The Frontier
by Maurice LeBlanc
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

"Shut the door, Suzanne," said Mme. Morestal, when she was inside.

Suzanne did so. As she approached, she saw Philippe in the dusk of the passage. She did not make a movement nor give a start; and she closed the door upon him as though he had not been there.

"She too," thought Philippe, "she too will never forgive me, any more than my father or Marthe."

And he resolved to go away at once, now that his mother's affection had given him a little comfort.

He found Victor at the foot of the garden-steps, indulging in lamentations in the midst of the other servants and recommending immediate flight:

"We can pack up the plate, the clocks, the valuables in an hour and be off.... When the enemy arrive, they will find no one here...."

Philippe called him and asked if it was possible to get a carriage at Saint-Elophe:

"Oh, are you going, sir? You are quite right. But not just yet, are you? Presently, I suppose, with Mme. Philippe? I've orders to drive Mme. Philippe to Saint-Elophe. From there, there's the diligence that goes to Noirmont."

"No, I am not going in that direction."

"How do you mean, sir? There's only one line to Paris."

"I sha'n't go straight to Paris. I want to take the train at Langoux."

"The new line to Switzerland? But that's an endless journey, sir! It goes all the way down to Belfort."

"Yes, that's it. How far is it from Saint-Elophe to Langoux?"

"Three miles and a bit."

"In that case, I shall walk," said Philippe. "Thank you."

He was in a hurry to leave the Old Mill, for he felt that events were hastening to a crisis and that, at any moment, he might be prevented from carrying out his plan.

As a matter of fact, when he turned back, he was passed by Henriot, the gardener's son, who was clapping his hands:

"There they are! The soldiers of the manoeuvring company!... They are going to the Col du Diable, at the quick step. We shall see them from the terrace."

He was followed by the other servants, by his mother, by his little brother, who, like himself, was waving his hands; and they all crossed the drawing-room.

Philippe went to the edge of the terrace. The troops were already debouching in good order. They were young soldiers, beardless boys for the most part, and looked almost like children amusing themselves by marching in file. But he saw an unaccustomed expression of anxiety and doubt on their faces. They marched in silence, hanging their heads and as though bent by the fatigue of the recent manoeuvres.

A word of command sounded in the rear and was repeated in a sharp voice by two non-commissioned officers. There was a momentary undulating movement. Then the column proceeded at the double down the slope that led to the Etang-des-Moines.

And, when the last ranks had filed off below the terrace, two officers appeared, followed by a bugler. One of the two sprang briskly from his horse, flung the reins to the bugler and ran up the staircase, shouting:

"I'll be with you presently, Fabregues.... Meet me in the Col du Diable.... Take up your position at Saboureux's Farm."

On reaching the terrace, he raised his hand to his cap:

"Can I see M. Morestal, please?"

Philippe stepped forward:

"My father is laid up, captain."

The officer was obviously affected by the news:

"Oh!" he said. "I was relying on M. Morestal. I have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance and he spoke to me of the Old Mill.... I now see what he meant. The position is really excellent. But, for the moment, monsieur, would you mind?... I know you are on the telephone here and I have an urgent message.... Excuse me ... it is such a serious time...."

Philippe took him to the telephone. The officer pressed the button impatiently and, as he did not receive a reply at once, turned round:

"Meanwhile, allow me to introduce myself ... Captain Daspry.... I met your father in connection with a rather funny incident, the slaughter of Farmer Saboureux's fowls.... Hullo! Hullo! Gad, how difficult it is to get put on!... Hullo! Hullo!... I even shocked M. Morestal by refusing to punish the culprit, one Duvauchel, an incorrigible anti-militarist.... An excuse like that would just have served the beggar's turn...."

He had a rather vulgar type of face and a complexion that was too red; but his frank eyes and his gaiety of manner made him exceedingly attractive. He began to laugh:

"To show his gratitude, Duvauchel promised me, this morning, to turn his back on the enemy, at the first shot, and to desert.... He has a chauffeur's place reserved for him in Switzerland.... And, as Duvauchel says, 'There's nothing like a French greaser.'... Hullo!... Ah, at last!... Hullo! Captain Daspry speaking.... I want the military post at Noirmont.... Yes, at once, please.... Hullo!... Is that Noirmont? The military post? I want Major Dutreuil.... Switch me on to him.... It's urgent."

Captain Daspry ceased. Instinctively, Philippe took up the other receiver:

"May I?"

"Oh, certainly!..."

And Philippe heard the following dialogue, with its swift and anxious questions and answers:

"Is that you, Daspry?"

"Yes, major."

"Did the cyclists catch you up?"

"Which cyclists?"

"I sent three after you."

"I've seen nothing of them so far. I'm at Morestal's."

"The Old Mill?"

"Yes, major ... I wrote to you about it."

"Well, what is it, Daspry?"

"Uhlans have been seen in the Col du Diable."

"Yes, I know. The Boersweiler cavalry are on the march."


"They will cross the frontier in an hour from now, supported by two regiments of infantry."


"That's what I sent my cyclists to tell you. Get to the Col du Diable as fast as you can."

"My men are there, major. As soon as the enemy arrives, we will fall back, keeping in touch with them as we do so."


"Eh? But I can't do otherwise, I have only my company."

"You must stand your ground, Daspry. You must stand your ground for two hours and a half or three hours. My battalion has just left barracks. The 28th are following us by forced marches. We shall be at the frontier by two o'clock in the afternoon. You must stand your ground."

"But I say, major!"

"You must stand your ground, Daspry."

With a mechanical movement, the officer drew himself up, brought his heels together and replied:

"We shall stand our ground, major."

He replaced the receiver and thought for a few minutes. Then he said, with a smile:

"By Jove, that's a nice beginning! Two hundred men against some thousands ... for three hours! If one of the 4th company remains alive, he'll be a lucky man...."

"But it's madness!" Philippe protested.

"Monsieur, the Alpine Rifles and the 28th of the line are on their way; and Dornat's division is certainly behind them. If they arrive too late, if the ridges of the Vosges are taken, if the frontier is crossed, if the Saint-Elophe valley is occupied and all this on the very day on which war is declared, you can imagine the consternation which this first check will produce all over France. If, on the other hand, a handful of men sacrifice themselves ... and succeed, the moral effect will be incalculable. I shall stand my ground for three hours, monsieur."

The words were spoken simply, with the profound conviction of a man who realizes the full importance of his act. He was already on his way down the stone steps. Saluting Philippe, he added:

"You can congratulate M. Morestal, monsieur. He is a far-seeing Frenchman. He foresaw everything that is happening. Let us hope that it is not too late."

He leapt into the saddle, spurred his horse and set off at a gallop.

Philippe followed him with his eyes as far as the Etang-des-Moines. When the officer had disappeared behind a dip in the ground, he gave way to an angry movement and muttered:


However, he turned the telescope on the Col du Diable and saw soldiers all around Saboureux's Farm, running, scrambling up the rocks on every side with the agility of young goats. He reflected that they had forgotten their weariness and seemed to be diverting themselves with an exercise to which each contributed his own effort, his individual tactics and his qualities of self-reliance and initiative.

He stood pensive for a few minutes. But time was pressing. He called Victor and went up to his room:

"Quick, my bag."

They stuffed the papers and manuscripts into it promiscuously, together with a little linen and the toilet-articles. The bag was strapped up. Philippe seized it:

"Good-bye, Victor. Tell my mother I sent her my love."

He crossed the landing. But some one darted out of an adjacent room. It was Marthe. She barred his way:

"Where are you going?" she asked.



Marthe, who had kept her room since the day before, but remained attentive to all that was happening at the Old Mill, had, through her open door and window, heard and seen the hubbub, the fuss made by the servants, all the mad fluster of a house that feels itself threatened by an approaching cyclone.

She had overcome her fit of anger and hatred, was now mistress of herself and was no longer frightened of a possible meeting between Philippe and Suzanne. Another torment obsessed her. What did her husband mean to do? Brought face to face with an eventuality which he had often contemplated, what line of conduct would he pursue?

And it was he that she was watching. Before she went away, she wished to know. She overheard his first conversation with Victor. She saw his meeting with Captain Daspry from a distance. She saw him go to his room. She saw him come out again. And, in spite of herself, although urged by a very definite feeling, she stood up before him like an obstacle:

"Where are you going?" she asked.

Philippe did not lose countenance. He replied:

"What interest can that have for you?"

"Come," she said, "we have to speak to each other.... Come in here."

She took him into her room, shut the door and repeated, in a masterful tone:

"Where are you going, Philippe?"

He replied, with the same decision:

"I am going away."

"There is no carriage."

"I shall walk."

"Where to?"

"To Noirmont."

"To take which train?"

"The train to Paris."

"That's not true," she said, vehemently. "You are not going to Paris. You are going to Langoux, to take the train to Belfort."

"Just so, but I shall be in Paris to-morrow morning."

"That's not true! You do not mean to stop at Belfort. You will go on to Bale, to Switzerland. And, if you go to Switzerland, it will not be for a day, it will be for months ... for your life!"

"And what then?"

"You intend to desert, Philippe."

He did not speak. And his silence dumbfoundered her. Violent as was the certainty that filled and angered her, Marthe was stupefied when he made no protest.

She stammered:

"Is it possible? You really intend to desert?"

Philippe grew irritable:

"Well, what has it to do with you? You had a letter from me yesterday, offering you an explanation. You have not even troubled to reply! Very well! I have done you an irreparable wrong. Our whole married life is shattered by my fault. Your attitude up to the present shows me that you never mean to forgive me.... Then what right have you to call me to account for what I do?"

She repeated, in a low voice, with fixed eyes:

"You intend to desert...."


"Is it really credible? I knew your ideas against war ... all the ideas in your books ... which agree with my own.... But I never thought of this.... You never spoke to me of it.... And then, no ... I could never have believed it...."

"You will have to believe it, for all that, Marthe."

He turned to the door. Once again she stood up in front of him.

"Let me pass," he said.


"You are mad!"

"Listen to me ... Philippe...."

"I refuse to listen. This is not the time for quarrelling. I have made up my mind to go. I will go. It is not a rash impulse. It is a decision taken silently and calmly. Let me pass."

He tried to clear the door. She pushed him back, suddenly seized with an energy which became all the fiercer as she felt her husband to be more inflexible. She had only a few minutes; and that was what frightened her. In those few minutes, by means of phrases, poor phrases flung out at random, she had to win the battle and to win it against a foe with whose mettle and obstinacy she was well acquainted.

"Let me pass," he repeated.

"Well, then, no, no, no!" she cried. "You shall not desert! No, you shall not do that infamous thing! There are things that one can't do.... This thing, Philippe, is monstrous!... Listen, Philippe, listen while I tell you...."

She went up to him and, under her breath:

"Listen, Philippe ... listen to this confession.... Philippe, you know what you did on Sunday, your cruelty to your father, to Suzanne, to all of us: well, yes, I understood it.... I suffered the pangs of death, I suffered more than any of the others.... Each word that you spoke burnt into me like fire.... But, all the same, Philippe, I understood.... You had to sacrifice us to the cause of peace. It was your right, it was your duty to victimize us all in order that you might save a whole nation.... But what you now propose to do.... Oh, the shame of it!... Listen, if you did that ... I should think of you as one thinks of ... I don't know what ... as one thinks of the most contemptible, the most revolting ..."

Shrugging his shoulders impatiently, he interrupted her:

"I can't help it if you do not understand. It is my right ... and my duty also...."

"Your duty is to join your regiment, now that war is declared, and to fight, yes, to fight for France, like every other Frenchman ... like the first peasant that comes along, who may tremble with all his poor human flesh, it is true, and whose heart sinks within him and whose stomach turns cold, but who believes that his duty lies in being there ... and who goes ahead, come what may! March on, as he does, Philippe! I have accepted all your opinions, I have shared them and backed them.... If there is to be an end of our union, at least let me address this last entreaty to you: join your regiment!... Your place is over there...."

"My place is anywhere except where men commit the odious act of killing," exclaimed Philippe, who had listened to her in spite of himself and who now suddenly collected himself. "My place is with my friends. They trust me and I trust them. They are the men whom I must join."

"Where? In Paris?"

"No. We swore, at the first signal, to meet at Zurich. From there, we shall issue a manifesto calling upon all the thinkers and all the men of independent views in Germany and France."

"But no one will answer your appeal!"

"Never mind! The appeal will have gone forth. The world will have heard the protest of a few free men, professors like myself, tutors, writers, men who reflect, men who act in accordance with their convictions, and not like animals led to the slaughter."

"You must defend your country," said Marthe, seeking to gain time, in the hope that something would come to her assistance.

"I must defend my ideas!" declared Philippe. "If my country chooses to commit an act of folly, that is no reason why I should follow her. What nonsense it is, these two great nations, the most civilized in the world, going to war because they can't agree about the arrest of a petty official, or because one of them wants to eat up Morocco and the other is incensed at not being invited to the banquet! And, for that, they are going to fly at each other's throats, like wild beasts! To scatter mourning and misery on every side! No, I refuse to take part in it! These hands, Marthe, these hands shall not kill! I have brothers in Germany as well as France. I have no enmity against them. I will not kill them."

She pretended to listen to his arguments with attention, knowing that, in this way, she would detain him a little longer. And she said:

"Ah, your German brothers, whether they feel enmity or not, you may be sure that they will march against France! Is not your love for her the greater?"

"Yes, yes, I love her, but just for the very reason that she is the most generous and noble of countries, that in her alone the idea of revolt against the law of blood and war can take root and sprout and blossom."

"You will be treated as a coward."

"To-day, perhaps ... but, in ten years, in twenty years, we shall be treated as heroes. Our names will be quoted as the names of the benefactors of humanity. And it will be France again that shall have had that honour ... through us! Through me!"

"But your name will be reviled during your lifetime."

"Reviled by those whom I despise, by those who have the cast of mind of that captain—though he's one of the best of them—who laughs and jokes when he is sent to certain death, he and his company."

Marthe answered indignantly:

"It's the laughter of a Frenchman, Philippe, of a Frenchman hiding his anguish under a little light chaff. A glorious laughter, which forms the pride of our race!"

"One does not laugh in the presence of the death of others."

"Yes, Philippe, when it is to hide the danger from them and to keep all the horror and all the terror for one's self alone.... Listen, Philippe!..."

The sound of firing came from the distance, on the other side of the house. For some seconds, there was an uninterrupted crackle of musketry; then it came at rarer intervals; and, presently, there was no sound at all.

Marthe whispered:

"The first shot fired in the war, Philippe.... They are fighting on the frontier.... It's your country they are defending.... France is in danger.... Oh, doesn't your heart quiver like the heart of a son? Don't you feel the wounds they are giving her ... the wounds they intend to give her?..."

He wore his attitude of suffering, keeping his arms crossed stiffly over his chest and half-closing his eyes. He answered, sorrowfully:

"Yes, yes, I feel those wounds.... But why is she fighting? For what mad love of glory? Is she not intoxicated with successes and conquests? Remember our journey through Europe.... Wherever we went, we found traces of her passage: cemeteries and charnel-houses to bear witness that she was the great victress. Isn't that enough of conquests and triumphs?"

"But, fool that you are," cried Marthe, "she is not trying to conquer! She is defending herself! Picture this vision, for a moment: France invaded once more ... France dismembered ... France wiped from the face of the earth...."

"But no, no," he said, with a gesture of protest, "there is no question of that!"

"Yes, there is, there is a question of that: it's a question of life or death to her.... And you, you are deserting!"

Philippe did not stir. Marthe felt that he was, if not shaken, at least anxious, uneasy. But, suddenly, he uncrossed his arms and, striking the table with his fist:

"I must! I must! I promised to!... And I was right to promise! And I will keep my oath! What you call deserting is fighting, but fighting the real fight! I too am going to wage war, but it will be the war of independence and brains; and my comrades in heroism are waiting for me. There, Marthe, I won't listen to you any longer!"

She glued her back to the door, with her arms outstretched:

"And the children! The children whom you are abandoning!"

"You will send them to me later."

She raised her hand:

"Never, I swear it on their heads, never shall you set eyes on them again! The sons of a deserter!... They will disown you!"

"They will love me, if they understand."

"I will teach them not to understand you."

"If they do not understand me, it is I who will disown them. So much the worse for them!"

He took her by the shoulders and tried to push her away. And, when Marthe resisted, he jostled her, exasperated by the fear of the unforeseen obstacle that might spring up, the arrival of his mother, perhaps the apparition of old Morestal himself.

Marthe weakened. He at once seized her wrist and pulled at the door. But, with one last effort, she thrust back her husband and, panting, in despair:

"One word! One word more!" she implored. "Listen, Philippe, don't do this thing.... And, if you do not do it, well, I think I could.... Oh, it is horrible to coerce me like this!... Still, I won't have you go.... Listen, Philippe. You know my pride, the bitterness of my feelings and all that I have suffered, all that I am suffering because of Suzanne. Well, I will forget everything. I offer not only to forgive, but to forget. Never a single word shall remind you of the past ... never an allusion ... I swear it! But don't desert, Philippe, I entreat you, don't do that!"

She hung on to his clothes and pressed herself against him, stammering:

"No, don't do that.... Do not inflict that disgrace upon your children! The sons of a deserter!... Oh, I entreat you, Philippe, stay! We will go away together ... and we will begin life again as it was before...."

She dragged herself at his feet, humble and supplicating, and she received the terrible impression that her words were of no avail. She was encountering a rival idea, against which all her strength was shattered. Philippe did not hear her. No feeling of pity even turned him towards her.

Calmly, with an irresistible movement, he clasped Marthe's wrists, gathered them in one of his hands, opened the door with the other and, flinging his wife from him, fled.

Marthe was seized with a feeling akin to despair. However, the bag was still there and she believed that he would come back to fetch it. Then, realizing her mistake, she suddenly rose and started to run:

"Philippe! Philippe!" she cried.

Like him, she was thinking of some outside interference, of old Morestal, whom the outcries might attract and whom Philippe would find on his path.

"Philippe! Philippe!"

She became scared, not knowing where to look for him. There was nobody in the garden. She returned to the drawing-room, for she seemed to hear a sound of voices. And in fact she saw a sergeant and a private soldier hurriedly crossing the terrace, with the gardener's son leading the way.

"Follow me!" the brat commanded. "We'll go up to the roof.... You can see the whole valley from there.... Ah, the telescope!..."

He caught up the instrument as he passed.

Marthe rushed at them:

"What's happening?"

"Impossible to hold out over there," said the sergeant. "There are too many of them.... We're falling back...."

"But, in that case, they will be coming?"

"Yes, yes, they're coming, right enough!..."

Marthe went out on the terrace. A swarm of soldiers came running up the staircase.

She saw Philippe in a corner. He was speaking to the men:

"Are they coming?"


"Have they crossed the frontier?"

"No, not yet."

He turned to his wife and said to her, as a piece of good news:

"They have not crossed the frontier yet."

And he went to meet another group of soldiers.

Then Marthe believed that fate had sent her the aid for which she was praying. She could now do nothing more but trust to events.



"Bugler!... Sound the rally ... at the double ... and quietly."

It was Captain Daspry who now arrived, with a brisk gait, but with the grave and resolute face of a leader who is commanding at a solemn moment.

He said to Philippe:

"Is M. Morestal still unwell?"

Mme. Morestal ran out from the house:

"My husband is asleep.... He is very tired.... The morphia.... But, if there is anything you want, I can take his place. I know his intentions, his preparations."

"We shall attempt the impossible," said the officer. And, addressing his lieutenant, he added, "It would have been madness to stay over there, wouldn't it, Fabregues? It's not a question of demolishing a few Uhlans, as we did, but of standing our ground against a whole brigade who were climbing the other slope.... Oh, it was all planned long ago!... And M. Morestal is a jolly clever man!..."

The bugle sounded a low call and the Alpine Rifles emerged from every side, through the terrace, the garden and the back entrances.

"That will do!" said the officer to the bugler. "They have heard ... and I don't want the enemy to hear as well."

He took out his watch:

"Twelve o'clock.... Two hours more, at least.... Oh, if I only had twenty-five minutes or half an hour in which to prepare my resistance.... But nothing will stop them.... The passage is free...."

He called:


"Yes, captain."

"All the men in front of the coach-house, on the left of the garden. At the back of the coach-house is a hay-loft. Break down the door...."

"Victor, show the gentleman the way," said Mme. Morestal to the servant. "Here is the key."

"In the loft," continued the captain, "you will find two hundred bags of plaster.... Use them to block up the parapet of this terrace.... Quick as you can!... Every minute is worth an hour."

He himself went to the parapet, measured it and counted the balusters. In the distance, within rifle-range, the Col du Diable formed a deep gash between the great rocks. Saboureux's Farm guarded the entrance. As yet, not a single figure of the enemy showed.

"Ah, twenty minutes!... If I only had twenty minutes!" repeated the officer. "The position of the Old Mill is hard to beat. One would stand a chance or two ..."

An adjutant and a couple more soldiers appeared at the top of the staircase.

"Well?" asked Captain Daspry. "Are they coming?"

"The vanguard was turning the corner of the factory, at five hundred yards from the pass," replied the adjutant.

"Are there any more of our men behind you?"

"Yes, captain, there's Duvauchel. He's wounded. They've laid him on a stretcher...."

"Duvauchel!" cried the officer, anxiously. "It's not a serious wound, I hope?"

"Upon my word ... I shouldn't like to say."

"Dash it all! But then one saw nothing but that devil in the front line.... There was no holding him...."

"Yes," chuckled the adjutant, "he has a way of his own of deserting in the face of the enemy!... He charges straight at them, the beggar!"

But Mme. Morestal grew frightened:

"A man wounded! I will go and prepare some bandages, get out the medicine-chest.... We have all that's wanted.... Will you come, Marthe?"

"Yes, mother," replied Marthe, without budging.

She did not remove her eyes from her husband and tried to read on Philippe's face the feelings that stirred him. She had first of all seen him go back to the drawing-room and cross the entrance-hall, as though he were thinking of the way out through the garden, which was still free. The sudden arrival of the riflemen pushed him back; and he talked to several of them in a low voice and gave them some bread and a flask of brandy. Then he returned to the terrace. His inaction, in the midst of the constant traffic to and fro, was obviously irksome to him. Twice he consulted the drawing-room clock; and Marthe guessed that he was thinking of the hour of the train and the time which he would need to reach Langoux Station. But she did not alarm herself. Every second was weaving bonds around him that tied him down without his knowing it; and it seemed to Marthe as though events had no other object than to make her husband's departure impossible.

The resistance, meanwhile, was being organized. Swiftly, the riflemen brought the bags of plaster, which the captain at once ordered to be placed between every pair of balusters. Each of the bags was of the height and width corresponding with the dimensions of the intervals and left an empty space, a loop-hole, on either side. And old Morestal had even had the forethought to match the colour of the sacking with that of the parapet, so that it might not be suspected in the distance that there was a defence behind which sharpshooters lay hidden.

On either side of the terrace, the wall surrounding the garden was the object of similar cares. The captain ordered the soldiers to set out bags at the foot of the wall so as to make the top accessible from the inside.

But a sound of shouting recalled the captain to the drawing-room. The gardener's son came tumbling down from his observatory, yelling:

"Saboureux's Farm is on fire! You can see the smoke! You can see the flames!"

The captain leapt out on the terrace.

The smoke was whirling above the barn. Gleams kindled, faint as yet and hesitating. And, suddenly, as though set free, the flames shot up in angry spirals. The wind at once beat them down again. The roof of the house took fire. And, in a few minutes, it was a violent flare, accompanied by the quick blaze of the rotten beams, the dry thatch, the trusses of hay and straw heaped up by the hundred in the barn and in the sheds.

"To work!" shouted the captain, gleefully. "The Col du Diable is blocked by the flames.... They'll last for quite fifteen or twenty minutes ... and the enemy have no other road...."

His excitement communicated itself to the men. Not one of them broke down beneath the weight of the bags, heavy though these were. The captain posted the non-commissioned officers at regular intervals, so that his orders could be passed on from the terrace to every end of the property.

Lieutenant Fabregues came up. The materials were beginning to fall short and the lofty wall remained inaccessible to the marksmen in several places.

Mme. Morestal behaved like a heroine:

"Take the furniture, captain, the chairs, the tables. Break them up, if necessary.... Burn them even.... Do just as if my husband were here."

"M. Morestal said something about a stock of cartridges," asked the captain.

"In the boxes in the harness-room. Here are the keys."

The men redoubled their activity. The Old Mill was ransacked; and the soldiers passed laden with mattresses, sofas, old oak chests, hangings also and carpets, with which they stopped up the holes and the windows.

"The flames are spreading," said the captain, going to the top of the staircase. "There's nothing left of Farmer Saboureux's buildings.... But by what miracle ...? Who set the place on fire?..."

"I did."

A peasant stood at the top of the steps, in a scorched blouse, with his face all blackened.

"You, Saboureux?"

"Yes, I," growled Saboureux, fiercely. "I had to.... I heard you over there: 'If we could only stop them,' says you. 'If I had half an hour to spare!'... Well, there's your half an hour for you.... I set fire to the shanty."

"And very nearly roasted me inside it," grinned Old Poussiere, who was with the farmer. "I was asleep in the straw...."

The captain nodded his head:

"By Jove, Farmer Saboureux, but that's a damned sportsmanlike thing you've done! I formed a wrong opinion of you. I apologize. May I shake you by the hand?"

The peasant put out his hand and then walked away, with his back bent in two. He sat down in a corner of the drawing-room. Poussiere also huddled into a chair, took a piece of bread from his pocket, broke it and gave half to Saboureux, as though he thought it only natural to share what he had with the man who had nothing left.

"Here's Duvauchel, sir!" announced a rifleman. "Here's Duvauchel!"

The staircase was too narrow and they had to bring the stretcher round by the garden. The captain ran to meet the wounded man, who made an effort to stand on his legs:

"What's up, Duvauchel? Are you hit?"

"Not I, sir, not I," said the man, whose face was livid and his eyes burning with fever. "A cherry-stone tickled my shoulder, by way of a lark. It's nothing...."

"But the blood's flowing...."

"It's nothing, I tell you, sir.... I know all about it.... Saw plenty of it as a greaser!... It won't show in five minutes ... and then I'm off...."

"Oh, of course, I forgot, you're deserting!..."

"Rather! The comrades are waiting for me...."

"Then begin by getting your wound dressed...."

"My wound dressed? Oh, that's a good one! I tell you, sir, it's nothing ... less than nothing ... a kiss ... a puff of wind...."

He stood up for an instant, but his eyelids flickered, his hands sought for support and he fell back upon the litter.

Mme. Morestal and Marthe hastened to his side:

"Let me, mamma, please," said Marthe, "I'm used to it.... But you've forgotten the absorbent wool ... and the peroxide of hydrogen.... Quick, mamma ... and more bandages, lots of bandages...."

Mme. Morestal went out. Marthe bent over the wounded man and felt his pulse without delay:

"Quite right, it's nothing," she said. "The artery is uninjured."

She uncovered the wound and, very tenderly, staunched the blood that trickled from it:

"The peroxide, quick, mamma."

She took the bottle which some one held out to her and, raising her head, saw Suzanne stooping like herself over the wounded man.

"M. Morestal is waking up," said the girl. "Mme. Morestal sent me in her stead...."

Marthe did not so much as start. She did not even feel as though an unpleasant memory had flitted through her mind, compelling her to make an effort to suppress her hatred:

"Unroll the bandages," she said.

And Suzanne also was calm in the face of her enemy. No sense of shame or embarrassment troubled her. Their mingled breath caressed the soldier's face.

Nor did it seem that any memory of love existed between Philippe and Suzanne or that a carnal bond united them. They looked at each other unmoved. Marthe herself told Philippe to uncork a bottle of boracic. He did so. His hand touched Suzanne's. Neither he nor Suzanne felt a thrill.

Around them continued the uninterrupted work of the men, each of whom obeyed orders and executed them according to his own initiative, without fuss or confusion. The servants were all in the drawing-room. The women aided in the work. Amid the great anguish that oppressed every heart at the first formidable breath of war, no one thought of anything but his individual task, that contribution of heroism which fate was claiming from one and all. What mattered the petty wounds of pride, the petty griefs to which the subtleties of love give rise! What signified the petty treacheries of daily life!

"He's better," said Marthe. "Here, Suzanne, let him sniff at the smelling-salts."

Duvauchel opened his eyes. He saw Marthe and Suzanne, smiled and murmured:

"By Jingo!... It was worth while!... Duvauchel's a lucky dog!..."

But an unexpected silence fell upon the great drawing-room, like a spontaneous cessation of all the organs at work. And, suddenly, a voice was heard on the threshold:

"They have crossed the frontier! Two of them have crossed the frontier!"

And Victor exclaimed:

"And there are more coming! You can see their helmets.... They are coming! They are in France!"

The women fell on their knees. One of them moaned:

"O God, have pity on us!"

Marthe had joined Philippe at the terrace-door and they heard Captain Daspry repeating in a low voice, with an accent of despair:

"Yes, they are in France ... they have crossed the frontier."

"They are in France, Philippe," said Marthe, taking her husband's hand.

And she felt his hand tremble.

Drawing himself up quickly, the captain commanded:

"Not a shot!... Let no one show himself!"

The order flew from mouth to mouth and silence and immobility reigned in the Old Mill, from one end to the other of the house and grounds. Each one stood at his post. All along the wall, the soldiers kept themselves hidden, perched upright on their improvised talus.

At that moment, one of the drawing-room doors opened and old Morestal appeared on his wife's arm. Dressed in a pair of trousers and a waistcoat, bare-headed, tangle-haired, with a handkerchief fastened round his neck, he staggered on his wavering legs. Nevertheless, a sort of gladness, like an inward smile, lighted his features.

"Let me be," he said to his wife, who was endeavouring to support him.

He steadied his gait and walked to the gun-rack, where the twelve rifles stood in a row.

He took out one with feverish haste, felt it, with the touch of a sportsman recognizing his favourite weapon, passed in front of Philippe, without appearing to see him, and went out on the terrace.

"You, M. Morestal!" said Captain Daspry.

Pointing to the frontier, the old man asked:

"Are they there?"


"Are you making a resistance?"


"Are there many of them?"

"There are twenty to one."

"If so ...?"

"We've got to."

"But ..."

"We've got to, M. Morestal; and be easy, we shall stand our ground.... I'm certain of it."

Morestal said, in a low voice:

"Remember what I told you, captain.... The road is undermined at two hundred yards from the terrace.... A match and ..."

"Oh," protested the officer, "I hope it won't come to that! I am expecting relief."

"Very well!" said Morestal. "But anything rather than let them come up to the Old Mill!"

"They won't come up. It's out of the question that they should come up before the arrival of the French troops."

"Good! As long as the Old Mill remains in our hands, they won't be able to man the heights and threaten Saint-Elophe."

They could plainly see columns of infantry winding along the Col du Diable. There, they divided and one part of the men turned towards the Butte-aux-Loups, while the others—consisting of the greater number, for this was evidently the enemy's object—went down towards the Etang-des Moines, to seize the high-road.

These disappeared for a moment, hidden by the bend of the ground.

The captain said to Morestal:

"Once the road is held and the assault begins, it will be impossible to get away.... It would be better, therefore, for the ladies ... and for you yourself ..."

Morestal gave him such a look that the officer did not insist:

"Come, come," he said, smiling, "don't be angry.... Rather help me to make these good people understand...."

He turned to the servants, to Victor, who was taking down a rifle, to the gardener, to Henriot, and warned them that none but combatants must stay at the Old Mill, as any man captured with arms in his hands exposed himself to reprisals.

They let him talk; and Victor, without thinking of retiring, answered:

"That's as may be, captain. But it's one of the things one doesn't think about. I'm staying."

"And you, Farmer Saboureux? You're running a big risk, if they prove that you set fire to your farm."

"I'm staying," growled the peasant, laconically.

"And you, tramp?"

Old Poussiere had not finished eating the piece of bread which he had taken from his wallet. He was listening and observing, with eyes wide open and an evident effort to attend. He examined the captain, his uniform, the braid upon his sleeve, seemed to reflect on mysterious things, stood up and seized a rifle.

"That's right, Poussiere," grinned Morestal. "You know your country right enough, once it needs defending."

A man had made the same movement as the tramp, almost at the same time. One more division in the gun-rack was empty.

It was Duvauchel, still rather unsteady on his pins, but wearing an undaunted look.

"What, Duvauchel!" asked Captain Daspry. "Aren't we deserting?"

"You're getting at me, captain! Let the beggars clear out of France first! I'll desert afterwards."

"But you've only one arm that's any good."

"A greaser's arm, captain ... and a French greaser's at that ... is worth two, any day."

"Pass me one of them rifles," said the gardener's son. "I know my way about with 'em."

Duvauchel began to laugh:

"You too, sonnie? You want one? You'll see, the babes at the breast will be rising up next, like the others. Lord, but it makes my blood boil to think that they're in France!"

All followed the captain, who allotted them a post along the parapet. The women busied themselves in placing ammunition within reach of the marksmen.

Marthe was left alone with her husband. She saw that the scene had stirred him. In the way in which those decent folk realized their duty and performed it without being compelled to, simply and spontaneously, there was that sort of greatness which touches a man to the very depths of his soul.

She said to him:

"Well, Philippe?"

His face was drawn; he did not reply.

She continued:

"Well, go.... What are you waiting for? No one will notice your flight.... Be quick.... Take the opportunity while it's here...."

They heard the captain addressing his lieutenant:

"Keep down your head, Fabregues, can't you? They'll see you, if you're not careful...."

Marthe seized Philippe's arm and, bending towards him:

"Now confess that you can't go ... that all this upsets your notions ... and that your duty is here ... that you feel it."

"There they are! There they are!" said a voice.

"Yes," said Captain Daspry, searching the road through the orifice of a loop-hole, "yes, there they are!... At six hundred yards, at most ... It's the vanguard.... They are skirting the pool and they haven't a notion that ..."

A sergeant came to tell him that the enemy had hoisted a gun on the slope of the pass. The officer was alarmed, but old Morestal began to laugh:

"Let them bring up as many guns as they please!... They can only take up positions which we command and which I have noted. A few good marksmen are enough to keep them from placing a battery."

And, turning to his son, he said to him, quite naturally, as though nothing had ever parted them:

"Are you coming, Philippe? We'll demolish them between us."

Captain Daspry interfered:

"Don't fire! We are not discovered yet. Wait till I give the order.... There'll be time enough later...."

Old Morestal had moved away.

Philippe walked resolutely towards the gate that led to the garden, to the open country. But he had not taken ten steps, when he stopped. He seemed to be vaguely suffering; and Marthe, who had not left his side, Marthe, anxious, full of mingled hope and apprehension, watched every phase of the tragic struggle:

"All the past is calling on you, Philippe; all the love for France that the past has bequeathed to you. Listen to its voice."

And, replying to every possible objection:

"Yes, I know, your intelligence rebels against it. But is one's intelligence everything?... Obey your instinct, Philippe.... It's your instinct that is right."

"No, no," he stammered, "one's instinct is never right...."

"It is right. But for that, you would be far away by now. But you can't go. Your whole being refuses to go. Your legs have not the strength for flight."

The Col du Diable was pouring forth troops and more troops, whose swarming masses showed along the slope. Others must be coming by the Albern Road; and, on every side, along every path and through every gap, the men of Germany were invading the soil of France.

The vanguard reached the high-road, at the end of the Etang-des-Moines.

There was a dull roll of the drum; and, suddenly, in the near silence, a hoarse voice barked out a German word of command.

Philippe started as though he had been struck.

And Marthe clung to him, pitilessly:

"Do you hear, Philippe? Do you understand? The German speech on French soil! Their language forced upon us!"

"Oh, no!" he said. "That can't be.... That will never be!"

"Why should it never be? Invasion comes first ... and then conquest ... and subjection...."

Near them, the captain ordered:

"Let no one stir!"

Bullets spluttered against the walls, while the sounds of firing reverberated. A window-pane was smashed on the floor above. And more bullets broke fragments of stone from the coping of the parapet. The enemy, surprised at the disappearance of the French troops, were feeling their way before passing below that house, whose gloomy aspect must needs strike them as suspicious.

"Ah!" said a soldier, spinning on his heels and falling on the threshold of the drawing-room, his face covered with blood.

The women ran to his assistance.

Philippe gazed haggard-eyed at that man who was about to die, at that man who belonged to the same race, who lived under the same sky as himself, who breathed the same air, ate the same bread and drank the same wine.

Marthe had taken down a rifle and handed it to Philippe. He grasped it with a sort of despair:

"Who would ever have told me ...?" he stammered.

"I, Philippe ... I was sure of you. We have not to do with theories, but with implacable facts. These are realities, to-day.... The enemy is treading the bit of earth where you were born, where you played as a child. The enemy is forcing his way into France. Defend her, Philippe...."

He clenched his fists around his rifle and she saw that his eyes were full of tears.

He murmured, quivering with inward rebellion:

"Our sons will refuse ... I shall teach them to refuse.... What I cannot do, what I have not the courage to do they shall do."

"Perhaps, but what does the future matter!" she said, eagerly. "What does to-morrow's duty matter! Our duty, yours and mine, is the duty of to-day."

A voice whispered:

"They're coming near, captain.... They're coming near...."

Another voice, beside Philippe, the voice of one of the women tending the wounded man, moaned:

"He's dead.... Poor fellow!... He's dead...."

The guns roared on the frontier.

"Are you coming, Philippe?" asked old Morestal.

"I'm coming, father," he said.

Very quickly, he walked out on the terrace and knelt beside his father, against the balusters. Marthe knelt down behind him and wept at the thought of what he must be suffering. Nevertheless, she did not doubt but that, notwithstanding his despair, he was acting in all conscience.

The captain said, clearly, and the order was repeated to the end of the garden:

"Fire as you please.... Sight at three hundred yards...."

There were a few seconds of solemn waiting ... then the terrible word:


Yonder, along the barrel of his rifle, near an old oak in whose branches he once used to climb, Philippe saw a great lubber in uniform throw up his hands, bend his legs one after the other and stretch himself along the ground, slowly, as though to sleep....


Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse