ON the next day, the 26th, Maurice woke up all aches and pains, with his shoulders hurting after a night in the tent. He still had not got used to the hard ground, and as the previous night the men had been ordered not to take off their boots, and sergeants had come round in the dark, feeling to make sure that everybody was booted and gaitered, his foot was not much better and was painful and burning, to say nothing of the fact that he must have got a thorough chill in his legs from being unwise enough to stick them out of the tent to stretch them.

Jean said at once:

‘Look, my boy, if we’ve got to march today you’d do well to see the M.O. and get yourself bunged in a van.’

But nobody knew anything and the most contradictory tales were going round. At one time they thought they were going on, camp was struck and the whole army corps began moving and went through Vouziers, leaving only one brigade of the second division on the left bank of the Aisne to keep an eye on the Monthois road. Then suddenly, at the other side of the town, on the right bank, they halted and piled arms in the fields and meadows stretching along on both sides of the Grand-Pré road. At that moment the departure of the 4th hussars, cantering away along that road, gave rise to all sorts of conjectures.

‘If we’re stopping here I shall stay with you,’ declared Maurice, who hated the thought of the M.O. and the ambulance.

It was soon known that they were to camp there until General Douay had had definite information about the movements of the enemy. Since the moment on the previous day when he had seen the Margueritte division going back towards Le Chêne, he had felt increasingly anxious, knowing that he was no longer covered and that there was not a single man guarding the defiles through the Argonne, so that he could be attacked at any moment. He had therefore dispatched the 4th hussars to reconnoitre as far as the defiles of Grand-Pré and La Croix-aux-Bois, with orders to bring back news at all costs.

On the previous day, thanks to the energy of the mayor of Vouziers, there had been an issue of bread, meat and forage, and that morning at about ten the men had just been authorized to make some stew for fear they might never have time later, when a second departure of troops, the Bordas brigade, which set off down the road taken by the hussars, once again set everyone speculating. What now? Were they off again? Weren’t they going to be left to eat in peace now that the pot was on the fire? But the officers explained that the Bordas brigade was detailed to occupy Buzancy, a few kilometres away. But others, to be sure, said that the hussars had run into a large number of enemy detachments and that the brigade was being sent to relieve them.

These were a few delightful hours of rest for Maurice. He stretched himself out on the grass half way up the hill on which his regiment was camping, and in his listless, exhausted state he looked at the green valley of the Aisne, with the fields and clumps of trees through which the river meanders lazily. In front of him and at the head of the valley Vouziers rose up in an amphitheatre, its terraces of roofs dominated by the church with its narrow spire and domed tower. Down by the river the high chimneys of the tanneries were smoking and at the other end could be seen the buildings of a big flourmill white amid the greenery at the water’s edge. This view of a little town nestling in the green grass seemed full of a gentle charm to him, as though he had recovered his former vision as a sensitive dreamer. His boyhood came back, and the excursions he used to make to Vouziers in the old days when he lived at Le Chêne, his birthplace. For an hour he was lost to the world.

The stew had been eaten a long time ago and still they were waiting about when, at nearly half past two, the whole camp was permeated by a vague but increasing restlessness. Orders flew hither and thither, the fields were evacuated and all the troops climbed up and took positions on the ridges between two villages, Chestres and Falaise, about four or five kilometres apart. Already the sappers were digging trenches and throwing up ramparts while to the left the reserve artillery was on top of a mound. The tale went round that General Bordas had sent a dispatch rider to report that having met superior forces at Grand-Pré he was obliged to fall back on Buzancy, and that gave rise to fears that his line of retreat to Vouziers might soon be cut. That was why the commander of the 7th corps, thinking an attack was imminent, had moved his men into combat positions to sustain the first shock until the rest of the army could come to his support, and one of his aides-de-camp had gone off with a letter to the marshal, warning him about the situation and asking for help. So as he was frightened of being obstructed by the interminable supply column which had rejoined the corps during the night and which was now dragging after him again, he had made that set off at once, sending it any old where in the Chagny direction. It was battle order.

‘So this is really it this time, sir?’ Maurice ventured to ask Rochas.

‘Yes, it bloody well is!’ he answered, waving his long arms. ‘You’ll see whether it’s hot enough in a minute.’

All the men were thrilled. Since the battle line had been drawn from Chestres to Falaise the excitement of the camp had heightened still more and the men were becoming feverishly impatient. So they were going to see them at last, these Prussians the papers said were so exhausted with marches, so undermined by diseases, famished and in rags! And the hope of bowling them over at the first go revived everyone’s spirits.

‘It’s a good job we’ve found each other!’ declared Jean. ‘We’ve been playing hide and seek long enough since losing each other over there on the frontier after their battle… But are these the ones who beat MacMahon?’

Maurice could not answer him, for he wasn’t sure. From what he had read at Rheims it seemed very unlikely that the IIIrd army, commanded by the Prussian Crown Prince, could be at Vouziers when only two days before it could scarcely have camped nearer than Vitry-le-François. There had of course been talk of a IVth army put under the command of the Crown Prince of Saxony which was to operate on the Meuse; it must be that one, although such an early occupation of Grand-Pré astonished him because of the distances. But what finally muddled him was his amazement when he heard General Bourgain-Desfeuilles interrogating a peasant from Falaise to find out whether or not the Meuse flowed through Buzancy and if there were some strong bridges there. Moreover in his fool’s paradise the general declared that they would be attacked by a force of a hundred thousand men from Grand-Pré whilst another sixty thousand were coming via Sainte-Ménehould.

‘How’s the foot?’ asked Jean.

‘Can’t even feel it now,’ Maurice laughed. ‘If there’s a fight it’ll be all right.’

It was true. He was upheld by such nervous excitement that he felt as if he were not touching the ground. To think that all through the campaign he hadn’t yet fired a single round. He had been to the frontier, he had spent the awful night of suspense outside Mulhouse, without setting eyes on a single Prussian or firing a shot, and he had had to retreat to Belfort, to Rheims, and once again he had been marching towards the enemy for five days with his rifle still virgin and useless. He was possessed by a growing need, a dull rage urging him to take aim and fire anyway, to steady his nerves. It was nearly six weeks since he had joined up in a burst of enthusiasm, dreaming of battle the next day, and all he had done was wear out his poor, delicate, civilian feet running away or marking time, miles from any battlefield. That was why, in this universal mood of expectation, he was one of the most impatient watchers of that main road to Grand-Pré stretching away dead straight between its fine trees. Beneath him the valley wound along, the Aisne making a kind of silver ribbon amid the willows and poplars, but his eyes could not help coming back to that road down there.

There was an alert at about four. The 4th hussars returned after a long detour, and tales of fights with Uhlans went the rounds, getting magnified as they went, and this endorsed everybody’s conviction that an attack was imminent. Two hours later another dispatch rider came in, explaining in scared tones that General Bordas daren’t leave Grand-Pré now because he was sure that the Vouziers road was cut. This was not yet the case, since the rider himself had come through freely, but at any minute it could be a fact, and General Dumont, in command of the division, left at once with the one brigade he had remaining, to relieve his other brigade in peril. The sun was going down behind Vouziers, whose line of roofs stood out black against a great cloud of red. For a long time the brigade could be seen moving between the double row of trees until in the end it was lost in the deepening shadows.

Colonel de Vineuil came to make sure that his regiment was in a good position for the night. He was astonished not to find Captain Beaudoin at his post; and as he came back at that very moment from Vouziers, giving the excuse that he had been to lunch with the Baroness de Ladicourt, he received a severe reprimand, which he heard in silence, looking the essence of the good officer.

‘My boys,’ the colonel kept saying as he moved about among the men, ‘we may be attacked tonight and certainly shall be tomorrow at dawn… Hold yourselves ready and remember that the 106th has never run away.’

They all applauded him, for in the mood of fatigue and discouragement that had been growing on them since their departure they all preferred a showdown to put an end to it. Rifles were checked and pins changed. As they had had a hot meal in the morning they made do with coffee and biscuit. The order had been not to go to bed. Outposts were placed at fifteen hundred metres, and sentries posted as far as the banks of the Aisne. All the officers sat up round camp fires. And every now and then the flickering light of one of these fires picked out against a low wall glimpses of the gaudy uniforms of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff – shadowy figures darting to and fro, running towards the road, listening out for the sound of horses’ hoofs in this intense anxiety about the fate of the third division.

At about one in the morning Maurice was posted as an advance sentinel on the edge of a plum orchard between the road and the river. The night was as black as ink. As soon as he was alone in the crushing silence of the sleeping countryside he was conscious of a feeling of fear creeping over him, an awful fear he had never known before and could not overcome, and it made him shake with anger and humiliation. He turned round to reassure himself with the sight of the camp fires, but they must have been hidden by a little wood, and all he had behind him was a wall of blackness; the only lights were a few very distant ones still burning in Vouziers, where the inhabitants, who had no doubt been alerted, were terrified at the thought of a battle and were staying up. What really froze him with fear was to find out when he brought his rifle to his shoulder that he could not even see the sights. Then the most cruel period of waiting set in, with all the strength of his being concentrated on the sense of hearing alone, his ears straining for imperceptible sounds and ending by roaring in his head like thunder. Some distant running water, a light rustling of leaves, the flight of an insect, all became huge, reverberating noises. Was it a galloping of horses, an endless rumbling of artillery coming straight at him from over there? To his left had he heard a cautious whisper, voices being kept down, some advance column crawling through the darkness, preparing a surprise attack? Three times he was on the point of firing to raise the alarm. His uneasiness was increased by the fear of being mistaken and looking ridiculous. He had knelt down with his left shoulder propped against a tree, and it seemed to him that he had been there for hours and been forgotten. The army must have gone off without him. Then suddenly his fear vanished, he heard quite clearly the rhythmical step of soldiers matching along the road he knew was only a couple of hundred metres away. At once he felt sure that they were troops in distress, the ones who had been so impatiently waited for – General Dumont bringing back the Bordas brigade. Just then someone came and relieved him, his turn of duty had hardly lasted the regulation one hour.

It was indeed the third division returning to camp, and that was an immense relief. But precautions were redoubled because information received confirmed everything they thought they knew about the enemy’s approach. The few prisoners they brought back, sombre Uhlans in their long cloaks, refused to talk. Daybreak, the grey dawn of a rainy day, came up in the continuing expectancy which frayed everybody’s nerves. The men had not dared to sleep for fourteen hours. At about seven Lieutenant Rochas said that MacMahon was on the way with a whole army. The truth was that General Douay had had, by way of a reply to his dispatch sent the day before predicting the inevitable fight before Vouziers, a letter from the marshal telling him to hold on until he could send him some support: the advance had been stopped, the 1st corps was making for Terron, the 5th for Buzancy, while the 12th would stay at Le Chêne in reserve. So the wait took on an even greater significance, it was no longer a simple fight to come, but a great battle involving the whole of the army that had been headed away from the Meuse and was now on the march further south in the Aisne valley. So once again they dared not cook their hot stew but had to make do with coffee and biscuit, for the final reckoning was fixed for noon, everybody said without knowing why. An aide-de-camp had been sent off to the marshal to hasten the arrival of reinforcements, the approach of the two enemy armies being more and more certain. Three hours later a second officer galloped off for Le Chêne, where General Headquarters was, from which he was to bring back immediate orders, so much had anxiety increased following news from the mayor of some little country place who claimed to have seen a hundred thousand men at Grand-Pré while a hundred thousand more were coming up via Buzancy.

By noon still not a single Prussian. By one, by two, still nothing. Everybody was getting sick of it, and sceptical as well. Jeering voices began to poke fun at the generals. Perhaps they had seen their own shadows on the wall. They voted to get them some glasses. A fine lot of jokers to have upset everybody like this if nothing was coming! Some wag called out:

‘So it’s going to be Mulhouse all over again?’

This wrung Maurice’s heart with bitter memories. He recalled that idiotic flight and panic that had swept the 7th corps along without a single German being seen for ten leagues around. And now it was all starting again, he felt it quite clearly, with no mistake about it. Now that the enemy had not attacked twenty-four hours after the skirmish at Grand-Pré it must have been that the 4th hussars simply ran into some mounted reconnaissance. The main forces must still be a long way off, possibly even two days’ march. All at once this thought horrified him as he considered how much time had been lost. In three days they had not covered two leagues, from Contreuve to Vouziers. On the 25th and 26th the other army corps had gone northwards on the pretext that they had to restock with foodstuffs, whereas now, on the 27th, lo and behold they were going southwards to accept a challenge nobody was offering. Following the 4th hussars towards the abandoned passes in the Argonne, the Bordas brigade had thought it was lost and dragged in the whole division to help, then the 7th corps and then the whole army, all to no purpose. Maurice thought of the inestimable value of each hour in this wild scheme of joining up with Bazaine, a plan which none but a general of genius could have carried out, and with seasoned troops, on condition that he took everything by storm, straight ahead through every obstacle.

‘We’re finished,’ he said to Jean, seized with despair in a sudden brief moment of lucidity.

Then as the other opened his eyes wide, not following, he lowered his voice and went on for him alone, referring to the commanders:

‘More stupid than wicked, that’s certain, and always out of luck! They don’t know anything, never foresee anything, they’ve got no plan, no ideas, no lucky breaks… Can’t you see, everything is against us, we’re done for!’

This discouragement that Maurice reasoned out, being an intelligent and educated fellow, gradually grew and weighed on all the troops who were immobilized for no reason and worn out with waiting. In an obscure way doubt and suspicion about the true situation were doing their work in their thick heads, and there was not a man left, however dim-witted, who didn’t feel uneasy about being badly led, held up for no reason, shoved somehow or other into the most disastrous adventure. What the hell were they buggering about there for, with no Prussians coming? Either let them fight at once or go somewhere and get a good night’s sleep. They’d had enough. Since the last aide-de-camp had gone off to bring back orders anxiety was growing every minute, groups had formed and were arguing at the tops of their voices. The officers, who were in sympathy with this agitation, did not know what answers to give to soldiers who ventured to ask questions. So at three, when word went round that the aide-de-camp was back and that they were going to fall back, there was relief in every heart and a sigh of real joy.

So wise counsels were to prevail at last! The Emperor and the marshal, who had never been in favour of this march on Verdun and were now alarmed to know that once again they had been out-manoeuvred and were going to be confronted by the army of the Crown Prince of Saxony as well as that of the Crown Prince of Prussia, were giving up the improbable link-up with Bazaine in order to retreat via the northern strongholds and swing round on Paris. The 7th corps received orders to make for Chagny via Le Chêne, while the 5th was to march on Poix and the 1st and 12th on Vendresse. Very well, then, as they were falling back, why had they advanced to the Aisne, why so many days lost and so much fatigue when it was so easy and logical to go straight from Rheims and take up strong positions in the valley of the Marne? Was there no master plan, no military skill, nor even plain common sense, then? But now the wondering stopped and all was overlooked in delight at this most reasonable decision, the only right one to get them out of the hornets’ nest they had run into. From the generals down to the ranks they all had the feeling that they would recover their strength and be invincible before Paris, and that it was there of necessity that they would defeat the Prussians. But they had to evacuate Vouziers before dawn so as to be on the march towards Le Chêne before an attack came, and at once the camp was filled with extraordinary animation, with bugles sounding, orders being given in all directions, and already baggage trains and administration were going on ahead so as not to impede the rearguard.

Maurice was overjoyed. Then, while he was trying to explain to Jean the manoeuvre of withdrawal they were going to execute, he let out a cry of pain. His state of elation had gone, and he became conscious of his foot again, like a lump of lead on the end of his leg.

‘What, is that starting up again?’ The corporal was very concerned, but with his practical mind he had an idea.

‘Listen, kid, you told me yesterday that you knew people in that town. You ought to get the major’s permission to get a lift to Le Chêne, where you could get a good night’s sleep in a good bed. Tomorrow, if you are walking all right, we can pick you up as we go through. How does that strike you?’

In Falaise itself, the village near which they were camping, Maurice had run into an old friend of his father’s, a small farmer who in any case was going to take his daughter to an aunt’s in Le Chêne, and his horse was already harnessed to a trap.

But with Major Bouroche things nearly went wrong from the very first words.

‘It’s my foot, doctor, it’s got the skin off…’

‘Don’t call me doctor… who sent me a bloody soldier like this?’

As Maurice was nervously trying to apologize he went on:

‘I’m the major, don’t you understand, you clot?’

Then, realizing the sort of person he was dealing with, he must have felt a bit ashamed, for he stormed louder than ever:

‘Your foot, that’s a nice tale! All right, all right, you can have permission. Go in a carriage, go in a balloon. We’ve got enough Tired Tims and Weary Willies here!’

When Jean helped Maurice up into the trap the latter turned round to thank him and the two men hugged each other as though they were never to see each other again. How could you tell, in all the confusion of retreat, with these Prussians about? Maurice was still surprised at the deep affection that already tied him to this fellow. Twice more he turned round and waved him good-bye, and so he left the camp, where they were preparing to light big fires to deceive the enemy while they slipped off quite noiselessly before dawn.

On the road the farmer moaned continuously about the times being out of joint. He had not had the courage to stay at Falaise, and now he was already sorry he wasn’t still there, repeating that he was ruined if the enemy set fire to his house. His daughter, a lanky, colourless creature, was snivelling. But Maurice, who was drunk with fatigue, did not hear, for he was asleep on his seat, lulled by the smart trot of the little horse, which covered the four leagues from Vouziers to Le Chêne in under an hour and a half. It was not yet seven, and dusk was hardly setting in when the young man, startled out of sleep and shivering, got down at the canal bridge on to the open space in front of the narrow yellow house where he was born and where he had lived twenty years of his existence. He made for it automatically although the house had been sold eighteen months before to a veterinary surgeon. When the farmer asked him if he could help he answered that he knew quite well where he was going and thanked him very much for his kindness.

But in the middle of the little three-sided space, by the well, he stood still, puzzled, his mind a blank. Where was he aiming for? Then he remembered he was making for the notary’s, whose house adjoined the one in which he had grown up, and whose mother, the very old and kind Madame Desroches, as a neighbour used to spoil him when he was a child. But he hardly recognized Le Chêne, for this normally dead-and-alive little town was in a state of uproar caused by the presence of an army corps camped just outside, filling the streets with officers, dispatch riders, camp-followers, prowlers and hangers-on of all kinds. Of course he knew the canal cutting through the town from end to end and dividing the central square, and the narrow stone bridge connecting the two triangles; and on the further side the market hall was still there with its moss-covered roof, the rue Berond going off to the left and the Sedan road to the right. But from where he was he had to look up and see the clock tower with its slate roof above the notary’s house to be sure this really was the quiet corner where he had played hopscotch long ago, for the rue de Vouziers in front of him, as far as the Hôtel de Ville, was buzzing with a solid mass of people. On the open space itself he thought an area was being kept clear and men were heading off sightseers. And there, to his surprise, he saw a large space taken up behind the well by a large park of carriages, vans, carts, a whole encampment of baggage he had certainly seen before.

The sun had gone down into the straight and blood-red water of the canal and Maurice was making up his mind when a woman who had been looking at him for a minute or two exclaimed:

‘Good Lord, can it be possible? Surely you are the Levasseur boy?’

Then he recognized Madame Combette, the chemist’s wife on the square. As he was telling her that he was going to beg for a bed for the night from that nice Madame Desroches, she pulled him away, obviously disturbed.

‘No, no, come over to us, I’ll explain…’

When she had carefully closed the shop door behind her:

‘So you don’t know, my dear boy, that the Emperor is lodging at the Desroches’s. The house has been commandeered for him and they are not all that pleased with the great honour, I can tell you. When you think that the poor old mother, a woman well past seventy has been forced to give up her own room and go and sleep up in the garret in a maid’s bed!… Look, all you can see out there on the square is to do with the Emperor – his luggage in fact, if you see what I mean!’

Maurice then recalled those carriages and vans, all the grand paraphernalia of the imperial household he had seen at Rheims.

‘Oh my dear boy, if only you knew the things they unpacked from there – silver plate and bottles of wine, hampers of provisions, fine linen and everything! It went on for two whole hours. I wonder where they have managed to stow so many things, for it isn’t a big house… Just look at the fire they’ve lit in the kitchen.’

He glanced over at the little white two-storey house on the corner of the square and the Vouziers road, a serene, respectable-looking house, and the inside, the central passage-hall on the ground floor, the four rooms on each floor, all came back to his mind as though he had been there only yesterday. There was already a light in the first-floor window nearest the corner that looked on to the square, and the chemist’s wife explained that that was the Emperor’s room. But as she had said, the place which blazed most brightly was the kitchen, the windows of which, on the ground floor, looked on to the Vouziers road. Never had the inhabitants of Le Chêne seen such a show. An ever-rolling stream of sightseers blocked the street, gaping at this furnace on which an Emperor’s dinner was roasting and boiling. So as to get some air, the cooks had thrown the windows wide open. There were three chefs in spotless white jackets busy in front of chickens spiked along an immense spit, stirring sauces in enormous saucepans of copper gleaming like gold. Old men couldn’t remember having seen so much fire and so much food cooking at once at the Lion d’Argent, even for the grandest weddings.

Combette the chemist, a bustling little man, came in very excited by all he had seen and heard. He seemed to be in the know, being deputy mayor. It appeared that at about half past three MacMahon had wired Bazaine that the arrival of the Crown Prince of Prussia at Châlons forced him to fall back on the northern fortresses, and another telegram was going off to the Minister of War warning him also about the retreat, explaining the terrible danger the army was in of being cut off and annihilated. The wire to Bazaine could run there if it had good legs, for all communication with Metz seemed to have been cut off for some days. But the other wire was more disturbing, and lowering his voice the chemist said he had heard a high officer say: ‘If anybody tells them in Paris, we’re up the spout!’ Everybody was aware of the pertinacity with which the Empress-Regent and the cabinet were urging an advance. Anyhow the confusion was getting worse every hour, and the most extraordinary tales came in about the approaching German armies. The Crown Prince of Prussia at Châlons – was it possible? Then, what troops had the 7th corps run into in the gorges of the Argonne?

‘At General Headquarters they know nothing,’ the chemist went on with a despairing wave of the arms. ‘Oh, what a mess! But still, it’s all right so long as the army is in retreat by tomorrow.’

Then his real kindness came out:

‘Look here, my young friend, I’m going to put a dressing on that foot of yours, you’ll have a meal with us and sleep up there in my apprentice’s little room. He’s sloped off.’

But being still obsessed with the need to see and know, Maurice wanted above all to carry out his first idea and go and see old Madame Desroches opposite. He was surprised not to be stopped at the door which in spite of the tumult of the square outside was left open and not even guarded. People were continually going in and out, officers and orderlies, and it seemed as if the commotion in the blazing kitchen was affecting the whole house. Yet there was no light on the stairs and he had to feel his way up. On the first floor he paused a few seconds with thumping heart in front of the door of the room where he knew the Emperor was, but in that room there was not a sound, it was as still as death. And up at the top, on the threshold of the maid’s room where she had had to retreat, old Madame Desroches was at first afraid of him. Then, when she saw who it was:

‘Oh my child, what a dreadful time to meet again! I would gladly have given up my house to the Emperor, but some of the people with him really are too uncouth! If you knew how they have taken everything, and they’ll burn everything too, with the huge fire they’re making… He, poor man, looks like death, and so sad…’

When the young man took his leave, trying to cheer her up, she came with him and leaned over the banister.

‘Look,’ she whispered, ‘you can see him from here… Oh, it’s all up with us, that’s certain. Good-bye, my boy.’

Maurice stayed rooted to a step on the dark staircase. By craning his neck he could see through a fanlight a sight that remained stamped on his mind for ever.

The Emperor was there in this simply furnished, cold room, sitting at a little table on which his dinner was served and which was lit by a candle at each end. Behind, two aides-de-camp were standing in silence. A major-domo was standing by the table, in attendance. And the glass had not been used, the bread had not been touched, a chicken breast was going cold in the middle of the plate. The Emperor, motionless, was gazing at the cloth with the same vacillating, lack-lustre, watery eyes he already had at Rheims. But he looked more tired, and when he had made up his mind, as though it were an immense effort, and taken two mouthfuls, he pushed all the rest away with his hand. He had dined. An expression of secretly borne pain made his pale face look even more ashen.

Downstairs, as Maurice was passing the dining-room, the door was suddenly thrown open and he saw in the flickering candlelight and in the steam rising from dishes, a whole table of equerries, aides-de-camp, court officials busy emptying the bottles unloaded from the vans, swallowing down chickens and mopping up sauces, all with loud conversation. Now that the telegram to the marshal had gone off all these people were delighted at the certainty of retreat. In a week’s time they would have clean beds at last, in Paris.

This made Maurice suddenly conscious of the terrible fatigue weighing him down: now it was certain that the army was falling back all he had to do was sleep until the 7th corps came through. He crossed the open space again, found himself back in Combette’s shop, where he ate as in a dream. Then it seemed that somebody was dressing his foot and taking him up to a room, and after that, black night and nothingness. He slept, knocked right out, scarcely breathing. After an indeterminate time, hours or centuries, his sleep was interrupted by a shudder of panic, and he sat up in the darkness. Where was he? What was this continuous rumbling of thunder that had woken him up? He sudddenly remembered and ran to the window to look. Down in the dark square where the nights were usually so quiet the artillery was on the move in a ceaseless trot of men, horses and cannon, shaking the little dead houses. This sudden departure filled him with unreasoning anxiety. Whatever was the time? It struck four at the Hôtel de Ville. He was endeavouring to be sensible, telling himself that it was simply the beginning of the execution of the order for retreat given the day before, when what he saw as he turned his head upset him more than ever. There was still a light in the corner window of the notary’s house, and at regular intervals the shadow of the Emperor could clearly be seen in dark silhouette.

Maurice quickly pulled on his trousers to go downstairs, but Combette appeared, holding a candlestick and gesticulating.

‘I saw you from down there, on my way back from the Hôtel de Ville, so I came up to say… Just think of it, they haven’t let me go to bed, and for the past two hours the mayor and I have been dealing with fresh requisitions… Yes, once again the whole thing has been changed… Oh, that officer who didn’t want the wire to be sent to Paris was bloody well right!’

He went on for a long time in short, disconnected sentences, and in the end the young man understood, and he was silent and sick at heart. At about midnight a telegram from the War Office had reached the Emperor in reply to that of the marshal. The exact text was not known, but an aide-de-camp had said out loud at the Hôtel de Ville that the Empress and cabinet were afraid of a revolution in Paris if the Emperor returned there and left Bazaine in the lurch. The telegram was misinformed about the true position of the Germans and, appearing to believe that the army of Châlons had advanced further than it really had, it insisted in extraordinarily passionate terms on a march straight ahead come what may.

‘The Emperor sent for the marshal,’ went on the chemist, ‘and they were shut up together for nearly an hour. Of course, I don’t know what they can have said, but what all the officers have repeated is that the retreat is off and the march to the Meuse is on again… We have requisitioned all the bakehouses in the town for the 1st corps which will replace the 12th here in the morning. The 12th’s artillery, as you see, is now leaving for La Besace… This really is the end, and you are off to battle!’

He stopped, for he, too, was looking at the lighted window at the notary’s. Then he went on in an undertone, as though tortured by curiosity:

‘What can they have said to each other, I wonder?… Funny all the same, to fall back at six in the evening before the threat of danger, and at midnight to rush headlong into the same danger, although the situation remains identical!’

Maurice was still listening to the rumbling of the guns down there through the dark little town, this uninterrupted trotting past, this stream of men flowing towards the Meuse, to the terrible unknown of tomorrow. On the ordinary, thin curtains over the window he could still see the shadow of the Emperor regularly passing to and fro. This sick man, kept up by insomnia, was pacing up and down, feeling the need to keep moving in spite of his pain, his ears filled with the noise of those horses and men he was allowing to be sent to their death. So only a few hours had been enough and it was now disaster, deliberately chosen, accepted. What indeed could the Emperor and the marshal have said to each other, both perfectly aware of the doom towards which they were moving, convinced in the evening of defeat in the appalling circumstances in which the army would find itself and surely not able to change their minds by morning, when the peril was increasing hour by hour? General Palikao’s plan, an all-out march on Montmédy, which already by the 23rd was on the rash side, still perhaps just possible on the 25th, became by the 27th an act of pure lunacy, given the continual vacillating of the command and the growing demoralization of the troops. If they were both aware of all this why were they giving in to the pitiless voices hounding them on in their indecision. Perhaps the marshal was merely a blinkered and obedient soldier showing his greatness by his abnegation. And the Emperor, no longer in command, was just waiting for fate to decide. Their lives, and the lives of the army, were being asked for and they were giving them. This was the night of the crime, the abominable night of the murder of a nation, for from that moment onwards the army was in peril, a hundred thousand men were being sent to the slaughter.

Thinking over these things, shivering in despair, Maurice still followed that shadow on Madame Desroches’s thin muslin – that feverish, pacing shadow driven on by the relentless voice from Paris. Had not the Empress, that very night, wished for the Emperor’s death so that her son might reign? March on! March on! Never look back, in rain, through mud, to extermination, so that this crucial game of the dying Empire be played out to the last card. March on! March on! Die like a hero on the heaped corpses of your people, fill the whole world with wonder and awe if you want it to forgive your successors! And without doubt the Emperor was marching on to death. Downstairs the kitchen was no longer ablaze, the equerries, aides-de-camp and officials were fast asleep and the whole building was in blackness; but alone the shadow paced ceaselessly up and down, resigned to the inevitability of the sacrifice amidst the deafening din of the 12th corps still going by in the dark.

It suddenly occurred to Maurice that if the advance were to be resumed the 7th would not come up through Le Chêne at all, and he saw himself left behind, cut off from his regiment, a deserter. The pain in his foot had gone; skilful dressing and some hours of absolute rest had brought down the inflammation. When Combette had given him a pair of his own boots, wide ones in which he felt comfortable, he wanted to be on his way, and at once, hoping he might still find the 106th on the road from Le Chêne to Vouziers. The chemist tried in vain to keep him, and was on the point of deciding to take him back himself in his own trap and just drive about in the hope of finding them, when the apprentice Fernand reappeared, explaining that he had been to see his girl cousin. He was a tall, weedy youth, looked a bit of a ninny, and he harnessed the horse and took Maurice. It was not quite four, a deluge of rain was falling from an inky sky, and the lanterns of the vehicle shone palely, hardly lighting the road in the great, sodden countryside, full of gigantic noises which brought them to a halt at every kilometre, thinking an army must be on the move.

And just outside Vouziers Jean had not slept either. Since Maurice had explained how the retreat was going to save the whole situation, he had kept awake, preventing his men from straying too far away, waiting for the order to leave which the officers might give at any moment. At about two, in the pitch darkness starred with red fires, a great noise of horses went through the camp: it was the cavalry setting off as advance guard for Ballay and Quatre-Champs so as to keep an eye on the roads from Boult-aux-Bois and La Croix-aux-Bois. One hour later the infantry and artillery began to move in their turn, finally giving up their positions at Falaise and Chestres, which they had obstinately defended for two whole days against an enemy who never appeared. The sky was overcast and it was still dark night as each regiment went off with the utmost silence, a procession of men disappearing into the blackness. But all hearts were beating with joy, as though they had escaped from an ambush. They already saw themselves at the walls of Paris and on the eve of taking their revenge.

Jean peered into the thick darkness. The road was lined with trees and it looked to him as though it went across open meadows. Then there were some ups and downs. They were entering a village which must be Ballay when the heavy clouds which darkened the sky burst into a deluge of rain. The men had already had so much wet that they had even given up grousing about it and just hunched their shoulders. But after Ballay, as they were approaching Quatre-Champs, the wind began to blow in furious squalls. Beyond there, when they had climbed up on to the great plateau stretching with its bare fields all the way to Noirval, the hurricane raged and they were lashed by a frightful cloudburst. And there, in the middle of this endless plain, came an order to halt which stopped all the regiments one by one. The whole 7th corps, thirty-odd thousand men, was standing there in a mass when day dawned – a muddy day in streams of grey water. What was up now? Why this halt? Already the ranks were getting restive, and some were suggesting that the order to march had been reversed. They had been made to stand easy but forbidden to break ranks and sit down. Sometimes the gale swept over the high plain with such force that they had to move close to each other so as not to be blown along. The rain blinded them and stung their skin, a freezing rain which got under their clothes. Two hours went by, an interminable wait, nobody knew why, and once again anxiety gripped every heart.

As it grew lighter Jean tried to get his bearings. He had been shown the Le Chêne road going off north-west up a hill the other side of Quatre-Champs. Well, why had they turned right instead of left? What interested him was the headquarters set up in La Converserie, a farmhouse perched on the edge of the plateau. They seemed to be very perturbed there, with officers running about and arguing and gesticulating. But nothing was coming, what could they be waiting for? The plateau formed a sort of circus – bare stubble stretching on and on, dominated on the north and east by wooded uplands; southwards there were extensive thick woods while to the west could be seen a glimpse of the Aisne valley with the little white houses of Vouziers. Below La Converserie the slate steeple of Quatre-Champs stood out, drowned in sheets of rain which seemed to be melting away the few miserable mossy roofs of the village. As Jean ran his eye up the hilly road he saw quite clearly a trap bowling quite fast along the stony track which was now a torrent.

It was Maurice, who from the hill opposite as he came round a bend had spotted the 7th. He had been casting round for two hours, misled by peasants’ instructions, taken the wrong way by the artful bloody-mindedness of his driver, who was scared to death of the Prussians. As soon as he reached the farmhouse Maurice leaped down and at once found his regiment.

Jean gaped in amazement.

‘What, you! Why? We were going to pick you up!’

Maurice put all his anger and distress into one gesture.

‘Oh yes? Well, we’re not going up that way now, we’re going over there, to be killed, the whole lot of us!’

After a pause Jean, grim-faced, said: ‘All right, anyhow you and I will be knocked out together.’

And as they had parted so the two met again, with an embrace. In the still driving rain the private soldier rejoined the ranks while the corporal set the example, streaming wet but making no complaint.

By now the news was going round, and it was official. The retreat to Paris was off, and once again they were marching towards the Meuse. An aide-de-camp from the marshal had just brought orders for the 7th corps to go and camp at Nouart, whilst the 5th, heading for Beauclair, would take the right flank and the 1st would replace at Le Chêne the 12th, which was marching on La Besace, on the left wing. The reason why thirty-odd thousand men had been standing about there waiting in the furious gales for three hours was that General Douay, in all the deplorable muddle of this fresh change of plan, was terribly worried about the whereabouts of the baggage train sent on ahead the day before towards Chagny. They had to wait until it had rejoined the main body. It was being said that this convoy had been cut in half by that of the 12th at Le Chêne. On top of that, part of the equipment – all the smithies for the artillery – having taken the wrong road was now on its way back from Terron via the Vouziers road, where it was certain to fall into German hands. Never had there been a greater muddle, nor more anxiety.

Then a mood of out and out despair came over the soldiers. Many of them were for sitting down on their packs in the mud on that soaking plain and just waiting for death in the rain. They sneered at their commanding officers and insulted them: a nice lot they were, hadn’t the brains of a louse, undid in the evening what they had done in the morning, did damn all when the enemy wasn’t there and did a bunk as soon as he showed himself! Utter demoralization finished off the job of turning this army into a rabble with no faith in anything, no discipline, being led to the slaughter by sheer chance. Over towards Vouziers some rifle fire had broken out – shots between the rearguard of the 7th corps and the advance guard of the German troops – and all eyes had been turned towards the valley of the Aisne in which swirling clouds of thick black smoke were rising into a clear patch of sky. They realized it was the village of Falaise, set on fire by the Uhlans. The men were filled with rage. What! The Prussians were there now! They had waited for them for two days, to give them time to get there, and then decamped! In a dim sort of way, even in the dullest heads, there developed a fury at the irreparable error that had been committed, this idiotic delay, this trap into which they had fallen: the scouts of the IVth German army keeping the Bordas brigade busy and so halting and paralysing one by one all the corps of the army of Châlons in order to give the Crown Prince of Prussia time to hurry along with the IIIrd army. And now, thanks to the marshal’s ignorance, for he still didn’t know what troops he had confronting him, the junction was being effected, and the 7th and 5th corps were going to be harried with a continual threat of disaster.

Maurice watched Falaise blazing on the horizon. But there was one bit of comfort: the baggage train they thought was lost made its appearance from the Le Chêne road. At once, while the first division remained at Quatre-Champs to wait for the interminable baggage train and protect it, the second set off again and made for Boult-aux-Bois through the forest, while the third took up a position to the left, on the heights of Belleville, to safeguard communications. As the 106th at last left the plain just when the rain redoubled its fury and continued the iniquitous march to the Meuse and the unknown, Maurice had another vision of the shadow of the Emperor pacing up and down wearily behind old Madame Desroches’s little curtains. Oh, this army of hopelessness, this doomed army being sent to certain annihilation to save a dynasty! March on! March on, never looking behind, in rain, through mud, to extermination!