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A BELEAGUERED CITY
A NARRATIVE OF CERTAIN RECENT EVENTS IN THE CITY OF SEMUR, IN THE
DEPARTMENT OF THE HAUTE BOURGOGNE
A STORY OF THE SEEN AND THE UNSEEN
by Mrs. Oliphant
THE AUTHOR inscribes this little Book, with tender and grateful
greetings, to those whose sympathy has supported her through many and
long years, the kind audience of her UNKNOWN FRIENDS.
THE NARRATIVE OF M. LE MAIRE: THE CONDITION OF THE CITY.
I, Martin Dupin (de la Clairiere), had the honour of holding the office
of Maire in the town of Semur, in the Haute Bourgogne, at the time when
the following events occurred. It will be perceived, therefore, that no
one could have more complete knowledge of the facts--at once from my
official position, and from the place of eminence in the affairs of the
district generally which my family has held for many generations--by
what citizen-like virtues and unblemished integrity I will not be vain
enough to specify. Nor is it necessary; for no one who knows Semur can
be ignorant of the position held by the Dupins, from father to son. The
estate La Clairiere has been so long in the family that we might very
well, were we disposed, add its name to our own, as so many families in
France do; and, indeed, I do not prevent my wife (whose prejudices I
respect) from making this use of it upon her cards. But, for myself,
_bourgeois_ I was born and _bourgeois_ I mean to die. My residence, like
that of my father and grandfather, is at No. 29 in the Grande Rue,
opposite the Cathedral, and not far from the Hospital of St. Jean. We
inhabit the first floor, along with the _rez-de-chaussee,_ which has
been turned into domestic offices suitable for the needs of the family.
My mother, holding a respected place in my household, lives with us in
the most perfect family union. My wife (_nee_ de Champfleurie) is
everything that is calculated to render a household happy; but, alas one
only of our two children survives to bless us. I have thought these
details of my private circumstances necessary, to explain the following
narrative; to which I will also add, by way of introduction, a simple
sketch of the town itself and its general conditions before these
remarkable events occurred.
It was on a summer evening about sunset, the middle of the month of
June, that my attention was attracted by an incident of no importance
which occurred in the street, when I was making my way home, after an
inspection of the young vines in my new vineyard to the left of La
Clairiere. All were in perfectly good condition, and none of the many
signs which point to the arrival of the insect were apparent. I had come
back in good spirits, thinking of the prosperity which I was happy to
believe I had merited by a conscientious performance of all my duties. I
had little with which to blame myself: not only my wife and relations,
but my dependants and neighbours, approved my conduct as a man; and even
my fellow-citizens, exacting as they are, had confirmed in my favour the
good opinion which my family had been fortunate enough to secure from
father to son. These thoughts were in my mind as I turned the corner of
the Grande Rue and approached my own house. At this moment the tinkle of
a little bell warned all the bystanders of the procession which was
about to pass, carrying the rites of the Church to some dying person.
Some of the women, always devout, fell on their knees. I did not go so
far as this, for I do not pretend, in these days of progress, to have
retained the same attitude of mind as that which it is no doubt becoming
to behold in the more devout sex; but I stood respectfully out of the
way, and took off my hat, as good breeding alone, if nothing else,
demanded of me. Just in front of me, however, was Jacques Richard,
always a troublesome individual, standing doggedly, with his hat upon
his head and his hands in his pockets, straight in the path of M. le
Cure. There is not in all France a more obstinate fellow. He stood
there, notwithstanding the efforts of a good woman to draw him away, and
though I myself called to him. M. le Cure is not the man to flinch; and
as he passed, walking as usual very quickly and straight, his soutane
brushed against the blouse of Jacques. He gave one quick glance from
beneath his eyebrows at the profane interruption, but he would not
distract himself from his sacred errand at such a moment. It is a sacred
errand when any one, be he priest or layman, carries the best he can
give to the bedside of the dying. I said this to Jacques when M. le Cure
had passed and the bell went tinkling on along the street. 'Jacques,'
said I, 'I do not call it impious, like this good woman, but I call it
inhuman. What! a man goes to carry help to the dying, and you show him
This brought the colour to his face; and I think, perhaps, that he might
have become ashamed of the part he had played; but the women pushed in
again, as they are so fond of doing. 'Oh, M. le Maire, he does not
deserve that you should lose your words upon him!' they cried; 'and,
besides, is it likely he will pay any attention to you when he tries to
stop even the _bon Dieu_?'
'The _bon Dieu!_' cried Jacques. 'Why doesn't He clear the way for
himself? Look here. I do not care one farthing for your _bon Dieu_. Here
is mine; I carry him about with me.' And he took a piece of a hundred
sous out of his pocket (how had it got there?) '_Vive l'argent_' he
said. 'You know it yourself, though you will not say so. There is no
_bon Dieu_ but money. With money you can do anything. _L'argent c'est le
'Be silent,' I cried, 'thou profane one!' And the women were still more
indignant than I. 'We shall see, we shall see; when he is ill and would
give his soul for something to wet his lips, his _bon Dieu_ will not do
much for him,' cried one; and another said, clasping her hands with a
shrill cry, 'It is enough to make the dead rise out of their graves!'
'The dead rise out of their graves!' These words, though one has heard
them before, took possession of my imagination. I saw the rude fellow go
along the street as I went on, tossing the coin in his hand. One time it
fell to the ground and rang upon the pavement, and he laughed more
loudly as he picked it up. He was walking towards the sunset, and I too,
at a distance after. The sky was full of rose-tinted clouds floating
across the blue, floating high over the grey pinnacles of the Cathedral,
and filling the long open line of the Rue St. Etienne down which he was
going. As I crossed to my own house I caught him full against the light,
in his blue blouse, tossing the big silver piece in the air, and heard
him laugh and shout _'Vive l'argent!_ This is the only _bon Dieu_.'
Though there are many people who live as if this were their sentiment,
there are few who give it such brutal expression; but some of the people
at the corner of the street laughed too. 'Bravo, Jacques!' they cried;
and one said, 'You are right, _mon ami_, the only god to trust in
nowadays.' 'It is a short _credo_, M. le Maire,' said another, who
caught my eye. He saw I was displeased, this one, and his countenance
changed at once.
'Yes, Jean Pierre,' I said, 'it is worse than short--it is brutal. I
hope no man who respects himself will ever countenance it. It is against
the dignity of human nature, if nothing more.'
'Ah, M. le Maire!' cried a poor woman, one of the good ladies of the
market, with entrenchments of baskets all round her, who had been
walking my way; 'ah, M. le Maire! did not I say true? it is enough to
bring the dead out of their graves.'
'That would be something to see,' said Jean Pierre, with a laugh; 'and I
hope, _ma bonne femme_, that if you have any interest with them, you
will entreat these gentlemen to appear before I go away.'
'I do not like such jesting,' said I. 'The dead are very dead and will
not disturb anybody, but even the prejudices of respectable persons
ought to be respected. A ribald like Jacques counts for nothing, but I
did not expect this from you.'
'What would you, M. le Maire?' he said, with a shrug of his shoulders.
'We are made like that. I respect prejudices as you say. My wife is a
good woman, she prays for two--but me! How can I tell that Jacques is
not right after all? A _grosse piece_ of a hundred sous, one sees that,
one knows what it can do--but for the other!' He thrust up one shoulder
to his ear, and turned up the palms of his hands.
'It is our duty at all times to respect the convictions of others,' I
said, severely; and passed on to my own house, having no desire to
encourage discussions at the street corner. A man in my position is
obliged to be always mindful of the example he ought to set. But I had
not yet done with this phrase, which had, as I have said, caught my ear
and my imagination. My mother was in the great _salle_ of the
_rez-de-chausee,_ as I passed, in altercation with a peasant who had
just brought us in some loads of wood. There is often, it seems to me, a
sort of _refrain_ in conversation, which one catches everywhere as one
comes and goes. Figure my astonishment when I heard from the lips of my
good mother the same words with which that good-for-nothing Jacques
Richard had made the profession of his brutal faith. 'Go!' she cried, in
anger; 'you are all the same. Money is your god. _De grosses pieces_,
that is all you think of in these days.'
'_Eh, bien,_ madame,' said the peasant; 'and if so, what then? Don't you
others, gentlemen and ladies, do just the same? What is there in the
world but money to think of? If it is a question of marriage, you demand
what is the _dot_; if it is a question of office, you ask, Monsieur
Untel, is he rich? And it is perfectly just. We know what money can do;
but as for _le bon Dieu_, whom our grandmothers used to talk about--'
And lo! our _gros paysan_ made exactly the same gesture as Jean Pierre.
He put up his shoulders to his ears, and spread out the palms of his
hands, as who should say, There is nothing further to be said.
Then there occurred a still more remarkable repetition. My mother, as
may be supposed, being a very respectable person, and more or less
_devote_, grew red with indignation and horror.
'Oh, these poor grandmothers!' she cried; 'God give them rest! It is
enough to make the dead rise out of their graves.'
'Oh, I will answer for _les morts_! they will give nobody any trouble,'
he said with a laugh. I went in and reproved the man severely, finding
that, as I supposed, he had attempted to cheat my good mother in the
price of the wood. Fortunately she had been quite as clever as he was.
She went upstairs shaking her head, while I gave the man to understand
that no one should speak to her but with the profoundest respect in my
house. 'She has her opinions, like all respectable ladies,' I said,
'but under this roof these opinions shall always be sacred.' And, to do
him justice, I will add that when it was put to him in this way
Gros-Jean was ashamed of himself.
When I talked over these incidents with my wife, as we gave each other
the narrative of our day's experiences, she was greatly distressed, as
may be supposed. 'I try to hope they are not so bad as Bonne Maman
thinks. But oh, _mon ami!_' she said, 'what will the world come to if
this is what they really believe?'
'Take courage,' I said; 'the world will never come to anything much
different from what it is. So long as there are _des anges_ like thee to
pray for us, the scale will not go down to the wrong side.'
I said this, of course, to please my Agnes, who is the best of wives;
but on thinking it over after, I could not but be struck with the
extreme justice (not to speak of the beauty of the sentiment) of this
thought. The _bon Dieu_--if, indeed, that great Being is as represented
to us by the Church--must naturally care as much for one-half of His
creatures as for the other, though they have not the same weight in the
world; and consequently the faith of the women must hold the balance
straight, especially if, as is said, they exceed us in point of numbers.
This leaves a little margin for those of them who profess the same
freedom of thought as is generally accorded to men--a class, I must add,
which I abominate from the bottom of my heart.
I need not dwell upon other little scenes which impressed the same idea
still more upon my mind. Semur, I need not say, is not the centre of the
world, and might, therefore, be supposed likely to escape the full
current of worldliness. We amuse ourselves little, and we have not any
opportunity of rising to the heights of ambition; for our town is not
even the _chef-lieu_ of the department,--though this is a subject upon
which I cannot trust myself to speak. Figure to yourself that La
Rochette--a place of yesterday, without either the beauty or the
antiquity of Semur--has been chosen as the centre of affairs, the
residence of M. le Prefet! But I will not enter upon this question. What
I was saying was, that, notwithstanding the fact that we amuse ourselves
but little, that there is no theatre to speak of, little society, few
distractions, and none of those inducements to strive for gain and to
indulge the senses, which exist, for instance, in Paris--that capital of
the world--yet, nevertheless, the thirst for money and for pleasure has
increased among us to an extent which I cannot but consider alarming.
Gros-Jean, our peasant, toils for money, and hoards; Jacques, who is a
cooper and maker of wine casks, gains and drinks; Jean Pierre snatches
at every sous that comes in his way, and spends it in yet worse
dissipations. He is one who quails when he meets my eye; he sins _en
cachette_; but Jacques is bold, and defies opinion; and Gros-Jean is
firm in the belief that to hoard money is the highest of mortal
occupations. These three are types of what the population is at Semur.
The men would all sell their souls for a _grosse piece_ of fifty
sous--indeed, they would laugh, and express their delight that any one
should believe them to love souls, if they could but have a chance of
selling them; and the devil, who was once supposed to deal in that
commodity, would be very welcome among us. And as for the _bon
Dieu--pouff!_ that was an affair of the grandmothers--_le bon Dieu c'est
l'argent_. This is their creed. I was very near the beginning of my
official year as Maire when my attention was called to these matters as
I have described above. A man may go on for years keeping quiet
himself--keeping out of tumult, religious or political--and make no
discovery of the general current of feeling; but when you are forced to
serve your country in any official capacity, and when your eyes are
opened to the state of affairs around you, then I allow that an
inexperienced observer might well cry out, as my wife did, 'What will
become of the world?' I am not prejudiced myself--unnecessary to say
that the foolish scruples of the women do not move me. But the devotion
of the community at large to this pursuit of gain-money without any
grandeur, and pleasure without any refinement--that is a thing which
cannot fail to wound all who believe in human nature. To be a
millionaire--that, I grant, would be pleasant. A man as rich as Monte
Christo, able to do whatever he would, with the equipage of an English
duke, the palace of an Italian prince, the retinue of a Russian
noble--he, indeed, might be excused if his money seemed to him a kind of
god. But Gros-Jean, who lays up two sous at a time, and lives on black
bread and an onion; and Jacques, whose _grosse piece_ but secures him
the headache of a drunkard next morning--what to them could be this
miserable deity? As for myself, however, it was my business, as Maire
of the commune, to take as little notice as possible of the follies
these people might say, and to hold the middle course between the
prejudices of the respectable and the levities of the foolish. With
this, without more, to think of, I had enough to keep all my faculties
THE NARRATIVE OF M. LE MAIRE CONTINUED: BEGINNING OF THE LATE REMARKABLE
I do not attempt to make out any distinct connection between the simple
incidents above recorded, and the extraordinary events that followed. I
have related them as they happened; chiefly by way of showing the state
of feeling in the city, and the sentiment which pervaded the
community--a sentiment, I fear, too common in my country. I need not say
that to encourage superstition is far from my wish. I am a man of my
century, and proud of being so; very little disposed to yield to the
domination of the clerical party, though desirous of showing all just
tolerance for conscientious faith, and every respect for the prejudices
of the ladies of my family. I am, moreover, all the more inclined to be
careful of giving in my adhesion to any prodigy, in consequence of a
consciousness that the faculty of imagination has always been one of my
characteristics. It usually is so, I am aware, in superior minds, and it
has procured me many pleasures unknown to the common herd. Had it been
possible for me to believe that I had been misled by this faculty, I
should have carefully refrained from putting upon record any account of
my individual impressions; but my attitude here is not that of a man
recording his personal experiences only, but of one who is the official
mouthpiece and representative of the commune, and whose duty it is to
render to government and to the human race a true narrative of the very
wonderful facts to which every citizen of Semur can bear witness. In
this capacity it has become my duty so to arrange and edit the different
accounts of the mystery, as to present one coherent and trustworthy
chronicle to the world.
To proceed, however, with my narrative. It is not necessary for me to
describe what summer is in the Haute Bourgogne. Our generous wines, our
glorious fruits, are sufficient proof, without any assertion on my part.
The summer with us is as a perpetual _fete_--at least, before the insect
appeared it was so, though now anxiety about the condition of our vines
may cloud our enjoyment of the glorious sunshine which ripens them
hourly before our eyes. Judge, then, of the astonishment of the world
when there suddenly came upon us a darkness as in the depth of winter,
falling, without warning, into the midst of the brilliant weather to
which we are accustomed, and which had never failed us before in the
memory of man! It was the month of July, when, in ordinary seasons, a
cloud is so rare that it is a joy to see one, merely as a variety upon
the brightness. Suddenly, in the midst of our summer delights, this
darkness came. Its first appearance took us so entirely by surprise that
life seemed to stop short, and the business of the whole town was
delayed by an hour or two; nobody being able to believe that at six
o'clock in the morning the sun had not risen. I do not assert that the
sun did not rise; all I mean to say is that at Semur it was still dark,
as in a morning of winter, and when it gradually and slowly became day
many hours of the morning were already spent. And never shall I forget
the aspect of day when it came. It was like a ghost or pale shadow of
the glorious days of July with which we are usually blessed. The
barometer did not go down, nor was there any rain, but an unusual
greyness wrapped earth and sky. I heard people say in the streets, and I
am aware that the same words came to my own lips: 'If it were not full
summer, I should say it was going to snow.' We have much snow in the
Haute Bourgogne, and we are well acquainted with this aspect of the
skies. Of the depressing effect which this greyness exercised upon
myself personally, greyness exercised upon myself personally, I will not
speak. I have always been noted as a man of fine perceptions, and I was
aware instinctively that such a state of the atmosphere must mean
something more than was apparent on the surface. But, as the danger was
of an entirely unprecedented character, it is not to be wondered at that
I should be completely at a loss to divine what its meaning was. It was
a blight some people said; and many were of opinion that it was caused
by clouds of animalculae coming, as is described in ancient writings, to
destroy the crops, and even to affect the health of the population. The
doctors scoffed at this; but they talked about malaria, which, as far as
I could understand, was likely to produce exactly the same effect. The
night closed in early as the day had dawned late; the lamps were lighted
before six o'clock, and daylight had only begun about ten! Figure to
yourself, a July day! There ought to have been a moon almost at the
full; but no moon was visible, no stars--nothing but a grey veil of
clouds, growing darker and darker as the moments went on; such I have
heard are the days and the nights in England, where the seafogs so often
blot out the sky. But we are unacquainted with anything of the kind in
our _plaisant pays de France_. There was nothing else talked of in Semur
all that night, as may well be imagined. My own mind was extremely
uneasy. Do what I would, I could not deliver myself from a sense of
something dreadful in the air which was neither malaria nor animalculae,
I took a promenade through the streets that evening, accompanied by M.
Barbou, my _adjoint_, to make sure that all was safe; and the darkness
was such that we almost lost our way, though we were both born in the
town and had known every turning from our boyhood. It cannot be denied
that Semur is very badly lighted. We retain still the lanterns slung by
cords across the streets which once were general in France, but which,
in most places, have been superseded by the modern institution of gas.
Gladly would I have distinguished my term of office by bringing gas to
Semur. But the expense would have been great, and there were a hundred
objections. In summer generally, the lanterns were of little consequence
because of the brightness of the sky; but to see them now, twinkling
dimly here and there, making us conscious how dark it was, was strange
indeed. It was in the interests of order that we took our round, with a
fear, in my mind at least, of I knew not what. M. l'Adjoint said
nothing, but no doubt he thought as I did.
While we were thus patrolling the city with a special eye to the
prevention of all seditious assemblages, such as are too apt to take
advantage of any circumstances that may disturb the ordinary life of a
city, or throw discredit on its magistrates, we were accosted by Paul
Lecamus, a man whom I have always considered as something of a
visionary, though his conduct is irreproachable, and his life
honourable and industrious. He entertains religious convictions of a
curious kind; but, as the man is quite free from revolutionary
sentiments, I have never considered it to be my duty to interfere with
him, or to investigate his creed. Indeed, he has been treated generally
in Semur as a dreamer of dreams--one who holds a great many
impracticable and foolish opinions--though the respect which I always
exact for those whose lives are respectable and worthy has been a
protection to hire. He was, I think, aware that he owed something to my
good offices, and it was to me accordingly that he addressed himself.
'Good evening, M. le Maire,' he said; 'you are groping about, like
myself, in this strange night.'
'Good evening M. Paul,' I replied. 'It is, indeed, a strange night. It
indicates, I fear, that a storm is coming.'
M. Paul shook his head. There is a solemnity about even his ordinary
appearance. He has a long face, pale, and adorned with a heavy, drooping
moustache, which adds much to the solemn impression made by his
countenance. He looked at me with great gravity as he stood in the
shadow of the lamp, and slowly shook his head.
'You do not agree with me? Well! the opinion of a man like M. Paul
Lecamus is always worthy to be heard.'
'Oh!' he said, 'I am called visionary. I am not supposed to be a
trustworthy witness. Nevertheless, if M. Le Maire will come with me, I
will show him something that is very strange--something that is almost
more wonderful than the darkness--more strange,' he went on with great
earnestness, 'than any storm that ever ravaged Burgundy.'
'That is much to say. A tempest now when the vines are in full
'Would be nothing, nothing to what I can show you. Only come with me to
the Porte St. Lambert.'
'If M. le Maire will excuse me,' said M. Barbou, 'I think I will go
home. It is a little cold, and you are aware that I am always afraid of
the damp.' In fact, our coats were beaded with a cold dew as in
November, and I could not but acknowledge that my respectable colleague
had reason. Besides, we were close to his house, and he had, no doubt,
the sustaining consciousness of having done everything that was really
incumbent upon him. 'Our ways lie together as far as my house,' he said,
with a slight chattering of his teeth. No doubt it was the cold. After
we had walked with him to his door, we proceeded to the Porte St.
Lambert. By this time almost everybody had re-entered their houses. The
streets were very dark, and they were also very still. When we reached
the gates, at that hour of the night, we found them shut as a matter of
course. The officers of the _octroi_ were standing close together at the
door of their office, in which the lamp was burning. The very lamp
seemed oppressed by the heavy air; it burnt dully, surrounded with a
yellow haze. The men had the appearance of suffering greatly from cold.
They received me with a satisfaction which was very gratifying to me.
'At length here is M. le Maire himself,' they said.
'My good friends,' said I, 'you have a cold post to-night. The weather
has changed in the most extraordinary way. I have no doubt the
scientific gentlemen at the Musee will be able to tell us all about
it--M. de Clairon--'
'Not to interrupt M. le Maire,' said Riou, of the _octroi_, 'I think
there is more in it than any scientific gentleman can explain.'
'Ah! You think so. But they explain everything,' I said, with a smile.
'They tell us how the wind is going to blow.'
As I said this, there seemed to pass us, from the direction of the
closed gates, a breath of air so cold that I could not restrain a
shiver. They looked at each other. It was not a smile that passed
between them--they were too pale, too cold, to smile but a look of
intelligence. 'M. le Maire,' said one of them, 'perceives it too;' but
they did not shiver as I did. They were like men turned into ice who
could feel no more.
'It is, without doubt, the most extraordinary weather,' I said. My teeth
chattered like Barbou's. It was all I could do to keep myself steady. No
one made any reply; but Lecamus said, 'Have the goodness to open the
little postern for foot-passengers: M. le Maire wishes to make an
Upon these words, Riou, who knew me well, caught me by the arm. 'A
thousand pardons,' he said, 'M. le Maire; but I entreat you, do not go.
Who can tell what is outside? Since this morning there is something very
strange on the other side of the gates. If M. le Maire would listen to
me, he would keep them shut night and day till _that_ is gone, he would
not go out into the midst of it. _Mon Dieu!_ a man may be brave. I know
the courage of M. le Maire; but to march without necessity into the
jaws of hell: _mon Dieu!_' cried the poor man again. He crossed himself,
and none of us smiled. Now a man may sign himself at the church
door--one does so out of respect; but to use that ceremony for one's own
advantage, before other men, is rare--except in the case of members of a
very decided party. Riou was not one of these. He signed himself in
sight of us all, and not one of us smiled.
The other was less familiar--he knew me only in my public capacity--he
was one Gallais of the Quartier St. Medon. He said, taking off his hat:
'If I were M. le Maire, saving your respect, I would not go out into an
unknown danger with this man here, a man who is known as a pietist, as a
clerical, as one who sees visions--'
'He is not a clerical, he is a good citizen,' I said; 'come, lend us
your lantern. Shall I shrink from my duty wherever it leads me? Nay, my
good friends, the Maire of a French commune fears neither man nor devil
in the exercise of his duty. M. Paul, lead on.' When I said the word
'devil' a spasm of alarm passed over Riou's face. He crossed himself
again. This time I could not but smile. 'My little Riou,' I said, 'do
you know that you are a little imbecile with your piety? There is a time
'Except religion, M. le Maire; that is never out of place,' said
I could not believe my senses. 'Is it a conversion?' I said. 'Some of
our Carmes dechausses must have passed this way.'
'M. le Maire will soon see other teachers more wonderful than the Carmes
dechausses,' said Lecamus. He went and took down the lantern from its
nail, and opened the little door. When it opened, I was once more
penetrated by the same icy breath; once, twice, thrice, I cannot tell
how many times this crossed me, as if some one passed. I looked round
upon the others--I gave way a step. I could not help it. In spite of me,
the hair seemed to rise erect on my head. The two officers stood close
together, and Riou, collecting his courage, made an attempt to laugh.
'M. le Maire perceives,' he said, his lips trembling almost too much to
form the words, 'that the winds are walking about.' 'Hush, for God's
sake!' said the other, grasping him by the arm.
This recalled me to myself; and I followed Lecamus, who stood waiting
for me holding the door a little ajar. He went on strangely, like--I can
use no other words to express it--a man making his way in the face of a
crowd, a thing very surprising to me. I followed him close; but the
moment I emerged from the doorway something caught my breath. The same
feeling seized me also. I gasped; a sense of suffocation came upon me; I
put out my hand to lay hold upon my guide. The solid grasp I got of his
arm re-assured me a little, and he did not hesitate, but pushed his way
on. We got out clear of the gate and the shadow of the wall, keeping
close to the little watch-tower on the west side. Then he made a pause,
and so did I. We stood against the tower and looked out before us. There
was nothing there. The darkness was great, yet through the gloom of the
night I could see the division of the road from the broken ground on
either side; there was nothing there. I gasped, and drew myself up close
against the wall, as Lecamus had also done. There was in the air, in the
night, a sensation the most strange I have ever experienced. I have felt
the same thing indeed at other times, in face of a great crowd, when
thousands of people were moving, rustling, struggling, breathing around
me, thronging all the vacant space, filling up every spot. This was the
sensation that overwhelmed me here--a crowd: yet nothing to be seen but
the darkness, the indistinct line of the road. We could not move for
them, so close were they round us. What do I say? There was
nobody--nothing--not a form to be seen, not a face but his and mine. I
am obliged to confess that the moment was to me an awful moment. I
could not speak. My heart beat wildly as if trying to escape from my
breast--every breath I drew was with an effort. I clung to Lecamus with
deadly and helpless terror, and forced myself back upon the wall,
crouching against it; I did not turn and fly, as would have been
natural. What say I? _did_ not! I _could_ not! they pressed round us so.
Ah! you would think I must be mad to use such words, for there was
nobody near me--not a shadow even upon the road.
Lecamus would have gone farther on; he would have pressed his way boldly
into the midst; but my courage was not equal to this. I clutched and
clung to him, dragging myself along against the wall, my whole mind
intent upon getting back. I was stronger than he, and he had no power to
resist me. I turned back, stumbling blindly, keeping my face to that
crowd (there was no one), but struggling back again, tearing the skin
off my hands as I groped my way along the wall. Oh, the agony of seeing
the door closed! I have buffeted my way through a crowd before now, but
I may say that I never before knew what terror was. When I fell upon the
door, dragging Lecamus with me, it opened, thank God! I stumbled in,
clutching at Riou with my disengaged hand, and fell upon the floor of
the _octroi_, where they thought I had fainted. But this was not the
case. A man of resolution may give way to the overpowering sensations of
the moment. His bodily faculties may fail him; but his mind will not
fail. As in every really superior intelligence, my forces collected for
the emergency. While the officers ran to bring me water, to search for
the eau-de vie which they had in a cupboard, I astonished them all by
rising up, pale, but with full command of myself. 'It is enough,' I
said, raising my hand. 'I thank you, Messieurs, but nothing more is
necessary;' and I would not take any of their restoratives. They were
impressed, as was only natural, by the sight of my perfect
self-possession: it helped them to acquire for themselves a demeanour
befitting the occasion; and I felt, though still in great physical
weakness and agitation, the consoling consciousness of having fulfilled
my functions as head of the community.
'M. le Maire has seen a----what there is outside?' Riou cried,
stammering in his excitement; and the other fixed upon me eyes which
were hungering with eagerness--if, indeed, it is permitted to use such
'I have seen--nothing, Riou,' I said.
They looked at me with the utmost wonder. 'M. le Maire has
seen--nothing?' said Riou. 'Ah, I see! you say so to spare us. We have
proved ourselves cowards; but if you will pardon me, M. le Maire, you,
too, re-entered precipitately--you too! There are facts which may appal
the bravest--but I implore you to tell us what you have seen.'
'I have seen nothing,' I said. As I spoke, my natural calm composure
returned, my heart resumed its usual tranquil beating. 'There is nothing
to be seen--it is dark, and one can perceive the line of the road for
but a little way--that is all. There is nothing to be seen----'
They looked at me, startled and incredulous. They did not know what to
think. How could they refuse to believe me, sitting there calmly raising
my eyes to them, making my statement with what they felt to be an air of
perfect truth? But, then, how account for the precipitate return which
they had already noted, the supposed faint, the pallor of my looks? They
did not know what to think.
And here, let me remark, as in my conduct throughout these remarkable
events, may be seen the benefit, the high advantage, of truth. Had not
this been the truth, I could not have borne the searching of their
looks. But it was true. There was nothing--nothing to be seen; in one
sense, this was the thing of all others which overwhelmed my mind. But
why insist upon these matters of detail to unenlightened men? There was
nothing, and I had seen nothing. What I said was the truth.
All this time Lecamus had said nothing. As I raised myself from the
ground, I had vaguely perceived him hanging up the lantern where it had
been before; now he became distinct to me as I recovered the full
possession of my faculties. He had seated himself upon a bench by the
wall. There was no agitation about him; no sign of the thrill of
departing excitement, which I felt going through my veins as through the
strings of a harp. He was sitting against the wall, with his head
drooping, his eyes cast down, an air of disappointment and despondency
about him--nothing more. I got up as soon as I felt that I could go away
with perfect propriety; but, before I left the place, called him. He got
up when he heard his name, but he did it with reluctance. He came with
me because I asked him to do so, not from any wish of his own. Very
different were the feelings of Riou and Gallais. They did their utmost
to engage me in conversation, to consult me about a hundred trifles, to
ask me with the greatest deference what they ought to do in such and
such cases, pressing close to me, trying every expedient to delay my
departure. When we went away they stood at the door of their little
office close together, looking after us with looks which I found it
difficult to forget; they would not abandon their post; but their faces
were pale and contracted, their eyes wild with anxiety and distress.
It was only as I walked away, hearing my own steps and those of Lecamus
ringing upon the pavement, that I began to realise what had happened.
The effort of recovering my composure, the relief from the extreme
excitement of terror (which, dreadful as the idea is, I am obliged to
confess I had actually felt), the sudden influx of life and strength to
my brain, had pushed away for the moment the recollection of what lay
outside. When I thought of it again, the blood began once more to course
in my veins. Lecamus went on by my side with his head down, the eyelids
drooping over his eyes, not saying a word. He followed me when I called
him: but cast a regretful look at the postern by which we had gone out,
through which I had dragged him back in a panic (I confess it) unworthy
of me. Only when we had left at some distance behind us that door into
the unseen, did my senses come fully back to me, and I ventured to ask
myself what it meant. 'Lecamus,' I said--I could scarcely put my
question into words--'what do you think? what is your idea?--how do you
explain--' Even then I am glad to think I had sufficient power of
control not to betray all that I felt.
'One does not try to explain,' he said slowly; 'one longs to know--that
is all. If M. le Maire had not been--in such haste--had he been willing
to go farther--to investigate----'
'God forbid!' I said; and the impulse to quicken my steps, to get home
and put myself in safety, was almost more than I could restrain. But I
forced myself to go quietly, to measure my steps by his, which were slow
and reluctant, as if he dragged himself away with difficulty from that
which was behind.
What was it? 'Do not ask, do not ask!' Nature seemed to say in my heart.
Thoughts came into my mind in such a dizzy crowd, that the multitude of
them seemed to take away my senses. I put up my hands to my ears, in
which they seemed to be buzzing and rustling like bees, to stop the
sound. When I did so, Lecamus turned and looked at me--grave and
wondering. This recalled me to a sense of my weakness. But how I got
home I can scarcely say. My mother and wife met me with anxiety. They
were greatly disturbed about the hospital of St. Jean, in respect to
which it had been recently decided that certain changes should be made.
The great ward of the hospital, which was the chief establishment for
the patients--a thing which some had complained of as an annoyance
disturbing their rest. So many, indeed, had been the complaints
received, that we had come to the conclusion either that the opening
should be built up, or the office suspended. Against this decision, it
is needless to say, the Sisters of St. Jean were moving heaven and
earth. Equally unnecessary for me to add, that having so decided in my
public capacity, as at once the representative of popular opinion and
its guide, the covert reproaches which were breathed in my presence, and
even the personal appeals made to me, had failed of any result. I
respect the Sisters of St. Jean. They are good women and excellent
nurses, and the commune owes them much. Still, justice must be
impartial; and so long as I retain my position at the head of the
community, it is my duty to see that all have their due. My opinions as
a private individual, were I allowed to return to that humble position,
are entirely a different matter; but this is a thing which ladies,
however excellent, are slow to allow or to understand.
I will not pretend that this was to me a night of rest. In the darkness,
when all is still, any anxiety which may afflict the soul is apt to gain
complete possession and mastery, as all who have had true experience of
life will understand. The night was very dark and very still, the clocks
striking out the hours which went so slowly, and not another sound
audible. The streets of Semur are always quiet, but they were more still
than usual that night. Now and then, in a pause of my thoughts, I could
hear the soft breathing of my Agnes in the adjoining room, which gave me
a little comfort. But this was only by intervals, when I was able to
escape from the grasp of the recollections that held me fast. Again I
seemed to see under my closed eyelids the faint line of the high road
which led from the Porte St. Lambert, the broken ground with its ragged
bushes on either side, and no one--no one there--not a soul, not a
shadow: yet a multitude! When I allowed myself to think of this, my
heart leaped into my throat again, my blood ran in my veins like a river
in flood. I need not say that I resisted this transport of the nerves
with all my might. As the night grew slowly into morning my power of
resistance increased; I turned my back, so to speak, upon my
recollections, and said to myself, with growing firmness, that all
sensations of the body must have their origin in the body. Some
derangement of the system easily explainable, no doubt, if one but held
the clue--must have produced the impression which otherwise it would be
impossible to explain. As I turned this over and over in my mind,
carefully avoiding all temptations to excitement--which is the only
wise course in the case of a strong impression on the nerves--I
gradually became able to believe that this was the cause. It is one of
the penalties, I said to myself, which one has to pay for an
organisation more finely tempered than that of the crowd.
This long struggle with myself made the night less tedious, though,
perhaps, more terrible; and when at length I was overpowered by sleep,
the short interval of unconsciousness restored me like a cordial. I woke
in the early morning, feeling almost able to smile at the terrors of the
night. When one can assure oneself that the day has really begun, even
while it is yet dark, there is a change of sensation, an increase of
strength and courage. One by one the dark hours went on. I heard them
pealing from the Cathedral clock--four, five, six, seven--all dark,
dark. I had got up and dressed before the last, but found no one else
awake when I went out--no one stirring in the house,--no one moving in
the street. The Cathedral doors were shut fast, a thing I have never
seen before since I remember. Get up early who will, Pere Laserques the
sacristan is always up still earlier. He is a good old man, and I have
often heard him say God's house should be open first of all houses, in
case there might be any miserable ones about who had found no shelter in
the dwellings of men. But the darkness had cheated even Pere Laserques.
To see those great doors closed which stood always open gave me a
shiver, I cannot well tell why. Had they been open, there was an
inclination in my mind to have gone in, though I cannot tell why; for I
am not in the habit of attending mass, save on Sunday to set an example.
There were no shops open, not a sound about. I went out upon the
ramparts to the Mont St. Lambert, where the band plays on Sundays. In
all the trees there was not so much as the twitter of a bird. I could
hear the river flowing swiftly below the wall, but I could not see it,
except as something dark, a ravine of gloom below, and beyond the walls
I did not venture to look. Why should I look? There was nothing,
nothing, as I knew. But fancy is so uncontrollable, and one's nerves so
little to be trusted, that it was a wise precaution to refrain. The
gloom itself was oppressive enough; the air seemed to creep with
apprehensions, and from time to time my heart fluttered with a sick
movement, as if it would escape from my control. But everything was
still, still as the dead who had been so often in recent days called out
of their graves by one or another. 'Enough to bring the dead out of
their graves.' What strange words to make use of! It was rather now as
if the world had become a grave in which we, though living, were held
Soon after this the dark world began to lighten faintly, and with the
rising of a little white mist, like a veil rolling upwards, I at last
saw the river and the fields beyond. To see anything at all lightened
my heart a little, and I turned homeward when this faint daylight
appeared. When I got back into the street, I found that the people at
last were stirring. They had all a look of half panic, half shame upon
their faces. Many were yawning and stretching themselves. 'Good morning,
M. le Maire,' said one and another; 'you are early astir.' 'Not so early
either,' I said; and then they added, almost every individual, with a
look of shame, 'We were so late this morning; we overslept
ourselves--like yesterday. The weather is extraordinary.' This was
repeated to me by all kinds of people. They were half frightened, and
they were ashamed. Pere Laserques was sitting moaning on the Cathedral
steps. Such a thing had never happened before. He had not rung the bell
for early mass; he had not opened the Cathedral; he had not called M. le
Cure. 'I think I must be going out of my senses,' he said; 'but then, M.
le Maire, the weather! Did anyone ever see such weather? I think there
must be some evil brewing. It is not for nothing that the seasons
change--that winter comes in the midst of summer.'
After this I went home. My mother came running to one door when I
entered, and my wife to another. '_O mon fils!_' and '_O mon ami!_' they
said, rushing upon me. They wept, these dear women. I could not at first
prevail upon them to tell me what was the matter. At last they confessed
that they believed something to have happened to me, in punishment for
the wrong done to the Sisters at the hospital. 'Make haste, my son, to
amend this error,' my mother cried, 'lest a worse thing befall us!' And
then I discovered that among the women, and among many of the poor
people, it had come to be believed that the darkness was a curse upon us
for what we had done in respect to the hospital. This roused me to
indignation. 'If they think I am to be driven from my duty by their
magic,' I cried; 'it is no better than witchcraft!' not that I believed
for a moment that it was they who had done it. My wife wept, and my
mother became angry with me; but when a thing is duty, it is neither
wife nor mother who will move me out of my way.
It was a miserable day. There was not light enough to see
anything--scarcely to see each other's faces; and to add to our alarm,
some travellers arriving by the diligence (we are still three leagues
from a railway, while that miserable little place, La Rochette, being
the _chef-lieu,_ has a terminus) informed me that the darkness only
existed in Semur and the neighbourhood, and that within a distance of
three miles the sun was shining. The sun was shining! was it possible?
it seemed so long since we had seen the sunshine; but this made our
calamity more mysterious and more terrible. The people began to gather
into little knots in the streets to talk of the strange thing that was
happening In the course of the day M. Barbou came to ask whether I did
not think it would be well to appease the popular feeling by conceding
what they wished to the Sisters of the hospital. I would not hear of it.
'Shall we own that we are in the wrong? I do not think we are in the
wrong,' I said, and I would not yield. 'Do you think the good Sisters
have it in their power to darken the sky with their incantations?' M.
l'Adjoint shook his head. He went away with a troubled countenance; but
then he was not like myself, a man of natural firmness. All the efforts
that were employed to influence him were also employed with me; but to
yield to the women was not in my thoughts.
We are now approaching, however, the first important incident in this
narrative. The darkness increased as the afternoon came on; and it
became a kind of thick twilight, no lighter than many a night. It was
between five and six o'clock, just the time when our streets are the
most crowded, when, sitting at my window, from which I kept a watch
upon the Grande Rue, not knowing what might happen--I saw that some
fresh incident had taken place. Very dimly through the darkness I
perceived a crowd, which increased every moment, in front of the
Cathedral. After watching it for a few minutes, I got my hat and went
out. The people whom I saw--so many that they covered the whole middle
of the _Place_, reaching almost to the pavement on the other side--had
their heads all turned towards the Cathedral. 'What are you gazing at,
my friend?' I said to one by whom I stood. He looked up at me with a
face which looked ghastly in the gloom. 'Look, M. le Maire!' he said;
'cannot you see it on the great door?'
'I see nothing,' said I; but as I uttered these words I did indeed see
something which was very startling. Looking towards the great door of
the Cathedral, as they all were doing, it suddenly seemed to me that I
saw an illuminated placard attached to it, headed with the word
'_Sommation_' in gigantic letters. '_Tiens!_' I cried; but when I
looked again there was nothing. 'What is this? it is some witchcraft!' I
said, in spite of myself. 'Do you see anything, Jean Pierre?'
'M. le Maire,' he said, 'one moment one sees something--the next, one
sees nothing. Look! it comes again.' I have always considered myself a
man of courage, but when I saw this extraordinary appearance the panic
which had seized upon me the former night returned, though in another
form. Fly I could not, but I will not deny that my knees smote together.
I stood for some minutes without being able to articulate a word--which,
indeed, seemed the case with most of those before me. Never have I seen
a more quiet crowd. They were all gazing, as if it was life or death
that was set before them--while I, too, gazed with a shiver going over
me. It was as I have seen an illumination of lamps in a stormy night;
one moment the whole seems black as the wind sweeps over it, the next
it springs into life again; and thus you go on, by turns losing and
discovering the device formed by the lights. Thus from moment to moment
there appeared before us, in letters that seemed to blaze and flicker,
something that looked like a great official placard.
'_Sommation!_'--this was how it was headed. I read a few words at a
time, as it came and went; and who can describe the chill that ran
through my veins as I made it out? It was a summons to the people of
Semur by name--myself at the head as Maire (and I heard afterwards that
every man who saw it saw his own name, though the whole _facade_ of the
Cathedral would not have held a full list of all the people of
Semur)--to yield their places, which they had not filled aright, to
those who knew the meaning of life, being dead. NOUS AUTRES MORTS--these
were the words which blazed out oftenest of all, so that every one saw
them. And 'Go!' this terrible placard said--'Go! leave this place to us
who know the true signification of life.' These words I remember, but
not the rest; and even at this moment it struck me that there was no
explanation, nothing but this _vraie signification de la vie._ I felt
like one in a dream: the light coming and going before me; one word,
then another, appearing--sometimes a phrase like that I have quoted,
blazing out, then dropping into darkness. For the moment I was struck
dumb; but then it came back to my mind that I had an example to give,
and that for me, eminently a man of my century, to yield credence to a
miracle was something not to be thought of. Also I knew the necessity of
doing something to break the impression of awe and terror on the mind of
the people. 'This is a trick,' I cried loudly, that all might hear. 'Let
some one go and fetch M. de Clairon from the Musee. He will tell us how
it has been done.' This, boldly uttered, broke the spell. A number of
pale faces gathered round me. 'Here is M. le Maire--he will clear it
up,' they cried, making room for me that I might approach nearer. 'M.
le Maire is a man of courage--he has judgment. Listen to M. le Maire.'
It was a relief to everybody that I had spoken. And soon I found myself
by the side of M. le Cure, who was standing among the rest, saying
nothing, and with the air of one as much bewildered as any of us. He
gave me one quick look from under his eyebrows to see who it was that
approached him, as was his way, and made room for me, but said nothing.
I was in too much emotion myself to keep silence--indeed, I was in that
condition of wonder, alarm, and nervous excitement, that I had to speak
or die; and there seemed an escape from something too terrible for flesh
and blood to contemplate in the idea that there was trickery here. 'M.
le Cure,' I said, 'this is a strange ornament that you have placed on
the front of your church. You are standing here to enjoy the effect. Now
that you have seen how successful it has been, will not you tell me in
confidence how it is done?'
I am conscious that there was a sneer in my voice, but I was too much
excited to think of politeness. He gave me another of his rapid, keen
'M. le Maire,' he said, 'you are injurious to a man who is as little
fond of tricks as yourself.'
His tone, his glance, gave me a certain sense of shame, but I could not
stop myself. 'One knows,' I said, 'that there are many things which an
ecclesiastic may do without harm, which are not permitted to an ordinary
layman--one who is an honest man, and no more.'
M. le Cure made no reply. He gave me another of his quick glances, with
an impatient turn of his head. Why should I have suspected him? for no
harm was known of him. He was the Cure, that was all; and perhaps we men
of the world have our prejudices too. Afterwards, however, as we waited
for M. de Clairon--for the crisis was too exciting for personal
resentment--M. le Cure himself let drop something which made it apparent
that it was the ladies of the hospital upon whom his suspicions fell.
'It is never well to offend women, M. le Maire,' he said. 'Women do not
discriminate the lawful from the unlawful: so long as they produce an
effect, it does not matter to them.' This gave me a strange impression,
for it seemed to me that M. le Cure was abandoning his own side.
However, all other sentiments were, as may be imagined, but as shadows
compared with the overwhelming power that held all our eyes and our
thoughts to the wonder before us. Every moment seemed an hour till M. de
Clairon appeared. He was pushed forward through the crowd as by magic,
all making room for him; and many of us thought that when science thus
came forward capable of finding out everything, the miracle would
disappear. But instead of this it seemed to glow brighter than ever.
That great word '_Sommation_' blazed out, so that we saw his figure
waver against the light as if giving way before the flames that
scorched him. He was so near that his outline was marked out dark
against the glare they gave. It was as though his close approach
rekindled every light. Then, with a flicker and trembling, word by word
and letter by letter went slowly out before our eyes.
M. de Clairon came down very pale, but with a sort of smile on his face.
'No, M. le Maire,' he said, 'I cannot see how it is done. It is clever.
I will examine the door further, and try the panels. Yes, I have left
some one to watch that nothing is touched in the meantime, with the
permission of M. le Cure--'
'You have my full permission,' M. le Cure said; and M. de Clairon
laughed, though he was still very pale. 'You saw my name there,' he
said. 'I am amused--I who am not one of your worthy citizens, M. le
Maire. What can Messieurs les Morts of Semur want with a poor man of
science like me? But you shall have my report before the evening is
With this I had to be content. The darkness which succeeded to that
strange light seemed more terrible than ever. We all stumbled as we
turned to go away, dazzled by it, and stricken dumb, though some kept
saying that it was a trick, and some murmured exclamations with voices
full of terror. The sound of the crowd breaking up was like a regiment
marching--all the world had been there. I was thankful, however, that
neither my mother nor my wife had seen anything; and though they were
anxious to know why I was so serious, I succeeded fortunately in keeping
the secret from them.
M. de Clairon did not appear till late, and then he confessed to me he
could make nothing of it. 'If it is a trick (as of course it must be),
it has been most cleverly done,' he said; and admitted that he was
baffled altogether. For my part, I was not surprised. Had it been the
Sisters of the hospital, as M. le Cure thought, would they have let the
opportunity pass of preaching a sermon to us, and recommending their
doctrines? Not so; here there were no doctrines, nothing but that
pregnant phrase, _la vraie signification de la vie_. This made a more
deep impression upon me than anything else. The Holy Mother herself
(whom I wish to speak of with profound respect), and the saints, and the
forgiveness of sins, would have all been there had it been the Sisters,
or even M. le Cure. This, though I had myself suggested an imposture,
made it very unlikely to my quiet thoughts. But if not an imposture,
what could it be supposed to be?
EXPULSION OF THE INHABITANTS.
I will not attempt to give any detailed account of the state of the town
during this evening. For myself I was utterly worn out, and went to rest
as soon as M. de Clairon left me, having satisfied, as well as I could,
the questions of the women. Even in the intensest excitement weary
nature will claim her dues. I slept. I can even remember the grateful
sense of being able to put all anxieties and perplexities aside for the
moment, as I went to sleep. I felt the drowsiness gain upon me, and I
was glad. To forget was of itself a happiness. I woke up, however,
intensely awake, and in perfect possession of all my faculties, while it
was yet dark; and at once got up and began to dress. The moment of
hesitation which generally follows waking--the little interval of
thought in which one turns over perhaps that which is past, perhaps that
which is to come--found no place within me. I got up without a moment's
pause, like one who has been called to go on a journey; nor did it
surprise me at all to see my wife moving about, taking a cloak from her
wardrobe, and putting up linen in a bag. She was already fully dressed;
but she asked no questions of me any more than I did of her. We were in
haste, though we said nothing. When I had dressed, I looked round me to
see if I had forgotten anything, as one does when one leaves a place. I
saw my watch suspended to its usual hook, and my pocketbook, which I had
taken from my pocket on the previous night. I took up also the light
overcoat which I had worn when I made my rounds through the city on the
first night of the darkness. 'Now,' I said, 'Agnes, I am ready.' I did
not speak to her of where we were going, nor she to me. Little Jean and
my mother met us at the door. Nor did _she_ say anything, contrary to
her custom; and the child was quite quiet. We went downstairs together
without saying a word. The servants, who were all astir, followed us. I
cannot give any description of the feelings that were in my mind. I had
not any feelings. I was only hurried out, hastened by something which I
could not define--a sense that I must go; and perhaps I was too much
astonished to do anything but yield. It seemed, however, to be no force
or fear that was moving me, but a desire of my own; though I could not
tell how it was, or why I should be so anxious to get away. All the
servants, trooping after me, had the same look in their faces; they were
anxious to be gone--it seemed their business to go--there was no
question, no consultation. And when we came out into the street, we
encountered a stream of processions similar to our own. The children
went quite steadily by the side of their parents. Little Jean, for
example, on an ordinary occasion would have broken away--would have run
to his comrades of the Bois-Sombre family, and they to him. But no; the
little ones, like ourselves, walked along quite gravely. They asked no
questions, neither did we ask any questions of each other, as, 'Where
are you going?' or, 'What is the meaning of a so-early promenade?'
Nothing of the kind; my mother took my arm, and my wife, leading little
Jean by the hand, came to the other side. The servants followed. The
street was quite full of people; but there was no noise except the sound
of their footsteps. All of us turned the same way--turned towards the
gates--and though I was not conscious of any feeling except the wish to
go on, there were one or two things which took a place in my memory. The
first was, that my wife suddenly turned round as we were coming out of
the _porte-cochere_, her face lighting up. I need not say to any one who
knows Madame Dupin de la Clairiere, that she is a beautiful woman.
Without any partiality on my part, it would be impossible for me to
ignore this fact: for it is perfectly well known and acknowledged by
all. She was pale this morning--a little paler than usual; and her blue
eyes enlarged, with a serious look, which they always retain more or
less. But suddenly, as we went out of the door, her face lighted up, her
eyes were suffused with tears--with light--how can I tell what it
was?--they became like the eyes of angels. A little cry came from her
parted lips--she lingered a moment, stooping down as if talking to some
one less tall than herself, then came after us, with that light still in
her face. At the moment I was too much occupied to enquire what it was;
but I noted it, even in the gravity of the occasion. The next thing I
observed was M. le Cure, who, as I have already indicated, is a man of
great composure of manner and presence of mind, coming out of the door
of the Presbytery. There was a strange look on his face of astonishment
and reluctance. He walked very slowly, not as we did, but with a visible
desire to turn back, folding his arms across his breast, and holding
himself as if against the wind, resisting some gale which blew behind
him, and forced him on. We felt no gale; but there seemed to be a
strange wind blowing along the side of the street on which M. le Cure
was. And there was an air of concealed surprise in his face--great
astonishment, but a determination not to let any one see that he was
astonished, or that the situation was strange to him. And I cannot tell
how it was, but I, too, though pre-occupied, was surprised to perceive
that M. le Cure was going with the rest of us, though I could not have
Behind M. le Cure there was another whom I remarked. This was Jacques
Richard, he of whom I have already spoken. He was like a figure I have
seen somewhere in sculpture. No one was near him, nobody touching him,
and yet it was only necessary to look at the man to perceive that he
was being forced along against his will. Every limb was in resistance;
his feet were planted widely yet firmly upon the pavement; one of his
arms was stretched out as if to lay hold on anything that should come
within reach. M. le Cure resisted passively; but Jacques resisted with
passion, laying his back to the wind, and struggling not to be carried
away. Notwithstanding his resistance, however, this rough figure was
driven along slowly, struggling at every step. He did not make one
movement that was not against his will, but still he was driven on. On
our side of the street all went, like ourselves, calmly. My mother
uttered now and then a low moan, but said nothing. She clung to my arm,
and walked on, hurrying a little, sometimes going quicker than I
intended to go. As for my wife, she accompanied us with her light step,
which scarcely seemed to touch the ground, little Jean pattering by her
side. Our neighbours were all round us. We streamed down, as in a long
procession, to the Porte St. Lambert. It was only when we got there that
the strange character of the step we were all taking suddenly occurred
to me. It was still a kind of grey twilight, not yet day. The bells of
the Cathedral had begun to toll, which was very startling--not ringing
in their cheerful way, but tolling as if for a funeral; and no other
sound was audible but the noise of footsteps, like an army making a
silent march into an enemy's country. We had reached the gate when a
sudden wondering came over me. Why were we all going out of our houses
in the wintry dusk to which our July days had turned? I stopped, and
turning round, was about to say something to the others, when I became
suddenly aware that here I was not my own master. My tongue clave to the
root of my mouth; I could not say a word. Then I myself was turned
round, and softly, firmly, irresistibly pushed out of the gate. My
mother, who clung to me, added a little, no doubt, to the force against
me, whatever it was, for she was frightened, and opposed herself to any
endeavour on my part to regain freedom of movement; but all that her
feeble force could do against mine must have been little. Several other
men around me seemed to be moved as I was. M. Barbou, for one, made a
still more decided effort to turn back, for, being a bachelor, he had no
one to restrain him. Him I saw turned round as you would turn a
_roulette_. He was thrown against my wife in his tempestuous course, and
but that she was so light and elastic in her tread, gliding out straight
and softly like one of the saints, I think he must have thrown her down.
And at that moment, silent as we all were, his '_Pardon, Madame, mille
pardons, Madame_,' and his tone of horror at his own indiscretion,
seemed to come to me like a voice out of another life. Partially roused
before by the sudden impulse of resistance I have described, I was yet
more roused now. I turned round, disengaging myself from my mother.
'Where are we going? why are we thus cast forth? My friends, help!' I
cried. I looked round upon the others, who, as I have said, had also
awakened to a possibility of resistance. M. de Bois-Sombre, without a
word, came and placed himself by my side; others started from the crowd.
We turned to resist this mysterious impulse which had sent us forth. The
crowd surged round us in the uncertain light.
Just then there was a dull soft sound, once, twice, thrice repeated. We
rushed forward, but too late. The gates were closed upon us. The two
folds of the great Porte St. Lambert, and the little postern for
foot-passengers, all at once, not hurriedly, as from any fear of us, but
slowly, softly, rolled on their hinges and shut--in our faces. I rushed
forward with all my force and flung myself upon the gate. To what use?
it was so closed as no mortal could open it. They told me after, for I
was not aware at the moment, that I burst forth with cries and
exclamations, bidding them 'Open, open in the name of God!' I was not
aware of what I said, but it seemed to me that I heard a voice of which
nobody said anything to me, so that it would seem to have been unheard
by the others, saying with a faint sound as of a trumpet, 'Closed--in
the name of God.' It might be only an echo, faintly brought back to me,
of the words I had myself said.
There was another change, however, of which no one could have any doubt.
When I turned round from these closed doors, though the moment before
the darkness was such that we could not see the gates closing, I found
the sun shining gloriously round us, and all my fellow-citizens turning
with one impulse, with a sudden cry of joy, to hail the full day.
_Le grand jour!_ Never in my life did I feel the full happiness of it,
the full sense of the words before. The sun burst out into shining, the
birds into singing. The sky stretched over us--deep and unfathomable and
blue,--the grass grew under our feet, a soft air of morning blew upon
us; waving the curls of the children, the veils of the women, whose
faces were lit up by the beautiful day. After three days of darkness
what a resurrection! It seemed to make up to us for the misery of being
thus expelled from our homes. It was early, and all the freshness of the
morning was upon the road and the fields, where the sun had just dried
the dew. The river ran softly, reflecting the blue sky. How black it had
been, deep and dark as a stream of ink, when I had looked down upon it
from the Mont St. Lambert! and now it ran as clear and free as the voice
of a little child. We all shared this moment of joy--for to us of the
South the sunshine is as the breath of life, and to be deprived of it
had been terrible. But when that first pleasure was over, the evidence
of our strange position forced itself upon us with overpowering reality
and force, made stronger by the very light. In the dimness it had not
seemed so certain; now, gazing at each other in the clear light of the
natural morning, we saw what had happened to us. No more delusion was
possible. We could not flatter ourselves now that it was a trick or a
deception. M. le Clairon stood there like the rest of us, staring at the
closed gates which science could not open. And there stood M. le Cure,
which was more remarkable still. The Church herself had not been able to
do anything. We stood, a crowd of houseless exiles, looking at each
other, our children clinging to us, our hearts failing us, expelled from
our homes. As we looked in each other's faces we saw our own trouble.
Many of the women sat down and wept; some upon the stones in the road,
some on the grass. The children took fright from them, and began to cry
too. What was to become of us? I looked round upon this crowd with
despair in my heart. It was I to whom every one would look--for lodging,
for direction--everything that human creatures want. It was my business
to forget myself, though I also had been driven from my home and my
city. Happily there was one thing I had left. In the pocket of my
overcoat was my scarf of office. I stepped aside behind a tree, and took
it out, and tied it upon me. That was something. There was thus a
representative of order and law in the midst of the exiles, whatever
might happen. This action, which a great number of the crowd saw,
restored confidence. Many of the poor people gathered round me, and
placed themselves near me, especially those women who had no natural
support. When M. le Cure saw this, it seemed to make a great impression
upon him. He changed colour, he who was usually so calm. Hitherto he had
appeared bewildered, amazed to find himself as others. This, I must add,
though you may perhaps think it superstitious, surprised me very much
too. But now he regained his self-possession. He stepped upon a piece of
wood that lay in front of the gate. 'My children'--he said. But just
then the Cathedral bells, which had gone on tolling, suddenly burst into
a wild peal. I do not know what it sounded like. It was a clamour of
notes all run together, tone upon tone, without time or measure, as
though a multitude had seized upon the bells and pulled all the ropes at
once. If it was joy, what strange and terrible joy! It froze the very
blood in our veins. M. le Cure became quite pale. He stepped down
hurriedly from the piece of wood. We all made a hurried movement farther
off from the gate.
It was now that I perceived the necessity of doing something, of getting
this crowd disposed of, especially the women and the children. I am not
ashamed to own that I trembled like the others; and nothing less than
the consciousness that all eyes were upon me, and that my scarf of
office marked me out among all who stood around, could have kept me from
moving with precipitation as they did. I was enabled, however, to
retire at a deliberate pace, and being thus slightly detached from the
crowd, I took advantage of the opportunity to address them. Above all
things, it was my duty to prevent a tumult in these unprecedented
circumstances. 'My friends,' I said, 'the event which has occurred is
beyond explanation for the moment. The very nature of it is mysterious;
the circumstances are such as require the closest investigation. But
take courage. I pledge myself not to leave this place till the gates are
open, and you can return to your homes; in the meantime, however, the
women and the children cannot remain here. Let those who have friends in
the villages near, go and ask for shelter; and let all who will, go to
my house of La Clairiere. My mother, my wife! recall to yourselves the
position you occupy, and show an example. Lead our neighbours, I entreat
you, to La Clairiere.'
My mother is advanced in years and no longer strong, but she has a great
heart. 'I will go,' she said. 'God bless thee, my son! There will no
harm happen; for if this be true which we are told, thy father is in
There then occurred one of those incidents for which calculation never
will prepare us. My mother's words seemed, as it were to open the
flood-gates; my wife came up to me with the light in her face which I
had seen when we left our own door. 'It was our little Marie--our
angel,' she said. And then there arose a great cry and clamour of
others, both men and women pressing round. 'I saw my mother,' said one,
'who is dead twenty years come the St. Jean.' 'And I my little Rene,'
said another. 'And I my Camille, who was killed in Africa.' And lo, what
did they do, but rush towards the gate in a crowd--that gate from which
they had but this moment fled in terror--beating upon it, and crying
out, 'Open to us, open to us, our most dear! Do you think we have
forgotten you? We have never forgotten you!' What could we do with
them, weeping thus, smiling, holding out their arms to--we knew not
what? Even my Agnes was beyond my reach. Marie was our little girl who
was dead. Those who were thus transported by a knowledge beyond ours
were the weakest among us; most of them were women, the men old or
feeble, and some children. I can recollect that I looked for Paul
Lecamus among them, with wonder not to see him there. But though they
were weak, they were beyond our strength to guide. What could we do with
them? How could we force them away while they held to the fancy that
those they loved were there? As it happens in times of emotion, it was
those who were most impassioned who took the first place. We were at our
But while we stood waiting, not knowing what to do, another sound
suddenly came from the walls, which made them all silent in a moment.
The most of us ran to this point and that (some taking flight
altogether; but with the greater part anxious curiosity and anxiety had
for the moment extinguished fear), in a wild eagerness to see who or
what it was. But there was nothing to be seen, though the sound came
from the wall close to the Mont St. Lambert, which I have already
described. It was to me like the sound of a trumpet, and so I heard
others say; and along with the trumpet were sounds as of words, though I
could not make them out. But those others seemed to understand--they
grew calmer--they ceased to weep. They raised their faces, all with that
light upon them--that light I had seen in my Agnes. Some of them fell
upon their knees. Imagine to yourself what a sight it was, all of us
standing round, pale, stupefied, without a word to say! Then the women
suddenly burst forth into replies--_'Oui, ma cherie! Oui, mon ange_!'
they cried. And while we looked they rose up; they came back, calling
the children around them. My Agnes took that place which I had bidden
her take. She had not hearkened to me, to leave me--but she hearkened
now; and though I had bidden her to do this, yet to see her do it
bewildered me, made my heart stand still. '_Mon ami_,' she said, 'I must
leave thee; it is commanded: they will not have the children suffer.'
What could we do? We stood pale and looked on, while all the little
ones, all the feeble, were gathered in a little army. My mother stood
like me--to her nothing had been revealed. She was very pale, and there
was a quiver of pain in her lips. She was the one who had been ready to
do my bidding: but there was a rebellion in her heart now. When the
procession was formed (for it was my care to see that everything was
done in order), she followed, but among the last. Thus they went away,
many of them weeping, looking back, waving their hands to us. My Agnes
covered her face, she could not look at me; but she obeyed. They went
some to this side, some to that, leaving us gazing. For a long time we
did nothing but watch them, going along the roads. What had their angels
said to them? Nay, but God knows. I heard the sound; it was like the
sound of the silver trumpets that travellers talk of; it was like music
from heaven. I turned to M. le Cure, who was standing by. 'What is it?'
I cried, 'you are their director--you are an ecclesiastic--you know what
belongs to the unseen. What is this that has been said to them?' I have
always thought well of M. le Cure. There were tears running down his
'I know not,' he said. 'I am a miserable like the rest. What they know
is between God and them. Me! I have been of the world, like the rest.'
This is how we were left alone--the men of the city--to take what means
were best to get back to our homes. There were several left among us who
had shared the enlightenment of the women, but these were not persons of
importance who could put themselves at the head of affairs. And there
were women who remained with us, but these not of the best. To see our
wives go was very strange to us; it was the thing we wished most to see,
the women and children in safety; yet it was a strange sensation to see
them go. For me, who had the charge of all on my hands, the relief was
beyond description--yet was it strange; I cannot describe it. Then I
called upon M. Barbou, who was trembling like a leaf, and gathered the
chief of the citizens about me, including M. le Cure, that we should
consult together what we should do.
I know no words that can describe our state in the strange circumstances
we were now placed in. The women and the children were safe: that was
much. But we--we were like an army suddenly formed, but without arms,
without any knowledge of how to fight, without being able to see our
enemy. We Frenchmen have not been without knowledge of such perils. We
have seen the invader enter our doors; we have been obliged to spread
our table for him, and give him of our best. But to be put forth by
forces no man could resist--to be left outside, with the doors of our
own houses closed upon us--to be confronted by nothing--by a mist, a
silence, a darkness,--this was enough to paralyse the heart of any man.
And it did so, more or less, according to the nature of those who were
exposed to the trial. Some altogether failed us, and fled, carrying the
news into the country, where most people laughed at there, as we
understood afterwards. Some could do nothing but sit and gaze, huddled
together in crowds, at the cloud over Semur, from which they expected to
see fire burst and consume the city altogether. And a few, I grieve to
say, took possession of the little _cabaret_, which stands at about half
a kilometre from the St. Lambert gate, and established themselves there,
in hideous riot, which was the worst thing of all for serious men to
behold. Those upon whom I could rely I formed into patrols to go round
the city, that no opening of a gate, or movement of those who were
within, should take place without our knowledge. Such an emergency shows
what men are. M. Barbou, though in ordinary times he discharges his
duties as _adjoint_ satisfactorily enough (though, it need not be added,
a good Maire who is acquainted with his duties, makes the office of
_adjoint_ of but little importance), was now found entirely useless. He
could not forget how he had been spun round and tossed forth from the
city gates. When I proposed to put him at the head of a patrol, he had
an attack of the nerves. Before nightfall he deserted me altogether,
going off to his country-house, and taking a number of his neighbours
with him. 'How can we tell when we may be permitted to return to the
town?' he said, with his teeth chattering. 'M. le Maire, I adjure you to
put yourself in a place of safety.'
'Sir,' I said to him, sternly, 'for one who deserts his post there is no
place of safety.'
But I do not think he was capable of understanding me. Fortunately, I
found in M. le Cure a much more trustworthy coadjutor. He was
indefatigable; he had the habit of sitting up to all hours, of being
called at all hours, in which our _bourgeoisie_, I cannot but
acknowledge, is wanting. The expression I have before described of
astonishment--but of astonishment which he wished to conceal--never left
his face. He did not understand how such a thing could have been
permitted to happen while he had no share in it; and, indeed, I will not
deny that this was a matter of great wonder to myself too.
The arrangements I have described gave us occupation; and this had a
happy effect upon us in distracting our minds from what had happened;
for I think that if we had sat still and gazed at the dark city we
should soon have gone mad, as some did. In our ceaseless patrols and
attempts to find a way of entrance, we distracted ourselves from the
enquiry, Who would dare to go in if the entrance were found? In the
meantime not a gate was opened, not a figure was visible. We saw
nothing, no more than if Semur had been a picture painted upon a canvas.
Strange sights indeed met our eyes--sights which made even the bravest
quail. The strangest of them was the boats that would go down and up the
river, shooting forth from under the fortified bridge, which is one of
the chief features of our town, sometimes with sails perfectly well
managed, sometimes impelled by oars, but with no one visible in them--no
one conducting them. To see one of these boats impelled up the stream,
with no rower visible, was a wonderful sight. M. de Clairon, who was by
my side, murmured something about a magnetic current; but when I asked
him sternly by what set in motion, his voice died away in his moustache.
M. le Cure said very little: one saw his lips move as he watched with us
the passage of those boats. He smiled when it was proposed by some one
to fire upon them. He read his Hours as he went round at the head of
his patrol. My fellow townsmen and I conceived a great respect for him;
and he inspired pity in me also. He had been the teacher of the Unseen
among us, till the moment when the Unseen was thus, as it were, brought
within our reach; but with the revelation he had nothing to do; and it
filled him with pain and wonder. It made him silent; he said little
about his religion, but signed himself, and his lips moved. He thought
(I imagine) that he had displeased Those who are over all.
When night came the bravest of us were afraid. I speak for myself. It
was bright moonlight where we were, and Semur lay like a blot between
the earth and the sky, all dark: even the Cathedral towers were lost in
it; nothing visible but the line of the ramparts, whitened outside by
the moon. One knows what black and strange shadows are cast by the
moonlight; and it seemed to all of us that we did not know what might be
lurking behind every tree. The shadows of the branches looked like
terrible faces. I sent all my people out on the patrols, though they
were dropping with fatigue. Rather that than to be mad with terror. For
myself, I took up my post as near the bank of the river as we could
approach; for there was a limit beyond which we might not pass. I made
the experiment often; and it seemed to me, and to all that attempted it,
that we did reach the very edge of the stream; but the next moment
perceived that we were at a certain distance, say twenty metres or
thereabout. I placed myself there very often, wrapping a cloak about me
to preserve me from the dew. (I may say that food had been sent us, and
wine from La Clairiere and many other houses in the neighbourhood, where
the women had gone for this among other reasons, that we might be
nourished by them.) And I must here relate a personal incident, though I
have endeavoured not to be egotistical. While I sat watching, I
distinctly saw a boat, a boat which belonged to myself, lying on the
very edge of the shadow. The prow, indeed, touched the moonlight where
it was cut clean across by the darkness; and this was how I discovered
that it was the Marie, a pretty pleasure-boat which had been made for my
wife. The sight of it made my heart beat; for what could it mean but
that some one who was dear to me, some one in whom I took an interest,
was there? I sprang up from where I sat to make another effort to get
nearer; but my feet were as lead, and would not move; and there came a
singing in my ears, and my blood coursed through my veins as in a fever.
Ah! was it possible? I, who am a man, who have resolution, who have
courage, who can lead the people, _I was afraid!_ I sat down again and
wept like a child. Perhaps it was my little Marie that was in the boat.
God, He knows if I loved thee, my little angel! but I was afraid. O how
mean is man! though we are so proud. They came near to me who were my
own, and it was borne in upon my spirit that my good father was with
the child; but because they had died I was afraid. I covered my face
with my hands. Then it seemed to me that I heard a long quiver of a
sigh; a long, long breath, such as sometimes relieves a sorrow that is
beyond words. Trembling, I uncovered my eyes. There was nothing on the
edge of the moonlight; all was dark, and all was still, the white
radiance making a clear line across the river, but nothing more.
If my Agnes had been with me she would have seen our child, she would
have heard that voice! The great cold drops of moisture were on my
forehead. My limbs trembled, my heart fluttered in my bosom. I could
neither listen nor yet speak. And those who would have spoken to me,
those who loved me, sighing, went away. It is not possible that such
wretchedness should be credible to noble minds; and if it had not been
for pride and for shame, I should have fled away straight to La
Clairiere, to Put myself under shelter, to have some one near me who
was less a coward than I. I, upon whom all the others relied, the Maire
of the Commune! I make my confession. I was of no more force than this.
A voice behind me made me spring to my feet--the leap of a mouse would
have driven me wild. I was altogether demoralised. 'Monsieur le Maire,
it is but I,' said some one quite humble and frightened.
'_Tiens!_--it is thou, Jacques!' I said. I could have embraced him,
though it is well known how little I approve of him. But he was living,
he was a man like myself. I put out my hand, and felt him warm and
breathing, and I shall never forget the ease that came to my heart. Its
beating calmed. I was restored to myself.
'M. le Maire,' he said, 'I wish to ask you something. Is it true all
that is said about these people, I would say, these Messieurs? I do not
wish to speak with disrespect, M. le Maire.'
'What is it, Jacques, that is said?' I had called him 'thou' not out of
contempt, but because, for the moment, he seemed to me as a brother, as
one of my friends.
'M. le Maire, is it indeed _les morts_ that are in Semur?'
He trembled, and so did I. 'Jacques,' I said, 'you know all that I
'Yes, M. le Maire, it is so, sure enough. I do not doubt it. If it were
the Prussians, a man could fight. But _ces Messieurs la!_ What I want to
know is: is it because of what you did to those little Sisters, those
good little ladies of St. Jean?'
'What I did? You were yourself one of the complainants. You were of
those who said, when a man is ill, when he is suffering, they torment
him with their mass; it is quiet he wants, not their mass. These were
thy words, _vaurien_. And now you say it was I!'
'True, M. le Maire,' said Jacques; 'but look you, when a man is better,
when he has just got well, when he feels he is safe, then you should not
take what he says for gospel. It would be strange if one had a new
illness just when one is getting well of the old; and one feels now is
the time to enjoy one's self, to kick up one's heels a little, while at
least there is not likely to be much of a watch kept _up there_--the
saints forgive me,' cried Jacques, trembling and crossing himself, 'if I
speak with levity at such a moment! And the little ladies were very
kind. It was wrong to close their chapel, M. le Maire. From that comes
all our trouble.'
'You good-for-nothing!' I cried, 'it is you and such as you that are the
beginning of our trouble. You thought there was no watch kept _up
there_; you thought God would not take the trouble to punish you; you
went about the streets of Semur tossing a _grosse piece_ of a hundred
sous, and calling out, "There is no God--this is my god; _l'argent,
c'est le bon Dieu_."'
'M. le Maire, M. le Maire, be silent, I implore you! It is enough to
bring down a judgment upon us.'
'It has brought down a judgment upon us. Go thou and try what thy
_grosse piece_ will do for thee now--worship thy god. Go, I tell you,
and get help from your money.'
'I have no money, M. le Maire, and what could money do here? We would do
much better to promise a large candle for the next festival, and that
the ladies of St. Jean--'
'Get away with thee to the end of the world, thou and thy ladies of St.
Jean!' I cried; which was wrong, I do not deny it, for they are good
women, not like this good-for-nothing fellow. And to think that this
man, whom I despise, was more pleasant to me than the dear souls who
loved me! Shame came upon me at the thought. I too, then, was like the
others, fearing the Unseen--capable of understanding only that which was
palpable. When Jacques slunk away, which he did for a few steps, not
losing sight of me, I turned my face towards the river and the town. The
moonlight fell upon the water, white as silver where that line of
darkness lay, shining, as if it tried, and tried in vain, to penetrate
Semur; and between that and the blue sky overhead lay the city out of
which we had been driven forth--the city of the dead. 'O God,' I cried,
'whom I know not, am not I to Thee as my little Jean is to me, a child
and less than a child? Do not abandon me in this darkness. Would I
abandon him were he ever so disobedient? And God, if thou art God, Thou
art a better father than I.' When I had said this, my heart was a little
relieved. It seemed to me that I had spoken to some one who knew all of
us, whether we were dead or whether we were living. That is a wonderful
thing to think of, when it appears to one not as a thing to believe, but
as something that is real. It gave me courage. I got up and went to meet
the patrol which was coming in, and found that great good-for-nothing
Jacques running close after me, holding my cloak. 'Do not send me away,
M. le Maire,' he said, 'I dare not stay by myself with _them_ so near.'
Instead of his money, in which he had trusted, it was I who had become
his god now.
OUTSIDE THE WALLS.
There are few who have not heard something of the sufferings of a siege.
Whether within or without, it is the most terrible of all the
experiences of war. I am old enough to recollect the trenches before
Sebastopol, and all that my countrymen and the English endured there.
Sometimes I endeavoured to think of this to distract me from what we
ourselves endured. But how different was it! We had neither shelter nor
support. We had no weapons, nor any against whom to wield them. We were
cast out of our homes in the midst of our lives, in the midst of our
occupations, and left there helpless, to gaze at each other, to blind
our eyes trying to penetrate the darkness before us. Could we have done
anything, the oppression might have been less terrible--but what was
there that we could do? Fortunately (though I do not deny that I felt
each desertion) our band grew less and less every day. Hour by hour some
one stole away--first one, then another, dispersing themselves among the
villages near, in which many had friends. The accounts which these men
gave were, I afterwards learnt, of the most vague description. Some
talked of wonders they had seen, and were laughed at--and some spread
reports of internal division among us. Not till long after did I know
all the reports that went abroad. It was said that there had been
fighting in Semur, and that we were divided into two factions, one of
which had gained the mastery, and driven the other out. This was the
story current in La Rochette, where they are always glad to hear
anything to the discredit of the people of Semur; but no credence could
have been given to it by those in authority, otherwise M. le Prefet,
however indifferent to our interests, must necessarily have taken some
steps for our relief. Our entire separation from the world was indeed
one of the strangest details of this terrible period. Generally the
diligence, though conveying on the whole few passengers, returned with
two or three, at least, visitors or commercial persons, daily-and the
latter class frequently arrived in carriages of their own; but during
this period no stranger came to see our miserable plight. We made
shelter for ourselves under the branches of the few trees that grew in
the uncultivated ground on either side of the road--and a hasty
erection, half tent half shed, was put up for a place to assemble in, or
for those who were unable to bear the heat of the day or the occasional
chills of the night. But the most of us were too restless to seek
repose, and could not bear to be out of sight of the city. At any moment
it seemed to us the gates might open, or some loophole be visible by
which we might throw ourselves upon the darkness and vanquish it. This
was what we said to ourselves, forgetting how we shook and trembled
whenever any contact had been possible with those who were within. But
one thing was certain, that though we feared, we could not turn our eyes
from the place. We slept leaning against a tree, or with our heads on
our hands, and our faces toward Semur. We took no count of day or night,
but ate the morsel the women brought to us, and slept thus, not
sleeping, when want or weariness overwhelmed us. There was scarcely an
hour in the day that some of the women did not come to ask what news.
They crept along the roads in twos and threes, and lingered for hours
sitting by the way weeping, starting at every breath of wind.
Meanwhile all was not silent within Semur. The Cathedral bells rang
often, at first filling us with hope, for how familiar was that sound!
The first time, we all gathered together and listened, and many wept.
It was as if we heard our mother's voice. M. de Bois-Sombre burst into
tears. I have never seen him within the doors of the Cathedral since his
marriage; but he burst into tears. '_Mon Dieu!_ if I were but there!' he
said. We stood and listened, our hearts melting, some falling on their
knees. M. le Cure stood up in the midst of us and began to intone the
psalm: [He has a beautiful voice. It is sympathetic, it goes to the
heart.] 'I was glad when they said to me, Let us go up--' And though
there were few of us who could have supposed themselves capable of
listening to that sentiment a little while before with any sympathy, yet
a vague hope rose up within us while we heard him, while we listened to
the bells. What man is there to whom the bells of his village, the
_carillon_ of his city, is not most dear? It rings for him through all
his life; it is the first sound of home in the distance when he comes
back--the last that follows him like a long farewell when he goes away.
While we listened, we forgot our fears. They were as we were, they were
also our brethren, who rang those bells. We seemed to see them trooping
into our beautiful Cathedral. All! only to see it again, to be within
its shelter, cool and calm as in our mother's arms! It seemed to us that
we should wish for nothing more.
When the sound ceased we looked into each other's faces, and each man
saw that his neighbour was pale. Hope died in us when the sound died
away, vibrating sadly through the air. Some men threw themselves on the
ground in their despair.
And from this time forward many voices were heard, calls and shouts
within the walls, and sometimes a sound like a trumpet, and other
instruments of music. We thought, indeed, that noises as of bands
patrolling along the ramparts were audible as our patrols worked their
way round and round. This was a duty which I never allowed to be
neglected, not because I put very much faith in it, but because it gave
us a sort of employment. There is a story somewhere which I recollect
dimly of an ancient city which its assailants did not touch, but only
marched round and round till the walls fell, and they could enter.
Whether this was a story of classic times or out of our own remote
history, I could not recollect. But I thought of it many times while we
made our way like a procession of ghosts, round and round, straining our
ears to hear what those voices were which sounded above us, in tones
that were familiar, yet so strange. This story got so much into my head
(and after a time all our heads seemed to get confused and full of wild
and bewildering expedients) that I found myself suggesting--I, a man
known for sense and reason--that we should blow trumpets at some time to
be fixed, which was a thing the ancients had done in the strange tale
which had taken possession of me. M. le Cure looked at me with
disapproval. He said, 'I did not expect from M. le Maire anything that
was disrespectful to religion.' Heaven forbid that I should be
disrespectful to religion at any time of life, but then it was
impossible to me. I remembered after that the tale of which I speak,
which had so seized upon me, was in the sacred writings; but those who
know me will understand that no sneer at these writings or intention of
wounding the feelings of M. le Cure was in my mind.
I was seated one day upon a little inequality of the ground, leaning my
back against a half-withered hawthorn, and dozing with my head in my
hands, when a soothing, which always diffuses itself from her presence,
shed itself over me, and opening my eyes, I saw my Agnes sitting by me.
She had come with some food and a little linen, fresh and soft like her
own touch. My wife was not gaunt and worn like me, but she was pale and
as thin as a shadow. I woke with a start, and seeing her there, there
suddenly came a dread over me that she would pass away before my eyes,
and go over to Those who were within Semur. I cried '_Non, mon Agnes;
non, mon Agnes:_ before you ask, No!' seizing her and holding her fast
in this dream, which was not altogether a dream. She looked at me with a
smile, that smile that has always been to me as the rising of the sun
over the earth.
'_Mon ami_,' she said surprised, 'I ask nothing, except that you should
take a little rest and spare thyself.' Then she added, with haste, what
I knew she would say, 'Unless it were this, _mon ami_. If I were
permitted, I would go into the city--I would ask those who are there
what is their meaning: and if no way can be found--no act of
penitence.--Oh! do not answer in haste! I have no fear; and it would be
to save thee.'
A strong throb of anger came into my throat. Figure to yourself that I
looked at my wife with anger, with the same feeling which had moved me
when the deserters left us; but far more hot and sharp. I seized her
soft hands and crushed them in mine. 'You would leave me!' I said. 'You
would desert your husband. You would go over to our enemies!'
'O Martin, say not so,' she cried, with tears. 'Not enemies. There is
our little Marie, and my mother, who died when I was born.'
'You love these dead tyrants. Yes,' I said, 'you love them best. You
will go to--the majority, to the strongest. Do not speak to me! Because
your God is on their side, you will forsake us too.'
Then she threw herself upon me and encircled me with her arms. The touch
of them stilled my passion; but yet I held her, clutching her gown, so
terrible a fear came over me that she would go and come back no more.
'Forsake thee!' she breathed out over me with a moan. Then, putting her
cool cheek to mine, which burned, 'But I would die for thee, Martin.'
'Silence, my wife: that is what you shall not do,' I cried, beside
myself. I rose up; I put her away from me. That is, I know it, what has
been done. Their God does this, they do not hesitate to say--takes from
you what you love best, to make you better--_you!_ and they ask you to
love Him when He has thus despoiled you! 'Go home, Agnes,' I said,
hoarse with terror. 'Let us face them as we may; you shall not go among
them, or put thyself in peril. Die for me! _Mon Dieu!_ and what then,
what should I do then? Turn your face from them; turn from them; go! go!
and let me not see thee here again.'
My wife did not understand the terror that seized me. She obeyed me, as
she always does, but, with the tears falling from her white cheeks,
fixed upon me the most piteous look. '_Mon ami_,' she said, 'you are
disturbed, you are not in possession of yourself; this cannot be what
'Let me not see thee here again!' I cried. 'Would you make me mad in
the midst of my trouble? No! I will not have you look that way. Go home!
go home!' Then I took her into my arms and wept, though I am not a man
given to tears. 'Oh! my Agnes,' I said, 'give me thy counsel. What you
tell me I will do; but rather than risk thee, I would live thus for
ever, and defy them.'
She put her hand upon my lips. 'I will not ask this again,' she said,
bowing her head; 'but defy them--why should you defy them? Have they
come for nothing? Was Semur a city of the saints? They have come to
convert our people, Martin--thee too, and the rest. If you will submit
your hearts, they will open the gates, they will go back to their sacred
homes and we to ours. This has been borne in upon me sleeping and
waking; and it seemed to me that if I could but go, and say, "Oh! my
fathers, oh! my brothers, they submit," all would be well. For I do not
fear them, Martin. Would they harm me that love us? I would but give
our Marie one kiss----'
'You are a traitor!' I said. 'You would steal yourself from me, and do
me the worst wrong of all----'
But I recovered my calm. What she said reached my understanding at last.
'Submit!' I said, 'but to what? To come and turn us from our homes, to
wrap our town in darkness, to banish our wives and our children, to
leave us here to be scorched by the sun and drenched by the rain,--this
is not to convince us, my Agnes. And to what then do you bid us
'It is to convince you, _mon ami_, of the love of God, who has permitted
this great tribulation to be, that we might be saved,' said Agnes. Her
face was sublime with faith. It is possible to these dear women; but for
me the words she spoke were but words without meaning. I shook my head.
Now that my horror and alarm were passed, I could well remember often to
have heard words like these before.
'My angel!' I said, 'all this I admire, I adore in thee; but how is it
the love of God?--and how shall we be saved by it? Submit! I will do
anything that is reasonable; but of what truth have we here the
Some one had come up behind as we were talking. When I heard his voice I
smiled, notwithstanding my despair. It was natural that the Church
should come to the woman's aid. But I would not refuse to give ear to M.
le Cure, who had proved himself a man, had he been ten times a priest.
'I have not heard what Madame has been saying, M. le Maire, neither
would I interpose but for your question. You ask of what truth have we
the proof here? It is the Unseen that has revealed itself. Do we see
anything, you and I? Nothing, nothing, but a cloud. But that which we
cannot see, that which we know not, that which we dread--look! it is
I turned unconsciously as he pointed with his hand. Oh, heaven, what
did I see! Above the cloud that wrapped Semur there was a separation, a
rent in the darkness, and in mid heaven the Cathedral towers, pointing
to the sky. I paid no more attention to M. le Cure. I sent forth a shout
that roused all, even the weary line of the patrol that was marching
slowly with bowed heads round the walls; and there went up such a cry of
joy as shook the earth. 'The towers, the towers!' I cried. These were
the towers that could be seen leagues off, the first sign of Semur; our
towers, which we had been born to love like our father's name. I have
had joys in my life, deep and great. I have loved, I have won honours, I
have conquered difficulty; but never had I felt as now. It was as if one
had been born again.
When we had gazed upon them, blessing them and thanking God, I gave
orders that all our company should be called to the tent, that we might
consider whether any new step could now be taken: Agnes with the other
women sitting apart on one side and waiting. I recognised even in the
excitement of such a time that theirs was no easy part. To sit there
silent, to wait till we had spoken, to be bound by what we decided, and
to have no voice--yes, that was hard. They thought they knew better than
we did: but they were silent, devouring us with their eager eyes. I love
one woman more than all the world; I count her the best thing that God
has made; yet would I not be as Agnes for all that life could give me.
It was her part to be silent, and she was so, like the angel she is,
while even Jacques Richard had the right to speak. _Mon Dieu!_ but it is
hard, I allow it; they have need to be angels. This thought passed
through my mind even at the crisis which had now arrived. For at such
moments one sees everything, one thinks of everything, though it is only
after that one remembers what one has seen and thought. When my
fellow-citizens gathered together (we were now less than a hundred in
number, so many had gone from us), I took it upon myself to speak. We
were a haggard, worn-eyed company, having had neither shelter nor sleep
nor even food, save in hasty snatches. I stood at the door of the tent
and they below, for the ground sloped a little. Beside me were M. le
Cure, M. de Bois-Sombre, and one or two others of the chief citizens.
'My friends,' I said, 'you have seen that a new circumstance has
occurred. It is not within our power to tell what its meaning is, yet it
must be a symptom of good. For my own part, to see these towers makes
the air lighter. Let us think of the Church as we may, no one can deny
that the towers of Semur are dear to our hearts.'
'M. le Maire,' said M. de Bois-Sombre, interrupting, 'I speak I am sure
the sentiments of my fellow-citizens when I say that there is no longer
any question among us concerning the Church; it is an admirable
institution, a universal advantage----'
'Yes, yes,' said the crowd, 'yes, certainly!' and some added, 'It is the
only safeguard, it is our protection,' and some signed themselves. In
the crowd I saw Riou, who had done this at the _octroi_. But the sign
did not surprise me now.
M. le Cure stood by my side, but he did not smile. His countenance was
dark, almost angry. He stood quite silent, with his eyes on the ground.
It gave him no pleasure, this profession of faith.
'It is well, my friends,' said I, 'we are all in accord; and the good
God has permitted us again to see these towers. I have called you
together to collect your ideas. This change must have a meaning. It has
been suggested to me that we might send an ambassador--a messenger, if
that is possible, into the city--'
Here I stopped short; and a shiver ran through me--a shiver which went
over the whole company. We were all pale as we looked in each other's
faces; and for a moment no one ventured to speak. After this pause it
was perhaps natural that he who first found his voice should be the last
who had any right to give an opinion. Who should it be but Jacques
Richard? 'M. le Maire,' cried the fellow, 'speaks at his ease--but who
will thus risk himself?' Probably he did not mean that his grumbling
should be heard, but in the silence every sound was audible; there was a
gasp, a catching of the breath, and all turned their eyes again upon me.
I did not pause to think what answer I should give. 'I!' I cried. 'Here
stands one who will risk himself, who will perish if need be--'
Something stirred behind me. It was Agnes who had risen to her feet, who
stood with her lips parted and quivering, with her hands clasped, as if
about to speak. But she did not speak. Well! she had proposed to do it.
Then why not I?
'Let me make the observation,' said another of our fellow-citizens,
Bordereau the banker, 'that this would not be just. Without M. le Maire
we should be a mob without a head. If a messenger is to be sent, let it
be some one not so indispensable----'
'Why send a messenger?' said another, Philip Leclerc. 'Do we know that
these Messieurs will admit any one? and how can you speak, how can you
parley with those--' and he too, was seized with a shiver--'whom you
Then there came another voice out of the crowd. It was one who would not
show himself, who was conscious of the mockery in his tone. 'If there is
any one sent, let it be M. le Cure,' it said.
M. le Cure stepped forward. His pale countenance flushed red. 'Here am
I,' he said, 'I am ready; but he who spoke speaks to mock me. Is it
befitting in this presence?'
There was a struggle among the men. Whoever it was who had spoken (I did
not wish to know), I had no need to condemn the mocker; they themselves
silenced him; then Jacques Richard (still less worthy of credit) cried
out again with a voice that was husky. What are men made of?
Notwithstanding everything, it was from the _cabaret_, from the
wine-shop, that he had come. He said, 'Though M. le Maire will not take
my opinion, yet it is this. Let them reopen the chapel in the hospital.
The ladies of St. Jean--'
'Hold thy peace,' I said, 'miserable!' But a murmur rose. 'Though it is
not his part to speak, I agree,' said one. 'And I.' 'And I.' There was
well-nigh a tumult of consent; and this made me angry. Words were on my
lips which it might have been foolish to utter, when M. de Bois-Sombre,
who is a man of judgment, interfered.
'M. le Maire,' he said, 'as there are none of us here who would show
disrespect to the Church and holy things--that is understood--it is not
necessary to enter into details. Every restriction that would wound the
most susceptible is withdrawn; not one more than another, but all. We
have been indifferent in the past, but for the future you will agree
with me that everything shall be changed. The ambassador--whoever he may
be--' he added with a catching of his breath, 'must be empowered to
promise--everything--submission to all that may be required.'
Here the women could not restrain themselves; they all rose up with a
cry, and many of them began to weep. 'Ah!' said one with a hysterical
sound of laughter in her tears. '_Sainte Mere_! it will be heaven upon
M. le Cure said nothing; a keen glance of wonder, yet of subdued
triumph, shot from under his eyelids. As for me, I wrung my hands: 'What
you say will be superstition; it will be hypocrisy,' I cried.
But at that moment a further incident occurred. Suddenly, while we
deliberated, a long loud peal of a trumpet sounded into the air. I have
already said that many sounds had been heard before; but this was
different; there was not one of us that did not feel that this was
addressed to himself. The agitation was extreme; it was a summons, the
beginning of some distinct communication. The crowd scattered; but for
myself, after a momentary struggle, I went forward resolutely. I did not
even look back at my wife. I was no longer Martin Dupin, but the Maire
of Semur, the saviour of the community. Even Bois-Sombre quailed: but I
felt that it was in me to hold head against death itself; and before I
had gone two steps I felt rather than saw that M. le Cure had come to my
side. We went on without a word; gradually the others collected behind
us, following yet straggling here and there upon the inequalities of the
Before us lay the cloud that was Semur, a darkness defined by the
shining of the summer day around, the river escaping from that gloom as
from a cavern, the towers piercing through, but the sunshine thrown back
on every side from that darkness. I have spoken of the walls as if we
saw them, but there were no walls visible, nor any gate, though we all
turned like blind men to where the Porte St. Lambert was. There was the
broad vacant road leading up to it, leading into the gloom. We stood
there at a little distance. Whether it was human weakness or an
invisible barrier, how can I tell? We stood thus immovable, with the
trumpet pealing out over us, out of the cloud. It summoned every man as
by his name. To me it was not wonderful that this impression should
come, but afterwards it was elicited from all that this was the feeling
of each. Though no words were said, it was as the calling of our names.
We all waited in such a supreme agitation as I cannot describe for some
communication that was to come.
When suddenly, in a moment, the trumpet ceased; there was an interval of
dead and terrible silence; then, each with a leap of his heart as if it
would burst from his bosom, we saw a single figure slowly detach itself
out of the gloom. 'My God!' I cried. My senses went from me; I felt my
head go round like a straw tossed on the winds.
To know them so near, those mysterious visitors--to feel them, to hear
them, was not that enough? But, to see! who could bear it? Our voices
rang like broken chords, like a tearing and rending of sound. Some
covered their faces with their hands; for our very eyes seemed to be
drawn out of their sockets, fluttering like things with a separate life.
Then there fell upon us a strange and wonderful calm. The figure
advanced slowly; there was weakness in it. The step, though solemn, was
feeble; and if you can figure to yourself our consternation, the pause,
the cry--our hearts dropping back as it might be into their places--the
sudden stop of the wild panting in our breasts: when there became
visible to us a human face well known, a man as we were. 'Lecamus!' I
cried; and all the men round took it up, crowding nearer, trembling yet
delivered from their terror; some even laughed in the relief. There was
but one who had an air of discontent, and that was M. le Cure. As he
said 'Lecamus!' like the rest, there was impatience, disappointment,
anger in his tone.
And I, who had wondered where Lecamus had gone; thinking sometimes that
he was one of the deserters who had left us! But when he came nearer his
face was as the face of a dead man, and a cold chill came over us. His
eyes, which were cast down, flickered under the thin eyelids in which
all the veins were visible. His face was gray like that of the dying.
'Is he dead?' I said. But, except M. le Cure, no one knew that I spoke.
'Not even so,' said M. le Cure, with a mortification in his voice, which
I have never forgotten. 'Not even so. That might be something. They
teach us not by angels--by the fools and offscourings of the earth.'
And he would have turned away. It was a humiliation. Was not he the
representative of the Unseen, the vice-gerent, with power over heaven
and hell? but something was here more strong than he. He stood by my
side in spite of himself to listen to the ambassador. I will not deny
that such a choice was strange, strange beyond measure, to me also.
'Lecamus,' I said, my voice trembling in my throat, 'have you been among
the dead, and do you live?'
'I live,' he said; then looked around with tears upon the crowd. 'Good
neighbours, good friends,' he said, and put out his hand and touched
them; he was as much agitated as they.
'M. Lecamus,' said I, 'we are here in very strange circumstances, as you
know; do not trifle with us. If you have indeed been with those who have
taken the control of our city, do not keep us in suspense. You will see
by the emblems of my office that it is to me you must address yourself;
if you have a mission, speak.'
'It is just,' he said, 'it is just--but bear with me one moment. It is
good to behold those who draw breath; if I have not loved you enough, my
good neighbours, forgive me now!'
'Rouse yourself, Lecamus,' said I with some anxiety. 'Three days we have
been suffering here; we are distracted with the suspense. Tell us your
message--if you have anything to tell.'
'Three days!' he said, wondering; 'I should have said years. Time is
long when there is neither night nor day.' Then, uncovering himself, he
turned towards the city. 'They who have sent me would have you know that
they come, not in anger but in friendship: for the love they bear you,
and because it has been permitted----'
As he spoke his feebleness disappeared. He held his head high; and we
clustered closer and closer round him, not losing a half word, not a
tone, not a breath.
'They are not the dead. They are the immortal. They are those who
dwell--elsewhere. They have other work, which has been interrupted
because of this trial. They ask, "Do you know now--do you know now?"
this is what I am bidden to say.'
'What'--I said (I tried to say it, but my lips were dry), 'What would
they have us to know?'
But a clamour interrupted me. 'Ah! yes, yes, yes!' the people cried, men
and women; some wept aloud, some signed themselves, some held up their
hands to the skies. 'Nevermore will we deny religion,' they cried,
'never more fail in our duties. They shall see how we will follow every
office, how the churches shall be full, how we will observe the feasts
and the days of the saints! M. Lecamus,' cried two or three together;
'go, tell these Messieurs that we will have masses said for them, that
we will obey in everything. We have seen what comes of it when a city is
without piety. Never more will we neglect the holy functions; we will
vow ourselves to the holy Mother and the saints--'
'And if those ladies wish it,' cried Jacques Richard, 'there shall be as
many masses as there are priests to say them in the Hospital of St.
'Silence, fellow!' I cried; 'is it for you to promise in the name of the
Commune?' I was almost beside myself. 'M. Lecamus. is it for this that
they have come?'
His head had begun to droop again, and a dimness came over his face. 'Do
I know?' he said. 'It was them I longed for, not to know their errand;
but I have not yet said all. You are to send two--two whom you esteem
the highest--to speak with them face to face.'
Then at once there rose a tumult among the people--an eagerness which
nothing could subdue. There was a cry that the ambassadors were already
elected, and we were pushed forward, M. le Cure and myself, towards the
gate. They would not hear us speak. 'We promise,' they cried, 'we
promise everything; let us but get back.' Had it been to sacrifice us
they would have done the same; they would have killed us in their
passion, in order to return to their city--and afterwards mourned us and
honoured us as martyrs. But for the moment they had neither ruth nor
fear. Had it been they who were going to reason not with flesh and
blood, it would have been different; but it was we, not they; and they
hurried us on as not willing that a moment should be lost. I had to
struggle, almost to fight, in order to provide them with a leader, which
was indispensable, before I myself went away. For who could tell if we
should ever come back? For a moment I hesitated, thinking that it might
be well to invest M. de Bois-Sombre as my deputy with my scarf of
office; but then I reflected that when a man goes to battle, when he
goes to risk his life, perhaps to lose it, for his people, it is his