MME. DE RONCHARD
And a subject for ridicule. See what the world will say of us in a little while.
Leave the world to itself, my dear Aunt, and let us occupy ourselves with our own business. [Goes to Gilberte.] Now, Gilberte, is it the idea of the child that moves you so deeply?
Oh, no,—the poor little darling!
Such is the foolishness of women who know nothing of life.
Well, father, why, if we have so many different views,—according as we are spectators or actors in the course of events,—why is there so much difference between the life of the imagination and the actual life; between that which one ought to do; that which you would that others should do, and that which you do yourself. Yes, what has happened is very painful; but the surprise of the event, its coincidence with the nuptial day makes it still more painful. We magnify—everything in our emotion, when it is ourselves that misfortune touches. Suppose, for a moment, that you had read this in your daily newspaper—
MME. DE RONCHARD [seated L. of table, indignantly]
In my daily newspaper!
Or in a romance. What emotion we should feel; what tears we should shed! How your sympathy would quickly go out to the poor little child whose birth was attained at the cost of his mother's life! How Jean would go up in your esteem; how frank, how loyal, how stanch in his fealty you would consider him; while, on the other hand, if he had deserted the dying woman, and had spirited away the little one into some distant village, you would not have had enough scorn for him, or enough insults for him. You would look upon him as a being without heart and without fear; and, you, my dear Aunt, thinking of the innumerable little bad dogs who owe you their lives, you would cry out with forcible gestures: "What a miserable scoundrel!"
MARTINEL [seated L.]
That's perfectly true.
MME. DE RONCHARD
Dogs are worth more than men.
Little children are not men, my dear Aunt. They have not had time to become bad.
All that is very ingenious, Leon, and your special pleading is magnificent.
MME. DE RONCHARD
Yes, if you would only plead like that at the Palais.
But this has nothing to do with a romance or with imaginary personages. We have married Gilberte to a young man in the ordinary conditions of life.
MME. DE RONCHARD
Without enthusiasm, it is true, but nevertheless they are married, just the same. Now, on the evening of his nuptials, he brings us a present—I must say I do not care for a present which bawls.
What does that prove, unless it is that your son-in-law is a brave man? What he has just done—risked his happiness in order to accomplish his duty—does it not say better than anything else could, how capable of devotion he is?
Clear as the day.
MME. DE RONCHARD [aside]
And this man from Havre admires him!
Then you maintain that Gilberte, on the day, of her entry upon married life, should become the adopted mother of the son of her husband's mistress?
Exactly; just as I maintain all that is honorable and disinterested. And you would think as I do if the thing did not concern your daughter.
No; it is an inexcusable situation.
Well, then, what do you propose to do?
Well, nothing less than a divorce. The scandal of this night is sufficient.
MME. DE RONCHARD [rises]
Gilberte divorced! You don't dream of that, do you? Have all our friends closing their doors on her, the greater part of her relatives lost to her! Divorced! Come, come! in spite of your new law, that has not yet come into our custom and shall not come in so soon. Religion forbids it; the world accepts it only under protest; and when you have against you both religion and the world—
But statistics prove—
MME. DE RONCHARD
Pshaw! Statistics! You can make them say what you wish. No, no divorce for Gilberte. [In a soft, low voice.] Simply a legal separation—that is admissible, at least, and it is good form. Let them separate. I am separated—all fashionable people separate, and everything goes all right, but as to divorce—
It seems to me that only one person has a right to speak in this matter, and we are forgetting her too long. [Turns to Gilberte.] You have heard everything, Gilberte; you are mistress of your own judgment and of your decision. Upon a word from you depend either pardon or rupture. My father has made his argument. What does your heart say? [Gilberte tries to speak, but stops and breaks down.] Think always that in refusing to pardon Jean you wound me, and if I see you unhappy from your determination to say no, I shall suffer exceedingly. Monsieur Martinel asks from you at once an answer for Jean. Let us do better. I will go and find him. It is from your lips; it is, above all, in your eyes, that he will learn his fate. [Brings her gently to the front of the stage.] My little sister, my. dear little sister, don't be too proud; don't be too haughty! Listen to that which your chagrin murmurs in your soul. Listen well, but do not mistake it for pride.
But I have no pride. I do not know how I feel. I am ill. My joy has been blighted, and it poisons me.
Take care! It takes so little in such moments as these to make wounds which are incurable.
No, no! I am too much distressed. Perhaps I shall be hard, for I am afraid of him and of myself. I am afraid of breaking off everything, or of yielding everything.
I am going to find Jean.
No, I do not wish to see him. I forbid it!
Let me tell you something, my little Gilberte: You are less intelligent than I thought.
Because in such moments as these it is necessary to say yes or no at once. [Jean appears at door R.]
(The same, and Jean Martinel standing at door R.)
GILBERTE [with a stifled cry]
It is he!
LEON [goes up to Jean and taking him by the hand]
I am like a prisoner awaiting the decision of his judges—whether it be acquittal or death. The moments through which I have just passed I shall never forget.
Your uncle and I have said all that we had to say. Now speak for yourself.
I do not know how. It must be to my wife alone. I dare not speak before you all. I ask but a moment. After that I go, and I shall leave the house if my wife's attitude indicates that I ought. I shall do exactly what she would have me. I shall become that which she may order. But I must hear from her own lips her decision as to my life. [To Gilberte.] You cannot refuse me that, Madame. It is the only prayer that I shall ever make to you, I swear, if this request to you remains ungranted. [They stand face to face and look at each other.]
No, I cannot refuse you. Father, Aunt, please leave me alone for a few minutes with Monsieur Martinel. You can see that I am perfectly calm.
JEAN [determinedly to M. Petitpre]
Monsieur, I shall not gainsay your will in anything. I shall do nothing without your approval. I have not returned here to contest your authority or to speak of rights; but I respectfully ask permission to remain alone a few minutes with—my wife! Consider that this is perhaps our last interview and that our future depends upon it.
MME. DE RONCHARD
It is solely the future of Gilberte which concerns me.
JEAN [to Mme. de Ronchard]
I appeal simply to your heart, Madame; your heart, which has suffered. Do not forget that your irritation and your bitterness against me come from the misfortune that another man has inflicted upon you. Your life has been broken by him. Do not wish the same for me. You have been unhappy; married scarcely a year. [Points to Gilberte.] Will you say that she shall be married scarcely a day, and that later she shall talk of her broken life—ceaselessly guarding in her mind the memory of this evening's disaster? [At a movement of Mme. de Ronchard.] I know you to be kind, although you deny it, and I promise you, Madame, that if I remain Gilberte's husband, I shall love you as a son, as a son worthy of you.
MME. DE RONCHARD [very much moved]
A son! He has stirred me deeply! [Whispers to Petitpre.] Come away, let us leave them alone. [Embraces Gilberte.]
PETITPRE [to Jean]
Well, so be it, Monsieur. [Rises and exit C., offering his arm to Mme. de Ronchard.]
MARTINEL [to Leon]
They are going to talk with that [touches his heart]; it is the only true eloquence.
[Exit with Leon C.]
SCENE VII. (Gilberte and Jean.)
You know all, do you not?
Yes. And I have been deeply wounded.
I hope you do not accuse me of lying or of any other dissimulation.
Do you blame me for having left you this evening?
I blame no one who does his duty.
You did not know this woman—and she is dead.
It is just because she is dead that she troubles me thus.
Impossible; you must have another reason. [With hesitation.] The child?
No, no! don't deceive yourself. The poor little darling! it is not his fault. No, I suffer from something which is peculiar to myself, which can come only from me, and which I cannot confess to you. It is a sorrow deep in my heart, so keen, when I felt it spring to birth under the words of my brother and your uncle, that, should I ever experience it again when living with you as your wife, I should never be able to dispel it.
What is it?
I cannot tell it. [Sits L.]
Listen to me. It is necessary that at this moment there should not be between us the shadow of a misunderstanding. All our life depends upon it. You are my wife, but I admit that you are absolutely free after what has happened. I will do as you wish. I am ready to agree to everything you desire, even to a divorce if you demand it. But what will happen to me after that I do not know, for I love you so that the thought of losing you after winning you will throw me mercilessly into some desperate resolve. [Sees Gilberte moved.] I do not seek to soften you, to move you—I simply tell you the naked truth. I feel, and I have felt during the whole night, through all the shocks and horrible emotions of the drama that has just been enacted, that you hold for me the keenest wound. If you banish me now, I am a lost man.
GILBERTE [much moved]
Do you really love me as much as that?
With a love that I feel is ineffaceable.
Did you love her?
I did indeed love her. I experienced a tender attachment for a gentle and devoted girl. [In a low voice, with passion.] Listen: that which I am going to tell you is unworthy, perhaps infamous, but I am only a human being, feeble as anyone else. Well, just now, in the presence of this poor, dying girl, my eyes were filled with tears and my sobs choked me—all my being vibrated with sorrow; but at the bottom of my soul, in the depths of my being, I thought only of you.
GILBERTE [rises quickly]
Do you mean that?
I cannot lie to you.
Well, do you know what made me suffer just now when my brother told me of this intrigue and death? I can tell it to you now. I was jealous! It was unworthy of me, wasn't it? Jealous of this poor, dead woman! But he spoke so well of her as to move me, and I felt that she loved you so much that you might find me perhaps indifferent and cold after her, and that hurt me so! I had so much fear of experiencing that that I thought of renouncing you.
And now?—Gilberte! Gilberte!
GILBERTE [extends her hands]
I am here, Jean! take me!
Ah, how grateful I am. [Kisses her hands; then immediately after, with emotion.] But here another anguish seizes me. I have promised this poor woman to take and cherish this child in my own home. [Gilberte makes a movement.] That is not all. Do you know what her last thought, her last prayer was? She entreated me to commend the child to you.
To you, Gilberte.
GILBERTE [profoundly moved]
She did this, the poor woman? Did she believe that I would take—
She hoped it, and in that hope her death was made easier.
GILBERTE [in exalted mood, crosses R.]
Yes, I will take it! where is it?
At my house.
At your house? You must go to it immediately.
What! leave you now, at this moment?
We will go together, since I was to have accompanied you to your house this evening.
Oh, Gilberte! But your father will not let us go.
Well, do you know what we must do, since my packing is finished, and my maid awaits me at your house? You must carry me off.
Carry you off?
Give me my cloak and let us go. All can be explained tomorrow. [Shows the cloak that she had left upon the chair in the first act.] My cloak, please.
JEAN [picks up the cloak quickly and throws it over her shoulders]
You are the most adorable creature! [Gilberte takes his arm and they go toward door R.]
(Enter Mme. de Ronchard, M. Petitpre, M. Martinel, and Leon C.)
MME. DE RONCHARD
Well, what are they doing? Are they going away now?
Why, what does it mean?
Yes; father, I am going away. I am going with my husband; but I shall be here to-morrow to ask pardon for this hurried flight, and to explain to you the reason for it.
Were you going without saying good-bye to us—without embracing us?
Yes, in order to avoid more discussions.
She is right. Let them go.
GILBERTE [throws herself upon Petitpre's neck]
Till to-morrow, father; till to-morrow, my dear Aunt. Good night, all; I have had enough of emotion and fatigue.
MME. DE RONCHARD [goes to Gilberte and embraces her]
Yes, run along, darling—there is a little one over there who waits for a mother!
THE LANCER'S WIFE
THE LANCER'S WIFE
It was after Bourbaki's defeat in the east of France. The army, broken up, decimated and worn out, had been obliged to retreat into Switzerland, after that terrible campaign. It was only the short duration of the struggle that saved a hundred and fifty thousand men from certain death. Hunger, the terrible cold, and forced marches in the snow without boots, over bad mountainous roads, had caused the francs-tireurs especially the greatest suffering, for we were without tents and almost without food, always in front when we were marching toward Belfort, and in the rear when returning by the Jura. Of our brigade, that had numbered twelve hundred men on the first of January, there remained only twenty-two pale, thin, ragged wretches, when at length we succeeded in reaching Swiss territory.
There we were safe and could rest. Everybody knows what sympathy was shown to the unfortunate French army, and how well it was cared for. We all gained fresh life, and those who had been rich and happy before the war declared that they had never experienced a greater feeling of comfort than they did then. Just think. We actually had something to eat every day, and could sleep every night.
Meanwhile, the war continued in the east of France, which had been excluded from the armistice. Besancon still kept the enemy in check, and the latter had their revenge by ravaging the Comte Franche. Sometimes we heard that they had approached quite close to the frontier, and we saw Swiss troops, who were to form a line of observation between us and the Germans, set out on their march.
But this hurt our pride, and as we regained health and strength the longing for fighting laid hold of us. It was disgraceful and irritating to know that within two or three leagues of us the Germans were victorious and insolent, to feel that we were protected by our captivity, and to feel that on that account we were powerless against them.
One day, our captain took five or six of us aside, and spoke to us about it, long and earnestly. He was a fine fellow, that captain. He had been a sub-lieutenant in the Zouaves, was tall and thin and as hard as steel, and during the whole campaign had given a great deal of trouble to the Germans. He fretted in inactivity and could not accustom himself to the idea of being a prisoner and of doing nothing.
"Confound it!" he said to us, "does it not pain you to know that there are a lot of uhlans within two hours of us? Does it not almost drive you mad to know that those beggarly wretches are walking about as masters in our mountains, where six determined men might kill a whole troop any day? I cannot endure it any longer, and I must go there."
"But how can you manage it, Captain?"
"How? It is not very difficult! Just as if we had not done a thing or two within the last six months, and got out of woods that were guarded by men very different from the Swiss. The day that you wish to cross over into France, I will undertake to get you there."
"That may be; but what shall we do in France without any arms?"
"Without arms? We will get them over yonder, by Jove!"
"You are forgetting the treaty," another soldier said; "we shall run the risk of doing the Swiss an injury, if Manteuffel learns that they have allowed prisoners to return to France."
"Come," said the captain, "those are all poor reasons. I mean to go and kill some Prussians; that is all I care about. If you do not wish to do as I do, well and good; only say so at once. I can quite well go by myself; I do not require anybody's company."
Naturally we all protested, and as it was quite impossible to make the captain alter his mind, we felt obliged to promise to go with him. We liked him too much to leave him in the lurch, since he had never failed us in any extremity; and so the expedition was decided on.
The captain had a plan of his own, a plan he had been cogitating over for some time. A man in that part of the country, whom he knew, was going to lend him a cart, and six suits of peasants' clothes. We could hide under some straw at the bottom of the wagon, which would be loaded with Gruyere cheese. This cheese he was supposed to be going to sell in France. The captain told the sentinels that he was taking two friends with him to protect his goods, in case anyone should try to rob him, which did not seem an extraordinary precaution. A Swiss officer seemed to look at the wagon in a knowing manner, but that was in order to impress his soldiers. In a word, neither officers nor men made it out.
"Get on," the captain said to the horses, as he cracked his whip, while our men quietly smoked their pipes. I was half suffocated in my box, which only admitted the air through some holes in front, while at the same time I was nearly frozen, for it was terribly cold.
"Get on," the captain said again, and the wagon loaded with Gruyere cheese entered France.
The Prussian lines were very badly guarded, as the enemy trusted to the watchfulness of the Swiss. The sergeant spoke North German, while our captain spoke the bad German of the "Four Cantons"; so they could not understand each other. The sergeant, however, pretended to be very intelligent, and in order to make us believe that he understood us, they allowed us to continue our journey, and after traveling for seven hours, being continually stopped in the same manner, we arrived at a small village of the Jura, in ruins, at nightfall.
What were we going to do? Our only arms were the captain's whip, our uniforms, the peasants' blouses, and our food the Gruyere cheese. Our sole riches consisted in our ammunition, packets of cartridges which we had stowed away inside some of the huge cheeses. We had about a thousand of them, just two hundred each; but then we wanted rifles, and they must be chassepots; luckily, however, the captain was a bold man of an inventive mind, and this was the plan that he hit upon:
While three of us remained hidden in a cellar in the abandoned village, he continued his journey as far as Besancon with the empty wagon and one man. The town was invested, but one can always make one's way into a town among the hills by crossing the table-land till within about ten miles of the walls, and then by following paths and ravines on foot. They left their wagon at Omans, among the Germans, and escaped out of it at night on foot, so as to gain the heights which border the river Doubs; the next day they entered Besancon, where there were plenty of chassepots. There were nearly forty thousand of them left in the arsenal, and General Roland, a brave marine, laughed at the captain's daring project, but let him have six rifles and wished him "good luck." There he also found his wife, who had been through all the war with us before the campaign in the east, and who had been only prevented by illness from continuing with Bourbaki's army. She had recovered, however, in spite of the cold, which was growing more and more intense, and in spite of the numberless privations that awaited her, she insisted on accompanying her husband. He was obliged to give way to her, and all three, the captain, his wife, and our comrade, started on their expedition.
Going was nothing in comparison to returning. They were obliged to travel by night, so as to avoid meeting anybody, as the possession of six rifles would have made them liable to suspicion. But in spite of everything, a week after leaving us, the captain and his "two men" were back with us again. The campaign was about to begin.
The first night of his arrival, the captain began it himself. Under the pretext of examining the country round, he went along the highroad. I must tell you that the little village which served as our fortress was a small collection of poor, badly built houses, which had been deserted long before. It lay on a steep slope, which terminated in a wooded plain. The country people sold wood; they sent it down the ravines, which are called coulees locally, and which led down to the plain, and there they stacked it into piles, which were sold thrice a year to the wood merchants. The spot where this market was held was indicated by two small houses by the side of the highroad, which served for public-houses. The captain had gone down there by one of these coulees.
He had been gone about half an hour, and we were on the lookout at the top of the ravine, when we heard a shot. The captain had ordered us not to stir, and only to come to him when we heard him blow his trumpet. It was made of a goat's horn, and could be heard a league off, but it gave no sound, and in spite of our cruel anxiety, we were obliged to wait in silence, with our rifles by our side.
To go down these coulees is easy, you need only let yourself glide down; but it is more difficult to get up again. You have to scramble up by catching hold of the hanging branches of the trees, and sometimes on all fours, by sheer strength. A whole mortal hour passed, and still the captain did not come, nothing moved in the brushwood. The captain's wife began to grow impatient; what could he be doing? Why did he not call us? Did the shot that we had heard proceed from an enemy, and had he killed or wounded our leader, her husband? They did not know what to think, but I myself fancied that either he was dead or that his enterprise was successful. I was merely anxious and curious to know which.
Suddenly, we heard the sound of his trumpet, and were much surprised that instead of coming from below, as we had expected, it came from the village behind us. What did that mean? It was a mystery to us, but the same idea struck us all, that he had been killed, and that the Prussians were blowing the trumpet to draw us into an ambush. We therefore returned to the cottage, keeping a careful lookout, with our fingers on the trigger and hiding under the branches. But his wife, in spite of our entreaties, rushed on, leaping like a tigress. She thought that she had to avenge her husband, and had fixed the bayonet to her rifle. We lost sight of her at the moment that we heard the trumpet again, and a few moments later we heard her calling out to us:
"Come on! come on! he is alive! it is he!"
We hastened on, and saw the captain smoking his pipe at the entrance of the village, but strangely enough he was on horseback.
"Ah!" said he to us, "you see that there is something to be done here. Here I am on horseback already; I knocked over a uhlan yonder, and took his horse; I suppose they were guarding the wood, but it was by drinking and swilling in clover. One of them, the sentry at the door, had not time to see me before I gave him a sugarplum in his stomach, and then, before the others could come out, I jumped on to the horse and was off like a shot. Eight or ten of them followed me, I think, but I took the crossroads through the wood; I have got scratched and torn a bit, but here I am. And now, my good fellows, attention, and take care! Those brigands will not rest until they have caught us, and we must receive them with rifle bullets. Come along; let us take up our posts!"
We set out. One of us took up his position a good way from the village of the crossroads; I was posted at the entrance of the main street, where the road from the level country enters the village, while the two others, with the captain and his wife, took up positions in the middle of the village, near the church, whose tower served for an observatory and citadel.
We had not been in our places long before we heard a shot followed by another; then two, then three. The first was evidently a chassepot,—one recognized it by the sharp report, which sounds like the crack of a whip,—while the other three came from the lancers' carbines.
The captain was furious. He had given orders to the outpost to let the enemy pass, and merely to follow them at a distance if they marched toward the village, and to join me when they had gone well between the houses. Then they were to appear suddenly, take the patrol between two fires, and not allow a single man to escape, for posted as we were, the six of us could have hemmed in ten Prussians, if needful.
"That confounded Piedelot has roused them," the captain said, "and they will not venture to come on blindfold any longer. And then I am quite sure that he has managed to get wounded himself somehow or other, for we hear nothing of him. It serves him right; why did he not obey orders?" And then, after a moment, he grumbled in his beard: "After all, I am sorry for the poor fellow; he is so brave and shoots so well!"
The captain was right in his conjectures. We waited until evening, without seeing the uhlans; they had retreated after the first attack, but unfortunately we had not seen Piedelot either. Was he dead or a prisoner? When night came the captain proposed that we should go out and look for him, and so the three of us started. At the crossroads we found a broken rifle and some blood, while the ground was trampled down. But we did not find either a wounded man or a dead body, although we searched every thicket. At midnight we returned without having discovered anything of our unfortunate comrade.
"It is very strange," the captain growled. "They must have killed him and thrown him into the bushes somewhere; they cannot possibly have taken him prisoner, as he would have called out for help. I cannot understand it all." Just as he said that, bright, red flames shot up in the direction of the inn on the highroad, which illuminated the sky.
"Scoundrels! cowards!" shouted the captain. "I will bet that they have set fire to the two houses in the market-place, in order to have their revenge, and then they will scuttle off without saying a word. They will be satisfied with having killed a man and setting fire to two houses. All right. It shall not pass over like that. We must go for them; they will not like to leave their illuminations in order to fight."
"It would be a great stroke of luck if we could set Piedelot free at the same time," said some one.
The five of us set off, full of rage and hope. In twenty minutes we had got to the bottom of the coulee, and had not yet seen anyone when within a hundred yards of the inn. The fire was behind the house, and so all that we saw of it was the reflection above the roof. However, we were walking rather slowly, as we were afraid of a trap, when suddenly we heard Piedelot's well-known voice. It had a strange sound, however, for it was at the same time dull and vibrant, stifled and clear, as if he was calling out as loud as he could with a gag in his mouth. He seemed to be hoarse and panting, and the unlucky fellow kept exclaiming: "Help! Help!"
We sent all thoughts of prudence to the devil and in two bounds were at the back of the inn, where a terrible sight met our eyes.
Piedelot was being burned alive. He was writhing in the middle of a heap of fagots, against a stake to which they had fastened him, and the flames were licking him with their sharp tongues. When he saw us, his tongue seemed to stick in his throat, he drooped his head, and seemed as if he were going to die. It was only the affair of a moment to upset the burning pile, to scatter the embers, and to cut the ropes that fastened him.
Poor fellow! In what a terrible state we found him. The evening before he had had his left arm broken, and it seemed as if he had been badly beaten since then, for his whole body was covered with wounds, bruises, and blood. The flames had also begun their work on him, and he had two large burns, one on his loins, and the other on his right thigh, and his beard and his hair were scorched. Poor Piedelot!
Nobody knows the terrible rage we felt at this sight! We would have rushed headlong at a hundred thousand Prussians. Our thirst for vengeance was intense; but the cowards had run away, leaving their crime behind them. Where could we find them now? Meanwhile, however, the captain's wife was looking after Piedelot, and dressing his wounds as best she could, while the captain himself shook hands with him excitedly. In a few minutes he came to himself.
"Good morning, Captain, good morning, all of you," he said. "Ah! the scoundrels, the wretches! Why, twenty of them came to surprise us."
"Twenty, do you say?"
"Yes, there was a whole band of them, and that is why I disobeyed orders, Captain, and fired on them, for they would have killed you all. So I preferred to stop them. That frightened them, and they did not venture to go further than the crossroads. They were such cowards. Four of them shot at me at twenty yards, as if I had been a target, and then they slashed me with their swords. My arm was broken, so that I could only use my bayonet with one hand."
"But why did you not call for help?"
"I took good care not to do that, for you would all have come, and you would neither have been able to defend me nor yourselves, being only five against twenty."
"You know that we should not have allowed you to have been taken, poor old fellow."
"I preferred to die by myself, don't you see! I did not want to bring you there, for it would have been a mere ambush."
"Well, we will not talk about it any more. Do you feel rather easier?"
"No, I am suffocating. I know that I cannot live much longer. The brutes! They tied me to a tree, and beat me till I was half dead, and then they shook my broken arm, but I did not make a sound. I would rather have bitten my tongue out than have called out before them. Now I can say what I am suffering and shed tears; it does one good. Thank you, my kind friends."
"Poor Piedelot! But we will avenge you, you may be sure!"
"Yes, yes, I want you to do that. Especially, there is a woman among them, who passes as the wife of the lancer whom the captain killed yesterday. She is dressed like a lancer, and it was she who tortured me the most yesterday, and suggested burning me. In fact it was she who set fire to the wood. Oh! the wretch, the brute—Ah! how I am suffering! My loins, my arms!" and he fell back panting and exhausted, writhing in his terrible agony, while the captain's wife wiped the perspiration from his forehead. We all shed tears of grief and rage, as if we had been children. I will not describe the end to you; he died half an hour later, but before that he told us in which direction the enemy had gone. When he was dead, we gave ourselves time to bury him, and then we set out in pursuit of them, with our hearts full of fury and hatred.
"We will throw ourselves on the whole Prussian army, if it be needful," the captain said, "but we will avenge Piedelot. We must catch those scoundrels. Let us swear to die, rather than not to find them, and if I am killed first, these are my orders: all the prisoners that you make are to be shot immediately, and as for the lancer's wife, she is to be violated before she is put to death."
"She must not be shot, because she is a woman," the captain's wife said. "If you survive, I am sure that you would not shoot a woman. Outraging her will be quite sufficient. But if you are killed in this pursuit, I want one thing, and that is to fight with her; I will kill her with my own hands, and the others can do what they like with her if she kills me."
"We will outrage her! We will burn her! We will tear her to pieces! Piedelot shall be avenged, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!"
The next morning we unexpectedly fell on an outpost of uhlans four leagues away. Surprised by our sudden attack, they were not able to mount their horses, nor even to defend themselves, and in a few moments we had five prisoners, corresponding to our own number. The captain questioned them, and from their answers we felt certain that they were the same whom we had encountered the previous day. Then a very curious operation took place. One of us was told off to ascertain their sex, and nothing can depict our joy when we discovered what we were seeking among them, the female executioner who had tortured our friend.
The four others were shot on the spot, with their backs toward us and close to the muzzles of our rifles, and then we turned our attention to the woman. What were we going to do with her? I must acknowledge that we were all of us in favor of shooting her. Hatred, and the wish to avenge Piedelot had extinguished all pity in us, and we had forgotten that we were going to shoot a woman. But a woman reminded us of it, the captain's wife; at her entreaties, therefore, we determined to keep her a prisoner. The captain's poor wife was to be severely punished for this act of clemency.
The next day we heard that the armistice had been extended to the eastern part of France, and we had to put an end to our little campaign. Two of us, who belonged to the neighborhood, returned home. So there remained only four of us, all told: the captain, his wife, and two men. We belonged to Besancon, which was still being besieged in spite of the armistice.
"Let us stop here," said the captain. "I cannot believe that the war is going to end like this. The devil take it! Surely there are men still left in France, and now is the time to prove what they are made of. The spring is coming on, and the armistice is only a trap laid for the Prussians. During the time that it lasts, a new army will be formed, and some fine morning we shall fall upon them again. We shall be ready, and we have a hostage—let us remain here."
We fixed our quarters there. It was terribly cold, and we did not go out much, as somebody had always to keep the female prisoner in sight.
She was sullen and never spoke save to refer to her husband, whom the captain had killed. She looked at him continually with fierce eyes, and we felt that she was tortured by a wild longing for revenge. That seemed to us to be the most suitable punishment for the terrible torments that she had made Piedelot suffer, for impotent vengeance is such intense pain!
Alas! we who knew how to avenge our comrade ought to have known that this woman would find a way to avenge her husband, and should have been on our guard. It is true that one of us kept watch every night, and that at first we tied her by a long rope to the great oak bench that was fastened to the wall. But, by and by, as she had never tried to escape, in spite of her hatred for us, we relaxed our extreme prudence and allowed her to sleep somewhere else, and without being tied. What had we to fear? She was at the end of the room, a man was on guard at the door, and between her and the sentinel the captain's wife and two other men used to lie. She was alone and unarmed against four, so there could be no danger.
One night when we were asleep, and the captain was on guard, the lancer's wife was lying more quietly in her corner than usual. She had even smiled during the evening for the first time since she had been our prisoner. Suddenly, however, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by a terrible cry. We got up, groping about. Scarcely were we up when we stumbled over a furious couple who were rolling about and fighting on the ground. It was the captain and the lancer's wife. We threw ourselves on to them and separated them in a moment. She was shouting and laughing, and he seemed to have the death rattle. All this took place in the dark. Two of us held her, and when a light was struck, a terrible sight met our eyes. The captain was lying on the floor in a pool of blood, with an enormous wound in his throat, and his sword bayonet, that had been taken from his rifle, was sticking in the red, gaping wound. A few minutes afterward he died, without having been able to utter a word.
His wife did not shed a tear. Her eyes were dry, her throat was contracted, and she looked at the lancer's wife steadfastly, and with a calm ferocity that inspired fear.
"This woman belongs to me," she said to us suddenly. "You swore to me not a week ago to let me kill her as I chose if she killed my husband, and you must keep your oath. You must fasten her securely to the fireplace, upright against the back of it, and then you can go where you like, but far from here. I will take my revenge on her to myself. Leave the captain's body, and we three, he, she, and I, will remain here."
We obeyed and went away. She promised to write to us to Geneva, as we were returning there.
Two days later, I received the following letter, dated the day after we had left. It had been written at an inn on the highroad:
"I am writing to you, according to my promise. For the moment I am at this inn, where I have just handed my prisoner over to a Prussian officer.
"I must tell you, my friend, that this poor woman left two children in Germany. She had followed her husband, whom she adored, as she did not wish him to be exposed to the risks of war by himself, and as her children were with their grandparents. I have learned all this since yesterday, and it has turned my ideas of vengeance into more humane feelings. At the very moment when I felt pleasure in insulting this woman, and in threatening her with the most fearful torments—in recalling Piedelot, who had been burned alive, and in threatening her with a similar death, she looked at me coldly, and said:
"'Why should you reproach me, Frenchwoman? You think that you will do right in avenging your husband's death, is not that so?'
"'Yes,' I replied.
"'Very well then; in killing him, I did what you are going to do in burning me. I avenged my husband, for your husband killed him.'
"'Well,' I replied, 'as you approve of this vengeance, prepare to endure it.'
"'I do not fear it.'
"And in fact she did not seem to have lost courage. Her face was calm, and she looked at me without trembling, while I brought wood and dried leaves together, and feverishly threw on to them the powder from some cartridges, to make her funeral pile the more cruel.
"I hesitated in my thoughts of persecution for a moment. But the captain's body was there, pale and covered with blood, and he seemed to be looking at me with large, glassy eyes, and I applied myself to my work again after kissing his pale lips. Suddenly, however, on raising my head, I saw that she was crying, and I felt rather surprised.
"'So you are frightened?' I said to her.
"'No, but when I saw you kiss your husband, I thought of mine, of all whom I love.'
"She continued to sob, but stopping suddenly she said to me in broken words, and in a low voice:
"'Have you any children?'
"A shiver ran over me, for I guessed that this poor woman had some. She asked me to look in a pocketbook which was in her bosom, and in it I saw two photographs of quite young children, a boy and a girl, with those kind, gentle, chubby faces that German children have. In it there were also two locks of light hair and a letter in a large childish hand, beginning with German words which meant: 'My dear little mother.'
"I could not restrain my tears, my dear friend, and so I untied her, and without venturing to look at the face of my poor, dead husband, who was not to be avenged, I went with her as far as the inn. She is free; I have just left her, and she kissed me with tears. I am going upstairs to my husband; come as soon as possible, my dear friend, to look for our two bodies."
I set off with all speed, and when I arrived there was a Prussian patrol at the cottage. When I asked what it all meant, I was told that there was a captain of francs-tireurs and his wife inside, both dead. I gave their names; they saw that I knew them, and I begged to be allowed to undertake their funeral.
"Somebody has already undertaken it," was the reply. "Go in if you wish to, as you knew them. You can settle about their funeral with their friend."
I went in. The captain and his wife were lying side by side on a bed, and were covered by a sheet. I raised it, and saw that the woman had inflicted a wound in her throat similar to that from which her husband had died.
At the side of the bed there sat, watching and weeping, the woman who had been mentioned to me as their last friend. It was the lancer's wife.
HAUTOT SENIOR AND HAUTOT JUNIOR
In front of the building, half farmhouse, half manor-house, one of those rural habitations of a mixed character which were all but seigneurial, and which are at the present time occupied by large cultivators, the dogs, lashed beside the apple-trees in the orchard near the house, kept barking and howling at the sight of the shooting-bags carried by the gamekeepers and the boys. In the spacious dining-room kitchen, Hautot Senior and Hautot Junior, M. Bermont, the tax-collector, and M. Mondaru, the notary, were taking a bite and drinking some wine before going out to shoot, for it was the opening day.
Hautot Senior, proud of all his possessions, talked boastfully beforehand of the game which his guests were going to find on his lands. He was a big Norman, one of those powerful, ruddy, bony men, who can lift wagonloads of apples on their shoulders. Half peasant, half gentleman, rich, respected, influential, invested with authority, he made his son Cesar go as far as the third form at school, so that he might be an educated man, and there he had brought his studies to a stop for fear of his becoming a fine gentleman and paying no attention to the land.
Cesar Hautot, almost as tall as his father, but thinner, was a good son, docile, content with everything, full of admiration, respect, and deference for the wishes and opinions of his sire.
M. Bermont, the tax-collector, a stout little man, who showed on his red cheeks a thin network of violet veins resembling the tributaries and the winding courses of rivers on maps, asked:
"And hares—are there any hares on it?"
Hautot Senior answered: "As many as you like, especially in the Puysatier lands."
"Which direction shall we begin in?" asked the notary, a jolly notary, fat and pale, big-paunched too, and strapped up in an entirely new hunting costume bought at Rouen.
"Well, that way, through these grounds. We will drive the partridges into the plain, and we will beat there again."
And Hautot Senior rose up. They all followed his example, took their guns out of the corners, examined the locks, stamped with their feet in order to feel themselves firmer in their boots which were rather hard, not having as yet been rendered flexible by the heat of the blood. Then they went out; and the dogs, standing erect at the ends of their leashes, gave vent to piercing howls while beating the air with their paws.
They set forth for the lands referred to. These consisted of a little glen, or rather a long undulating stretch of inferior soil, which had on that account remained uncultivated, furrowed with mountain-torrents, covered with ferns, an excellent preserve for game.
The sportsmen took up their positions at some distance from each other, Hautot Senior posting himself at the right, Hautot Junior at the left, and the two guests in the middle. The keeper and those who carried the game-bags followed. It was the anxious moment when the first shot is awaited, when the heart beats a little, while the nervous finger keeps feeling at the trigger every second.
Suddenly the shot went off. Hautot Senior had fired. They all stopped, and saw a partridge breaking off from a covey which was rushing along at great speed to fall down into a ravine under a thick growth of brushwood. The sportsman, becoming excited, rushed forward with rapid strides, thrusting aside the briers which stood in his path, and disappeared in his turn into the thicket in quest of his game.
Almost at the same instant, a second shot was heard.
"Ha! ha! the rascal!" exclaimed M. Bermont, "he will unearth a hare down there."
They all waited, with their eyes riveted on the heap of branches through which their gaze failed to penetrate.
The notary, making a speaking-trumpet of his hands, shouted:
"Have you got them?"
Hautot Senior made no response.
Then Cesar, turning toward the keeper, said to him:
"Just go and assist him, Joseph. We must keep walking in a straight line. We'll wait."
And Joseph, an old stump of a man, lean and knotty, all of whose joints formed protuberances, proceeded at an easy pace down the ravine, searching at every opening through which a passage could be effected with the cautiousness of a fox. Then, suddenly, he cried:
"Oh! come! come! an unfortunate thing has occurred."
They all hurried forward, plunging through the briers.
The elder Hautot, who had fallen on his side, in a fainting condition, kept both his hands over his stomach, from which flowed down upon the grass through the linen vest torn by the lead, long streamlets of blood. As he was laying down his gun, in order to seize the partridge within reach of him, he had let the firearm fall, and the second discharge, going off with the shock, had torn open his entrails. They drew him out of the trench; they removed his clothes and they saw a frightful wound, through which the intestines came out. Then, after having bandaged him the best way they could, they brought him back to his own house, and awaited the doctor, who had been sent for, as well as a priest.
When the doctor arrived, he gravely shook his head, and, turning toward young Hautot, who was sobbing on a chair:
"My poor boy," said he, "this does not look well."
But, when the dressing was finished, the wounded man moved his fingers, opened his mouth, then his eyes, cast around him troubled, haggard glances, then appeared to search about in his memory, to recollect, to understand, and he murmured:
"Ah! good God! this has done for me!"
The doctor held his hand.
"Why no, why no, some days of rest merely—it will be nothing."
"It has done for me! My stomach is split open! I know it well."
Then, all of a sudden:
"I want to talk to the son, if I have the time."
Hautot Junior, in spite of himself, shed tears, and kept repeating like a little boy:
"P'pa, p'pa, poor p'pa!"
But the father, in a firmer tone:
"Come! stop crying—this is not the time for it. I have to talk to you. Sit down there quite close to me. It will be quickly done, and I shall be more calm. As for the rest of you, kindly give me one minute."
They all went out, leaving the father and son face to face.
As soon as they were alone:
"Listen, son! you are twenty-four years; one can say things like this to you. And then there is not such mystery about these matters as we import into them. You know well that your mother has been seven years dead, isn't that so? and that I am not more than forty-five years myself, seeing that I got married at nineteen? Is not that true?"
The son faltered:
"Yes, it is true."
"So then your mother has been seven years dead, and I have remained a widower. Well! a man like me cannot remain without a wife at thirty-eight, isn't that true?"
The son replied:
"Yes, it is true."
The father, out of breath, quite pale, and his face contracted with suffering, went on:
"God! what pain I feel! Well, you understand. Man is not made to live alone, but I did not want to take a successor to your mother, since I promised her not to do so. Then—you understand?"
"So, I kept a young girl at Rouen, Rue d'Eperlan 18, in the third story, the second door,—I tell you all this, don't forget,—but a young girl, who has been very nice to me, loving, devoted, a true woman, eh? You comprehend, my lad?"
"So then, if I am carried off, I owe something to her, something substantial, that will place her in a safe position. You understand?"
"I tell you that she is an honest girl, and that, but for you, and the remembrance of your mother, and again but for the house in which we three lived, I would have brought her here, and then married her, for certain—listen—listen, my lad. I might have made a will—I haven't done so. I did not wish to do so—for it is not necessary to write down things—things of this sort—it is too hurtful to the legitimate children—and then it embroils everything—it ruins everyone! Look you, the stamped paper, there's no need of it—never make use of it. If I am rich, it is because I have not made waste of what I have during my own life. You understand, my son?"
"Listen again—listen well to me! So then, I have made no will—I did not desire to do so—and then I knew what you were; you have a good heart; you are not niggardly, not too near, in any way; I said to myself that when my end approached I would tell you all about it, and that I would beg of you not to forget the girl. And then listen again! When I am gone, make your way to the place at once—and make such arrangements that she may not blame my memory. You have plenty of means. I leave it to you—I leave you enough. Listen! You won't find her at home every day in the week. She works at Madame Moreau's in the Rue Beauvoisine. Go there on a Thursday. That is the day she expects me. It has been my day for the past six years. Poor little thing! she will weep!—I say all this to you because I have known you so well, my son. One does not tell these things in public either to the notary or to the priest. They happen—everyone knows that—but they are not talked about, save in case of necessity. Then there is no outsider in the secret, nobody except the family, because the family consists of one person alone. You understand?"
"Do you promise?"
"Do you swear it?"
"I beg of you, I implore of you, so do not forget. I bind you to it."
"You will go yourself. I want you to make sure of everything."
"And, then, you will see—you will see what she will explain to you. As for me, I can say no more to you. You have vowed to do it."
"That's good, my son. Embrace me. Farewell. I am going to break up, I'm sure. Tell them they may come in."
Young Hautot embraced his father, groaning while he did so; then, always docile, he opened the door, and the priest appeared in a white surplice, carrying the holy oils.
But the dying man had closed his eyes and he refused to open them again, he refused to answer, he refused to show, even by a sign, that he understood.
He had spoken enough, this man; he could speak no more. Besides he now felt his heart calm; he wanted to die in peace. What need had he to make a confession to the deputy of God, since he had just done so to his son, who constituted his own family?
He received the last rites, was purified and absolved, in the midst of his friends and his servants on their bended knees, without any movement of his face indicating that he still lived.
He expired about midnight, after four hours' convulsive movements, which showed that he must have suffered dreadfully in his last moments.
It was on the following Tuesday that they buried him; the shooting had opened on Sunday. On his return home, after having accompanied his father to the cemetery, Cesar Hautot spent the rest of the day weeping. He scarcely slept at all on the following night, and he felt so sad on awakening that he asked himself how he could go on living.
However, he kept thinking until evening that, in order to obey the last wish of his father, he ought to repair to Rouen next day, and see this girl Catholine Donet, who resided in the Rue d'Eperlan in the third story, second door. He had repeated to himself in a whisper, just as a little boy repeats a prayer, this name and address a countless number of times, so that he might not forget them, and he ended by lisping them continually, without being able to stop or to think of what they were, so much were his tongue and his mind possessed by the commission.
Accordingly, on the following day, about eight o'clock, he ordered Graindorge to be yoked to the tilbury, and set forth at the quick trotting pace of the heavy Norman horse, along the highroad from Ainville to Rouen. He wore his black frock-coat, a tall silk hat on his head, and breeches with straps; and he did not, on account of the occasion, dispense with the handsome costume, the blue overalls which swelled in the wind, protecting the cloth from dust and from stains, and which was to be removed quickly the moment he jumped out of the coach.
He entered Rouen accordingly just as it was striking ten o'clock, drew up, as he had usually done, at the Hotel des Bon-Enfants, in the Rue des Trois-Marcs, submitted to the hugs of the landlord and his wife and their five children, for they had heard the melancholy news. After that, he had to tell them all the particulars about the accident, which caused him to shed tears, to repel all the proffered attentions which they sought to thrust upon him merely because he was wealthy, and to decline even the breakfast they wanted him to partake of, thus wounding their sensibilities.
Then, having wiped the dust off his hat, brushed his coat and removed the mud stains from his boots, he set forth in search of the Rue d'Eperlan, without venturing to make inquiries from anyone, for fear of being recognized and arousing suspicions.
At length, being unable to find the place, he saw a priest passing by, and, trusting to the professional discretion which churchmen possess, he questioned the ecclesiastic.
He had only a hundred steps farther to go; it was exactly the second street to the right.
Then he hesitated. Up to that moment, he had obeyed, like a mere animal, the expressed wish of the deceased. Now he felt quite agitated, confused, humiliated, at the idea of finding himself—the son—in the presence of this woman who had been his father's mistress. All the morality which lies buried in our breasts, heaped up at the bottom of our sensuous emotions by centuries of hereditary instruction, all that he had been taught, since he had learned his catechism, about creatures of evil life, the instinctive contempt which every man entertains for them, even though he may marry one of them, all the narrow honesty of the peasant in his character, was stirred up within him and held him back, making him grow red with shame.
But he said to himself:
"I promised the father, I must not break my promise."
Then he gave a push to the door of the house bearing the number 18, which stood ajar, discovered a gloomy-looking staircase, ascended three flights, perceived a door, then a second door, came upon the string of a bell, and pulled it. The ringing, which resounded in the apartment before which he stood, sent a shiver through his frame. The door was opened, and he found himself facing a young lady very well dressed, a brunette with a fresh complexion, who gazed at him with eyes of astonishment.
He did not know what to say to her, and she, who suspected nothing, and who was waiting for him to speak, did not invite him to come in. They stood looking thus at one another for nearly half a minute, at the end of which she said in a questioning tone:
"You have something to tell me, Monsieur?"
He falteringly replied:
"I am M. Hautot's son."
She gave a start, turned pale, and stammered out as if she had known him for a long time:
"And what next?"
"I have come to speak to you on the part of my father."
"Oh, my God!"
She then drew back so that he might enter. He shut the door and followed her into the interior. Then he saw a little boy of four or five years playing with a cat, seated on the floor in front of a stove, from which rose the steam of dishes which were being kept hot.
"Take a seat," she said.
He sat down.
He no longer ventured to speak, keeping his eyes fixed on the table which stood in the center of the room, with three covers laid on it, one of which was for a child. He glanced at the chair which had its back turned to the fire. They had been expecting him. That was his bread which he saw, and which he recognized near the fork, for the crust had been removed on account of Hautot's bad teeth. Then, raising his eyes, he noticed on the wall his father's portrait, the large photograph taken at Paris the year of the exhibition, the same as that which hung above the bed in the sleeping apartment at Ainville.
The young woman again asked:
"Well, Monsieur Cesar?"
He kept staring at her. Her face was livid with anguish; and she waited, her hands trembling with fear.
Then he took courage.
"Well, Mam'zelle, papa died on Sunday last just after he had opened the shooting."
She was so much overwhelmed that she did not move. After a silence of a few seconds, she faltered in an almost inaudible tone:
"Oh! it is not possible!"
Then, on a sudden, tears showed themselves in her eyes, and covering her face with her hands, she burst out sobbing.
At that point the little boy turned round, and, seeing his mother weeping, began to howl. Then, realizing that this sudden trouble was brought about by the stranger, he rushed at Cesar, caught hold of his breeches with one hand and with the other hit him with all his strength on the thigh. And Cesar remained agitated, deeply affected, with this woman mourning for his father at one side of him, and the little boy defending his mother at the other. He felt their emotion taking possession of himself, and his eyes were beginning to brim over with the same sorrow; so, to recover his self-command, he began to talk:
"Yes," he said, "the accident occurred on Sunday, at eight o'clock—"
And he told, as if she were listening to him, all the facts without forgetting a single detail, mentioning the most trivial matters with the minuteness of a countryman. And the child still kept assailing him, making kicks at his ankles.
When he came to the time at which his father had spoken about her, her attention was caught by hearing her own name, and, uncovering her face, she said:
"Pardon me! I was not following you; I would like to know—if you do not mind beginning over again."
He related everything at great length, with stoppages, breaks, and reflections of his own from time to time. She listened to him eagerly now perceiving with a woman's keen sensibility all the sudden changes of fortune which his narrative indicated, and trembling with horror, every now and then, exclaiming:
"Oh, my God!"
The little fellow, believing that she had calmed down, ceased beating Cesar, in order to catch his mother's hand, and he listened, too, as if he understood.
When the narrative was finished, young Hautot continued:
"Now, we will settle matters together in accordance with his wishes. Listen: I am well off, he has left me plenty of means. I don't want you to have anything to complain about—"
But she quickly interrupted him:
"Oh! Monsieur Cesar, Monsieur Cesar, not today. I am cut to the heart—another time—another day. No, not to-day. If I accept, listen! 'Tis not for myself—no, no, no, I swear to you. 'Tis for the child. Besides this provision will be put to his account."
Thereupon Cesar scared, divined the truth, and stammering:
"So then—'tis his—the child?"
"Why, yes," she said.
And Hautot Junior gazed at his brother with a confused emotion, intense and painful.
After a lengthened silence, for she had begun to weep afresh, Cesar, quite embarrassed, went on:
"Well, then, Mam'zelle Donet, I am going. When would you wish to talk this over with me?"
"Oh! no, don't go! don't go! Don't leave me all alone with Emile. I would die of grief. I have no longer anyone, anyone but my child. Oh! what wretchedness, what wretchedness. Monsieur Cesar! Stop! Sit down again. You will say something more to me. You will tell me what he was doing over there all the week."
And Cesar resumed his seat, accustomed to obey.
She drew over another chair for herself in front of the stove, where the dishes had all this time been simmering, took Emile upon her knees, and asked Cesar a thousand questions about his father with reference to matters of an intimate nature, which made him feel, without reasoning on the subject, that she had loved Hautot with all the strength of her frail woman's heart.
And, by the natural concatenation of his ideas—which were rather limited in number—he recurred once more to the accident, and set about telling the story over again with all the same details.
When he said: "He had a hole in his stomach—you could put your two fists into it," she gave vent to a sort of shriek, and the tears gushed forth again from her eyes.
Then, seized by the contagion of her grief, Cesar began to weep, too, and as tears always soften the fibers of the heart, he bent over Emile whose forehead was close to his own mouth and kissed him.
The mother, recovering her breath, murmured:
"Poor lad, he is an orphan now!"
"And so am I," said Cesar.
And they ceased to talk.
But suddenly the practical instinct of the housewife, accustomed to be thoughtful about many things, revived in the young woman's breast.
"You have perhaps taken nothing all the morning, Monsieur Cesar."
"Oh! you must be hungry. You will eat a morsel."
"Thanks," he said, "I am not hungry; I have had too much trouble."
"In spite of sorrow, we must live. You will not refuse to let me get something for you! And then you will remain a little longer. When you are gone I don't know what will become of me."
He yielded after some further resistance, and, sitting down with his back to the fire, facing her, he ate a plateful of tripe, which had been bubbling in the stove, and drank a glass of red wine. But he would not allow her to uncork the bottle of white wine. He several times wiped the mouth of the little boy, who had smeared all his chin with sauce.
As he was rising up to go, he asked:
"When would you like me to come back to speak about this business to you, Mam'zelle Donet?"
"If it is all the same to you, say next Thursday, Monsieur Cesar. In that way I would lose none of my time, as I always have my Thursdays free."
"That will suit me—next Thursday."
"You will come to lunch. Won't you?"
"Oh! On that point I can't give you a promise."
"The reason I suggested it is that people can chat better when they are eating. One has more time, too."
"Well, be it so. About twelve o'clock, then." And he took his departure, after he had again kissed little Emile, and pressed Mademoiselle Donet's hand.
The week appeared long to Cesar Hautot. He had never before found himself alone, and the isolation seemed to him insupportable. Till now, he had lived at his father's side, just like his shadow, followed him into the fields, superintended the execution of his orders, and, when they had been a short time separated, again met him at dinner. They had spent the evenings smoking their pipes, face to face with one another, chatting about horses, cows, or sheep, and the grip of their hands when they rose up in the morning might have been regarded as a manifestation of deep family affection on both sides.
Now Cesar was alone, he went vacantly through the process of dressing the soil in autumn, every moment expecting to see the tall gesticulating silhouette of his father rising up at the end of a plain. To kill time, he entered the houses of his neighbors, told about the accident to all who had not heard of it, and sometimes repeated it to the others. Then, after he had finished his occupations and his reflections, he would sit down at the side of the road, asking himself whether this kind of life was going to last forever.
He frequently thought of Mademoiselle Donet. He liked her. He considered her thoroughly respectable, a gentle and honest young woman, as his father had said. Yes, undoubtedly she was an honest girl. He resolved to act handsomely toward her, and to give her two thousand francs a year, settling the capital on the child. He even experienced a certain pleasure in thinking that he was going to see her on the following Thursday and arrange this matter with her. And then the notion of this brother, this little chap of five, who was his father's son, plagued him, annoyed him a little, and at the same time, excited him. He had, as it were, a family in this brat, sprung from a clandestine alliance, who would never bear the name of Hautot, a family which he might take or leave, just as he pleased, but which would recall his father.
And so, when he saw himself on the road to Rouen on Thursday morning, carried along by Graindorge trotting with clattering foot-beats, he felt his heart lighter, more at peace than he had hitherto felt it since his bereavement.
On entering Mademoiselle Donet's apartment, he saw the table laid as on the previous Thursday, with the sole difference that the crust had not been removed from the bread. He pressed the young woman's hand, kissed Emile on the cheeks, and sat down, more or less as if he were in his own house, his heart swelling in the same way. Mademoiselle Donet seemed to him a little thinner and paler. She must have grieved sorely. She wore now an air of constraint in his presence, as if she understood what she had not felt the week before under the first blow of her misfortune, and she exhibited an excessive deference toward him, a mournful humility, and made touching efforts to please him, as if to pay him back by her attentions for the kindness he had manifested toward her. They were a long time at lunch talking over the business which had brought him there. She did not want so much money. It was too much. She earned enough to live on herself, but she only wished that Emile might find a few sous awaiting him when he grew big. Cesar held out, however, and even added a gift of a thousand francs for herself for the expense of mourning.
When he had taken his coffee, she asked:
"Do you smoke?"
"Yes—I have my pipe."
He felt in his pocket. Good God! He had forgotten it! He was becoming quite woe-begone about it when she offered him a pipe of his father's that had been shut up in a cupboard. He accepted it, took it up in his hand, recognized it, smelled it, spoke of its quality in a tone of emotion, filled it with tobacco, and lighted it. Then he set Emile astride on his knee, and made him play the cavalier, while she removed the tablecloth and put the soiled plates at one end of the sideboard in order to wash them as soon as he was gone.
About three o'clock, he rose up with regret, quite annoyed at the thought of having to go.
"Well! Mademoiselle Donet," he said, "I wish you good evening, and am delighted to have found you like this."
She remained standing before him, blushing, much affected, and gazed at him while she thought of the other.
"Shall we not see one another again?" she said.
He replied simply:
"Why, yes, Mam'zelle, if it gives you pleasure."
"Certainly, Monsieur Cesar. Will next Thursday suit you then?"
"Yes, Mademoiselle Donet."
"You will come to lunch, of course?"
"Well—if you are so kind as to invite me, I can't refuse."
"It is understood, then, Monsieur Cesar—next Thursday, at twelve, the same as to-day."
"Thursday at twelve, Mam'zelle Donet!"
The broad sunlight threw its burning rays on the fields, and under this shower of flame life burst forth in glowing vegetation from the earth. As far as the eye could see, the soil was green; and the sky was blue to the verge of the horizon. The Norman farms scattered through the plain seemed at a distance like little woods inclosed each in a circle of thin beech-trees. Coming closer, on opening the worm-eaten stile, one fancied that he saw a giant garden, for all the old apple-trees, as knotted as the peasants, were in blossom. The weather-beaten black trunks, crooked, twisted, ranged along the inclosure, displayed beneath the sky their glittering domes, rosy and white. The sweet perfume of their blossoms mingled with the heavy odors of the open stables and with the fumes of the steaming dunghill, covered with hens and their chickens. It was midday. The family sat at dinner in the shadow of the pear-tree planted before the door—the father, the mother, the four children, the two maidservants, and the three farm laborers. They scarcely uttered a word. Their fare consisted of soup and of a stew composed of potatoes mashed up in lard.
From time to time one of the maidservants rose up, and went to the cellar to fetch a pitcher of cider.
The husband, a big fellow of about forty, stared at a vine-tree, quite exposed to view, which stood close to the farmhouse, twining like a serpent under the shutters the entire length of the wall.
He said, after a long silence:
"The father's vine-tree is blossoming early this year. Perhaps it will bear good fruit."
The peasant's wife also turned round, and gazed at the tree without speaking.
This vine-tree was planted exactly in the place where the father of the peasant had been shot.
It was during the war of 1870. The Prussians were in occupation of the entire country. General Faidherbe, with the Army of the North, was at their head.
Now the Prussian staff had taken up its quarters in this farmhouse. The old peasant who owned it, Pere Milon, received them, and gave them the best treatment he could.
For a whole month the German vanguard remained on the lookout in the village. The French were posted ten leagues away without moving, and yet, each night, some of the uhlans disappeared.
All the isolated scouts, those who were sent out on patrol, whenever they started in groups of two or three, never came back.
They were picked up dead in the morning in a field, near a farmyard, in a ditch. Their horses even were found lying on the roads with their throats cut by a saber stroke. These murders seemed to have been accomplished by the same men, who could not be discovered.
The country was terrorized. Peasants were shot on mere information, women were imprisoned, attempts were made to obtain revelations from children by fear.
But, one morning, Pere Milon was found stretched in his stable with a gash across his face.
Two uhlans ripped open were seen lying three kilometers away from the farmhouse. One of them still grasped in his hand his blood-stained weapon. He had fought and defended himself.
A council of war having been immediately constituted, in the open air, in front of the farmhouse, the old man was brought before it.
He was sixty-eight years old. He was small, thin, a little crooked, with long hands resembling the claws of a crab. His faded hair, scanty and slight, like the down on a young duck, allowed his scalp to be plainly seen. The brown, crimpled skin of his neck showed the big veins which sank under his jaws and reappeared at his temples. He was regarded in the district as a miser and a hard man in business transactions.
He was placed standing between four soldiers in front of the kitchen table, which had been carried out of the house for the purpose. Five officers and the Colonel sat facing him. The Colonel was the first to speak.
"Pere Milon," he said, in French, "since we came here we have had nothing to say of you but praise. You have always been obliging, and even considerate toward us. But to-day a terrible accusation rests on you, and the matter must be cleared up. How did you get the wound on your face?"
The peasant gave no reply.
The Colonel went on:
"Your silence condemns you, Pere Milon. But I want you to answer me, do you understand? Do you know who has killed the two uhlans who were found this morning near the crossroads?"
The old man said in a clear voice:
"It was I!"
The Colonel, surprised, remained silent for a second, looking steadfully at the prisoner. Pere Milon maintained his impassive demeanor, his air of rustic stupidity, with downcast eyes, as if he were talking to his cure. There was only one thing that could reveal his internal agitation, the way in which he slowly swallowed his saliva with a visible effort, as if he were choking.
The old peasant's family—his son Jean, his daughter-in-law, and two little children stood ten paces behind, scared and dismayed.
The Colonel continued:
"Do you know also who killed all the scouts of our army whom we have found every morning, for the past month, lying here and there in the fields?"
The old man answered with the same brutal impassiveness:
"It was I!"
"It is you, then, that killed them all?"
"All of them-yes, it was I."
"Tell me the way you managed to do it?"
This time the peasant appeared to be affected; the necessity of speaking at some length incommoded him.
"I know myself. I did it the way I found easiest."
The Colonel proceeded:
"I warn you, you must tell me everything. You will do well, therefore, to make up your mind about it at once. How did you begin it?"
The peasant cast an uneasy glance toward his family, who remained in a listening attitude behind him. He hesitated for another second or so, then all of a sudden he came to a resolution on the matter.
"I came home one night about ten o'clock, and the next day you were here. You and your soldiers gave me fifty crowns for forage with a cow and two sheep. Said I to myself: 'As long as I get twenty crowns out of them, I'll sell them the value of it.' But then I had other things in my heart, which I'll tell you about now. I came across one of your cavalrymen smoking his pipe near my dike, just behind my barn. I went and took my scythe off the hook, and I came back with short steps from behind, while he lay there without hearing anything. And I cut off his head with one stroke, like a feather, while he only said 'Oof!' You have only to look at the bottom of the pond; you'll find him there in a coal bag with a big stone tied to it.
"I got an idea into my head. I took all he had on him from his boots to his cap, and I hid them in the bakehouse in the Martin wood behind the farmyard."
The old man stopped. The officers, speechless, looked at one another. The examination was resumed, and this is what they were told.
Once he had accomplished this murder, the peasant lived with only one thought: "To kill the Prussians!" He hated them with the sly and ferocious hatred of a countryman who was at the same time covetous and patriotic. He had got an idea into his head, as he put it. He waited for a few days.
He was allowed to go and come freely, to go out and return just as he pleased, as long as he displayed humility, submissiveness, and complaisance toward the conquerors.
Now, every evening he saw the cavalrymen bearing dispatches leaving the farmhouse; and he went out, one night, after discovering the name of the village to which they were going, and after picking up by associating with the soldiers the few words of German he needed.
He made his way through his farmyard, slipped into the wood, reached the bakehouse, penetrated to the end of the long passage, and having found the clothes of the soldier which he had hidden there, he put them on. Then he went prowling about the fields, creeping along, keeping to the slopes so as to avoid observation, listening to the least sounds, restless as a poacher.
When he believed the time had arrived he took up his position at the roadside, and hid himself in a clump of brushwood. He still waited. At length, near midnight, he heard the galloping of a horse's hoofs on the hard soil of the road. The old man put his ear to the ground to make sure that only one cavalryman was approaching; then he got ready.
The uhlan came on at a very quick pace, carrying some dispatches. He rode forward with watchful eyes and strained ears. As soon as he was no more than ten paces away, Pere Milon dragged himself across the road, groaning: "Hilfe! hilfe!" ("Help! help!").
The cavalryman drew up, recognized a German soldier dismounted, believed that he was wounded, leaped down from his horse, drew near the prostrate man, never suspecting anything, and, as he stooped over the stranger, he received in the middle of the stomach the long, curved blade of the saber. He sank down without any death throes, merely quivering with a few last shudders.
Then the Norman, radiant with the mute joy of an old peasant, rose up, and merely to please himself, cut the dead soldier's throat. After that, he dragged the corpse to the dike and threw it in.
The horse was quietly waiting for its rider, Pere Milon got on the saddle and started across the plain at the gallop.
At the end of an hour, he perceived two more uhlans approaching the staff-quarters side by side. He rode straight toward them, crying: "Hilfe! hilfe!" The Prussians let him come on, recognizing the uniform without any distrust.
And like a cannon ball the old man shot between the two, bringing both of them to the ground with his saber and a revolver. The next thing he did was to cut the throats of the horses—the German horses! Then, softly he re-entered the bakehouse and hid the horse he had ridden himself in the dark passage. There he took off the uniform, put on once more his own old clothes, and going to his bed, slept till morning.
For four days, he did not stir out, awaiting the close of the open inquiry as to the cause of the soldiers' deaths; but, on the fifth day, he started out again, and by a similar stratagem killed two more soldiers.
Thenceforth, he never stopped. Each night he wandered about, prowled through the country at random, cutting down some Prussians, sometimes here, sometimes there, galloping through the deserted fields under the moonlight, a lost uhlan, a hunter of men. Then, when he had finished his task, leaving behind him corpses lying along the roads, the old horseman went to the bakehouse where he concealed both the animal and the uniform. About midday he calmly returned to the spot to give the horse a feed of oats and some water, and he took every care of the animal, exacting therefore the hardest work.
But, the night before his arrest, one of the soldiers he attacked put himself on his guard, and cut the old peasant's face with a slash of a saber.
He had, however, killed both of them. He had even managed to go back and hide his horse and put on his everyday garb, but, when he reached the stable, he was overcome by weakness and was not able to make his way into the house.
He had been found lying on the straw, his face covered with blood.
When he had finished his story, he suddenly lifted his head and glanced proudly at the Prussian officers.
The Colonel, tugging at his mustache, asked:
"Have you anything more to say?"
"No, nothing more; we are quits. I killed sixteen, not one more, not one less."
"You know you have to die?"
"I ask for no quarter!"
"Have you been a soldier?"
"Yes, I served at one time. And 'tis you killed my father, who was a soldier of the first Emperor, not to speak of my youngest son Francois, whom you killed last month near Evreux. I owed this to you, and I've paid you back. 'Tis tit for tat!"
The officers stared at one another.
The old man went on:
"Eight for my father, eight for my son—that pays it off! I sought for no quarrel with you. I don't know you! I only know where you came from. You came to my house here and ordered me about as if the house was yours. I have had my revenge, and I'm glad of it!"
And stiffening up his old frame, he folded his arms in the attitude of a humble hero.
The Prussians held a long conference. A captain, who had also lost a son the month before defended the brave old farmer.
Then the Colonel rose up, and, advancing toward Pere Milon, he said, lowering his voice:
"Listen, old man! There is perhaps one way of saving your life—it is—"
But the old peasant was not listening to him, and, fixing his eyes directly on the German officer, while the wind made the scanty hair move to and fro on his skull, he made a frightful grimace, which shriveled up his pinched countenance scarred by the saber-stroke, and, puffing out his chest, he spat, with all his strength, right into the Prussian's face.
The Colonel, stupefied, raised his hand, and for the second time the peasant spat in his face.
All the officers sprang to their feet and yelled out orders at the same time.
In less than a minute the old man, still as impassive as ever, was stuck up against the wall and shot, while he cast a smile at Jean, his eldest son, and then at his daughter-in-law and the two children, who were staring with terror at the scene.
Mademoiselle Source had adopted this boy under very sad circumstances. She was at the time thirty-six years old. She was disfigured, having in her infancy slipped off her nurse's lap into the fireplace, and getting her face so shockingly burned that it ever afterward presented a frightful appearance. This deformity had made her resolve not to marry, for she did not want any man to marry her for her money.