AT the Delaherches’s house in the rue Maqua in Sedan, life had started up again after the terrible upheavals of the battle and capitulation, and for nearly four months day followed day under the dreary yoke of the Prussian occupation.
But one corner of the great factory block remained shut up and looked uninhabited – the room looking on to the road at one end of the proprietor’s quarters, where Colonel de Vineuil was still living. Whereas the other windows were open and revealed quite a lot of activity and bustle of life, the windows of this room seemed dead, with their blinds obstinately closed. The colonel had complained about his eyes and said that strong light made them hurt. Nobody knew whether it was true or not, but a lamp was kept burning in his room night and day to humour him. He had had to stay in bed for two whole months, although all Major Bouroche had diagnosed was a cracked ankle-bone, but the wound would not heal and all sorts of complications had developed. Now he did get up, but he was in such a state of dejection, afflicted by some indefinable ill which was so intractable and all-pervading that he spent his days lying on a couch in front of a big wood fire. He was losing weight and becoming a wraith, and the doctor who attended him was very puzzled because he could find nothing wrong, no reason for this slow death. He was flickering out like a flame.
Old Madame Delaherche had shut herself up with him on the day after the occupation. They had no doubt come to an understanding, in a few words and once and for all, about their definite wish to remain cloistered together in this room so long as there were Prussians billeted in the house. Many had spent only two or three nights there, but one, Captain von Gartlauben, was there permanently. However, neither the colonel nor the old lady had ever referred to these things again. For all her seventy-eight years she rose at dawn and came and took up her position in an armchair opposite her friend on the other side of the fireplace, and in the unchanging light of the lamp she began knitting stockings for poor children, while he, staring into the wood fire, never did anything, and seemed to be living and dying with but one thought, in a growing lethargy. They certainly did not exchange twenty words in a whole day, and if at any time, simply because she came and went about the house, she inadvertently let some item of outside news escape her, he always stopped her with a gesture. So now nothing whatever came in from life outside, nothing about the siege of Paris, the defeats on the Loire, the daily sufferings of the invasion. But however much, in this voluntary entombment, he refused to see the light of day and stuffed up his ears, the whole appalling disaster and mortal grief must have been reaching him through the cracks, in the air he breathed; for hour by hour he was none the less poisoned by these things and brought nearer to death.
All through this period Delaherche, very much in the light of day and anxious to go on living, was busying himself with trying to reopen his mill. So far he had only been able to get a few looms working again, in the disorganization of workers and customers. And to occupy himself during his boring free time he had had the idea of making a complete inventory of his premises and working out certain improvements he had been dreaming of for a long time. It happened that he had on the spot, to help him in this job, a young man who had found shelter in his house after the battle, son of one of his customers. Edmond Lagarde, brought up at Passy in his father’s small drapery business, had been a sergeant in the 5th infantry, was barely twenty-three and looked no more than eighteen, and he had behaved under fire like a hero and with such tenacity that he had come in through the Ménil gate at about five with his left arm broken by one of the last bullets. Ever since the wounded had been moved out from his sheds Delaherche had kept him out of kindness. Thus Edmond was part of the family, eating, sleeping and living there, and now quite recovered and acting as secretary to the mill-owner while waiting to be able to return to Paris. Thanks to Delaherche’s protection, and on his solemn promise not to escape, the Prussian authorities left him alone. He was fair and blue-eyed, as pretty as a woman and moreover so diffident and modest that he blushed at the least thing. His mother had brought him up and deprived herself of everything, devoting the profits of the little business to paying for his years at school. He loved Paris and pined desperately for it in front of Gilberte, a wounded Cherubino whom she looked after with friendly affection.
Finally the family was also enlarged by the new guest, von Gartlauben, a captain in the Landwehr, whose regiment had replaced the regular troops in Sedan. In spite of his modest rank he was an influential figure, for an uncle of his was Governor-General, installed at Rheims, who had absolute power over the whole area. He also was proud of loving Paris, of having lived there and of being well aware of its politeness and refinements, and indeed he affected the impeccable behaviour of the man of breeding, concealing his native uncouthness beneath this polish. He always wore a tight-fitting uniform. He was tall and heavily built, keeping his age dark, for he was very distressed at being forty-five. Given a little more intelligence he could have been terrible, but his inordinate vanity kept him in a continual state of self-satisfaction, for he could never bring himself to believe that anybody could be laughing at him.
In due course he became a real saviour to Delaherche. But in the early days after the capitulation, what dreadful times they were! Sedan was overrun with German soldiers and in terror of being looted. In time the victorious troops moved off towards the valley of the Seine and only a garrison remained, and the town fell into the deathly peace of a cemetery – houses permanently shuttered, shops closed, streets empty by dusk, with the heavy tread and harsh cries of patrols. No papers came, or letters. It was like a sealed dungeon, a sudden amputation, with ignorance and foreboding about fresh disasters everybody felt were on the way. The crowning misery was the threat of famine. One morning people woke up to no bread, no meat and general ruin, as though the land had been eaten up by a swarm of locusts, following a week in which hundreds of thousands of men had poured through like a river in flood. The town had only two or three days’ provisions left, and appeals had had to be made to Belgium, and everything now came from the neighbouring country across an open frontier, the customs having been swept away in the catastrophe. And of course there were continual annoyances, a struggle that began again every morning between the Prussian administration, set up in the Sub-Prefecture, and the town council in permanent session at the Hôtel de Ville. The latter was heroic in its non-cooperation, but however much it argued and only yielded inch by inch, the inhabitants were being crushed beneath the weight of ever increasing demands and arbitrary and too frequent commandeerings.
At first Delaherche had a great deal to put up with from the soldiers and officers billeted on him. Men of all sorts of nationalities tramped through his home, with pipes in their mouths. Every night there suddenly fell upon the town, without warning, two thousand men, three thousand men – infantry, cavalry, artillery – and although these men only had a right to shelter and fire, you often had to run about and find them food. The rooms where they slept were left in a revoltingly filthy state. Often the officers came in drunk and were more unbearable than the men. Yet discipline was so strict that acts of violence or pillage were rare. In the whole of Sedan there were only two women known to have been raped. It was only later, when Paris resisted, that they made their domination brutally felt, for they were exasperated that the struggle looked like going on for ever, and were always afraid of a mass uprising and the savage warfare declared on them by the guerrillas.
Delaherche had just had to have a commanding officer in the cavalry who slept in his boots and left behind filth even on the mantelpiece, when Captain von Gartlauben arrived in his house one pouring wet night in the second half of September. The first hour was pretty rough. He talked at the top of his voice, demanded the best room, clanking his sword as he came up the stairs. But once he saw Gilberte he went very formal, shut himself up in his room, passed people stiffly and bowed politely. He lived in constant adulation because everyone knew that a word from him to the colonel in command at Sedan would be enough to get a requisition mitigated or a man released. Recently his uncle, the Governor-General at Rheims, had issued a coldly ferocious proclamation declaring a state of siege and punishing with the death penalty any person helping the enemy, whether as a spy or by causing German troops to take the wrong route when they were responsible for transporting them, or by destroying bridges and cannon or damaging telegraph wires and railways. The enemy meant the French, and the hearts of the people were outraged when they read the big white poster on the door of the headquarters which made a crime out of their anguish and hopes. It was so hard to learn about fresh victories of the Germans through hurrahs from the garrison! Every day brought its own grief, soldiers lit big bonfires, sang and caroused all through the night, while the population, now forced to be indoors by nine, listened in their darkened houses, beside themselves with uncertainty and guessing it meant yet another disaster. It was in one of these situations, towards mid October, that Captain von Gartlauben showed the first sign of some delicacy of mind. Since that morning a new hope had been born in Sedan, for there was a rumour of a great success for the army of the Loire on its way to relieve Paris. But so many times already the best news had turned into tidings of disaster! And indeed by that evening it was known that the Bavarian army had taken Orleans. In the rue Maqua, in a house opposite the mill, some soldiers were bellowing so loud that the captain, seeing Gilberte looking very upset, went and stopped them, for he himself thought that all this row was uncalled for. The month went by and von Gartlauben found occasion to render a few little services. The Prussian authorities had reorganized the administration, and a German sub-prefect had been appointed, which did not, however, prevent various annoyances from going on, although he was relatively reasonable. One of the most frequent difficulties always cropping up between the administration and the town council was the commandeering of vehicles, and a major fuss broke out one morning when Delaherche had been unable to send his carriage and two horses to the Sub-Prefecture. The mayor was put under arrest for a short time, and Delaherche would have gone to join him in the citadel had not Captain von Gartlauben taken simple steps to calm the storm. On another day, thanks to his intervention, the town was granted an extension of time when it was condemned to pay a fine of thirty thousand francs for alleged delays in the reconstruction of the Villette bridge, which had been demolished by the Prussians – a deplorable affair which ruined Sedan and filled it with consternation. But above all it was after the surrender of Metz that Delaherche was really indebted to his guest. The dreadful news had been like the trump of doom to the inhabitants, and the end of their last hopes, and by the following week overwhelming numbers of troops had appeared once again, the flood of men from Metz, the army of Prince Friedrich Karl heading for the Loire, that of General Manteuffel marching towards Amiens and Rouen, and other corps on their way to reinforce the armies besieging Paris. For some days the houses were crammed with soldiery, bakers and butchers were cleaned out to the last crumb and bone, and the streets reeked of sweat as though a huge migrating herd had passed through. The factory in the rue Maqua alone did not have to suffer from this flow of human cattle, for it was preserved by a friendly hand and classified only for lodging a few officers of good breeding.
So it came about that Delaherche eventually gave up his unfriendly attitude. The better class families had shut themselves up in their apartments and avoided any contact with the officers they had billeted on them. But he, with his continual urge to talk, please people and enjoy life, found this role of sulking victim very irksome. His big, cold, silent house in which each one kept to himself in the stiffness of resentment, got terribly on his nerves. So one day he began by stopping von Gartlauben on the staircase and thanking him for his kind services. Gradually the habit grew
and the two men exchanged a few words when they met, and thus one evening the Prussian captain found himself sitting in the manufacturer’s study, by the fire on which enormous oak logs were blazing, smoking a cigar and discussing recent events in a friendly way. For the first two weeks Gilberte did not appear and he pretended to be unaware of her existence, although at the slightest sound he glanced quickly at the door of the next room. He seemed to want everybody to forget his position as one of the conquerors, displayed a fair and broad-minded attitude, and often joked about some of the more laughable requisitions. For instance one day a coffin and a bandage had been requisitioned and that bandage and coffin struck him as very funny. For the rest, coal, oil, milk, sugar, butter, bread, meat, to say nothing of clothes, stoves, lamps, in fact anything that can be eaten or used in daily life, he just shrugged his shoulders about it. After all, what can you expect? It was annoying,
no doubt, and he even admitted that they were asking for too much, but it was war, and you had to live in an enemy country. Delaherche, who was irritated by these incessant requisitionings, spoke out plainly and went over them in detail every evening as though he were going through his kitchen accounts. There was, however, just one fierce argument between them about the levy of a million francs which the Prussian prefect in Rethel had imposed upon the department of the Ardennes on the pretext that Germany needed compensation for losses caused by French warships and through the expulsion of Germans resident in France. The share to be paid by Sedan was forty-two thousand. Delaherche wore himself out trying to make his guest understand that that was iniquitous, that the situation of the town was exceptional because it had already suffered too much to be struck again in this way. As a matter of fact they both emerged from these explanations on more intimate terms, for he was delighted at having made himself drunk with his own verbosity, and the Prussian was pleased with himself for having displayed a quite Parisian urbanity.
One evening Gilberte entered in her gay, fly-away manner. She stopped dead, pretending to be surprised. Captain von Gartlauben rose to his feet and was tactful enough to retire almost at once. But the next day he found Gilberte already there, and he took his usual place on one side of the fireplace. That was the first of some delightful evenings spent in the study, and not in the drawing-room, which established a subtle distinction. Even later, when she consented to give her guest musical selections, which he loved, she went alone into the adjoining drawing-room, merely leaving the door open. Through this hard winter the ancient oaks of the Ardennes sent flames leaping high in the lofty fireplace, and at about ten they had a cup of tea and talked in the cosy warmth of the big room. Captain von Gartlauben had obviously fallen madly in love with this young woman with the merry laugh, who flirted with him as in the old days at Charleville she used to do with Captain Beaudoin’s friends. He took even more care of his appearance, displayed the most exaggerated gallantry and gratefully accepted the tiniest favour, tortured by his one anxiety not to be taken for a barbarian, a brutal soldier who raped women.
Thus there were, so to speak, two parallel existences in the huge dark house in the rue Maqua. Whereas at meal times Edmond, with his pretty face like a wounded cherub, answered Delaherche’s ceaseless prattle in monosyllables and blushed if Gilberte asked him to pass the salt, and in the evenings Captain von Gartlauben sat in the study listening with swimming eyes to a Mozart sonata she was playing for him in the drawing-room, the adjoining room in which Colonel de Vineuil and Madame Delaherche lived was always silent, with closed shutters, lamp eternally burning as though it were a tomb lit by a candle. December had buried the town in snow, and the dreadful news took second place in the intense cold. After the defeat of General Ducrot at Champigny and the loss of Orleans there was only one grim hope left, that the land of France itself would become the avenging land, the exterminating land devouring its own conquerors. Let the snow fall in ever thicker flakes, let the earth split open under blocks of ice and all Germany find its grave therein! Then a new anguish twisted old Madame Delaherche’s heart. One night when her son was called away into Belgium on business she had heard, as she passed Gilberte’s door, the sound of soft voices, stifled kisses and laughter. She went back to her own room horrified by the abomination she suspected. It could only be the Prussian in there; she had as a matter of fact thought she had noticed a certain understanding in the way they looked at each other, and she was stunned by this ultimate shame. Oh, this woman her son had brought into the home against her advice, this harlot whom she had already forgiven once, by holding her peace after Captain Beaudoin’s death! And it was all beginning again, and this time it was the lowest infamy! What should she do? Such a monstrous thing could not go on under her roof. The agony of the cloistered life she lived was made worse, and she had days of fearful struggle. On the days when she came into the colonel’s room sadder than ever and silent for hours, with tears in her eyes, he looked at her and imagined that France had suffered yet another defeat.
It was at this juncture that Henriette appeared one morning in the rue Maqua to try to interest the Delaherches in the fate of her uncle Fouchard. She had heard sniggering gossip about the all-powerful influence Gilberte had on Captain von Gartlauben, and so she was a little embarrassed when she met old Madame Delaherche first, on the stairs, going up to the colonel’s room, for she felt she ought to explain the object of her visit to her.
‘Oh Madame, it would be so kind of you if you could help… My uncle is in a terrible position and might be sent off to Germany, it is said!’
The old lady, although she was fond of Henriette, made an angry gesture.
‘But my dear child, I have no power at all… I’m not the one to ask!’
And although she could see how upset Henriette was, she went on:
‘You come at a very awkward moment, my son is off to Brussels this evening… In any case he is powerless, just as I am… You’d better see my daughter-in-law, who can do anything.’
She left Henriette very troubled and now quite sure she had stumbled into a family crisis. Since the previous day Madame Delaherche had made up her mind to tell her son everything before he left for Belgium, where he was going to negotiate a large purchase of coal in the hope of starting up his looms again. Never would she countenance a resumption of this abominable thing right under her nose during this new absence. So before saying anything she was waiting to be sure that he would not postpone his departure to another day, as he had been doing for a week. It meant the collapse of the household, the Prussian turned out, the woman thrown out into the street and her name ignominiously placarded on walls, as they had threatened to do for any French woman who gave herself to a German.
When Gilberte saw Henriette she uttered a cry of joy.
‘Oh I’m so glad to see you! It seems such a long time, and we are getting so old in these horrid times!’
She dragged her into her own room, sat her down on the couch and hugged her.
‘Look here, you’re going to have lunch with us… But let’s talk first. You must have such a lot to tell me!… I know you’ve had no news about your brother… Poor Maurice, how sorry I am for him in Paris with no gas, no fuel, perhaps no bread!… And what about this fellow you’re looking after, your brother’s friend? You can tell I’ve already heard some tales about it… Have you come about him?’
Henriette hesitated to answer, feeling very embarrassed. For wasn’t it really for Jean’s sake that she was coming, in order to make sure that once her uncle was released they wouldn’t worry her beloved invalid any more? Merely hearing Gilberte mention him had filled her with confusion, and she now dared not reveal the real motive of her visit, for her conscience began to worry her and she recoiled from using the questionable influence she believed Gilberte to have.
‘So,’ Gilberte said again, with an arch look, ‘it is to do with that chap that you want our help?’
Then as Henriette, forced into a corner, did bring herself to mention Fouchard’s arrest:
‘Of course, yes, how silly I am, and I was talking about it only this morning!… Oh my dear, you were quite right to come. We must do something about your uncle at once, because the latest news I’ve had was none too good. They mean to make an example.’
‘Yes, I thought of you,’ Henriette ventured hesitantly. ‘I thought you would give me some good advice and could possibly do something…’
Gilberte went into a peal of laughter.
‘Don’t be silly, I’ll get your uncle released within three days!… Haven’t you been told that I’ve got a Prussian in the house who does everything I want?… You know, dear, he can’t refuse me anything!’
She laughed louder still, with the scatterbrained triumph of a flirtatious female, holding her friend’s hands and carressing her, while the latter could not find words to thank her, being very ill at ease and afraid that this was an admission. And yet how untroubled and innocently gay she seemed!
‘You leave it to me, and I’ll send you home happy this evening!’
When they went into the dining-room Henriette was very much struck by the delicate beauty of Edmond, whom she did not know. He filled her with delight like some pretty object. Was it possible that this boy had fought in battle and that they had dared to break his arm? The legend of his great bravery enhanced his charm, and all the time the cutlets and potatoes in their jackets were being served Delaherche, who had welcomed Henriette with delight as being a new face, never stopped singing the praises of his new secretary, who was as industrious and good-mannered as he was handsome. The lunch, a foursome in the snug dining-room, was by way of becoming an intimate family party.
‘So you have come to consult us about Papa Fouchard’s fate?’ Delaherche went on. ‘I’m so sorry to have to go away tonight… But my wife will fix it up for you, she’s irresistible and gets everything she wants.’
He laughed away as he said this with complete openness, merely flattered by this power of hers, for which he took some personal credit. Then he suddenly went on:
‘By the way, my dear, didn’t Edmond tell you what he has found?’
‘No, what?’ Gilberte gaily asked, turning her pretty, beaming eyes on the young sergeant.
The latter blushed as though overcome with rapture every time a woman looked at him like that.
‘Oh, Madame, it’s only some old lace that you would be sorry not to have for your mauve négligée. I was lucky enough yesterday to discover five metres of old Bruges point, really very lovely and quite cheap. The lady is coming to show it to you quite soon.’
She was thrilled and could have kissed him.
‘Oh you are nice! I’ll see you get your reward!’
Then as a pot of foie-gras, bought in Belgium, was being served, the conversation turned for a moment to the fish in the Meuse which were being poisoned and dying, and led to the danger of an epidemic threatening Sedan when the thaw came. Some cases had already occurred in November. Although immediately after the battle six thousand francs had been spent on cleaning the town and burning piles of kit, ammunition pouches and all sorts of nasty rubbish, the surrounding country was still full of horrible stenches whenever the weather was at all muggy, for the ground was so full of corpses not properly buried and covered with only a few centimetres of earth. Everywhere graves made hummocks in the fields, the earth cracked from internal pressure and the putrefaction oozed out and polluted the air. And now during these last days a new source of infection had been found – the Meuse itself – although over twelve hundred bodies of horses had already been pulled out. The generally held view had been that there was not a single human corpse left in the river when a gamekeeper, looking carefully at some water over two metres deep, had noticed some white objects in it that might have been taken for stones. It was a carpet of corpses, bodies that had been slit open and so had never swollen up and floated to the surface. They had been lying there for nearly four months, in this water, among the weeds. Arms, legs and heads could be fished up with boathooks, and sometimes the mere strength of the current could detach and carry away a hand. The water went muddy and great bubbles of gas came up, burst and poisoned the air with a foul stench.
‘It’s a good thing it is freezing,’ remarked Delaherche. ‘But as soon as the snow has gone we shall have a thorough search and disinfect the whole thing, otherwise we shall all be goners.’
As his wife laughingly begged him to change to some nicer topic while they were eating, he concluded lamely:
‘Ah well, the Meuse fish will be chancy for quite a time.’
By now they had finished and coffee was being served, when the maid said that Captain von Gartlauben was asking for the favour of being allowed in for a moment. There was a sensation because he had never come at this time, in the middle of the day. Delaherche at once said that he must come in, seeing a fortunate circumstance that would allow him to introduce Henriette. The captain, seeing another woman, was even more extravagantly polite. He even accepted a cup of coffee, which he took without sugar as he had seen many people do in Paris. As a matter of fact the only reason why he had insisted upon being asked in was his desire to tell Madame at once that he had obtained the release of one of her protégés, a poor workman in the mill who had been imprisoned after a set-to with a Prussian soldier.
Then Gilberte took advantage of the opportunity to mention old Fouchard.
‘Captain, may I introduce one of my best friends… She wants you to help her; she is the niece of the farmer they arrested at Remilly, you remember, after that fuss over the guerrillas.’
‘Oh yes, that business about the spy, the poor devil they found in a sack… Oh that is serious, very serious – I’m very much afraid there is nothing I can do.’
‘Captain, you would make me so happy!’
She turned caressing eyes on him and he showed smug satisfaction and bowed with an air of gallant obedience. Anything she wanted!
‘Sir, I would be most grateful,’ Henriette managed to stammer out, overcome with irresistible revulsion as she suddenly thought of her husband, her poor Weiss, shot up there at Bazeilles.
Edmond, who had discreetly withdrawn as soon as the captain came in, now returned and whispered a word in Gilberte’s ear. She leaped up, explained about the lace, which the woman had just brought, apologized and followed the young man out. Finding herself alone with the two men, Henriette was able to withdraw into herself and sit in a window recess while they went on talking at the tops of their voices.
‘Captain, do have a brandy… You see, I’m not standing on ceremony, but saying whatever I think, because I know how broad-minded you are. Well then, I assure you that your prefect is making a mistake by insisting on bleeding the town still more with this forty-two thousand francs. Just think what our sacrifices add up to since the beginning. First, just before the battle, the whole of the French army, exhausted and ravenous. Then you, and you were famished too. Just these troops going through, requisitions, repairs, expenses of all kinds, these things alone have cost us a million and a half. Add to that as much again for damage caused by the battle, destruction, fires – that makes three million. And finally I estimate the loss to industry and commerce at two million… Well now, what do you say to that! That brings us to a figure of five million for a town of thirteen thousand inhabitants! And you are asking for another levy of forty-two thousand, I don’t quite know what for! Is it fair? Is it reasonable?’
Captain von Gartlauben nodded and merely answered:
‘What do you expect? It’s war, it’s war!’
The wait went on and Henriette’s ears were buzzing and all sorts of vague and gloomy thoughts were making her dizzy as she sat there in the window seat while Delaherche was swearing on his honour that Sedan would never have been able to cope with the crisis, given the almost total lack of legal coinage, had it not been for the heaven-sent notion of creating a local token currency – paper money issued by the Caisse du Crédit Industriel, which had saved the town from financial disaster.
‘Captain, do have another little glass of brandy…’
And he jumped to another subject.
‘It wasn’t France that made the war, it was the Empire… Oh, the Emperor took me in altogether. It’s all over with him, we would rather be hacked to pieces than… You see, only one man saw how things really were in July, yes, Monsieur Thiers, whose present tour of European capitals is another great act of wisdom and patriotism. The wishes of all reasonable people go with him, may he be successful!’
He completed his thought with a gesture, for he would have deemed it improper to express a desire for peace in front of a Prussian, even a friendly one. But this desire was very strong in him, as it was in the hearts of all the old conservative bourgeoisie who had taken part in the referendum. They were coming to the end of their blood and their money and would have to give in, and from all the occupied provinces there was rising a sullen resentment against Paris, with its obstinate resistance. So he lowered his voice and, alluding to Gambetta’s inflammatory proclamation, concluded:
‘No, no, we can’t go on with these lunatics. It would be massacre… I’m all for Monsieur Thiers, who wants elections, and as for this Republic of theirs, well, that doesn’t worry me and they can keep it if they want to until we get something better.’
Very politely Captain von Gartlauben went on nodding his approval and repeating:
‘Of course, of course…’
Henriette, who had grown more and more embarrassed, could not stay there any longer. She felt an irritation without any clear reason, a need not to be there, so she rose softly and went to look for Gilberte, who had kept her waiting so long.
But as she went into the bedroom she was appalled to see her friend lying on the couch in tears and terribly upset.
‘Good gracious, what is it? What’s happened?’
The young woman wept even more bitterly and would not answer, but she was in such a state of confusion that all the blood in her body seemed to have rushed to her face. But in the end she threw herself into Henriette’s outstretched arms.
‘Oh my dear, if only you knew… Never can I dare tell you… And yet you’re the only one I have, and you alone may be able to give me some good advice.’
A shudder ran through her and her speech became even more confused.
‘I was with Edmond… And then, only a moment ago, Madame Delaherche caught me…’
‘What do you mean, caught you?’
‘Yes, we were here, he was holding me, and kissing me…’
Then she kissed Henriette, held her tight in her trembling arms and told her everything.
‘Oh my dear, don’t think too ill of me, it would hurt me so much!… I know I had sworn it would never start again… But you have seen Edmond, he is so brave, and so handsome! And then just think, this poor young man, wounded, ill, far from his mother! And then he’s never had any money because everything at home went into his education… I tell you, I simply couldn’t refuse.’
Henriette was horrified and could not get over her amazement.
‘What! It was with that young sergeant? But my dear, everybody thinks you’re the Prussian’s mistress!’
At once Gilberte leaped up, dried her tears and protested:
‘Mistress of that Prussian… Oh no, the very idea of such a thing! He’s horrible and gives me the creeps… What do they take me for? How could anyone think me capable of such infamy! No, no, never! I’d rather die!’
Her outrage had made her serious, with a suffering and angry beauty that transfigured her. But suddenly her coquettish gaiety and careless frivolity came back in an irrepressible laugh.
‘Well, it’s true I play with him. He worships me, and I only have to look at him and he obeys… If only you knew how funny it is to tease that great lump, who always seems to think he is at last going to be rewarded!’
‘But that’s a very dangerous game,’ said Henriette seriously.
‘Do you think so? What risk do I run? When he sees that he can’t expect anything he can only get annoyed and go away… But no, he’ll never see it! You don’t know the man, he’s one of the kind with whom women can go as far as they like without any danger. You see in that respect I have an instinct that has always warned me. He is far too conceited, and he’ll never admit that I’ve been having him on… All I shall allow him to do is take away memories of me, with the consolation of telling himself that he acted correctly, like a well-bred gentleman who has spent a long time in Paris.’
She thought this was very funny, and went on:
‘Meanwhile we’ll get your uncle Fouchard set free, and all he’ll have for his trouble will be a cup of tea sugared with my own fair hand.’
But then she suddenly veered back to her fears and the fright of having been surprised, and her eyes began swimming with tears again.
‘Oh God! And Madame Delaherche?… Whatever will happen? She has no love for me and is quite capable of telling my husband everything.’
Henriette had recovered her calm. She dried her friend’s eyes and forced her to put her clothes to rights.
‘Listen, dear, I haven’t the heart to scold you, and yet you know that I don’t approve at all. But I had been given such a scare over your Prussian, and had dreaded such nasty things that this other affair is really a relief… Cheer up, it will all work out.’
Which was wise, especially as Delaherche came in almost at once with his mother. He explained that he had sent for the carriage to take him into Belgium, as he had decided to go on by train to Brussels that evening. So he wanted to say good-bye to his wife. Then, turning to Henriette:
‘Don’t worry, Captain von Gartlauben promised when he left me that he would look into your uncle’s affair, and when I’ve gone my wife will do the rest.’
Gilberte, who felt sick with anxiety, had never taken her eyes off Madame Delaherche since she had come in. Was she going to speak and say what she had just seen and prevent her son from going? The old lady said not a word, but as soon as she came through the door fixed her eyes on her daughter-in-law. With her uncompromising code she was probably feeling the same sense of relief that had made Henriette tolerant. Ah well, as it was this young man, a Frenchman who had fought so gallantly, shouldn’t she overlook it as she had in the case of Captain Beaudoin? Her eyes softened and she looked away. Her son could go. Edmond would protect Gilberte against the Prussian. This woman, who had never been happy since the good news of the victory of Coulmiers, even smiled.
‘Well, good-bye,’ she said, kissing Delaherche. ‘I hope the business goes through all right, and hurry back home.’
She went off and slowly returned to the closed room on the opposite side of the landing, where the colonel, in his dazed way, was watching the shadow beyond the pale circle of light that fell from the lamp.
That same evening Henriette went back to Remilly and one morning, three days later, she had the pleasure of seeing old Fouchard calmly coming back into the farmhouse as though he had walked back from doing some deal in the neighbourhood. He sat down and ate some bread and cheese. Then he answered all their questions unhurriedly, like a man who had never had any fear. Why should they have kept him? He’d done nothing wrong. He wasn’t the one who had killed the Prussian, was he? Well, he had simply said to the authorities: ‘Look where you like, I don’t know anything.’ And they had had to release him, and the mayor as well, for lack of proof. But his cunning and mocking peasant’s eyes twinkled in quiet satisfaction at having diddled all those dirty buggers, for he was getting sick of the way they were now haggling about the quality of his meat.
December came to an end and Jean wanted to go. His leg was quite strong now and the doctor declared he could go and fight. It was a great sorrow for Henriette, but she tried to hide it. Since the disastrous battle of Champigny no news from Paris had reached them. They only knew that Maurice’s regiment had been exposed to withering fire and lost many men. Then the unbroken silence, no letter and never the slightest line for them when they knew that families in Raucourt and Sedan had received notes by roundabout routes. Perhaps the pigeon bearing the news they so desperately longed for had run into some voracious hawk, or had been brought down on the edge of some forest by a Prussian bullet. What haunted them most of all was fear that Maurice was dead. The silence of that great city, gagged by the siege, had become for them, in the agony of waiting, the silence of the tomb. They had given up hope of finding out anything, and when Jean said that he was determined to go Henriette could only say in a doleful tone:
‘Oh God, so it’s all over, and I’m going to stay here alone!’
Jean meant to go and join up with the army of the north which General Faidherbe had reconstituted. Now that General Manteuffel’s corps had reached Dieppe this army was defending three departments separated from the rest of France, the Nord, the Pas-de-Calais and the Somme, and Jean’s plan, which was quite easy to carry out, was simply to get to Bouillon and then work round through Belgium. He knew that the 23rd corps was being completed with all the veterans of Sedan and Metz they could muster. He had heard that General Faidherbe was going over to the offensive, and he definitely arranged to leave on the following Sunday when he heard about the battle of Pont-Noyelle, an indecisive battle which the French had almost won.
And again it was Dr Dalichamp who offered to take him to Bouillon in his trap. His courage and kindness were inexhaustible. In Raucourt, which was ravaged by typhus brought by the Bavarians, he had patients in all the houses in addition to the two hospitals he visited, the Raucourt one itself and the one at Remilly. His burning patriotism and urge to protest against pointless violence had caused him to be arrested twice and then released by the Prussians. And so he was in a carefree laughing mood on the morning when he came for Jean with his trap, glad to be helping another Sedan victim to escape, one of these poor brave people, as he called those whom he looked after and helped out of his own pocket. Jean, who was embarrassed about money and knew how poor Henriette was, had accepted the fifty francs the doctor gave him for his journey.
Old Fouchard did things well for the send-off. He sent Silvine to get two bottles of wine and invited everybody to drink a glass to the extermination of the Germans. He was now quite the gentleman and had his money well hidden somewhere and, no longer worried about the guerrillas of the Dieulet woods, who had been hounded out like wild beasts, his one desire was to enjoy the coming peace when it was concluded. He had even, in a burst of generosity, paid Prosper some wages so as to tie him to the farm, not that the fellow had any wish to leave. He drank with Prosper, he insisted on drinking with Silvine, whom for one moment he had thought of marrying because she was so regular and good at her job. But why bother? He sensed that she would not uproot herself any more, but would still be there when Charlot grew up and went off in his turn to be a soldier. And when he had clinked glasses with the doctor, Henriette and Jean, he exclaimed:
‘Here’s a health to everybody, and may everybody prosper and be as well as I am!’
Henriette had insisted on going with Jean as far as Sedan. He was dressed like an ordinary civilian, in an overcoat and round felt hat lent by the doctor. On that day the sun was dazzling on the snow and it was bitterly cold. They were intending to go straight through the town without stopping, but when Jean realized that his colonel was still with the Delaherches he was filled with a great desire to go and see him and at the same time he could thank Monsieur Delaherche for his many kindnesses. This was to be his crowning distress in this town of disaster and grief. As they reached the mill in the rue Maqua they found the place turned upside down by a tragic end. Gilberte was in a flurry of dismay. Madame Delaherche said nothing but was weeping bitter tears, and her son had come up from the workshops, where work was coming back to normal, and was uttering exclamations of astonishment. The colonel had just been found on the floor of his room, where he had collapsed and died. The eternal lamp was burning alone in the closed room. A doctor summoned in haste had not understood why, for he could discover no likely cause such as an aneurism or stroke. He had been struck down as it were by a thunderbolt, but nobody knew whence it had fallen, and it was only the next day that they picked up a piece of an old newspaper that had been used to cover a book, and in it was a report on the fall of Metz.
‘My dear,’ Gilberte told Henriette, ‘Monsieur von Gartlauben, when he went down the stairs just now, raised his hat as he passed the door of the room in which my uncle’s body rests… Edmond saw him. He really is a very well-bred person, isn’t he?’
Until then Jean had never embraced Henriette. Before climbing into the trap with the doctor he wanted to thank her for her care and kindness, for having looked after him and loved him like a brother. But the words would not come, so he opened his arms and embraced her, in tears. She was almost distraught and returned his kiss. When the horse started off he turned and they waved to one another and managed to say:
That night Henriette was back in Remilly and on duty at the hospital. During her long vigil she was suddenly seized with a terrible fit of crying, and she cried and cried, on and on, trying to stifle her grief between her clasped hands.