From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, and Rare Manuscripts, Volume XXX, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 11278-11302.
ZOLA, ÉMILE, a famous French novelist and dramatist; born at Paris, April 2, 1840. Zola studied at the Lycée St. Louis, and afterwards obtained employment in the publishing house of Hachette & Co., with which he remained connected until 1865. His first book, “Contes à Ninon,” appeared in 1864. He then put forth in rapid succession “La Confession de Claude” (1865); “Vœu d’une Morte” (1866); “Mes Haines” (1866); “Les Mystères de Marseille,” “Manet,” and “Thérèse Raquin” (1867), and “Madeleine Férat” (1868). His series of romances, “Les Rougon Macquart, Histoire Naturelle et Sociale d’une Famille sous le Second Empire,” comprises “La Fortune des Rougon” (1871); “La Curée” (1874); “La Conquête de Plassans” (1874); “L’Assommoir” (1874-77); “Le Ventre de Paris” (1875); “La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret” (1875); “Son Excellence Eugène Rougon” (1876); “Une Page d’Amour” (1878); “Nana” (1880); “Pot-Bouille” (1882); “Au Bonheur des Dames” (1883); “La Joie de Vivre” (1884); “Germinal,” “L’Œuvre,” “La Terre” (1887); and “Le Rêve” (1888). Zola has dramatized “Thérèse Raquin,” and has published two other dramas, “Les Héritiers Rabourdin” and “Le Bouton de Rose.” His critical works, “Le Roman Expérimental” and “Le Naturalisme au Théâtre,” give his theory of the sphere of romance and the drama. His later works include “La Bête Humaine” (1890); “L’Argent” (1891); “La de Bâele” (1892); “Le Docteur Pascal” (1893); “Lourdes” (1894); “Rome” (1895); “Paris” (1898).
OLD Merlier’s mill was in high feather that fine summer evening. In the court-yard they had set out three tables, end to end, ready for the guests. All the country knew that on that day Merlier’s daughter Françoise was to be betrothed to Dominique, — a fellow who had the name of being an idle loafer, but whom the women for eight miles round looked at with glistening eyes, so well-favored was he.11279
When the court-yard was full, and every one had his glass in his hand, old Merlier raised his very high, saying: —
“This is for the pleasure of announcing to you that Françoise will marry that fellow there in a month, on St. Louis’s day.”
Then they clinked glasses noisily. Everybody laughed. But old Merlier, raising his voice, went on: —
“Dominique, kiss your intended. That must be done.”
And they kissed each other, very red, while the crowd laughed still louder. It was a real jollification. A small cask was emptied. Then when only the intimate friends were left, they chatted quietly. Night had come, — a starlit and very clear night. Dominique and Françoise, sitting side by side on a bench, said nothing. An old peasant spoke of the war the Emperor had declared with Prussia. All the boys in the village were already gone. The day before, troops had passed through. There would be hard knocks going.
“Bah!” said old Merlier, with a happy man’s opinion. “Dominique is a foreigner, — he won’t go. And if the Prussians come, he will be here to defend his wife.”
This notion that the Prussians might come seemed a good joke. They were to be given an A 1 thrashing, and it would be soon over.
“I ’ve seen ’em, I ’ve seen ’em,” the old peasant said over and over again.
There was a silence. Then they clinked glasses once more. Françoise and Dominique had heard nothing; they had taken each other softly by the hand, behind the bench, so that no one could see them; and it seemed so good that they stayed there, their eyes lost in the depths of the darkness.
How warm and splendid a night! The village was falling asleep on both sides of the road, tranquil as a child. You only heard from time to time the crowing of some cock, waked too soon. From the great woods hard by came long breaths that passed like caresses over the roofs. The meadows with their black shadows put on a mysterious and secluded majesty, while all the running waters that gushed forth into the darkness seemed to be the cool and rhythmic breathing of the sleeping country. At moments the mill-wheel, fast asleep, seemed to be dreaming, like those old watch-dogs that bark while snoring. It creaked, it talked all by itself, lulled by the falls of the Morelle, whose sheet of water gave forth the 11280 sustained and musical note of an organ-pipe. Never had more wide-spread peace fallen over a happier corner of the earth.
Just a month later, day for day, on St. Louis’s eve, Rocreuse was in dismay. The Prussians had beaten the Emperor, and were advancing toward the village by forced marches. For a week past, people passing along the road had announced the Prussians, — “They are at Lormière; they are at Novelles:” and hearing that they were approaching so fast, Rocreuse thought every morning to see them come down by the Gagny woods. Still they did not come: this frightened the inhabitants still more. They would surely fall upon the village at night, and cut everybody’s throat.
The night before, a little before daybreak, there had been an alarm. The inhabitants had waked up, hearing a great noise of men on the road. The women were just falling on their knees and crossing themselves, when red trousers were recognized through cracks of windows prudently opened. It was a detachment of French. The captain immediately asked for the mayor of the place, and stayed at the mill, after talking with old Merlier.
The sun rose gayly that day. It would be hot at noon. Over the woods floated a yellow light; while in the distance above the meadows rose white vapors. The clean, pretty village awoke in the cool air; and the country, with its river and springs, had the dew-sprinkled loveliness of a nosegay. But this fine weather made no one laugh. They had just seen the captain walk round about the mill, examine the neighboring houses, cross to the other side of the Morelle, and from there study the country through a spyglass; old Merlier, who was with him, seemed to be explaining the country to him. Then the captain stationed soldiers behind walls, behind trees, in holes in the ground. The bulk of the detachment was stationed in the court-yard of the mill. So there was to be a fight? And when old Merlier came back, he was plied with questions. He gave a long nod with his head without speaking. Yes, there was to be a fight.
Françoise and Dominique were in the court-yard looking at him. At last he took his pipe out of his mouth and said simply: —
“Ah! my poor children, there will be no wedding for you to-morrow!”
Dominique, his lips set, a line of anger across his forehead, 11281 raised himself up on tiptoe from time to time, with his eyes fixed on the Gagny woods, as if he longed to see the Prussians come. Françoise, very pale, serious, came and went, supplying the soldiers with what they needed. They were making their soup in a corner of the court-yard, and joking while waiting for their meal.
Meanwhile the captain seemed delighted. He had examined the rooms and the great hall of the mill looking out upon the river. Now, sitting by the well, he was talking with old Merlier.
“You have a real fortress here,” said he. “We ought to hold till evening. The beggars are late. They should be here by this time.”
The miller looked serious. He saw his mill flaming like a torch; but he did not complain, thinking it useless. He only opened his mouth to say: —
“You ought to have some one hide the boat behind the wheel. There is a hole there that will hold her. Perhaps she might be of use.”
The captain gave an order. The captain was a handsome man of about forty, tall and with a kindly face. The sight of Françoise and Dominique seemed to please him. He was interested in them, as if he had forgotten the coming struggle. He followed Françoise about with his eyes, and his look told plainly that he found her charming. Then turning to Dominique: —
“So you re not in the army, my boy?” he asked abruptly.
“I ’m a foreigner,” the young man answered.
The captain seemed only half pleased with this reason. He winked and smiled. Françoise was pleasanter company than cannon. Then, seeing him smile, Dominique added: —
“I ’m a foreigner, but I can put a bullet into an apple at five hundred metres. — See, my gun ’s there, behind you.”
“It may be of use to you,” the captain said simply.
Françoise had come up, trembling a little. And without minding the people there, Dominique took both the hands she held out to him, and pressed them in his, as if to take her under his protection. The captain smiled again, but added not a word. He remained sitting, his sword between his legs, his eyes looking at vacancy, as if in a dream.
It was already two o’clock. It was growing very hot. There was a dead silence. In the court-yard, under the sheds, the soldiers had fallen to eating their soup. Not a sound 11282 came from the village, in which the people had barricaded their houses, doors, and windows. A dog left alone in the road was howling. From the neighboring woods and meadows, motionless in the heat, came a far-off voice, long sustained, made up of every separate breath of air. A cuckoo was singing. Then the silence spread itself over the country also.
And in this slumbering air a shot suddenly burst forth. The captain sprang up quickly; the soldiers dropped their plates of soup, still half full. In a few seconds every man was at his post for the fight; the mill was occupied from top to bottom. Yet the captain, who had gone out upon the road, could make out nothing: to the right and left the road stretched out, empty and all white. A second shot was heard, and still nothing, not a shadow; but on turning round, he espied, over towards Gagny, between two trees, a light cloudlet of smoke wafted away like gossamer. The wood was still profoundly quiet.
“The rascals have taken to the forest,” he muttered. “They know we are here.”
Then the firing kept up, harder and harder, between the French soldiers stationed round the mill and the Prussians hidden behind the trees. The bullets whistled across the Morelle, without occasioning any loss on one side or the other. The shots were irregular, coming from every bush; and all you saw was still the little clouds of smoke gently wafted away by the wind. This lasted for nearly two hours. The officer hummed a tune, as if indifferent. Françoise and Dominique, who had stayed in the court-yard, raised themselves up on tiptoe and looked over the wall. They were particularly interested in watching a little soldier, stationed on the brink of the Morelle, behind the hull of an old boat; he was flat on his belly, watched his chance, fired his shot, then let himself slide down into a ditch a little behind him, to reload his rifle; and his movements were so droll, so cunning, so supple, that it made one smile to see him. He must have espied the head of some Prussian, for he got up quickly and brought his piece to his shoulder; but before he fired, he gave a cry, turned over upon himself, and rolled into the ditch, where his legs stiffened out with the momentary convulsive jerk of those of a chicken with its neck wrung. The little soldier had received a bullet full in the breast. He was the first man killed. Instinctively Françoise seized hold of Dominique’s hand and squeezed it with a nervous grip.11283
“Don’t stay there,” said the captain. “The bullets reach here.”
As he spoke a little sharp stroke was heard in the old elm, and a branch fell in zigzags through the air; but the young people did not stir, riveted there by anxiety at the sight. On the outskirts of the wood, a Prussian came out suddenly from behind a tree, as from a side scene, beating the air with his arm, and tumbling over backwards. And then nothing stirred: the two dead men seemed to sleep in the dazzling sunshine; you saw no one in the torpid landscape. Even the crack of the shots stopped. Only the Morelle kept up its silver-toned whispering.
Old Merlier looked at the captain in surprise, as if to ask if it were over.
“Here it comes,” the latter muttered. “Look out! Don’t stay there.”
He had not finished speaking when there came a terrific volley. It was as if the great elm were mowed down; a cloud of leaves whirled about them. Luckily the Prussians had fired too high. Dominique dragged, almost carried Françoise away; while old Merlier followed them, crying out: —
“Go down to the little cellar: the walls are solid.”
But they did not mind him; they went into the great hall where ten soldiers or so were waiting in silence, with shutters closed, peeping through the cracks. The captain had stayed alone in the court-yard, crouched down behind the little wall, while the furious volleys continued. The soldiers he had stationed outside yielded ground only foot by foot. Yet they came in, one by one, crawling on their faces, when the enemy had dislodged them from their hiding-places. Their orders were to gain time, not to show themselves; so that the Prussians might not know what numbers they had before them. Another hour went by; and as a sergeant came up, saying that there were only two or three men left outside, the officer looked at his watch, muttering: —
“Half after two. Come, we must hold out four hours.”
He had the gate of the court-yard shut, and all preparations were made for an energetic resistance. As the Prussians were on the other side of the Morelle, an immediate assault was not to be feared. To be sure, there was a bridge, a little over a mile off, but they doubtless did not know of its existence; and it was hardly possible that they would try to ford 11284 the river. So the officer merely had the road watched. The whole effort was to be made on the side toward the fields.
The firing had once more ceased. The mill seemed dead beneath the hot sun. Not a shutter was opened, not a sound came from the inside. Little by little, meanwhile, the Prussians showed themselves at the outskirts of the Gagny wood. They stretched forth their heads, grew more daring. In the mill, several soldiers had already levelled their rifles, but the captain cried out: —
“No, no, wait. Let them come up.”
They were very cautious about it, looking at the mill with evident distrust. This old dwelling, silent and dismal, with its curtains of ivy, made them uneasy. Still they kept advancing. When there were about fifty of them in the meadow opposite, the officer said a single word: —’
A tearing sound was heard, followed by single shots. Françoise shaken with a fit of trembling, put her hands up to her ears, in spite of herself. Dominique, behind the soldiers, looked on; and when the smoke had blown away a little, he saw three Prussians stretched on their backs in the middle of the field. The rest had thrown themselves down behind the willows and poplars; and the siege began.
For over an hour the mill was riddled with bullets, They whipped its old walls like hail. When they struck stone, you heard them flatten out and fall back into the water. Into wood they penetrated with a hollow sound. Now and then a cracking told that the wheel had been hit. The soldiers inside husbanded their shots, — fired only when they could take aim. From time to time the captain would look at his watch; and as a ball split a shutter and then lodged in the ceiling: —
“Four o’clock,” he muttered. “We shall never hold out.”
It was true: this terrible firing of musketry was shivering the old mill. A shutter fell into the water, riddled like a piece of lace, and had to be replaced by a mattress. Old Merlier exposed himself every moment, to make sure of the injury done to his poor wheel, whose cracking went to his heart. It was all over with it this time: never would he be able to repair it. Dominique implored Françoise to go, but she would stay with him; she had sat down behind a great oak clothes-press, the sides of which gave out a deep sound. Then Dominique placed himself in front of Françoise. He 11285 had not fired yet; he held his gun in his hands, not being able to get up to the windows, whose entire width was taken up by the soldiers. At every discharge the floor shook.
“Look out! look out!” the captain cried of a sudden.
He had just seen a whole black mass come out from the wood. Immediately a formidable platoon fire was opened. It was as if a waterspout had passed over the mill. Another shutter gave way; and by the gaping opening of the window the bullets came in. Two soldiers rolled upon the floor. One did not move; they pushed him up against the wall, because he was in the way. The other squirmed on the ground begging them to make an end of him; but no one minded him: the balls kept coming in; every one shielded himself, and tried to find a loop-hole to fire back through. A third soldier was wounded; he said not a word, he let himself slide down by the edge of a table, with fixed and haggard eyes. Opposite the dead men, Françoise, seized with horror, had pushed her chair aside mechanically, to sit down on the ground next the wall; she felt smaller there, and in less danger. Meanwhile they had gone after all the mattresses in the house, and had half stopped up the window. The hall was getting filled with rubbish, with broken weapons, with gutted furniture.
“Five o’clock,” said the captain. “Keep it up. They are going to try to cross the water.
At this instant Françoise gave a shriek. A rebounding ball had just grazed her forehead. A few drops of blood appeared. Dominique looked at her; then stepping up to the window, he fired his first shot, and kept on firing. He loaded, fired, without paying any attention to what was going on near him; only from time to time he would give Françoise a look. For the rest, he did not hurry himself, — took careful aim. The Prussians, creeping along by the poplars, were attempting the passage of the Morelle, as the captain had foreseen; but as soon as one of them risked showing himself, he would fall, hit in the head by a ball from Dominique. The captain who followed this game was astonished. He complimented the young man, saying that he would be glad to have a lot of marksmen like him., Dominique did not hear him. A ball cut his shoulder, another bruised his arm; and he kept on firing.
There were two more men killed. The mattresses, all slashed to bits, no longer stopped up the windows. A last 11286 volley seemed as if it would carry away the mill. The position was no longer tenable. Still the officer repeated: —
“Stick to it. Half an hour more.”
Now he counted the minutes. He had promised his superior officers to hold the enemy there until evening, and would not draw back a sole’s breadth before the time he had set for the retreat. He still had his gracious manner; smiling at Françoise to reassure her. He himself had just picked up a dead soldier’s rifle, and was firing.
There were only four soldiers left in the hall. The Prussians showed themselves in a body on the other bank of the Morelle, and it was evident that they might cross the river at any time. A few more minutes elapsed. The captain stuck to it obstinately, and would not give the order to retreat; when a sergeant came running up saying; —
“They are on the road: they are going to take us in the rear.”
The Prussians must have found the bridge. The captain pulled out his watch.
“Five minutes more,” said he. “They won’t be here for five minutes.”
Then at the stroke of six, he at last consented to order his men out by a little door opening upon an alley-way. From there they threw themselves into a ditch; they reached the Sauval forest. Before going, the captain saluted old Merlier very politely, excusing himself; and he even added: —
“Make them lose time. We shall be back again.”
Meanwhile Dominique stayed on in the hall. He still kept firing, hearing nothing, understanding nothing. He only felt that he must defend Françoise. The soldiers were gone, without his suspecting it the least in the world. He took aim and killed his man at every shot. Suddenly there was a loud noise. The Prussians from the rear, had just overrun the court-yard. He fired his last shot, and they fell upon him as his piece was still smoking.
Four men held him. Others shouted round him in a frightful language. They all but cut his throat off-hand. Françoise threw herself before him in supplication; but an officer came in and took charge of the prisoner. After a few sentences exchanged in German with the soldiers, he turned to Dominique and said roughly, and in very good French: —
“You will be shot in two hours.”11287
It was a rule made by the German staff: every Frenchman not belonging to the regular army, and taken with arms in his hands, should be shot. Even the guerilla companies were not recognized as belligerents. By thus making terrible examples of the peasants who defended their own firesides, the Germans wished to prevent the uprising of the whole country en masse, which they dreaded.
The officer, a tall lean man of about fifty, put Dominique through a brief examination. Although he spoke very pure French, he had quite the Prussian stiffness.
“You belong in these parts?”
“No, I am a Belgian.”
“Why have you taken up arms? All this can’t be any of your business.”
Dominique did not answer. At this moment the officer caught sight of Françoise, standing upright and very pale, listening; her slight wound put a red bar across her white forehead. He looked at the young people, one after the other, seemed to understand, and contented himself with adding: —
“You don’t deny that you were firing?”
“I fired as long as I was able,” Dominique answered quietly.
This confession was needless; for he was black with powder, covered with sweat, spotted with some drops of blood that had run down form the scratch on his shoulder.
“Very well,” the officer repeated. “You will be shot in two hours.”
Françoise did not cry out. She clasped her hands together, and raised them in a gesture of mute despair. The officer noticed this gesture. Two soldiers had led Dominique away into the next room, where they were to keep him in sight. The young girl had dropped down upon a chair, her legs giving way under her; she could not cry, she was choking. Meanwhile the officer kept looking at her closely. At last he spoke to her.
“That young man is your brother?” he asked.
She shook her head. He stood there stiff, without a smile. Then after a silence: —
“He has lived a long while in these parts?”
She nodded yes, still dumb.
“Then he must know the woods round here very well?”11288
This time she spoke.
“Yes, sir,” she said, looking at him in some surprise.
He said no more, and turned on his heel, asking to have the mayor of the village brought to him. But Françoise had risen, a faint flush on her face, thinking to have caught the drift of his questions, and seeing fresh hope in them. It was she who ran to find her father.
Old Merlier, as soon as the shots had ceased, had run quickly down the wooden steps to look at his wheel. He adored his daughter, he had a stout friendship for Dominique, his intended son-in-law; but his wheel also held a large place in his heart. As the two young ones, as he called them, had come safe and sound out of the scrimmage, he thought of his other love, and this one had suffered grievously. And bending over the huge wooden carcass, he investigated its wounds, the picture of distress. Five paddles were in splinters, the central framework was riddled. He stuck his fingers into the bullet-holes to measure their depth; he thought over how he could repair all this damage. Françoise found him already stopping up cracks with broken bits of wood and moss.
“Father,” she said, “you are wanted.”
And at last she wept, telling him what she had just heard. Old Merlier shook his head. You did n’t shoot people that way. He must see. And he went back into the mill with his silent, pacific air. When the officer asked him for victuals for his men, he answered that the people in Rocreuse were not accustomed to being bullied, and that nothing would be got from them by violence. He took everything upon himself, but on the condition of being allowed to act alone. The officer showed signs, at first, of getting angry at his cool manner; then he gave in to the old man’s curt and business-like way of talking. He even called him back to ask him: —
“What do you call these woods there, opposite?”
“The Sauval woods.”
“And what is their extent?”
The miller looked at him fixedly.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
And he walked away. An hour later, the contribution of victuals and money required by the officer were in the court-yard of the mill. Night was approaching; Françoise followed the soldiers’ movements anxiously. She did not go far from the room in which Dominique was shut up. At about seven 11289 she had a poignant emotion: she saw the officer go into the prisoner’s room, and for a quarter of an hour or so she heard their voices raised. One instant the officer reappeared on the threshold, to give an order in German, which she did not understand: but when twelve men came and fell into line in the court-yard with their muskets, she fell a-trembling; she felt ready to die. So it was all over: the execution was to take place. The twelve men waited there ten minutes. Dominique’s voice was still raised in a violent refusal. At last the officer came out, slamming the door and saying: —
“Very well; think it over. I give you till to-morrow morning.”
And with a motion of his arm, he ordered the twelve men to break ranks. Françoise stayed on in a sort of stupor. Old Merlier, who had not stopped smoking his pipe, while looking at the squad with an air of simple curiosity, came up and took her by the arm with fatherly gentleness. He led her to her room.
“Keep quiet,” he said; “try to sleep. To-morrow it will be daylight, and we will see.”
When he withdrew he locked her in, for prudence’s sake. It was a principle of his that women were no good, and that they made a mess of it whenever they undertook anything serious. But Françoise did not go to bed: she stayed a long time sitting on her bed, listening to the noises in the house. The German soldiers, encamped in the court-yard, were singing and laughing: they must have been eating and drinking up to eleven, for the noise did not stop for an instant. In the mill itself, heavy steps sounded every now and then: no doubt they were relieving sentries. But what interested her above all were noises that she could not make out, in the room under hers. Several times she lay down on the ground; she put her ear to the floor. This room happened to be the one in which Dominique was locked up. He must have been walking from the wall to the window, for she long heard the cadence of his steps: then there was a dead silence; he had doubtless sat down. Besides, the noises stopped; everything was hushed in sleep. When the house seemed to her to slumber, she opened the window as softly as possible, and rested her elbows on the sill.
Outside the night was calm and warm. The slender crescent moon, setting behind the Sauval woods, lighted up the 11290 country with the glimmer of a night-taper. The elongated shadows of the great trees barred the meadows with black; while the grass, in the unshaded spots, put on the softness of greenish velvet. But Françoise did not stop to note the mysterious charm of the night. She examined the country, looking for the sentinels that the Germans must have stationed on one side. She plainly saw their shadows, ranged like rungs of a ladder along the Morelle. Only a single one stood opposite the mill, on the other side of the river, near a willow whose branches dipped into the water. Françoise saw him distinctly: he was a big fellow, standing motionless, his face turned towards the sky with the dreamy look of a shepherd.
Then when she had carefully inspected the ground, she went back and sat down upon her bed. She stayed there an hour, deeply absorbed. Then she listened again: in the house not a breath stirred. She went back to the window, and looked out; but no doubt she saw danger in one of the horns of the moon, which still appeared behind the trees, for she went back again to wait. At last the time seemed to have come. The night was quite dark; she no longer saw the sentinel opposite; the country lay spread out like a pool of ink. She listened intently for a moment, and made up her mind. An iron ladder ran near the window, — some bars let into the wall, leading from the wheel up to the loft, down which the millers used to climb to get at certain cog-wheels; then when the machinery had been altered, the ladder had long since disappeared beneath the rank growth of ivy that covered that side of the mill.
Françoise bravely climbed over the balustrade of her window, grasped one of the iron bars, and found herself in empty space. She began to climb down. Her skirts were much in her way. Suddenly a stone broke loose from the masonry, and fell into the Morelle with a resounding splash. She stopped, chilled with a shudder. But she saw that the waterfall, with its continuous roar, drowned out from afar any noise she might make; and she climbed down more boldly, feeling for the ivy with her foot, making sure of the rungs of the ladder. When she had got on a level with the room that was used as Dominique’s prison, she stopped. An unforeseen difficulty nearly made her lose all her courage: the window of the room below was not cut regularly, under the window of her chamber; it was some way from the ladder, and when she 11291 stretched out her hand she felt only the wall. Would she have to climb up again, without carrying her plan through to the end? Her arms were getting tired; the murmur of the Morelle beneath her began to make her dizzy. Then she tore off little bits of mortar from the wall, barking her fingers. And her strength was giving out: she felt herself falling backwards, when Dominique, at last, softly opened his window.
“It ’s I,” she whispered. “Take me quick, — I ’m falling.”
It was the first time she had tutoyéed him. He caught her, leaning out, and lifted her into the room. There she had a fit of tears, stifling her sobs so as not to be heard. Then by a supreme effort she calmed herself.
“You are guarded?” she asked in a low voice.
Dominique, still dumbfounded at seeing her thus, made a simple sign, pointing to his door. They heard a snoring on the other side; the sentinel must have given way to drowsiness, and laid him down on the ground across the doorway, thinking that in this way the prisoner could not get out.
“You must run away,” she went on rapidly. “I have come to implore you to run away, and to say good-by.”
But he did not seem to hear her. He kept repeating: —
“How — it ’s you, it ’s you! — how you frightened me! You might have killed yourself.”
He took her hands — he kissed them.
“How I love you, Françoise! You are as brave as you are good. I only had one fear, — that of dying without seeing you once more. But you are here, and now they can shoot me. When I have had a quarter of a hour with you, I shall be ready.”
Little by little he had drawn her closer to him, and she rested her head upon his shoulder. The danger drew them nearer together. They forgot all in this embrace.
“Ah, Françoise,” Dominique went on in a caressing voice, “to-day is St. Louis’s day; our wedding day that we have waited for so long. Nothing has been able to separate us, since we are here, all alone, faithful to our tryst. It ’s our wedding morn now, is n’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” she repeated, “our wedding morning.”
They exchanged a kiss trembling. But of a sudden she broke loose: the terrible reality rose up before her.
“You must run away, — you must run away,” she stammered out. “Let us not lose a minute.”11292
And as he stretched out his arms once more to take her in the darkness, she again tutoyéed him: —
“Oh! I beg of you, listen to me. If you die, I shall die. In an hour it will be daylight. I wish you to go at once.”
Then rapidly she explained her plan. The iron ladder ran down to the wheel; there he could take the paddles and get into the boat, which was in the recess. After that it would be easy for him to reach the other bank of the river and escape.
“But there must be sentinels there?” he said.
“Only one, opposite, at the foot of the first willow.”
“And if he sees me, if he tries calling out?”
Françoise shuddered. She put a knife she had brought with her into his hand. There was a silence.
“And your father, and you?” Dominique continued. “But no, I can’t run away. When I am gone, maybe these soldiers will slaughter you. You don’t know them. They proposed to show me mercy if I would be their guide through the Sauval forest. When they find me gone, they will stick at nothing.”
The young girl did not stop to discuss. She simply answered all the reasons he gave with —
“For the love of me, fly. If you love me, Dominique, don’t stay here a minute longer.”
Then she promised to climb back to her room. They would not know that she had helped him. She at last took him in her arms, kissed him to convince him, in an extraordinary outburst of passion. He was beaten. He asked not a question further.
“Swear to me that your father knows of what you are doing, and that he advises me to run away.”
“It was my father sent me,” Françoise answered boldly.
She lied. At this moment she felt nothing but a boundless need of knowing him in safety, of escaping from this abominable thought that the sun would give the signal for his death. When he was gone, all mishaps might rush down upon her; it would seem sweet to her as long as he was alive. The selfishness of her love wished him alive before all else.
“Very well,” said Dominique: “I will do as you prefer.”
Then they said nothing more. Dominique went to open the window again; but suddenly a noise chilled their blood. The door was shaken, and they thought it was being opened. Evidently a patrol had heard their voices; and both of them, standing pressed against each other, waited in an unspeakable 11293 anguish. Each gave a stifled sigh; they saw how it was, — it must have been the soldier lying across the threshold turning over. And really, silence was restored; the snoring began again.
Dominique would have it that Françoise must first climb back to her room. He took her in his arms; he bade her a mute farewell. Then he helped her to seize the ladder, and grappled hold of it in his turn. But he refused to go down a single rung before he knew she was in her room. When Françoise had climbed in, she whispered, in a voice as light as breath: —
“Au revoir; I love you!”
She stopped with her elbows resting on the window-sill, and tried to follow Dominique with her eyes. The night was still very dark. She looked for the sentinel, and did not see him; only the willow made a pale spot in the midst of the darkness. For an instant she heard the rustling of Dominique’s body along the ivy. Then the wheel creaked, and there was a gentle plashing that told that the young man had found the boat. A minute later, in fact, she made out the dark outline of a boat on the gray sheet of the Morelle. Then anguish stopped her breath. At every moment she thought to hear the sentinel’s cry of alarm. The faintest sounds, scattered through the darkness, seemed to be the hurried tread of soldiers, the clatter of arms, the click of hammers of their rifles. Yet seconds elapsed; the country slept in a sovereign peace. Dominique must have been landing on the other bank. Françoise saw nothing more. The stillness was majestic. And she heard a noise of scuffling feet, a hoarse cry, the dull thud of a falling body. Then the silence grew deeper; and as if she had felt death passing by, she waited on, all cold, face to face with the pitch-dark night.
At daybreak, shouting voices shook the mill. Old Merlier had come down to open Françoise’s door. She came down into the court-yard, pale and very calm. But there she gave a shudder before the dead body of a Prussian soldier, which was stretched out near the well, on a cloak spread on the ground.
Around the body, soldiers were gesticulating, crying aloud in fury. Many of them shook their fists at the village. Meanwhile 11294 the officer had had old Merlier called, as mayor of the township.
“See here,” said he, in a voice choking with rage, “here ’s one of our men who has been murdered by the river-side. We must make a tremendous example, and I trust you will help us to find out the murderer.”
“Anything you please,” answered the miller in his phlegmatic way. “Only it will not be easy.”
The officer had stooped down to throw aside a flap of the cloak that hid the dead man’s face. Then a horrible wound appeared, The sentinel had been struck in the throat, and the weapon was left in the wound. It was a kitchen knife with a black handle.
“Look at this knife,” said the officer to old Merlier: “perhaps it may help us in our search.”
The old man gave a start. But he recovered himself immediately, and answered, without moving a muscle of his face: —
“Everybody in these parts has knives like that. Maybe your man was tired of fighting, and did the job himself. Such things have been known to happen.”
“Shut up!” the officer cried furiously. “I don’t know what keeps me from setting fire to the four corners of the village.”
His anger luckily prevented his noticing the profound change that had come over Françoise’s face. She had to sit down on the stone bench near the wall. In spite of herself her eyes never left that dead body, stretched on the ground almost at her feet. He was a big, handsome fellow, who looked like Dominique, with light hair and blue eyes. This resemblance made her heart-sick. She thought of how the dead man had perhaps left some sweetheart behind who would weep for him over there in Germany. And she recognized her knife in the dead man’s throat. She had killed him.
Meanwhile the officer talked of taking terrible measures against Rocreuse, when some soldiers came up running. They had only just noticed Dominique’s escape. It occasioned an extreme agitation. The officer visited the premises, looked out of the window, which had been left open, understood it all, and came back exasperated.
Old Merlier seemed very much put out at Dominique’s flight.
“The idiot!” he muttered: “he spoils it all.”11295
Françoise, who heard him, was seized with anguish. For the rest her father did not suspect her complicity. He shook his head, saying to her in an undertone: —
“Now we are in a fine scrape!”
“It ’s that rascal! it ’s that rascal!” cried the officer. “He must have reached the woods. But he must be found for us, or the village shall pay for it.”
And addressing the miller: —
“Come, you must know where he is hiding?”
Old Merlier gave a noiseless chuckle, pointing to the wide extent of wooded hillside. “How do you expect to find a man in there?” said he.
“Oh, there must be holes in there that you know of. I will give you ten men. You shall be their guide.”
“All right. Only it will take us a week to beat all the woods in the neighborhood.”
The old man’s coolness infuriated the officer. In fact, he saw the ridiculousness of this battue. It was then that he caught sight of Françoise, pale and trembling on the bench. The young girl’s anxious attitude struck him. He said nothing for an instant, looking hard at the miller and Françoise by turns.
“Is n’t this young man,” he at last brutally asked the old man, “your daughter’s lover?”
Old Merlier turned livid; one would have thought him on the point of throwing himself upon the officer and strangling him. He drew himself up stiffly; he did not answer. Françoise put her face between her hands.
“Yes, that ’s it,” the Prussian went on: “you or your daughter have helped him to run away. You are his accomplice. For the last time, will you give him up to us?”
The miller did not answer. He had turned away, looking off into the distance, as if the officer had not been speaking to him.
This put the last touch to the latter’s anger.
“Very well,” he said: “you shall be shot instead.”
And he once more ordered out the firing party. Old Merlier still kept cool. He hardly gave a slight shrug of his shoulders: this whole drama seemed to him in rather bad taste. No doubt he did not believe that a man was to be shot with so little ado. Then when the squad had come, he said gravely: — 11296
“You ’re in earnest, then? — All right. If you absolutely must have some one, I shall do as well as another.”
But Françoise sprang up, half crazed, stammering out: —
“Mercy, monsieur! don’t do any harm to my father. Kill me instead. It ’s I who helped Dominique to escape. I am the only culprit.”
“Be quiet, little girl,” cried old Merlier. “What are you lying for? She spent the night locked up in her room, monsieur. She lies, I assure you.”
“No, I am not lying,” the young girl replied ardently. “I climbed down out of the window; I urged Dominique to fly. It ’s the truth, the only truth.”
The old man turned very pale. He saw clearly in her eyes that she was not lying; and the story appalled him. Ah! these children with their hearts, how they spoiled everything! Then he grew angry.
“She ’s crazy; don’t believe her. She is telling you stupid stories. Come, let ’s have done with it.”
She tried to protest again. She knelt down, she clasped her hands. The officer looked quietly on the heart-rending struggle.
“Good God!” he said at last, “I take your father because I have n’t got the other one. Try and find the other one, and your father shall go free.”
For a moment she looked at him, her eyes staring wide at the atrocity of this proposal.
“It ’s horrible,” she murmured. “Where do you expect me to find Dominique at this time? He ’s gone; I don’t know where he is.”
“Well, choose. Him or your father.”
“O my God! how can I choose? but even if I knew where Dominique was, I could not choose! It is my heart you are breaking. I had rather die at once. Yes, it would be soonest over so. Kill me, I beg of you, kill me!”
The officer at last grew impatient at this scene of despair and tears. He cried out: —
“I ’ve had enough of this! I ’m willing to be good-natured, — I consent to give you two hours. If your sweetheart is n’t here in two hours, your father shall pay for him.”
And he had old Merlier taken to the room which had been used for Dominique’s prison. The old man asked for some tobacco, and fell to smoking. No emotion was detected in his 11297 impassive face. Only, when he was alone, two big tears ran slowly down his cheeks. His poor, dear child, how she suffered!
Françoise had stayed in the middle of the court-yard. Some Prussian soldiers passed by, laughing. Some of them called out to her jokes which she did not understand. She stared at the door through which her father had just disappeared. And with a slow movement she raised her hand to her forehead, as if to keep it from bursting. The officer turned on his heel repeating:
“You have two hours. Try to make good use of them.”
She had two hours. This sentence kept buzzing in her head. Then, mechanically, she went out of the court-yard, she walked straight before her. Whither should she go? What should she do? She did not even try to decide, because she felt convinced of the uselessness of her efforts. Yet she would have liked to find Dominique. They would have come to an understanding together; they might perhaps have hit upon an expedient. And amid the confusion of her thoughts, she went down to the bank of the Morelle, which she crossed below the dam, at a place where there were some large stones. Her feet led her under the first willow, at the corner of the field. As she bent down she saw a pool of blood that made her turn pale. That was clearly the place. And she followed Dominique’s tracks in the trodden grass: he must have run; a long line of strides was to be seen cutting through the field cornerwise. Then, farther on, she lost the tracks; but in a neighboring field she thought she found them again. This brought her to the outskirts of the forest, where all traces were wiped out.
Françoise plunged in under the trees, notwithstanding. It was a relief to be alone. She sat down for a moment; then, remembering her time was running out, she got up again. How long was it since she had left the mill? Five minutes? half an hour? She lost all consciousness of time. Perhaps Dominique had gone and hidden in a copse she knew of, where one afternoon they had eaten filberts together. She went to the copse and searched it. Only a blackbird flew out, whistling its soft, melancholy tune. Then she thought he had taken refuge in a hollow in the rocks, where he sometimes used to lie in ambush for game; but the hollow in the rocks was empty. What was the use of looking for him? she would not find him: and little by little her desire to find him grew 11298 furious; she walked on faster. The notion that he might have climbed up a tree suddenly struck her. From that moment she pushed on with up-turned eyes; and that he might know she was near, she called out to him every fifteen or twenty steps. The cuckoos answered her; a breath of air passing through the branches made her think he was there, and was coming down. Once she even thought she saw him; she stopped, choking, having a good mind to run away. What would she say to him? Had she come, then, to lead him away and have him shot? Oh, no, she would not mention these things. She would cry out to him to escape, not to stay in the neighborhood. Then the thought of her father waiting for her gave her a sharp pang. She fell upon the turf, weeping, repeating aloud: —
“My God, my God! why am I here!”
She must have been crazy to come. And as if seized with fright, she ran, she tried to find a way out of the forest. Three times she took the wrong path; and she thought she could not find the mill again, when she came out into a field just opposite Rocreuse. As soon as she caught sight of the village, she stopped. Was she going to return alone?
As she stood there, a voice called to her softly: —
And she saw Dominique raising his head above the edge of a ditch. Just God, she had found him! So Heaven wished his death? She held back a cry, she let herself slide down into the ditch.
“You were looking for me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered, her head buzzing, not knowing what she said,
“What ’s going on?”
She looked down; she stammered out: —
“Why nothing; I was anxious — I wanted to see you.”
Then, reassured, he told her that he had not wished to go far. He feared for them. Those rascals of Prussians were just the sort to wreak vengeance upon women and old men. Then all was going well; and he added, laughing: —
“Our wedding will be for this day week, that s all.”
Then, as she was still overcome, he great serious again.
“But what ’s the matter with you? You are keeping something from me.”
“No, I swear to you. I ran to come — ”11299
He kissed her, saying that it was imprudent for either of them to talk any longer; and he wished to get back to the forest. She held him back. She was trembling.
“Listen: perhaps it would be as well for you to stay here, all the same. Nobody is looking for you; you ’re not afraid of anything.”
“Françoise, you are keeping something from me,” he repeated.
Again she swore she was keeping nothing from him. Only she had rather know he was near; and she stammered out other reasons besides. She struck him as acting so queerly, that now he himself would not have been willing to leave her. Besides, he believed the French would return. Troops had been sent over Sauval way.
“Ah! let them be in a hurry; let them be here as soon as possible!” he muttered fervently.
At this moment the Rocreuse church clock struck eleven. The strokes came clear and distinct. She sprang up in fright: it was two hours since she had left the mill.
“Listen,” she said rapidly: “if we should need you, I will go up to my room and wave my handkerchief.”
And she left him, running; while Dominique, very anxious, stretched himself out on the edge of the ditch, to keep his eye on the mill. As she was just running into Rocreuse, Françoise met an old beggar, old Bontemps, who knew the whole country. He bowed to her: he had just seen the miller in the midst of the Prussians; then crossing himself and mumbling some disconnected words, he went his way.
“The two hours are over,” said the officer, when Françoise appeared.
Old Merlier was there, sitting on the bench by the well. He was still smoking. The young girl once more implored, wept, fell upon her knees. She wished to gain time. The hope of seeing the French return had grown in her; and while bewailing her fate, she thought she heard the measured tread of an army. Oh! if they had come, if they had delivered them all!
“Listen, monsieur, one hour, one hour more! You can surely grant me one hour!”
But the office was still inflexible. He even ordered two men to take her in charge and lead her away, that they might proceed quietly with the old man’s execution. Then a frightful 11300 conflict went on in Françoise’s heart. She could not let her father be thus murdered. No, no, she would die with Dominique first; and she was bounding toward her room, when Dominique himself walked into the court-yard.
The officer and soldiers gave a shout of triumph. But he, as if no one but Françoise had been there, stepped up to her quietly, a little sternly.
“That was wrong,” said he. “Why did n’t you bring me back with you? Old Bontemps had to tell me everything. After all, here I am.”
It was three o’clock. Great black clouds had slowly filled the sky, the tail of some not distant thunder-storm. This yellow sky, these copper-colored rags, changed the valley of Rocreuse, so cheerful in the sunshine, to a cut-throat den, full of suspicious shadows. The Prussian officer had been content to have Dominique locked up, without saying anything about what fate he had in store for him. Ever since noon, Françoise had been a prey to infernal anguish. She would not leave the court-yard, in spite of her father’s urging. She was waiting for the French. But the hours passed by, night was at hand, and she suffered the more keenly that all this time gained did not seem likely to change the frightful catastrophe.
Nevertheless at about three, the Prussians made preparations to go. A minute before, the officer had closeted himself with Dominique, as on the preceding day. Françoise saw that the young man’s life was being decided on. Then she clasped her hands and prayed. Old Merlier, beside her, maintained his mute and rigid attitude of an old peasant who does not struggle with the fatality of facts.
“O my God! O my God!” said Françoise brokenly, “they are going to kill him!”
The miller drew her close to him and took her upon his knee, like a child.
Just then the officer came out; while behind him, two men led Dominique.
“Never, never!” cried the latter. “I am ready to die.”
“Think of it well,” replied the officer. “This service that you refuse us will be done for us by another. I offer you your life; I am generous. It is only to be our guide to Montredom, through the woods. There must be paths.”11301
Dominique made no answer.
“Then you are still obstinate!”
“Kill me, and let us have done with it,” he answered.
Françoise, with hands clasped, implored him from across the yard. She had forgotten all; she would have urged him to some piece of cowardice. But old Merlier grasped her hands, that the Prussians might not see her delirious gesture.
“He is right,” he murmured; “it ’s better to die.”
The firing party was there. The officer was waiting for a moment of weakness on Dominique’s part. He still counted on winning him over. There was a dead silence. From the distance were heard violent claps of thunder. A sultry heat weighed upon the country; and in the midst of this silence a shriek burst forth: —
“The French! the French!”
It was really they. On the Sauval road, on the outskirts of the wood, you could make out the line of red trousers. Inside the mill there was an extraordinary hubbub. The Prussian soldiers ran about with guttural exclamations. For the rest, not a shot had been fired yet.
“The French! the French!” screamed Françoise, clapping her hands.
She was like mad. She had broken loose from her father’s embrace, and she laughed, her arms waving in the air. At last they were coming, and they had come in time, since Dominique was still there, erect!
A terrible firing that burst upon her ears like a thunder-stroke made her turn round. The officer had just muttered: —
“First of all, let us finish this job.”
And pushing Dominique up against the wall of a shed with his own hands, he had ordered, “Fire!” When Françoise turned round, Dominique was lying on the ground, his breast pierced with twelve bullets.
She did not weep; she stood there in a stupor. Her eyes were fixed, and she went and sat under the shed, a few steps from the body. She looked at it; at moments she made a vague and childlike movement with her hand. The Prussians had laid hold of old Merlier as a hostage.
It was a fine fight. Rapidly the officer stationed his men, recognizing that he could not beat a retreat without being overpowered. It was as well to sell his life dearly. Now it was the Prussians who defended the mill, and the French that 11302 made the attack. The firing began with unheard-of violence. For half an hour it did not stop. Then a dull explosion was heard, and a shot broke off one of the main branches of the hundred-year old elm. The French had cannon. A battery drawn up just above the ditch in which Dominique had hidden, swept the main street of Rocreuse. From this moment the struggle could not last long.
Ah! the poor mill! Shot pierced it through and through. Half the roofing was carried away. Two walls crumbled. But it was, above all, on the side toward the Morelle that the ruin done was piteous. The ivy, torn from the shattered walls, hung in rags; the river swept away débris of every sort; and through a breach you could see Françoise’s room, with her bed, the white curtains of which were carefully drawn. Shot upon shot, the old wheel received two canon-balls, and gave one last groan: the paddles were washed away by the current, the carcass collapsed. The mill had breathed out its soul.
Then the French stormed the place. There was a furious fight with side-arms. Beneath the rust-colored sky, the cut-throat hollow of the valley was filled with slain. The broad meadows looked grim, their rows of poplars streaking them with shadows. To the right and left, the forests were like the walls of a circus, shutting in the combatants; while the springs, the fountains, the running waters, gave forth sounds of sobbing, amid the panic of the country-side.
Under the shed, Françoise had not stirred, crouched down opposite Dominique’s body. Old Merlier was killed outright by a spent bullet. Then when the Prussians had been annihilated, and the mill was burning, the French captain was the first man to enter the court-yard. From the beginning of the campaign it was the only success he had won. And all aglow, drawing up his tall figure to its full height, he laughed with his gracious air of a fine cavalier. And seeing Françoise, imbecile, between the dead bodies of her husband and father, amidst the smoking ruins of the mill, he gallantly saluted her with his sword, crying out: —