The shadows of a balmy night were slowly falling. The women remained in the drawing-room of the villa. The men, seated or astride on garden-chairs, were smoking in front of the door, forming a circle round a table laden with cups and wineglasses.
Their cigars shone like eyes in the darkness which, minute by minute, was growing thicker. They had been talking about a frightful accident which had occurred the night before — two men and three women drowned before the eyes of the guests in the river opposite.
General de G—— remarked:
“Yes, these things are affecting, but they are not horrible.
“The horrible, that well-known word, means much more than the terrible. A frightful accident like this moves, upsets, scares; it does not horrify. In order that we should experience horror, something more is needed than the excitation of the soul, something more than the spectacle of the dreadful death; there must be a shuddering sense of mystery or a sensation of abnormal terror beyond the limits of nature. A man who dies, even in the most dramatic conditions, does not excite horror; a field of battle is not horrible, blood is not horrible; the vilest crimes are rarely horrible.
“Hold on! here are two personal examples, which have shown me what is the meaning of horror:
“It was during the war of 1870. We were retreating towards Pont–Audemer, after having passed through Rouen. The army, consisting of about twenty thousand men, twenty thousand men in disorder, disbanded, demoralized, exhausted, were going to re-form at Havre.
“The earth was covered with snow. The night was falling. They had not eaten anything since the day before. They were flying rapidly, the Prussians not being far off.
“All the Norman country, livid, dotted with the shadows of the trees surrounding the farms, extended under a black sky, heavy and sinister.
“Nothing else could be heard in the wan twilight save the confused sound, soft and undefined, of a marching throng, an endless tramping, mingled with the vague clink of pottingers or sabers. The men, bent, round-shouldered, dirty, in many cases even in rags, dragged themselves along, hurried through the snow, with a long, broken-backed stride.
“The skin of their hands stuck to the steel of their muskets’ butt-ends, for it was freezing dreadfully that night. I frequently saw a little soldier take off his shoes in order to walk barefooted, so much did his foot-gear bruise him; and with every step he left a little track of blood. Then, after some time, he sat down in a field for a few minutes’ rest, and he never got up again. Every man who sat down was a dead man.
“Should we have left behind us those poor exhausted soldiers, who fondly counted on being able to start afresh as soon as they had somewhat refreshed their stiffened legs? Now, scarcely had they ceased to move, and to make their almost frozen blood circulate in their veins, than an unconquerable torpor congealed them, nailed them to the ground, closed their eyes, and in one second collapsed this overworked human mechanism. And they gradually sank down, their heads falling towards their knees, without, however, quite tumbling over, for their loins and their limbs lost their capacity for moving, and became as hard as wood, impossible to bend or to set upright.
“And the rest of us, more robust, kept still straggling on, chilled to the marrow of our bones, advancing by dint of forced movement through that night, through that snow, through that cold and deadly country, crushed by pain, by defeat, by despair, above all overcome by the abominable sensation of abandonment, of the end, of death, of nothingness.
“I saw two gendarmes holding by the arm a curious-looking little man, old, beardless, of truly surprising aspect.
“They were looking out for an officer, believing that they had caught a spy. The word ‘spy’ at once spread through the midst of the stragglers, and they gathered in a group round the prisoner. A voice exclaimed: ‘He must be shot!’ And all these soldiers who were falling from utter prostration, only holding themselves on their feet by leaning on their guns, felt all of a sudden that thrill of furious and bestial anger which urges on a mob to massacre.
“I wanted to speak! I was at that time in command of a battalion; but they no longer recognized the authority of their commanding officers; they would have shot myself.
“One of the gendarmes said: ‘He has been following us for the last three days. He has been asking information from everyone about the artillery.’
“I took it on myself to question this person.
“‘What are you doing? What do you want? Why are you accompanying the army?’
“He stammered out some words in some unintelligible dialect. He was, indeed, a strange being, with narrow shoulders, a sly look, and such an agitated air in my presence that I had no longer any real doubt that he was a spy. He seemed very aged and feeble. He kept staring at me from under his eyes with humble, stupid, and crafty air.
The men all round us exclaimed:
“‘To the wall! to the wall!’
“I said to the gendarmes:
“‘Do you answer for the prisoner?’
“I had not ceased speaking when a terrible push threw me on my back, and in a second I saw the man seized by the furious soldiers, thrown down, struck, dragged along the side of the road, and flung against a tree. He fell in the snow, nearly dead already.
“And immediately they shot him. The soldiers fired at him, re-loaded their guns, fired again with the desperate energy of brutes. They fought with each other to have a shot at him, filed off in front of the corpse, and kept firing on at him, as people at a funeral keep sprinkling holy water in front of a coffin.
“But suddenly a cry arose of: ‘The Prussians! the Prussians!’
“And all along the horizon I heard the great noise of this panic-stricken army in full flight.
“The panic, generated by these shots fired at this vagabond, had filled his very executioners with terror; and, without realizing that they were themselves the originators of the scare, rushed away and disappeared in the darkness.
“I remained alone in front of the corpse with the two gendarmes whom their duty had compelled to stay with me.
“They lifted up the riddled piece of flesh, bruised and bleeding.
“‘He must be examined,’ said I to them.
“And I handed them a box of vestas which I had in my pocket. One of the soldiers had another box. I was standing between the two.
“The gendarme, who was feeling the body, called out:
“‘Clothed in a blue blouse, a trousers, and a pair of shoes.’
“The first match went out; we lighted a second. The man went on, as he turned out his pockets:
“‘A horn knife, check handkerchief, a snuff-box, a bit of packthread, a piece of bread.’
“The second match went out; we lighted a third. The gendarme, after having handled the corpse for a long time, said:
“‘That is all.’
“‘Strip him. We shall perhaps find something near the skin.’
“And, in order that the two soldiers might help each other in this task, I stood between them to give them light. I saw them, by the rapid and speedily extinguished flash of the match, take off the garments one by one, and expose to view that bleeding bundle of flesh still warm, though lifeless.
“And suddenly one of them exclaimed:
“‘Good God, General, it is a woman!’
“I cannot describe to you the strange and poignant sensation of pain that moved my heart. I could not believe it, and I knelt down in the snow before this shapeless pulp of flesh to see for myself: it was a woman.
“The two gendarmes, speechless and stunned, waited for me to give my opinion on the matter. But I did not know what to think, what theory to adopt.
“Then the brigadier slowly drawled out:
“‘Perhaps she came to look for a son of hers in the artillery, whom she had not heard from.’
“And the other chimed in:
“‘Perhaps indeed that is so.’
“And I, who had seen some very terrible things in my time, began to cry. And I felt, in the presence of this corpse, in that icy cold night, the midst of that gloomy pain, at the sight of this mystery, at the sight of this murdered stranger, the meaning of that word ‘Horror.’
“Now I had the same sensation last year while interrogating one of the survivors of the Flatters Mission, an Algerian sharpshooter.
“You know the details of this atrocious drama. It is possible, however, that you are unacquainted with them.
“The Colonel traveled through the desert into the Soudan, and passed through the immense territory of the Touaregs, who are, in that great ocean of sand which stretches from the Atlantic to Egypt and from the Soudan to Algeria, a kind of pirates resembling those who ravaged the seas in former days.
“The guides who accompanied the column belonged to the tribe of Chambaa, of Ouargla.
“Now, one day, they pitched their camp in the middle of the desert, and the Arabs declared that, as the spring was a little farther away, they would go with all their camels to look for water.
“Only one man warned the Colonel that he had been betrayed: Flatters did not believe this, and accompanied the convoy with the engineers, the doctors, and nearly all his officers.
“They were massacred round the spring, and all the camels captured.
“The Captain of the Arab Intelligence Department at Ouargla, who had remained in the camp, took command of the survivors, spahis and sharpshooters, and they commenced the retreat, leaving behind the baggage and the provisions for want of camels to carry them.
“Then they started on their journey through this solitude without shade and without limits, under the devouring sun which burned them from morning till night.
“One tribe came to tender its submission and brought dates as a tribute. They were poisoned. Nearly all the French died, and, among them, the last officer.
“There now only remained a few spahis with their quartermaster, Pobequin, and some native sharpshooters of the Chambaa tribe. They had still two camels left. They disappeared one night along with two Arabs.
“Then, the survivors understood that they were going to eat each other up, and, as soon as they discovered the flight of the two men with the two beasts, those who remained separated, and proceeded to march, one by one, through the soft sand, under the glare of a scorching sun, at a distance of more than a gunshot from each other.
“So they went on all day, and, when they reached a spring, each of them came to drink at it in turn as soon as each solitary marcher had moved forward the number of yards arranged upon. And thus they continued marching the whole day, raising, everywhere they passed, in that level burnt-up expanse, those little columns of dust which, at a distance, indicate those who are trudging through the desert.
“But, one morning, one of the travelers made a sudden turn, and drew nearer to his neighbor. And they all stopped to look.
“The man toward whom the famished soldier drew near did not fly, but lay flat on the ground, and took aim at the one who was coming on. When he believed he was within gunshot, he fired. The other was not hit, and he continued then to advance, and cocking his gun in turn, killed his comrade.
“Then from the entire horizon, the others rushed to seek their share. And he who had killed the fallen man, cutting the corpse into pieces, distributed it.
“And they once more placed themselves at fixed distances, these irreconcilable allies, preparing for the next murder which would bring them together.
“For two days, they lived on this human flesh which they divided amongst each other. Then, the famine came back, and he who had killed the first man began killing afresh. And again, like a butcher, he cut up the corpse, and offered it to his comrades, keeping only his own portion of it.
“And so this retreat of cannibals continued.
“The last Frenchman, Pobequin, was massacred at the side of a well, the very night before the supplies arrived.
“Do you understand now what I mean by the Horrible?”
This was the story told us a few nights ago by General de G—— .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58