SILVINE and Prosper were alone with Chariot in the big farmhouse kitchen on a cold evening in December, she sewing and he making himself a nice whip. It was seven o’clock, and they had had their dinner at six without waiting for old Fouchard, who must have been delayed at Raucourt, where meat was running short. Henriette, who was then on night duty at the hospital, had just left after telling Silvine not to go to bed without making up Jean’s stove.
It was very dark outside against the white snow. Not a sound came from the shrouded village, and the only thing that could be heard was Prosper’s knife as he busied himself adorning the dogwood handle with lozenges and rosettes. He paused occasionally and glanced at Chariot, whose big blond head was beginning to fall about with sleep. When the child did eventually go to sleep the silence seemed still deeper. His mother gently moved the candle away so that the little boy should not have the light in his eyes, and then, without stopping her sewing, she fell into a daydream.
It was then, after some hesitation, that Prosper made up his mind to speak.
‘I say, Silvine, there’s something I’ve got to tell you… I waited until I was alone with you.’
Looking disturbed already, she raised her eyes.
‘This is what it is… Forgive me if I am upsetting you, but you had better be warned… This morning, in Remilly, at the corner by the church, I saw Goliath as plain as I see you now, oh yes, full view and no mistake.’
She turned deathly pale, her hands shook, and the only sound she could utter was a soft moan.
‘Oh God, oh God!’
Prosper went on, carefully choosing his words, and told her what he had found out during the day by questioning various people. Nobody now doubted that Goliath was a spy who had settled in the neighbourhood to find out about routes, resources and all the minute details of its way of life. They recalled his stay at old Fouchard’s farm, his sudden departure and the jobs he had had since round Beaumont and Raucourt. And now here he was back again, occupying some unspecified post in the commanding officer’s headquarters in Sedan and travelling round the villages, apparently employed to gather evidence against some, tax others and see that the crushing requisitions imposed on the inhabitants were being properly enforced. That morning he had been terrorizing Remilly about a delivery of flour that was incomplete and late.
‘You are now warned,’ Prosper said again, ‘and so you will know what to do when he comes here…’
She cut him short with a cry of terror:
‘Do you think he’ll come here?’
‘Well of course, it seems obvious to me… He would have to be very lacking in curiosity, as he has never set eyes on the kid, although he knows he exists… And besides, there’s you, and you’re not all that bad-looking, and nice to see again.’
She made a sign begging him to stop. But the noise had awakened Chariot, and he looked up. His eyes still out of focus as though he were emerging from a dream, he remembered the insult he had been taught by some Clever Dick in the village, and declared with all the solemnity of a young man of three:
His mother snatched him up in her arms and sat him on her lap. Poor little thing, her joy and her despair, whom she loved with all her soul but could never look at without crying, this child of her body it hurt so much to hear maliciously being called the Prussian by the kids of his age when they played with him in the street. She kissed him as though to force the words back into his mouth.
‘Who taught you those wicked words? It’s naughty, you mustn’t say them, my pet.’
So of course with the obstinacy of children Chariot went into a fit of giggles and immediately started again:
Then, seeing his mother burst into tears, he began crying too and threw his arms round her neck. Oh God, what fresh misfortune was threatening? Wasn’t it enough to have lost in Honoré the only hope in her life, the certainty of forgetting and being happy again? No, the other man had to come back to complete her misery.
‘Now, now, come to bye-byes, my pettikins… I love you just the same, for you don’t understand how sad you make me.’
So as not to embarrass her by looking at her, Prosper had made a point of carefully going on with carving his whip-handle. She left him alone for a minute.
But before putting Chariot to bed Silvine usually took him to say good night to Jean, with whom the child was great friends. That evening as she went in, holding the candle in her hand, she saw the invalid sitting up in bed, staring into the darkness. So he wasn’t asleep? Oh no, he was turning all sorts of things over in his mind, alone in the silent winter night. While she filled up the stove he played for a minute with Charlot, who rolled on the bed like a kitten. He knew Silvine’s story and he was fond of this brave, quiet girl who had been through so much, mourning the one man she had loved and having only the one consolation left of this poor child, whose birth was her lasting torment. And so, when she had shut down the stove and came over to take the child out of his arms, he noticed that her eyes were red with crying. What, had somebody given her more trouble? But she did not want to tell him – she might later on if there was any point. After all, wasn’t life a continual sorrow for her?
Silvine was taking Chariot away when there was a noise of footsteps and voices in the yard. Jean listened in surprise.
‘What’s up, then? That’s not old Fouchard coming in, I didn’t hear the wheels of his cart.’
In his isolated room he had developed an awareness of the regular life of the farm, and was familiar with the slightest sounds. He listened and then said at once:
‘Oh yes, it’s those men, the guerrillas of the Dieulet woods, coming for provisions.’
‘Quick!’ said Silvine, running off and leaving him in darkness once again. ‘I must run and give them their loaves.’
By now fists were banging on the kitchen door and Prosper, worried because he was on his own, was gaining time by arguing. When the master was not at home he was not keen on opening the door for fear of damage for which he would be held responsible. But he was fortunate in that just then old Fouchard’s trap came down the hill, the sound of the horse’s feet muffled in the snow. So it was the old man who let them in.
‘Oh good, so it’s you three… What have you got for me in that barrow?’
Sambuc, looking like an emaciated bandit buried in a blue woolly too big for him, didn’t even hear, being furious with Prosper, his gentleman brother as he called him, who was only then making up his mind to open the door.
‘Look here, you, do you take us for beggars, leaving us out here in weather like this?’
But while Prosper, quite unruffled, silently shrugged his shoulders and got on with stabling the trap and horse, old Fouchard broke in again, stooping over the barrow.
‘So you’ve brought me two dead sheep. Good job it’s freezing, otherwise they wouldn’t smell too good!’
Cabasse and Ducat, Sambuc’s two lieutenants, who always went with him on his expeditions, expostulated:
‘Oh,’ said the first, with his loud southern chatter, ‘they’re not more than three days gone… They died at Raffins farm, where there is a bad epidemic among the animals.’
‘Procumbit humi bos,’ declaimed the other, the ex-process-server, whose excessive taste for little girls had lost him his job and who liked airing his Latin quotations.
Old Fouchard went on shaking his head and running down the goods, which he pretended to find too far gone. But he concluded as he went into the kitchen with the three men:
‘Oh well, they’ll have to put up with it… It’s as well that they’ve no meat left at Raucourt. When you’re hungry you eat anything, don’t you?’
Inwardly delighted, he hailed Silvine who was just coming in from putting Charlot to bed.
‘Bring me some glasses and we’ll all drink to Bismarck going to kingdom come.’
Fouchard kept on good terms with the guerrillas of Dieulet woods, who for nearly three months had been emerging from their impenetrable thickets at dusk and prowling on the roads, killing and robbing any Prussians they could surprise, and falling back on the farms and extorting money from the peasants when enemy game was scarce. They were the terror of the villages, particularly because after every attack on a convoy or killing of a sentry the German authorities took reprisals on places in the district, accusing them of aiding and abetting, levying fines, imprisoning mayors, burning cottages. Much as they would have liked to, the peasants did not betray Sambuc and his band simply out of fear of stopping a bullet round some corner if the deal misfired.
Fouchard had had the extraordinary idea of doing business with them. Combing the countryside in all directions as they did, ditches as well as cowsheds, they had become suppliers of dead animals. Not an ox or a sheep gave up the ghost for three leagues around but they stole it at night and brought it to him. He paid them in provisions, especially bread, batches of loaves that Silvine baked specially for them. Besides, although he had no particular liking for them, he had a sneaking admiration for the guerrillas, bright lads who made a good thing out of it by cocking a snook at everybody; and although he was making a fortune out of his dealings with the Prussians, he had a good laugh to himself, a savage laugh, whenever he heard that another of them had been found by the roadside with his throat cut.
‘Your good health,’ he said, clinking glasses with the three men.
Then, wiping his lips with the back of his hand:
‘By the way, they’ve made quite a thing of those two Uhlans they picked up near Villecourt, with their heads chopped off… You know Villecourt’s been on fire since yesterday, what they call a sentence on the village to punish them for harbouring you… Must be careful, you know, and don’t you come back here too soon. We’ll deliver your bread elsewhere.’
Sambuc shrugged and gave a fearful sneer. Never you fear, the Prussians could run after him! Then he suddenly came over angry and banged the table with his fist.
‘God Almighty, the Uhlans are all very well, but between you and me it’s that other bloke I should like to lay my hands on, you know, the spy, the one who worked for you…’
‘Goliath, you mean.’
Silvine, who had taken up her sewing again, stopped dead and listened.
‘That’s it, Goliath! Ah, the bastard, he knows the Dieulet woods like the back of his hand, and he can get us pinched one of these mornings, especially as he boasted at the Croix de Malte today that he’d settle our account within a week… A dirty sod who for certain must have guided the Bavarians the day before Beaumont, don’t you think so, you chaps?’
‘As true as that candle’s lighting us,’ Cabasse agreed.
‘Per amica silentia lunae,’ added Ducat, whose Latin tags sometimes went awry.
Sambuc shook the table with another thump of his fist.
‘That swine is judged and condemned! If some day you get to know which way he’s going, let me know, and his head will join those of the Uhlans in the Meuse. By God, yes, you can take it from me!’
In the silence that followed Silvine watched them attentively. She was very pale.
‘These are all things we shouldn’t be talking about,’ Fouchard went on prudently. ‘Your good health and good night.’
They finished the second bottle. Prosper had come back from the stable and gave a hand with loading on to the barrow, in the place of the two dead sheep, the loaves that Silvine had put in a sack. But he didn’t even answer, and turned his back when his brother and the two others went off, disappearing with the barrow into the snow and saying:
‘Good night, see you again soon!’
The next day, while Fouchard was alone after lunch, he saw Goliath himself come in, tall, big and pink-faced as ever, with his imperturbable smile. If this sudden appearance gave him a shock he didn’t show anything but just blinked, as the man came over and vigorously shook his hand.
‘Good morning, Monsieur Fouchard.’
Only then did Fouchard appear to recognize him.
‘Oh, fancy, it’s you, my boy!… Oh, you’ve filled out a bit. You are getting fat, aren’t you?’
He had a good look at him; he was wearing a sort of cape of coarse blue cloth and a cap of the same material, and looking prosperous and pleased with himself. Of course he had no German accent, but spoke the thick, slow speech of the peasants of that region.
‘Oh yes, it’s me, Monsieur Fouchard. I didn’t want to pass this way without saying hallo to you.’
The old man stayed on his guard. What was this fellow up to, coming here? Had he heard about the guerrillas coming to the farm yesterday? He would have to watch it. All the same, as he was coming very civilly it would be best to be polite in return.
‘Well, my boy, as you are so kind we must have a drink.’
He put himself out to go and find two glasses and a bottle. All this wine being drunk made his heard bleed, but you must know when to give something away in the interests of business. So the scene of the night before began all over again, and they toasted each other with the same gestures and the same words.
‘Your good health, Monsieur Fouchard.’
‘And yours, my boy.’
Then Goliath calmly made himself at home. He looked about him like a man enjoying seeing old scenes again, but made no reference to the past, nor, for that matter, to the present. The conversation turned to the severe cold which was going to make work hard on the land; fortunately there was a good side to snow, it killed the pests. He did show just the slightest unhappiness when he spoke of the sullen hatred or mingled contempt and fear that had been shown him in other homes in Remilly. After all, We all have our own country, don’t we, and it’s only natural that you should serve your country according to your lights. But in France there were some things they had funny ideas about. The old man watched him talking so glibly and being so conciliatory and told himself that this good fellow, with his big jolly face, had certainly not come with evil intentions.
‘So you’re all on your own today, Monsieur Fouchard?’
‘Oh no, Silvine is out there feeding the cows… Do you want to see Silvine?’
A smile spread over Goliath’s face.
‘Yes of course I do… To tell you the truth, I came because of Silvine.’
Old Fouchard jumped up at once, very relieved, and shouted at the top of his voice:
‘Silvine! Silvine! Someone to see you!’
Silvine was not surprised to see Goliath when she came in. He did not get up from his chair, but sat looking at her with his bland smile, though he was just a little ill at ease. She had been expecting him, and all she did was stop just inside the door, and her whole being stiffened. Chariot ran in after her and hid in her skirts, taken aback to see a man he didn’t know.
There was an awkward silence for a few seconds, and then Goliath broke the silence in honeyed tones:
‘So this is the kid?’
‘Yes.’ Silvine’s voice was hard.
Silence fell again. He had left in the seventh month of her pregnancy and so knew he had a child, but he was seeing it for the first time. So he wanted to get things straight, being a practical, sensible fellow convinced he was in the right.
‘Look here, Silvine, I can understand you bear me a grudge, but it isn’t quite fair… I went off and hurt you very much, but you should have realized at once that perhaps it was because I wasn’t my own master. When you’ve got superiors you’ve got to obey them, haven’t you? Even if they had sent me off somewhere on foot, a hundred leagues away, I should have gone. And of course I couldn’t say anything – it nearly broke my heart to go off like that without even saying good-night… Today, God knows, I’m not going to pretend that I was sure of coming back. But I meant to try, and as you see here I am.’
She had turned her head away and was looking through the window at the snow in the yard, as though determined not to hear. He was disconcerted by this silent contempt, and broke off his explanation to say:
‘Do you know you’re prettier than ever?’
At that moment she was indeed very beautiful, with her wonderful big eyes lighting up her pale face. Her heavy black hair was like eternal widow’s weeds.
‘Come on, be a good sort! You ought to know I don’t wish you any harm… If I didn’t still love you I wouldn’t have come back, and that’s a fact… But as I am back and it’s all worked out all right, we’re going to see more of each other, aren’t we?’
She drew back quickly, looked him straight in the face and said:
‘What do you mean, never? Aren’t you my wife, and isn’t that child ours?’
She kept her eyes on him and said deliberately:
‘Listen, we’d better put an end to this at once… You knew Honoré, I loved him and have never loved anyone else. And he is dead, and you people killed him… I shall never have anything more to do with you, never!’
She raised her hand and swore this oath in a voice so full of hatred that for a moment he was quite abashed, abandoned his affectionate tone and murmured :
‘Yes, I knew Honoré was dead. He was a very nice chap. Still, after all, others have been killed, there’s a war on… And then I thought that as he was dead there was no obstacle left between us. Because, as a matter of fact, Silvine, let me remind you, I didn’t use force, you consented…’
But he had to break off because she was in such a distracted state, with her hands raised to her face as though she were going to claw herself to pieces.
‘Oh, yes, I know, yes, it’s just that that’s driving me crazy. Why did I let you when I didn’t love you?… I can’t remember, I was so miserable and so ill after Honoré had gone, and it may have been perhaps because you talked about him and seemed to be fond of him. Oh God, how many nights have I spent crying my eyes out thinking about it! It’s horrible to have done something you didn’t mean to do and not to be able to understand afterwards why you did it… And he had forgiven me, he had told me that if those Prussian swine didn’t kill him he would marry me just the same when he came back home from the army. And you think I’m going back with you? Now look, even with a knife at my throat I shall say no, no, never!’
This time Goliath’s face darkened with anger. When he had known her she was submissive, but now he sensed that she was unshakeable and fiercely determined. Amiable creature he might be, but he wanted her, even if it meant using force now he was the master, and if he was not imposing his will with violence it was because of his innate prudence, his instinct for ruse and patience. This heavy-fisted giant disliked coming to blows. So he thought of another way of cowing her into submission.
‘Right, as you don’t want me, I’ll take the kid.’
‘The kid? What do you mean?’
Chariot had been forgotten, and was still hiding in his mother’s skirt, trying not to burst out crying in the middle of the quarrel. Goliath got up from his chair and came over.
‘You’re my little boy, aren’t you, a little Prussian… Come along with me…!’
Silvine snatched the boy up indignantly in her arms and clasped him to her breast.
‘A Prussian, him! No! French, born in France!’
‘A Frenchman! Just look at him and look at me. He’s the very image of me! Is he anything like you?’
And only then did she really see this tall, fair man with his curly hair and beard, wide pink face and big blue eyes shining like porcelain. It was quite true, the child had the same yellow mop of hair, same cheeks, same light-coloured eyes, all that race was in him. She felt she was the different one, with her straight dark hair, strands of which had come out of her chignon and were hanging down her back.
‘I made him, he’s mine!’ she went on furiously. ‘He’s a Frenchman who’ll never know a word of your filthy language. Yes, a Frenchman who one day will go and kill the lot of you to avenge those you have killed!’
Charlot began crying and screaming, clinging to her neck.
‘Mummy, Mummy, I’m frightened, take me away!’
Then Goliath, no doubt anxious to avoid a scene, drew back and contented himself with saying contemptuously and in a hard voice:
‘Just bear in mind what I’m going to say, Silvine… I know everything that’s going on here. You harbour the guerrillas from the Dieulet woods, that chap Sambuc, the brother of your farm-hand, a bandit you’re supplying with bread. And I know that this labourer Prosper is a Chasseur d’Afrique and a deserter who belongs to us. And I know too that you are hiding a wounded man, another soldier who would be taken off to prison in Germany at a word from me… So you see, I’m well informed.’
She was listening now, mute and terrified, while Chariot, with his face buried in her bosom, kept moaning:
‘Oh Mummy, Mummy, take me away, I’m frightened!’
‘Very well,’ went on Goliath, ‘I’m not all that ill disposed and I don’t like quarrels, as you well know, but I swear that I’ll have the whole lot arrested, old Fouchard and all the rest of them, unless you let me come to your room next Monday. And I’ll take the child and send him back home to my mother, who will be very glad to have him, for if you insist on breaking off everything he’s mine… Do you get that? Understand that I shall only have to come and take him, because there won’t be anybody else left here. I’m the master and I do what I like… What do you decide? Come on!’
But she said nothing, and held the child closer as though afraid he might be snatched away there and then, and her great eyes filled with fear and loathing.
‘All right then, I give you three days to think it over… You will leave the window of your room open, the one facing the orchard… If I don’t find that window open on Monday evening at seven I’ll have everyone here arrested the next day and come for the child… I’ll be seeing you, Silvine!’
He went off calmly and she stood there rooted to the spot, with so many ideas, far-fetched and horrible, buzzing through her head that they almost drove her silly. All through that day there was a tempest going on inside her. At first she had the instinctive thought of carrying her child away in her arms, straight ahead of her, anywhere. But what would become of them by nightfall, and how could she earn a living for him and herself? Apart from the fact that the Prussians patrolled the roads and would stop her and probably bring her back here. Then she thought of speaking to Jean, warning Prosper and even old Fouchard, but again she hesitated and recoiled from it, for was she sure enough of people’s friendship to know for certain that they would not sacrifice her for everybody else’s comfort and peace of mind? No, no, she wouldn’t tell anyone, she would get out of the danger by her own efforts since she alone had got into it by her obstinate refusal. But, oh God, what could she think of and how could she prevent this horrible thing? For her own decency protested, she would never forgive herself all through her life if because of what she had done some disaster overtook so many people, especially Jean, who was so kind to Chariot.
The hours went by and all the next day passed, and she had thought of nothing. She went about her business as usual, swept the kitchen, saw to the cows, did the supper. In the complete and terrible silence that she clung to, what grew and poisoned her more every hour was her hatred of Goliath. He was her sin, her damnation. If he had not existed she would have waited for Honoré and Honoré would still be alive and she would be happy. What a tone of voice he had used when he told her he was the master! Of course it was true, there was now no police force, no judges to appeal to, only might was right. Oh to be the stronger and seize him when he came, this man who talked of seizing others! For her there was only the child left, for he was her own flesh. This chance father didn’t count and never had. She was not a wife, and when she thought of him she only felt moved by the anger and resentment of a conquered victim. Rather than give up the child to him she would have killed the boy and herself afterwards. She had told him clearly – she wished this child he had given her, like a gift of hatred, were already grown up and capable of defending her; she saw him later with a gun, putting bullets through the lot of them over yonder! Yes, one more Frenchman, another French slayer of Prussians!
Meanwhile, she only had one day left and she had to come to some decision. From the first moment one murderous thought had been going through her poor, bewildered head, and that was to alert the guerrillas and give Sambuc the tip he was waiting for. But the idea had been a fleeting, intangible one, and she had rejected it as monstrous and out of the question – after all, wasn’t the man the father of her child? She couldn’t have him murdered. But then the idea had kept coming back, steadily more obsessive and urgent, and now it was forcing itself upon her with all the persuasive strength of its simplicity and finality. Once Goliath was dead, Jean, Prosper, old Fouchard would have nothing left to fear. She herself would then keep Chariot and nobody would ever again question her right to him. And there was something else much deeper, unrecognized even by her, which was rising up from the depths of her being – the need to make an end, to eliminate the paternity of the child by eliminating the father, the savage joy of telling herself that she would emerge with her sin amputated, as it were, mother and sole mistress of the child, without having to share with a male. For the whole of another day she turned the idea over, having no strength left to thrust it aside but brought back in spite of herself to the details of the trap, foreseeing the smallest details and fitting them in. By now it was an obsession, an idea that has driven home its point and that one no longer argues about. When she eventually acted in obedience to this pressure of the inevitable, she moved as in a dream, motivated by some other person, somebody she had never known in herself.
On the Sunday old Fouchard, who was nervous, had told the guerrillas that their sack of loaves would be taken to the Boisville quarries, a lonely spot two kilometres away, and as Prosper was doing something else it was Silvine he sent with the barrow. Was this not Fate taking a hand? She read in this a decree of destiny, and she talked and made the arrangements with Sambuc for the following evening in a clear voice, with no emotion, as though there was nothing else she could have done. The next day there were further signs and positive proofs that people and even things were willing the murder. To begin with old Fouchard was suddenly called away to Raucourt and left orders for the meal to be had without him, foreseeing that he could hardly be back before eight; and then Henriette, whose turn of duty at the hospital did not come until Tuesday, was warned quite late that she would have to act as replacement that evening for the person on duty, who was indisposed. And as Jean never left his room whatever noise was made, that only left Prosper who, she feared, might intervene. He didn’t hold with slaughtering a man like that, several to one. But when he saw his brother arrive with his two lieutenants his disgust with that vile crew only reinforced his hatred of the Prussians – certainly he was not going to save one of those filthy swine, even if he were dealt with in a foul manner, and he preferred to go to bed and bury his head in the pillow so as not to hear anything and be tempted to behave as a soldier should.
It was a quarter to seven and Charlot simply would not go to sleep. Usually as soon as he had had his supper his head fell on the table.
‘Now come along, my darling, off we go to sleep,’ Silvine said over and over again in Henriette’s room where she had taken him. ‘See how nice it is in Auntie’s big beddybyes!’
But the child was delighted with this treat and jumped up and down, choking with giggles.
‘No, no, stay here, Mummy… play with me, Mummy.’
She was very patient and very nice to him, caressing him and repeating:
‘Go to bye-byes, ducky… bye-byes to please Mummy!’
The child at last dropped off, a laugh still on his lips. She had not bothered to undress him, but covered him up cosily and went away without locking the door because as a rule he slept so soundly.
Never had Silvine felt so calm, with her mind so clear and alert. She was prompt in decision and light in movement as though she were a disembodied spirit and acting under orders from that other self, the one she didn’t know. She had already let in Sambuc, with Cabasse and Ducat, warning them to be extremely careful, and she took them to her room and posted them on either side of the window, which she opened in spite of the cold. It was very dark and the room was only very faintly lit by the reflection from the snow. The countryside was as still as death, and interminable minutes went by. At last, hearing a little sound of approaching footsteps, Silvine left and went back to the kitchen and sat there, quite still, her big eyes gazing at the candle flame.
And it still took a long time. Goliath prowled all round the farmhouse before venturing in. He thought he knew Silvine and so he had taken the risk of coming with only a revolver in his belt. But he had some misgivings, and pushed the window wide open, looked in and called softly:
Since the window was open it must mean that she had thought it over and was willing. This was a great joy, but he would have preferred to see her there to welcome and reassure him. Perhaps Daddy Fouchard had called her away to finish some job. He raised his voice a little.
No answer, not a breath. He stepped over the sill and went in, meaning to slip into the bed and wait for her under the sheets, for it was so cold.
Suddenly there was a furious scrimmage, with stampings and slippings, muffled oaths and snorts. Sambuc and the two others had fallen upon Goliath, and in spite of their number they could not immediately master the giant, whose strength was increased by danger. In the darkness there could be heard crackings of bones and the panting of men grappling. Fortunately the revolver had fallen on to the floor. A voice, Cabasse’s, gasped: ‘The ropes! The ropes!’ and Ducat passed to Sambuc the bundle of ropes they had taken the precaution of bringing with them. There followed a long, savage operation involving kicks and punches; the legs tied first, then the arms tied to the sides, then the whole body tied up by feel, depending on the man’s jerking struggles, with such a riot of turns and knots that the man was enveloped in a sort of net, some of the meshes of which cut into his flesh. He never stopped shouting and Ducat’s voice went on saying: ‘Shut your jaw!’ The cries stopped. Cabasse had roughly tied an old blue handkerchief over his mouth. Then they regained their breath and carried him like a bale into the kitchen, where they laid him out on the big table beside the candle.
‘The Prussian shit!’ swore Sambuc, mopping his brow. ‘He didn’t half give us some trouble! I say, Silvine, light another candle, will you, so as we can take a good look at the bleeding swine!’
Silvine was standing there with her big eyes staring in her pale face. She didn’t say a word, but lit a candle and put it on the other side of Goliath, who could be seen lit up as though between two church candles. At that moment their eyes met, and his desperately implored her, for he was terrified, but she showed no sign of understanding, and stepped backwards to the dresser and stood there cold and immovable.
‘The bugger’s eaten half my finger,’ growled Cabasse, whose hand was bleeding. ‘I must break something of his.’
He was already pointing the revolver, which he had picked up, but Sambuc disarmed him.
‘No, no! Don’t act silly! We’re not brigands, we’re judges… Do you hear, you Prussian filth, we’re going to give you a trial, and don’t you fear, we respect the right to a defence… You’re not going to defend yourself, though, because if we took your muzzle off you’d shout the place down. But in a minute I’ll give you an advocate, and a first class one!’
He found three chairs and put them in a row, then arranged what he called the tribunal, with himself in the middle and his two henchmen on his right and left. All three took their seats and then he stood up again and began speaking with a mock dignity which, however, gradually swelled and grew into avenging anger.
‘I am both presiding judge and public prosecutor. That’s not quite in order, but there are not enough of us… So: I accuse you of coming to spy on us in France and thus repaying us for the bread eaten at our tables with the most odious treachery. For you are the prime cause of the disaster, you are the traitor who, after the fight at Nouart, guided the Bavarians to Beaumont by night through the Dieulet woods. To do that it needed a man who had lived a long time in the district and got to know even the smallest paths, and we are quite convinced that you were seen guiding the artillery along some dreadful tracks like rivers of mud, in which they had to harness eight horses to each piece of equipment. When you see these roads again it is unbelievable, and you wonder how an army corps could possibly have gone that way. If it hadn’t been for you and the criminal way you did well for yourself out of us and then betrayed us, the surprise at Beaumont would not have happened, we should never have gone to Sedan and perhaps we might have licked you in the end. And I’m not going into the disgusting job you are still doing, the nerve with which you come back here in triumph, denouncing and terrorizing poor people… You are the lowest of the low, I demand the penalty of death.’
There was a hushed silence. He resumed his seat and then said:
‘I nominate Ducat to defend you… He has been in the law and he would have gone a long way if it hadn’t been for his passions. So you see I’m not refusing you anything and we are being very considerate.’
Goliath, who could not move even a finger, turned his eyes towards his makeshift counsel for the defence. His eyes were the only living part of him left, and they were eyes of burning supplication beneath a livid forehead dripping great drops of anguished sweat in spite of the cold.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Ducat, rising to make his plea, ‘my client is indeed the most stinking of rogues, and I would not undertake to defend him were it not my duty to point out in mitigation that they are all like that in his country…
‘Look at him, you can see by his eyes that he is quite amazed. He doesn’t realize his crime. In France we only touch our spies with tongs, but in his country spying is a very honourable career, a meritorious way of serving one’s country… I will even go so far as to say, gentlemen, that they may not be wrong. Our noble sentiments do us honour, but unfortunately they have led us to defeat. If I may so express it, quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat… You will appreciate the point of that, Gentlemen.’
He resumed his seat, and Sambuc went on:
‘And you, Cabasse, have you anything to say for or against the accused?’
‘What I have to say,’ cried the southerner, ‘is that we don’t need all this lot of balls to settle this bugger’s hash… I’ve had quite a lot of troubles in my time, but I don’t like joking about things to do with justice, it’s unlucky… Death! Death!’
Sambuc solemnly rose to his feet again.
‘So this is the sentence you both pass – death?’
‘Yes, yes, death!’
The chairs were pushed back and he went up to Goliath and said:
‘Judgement has been passed. You are to die.’
The two candles were burning with tall flames, like altar-candles, on each side of Goliath’s agonized face. He was making such efforts to beg for mercy, to shout words he could not get out, that the blue handkerchief over his mouth was soaked in foam. It was a terrible sight, this man reduced to silence, already as mute as a corpse, about to die with a flood of explanations and pleas stuck in his throat.
Cabasse was cocking the revolver.
‘Shall I blow his face in?’ he asked.
‘Oh no, no!’ cried Sambuc. ‘He would be only too pleased.’
And turning to Goliath:
‘You’re not a soldier, you don’t deserve the honour of departing with a bullet in your head. No, you’re going to peg out like the dirty swine of a spy you are.’
He turned round and politely asked:
‘Silvine, I’m not giving you orders, but I should like to have a wash-tub.’
During the trial scene Silvine had kept quite still. She was waiting, with set face, detached from herself and wholly occupied with the fixed idea that had motivated her for two days. When she was asked for a tub she just obeyed, disappeared for a moment into the cellar and returned with a big tub she used for washing Charlot’s clothes.
‘Put it under the table, near the edge.’
She put it there and as she straightened up her eyes once again caught Goliath’s. There was in the wretched man’s eyes a last supplication, and also the revolt of a man who didn’t want to die. But at that moment there was nothing left of the woman in her, nothing but the desire for this death, awaited as a deliverance. She went back again to the dresser, where she stayed.
Sambuc had opened the table drawer and taken out a big kitchen knife, the one they used for slicing the bacon.
‘All right, as you’re a pig I’m going to bleed you like a pig.’
He took his time, and discussed with Cabasse and Ducat the way to do the butchering job properly. There was even a dispute because Cabasse said that in his part of the world, in Provence, pigs were bled head down, while Ducat protested, outraged, considering this method barbarous and inconvenient.
‘Move him to the edge of the table over the tub so as not to make a mess.’
They moved him over, and Sambuc proceeded calmly and neatly. With a single cut of the big knife he slit the throat across. The blood from the severed carotid poured out at once into the tub with a little noise like falling water. He had taken care with the cut and only a few drops pumped out with the heartbeats. Although this made death slower, there were no struggles visible, for the ropes were strong and the body remained quite motionless. Not a single jerk or gasp. The only way the march of death could be followed was on the face, a mask distorted by terror, from which the blood was receding drop by drop as the skin lost its colour and went white as a sheet. The eyes also emptied themselves. They dimmed and then went out.
‘I say, Silvine, we shall have to have a sponge, though.’
She did not respond, but seemed rooted to the floor, and her arms had closed instinctively over her breast like a collar of iron. She was watching. Then she suddenly realized that Chariot was there, clinging to her skirt. He must have woken up and managed to open the doors, and nobody had seen him tiptoe in, like the inquisitive child he was. How long had he been there, half hidden behind his mother? He was watching, too. With his big blue eyes, under his mop of yellow hair, he was looking at the blood running down, the little red trickle slowly filling the tub. Perhaps it amused him. Had he not understood at first? Was he suddenly touched by the wind of horror, did he have an instinctive consciousness of the abomination he was witnessing? Anyhow, he suddenly screamed in panic:
‘Oh Mummy, Mummy! I’m frightened, take me away!’
It shook Silvine to the depths of her being. It was too much, and something gave way within her, horror at last got the better of the strength and excitement of the obsession that had kept her going for two days. The woman in her came back, she burst into tears and desperately picked up Chariot and hugged him to her breast. In terror she rushed madly away with him, unable to hear or see any more, with no other desire but to lose herself anywhere in the first hole she could find.
It was at that moment that Jean made up his mind to open the door of his room gently. Although he never bothered about the sounds in the house, he was surprised this time by the comings and goings and loud voices he heard. And so it was into his quiet room that Silvine tumbled sobbing and shaken in such a paroxysm of distress that at first he could not make any sense out of the disconnected words she muttered through clenched teeth. She kept repeating the same gesture, as though she were thrusting aside an atrocious vision. But at length he did understand, and he also pieced together the story of the ambush, the mother standing by, the child clinging to her skirt, the face of the father with his throat cut and life-blood ebbing away; it froze him, and the heart of this peasant and soldier was rent with anguish. Oh war, abominable war, that turned all these poor people into wild beasts, sowed dreadful hatreds, the son splashed with his father’s blood, perpetuating national hatred and doomed to grow up in time to execrate his father’s family, whom some day perhaps he would go and exterminate! Murderous seed sown to produce appalling harvests!
Silvine collapsed on to a chair, wildly kissing Chariot who was crying on her breast, and she repeated on and on the same sentence, the cry of her bleeding heart.
‘Oh my poor child, they’ll never call you a Prussian again!… Oh my poor child, they’ll never call you a Prussian again!’
Down in the kitchen old Fouchard had arrived. He had rapped on the door with the master’s authority, and they had decided to let him in. And certainly he had had an unpleasant surprise, finding this dead man on his table and a tub full of blood underneath. Naturally, with his not very patient nature, he had lost his temper.
‘Look here, you bloody tikes, couldn’t you have done your dirty work outside? Do you take my house for a dunghill, coming and fouling up the furniture with things like this?’
As Sambuc began making apologies and explanations he grew more alarmed and more annoyed.
‘What the hell do you suppose I’m going to do with this dead body of yours? Do you think it’s the way to behave, to come and land a dead body on someone without thinking what he’ll do with it? Suppose a patrol were to come in, I should be in a nice pickle! You lot couldn’t care less, you never asked yourselves whether it would cost me my life. Well, by Christ, you’ll have me to reckon with if you don’t take your corpse away at once! Do you hear, take it by the head or by the feet or anyhow you like, but don’t you let it hang about here, and don’t let there be a hair left three minutes from now!’
In the end Sambuc got a sack from old Fouchard, much as the latter’s heart bled at having to give something else away. He chose it from among the worst he could find, saying that a sack with holes in was still too good for a Prussian. But Cabasse and Ducat had a terrible job to get Goliath into the sack – his body was too big, too long, and the feet stuck out. Then they took him outside and loaded him on to the barrow they used to carry the bread.
‘I’ll give you my word of honour,’ declared Sambuc, ‘that we’ll chuck him into the Meuse.’
‘Above all,’ insisted Fouchard, ‘tie two big stones to the feet so that the bugger doesn’t come up again!’
The little procession disappeared over the snow into the black night, and the only sound to be heard was the melancholy squeaking of the barrow.
Sambuc always swore by the head of his father that he really had tied two heavy stones to the feet. Yet the body came up and the Prussians discovered it three days later at Pont-Maugis, caught in the reeds, and their fury was terrible when they found in the sack this dead man who had been bled from the neck like a porker. There were terrible threats, harsh measures, searches of premises. Perhaps some people talked too much, for one evening the mayor of Remilly and old Fouchard were arrested, suspected of having been too friendly with the guerrillas who were being accused of the crime. In this extremity old Fouchard was really very fine, with the imperturbability of an old peasant conscious of the invincible strength of calm and silence. He marched off without any panic, without even asking for an explanation. We should see. It was whispered round about that he had made a large fortune out of the Prussians, sacks of coins buried somewhere, one by one, as he earned them.
Henriette was terribly worried when she heard about all this business. Once again Jean wanted to go away for fear of compromising the people who had harboured him, although the doctor thought he was still not strong enough, and she insisted that he should wait two more weeks, being herself oppressed with renewed sadness at the coming necessity of a separation. When old Fouchard was arrested Jean had been able to avoid capture by hiding in the depths of the barn, but wasn’t he in constant danger of being discovered and taken away at any moment in the likely event of further searches? And besides, she was worried about her uncle’s fate. So she decided to go into Sedan one morning and see the Delaherches, who had billeted on them, it was said, a very influential Prussian officer.
‘Silvine,’ she said as she was leaving, ‘take good care of our invalid, give him his broth at twelve and his medicine at four.’
The maid, busy with her usual jobs, was once again the brave and self-effacing woman, running the farm now in the master’s absence, with Chariot laughing and capering round her.
‘Never you fear, Madame, he won’t go short of anything with me here to look after him.’