VERY much to his surprise Maurice found that the 106th was detraining at Rheims and had orders to camp there. So they weren’t going to join up with the army at Châlons? And two hours later, when his regiment had piled arms a league out of the town on the Courcelles side in the broad plain along the Aisne-Marne canal, his surprise was still greater as he learned that the whole army of Châlons had been falling back since that morning and was coming to camp at the same place. And indeed, as far as the eye could see, as far as Saint-Thierry and La Neuvillette and even beyond the Laon road, tents were going up and the fires of four army corps were blazing by evening. Obviously the plan that had prevailed was to take up a position before Paris and wait for the Prussians. He was very pleased about it. Wasn’t it wiser?
That afternoon of the 21st Maurice spent wandering round the camp hunting for news. They were quite free, and discipline seemed still more relaxed, and men just came and went as they liked. Eventually he calmly went back to Rheims where he wanted to cash a draft for a hundred francs he had had from his sister Henriette. In a café he heard a sergeant talking about the mutinous spirit of the eighteen battalions of the Garde Mobile de la Seine, which had been sent back to Paris – the sixth in particular had almost killed their officers. Over in the camp generals were being insulted every day, and since Froeschwiller soldiers weren’t even saluting Marshal MacMahon. Voices filled the café and a violent argument broke out between two peaceful-looking gentlemen about the number of men the marshal would have under his command. One talked of 300,000, that was silly. The other more reasonably named the four army corps: the 12th brought up to strength with difficulty in the camp with the help of infantry regiments and a division of marines; the 1st, remnants of which had been coming in since 14 August, and which they were re-forming as best they could; and finally the 5th, defeated without a fight and scattered in a rout, and the 7th, which had just arrived, also demoralized and minus its first division which it had just rediscovered in odd units at Rheims – a hundred and twenty thousand men at the most, counting reserve cavalry and the Bonnemain and Margueritte divisions. But the sergeant who had joined in the argument treated this army with withering scorn as a rag-bag of men with no cohesion, a flock of innocents led to the slaughter by fools, and the two gentlemen, afraid of being compromised, made themselves scarce.
Out in the street Maurice tried to find some newspapers, and stuffed his pockets with all the ones he could buy, reading them as he walked along under the big trees in the magnificent boulevards which surround the town. Where were the German armies, then? They seemed to have got lost. There were probably two on the Metz front: the first under the command of General Steinmetz covering the fortress, the second under Prince Friedrich Karl trying to follow the right bank of the Moselle so as to cut Bazaine’s route to Paris. But the third army, that of the Crown Prince of Prussia, and the victorious army of Wissembourg and Froeschwiller which was pursuing the 1st and 5th corps, where was it really, in the muddle of contradictory reports? Still in camp at Nancy? Had it been threatening Châlons, which would explain their leaving the camp in such haste, burning stores, equipment, forage and all kinds of provisions? And then again more confusion and the most contradictory theories about plans the generals might have. As though he had been cut off from the world, Maurice only learned then what had happened in Paris: the stupefying shock of defeat on a whole people certain of victory, the terrible outburst of emotion in the streets, the recall of both Chambers, the fall of the liberal administration that had organized the plebiscite, the Emperor deprived of the title of Commander-in-Chief and forced to hand over the supreme command to Marshal Bazaine. Since the 16th the Emperor had been in the Châlons camp, and all the papers mentioned a grand council held on the 17th at which Prince Napoleon and several generals had been present. But there was no agreement between them about the real decisions made, as distinct from facts which had resulted: General Trochu appointed governor of Paris, Marshal MacMahon put at the head of the army of Châlons, which implied complete elimination of the Emperor. One could sense infinite dismay and indecision, contrary plans fighting each other and replacing each other hour by hour. And always the question, where were the German armies? Who were right, those who made out that Bazaine was a free agent, carrying out his withdrawal towards the northern fortresses, or those who said he was already beleaguered in Metz? A persistent rumour told of gigantic battles and heroic struggles going on between the 14th and 20th, a whole week, but nothing was clear except a tremendous clash of arms somewhere far away and out of ken.
Maurice sat on a seat to rest his legs which were worn out with fatigue. Round him the town seemed to be living its normal daily life – nurserymaids under the lovely trees, looking after children, and retired people taking their usual stroll with stately tread. He went back to his papers and came upon an article he had missed before in a violently republican sheet. Suddenly all was clear. The paper affirmed that at the council held on the 17th at the Châlons camp the retreat of the Paris army had been decided upon and the nomination of General Trochu was solely to prepare people for the Emperor’s return. But it added that these resolutions had come to grief when confronted with the attitude of the Empress-Regent and the new government. In the Empress’s opinion a revolution was inevitable if the Emperor reappeared, and she was credited with the words: ‘He would never reach the Tuileries alive.’ And so with all her obstinate determination she was set on an advance and a join-up with the army of Metz, whatever happened, and in this she was supported by General Palikao, the new Minister for War, who had a plan for a spectacular and victorious march to link up with Bazaine. Maurice let the paper slip on to his lap and gazing into space thought he could see it all: the two plans struggling against each other, the hesitations of Marshal MacMahon to undertake such a dangerous flanking movement with such unreliable troops, and impatient and increasingly peremptory orders from Paris urging him on to the foolish temerity of this adventure. Then in the midst of this tragic struggle he suddenly had a clear vision of the Emperor deprived of his imperial authority which he had entrusted to the Empress-Regent, stripped of his position as commander-in-chief with which he had just invested Marshal Bazaine, no longer anything at all, a shadow emperor, vague and indefinite, a nondescript, useless object and a nuisance that nobody knew what to do with, spurned by Paris and with no function left in the army, since he had undertaken not even to give an order.
But the following morning, after a thundery night when he had slept outside the tent rolled in his blanket, it was a relief to Maurice to learn that the withdrawal on Paris had prevailed. There was talk of another council held the day before at which the former Vice-Emperor, Monsieur Rouher, had been present as an envoy from the Empress to expedite the march on Verdun, and it was said that the marshal had convinced him of the danger of such a move. Had they had bad news from Bazaine? Nobody dared state this. But the absence of news was in itself significant, and all the more sensible officers were for waiting outside Paris and therefore being the city’s army of defence. Convinced that they would retire the next day, since it was said that the orders had been issued, Maurice was in a happy mood and felt like satisfying a childish wish that was bothering him – to escape for once from the messtin and eat somewhere off a tablecloth, have a bottle in front of him, a glass, a plate and all the things he seemed to have been deprived of for months past. He had money and so off he went in search of an inn, as though on an escapade.
It was past the canal, as you enter the village of Courcelles, that he found the meal of his dreams. He had been told the day before that the Emperor was putting up in one of the grander houses of the village, and he had gone that way for a walk out of curiosity. He remembered noticing this inn on a corner, its arbour hanging with fine bunches of grapes already golden and ripe. Beneath this climbing vine there were some tables painted green, and through the open door could be seen the huge kitchen with its ticking clock, Epinal prints gummed to the walls amidst the crockery, and the massive hostess turning the spit. Behind the inn there was a bowling alley. It was friendly, gay and pretty, the typical old-fashioned French eating-house.
A nice buxom girl came up, showing her fine teeth.
‘Are you having lunch, sir?’
‘Yes, rather! Give me some eggs, a cutlet and cheese… Oh, and some white wine!’
He called her back.
‘Tell me, isn’t it in one of these houses that the Emperor is staying?’
‘Yes, look, sir, the one straight in front of you. You can’t see the house itself, it’s behind that high wall with the trees hiding it.’
He went into the arbour, loosening his belt for comfort, choosing a table on which the sun, filtering through the creepers, cast flecks of gold. But his mind kept coming back to the high yellow wall guarding the Emperor. It was indeed a hidden, mysterious house, not even the roof of which could be seen from outside. The entrance was on the other side, on the village street, a narrow street without a shop or even a window, winding its way between dreary walls. Behind them its grounds made a sort of island of dense greenery among the few neighbouring buildings. And then he noticed at the far end of the road a large courtyard surrounded by sheds and stables all cluttered up with a great many carriages and vans, and in all this there was a continual coming and going of men and horses.
‘Is all that because of the Emperor?’ he asked the waitress by way of a joke as she was spreading a spotlessly white cloth on the table.
‘Yes, just that, for the Emperor all by himself,’ she answered in her jolly way, glad to be showing her white teeth.
And no doubt informed by the stable-boys who had been coming in for drinks since the day before, she went through the inventory: a general staff of twenty-five officers, the sixty household cavalry and detachment of guides for escort duty, six military police, then the household, comprising seventy-three persons, chamberlains, menservants and waiters, cooks, kitchen hands; in addition, four saddle-horses and two carriages for the Emperor, ten horses for the equerries, eight for the outriders and grooms, to say nothing of forty-seven post horses, an open waggon for personnel, twelve baggage vans, two of which, reserved for the cooks, had won her admiration for the quantity of utensils, plates and bottles inside, all in perfect order.
‘Oh, sir, those saucepans, you’ve no idea! They shine like suns. And all sorts of dishes, receptacles and gadgets for I don’t know what all! And a cellar, yes, bordeaux, burgundy, champagne, enough to give a fine old beano!’
In his joy at seeing a white cloth and delight with the white wine twinkling in his glass, Maurice ate two boiled eggs with a gusto he didn’t recognize in himself. When he turned his head to the left he could get a view through one of the entrances of the arbour of the great plain dotted with tents – a whole town buzzing with life that had sprung up in the fields of stubble between the canal and Rheims. Only an occasional clump of trees brought a touch of green into the expanse of grey. Three windmills stood there stretching out their skinny arms. But above the jumble of roofs of Rheims, largely hidden in the tops of chestnut trees, the colossal hull of the cathedral stood out against the blue sky, gigantic beside the low houses, in spite of the distance. Back into his mind came schoolboy memories, lessons learned by heart and repeated in a sing-song voice, the coronation of our kings, the phial of holy oil, Clovis, Joan of Arc, all the ancient glories of France. Then, as the thought of the Emperor in this unpretentious house, so discreetly shut away, made Maurice look back again at the high yellow wall, he had a shock as he read in enormous black letters: Long Live Napoleon! mixed up with obscene scribblings in huge letters. The rain had blurred these letters, but the inscription was obviously old. What a strange thing to see on this wall – the old enthusiastic war-cry which no doubt acclaimed the conqueror, the uncle, and not the nephew! Already he felt all his childhood coming back and singing in his memories, the days when, back in Le Chêne-Populeux, from earliest childhood he listened to tales told by his grandfather, a soldier of the Grande Armée. His mother was dead and his father had had to accept a job as a tax-collector in that twilight of glory which had overtaken the sons of heroes after the fall of the Empire, and the grandfather lived with them on a tiny pension, having come down to the mediocrity of this humble office-worker’s home, and his one consolation was to recount his campaigns to his grandchildren, fair-haired twins, a boy and a girl, to whom he was a kind of mother. He would sit Henriette on his left knee and Maurice on his right, and for hours there were Homeric narratives of battle.
Periods ran into each other, and it all seemed to be independent of history in a terrible collision of all the nations. English, Austrians, Prussians, Russians passed by in turn and together, and it was not always possible to know why some were beaten rather than others. But in the end they were all beaten, beaten inevitably in advance, in a surge of heroism and genius that swept armies away like straw. Marengo, the battle of the plain, with its great lines skilfully deployed, its faultless retreat, like a game of chess, by battalions, silent and unruffled under fire; the legendary battle lost at three o’clock, won by six, in which the eight hundred grenadiers of the Consular Guard broke the momentum of the whole Austrian cavalry, in which Desaix came, as he thought, to die but changed an incipient rout into an immortal victory. Austerlitz, with its wonderful sun of victory in the winter mists, Austerlitz, beginning with the capture of the plateau of Pratzen and ending in the terrifying disaster of the frozen lakes, with a whole Russian army corps falling through the ice, men and animals in an appalling crack of doom, while the godlike Napoleon, who of course had foreseen it all, hastened the disaster with a rain of cannon-balls. Jena, the grave of Prussian power, first the sharpshooters firing through the
October mists, the impatience of Ney who nearly upset the whole plan, then Augereau coming into line and relieving him, the great collision, with an impact that carried away the enemy’s centre, and finally the panic and headlong flight of their vaunted cavalry which our hussars mowed down like ripe oats, filling the picturesque valley with a harvest of men and horses. Eylau, abominable Eylau, the bloodiest of all, a slaughter piling up heaps of hideously mutilated corpses, Eylau red with blood in a blizzard of snow, with its dismal, heroic graveyard, Eylau, still re-echoing with the thunderous charge of Murat’s eighty squadrons, cutting the Russian army through and through and strewing the ground with such a thick carpet of bodies that even Napoleon wept. And Friedland, the huge, hideous trap into which once again the Russians fell like a flock of silly sparrows, the strategic masterpiece of the Emperor who knew everything and could do it all, our left wing immovable, imperturbable, while Ney, having taken the town street by street, was destroying the bridges; then our left charging the enemy’s right and hurling it into the river, crushing it into this dead-end with such slaughter that the killing was still
going on at ten o’clock at night. Wagram, the Austrians out to cut us off from the Danube and constantly reinforcing their right wing to beat Masséna who, though wounded, went on commanding from an open carriage, while Napoleon, crafty Titan, let them get on with it and then suddenly opened a terrible bombardment with a hundred pieces of artillery on their depleted centre, throwing it back over a league whilst the right, appalled at its isolation, gave way before Masséna, the now victorious Masséna, and carried the rest of their army away in the devastation of a broken dam. And finally Borodino, when the bright sun of Austerlitz shone for the last time, a terrifying confusion of men, a turmoil of numbers and obstinate courage, hillocks taken under incessant fire, redoubts carried by storm with naked swords, ceaseless counter-offensives disputing every inch of ground, such fanatical bravery by the Russian guards that victory was only achieved by the furious charges of Murat, the thunder of three hundred cannon firing together and the valour of Ney, whose triumph made him prince of the day. Whatever the battle, the flags floated with the same swirl of glory on the evening air and the same cries of Vive Napoléon re-echoed as the camp fires were lit on conquered positions, everywhere France was at home as a conqueror and carried her invincible eagles from end to end of Europe. She had only to plant her foot on a foreign realm and the defeated peoples were swallowed up in the earth.
Maurice was finishing his cutlet, more intoxicated by so much glory rising up and singing in his memory than by the white wine twinkling in his glass, when his eye fell on two soldiers in tatters and covered with mud, like bandits sick of roaming the roads, and he heard them asking the waitress for information about the exact whereabouts of the regiments camping along the canal.
He called them over.
‘Come over here, mates… But you belong to the 7th corps!’
‘Yes of course, first division! Oh I can tell you I fucking well do! And if you want to know, I was at Froeschwiller, where it wasn’t cold, you can take it from me!… And my mate here is in the 1st corps and he was at Wissembourg, another hell of a place.’
They told him their stories, how they were swept on in panic and rout, stayed in the bottom of a trench half dead with fatigue and actually both slightly wounded, and after that they had dragged along in the wake of the army and were obliged to stop in towns with exhausting attacks of fever, and were now so far behind the rest that they had only just arrived, feeling a bit recovered and now looking for their squads.
Deeply touched, Maurice, on the point of attacking a piece of Gruyère, noticed their eyes staring voraciously at his plate.
‘Mademoiselle, some more cheese, please, and bread and wine… You’ll join me, won’t you, mates? I’m having a blow-out. Here’s to your very good health.’
They sat down, thrilled. But he felt a chill come over him as he looked at these disarmed soldiers in their pitiful state, with their red trousers and capes so tied up with string and patched with so many odds and ends that they looked like rag-pickers or gypsies wearing out the clothes picked up on some battlefield.
‘Oh fuck it, yes,’ the taller one began again, with his mouth full, ‘it wasn’t at all funny there… You have to have seen it – you tell him, Coutard.’
The smaller one told him, waving his bread about by way of illustration.
‘I was just washing my shirt while they were doing the stew . . Just think of it, a filthy hole, a real crater with woods all round that had let those Prussian bastards creep up on all fours without anybody even suspecting… Then at seven, lo and behold, shells falling into our saucepans. Christ! We didn’t give them long, but jumped to our rifles and until eleven at night we really thought we were giving them a prize pasting… But you must know that there were less than five thousand of us and those sods just went on coming and coming and then some. I was on a little rise lying behind a bush and I saw them coming out straight ahead of me and to right and left, real anthills and streams of black ants, so that when there weren’t any more left there were still some more to come. Though I says it as shouldn’t, we did all think the officers were a lot of bloody fools to have landed us in a hornet’s nest like that, miles from our friends, and let us be flattened out without coming to our help. Well then, our general, that poor bugger General Douay, and he wasn’t a fool or a coward either, he went and caught a bullet and was laid out, all four legs in the air. Cleaned out, nobody left! All the same, we held our ground. But there were too many of them and we had to push off. We fought in a field, we defended the station in a racket enough to make you deaf for life. And after that, I don’t know, the town must have been taken because we found ourselves on a mountain, the Geissberg, they call it, I think, and there we withdrew into a sort of castle, and didn’t we half mow them down, the sods! They jumped up into the air and it was a real pleasure to see them come down again on their noses… and then, well, they still came on and on, ten to one and guns ad lib. When it’s like that all bravery does for you is to leave you dead on the field. Anyway, it was such a mess that we just had to fuck off… All the same, for a lot of chumps our officers took the biscuit, didn’t they, Picot?’
There was a pause. Picot, the tall one, swallowed a glass of white wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘That’s a fact. Like at Froeschwiller – you must be as barmy as a donkey to fight in such conditions. My captain, who was a smart little bloke, said as much… The truth is they couldn’t have known. A whole army of those buggers fell on us when we were scarcely forty thousand, and our lot weren’t expecting to fight that day, and the battle began just afterwards without the officers wanting it, apparently… Well, I didn’t see everything, of course, but what I do know is that the dance started up all over again from one end of the day to the other, and when we thought it was over, not a bit of it, the violins were just tuning up for something better still! First at Woerth, a nice little village with a funny church tower that looks like a stove because they’ve covered it all with porcelain tiles. I don’t know why the hell they ever made us leave it in the morning, because we fought tooth and nail to reoccupy it and didn’t manage to. Oh, I’m telling you, mates, we didn’t half fight there, and the number of bellies split open, and the brains scattered about, you wouldn’t credit it! Then they fought round some other village, Elsasshausen, a name as long as your arm! We were being potted at by lots of guns firing at their ease from the top of a bloody hill we had given up that morning too. And that’s when I saw, yes, with my very own eyes, the charge of the cavalry. How they faced death, those buggers! It was a real shame to send horses and men over ground like that, a slope covered with bushes and full of potholes. Especially, for Christ’s sake, when it couldn’t do any good. Never mind, it was plucky and it warmed your heart… Then it seemed that the best thing was to go off and get our breath back further away. The village was flaming like a match, and the Badeners, the Württembergers and the Prussians, in fact all the gang, over a hundred and twenty thousand of the bleeders they reckoned it was later, had surrounded us. But was it over, not at all, the band started playing louder still around Froeschwiller! For this is the gospel truth, MacMahon may be a fathead, but he is brave. You should have seen him on his big horse with shells all round him! Anybody else would have sloped off at the outset, deciding there was no disgrace in refusing to fight when you haven’t got the wherewithal. But not him. As he had begun he wanted to slog on to the end. And he did, too! You see at Froeschwiller they weren’t men, they were wild beasts devouring each other. For nearly two hours the gutters ran with blood… And then, and then, good God, we had to decamp all the same. And to think they came and told us we had thrown back the Bavarians on our left! God Almighty, if we had been a hundred thousand as well, if we had had enough guns and some chiefs who weren’t such bloody clots!’
Coutard and Picot were still violently resentful in their ragged uniforms, grey with dust, as they cut slices of bread and great hunks of cheese, trying to get out of their minds their nightmare memories, there under the pretty trellis with its ripe clusters of grapes pierced by golden shafts of sunlight. Now they came to the fearful rout that had followed: regiments in disorder, demóralized, famished, streaming across the fields, and main roads jammed with a dreadful confusion of men, horses, waggons, cannons, all the wreckage of a shattered army lashed along by the frantic wind of panic. Since they had not had the sense to fall back properly and defend the passes through the Vosges, where ten thousand men could have halted a hundred thousand, they should at least have blown up the bridges and blocked the tunnels. But no, the generals galloped on like mad, and everybody was in such a dazed state, losers and winners alike, that for a time the two armies had lost touch in a blind-man’s-buff pursuit in broad daylight, MacMahon scurrying for Lunéville while the Crown Prince of Prussia was hunting for him in the Vosges. On the 7th the remnants of the 1st corps were passing through Saverne like a muddy river in spate bearing away bits of wreckage. On the 8th, at Sarrebourg, the 5th corps tumbled into the 1st like one raging torrent into another; it was in flight too, without having fought, bearing along with it its commander, the pitiful General de Failly, quite unhinged because people were tracing the responsibility for the defeat back to his inaction. On the 9th and 10th the stampede went on, a mad rush that never even glanced behind. On the 11th, in driving rain, they came down towards Bayon in order to avoid Nancy because of a false rumour that that city was in enemy hands. On the 12th they camped at Haroué, the 13th at Vicherey and on the 14th they reached Neufchâteau, where at last the railway gathered up this moving mass of men and shovelled them for three whole days into trains to transport them to Châlons. Twenty-four hours after the departure of the last train the Prussians arrived.
‘Oh, what a bloody balls-up!’ was Picot’s conclusion. ‘How we had to use our legs!… And us left behind in hospital!’
Coutard was emptying the rest of the bottle into his own glass and his mate’s.
‘Yes, we had to do a bunk and we’re running still… Oh well, we feel a bit better all the same because we can drink to the health of those who haven’t been done in.’
Then Maurice understood. After the idiotic surprise of Wissembourg the crushing defeat of Froeschwiller was the flash of lightning whose sinister light had suddenly shown up the terrible truth. We were unprepared, with second-rate artillery, less manpower than we had been given to believe, incompetent generals, and the much despised enemy emerged strong, solid and numberless, with perfect discipline and tactics. The thin screen of our seven army corps, stretched out all the way from Metz to Strasbourg, had been dented in by the three German armies as though by three powerful wedges. Hence we were alone, and neither Austria nor Italy would come in, and the Emperor’s plan had foundered because of the slowness of the operations and the incompetence of the officers. Even fate worked against us, accumulating tiresome accidents and awkward coincidences, facilitating the Prussians’ plan which was to cut our armies in two and roll one part back on Metz to keep it isolated from France while they would march on Paris after destroying the remainder. Now it could be seen to be mathematically worked out: we were bound to be beaten on account of causes the inevitable results of which were plain for all to see, the collision of unintelligent bravery with superior numbers and cool method. Whatever argument there might be about it in the future, the defeat was inevitable, like the physical laws governing the world.
Then Maurice’s eyes, lost in a reverie, suddenly focused again on the slogan Long Live Napoleon chalked on the yellow wall in front of him. It gave him a sensation of unbearable distress, a twinge of pain that stabbed him to the heart. So it was true that this France, with her legendary victories, who had marched across Europe with drums rolling, had now been knocked over at the first push by a contemptible little country? Fifty years had sufficed to do it, the world had changed and ghastly defeat was swooping down on the eternal conquerors. He recalled all the things his brother-in-law Weiss had said on the dreadful night outside Mulhouse. Yes, he had been the only one to see clearly and guess at the long-standing hidden causes of our weakness, to sense the new wind of youth and strength blowing from Germany. Was it not the end of one military age and the beginning of another? Woe to whoever stands still in the ceaseless thrust of nations, victory is to those who march in the forefront, the most scientific, the healthiest, the strongest!
But just then there was a noise of laughing and screaming, of a girl struggling with a man and enjoying the fun. It was Lieutenant Rochas in the old dark kitchen with its gay Epinal prints, and he was holding the pretty waitress in his arms, like a conquering hero. He came out into the arbour, where he had a coffee brought to him, and as he had overheard the last words of Coutard and Picot he gaily chipped in:
‘Nonsense, my boys, that’s nothing! It’s just the opening of the ball, and now you are going to see our bloody revenge… Well, I ask you, up to now they’ve been five to one! But that’s going to change, you can take it from me. We are three hundred thousand here. All these movements we are carrying out and you don’t understand are meant to draw the Prussians after us while Bazaine, who’s got his eye on them, will catch them in the rear, and then we’ll squash ’em – crack, like this fly!’
He crushed a fly with a loud clap of his hands, and his mirth grew louder and louder for, innocent that he was, be believed in this simple plan, and he was now quite happy again with his faith in unconquerable courage. He kindly pointed out to the two soldiers exactly where their regiments were, then, with a cigar in his mouth, sat down to his coffee in perfect bliss.
‘The pleasure was mine, chums,’ Maurice said to Coutard and Picot, who thanked him for his cheese and bottle of wine and went off.
He had ordered a cup of coffee too, and looked at the lieutenant, catching a bit of his good humour, though somewhat surprised about the three hundred thousand men when they were hardly one hundred thousand, and at the singular ease with which he crushed the Prussians between the army of Châlons and that of Metz. But he, too, needed illusion so much! Why not still go on hoping, when the glorious past was still singing so loud in his memory? The old inn was so gay with its trellis from which hung the pale grapes of France, golden with sun! Once again he had an hour of confidence that lifted him out of the great, heavy sadness that had been building up in him.
Maurice’s eye had momentarily followed an officer of the Chasseurs d’Afrique and an orderly who had cantered out of sight round the corner of the silent house occupied by the Emperor. Then, as the orderly came back alone and stopped with the two horses outside the inn, he called out in surprise:
‘Prosper!… And I thought you were at Metz!’
He was a man from Remilly, a simple farm-hand he had known when he was a child and used to spend his holidays at Uncle Fouchard’s. He had drawn a call-up and had served in Africa for three years when the war broke out, and he looked well in his sky-blue tunic, wide red trousers with blue stripes and red worsted belt, with his long sallow face and his supple, strong yet wonderfully graceful limbs.
‘Well, fancy meeting you, Monsieur Maurice!’
But he was in no hurry and led the steaming horses round to the stable, giving a fatherly look, especially at his own. Love of horses, acquired no doubt in childhood when he led the animals to the plough, had made him choose the cavalry.
‘We’ve just come from Monthois, over ten leagues at one go,’ he went on when he came back, ‘and Zephir will be glad to have something.’
Zephir was his horse. But he himself refused to have anything to eat and just accepted a coffee. He was waiting for his officer, who was waiting for the Emperor. It might be five minutes or two hours. So his officer had told him to put the horses in the shade. And when Maurice’s curiosity was aroused and he tried to find out more, he shrugged it off:
‘I dunno… some errand of course… papers to deliver.’
Rochas looked with a kindly eye at the cavalryman, whose uniform brought back his memories of Africa.
‘Where were you over there, my boy?’
Medeah! That made them fall to chattering as friends, in spite of rank. Prosper had taken to this life of continual alarms, always on horseback, off to battle as some people go off to the shoot, for some big battue of Arabs. They had one messtin for a gang of ten men, and each gang was a family: one did the cooking, another did the washing, the others set up the tent, looked after the animals, kept the weapons polished. They rode morning and afternoon, loaded with enormous kit, with suns shining down like lead. In the evening they lit big fires to keep off the mosquitoes, and round them they sang the songs of France. Often in the middle of the starlit night they had to get up and pacify the horses who, irritated by the hot wind, would suddenly bite each other and pull out their tethering posts with furious whinnyings. And then there was the coffee, lovely coffee, which was quite a business to make – they crushed it in a messtin and strained it through a red uniform belt. But there were dark days too, far from any inhabited place and facing the enemy. And then no more singing, no more fun. Sometimes they suffered terribly from lack of sleep, from thirst and hunger. Never mind, they loved this existence of improvisation and adventure, this war of skirmishes, just the kind to bring out the glory of personal bravery, and as much fun as taking over a desert island, enlivened by forays, wholesale theft and looting and the petty pilfering of scroungers, whose legendary feats made everybody laugh, even the generals.
‘Ah,’ said Prosper, coming over quite serious, ‘it isn’t like it was there. Here they fight quite differently.’
Answering a fresh question from Maurice, he told of their disembarking at Toulon and long and difficult journey to Lunéville, where they had heard about Wissembourg and Froeschwiller. After that he wasn’t sure, he got the towns all mixed up: from Nancy to Saint-Mihiel, from Saint-Mihiel to Metz. On the 14th there must have been a big battle, the horizon was on fire, but all he had seen was four Uhlans behind a hedge. On the 16th more fighting and heavy gunfire from six in the morning, and he had been told that on the 18th the dance had started up again, more terrible still. But the Chasseurs weren’t there then because on the 16th, while they were waiting by the roadside at Gravelotte to go up to the line, the Emperor, tearing off in his carriage, had picked them up to escort him to Verdun. A nice ride that was, forty-two kilometres at the gallop for fear of being cut off by the Prussians at every moment.
‘And what about Bazaine?’ asked Rochas.
‘Bazaine? They say he was jolly glad the Emperor had left him alone.’
But the lieutenant meant was Bazaine coming? Prosper made a vague gesture: how could anyone say? Since the 16th they had been spending the days in marches and counter-marches in the rain, reconnaissances, outposts that had never seen an enemy. Now he was attached to the army of Châlons. His regiment, two others of the Chasseurs de France and one of the Hussars, made up one of the reserve cavalry divisions, the first, commanded by General Margueritte, whom he spoke of with enthusiasm and affection.
‘The old bugger! He’s one of the best! But what’s the good? All they could think about was making us paddle about in the mud.’
There was a silence. Then Maurice talked for a minute or two about Remilly and Uncle Fouchard, and Prosper was sorry he couldn’t go and have a look at Honoré, the sergeant, whose battery must be in camp more than a league away, on the further side of the Laon road. But then the snorting of a horse made him prick up his ears and he got up and went off to make sure Zephir was all right. Gradually soldiers of all arms and ranks were filling the inn, this being the time for coffee and drinks. There wasn’t a single table left free and the uniforms made gay splashes of colour against the greenery of creepers flecked with sunshine. Major Bouroche had just sat down next to Rochas when Jean appeared with an order.
‘Sir, the captain will expect you at three about duty rosters.’
Rochas nodded to indicate that he would be punctual, and Jean did not go off at once, but grinned at Maurice, who was lighting a cigarette. Since the scene in the train there had been a tacit truce between the two men, as though they were studying each other, but in an increasingly friendly way.
Prosper had come back and was impatient.
‘I’m going to have something to eat if my officer won’t come out of that dump… It’s no use, the Emperor is just as likely not to come back tonight at all.’
‘I say,’ asked Maurice, whose curiosity was aroused, ‘perhaps it’s news of Bazaine you’ve brought?’
‘Could be, they were talking about it at Monthois.’
But at that moment there was a sudden commotion and Jean, who had stopped at one of the entrances to the arbour, turned round and said:
In a moment they were all on their feet. Between the rows of poplars on the white road, a detachment of bodyguards appeared in their uniforms still wonderfully smart and resplendent, with the blazing gold of their cuirasses. Then suddenly came the Emperor followed by another detachment of bodyguard.
Heads were uncovered and a few cheers rang out. As he went by the Emperor looked up; he was very pale and his face was already drawn, his eyes blinking, vague and watery. He seemed to wake up out of a dream, smiled wanly when he saw this sunlit inn and saluted.
At that moment Jean and Maurice distinctly heard Bouroche behind them, muttering after thoroughly examining the Emperor with his practised eye:
‘He’s a goner!’
Jean, with his limited common sense, had shaken his head: damn bad luck for an army to have a chief like that! Ten minutes later when Maurice, after saying good-bye to Prosper, went off for a stroll and another cigarette or two, feeling contented after his good lunch, he carried with him this picture of the Emperor, so pallid and ineffectual, trotting past on his horse. This was the conspirator, the dreamer lacking the energy when the moment comes for action. He was said to be a very good man, quite capable of a great and generous thought and very tenacious in his silent determination; he was very brave too, a fatalist scorning danger, always prepared to face his destiny. But at times of crisis he seemed all in a daze, as though paralysed when faced with having to do anything and powerless to react against fortune if she turned against him. It made Maurice wonder whether there was not some special physiological condition underlying this, aggravated by pain, whether the illness from which the Emperor was obviously suffering was not the cause of the increasing indecision and impotence he had been showing since the outset of the campaign. It might have been the explanation of it all. A stone in a man’s flesh, and empires collapse.
That evening after roll-call there was a sudden activity in the camp, with officers running to and fro giving orders, fixing the departure for the following morning at five. It was for Maurice a shock of surprise and disquiet to realize that everything was altered once again. They were not now going to fall back on Paris but march to Verdun to link up with Bazaine. There was a rumour that a dispatch had come from him during the day indicating that he was putting into effect his movement of retreat; and then Maurice remembered Prosper and the officer who had come from Monthois, it might well have been to bring a copy of that dispatch. So, thanks to the continual vacillation of Marshal MacMahon, it was the Empress-Regent and the council of ministers who were having their way, in their fear of seeing the Emperor return to Paris and their obstinate determination to drive the army forward at all costs in order to make a supreme attempt to salvage the dynasty. And the wretched Emperor, this poor man who no longer had a job in his own empire, was to be carried round like some useless clutter in the baggage of his troops, condemned to drag after him the irony of his imperial establishment, his lifeguards, coaches, horses, cooks, vanloads of silver utensils and champagne, all the pomp of his robe of state, embroidered with imperial bees, trailing the roads of defeat in the blood and mire.
Midnight came and Maurice was still not asleep. A feverish dozing with nightmare dreams kept him tossing and turning in his tent. In the end he got up and went out, and was relieved to be on his feet and breathing the cool air, feeling the wind lash his face. The sky was now overcast with thick clouds and the night was very dark, an endless waste of shadows lit only occasionally by the dying fires of the colour-lines, like stars. Yet in this black peace, heavy with silence, you could sense the steady breathing of the hundred thousand men lying there. Then Maurice’s distress melted away and there came upon him a feeling of brotherhood, full of indulgent affection for all these living, sleeping men, thousands of whom would soon sleep the sleep of death. They were a decent lot of chaps really. Not very well disciplined, and they stole and drank. But how much they were already going through, and what an excuse they had in the general break-up of their country! The glorious veterans of Sebastopol and Solferino were already only a small minority mixed in with troops who were too young and incapable of a long resistance. These four army corps, hastily bodged together, with no firm links between them, were the army of desperation, the scapegoats sent to the sacrifice in an effort to avert the wrath of destiny. That army was about to climb its Calvary to the very end and redeem the sins of all with the red stream of its blood and find its greatness in the very horror of disaster.
It was then, in that expectant darkness, that Maurice became aware of a great duty. He ceased entertaining vainglorious hopes of winning fabulous victories. This march to Verdun was a march to death, and he accepted it with a cheerful, firm resignation, since one has to die anyway.