THROUGHOUT the endless day of the battle Silvine had never stopped watching Sedan from the hill on which old Fouchard’s farmhouse stood, and in the thunder and smoke of guns she was tortured by the thought of Honoré. And the following day her anxiety increased because of the impossibility of getting accurate news, with Prussians guarding the roads, refusing to answer questions and in any case knowing nothing themselves. Yesterday’s bright sun had gone and rain showers cast a melancholy gloom over the valley.

Towards evening old Fouchard, also finding his self-imposed silence a torment and not giving his son much thought, but anxious to know how he might be affected by other people’s troubles, was standing at his door hoping to see something happen when he noticed a tall fellow in a smock, who had been prowling along the road for a minute or two looking very ill at ease. When he recognized him he was so surprised that he called out in spite of three passing Prussians:

‘What, is that you, Prosper?’

The Chasseur d’Afrique frantically signed to him to be quiet, then he approached and said softly:

‘Yes, it’s me. I’ve had enough of fighting for nothing, so I’ve sloped off… I say, Pa Fouchard, I suppose you don’t want a farm-hand?’

At once the old man recovered all his wariness. As a matter of fact he did want one. But there was no point in saying so.

‘A new hand, oh dear no, not just now… But come in all the same and have a drink. I’m certainly not going to leave you high and dry in the middle of the road.’

Indoors, Silvine was putting the stew on the fire and little Chariot was hanging on to her skirt, playing and laughing. At first she did not recognize Prosper, although he had worked with her once, and it was only when she was bringing two glasses and a bottle of wine that she looked at him. She uttered an exclamation, but she was only thinking about Honoré.

‘Oh, you’ve come from there, haven’t you? Is Honoré all right?’

Prosper started to answer, then hesitated. For two days he had been living in a daze, going through a violent sequence of vague things that had left no clear impression on his mind. True, he thought he had seen Honoré’s dead body lying over his gun, but he could no longer vouch for it, and why upset people when you’re not sure?

‘Honoré,’ he mused, ‘I don’t know… I can’t say…’

She looked hard at him and insisted.

‘You haven’t seen him, then?’

He slowly spread his hands and shook his head.

‘How do you think I can know? Such a lot of things have happened, such a lot! You see, out of all this bloody battle I should have my work cut out to tell you as much as that! No, not even the places I have been through… It makes you just silly, it really does!’

He drank off a glass of wine and sat there miserably gazing far away, into the mists of his memory. ‘All I can remember is that night was already falling when I came to… When I had my fall while charging, the sun was high in the sky… I must have been there for hours, with my right leg crushed under poor Zephir, who had had a bullet right in the chest… I can tell you, it wasn’t a bit funny being in that position, with heaps of dead comrades all round and not even a cat about, with the thought that I was going to peg out too unless somebody came and picked me up. I tried very carefully to get my thigh free, but no use, Zephir weighed as much as five hundred thousand devils. He was still warm. I stroked him and talked to him, calling him nice things. And this is what I shall never forget: he opened his eyes again and made an effort to lift up his poor head which was lying on the ground next to mine. So we started talking: “Well, old cock,” I said, “no offence meant, but do you want to see me kick the bucket along with you? Is that why you’re hanging on to me so hard?” Of course he didn’t answer yes, but all the same I could see in his eyes what a terrible thing it was for him to leave me. And I don’t know how it happened, whether he did it on purpose or whether it was just a spasm, but he gave a sudden jerk that shifted him to one side. I was able to stand up, but oh what a state I was in, with my leg like a lump of lead!… Never mind, I took Zephir’s head in my arms and went on saying nice things to him, anything that came from my heart, that he was a good horse, that I was very fond of him, that I would always remember him. He listened and seemed so glad! Then he gave another jerk and died, and his big, blank eyes had never left me. Still, it’s a funny thing, and nobody will believe me, and yet it is the solemn truth that he had big tears in his eyes… Poor Zephir, he was crying just like a man…’

Prosper had to break off, choked with sorrow and crying himself. He drank another glass of wine, then went on with his story in broken and disconnected sentences. It was getting darker and now there was nothing left but a red streak of light along the horizon over the battlefield, lengthening indefinitely the shadows of dead horses. He must have stayed a long while by his, unable to go away, with his leg gone dead. But then a sudden wave of panic had made him walk in spite of it – a desire not to be alone, to be with friends and not be so frightened. In the same way, from all sides, ditches, thickets and all sorts of odd corners, forgotten wounded men were dragging themselves along, trying to find each other, to get together in groups of four or five, little communities in which it was less terrible to share their last agonies and die. So it was that he had come across two soldiers of the 43rd in the Garenne wood, who had never had a scratch but who had gone to earth there like hares, waiting for nightfall. When they realized that he knew the lie of the land they told him their plan: to clear off into Belgium, reaching the frontier through the woods before daylight. At first he refused to take them, for he would have preferred to head for Remilly at once, knowing he could find refuge there, but where could he get a smock and some trousers from? And besides, from the Garenne wood to Remilly, from one side of the valley to the other, there was no hope of getting through the many Prussian lines. So he did agree to act as a guide to the two comrades. His leg had got some life back into it, and they were fortunate enough to get somebody at a farm to let them have some bread. They heard a distant clock strike nine as they set off again. The only place where

they got into danger was at La Chapelle, where they ran right into an enemy post which rushed to arms and fired into the darkness, while they for their part tore along on all fours into some bushes amid the whistling of bullets. After that they stayed in the woods, straining their ears and groping their way. As they came round a bend in a path they crept along and then jumped on the shoulders of a lone sentry and slit his throat with a knife. After that the roads were clear and they went on their way laughing and whistling. At about three in the morning they reached a little Belgian village, woke up a kind-hearted farmer who at once let them into his barn where they slept soundly on some bundles of hay.

The sun was already high in the sky when Prosper woke. Opening his eyes while his mates were still snoring, he saw their host harnessing a horse to a big farm cart loaded with loaves of bread, rice, coffee, sugar and all kinds of provisions, concealed under sacks of charcoal. He found out that the good man had two married daughters in France, at Raucourt, and he was going to take these provisions to them, knowing that they had been left quite destitute after the Bavarians had passed through. He had obtained the necessary safe-conduct first thing that morning. At once Prosper was seized with a mad desire to sit on the seat of that cart as well and go back to the place for which he was already dying of homesickness. Nothing simpler, he could get off at Remilly, which the farmer had to go through in any case. It was all fixed up in three minutes, they lent him the trousers and smock he needed so badly, the farmer gave out everywhere that he was his farm-hand, and by about six he got off at the church, after being stopped only two or three times at German posts.

‘No, really, I’d had enough,’ Prosper went on after a pause. ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if they’d put us to some good use as they did in Africa. But to move left just so as to move back right, to feel you’re absolutely no use, it isn’t any sort of existence at all… And now my poor Zephir is dead and I’d be quite alone, so the only thing I can do is go back to the land. Better than being a prisoner with the Prussians, isn’t it?… You’ve got some horses, Monsieur Fouchard, and you’ll see whether I can love them and look after them!’

The old man’s eyes glittered. He held up his glass once again and concluded the business without undue haste:

‘Oh well, as it will help you I don’t mind if I do… I’ll take you on… But as to any wages, can’t discuss that until the war is over, because I don’t really need anybody and times are too hard!’

Silvine was still sitting there with Chariot on her lap, and she had never taken her eyes off Prosper. When she saw him getting up to go straight off to the stable and get to know the horses, she asked him once again:

‘So you haven’t seen Honoré?’

The question, suddenly hitting him again, made him jump, as though it had shone a sudden ray of light into a dark corner of his memory. He hesitated again and then made up his mind.

‘Look, I didn’t want to upset you just now, but I believe Honoré is still out there.’

‘Still there? What do you mean?’

‘Yes, I think the Prussians have done for him. I saw him lying back over a cannon, with his head held high and a hole under the heart.’

There was a silence. Silvine turned a ghastly white, and old Fouchard looked stunned, then put his glass back on the table, where he had finished off the bottle.

‘Are you sure?’ she gasped.

‘Yes of course I am, as sure as you can be of anything you’ve seen… It was on a little mound, near three trees, and I think I could go there with my eyes shut.’

For her it was the end of the world. This man who had forgiven her, bound himself with a promise, whom she was to marry as soon as he came back from the army after the campaign was over! And they had taken him away from her, he was out there with a hole under the heart! Never had she felt she loved him so much, and now an urge to see him again, to have him to herself in spite of all, even though buried in the ground, lifted her out of her usual passivity.

She put Chariot down roughly and exlaimed:

‘Right, I shan’t believe it until I’ve seen for myself… As you know where the place is you’re going to take me there. And if it’s true and we find him we’ll bring him back home.’

Tears choked her words and she collapsed on the table, shaken with bitter sobs, and the child, outraged at having been roughly handled by his mother, burst into tears as well. She took him back and clasped him to her, uttering disjointed words:

‘Poor child, poor child!’

Old Fouchard was thunderstruck. He really did love his son in his own fashion. Old memories must have come back from long ago when his wife was still alive and Honoré was still going to school, and two big tears formed in his red eyes too and rolled down his brown leathery cheeks. He had not cried for over ten years. He began to mutter oaths, and worked himself up into a rage because his son belonged to him and yet he wouldn’t ever see him again.

‘Oh Christ, it makes you wild to have only one boy and then have him taken away!’

But when some sort of calm was restored Fouchard was very put out to hear Silvine still talking about going to find Honoré’s body out there. She was quite set now in a desperate, unshakable silence, with no more lamenting, and he hardly recognized her, normally so docile, doing everything with resignation, for her big submissive eyes that alone gave her such beauty had taken on a fierce decision in her pale face under the thick, dark hair. She had snatched off a red scarf from round her shoulders and was all in black like a widow. He pointed out the difficulties of the search, the risks she might run, how little hope there was of finding the body, but all in vain. She gave up even anwering him, and he realized that she would go off on her own and do something silly unless he did something about it, and that worried him still more because of the possible complications he might run into with the Prussian authorities. So in the end he decided to go and see the Mayor of Remilly, who was a distant cousin of his, and between them they made up a tale: Silvine was given out to be the real widow of Honoré and Prosper became her brother, and on the strength of that the Bavarian colonel, billeted at the lower end of the village in the Hôtel de la Croix de Malte, agreed to issue a pass for the brother and sister authorizing them to bring back the husband’s body if they could find it. By now it was dark, and the utmost they could get out of Silvine was that she would wait until daylight before setting out.

Next morning Fouchard said he would never consent to having one of his horses harnessed for fear of not seeing it again. Who could say that the Prussians wouldn’t confiscate the horse and cart? He did at last consent with a very bad grace to lend the donkey, a little grey donkey, whose small trap was just big enough to take a man’s body. He gave lengthy instructions to Prosper, who had slept well but was rather uneasy about the expedition now that, after a good rest, he was trying to get his memory clear. At the last minute Silvine ran and fetched the bedspread from her own bed, which she folded and put on the floor of the trap. As she was going she ran back to kiss Charlot.

‘Daddy Fouchard, I am entrusting him to you, mind he doesn’t play with the matches.’

‘Yes, yes, don’t you worry.’

Preparations had taken a long time, and it was nearly seven when Silvine and Prosper, walking behind the little trap drawn by the grey donkey with its head down, descended the steep slopes of Remilly. It had rained heavily during the night, and the roads had turned into rivers of mud, and great angry clouds were racing across the dreary, depressing sky. Prosper had made up his mind to take the shortest route by going straight through Sedan. But just before Pont-Maugis a Prussian post stopped the trap and held it up for over an hour, and when the pass had been through the hands of several officers the donkey was allowed to go on its way on condition that it went the long way round through Bazeilles by taking a side road to the left. No reason was given – perhaps they were afraid of adding to the traffic in the town. When Silvine crossed the Meuse by the railway bridge, that fatal bridge that had not been blown up, and which incidentally had cost the Bavarians so many lives, she saw the body of an artilleryman floating down as though he were having a nice swim. He was caught by a tuft of grass, stayed still a moment, then turned over and set off again.

In Bazeilles, which the donkey walked slowly through from end to end, it was total destruction, all the abominable ruin that war can inflict when it passes over like a mad, devastating hurricane. The dead had already been collected, so there was not a single corpse left on the road, and the rain was washing the blood away, though there were still some red puddles and remains that couldn’t be looked at too closely, fragments of flesh on which you thought you could still see hair. But the really heartbreaking impression

came from the ruins themselves of this village of Bazeilles, so pretty only three days earlier, with its gay houses in their gardens, and now smashed to smithereens, reduced to nothing but bits of wall blackened by flames. The church was still burning like a huge funeral pyre of smoking beams in the middle of the square, and from it rose an unceasing column of black smoke, spreading out over the sky like the plumes on a hearse. Whole streets had gone, with nothing left on either side, nothing but heaps of calcined stones beside the gutters, a mess of soot and ash like thick inky mud covering everything. On all four corners of every crossroads the corner houses were flattened out and it looked as though they had been blown away by the tempest of fire. Others were less damaged, and one was standing in isolation whilst the ones on each side of it were riddled by bullets and their carcasses stood there like fleshless skeletons. An unbearable stench arose, the sickening smell of fire, and in particular the pungent smell of paraffin, which had been poured freely all over the floors. Then there was the silent pathos of what people had tried to save, poor little bits of furniture thrown out of windows and smashed on the pavements, rickety tables with broken legs, cupboards with sides off or fronts split, clothes lying about, torn or dirty, all the pitiful odds and ends of pillage disintegrating in the rain. Through a gaping house-front and collapsed floors, a clock could be seen quite intact on a mantelpiece high up a wall.

‘Oh the swine!’ growled Prosper, whose blood, the blood of a soldier until two days before, was boiling at the sight of such an abomination.

He was clenching his fists, and Silvine, very scared, had to calm him down with a look every time they met a picket along the road. The Bavarians had posted sentries in front of houses still burning, and these men, with rifles loaded and fixed bayonets, seemed to be guarding the fires so as to let the flames finish their work. Sightseers or interested parties wandering round were headed off with a threatening gesture and a guttural oath if they persisted. Groups of inhabitants, keeping their distance, said nothing but were boiling with rage inside. One quite young woman, with unkempt hair and mud-stained dress, would not be moved from in front of the ruins of a little house, wanting to search among the red-hot cinders in spite of the sentry keeping people away. It was said that her child had been burnt to death in that house. Suddenly, as the Bavarian was savagely pushing her away, she spat her furious despair in his face, curses made up of blood and filth, obscene words in which she at last found some slight relief. He obviously did not understand, but looked at her nervously and moved back. Three of his companions ran up and freed him from the woman, whom they took away screaming. In front of the ruins of another house a man and two little girls had collapsed on the ground with fatigue and misery, and they were crying together, with nowhere to go, having seen everything they possessed disappear into ashes. A patrol came along and cleared off the sightseers, and the street was left empty with only the grim, hard sentries keeping a watch to make sure that their dastardly orders were respected.

‘The swine! The swine!’ Prosper repeated under his breath. ‘It’d be a pleasure to strangle one or two of them!’

Once again Silvine made him keep quiet. She shuddered with horror. In a coach-house untouched by the fire a dog that had been shut in and forgotten for two days was howling with a continuous moan so heartrending that it seemed to fill with terror a louring sky from which a grey drizzle had started to come down. And then it was that they met something just outside the Montvillers park. There were three big carts loaded with dead, those refuse carts that come along the streets every morning, and into which men shovel the muck of the day before. In a similar way they had been filled with corpses, stopping by each one, which was then chucked in, and setting off again with wheels bumping along until the next stop a bit further on; and they had gone right through Bazeilles until they were heaped up. They were now standing in the road waiting to be taken to the town dump, the nearby charnel-house. Feet were sticking up in the air. A head, half off, was dangling. When the three carts moved off again, bumping over the potholes, a very long bloodless hand hanging down rubbed against a wheel; and it was gradually wearing away, rubbed right down to the bone.

The rain stopped when they were in the village of Balan. Prosper persuaded Silvine to eat a bit of bread that he had had the forethought to bring with him. It was eleven already. As they neared Sedan a Prussian post stopped them once again, and this time it was terrible, for the officer shouted at them and even refused to return their pass, which he said was forged – in very good French, moreover. On his orders soldiers had taken the donkey and trap into a shed. What was to be done? How could they go on? Almost at her wit’s end, Silvine had an idea; she thought of cousin Dubreuil, a relation of old Fouchard, whom she knew and whose property, L’Ermitage, was only about a hundred paces away up the lanes, overlooking the neighbourhood. Perhaps they would take some notice of him, a local resident. She took Prosper with her, for they were quite free to come and go so long as they left the cart. They hurried up there and found the gate of L’Ermitage wide open. As they began to walk along the avenue of great elms they were amazed at the sight that met their eyes.

‘Golly!’ exclaimed Prosper. ‘Some people are having a good time!’

At the bottom of the steps, on the gravel terrace, quite a jolly party was going on. Round a marble-topped table was a circle of armchairs and a settee, covered with sky-blue satin, making a strange open-air drawing room that must have been rained on since the day before. At each end of the settee two Zouaves were lolling, apparently bursting with laughter. A little infantryman in an armchair was leaning forward, holding his sides. Three others were nonchalantly supporting their elbows on the arms of their chairs and a cavalryman was putting out his hand to take up a glass from the table. They had obviously raided the cellar and were having a party.

‘But how can they still be here?’ muttered Prosper, still more amazed as he went nearer. ‘Don’t the buggers care two hoots about the Prussians?’

But Silvine’s eyes stared and she screamed with a sudden movement of horror. The soldiers were stock still, they were dead. The two Zouaves were stiff, their hands were twisted and they had no faces left – their noses had been cut off and the eyes were out of their sockets. The grin of the one holding his sides was due to a bullet having split open his lips and broken his teeth. It really was horrifying, these poor creatures chatting there in the angular postures of dummies, with glassy stares and mouths open, all frozen and still for ever. Had they dragged themselves there while still alive so as to die together? Or was it rather that the Prussians had thought it was fun to collect them and sit them in a ring by way of having a laugh at the traditional French sociability?

‘Funny idea of a joke!’ said Prosper, turning pale.

He looked at the other dead, lying all over the avenue, under trees and on the grass, thirty or so brave fellows amongst whom lay the body of Lieutenant Rochas, riddled with bullets and wrapped in the flag, and he went on in a serious voice and with great respect:

‘They’ve had a fine set-to here! I’d be surprised if we found the gentleman you’re looking for.’

Silvine was already entering the house, the battered doors and windows of which were gaping and open to the wet. There was nobody there, of course, the owners must have gone before the battle. But as she insisted on going on as far as the kitchen she uttered another scream. Two bodies had rolled under the sink, a Zouave, a fine man with a black beard, and a huge Prussian with red hair, and the two were locked in a furious embrace. One had his teeth sunk into the other’s cheek, their arms had stiffened in death but not let go and were still cracking each other’s broken spines. The two bodies were tied together in such a knot of eternal hatred that they would have to be buried together.

Prosper hurried Silvine away, since there was nothing for them to do in this wide open house full of death. When they got back in despair to the post which had detained the donkey and trap, they had the good fortune to find with the churlish officer a general who was touring the battlefield. The latter asked to look at the pass and then returned it to Silvine with a gesture of sympathy, meaning that they were to let this poor woman go with her donkey and look for her husband’s body. She and her companion lost no time in going up towards the Fond-de-Givonne with the little cart, in accordance with the new order not to go through Sedan.

Then they turned left to get up to the plateau of Illy by the road through the Garenne wood. But there again they were delayed, and many times thought they would not get through the wood because there were so many obstacles. At every step the way was blocked by trees cut down by shells and felled like giants. This was the forest that had been bombarded, from end to end of which the gunfire had hacked down century-old beings, as though through a square of the old guard, standing firm and immovable like veterans. On all sides tree-trunks lay denuded, cut through, split open like human breasts. This destruction, with its slaughter of branches shedding tears of sap, had the tragic horror of a human battlefield. And there were human bodies too, soldiers who had died with the trees, like brothers. A lieutenant, with blood coming from his mouth, still had both hands digging into the ground, tearing out handfuls of grass. Further on a dead captain was lying on his front with his head up, shrieking with pain. Others seemed to be asleep in the undergrowth, and a Zouave, whose blue belt was burnt, had his beard and hair completely singed off. Several times they had to move a body to one side so that the donkey could get along the narrow woodland track.

When they reached a little coomb the horror suddenly came to an end. The battle must have passed over without touching this lovely corner of nature. Not a single tree had been touched, no wound had bled on the mossy bank. A brook swirled its little eddies along and the path that followed it was shaded by lofty beech trees. The cool running water and soft rustle of greenery had a pervasive charm and was delightfully peaceful.

Prosper stopped the donkey and let it drink from the stream.

‘Oh isn’t it lovely here!’ He could not help expressing his relief.

Silvine looked round and was astonished and slightly shamefaced to feel that she was refreshed and happy too. Why should there be such peaceful happiness in this lovely spot when all around there was nothing but mourning and grief? She made a gesture indicating urgent haste.

‘Quick, quick, let’s get on… Where is the place? Are you sure you saw Honoré?’

Fifty paces further on they really came out on to the plateau of Illy, and the bare plain suddenly opened out in front of them. This time it was a real battlefield, with bare ground stretching away to the horizon under the wide and dreary sky from which the heavy rain was still coming down in torrents. Here there were no piles of dead, all the Prussians must have been buried already, for there was not one to be seen among the bodies of the French scattered along roads, in fields and hollows, according to the tide of battle. The first one they saw against a hedge was a sergeant, a fine figure of a man, young and strong, who seemed to have a smile on his parted lips, and his face was peaceful. But a hundred paces further on there was another lying across the road, and he was horribly mutilated, with half his head blown off and his brains had splashed down over his shoulders. And then after the isolated bodies here and there, came little groups. They saw seven men in a row, one knee on the ground and rifle to shoulder, picked off as they were firing, and near them a non-commissioned officer had fallen as he was giving a command. The road wound on through a narrow defile and there the horror came upon them again as they saw a sort of ditch into which a whole company seemed to have rolled, mown down by machine-gun fire: it was filled with an avalanche of bodies which had fallen into a twisted and broken lot of men whose claw-like hands had scraped at the yellow clay but failed to get a hold. A black flight of crows moved off cawing, and already swarms of flies were buzzing above the bodies, returning obstinately in their thousands to drink fresh blood from the wounds.

‘But where is it?’ Silvine repeated.

Then they skirted a ploughed field covered all over with knapsacks. Some regiment being hard pressed must have got rid of them there in a fit of panic. Odds and ends scattered over the ground bore witness to episodes in the fight. Képis here and there in a field of beet looked like big poppies, and bits of uniform, shoulder-tabs, sword-belts spoke of fierce contact in one of the few hand-to-hand fights in the formidable twelve-hour artillery duel. Most frequently of all they were continually tripping over weapons, swords, bayonets, rifles, and in such quantities that they seemed to be growing out of the ground, a harvest that had sprung up in one abominable day. Messtins and water-bottles were strewn over the roads, all sorts of things that had fallen out of torn knapsacks – rice, brushes, cartridges. Field after field of immense devastation, fences torn down, trees looking as if they had been burnt in a fire, the earth itself pitted with shell-holes, trodden down hard by stampeding mobs and so ravaged that it seemed condemned to eternal sterility. Everything was soaked in the dismal rain, and there rose a pungent smell, the smell of battlefields, made up of rotting staw and burnt cloth, a mixture of decay and gunpowder.

Weary of these fields of death through which she felt she had been walking for leagues, Silvine looked round her with growing anguish.

‘Where is it? Where is it, then?’

Prosper made no answer for he was getting worried himself. What upset him even more than the corpses of his mates were the bodies of the horses, poor horses lying on their sides, which they kept meeting in large numbers. There were some really pitiful ones in dreadful attitudes, decapitated or with bellies split open and entrails coming out. Many were on their backs, with bellies swollen and four legs sticking up in the air like snow posts, dotting the plain as far as you could see. Some of them were still not dead after two days of agony, and at the least sound they raised their suffering heads, turned right and left and dropped them again; others did not move but occasionally uttered a loud scream, the plaint of a dying horse, so unmistakable and so terribly grief-stricken that the very air trembled. Prosper’s heart ached as he thought of Zephir and that he might possibly see him again.

Suddenly he felt the ground shake under the galloping hoofs of a furious charge. He turned round and just had time to shout to Silvine:

‘Mind the horses! The horses! Get down behind that wall!’

Over the top of a near-by slope some hundred horses, riderless, some still carrying a full pack, were bearing down on them at breakneck speed. These were the stray animals left on the field of battle, who had instinctively gathered in a herd. They had had no hay or oats for two days, and had eaten the scanty grass, cropped hedges and even gnawed the bark of trees. Whenever hunger caught them in the belly like a prick of the spurs, they all set off together in a mad stampede, charging straight through the empty, silent country, trampling on the dead and finishing off the wounded.

The storm was approaching and Silvine just had time to pull the donkey and trap into the shelter of the low wall.

‘Oh God! They’ll smash everything!’

But they leaped over the obstacle and nothing was left but the rumbling of thunder, and already they were galloping off in another direction and diving into a sunken road and on to the corner of a wood behind which they vanished.

When Silvine had brought the donkey back on to the road she insisted on an answer from Prosper:

‘Look here, where is it?’

He stood there looking at the four corners of the horizon.

‘There were three trees, I must find those three trees… Bless you, you don’t see all that clearly when you’re fighting, and it isn’t easy to know afterwards which way you went!’

Seeing some people to his left, two men and a woman, he thought he would ask them. But as he went up to them the woman ran off and the men brandished threatening fists. He saw yet more and they all avoided him and ran off into the bushes like cunning, prowling animals, they were dressed in rags, unspeakably dirty, with crafty, evil-looking faces. Then he realized that where these horrible people had passed, the dead, were bootless with bare, grey-looking feet, and he understood that these were the prowling thieves who followed the German armies, the plunderers of corpses, a gypsy crew of vultures who moved in the wake of the invasion. A tall thin fellow rushed away from him with a sack over his shoulder and pockets jingling with watches and silver coins stolen from pockets.

But one boy of thirteen or fourteen let Prosper approach, and when Prosper, realizing the boy was French, told him off roundly, he protested. What, couldn’t you earn your own living now? He picked up rifles and was given five sous for each one he found. That morning he had run away from his village, having had nothing to eat since the day before, and he had been taken on by a Luxembourg dealer who had an arrangement with the Prussians about this harvest of guns on the battlefield. The truth of the matter was that the Prussians were afraid that these weapons, if picked up by peasants in this frontier region, might be taken into Belgium and thence get back into France. So there was quite a swarm of poor devils looking for rifles at five sous a time, ratting about in the grass like those women you see bent double picking dandelions in the meadows.

‘What a dirty trade!’ growled Prosper.

‘Well, you must live,’ said the boy. ‘I’m not robbing anyone.’

As he was a stranger in those parts and could not give any directions he merely pointed out a little farmhouse where he had seen some people.

Prosper thanked him and was moving off to go back to Silvine when he caught sight of a rifle half buried in a furrow. At first he took care not to point it out. But then he suddenly turned back and found himself calling:

‘Look, there’s one over there. That’ll mean another five sous!’

As they were making for the farm Silvine saw other peasants digging long trenches. But these people were working under the direct orders of Prussian officers who were standing stiff and silent with just a switch in their hands, superintending the work. The inhabitants of the villages had been set to work to bury the dead for fear that the rainy weather might hasten decomposition. There were two cartloads of bodies and a gang was unloading them and quickly laying them side by side very close together, without searching them or even looking at their faces, and three men with large shovels followed on and covered the row with such a thin layer of earth that already the rain was opening up little cracks. So hastily was the job done that before a fortnight was up a pestilence would be rising through all these cracks. Silvine could not help stopping on the edge of the trench and looking at these pitiful bodies as they were brought along. She was shuddering with the horrible fear that in each bloody face she would recognize Honoré. Was he that dreadful one with no left eye? Or the one with the broken jaw? If she didn’t hurry up and find him on this featureless, endless plain they would certainly take him away from her and bury him in the dump with the others.

So she rushed back to Prosper, who had gone with the donkey to the farmhouse door.

‘Oh God, where is he? Ask them, keep on asking!’

But there were only Prussians in the farmhouse, with a servant and her child who had come back from the woods where they had nearly died of hunger and thirst. It was a little corner of sociable family life, well-earned rest after the labours of the previous days. Soldiers were carefully brushing their uniforms which were hanging over the clothes-lines. One was finishing off a skilful darning job on his trousers, and the cook of the party had a big fire going in the middle of the yard, on which the soup was bubbling in a large saucepan, giving off a nice smell of cabbage and bacon. The conquest was already being organized with perfect, quiet efficiency. You would have taken these men for a lot of business people back home and smoking their long pipes. On a seat by the door a big red-haired man had lifted the servant’s child in his arms, a kid of five or six, and was jumping him up and down and saying nice things to him in German, enjoying seeing the child laugh at this funny language with its harsh syllables that he couldn’t understand.

Prosper turned away at once, fearing some fresh trouble. But these Prussians really were good fellows. They grinned at the little donkey and didn’t even take the trouble to see their pass.

Then began a frantic hunt. The sun appeared for a moment between two clouds, but it was already low down on the horizon. Were they going to be benighted in this endless graveyard? A new downpour obscured the sun again, and there was nothing round them but the dismal waste of rain, like a dust-storm of water effacing everything, roads, fields. trees. He no longer knew where he was, had lost his bearings and said so. The donkey trotted along behind them at the same even pace, head down and pulling his little cart with his resigned, docile gait. They went north, then came back towards Sedan. They lost all sense of direction, twice went back on their tracks when they realized they were passing the same things again. Probably they were going round in a circle, and ultimately they pulled up, tired and desperate, at a point where three roads met, lashed by the rain and too exhausted to go on looking.

But then they heard some moaning, and pushed on as far as a lonely cottage to the left, where they found two wounded men in a room. The doors were wide open and for two days they had been shivering in a fever with their wounds not even dressed, and had not seen a living soul. Above all they were tormented by thirst amid all this pouring rain lashing the windows. They could not move and at once cried ‘Water! Water!’ – the cry of agonized longing with which the wounded pursue anybody who passes, at the slightest sound of footsteps that drags them out of their torpor.

When Silvine had brought them some water Prosper recognized that the more seriously wounded one was a comrade of his, a Chasseur d’Afrique of his own regiment, and he realized that they could not be far from the place where the Margueritte division had charged. The wounded man managed to wave vaguely: yes, it was over that way when you turn left after a big field of lucerne. Silvine was for setting off again at once with the information. She called in a passing team of men who were collecting the dead and asked them to help the two wounded men. She had already taken the donkey’s halter and was pulling him over the slippery ground so as to get quickly down there past the lucerne.

Prosper suddenly stood still.

‘It must be somewhere here. Look, there are the three trees on the right. Can’t you see the wheel marks? There’s an ammunition waggon broken down over there… Here we are at last!’

Silvine rushed over in a very agitated state and looked into the faces of two dead men, gunners lying at the side of the road.

‘But he’s not here, he’s not here! You can’t have seen properly… Yes, it must have been one of those funny ideas that made you see things!’

She was gradually giving way to a wild hope and uncontrollable joy.

‘Suppose you had made a mistake and he’s still alive! Yes, he must still be alive as he isn’t here!’

Then she uttered a little moan, for turning round she found herself on the actual position of the battery. It was appalling, the very ground was ploughed up as if there had been an earthquake, with wreckage strewn everywhere and dead men blown in all directions in frightful postures, with twisted arms, legs bent back, heads awry, yelling with wide open mouths showing all their white teeth. A corporal had died with his hands over his eyes, clenched in terror, trying not to see. Some gold coins a lieutenant had had in a money-belt had come out with his blood and entrails. The ‘married couple’, Adolphe the driver and Louis the gun-layer, were lying one on top of the other with their eyes out of their sockets and were locked in a fierce embrace, united in death. And there at last was Honoré, stretched out on his crippled gun as though lying in state, his side and one shoulder mangled but his face intact and beautiful in its anger, still looking out towards the Prussian batteries.

‘Oh my darling,’ Silvine moaned, ‘my darling…’

She fell on her knees on the wet ground and joined her hands in a spasm of wild grief. This word darling, the only one she could find, expressed the love she had lost, this man who in his goodness had forgiven her and consented to take her for his wife in spite of everything. Now her hope was at an end and she would cease to be really alive. She had never loved another and would love him for ever. The rain was giving over, and a flight of crows cawing above the three trees frightened her like some evil menace. Was her beloved dead, recovered with such difficulty, to be taken from her again? She dragged herself over on her knees and with a trembling hand drove away the greedy flies buzzing above the wide open eyes she still hoped would look at her.

Then she caught sight of a bloodstained piece of paper clutched in Honoré’s fingers, and anxiously tried to pull it out in little jerks. The dead man refused to give it up and held on so tight that it could only have been torn away in pieces. It was the letter she had written him, that he had kept between his skin and his shirt, and he had squeezed it in his hand for a farewell in death’s final convulsion. Recognizing it, she was filled with a deep joy in the midst of her grief and quite overwhelmed by this proof that he had died thinking of her. Oh yes, yes, she would let him keep the beloved letter, and not take it from him as he was so determined to take it with him into the earth. A fresh outburst of weeping brought her some relief, for her tears were warm and sweet now. She stood up, kissed his hands and his forehead, repeating the one word of infinite love:

‘My darling, my darling.’

But the sun was going down, and Prosper had gone and brought the coverlet, and spread it on the ground. Slowly and respectfully they lifted Honoré’s body, laid him on this, wrapped it round him and carried him to the cart. The rain was threatening to start again, and they were setting off once more with the donkey, a sad little procession across the malignant plain, when they heard a distant rumbling of thunder. Again Prosper cried:

‘The horses! The horses!’

It was another charge of the horses roaming at large and famished. This time they were coming across a huge flat field in a solid mass, manes flying and nostrils flecked with foam, and a slanting ray of the red sun sent the shadow of their frantic race right across the plain. Silvine at once threw herself in front of the trap with her arms in the air as though to stop them with a gesture of fury and fear. Mercifully they swerved to the left, turned aside by the slope of the land. They would have pounded everything to pieces. The earth shook and their hoofs sent up a shower of stones like a hail of shrapnel that hurt the donkey’s head. Then they vanished into a deep ravine.

‘Hunger is spurring them on,’ cried Prosper. ‘Poor creatures!’

Silvine bandaged the donkey’s ear with a handkerchief and took the bridle again. The little funeral procession re-crossed the plain in the opposite direction to start the two leagues between them and Remilly. At every step Prosper paused to look at dead horses, grief-stricken at going away like this without seeing Zephir again.

A little way below the Garenne wood, as they were bearing left to go back the same way as in the morning, a German post demanded to see their permit. This time, instead of keeping them out of Sedan, the guard ordered them to go through the town, or else they would be arrested. There was no answering back, it was fresh orders. In any case that would shorten their return journey by two kilometres, and as they were dead tired they were glad. However, in Sedan itself they were very badly held up. As soon as they had passed through the fortifications they were overcome by a foul stench, and a bed of filth came up to their knees. The town was disgusting, an open sewer in which the defecation and urine of a hundred thousand men had been piling up for three days. All sorts of other muck had thickened this human dunghill – straw and hay itself rotting with the droppings of animals. Even worse, the carcasses of horses which had been slaughtered and cut up in the open street poisoned the air. Offal was decaying in the sun, heads and bones were lying in the street, alive with flies. Plague would certainly break out unless this layer of horrible filth was quickly swept down into the drains, for in the rue du Ménil and rue Maqua and even the Place Turenne it was as much as twenty centimetres deep. Moreover white posters had been put up by the Prussian authorities mustering all inhabitants for the next day and ordering all persons, whoever they were, workmen, shopkeepers, professional people, magistrates, to set to work with brooms and shovels under the threat of the severest penalties if the town was not clean by evening. Already the chief magistrate could be seen in front of his home raking over the roadway and shovelling the muck into a wheelbarrow.

Silvine and Prosper, who had taken the Grande-Rue, could only proceed very slowly through the fetid slime. And besides at every moment the way through the town was barred by some uproar, because it was the time when the Prussians were combing through the houses to dig out hidden soldiers determined not to give themselves up. At about two o’clock on the day before, when General de Wimpffen had come back from the Château de Bellevue after

signing the capitulation, a rumour had run round at once that the army taken prisoner was to be interned in the Iges peninsula while waiting for arrangements to be made for it to be moved to Germany. A very few officers thought they would take advantage of the clause giving them their freedom on condition that they signed an undertaking not to fight again. Only one general, it was said, had made the undertaking, and that was General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, using his rheumatism as a pretext. That morning he had been booed on his departure, as he climbed into a carriage in front of the Hôtel de la Croix d’Or. Disarmament had been going on since first light; the soldiers were made to file across the Place Turenne and throw their arms – rifles and bayonets – on to a pile in a corner that grew like a tip of scrap-iron. A Prussian detachment was there, commanded by a young officer, a tall, pale fellow in a sky-blue tunic and wearing a round cap with cock’s feathers, who superintended the operation with an air of lofty correctness, wearing white gloves. When a Zouave in a moment of revolt had refused to give up his rifle the officer had him taken away, saying without a trace of German accent: ‘Shoot that man!’ The others went on miserably filing past, throwing their rifles down mechanically, anxious to have done with it. But how many were already disarmed, the ones whose rifles lay scattered all over the countryside! And how many had been in hiding since yesterday, dreaming of disappearing in the indescribable confusion! Houses had been taken over and were full of these stubborn men who refused to answer and buried themselves in corners. The German patrols scouring the town found some of them even crouching under furniture. And as many of them, even when discovered, obstinately refused to come out of the cellars, the patrols simply fired on them through gratings. It was a manhunt, a horrible battue.

On the Meuse bridge the donkey was stopped by a great crush of people. The officer commanding the post guarding the bridge was suspicious, thinking there might be some smuggling of bread or meat, and insisting on checking what was in the cart. He pulled back the cover, took one horrified look at the corpse and waved them through. But still they could not get on because the crowd got denser; it was one of the first convoys of prisoners being taken to the Iges peninsula by a detachment of Prussians. The herd went on and on, men shoving each other and treading on each other’s heels, looking ashamed in their tattered uniforms and averting their eyes, and their hunched backs and dangling arms suggested beaten men without even a knife left to cut their own throats. The harsh commands of their guards urged them on like the lashing of a whip in their mute confusion, in which the only other sound was the flop-flop of heavy boots in the thick mud. There had been yet another shower, and nothing could be more distressing than this rabble of humiliated soldiers, looking like tramps or beggars on the road.

Prosper, as a veteran African campaigner, felt his heart thumping with helpless rage. Suddenly he nudged Silvine and pointed at two of the passing soldiers. He had recognized Maurice and Jean being taken off with the rest, walking side by side like two brothers, and when the little cart started up again at the tail of the convoy he was able to follow them with his eye as far as Torcy, on the flat road leading to Iges through gardens and small-holdings.

‘Ah’, murmured Silvine, glancing towards Honoré’s body and distressed at what she saw, ‘perhaps the dead are happiest!’

Night caught them at Wadelincourt, and it had been dark for a long time when they got back to Remilly. Seeing the body of his son old Fouchard was overcome with amazement, for he was convinced it would never be found. He had spent the day concluding a nice bit of business. The current price for officer’s horses stolen on the battlefield was twenty francs each, and he had got three for forty-five.