Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and other profitable tales/The Montil Manœvres

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THE engagement had begun; everything was going well. At ten o'clock in the morning General Decuir, of the southern army, whose brigade occupied a strong position beneath the woods of Saint-Colomban, effected a brilliant reconnaissance which demonstrated the absence of the enemy. Then the soldiers broke their fast, and the General, leaving his escort at Saint-Luchaire, drove, accompanied by Captain Varnot, in the motor-car which had come to fetch him, to the Château de Montil, where the Baronne de Bonmont had invited him to lunch. The village of Montil was hung with flags. At the entrance to the park, the General passed beneath a triumphal arch erected in his honour and decorated with flags, trophies and branches of oak interwoven with boughs of laurel.

On the steps of her castle the Baronne de Bonmont received the General and led him into a vast hall hung with weapons and glittering with steel.

"Your residence is superb, Madame, and the country is beautiful," said the General. "I have often been to shoot about here, chiefly with the Brécés, where I had the pleasure of meeting your son, if I am not mistaken."

"No, you are not mistaken," said Ernest de Bonmont, who had driven the General from Saint-Luchaire. "And to say one is bored at the Brécés is to put it mildly!"

It was a small luncheon party. Besides the General, the Captain, the Baronne and her son, there were only Madame Worms-Clavelin and Joseph Lacrisse.

"You must take things as you find them!" said Madame de Bonmont placing the General on her right at a table decorated with flowers over which towered an equestrian statue of Napoleon in Sèvres porcelain.

At a glance the General took in the long gallery hung with the finest Van Orley tapestries.

"You have plenty of room here!"

"The General might have brought his brigade," said the Captain.

"I should have been delighted to receive it," replied the Baronne smiling.

The talk was simple, quiet and cordial. Every one had the good taste to avoid politics. The General was a royalist. He did not say so, but it was well known. His manners were perfect. His two sons had been arrested for crying: "Panama!" on the boulevards when President Loubet came into office. The General's own attitude had always been discreet. Horses and cannon were the topics of conversation.

"The new 75 is a gem," said the General.

"One cannot too highly commend the ease with which the firing is regulated. It is really wonderful," added Captain Varnot.

"And during the manœuvres," said Madame Worms-Clavelin, "by a new and ingenious arrangement the covers of the ammunition wagons serve as a shelter for the gunners."

Madame la Préfète was congratulated on her military knowledge.

Madame Worms-Clavelin appeared to equal advantage when she spoke of Notre-Dame des Belles-Feuilles.

"You know, General, that in this department, no further away than Brécé, we have a miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin."

"I have heard of it," replied the General.

"Before he was made a Bishop," continued Madame Worms-Clavelin, "the Abbé Guitrel was greatly interested in the apparitions of Notre-Dame des Belles-Feuilles. He even wrote a little book to prove that Notre-Dame des Belles-Feuilles is the special proctectress of the French army."

"Tell me where I can procure a copy and I will read it," said the General.

Madame Worms-Clavelin promised to send him the book.

In short throughout the meal not a word was uttered that could be called offensive or tending to the malicious. After lunch, there was a walk in the park. Then Captain Varnot took his leave.

"Let my escort wait for me at Saint-Luchaire, Captain," said the General. And turning to Lacrisse, he said:

"Manœuvres are a picture of war, but they are not a true picture because everything is thought out and planned whereas in war it is the unexpected that happens."

"Will you come and see the pheasantry, General?" said Madame de Bonmont.

"With pleasure, Madame."

She turned round.

"Are you not coming, Ernest?"

Ernest had been stopped on his way by the worthy Raulin, mayor of Montil.

"Excuse me, Baron," he was saying. "But if you could say a word to General Decuir me, if only the artillery would pass over St. John's Hill, across my lucerne field."

"What! Haven't you a good crop, Raulin? Is that why you want it trampled on?"

"Not at all, not at all. The crop is excellent, Baron; the harvest next month promises to be good. But compensation is good also. Last time it was Houssiaux who had it. Isn't it my turn now? I am mayor, I bear all the burdens of the commune, is it not fair therefore that when there is any bonus to be given.…?"

The General was taken to the pheasantry.

"It is time," he said, "that I rejoined my brigade."

"Oh! You will reach it in no time with my thirty horse-power," said the young baron.

They inspected the kennels, the stables and the gardens.

"Your roses are superb," said the General, who was fond of flowers. Through the perfumed air there boomed the sound of cannon.

"It has a festal sound and uplifts the heart," said Lacrisse.

"Like the sound of bells," said Madame Worms-Clavelin.

"You are a true Frenchwoman, Madame," said the General. "Every word you utter breathes the purest patriotism."

It was four o'clock. The General could not stay a minute longer. Fortunately in "the thirty horse-power" he would reach his brigade in no time.

With the young baron, Lacrisse and the chauffeur he entered the car, and once again passed beneath his triumphal arch.

In forty minutes he was at Saint-Luchaire. But his escort was not there. In vain the four motorists looked for Captain Varnot. The village was deserted. Not a soldier to be found. A butcher was passing in his cart. They asked him where Decuir's division was: he replied:

"Try the Cagny road. Just now I heard firing in the direction of Cagny, and it was loud too, I can assure you."

"Cagny, where is that?" inquired the General.

"Don't you trouble, I know," said the Baron. "I will drive you there."

And, as the drive would be a long one, he gave the General a dust-coat, a cap and goggles.

They started on the departmental road; they passed Saint-André, Villeneuve, Letaf, Saint-Porçain, Truphême, Mirange, and they saw the Cagny pond shining like brass in the light of the setting sun. On the high-road, they met dragoons of the northern army who knew nothing of the whereabouts of the Decuir brigade, but they maintained that the southern army was engaged at Saint-Paulain.

Saint-Paulain was forty-five kilometres distant, in the direction of Montil.

The car turned round, went back down the departmental road, returned through Mirange, Truphême, Saint-Porçain, Letaf, Villeneuve and Saint-André.

"Put on more speed," ordered the Baron.

And the car passed through the streets of Verry-les-Fougerais, Suttières and Rary-la-Vicomté, raising a cloud of dust golden like a glory and crushing pigs and poultry. Two kilometres from Saint-Paulain, they came on the outposts of the southern army holding La Saulaie, Mesville and Le Sourdais. There they learned that the whole of the northern army was on the other side of the Ilette.

They drove towards Torcy-la-Mirande in order to strike the river by the heights of Vieux-Bac.

When in the course of an hour they began to perceive by the evening light a sheet of white mist hanging over the low lying meadows:

"Gad," said the young Baron, "we can't cross: the Ilette Bridge is destroyed."

"What!" exclaimed the General, "the Ilette Bridge destroyed? What's that you say? The Bridge destroyed!"

"Why, General! yes. In the plan of the manœuvres the Bridge is destroyed in theory."

The General did not appreciate the joke.

"I admire your wit young man," he said sharply.

At Vieux-Bac they thundered across the iron bridge and followed the ancient Roman road, which connects Torcy-la-Mirande with the chief town of the department. In the sky, Venus was kindling her silver flame close by the crescent moon. They travelled about thirty kilometres without meeting any troops. At Saint-Évariste there was a terrible hill to climb. The car groaned like a tired beast but did not stop. Coming down it went over some stones and was on the point of capsizing in a ditch. Then the road was excellent as far as Mallemanche, where they arrived at night, during a surprise.

The sky was glittering with stars. Trumpets were sounding. Lanterns were casting a yellow gleam on the blue road. Foot soldiers were pillaging the houses. The inhabitants were at the windows.

"Although merely theoretical it is all extremely impressive," said Lacrisse.

The General was told that his brigade was in possession of Villeneuve on the left wing of the victorious army. The enemy was in full retreat.

Villeneuve is at the junction of the Ilette and the Claine, twenty kilometres from Mallemanche.

"We must make for Villeneuve!" said the General. "At last we know what we have to do, and a good thing too."

The Villeneuve road was so encumbered with artillery, ammunition wagons and gunners asleep and wrapped in their great cloaks, that it was very difficult for the car to thread its way. A canteen-woman sitting in a cart decorated with Chinese lanterns hailed the motorists and offered them coffee and liqueurs.

"We won't say no," replied the General.

"We have swallowed dust enough during the manœuvres."

"They drank a liqueur and pressed on to Villeneuve, which was occupied by the infantry.

"But where is my brigade?" cried the General, who was growing anxious.

They questioned eagerly all the officers they met. But no one could give them news of the Decuir brigade.

"What! no news? Then it is not at Villeneuve? Incredible!"

"Gentlemen," they heard in a woman's voice, shrill and bell-like. They looked up and beheld a head studded with curl-papers; it belonged to the postmistress.

"Gentlemen, there are two Villeneuves. This is Villeneuve-sur-Claine. Perhaps it is Villeneuve-la-Bataille that you want.

"Perhaps," said the Baron.

"That is a long way off," said the postmistress. You must go first to Montil. . . . Do you know Montil?"

"Yes," replied the Baron, "we know Montil."

"Then you go on to Saint-Michel-du-Mont; you take the main road and . . . ."

From the window of a neighbouring house with gilded scutcheons came out a head wrapped in a comforter:

"Gentlemen . . . ."

And the notary of Villeneuve-sur-Claine gave his advice:

"To reach Villeneuve-la-Bataille, you would do better to cross through the Forest of Tongues. . . . You go to La Croix du Perron, you turn to the right . . ."

"That's enough. I know the Forest of Tongues," said the Baron, "I have hunted there with the Brécés. . . . Thank you, sir. . . . Thank you, Mademoiselle."

"Don't mention it," said the postmistress.

"At your service, gentlemen," said the notary.

"What if we went to the inn and had a cocktail?" said the Baron.

"I should like something to eat," said Lacrisse. "I am done up."

"Courage, gentlemen," said the General. "We will make up for it at Villeneuve-la-Bataille."

And they started. They passed through Vély, La Roche, Les Saules, Meulette, La Taillerie and entered the Forest of Tremble. A dazzling light ran before them into the shades of night and of the forest. They reached La Croix-du-Perron, then the Roi-Henri cross-roads. They fled wildly through the silence and solitude. They saw the deer glide by and the lights in the charcoal-burners' huts. Suddenly in a deep cutting the ominous noise of an explosion made them shudder. The car skidded and knocked up against a tree.

"What is the matter?" asked the General, who had been thrown head over heels.

Lacrisse groaned; he was lying on a bed of fern.

But Ernest, lantern in hand, was saying dismally:

"The tyre has burst. . . . But worse than that the front wheel is twisted."