Part 5 out of 8
in his opinion, ought to seek an engagement where it was. The
retreat was leaving the advance of the enemy unopposed. To what
point were they going to retreat? . . . They who two weeks before
were discussing in their garrisons the place in Belgium where their
adversaries were going to receive their death blow and through what
places their victorious troops would invade Germany! . . .
Their admission of the change of tactics did not reveal the
slightest discouragement. An indefinite but firm hope was hovering
triumphantly above their vacillations. The Generalissimo was the
only one who possessed the secret of events. And Desnoyers approved
with the blind enthusiasm inspired by those in whom we have
confidence. Joffre! . . . That serious and calm leader would
finally bring things out all right. Nobody ought to doubt his
ability; he was the kind of man who always says the decisive word.
At daybreak Don Marcelo left the train. "Good luck to you!" And he
clasped the hands of the brave young fellows who were going to die,
perhaps in a very short time. Finding the road unexpectedly open,
the train started immediately and Desnoyers found himself alone in
the station. In normal times a branch road would have taken him on
to Villeblanche, but the service was now suspended for lack of a
train crew. The employees had been transferred to the lines crowded
with the war transportation.
In vain he sought, with most generous offers, a horse, a simple cart
drawn by any kind of old beast, in order to continue his trip. The
mobilization had appropriated the best, and all other means of
transportation had disappeared with the flight of the terrified. He
would have to walk the eight miles. The old man did not hesitate.
Forward March! And he began his course along the dusty, straight,
white highway running between an endless succession of plains. Some
groups of trees, some green hedges and the roofs of various farms
broke the monotony of the countryside. The fields were covered with
stubble from the recent harvest. The haycocks dotted the ground
with their yellowish cones, now beginning to darken and take on a
tone of oxidized gold. In the valleys the birds were flitting
about, shaking off the dew of dawn.
The first rays of the sun announced a very hot day. Around the hay
stacks Desnoyers saw knots of people who were getting up, shaking
out their clothes, and awaking those who were still sleeping. They
were fugitives camping near the station in the hope that some train
would carry them further on, they knew not where. Some had come
from far-away districts; they had heard the cannon, had seen war
approaching, and for several days had been going forward, directed
by chance. Others, infected with the contagion of panic, had fled,
fearing to know the same horrors. . . . Among them he saw mothers
with their little ones in their arms, and old men who could only
walk with a cane in one hand and the other arm in that of some
member of the family, and a few old women, withered and motionless
as mummies, who were sleeping as they were trundled along in
wheelbarrows. When the sun awoke this miserable band they gathered
themselves together with heavy step, still stiffened by the night.
Many were going toward the station in the hope of a train which
never came, thinking that, perhaps, they might have better luck
during the day that was just dawning. Some were continuing their
way down the track, hoping that fate might be more propitious in
some other place.
Don Marcelo walked all the morning long. The white, rectilinear
ribbon of roadway was spotted with approaching groups that on the
horizon line looked like a file of ants. He did not see a single
person going in his direction. All were fleeing toward the South,
and on meeting this city gentleman, well-shod, with walking stick
and straw hat, going on alone toward the country which they were
abandoning in terror, they showed the greatest astonishment. They
concluded that he must be some functionary, some celebrity from the
At midday he was able to get a bit of bread, a little cheese and a
bottle of white wine from a tavern near the road. The proprietor
was at the front, his wife sick and moaning in her bed. The mother,
a rather deaf old woman surrounded by her grandchildren, was
watching from the doorway the procession of fugitives which had been
filing by for the last three days. "Monsieur, why do they flee?"
she said to Desnoyers. "War only concerns the soldiers. We
countryfolk have done no wrong to anybody, and we ought not to be
Four hours later, on descending one of the hills that bounded the
valley of the Marne, he saw afar the roofs of Villeblanche clustered
around the church, and further on, beyond a little grove, the slatey
points of the round towers of his castle.
The streets of the village were deserted. Only on the outer edges
of the square did he see some old women sitting as in the placid
evenings of bygone summers. Half of the neighborhood had fled; the
others were staying by their firesides through sedentary routine, or
deceiving themselves with a blind optimism. If the Prussians should
approach, what could they do to them? . . . They would obey their
orders without attempting any resistance, and it is impossible to
punish people who obey. . . . Anything would be preferable to
losing the homes built by their forefathers which they had never
In the square he saw the mayor and the principal inhabitants grouped
together. Like the women, they all stared in astonishment at the
owner of the castle. He was the most unexpected of apparitions.
While so many were fleeing toward Paris, this Parisian had come to
join them and share in their fate. A smile of affection, a look of
sympathy began to appear on the rough, bark-like countenances of the
suspicious rustics. For a long time Desnoyers had been on bad terms
with the entire village. He had harshly insisted on his rights,
showing no tolerance in matters touching his property. He had
spoken many times of bringing suit against the mayor and sending
half of the neighborhood to prison, so his enemies had retaliated by
treacherously invading his lands, poaching in his hunting preserves,
and causing him great trouble with counter-suits and involved
claims. His hatred of the community had even united him with the
priest because he was on terms of permanent hostility with the
mayor. But his relations with the Church turned out as fruitless as
his struggles with the State. The priest was a kindly old soul who
bore a certain resemblance to Renan, and seemed interested only in
getting alms for his poor out of Don Marcelo, even carrying his
good-natured boldness so far as to try to excuse the marauders on
How remote these struggles of a few months ago now seemed to
him! . . . The millionaire was greatly surprised to see the
priest, on leaving his house to enter the church, greet the mayor
as he passed, with a friendly smile.
After long years of hostile silence they had met on the evening of
August first at the foot of the church tower. The bell was ringing
the alarm, announcing the mobilization to the men who were in the
field--and the two enemies had instinctively clasped hands. All
French! This affectionate unanimity also came to meet the detested
owner of the castle. He had to exchange greetings first on one
side, then on the other, grasping many a horny hand. Behind his
back the people broke out into kindly excuses--"A good man, with no
fault except a little bad temper. . . ." And in a few minutes
Monsieur Desnoyers was basking in the delightful atmosphere of
As the iron-willed old gentleman approached his castle he concluded
that, although the fatigue of the long walk was making his knees
tremble, the trip had been well worth while. Never had his park
appeared to him so extensive and so majestic as in that summer
twilight, never so glistening white the swans that were gliding
double over the quiet waters, never so imposing the great group of
towers whose inverted images were repeated in the glassy green of
the moats. He felt eager to see at once the stables with their
herds of animals; then a brief glance showed him that the stalls
were comparatively empty. Mobilization had carried off his best
work horses; the driving and riding horses also had disappeared.
Those in charge of the grounds and the various stable boys were also
in the army. The Warden, a man upwards of fifty and consumptive,
was the only one of the personnel left at the castle. With his wife
and daughter he was keeping the mangers filled, and from time to
time was milking the neglected cows.
Within the noble edifice he again congratulated himself on the
adamantine will which had brought him thither. How could he ever
give up such riches! . . . He gloated over the paintings, the
crystals, the draperies, all bathed in gold by the splendor of the
dying day, and he felt more than proud to be their possessor. This
pride awakened in him an absurd, impossible courage, as though he
were a gigantic being from another planet, and all humanity merely
an ant hill that he could grind under foot. Just let the enemy
come! He could hold his own against the whole lot! . . . Then,
when his common sense brought him out of his heroic delirium, he
tried to calm himself with an equally illogical optimism. They
would not come. He did not know why it was, but his heart told him
that they would not get that far.
He passed the following morning reconnoitering the artificial
meadows that he had made behind the park, lamenting their neglected
condition due to the departure of the men, trying himself to open
the sluice gates so as to give some water to the pasture lands which
were beginning to dry up. The grape vines were extending their
branches the length of their supports, and the full bunches, nearly
ripe, were beginning to show their triangular lusciousness among the
leaves. Ay, who would gather this abundant fruit! . . .
By afternoon he noted an extraordinary amount of movement in the
village. Georgette, the Warden's daughter, brought the news that
many enormous automobiles and soldiers, French soldiers, were
beginning to pass through the main street. In a little while a
procession began filing past on the high road near the castle,
leading to the bridge over the Marne. This was composed of motor
trucks, open and closed, that still had their old commercial signs
under their covering of dust and spots of mud. Many of them
displayed the names of business firms in Paris, others the names of
provincial establishments. With these industrial vehicles
requisitioned by mobilization were others from the public service
which produced in Desnoyers the same effect as a familiar face in a
throng of strangers. On their upper parts were the names of their
old routes:--"Madeleine-Bastille, Passy-Bourne," etc. Probably he
had travelled many times in these very vehicles, now shabby and aged
by twenty days of intense activity, with dented planks and twisted
metal, perforated like sieves, but rattling crazily on.
Some of the conveyances displayed white discs with a red cross in
the center; others had certain letters and figures comprehensible
only to those initiates in the secrets of military administration.
Within these vehicles--the only new and strong motors--he saw
soldiers, many soldiers, but all wounded, with head and legs
bandaged, ashy faces made still more tragic by their growing beards,
feverish eyes looking fixedly ahead, mouths so sadly immobile that
they seemed carven by agonizing groans. Doctors and nurses were
occupying various carriages in this convoy escorted by several
platoons of horsemen. And mingled with the slowly moving horses and
automobiles were marching groups of foot-soldiers, with cloaks
unbuttoned or hanging from their shoulders like capes--wounded men
who were able to walk and joke and sing, some with arms in splints
across their breasts, others with bandaged heads with clotted blood
showing through the thin white strips.
The millionaire longed to do something for these brave fellows, but
he had hardly begun to distribute some bottles of wine and loaves of
bread before a doctor interposed, upbraiding him as though he had
committed a crime. His gifts might result fatally. So he had to
stand beside the road, sad and helpless, looking after the sorrowful
convoy. . . . By nightfall the vehicles filled with the sick were
no longer filing by.
He now saw hundreds of drays, some hermetically sealed with the
prudence that explosive material requires, others with bundles and
boxes that were sending out a stale odor of provisions. Then came
great herds of cattle raising thick, whirling clouds of dust in the
narrow parts of the road, prodded on by the sticks and yells of the
shepherds in kepis.
His thoughts kept him wakeful all night. This, then, was the
retreat of which the people of Paris were talking, but in which many
wished not to believe--the retreat reaching even there and
continuing its indefinite retirement, since nobody knew what its end
might be. . . . His optimism aroused a ridiculous hope. Perhaps
this was only the retreat of the hospitals and stores which always
follows an army. The troops, wishing to be rid of impedimenta, were
sending them forward by railway and highway. That must be it. So
all through the night, he interpreted the incessant bustle as the
passing of vehicles filled with the wounded, with munitions and
eatables, like those which had filed by in the afternoon.
Toward morning he fell asleep through sheer weariness, and when he
awoke late in the day his first glance was toward the road. He saw
it filled with men and horses dragging some rolling objects. But
these men were carrying guns and were formed in battalions and
regiments. The animals were pulling the pieces of artillery. It
was an army. . . . It was the retreat!
Desnoyers ran to the edge of the road to be more convinced of the
Alas, they were regiments such as he had seen leaving the stations
of Paris. . . . But with what a very different aspect! The blue
cloaks were now ragged and yellowing garments, the trousers faded to
the color of a half-baked brick, the shoes great cakes of mud. The
faces had a desperate expression, with layers of dust and sweat in
all their grooves and openings, with beards of recent growth, sharp
as spikes, with an air of great weariness showing the longing to
drop down somewhere forever, killing or dying, but without going a
step further. They were tramping . . . tramping . . . tramping!
Some marches had lasted thirty hours at a stretch. The enemy was on
their tracks, and the order was to go on and not to fight, freeing
themselves by their fleet-footedness from the involved movements of
The chiefs suspected the discouraged exhaustion of their men. They
might exact of them complete sacrifice of life--but to order them to
march day and night, forever fleeing before the enemy when they did
not consider themselves vanquished, when they were animated by that
ferocious wrath which is the mother of heroism! . . . Their
despairing expressions mutely sought the nearest officers, the
leaders, even the colonel. They simply could go no further! Such a
long, devastating march in such a few days, and what for? . . . The
superior officers, who knew no more than their men, seemed to be
replying with their eyes, as though they possessed a secret--
"Courage! One more effort! . . . This is going to come to an end
The vigorous beasts, having no imagination, were resisting less than
the men, but their aspect was deplorable. How could these be the
same strong horses with glossy coats that he had seen in the Paris
processions at the beginning of the previous month? A campaign of
twenty days had aged and exhausted them; their dull gaze seemed to
be imploring pity. They were weak and emaciated, the outline of
their skeletons so plainly apparent that it made their eyes look
larger. Their harness, as they moved, showed the skin raw and
bleeding. Yet they were pushing on with a mighty effort,
concentrating their last powers, as though human demands were beyond
their obscure instincts. Some could go no further and suddenly
collapsed from sheer fatigue. Desnoyers noticed that the
artillerymen rapidly unharnessed them, pushing them out of the road
so as to leave the way open for the rest. There lay the skeleton-
like frames with stiffened legs and glassy eyes staring fixedly at
the first flies already attracted by their miserable carrion.
The cannons painted gray, the gun-carriages, the artillery
equipment, all that Don Marcelo had seen clean and shining with the
enthusiastic friction that man has given to arms from remote epochs--
even more persistent than that which woman gives to household
utensils--were now dirty, overlaid with the marks of endless use,
with the wreckage of unavoidable neglect. The wheels were deformed
with mud, the metal darkened by the smoke of explosion, the gray
paint spotted with mossy dampness.
In the free spaces in this file, in the parentheses opened between
battery and regiment, were sandwiched crowds of civilians--miserable
groups driven on by the invasion, populations of entire towns that
had disintegrated, following the army in its retreat. The approach
of a new division would make them leave the road temporarily,
continuing their march in the adjoining fields. Then at the
slightest opening in the troops they would again slip along the
white and even surface of the highway. They were mothers who were
pushing hand-carts heaped high with pyramids of furniture and tiny
babies, the sick who could hardly drag themselves along, old men
carried on the shoulders of their grandsons, old women with little
children clinging to their skirts--a pitiful, silent brood.
Nobody now opposed the liberality of the owner of the castle. His
entire vintage seemed to be overflowing on the highway. Casks from
the last grape-gathering were rolled out to the roadside, and the
soldiers filled the metal ladles hanging from their belts with the
red stream. Then the bottled wine began making its appearance by
order of date, and was instantly lost in the river of men
continually flowing by. Desnoyers observed with much satisfaction
the effects of his munificence. The smiles were reappearing on the
despairing faces, the French jest was leaping from row to row, and
on resuming their march the groups began to sing.
Then he went to see the officers who in the village square were
giving their horses a brief rest before rejoining their columns.
With perplexed countenances and heavy eyes they were talking among
themselves about this retreat, so incomprehensible to them all.
Days before in Guise they had routed their pursuers, and yet now
they were continually withdrawing in obedience to a severe and
endless order. "We do not understand it," they were saying. "We do
not understand." An ordered and methodical tide was dragging back
these men who wanted to fight, yet had to retreat. All were
suffering the same cruel doubt. "We do not understand."
And doubt was making still more distressing this day-and-night march
with only the briefest rests--because the heads of the divisions
were in hourly fear of being cut off from the rest of the army.
"One effort more, boys! Courage! Soon we shall rest!" The columns
in their retirement were extending hundreds of miles. Desnoyers was
seeing only one division. Others and still others were doing
exactly this same thing at that very hour, their recessional
extending across half of France. All, with the same disheartened
obedience, were falling back, the men exclaiming the same as the
officials, "We don't understand. We don't understand!"
Don Marcelo soon felt the same sadness and bewilderment as these
soldiers. He didn't understand, either. He saw the obvious thing,
what all were able to see--the territory invaded without the Germans
encountering any stubborn resistance;--entire counties, cities,
villages, hamlets remaining in the power of the enemy, at the back
of an army that was constantly withdrawing. His enthusiasm suddenly
collapsed like a pricked balloon, and all his former pessimism
returned. The troops were displaying energy and discipline; but
what did that amount to if they had to keep retreating all the time,
unable on account of strict orders to fight or defend the land?
"Just as it was in the '70's," he sighed. "Outwardly there is more
order, but the result is going to be the same."
As though a negative reply to his faint-heartedness, he overheard
the voice of a soldier reassuring a farmer: "We are retreating, yes--
only that we may pounce upon the Boches with more strength.
Grandpa Joffre is going to put them in his pocket when and where he
The mere sound of the Marshal's name revived Don Marcelo's hope.
Perhaps this soldier, who was keeping his faith intact in spite of
the interminable and demoralizing marches, was nearer the truth than
the reasoning and studious officers.
He passed the rest of the day making presents to the last
detachments of the column. His wine cellars were gradually
emptying. By order of dates, he continued distributing thousands of
bottles stored in the subterranean parts of the castle. By evening
he was giving to those who appeared weakest bottles covered with the
dust of many years. As the lines filed by the men seemed weaker and
more exhausted. Stragglers were now passing, painfully drawing
their raw and bleeding feet from their shoes. Some had already
freed themselves from these torture cases and were marching
barefoot, with their heavy boots hanging from their shoulders, and
staining the highway with drops of blood. Although staggering with
deadly fatigue, they kept their arms and outfits, believing that the
enemy was near.
Desnoyers' liberality stupefied many of them. They were accustomed
to crossing their native soil, having to struggle with the
selfishness of the producer. Nobody had been offering anything.
Fear of danger had made the country folk hide their eatables and
refuse to lend the slightest aid to their compatriots who were
fighting for them.
The millionaire slept badly this second night in his pompous bed
with columns and plushes that had belonged to Henry IV--according to
the declarations of the salesmen. The troops no longer were
marching past. From time to time there straggled by a single
battalion, a battery, a group of horsemen--the last forces of the
rear guard that had taken their position on the outskirts of the
village in order to cover the retreat. The profound silence that
followed the turmoil of transportation awoke in his mind a sense of
doubt and disquietude. What was he doing there when the soldiers
had gone? Was he not crazy to remain there? . . . But immediately
there came galloping into his mind the great riches which the castle
contained. If he could only take it all away! . . . That was
impossible now through want of means and time. Besides, his
stubborn will looked upon such flight as a shameful concession. "We
must finish what we have begun!" he said to himself. He had made
the trip on purpose to guard his own, and he must not flee at the
approach of danger. . . .
The following morning, when he went down into the village, he saw
hardly any soldiers. Only a single detachment of dragoons was still
in the neighborhood; the horsemen were scouring the woods and
pushing forward the stragglers at the same time that they were
opposing the advance of the enemy. The troopers had obstructed the
street with a barricade of carts and furniture. Standing behind
this crude barrier, they were watching the white strip of roadway
which ran between the two hills covered with trees. Occasionally
there sounded stray shots like the snapping of cords. "Ours," said
the troopers. These were the last detachments of sharpshooters
firing at the advancing Uhlans. The cavalry of the rear guard had
the task of opposing a continual resistance to the enemy, repelling
the squads of Germans who were trying to work their way along to the
Desnoyers saw approaching along the highroad the last stragglers
from the infantry. They were not walking, they rather appeared to
be dragging themselves forward, with the firm intention of
advancing, but were betrayed by emaciated legs and bleeding feet.
Some had sunk down for a moment by the roadside, agonized with
weariness, in order to breathe without the weight of their
knapsacks, and draw their swollen feet from their leather prisons,
and wipe off the sweat; but upon trying to renew their march, they
found it impossible to rise. Their bodies seemed made of stone.
Fatigue had brought them to a condition bordering on catalepsy so,
unable to move, they were seeing dimly the rest of the army passing
on as a fantastic file--battalions, more battalions, batteries,
troops of horses. Then the silence, the night, the sleep on the
stones and dust, shaken by most terrible nightmare. At daybreak
they were awakened by bodies of horsemen exploring the ground,
rounding up the remnants of the retreat. Ay, it was impossible to
move! The dragoons, revolver in hand, had to resort to threats in
order to rouse them! Only the certainty that the pursuer was near
and might make them prisoners gave them a momentary vigor. So they
were forcing themselves up by superhuman effort, staggering,
dragging their legs, and supporting themselves on their guns as
though they were canes.
Many of these were young men who had aged in an hour and changed
into confirmed invalids. Poor fellows! They would not go very far!
Their intention was to follow on, to join the column, but on
entering the village they looked at the houses with supplicating
eyes, desiring to enter them, feeling such a craving for immediate
relief that they forgot even the nearness of the enemy.
Villeblanche was now more military than before the arrival of the
troops. The night before a great part of the inhabitants had fled,
having become infected with the same fear that was driving on the
crowds following the army. The mayor and the priest remained.
Reconciled with the owner of the castle through his unexpected
presence in their midst, and admiring his liberality, the municipal
official approached to give him some news. The engineers were
mining the bridge over the Marne. They were only waiting for the
dragoons to cross before blowing it up. If he wished to go, there
was still time.
Again Desnoyers hesitated. Certainly it was foolhardy to remain
there. But a glance at the woods over whose branches rose the
towers of his castle, settled his doubts. No, no. . . . "We must
finish what we have begun!"
The very last band of troopers now made their appearance, coming out
of the woods by different paths. They were riding their horses
slowly, as though they deplored this retreat. They kept looking
behind, carbine in hand, ready to halt and shoot. The others who
had been occupying the barricade were already on their mounts. The
division reformed, the commands of the officers were heard and a
quick trot, accompanied by the clanking of metal, told Don Marcelo
that the last of the army had left.
He remained near the barricade in a solitude of intense silence, as
though the world were suddenly depopulated. Two dogs, abandoned by
the flight of their masters, leaped and sniffed around him, coaxing
him for protection. They were unable to get the desired scent in
that land trodden down and disfigured by the transit of thousands of
men. A family cat was watching the birds that were beginning to
return to their haunts. With timid flutterings they were picking at
what the horses had left, and an ownerless hen was disputing the
banquet with the winged band, until then hidden in the trees and
roofs. The silence intensified the rustling of the leaves, the hum
of the insects, the summer respiration of the sunburnt soil which
appeared to have contracted timorously under the weight of the men
Desnoyers was losing exact track of the passing of time. He was
beginning to believe that all which had gone before must have been a
bad dream. The calm surrounding him made what had been happening
here seem most improbable.
Suddenly he saw something moving at the far end of the road, at the
very highest point where the white ribbon of the highway touched the
blue of the horizon. There were two men on horseback, two little
tin soldiers who appeared to have escaped from a box of toys. He
had brought with him a pair of field glasses that had often
surprised marauders on his property, and by their aid he saw more
clearly the two riders clad in greenish gray! They were carrying
lances and wearing helmets ending in a horizontal plate . . . They!
He could not doubt it: before his eyes were the first Uhlans!
For some time they remained motionless, as though exploring the
horizon. Then, from the obscure masses of vegetation that bordered
the roadside, others and still others came sallying forth in groups.
The little tin soldiers no longer were showing their silhouettes
against the horizon's blue; the whiteness of the highway was now
making their background, ascending behind their heads. They came
slowly down, like a band that fears ambush, examining carefully
The advisability of prompt retirement made Don Marcelo bring his
investigations to a close. It would be most disastrous for him if
they surprised him here. But on lowering his glasses something
extraordinary passed across his field of vision. A short distance
away, so that he could almost touch them with his hand, he saw many
men skulking along in the shadow of the trees on both sides of the
road. His surprise increased as he became convinced that they were
Frenchmen, wearing kepis. Where were they coming from? . . . He
examined more closely with his spy glass. They were stragglers in a
lamentable state of body and a picturesque variety of uniforms--
infantry, Zouaves, dragoons without their horses. And with them
were forest guards and officers from the villages that had received
too late the news of the retreat--altogether about fifty. A few
were fresh and vigorous, others were keeping themselves up by
supernatural effort. All were carrying arms.
They finally made the barricade, looking continually behind them, in
order to watch, in the shelter of the trees, the slow advance of the
Uhlans. At the head of this heterogeneous troop was an official of
the police, old and fat, with a revolver in his right hand, his
moustache bristling with excitement, and a murderous glitter in his
heavy-lidded blue eyes. The band was continuing its advance through
the village, slipping over to the other side of the barricade of
carts without paying much attention to their curious countryman,
when suddenly sounded a loud detonation, making the horizon vibrate
and the houses tremble.
"What is that?" asked the officer, looking at Desnoyers for the
first time. He explained that it was the bridge which had just been
blown up. The leader received the news with an oath, but his
confused followers, brought together by chance, remained as
indifferent as though they had lost all contact with reality.
"Might as well die here as anywhere," continued the official. Many
of the fugitives acknowledged this decision with prompt obedience,
since it saved them the torture of continuing their march. They
were almost rejoicing at the explosion which had cut off their
progress. Instinctively they were gathering in the places most
sheltered by the barricade. Some entered the abandoned houses whose
doors the dragoons had forced in order to utilize the upper floors.
All seemed satisfied to be able to rest, even though they might soon
have to fight. The officer went from group to group giving his
orders. They must not fire till he gave the word.
Don Marcelo watched these preparations with the immovability of
surprise. So rapid and noiseless had been the apparition of the
stragglers that he imagined he must still be dreaming. There could
be no danger in this unreal situation; it was all a lie. And he
remained in his place without understanding the deputy who was
ordering his departure with roughest words. Obstinate civilian! . . .
The reverberation of the explosion had filled the highway with
horsemen. They were coming from all directions, forming themselves
into the advance group. The Uhlans were galloping around under the
impression that the village was abandoned.
Desnoyers was enveloped in a rain of crackling noises, as though the
trunks of all the trees had split before his eyes.
The impetuous band halted suddenly. Some of their men were rolling
on the ground. Some were bending themselves double, trying to get
across the road without being seen. Others remained stretched out
on their backs or face downward with their arms in front. The
riderless horses were racing wildly across the fields with reins
dragging, urged on by the loose stirrups.
And after this rude shock which had brought them surprise and death,
the band disappeared, instantly swallowed up by the trees.
NEAR THE SACRED GROTTO
Argensola had found a new occupation even more exciting than marking
out on the map the manoeuvres of the armies.
"I am now devoting myself to the taube," he announced. "It appears
from four to five with the precision a punctilious guest coming to
Every afternoon at the appointed hour, a German aeroplane was flying
over Paris dropping bombs. This would-be intimidation was producing
no terror, the people accepting the visit as an interesting and
extraordinary spectacle. In vain the aviators were flinging in the
city streets German flags bearing ironic messages, giving accounts
of the defeat of the retreating army and the failures of the Russian
offensive. Lies, all lies! In vain they were dropping bombs,
destroying garrets, killing or wounding old men, women and babes.
"Ah, the bandits!" The crowds would threaten with their fists the
malign mosquito, scarcely visible 6,000 feet above them, and after
this outburst, they would follow it with straining eyes from street
to street, or stand motionless in the square in order to study its
The most punctual of all the spectators was Argensola. At four
o'clock he was in the place de la Concorde with upturned face and
wide-open eyes, in most cordial good-fellowship with all the
bystanders. It was as though they were holding season tickets at
the same theatre, becoming acquainted through seeing each other so
often. "Will it come? . . . Will it not come to-day?" The women
appeared to be the most vehement, some of them rushing up, flushed
and breathless, fearing that they might have arrived too late for
the show. . . . A great cry--"There it comes! . . . There it is!"
And thousands of hands were pointing to a vague spot on the horizon.
With field glasses and telescopes they were aiding their vision, the
popular venders offering every kind of optical instruments and for
an hour the thrilling spectacle of an aerial hunt was played out,
noisy and useless.
The great insect was trying to reach the Eiffel Tower, and from its
base would come sharp reports, at the same time that the different
platforms spit out a fierce stream of shrapnel. As it zigzagged
over the city, the discharge of rifles would crackle from roof and
street. Everyone that had arms in his house was firing--the
soldiers of the guard, and the English and Belgians on their way
through Paris. They knew that their shots were perfectly useless,
but they were firing for the fun of retorting, hoping at the same
time that one of their chance shots might achieve a miracle; but the
only miracle was that the shooters did not kill each other with
their precipitate and ineffectual fire. As it was, a few passers-by
did fall, wounded by balls from unknown sources.
Argensola would tear from street to street following the evolutions
of the inimical bird, trying to guess where its projectiles would
fall, anxious to be the first to reach the bombarded house, excited
by the shots that were answering from below. And to think that he
had no gun like those khaki-clad Englishmen or those Belgians in
barrick cap, with tassel over the front! . . . Finally the taube
tired of manoeuvering, would disappear. "Until to-morrow!"
ejaculated the Spaniard. "Perhaps to-morrow's show may be even more
He employed his free hours between his geographical observations and
his aerial contemplations in making the rounds of the stations,
watching the crowds of travellers making their escape from Paris.
The sudden vision of the truth--after the illusion which the
Government had been creating with its optimistic dispatches, the
certainty that the Germans were actually near when a week before
they had imagined them completely routed, the taubes flying over
Paris, the mysterious threat of the Zeppelins--all these dangerous
signs were filling a part of the community with frenzied
desperation. The railroad stations, guarded by the soldiery, were
only admitting those who had secured tickets in advance. Some had
been waiting entire days for their turn to depart. The most
impatient were starting to walk, eager to get outside of the city as
soon as possible. The roads were black with the crowds all going in
the same directions. Toward the South they were fleeing by
automobile, in carriages, in gardeners' carts, on foot.
Argensola surveyed this hegira with serenity. He would remain
because he had always admired those men who witnessed the Siege of
Paris in 1870. Now it was going to be his good fortune to observe
an historical drama, perhaps even more interesting. The wonders
that he would be able to relate in the future! . . . But the
distraction and indifference of his present audience were annoying
him greatly. He would hasten back to the studio, in feverish
excitement, to communicate the latest gratifying news to Desnoyers
who would listen as though he did not hear him. The night that he
informed him that the Government, the Chambers, the Diplomatic
Corps, and even the actors of the Comedie Francaise were going that
very hour on special trains for Bordeaux, his companion merely
replied with a shrug of indifference.
Desnoyers was worrying about other things. That morning he had
received a note from Marguerite--only two lines scrawled in great
haste. She was leaving, starting immediately, accompanied by her
mother. Adieu! . . . and nothing more. The panic had caused many
love-affairs to be forgotten, had broken off long intimacies, but
Marguerite's temperament was above such incoherencies from mere
flight. Julio felt that her terseness was very ominous. Why not
mention the place to which she was going? . . .
In the afternoon, he took a bold step which she had always
forbidden. He went to her home and talked a long time with the
concierge in order to get some news. The good woman was delighted
to work off on him the loquacity so brusquely cut short by the
flight of tenants and servants. The lady on the first floor
(Marguerite's mother) had been the last to abandon the house in
spite of the fact that she was really sick over her son's departure.
They had left the day before without saying where they were going.
The only thing that she knew was that they took the train in the
Gare d'Orsay. They were going toward the South like all the rest of
And she supplemented her revelations with the vague news that the
daughter had seemed very much upset by the information that she had
received from the front. Someone in the family was wounded.
Perhaps it was the brother, but she really didn't know. With so
many surprises and strange things happening, it was difficult to
keep track of everything. Her husband, too, was in the army and she
had her own affairs to worry about.
"Where can she have gone?" Julio asked himself all day long. "Why
does she wish to keep me in ignorance of her whereabouts?"
When his comrade told him that night about the transfer of the seat
of government, with all the mystery of news not yet made public,
Desnoyers merely replied:
"They are doing the best thing. . . . I, too, will go tomorrow if I
Why remain longer in Paris? His family was away. His father,
according to Argensola's investigations, also had gone off without
saying whither. Now Marguerite's mysterious flight was leaving him
entirely alone, in a solitude that was filling him with remorse.
That afternoon, when strolling through the boulevards, he had
stumbled across a friend considerably older than himself, an
acquaintance in the fencing club which he used to frequent. This
was the first time they had met since the beginning of the war, and
they ran over the list of their companions in the army. Desnoyers'
inquiries were answered by the older man. So-and-so? . . . He had
been wounded in Lorraine and was now in a hospital in the South.
Another friend? . . . Dead in the Vosges. Another? . . .
Disappeared at Charleroi. And thus had continued the heroic and
mournful roll-call. The others were still living, doing brave
things. The members of foreign birth, young Poles, English
residents in Paris and South Americans, had finally enlisted as
volunteers. The club might well be proud of its young men who had
practised arms in times of peace, for now they were all jeopardizing
their existence at the front. Desnoyers turned his face away as
though he feared to meet in the eyes of his friend, an ironical and
questioning expression. Why had he not gone with the others to
defend the land in which he was living? . . .
"To-morrow I will go," repeated Julio, depressed by this
But he went toward the South like all those who were fleeing from
the war. The following morning Argensola was charged to get him a
railroad ticket for Bordeaux. The value of money had greatly
increased, but fifty francs, opportunely bestowed, wrought the
miracle and procured a bit of numbered cardboard whose conquest
represented many days of waiting.
"It is good only for to-day," said the Spaniard, "you will have to
take the night train."
Packing was not a very serious matter, as the trains were refusing
to admit anything more than hand-luggage. Argensola did not wish to
accept the liberality of Julio who tried to leave all his money with
him. Heroes need very little and the painter of souls was inspired
with heroic resolution, The brief harangue of Gallieni in taking
charge of the defense of Paris, he had adopted as his own. He
intended to keep up his courage to the last, just like the hardy
"Let them come," he exclaimed with a tragic expression. "They will
find me at my post!" . . .
His post was the studio from which he could witness the happenings
which he proposed relating to coming generations. He would entrench
himself there with the eatables and wines. Besides he had the plan--
just as soon as his partner should disappear--of bringing to live
there with him certain lady-friends who were wandering around in
search of a problematical dinner, and feeling timid in the solitude
of their own quarters. Danger often gathers congenial folk together
and adds a new attractiveness to the pleasures of a community. The
tender affections of the prisoners of the Terror, when they were
expecting momentarily to be conducted to the guillotine, flashed
through his mind. Let us drain Life's goblet at one draught since
we have to die! . . . The studio of the rue de la Pompe was about
to witness the mad and desperate revels of a castaway bark well-
stocked with provisions.
Desnoyers left the Gare d'Orsay in a first-class compartment,
mentally praising the good order with which the authorities had
arranged everything, so that every traveller could have his own
seat. At the Austerlitz station, however, a human avalanche
assaulted the train. The doors were broken open, packages and
children came in through the windows like projectiles. The people
pushed with the unreason of a crowd fleeing before a fire. In the
space reserved for eight persons, fourteen installed themselves; the
passageways were heaped with mountains of bags and valises that
served later travellers for seats. All class distinctions had
disappeared. The villagers invaded by preference the best coaches,
believing that they would there find more room. Those holding
first-class tickets hunted up the plainer coaches in the vain hope
of travelling without being crowded. On the cross roads were
waiting from the day before long trains made up of cattle cars. All
the stables on wheels were filled with people seated on the wooden
floor or in chairs brought from their homes. Every train load was
an encampment eager to take up its march; whenever it halted, layers
of greasy papers, hulls and fruit skins collected along its entire
The invaders, pushing their way in, put up with many annoyances and
pardoned one another in a brotherly way. "In war times, war
measures," they would always say as a last excuse. And each one was
pressing closer to his neighbor in order to make a few more inches
of room, and helping to wedge his scanty baggage among the other
bundles swaying most precariously above. Little by little,
Desnoyers was losing all his advantage as a first comer. These poor
people who had been waiting for the train from four in the morning
till eight at night, awakened his pity. The women, groaning with
weariness, were standing in the corridors, looking with ferocious
envy at those who had seats. The children were bleating like hungry
kids. Julio finally gave up his place, sharing with the needy and
improvident the bountiful supply of eatables with which Argensola
had provided him. The station restaurants had all been emptied of
During the train's long wait, soldiers only were seen on the
platform, soldiers who were hastening at the call of the trumpet, to
take their places again in the strings of cars which were constantly
steaming toward Paris. At the signal stations, long war trains were
waiting for the road to be clear that they might continue their
journey. The cuirassiers, wearing a yellow vest over their steel
breastplate, were seated with hanging legs in the doorways of the
stable cars, from whose interior came repeated neighing. Upon the
flat cars were rows of gun carriages. The slender throats of the
cannon of '75 were pointed upwards like telescopes.
Young Desnoyers passed the night in the aisle, seated on a valise,
noting the sodden sleep of those around him, worn out by weariness
and exhaustion. It was a cruel and endless night of jerks, shrieks
and stops punctuated by snores. At every station, the trumpets were
sounding precipitously as though the enemy were right upon them.
The soldiers from the South were hurrying to their posts, and at
brief intervals another detachment of men was dragged along the
rails toward Paris. They all appeared gay, and anxious to reach the
scene of slaughter as soon as possible. Many were regretting the
delays, fearing that they might arrive too late. Leaning out of the
window, Julio heard the dialogues and shouts on the platforms
impregnated with the acrid odor of men and mules. All were evincing
an unquenchable confidence. "The Boches! very numerous, with huge
cannons, with many mitrailleuse . . . but we only have to charge
with our bayonets to make them run like rabbits!"
The attitude of those going to meet death was in sharp contrast to
the panic and doubt of those who were deserting Paris. An old and
much-decorated gentleman, type of a jubilee functionary, kept
questioning Desnoyers whenever the train started on again--"Do you
believe that they will get as far as Tours?" Before receiving his
reply, he would fall asleep. Brutish sleep was marching down the
aisles with leaden feet. At every junction, the old man would start
up and suddenly ask, "Do you believe that we will get as far as
Bordeaux?" . . . And his great desire not to halt until, with his
family, he had reached an absolutely secure refuge, made him accept
as oracles all the vague responses.
At daybreak, they saw the Territorialists guarding the roads. They
were armed with old muskets, and were wearing the red kepis as their
only military distinction. They were following the opposite course
of the military trains.
In the station at Bordeaux, the civilian crowds struggling to get
out or to enter other cars, were mingling with the troops. The
trumpets were incessantly sounding their brazen notes, calling the
soldiers together. Many were men of darkest coloring, natives with
wide gray breeches and red caps above their black or bronzed faces.
Julio saw a train bearing wounded from the battles of Flanders and
Lorraine. Their worn and dirty uniforms were enlivened by the
whiteness of the bandages sustaining the wounded limbs or protecting
the broken heads. All were trying to smile, although with livid
mouths and feverish eyes, at their first glimpse of the land of the
South as it emerged from the mist bathed in the sunlight, and
covered with the regal vestures of its vineyards. The men from the
North stretched out their hands for the fruit that the women were
offering them, tasting with delight the sweet grapes of the country.
For four days the distracted lover lived in Bordeaux, stunned and
bewildered by the agitation of a provincial city suddenly converted
into a capital. The hotels were overcrowded, many notables
contenting themselves with servants' quarters. There was not a
vacant seat in the cafes; the sidewalks could not accommodate the
extraordinary assemblage. The President was installed in the
Prefecture; the State Departments were established in the schools
and museums; two theatres were fitted up for the future reunions of
the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Julio was lodged in a
filthy, disreputable hotel at the end of a foul-smelling alley. A
little Cupid adorned the crystals of the door, and the looking-glass
in his room was scratched with names and unspeakable phrases--
souvenirs of the occupants of an hour . . . and yet many grand
ladies, hunting in vain for temporary residence, would have envied
him his good fortune.
All his investigations proved fruitless. The friends whom he
encountered in the fugitive crowd were thinking only of their own
affairs. They could talk of nothing but incidents of the
installation, repeating the news gathered from the ministers with
whom they were living on familiar terms, or mentioning with a
mysterious air, the great battle which was going on stretching from
the vicinity of Paris to Verdun. A pupil of his days of glory,
whose former elegance was now attired in the uniform of a nurse,
gave him some vague information. "The little Madame Laurier? . . .
I remember hearing that she was living somewhere near here. . . .
Perhaps in Biarritz." Julio needed no more than this to continue
his journey. To Biarritz!
The first person that he encountered on his arrival was Chichi. She
declared that the town was impossible because of the families of
rich Spaniards who were summering there. "The Boches are in the
majority, and I pass a miserable existence quarrelling with them. . . .
I shall finally have to live alone." Then he met his mother--
embraces and tears. Afterwards he saw his Aunt Elena in the hotel
parlors, most enthusiastic over the country and the summer colony.
She could talk at great length with many of them about the decadence
of France. They were all expecting to receive the news from one
moment to another, that the Kaiser had entered the Capital.
Ponderous men who had never done anything in all their lives, were
criticizing the defects and indolence of the Republic. Young men
whose aristocracy aroused Dona Elena's enthusiasm, broke forth into
apostrophes against the corruption of Paris, corruption that they
had studied thoroughly, from sunset to sunrise, in the virtuous
schools of Montmartre. They all adored Germany where they had never
been, or which they knew only through the reels of the moving
picture films. They criticized events as though they were
witnessing a bull fight. "The Germans have the snap! You can't
fool with them! They are fine brutes!" And they appeared to admire
this inhumanity as the most admirable characteristic. "Why will
they not say that in their own home on the other side of the
frontier?" Chichi would protest. "Why do they come into their
neighbor's country to ridicule his troubles? . . . Possibly they
consider it a sign of their wonderful good-breeding!"
But Julio had not gone to Biarritz to live with his family. . . .
The very day of his arrival, he saw Marguerite's mother in the
distance. She was alone. His inquiries developed the information
that her daughter was living in Pau. She was a trained nurse taking
care of a wounded member of the family. "Her brother . . .
undoubtedly it is her brother," thought Julio. And he again
continued his trip, this time going to Pau.
His visits to the hospitals there were also unavailing. Nobody
seemed to know Marguerite. Every day a train was arriving with a
new load of bleeding flesh, but her brother was not among the
wounded. A Sister of Charity, believing that he was in search of
someone of his family, took pity on him and gave him some helpful
directions. He ought to go to Lourdes; there were many of the
wounded there and many of the military nurses. So Desnoyers
immediately took the short cut between Pau and Lourdes.
He had never visited the sacred city whose name was so frequently on
his mother's lips. For Dona Luisa, the French nation was Lourdes.
In her discussions with her sister and other foreign ladies who were
praying that France might be exterminated for its impiety, the good
senora always summed up her opinions in the same words:--"When the
Virgin wished to make her appearance in our day, she chose France.
This country, therefore, cannot be as bad as you say. . . . When I
see that she appears in Berlin, we will then re-discuss the matter."
But Desnoyers was not there to confirm his mother's artless
opinions. Just as soon as he had found a room in a hotel near the
river, he had hastened to the big hostelry, now converted into a
hospital. The guard told him that he could not speak to the
Director until the afternoon. In order to curb his impatience he
walked through the street leading to the basilica, past all the
booths and shops with pictures and pious souvenirs which have
converted the place into a big bazaar. Here and in the gardens
adjoining the church, he saw wounded convalescents with uniforms
stained with traces of the combat. Their cloaks were greatly soiled
in spite of repeated brushings. The mud, the blood and the rain had
left indelible spots and made them as stiff as cardboard. Some of
the wounded had cut their sleeves in order to avoid the cruel
friction on their shattered arms, others still showed on their
trousers the rents made by the devastating shells.
They were fighters of all ranks and of many races--infantry,
cavalry, artillerymen; soldiers from the metropolis and from the
colonies; French farmers and African sharpshooters; red heads, faces
of Mohammedan olive and the black countenances of the Sengalese,
with eyes of fire, and thick, bluish blubber lips; some showing the
good-nature and sedentary obesity of the middle-class man suddenly
converted into a warrior; others sinewy, alert, with the aggressive
profile of men born to fight, and experienced in foreign fields.
The city, formerly visited by the hopeful, Catholic sick, was now
invaded by a crowd no less dolorous but clad in carnival colors.
All, in spite of their physical distress, had a certain air of good
cheer and satisfaction. They had seen Death very near, slipping out
from his bony claws into a new joy and zest in life. With their
cloaks adorned with medals, their theatrical Moorish garments, their
kepis and their African headdresses, this heroic band presented,
nevertheless, a lamentable aspect.
Very few still preserved the noble vertical carriage, the pride of
the superior human being. They were walking along bent almost
double, limping, dragging themselves forward by the help of a staff
or friendly arm. Others had to let themselves be pushed along,
stretched out on the hand-carts which had so often conducted the
devout sick from the station to the Grotto of the Virgin. Some were
feeling their way along, blindly, leaning on a child or nurse. The
first encounters in Belgium and in the East, a mere half-dozen
battles, had been enough to produce these physical wrecks still
showing a manly nobility in spite of the most horrible outrages.
These organisms, struggling so tenaciously to regain their hold on
life, bringing their reviving energies out into the sunlight,
represented but the most minute part of the number mowed down by the
scythe of Death. Back of them were thousands and thousands of
comrades groaning on hospital beds from which they would probably
never rise. Thousands and thousands were hidden forever in the
bosom of the Earth moistened by their death agony--fatal land which,
upon receiving a hail of projectiles, brought forth a harvest of
War now showed itself to Desnoyers with all its cruel hideousness.
He had been accustomed to speak of it heretofore as those in robust
health speak of death, knowing that it exists and is horrible, but
seeing it afar off . . . so far off that it arouses no real emotion.
The explosion of the shells were accompanying their destructive
brutality with a ferocious mockery, grotesquely disfiguring the
human body. He saw wounded objects just beginning to recover their
vital force who were but rough skeletons of men, frightful
caricatures, human rags, saved from the tomb by the audacities of
science--trunks with heads which were dragged along on wheeled
platforms; fragments of skulls whose brains were throbbing under an
artificial cap; beings without arms and without legs, resting in the
bottom of little wagons, like bits of plaster models or scraps from
the dissecting room; faces without noses that looked like skulls
with great, black nasal openings. And these half-men were talking,
smoking, laughing, satisfied to see the sky, to feel the caress of
the sun, to have come back to life, dominated by that sovereign
desire to live which trustingly forgets present misery in the
confident hope of something better.
So strongly was Julio impressed that for a little while he forgot
the purpose which had brought him thither. . . . If those who
provoke war from diplomatic chambers or from the tables of the
Military Staff could but see it--not in the field of battle fired
with the enthusiasm which prejudices judgments--but in cold blood,
as it is seen in the hospitals and cemeteries, in the wrecks left in
its trail! . . .
To Julio's imagination this terrestrial globe appeared like an
enormous ship sailing through infinity. Its crews--poor humanity--
had spent century after century in exterminating each other on the
deck. They did not even know what existed under their feet, in the
hold of the vessel. To occupy the same portion of the surface in
the sunlight seemed to be the ruling desire of each group. Men,
considered superior human beings, were pushing these masses to
extermination in order to scale the last bridge and hold the helm,
controlling the course of the boat. And all those who felt the
overmastering ambition for absolute command knew the same thing . . .
nothing. Not one of them could say with certainty what lay beyond
the visible horizon, nor whither the ship was drifting. The sullen
hostility of mystery surrounded them all; their life was precarious,
necessitating incessant care in order to maintain it, yet in spite
of that, the crew for ages and ages, had never known an instant of
agreement, of team work, of clear reason. Periodically half of them
would clash with the other half. They killed each other that they
might enslave the vanquished on the rolling deck floating over the
abyss; they fought that they might cast their victims from the
vessel, filling its wake with cadavers. And from the demented
throng there were still springing up gloomy sophistries to prove
that a state of war was the perfect state, that it ought to go on
forever, that it was a bad dream on the part of the crew to wish to
regard each other as brothers with a common destiny, enveloped in
the same unsteady environment of mystery. . . . Ah, human misery!
Julio was drawn out of these pessimistic reflections by the childish
glee which many of the convalescents were evincing. Some were
Mussulmans, sharpshooters from Algeria and Morocco. In Lourdes, as
they might be anywhere, they were interested only in the gifts which
the people were showering upon them with patriotic affection. They
all surveyed with indifference the basilica inhabited by "the white
lady," their only preoccupation being to beg for cigars and sweets.
Finding themselves regaled by the dominant race, they became greatly
puffed up, daring everything like mischievous children. What
pleased them most was the fact that the ladies would take them by
the hand. Blessed war that permitted them to approach and touch
these white women, perfumed and smiling as they appeared in their
dreams of the paradise of the blest! "Lady . . . Lady," they would
sigh, looking at them with dark, sparkling eyes. And not content
with the hand, their dark paws would venture the length of the
entire arm while the ladies laughed at this tremulous adoration.
Others would go through the crowds, offering their right hand to all
the women. "We touch hands." . . . And then they would go away
satisfied after receiving the hand clasp.
Desnoyers wandered a long time around the basilica where, in the
shadow of the trees, were long rows of wheeled chairs occupied by
the wounded. Officers and soldiers rested many hours in the blue
shade, watching their comrades who were able to use their legs. The
sacred grotto was resplendent with the lights from hundreds of
candles. Devout crowds were kneeling in the open air, fixing their
eyes in supplication on the sacred stones whilst their thoughts were
flying far away to the fields of battle, making their petitions with
that confidence in divinity which accompanies every distress. Among
the kneeling mass were many soldiers with bandaged heads, kepis in
hand and tearful eyes.
Up and down the double staircase of the basilica were flitting
women, clad in white, with spotless headdresses that fluttered in
such a way that they appeared like flying doves. These were the
nurses and Sisters of Charity guiding the steps of the injured.
Desnoyers thought he recognized Marguerite in every one of them, but
the prompt disillusion following each of these discoveries soon made
him doubtful about the outcome of his journey. She was not in
Lourdes, either. He would never find her in that France so
immeasurably expanded by the war that it had converted every town
into a hospital.
His afternoon explorations were no more successful. The employees
listened to his interrogations with a distraught air. He could come
back again; just now they were taken up with the announcement that
another hospital train was on the way. The great battle was still
going on near Paris. They had to improvise lodgings for the new
consignment of mutilated humanity. In order to pass away the time
until his return, Desnoyers went back to the garden near the grotto.
He was planning to return to Pau that night; there was evidently
nothing more to do at Lourdes. In what direction should he now
continue his search?
Suddenly he felt a thrill down his back--the same indefinable
sensation which used to warn him of her presence when they were
meeting in the gardens of Paris. Marguerite was going to present
herself unexpectedly as in the old days without his knowing from
exactly what spot--as though she came up out of the earth or
descended from the clouds.
After a second's thought he smiled bitterly. Mere tricks of his
desire! Illusions! . . . Upon turning his head he recognized the
falsity of his hope. Nobody was following his footsteps; he was the
only being going down the center of the avenue. Near him, in the
diaphanous white of a guardian angel, was a nurse. Poor blind
man! . . . Desnoyers was passing on when a quick movement on the
part of the white-clad woman, an evident desire to escape notice,
to hide her face by looking at the plants, attracted his attention.
He was slow in recognizing her. Two little ringlets escaping from
the band of her cap made him guess the hidden head of hair; the
feet shod in white were the signs which enabled him to reconstruct
the person somewhat disfigured by the severe uniform. Her face
was pale and sad. There wasn't a trace left in it of the old
vanities that used to give it its childish, doll-like beauty.
In the depths of those great, dark-circled eyes life seemed to
be reflected in new forms. . . . Marguerite!
They stared at one another for a long while, as though hypnotized
with surprise. She looked alarmed when Desnoyers advanced a step
toward her. No . . . No! Her eyes, her hands, her entire body
seemed to protest, to repel his approach, to hold him motionless.
Fear that he might come near her, made her go toward him. She said
a few words to the soldier who remained on the bench, receiving
across the bandage on his face a ray of sunlight which he did not
appear to feel. Then she rose, going to meet Julio, and continued
forward, indicating by a gesture that they must find some place
further on where the wounded man could not hear them.
She led the way to a side path from which she could see the blind
man confided to her care. They stood motionless, face to face.
Desnoyers wished to say many things; many . . . but he hesitated,
not knowing how to frame his complaints, his pleadings, his
endearments. Far above all these thoughts towered one, fatal,
dominant and wrathful.
"Who is that man?"
The spiteful accent, the harsh voice with which he said these words
surprised him as though they came from someone else's mouth.
The nurse looked at him with her great limpid eyes, eyes that seemed
forever freed from contractions of surprise or fear. Her response
slipped from her with equal directness.
"It is Laurier. . . . It is my husband."
Laurier! . . . Julio looked doubtfully and for a long time at the
soldier before he could be convinced. That blind officer motionless
on the bench, that figure of heroic grief, was Laurier! . . . At
first glance, he appeared prematurely old with roughened and bronzed
skin so furrowed with lines that they converged like rays around all
the openings of his face. His hair was beginning to whiten on the
temples and in the beard which covered his cheeks. He had lived
twenty years in that one month. . . . At the same time he appeared
younger, with a youthfulness that was radiating an inward vigor,
with the strength of a soul which has suffered the most violent
emotions and, firm and serene in the satisfaction of duty fulfilled,
can no longer know fear.
As Desnoyers contemplated him, he felt both admiration and jealousy.
He was ashamed to admit the aversion inspired by the wounded man, so
sorely wounded that he was unable to see what was going on around
him. His hatred was a form of cowardice, terrifying in its
persistence. How pensive were Marguerite's eyes if she took them
off her patient for a few seconds! . . . She had never looked at
him in that way. He knew all the amorous gradations of her glance,
but her fixed gaze at this injured man was something entirely
different, something that he had never seen before.
He spoke with the fury of a lover who discovers an infidelity.
"And for this thing you have run away without warning, without a
word! . . . You have abandoned me in order to go in search of
him. . . . Tell me, why did you come? . . . Why did you come?". . .
"I came because it was my duty."
Then she spoke like a mother who takes advantage of a parenthesis of
surprise in an irascible child's temper, in order to counsel self-
control, and explained how it had all happened. She had received
the news of Laurier's wounding just as she and her mother were
preparing to leave Paris. She had not hesitated an instant; her
duty was to hasten to the aid of this man. She had been doing a
great deal of thinking in the last few weeks; the war had made her
ponder much on the values in life. Her eyes had been getting
glimpses of new horizons; our destiny is not mere pleasure and
selfish satisfaction; we ought to take our part in pain and
She had wanted to work for her country, to share the general stress,
to serve as other women did; and since she was disposed to devote
herself to strangers, was it not natural that she should prefer to
help this man whom she had so greatly wronged? . . . There still
lived in her memory the moment in which she had seen him approach
the station, completely alone among so many who had the consolation
of loving arms when departing in search of death. Her pity had
become still more acute on hearing of his misfortune. A shell had
exploded near him, killing all those around him. Of his many
wounds, the only serious one was that on his face. He had
completely lost the sight of one eye; and the doctors were keeping
the other bound up hoping to save it. But she was very doubtful
about it; she was almost sure that Laurier would be blind.
Marguerite's voice trembled when saying this as if she were going to
cry, although her eyes were tearless. They did not now feel the
irresistible necessity for tears. Weeping had become something
superfluous, like many other luxuries of peaceful days. Her eyes
had seen so much in so few days! . . .
"How you love him!" exclaimed Julio.
Fearing that they might be overheard and in order to keep him at a
distance, she had been speaking as though to a friend. But her
lover's sadness broke down her reserve.
"No, I love you. . . . I shall always love you."
The simplicity with which she said this and her sudden tenderness of
tone revived Desnoyers' hopes.
"And the other one?" he asked anxiously.
Upon receiving her reply, it seemed to him as though something had
just passed across the sun, veiling its light temporarily. It was
as though a cloud had drifted over the land and over his thoughts,
enveloping them in an unbearable chill.
"I love him, too."
She said it with a look that seemed to implore pardon, with the sad
sincerity of one who has given up lying and weeps in foreseeing the
injury that the truth must inflict.
He felt his hard wrath suddenly dwindling like a crumbling mountain.
Ah, Marguerite! His voice was tremulous and despairing. Could it
be possible that everything between these two was going to end thus
simply? Were her former vows mere lies? . . . They had been
attracted to each other by an irresistible affinity in order to be
together forever, to be one. . . . And now, suddenly hardened by
indifference, were they to drift apart like two unfriendly
bodies? . . . What did this absurdity about loving him at the
same time that she loved her former husband mean, anyway?
Marguerite hung her head, murmuring desperately:
"You are a man, I am a woman. You would never understand me, no
matter what I might say. Men are not able to comprehend certain of
our mysteries. . . . A woman would be better able to appreciate the
Desnoyers felt that he must know his fate in all its cruelty. She
might speak without fear. He felt strong enough to bear the
blow. . . . What had Laurier said when he found that he was being
so tenderly cared for by Marguerite? . . .
"He does not know who I am. . . . He believes me to be a war-nurse,
like the rest, who pities him seeing him alone and blind with no
relatives to write to him or visit him. . . . At certain times, I
have almost suspected that he guesses the truth. My voice, the
touch of my hands made him shiver at first, as though with an
unpleasant sensation. I have told him that I am a Beigian lady who
has lost her loved ones and is alone in the world. He has told me
his life story very sketchily, as if he desired to forget a hated
past. . . . Never one disagreeable word about his former wife.
There are nights when I think that he knows me, that he takes
advantage of his blindness in order to prolong his feigned
ignorance, and that distresses me. I long for him to recover his
sight, for the doctors to save that doubtful eye--and yet at the
same time, I feel afraid. What will he say when he recognizes
me? . . . But no; it is better that he should see, no matter
what may result. You cannot understand my anxiety, you cannot
know what I am suffering."
She was silent for an instant, trying to regain her self-control,
again tortured with the agony of her soul.
"Oh, the war!" she resumed. "What changes in our life! Two months
ago, my present situation would have appeared impossible,
unimaginable. . . . I caring for my husband, fearing that he would
discover my identity and leave me, yet at the same time, wishing
that he would recognize me and pardon me. . . . It is only one
week that I have been with him. I disguise my voice when I can, and
avoid words that may reveal the truth . . . but this cannot keep up
much longer. It is only in novels that such painful situations turn
Doubt suddenly overwhelmed her.
"I believe," she continued, "that he has recognized me from the
first. . . . He is silent and feigns ignorance because he despises
me . . . because he can never bring himself to pardon me. I have
been so bad! . . . I have wronged him so!". . .
She was recalling the long and reflective silences of the wounded
man after she had dropped some imprudent words. After two days of
submission to her care, he had been somewhat rebellious, avoiding
going out with her for a walk. Because of his blind helplessness,
and comprehending the uselessness of his resistance, he had finally
yielded in passive silence.
"Let him think what he will!" concluded Marguerite courageously.
"Let him despise me! I am here where I ought to be. I need his
forgiveness, but if he does not pardon me, I shall stay with him
just the same. . . . There are moments when I wish that he may
never recover his sight, so that he may always need me, so that I
may pass my life at his side, sacrificing everything for him."
"And I?" said Desnoyers.
Marguerite looked at him with clouded eyes as though she were just
awaking. It was true--and the other one? . . . Kindled by the
proposed sacrifice which was to be her expiation, she had forgotten
the man before her.
"You!" she said after a long pause. "You must leave me. . . . Life
is not what we have thought it. Had it not been for the war, we
might, perhaps, have realized our dream, but now! . . . Listen
carefully and try to understand. For the remainder of my life, I
shall carry the heaviest burden, and yet at the same time it will be
sweet, since the more it weighs me down the greater will my
atonement be. Never will I leave this man whom I have so grievously
wronged, now that he is more alone in the world and will need
protection like a child. Why do you come to share my fate? How
could it be possible for you to live with a nurse constantly at the
side of a blind and worthy man whom we would constantly offend with
our passion? . . . No, it is better for us to part. Go your way,
alone and untrammelled. Leave me; you will meet other women who
will make you more happy than I. Yours is the temperament that
finds new pleasures at every step."
She stood firmly to her decision. Her voice was calm, but back of
it trembled the emotion of a last farewell to a joy which was going
from her forever. The man would be loved by others . . . and she
was giving him up! . . . But the noble sadness of the sacrifice
restored her courage. Only by this renunciation could she expiate
Julio dropped his eyes, vanquished and perplexed. The picture of
the future outlined by Marguerite terrified him. To live with her
as a nurse taking advantage of her patient's blindness would be to
offer him fresh insult every day. . . . Ah, no! That would be
villainy, indeed! He was now ashamed to recall the malignity with
which, a little while before, he had regarded this innocent
unfortunate. He realized that he was powerless to contend with him.
Weak and helpless as he was sitting there on the garden bench, he
was stronger and more deserving of respect than Julio Desnoyers with
all his youth and elegance. The victim had amounted to something in
his life; he had done what Julio had not dared to do.
This sudden conviction of his inferiority made him cry out like an
abandoned child, "What will become of me?" . . .
Marguerite, too--contemplating the love which was going from her
forever, her vanished hopes, the future illumined by the
satisfaction of duty fulfilled but monotonous and painful--cried
"And I. . . . What will become of me?" . . .
As though he had suddenly found a solution which was reviving his
courage, Desnoyers said:
"Listen, Marguerite: I can read your soul. You love this man, and
you do well. He is superior to me, and women are always attracted
by superiority. . . . I am a coward. Yes, do not protest, I am a
coward with all my youth, with all my strength. Why should you not
have been impressed by the conduct of this man! . . . But I will
atone for past wrongs. This country is yours, Marguerite; I will
fight for it. Do not say no. . . ."
And moved by his hasty heroism, he outlined the plan more
definitely. He was going to be a soldier. Soon she would hear him
well spoken of. His idea was either to be stretched on the
battlefield in his first encounter, or to astound the world by his
bravery. In this way the impossible situation would settle itself--
either the oblivion of death or glory.
"No, no!" interrupted Marguerite in an anguished tone. "You, no!
One is enough. . . . How horrible! You, too, wounded, mutilated
forever, perhaps dead! . . . No, you must live. I want you to
live, even though you might belong to another. . . . Let me know
that you exist, let me see you sometimes, even though you may have
forgotten me, even though you may pass me with indifference, as if
you did not know me."
In this outburst her deep love for him rang true--her heroic and
inflexible love which would accept all penalties for herself, if
only the beloved one might continue to live.
But then, in order that Julio might not feel any false hopes, she
added:--"Live; you must not die; that would be for me another
torment. . . . But live without me. No matter how much we may talk
about it, my destiny beside the other one is marked out forever."
"Ah, how you love him! . . . How you have deceived me!"
In a last desperate attempt at explanation she again repeated what
she had said at the beginning of their interview. She loved
Julio . . . and she loved her husband. They were different kinds
of love. She could not say which was the stronger, but misfortune
was forcing her to choose between the two, and she was accepting
the most difficult, the one demanding the greatest sacrifices.
"You are a man, and you will never be able to understand me. . . .
A woman would comprehend me."
It seemed to Julio, as he looked around him, as though the afternoon
were undergoing some celestial phenomenon. The garden was still
illuminated by the sun, but the green of the trees, the yellow of
the ground, the blue of the sky, all appeared to him as dark and
shadowy as though a rain of ashes were falling.
"Then . . . all is over between us?"
His pleading, trembling voice charged with tears made her turn her
head to hide her emotion. Then in the painful silence the two
despairs formed one and the same question, as if interrogating the
shades of the future: "What will become of me? murmured the man.
And like an echo her lips repeated, "What will become of me?"
All had been said. Hopeless words came between the two like an
obstacle momentarily increasing in size, impelling them in opposite
directions. Why prolong the painful interview? . . . Marguerite
showed the ready and energetic decision of a woman who wishes to
bring a scene to a close. "Good-bye!" Her face had assumed a
yellowish cast, her pupils had become dull and clouded like the
glass of a lantern when the light dies out. "Good-bye!" She must
go to her patient.
She went away without looking at him, and Desnoyers instinctively
went in the opposite direction. As he became more self-controlled
and turned to look at her again, he saw her moving on and giving her
arm to the blind man, without once turning her head.
He now felt convinced that he should never see her again, and became
oppressed by an almost suffocating agony. And could two beings, who
had formerly considered the universe concentrated in their persons,
thus easily be separated forever? . . .
His desperation at finding himself alone made him accuse himself of
stupidity. Now his thoughts came tumbling over each other in a
tumultuous throng, and each one of them seemed to him sufficient to
have convinced Marguerite. He certainly had not known how to
express himself. He would have to talk with her again . . . and he
decided to remain in Lourdes.
He passed a night of torture in the hotel, listening to the ripple
of the river among its stones. Insomnia had him in his fierce jaws,
gnawing him with interminable agony. He turned on the light several
times, but was not able to read. His eyes looked with stupid fixity
at the patterns of the wall paper and the pious pictures around the
room which had evidently served as the lodging place of some rich
traveller. He remained motionless and as abstracted as an Oriental
who thinks himself into an absolute lack of thought. One idea only
was dancing in the vacuum in his skull--"I shall never see her
again. . . . Can such a thing be possible?"
He drowsed for a few seconds, only to be awakened with the sensation
that some horrible explosion was sending him through the air. And
so, with sweats of anguish, he wakefully passed the hours until in
the gloom of his room the dawn showed a milky rectangle of light,
and began to be reflected on the window curtains.
The velvet-like caress of day finally closed his eyes. Upon awaking
he found that the morning was well advanced, and he hurried to the
garden of the grotto. . . . Oh, the hours of tremulous and
unavailing waiting, believing that he recognized Marguerite in every
white-clad lady that came along, guiding a wounded patient!
By afternoon, after a lunch whose dishes filed past him untouched,
he returned to the garden in search of her. Beholding her in the
distance with the blind man leaning on her arm, a feeling of
faintness came over him. She looked to him taller, thinner, her
face sharper, with two dark hollows in her cheeks and her eyes
bright with fever, the lids drawn with weariness. He suspected that
she, too, had passed an anguished night of tenacious, self-centred
thought, of grievous stupefaction like his own, in the room of her
hotel. Suddenly he felt all the weight of insomnia and
listlessness, all the depressing emotion of the cruel sensations
experienced in the last few hours. Oh, how miserable they both
were! . . .
She was walking warily, looking from one side to the other, as
though foreseeing danger. Upon discovering him she clung to her
charge, casting upon her former lover a look of entreaty, of
desperation, imploring pity. . . Ay, that look!
He felt ashamed of himself; his personality appeared to be unrolling
itself before him, and he surveyed himself with the eyes of a judge.
What was this seduced and useless man, called Julio Desnoyers, doing
there, tormenting with his presence a poor woman, trying to turn her
from her righteous repentance, insisting on his selfish and petty
desires when all humanity was thinking of other things? . . . His
cowardice angered him. Like a thief taking advantage of the sleep
of his victim, he was stalking around this brave and true man who
could not see him, who could not defend himself, in order to rob him
of the only affection that he had in the world which had so
miraculously returned to him! Very well, Gentleman Desnoyers! . . .
Ah, what a scoundrel he was!
Such subconscious insults made him draw himself erect, in haughty,
cruel and inexorable defiance against that other I who so richly
deserved the judge's scorn.
He turned his head away; he could not meet Marguerite's piteous
eyes; he feared their mute reproach. Neither did he dare to look at
the blind man in his shabby and heroic uniform, with his countenance
aged by duty and glory. He feared him like remorse.
So the vanquished lover turned his back on the two and went away
with a firm step. Good-bye, Love! Goodbye, Happiness! . . . He
marched quickly and bravely on; a miracle had just taken place
within him! he had found the right road at last!
To Paris! . . . A new impetus was going to fill the vacuum of his
Don Marcelo was fleeing to take refuge in his castle when he met the
mayor of Villeblanche. The noise of the firing had made him hurry
to the barricade. When he learned of the apparition of the group of
stragglers he threw up his hands in despair. They were crazy.
Their resistance was going to be fatal for the village, and he ran
on to beg them to cease.
For some time nothing happened to disturb the morning calm.
Desnoyers had climbed to the top of his towers and was surveying the
country with his field glasses. He couldn't make out the highway
through the nearest group of trees, but he suspected that underneath
their branches great activity was going on--masses of men on guard,
troops preparing for the attack. The unexpected defense of the
fugitives had upset the advance of the invasion. Desnoyers thought
despairingly of that handful of mad fellows and their stubborn
chief. What was their fate going to be? . . .
Focussing his glasses on the village, he saw the red spots of kepis
waving like poppies over the green of the meadows. They were the
retreating men, now convinced of the uselessness of their
resistance. Perhaps they had found a ford or forgotten boat by
which they might cross the Maine, and so were continuing their
retreat toward the river. At any minute now the Germans were going
to enter Villeblanche.
Half an hour of profound silence passed by. The village lay
silhouetted against a background of hills--a mass of roofs beneath
the church tower finished with its cross and iron weather cock.
Everything seemed as tranquil as in the best days of peace.
Suddenly he noticed that the grove was vomiting forth something
noisy and penetrating--a bubble of vapor accompanied by a deafening
report. Something was hurtling through the air with a strident
curve. Then a roof in the village opened like a crater, vomiting
forth flying wood, fragments of plaster and broken furniture. All
the interior of the house seemed to be escaping in a stream of
smoke, dirt and splinters.
The invaders were bombarding Villeblanche before attempting attack,
as though fearing to encounter persistent resistance in its streets.
More projectiles fell. Some passed over the houses, exploding
between the hamlet and the castle. The towers of the Desnoyers
property were beginning to attract the aim of the artillerymen. The
owner was therefore about to abandon his dangerous observatory when
he saw something white like a tablecloth or sheet floating from the
church tower. His neighbors had hoisted this signal of peace in
order to avoid bombardment. A few more missiles fell and then there
When Don Marcelo reached his park he found the Warden burying at the
foot of a tree the sporting rifles still remaining in his castle.
Then he went toward the great iron gates. The enemies were going to
come, and he had to receive them. While uneasily awaiting their
arrival his compunctions again tormented him. What was he doing
there? Why had he remained? . . . But his obstinate temperament
immediately put aside the promptings of fear. He was there because
he had to guard his own. Besides, it was too late now to think
about such things.
Suddenly the morning stillness was broken by a sound like the
deafening tearing of strong cloth. "Shots, Master," said the
Warden. "Firing! It must be in the square."
A few minutes after they saw running toward them a woman from the
village, an old soul, dried up and darkened by age, who was panting
from her great exertion, and looking wildly around her. She was
fleeing blindly, trying to escape from danger and shut out horrible
visions. Desnoyers and the Keeper's family listened to her
explanations interrupted with hiccoughs of terror.
The Germans were in Villeblanche. They had entered first in an
automobile driven at full speed from one end of the village to the
other. Its mitrailleuse was firing at random against closed houses
and open doors, knocking down all the people in sight. The old
woman flung up her arms with a gesture of terror. . . . Dead . . .
many dead . . . wounded . . . blood! Then other iron-plated
vehicles had stopped in the square, and behind them cavalrymen,
battalions of infantry, many battalions coming from everywhere. The
helmeted men seemed furious; they accused the villagers of having
fired at them. In the square they had struck the mayor and
villagers who had come forward to meet them. The priest, bending
over some of the dying, had also been trodden under foot. . . . All
prisoners! The Germans were talking of shooting them.
The old dame's words were cut short by the rumble of approaching
"Open the gates," commanded the owner to the Warden. The massive
iron grill work swung open, and was never again closed. All
property rights were at an end.
An enormous automobile, covered with dust and filled with men,
stopped at the entrance. Behind them sounded the horns of other
vehicles that were putting on the brakes. Desnoyers saw soldiers
leaping out, all wearing the greenish-gray uniform with a sheath of
the same tone covering the pointed casque. The one who marched at
their head put his revolver to the millionaire's forehead.
"Where are the sharpshooters?" he asked.
He was pale with the pallor of wrath, vengeance and fear. His face
was trembling under the influence of his triple emotion. Don
Marcelo explained slowly, contemplating at a short distance from his
eyes the black circle of the threatening tube. He had not seen any
sharpshooters. The only inhabitants of the castle were the Warden
with his family and himself, the owner of the castle.
The officer surveyed the edifice and then examined Desnoyers with
evident astonishment as though he thought his appearance too
unpretentious for a proprietor. He had taken him for a simple
employee, and his respect for social rank made him lower his
He did not, however, alter his haughty attitude. He pressed Don
Marcelo into the service as a guide, making him search ahead of him
while forty soldiers grouped themselves at his back. They advanced
in two files to the shelter of the trees which bordered the central
avenue, with their guns ready to shoot, and looking uneasily at the
castle windows as though expecting to receive from them hidden
shots. Desnoyers marched tranquilly through the centre, and the
official, who had been imitating the precautions of his men, finally
joined him when he was crossing the drawbridge.
The armed men scattered through the rooms in search of the enemy.
They ran their bayonets through beds and divans. Some, with
automatic destructiveness, slit the draperies and the rich bed
coverings. The owner protested; what was the sense in such useless
destruction? . . . He was suffering unbearable torture at seeing
the enormous boots spotting the rugs with mud, on hearing the clash
of guns and knapsacks against the most fragile, choicest pieces of
furniture. Poor historic mansion! . . .
The officer looked amazed that he should protest for such trifling
cause, but he gave orders in German and his men ceased their rude
explorations. Then, in justification of this extraordinary respect,
he added in French:
"I believe that you are going to have the honor of entertaining here
the general of our division."
The certainty that the castle did not hold any hidden enemies made
him more amiable. He, nevertheless, persisted in his wrath against
the sharpshooters. A group of the villagers had opened fire upon
the Uhlans when they were entering unsuspiciously after the retreat
of the French.
Desnoyers felt it necessary to protest. They were neither
inhabitants nor sharpshooters; they were French soldiers. He took
good care to be silent about their presence at the barricade, but he
insisted that he had distinguished their uniforms from a tower of
The official made a threatening face.
"You, too? . . . You, who appear a reasonable man, can repeat such
yarns as these?" And in order to close the conversation, he said,
arrogantly: "They were wearing uniforms, then, if you persist in
saying so, but they were sharpshooters just the same. The French
Government has distributed arms and uniforms among the farmers that
they may assassinate us. . . . Belgium did the same thing. . . .
But we know their tricks, and we know how to punish them, too!"
The village was going to be burned. It was necessary to avenge the
four German dead lying on the outskirts of Villeblanche, near the
barricade. The mayor, the priest, the principal inhabitants would
all be shot.
By the time they reached the top floor Desnoyers could see floating
above the boughs of his park dark clouds whose outlines were
reddened by the sun. The top of the bell tower was the only thing
that he could distinguish at that distance. Around the iron
weathercock were flying long thin fringes like black cobwebs lifted
by the breeze. An odor of burning wood came toward the castle.
The German greeted this spectacle with a cruel smile. Then on
descending to the park, he ordered Desnoyers to follow him. His
liberty and his dignity had come to an end. Henceforth he was going
to be an underling at the beck and call of these men who would
dispose of him as their whims directed. Ay, why had he remained? . . .
He obeyed, climbing into an automobile beside the officer, who
was still carrying his revolver in his right hand. His men
distributed themselves through the castle and outbuildings, in order
to prevent the flight of an imaginary enemy. The Warden and his
family seemed to be saying good-bye to him with their eyes. Perhaps
they were taking him to his death. . . .
Beyond the castle woods a new world was coming into existence. The
short cut to Villeblanche seemed to Desnoyers a leap of millions of
leagues, a fall into a red planet where men and things were covered
with the film of smoke and the glare of fire. He saw the village
under a dark canopy spotted with sparks and glowing embers. The
bell tower was burning like an enormous torch; the roof of the
church was breaking into flames with a crashing fury. The glare of
the holocaust seemed to shrivel and grow pale in the impassive light
of the sun.
Running across the fields with the haste of desperation were
shrieking women and children. The animals had escaped from the
stables, and driven forth by the flames were racing wildly across
the country. The cow and the work horse were dragging their halters
broken by their flight. Their flanks were smoking and smelt of
burnt hair. The pigs, the sheep and the chickens were all tearing
along mingled with the cats and the dogs. All the domestic animals
were returning to a brute existence, fleeing from civilized man.
Shots were heard and hellish ha-ha's. The soldiers outside of the
village were making themselves merry in this hunt for fugitives.
Their guns were aimed at beasts and were hitting people.
Desnoyers saw men, many men, men everywhere. They were like gray
ants, marching in endless files towards the South, coming out from
the woods, filling the roads, crossing the fields. The green of
vegetation was disappearing under their tread; the dust was rising
in spirals behind the dull roll of the cannons and the measured trot
of thousands of horses. On the roadside several battalions had
halted, with their accompaniment of vehicles and draw horses. They
were resting before renewing their march. He knew this army. He
had seen it in Berlin on parade, and yet it seemed to have changed
its former appearance. There now remained very little of the heavy
and imposing glitter, of the mute and vainglorious haughtiness which
had made his relatives-in-law weep with admiration. War, with its
realism, had wiped out all that was theatrical about this formidable
organization of death. The soldiers appeared dirty and tired, out.
The respiration of fat and sweaty bodies, mixed with the strong
smell of leather, floated over the regiments. All the men had
For days and nights they had been following the heels of an enemy
which was always just eluding their grasp. In this forced advance
the provisions of the administration would often arrive so late at
the cantonments that they could depend only on what they happened to
have in their knapsacks. Desnoyers saw them lined up near the road
devouring hunks of black bread and mouldy sausages. Some had
scattered through the fields to dig up beet roots and other tubers,
chewing with loud crunchings the hard pulp to which the grit still
adhered. An ensign was shaking the fruit trees using as a catch-all
the flag of his regiment. That glorious standard, adorned with
souvenirs of 1870, was serving as a receptacle for green plums.
Those who were seated on the ground were improving this rest by
drawing their perspiring, swollen feet from high boots which were
sending out an insufferable smell.
The regiments of infantry which Desnoyers had seen in Berlin
reflecting the light on metal and leather straps, the magnificent
and terrifying Hussars, the Cuirassiers in pure white uniform like
the paladins of the Holy Grail, the artillerymen with breasts
crossed with white bands, all the military variations that on parade
had drawn forth the Hartrotts' sighs of admiration--these were now
all unified and mixed together, of uniform color, all in greenish
mustard like the dusty lizards that, slipping along, try to be
confounded with the earth.
The persistency of the iron discipline was easily discernible. A
word from the chiefs, the sound of a whistle, and they all grouped
themselves together, the human being disappearing in the throngs of
automatons; but danger, weariness, and the uncertainty of triumph
had for the time being brought officers and men nearer together,
obliterating caste distinction. The officers were coming part way
out of their overbearing, haughty seclusion, and were condescending
to talk with the lower orders so as to revive their courage. One
effort more and they would overwhelm both French and English,
repeating the triumph of Sedan, whose anniversary they were going to
celebrate in a few days! They were going to enter Paris; it was
only a matter of a week. Paris! Great shops filled with luxurious
things, famous restaurants, women, champagne, money. . . . And the
men, flattered that their commanders were stooping to chat with
them, forgot fatigue and hunger, reviving like the throngs of the
Crusade before the image of Jerusalem. "Nach Paris!" The joyous
shout circulated from the head to the tail of the marching columns.
"To Paris! To Paris!"
The scarcity of their food supply was here supplemented by the
products of a country rich in wines. When sacking houses they
rarely found eatables, but invariably a wine cellar. The humble
German, the perpetual beer drinker, who had always looked upon wine
as a privilege of the rich, could now open up casks with blows from
his weapons, even bathing his feet in the stream of precious liquid.
Every battalion left as a souvenir of its passing a wake of empty
bottles; a halt in camp sowed the land with glass cylinders. The
regimental trucks, unable to renew their stores of provisions, were
accustomed to seize the wine in all the towns. The soldier, lacking
bread, would receive alcohol. . . .
This donation was always accompanied by the good counsels of the
officers--War is war; no pity toward our adversaries who do not
deserve it. The French were shooting their prisoners, and their
women were putting out the eyes of the wounded. Every dwelling was
a den of traps. The simple-hearted and innocent German entering
therein was going to certain death. The beds were made over
subterranean caves, the wardrobes were make-believe doors, in every
corner was lurking an assassin. This traitorous nation, which was
arranging its ground like the scenario of a melodrama, would have to
be chastised. The municipal officers, the priests, the
schoolmasters were directing and protecting the sharpshooters.
Desnoyers was shocked at the indifference with which these men were
stalking around the burning village. They did not appear to see the
fire and destruction; it was just an ordinary spectacle, not worth
looking at. Ever since they had crossed the frontier, smoldering
and blasted villages, fired by the advance guard, had marked their
halting places on Belgian and French soil.
When entering Villeblanche the automobile had to lower its speed.
Burned walls were bulging out over the street and half-charred beams
were obstructing the way, obliging the vehicle to zigzag through the
smoking rubbish. The vacant lots were burning like fire pans
between the houses still standing, with doors broken, but not yet in
flames. Desnoyers saw within these rectangular spaces partly burned
wood, chairs, beds, sewing machines, iron stoves, all the household
goods of the well-to-do countryman, being consumed or twisted into
shapeless masses. Sometimes he would spy an arm sticking out of the
ruins, beginning to burn like a long wax candle. No, it could not
be possible . . . and then the smell of cooking flesh began to
mingle with that of the soot, wood and plaster.
He closed his eyes, not able to look any longer. He thought for a
moment he must be dreaming. It was unbelievable that such horrors
could take place in less than an hour. Human wickedness at its
worst he had supposed incapable of changing the aspect of a village
in such a short time.
An abrupt stoppage of the motor made him look around involuntarily.
This time the obstruction was the dead bodies in the street--two men
and a woman. They had probably fallen under the rain of bullets
from the machine gun which had passed through the town preceding the
invasion. Some soldiers were seated a little beyond them, with
their backs to the victims, as though ignoring their presence. The
chauffeur yelled to them to clear the track; with their guns and
feet they pushed aside the bodies still warm, at every turn leaving
a trail of blood. The space was hardly opened before the vehicle
shot through . . . a thud, a leap--the back wheels had evidently
crushed some very fragile obstacle.
Desnoyers was still huddled in his seat, benumbed and with closed
eyes. The horror around him made him think of his own fate.
Whither was this lieutenant taking him? . . .
He soon saw the town hall flaming in the square; the church was now
nothing but a stone shell, bristling with flames. The houses of the
prosperous villagers had had their doors and windows chopped out by
axe-blows. Within them soldiers were moving about methodically.
They entered empty-handed and came out loaded with furniture and
clothing. Others, in the upper stories, were flinging out various
objects; accompanying their trophies with jests and guffaws.
Suddenly they had to come out flying, for fire was breaking out with
the violence and rapidity of an explosion. Following their
footsteps was a group of men with big boxes and metal cylinders.
Someone at their head was pointing out the buildings into whose
broken windows were to be thrown the lozenges and liquid streams
which would produce catastrophe with lightning rapidity.
Out of one of these flaming buildings two men, who seemed but
bundles of rags, were being dragged by some Germans. Above the blue
sleeves of their military cloaks Don Marcelo could distinguish
blanched faces and eyes immeasurably distended with suffering.
Their legs were dragging on the ground, sticking out between the
tatters of their red pantaloons. One of them still had on his
kepis. Blood was gushing from different parts of their bodies and
behind them, like white serpents, were trailing their loosened
bandages. They were wounded Frenchmen, stragglers who had remained
in the village because too weak to keep up with the retreat.
Perhaps they had joined the group which, finding its escape cut off,
had attempted that insane resistance.
Wishing to make that matter more clearly understood, Desnoyers
looked at the official beside him, attempting to speak; but the
officer silenced him instantly: "French sharpshooters in disguise
who are going to get the punishment they deserve." The German
bayonets were sunk deep into their bodies. Then blows with the guns
fell on the head of one of them . . . and these blows were repeated
with dull thumps upon their skulls, crackling as they burst open.
Again the old man wondered what his fate would be. Where was this
lieutenant taking him across such visions of horror? . . .
They had reached the outskirts of the village, where the dragoons
had built their barricade. The carts were still there, but at one
side of the road. They climbed out of the automobile, and he saw a
group of officers in gray, with sheathed helmets like the others.
The one who had brought him to this place was standing rigidly erect
with one hand to his visor, speaking to a military man standing a
few paces in front of the others. He looked at this man, who was
scrutinizing him with his little hard blue eyes that had carved his
spare, furrowed countenance with lines. He must be the general.
His arrogant and piercing gaze was sweeping him from head to foot.
Don Marcelo felt a presentiment that his life was hanging on this
examination; should an evil suggestion, a cruel caprice flash across
this brain, he was surely lost. The general shrugged his shoulders
and said a few words in a contemptuous tone, then entered his
automobile with two of his aids, and the group disbanded.
The cruel uncertainty, the interminable moments before the official
returned to his side, filled Desnoyers with dread.
"His Excellency is very gracious," announced the lieutenant. "He
might have shot you, but he pardons you and yet you people say that
we are savages!" . . .
With involuntary contempt, he further explained that he had
conducted him thither fully expecting that he would be shot. The
General was planning to punish all the prominent residents of
Villeblanche, and he had inferred, on his own initiative, that the
owner of the castle must be one of them.
"Military duty, sir. . . . War exacts it."
After this excuse the petty official renewed his eulogies of His
Excellency. He was going to make his headquarters in Don Marcelo's
property, and on that account granted him his life. He ought to
thank him. . . . Then again his face trembled with wrath. He
pointed to some bodies lying near the road. They were the corpses
of Uhlans, covered with some cloaks from which were protruding the
enormous soles of their boots.
"Plain murder!" he exclaimed. "A crime for which the guilty are
going to pay dearly!"
His indignation made him consider the death of four soldiers as an
unheard-of and monstrous outrage--as though in was only the enemy
ought to fall, keeping safe and sound the lives of his compatriots.
A band of infantry commanded by an officer approached. As their
ranks opened, Desnoyers saw the gray uniforms roughly pushing
forward some of the inhabitants. Their clothes were torn and some
had blood on face and hands. He recognized them one by one as they
were lined up against the mud wall, at twenty paces from the firing
squad of soldiers--the mayor, the priest, the forest guard, and some
rich villagers whose houses he had seen falling in flames.
"They are going to shoot them . . . in order to prevent any doubt
about it," the lieutenant explained. "I wanted you to see this. It
will serve as an object lesson. In this way, you will feel more
appreciative of the leniency of His Excellency."
The prisoners were mute. Their voices had been exhausted in vain
protest. All their life was concentrated in their eyes, looking
around them in stupefaction. . . . And was it possible that they
would kill them in cold blood without hearing their testimony,
without admitting the proofs of their innocence!
The certainty of approaching death soon gave almost all of them a
noble serenity. It was useless to complain. Only one rich