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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 13. My Discharge
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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 13. My Discharge Post by :mobiaus Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :2475

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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 13. My Discharge


In spite of this terrible disaster, the retreat of the French troops was accomplished in good order, and but few prisoners fell into the hands of the Prussians; even those few were mostly Zouaves and Turcos, not real French soldiers.

That we had really been beaten was not believed by anybody. Everybody was inspired by the conviction that the Weissenburg disaster was nothing but an incident. A comparatively small defensive force had been attacked by an overwhelmingly large force of Prussians, and was compelled to retreat for the moment; but the fight had been only a trifling prologue to the great battle to come, or else was part of a deep-laid plan which would secure to us the final victory. So it had been at Solferino, when Benedek had been allowed to attack and disperse the French-Italian troops on their left wing, while at Solferino itself the Austrian army was destroyed. So it would be here. It was supposed that this slight victory was allowed to the Prussians, so as to divert their attention from the movements of MacMahon and Bazaine, who were certain to crush them all at their first encounter.

Next day the Emperor himself and his young heir-apparent appeared among us, presenting to each of those who had distinguished themselves at the battle of the preceding day some badge of honour. At the recommendation of old Dr. Duval, the Chevalier Cross of the Legion of Honour was pinned to my breast, and the reporter of a Paris newspaper wrote a flourishing item about the heroic and self-sacrificing Hungarian surgeon. When I read it, I thought of that woman in Paris, and what she would think of these reports. Perhaps she would say to herself, "So he is not everywhere the same coward as he was here! He has some pluck, some physical courage at least."

But in vain did we wait for our revenge upon the Prussians. After Weissenburg came Spicheren, then Woerth. Everywhere the German force was stronger than the French, and it turned out that their artillery was better than ours. MacMahon was cut off from Bazaine, and in the gigantic battles at Bezonville and Gravelotte, Bazaine, with his force of one hundred and fifty thousand men, was driven back into Metz. Strasburg was besieged, and MacMahon cut off from the road to Paris.

In every battle that was fought the Prussians remained masters of the field, and it was always they who took charge of the wounded. Of course, each corps was in ignorance as to the fate of the others, and if one was beaten or repulsed, it was fully convinced that the other had meanwhile been victorious elsewhere. The Paris newspapers and the Bourse supported and increased that belief. One evening, after a forced march that very much resembled a regular flight, we arrived at a certain town. I entered a cafe, and being very curious to learn something of the present state of the Money Market, I looked for a newspaper, and here it was:--"Paris. Extraordinary Upward Movement! Rate of interest raised to 68-15, and rising rapidly. News of great victories!"

"Well," I thought, "my two millions are nicely exploded by this time." Underneath I read in large letters, "The Prussians severely beaten by MacMahon! The German Crown Prince captured and made prisoner by MacMahon!"

That very day we had been compelled to leave our entire baggage in the enemy's hands and run for our lives, so to speak, and here they are talking of the German Prince having been captured. That is how they create upward movements on 'Change. But could this last? Surely such lies would soon be exposed! How long was it possible to keep on in this way?

How long? For ever.

After the massacre at Mars-la-Tour, MacMahon's forces were practically scattered to the winds, running aimlessly about, and, when coming into contact with the enemy, hardly thinking any longer of resistance. If a Prussian Uhlan was seen far off on the road every man took to his heels. The infantry threw down their rifles, the cuirassiers their helmets and breastplates; the gunners cut the traces of the horses, jumped upon their backs, and dashed on, without thinking of the fate of the rest. On horseback, with a loaded revolver in hand, I had to keep guard at the side of the ambulance carts, to keep the marauders away from the wounded. Once I had a narrow escape from being captured by the Bavarians. It was at a skirmish of artillery. A couple of French and a couple of German pieces were in position. The French were quickly disabled by the Germans, and even the head gunner was severely wounded. I took him on my shoulders, and got him out of the line of fire. The Bavarians sent another shrapnell shell after us, and, as the projectile burst over our heads, I felt a blow on the leather rim of my kepi. "A shrapnel splinter!" I thought, scornfully: "could it not have hit me a little more to the right, and have done with me?"

After I had hastily placed the wounded officer on the waggon, I jumped on horseback, and hastened after the flying troops. Upon a wooden bridge that led over a shallow rivulet the soldiers were crowded. I did not stop to consider, but dashed on with my waggons to the water. A detachment of Bavarian hussars, guessing at my intention, was there to prevent its execution. A young lieutenant of hussars was leading the detachment, and, placing the muzzle of his revolver to my forehead, he shouted: "_Rendez-vous: demande pardon_!"

"At last!" I thought, "here is my opportunity for the glorious end. This fellow is the man I want," and, turning my face full toward him, I looked coolly into the barrel of his weapon. "Shoot, comrade!" I said. "You'll get neither me, nor my charges, as long as I am alive."

He gazed at me, as if scrutinising my features. "You are not French?" he asked.

"I am a Hungarian," I answered.

"Kornel, and no doubt about it!" he exclaimed, taking hold of my hand and shaking it. "Don't you know me? I am Plessen." Sure enough, he was my favourite chum from the University; but we had not seen each other for years, and the last three months of camp-life had done more to change a man's outward appearance than whole years at home. "Go on, comrade," he said, with a farewell shake of the hand, "and may our next meeting be a pleasanter one! Good-bye!" With that he let me take my charges safely across the water and over the fields, avoiding the open roads, until finally, as night fell, I reached with my patients the camp at Chalons, and found my way to the camp hospital.

What a cursed, vile task old Duval had had all day! Nothing but sore heels and slight shrapnel scars in the rear!--and he embraced me and kissed me all over for bringing him now three cart-loads of real wounded men, with wounds got from sword-cuts, rifle-bullets, and gun-shots. "What an invaluable, brave fellow you are!" he said to me, handling each of my charges with the tenderness of a loving father; "but now you shall share the privilege of dressing their wounds, and assist me in the necessary operations." This was a privilege indeed, and for a while we were very busy. When we had finished, he put his hand into his pocket and said, "Now, my boy, I will also present you with something."

I thought he meant to give me one of his utterly wretched cigars; but no--it was a paper, and, on handing it over to me, Duval said, "It is your discharge, my boy; you are free."

"My discharge?" I asked, offended, "and why, pray? Have I not done more than my duty? And if so, how have I merited this disgrace?"

"I am afraid that it was just your extraordinary ardour that brought it on you; that's it, you have done more than your duty; and as you are a foreigner, it is natural to ask, Why have you done it? Why have you exposed your own life, contrary to custom, picking up the wounded where the fight was the hottest and the balls flying thickest? True, you have by this course saved the lives of many that would have bled to death, or been otherwise lost; but it is a marvellous thing that you could do all that and escape unhurt. The fact is, you have always come back with a sound skin. Can you explain this miracle? Can you tell me, why you, a foreigner, took the risk of such imminent danger for--Hecuba--that is, for wounded French soldiers?"

The old man was right. I could not explain it, for I could not tell him that I had regarded their great national calamity as a means of carrying out my petty suicidal designs and giving them a decent cloak. I never thought of it before; but now I had to acknowledge that my conduct looked suspicious to strangers. What will be their suspicions, I thought, when they learn that I have talked German with a Prussian officer, and shaken hands with him? Would this not give new matter for their suspicions, and was it not natural in the vanquished to believe in treachery?

And then I thought what a self-conceited fool I had been to think I could command God Mars to afford me a disguise for self-murder. "Why," he said, "do you suppose these great national conflagrations are kindled to cook your meals on? What do I care for your family quarrels? If you are tired of life, take a rope and hang yourself on that willow, and there is an end of you and your paltry complaints."

As I stood there musing, old Duval turned my face around and exclaimed--"Look! look! Your forehead is wounded."

"A mere scratch with a shrapnel splinter," I said, bitterly, "not worth plastering." I took from him the letter with my discharge, presented him with my camp outfit, instruments, horses, etc., and kept nothing but one of the waggons and a pair of horses for my journey homeward--that is, to Paris. This was now the speediest way of travelling, for the railways were all occupied with the transport of troops.

Before I left Chalons, I entered a cafe and drank a cupful of some black beverage that was called coffee, although I think it tasted of soot, and read one of the Paris newspapers--the last that had arrived the same day.

A dazzling glare of light was visible through the windows, arising from the valley. It was the burning camp. The Emperor had given orders to burn all tents, since there was not time enough to strike them and carry them off. So everything was left to be consumed by the flames, while the men fled for their lives.

The newspapers in the coffee-house were going from hand to hand, and were eagerly devoured. At last I obtained one. I found the following report in large letters--

"The Prussian army scattered! Two hundred Krupp guns remaining as captures in the hands of the French! Commander Moltke a prisoner! Bismarck fatally wounded! Price of rentes, 1 franc 25."

If this were true, one part of my scheme had succeeded. The two millions were annihilated. But what of the other part? I was still alive, and death would not come to me without disgrace and ridicule. What a position to be in!

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