Guy de Maupassant
For several days in a row, rubble from a retreating army had passed through the city. It was not a troop, but hordes in disarray. The men had a long, dirty beard, uniforms in tatters, and moved forward with a battered air, without a flag, without a regiment. They all looked devastated, overworked, incapable of thought or initiative, walking only out of habit, and falling from exhaustion as soon as they stopped. There were mainly reservists, peaceful people, quiet tenants, hunched under the weight of the rifle; small alert moblots, easy to scare and ready for enthusiasm, as willing to attack as to escape; then, in their midst, some red breeches, the wreckage of a splintered division in a great battle; dark gunners lined up with infants of the most varied; and sometimes the shining helmet of a dragging dragon that at great cost followed the quickest march of the line soldiers.
Legions of snipers with heroic designations – The Avengers of Defeat; the Tomb Citizens; The Death Distributors – passed, in turn, with the appearance of bandits.
Their chiefs, former fabric or grain merchants, former tallow or soap trader, warriors of circumstance, appointed officers by their patacas or by the length of their mustaches, covered in weapons, flannel and gallons, spoke in a resounding voice , discussed campaign plans and intended to support dying France alone on their shoulders of bullying; however, they sometimes feared their own soldiers, bandits of the worst kind and almost always brave in excess, looters and debauchers.
The Prussians were going to enter Rouen, it was said.
The National Guard, which had been making very prudent reconnaissance in the surrounding woods for two months, sometimes shooting its own sentries and getting ready for combat when some bunny moved in the bushes, had come home. Her weapons, her uniforms, all of her deadly apparatus with which she had recently frightened even road marks within a radius of three leagues, had suddenly disappeared.
Finally, the last French soldiers had just crossed the Seine to win Pont – Audemer, via Saint – Sever and Bourg – Achar; and, after all of them, the general walked in despair, unable to try anything with those silly rags, himself bewildered in the great collapse of a people accustomed to winning and disastrously beaten, despite his legendary bravery; he went on foot, between two ordinances.
Then, a profound calm, a waiting full of fear and silence hung over the city. Many big-bellied bourgeois, derailed by trade, anxiously awaited the winners, fearing that they would consider their skewers or kitchen machetes as weapons.
Life seemed suspended, the shops closed, the street changed. From time to time, some inhabitant, intimidated by the silence, would sneak up the side of the walls.
The anguish of waiting made the enemy arrive.
On the afternoon of the day that followed the departure of the French troops, some Ulanos, leaving no one knows where, crossed the city in a hurry. Then, a little later, a black mass descended the Sainte – Catherine slope, while two other invading waves appeared on the roads of Darnetal and Boisguillaume. The avant-garde of the three corporations meet at the same time in the town hall square, and the German army arrived from all the neighboring streets, unraveling their battalions that made the stones of the streets resonate under the hard and rhythmic steps.
Screams of command in an unknown and guttural voice knew throughout the houses, which seemed dead and deserted, while, behind closed shutters, eyes were watching those victorious men, lords of the city, of fortunes and lives, for “right of war” . The inhabitants, in their darkened rooms, felt the despair produced by cataclysms, the great deadly convulsions of the earth, against which all wisdom and strength are useless. For the same feeling reappears whenever the established order of things is destroyed, that security no longer exists, that everything that the laws of men, or those of nature, protected is at the mercy of an unconscious and ferocious brutality.
The earthquake crushed an entire population under the collapsing houses; the river that overflows and carries the drowned peasants together with the corpses of the oxen and the beams ripped from the roofs of the houses, or the glorious army massacring those who defend themselves, taking others as prisoners, pillaging in the name of the Saber and thanking a God at the sound of the cannon, all are calamities so dreadful that they confuse any belief in eternal justice, any confidence they teach us to have in the protection of the heavens and the reason of man. But at each door small detachments knocked, which then disappeared into the houses. It was the occupation after the invasion. And it started for the winners.
After some time, once the first terror was gone, a new calm was established. In many families the Prussian officer ate at the table.
Sometimes he was well – mannered and, please, he was sorry for France, he spoke of his disgust at being part of that war. People were recognized for that feeling; and besides, one day or another, one might need his protection. Pleasing him, they might not have so many men to feed. And why hurt someone you depended on entirely? To do so would be less bravery than temerity. And temerity is no longer a defect of the Rouen bourgeois, as in the days of the heroic defenses that celebrated the city. Finally, it was said, a supreme reason taken from French urbanity, that it would still be well allowed to be courteous to the foreign soldier inside the house, as long as they were not intimate in public. They didn’t know each other outside anymore, but at home they chatted with pleasure, and the German stayed longer, every night, to warm up before the common fire.
The city gradually resumed its usual appearance. The French were not out yet, but the Prussian soldiers were teeming in the streets. Besides, the blue hussar officers, who dragged their great tools of death arrogantly along the sidewalks, did not seem to have much more contempt for the simple citizens than the officers of the hunter corps, who, in the previous year, drank in the same cafes.
However, there was something in the air, something subtle and unknown, an intolerable foreign atmosphere, like a scattered smell, the smell of invasion. It filled houses and public squares, changed the taste of food, gave the impression of being on the road, far away, in barbaric and dangerous tribes.
The winners demanded money, a lot of money. The inhabitants always paid; they were rich, in fact. But a Norman trader, the more he becomes opulent, the more he suffers from any deprivation, with any portion of his fortune that he sees passed into the hands of another.
However, two or three leagues below the city, following the course of the river in the direction of Croisset, Dieppedalle or Biessart, boaters and fishermen frequently dug a corpse of a swollen German inside his uniform from the water, stabbed to death. or kicking, the head crushed by a stone, or thrown into the water with a push from the top of a bridge.
The mud from the bottom of the river buried those obscure, wild and legitimate revenge, unknown heroics, silent attacks, more dangerous than battles in daylight and without the resounding glory.
For the hatred of the Foreigner always arms some Intrepids ready to die for an Idea.
Anyway, as the invaders, even though subjecting the city to their unyielding discipline, had not committed any of the horrors that fame made them to do throughout their triumphal march, courage was taken, and the need for business excited the heart again. local traders. Some of them had great interests engaged in the port of Havre, which the French Army occupied, and wanted to try to get there by going overland to Dieppe, where they would embark.
They used the influence of the German officers with whom they had become acquainted, and an authorization to travel was obtained from the general – in – chief.
Then, once a great diligence of four horses was booked for the trip, and ten people signed up with the driver, it was decided to leave on a Tuesday morning, before dawn to avoid any crowding.
The frost had hardened the land for some time, and on Monday, close to three o’clock, large dark clouds from the north brought the snow, which fell without interruption all afternoon and all night.
At half past four in the morning the travelers gathered in the courtyard of the Hotel da Normandia, where they were to board.
They were still full of sleep and shivered in the cold under their blankets. He could not see himself properly in the darkness, and the heap of heavy winter clothes left all those bodies similar to those of obese priests in their long cassocks. But two men recognized each other, a third approached them and they talked: “I take my wife”, said one of them. “The same thing is me”. “Me too”. The first added: “We will not be returning to Rouen, and if the Prussians approach Havre we will leave for England.” Similar in nature, they all had the same projects.
However, nothing to hitch the car. Every now and then a small lantern carried by a groom came out of a dark door and immediately disappeared into another. Horses’ feet pounded the earth, muffled by the manure from the stalls, a man’s voice could be heard talking to the animals, cursing, at the bottom of the yard. A faint murmur of bells announced that they were carrying the harness; and the murmur then became a clear and continuous vibration, rhythmic with the animal’s movement, sometimes stopping, then resuming in a sudden jolt accompanied by the thud of a screwed hoof hitting the ground.
Suddenly, the door closed. All the noise stopped. The bourgeois, frozen, were silent: they remained immobile and stiff.
A continuous veil of white flakes descended over the earth, gleaming endlessly; he erased the shapes of things, sprinkled everything with a foam of ice, and all that was heard in the great silence of the silent and buried city under the winter was that vague, indefinable and oscillating slide of the falling snow, more sensation than noise , confusion of weightless particles that seemed to fill the space, cover the world.
The man reappeared, with his flashlight, pulling a sad horse, which did not come willingly, by a rope. He put himself against the helm, tied the straps, took several turns around to secure the harness, taking a long time, since he could only use one hand, since the other held the lantern. When he was going to get the second anima, he noticed all the immobile passengers, already white with snow, and said to them: “Why don’t you get in the car? At least they will be sheltered ”.
They hadn’t thought about it, no doubt, and they rushed forward. The three men installed their women at the bottom, then went up; then, the other inaccurate and hooded forms took the last places without exchanging a word.
The floor was covered with straw, where the feet sank. The ladies at the bottom, having brought small copper heaters with chemical charcoal, lit their appliances and, for a while and in a low voice, listed their advantages, repeating things that everyone had known for a long time.
Anyway, with the stage being attached to six horses instead of four, because of the more difficult pull, a voice from outside asked: “Did everyone go up?”.
A voice from within replied: “Yes”. And they left.
The car moved slowly, very slowly, step by step. The wheels sank into the snow; the entire safe groaned with dull crackles; the animals slid, gasped, smoked, and the driver’s gigantic whip crackled and whirled around and around, tangling and uncoiling like a fine snake, and whipping some fleshy loin, which then tightened in a more violent effort.
But the day was growing imperceptibly. Those soft flakes that a thoroughbred Rouenense traveler had compared to a cotton rain did not fall anymore. A dirty flash, filtered by thick dark and heavy clouds, made the whiteness of the fields brighter, where now a line of tall trees covered by frost appeared, now a hut with a snow hood.
In the car, people looked at each other with curiosity, under the sad light of that dawn.
Deep down, in the best places, they were dozing, facing each other, Mr. And Mrs. Loiseau, wine wholesalers on Grand – Pont Street.
A former employee of a bankrupt business boss, Loiseau had bought the stock and made a fortune. He sold very bad wine very cheaply to small farmers in the interior, and among friends and acquaintances he passed by a smart trickster, a true Norman full of cunning and good humor.
His reputation as a cheater was so well established that one night, in the halls of the regional prefecture, Mr. Tournel, author of fables and songs, biting and fine spirit, a local glory, perceiving the ladies a little sleepy, proposed a departure from “Loiseau vole”; the joke flew through the mayor’s halls, and then, winning those in the city, it had made everyone in the province laugh for a month.
Loiseau was, moreover, famous for playing pranks of all kinds, for his jokes, good or bad, and no one could speak of him without immediately adding: “He is priceless, this Loiseau”.
Shortly, he had a balloon-shaped belly surmounted by a flushed face between two gray chops.
His wife, large, stocky, resolute, with a strong voice and quick decision, was the order and arithmetic of the commercial establishment that he animated with his pleasurable liveliness.
Next to them stood, more dignified, belonging to a higher caste, Mr. Carré – Lamadon, a man considered, established in the cotton business, owner of three spinners, officer of the Legion of Honor and member of the General Council.
Throughout the period of the Empire he had remained the head of the indulgent opposition, only to pay him more dearly for joining the cause he fought with courteous weapons, according to his own expression. Mrs. Carré – Lamadon, much younger than her husband, remained the consolation of officers of good family sent to the Rouen garrison.
Sitting in front of her husband, all tiny, all cute, cute, curled up in her skins, she looked with dismay at the pitiful interior of the vehicle.
His bank neighbors, the Count and Countess Hubert de Bréville, carried one of the oldest and most noble names in Normandy. The count, an old nobleman, had a natural resemblance to King Henri IV, who, according to a glorious legend for the family, had impregnated a lady from Bréville, whose husband, because of this, had become count and provincial governor.
Colleague of Mr. Carré – Lamadon on the general council, Count Hubert represented the Orleanist party in the department. The story of his marriage to the daughter of a small shipowner in Nantes had always been somewhat mysterious.
But as the countess had a very distinctive appearance, she received better than anyone, and walked even because she was loved by one of Louis’s sons – Philippe, all the nobility celebrated, and her salon remained the first in the region, the only one where the old gallantry was preserved, and entry was difficult.
The Bréville fortune, all in real estate, reached, they said, five hundred thousand pounds of income.
Those six people made up the back of the vehicle, the side of wealthy society, serene and strong, honest people, with authority, who have Religion and Principles.
By a strange chance, all the women were in the same bank; and the countess also had as neighbors two nuns who threw long rosaries murmuring father – ours and ave – marias. One was an old woman, her face damaged by smallpox, as if she had received a shrapnel of lead close up in her face. The other, very fragile, had a beautiful and battered head, and a tuberculosis breast eaten by this devastating faith that makes martyrs and the enlightened.
In front of the two sisters, a man and a woman attracted all eyes.
The man, well known, was Cornudet, the democra, the terror of good people. For twenty years he had been dipping his red beard in the draft beers of all Democratic cafés. With his brothers and friends, he had liquidated a beautiful fortune, an inheritance from his father, a former confectioner; and he waited impatiently for the Republic to finally obtain the place deserved by so many revolutionary expenses. On the Fourth of September, perhaps the victim of a joke, he imagined himself appointed mayor, but when he wanted to take up his duties, the ushers, who ended up as the sole owners of the place, refused to recognize him, and he was forced to withdraw . Besides, a very good boy, harmless and helpful, had dedicated himself with an incomparable ardor to the organization of the defense. He had ordered holes to be dug in the fields, cut down all the bushes in the neighboring forests, set up traps on all roads, and when the enemy approached and satisfied with his preparations, he promptly retreated to the city. Now he thought he was more useful in Havre, where new trenches were going to be needed.
The woman, one of those they call a libertine, was famous for her precocious corpulence, which had earned her the nickname Bola de Sebo. Small, all plump, very plump, with swollen and strangled fingers on the phalanges, similar to streaks of short sausages, with a shiny and stretched skin, a huge neck that overflowed the dress, she was, however, still appetizing and solicited, so much that its freshness gave pleasure to the view. His face was a red apple, a bud of peony about to bloom, and there, on top, magnificent black eyes, covered by large thick lashes that dipped them in the shadow, opened up; underneath, a charming, narrow mouth, moist for kissing, filled with shiny teeth and microscopes.
Besides, she was, they said, full of priceless qualities.
As soon as she was recognized, whispers ran between the right women, and the expressions “prostitute” and “public shame” were whispered so loudly that she raised her head. Then a look so provocative and intrepid passed over the neighbors that immediately a great silence ensued, and everyone looked down, except for Loiseau, who was looking at her excitedly.
But then the conversation was reestablished between those three women whom the other’s presence had suddenly made friends, almost intimate. They should form, it seemed to them, as if a league of their dignity as wives in the face of that shamelessly sold; because cool love always disdains your fellow libertine.
The three men, too, united by a conservative instinct in the face of Cornuder, spoke of money with a certain tone of disdain for the poor. Count Hubert told of the damage he had suffered because of the Prussians, the losses that would result from the stolen cattle and the ruined crops, and he spoke with the assurance of a great master, ten times a millionaire, that those devastations would affect only one year. Mr. Carré – Lamadon, quite experienced in the cotton industry, had taken care to send six hundred thousand francs to England, a reserve he kept for any eventuality. When Luiseau had arranged to sell to the French Intendance all the ordinary wines left in his stock, so that the State owed him a formidable sum, which he hoped to get his hands on when he reached Havre.
And all three exchanged quick, friendly looks. Although of different social positions, they felt like brothers for the money, of the great Freemasonry of those who own that make the gold ring when they reach into the vest pocket.
The car was moving so slowly that at ten in the morning they had not yet traveled four leagues. The men went down three times to climb hills on foot.
They started to worry, because they had to have lunch in Tôtes and had no hope of getting there before night. Each lurked to see a roadside tavern, when the stage sank into a pile of snow, and it took two hours to untie it.
Hunger grew, the spirits confused, and no baiúca, no pub appeared – the advance of the Prussians and the passage of the hungry French troops had astonished business.
The lords ran to the farms on the side of the road in search of provisions, but they did not even find bread, because the peasant, suspicious, hid his reserves for fear of being plundered by soldiers who, having nothing to put in their mouths, took what they faced ahead.
Around one o’clock, Loiseau announced that he definitely had a nice hole in his stomach. Everyone suffered as he had for a long time, and the ever-growing violent need to eat had ended the conversation.
Once in a while someone would yawn; almost immediately another imitated him, and each in turn, according to his character, education and social position, opened his mouth with a fuss or discreetly, quickly reaching his hand to that gaping pit from which a steam came out.
Several times Bola de Sebo leaned over as if looking for something under her skirt. He hesitated a second, looked at the neighbors, then stood straight again, calmly. The faces were pale and pinched. Loiseau said he would pay a thousand francs for a piece of ham. His wife made a gesture as if to protest, and then calmed down. He could not hear about wasted money and he could not even bear to joke about it.
“The truth is, I don’t feel well,” said the count, “how come I didn’t think to bring supplies?” Everyone made the same recrimination.
However, Cornudet had a canteen full of rum; offered: they refused coldly. Only Loiseau accepted a sip and, returning the flask, thanked: “You have to recognize that this is good, it heats and cheats the stomach”.
The alcohol left him in a good mood, and proposed that they do as in the ship of the song: eat the fattest passenger. That indirect allusion to Bola de Sebo shocked the well – educated. They did not answer him; only Cornudet smiled.
The two nuns had stopped unraveling their rosaries and, with their hands tucked into their sleeves, stood still, obstinately lowering their eyes, no doubt offering the heavens the suffering that was sent to them.
Finally, at three o’clock, when they were in the middle of an endless plain, without a single village in sight, Bola de Sebo suddenly bent down and pulled a large basket covered with a white napkin from under the bench.
First he took out a faience plate, a thin silver bowl, then a large terrine with two chickens carved and preserved in the fat itself; and there was still a lot of good stuff wrapped around that basket: pâtés, fruits, sweets, food prepared for a three-day trip, so as not to have to resort to the kitchens of the hostels. Four bottlenecks stood out among the food packages. She took a chicken wing and, delicately, began to eat it with one of those rolls that in Normandy we call “Regence”.
All eyes were on her. Then the smell spread, dilating the nostrils, causing an abundant saliva to come to the mouth, with a painful contraction of the jaw below the ears. The ladies’ contempt for that girl became fierce, like a desire to kill her or to throw her under the wheels of the car, in the snow, her, her bowl, her basket and her food.
But Loiseau was devouring the chicken tureen with her eyes. He said: “What a beauty! Madame was more cautious than we were. There are people who always think about everything ”. She raised her head to him: “If you want … It’s hard to be fasting since morning.” He greeted: “You want to know something, frankly? I don’t refuse. I can not take it anymore. In war it is like war, isn’t it, madame? ”.
And taking a look around, he added: “at times like this it is wonderful to meet people who are kind to us.” He was carrying a newspaper, which he held out so as not to stain his pants, and with the tip of the knife he always carried in his pocket, he removed a very shiny thigh from the inside of the fat jelly, cut it with his teeth and then chewed it with a satisfaction so evident that he cut it with his teeth and then chewed it with satisfaction so evident that a great sigh of anguish was heard inside the vehicle.
Bola de Sebo, in a humble and delicate voice, invited the nuns to share the lunch with her. The two accepted at once, and, without looking up, began to eat very lightly, after having babbled thanks. Cornudet also did not refuse the neighbor’s offers, and they formed, with the sisters, a kind of table spreading newspapers on their lap.
Mouths opened and closed without stopping, swallowed, chewed, devoured fiercely. Loiseau, in his corner, worked hard, and in a low voice encouraged the woman to do the same. She resisted for a long time, but after a twitch that went through her guts, she gave in. Then the husband, rounding off the sentence, asked if his “charming companion” allowed him to offer a little piece to Mrs. Loiseau. “But of course, certainly, sir,” replied Bola de Sebo, with a kind smile, extending the tureen to him.
There was an embarrassment when they opened the first bottle of Bordeaux: there was only one glass. They passed it from hand to hand, after wiping. Only Cornudet, no doubt for the sake of gallantry, rested his lips in the same damp place as his neighbor’s.
Then, surrounded by people who fed, suffocated by the emanations of food, the Count and Countess of Bréville, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Carré – Lamadon suffered this odious ordeal that kept the name of Tantalus. Suddenly, the young lady of the businessman let out a sigh that made everyone turn to her; it was as white as snow outside; his eyes closed, his head drooped; had passed out. The husband, disoriented, asked everyone for help. Everyone was out of control when the eldest of the nuns, holding the patient’s head, put the Sebo Ball cup between her lips and made her drink a few drops of wine. The beautiful lady moved, opened her eyes, smiled, and in a weak voice said that she felt very well now. But, so that it would not be repeated, the nun forced her to drink a full glass of Bordeaux, and added: “It is hunger, that’s all”.
Then Sebo’s ball, red and confused, looking at the four passengers who were still fasting, babbled: “My God, if I could offer these gentlemen and these ladies …”. He fell silent, fearing an outrage. Loiseau took the floor: “Hey, in a situation like this everyone is a brother and must help themselves. Come on, madam, no ceremonies: accept, what the hell! Do we know if we will even find a house to spend the night? As we go, we will not arrive in Tôtes before noon tomorrow ”. They wavered, no one daring to take responsibility for the “yes”. But the count settled the matter. He turned to that fat and intimidated girl and, assuming his great air of nobility, said: “We accept recognized, madame”.
Only the first step was difficult. Once the Rubicon was transposed, people broke free. The basket has been emptied. And there was still a pate of foie gras, a pate of calhandra, a piece of smoked beef tongue, pears from Crassane, a chunk of pont-l ‘évêque, dumplings and a jar of cucumbers and onions in the vinegar: Bola de Sebo , like all women, he loved preserves.
But one could not eat that girl’s provisions without speaking to her.
Then they talked, initially with reserve, then, as she behaved very well, loosened up more. Mrs. De Bréville and carré – Lamadon, who had a lot of savoir – vivre, were affable and delicate. Above all, the countess demonstrated this kind condescension of the very noble ladies, which no contact can stain, and was lovely. But the burly Mrs. Loiseau, who had a sergeant’s soul, remained sour, saying little and eating a lot.
They talked about the war, of course. They reported horrible deeds of the Prussians, moves of bravery by the French, and all those people who were fleeing there, paid tribute to the courage of others. Personal stories quickly began, and Bola de Sebo told – with real emotion, with that warmth in the words that girls of this type sometimes have to express their natural outbursts – as he had left Rouen: “First I thought I could stay,” he said. “I had a house full of supplies, and I would rather feed some soldiers than to emigrate to I don’t know where. But when I saw these Prussians, it was stronger than me! My blood boiled, and I cried with shame all day. Ah! If I were a man! I saw them from my window, those big pigs with their pointed helmets, and my maid was holding my hands to keep me from throwing the furniture over them. Then some came to stay at my house; then shoot me in the throat of the first. They are no more difficult to strangle than any other! And I would have done with that one if they hadn’t pulled me by the hair. I was forced to hide after that. Finally, when I found an opportunity, I left, and here I am. ”
They congratulated her a lot. She grew in esteem for her fellow travelers, who had not been so brave; and Cornudet, listening to her, retained an approving and benevolent apostle smile – in the same way a priest listens to a devotee praising the name of God, for bearded Democrats have a monopoly on patriotism as men in cassocks have on religion. Then he spoke in a doctrinal tone, with the emphasis learned from the statements pasted on the walls every day, and ended with a small stretch of eloquence in which he masterfully skinned that “Badinguet scoundrel”. But Bola de Sebo was immediately offended, as he was a Bonapartist. It turned red as a pepper and, stuttering indignantly: “I wish I could have seen you in his place, all of you. That would have been beautiful, oh yes! You betrayed that man! If we were ruled by vagabonds like you, the only thing to do would be to leave France! ” Cornudet, impassive, kept a contemptuous and superior smile, but it was clear that the swearing would not be delayed when the earl intervened and calmed the exasperated girl, without cost, with authority that all sincere opinions were respectable. However, the countess and the businesswoman, who carried in their souls the irrational hatred of good people for the things of the Republic and that instinctive tenderness that all women harbor for despotic and plagued governments, were, even grudgingly, attracted to that prostitute. full of dignity, whose feelings were so much like theirs.
The basket was empty. Among ten, they had exhausted him without difficulty, regretting that it was no bigger. The conversation continued for some time, a little cool, however, after they had eaten.
The night was falling, the darkness gradually became deep, and the cold, more sensitive during digestion, caused shivering in Bola de Sebo, despite its fatness. Then Madame de Bréville offered her her heater, whose charcoal had been renewed several times since the morning. The other accepted immediately, as her feet felt cold. Mrs. Carré Lamadon and Loiseau gave theirs to the two sisters.
The driver had switched on the lanterns. They lit up a cloud of steam with an intense flash over the horses’ sweaty rump, and on either side of the road the snow seemed to drain under the moving reflection of the lights.
There was nothing more to be seen inside the vehicle; suddenly there was a movement between Bola de Sebo and Cornudet, and Loiseau, whose eye scanned the shadow, thought she saw the man with the long beard move away promptly, as if he had received a beautiful blow from the dry.
Small points of light appeared ahead on the road. It was Tôtes. They had been running for eleven hours, which, with the two hours of rest done in four times so that the horses could breathe and eat some oats, amounted to fourteen. They entered the village and stopped in front of the Hotel Du Commerce.
The hatch opened! A well-known noise made all the travelers tremble; they were the blows of a saber against the ground. Then a German’s voice shouted something.
Although the stage was stopped, no one came down as if they expected a massacre on the way out. Then the driver appeared, carrying one of the lanterns in his hand, which suddenly lit up the bottom of the car the two rows of frightened faces, whose mouths were open and their eyes were wide with surprise and dread.
In the full light, beside the coachman, was a German officer: a tall boy, excessively thin and blond, tight in his uniform like a young woman in his bodice, and with his flat, oiled cap, which gave him air. of an English hotel porter. His huge mustache, with long, straight hair, which thinned indefinitely on both sides and ended in a single blond thread, so thin that the end could not be seen, seemed to weigh on the corners of his mouth and tug at his cheek, printing a pleat to his lips. dropped.
In Alsatian French, he asked passengers to leave, saying in a harsh tone: “Fôces want to cool, tamas and cafalheirros?”.
The two nuns obeyed first, with the docility of holy women accustomed to all submissions. The count and countess appeared soon after, followed by the businessman and his wife, then Loiseau pushing his big better half ahead. The latter, putting his foot down, said to the officer: “Good evening, sir”, much more for prudence than politeness. The other, insolent like the almighty, looked at him without answering:
Bola de Sebo and Cornudet, although close to the hatch, descended last, serious and haughty before the enemy. The fat girl tried to control herself and be calm; the Democrat, with a kind of tragic and slightly shaky hand, tortured his long red beard. They wanted to maintain their dignity, understanding that in these types of meetings each one represents his country a little; and both revolted by the docility of their companions, she, on her side, tried to show herself more distinguished than her neighbors, the right women, while he, knowing full well that he should set an example, continued in all his attitudes the mission of resistance started with road blocking.
They entered the vast kitchen of the hostel, and the German, after doing so, presented him with the authorization to travel signed by the general – in – chief and where the names, physical characteristics and profession of each traveler were mentioned, examined everyone at length, comparing people with written information.
Then he said brusquely, “It’s pom”, and disappeared.
Then you can breathe. You were hungry again; dinner was ordered. It took half an hour to get it ready, and while two servants seemed to be taking care of it, they went to see the rooms. They were all arranged in a long corridor that ended in a glass door and marked with the speaking number.
Finally they were going to sit at the table when the owner of the hostel appeared in the room. He was a former horse trader, an asthmatic fat man who always whistled, cleared his throat, with a hoarse, snotty cough. His father had passed on the name of Follenvie.
“Miss Élisabeth Rousset?”
Sebo’s ball shuddered, turned around:
“Mademoiselle, the Prussian officer wants to speak to you immediately.”
“Talk to me?”
“Yes, if you are really Miss Élisabeth Rousset.”
She was confused, reflected for a second, then said clearly:
“It’s possible, but I’m not going.”
There was an uproar around her; each argued and tried to understand the cause of that order. The count approached:
“You are wrong, madam, because your refusal can cause considerable difficulties, not only for you but also for all your companions. People who are stronger must never be resisted. Certainly, this request does not present any danger; no doubt it is because of some forgotten formality ”.
Everyone supported him, pleaded with her, instigated her, preached her a sermon and ended up convincing her, because everyone feared the complications that an unthinkable decision could result. She finally said:
“It is for you that I do this, be sure!”
The countess took her hand:
“And we thank you.”
Exited. They waited for her to sit at the table. Each one regretted that he had not been chosen in the place of that violent and irascible girl, and mentally prepared some servile answer in case he was called.
But after ten minutes she reappeared, panting, red, exasperated to the point of suffocation. He babbled: “Ah! What a scoundrel! What a scoundrel! ”.
Everyone rushed to find out, but she said nothing; and as the count insisted, he replied with great dignity: “No, that does not concern you. I can not talk”.
They then sat around a large soup bowl that gave off a scent of cabbage. Despite that scare, dinner was fun. The cider was good, the Loiseau couple and the nuns drank it out of savings. The others ordered wine. Cornudet ordered beer. He had a special way of opening the bottle, of foaming when serving, of examining it by tilting the glass, which he then raised against the light to assess the color well. When he drank, his long beard – which retained the same hue as the adored drink – seemed to shiver with tenderness; his eyes became cross-eyed in an effort not to lose sight of the draft beer, and at that moment he seemed to be fulfilling the only function for which he was born. One would say that he created in his spirit an approximation and a kind of affinity between the two great passions that occupied his whole life; Beer and the Revolution; and he certainly couldn’t taste one without thinking about the other.
Mr and Mrs Follenvie had dinner right at the end of the table. The man, panting like a crippled locomotive, had too much difficulty in his chest to be able to speak while eating; but the woman was never silent. He told all of his impressions of the arrival of the Prussians, what they did, what they said, execrating them, first because they cost him money, and then because he had two children in the army. He addressed himself mainly to the countess, flattered to talk to a lady of that suit.
Then she would lower her voice to say the most delicate things, and from time to time her husband would interrupt her: “It would be better if you shut up, Madame Follenvie”. But she paid no attention and continued:
“Yes, madame, these people only do is eat potato with pork, and then it is pork with potato. And don’t go thinking they are clean! Oh no!
They do crap everywhere, sorry for the term, but that’s it. And if the lady saw them do their exercise, for hours and hours, every day; they are all there, in a field: and walk forward, and walk back, and turn there, and turn here. If only they cultivated the land or worked on the roads there in their country! But no, madame, that soldiery there, no one takes advantage of it!
And the poor of the people have yet to feed them. For what? So that they don’t apprehend something else? They only know how to slaughter! I am just an uneducated old woman, I agree, but when I see how they spoil health from morning to night, I think to myself: When there are people who make so much discovery that it can be useful, there must be those others who work so hard to be bad! Frankly, isn’t that an abomination to kill people? May it be Prussian, or English, or Polish, or French? If we take revenge on someone who harmed us, it is bad, because they condemn us; but when they exterminate our children with a rifle shot as if they were partridges, then is it good? Yes, because decorations are given to the most liquid! No, look, madame, I will never understand that! ”
Cornudet raised his voice:
“War is barbarism when attacking a peaceful neighbor; it is a sacred duty when defending the homeland. ”
The old woman lowered her head:
“Yes, when we defend ourselves, it is something else; but, before that, wouldn’t it be better to kill all the kings who do it for pure pleasure? ”
Cornudet’s eyes flared:
Mr. Carré – Lamadon reflected deeply. Although he was a fanatic for the illustrious captains, the common sense of that peasant woman made him think of the abundance that would bring a country so many unoccupied arms, and consequently ruinous, if all that force that remained unproductive was used in the great industrial works that will need centuries to be done.
But Loiseau, leaving her place, went to speak in a low voice to the innkeeper. The fat man laughed, coughed, spit; his huge belly jumped with joy at hearing the neighbor’s jokes, and bought him six Bordeaux barrels for the spring, when the Prussians would have left.
As soon as the supper was over, as they were dead tired, they went to bed.
However Loiseau, who had paid attention to things, left his wife in bed and stuck, now heard, now the eye, in the keyhole, trying to discover what he called “the mysteries of the corridor”.
After about an hour, he heard a kind of frufru, looked quickly and noticed Bola de Sebo, which seemed even more crowded under a blue cashmere dressing gown embroidered with white lace. He had a candlestick in his hand and went to the round number at the end of the corridor. But a door next door was ajar, and when she returned, after a few minutes. Cornudet, in suspenders, followed. They spoke softly, and then stopped. Bola de Sebo seemed to protect the entrance to his room with energy. Loiseau, unfortunately, did not hear the words, but in the end, as they raised their voices, he was able to catch some. Cornudet insisted strongly. It said:
“Come on, you are silly, what harm will you do?”
She maintained an indignant air and replied:
“No, my dear, there are times when you cannot do these things; and besides, here, it would be a shame ”.
He did not understand, no doubt, and asked why. Then she was exalted, raising the tone even more:
“Why? Don’t you understand why? When there are Prussians all over the house, maybe even in the next room? ”
He fell silent. That patriotic modesty of a marafona that was not allowed to be caressed close to the enemy must have awakened the weakened dignity in his heart, because, after having only kissed him, he tiptoed back to the room.
Loiseau, well lit, left the lock, jumped with both heels in the air, put on his cap, lifted the blanket under which his companion’s hard carcass lay, which he woke up with a kiss, murmuring: “You love me. Honey?”
Then the whole house became silent. But then, in some indeterminate place that could be both the basement and the attic, there was a powerful, regular, monotonous snore, a dull and prolonged noise, with boiling shudders under pressure. Mr. Follenvie was asleep.
As they had decided that they would leave the next day at eight o’clock, everyone met in the kitchen; but the car, whose awning was covered with snow, stood alone in the middle of the courtyard, without horses and without a driver. They searched in vain for the latter in the stalls, in the forages, in the stables. So the men decided to do a search in the neighborhood and left. They found themselves in the square, with the church in the background and, on both sides, a series of low houses where Prussian soldiers were perceived. The first they saw peeled potatoes.
The second, further away, washed the barber’s salon. Another, bearded to the eyes, kissed a brat who was crying and cradled him in his lap, trying to calm him down; and the fat peasant women whose men were in the “war army” indicated by signs to the obedient winners the work that had to be done: chopping wood, thickening the soup, grinding the coffee; one even did the laundry for his hostess, a crippled grandma.
Surprised, the count asked the sacristan who left the presbytery. The old church mouse replied, “Oh! Those are not bad; they are not Prussians, so it is said. They are from further afield, I do not know very well where; and they all left women and children in their country; this war is not funny at all for them! I’m sure that the staff there also complain; and that will bring a beautiful misery for both them and us. Here, we are not very unhappy yet, for now. Because they do no harm and work as if they were at home. You see, sir, among poor people it is necessary to help each other… It is the big guys who make the war ”.
Cornudet, indignant at the cordial understanding established between winners and losers, withdrew, preferring to shut himself up to the hostel. Loiseau made a joke; “They repopulate.” Mr. Carré – Lamadon said seriously: “they compensate”. But the driver was nowhere to be found. In the end, they discovered him in the village cafe, fraternally flanked by the official’s orderly. The count asked him:
“Hadn’t we given you the order to harness the horses for eight o’clock?”
“Ah, yes, that’s right, but then they gave me another one.”
“Of not hitching either at eight or at any time.”
“Who gave you that order?”
“The Prussian commander, praise balls.”
“I do not know. Go ask him. Forbid me to harness, I do not harness. And we are talking. ”
“Was it himself, in person, who gave you that order?”
“No sir, it was the hostel that sent me, from him.”
“Last night, when I was going to bed.”
The three men left, very concerned.
They asked for Mr. Follenvie, but the maid replied that you, because of your asthma, never got up before ten. And there was even a formal ban on waking him up, except in the event of a fire.
They wanted to see the officer, but it was absolutely impossible, even though he was staying in the hostel. Only Mr. Follenvie was allowed to speak to him about civil matters. Then they waited. The women went up to the rooms and were distracted by futility.
Cornudet took a seat by the large kitchen fireplace, where an intense fire was burning. He ordered one of the coffee tables, a mug of beer, and pulled out his pipe, which among Democrats enjoyed almost equal consideration, as if he served his country when serving Cornudet. It was a magnificent magnesite pipe, admirably cured, as black as its owner’s teeth, but fragrant, curved, luminous, accustomed to his hand, completing his physiognomy. And he remained motionless, his eyes fixed now on the flame of the fire, now on the foam that crowned the beer; and with each sip he drank he passed his long thin fingers through his long greasy hair with satisfaction, while he sucked in his foam-fringed mustache.
Loiseau, under the pretext of loosening her legs, went to sell her wine to the bodegueiros in the region. The count and the businessman started talking about politics. They predicted France’s future. One believed in the Orléans, the other in an unknown savior, a hero who would reveal himself when all hope was lost: a Du Guesclin, a Joan of Arc, perhaps? Or another Napoleon I?
Ah! If the imperial prince was not so young! Cornudet, listening to them, smiled like the man who knows the secret of fate. His pipe perfumed the kitchen.
When it was ten o’clock, Mr. Follenvie appeared. They interrogated him quickly, but all he did was to repeat two or three times, without variants, these words: “The officer said to me, ‘Mr Follenvie, you are going to forbid that horses be harnessed to the diligence of these travelers. I don’t want them to leave without my order. Do you understand? This is it'”.
So they wanted to speak to the officer. The count sent him his card, where Mr. Carré Lamadon added his name and all his titles. The Prussian sent word that he would receive the two men after lunch, that is, close to one o’clock in the afternoon.
The ladies reappeared and ate a little, despite the concern.
Bola de Sebo looked sick and astonishingly disturbed.
They finished their coffee when the orderly came to fetch the two gentlemen.
Loiseau joined them; they tried to drag Cornudet, to make the curse more solemn, but he proudly declared that he never consented to have any relationship with the Germans; and went back to his fireplace, asking for another mug.
The three men went upstairs and were introduced into the most beautiful room in the hostel, where the officer received them stretched out on an armchair, their feet by the fire, smoking a long porcelain pipe and wrapped in a flaming robe, no doubt taken from the abandoned house of some bourgeois. of bad taste.
He didn’t get up, didn’t greet them, didn’t look at them. It offered a magnificent display of the natural rudeness of the victorious military man.
After a few moments, he finally said:
“What do you want?”
The count spoke: “We wish to leave, sir.”
“Could I ask you the reason for this refusal?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“I would like to respectfully observe, sir, that your commander in chief has given us permission to go to Dieppe; and I don’t think we have done anything to deserve its rigors. ”
“I don’t want to… that’s all… You can have it.”
The three bowed and left.
The afternoon was unfortunate. They understood nothing of that German’s whim; and the strangest ideas plagued minds. Everyone stopped by the kitchen, and they argued endlessly, imagining unlikely things. Perhaps they wanted to hold them hostage? But for what purpose? Or take them as prisoners? Or again, to demand a considerable ransom / Faced with this idea, a panic made them mad. The richest were the most terrified, having already been forced, to rescue their lives, to spill sacks full of gold into the hands of that insolent soldier. They ravaged their brains to discover acceptable lies, hide their wealth, pretend to be poor, very poor. Loiseau removed the watch chain and put it in his pocket. The falling night increased apprehension. The lamp was lit, and since there were still two hours before dinner, Mrs. Loiseau proposed a match of thirty-one. It would be a distraction. The proposal was accepted. Cornudet himself, who had polished his pipe out of courtesy, took part in the game.
The count shuffled and gave the cards. Bola de Sebo scored a thirty – and – one in the first leg, and soon the interest in the game eased the fear that pursued the spirits. And Cornudet realized that the Loiseau couple were trying to cheat.
When they were going to pass to the table, Mr. Follenvie reappeared and in his piggy-colored voice said: “The Prussian officer has Miss Élisabeth Rousset asked if she has not changed her mind yet”.
Bola de Sebo remained standing, entirely pale; then, suddenly becoming very red, he had such a fit of fury that he could not speak.
Finally, it exploded: “Are you going to tell this bastard, this pig, this disgusting Prussian, that I will never want to, did you understand? Never never never!”.
The fat innkeeper left. Then Bola de Sebo was surrounded, questioned, requested by everyone: to reveal the mystery of their conversation. At first she resisted, but exasperation soon overcame her: “What does he want?… What does he want?… He wants to sleep with me!” He shouted. No one was scandalized by the word, so vivid was the indignation. Cornudet broke his glass by setting it violently on the table. It was a cry of disapproval of that vile mercenary, a breath of anger, a union of all for resistance, as if they had asked each of them for a part of the sacrifice required of her. The Count declared with disgust that these people behaved in the manner of the ancient barbarians. The women, mainly, expressed an energetic and affectionate commiseration with Bola de Sebo. The nuns, who showed up only at mealtimes, bowed their heads and said nothing.
He had dinner, however, when the initial furor was eased; but little was said. It was thought.
The ladies left early; and the men, while smoking, organized a game to which Mr. Follenvie was invited. They intended to skillfully question him about the means to be used to overcome the resistance of the officer. But he thought only of the letters, without listening to anything, of answering nothing; and repeated over and over: “To the game, gentlemen, to the game!” His concentration was such that he forgot to spit, which sometimes produced a note suspended in the music of his chest. His wheezing lungs had the full range of asthma, from the deepest and deepest notes to the sharp hoarseness of the chickens learning to sing.
He refused to go up even when his wife, falling asleep, came to get him. She went alone, because it was “in the morning”, always rising with the sun, while her man was “at night”, always ready to turn the dawn with his friends.
He shouted at her, “Put my eggnog by the fire,” and went back to the game.
When the others saw that they could not get anything out of there, they said it was time and each one went to his bed.
The next day, they got up again early, with vague hope, a greater desire to leave, a terror of the day they would have to spend in that horrible and miserable hostel.
Oh, oh! The horses were still in the stable, the coachman was invisible. For lack of what to do, they went around the vehicle.
The lunch was very sad, and a kind of coldness had been created in relation to Bola de Sebo, because the night, which is a good counselor, had changed the judgments a little. Now, they almost wanted her badly for not having gone to find the Prussian in secret, in order to arrange, at dawn, a good surprise for his companions.
What is simpler? Who, by the way, was going to find out? She could have saved appearances by telling the officer that she was sorry for the others’ misfortune.
It was of little importance to her!
But no one has yet confessed such thoughts.
In the afternoon, as they were dying of boredom, the count proposed a walk around the village. Each one wrapped up carefully and the small group left, except for Cornudet, who preferred to stay by the fire, and the nuns, who spent their days in the church or in the vicar’s residence.
The cold, more and more intense, cruelly punished nose and ears; the feet became so painful that each step was a torment; and when the field opened up in front of them and revealed itself to be so terrifyingly dismal under that infinite whiteness, immediately everyone returned, their souls cold and their hearts tight.
The four women led the way; the three men followed a little behind.
Loiseau, who understood the situation, asked suddenly if that slut was going to force them to stay in a place like this for a long time. The count, always polite, said that such a painful sacrifice could not be demanded of a woman, and that it should come from herself. Mr. Carré – Lamadon observed that if the French made, as expected, a counter offensive by Dieppe, the meeting between the troops would take place in Tôtes. This reflection worried the other two. “If we ran away on foot?” Said Loiseau. The count shrugged; “Do you really think about that, in that snow? With our women? And then we would soon be chased, reached in ten minutes and brought as prisoners at the mercy of the soldiers ”.
It was true; they fell silent.
The ladies talked about clothes, but a certain embarrassment seemed to disrupt them.
Suddenly, at the end of the street, the officer appeared. Over the snow that closed the horizon, he outlined his wasp waist in uniform, and advanced, knees apart, in that movement typical of the military who try not to get their carefully polished boots dirty.
He leaned over as he passed the ladies and looked scornfully at the men, who had, moreover, the dignity of not raising his hat, although Loiseau had rehearsed the gesture.
Bola de Sebo had turned red to the ears, and the three married women felt a great humiliation to be found like that by that military man, in the company of that girl that he had treated so indecently.
Then they spoke of him, of his bearing, of his face. Mrs. Carré – Lamadon, who had met many officers and who judged them knowingly, thought this one was pretty good; he even regretted that it was not Frances, because he would make a beautiful hussar, for whom all women would surely go mad.
Once back at the hostel, they didn’t know what else to do. Sour words were even exchanged for insignificant things. The dinner, silent, lasted a short time, and each went up to his room, hoping to sleep to kill time.
The next day they came down with married faces and exasperated hearts. Women hardly spoke to Bola de Sebo.
A bell rang. It was for a christening. The plump girl had a child raised by some peasants from Yvetot. I didn’t even see it once a year, and I never remembered him; but the thought of him who was going to baptize sent a sudden and violent tenderness into her soul, and she absolutely wanted to attend the ceremony.
As soon as he left, everyone looked at each other, then they approached the chairs, because they felt very well that something had to be decided. Loiseau had an idea: he was of the opinion to propose to the officer to keep Bola de Sebo and let the others go.
Again Mr. Follenvie took charge of the commission, but he came down almost immediately. The German, who knew human nature, had put him out the door. He intended to retain everyone as long as his desire was not satisfied.
Then Mrs. Loiseau’s pimpish character exploded; “But we are not going to die of old age here. Since it is her profession, that whore, to do this with all men, then I think she has the right to refuse one and not refuse another. Think about it, this one took everything she found in Rouen, even the coachmen! Yes, ma’am, the coachman of the city hall! Well done, he buys her little wine at the store. And now, when it comes to getting rid of a good one, she pretends to be, that lick!… I think he does it very well, this officer.
It has been private perhaps for a long time; and no doubt he would have preferred the three of us. But no, he is content with the one that belongs to everyone. Respect married women. Think about it, he’s the boss. It was enough to say: ‘I want’, and he could take us by force with his soldiers ”.
The other two felt a little shiver. The eyes of the beautiful Mrs. Carré – Lamadon blinked, and she was a little pale, as if feeling already caught by the officer.
The men, who were arguing separately, approached. Furious, Loiseau wanted to hand “that wretch”, feet and hands tied, to the enemy. But the onde, son of three generations of ambassadors and endowed with a diplomat physicist, was in favor of the skill: “It would be necessary to convince her”, he said.
So they conspired.
The women came together, the tone dropped and the discussion became widespread, each giving her opinion. The rest was quite convenient. The ladies, above all, found certain delicacies of formulas, charming expressions and full of subtlety to say the most gruesome things. A foreigner would not have understood anything, such were the language precautions. But as the light layer of modesty with which every woman in society covers only the surface, they delighted in that wild adventure. Deep down, they were madly having fun, feeling in their essence, speculating about love with the sensuality of a gluttonous cook who prepares supper for another.
The joy returned by itself, so funny it seemed to the story after all. The count risked a little bold games, but so well said that they provoked smiles. In turn, Loiseau made some strongest jokes, which did not shock anyone; and the thought expressed rudely by his wife dominated all spirits: “Since it was her profession, that girl’s, why would she refuse that one more than the other?” The kind Mrs. Carré – Lamadon really seemed to think that in her place she would refuse less than the other.
They prepared the siege at length, as if they were looking for a fortress. Each decided on what role to play, arguments on which to lean, maneuvers to perform. They fixed the plan of attack, the stratagems to employ and the surprises of the assault, to force that living citadel to receive the enemy.
Cornudet, however, remained apart, completely unaware of the case.
They were overcome by such a deep concentration that they did not hear Bola de Sebo return. But the earl whistled a slight “Pssst” that made all eyes look up. She was there. They fell silent abruptly, and at first a certain embarrassment prevented them from speaking to him. The countess, more flexible to the duplicity of the salons, asked: “So, was this christening fun?”
The plump woman, still emotional, reported everything: and the people, and the expressions, and even the decoration of the church. He added: “It is so good to pray from time to time.”
However, until lunchtime the ladies were content to be kind to her, to increase confidence and receptivity to her advice.
As soon as they sat down at the table, they started to approach. First it was a vague conversation about self-denial. They cited ancient examples: Judith and Holofernes, then, for no reason, Lucrécia with Sextus, Cleopatra making all enemy generals pass through her bed and subjecting them to slave bondage, Then a fanciful story unfolded, born of imagination of those ignorant millionaires, in which the inhabitants of Rome went to Capua to make Hannibal sleep in his arms, and, with him, his immediates and the phalanxes of mercenaries. They cited all women who detained conquerors, who made their bodies a battlefield, a means of domination, a weapon, who overcame hideous and detestable creatures using heroic strokes, and who sacrificed their chastity for vengeance and devotion.
There was even talk, covertly, of that Englishwoman of prestigious family who let herself inoculate a horrible and contagious disease to transmit it to Bonaparte, save miraculously by a sudden weakness at the moment of the fatal encounter.
And all that was told in a discreet and convenient way, where sometimes a premeditated enthusiasm broke out to excite the emulation.
Finally, it could be believed that the only role of women here on earth was a perpetual sacrifice of her person, a continuous abandonment to the whims of the soldiery.
The two nuns did not seem to listen, lost in deep thoughts.
Bola de Sebo said nothing.
All afternoon they let her reflect. But instead of calling her “mistress”, as they did until then, they simply said “mistress”, without anyone knowing why, as if they wanted to bring her down a notch in the esteem that she had climbed, to do her feel your shameful situation.
As soon as the soup was served, Mr Follenvie reappeared repeating the previous day’s phrase: “The Prussian officer has Miss Élisabeth Rousset asked if she hasn’t changed her mind yet.”
Bola de Sebo replied dryly: “No, sir”.
But at dinner the coalition weakened. Loiseau uttered three unhappy phrases.
Everyone threw out the bars in an attempt to discover new examples, but found nothing. It was when the countess, without premeditation perhaps, experiencing a vague need to pay homage to Religion, questioned the eldest of the nuns about the great deeds of the saints’ lives. Now, many had committed acts that in our eyes would be crimes, but the church absolves these faults easily when committed for the glory of God or for the good of others. It was a powerful argument; the countess took advantage. So, either because of one of those tacit agreements, of those veiled complacencies in which the one wearing an ecclesiastical habit stands out, or simply due to the effect of a happy lack of intelligence, of a providential bullshit, the old nun brought a formidable support to the conspiracy. They thought she was shy, she was audacious, verbose and violent. That one was not disturbed by the evasions of the casuistry; his doctrine looked like an iron rod; his faith never wavered; your conscience, unscrupulous. She thought Abraham’s sacrifice was very natural, she too would have immediately killed father and mother at the command from above; and nothing, in his opinion, could displease the Lord when the intention was commendable. The countess, taking advantage of the sacred authority of her unexpected accomplice, led her to make an edifying paraphrase of this moral axiom: “The end justifies the means”.
I asked her:
“So, sister, do you think God accepts all ways and forgives the act when the motive is pure?”
“Who could doubt that, madame? An objectionable action often becomes worthy for the idea that inspires it. ”
And so they continued, unraveling the will of God, foreseeing his decisions, making him interested in things that, in fact, did not concern him very much.
All of it was sneaky, skillful, discreet. But every word of that holy, hooded woman opened a gap in the courtesan’s stiff resistance. Then, the conversation strayed a little, the woman with the hanging rosaries spoke of the convents of her order, of her superior, of herself and of her delicate companion, the dear sister Saint-Nicéphore. We had been called to Havre to look after hundreds of smallpox-stricken soldiers. She described them, those miserable ones, gave details of the disease. And while they were detained halfway because of that Prussian’s whims, a large number of Frenchmen, whom perhaps they could save, were going to die! It was his specialty to look after the military; she had been in Crimea, Italy, Austria, and when she reported her campaigns, she suddenly revealed herself to be one of those religious women in boots and uniforms, who seem to be made to follow the camps, collect the wounded in the wake of the battles and, best of all, that a commander, to tame with one word the most mercenary and undisciplined soldiers; a real sister Rataplã, whose shattered face, riddled with innumerable holes, was yet another image of the ravages of war.
No one said anything after it, the effect seemed so formidable.
As soon as the meal was over, they quickly went up to their rooms, only to come down the next day, late in the morning.
The breakfast was relaxed. They gave the seed planted the day before the time to germinate and produce its fruits.
The countess proposed an afternoon walk; then the count, as agreed, took Sebo’s ball arm and stayed behind, alone with her.
That familiar, paternal, slightly disdainful tone that judged men employ with girls has failed in calling her “my little girl”, treating her from the top of her social position and her undisputed honor. Suddenly, he got to the heart of the matter:
“So would you rather leave us here, exposed, and you too, to all the violence that would follow the failure of the Prussian troops, to admit one of those distractions that you have had so many times in your life?”
Sebo’s ball did not answer.
He knew how to talk to her, he was skilled at arguing, he handled feelings well. He knew how to remain “the lord count”, showing himself courteous when necessary, flattering, in short, adorable. He extolled the favor she would do for them, spoke of the recognition they would have; then, suddenly, calling her “you”, happily: “And then, you know, my dear, he could boast of having experienced a beauty of a girl like you; as not many are found in his country ”.
Bola de Sebo did not answer and joined the others.
As soon as they got back to the hostel, he went up to his room and didn’t reappear. The apprehension was extreme. What was she going to do? If I kept resisting, what a mess!
It was time for Ed to have dinner; they waited in vain. Mr. Follenvie appeared and announced that Miss. Rousset felt unwell, that the others could pass the table. Everyone pricked their ears. The count approached the hostel and said quietly:
Out of politeness, he said nothing to his companions, but nodded slightly. Immediately a great sigh of relief came from all the chests, a joy welled up on their faces. Loiseau shouted, “Damn it! I’ll pay for the champagne if they find champagne in this house ”; and Mrs. Loiseau felt a pain when the owner of the hostel appeared with four bottles in his hands. Everyone had suddenly become communicative and loud; libertine joy filled the hearts. The count seemed to realize that Mrs. Carré – Lamadon was charming, the businessman greeted the countess. The conversation was lively, jovial, full of good humor.
Suddenly Loiseau, her face longed and raising her arms, shouted, “Silence!”
Everyone was speechless, surprised, almost terrified. Then he stuck his ear in “Psst” with both hands, looked up towards the ceiling, listened again and resumed, in his natural voice: “I was calm, everything is fine”.
They hesitated to understand, but soon a smile crossed.
After a quarter of an hour he started the same game again, did it several times during the night, and pretended to question someone upstairs, giving double-headed advice from his traveling salesman spirit. For a moment she looked sad and sighed: “Poor girl!”, Or she muttered under her breath, angrily: “Go, you miserable Prussian!”. Other times, when it was no longer thought of, he would drop, in a vibrant voice, several “Enough! Enough! ” and he added, as if speaking to himself: “As long as we see her again; don’t kill her, the wretch! ”.
Although those jokes were of a deplorable taste, they amused and hurt no one, since indignation, like the rest, depends on the environment, and the atmosphere that had gradually been created around them was full of indecent thoughts.
In the dessert, even the women made witty and discreet allusions. he had drunk a lot. The count, who, even in the moments of expansion, kept his serious appearance, made a much-appreciated comparison about the end of the cold season at the pole and the happiness of the castaways, who thus saw the way opening towards the south.
Loiseau, excitedly, stood up, a glass of champagne in his hand: “I drink at our release!” Everyone stood up; acclaimed him. The two nuns, even at the ladies’ request, consented to wet their lips in that sparkling wine they had never tasted. They said it looked like fizzy lemonade, but thinner.
Loiseau summed up the situation.
“It’s a shame not to have a piano here, because you could play a gang.”
Cornudet had not said a word, made no gesture; he even seemed to be immersed in very serious thoughts, and sometimes, in a gesture of anger, he tugged on his big beard, as if he wanted to lengthen it further. Anyway, close to midnight, when they were about to leave, Loiseau, who was already reeling, slapped him on the belly and said, babbling: “You are a little dejected tonight; say nothing, citizen? ”. Cornudet raised his head sharply, and looked around the group with a withering, terrible look: “I’m going to tell you something, you all just practiced infamy!” He got up, walked to the door, repeated yet again: “An infamy!”, And disappeared.
First of all, that was a bucket of cold water. Loiseau, disconcerted, remained stunned; but then he resumed his plummet and suddenly started to laugh, repeating: “The grapes are green, old man, they are green”.
As nobody understood, he told about the “corridor ministries”. Then there was a formidable resumption of joy. Those ladies were having fun like crazy.
The Count and Mr. Carré – Lamadon wept with laughter. They couldn’t believe it.
“As? Are you sure? He wanted…”
“But I’m saying that I saw him.”
“And she refused …”
“Because the Prussian was in the next room.”
“It’s not possible…”
The count was suffocating. The industrialist clutched his belly with both hands. Loiseau continued:
“And it’s understandable. Tonight he doesn’t think it’s funny, but he doesn’t. ”
And all three exploded again, out of breath, coughing.
They separate there. But Mrs. Loiseau, who was of the nature of nettles, watched her husband as they lay down that “that little exhibit” of Carré – Lamadon laughed yellow all the time: “You know, women, when they stick to a uniform, that he be it French or Prussian, I guarantee it is the same. If it’s not to be sorry, my God! ”.
And all night long, through the darkness of the corridor, they ran as if with tremors, light noises, at great cost perceived, similar to breaths, a brush of bare feet, crackles almost inaudible.
And he slept only very late at night, certainly, because for a long time lint of light slipped through the crack under the doors. Champagne has these effects; they say it disturbs sleep.
The next day, a bright winter sun made the snow blinding. The stagecoach, finally hitched, waited in front of the door, while a crowd of pigeons whites, perky in their thick plumage, with a pink eye marked by a black dot in the middle, wandered solemnly between the paws of the six horses and sought life in the smoking manure that they let loose.
The coachman, wrapped in his fur coat, burned a pipe, already seated on the ride. And all the passengers, radiant, quickly packed some provisions for the rest of the trip.
They just waited for Sebo Ball. It came.
She looked a little disturbed, ashamed; he moved timidly towards his companions, who all, in the same movement, turned as if they had not seen her. The count took his wife’s arm with dignity and moved away from that impure contact.
The chubby woman was stunned; then, summoning all the courage, he approached the businessman’s wife with a “good morning, madam” humbly murmured. The other gave a small, impertinent salute with her head accompanied by a look of outraged virtue. Everyone seemed very busy, and they stayed away, as if she carried an infection under her skirt. Then they hurried to the car, where she finally arrived alone, and resumed the place she had occupied during the first part of the journey in silence.
They seemed not to see it, not to know it; and Mrs. Loiseau, considering her from afar and with indignation, said in a low voice to her husband: “I’m glad I didn’t stay by her side”.
The heavy diligence moved, and the journey resumed.
At first nobody spoke. Bola de Sebo didn’t dare look up. At the same time, she was indignant with her companions and humiliated for having given in, smeared by the kisses of that Prussian in whose arms they had hypocritically thrown her.
But the countess, turning to Mrs. Carré – Lamadon, soon broke the painful silence.
“Do you know, I suppose, Mrs. d’Etrelles?”
“Yes, she is one of my friends.”
“What a lovely woman!”
“Gorgeous! A person out of the ordinary, very educated, in fact, and an artist to the roots of his hair; sings that it is a dream, and draws to perfection. ”
The businessman talked to the count and, amid the noise of the panes, a word sometimes arrived: “receipt – maturity – prize – term”.
Loiseau, who had pilfered the old hostel deck, soaked for five years on mopping desiccated tables, started a beetle with his wife.
The nuns took the long pendant rosary from their waist, made the sign of the cross together, and immediately their lips began to move briskly, hurrying more and more, precipitating a vague murmur as if in an oremus race; and from time to time they kissed a medal, crossed themselves again, then their quick and continuous murmur began again.
Cornudet thought, motionless.
After three hours on the road, Loiseau picked up the letters: “It makes you hungry,” he said.
Then his wife reached for a package tied to a string, from which she took a piece of roasted meat. He carefully sliced it into thin, firm slices, and the two began to eat.
“What if we did the same?” Said the countess. They agreed, and she unpacked the food prepared for the two couples. It was one of those elongated bowls, whose lid bears a stoneware hare to indicate that down there lies a hare in the form of pate, a succulent charcuterie where white veins of bacon cut through the brown meat of the game, mixed with other ground meat. A beautiful piece of gruyere, rolled up in a newspaper, kept a “fail divers” print on its oily texture.
The two nuns opened a sausage roll that smelled like garlic; and Cornudet, dipping both hands at the same time in the huge pockets of his backpack coat, pulled four hard eggs from one of them, and the tip of a bread from the other.
He removed the shell of the eggs, threw it in the straw under his feet and began to bite them directly, dropping the pieces of yolk, which emerged as if they were stars, into the beard.
Bola de Sebo, in his haste and the startle with which he had risen, had been unable to think of anything and looked with exasperation, suffocated by anger, at all those people who ate placidly. First, a riot of cholera seized her, and she even opened her mouth to shout the truth to them with a flood of injuries that came to her lips; but she couldn’t speak, the exasperation that strangled her so much.
Nobody looked at her, they didn’t think about her. She felt drowned in the contempt of those polite rascals who had first sacrificed and then rejected it, as something filthy and useless. Then he thought of his big basket full of good things they had greedily devoured, of his two fat-glowing chickens, of pates, of pears, of four Bordeaux bottles; and her fury suddenly fell, as if from a rope that was too stretched and broken, she felt ready to cry. He made a terrible effort, tensed, swallowed his sobs as children do, but the crying rose, shone on the edge of his eyelids, and then two thick tears came from his eyes and slowly rolled down his cheeks. Others followed them faster, running like water droplets that seep into a rock, and falling regularly over the plump curve of his chest. She was still stiff, her gaze fixed, her face rigid and pale, hoping that they wouldn’t see her.
But the countess realized and showed her husband a sign. He shrugged, like saying, “What do you want? Not my fault”. Mrs. Loiseau laughed dumbly in triumph and murmured, “She cries with shame.”
The two nuns had started praying again after wrapping the rest of the sausage on a piece of paper.
Then Cornudet, who was digesting his lunch, stretched out his long legs on the front seat, turned on his side, smiled like a man who has just discovered a good joke, and started to whistle La marseillaise.
All faces were blurred. The popular song certainly did not please the neighbors. They became nervous, irritated, and seemed to be on the verge of howling, like dogs that hear a deer.
He noticed, and he never stopped. Sometimes the lyrics hummed:
Amour sacré de La patrie,
Conduis, bras, in the Brás vengeurs,
Liberate, liberate, cherie,
Combat with defenses!
With the snow a little harder, the car moved faster; and until Dieppe, during the long and sad hours of the journey, amid the bumps of the road, at nightfall, then in the deep darkness of the vehicle, he continued, with a fierce obstinacy, his avenging and monotonous whistle, forcing the tired spirits and exasperated to follow the song from beginning to end, to remember each word that corresponded to each measure.
And Bola de Sebo continued to cry; and sometimes a hiccup that he could not contain passed between two stanzas in the darkness.