AT about half past five, before the closing of the gates, Delaherche had gone back yet again to the Sub-Prefecture in his anxiety about what was going to happen now that he knew the battle was lost. He stayed there nearly three hours, tramping up and down the paved courtyard on the watch and questioning any passing officer, and in this way he learned about the rapid sequence of events: General de Wimpffen’s resignation tendered and then withdrawn, the plenary powers he had received from the Emperor to go to the Prussian General Headquarters and obtain for the beaten army the least harsh conditions, then the meeting of the war council to decide whether they should attempt to carry on the war by defending the fortress. During this meeting, attended by a score of high-ranking officers, which seemed to him to last a century, he went up the flight of steps twenty times. At eight-fifteen General de Wimpffen suddenly emerged looking very flushed and with swollen eyes, followed by a colonel and two other generals. They leaped into the saddle and rode off over the Meuse bridge. It was capitulation, accepted as inevitable.

Delaherche, feeling reassured, realized that he was dying of hunger and decided to go home. But as soon as he was outside he was pulled up short by the terrible confusion that had developed. The streets and open spaces were jammed and bursting, so full of men, horses and equipment that the compact mass looked as though it must have been forced in by some gigantic ram. While the regiments that had retired in good order were camping on the ramparts, the scattered remnants of every corps, the fugitives from all arms, a milling throng, had submerged the town and piled up like a tidal wave that had congealed and frozen solid, in which you could not move arms or legs. The wheels of guns, waggons and countless vehicles had fouled each other. Horses, whipped and shoved in all directions, had no room to go forwards or backwards. And the men, taking no notice of threats, were breaking into houses, devouring whatever they found and lying down wherever they could, in rooms or in cellars. Many had fallen asleep in doorways and were blocking entries. Some, too weak to go any further, were lying on the pavement dead asleep, not even stirring under feet that bruised their limbs, preferring to be trodden on rather than to have to make the effort to go somewhere else.

This made Delaherche realize the urgent necessity of surrender. At certain road junctions ammunition waggons were touching each other, and just one Prussian shell, if it landed on one of them, would blow up the others, and the whole of Sedan would flare up like a torch. Besides, what could be done about such a collection of desperate men, overcome with exhaustion and hunger and with no ammunition and no supplies? It would have needed a whole day simply to clear the streets. The fortress itself had no armament and the town had no provisions. At the meeting these had been the reasons given by the wiser men who kept a clear view of the situation in spite of their deep patriotic grief, and even the, most hot-headed officers, the ones who shouted emotionally that no army could give in like this, had had to hang their heads, being unable to think of any practical measures to start the fight again next day.

Delaherche managed with difficulty to fight his way through the pack and cross the Place Turenne and the Place du Rivage. As he passed the Hôtel de la Croix d’Or he caught a depressing glimpse of the dining-room, in which some generals were sitting in silence at an empty table. There was nothing left, not even any bread. But General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, who was storming about in the kitchen, must have found something, for he stopped talking and then ran up the stairs awkwardly holding in both hands something in greasy paper. There was such a crowd staring in from the pavement through the window at this glum board, swept clean by famine, that Delaherche had to shove with his elbows, feeling caught in a web, and sometimes being pushed back and losing what headway he had gained. But when he got to the Grande-Rue, the wall of people was impassable, and for a moment he gave up hope. Here all the guns in a battery seemed to have been piled on top of each other. So he made up his mind and climbed up on to the gun-carriages, stepped over the guns themselves, leaping from wheel to wheel at the risk of breaking his legs. Then there were horses in the way, and he stooped down and was reduced to making his way between the legs and under the bellies of these poor, half-starved creatures. After struggling for a quarter of an hour he reached the top of rue Saint-Michel, but there the growing number of obstacles frightened him, and he thought he would go along that street and get round via rue des Laboureurs, hoping that these back streets would be less crowded. But as ill-luck would have it there was a brothel down there, besieged by a lot of drunken soldiers, and fearing he might fare badly in some shindy he retraced his steps. So then he fought on and got to the end of the Grand-rue, sometimes balancing on cart-shafts, sometimes climbing over vans. In the Place du College he was actually carried along on people’s shoulders for some thirty metres. He fell off and nearly had his ribs broken, only getting away by climbing some railings. When at last he reached rue Maqua, in a sweat and torn to shreds, he had been wearing himself out for an hour since leaving the Sub-Prefecture to do a journey that usually took him under five minutes.

To prevent the garden and ambulance station from being overrun, Major Bouroche had taken the precaution of posting two pickets at the entrance. This was a relief to Delaherche, to whom it had just occurred that his home might be given up to looting. In the garden the sight of the temporary hospital, ill-lit by a few lanterns and giving off a foul smell of sickness, once again struck a chill into his heart. He tripped over a soldier asleep on the paving-stones and recollected the existence of the cash of the 7th corps, which this man had been guarding since that morning, and, no doubt forgotten by his officers, he was so dead beat that he had lain down. The house itself looked empty and the ground floor was quite dark, with the doors wide open. The servants must have stayed in the ambulance station, for there was nobody in the kitchen, where only one miserable little lamp was smoking. He lit a candle and went softly up the main staircase so as not to wake up his mother and his wife, whom he had begged to go to bed after such a heavy day and such terrible emotions.

But as he went into his study he had a shock. A soldier was stretched out on the sofa on which Captain Beaudoin had slept for some hours the day before, and he only understood when he recognized Maurice, Henriette’s brother; particularly as when he turned round he saw another soldier on the carpet, wrapped in a blanket, the Jean whom he had seen the day before. They were both knocked out, dead to the world. He did not stay there, but went on into his wife’s room next door. There was a lamp burning on the corner of a table, and an eerie silence. Gilberte had thrown herself across the bed fully dressed, for fear of some disaster, presumably. She was sleeping very peacefully, and by her bedside Henriette was asleep too, sitting on a chair with just her head resting on the bed, but her sleep was disturbed by nightmares, and there were big tears under her lids. He stood there looking at them both for a moment and was tempted to wake Henriette up and find out. Had she been to Bazeilles? Perhaps if he asked her she could give him some news about his dyeworks. But pity came over him, and he was withdrawing when his mother appeared noiselessly at the door and beckoned him to follow.

As they went through the dining-room he expressed his astonishment:

‘What, not in bed yet?’

She first shook her head and then whispered:

‘I can’t sleep, I’m in an armchair beside the colonel… He’s now got a very high temperature and keeps on waking up and asking questions. I don’t know how to answer. You come and have a look at him.’

Monsieur de Vineuil had already dropped off to sleep again. His long, red face with its bushy, snow-white moustache could just be made out on the pillow, for Madame Delaherche had shielded the lamp with a newspaper and all that part of the room was in semidarkness, while the bright light shone on her as she sat stiffly in the armchair with her hands hanging loose and eyes far away in a tragic dream.

‘Just a minute,’ she murmured, ‘I think he’s heard you, he’s waking up again.’

The colonel was indeed opening his eyes again, and he gazed at Delaherche without moving his head. Then he recognized him and at once asked in a voice weak with fever:

‘It’s all over, isn’t it? They’re capitulating.’

Delaherche caught his mother’s eye and was on the point of telling him a lie. But what was the point? He said with a gesture of weariness:

‘What do you expect them to do? If you could see the state of the streets in the town!… General de Wimpffen has just gone to the Prussian headquarters to discuss terms.’

Monsieur de Vineuil shut his eyes again and he gave a long shudder and moaned softly:

‘Oh God! Oh God!’

Keeping his eyes shut he went on in gasps:

‘Oh, what I wanted… they should have done it yesterday… Yes, I knew the terrain and I told the general what I was afraid of… but nobody would listen to him either… Up there, above Saint-Menges, as far as Fleigneux, all the heights occupied, the army dominating Sedan, commanding the Saint-Albert gap… There we were waiting in quite impregnable positions, the Mézières road still open…’

His words were getting mixed up, he mumbled a few more unintelligible words as his vision of the battle, born of a high fever, gradually faded out and vanished into sleep. In his sleep perhaps he was still dreaming of victory.

‘Does the major think he’ll pull through?’ Delaherche whispered.

Madame Delaherche nodded.

‘All the same, it’s terrible, those wounds in the foot,’ he went on. ‘He’ll be a long time in bed, won’t he?’

This time she made no reply, herself lost in the great grief of the defeat. She belonged to an already bygone age, that of the old, sturdy frontier bourgeoisie, so fierce in former days in defence of its towns. In the strong lamplight her severe face with its thin nose and tight lips expressed her anger and suffering, the feeling of revolt which made sleep impossible for her.

So Delaherche felt isolated and filled with dreadful distress. His unbearable hunger was coming on again, and he thought it must just be weakness that was draining him in this way of all his courage. He tiptoed out of the room and went down to the kitchen again, candlestick in hand. But he found it drearier than ever, with the stove out, the cupboard bare and cloths thrown all over the place as if the wind of disaster had blown through there and taken with it all the life and joy of anything that can be eaten or drunk. At first he thought he would not discover even a crust, for the odd bits of bread had gone down to the ambulance station in the soup. But then in the back of a cupboard he came upon some of yesterday’s beans that had been overlooked. He devoured them with neither butter nor bread, standing there and not daring to go upstairs for such a meal, which he hurried through in this dismal kitchen which the guttering little lamp made stink of paraffin.

It was not much after ten, and Delaherche had nothing he could do while waiting to know whether the capitulation was really going to be signed. He had a nagging worry that the struggle might be resumed, and a terror of what would happen then which he kept to himself and which weighed heavily on him. Having gone up to his study again, where Maurice and Jean had not moved, he tried in vain to stretch out in an armchair, but sleep would not come, and noises of exploding shells made him jump up again just as he was dropping off. The dreadful bombardment of the day had stayed in his ears, and he listened in terror for a minute and was left trembling at the heavy silence surrounding him. Not being able to sleep, he preferred to get up, and wandered through the dark rooms, avoiding the one in which his mother was watching over the colonel, for her fixed stare following him round got on his nerves. Twice he went back to see whether Henriette had awakened, and paused and watched how peaceful his wife’s face was. Until two in the morning, not knowing what to do, he went up and down from one place to another.

It could not go on for ever. Delaherche decided to go back yet again to the Sub-Prefecture, knowing that there would be no rest for him so long as he did not know. But down below, when he saw the jammed street, his heart failed him. He would never have the strength to get there and back with all these obstacles, the very memory of which made him feel exhausted. He was still hesitating when Major Bouroche came in, puffing and blowing and swearing.

‘Christ! It’s enough to kill you!’

He had had to go the the Hôtel de Ville to beg the mayor to requisition some chloroform and send him some by dawn because his supply had run out, operations were imperative and he was afraid, as he put it, that he would be obliged to mince up the poor buggers without putting them to sleep.

‘Well?’ asked Delaherche.

‘Well, they don’t even know whether the chemists have still got any!’

But the textile manufacturer was not interested in chloroform and he went on:

‘Never mind that… Is it over? Have they signed with the Prussians?’

The major waved his arms violently.

‘Nothing settled yet. Wimpffen has just come back… It seems that those sods are making demands they should get a thick ear for… Oh well, let’s all start again and all peg out, it’d be better that way!’

This made Delaherche go very pale.

‘But is what you are saying quite certain?’

‘I had it from those gentry in the town council who are having a permanent session… An officer had come in from the Sub-Prefecture and told them all about it.’

He went into details. The interview between General de Wimpffen and General von Moltke and Bismarck had taken place at the Château de Bellevue, near Donchery. He was a terror, that von Moltke, cold and hard, with the pasty face of a mathematical chemist who won battles in his study by algebra! He at once made it clear that he knew all about the desperate plight of the French army: no food, no ammunition, demoralization and disorder, the absolute impossibility of breaking the iron ring tightly closed round it, while the German armies occupied the strongest possible positions and could burn the town down in two hours. He coldly dictated his wishes: the whole French army to be taken prisoner with its arms and baggage. Bismarck merely backed him up, looking like an amiable bloodhound. Thereupon General de Wimpffen had worn himself out trying to resist these conditions, the harshest ever imposed upon a defeated army. He talked of its ill-luck, the heroism of the soldiers, the danger of pushing a proud people too far, and for three hours he had threatened, begged, talked with desperate and superb eloquence, asking them to intern the vanquished army in Central France or even in Algeria, and the sole concession obtained in the end was that officers who would bind themselves in writing and on their honour not to fight again would be allowed to go home. Anyhow, the armistice was to be extended until the following morning at ten. If by then the conditions were not accepted, the Prussian batteries would open fire again and the town would be destroyed.

‘It’s ridiculous!’ exclaimed Delaherche. ‘You don’t burn down a town that’s done nothing to deserve it!’

The major put the finishing touch to his panic when he added that some officers he had seen at the Hôtel de l’Europe were talking of a mass break-out before daybreak. Since the German demands had become known emotion had risen to fever-pitch, and the most extravagant projects were being put forward. Even the idea that it would not be honest to take advantage of the darkness and violate the truce stopped nobody, and the most crazy plans were bandied about – resumption of the march on Carignan right through the Bavarians, under cover of darkness, the plateau of Illy recaptured by surprise, the Mézières road cleared, or again an irrestible dash to leap with one bound into Belgium. Others, it was true, said nothing, for they were conscious of the inevitability of the disaster and, with a happy cry of relief, would have accepted anything, signed anything so as to be done with it. ‘Good night,’ concluded Bouroche. ‘I’m going to try and get a couple of hours’ sleep. I need it badly.’

Left on his own, Delaherche was outraged. What, were they really going to start fighting again and burn Sedan down? It was becoming inevitable, and this appalling thing would certainly come about as soon as the sun was sufficiently high above the hills to give enough light for the horrible massacre. Once again he automatically climbed the steep stairs to the attics and found himself among the

chimneys on the narrow ledge overlooking the town. But at that hour up there he was in total darkness, in an endless rolling sea of black waves and at first he could not make out anything whatever. The factory buildings below him were the first things to emerge in vague masses he could recognize: the engine-house, the loom-shops, drying-sheds, stores; and the sight of the huge block of buildings, his pride and wealth, broke him down with self-pity as he reflected that in a few hours nothing would be left of it but ashes. His eyes went up to the horizon and travelled along this black immensity in which tomorrow’s threat lay dormant. Southwards in the Bazeilles direction sparks were blowing over houses which were collapsing in ashes, while northwards the farm in the Garenne woods which had been set on fire that evening was still burning and throwing a bloody glare on to the trees. No other fires, only those two blazes, and between them a bottomless chasm with nothing but scattered, frightening noises. Over there, maybe a long way off, maybe on the ramparts, somebody was crying. He tried in vain to pierce the

veil and see Le Liry, La Marfée, the batteries at Frénois and Wadelincourt, the circle of bronze beasts of prey that he sensed were there, straining forward with open jaws. As he brought his eyes back to the town round him, he could hear its anguished breathing. It was not merely the uneasy sleep of the soldiers lying in the streets, the faint creakings of the mass of men and animals and cannons. What he seemed to be hearing was the anxious insomnia of townspeople and neighbours who couldn’t sleep any more than he could, but were feverishly waiting for daylight. They must all be aware that the capitulation was not signed, and were all counting the hours and shudderingly thinking that if it were not signed there would be nothing for them to do but go down into their cellars and die there, crushed and buried beneath the ruins. He thought a wild voice came up from the rue des Voyards crying Murder! amid a sudden clicking of rifles. He stayed there leaning over into the thick night, lost in a misty starless sky, and taken with such a shivering that all the hairs on his body seemed to be standing on end.

Down below Maurice woke up on the sofa at daybreak. Aching all over, he lay still and stared at the window gradually lightening in a grey dawn. Horrible memories came back, the lost battle, flight, disaster, all with the sharp clarity of the morning after. He could see it all again in the minutest detail, and the defeat pained him terribly, penetrating to the depths of his being as if he felt personally guilty. He considered his own pain, analysed himself and recovered his old faculty of tearing himself to pieces, but more successfully than ever. Was he not just the ordinary man, the man in the street of the period, highly educated no doubt, but crassly ignorant of all the things that ought to be known, and moreover conceited to the point of blindness, perverted by the lust for pleasure and the deceptive prosperity of the régime? Then his mind moved on to another vision – his grandfather, born in 1780, one of the heroes of the Grande Armée, the victors of Austerlitz, Wagram and Friedland; his father, born in 1811, who had come down to bureaucracy, a humdrum salaried official, tax-collector at Le Chêne-Populeux, where he had burnt himself out; and finally himself, born in 1841, brought up to be a gentleman, a qualified lawyer and capable of the worst sillinesses and greatest enthusiasms, beaten at Sedan in a catastrophe that he knew must be immense and mark the end of a world. The degeneration of his race, which explained how France, victorious with the grandfathers, could be beaten in the time of their grandsons, weighed down on his heart like a hereditary disease getting steadily worse and leading to inevitable destruction when the appointed hour came. If it had been victory he would have felt so brave, so triumphant! In defeat he was as weak and nervous as a woman and giving in to one of those fits of despair in which the whole world collapsed. There was nothing left. France was dead. He began sobbing and cried, putting his hands together and going back to the faltering prayers of his childhood:

‘Oh God, take me away… Oh God, take away all these poor, suffering people!’

Jean, wrapped in his blanket on the floor, began to move. Then he sat up in astonishment.

‘What’s up, lad? Are you ill?’

Then, realizing that it was another lot of what he called ‘those ideas’ you should put out to roost, he turned fatherly.

‘Now, now, what’s the matter, boy? Mustn’t get yourself into a state like this over nothing!’

‘Oh,’ exclaimed Maurice, ‘it’s all up – we might as well get ready to be Prussians.’

As his friend, being a hard-headed, uneducated man, showed surprise, he tried to make him understand the impoverishment of the race, its extinction in a necessary stream of fresh blood. But the countryman obstinately shook his head and turned down the explanation.

‘What! My field no longer my field? Am I supposed to let the Prussians take it away from me before I’m quite dead and while I’ve still got my two arms?… Come off it!’

Then it was his turn to express what he thought, awkwardly and as the words came. All right, they had had a bloody licking, for sure! But they weren’t all dead, were they, and there were still some of them left and they would manage to build the house again if they were sensible blokes, worked hard and didn’t drink what they earned. In a family, if you take the trouble to put something aside you always manage to get by even in the worst trouble. In fact, sometimes it isn’t a bad thing if you do get a good clip on the ear, it makes you think. Of course it was true that there was something rotten somewhere or some limb was septic, well, it was better to see it on the ground, chopped off, than to die because of it as if you had the plague.

‘Done for, oh no, no,’ he said several times. ‘I’m not done for, I don’t feel a bit like that!’

And, although he was wounded, his hair still matted with blood from the graze, he struggled up in an unquenchable urge to live, to handle a tool or a plough and rebuild his house, as he put it. He came from the old, unchanging, careful soil, from the land of reason, hard work and savings.

‘All the same,’ he went on, ‘I feel sorry for the Emperor… Things looked as if they were going well and corn was selling. But he has been too stupid, that’s certain, and people shouldn’t get themselves into such a mess.’

Maurice was still cast down, and he made a gesture of despair once again.

‘Oh I quite liked the Emperor really, for all my ideas about liberty and republicanism… Yes, I had it in my blood from my grandfather, I suppose. And now that’s all gone rotten as well, what are we going to come down to?’

His eyes looked wild and he uttered such a moan of grief that Jean, now really worried, was on the point of jumping up when he saw Henriette come in. She had just woken up, hearing voices in the next room. A dismal grey light now filled the room.

‘You’ve come at the right time to give him a talking to,’ he said, pretending to be joking. ‘He’s not being a good boy.’

But the sight of his sister looking so pale and tragic had shaken Maurice into a salutary fit of compassion. He opened his arms and invited her to come to him, and when she flung herself into his arms he was filled with a great tenderness. She was weeping too, and their tears mingled.

‘Oh my poor, poor dearest, I could kick myself for not being braver so as to console you!… Good, kind Weiss, the husband who loved you so much! What are you going to do? You’ve always been the victim, and never complained. Haven’t I given you enough sorrow as it is, and who can tell how much more I may give you!’

She stopped him by putting her hand on his mouth, and at that moment Delaherche came in, almost out of his mind with exhaustion. He had finally come down from the roof, ravenous again with one of those nervous hungers made worse still by fatigue, and as he had gone back to the kitchen to get something warm to drink he had come upon the cook with a relation of hers, a carpenter from Bazeilles, whom she was giving some mulled wine. And this man, one of the last to stay behind in the midst of the fires, had told him that his dyeworks was completely destroyed, a heap of rubble.

‘What vandals they are!’ he spluttered to Maurice and Jean. ‘All is really lost now, and they’ll set fire to Sedan this morning as they did to Bazeilles yesterday. I’m ruined, ruined!’

Then he noticed the bruise on Henriette’s forehead, and remembered that he had not yet been able to speak to her.

‘Oh yes, of course, you went there, and that’s where you got that… Oh, poor Weiss!’

Then, seeing from her red eyes that she knew her husband was dead, he let out an appalling detail that the carpenter had just told him.

‘Poor Weiss! It seems they burned him… Yes, they collected the bodies of the civilians they had shot, poured paraffin on them and threw them into the middle of a burning house.’

Henriette listened to this, frozen with horror. Oh God, not even the consolation of claiming and burying her beloved dead, the wind would scatter his ashes! Maurice once again tightened his arms round her, calling her his poor Cinderella in a caressing voice and begging her not to give in to her grief too much – she was so brave!

After a pause Delaherche, who had been at the window watching it getting lighter, turned round quickly to say to the two soldiers:

‘Oh, I forgot… I came up to tell you that down there in the coach-house where they deposited the cash, there’s an officer distributing the money to the men so that the Prussians don’t get it… You should go down, some money might be useful if we aren’t all dead by tonight.’

It was sound advice. Maurice and Jean went down after Henriette had consented to take her brother’s place on the sofa. As for Delaherche, he went through the adjoining room in which Gilberte, with her calm face, was still sleeping like a child, and the sounds of talking and crying had not even made her turn over. And from there he peeped into the room in which his mother was watching over Monsieur de Vineuil, but she had dozed off in her armchair and the colonel, his eyes shut, had not moved, for he was exhausted by fever.

He opened his eyes wide and asked:

‘Well, it’s all over, isn’t it?’

Vexed by this question which caught him just when he was hoping to escape, Delaherche answered angrily, keeping his voice down:

‘Oh yes, all over until it starts again! Nothing’s been signed.’

The colonel went on very softly, beginning to wander again:

‘Oh God, let me die before the end!… I can’t hear the guns. Why have they stopped firing?… Up there at Saint-Menges and Fleigneux we’re commanding all the routes, and we’ll throw the Prussians into the Meuse if they try to come round Sedan and attack us. The town is at our feet like an obstacle strengthening our positions… Come on the 7th! We’ll take the lead, the 12th will cover the retreat…’

His hands went up and down on the sheet as though he were riding his horse in his dream. Gradually they slackened and his words thickened and he fell asleep again. The hands stopped, and he remained motionless, knocked out.

‘Have a rest,’ Delaherche whispered. ‘I’ll come back when I get some news.’

After making sure that he had not awakened his mother he made his escape and disappeared.

Down in the coach-house Jean and Maurice did find a paymaster, sitting on a kitchen chair with only a little whitewood table in front of him, and no pen, no receipts, no papers of any kind, doling out fortunes. All he did was thrust his hands into money-bags bursting with gold coins, and without even bothering to count he quickly put handfuls into the képis of all the sergeants of the 7th corps who were passing him in line. It was understood that the sergeants would share out the sums among the soldiers in their half-sections. Each one received it awkwardly, like a ration of coffee or meat, and went off in embarrassment, emptying the képi into his pockets so as not to be out in the street in broad daylight with all that gold. Not a word was being said, and there was no sound except the clear tinkle of the coins, to the amazement of these poor devils seeing themselves loaded with riches when there wasn’t a loaf of bread or litre of wine left to be bought.

When Jean and Maurice came up the officer at first held back the handful of gold louis he was holding.

‘You’re not sergeants, either of you… Only sergeants have the right to handle…’

But, tired already and anxious to get it done with:

‘Oh well, you, the corporal, have some all the same… Hurry up there, next!’

He had dropped the coins into the képi Jean was holding out. Jean, staggered by the amount – nearly six hundred francs – wanted Maurice to have half at once. You never knew, they might get separated.

They shared it out in the garden, near the ambulance station, and then they went in there as they recognized their company drummer Bastian lying on the straw almost by the door. He was a fat, jolly chap and he had had the ill-luck to get a stray bullet in the groin at five o’clock, after the battle was over. He had been at death’s door since yesterday.

In the dim morning light, time for waking up in the hospital, the sight of the place chilled them with horror. Three more wounded had died during the night without anybody noticing, and the orderlies were busy carrying off the bodies and making room for others. Yesterday’s operation cases, still half asleep, opened staring eyes and gazed bewildered at this vast dormitory of suffering, where a herd of half-slaughtered creatures were lying on the straw. For all the sweeping and mopping up of the night before, after the bleeding butchery of the operations, the floor had not been properly wiped and there were trails of blood here and there, and a big sponge stained red and looking like brains was floating in a pail, and an odd hand with broken fingers had been dropped near the shed door. These were the bits fallen from the butchery, the awful refuse of the day after a massacre, lit up by the gruesome light of dawn. The normal bustling and noisy life of the earlier hours had given way to a sort of apathy under the pressure of fever. Only now and again was the reeking silence broken by some incoherent moan, muffled by sleep. Glazed eyes looked frightened of the daylight, coated mouths breathed foul breath, the whole ward was relapsing into that endless succession of livid, disgusting, agonizing days through which these wretched wounded were to exist, and from which after two or three months they might emerge with a limb missing.

Bouroche, coming on again after a few hours’ rest, paused in front of the drummer Bastian, then went on with an imperceptible shrug of the shoulders. Nothing to be done. But the drummer had opened his eyes again and seemed to come back to life as his keen glance followed a sergeant who had had the bright idea of coming in holding his képi full of gold in his hand to see if any of his men might be here among these poor devils. Other sergeants came in and gold began to rain down on the straw. Bastian, who had managed to sit up, held out the shaking hands of a dying man:

‘Me! Me!’

The sergeant was for going on as Bouroche had. What was the point? But then an instinct of kindness prevailed, and without counting he threw some coins into the already cold hands.

‘Me! Me!’

Bastian had fallen back. He tried to catch the gold that eluded his grasp, clutching for some time with stiff fingers. Then he died.

‘Night-night, the gent has blown out his candle!’ said a neighbour, a dark wizened little Zouave. ‘Too bad just when you’ve got something to stand yourself a drink!’

This man had his left foot in an appliance, but he managed to lift himself and crawl on his elbows and knees as far as the dead man and pick up the lot, looking into his hands and ransacking the folds of his coat. When he got back to his own place he realized he was being looked at, but all he said was:

‘No need for it to get lost, is there?’

Maurice felt sick at heart in this atmosphere of human misery and got Jean away quickly. As they re-crossed the operating shed they saw Bouroche, exasperated at not having got any chloroform, deciding to amputate all the same the leg of a poor young fellow of twenty. They hurried away so as not to hear.

At that moment Delaherche was coming in from the street. He beckoned them over and said:

‘Come upstairs quick. We’re going to have breakfast, cook has managed to get some milk. Can’t really say I’m sorry, we can do with something hot!’

Try as he would, he could not repress all his exultant joy. He lowered his voice and added, beaming:

‘This time it really is it! General de Wimpffen has gone off again to sign the capitulation.’

Oh, what a tremendous relief, his factory saved, the dreadful nightmare lifted, life going to start up again, painful no doubt, but life, life! It was nine o’clock and young Rose, who had come to this part of the town to get some bread from an aunt who had a baker’s shop – the streets were now somewhat clearer – had told him all that had happened that morning at the Sub-Prefecture. At eight o’clock General de Wimpffen had called a new council of war, more than thirty generals, and told them the outcome of his move, his useless efforts and the harsh demands of the victorious enemy. His hands were shaking and deep emotion filled his eyes with tears. He was still speaking when a colonel from the Prussian headquarters had appeared as an emissary on behalf of General von Moltke to remind them that if a decision was not reached by ten firing would begin again on Sedan. So the council, in the face of dire necessity, could only authorize the general to go again to the Château de Bellevue and accept everything. He must be there by now and the whole French army must be prisoners, together with arms and baggage.

Rose had then gone into details about the extraordinary sensation the news was creating in the town. At the Sub-Prefecture she had seen officers tearing off their epaulettes and weeping like children. On the bridge cuirassiers were throwing their sabres into the Meuse, and a whole regiment had passed across, each man throwing his own, watching the water splash and close over it. In the streets soldiers were taking hold of their rifles by the barrel and breaking off the butts against the wall, and gunners who had taken the moving parts out of mitrailleuses were getting rid of them down the sewers. Some were burying or burning flags. In the Place Turenne an old sergeant had climbed up on a bollard and was insulting the commanders, calling them cowards as though he had suddenly gone off his head. Others looked stunned and wept silently. But also it had to be admitted that others, and the majority, had expressions of joy in their eyes and happy relief permeating their whole being. At last this was the end of their misery, they were prisoners, they wouldn’t be fighting any more! For so long they had been suffering from too much marching and not enough eating! Besides, what’s the point of fighting if you aren’t the ones who are winning? If their officers had handed them over so as to put an end to it straight away, well, a good job too! It was so nice to think they were going to get some white bread again and sleep in beds!

Upstairs, as Delaherche went into the dining-room with Maurice and Jean, his mother called him.

‘Come here, I’m worried about the colonel.’

Monsieur de Vineuil, with his eyes open, was going on aloud with the delirious visions of his fever.

‘What does it matter if the Prussians do cut us off from Mézières… look, now they’re getting round the Falizette wood, and others are following up the Givonne stream… We’ve got the frontier behind us and we’ll jump across it in one bound when we’ve killed as many of them as possible… That’s what I wanted to do yesterday…’

But his blazing eyes had seen Delaherche. He recognized him and seemed to sober down and emerge from the hallucination of his dreams into the terrible reality, asking for the third time:

‘It’s all over, isn’t it?’

This time the mill-owner could not repress the explosion of his gratification.

‘Yes, thank God, all quite over… The capitulation must be signed by now.’

The colonel struggled violently up, despite his bandaged foot, and he seized his sword, which was on a chair, and tried to break it. But his hands were too shaky and the blade slipped.

‘Look out, he’ll cut himself!’ exclaimed Delaherche. ‘It’s dangerous, take it out of his hands.’

It was Madame Delaherche who took possession of the sword. Then, seeing Monsieur de Vineuil’s despair, instead of hiding it as her son told her to, she herself broke it with one smart tap over her knee, with a superhuman strength she would not have thought her old hands capable of. The colonel had sunk down again and he was crying as he looked at his old friend with infinite tenderness.

Meanwhile in the dining-room cook had served bowls of coffee for everybody. Henriette and Gilberte were up, the latter refreshed after a good night’s sleep, with bright face and laughing eyes, and she tenderly embraced her friend Henriette, saying she felt for her from the depths of her heart. Maurice sat next to his sister while Jean, feeling a bit awkward, had to accept coffee, too, and sat opposite Delaherche. Madame Delaherche would not hear of sitting down at table, and she was taken a bowl which she agreed to drink. But the breakfast of the five people there, at first silent, soon livened up. They were all the worse for wear and very hungry, and how could they help being glad to be there alive and well when thousands of poor devils were still lying all over the countryside? In the big cool dining-room the snow-white cloth was a joy to look at, and the piping hot coffee and milk seemed delicious.

They started talking. Delaherche had recovered the poise of the rich industrialist, and with the patronizing good fellowship of an employer enjoying popularity, who disapproves only of failure, he came back to Napoleon III, whose face had been haunting him for two days as he gaped in curiosity. He addressed Jean, having only this simple man to talk to.

‘Oh yes, sir, I can say that the Emperor has been a bitter disappointment to me… It’s all very well for his flatterers to plead extenuating circumstances, but obviously he is the prime cause, the sole cause of our misfortunes.’

He was already forgetting that as an ardent Bonapartist he had worked for the success of the plebiscite only a few months earlier. He had even given up pitying the man who was to become the Man of Sedan, but laid on him the iniquity of them all.

‘An incompetent, as we are bound to agree now, but that in itself would not matter… A mere visionary, a crackpot who seemed to pull things off as long as luck was on his side… No, you see, there’s no point in trying to work up our sympathy for him by saying he’s been deceived and that the Opposition denied him the necessary men and credit. It is he who has deceived us, and his misdeeds have landed us in the awful mess we are in.’

Maurice did not want to be drawn in, but could not repress a smile, while Jean, embarrassed by this political talk and afraid of saying something silly, merely said:

‘But still, they do say he’s a nice man.’

But these few words, quietly said, made Delaherche sit up. All the fear he had felt and all the worries he had been through burst out in a cry of exasperation turned to hatred.

‘A nice man, oh yes, that’s easy to say!… Do you know, sir, that my mill has been hit by three shells, and that it’s no fault of the Emperor’s that it hasn’t been burnt down!… Do you know that I, yes I, am going to lose a hundred thousand francs over this ridiculous business?… Oh no, oh no, France invaded, set on fire, exterminated, industry brought to a standstill, commerce destroyed, it’s too much… A nice man of that kind we’ve had quite enough of, and God save us from him!… He’s down in the mud and blood, let him stay there.’

With his fist he went through the energetic motions of shoving down some struggling wretch under the water and holding him there. Then he greedily finished off his coffee. Gilberte had involuntarily smiled at Henriette’s sorrowful absent-mindedness as she fed her like a child. When the bowls were empty they lingered in the peaceful and happy atmosphere of the big dining-room.

At that very time Napoleon III was in the weaver’s humble cottage on the Donchery road. By five in the morning he had insisted on leaving the Sub-Prefecture, feeling ill at ease with Sedan all round him like a reproach and a threat, and moreover he was still tormented by the need to appease his tender heart by obtaining better conditions for his unhappy army. He wanted to see the King of Prussia. He had taken a hired carriage and gone out along the broad main road lined with poplars, on the first stage of exile in the early chill of dawn, conscious of all the lost greatness left behind in his flight. And on that road he had met Bismarck, who had hurried there in an old cap and polished jackboots, with the one object of keeping him occupied and preventing his seeing the King so long as the capitulation was unsigned. The King was still at Vendresse, fourteen kilometres away. Where could they go? Under what roof could they wait? Far away, lost in a storm-cloud, the Tuileries palace had vanished. Sedan already seemed leagues behind and cut off by a river of blood. No more imperial palaces in France, no more official residences, not even a corner in the home of the most humble of his officials where he could dare to sit down. So he elected to end up in the weaver’s home, the humble house he saw by the roadside, with its little cabbage-patch surrounded by a hedge, its one upstairs room and dark little windows. The room upstairs was simply whitewashed, with a tiled floor, and the only furniture was a whitewood table and two wicker chairs. There he tried for hours to possess his soul in patience, first with Bismarck, who smiled when he heard him talking about generosity, and later alone in his misery, with his ashen face glued to the window-panes, still looking at this French soil, this river Meuse flowing along, so lovely, through the broad fertile meadows.

Then next day and the days after came the other horrible stages: the Château de Bellevue, that desirable upper-class residence with view over the river, in which he spent the night weeping after his interview with King William; the cruel departure, avoiding Sedan for fear of the anger of the defeated and starving, the bridge of boats the Prussians had thrown across the river at Iges, the long detour round the north of the town, the cross-country roads and byways well away from Floing, Fleigneux and Illy, and all this lamentable flight in an open carriage; and then, on the tragic plateau of Illy, strewn with corpses, the legendary meeting of the miserable Emperor, who could not now even bear the motion of the horse, but had cowered in the pain of an attack, perhaps automatically smoking his eternal cigarette, with a party of prisoners, haggard and covered with blood and dust, being taken from Fleigneux to Sedan, moving to one side of the road to let the carriage pass, some silent but others beginning to grumble, and again others getting more and more exasperated and bursting into booing, with fists shaking in a gesture of insult and cursing. After that came still more endless crossings of the battlefield, a league of bumpy roads among the wreckage and the dead staring with wide open, accusing eyes, the bare countryside, great silent forests, the frontier at the top of a rise; then the end of everything, going down on the other side, the road lined with conifers in a narrow valley.

And what a first night of exile at Bouillon, in an inn, the Hôtel de la Poste, surrounded by such a mob of French refugees and mere sightseers that the Emperor had thought he ought to make an appearance, amid murmurings and catcalls! The room, with three windows on the square and the river Semoy, was the standard kind of room – chairs covered in red damask, mahogany mirror-fronted wardrobe, mantelpiece with spelter clock flanked by seashells and vases of artificial flowers under glass. Small twin beds on either side of the door. The aide-de-camp lay in one and was so tired that he was dead asleep by nine. In the other the Emperor tossed and turned for hours, unable to sleep, and if he got out of bed to relieve the pain by walking about, the only way to take his mind off it was to look at the pictures on the wall each side of the fireplace, one representing Rouget de l’Isle singing the ‘Marseillaise’ and the other the Last Judgement, a furious blast of trumpets by Archangels summoning all the dead from out of the earth, the resurrection of the slaughtered in battle coming up to bear witness before God.

In Sedan the paraphernalia of the imperial household, the cumbersone, accursed baggage, had remained forlorn behind the sub-prefect’s lilac bushes. Nobody knew how to spirit it all away out of the sight of the poor people dying of hunger, for the look of aggressive insolence it had acquired and the dreadful irony due to defeat were becoming so intolerable. They had to wait for a very dark night. The horses, the carriages, the vans, with their silver casseroles, spits, hampers of vintage wine, took their leave of Sedan in deepest mystery and went off into Belgium too, through dark byways, almost noiselessly, like thieves in the night.