AT first Henriette could make good speed along the Balan road. It was not much after nine, and the wide street between houses and gardens was still passable, though as she approached the village it became increasingly blocked by fugitives and troops on the move. As each fresh wave of people came along she hugged the wall and managed to slip past all the same. Being very small and inconspicuous in her dark dress, with her lovely fair hair and little pale face half hidden by the black lace scarf, she passed unnoticed and nothing slowed her lithe, quiet step.
But in Balan itself there was a regiment of marines blocking the road, a solid mass of men waiting for orders in the shade of the big trees which concealed them. She stood on tiptoe but could not see the end of them. Yet she tried to make herself smaller still and wriggle through. Elbows shoved her away and she felt rifle-butts sticking into her. She had done some twenty steps when there were shouts and protests. A captain turned round and let fly at her:
‘Here, woman, are you mad? Where are you off to?’
‘I’m going to Bazeilles.’
‘Bazeilles? What are you talking about?’
There was a general burst of laughter, and they pointed her out to each other and joked. The captain joined in the mirth and went on:
‘Bazeilles, my dear, I wish you could take us with you!… We were there just now and I hope we’re going back, but I warn you that you won’t feel cold there.’
‘I’m going to Bazeilles to join my husband,’ Henriette declared in her gentle voice, and her light blue eyes kept their quiet determination.
The laughter stopped, and an old sergeant got her away from them and forced her to turn back.
‘Poor child, you can see it’s impossible for you to get through… It’s no woman’s job to go to Bazeilles just now… You’ll find that husband of yours later. Now come along, do be sensible!’
She had to give in and stood still, jumping up every minute to see as far as she could, obstinately determined to go on her way. She gathered a little information from what she heard round her. Officers were bitterly complaining about the order to retreat which had made them abandon Bazeilles at quarter past eight when General Ducrot, taking over from the marshal, had got it into his head to try to concentrate all the troops on the plateau of Illy. The worst of it was that the 1st corps having fallen back too soon and thus handed over the Givonne valley to the Germans, the 12th, already under strong attack from the front, had been outflanked on its left. And now General de Wimpffen had succeeded General Ducrot and the original plan was in favour again, so that orders were coming in to reoccupy Bazeilles at all costs and throw the Bavarians into the Meuse. Wasn’t it crazy to have made them give up a position that they had now got to retake? They were prepared to face death, but really – not for fun!
There was a great surge of men and horses and General de Wimpffen appeared, standing in his stirrups, his face radiant and his voice inspired, shouting:
‘My friends, we can’t fall back, it would be the end of everything… If we have to beat a retreat it will be on Carignan and not on Mézières… But we shall win, you beat them this morning, and you will beat them again!’
Off he galloped and disappeared along a road going up to La Moncelle. It was rumoured that he had had a violent altercation with General Ducrot, each of them defending his own plan and attacking the opposite one, one declaring that their retreat via Mézières had not been feasible since first thing in the morning, the other prophesying that before nightfall the army would be surrounded unless they withdrew on to the plateau of Illy. Each accused the other of not knowing the terrain nor the true situation of the troops. The worst of it was that they were both right.
But for a moment Henriette had had her mind taken off her hurry to get on. She had recognized a Bazeilles family stranded there at the roadside, a family of poor weavers, the man and wife and three girls, the eldest of whom was only nine. They were so shattered and dazed with exhaustion and despair that they could go no further and had collapsed by a wall.
‘Oh, dear lady,’ the woman said to Henriette, ‘we’ve got nothing left… You know our home was on the Place de l’Eglise. Well, a shell set fire to it. I don’t know how the children and ourselves got out alive.’
The three little girls began crying and screaming again at the thought of it, while the mother went into details about their disaster, with wild gestures.
‘I saw the loom burning like dry firewood. The bed and the furniture blazed up quicker than handfuls of straw… And even the clock, I didn’t have time to bring that away.’
‘God Almighty!’ swore the man, with big tears in his eyes. ‘What’s going to become of us?’
In order to calm them Henriette just said, in a slightly unsteady voice:
‘You are together, both safe and sound, you have your little girls, what are you complaining about?’
Then she questioned them about what was happening in Bazeilles, whether they had seen her husband, what her house looked like when they left. But in their trembling, frightened state their answers were contradictory. No, they hadn’t seen Weiss. Yet one of the little girls said she had seen him on the pavement, with a big hole in the middle of his head, and her father boxed her ears to make her shut up because, he said, she was lying for certain. As for the house, it must have been all right when they left, and they even remembered noticing that the door and windows were carefully shut as though there wasn’t a soul there. At that time, in any case, the Bavarians were still only occupying the Place de l’Eglise, and had to take the village street by street, house by house. But of course they had had quite a way to come and perhaps by now the whole of Bazeilles was on fire. And the poor wretches went on talking about these things with vague, panic-stricken gestures as they called to mind the awful sight of the blazing roofs, blood flowing and the dead covering the ground.
‘And what about my husband, then?’ she asked.
They made no further answer, but sobbed into their clasped hands. She stood there in atrocious anguish, firm, but her lips were quivering slightly. What was she to believe? However much she told herself that the child was mistaken, she could see her husband lying there in the street with a bullet-hole in his head. And then she was worried about this hermetically sealed house. Why? Wasn’t he still there, then? Suddenly the certainty that he had been killed struck a cold fear into her heart. But perhaps he was only wounded; and her need to go there and be there returned so inexorably that she would have tried once again to force a way through, there and then, if the bugles had not sounded the advance.
Many of these young soldiers had just come from Toulon, Rochefort or Brest, they were almost completely untrained and had never been under fire, yet since first thing they had been fighting as bravely and reliably as veterans. These men who had marched so badly from Rheims to Mouzon, worn out by the unaccustomed strain, were now revealing themselves in the face of the enemy to be the best disciplined and the most fraternally united by a bond of duty and self-sacrifice. The bugles had only to sound and back they went into the firing-line, and they resumed the attack even if their hearts were full of resentment. Three times they had been promised the support of a division which never came. They felt let down, written off as expendable. By sending them back against Bazeilles after making them evacuate it somebody was asking all of them to give up their lives. They were perfectly aware of this, and yet they would give their lives without question, closing their ranks, leaving the protection of the trees, and go back into the shells and bullets.
Henriette heaved an immense sigh of relief. At last they were marching! She followed on in the hope of getting there with them, and was prepared to run if they ran. But already once again they came to a halt. By now projectiles were raining down, and to occupy Bazeilles would mean reconquering every metre of the way and seizing alleyways, houses, gardens to right and left. The front ranks had opened fire and now they were only advancing in fits and starts, and the smallest obstacles caused many minutes’ delay. She would never get there if she stayed like this at their tail waiting for victory. So she made up her mind and threw herself to the right along a path between two hedges that went down towards the meadows.
Henriette’s plan was to reach Bazeilles through these stretches of meadow that bordered the Meuse. Not that she was very clear about it herself. Suddenly she stopped, stuck on the edge of a little pool that prevented her from going on in that direction. It was the flooding, this low-lying ground turned into a defensive lake, and she had not thought of that. For a moment she thought of going back, but then, at the risk of leaving her shoes in it, she went on, working along the edge, sinking ankle-deep in the muddy grass. For a hundred metres it was possible, but then she ran up against a garden wall and the land sloped downwards, so that the waters lapped the wall and were two metres deep. Impossible to get through. She clenched her small fists and had to take the firmest grip on herself so as not to burst into tears. When the first shock was over she skirted the wall the other way and found a narrow lane between a few houses. This time she thought she was saved, for she knew this maze of odd, twisting alleys, a tangle that did in the end lead to the village.
But there the shells were falling. Henriette stood rooted to the spot, very pale in the deafening noise of a frightful explosion, and hit by the blast. A shell had exploded only a few metres away from her. She looked back at the heights on the opposite side of the river, from which puffs of smoke from the German batteries were rising, and she understood, but went on again, with eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for shells so that she could dodge them. The rash temerity of her journey was not devoid of cool-headedness, indeed it had all the brave calm that a good little housewife can muster. She simply wanted not to be killed, to find her husband and take him home so that they could live happily again. The bombardment was incessant, and she glided along by the walls, taking cover behind stone bollards or any sort of shelter. But then came an open space, a piece of street that had been demolished and was already covered with rubble, and she was pausing at the corner of a barn when, down at ground level sticking out of a sort of hole, she caught sight of a child’s inquisitive face, watching intently. It was a little boy of ten, barefoot and with torn shirt and trousers, some kid on the prowl who was thoroughly enjoying the battle. His little black eyes were sparkling and he uttered exclamations of delight at each explosion.
‘Oh aren’t they fun! Stay there, here comes another. Bang! That one didn’t half go! Don’t move, don’t move!’
With each shell, he did a dive into the hole, and reappeared, popping up his head like a bird whistling, then dived down again.
Henriette noticed that the shells were coming from Le Liry, whilst the batteries of Pont-Maugis and Noyers were now only firing at Balan. She could clearly see the smoke at each discharge, and almost at once she heard the whining, followed later by the explosion. There must have been a short break, for the clouds of thin vapour slowly cleared away.
‘Bet you they’re having a drink,’ shouted the kid. ‘Quick, quick, let me take your hand and we’ll run for it.’
He took her hand and pulled her along and, bent double, they both ran side by side across the open space. At the end, as they threw themselves behind a haystack, they saw another shell coming, and it fell right on the barn where they had been just before. The din was appalling, the barn collapsed.
The kid danced about with glee, finding it all a scream.
‘Hooray – there’s a nice smash-up! It was about time, too, wasn’t it?’
But once again Henriette came up against an impassable obstacle, garden walls and no way through. Her little companion went on laughing and said you could always get by if you wanted to. He clambered up on to the coping of a wall and helped her over. They jumped down into a vegetable garden between rows of beans and peas. Walls everywhere. So to get out of it they had to go through a gardener’s cottage. The boy went first, whistling and swinging his arms, ready for anything. He pushed open a door, found himself in a room, went through to another in which there was an old woman, probably the only living soul still there. She looked dazed, and was standing by a table. She watched these two unknown people walking like this through her home, but didn’t say a word to them, nor they to her. They were out at the other side in a narrow lane that they were able to follow for a short distance. Then fresh difficulties arose, and so it went on for nearly a kilometre, walls had to be scaled or hedges got through, they took the shortest cuts they could, through coach-house doors, windows of houses, just as it chanced on the route they managed to follow. Dogs barked, and -they were nearly knocked down by a madly galloping cow. But they must be getting near now, for there was a smell of burning, and at every moment big, ruddy clouds like floating, gauzy material veiled the sun.
Suddenly the boy stopped and planted himself in front of Henriette.
‘I say, Missis, where are you off to like this?’
‘But you can see, I’m going to Bazeilles.’
He whistled and gave vent to a high-pitched laugh like a truant from school who is having a grand time.
‘Bazeilles… Oh no, I don’t want that, I’m off somewhere else. Ta-ta!’
He turned on his heel and went off as he had come, without her knowing where he came from or where he was going. She had found him in a hole in the ground, she lost sight of him at the corner of a wall, and would never see him again.
Left alone, Henriette felt strangely frightened. That puny child with her was hardly a protection, but his chatter had been a distraction. Now, though normally so courageous, she was trembling. The shells were no longer coming over, the Germans had stopped firing on Bazeilles, no doubt for fear of killing their own men, now masters of the village. But for some minutes she had heard bullets whistling, that buzzing of big flies she had heard about and which she recognized. In the background so many hellish noises were mingled together that she could not even pick out the sound of the rifle fire from the violence of the din. As she rounded the corner of a house, right by her ear there was a dull thud and plaster falling which pulled her up; a bullet had chipped a lump off the façade, and she went very pale. Then before she had time to wonder whether she dared go any further she felt a kind of hammer-blow on the forehead and fell to her knees, dazed. A second bullet had ricocheted and caught her just above her left eyebrow, but it had only made a nasty graze. When she put both hands to her forehead and took them away they were red with blood. But she had felt her skull solid and unharmed under her fingers, and said aloud, to give herself courage:
‘It isn’t anything, it isn’t anything… come on, I’m not afraid, no, I’m not afraid!’
And it was true. She got to her feet again and walked on among the bullets with the detachment of a person outside herself, beyond reasoning, prepared to give her life. She even gave up protecting herself, walking straight in front of her, head held high, only quickening her step in the hope of getting there sooner. Bullets spattered round her, and a score of times she might have been killed, but she appeared not to notice. Her lithe step, with her quiet, unfussed efficiency, seemed to help her to slip, slender and supple, through the danger that she escaped. She was in Bazeilles at last, and cut across a field of lucerne to rejoin the main road, the village high street. As she emerged on to it she saw, two hundred metres to her right, her house on fire. In the bright sun the flames could not be seen, but half the roof had already fallen in and the windows were belching clouds of black smoke. She rushed forward, running for all she was worth.
Weiss had been marooned there since eight in the morning, cut off from the withdrawing troops. Suddenly his return to Sedan had become impossible, for the Bavarians, who had come out through the park of Montvillers, had cut the line of retreat. He was alone with his gun and the remaining rounds of ammunition, when he saw ten soldiers in front of his door who like him had been left behind, isolated from their comrades, and they were looking round for some shelter where they could at least sell their lives as dearly as possible. He at once ran downstairs and opened the door to them, and from then on the house had a garrison, a captain, a corporal and eight men, all in a fury of desperation and determined never to surrender.
‘What, you one of them, Laurent!’ exclaimed Weiss, amazed to find among them a lanky fellow with a rifle picked up beside some dead body.
Laurent, in his blue shirt and trousers, was a gardener in the village, about thirty, who had recently lost his mother and his wife in the same influenza epidemic.
‘Why shouldn’t I be in it?’ he answered. ‘I’ve got nothing left but my own carcass, and that’s mine to give if I want to… And besides, you know, I enjoy it because I’m not a bad shot and it’s going to be fun to finish off one of those buggers with each go!’
The captain and corporal were already looking over the house. Nothing doing on the ground floor, and they just pushed the furniture against the door and windows to barricade them as securely as they could. So it was in the three little rooms on the first floor and in the loft that they organized the defence, and they approved of the preparations already made by Weiss, the mattresses reinforcing the venetian blinds and the loopholes he had made here and there between the slats. As the captain ventured to lean out to take stock of the surroundings he heard a child crying.
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
There came back into Weiss’s mind the sight of the sick child Auguste, with his face flushed with fever against the white sheets, calling his mother who could never answer again, lying on the pavement with her head smashed. With a gesture of grief at this vision he replied:
‘A poor little kid whose mother has been killed by a shell, and he’s crying there next door.’
‘Oh Christ,’ muttered Laurent, ‘we’ve got to make them pay for all this!’
So far only a few stray bullets were hitting the front of the house. Weiss and the captain, together with the gardener and two of the men, had gone up into the attic from which it was easier to keep an eye on the road. They could see at an angle as far as the Place de l’Eglise, which was now in the hands of the Bavarians, who were still advancing only with great difficulty and with extreme caution. At the corner of a lane a few infantrymen still held them at bay for nearly a quarter of an hour with such murderous fire that the dead were piling up. And then it was a single house, even an angle between two walls that they had to take before being able to move on. Sometimes through the smoke a woman could be seen with a rifle shooting from one of the windows. It was a baker’s shop in which there were some stranded soldiers together with the inhabitants, and when the house was taken, there were screams and a fearful vision of people being hustled across to the opposite wall: a flood in which could be glimpsed a woman’s skirt, a man’s jacket, a mane of white hair, and then the rattle of a firing squad and blood splashing up to the coping of the wall. The Germans were inflexible: any person not belonging to the armed forces who was found with weapons was shot at once, having wilfully deprived himself of all legal rights. In the face of the furious resistance of the village their anger was rising, and the terrible losses they had been suffering for nearly five hours provoked them to take atrocious reprisals. The gutters were running red and the dead were blocking the roadway, some crossroads were mere charnel-houses from which came the gasps of the dying. So then they could be seen throwing lighted straw into every house they captured after a fight, and others ran along with torches or sprinkled walls with paraffin. Soon whole streets were on fire and Bazeilles went up in flames.
Hence now in the centre of the village there only remained Weiss’s house, with its shutters closed, like a menacing fortress, determined never to give in.
‘Look out, here they come!’ cried the captain.
A volley from the attic and the first floor laid low three Bavarians who were creeping along by the walls. The others fell back and took cover in all the corners along the road; the siege of the house began, such a rain of bullets lashed the front that it was like a hailstorm. For nearly ten minutes this fusillade went on, making holes in the plaster but not doing much harm. But one of the men the captain had taken up with him into the attic was imprudent enough to show himself at a dormer window, and he was killed instantly with a bullet through the forehead.
‘Dammit, that’s one less!’ grunted the captain. ‘Do be careful, there aren’t so many of us that we can get killed for fun!’
He had taken a rifle himself and was firing from behind a shutter. But it was Laurent the gardener whom he admired the most. Kneeling with the barrel of his rifle supported in the narrow slit of a loophole, as though he were stalking game, he never let off a shot unless he was quite sure, and he even announced the result in advance.
‘Now for the little blue officer over there, I’ll get him in the heart… The other one further off, the tall skinny one, between the eyes… The fat one with the ginger beard – he’s getting me down, one in the belly for him…’
And each time the man fell, killed instantly, hit in the place he had indicated, and he went on calmly, with no rush, having plenty to do, as he put it, for it would take some time for him to kill them all off one by one like this.
‘Oh, if only my eyes were any good!’ Weiss kept saying furiously.
He had just broken his glasses and was very annoyed. He still had the folding ones, but he could not keep them firmly on his nose because of the sweat running down his face, and consequently he often fired at random, over excited and with shaky hands. A mounting passion was triumphing over his normal coolness.
‘Don’t be in a hurry, it’s no good at all,’ said Laurent. ‘Look, take aim carefully at that one over there without his cap, on the corner of the grocer’s… But that’s fine, you’ve smashed his foot, look at him jigging about in his own blood.’
Weiss looked at him and went a bit pale. He murmured:
‘You finish him off.’
‘What, and waste a bullet! Oh no. More use to do in another of them.’
The assailants must have noticed this formidable fire from the windows in the attic. Not a single man could step forward but he stayed there for good. So they brought up some fresh troops with orders to riddle the roof with bullets. That made the attic untenable, for the slates could be pierced as easily as sheets of thin paper, and the bullets came in on all sides, buzzing like bees. Each second meant risk of death.
‘Let’s go down,’ said the captain. ‘We can still hold out on the first floor.’
But as he was making for the ladder a bullet got him in the groin and knocked him backwards.
‘Too late, dammit!’
Weiss and Laurent, helped by the one remaining soldier, insisted on getting him down although he shouted that they were not to waste their time over him: he had got his ticket and he could peg out up there just as well as downstairs. Yet when they had laid him on a bed in a first-floor room he was still determined to direct the defence.
‘Fire into the middle of them and don’t bother about anything else. So long as your fire doesn’t slacken they’re much too prudent to take any risks.’
The siege of the little house indeed looked like going on and on for ever. A score of times it had seemed on the point of being taken in the storm of iron beating upon it, and in the midst of these squalls and through the smoke it still was standing, holed and gashed, torn to bits and yet spitting forth bullets from every crack. The attackers were exasperated at being held up for so long and losing so many men over a shanty like this, and they yelled and fired from a distance without daring to charge forward and smash in the ground-floor door and windows.
‘Look out!’ shouted the corporal, ‘that shutter’s coming down!’
The impact of the bullets had forced a shutter off its hinges. But Weiss rushed and pushed a cupboard against the window, and Laurent could go on firing, shielded by that. One of the soldiers lay at his feet, his jaw smashed and losing a lot of blood. Another was hit in the throat by a bullet and reeled over to the wall where he made a continual snoring noise, with his whole body jerking in convulsions. They were now down to eight, not counting the captain, who was too weak to speak but propped up on the bed was still giving orders by signs. The three first-floor rooms were beginning to be as untenable as the loft, for the tattered mattresses were no longer stopping the bullets: bits of plaster jumped from the walls and ceiling, furniture was being broken and sides of cupboards splitting as though under the axe. Worst of all, ammunition was running short.
‘What a pity!’ grumbled Laurent. ‘It’s going so well.’
Weiss had a sudden idea.
‘Wait a moment.’
He had thought of the dead soldier up there in the loft. He went up and searched him for the ammunition he must have. A whole section of roofing had fallen in and he could see the blue sky, a patch of gay light which astonished him. To avoid being killed he crawled along on his knees. Then, when he had the ammunition, another thirty or so rounds, he hurried down at full speed.
Down below, as he was sharing this new supply with the gardener, a soldier uttered a scream and fell on his face. They were now only seven, and immediately after only six, the corporal getting a bullet through his left eye which blew out his brains.
From then on Weiss lost all consciousness of what was happening. He and the five others went on shooting like mad things, finishing off the ammunition and not even thinking they could surrender. The floors of the three little rooms were strewn with bits of furniture. The dead blocked the doorways and one wounded man in a corner went on and on with his pitiful moaning. Everywhere blood stuck to their feet. A red trickle had gone down the stairs. The air was scarcely breathable, thick and with a burning taste of gunpowder, an acrid, sickening smoke, almost total darkness streaked by the flames of the rifle-fire.
‘Good God!’ exclaimed Weiss. ‘They’re bringing up cannon!’
It was true. Feeling they would never be able to liquidate this handful of fanatics who were holding them up like this, the Bavarians were bringing up a cannon into position at the corner of the Place de l’Eglise. Perhaps they would get through once they had demolished the house with gunfire. The honour they were being done by having artillery trained on them put the finishing touch to the wild glee of the besieged men, who sneered in utter scorn. The cowardly lot of sods with their cannon! Still on his knees, Laurent took careful aim at the gunners, picking off his man each time and preventing the gun from being served, so that it took five or six minutes before the first shot was fired. It went too high and only took off a bit of the roof.
But the end was in sight. They searched the dead in vain, there was not a single round of ammunition left. Exhausted and haggard, the six men felt about for something to hurl out of the windows and crush the enemy. One of them showed himself, vociferating and brandishing his fists; he was immediately riddled with lead, and they were only five. What could they do next? Go downstairs and try to escape through the garden and over the fields? But just then there was a tumult down below and a furious mob surged up the stairs: it was the Bavarians who had at last surrounded the house, smashed the back door and come in. There was a free fight in the little room among the corpses and bits of broken furniture. One of the soldiers had a bayonet through his chest and the two others were taken prisoner, while the captain, who had just breathed his last, remained there with his mouth open and arm raised as if giving an order.
Meanwhile an officer, a heavy, fair man with a revolver and bloodshot eyes popping out of their sockets, had caught sight of Weiss and Laurent, one in his overcoat and the other in his blue cotton shirt, and he addressed them furiously in French:
‘Who are you? What are you two doing here?’
Then seeing them blackened with powder he understood and heaped curses on them in German, his voice choking with rage. He was by way of raising his pistol to blow their brains out when the soldiers under his command rushed and seized Weiss and Laurent and bundled them down the stairs. The two men were carried along on this human tide, out into the road and across to the wall opposite with such vociferations that the officers’ voices could no longer be heard. So that for another two or three minutes, while the big fair officer was trying to detach them in order to proceed with their execution, they could stand up and see everything.
Other houses were on fire and Bazeilles would soon be nothing but a furnace. Tongues of flame were beginning to come from the lofty windows of the church. Soldiers chasing an old lady out of her house had forced her to give them some matches so as to set fire to her bed and curtains. By degrees the fires were spreading as straw firebrands were thrown and quantities of oil poured about, It was now nothing but a war of savages frenzied by the length of the struggle, avenging their dead, the heaps of their dead on which they had to tread. Bands of men were bawling amid the smoke and sparks, in a frightful din made up of all kinds of noises, the moans of the dying, shots, crashed buildings. People could scarcely see each other for great livid clouds of swirling dust, which stank intolerably of soot and blood as though filled with the abominations of massacre, and which hid the light of the sun. The killing was still going on, with destruction in every corner: the wild beast let loose, the raving madness of men in the act of destroying their fellow men.
And then Weiss saw his own house burning there in front of him. Soldiers had run up with torches, others were feeding the flames by throwing in bits of furniture. In no time the ground floor was ablaze and the smoke was issuing from all the holes in the walls and roof. Already the dyeworks next door was catching fire as well and, most horrible thing, you could still hear the voice of the child Auguste lying in bed calling for his mother in his feverish delirium, while the poor creature’s skirt, as she lay there across the doorstep with her head bashed in, was beginning to burn.
‘Mummy, I’m thirsty… Mummy, give me a drink of water…’
The flames roared up, the voice stopped, and all that could be heard was the deafening cheering of the victors.
Above the noises and shouting rose a terrible shriek. Henriette appeared at that moment and saw her husband against the wall facing a firing squad that was getting ready.
She rushed to embrace him.
‘Oh God, what is it? They aren’t going to kill you?’
Weiss looked at her, dazed. What, his wife, this woman he had yearned for so long and whom he worshipped with such loving devotion! He woke up with a shudder. What had he been doing? What had he stayed there for, firing a rifle instead of going back to her as he had sworn he would? In a flash he saw his happiness lost in a brutal separation, for ever. Then he caught sight of the blood on her forehead and said in a faltering, almost off-hand way:
‘Are you wounded, dear?… You were mad to come.’
She roughly cut him short:
‘Oh there’s nothing the matter with me, just a scratch. But you, you, why are they holding you? I won’t let them kill you!’
The officer was busying himself in the middle of the cluttered road to give his squad a little more distance, when he saw this woman hanging on to the neck of one of the prisoners and he said angrily, in French again:
‘Oh no, none of that nonsense! Where have you come from? What do you want?’
‘I want my husband!’
‘Your husband, what, that man there? He has been sentenced, and justice has got to be done.’
‘I want my husband.’
‘Look here, be sensible… Get out of the way, we don’t want to do any harm to you.’
‘I want my husband.’
So, abandoning the effort to convince her, the officer was going to give orders for her to be torn away from the prisoner’s arms, when Laurent, who so far had said nothing, but had been standing there quite unmoved, ventured to intervene:
‘I say, captain, I was the one who bumped off so many of your lot, so let me be shot, that’s all right. And what’s more I’ve got nobody, neither mother, wife nor child… But this gentleman is married… So let him go and then you can settle my account.’
Beside himself now, the captain bellowed:
‘That’s enough talk! Are you trying to pull my leg? Come on, I want a volunteer to take this woman away.’
He had to repeat the order in German. A soldier stepped forward, a thickset Bavarian with a huge head bristling with red beard and hair, in the midst of which all that could be seen was a wide potato nose and big blue eyes. He had blood on him and looked horrible, like one of those cave-dwelling bears, hairy wild beasts red with the prey whose bones they have been cracking.
In heart-rending tones Henriette went on crying:
‘I want my husband, kill me with my husband.’
The officer energetically beat his breast, declaring that he was not a murderer, and if there were some who killed innocent people, it wasn’t him. She had not been sentenced and he would cut his own hand off rather than touch a hair of her head.
Then as the Bavarian was coming she clung to her husband’s body with all the strength of her limbs, frantically.
‘Oh my darling, please keep me, let me die with you!’
Weiss was weeping bitterly, but without answering her he struggled to wrench the desperate woman’s convulsive fingers from his shoulders and waist.
‘So you don’t love me any more, and want to die without me! Hold on to me and they’ll get tired of it and kill us both together!’
He had pulled away one of her little hands and he pressed it to his mouth and kissed it while working at the other to make it let go.
‘No, no, keep me, I want to die.’
At last, with a great effort, he held both her hands. So far he had avoided speaking and remained mute. Now all he said was:
‘Good-bye, dearest wife.’
And immediately he deliberately threw her into the arms of the Bavarian, who carried her away, struggling and screaming, while, perhaps to calm her, keeping up a stream of guttural talk. With a violent effort she got her head free and saw everything.
It lasted less than three seconds. Weiss’s folding glasses had slipped down during the parting, and he quickly replaced them on his nose as though he wanted to look death squarely in the face. He backed against the wall and folded his arms, and the face of this big, good-natured fellow in his tattered jacket shone with radiance, admirable in beauty and courage. Next to him Laurent had simply thrust his hands into his pockets. He looked outraged at this cruel scene, the abomination of these savages killing men before the eyes of their wives. He drew himself up, looked at them insolently and spat out in contempt:
But the officer had raised his sword, and the two men fell like logs, the gardener face to the ground and the other, the accounts clerk, on his side along the wall. Before expiring he had a final convulsion, his eyelids flickered and his mouth twitched. The officer came up and turned him over with his foot to make sure he was not still alive.
Henriette had seen it all, the dying eyes looking for her, the dreadful spasm of his end, the heavy boot kicking his corpse. She even stopped screaming, but silently, furiously, bit whatever she could, a hand her teeth came up against. The Bavarian uttered a cry of intense pain, flung her down and nearly knocked her out. Their faces touched, and she was never to forget that red beard and hair flecked with blood, those blue eyes staring and mad with rage.
Later Henriette could not clearly remember what had happened next. She had had only one desire, to go back to her husband’s body, take it away and watch over it. But as in a nightmare one obstacle after another sprang up and stopped her every move. A fresh and violent fusillade had broken out and a great deal of manoeuvring took place among the German troops occupying Bazeilles: it was the arrival at long last of the Marines, and the fight began again so fiercely that she was thrown back down an alley to the left with a mob of panic-stricken inhabitants. In any case the outcome of the struggle could not be in doubt, for it was too late to recapture the abandoned positions. For nearly another half-hour the Marines fought doggedly on and gave their lives with superb dash, but the enemy was continually being reinforced from every side, the meadows, the roads, the park of Montvillers. Nothing could now dislodge them from the village they had bought at such a price, where thousands of their men lay in blood and flames. Destruction was now completing its work, and nothing was left but a charnel-house of scattered limbs and smoking ruins. Bazeilles, murdered, demolished, was disappearing into ashes.
Henriette caught one last glimpse of her little home where the floors were falling into a whirlpool of fire. Opposite, she could still see her husband’s body lying by the wall. Then a fresh wave caught her again, the bugles were sounding the retreat and she was carried along somehow in the midst of the fleeing troops. She just became an object, a piece of flotsam washed along in a swirling stream of people flowing along the road. She lost any idea of what was happening until she found herself in Balan, in somebody’s kitchen, where she was sobbing with her head on a table.