The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
War had extended one of its antennae even to the avenue Victor Hugo. It was a silent war in which the enemy, bland, shapeless and gelatinous, seemed constantly to be escaping from the hands only to renew hostilities a little later on.
"I have Germany in my own house," growled Marcelo Desnoyers.
"Germany" was Dona Elena, the wife of von Hartrott. Why had not her son--that professor of inexhaustible sufficiency whom he now believed to have been a spy--taken her home with him? For what sentimental caprice had she wished to stay with her sister, losing the opportunity of returning to Berlin before the frontiers were closed?
The presence of this woman in his home was the cause of many compunctions and alarms. Fortunately, the chauffeur and all the men-servants were in the army. The two chinas received an order in a threatening tone. They must be very careful when talking to the French maids--not the slightest allusion to the nationality of Dona Elena's husband nor to the residence of her family. Dona Elena was an Argentinian. But in spite of the silence of the maids, Don Marcelo was always in fear of some outburst of exalted patriotism, and that his wife's sister might suddenly find herself confined in a concentration camp under suspicion of having dealings with the enemy.
Frau von Hartrott made his uneasiness worse. Instead of keeping a discreet silence, she was constantly introducing discord into the home with her opinions.
During the first days of the war, she kept herself locked in her room, joining the family only when summoned to the dining room. With tightly puckered mouth and an absent-minded air, she would then seat herself at the table, pretending not to hear Don Marcelo's verbal outpourings of enthusiasm. He enjoyed describing the departure of the troops, the moving scenes in the streets and at the stations, commenting on events with an optimism sure of the first news of the war. Two things were beyond all discussion. The bayonet was the secret of the French, and the Germans were shuddering with terror before its fatal, glistening point. . . . The '75 cannon had proved itself a unique jewel, its shots being absolutely sure. He was really feeling sorry for the enemy's artillery since its projectiles so seldom exploded even when well aimed. . . . Furthermore, the French troops had entered victoriously into Alsace; many little towns were already theirs.
"Now it is as it was in the '70's," he would exult, brandishing his fork and waving his napkin. "We are going to kick them back to the other side of the Rhine--kick them! . . . That's the word."
Chichi always agreed gleefully while Dona Elena was raising her eyes to heaven, as though silently calling upon somebody hidden in the ceiling to bear witness to such errors and blasphemies.
The kind Dona Luisa always sought her out afterwards in the retirement of her room, believing it necessary to give sisterly counsel to one living so far from home. The Romantica did not maintain her austere silence before the sister who had always venerated her superior instruction; so now the poor lady was overwhelmed with accounts of the stupendous forces of Germany, enunciated with all the authority of a wife of a great Teutonic patriot, and a mother of an almost celebrated professor. According to her graphic picture, millions of men were now surging forth in enormous streams, thousands of cannons were filing by, and tremendous mortars like monstrous turrets. And towering above all this vast machinery of destruction was a man who alone was worth an army, a being who knew everything and could do everything, handsome, intelligent, and infallible as a god--the Emperor.
"The French just don't know what's ahead of them," declared Dona Elena. "We are going to annihilate them. It is merely a matter of two weeks. Before August is ended, the Emperor will have entered Paris."
Senora Desnoyers was so greatly impressed by these dire prophecies that she could not hide them from her family. Chichi waxed indignant at her mother's credulity and her aunt's Germanism. Martial fervor was flaming up in the former Peoncito. Ay, if the women could only go to war! . . . She enjoyed picturing herself on horseback in command of a regiment of dragoons, charging the enemy with other Amazons as dashing and buxom as she. Then her fondness for skating would predominate over her tastes for the cavalry, and she would long to be an Alpine hunter, a diable bleu among those who slid on long runners, with musket slung across the back and alpenstock in hand, over the snowy slopes of the Vosges.
But the government did not appreciate the valorous women, and she could obtain no other part in the war but to admire the uniform of her true-love, Rene Lacour, converted into a soldier. The senator's son certainly looked beautiful. He was tall and fair, of a rather feminine type recalling his dead mother. In his fiancee's opinion, Rene was just "a little sugar soldier." At first she had been very proud to walk the streets by the side of this warrior, believing that his uniform had greatly augmented his personal charm, but little by little a revulsion of feeling was clouding her joy. The senatorial prince was nothing but a common soldier. His illustrious father, fearful that the war might cut off forever the dynasty of the Lacours, indispensable to the welfare of the State, had had his son mustered into the auxiliary service of the army. By this arrangement, his heir need not leave Paris, ranking about as high as those who were kneading the bread or mending the soldiers' cloaks. Only by going to the front could he claim--as a student of the Ecole Centrale--his title of sub-lieutenant in the Artillery Reserves.
"What happiness for me that you have to stay in Paris! How delighted I am that you are just a private! . . ."
And yet, at the same time, Chichi was thinking enviously of her friends whose lovers and brothers were officers. They could parade the streets, escorted by a gold-trimmed kepis that attracted the notice of the passers-by and the respectful salute of the lower ranks.
Each time that Dona Luisa, terrified by the forecasts of her sister, undertook to communicate her dismay to her daughter, the girl would rage up and down, exclaiming:--
"What lies my aunt tells you! . . . Since her husband is a German, she sees everything as he wishes it to be. Papa knows more; Rene's father is better informed about these things. We are going to give them a thorough hiding! What fun it will be when they hit my uncle and all my snippy cousins in Berlin! . . ."
"Hush," groaned her mother. "Do not talk such nonsense. The war has turned you as crazy as your father."
The good lady was scandalized at hearing the outburst of savage desires that the mere mention of the Kaiser always aroused in her daughter. In times of peace, Chichi had rather admired this personage. "He's not so bad-looking," she had commented, "but with a very ordinary smile." Now all her wrath was concentrated upon him. The thousands of women that were weeping through his fault! The mothers without sons, the wives without husbands, the poor children left in the burning towns! . . . Ah, the vile wretch! . . . And she would brandish her knife of the old Peoncito days--a dagger with silver handle and sheath richly chased, a gift that her grandfather had exhumed from some forgotten souvenirs of his childhood in an old valise. The very first German that she came across was doomed to death. Dona Luisa was terrified to find her flourishing this weapon before her dressing mirror. She was no longer yearning to be a cavalryman nor a diable bleu. She would be entirely content if they would leave her, alone in some closed space with the detested monster. In just five minutes she would settle the universal conflict.
"Defend yourself, Boche," she would shriek, standing at guard as in her childhood she had seen the peons doing on the ranch.
And with a knife-thrust above and below, she would pierce his imperial vitals. Immediately there resounded in her imagination, shouts of joy, the gigantic sigh of millions of women freed at last from the bloody nightmare--thanks to her playing the role of Judith or Charlotte Corday, or a blend of all the heroic women who had killed for the common weal. Her savage fury made her continue her imaginary slaughter, dagger in hand. Second stroke!--the Crown Prince rolling to one side and his head to the other. A rain of dagger thrusts!--all the invincible generals of whom her aunt had been boasting fleeing with their insides in their hands--and bringing up the rear, that fawning lackey who wished to receive the same things as those of highest rank--the uncle from Berlin. . . . Ay, if she could only get the chance to make these longings a reality!
"You are mad," protested her mother. "Completely mad! How can a ladylike girl talk in such a way?" . . .
Surprising her niece in the ecstasy of these delirious ravings, Dona Elena would raise her eyes to heaven, abstaining thenceforth from communicating her opinions, reserving them wholly for the mother.
Don Marcelo's indignation took another bound when his wife repeated to him the news from her sister. All a lie! . . . The war was progressing finely. On the Eastern frontier the French troops had advanced through the interior of Alsace and Lorraine.
"But--Belgium is invaded, isn't it?" asked Dona Luisa. "And those poor Belgians?"
Desnoyers retorted indignantly.
"That invasion of Belgium is treason. . . . And a treason never amounts to anything among decent people."
He said it in all good faith as though war were a duel in which the traitor was henceforth ruled out and unable to continue his outrages. Besides, the heroic resistance of Belgium was nourishing the most absurd illusions in his heart. The Belgians were certainly supernatural men destined to the most stupendous achievements. . . . And to think that heretofore he had never taken this plucky little nation into account! . . . For several days, he considered Liege a holy city before whose walls the Teutonic power would be completely confounded. Upon the fall of Liege, his unquenchable faith sought another handle. There were still remaining many other Lieges in the interior. The Germans might force their way further in; then we would see how many of them ever succeeded in getting out. The entry into Brussels did not disquiet him. An unprotected city! . . . Its surrender was a foregone conclusion. Now the Belgians would be better able to defend Antwerp. Neither did the advance of the Germans toward the French frontier alarm him at all. In vain his sister-in-law, with malicious brevity, mentioned in the dining-room the progress of the invasion, so confusedly outlined in the daily papers. The Germans were already at the frontier.
"And what of that?" yelled Don Marcelo. "Soon they will meet someone to talk to! Joffre is going to meet them. Our armies are in the East, in the very place where they ought to be, on the true frontier, at the door of their home. But they have to deal with a treacherous and cowardly opponent that instead of marching face to face, leaps the walls of the corral like sheep-stealers. . . . Their underhand tricks won't do them any good, though! The French are already in Belgium and adjusting the accounts of the Germans. We shall smash them so effectually that never again will they be able to disturb the peace of the world. And that accursed individual with the rampant moustache we are going to put in a cage, and exhibit in the place de la Concorde!"
Inspired by the paternal braggadocio, Chichi also launched forth exultingly an imaginary series of avenging torments and insults as a complement to this Imperial Exhibition.
These allusions to the Emperor aggravated Frau von Hartrott more than anything else. In the first days of the war, her sister had surprised her weeping before the newspaper caricatures and leaflets sold in the streets.
"Such an excellent man. . . so knightly . . . such a good father to his family! He wasn't to blame for anything. It was his enemies who forced him to assume the offensive."
Her veneration for exalted personages was making her take the attacks upon this admired grandee as though they were directed against her own family.
One night in the dining room, she abandoned her tragic silence. Certain sarcasms, shot by Desnoyers at her hero, brought the tears to her eyes, and this sentimental indulgence turned her thoughts upon her sons who were undoubtedly taking part in the invasion.
Her brother-in-law was longing for the extermination of all the enemy. "May every barbarian be exterminated! . . . every one of the bandits in pointed helmets who have just burned Louvain and other towns, shooting defenceless peasants, old men, women and children! "
"You forget that I am a mother," sobbed Frau von Hartrott. "You forget that among those whose extermination you are imploring, are my sons."
Her violent weeping made Desnoyers realize more than ever the abyss yawning between him and this woman lodged in his own house. His resentment, however, overleapt family considerations. . . . She might weep for her sons all she wanted to; that was her right. But these sons were aggressors and wantonly doing evil. It was the other mothers who were inspiring his pity--those who were living tranquilly in their smiling little Belgian towns when their sons were suddenly shot down, their daughters violated and their houses burned to the ground.
As though this description of the horrors of war were a fresh insult to her, Dona Elena wept harder than ever. What falsehoods! The Kaiser was an excellent man. His soldiers were gentlemen, the German army was a model of civilization and goodness. Her husband had belonged to this army, her sons were marching in its ranks. And she knew her sons--well-bred and incapable of wrong-doing. These Belgian calumnies she could no longer listen to . . . and, with dramatic abandon, she flung herself into the arms of her sister.
Senor Desnoyers raged against the fate that condemned him to live under the same roof with this woman. What an unfortunate complication for the family! . . . and the frontiers were closed, making it impossible to get rid of her!
"Very well, then," he thundered. "Let us talk no more about it. We shall never reach an understanding, for we belong to two different worlds. It's a great pity that you can't go back to your own people."
After that, he refrained from mentioning the war in his sister-in- law's presence. Chichi was the only one keeping up her aggressive and noisy enthusiasm. Upon reading in the papers the news of the shootings, sackings, burning of cities, and the dolorous flight of those who had seen their all reduced to ashes, she again felt the necessity of assuming the role of lady-assassin. Ay, if she could only once get her hands on one of those bandits! . . . What did the men amount to anyway if they couldn't exterminate the whole lot? . . .
Then she would look at Rene in his exquisitely fresh uniform, sweet- mannered and smiling as though all war meant to him was a mere change of attire, and she would exclaim enigmatically:
"What luck that you will never have to go to the front! . . . How fine that you don't run any risks!"
And her lover would accept these words as but another proof of her affectionate interest.
One day Don Marcelo was able to appreciate the horrors of the war without leaving Paris. Three thousand Belgian refugees were quartered provisionally in the circus before being distributed among the provinces. When Desnoyers entered this place, he saw in the vestibule the same posters which had been flaunting their spectacular gayeties when he had visited it a few months before with his family.
Now he noticed the odor from a sick and miserable multitude crowded together--like the exhalation from a prison or poorhouse infirmary. He saw a throng that seemed crazy or stupefied with grief. They did not know exactly where they were; they had come thither, they didn't know how. The terrible spectacle of the invasion was still so persistent in their minds that it left room for no other impression. They were still seeing the helmeted men in their peaceful hamlets, their homes in flames, the soldiery firing upon those who were fleeing, the mutilated women done to death by incessant adulterous assault, the old men burned alive, the children stabbed in their cradles by human beasts inflamed by alcohol and license. . . . Some of the octogenarians were weeping as they told how the soldiers of a civilized nation were cutting off the breasts from the women in order to nail them to the doors, how they had passed around as a trophy a new-born babe spiked on a bayonet, how they had shot aged men in the very armchair in which they were huddled in their sorrowful weakness, torturing them first with their jests and taunts.
They had fled blindly, pursued by fire and shot, as crazed with terror as the people of the middle ages trying not to be ridden down by the hordes of galloping Huns and Mongols. And this flight had been across the country in its loveliest festal array, in the most productive of months, when the earth was bristling with ears of grain, when the August sky was most brilliant, and when the birds were greeting the opulent harvest with their glad songs!
In that circus, filled with the wandering crowds, the immense crime was living again. The children were crying with a sound like the bleating of lambs; the men were looking wildly around with terrified eyes; the frenzied women were howling like the insane. Families had become separated in the terror of flight. A mother of five little ones now had but one. The parents, as they realized the number missing, were thinking with anguish of those who had disappeared. Would they ever find them again? . . . Or were they already dead? . . .
Don Marcelo returned home, grinding his teeth and waving his cane in an alarming manner. Ah, the bandits! . . . If only his sister-in- law could change her sex! Why wasn't she a man? . . . It would be better still if she could suddenly assume the form of her husband, von Hartrott. What an interesting interview the two brothers-in-law would have! . . .
The war was awakening religious sentiment in the men and increasing the devotion of the women. The churches were filled. Dona Luisa was no longer confining herself to those of her neighborhood. With the courage induced by extraordinary events, she was traversing Paris afoot and going from the Madeleine to Notre Dame, or to the Sacre Coeur on the heights of Montmartre. Religious festivals were now thronged like popular assemblies. The preachers were tribunes. Patriotic enthusiasm interrupted many sermon with applause.
Each morning on opening the papers, before reading the war news, Senora Desnoyers would hunt other notices. "Where was Father Amette going to be to-day?" Then, under the arched vaultings of that temple, would she unite her voice with the devout chorus imploring supernatural intervention. "Lord, save France!" Patriotic religiosity was putting Sainte Genevieve at the head of the favored ones, so from all these fiestas, Dona Luisa, tremulous with faith, would return in expectation of a miracle similar to that which the patron saint of Paris had worked before the invading hordes of Attila.
Dona Elena was also visiting the churches, but those nearest the house. Her brother-in-law saw her one afternoon entering Saint- Honoree d'Eylau. The building was filled with the faithful, and on the altar was a sheaf of flags--France and the allied nations. The imploring crowd was not composed entirely of women. Desnoyers saw men of his age, pompous and grave, moving their lips and fixing steadfast eyes on the altar on which were reflected like lost stars, the flames of the candles. And again he felt envy. They were fathers who were recalling their childhood prayers, thinking of their sons in battle. Don Marcelo, who had always considered religion with indifference, suddenly recognized the necessity of faith. He wanted to pray like the others, with a vague, indefinite supplication, including all beings who were struggling and dying for a land that he had not tried to defend.
He was scandalized to see von Hartrott's wife kneeling among these people raising her eyes to the cross in a look of anguished entreaty. She was begging heaven to protect her husband, the German who perhaps at this moment was concentrating all his devilish faculties on the best organization for crushing the weak; she was praying for her sons, officers of the King of Prussia, who revolver in hand were entering villages and farmlands, driving before them a horror-stricken crowd, leaving behind them fire and death. And these orisons were going to mingle with those of the mothers who were praying for the youth trying to check the onslaught of the barbarians--with the petitions of these earnest men, rigid in their tragic grief! . . .
He had to make a great effort not to protest aloud, and he left the church. His sister-in-law had no right to kneel there among those people.
"They ought to put her out!" he growled indignantly. "She is compromising God with her absurd entreaties."
But in spite of his annoyance, he had to endure her living in his household, and at the same time had taken great pains to prevent her nationality being known outside.
It was a severe trial for Don Marcelo to be obliged to keep silent when at table with his family. He had to avoid the hysterics of his sister-in-law who promptly burst into sighs and sobs at the slightest allusion to her hero; and he feared equally the complaints of his wife, always ready to defend her sister, as though she were the victim. . . . That a man in his own home should have to curb his tongue and speak tactfully! . . .
The only satisfaction permitted him was to announce the military moves. The French had entered Belgium. "It appears that the Boches have had a good set-back." The slightest clash of cavalry, a simple encounter with the advance troops, he would glorify as a decisive victory. "In Lorraine, too, we are making great headway!" . . . But suddenly the fountain of his bubbling optimism seemed to become choked up. To judge from the periodicals, nothing extraordinary was occurring. They continued publishing war-stories so as to keep enthusiasm at fever-heat, but nothing definite. The Government, too, was issuing communications of vague and rhetorical verbosity. Desnoyers became alarmed, his instinct warning him of danger. "There is something wrong," he thought. "There's a spring broken somewhere!"
This lack of encouraging news coincided exactly with the sudden rise in Dona Elena's spirits. With whom had that woman been talking? Whom did she meet when she was on the street? . . . Without dropping her pose as a martyr, with the same woebegone look and drooping mouth, she was talking, and talking treacherously. The torment of Don Marcelo in being obliged to listen to the enemy harbored within his gates! . . . The French had been vanquished in Lorraine and in Belgium at the same time. A body of the army had deserted the colors; many prisoners, many cannon were captured. "Lies! German exaggerations!" howled Desnoyers. And Chichi with the derisive ha-ha's of an insolent girl, drowned out the triumphant communications of the aunt from Berlin. "I don't know, of course," said the unwelcome lodger with mock humility. "Perhaps it is not authentic. I have heard it said." Her host was furious. Where had she heard it said? Who was giving her such news? . . .
And in order to ventilate his wrath, he broke forth into tirades against the enemy's espionage, against the carelessness of the police force in permitting so many Germans to remain hidden in Paris. Then he suddenly became quiet, thinking of his own behavior in this line. He, too, was involuntarily contributing toward the maintenance and support of the foe.
The fall of the ministry and the constitution of a government of national defense made it apparent that something very important must have taken place. The alarms and tears of Dona Luisa increased his nervousness. The good lady was no longer returning from the churches, cheered and strengthened. Her confidential talks with her sister were filling her with a terror that she tried in vain to communicate to her husband. "All is lost. . . . Elena is the only one that knows the truth."
Desnoyers went in search of Senator Lacour. He would know all the ministers; no one could be better informed. "Yes, my friend," said the important man sadly. "Two great losses at Morhange and Charleroi, at the East and the North. The enemy is going to invade French soil! . . . But our army is intact, and will retreat in good order. Good fortune may still be ours. A great calamity, but all is not lost."
Preparations for the defense of Paris were being pushed forward . . . rather late. The forts were supplying themselves with new cannon. Houses, built in the danger zone in the piping times of peace, were now disappearing under the blows of the official demolition. The trees on the outer avenues were being felled in order to enlarge the horizon. Barricades of sacks of earth and tree trunks were heaped at the doors of the old walls. The curious were skirting the suburbs in order to gaze at the recently dug trenches and the barbed wire fences. The Bois de Boulogne was filled with herds of cattle. Near heaps of dry alfalfa steers and sheep were grouped in the green meadows. Protection against famine was uppermost in the minds of a people still remembering the suffering of 1870. Every night, the street lighting was less and less. The sky, on the other hand, was streaked incessantly by the shafts from the searchlights. Fear of aerial invasion was increasing the public uneasiness. Timid people were speaking of Zeppelins, attributing to them irresistible powers, with all the exaggeration that accompanies mysterious dangers.
In her panic, Dona Luisa greatly distressed her husband, who was passing the days in continual alarm, yet trying to put heart into his trembling and anxious wife. "They are going to come, Marcelo; my heart tells me so. The girl! . . . the girl!" She was accepting blindly all the statements made by her sister, the only thing that comforted her being the chivalry and discipline of those troops to which her nephews belonged. The news of the atrocities committed against the women of Belgium were received with the same credulity as the enemy's advances announced by Elena. "Our girl, Marcelo. . . . Our girl!" And the girl, object of so much solicitude, would laugh with the assurance of vigorous youth on hearing of her mother's anxiety. "Just let the shameless fellows come! I shall take great pleasure in seeing them face to face!" And she clenched her right hand as though it already clutched the avenging knife.
The father became tired of this situation. He still had one of his monumental automobiles that an outside chauffeur could manage. Senator Lacour obtained the necessary passports and Desnoyers gave his wife her orders in a tone that admitted of no remonstrance. They must go to Biarritz or to some of the summer resorts in the north of Spain. Almost all the South American families had already gone in the same direction. Dona Luisa tried to object. It was impossible for her to separate herself from her husband. Never before, in their many years of married life, had they once been separated. But a harsh negative from Don Marcelo cut her pleadings short. He would remain. Then the poor senora ran to the rue de la Pompe. Her son! . . . Julio scarcely listened to his mother. Ay! he, too, would stay. So finally the imposing automobile lumbered toward the South carrying Dona Luisa, her sister who hailed with delight this withdrawal before the admired troops of the Emperor, and Chichi, pleased that the war was necessitating an excursion to the fashionable beaches frequented by her friends.
Don Marcelo was at last alone. The two coppery maids had followed by rail the flight of their mistresses. At first the old man felt a little bewildered by this solitude, which obliged him to eat uncomfortable meals in a restaurant and pass the nights in enormous and deserted rooms still bearing traces of their former occupants. The other apartments in the building had also been vacated. All the tenants were foreigners, who had discreetly decamped, or French families surprised by the war when summering at their country seats.
Instinctively he turned his steps toward the rue de la Pompe gazing from afar at the studio windows. What was his son doing? . . . Undoubtedly continuing his gay and useless life. Such men only existed for their own selfish folly.
Desnoyers felt satisfied with the stand he had taken. To follow the family would be sheer cowardice. The memory of his youthful flight to South America was sufficient martyrdom; he would finish his life with all the compensating bravery that he could muster. "No, they will not come," he said repeatedly, with the optimism of enthusiasm. I have a presentiment that they will never reach Paris. And even if they DO come!" . . . The absence of his family brought him a joyous valor and a sense of bold youthfulness. Although his age might prevent his going to war in the open air, he could still fire a gun, immovable in a trench, without fear of death. Let them come! . . . He was longing for the struggle with the anxiety of a punctilious business man wishing to cancel a former debt as soon as possible.
In the streets of Paris he met many groups of fugitives. They were from the North and East of France, and had escaped before the German advance. Of all the tales told by this despondent crowd--not knowing where to go and dependent upon the charity of the people--he was most impressed with those dealing with the disregard of property. Shootings and assassinations made him clench his fists, with threats of vengeance; but the robberies authorized by the heads, the wholesale sackings by superior order, followed by fire, appeared to him so unheard-of that he was silent with stupefaction, his speech seeming to be temporarily paralyzed. And a people with laws could wage war in this fashion, like a tribe of Indians going to combat in order to rob! . . . His adoration of property rights made him beside himself with wrath at these sacrileges.
He began to worry about his castle at Villeblanche. All that he owned in Paris suddenly seemed to him of slight importance to what he had in his historic mansion. His best paintings were there, adorning the gloomy salons; there, too, the furnishings captured from the antiquarians after an auctioneering battle, and the crystal cabinets, the tapestries, the silver services.
He mentally reviewed all of these objects, not letting a single one escape his inventory. Things that he had forgotten came surging up in his memory, and the fear of losing them seemed to give them greater lustre, increasing their size, and intensifying their value. All the riches of Villeblanche were concentrated in one certain acquisition which Desnoyers admired most of all; for, to his mind, it stood for all the glory of his immense fortune--in fact, the most luxurious appointment that even a millionaire could possess.
"My golden bath," he thought. "I have there my tub of gold."
This bath of priceless metal he had procured, after much financial wrestling, from an auction, and he considered the purchase the culminating achievement of his wealth. No one knew exactly its origin; perhaps it had been the property of luxurious princes; perhaps it owed its existence to the caprice of a demi-mondaine fond of display. He and his had woven a legend around this golden cavity adorned with lions' claws, dolphins and busts of naiads. Undoubtedly it was once a king's! Chichi gravely affirmed that it had been Marie Antoinette's, and the entire family thought that the home on the avenue Victor Hugo was altogether too modest and plebeian to enshrine such a jewel. They therefore agreed to put it in the castle, where it was greatly venerated, although it was useless and solemn as a museum piece. . . . And was he to permit the enemy in their advance toward the Marne to carry off this priceless treasure, as well as the other gorgeous things which he had accumulated with such patience Ah, no! His soul of a collector would be capable of the greatest heroism before he would let that go.
Each day was bringing a fresh sheaf of bad news. The papers were saying little, and the Government was so veiling its communications that the mind was left in great perplexity. Nevertheless, the truth was mysteriously forcing its way, impelled by the pessimism of the alarmists, and the manipulation of the enemy's spies who were remaining hidden in Paris. The fatal news was being passed along in whispers. "They have already crossed the frontier. . . ." "They are already in Lille." . . . They were advancing at the rate of thirty-five miles a day. The name of von Kluck was beginning to have a familiar ring. English and French were retreating before the enveloping progression of the invaders. Some were expecting another Sedan. Desnoyers was following the advance of the Germans, going daily to the Gare du Nord. Every twenty-four hours was lessening the radius of travel. Bulletins announcing that tickets would not be sold for the Northern districts served to indicate how these places were falling, one after the other, into the power of the invader. The shrinkage of national territory was going on with such methodical regularity that, with watch in hand, and allowing an advance of thirty-five miles daily, one might gauge the hour when the lances of the first Uhlans would salute the Eiffel tower. The trains were running full, great bunches of people overflowing from their coaches.
In this time of greatest anxiety, Desnoyers again visited his friend, Senator Lacour, in order to astound him with the most unheard-of petitions. He wished to go immediately to his castle. While everybody else was fleeing toward Paris he earnestly desired to go in the opposite direction. The senator couldn't believe his ears.
"You are beside yourself!" he exclaimed. "It is necessary to leave Paris, but toward the South. I will tell you confidentially, and you must not tell because it is a secret--we are leaving at any minute; we are all going, the President, the Government, the Chambers. We are going to establish ourselves at Bordeaux as in 1870. The enemy is surely approaching; it is only a matter of days . . . of hours. We know little of just what is happening, but all the news is bad. The army still holds firm, is yet intact, but retreating . . . retreating, all the time yielding ground. . . . Believe me, it will be better for you to leave Paris. Gallieni will defend it, but the defense is going to be hard and horrible. . . . Although Paris may surrender, France will not necessarily surrender. The war will go on if necessary even to the frontiers of Spain . . . but it is sad . . . very sad!"
And he offered to take his friend with him in that flight to Bordeaux of which so few yet knew. Desnoyers shook his head. No; be wanted to go the castle of Villeblanche. His furniture . . . his riches . . . his parks.
"But you will be taken prisoner!" protested the senator. "Perhaps they will kill you!"
A shrug of indifference was the only response. He considered himself energetic enough to struggle against the entire German army in the defense of his property. The important thing was to get there, and then--just let anybody dare to touch his things! . . . The senator looked with astonishment at this civilian infuriated by the lust of possession. It reminded him of some Arab merchants that he had once known, ordinarily mild and pacific, who quarrelled and killed like wild beasts when Bedouin thieves seized their wares. This was not the moment for discussion, and each must map out his own course. So the influential senator finally yielded to the desire of his friend. If such was his pleasure, let him carry it through! So he arranged that his mad petitioner should depart that very night on a military train that was going to meet the army.
That journey put Don Marcelo in touch with the extraordinary movement which the war had developed on the railroads. His train took fourteen hours to cover the distance normally made in two. It was made up of freight cars filled with provisions and cartridges, with the doors stamped and sealed. A third-class car was occupied by the train escort, a detachment of provincial guards. He was installed in a second-class compartment with the lieutenant in command of this guard and certain officials on their way to join their regiments after having completed the business of mobilization in the small towns in which they were stationed before the war. The crowd, habituated to long detentions, was accustomed to getting out and settling down before the motionless locomotive, or scattering through the nearby fields.
In the stations of any importance all the tracks were occupied by rows of cars. High-pressure engines were whistling, impatient to be off. Groups of soldiers were hesitating before the different trains, making mistakes, getting out of one coach to enter others. The employees, calm but weary-looking, were going from side to side, giving explanations about mountains of all sorts of freight and arranging them for transport. In the convoy in which Desnoyers was placed the Territorials were sleeping, accustomed to the monotony of acting as guard. Those in charge of the horses had opened the sliding doors, seating themselves on the floor with their legs hanging over the edge. The train went very slowly during the night, across shadowy fields, stopping here and there before red lanterns and announcing its presence by prolonged whistling.
In some stations appeared young girls clad in white with cockades and pennants on their breasts. Day and night they were there, in relays, so that no train should pass through without a visit. They offered, in baskets and trays, their gifts to the soldiers--bread, chocolate, fruit. Many, already surfeited, tried to resist, but had to yield eventually before the pleading countenance of the maidens. Even Desnoyers was laden down with these gifts of patriotic enthusiasm.
He passed a great part of the night talking with his travelling companions. Only the officers had vague directions as to where they were to meet their regiments, for the operations of war were daily changing the situation. Faithful to duty, they were passing on, hoping to arrive in time for the decisive combat. The Chief of the Guard had been over the ground, and was the only one able to give any account of the retreat. After each stop the train made less progress. Everybody appeared confused. Why the retreat? . . . The army had undoubtedly suffered reverses, but it was still united and, in his opinion, ought to seek an engagement where it was. The retreat was leaving the advance of the enemy unopposed. To what point were they going to retreat? . . . They who two weeks before were discussing in their garrisons the place in Belgium where their adversaries were going to receive their death blow and through what places their victorious troops would invade Germany! . . .
Their admission of the change of tactics did not reveal the slightest discouragement. An indefinite but firm hope was hovering triumphantly above their vacillations. The Generalissimo was the only one who possessed the secret of events. And Desnoyers approved with the blind enthusiasm inspired by those in whom we have confidence. Joffre! . . . That serious and calm leader would finally bring things out all right. Nobody ought to doubt his ability; he was the kind of man who always says the decisive word.
At daybreak Don Marcelo left the train. "Good luck to you!" And he clasped the hands of the brave young fellows who were going to die, perhaps in a very short time. Finding the road unexpectedly open, the train started immediately and Desnoyers found himself alone in the station. In normal times a branch road would have taken him on to Villeblanche, but the service was now suspended for lack of a train crew. The employees had been transferred to the lines crowded with the war transportation.
In vain he sought, with most generous offers, a horse, a simple cart drawn by any kind of old beast, in order to continue his trip. The mobilization had appropriated the best, and all other means of transportation had disappeared with the flight of the terrified. He would have to walk the eight miles. The old man did not hesitate. Forward March! And he began his course along the dusty, straight, white highway running between an endless succession of plains. Some groups of trees, some green hedges and the roofs of various farms broke the monotony of the countryside. The fields were covered with stubble from the recent harvest. The haycocks dotted the ground with their yellowish cones, now beginning to darken and take on a tone of oxidized gold. In the valleys the birds were flitting about, shaking off the dew of dawn.
The first rays of the sun announced a very hot day. Around the hay stacks Desnoyers saw knots of people who were getting up, shaking out their clothes, and awaking those who were still sleeping. They were fugitives camping near the station in the hope that some train would carry them further on, they knew not where. Some had come from far-away districts; they had heard the cannon, had seen war approaching, and for several days had been going forward, directed by chance. Others, infected with the contagion of panic, had fled, fearing to know the same horrors. . . . Among them he saw mothers with their little ones in their arms, and old men who could only walk with a cane in one hand and the other arm in that of some member of the family, and a few old women, withered and motionless as mummies, who were sleeping as they were trundled along in wheelbarrows. When the sun awoke this miserable band they gathered themselves together with heavy step, still stiffened by the night. Many were going toward the station in the hope of a train which never came, thinking that, perhaps, they might have better luck during the day that was just dawning. Some were continuing their way down the track, hoping that fate might be more propitious in some other place.
Don Marcelo walked all the morning long. The white, rectilinear ribbon of roadway was spotted with approaching groups that on the horizon line looked like a file of ants. He did not see a single person going in his direction. All were fleeing toward the South, and on meeting this city gentleman, well-shod, with walking stick and straw hat, going on alone toward the country which they were abandoning in terror, they showed the greatest astonishment. They concluded that he must be some functionary, some celebrity from the Government.
At midday he was able to get a bit of bread, a little cheese and a bottle of white wine from a tavern near the road. The proprietor was at the front, his wife sick and moaning in her bed. The mother, a rather deaf old woman surrounded by her grandchildren, was watching from the doorway the procession of fugitives which had been filing by for the last three days. "Monsieur, why do they flee?" she said to Desnoyers. "War only concerns the soldiers. We countryfolk have done no wrong to anybody, and we ought not to be afraid."
Four hours later, on descending one of the hills that bounded the valley of the Marne, he saw afar the roofs of Villeblanche clustered around the church, and further on, beyond a little grove, the slatey points of the round towers of his castle.
The streets of the village were deserted. Only on the outer edges of the square did he see some old women sitting as in the placid evenings of bygone summers. Half of the neighborhood had fled; the others were staying by their firesides through sedentary routine, or deceiving themselves with a blind optimism. If the Prussians should approach, what could they do to them? . . . They would obey their orders without attempting any resistance, and it is impossible to punish people who obey. . . . Anything would be preferable to losing the homes built by their forefathers which they had never left.
In the square he saw the mayor and the principal inhabitants grouped together. Like the women, they all stared in astonishment at the owner of the castle. He was the most unexpected of apparitions. While so many were fleeing toward Paris, this Parisian had come to join them and share in their fate. A smile of affection, a look of sympathy began to appear on the rough, bark-like countenances of the suspicious rustics. For a long time Desnoyers had been on bad terms with the entire village. He had harshly insisted on his rights, showing no tolerance in matters touching his property. He had spoken many times of bringing suit against the mayor and sending half of the neighborhood to prison, so his enemies had retaliated by treacherously invading his lands, poaching in his hunting preserves, and causing him great trouble with counter-suits and involved claims. His hatred of the community had even united him with the priest because he was on terms of permanent hostility with the mayor. But his relations with the Church turned out as fruitless as his struggles with the State. The priest was a kindly old soul who bore a certain resemblance to Renan, and seemed interested only in getting alms for his poor out of Don Marcelo, even carrying his good-natured boldness so far as to try to excuse the marauders on his property.
How remote these struggles of a few months ago now seemed to him! . . . The millionaire was greatly surprised to see the priest, on leaving his house to enter the church, greet the mayor as he passed, with a friendly smile.
After long years of hostile silence they had met on the evening of August first at the foot of the church tower. The bell was ringing the alarm, announcing the mobilization to the men who were in the field--and the two enemies had instinctively clasped hands. All French! This affectionate unanimity also came to meet the detested owner of the castle. He had to exchange greetings first on one side, then on the other, grasping many a horny hand. Behind his back the people broke out into kindly excuses--"A good man, with no fault except a little bad temper. . . ." And in a few minutes Monsieur Desnoyers was basking in the delightful atmosphere of popularity.
As the iron-willed old gentleman approached his castle he concluded that, although the fatigue of the long walk was making his knees tremble, the trip had been well worth while. Never had his park appeared to him so extensive and so majestic as in that summer twilight, never so glistening white the swans that were gliding double over the quiet waters, never so imposing the great group of towers whose inverted images were repeated in the glassy green of the moats. He felt eager to see at once the stables with their herds of animals; then a brief glance showed him that the stalls were comparatively empty. Mobilization had carried off his best work horses; the driving and riding horses also had disappeared. Those in charge of the grounds and the various stable boys were also in the army. The Warden, a man upwards of fifty and consumptive, was the only one of the personnel left at the castle. With his wife and daughter he was keeping the mangers filled, and from time to time was milking the neglected cows.
Within the noble edifice he again congratulated himself on the adamantine will which had brought him thither. How could he ever give up such riches! . . . He gloated over the paintings, the crystals, the draperies, all bathed in gold by the splendor of the dying day, and he felt more than proud to be their possessor. This pride awakened in him an absurd, impossible courage, as though he were a gigantic being from another planet, and all humanity merely an ant hill that he could grind under foot. Just let the enemy come! He could hold his own against the whole lot! . . . Then, when his common sense brought him out of his heroic delirium, he tried to calm himself with an equally illogical optimism. They would not come. He did not know why it was, but his heart told him that they would not get that far.
He passed the following morning reconnoitering the artificial meadows that he had made behind the park, lamenting their neglected condition due to the departure of the men, trying himself to open the sluice gates so as to give some water to the pasture lands which were beginning to dry up. The grape vines were extending their branches the length of their supports, and the full bunches, nearly ripe, were beginning to show their triangular lusciousness among the leaves. Ay, who would gather this abundant fruit! . . .
By afternoon he noted an extraordinary amount of movement in the village. Georgette, the Warden's daughter, brought the news that many enormous automobiles and soldiers, French soldiers, were beginning to pass through the main street. In a little while a procession began filing past on the high road near the castle, leading to the bridge over the Marne. This was composed of motor trucks, open and closed, that still had their old commercial signs under their covering of dust and spots of mud. Many of them displayed the names of business firms in Paris, others the names of provincial establishments. With these industrial vehicles requisitioned by mobilization were others from the public service which produced in Desnoyers the same effect as a familiar face in a throng of strangers. On their upper parts were the names of their old routes:--"Madeleine-Bastille, Passy-Bourne," etc. Probably he had travelled many times in these very vehicles, now shabby and aged by twenty days of intense activity, with dented planks and twisted metal, perforated like sieves, but rattling crazily on.
Some of the conveyances displayed white discs with a red cross in the center; others had certain letters and figures comprehensible only to those initiates in the secrets of military administration. Within these vehicles--the only new and strong motors--he saw soldiers, many soldiers, but all wounded, with head and legs bandaged, ashy faces made still more tragic by their growing beards, feverish eyes looking fixedly ahead, mouths so sadly immobile that they seemed carven by agonizing groans. Doctors and nurses were occupying various carriages in this convoy escorted by several platoons of horsemen. And mingled with the slowly moving horses and automobiles were marching groups of foot-soldiers, with cloaks unbuttoned or hanging from their shoulders like capes--wounded men who were able to walk and joke and sing, some with arms in splints across their breasts, others with bandaged heads with clotted blood showing through the thin white strips.
The millionaire longed to do something for these brave fellows, but he had hardly begun to distribute some bottles of wine and loaves of bread before a doctor interposed, upbraiding him as though he had committed a crime. His gifts might result fatally. So he had to stand beside the road, sad and helpless, looking after the sorrowful convoy. . . . By nightfall the vehicles filled with the sick were no longer filing by.
He now saw hundreds of drays, some hermetically sealed with the prudence that explosive material requires, others with bundles and boxes that were sending out a stale odor of provisions. Then came great herds of cattle raising thick, whirling clouds of dust in the narrow parts of the road, prodded on by the sticks and yells of the shepherds in kepis.
His thoughts kept him wakeful all night. This, then, was the retreat of which the people of Paris were talking, but in which many wished not to believe--the retreat reaching even there and continuing its indefinite retirement, since nobody knew what its end might be. . . . His optimism aroused a ridiculous hope. Perhaps this was only the retreat of the hospitals and stores which always follows an army. The troops, wishing to be rid of impedimenta, were sending them forward by railway and highway. That must be it. So all through the night, he interpreted the incessant bustle as the passing of vehicles filled with the wounded, with munitions and eatables, like those which had filed by in the afternoon.
Toward morning he fell asleep through sheer weariness, and when he awoke late in the day his first glance was toward the road. He saw it filled with men and horses dragging some rolling objects. But these men were carrying guns and were formed in battalions and regiments. The animals were pulling the pieces of artillery. It was an army. . . . It was the retreat!
Desnoyers ran to the edge of the road to be more convinced of the truth.
Alas, they were regiments such as he had seen leaving the stations of Paris. . . . But with what a very different aspect! The blue cloaks were now ragged and yellowing garments, the trousers faded to the color of a half-baked brick, the shoes great cakes of mud. The faces had a desperate expression, with layers of dust and sweat in all their grooves and openings, with beards of recent growth, sharp as spikes, with an air of great weariness showing the longing to drop down somewhere forever, killing or dying, but without going a step further. They were tramping . . . tramping . . . tramping! Some marches had lasted thirty hours at a stretch. The enemy was on their tracks, and the order was to go on and not to fight, freeing themselves by their fleet-footedness from the involved movements of the invader.
The chiefs suspected the discouraged exhaustion of their men. They might exact of them complete sacrifice of life--but to order them to march day and night, forever fleeing before the enemy when they did not consider themselves vanquished, when they were animated by that ferocious wrath which is the mother of heroism! . . . Their despairing expressions mutely sought the nearest officers, the leaders, even the colonel. They simply could go no further! Such a long, devastating march in such a few days, and what for? . . . The superior officers, who knew no more than their men, seemed to be replying with their eyes, as though they possessed a secret-- "Courage! One more effort! . . . This is going to come to an end very soon."
The vigorous beasts, having no imagination, were resisting less than the men, but their aspect was deplorable. How could these be the same strong horses with glossy coats that he had seen in the Paris processions at the beginning of the previous month? A campaign of twenty days had aged and exhausted them; their dull gaze seemed to be imploring pity. They were weak and emaciated, the outline of their skeletons so plainly apparent that it made their eyes look larger. Their harness, as they moved, showed the skin raw and bleeding. Yet they were pushing on with a mighty effort, concentrating their last powers, as though human demands were beyond their obscure instincts. Some could go no further and suddenly collapsed from sheer fatigue. Desnoyers noticed that the artillerymen rapidly unharnessed them, pushing them out of the road so as to leave the way open for the rest. There lay the skeleton- like frames with stiffened legs and glassy eyes staring fixedly at the first flies already attracted by their miserable carrion.
The cannons painted gray, the gun-carriages, the artillery equipment, all that Don Marcelo had seen clean and shining with the enthusiastic friction that man has given to arms from remote epochs-- even more persistent than that which woman gives to household utensils--were now dirty, overlaid with the marks of endless use, with the wreckage of unavoidable neglect. The wheels were deformed with mud, the metal darkened by the smoke of explosion, the gray paint spotted with mossy dampness.
In the free spaces in this file, in the parentheses opened between battery and regiment, were sandwiched crowds of civilians--miserable groups driven on by the invasion, populations of entire towns that had disintegrated, following the army in its retreat. The approach of a new division would make them leave the road temporarily, continuing their march in the adjoining fields. Then at the slightest opening in the troops they would again slip along the white and even surface of the highway. They were mothers who were pushing hand-carts heaped high with pyramids of furniture and tiny babies, the sick who could hardly drag themselves along, old men carried on the shoulders of their grandsons, old women with little children clinging to their skirts--a pitiful, silent brood.
Nobody now opposed the liberality of the owner of the castle. His entire vintage seemed to be overflowing on the highway. Casks from the last grape-gathering were rolled out to the roadside, and the soldiers filled the metal ladles hanging from their belts with the red stream. Then the bottled wine began making its appearance by order of date, and was instantly lost in the river of men continually flowing by. Desnoyers observed with much satisfaction the effects of his munificence. The smiles were reappearing on the despairing faces, the French jest was leaping from row to row, and on resuming their march the groups began to sing.
Then he went to see the officers who in the village square were giving their horses a brief rest before rejoining their columns. With perplexed countenances and heavy eyes they were talking among themselves about this retreat, so incomprehensible to them all. Days before in Guise they had routed their pursuers, and yet now they were continually withdrawing in obedience to a severe and endless order. "We do not understand it," they were saying. "We do not understand." An ordered and methodical tide was dragging back these men who wanted to fight, yet had to retreat. All were suffering the same cruel doubt. "We do not understand."
And doubt was making still more distressing this day-and-night march with only the briefest rests--because the heads of the divisions were in hourly fear of being cut off from the rest of the army. "One effort more, boys! Courage! Soon we shall rest!" The columns in their retirement were extending hundreds of miles. Desnoyers was seeing only one division. Others and still others were doing exactly this same thing at that very hour, their recessional extending across half of France. All, with the same disheartened obedience, were falling back, the men exclaiming the same as the officials, "We don't understand. We don't understand!"
Don Marcelo soon felt the same sadness and bewilderment as these soldiers. He didn't understand, either. He saw the obvious thing, what all were able to see--the territory invaded without the Germans encountering any stubborn resistance;--entire counties, cities, villages, hamlets remaining in the power of the enemy, at the back of an army that was constantly withdrawing. His enthusiasm suddenly collapsed like a pricked balloon, and all his former pessimism returned. The troops were displaying energy and discipline; but what did that amount to if they had to keep retreating all the time, unable on account of strict orders to fight or defend the land? "Just as it was in the '70's," he sighed. "Outwardly there is more order, but the result is going to be the same."
As though a negative reply to his faint-heartedness, he overheard the voice of a soldier reassuring a farmer: "We are retreating, yes-- only that we may pounce upon the Boches with more strength. Grandpa Joffre is going to put them in his pocket when and where he will."
The mere sound of the Marshal's name revived Don Marcelo's hope. Perhaps this soldier, who was keeping his faith intact in spite of the interminable and demoralizing marches, was nearer the truth than the reasoning and studious officers.
He passed the rest of the day making presents to the last detachments of the column. His wine cellars were gradually emptying. By order of dates, he continued distributing thousands of bottles stored in the subterranean parts of the castle. By evening he was giving to those who appeared weakest bottles covered with the dust of many years. As the lines filed by the men seemed weaker and more exhausted. Stragglers were now passing, painfully drawing their raw and bleeding feet from their shoes. Some had already freed themselves from these torture cases and were marching barefoot, with their heavy boots hanging from their shoulders, and staining the highway with drops of blood. Although staggering with deadly fatigue, they kept their arms and outfits, believing that the enemy was near.
Desnoyers' liberality stupefied many of them. They were accustomed to crossing their native soil, having to struggle with the selfishness of the producer. Nobody had been offering anything. Fear of danger had made the country folk hide their eatables and refuse to lend the slightest aid to their compatriots who were fighting for them.
The millionaire slept badly this second night in his pompous bed with columns and plushes that had belonged to Henry IV--according to the declarations of the salesmen. The troops no longer were marching past. From time to time there straggled by a single battalion, a battery, a group of horsemen--the last forces of the rear guard that had taken their position on the outskirts of the village in order to cover the retreat. The profound silence that followed the turmoil of transportation awoke in his mind a sense of doubt and disquietude. What was he doing there when the soldiers had gone? Was he not crazy to remain there? . . . But immediately there came galloping into his mind the great riches which the castle contained. If he could only take it all away! . . . That was impossible now through want of means and time. Besides, his stubborn will looked upon such flight as a shameful concession. "We must finish what we have begun!" he said to himself. He had made the trip on purpose to guard his own, and he must not flee at the approach of danger. . . .
The following morning, when he went down into the village, he saw hardly any soldiers. Only a single detachment of dragoons was still in the neighborhood; the horsemen were scouring the woods and pushing forward the stragglers at the same time that they were opposing the advance of the enemy. The troopers had obstructed the street with a barricade of carts and furniture. Standing behind this crude barrier, they were watching the white strip of roadway which ran between the two hills covered with trees. Occasionally there sounded stray shots like the snapping of cords. "Ours," said the troopers. These were the last detachments of sharpshooters firing at the advancing Uhlans. The cavalry of the rear guard had the task of opposing a continual resistance to the enemy, repelling the squads of Germans who were trying to work their way along to the retreating columns.
Desnoyers saw approaching along the highroad the last stragglers from the infantry. They were not walking, they rather appeared to be dragging themselves forward, with the firm intention of advancing, but were betrayed by emaciated legs and bleeding feet. Some had sunk down for a moment by the roadside, agonized with weariness, in order to breathe without the weight of their knapsacks, and draw their swollen feet from their leather prisons, and wipe off the sweat; but upon trying to renew their march, they found it impossible to rise. Their bodies seemed made of stone. Fatigue had brought them to a condition bordering on catalepsy so, unable to move, they were seeing dimly the rest of the army passing on as a fantastic file--battalions, more battalions, batteries, troops of horses. Then the silence, the night, the sleep on the stones and dust, shaken by most terrible nightmare. At daybreak they were awakened by bodies of horsemen exploring the ground, rounding up the remnants of the retreat. Ay, it was impossible to move! The dragoons, revolver in hand, had to resort to threats in order to rouse them! Only the certainty that the pursuer was near and might make them prisoners gave them a momentary vigor. So they were forcing themselves up by superhuman effort, staggering, dragging their legs, and supporting themselves on their guns as though they were canes.
Many of these were young men who had aged in an hour and changed into confirmed invalids. Poor fellows! They would not go very far! Their intention was to follow on, to join the column, but on entering the village they looked at the houses with supplicating eyes, desiring to enter them, feeling such a craving for immediate relief that they forgot even the nearness of the enemy.
Villeblanche was now more military than before the arrival of the troops. The night before a great part of the inhabitants had fled, having become infected with the same fear that was driving on the crowds following the army. The mayor and the priest remained. Reconciled with the owner of the castle through his unexpected presence in their midst, and admiring his liberality, the municipal official approached to give him some news. The engineers were mining the bridge over the Marne. They were only waiting for the dragoons to cross before blowing it up. If he wished to go, there was still time.
Again Desnoyers hesitated. Certainly it was foolhardy to remain there. But a glance at the woods over whose branches rose the towers of his castle, settled his doubts. No, no. . . . "We must finish what we have begun!"
The very last band of troopers now made their appearance, coming out of the woods by different paths. They were riding their horses slowly, as though they deplored this retreat. They kept looking behind, carbine in hand, ready to halt and shoot. The others who had been occupying the barricade were already on their mounts. The division reformed, the commands of the officers were heard and a quick trot, accompanied by the clanking of metal, told Don Marcelo that the last of the army had left.
He remained near the barricade in a solitude of intense silence, as though the world were suddenly depopulated. Two dogs, abandoned by the flight of their masters, leaped and sniffed around him, coaxing him for protection. They were unable to get the desired scent in that land trodden down and disfigured by the transit of thousands of men. A family cat was watching the birds that were beginning to return to their haunts. With timid flutterings they were picking at what the horses had left, and an ownerless hen was disputing the banquet with the winged band, until then hidden in the trees and roofs. The silence intensified the rustling of the leaves, the hum of the insects, the summer respiration of the sunburnt soil which appeared to have contracted timorously under the weight of the men in arms.
Desnoyers was losing exact track of the passing of time. He was beginning to believe that all which had gone before must have been a bad dream. The calm surrounding him made what had been happening here seem most improbable.
Suddenly he saw something moving at the far end of the road, at the very highest point where the white ribbon of the highway touched the blue of the horizon. There were two men on horseback, two little tin soldiers who appeared to have escaped from a box of toys. He had brought with him a pair of field glasses that had often surprised marauders on his property, and by their aid he saw more clearly the two riders clad in greenish gray! They were carrying lances and wearing helmets ending in a horizontal plate . . . They! He could not doubt it: before his eyes were the first Uhlans!
For some time they remained motionless, as though exploring the horizon. Then, from the obscure masses of vegetation that bordered the roadside, others and still others came sallying forth in groups. The little tin soldiers no longer were showing their silhouettes against the horizon's blue; the whiteness of the highway was now making their background, ascending behind their heads. They came slowly down, like a band that fears ambush, examining carefully everything around.
The advisability of prompt retirement made Don Marcelo bring his investigations to a close. It would be most disastrous for him if they surprised him here. But on lowering his glasses something extraordinary passed across his field of vision. A short distance away, so that he could almost touch them with his hand, he saw many men skulking along in the shadow of the trees on both sides of the road. His surprise increased as he became convinced that they were Frenchmen, wearing kepis. Where were they coming from? . . . He examined more closely with his spy glass. They were stragglers in a lamentable state of body and a picturesque variety of uniforms-- infantry, Zouaves, dragoons without their horses. And with them were forest guards and officers from the villages that had received too late the news of the retreat--altogether about fifty. A few were fresh and vigorous, others were keeping themselves up by supernatural effort. All were carrying arms.
They finally made the barricade, looking continually behind them, in order to watch, in the shelter of the trees, the slow advance of the Uhlans. At the head of this heterogeneous troop was an official of the police, old and fat, with a revolver in his right hand, his moustache bristling with excitement, and a murderous glitter in his heavy-lidded blue eyes. The band was continuing its advance through the village, slipping over to the other side of the barricade of carts without paying much attention to their curious countryman, when suddenly sounded a loud detonation, making the horizon vibrate and the houses tremble.
"What is that?" asked the officer, looking at Desnoyers for the first time. He explained that it was the bridge which had just been blown up. The leader received the news with an oath, but his confused followers, brought together by chance, remained as indifferent as though they had lost all contact with reality.
"Might as well die here as anywhere," continued the official. Many of the fugitives acknowledged this decision with prompt obedience, since it saved them the torture of continuing their march. They were almost rejoicing at the explosion which had cut off their progress. Instinctively they were gathering in the places most sheltered by the barricade. Some entered the abandoned houses whose doors the dragoons had forced in order to utilize the upper floors. All seemed satisfied to be able to rest, even though they might soon have to fight. The officer went from group to group giving his orders. They must not fire till he gave the word.
Don Marcelo watched these preparations with the immovability of surprise. So rapid and noiseless had been the apparition of the stragglers that he imagined he must still be dreaming. There could be no danger in this unreal situation; it was all a lie. And he remained in his place without understanding the deputy who was ordering his departure with roughest words. Obstinate civilian! . . .
The reverberation of the explosion had filled the highway with horsemen. They were coming from all directions, forming themselves into the advance group. The Uhlans were galloping around under the impression that the village was abandoned.
Desnoyers was enveloped in a rain of crackling noises, as though the trunks of all the trees had split before his eyes.
The impetuous band halted suddenly. Some of their men were rolling on the ground. Some were bending themselves double, trying to get across the road without being seen. Others remained stretched out on their backs or face downward with their arms in front. The riderless horses were racing wildly across the fields with reins dragging, urged on by the loose stirrups.
And after this rude shock which had brought them surprise and death,
the band disappeared, instantly swallowed up by the trees.