“Suppose I were to tell you,” said Paul Delroze, “that I once stood face to face with him on French. . . .”
Élisabeth looked up at him with the fond expression of a bride to whom the least word of the man she loves is a subject of wonder:
“You have seen William II. in France?”
“Saw him with my own eyes; and I have never forgotten a single one of the details that marked the meeting. And yet it happened very long ago.”
He was speaking with a sudden seriousness, as though the revival of that memory had awakened the most painful thoughts in his mind.
“Tell me about it, won’t you, Paul?” asked Élisabeth.
The train stopped and they got out at Corvigny, the last station on the local branch line which, starting from the chief town in the department, runs through the Liseron Valley and ends, fifteen miles from the frontier, at the foot of the little Lorraine city which Vauban, as he tells us in his “Memoirs,” surrounded “with the most perfect demilunes imaginable.”
The railway-station presented an appearance of unusual animation. There were numbers of soldiers, including many officers. A crowd of passengers—tradespeople, peasants, workmen and visitors to the neighboring health-resorts served by Corvigny—stood amid piles of luggage on the platform, awaiting the departure of the next train for the junction.
It was the last Thursday in July, the Thursday before the mobilization of the French army.
Élisabeth pressed up against her husband:
“Oh, Paul,” she said, shivering with anxiety, “if only we don’t have war!”
“War! What an idea!”
“But look at all these people leaving, all these families running away from the frontier!”
“That proves nothing.”
“No, but you saw it in the paper just now. The news is very bad. Germany is preparing for war. She has planned the whole thing. . . . Oh, Paul, if[Pg 11] we were to be separated! . . . I should know nothing about you . . . and you might be wounded . . . and . . .”
He squeezed her hand:
“Don’t be afraid, Élisabeth. Nothing of the kind will happen. There can’t be war unless somebody declares it. And who would be fool enough, criminal enough, to do anything so abominable?”
“I am not afraid,” she said, “and I am sure that I should be very brave if you had to go. Only . . . only it would be worse for us than for anybody else. Just think, darling: we were only married this morning!”
At this reference to their wedding of a few hours ago, containing so great a promise of deep and lasting joy, her charming face lit up, under its halo of golden curls, with a smile of utter trustfulness; and she whispered:
“Married this morning, Paul! . . . So you can understand that my load of happiness is not yet very heavy.”
There was a movement among the crowd. Everybody gathered around the exit. A general officer, accompanied by two aides-de-camp, stepped out into the station-yard, where a motor-car stood waiting for him. The strains were heard of a military band; a battalion of light infantry marched down the road. Next came a team of sixteen horses, driven by artillery-men and dragging an enormous siege-piece which, in spite of the weight of its carriage, looked[Pg 12] light, because of the extreme length of the gun. A herd of bullocks followed.
Paul, who was unable to find a porter, was standing on the pavement, carrying the two traveling-bags, when a man in leather gaiters, green velveteen breeches and a shooting-jacket with horn buttons, came up to him and raised his cap:
“M. Paul Delroze?” he said. “I am the keeper at the château.”
He had a powerful, open face, a skin hardened by exposure to the sun and the cold, hair that was already turning gray and that rather uncouth manner often displayed by old servants whose place allows them a certain degree of independence. For seventeen years he had lived on the great estate of Ornequin, above Corvigny, and managed it for Élisabeth’s father, the Comte d’Andeville.
“Ah, so you’re Jérôme?” cried Paul. “Good! I see you had the Comte d’Andeville’s letter. Have our servants come?”
“They arrived this morning, sir, the three of them; and they have been helping my wife and me to tidy up the house and make it ready to receive the master and the mistress.”
He took off his cap again to Élisabeth, who said:
“Then you remember me, Jérôme? It is so long since I was here!”
“Mlle. Élisabeth was four years old then. It was a real sorrow for my wife and me when we heard that you would not come back to the house . . . nor[Pg 13] Monsieur le Comte either, because of his poor dead wife. So Monsieur le Comte does not mean to pay us a little visit this year?”
“No, Jérôme, I don’t think so. Though it is so many years ago, my father is still very unhappy.”
Jérôme took the bags and placed them in a fly which he had ordered at Corvigny. The heavy luggage was to follow in the farm-cart.
It was a fine day and Paul told them to lower the hood. Then he and his wife took their seats.
“It’s not a very long drive,” said the keeper. “Under ten miles. But it’s up-hill all the way.”
“Is the house more or less fit to live in?” asked Paul.
“Well, it’s not like a house that has been lived in; but you’ll see for yourself, sir. We’ve done the best we could. My wife is so pleased that you and the mistress are coming! You’ll find her waiting for her at the foot of the steps. I told her that you would be there between half-past six and seven. . . .”
The fly drove off.
“He seems a decent sort of man,” said Paul to Élisabeth, “but he can’t have much opportunity for talking. He’s making up for lost time.”
The street climbed the steep slope of the Corvigny hills and constituted, between two rows of shops, hotels and public buildings, the main artery of the town, blocked on this day with unaccustomed traffic. Then it dipped and skirted Vauban’s ancient bastions. Next came a switchback road across a plain[Pg 14] commanded on the right and left by the two forts known as the Petit and the Grand Jonas.
As they drove along this winding road, which meandered through fields of oats and wheat beneath the leafy vault formed overhead by the close-ranked poplars, Paul Delroze came back to the episode of his childhood which he had promised to tell to Élisabeth:
“As I said, Élisabeth, the incident is connected with a terrible tragedy, so closely connected that the two form only one episode in my memory. The tragedy was much talked about at the time; and your father, who was a friend of my father’s, as you know, heard of it through the newspapers. The reason why he did not mention it to you was that I asked him not to, because I wanted to be the first to tell you of events . . . so painful to myself.”
Their hands met and clasped. He knew that every one of his words would find a ready listener; and, after a brief pause, he continued:
“My father was one of those men who compel the sympathy and even the affection of all who know them. He had a generous, enthusiastic, attractive nature and an unfailing good-humor, took a passionate interest in any fine cause and any fine spectacle, loved life and enjoyed it with a sort of precipitate haste. He enlisted in 1870 as a volunteer, earned his lieutenant’s commission on the battlefield and found the soldier’s heroic existence so well suited to his tastes that he volunteered a second time for[Pg 15] Tonkin, and a third to take part in the conquest of Madagascar. . . . On his return from this campaign, in which he was promoted to captain and received the Legion of Honor, he married. Six years later he was a widower.”
“You were like me, Paul,” said Élisabeth. “You hardly enjoyed the happiness of knowing your mother.”
“No, for I was only four years old. But my father, who felt my mother’s death most cruelly, bestowed all his affection upon me. He made a point of personally giving me my early education. He left nothing undone to perfect my physical training and to make a strong and plucky lad of me. I loved him with all my heart. To this day I cannot think of him without genuine emotion. . . . When I was eleven years old, I accompanied him on a journey through France, which he had put off for years because he wanted me to take it with him at an age when I could understand its full meaning. It was a pilgrimage to the identical places and along the roads where he had fought during the terrible year.”
“Did your father believe in the possibility of another war?”
“Yes; and he wanted to prepare me for it. ‘Paul,’ he said, ‘I have no doubt that one day you will be facing the same enemy whom I fought against. From this moment pay no attention to any fine words of peace that you may hear, but hate that enemy with all the hatred of which you are capable. Whatever[Pg 16] people may say, he is a barbarian, a vain-glorious, bloodthirsty brute, a beast of prey. He crushed us once and he will not rest content until he has crushed us again and, this time, for good. When that day comes, Paul, remember all the journeys which we have made together. Those which you will take will mark so many triumphant stages, I am sure of it. But never forget the names of these places, Paul; never let your joy in victory wipe out their names of sorrow and humiliation: Froeschwiller, Mars-la-Tour, Saint-Privat and the rest. Mind, Paul, and remember!’ And he then smiled. ‘But why should I trouble? He himself, the enemy, will make it his business to arouse hatred in the hearts of those who have forgotten and those who have not seen. Can he change? Not he! You’ll see, Paul, you’ll see. Nothing that I can say to you will equal the terrible reality. They are monsters.'”
Paul Delroze ceased. His wife asked him a little timidly:
“Do you think your father was absolutely right?”
“He may have been influenced by cruel recollections that were too recent in his memory. I have traveled a good deal in Germany, I have even lived there, and I believe that the state of men’s minds has altered. I confess, therefore, that I sometimes find a difficulty in understanding my father’s words. And yet . . . and yet they very often disturb me. And then what happened afterwards is so inexplicable.”
The carriage had slackened its pace. The road[Pg 17] was rising slowly towards the hills that overhang the Liseron Valley. The sun was setting in the direction of Corvigny. They passed a diligence, laden with trunks, and two motor cars crowded with passengers and luggage. A picket of cavalry galloped across the fields.
“Let’s get out and walk,” said Paul Delroze.
They followed the carriage on foot; and Paul continued:
“The rest of what I have to tell you, Élisabeth, stands out in my memory in very precise details, that seem to emerge as though from a thick fog in which I cannot see a thing. For instance, I just know that, after this part of our journey, we were to go from Strasburg to the Black Forest. Why our plans were changed I cannot tell. . . . I can see myself one morning in the station at Strasburg, stepping into the train for the Vosges . . . yes, for the Vosges. . . . My father kept on reading a letter which he had just received and which seemed to gratify him. The letter may have affected his arrangements; I don’t know. We lunched in the train. There was a storm brewing, it was very hot and I fell asleep, so that all I can remember is a little German town where we hired two bicycles and left our bags in the cloak-room. It’s all very vague in my mind. We rode across the country.”
“But don’t you remember what the country was like?”
“No, all I know is that suddenly my father said:[Pg 18] ‘There, Paul, we’re crossing the frontier; we’re in France now.’ Later on—I can’t say how long after—he stopped to ask his road of a peasant, who showed him a short-cut through the woods. But the road and the short-cut are nothing more in my mind than an impenetrable darkness in which my thoughts are buried. . . . Then, all of a sudden, the darkness is rent and I see, with astonishing plainness, a glade in the wood, tall trees, velvety moss and an old chapel. And the rain falls in great, thick drops, and my father says, ‘Let’s take shelter, Paul.’ Oh, how I remember the sound of his voice and how exactly I picture the little chapel, with its walls green with damp! We went and put our bicycles under shelter at the back, where the roof projected a little way beyond the choir. Just then the sound of a conversation reached us from the inside and we heard the grating of a door that opened round the corner. Some one came out and said, in German, ‘There’s no one here. Let us make haste.’ At that moment we were coming round the chapel, intending to go in by this side door; and it so happened that my father, who was leading the way, suddenly found himself in the presence of the man who had spoken in German. Both of them stepped back, the stranger apparently very much annoyed and my father astounded at the unexpected meeting. For a second or two, perhaps, they stood looking at each other without moving. I heard my father say, under his breath, ‘Is it possible? The Emperor?’ And I myself, surprised as I[Pg 19] was at the words, had not a doubt of it, for I had often seen the Kaiser’s portrait; the man in front of us was the German Emperor.”
“The German Emperor?” echoed Élisabeth. “You can’t mean that!”
“Yes, the Emperor in France! He quickly lowered his head and turned the velvet collar of his great, flowing cape right up to the brim of his hat, which was pulled down over his eyes. He looked towards the chapel. A lady came out, followed by a man whom I hardly saw, a sort of servant. The lady was tall, a young woman still, dark and rather good-looking. . . . The Emperor seized her arm with absolute violence and dragged her away, uttering angry words which we were unable to hear. They took the road by which we had come, the road leading to the frontier. The servant had hurried into the woods and was walking on ahead. ‘This really is a queer adventure,’ said my father, laughing. ‘What on earth is William doing here? Taking the risk in broad daylight, too! I wonder if the chapel possesses some artistic interest. Come and see, Paul.’ . . . We went in. A dim light made its way through a window black with dust and cobwebs. But this dim light was enough to show us some stunted pillars and bare walls and not a thing that seemed to deserve the honor of an imperial visit, as my father put it, adding, ‘It’s quite clear that William came here as a tripper, at hazard, and that he is very cross at having his escapade discovered. I[Pg 20] expect the lady who was with him told him that he was running no danger. That would account for his irritation and his reproaches.'”
Paul broke off again. Élisabeth nestled up against him timidly. Presently he continued:
“It’s curious, isn’t it, Élisabeth, that all these little details, which really were comparatively unimportant for a boy of my age, should have been recorded faithfully in my mind, whereas so many other and much more essential facts have left no trace at all. However, I am telling you all this just as if I still had it before my eyes and as if the words were still sounding in my ears. And at this very moment I can see, as plainly as I saw her at the moment when we left the chapel, the Emperor’s companion coming back and crossing the glade with a hurried step; and I can hear her say to my father, ‘May I ask a favor of you, monsieur?’ She had been running and was out of breath, but did not wait for him to answer and at once added, ‘The gentleman you saw would like to speak to you.’ This was said in perfect French without the least accent. . . . My father hesitated. But his hesitation seemed to shock her as though it were an unspeakable offense against the person who had sent her; and she said, in a harsher tone, ‘Surely you do not mean to refuse!’ ‘Why not?’ said my father, with obvious impatience. ‘I am not here to receive orders.’ She restrained herself and said, ‘It is not an order, it is a wish.’ ‘Very well,’ said my father, ‘I will agree to the interview. I will[Pg 21] wait for your friend here.’ She seemed shocked. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘you must . . .’ ‘I must put myself out, must I?’ cried my father, in a loud voice. ‘You expect me to cross the frontier to where somebody is condescending to expect me? I am sorry, madam, but I will not consent to that. Tell your friend that if he fears an indiscretion on my part he can set his mind at rest. Come along, Paul.’ He took off his hat to the lady and bowed. But she barred his way: ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘you must do what I ask. What is a promise of discretion worth? The thing must be settled one way or the other; and you yourself will admit. . . .’ Those were the last words I heard. She was standing opposite my father in a violent and hostile attitude. Her face was distorted with an expression of fierceness that terrified me. Oh, why did I not foresee what was going to happen? . . . But I was so young! And it all came so quickly! . . . She walked up to my father and, so to speak, forced him back to the foot of a large tree, on the right of the chapel. They raised their voices. She made a threatening gesture. He began to laugh. And suddenly, immediately, she whipped out a knife—I can see the blade now, flashing through the darkness—and stabbed him in the chest, twice . . . twice, there, full in the chest. My father fell to the ground.”
Paul Delroze stopped, pale with the memory of the crime.
“I shouted, I rushed towards him, but a hand caught me in an irresistible grip. It was the man, the servant, who had darted out of the woods and seized me. I saw his knife raised above my head. I felt a terrible blow on my shoulder. Then I also fell.”
Categories: English Literature