The Downfall (La Débâcle), by Émile Zola

Part Second

1.

Weiss, in the obscurity of his little room at Bazeilles, was aroused by a commotion that caused him to leap from his bed. It was the roar of artillery. Groping about in the darkness he found and lit a candle to enable him to consult his watch: it was four o’clock, just beginning to be light. He adjusted his double eyeglass upon his nose and looked out into the main street of the village, the road that leads to Douzy, but it was filled with a thick cloud of something that resembled dust, which made it impossible to distinguish anything. He passed into the other room, the windows of which commanded a view of the Meuse and the intervening meadows, and saw that the cause of his obstructed vision was the morning mist arising from the river. In the distance, behind the veil of fog, the guns were barking more fiercely across the stream. All at once a French battery, close at hand, opened in reply, with such a tremendous crash that the walls of the little house were shaken.

Weiss’s house was situated near the middle of the village, on the right of the road and not far from the Place de l’Eglise. Its front, standing back a little from the street, displayed a single story with three windows, surmounted by an attic; in the rear was a garden of some extent that sloped gently downward toward the meadows and commanded a wide panoramic view of the encircling hills, from Remilly to Frenois. Weiss, with the sense of responsibility of his new proprietorship strong upon him, had spent the night in burying his provisions in the cellar and protecting his furniture, as far as possible, against shot and shell by applying mattresses to the windows, so that it was nearly two o’clock before he got to bed. His blood boiled at the idea that the Prussians might come and plunder the house, for which he had toiled so long and which had as yet afforded him so little enjoyment.

He heard a voice summoning him from the street.

“I say, Weiss, are you awake?”

He descended and found it was Delaherche, who had passed the night at his dyehouse, a large brick structure, next door to the accountant’s abode. The operatives had all fled, taking to the woods and making for the Belgian frontier, and there was no one left to guard the property but the woman concierge, Francoise Quittard by name, the widow of a mason; and she also, beside herself with terror, would have gone with the others had it not been for her ten-year-old boy Charles, who was so ill with typhoid fever that he could not be moved.

“I say,” Delaherche continued, “do you hear that? It is a promising beginning. Our best course is to get back to Sedan as soon as possible.”

Weiss’s promise to his wife, that he would leave Bazeilles at the first sign of danger, had been given in perfect good faith, and he had fully intended to keep it; but as yet there was only an artillery duel at long range, and the aim could not be accurate enough to do much damage in the uncertain, misty light of early morning.

“Wait a bit, confound it!” he replied. “There is no hurry.”

Delaherche, too, was curious to see what would happen; his curiosity made him valiant. He had been so interested in the preparations for defending the place that he had not slept a wink. General Lebrun, commanding the 12th corps, had received notice that he would be attacked at daybreak, and had kept his men occupied during the night in strengthening the defenses of Bazeilles, which he had instructions to hold in spite of everything. Barricades had been thrown up across the Douzy road, and all the smaller streets; small parties of soldiers had been thrown into the houses by way of garrison; every narrow lane, every garden had become a fortress, and since three o’clock the troops, awakened from their slumbers without beat of drum or call of bugle in the inky blackness, had been at their posts, their chassepots freshly greased and cartridge boxes filled with the obligatory ninety rounds of ammunition. It followed that when the enemy opened their fire no one was taken unprepared, and the French batteries, posted to the rear between Balan and Bazeilles, immediately commenced to answer, rather with the idea of showing they were awake than for any other purpose, for in the dense fog that enveloped everything the practice was of the wildest.

“The dyehouse will be well defended,” said Delaherche. “I have a whole section in it. Come and see.”

It was true; forty and odd men of the infanterie de marine had been posted there under the command of a lieutenant, a tall, light-haired young fellow, scarcely more than a boy, but with an expression of energy and determination on his face. His men had already taken full possession of the building, some of them being engaged in loopholing the shutters of the ground-floor windows that commanded the street, while others, in the courtyard that overlooked the meadows in the rear, were breaching the wall for musketry. It was in this courtyard that Delaherche and Weiss found the young officer, straining his eyes to discover what was hidden behind the impenetrable mist.

“Confound this fog!” he murmured. “We can’t fight when we don’t know where the enemy is.” Presently he asked, with no apparent change of voice or manner: “What day of the week is this?”

“Thursday,” Weiss replied.

“Thursday, that’s so. Hanged if I don’t think the world might come to an end and we not know it!”

But just at that moment the uninterrupted roar of the artillery was diversified by a brisk rattle of musketry proceeding from the edge of the meadows, at a distance of two or three hundred yards. And at the same time there was a transformation, as rapid and startling, almost, as the stage effect in a fairy spectacle: the sun rose, the exhalations of the Meuse were whirled away like bits of finest, filmiest gauze, and the blue sky was revealed, in serene limpidity, undimmed by a single cloud. It was the exquisite morning of a faultless summer day.

“Ah!” exclaimed Delaherche, “they are crossing the railway bridge. See, they are making their way along the track. How stupid of us not to have blown up the bridge!”

The officer’s face bore an expression of dumb rage. The mines had been prepared and charged, he averred, but they had fought four hours the day before to regain possession of the bridge and then had forgot to touch them off.

“It is just our luck,” he curtly said.

Weiss was silent, watching the course of events and endeavoring to form some idea of the true state of affairs. The position of the French in Bazeilles was a very strong one. The village commanded the meadows, and was bisected by the Douzy road, which, turning sharp to the left, passed under the walls of the Chateau, while another road, the one that led to the railway bridge, bent around to the right and forked at the Place de l’Eglise. There was no cover for any force advancing by these two approaches; the Germans would be obliged to traverse the meadows and the wide, bare level that lay between the outskirts of the village and the Meuse and the railway. Their prudence in avoiding unnecessary risks was notorious, hence it seemed improbable that the real attack would come from that quarter. They kept coming across the bridge, however, in deep masses, and that notwithstanding the slaughter that a battery of mitrailleuses, posted at the edge of the village, effected in their ranks, and all at once those who had crossed rushed forward in open order, under cover of the straggling willows, the columns were re-formed and began to advance. It was from there that the musketry fire, which was growing hotter, had proceeded.

“Oh, those are Bavarians,” Weiss remarked. “I recognize them by the braid on their helmets.”

But there were other columns, moving to the right and partially concealed by the railway embankment, whose object, it seemed to him, was to gain the cover of some trees in the distance, whence they might descend and take Bazeilles in flank and rear. Should they succeed in effecting a lodgment in the park of Montivilliers, the village might become untenable. This was no more than a vague, half-formed idea, that flitted through his mind for a moment and faded as rapidly as it had come; the attack in front was becoming more determined, and his every faculty was concentrated on the struggle that was assuming, with every moment, larger dimensions.

Suddenly he turned his head and looked away to the north, over the city of Sedan, where the heights of Floing were visible in the distance. A battery had just commenced firing from that quarter; the smoke rose in the bright sunshine in little curls and wreaths, and the reports came to his ears very distinctly. It was in the neighborhood of five o’clock.

“Well, well,” he murmured, “they are all going to have a hand in the business, it seems.”

The lieutenant of marines, who had turned his eyes in the same direction, spoke up confidently:

“Oh! Bazeilles is the key of the position. This is the spot where the battle will be won or lost.”

“Do you think so?” Weiss exclaimed.

“There is not the slightest doubt of it. It is certainly the marshal’s opinion, for he was here last night and told us that we must hold the village if it cost the life of every man of us.”

Weiss slowly shook his head, and swept the horizon with a glance; then in a low, faltering voice, as if speaking to himself, he said:

“No — no! I am sure that is a mistake. I fear the danger lies in another quarter — where, or what it is, I dare not say —”

He said no more. He simply opened wide his arms, like the jaws of a vise, then, turning to the north, brought his hands together, as if the vise had closed suddenly upon some object there.

This was the fear that had filled his mind for the last twenty-four hours, for he was thoroughly acquainted with the country and had watched narrowly every movement of the troops during the previous day, and now, again, while the broad valley before him lay basking in the radiant sunlight, his gaze reverted to the hills of the left bank, where, for the space of all one day and all one night, his eyes had beheld the black swarm of the Prussian hosts moving steadily onward to some appointed end. A battery had opened fire from Remilly, over to the left, but the one from which the shells were now beginning to reach the French position was posted at Pont-Maugis, on the river bank. He adjusted his binocle by folding the glasses over, the one upon the other, to lengthen its range and enable him to discern what was hidden among the recesses of the wooded slopes, but could distinguish nothing save the white smoke-wreaths that rose momentarily on the tranquil air and floated lazily away over the crests. That human torrent that he had seen so lately streaming over those hills, where was it now — where were massed those innumerable hosts? At last, at the corner of a pine wood, above Noyers and Frenois, he succeeded in making out a little cluster of mounted men in uniform — some general, doubtless, and his staff. And off there to the west the Meuse curved in a great loop, and in that direction lay their sole line of retreat on Mezieres, a narrow road that traversed the pass of Saint-Albert, between that loop and the dark forest of Ardennes. While reconnoitering the day before he had met a general officer who, he afterward learned, was Ducrot, commanding the 1st corps, on a by-road in the valley of Givonne, and had made bold to call his attention to the importance of that, their only line of retreat. If the army did not retire at once by that road while it was still open to them, if it waited until the Prussians should have crossed the Meuse at Donchery and come up in force to occupy the pass, it would be hemmed in and driven back on the Belgian frontier. As early even as the evening of that day the movement would have been too late. It was asserted that the uhlans had possession of the bridge, another bridge that had not been destroyed, for the reason, this time, that some one had neglected to provide the necessary powder. And Weiss sorrowfully acknowledged to himself that the human torrent, the invading horde, could now be nowhere else than on the plain of Donchery, invisible to him, pressing onward to occupy Saint-Albert pass, pushing forward its advanced guards to Saint-Menges and Floing, whither, the day previous, he had conducted Jean and Maurice. In the brilliant sunshine the steeple of Floing church appeared like a slender needle of dazzling whiteness.

And off to the eastward the other arm of the powerful vise was slowly closing in on them. Casting his eyes to the north, where there was a stretch of level ground between the plateaus of Illy and of Floing, he could make out the line of battle of the 7th corps, feebly supported by the 5th, which was posted in reserve under the ramparts of the city; but he could not discern what was occurring to the east, along the valley of the Givonne, where the 1st corps was stationed, its line stretching from the wood of la Garenne to Daigny village. Now, however, the guns were beginning to thunder in that direction also; the conflict seemed to be raging in Chevalier’s wood, in front of Daigny. His uneasiness was owing to reports that had been brought in by peasants the day previous, that the Prussian advance had reached Francheval, so that the movement which was being conducted at the west, by way of Donchery, was also in process of execution at the east, by way of Francheval, and the two jaws of the vise would come together up there at the north, near the Calvary of Illy, unless the two-fold flanking movement could be promptly checked. He knew nothing of tactics or strategy, had nothing but his common sense to guide him; but he looked with fear and trembling on that great triangle that had the Meuse for one of its sides, and for the other two the 7th and 1st corps on the north and east respectively, while the extreme angle at the south was occupied by the 12th at Bazeilles — all the three corps facing outward on the periphery of a semicircle, awaiting the appearance of an enemy who was to deliver his attack at some one point, where or when no one could say, but who, instead, fell on them from every direction at once. And at the very center of all, as at the bottom of a pit, lay the city of Sedan, her ramparts furnished with antiquated guns, destitute of ammunition and provisions.

“Understand,” said Weiss, with a repetition of his previous gesture, extending his arms and bringing his hands slowly together, “that is how it will be unless your generals keep their eyes open. The movement at Bazeilles is only a feint —”

But his explanation was confused and unintelligible to the lieutenant, who knew nothing of the country, and the young man shrugged his shoulders with an expression of impatience and disdain for the bourgeois in spectacles and frock coat who presumed to set his opinion against the marshal’s . Irritated to hear Weiss reiterate his view that the attack on Bazeilles was intended only to mask other and more important movements, he finally shouted:

“Hold your tongue, will you! We shall drive them all into the Meuse, those Bavarian friends of yours, and that is all they will get by their precious feint.”

While they were talking the enemy’s skirmishers seemed to have come up closer; every now and then their bullets were heard thudding against the dyehouse wall, and our men, kneeling behind the low parapet of the courtyard, were beginning to reply. Every second the report of a chassepot rang out, sharp and clear, upon the air.

“Oh, of course! drive them into the Meuse, by all means,” muttered Weiss, “and while we are about it we might as well ride them down and regain possession of the Carignan road.” Then addressing himself to Delaherche, who had stationed himself behind the pump where he might be out of the way of the bullets: “All the same, it would have been their wisest course to make tracks last night for Mezieres, and if I were in their place I would much rather be there than here. As it is, however, they have got to show fight, since retreat is out of the question now.”

“Are you coming?” asked Delaherche, who, notwithstanding his eager curiosity, was beginning to look pale in the face. “We shall be unable to get into the city if we remain here longer.”

“Yes, in one minute I will be with you.”

In spite of the danger that attended the movement he raised himself on tiptoe, possessed by an irresistible desire to see how things were shaping. On the right lay the meadows that had been flooded by order of the governor for the protection of the city, now a broad lake stretching from Torcy to Balan, its unruffled bosom glimmering in the morning sunlight with a delicate azure luster. The water did not extend as far as Bazeilles, however, and the Prussians had worked their way forward across the fields, availing themselves of the shelter of every ditch, of every little shrub and tree. They were now distant some five hundred yards, and Weiss was impressed by the caution with which they moved, the dogged resolution and patience with which they advanced, gaining ground inch by inch and exposing themselves as little as possible. They had a powerful artillery fire, moreover, to sustain them; the pure, cool air was vocal with the shrieking of shells. Raising his eyes he saw that the Pont-Maugis battery was not the only one that was playing on Bazeilles; two others, posted half way up the hill of Liry, had opened fire, and their projectiles not only reached the village, but swept the naked plain of la Moncelle beyond, where the reserves of the 12th corps were, and even the wooded slopes of Daigny, held by a division of the 1st corps, were not beyond their range. There was not a summit, moreover, on the left bank of the stream that was not tipped with flame. The guns seemed to spring spontaneously from the soil, like some noxious growth; it was a zone of fire that grew hotter and fiercer every moment; there were batteries at Noyers shelling Balan, batteries at Wadelincourt shelling Sedan, and at Frenois, down under la Marfee, there was a battery whose guns, heavier than the rest, sent their missiles hurtling over the city to burst among the troops of the 7th corps on the plateau of Floing. Those hills that he had always loved so well, that he had supposed were planted there solely to delight the eye, encircling with their verdurous slopes the pretty, peaceful valley that lay beneath, were now become a gigantic, frowning fortress, vomiting ruin and destruction on the feeble defenses of Sedan, and Weiss looked on them with terror and detestation. Why had steps not been taken to defend them the day before, if their leaders had suspected this, or why, rather, had they insisted on holding the position?

A sound of falling plaster caused him to raise his head; a shot had grazed his house, the front of which was visible to him above the party wall. It angered him excessively, and he growled:

“Are they going to knock it about my ears, the brigands!”

Then close behind him there was a little dull, strange sound that he had never heard before, and turning quickly he saw a soldier, shot through the heart, in the act of falling backward. There was a brief convulsive movement of the legs; the youthful, tranquil expression of the face remained, stamped there unalterably by the hand of death. It was the first casualty, and the accountant was startled by the crash of the musket falling and rebounding from the stone pavement of the courtyard.

“Ah, I have seen enough, I am going,” stammered Delaherche. “Come, if you are coming; if not, I shall go without you.”

The lieutenant, whom their presence made uneasy, spoke up:

“It will certainly be best for you to go, gentlemen. The enemy may attempt to carry the place at any moment.”

Then at last, casting a parting glance at the meadows, where the Bavarians were still gaining ground, Weiss gave in and followed Delaherche, but when they had gained the street he insisted upon going to see if the fastening of his door was secure, and when he came back to his companion there was a fresh spectacle, which brought them both to a halt.

At the end of the street, some three hundred yards from where they stood, a strong Bavarian column had debouched from the Douzy road and was charging up the Place de l’Eglise. The square was held by a regiment of sailor-boys, who appeared to slacken their fire for a moment as if with the intention of drawing their assailants on; then, when the close-massed column was directly opposite their front, a most surprising maneuver was swiftly executed: the men abandoned their formation, some of them stepping from the ranks and flattening themselves against the house fronts, others casting themselves prone upon the ground, and down the vacant space thus suddenly formed the mitrailleuses that had been placed in battery at the farther end poured a perfect hailstorm of bullets. The column disappeared as if it had been swept bodily from off the face of the earth. The recumbent men sprang to their feet with a bound and charged the scattered Bavarians with the bayonet, driving them and making the rout complete. Twice the maneuver was repeated, each time with the same success. Two women, unwilling to abandon their home, a small house at the corner of an intersecting lane, were sitting at their window; they laughed approvingly and clapped their hands, apparently glad to have an opportunity to behold such a spectacle.

“There, confound it!” Weiss suddenly said, “I forgot to lock the cellar door! I must go back. Wait for me; I won’t be a minute.”

There was no indication that the enemy contemplated a renewal of their attack, and Delaherche, whose curiosity was reviving after the shock it had sustained, was less eager to get away. He had halted in front of his dyehouse and was conversing with the concierge, who had come for a moment to the door of the room she occupied in the rez-de-chaussee.

“My poor Francoise, you had better come along with us. A lone woman among such dreadful sights — I can’t bear to think of it!”

She raised her trembling hands. “Ah, sir, I would have gone when the others went, indeed I would, if it had not been for my poor sick boy. Come in, sir, and look at him.”

He did not enter, but glanced into the apartment from the threshold, and shook his head sorrowfully at sight of the little fellow in his clean, white bed, his face exhibiting the scarlet hue of the disease, and his glassy, burning eyes bent wistfully on his mother.

“But why can’t you take him with you?” he urged. “I will find quarters for you in Sedan. Wrap him up warmly in a blanket, and come along with us.”

“Oh, no, sir, I cannot. The doctor told me it would kill him. If only his poor father were alive! but we two are all that are left, and we must live for each other. And then, perhaps the Prussians will be merciful; perhaps they won’t harm a lone woman and a sick boy.”

Just then Weiss reappeared, having secured his premises to his satisfaction. “There, I think it will trouble them some to get in now. Come on! And it is not going to be a very pleasant journey, either; keep close to the houses, unless you want to come to grief.”

There were indications, indeed, that the enemy were making ready for another assault. The infantry fire was spluttering away more furiously than ever, and the screaming of the shells was incessant. Two had already fallen in the street a hundred yards away, and a third had imbedded itself, without bursting, in the soft ground of the adjacent garden.

“Ah, here is Francoise,” continued the accountant. “I must have a look at your little Charles. Come, come, you have no cause for alarm; he will be all right in a couple of days. Keep your courage up, and the first thing you do go inside, and don’t put your nose outside the door.” And the two men at last started to go.

Au revoir, Francoise.”

Au revoir, sirs.”

And as they spoke, there came an appalling crash. It was a shell, which, having first wrecked the chimney of Weiss’s house, fell upon the sidewalk, where it exploded with such terrific force as to break every window in the vicinity. At first it was impossible to distinguish anything in the dense cloud of dust and smoke that rose in the air, but presently this drifted away, disclosing the ruined facade of the dyehouse, and there, stretched across the threshold, Francoise, a corpse, horribly torn and mangled, her skull crushed in, a fearful spectacle.

Weiss sprang to her side. Language failed him; he could only express his feelings by oaths and imprecations.

Nom de Dieu! Nom de Dieu!

Yes, she was dead. He had stooped to feel her pulse, and as he arose he saw before him the scarlet face of little Charles, who had raised himself in bed to look at his mother. He spoke no word, he uttered no cry; he gazed with blazing, tearless eyes, distended as if they would start from their sockets, upon the shapeless mass that was strange, unknown to him; and nothing more.

Weiss found words at last: ”Nom de Dieu! they have taken to killing women!”

He had risen to his feet; he shook his fist at the Bavarians, whose braid-trimmed helmets were commencing to appear again in the direction of the church. The chimney, in falling, had crushed a great hole in the roof of his house, and the sight of the havoc made him furious.

“Dirty loafers! You murder women, you have destroyed my house. No, no! I will not go now, I cannot; I shall stay here.”

He darted away and came running back with the dead soldier’s rifle and ammunition. He was accustomed to carry a pair of spectacles on his person for use on occasions of emergency, when he wished to see with great distinctness, but did not wear them habitually out of respect for the wishes of his young wife. He now impatiently tore off his double eyeglass and substituted the spectacles, and the big, burly bourgeois, his overcoat flapping about his legs, his honest, kindly, round face ablaze with wrath, who would have been ridiculous had he not been so superbly heroic, proceeded to open fire, peppering away at the Bavarians at the bottom of the street. It was in his blood, he said; he had been hankering for something of the kind ever since the days of his boyhood, down there in Alsace, when he had been told all those tales of 1814. “Ah! you dirty loafers! you dirty loafers!” And he kept firing away with such eagerness that, finally, the barrel of his musket became so hot it burned his fingers.

The assault was made with great vigor and determination. There was no longer any sound of musketry in the direction of the meadows. The Bavarians had gained possession of a narrow stream, fringed with willows and poplars, and were making preparations for storming the houses, or rather fortresses, in the Place de l’Eglise. Their skirmishers had fallen back with the same caution that characterized their advance, and the wide grassy plain, dotted here and there with a black form where some poor fellow had laid down his life, lay spread in the mellow, slumbrous sunshine like a great cloth of gold. The lieutenant, knowing that the street was now to be the scene of action, had evacuated the courtyard of the dyehouse, leaving there only one man as guard. He rapidly posted his men along the sidewalk with instructions, should the enemy carry the position, to withdraw into the building, barricade the first floor, and defend themselves there as long as they had a cartridge left. The men fired at will, lying prone upon the ground, and sheltering themselves as best they might behind posts and every little projection of the walls, and the storm of lead, interspersed with tongues of flame and puffs of smoke, that tore through that broad, deserted, sunny avenue was like a downpour of hail beaten level by the fierce blast of winter. A woman was seen to cross the roadway, running with wild, uncertain steps, and she escaped uninjured. Next, an old man, a peasant, in his blouse, who would not be satisfied until he saw his worthless nag stabled, received a bullet square in his forehead, and the violence of the impact was such that it hurled him into the middle of the street. A shell had gone crashing through the roof of the church; two others fell and set fire to houses, which burned with a pale flame in the intense daylight, with a loud snapping and crackling of their timbers. And that poor woman, who lay crushed and bleeding in the doorway of the house where her sick boy was, that old man with a bullet in his brain, all that work of ruin and devastation, maddened the few inhabitants who had chosen to end their days in their native village rather than seek safety in Belgium. Other bourgeois, and workingmen as well, the neatly attired citizen alongside the man in overalls, had possessed themselves of the weapons of dead soldiers, and were in the street defending their firesides or firing vengefully from the windows.

“Ah!” suddenly said Weiss, “the scoundrels have got around to our rear. I saw them sneaking along the railroad track. Hark! don’t you hear them off there to the left?”

The heavy fire of musketry that was now audible behind the park of Montivilliers, the trees of which overhung the road, made it evident that something of importance was occurring in that direction. Should the enemy gain possession of the park Bazeilles would be at their mercy, but the briskness of the firing was in itself proof that the general commanding the 12th corps had anticipated the movement and that the position was adequately defended.

“Look out, there, you blockhead!” exclaimed the lieutenant, violently forcing Weiss up against the wall; “do you want to get yourself blown to pieces?”

He could not help laughing a little at the queer figure of the big gentleman in spectacles, but his bravery had inspired him with a very genuine feeling of respect, so, when his practiced ear detected a shell coming their way, he had acted the part of a friend and placed the civilian in a safer position. The missile landed some ten paces from where they were and exploded, covering them both with earth and debris. The citizen kept his feet and received not so much as a scratch, while the officer had both legs broken.

“It is well!” was all he said; “they have sent me my reckoning!”

He caused his men to take him across the sidewalk and place him with his back to the wall, near where the dead woman lay, stretched across her doorstep. His boyish face had lost nothing of its energy and determination.

“It don’t matter, my children; listen to what I say. Don’t fire too hurriedly; take your time. When the time comes for you to charge, I will tell you.”

And he continued to command them still, with head erect, watchful of the movements of the distant enemy. Another house was burning, directly across the street. The crash and rattle of musketry, the roar of bursting shells, rent the air, thick with dust and sulphurous smoke. Men dropped at the corner of every lane and alley; corpses scattered here and there upon the pavement, singly or in little groups, made splotches of dark color, hideously splashed with red. And over the doomed village a frightful uproar rose and swelled, the vindictive shouts of thousands, devoting to destruction a few hundred brave men, resolute to die.

Then Delaherche, who all this time had been frantically shouting to Weiss without intermission, addressed him one last appeal:

“You won’t come? Very well! then I shall leave you to your fate. Adieu!”

It was seven o’clock, and he had delayed his departure too long. So long as the houses were there to afford him shelter he took advantage of every doorway, of every bit of projecting wall, shrinking at every volley into cavities that were ridiculously small in comparison with his bulk. He turned and twisted in and out with the sinuous dexterity of the serpent; he would never have supposed that there was so much of his youthful agility left in him. When he reached the end of the village, however, and had to make his way for a space of some three hundred yards along the deserted, empty road, swept by the batteries on Liry hill, although the perspiration was streaming from his face and body, he shivered and his teeth chattered. For a minute or so he advanced cautiously along the bed of a dry ditch, bent almost double, then, suddenly forsaking the protecting shelter, burst into the open and ran for it with might and main, wildly, aimlessly, his ears ringing with detonations that sounded to him like thunder-claps. His eyes burned like coals of fire; it seemed to him that he was wrapt in flame. It was an eternity of torture. Then he suddenly caught sight of a little house to his left, and he rushed for the friendly refuge, gained it, with a sensation as if an immense load had been lifted from his breast. The place was tenanted, there were men and horses there. At first he could distinguish nothing. What he beheld subsequently filled him with amazement.

Was not that the Emperor, attended by his brilliant staff? He hesitated, although for the last two days he had been boasting of his acquaintance with him, then stood staring, open-mouthed. It was indeed Napoleon III.; he appeared larger, somehow, and more imposing on horseback, and his mustache was so stiffly waxed, there was such a brilliant color on his cheeks, that Delaherche saw at once he had been “made up” and painted like an actor. He had had recourse to cosmetics to conceal from his army the ravages that anxiety and illness had wrought in his countenance, the ghastly pallor of his face, his pinched nose, his dull, sunken eyes, and having been notified at five o’clock that there was fighting at Bazeilles, had come forth to see, sadly and silently, like a phantom with rouged cheeks.

There was a brick-kiln near by, behind which there was safety from the rain of bullets that kept pattering incessantly on its other front and the shells that burst at every second on the road. The mounted group had halted.

“Sire,” someone murmured, “you are in danger —”

But the Emperor turned and motioned to his staff to take refuge in the narrow road that skirted the kiln, where men and horses would be sheltered from the fire.

“Really, Sire, this is madness. Sire, we entreat you —”

His only answer was to repeat his gesture; probably he thought that the appearance of a group of brilliant uniforms on that deserted road would draw the fire of the batteries on the left bank. Entirely unattended he rode forward into the midst of the storm of shot and shell, calmly, unhurriedly, with his unvarying air of resigned indifference, the air of one who goes to meet his appointed fate. Could it be that he heard behind him the implacable voice that was urging him onward, that voice from Paris: “March! march! die the hero’s death on the piled corpses of thy countrymen, let the whole world look on in awe-struck admiration, so that thy son may reign!"— could that be what he heard? He rode forward, controlling his charger to a slow walk. For the space of a hundred yards he thus rode forward, then halted, awaiting the death he had come there to seek. The bullets sang in concert with a music like the fierce autumnal blast; a shell burst in front of him and covered him with earth. He maintained his attitude of patient waiting. His steed, with distended eyes and quivering frame, instinctively recoiled before the grim presence who was so close at hand and yet refused to smite horse or rider. At last the trying experience came to an end, and the Emperor, with his stoic fatalism, understanding that his time was not yet come, tranquilly retraced his steps, as if his only object had been to reconnoiter the position of the German batteries.

“What courage, Sire! We beseech you, do not expose yourself further —”

But, unmindful of their solicitations, he beckoned to his staff to follow him, not offering at present to consult their safety more than he did his own, and turned his horse’s head toward la Moncelle, quitting the road and taking the abandoned fields of la Ripaille. A captain was mortally wounded, two horses were killed. As he passed along the line of the 12th corps, appearing and vanishing like a specter, the men eyed him with curiosity, but did not cheer.

To all these events had Delaherche been witness, and now he trembled at the thought that he, too, as soon as he should have left the brick works, would have to run the gauntlet of those terrible projectiles. He lingered, listening to the conversation of some dismounted officers who had remained there.

“I tell you he was killed on the spot; cut in two by a shell.”

“You are wrong, I saw him carried off the field. His wound was not severe; a splinter struck him on the hip.”

“What time was it?”

“Why, about an hour ago — say half-past six. It was up there around la Moncelle, in a sunken road.”

“I know he is dead.”

“But I tell you he is not! He even sat his horse for a moment after he was hit, then he fainted and they carried him into a cottage to attend to his wound.”

“And then returned to Sedan?”

“Certainly; he is in Sedan now.”

Of whom could they be speaking? Delaherche quickly learned that it was of Marshal MacMahon, who had been wounded while paying a visit of inspection to his advanced posts. The marshal wounded! it was “just our luck,” as the lieutenant of marines had put it. He was reflecting on what the consequences of the mishap were likely to be when an estafette dashed by at top speed, shouting to a comrade, whom he recognized:

“General Ducrot is made commander-in-chief! The army is ordered to concentrate at Illy in order to retreat on Mezieres!”

The courier was already far away, galloping into Bazeilles under the constantly increasing fire, when Delaherche, startled by the strange tidings that came to him in such quick succession and not relishing the prospect of being involved in the confusion of the retreating troops, plucked up courage and started on a run for Balan, whence he regained Sedan without much difficulty.

The estafette tore through Bazeilles on a gallop, disseminating the news, hunting up the commanders to give them their instructions, and as he sped swiftly on the intelligence spread among the troops: Marshal MacMahon wounded, General Ducrot in command, the army falling back on Illy!

“What is that they are saying?” cried Weiss, whose face by this time was grimy with powder. “Retreat on Mezieres at this late hour! but it is absurd, they will never get through!”

And his conscience pricked him, he repented bitterly having given that counsel the day before to that very general who was now invested with the supreme command. Yes, certainly, that was yesterday the best, the only plan, to retreat, without loss of a minute’s time, by the Saint-Albert pass, but now the way could be no longer open to them, the black swarms of Prussians had certainly anticipated them and were on the plain of Donchery. There were two courses left for them to pursue, both desperate; and the most promising, as well as the bravest, of them was to drive the Bavarians into the Meuse, and cut their way through and regain possession of the Carignan road.

Weiss, whose spectacles were constantly slipping down upon his nose, adjusted them nervously and proceeded to explain matters to the lieutenant, who was still seated against the wall with his two stumps of legs, very pale and slowly bleeding to death.

“Lieutenant, I assure you I am right. Tell your men to stand their ground. You can see for yourself that we are doing well. One more effort like the last, and we shall drive them into the river.”

It was true that the Bavarians’ second attack had been repulsed. The mitrailleuses had again swept the Place de l’Eglise, the heaps of corpses in the square resembled barricades, and our troops, emerging from every cross street, had driven the enemy at the point of the bayonet through the meadows toward the river in headlong flight, which might easily have been converted into a general rout had there been fresh troops to support the sailor-boys, who had suffered severely and were by this time much distressed. And in Montivilliers Park, again, the firing did not seem to advance, which was a sign that in that quarter, also, reinforcements, could they have been had, would have cleared the wood.

“Order your men to charge them with the bayonet, lieutenant.”

The waxen pallor of death was on the poor boy-officer’s face; yet he had strength to murmur in feeble accents:

“You hear, my children; give them the bayonet!”

It was his last utterance; his spirit passed, his ingenuous, resolute face and his wide open eyes still turned on the battle. The flies already were beginning to buzz about Francoise’s head and settle there, while lying on his bed little Charles, in an access of delirium, was calling on his mother in pitiful, beseeching tones to give him something to quench his thirst.

“Mother, mother, awake; get up — I am thirsty, I am so thirsty.”

But the instructions of the new chief were imperative, and the officers, vexed and grieved to see the successes they had achieved thus rendered nugatory, had nothing for it but to give orders for the retreat. It was plain that the commander-in-chief, possessed by a haunting dread of the enemy’s turning movement, was determined to sacrifice everything in order to escape from the toils. The Place de l’Eglise was evacuated, the troops fell back from street to street; soon the broad avenue was emptied of its defenders. Women shrieked and sobbed, men swore and shook their fists at the retiring troops, furious to see themselves abandoned thus. Many shut themselves in their houses, resolved to die in their defense.

“Well, I am not going to give up the ship!” shouted Weiss, beside himself with rage. “No! I will leave my skin here first. Let them come on! let them come and smash my furniture and drink my wine!”

Wrath filled his mind to the exclusion of all else, a wild, fierce desire to fight, to kill, at the thought that the hated foreigner should enter his house, sit in his chair, drink from his glass. It wrought a change in all his nature; everything that went to make up his daily life — wife, business, the methodical prudence of the small bourgeois — seemed suddenly to become unstable and drift away from him. And he shut himself up in his house and barricaded it, he paced the empty apartments with the restless impatience of a caged wild beast, going from room to room to make sure that all the doors and windows were securely fastened. He counted his cartridges and found he had forty left, then, as he was about to give a final look to the meadows to see whether any attack was to be apprehended from that quarter, the sight of the hills on the left bank arrested his attention for a moment. The smoke-wreaths indicated distinctly the position of the Prussian batteries, and at the corner of a little wood on la Marfee, over the powerful battery at Frenois, he again beheld the group of uniforms, more numerous than before, and so distinct in the bright sunlight that by supplementing his spectacles with his binocle he could make out the gold of their epaulettes and helmets.

“You dirty scoundrels, you dirty scoundrels!” he twice repeated, extending his clenched fist in impotent menace.

Those who were up there on la Marfee were King William and his staff. As early as seven o’clock he had ridden up from Vendresse, where he had had quarters for the night, and now was up there on the heights, out of reach of danger, while at his feet lay the valley of the Meuse and the vast panorama of the field of battle. Far as the eye could reach, from north to south, the bird’s -eye view extended, and standing on the summit of the hill, as from his throne in some colossal opera box, the monarch surveyed the scene.

In the central foreground of the picture, and standing out in bold relief against the venerable forests of the Ardennes, that stretched away on either hand from right to left, filling the northern horizon like a curtain of dark verdure, was the city of Sedan, with the geometrical lines and angles of its fortifications, protected on the south and west by the flooded meadows and the river. In Bazeilles houses were already burning, and the dark cloud of war hung heavy over the pretty village. Turning his eyes eastward he might discover, holding the line between la Moncelle and Givonne, some regiments of the 12th and 1st corps, looking like diminutive insects at that distance and lost to sight at intervals in the dip of the narrow valley in which the hamlets lay concealed; and beyond that valley rose the further slope, an uninhabited, uncultivated heath, of which the pale tints made the dark green of Chevalier’s Wood look black by contrast. To the north the 7th corps was more distinctly visible in its position on the plateau of Floing, a broad belt of sere, dun fields, that sloped downward from the little wood of la Garenne to the verdant border of the stream. Further still were Floing, Saint-Menges, Fleigneux, Illy, small villages that lay nestled in the hollows of that billowing region where the landscape was a succession of hill and dale. And there, too, to the left was the great bend of the Meuse, where the sluggish stream, shimmering like molten silver in the bright sunlight, swept lazily in a great horseshoe around the peninsula of Iges and barred the road to Mezieres, leaving between its further bank and the impassable forest but one single gateway, the defile of Saint-Albert.

It was in that triangular space that the hundred thousand men and five hundred guns of the French army had now been crowded and brought to bay, and when His Prussian Majesty condescended to turn his gaze still further to the westward he might perceive another plain, the plain of Donchery, a succession of bare fields stretching away toward Briancourt, Marancourt, and Vrigne-aux-Bois, a desolate expanse of gray waste beneath the clear blue sky; and did he turn him to the east, he again had before his eyes, facing the lines in which the French were so closely hemmed, a vast level stretch of country in which were numerous villages, first Douzy and Carignan, then more to the north Rubecourt, Pourru-aux-Bois, Francheval, Villers-Cernay, and last of all, near the frontier, Chapelle. All about him, far as he could see, the land was his; he could direct the movements of the quarter of a million of men and the eight hundred guns that constituted his army, could master at a glance every detail of the operations of his invading host. Even then the XIth corps was pressing forward toward Saint-Menges, while the Vth was at Vrigne-aux-Bois, and the Wurtemburg division was near Donchery, awaiting orders. This was what he beheld to the west, and if, turning to the east, he found his view obstructed in that quarter by tree-clad hills, he could picture to himself what was passing, for he had seen the XIIth corps entering the wood of Chevalier, he knew that by that time the Guards were at Villers-Cernay. There were the two arms of the gigantic vise, the army of the Crown Prince of Prussia on the left, the Saxon Prince’s army on the right, slowly, irresistibly closing on each other, while the two Bavarian corps were hammering away at Bazeilles.

Underneath the King’s position the long line of batteries, stretching with hardly an interval from Remilly to Frenois, kept up an unintermittent fire, pouring their shells into Daigny and la Moncelle, sending them hurtling over Sedan city to sweep the northern plateaus. It was barely eight o’clock, and with eyes fixed on the gigantic board he directed the movements of the game, awaiting the inevitable end, calmly controlling the black cloud of men that beneath him swept, an array of pigmies, athwart the smiling landscape.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/z/zola/emile/downfall/part2.1.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06