WHEN at long last, after endless delays, the train from Sedan pulled up at the station of Saint-Denis about nine, the sky to the south was lit up by a great red glow, as though all Paris was on fire. As night had come on this glow had brightened until it filled the whole horizon, flecking with blood a flight of little clouds that lost themselves to the east in the deepening night.
Henriette was the first to jump down, for she was worried by these signs of a conflagration that the passengers had seen out of the windows of the train as it sped across the dark fields. In any case Prussian soldiers had taken over the station and were making everybody get out, while two of them on the arrival platform were calling out in guttural French:
‘Paris on fire… Train stops here, everybody out… Paris on fire, Paris on fire…’
It was a terrible shock for Henriette. Oh God, had she got here too late? As Maurice had not answered her last two letters she had been so mortally scared by the more and more alarming news from Paris that she had suddenly made up her mind to leave Remilly. For months she had been getting more miserable at Uncle Fouchard’s, the army of occupation had become more harsh and exacting as Paris prolonged its resistance; and now that the regiments were returning one by one to Germany they were draining the countryside and the towns once again as they passed through. That morning, as she was getting up at first light to catch the train at Sedan, she had seen the farmyard packed with cavalrymen who had slept there all in a heap, wrapped in their cloaks. There were so many of them that they covered the ground. Then there was a smart bugle call and they had all risen to their feet without a word, draped in their long garments and packed so close to each other that she had had the impression of witnessing a battlefield rising from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. And now she still found Prussians at Saint-Denis, and it was they who were shouting these devastating words:
‘All out, train stops here… Paris on fire, Paris on fire…’
Distracted, Henriette rushed along with her little case, asking for information. Fighting had been going on inside Paris for two days, the railway was cut, and the Prussians were keeping the situation under observation. But still she wanted to get through, and noticing on the platform the officer in command of the company occupying the station, she ran up to him.
‘Sir, I am joining my brother and I am terribly worried about him. Do please help me to continue my journey.’
Then she stopped in amazement, recognizing the captain whose face was lit up by the gas-lamp.
‘Otto, it’s you!… Oh, do be kind to me now that chance has once again brought us face to face.’
Otto Gunther, Weiss’s cousin, was still smartly dressed in the tight-fitting uniform of a captain in the Prussian Guard, with the tight-lipped air of a fine, well-groomed officer. He did not recognize this thin, delicate-looking woman with her fair hair and pretty, sweet face under the widow’s veil. It was only her clear serious eyes that made him remember her. He merely made a little gesture.
‘You know I have a brother who is a soldier,’ Henriette hurriedly went on. ‘He has stayed in Paris and I’m afraid he has got caught up in all this horrible fighting… Otto, I beg of you, help me to continue my journey.’
Only then did he speak.
‘But I assure you there is nothing I can do… The trains have not been running since yesterday and I think they’ve taken up the rails near the ramparts. And I haven’t a carriage or a horse or a man to take you.’
She stared at him and in her bitterness at finding him so callous and determined not to come to her aid she could only find disconnected words:
‘Oh God, you won’t do anything… Oh God, who can I ask?’
These Prussians, who were the absolute masters, who at a single word could have turned the place upside down, commandeered a hundred vehicles, got a thousand horses out of stables! And he was refusing with the haughty air of a conqueror whose principle was never to interfere with the affairs of the beaten natives, no doubt considering them unclean and likely to soil his nice new glory!
‘Anyhow,’ she went on, trying to recover her self-control, ‘you must at least know what is going on, and surely you can tell me.’
He smiled a thin, almost imperceptible smile.
‘Paris is burning… come here and have a look, you can see plainly.’
He walked in front of her, out of the station and along the track for about a hundred metres, as far as an iron footbridge across the line. When they had climbed up the narrow steps and were on the top and leaning over the handrail, the vast level plain could be seen beyond an embankment.
‘You can see, Paris is burning.’
It must have been about half past nine. The red glow in the sky was still spreading. In the east the flight of little bloodstained clouds had gone and the vault was simply a wall of ink on which distant flames were reflected. Now the whole line of the horizon was ablaze, but in certain places more intense fires could be seen, bright red fountains playing continuously against the dark background of the great billows of smoke. It looked as though the fires themselves were on the move like some gigantic forest with the flames leaping from tree to tree, or as though the earth itself was about to flare up, kindled by the colossal bonfire of Paris.
‘Look,’ Otto pointed out, ‘that black hump standing out against the red background is Montmartre… On the left there’s nothing burning so far at La Villette or Belleville. The fire must have been started in the rich neighbourhoods, and it’s gaining ground, gaining ground… Just look over there to the right, that’s a new fire being started! You can see the flames, a fountain of flames with fiery smoke rising… And others, still others, everywhere!’
He was not shouting or getting excited, but the outrageousness of his quiet joy terrified Henriette. Oh, these Prussians who could watch this! She felt the insult of his calm, faint smile, as though he had foreseen this unparalleled disaster and had been waiting for it for a long time. At last Paris was burning down, Paris where German shells had only succeeded in knocking off a few gutters. All his rancour was satisfied and he seemed avenged for the endless siege, the terrible cold and the ever renewed difficulties which still rankled with Germany. In the triumph of their pride the conquered provinces, the indemnity of five milliards, none of it was as good as this spectacle of Paris destroyed, gone raving mad and setting fire to herself and going up in smoke on this clear spring night.
‘Oh, it was bound to come!’ he went on almost in a whisper. ‘A grand piece of work!’
As she took in the immensity of the disaster Henriette felt more and more sick at heart until the pain was unbearable. For a few minutes her own misfortunes vanished, carried away in this expiation of a whole nation. The thought of fire devouring human lives, the sight of this blazing city on the horizon, throwing up the hellish glare of cities accursed and destroyed, made her cry out in spite of herself. She clasped her hands together and asked:
‘What have we done, oh God, to be punished like this?’
But Otto at once raised his arm as though delivering a reproof. He was about to speak with the vehemence of that cold, hard, militaristic Protestantism that can always quote verses of the Bible. But he caught the young woman’s beautiful, clear and reasonable eyes, and one glance stopped him. In any case his gesture had been enough, it had expressed his racial hatred and his conviction that he was in France as a judge sent by the Lord of Hosts to chastise a perverse people. Paris was burning as a punishment for centuries of wickedness, for the long tale of its crimes and debauches. Once again the Germanic tribes would save the world and sweep away the last remains of Latin corruption.
He dropped his arm and merely said:
‘It’s all over… Another district is catching fire, see, that fire over there, further to the left… You can see that big streak spreading like a river of glowing embers.’
They said no more, and there was a terrified silence. And indeed sudden new bursts of flame were continually rising, filling the sky like a furnace overflowing. Every minute the sea of fire went on broadening to infinity like an incandescent tide from which there were now going up columns of smoke that gathered together above the city into an immense dark copper-coloured cloud. A light wind must be blowing it, for it was slowly moving away through the black night, filling the vault of heaven with its foul rain of ash and soot.
With a jerk Henriette seemed to come back out of a nightmare and, overcome once more with anguish at the thought of her brother, she implored him yet again.
‘So you can’t do anything for him, and won’t help me to get into Paris?’
Once again Otto seemed to sweep the horizon with a wave of the arm.
‘What’s the use, because by tomorrow there won’t be anything left but rubble?’
That was all, and she walked down from the footbridge without even saying good-bye, and ran off, holding her little case. But he stayed up there a long time, slender and motionless, tightly buttoned in his uniform, lost in the night and letting his eyes drink their fill of this monstrous spectacle of Babylon in flames.
As Henriette was leaving the station she was lucky enough to come upon a heavily-built lady bargaining with a cabby to take her immediately to the rue de Richelieu in Paris; and Henriette begged so hard and her tears were so touching that the lady agreed to take her as well. The cabby, a dark little man, whipped up his horse and never said a word all through the journey, but the lady never stopped talking about how, when she had left her shop two days previously and locked it up, she had been silly enough to leave some bonds there in a hiding-place in a wall. So for the past two hours, since the city had been on fire, she had been obsessed with the one idea of going back and recovering her property even though it meant going through the fire. At the barrier there was only a sleepy guard, and the cab went through with little trouble, especially as the lady made up a tale about having gone to fetch her niece so that the two of them could nurse her husband who had been wounded by the Versailles troops. The real obstacles began in the streets, where barricades blocked the roadway at every point and they had to make continual detours. Finally at the Boulevard Poissonnière the cabby refused to go any further, and the two women had to continue on foot through the rue du Sentier, rue des Jeûneurs and the Bourse area. As they were approaching the fortifications the fiery glow in the sky had lighted them up as if it were broad daylight. Now they were amazed at the emptiness of this part of the city, where the only sound to reach them was a distant pulsating roar. But by the time they reached the Bourse they heard shots and had to slip along close to the buildings. Having found her shop in the rue de Richelieu intact the large lady was delighted and insisted on showing her friend the way along the rue du Hasard and rue Sainte-Anne right to the rue des Orties. For a moment some Federals, still occupying the rue Sainte-Anne, tried to prevent their passing. It was four in the morning and already light when at last Henriette, worn out with emotion and fatigue, found the door of the old house in the rue des Orties wide open. After climbing the narrow, dark stairs she had to go through a door and up a ladder that led to the roof.
At the barricade in the rue du Bac Maurice, between the two sandbags, had managed to get himself on to his knees, and Jean was filled with hope, for he thought he had pinned him to the ground.
‘Oh my dear boy, you’re still alive then! Is it possible I could be so lucky, foul brute that I am?… Just a moment, let’s have a look.’
With very great care he examined the wound by the light from the fires. The bayonet had gone through the arm near the right shoulder, and the worst thing about it was that it had then penetrated between two ribs and probably involved the lung. Yet the wounded man was breathing without too much trouble. But the arm hung down, inert.
‘Poor old chap, don’t be so upset! I’m glad, really. I’d rather get it over… You did enough for me long ago, and without you I should have pegged out at the side of some road.’
But hearing him talk like this, Jean’s bitter grief came back.
‘Shut up, do! Twice you got me out of the Prussians’ clutches. We were quits, and it was my turn to give my life, and then I go and kill you… Oh, God Almighty, I must have been loaded to the eyeballs through having drunk too much blood already!’
Tears ran down from his eyes as he thought of their separation back at Remilly when they had parted wondering whether they would see each other some day, and where and in what circumstances of joy or sorrow. Was there no point, then, in their having lived days together without food, nights without sleep and with death ever present? Had their hearts been as one for those few weeks of heroic life shared together, and all to lead them to this abomination, this monstrous, stupid fratricide? No, no, he refused to think of it.
‘Leave it to me, boy, I’ve got to save you.’
First he had to get him away from there, because the soldiers were finishing off the wounded. By great good fortune they happened to be alone, and there was not a minute to lose. Using his knife he quickly slit the sleeve and then removed the whole tunic. Blood was being lost, so he hastened to bandage the arm tight with strips torn out of the lining. Then he put a pad on the body-wound and tied the arm over it. Fortunately he had a bit of cord and he tightened this rough and ready dressing as hard as he could, which had the advantage of immobilizing all the affected side and preventing haemorrhage.
‘Can you walk?’
‘I think so.’
But he dared not take him away like that, in his shirtsleeves. On a sudden inspiration he ran round the corner, where he had seen a dead soldier, and he came back with a greatcoat and a képi. He threw the coat over his shoulders and helped him to put his good arm into the left sleeve. Then, having stuck the képi on his head:
‘There, now you’re one of us… Where are we to go?’
That was the great problem. His anguish of mind suddenly came back amidst his renewed hope and courage. Where could they find a safe enough place to hide? Houses were being searched, and all Communards found with weapons were shot. What was more, neither of them knew anyone in that part of Paris; there was not a soul they could ask for shelter, no hiding-place where they could disappear.
‘The best thing really would be my place,’ said Maurice. ‘The house is isolated and nobody on earth will come there… But it’s the other side of the river, in the rue des Orties.’
Jean was in hopeless despair, distraught and swearing to himself.
‘Bloody hell! What can we do?’
It was unthinkable to cross the Pont Royal which owing to the fires was as brightly lit as on a sunny day. The firing on both sides of the river was continuous. And besides, they would have come up against the Tuileries in flames, the Louvre barricaded and guarded, in fact an impassable barrier.
‘So it’s no fucking good that way!’ declared Jean, who had lived for six months in Paris after the Italian campaign.
He had a sudden inspiration. If there were any boats under the bridge, as there used to be, they might try and bring it off. It would be very long, dangerous and awkward, but there was no choice and they must make up their minds at once.
‘Look, kid, let’s get out of here in any case, it isn’t healthy… I can tell my lieutenant that the Communards captured me and I escaped.’
He took him by the good arm, supported him and helped him along the end bit of the rue du Bac, between houses in flames from top to bottom like huge torches. Bits of blazing wood rained down on them and the heat was so intense that it singed all the hair on their faces. When they came out on to the embankment they were momentarily blinded by the dreadful light from fires burning in huge sheaves of flame on both sides of the Seine.
‘No lack of candles,’ growled Jean, vexed at this strong light.
He didn’t feel the slightest bit safer until he had got Maurice down the steps to the towpath to the left of the Pont Royal, downstream. They remained hidden there under the big trees by the water. For a quarter of an hour they were worried about some black figures moving about on the opposite bank. Some shots were fired, there was a shriek and something plopped into the water throwing up a big splash. Obviously the bridge was guarded.
‘Suppose we stayed for the night in that hut?’ Maurice suggested, pointing to a wooden office of the river transport authority.
‘Not on your life! And get nabbed in the morning?’
Jean still stuck to his idea. He had found a whole flotilla of small boats. But they were chained up, and how could he free one and get the oars out? But in the end he did manage to find an old pair of oars and was able to force a padlock – not properly locked, no doubt – and having laid Maurice in the bows he at once cautiously let himself drift with the current, hugging the bank in the shadow of the bathing establishment and barges. Neither said a word, for they were appalled by the dreadful spectacle unfolding itself. As they went downstream the horror seemed to get worse and the horizon receded. When they reached the Solferino bridge they could take in at a glance both banks in flames.
On the left the Tuileries was burning. By nightfall the Communards had set fire to both ends of the palace, the Pavillon de Flore and the Pavillon de Marsan, and the fire was rapidly moving towards the Pavillon de l’Horloge in the middle, where a big explosive charge had been set – barrels of powder piled up in the Salle des Maréchaux. At that moment there were issuing from the broken windows of the connecting blocks whirling clouds of reddish smoke pierced by long blue tongues of fire. The roofs were catching, splitting open into blazing cracks, like volcanic earth from the pressure of the fire within. It was the Pavillon de Flore, the first to be set on fire, which was burning most fiercely, with a mighty roaring from the ground floor to the great roof. The paraffin, with which the floors and hangings had been soaked, gave the flames such an intense heat that the ironwork of balconies could be seen buckling and the tall monumental chimneys burst, with their great carved suns red-hot.
Then to the right there was first the Palace of the Legion of Honour which had been fired at five in the afternoon and had been burning for nearly seven hours, and now it was being consumed like a great bonfire in which all the wood is burning up at once. Next there was the Palais du Conseil d’Etat, the most immense, ghastly and terrifying blaze of all, a gigantic cube of masonry with two superimposed colonnades belching forth flames. The four blocks surrounding the inner courtyard had caught fire simultaneously, and there the paraffin, emptied in barrelfuls down the four corner staircases, had run in cataracts of hell-fire all down the steps. On the river frontage the clear outline of the attic storey stood out in black tiers against the red tongues licking its edges, while the colonnades, entablatures, friezes and sculptures took on an extraordinary relief in the blinding light of a furnace. In this building above all there was such a strong rush of flame that the colossal pile seemed to be almost lifted by it, shaking and rumbling on its foundations, keeping only its carcass of thick walls in this violent eruption that was hurling its zinc roofing up into the sky. And next door one whole side of the Orsay barracks was burning in a lofty white column like a tower of light. And finally behind all this there were still more fires, the seven houses in the rue du Bac, the twenty-two houses in the rue de Lille, lighting up the horizon, flames on flames in an endless, bloody sea.
Jean could only manage to murmur:
‘Oh God, it isn’t possible! The river itself will catch fire.’
And indeed the boat seemed to be floating on a river of fire. In the dancing reflections of these huge conflagrations the Seine appeared to be bearing along blazing coals. Sudden red flashes played over it in shimmering patches of flame. And they were still floating downstream on this burning water, between these palaces in flames, as if in an endless street in an accursed city, burning on each side of a roadway of molten lava.
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Maurice in his turn, his frenzy returning in the face of this destruction he had wanted to see, ‘let the whole lot go up in flames!’
Jean stopped him with a terrified gesture, as though afraid such a blasphemy would bring a curse upon them. Could it possibly be that a man he loved so dearly, who was so well educated, so delicate in mind, had come down to such notions? He was now rowing harder, for he had passed the Solferino bridge and was in a broad, open reach. The light was as bright as a noonday sun shining straight down on the river without casting any shadow. The smallest details could be picked out with astonishing precision, the flecks of the current, heaps of stones on the towpaths, little trees on the embankments. The bridges especially stood out in blinding whiteness, so clear that you could have counted the blocks of stone, and they looked like narrow, intact passages from one fire to another over the fiery water. Occasionally, in the continuous roaring noise, sudden crashes could be heard. Flurries of soot came down and foul stenches were borne on the wind. The terrifying thing was that Paris, that is to say all the other districts further away along the trench of the Seine, had ceased to exist. On either side the very violence of the conflagration so dazzled the eyes that there was nothing but a black abyss beyond. Nothing could be seen but an enormous darkness, a void, as if the whole of Paris had been seized and devoured by the fire and disappeared into eternal night. The sky was dead too, for the flames shot so high that they put out the stars.
Maurice, now in the delirium of fever, gave vent to the cackle of a madman.
‘Lovely party going on at the Conseil d’Etat and the Tuileries… the outside all illuminated, lustres all glittering, women dancing… Go on, dance in your smoking petticoats and flaming hair!’
With his good arm he sketched visions of the galas in Sodom and Gomorrah, with music, flowers and unnatural orgies, palaces bursting with such debaucheries, the disgusting nudities illuminated with such a riot of candles that they themselves were set on fire. Then there was a fearful crash. The fire in the Tuileries had worked its way along from both ends and reached the Salle des Maréchaux. The barrels of gunpowder had caught and the Pavillon de l’Horloge went up like an exploding magazine. An immense fountain of fire rose like a plume and filled the black sky – the final set-piece of the gruesome fête.
‘Hurrah for the dance!’ screamed Maurice, as though at the end of a show when everything falls back into darkness.
Jean was almost speechless and in disjointed words begged him to stop. No, no, one mustn’t wish for evil! If it meant total destruction wouldn’t they perish as well? He had only one urgent job, to land and get away from this awful sight. All the same he was prudent enough to go past the Concorde bridge so as not to leave the boat until the towpath below the Quai de la Conférence, beyond the bend in the Seine. Yet at that critical moment, instead of just letting the boat drift away he lost several minutes mooring it safely, with his instinctive respect for other people’s property. His plan was to reach the rue des Orties by way of the Place de la Concorde and the rue Saint-Honoré. Having sat Maurice down on the towpath he went up the steps to the roadway alone, and once again he was very worried when he realized what difficulty they would have in getting past the obstacles piled up there. For this was the impregnable fortress of the Commune, the Tuileries terrace fortified with guns and the rue Royale, rue Saint-Florentin and rue de Rivoli blocked by high barricades strongly constructed. This explained the tactics of the Versailles army, whose lines that night formed a huge concave angle with its apex at the Place de la Concorde and one extremity, the one on the right bank, at the goods yard of the Northern Railway and the other, on the left bank, at a bastion of the fortifications near the Arcueil gate. But it would soon be daybreak, the Communards had evacuated the Tuileries and the barricades, and the troops had just taken over the area, amid still more fires – twelve more houses that had been burning since nine at the intersection of the rue Saint-Honoré and the rue Royale.
When Jean came down again from the embankment he found Maurice dozing as though he had relapsed into lethargy after the crisis of over-excitement.
‘It’s not going to be easy… Anyway, can you walk a bit further, kid?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t you worry. I shall get there somehow, dead or alive.’
His worst trouble was to climb the stone steps. Once up on the embankment he moved along slowly on Jean’s arm, like a sleepwalker. Although the day was not yet dawning the light from the fires near-by threw a livid dawn over the huge square. They crossed its empty spaces, their hearts aching at this dreary devastation. At the two extremities, beyond the bridge and at the further end of the rue Royale, they could just make out the phantom shapes of the Palais-Bourbon and the Madeleine, damaged by gunfire. The terrace of the Tuileries, which had been battered in forcing an entry, had partially collapsed. On the square itself bullets had made holes in the bronze of the fountains, the colossal trunk of the statue of Lille lay on the ground, broken in two by a shell, while the statue of Strasbourg hard by, still veiled, seemed to be in mourning for so much ruin. In a trench near the obelisk, which was unscathed, a gas-main, split open by someone with a pick and which by chance had ignited, was shooting up a long jet of flame with a hissing noise.
Jean avoided the barricade across the rue Royale, between the Ministry of Marine and the Garde-Meuble, which had escaped the fire. He could hear loud voices of soldiers behind the sandbags and barrels of earth. In front of it there was a ditch full of stagnant water with the corpse of a Federal floating in it, and through a breach could be seen buildings at the crossing with the rue Saint-Honoré still burning in spite of pumps brought in from the suburbs that could be heard throbbing. On either side the little trees and news kiosks were broken and riddled with shot. There was a lot of shouting, the firemen had discovered in a cellar the half-charred remains of seven tenants of one of the buildings.
Although the barricade cutting off the rue Saint-Florentin and the rue de Rivoli looked still more daunting, with its well-constructed high defences, Jean felt that it would be less dangerous to get through that way. And indeed it was quite deserted, and so far the army had not ventured to enter into occupation. Abandoned cannons lay there in a heavy slumber. There was not a soul behind this invincible rampart – nothing but a stray dog that ran off. But as Jean was hurrying along the rue Saint-Florentin, supporting Maurice who was losing strength, what he had dreaded happened, and they ran into a whole company of the 88th infantry which had gone round the barricade.
‘Sir,’ he explained to the captain, ‘this is a comrade of mine those buggers have wounded, and I’m taking him to an ambulance station.’
The greatcoat thrown over Maurice’s shoulders was his salvation, and Jean’s heart was beating wildly as at last they were going together down the rue Saint-Honoré. It was hardly light and shots could be heard in side streets, for there was still fighting going on all over the district. It was a miracle that they managed to reach the rue des Frondeurs without any other unfortunate encounter. Now they were only getting along very slowly, and the three or four hundred metres left to do seemed endless. In the rue des Frondeurs they came upon a post of Communards but the latter, thinking a whole company was on the way, took fright and ran off. Only a bit of the rue d’Argenteuil to do and they would be in the rue des Orties.
How impatiently Jean had been longing for four endless hours to see that rue des Orties! What a deliverance when they had turned into it! It was dark, empty and silent and might have been a hundred leagues away from the battle. The house, an old and narrow one with no concierge, was sleeping the deep sleep of death.
‘The keys are in my pocket,’ Maurice managed to say. ‘The big one is the street door and the little one my room, right up top.’
Then he collapsed fainting in Jean’s arms, which worried and embarrassed him terribly, so much so that he forgot to shut the street door behind them, and had to grope his way up this unknown staircase, trying not to bump into anything for fear of attracting attention. At the top he was quite lost and had to put the wounded man down on a step and look for the door by striking some matches which fortunately he had on him, and it was only when he had found it that he came down again and picked him up. At last he laid the boy on the little iron bed opposite the window with its view over Paris, and he opened it wide, wanting some light and air. Day was now breaking, and he fell down beside the bed, weeping and utterly broken and exhausted, as the dreadful thought came back that he had killed his friend.
Some minutes must have gone by and he was scarcely surprised when he saw Henriette. Nothing was more natural, her brother was dying and she had come. He had not even noticed her come in, and she might have been there for hours. Now he slumped into a chair and listlessly watched her as she moved about in mortal grief at the sight of her brother unconscious and covered with blood. At last something came back into his mind and he asked:
‘I say, did you shut the street door behind you?’
But she was shattered, and merely nodded an affirmative. Then, as she came over and gave him both her hands, in need of affection and help, he went on:
‘You know, I’m the one who’s killed him.’
She did not understand or believe him. He felt her two hands still quite calm in his.
‘I’ve killed him… Yes, on a barricade somewhere… He was on one side and I was on the other.’
The little hands began trembling.
‘We were all like drunken men, we didn’t know what we were doing… I’ve killed him.’
Then Henriette withdrew her hands, shuddering, white and staring at him with horrified eyes. So this was the end of it all, and nothing would survive in her broken heart? Oh, Jean, she had been thinking about him that very evening and been so happy in the faint hope of seeing him again! And he had done this unspeakable thing, and yet he had saved Maurice once again, for he had brought him back here through so many dangers! She could not give him her hands again without a revulsion in her whole being. Yet she uttered a cry into which she put the last hope of her divided heart.
‘Oh, I’ll make him better – I must, now!’
Her long watches at the hospital at Remilly had made her very skilful at nursing and dressing wounds. She insisted on examining her brother’s wound at once, and undressed him, but that did not revive him. Yet as she undid the emergency dressing Jean had improvised he did move, made a little noise, then opened wide, feverish eyes. He recognized her at once and smiled.
‘So you are here. Oh, how glad I am to see you before I die!’
She silenced him with a gesture of confidence.
‘Die! But I won’t have it! I mean you to live… Stop talking and leave it to me.’
But when she examined the gashed arm and punctured ribs she went very serious and her eyes looked worried. She quickly took the room over, managed to find a little oil, tore up some old shirts for bandages, while Jean went downstairs for a jug of water. He never opened his mouth, but watched her washing the wounds and skilfully bandaging them, but he was powerless to help her, for since she had been there he had been utterly exhausted. Yet when she had finished and he saw how worried she was he did offer to go and look for a doctor. But she kept all her clearheadedness—oh no, not the first doctor he could find, who might denounce her brother! It must be somebody safe, and they could wait a few hours. Finally when Jean talked of going back to his regiment it was understood that as soon as he could get away he would come back and try to bring a surgeon with him.
But still he did not go, and seemed unable to make up his mind to leave this room, where everything spoke of the evil he had done. The window, which had been shut for a little while, had just been opened again. And from his bed, with his head propped up, the wounded man was looking out. And the others, too, let their eyes wander into the distance, in the oppressive silence that had fallen on them.
From this high position on the Butte des Moulins quite half of Paris stretched out below them, first the central area from the Faubourg Saint-Honoré as far as the Bastille, then the whole course of the Seine with the distant busy life of the left bank, a sea of roofs, treetops, steeples, domes and towers. It was getting much lighter, and that unspeakable night, one of the most terrible in history, was over. But in the pure light of the rising sun, under the rose-pink sky, the fires went on burning. Straight opposite them the Tuileries was still burning, and the flames, and those of the Orsay barracks, the palaces of the Conseil d’Etat and the Legion of Honour, scarcely visible in the strong light, made the air quiver. Even beyond the houses in the rue de Lille and the rue du Bac other buildings must be burning, for columns of sparks were going up from the Croix-Rouge crossroads, and still further away in the rue Vavin and rue Notre-Dame des Champs. Quite near, to the right, the fires in the rue Saint-Honoré were burning themselves out and to the left, at the Palais-Royal and new Louvre, later fires lit in the small hours were petering out. But the thing they could not understand at first was dense black smoke that the west wind was blowing right under their window. Since three in the morning the Ministry of Finance had been burning, but without any high flames, in thick clouds of soot, because there were such enormous masses of paper in low-ceilinged rooms in a rough-cast building. It was true that the great city, awakening to a new day, no longer gave the tragic impression of the night, the horror of total destruction, with the Seine a river of blazing fire and Paris lit up from end to end, but now a hopeless, dreary misery hovered over the districts that had been spared, with this continual thick smoke in an ever-widening cloud. Soon the sun, which had come up clear and bright, was hidden by it, leaving nothing but gloom in the menacing sky.
Maurice, who looked as if his delirium was coming back, took in the endless horizon with a sweeping gesture and murmured:
‘Is it all burning? Oh, what a long time it’s taking!’
Henriette’s eyes filled with tears, as if her sorrow had been still more deepened by these immense disasters in which her brother had had a share. Jean dared not take her hand again, nor embrace his friend, but rushed away wild-eyed.
‘I’ll be seeing you again soon!’
It was evening, at about eight and dark, before he could come back. Although he was so worried he felt happy because his regiment was out of the fighting and had been put on the reserve, with orders to guard this district, so that as he was camping with his company in the Place du Carrousel he hoped to be able to come up every evening for news of the sick man. And he was not alone this time, for by chance he had run into the former medical officer of the 106th, and he brought him in desperation, not having been able to find any other doctor, telling himself that this terrible man with the leonine head was a good chap really.
When Bouroche, not knowing for whom the soldier had disturbed his peace, and grumbling about how far he had to climb, realized that he was looking at a Communard he first fell into a furious rage.
‘Good God, what do you take me for?… A lot of criminals sated with plunder, murder and arson! Your thug’s case is clear, and I’ll see that he’s cured, that I will, with three bullets through the head!’
But seeing Henriette there, so pale in her black dress, with her beautiful fair hair falling on her shoulders, he suddenly relented.
‘It’s my brother, sir, one of your soldiers at Sedan.’
Without answering he took off the bandages and silently examined the wounds, took some phials out of his pocket and made a fresh dressing, showing her how to set about it. Then in his rough way he suddenly asked the patient:
‘Why did you side with those hooligans, why did you do such a vile thing?’
Maurice had watched him with glittering eyes all the time he had been there but had said nothing. Now, in his feverish state, he said with blazing conviction:
‘Because there’s too much suffering, too much iniquity and shame!’
At that Bouroche made a grand gesture suggesting that when you went in for those kinds of ideas you went too far. He was on the point of saying something else, but decided not to. So he left, just adding:
‘I’ll be back.’
On the landing he told Henriette that he could not guarantee anything. The lung had been gravely affected and there might be a haemorrhage which would finish him.
Coming back Henriette forced herself to smile in spite of the blow her heart had received. Would she not save him yet, wasn’t she going to prevent this awful thing, the eternal separation of the three of them who were now still united in their ardent longing for life? She had never left that room all day, and an elderly neighbour had kindly undertaken to do her errands. Now she took her place again on a chair by the bed.
Giving in to his nervous excitement Maurice kept questioning Jean and trying to find out things. Jean did not tell him everything, avoiding the blind hatred rising against the expiring Commune now that Paris was free again. It was already Wednesday. Since Sunday evening, that is for two whole days, the residents had been living in cellars sweating with terror, and on the Wednesday morning when they had been able to venture out, the sight of dug-up streets, ruins, blood and above all the terrible fires, had filled them with a terrible lust for vengeance. The reprisals were going to be tremendous. Houses were being searched and crowds of men and women suspects were being chucked in front of summary firing squads. By six in the evening of that day the Versailles army was in control of half Paris, from the Montsouris park to the Gare du Nord, including the main arteries. The last members of the Commune, a score or so of them, had had to take refuge in the town hall of the XIth arrondissement in the Boulevard Voltaire.
There was a silence, and then Maurice, gazing at the distant city through the window thrown open on that warm night, murmured:
‘Well, it’s still going on, Paris is burning!’
It was true; the flames had returned with the end of daylight, and once again the sky was glowing with a murderous, bloody light. That afternoon, when the powder magazine at the Luxembourg had blown up with a terrible noise, it had been rumoured that the Pantheon had collapsed into the crypt. All day long the previous day’s fires in the Conseil d’Etat and the Tuileries had gone on burning, and the Finance Ministry still belched forth thick black smoke. Ten times she had had to shut the window because of the threat of a swarm of black butterflies, bits of burnt paper incessantly flying about, having been lifted high into the air by the heat of the fire, whence they came down like gentle rain. The whole of Paris was covered with them and some were picked up even in Normandy, twenty leagues away. And now it was not only the western and southern districts that were burning – the buildings in the rue Royale, the Croix-Rouge crossroads and the rue Notre-Dame des Champs. All the east of the city seemed to be in flames, and the immense furnace of the Hôtel de Ville filled the horizon with one gigantic blaze. In that direction too, like flaming torches, were the Théâtre Lyrique and the town hall of the IVth arrondissement, more than thirty houses in adjoining streets, to say nothing of the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre further north, glowing red in isolation like a haystack in the middle of black fields. Private revenges were being carried out, and perhaps also criminal elements calculated that by persisting they could destroy certain dossiers. It was no longer a matter of self-defence or holding up victorious troops by fire. Hysteria reigned supreme, and the Palais de Justice, the Hôtel-Dieu, the cathedral of Notre-Dame had only been saved by sheer chance. It was destruction for destruction’s sake so as to bury the ancient, rotten human society beneath the ashes of the world in the hope that a new society would spring up, happy and innocent, in the earthly paradise of primitive legends!
‘Oh war, vile war!’ whispered Henriette, looking at this city of ruin, destruction and death.
Wasn’t this in fact the final, inevitable act, the blood-lust that had come into being in the disastrous fields of Sedan and Metz, the epidemic of destruction born in the siege of Paris, the final paroxysm of a nation in danger of death amidst all this slaughter and wreckage?
But Maurice, still gazing at the areas burning out there, said haltingly and with difficulty:
‘No, no, don’t curse war… War is a good thing, it is doing its work…’
Jean cut him short with a cry of hatred and remorse.
‘Oh my God, when I see you there, and it is all my fault… Don’t defend war, it’s a vile thing.’
The sick man vaguely waved his hand.
‘Oh, what do I matter? There are plenty of others… Perhaps the blood-letting is necessary. War is life, and it cannot exist without death.’
Maurice’s eyes closed, for he was tired from the effort these few words had cost him. Henriette signalled to Jean not to argue. In her anger against human suffering she herself felt a wave of protest taking possession of her, for all her brave, feminine quietness, and in her clear eyes shone the heroic soul of their grandfather, the hero of Napoleonic legend.
Two more days went by, Thursday and Friday, with the same fires and the same massacres. The din of gunfire never stopped, and the batteries up on Montmartre, captured by the Versailles army, were mercilessly pounding the ones the Federals had set up at Belleville and in the Père-Lachaise cemetry. The latter were firing at random on Paris and shells had fallen in the rue de Richelieu and Place Vendôme. By the evening of the 25th the whole of the left bank was in the army’s hands. But on the right bank the barricades at the Place du Château d’Eau and the Place de la Bastille were still holding out, in fact they were real fortresses defended by incessant, withering fire. At dusk, in the final disarray of the last members of the Commune, Delescluze had picked up his walking-stick and coolly strolled along to the barricade blocking the Boulevard Voltaire, where he had fallen, killed instantly in a hero’s death. By dawn on the next day, the 26th, the Château d’Eau and the Bastille had been overcome, and the Communards occupied only La Villette, Belleville and Charonne, and in smaller and smaller numbers, now reduced to the hard core of desperadoes determined to die. For two more days they were to go on resisting and fighting furiously.
On Friday evening, as Jean was making his escape from the Place du Carrousel to go back to the rue des Orties, he witnessed at the bottom of the rue de Richelieu a summary execution which left him thoroughly shaken. For a couple of days two courts martial had been in session, one at the Luxembourg and the other at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Those condemned by the first were shot in the garden, while the victims of the second were dragged to the Lobau barracks where full-time firing squads shot them in the courtyard at almost point-blank range. It was there in particular that the butchery was frightful: men and even children condemned on just one piece of evidence, such as hands dirty with powder or feet that happened to be wearing army boots; innocent people falsely denounced, victims of personal vendettas, screaming explanations but unable to make themselves heard; droves of people herded in front of rifle-barrels, so many poor devils at once that there were not enough bullets to go round and the wounded were finished off with the butts of the rifles. Blood ran in streams and carts were taking away the bodies from morning till night. All over the conquered city other executions were going on, wherever some personal lust for revenge found a chance, in front of barricades, against walls in empty streets, on steps of public buildings. So it was that Jean saw some people who lived in that neighbourhood bring a woman and two men to the post guarding the Théâtre Français. The ordinary citizens were more ferocious than the soldiers, and the newspapers that had resumed publication were howling for extermination. The whole mob was particularly violent against the woman, who was one of the fire-raisers, fear of whom haunted people’s over-wrought imagination, and whom they accused of prowling in the night in front of well-to-do houses and throwing cans of lighted oil into the cellars. This one had been caught, it was alleged, crouching in front of a grating in the rue Sainte-Anne. In spite of her protestations and tears she was flung with the two men into the trench of a barricade not yet filled in and they were shot in this black pit like wolves caught in a trap. People strolling by watched this, and a lady and her husband stopped for a look, while a baker’s boy delivering a pie whistled a hunting-song.
Jean was hurrying on to the rue des Orties, feeling nauseated, when something suddenly came to his mind. Wasn’t that Chouteau, the former soldier in his squad, he had just seen, clad in the respectable white overall of the working man and watching the execution with signs of approval? And he knew the part played by this criminal, traitor, thief and murderer! For a moment he was on the point of going back again and denouncing him so as to have him shot across the bodies of the other three. Oh, how heartbreaking it was, the most guilty ones escaping punishment and flaunting their impunity in broad daylight while the innocent rotted in the ground!
Hearing steps on the stairs, Henriette had come out on to the landing.
‘Do be careful, today he is in a terribly worked-up state… The doctor has been back and he has upset me!’
Indeed Bouroche had shaken his head and been unable to make any promise as yet. It was still possible that the patient’s youth would bring him through the complications he was afraid of.
‘Ah, it’s you!’ Maurice said feverishly as soon as he saw Jean. ‘I was waiting for you, what’s going on, where have they got to now?’
Propped against his pillow, facing the window he had forced his sister to open, he pointed to the city, now in darkness again but lit up by a new glow from a fire:
‘Look, it’s starting again, Paris is burning. The whole lot of it is burning this time!’
As soon as the sun set, the fire at the Grenier d’Abondance had lit up the districts far away up the Seine. In the Tuileries and the Conseil d’Etat ceilings must have been falling in and reviving the glowing timbers, for small fires had started again and flakes of flame and sparks shot up now and again. Many of the buildings thought to be burnt out flared up again like this. For three days it no sooner got dark than the city seemed to burn up again, as though the darkness itself had blown on the red embers and revived them and scattered them to every point on the horizon. What a hellish city it was, that glowed red when dusk came and illumined with monstrous torches the nights of all that bloody week! On that particular night, when the warehouses of La Villette were burned, the light was so bright all over the great city that this time it was really possible to think it was on fire everywhere, overwhelmed and submerged by the flames… Under a bloody sky the districts of Paris, red as far as the eye could see, were like a rolling sea of fiery roofs.
‘It’s all over!’ Maurice said again. ‘Paris is burning.’
He was intoxicating himself with these words, repeated a score of times in a feverish urge to go on talking after the heavy sleepiness that had kept him silent for three days. But a sound of stifled sobs made him look round.
‘What, little sister, you, so brave!… Crying because I’m going to die?’
She protested, cutting him short.
‘But you aren’t going to die!’
‘Oh yes, I am, and it’s better I should, I must… You know, nothing of any value will go with me. Before the war I gave you so much trouble and cost your heart and your purse so much… All the silly things, all the mad things I’ve done, who knows, they might have brought me to a bad end, prison, the gutter…’
She stopped him again, this time angrily.
‘Shut up, shut up! You’ve paid for it all!’
He fell silent and thoughtful for a moment.
‘When I am dead, perhaps… Oh, dear old Jean, you really did us all a damn good turn when you ran me through with that bayonet.’
But Jean, in tears too, protested.
‘Don’t talk like that! Do you want me to go and bash my brains out against a wall?’
But Maurice went on passionately:
‘Remember what you said the day after Sedan when you maintained that it did no harm sometimes to get a good bashing. And you said, too, that if something had gone rotten somewhere, like a poisoned limb, it was better to see it hacked off and lying on the ground than to die of it like the cholera… I’ve often thought about that since I’ve been on my own and shut up in this crazy, starving Paris… Well, I’m the rotten limb you have lopped off…’
He was growing more delirious and paid no heed to the supplications of Henriette and Jean, who were terrified. In a raging fever he went on pouring out symbols and vivid pictures. It was the healthy part of France, the reasonable, solid, peasant part, the part which had stayed closest to the land, that was putting an end to the silly, crazy part which had been spoilt by the Empire, unhinged by dreams and debauches. And France had had to cut into her own flesh and tear our her vitals, hardly knowing what she was doing. But the blood-bath was necessary, and it had to be French blood, the unspeakable holocaust, the living sacrifice in the purifying fire. Now she had climbed the hill of Calvary to the most horrible of agonies, the nation was being crucified, atoning for her sins and about to be born again.
‘My dear old Jean, you are the pure in heart, the stout-hearted one… Go and take up your pick and trowel, turn over the soil and rebuild the house!… As for me, you did the best thing when you cut me out, for I was the ulcer clinging to your bones!’
He went on wandering, tried to get up and look out of the window.
‘Paris is burning and there’ll be nothing left… This fire which is taking everything away and healing everything was my idea, yes, it’s doing a good job… Let me go down and finish off the work of humanity and freedom…’
Jean had all the trouble in the world to get him back into bed, while Henriette in tears went on talking to him about their childhood together, begging him to calm down in the name of their love for each other. Over the vast space of Paris the fiery glow had spread still more, and the sea of flame seemed to be reaching the dark limits of the horizon, the sky was like the vault of a gigantic furnace, heated up to bright red. The dense smoke clouds from the Ministry of Finance, which had been steadily burning for two days without any flames, still floated across this lurid background of fires like a stately cloud of deepest mourning.
The next day, Saturday, brought a sudden improvement in Maurice’s condition, and he was much calmer, his temperature had gone down, and it was a great joy to Jean when he found Henriette smiling and going back to the dream of an intimate life for the three of them, in a future happiness which still seemed possible but which she did not want to put into so many words. Was fate about to relent? She spent the nights in that room which she never left, and which her busy Cinderella sweetness, her gentle, silent care filled with a continual caress. That evening Jean lingered there with his friends and his pleasure surprised him and made him tremble. During the day the troops had taken Belleville and the Buttes-Chaumont. Only the Père-Lachaise cemetery, which had been turned into an armed camp, still held out. It seemed to him that it was all over and he even said that there were no more shootings. He simply mentioned convoys of prisoners setting off for Versailles. He had seen one that morning going along by the river, men in overalls, coats or shirtsleeves, women of all ages, some with the wrinkled faces of old harridans, others in the flower of their youth, children of barely fifteen – a stream of misery and revolt being moved on by soldiers in the bright sunshine, and whom the good people of Versailles, it was said, welcomed with catcalls and hit with sticks and sunshades.
But on Sunday Jean was horrified. It was the last day of that hateful week. As soon as the sun rose in glory on a clear and warm holiday morning he had the eerie sensation that this was to be the final agony. News had only just broken of renewed slaughter of hostages. The archbishop, the parish priest of the Madeleine and others had been shot on the Wednesday at La Roquette, and on Thursday the Dominicans of Arcueil had been picked off on the run like hares, on Friday more priests and forty-seven gendarmes had been shot point blank in the rue Haxo sector, and a fury of reprisals had flared up again, the troops executing en masse their most recent prisoners. All through that lovely Sunday the crackle of the firing-squads had never stopped in the courtyard of the Lobau barracks, which was full of death-cries, blood and smoke. At La Roquette two hundred and twenty-seven wretched creatures, rounded up more or less at random, were machine-gunned in a heap, riddled with bullets. In Père-Lachaise, which had been bombarded for four days and finally captured grave by grave, one hundred and forty-eight were thrown against a wall, and the plaster dripped great red tears. Three of them, who were only wounded and escaping, were recaptured and finished off. Of the twelve thousand poor creatures who had lost their lives through the Commune how many harmless people were there for each rogue! It was said that an order to stop the executions had come from Versailles. But the killing went on just the same. Thiers, for all his pure glory as the liberator of the country, was to go down for ever as the legendary butcher of Paris, while Marshal MacMahon, the defeated soldier of Froeschwiller, whose proclamations of victory covered the walls, was henceforward to be nothing but the conqueror of Père-Lachaise. Paris, in the sunshine, was dressed in her Sunday best and in holiday mood, an enormous crowd thronged the recaptured streets, people out for a walk went like jolly sightseers to have a look at the smoking ruins, mothers holding laughing children by the hand paused for a moment and listened with interest to the distant firing in the Lobau barracks.
As Jean went up the dark stairs of the house in the rue des Orties in the evening twilight on that Sunday he felt sick with awful foreboding. He went in and at once saw the inevitable end, Maurice dead on the little bed, choked by the haemorrhage that Bouroche had feared. The sun’s red farewell stole in through the open window and two candles were already burning on the table beside the bed. Henriette, in her widow’s weeds, was on her knees, quietly weeping.
Hearing a noise she looked up and seeing Jean enter shuddered visibly. He, distraught with grief, was on the point of rushing forward and taking her hands to unite his sorrow and hers in an embrace. But he felt her little trembling hands, her whole being chilled and repelled, recoiling, snatching herself away for ever. Was it not all over between them now? Maurice’s grave separated them for ever, like a bottomless abyss. All he too could do was fall on his knees, quietly sobbing.
But after a pause Henriette spoke.
‘My back was turned, and I had a cup of broth in my hand when he cried out… I didn’t even have time to run across the room, he died calling for me and calling for you, too, as he vomited blood…’
Her brother, oh God, her Maurice whom she had worshipped even from their mother’s womb, who was her second self, whom she had brought up and saved! Her only love since she had seen her poor Weiss’s body riddled with bullets against a wall in Bazeilles! So the war was taking her whole heart, and she would be left alone in the world, a lonely widow with no one to love her.
‘Oh my God!’ Jean said in tears. ‘It’s my fault!… My dearest boy, for whom I would have given my life, and I have to slaughter him like some animal… What will become of us? Will you ever forgive me?’
At that moment they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were heartbroken at what at last they could clearly read in them. The past came to life, the secluded room at Remilly in which they had lived such sad, sweet days together. It brought him back to his daydream, unconscious at first and even later never clearly formulated, life down there, marriage, a little house and work on a plot of land that would suffice to keep a family of honest, humble folk. But now it had become a passionate longing, a painful certainty that with a woman like her, so tender, so active, so brave, life might have become a real paradise. She too, who formerly had not even been touched by this dream, though unconsciously giving her heart in perfect purity, now saw plainly and suddenly understood. This eventual marriage was what she herself had wanted, without realizing it. The seed had quickened and imperceptibly grown and now she loved with real love this man with whom at first she had only found consolation. Their eyes told each other all this, and now they loved each other openly only in time to say an eternal farewell. This one more dreadful sacrifice had to be made, this final tearing asunder; their happiness, still feasible yesterday, was now crumbling into dust like everything else, and being washed away in the stream of blood that had taken their brother.
With a long painful effort Jean got to his feet.
Henriette remained motionless on the floor.
Yet Jean went over to Maurice’s body. He looked at him, and his lofty brow looked even more lofty, and from his long, thin face and expressionless eyes, formerly a bit wild, the wildness had gone. He would have liked to kiss his dear kid, as he had called him so many times, but he dared not. He saw himself covered with his blood, and recoiled before the horror of fate. What a death, beneath the ruins of a world! On the last day, amid the last bits of wreckage of the dying Commune, one more victim had been claimed! The poor man had departed still thirsting for justice in the final convulsion of the great dark dream he had dreamed, in the grandiose and monstrous conception of the destruction of the old society, Paris destroyed by fire, the field ploughed up and cleansed so that the idyll of a new golden age might spring up into life.
Full of anguish, Jean turned away and looked at Paris. At this radiant end of a lovely Sunday the slanting sun, low on the horizon, cast over the huge city a blazing red light. It might have been a sun of blood over a limitless sea. The panes of thousands of windows blazed fire as though blown upon by invisible bellows, roofs were catching fire like burning coals, golden yellow walls and tall, rust-coloured monuments seemed to be flaring up in the evening air like spurting wood fires. Was this not the final set-piece, the gigantic fountain of flame, all Paris burning like some huge sacrificial fire, an ancient, dried-up forest shooting up to heaven in a volley of sparks and tongues of flame? The fires were still burning, huge russet clouds of smoke were still billowing up, and a great clamour could be heard, maybe the last death-cries of the shot victims in the Lobau barracks, or perhaps happy women and laughing children eating out of doors after a nice walk or sitting outside cafés. From the looted houses and public buildings, from the disembowelled streets, from so much ruin and suffering, life was still stirring in the blaze of this splendid sunset in which Paris seemed to be burning itself out.
Then Jean felt an extraordinary sensation. It seemed to him, as day was slowly dying over this burning city, that a new dawn was already breaking. Yet it was the end of everything, fate pursuing its relentless course in a series of disasters greater than any nation had ever undergone: continual defeats, provinces lost, milliards to pay, the blood-bath of the most dreadful of civil wars, whole districts full of ruins and dead, no money left, no honour left, a whole world to build up again. He himself was leaving his broken heart here, Maurice, Henriette, his happy future life swept away in the storm. And yet, beyond the still roaring furnace, undying hope was reviving up in that great calm sky so supremely limpid. It was the sure renewal of eternal nature, eternal humanity, the renewal promised to all who hope and toil, the tree throwing up a strong new shoot after the dead branch, whose poisonous sap had yellowed the leaves, had been cut away.
Still weeping, Jean said again:
Henriette did not look up, but kept her face buried in her hands.
The ravaged field was lying fallow, the burnt house was down to the ground, and Jean, the most humble and grief-stricken of men, went away, walking into the future to set about the great, hard job of building a new France.