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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLorraine: A Romance - Chapter 9. Saarbrueck
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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 9. Saarbrueck Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1766

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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 9. Saarbrueck

CHAPTER IX. SAARBRUeCK

On the first day of August, late in the afternoon, a peasant driving an exhausted horse pulled up at the Chateau Morteyn, where Jack Marche stood on the terrace, smoking and cutting at leaves with his riding-crop.

"What's the matter, Passerat?" asked Jack, good-humouredly; "are the Prussians in the valley?"

"You are right, Monsieur Marche--the Prussians have crossed the Saar!" blurted out the man. His face was agitated, and he wiped the sweat from his cheeks with the sleeve of his blouse.

"Nonsense!" said Jack, sharply.

"Monsieur--I saw them! They chased me--the Uhlans with their spears and devilish yellow horses."

"Where?" demanded Jack, with an incredulous shrug.

"I had been to Forbach, where my cousin Passerat is a miner in the coal-mines. This morning I left to drive to Saint-Lys, having in my wagon these sacks of coal that my cousin Passerat procured for me, a prix reduit. It would take all day; I did not care--I had bread and red wine--you understand, my cousin Passerat and I, we had been gay in Saint-Avold, too--dame! we see each other seldom. I may have had more eau-de-vie than another--it is permitted on fete-days! Monsieur, I was tired--I possibly slept--the road was hot. Then something awakes me; I rub my eyes--behold me awake!--staring dumfounded at what? Parbleu!--at two ugly Uhlans sitting on their yellow horses on a hill! 'No! no!' I cry to myself; 'it is impossible!' It is a bad dream! Dieu de Dieu! It is no dream! My Uhlans come galloping down the hill; I hear them bawling 'Halt! Wer da!' It is terrible! 'Passerat!' I shriek, 'it is the hour to vanish!'"

The man paused, overcome by emotions and eau-de-vie.

"Well," said Jack, "go on!"

"And I am here, monsieur," ended the peasant, hazily.

"Passerat, you said you had taken too much eau-de-vie?" suggested Jack, with a smile of encouragement.

"Much? Monsieur, you do not believe me?"

"I believe you had a dream."

"Bon," said the peasant, "I want no more such dreams."

"Are you going to inform the mayor of Saint-Lys?" asked Jack.

"Of course," muttered Passerat, gathering up his reins; "heu! da-da! heu! cocotte! en route!" and he rattled sulkily away, perhaps a little uncertain himself as to the concreteness of his recent vision.

Jack looked after him.

"There might be something in it," he mused, "but, dear me! his nose is unpleasantly--sunburned."

That same morning, Lorraine had announced her decision. It was that Jack might accept the position of special, or rather occasional, war correspondent for the New York _Herald if he would promise not to remain absent for more than a day at a time. This, Jack thought, practically nullified the consent, for what in the world could a man see of the campaign under such circumstances? Still, he did not object; he was too happy.

"However," he thought, "I might ride over to Saarbrueck. Suppose I should be on hand at the first battle of the war?"

As a mere lad he had already seen service with the Austrians at Sadowa; he had risked his modest head more than once in the murderous province of Oran, where General Chanzy scoured the hot plains like a scourge of Allah.

He had lived, too, at headquarters, and shared the officers' mess where "cherba," "tadjines," "kous-kous," and "mechoin" formed the menu, and a "Kreima Kebira" served as his roof. He had done his duty as correspondent, merely because it was his duty; he would have preferred an easier assignment, for he took no pleasure in cruelty and death and the never-to-be-forgotten agony of proud, dark faces, where mud-stained turbans hung in ribbons and tinselled saddles reeked with Arab horses' blood.

War correspondent? It had happened to be his calling; but the accident of his profession had been none of his own seeking. Now that he needed nothing in the way of recompense, he hesitated to take it up again. Instinctive loyalty to his old newspaper was all that had induced him to entertain the idea. Loyalty and deference to Lorraine compelled him to modify his acceptance. Therefore it was not altogether idle curiosity, but partly a sense of obligation, that made him think of riding to Saarbrueck to see what he could see for his journal within the twenty-four-hour limit that Lorraine had set.

It was too late to ride over that evening and return in time to keep his word to Lorraine, so he decided to start at daybreak, realizing at the same time, with a pang, that it meant not seeing Lorraine all day.

He went up to his chamber and sat down to think. He would write a note to Lorraine; he had never done such a thing, and he hoped she might not find fault with him.

He tossed his riding-crop on to the desk, picked up a pen, and wrote carefully, ending the single page with, "It is reported that Uhlans have been encountered in the direction of Saarbrueck, and, although I do not believe it, I shall go there to-morrow and see for myself. I will be back within the twelve hours. May I ride over to tell you about these mythical Uhlans when I return?"

He called a groom and bade him drive to the Chateau de Nesville with the note. Then he went down to sit with the old vicomte and Madame de Morteyn until it came dinner-time, and the oil-lamps in the gilded salon were lighted, and the candles blazed up on either side of the gilt French clock.

After dinner he played chess with his uncle until the old man fell asleep in his chair. There was an interval of silence.

"Jack," said his aunt, "you are a dear, good boy. Tell me, do you love our little Lorraine?"

The suddenness of the question struck him dumb. His aunt smiled; her faded eyes were very tender and kindly, and she laid both frail hands on his shoulders.

"It is my wish," she said, in a low voice; "remember that, Jack. Now go and walk on the terrace, for she will surely answer your note."

"How--how did you know I wrote her?" he stammered.

"When a young man sends his aunt's servants on such very unorthodox errands, what can he expect, especially when those servants are faithful?"

"That groom told you, Aunt Helen?"

"Yes. Jack, these French servants don't understand such things. Be more careful, for Lorraine's sake."

"But--I will--but did the note reach her?"

His aunt smiled. "Yes. I took the responsibility upon myself, and there will be no gossip."

Jack leaned over and kissed the amused mouth, and the old lady gave him a little hug and told him to go and walk on the terrace.

The groom was already there, holding a note in one hand, gilt-banded cap in the other.

His first letter from Lorraine! He opened it feverishly. In the middle of a thin sheet of note-paper was written the motto of the De Nesvilles, "Tiens ta Foy."

Beneath, in a girlish hand, a single line:


"I shall wait for you at dusk. Lorraine."


All night long, as he lay half asleep on his pillow, the words repeated themselves in his drowsy brain: "Tiens ta Foy!" "Tiens ta Foy!" (Keep thy Faith!). Aye, he would keep it unto death--he knew it even in his slumber. But he did not know how near to death that faith might lead him.

The wood-sparrows were chirping outside his window when he awoke. It was scarcely dawn, but he heard the maid knocking at his door, and the rattle of silver and china announced the morning coffee.

He stepped from his bed into the tub of cold water, yawning and shivering, but the pallor of his skin soon gave place to a healthy glow, and his clean-cut body and strong young limbs hardened and grew pink and firm again under the coarse towel.

Breakfast he ate hastily by candle-light, and presently he dressed, buckled his spurs over the insteps, caught up gloves, cap, and riding-crop, and, slinging a field-glass over his Norfolk jacket, lighted a pipe and went noiselessly down-stairs.

There was a chill in the gray dawn as he mounted and rode out through the shadowy portals of the wrought-iron grille; a vapour, floating like loose cobwebs, undulated above the placid river; the tree-tops were festooned with mist. Save for the distant chatter of wood-sparrows, stirring under the eaves of the Chateau, the stillness was profound.

As he left the park and cantered into the broad red highway, he turned in his saddle and looked towards the Chateau de Nesville. At first he could not see it, but as he rode over the bridge he caught a glimpse of the pointed roof and single turret, a dim silhouette through the mist. Then it vanished in the films of fog.

The road to Saarbrueck was a military road, and easy travelling. The character of the country had changed as suddenly as a drop-scene falls in a theatre; for now all around stretched fields cut into squares by hedges--fields deep-laden with heavy-fruited strawberries, white and crimson. Currants, too, glowed like strung rubies frosted with the dew; plum-trees spread little pale shadows across the ruddy earth, and beyond them the disk of the sun appeared, pushing upward behind a half-ploughed hill. Everywhere slender fruit-trees spread their grafted branches; everywhere in the crumbling furrows of the soil, warm as ochre, the bunched strawberries hung like drops of red wine under the sun-bronzed leaves.

The sun was an hour high when he walked his horse up the last hill that hides the valley of the Saar. Already, through the constant rushing melody of bird music, his ears had distinguished another sound--a low, incessant hum, monotonous, interminable as the noise of a stream in a gorge. It was not the river Saar moving over its bed of sand and yellow pebbles; it was not the breeze in the furze. He knew what it was; he had heard it before, in Oran--in the stillness of dawn, where, below, among the shadowy plains, an army was awaking under dim tents.

And now his horse's head rose up black against the sky; now the valley broke into view below, gray, indistinct in the shadows, crossed by ghostly lines of poplars that dwindled away to the horizon.

At the same instant something moved in the fields to the left, and a shrill voice called: "Qui-vive?" Before he could draw bridle blue-jacketed cavalrymen were riding at either stirrup, carbine on thigh, peering curiously into his face, pushing their active light-bay horses close to his big black horse.

Jack laughed good-humouredly and fumbled in the breast of his Norfolk jacket for his papers.

"I'm only a special," he said; "I think you'll find the papers in order--if not, you've only to gallop back to the Chateau Morteyn to verify them."

An officer with a bewildering series of silver arabesques on either sleeve guided a nervous horse through the throng of troopers, returned Jack's pleasant salute, reached out a gloved hand for his papers, and read them, sitting silently in his saddle. When he finished, he removed the cigarette from his lips, looked eagerly at Jack, and said:

"You are from Morteyn?"

"Yes."

"A guest?"

"The Vicomte de Morteyn is my uncle."

The officer burst into a boyish laugh.

"Jack Marche!"

"Eh!" cried Jack, startled.

Then he looked more closely at the young officer before him, who was laughing in his face.

"Well, upon my word! No--it can't be little Georges Carriere?"

"Yes, it can!" cried the other, briskly; "none of your damned airs, Jack! Embrace me, my son!"

"My son, I won't!" said Jack, leaning forward joyously--"the idea! Little Georges calls me his son! And he's learning the paternal tricks of the old generals, and doubtless he calls his troopers 'mes enfants,' and--"

"Oh, shut up!" said Georges, giving him an impetuous hug; "what are you up to now--more war correspondence? For the same old _Herald_? Nom d'une pipe! It's cooler here than in Oran. It'll be hotter, too--in another way," with a gay gesture towards the valley below. "Jack Marche, tell me all about everything!"

On either side the blue-jacketed troopers fell back, grinning with sympathy as Georges guided his horse into a field on the right, motioning Jack to follow.

"We can talk here a bit," he said; "you've lots of time to ride on. Now, fire ahead!"

Jack told him of the three years spent in idleness, of the vapid life in Paris, the long summers in Brittany, his desire to learn to paint, and his despair when he found he couldn't.

"I can sketch like the mischief, though," he said. "Now tell me about Oran, and our dear General Chanzy, and that devil's own 'Legion,' and the Hell's Selected 2d Zouaves! Do you remember that day at Damas when Chanzy visited the Emir Abd-el-Kader at Doummar, and the fifteen Spahis of the escort, and that little imp of the Legion who was caught roaming around the harem, and--"

Georges burst into a laugh.

"I can't answer all that in a second! Wait! Do you want to know about Chanzy? Well, he's still in Bel-Abbes, and he's been named commander of the Legion of Honour, and he's no end of a swell. He'll be coming back now that we've got to chase these sausage-eaters across the Rhine. Look at me! You used to say that I'd stopped growing and could never aspire to a mustache! Now look! Eh? Five feet eleven and--_what do you think of my mustache? Oh, that African sun sets things growing! I'm lieutenant, too."

"Does the African sun also influence your growth in the line of promotion?" asked Jack, grinning.

"Same old farceur, too!" mused Georges. "Now, what the mischief are you doing here? Oh, you are staying at Morteyn?"

"Yes."

"I--er--I used to visit another house--er--near by. You know the Marquis de Nesville?" asked Georges, innocently.

"I? Oh yes."

"You have--perhaps you have met Mademoiselle de Nesville?"

"Yes," said Jack, shortly.

"Oh."

There was a silence. Jack shuffled his booted toes in his stirrups; Georges looked out across the valley.

In the valley the vapours were rising; behind the curtain of shredded mist the landscape lay hilly, nearly treeless, cut by winding roads and rank on rank of spare poplars. Farther away clumps of woods appeared, and little hillocks, and now, as the air cleared, the spire of a church glimmered. Suddenly a thin line of silver cut the landscape beyond the retreating fog. The Saar!

"Where are the Prussians?" asked Jack, breaking the silence.

Georges laid his gloved hand on his companion's arm.

"Do you see that spire? That is Saarbrueck. They are there."

"This side of the Rhine, too?"

"Yes," said Georges, reddening a little; "wait, my friend."

"They must have crossed the Saar on the bridges from Saint-Johann, then. I heard that Uhlans had been signalled near the Saar, but I didn't believe it. Uhlans in France? Georges, when are you fellows going to chase them back?"

"This morning--you're just in time, as usual," said Georges, airily. "Do you want me to give you an idea of our positions? Listen, then: we're massed along the frontier from Sierk and Metz to Hagenau and Strasbourg. The Prussians lie at right angles to us, from Mainz to Lauterburg and from Trier to Saarbrueck. Except near Saarbrueck they are on their side of the boundary, let me tell you! Look! Now you can see Forbach through the trees. We're there and we're at Saint-Avold and Bitsch and Saargemuend, too. As for me, I'm with this damned rear-guard, and I count tents and tin pails, and I raise the devil with stragglers and generally ennui myself. I'm no gendarme! There's a regiment of gendarmes five miles north, and I don't see why they can't do depot duty and police this country."

"The same child--kicking, kicking, kicking!" observed Jack. "You ought to thank your luck that you are a spectator for once. Give me your glass."

He raised the binoculars and levelled them at the valley.

"Hello! I didn't see those troops before. Infantry, eh? And there goes a regiment--no, a brigade--no, a division, at least, of cavalry. I see cuirassiers, too. Good heavens! Their breastplates take the sun like heliographs! There are troops everywhere; there's an artillery train on that road beyond Saint-Avold. Here, take the glasses."

"Keep them--I know where they are. What time is it, Jack? My repeater is running wild--as if it were chasing Prussians."

"It's half-past nine; I had no idea that it was so late! Ha! there goes a mass of infantry along the hill. See it? They're headed for Saarbrueck! Georges, what's that big marquee in the wheat-field?"

"The Emperor is there," said Georges, proudly; "those troopers are the Cuirassiers of the Hundred-Guards. See their white mantles? The Prince Imperial is there, too. Poor little man--he looks so tired and bewildered."

Jack kept his glasses fixed on the white dot that marked the imperial headquarters, but the air was hazy and the distance too great to see anything except specks and points of white and black, slowly shifting, gathering, and collecting again in the grain-field, that looked like a tiny square of pale gilt on the hill-top.

Suddenly a spot of white vapour appeared over the spire of Saarbrueck, then another, then three together, little round clouds that hung motionless, wavered, split, and disappeared in the sunshine, only to be followed by more round cloud clots. A moment later the dull mutter of cannon disturbed the morning air, distant rumblings and faint shocks that seemed to come from an infinite distance.

Jack handed back the binoculars and opened his own field-glasses in silence. Neither spoke, but they instinctively leaned forward, side by side, sweeping the panorama with slow, methodical movements, glasses firmly levelled. And now, in the valley below, the long roads grew black with moving columns of cavalry and artillery; the fields on either side were alive with infantry, dim red squares and oblongs, creeping across the landscape towards that line of silver, the Saar.

"It's a flank movement on Wissembourg," said Jack, suddenly; "or are they swinging around to take Saint-Johann from the north?"

"Watch Saarbrueck," muttered Georges between his teeth.

The slow seconds crept into minutes, the minutes into hours, as they waited there, fascinated. Already the sharper rattle of musketry broke out on the hills south of the Saar, and the projectiles fell fast in the little river, beyond which the single spire of Saarbrueck rose, capped with the smoke of exploding shells.

Jack sat sketching in a canvas-covered book, raising his brown eyes from time to time, or writing on a pad laid flat on his saddle-pommel.

The two young fellows conversed in low tones, laughing quietly or smoking in absorbed silence, and even their subdued voices were louder than the roll of the distant cannonade.

Suddenly the wind changed and their ears were filled with the hollow boom of cannon. And now, nearer than they could have believed, the crash of volley firing mingled with the whirring crackle of gatlings and the spattering rattle of Montigny mitrailleuses from the Guard artillery.

"Fichtre!" said Georges, with a shrug, "not only dancing, but music! What are you sketching, Jack? Let me see. Hm! Pretty good--for you. You've got Forbach too near, though. I wonder what the Emperor is doing. It seems too bad to drag that sick child of his out to see a lot of men fall over dead. Poor little Lulu!"

"Kicking, kicking ever!" murmured Jack; "the same fierce Republican, eh? I've no sympathy with you--I'm too American."

"Cheap cynicism," observed Georges. "Hello!--here's an aide-de-camp with orders. Wait a second, will you?" and the young fellow gathered bridle and galloped out into the high-road, where his troopers stood around an officer wearing the black-and-scarlet of the artillery. A moment later a bugle began to sound the assembly; blue-clad cavalrymen appeared as by magic from every thicket, every field, every hollow, while below, in the nearer valley, another bugle, shrill and fantastic, summoned the squadrons to the colours. Already the better part of a regiment had gathered, four abreast, along the red road. Jack could see their eagles now, gilt and circled with gilded wreaths.

He pocketed sketch-book and pad and turned his horse out through the fields to the road.

"We're off!" laughed Georges. "Thank God! and the devil take the rear-guard! Will you ride with us, Jack? We've driven the Prussians across the Saar."

He turned to his troopers and signalled the trumpeter. "Trot!" he cried; and the squadron of hussars moved off down the hill in a whirl of dust and flying pebbles.

Jack wheeled his horse and brought him alongside of Georges' wiry mount.

"It didn't last long--eh, old chap?" laughed the youthful hussar; "only from ten o'clock till noon--eh? It's not quite noon yet. We're to join the regiment, but where we're going after that I don't know. They say the Prussians have quit Saarbrueck in a hurry. I suppose we'll be in Germany to-night, and then--vlan! vlan! eh, old fellow? We'll be out for a long campaign. I'd like to see Berlin--I wish I spoke German."

"They say," said Jack, "that most of the German officers speak French."

"Bird of ill-omen, croaker, cease! What the devil do we want to learn German for? I can say, 'Wein, Weib, und Gesang,' and that's enough for any French hussar to know."

They had come up with the whole regiment now, which was moving slowly down the valley, and Georges reported to his captain, who in turn reported to the major, who presently had a confab with the colonel. Then far away at the head of the column the mounted band began the regimental march, a gay air with plenty of trombone and kettle-drum in it, and the horses ambled and danced in sympathy, with an accompaniment of rattling carbines and clinking, clashing sabre-scabbards.

"Quelle farandole!" laughed Georges. "Are you going all the way to Berlin with us? Pst! Look! There go the Hundred-Guards! The Emperor is coming back from the front. It's all over with the sausage-eaters, et puis--bon-soir, Bismarck!"

Far away, across the hills, the white mantles of the Hundred-Guards flashed in the sunshine, rising, falling, as the horses plunged up the hills. For a moment Jack caught a glimpse of a carriage in the distance, a carriage preceded by outriders in crimson and gold, and followed by a mass of glittering cuirassiers.

"It's the Emperor. Listen, we are going to cheer," cried Georges. He rose in his saddle and drew his sabre, and at the same instant a deep roar shook the regiment to its centre--

"Vive l'Empereur!"

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