The Downfall (La Débâcle), by Émile Zola

Part First


In the middle of the broad, fertile plain that stretches away in the direction of the Rhine, a mile and a quarter from Mulhausen, the camp was pitched. In the fitful light of the overcast August day, beneath the lowering sky that was filled with heavy drifting clouds, the long lines of squat white shelter-tents seemed to cower closer to the ground, and the muskets, stacked at regular intervals along the regimental fronts, made little spots of brightness, while over all the sentries with loaded pieces kept watch and ward, motionless as statues, straining their eyes to pierce the purplish mists that lay on the horizon and showed where the mighty river ran.

It was about five o’clock when they had come in from Belfort; it was now eight, and the men had only just received their rations. There could be no distribution of wood, however, the wagons having gone astray, and it had therefore been impossible for them to make fires and warm their soup. They had consequently been obliged to content themselves as best they might, washing down their dry hard-tack with copious draughts of brandy, a proceeding that was not calculated greatly to help their tired legs after their long march. Near the canteen, however, behind the stacks of muskets, there were two soldiers pertinaciously endeavoring to elicit a blaze from a small pile of green wood, the trunks of some small trees that they had chopped down with their sword-bayonets, and that were obstinately determined not to burn. The cloud of thick, black smoke, rising slowly in the evening air, added to the general cheerlessness of the scene.

There were but twelve thousand men there, all of the 7th corps that the general, Felix Douay, had with him at the time. The 1st division had been ordered to Froeschwiller the day before; the 3d was still at Lyons, and it had been decided to leave Belfort and hurry to the front with the 2d division, the reserve artillery, and an incomplete division of cavalry. Fires had been seen at Lorrach. The sous-prefet at Schelestadt had sent a telegram announcing that the Prussians were preparing to pass the Rhine at Markolsheim. The general did not like his unsupported position on the extreme right, where he was cut off from communication with the other corps, and his movement in the direction of the frontier had been accelerated by the intelligence he had received the day before of the disastrous surprise at Wissembourg. Even if he should not be called on to face the enemy on his own front, he felt that he was likely at any moment to be ordered to march to the relief of the 1st corps. There must be fighting going on, away down the river near Froeschwiller, on that dark and threatening Saturday, that ominous 6th of August; there was premonition of it in the sultry air, and the stray puffs of wind passed shudderingly over the camp as if fraught with tidings of impending evil. And for two days the division had believed that it was marching forth to battle; the men had expected to find the Prussians in their front, at the termination of their forced march from Belfort to Mulhausen.

The day was drawing to an end, and from a remote corner of the camp the rattling drums and the shrill bugles sounded retreat, the sound dying away faintly in the distance on the still air of evening. Jean Macquart, who had been securing the tent and driving the pegs home, rose to his feet. When it began to be rumored that there was to be war he had left Rognes, the scene of the bloody drama in which he had lost his wife, Francoise and the acres that she brought him; he had re-enlisted at the age of thirty-nine, and been assigned to the 106th of the line, of which they were at that time filling up the cadres, with his old rank of corporal, and there were moments when he could not help wondering how it ever came about that he, who after Solferino had been so glad to quit the service and cease endangering his own and other people’s lives, was again wearing the capote of the infantry man. But what is a man to do, when he has neither trade nor calling, neither wife, house, nor home, and his heart is heavy with mingled rage and sorrow? As well go and have a shot at the enemy, if they come where they are not wanted. And he remembered his old battle cry: Ah! bon sang! if he had no longer heart for honest toil, he would go and defend her, his country, the old land of France!

When Jean was on his legs he cast a look about the camp, where the summons of the drums and bugles, taken up by one command after another, produced a momentary bustle, the conclusion of the business of the day. Some men were running to take their places in the ranks, while others, already half asleep, arose and stretched their stiff limbs with an air of exasperated weariness. He stood waiting patiently for roll-call, with that cheerful imperturbability and determination to make the best of everything that made him the good soldier that he was. His comrades were accustomed to say of him that if he had only had education he would have made his mark. He could just barely read and write, and his aspirations did not rise even so high as to a sergeantcy. Once a peasant, always a peasant.

But he found something to interest him in the fire of green wood that was still smoldering and sending up dense volumes of smoke, and he stepped up to speak to the two men who were busying themselves over it, Loubet and Lapoulle, both members of his squad.

“Quit that! You are stifling the whole camp.”

Loubet, a lean, active fellow and something of a wag, replied:

“It will burn, corporal; I assure you it will — why don’t you blow, you!”

And by way of encouragement he bestowed a kick on Lapoulle, a colossus of a man, who was on his knees puffing away with might and main, his cheeks distended till they were like wine-skins, his face red and swollen, and his eyes starting from their orbits and streaming with tears. Two other men of the squad, Chouteau and Pache, the former stretched at length upon his back like a man who appreciates the delight of idleness, and the latter engrossed in the occupation of putting a patch on his trousers, laughed long and loud at the ridiculous expression on the face of their comrade, the brutish Lapoulle.

Jean did not interfere to check their merriment. Perhaps the time was at hand when they would not have much occasion for laughter, and he, with all his seriousness and his humdrum, literal way of taking things, did not consider that it was part of his duty to be melancholy, preferring rather to close his eyes or look the other way when his men were enjoying themselves. But his attention was attracted to a second group not far away, another soldier of his squad, Maurice Levasseur, who had been conversing earnestly for near an hour with a civilian, a red-haired gentleman who was apparently about thirty-six years old, with an intelligent, honest face, illuminated by a pair of big protruding blue eyes, evidently the eyes of a near-sighted man. They had been joined by an artilleryman, a quartermaster-sergeant from the reserves, a knowing, self-satisfied-looking person with brown mustache and imperial, and the three stood talking like old friends, unmindful of what was going on about them.

In the kindness of his heart, in order to save them a reprimand, if not something worse, Jean stepped up to them and said:

“You had better be going, sir. It is past retreat, and if the lieutenant should see you —” Maurice did not permit him to conclude his sentence:

“Stay where you are, Weiss,” he said, and turning to the corporal, curtly added: “This gentleman is my brother-in-law. He has a pass from the colonel, who is acquainted with him.”

What business had he to interfere with other people’s affairs, that peasant whose hands were still reeking of the manure-heap? He was a lawyer, had been admitted to the bar the preceding autumn, had enlisted as a volunteer and been received into the 106th without the formality of passing through the recruiting station, thanks to the favor of the colonel; it was true that he had condescended to carry a musket, but from the very start he had been conscious of a feeling of aversion and rebellion toward that ignorant clown under whose command he was.

“Very well,” Jean tranquilly replied; “don’t blame me if your friend finds his way to the guardhouse.”

Thereon he turned and went away, assured that Maurice had not been lying, for the colonel, M. de Vineuil, with his commanding, high-bred manner and thick white mustache bisecting his long yellow face, passed by just then and saluted Weiss and the soldier with a smile. The colonel pursued his way at a good round pace toward a farmhouse that was visible off to the right among the plum trees, a few hundred feet away, where the staff had taken up their quarters for the night. No one could say whether the general commanding the 7th corps was there or not; he was in deep affliction on account of the death of his brother, slain in the action at Wissembourg. The brigadier, however, Bourgain-Desfeuilles, in whose command the 106th was, was certain to be there, brawling as loud as ever, and trundling his fat body about on his short, pudgy legs, with his red nose and rubicund face, vouchers for the good dinners he had eaten, and not likely ever to become top-heavy by reason of excessive weight in his upper story. There was a stir and movement about the farmhouse that seemed to be momentarily increasing; couriers and orderlies were arriving and departing every minute; they were awaiting there, with feverish anxiety of impatience, the belated dispatches which should advise them of the result of the battle that everyone, all that long August day, had felt to be imminent. Where had it been fought? what had been the issue? As night closed in and darkness shrouded the scene, a foreboding sense of calamity seemed to settle down upon the orchard, upon the scattered stacks of grain about the stables, and spread, and envelop them in waves of inky blackness. It was said, also, that a Prussian spy had been caught roaming about the camp, and that he had been taken to the house to be examined by the general. Perhaps Colonel de Vineuil had received a telegram of some kind, that he was in such great haste.

Meantime Maurice had resumed his conversation with his brother-in-law Weiss and his cousin Honore Fouchard, the quartermaster-sergeant. Retreat, commencing in the remote distance, then gradually swelling in volume as it drew near with its blare and rattle, reached them, passed them, and died away in the solemn stillness of the twilight; they seemed to be quite unconscious of it. The young man was grandson to a hero of the Grand Army, and had first seen the light at Chene-Populeux, where his father, not caring to tread the path of glory, had held an ill-paid position as collector of taxes. His mother, a peasant, had died in giving him birth, him and his twin sister Henriette, who at an early age had become a second mother to him, and that he was now what he was, a private in the ranks, was owing entirely to his own imprudence, the headlong dissipation of a weak and enthusiastic nature, his money squandered and his substance wasted on women, cards, the thousand follies of the all-devouring minotaur, Paris, when he had concluded his law studies there and his relatives had impoverished themselves to make a gentleman of him. His conduct had brought his father to the grave; his sister, when he had stripped her of her little all, had been so fortunate as to find a husband in that excellent young fellow Weiss, who had long held the position of accountant in the great sugar refinery at Chene-Populeux, and was now foreman for M. Delaherche, one of the chief cloth manufacturers of Sedan. And Maurice, always cheered and encouraged when he saw a prospect of amendment in himself, and equally disheartened when his good resolves failed him and he relapsed, generous and enthusiastic but without steadiness of purpose, a weathercock that shifted with every varying breath of impulse, now believed that experience had done its work and taught him the error of his ways. He was a small, light-complexioned man, with a high, well-developed forehead, small nose, and retreating chin, and a pair of attractive gray eyes in a face that indicated intelligence; there were times when his mind seemed to lack balance.

Weiss, on the eve of the commencement of hostilities, had found that there were family matters that made it necessary for him to visit Mulhausen, and had made a hurried trip to that city. That he had been able to employ the good offices of Colonel de Vineuil to afford him an opportunity of shaking hands with his brother-in-law was owing to the circumstance that that officer was own uncle to young Mme. Delaherche, a pretty young widow whom the cloth manufacturer had married the year previous, and whom Maurice and Henriette, thanks to their being neighbors, had known as a girl. In addition to the colonel, moreover, Maurice had discovered that the captain of his company, Beaudoin, was an acquaintance of Gilberte, Delaherche’s young wife; report even had it that she and the captain had been on terms of intimacy in the days when she was Mme. Maginot, living at Meziere, wife of M. Maginot, the timber inspector.

“Give Henriette a good kiss for me, Weiss,” said the young man, who loved his sister passionately. “Tell her that she shall have no reason to complain of me, that I wish her to be proud of her brother.”

Tears rose to his eyes at the remembrance of his misdeeds. The brother-in-law, who was also deeply affected, ended the painful scene by turning to Honore Fouchard, the artilleryman.

“The first time I am anywhere in the neighborhood,” he said, “I will run up to Remilly and tell Uncle Fouchard that I saw you and that you are well.”

Uncle Fouchard, a peasant, who owned a bit of land and plied the trade of itinerant butcher, serving his customers from a cart, was a brother of Henriette’s and Maurice’s mother. He lived at Remilly, in a house perched upon a high hill, about four miles from Sedan.

“Good!” Honore calmly answered; “the father don’t worry his head a great deal on my account, but go there all the same if you feel inclined.”

At that moment there was a movement over in the direction of the farmhouse, and they beheld the straggler, the man who had been arrested as a spy, come forth, free, accompanied only by a single officer. He had likely had papers to show, or had trumped up a story of some kind, for they were simply expelling him from the camp. In the darkening twilight, and at the distance they were, they could not make him out distinctly, only a big, square-shouldered fellow with a rough shock of reddish hair. And yet Maurice gave vent to an exclamation of surprise.

“Honore! look there. If one wouldn’t swear he was the Prussian — you know, Goliah!”

The name made the artilleryman start as if he had been shot; he strained his blazing eyes to follow the receding shape. Goliah Steinberg, the journeyman butcher, the man who had set him and his father by the ears, who had stolen from him his Silvine; the whole base, dirty, miserable story, from which he had not yet ceased to suffer! He would have run after, would have caught him by the throat and strangled him, but the man had already crossed the line of stacked muskets, was moving off and vanishing in the darkness.

“Oh!” he murmured, “Goliah! no, it can’t be he. He is down yonder, fighting on the other side. If I ever come across him —”

He shook his fist with an air of menace at the dusky horizon, at the wide empurpled stretch of eastern sky that stood for Prussia in his eyes. No one spoke; they heard the strains of retreat again, but very distant now, away at the extreme end of the camp, blended and lost among the hum of other indistinguishable sounds.

Fichtre!” exclaimed Honore, “I shall have the pleasure of sleeping on the soft side of a plank in the guard-house unless I make haste back to roll-call. Good-night — adieu, everybody!”

And grasping Weiss by both his hands and giving them a hearty squeeze, he strode swiftly away toward the slight elevation where the guns of the reserves were parked, without again mentioning his father’s name or sending any word to Silvine, whose name lay at the end of his tongue.

The minutes slipped away, and over toward the left, where the 2d brigade lay, a bugle sounded. Another, near at hand, replied, and then a third, in the remote distance, took up the strain. Presently there was a universal blaring, far and near, throughout the camp, whereon Gaude, the bugler of the company, took up his instrument. He was a tall, lank, beardless, melancholy youth, chary of his words, saving his breath for his calls, which he gave conscientiously, with the vigor of a young hurricane.

Forthwith Sergeant Sapin, a ceremonious little man with large vague eyes, stepped forward and began to call the roll. He rattled off the names in a thin, piping voice, while the men, who had come up and ranged themselves in front of him, responded in accents of varying pitch, from the deep rumble of the violoncello to the shrill note of the piccolo. But there came a hitch in the proceedings.

“Lapoulle!” shouted the sergeant, calling the name a second time with increased emphasis.

There was no response, and Jean rushed off to the place where Private Lapoulle, egged on by his comrades, was industriously trying to fan the refractory fuel into a blaze; flat on his stomach before the pile of blackening, spluttering wood, his face resembling an underdone beefsteak, the warrior was now propelling dense clouds of smoke horizontally along the surface of the plain.

“Thunder and ouns! Quit that, will you!” yelled Jean, “and come and answer to your name.”

Lapoulle rose to his feet with a dazed look on his face, then appeared to grasp the situation and yelled: “Present!” in such stentorian tones that Loubet, pretending to be upset by the concussion, sank to the ground in a sitting posture. Pache had finished mending his trousers and answered in a voice that was barely audible, that sounded more like the mumbling of a prayer. Chouteau, not even troubling himself to rise, grunted his answer unconcernedly and turned over on his side.

Lieutenant Rochas, the officer of the guard, was meantime standing a few steps away, motionlessly awaiting the conclusion of the ceremony. When Sergeant Sapin had finished calling the roll and came up to report that all were present, the officer, with a glance at Weiss, who was still conversing with Maurice, growled from under his mustache:

“Yes, and one over. What is that civilian doing here?”

“He has the colonel’s pass, Lieutenant,” explained Jean, who had heard the question.

Rochas made no reply; he shrugged his shoulders disapprovingly and resumed his round among the company streets while waiting for taps to sound. Jean, stiff and sore after his day’s march, went and sat down a little way from Maurice, whose murmured words fell indistinctly upon his unlistening ear, for he, too, had vague, half formed reflections of his own that were stirring sluggishly in the recesses of his muddy, torpid mind.

Maurice was a believer in war in the abstract; he considered it one of the necessary evils, essential to the very existence of nations. This was nothing more than the logical sequence of his course in embracing those theories of evolution which in those days exercised such a potent influence on our young men of intelligence and education. Is not life itself an unending battle? Does not all nature owe its being to a series of relentless conflicts, the survival of the fittest, the maintenance and renewal of force by unceasing activity; is not death a necessary condition to young and vigorous life? And he remembered the sensation of gladness that had filled his heart when first the thought occurred to him that he might expiate his errors by enlisting and defending his country on the frontier. It might be that France of the plebiscite, while giving itself over to the Emperor, had not desired war; he himself, only a week previously, had declared it to be a culpable and idiotic measure. There were long discussions concerning the right of a German prince to occupy the throne of Spain; as the question gradually became more and more intricate and muddled it seemed as if everyone must be wrong, no one right; so that it was impossible to tell from which side the provocation came, and the only part of the entire business that was clear to the eyes of all was the inevitable, the fatal law which at a given moment hurls nation against nation. Then Paris was convulsed from center to circumference; he remembered that burning summer’s night, the tossing, struggling human tide that filled the boulevards, the bands of men brandishing torches before the Hotel de Ville, and yelling: “On to Berlin! on to Berlin!” and he seemed to hear the strains of the Marseillaise, sung by a beautiful, stately woman with the face of a queen, wrapped in the folds of a flag, from her elevation on the box of a coach. Was it all a lie, was it true that the heart of Paris had not beaten then? And then, as was always the case with him, that condition of nervous excitation had been succeeded by long hours of doubt and disgust; there were all the small annoyances of the soldier’s life; his arrival at the barracks, his examination by the adjutant, the fitting of his uniform by the gruff sergeant, the malodorous bedroom with its fetid air and filthy floor, the horseplay and coarse language of his new comrades, the merciless drill that stiffened his limbs and benumbed his brain. In a week’s time, however, he had conquered his first squeamishness, and from that time forth was comparatively contented with his lot; and when the regiment was at last ordered forward to Belfort the fever of enthusiasm had again taken possession of him.

For the first few days after they took the field Maurice was convinced that their success was absolutely certain. The Emperor’s plan appeared to him perfectly clear: he would advance four hundred thousand men to the left bank of the Rhine, pass the river before the Prussians had completed their preparations, separate northern and southern Germany by a vigorous inroad, and by means of a brilliant victory or two compel Austria and Italy to join hands immediately with France. Had there not been a short-lived rumor that that 7th corps of which his regiment formed a part was to be embarked at Brest and landed in Denmark, where it would create a diversion that would serve to neutralize one of the Prussian armies? They would be taken by surprise; the arrogant nation would be overrun in every direction and crushed utterly within a few brief weeks. It would be a military picnic, a holiday excursion from Strasbourg to Berlin. While they were lying inactive at Belfort, however, his former doubts and fears returned to him. To the 7th corps had been assigned the duty of guarding the entrance to the Black Forest; it had reached its position in a state of confusion that exceeded imagination, deficient in men, material, everything. The 3d division was in Italy; the 2d cavalry brigade had been halted at Lyons to check a threatened rising among the people there, and three batteries had straggled off in some direction — where, no one could say. Then their destitution in the way of stores and supplies was something wonderful; the depots at Belfort, which were to have furnished everything, were empty; not a sign of a tent, no mess-kettles, no flannel belts, no hospital supplies, no farriers’ forges, not even a horse-shackle. The quartermaster’s and medical departments were without trained assistants. At the very last moment it was discovered that thirty thousand rifles were practically useless owing to the absence of some small pin or other interchangeable mechanism about the breech-blocks, and the officer who posted off in hot haste to Paris succeeded with the greatest difficulty in securing five thousand of the missing implements. Their inactivity, again, was another matter that kept him on pins and needles; why did they idle away their time for two weeks? why did they not advance? He saw clearly that each day of delay was a mistake that could never be repaired, a chance of victory gone. And if the plan of campaign that he had dreamed of was clear and precise, its manner of execution was most lame and impotent, a fact of which he was to learn a great deal more later on and of which he had then only a faint and glimmering perception: the seven army corps dispersed along the extended frontier line en echelon, from Metz to Bitche and from Bitche to Belfort; the many regiments and squadrons that had been recruited up to only half-strength or less, so that the four hundred and thirty thousand men on paper melted away to two hundred and thirty thousand at the outside; the jealousies among the generals, each of whom thought only of securing for himself a marshal’s baton, and gave no care to supporting his neighbor; the frightful lack of foresight, mobilization and concentration being carried on simultaneously in order to gain time, a process that resulted in confusion worse confounded; a system, in a word, of dry rot and slow paralysis, which, commencing with the head, with the Emperor himself, shattered in health and lacking in promptness of decision, could not fail ultimately to communicate itself to the whole army, disorganizing it and annihilating its efficiency, leading it into disaster from which it had not the means of extricating itself. And yet, over and above the dull misery of that period of waiting, in the intuitive, shuddering perception of what must infallibly happen, his certainty that they must be victors in the end remained unimpaired.

On the 3d of August the cheerful news had been given to the public of the victory of Sarrebruck, fought and won the day before. It could scarcely be called a great victory, but the columns of the newspapers teemed with enthusiastic gush; the invasion of Germany was begun, it was the first step in their glorious march to triumph, and the little Prince Imperial, who had coolly stooped and picked up a bullet from the battlefield, then commenced to be celebrated in legend. Two days later, however, when intelligence came of the surprise and defeat at Wissembourg, every mouth was opened to emit a cry of rage and distress. That five thousand men, caught in a trap, had faced thirty-five thousand Prussians all one long summer day, that was not a circumstance to daunt the courage of anyone; it simply called for vengeance. Yes, the leaders had doubtless been culpably lacking in vigilance and were to be censured for their want of foresight, but that would soon be mended; MacMahon had sent for the 1st division of the 7th corps, the 1st corps would be supported by the 5th, and the Prussians must be across the Rhine again by that time, with the bayonets of our infantry at their backs to accelerate their movement. And so, beneath the deep, dim vault of heaven, the thought of the battle that must have raged that day, the feverish impatience with which the tidings were awaited, the horrible feeling of suspense that pervaded the air about them, spread from man to man and became each minute more tense and unendurable.

Maurice was just then saying to Weiss:

“Ah! we have certainly given them a righteous good drubbing to-day.”

Weiss made no reply save to nod his head with an air of anxiety. His gaze was directed toward the Rhine, on that Orient region where now the night had settled down in earnest, like a wall of blackness, concealing strange forms and shapes of mystery. The concluding strains of the bugles for roll-call had been succeeded by a deep silence, which had descended upon the drowsy camp and was only broken now and then by the steps and voices of some wakeful soldiers. A light had been lit — it looked like a twinkling star — in the main room of the farmhouse where the staff, which is supposed never to sleep, was awaiting the telegrams that came in occasionally, though as yet they were undecided. And the green wood fire, now finally left to itself, was still emitting its funereal wreaths of dense black smoke, which drifted in the gentle breeze over the unsleeping farmhouse, obscuring the early stars in the heavens above.

“A drubbing!” Weiss at last replied, “God grant it may be so!”

Jean, still seated a few steps away, pricked up his ears, while Lieutenant Rochas, noticing that the wish was attended by a doubt, stopped to listen.

“What!” Maurice rejoined, “have you not confidence? can you believe that defeat is possible?”

His brother-in-law silenced him with a gesture; his hands were trembling with agitation, his kindly pleasant face was pale and bore an expression of deep distress.

“Defeat, ah! Heaven preserve us from that! You know that I was born in this country; my grandfather and grandmother were murdered by the Cossacks in 1814, and whenever I think of invasion it makes me clench my fist and grit my teeth; I could go through fire and flood, like a trooper, in my shirt sleeves! Defeat — no, no! I cannot, I will not believe it possible.”

He became calmer, allowing his arms to fall by his side in discouragement.

“But my mind is not easy, do you see. I know Alsace; I was born there; I am just off a business trip through the country, and we civilians have opportunities of seeing many things that the generals persist in ignoring, although they have them thrust beneath their very eyes. Ah, we wanted war with Prussia as badly as anyone; for a long, long time we have been waiting patiently for a chance to pay off old scores, but that did not prevent us from being on neighborly terms with the people in Baden and Bavaria; every one of us, almost, has friends or relatives across the Rhine. It was our belief that they felt like us and would not be sorry to humble the intolerable insolence of the Prussians. And now, after our long period of uncomplaining expectation, for the past two weeks we have seen things going from bad to worse, and it vexes and terrifies us. Since the declaration of war the enemy’s horse have been suffered to come among us, terrorizing the villages, reconnoitering the country, cutting the telegraph wires. Baden and Bavaria are rising; immense bodies of troops are being concentrated in the Palatinate; information reaches us from every quarter, from the great fairs and markets, that our frontier is threatened, and when the citizens, the mayors of the communes, take the alarm at last and hurry off to tell your officers what they know, those gentlemen shrug their shoulders and reply: Those things spring from the imagination of cowards; there is no enemy near here. And when there is not an hour to lose, days and days are wasted. What are they waiting for? To give the whole German nation time to concentrate on the other bank of the river?”

His words were uttered in a low, mournful, voice, as if he were reciting to himself a story that had long occupied his thoughts.

“Ah! Germany, I know her too well; and the terrible part of the business is that you soldiers seem to know no more about her than you do about China. You must remember my cousin Gunther, Maurice, the young man, who came to pay me a flying visit at Sedan last spring. His mother is a sister of my mother, and married a Berliner; the young man is a German out and out; he detests everything French. He is a captain in the 5th Prussian corps. I accompanied him to the railway station that night, and he said to me in his sharp, peremptory way: ‘If France declares war on us, she will be soundly whipped!’ I can hear his words ringing in my ears yet.”

Forthwith, Lieutenant Rochas, who had managed to contain himself until then, not without some difficulty, stepped forward in a towering rage. He was a tall, lean individual of about fifty, with a long, weather-beaten, and wrinkled face; his inordinately long nose, curved like the beak of a bird of prey, over a strong but well-shaped mouth, concealed by a thick, bristling mustache that was beginning to be touched with silver. And he shouted in a voice of thunder:

“See here, you, sir! what yarns are those that you are retailing to dishearten my men?”

Jean did not interfere with his opinion, but he thought that the last speaker was right, for he, too, while beginning to be conscious of the protracted delay, and the general confusion in their affairs, had never had the slightest doubt about that terrible thrashing they were certain to give the Prussians. There could be no question about the matter, for was not that the reason of their being there?

“But I am not trying to dishearten anyone, Lieutenant,” Weiss answered in astonishment. “Quite the reverse; I am desirous that others should know what I know, because then they will be able to act with their eyes open. Look here! that Germany of which we were speaking —”

And he went on in his clear, demonstrative way to explain the reason of his fears: how Prussia had increased her resources since Sadowa; how the national movement had placed her at the head of the other German states, a mighty empire in process of formation and rejuvenation, with the constant hope and desire for unity as the incentive to their irresistible efforts; the system of compulsory military service, which made them a nation of trained soldiers, provided with the most effective arms of modern invention, with generals who were masters in the art of strategy, proudly mindful still of the crushing defeat they had administered to Austria; the intelligence, the moral force that resided in that army, commanded as it was almost exclusively by young generals, who in turn looked up to a commander-in-chief who seemed destined to revolutionize the art of war, whose prudence and foresight were unparalleled, whose correctness of judgment was a thing to wonder at. And in contrast to that picture of Germany he pointed to France: the Empire sinking into senile decrepitude, sanctioned by the plebiscite, but rotten at its foundation, destroying liberty, and therein stifling every idea of patriotism, ready to give up the ghost as soon as it should cease to satisfy the unworthy appetites to which it had given birth; then there was the army, brave, it was true, as was to be expected from men of their race, and covered with Crimean and Italian laurels, but vitiated by the system that permitted men to purchase substitutes for a money consideration, abandoned to the antiquated methods of African routine, too confident of victory to keep abreast with the more perfect science of modern times; and, finally, the generals, men for the most part not above mediocrity, consumed by petty rivalries, some of them of an ignorance beyond all belief, and at their head the Emperor, an ailing, vacillating man, deceiving himself and everyone with whom he had dealings in that desperate venture on which they were embarking, into which they were all rushing blindfold, with no preparation worthy of the name, with the panic and confusion of a flock of sheep on its way to the shambles.

Rochas stood listening, open-mouthed, and with staring eyes; his terrible nose dilated visibly. Then suddenly his lantern jaws parted to emit an obstreperous, Homeric peal of laughter.

“What are you giving us there, you? what do you mean by all that silly lingo? Why, there is not the first word of sense in your whole harangue — it is too idiotic to deserve an answer. Go and tell those things to the recruits, but don’t tell them to me; no! not to me, who have seen twenty-seven years of service.”

And he gave himself a thump on the breast with his doubled fist. He was the son of a master mason who had come from Limousin to Paris, where the son, not taking kindly to the paternal handicraft, had enlisted at the age of eighteen. He had been a soldier of fortune and had carried the knapsack, was corporal in Africa, sergeant in the Crimea, and after Solferino had been made lieutenant, having devoted fifteen years of laborious toil and heroic bravery to obtaining that rank, and was so illiterate that he had no chance of ever getting his captaincy.

“You, sir, who think you know everything, let me tell you a thing you don’t know. Yes, at Mazagran I was scarce nineteen years old, and there were twenty-three of us, not a living soul more, and for more than four days we held out against twelve thousand Arabs. Yes, indeed! for years and years, if you had only been with us out there in Africa, sir, at Mascara, at Biskra, at Dellys, after that in Grand Kabylia, after that again at Laghouat, you would have seen those dirty niggers run like deer as soon as we showed our faces. And at Sebastopol, sir, fichtre! you wouldn’t have said it was the pleasantest place in the world. The wind blew fit to take a man’s hair out by the roots, it was cold enough to freeze a brass monkey, and those beggars kept us on a continual dance with their feints and sorties. Never mind; we made them dance in the end; we danced them into the big hot frying pan, and to quick music, too! And Solferino, you were not there, sir! then why do you speak of it? Yes, at Solferino, where it was so hot, although I suppose more rain fell there that day than you have seen in your whole life, at Solferino, where we had our little brush with the Austrians, it would have warmed your heart to see how they vanished before our bayonets, riding one another down in their haste to get away from us, as if their coat tails were on fire!”

He laughed the gay, ringing laugh of the daredevil French soldier; he seemed to expand and dilate with satisfaction. It was the old story: the French trooper going about the world with his girl on his arm and a glass of good wine in his hand; thrones upset and kingdoms conquered in the singing of a merry song. Given a corporal and four men, and great armies would bite the dust. His voice suddenly sank to a low, rumbling bass:

“What! whip France? We, whipped by those Prussian pigs, we!” He came up to Weiss and grasped him violently by the lapel of his coat. His entire long frame, lean as that of the immortal Knight Errant, seemed to breathe defiance and unmitigated contempt for the foe, whoever he might be, regardless of time, place, or any other circumstance. “Listen to what I tell you, sir. If the Prussians dare to show their faces here, we will kick them home again. You hear me? we will kick them from here to Berlin.” His bearing and manner were superb; the serene tranquillity of the child, the candid conviction of the innocent who knows nothing and fears nothing. ”Parbleu! it is so, because it is so, and that’s all there is about it!”

Weiss, stunned and almost convinced, made haste to declare that he wished for nothing better. As for Maurice, who had prudently held his tongue, not venturing to express an opinion in presence of his superior officer, he concluded by joining in the other’s merriment; he warmed the cockles of his heart, that devil of a man, whom he nevertheless considered rather stupid. Jean, too, had nodded his approval at every one of the lieutenant’s assertions. He had also been at Solferino, where it rained so hard. And that showed what it was to have a tongue in one’s head and know how to use it. If all the leaders had talked like that they would not be in such a mess, and there would be camp-kettles and flannel belts in abundance.

It was quite dark by this time, and Rochas continued to gesticulate and brandish his long arms in the obscurity. His historical studies had been confined to a stray volume of Napoleonic memoirs that had found its way to his knapsack from a peddler’s wagon. His excitement refused to be pacified and all his book-learning burst from his lips in a torrent of eloquence:

“We flogged the Austrians at Castiglione, at Marengo, at Austerlitz, at Wagram; we flogged the Prussians at Eylau, at Jena, at Lutzen; we flogged the Russians at Friedland, at Smolensk and at the Moskowa; we flogged Spain and England everywhere; all creation flogged, flogged, flogged, up and down, far and near, at home and abroad, and now you tell me that it is we who are to take the flogging! Why, pray tell me? How? Is the world coming to an end?” He drew his tall form up higher still and raised his arm aloft, like the staff of a battle-flag. “Look you, there has been a fight to-day, down yonder, and we are waiting for the news. Well! I will tell you what the news is — I will tell you, I! We have flogged the Prussians, flogged them until they didn’t know whether they were a-foot or a-horseback, flogged them to powder, so that they had to be swept up in small pieces!”

At that moment there passed over the camp, beneath the somber heavens, a loud, wailing cry. Was it the plaint of some nocturnal bird? Or was it a mysterious voice, reaching them from some far-distant field of carnage, ominous of disaster? The whole camp shuddered, lying there in the shadows, and the strained, tense sensation of expectant anxiety that hung, miasma-like, in the air became more strained, more feverish, as they waited for telegrams that seemed as if they would never come. In the distance, at the farmhouse, the candle that lighted the dreary watches of the staff burned up more brightly, with an erect, unflickering flame, as if it had been of wax instead of tallow.

But it was ten o’clock, and Gaude, rising to his feet from the ground where he had been lost in the darkness, sounded taps, the first in all the camp. Other bugles, far and near, took up the strain, and it passed away in the distance with a dying, melancholy wail, as if the angel of slumber had already brushed with his wings the weary men. And Weiss, who had lingered there so late, embraced Maurice affectionately; courage, and hope! he would kiss Henriette for her brother and would have many things to tell uncle Fouchard when they met. Then, just as he was turning to go, a rumor began to circulate, accompanied by the wildest excitement. A great victory had been won by Marshal MacMahon, so the report ran; the Crown Prince of Prussia a prisoner, with twenty-five thousand men, the enemy’s army repulsed and utterly destroyed, its guns and baggage abandoned to the victors.

“Didn’t I tell you so!” shouted Rochas, in his most thundering voice. Then, running after Weiss, who, light of heart, was hastening to get back to Mulhausen: “To Berlin, sir, and we’ll kick them every step of the way!”

A quarter of an hour later came another dispatch, announcing that the army had been compelled to evacuate Woerth and was retreating. Ah, what a night was that! Rochas, overpowered by sleep, wrapped his cloak about him, threw himself down on the bare ground, as he had done many a time before. Maurice and Jean sought the shelter of the tent, into which were crowded, a confused tangle of arms and legs, Loubet, Chouteau, Pache, and Lapoulle, their heads resting on their knapsacks. There was room for six, provided they were careful how they disposed of their legs. Loubet, by way of diverting his comrades and making them forget their hunger, had labored for some time to convince Lapoulle that there was to be a ration of poultry issued the next morning, but they were too sleepy to keep up the joke; they were snoring, and the Prussians might come, it was all one to them. Jean lay for a moment without stirring, pressing close against Maurice; notwithstanding his fatigue he was unable to sleep; he could not help thinking of the things that gentleman had said, how all Germany was up in arms and preparing to pour her devastating hordes across the Rhine; and he felt that his tent-mate was not sleeping, either — was thinking of the same things as he. Then the latter turned over impatiently and moved away, and the other understood that his presence was not agreeable. There was a lack of sympathy between the peasant and the man of culture, an enmity of caste and education that amounted almost to physical aversion. The former, however, experienced a sensation of shame and sadness at this condition of affairs; he shrinkingly drew in his limbs so as to occupy as small a space as possible, endeavoring to escape from the hostile scorn that he was vaguely conscious of in his neighbor. But although the night wind without had blown up chill, the crowded tent was so stifling hot and close that Maurice, in a fever of exasperation, raised the flap, darted out, and went and stretched himself on the ground a few steps away. That made Jean still more unhappy, and in his half-sleeping, half-waking condition he had troubled dreams, made up of a regretful feeling that no one cared for him, and a vague apprehension of impending calamity of which he seemed to hear the steps approaching with measured tread from the shadowy, mysterious depths of the unknown.

Two hours passed, and all the camp lay lifeless, motionless under the oppression of the deep, weird darkness, that was instinct with some dreadful horror as yet without a name. Out of the sea of blackness came stifled sighs and moans; from an invisible tent was heard something that sounded like the groan of a dying man, the fitful dream of some tired soldier. Then there were other sounds that to the strained ear lost their familiarity and became menaces of approaching evil; the neighing of a charger, the clank of a sword, the hurrying steps of some belated prowler. And all at once, off toward the canteens, a great light flamed up. The entire front was brilliantly illuminated; the long, regularly aligned array of stacks stood out against the darkness, and the ruddy blaze, reflected from the burnished barrels of the rifles, assumed the hue of new-shed blood; the erect, stern figures of the sentries became visible in the fiery glow. Could it be the enemy, whose presence the leaders had been talking of for the past two days, and on whose trail they had come out from Belfort to Mulhausen? Then a shower of sparks rose high in the air and the conflagration subsided. It was only the pile of green wood that had been so long the object of Loubet’s and Lapoulle’s care, and which, after having smoldered for many hours, had at last flashed up like a fire of straw.

Jean, alarmed by the vivid light, hastily left the tent and was near falling over Maurice, who had raised himself on his elbow. The darkness seemed by contrast more opaque than it had been before, and the two men lay stretched on the bare ground, a few paces from each other. All that they could descry before them in the dense shadows of the night was the window of the farm-house, faintly illuminated by the dim candle, which shone with a sinister gleam, as if it were doing duty by the bedside of a corpse. What time was it? two o’clock, or three, perhaps. It was plain that the staff had not made acquaintance with their beds that night. They could hear Bourgain-Desfeuilles’ loud, disputatious voice; the general was furious that his rest should be broken thus, and it required many cigars and toddies to pacify him. More telegrams came in; things must be going badly; silhouettes of couriers, faintly drawn against the uncertain sky line, could be descried, galloping madly. There was the sound of scuffling steps, imprecations, a smothered cry as of a man suddenly stricken down, followed by a blood-freezing silence. What could it be? Was it the end? A breath, chill and icy as that from the lips of death, had passed over the camp that lay lost in slumber and agonized expectation.

It was at that moment that Jean and Maurice recognized in the tall, thin, spectral form that passed swiftly by, their colonel, de Vineuil. He was accompanied by the regimental surgeon, Major Bouroche, a large man with a leonine face They were conversing in broken, unfinished sentences, whisperingly, such a conversation as we sometimes hear in dreams.

“It came by the way of Basle. Our 1st division all cut to pieces. The battle lasted twelve hours; the whole army is retreating —”

The colonel’s specter halted and called by name another specter, which came lightly forward; it was an elegant ghost, faultless in uniform and equipment.

“Is that you, Beaudoin?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Ah! bad news, my friend, terrible news! MacMahon beaten at Froeschwiller, Frossard beaten at Spickeren, and between them de Failly, held in check where he could give no assistance. At Froeschwiller it was a single corps against an entire army; they fought like heroes. It was a complete rout, a panic, and now France lies open to their advance —”

His tears choked further utterance, the words came from his lips unintelligible, and the three shadows vanished, swallowed up in the obscurity.

Maurice rose to his feet; a shudder ran through his frame.

“Good God!” he stammeringly exclaimed.

And he could think of nothing else to say, while Jean, in whose bones the very marrow seemed to be congealing, murmured in his resigned manner:

“Ah, worse luck! The gentleman, that relative of yours, was right all the same in saying that they are stronger than we.”

Maurice was beside himself, could have strangled him. The Prussians stronger than the French! The thought made his blood boil. The peasant calmly and stubbornly added:

“That don’t matter, mind you. A man don’t give up whipped at the first knock-down he gets. We shall have to keep hammering away at them all the same.”

But a tall figure arose before them. They recognized Rochas, still wrapped in his long mantle, whom the fugitive sounds about him, or it may have been the intuition of disaster, had awakened from his uneasy slumber. He questioned them, insisted on knowing all. When he was finally brought, with much difficulty, to see how matters stood, stupor, immense and profound, filled his boyish, inexpressive eyes. More than ten times in succession he repeated:

“Beaten! How beaten? Why beaten?”

And that was the calamity that had lain hidden in the blackness of that night of agony. And now the pale dawn was appearing at the portals of the east, heralding a day heavy with bitterest sorrow and striking white upon the silent tents, in one of which began to be visible the ashy faces of Loubet and Lapoulle, of Chouteau and of Pache, who were snoring still with wide-open mouths. Forth from the thin mists that were slowly creeping upward from the river off yonder in the distance came the new day, bringing with it mourning and affliction.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02