In the afternoon, he took a bold step which she had always forbidden. He went to her home and talked a long time with the concierge in order to get some news. The good woman was delighted to work off on him the loquacity so brusquely cut short by the flight of tenants and servants. The lady on the first floor (Marguerite's mother) had been the last to abandon the house in spite of the fact that she was really sick over her son's departure. They had left the day before without saying where they were going. The only thing that she knew was that they took the train in the Gare d'Orsay. They were going toward the South like all the rest of the rich.
And she supplemented her revelations with the vague news that the daughter had seemed very much upset by the information that she had received from the front. Someone in the family was wounded. Perhaps it was the brother, but she really didn't know. With so many surprises and strange things happening, it was difficult to keep track of everything. Her husband, too, was in the army and she had her own affairs to worry about.
"Where can she have gone?" Julio asked himself all day long. "Why does she wish to keep me in ignorance of her whereabouts?"
When his comrade told him that night about the transfer of the seat of government, with all the mystery of news not yet made public, Desnoyers merely replied:
"They are doing the best thing. . . . I, too, will go tomorrow if I can."
Why remain longer in Paris? His family was away. His father, according to Argensola's investigations, also had gone off without saying whither. Now Marguerite's mysterious flight was leaving him entirely alone, in a solitude that was filling him with remorse.
That afternoon, when strolling through the boulevards, he had stumbled across a friend considerably older than himself, an acquaintance in the fencing club which he used to frequent. This was the first time they had met since the beginning of the war, and they ran over the list of their companions in the army. Desnoyers' inquiries were answered by the older man. So-and-so? . . . He had been wounded in Lorraine and was now in a hospital in the South. Another friend? . . . Dead in the Vosges. Another? . . . Disappeared at Charleroi. And thus had continued the heroic and mournful roll-call. The others were still living, doing brave things. The members of foreign birth, young Poles, English residents in Paris and South Americans, had finally enlisted as volunteers. The club might well be proud of its young men who had practised arms in times of peace, for now they were all jeopardizing their existence at the front. Desnoyers turned his face away as though he feared to meet in the eyes of his friend, an ironical and questioning expression. Why had he not gone with the others to defend the land in which he was living? . . .
"To-morrow I will go," repeated Julio, depressed by this recollection.
But he went toward the South like all those who were fleeing from the war. The following morning Argensola was charged to get him a railroad ticket for Bordeaux. The value of money had greatly increased, but fifty francs, opportunely bestowed, wrought the miracle and procured a bit of numbered cardboard whose conquest represented many days of waiting.
"It is good only for to-day," said the Spaniard, "you will have to take the night train."
Packing was not a very serious matter, as the trains were refusing to admit anything more than hand-luggage. Argensola did not wish to accept the liberality of Julio who tried to leave all his money with him. Heroes need very little and the painter of souls was inspired with heroic resolution, The brief harangue of Gallieni in taking charge of the defense of Paris, he had adopted as his own. He intended to keep up his courage to the last, just like the hardy general.
"Let them come," he exclaimed with a tragic expression. "They will find me at my post!" . . .
His post was the studio from which he could witness the happenings which he proposed relating to coming generations. He would entrench himself there with the eatables and wines. Besides he had the plan—just as soon as his partner should disappear—of bringing to live there with him certain lady-friends who were wandering around in search of a problematical dinner, and feeling timid in the solitude of their own quarters. Danger often gathers congenial folk together and adds a new attractiveness to the pleasures of a community. The tender affections of the prisoners of the Terror, when they were expecting momentarily to be conducted to the guillotine, flashed through his mind. Let us drain Life's goblet at one draught since we have to die! . . . The studio of the rue de la Pompe was about to witness the mad and desperate revels of a castaway bark well-stocked with provisions.
Desnoyers left the Gare d'Orsay in a first-class compartment, mentally praising the good order with which the authorities had arranged everything, so that every traveller could have his own seat. At the Austerlitz station, however, a human avalanche assaulted the train. The doors were broken open, packages and children came in through the windows like projectiles. The people pushed with the unreason of a crowd fleeing before a fire. In the space reserved for eight persons, fourteen installed themselves; the passageways were heaped with mountains of bags and valises that served later travellers for seats. All class distinctions had disappeared. The villagers invaded by preference the best coaches, believing that they would there find more room. Those holding first-class tickets hunted up the plainer coaches in the vain hope of travelling without being crowded. On the cross roads were waiting from the day before long trains made up of cattle cars. All the stables on wheels were filled with people seated on the wooden floor or in chairs brought from their homes. Every train load was an encampment eager to take up its march; whenever it halted, layers of greasy papers, hulls and fruit skins collected along its entire length.
The invaders, pushing their way in, put up with many annoyances and pardoned one another in a brotherly way. "In war times, war measures," they would always say as a last excuse. And each one was pressing closer to his neighbor in order to make a few more inches of room, and helping to wedge his scanty baggage among the other bundles swaying most precariously above. Little by little, Desnoyers was losing all his advantage as a first comer. These poor people who had been waiting for the train from four in the morning till eight at night, awakened his pity. The women, groaning with weariness, were standing in the corridors, looking with ferocious envy at those who had seats. The children were bleating like hungry kids. Julio finally gave up his place, sharing with the needy and improvident the bountiful supply of eatables with which Argensola had provided him. The station restaurants had all been emptied of food.
During the train's long wait, soldiers only were seen on the platform, soldiers who were hastening at the call of the trumpet, to take their places again in the strings of cars which were constantly steaming toward Paris. At the signal stations, long war trains were waiting for the road to be clear that they might continue their journey. The cuirassiers, wearing a yellow vest over their steel breastplate, were seated with hanging legs in the doorways of the stable cars, from whose interior came repeated neighing. Upon the flat cars were rows of gun carriages. The slender throats of the cannon of '75 were pointed upwards like telescopes.
Young Desnoyers passed the night in the aisle, seated on a valise, noting the sodden sleep of those around him, worn out by weariness and exhaustion. It was a cruel and endless night of jerks, shrieks and stops punctuated by snores. At every station, the trumpets were sounding precipitously as though the enemy were right upon them. The soldiers from the South were hurrying to their posts, and at brief intervals another detachment of men was dragged along the rails toward Paris. They all appeared gay, and anxious to reach the scene of slaughter as soon as possible. Many were regretting the delays, fearing that they might arrive too late. Leaning out of the window, Julio heard the dialogues and shouts on the platforms impregnated with the acrid odor of men and mules. All were evincing an unquenchable confidence. "The Boches! very numerous, with huge cannons, with many mitrailleuse . . . but we only have to charge with our bayonets to make them run like rabbits!"
The attitude of those going to meet death was in sharp contrast to the panic and doubt of those who were deserting Paris. An old and much-decorated gentleman, type of a jubilee functionary, kept questioning Desnoyers whenever the train started on again—"Do you believe that they will get as far as Tours?" Before receiving his reply, he would fall asleep. Brutish sleep was marching down the aisles with leaden feet. At every junction, the old man would start up and suddenly ask, "Do you believe that we will get as far as Bordeaux?" . . . And his great desire not to halt until, with his family, he had reached an absolutely secure refuge, made him accept as oracles all the vague responses.
At daybreak, they saw the Territorialists guarding the roads. They were armed with old muskets, and were wearing the red kepis as their only military distinction. They were following the opposite course of the military trains.
In the station at Bordeaux, the civilian crowds struggling to get out or to enter other cars, were mingling with the troops. The trumpets were incessantly sounding their brazen notes, calling the soldiers together. Many were men of darkest coloring, natives with wide gray breeches and red caps above their black or bronzed faces.
Julio saw a train bearing wounded from the battles of Flanders and Lorraine. Their worn and dirty uniforms were enlivened by the whiteness of the bandages sustaining the wounded limbs or protecting the broken heads. All were trying to smile, although with livid mouths and feverish eyes, at their first glimpse of the land of the South as it emerged from the mist bathed in the sunlight, and covered with the regal vestures of its vineyards. The men from the North stretched out their hands for the fruit that the women were offering them, tasting with delight the sweet grapes of the country.
For four days the distracted lover lived in Bordeaux, stunned and bewildered by the agitation of a provincial city suddenly converted into a capital. The hotels were overcrowded, many notables contenting themselves with servants' quarters. There was not a vacant seat in the cafes; the sidewalks could not accommodate the extraordinary assemblage. The President was installed in the Prefecture; the State Departments were established in the schools and museums; two theatres were fitted up for the future reunions of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Julio was lodged in a filthy, disreputable hotel at the end of a foul-smelling alley. A little Cupid adorned the crystals of the door, and the looking-glass in his room was scratched with names and unspeakable phrases—souvenirs of the occupants of an hour . . . and yet many grand ladies, hunting in vain for temporary residence, would have envied him his good fortune.
All his investigations proved fruitless. The friends whom he encountered in the fugitive crowd were thinking only of their own affairs. They could talk of nothing but incidents of the installation, repeating the news gathered from the ministers with whom they were living on familiar terms, or mentioning with a mysterious air, the great battle which was going on stretching from the vicinity of Paris to Verdun. A pupil of his days of glory, whose former elegance was now attired in the uniform of a nurse, gave him some vague information. "The little Madame Laurier? . . . I remember hearing that she was living somewhere near here. . . . Perhaps in Biarritz." Julio needed no more than this to continue his journey. To Biarritz!
The first person that he encountered on his arrival was Chichi. She declared that the town was impossible because of the families of rich Spaniards who were summering there. "The Boches are in the majority, and I pass a miserable existence quarrelling with them. . . . I shall finally have to live alone." Then he met his mother—embraces and tears. Afterwards he saw his Aunt Elena in the hotel parlors, most enthusiastic over the country and the summer colony.
She could talk at great length with many of them about the decadence of France. They were all expecting to receive the news from one moment to another, that the Kaiser had entered the Capital. Ponderous men who had never done anything in all their lives, were criticizing the defects and indolence of the Republic. Young men whose aristocracy aroused Dona Elena's enthusiasm, broke forth into apostrophes against the corruption of Paris, corruption that they had studied thoroughly, from sunset to sunrise, in the virtuous schools of Montmartre. They all adored Germany where they had never been, or which they knew only through the reels of the moving picture films. They criticized events as though they were witnessing a bull fight. "The Germans have the snap! You can't fool with them! They are fine brutes!" And they appeared to admire this inhumanity as the most admirable characteristic. "Why will they not say that in their own home on the other side of the frontier?" Chichi would protest. "Why do they come into their neighbor's country to ridicule his troubles? . . . Possibly they consider it a sign of their wonderful good-breeding!"
But Julio had not gone to Biarritz to live with his family. . . . The very day of his arrival, he saw Marguerite's mother in the distance. She was alone. His inquiries developed the information that her daughter was living in Pau. She was a trained nurse taking care of a wounded member of the family. "Her brother . . . undoubtedly it is her brother," thought Julio. And he again continued his trip, this time going to Pau.
His visits to the hospitals there were also unavailing. Nobody seemed to know Marguerite. Every day a train was arriving with a new load of bleeding flesh, but her brother was not among the wounded. A Sister of Charity, believing that he was in search of someone of his family, took pity on him and gave him some helpful directions. He ought to go to Lourdes; there were many of the wounded there and many of the military nurses. So Desnoyers immediately took the short cut between Pau and Lourdes.
He had never visited the sacred city whose name was so frequently on his mother's lips. For Dona Luisa, the French nation was Lourdes. In her discussions with her sister and other foreign ladies who were praying that France might be exterminated for its impiety, the good senora always summed up her opinions in the same words:—"When the Virgin wished to make her appearance in our day, she chose France. This country, therefore, cannot be as bad as you say. . . . When I see that she appears in Berlin, we will then re-discuss the matter."
But Desnoyers was not there to confirm his mother's artless opinions. Just as soon as he had found a room in a hotel near the river, he had hastened to the big hostelry, now converted into a hospital. The guard told him that he could not speak to the Director until the afternoon. In order to curb his impatience he walked through the street leading to the basilica, past all the booths and shops with pictures and pious souvenirs which have converted the place into a big bazaar. Here and in the gardens adjoining the church, he saw wounded convalescents with uniforms stained with traces of the combat. Their cloaks were greatly soiled in spite of repeated brushings. The mud, the blood and the rain had left indelible spots and made them as stiff as cardboard. Some of the wounded had cut their sleeves in order to avoid the cruel friction on their shattered arms, others still showed on their trousers the rents made by the devastating shells.
They were fighters of all ranks and of many races—infantry, cavalry, artillerymen; soldiers from the metropolis and from the colonies; French farmers and African sharpshooters; red heads, faces of Mohammedan olive and the black countenances of the Sengalese, with eyes of fire, and thick, bluish blubber lips; some showing the good-nature and sedentary obesity of the middle-class man suddenly converted into a warrior; others sinewy, alert, with the aggressive profile of men born to fight, and experienced in foreign fields.
The city, formerly visited by the hopeful, Catholic sick, was now invaded by a crowd no less dolorous but clad in carnival colors. All, in spite of their physical distress, had a certain air of good cheer and satisfaction. They had seen Death very near, slipping out from his bony claws into a new joy and zest in life. With their cloaks adorned with medals, their theatrical Moorish garments, their kepis and their African headdresses, this heroic band presented, nevertheless, a lamentable aspect.
Very few still preserved the noble vertical carriage, the pride of the superior human being. They were walking along bent almost double, limping, dragging themselves forward by the help of a staff or friendly arm. Others had to let themselves be pushed along, stretched out on the hand-carts which had so often conducted the devout sick from the station to the Grotto of the Virgin. Some were feeling their way along, blindly, leaning on a child or nurse. The first encounters in Belgium and in the East, a mere half-dozen battles, had been enough to produce these physical wrecks still showing a manly nobility in spite of the most horrible outrages. These organisms, struggling so tenaciously to regain their hold on life, bringing their reviving energies out into the sunlight, represented but the most minute part of the number mowed down by the scythe of Death. Back of them were thousands and thousands of comrades groaning on hospital beds from which they would probably never rise. Thousands and thousands were hidden forever in the bosom of the Earth moistened by their death agony—fatal land which, upon receiving a hail of projectiles, brought forth a harvest of bristling crosses!
War now showed itself to Desnoyers with all its cruel hideousness. He had been accustomed to speak of it heretofore as those in robust health speak of death, knowing that it exists and is horrible, but seeing it afar off . . . so far off that it arouses no real emotion. The explosion of the shells were accompanying their destructive brutality with a ferocious mockery, grotesquely disfiguring the human body. He saw wounded objects just beginning to recover their vital force who were but rough skeletons of men, frightful caricatures, human rags, saved from the tomb by the audacities of science—trunks with heads which were dragged along on wheeled platforms; fragments of skulls whose brains were throbbing under an artificial cap; beings without arms and without legs, resting in the bottom of little wagons, like bits of plaster models or scraps from the dissecting room; faces without noses that looked like skulls with great, black nasal openings. And these half-men were talking, smoking, laughing, satisfied to see the sky, to feel the caress of the sun, to have come back to life, dominated by that sovereign desire to live which trustingly forgets present misery in the confident hope of something better.
So strongly was Julio impressed that for a little while he forgot the purpose which had brought him thither. . . . If those who provoke war from diplomatic chambers or from the tables of the Military Staff could but see it—not in the field of battle fired with the enthusiasm which prejudices judgments—but in cold blood, as it is seen in the hospitals and cemeteries, in the wrecks left in its trail! . . .
To Julio's imagination this terrestrial globe appeared like an enormous ship sailing through infinity. Its crews—poor humanity—had spent century after century in exterminating each other on the deck. They did not even know what existed under their feet, in the hold of the vessel. To occupy the same portion of the surface in the sunlight seemed to be the ruling desire of each group. Men, considered superior human beings, were pushing these masses to extermination in order to scale the last bridge and hold the helm, controlling the course of the boat. And all those who felt the overmastering ambition for absolute command knew the same thing . . . nothing. Not one of them could say with certainty what lay beyond the visible horizon, nor whither the ship was drifting. The sullen hostility of mystery surrounded them all; their life was precarious, necessitating incessant care in order to maintain it, yet in spite of that, the crew for ages and ages, had never known an instant of agreement, of team work, of clear reason. Periodically half of them would clash with the other half. They killed each other that they might enslave the vanquished on the rolling deck floating over the abyss; they fought that they might cast their victims from the vessel, filling its wake with cadavers. And from the demented throng there were still springing up gloomy sophistries to prove that a state of war was the perfect state, that it ought to go on forever, that it was a bad dream on the part of the crew to wish to regard each other as brothers with a common destiny, enveloped in the same unsteady environment of mystery. . . . Ah, human misery!
Julio was drawn out of these pessimistic reflections by the childish glee which many of the convalescents were evincing. Some were Mussulmans, sharpshooters from Algeria and Morocco. In Lourdes, as they might be anywhere, they were interested only in the gifts which the people were showering upon them with patriotic affection. They all surveyed with indifference the basilica inhabited by "the white lady," their only preoccupation being to beg for cigars and sweets.
Finding themselves regaled by the dominant race, they became greatly puffed up, daring everything like mischievous children. What pleased them most was the fact that the ladies would take them by the hand. Blessed war that permitted them to approach and touch these white women, perfumed and smiling as they appeared in their dreams of the paradise of the blest! "Lady . . . Lady," they would sigh, looking at them with dark, sparkling eyes. And not content with the hand, their dark paws would venture the length of the entire arm while the ladies laughed at this tremulous adoration. Others would go through the crowds, offering their right hand to all the women. "We touch hands." . . . And then they would go away satisfied after receiving the hand clasp.
Desnoyers wandered a long time around the basilica where, in the shadow of the trees, were long rows of wheeled chairs occupied by the wounded. Officers and soldiers rested many hours in the blue shade, watching their comrades who were able to use their legs. The sacred grotto was resplendent with the lights from hundreds of candles. Devout crowds were kneeling in the open air, fixing their eyes in supplication on the sacred stones whilst their thoughts were flying far away to the fields of battle, making their petitions with that confidence in divinity which accompanies every distress. Among the kneeling mass were many soldiers with bandaged heads, kepis in hand and tearful eyes.
Up and down the double staircase of the basilica were flitting women, clad in white, with spotless headdresses that fluttered in such a way that they appeared like flying doves. These were the nurses and Sisters of Charity guiding the steps of the injured. Desnoyers thought he recognized Marguerite in every one of them, but the prompt disillusion following each of these discoveries soon made him doubtful about the outcome of his journey. She was not in Lourdes, either. He would never find her in that France so immeasurably expanded by the war that it had converted every town into a hospital.
His afternoon explorations were no more successful. The employees listened to his interrogations with a distraught air. He could come back again; just now they were taken up with the announcement that another hospital train was on the way. The great battle was still going on near Paris. They had to improvise lodgings for the new consignment of mutilated humanity. In order to pass away the time until his return, Desnoyers went back to the garden near the grotto. He was planning to return to Pau that night; there was evidently nothing more to do at Lourdes. In what direction should he now continue his search?
Suddenly he felt a thrill down his back—the same indefinable sensation which used to warn him of her presence when they were meeting in the gardens of Paris. Marguerite was going to present herself unexpectedly as in the old days without his knowing from exactly what spot—as though she came up out of the earth or descended from the clouds.
After a second's thought he smiled bitterly. Mere tricks of his desire! Illusions! . . . Upon turning his head he recognized the falsity of his hope. Nobody was following his footsteps; he was the only being going down the center of the avenue. Near him, in the diaphanous white of a guardian angel, was a nurse. Poor blind man! . . . Desnoyers was passing on when a quick movement on the part of the white-clad woman, an evident desire to escape notice, to hide her face by looking at the plants, attracted his attention. He was slow in recognizing her. Two little ringlets escaping from the band of her cap made him guess the hidden head of hair; the feet shod in white were the signs which enabled him to reconstruct the person somewhat disfigured by the severe uniform. Her face was pale and sad. There wasn't a trace left in it of the old vanities that used to give it its childish, doll-like beauty. In the depths of those great, dark-circled eyes life seemed to be reflected in new forms. . . . Marguerite!
They stared at one another for a long while, as though hypnotized with surprise. She looked alarmed when Desnoyers advanced a step toward her. No . . . No! Her eyes, her hands, her entire body seemed to protest, to repel his approach, to hold him motionless. Fear that he might come near her, made her go toward him. She said a few words to the soldier who remained on the bench, receiving across the bandage on his face a ray of sunlight which he did not appear to feel. Then she rose, going to meet Julio, and continued forward, indicating by a gesture that they must find some place further on where the wounded man could not hear them.
She led the way to a side path from which she could see the blind man confided to her care. They stood motionless, face to face. Desnoyers wished to say many things; many . . . but he hesitated, not knowing how to frame his complaints, his pleadings, his endearments. Far above all these thoughts towered one, fatal, dominant and wrathful.
"Who is that man?"
The spiteful accent, the harsh voice with which he said these words surprised him as though they came from someone else's mouth.
The nurse looked at him with her great limpid eyes, eyes that seemed forever freed from contractions of surprise or fear. Her response slipped from her with equal directness.
"It is Laurier. . . . It is my husband."
Laurier! . . . Julio looked doubtfully and for a long time at the soldier before he could be convinced. That blind officer motionless on the bench, that figure of heroic grief, was Laurier! . . . At first glance, he appeared prematurely old with roughened and bronzed skin so furrowed with lines that they converged like rays around all the openings of his face. His hair was beginning to whiten on the temples and in the beard which covered his cheeks. He had lived twenty years in that one month. . . . At the same time he appeared younger, with a youthfulness that was radiating an inward vigor, with the strength of a soul which has suffered the most violent emotions and, firm and serene in the satisfaction of duty fulfilled, can no longer know fear.
As Desnoyers contemplated him, he felt both admiration and jealousy. He was ashamed to admit the aversion inspired by the wounded man, so sorely wounded that he was unable to see what was going on around him. His hatred was a form of cowardice, terrifying in its persistence. How pensive were Marguerite's eyes if she took them off her patient for a few seconds! . . . She had never looked at him in that way. He knew all the amorous gradations of her glance, but her fixed gaze at this injured man was something entirely different, something that he had never seen before.
He spoke with the fury of a lover who discovers an infidelity.
"And for this thing you have run away without warning, without a word! . . . You have abandoned me in order to go in search of him. . . . Tell me, why did you come? . . . Why did you come?". . .
"I came because it was my duty."
Then she spoke like a mother who takes advantage of a parenthesis of surprise in an irascible child's temper, in order to counsel self-control, and explained how it had all happened. She had received the news of Laurier's wounding just as she and her mother were preparing to leave Paris. She had not hesitated an instant; her duty was to hasten to the aid of this man. She had been doing a great deal of thinking in the last few weeks; the war had made her ponder much on the values in life. Her eyes had been getting glimpses of new horizons; our destiny is not mere pleasure and selfish satisfaction; we ought to take our part in pain and sacrifice.
She had wanted to work for her country, to share the general stress, to serve as other women did; and since she was disposed to devote herself to strangers, was it not natural that she should prefer to help this man whom she had so greatly wronged? . . . There still lived in her memory the moment in which she had seen him approach the station, completely alone among so many who had the consolation of loving arms when departing in search of death. Her pity had become still more acute on hearing of his misfortune. A shell had exploded near him, killing all those around him. Of his many wounds, the only serious one was that on his face. He had completely lost the sight of one eye; and the doctors were keeping the other bound up hoping to save it. But she was very doubtful about it; she was almost sure that Laurier would be blind.
Marguerite's voice trembled when saying this as if she were going to cry, although her eyes were tearless. They did not now feel the irresistible necessity for tears. Weeping had become something superfluous, like many other luxuries of peaceful days. Her eyes had seen so much in so few days! . . .
"How you love him!" exclaimed Julio.
Fearing that they might be overheard and in order to keep him at a distance, she had been speaking as though to a friend. But her lover's sadness broke down her reserve.
"No, I love you. . . . I shall always love you."
The simplicity with which she said this and her sudden tenderness of tone revived Desnoyers' hopes.
"And the other one?" he asked anxiously.
Upon receiving her reply, it seemed to him as though something had just passed across the sun, veiling its light temporarily. It was as though a cloud had drifted over the land and over his thoughts, enveloping them in an unbearable chill.
"I love him, too."
She said it with a look that seemed to implore pardon, with the sad sincerity of one who has given up lying and weeps in foreseeing the injury that the truth must inflict.
He felt his hard wrath suddenly dwindling like a crumbling mountain. Ah, Marguerite! His voice was tremulous and despairing. Could it be possible that everything between these two was going to end thus simply? Were her former vows mere lies? . . . They had been attracted to each other by an irresistible affinity in order to be together forever, to be one. . . . And now, suddenly hardened by indifference, were they to drift apart like two unfriendly bodies? . . . What did this absurdity about loving him at the same time that she loved her former husband mean, anyway?
Marguerite hung her head, murmuring desperately:
"You are a man, I am a woman. You would never understand me, no matter what I might say. Men are not able to comprehend certain of our mysteries. . . . A woman would be better able to appreciate the complexity."
Desnoyers felt that he must know his fate in all its cruelty. She might speak without fear. He felt strong enough to bear the blow. . . . What had Laurier said when he found that he was being so tenderly cared for by Marguerite? . . .
"He does not know who I am. . . . He believes me to be a war-nurse, like the rest, who pities him seeing him alone and blind with no relatives to write to him or visit him. . . . At certain times, I have almost suspected that he guesses the truth. My voice, the touch of my hands made him shiver at first, as though with an unpleasant sensation. I have told him that I am a Beigian lady who has lost her loved ones and is alone in the world. He has told me his life story very sketchily, as if he desired to forget a hated past. . . . Never one disagreeable word about his former wife. There are nights when I think that he knows me, that he takes advantage of his blindness in order to prolong his feigned ignorance, and that distresses me. I long for him to recover his sight, for the doctors to save that doubtful eye—and yet at the same time, I feel afraid. What will he say when he recognizes me? . . . But no; it is better that he should see, no matter what may result. You cannot understand my anxiety, you cannot know what I am suffering."
She was silent for an instant, trying to regain her self-control, again tortured with the agony of her soul.
"Oh, the war!" she resumed. "What changes in our life! Two months ago, my present situation would have appeared impossible, unimaginable. . . . I caring for my husband, fearing that he would discover my identity and leave me, yet at the same time, wishing that he would recognize me and pardon me. . . . It is only one week that I have been with him. I disguise my voice when I can, and avoid words that may reveal the truth . . . but this cannot keep up much longer. It is only in novels that such painful situations turn out happily."
Doubt suddenly overwhelmed her.
"I believe," she continued, "that he has recognized me from the first. . . . He is silent and feigns ignorance because he despises me . . . because he can never bring himself to pardon me. I have been so bad! . . . I have wronged him so!". . .
She was recalling the long and reflective silences of the wounded man after she had dropped some imprudent words. After two days of submission to her care, he had been somewhat rebellious, avoiding going out with her for a walk. Because of his blind helplessness, and comprehending the uselessness of his resistance, he had finally yielded in passive silence.
"Let him think what he will!" concluded Marguerite courageously. "Let him despise me! I am here where I ought to be. I need his forgiveness, but if he does not pardon me, I shall stay with him just the same. . . . There are moments when I wish that he may never recover his sight, so that he may always need me, so that I may pass my life at his side, sacrificing everything for him."
"And I?" said Desnoyers.
Marguerite looked at him with clouded eyes as though she were just awaking. It was true—and the other one? . . . Kindled by the proposed sacrifice which was to be her expiation, she had forgotten the man before her.
"You!" she said after a long pause. "You must leave me. . . . Life is not what we have thought it. Had it not been for the war, we might, perhaps, have realized our dream, but now! . . . Listen carefully and try to understand. For the remainder of my life, I shall carry the heaviest burden, and yet at the same time it will be sweet, since the more it weighs me down the greater will my atonement be. Never will I leave this man whom I have so grievously wronged, now that he is more alone in the world and will need protection like a child. Why do you come to share my fate? How could it be possible for you to live with a nurse constantly at the side of a blind and worthy man whom we would constantly offend with our passion? . . . No, it is better for us to part. Go your way, alone and untrammelled. Leave me; you will meet other women who will make you more happy than I. Yours is the temperament that finds new pleasures at every step."
She stood firmly to her decision. Her voice was calm, but back of it trembled the emotion of a last farewell to a joy which was going from her forever. The man would be loved by others . . . and she was giving him up! . . . But the noble sadness of the sacrifice restored her courage. Only by this renunciation could she expiate her sins.
Julio dropped his eyes, vanquished and perplexed. The picture of the future outlined by Marguerite terrified him. To live with her as a nurse taking advantage of her patient's blindness would be to offer him fresh insult every day. . . . Ah, no! That would be villainy, indeed! He was now ashamed to recall the malignity with which, a little while before, he had regarded this innocent unfortunate. He realized that he was powerless to contend with him. Weak and helpless as he was sitting there on the garden bench, he was stronger and more deserving of respect than Julio Desnoyers with all his youth and elegance. The victim had amounted to something in his life; he had done what Julio had not dared to do.
This sudden conviction of his inferiority made him cry out like an abandoned child, "What will become of me?" . . .
Marguerite, too—contemplating the love which was going from her forever, her vanished hopes, the future illumined by the satisfaction of duty fulfilled but monotonous and painful—cried out:
"And I. . . . What will become of me?" . . .
As though he had suddenly found a solution which was reviving his courage, Desnoyers said:
"Listen, Marguerite: I can read your soul. You love this man, and you do well. He is superior to me, and women are always attracted by superiority. . . . I am a coward. Yes, do not protest, I am a coward with all my youth, with all my strength. Why should you not have been impressed by the conduct of this man! . . . But I will atone for past wrongs. This country is yours, Marguerite; I will fight for it. Do not say no. . . ."
And moved by his hasty heroism, he outlined the plan more definitely. He was going to be a soldier. Soon she would hear him well spoken of. His idea was either to be stretched on the battlefield in his first encounter, or to astound the world by his bravery. In this way the impossible situation would settle itself—either the oblivion of death or glory.
"No, no!" interrupted Marguerite in an anguished tone. "You, no! One is enough. . . . How horrible! You, too, wounded, mutilated forever, perhaps dead! . . . No, you must live. I want you to live, even though you might belong to another. . . . Let me know that you exist, let me see you sometimes, even though you may have forgotten me, even though you may pass me with indifference, as if you did not know me."
In this outburst her deep love for him rang true—her heroic and inflexible love which would accept all penalties for herself, if only the beloved one might continue to live.
But then, in order that Julio might not feel any false hopes, she added:—"Live; you must not die; that would be for me another torment. . . . But live without me. No matter how much we may talk about it, my destiny beside the other one is marked out forever."
"Ah, how you love him! . . . How you have deceived me!"
In a last desperate attempt at explanation she again repeated what she had said at the beginning of their interview. She loved Julio . . . and she loved her husband. They were different kinds of love. She could not say which was the stronger, but misfortune was forcing her to choose between the two, and she was accepting the most difficult, the one demanding the greatest sacrifices.
"You are a man, and you will never be able to understand me. . . . A woman would comprehend me."
It seemed to Julio, as he looked around him, as though the afternoon were undergoing some celestial phenomenon. The garden was still illuminated by the sun, but the green of the trees, the yellow of the ground, the blue of the sky, all appeared to him as dark and shadowy as though a rain of ashes were falling.
"Then . . . all is over between us?"
His pleading, trembling voice charged with tears made her turn her head to hide her emotion. Then in the painful silence the two despairs formed one and the same question, as if interrogating the shades of the future: "What will become of me?" murmured the man. And like an echo her lips repeated, "What will become of me?"
All had been said. Hopeless words came between the two like an obstacle momentarily increasing in size, impelling them in opposite directions. Why prolong the painful interview? . . . Marguerite showed the ready and energetic decision of a woman who wishes to bring a scene to a close. "Good-bye!" Her face had assumed a yellowish cast, her pupils had become dull and clouded like the glass of a lantern when the light dies out. "Good-bye!" She must go to her patient.
She went away without looking at him, and Desnoyers instinctively went in the opposite direction. As he became more self-controlled and turned to look at her again, he saw her moving on and giving her arm to the blind man, without once turning her head.
He now felt convinced that he should never see her again, and became oppressed by an almost suffocating agony. And could two beings, who had formerly considered the universe concentrated in their persons, thus easily be separated forever? . . .
His desperation at finding himself alone made him accuse himself of stupidity. Now his thoughts came tumbling over each other in a tumultuous throng, and each one of them seemed to him sufficient to have convinced Marguerite. He certainly had not known how to express himself. He would have to talk with her again . . . and he decided to remain in Lourdes.
He passed a night of torture in the hotel, listening to the ripple of the river among its stones. Insomnia had him in his fierce jaws, gnawing him with interminable agony. He turned on the light several times, but was not able to read. His eyes looked with stupid fixity at the patterns of the wall paper and the pious pictures around the room which had evidently served as the lodging place of some rich traveller. He remained motionless and as abstracted as an Oriental who thinks himself into an absolute lack of thought. One idea only was dancing in the vacuum in his skull—"I shall never see her again. . . . Can such a thing be possible?"
He drowsed for a few seconds, only to be awakened with the sensation that some horrible explosion was sending him through the air. And so, with sweats of anguish, he wakefully passed the hours until in the gloom of his room the dawn showed a milky rectangle of light, and began to be reflected on the window curtains.
The velvet-like caress of day finally closed his eyes. Upon awaking he found that the morning was well advanced, and he hurried to the garden of the grotto. . . . Oh, the hours of tremulous and unavailing waiting, believing that he recognized Marguerite in every white-clad lady that came along, guiding a wounded patient!
By afternoon, after a lunch whose dishes filed past him untouched, he returned to the garden in search of her. Beholding her in the distance with the blind man leaning on her arm, a feeling of faintness came over him. She looked to him taller, thinner, her face sharper, with two dark hollows in her cheeks and her eyes bright with fever, the lids drawn with weariness. He suspected that she, too, had passed an anguished night of tenacious, self-centred thought, of grievous stupefaction like his own, in the room of her hotel. Suddenly he felt all the weight of insomnia and listlessness, all the depressing emotion of the cruel sensations experienced in the last few hours. Oh, how miserable they both were! . . .
She was walking warily, looking from one side to the other, as though foreseeing danger. Upon discovering him she clung to her charge, casting upon her former lover a look of entreaty, of desperation, imploring pity. . . Ay, that look!
He felt ashamed of himself; his personality appeared to be unrolling itself before him, and he surveyed himself with the eyes of a judge. What was this seduced and useless man, called Julio Desnoyers, doing there, tormenting with his presence a poor woman, trying to turn her from her righteous repentance, insisting on his selfish and petty desires when all humanity was thinking of other things? . . . His cowardice angered him. Like a thief taking advantage of the sleep of his victim, he was stalking around this brave and true man who could not see him, who could not defend himself, in order to rob him of the only affection that he had in the world which had so miraculously returned to him! Very well, Gentleman Desnoyers! . . . Ah, what a scoundrel he was!
Such subconscious insults made him draw himself erect, in haughty, cruel and inexorable defiance against that other I who so richly deserved the judge's scorn.
He turned his head away; he could not meet Marguerite's piteous eyes; he feared their mute reproach. Neither did he dare to look at the blind man in his shabby and heroic uniform, with his countenance aged by duty and glory. He feared him like remorse.
So the vanquished lover turned his back on the two and went away with a firm step. Good-bye, Love! Goodbye, Happiness! . . . He marched quickly and bravely on; a miracle had just taken place within him! he had found the right road at last!
To Paris! . . . A new impetus was going to fill the vacuum of his objectless existence.
Don Marcelo was fleeing to take refuge in his castle when he met the mayor of Villeblanche. The noise of the firing had made him hurry to the barricade. When he learned of the apparition of the group of stragglers he threw up his hands in despair. They were crazy. Their resistance was going to be fatal for the village, and he ran on to beg them to cease.
For some time nothing happened to disturb the morning calm. Desnoyers had climbed to the top of his towers and was surveying the country with his field glasses. He couldn't make out the highway through the nearest group of trees, but he suspected that underneath their branches great activity was going on—masses of men on guard, troops preparing for the attack. The unexpected defense of the fugitives had upset the advance of the invasion. Desnoyers thought despairingly of that handful of mad fellows and their stubborn chief. What was their fate going to be? . . .
Focussing his glasses on the village, he saw the red spots of kepis waving like poppies over the green of the meadows. They were the retreating men, now convinced of the uselessness of their resistance. Perhaps they had found a ford or forgotten boat by which they might cross the Maine, and so were continuing their retreat toward the river. At any minute now the Germans were going to enter Villeblanche.
Half an hour of profound silence passed by. The village lay silhouetted against a background of hills—a mass of roofs beneath the church tower finished with its cross and iron weather cock. Everything seemed as tranquil as in the best days of peace. Suddenly he noticed that the grove was vomiting forth something noisy and penetrating—a bubble of vapor accompanied by a deafening report. Something was hurtling through the air with a strident curve. Then a roof in the village opened like a crater, vomiting forth flying wood, fragments of plaster and broken furniture. All the interior of the house seemed to be escaping in a stream of smoke, dirt and splinters.
The invaders were bombarding Villeblanche before attempting attack, as though fearing to encounter persistent resistance in its streets. More projectiles fell. Some passed over the houses, exploding between the hamlet and the castle. The towers of the Desnoyers property were beginning to attract the aim of the artillerymen. The owner was therefore about to abandon his dangerous observatory when he saw something white like a tablecloth or sheet floating from the church tower. His neighbors had hoisted this signal of peace in order to avoid bombardment. A few more missiles fell and then there was silence.
When Don Marcelo reached his park he found the Warden burying at the foot of a tree the sporting rifles still remaining in his castle. Then he went toward the great iron gates. The enemies were going to come, and he had to receive them. While uneasily awaiting their arrival his compunctions again tormented him. What was he doing there? Why had he remained? . . . But his obstinate temperament immediately put aside the promptings of fear. He was there because he had to guard his own. Besides, it was too late now to think about such things.
Suddenly the morning stillness was broken by a sound like the deafening tearing of strong cloth. "Shots, Master," said the Warden. "Firing! It must be in the square."
A few minutes after they saw running toward them a woman from the village, an old soul, dried up and darkened by age, who was panting from her great exertion, and looking wildly around her. She was fleeing blindly, trying to escape from danger and shut out horrible visions. Desnoyers and the Keeper's family listened to her explanations interrupted with hiccoughs of terror.
The Germans were in Villeblanche. They had entered first in an automobile driven at full speed from one end of the village to the other. Its mitrailleuse was firing at random against closed houses and open doors, knocking down all the people in sight. The old woman flung up her arms with a gesture of terror. . . . Dead . . . many dead . . . wounded . . . blood! Then other iron-plated vehicles had stopped in the square, and behind them cavalrymen, battalions of infantry, many battalions coming from everywhere. The helmeted men seemed furious; they accused the villagers of having fired at them. In the square they had struck the mayor and villagers who had come forward to meet them. The priest, bending over some of the dying, had also been trodden under foot. . . . All prisoners! The Germans were talking of shooting them.
The old dame's words were cut short by the rumble of approaching automobiles.
"Open the gates," commanded the owner to the Warden. The massive iron grill work swung open, and was never again closed. All property rights were at an end.
An enormous automobile, covered with dust and filled with men, stopped at the entrance. Behind them sounded the horns of other vehicles that were putting on the brakes. Desnoyers saw soldiers leaping out, all wearing the greenish-gray uniform with a sheath of the same tone covering the pointed casque. The one who marched at their head put his revolver to the millionaire's forehead.
"Where are the sharpshooters?" he asked.
He was pale with the pallor of wrath, vengeance and fear. His face was trembling under the influence of his triple emotion. Don Marcelo explained slowly, contemplating at a short distance from his eyes the black circle of the threatening tube. He had not seen any sharpshooters. The only inhabitants of the castle were the Warden with his family and himself, the owner of the castle.
The officer surveyed the edifice and then examined Desnoyers with evident astonishment as though he thought his appearance too unpretentious for a proprietor. He had taken him for a simple employee, and his respect for social rank made him lower his revolver.
He did not, however, alter his haughty attitude. He pressed Don Marcelo into the service as a guide, making him search ahead of him while forty soldiers grouped themselves at his back. They advanced in two files to the shelter of the trees which bordered the central avenue, with their guns ready to shoot, and looking uneasily at the castle windows as though expecting to receive from them hidden shots. Desnoyers marched tranquilly through the centre, and the official, who had been imitating the precautions of his men, finally joined him when he was crossing the drawbridge.
The armed men scattered through the rooms in search of the enemy. They ran their bayonets through beds and divans. Some, with automatic destructiveness, slit the draperies and the rich bed coverings. The owner protested; what was the sense in such useless destruction? . . . He was suffering unbearable torture at seeing the enormous boots spotting the rugs with mud, on hearing the clash of guns and knapsacks against the most fragile, choicest pieces of furniture. Poor historic mansion! . . .
The officer looked amazed that he should protest for such trifling cause, but he gave orders in German and his men ceased their rude explorations. Then, in justification of this extraordinary respect, he added in French:
"I believe that you are going to have the honor of entertaining here the general of our division."
The certainty that the castle did not hold any hidden enemies made him more amiable. He, nevertheless, persisted in his wrath against the sharpshooters. A group of the villagers had opened fire upon the Uhlans when they were entering unsuspiciously after the retreat of the French.
Desnoyers felt it necessary to protest. They were neither inhabitants nor sharpshooters; they were French soldiers. He took good care to be silent about their presence at the barricade, but he insisted that he had distinguished their uniforms from a tower of the castle.
The official made a threatening face.
"You, too? . . . You, who appear a reasonable man, can repeat such yarns as these?" And in order to close the conversation, he said, arrogantly: "They were wearing uniforms, then, if you persist in saying so, but they were sharpshooters just the same. The French Government has distributed arms and uniforms among the farmers that they may assassinate us. . . . Belgium did the same thing. . . . But we know their tricks, and we know how to punish them, too!"
The village was going to be burned. It was necessary to avenge the four German dead lying on the outskirts of Villeblanche, near the barricade. The mayor, the priest, the principal inhabitants would all be shot.
By the time they reached the top floor Desnoyers could see floating above the boughs of his park dark clouds whose outlines were reddened by the sun. The top of the bell tower was the only thing that he could distinguish at that distance. Around the iron weathercock were flying long thin fringes like black cobwebs lifted by the breeze. An odor of burning wood came toward the castle.
The German greeted this spectacle with a cruel smile. Then on descending to the park, he ordered Desnoyers to follow him. His liberty and his dignity had come to an end. Henceforth he was going to be an underling at the beck and call of these men who would dispose of him as their whims directed. Ay, why had he remained? . . . He obeyed, climbing into an automobile beside the officer, who was still carrying his revolver in his right hand. His men distributed themselves through the castle and outbuildings, in order to prevent the flight of an imaginary enemy. The Warden and his family seemed to be saying good-bye to him with their eyes. Perhaps they were taking him to his death. . . .
Beyond the castle woods a new world was coming into existence. The short cut to Villeblanche seemed to Desnoyers a leap of millions of leagues, a fall into a red planet where men and things were covered with the film of smoke and the glare of fire. He saw the village under a dark canopy spotted with sparks and glowing embers. The bell tower was burning like an enormous torch; the roof of the church was breaking into flames with a crashing fury. The glare of the holocaust seemed to shrivel and grow pale in the impassive light of the sun.
Running across the fields with the haste of desperation were shrieking women and children. The animals had escaped from the stables, and driven forth by the flames were racing wildly across the country. The cow and the work horse were dragging their halters broken by their flight. Their flanks were smoking and smelt of burnt hair. The pigs, the sheep and the chickens were all tearing along mingled with the cats and the dogs. All the domestic animals were returning to a brute existence, fleeing from civilized man. Shots were heard and hellish ha-ha's. The soldiers outside of the village were making themselves merry in this hunt for fugitives. Their guns were aimed at beasts and were hitting people.
Desnoyers saw men, many men, men everywhere. They were like gray ants, marching in endless files towards the South, coming out from the woods, filling the roads, crossing the fields. The green of vegetation was disappearing under their tread; the dust was rising in spirals behind the dull roll of the cannons and the measured trot of thousands of horses. On the roadside several battalions had halted, with their accompaniment of vehicles and draw horses. They were resting before renewing their march. He knew this army. He had seen it in Berlin on parade, and yet it seemed to have changed its former appearance. There now remained very little of the heavy and imposing glitter, of the mute and vainglorious haughtiness which had made his relatives-in-law weep with admiration. War, with its realism, had wiped out all that was theatrical about this formidable organization of death. The soldiers appeared dirty and tired, out. The respiration of fat and sweaty bodies, mixed with the strong smell of leather, floated over the regiments. All the men had hungry faces.
For days and nights they had been following the heels of an enemy which was always just eluding their grasp. In this forced advance the provisions of the administration would often arrive so late at the cantonments that they could depend only on what they happened to have in their knapsacks. Desnoyers saw them lined up near the road devouring hunks of black bread and mouldy sausages. Some had scattered through the fields to dig up beet roots and other tubers, chewing with loud crunchings the hard pulp to which the grit still adhered. An ensign was shaking the fruit trees using as a catch-all the flag of his regiment. That glorious standard, adorned with souvenirs of 1870, was serving as a receptacle for green plums. Those who were seated on the ground were improving this rest by drawing their perspiring, swollen feet from high boots which were sending out an insufferable smell.
The regiments of infantry which Desnoyers had seen in Berlin reflecting the light on metal and leather straps, the magnificent and terrifying Hussars, the Cuirassiers in pure white uniform like the paladins of the Holy Grail, the artillerymen with breasts crossed with white bands, all the military variations that on parade had drawn forth the Hartrotts' sighs of admiration—these were now all unified and mixed together, of uniform color, all in greenish mustard like the dusty lizards that, slipping along, try to be confounded with the earth.
The persistency of the iron discipline was easily discernible. A word from the chiefs, the sound of a whistle, and they all grouped themselves together, the human being disappearing in the throngs of automatons; but danger, weariness, and the uncertainty of triumph had for the time being brought officers and men nearer together, obliterating caste distinction. The officers were coming part way out of their overbearing, haughty seclusion, and were condescending to talk with the lower orders so as to revive their courage. One effort more and they would overwhelm both French and English, repeating the triumph of Sedan, whose anniversary they were going to celebrate in a few days! They were going to enter Paris; it was only a matter of a week. Paris! Great shops filled with luxurious things, famous restaurants, women, champagne, money. . . . And the men, flattered that their commanders were stooping to chat with them, forgot fatigue and hunger, reviving like the throngs of the Crusade before the image of Jerusalem. "Nach Paris!" The joyous shout circulated from the head to the tail of the marching columns. "To Paris! To Paris!"
The scarcity of their food supply was here supplemented by the products of a country rich in wines. When sacking houses they rarely found eatables, but invariably a wine cellar. The humble German, the perpetual beer drinker, who had always looked upon wine as a privilege of the rich, could now open up casks with blows from his weapons, even bathing his feet in the stream of precious liquid. Every battalion left as a souvenir of its passing a wake of empty bottles; a halt in camp sowed the land with glass cylinders. The regimental trucks, unable to renew their stores of provisions, were accustomed to seize the wine in all the towns. The soldier, lacking bread, would receive alcohol. . . .
This donation was always accompanied by the good counsels of the officers—War is war; no pity toward our adversaries who do not deserve it. The French were shooting their prisoners, and their women were putting out the eyes of the wounded. Every dwelling was a den of traps. The simple-hearted and innocent German entering therein was going to certain death. The beds were made over subterranean caves, the wardrobes were make-believe doors, in every corner was lurking an assassin. This traitorous nation, which was arranging its ground like the scenario of a melodrama, would have to be chastised. The municipal officers, the priests, the schoolmasters were directing and protecting the sharpshooters.
Desnoyers was shocked at the indifference with which these men were stalking around the burning village. They did not appear to see the fire and destruction; it was just an ordinary spectacle, not worth looking at. Ever since they had crossed the frontier, smoldering and blasted villages, fired by the advance guard, had marked their halting places on Belgian and French soil.
When entering Villeblanche the automobile had to lower its speed. Burned walls were bulging out over the street and half-charred beams were obstructing the way, obliging the vehicle to zigzag through the smoking rubbish. The vacant lots were burning like fire pans between the houses still standing, with doors broken, but not yet in flames. Desnoyers saw within these rectangular spaces partly burned wood, chairs, beds, sewing machines, iron stoves, all the household goods of the well-to-do countryman, being consumed or twisted into shapeless masses. Sometimes he would spy an arm sticking out of the ruins, beginning to burn like a long wax candle. No, it could not be possible . . . and then the smell of cooking flesh began to mingle with that of the soot, wood and plaster.
He closed his eyes, not able to look any longer. He thought for a moment he must be dreaming. It was unbelievable that such horrors could take place in less than an hour. Human wickedness at its worst he had supposed incapable of changing the aspect of a village in such a short time.
An abrupt stoppage of the motor made him look around involuntarily. This time the obstruction was the dead bodies in the street—two men and a woman. They had probably fallen under the rain of bullets from the machine gun which had passed through the town preceding the invasion. Some soldiers were seated a little beyond them, with their backs to the victims, as though ignoring their presence. The chauffeur yelled to them to clear the track; with their guns and feet they pushed aside the bodies still warm, at every turn leaving a trail of blood. The space was hardly opened before the vehicle shot through . . . a thud, a leap—the back wheels had evidently crushed some very fragile obstacle.
Desnoyers was still huddled in his seat, benumbed and with closed eyes. The horror around him made him think of his own fate. Whither was this lieutenant taking him? . . .
He soon saw the town hall flaming in the square; the church was now nothing but a stone shell, bristling with flames. The houses of the prosperous villagers had had their doors and windows chopped out by axe-blows. Within them soldiers were moving about methodically. They entered empty-handed and came out loaded with furniture and clothing. Others, in the upper stories, were flinging out various objects; accompanying their trophies with jests and guffaws. Suddenly they had to come out flying, for fire was breaking out with the violence and rapidity of an explosion. Following their footsteps was a group of men with big boxes and metal cylinders. Someone at their head was pointing out the buildings into whose broken windows were to be thrown the lozenges and liquid streams which would produce catastrophe with lightning rapidity.
Out of one of these flaming buildings two men, who seemed but bundles of rags, were being dragged by some Germans. Above the blue sleeves of their military cloaks Don Marcelo could distinguish blanched faces and eyes immeasurably distended with suffering. Their legs were dragging on the ground, sticking out between the tatters of their red pantaloons. One of them still had on his kepis. Blood was gushing from different parts of their bodies and behind them, like white serpents, were trailing their loosened bandages. They were wounded Frenchmen, stragglers who had remained in the village because too weak to keep up with the retreat. Perhaps they had joined the group which, finding its escape cut off, had attempted that insane resistance.
Wishing to make that matter more clearly understood, Desnoyers looked at the official beside him, attempting to speak; but the officer silenced him instantly: "French sharpshooters in disguise who are going to get the punishment they deserve." The German bayonets were sunk deep into their bodies. Then blows with the guns fell on the head of one of them . . . and these blows were repeated with dull thumps upon their skulls, crackling as they burst open.
Again the old man wondered what his fate would be. Where was this lieutenant taking him across such visions of horror? . . .
They had reached the outskirts of the village, where the dragoons had built their barricade. The carts were still there, but at one side of the road. They climbed out of the automobile, and he saw a group of officers in gray, with sheathed helmets like the others. The one who had brought him to this place was standing rigidly erect with one hand to his visor, speaking to a military man standing a few paces in front of the others. He looked at this man, who was scrutinizing him with his little hard blue eyes that had carved his spare, furrowed countenance with lines. He must be the general. His arrogant and piercing gaze was sweeping him from head to foot. Don Marcelo felt a presentiment that his life was hanging on this examination; should an evil suggestion, a cruel caprice flash across this brain, he was surely lost. The general shrugged his shoulders and said a few words in a contemptuous tone, then entered his automobile with two of his aids, and the group disbanded.
The cruel uncertainty, the interminable moments before the official returned to his side, filled Desnoyers with dread.
"His Excellency is very gracious," announced the lieutenant. "He might have shot you, but he pardons you and yet you people say that we are savages!" . . .
With involuntary contempt, he further explained that he had conducted him thither fully expecting that he would be shot. The General was planning to punish all the prominent residents of Villeblanche, and he had inferred, on his own initiative, that the owner of the castle must be one of them.
"Military duty, sir. . . . War exacts it."
After this excuse the petty official renewed his eulogies of His Excellency. He was going to make his headquarters in Don Marcelo's property, and on that account granted him his life. He ought to thank him. . . . Then again his face trembled with wrath. He pointed to some bodies lying near the road. They were the corpses of Uhlans, covered with some cloaks from which were protruding the enormous soles of their boots.
"Plain murder!" he exclaimed. "A crime for which the guilty are going to pay dearly!"
His indignation made him consider the death of four soldiers as an unheard-of and monstrous outrage—as though in was only the enemy ought to fall, keeping safe and sound the lives of his compatriots.
A band of infantry commanded by an officer approached. As their ranks opened, Desnoyers saw the gray uniforms roughly pushing forward some of the inhabitants. Their clothes were torn and some had blood on face and hands. He recognized them one by one as they were lined up against the mud wall, at twenty paces from the firing squad of soldiers—the mayor, the priest, the forest guard, and some rich villagers whose houses he had seen falling in flames.
"They are going to shoot them . . . in order to prevent any doubt about it," the lieutenant explained. "I wanted you to see this. It will serve as an object lesson. In this way, you will feel more appreciative of the leniency of His Excellency."
The prisoners were mute. Their voices had been exhausted in vain protest. All their life was concentrated in their eyes, looking around them in stupefaction. . . . And was it possible that they would kill them in cold blood without hearing their testimony, without admitting the proofs of their innocence!
The certainty of approaching death soon gave almost all of them a noble serenity. It was useless to complain. Only one rich countryman, famous for his avarice, was whimpering desperately, saying over and over, "I do not wish to die. . . . I do not want to die!"
Trembling and with eyes overflowing with tears, Desnoyers hid himself behind his implacable guide. He knew them all, he had battled with them all, and repented now of his former wrangling. The mayor had a red stain on his forehead from a long skin wound. Upon his breast fluttered a tattered tricolor; the municipality had placed it there that he might receive the invaders who had torn most of it away. The priest was holding his little round body as erect as possible, wishing to embrace in a look of resignation the victims, the executioners, earth and heaven. He appeared larger than usual and more imposing. His black girdle, broken by the roughness of the soldiers, left his cassock loose and floating. His waving, silvery hair was dripping blood, spotting with its red drops the white clerical collar.
Upon seeing him cross the fatal field with unsteady step, because of his obesity, a savage roar cut the tragic silence. The unarmed soldiers, who had hastened to witness the execution, greeted the venerable old man with shouts of laughter. "Death to the priest!" . . . The fanaticism of the religious wars vibrated through their mockery. Almost all of them were devout Catholics or fervent Protestants, but they believed only in the priests of their own country. Outside of Germany, everything was despicable—even their own religion.
The mayor and the priest changed their places in the file, seeking one another. Each, with solemn courtesy, was offering the other the central place in the group.
"Here, your Honor, is your place as mayor—at the head of all."
"No, after you, Monsieur le cure."
They were disputing for the last time, but in this supreme moment each one was wishing to yield precedence to the other.
Instinctively they had clasped hands, looking straight ahead at the firing squad, that had lowered its guns in a rigid, horizontal line. Behind them sounded laments—"Good-bye, my children. . . . Adieu, life! . . . I do not wish to die! . . . I do not want to die! . . ."
The two principal men felt the necessity of saying something, of closing the page of their existence with an affirmation.
"Vive la Republique!" cried the mayor.
"Vive la France!" said the priest.
Desnoyers thought that both had said the same thing. Two uprights flashed up above their heads—the arm of the priest making the sign of the cross, and the sabre of the commander of the shooters, glistening at the same instant. . . . A dry, dull thunderclap, followed by some scattering, tardy shots.
Don Marcelo's compassion for that forlorn cluster of massacred humanity was intensified on beholding the grotesque forms which many assumed in the moment of death. Some collapsed like half-emptied sacks; others rebounded from the ground like balls; some leaped like gymnasts, with upraised arms, falling on their backs, or face downward, like a swimmer. In that human heap, he saw limbs writhing in the agony of death. Some soldiers advanced like hunters bagging their prey. From the palpitating mass fluttered locks of white hair, and a feeble hand, trying to repeat the sacred sign. A few more shots and blows on the livid, mangled mass . . . and the last tremors of life were extinguished forever.
The officer had lit a cigar.
"Whenever you wish," he said to Desnoyers with ironical courtesy.
They re-entered the automobile in order to return to the castle by the way of Villeblanche. The increasing number of fires and the dead bodies in the streets no longer impressed the old man. He had seen so much! What could now affect his sensibilities? . . . He was longing to get out of the village as soon as possible to try to find the peace of the country. But the country had disappeared under the invasion—soldier's, horses, cannons everywhere. Wherever they stopped to rest, they were destroying all that they came in contact with. The marching battalions, noisy and automatic as a machine were preceded by the fifes and drums, and every now and then, in order to cheer their drooping spirits, were breaking into their joyous cry, "Nach Paris!"
The castle, too, had been disfigured by the invasion. The number of guards had greatly increased during the owner's absence. He saw an entire regiment of infantry encamped in the park. Thousands of men were moving about under the trees, preparing the dinner in the movable kitchens. The flower borders of the gardens, the exotic plants, the carefully swept and gravelled avenues were all broken and spoiled by this avalanche of men, beasts and vehicles.
A chief wearing on his sleeve the band of the military administration was giving orders as though he were the proprietor. He did not even condescend to look at this civilian walking beside the lieutenant with the downcast look of a prisoner. The stables were vacant. Desnoyers saw his last animals being driven off with sticks by the helmeted shepherds. The costly progenitors of his herds were all beheaded in the park like mere slaughter-house animals. In the chicken houses and dovecotes, there was not a single bird left. The stables were filled with thin horses who were gorging themselves before overflowing mangers. The feed from the barns was being lavishly distributed through the avenue, much of it lost before it could be used. The cavalry horses of various divisions were turned loose in the meadows, destroying with their hoofs the canals, the edges of the slopes, the level of the ground, all the work of many months. The dry wood was uselessly burning in the park. Through carelessness or mischief, someone had set the wood piles on fire. The trees, with the bark dried by the summer heat, were crackling on being licked by the flame.
The building was likewise occupied by a multitude of men under this same superintendent. The open windows showed a continual shifting through the rooms. Desnoyers heard great blows that re-echoed within his breast. Ay, his historic mansion! . . . The General was going to establish himself in it, after having examined on the banks of the Marne, the works of the pontoon builders, who had been constructing several military bridges for the troops. Don Marcelo's outraged sense of ownership forced him to speak. He feared that they would break the doors of the locked rooms—he would like to go for the keys in order to give them up to those in charge. The commissary would not listen to him but continued ignoring his existence. The lieutenant replied with cutting amiability:
"It is not necessary; do not trouble yourself!"
After this considerate remark, he started to rejoin his regiment but deemed it prudent before losing sight of Desnoyers to give him a little advice. He must remain quietly at the castle; outside, he might be taken for a spy, and he already knew how promptly the soldiers of the Emperor settled all such little matters.
He could not remain in the garden looking at his dwelling from any distance, because the Germans who were going and coming were diverting themselves by playing practical jokes upon him. They would march toward him in a straight line, as though they did not see him, and he would have to hurry out of their way to avoid being thrown down by their mechanical and rigid advance.
Finally he sought refuge in the lodge of the Keeper, whose good wife stared with astonishment at seeing him drop into a kitchen chair breathless and downcast, suddenly aged by losing the remarkable energy that had been the wonder of his advanced years.
"Ah, Master. . . . Poor Master!"
Of all the events attending the invasion, the most unbelievable for this poor woman was seeing her employer take refuge in her cottage.
"What is ever going to become of us!" she groaned.
Her husband was in constant demand by the invaders. His Excellency's assistants, installed in the basement apartments of the castle were incessantly calling him to tell them the whereabouts of things which they could not find. From every trip, he would return humiliated, his eyes filled with tears. On his forehead was the black and blue mark of a blow, and his jacket was badly torn. These were souvenirs of a futile attempt at opposition, during his master's absence, to the German plundering of stables and castle rooms.
The millionaire felt himself linked by misfortune to these people, considered until then with indifference. He was very grateful for the loyalty of this sick and humble man, and the poor woman's interest in the castle as though it were her own, touched him greatly. The presence of their daughter brought Chichi to his mind. He had passed near her without noting the transformation in her, seeing her just the same as when, with her little dog trot, she had accompanied the Master's daughter on her rounds through the parks and grounds. Now she was a woman, slender and full grown, with the first feminine graces showing subtly in her fourteen-year-old figure. Her mother would not let her leave the lodge, fearing the soldiery which was invading every other spot with its overflowing current, filtering into all open places, breaking every obstacle which impeded their course.
Desnoyers broke his despairing silence to admit that he was feeling hungry. He was ashamed of this bodily want, but the emotions of the day, the executions seen so near, the danger still threatening, had awakened in him a nervous appetite. The fact that he was so impotent in the midst of his riches and unable to avail himself of anything on his estate but aggravated his necessity.
"Poor Master!" again exclaimed the faithful soul.
And the woman looked with astonishment at the millionaire devouring a bit of bread and a triangle of cheese, the only food that she could find in her humble dwelling. The certainty that he would not be able to find any other nourishment, no matter how much he might seek it, greatly sharpened his cravings. To have acquired an enormous fortune only to perish with hunger at the end of his existence! . . . The good wife, as though guessing his thoughts, sighed, raising her eyes beseechingly to heaven. Since the early morning hours, the world had completely changed its course. Ay, this war! . . .
The rest of the afternoon and a part of the night, the proprietor kept receiving news from the Keeper after his visits to the castle. The General and numerous officers were now occupying the rooms. Not a single door was locked, all having been opened with blows of the axe or gun. Many things had completely disappeared; the man did not know exactly how, but they had vanished—perhaps destroyed, or perhaps carried off by those who were coming and going. The chief with the banded sleeve was going from room to room examining everything, dictating in German to a soldier who was writing down his orders. Meanwhile the General and his staff were in the dining room drinking heavily, consulting the maps spread out on the floor, and ordering the Warden to go down into the vaults for the very best wines.
By nightfall, an onward movement was noticeable in the human tide that had been overflowing the fields as far as the eye could reach. Some bridges had been constructed across the Marne and the invasion had renewed its march, shouting enthusiastically. "Nach Paris!" Those left behind till the following day were to live in the ruined houses or the open air. Desnoyers heard songs. Under the splendor of the evening stars, the soldiers had grouped themselves in musical knots, chanting a sweet and solemn chorus of religious gravity. Above the trees was floating a red cloud, intensified by the dusk—a reflection of the still burning village. Afar off were bonfires of farms and homesteads, twinkling in the night with their blood-colored lights.
The bewildered proprietor of the castle finally fell asleep in a bed in the lodge, made mercifully unconscious by the heavy and stupefying slumber of exhaustion, without fright nor nightmare. He seemed to be falling, falling into a bottomless pit, and on awaking fancied that he had slept but a few minutes. The sun was turning the window shades to an orange hue, spattered with shadows of waving boughs and birds fluttering and twittering among the leaves. He shared their joy in the cool refreshing dawn of the summer day. It certainly was a fine morning—but whose dwelling was this? . . . He gazed dumbfounded at his bed and surroundings. Suddenly the reality assaulted his brain that had been so sweetly dulled by the first splendors of the day. Step by step, the host of emotions compressed into the preceding day, came climbing up the long stairway of his memory to the last black and red landing of the night before. And he had slept tranquilly surrounded by enemies, under the surveillance of an arbitrary power which might destroy him in one of its caprices!
When he went into the kitchen, the Warden gave him some news. The Germans were departing. The regiment encamped in the park had left at daybreak, and after them others, and still others. In the village there was still one regiment occupying the few houses yet standing and the ruins of the charred ones. The General had gone also with his numerous staff. There was nobody in the castle now but the head of a Reserve brigade whom his aide called "The Count," and a few officials.
Upon receiving this information, the proprietor ventured to leave the lodge. He saw his gardens destroyed, but still beautiful. The trees were still stately in spite of the damage done to their trunks. The birds were flying about excitedly, rejoicing to find themselves again in possession of the spaces so recently flooded by the human inundation.
Suddenly Desnoyers regretted having sallied forth. Five huge trucks were lined up near the moat before the castle bridge. Gangs of soldiers were coming out carrying on their shoulders enormous pieces of furniture, like peons conducting a moving. A bulky object wrapped in damask curtains—an excellent substitute for sacking—was being pushed by four men toward one of the drays. The owner suspected immediately what it must be. His bath! The famous tub of gold! . . . Then with an abrupt revulsion of feeling, he felt no grief at his loss. He now detested the ostentatious thing, attributing to it a fatal influence. On account of it he was here. But, ay! . . . the other furnishings piled up in the drays! . . . In that moment he suffered the extreme agony of misery and impotence. It was impossible for him to defend his property, to dispute with the head thief who was sacking his castle, tranquilly ignoring the very existence of the owner. "Robbers! thieves!" and he fled back to the lodge.
He passed the remainder of the morning with his elbow on the table, his head in his hands, the same as the day before, letting the hours grind slowly by, trying not to hear the rolling of the vehicles that were bearing away these credentials of his wealth.
Toward midday, the Keeper announced that an officer who had arrived a few hours before in an automobile was inquiring for him.
Responding to this summons, Desnoyers encountered outside the lodge, a captain arrayed like the others in sheathed and pointed helmet, in mustard-colored uniform, red leather boots, sword, revolver, field-glasses and geographic map hanging in a case from his belt. He appeared young; on his sleeve was the staff emblem.
"Do you know me? . . . I did not wish to pass through here without seeing you."
He spoke in Castilian, and Don Marcelo felt greater surprise at this than at the many things which he had been experiencing so painfully during the last twenty-four hours.
"You really do not know me?" queried the German, always in Spanish. "I am Otto. . . . Captain Otto von Hartrott."
The old man's mind went painfully down the staircase of memory, stopping this time at a far-distant landing. There he saw the old ranch, and his brother-in-law announcing the birth of his second son. "I shall give him Bismarck's name," Karl had said. Then, climbing back past many other platforms, Desnoyers saw himself in Berlin during his visit to the von Hartrott home where they were speaking proudly of Otto, almost as learned as the older brother, but devoting his talents entirely to martial matters. He was then a lieutenant and studying for admission to the General Staff. "Who knows but he may turn out to be another Moltke?" said the proud father . . . and the charming Chichi had thereupon promptly bestowed upon the warlike wonder a nickname, accepted through the family. From that time, Otto was Moltkecito (the baby Moltke) to his Parisian relatives.
Desnoyers was astounded by the transformation which had meanwhile taken place in the youth. This vigorous captain with the insolent air who might shoot him at any minute was the same urchin whom he had seen running around the ranch, the beardless Moltkecito who had been the butt of his daughter's ridicule. . . .
The soldier, meanwhile, was explaining his presence there. He belonged to another division. There were many . . . many! They were advancing rapidly, forming an extensive and solid wall from Verdun to Paris. His general had sent him to maintain the contact with the next division, but finding himself near the castle, he had wished to visit it. A family tie was not a mere word. He still remembered the days that he had spent at Villeblanche when the Hartrott family had paid a long visit to their relatives in France. The officials now occupying the edifice had detained him that he might lunch with them. One of them had casually mentioned that the owner of the castle was somewhere about although nobody knew exactly where. This had been a great surprise to Captain von Hartrott who had tried to find him, regretting to see him taking refuge in the Warden's quarters.
"You must leave this hut; you are my uncle," he said haughtily. "Return to your castle where you belong. My comrades will be much pleased to make your acquaintance; they are very distinguished men."
He very much regretted whatever the old gentleman might have suffered. . . . He did not know exactly in what that suffering had consisted, but surmised that the first moments of the invasion had been cruel ones for him.
"But what else can you expect?" he repeated several times. "That is war."
At the same time he approved of his having remained on his property. They had special orders to seize the goods of the fugitives. Germany wished the inhabitants to remain in their dwellings as though nothing extraordinary had occurred. . . . Desnoyers protested. . . . "But if the invaders were shooting the innocent ones and burning their homes!" . . . His nephew prevented his saying more. He turned pale, an ashy hue spreading over his face; his eyes snapped and his face trembled like that of the lieutenant who had taken possession of the castle.
"You refer to the execution of the mayor and the others. My comrades have just been telling me about it; yet that castigation was very mild; they should have completely destroyed the entire village. They should have killed even the women and children. We've got to put an end to these sharpshooters."
His uncle looked at him in amazement. His Moltkecito was as formidable and ferocious as the others. . . . But the captain brought the conversation to an abrupt close by repeating the monstrous and everlasting excuse.
"Very horrible, but what else can you expect! . . . That is war."
He then inquired after his mother, rejoicing to learn that she was in the South. He had been uneasy at the idea of her remaining in Paris . . . especially with all those revolutions which had been breaking out there lately! . . . Desnoyers looked doubtful as if he could not have heard correctly. What revolutions were those? . . . But the officer, without further explanation, resumed his conversation about his family, taking it for granted that his relative would be impatient to learn the fate of his German kin.
They were all in magnificent state. Their illustrious father was president of various patriotic societies (since his years no longer permitted him to go to war) and was besides organizing future industrial enterprises to improve the conquered countries. His brother, "the Sage," was giving lectures about the nations that the imperial victory was bound to annex, censuring severely those whose ambitions were unpretending or weak. The remaining brothers were distinguishing themselves in the army, one of them having been presented with a medal at Lorraine. The two sisters, although somewhat depressed by the absence of their fiances, lieutenants of the Hussars, were employing their time in visiting the hospitals and begging God to chastise traitorous England.
Captain von Hartrott was slowly conducting his uncle toward the castle. The gray and unbending soldiers who, until then, had been ignoring the existence of Don Marcelo, looked at him with interest, now that he was in intimate conversation with a member of the General Staff. He perceived that these men were about to humanize themselves by casting aside temporarily their inexorable and aggressive automatonism.
Upon entering his mansion something in his heart contracted with an agonizing shudder. Everywhere he could see dreadful vacancies, which made him recall the objects which had formerly been there. Rectangular spots of stronger color announced the theft of furniture and paintings. With what despatch and system the gentleman of the armlet had been doing his work! . . . To the sadness that the cold and orderly spoliation caused was added his indignation as an economical man, gazing upon the slashed curtains, spotted rugs, broken crystal and porcelain—all the debris from a ruthless and unscrupulous occupation.
His nephew, divining his thoughts, could only offer the same old excuse—"What a mess! . . . But that is war!"
With Moltkecito, he did not have to subside into the respectful civilities of fear.
"That is NOT war!" he thundered bitterly. "It is an expedition of bandits. . . . Your comrades are nothing less than highwaymen."
Captain von Hartrott swelled up with a jerk. Separating himself from the complainant and looking fixedly at him, he spoke in a low voice, hissing with wrath. "Look here, uncle! It is a lucky thing for you that you have expressed yourself in Spanish, and those around you could not understand you. If you persist in such comments you will probably receive a bullet by way of an answer. The Emperor's officials permit no insults." And his threatening attitude demonstrated the facility with which he could forget his relationship if he should receive orders to proceed against Don Marcelo.
Thus silenced, the vanquished proprietor hung his head. What was he going to do? . . . The Captain now renewed his affability as though he had forgotten what he had just said. He wished to present him to his companions-at-arms. His Excellency, Count Meinbourg, the Major General, upon learning that he was a relative of the von Hartrotts, had done him the honor of inviting him to his table.