IN Remilly there was a dreadful mix-up of men, horses, and vehicles jamming the street which zigzags down the hill to the Meuse. Half way down, in front of the church, some guns had got their wheels locked together and could not be moved in spite of much swearing and banging. At the bottom of the hill, where the Emmane roars down a fall, there was a huge queue of broken-down vans blocking the road, while an ever-growing wave of soldiers was struggling at the Croix de Malte inn, but not getting so much as a glass of wine.

This desperate pressure came up against a stoppage further on, at the southern end of the village, separated by a clump of trees from the river, over which the engineers had thrown a pontoon bridge that morning. To the right there was a ferry, and the ferryman’s house stood white and isolated amid tall weeds. Big fires had been lit on both banks, and the flames leaped up now and again and filled the night with a glare that made the water and banks as light as day. Then it was possible to see the huge pile-up of waiting troops, for the footbridge allowed only two men to cross at once, while on the bridge proper, three metres wide at the most, the cavalry, artillery and baggage-train moved at a mortally slow walking-pace. It was said that a brigade of the 1st corps was coming up, thirty-odd thousand men who, believing the enemy was at their heels, were in feverish haste to reach safety on the opposite bank.

There was a moment of despair. What! They’d been marching since first thing with no food, they had just got themselves out of the terrible gorge of Haraucourt by putting a sprint on, and all that so as to bang their heads, in this alarm and confusion, against an impassable wall! It might be hours and hours before the turn of the last comers, and everyone was fully aware that even if the Prussians dared not continue pursuing them through the night they would be there by daybreak. But the order to pile arms was given, and they camped on the great bare hills along the sides of which the Mouzon road runs, and the lower slopes of which run down to the meadows by the Meuse. Behind them, on the top of a plateau, the reserve artillery took up battle positions and trained their guns on the gorge so as to bombard the exit should need arise. And once again the waiting set in, full of resentment and anxiety.

The 106th was halted in a field of stubble above the road and looking over the great plain. The men had been loath to put down their rifles, and kept glancing behind them in their nagging fear of an attack. They all looked hard-faced and grim, and said nothing beyond occasional sullen mutterings of anger. It was nearly nine and they had been there for two hours, but although they were desperately tired they could not sleep but lay stretched out on the ground, their nerves on edge and ears cocked for the smallest distant sound. They could not struggle any more against their gnawing hunger – they would eat something over on the other side of the river, and they would eat grass if they couldn’t find anything else. But the congestion only seemed to be getting worse, the officers General Douay had posted by the bridge came back every twenty minutes with the same maddening story that hours and hours would still be needed. Eventually the general made up his mind to fight a way through to the bridge for himself. He could be seen struggling about in the mob, hurrying people on.

Sitting against a bank with Jean, Maurice made the same gesture towards the north that he had made before.

‘Sedan is in the background… Oh, and that is Bazeilles over there… And then Douzy and Carignan to the right… I expect it’ll be at Carignan that we shall be concentrated… Oh, if it were light you would see there’s plenty of room!’

His gesture took in the immense valley, full of darkness. The sky was not so black that you could not make out the pale course of the river across the panorama of black fields. Clumps of trees made darker patches, especially a row of poplars to the left, which cut off the horizon like a fantastic dike. Then in the background behind Sedan, with its sprinkling of bright little lights, was a heap of blackness as if all the forests of the Ardennes had drawn across their curtain of age-old oaks.

Jean looked back at the pontoon bridge below.

‘Just look at that! The whole thing’s buggered up and we shall never get across.’

The fires on both sides of the river were blazing higher and their light was so intense that the frightening scene stood out with nightmarish clarity. Under the weight of the cavalry and artillery passing over since morning the pontoons supporting the baulks of timber had sunk lower, so that the flooring was a few centimetres under water. At that moment the cuirassiers were crossing two by two in an uninterrupted line, emerging from the shadows on one bank and disappearing into the shadows on the other, and as the bridge itself could no longer be seen they appeared to be walking in the water, or on top of water luridly ablaze with dancing fires. The horses were whinnying as, manes standing on end and legs stiff, they moved forward in terror of the shifting ground they felt giving way beneath them. Standing in the stirrups and tugging the reins, the cuirassiers went on and on, draped in their long white cloaks and showing only their helmets flaming with red reflected fire. They might have been taken for phantom horsemen riding to a ghostly war with hair flaming.

A deep lament rose from Jean’s parched throat:

‘Oh, I am famished!’

But most of the men round them had gone to sleep in spite of the clawing at their stomachs. Excess of fatigue had taken away their fear and knocked them out on their backs, with their mouths gaping, dead to the world under the moonless sky. From end to end of the bare hills the time of waiting had sunk into a deathly silence.

‘Oh, I am hungry, so hungry I could eat earth!’

This was the cry that Jean, usually so tough and so silent, could not hold in any longer, but let out in spite of himself in the delirium of hunger, having had nothing to eat for nearly thirty-six hours. And then Maurice made up his mind, seeing that their regiment would probably not cross the Meuse for two or three hours.

‘Look here, I’ve got an uncle not far from here, Uncle Fouchard, you know, I told you about him. It’s up there, only five or six hundred yards, and I was wondering, but as you are hungry… My uncle will give us some bread, so what the hell!’

He took his friend away, and Jean let himself be led. Old Fouchard’s little farmhouse was at the end of the Haraucourt defile, near the plateau on which the reserve artillery had taken up its position. It was a low house with a fair number of outbuildings, a barn, cowshed and stable, and on the opposite side of the road, in a sort of coach-house, he had set up his business as a travelling butcher, his own abattoir where he slaughtered the animals himself, which he then hawked round the villages in his cart.

As they drew near Maurice was surprised to see no light.

‘Oh, the old skinflint will have barricaded everything up, and he won’t open the door.’

What he saw then made him stop still in the middle of the road. In front of the farmhouse there were a dozen or so soldiers on the prowl, marauders no doubt looking for what they could pick up. They had begun by calling out, then they had knocked, and now, seeing that the house was black and silent, they were banging on the door with rifle-butts trying to break the lock. Voices were bawling:

‘Go on, for God’s sake, knock the fucking thing in, there’s nobody at home!’

Suddenly the shutter of an attic window flew open and a lanky old man in a smock, bareheaded, appeared with a candle in one hand and a gun in the other. His face jutted out under his tousled white mane, a deeply wrinkled face with a strong nose, big pale eyes and a firm chin.

‘Are you a lot of thieves breaking everything down?’ he shouted in a harsh voice. ‘What do you want?’

The soldiers fell back, a bit abashed.

‘We’re dying of hunger, we want something to eat.’

‘I’ve got nothing, not even a crust… Do you think we can feed hundreds of thousands of men, just like that?… This morning it was another lot, yes, General Ducrot’s lot, and they came through and took everything.’

One by one the soldiers came nearer.

‘Open the door just the same. We’ll have a rest and you’ll dig something out.’

They were already banging again when the old man put his candle down on the bar and took aim with his gun.

‘As sure as that’s a candle, I’ll blow out the brains of the first one to touch my door!’

Then there was nearly a pitched battle. They shouted curses up at him and one voice yelled that they’d better settle this bloody yokel’s hash – just like all the others he’d rather chuck his bread into the river than give a mouthful to a soldier. Rifles were already being raised and they were on the point of shooting him at almost point-blank range, but he did not even recoil, but stayed there, furious and immovable, in full view in the candlelight.

‘Nothing at all! Not a crust! They’ve taken the lot!’

Maurice was horrified and leaped forward, with Jean after him.


He struck down the soldiers’ rifles and looked up, pleading:

‘Look, do be sensible. Don’t you recognize me? It’s me!’

‘Me! Who’s me?’

‘Maurice Levasseur, your nephew.’

Old Fouchard picked up his candle again. Obviously he recognized him. But he persisted in his determination not to give away even a glass of water.

‘Nephew or not, how do I know in this cut-throat darkness? Go on, bugger off, the whole lot of you, or I’ll shoot!’

And all through the vociferations and threats to shoot him down and set fire to the whole show he went on with the one cry which he repeated twenty times over:

‘Bugger off, the whole lot of you, or I’ll shoot!’

‘Even me, Dad?’ suddenly asked a loud voice above all the din.

The others drew back and a sergeant appeared in the flickering light from the candle. It was Honoré, whose battery was less than two hundred metres away and who for two hours had been fighting an irresistible urge to come and knock at this door. He had sworn he would never cross the threshold again and in all his four years of service he had never exchanged a single letter with the father he was now addressing so curtly. Already the marauding soldiers were in a huddle, conferring busily. The old boy’s son, and an N.C.O. as well! Nothing doing, it wasn’t so good, they’d better look somewhere else. And off they went, and vanished into the inky darkness.

When old Fouchard realized that he had been saved from looting he simply said, with no emotion whatever, as though he had seen his boy the day before:

‘Oh it’s you… all right, I’m coming down.’

It took a long time. Doors could be heard being unlocked and locked again – quite a performance by the sort of man who makes sure nothing is left lying about. Then at last the door opened, but barely ajar, and held by a strong hand.

‘Come in, you and nobody else!’

Yet he could not refuse asylum to his nephew, though it went visibly against the grain.

‘All right, you too.’

And he was by way of shutting the door pitilessly on Jean, and Maurice had to entreat him. But he was immovable: no, no, he didn’t want any strangers and thieves in his house and breaking up his furniture. Finally Honoré butted with his shoulder and let their mate in, and the old man had to give way, muttering vague threats. He had hung on to his gun. When he had taken them into the living-room and stood his rifle against the sideboard and put the candle on the table, he fell into a sullen silence.

‘Look here, Dad, we’re starving. Surely you can give us some bread and cheese!’

He made no answer and did not appear to hear, but kept going over to the window to listen in case some other lot should come and besiege his house.

‘Look, Uncle, Jean is like a brother to me. He went without everything for me. And we’ve been through so much together.’

He was still going round to make sure nothing was missing, and did not even look at them. At last he made up his mind, but still never said a word. He suddenly picked up his candle and left them in the dark, taking care to lock the door behind him so that nobody could follow. They heard him going down the cellar stairs. Once again it took a very long time. When he came back, after renewed barricading, he placed in the middle of the table a large loaf and a cheese, still in the silence which, now that his anger had died down, was simply strategic, for you never know where talking might lead you. In any case the three men threw themselves at the food revenously, and the only sound now was the frenzied noise of their jaws.

Honoré got up and went to fetch a jug of water from the sideboard.

‘Father, you might have given us some wine!’

Having now regained his composure and being sure of himself, Fouchard found his tongue again.

‘Wine! I haven’t got any, not a drop left! The other lot, the Ducrot lot, have drunk, eaten and pinched everything.’

He was lying, and try as he would it showed in the blinking of his pale bulging eyes. Two days before he had spirited away all his livestock, the few domestic animals he kept and the ones destined for his butchery, taking them by night and hiding them nobody knew where, in the depths of which wood or which abandoned quarry. And he had just been spending hours concealing everything in the house – wine, bread and the most unimportant provisions, even flour and salt, so that in fact all the cupboards could have been ransacked in vain. The house was swept clean. He had even refused to sell anything to the first soldiers who had appeared. You never knew, there might be better opportunities later, and vague ideas about trading were taking shape in the head of this patient and cunning miser.

Maurice, having eaten almost his fill, was the first to talk.

‘And my sister Henriette, how long is it since you saw her?’

The old man was still walking up and down, casting glances at Jean, who was putting away enormous hunks of bread; and then, without hurrying, as though after long reflection:

‘Henriette, yes, last month in Sedan… But I saw Weiss, her husband, this morning. He was with his boss, Monsieur Delaherche, who had taken him out with him in his carriage to see the army go through at Mouzon, just for the jaunt.’

An expression of heavy irony passed across the peasant’s inscrutable face.

‘But still, they may well have seen too much of the army and not have enjoyed themselves very much, because by three you couldn’t move on the roads, they were so cluttered up with soldiers on the run.’

In the same level and almost indifferent voice he gave a few details about the defeat of the 5th corps, taken by surprise at Beaumont just as they were preparing a meal, forced to withdraw and kicked back to Mouzon by the Bavarians. A lot of fleeing soldiers, rushing panic-stricken through Remilly, had called out to him that de Failly had once again sold them to Bismarck. Maurice recalled the frantic marches of the last two days, the orders from MacMahon stepping up the retreat so as to cross the Meuse at all costs, when they had lost so many precious days in incomprehensible hesitations. Now it was too late. Perhaps the marshal, who had been furious at finding the 7th corps in Oches when he thought it was at La Besace, had been convinced that the 5th was already encamped at Mouzon, whereas it was dallying at Beaumont and letting itself be annihilated. But what can you expect from troops badly commanded, demoralized by delay and flight, dying of hunger and fatigue?

Fouchard had finally come to a halt behind Jean, astounded to see the chunks disappearing, and coldly sarcastic:

‘You feel better, don’t you?’

The corporal looked up and answered with the same peasant aplomb:

‘Just beginning, thank you.’

Ever since he had been there Honoré had stopped now and again, in spite of his great hunger, and looked round thinking he heard a noise. The reason why after a great struggle he had broken his oath never to set foot in this house again was that he was urged on by an irresistible desire to see Silvine once more. He had kept under his shirt, in fact next to his body, the letter he had had at Rheims, that affectionate letter in which she told him she still loved him, and that she would never love anyone but him in spite of Goliath and the baby, little Charlot, she had had by this man. And now he could think of nothing but her and was worried because he had not seen her yet, while at the same time holding himself in check so as not to betray his anxiety to his father. But passion won, and he asked in a voice he tried to make sound natural:

‘And what about Silvine, isn’t she here now?’

Fouchard looked quizzically at his son, and his eyes twinkled with hidden amusement.

‘Oh yes, oh yes.’

Then silence, and he spat very deliberately. After a pause Honoré had to go on:

‘Well, has she gone to bed?’

‘No, no.’

Finally the old man condescended to explain that he had gone as usual that morning to market in Raucourt, taking her with him in the cart. Because soldiers were going through the town that was no reason for people to give up eating meat and for business to stop. So, as always on Tuesdays, he had taken a sheep and a quarter of beef and he was finishing selling them when the arrival of the 7th corps had landed him in the middle of a terrible shindy, everybody running about and knocking each other over. So he had been afraid of somebody taking his horse and cart and had gone, not waiting for Silvine, who was doing some errands in the town.

‘Oh, she’ll get back all right,’ he concluded in his calm voice. ‘She will have taken refuge in Dr Dalichamp’s house, he’s her godfather… She’s a brave girl, for all her look of only being able to do what she’s told… Certainly she’s got lots of good points.’

Was he teasing? Or was he trying to explain why he was keeping on this girl who had come between him and his son, and that in spite of the Prussian’s child from whom she refused to be parted? Once again he cast his sly glance and laughed to himself.

‘Charlot is asleep in there, in her room, and she won’t be long, I’m sure.’

Honoré’s lips were trembling, and he looked so hard at his father that the latter resumed his walking up and down. Silence fell again, an endless silence while he automatically cut himself some more bread, still chewing. Jean went on too, without feeling any need to say a word. But Maurice had had enough to eat, and with his elbows on the table he looked round at the old sideboard and the old clock and daydreamed about the holidays he had spent at Remilly long ago with his sister. The minutes ticked by, the clock struck eleven.

‘Hell,’ he murmured, ‘we mustn’t let the others go without us.’ He went over and opened the window, and Fouchard did not object. The whole black valley was scooped out below like a rolling sea of shadows. Nevertheless, when your eyes became accustomed to it you could make out quite clearly the bridge lit by the fires on either bank. There were still cuirassiers crossing, looking in their big white cloaks like phantom riders whose horses, whipped on by a wind of terror, were walking on the water. And that went on and on endlessly, and always at the same speed like a slow-moving vision. To the right the bare hills, where the army was sleeping, were still wrapped in a death-like stillness and silence.

‘Oh well,’ went on Maurice with a gesture of despair, ‘it’ll be tomorrow morning now!’

He had left the window wide open, and old Fouchard seized his gun, cocked his leg over the rail and jumped out with the agility of a young man. For a minute or two he could be heard walking away with the regular step of a sentinel, then nothing could be heard but the distant roar of the crowded bridge. No doubt he had sat down on the roadside, feeling more secure there where he could see danger coming and be ready to leap back and defend his home.

Now Honoré was watching the clock every minute, and his nervousness was growing. It was only six kilometres from Raucourt to Remilly, hardly more than one hour’s walking for a strapping young woman like Silvine. Why wasn’t she back, for it was hours since the old man had lost her in the confusion of a whole army corps all over the place, blocking all the roads? He felt certain that some catastrophe had happened, and he visualized her caught in some horrible adventure, running panic-stricken across the fields, trampled on by horses.

Suddenly all three jumped to their feet. A sound of running feet was coming down the road, and they heard the old man loading his gun.

‘Who’s that?’ he shouted arrogantly. ‘Is it you, Silvine?’

No answer. He threatened to fire and repeated his question. Then a breathless, scared voice managed to say:

‘Yes, yes, it’s me, Monsieur Fouchard.’

Then she asked at once:

‘What about Chariot?’

‘In bed and asleep.’

‘Oh good, thank you.’

Then she gave up hurrying and fetched a deep sigh, breathing out all her anxiety and fatigue.

‘Go in through the window,’ Fouchard went on. ‘I’ve got company.’

She jumped in through the window, but stood dumbfounded when she saw the three men. In the flickering light of the candle she could be seen: very dark with thick black hair, fine large eyes which in themselves made her beautiful, set in an oval face denoting calm and steady resignation. But then the sudden sight of Honoré brought all the blood up from her heart to her cheeks; and yet she was not surprised to find him there, indeed she had been thinking of him while she was running all the way from Raucourt.

His voice failed him and he almost reeled, but put on an appearance of the utmost calm:

‘Good evening, Silvine.’

‘Good evening, Honoré.’

But then she turned away so as not to burst into tears. She smiled at Maurice, whom she recognized. Jean embarrassed her. As she felt stifled she took off the scarf she had round her neck.

Honoré went on, avoiding the affectionate terms of long ago:

‘We were worried about you, Silvine, because of all the Prussians coming.’

She suddenly went pale and her face fell, and glancing involuntarily towards the room where Chariot was asleep she gestured with her hand as though she were fending off some abominable vision, and murmured:

‘The Prussians, oh yes, yes, I saw them!’

She sank on to a chair, exhausted and then told them her story; that when the 7th corps had overrun Raucourt she had fled to the house of her godfather, Dr Dalichamp, hoping that old Fouchard would think of going there for her before he went home. The main street was jammed with such a crush of people that even a dog would not have ventured along it. She had waited patiently until about four, not too worried, making bandages with some ladies for the doctor who, thinking that they might perhaps send some wounded from Metz and Verdun if there was any fighting round there, had been busy for a fortnight fixing up a casualty station in the big room at the town hall. Some people had come and said that the station might be needed at once, and in fact by noon they had heard gunfire in the direction of Beaumont. But that was still a long way off and nobody was worried; and then all of a sudden, just as the last French soldiers were leaving Raucourt, a shell came down with a terrific noise and smashed in the roof of a house quite near. Two more followed; it was a German battery shelling the rearguard of the 7th. There were already some wounded from Beaumont at the town hall and it was feared that a shell might finish them off as they lay on straw mattresses waiting for the doctor to deal with them. Mad with terror, the wounded men got up and tried to go down into the cellars in spite of their smashed limbs which were making them scream with pain.

‘And then,’ she went on, ‘I don’t know how it happened, but there was a sudden silence… I had gone upstairs to a window looking on to the road and the open country. I couldn’t see a soul, not one red-trouser, and then I heard loud, heavy steps, and a voice shouted something and all the rifle-butts hit the ground together. There, at the end of the street, were a lot of little, dark, dirty-looking men with big ugly heads surmounted by helmets like the ones our firemen wear… I was told they were Bavarians. Then as I looked up I saw, oh, thousands and thousands of them coming along all the roads, over the fields, through the woods, in close-packed ranks, endlessly. A black invasion, like black grasshoppers, on and on, so that in no time you couldn’t see the ground for them.’

She shuddered and again made the gesture of driving the horrible memory away.

‘And then you’ve no idea what went on… It seems these men had been on the march for three days and had just been fighting like maniacs at Beaumont. So they were starving and half crazy, with their eyes popping out of their heads. The officers didn’t even attempt to hold them in check and they all broke into houses and shops, smashing in doors and windows, breaking furniture, looking for something to eat and drink, swallowing anything that came to hand… I saw one of them in Simmonot’s, the grocer’s, ladling treacle out of a tub with his helmet. Others were gnawing at pieces of raw bacon. Others chewed flour. It had already been said that there was nothing left as our soldiers had been passing through for forty-eight hours, and yet they could still find things – hidden stores no doubt – and so went on deliberately destroying everything, thinking they were being refused food. In less than an hour grocers, bakers, butchers and even private houses had their windows smashed, cupboards rifled, cellars broken into and emptied. At the doctor’s – you just can’t imagine it – I found one great lout eating all the soap. But it was in the cellar that the real pillage went on. From upstairs you could hear them down there howling like wild beasts, breaking bottles, opening the taps of casks, and the wine gushed out with a noise like a fountain. They came up with their hands red after paddling about in all that spilt wine… And this is the sort of thing that happens when men go back to savagery: Monsieur Dalichamp tried in vain to prevent a soldier from drinking off a litre of laudanum he had discovered. That poor devil must be dead by now, he was in such agonies when I left.’

She began shaking violently, and covered her eyes with both hands so as not see any more.

‘No, no, I’ve seen too much, I can’t say another word!’

Old Fouchard, who had stayed out in the road, had come and stood by the window to listen, and this tale gave him food for thought; he had been told that the Prussians paid for everything, were they going to start thieving now? Maurice and Jean were also listening intently to all these details about the enemy that this girl had just seen, and whom they had never succeeded in setting eyes on in a whole month of war. But Honoré, lost in thought and betraying his emotions by the expression of his mouth, was only interested in her, and thinking of nothing but the old trouble that had separated them.

Just then the door of the next room opened and the child Chariot appeared. He must have heard his mother’s voice, and he ran over in his nightshirt to kiss her. Pink, fair and very chubby, he had a mop of light curly hair and big blue eyes.

Silvine was startled at seeing him so suddenly, as if taken off her guard by the picture he conjured up. Was it that she did not recognize him, this beloved child of hers, that she should now look at him in terror as though he were a nightmare come to life? She burst into tears.

‘My poor darling!’

She crushed him wildly in her arms and held him to her, while Honoré, deathly pale, saw the extraordinary likeness between Charlot and Goliath, the same square, blond head, the whole Germanic race in a lovely, healthy child, fresh and smiling. The son of the Prussian, or ‘that Prussian’, as all the jokers in Remilly called him! And here was this French mother holding him to her heart while she was still overwhelmed and haunted by the sight of the invaders!

‘Now, my poor lamb, be a good boy and come back to bed… Come along to bye-byes, sweetie.’

She carried him off. When she came back from the next room she had stopped crying and recovered her calm face, with its expression of placidity and courage.

It was Honoré who started the conversation again, in a hesitant voice:

‘And what about the Prussians?’

‘Oh yes, the Prussians… Well, they had broken up everything, and pillaged, eaten and drunk everything. They stole the linen too, towels, sheets and even curtains, which they tore into long strips to bandage their feet with. I saw some whose feet were just one raw mass, they had marched so far. In front of the doctor’s house I saw a lot of them sitting down in the gutter with their boots off and winding round their feet women’s chemises trimmed with lace, no doubt stolen from Madame Lefèvre, the wife of the manufacturer… The looting went on until the evening. Houses had no doors left, and through all the openings on the ground floor gaping on to the road you could see the remains of the furniture inside, an absolute shambles that infuriated ordinary sensible people. I was so beside myself that I couldn’t stay there any longer. They tried to keep me, saying the roads were blocked, that I would get killed for certain, but it was no use, and I left, and took to the fields on the right as soon as I got out of Raucourt. Cartloads of French and Prussians were coming in from Beaumont. Two of them passed quite close to me in the darkness and there were shouts and moans, and oh, I ran and ran over fields and through woods, I don’t remember where, but I did a big detour round Villers… Three times I hid when I thought I could hear soldiers. But I only met one woman who was running too. She was getting away from Beaumont, and she told me things that would make your hair stand on end… Anyway, here I am and feeling miserable, just miserable!’

Once again she was choked with sobs. Some obsession kept bringing her back to these things, and she repeated what the woman from Beaumont had told her. This woman, who lived in the main street of the village, had seen the German artillery going through since nightfall. Along both sides was a hedge of soldiers holding resin torches, lighting the roadway fiery red. And in the middle the stream of horses, cannon and ammunition waggons tore through at a furious gallop. It was a hell-for-leather ride to victory, a devilish hunt for French troops to finish off and do to death in some black hole. Nothing was respected, they smashed everything and simply went on. Horses that stumbled had their harness cut off at once and were rolled over, trampled on and thrown out as bits of bleeding wreckage. Some men trying to cross the road were similarly knocked down and cut to pieces by the wheels. In this hurricane the drivers, who were dying of hunger, did not stop but caught loaves of bread thrown to them while the torch-bearers held out joints of meat for them on the points of their bayonets. Then with the same points they gave the horses a dig so they reared up in terror and galloped faster still. The night went on and on and still the artillery passed through with the increasing violence of a tempest, amid frantic cheering.

In spite of listening attentively to this story Maurice, overcome with fatigue after the voracious eating, had dropped his head between his arms on the table. Jean struggled on a little longer and then he too gave in and went off to sleep at the other end. Old Fouchard had gone down the road again, and so Honoré found himself alone with Silvine who was sitting quite still now, facing the wide open window.

Then he stood up and went over to the window. The night was still immense and black, swollen as it were with the laboured breathing of the troops. But louder noises, knockings and crackings, were coming up now because the artillery was crossing down there over the half-submerged bridge. Horses were rearing, scared by the running water. Ammunition waggons slipped over to one side and had to be pushed completely into the river. As he saw this painful, slow retreat to the opposite bank which had been going on since the day before and would certainly not be completed by dawn, the young man thought of the other artillery tearing through Beaumont like a rushing torrent, overwhelming everything, pounding man and beast so as to go faster.

Honoré went up to Silvine and said softly, in the frightening darkness:

‘Are you unhappy?’

‘Oh yes, I am unhappy.’

She sensed that he was going to refer to the thing, the abominable thing, and lowered her eyes.

‘Tell me, how did it happen? I’d like to know.’

She could not answer.

‘Did he force you?… Did you consent?’

She stammered out almost inaudibly:

‘Oh God, I don’t know, I swear I don’t even know myself… But you see, it would be wrong to tell a lie, and I can’t find excuses! No, I can’t say he used force… You had gone, I was out of my mind, and the thing happened, I don’t know, I don’t know how!’

She could not go on for crying, and he, deathly pale and on the point of tears too, waited a minute. And yet the thought that she could not lie to him gave him some comfort. Then he went on questioning her, for his mind was tormented by all sorts of things he could not yet understand.

‘So Father has kept you on here?’

She did not even look up, but became quieter and resumed her air of brave resignation.

‘I do my job. I have never cost much for my keep, and as there is an extra mouth besides me he has taken advantage of it to cut my wages… Now it is clear that whatever he orders I’ve got to do.’

‘But what about yourself? Why have you stayed?’

That surprised her so much that she looked him in the eyes.

‘But where do you expect me to go? At any rate my little boy and I can eat here and we are left alone.’

They fell silent again but now each was looking into the other’s eyes, while in the distance down in the dark valley the noises of the crowd swelled up as the rumbling of the guns over the pontoon bridge went on and on. The darkness was rent by a loud cry, some cry of a man or beast, and infinitely sad.

‘Listen, Silvine,’ he went on slowly, ‘you sent me a letter which gave me great joy… I wouldn’t ever have come back here. But that letter, I’ve read it again this evening, and it says things that couldn’t be said better.’

At first she went white when she heard him refer to that. Perhaps he was vexed that she had dared to write, like some brazen hussy. But then as he went on explaining she blushed very red.

‘I know that you don’t believe in lying, and that’s why I believe what is on the paper…. Yes, now I quite believe it… You were right to think that if I had died in the war without seeing you again it would have been a great sorrow to me to pass away like that thinking you didn’t love me… And so, as you do still love me, as you have never loved anyone else…’

He got tongue-tied and could not find the right words, trembling with overwhelming emotion.

‘Listen, Silvine my dearest, if those Prussian swine don’t kill me, I still want you – yes, we’ll get married as soon as I’m back home.’

She jumped up, and with a cry fell into the young man’s arms. She could not speak, and all the blood in her veins seemed to be in her face. He sat down on the chair and took her on his knee.

‘I’ve thought it over a lot, and that was what I had to come here and tell you… If Father won’t consent, well, we’ll go away, the world is a big place… And your child, well, we can’t do him in, can we? There’ll be lots more as well, and I shall end up by not being able to pick him out of the crowd.’

It was forgiveness. She still fought against this immense happiness and murmured at long last:

‘No, it isn’t possible, it’s too much. You might live to regret it some day… But how good you are, Honoré! And how I love you!’

He silenced her with a kiss. Already she had given up trying, unable to reject the happiness coming to her, the whole blissful life she thought had gone for ever. With an instinctive, irresistible urge she threw both her arms round him and clasped him to her, kissing him in her turn with all the strength a woman can find, like a lost treasure regained and hers alone, that nobody would take away from her any more. He was hers again, this man she had lost, and she would die rather than let him be taken from her yet again.

But at that moment there rose from below a noise like a great reveille, peopling the thick darkness. Orders were shouted, bugles sounded and a host of shadows were rising out of the bare ground, an indistinct, moving sea already flooding down towards the road. Below, the fires on each bank were nearly out, and all that could be seen was vague, trampling masses, neither was it clear whether they were still crossing the river. Never before had such anguish, dismay and terror stalked through the shadows.

Old Fouchard had come back to the window shouting that they were off. Jean and Maurice woke up, shivering and aching, and jumped to their feet. Honoré quickly squeezed Silvine’s hand in his.

‘We’ve sworn… wait for me.’

She could find nothing to say, but put her whole soul into a last long look as he leaped out of the window, racing off to rejoin his battery.

‘Good-bye, Father.’

‘Good-bye, my lad.’

That was all, peasant and soldier parted again as they had met, with no embrace, a father and son who could get along quite well without having to see each other.

When they too had left the farmhouse, Maurice and Jean galloped down the steep slopes. At the bottom they found no sign of the 106th; all the regiments were already on the move, and they had to keep running and were redirected right and left. But in the end, when they were frantic in the dreadful confusion, they fell in with their company, led by Lieutenant Rochas. As for Captain Beaudoin and the regiment itself, they were somewhere or other, no doubt. And then Maurice was astounded to see that this multitude of men, horses and guns was leaving Remilly and making for Sedan along the road on the left bank. What on earth was going on? So they had given up crossing the Meuse and were retreating northwards!

A cavalry officer standing there, heaven knows why, said quite audibly:

‘Good God, we should have cleared out on the 28th, when we were at Le Chêne!’

Other voices were explaining the manoeuvre, and news began coming in. At about two in the morning an aide-de-camp from Marshal MacMahon had come and informed General Douay that the whole army had orders to fall back on Sedan without losing a minute. Routed at Beaumont, the 5th corps was sweeping away the three others in its own disaster. At that moment the general, who was keeping watch by the pontoon bridge, was horrified to see that his third division had crossed the river alone. It would soon be light and they might be attacked at any minute. So he sent word to all officers under his command to make for Sedan each one as best he could by the most direct route. And he himself, abandoning the pontoon bridge which he ordered to be destroyed, hurried off along the left bank with his second division and reserve artillery, while the third followed the right bank, and the first, thrown into disarray at Beaumont, was fleeing in disorder nobody knew where. Of the 7th corps, which had still not seen any fighting, there were only odd sections left, lost on the roads, galloping in the darkness.

It was not yet three, and the night was still dark. Although he knew the district, Maurice had no idea where he was going, and could not recover his wits in the rushing torrent of this crazy mob filling the road. Quite a few men who had escaped from the disaster at Beaumont, soldiers of all arms, in rags, covered with dust and blood, were mingling with the regiments and spreading despondency. The same murmuring sound arose from the whole valley, beyond the river as well, other trampling herds, other fugitives, the 1st corps which had just left Carignan and Douzy, the 12th corps from Mouzon with the remnants of the 5th, all unnerved, carried away by the same logical, invincible force which ever since the 28th had been thrusting the army northwards and ramming it into the impasse where it was to perish.

However, a grey dawn came as the Beaudoin company was going through Pont-Maugis, and Maurice saw where he was, with the hills of Liry on the left and the Meuse along the right of the road. This grey dawn revealed Bazeilles and Balan looking utterly dreary in the mists over the fields, while a livid, nightmarish, tragic Sedan could be made out on the horizon against the immense dark curtain of forest. And after Wadelincourt, when they at last reached the Torcy gate, there had to be a parley, with begging and threats, almost a regular siege, to make the governor lower the drawbridge. It was five o’clock. The 7th corps entered Sedan, knocked out with fatigue, hunger and cold.