Full Online Books
BOOK CATEGORIES
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
LINKS
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
donate
Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 5
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 5 Post by :CareyInternet Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :1305

Click below to download : The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 5 (Format : PDF)

The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 5

PART FIRST CHAPTER V

On the morning of the following day, the 26th, Maurice arose with stiffened limbs and an aching back, the result of his night under the tent. He was not accustomed yet to sleeping on the bare ground; orders had been given before the men turned in that they were not to remove their shoes, and during the night the sergeants had gone the rounds, feeling in the darkness to see if all were properly shod and gaitered, so that his foot was much inflamed and very painful. In addition to his other troubles he had imprudently stretched his legs outside the canvas to relieve their cramped feeling and taken cold in them.

Jean said as soon as he set eyes on him:

"If we are to do any marching to-day, my lad, you had better see the surgeon and get him to give you a place in one of the wagons."

But no one seemed to know what were the plans for the day, and the most conflicting reports prevailed. It appeared for a moment as if they were about to resume their march; the tents were struck and the entire corps took the road and passed through Vouziers, leaving on the right bank of the Aisne only one brigade of the second division, apparently to continue the observation of the Monthois road; but all at once, as soon as they had put the town behind them and were on the left bank of the stream, they halted and stacked muskets in the fields and meadows that skirt the Grand-Pre road on either hand, and the departure of the 4th hussars, who just then moved off on that road at a sharp trot, afforded fresh food for conjecture.

"If we are to remain here I shall stay with you," declared Maurice, who was not attracted by the prospect of riding in an ambulance.

It soon became known that they were to occupy their present camp until General Douay could obtain definite information as to the movements of the enemy. The general had been harassed by an intense and constantly increasing anxiety since the day before, when he had seen Margueritte's division moving toward Chene, for he knew that his flank was uncovered, that there was not a man to watch the passes of the Argonne, and that he was liable to be attacked at any moment. Therefore he had sent out the 4th hussars to reconnoiter the country as far as the defiles of Grand-Pre and Croix-aux-Bois, with strict orders not to return without intelligence.

There had been an issue of bread, meat, and forage the day before, thanks to the efficient mayor of Vouziers, and about ten o'clock that morning permission had been granted the men to make soup, in the fear that they might not soon again have so good an opportunity, when another movement of troops, the departure of Bordas' brigade over the road taken by the hussars, set all tongues wagging afresh. What! were they going to march again? were they not to be given a chance to eat their breakfast in peace, now that the kettle was on the fire? But the officers explained that Bordas' brigade had only been sent to occupy Buzancy, a few kilometers from there. There were others, indeed, who asserted that the hussars had encountered a strong force of the enemy's cavalry and that the brigade had been dispatched to help them out of their difficulty.

Maurice enjoyed a few hours of delicious repose. He had thrown himself on the ground in a field half way up the hill where the regiment had halted, and in a drowsy state between sleeping and waking was contemplating the verdant valley of the Aisne, the smiling meadows dotted with clumps of trees, among which the little stream wound lazily. Before him and closing the valley in that direction lay Vouziers, an amphitheater of roofs rising one above another and overtopped by the church with its slender spire and dome-crowned tower. Below him, near the bridge, smoke was curling upward from the tall chimneys of the tanneries, while farther away a great mill displayed its flour-whitened buildings among the fresh verdure of the growths that lined the waterside. The little town that lay there, bounding his horizon, hidden among the stately trees, appeared to him to possess a gentle charm; it brought him memories of boyhood, of the journeys that he had made to Vouziers in other days, when he had lived at Chene, the village where he was born. For an hour he was oblivious of the outer world.

The soup had long since been made and eaten and everyone was waiting to see what would happen next, when, about half-past two o'clock, the smoldering excitement began to gain strength, and soon pervaded the entire camp. Hurried orders came to abandon the meadows, and the troops ascended a line of hills between two villages, Chestres and Falaise, some two or three miles apart, and took position there. Already the engineers were at work digging rifle-pits and throwing up epaulments; while over to the left the artillery had occupied the summit of a rounded eminence. The rumor spread that General Bordas had sent in a courier to announce that he had encountered the enemy in force at Grand-Pre and had been compelled to fall back on Buzancy, which gave cause to apprehend that he might soon be cut off from retreat on Vouziers. For these reasons, the commander of the 7th corps, believing an attack to be imminent, had placed his men in position to sustain the first onset until the remainder of the army should have time to come to his assistance, and had started off one of his aides-de-camp with a letter to the marshal, apprising him of the danger, and asking him for re-enforcements. Fearing for the safety of the subsistence train, which had come up with the corps during the night and was again dragging its interminable length in the rear, he summarily sent it to the right about and directed it to make the best of its way to Chagny. Things were beginning to look like fight.

"So, it looks like business this time--eh, Lieutenant?" Maurice ventured to ask Rochas.

"Yes, thank goodness," replied the Lieutenant, his long arms going like windmills. "Wait a little; you'll find it warm enough!"

The soldiers were all delighted; the animation in the camp was still more pronounced. A feverish impatience had taken possession of the men, now that they were actually in line of battle between Chestres and Falaise. At last they were to have a sight of those Prussians who, if the newspapers were to be believed, were knocked up by their long marches, decimated by sickness, starving, and in rags, and every man's heart beat high with the prospect of annihilating them at a single blow.

"We are lucky to come across them again," said Jean. "They've been playing hide-and-seek about long enough since they slipped through our fingers after their battle down yonder on the frontier. But are these the same troops that whipped MacMahon, I wonder?"

Maurice could not answer his question with any degree of certainty. It seemed to him hardly probable, in view of what he had read in the newspapers at Rheims, that the third army, commanded by the Crown Prince of Prussia, could be at Vouziers, when, only two days before, it was just on the point of going into camp at Vitry-le-Francois. There had been some talk of a fourth army, under the Prince of Saxony, which was to operate on the line of the Meuse; this was doubtless the one that was now before them, although their promptitude in occupying Grand-Pre was a matter of surprise, considering the distances. But what put the finishing touch to the confusion of his ideas was his stupefaction to hear General Bourgain-Desfeuilles ask a countryman if the Meuse did not flow past Buzancy, and if the bridges there were strong. The general announced, moreover, in the confidence of his sublime ignorance, that a column of one hundred thousand men was on the way from Grand-Pre to attack them, while another, of sixty thousand, was coming up by the way of Sainte-Menehould.

"How's your foot, Maurice?" asked Jean.

"It don't hurt now," the other laughingly replied. "If there is to be a fight, I think it will be quite well."

It was true; his nervous excitement was so great that he was hardly conscious of the ground on which he trod. To think that in the whole campaign he had not yet burned powder! He had gone forth to the frontier, he had endured the agony of that terrible night of expectation before Mulhausen, and had not seen a Prussian, had not fired a shot; then he had retreated with the rest to Belfort, to Rheims, had now been marching five days trying to find the enemy, and his useless _chassepot was as clean as the day it left the shop, without the least smell of smoke on it. He felt an aching desire to discharge his piece once, if no more, to relieve the tension of his nerves. Since the day, near six weeks ago, when he had enlisted in a fit of enthusiasm, supposing that he would surely have to face the foe in a day or two, all that he had done had been to tramp up and down the country on his poor, sore feet--the feet of a man who had lived in luxury, far from the battle-field; and so, among all those impatient watchers, there was none who watched more impatiently than he the Grand-Pre road, extending straight away to a seemingly infinite distance between two rows of handsome trees. Beneath him was unrolled the panorama of the valley; the Aisne was, like a silver ribbon, flowing between its willows and poplars, and ever his gaze returned, solicited by an irresistible attraction, to that road down yonder that stretched away, far as the eye could see, to the horizon.

About four o'clock the 4th hussars returned, having made a wide circuit in the country round about, and stories, which grew as they were repeated, began to circulate of conflicts with uhlans, tending to confirm the confident belief which everyone had that an attack was imminent. Two hours later a courier came galloping in, breathless with terror, to announce that General Bordas had positive information that the enemy were on the Vouziers road, and dared not leave Grand-Pre. It was evident that that could not be true, since the courier had just passed over the road unharmed, but no one could tell at what moment it might be the case, and General Dumont, commanding the division, set out at once with his remaining brigade to bring off his other brigade that was in difficulty. The sun went down behind Vouziers and the roofs of the town were sharply profiled in black against a great red cloud. For a long time the brigade was visible as it receded between the double row of trees, until finally it was swallowed up in the gathering darkness.

Colonel de Vineuil came to look after his regiment's position for the night. He was surprised not to find Captain Beaudoin at his post, and as that officer just then chanced to come in from Vouziers, where he alleged in excuse for his absence that he had been breakfasting with the Baronne de Ladicourt, he received a sharp reprimand, which he digested in silence, with the rigid manner of a martinet conscious of being in the wrong.

"My children," said the Colonel, as he passed along the line of men, "we shall probably be attacked to-night, or if not, then by day-break to-morrow morning at the latest. Be prepared, and remember that the 106th has never retreated before the enemy."

The little speech was received with loud hurrahs; everyone, in the prevailing suspense and discouragement, preferred to "take the wipe of the dish-clout" and have done with it. Rifles were examined to see that they were in good order, belts were refilled with cartridges. As they had eaten their soup that morning, the men were obliged to content themselves with biscuits and coffee. An order was promulgated that there was to be no sleeping. The grand-guards were out nearly a mile to the front, and a chain of sentinels at frequent intervals extended down to the Aisne. The officers were seated in little groups about the camp-fires, and beside a low wall at the left of the road the fitful blaze occasionally flared up and rescued from the darkness the gold embroideries and bedizened uniforms of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff, flitting to and fro like phantoms, watching the road and listening for the tramp of horses in the mortal anxiety they were in as to the fate of the third division.

It was about one o'clock in the morning when it came Maurice's turn to take his post as sentry at the edge of an orchard of plum-trees, between the road and the river. The night was black as ink, and as soon as his comrades left him and he found himself alone in the deep silence of the sleeping fields he was conscious of a sensation of fear creeping over him, a feeling of abject terror such as he had never known before and which he trembled with rage and shame at his inability to conquer. He turned his head to cheer himself by a sight of the camp-fires, but they were hidden from him by a wood; there was naught behind him but an unfathomable sea of blackness; all that he could discern was a few distant lights still dimly burning in Vouziers, where the inhabitants, doubtless forewarned and trembling at the thought of the impending combat, were keeping anxious vigil. His terror was increased, if that were possible, on bringing his piece to his shoulder to find that he could not even distinguish the sights on it. Then commenced a period of suspense that tried his nerves most cruelly; every faculty of his being was strained and concentrated in the one sense of hearing; sounds so faint as to be imperceptible reverberated in his ears like the crash of thunder; the plash of a distant waterfall, the rustling of a leaf, the movement of an insect in the grass, were like the booming of artillery. Was that the tramp of cavalry, the deep rumbling of gun-carriages driven at speed, that he heard down there to the right? And there on his left, what was that? was it not the sound of stealthy whispers, stifled voices, a party creeping up to surprise him under cover of the darkness? Three times he was on the point of giving the alarm by firing his piece. The fear that he might be mistaken and incur the ridicule of his comrades served to intensify his distress. He had kneeled upon the ground, supporting his left shoulder against a tree; it seemed to him that he had been occupying that position for hours, that they had forgotten him there, that the army had moved away without him. Then suddenly, at once, his fear left him; upon the road, that he knew was not two hundred yards away, he distinctly heard the cadenced tramp of marching men. Immediately it flashed across his mind as a certainty that they were the troops from Grand-Pre, whose coming had been awaited with such anxiety--General Dumont bringing in Bordas' brigade. At that same moment the corporal of the guard came along with the relief; he had been on post a little less than the customary hour.

He had been right; it was the 3d division returning to camp. Everyone felt a sensation of deep relief. Increased precautions were taken, nevertheless, for what fresh intelligence they received tended to confirm what they supposed they already knew of the enemy's approach. A few uhlans, forbidding looking fellows in their long black cloaks, were brought in as prisoners, but they were uncommunicative, and so daylight came at last, the pale, ghastly light of a rainy morning, bringing with it no alleviation of their terrible suspense. No one had dared to close an eye during that long night. About seven o'clock Lieutenant Rochas affirmed that MacMahon was coming up with the whole army. The truth of the matter was that General Douay, in reply to his dispatch of the preceding day announcing that a battle at Vouziers was inevitable, had received a letter from the marshal enjoining him to hold the position until re-enforcements could reach him; the forward movement had been arrested; the 1st corps was being directed on Terron, the 5th on Buzancy, while the 12th was to remain at Chene and constitute our second line. Then the suspense became more breathless still; it was to be no mere skirmish that the peaceful valley of the Aisne was to witness that day, but a great battle, in which would participate the entire army, that was even now turning its back upon the Meuse and marching southward; and there was no making of soup, the men had to content themselves with coffee and hard-tack, for everyone was saying, without troubling himself to ask why, that the "wipe of the dish-clout" was set down for midday. An aide-de-camp had been dispatched to the marshal to urge him to hurry forward their supports, as intelligence received from every quarter made it more and more certain that the two Prussian armies were close at hand, and three hours later still another officer galloped off like mad toward Chene, where general headquarters were located, with a request for instructions, for consternation had risen to a higher pitch then ever with the receipt of fresh tidings from the _maire of a country commune, who told of having seen a hundred thousand men at Grand-Pre, while another hundred thousand were advancing by way of Buzancy.

Midday came, and not a sign of the Prussians. At one o'clock, at two, it was the same, and a reaction of lassitude and doubt began to prevail among the troops. Derisive jeers were heard at the expense of the generals: perhaps they had seen their shadow on the wall; they should be presented with a pair of spectacles. A pretty set of humbugs they were, to have caused all that trouble for nothing! A fellow who passed for a wit among his comrades shouted:

"It is like it was down there at Mulhausen, eh?"

The words recalled to Maurice's mind a flood of bitter memories. He thought of that idiotic flight, that panic that had swept away the 7th corps when there was not a German visible, nor within ten leagues of where they were, and now he had a distinct certainty that they were to have a renewal of that experience. It was plain that if twenty-four hours had elapsed since the skirmish at Grand-Pre and they had not been attacked, the reason was that the 4th hussars had merely struck up against a reconnoitering body of cavalry; the main body of the Prussians must be far away, probably a day's march or two. Then the thought suddenly struck him of the time they had wasted, and it terrified him; in three days they had only accomplished the distance from Contreuve to Vouziers, a scant two leagues. On the 25th the other corps, alleging scarcity of supplies, had diverted their course to the north, while now, on the 27th, here they were coming southward again to fight a battle with an invisible enemy. Bordas' brigade had followed the 4th hussars into the abandoned passes of the Argonne, and was supposed to have got itself into trouble; the division had gone to its assistance, and that had been succeeded by the corps, and that by the entire army, and all those movements had amounted to nothing. Maurice trembled as he reflected how pricelessly valuable was every hour, every minute, in that mad project of joining forces with Bazaine, a project that could be carried to a successful issue only by an officer of genius, with seasoned troops under him, who should press forward to his end with the resistless energy of a whirlwind, crushing every obstacle that lay in his path.

"It is all up with us!" said he, as the whole truth flashed through his mind, to Jean, who had given way to despair. Then as the corporal, failing to catch his meaning, looked at him wonderingly, he went on in an undertone, for his friend's ear alone, to speak of their commanders:

"They mean well, but they have no sense, that's certain--and no luck! They know nothing; they foresee nothing; they have neither plans nor ideas, nor happy intuitions. _Allons_! everything is against us; it is all up!"

And by slow degrees that same feeling of discouragement that Maurice had arrived at by a process of reasoning settled down upon the denser intellects of the troops who lay there inactive, anxiously awaiting to see what the end would be. Distrust, as a result of their truer perception of the position they were in, was obscurely burrowing in those darkened minds, and there was no man so ignorant as not to feel a sense of injury at the ignorance and irresolution of their leaders, although he might not have been able to express in distinct terms the causes of his exasperation. In the name of Heaven, what were they doing there, since the Prussians had not shown themselves? either let them fight and have it over with, or else go off to some place where they could get some sleep; they had had enough of that kind of work. Since the departure of the second aide-de-camp, who had been dispatched in quest of orders, this feeling of unrest had been increasing momentarily; men collected in groups, talking loudly and discussing the situation pro and con, and the general inquietude communicating itself to the officers, they knew not what answer to make to those of their men who ventured to question them. They ought to be marching, it would not answer to dawdle thus; and so, when it became known about five o'clock that the aide-de-camp had returned and that they were to retreat, there was a sigh of relief throughout the camp and every heart was lighter.

It seemed that the wiser counsel was to prevail, then, after all! The Emperor and MacMahon had never looked with favor on the movement toward Montmedy, and now, alarmed to learn that they were again out-marched and out-maneuvered, and that they were to have the army of the Prince of Saxony as well as that of the Crown Prince to contend with, they had renounced the hazardous scheme of uniting their forces with Bazaine, and would retreat through the northern strongholds with a view to falling back ultimately on Paris. The 7th corps' destination would be Chagny, by way of Chene, while the 5th corps would be directed on Poix, and the 1st and 12th on Vendresse. But why, since they were about to fall back, had they advanced to the line of the Aisne? Why all that waste of time and labor, when it would have been so easy and so rational to move straight from Rheims and occupy the strong positions in the valley of the Marne? Was there no guiding mind, no military talent, no common sense? But there should be no more questioning; all should be forgiven, in the universal joy at the adoption of that eminently wise counsel, which was the only means at their command of extricating themselves from the hornets' nest into which they had rushed so imprudently. All, officers and men, felt that they would be the stronger for the retrograde movement, that under the walls of Paris they would be invincible, and that there it was that the Prussians would sustain their inevitable defeat. But Vouziers must be evacuated before daybreak, and they must be well on the road to Chene before the enemy should learn of the movement, and forthwith the camp presented a scene of the greatest animation: trumpets sounding, officers hastening to and fro with orders, while the baggage and quartermaster's trains, in order not to encumber the rear-guard, were sent forward in advance.

Maurice was delighted. As he was endeavoring to explain to Jean the rationale of the impending movement, however, a cry of pain escaped him; his excitement had subsided, and he was again conscious of his foot, aching and burning as if it had been a ball of red-hot metal.

"What's the matter? is it hurting you again?" the corporal asked sympathizingly. And with his calm and sensible resourcefulness he said: "See here, little one, you told me yesterday that you have acquaintances in the town, yonder. You ought to get permission from the major and find some one to drive you over to Chene, where you could have a good night's rest in a comfortable bed. We can pick you up as we go by to-morrow if you are fit to march. What do you say to that, _hein_?"

In Falaise, the village near which the camp was pitched, Maurice had come across a small farmer, an old friend of his father's, who was about to drive his daughter over to Chene to visit an aunt in that town, and the horse was even then standing waiting, hitched to a light carriole. The prospect was far from encouraging, however, when he broached the subject to Major Bouroche.

"I have a sore foot, monsieur the doctor--"

Bouroche, with a savage shake of his big head with its leonine mane, turned on him with a roar:

"I am not monsieur the doctor; who taught you manners?"

And when Maurice, taken all aback, made a stammering attempt to excuse himself, he continued:

"Address me as major, do you hear, you great oaf!"

He must have seen that he had not one of the common herd to deal with and felt a little ashamed of himself; he carried it off with a display of more roughness.

"All a cock-and-bull story, that sore foot of yours!--Yes, yes; you may go. Go in a carriage, go in a balloon, if you choose. We have too many of you malingerers in the army!"

When Jean assisted Maurice into the carriole the latter turned to thank him, whereon the two men fell into each other's arms and embraced as if they were never to meet again. Who could tell, amid the confusion and disorder of the retreat, with those bloody Prussians on their track? Maurice could not tell how it was that there was already such a tender affection between him and the young man, and twice he turned to wave him a farewell. As he left the camp they were preparing to light great fires in order to mislead the enemy when they should steal away, in deepest silence, before the dawn of day.

As they jogged along the farmer bewailed the terrible times through which they were passing. He had lacked the courage to remain at Falaise, and already was regretting that he had left it, declaring that if the Prussians burned his house it would ruin him. His daughter, a tall, pale young woman, wept copiously. But Maurice was like a dead man for want of sleep, and had no ears for the farmer's lamentations; he slumbered peacefully, soothed by the easy motion of the vehicle, which the little horse trundled over the ground at such a good round pace that it took them less than an hour and a half to accomplish the four leagues between Vouziers and Chene. It was not quite seven o'clock and scarcely beginning to be dark when the young man rubbed his eyes and alighted in a rather dazed condition on the public square, near the bridge over the canal, in front of the modest house where he was born and had passed twenty years of his life. He got down there in obedience to an involuntary impulse, although the house had been sold eighteen months before to a veterinary surgeon, and in reply to the farmer's questions said that he knew quite well where he was going, adding that he was a thousand times obliged to him for his kindness.

He continued to stand stock-still, however, beside the well in the middle of the little triangular _place_; he was as if stunned; his memory was a blank. Where had he intended to go? and suddenly his wits returned to him and he remembered that it was to the notary's, whose house was next door to his father's, and whose mother, Madame Desvallieres, an aged and most excellent lady, had petted him when he was an urchin on account of their being neighbors. But he hardly recognized Chene in the midst of the hurly-burly and confusion into which the little town, ordinarily so dead, was thrown by the presence of an army corps encamped at its gates and filling its quiet streets with officers, couriers, soldiers, and camp-followers and stragglers of every description. The canal was there as of old, passing through the town from end to end and bisecting the market-place in the center into two equal-sized triangles connected by a narrow stone bridge; and there, on the other bank, was the old market with its moss-grown roofs, and the Rue Berond leading away to the left and the Sedan road to the right, but filling the Rue de Vouziers in front of him and extending as far as the Hotel de Ville was such a compact, swarming, buzzing crowd that he was obliged to raise his eyes and take a look over the roof of the notary's house at the slate-covered bell tower in order to assure himself that that was the quiet spot where he had played hop-scotch when he was a youngster. There seemed to be an effort making to clear the square; some men were roughly crowding back the throng of idlers and gazers, and looking more closely he was surprised to see, parked like the guns of a battery, a collection of vans, baggage-wagons, and carriages open and closed; a miscellaneous assortment of traps that he had certainly set eyes on before.

It was daylight still; the sun had just sunk in the canal at the point where it vanished in the horizon and the long, straight stretch of water was like a sea of blood, and Maurice was trying to make up his mind what to do when a woman who stood near stared at him a moment and then exclaimed:

"Why goodness gracious, is it possible! Are you the Levasseur boy?"

And thereon he recognized Madame Combette, the wife of the druggist, whose shop was on the market-place. As he was trying to explain to her that he was going to ask good Madame Desvallieres to give him a bed for the night she excitedly hurried him away.

"No, no; come to our house. I will tell you why--" When they were in the shop and she had cautiously closed the door she continued: "You could not know, my dear boy, that the Emperor is at the Desvallieres. His officers took possession of the house in his name and the family are not any too well pleased with the great honor done them, I can tell you. To think that the poor old mother, a woman more than seventy, was compelled to give up her room and go up and occupy a servant's bed in the garret! Look, there, on the place. All that you see there is the Emperor's; those are his trunks, don't you see!"

And then Maurice remembered; they were the imperial carriages and baggage-wagons, the entire magnificent train that he had seen at Rheims.

"Ah! my dear boy, if you could but have seen the stuff they took from them, the silver plate, and the bottles of wine, and the baskets of good things, and the beautiful linen, and everything! I can't help wondering where they find room for such heaps of things, for the house is not a large one. Look, look! see what a fire they have lighted in the kitchen!"

He looked over at the small white, two-storied house that stood at the corner of the market-place and the Rue de Vouziers, a comfortable, unassuming house of bourgeois aspect; how well he remembered it, inside and out, with its central hall and four rooms on each floor; why, it was as if he had just left it! There were lights in the corner room on the first floor overlooking the square; the apothecary's wife informed him that it was the bedroom of the Emperor. But the chief center of activity seemed, as she had said, to be the kitchen, the window of which opened on the Rue de Vouziers. In all their lives the good people of Chene had witnessed no such spectacle, and the street before the house was filled with a gaping crowd, constantly coming and going, who stared with all their eyes at the range on which was cooking the dinner of an Emperor. To obtain a breath of air the cooks had thrown open the window to its full extent. They were three in number, in jackets of resplendent whiteness, superintending the roasting of chickens impaled on a huge spit, stirring the gravies and sauces in copper vessels that shone like gold. And the oldest inhabitant, evoking in memory all the civic banquets that he had beheld at the Silver Lion, could truthfully declare that never at any one time had he seen so much wood burning and so much food cooking.

Combette, a bustling, wizened little man, came in from the street in a great state of excitement from all that he had seen and heard. His position as deputy-mayor gave him facilities for knowing what was going on. It was about half-past three o'clock when MacMahon had telegraphed Bazaine that the Crown Prince of Prussia was approaching Chalons, thus necessitating the withdrawal of the army to the places along the Belgian frontier, and further dispatches were also in preparation for the Minister of War, advising him of the projected movement and explaining the terrible dangers of their position. It was uncertain whether or not the dispatch for Bazaine would get through, for communication with Metz had seemed to be interrupted for the past few days, but the second dispatch was another and more serious matter; and lowering his voice almost to a whisper the apothecary repeated the words that he had heard uttered by an officer of rank: "If they get wind of this in Paris, our goose is cooked!" Everyone was aware of the unrelenting persistency with which the Empress and the Council of Ministers urged the advance of the army. Moreover, the confusion went on increasing from hour to hour, the most conflicting advices were continually coming in as to the whereabouts of the German forces. Could it be possible that the Crown Prince was at Chalons? What, then, were the troops that the 7th corps had encountered among the passes of the Argonne?

"They have no information at staff headquarters," continued the little druggist, raising his arms above his head with a despairing gesture. "Ah, what a mess we are in! But all will be well if the army retreats to-morrow." Then, dropping public for private matters, the kind-hearted man said: "Look here, my young friend, I am going to see what I can do for that foot of yours; then we'll give you some dinner and put you to bed in my apprentice's little room, who has cleared out."

But Maurice was tormented by such an itching desire for further intelligence that he could neither eat nor sleep until he had carried into execution his original design of paying a visit to his old friend, Madame Desvallieres, over the way. He was surprised that he was not halted at the door, which, in the universal confusion, had been left wide open, without so much as a sentry to guard it. People were going out and coming in incessantly, military men and officers of the household, and the roar from the blazing kitchen seemed to rise and pervade the whole house. There was no light in the passage and on the staircase, however, and he had to grope his way up as best he might. On reaching the first floor he paused for a few seconds, his heart beating violently, before the door of the apartment that he knew contained the Emperor, but not a sound was to be heard in the room; the stillness that reigned there was as of death. Mounting the last flight he presented himself at the door of the servant's room to which Madame Desvallieres had been consigned; the old lady was at first terrified at sight of him. When she recognized him presently she said:

"Ah, my poor child, what a sad meeting is this! I would cheerfully have surrendered my house to the Emperor, but the people he has about him have no sense of decency. They lay hands on everything, without so much as saying, 'By your leave,' and I am afraid they will burn the house down with their great fires! He, poor man, looks like a corpse, and such sadness in his face--"

And when the young man took leave of her with a few murmured words of comfort she went with him to the door, and leaning over the banister: "Look!" she softly said, "you can see him from where you are. Ah! we are all undone. Adieu, my child!"

Maurice remained planted like a statue on one of the steps of the dark staircase. Craning his neck and directing his glance through the glazed fanlight over the door of the apartment, he beheld a sight that was never to fade from his memory.

In the bare and cheerless room, the conventional bourgeois "parlor," was the Emperor, seated at a table on which his plate was laid, lighted at either end by wax candles in great silver candelabra. Silent in the background stood two aides-de-camp with folded arms. The wine in the glass was untasted, the bread untouched, a breast of chicken was cooling on the plate. The Emperor did not stir; he sat staring down at the cloth with those dim, lusterless, watery eyes that the young man remembered to have seen before at Rheims; but he appeared more weary than then, and when, evidently at the cost of a great effort, he had raised a couple of mouthfuls to his lips, he impatiently pushed the remainder of the food from him with his hand. That was his dinner. His pale face was blanched with an expression of suffering endured in silence.

As Maurice was passing the dining room on the floor beneath, the door was suddenly thrown open, and through the glow of candles and the steam of smoking joints he caught a glimpse of a table of equerries, chamberlains, and aides-de-camp, engaged in devouring the Emperor's game and poultry and drinking his champagne, amid a great hubbub of conversation. Now that the marshal's dispatch had been sent off, all these people were delighted to know that the retreat was assured. In a week they would be at Paris and could sleep between clean sheets.

Then, for the first time, Maurice suddenly became conscious of the terrible fatigue that was oppressing him like a physical burden; there was no longer room for doubt, the whole army was about to fall back, and the best thing for him to do was to get some sleep while waiting for the 7th corps to pass. He made his way back across the square to the house of his friend Combette, where, like one in a dream, he ate some dinner, after which he was mistily conscious of someone dressing his foot and then conducting him upstairs to a bedroom. And then all was blackness and utter annihilation; he slept a dreamless, unstirring sleep. But after an uncertain length of time--hours, days, centuries, he knew not--he gave a start and sat bolt upright in bed in the surrounding darkness. Where was he? What was that continuous rolling sound, like the rattling of thunder, that had aroused him from his slumber? His recollection suddenly returned to him; he ran to the window to see what was going on. In the obscurity of the street beneath, where the night was usually so peaceful, the artillery was passing, horses, men, and guns, in interminable array, with a roar and clatter that made the lifeless houses quake and tremble. The abrupt vision filled him with unreasoning alarm. What time might it be? The great bell in the Hotel de Ville struck four. He was endeavoring to allay his uneasiness by assuring himself that it was simply the initial movement in the retreat that had been ordered the day previous, when, raising his eyes, he beheld a sight that gave him fresh cause for inquietude: there was a light still in the corner window of the notary's house opposite, and the shadow of the Emperor, drawn in dark profile on the curtain, appeared and disappeared at regularly spaced intervals.

Maurice hastily slipped on his trousers preparatory to going down to the street, but just then Combette appeared at the door with a bed-candle in his hand, gesticulating wildly.

"I saw you from the square as I was coming home from the _Mairie_, and I came up to tell you the news. They have been keeping me out of my bed all this time; would you believe it, for more than two hours the mayor and I have been busy attending to fresh requisitions. Yes, everything is upset again; there has been another change of plans. Ah! he knew what he was about, that officer did, who wanted to keep the folks in Paris from getting wind of matters!"

He went on for a long time in broken, disjointed phrases, and when he had finished the young man, speechless, brokenhearted, saw it all. About midnight the Emperor had received a dispatch from the Minister of War in reply to the one that had been sent by the marshal. Its exact terms were not known, but an aide-de-camp at the Hotel de Ville had stated openly that the Empress and the Council declared there would be a revolution in Paris should the Emperor retrace his steps and abandon Bazaine. The dispatch, which evinced the utmost ignorance as to the position of the German armies and the resources of the army of Chalons, advised, or rather ordered, an immediate forward movement, regardless of all considerations, in spite of everything, with a heat and fury that seemed incredible.

"The Emperor sent for the marshal," added the apothecary, "and they were closeted together for near an hour; of course I am not in position to say what passed between them, but I am told by all the officers that there is to be no more retreating, and the advance to the Meuse is to be resumed at once. We have been requisitioning all the ovens in the city for the 1st corps, which will come up to-morrow morning and take the place of the 12th, whose artillery you see at this moment starting for la Besace. The matter is decided for good this time; you will smell powder before you are much older."

He ceased. He also was gazing at the lighted window over in the notary's house. Then he went on in a low voice, as if talking to himself, with an expression on his face of reflective curiosity:

"I wonder what they had to say to each other? It strikes one as a rather peculiar proceeding, all the same, to run away from a threatened danger at six in the evening, and at midnight, when nothing has occurred to alter the situation, to rush headlong into the very self-same danger."

Below them in the street Maurice still heard the gun-carriages rumbling and rattling over the stones of the little sleeping city, that ceaseless tramp of horse and man, that uninterrupted tide of humanity, pouring onward toward the Meuse, toward the unknown, terrible fate that the morrow had in store for them. And still upon the mean, cheap curtains of that bourgeois dwelling he beheld the shadow of the Emperor passing and repassing at regular intervals, the restless activity of the sick man, to whom his cares made sleep impossible, whose sole repose was motion, in whose ears was ever ringing that tramp of horses and men whom he was suffering to be sent forward to their death. A few brief hours, then, had sufficed; the slaughter was decided on; it was to be. What, indeed, could they have found to say to each other, that Emperor and that marshal, conscious, both of them, of the inevitable disaster that lay before them? Assured as they were at night of defeat, from their knowledge of the wretched condition the army would be in when the time should come for it to meet the enemy, how, knowing as they did that the peril was hourly becoming greater, could they have changed their mind in the morning? Certain it was that General de Palikao's plan of a swift, bold dash on Montmedy, which seemed hazardous on the 23d and was, perhaps, still not impracticable on the 25th, if conducted with veteran troops and a leader of ability, would on the 27th be an act of sheer madness amid the divided counsels of the chiefs and the increasing demoralization of the troops. This they both well knew; why, then, did they obey those merciless drivers who were flogging them onward in their irresolution? why did they hearken to those furious passions that were spurring them forward? The marshal's, it might be said, was the temperament of the soldier, whose duty is limited to obedience to his instructions, great in its abnegation; while the Emperor, who had ceased entirely to issue orders, was waiting on destiny. They were called on to surrender their lives and the life of the army; they surrendered them. It was the accomplishment of a crime, the black, abominable night that witnessed the murder of a nation, for thenceforth the army rested in the shadow of death; a hundred thousand men and more were sent forward to inevitable destruction.

While pursuing this train of thought Maurice was watching the shadow that still kept appearing and vanishing on the muslin of good Madame Desvallieres' curtain, as if it felt the lash of the pitiless voice that came to it from Paris. Had the Empress that night desired the death of the father in order that the son might reign? March! forward ever! with no look backward, through mud, through rain, to bitter death, that the final game of the agonizing empire may be played out, even to the last card. March! march! die a hero's death on the piled corpses of your people, let the whole world gaze in awe-struck admiration, for the honor and glory of your name! And doubtless the Emperor was marching to his death. Below, the fires in the kitchen flamed and flashed no longer; equerries, aides-de-camp and chamberlains were slumbering, the whole house was wrapped in darkness, while ever the lone shade went and came unceasingly, accepting with resignation the sacrifice that was to be, amid the deafening uproar of the 12th corps, that was defiling still through the black night.

Maurice suddenly reflected that, if the advance was to be resumed, the 7th corps would not pass through Chene, and he beheld himself left behind, separated from his regiment, a deserter from his post. His foot no longer pained him; his friend's dressing and a few hours of complete rest had allayed the inflammation. Combette gave him a pair of easy shoes of his own that were comfortable to his feet, and as soon as he had them on he wanted to be off, hoping that he might yet be able to overtake the 106th somewhere on the road between Chene and Vouziers. The apothecary labored vainly to dissuade him, and had almost made up his mind to put his horse in the gig and drive him over in person, trusting to fortune to befriend him in finding the regiment, when Fernand, the apprentice, appeared, alleging as an excuse for his absence that he had been to see his sister. The youth was a tall, tallow-faced individual, who looked as if he had not the spirit of a mouse; the horse was quickly hitched to the carriage and he drove off with Maurice. It was not yet five o'clock; the rain was pouring in torrents from a sky of inky blackness, and the dim carriage-lamps faintly illuminated the road and cast little fitful gleams of light across the streaming fields on either side, over which came mysterious sounds that made them pull up from time to time in the belief that the army was at hand.

Jean, meantime, down there before Vouziers, had not been slumbering. Maurice had explained to him how the retreat was to be salvation to them all, and he was keeping watch, holding his men together and waiting for the order to move, which might come at any minute. About two o'clock, in the intense darkness that was dotted here and there by the red glow of the watch-fires, a great trampling of horses resounded through the camp; it was the advance-guard of cavalry moving off toward Balay and Quatre-Champs so as to observe the roads from Boult-aux-Bois and Croix-aux-Bois; then an hour later the infantry and artillery also put themselves in motion, abandoning at last the positions of Chestre and Falaise that they had defended so persistently for two long days against an enemy who never showed himself. The sky had become overcast, the darkness was profound, and one by one the regiments marched out in deepest silence, an array of phantoms stealing away into the bosom of the night. Every heart beat joyfully, however, as if they were escaping from some treacherous pitfall; already in imagination the troops beheld themselves under the walls of Paris, where their revenge was awaiting them.

Jean looked out into the thick blackness. The road was bordered with trees on either hand and, as far as he could see, appeared to lie between wide meadows. Presently the country became rougher; there was a succession of sharp rises and descents, and just as they were entering a village which he supposed to be Balay, two straggling rows of houses bordering the road, the dense cloud that had obscured the heavens burst in a deluge of rain. The men had received so many duckings within the past few days that they took this one without a murmur, bowing their heads and plodding patiently onward; but when they had left Balay behind them and were crossing a wide extent of level ground near Quatre-Champs a violent wind began to rise. Beyond Quatre-Champs, when they had fought their way upward to the wide plateau that extends in a dreary stretch of waste land as far as Noirval, the wind increased to a hurricane and the driving rain stung their faces. There it was that the order, proceeding from the head of the column and re-echoed down the line, brought the regiments one after another to a halt, and the entire 7th corps, thirty-odd thousand men, found itself once more reunited in the mud and rain of the gray dawn. What was the matter? Why were they halted there? An uneasy feeling was already beginning to pervade the ranks; it was asserted in some quarters that there had been a change of orders. The men had been brought to ordered arms and forbidden to leave the ranks or sit down. At times the wind swept over the elevated plateau with such violence that they had to press closely to one another to keep from being carried off their feet. The rain blinded them and trickled in ice-cold streams beneath their collars down their backs. And two hours passed, a period of waiting that seemed as if it would never end, for what purpose no one could say, in an agony of expectancy that chilled the hearts of all.

As the daylight increased Jean made an attempt to discern where they were. Someone had shown him where the Chene road lay off to the northwest, passing over a hill beyond Quatre-Champs. Why had they turned to the right instead of to the left? Another object of interest to him was the general and his staff, who had established themselves at the Converserie, a farm on the edge of the plateau. There seemed to be a heated discussion going on; officers were going and coming and the conversation was carried on with much gesticulation. What could they be waiting for? nothing was coming that way. The plateau formed a sort of amphitheater, broad expanses of stubble that were commanded to the north and east by wooded heights; to the south were thick woods, while to the west an opening afforded a glimpse of the valley of the Aisne with the little white houses of Vouziers. Below the Converserie rose the slated steeple of Quatre-Champs church, looming dimly through the furious storm, which seemed as if it would sweep away bodily the few poor moss-grown cottages of the village. As Jean's glance wandered down the ascending road he became conscious of a doctor's gig coming up at a sharp trot along the stony road, that was now the bed of a rapid torrent.

It was Maurice, who, at a turn in the road, from the hill that lay beyond the valley, had finally discerned the 7th corps. For two hours he had been wandering about the country, thanks to the stupidity of a peasant who had misdirected him and the sullen ill-will of his driver, whom fear of the Prussians had almost deprived of his wits. As soon as he reached the farmhouse he leaped from the gig and had no further trouble in finding the regiment.

Jean addressed him in amazement:

"What, is it you? What is the meaning of this? I thought you were to wait until we came along."

Maurice's tone and manner told of his rage and sorrow.

"Ah, yes! we are no longer going in that direction; it is down yonder we are to go, to get ourselves knocked in the head, all of us!"

"Very well," said the other presently, with a very white face. "We will die together, at all events."

The two men met, as they had parted, with an embrace. In the drenching rain that still beat down as pitilessly as ever, the humble private resumed his place in the ranks, while the corporal, in his streaming garments, never murmured as he gave him the example of what a soldier should be.

And now the tidings became more definite and spread among the men; they were no longer retreating on Paris; the advance to the Meuse was again the order of the day. An aide-de-camp had brought to the 7th corps instructions from the marshal to go and encamp at Nonart; the 5th was to take the direction of Beauclair, where it would be the right wing of the army, while the 1st was to move up to Chene and relieve the 12th, then on the march to la Besace on the extreme left. And the reason why more than thirty thousand men had been kept waiting there at ordered arms, for nearly three hours in the midst of a blinding storm, was that General Douay, in the deplorable confusion incident on this new change of front, was alarmed for the safety of the train that had been sent forward the day before toward Chagny; the delay was necessary to give the several divisions time to close up. In the confusion of all these conflicting movements it was said that the 12th corps train had blocked the road at Chene, thus cutting off that of the 7th. On the other hand, an important part of the _materiel_, all the forges of the artillery, had mistaken their road and strayed off in the direction of Terron; they were now trying to find their way back by the Vouziers road, where they were certain to fall into the hands of the Germans. Never was there such utter confusion, never was anxiety so intense.

A feeling of bitterest discouragement took possession of the troops. Many of them in their despair would have preferred to seat themselves on their knapsacks, in the midst of that sodden, wind-swept plain, and wait for death to come to them. They reviled their leaders and loaded them with insult: ah! famous leaders, they; brainless boobies, undoing at night what they had done in the morning, idling and loafing when there was no enemy in sight, and taking to their heels as soon as he showed his face! Each minute added to the demoralization that was already rife, making of that army a rabble, without faith or hope, without discipline, a herd that their chiefs were conducting to the shambles by ways of which they themselves were ignorant. Down in the direction of Vouziers the sound of musketry was heard; shots were being exchanged between the rear-guard of the 7th corps and the German skirmishers; and now every eye was turned upon the valley of the Aisne, where volumes of dense black smoke were whirling upward toward the sky from which the clouds had suddenly been swept away; they all knew it was the village of Falaise burning, fired by the uhlans. Every man felt his blood boil in his veins; so the Prussians were there at last; they had sat and waited two days for them to come up, and then had turned and fled. The most ignorant among the men had felt their cheeks tingle for very shame as, in their dull way, they recognized the idiocy that had prompted that enormous blunder, that imbecile delay, that trap into which they had walked blindfolded; the light cavalry of the IVth army feinting in front of Bordas' brigade and halting and neutralizing, one by one, the several corps of the army of Chalons, solely to give the Crown Prince time to hasten up with the IIId army. And now, thanks to the marshal's complete and astounding ignorance as to the identity of the troops he had before him, the junction was accomplished, and the 5th and 7th corps were to be roughly handled, with the constant menace of disaster overshadowing them.

Maurice's eyes were bent on the horizon, where it was reddened with the flames of burning Falaise. They had one consolation, however: the train that had been believed to be lost came crawling along out of the Chene road. Without delay the 2d division put itself in motion and struck out across the forest for Boult-aux-Bois; the 3d took post on the heights of Belleville to the left in order to keep an eye to the communications, while the 1st remained at Quatre-Champs to wait for the coming up of the train and guard its countless wagons. Just then the rain began to come down again with increased violence, and as the 106th moved off the plateau, resuming the march that should have never been, toward the Meuse, toward the unknown, Maurice thought he beheld again his vision of the night: the shadow of the Emperor, incessantly appearing and vanishing, so sad, so pitiful a sight, on the white curtain of good old Madame Desvallieres. Ah! that doomed army, that army of despair, that was being driven forward to inevitable destruction for the salvation of a dynasty! March, march, onward ever, with no look behind, through mud, through rain, to the bitter end!

If you like this book please share to your friends :
NEXT BOOKS

The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 6 The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 6

The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 6
PART FIRST CHAPTER VI "Thunder!" Chouteau ejaculated the following morning when he awoke, chilled and with aching bones, under the tent, "I wouldn't mind having a bouillon with plenty of meat in it." At Boult-aux-Bois they were now encamped, the only ration issued to the men the night before had been an extremely slender one of potatoes; the commissariat was daily more and more distracted and disorganized by the everlasting marches and countermarches, never reaching the designated points of rendezvous in time to meet the troops. As for the herds, no one had the faintest idea where they might be
PREVIOUS BOOKS

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

The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 4
PART FIRST CHAPTER IV 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
NEXT 10 BOOKS | PREVIOUS 10 BOOKS | RANDOM 10 BOOKS
LEAVE A COMMENT