Read PART SECOND IV. of The Downfall, free online book, by Emile Zola, on

Between the city and Balan, Henriette got over the ground at a good, round pace.  It was not yet nine o’clock; the broad footpath, bordered by gardens and pretty cottages, was as yet comparatively free, although as she approached the village it began to be more and more obstructed by flying citizens and moving troops.  When she saw a great surge of the human tide advancing on her she hugged the walls and house-fronts, and by dint of address and perseverance slipped through, somehow.  The fold of black lace that half concealed her fair hair and small, pale face, the sober gown that enveloped her slight form, made her an inconspicuous object among the throng; she went her way unnoticed by the by-passers, and nothing retarded her light, silent steps.

At Balan, however, she found the road blocked by a regiment of infanterie de marine.  It was a compact mass of men, drawn up under the tall trees that concealed them from the enemy’s observation, awaiting orders.  She raised herself on tiptoe, and could not see the end; still, she made herself as small as she could and attempted to worm her way through.  The men shoved her with their elbows, and the butts of their muskets made acquaintance with her ribs; when she had advanced a dozen paces there was a chorus of shouts and angry protests.  A captain turned on her and roughly cried: 

“Hi, there, you woman! are you crazy?  Where are you going?”

“I am going to Bazeilles.”

“What, to Bazeilles?”

There was a shout of laughter.  The soldiers pointed at her with their fingers; she was the object of their witticisms.  The captain, also, greatly amused by the incident, had to have his joke.

“You should take us along with you, my little dear, if you are going to Bazeilles.  We were there a short while ago, and I am in hope that we shall go back there, but I can tell you that the temperature of the place is none too cool.”

“I am going to Bazeilles to look for my husband,” Henriette declared, in her gentle voice, while her blue eyes shone with undiminished resolution.

The laughter ceased; an old sergeant extricated her from the crowd that had collected around her, and forced her to retrace her steps.

“My poor child, you see it is impossible to get through.  Bazeilles is no place for you.  You will find your husband by and by.  Come, listen to reason!”

She had to obey, and stood aside beneath the trees, raising herself on her toes at every moment to peer before her, firm in her resolve to continue her journey as soon as she should be allowed to pass.  She learned the condition of affairs from the conversation that went on around her.  Some officers were criticising with great acerbity the order for the abandonment of Bazeilles, which had occurred at a quarter-past eight, at the time when General Ducrot, taking over the command from the marshal, had considered it best to concentrate the troops on the plateau of Illy.  What made matters worse was, that the valley of the Givonne having fallen into the hands of the Germans through the premature retirement of the 1st corps, the 12th corps, which was even then sustaining a vigorous attack in front, was overlapped on its left flank.  Now that General de Wimpffen had relieved General Ducrot, it seemed that the original plan was to be carried out.  Orders had been received to retake Bazeilles at every cost, and drive the Bavarians into the Meuse.  And so, in the ranks of that regiment that had been halted there in full retreat at the entrance of the village and ordered to resume the offensive, there was much bitter feeling, and angry words were rife.  Was ever such stupidity heard of? to make them abandon a position, and immediately tell them to turn round and retake it from the enemy!  They were willing enough to risk their life in the cause, but no one cared to throw it away for nothing!

A body of mounted men dashed up the street and General de Wimpffen appeared among them, and raising himself erect on his stirrups, with flashing eyes, he shouted, in ringing tones: 

“Friends, we cannot retreat; it would be ruin to us all.  And if we do have to retreat, it shall be on Carignan, and not on Mézières.  But we shall be victorious!  You beat the enemy this morning; you will beat them again!”

He galloped off on a road that conducted to la Moncelle.  It was said that there had been a violent altercation between him and General Ducrot, each upholding his own plan, and decrying the plan of the other ­one asserting that retreat by way of Mézières had been impracticable all that morning; the other predicting that, unless they fell back on Illy, the army would be surrounded before night.  And there was a great deal of bitter recrimination, each taxing the other with ignorance of the country and of the situation of the troops.  The pity of it was that both were right.

But Henriette, meantime, had made an encounter that caused her to forget her project for a moment.  In some poor outcasts; stranded by the wayside, she had recognized a family of honest weavers from Bazeilles, father, mother, and three little girls, of whom the largest was only nine years old.  They were utterly disheartened and forlorn, and so weary and footsore that they could go no further, and had thrown themselves down at the foot of a wall.

“Alas! dear lady,” the wife and mother said to Henriette, “we have lost our all.  Our house ­you know where our house stood on the Place de l’Église ­well, a shell came and burned it.  Why we and the children did not stay and share its fate I do not know ­”

At these words the three little ones began to cry and sob afresh, while the mother, in distracted language, gave further details of the catastrophe.

“The loom, I saw it burn like seasoned kindling wood, and the bed, the chairs and tables, they blazed like so much straw.  And even the clock ­yes, the poor old clock that I tried to save and could not.”

“My God! my God!” the man exclaimed, his eyes swimming with tears, “what is to become of us?”

Henriette endeavored to comfort them, but it was in a voice that quavered strangely.

“You have been preserved to each other, you are safe and unharmed; your three little girls are left you.  What reason have you to complain?”

Then she proceeded to question them to learn how matters stood in Bazeilles, whether they had seen her husband, in what state they had left her house, but in their half-dazed condition they gave conflicting answers.  No, they had not seen M. Weiss.  One of the little girls, however, declared that she had seen him, and that he was lying on the ground with a great hole in his head, whereon the father gave her a box on the ear, bidding her hold her tongue and not tell such lies to the lady.  As for the house, they could say with certainty that it was intact at the time of their flight; they even remembered to have observed, as they passed it, that the doors and windows were tightly secured, as if it was quite deserted.  At that time, moreover, the only foothold that the Bavarians had secured for themselves was in the Place de l’Église, and to carry the village they would have to fight for it, street by street, house by house.  They must have been gaining ground since then, though; all Bazeilles was in flames by that time, like enough, and not a wall left standing, thanks to the fierceness of the assailants and the resolution of the defenders.  And so the poor creatures went on, with trembling, affrighted gestures, evoking the horrid sights their eyes had seen and telling their dreadful tale of slaughter and conflagration and corpses lying in heaps upon the ground.

“But my husband?” Henriette asked again.

They made no answer, only continued to cover their face with their hands and sob.  Her cruel anxiety, as she stood there erect, with no outward sign of weakness, was only evinced by a slight quivering of the lips.  What was she to believe?  Vainly she told herself the child was mistaken; her mental vision pictured her husband lying there dead before her in the street with a bullet wound in the head.  Again, that house, so securely locked and bolted, was another source of alarm; why was it so? was he no longer in it?  The conviction that he was dead sent an icy chill to her heart; but perhaps he was only wounded, perhaps he was breathing still; and so sudden and imperious was the need she felt of flying to his side that she would again have attempted to force her passage through the troops had not the bugles just then sounded the order for them to advance.

The regiment was largely composed of raw, half-drilled recruits from Toulon, Brest, and Rochefort, men who had never fired a shot, but all that morning they had fought with a bravery and firmness that would not have disgraced veteran troops.  They had not shown much aptitude for marching on the road from Rheims to Mouzon, weighted as they were with their unaccustomed burdens, but when they came to face the enemy their discipline and sense of duty made themselves felt, and notwithstanding the righteous anger that was in their hearts, the bugle had but to sound and they returned to brave the fire and encounter the foe.  Three several times they had been promised a division to support them; it never came.  They felt that they were deserted, sacrificed; it was the offering of their life that was demanded of them by those who, having first made them evacuate the place, were now sending them back into the fiery furnace of Bazeilles.  And they knew it, and they gave their life, freely, without a murmur, closing up their ranks and leaving the shelter of the trees to meet afresh the storm of shell and bullets.

Henriette gave a deep sigh of relief; at last they were about to move!  She followed them, with the hope that she might enter the village unperceived in their rear, prepared to run with them should they take the double-quick.  But they had scarcely begun to move when they came to a halt again.  The projectiles were now falling thick and fast; to regain possession of Bazeilles it would be necessary to dispute every inch of the road, occupying the cross-streets, the houses and gardens on either side of the way.  A brisk fire of musketry proceeded from the head of the column, the advance was irregular, by fits and starts, every petty obstacle entailed a delay of many minutes.  She felt that she would never attain her end by remaining there at the rear of the column, waiting for it to fight its way through, and with prompt decision she bent her course to the right and took a path that led downward between two hedges to the meadows.

Henriette’s plan now was to reach Bazeilles by those broad levels that border the Meuse.  She was not very clear about it in her mind, however, and continued to hasten onward in obedience to that blind instinct which had originally imparted to her its impulse.  She had not gone far before she found herself standing and gazing in dismay at a miniature ocean which barred her further progress in that direction.  It was the inundated fields, the low-lying lands that a measure of defense had converted into a lake, which had escaped her memory.  For a single moment she thought of turning back; then, at the risk of leaving her shoes behind, she pushed on, hugging the bank, through the water that covered the grass and rose above her ankles.  For a hundred yards her way, though difficult, was not impracticable; then she encountered a garden-wall directly in her front; the ground fell off sharply, and where the wall terminated the water was six feet deep.  Her path was closed effectually; she clenched her little fists and had to summon up all her resolution to keep from bursting into tears.  When the first shock of disappointment had passed over she made her way along the enclosure and found a narrow lane that pursued a tortuous course among the scattered houses.  She believed that now her troubles were at an end, for she was acquainted with that labyrinth, that tangled maze of passages, which, to one who had the key to them, ended at the village.

But the missiles seemed to be falling there even more thickly than elsewhere.  Henriette stopped short in her tracks and all the blood in her body seemed to flow back upon her heart at a frightful detonation, so close that she could feel the wind upon her cheek.  A shell had exploded directly before her and only a few yards away.  She turned her head and scrutinized for a moment the heights of the left bank, above which the smoke from the German batteries was curling upward; she saw what she must do, and when she started on her way again it was with eyes fixed on the horizon, watching for the shells in order to avoid them.  There was method in the rash daring of her proceeding, and all the brave tranquillity that the prudent little housewife had at her command.  She was not going to be killed if she could help it; she wished to find her husband and bring him back with her, that they might yet have many days of happy life together.  The projectiles still came tumbling frequently as ever; she sped along behind walls, made a cover of boundary stones, availed herself of every slight depression.  But presently she came to an open space, a bit of unprotected road where splinters and fragments of exploded shells lay thick, and she was watching behind a shed for a chance to make a dash when she perceived, emerging from a sort of cleft in the ground in front of her, a human head and two bright eyes that peered about inquisitively.  It was a little, bare-footed, ten-year-old boy, dressed in a shirt and ragged trousers, an embryonic tramp, who was watching the battle with huge delight.  At every report his small black beady eyes would snap and sparkle, and he jubilantly shouted: 

“Oh my! aint it bully! ­Look out, there comes another one! don’t stir!  Boom! that was a rouser! ­Don’t stir! don’t stir!”

And each time there came a shell he dived to the bottom of his hole, then reappeared, showing his dirty, elfish face, until it was time to duck again.

Henriette now noticed that the projectiles all came from Liry, while the batteries at Pont-Maugis and Noyers were confining their attention to Balan.  At each discharge she could see the smoke distinctly, immediately afterward she heard the scream of the shell, succeeded by the explosion.  Just then the gunners afforded them a brief respite; the bluish haze above the heights drifted slowly away upon the wind.

“They’ve stopped to take a drink, you can go your money on it,” said the urchin.  “Quick, quick, give me your hand!  Now’s the time to skip!”

He took her by the hand and dragged her along with him, and in this way they crossed the open together, side by side, running for dear life, with head and shoulders down.  When they were safely ensconced behind a stack that opportunely offered its protection at the end of their course and turned to look behind them, they beheld another shell come rushing through the air and alight upon the shed at the very spot they had occupied so lately.  The crash was fearful; the shed was knocked to splinters.  The little ragamuffin considered that a capital joke, and fairly danced with glee.

“Bravo, hit ’em agin! that’s the way to do it! ­But it was time for us to skip, though, wasn’t it?”

But again Henriette struck up against insurmountable obstacles in the shape of hedges and garden-walls, that offered absolutely no outlet.  Her irrepressible companion, still wearing his broad grin and remarking that where there was a will there was a way, climbed to the coping of a wall and assisted her to scale it.  On reaching the further side they found themselves in a kitchen garden among beds of peas and string-beans and surrounded by fences on every side; their sole exit was through the little cottage of the gardener.  The boy led the way, swinging his arms and whistling unconcernedly, with an expression on his face of most profound indifference.  He pushed open a door that admitted him to a bedroom, from which he passed on into another room, where there was an old woman, apparently the only living being upon the premises.  She was standing by a table, in a sort of dazed stupor; she looked at the two strangers who thus unceremoniously made a highway of her dwelling, but addressed them no word, nor did they speak a word to her.  They vanished as quickly as they had appeared, emerging by the exit opposite their entrance upon an alley that they followed for a moment.  After that there were other difficulties to be surmounted, and thus they went on for more than half a mile, scaling walls, struggling through hedges, availing themselves of every short cut that offered, it might be the door of a stable or the window of a cottage, as the exigencies of the case demanded.  Dogs howled mournfully; they had a narrow escape from being run down by a cow that was plunging along, wild with terror.  It seemed as if they must be approaching the village, however; there was an odor of burning wood in the air, and momentarily volumes of reddish smoke, like veils of finest gauze floating in the wind, passed athwart the sun and obscured his light.

All at once the urchin came to a halt and planted himself in front of Henriette.

“I say, lady, tell us where you’re going, will you?”

“You can see very well where I am going; to Bazeilles.”

He gave a low whistle of astonishment, following it up with the shrill laugh of the careless vagabond to whom nothing is sacred, who is not particular upon whom or what he launches his irreverent gibes.

“To Bazeilles ­oh, no, I guess not; I don’t think my business lies that way ­I have another engagement.  Bye-bye, ta-ta!”

He turned on his heel and was off like a shot, and she was none the wiser as to whence he came or whither he went.  She had found him in a hole, she had lost sight of him at the corner of a wall, and never was she to set eyes on him again.

When she was alone again Henriette experienced a strange sensation of fear.  He had been no protection to her, that scrubby urchin, but his chatter had been a distraction; he had kept her spirits up by his way of making game of everything, as if it was all one huge raree show.  Now she was beginning to tremble, her strength was failing her, she, who by nature was so courageous.  The shells no longer fell around her:  the Germans had ceased firing on Bazeilles, probably to avoid killing their own men, who were now masters of the village; but within the last few minutes she had heard the whistling of bullets, that peculiar sound like the buzzing of a bluebottle fly, that she recognized by having heard it described.  There was such a raging, roaring clamor rising to the heavens in the distance, the confused uproar of other sounds was so violent, that in it she failed to distinguish the report of musketry.  As she was turning the corner of a house there was a deadened thud close at her ear, succeeded by the sound of falling plaster, which brought her to a sudden halt; it was a bullet that had struck the façade.  She was pale as death, and asked herself if her courage would be sufficient to carry her through to the end; and before she had time to frame an answer, she received what seemed to her a blow from a hammer upon her forehead, and sank, stunned, upon her knees.  It was a spent ball that had ricocheted and struck her a little above the left eyebrow with sufficient force to raise an ugly contusion.  When she came to, raising her hands to her forehead, she withdrew them covered with blood.  But the pressure of her fingers had assured her that the bone beneath was uninjured, and she said aloud, encouraging herself by the sound of her own voice: 

“It is nothing, it is nothing.  Come, I am not afraid; no, no!  I am not afraid.”

And it was the truth; she arose, and from that time walked amid the storm of bullets with absolute indifference, like one whose soul is parted from his body, who reasons not, who gives his life.  She marched straight onward, with head erect, no longer seeking to shelter herself, and if she struck out at a swifter pace it was only that she might reach her appointed end more quickly.  The death-dealing missiles pattered on the road before and behind her; twenty times they were near taking her life; she never noticed them.  At last she was at Bazeilles, and struck diagonally across a field of lucerne in order to regain the road, the main street that traversed the village.  Just as she turned into it she cast her eyes to the right, and there, some two hundred paces from her, beheld her house in a blaze.  The flames were invisible against the bright sunlight; the roof had already fallen in in part, the windows were belching dense clouds of black smoke.  She could restrain herself no longer, and ran with all her strength.

Ever since eight o’clock Weiss, abandoned by the retiring troops, had been a self-made prisoner there.  His return to Sedan had become an impossibility, for the Bavarians, immediately upon the withdrawal of the French, had swarmed down from the park of Montivilliers and occupied the road.  He was alone and defenseless, save for his musket and what few cartridges were left him, when he beheld before his door a little band of soldiers, ten in number, abandoned, like himself, and parted from their comrades, looking about them for a place where they might defend themselves and sell their lives dearly.  He ran downstairs to admit them, and thenceforth the house had a garrison, a lieutenant, corporal and eight men, all bitterly inflamed against the enemy, and resolved never to surrender.

“What, Laurent, you here!” he exclaimed, surprised to recognize among the soldiers a tall, lean young man, who held in his hand a musket, doubtless taken from some corpse.

Laurent was dressed in jacket and trousers of blue cloth; he was helper to a gardener of the neighborhood, and had lately lost his mother and his wife, both of whom had been carried off by the same insidious fever.

“And why shouldn’t I be?” he replied.  “All I have is my skin, and I’m willing to give that.  And then I am not such a bad shot, you know, and it will be just fun for me to blaze away at those rascals and knock one of ’em over every time.”

The lieutenant and the corporal had already begun to make an inspection of the premises.  There was nothing to be done on the ground floor; all they did was to push the furniture against the door and windows in such a way as to form as secure a barricade as possible.  After attending to that they proceeded to arrange a plan for the defense of the three small rooms of the first floor and the open attic, making no change, however, in the measures that had been already taken by Weiss, the protection of the windows by mattresses, the loopholes cut here and there in the slats of the blinds.  As the lieutenant was leaning from the window to take a survey of their surroundings, he heard the wailing cry of a child.

“What is that?” he asked.

Weiss looked from the window, and, in the adjoining dyehouse, beheld the little sick boy, Charles, his scarlet face resting on the white pillow, imploringly begging his mother to bring him a drink:  his mother, who lay dead across the threshold, beyond hearing or answering.  With a sorrowful expression he replied: 

“It is a poor little child next door, there, crying for his mother, who was killed by a Prussian shell.”

Tonnerre de Dieu!” muttered Laurent, “how are they ever going to pay for all these things!”

As yet only a few random shots had struck the front of the house.  Weiss and the lieutenant, accompanied by the corporal and two men, had ascended to the attic, where they were in better position to observe the road, of which they had an oblique view as far as the Place de l’Église.  The square was now occupied by the Bavarians, but any further advance was attended by difficulties that made them very circumspect.  A handful of French soldiers, posted at the mouth of a narrow lane, held them in check for nearly a quarter of an hour, with a fire so rapid and continuous that the dead bodies lay in piles.  The next obstacle they encountered was a house on the opposite corner, which also detained them some time before they could get possession of it.  At one time a woman, with a musket in her hands, was seen through the smoke, firing from one of the windows.  It was the abode of a baker, and a few soldiers were there in addition to the regular occupants; and when the house was finally carried there was a hoarse shout:  “No quarter!” a surging, struggling, vociferating throng poured from the door and rolled across the street to the dead-wall opposite, and in the raging torrent were seen the woman’s skirt, the jacket of a man, the white hairs of the grandfather; then came the crash of a volley of musketry, and the wall was splashed with blood from base to coping.  This was a point on which the Germans were inexorable; everyone caught with arms in his hands and not belonging to some uniformed organization was shot without the formality of a trial, as having violated the law of nations.  They were enraged at the obstinate resistance offered them by the village, and the frightful loss they had sustained during the five hours’ conflict provoked them to the most atrocious reprisals.  The gutters ran red with blood, the piled dead in the streets formed barricades, some of the more open places were charnel-houses, from whose depths rose the death-rattle of men in their last agony.  And in every house that they had to carry by assault in this way men were seen distributing wisps of lighted straw, others ran to and fro with blazing torches, others smeared the walls and furniture with petroleum; soon whole streets were burning, Bazeilles was in flames.

And now Weiss’s was the only house in the central portion of the village that still continued to hold out, preserving its air of menace, like some stern citadel determined not to yield.

“Look out! here they come!” shouted the lieutenant.

A simultaneous discharge from the attic and the first floor laid low three of the Bavarians, who had come forward hugging the walls.  The remainder of the body fell back and posted themselves under cover wherever the street offered facilities, and the siege of the house began; the bullets pelted on the front like rattling hail.  For nearly ten minutes the fusillade continued without cessation, damaging the stucco, but not doing much mischief otherwise, until one of the men whom the lieutenant had taken with him to the garret was so imprudent as to show himself at a window, when a bullet struck him square in the forehead, killing him instantly.  It was plain that whoever exposed himself would do so at peril of his life.

“Doggone it! there’s one gone!” growled the lieutenant.  “Be careful, will you; there’s not enough of us that we can afford to let ourselves be killed for the fun of it!”

He had taken a musket and was firing away like the rest of them from behind the protection of a shutter, at the same time watching and encouraging his men.  It was Laurent, the gardener’s helper, however, who more than all the others excited his wonder and admiration.  Kneeling on the floor, with his chassepot peering out of the narrow aperture of a loophole, he never fired until absolutely certain of his aim; he even told in advance where he intended hitting his living target.

“That little officer in blue that you see down there, in the heart. ­That other fellow, the tall, lean one, between the eyes. ­I don’t like the looks of that fat man with the red beard; I think I’ll let him have it in the stomach.”

And each time his man went down as if struck by lightning, hit in the very spot he had mentioned, and he continued to fire at intervals, coolly, without haste, there being no necessity for hurrying himself, as he remarked, since it would require too long a time to kill them all in that way.

“Oh! if I had but my eyes!” Weiss impatiently exclaimed.  He had broken his spectacles a while before, to his great sorrow.  He had his double eye-glass still, but the perspiration was rolling down his face in such streams that it was impossible to keep it on his nose.  His usual calm collectedness was entirely lost in his over-mastering passion; and thus, between his defective vision and his agitated nerves, many of his shots were wasted.

“Don’t hurry so, it is only throwing away powder,” said Laurent.  “Do you see that man who has lost his helmet, over yonder by the grocer’s shop?  Well, now draw a bead on him, ­carefully, don’t hurry.  That’s first-rate! you have broken his paw for him and made him dance a jig in his own blood.”

Weiss, rather pale in the face, gave a look at the result of his marksmanship.

“Put him out of his misery,” he said.

“What, waste a cartridge!  Not, much.  Better save it for another of ’em.”

The besiegers could not have failed to notice the remarkable practice of the invisible sharpshooter in the attic.  Whoever of them showed himself in the open was certain to remain there.  They therefore brought up re-enforcements and placed them in position, with instructions to maintain an unremitting fire upon the roof of the building.  It was not long before the attic became untenable; the slates were perforated as if they had been tissue paper, the bullets found their way to every nook and corner, buzzing and humming as if the room had been invaded by a swarm of angry bees.  Death stared them all in the face if they remained there longer.

“We will go downstairs,” said the lieutenant.  “We can hold the first floor for awhile yet.”  But as he was making for the ladder a bullet struck him in the groin and he fell.  “Too late, doggone it!”

Weiss and Laurent, aided by the remaining soldiers, carried him below, notwithstanding his vehement protests; he told them not to waste their time on him, his time had come; he might as well die upstairs as down.  He was still able to be of service to them, however, when they had laid him on a bed in a room of the first floor, by advising them what was best to do.

“Fire into the mass,” he said; “don’t stop to take aim.  They are too cowardly to risk an advance unless they see your fire begin to slacken.”

And so the siege of the little house went on as if it was to last for eternity.  Twenty times it seemed as if it must be swept away bodily by the storm of iron that beat upon it, and each time, as the smoke drifted away, it was seen amid the sulphurous blasts, torn, pierced, mangled, but erect and menacing, spitting fire and lead with undiminished venom from each one of its orifices.  The assailants, furious that they should be detained for such length of time and lose so many men before such a hovel, yelled and fired wildly in the distance, but had not courage to attempt to carry the lower floor by a rush.

“Look out!” shouted the corporal, “there is a shutter about to fall!”

The concentrated fire had torn one of the inside blinds from its hinges, but Weiss darted forward and pushed a wardrobe before the window, and Laurent was enabled to continue his operations under cover.  One of the soldiers was lying at his feet with his jaw broken, losing blood freely.  Another received a bullet in his chest, and dragged himself over to the wall, where he lay gasping in protracted agony, while convulsive movements shook his frame at intervals.  They were but eight, now, all told, not counting the lieutenant, who, too weak to speak, his back supported by the headboard of the bed, continued to give his directions by signs.  As had been the case with the attic, the three rooms of the first floor were beginning to be untenable, for the mangled mattresses no longer afforded protection against the missiles; at every instant the plaster fell in sheets from the walls and ceiling, and the furniture was in process of demolition:  the sides of the wardrobe yawned as if they had been cloven by an ax.  And worse still, the ammunition was nearly exhausted.

“It’s too bad!” grumbled Laurent; “just when everything was going so beautifully!”

But suddenly Weiss was struck with an idea.


He had thought of the dead soldier up in the garret above, and climbed up the ladder to search for the cartridges he must have about him.  A wide space of the roof had been crushed in; he saw the blue sky, a patch of bright, wholesome light that made him start.  Not wishing to be killed, he crawled over the floor on his hands and knees, then, when he had the cartridges in his possession, some thirty of them, he made haste down again as fast his legs could carry him.

Downstairs, as he was sharing his newly acquired treasure with the gardener’s lad, a soldier uttered a piercing cry and sank to his knees.  They were but seven; and presently they were but six, a bullet having entered the corporal’s head at the eye and lodged in the brain.

From that time on, Weiss had no distinct consciousness of what was going on around him; he and the five others continued to blaze away like lunatics, expending their cartridges, with not the faintest idea in their heads that there could be such a thing as surrender.  In the three small rooms the floor was strewn with fragments of the broken furniture.  Ingress and egress were barred by the corpses that lay before the doors; in one corner a wounded man kept up a pitiful wail that was frightful to hear.  Every inch of the floor was slippery with blood; a thin stream of blood from the attic was crawling lazily down the stairs.  And the air was scarce respirable, an air thick and hot with sulphurous fumes, heavy with smoke, filled with an acrid, nauseating dust; a darkness dense as that of night, through which darted the red flame-tongues of the musketry.

“By God’s thunder!” cried Weiss, “they are bringing up artillery!”

It was true.  Despairing of ever reducing that handful of madmen, who had consumed so much of their time, the Bavarians had run up a gun to the corner of the Place de l’Église, and were putting it into position; perhaps they would be allowed to pass when they should have knocked the house to pieces with their solid shot.  And the honor there was to them in the proceeding, the gun trained on them down there in the square, excited the bitter merriment of the besieged; the utmost intensity of scorn was in their gibes.  Ah! the cowardly bougres, with their artillery!  Kneeling in his old place still, Laurent carefully adjusted his aim and each time picked off a gunner, so that the service of the piece became impossible, and it was five or six minutes before they fired their first shot.  It ranged high, moreover, and only clipped away a bit of the roof.

But the end was now at hand.  It was all in vain that they searched the dead men’s belts; there was not a single cartridge left.  With vacillating steps and haggard faces the six groped around the room, seeking what heavy objects they might find to hurl from the windows upon their enemies.  One of them showed himself at the casement, vociferating insults, and shaking his fist; instantly he was pierced by a dozen bullets; and there remained but five.  What were they to do? go down and endeavor to make their escape by way of the garden and the meadows?  The question was never answered, for at that moment a tumult arose below, a furious mob came tumbling up the stairs:  it was the Bavarians, who had at last thought of turning the position by breaking down the back door and entering the house by that way.  For a brief moment a terrible hand-to-hand conflict raged in the small rooms among the dead bodies and the debris of the furniture.  One of the soldiers had his chest transfixed by a bayonet thrust, the two others were made prisoners, while the attitude of the lieutenant, who had given up the ghost, was that of one about to give an order, his mouth open, his arm raised aloft.

While these things were occurring an officer, a big, flaxen-haired man, carrying a revolver in his hand, whose bloodshot eyes seemed bursting from their sockets, had caught sight of Weiss and Laurent, both in their civilian attire; he roared at them in French: 

“Who are you, you fellows? and what are you doing here?”

Then, glancing at their faces, black with powder-stains, he saw how matters stood, he heaped insult and abuse on them in guttural German, in a voice that shook with anger.  Already he had raised his revolver and was about to send a bullet into their heads, when the soldiers of his command rushed in, seized Laurent and Weiss, and hustled them out to the staircase.  The two men were borne along like straws upon a mill-race amidst that seething human torrent, under whose pressure they were hurled from out the door and sent staggering, stumbling across the street to the opposite wall amid a chorus of execration that drowned the sound of their officers’ voices.  Then, for a space of two or three minutes, while the big fair-haired officer was endeavoring to extricate them in order to proceed with their execution, an opportunity was afforded them to raise themselves erect and look about them.

Other houses had taken fire; Bazeilles was now a roaring, blazing furnace.  Flames had begun to appear at the tall windows of the church and were creeping upward toward the roof.  Some soldiers who were driving a venerable lady from her home had compelled her to furnish the matches with which to fire her own beds and curtains.  Lighted by blazing brands and fed by petroleum in floods, fires were rising and spreading in every quarter; it was no longer civilized warfare, but a conflict of savages, maddened by the long protracted strife, wreaking vengeance for their dead, their heaps of dead, upon whom they trod at every step they took.  Yelling, shouting bands traversed the streets amid the scurrying smoke and falling cinders, swelling the hideous uproar into which entered sounds of every kind:  shrieks, groans, the rattle of musketry, the crash of falling walls.  Men could scarce see one another; great livid clouds drifted athwart the sun and obscured his light, bearing with them an intolerable stench of soot and blood, heavy with the abominations of the slaughter.  In every quarter the work of death and destruction still went on:  the human brute unchained, the imbecile wrath, the mad fury, of man devouring his brother man.

And Weiss beheld his house burn before his eyes.  Some soldiers had applied the torch, others fed the flame by throwing upon it the fragments of the wrecked furniture.  The rez-de-chaussee was quickly in a blaze, the smoke poured in dense black volumes from the wounds in the front and roof.  But now the dyehouse adjoining was also on fire, and horrible to relate, the voice of little Charles, lying on his bed delirious with fever, could be heard through the crackling of the flames, beseeching his mother to bring him a draught of water, while the skirts of the wretched woman who, with her disfigured face, lay across the door-sill, were even then beginning to kindle.

“Mamma, mamma, I am thirsty!  Mamma, bring me a drink of water ­”

The weak, faint voice was drowned in the roar of the conflagration; the cheering of the victors rose on the air in the distance.

But rising above all other sounds, dominating the universal clamor, a terrible cry was heard.  It was Henriette, who had reached the place at last, and now beheld her husband, backed up against the wall, facing a platoon of men who were loading their muskets.

She flew to him and threw her arms about his neck.

“My God! what is it!  They cannot be going to kill you!”

Weiss looked at her with stupid, unseeing eyes.  She! his wife, so long the object of his desire, so fondly idolized!  A great shudder passed through his frame and he awoke to consciousness of his situation.  What had he done? why had he remained there, firing at the enemy, instead of returning to her side, as he had promised he would do?  It all flashed upon him now, as the darkness is illuminated by the lightning’s glare:  he had wrecked their happiness, they were to be parted, forever parted.  Then he noticed the blood upon her forehead.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.  “You were mad to come ­”

She interrupted him with an impatient gesture.

“Never mind me; it is a mere scratch.  But you, you! why are you here?  They shall not kill you; I will not suffer it!”

The officer, who was endeavoring to clear the road in order to give the firing party the requisite room, came up on hearing the sound of voices, and beholding a woman with her arms about the neck of one of his prisoners, exclaimed loudly in French: 

“Come, come, none of this nonsense here!  Whence come you?  What is your business here?”

“Give me my husband.”

“What, is he your husband, that man?  His sentence is pronounced; the law must take its course.”

“Give me my husband.”

“Come, be rational.  Stand aside; we do not wish to harm you.”

“Give me my husband.”

Perceiving the futility of arguing with her, the officer was about to give orders to remove her forcibly from the doomed man’s arms when Laurent, who until then had maintained an impassive silence, ventured to interfere.

“See here, Captain, I am the man who killed so many of your men; go ahead and shoot me ­that will be all right, especially as I have neither chick nor child in all the world.  But this gentleman’s case is different; he is a married man, don’t you see.  Come, now, let him go; then you can settle my business as soon as you choose.”

Beside himself with anger, the captain screamed: 

“What is all this lingo?  Are you trying to make game of me?  Come, step out here, some one of you fellows, and take away this woman!”

He had to repeat his order in German, whereon a soldier came forward from the ranks, a short stocky Bavarian, with an enormous head surrounded by a bristling forest of red hair and beard, beneath which all that was to be seen were a pair of big blue eyes and a massive nose.  He was besmeared with blood, a hideous spectacle, like nothing so much as some fierce, hairy denizen of the woods, emerging from his cavern and licking his chops, still red with the gore of the victims whose bones he has been crunching.

With a heart-rending cry Henriette repeated: 

“Give me my husband, or let me die with him.”

This seemed to cause the cup of the officer’s exasperation to overrun; he thumped himself violently on the chest, declaring that he was no executioner, that he would rather die than harm a hair of an innocent head.  There was nothing against her; he would cut off his right hand rather than do her an injury.  And then he repeated his order that she be taken away.

As the Bavarian came up to carry out his instructions Henriette tightened her clasp on Weiss’s neck, throwing all her strength into her frantic embrace.

“Oh, my love!  Keep me with you, I beseech you; let me die with you ­”

Big tears were rolling down his cheeks as, without answering, he endeavored to loosen the convulsive clasp of the fingers of the poor creature he loved so dearly.

“You love me no longer, then, that you wish to die without me.  Hold me, keep me, do not let them take me.  They will weary at last, and will kill us together.”

He had loosened one of the little hands, and carried it to his lips and kissed it, working all the while to make the other release its hold.

“No, no, it shall not be!  I will not leave thy bosom; they shall pierce my heart before reaching thine.  I will not survive ­”

But at last, after a long struggle, he held both the hands in his.  Then he broke the silence that he had maintained until then, uttering one single word: 

“Farewell, dear wife.”

And with his own hands he placed her in the arms of the Bavarian, who carried her away.  She shrieked and struggled, while the soldier, probably with intent to soothe her, kept pouring in her ear an uninterrupted stream of words in unmelodious German.  And, having freed her head, looking over the shoulder of the man, she beheld the end.

It lasted not five seconds.  Weiss, whose eye-glass had slipped from its position in the agitation of their parting, quickly replaced it upon his nose, as if desirous to look death in the face.  He stepped back and placed himself against the wall, and the face of the self-contained, strong young man, as he stood there in his tattered coat, was sublimely beautiful in its expression of tranquil courage.  Laurent, who stood beside him, had thrust his hands deep down into his pockets.  The cold cruelty of the proceeding disgusted him; it seemed to him that they could not be far removed from savagery who could thus slaughter men before the eyes of their wives.  He drew himself up, looked them square in the face, and in a tone of deepest contempt expectorated: 

“Dirty pigs!”

The officer raised his sword; the signal was succeeded by a crashing volley, and the two men sank to the ground, an inert mass, the gardener’s lad upon his face, the other, the accountant, upon his side, lengthwise of the wall.  The frame of the latter, before he expired, contracted in a supreme convulsion, the eyelids quivered, the mouth opened as if he was about to speak.  The officer came up and stirred him with his foot, to make sure that he was really dead.

Henriette had seen the whole:  the fading eyes that sought her in death, the last struggle of the strong man in agony, the brutal boot spurning the corpse.  And while the Bavarian still held her in his arms, conveying her further and further from the object of her love, she uttered no cry; she set her teeth, in silent fury, into what was nearest:  a human hand, it chanced to be.  The soldier gave vent to a howl of anguish and dashed her to the ground; raising his uninjured fist above her head he was on the point of braining her.  And for a moment their faces were in contact; she experienced a feeling of intensest loathing for the monster, and that blood-stained hair and beard, those blue eyes, dilated and brimming with hate and rage, were destined to remain forever indelibly imprinted on her memory.

In after days Henriette could never account distinctly to herself for the time immediately succeeding these events.  She had but one desire:  to return to the spot where her loved one had died, take possession of his remains, and watch and weep over them; but, as in an evil dream, obstacles of every sort arose before her and barred the way.  First a heavy infantry fire broke out afresh, and there was great activity among the German troops who were holding Bazeilles; it was due to the arrival of the infanterie de marine and other regiments that had been despatched from Balan to regain possession of the village, and the battle commenced to rage again with the utmost fury.  The young woman, in company with a band of terrified citizens, was swept away to the left into a dark alley.  The result of the conflict could not remain long doubtful, however; it was too late to reconquer the abandoned positions.  For near half an hour the infantry struggled against superior numbers and faced death with splendid bravery, but the enemy’s strength was constantly increasing, their re-enforcements were pouring in from every direction, the roads, the meadows, the park of Montivilliers; no force at our command could have dislodged them from the position, so dearly bought, where they had left thousands of their bravest.  Destruction and devastation now had done their work; the place was a shambles, disgraceful to humanity, where mangled forms lay scattered among smoking ruins, and poor Bazeilles, having drained the bitter cup, went up at last in smoke and flame.

Henriette turned and gave one last look at her little house, whose floors fell in even as she gazed, sending myriads of little sparks whirling gayly upward on the air.  And there, before her, prone at the wall’s foot, she saw her husband’s corpse, and in her despair and grief would fain have returned to him, but just then another crowd came up and surged around her, the bugles were sounding the signal to retire, she was borne away, she knew not how, among the retreating troops.  Her faculty of self-guidance left her; she was as a bit of flotsam swept onward by the eddying human tide that streamed along the way.  And that was all she could remember until she became herself again and found she was at Balan, among strangers, her head reclined upon a table in a kitchen, weeping.