Since the beginning of the campaign Lieutenant Lare had taken two cannon from the Prussians. His general had said: “Thank you, lieutenant,” and had given him the cross of honor.
As he was as cautious as he was brave, wary, inventive, wily and resourceful, he was entrusted with a hundred soldiers and he organized a company of scouts who saved the army on several occasions during a retreat.
But the invading army entered by every frontier like a surging sea. Great waves of men arrived one after the other, scattering all around them a scum of freebooters. General Carrel’s brigade, separated from its division, retreated continually, fighting each day, but remaining almost intact, thanks to the vigilance and agility of Lieutenant Lare, who seemed to be everywhere at the same moment, baffling all the enemy’s cunning, frustrating their plans, misleading their Uhlans and killing their vanguards.
One morning the general sent for him.
“Lieutenant,” said he, “here is a dispatch from General de Lacere, who will be destroyed if we do not go to his aid by sunrise to-morrow. He is at Blainville, eight leagues from here. You will start at nightfall with three hundred men, whom you will echelon along the road. I will follow you two hours later. Study the road carefully; I fear we may meet a division of the enemy.”
It had been freezing hard for a week. At two o’clock it began to snow, and by night the ground was covered and heavy white swirls concealed objects hard by.
At six o’clock the detachment set out.
Two men walked alone as scouts about three yards ahead. Then came a platoon of ten men commanded by the lieutenant himself. The rest followed them in two long columns. To the right and left of the little band, at a distance of about three hundred feet on either side, some soldiers marched in pairs.
The snow, which was still falling, covered them with a white powder in the darkness, and as it did not melt on their uniforms, they were hardly distinguishable in the night amid the dead whiteness of the landscape.
From time to time they halted. One heard nothing but that indescribable, nameless flutter of falling snow — a sensation rather than a sound, a vague, ominous murmur. A command was given in a low tone and when the troop resumed its march it left in its wake a sort of white phantom standing in the snow. It gradually grew fainter and finally disappeared. It was the echelons who were to lead the army.
The scouts slackened their pace. Something was ahead of them.
“Turn to the right,” said the lieutenant; “it is the Ronfi wood; the chateau is more to the left.”
Presently the command “Halt” was passed along. The detachment stopped and waited for the lieutenant, who, accompanied by only ten men, had undertaken a reconnoitering expedition to the chateau.
They advanced, creeping under the trees. Suddenly they all remained motionless. Around them was a dead silence. Then, quite near them, a little clear, musical young voice was heard amid the stillness of the wood.
“Father, we shall get lost in the snow. We shall never reach Blainville.”
A deeper voice replied:
“Never fear, little daughter; I know the country as well as I know my pocket.”
The lieutenant said a few words and four men moved away silently, like shadows.
All at once a woman’s shrill cry was heard through the darkness. Two prisoners were brought back, an old man and a young girl. The lieutenant questioned them, still in a low tone:
“Butler to Comte de Ronfi.”
“Is this your daughter?”
“What does she do?”
“She is laundress at the chateau.”
“Where are you going?”
“We are making our escape.”
“Twelve Uhlans passed by this evening. They shot three keepers and hanged the gardener. I was alarmed on account of the little one.”
“Whither are you bound?”
“Because there is a French army there.”
“Do you know the way?”
“Well then, follow us.”
They rejoined the column and resumed their march across country. The old man walked in silence beside the lieutenant, his daughter walking at his side. All at once she stopped.
“Father,” she said, “I am so tired I cannot go any farther.”
And she sat down. She was shaking with cold and seemed about to lose consciousness. Her father wanted to carry her, but he was too old and too weak.
“Lieutenant,” said he, sobbing, “we shall only impede your march. France before all. Leave us here.”
The officer had given a command. Some men had started off. They came back with branches they had cut, and in a minute a litter was ready. The whole detachment had joined them by this time.
“Here is a woman dying of cold,” said the lieutenant. “Who will give his cape to cover her?”
Two hundred capes were taken off. The young girl was wrapped up in these warm soldiers’ capes, gently laid in the litter, and then four’ hardy shoulders lifted her up, and like an Eastern queen borne by her slaves she was placed in the center of the detachment of soldiers, who resumed their march with more energy, more courage, more cheerfulness, animated by the presence of a woman, that sovereign inspiration that has stirred the old French blood to so many deeds of valor.
At the end of an hour they halted again and every one lay down in the snow. Over yonder on the level country a big, dark shadow was moving. It looked like some weird monster stretching itself out like a serpent, then suddenly coiling itself into a mass, darting forth again, then back, and then forward again without ceasing. Some whispered orders were passed around among the soldiers, and an occasional little, dry, metallic click was heard. The moving object suddenly came nearer, and twelve Uhlans were seen approaching at a gallop, one behind the other, having lost their way in the darkness. A brilliant flash suddenly revealed to them two hundred mete lying on the ground before them. A rapid fire was heard, which died away in the snowy silence, and all the twelve fell to the ground, their horses with them.
After a long rest the march was resumed. The old man whom they had captured acted as guide.
Presently a voice far off in the distance cried out: “Who goes there?”
Another voice nearer by gave the countersign.
They made another halt; some conferences took place. It had stopped snowing. A cold wind was driving the clouds, and innumerable stars were sparkling in the sky behind them, gradually paling in the rosy light of dawn.
A staff officer came forward to receive the detachment. But when he asked who was being carried in the litter, the form stirred; two little hands moved aside the big blue army capes and, rosy as the dawn, with two eyes that were brighter than the stars that had just faded from sight, and a smile as radiant as the morn, a dainty face appeared.
“It is I, monsieur.”
The soldiers, wild with delight, clapped their hands and bore the young girl in triumph into the midst of the camp, that was just getting to arms. Presently General Carrel arrived on the scene. At nine o’clock the Prussians made an attack. They beat a retreat at noon.
That evening, as Lieutenant Lare, overcome by fatigue, was sleeping on a bundle of straw, he was sent for by the general. He found the commanding officer in his tent, chatting with the old man whom they had come across during the night. As soon as he entered the tent the general took his hand, and addressing the stranger, said:
“My dear comte, this is the young man of whom you were telling me just now; he is one of my best officers.”
He smiled, lowered his tone, and added:
Then, turning to the astonished lieutenant, he presented “Comte de Ronfi-Quedissac.”
The old man took both his hands, saying:
“My dear lieutenant, you have saved my daughter’s life. I have only one way of thanking you. You may come in a few months to tell me — if you like her.”
One year later, on the very same day, Captain Lare and Miss Louise-Hortense-Genevieve de Ronfi-Quedissac were married in the church of St. Thomas Aquinas.
She brought a dowry of six thousand francs, and was said to be the prettiest bride that had been seen that year.
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 12:34