NO MERCY: THE WATCHWORD OF THE COMMUNE. NO QUARTER: THE WATCHWORD OF THE PRINCES.
While this was taking place near Tanis, the beggar was travelling toward Crollon. He penetrated the ravines, under vast hollow bowers, inattentive to everything, attentive to nothing, as he had said himself, dreaming rather than thinking, for thoughts have an aim, but dreams have none, wandering, roving, stopping, eating here and there a bunch of wild sorrel, drinking from the springs, occasionally raising his head to catch distant sounds, then returning to the dazzling fascination of nature, sunning his rags, perhaps hearing the noise of men but listening to the songs of the birds.
He was old and slow; he could not go far; as he had said to the Marquis de Lantenac, a quarter of a league wearied him; he took a short cut toward la Croix-Avranchin, and it was evening when he returned.
A little way beyond Macey, the path that he followed led over a sort of culminating point free from trees, from which one could see a long distance, and follow the whole horizon from the west to the sea.
His attention was attracted by smoke.
Nothing is more gentle than smoke, nothing more frightful. There is the smoke of peace, and the smoke of villany. Smoke, the density and color of smoke, it makes all the difference between peace and war, between brotherhood and hatred, between hospitality and the grave, between life and death. Smoke rising through the trees may signify the most charming thing in the world, the hearth; or the most terrible, a conflagration; and all the happiness, as well as all the unhappiness of man, is sometimes centred in the very thing scattered to the wind.
The smoke that Tellmarch saw was alarming.
It was black, with now and then a sudden gleam of redness, as if the coals from which it came were irregular and had begun to die out, and it rose above Herbe-en-Pail.
Tellmarch hastened towards this smoke. He was very weary, but he was anxious to know what it was. He reached the top of a hill adjoining the hamlet and the farm.
Neither hamlet nor farm was there.
A heap of ruins was burning, and this was Herbe-en-Pail.
It is a more impressive sight to see a hut burn than a palace. A hut on fire is lamentable. Devastation falling on misery, a vulture attacking an earthworm, there is a strange contrariety about it that oppresses the heart.
According to the Bible story, the sight of a conflagration changes a human being to a statue; Tellmarch was for a moment such a statue. The spectacle under his eyes made him immovable. This destruction was going on in silence. Not a cry arose; not a human sigh mingled with the smoke; this furnace was struggling to devour this village, and succeeding, without a sound save the snapping of the timbers and the crackling of the thatch. Occasionally, the smoke cleared away, the roofs fallen in, displayed the yawning rooms, the brazier showed its rubies, scarlet rags and poor old crimson colored furniture appeared in these vermilion interiors, and Tellmarch was dazed with the viciousness of the disaster.
Some trees belonging to a chestnut-grove next the houses had taken fire and were blazing up.
He listened, trying to catch the sound of a voice, an appeal, a cry; nothing stirred except the flames; all was silent except the fire. Had all of them fled?
Where was that group of people living and working at Herbe-en-Pali? What had become of this little people?
Tellmarch came down from the hill.
A funereal enigma confronted him. He approached it slowly and with a steady gaze. He advanced toward this ruin with the slowness of a shadow; he felt like a phantom in this tomb.
He reached what had been the door of the farmhouse; and he looked into the court, which now was without walls and was confounded with the hamlet grouped around it.
What he had seen before was nothing. He had only seen the terrible as yet,—the horrible appeared to him now.
In the middle of the court, there was a black heap, vaguely outlined on one side by flames, on the other by the moon; this heap was a pile of men; these men were dead.
All around this heap there was a great pool, smoking a little; the fire was reflected in this pool; but it had no need of fire to make it red; it was blood.
Tellmarch approached it. He began to examine, one after another, these prostrate bodies; all were corpses.
The moon was shining; the fire too.
These corpses were soldiers. All were barefooted; their shoes had been taken off; their weapons had been taken away, too; they still had on their uniforms, which were blue. Here and there, in the heap of limbs and heads, could be seen hats full of holes with tricolored cockades. They were republicans. They were the Parisians who, the day before, were there all alive, keeping garrison in the farm of Herbe-en-Pail. These men had been executed; this was proved by the symmetrical position of the bodies: they had been struck down on the spot, and with care. They were all dead. Not a death-rattle sounded from the heap.
Tellmarch passed the corpses in review without omitting a single one; all were riddled with bullets.
Those who had shot them, probably in haste to go elsewhere, had not taken time to bury them.
As he was going away, his eyes fell on a low wall in the courtyard, and he saw four feet protruding from behind the corner of this wall.
These feet had shoes on; they were smaller than the others; Tellmarch went towards them. They were the feet of women.
Two women were lying side by side behind the wall; they also had been shot.
Tellmarch bent over them. One of these women wore a sort of uniform; beside her was a cask, broken and empty; she was a vivandière. She had four bullets in her head. She was dead.
Tellmarch examined the other. She was a peasant woman. She was pallid and her mouth was open. Her eyes were closed. There was no wound on her head. Her clothing, which her wearisome wandering had doubtless torn to rags, had come open in her fall, and exposed her half-naked body. Tellmarch pushed them open still more, and saw a round wound made by a bullet in her shoulder; her collar-bone was broken. He looked at her livid breasts.
"A nursing mother," he murmured.
He touched her. She was not cold.
She had no other injury than the broken collar-bone and the wound on her shoulder.
He placed his hand on her heart and felt a feeble fluttering. She was not dead.
Tellmarch rose to his feet and cried in a terrible voice:—
"Is there nobody here?"
"It is you, the caimand!" replied a voice, so low that he could hardly hear it.
And at the same time a head appeared from a hole in the ruins.
Then another face appeared in another place.
They were two peasants, who were hiding; the only ones who had survived.
The familiar voice of the caimand had reassured them, and brought them out of the nook where they were crouching.
They came up to Tellmarch still all of a tremble.
Tellmarch could have screamed, but he was unable to speak: such are deep emotions.
He pointed to the woman stretched out at his feet.
"Is she still alive?" said one of the peasants.
Tellmarch nodded assent.
"Is the other woman alive?" asked the other peasant.
Tellmarch shook his head.
The peasant who appeared first added,—
"All the others are dead, are they not? I saw it all. I was in my cellar. How one thanks God in times like these for not having a family! My house was burned. Lord Jesus! they have killed them all. This woman had children. Three children, all little things! The children cried: "Mother!" The mother cried: "My children!" They killed the mother and carried away the children. I saw it all, my God! my God! my God! Those who massacred them all have gone. They were satisfied. They took away the little ones and killed the mother. But she is not dead, is she; she is not dead? Tell me, caimand, do you believe you can save her? Do you want us to help you carry her to your carnichot?"
Tellmarch nodded assent.
The woods touched the farm. They quickly fashioned a litter out of leaves and brakes. They placed the woman, still motionless, on the litter and started to go through the thicket, the two peasants carrying the litter, one at her head, the other at her feet, while Tellmarch held the woman's arm, and felt her pulse.
As they went along, the two peasants talked, and, over the bleeding woman, whose pale face was lighted up by the moon, they gave utterance to exclamations of dismay.
"Ah, Lord God! Is this the way it is going to be now?"
"It was that tall old man who wanted it done."
"Yes, he gave the orders."
"I did not see him when they were shooting. Was he there?"
"No, he had gone. But it is all the same: it was all done by his order."
"Then he was the one who did it all."
"He said: 'Kill! Burn! No quarter!'"
"He is a marquis."
"Yes, for he is our marquis."
"What do they call him?"
"He is Monsieur de Lantenac."
Tellmarch raised his eyes towards heaven first, and muttered between his teeth,—
"If I had known it!"