Now all round Sedan, from all the lost positions – Floing, the plateau of Illy, the Garenne woods and the valley of the Givonne, the Bazeilles road – a panic-stricken flood of men, horses and cannon was pouring towards the town. This fortress, on which they had had the disastrous idea of depending, was proving to be a terrible snare, a shelter for fugitives, a sanctuary into which even the bravest men let themselves be lured in the general demoralization and panic. Behind those ramparts they imagined they would at last escape from the terrible artillery which had been thundering for nearly twelve hours; all conscience and reason had fled, the animal had run away with the human and there was nothing left but the mad rush of instinct stampeding for the hole in which to go to earth and sleep.
At the foot of the little wall, when Maurice bathed Jean’s face with the cold water and saw him open his eyes, he cried out with joy:
‘Oh, dear old sod, I thought you were done for… And no offence meant, but you weigh a ton!’
Still dazed, Jean seemed to be waking out of a dream. Then he must have realized and remembered, for two big tears ran down his cheeks. So this Maurice, this puny boy he loved and looked after like a child, had in this surge of affection found enough strength in his arms to carry him as far as here!
‘Half a mo, let me have a look at that cranium of yours.’
The wound was nothing much, just a grazing of the scalp, which had bled a lot. The hair, now matted with blood, had acted as a pad. So he took care not to wet it, so as not to reopen the place.
‘There, now you’ve been cleaned up you’ve got a human face again. Just a second and I’ll fix you up with a hat.’
So he picked up the képi of a dead soldier and carefully put it on Jean’s head.
‘Just the right size… Now if you can walk we’re both smart boys.’
Jean stood up and shook his head to see if it felt all right. All he felt now was a bit of a headache. He’d be fine. He was overcome with a simple man’s emotion and threw his arms round Maurice and clasped him tight to his heart. The only words he could find were:
‘Oh my dear boy, my dear boy!’
But the Prussians were coming, and the vital thing was not to dally behind that wall. Lieutenant Rochas was already retreating with his small band of men protecting the flag, still being carried under the second lieutenant’s arm, rolled round its staff. Lapoulle, being very tall, could raise himself and still fire a few more rounds over the coping, but Pache had slung his rifle over his shoulder, presumably deeming that enough was enough and that now some food and sleep would be desirable. Jean and Maurice, bent double, hurried after them. There was no lack of ammunition or rifles, you only had to stoop down. They rearmed themselves, having left everything over there, kit and all, when one had had to carry the other on his shoulders. The wall ran right along to the Garenne wood, and the little band, thinking it was in safety, darted behind a farm building and from there reached the trees.
‘Ah,’ said Rochas, still keeping his fine, unshakable confidence, ‘we’ll get our breath back here for a minute before going back to the offensive.’
But with the very first steps they all felt they were entering an inferno; they could not go back again, but had to go on through the wood, their only line of retreat. It was now a terrifying wood, a wood of despair and death. Realizing that troops were falling back through it, the Prussians were riddling it with bullets and raking it with gunfire. It was being lashed by a hurricane, all movement and howling and shattering of branches. Shells cut trees in two, bullets brought leaves down like rain, groans seemed to come out of the split trunks and sobs come down with branches wet with sap. It was like the distress of a fettered mob of men, the terror and cries of thousands of people nailed to the ground and unable to flee from the hail of bullets. No anguish ever moaned so loud as in a bombarded forest.
At once Maurice and Jean, who had rejoined their mates, lost their nerve. At that moment they were going through a glade of tall trees and could run. But the bullets were whistling in a cross-fire, from which directions it was impossible to tell and so dart safely from tree to tree. Two men were killed, hit in the back, hit in the front. Right in front of Maurice an age-old oak had its trunk pulverized by a shell and crashed down with the majesty of a tragic hero, smashing everything around it. And as he jumped back a colossal beech on his left had its head knocked off by another shell, broke and collapsed like a pillar in a cathedral. Where could they run? Which was the best direction to go? On all sides nothing but falling branches, it was like being in a huge building threatened with collapse as in room after room the ceilings were falling in. Then, when they had leaped into a thicket to escape from this crashing of big trees, it was Jean’s turn to be almost cut in two by a projectile which mercifully did not explode. This time they could not make any headway through the inextricable tangle of bushes. Twigs caught their shoulders and tall grasses clung round their feet, sudden walls of brushwood brought them to a standstill, while foliage flew round them as the giant scythe swept through the wood. By their side another man was killed instantly by a bullet through the forehead, but he remained standing, jammed between two birches. A score of times as they were held prisoners by this thicket they felt death pass by.
‘Christ!’ said Maurice. ‘We’ll never get out of here!’
He was ashen and his trembling had come back, and Jean, so brave as a rule, who had comforted him that morning, was going pale, too, and feeling as cold as ice. It was fear, horrible fear, catching and irresistible. Once again they were parched with thirst, an intolerable dryness in the mouth, a contracting of the throat with an acute, strangling pain. And with it other discomforts, a feeling of sickness in the pit of the stomach, pins and needles pricking their legs. In this wholly physical sensation of fear that crushed their heads as in a vice, they could see thousands of black dots rushing past as if they could pick out the bullets in the flying cloud.
‘Oh what bloody awful luck!’ muttered Jean. ‘I mean, it makes you wild being here and getting killed for other people when those other people are somewhere quietly smoking their pipes.’
Maurice, his face drawn and wild-looking, went on:
‘Yes, why me and not somebody else?’
It was the revolt of the self, the self-centred rage of the individual unwilling to sacrifice himself for mankind and cease to be.
‘And besides,’ added Jean, ‘if only we knew the reason, if there was any point in it!’
Then, looking up at the sky:
‘And then this bleeding sun won’t make up its mind to fuck off! When it’s set and it’s dark they’ll stop fighting, maybe.’
For ages now, with no means of knowing the time and not even being conscious of the flight of time, he had been looking out for the slow decline of the sun, which seemed to have stopped altogether above those woods on the further side of the river. It was not even cowardice now, but an imperious and growing need not to hear shells and bullets any more, but to go away, anywhere, and bury oneself in the depths of the earth and find oblivion. If it were not for what other people thought, or the glory of doing one’s duty in front of one’s fellows, he would go beserk and run away instinctively, at full speed.
And yet once again Maurice and Jean got used to it, and out of the very excess of their panic there grew a sort of don’t-care intoxication which had something brave about it, and they ended by not even hurrying any more through that accursed wood. The horror had intensified still more among this population of bombarded trees killed at their posts and falling on all sides like steadfast, gigantic soldiers. Under the greenwood tree, in the lovely half-light, down in mysterious bowers carpeted with moss, brutal death passed by. The solitary waterbrooks were violated, dying men gasped their lives away in the most secret nooks where hitherto none but lovers had ventured. One man with a bullet through his chest had time to shout ‘Got me!’ as he fell on his face, dead. Another, both of whose legs had been smashed by a shell, went on laughing, not realizing he was wounded, but thinking he had merely stumbled over a tree-root. Others, with limbs shot through and mortally wounded, went on talking and running for a few steps before collapsing in a sudden spasm. At the first moment even the deepest wounds could hardly be felt, and it was only later that the appalling sufferings began and poured themselves forth in screams and tears.
Oh, that treacherous, massacred forest, that amid the sobs of dying trees was gradually filling with the agonized shrieks of the wounded! At the foot of an oak Maurice and Jean saw a Zouave with his entrails exposed, who was howling endlessly like an animal being slaughtered. And further on a man was on fire, his blue belt was burning and the flame reached up to his beard and singed it; but his back must have been broken for he was unable to move and was crying bitterly. And then a captain, with his left forearm gone and his right side slit down to the thigh, was flat on his belly and dragging himself along on his elbows, imploring somebody, in a dreadful high-pitched voice, to finish him off. More and still more were in abominable suffering, scattered along the grassy walks in such numbers that you had to watch out so as not to tread on them as you moved. But wounded and dead had ceased to count. Any comrade who fell was left there and forgotten, with never a glance behind. It was just fate. Now the next – me perhaps!
Suddenly, as they were coming to the edge of the wood, a cry was heard.
It was the second-lieutenant who was carrying the flag, and he had just had a bullet in the left lung. He had fallen and blood was gushing from his mouth. Seeing somebody coming, he found enough strength to pull himself together and shout:
Rochas leaped back in one bound, took the flag, the staff of which had been broken, while the second lieutenant murmured in a voice choking with bloody foam:
‘I’ve got my ticket, I don’t care a damn. Save the flag.’
There he stayed alone, writhing on the moss in this lovely woodland dell, clawing at grass with his clenched hands, his chest heaving in a death-struggle that went on for hours.
At last they were out of this fearful wood. Apart from Maurice and Jean there only remained out of the little group Lieutenant Rochas, Pache and Lapoulle. Gaude, whom they had lost, emerged in his turn from a thicket and ran to rejoin his mates, with his bugle slung over his shoulder. It was a real relief to find themselves in open country and breathing freely. The whistling of bullets had stopped, and shells were not coming down on this side of the valley.
Then they suddenly heard somebody cursing and swearing in front of the gateway to a farmyard, and they saw a furious general on a steaming horse. It was General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, the commander of their brigade, also covered in dust and looking dog-tired. His big red face, the face of a man who does himself well, expressed the state of exasperation he was thrown into by the disaster, which he took as a personal misfortune. The soldiers had not set eyes on him since early that morning. Presumably he had got himself lost on the battlefield, running about after the scattered remains of his brigade, and quite capable of letting himself be killed in his anger with the Prussian batteries for sweeping away the Empire and his prospects as an officer well thought of at the Tuileries.
‘Blast it all!’ he bawled. ‘Isn’t there anybody left here? Can’t you get any information in this buggering country?’
The farm people must have fled into the woods. Finally a very old woman appeared at the door, some old servant left behind and kept there by her bad legs.
‘Here, Ma, come here!… Which way’s Belgium?’
She stared at him stupidly, apparently not understanding. Then he went right off the deep-end, forgetting he was speaking to a woman and bellowing that he didn’t mean to be caught in a trap like a mug by going back to Sedan – he was going to fuck off abroad, he was, and bloody quick too! Some of the soldiers had come up and were listening.
‘But sir,’ said a sergeant, ‘you can’t get through now, there are Prussians everywhere. It was all right this morning, you could have done a bunk then.’
There were stories going the rounds already about companies cut off from their regiments who had unintentionally crossed the frontier, and others who had even managed courageously to get through the enemy lines before they had completed the encirclement.
Beside himself, the general raised his arms.
‘Come on, with some good chaps like you couldn’t we get anywhere we wanted? I can surely find fifty stalwart fellows ready to fight it out.’
Then, turning back to the old woman:
‘Oh damn it all, Ma, why can’t you answer? Where’s Belgium?’
This time she did understand. She waved her skinny hand towards the great woods:
‘That way, that way.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?… Those houses you can see beyond the fields?’
‘Oh, further than that, much further! Right over there!’
The general spluttered with rage.
‘Oh it makes you sick, a bloody hole like this. You don’t know what to make of it. Belgium was over there and you were afraid of stumbling into it without knowing, and now you want to get there it’s gone… No, no, this is the end, let ’em take me and do what they like with me, I’m going to sleep.’
He spurred his horse, bouncing in the saddle like a bladder blown up with the wind of anger, and galloped off towards Sedan.
There was a bend in the road and they went down into Fond-de-Givonne, a district shut in between steep slopes, where the road climbing towards the woods was flanked by little houses and gardens. It was so clogged by a stream of refugees that Lieutenant Rochas found himself pushed back with Pache, Lapoulle and Gaude, against a pub on a corner of the crossroads. Jean and Maurice had a job to get to them. And they were all amazed to hear a thick, drunken voice addressing them:
‘Well, fancy meeting you!… Hallo chums!… Well, it’s a small world, isn’t it?’
Behold, it was Chouteau in the pub, leaning out of one of the ground-floor windows. He was very drunk and went on between hiccups:
‘Look here, don’t worry if you’re thirsty… Plenty left for my pals.’
He waved shakily backwards, summoning somebody still at the back of the room.
‘Come here, you lazy sod… Give these gents something to drink.’
It was Loubet’s turn to appear, holding a full bottle in each hand and waving them about for fun. He wasn’t as drunk as the other one, and he shouted in his Parisian smart-aleck voice, putting on the nasal voice of a soft-drink vendor on a public holiday:
‘Nice and cool! Nice and cool! Who wants a drink?’
They had not been seen since they had gone off ostensibly to carry Sergeant Sapin to the ambulance post. They had no doubt been wandering about ever since and dodging spots where shells were falling. They had landed up here in this pub which was then being looted.
Lieutenant Rochas was outraged.
‘Just you wait, you swine. I’ll give you booze! And while all the rest of us are pegging out in the thick of it all!’
But Chouteau refused to accept the reprimand.
‘Look here, you silly old sod, there’s no more lieutenant about it, there’s only free men… Haven’t the Prussians given you enough, then? Do you want a bit more?’
They had to hold back Rochas, who was threatening to do him in. Loubet, of all people, bottle in hand, was trying to keep the peace.
‘Now, now, give over, no point in scrapping, we’re all brothers together!’
Catching sight of Lapoulle and Pache, two of their mates in the squad:
‘Don’t you be soft, come in here, you two. Let’s give your throats a rinse for you.’
Lapoulle had a moment’s hesitation, feeling vaguely that it was wrong to have a good time while other poor buggers were at their last gasp. But he was so all in and knocked up with hunger and thirst! He suddenly made up his mind, and with one bound and without a word he nipped into the pub, shoving Pache in front of him, who was just as silent and tempted, and gave in. They never reappeared.
‘Lot of swine!’ repeated Rochas. ‘They should all be shot!’
Now he only had Jean, Maurice and Gaude left with him, and all four were more or less swept along in spite of themselves by the torrent of fugitives filling the whole width of the road. The pub was already far behind. It was a rabble pouring down into the ditches of Sedan in a muddy stream, like the earth and stones washed down into the valleys when a storm strikes the hills. From all the neighbouring uplands, down all the slopes and coombs, along the Floing road, through Pierremont, past the cemetery and the parade ground, as well as through Fond-de-Givonne, the same mob rushed on and on in an ever quickening gallop of panic. How could you blame these wretched men who had been waiting motionless for twelve hours, exposed to the shattering artillery of an invisible enemy against whom they could do nothing? Now the batteries were catching them in front, on either side and in the rear, and their fire converged more and more as the army retreated into the town, until whole heaps of men were being flattened out into a human mush in the foul hole into which they had been swept. A few regiments of the 7th corps, especially on the Floing side, did fall back in reasonable order. But in Fond-de-Givonne there were neither ranks nor officers, the troops shoved each other along in a desperate herd made up of all sorts: Zouaves, Turcos, light cavalry and infantry, mostly unarmed, in dirty and ragged uniforms, with black hands and faces, staring bloodshot eyes and thick lips swollen through having bawled so many oaths. Now and again a riderless horse would come rearing along, knocking soldiers over and leaving behind it a wake of terror where it had cut through the crowd. Cannons would tear through like mad things, batteries in confusion whose drivers behaved as though they were mad drunk and ran over everything without warning. On and on went the herd in a solid procession shoulder to shoulder, a mass flight in which gaps were immediately filled with the instinctive haste to get to shelter, behind a wall.
Jean looked up westwards again. Through the thick cloud of dust kicked up by feet the sun’s rays still shone on sweating faces. The weather was lovely, the sky wonderfully blue.
‘But it doesn’t half get you down,’ he kept saying, ‘this fucking sun that won’t make up its mind to go.’
Then Maurice, seeing a young woman being pushed back against a house and almost crushed to death by the crowd, was suddenly horrified to realize that it was his sister Henriette. For nearly a minute he just saw her and remained gaping. She it was who spoke first, without seeming to be surprised.
‘They shot him at Bazeilles… Yes, I was there… So as I want to get his body back I thought…’
She never named the Prussians or Weiss. Everybody must understand, and Maurice certainly did. He was devoted to his sister and he burst into tears.
‘Oh my poor darling!’
When she had pulled herself together at about two o’clock Henriette had found herself at Balan, in the kitchen of some people she did not know, with her head on the table, crying. But her tears dried up. In this quiet and delicately made woman a heroine was already being born. She was without fear and her soul was steadfast, invincible. In her grief all she thought of was recovering her husband’s body and burying him. Her first idea was to go back to Bazeilles there and then, but everybody dissuaded her and pointed out that it was absolutely out of the question. So she set about looking for somebody, some man to go with her and take the the necessary steps. She thought of a cousin, formerly assistant manager of the General Refinery at Le Chêne when Weiss worked there. He had been very fond of her husband and surely he would not refuse to help. For the last two years, after his wife had received a legacy, he had retired to a nice house and garden, L’Ermitage, the terraces of which were near Sedan, on the other side of the Fond-de-Givonne valley. This was where she was making for in spite of obstacles, held up at every step, and in continual danger of being trampled on and killed.
She rapidly explained the idea to Maurice, who approved.
‘Cousin Dubreuil has always been so good to us… He’ll be useful to you.’
Then he, too, had an idea. Lieutenant Rochas wanted to save the flag. It had already been suggested that it should be cut up and that each man should carry a piece under his shirt, or again that it should be buried at the foot of a tree and that bearings be taken so that it could be dug up later. But it was too depressing to think of this flag being cut to pieces or buried like a dead thing, and they wished they could think of something else.
So when Maurice proposed giving the flag to somebody quite reliable who would hide it and if necessary defend it until the day it could be returned intact, they all agreed.
It was not easy to get out of the crush, but they managed to and hurried up a sunken lane to the left. Then they found themselves in a real labyrinth of paths and lanes, quite a little township of market gardens, pleasure grounds and country homes, small properties all mixed up with each other, and these little lanes and alleys ran along between walls, made sharp turns and came to dead ends – a marvellous system of fortifications for guerrilla warfare, with corners that ten men could defend for hours against a regiment. And already shots were going off in there, for this district overlooked Sedan and the Prussian Guard was coming in on the opposite side of the valley.
When Maurice and Henriette, followed by the others, had hurried left, then right, between two endless walls, they suddenly emerged in front of the wide open gate of L’Ermitage. The estate, with its little park, was on three broad terraces, on one of which stood the building, a large square house reached by an avenue of ancient elms. Opposite, across the narrow, deep valley, there were other properties on the edge of a wood.
The door left brutally open worried Henriette.
‘They aren’t here. They must have gone.’
And indeed, foreseeing certain disaster, Dubreuil had decided to take his wife and children to Bouillon the day before. But the house was not empty, and even from a distance and through the trees you could tell that something was going on inside. As she was venturing into the avenue the corpse of a Prussian soldier made her jump back.
‘Blimey!’ exclaimed Rochas. ‘There’s already been some sparring here!’
Anxious to find out, they all pushed on towards the house, and what they saw made it plain: the ground-floor doors and windows must have been smashed in with rifle-butts, the gaping holes opened into looted rooms, and furniture thrown outside was lying on the gravel terrace at the bottom of a flight of steps. In particular there was a drawing-room suite in sky-blue, a settee and twelve easy chairs standing higgledy-piggledy round a big side-table, the white marble top of which was split across. And Zouaves, chasseurs and infantrymen were running about behind the buildings and in the avenue firing over the valley into the little wood opposite.
‘Sir,’ a Zouave told Rochas, ‘we found those Prussian sods in the middle of sacking everything. You can see we’ve put paid to their account… Only the buggers always come back ten to one, and it’s not going to be a picnic.’
Three other bodies of Prussian soldiers were laid out on the terrace. As Henriette was staring at them, doubtless thinking of her husband, also lying over there and disfigured with blood and dirt, a bullet hit a tree just behind her. Jean darted forward.
‘Don’t stay there! Quick, quick, hide in the house!’
Now that he had seen her again, looking so changed and overcome with distress, his heart was bursting with pity as he remembered how she had struck him only the day before, a smiling housewife. At first he had not found anything to say to her, not knowing even whether she recognized him. He would have liked to devote himself to her and bring back into her life some peace and joy.
‘Wait for us inside… as soon as there is any danger we’ll find a way of getting you out up that way.’
She made a gesture of indifference.
‘What’s the use?’
But her brother was urging her too, and she had to go up the steps and stay a minute inside the hall, whence she could see right down the avenue. From then on she watched all the fighting.
Maurice and Jean were standing behind one of the nearest elms. The century-old trunks were gigantic and could easily provide cover for two men. Further off bugler Gaude had joined Lieutenant Rochas, who was obstinately hanging on to the flag as there was nobody to entrust it to, and he had set it down next to him against the tree while he fired his rifle. Each tree-trunk had its man, and all along the avenue Zouaves, chasseurs and marines kept behind cover except when they poked out their heads to fire.
In the little wood opposite the number of Prussians must have been steadily building up, for their fire was getting heavier. There was nothing to be seen except an occasional glimpse of a man dashing from one tree to another. A country house with green shutters was also occupied by snipers who were firing out of the open ground-floor windows. It was now about four o’clock, and the sound of gunfire was slackening and gradually stopping, and yet here men were still killing each other as though in some personal feud down in this remote dingle, from which the white flag hoisted on the Keep could not be seen. Right on until it was dark, and despite the armistice, there were pockets of fighting going obstinately on like this, and rifle fire went on in the Fond-de-Givonne district and the gardens of Petit-Pont.
For a long time they went on riddling each other with bullets from one side of the valley to the other. Now and again any man who was unwise enough to emerge from cover went down with a bullet through his body. Three more were killed in the avenue. One wounded man had fallen on his face and was gasping horribly, but nobody dreamed of turning him over to relieve his agony.
Looking up suddenly Jean saw Henriette who had calmly come back and was slipping a sack under the poor devil’s head by way of a pillow after she had turned him over on to his back. He rushed and pulled her roughly back behind the tree where he was sheltering with Maurice.
‘Are you trying to get yourself killed?’
She did not seem to realize how rash she was.
‘No, of course not… But it makes me frightened, being alone in that hall… I’d rather be outside.’
And so she stayed with them. They made her sit down at their feet against the tree while they went on firing their last rounds right and left with such fury that all fear and fatigue had gone. They had reached a state of complete unawareness and were acting automatically, with nothing in their minds, having even lost the instinct of self-preservation.
‘Look, Maurice,’ Henriette suddenly said, ‘isn’t that dead man just over there a soldier in the Prussian Guard?’
For a few minutes she had been looking at one of the bodies left behind by the enemy, a stocky fellow with a bushy moustache, lying on his side on the gravel of the terrace. His spiked helmet had rolled down near them, its chinstrap broken. The corpse was indeed wearing the Guard’s uniform – dark-grey trousers, blue tunic, white braid, and rolled coat slung round like a bandolier.
‘I tell you, he’s a guardsman… I’ve got a picture at home… And then what about the photo cousin Gunther sent us?’
She stopped talking and walked calmly over to the dead man before they could stop her, and leaned over him.
‘Red shoulder-straps,’ she called out, ‘oh, I could have taken a bet on it!’
She came back with a hail of bullets whistling about her ears.
‘Yes, red shoulder-straps, it just had to be… Cousin Gunther’s regiment!’
After that neither Maurice nor Jean could get her to keep still under cover. She was constantly on the move, sticking out her head, determined, come what may, to watch the little wood, with one fixed idea. They went on firing and jerked her back with their knees if she ventured too far out. Presumably the Prussians were beginning to think they were now sufficiently numerous and ready to attack, for they were now showing themselves in a flood spilling out between the trees, and they were sustaining terrible losses as each French bullet was accurate and picked off its man.
‘Look,’ said Jean, ‘perhaps that’s your cousin. That officer coming out of the house with the green shutters opposite.’
It was certainly a captain, recognizable by the gold collar of his tunic and the golden eagle shining on his helmet in the light of the afternoon sun. He had no epaulettes, had a sabre in his hand and was shouting an order in staccato tones, and the distance was so short, a bare two hundred metres, that he could be seen quite clearly, with his slim build, pink, hard face and little fair moustache.
Henriette scrutinized him with her piercing eyes.
‘Yes, it’s him all right,’ she said without any surprise. ‘I recognize him perfectly.’
With a furious movement Maurice was already taking aim.
‘Our cousin!… Oh Christ, he’s going to pay for Weiss!’
But she leaped up in terror and pushed the rifle to one side, and the shot spent itself in the sky.
‘No, no, not between relations, not between people who know each other… It’s an abomination!’
She became a woman again, and collapsed behind the tree, weeping hysterically. She was overcome with horror, full of nothing but terror and grief.
Meanwhile Rochas was having his moment of triumph. Round him the firing of a handful of soldiers, inspired by his stentorian voice, had so intensified at the sight of the Prussians that the latter fell back into the little wood.
‘Stick to it, boys! Don’t slack off!… Look at those fat pigs doing a bunk! We’ll settle their hash!’
He was cheerful and now apparently full of immense confidence again. There hadn’t been any defeats. That handful of men opposite was the German army, and he was going to kick them arse over tip, nothing easier. His tall lean body, his long bony face with its beak of a nose coming down over his big mouth, was all laughing with a bragging joy, the joy of the trooper who has conquered the world between having his girl and a bottle of good wine.
‘It goes without saying, boys, that’s what we’re all here for, to give them a bloody licking. Can’t finish any other way, it would be too much of a change to be beaten, now wouldn’t it? Beaten! Is that possible? One more effort, lads, and they’ll piss off like hares!’
He bawled and waved his arms, such a fine chap with his ignorant illusions that the soldiers laughed with him. Suddenly he shouted:
‘With kicks up the arse! With kicks up the arse all the way to the frontier! Victory! Victory!’
But then, just when the enemy opposite really looked as though he was falling back, a terrible fusillade burst out on the left. It was the inevitable turning movement – a whole detachment of the Guards that had come round by way of Fond-de-Givonne. From that moment defence of L’Ermitage was out of the question, for the dozen or so soldiers still defending the terraces were caught between two fires and in danger of being cut off from Sedan. Some of them fell, and there was a moment of great confusion. Already the Prussians were coming over the wall of the estate and running along the paths in such numbers that fighting began with the bayonet. One Zouave in particular, bareheaded and with his coat off, a fine man with a black beard, was doing a terrific job, smashing through breastbones and sinking into soft stomachs, wiping his bayonet, red with the blood of one, on the body of another, and when the bayonet snapped he went on smashing in skulls with his rifle-butt, until at length, when a false move finally disarmed him, he leaped at a big Prussian’s throat with such a flying leap that they rolled together on the gravel as far as the broken-in kitchen door, in a mortal embrace. Between the trees and in every corner of the lawns similar slaughter piled up the dead. The fight was at its most deadly in front of the flight of steps, round the sky-blue settee and chairs, a furious hand-to-hand set-to with men firing point-blank into each other’s faces, tearing each other with tooth and claw for want of a knife to slit open each other’s breasts.
Then Gaude, with that doleful face of his, suggesting the man who has had his troubles but never refers to them, was seized with heroic bravado. In this final defeat, well knowing that the company was wiped out and not a single man could answer his call, he seized his bugle, put it to his lips and blew Fall In with such a blast that he seemed to want to make the dead rise to their feet. The Prussians were nearly there, but he never budged, blowing louder still, a complete fanfare. A shower of bullets struck him down, and his last breath flew away in a brassy note and filled the sky with shuddering.
Rochas stood there uncomprehending, having made no attempt to run away. He waited, stammering:
‘Well, what’s up? What’s up?’
It never entered his head that it could be defeat. Everything was being changed nowadays, even the way you fought. Oughtn’t those chaps to have waited across the valley for them to go and beat them? It was no use killing them, they still went on coming. What was the matter with this buggering war in which they got ten men to crush one and the enemy only showed himself in the evening after throwing you into confusion all day long with precautionary gunfire? Flabbergasted and wild-eyed, having understood nothing so far about the campaign, he felt himself being enveloped and carried away by some superior force he could not resist any more, even though he went on with his obstinate cry:
‘Courage, lads, victory is just round the corner!’
All the same, he had quickly taken up the flag again. This was his last thought, he must hide it so that the Prussians wouldn’t get it. But although the staff was broken it caught in his legs and he nearly fell. Bullets hissed around, and feeling death coming he ripped off the silk flag and tore it up, trying to do away with it. It was then that he was struck in the neck, chest and legs, and he collapsed among the bits of tricolor as though he were dressed in them. He lived for a minute more with staring eyes, seeing perhaps a true picture of war as it is, a ghastly struggle for life that can only be accepted with serious resignation, as one does a law. Then, with a little cough, he departed with the wonderment of a child, like some poor limited creature, a carefree insect squashed by nature’s vast, impassive machine. With him perished a legend.
As soon as the Prussians arrived Jean and Maurice had withdrawn from tree to tree, protecting Henriette as much as they could behind them. They never stopped shooting, firing one round and then gaining shelter. Maurice knew there was a little gate at the top of the park, and luckily they found it open. All three quickly got away. They had emerged into a narrow by-way which wound between two high walls. But when they came to the end of it some firing made them run up another lane to the left which unfortunately proved to be a dead end. They had to rush back and turn right under a hail of shot. They never knew afterwards what roads they had taken. There was still rifle fire going on at every turn of the wall in this inextricable labyrinth. Fighting was lingering on in gateways, and the smallest obstacles were being defended and attacked by storm with fearful tenacity. All of a sudden they came out on to the Fond-de-Givonne road quite near Sedan.
For the last time, Jean looked up westwards where the sky was filling with a great pink light, and at last he sighed with immense relief:
‘Oh, that bloody sun, at last it’s going down!’
They were now all three running and running without stopping for breath. Round them the tail end of the fugitives was still filling the roadway with a constantly mounting pressure like a torrent in spate. When they reached the Balan gate they had to wait in an appalling mêlée. The chains of the drawbridge were broken and the only way open was a pedestrian footway, so that guns and horses could not get through. At the castle postern and the Cassine gate they said the crush was even more frightening. It was the headlong rush of all the remnants of the army pelting down the slopes and throwing themselves into the town with a noise like an open sluicegate or water going down a drain. The fatal attraction of these city walls corrupted even the bravest.
Maurice seized Henriette in his arms, and trembling with impatience:
‘Surely they aren’t going to shut the gate before everyone’s got in.’
This was what the crowd was afraid of. But to right and left soldiers were already camping on the grass slopes, while the batteries of artillery had tumbled into the ditches in a jumble of pieces of equipment, ammunition waggons and horses.
Repeated bugle-calls resounded, soon to be followed by the clear notes of the retreat. Straggling soldiers were being called in. Some were still running up at full speed, and isolated shots went off in some outlying neighbourhoods, but fewer and fewer. Detachments were left on the benches inside the parapet to defend the approaches, and eventually the gate was closed. The Prussians were not more than a hundred metres away. They could be seen coming and going on the Balan road, calmly setting about occupying houses and gardens.
Maurice and Jean, pushing Henriette in front of them to protect her from being jostled, were among the last to enter Sedan. It was striking six and already nearly an hour since the bombardment had stopped. Gradually even the isolated rifle shots gave over. Then nothing was left of the deafening noise and hateful thunder that had been roaring ever since sunrise – nothing but the peace of death. Night was coming, falling into a mournful, frightening silence.