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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 4
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The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 4 Post by :CareyInternet Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :2487

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The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 4


On Tuesday, the 23d of August, at six o'clock in the morning, camp was broken, and as a stream that has momentarily expanded into a lake resumes its course again, the hundred and odd thousand men of the army of Chalons put themselves in motion and soon were pouring onward in a resistless torrent; and notwithstanding the rumors that had been current since the preceding day, it was a great surprise to most to see that instead of continuing their retrograde movement they were leaving Paris behind them and turning their faces toward the unknown regions of the East.

At five o'clock in the morning the 7th corps was still unsupplied with cartridges. For two days the artillerymen had been working like beavers to unload the _materiel_, horses, and stores that had been streaming from Metz into the overcrowded station, and it was only at the very last moment that some cars of cartridges were discovered among the tangled trains, and that a detail which included Jean among its numbers was enabled to bring back two hundred and forty thousand on carts that they had hurriedly requisitioned. Jean distributed the regulation number, one hundred cartridges to a man, among his squad, just as Gaude, the company bugler, sounded the order to march.

The 106th was not to pass through Rheims, their orders being to turn the city and debouch into the Chalons road farther on, but on this occasion there was the usual failure to regulate the order and time of marching, so that, the four corps having commenced to move at the same moment, they collided when they came out upon the roads that they were to traverse in common and the result was inextricable confusion. Cavalry and artillery were constantly cutting in among the infantry and bringing them to a halt; whole brigades were compelled to leave the road and stand at ordered arms in the plowed fields for more than an hour, waiting until the way should be cleared. And to make matters worse, they had hardly left the camp when a terrible storm broke over them, the rain pelting down in torrents, drenching the men completely and adding intolerably to the weight of knapsacks and great-coats. Just as the rain began to hold up, however, the 106th saw a chance to go forward, while some zouaves in an adjoining field, who were forced to wait yet for a while, amused themselves by pelting one another with balls of moist earth, and the consequent condition of their uniforms afforded them much merriment.

The sun suddenly came shining out again in the clear sky, the warm, bright sun of an August morning, and with it came returning gayety; the men were steaming like a wash of linen hung out to dry in the open air: the moisture evaporated from their clothing in little more time than it takes to tell it, and when they were warm and dry again, like dogs who shake the water from them when they emerge from a pond, they chaffed one another good-naturedly on their bedraggled appearance and the splashes of mud on their red trousers. Wherever two roads intersected another halt was necessitated; the last one was in a little village just beyond the walls of the city, in front of a small saloon that seemed to be doing a thriving business. Thereon it occurred to Maurice to treat the squad to a drink, by way of wishing them all good luck.

"Corporal, will you allow me--"

Jean, after hesitating a moment, accepted a "pony" of brandy for himself. Loubet and Chouteau were of the party (the latter had been watchful and submissive since that day when the corporal had evinced a disposition to use his heavy fists), and also Pache and Lapoulle, a couple of very decent fellows when there was no one to set them a bad example.

"Your good health, corporal!" said Chouteau in a respectful, whining tone.

"Thank you; here's hoping that you may bring back your head and all your legs and arms!" Jean politely replied, while the others laughed approvingly.

But the column was about to move; Captain Beaudoin came up with a scandalized look on his face and a reproof at the tip of his tongue, while Lieutenant Rochas, more indulgent to the small weaknesses of his men, turned his head so as not to see what was going on. And now they were stepping out at a good round pace along the Chalons road, which stretched before them for many a long league, bordered with trees on either side, undeviatingly straight, like a never-ending ribbon unrolled between the fields of yellow stubble that were dotted here and there with tall stacks and wooden windmills brandishing their lean arms. More to the north were rows of telegraph poles, indicating the position of other roads, on which they could distinguish the black, crawling lines of other marching regiments. In many places the troops had left the highway and were moving in deep columns across the open plain. To the left and front a cavalry brigade was seen, jogging along at an easy trot in a blaze of sunshine. The entire wide horizon, usually so silent and deserted, was alive and populous with those streams of men, pressing onward, onward, in long drawn, black array, like the innumerable throng of insects from some gigantic ant-hill.

About nine o'clock the regiment left the Chalons road and wheeled to the left into another that led to Suippe, which, like the first, extended, straight as an arrow's flight, far as the eye could see. The men marched at the route-step in two straggling files along either side of the road, thus leaving the central space free for the officers, and Maurice could not help noticing their anxious, care-worn air, in striking contrast with the jollity and good-humor of the soldiers, who were happy as children to be on the move once more. As the squad was near the head of the column he could even distinguish the Colonel, M. de Vineuil, in the distance, and was impressed by the grave earnestness of his manner, and his tall, rigid form, swaying in cadence to the motion of his charger. The band had been sent back to the rear, to keep company with the regimental wagons; it played but once during that entire campaign. Then came the ambulances and engineer's train attached to the division, and succeeding that the corps train, an interminable procession of forage wagons, closed vans for stores, carts for baggage, and vehicles of every known description, occupying a space of road nearly four miles in length, and which, at the infrequent curves in the highway, they could see winding behind them like the tail of some great serpent. And last of all, at the extreme rear of the column, came the herds, "rations on the hoof," a surging, bleating, bellowing mass of sheep and oxen, urged on by blows and raising clouds of dust, reminding one of the old warlike peoples of the East and their migrations.

Lapoulle meantime would every now and then give a hitch of his shoulders in an attempt to shift the weight of his knapsack when it began to be too heavy. The others, alleging that he was the strongest, were accustomed to make him carry the various utensils that were common to the squad, including the big kettle and the water-pail; on this occasion they had even saddled him with the company shovel, assuring him that it was a badge of honor. So far was he from complaining that he was now laughing at a song with which Loubet, the tenor of the squad, was trying to beguile the tedium of the way. Loubet had made himself quite famous by reason of his knapsack, in which was to be found a little of everything: linen, an extra pair of shoes, haberdashery, chocolate, brushes, a plate and cup, to say nothing of his regular rations of biscuit and coffee, and although the all-devouring receptacle also contained his cartridges, and his blankets were rolled on top of it, together with the shelter-tent and stakes, the load nevertheless appeared light, such an excellent system he had of packing his trunk, as he himself expressed it.

"It's a beastly country, all the same!" Chouteau kept repeating from time to time, casting a look of intense disgust over the dreary plains of "lousy Champagne."

Broad expanses of chalky ground of a dirty white lay before and around them, and seemed to have no end. Not a farmhouse to be seen anywhere, not a living being; nothing but flocks of crows, forming small spots of blackness on the immensity of the gray waste. On the left, far away in the distance, the low hills that bounded the horizon in that direction were crowned by woods of somber pines, while on the right an unbroken wall of trees indicated the course of the river Vesle. But over there behind the hills they had seen for the last hour a dense smoke was rising, the heavy clouds of which obscured the sky and told of a dreadful conflagration raging at no great distance.

"What is burning over there?" was the question that was on the lips of everyone.

The answer was quickly given and ran through the column from front to rear. The camp of Chalons had been fired, it was said, by order of the Emperor, to keep the immense collection of stores there from falling into the hands of the Prussians, and for the last two days it had been going up in flame and smoke. The cavalry of the rear-guard had been instructed to apply the torch to two immense warehouses, filled with tents, tent-poles, mattresses, clothing, shoes, blankets, mess utensils, supplies of every kind sufficient for the equipment of a hundred thousand men. Stacks of forage also had been lighted, and were blazing like huge beacon-fires, and an oppressive silence settled down upon the army as it pursued its march across the wide, solitary plain at sight of that dusky, eddying column that rose from behind the distant hills, filling the heavens with desolation. All that was to be heard in the bright sunlight was the measured tramp of many feet upon the hollow ground, while involuntarily the eyes of all were turned on that livid cloud whose baleful shadows rested on their march for many a league.

Their spirits rose again when they made their midday halt in a field of stubble, where the men could seat themselves on their unslung knapsacks and refresh themselves with a bite. The large square biscuits could only be eaten by crumbling them in the soup, but the little round ones were quite a delicacy, light and appetizing; the only trouble was that they left an intolerable thirst behind them. Pache sang a hymn, being invited thereto, the squad joining in the chorus. Jean smiled good-naturedly without attempting to check them in their amusement, while Maurice, at sight of the universal cheerfulness and the good order with which their first day's march was conducted, felt a revival of confidence. The remainder of the allotted task of the day was performed with the same light-hearted alacrity, although the last five miles tried their endurance. They had abandoned the high road, leaving the village of Prosnes to their right, in order to avail themselves of a short cut across a sandy heath diversified by an occasional thin pine wood, and the entire division, with its interminable train at its heels, turned and twisted in and out among the trees, sinking ankle deep in the yielding sand at every step. It seemed as if the cheerless waste would never end; all that they met was a flock of very lean sheep, guarded by a big black dog.

It was about four o'clock when at last the 106th halted for the night at Dontrien, a small village on the banks of the Suippe. The little stream winds among some pretty groves of trees; the old church stands in the middle of the graveyard, which is shaded in its entire extent by a magnificent chestnut. The regiment pitched its tents on the left bank, in a meadow that sloped gently down to the margin of the river. The officers said that all the four corps would bivouac that evening on the line of the Suippe between Auberive and Hentregiville, occupying the intervening villages of Dontrien, Betheniville and Pont-Faverger, making a line of battle nearly five leagues long.

Gaude immediately gave the call for "distribution," and Jean had to run for it, for the corporal was steward-in-chief, and it behooved him to be on the lookout to protect his men's interests. He had taken Lapoulle with him, and in a quarter of an hour they returned with some ribs of beef and a bundle of firewood. In the short space of time succeeding their arrival three steers of the herd that followed the column had been knocked in the head under a great oak-tree, skinned, and cut up. Lapoulle had to return for bread, which the villagers of Dontrien had been baking all that afternoon in their ovens. There was really no lack of anything on that first day, setting aside wine and tobacco, with which the troops were to be obliged to dispense during the remainder of the campaign.

Upon Jean's return he found Chouteau engaged in raising the tent, assisted by Pache; he looked at them for a moment with the critical eye of an old soldier who had no great opinion of their abilities.

"It will do very well if the weather is fine to-night," he said at last, "but if it should come on to blow we would like enough wake up and find ourselves in the river. Let me show you."

And he was about to send Maurice with the large pail for water, but the young man had sat down on the ground, taken off his shoe, and was examining his right foot.

"Hallo, there! what's the matter with you?"

"My shoe has chafed my foot and raised a blister. My other shoes were worn out, and when we were at Rheims I bought these, like a big fool, because they were a good fit. I should have selected gunboats."

Jean kneeled and took the foot in his hand, turning it over as carefully as if it had been a little child's, with a disapproving shake of his head.

"You must be careful; it is no laughing matter, a thing like that. A soldier without the use of his feet is of no good to himself or anyone else. When we were in Italy my captain used always to say that it is the men's legs that win battles."

He bade Pache go for the water, no very hard task, as the river was but a few yards away, and Loubet, having in the meantime dug a shallow trench and lit his fire, was enabled to commence operations on his _pot-au-feu_, which he did by putting on the big kettle full of water and plunging into it the meat that he had previously corded together with a bit of twine, _secundum artem_. Then it was solid comfort for them to watch the boiling of the soup; the whole squad, their chores done up and their day's labor ended, stretched themselves on the grass around the fire in a family group, full of tender anxiety for the simmering meat, while Loubet occasionally stirred the pot with a gravity fitted to the importance of his position. Like children and savages, their sole instinct was to eat and sleep, careless of the morrow, while advancing to face unknown risks and dangers.

But Maurice had unpacked his knapsack and come across a newspaper that he had bought at Rheims, and Chouteau asked:

"Is there anything about the Prussians in it? Read us the news!"

They were a happy family under Jean's mild despotism. Maurice good-naturedly read such news as he thought might interest them, while Pache, the seamstress of the company, mended his greatcoat for him and Lapoulle cleaned his musket. The first item was a splendid victory won by Bazaine, who had driven an entire Prussian corps into the quarries of Jaumont, and the trumped-up tale was told with an abundance of dramatic detail, how men and horses went over the precipice and were crushed on the rocks beneath out of all semblance of humanity, so that there was not one whole corpse found for burial. Then there were minute details of the pitiable condition of the German armies ever since they had invaded France: the ill-fed, poorly equipped soldiers were actually falling from inanition and dying by the roadside of horrible diseases. Another article told how the king of Prussia had the diarrhea, and how Bismarck had broken his leg in jumping from the window of an inn where a party of zouaves had just missed capturing him. Capital news! Lapoulle laughed over it as if he would split his sides, while Chouteau and the others, without expressing the faintest doubt, chuckled at the idea that soon they would be picking up Prussians as boys pick up sparrows in a field after a hail-storm. But they laughed loudest at old Bismarck's accident; oh! the zouaves and the turcos, they were the boys for one's money! It was said that the Germans were in an ecstasy of fear and rage, declaring that it was unworthy of a nation that claimed to be civilized to employ such heathen savages in its armies. Although they had been decimated at Froeschwiller, the foreign troops seemed to have a good deal of life left in them.

It was just striking six from the steeple of the little church of Dontrien when Loubet shouted:

"Come to supper!"

The squad lost no time in seating themselves in a circle. At the very last moment Loubet had succeeded in getting some vegetables from a peasant who lived hard by. That made the crowning glory of the feast: a soup perfumed with carrots and onions, that went down the throat soft as velvet--what could they have desired more? The spoons rattled merrily in the little wooden bowls. Then it devolved on Jean, who always served the portions, to distribute the beef, and it behooved him that day to do it with the strictest impartiality, for hungry eyes were watching him and there would have been a growl had anyone received a larger piece than his neighbors. They concluded by licking the porringers, and were smeared with soup up to their eyes.

"Ah, _nom de Dieu!_" Chouteau declared when he had finished, throwing himself flat on his back; "I would rather take that than a beating, any day!"

Maurice, too, whose foot pained him less now that he could give it a little rest, was conscious of that sensation of well-being that is the result of a full stomach. He was beginning to take more kindly to his rough companions, and to bring himself down nearer to their level under the pressure of the physical necessities of their life in common. That night he slept the same deep sleep as did his five tent-mates; they all huddled close together, finding the sensation of animal warmth not disagreeable in the heavy dew that fell. It is necessary to state that Lapoulle, at the instigation of Loubet, had gone to a stack not far away and feloniously appropriated a quantity of straw, in which our six gentlemen snored as if it had been a bed of down. And from Auberive to Hentregiville, along the pleasant banks of the Suippe as it meandered sluggishly between its willows, the fires of those hundred thousand sleeping men illuminated the starlit night for fifteen miles, like a long array of twinkling stars.

At sunrise they made coffee, pulverizing the berries in a wooden bowl with a musket-butt, throwing the powder into boiling water, and settling it with a drop of cold water. The luminary rose that morning in a bank of purple and gold, affording a spectacle of royal magnificence, but Maurice had no eye for such displays, and Jean, with the weather-wisdom of a peasant, cast an anxious glance at the red disk, which presaged rain; and it was for that reason that, the surplus of bread baked the day before having been distributed and the squad having received three loaves, he reproved severely Loubet and Pache for making them fast on the outside of their knapsacks; but the tents were folded and the knapsacks packed, and so no one paid any attention to him. Six o'clock was sounding from all the bells of the village when the army put itself in motion and stoutly resumed its advance in the bright hopefulness of the dawn of the new day.

The 106th, in order to reach the road that leads from Rheims to Vouziers, struck into a cross-road, and for more than an hour their way was an ascending one. Below them, toward the north, Betheniville was visible among the trees, where the Emperor was reported to have slept, and when they reached the Vouziers road the level country of the preceding day again presented itself to their gaze and the lean fields of "lousy Champagne" stretched before them in wearisome monotony. They now had the Arne, an insignificant stream, flowing on their left, while to the right the treeless, naked country stretched far as the eye could see in an apparently interminable horizon. They passed through a village or two: Saint-Clement, with its single winding street bordered by a double row of houses, Saint-Pierre, a little town of miserly rich men who had barricaded their doors and windows. The long halt occurred about ten o'clock, near another village, Saint-Etienne, where the men were highly delighted to find tobacco once more. The 7th corps had been cut up into several columns, and the 106th headed one of these columns, having behind it only a battalion of chasseurs and the reserve artillery. Maurice turned his head at every bend in the road to catch a glimpse of the long train that had so excited his interest the day before, but in vain; the herds had gone off in some other direction, and all he could see was the guns, looming inordinately large upon those level plains, like monster insects of somber mien.

After leaving Saint-Etienne, however, there was a change for the worse, and the road from bad became abominable, rising by an easy ascent between great sterile fields in which the only signs of vegetation were the everlasting pine woods with their dark verdure, forming a dismal contrast with the gray-white soil. It was the most forlorn spot they had seen yet. The ill-paved road, washed by the recent rains, was a lake of mud, of tenacious, slippery gray clay, which held the men's feet like so much pitch. It was wearisome work; the troops were exhausted and could not get forward, and as if things were not bad enough already, the rain suddenly began to come down most violently. The guns were mired and had to be left in the road.

Chouteau, who had been given the squad's rice to carry, fatigued and exasperated with his heavy load, watched for an opportunity when no one was looking and dropped the package. But Loubet had seen him.

"See here, that's no way! you ought not to do that. The comrades will be hungry by and by."

"Let be!" replied Chouteau. "There is plenty of rice; they will give us more at the end of the march."

And Loubet, who had the bacon, convinced by such cogent reasoning, dropped his load in turn.

Maurice was suffering more and more with his foot, of which the heel was badly inflamed. He limped along in such a pitiable state that Jean's sympathy was aroused.

"Does it hurt? is it no better, eh?" And as the men were halted just then for a breathing spell, he gave him a bit of good advice. "Take off your shoe and go barefoot; the cool earth will ease the pain."

And in that way Maurice found that he could keep up with his comrades with some degree of comfort; he experienced a sentiment of deep gratitude. It was a piece of great good luck that their squad had a corporal like him, a man who had seen service and knew all the tricks of the trade: he was an uncultivated peasant, of course, but a good fellow all the same.

It was late when they reached their place of bivouac at Contreuve, after marching a long time on the Chalons and Vouziers road and descending by a steep path into the valley of the Semide, up which they came through a stretch of narrow meadows. The landscape had undergone a change; they were now in the Ardennes, and from the lofty hills above the village where the engineers had staked off the ground for the 7th corps' camp, the valley of the Aisne was dimly visible in the distance, veiled in the pale mists of the passing shower.

Six o'clock came and there had been no distribution of rations, whereon Jean, in order to keep occupied, apprehensive also of the consequences that might result from the high wind that was springing up, determined to attend in person to the setting up of the tent. He showed his men how it should be done, selecting a bit of ground that sloped away a little to one side, setting the pegs at the proper angle, and digging a little trench around the whole to carry off the water. Maurice was excused from the usual nightly drudgery on account of his sore foot, and was an interested witness of the intelligence and handiness of the big young fellow whose general appearance was so stolid and ungainly. He was completely knocked up with fatigue, but the confidence that they were now advancing with a definite end in view served to sustain him. They had had a hard time of it since they left Rheims, making nearly forty miles in two days' marching; if they could maintain the pace and if they kept straight on in the direction they were pursuing, there could be no doubt that they would destroy the second German army and effect a junction with Bazaine before the third, the Crown Prince of Prussia's, which was said to be at Vitry-le Francois, could get up to Verdun.

"Oh, come now! I wonder if they are going to let us starve!" was Chouteau's remark when, at seven o'clock, there was still no sign of rations.

By way of taking time by the forelock, Jean had instructed Loubet to light the fire and put on the pot, and, as there was no issue of firewood, he had been compelled to be blind to the slight irregularity of the proceeding when that individual remedied the omission by tearing the palings from an adjacent fence. When he suggested knocking up a dish of bacon and rice, however, the truth had to come out, and he was informed that the rice and bacon were lying in the mud of the Saint-Etienne road. Chouteau lied with the greatest effrontery declaring that the package must have slipped from his shoulders without his noticing it.

"You are a couple of pigs!" Jean shouted angrily, "to throw away good victuals, when there are so many poor devils going with an empty stomach!"

It was the same with the three loaves that had been fastened outside the knapsacks; they had not listened to his warning, and the consequence was that the rain had soaked the bread and reduced it to paste.

"A pretty pickle we are in!" he continued. "We had food in plenty, and now here we are, without a crumb! Ah! you are a pair of dirty pigs!"

At that moment the first sergeant's call was heard, and Sergeant Sapin, returning presently with his usual doleful air, informed the men that it would be impossible to distribute rations that evening, and that they would have to content themselves with what eatables they had on their persons. It was reported that the trains had been delayed by the bad weather, and as to the herds, they must have straggled off as a result of conflicting orders. Subsequently it became known that on that day the 5th and 12th corps had got up to Rethel, where the headquarters of the army were established, and the inhabitants of the neighboring villages, possessed with a mad desire to see the Emperor, had inaugurated a hegira toward that town, taking with them everything in the way of provisions; so that when the 7th corps came up they found themselves in a land of nakedness: no bread, no meat, no people, even. To add to their distress a misconception of orders had caused the supplies of the commissary department to be directed on Chene-Populeux. This was a state of affairs that during the entire campaign formed the despair of the wretched commissaries, who had to endure the abuse and execrations of the whole army, while their sole fault lay in being punctual at rendezvous at which the troops failed to appear.

"It serves you right, you dirty pigs!" continued Jean in his wrath, "and you don't deserve the trouble that I am going to have in finding you something to eat, for I suppose it is my duty not to let you starve, all the same." And he started off to see what he could find, as every good corporal does under such circumstances, taking with him Pache, who was a favorite on account of his quiet manner, although he considered him rather too priest-ridden.

But Loubet's attention had just been attracted to a little farmhouse, one of the last dwellings in Contreuve, some two or three hundred yards away, where there seemed to him to be promise of good results. He called Chouteau and Lapoulle to him and said:

"Come along, and let's see what we can do. I've a notion there's grub to be had over that way."

So Maurice was left to keep up the fire and watch the kettle, in which the water was beginning to boil. He had seated himself on his blanket and taken off his shoe in order to give his blister a chance to heal. It amused him to look about the camp and watch the behavior of the different squads now that there was to be no issue of rations; the deduction that he arrived at was that some of them were in a chronic state of destitution, while others reveled in continual abundance, and that these conditions were ascribable to the greater or less degree of tact and foresight of the corporal and his men. Amid the confusion that reigned about the stacks and tents he remarked some squads who had not been able even to start a fire, others of which the men had abandoned hope and lain themselves resignedly down for the night, while others again were ravenously devouring, no one knew what, something good, no doubt. Another thing that impressed him was the good order that prevailed in the artillery, which had its camp above him, on the hillside. The setting sun peeped out from a rift in the clouds and his rays were reflected from the burnished guns, from which the men had cleansed the coat of mud that they had picked up along the road.

In the meantime General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, commanding the brigade, had found quarters suited to his taste in the little farmhouse toward which the designs of Loubet and his companions were directed. He had discovered something that had the semblance of a bed and was seated at table with a roasted chicken and an omelette before him; consequently he was in the best of humors, and as Colonel de Vineuil happened in just then on regimental business, had invited him to dine. They were enjoying their repast, therefore, waited on by a tall, light-haired individual who had been in the farmer's service only three days and claimed to be an Alsatian, one of those who had been forced to leave their country after the disaster of Froeschwiller. The general did not seem to think it necessary to use any restraint in presence of the man, commenting freely on the movements of the army, and finally, forgetful of the fact that he was not an inhabitant of the country, began to question him about localities and distances. His questions displayed such utter ignorance of the country that the colonel, who had once lived at Mezieres, was astounded; he gave such information as he had at command, which elicited from the chief the exclamation:

"It is just like our idiotic government! How can they expect us to fight in a country of which we know nothing?"

The colonel's face assumed a look of vague consternation. He knew that immediately upon the declaration of war maps of Germany had been distributed among the officers, while it was quite certain that not one of them had a map of France. He was amazed and confounded by what he had seen and heard since the opening of the campaign. His unquestioned bravery was his distinctive trait; he was a somewhat weak and not very brilliant commander, which caused him to be more loved than respected in his regiment.

"It's too bad that a man can't eat his dinner in peace!" the general suddenly blurted out. "What does all that uproar mean? Go and see what the matter is, you Alsatian fellow!"

But the farmer anticipated him by appearing at the door, sobbing and gesticulating like a crazy man. They were robbing him, the zouaves and chasseurs were plundering his house. As he was the only one in the village who had anything to sell he had foolishly allowed himself to be persuaded to open shop. At first he had sold his eggs and chickens, his rabbits, and potatoes, without exacting an extortionate profit, pocketing his money and delivering the merchandise; then the customers had streamed in in a constantly increasing throng, jostling and worrying the old man, finally crowding him aside and taking all he had without pretense of payment. And thus it was throughout the war; if many peasants concealed their property and even denied a drink of water to the thirsty soldier, it was because of their fear of the irresistible inroads of that ocean of men, who swept everything clean before them, thrusting the wretched owners from their houses and beggaring them.

"Eh! will you hold your tongue, old man!" shouted the general in disgust. "Those rascals ought to be shot at the rate of a dozen a day. What is one to do?" And to avoid taking the measures that the case demanded he gave orders to close the door, while the colonel explained to him that there had been no issue of rations and the men were hungry.

While these things were going on within the house Loubet outside had discovered a field of potatoes; he and Lapoulle scaled the fence and were digging the precious tubers with their hands and stuffing their pockets with them when Chouteau, who in the pursuit of knowledge was looking over a low wall, gave a shrill whistle that called them hurriedly to his side. They uttered an exclamation of wonder and delight; there was a flock of geese, ten fat, splendid geese, pompously waddling about a small yard. A council of war was held forthwith, and it was decided that Lapoulle should storm the place and make prisoners of the garrison. The conflict was a bloody one; the venerable gander on which the soldier laid his predaceous hands had nearly deprived him of his nose with its bill, hard and sharp as a tailor's shears. Then he caught it by the neck and tried to choke it, but the bird tore his trousers with its strong claws and pummeled him about the body with its great wings. He finally ended the battle by braining it with his fist, and it had not ceased to struggle when he leaped the wall, hotly pursued by the remainder of the flock, pecking viciously at his legs.

When they got back to camp, with the unfortunate gander and the potatoes hidden in a bag, they found that Jean and Pache had also been successful in their expedition, and had enriched the common larder with four loaves of fresh bread and a cheese that they had purchased from a worthy old woman.

"The water is boiling and we will make some coffee," said the corporal. "Here are bread and cheese; it will be a regular feast!"

He could not help laughing, however, when he looked down and saw the goose lying at his feet. He raised it, examining and hefting it with the judgment of an expert.

"Ah! upon my word, a fine bird! it must weigh twenty pounds."

"We were out walking and met the bird," Loubet explained in an unctuously sanctimonious voice, "and it insisted on making our acquaintance."

Jean made no reply, but his manner showed that he wished to hear nothing more of the matter. Men must live, and then why in the name of common sense should not those poor fellows, who had almost forgotten how poultry tasted, have a treat once in a way!

Loubet had already kindled the fire into a roaring blaze; Pache and Lapoulle set to work to pluck the goose; Chouteau, who had run off to the artillerymen and begged a bit of twine, came back and stretched it between two bayonets; the bird was suspended in front of the hot fire and Maurice was given a cleaning rod and enjoined to keep it turning. The big tin basin was set beneath to catch the gravy. It was a triumph of culinary art; the whole regiment, attracted by the savory odor, came and formed a circle about the fire and licked their chops. And what a feast it was! roast goose, boiled potatoes, bread, cheese, and coffee! When Jean had dissected the bird the squad applied itself vigorously to the task before it; there was no talk of portions, every man ate as much as he was capable of holding. They even sent a plate full over to the artillerymen who had furnished the cord.

The officers of the regiment that evening were a very hungry set of men, for owing to some mistake the canteen wagon was among the missing, gone off to look after the corps train, maybe. If the men were inconvenienced when there was no issue of ration they scarcely ever failed to find something to eat in the end; they helped one another out; the men of the different squads "chipped in" their resources, each contributing his mite, while the officer, with no one to look to save himself, was in a fair way of starving as soon as he had not the canteen to fall back on. So there was a sneer on Chouteau's face, buried in the carcass of the goose, as he saw Captain Beaudoin go by with his prim, supercilious air, for he had heard that officer summoning down imprecations on the driver of the missing wagon; and he gave him an evil look out of the corner of his eye.

"Just look at him! See, his nose twitches like a rabbit's. He would give a dollar for the pope's nose."

They all made merry at the expense of the captain, who was too callow and too harsh to be a favorite with his men; they called him a _pete-sec_. He seemed on the point of taking the squad in hand for the scandal they were creating with their goose dinner, but thought better of the matter, ashamed, probably, to show his hunger, and walked off, holding his head very erect, as if he had seen nothing.

As for Lieutenant Rochas, who was also conscious of a terribly empty sensation in his epigastric region, he put on a brave face and laughed good-naturedly as he passed the thrice-lucky squad. His men adored him, in the first place because he was at sword's points with the captain, that little whipper-snapper from Saint-Cyr, and also because he had once carried a musket like themselves. He was not always easy to get along with, however, and there were times when they would have given a good deal could they have cuffed him for his brutality.

Jean glanced inquiringly at his comrades, and their mute reply being propitious, arose and beckoned to Rochas to follow him behind the tent.

"See here, Lieutenant, I hope you won't be offended, but if it is agreeable to you--"

And he handed him half a loaf of bread and a wooden bowl in which there were a second joint of the bird and six big mealy potatoes.

That night again the six men required no rocking; they digested their dinner while sleeping the sleep of the just. They had reason to thank the corporal for the scientific way in which he had set up their tent, for they were not even conscious of a small hurricane that blew up about two o'clock, accompanied by a sharp down-pour of rain; some of the tents were blown down, and the men, wakened out of their sound slumber, were drenched and had to scamper in the pitchy darkness, while theirs stood firm and they were warm and dry, thanks to the ingenious device of the trench.

Maurice awoke at daylight, and as they were not to march until eight o'clock it occurred to him to walk out to the artillery camp on the hill and say how do you do to his cousin Honore. His foot was less painful after his good night's rest. His wonder and admiration were again excited by the neatness and perfect order that prevailed throughout the encampment, the six guns of a battery aligned with mathematical precision and accompanied by their caissons, prolonges, forage-wagons, and forges. A short way off, lined up to their rope, stood the horses, whinnying impatiently and turning their muzzles to the rising sun. He had no difficulty in finding Honore's tent, thanks to the regulation which assigns to the men of each piece a separate street, so that a single glance at a camp suffices to show the number of guns.

When Maurice reached his destination the artillerymen were already stirring and about to drink their coffee, and a quarrel had arisen between Adolphe, the forward driver, and Louis, the gunner, his mate. For the entire three years that they had been "married," in accordance with the custom which couples a driver with a gunner, they had lived happily together, with the one exception of meal-times. Louis, an intelligent man and the better informed of the two, did not grumble at the airs of superiority that are affected by every mounted over every unmounted man: he pitched the tent, made the soup, and did the chores, while Adolphe groomed his horses with the pride of a reigning potentate. When the former, a little black, lean man, afflicted with an enormous appetite, rose in arms against the exactions of the latter, a big, burly fellow with huge blonde mustaches, who insisted on being waited on like a lord, then the fun began. The subject matter of the dispute on the present morning was that Louis, who had made the coffee, accused Adolphe of having drunk it all. It required some diplomacy to reconcile them.

Not a morning passed that Honore failed to go and look after his piece, seeing to it that it was carefully dried and cleansed from the night dew, as if it had been a favorite animal that he was fearful might take cold, and there it was that Maurice found him, exercising his paternal supervision in the crisp morning air.

"Ah, it's you! I knew that the 106th was somewhere in the vicinity; I got a letter from Remilly yesterday and was intending to start out and hunt you up. Let's go and have a glass of white wine."

For the sake of privacy he conducted his cousin to the little farmhouse that the soldiers had looted the day before, where the old peasant, undeterred by his losses and allured by the prospect of turning an honest penny, had tapped a cask of wine and set up a kind of public bar. He had extemporized a counter from a board rested on two empty barrels before the door of his house, and over it he dealt out his stock in trade at four sous a glass, assisted by the strapping young Alsatian whom he had taken into his service three days before.

As Honore was touching glasses with Maurice his eyes lighted on this man. He gazed at him a moment as if stupefied, then let slip a terrible oath.

"_Tonnerre de Dieu! Goliah!"

And he darted forward and would have caught him by the throat, but the peasant, foreseeing in his action a repetition of his yesterday's experience, jumped quickly within the house and locked the door behind him. For a moment confusion reigned about the premises; soldiers came rushing up to see what was going on, while the quartermaster-sergeant shouted at the top of his voice:

"Open the door, open the door, you confounded idiot! It is a spy, I tell you, a Prussian spy!"

Maurice doubted no longer; there was no room for mistake now; the Alsatian was certainly the man whom he had seen arrested at the camp of Mulhausen and released because there was not evidence enough to hold him, and that man was Goliah, old Fouchard's quondam assistant on his farm at Remilly. When finally the peasant opened his door the house was searched from top to bottom, but to no purpose; the bird had flown, the gawky Alsatian, the tow-headed, simple-faced lout whom General Bourgain-Desfeuilles had questioned the day before at dinner without learning anything and before whom, in the innocence of his heart, he had disclosed things that would have better been kept secret. It was evident enough that the scamp had made his escape by a back window which was found open, but the hunt that was immediately started throughout the village and its environs had no results; the fellow, big as he was, had vanished as utterly as a smoke-wreath dissolves upon the air.

Maurice thought it best to take Honore away, lest in his distracted state he might reveal to the spectators unpleasant family secrets which they had no concern to know.

"_Tonnerre de Dieu!_" he cried again, "it would have done me such good to strangle him!--The letter that I was speaking of revived all my old hatred for him."

And the two of them sat down upon the ground against a stack of rye a little way from the house, and he handed the letter to his cousin.

It was the old story: the course of Honore Fouchard's and Silvine Morange's love had not run smooth. She, a pretty, meek-eyed, brown-haired girl, had in early childhood lost her mother, an operative in one of the factories of Raucourt, and Doctor Dalichamp, her godfather, a worthy man who was greatly addicted to adopting the wretched little beings whom he ushered into the world, had conceived the idea of placing her in Father Fouchard's family as small maid of all work. True it was that the old boor was a terrible skinflint and a harsh, stern taskmaster; he had gone into the butchering business from sordid love of lucre, and his cart was to be seen daily, rain or shine, on the roads of twenty communes; but if the child was willing to work she would have a home and a protector, perhaps some small prospect in the future. At all events she would be spared the contamination of the factory. And naturally enough it came to pass that in old Fouchard's household the son and heir and the little maid of all work fell in love with each other. Honore was then just turned sixteen and she was twelve, and when she was sixteen and he twenty there was a drawing for the army; Honore, to his great delight, secured a lucky number and determined to marry. Nothing had ever passed between them, thanks to the unusual delicacy that was inherent in the lad's tranquil, thoughtful nature, more than an occasional hug and a furtive kiss in the barn. But when he spoke of the marriage to his father, the old man, who had the stubbornness of the mule, angrily told him that his son might kill him, but never, never would he consent, and continued to keep the girl about the house, not worrying about the matter, expecting it would soon blow over. For two years longer the young folks kept on adoring and desiring each other, and never the least breath of scandal sullied their names. Then one day there was a frightful quarrel between the two men, after which the young man, feeling he could no longer endure his father's tyranny, enlisted and was packed off to Africa, while the butcher still retained the servant-maid, because she was useful to him. Soon after that a terrible thing happened: Silvine, who had sworn that she would be true to her lover and await his return, was detected one day, two short weeks after his departure, in the company of a laborer who had been working on the farm for some months past, that Goliah Steinberg, the Prussian, as he was called; a tall, simple young fellow with short, light hair, wearing a perpetual smile on his broad, pink face, who had made himself Honore's chum. Had Father Fouchard traitorously incited the man to take advantage of the girl? or had Silvine, sick at heart and prostrated by the sorrow of parting with her lover, yielded in a moment of unconsciousness? She could not tell herself; was dazed, and saw herself driven by the necessity of her situation to a marriage with Goliah. He, for his part, always with the everlasting smile on his face, made no objection, only insisted on deferring the ceremony until the child should be born. When that event occurred he suddenly disappeared; it was rumored, subsequently that he had found work on another farm, over Beaumont way. These things had happened three years before the breaking out of the war, and now everyone was convinced that that artless, simple Goliah, who had such a way of ingratiating himself with the girls, was none else than one of those Prussian spies who filled our eastern provinces. When Honore learned the tidings over in Africa he was three months in hospital, as if the fierce sun of that country had smitten him on the neck with one of his fiery javelins, and never thereafter did he apply for leave of absence to return to his country for fear lest he might again set eyes on Silvine and her child.

The artilleryman's hands shook with agitation as Maurice perused the letter. It was from Silvine, the first, the only one that she had ever written him. What had been her guiding impulse, that silent, submissive woman, whose handsome black eyes at times manifested a startling fixedness of purpose in the midst of her never-ending slavery? She simply said that she knew he was with the army, and though she might never see him again, she could not endure the thought that he might die and believe that she had ceased to love him. She loved him still, had never loved another; and this she repeated again and again through four closely written pages, in words of unvarying import, without the slightest word of excuse for herself, without even attempting to explain what had happened. There was no mention of the child, nothing but an infinitely mournful and tender farewell.

The letter produced a profound impression upon Maurice, to whom his cousin had once imparted the whole story. He raised his eyes and saw that Honore was weeping; he embraced him like a brother.

"My poor Honore."

But the sergeant quickly got the better of his emotion. He carefully restored the letter to its place over his heart and rebuttoned his jacket.

"Yes, those are things that a man does not forget. Ah! the scoundrel, if I could but have laid hands on him! But we shall see."

The bugles were sounding the signal to prepare for breaking camp, and each had to hurry away to rejoin his command. The preparations for departure dragged, however, and the troops had to stand waiting in heavy marching order until nearly nine o'clock. A feeling of hesitancy seemed to have taken possession of their leaders; there was not the resolute alacrity of the first two days, when the 7th corps had accomplished forty miles in two marches. Strange and alarming news, moreover, had been circulating through the camp since morning, that the three other corps were marching northward, the 1st at Juniville, the 5th and 12th at Rethel, and this deviation from their route was accounted for on the ground of the necessities of the commissariat. Montmedy had ceased to be their objective, then? why were they thus idling away their time again? What was most alarming of all was that the Prussians could not now be far away, for the officers had cautioned their men not to fall behind the column, as all stragglers were liable to be picked up by the enemy's light cavalry. It was the 25th of August, and Maurice, when he subsequently recalled to mind Goliah's disappearance, was certain that the man had been instrumental in affording the German staff exact information as to the movements of the army of Chalons, and thus producing the change of front of their third army. The succeeding morning the Crown Prince of Prussia left Revigny and the great maneuver was initiated, that gigantic movement by the flank, surrounding and enmeshing us by a series of forced marches conducted in the most admirable order through Champagne and the Ardennes. While the French were stumbling aimlessly about the country, oscillating uncertainly between one place and another, the Prussians were making their twenty miles a day and more, gradually contracting their immense circle of beaters upon the band of men whom they held within their toils, and driving their prey onward toward the forests of the frontier.

A start was finally made, and the result of the day's movement showed that the army was pivoting on its left; the 7th corps only traversed the two short leagues between Contreuve and Vouziers, while the 5th and 12th corps did not stir from Rethel, and the 1st went no farther than Attigny. Between Contreuve and the valley of the Aisne the country became level again and was more bare than ever; as they drew near to Vouziers the road wound among desolate hills and naked gray fields, without a tree, without a house, as gloomy and forbidding as a desert, and the day's march, short as it was, was accomplished with such fatigue and distress that it seemed interminably long. Soon after midday, however, the 1st and 3d divisions had passed through the city and encamped in the meadows on the farther bank of the Aisne, while a brigade of the second, which included the 106th, had remained upon the left bank, bivouacking among the waste lands of which the low foot-hills overlooked the valley, observing from their position the Monthois road, which skirts the stream and by which the enemy was expected to make his appearance.

And Maurice was dumfoundered to behold advancing along that Monthois road Margueritte's entire division, the body of cavalry to which had been assigned the duty of supporting the 7th corps and watching the left flank of the army. The report was that it was on its way to Chene-Populeux. Why was the left wing, where alone they were threatened by the enemy, stripped in that manner? What sense was there in summoning in upon the center, where they could be of no earthly use, those two thousand horsemen, who should have been dispersed upon our flank, leagues away, as videttes to observe the enemy? And what made matters worse was that they caused the greatest confusion among the columns of the 7th corps, cutting in upon their line of march and producing an inextricable jam of horses, guns, and men. A squadron of chasseurs d'Afrique were halted for near two hours at the gate of Vouziers, and by the merest chance Maurice stumbled on Prosper, who had ridden his horse down to the bank of a neighboring pond to let him drink, and the two men were enabled to exchange a few words. The chasseur appeared stunned, dazed, knew nothing and had seen nothing since they left Rheims; yes, though, he had: he had seen two uhlans more; oh! but they were will o' the wisps, phantoms, they were, that appeared and vanished, and no one could tell whence they came nor whither they went. Their fame had spread, and stories of them were already rife throughout the country, such, for instance, as that of four uhlans galloping into a town with drawn revolvers and taking possession of it, when the corps to which they belonged was a dozen miles away. They were everywhere, preceding the columns like a buzzing, stinging swarm of bees, a living curtain, behind which the infantry could mask their movements and march and countermarch as securely as if they were at home upon parade. And Maurice's heart sank in his bosom as he looked at the road, crowded with chasseurs and hussars which our leaders put to such poor use.

"Well, then, _au revoir_," said he, shaking Prosper by the hand; "perhaps they will find something for you to do down yonder, after all."

But the chasseur appeared disgusted with the task assigned him. He sadly stroked Poulet's neck and answered:

"Ah, what's the use talking! they kill our horses and let us rot in idleness. It is sickening."

When Maurice took off his shoe that evening to have a look at his foot, which was aching and throbbing feverishly, the skin came with it; the blood spurted forth and he uttered a cry of pain. Jean was standing by, and exhibited much pity and concern.

"Look here, that is becoming serious; you are going to lie right down and not attempt to move. That foot of yours must be attended to. Let me see it."

He knelt down, washed the sore with his own hands and bound it up with some clean linen that he took from his knapsack. He displayed the gentleness of a woman and the deftness of a surgeon, whose big fingers can be so pliant when necessity requires it.

A great wave of tenderness swept over Maurice, his eyes were dimmed with tears, the familiar _thou rose from his heart to his lips with an irresistible impulse of affection, as if in that peasant whom he once had hated and abhorred, whom only yesterday he had despised, he had discovered a long lost brother.

"Thou art a good fellow, thou! Thanks, good friend."

And Jean, too, looking very happy, dropped into the second person singular, with his tranquil smile.

"Now, my little one, wilt thou have a cigarette? I have some tobacco left."

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