The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
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 be 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.
Invited into his own demesne, he finally reached the dining room, filled with men in mustard color and high boots. Instinctively, he made an inventory of the room. All in good order, nothing broken-- walls, draperies and furniture still intact; but an appraising glance within the sideboard again caused a clutch at his heart. Two entire table services of silver, and another of old porcelain had disappeared without leaving the most insignificant of their pieces. He was obliged to respond gravely to the presentations which his nephew was making, and take the hand which the Count was extending with aristocratic languor. The adversary began considering him with benevolence, on learning that he was a millionaire from a distant land where riches were acquired very rapidly.
Soon he was seated as a stranger at his own table, eating from the same dishes that his family were accustomed to use, served by men with shaved heads, wearing coarse, striped aprons over their uniforms. That which he was eating was his, the wine was from his vaults; all that adorned the room he had bought: the trees whose boughs were waving outside the window also belonged to him. . . . And yet he felt as though he were in this place for the first time, with all the discomfort and diffidence of a total stranger. He ate because he was hungry, but the food and wines seemed to have come from another planet.
He continued looking with consternation at those occupying the places of his wife, children and the Lacours. . . .
They were speaking in German among themselves, but those having a limited knowledge of French frequently availed themselves of that language in order that their guest might understand them. Those who could only mumble a few words, repeated them to an accompaniment of amiable smiles. All were displaying an amicable desire to propitiate the owner of the castle.
"You are going to lunch with the barbarians," said the Count, offering him a seat at his side. "Aren't you afraid that we may eat you alive?"
The Germans burst into roars of laughter at the wit of His Excellency. They all took great pains to demonstrate by word and manner that barbarity was wrongly attributed to them by their enemies.
Don Marcelo looked from one to another. The fatigues of war, especially the forced march of the last days, were very apparent in their persons. Some were tall and slender with an angular slimness; others were stocky and corpulent with short neck and head sunk between the shoulders. These had lost much of their fat in a month's campaign, the wrinkled and flabby skin hanging in folds in various parts of their bodies. All had shaved heads, the same as the soldiers. Around the table shone two rows of cranial spheres, reddish or dark. Their ears stood out grotesquely, and their jaw bones were in strong relief owing to their thinness. Some had preserved the upright moustache in the style of the Emperor; the most of them were shaved or had a stubby tuft like a brush.
A golden bracelet glistened on the wrist of the Count, stretched on the table. He was the oldest of them all and the only one that kept his hair, of a frosty red, carefully combed and glistening with pomade. Although about fifty years old, he still maintained a youthful vigor cultivated by exercise. Wrinkled, bony and strong, he tried to dissimulate his uncouthness as a man of battle under a suave and indolent laziness. The officers treated him with the greatest respect. Hartrott told his uncle that the Count was a great artist, musician and poet. The Emperor was his friend; they had known each other from boyhood. Before the war, certain scandals concerning his private life had exiled him from Court--mere lampoons of the socialists and scandal-mongers. The Kaiser had always kept a secret affection for his former chum. Everybody remembered his dance, "The Caprices of Scheherazade," represented with the greatest luxury in Berlin through the endorsement of his powerful friend, William II. The Count had lived many years in the Orient. In fact, he was a great gentleman and an artist of exquisite sensibility as well as a soldier.
Since Desnoyers was now his guest, the Count could not permit him to remain silent, so he made an opportunity of bringing him into the conversation.
"Did you see any of the insurrections? . . . Did the troops have to kill many people? How about the assassination of Poincare? . . .
He asked these questions in quick succession and Don Marcelo, bewildered by their absurdity, did not know how to reply. He believed that he must have fallen in with a feast of fools. Then he suspected that they were making fun of him. Uprisings? Assassinations of the President? . . .
Some gazed at him with pity because of his ignorance, others with suspicion, believing that he was merely pretending not to know of these events which had happened so near him.
His nephew insisted. "The daily papers in Germany have been full of accounts of these matters. Fifteen days ago, the people of Paris revolted against the Government, bombarding the Palais de l'Elysee, and assassinating the President. The army had to resort to the machine guns before order could be restored. . . . Everybody knows that."
But Desnoyers insisted that he did not know it, that nobody had seen such things. And as his words were received in an atmosphere of malicious doubt, he preferred to be silent. His Excellency, superior spirit, incapable of being associated with the popular credulity, here intervened to set matters straight. The report of the assassination was, perhaps, not certain; the German periodicals might have unconsciously exaggerated it. Just a few hours ago, the General of the Staff had told him of the flight of the French Government to Bordeaux, and the statement about the revolution in Paris and the firing of the French troops was indisputable. "The gentleman has seen it all without doubt, but does not wish to admit it." Desnoyers felt obliged to contradict this lordling, but his negative was not even listened to.
Paris! This name made all eyes glisten and everybody talkative. As soon as possible they wished to reach the Eiffel Tower, to enter victorious into the city, to receive their recompense for the privations and fatigues of a month's campaign. They were devotees of military glory, they considered war necessary to existence, and yet they were bewailing the hardship that it was imposing upon them. The Count exhaled the plaint of the craftsmaster.
"Oh, the havoc that this war has brought in my plans!" he sighed. "This winter they were going to bring out my dance in Paris!"
They all protested at his sadness; his work would surely be presented after the triumph, and the French would have to recognize it.
"It will not be the same thing," complained the Count. "I confess that I adore Paris. . . . What a pity that these people have never wished to be on familiar terms with us!" . . . And he relapsed into the silence of the unappreciated man.
Desnoyers suddenly recognized in one of the officers who was talking, with eyes bulging with covetousness, of the riches of Paris, the Chief Thief with the band on his arm. He it was who so methodically had sacked the castle. As though divining the old Frenchman's thought, the commissary began excusing himself.
"It is war, monsieur. . . ."
The same as the others! . . . War had to be paid with the treasures of the conquered. That was the new German system; the healthy return to the wars of ancient days; tributes imposed on the cities, and each house sacked separately. In this way, the enemy's resistance would be more effectually overcome and the war soon brought to a close. He ought not to be downcast over the appropriations, for his furnishings and ornaments would all be sold in Germany. After the French defeat, he could place a remonstrance claim with his government, petitioning it to indemnify his loss; his relatives in Berlin would support his demand.
Desnoyers listened in consternation to his counsels. What kind of mentality had these men, anyway? Were they insane, or were they trying to have some fun at his expense? . . .
When the lunch was at last ended, the officers arose and adjusted their swords for service. Captain von Hartrott rose, too; it was necessary for him to return to his general; he had already dedicated too much time to family expansion. His uncle accompanied him to the automobile where Moltkecito once more justified the ruin and plunder of the castle.
"It is war. . . . We have to be very ruthless that it may not last long. True kindness consists in being cruel, because then the terror-stricken enemy gives in sooner, and so the world suffers less."
Don Marcelo shrugged his shoulders before this sophistry. In the doorway, the captain gave some orders to a soldier who soon returned with a bit of chalk which had been used to number the lodging places. Von Hartrott wished to protect his uncle and began tracing on the wall near the door:--"Bitte, nicht plundern. Es sind freundliche Leute."
In response to the old man's repeated questions, he then translated the inscription. "It means, 'Please do not sack this house. Its occupants are kind people . . . friendly people.'"
Ah, no! . . . Desnoyers repelled this protection vehemently. He did not wish to be kind. He was silent because he could not be anything else. . . . But a friend of the invaders of his country! . . . No, NO, NO!
His nephew rubbed out part of the lettering, leaving the first words, "Bitte, nicht plundern." Then he repeated the scrawled request at the entrance of the park. He thought this notice advisable because His Excellency might go away and other officials might be installed in the castle. Von Hartrott had seen much and his smile seemed to imply that nothing could surprise him, no matter how outrageous it might be. But his relative continued scorning his protection, and laughing bitterly at the impromptu signboard. What more could they carry off? . . . Had they not already stolen the best?
"Good-bye, uncle! Soon we shall meet in Paris."
And the captain climbed into his automobile, extending a soft, cold hand that seemed to repel the old man with its flabbiness.
Upon returning to his castle, he saw a table and some chairs in the shadow of a group of trees. His Excellency was taking his coffee in the open air, and obliged him to take a seat beside him. Only three officers were keeping him company. . . . There was here a grand consumption of liquors from his wine cellars. They were talking together in German, and for an hour Don Marcelo remained there, anxious to go but never finding the opportune moment to leave his seat and disappear.
He employed his time in imagining the great stir among the troops hidden by the trees. Another division of the army was passing by with the incessant, deafening roar of the sea. An inexplicable phenomenon kept the luminous calm of the afternoon in a continuous state of vibration. A constant thundering sounded afar off as though an invisible storm were always approaching from beyond the blue horizon line.
The Count, noticing his evident interest in the noise, interrupted his German chat to explain.
"It is the cannon. A battle is going on. Soon we shall join in the dance."
The possibility of having to give up his quarters here, the most comfortable that he had found in all the campaign, put His Excellency in a bad humor.
"War," he sighed, "a glorious life, but dirty and deadening! In an entire month--to-day is the first that I have lived as a gentleman."
And as though attracted by the luxuries that he might shortly have to abandon, he rose and went toward the castle. Two of the Germans betook themselves toward the village, and Desnoyers remained with the other officer who was delightfully sampling his liquors. He was the chief of the battalion encamped in the village.
"This is a sad war, Monsieur!" he said in French.
Of all the inimical group, this man was the only one for whom Don Marcelo felt a vague attraction. "Although a German, he appears a good sort," meditated the old man, eyeing him carefully. In times of peace, he must have been stout, but now he showed the loose and flaccid exterior of one who has just lost much in weight. Desnoyers surmised that the man had formerly lived in tranquil and vulgar sensuousness, in a middle-class happiness suddenly cut short by war.
"What a life, Monsieur!" the officer rambled on. "May God punish well those who have provoked this catastrophe!"
The Frenchman was almost affected. This man represented the Germany that he had many times imagined, a sweet and tranquil Germany composed of burghers, a little heavy and slow perhaps, but atoning for their natural uncouthness by an innocent and poetic sentimentalism. This Blumhardt whom his companions called Bataillon-Kommandeur, was undoubtedly the good father of a large family. He fancied him walking with his wife and children under the lindens of a provincial square, all listening with religious unction to the melodies played by a military band. Then he saw him in the beer gardens with his friends, discussing metaphysical problems between business conversations. He was a man from old Germany, a character from a romance by Goethe. Perhaps the glory of the Empire had modified his existence, and instead of going to the beer gardens, he was now accustomed to frequent the officers' casino, while his family maintained a separate existence--separated from the civilians by the superciliousness of military caste; but at heart, he was always the good German, ready to weep copiously before an affecting family scene or a fragment of good music.
Commandant Blumhardt, meanwhile, was thinking of his family living in Cassel.
"There are eight children, Monsieur," he said with a visible effort to control emotion. "The two eldest are preparing to become officers. The youngest is starting school this year. . . . He is just so high."
And with his right hand he measured off the child's diminutive stature. He trembled with laughter and grief at recalling the little chap. Then he broke forth into eulogies about his wife-- excellent manager of the home, a mother who was always modestly sacrificing herself for her children and husband. Ay, the sweet Augusta! . . . After twenty years of married life, he adored her as on the day he first saw her. In a pocket of his uniform, he was keeping all the letters that she had written him since the beginning of the campaign.
"Look at her, Monsieur. . . . There are my children."
From his breast pocket, he had drawn forth a silver medallion, adorned with the art of Munich, and touching a spring, he displayed the pictures of all the family--the Frau Kommandeur, of an austere and frigid beauty, imitating the air and coiffure of the Empress; the Frauleine Kommandeur, clad in white, with uplifted eyes as though they were singing a musical romance; and at the end, the children in the uniforms of the army schools or private institutions. And to think that he might lose these beloved beings if a bit of iron should hit him! . . . And he had to live far from them now that it was such fine weather for long walks in the country! . . .
"Sad war!" he again said. "May God punish the English!"
With a solicitude that Don Marcelo greatly appreciated, he in turn inquired about the Frenchman's family. He pitied him for having so few children, and smiled a little over the enthusiasm with which the old gentleman spoke of his daughter, saluting Fraulein Chichi as a witty sprite, and expressing great sympathy on learning that the only son was causing his parents great sorrow by his conduct.
Tender-hearted Commandant! . . . He was the first rational and human being that he had met in this hell of an invasion. "There are good people everywhere," he told himself. He hoped that this new acquaintance would not be moved from the castle; for if the Germans had to stay there, it would better be this man than the others.
An orderly came to summon Don Marcelo to the presence of His Excellency. After passing through the salons with closed eyes so as to avoid useless distress and wrath, he found the Count in his own bedroom. The doors had been forced open, the floors stripped of carpet and the window frames of curtains. Only the pieces of furniture broken in the first moments now occupied their former places. The sleeping rooms had been stripped more methodically, everything having been taken that was not required for immediate use. Because the General with his suite had been lodging there the night before, this apartment had escaped the arbitrary destruction.
The Count received him with the civility of a grandee who wishes to be attentive to his guests. He could not consent that HERR Desnoyers--a relative of a von Hartrott--whom he vaguely remembered having seen at Court, should be staying in the Keeper's lodge. He must return to his own room, occupying that bed, solemn as a catafalque with columns and plumes, which had had the honor, a few hours before, of serving as the resting-place of an illustrious General of the Empire.
"I myself prefer to sleep here," he added condescendingly. "This other habitation accords better with my tastes."
While saying this, he was entering Dona Luisa's rooms, admiring its Louis Quinze furniture of genuine value, with its dull golds and tapestries mellowed by time. It was one of the most successful purchases that Don Marcelo had made. The Count smiled with an artist's scorn as he recalled the man who had superintended the official sacking.
"What an ass! . . . To think that he left this behind, supposing that it was old and ugly!"
Then he looked the owner of the castle squarely in the face.
"Monsieur Desnoyers, I do not believe that I am committing any indiscretion, and even imagine that I am interpreting your desires when I inform you that I intend taking this set of furniture with me. It will serve as a souvenir of our acquaintance, a testimony to the friendship springing up between us. . . . If it remains here, it will run the risk of being destroyed. Warriors, of course, are not obliged to be artists. I will guard these excellent treasures in Germany where you may see them whenever you wish. We are all going to be one nation, you know. . . . My friend, the Emperor, is soon to be proclaimed sovereign of the French."
Desnoyers remained silent. How could he reply to that look of cruel irony, to the grimace with which the noble lord was underscoring his words? . . .
"When the war is ended, I will send you a gift from Berlin," he added in a patronizing tone.
The old collector could say nothing to that, either. He was looking at the vacant spots which many small pictures had left on the walls, paintings by famous masters of the XVIII century. The banded brigand must also have passed these by as too insignificant to carry off, but the smirk illuminating the Count's face revealed their ultimate destination.
He had carefully scrutinized the entire apartment--the adjoining bedroom, Chichi's, the bathroom, even the feminine robe-room of the family, which still contained some of the daughter's gowns. The warrior fondled with delight the fine silky folds of the materials, gloating over their cool softness.
This contact made him think of Paris, of the fashions, of the establishments of the great modistes. The rue de la Paix was the spot which he most admired in his visits to the enemy's city.
Don Marcelo noticed the strong mixture of perfumes which came from his hair, his moustache, his entire body. Various little jars from the dressing table were on the mantel.
"What a filthy thing war is!" exclaimed the German. "This morning I was at last able to take a bath after a week's abstinence; at noon I shall take another. By the way, my dear sir, these perfumes are good, but they are not elegant. When I have the pleasure of being presented to the ladies, I shall give them the addresses of my source of supply. . . . I use in my home essences from Turkey. I have many friends there. . . . At the close of the war, I will send a consignment to the family."
While speaking the Count's eyes had been fixed upon some photographs upon the table. Examining the portrait of Madame Desnoyers, he guessed that she must be Dona Luisa. He smiled before the bewitchingly mischievous face of Mademoiselle Chichi. Very enchanting; he specially admired her militant, boyish expression; but he scrutinized the photograph of Julio with special interest.
"Splendid type of youth," he murmured. "An interesting head, and artistic, too. He would create a great sensation in a fancy-dress ball. What a Persian prince he would make! . . . A white aigrette on his head, fastened with a great jewel, the breast bared, a black tunic with golden birds. . . ."
And he continued seeing in his mind's eye the heir of the Desnoyers arrayed in all the gorgeous raiment of an Oriental monarch. The proud father, because of the interest which his son was inspiring, began to feel a glimmer of sympathy with the man. A pity that he should select so unerringly and appropriate the choicest things in the castle!
Near the head of the bed, Don Marcelo saw lying upon a book of devotions forgotten by his wife, a medallion containing another photograph. It did not belong to his family, and the Count, following the direction of his eyes, wished to show it to him. The hands of this son of Mars trembled. . . . His disdainful haughtiness had suddenly disappeared. An official of the Hussars of Death was smiling from the case; his sharp profile with a beak curved like a bird of prey, was surmounted by a cap adorned with skull and cross-bones.
"My best friend," said the Count in tremulous tones. "The being that I love most in all the world. . . . And to think that at this moment he may be fighting, and they may kill him! . . . To think that I, too, may die!"
Desnoyers believed that he must be getting a glimpse into a romance of the nobleman's past. That Hussar was undoubtedly his natural son. His simplicity of mind could not conceive of anything else. Only a father's tenderness could so express itself . . . and he was almost touched by this tenderness.
Here the interview came to an end, the warrior turning his back as he left the room in order to hide his emotion. A few minutes after was heard on the floor below the sound of a grand piano which the Commissary had not been able to carry off, owing to the general's interposition. His voice was soon heard above the chords that he was playing. It was rather a lifeless baritone, but he managed to impart an impassioned tremolo to his romance. The listening old man was now really affected; he did not understand the words, but the tears came into his eyes. He thought of his family, of the sorrows and dangers about them and of the difficulties surrounding his return to them. . . . As though under the spell of the melody, little by little, he descended the stairs. What an artist's soul that haughty scoffer had! . . . At first sight, the Germans with their rough exterior and their discipline which made them commit the greatest atrocities, gave one a wrong impression. One had to live intimately with them to appreciate their true worth.
By the time the music had ceased, he had reached the castle bridge. A sub-officer was watching the graceful movements of the swans gliding double over the waters of the moat. He was a young Doctor of Laws who just now was serving as secretary to His Excellency--a university man mobilized by the war.
On speaking with Don Marcelo, he immediately revealed his academic training. The order for departure had surprised the professor in a private institute; he was just about to be married and all his plans had been upset.
"What a calamity, sir! . . . What an overturning for the world! . . . Yet many of us have foreseen that this catastrophe simply had to come. We have felt strongly that it might break out any day. Capital, accursed Capital is to blame."
The speaker was a Socialist. He did not hesitate to admit his co- operation in certain acts of his party that had brought persecutions and set-backs to his career. But the Social-Democracy was now being accepted by the Emperor and flattered by the most reactionary Junkers. All were now one. The deputies of his party were forming in the Reichstag the group most obedient to the government. . . . The only belief that it retained from its former creed, was its anathematization of Capital--responsible for the war.
Desnoyers ventured to disagree with this enemy who appeared of an amiable and tolerant character. "Did he not think that the real responsibility rested with German militarism? Had it not sought and prepared this conflict, by its arrogance preventing any settlement?"
The Socialist denied this roundly. His deputies were supporting the war and, therefore, must have good reason. Everything that he said showed an absolute submission to discipline--the eternal German discipline, blind and obedient, which was dominating even the most advanced parties. In vain the Frenchman repeated arguments and facts which everybody had read from the beginning of the war. His words simply slid over the calloused brains of this revolutionist, accustomed to delegating all his reasoning functions to others.
"Who can tell?" he finally said. "Perhaps we have made a mistake. But just at this moment all is confused; the premises which would enable us to draw exact conclusions are lacking. When the conflict ends, we shall know the truly guilty parties, and if they are ours we shall throw the responsibility upon them."
Desnoyers could hardly keep from laughing at his simplicity. To wait till the end of the war to know who was to blame! . . . And if the Empire should come out conqueror, what responsibility could the Socialists exact in the full pride of victory, they who always confined themselves to electoral battles, without the slightest attempt at rebellion?
"Whatever the cause may be," concluded the Socialist, "this war is very sad. How many dead! . . . I was at Charleroi. One has to see modern warfare close by. . . . We shall conquer; we are going to enter Paris, so they say, but many of our men must fall before obtaining the final victory."
And as though wishing to put these visions of death out of his mind, he resumed his diversion of watching the swans, offering them bits of bread so as to make them swing around in their slow and majestic course.
The Keeper and his family were continually crossing and recrossing the bridge. Seeing their master on such friendly terms with the invaders, they had lost some of the fear which had kept them shut up in their cottage. To the woman it seemed but natural that Don Marcelo's authority should be recognized by these people; the master is always the master. And as though she had received a part of this authority, she was entering the castle fearlessly, followed by her daughter, in order to put in order her master's sleeping room. They had decided to pass the night in rooms near his, that he might not feel so lonely among the Germans.
The two women were carrying bedding and mattresses from the lodge to the top floor. The Keeper was occupied in heating a second bath for His Excellency while his wife was bemoaning with gestures of despair the sacking of the castle. How many exquisite things had disappeared! . . . Desirous of saving the remainder, she besought her master to make complaints, as though he could prevent the individual and stealthy robberies. The orderlies and followers of the Count were pocketing everything they could lay their hands on, saying smilingly that they were souvenirs. Later on the woman approached Desnoyers with a mysterious air to impart a new revelation. She had seen a head officer force open the chiffoniers where her mistress was accustomed to keep her lingerie, and he was making up a package of the finest pieces, including a great quantity of blonde lace.
"That's the one, Master," she said soon after, pointing to a German who was writing in the garden, where an oblique ray of sunlight was filtering through the branches upon his table.
Don Marcelo recognized him with surprise. Commandant Blumhardt, too! . . . But immediately he excused the act. He supposed it was only natural that this official should want to take something away from the castle, since the Count had set the example. Besides, he took into account the quality of the objects which he was appropriating. They were not for himself; they were for the wife, for the daughters. . . . A good father of his family! For more than an hour now, he had been sitting before that table writing incessantly, conversing, pen in hand, with his Augusta and all the family in Cassel. Better that this good man should carry off his stuff than those other domineering officers with cutting voices and insolent stiffness.
Desnoyers noticed, too, that the writer raised his head every time that Georgette, the Warden's daughter, passed by, following her with his eyes. The poor father! . . . Undoubtedly he was comparing her with his two girls home in Germany, with all their thoughts on the war. He, too, was thinking of Chichi, fearing sometimes, that he might never see her again. In one of her trips from the castle to her home, Blumhardt called the child to him. She stopped before the table, timid and shrinking as though she felt a presentiment of danger, but making an effort to smile. The Prussian father meanwhile chatted with her, and patted her cheeks with his great paws--a sight which touched Desnoyers deeply. The memories of a pacific and virtuous life were rising above the horrors of war. Decidedly this one enemy was a good man, anyway.
Because of his conclusion, the millionaire smiled indulgently when the Commandant, leaving the table, came toward him--after delivering his letter and a bulky package to a soldier to take to the battalion post-office in the village.
"It is for my family," he explained. "I do not let a day pass without sending them a letter. Theirs are so precious to me! . . . I am also sending them a few remembrances."
Desnoyers was on the point of protesting. . . . But with a shrug of indifference, he concluded to keep silence as if he did not object. The Commandant continued talking of the sweet Augusta and their children while the invisible tempest kept on thundering beyond the serene twilight horizon. Each time the cannonading was more intense.
"The battle," continued Blumhardt. "Always a battle! . . . Surely it is the last and we are going to win. Within the week, we shall be entering Paris. . . . But how many will never see it! So many dead! . . . I understand that to-morrow we shall not be here. All the Reserves are to combine with the attack so as to overcome the last resistance. . . . If only I do not fall!" . . .
Thoughts of the possibility of death the following day contracted his forehead in a scowl of hatred. A deep, vertical line was parting his eyebrows. He frowned ferociously at Desnoyers as though making him responsible for his death and the trouble of his family. For a few moments Don Marcelo could hardly recognize this man, transformed by warlike passions, as the sweet-natured and friendly Blumhardt of a little while before.
The sun was beginning to set when a sub-officer, the one of the Social-Democracy, came running in search of the Commandant. Desnoyers could not understand what was the matter because they were speaking in German, but following the direction of the messenger's continual pointing, he saw beyond the iron gates a group of country people and some soldiers with guns. Blumhardt, after a brief reflection, started toward the group and Don Marcelo behind him.
Soon he saw a village lad in the charge of some Germans who were holding their bayonets to his breast. His face was colorless, with the whiteness of a wax candle. His shirt, blackened with soot, was so badly torn that it told of a hand-to-hand struggle. On one temple was a gash, bleeding badly. A short distance away was a woman with dishevelled hair, holding a baby, and surrounded by four children all covered with black grime as though coming from a coal mine.
The woman was pleading desperately, raising her hands appealingly, her sobs interrupting her story which she was uselessly trying to tell the soldiers, incapable of understanding her. The petty officer convoying the band spoke in German with the Commandant while the woman besought the intervention of Desnoyers. When she recognized the owner of the castle, she suddenly regained her serenity, believing that he could intercede for her.
That husky young boy was her son. They had all been hiding since the day before in the cellar of their burned house. Hunger and the danger of death from asphyxiation had forced them finally to venture forth. As soon as the Germans had seen her son, they had beaten him and were going to shoot him as they were shooting all the young men. They believed that the lad was twenty years old, the age of a soldier, and in order that he might not join the French army, they were going to kill him.
"It's a lie!" shrieked the mother. "He is not more than eighteen . . . not eighteen . . . a little less--he's only seventeen."
She turned to those who were following behind, in order to implore their testimony--sad women, equally dirty, their ragged garments smelling of fire, poverty and death. All assented, adding their outcries to those of the mother. Some even went so far as to say that the overgrown boy was only sixteen . . . fifteen! And to this feminine chorus was added the wailing of the little ones looking at their brother with eyes distended with terror.
The Commandant examined the prisoner while he listened to the official. An employee of the township had said carelessly that the child was about twenty, never dreaming that with this inaccuracy he was causing his death.
"It was a lie!" repeated the mother guessing instinctively what they were saying. "That man made a mistake. My boy is robust and, therefore, looks older than he is, but he is not twenty. . . . The gentleman from the castle who knows him can tell you so. Is it not so, Monsieur Desnoyers?"
Since, in her maternal desperation, she had appealed to his protection, Don Marcelo believed that he ought to intervene, and so he spoke to the Commandant. He knew this youth very well (he did not ever remember having seen him before) and believed that he really was under twenty.
"And even if he were of age," he added, "is that a crime to shoot a man for?"
Blumhardt did not reply. Since he had recovered his functions of command, he ignored absolutely Don Marcelo's existence. He was about to say something, to give an order, but hesitated. It might be better to consult His Excellency . . . and seeing that he was going toward the castle, Desnoyers marched by his side.
"Commandant, this cannot be," he commenced saying. "This lacks common sense. To shoot a man on the suspicion that he may be twenty years old!"
But the Commandant remained silent and continued on his way. As they crossed the bridge, they heard the sound of the piano--a good omen, Desnoyers thought. The aesthete who had so touched him with his impassioned voice, was going to say the saving word.
On entering the salon, he did not at first recognize His Excellency. He saw a man sitting at the piano wearing no clothing but a Japanese dressing gown--a woman's rose-colored kimono, embroidered with golden birds, belonging to Chichi. At any other time, he would have burst into roars of laughter at beholding this scrawny, bony warrior with the cruel eyes, with his brawny braceleted arms appearing through the loose sleeves. After taking his bath, the Count had delayed putting on his uniform, luxuriating in the silky contact of the feminine tunic so like his Oriental garments in Berlin. Blumhardt did not betray the slightest astonishment at the aspect of his general. In the customary attitude of military erectness, he spoke in his own language while the Count listened with a bored air, meanwhile passing his fingers idly over the keys.
A shaft of sunlight from a nearby window was enveloping the piano and musician in a halo of gold. Through the window, too, was wafting the poetry of the sunset--the rustling of the leaves, the hushed song of the birds and the hum of the insects whose transparent wings were glowing like sparks in the last rays of the sun. The General, annoyed that his dreaming melancholy should be interrupted by this inopportune visit, cut short the Commandant's story with a gesture of command and a word . . . one word only. He said no more. He took two puffs from a Turkish cigarette that was slowly scorching the wood of the piano, and again ran his hands over the ivory keys, catching up the broken threads of the vague and tender improvisation inspired by the gloaming.
"Thanks, Your Excellency," said the gratified Desnoyers, surmising his magnanimous response.
The Commandant had disappeared, nor could the Frenchman find him outside the castle. A soldier was pacing up and down near the iron gates in order to transmit commands, and the guards were pushing back with blows from their guns, a screaming group of women and tiny children. The entrance was entirely cleared! undoubtedly the crowds were returning to the village after the General's pardon. . . . Desnoyers was half way down the avenue when he heard a howling sound composed of many voices, a hair-raising shriek such as only womanly desperation can send forth. At the same time, the air was vibrating with snaps, the loud cracking sound that he knew from the day before. Shots! . . . He imagined that on the other side of the iron railing there were some writhing bodies struggling to escape from powerful arms, and others fleeing with bounds of fear. He saw running toward him a horror-stricken, sobbing woman with her hands to her head. It was the wife of the Keeper who a little while before had joined the desperate group of women.
"Oh, don't go on, Master," she called stopping his hurried step. "They have killed him. . . . They have just shot him."
Don Marcelo stood rooted to the ground. Shot! . . . and after the General's pardon! . . . Suddenly he ran back to the castle, hardly knowing what he was doing, and soon reached the salon. His Excellency was still at the piano. humming in low tones, his eyes moistened by the poesy of his dreams. But the breathless old gentleman did not stop to listen.
"They have shot him, Your Excellency. . . . They have just killed him in spite of your order."
The smile which crossed the Count's face immediately informed him of his mistake.
"That is war, my dear sir," said the player, pausing for a moment. "War with its cruel necessities. . . . It is always expedient to destroy the enemy of to-morrow."
And with a pedantic air as though he were giving a lesson, he discoursed about the Orientals, great masters of the art of living. One of the personages most admired by him was a certain Sultan of the Turkish conquest who, with his own hands, had strangled the sons of the adversary. "Our foes do not come into the world on horseback and brandishing the lance," said that hero. "All are born as children, and it is advisable to wipe them from the face of the earth before they grow up."
Desnoyers listened without taking it in. One thought only was occupying his mind. . . . That man that he had supposed just, that sentimentalist so affected by his own singing, had, between two arpeggios, coldly given the order for death! . . .
The Count made a gesture of impatience. He might retire now, and he counselled him to be more discreet in the future, avoiding mixing himself up in the affairs of the service. Then he turned his back, running his hands over the piano, and giving himself up to harmonious melancholy.
For Don Marcelo there now began an absurd life of the most extraordinary events, an experience which was going to last four days. In his life history, this period represented a long parenthesis of stupefaction, slashed by the most horrible visions.
Not wishing to meet these men again, he abandoned his own bedroom, taking refuge on the top floor in the servants' quarters, near the room selected by the Warden and his family. In vain the good woman kept offering him things to eat as the night came on--he had no appetite. He lay stretched out on the bed, preferring to be alone with his thoughts in the dark. When would this martyrdom ever come to an end? . . .
There came into his mind the recollection of a trip which he had made to London some years ago. In his imagination he again saw the British Museum and certain Assyrian bas-reliefs--relics of bestial humanity, which had filled him with terror. The warriors were represented as burning the towns; the prisoners were beheaded in heaps; the pacific countrymen were marching in lines with chains on their necks, forming strings of slaves. Until that moment he had never realized the advance which civilization had made through the centuries. Wars were still breaking out now and then, but they had been regulated by the march of progress. The life of the prisoner was now held sacred; the captured towns must be respected; there existed a complete code of international law to regulate how men should be killed and nations should combat, causing the least possible harm. . . . But now he had just seen the primitive realities of war. The same as that of thousands of years ago! The men with the helmets were proceeding in exactly the same way as those ferocious and perfumed satraps with blue mitre and curled beard. The adversary was shot although not carrying arms; the prisoner died of shot or blow from the gun; the civilian captives were sent in crowds to Germany like those of other centuries. Of what avail was all our so-called Progress? Where was our boasted civilization? . . .
He was awakened by the light of a candle in his eyes. The Warden's wife had come up again to see if he needed anything.
"Oh, what a night, Master! Just hear them yelling and singing! The bottles that they have emptied! . . . They are in the dining room. You better not see them. Now they are amusing themselves by breaking the furniture. Even the Count is drunk; drunk, too, is that Commandant that you were talking with, and all the rest. . . . Some of them are dancing half-naked."
She evidently wished to keep quiet about certain details, but her love of talking got the better of her discretion. Some of the officers had dressed themselves up in the hats and gowns of her mistress and were dancing and shouting, imitating feminine seductiveness and affectations. . . . One of them had been greeted with roars of enthusiasm upon presenting himself with no other clothing than a "combination" of Mademoiselle Chichi's. Many were taking obscene delight in soiling the rugs and filling the sideboard drawers with indescribable filth, using the finest linens that they could lay their hands on.
Her master silenced her peremptorily. Why tell him such vile, disgusting things? . . .
"And we are obliged to wait on them!" wailed the woman. "They are beside themselves; they appear like different beings. The soldiers are saying that they are going to resume their march at daybreak. There is a great battle on, and they are going to win it; but it is necessary that everyone of them should fight in it. . . . My poor, sick husband just can't stand it any longer. So many humiliations . . . and my little girl . . . . My little girl!"
The child was her greatest anxiety. She had her well hidden away, but she was watching uneasily the goings and comings of some of these men maddened with alcohol. The most terrible of them all was that fat officer who had patted Georgette so paternally.
Apprehension for her daughter's safety made her hurry restlessly away, saying over and over:
"God has forgotten the world. . . . Ay, what is ever going to become of us!"
Don Marcelo was now tinglingly awake. Through the open window was blowing the clear night air. The cannonading was still going on, prolonging the conflict way into the night. Below the castle the soldiers were intoning a slow and melodious chant that sounded like a psalm. From the interior of the edifice rose the whoopings of brutal laughter, the crash of breaking furniture, and the mad chase of dissolute pursuit. When would this diabolical orgy ever wear itself down? . . . For a long time he was not at all sleepy, but was gradually losing consciousness of what was going on around him when he was roused with a start. Near him, on the same floor, a door had fallen with a crash, unable to resist a succession of formidable batterings. This was followed immediately by the screams of a woman, weeping, desperate supplications, the noise of a struggle, reeling steps, and the thud of bodies against the wall. He had a presentiment that it was Georgette shrieking and trying to defend herself. Before he could put his feet to the floor he heard a man's voice, which he was sure was the Keeper's; she was safe.
"Ah, you villain!" . . .
Then the outbreak of a second struggle . . . a shot . . . silence!
Rushing down the hallway that ended at the stairway Desnoyers saw lights, and many men who came trooping up the stairs, bounding over several steps at a time. He almost fell over a body from which escaped a groan of agony. At his feet lay the Warden, his chest moving like a pair of bellows, his eyes glassy and unnaturally distended, his mouth covered with blood. . . . Near him glistened a kitchen knife. Then he saw a man with a revolver in one hand, and holding shut with the other a broken door that someone was trying to open from within. Don Marcelo recognized him, in spite of his greenish pallor and wild look. It was Blumhardt--another Blumhardt with a bestial expression of terrifying ferocity and lust.
Don Marcelo could see clearly how it had all happened--the debauchee rushing through the castle in search of his prey, the anxious father in close pursuit, the cries of the girl, the unequal struggle between the consumptive with his emergency weapon and the warrior triumphant. The fury of his youth awoke in the old Frenchman, sweeping everything before it. What did it matter if he did die? . . .
"Ah, you villain!" he yelled, as the poor father had done.
And with clenched fists he marched up to the German, who smiled coldly and held his revolver to his eyes. He was just going to shoot him . . . but at that instant Desnoyers fell to the floor, knocked down by those who were leaping up the stairs. He received many blows, the heavy boots of the invaders hammering him with their heels. He felt a hot stream pouring over his face. Blood! . . . He did not know whether it was his own or that of the palpitating mortal slowly dying beside him. Then he found himself lifted from the floor by many hands which pushed him toward a man. It was His Excellency, with his uniform burst open and smelling of wine. Eyes and voice were both trembling.
"My dear sir," he stuttered, trying to recover this suave irony, "I warned you not to interfere in our affairs and you have not obeyed me. You may now take the consequences of your lack of discretion."
He gave an order, and the old man felt himself pushed downstairs to the cellars underneath the castle. Those conducting him were soldiers under the command of a petty officer whom he recognized as the Socialist. This young professor was the only one sober, but he maintained himself erect and unapproachable with the ferocity of discipline.
He put his prisoner into an arched vault without any breathing-place except a tiny window on a level with the floor. Many broken bottles and chests with some straw were all that was in the cave.
"You have insulted a head officer!" said the official roughly, "and they will probably shoot you to-morrow. Your only salvation lies in the continuance of the revels, in which case they may forget you."
As the door of this sub-cellar was broken, like all the others in the building, a pile of boxes and furniture was heaped in the entrance way.
Don Marcelo passed the rest of the night tormented with the cold-- the only thing which worried him just then. He had abandoned all hope of life; even the images of his family seemed blotted from his memory. He worked in the dark in order to make himself more comfortable on the chests, burrowing down into the straw for the sake of its heat. When the morning breeze began to sift in through the little window he fell slowly into a heavy, overpowering sleep, like that of criminals condemned to death, or duellists before the fatal morning. He thought he heard shouts in German, the galloping of horses, a distant sound of tattoo and whistle such as the battalions of the invaders made with their fifes and drums. . . . Then he lost all consciousness of his surroundings.
On opening his eyes again a ray of sunlight, slipping through the window, was tracing a little golden square on the wall, giving a regal splendor to the hanging cobwebs. Somebody was removing the barricade before the door. A woman's voice, timid and distressed, was calling repeatedly:
"Master, are you here?"
He sprang up quickly, wishing to aid the worker outside, and pushing vigorously. He thought that the invaders must have left. In no other way could he imagine the Warden's wife daring to try to get him out of his cell.
"Yes, they have gone," she said. "Nobody is left in the castle."
As soon as he was able to get out Don Marcelo looked inquiringly at the woman with her bloodshot eyes, dishevelled hair and sorrow-drawn face. The night had weighed her down pitilessly with the pressure of many years. All the energy with which she had been working to free Desnoyers disappeared on seeing him again. "Oh, Master . . . Master," she moaned convulsively; and she flung herself into his arms, bursting into tears.
Don Marcelo did not need to ask anything further; he dreaded to know the truth. Nevertheless, he asked after her husband. Now that he was awake and free, he cherished the fleeting hope that what he had gone through the night before was but another of his nightmares. Perhaps the poor man was still living. . . .
"They killed him, Monsieur. That man who seemed so good murdered him. . . . And I don't know where his body is; nobody will tell me."
She had a suspicion that the corpse was in the fosse. The green and tranquil waters had closed mysteriously over this victim of the night. . . . Desnoyers suspected that another sorrow was troubling the mother still more, but he kept modestly silent. It was she who finally spoke, between outbursts of grief. . . . Georgette was now in the lodge. Horror-stricken and shuddering, she had fled there when the invaders had left the castle. They had kept her in their power until the last minute.
"Oh, Master, don't look at her. . . . She is trembling and sobbing at the thought that you may speak with her about what she has gone through. She is almost out of her mind. She longs to die! Ay, my little girl! . . . And is there no one who will punish these monsters?"
They had come up from the cellars and crossed the bridge, the woman looking fixedly into the silent waters. The dead body of a swan was floating upon them. Before their departure, while their horses were being saddled, two officers had amused themselves by chasing with revolver shots the birds swimming in the moat. The aquatic plants were spotted with blood; among the leaves were floating some tufts of limp white plumage like a bit of washing escaped from the hands of a laundress.
Don Marcelo and the woman exchanged a compassionate glance, and then looked pityingly at each other as the sunlight brought out more strongly their aging, wan appearance.
The passing of these people had destroyed everything. There was no food left in the castle except some crusts of dry bread forgotten in the kitchen. "And we have to live, Monsieur!" exclaimed the woman with reviving energy as she thought of her daughter's need. "We have to live, if only to see how God punishes them!" The old man shrugged his shoulders in despair; God? . . . But the woman was right; they had to live.
With the famished audacity of his early youth, when he was travelling over boundless tracts of land, driving his herds of cattle, he now rushed outside the park, hunting for some form of sustenance. He saw the valley, fair and green, basking in the sun; the groups of trees, the plots of yellowish soil with the hard spikes of stubble; the hedges in which the birds were singing--all the summer splendor of a countryside developed and cultivated during fifteen centuries by dozens and dozens of generations. And yet-- here he was alone at the mercy of chance, likely to perish with hunger--more alone than when he was crossing the towering heights of the Andes--those irregular slopes of rocks and snow wrapped in endless silence, only broken from time to time by the flapping of the condor's wings. Nobody. . . . His gaze could not distinguish a single movable point--everything fixed, motionless, crystallized, as though contracted with fear before the peals of thunder which were still rumbling around the horizon.
He went on toward the village--a mass of black walls with a few houses still intact, and a roofless bell tower with its cross twisted by fire. Nobody in the streets sown with bottles, charred chunks of wood, and soot-covered rubbish. The dead bodies had disappeared, but a nauseating smell of decomposing and burned flesh assailed his nostrils. He saw a mound of earth where the shooting had taken place, and from it were protruding two feet and a hand. At his approach several black forms flew up into the air from a trench so shallow that the bodies within were exposed to view. A whirring of stiff wings beat the air above him, flying off with the croakings of wrath. He explored every nook and corner, even approaching the place where the troopers had erected their barricade. The carts were still by the roadside.
He then retraced his steps, calling out before the least injured houses, and putting his head through the doors and windows that were unobstructed or but half consumed. Was nobody left in Villeblanche? He descried among the ruins something advancing on all fours, a species of reptile that stopped its crawling with movements of hesitation and fear, ready to retreat or slip into its hole under the ruins. Suddenly the creature stopped and stood up. It was a man, an old man. Other human larvae were coming forth conjured by his shouts--poor beings who hours ago had given up the standing position which would have attracted the bullets of the enemy, and had been enviously imitating the lower organisms, squirming through the dirt as fast as they could scurry into the bosom of the earth. They were mostly women and children, all filthy and black, with snarled hair, the fierceness of animal appetite in their eyes--the faintness of the weak animal in their hanging jaws. They were all living hidden in the ruins of their homes. Fear had made them temporarily forget their hunger, but finding that the enemy had gone, they were suddenly assailed by all necessitous demands, intensified by hours of anguish.
Desnoyers felt as though he were surrounded by a tribe of brutalized and famished Indians like those he had often seen in his adventurous voyages. He had brought with him from Paris a quantity of gold pieces, and he pulled out a coin which glittered in the sun. Bread was needed, everything eatable was needed; he would pay without haggling.
The flash of gold aroused looks of enthusiasm and greediness, but this impression was short-lived, all eyes contemplating the yellow discs with indifference. Don Marcelo was himself convinced that the miraculous charm had lost its power. They all chanted a chorus of sorrow and horrors with slow and plaintive voice, as though they stood weeping before a bier: "Monsieur, they have killed my husband." . . . "Monsieur, my sons! Two of them are missing." . . . Monsieur, they have taken all the men prisoners: they say it is to work the land in Germany." . . . "Monsieur, bread! . . . My little ones are dying of hunger!"
One woman was lamenting something worse than death. "My girl! . . . My poor girl!" Her look of hatred and wild desperation revealed the secret tragedy; her outcries and tears recalled that other mother who was sobbing in the same way up at the castle. In the depths of some cave, was lying the victim, half-dead with fatigue, shaken with a wild delirium in which she still saw the succession of brutal faces, inflamed with simian passion.
The miserable group, forming themselves into a circle around him,
stretched out their hands beseechingly toward the man whom they knew
to be so very rich. The women showed him the death-pallor on the
faces of their scarcely breathing babies, their eyes glazed with
starvation. "Bread! . . . bread!" they implored, as though he could
work a miracle. He gave to one mother the gold piece that he had in
his hand and distributed more to the others. They took them without
looking at them, and continued their lament, "Bread! . . . Bread!"
And he had gone to the village to make the same supplication! . . .
He fled, recognizing the uselessness of his efforts.