IT was a big room with a tiled floor and plainly whitewashed, which had formerly been used for storing fruit. You could still smell the good smell of apples and pears, and the only furniture consisted of an iron bedstead, a whitewood table and two chairs and an old walnut chest with cavernous depths containing a whole world of things. But in this room there was a deep peaceful calm, the only sounds to be heard were faint noises from the cowshed nearby, a distant clatter of sabots or lowing of cattle. The sunshine came in through the window which faced south. All that could be seen was part of a hill-slope, a cornfield bordered by some woodland. This private, mysterious room was so well concealed from all eyes that nobody in the world could suspect it was there.
Henriette quickly settled the routine: it was understood that to avoid suspicion only she and the doctor would go in and see Jean. Silvine was never to go in unless she was asked to. First thing in the morning the two women tidied up, and then all day long the door might have been walled up. If the patient needed something in the night he would only have to knock on the wall, for Henriette’s room was adjoining. And so, after weeks of living in a turbulent mob, Jean suddenly found himself cut off from the world, seeing nobody but this young woman who was so gentle that her light step made no sound. He saw her again just as he had seen her for the first time in Sedan, like a vision, with her rather wide mouth, small, neat features and beautiful hair the colour of ripe grain, looking after him with infinite kindness.
During the first days he had such a high temperature that Henriette hardly ever left him. Every morning on his rounds Dr Dalichamp looked in, on the pretext of taking her to the hospital, and he examined Jean and dressed his wound. As the bullet had come out again after breaking the tibia, he was surprised at the ugly look of the wound and was afraid that the presence of a splinter of bone, which he could not find with the probe, might necessitate a resection of the bone. He had discussed it with Jean, who was horrified at the thought of a short leg which would make him lame – no, no, he’d rather die than be permanently disabled! And so the doctor, keeping the wound under observation, simply went on dressing it with a pad soaked in olive oil and carbolic, after inserting a drain, a rubber tube to take away the pus. But the doctor had warned him that if he did not intervene it might take a very long time indeed to heal. But by the second week the temperature did go down and things improved so long as complete immobility was maintained.
And so Jean and Henriette settled down to a regular life together. They fell into a routine and it seemed as though they had never lived any other way and would go on living like this. All the time she was not at the hospital she spent with him, seeing that he ate and drank regularly, helping him to turn over with a strength of wrist one would not have suspected in such slender arms. Sometimes they talked, but more often said nothing, especially in the early days. But they never seemed bored; it was a very peaceful life in this most restful atmosphere – for him, still shattered by the battle, and for her, in her mourning dress, still heartbroken after her recent loss. At first he felt a little awkward because he was aware that she was above him in station, almost a grand lady, while he had never been anything more than a peasant and soldier. He could only just about read and write. But later he felt somewhat reassured when he saw that she treated him without any pride, as an equal, and that gave him the courage to show that he was intelligent in his own way, through his sweet reasonableness. Moreover he himself was amazed to feel that he had become more refined, more agile in mind, with new ideas. Was it something to do with the abominable life he had been leading for two months? He had emerged more delicate-minded from so much physical and moral suffering. But what finally reassured him was that he realized that she did not know all that much more than he did. After the death of her mother she had become at a very early age the Cinderella, the little housewife looking after her three men, as she called them – her grandfather, father and brother – and she had not had time for study. Reading, writing, a bit of spelling and arithmetic was about as far as she could go. The only reason why she still intimidated him and seemed so far above all other women was that he knew that beneath her exterior of an unremarkable little person, occupied with the trivial affairs of daily life, was a woman of the greatest goodness and the utmost courage.
They were one immediately when they talked about Maurice. She was devoting herself to him in this way because he was the friend, the brother of Maurice, his great help in time of need, and it was her turn to pay a debt of the heart. She was full of gratitude and of an affection which grew as she got to know how upright and wise he was and how reliable. And he, whom she cared for like a child, was also contracting a debt of infinite gratitude and could have kissed her hands for every cup of broth she gave him. This bond of tender understanding grew closer every day in the deep solitude in which they lived and shared the same troubles. When they finished their memories – details she untiringly asked for about their painful march from Rheims to Sedan – the same question always came up: what was Maurice doing now? Why wasn’t he writing? Was Paris completely cut off, that they heard no news? So far they had had only one letter from him, postmarked Rouen three days after his departure, in which he had explained in a few lines how he had found himself in that city after a big detour on the way to Paris. And then nothing for a week, absolute silence. In the mornings Dr Dalichamp, having dressed the wound, liked to linger there for a few minutes. He even came back sometimes in the evening and stayed longer, and thus he was the only link with the world, the great world outside, so convulsed by disasters. News only reached them through him, and his ardent patriotic heart boiled over with anger and grief at every defeat. So he hardly talked about anything except the invading march of the Prussians who since Sedan had been flooding steadily all over France, like a black host. Each day brought its own grief, and he would stay there lost in misery, slumped on one of the two chairs beside the bed, and, waving his trembling hands, tell of an ever worsening situation. Often his pockets were stuffed with Belgian newspapers which he left behind. Thus, weeks after the event, the echo of each disaster reached this hidden room and drew still closer, in a common bond of anguish, the two poor suffering souls shut in there.
So it was that Henriette read to Jean from old papers the happenings at Metz and the great and heroic battles which had started up afresh three times, after a day’s interval on each occasion. These battles had already happened five weeks ago, but he still knew nothing about them, and his heart ached when he heard of the same miseries and defeats there that he had suffered himself. In the tense silence of that room, as Henriette read in the slightly sing-song voice of a careful schoolgirl dividing the sentences properly, the lamentable tale unfolded itself. After Froeschwiller and Spickeren, at the very time when the vanquished 1st corps was carrying away the 5th in its rout, the other corps, echeloned out from Metz to Bitche, wavered and then fell back in the general consternation caused by these disasters, and finally concentrated in front of the fortified
area on the right bank of the Moselle. But what valuable time lost, instead of speeding up the retreat on Paris that was to become so difficult later! The Emperor had had to hand over the command to Marshal Bazaine, from whom everybody expected victory. Then, on the 14th, Borny, where the army was attacked exactly when it was at last making up its mind to cross to the left bank, with two German armies against it, that of Steinmetz, standing immovable opposite the fortified camp as a threat, and that of Friedrich Karl, who had crossed the river higher upstream and was coming along the left bank to cut Bazaine off from the rest of France, Borny, the first shots of which were not fired until three in the afternoon, Borny, the victory with no morrow, which left the French corps masters of their positions but immobilized them, straddled across the Moselle, and which the turning movement of the second German army had completed. Then on the 16th, Rezonville, all the French army corps now at last on the left bank, with only the 3rd and 4th in the rear, delayed in the appalling traffic-jam at the crossing of the Etain and Mars-la-Tour roads, the daring attack by the Prussian cavalry and artillery, already cutting these roads in the morning, the slow and confused battle which, until two o’clock, Bazaine could have won as he only had to repulse a handful of men in front
of him, but which in the end he lost owing to his inexplicable fear of being cut off from Metz. The immense struggle covered leagues of hills and plains in which the French, attacked in front and on the flank, had performed miracles so as not to advance, thereby leaving the enemy time to join up and themselves working for the Prussian plan, which was to make them turn back to the other side of the river. And finally on the 18th, after the return to the original position in front of the fortified area, came Saint-Privat, the supreme struggle over a front of thirteen kilometres, two hundred thousand Germans, with seven hundred guns against a hundred and twenty thousand French with only five hundred pieces of equipment, the Germans facing Germany, and the French France, as though the invaders had become the invaded, in this strange pivoting that had come about. From two o’clock onwards there was the most terrible mêlée in which the Prussian Guard was repulsed and cut to pieces and Bazaine was for a long time winning, strong in his unshakable left wing, until towards evening when his weaker right wing was compelled to evacuate Saint-Privat amid horrible carnage, involving
with it the whole army, defeated, thrown back on Metz and from then onwards locked in a ring of iron.
Over and over again as Henriette was reading Jean broke in and said:
‘Well, and all the way from Rheims we were expecting Bazaine!’
The dispatch from the marshal dated the 19th, after Saint-Privat, in which he talked of resuming his retreat via Montmédy, and which had determined the advance of the army of Châlons, now appeared to be nothing but the report of a beaten general anxious to tone down his defeat, and only later, on the 29th, when the news of the approach of a rescuing army reached him through the Prussian lines, had he tried one last effort at Noiseville on the right bank, but so half-heartedly that on 1 September, the very day on which the army of Châlons was crushed at Sedan, that of Metz fell back, definitely paralysed and dead as far as France was concerned. By neglecting to move while routes were still open and then being genuinely halted by superior forces, the marshal, who until then might have been an indifferent commander, but nothing worse, from now on, under the influence of his political calculations, was going to become a conspirator and a traitor.
But in the papers brought by Dr Dalichamp Bazaine was still the great man, the gallant soldier by whom France still expected to be saved. Jean made her re-read certain passages in order to grasp how the third German army, with the Crown Prince of Prussia, had been able to pursue them while the first and second were blocking Metz, both of them so strong in men and guns that it had been possible to take some from them and form this fourth army which, under the command of the Crown Prince of Saxony, had made the disaster of Sedan certain. When at last he understood, on this bed of pain to which his wound pinned him down, he forced himself to go on hoping.
‘So that’s it, we weren’t the strongest!… Never mind, they give the figures, Bazaine has got a hundred and fifty thousand men, three hundred thousand rifles and more than five hundred guns, and I bet you he’s got something good for them up his sleeve!’
Henriette nodded and agreed with his opinion so as not to depress him still more. She was all at sea in these vast troop movements, but she had a presentiment that disaster was inevitable. Her voice stayed clear and bright and she could have gone on reading for hours just for the happiness of interesting him. But sometimes in a report about slaughter her voice would falter and her eyes suddenly fill with tears. No doubt it reminded her of her husband shot out there and kicked against the wall by the Bavarian officer.
‘If it upsets you too much,’ said Jean in surprise, ‘don’t go on reading about battles.’
She recovered her gentle kindness at once.
‘No, no, I’m sorry, it really gives me pleasure too.’
One evening at the beginning of October, while a gale was blowing outside, she returned from the hospital and came into the room in great excitement.
‘A letter from Maurice! The doctor has just given it to me.’
Each morning they had both been increasingly worried because he was not showing any sign of life; and especially as for a good week now it had been rumoured that Paris was completely invested, they were giving up hope of getting any news and were anxiously wondering what could have happened to him since he left Rouen. Now there was an explanation of this silence, for the letter he had sent from Paris addressed to Dr Dalichamp on 18 September, the very day when the last trains left for Havre, had gone an enormous way round and only reached its destination by a miracle, having been mislaid a score of times on the way.
‘Oh, good lad!’ beamed Jean. ‘Read it quick.’
The wind redoubled its fury, banging the window like a battering-ram. Henriette stood the lamp on the table by the bed and began to read, so close to Jean that their hair touched. It was so peaceful and happy in that quiet room with the storm roaring outside.
It was a long letter of eight pages in which Maurice first explained how as soon as he had arrived on the 16th he had been fortunate enough to get into a regiment of the line which was being brought up to strength. Then he went on to facts and wrote with extraordinary passion about what he had learned of the happenings of that terrible month – Paris coming back to normality after the painful shock of Wissembourg and Froeschwiller and once again relapsing into self-deception and entertaining hopes of a revenge, the legend of the victorious army, Bazaine in command, a mass rising against the foe, imaginary victories, huge slaughters of Prussians which even ministers reported in the Chamber. And then he went on to say how once again a bombshell had burst in Paris on 3 September, and hopes were dashed, and the city, confident in its ignorance, had been overwhelmed by the relentless blows of fate, so that cries of ‘Out! Out!’ were echoing by evening on the boulevards while in the short, doom-laden night sitting Jules Favre had read out the motion for the revolution demanded by the populace. Then the next day was 4 September, the collapse of a world, the Second Empire swept away in the wreckage of its vices and follies, all the people out in the streets, a torrent of half a million men pouring into the Place de la Concorde on that brilliant Sunday, billowing over to the railings of the Legislative Assembly defended by a mere handful of troops with rifle-butts in the air. Then the mob, smashing down doors, invaded the Chamber itself, from which Jules Favre, Gambetta and other deputies of the left were about to leave to proclaim the Republic at the Hôtel de Ville, while a little door of the Louvre, giving on to the Place Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, was opened just enough to let out the Empress-Regent, dressed in black and accompanied by one woman friend, both trembling, fugitives keeping out of sight in a cab they had picked up and which jolted them away from the Tuileries through which the mob was now running. On that same day Napoleon III had left the inn at Bouillon where he had spent his first night in exile en route for Wilhelmshöhe.
In a serious voice Jean broke in:
‘So now we have a republic?… Oh well, all to the good if it helps us beat the Prussians.’
But he shook his head, for he had always been led to fear a republic when he worked on the land. And besides, in the face of the enemy he didn’t think it was a good thing not to be all of one mind. Anyway there would have to be something else because the Empire was thoroughly corrupt, and nobody wanted any more truck with it.
Henriette finished reading the letter, which ended by mentioning the approach of the Germans. On the 13th, the very day when a delegation from the Government of National Defence established itself in Tours, they had been sighted east of Paris, as far forward as Lagny. On the 14th and 15th they were on the outskirts, at Créteil and Joinville-le-Pont. Yet on the morning of the 18th, when he had written, Maurice still did not seem to believe it would be possible to invest Paris completely, and had recovered a superb confidence, considering a siege as an insolent and hazardous gamble which would collapse in less than three weeks, and counting on the relieving armies the provinces would certainly send, to say nothing of the army of Metz, already on the move via Verdun and Rheims. Thus the links in the iron belt had closed up and shut Paris in a gigantic prison for two million living souls, whence nothing came out but the silence of death.
‘Oh God!’ murmured Henriette, weighed down by grief. ‘How long is it all going to last, and shall we ever see him again?’
A squall bowed the trees outside and the old timbers of the farmhouse groaned. If they were in for a hard winter what sufferings there would be for the poor soldiers with no fire, no food and fighting in the snow.
‘Ah well,’ Jean concluded, ‘it’s a very nice letter and it’s a pleasure to get news… We mustn’t ever despair.’
And so day after day the month of October went by, with dreary grey skies and the wind only giving over so as to bring up even darker banks of clouds again soon. Jean’s wound took an endless time to heal. The quality of the fluid coming from the drainage tube would not have justified the doctor’s removing it, and the patient had become very weak but refused to countenance an operation for fear of being a cripple for life. So now the little isolated room seemed to be slumbering in a period of waiting and resignation, sometimes broken by sudden anxieties with no clear cause, and the news that reached there was, remote and vague, like a nightmare from which one is just emerging. The unspeakable war, with its slaughters and disasters, was still going on somewhere out there, but they never knew the real truth or heard anything except the widespread muted clamour of their slaughtered country. The wind carried away the leaves under the dreary sky and there were long, deep silences in the bare countryside, where nothing was heard but the cawing of rooks foretelling a hard winter.
One of their topics of conversation was the field hospital, where Henriette spent all her time except when she kept Jean company. In the evening when she came home he would question her and he knew all her patients, wanted to know who were dying and who were recovering, and she, always wanting to talk about things near her heart, went over her days in the minutest detail.
‘Oh,’ was her refrain, ‘poor boys, poor boys!’
It was no longer the ambulance station on the day of battle, when fresh blood flowed and amputations were carried out on healthy red flesh. It was now an ambulance station infected by the putrescence of the hospital, smelling of fever and death, clammy with slow convalescences and protracted death agonies. Dr Dalichamp had had the greatest difficulty in procuring the necessary beds, mattresses and sheets, and every day still he had to perform miracles to keep his patients in bread, meat and dried vegetables, to say nothing of bandages, compresses and apparatus. The Prussians who had taken over the military hospital in Sedan refused to give him anything, even chloroform, and so he had got everything from Belgium. And yet he had taken in German wounded in the same way as French, and in particular he was tending a dozen Bavarians picked up at Bazeilles. The enemies who had flown at each other’s throats were now lying side by side in the good companionship of their common suffering. And what a home of fear and misery it was – these two long halls of the old school at Remilly, with fifty beds in each, in the bright, crude light from the lofty windows!
Even ten days after the battle wounded had still been brought in, forgotten men found in odd corners. Four had stayed in an empty house at Balan with no medical attention whatever, living God knows how but probably thanks to the charity of some neighbour; and their wounds were crawling with maggots and they had died, poisoned by their own filthy sores. This purulence, which nothing could check, raged through the place and emptied rows of beds. As soon as you reached the door a smell of necrosis caught you by the throat. Drainage tubes suppurated, dripping fetid pus drop by drop. Often flesh had to be reopened to get out still more unsuspected splinters of bone. Then abscesses appeared, that were going to discharge in some other part of the body. The wretched men, exhausted, emaciated, their faces grey, endured every kind of torture. Some, prostrate and scarcely able to breathe, spent all their days on their backs with eyelids closed and black, like corpses already half decomposed. Others, the sleepless ones, plagued with restless insomnia and soaked in copious sweat, got wildly excited as though the catastrophe had driven them out of their minds. And whether they were violent or inert, once the shivering of infectious fever seized them it was all over, the poison won, flitting from the one to the other and carrying them all off in the same tide of victorious corruption.
Worst of all, there was the condemned ward, the place for men stricken with dysentery, typhus or smallpox. Many had black pox. They were never still, but raved in a continual delirium, rising up in their beds and standing like spectres. Others, affected in the lungs, were dying of pneumonia racked with dreadful coughing. Others shouted all the time and only found relief when a jet of cold water was constantly cooling their wounds. That was the longed-for time, the hour for dressing wounds, which alone brought a bit of peace, when beds were aired and some relaxation was afforded to bodies grown stiff through staying in the same position. But this also was the dreaded hour, for not a day passed when the doctor examining wounds did not grieve to see on some poor devil’s skin the bluish patches that betrayed the advancing gangrene. That meant operating the next day. Yet another bit of leg or arm cut away. Sometimes even the gangrene went higher up and the job had to be repeated until the whole limb had been eaten away. Then the whole man went, his body covered with the livid patches of typhus, and he had to be taken away, staggering, half-crazy, haggard, into the condemned ward, with his flesh dead already and smelling of putrefaction before his death agony set in.
Every evening when she came home Henriette answered Jean’s questions, and her voice always shook with the same emotion.
‘Oh, poor boys, poor boys!’
Then came the details, always similar, of the daily torments of this hell. They had amputated an arm at the shoulder, or a foot, performed the resection of a humerus, but would gangrene or septicaemia spare the patient? Or again, they had buried one of them, usually a Frenchman, but sometimes a German. Hardly a day passed when some furtive coffin, bodged up quickly out of four pieces of wood, did not leave the hospital at dusk, accompanied by one orderly and often Henriette herself, so that a man should not just be buried like a dog. In the little cemetery of Remilly two trenches had been dug, and they all slept side by side, the Germans on the left and the French on the right, reconciled in the earth.
Jean had become interested in some of the patients whom he had never seen, and he asked for news of them.
‘What about “Poor Kid”, how’s he doing today?’
This was a young trooper in the fifth regiment of the line, who had enlisted as a volunteer and was not yet twenty. The nickname ‘Poor Kid’ had stuck to him because he constantly used these words about himself, and when one day somebody had asked him why, he had answered that his mother always called him that. Poor kid, indeed, for he was dying of pleurisy, the aftermath of a wound in his left side.
‘Oh the dear boy,’ said Henriette, who had developed a motherly affection for him. ‘He’s not doing too well and has coughed all day long… It breaks my heart to hear him.’
‘And your bear, this Gutmann of yours?’ Jean went on with a wan smile. ‘Is the doctor more hopeful?’
‘Yes, they may save him. But he is in terrible pain.’
In spite of really great pity, they could not refer to Gutmann without a sort of affectionate flippancy. On the very first day she had gone to work at the hospital she had been horrified to recognize in this Bavarian soldier the man with the red beard and hair, bulging blue eyes and wide, square nose, who had carried her off in his arms at Bazeilles when they shot her husband. He recognized her too, but he could not speak, for a bullet had gone through the back of his neck and taken away half his tongue. After two days of horror and revulsion and an uncontrollable shuddering every time she went near his bed, she was won over by his most desperate and appealing look as he followed her round with his eyes. Was he no longer the monster with bloodstained hair and eyes, mad with frenzy, who haunted her with a terrible memory? It needed an effort to recognize him now in this poor wretch with such a friendly, gentle expression in spite of all his atrocious suffering. His case, an uncommon one involving this sudden incapacity, touched the whole hospital. They were not even quite sure his name was Gutmann, but that is what they called him because the only sound he could manage to get out was a growl in two syllables which made roughly that name. As far as the rest was concerned, they only thought they knew that he was married and had children, because he knew a few words of French and sometimes answered with a vigorous nod. Married? Yes, yes! Children? Yes, yes! His emotion one day when he saw some flour had also made them guess he might be a miller. But that was all. Where was the mill? Were a wife and children weeping at this very moment in some remote village in Bavaria? Was he going to die unknown, nameless, leaving his own folk over there to wait for him for ever?
‘Today,’ Henriette told Jean one evening, ‘Gutmann blew me some kisses… I can’t give him a drink now or do the slightest thing for him but he puts his fingers to his lips in a fervent gesture of gratitude… We mustn’t smile, it’s too terrible to buried alive like that before your time.’
Towards the end of October Jean was much better. The doctor agreed to take out the tube, although he was still worried; yet the wound seemed to be drying up quite quickly. Already he was convalescent and getting up, spending hours walking about the room, sitting at the window, looking sadly at the flying clouds. Then he began to get bored and talked of doing something to occupy himself and be of some help on the farm. One of his private worries was the money question, for he felt sure that in a good six weeks his two hundred francs must have been spent. So to keep old Fouchard in a good humour Henriette must have had to pay. This thought upset him and he did not dare bring it out into the open with Henriette, and so he felt a considerable relief when it was decided that he would be given out to be a new employee whose job was indoor work with Silvine, while Prosper got on with the crops outside.
In spite of the terrible times an additional hand was not superfluous at old Fouchard’s, for his business affairs were doing well. While the whole region was in agonies and bleeding in every limb he had contrived to increase his trade as itinerant butcher to such an extent that he was now slaughtering three or four times as many animals. It was said that by 31 August he had had highly profitable dealings with the Prussians. The man who on the 30th had defended his door against the soldiers of the 7th corps, with his gun cocked and refusing to sell them a single crumb, shouting that his house was empty, had set up as a general trader on the 31st at the appearance of the first enemy soldier, and had unearthed from his cellars huge quantities of provisions, and brought back vast flocks from remote fastnesses where they had been hidden. From that day onwards he had been one of the biggest suppliers of meat to the German armies, and quite astonishing in his skill at finding a market for his goods and getting paid between two requisitions. Other people suffered from the often brutal commandeerings of the victors, but he had not yet supplied a single bushel of flour, cask of wine or quarter of beef without picking up good hard cash at the end of the transaction. This gave rise to much talk in Remilly, and it was considered pretty low on the part of a man who had just lost his son in the war and never went to visit his grave, which Silvine was the only one to look after. Yet all the same he was respected for making money when even the most astute came off so badly. And he just grinned, shrugged and growled in his straight-from-the-shoulder manner:
‘Patriotic, I’m more patriotic than all of them put together!… Is it being patriotic to bloody well fill the Prussians with food up to their eyes, free, gratis and for nothing? I make them pay for everything… we shall see, we shall see how it all works out later on!’
By the second day Jean stood too long on his feet, and the doctor’s private fears were realized – the wound reopened and there was considerable inflammation and swelling of the leg, so that he had to go back to bed. Dalichamp came to suspect that a splinter of bone must still be there and that the effort of the two days of exercise had finally freed it. He looked for it and was fortunate enough to be able to extract it, but only at the cost of a shock to the system with a very high temperature which exhausted Jean once again. He had never so far fallen into such a state of weakness. So Henriette took up her position again as faithful nurse in this room which was getting gloomier and colder with the approach of winter. It was now the beginning of November, the east wind had already brought a flurry of snow, and it was very cold on the bare tiled floor between these four bare walls. As there was no fireplace they decided to have a stove put in, and its roaring enlivened their solitude.
The days went monotonously by, and this first week of his relapse was certainly for Jean and Henriette the most miserable of their long enforced intimacy. Would the suffering never end? Was there always going to be fresh danger without their being able to hope for the end of so much wretchedness? At every moment their thoughts flew to Maurice, from whom they had had no more news. They did hear of other people who received messages, little notes brought by carrier pigeon. Perhaps the pigeon bringing joy and love to them had been killed by some German while in full flight through the great open sky. Everything seemed to withdraw from reach, wither away and disappear into this early winter. The sounds of war only reached them after long delays and the odd newspapers Dr Dalichamp still brought were often a week old. Their sadness came largely from their ignorance, from what they did not know but guessed, from the long death-cry they could hear in spite of everything in the silence of the countryside round the farm.
One morning the doctor arrived in a state of great distress, with his hands shaking. He drew a Belgian paper out of his pocket and threw it on the bed, exclaiming:
‘Oh my dear friends, France is finished, Bazaine has betrayed us!’
Jean, dozing propped up by two pillows, woke up.
‘Betrayed? What do you mean?’
‘Yes, he has handed over Metz and the army. It is Sedan all over again, but this time it is the rest of our flesh and blood.’
He picked up the paper and read:
‘A hundred and fifty thousand prisoners, a hundred and fifty-three eagles and colours, five hundred and forty-one field guns, seventy-six mitrailleuses, eight hundred siege guns, three hundred thousand rifles, two thousand military vehicles, equipment for eighty-five batteries…’
He went on with details. Marshal Bazaine besieged in Metz with the army, reduced to impotence, making no effort to break the iron ring enclosing him, his prolonged discussions with Prince Friedrich Karl, his ambiguous and tentative political schemings, his ambition to play a decisive part which he didn’t seem to have quite clear in his own mind; then all the complexity of the negotiations, the sending of tricky and lying envoys to Bismarck, to King William and to the Empress-Regent, who was to refuse to treat with the enemy on the basis of any cession of territory; and the unavoidable catastrophe, destiny working itself out, famine in Metz, enforced capitulation, commanders and soldiers reduced to accepting the harsh conditions of the conquerors. France no longer had an army.
‘Oh Christ!’ Jean swore softly to himself. He did not understand it all, but for him until then Bazaine had remained the great captain, the only possible saviour. So what were they going to do? What was happening to the people in Paris?
The doctor passed on to the Paris news, which was disastrous. He pointed out that the paper was dated 5 November. The surrender of Metz happened on 27 October, but the news of it was not known in Paris until the 30th. After the repulses already sustained at Chevilly, Bagneux and La Malmaison and the fight and defeat at Le Bourget, this news had burst like a bombshell in the midst of a desperate population already irritated by the weakness and ineptitude of the Government of National Defence. And so on the next day, 31 October, a full-scale insurrection had taken place, with an immense crowd packing the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, bursting into the debating chambers, taking prisoner members of the government who were later rescued by the National Guard because they feared the triumph of the revolutionaries who were demanding a Commune. The Belgian paper went on to make the most insulting reflections about this wonderful Paris, tearing itself to pieces with civil war as soon as the enemy was at the gates. Was this not the final dissolution, the morass of mud and blood into which a world was about to collapse?
‘It’s quite true,’ Jean muttered in distress, ‘we shouldn’t go for each other when the Prussians are there!’
Henriette had said nothing so far, preferring to keep her mouth shut about these political affairs, but she could not help exclaiming. All her thoughts were with her brother.
‘Oh dear, I only hope Maurice doesn’t get mixed up in all this, he’s so unreasonable!’
After a pause the doctor, a fervently patriotic man, went on:
‘Never mind, if there are no soldiers left some more will spring up. Metz has surrendered, Paris itself might give in, but France will not be finished. Yes, as our countryfolk say, if the body’s still in good shape we’ll pull through.’
But he was clearly forcing himself to hope. He spoke of the new army being formed on the Loire which, it was true, had not made a very good beginning near Arthenay, but it would find its fighting feet and march to the help of Paris. He was particularly excited by the proclamations of Gambetta, who had got away from Paris in a balloon on 7 October and two days later set himself up in Tours, calling all citizens to arms and using a style at one and the same time so virile and so moderate that the whole country was acquiescing in this dictatorship for the public safety. And wasn’t there also a question of raising another army in the north and yet another in the east, conjuring soldiers up out of the ground by the sheer power of faith? In fact the awakening of the provinces, an indomitable will to create whatever was lacking, to fight on to the last sou and the last drop of blood.
‘After all,’ the doctor concluded as he stood up to go, ‘I’ve often given up patients who were back on their feet a week later!’
‘Doctor, cure me quickly so that I can go back to my post.’
Nevertheless Henriette and he remained very gloomy after this bad news. That same evening there was a snowstorm, and the next day Henriette came back very upset from the hospital and said that Gutmann was dead. This very cold spell was decimating the wounded and emptying rows of beds. The poor dumb creature, with his tongue cut out, had been moaning for two days in his last agony. During his last hours she had stayed by his bed, for he gazed at her with such imploring eyes. He was talking to her with his tear-dimmed eyes, perhaps telling her his real name and that of the far-off village in which a woman and her children were waiting. And he had departed unknown, trying with his groping fingers to send her a last kiss to thank her once again for all her care. She was the only one who went with him to the cemetery, where the frozen earth, heavy foreign earth, thudded on his deal coffin with lumps of snow.
Then once more, the very next day, Henriette said as she came in:
‘Poor Kid is dead.’
For this one she was in tears.
‘If you could have seen him in his delirium! He called me Mum, Mum! And held out his arms so affectionately that I had to take him on my lap. Oh, poor fellow, his sufferings had taken so much out of him that he weighed no more than a little boy… And I rocked him so that he could die happy. Yes, I rocked him, he called me his mother, and I was only a few years older than him… He cried and I couldn’t help crying myself, and I still am…’
Her voice gave out and she had to stop for a moment.
‘When he died he whispered over and over again those two words he used of himself: Poor Kid, Poor Kid. Oh yes, all these brave fellows are poor kids, and some of them are so young, and your horrible war tears off their limbs and makes them suffer so much before it throws them into the ground!’
Every day now Henriette came back like this, shattered by some death-scene, and this suffering of others drew the two of them closer still during the weary hours they spent so much alone together in that big, quiet room. Yet they were very beautiful hours for, as they gradually came to know each other, there had developed between their two hearts an affection which they thought was fraternal. His serious mind had risen to new heights during their long intimacy and she, seeing him so good and sensible, forgot that he was a humble man who had followed the plough before becoming a soldier. They understood each other perfectly and made an ideal couple, as Silvine said with her grave smile. Nor had any awkwardness arisen between them, and she went on attending to his leg without ever turning away those candid eyes. Always in her black widow’s weeds, she seemed to have ceased to be a woman.
All the same, during the long afternoons when he was alone, Jean could not help letting his mind wander. What he felt for her was infinite gratitude and a sort of religious devotion which would have made him thrust aside any thought of sexual love as sacrilegious. Nevertheless he told himself that with a wife like her, so tender, so gentle and yet so practical, life would have been very heaven. His own misfortune, the unpleasant years he had spent at Rognes, his disastrous marriage and the violent death of his wife – all his past life now reminded him of the tenderness he had missed, and inspired in him a vague, scarcely formulated hope of trying to find happiness once more. He would shut his eyes and let himself fall into a half-sleep, when he would see himself somehow in Remilly, remarried and owner of a small-holding that was sufficient to keep a family of honest folk with little ambition. It was such a tenuous vision that it did not really exist, and certainly never would. He didn’t think he had anything left in him but friendship and he only loved Henriette like this because he felt himself to be Maurice’s brother. So this uncertain dream of marriage became a kind of consolation, one of those daydreams one knows to be unrealizable but with which one whiles away hours of sadness.
But no such thoughts even touched Henriette’s mind. After the dreadful drama at Bazeilles her heart remained dead, and any comfort or new affection could only enter it unrecognized, like the unperceived movement of germinating seed that nothing betrays to the human eye. She was not even conscious of the pleasure she had come to take in lingering for hours at Jean’s bedside, reading the papers to him even though they gave her nothing but sorrow. Her hand when it touched his had not even felt any warmth, never had the idea of the morrow left her thoughtful, with a wish to be loved once again. And yet only in this room could she forget or find consolation. When she was there, quietly busying herself with her tasks, she found rest to her soul and felt that her brother would soon come back, that all would work out for the best and they would eventually all be happy together and never be parted again. She talked about it quite freely, for it seemed so natural that things should be so and it never entered her mind to look more deeply into the chaste and hidden gift of her heart.
But one afternoon, as she was setting off for the hospital, the terror that froze her when she saw a Prussian captain and two other officers in the kitchen revealed to her the deep affection she had for Jean. Evidently these men had heard of the presence of the wounded man at the farm and had come to get him, it would inevitably mean departure and captivity in Germany in some fortress. She listened trembling, with her heart beating wildly.
The captain, a big man who spoke French, was giving old Fouchard a violent dressing-down.
‘This can’t go on any longer, what do you take us for?… So I’ve come myself to warn you that if this happens again I shall hold you responsible. Yes, I shall know what steps to take!’
Quite unruffled, the old man pretended to be thunderstruck, standing with dangling arms as though he hadn’t understood.
‘Beg pardon, sir, what do you mean?’
‘Oh, don’t make me lose my temper. You know quite well that the three cows you sold us on Sunday were rotten. Yes, quite rotten and diseased, they had died of some foul disease, and they have poisoned my men, and two of them may be dead by now.’
Thereupon Fouchard registered revolt and indignation.
‘Diseased! What, my cows? It was such good meat, meat you could give a woman with a newborn baby, to build up her strength!’
He snivelled, beat his breast, declared he was an honest man, that he would as soon cut out his own flesh as sell any that was bad. For thirty years everybody had known him, and nobody in the world could say he had not had full weight and finest quality.
He confused him so with his flow of words, with such far-fetched theories that the captain furiously cut him short.
‘That’s enough of that! You’ve been warned, take care! And there’s something else. We suspect all of you in this village of harbouring the guerrillas from the Dieulet woods, who killed another of our sentries the day before yesterday. So take care, you understand?’
When the Prussians had gone old Fouchard shrugged his shoulders and sneered with infinite contempt. Cattle that had died of disease, well of course that’s what he sold them, that’s what he made them eat, and nothing else! All the corpses the peasants brought him that had died of diseases and the ones he picked up himself in the ditches – wasn’t that good enough for those filthy bastards?
He winked as he murmured with triumphant glee, and turning to Henriette, who was feeling very relieved:
‘And then to think, my dear, that there are people who say I’m unpatriotic!… Let them do as much, I say, let them give ’em old carrion and pocket their money. Unpatriotic! Well, for God’s sake! I shall have killed more of them with my dead cows than many a soldier with his rifle!’
But all the same, when he heard the story Jean was worried. If the German authorities suspected that the inhabitants of Remilly harboured the guerrillas from the Dieulet woods they might at any time do house-to-house searches and discover him. He could not bear the thought of compromising his benefactors or causing the least trouble to Henriette. But she prevailed on him to stay a few more days, and he agreed, for his wound was taking a long time to scar over, and he was not strong enough on his legs to join up with one of the fighting regiments in the north or on the Loire.
The days from then until the middle of December were the most disturbing and miserable of their solitude. The cold had become so intense that the stove could not heat the big, empty room. When they looked out of the window at the deep snow on the ground they thought of Maurice buried in a frozen, dead Paris, from which there was no reliable news. They always came back to the same questions. What was he doing? Why didn’t he give any sign of life? They dared not express their awful fears, a wound, sickness, perhaps death. The few odd bits of information that still came through to them in the papers were not calculated to reassure them. After claims of successful sorties, which were always proved false, there had been a rumour of a great victory won on 2 December at Champigny by General Ducrot, but later they knew that the very next day he had abandoned the conquered positions and been forced to recross the Marne. Every hour Paris was being held in a tighter stranglehold, famine was setting in, with potatoes being requisitioned as well as cattle, private people’s gas turned off and soon the streets in darkness, a darkness only streaked by the red paths of shells. Now the two of them could not warm themselves or eat anything without being haunted by a vision of Maurice and two million living souls shut up in that gigantic tomb.
Moreover the news from all directions, north as well as centre, was getting worse. In the north the 22nd army corps, made up of militia, men from supply depots and soldiers and officers who had escaped from the disasters of Sedan and Metz, had had to abandon Amiens and fall back towards Arras, while Rouen had fallen into enemy hands, for a handful of unattached, demoralized men had not seriously defended it. In the centre the victory at Coulmiers won on the 9 November by the army of the Loire had given rise to wild hopes: Orleans reoccupied, the Bavarians in flight, a march on Etampes and the early relief of Paris. But on 5 December Prince Friedrich Karl recaptured Orleans and cut in two the army of the Loire, three corps of which fell back to Vierzon and Bourges while two others under the command of General Chanzy withdrew to Le Mans in a heroic retreat during a whole week of marching and fighting. The Prussians were everywhere, Dijon and Dieppe, Le Mans and Vierzon. And every morning there was the distant crash of some fortress capitulating to shell fire. Strasbourg had fallen as early as 28 September, after forty-six days of siege and thirty-seven of bombardment, with its walls gashed and monuments riddled by nearly two hundred thousand projectiles. The citadel of Laon was already blown up, Toul had surrendered, and then came the dismal procession, Soissons with its hundred and twenty-eight guns, Verdun with its hundred and thirty-six, Neuf-Brisach a hundred, La Fère seventy, Montmédy sixty-five. Thionville was in flames. Phalsbourg only opened its gates in the twelfth week of its desperate resistance. The whole of France seemed to be ablaze and collapsing in this furious bombardment.
One morning when Jean was determined to go, Henriette took his hands and held them in a desperate grip.
‘No, no! I beg of you don’t leave me alone… You are not strong enough, wait a few more days… I promise I will let you go when the doctor says you are strong enough to go back and fight.’