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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLorraine: A Romance - Chapter 10. An Unexpected Encounter
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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 10. An Unexpected Encounter Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :735

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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 10. An Unexpected Encounter

CHAPTER X. AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER

It was a little after noon when the regiment halted on the Saint-Avold highway, blocked in front by a train of Guard artillery, and on either flank by columns of infantry--voltigeurs, red-legged fantassins loaded with camp equipment, engineers in crimson and bluish-black, and a whole battalion of Turcos, scarlet fez rakishly hauled down over one ear, canvas zouave trousers tucked into canvas leggings that fitted their finely moulded ankles like gloves.

Jack rested patiently on his horse, waiting for the road to be cleared, and beside him sat Georges, chatting paternally with the giant standard-bearer of the Turcos. The huge fellow laughed and showed his dazzling teeth under the crisp jet beard, for Georges was talking to him in his native tongue--and it was many miles from Saint-Avold to Oran. His standard, ornamented with the "opened hand and spread fingers," fluttered and snapped, and stood out straight in the valley breeze.

"What's that advertisement--the hand of Providence?" cried an impudent line soldier, leaning on his musket.

"Is it the hand that spanked Bismarck?" yelled another. The Turcos grinned under their scarlet head-dresses.

"Ohe, Mustapha!" shouted the line soldiers, "Ohe, le Croissant!" and their band-master, laughing, raised his tasselled baton, and the band burst out in a roll of drums and cymbals, "Partons pour la Syrie."

"Petite riffa!" said the big standard-bearer, beaming--which was very good French for a Kabyle.

"See here, Georges," said Jack, suddenly, "I've promised to be back at Morteyn before dark, and if your regiment is going to stick here much longer I'm going on."

"You want to send your despatches?" asked Georges. "You could ride on to Saarbrueck and telegraph from there. Will you? Then hunt up the regiment later. We are to see a little of each other, are we not, old fellow?"

"Not if you're going Prussian-hunting across the Rhine. When you come back crowned with bay and laurel and pretzels, you can stop at Morteyn."

They nodded and clasped hands.

"Au revoir!" laughed Georges. "What shall I bring you from Berlin?"

"I'm no Herod," replied Jack; "bring back your own feather-head safely--that's all I ask." And with a smile and a gay salute the young fellows parted, turning occasionally in their saddles to wave a last adieu, until Jack's big horse disappeared among the dense platoons ahead.

For a quarter of an hour he sidled and pushed and shoved, and picked a cautious path through section after section of field artillery, seeing here and there an officer whom he knew, saluting cheerily, making a thousand excuses for his haste to the good-natured artillerymen, who only grinned in reply. As he rode, he noted with misgivings that the cannon were not breech-loaders. He had recently heard a good deal about the Prussian new model for field artillery, and he had read, in the French journals, reports of their wonderful range and flat trajectory. The cannon that he passed, with the exception of the Montigny mitrailleuses and the American gatlings, were all beautiful pieces, bronzed and engraved with crown and LN and eagle, but for all their beauty they were only muzzle-loaders.

In a little while he came to the head of the column. The road in front seemed to be clear enough, and he wondered why they had halted, blocking half a division of infantry and cavalry behind them. There really was no reason at all. He did not know it, but he had seen the first case of that indescribable disease that raged in France in 1870-71--that malady that cannot be termed paralysis or apathy or inertia. It was all three, and it was malignant, for it came from a befouled and degraded court, spread to the government, infected the provinces, sparing neither prince nor peasant, until over the whole fair land of France it crept and hung, a fetid, miasmic effluvia, till the nation, hopeless, weary, despairing, bereft of nerve and sinew, sank under it into utter physical and moral prostration.

This was the terrible fever that burned the best blood out of the nation--a fever that had its inception in the corruption of the empire, its crisis at Sedan, its delirium in the Commune! The nation's convalescence is slow but sure.

Jack touched spurs to his horse and galloped out into the Saarbrueck road. He passed a heavy, fat-necked general, sitting on his horse, his dull, apoplectic eyes following the gestures of a staff-officer who was tracing routes and railroads on a map nailed against a poplar-tree. He passed other generals, deep in consultation, absently rolling cigarettes between their kid-gloved fingers; and everywhere dragoon patrols, gallant troopers in blue and garance, wearing steel helmets bound with leopard-skin above the visors. He passed ambulances, too, blue vehicles covered with framed yellow canvas, flying the red cross. One of the field-surgeons gave him a brief outline of the casualties and general result of the battle, and he thanked him and hastened on towards Saarbrueck, whence he expected to send his despatches to Paris. But now the road was again choked with marching infantry as far as the eye could see, dense masses, pushing along in an eddying cloud of red dust that blew to the east and hung across the fields like smoke from a locomotive. Men with stretchers were passing; he saw an officer, face white as chalk, sunburned hands clinched, lying in a canvas hand-stretcher, borne by four men of the hospital corps. Edging his way to the meadow, he put his horse to the ditch, cleared it, and galloped on towards a spire that rose close ahead, outlined dimly in the smoke and dust, and in ten minutes he was in Saarbrueck.

Up a stony street, desolate, deserted, lined with rows of closed machine-shops, he passed, and out into another street where a regiment of lancers was defiling amid a confusion of shouts and shrill commands, the racket of drums echoing from wall to pavement, and the ear-splitting flourish of trumpets mingled with the heavy rumble of artillery and the cracking of leather thongs. Already the pontoons were beginning to span the river Saar, already the engineers were swarming over the three ruined bridges, jackets cast aside, picks rising and falling--clink! clank! clink! clank!--and the scrape of mortar and trowel on the granite grew into an incessant sound, harsh and discordant. The market square was impassable; infantry gorged every foot of the stony pavement, ambulances creaked through the throng, rolling like white ships in a tempest, signals set.

In the sea of faces around him he recognized the correspondent of the London _Times_.

"Hello, Williams!" he called; "where the devil is the telegraph?"

The Englishman, red in the face and dripping with perspiration, waved his hand spasmodically.

"The military are using it; you'll have to wait until four o'clock. Are you with us in this scrimmage? The fellows are down by the Hotel Post trying to mend the wires there. Archibald Grahame is with the Germans!"

Jack turned in his saddle with a friendly gesture of thanks and adieu. If he were going to send his despatch, he had no time to waste in Saarbrueck--he understood that at a glance. For a moment he thought of going to the Hotel Post and taking his chances with his brother correspondents; then, abruptly wheeling his horse, he trotted out into the long shed that formed one of an interminable series of coal shelters, passed through it, gained the outer street, touched up his horse, and tore away, headed straight for Forbach. For he had decided that at Forbach was his chance to beat the other correspondents, and he took the chance, knowing that in case the telegraph there was also occupied he could still get back to Morteyn, and from there to Saint-Lys, before the others had wired to their respective journals.

It was three o'clock when he clattered into the single street of Forbach amid the blowing of bugles from a cuirassier regiment that was just leaving at a trot. The streets were thronged with gendarmes and cavalry of all arms, lancers in baggy, scarlet trousers and clumsy schapskas weighted with gold cord, chasseurs a cheval in turquoise blue and silver, dragoons, Spahis, remount-troopers, and here and there a huge rider of the Hundred-Guards, glittering like a scaled dragon in his splendid armour.

He pushed his way past the Hotel Post and into the garden, where, at a table, an old general sat reading letters.

With a hasty glance at him, Jack bowed, and asked permission to take the unoccupied chair and use the table. The officer inclined his head with a peculiarly graceful movement, and, without more ado, Jack sat down, placed his pad flat on the table, and wrote his despatch in pencil:


"FORBACH, 2d August, 1870.

"The first shot of the war was fired this morning at ten o'clock. At that hour the French opened on Saarbrueck with twenty-three pieces of artillery. The bombardment continued until twelve. At two o'clock the Germans, having evacuated Saarbrueck, retreated across the Saar to Saint-Johann. The latter village is also now being evacuated; the French are pushing across the Saar by means of pontoons; the three bridges are also being rapidly repaired.

"Reports vary, but it is probable that the losses on the German side will number four officers and seventy-nine men killed--wounded unknown. The French lost six officers and eighty men killed; wounded list not completed.

"The Emperor was present with the Prince Imperial."


Leaving his pad on the table and his riding-crop and gloves over it, he gathered up the loose leaves of his telegram and hastened across the street to the telegraph office. For the moment the instrument was idle, and the operator took his despatch, read it aloud to the censor, an officer of artillery, who vised it and nodded.

"A longer despatch is to follow--can I have the wires again in half an hour?" asked Jack.

Both operator and censor laughed and said, "No promises, monsieur; come and see." And Jack hastened back to the garden of the hotel and sat down once more under the trees, scarcely glancing at the old officer beside him. Again he wrote:


"The truth is that the whole affair was scarcely more than a skirmish. A handful of the 2d Battalion of Fusilliers, a squadron or two of Uhlans, and a battery of Prussian artillery have for days faced and held in check a whole French division. When they were attacked they tranquilly turned a bold front to the French, made a devil of a racket with their cannon, and slipped across the frontier with trifling loss. If the French are going to celebrate this as a victory, Europe will laugh--"


He paused, frowning and biting his pencil. Presently he noticed that several troopers of the Hundred-Guards were watching him from the street; sentinels of the same corps were patrolling the garden, their long, bayoneted carbines over their steel-bound shoulders. At the same moment his eyes fell upon the old officer beside him. The officer raised his head.

It was the Emperor, Napoleon III.

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