
her husband’s death. She, herself, had had but one desire, to return
to his corpse, take it, and watch over it. However, as happens in
nightmares, all sorts of obstacles rose up before her, staying her
course at every step. Again had a brisk fusillade broken out, and there
was a great stir among the German troops who occupied Bazeilles. The
French Marine Infantry was, at last, again reaching the village, and
the engagement began afresh with so much violence that the young woman
was thrown into a lane on the left, among a crazed, terrified flock of
villagers. There could be no doubt, however, as to the issue of the
struggle; it was too late to reconquer the abandoned positions. During
another half-hour the men of the Marine Infantry fought with the utmost
desperation, sacrificing their lives in a superb, furious transport;
but at each moment the foe received reinforcements which streamed forth
from all sides, the meadows, the roads, and the park of Montivilliers.
Nothing could now have dislodged them from that village, which they had
secured at such fearful cost, where several thousands of their men were
lying dead amid blood and flames. Destruction was now completing its
work, the place had become but a charnel-house of scattered limbs and
smoking ruins. Slaughtered, annihilated, Bazeilles was dwindling into
ashes.

For a last time did Henriette espy in the distance her little house,
the floors of which were falling into a vortex of fiery flakes. And
ever, alongside the wall facing the house, could she see her husband’s
corpse. But another human stream caught her in its flow, the bugles
sounded the retreat, and she was carried away, how she knew not, among
the troops as they gradually fell back. And then she became as it were
a thing, a mere rolling waif borne onward amid the confused tramping of
a multitude that was streaming along the highway. And she was conscious
of nothing further, till at last she found herself at Balan, in the
house of some strangers, where she sat sobbing in a kitchen, with her
head resting upon a table.