HENRIETTE could not get to sleep all night, tortured by the thought that her husband was at Bazeilles, so near to the German lines. In vain she kept reminding herself of his promise to come home at the first sign of danger, and every minute she was straining her ears, thinking she could hear him. At about ten, before going to bed, she opened the window, leaned out and forgot all about time.
It was a very dark night and she could hardly make out beneath her the cobbles of the rue des Voyards, a dark, narrow passage between the old houses. Further off, towards the school there was only the smoky star of a street lamp. From down there somewhere there came up a musty smell of cellars, the miaowing of a fighting cat, the heavy tread of some stray soldier. Then behind her, from all over Sedan, there came unusual sounds, rapid gallopings, and rumbling noises like premonitions of death. As she listened her heart thudded faster, but still she did not recognize her husband’s step round the corner.
Hours went by, and now she was worried by distant lights out in the country beyond the ramparts. It was so dark that she had to make an effort to place things. That great pale sheet down there must be the flooded meadows. So what was that light she had seen come on and then go out up there, perhaps on La Marfée? Others flared up in all directions, at Pont-Maugis, Noyers, Frénois, mysterious lights twinkling as if over a countless multitude teeming in the night. And then another thing, extraordinary noises startled her, like the tramp of a people on the move, snorting of animals, clashing of arms, a whole cavalcade in this infernal darkness. Suddenly a single cannon shot rang out, terrifying in the absolute silence that followed. It froze her blood. What could it be? No doubt some signal, some manoeuvre successfully carried out, an announcement that they were now ready over there and that the sun could come out.
At about two Henriette threw herself on the bed, fully clothed, not even bothering to shut the window. She was overcome with fatigue and anxiety. What was the matter with her, shivering like this as though she had a temperature, for she was usually so placid, so light on her feet that you hardly heard her busying herself about. She fell into a troubled doze, numbed with a persistent sensation of impending doom in the black sky. Suddenly she was dragged from the depths of her uneasy sleep by the gunfire starting again with dull, distant boomings, but this time it went on, regular and persistent. She sat up, shuddering. Where was she? She did not recognize or even see the room, which seemed to be filled with dense smoke. Then she understood – the fog rising from the river near by must have got into the room. Out there the gunfire was getting heavier. She jumped up and ran to the window to listen.
Some church clock in Sedan was striking four. Day was just breaking, evil-looking and murky in the brownish fog. Impossible to see anything, she could not make out the school buildings a few metres away. Oh God, where were they firing? Her first thought was for her brother Maurice, for the reports were so muffled that they seemed to be coming from the north and over the town. Then, and there was no doubt about it, they were firing there, in front of her, and she trembled for her husband. It was at Bazeilles for certain. And yet she felt reassured again for a few minutes because the detonations seemed occasionally to be coming from her right. Perhaps the fighting was at Donchery where she knew they had not been able to blow up the bridge. And then she was seized by cruel uncertainty – was it Donchery, was it Bazeilles? With the noises in her head it was impossible to tell. Soon the torture was such that she felt she could not stay there waiting any longer. Quivering with an imperative need to know, she threw a shawl over her shoulders and went out to find news.
Down in the rue des Voyards Henriette had a moment of hesitation because the town seemed so dark still in the impenetrable fog which enveloped it. The light of dawn had not reached down to the damp cobbles between the black walls of the old houses. In the rue au Beurre all she saw was two drunken Algerians with a girl in a sleazy bar lit by one flickering candle. She had to turn into the rue Maqua before she found any sign of life – shapes of soldiers furtively making their way along the pavements, probably deserters looking for somewhere to hide; a tall cuirassier wandering about, sent to find his captain and knocking violently on doors; a stream of bourgeois sweating with fear because they had dallied so long in deciding to pile into a cart and try to see whether there was still time to reach Bouillon in Belgium, where half Sedan had been emigrating over the past two days. She instinctively made for the Sub-Prefecture, feeling sure she would get some information there, and as she wanted to avoid meeting anybody she thought she would cut through side streets. But at the rue du Four and rue des Laboureurs she could not get through, for there was an unbroken line of guns, gun-carriages and ammunition waggons that must have been parked in this back street the day before and apparently forgotten. There was not even a single man guarding them. It struck cold into her heart to see all this useless artillery dismally sleeping abandoned in these deserted alleys. So she had to retrace her steps through the Place du College towards the Grand-Rue where, in front of the Hôtel de l’Europe, orderlies were holding horses in readiness for high officers whose loud voices could be heard coming from the dining-room, which was brilliantly lit. On the Place du Rivage and Place Turenne there were still more people, groups of worried townsfolk, women and children mingling with some of the soldiers who had deserted and were running wild, and there she saw a general come swearing out of the Hôtel de la Croix d’Or and gallop off madly without bothering about knocking everyone down. For a moment it looked as if she might go into the Hôtel de Ville, but in the end she took the rue du Pont de Meuse and went on to the Sub-Prefecture.
Never before had Sedan given her this impression of being a tragic, doomed town as it did now, seen in the murky, misty early morning. The very houses seemed dead, and many had been abandoned and empty for two days, others remained hermetically sealed and one sensed inside them a frightened insomnia. It was a really shivery morning, with streets still half deserted and only peopled by anxious shadows or enlivened by some hurried departure, with doubtful characters still hanging about since the day before. It was beginning to get lighter and soon the town would become crowded and overwhelmed by the disaster. It was half-past five and the noise of the gunfire, deadened between these lofty, dark buildings, could hardly be heard.
At the Sub-Prefecture Henriette saw the concierge’s daughter Rose, a fair, delicate-looking pretty little thing, who worked at the Delaherche mill. She went straight to the lodge. The mother was not there, but Rose greeted her in her charming way.
‘Oh, dear lady, we’re simply dropping! Mother has just gone for a little rest. Just think, all night long and we have had to be on our feet with these continual comings and goings!’
And without waiting to be asked, she talked on and on, thoroughly worked up about the extraordinary things she had seen since the day before.
‘Oh, the marshal slept all right, he did. But the poor Emperor! No, you can’t imagine what he is going through. Just fancy, yesterday evening I went upstairs to help put out some linen. Well, going into the room next to the bathroom I heard groans, yes, groans, as though somebody was dying. And there I stood trembling, and my blood ran cold when I realized that it was the Emperor… It seems he has some awful illness that makes him cry out like that. When there are people about he holds it in, but as soon as he is alone it gets the better of his self-control, and he shouts and moans fit to make your hair stand on end.’
‘Where has the fighting been this morning, do you know?’ asked Henriette, trying to cut her short.
Rose waved the question aside and went on:
‘So you see, I wanted to find out, so I went up again four or five times during the night and glued my ear to the wall… He was still moaning and hasn’t ever stopped, and hasn’t slept a minute, I’m quite sure… Isn’t it awful to be in such pain, with all the worries he must have on his mind, for it’s a real mess, a madhouse. Upon my word, they all look mad! And always somebody else arriving, and doors banging, and people in a temper and others crying, and the whole building is being pillaged, everything upside down, what with the officers drinking out of bottles and lying in beds with their boots on! When you come to think of it, it is really the Emperor who is the nicest and takes up least room in the corner where he goes off and hides so as he can moan!’
Then as Henriette repeated her question:
‘Where the fighting is? At Bazeilles, they’ve been fighting there since first thing. A soldier on horseback came to report it to the marshal who went straight to the Emperor to warn him… It’s already ten minutes since the marshal went off, and I think the Emperor must be joining him because up there they’re dressing him… I saw just now they were combing his hair and dolling him up with all sorts of stuff on his face.’
But knowing now what she wanted to know, Henriette fled.
‘Thanks, Rose, I’m in a hurry.’
The girl obligingly escorted her to the street and threw in by way of a farewell:
‘You’re very welcome, Madame Weiss. I know I can say anything to you.’
Henriette hurried back home to the rue des Voyards. She was certain she would find her husband back, and she even thought that if he didn’t find her at home he would be very worried, and that made her quicken her step still more. As she approached the house she looked up, thinking she could see him up there leaning out of the window, watching for her return. But the window was still wide open and empty. When she got up there and had glanced round the three rooms she was sick at heart on finding nothing but the icy fog and the continual rumbling of cannon. The firing out there never stopped. She went back to the window for a moment. Now that she knew what was happening, even though the wall of morning mist was still impenetrable, she could follow out the battle going on at Bazeilles, with the crackling of machine-guns and shattering volleys of the French batteries replying to the distant volleys of the German ones. One had the impression that the detonations were getting closer together and that the battle was getting fiercer every minute.
Why wasn’t Weiss back? He had so solemnly promised to come home at the first attack! Henriette’s anxiety steadily grew as in her imagination she saw obstacles, the road cut, shells already making retreat too perilous. Perhaps something dreadful had happened to him. She thrust the thought aside, finding in hope a strong incentive for action. She thought for a moment of setting off in that direction to meet her husband, but second thoughts held her back – they might cross, and then what would happen to her if she missed him? And what agonies he would go through if he came back and didn’t find her. But the courage needed for a visit to Bazeilles at that moment seemed perfectly natural to her and not a case of foolhardy heroism, just part of her function as an active wife quietly carrying out whatever the proper running of her home demanded. Where her husband was she would be, that was all.
But then she made a sudden gesture and said aloud, as she left the window:
‘And Monsieur Delaherche… I’ll go and see.’
It had just occured to her that the mill-owner had slept at Bazeilles too, and that if he was back she would get news from him. She went downstairs again at once, but instead of going out by the rue des Voyards she crossed the narrow courtyard and took the passage leading to the huge factory buildings, the monumental frontage of which looked on to the rue Maqua. As she emerged into what was once the inner garden, now paved over except for a lawn surrounded by some superb trees, giant elms dating from the last century, she was at first surprised to see a sentry posted in front of the locked door of a coach-house, until she remembered that she had heard the day before that the cash of the 7th corps was deposited there, and it struck her as odd that all this gold, millions it was said, was hidden in this coach-house while they were already killing each other all round. But just as she was going up the service stairs to get to Gilberte’s room another surprise brought her to a standstill, such an unexpected encounter that she came down the three steps she had already climbed, wondering whether she dared to go up and knock. A soldier, a captain had crossed her path, swift as a vision, and vanished. Nevertheless she had had time to recognize him, having seen him in Charleville at Gilberte’s when she was still Madame Maginot. She walked about in the courtyard for a few moments, looked up at the two lofty windows of the bedroom, the shutters of which were still closed. Then she made up her mind and went up all the same.
On the first floor she thought she would knock on the door of the dressing-room as an intimate childhood friend who sometimes came for a morning chat. But this door had not been shut properly in a hurried departure, and was ajar. She only had to give it a push and she was in the dressing-room and then in the bedroom. It was a room with a very lofty ceiling from which hung voluminous red velvet curtains which surrounded the whole bed. Not a sound, the sultry silence of a happy night, nothing except a regular, almost inaudible breathing in an atmosphere vaguely scented with essence of lilac.
‘Gilberte!’ she whispered.
The young woman had gone to sleep again at once, and in the dim light coming through the red window curtains she had her pretty round face, set in the pillow, resting on one of her bare arms and surrounded by her lovely rumpled black hair.
She stirred, stretched, but did not open her eyes.
‘Yes, good-bye… Oh, never mind…’
Then, looking up, she recognized Henriette.
‘Oh, it’s you!… What’s the time, then?’
When she learned that it was just six she was somewhat embarrassed and joked to cover it up, saying it was no time for waking people out of their sleep. Then in answer to the first question about her husband:
‘But he hasn’t come back yet, he won’t before nine, I think. What makes you think he will come home so early?’
Henriette, seeing her smiling away in drowsy contentment, had to insist.
‘I’m telling you, they’ve been fighting in Bazeilles since dawn, and as I’m worried about my husband…’
‘Oh my dear, you’ve no need to be,’ exclaimed Gilberte. ‘Mine is so cautious that he would have been here hours ago it there had been the slightest danger… Get along with you, so long as he doesn’t come back there’s no need to worry.’
This thought made a strong impression on Henriette, for it was quite true that Delaherche was not the sort of man to take pointless risks. She was quite reassured, went over and pulled back the curtains and pushed open the shutters, and the room was lit up by the bright pinkish light from the sky in which the sun was beginning to pierce the fog with gold. One of the windows was half open and you could now hear the gunfire in this big warm room, so close and shut in until a moment ago.
Gilberte, half sitting up, with one elbow on the pillow, looked at the sky with her lovely light eyes.
‘So there’s some fighting,’ she said.
Her nightdress had slipped down and one of her shoulders was bare, showing her soft pink skin through the strands of her dark hair, and a strong aroma of love came from her awakening body.
‘They’re fighting so early, oh dear! It’s so silly to fight!’
But Henriette’s eye had been caught by a pair of army gloves, a man’s gloves, forgotten on a table, and she had not managed to restrain a start. Then Gilberte went very red and drew her over to the bed with a confused and affectionate movement and buried her face in her shoulder.
‘Yes, I felt sure you knew, that you had seen… My dear, you mustn’t judge me too harshly. He’s an old friend, I told you about him and me at Charleville in the old days, don’t you remember?’
She spoke more softly still and went on sentimentally but with a little giggle:
‘He begged so hard yesterday when I met him again… Just think, he’s fighting this morning and he might get killed… I couldn’t refuse, could I?’
It was heroic and charming in its tender gaiety, this last present of pleasure, this night of happiness freely bestowed on the battle eve. That was what was making her smile, with her bird-brained frivolity, despite her embarrassment. She would never have had the heart to shut her door, since everything worked together to facilitate the meeting.
‘Do you blame me?’
Henriette had looked very serious while she was listening. Such things took her aback because she did not understand them. Perhaps she was different. Since first thing that morning her heart had been with her husband and her brother out there under fire. How could anyone sleep so peacefully and go in for such carefree dallying when loved ones were in peril?
‘But my dear, doesn’t it make your heart ache not to be with your husband, or even that young man? Don’t you think all the time that at any minute they may be brought back to you broken and disfigured?’
With a quick movement of her adorable bare arm Gilberte thrust away the awful vision.
‘Oh my God, what are you saying? You really are horrid, spoiling my morning like this! No, no, I refuse to think about it, it’s too depressing!’
Even Henriette could not help smiling. She recalled their childhood, when Gilberte’s father, Major de Vineuil, was appointed customs officer for Charleville after being invalided out and had sent his daughter to a farm near Le Chêne-Populeux because he was worried about her cough. He was haunted by the death of his wife who had been carried off very young by tuberculosis. The little girl was only nine, and already she was restless and coquettish, went in for play-acting, dressing herself up as a queen in any old things she could find, keeping silver paper from chocolate to make bracelets and crowns. She remained like that later, and at twenty had married Maginot, a forestry inspector. She disliked Mézières, all shut in by its ramparts, and continued to live in Charleville, where she preferred the freer life brightened up with parties. Her father had died and she enjoyed absolute freedom with an easy-going husband who was such a nonentity that she had no scruples. Provincial gossip had given her many lovers, but she had only really let herself go with Captain Beaudoin out of the vast numbers of uniforms she had lived among thanks to the former connexions of her father and her relationship with Colonel de Vineuil. There was no vice in her, she simply loved pleasure, and it seemed quite clear that in taking lovers she had been indulging her irresistible need to be beautiful and gay.
‘It’s very wrong to have started up with him again,’ Henriette finally said in her serious tone.
But Gilberte at once shut her mouth with one of her pretty, affectionate gestures.
‘Oh my dear, but how could I do anything else, and it was only for once… You know I would rather die than deceive my new husband.’
They both stopped talking and stayed in an affectionate embrace, though so profoundly unlike each other. At that moment they could hear the beating of their hearts and might have understood the different languages of those hearts – the one living for her own happiness, giving herself, sharing herself, the other filled with a single devotion with the great silent heroism of noble souls.
‘Yes, they’re fighting, it’s true,’ cried Gilberte at long last. ‘I must hurry up and get dressed.’
Since they had been silent the sound of gunfire had indeed seemed louder. She jumped out of bed, got Henriette to help her, not wanting to call her maid, putting on shoes, getting quickly into a dress so as to be ready to receive anybody or go downstairs if necessary. As she was quickly finishing her hair there was a knock, and recognizing old Madame Delaherche’s voice she ran to open the door.
‘Of course, Mother dear, do come in.’
With her usual thoughtlessness she let her in without noticing that the army gloves were still there on the table. Henriette rushed to seize them and throw them behind an armchair, but in vain. Madame Delaherche must have noticed them, for she remained speechless for several seconds, as though she could not get her breath. She instinctively ran her eyes round the room, let them pause on the red curtained bed, still all unmade and in disorder.
‘So it was Madame Weiss who came up and woke you… You managed to sleep, my dear.’
Obviously she had not come to say that. Oh dear, this marriage that her son had insisted on going into against her will, at the dangerous age of fifty, after twenty years of a frigid married existence with a disagreeable, scraggy woman! He had been so reasonable until then, and was now carried away by a youthful passion for this pretty widow who was so flighty and frivolous! She had made up her mind to keep an eye on the present, and now here was the past coming back! But should she say anything? As it was she only existed as a silent reproach in the home, always stayed shut up in her room, and was unbending in her religious life. But this time the disloyalty was so flagrant that she resolved to tell her son.
Gilberte blushed and answered:
‘Yes, I did manage to get a few hours of good sleep… You know Jules still hasn’t come back.’
Madame Delaherche cut her short with a gesture. She had been worrying ever since the gunfire began, and watching out for her son’s return. But she was a heroic mother. And then she remembered what she had come to do.
‘Your uncle the colonel has sent Major Bouroche with a pencilled note to ask whether we could fit up a casualty station here. He knows we’ve got room in the mill, and I’ve already put the yard and drying-shed at their disposal… Only you ought to go down…’
‘Oh yes, straight away! Straight away!’ said Henriette, joining in. ‘We’ll help.’
Gilberte herself seemed very concerned and enthusiastic about this new role as a nurse. She just took the time to tie a lace scarf over her hair and the three women went down. As they reached the archway down below, through the open gate they saw some people gathered in the street. A low vehicle was slowly coming along, a sort of trap with one horse being led by a lieutenant in the Zouaves. They thought it was. the first wounded being brought in.
‘Yes, yes, here it is, come in!’
But they were quickly undeceived. The wounded man lying on the floor of the trap was Marshal MacMahon, part of whose left buttock had been shot away, and he was being brought to the Sub-Prefecture after an emergency dressing in a gardener’s cottage. He was bareheaded and half undressed, and the gold braid on his uniform was soiled with dirt and blood. Without speaking he lifted his head and looked about him vaguely. Then seeing the three women standing horrified and wringing their hands as this great disaster went by – the whole army stricken in its commander-in-chief as the very first shots were fired – he nodded slightly with a wan paternal smile. A few onlookers standing by had doffed their hats. Others were already busily explaining that General Ducrot had been appointed commander-in-chief. It was half past seven.
‘And what about the Emperor?’ Henriette asked a bookseller standing at his door.
‘He went by nearly an hour ago,’ answered the neighbour. ‘I went along with him and saw him go out by the Balan gate. There’s a rumour that his head has been shot off.’
The grocer opposite was angry.
‘Come off it, that can’t be true! Only the brave give their lives.’
Towards the Place du Collège the trap carrying the marshal disappeared into the swelling crowds, among whom the most far-fetched reports from the battlefield were already going round. The mist was thinning and the streets filling with sunshine.
But then there came a harsh voice from the courtyard:
‘Ladies, it isn’t there you are wanted, but in here!’
All three went in and found themselves confronted by Major Bouroche, the medical officer, who had already thrown his uniform jacket into a corner and put on a big white apron. His huge head with coarse bristling hair and leonine face seemed flaming with urgency and energy above all this still unstained whiteness. He struck them as so terrible that they were instantly subjugated, obeying his every sign and rushing to satisfy him.
‘We’ve got nothing… Give me some linen, try and find some more mattresses, show my chaps where the pump is…’
They rushed about busily and became simply his servants.
The mill was a very good choice for an ambulance station. There was in particular the drying-shed, an enormous room with glass at the end where there was ample room for a hundred beds, and at one side there was a shed which would be ideal for operating: a long table had been brought in, the pump was quite near, and those with minor injuries could wait on the lawn just near, which happened to be very pleasant, for the lovely old elms were delightfully shady.
Bouroche had preferred to establish himself straight away in Sedan, foreseeing the massacre and the appalling pressure that would force the troops back into the town. He had merely left, close to the 7th corps, behind Floing, two mobile ambulance units for first aid, from which the wounded could be sent on to him after emergency dressings. All the stretcher-bearing squads were out there with the job of picking up under fire any men who fell, and they had the carts and vans. And apart from two of his assistants left on the battlefield Bouroche had brought his staff, two assistant medical officers and three juniors, which might be enough to cope with the operations. In addition there were three dispensers and a dozen medical orderlies.
But he was still fuming, being a man unable to do anything without passion.
‘What are you up to now? Put those mattresses closer together… We’ll put some straw in that corner if necessary.’
The guns were roaring, and he knew that the work would be coming in at any moment now, vehicles full of bleeding flesh, and he was frantically fitting up the big and still empty room. Then there were other preparations going on in the shed: boxes of dressings and medicaments all open and set out on a plank, packets of lint, bandages, compresses, linen, splints for fractures; while on another shelf beside a large pot of ointment and a bottle of chloroform the sets of instruments were laid out, all of shining steel, probes, pincers, knives, scissors, saws, an arsenal of every kind of point and blade for probing, making incisions, slicing, cutting off. But there were no bowls.
‘You must have some basins, buckets, saucepans, any old thing… We can’t muck ourselves up with blood up to our eyes, can we? And sponges, try and get me some sponges!’
Madame Delaherche rushed off and came back followed by three maids loaded with all the bowls they could find. Standing by the instruments Gilberte had beckoned Henriette over and shown them to her with a little shudder. They held each other’s hands and stood there in silence, expressing with the pressure of their hands the vague terror, pity and anxiety overwhelming them.
‘Oh my dear, to think of having a limb cut off!’
On the big table Bouroche had had a mattress put and was covering it with oilcloth when a clatter of horses’ hoofs was heard under the archway. It was the first ambulance coming into the courtyard, but it only contained ten slightly wounded men sitting facing each other, most of them with an arm in a sling, a few with head wounds and bandaged foreheads. They got out themselves with just a little help and the examination began.
As Henriette was gently helping a very young soldier with a bullet wound in his shoulder to get his cape off, which made him cry out in pain, she noticed the number of his regiment.
‘But you belong to the 106th! Are you in the Beaudoin company?’
No, he was in Ravaud’s. But he did know Corporal Jean Macquart, and thought he was right in saying that his squad had not yet been in action. This very vague piece of information was enough to cheer her up, though; her brother was alive so far, and she would be quite all right when she had embraced her husband, whom she was still expecting at any minute.
Just then Henriette looked up and was amazed to see, standing in a group of people a few steps away, Delaherche, holding forth about the terrible dangers he had just come through between Bazeilles and Sedan. How had he got here? She hadn’t seen him come in.
‘Isn’t my husband with you?’
But Delaherche, whose mother and wife were enjoying questioning him, was in no hurry.
‘Just a minute.’
He took up his story again:
‘Between Bazeilles and Balan I was nearly killed twenty times. A hail of bullets and shells – no, a hurricane!… And I ran into the Emperor, oh, very brave! Then from Balan here I dashed…’
Henriette pulled his arm.
‘Weiss? Oh, he stayed there, Weiss did!’
‘There? What do you mean?’
‘Yes, he picked up a dead soldier’s rifle, he’s fighting.’
‘Fighting – but why?’
‘Oh, he’s quite off his head. He simply wouldn’t come with me, so I left him, naturally.’
Henriette looked at him with staring eyes. There was a silence. Then she calmly made up her mind.
‘All right, I’m going there.’
She was going there, but how? But it was impossible, crazy. Delaherche began again about the bullets and shells sweeping the road. Gilberte had seized her hand again to stop her, and Madame Delaherche also tried in vain to point out the absurd rashness of her idea. She said again in her quiet, calm way:
‘No, there’s nothing you can say, I’m going.’
She insisted, and all she would agree to take was Gilberte’s black lace head-scarf. Still hoping to convince her, Delaherche finally declared he would go with her, at any rate as far as the Balan gate. But at that moment he caught sight of the sentry who throughout the commotion of the installation of the casualty station had gone on pacing up and down in front of the coach-house in which the cash of the 7th corps was being kept under lock and key. He remembered and was afraid, and went to see if the millions were still there. Meanwhile Henriette was already on her way under the archway.
‘Wait for me! My word, you’re as crazy as your husband!’
But as another ambulance vehicle was coming in they had to let it pass. This was smaller, with only two wheels, containing two badly wounded lying on stretchers. The first one they brought out, with infinite care, was nothing but a mass of bleeding flesh with one hand smashed and the whole of one side torn through by a shell splinter. The second one had his right leg crushed. At once Bouroche had this one placed on the mattress and began the first operation, with orderlies and his assistants ceaselessly running to and fro. Madame Delaherche and Gilberte were sitting near the lawn, rolling bandages.
Outside, Delaherche caught up with Henriette.
‘Look here, my dear Madame Weiss, you’re not going to do such a silly thing… How do you think you can get to Weiss out there? He can’t even still be there by now, and must have taken to the fields to get back… I assure you that Bazeilles is unreachable.’
But she was not listening, and walked on faster, entering the rue du Ménil to get to the Balan gate. It was nearly nine, and Sedan had emerged from the dark, shivery morning and desolate, blind awakening in the thick fog. A sultry sun cast hard shadows of the houses, the roadway was filled with an anxious crowd, through which dispatch-riders were continually galloping. Groups formed round the few unarmed soldiers who had already come back into the town, some slightly wounded, others in a state of extraordinary emotional tension, gesticulating and shouting. And yet the town would still have had its everyday look were it not for the shops with shutters closed and dead-looking façades in which not a single blind was open. Moreover there was this continual gunfire making everything tremble, stones, ground, walls and even the slates on the roofs.
Delaherche was a prey to the most unpleasant inner struggle, torn between his duty as a brave man which bade him not to desert Henriette and his terror of going back along the Bazeilles road under shell-fire. Suddenly, just as they reached the Balan gate they were separated by a number of officers coming in on horseback. People were packed tight near the gate, waiting for news. He ran along looking for the young woman, but in vain, she must be beyond the walls and hurrying along the road. He did not push his zeal any further, but was surprised to catch himself saying aloud:
‘Oh, what the hell! It’s too ridiculous!’
So he wandered about in Sedan, a citizen full of curiosity and not wanting to miss any of the sights, but also full of growing anxiety. What was it all going to lead to? If the army was beaten wouldn’t the town be in for a very bad time? The answers to these questions remained obscure and depended too much on the turn of events. But that did not prevent him from trembling for his mill, his buildings in the rue Maqua, even though he had moved away all his valuables and hidden them in a safe place. He went to the Hôtel de Ville and found the council in permanent session. He hung about there for a long time but learned nothing new unless it was that the battle was going very badly. The army did not know whom to obey, moved backwards by General Ducrot during the two hours of his command and forwards again by General de Wimpffen who had succeeded him, and these incomprehensible comings and goings, positions they had to reconquer after abandoning them, the whole absence of any plan or energetic leadership were precipitating the disaster.
Next Delaherche moved on to the Sub-Prefecture to find out whether the Emperor had reappeared or not. The only news anyone could give him was about Marshal MacMahon whose wound, not at all dangerous, had been dressed by a surgeon and who was now peacefully in bed. But towards eleven, while he was still tramping the streets, he was held up for a moment in the Grande-Rue in front of the Hôtel de l’Europe by a slow procession of horsemen covered with dust whose weary mounts were going at a walking pace. At their head he recognized the Emperor, returning after spending four hours on the field of battle. Death hadn’t any use for him, obviously. In the anguished sweat of this ride through defeat the make-up had gone from his cheeks and his waxed moustache had got soft and drooping, the ashen face had taken on the agonized stupor of a dying man. An officer who dismounted in front of the hotel began explaining to a group of people the route they had followed, from La Moncelle to Givonne all along the little valley, among the soldiers of the 1st corps whom the Saxons had thrown back on to the right bank of the stream; and they had come along the road in the cutting of Fond de Givonne, in such a jam already that even if the Emperor had wanted to go back to his front line troops he could only have done so with the greatest difficulty. Besides, what was the good?
As Delaherche was listening to these details a loud report shook the neighbourhood. It was a shell that had demolished a chimney in the rue Sainte-Barbe, near the Keep. There was a panic, and women screamed. He had flattened himself against a wall when another explosion shattered the windows of a house near-by. This was getting terrible if they were bombarding Sedan, and he raced home to the rue Maqua, so possessed with anxiety to know the worst that without stopping he rushed up to the roof where there was a flat terrace with a view over the town and its surroundings.
He was at once reassured, for they were firing right over the town and the German batteries on La Marfée and Frénois were aiming beyond the built-up area so as to rake the plateau of Algérie. He even found the flight of the shells interesting – the immense curve of light smoke they left above Sedan, like invisible birds leaving trails of grey feathers. To begin with it seemed clear that the few shells that had smashed roofs round him had been strays. They were not yet bombarding the town. But on a more careful examination he felt that they must be in reply to the odd shots fired from the fort. So he turned round and studied the citadel to the north, a complicated and formidable system of fortifications, blackened walls, green panels of glacis, innumerable geometrical bastions and topping all the three gigantic hornworks, that of the Ecossais and the Grand Jardin and La Rochette, with menacing angles; and further west, like a Cyclopean projection, the Nassau fort, followed by the Palatinate fort, towering above the Ménil district. The impression they made on him was a melancholy one of enormity and childishness. What was the point of it now, with these guns whose projectiles flew so easily from one end of the sky to the other? In any case the fortress was unarmed, with neither the necessary pieces of artillery nor the ammunition nor the men. For the past three weeks, or barely as long as that, the governor had been organizing a National Guard of citizens willing to man the few guns in working order. That was why three cannon were firing from the Palatinate while a good half dozen were at the Paris gate. But there were only seven or eight rounds available per gun, and so they spaced out the shots, letting one off every half hour and only for honour’s sake at that, for the shells went no distance, but fell in the fields opposite. So the enemy batteries contemptuously sent an occasional answer back, out of charity.
What interested Delaherche was these batteries. He was casting a keen eye on the slopes of La Marfée when he thought of the field glasses with which he used to amuse himself looking at the surrounding country from up there. He went down to find them, came back and took up his position, and as he was getting his bearings by moving them along in little jerks, making fields, trees and houses go by, he spotted, above the big Frénois battery, the group of uniforms that Weiss had thought he could make out from Bazeilles at the corner of a pinewood. But thanks to the magnification he could easily have counted these staff officers, so clearly could he see them. Some of them were half lying in the grass, others were standing in groups, and in front there was one man standing alone, a shrivelled, thin-looking man in a plain uniform, but he felt that this man was the master. It was indeed the King of Prussia, scarcely half a finger high, like one of those tiny tin soldiers children play with. Of course he did not know this for certain until later, but he kept his eye on him, always coming back to this tiny figure, whose face, no bigger than a dot, was just a pale speck beneath the wide blue sky.
It was not yet noon, and the King had been following the mathematical, inexorable march of his armies since nine. They went on and on according to their prearranged routes, completing the circle, closing step by step the wall of men and guns round Sedan. The army from the left, coming from the flat plain of Donchery, was still debouching from the Saint-Albert gap, it was past Saint-Menges and was beginning to reach Fleigneux. And he could distinctly see, behind the XIth corps which was violently engaged with the troops of General Douay, the Vth corps filtering along under cover of the woods and making for the Calvary of Illy, while batteries joined with batteries in an ever longer line of thundering guns until the whole horizon was on fire. The army on the right was now occupying the whole of the Givonne valley, the XIIth corps had taken La Moncelle, the Prussian Guards had gone through Daigny and were already following the little stream up its valley, also making for the Calvary, having forced General Ducrot to fall back behind the Garenne wood. Just one more thrust and the Crown Prince of Prussia would link up with the Crown Prince of Saxony in the open fields on the very verge of the Ardennes forest. South of the town Bazeilles could no longer be seen, for it was hidden in the smoke of fires and in the wild dust of a fight to the death.
The King had been calmly looking on and waiting since first thing. One or two hours more, perhaps three, it was only a matter of time, one cog moved the next and the crushing machine was in action and would finish its job. Under the wide, sunny sky the battlefield was shrinking, and this furious mêlée of black dots was piling itself thicker and thicker round Sedan. A few windows were gleaming in the town, one house seemed to be on fire to the left towards La Cassine. But further off, in the now deserted fields towards Donchery and Carignan, all was peaceful and bathed in light, the silvery waters of the Meuse, the trees looking happy to be alive, the great fertile plains, the broad green meadows beneath the blazing noonday sun.
The King had asked briefly for some bit of information. On the colossal chessboard he wanted to know everything and keep a hand on this multitude of men under his command. To his right a flight of swallows, scared by the gunfire, wheeled upwards very high and was lost to sight in the south.