A Leaf in the Storm; A Dog of Flanders and Other Stories/A Leaf in the Storm
A LEAF IN THE STORM.
The Berceau de Dieu was a little village in the valley of the Seine.
As a lark drops its nest amongst the grasses, so a few peasant people had dropped their little farms and cottages amidst the great green woods on the winding river. It was a pretty place, with one steep, stony street, shady with poplars and with elms; quaint houses, about whose thatch a cloud of white and gray pigeons fluttered all day long; a little aged chapel with a conical red roof; and great barns covered with ivy and thick creepers, red and purple, and lichens that were yellow in the sun.
All around it there were the broad, flowering meadows, with the sleek cattle of Normandy fattening in them, and the sweet dim forests where the young men and maidens went on every holy-day and feast-day in the summer-time to seek for wood-anemones, and lilies of the pools, and the wild campanula, and the fresh dog-rose, and all the boughs and grasses that made their house-doors like garden bowers, and seemed to take the cushat's note and the linnet's song into their little temple of God.
The Berceau de Dieu was very old indeed.
Men said that the hamlet had been there in the day of the Virgin of Orléans; and a stone cross of the twelfth century still stood by the great pond of water at the bottom of the street, under the chestnut-tree, where the villagers gathered to gossip at sunset when their work was done.
It had no city near it, and no town nearer than four leagues. It was in the green core of a pastoral district, thickly wooded and intersected with orchards. Its produce of wheat, and oats, and cheese, and fruit, and eggs, was more than sufficient for its simple prosperity. Its people were hardy, kindly, labourious, happy; living round the little gray chapel in amity and goodfellowship.
Nothing troubled it. War and rumours of war, revolutions and counter-revolutions, empires and insurrections, military and political questions,—these all were for it things unknown and unheard of—mighty winds that arose and blew and swept the lands around, it, but never came near enough to harm it, lying there, as it did, in its loneliness like any lark's nest.
Even in the great days of the Revolution it had been quiet. It had had a lord whom it loved in the old castle on the hill at whose feet it nestled: it had never tried to harm him, and it had wept bitterly when he had fallen at Jemappes, and left no heir, and the château had crumbled into ivy-hung ruins.
The thunder-heats of that dread time had scarcely scorched it. It had seen a few of its best youth march away to the chant of the Marseillaise to fight on the plains of Champagne; and it had been visited by some patriots in bonnets rouges and soldiers in blue uniforms, who had given it tricoloured cockades and bade it wear them in the holy name of the Republic one and indivisible. But it had not known what these meant, and its harvests had been reaped without the sound of a shot in its fields or any gleam of steel by its innocent hearths; so that the terrors and the tidings of those noble and ghastly years had left no impress on its generations.
Reine Allix, indeed, the oldest woman amongst them all, numbering more than ninety years, remembered when she was a child hearing her father and his neighbours talk, in low awestricken tones, one bitter wintry night, of how a king had been slain to save the people; and she remembered likewise—remembered it well, because it had been her betrothal-night and the sixteenth birthday of her life—how a horseman had flashed through the startled street like a comet, and had called aloud, in a voice of fire, "Gloire! gloire! gloire!—Marengo! Marengo! Marengo!" And how the village had dimly understood that something marvellous for France had happened afar off, and how her brothers, and her cousins, and her betrothed, and she with them, had all gone up to the high slope over the river, and had piled up a great pyramid of pine-wood and straw and dried mosses, and had set flame to it, till it had glowed in its scarlet triumph all through that wondrous night of the sultry summer of victory.
These and the like memories she would sometimes relate to the children at evening, when they gathered round her begging for a story.
Otherwise, no memories of the Revolution or the Empire disturbed the tranquillity of the Berceau; and even she, after she had told them, would add:
"I am not sure now what Marengo was. A battle no doubt, but I am not sure where nor why. But we heard later that little Claudis, my aunt's youngest born, a volunteer, not nineteen, died at it. If we had known, we should not have gone up and lit the bonfire."
This woman, who had been born in that time of famine and flame, was the happiest creature in the whole hamlet of the Berceau.
"I am old: yes, I am very old," she would say, looking up from her spinning-wheel in her house-door, and shading her eyes from the sun, "very old—ninety two last summer. But when one has a roof over one's head, and a pot of soup always, and a grandson like mine, and when one has lived all one's life in the Berceau de Dieu, then it is well to be so old. Ah, yes, my little ones—yes, though you doubt it, you little birds that have just tried your wings—it is well to be so old. One has time to think, and thank the good God, which one never seemed to have a minute to do in that work, work, work, when one was young."
Reine Allix was a tall and strong woman, very withered, and very bent, and very brown, yet with sweet, dark, flashing eyes that had still light in them, and a face that was still noble, though nearly a century had bronzed it with its harvest suns and blown on it with its winter winds.
She wore always the same garb of homely dark blue serge, always the same tall white headgear, always the same pure silver ear-rings, that had been at once an heirloom and a nuptial gift. She was always shod in her wooden sabots, and she always walked abroad with her staff of ash.
She had been born in the Berceau de Dieu; had lived there and wedded there; had toiled there all her life, and never left it for a greater distance than a league or a longer time than a day.
She loved it with an intense love: the world beyond it was nothing to her: she scarcely believed in it as existing. She could neither read nor write. She told the truth, reared her offspring in honesty, and praised God always—had praised Him when starving in a bitter winter after her husband's death, when there had been no field-work, and she had had five children to feed and clothe; and still praised Him now that her sons were all dead before her, and all she had living of her blood was her grandson Bernadou.
Her life had been a hard one.
Her parents had been hideously poor. Her marriage had scarcely bettered her condition. She had laboured in the fields always, hoeing and weeding, and reaping, and carrying wood, and driving mules, and continually rising with the first streak of the daybreak. She had known fever and famine, and all manner of earthly ills. But now in her old age she had peace.
Two of her dead sons, who had sought their fortunes in the other hemisphere, had left her a little money, and she had a little cottage and a plot of ground, and a pig, and a small orchard. She was well-to-do, and could leave it all to Bernadou; and for ten years she had been happy, perfectly happy, in the coolness, and the sweetness and the old familiar ways and habits of the Berceau.
Bernadou was very good to her.
The lad, as she called him, was five-and-twenty years old, tall and straight and clean-limbed, with the blue eyes of the North, and a gentle frank face. He worked early and late in the plot of ground that gave him his livelihood. He lived with his grandmother, and tended her with a gracious courtesy and veneration that never altered. He was not very wise; he also could neither read nor write,- he believed in his priest and his homestead, and loved the ground that he had trodden ever since his first steps from the cradle had been guided by Reine Allix.
He had never been drawn for the conscription, because he was the only support of a woman of ninety: he, likewise, had never been half-a-dozen kilometres from his birth-place.
When he was bidden to vote, and he asked what his vote of assent would pledge him to, they told him,—
"It will bind you to honour your grandmother so long as she shall live, and to get up with the lark, and to go to mass every Sunday, and to be a loyal son to your country. Nothing more."
And thereat he had smiled and straightened his stalwart frame, and gone right willingly to the voting-urn.
He was very stupid in these things; and Reine Allix, though clear-headed and shrewd, was hardly more learned in them than he.
"Look you," she had said to him oftentimes, "in my babyhood there was the old white flag upon the château. Well, they pulled that down and put up a red one. That toppled and fell, and there was one of three colours. Then somebody with a knot of white lilies in his hand came one day and set up the old white one afresh; and before the day was done that was down again, and the tricolour again up where it is still. Now some I know fretted themselves greatly because of all these changes of the flags, but as for me, I could not see that any one of them mattered: bread was just as dear, and sleep was just as sweet, whichever of the three was uppermost."
Bernadou, who had never known but the flag of three colours, believed her, as, indeed, he believed every word that those kindly and resolute old lips ever uttered to him.
He had never been in a city, and only once, on the day of his first communion, in the town four leagues away. He knew nothing more than this simple, cleanly, honest life that he led. With what men did outside his little world of meadowland and woodland he had no care nor any concern.
Once a man had come through the village of the Berceau, a travelling hawker of cheap prints,—a man with a wild eye and a restless brain—who told Bernadou that he was a downtrodden slave, a clod, a beast like a mule, who fetched and carried that the rich might fatten,—a dolt, an idiot, who cared nothing for the rights of man and the wrongs of the poor.
Bernadou had listened with a perplexed face: then, with a smile, that had cleared it like sun light, he had answered in his country dialect.
"I do not know of what you speak. Rights? Wrongs? I cannot tell. But I have never owed a sou; I have never told a lie; I am strong enough to hold my own with any man that flouts me; and I am content where I am. That is enough for me."
The peddler had called him a poor-spirited beast of burden, but had said so out of reach of his arm, and by night had slunk away from the Berceau de Dieu, and had been no more seen there to vex the quiet contentment of its peaceful and peace-loving ways.
At night, indeed, sometimes, the little wine-shop of the village would be frequented by some half dozen of the peasant proprietors of the place, who talked Communism after their manner, not a very clear one, in excited tones and with the feverish glances of conspirators. But it meant little, and came to less.
The weather and the price of wheat were dearer matters to them; and in the end they usually drank their red wine in amity, and went up the village street arm in arm, singing patriotic songs until their angry wives flung open their lattices and thrust their white headgear out into the moonlight, and called to them shrewishly to get to bed and not make fools of themselves in that fashion; which usually silenced and sobered them all instantly; so that the revolutions of the Berceau de Dieu, if not quenched in a wine-pot, were always smothered in a nightcap, and never, by any chance, disturbed its repose.
But of these noisy patriots, Bernadou was never one. He had the instinctive conservatism of the French peasant, which is in such direct and tough antagonism with the feverish Socialism of the French artisan.
His love was for the soil—a deep-rooted love as the oaks that grew in it. Of Paris he had a dim, vague dread, as of a superb beast continually draining and devouring. Of all forms of government he was alike ignorant. So long as he tilled his little angle of land in peace, so long as the sun ripened his fruits and corn, so long as famine was away from his door and his neighbours dwelt in goodfellowship with him, so long he was happy, and cared not whether he was thus happy under a monarchy, an empire, or a republic.
This wisdom, which the peddler called apathy and cursed, the young man had imbibed from Nature and the teachings of Reine Allix.
"Look at home and mind thy work," she had said always to him. "It is labour enough for a man to keep his own life clean and his own hands honest. Be not thou at any time as they are who are for ever telling the good God how He might have made the world on a better plan, while the rats gnaw at their haystacks and the children cry over an empty platter."
And he had taken heed to her words; so that in all the countryside there was not any lad truer, gentler, braver or more patient at labour than was Bernadou; and though some thought him mild even to foolishness, and meek even to stupidity, he was no fool; and he had a certain rough skill at music, and a rare gift at the culture of plants, that made his little home bright within in the winter-time with melody, and in the summer gay without as a king's parterre.
At any rate, Reine Allix and he had been happy together for a quarter of a century under the old gray thatch of the wayside cottage, where it stood at the foot of the village-street, with its great sycamores spread above it. Nor were they less happy when in mid-April, in the six-and-twentieth year of his age, Bernadou had come in with a bunch of primroses in his hand, and had bent down to her and saluted her with a respectful tenderness, and said, softly and a little shyly, "Gran'mère, would it suit you if I were ever—to marry?"
Reine Allix was silent a minute and more, cherishing the primroses and placing them in a little brown cupful of water. Then she looked at him steadily with her clear dark eyes:
"Who is it, my child?"
He was always a child to her, this last-born of the numerous brood that had once dwelt with her under the spreading branches of the sycamores, and had now all perished off the face of the earth, leaving himself and her alone. Bernadou's eyes met hers frankly:
"It is Margot Dax: does that please you, gran'mère, or no?"
"It pleases me well," she said simply. But there was a little quiver about her firm-set mouth, and her aged head was bent over the primroses. She had foreseen it; she was glad of it; and yet, for the instant it was a pang to her.
"I am very thankful," said Bernadou, with a flash of joy on his face.
He was independent of his grandmother: he could make enough to marry upon by his daily toil, and he had a little store of gold and silver in his bank in the thatch, put by for a rainy day; but he would have no more thought of going against her will than he would have thought of lifting his hand against her. In the primitive homesteads of the Berceau de Dieu, filial reverence was still accounted the first of virtues, yet the simplest and the most imperative.
"I will go see Margot this evening," said Reine Allix, after a little pause. "She is a good girl, and a brave, and of pure heart and fair name. You have chosen well, my grandson."
Bernadou stooped his tall, fair, curly head, and she laid her hands on him and blessed him. That evening, as the sun set, Reine Allix kept her word, and went to the young maiden who had allured the eyes and heart of Bernadou.
Margot was an orphan: she had not a penny to her dower; she had been brought up on charity, and she dwelt now in the family of the largest landowner of the place, a miller, with a numerous offspring, and several head of cattle, and many stretches of pasture and of orchard.
Margot worked for a hard master, living, indeed, as one of the family, but sharply driven all day long at all manner of house-work and field-work. Reine Allix had kept her glance on her, through some instinctive sense of the way that Bernadou's thoughts were turning, and she had seen much to praise, nothing to chide, in the young girl's modest, industrious, cheerful, uncomplaining life.
Margot was very pretty too, with the brown oval face, and the great black soft eyes, and the beautiful form of the southern blood that had run in the veins of her father, who had been a sailor of Marseilles, whilst her mother had been a native of the Provençal country. Altogether, Reine Allix knew that her beloved one could not have done better or more wisely, if choose at all he must.
"Some people indeed," she said to herself as she climbed the street whose sharp-set flints had been trodden by her wooden shoes for ninety years— "Some people would mourn and scold because there is no store of linen, no piece of silver plate, no little round sum in money with the poor child. But what does it matter? We have enough for three. It is wicked indeed for parents to live so that they leave their daughter portionless, but it is no fault of the child's. Let them say what they like, it is a reason the more that she should want a roof over her head and a husband to care for her good."
So she climbed the steep way and the slanting road round the hill, and went in by the door of the mill-house, and found Margot busy in washing some spring lettuces and other green things in a bowl of bright water.
Reine Allix, in the fashion of her country and her breeding, was about to confer with the master and mistress ere saying a word to the girl, but there was that in Margot's face and in her timid greeting that lured speech out of her.
She looked long and keenly into the child's downcast countenance, then touched her with a tender smile:
"Petite Margot, the birds told me a little secret to-day. Canst guess what it is? Say?"
Margot coloured and then grew pale. True, Bernadou had never really spoken to her, but still, when one is seventeen, and has danced a few times with the same person, and has plucked the leaves of a daisy away to learn one's fortune, spoken words are not very much wanted.
At sight of her the eyes of the old woman moistened and grew dimmer than age had made them. She smiled still, but the smile had the sweetness of a blessing in it, and no longer the kindly banter of humour.
"You love him, my little one?" she said, in a soft hushed voice.
"Ah, Mère Alix!" Margot could not say more. She covered her face with her hands, and turned to the wall, and wept with a passion of joy.
Down in the Berceau there were gossips who would have said, with wise shakes of their heads, "Tut, tut! how easy it is to make believe in a little love when one is a serving-maid, and has not a sou, nor a roof, nor a friend in the world, and a comely youth, well-to-do, is willing to marry us!"
But Reine Allix knew better. She had not lived ninety years in the world not to be able to discern between true feeling and counterfeit She was touched, and drew the trembling frame of Margot into her arms, and kissed her twice on the closed, blue-veined lids of her black eyes.
"Make him happy, only make him happy," she murmured; "for I am very old, Margot, and he is alone, all alone."
And the child crept to her, sobbing for very rapture that she, friendless, homeless, and penniless, should be thus elected for so fair a fate, and whispered through her tears, "I will."
Reine Allix spoke in all form to the miller and his wife, and with as much earnestness in her demand as though she had been seeking the hand of rich Yacobé, the tavern-keeper's only daughter. The people assented: they had no pretext to oppose, and Reine Allix wrapt her cloak about her and descended the hill and the street just as the twilight closed in and the little lights began to glimmer through the lattices and the shutters and the green mantle of the boughs, whilst the red fires of the smithy forge glowed brightly in the gloom, and a white horse waited to be shod, with a boy in a blue blouse seated on its back and switching away with a branch of budding hazel the first grey gnats of the early year.
"It is well done, it is well done," she said to herself, looking at the low rosy clouds and the pale gold of the waning sky. "A year or two, and I shall be in my grave. I shall leave him easier if I know he has some creature to care for him, and I shall be quiet in my coffin, knowing that his children's children will live on and on and on in the Berceau, and sometimes perhaps think a little of me when the nights are long and they sit round the fire."
She went in, out of the dewy air, into the little low, square room of her cottage, and went up to Bernadou and laid her hands on his shoulders.
"Be it well with thee, my grandson, and with thy sons' sons after thee," she said solemnly. "Margot will be thy wife. May thy days and hers be long in thy birth-place!"
A Month later they were married.
It was then May.
The green nest of the Berceau seemed to over flow with the singing of birds and the blossoming of flowers. The corn-lands promised a rare harvest, and the apple orchards were weighed down with their red and white blossoms. The little brown streams in the woods brimmed over in the grass, and the air was full of a sweet mellow sunlight, a cool fragrant breeze, a continual music of humming bees and soaring larks and mule-bells ringing on the roads, and childish laughter echoing from the fields.
In this glad spring-time Bernadou and Margot were wedded, going with their friends one sunny morning up the winding hill-path to the little grey chapel whose walls were hidden in ivy, and whose sorrowful Christ looked down through the open porch across the blue and hazy width of the river.
Georges, the baker, whose fiddle made merry melody at all the village dances, played before them tunefully; little children, with their hands full of wood-flowers, ran before them; their old blind poodle smelt its way faithfully by their footsteps; their priest led the way upward with the cross held erect against the light; Reine Allix walked beside them, nearly as firmly as she had trodden the same road seventy years before in her own bridal hour; in the hollow below lay the Berceau de Dieu, with its red gables and its thatched roofs hidden beneath leaves, and its peaceful pastures smiling under the serene blue skies of France.
They were happy—ah Heaven, so happy!—and all their little world rejoiced with them.
They came home, and their neighbours entered with them, and ate and drank, and gave them good wishes and gay songs; and the old priest blessed them with a father's tenderness upon their threshold; and the fiddle of Georges sent gladdest dance-music flying through the open casements, across the road, up the hill, far away to the clouds and the river.
At night, when the guests had departed, and all was quite still within and without, Reine Allix sat alone at her window in the roof, thinking of their future and of her past, and watching the stars come out, one by another, above the woods. From her lattice in the eaves she saw straight up the village street; saw the dwellings of her lifelong neighbours, the slopes of the rich fields, the gleam of the broad grey water, the whiteness of the crucifix against the darkened sky.
She saw it all—all so familiar, with that intimate association only possible to the peasant who has dwelt on one spot from birth to age.
In that faint light, in those deep shadows, she could trace all the scene as though the brightness of the noon shone on it; it was all, in its homeliness and simplicity, intensely dear to her.
In the playtime of her Childhood, in the courtship of her youth, in the joys and woes of her wifehood and widowhood, the bitter pains and sweet ecstasies of her maternity, the hunger and privation of struggling, desolate years, the contentment and serenity of old age,-in all these her eyes had rested only on this small quaint leafy street, with its dwellings close and low, like beehives in a garden, and its pasture-lands and corn-lands, wood-girt and water fed, stretching as far as the sight could reach.
Every inch of its soil, every turn of its paths, was hallowed to her with innumerable memories: all her beloved dead were garnered there where the white Christ watched them: when her time should come, she thought, she would rest with them nothing loth.
As she looked the tears of thanksgiving rolled down her withered cheeks, and she bent her feeble limbs and knelt down in the moonlight, praising God that He had given her to live and die in this cherished home, and beseeching Him for her children that they likewise might dwell in honesty, and with length of days abide beneath that roof.
"God is good," she murmured as she stretched herself to sleep beneath the eaves—"God is good. Maybe, when He takes me to Himself, if I be worthy, He will tell His holy saints to give me a little corner in His kingdom, that He shall fashion for me in the likeness of the Berceau."
For it seemed to her that, than the Berceau, heaven itself could hold no sweeter or fairer nook of Paradise.
The year rolled on, and the cottage under the sycamores was but the happier for its new inmate.
Bernadou was serious of temper, though so gentle, and the arch gay humour of his young wife was like perpetual sunlight in the house. Margot, too, was so docile, so eager, so bright, and so imbued with devotional reverence for her husband and his home, that Reine Allix day by day blessed the fate that had brought to her this fatherless and penniless child.
Bernadou himself spoke little: words were not in his way, but his blue frank eyes shone with an unclouded radiance that never changed, and his voice, when he did speak, had a mellow softness in it that made his slightest speech to the two women with him tender as a caress.
"Thou art a happy woman, my sister," said the priest, who was wellnigh as old as herself.
Reine Allix bowed her head and made the sign of the cross: "I am, praise be to God!"
And being happy, she went to the hovel of poor Madelon Dreux, the cobbler's widow, and nursed her and her children through a malignant fever, sitting early and late, and leaving her own peaceful hearth for the desolate but with the delirious ravings and heart-rending moans of the fever stricken.
"How ought one to dare to be happy if one is not of use?" she would say to those who sought to dissuade her from running such peril.
Madelon Dreux and her family recovered, owing to her their lives, and she was happier than before, thinking of them when she sat on the settle before the wood-fire roasting chestnuts and spinning flax on the wheel, and ever and again watching the flame reflected on the fair head of Bernadou or in the dark, smiling eyes of Margot.
Another spring passed and another year went by, and the little home under the sycamores was still no less honest in its labours or bright in its rest.
It was one amongst a million of such homes in France, where a sunny temper made mirth with a meal of herbs, and filial love touched to poetry the prose of daily household tasks.
A child was born to Margot in the spring-time with the violets and daisies, and Reine Allix was proud of the fourth generation, and as she caressed the boy's healthy fair limbs, thought that God was indeed good to her, and that her race would live long in the place of her birth.
The child resembled Bernadou, and had his clear and candid eyes. It soon learned to know the voice of "Gran'mère," and would turn from its young mother's bosom to stretch its arms to Reine Allix. It grew fair and strong, and all the ensuing winter passed its hours curled like a dormouse or playing like a puppy at her feet in the chimney corner.
Another spring and summer came, and the boy was more than a year old, with curls of gold, and cheeks like apples, and a mouth that always smiled. 'He could talk a little, and tumbled like a young rabbit amongst the flowering grasses.
Reine Allix watched him, and her eyes filled.
"God is too good," she thought. She feared that she should scarce be so willing to go to her last sleep under the trees on the hillside as she had used to be. She could not help a desire to see this child, this second Bernadou, grow up to youth and manhood; and of this she knew it was wild to dream.
It was ripe midsummer.
The fields were all russet and amber with an abundance of corn. The little gardens had seldom yielded so rich a produce. The cattle and the flocks were in excellent health.
There had never been a season of greater promise and prosperity for the little traffic that the village and its farms drove in sending milk and sheep and vegetable wealth to that great city which was to it as a dim, wonderful, mystic name without meaning.
One evening in this gracious and golden time the people sat out as usual when the day was done, talking from door to door, the old women knitting or spinning, the younger ones mending their husbands' or brothers' blouses or the little blue shirts of their infants, the children playing with the dogs on the sward that edged the stones of the street, and above all the great calm heavens and the glow of the sun that had set.
Reine Allix, like the others, sat before the door, for once doing nothing, but with folded hands and bended head dreamily taking pleasure in the coolness that had come with evening, and the smell of the limes that were in blossom, and the blithe chatter of Margot with the neighbours.
Bernadou was close beside them, watering and weeding those flowers that were at once his pride and his recreation, making the face of his dwelling bright and the air around it full of fragrance.
The little street was quiet in the evening light, only the laughter of the children and the gay gossip of their mothers breaking the pleasant stillness: it had been thus at evening with the Berceau centuries before their time—they thought that it would thus likewise be when centuries should have seen the youngest-born there travel to his grave.
Suddenly there came along the road between the trees an old man and a mule: it was Mathias Revel the miller, who had been that day to a little town four leagues off, which was the trade-mart and the corn-exchange of the district. He paused before the cottage of Reine Allix: he was dusty, travel-stained and sad. Margot ceased laughing among her flowers as she saw her old master. None of them knew why, yet the sight of him made the air seem cold and the night seem near.
"There is terrible news," he said, drawing a sheet of printed words from his coat-pocket—"terrible news! We are to go to war."
"War!" The whole village clustered round him. They had heard of war, far-off wars in Africa and Mexico, and some of their sons had been taken off like young wheat mown before its time; but it still remained to them a thing remote, impersonal, inconceivable, with which they had nothing to do, nor ever would have anything.
"Read!" said the old man, stretching out his sheet. The only one there who could do so, Picot the tailor, took it and spelled the news out to their wondering ears.
It was the declaration of France against Prussia.
There arose a great wail from the mothers whose sons were conscripts.
The rest asked in trembling, "Will it touch us?"
"Us!" echoed Picot the tailor, in contempt. "How should it touch us? Our braves will be in Berlin with another fortnight. The paper says so."
The people were silent: they were not sure what he meant by Berlin, and they were afraid to ask.
"My boy! my boy!" wailed one woman, smiting her breast. Her son was in the army.
"Marengo!" murmured Reine Allix, thinking of that far-off time in her dim youth when the horseman had flown through the dusky street and the bonfire blazed on the highest hill above the river.
"Bread will be dear," muttered Mathias the miller, going onward with his foot-weary mule.
Bernadou stood silent, with his roses dry and thirsty round him.
"Why art thou sad?" whispered Margot, with wistful eyes. "Thou art exempt from war-service, my love?"
Bernadou shook his head.
"The poor will suffer somehow," was all he answered.
Yet to him, as to all in the Berceau, the news was not very terrible, because it was so vague and distant—an evil so far off and shapeless.
Picot the tailor, who alone could read, ran from house to house, from group to group, breathless, gay and triumphant, telling them all that in two weeks more their brethren would sup in the king's palace at Berlin; and the people believed and laughed and chattered, and, standing outside their doors in the cool nights, thought that some good had come to them and theirs.
Only Reine Allix looked up the hill above the river, and murmured, "When we lit the bonfire there, Claudis lay dead."
And Bernadou, standing musing amongst his roses, said with a smile that was very grave,
"Margot, see here! When Picot shouted, 'à Berlin!' he trod on my Gloire de Dijon rose and killed it."
The sultry heats and cloudless nights of the wondrous and awful summer of the year eighteen hundred and seventy passed by, and to the Berceau de Dieu it was a summer of fair promise and noble harvest, and never had the land brought forth in richer profusion for man and beast.
Some of the youngest and ablest-bodied labourers were indeed drawn away to join those swift trains that hurried thousands and tens of thousands to the frontier by the Rhine. But most of the male population were married, and were the fathers of young children, and the village was only moved to a thrill of love and of honest pride to think how its young Louis and Jean and André and Valentin were gone full of high hope and high spirit, to come back, maybe—who could say not?—with epaulettes and ribbons of honour.
Why they were gone they knew not very clearly, but their superiors affirmed that they were gone to make greater the greatness of France; and the folk of the Berceau believed it, having in a corner of their quiet hearts a certain vague, dormant, yet deep-rooted love, on which was written the name of their country.
News came slowly and seldom to the Berceau.
Unless some one of the men rode his mule to the little town, which was but very rarely, or unless some peddler came through the village with a news sheet or so in his pack, or rumours and tidings on his lips, nothing that was done beyond its fields and woods came to it. And the truth of what it heard it had no means of measuring or sifting.
It believed what it was told, without questioning; and as it reaped the harvests in the rich hot sun of August, its peasants laboured cheerily in the simple and firm belief that mighty things were being done for them and theirs in the far eastern provinces by their great army, and that Louis and Jean and André and Valentin and the rest—though, indeed, no tidings had been heard of them—were safe and well and glorious somewhere, away where the sun rose, in the sacked palaces of the German king.
Reine Allix alone of them was serious and sorrowful—she whose memories stretched back over the wide space of near a century.
"Why art thou anxious, gran'mère?" they said to her. "There is no cause. Our army is victorious everywhere; and they say our lads will send us all the Prussians' corn and cattle, so that the very beggars will have their stomachs full."
But Reine Allix shook her head, sitting knitting in the sun:
"My children, I remember the days of my youth. Our army was victorious then; at least they said so. Well, all I know is that little Claudis and the boys with him never came back; and as for bread, you could not get it for love or money, and the people lay dead of famine out on the public roads."
"But that is so long ago, gran'mère!" they urged.
Reine Allix nodded.
"Yes. It is long ago, my dears. But I do not think that things change very much."
They were silent out of respect for her, but amongst themselves they said, "She is very old. Nothing is as it was in her time."
One evening, when the sun was setting red over the reapen fields, two riders on trembling and sinking horses went through the village, using whip and spur, and scarcely drew rein as they shouted to the cottagers to know whether they had seen go by a man running for his life.
The people replied that they had seen nothing of the kind, and the horsemen pressed on, jamming their spurs into their poor beasts' steaming flanks.
"If you see him, catch and hang him," they shouted as they scoured away: "he is a Prussian Spy!"
"A Prussian!" the villagers echoed with a stupid stare—-"a Prussian in France!"
One of the riders looked over his shoulders for a moment:
"You fools! do you not know? We are beaten—beaten everywhere—and the Prussian pigs march on Paris."
The spy was not seen in the Berceau, but the news brought by his pursuers scared sleep from the eyes of every grown man that night in the little village.
"It is the accursed Empire!" screamed the patriots of the wine-shop.
But the rest of the people were too terrified and downstricken to take heed of empires or patriots: they only thought of Louis and Jean and André and Valentin; and they collected round Reine Allix, who said to them, "My children, for love of money all our fairest fruits and flowers—yea, even to the best blossoms of our maiden-hood—were sent to be bought and sold in Paris. We sinned therein, and this is the will of God."
This was all for a time that they heard.
It was a place lowly and obscure enough to be left in peace. The law pounced down on it once or twice and carried off a few more of its men for army service, and arms were sent to it from its neighbouring town, and an old soldier of the First Empire tried to instruct its remaining sons in their use. But he had no apt pupil except Bernadou, who soon learned to handle a musket with skill and with precision, and who carried his straight form gallantly and well, though his words were seldom heard and his eyes were always sad.
"You will not be called till the last, Bernadou," said the old soldier: "you are married, and maintain your grandame and wife and child. But a strong, muscular, well-built youth like you should not wait to be called—you should volunteer to serve France."
"I will serve France when my time comes," said Bernadou, simply, in answer. But he would not leave his fields barren, and his orchard uncared for, and his wife to sicken and starve, and his grandmother to perish alone in her ninety-third year. They jeered and flouted and upbraided him, those patriots who screamed against the fallen Empire in the wine-shop, but he looked them straight in the eyes, and held his peace, and did his daily work.
"If he be called, he will not be found wanting," said Reine Allix, who knew him better than did even the young wife whom he loved.
Bernadou clung to his home with a dogged devotion.
He would not go from it to fight unless compelled, but for it he would have fought like a lion. His feeling for his country was a feeling for only an indefinite, shadowy existence that was not clear to him: he could not love a land that he had never seen, a capital that was only to him as an empty name; nor could he comprehend the danger that his nation ran, nor could he desire to go forth and spend his life-blood in defence of things unknown to him. He was only a peasant, and he could not read nor greatly understand.
But affection for his birth-place was a passion with him—mute indeed, but deep-seated as an oak. For his birth-place he would have struggled as a man can only struggle when supreme love as well as duty nerves his arm. Neither he nor Reine Allix could see that a man's duty might lie from home; but in that home both were alike ready to dare anything and to suffer everything.
It was a narrow form of patriotism, yet it had nobleness, endurance, and patience in it: in song it has been often-times deified as heroism, but in modern philosophy it is derided, and in modern warfare it is punished as the blackest crime.
So Bernadou tarried in his cottage till he should be called, keeping watch by night over the safety of his village, and by day doing all he could to aid the deserted wives and mothers of the place by the tilling of their ground for them and the tending of such poor cattle as were left in their desolate fields.
He and Margot and Reine Allix, between them, fed many mouths that would otherwise have been closed in death by famine, and denied themselves all except the barest and most meagre subsistence, that they might give away the little they possessed.
And all this while the war went on, but seemed far from them, so seldom did any tidings of it pierce the seclusion in which they dwelt. By and by, as the autumn went on, they learned a little more.
Fugitives coming to the smithy for a horse's shoe; women fleeing to their old village homes from their base, gay life in the city; mandates from the government of defence sent to every hamlet in the country; stray news-sheets brought in by carriers, or hawkers, and hucksters,—all these by degrees told them of the peril of their country—vaguely, indeed, and seldom truthfully, but so that by mutilated rumours they came at last to know the awful facts of the fate of Sedan, the fall of the Empire, the siege of Paris.
It did not alter their daily lives: it was still too far off, and too impalpable. But a foreboding, a dread, an unspeakable woe settled down on them.
Already their lands and cattle had been harassed to yield provision for the army and large towns; already their best horses had been taken for the siege-trains and the forage-waggons; already their ploughshares were perforce idle, and their children cried because of the scarcity of nourishment; already the iron of war had entered into their souls.
The little street at evening was mournful and very silent: the few who talked spoke in whispers, lest a spy should hear them, and the young ones had no strength to play: they wanted food.
"It is as it was in my youth," said Reine Allix, eating her piece of black bread and putting aside the better food prepared for her, that she might save it, unseen, for "the child."
It was horrible to her and to all of them to live in that continual terror of an unknown foe—that perpetual expectation of some ghastly, shapeless misery.
They were quiet—so quiet!—but by all they heard they knew that any night, as they went to their beds, the thunder of cannon might awaken them; any morning, as they looked on their beloved fields, they knew that ere sunset the flames of war might have devoured them.
They knew so little, too: all they were told was so indefinite and garbled that sometimes they thought the whole was some horrid dream—thought so, at least, until they looked at their empty stables, their untilled land, their children who cried from hunger, their mothers who wept for the conscripts.
But as yet it was not so very much worse than it had been in times of bad harvest and of dire distress; and the storm which raged over the land had as yet spared this little green nest among the woods on the Seine.
"It is a cold night, Bernadou: put on more wood," said Reine Allix. Fuel at the least was plentiful in that district, and Bernadou obeyed.
He sat at the table, working at a new churn for his wife: he had some skill at turnery and at invention in such matters. The child slept soundly in its cradle by the hearth, smiling while it dreamed. Margot spun at her wheel. Reine Allix sat by the fire, seldom lifting her head from her long knitting-needles, except to cast a look on her grandson or at the sleeping child. The little wooden shutter of the house was closed. Some winter roses bloomed in a pot beneath the little crucifix. Bernadou's flute lay on a shelf: he had not had heart enough to play it since the news of the war had come.
Suddenly a great sobbing cry rose without—the cry of many voices, all raised in woe together.
Bernadou rose, took his musket in his hand, undid his door, and looked out. All the people were turned out into the street, and the women, loudly lamenting, beat their breasts and strained their children to their bosoms.
There was a sullen red light in the sky to the eastward, and on the wind a low, hollow roar stole to them.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The Prussians are on us!" answered twenty voices in one accord. "That red glare is the town burning."
Then they were all still—a stillness that was more horrible than their lamentations.
Reine Allix came and stood by her grandson. "If we must die, let us die here," she said, in a voice that was low, and soft, and grave.
He took her hand and kissed it. She was content with his answer.
Margot stole forth too, and crouched behind them, holding her child to her breast. "What can they do to us?" she asked, trembling, with the rich colours of her face blanched white.
Bernadou smiled on her: "I do not know, my dear. I think even they can hardly bring death upon women and children."
"They can, and they will," said a voice from the crowd.
None answered. The street was very quiet in the darkness. Far away in the east the red glare glowed. On the wind there was still that faint, distant ravening roar, like the roar of famished wolves: it was the roar of fire and of war.
In the silence Reine Allix spoke: "God is good. Shall we not trust in Him?"
With one great choking sob the people answered: their hearts were breaking. All night long they watched in the street—they who had done no more to bring this curse upon them than the flower-roots that slept beneath the snow. They dared not go to their beds: they knew not when the enemy might be upon them. They dared not flee: even in their own woods the foe might lurk for them. One man indeed did cry aloud, "Shall we stay here in our houses to be smoked out like bees from their hives? Let us fly!"
But the calm, firm voice of Reine Allix rebuked him: "Let who will, run like a hare from the hounds. For me and mine, we abide by our homestead."
And they were ashamed to be outdone by a woman, and a woman ninety years old, and no man spoke any more of flight. All the night long they watched in the cold and the wind, the children shivering beneath their mothers' skirts, the men sullenly watching the light of the flames in the dark, starless sky. All night long they were left alone, though far off they heard the dropping shots of scattered firing, and in the leafless woods around them the swift flight of woodland beasts startled from their sleep, and the hurrying feet of sheep terrified from their folds in the outlying fields.
The daybreak came, gray, cheerless, very cold. A dense fog, white and raw, hung over the river: in the east, where the sun, they knew, was rising, they could only see the livid light of the still towering flames and pillars of black smoke against the leaden clouds.
"We will let them come and go in peace if they will," murmured old Mathurin. "What can we do? We have no arms—no powder, hardly—no soldiers—no defence."
Bernadou said nothing, but he straightened his tall limbs, and in his grave, blue eyes a light gleamed.
Reine Allix looked at him as she sat in the doorway of her house. "Thy hands are honest, thy heart pure, thy conscience clear. Be not afraid to die if need there be," she said to him.
He looked down and smiled on her. Margot clung to him in a passion of weeping. He clasped her close and kissed her softly, but the woman who read his heart was the woman who had held him at his birth.
By degrees the women crept timidly back into their houses, hiding their eyes, so that they should not see that horrid light against the sky, whilst the starving children clung to their breasts or to their skirts, wailing aloud in terror. The few men there were left, for the most part of them very old or else mere striplings, gathered together in a hurried council. Old Mathurin the miller and the patriots of the wine-shop were agreed that there could be no resistance, whatever might befall them—that it would be best to hide such weapons as they had and any provisions that still remained to them, and yield up themselves and their homes with humble grace to the dire foe. "If we do otherwise," they said, "the soldiers will surely slay us, and what can a miserable little hamlet like this achieve against cannon and steel and fire?"
Bernadou alone raised his voice in opposition. His eye kindled, his cheek flushed, his words for once sprang from his lips like fire. "What!" he said to them, "shall we yield up our homes and our wives and our infants without a single blow? Shall we be so vile as to truckle to the enemies of France, and show that we can fear them? It were a shame, a foul shame: we were not worthy of the name of men. Let us prove to them that there are people in France who are not afraid to die. Let us hold our own so long as we can. Our muskets are good, our walls strong, our woods in this weather morasses that will suck in and swallow them if only we have tact to drive them there. Let us do what we can. The camp of the francs-tireurs is but three leagues from us. They will be certain to come to our aid. At any rate, let us die bravely. We can do little—that may be. But if every man in France does that little that he can, that little will be great enough to drive the invaders off the soil."
Mathurin and the others screamed at him and hooted. "You are a fool!" they shouted. "You will be the undoing of us all. Do you not know that one shot fired—nay, only one musket found and the enemy puts a torch to the whole place?"
"I know," said Bernadou, with a dark radiance in his azure eyes. "But then it is a choice between disgrace and the flames: let us only take heed to be clear of the first—the last must rage as God wills."
But they screamed and mouthed and hissed at him: "Oh yes! fine talk, fine talk! See your own roof in flames if you will: you shall not ruin ours. Do what you will with your own neck. Keep it erect or hang by it, as you choose. But you have no right to give your neighbours over to death, whether they will or no."
He strove, he pleaded, he conjured, he struggled with them half the night, with the salt tears running down his cheeks, and all his gentle blood burning with righteous wrath and loathing shame, stirred for the first time in all his life to a rude, simple, passionate eloquence. But they were not persuaded. Their few gold-pieces hidden in the rafters, their few feeble sheep starving in the folds, their own miserable lives, all hungry, woe-begone, and spent in daily terrors,-—these were still dear to them, and they would not imperil them. They called him a madman; they denounced him as one who would be their murderer; they threw themselves on him and demanded his musket to bury it with the rest under the altar in the old chapel on the hill.
Bernadou's eyes flashed fire; his breast heaved; his nerves quivered; he shook them off and strode a step forward. "As you live," he muttered, "I have a mind to fire on you, rather than let you live to shame yourselves and me!"
Reine Allix, who stood by him silent all the while, laid her hand on his shoulder.
"My boy," she said in his ear, "you are right, and they wrong. Yet let not dissension between brethren open the door, for the enemy to enter thereby into your homes. Do what you will with your own life, Bernadou—it is yours—but leave them to do as they will with theirs. You cannot make sheep into lions, and let not the first blood shed here be a brother's."
Bernadou's head dropped on his breast.
"Do as you will," he muttered to his neighbours. They took his musket from him, and in the darkness of the night stole silently up the wooded chapel-hill and buried it, with all their other arms, under the altar where the white Christ hung.
"We are safe now," said Mathurin the miller to the patriots of the tavern. "Had that madman had his way, he had destroyed us all."
Reine Allix softly led her grandson across his own threshold, and drew his head down to hers and kissed him between the eyes.
"You did what you could, Bernadou," she said to him, "let the rest come as it will."
Then she turned from him, and flung her cloak over her head and sank down, weeping bitterly, for she had lived through ninety-three years only to see this agony at the last.
Bernadou, now that all means of defence was gone from him, and the only thing left to him to deal with was his own life, had become quiet and silent and passionless, as was his habit. He would have fought like a mastiff for his home, but this they had forbidden him to do, and he was passive and without hope. He shut to his door, and sat down with his hand in that of Reine Allix and his arm around his wife.
"There is nothing to do but to wait," he said sadly.
The day seemed very long in coming.
The firing ceased for a while: then its roll commenced afresh, and grew nearer to the village. Then again all was still.
At noon a shepherd staggered into the place, pale, bleeding, bruised, covered with mire. The Prussians, he told them, had forced him to be their guide, had knotted him tight to a trooper's saddle, and had dragged him with them until he was half dead with fatigue and pain. At night he had broken from them and had fled: they were close at hand, he said, and had burned the town from end to end because a man had fired at them from a housetop. That was all he knew.
Bernadou, who had gone out to hear his news, returned into the house and sat down and hid his face within his hands.
"If I resist you are all lost," he muttered. "And yet to yield like a cur!"
It was a piteous question, whether to follow the instinct in him and see his birth—place in flames and his family slaughtered for his act, or to crush out the manhood in him and live, loathing himself as a coward for evermore?
Reine Allix looked at him, and laid her hand on his bowed head, and her voice was strong and tender as music:
"Fret not thyself, my beloved. When the moment comes, then do as thine own heart and the whisper of God in it bid thee."
A great sob answered her: it was the first time since his earliest infancy that she had ever heard from Bernadou.
It grew dark. The autumn day died. The sullen clouds dropped scattered rain. The red leaves were blown in millions by the wind. The little houses on either side the road were dark, for the dwellers in them dared not show any light that might be a star to allure to them the footsteps of their foes. Bernadou sat with his arms on the table, and his head resting on them. Margot nursed her son: Reine Allix prayed.
Suddenly in the street without there was the sound of many feet of horses and of men, the shouting of angry voices, the splashing of quick steps in the watery ways, the screams of women, the flash of steel through the gloom.
Bernadou sprang to his feet, his face pale, his blue eyes dark as night.
"They are come!" he said under his breath. It was not fear that he felt, nor horror: it was rather a passion of love for his birth-place and his nation—a passion of longing to struggle and to die for both. And he had no weapon!
He drew his house door open with a steady hand, and stood on his own threshold and faced these, his enemies. The street was full of them—some mounted, some on foot: crowds of them swarmed in the woods and on the roads. They had settled on the village as vultures on a dead lamb's body.
It was a little, lowly place: it might well have been left in peace.
It had had no more share in the war than a child still unborn, but it came in the victors' way, and their mailed heel crushed it as they passed. They had heard that arms were hidden and francs-tireurs sheltered there, and they had swooped down on it and held it hard and fast. Some were told off to search the chapel; some to ransack the dwellings; some to seize such food and bring such cattle as there might be left; some to seek out the devious paths that crossed and recrossed the fields; and yet there still remained in the little street hundreds of armed men, force enough to awe a citadel or storm a breach.
The people did not attempt to resist.
They stood passive, dry-eyed in misery, looking on whilst the little treasures of their household lives were swept away for ever, and ignorant what fate by fire or iron might be their portion ere the night was done.
They saw the corn that was their winter store to save their offspring from famine poured out like ditch-water. They saw oats and wheat flung down to be trodden into a slough of mud and filth. They saw the walnut presses in their kitchens broken open, and their old heirlooms of silver, centuries old, borne away as booty. They saw the oak cupboards in their wives' bed-chambers ransacked, and the homespun linen and the quaint bits of plate that had formed their nuptial dowers cast aside in derision or trampled into a battered heap. They saw the pet lamb of their infants, the silver ear-rings of their brides, the brave tankards they had drunk their marriage wine in, the tame bird that flew to their whistle, all seized for food or seized for spoil.
They saw all this, and had to stand by with mute tongues and passive hands, lest any glance of wrath or gesture of revenge should bring the leaden bullet in their children's throats or the yellow flame amidst their homesteads. Greater agony the world cannot hold.
Under the porch of the cottage, by the sycamores, one group stood and looked, silent and very still—Bernadou, erect, pale, calm, with a fierce scorn burning in his eyes; Margot, quiet, because he wished her so, holding to her the rosy and golden beauty of her son; Reine Allix, with a patient horror on her face, her figure drawn to its full height, and her hands holding to her breast the crucifix.
They stood thus, waiting they knew not what, only resolute to show no cowardice and meet no shame.
Behind them was the dull, waning glow of the wood-fire on the hearth which had been the centre of all their hopes and joys; before them the dim, dark country, and the woestricken faces of their neighbours, and the moving soldiery with their torches, and the quivering forms of the half-dying horses.
Suddenly a voice arose from the armed mass:
"Bring me the peasant hither."
Bernadou was seized by several hands and forced and dragged from his door out to the place where the leader of the Uhlans sat on a white charger that shook and snorted blood in its exhaustion.
Bernadou cast off the alien grasp that held him, and stood erect before his foes. He was no longer pale, and his eyes were clear and steadfast.
"You look less a fool than the rest," said the Prussian commander. "You know this country well?"
The country in whose fields and woodlands he had wandered from his infancy, and whose every meadow-path and wayside tree and flower-sown brook he knew by heart as a lover knows the lines of his mistress's face!
"You have arms here?" pursued the German.
"What have you done with them?"
"If I had had my way, you would not need ask. You would have felt them."
The Prussian looked at him keenly, doing homage to the boldness of the answer. "Will you confess where they are?"
"You know the penalty for concealment of arms is death?"
"You have made it so."
"We have, and Prussian will is French law. You are a bold man: you merit death. But still, you know the country well?"
Bernadou smiled, as a mother might smile were any foolish enough to ask her if she remembered the look her dead child's face had worn.
"If you know it well," pursued the Prussian, "I will give you a chance. Lay hold of my stirrup-leather and be lashed to it, and show me straight as the crow flies to where the weapons are hidden. If you do, I will leave you your life. If you do not—"
"If I do not?"
"You will be shot"
Bernadou was silent: his eyes glanced through the mass of soldiers to the little cottage under the trees opposite: the two there were straining to behold him, but the soldiers pushed them back, so that in the flare of the torches they could not see, nor in the tumult hear. He thanked God for it.
"Your choice?" asked the Uhlan, impatiently, after a moment's pause.
Bernadou's lips were white, but they did not tremble as he answered, "I am no traitor." And his eyes as he spoke went softly to the little porch where the light glowed from that hearth beside which he would never again sit with the creatures he loved around him.
The German looked at him: "Is that a boast or a fact?"
"I am no traitor," Bernadou answered simply once more.
The Prussian gave a sign to his troopers. There was the sharp report of a double shot, and Bernadou fell dead. One bullet had pierced his brain, the other was bedded in his lungs. The soldiers kicked aside the warm and quivering body. It was only a peasant killed!
With a shriek that rose above the roar of the wind, and cut like steel to every human heart that beat there, Reine Allix forced her way through the throng, and fell on her knees beside him, and caught him in her arms, and laid his head upon her breast, where he had used to sleep his softest sleep in infancy and childhood.
"It is God's will! it is God's will!" she muttered; and then she laughed—a laugh so terrible that the blood of the boldest there ran cold.
Margot followed her and looked, and stood dry-eyed and silent; then flung herself and the child she carried in her arms beneath the hoof of the white charger.
"End your work!" she shrieked to them. "You have killed him—kill us. Have you not mercy enough for that?"
The horse, terrified and snorting blood, plunged and trampled the ground: his fore foot struck the child's golden head and stamped its face out of all human likeness. Some peasants pulled Margot from the lashing hoofs; she was quite dead, though neither wound nor bruise was on her.
Reine Allix neither looked nor paused. With all her strength she had begun to drag the body of Bernadou across the threshold of his house.
"He shall lie at home, he shall lie at home," she muttered. She would not believe that already he was dead.
With all the force of her earliest womanhood she lifted him, and half drew half bore him into the home that he had loved, and laid him down upon the hearth, and knelt by him, caressing him as though he were once more a child, and saying softly. "Hush!" for her mind was gone, and she fancied that he only slept.
Without, the tumult of the soldiery increased: they found the arms hidden under the altar on the hill; they seized five peasants to slay them for the dire offence. The men struggled, and would not go as the sheep to the shambles. They were shot down in the street before the eyes of their children. Then the order was given to fire the place in punishment, and leave it to its fate.
The torches were flung with a laugh on the dry thatched roofs—brands snatched from the house-fires on the hearths were tossed amongst the dwelling-houses and the barns. The straw and timber flared alight like tow.
An old man, her nearest neighbour, rushed to the cottage of Reine Allix and seized her by the arm.
"They fire the Berceau," he screamed. "Quick! quick! or you will be burned alive!"
Reine Allix looked up with a smile: "Be quiet! Do you not see? He sleeps."
The old man shook her, implored her, strove to drag her away—in desperation pointed to the roof above, which was already in flames.
Reine Allix looked: at that sight her mind cleared and regained consciousness; she remembered all, she understood all: she knew that he was dead.
"Go in peace and save yourself," she said in the old, sweet, strong tones of an earlier day. "As for me, I am very old. I and my dead will stay together at home."
The man fled, and left her to her choice.
The great curled flames and the livid vapours closed around her: she never moved. The death was fierce but swift, and even in death she and the one whom she had loved and reared were not divided.
The end soon came.
From hill to hill the Berceau de Dieu broke into flames. The village was a lake of fire, into which the statue of the Christ, burning and reeling, fell. Some few peasants, with their wives and children, fled to the woods, and there escaped one torture to perish more slowly of cold and famine. All other things perished. The rapid stream of the flame licked up all there was in its path. The bare trees raised their leafless branches on fire at a thousand points. The stores of corn and fruit were lapped by millions of crimson tongues. The pigeons flew screaming from their roosts and sank into the smoke. The dogs were suffocated on the thresholds they had guarded all their lives. The calf was stifled in the byre. The sheep ran bleating with the wool burning on their living bodies. The little caged birds fluttered helpless, and then dropped, scorched to cinders. The aged and the sick were stifled in their beds. All things perished.
The Berceau de Dieu was as one vast furnace, in which every living creature was caught and consumed and changed to ashes.
The tide of war has rolled on and left it a blackened waste, a smoking ruin, wherein not so much as a mouse may creep or a bird may nestle. It is gone, and its place can know it never more.
But who is there to care?
It was but as a leaf which the great storm withered as it passed.