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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 7
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The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 7 Post by :CareyInternet Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :1177

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The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 7


Remilly is built on a hill that rises from the left bank of the Meuse, presenting the appearance of an amphitheater; the one village street that meanders circuitously down the sharp descent was thronged with men, horses, and vehicles in dire confusion. Half-way up the hill, in front of the church, some drivers had managed to interlock the wheels of their guns, and all the oaths and blows of the artillerymen were unavailing to get them forward. Further down, near the woolen mill, where the Emmane tumbles noisily over the dam, the road was choked with a long line of stranded baggage wagons, while close at hand, at the inn of the Maltese Cross, a constantly increasing crowd of angry soldiers pushed and struggled, and could not obtain so much as a glass of wine.

All this mad hurly-burly was going on at the southern end of the village, which is here separated from the Meuse by a little grove of trees, and where the engineers had that morning stretched a bridge of boats across the river. There was a ferry to the right; the ferryman's house stood by itself, white and staring, amid a rank growth of weeds. Great fires had been built on either bank, which, being replenished from time to time, glared ruddily in the darkness and made the stream and both its shores as light as day. They served to show the immense multitude of men massed there, awaiting a chance to cross, while the footway only permitted the passage of two men abreast, and over the bridge proper the cavalry and artillery were obliged to proceed at a walk, so that the crossing promised to be a protracted operation. It was said that the troops still on the left bank comprised a brigade of the 1st corps, an ammunition train, and the four regiments of cuirassiers belonging to Bonnemain's division, while coming up in hot haste behind them was the 7th corps, over thirty thousand strong, possessed with the belief that the enemy was at their heels and pushing on with feverish eagerness to gain the security of the other shore.

For a while despair reigned. What! they had been marching since morning with nothing to eat, they had summoned up all their energies to escape that deadly trap at Harancourt pass, only in the end to be landed in that slough of despond, with an insurmountable wall staring them in the face! It would be hours, perhaps, before it became the last comer's turn to cross, and everyone knew that even if the Prussians should not be enterprising enough to continue their pursuit in the darkness they would be there with the first glimpse of daylight. Orders came for them to stack muskets, however, and they made their camp on the great range of bare hills which slope downward to the meadows of the Meuse, with the Mouzon road running at their base. To their rear and occupying the level plateau on top of the range the guns of the reserve artillery were arranged in battery, pointed so as to sweep the entrance of the pass should there be necessity for it. And thus commenced another period of agonized, grumbling suspense.

When finally the preparations were all completed the 106th found themselves posted in a field of stubble above the road, in a position that commanded a view of the broad plain. The men had parted regretfully with their arms, casting timorous looks behind them that showed they were apprehensive of a night attack. Their faces were stern and set, and silence reigned, only broken from time to time by some sullen murmur of angry complaint. It was nearly nine o'clock, they had been there two hours, and yet many of them, notwithstanding their terrible fatigue, could not sleep; stretched on the bare ground, they would start and bend their ears to catch the faintest sound that rose in the distance. They had ceased to fight their torturing hunger; they would eat over yonder, on the other bank, when they had passed the river; they would eat grass if nothing else was to be found. The crowd at the bridge, however, seemed to increase rather than diminish; the officers that General Douay had stationed there came back to him every few minutes, always bringing the same unwelcome report, that it would be hours and hours before any relief could be expected. Finally the general determined to go down to the bridge in person, and the men saw him on the bank, bestirring himself and others and hurrying the passage of the troops.

Maurice, seated with Jean against a wall, pointed to the north, as he had done before. "There is Sedan in the distance. And look! Bazeilles is over yonder--and then comes Douzy, and then Carignan, more to the right. We shall concentrate at Carignan, I feel sure we shall. Ah! there is plenty of room, as you would see if it were daylight!"

And his sweeping gesture embraced the entire valley that lay beneath them, enfolded in shadow. There was sufficient light remaining in the sky that they could distinguish the pale gleam of the river where it ran its course among the dusky meadows. The scattered trees made clumps of denser shade, especially a row of poplars to the left, whose tops were profiled on the horizon like the fantastic ornaments on some old castle gateway. And in the background, behind Sedan, dotted with countless little points of brilliant light, the shadows had mustered, denser and darker, as if all the forests of the Ardennes had collected the inky blackness of their secular oaks and cast it there.

Jean's gaze came back to the bridge of boats beneath them.

"Look there! everything is against us. We shall never get across."

The fires upon both banks blazed up more brightly just then, and their light was so intense that the whole fearful scene was pictured on the darkness with vivid distinctness. The boats on which the longitudinal girders rested, owing to the weight of the cavalry and artillery that had been crossing uninterruptedly since morning, had settled to such an extent that the floor of the bridge was covered with water. The cuirassiers were passing at the time, two abreast, in a long unbroken file, emerging from the obscurity of the hither shore to be swallowed up in the shadows of the other, and nothing was to be seen of the bridge; they appeared to be marching on the bosom of the ruddy stream, that flashed and danced in the flickering firelight. The horses snorted and hung back, manifesting every indication of terror as they felt the unstable pathway yielding beneath their feet, and the cuirassiers, standing erect in their stirrups and clutching at the reins, poured onward in a steady, unceasing stream, wrapped in their great white mantles, their helmets flashing in the red light of the flames. One might have taken them for some spectral band of knights, with locks of fire, going forth to do battle with the powers of darkness.

Jean's suffering wrested from him a deep-toned exclamation:

"Oh! I am hungry!"

On every side, meantime, the men, notwithstanding the complainings of their empty stomachs, had thrown themselves down to sleep. Their fatigue was so great that it finally got the better of their fears and struck them down upon the bare earth, where they lay on their back, with open mouth and arms outstretched, like logs beneath the moonless sky. The bustle of the camp was stilled, and all along the naked range, from end to end, there reigned a silence as of death.

"Oh! I am hungry; I am so hungry that I could eat dirt!"

Jean, patient as he was and inured to hardship, could not restrain the cry; he had eaten nothing in thirty-six hours, and it was torn from him by sheer stress of physical suffering. Then Maurice, knowing that two or three hours at all events must elapse before their regiment could move to pass the stream, said:

"See here, I have an uncle not far from here--you know, Uncle Fouchard, of whom you have heard me speak. His house is five or six hundred yards from here; I didn't like the idea, but as you are so hungry-- The deuce! the old man can't refuse us bread!"

His comrade made no objection and they went off together. Father Fouchard's little farm was situated just at the mouth of Harancourt pass, near the plateau where the artillery was posted. The house was a low structure, surrounded by quite an imposing cluster of dependencies; a barn, a stable, and cow-sheds, while across the road was a disused carriage-house which the old peasant had converted into an abattoir, where he slaughtered with his own hands the cattle which he afterward carried about the country in his wagon to his customers.

Maurice was surprised as he approached the house to see no light.

"Ah, the old miser! he has locked and barred everything tight and fast. Like as not he won't let us in."

But something that he saw brought him to a standstill. Before the house a dozen soldiers were moving to and fro, hungry plunderers, doubtless, on the prowl in quest of something to eat. First they had called, then had knocked, and now, seeing that the place was dark and deserted, they were hammering at the door with the butts of their muskets in an attempt to force it open. A growling chorus of encouragement greeted them from the outsiders of the circle.

"_Nom de Dieu! go ahead! smash it in, since there is no one at home!"

All at once the shutter of a window in the garret was thrown back and a tall old man presented himself, bare-headed, wearing the peasant's blouse, with a candle in one hand and a gun in the other. Beneath the thick shock of bristling white hair was a square face, deeply seamed and wrinkled, with a strong nose, large, pale eyes, and stubborn chin.

"You must be robbers, to smash things as you are doing!" he shouted in an angry tone. "What do you want?"

The soldiers, taken by surprise, drew back a little way.

"We are perishing with hunger; we want something to eat."

"I have nothing, not a crust. Do you suppose that I keep victuals in my house to fill a hundred thousand mouths? Others were here before you; yes, General Ducrot's men were here this morning, I tell you, and they cleaned me out of everything."

The soldiers came forward again, one by one.

"Let us in, all the same; we can rest ourselves, and you can hunt up something--"

And they were commencing to hammer at the door again, when the old fellow, placing his candle on the window-sill, raised his gun to his shoulder.

"As true as that candle stands there, I'll put a hole in the first man that touches that door!"

The prospect looked favorable for a row. Oaths and imprecations resounded, and one of the men was heard to shout that they would settle matters with the pig of a peasant, who was like all the rest of them and would throw his bread in the river rather than give a mouthful to a starving soldier. The light of the candle glinted on the barrels of the chassepots as they were brought to an aim; the angry men were about to shoot him where he stood, while he, headstrong and violent, would not yield an inch.

"Nothing, nothing! Not a crust! I tell you they cleaned me out!"

Maurice rushed in in affright, followed by Jean.

"Comrades, comrades--"

He knocked up the soldiers' guns, and raising his eyes, said entreatingly:

"Come, be reasonable. Don't you know me? It is I."

"Who, I?"

"Maurice Levasseur, your nephew."

Father Fouchard took up his candle. He recognized his nephew, beyond a doubt, but was firm in his resolve not to give so much as a glass of water.

"How can I tell whether you are my nephew or not in this infernal darkness? Clear out, everyone of you, or I will fire!"

And amid an uproar of execration, and threats to bring him down and burn the shanty, he still had nothing to say but: "Clear out, or I'll fire!" which he repeated more than twenty times.

Suddenly a loud clear voice was heard rising above the din:

"But not on me, father?"

The others stood aside, and in the flickering light of the candle a man appeared, wearing the chevrons of a quartermaster-sergeant. It was Honore, whose battery was a short two hundred yards from there and who had been struggling for the last two hours against an irresistible longing to come and knock at that door. He had sworn never to set foot in that house again, and in all his four years of army life had not exchanged a single letter with that father whom he now addressed so curtly. The marauders had drawn apart and were conversing excitedly among themselves; what, the old man's son, and a "non-com."! it wouldn't answer; better go and try their luck elsewhere! So they slunk away and vanished in the darkness.

When Fouchard saw that he had nothing more to fear he said in a matter-of-course way, as if he had seen his son only the day before:

"It's you-- All right, I'll come down."

His descent was a matter of time. He could be heard inside the house opening locked doors and carefully fastening them again, the maneuvers of a man determined to leave nothing at loose ends. At last the door was opened, but only for a few inches, and the strong grasp that held it would let it go no further.

"Come in, _thou_! and no one besides!"

He could not turn away his nephew, however, notwithstanding his manifest repugnance.

"Well, thou too!"

He shut the door flat in Jean's face, in spite of Maurice's entreaties. But he was obdurate. No, no! he wouldn't have it; he had no use for strangers and robbers in his house, to smash and destroy his furniture! Finally Honore shoved their comrade inside the door by main strength and the old man had to make the best of it, grumbling and growling vindictively. He had carried his gun with him all this time. When at last he had ushered the three men into the common sitting-room and had stood his gun in a corner and placed the candle on the table, he sank into a mulish silence.

"Say, father, we are perishing with hunger. You will let us have a little bread and cheese, won't you?"

He made a pretense of not hearing and did not answer, turning his head at every instant toward the window as if listening for some other band that might be coming to lay siege to his house.

"Uncle, Jean has been a brother to me; he deprived himself of food to give it to me. And we have seen such suffering together!"

He turned and looked about the room to assure himself that nothing was missing, not giving the three soldiers so much as a glance, and at last, still without a word spoken, appeared to come to a decision. He suddenly arose, took the candle and went out, leaving them in darkness and carefully closing and locking the door behind him in order that no one might follow him. They could hear his footsteps on the stairs that led to the cellar. There was another long period of waiting, and when he returned, again locking and bolting everything after him, he placed upon the table a big loaf of bread and a cheese, amid a silence which, once his anger had blown over, was merely the result of cautious cunning, for no one can ever tell what may come of too much talking. The three men threw themselves ravenously upon the food, and the only sound to be heard in the room was the fierce grinding of their jaws.

Honore rose, and going to the sideboard brought back a pitcher of water.

"I think you might have given us some wine, father."

Whereupon Fouchard, now master of himself and no longer fearing that this anger might lead him into unguarded speech, once more found his tongue.

"Wine! I haven't any, not a drop! The others, those fellows of Ducrot's, ate and drank all I had, robbed me of everything!"

He was lying, and try to conceal it as he might the shifty expression in his great light eyes showed it. For the past two days he had been driving away his cattle, as well those reserved for work on the farm as those he had purchased to slaughter, and hiding them, no one knew where, in the depths of some wood or in some abandoned quarry, and he had devoted hours to burying all his household stores, wine, bread, and things of the least value, even to the flour and salt, so that anyone might have ransacked his cupboards and been none the richer for it. He had refused to sell anything to the first soldiers who came along; no one knew, he might be able to do better later on; and the patient, sly old curmudgeon indulged himself with vague dreams of wealth.

Maurice, who was first to satisfy his appetite, commenced to talk.

"Have you seen my sister Henriette lately?"

The old man was pacing up and down the room, casting an occasional glance at Jean, who was bolting huge mouthfuls of bread; after apparently giving the subject long consideration he deliberately answered:

"Henriette, yes, I saw her last month when I was in Sedan. But I saw Weiss, her husband, this morning. He was with Monsieur Delaherche, his boss, who had come over in his carriage to see the soldiers at Mouzon--which is the same as saying that they were out for a good time."

An expression of intense scorn flitted over the old peasant's impenetrable face.

"Perhaps they saw more of the army than they wanted to, and didn't have such a very good time after all, for ever since three o'clock the roads have been impassable on account of the crowds of flying soldiers."

In the same unmoved voice, as if the matter were one of perfect indifference to him, he gave them some tidings of the defeat of the 5th corps, that had been surprised at Beaumont while the men were making their soup and chased by the Bavarians all the way to Mouzon. Some fugitives who had passed through Remilly, mad with terror, had told him that they had been betrayed once more and that de Failly had sold them to Bismarck. Maurice's thoughts reverted to the aimless, blundering movements of the last two days, to Marshal MacMahon hurrying on their retreat and insisting on getting them across the Meuse at every cost, after wasting so many precious hours in incomprehensible delays. It was too late. Doubtless the marshal, who had stormed so on finding the 7th corps still at Osches when he supposed it to be at la Besace, had felt assured that the 5th corps was safe in camp at Mouzon when, lingering in Beaumont, it had come to grief there. But what could they expect from troops so poorly officered, demoralized by suspense and incessant retreat, dying with hunger and fatigue?

Fouchard had finally come and planted himself behind Jean's chair, watching with astonishment the inroads he was making on the bread and cheese. In a coldly sarcastic tone he asked:

"Are you beginning to feel better, _hein_?"

The corporal raised his head and replied with the same peasant-like directness:

"Just beginning, thank you!"

Honore, notwithstanding his hunger, had ceased from eating whenever it seemed to him that he heard a noise about the house. If he had struggled long, and finally been false to his oath never to set foot in that house again, the reason was that he could no longer withstand his craving desire to see Silvine. The letter that he had received from her at Rheims lay on his bosom, next his skin, that letter, so tenderly passionate, in which she told him that she loved him still, that she should never love anyone save him, despite the cruel past, despite Goliah and little Charlot, that man's child. He was thinking of naught save her, was wondering why he had not seen her yet, all the time watching himself that he might not let his father see his anxiety. At last his passion became too strong for him, however, and he asked in a tone as natural as he could command:

"Is not Silvine with you any longer?"

Fouchard gave his son a glance out of the corner of his eye, chuckling internally.

"Yes, yes."

Then he expectorated and was silent, so that the artillery man had presently to broach the subject again.

"She has gone to bed, then?"

"No, no."

Finally the old fellow condescended to explain that he, too, had been taking an outing that morning, had driven over to Raucourt market in his wagon and taken his little servant with him. He saw no reason, because a lot of soldiers happened to pass that way, why folks should cease to eat meat or why a man should not attend to his business, so he had taken a sheep and a quarter of beef over there, as it was his custom to do every Tuesday, and had just disposed of the last of his stock-in-trade when up came the 7th corps and he found himself in the middle of a terrible hubbub. Everyone was running, pushing, and crowding. Then he became alarmed lest they should take his horse and wagon from him, and drove off, leaving his servant, who was just then making some purchases in the town.

"Oh, Silvine will come back all right," he concluded in his tranquil voice. "She must have taken shelter with Doctor Dalichamp, her godfather. You would think to look at her that she wouldn't dare to say boo to a goose, but she is a girl of courage, all the same. Yes, yes; she has lots of good qualities, Silvine has."

Was it an attempt on his part to be jocose? or did he wish to explain why it was he kept her in his service, that girl who had caused dissension between father and son, whose child by the Prussian was in the house? He again gave his boy that sidelong look and laughed his voiceless laugh.

"Little Charlot is asleep there in his room; she surely won't be long away, now."

Honore, with quivering lips, looked so intently at his father that the old man began to pace the floor again. _Mon Dieu! yes, the child was there; doubtless he would have to look on him. A painful silence filled the room, while he mechanically cut himself more bread and began to eat again. Jean also continued his operations in that line, without finding it necessary to say a word. Maurice contemplated the furniture, the old sideboard, the antique clock, and reflected on the long summer days that he had spent at Remilly in bygone times with his sister Henriette. The minutes slipped away, the clock struck eleven.

"The devil!" he murmured, "it will never do to let the regiment go off without us!"

He stepped to the window and opened it, Fouchard making no objection. Beneath lay the valley, a great bowl filled to the brim with blackness; presently, however, when his eyes became more accustomed to the obscurity, he had no difficulty in distinguishing the bridge, illuminated by the fires on the two banks. The cuirassiers were passing still, like phantoms in their long white cloaks, while their steeds trod upon the bosom of the stream and a chill wind of terror breathed on them from behind; and so the spectral train moved on, apparently interminable, in an endless, slow-moving vision of unsubstantial forms. Toward the right, over the bare hills where the slumbering army lay, there brooded a stillness and repose like death.

"Ah well!" said Maurice with a gesture of disappointment, "'twill be to-morrow morning."

He had left the window open, and Father Fouchard, seizing his gun, straddled the sill and stepped outside, as lightly as a young man. For a time they could hear his tramp upon the road, as regular as that of a sentry pacing his beat, but presently it ceased and the only sound that reached their ears was the distant clamor on the crowded bridge; it must be that he had seated himself by the wayside, where he could watch for approaching danger and at slightest sign leap to defend his property.

Honore's anxiety meantime was momentarily increasing; his eyes were fixed constantly on the clock. It was less than four miles from Raucourt to Remilly, an easy hour's walk for a woman as young and strong as Silvine. Why had she not returned in all that time since the old man lost sight of her in the confusion? He thought of the disorder of a retreating army corps, spreading over the country and blocking the roads; some accident must certainly have happened, and he pictured her in distress, wandering among the lonely fields, trampled under foot by the horsemen.

But suddenly the three men rose to their feet, moved by a common impulse. There was a sound of rapid steps coming up the road and the old man was heard to cock his weapon.

"Who goes there?" he shouted. "Is it you, Silvine?"

There was no reply. He repeated his question, threatening to fire. Then a laboring, breathless voice managed to articulate:

"Yes, yes, Father Fouchard; it is I." And she quickly asked: "And Charlot?"

"He is abed and asleep."

"That is well! Thanks."

There was no longer cause for her to hasten; she gave utterance to a deep-drawn sigh, as if to rid herself of her burden of fatigue and distress.

"Go in by the window," said Fouchard. "There is company in there."

She was greatly agitated when, leaping lightly into the room, she beheld the three men. In the uncertain candle-light she gave the impression of being very dark, with thick black hair and a pair of large, fine, lustrous eyes, the chief adornment of a small oval face, strong by reason of its tranquil resignation. The sudden meeting with Honore had sent all the blood rushing from her heart to her cheeks; and yet she was hardly surprised to find him there; he had been in her thoughts all the way home from Raucourt.

He, trembling with agitation, his heart in his throat, spoke with affected calmness:

"Good-evening, Silvine."

"Good-evening, Honore."

Then, to keep from breaking down and bursting into tears, she turned away, and recognizing Maurice, gave him a smile. Jean's presence was embarrassing to her. She felt as if she were choking somehow, and removed the _foulard that she wore about her neck.

Honore continued, dropping the friendly _thou of other days:

"We were anxious about you, Silvine, on account of the Prussians being so near at hand."

All at once her face became very pale and showed great distress; raising her hand to her eyes as if to shut out some atrocious vision, and directing an involuntary glance toward the room where Charlot was slumbering, she murmured:

"The Prussians-- Oh! yes, yes, I saw them."

Sinking wearily upon a chair she told how, when the 7th corps came into Raucourt, she had fled for shelter to the house of her godfather, Doctor Dalichamp, hoping that Father Fouchard would think to come and take her up before he left the town. The main street was filled with a surging throng, so dense that not even a dog could have squeezed his way through it, and up to four o'clock she had felt no particular alarm, tranquilly employed in scraping lint in company with some of the ladies of the place; for the doctor, with the thought that they might be called on to care for some of the wounded, should there be a battle over in the direction of Metz and Verdun, had been busying himself for the last two weeks with improvising a hospital in the great hall of the _mairie_. Some people who dropped in remarked that they might find use for their hospital sooner than they expected, and sure enough, a little after midday, the roar of artillery had reached their ears from over Beaumont way. But that was not near enough to cause anxiety and no one was alarmed, when, all at once, just as the last of the French troops were filing out of Raucourt, a shell, with a frightful crash, came tearing through the roof of a neighboring house. Two others followed in quick succession; it was a German battery shelling the rear-guard of the 7th corps. Some of the wounded from Beaumont had already been brought in to the _mairie_, where it was feared that the enemy's projectiles would finish them as they lay on their mattresses waiting for the doctor to come and operate on them. The men were crazed with fear, and would have risen and gone down into the cellars, notwithstanding their mangled limbs, which extorted from them shrieks of agony.

"And then," continued Silvine, "I don't know how it happened, but all at once the uproar was succeeded by a deathlike stillness. I had gone upstairs and was looking from a window that commanded a view of the street and fields. There was not a soul in sight, not a 'red-leg' to be seen anywhere, when I heard the tramp, tramp of heavy footsteps, and then a voice shouted something that I could not understand and all the muskets came to the ground together with a great crash. And I looked down into the street below, and there was a crowd of small, dirty-looking men in black, with ugly, big faces and wearing helmets like those our firemen wear. Someone told me they were Bavarians. Then I raised my eyes again and saw, oh! thousands and thousands of them, streaming in by the roads, across the fields, through the woods, in serried, never-ending columns. In the twinkling of an eye the ground was black with them, a black swarm, a swarm of black locusts, coming thicker and thicker, so that, in no time at all, the earth was hid from sight."

She shivered and repeated her former gesture, veiling her vision from some atrocious spectacle.

"And the things that occurred afterward would exceed belief. It seems those men had been marching three days, and on top of that had fought at Beaumont like tigers; hence they were perishing with hunger, their eyes were starting from their sockets, they were beside themselves. The officers made no effort to restrain them; they broke into shops and private houses, smashing doors and windows, demolishing furniture, searching for something to eat and drink, no matter what, bolting whatever they could lay their hands on. I saw one in the shop of Monsieur Simonin, the grocer, ladling molasses from a cask with his helmet. Others were chewing strips of raw bacon, others again had filled their mouths with flour. They were told that our troops had been passing through the town for the last two days and there was nothing left, but here and there they found some trifling store that had been hid away, not sufficient to feed so many hungry mouths, and that made them think the folks were lying to them, and they went on to smash things more furiously than ever. In less than an hour, there was not a butcher's, grocer's, or baker's shop in the city left ungutted; even the private houses were entered, their cellars emptied, and their closets pillaged. At the doctor's--did you ever hear of such a thing? I caught one big fellow devouring the soap. But the cellar was the place where they did most mischief; we could hear them from upstairs smashing the bottles and yelling like demons, and they drew the spigots of the casks, so that the place was flooded with wine; when they came out their hands were red with the good wine they had spilled. And to show what happens, men when they make such brutes of themselves: a soldier found a large bottle of laudanum and drank it all down, in spite of Monsieur Dalichamp's efforts to prevent him. The poor wretch was in horrible agony when I came away; he must be dead by this time."

A great shudder ran through her, and she put her hand to her eyes to shut out the horrid sight.

"No, no! I cannot bear it; I saw too much!"

Father Fouchard had crossed the road and stationed himself at the open window where he could hear, and the tale of pillage made him uneasy; he had been told that the Prussians paid for all they took; were they going to start out as robbers at that late day? Maurice and Jean, too, were deeply interested in those details about an enemy whom the girl had seen, and whom they had not succeeded in setting eyes on in their whole month's campaigning, while Honore, pensive and with dry, parched lips, was conscious only of the sound of _her voice; he could think of nothing save her and the misfortune that had parted them.

Just then the door of the adjoining room was opened, and little Charlot appeared. He had heard his mother's voice, and came trotting into the apartment in his nightgown to give her a kiss. He was a chubby, pink little urchin, large and strong for his age, with a thatch of curling, straw-colored hair and big blue eyes. Silvine shivered at his sudden appearance, as if the sight of him had recalled to her mind the image of someone else that affected her disagreeably. Did she no longer recognize him, then, her darling child, that she looked at him thus, as if he were some evocation of that horrid nightmare! She burst into tears.

"My poor, poor child!" she exclaimed, and clasped him wildly to her breast, while Honore, ghastly pale, noted how strikingly like the little one was to Goliah; the same broad, pink face, the true Teutonic type, in all the health and strength of rosy, smiling childhood. The son of the Prussian, _the Prussian_, as the pothouse wits of Remilly had styled him! And the French mother, who sat there, pressing him to her bosom, her heart still bleeding with the recollection of the cruel sights she had witnessed that day!

"My poor child, be good; come with me back to bed. Say good-night, my poor child."

She vanished, bearing him away. When she returned from the adjoining room she was no longer weeping; her face wore its customary expression of calm and courageous resignation.

It was Honore who, with a trembling voice, started the conversation again.

"And what did the Prussians do then?"

"Ah, yes; the Prussians. Well, they plundered right and left, destroying everything, eating and drinking all they could lay hands on. They stole linen as well, napkins and sheets, and even curtains, tearing them in strips to make bandages for their feet. I saw some whose feet were one raw lump of flesh, so long and hard had been their march. One little group I saw, seated at the edge of the gutter before the doctor's house, who had taken off their shoes and were bandaging themselves with handsome chemises, trimmed with lace, stolen, doubtless, from pretty Madame Lefevre, the manufacturer's wife. The pillage went on until night. The houses had no doors or windows left, and one passing in the street could look within and see the wrecked furniture, a scene of destruction that would have aroused the anger of a saint. For my part, I was almost wild, and could remain there no longer. They tried in vain to keep me, telling me that the roads were blocked, that I would certainly be killed; I started, and as soon as I was out of Raucourt, struck off to the right and took to the fields. Carts, loaded with wounded French and Prussians, were coming in from Beaumont. Two passed quite close to me in the darkness; I could hear the shrieks and groans, and I ran, oh! how I ran, across fields, through woods, I could not begin to tell you where, except that I made a wide circuit over toward Villers.

"Twice I thought I heard soldiers coming and hid, but the only person I met was another woman, a fugitive like myself. She was from Beaumont, she said, and she told me things too horrible to repeat. After that we ran harder than ever. And at last I am here, so wretched, oh! so wretched with what I have seen!"

Her tears flowed again in such abundance as to choke her utterance. The horrors of the day kept rising to her memory and would not down; she related the story that the woman of Beaumont had told her. That person lived in the main street of the village, where she had witnessed the passage of all the German artillery after nightfall. The column was accompanied on either side of the road by a file of soldiers bearing torches of pitch-pine, which illuminated the scene with the red glare of a great conflagration, and between the flaring, smoking lights the impetuous torrent of horses, guns, and men tore onward at a mad gallop. Their feet were winged with the tireless speed of victory as they rushed on in devilish pursuit of the French, to overtake them in some last ditch and crush them, annihilate them there. They stopped for nothing; on, on they went, heedless of what lay in their way. Horses fell; their traces were immediately cut, and they were left to be ground and torn by the pitiless wheels until they were a shapeless, bleeding mass. Human beings, prisoners and wounded men, who attempted to cross the road, were ruthlessly borne down and shared their fate. Although the men were dying with hunger the fierce hurricane poured on unchecked; was a loaf thrown to the drivers, they caught it flying; the torch-bearers passed slices of meat to them on the end of their bayonets, and then, with the same steel that had served that purpose, goaded their maddened horses on to further effort. And the night grew old, and still the artillery was passing, with the mad roar of a tempest let loose upon the land, amid the frantic cheering of the men.

Maurice's fatigue was too much for him, and notwithstanding the interest with which he listened to Silvine's narrative, after the substantial meal he had eaten he let his head decline upon the table on his crossed arms. Jean's resistance lasted a little longer, but presently he too was overcome and fell dead asleep at the other end of the table. Father Fouchard had gone and taken his position in the road again; Honore was alone with Silvine, who was seated, motionless, before the still open window.

The artilleryman rose, and drawing his chair to the window, stationed himself there beside her. The deep peacefulness of the night was instinct with the breathing of the multitude that lay lost in slumber there, but on it now rose other and louder sounds; the straining and creaking of the bridge, the hollow rumble of wheels; the artillery was crossing on the half-submerged structure. Horses reared and plunged in terror at sight of the swift-running stream, the wheel of a caisson ran over the guard-rail; immediately a hundred strong arms seized the encumbrance and hurled the heavy vehicle to the bottom of the river that it might not obstruct the passage. And as the young man watched the slow, toilsome retreat along the opposite bank, a movement that had commenced the day before and certainly would not be ended by the coming dawn, he could not help thinking of that other artillery that had gone storming through Beaumont, bearing down all before it, crushing men and horses in its path that it might not be delayed the fraction of a second.

Honore drew his chair nearer to Silvine, and in the shuddering darkness, alive with all those sounds of menace, gently whispered:

"You are unhappy?"

"Oh! yes; so unhappy!"

She was conscious of the subject on which he was about to speak, and her head sank sorrowfully on her bosom.

"Tell me, how did it happen? I wish to know."

But she could not find words to answer him.

"Did he take advantage of you, or was it with your consent?"

Then she stammered, in a voice that was barely audible:

"_Mon Dieu! I do not know; I swear to you, I do not know, more than a babe unborn. I will not lie to you--I cannot! No, I have no excuse to offer; I cannot say he beat me. You had left me, I was beside myself, and it happened, how, I cannot, no, I cannot tell!"

Sobs choked her utterance, and he, ashy pale and with a great lump rising in his throat, waited silently for a moment. The thought that she was unwilling to tell him a lie, however, was an assuagement to his rage and grief; he went on to question her further, anxious to know the many things, that as yet he had been unable to understand.

"My father has kept you here, it seems?"

She replied with her resigned, courageous air, without raising her eyes:

"I work hard for him, it does not cost much to keep me, and as there is now another mouth to feed he has taken advantage of it to reduce my wages. He knows well enough that now, when he orders, there is nothing left for me but to obey."

"But why do you stay with him?"

The question surprised her so that she looked him in the face.

"Where would you have me go? Here my little one and I have at least a home and enough to keep us from starving."

They were silent again, both intently reading in the other's eyes, while up the shadowy valley the sounds of the sleeping camp came faintly to their ears, and the dull rumble of wheels upon the bridge of boats went on unceasingly. There was a shriek, the loud, despairing cry of man or beast in mortal peril, that passed, unspeakably mournful, through the dark night.

"Listen, Silvine," Honore slowly and feelingly went on; "you sent me a letter that afforded me great pleasure. I should have never come back here, but that letter--I have been reading it again this evening--speaks of things that could not have been expressed more delicately--"

She had turned pale when first she heard the subject mentioned. Perhaps he was angry that she had dared to write to him, like one devoid of shame; then, as his meaning became more clear, her face reddened with delight.

"I know you to be truthful, and knowing it, I believe what you wrote in that letter--yes, I believe it now implicitly. You were right in supposing that, if I were to die in battle without seeing you again, it would be a great sorrow to me to leave this world with the thought that you no longer loved me. And therefore, since you love me still, since I am your first and only love--" His tongue became thick, his emotion was so deep that expression failed him. "Listen, Silvine; if those beasts of Prussians let me live, you shall yet be mine, yes, as soon as I have served my time out we will be married."

She rose and stood erect upon her feet, gave a cry of joy, and threw herself upon the young man's bosom. She could not speak a word; every drop of blood in her veins was in her cheeks. He seated himself upon the chair and drew her down upon his lap.

"I have thought the matter over carefully; it was to say what I have said that I came here this evening. Should my father refuse us his consent, the earth is large; we will go away. And your little one, no one shall harm him, _mon Dieu! More will come along, and among them all I shall not know him from the others."

She was forgiven, fully and entirely. Such happiness seemed too great to be true; she resisted, murmuring:

"No, it cannot be; it is too much; perhaps you might repent your generosity some day. But how good it is of you, Honore, and how I love you!"

He silenced her with a kiss upon the lips, and strength was wanting her longer to put aside the great, the unhoped-for good fortune that had come to her; a life of happiness where she had looked forward to one of loneliness and sorrow! With an involuntary, irresistible impulse she threw her arms about him, kissing him again and again, straining him to her bosom with all her woman's strength, as a treasure that was lost and found again, that was hers, hers alone, that thenceforth no one was ever to take from her. He was hers once more, he whom she had lost, and she would die rather than let anyone deprive her of him.

At that moment confused sounds reached their ears; the sleeping camp was awaking amid a tumult that rose and filled the dark vault of heaven. Hoarse voices were shouting orders, bugles were sounding, drums beating, and from the naked fields shadowy forms were seen emerging in indistinguishable masses, a surging, billowing sea whose waves were already streaming downward to the road beneath. The fires on the banks of the stream were dying down; all that could be seen there was masses of men moving confusedly to and fro; it was not even possible to tell if the movement across the river was still in progress. Never had the shades of night veiled such depths of distress, such abject misery of terror.

Father Fouchard came to the window and shouted that the troops were moving. Jean and Maurice awoke, stiff and shivering, and got on their feet. Honore took Silvine's hands in his and gave them a swift parting clasp.

"It is a promise. Wait for me."

She could find no word to say in answer, but all her soul went out to him in one long, last look, as he leaped from the window and hurried away to find his battery.

"Good-by, father!"

"Good-by, my boy!"

And that was all; peasant and soldier parted as they had met, without embracing, like a father and son whose existence was of little import to each other.

Maurice and Jean also left the farmhouse, and descended the steep hill on a run. When they reached the bottom the 106th was nowhere to be found; the regiments had all moved off. They made inquiries, running this way and that, and were directed first one way and then another. At last, when they had near lost their wits in the fearful confusion, they stumbled on their company, under the command of Lieutenant Rochas; as for the regiment and Captain Beaudoin, no one could say where they were. And Maurice was astounded when he noticed for the first time that that mob of men, guns, and horses was leaving Remilly and taking the Sedan road that lay on the left bank. Something was wrong again; the passage of the Meuse was abandoned, they were in full retreat to the north!

An officer of chasseurs, who was standing near, spoke up in a loud voice:

"_Nom de Dieu! the time for us to make the movement was the 28th, when we were at Chene!"

Others were more explicit in their information; fresh news had been received. About two o'clock in the morning one of Marshal MacMahon's aides had come riding up to say to General Douay that the whole army was ordered to retreat immediately on Sedan, without loss of a minute's time. The disaster of the 5th corps at Beaumont had involved the three other corps. The general, who was at that time down at the bridge of boats superintending operations, was in despair that only a portion of his 3d division had so far crossed the stream; it would soon be day, and they were liable to be attacked at any moment. He therefore sent instructions to the several organizations of his command to make at once for Sedan, each independently of the others, by the most direct roads, while he himself, leaving orders to burn the bridge of boats, took the road on the left bank with his 2d division and the artillery, and the 3d division pursued that on the right bank; the 1st, that had felt the enemy's claws at Beaumont, was flying in disorder across the country, no one knew where. Of the 7th corps, that had not seen a battle, all that remained were those scattered, incoherent fragments, lost among lanes and by-roads, running away in the darkness.

It was not yet three o'clock, and the night was as black as ever. Maurice, although he knew the country, could not make out where they were in the noisy, surging throng that filled the road from ditch to ditch, pouring onward like a brawling mountain stream. Interspersed among the regiments were many fugitives from the rout at Beaumont, in ragged uniforms, begrimed with blood and dirt, who inoculated the others with their own terror. Down the wide valley, from the wooded hills across the stream, came one universal, all-pervading uproar, the scurrying tramp of other hosts in swift retreat; the 1st corps, coming from Carignan and Douzy, the 12th flying from Mouzon with the shattered remnants of the 5th, moved like puppets and driven onward, all of them, by that one same, inexorable, irresistible pressure that since the 28th had been urging the army northward and driving it into the trap where it was to meet its doom.

Day broke as Maurice's company was passing through Pont Maugis, and then he recognized their locality, the hills of Liry to the left, the Meuse running beside the road on the right. Bazeilles and Balan presented an inexpressibly funereal aspect, looming among the exhalations of the meadows in the chill, wan light of dawn, while against the somber background of her great forests Sedan was profiled in livid outlines, indistinct as the creation of some hideous nightmare. When they had left Wadelincourt behind them and were come at last to the Torcy gate, the governor long refused them admission; he only yielded, after a protracted conference, upon their threat to storm the place. It was five o'clock when at last the 7th corps, weary, cold, and hungry, entered Sedan.

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The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 8 The Downfall (la Debacle) - Part First - Chapter 8

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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