The Attack on the Mill
by Émile Zola
Old Merlier’s mill was in high feather, that fine summer evening. In the courtyard they had set out three tables, end to end, ready for the guests. All the country knew that, on that day, Merlier’s daughter Françoise was to be betrothed to Dominique, a fellow who had the name of being an idle loafer, but whom the women for eight miles round looked at with glistening eyes, so well-favored was he.
This mill of old Merlier’s was a real delight. It stood just in the middle of Rocreuse, at the point where the highway makes a sharp turn. The village has only one street, two rows of hovels, one row on each side of the road; but there, at the corner, the fields spread out wide, great trees, following the course of the Morelle, cover the depths of the valley with a magnificent shade. There is not in all Lorraine a more lovely bit of nature. To the right and left, thick woods of century-old trees rise up the gentle slopes, filling the horizon with a sea of verdure; while, towards the south, the plain stretches out marvellously fertile, unfolding without end its plots of land divided by live hedges. But what, above all else, gives Rocreuse its charm is the coolness of this green nook in the hottest days of July and August. The Morelle comes down from the Gagny woods, and it seems as if it brought with it the coolness of the foliage beneath which it flows for miles; it brings the murmuring sounds, the icy and sequestered shade of the forests. And it is not the only source of coolness: all sorts of running water babble beneath the trees; at every step springs gush forth; you feel, while following the narrow paths, as if subterranean lakes were forcing their way through the moss, and taking advantage of the smallest fissures, at the foot of trees, between rocks, to overflow in crystalline fountains. The whispering voices of these brooks rise so multitudinous and high that they drown the bulfinches’ song. You would think yourself in some enchanted park, with waterfalls on every hand.
Below, the meadows are soaking wet. Gigantic chestnuts cast their black shadows. Along the edge of the fields, long lines of poplars spread out their rustling drapery. There are two avenues of huge sycamore-maples rising across the fields, up toward the old chateau of Gagny, now in ruins. In this perpetually watered soil the weeds grow rank. It is like a flower garden lying between two wooded hillsides; but a natural garden, in which the lawns are fields, and giant trees trace out colossal flower-beds. When the sun, at noon, casts its rays straight down, the shadows turn blue, the scorched weeds slumber in the heat, while an icy shudder runs along beneath the foliage.
It was there that old Merlier’s mill enlivened a nook of rank green growth with its clacking. The building, of planks and mortar, seemed as old as the world. Half of it dipped into the Morelle, which, at this point, widens out into a clear, rounded basin. A dam was contrived to let the water fall from a height of several metres upon the mill-wheel, which turned creaking, with the asthmatic cough of a faithful servant, grown old in the household. When people advised old Merlier to change it for a new one, he would shake his head, saying that a young wheel would be lazier and not so well up in its business; and he mended the old one with everything that came to hand,—staves of casks, bits of rusty iron, zinc, lead. The wheel seemed all the gayer for it, its outline grown strange, all beplumed with weeds and moss. When the water beat against it with its silver stream, it would cover itself with beads, you saw it deck out its strange carcass with a sparkling bedizenment of mother-of-pearl necklaces.
The part of the mill that thus dipped into the Morelle looked like a barbarous ark, stranded there. A good half of the structure was built on piles. The water ran in under the board floor; there, too, were holes, well known in the country for the eels and enormous crawfish caught there. Above the fall, the basin was as clear as a mirror, and when the wheel did not cloud it with its foam, you could see shoals of large fish swimming there with the deliberateness of a naval squadron. A broken flight of steps led down to the river, near a stake to which a boat was moored. A wooden balcony ran above the wheel. Windows opened upon it, cut at irregular distances. This pellmell of corners, little walls, L’s added as an after-thought, beams and bits of roof, gave the mill the appearance of an old dismantled citadel. But ivy had grown there, all sorts of climbing vines had stopped up the two wide cracks and thrown a cloak of green over the old dwelling. Young ladies who passed by would sketch old Merlier’s mill in their albums.
Toward the road the house was stouter. A stone gateway opened upon the main courtyard, which was bordered on the right by sheds and stables. Near a well a huge elm covered half the courtyard with its shade. At the farther end, the house showed the line of its four first-story windows, surmounted by a pigeon-house. Old Merlier’s only bit of dandyism was to have this wall whitewashed every ten years. It had just been whitened, and dazzled the village when the sun lighted it up in the middle of the day.
For twenty years old Merlier had been mayor of Rocreuse. He was esteemed for the fortune he had managed to make. He was supposed to be worth something like eighty thousand francs, laid up sou by sou. When he married Madeleine Guillard, who brought him the mill as her dowry, he hardly possessed anything but his two arms; but Madeleine never repented her choice, so well did he manage the affairs of the household. Now that his wife was dead, he remained a widower with his daughter Françoise. No doubt, he might have taken a rest, left his mill to sleep in the moss; but he would have been too much bored, and the house would have seemed dead to him. He kept on working, for the fun of it. Old Merlier was then a tall old man, with a long, silent face, never laughing, but very jolly internally, nevertheless. He had been chosen for mayor on account of his money, and also for the fine air he knew how to assume, when he married a couple.
Françoise Merlier was just eighteen. She did not pass for one of the beauties of the countryside; she was too puny. Up to the age of eleven she was even ugly. No one in Rocreuse could understand how the daughter of father and mother Merlier, both of them ruggedly built, could grow up so ill, and, so to speak, grudgingly. But at fifteen, although still delicate, she had the prettiest little face in the world. She had black hair, black eyes, and at the same time was all rosy; a mouth that laughed all the time, dimpled cheeks, a clear brow on which there seemed to rest a crown of sunshine. Although puny for the neighborhood, she was not thin, far from it; people only meant that she could not shoulder a sack of grain; but she grew very plump with time, and stood a good chance of ending by being round and dainty as a quail. Only her father’s long spells of speechlessness had made her thoughtful at an early age. If she was always laughing, it was to give others pleasure. At bottom, she was serious.
Naturally all the countryside courted her, still more for her dollars than for her niceness. And at last, she made a choice that had just scandalized the country. On the other side of the Morelle lived a young fellow, named Dominique Penquer. He did not belong in Rocreuse. Ten years before, he had come there from Belgium, to take possession of a legacy from an uncle of his who owned a little piece of property on the very outskirts of the Gagny forest, just opposite the mill, within a few gunshots. He came to sell this property, he said, and go home again. But the country fascinated him, it seems, for he did not stir. He was seen tilling his bit of field, picking a few vegetables, on which he lived. He fished, he went shooting; several times the gamekeepers just missed catching him and reporting him to the authorities. This free life, the material resources of which the peasants could not well account for, had at last given him a bad name. He was vaguely spoken of as a poacher. At all events, he was lazy, for he was often found asleep in the grass at times when he ought to have been at work. The hut in which he lived, under the first trees of the forest, did not look like an honest fellow’s dwelling either. If he had had business with the wolves of the old ruins of Gagny, it would not have surprised the old women. Yet the girls would, now and then, have the audacity to stand up for him; for this suspicious man was a superb fellow, tall and supple as a poplar, with a very white skin, and fair beard and hair that shone like gold in the sun. So, one fine morning, Françoise declared to her father that she loved Dominique, and that she would never consent to marry any one else.
You can imagine what a blow old Merlier received that day. He said nothing, as usual. He always looked thoughtful in the face; only his internal jollity stopped sparkling in his eyes. The two did not speak for a week. Françoise, too, was very grave. What bothered old Merlier was to make out how in the world that rascal of a poacher could have bewitched his daughter. Dominique had never come to the mill. The miller began to watch him, and espied the gallant on the other side of the Morelle, lying in the grass and pretending to be asleep. The thing was clear: they must have fallen in love, making sheep’s-eyes at each other across the mill-wheel.
Meanwhile another week passed by. Françoise looked more and more solemn. Old Merlier still said nothing. Then, one evening, he brought Dominique home with him, without a word. Françoise was just setting the table. She did not seem astonished; she only added another plate and knife and fork; but the little dimples appeared once more in her cheeks, and her laugh came back again. That morning old Merlier had gone after Dominique to his hut on the outskirts of the wood. There the two men had talked for three hours, with closed doors and windows. No one ever knew what they found to say to each other. What was certain was that, on coming out, old Merlier already treated Dominique like his own son. No doubt, the old man had found the man he was after, a fine fellow, in this lazybones who lay in the grass to make the girls fall in love with him.
All Rocreuse gossiped. The women, in the doorways, did not run dry of tittle-tattle about old Merlier’s folly in taking a scapegrace into his household. He let them talk on. Perhaps he remembered his own marriage. Neither had he a red sou when he married Madeleine and her mill; but that did not prevent his making a good husband. Besides, Dominique cut the gossip short by going to work with such a will that the whole country marvelled at it. It so happened that the miller’s boy had just been drafted; and Dominique would never hear of his hiring another. He carried the sacks, drove the cart, struggled with the old wheel when it had to be begged hard before it would turn, and all with such a will that people would come to look at him for sheer pleasure. Old Merlier laughed his quiet laugh. He was very proud of having scented out this fellow. There is nothing like love for putting heart into young people.
In the midst of all this hard work Françoise and Dominique adored each other. They hardly ever spoke, but they looked at each other with smiling tenderness. So far, old Merlier had not said a single word about the marriage; and they both respected this silence, awaiting the old man’s pleasure. At last, one day about the middle of July, he had three tables set out in the courtyard under the big elm, inviting his friends in Rocreuse to come and take a drink with him in the evening. When the courtyard was full, and every one had his glass in his hand, old Merlier raised his very high, saying:
——”This is for the pleasure of announcing to you that Françoise will marry that fellow there in a month, on Saint-Louis’s day.”
Then they clinked glasses noisily. Everybody laughed. But old Merlier, raising his voice, went on,—
——”Dominique, kiss your intended. That must be done.”
And they kissed each other, very red, while the crowd laughed still louder. It was a real jollification. A small cask was emptied. Then, when only the intimate friends were left, they chatted quietly. Night had come, a starlit and very clear night. Dominique and Françoise, sitting side by side on a bench, said nothing. An old peasant spoke of the war the emperor had declared with Prussia. All the boys in the village were already gone. The day before, troops had passed through. There would be hard knocks going.
——”Bah!” said old Merlier, with a happy man’s egoism. “Dominique is a foreigner, he won’t go. . . . And, if the Prussians come, he will be here to defend his wife.”
This notion that the Prussians might come seemed a good joke. They were to be given an A i thrashing, and it would be soon over.
——”I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em,” the old peasant said over and over again.
There was a silence. Then they clinked glasses once more. Françoise and Dominique had heard nothing; they had taken each other softly by the hand, behind the bench, so that no one could see them, and it seemed so good that they stayed there, their eyes lost in the depths of the darkness.
How warm and splendid a night! The village was falling asleep on both sides of the road, tranquil as a child. You only heard, from time to time, the crowing of some cock, waked too soon. From the great woods hard by came long breaths that passed like caresses over the roofs. The meadows, with their black shadows, put on a mysterious and secluded majesty, while all the running waters that gushed forth into the darkness seemed to be the cool and rhythmic breathing of the sleeping country. At moments, the mill-wheel, fast asleep, seemed to be dreaming, like those old watchdogs that bark while snoring. It creaked, it talked all by itself, lulled by the falls of the Morelle, whose sheet of water gave forth the sustained and musical note of an organ pipe. Never had more widespread peace fallen over a happier corner of the earth.
Just a month later, day for day, on Saint-Louis’s eve, Rocreuse was in dismay. The Prussians had beaten the emperor, and were advancing toward the village by forced marches. For a week past, people passing along the road had announced the Prussians: “They are at Lormière, they are at Novelles;” and, hearing that they were approaching so fast, Rocreuse thought, every morning, to see them come down by the Gagny woods. Still, they did not come; this frightened the inhabitants still more. They would surely fall upon the village at night and cut everybody’s throat.
The night before, a little before daybreak, there had been, an alarm. The inhabitants had waked up, hearing a great noise of men on the road. The women were just falling upon their knees and crossing themselves, when red trousers were recognized through cracks of windows prudently opened. It was a detachment of French. The captain immediately asked for the mayor of the place, and stayed at the mill, after talking with old Merlier.
The sun rose gayly that day. It would be hot at noon. Over the woods floated a yellow light, while in the distance, above the meadows, rose white vapors. The clean, pretty village awoke in the cool air, and the country, with its river and springs, had the dew-sprinkled loveliness of a nosegay. But this fine weather made no one laugh. They had just seen the captain walk round about the mill, examine the neighboring houses, cross to the other side of the Morelle, and from there study the country through a spyglass; old Merlier, who was with him, seemed to be explaining the country to him. Then the captain stationed soldiers behind walls, behind trees, in holes in the ground. The bulk of the detachment was encamped in the courtyard of the mill. So there was to be a fight? And when old Merlier came back, he was plied with questions. He gave a long nod with his head, without speaking. Yes, there was to be a fight.
Françoise and Dominique were in the courtyard, looking at him. At last, he took his pipe out of his mouth and said simply,—
——”Ah! my poor children, there will be no wedding for you to-morrow!”
Dominique, his lips set, a line of anger across his forehead, raised himself up on tiptoe from time to time, with his eyes fixed on the Gagny woods, as if he longed to see the Prussians come. Françoise, very pale, serious, came and went, supplying the soldiers with what they needed. They were making their soup in a corner of the courtyard, and joking while waiting for their meal.
Meanwhile the captain seemed delighted. He had examined the rooms and the great hall of the mill, looking out upon the river. Now, sitting by the well, he was talking with old Merlier.
——”You have a real fortress here,” said he. “We ought to hold out till evening. . . . The beggars are late. They should be here by this time.”
The miller looked serious. He saw his mill flaming like a torch; but he did not complain, thinking it useless. He only opened his mouth to say,—
——”You ought to have some one hide the boat behind the wheel. There is a hole there that will hold her. . . . Perhaps she may be of use.”
The captain gave an order. This captain was a handsome man of about forty, tall and with a kindly face. The sight of Françoise and Dominique seemed to please him. He was interested in them, as if he had forgotten the coming struggle. He followed Françoise about with his eyes, and his look told plainly that he found her charming. Then, turning to Dominique,—
——”So you’re not in the army, my boy?” he asked abruptly.
——”I’m a foreigner,” the young man answered.
The captain seemed only half pleased with this reason. He winked and smiled. Françoise was pleasanter company than cannon. Then, seeing him smile, Dominique added,—
——”I’m a foreigner, but I can put a bullet into an apple at five hundred metres. . . . See, my gun’s there, behind you.”
——”It may be of use to you,” the captain replied simply.
Françoise had come up, trembling a little. And, without minding the people there, Dominique took both the hands she held out to him, and pressed them in his, as if to take her under his protection. The captain smiled again, but added not a word. He remained sitting, his sword between his legs, his eyes looking at vacancy, as if in a dream.
It was already two o’clock. It was growing very hot. There was a dead silence. In the courtyard, under the sheds, the soldiers had fallen to eating their soup. Not a sound came from the village, in which the people had barricaded their houses, doors, and windows. A dog, left alone in the road, was howling. From the neighboring woods and meadows, motionless in the heat, came a far-off voice, long sustained, made up of every separate breath of air. A cuckoo was singing. Then the silence spread itself over the country also.
And, in this slumbering air, a shot suddenly burst forth. The captain sprang up quickly, the soldiers dropped their plates of soup, still half full. In a few seconds, every man was at his post for the fight; the mill was occupied from top to bottom. Yet the captain, who had gone out upon the road, could make out nothing; to the right and left, the road stretched out, empty and all white. A second shot was heard, and still nothing, not a shadow; but, on turning round, he espied, over towards Gagny, between two trees, a light cloudlet of smoke wafted away like gossamer. The wood was still profoundly quiet.
——”The rascals have taken to the forest,” he muttered. “They know we are here.”
Then the firing kept up harder, and harder, between the French soldiers, stationed round the mill, and the Prussians, hidden behind the trees. The bullets whistled across the Morelle, without occasioning any loss on one side or the other. The shots were irregular, came from every bush; and all you saw was still the little clouds of smoke gently wafted away by the wind. This lasted for nearly two hours. The officer hummed a tune, as if indifferent. Françoise and Dominique, who had stayed in the courtyard, raised themselves up on tiptoe, and looked over the wall. They were particularly interested in watching a little soldier, stationed on the brink of the Morelle, behind the hulk of an old boat; he was flat on his belly, watched his chance, fired his shot, then let himself slide down into a ditch, a little behind him, to reload his rifle; and his movements were so droll, so cunning, so supple, that it made one smile to see him. He must have espied the head of some Prussian, for he got up quickly and brought his piece to his shoulder; but, before he fired, he gave a cry, turned over upon himself, and rolled into the ditch, where his legs stiffened out with the momentary, convulsive jerk of those of a chicken with its neck wrung. The little soldier had received a bullet full in the breast. He was the first man killed. Instinctively Françoise seized hold of Dominique’s hand and squeezed it with a nervous grip.
——”Don’t stay there,” said the captain. “The bullets reach here.”
As he spoke a little, sharp stroke was heard in the old elm, and a branch fell in zigzags through the air; but the two young people did not stir, riveted there by anxiety at the sight. On the outskirts of the wood, a Prussian came out suddenly from behind a tree, as from a side scene, beating the air with his arms, and tumbling over backwards. And then nothing stirred, the two dead men seemed to sleep in the dazzling sunshine, you saw no one in the torpid landscape. Even the crack of the shots stopped. Only the Morelle kept up its silver-toned whispering.
Old Merlier looked at the captain in surprise, as if to ask if it were over.
——”Here it comes,” the latter muttered. “Look out! Don’t stay there.”
He had not finished speaking when there came a terrific volley. It was as if the great elm were mowed down, a cloud of leaves whirled about them. Luckily the Prussians had fired too high. Dominique dragged, almost carried Françoise away, while old Merlier followed them, crying out,—
——”Go down to the little cellar; the walls are solid.”
But they did not mind him, they went into the great hall, where ten soldiers, or so, were waiting in silence, with shutters closed, peeping through the cracks. The captain had stayed alone in the courtyard, crouched down behind the little wall, while the furious volleys continued. The soldiers he had stationed outside yielded ground only foot by foot. Yet they came in, one by one, crawling on their faces, when the enemy had dislodged them from their hiding-places. Their orders were to gain time, not to show themselves, so that the Prussians might not know what numbers they had before them. Another hour went by; and, as a sergeant came up, saying that there were only two or three men left outside, the officer looked at his watch, muttering,—
——”Half after two. . . . Come, we must hold out four hours.”
He had the gate of the courtyard shut, and all preparations were made for an energetic resistance. As the Prussians were on the other side of the Morelle, an immediate assault was not to be feared. To be sure, there was a bridge, a little over a mile off, but they doubtless did not know of its existence, and it was hardly probable that they would try to ford the river. So the officer merely had the road watched. The whole effort was to be made on the side toward the fields.
The firing had once more ceased. The mill seemed dead beneath the hot sun. Not a shutter was opened, not a sound came from the inside. Little by little, meanwhile, the Prussians showed themselves at the outskirts of the Gagny wood. They stretched forth their heads, grew more daring. In the mill, several soldiers had already levelled their rifles; but the captain cried out,—
——”No, no, wait. . . . Let them come up.”
They were very cautious about it, looking at the mill with evident distrust. This old dwelling, silent and dismal, with its curtains of ivy made them uneasy. Still, they kept advancing. When there were about fifty of them in the meadow opposite, the officer said a single word,—
A tearing sound was heard, followed by single shots. Françoise, shaken with a fit of trembling, put her hands up to her ears, in spite of herself. Dominique, behind the soldiers, looked on; and, when the smoke had blown away a little, he saw three Prussians stretched on their backs in the middle of the field. The rest had thrown themselves down behind the willows and poplars; and the siege began.
For over an hour the mill was riddled with bullets. They whipped its old walls like hail. When they struck stone, you heard them flatten out and fall back into the water. Into wood they penetrated with a hollow sound. Now and then a cracking told that the wheel had been hit. The soldiers inside husbanded their shots, fired only when they could take aim. From time to time the captain would look at his watch; and, as a ball split a shutter and then lodged in the ceiling,—
——”Four o’clock,” he muttered. “We shall never hold out.”
It was true, this terrible firing of musketry was shivering the old mill. A shutter fell into the water, riddled like a piece of lace, and had to be replaced by a mattress. Old Merlier exposed himself every moment, to make sure of the injury done to his poor wheel, whose cracking went to his heart. It was all over with it, this time; never would he be able to repair it. Dominique had implored Françoise to go, but she would stay with him; she had sat down behind a great oak clothespress, the sides of which gave out a deep sound. Then Dominique placed himself in front of Françoise. He had not fired yet; he held his gun in his hands, not being able to get up to the windows, whose entire width was taken up by the soldiers. At every discharge the floor shook.
——”Look out! look out!” the captain cried of a sudden.
He had just seen a whole black mass come out from the wood. Immediately a formidable platoon fire was opened. It was as if a waterspout had passed over the mill. Another shutter gave way, and, by the gaping opening of the window, the bullets came in. Two soldiers rolled upon the floor. One did not move; they pushed him up against the wall, because he was in the way. The other squirmed on the ground, begging them to make an end of him; but no one minded him, the balls kept coming in, every one shielded himself, and tried to find a loophole to fire back through. A third soldier was wounded; he said not a word, he let himself slide down by the edge of a table, with fixed and haggard eyes. Opposite these dead men, Françoise, seized with horror, had pushed her chair aside mechanically, to sit down on the ground next the wall; she felt smaller there, and in less danger. Meanwhile they had gone after all the mattresses in the house, and had half stopped up the window. The hall was getting filled with rubbish, with broken weapons, with gutted furniture.
——”Five o’clock,” said the captain. “Keep it up. . . . They are going to try to cross the water.”
At this instant Françoise gave a shriek. A rebounding ball had just grazed her forehead. A few drops of blood appeared. Dominique looked at her; then, stepping up to the window, he fired his first shot, and kept on firing. He loaded, fired, without paying any attention to what was going on near him; only from time to time he would give Françoise a look. For the rest, he did not hurry himself, took careful aim. The Prussians, creeping along by the poplars, were attempting the passage of the Morelle, as the captain had foreseen; but, as soon as one of them risked showing himself, he would fall, hit in the head by a ball from Dominique. The captain, who followed this game, was astonished. He complimented the young man, saying that he would be glad to have a lot of marksmen like him. Dominique did not hear him. A ball cut his shoulder, another bruised his arm; and he kept on firing.
There were two more men killed. The matresses, all slashed to bits, no longer stopped up the windows. A last volley seemed as if it would carry away the mill. The position was no longer tenable. Still the officer repeated,—
——”Stick to it. . . . Half an hour more.”
Now he counted the minutes. He had promised his superior officers to hold the enemy there until evening, and would not draw back a sole’s breadth before the time he had set for the retreat. He still had his gracious manner, smiling at Françoise, to reassure her. He himself had just picked up a dead soldier’s rifle, and was firing.
There were only four soldiers left in the hall. The Prussians showed themselves in a body on the other bank of the Morelle, and it was evident that they might cross the river at any time. A few minutes more elapsed. The captain stuck to it obstinately, would not give the order to retreat, when a sergeant came running up, saying.—
——”They are on the road, they are going to take us in the rear.”
The Prussians must have found the bridge. The captain pulled out his watch.
——”Five minutes more,” said he. “They won’t be here for five minutes.”
Then, at the stroke of six, he at last consented to order his men out by a little door, opening upon an alleyway. From there they threw themselves into a ditch, they reached the Sauval forest. Before going, the captain saluted old Merlier very politely, excusing himself. And he even added,—
——”Make them lose time. . . . We shall be back again.”
Meanwhile Dominique stayed on in the hall. He still kept firing, hearing nothing, understanding nothing. He only felt that he must defend Françoise. The soldiers were gone, without his suspecting it the least in the world. He took aim and killed his man at every shot. Suddenly there was a loud noise. The Prussians, from the rear, had just overrun the courtyard. He fired his last shot, and they fell upon him as his piece was still smoking.
Four men held him. Others shouted round him in a frightful language. They all but cut his throat off-hand. Françoise threw herself before him in supplication; but an officer came in and took charge of the prisoner. After a few sentences exchanged in German with the soldiers, he turned to Dominique and said roughly, and in very good French,—
——”You will be shot in two hours.”
It was a rule made by the German staff: every Frenchman not belonging to the regular army, and taken with arms in his hands, should be shot. Even the guerilla companies were not recognized as belligerents. By thus making terrible examples of the peasants who defended their own firesides, the Germans wished to prevent the uprising of the whole country en masse, which they dreaded.
The officer, a tall, lean man of about fifty, put Dominique through a brief examination. Although he spoke very pure French, he had quite the Prussian stiffness.
——”You belong in these parts?”
——”No, I am a Belgian.”
——”Why have you taken up arms? . . . All this can’t be any of your business.”
Dominique did not answer. At this moment, the officer caught sight of Françoise, standing upright and very pale, listening; her slight wound put a red bar across her white forehead. He looked at the young people, one after the other, seemed to understand, and contented himself with adding,—
——”You don’t deny that you were firing?”
——”I fired as long as I was able,” Dominique answered quietly.
This confession was needless, for he was black with powder, covered with sweat, spotted with some drops of blood that had run down from the scratch on his shoulder.
——”Very well,” the officer repeated. “You will be shot in two hours.”
Françoise did not cry out. She clasped her hands together and raised them in a gesture of mute despair. The officer noticed this gesture. Two soldiers had led Dominique away into the next room, where they were to keep him in sight. The young girl had dropped down upon a chair, her legs giving way under her; she could not cry, she was choking. Meanwhile the officer kept looking at her closely. At last he spoke to her.
——”That young man is your brother?” he asked.
She shook her head. He stood there stiff, without a smile. Then, after a silence,
——”He has lived a long while in these parts?”
She nodded yes, still dumb.
——”Then he must know the woods round here very well?”
This time she spoke.
——”Yes, sir,” she said, looking at him in some surprise.
He said no more, and turned on his heel, asking to have the mayor of the village brought to him. But Françoise had risen, a faint blush on her face, thinking to have caught the drift of his questions, and seeing fresh hope in them. It was she who ran to find her father.
Old Merlier, as soon as the shots had ceased, had run quickly down the wooden steps to look at his wheel. He adored his daughter, he had a stout friendship for Dominique, his intended son-in-law; but; his wheel also held a large place in his heart. As the two young ones, as he called them, had come safe and sound out of the scrimmage, he thought of his other love, and this one had suffered grievously. And, bending over the huge wooden carcass, he investigated its wounds, the picture of distress. Five paddles were in splinters, the central framework was riddled. He stuck his fingers into the bullet holes, to measure their depth; he thought over how he could repair all this damage. Françoise found him already stopping up cracks with broken bits of wood and moss.
——”Father,” she said, “you are wanted.”
And at last she wept, telling him what she had just heard. Old Merlier shook his head. You didn’t shoot people that way. He must see. And he went back into the mill, with his silent, pacific air. When the officer asked him for victuals for his men, he answered that the people in Rocreuse were not accustomed to being bullied, and that nothing would be got from them by violence. He took everything upon himself, but on the condition of being allowed to act alone. The officer showed signs, at first, of getting angry at this cool manner; then he gave in to the old man’s curt and businesslike way of talking. He even called him back, to ask him,—
——”What do you call those woods there, opposite?”
——”The Sauval woods.”
——”And what is their extent?”
The miller looked at him fixedly.
——”I don’t know,” he answered.
And he walked away. An hour later the contributions of victuals and money required by the officer were in the courtyard of the mill. Night was approaching; Françoise followed the soldiers’ movements anxiously. She did not go far from the room in which Dominique was shut up. At about seven she had a poignant emotion; she saw the officer go into the prisoner’s room, and, for a quarter of an hour, she heard their voices raised. One instant, the officer reappeared on the threshold, to give an order in German, which she did not understand; but, when twelve men came and fell into line in the courtyard, with their muskets, she fell a-trembling, she felt ready to die. So it was all over; the execution was to take place. The twelve men waited there ten minutes. Dominique’s voice was still raised in a tone of violent refusal. At last the officer came out, slamming the door and saying,—
——”Very well, think it over. . . . I give you till to-morrow morning.”
And, with a motion of his arm, he ordered the twelve men to break ranks. Françoise stayed on in a sort of stupor. Old Merlier, who had not stopped smoking his pipe, while looking at the squad with an air of simple curiosity, came up and took her by the arm with fatherly gentleness. He led her to her room.
——”Keep quiet,” he said, “try to sleep. . . . To-morrow it will be daylight, and we will see.”
When he withdrew, he locked her in, for prudence sake. It was a principle of his that women were no good, and that they made a mess of it whenever they undertook anything serious. But Françoise did not go to bed; she stayed a long time sitting on her bed, listening to the noises in the house. The German soldiers, encamped in the courtyard, were singing and laughing: they must have been eating and drinking up to eleven, for the noise did not stop for an instant. In the mill itself heavy steps sounded every now and then; no doubt, they were relieving sentries. But what interested her, above all, were noises that she could not make out, in the room under hers. Several times she lay down on the ground, she put her ear to the floor. This room happened to be the one in which Dominique was locked up. He must have been walking from the wall to the window, for she long heard the regular cadence of his steps; then there was a dead silence, he had doubtless sat down. Besides, the noises stopped, everything was hushed in sleep. When the house seemed to her to slumber, she opened the window as softly as possible, and rested her elbows on the sill.
Outside, the night was calm and warm. The slender crescent moon, setting behind the Sauval woods, lighted up the country with the glimmer of a night taper. The elongated shadows of the great trees barred the meadows with black, while the grass, in the unshaded spots, put on the softness of greenish velvet. But Françoise did not stop to note the mysterious charm of the night. She examined the country, looking for the sentinels that the Germans must have stationed on one side. She plainly saw their shadows, ranged like the rungs of a ladder along the Morelle. Only a single one stood opposite the mill, on the other side of the river near a willow whose branches dipped into the water. Françoise saw him distinctly; he was a big fellow, standing motionless, his face turned toward the sky with the dreamy look of a shepherd.
Then, when she had carefully inspected the ground, she went back and sat down upon her bed. She stayed there an hour deeply absorbed. Then she listened again; in the house not a breath stirred. She went back to the window, and looked out; but, no doubt, she saw danger in one of the horns of the moon, which still appeared behind the trees, for she went back again to wait. At last the time seemed to have come. The night was quite dark, she no longer saw the sentinel opposite, the country lay spread out like a pool of ink. She listened intently for a moment, and made up her mind. An iron ladder ran near the window, some bars let into the wall, leading from the wheel up to the loft, down which the millers used to climb, to get at certain cog-wheels; then, when the machinery had been altered, the ladder had long since disappeared beneath the rank growth of ivy that covered that side of the mill.
Françoise bravely climbed over the balustrade of her window, grasped one of the iron bars, and found herself in empty space. She began to climb down. Her skirts were much in her way. Suddenly a stone broke loose from the masonry, and fell into the Morelle with a resounding splash. She stopped, chilled with a shudder. But she saw that the waterfall, with its continuous roar, drowned out from afar any noise she might make, and she climbed down more boldly, feeling for the ivy with her foot, making sure of the rungs of the ladder. When she had got on a level with the room that was used as Dominique’s prison, she stopped. An unforeseen difficulty nearly made her lose all her courage; the window of the room below was not cut regularly under the window of her chamber; it was some way from the ladder, and, when she stretched out her hand, she felt only the wall. Would she have to climb up again, without carrying her plan through to the end? Her arms were getting tired, the murmur of the Morelle beneath her began to make her dizzy. Then she tore off little bits of mortar from the wall, and threw them against Dominique’s window. He did not hear, perhaps he was asleep. She broke off some more pieces from the wall, barking her fingers. And her strength was giving out, she felt herself falling backwards, when Dominique, at last, softly opened his window.
——”It’s I,” she whispered. “Take me quick, I’m falling.”
It was the first time she had tutoyéed him. He caught her, leaning out, and lifted her into the room. There she had a fit of tears stifling her sobs, so as not to be heard. Then, by a supreme effort, she calmed herself.
——”You are guarded?” she asked, in a low voice.
Dominique, still dumfounded at seeing her thus, made a simple sign, pointing to his door. They heard a snoring on the other side; the sentinel must have given way to drowsiness, and lain down on the ground, across the doorway, thinking that, in this way, the prisoner could not get out.
——”You must run away,” she went on rapidly. “I have come to implore you to run away, and to say good-bye.”
But he did not seem to hear her. He kept repeating:
——”How, it’s you, it’s you! . . . how you frightened me! You might have killed yourself.”
He took her hands, he kissed them.
——”How I love you, Françoise! . . . You are as brave as you are good. I only had one fear, that of dying without seeing you once more. . . . But you are here, and now they can shoot me. When I have had a quarter of an hour with you I shall be ready.”
Little by little he had drawn her closer to him, and she rested her head upon his shoulder. The danger drew them nearer together. They forgot all in this embrace.
——”Ah! Françoise,” Dominique went on, in a caressing voice, “to-day is Saint-Louis’s day, our wedding day, that we have waited for so long. Nothing has been able to separate us, since we are here, all alone, faithful to our tryst. . . . It’s our wedding morning now, is n’t it?”
——”Yes, yes,” she repeated, “our wedding morning.”
They exchanged a kiss, trembling. But of a sudden she broke loose, the terrible reality rose up before her.
——”You must run away, you must run away,” she stammered out. “Let us not lose a minute.”
And, as he stretched out his arms once more to take her in the darkness, she again tutoyéed him,—
——”Oh! I beg you, listen to me. . . . If you die, I shall die. In an hour it will be daylight. I wish you to go at once.”
Then, rapidly, she explained her plan. The iron ladder ran down to the wheel: there, he could take the paddles and get into the boat which was in a recess. After that it would be easy for him to reach the other bank of the river and escape.
——”But there must be sentinels there?” he said.
“Only one, opposite, at the foot of the first willow.”
——”And if he sees me, if he tries calling out?”
Françoise shuddered. She put a knife she had brought down with her into his hand. There was a silence.
——”And your father, and you?” Dominique continued. “But no, I can’t run away. . . . When I am gone, maybe these soldiers will slaughter you. . . . You don’t know them. They proposed to show me mercy, if I would be their guide through the Sauval forest. When they find me gone they will stick at nothing.”
The young girl did not stop to discuss. She simply answered all the reasons he gave with,—
——”For the love of me, fly. . . . If you love me, Dominique, don’t stay here a minute longer.”
Then she promised to climb back to her room. They would not know that she had helped him. She at last took him in her arms, kissed him to convince him, in an extraordinary outburst of passion. He was beaten. He asked not a question further.
——”Swear to me that your father knows of what you are doing, and that he advises me to run away?”
——”It was my father sent me,” Françoise answered boldly.
She lied. At this moment she felt nothing but a boundless need of knowing him in safety, of escaping from this abominable thought that the sun would give the signal for his death. When he was gone, all mishaps might rush down upon her; it would seem sweet to her, as long as he was alive. The selfishness of her love wished him alive, before all else.
——”Very well,” said Dominique, “I will do as you please.”
Then they said nothing more. Dominique went to open the window again; but suddenly a noise chilled their blood. The door was shaken, and they thought it was being opened. Evidently a patrol had heard their voices; and both of them, standing pressed against each other, waited in unspeakable anguish. The door was shaken again, but it did not open. Each gave a stifled sigh; they saw how it was, it must have been the soldier lying across the threshold turning over. And really, silence was restored, the snoring began again.
Dominique would have it that Françoise must first climb back to her room. He took her in his arms; he bade her a mute farewell. Then he helped her to seize the ladder, and grappled hold of it in his turn. But he refused to go down a single rung before he knew she was in her room. When Françoise had climbed in, she whispered, in a voice light as a breath,—
——”Au revoir; I love you!”
She stopped with her elbows resting on the window-sill, and tried to follow Dominique with her eyes. The night was still very dark. She looked for the sentinel, and did not see him; only the willow made a pale spot in the midst of the darkness. For an instant she heard the rustling of Dominique’s body along the ivy. Then the wheel creaked, and there was a gentle splashing that told that the young man had found the boat. A minute later, in fact, she made out the dark outline of the boat on the gray sheet of the Morelle. Then anguish stopped her breath. At every moment she thought to hear the sentinel’s cry of alarm. The faintest sounds, scattered through the darkness, seemed to be the hurried tread of soldiers, the clatter of arms, the click of the hammers on the rifles. Yet seconds elapsed, the country slept on in sovereign peace. Dominique must have been landing on the other bank. Françoise saw nothing more. The stillness was majestic. And she heard a noise of scuffling feet, a hoarse cry, the dull thud of a falling body. Then the silence grew deeper; and, as if she had felt death passing by, she waited on, all cold, face to face with the pitch-dark night.
At daybreak, shouting voices shook the mill. Old Merlier had come to open Françoise’s door. She came down into the courtyard, pale and very calm. But there she gave a shudder before the dead body of a Prussian soldier, which was stretched out near the well, on a cloak spread on the ground.
Around the body, soldiers were gesticulating, crying aloud in fury. Many of them shook their fists at the village. Meanwhile, the officer had had old Merlier called, as mayor of the township.
——”See here,” said he, in a voice choking with rage, “here’s one of our men who has been found murdered by the river-side. . . . We must make a tremendous example, and I trust you will help us to find out the murderer.”
——”Anything you please,” answered the miller in his phlegmatic way. “Only it will not be easy.”
The officer had stooped down to throw aside a flap of the cloak that hid the dead man’s face. Then a horrible wound appeared. The sentinel had been struck in the throat, and the weapon was left in the wound. It was a kitchen knife with a black handle.
——”Look at this knife,” said the officer to old Merlier, “perhaps it may help us in our search.”
The old man gave a start. But he recovered himself immediately, and answered, without moving a muscle of his face,—
——”Everybody in these parts has knives like that. . . . Maybe your man was tired of fighting, and did the job himself. Such things have been known to happen.”
——”Shut up!” the officer cried furiously.
“I don’t know what keeps me from setting fire to the four corners of the village.”
His anger luckily prevented his noticing the profound change that had come over Françoise’s face. She had to sit down on the stone bench, near the well. In spite of herself her eyes never left that dead body, stretched on the ground almost at her feet. He was a big, handsome fellow, who looked like Dominique, with light hair and blue eyes. This resemblance made her heart sick. She thought of how the dead man had perhaps left some sweetheart behind, who would weep for him over there, in Germany. And she recognized her knife in the dead man’s throat. She had killed him.
Meanwhile the officer talked of taking terrible measures against Rocreuse, when some soldiers came up running. They had only just noticed Dominique’s escape. It occasioned an extreme agitation. The officer visited the premises, looked out of the window, which had been left open, understood it all, and came back exasperated.
Old Merlier seemed very much put out at Dominique’s flight.
——”The idiot!” he muttered, “he spoils it all.”
Françoise, who heard him, was seized with anguish. For the rest, her father did not suspect her complicity. He shook his head, saying to her in an undertone,—
——”Now we are in a fine scrape!”
——”It’s that rascal! it’s that rascal!” cried the officer. “He must have reached the woods. . . . But he must be found for us, or the village shall pay for it.”
And, addressing the miller,—
——”Come, you must know where he is hiding?”
Old Merlier gave a noiseless chuckle, pointing to the wide extent, of wooded hillside.
——”How do you expect to find a man in there?” said he.
——”Oh! there must be holes in there that you know of. I will give you ten men. You shall be their guide.”
——”All right. Only it will take us a week to beat all the woods in the neighborhood.”
The old man’s coolness infuriated the officer. In fact, he saw the ridiculousness of this battue. It was then that he caught sight of Françoise, pale and trembling, on the bench, The young girl’s anxious attitude struck him. He said nothing for an instant, looking hard at the miller and Françoise by turns.
——”Is n’t this man,” he at last brutally asked the old man, “your daughter’s lover?”
Old Merlier turned livid, and one would have thought him on the point of throwing himself upon the officer and strangling him. He drew himself up stiffly; he did not answer. Françoise put her face between her hands.
——”Yes, that’s it,” the Prussian went on, “you or your daughter have helped him to run away. You are his accomplice. . . . For the last time, will you give him up to us?”
The miller did not answer, He had turned away, looking off into the distance, as if the officer had not been speaking to him. This put the last touch to the latter’s anger.
——”Very well,” he said, “you shall be shot instead.”
And he once more ordered out the firing party. Old Merlier still kept cool. He hardly gave a slight shrug of his shoulders; this whole drama seemed to him in rather bad taste. No doubt, he did not believe that a man was to be shot with so little ado. Then, when the squad had come, he said gravely:
——”You’re in earnest, then? . . . All right. If you absolutely must have some one, I will do as well as another.”
But Françoise sprang up, half crazed, stammering out:
——”Mercy, monsieur, don’t do any harm to my father. Kill me instead. . . . It’s I who helped Dominique to escape. I am the only culprit.”
——”Be quiet, little girl,” cried old Merlier. “What are you lying for? . . . She spent the night locked up in her room, monsieur. She lies, I assure you.”
——”No, I am not lying,” the young girl replied ardently. “I climbed down out of the window, I urged Dominique to fly. . . . It’s the truth, the only truth. . . .”
The old man turned very pale. He saw clearly in her eyes that she was not lying, and this story appalled him. Ah! these children, with their hearts, how they spoiled everything! Then he grew angry.
——”She’s crazy, don’t believe her. She is telling you stupid stories. . . . Come, let’s have done with it.”
She tried to protest again. She knelt down, she clasped her hands. The officer looked quietly on at this heartrending struggle.
——”Good God!” he said at last, “I take your father, because I have n’t got the other one. . . . Try and find the other one, and your father shall go free.”
For a moment she looked at him, her eyes staring wide at the atrocity of this proposal.
——”It’s horrible,” she murmured. “Where do you expect me to find Dominique at this time? He’s gone; I don’t know where he is.”
——”Well, choose. Him or your father.”
——”Oh! my God! how can I choose? But even if I knew where Dominique was, I could not choose! . . . It is my heart you are breaking. . . . I had rather die at once. Yes, it would be soonest over so. Kill me, I beg of you, kill me. . . .”
The officer at last grew impatient at this scene of despair and tears. He cried out,—
——”I’ve had enough of this! I’m willing to be good-natured, I consent to give you two hours. . . . If your sweetheart is n’t here in two hours, your father shall pay for him.”
And he had old Merlier taken to the room which had been used for Dominique’s prison. The old man asked for some tobacco, and fell to smoking. No emotion was to be detected in his impassive face. Only, when he was alone, two big tears ran slowly down his cheeks. His poor, dear child; how she suffered!
Françoise had stayed in the middle of the courtyard. Some Prussian soldiers passed by, laughing. Some of them called out to her, jokes which she did not understand. She stared at the door through which her father had just disappeared. And, with a slow movement, she raised her hand to her forehead, as if to keep it from bursting.
The officer turned on his heel, repeating:
——”You have two hours. Try to make good use of them.”
She had two hours. This sentence kept buzzing in her head. Then, mechanically, she went out of the courtyard, she walked straight before her. Whither should she go? What should she do? She did not even try to decide, because she felt convinced of the uselessness of her efforts. Yet she would have liked to find Dominique. They would have come to an understanding together, they might perhaps have hit upon an expedient. And, amid the confusion of her thoughts, she went down to the bank of the Morelle, which she crossed below the dam, at a place where there were some large stones. Her feet led her under the first willow, at the corner of the field. As she bent down, she saw a pool of blood that made her turn pale. That was clearly the place. And she followed Dominique’s tracks in the trodden grass; he must have run, a line of long strides was to be seen cutting through the field cornerwise. Then, farther on, she lost the tracks; but, in a neighboring field, she thought she found them again. This brought her to the outskirts of the forest, where all traces were wiped out.
Françoise plunged in under the trees, notwithstanding. It was a relief to be alone. She sat down for a moment; then, remembering that her time was running out, she got up again. How long was it since she had left the mill? Five minutes? half an hour? She had lost all consciousness of time. Perhaps Dominique had gone and hidden in a copse she knew of, where, one afternoon, they had eaten filberts together. She went to the copse and searched it. Only a blackbird flew out, whistling its soft, melancholy tune. Then she thought he had taken refuge in a hollow in the rocks, where he sometimes used to lie in ambush for game; but the hollow in the rocks was empty. What was the use of looking for him? she would not find him; and, little by little, her desire to find him grew furious, she walked on faster. The notion that he might have climbed up a tree suddenly struck her. From that moment she pushed on with upturned eyes, and, that he might know she was near, she called out to him every fifteen or twenty steps. The cuckoos answered her, a breath of air passing through the branches made her think he was there, and was coming down. Once she even thought she saw him; she stopped, choking, having a good mind to run away. What would she say to him? Had she come, then, to lead him away and have him shot? Oh! no, she would not mention these things. She would cry out to him to escape, not to stay in the neighborhood. Then the thought of her father waiting for her gave her a sharp pang. She fell upon the turf, weeping, repeating aloud,—
——”My God! my God! why am I here?”
She was crazy to have come. And, as if seized with fright, she ran, she tried to find a way out of the forest. Three times she took the wrong path, and she thought she should not find the mill again, when she came out into a field, just opposite Rocreuse. As soon as she caught sight of the village, she stopped. Was she going to return alone?
As she stood there, a voice called to her softly,—
And she saw Dominique raising his head above the edge of a ditch. Just God! she had found him! So heaven wished his death? She held back a cry, she let herself slide down into the ditch.
——”You were looking for me?” he asked.
——”Yes,” she answered, her head buzzing, not knowing what she said.
——”Ah! what’s going on?”
She looked down, she stammered out,—
——”Why, nothing; I was anxious, I wanted to see you.”
Then, reassured, he told her that he had not wished to go far. He feared for them. Those rascals of Prussians were just the sort to wreak vengeance upon women and old men. Then all was going well; and he added, laughing,—
——”Our wedding will be for this day week, that’s all.”
Then, as she was still overcome, he grew serious again.
——”But what’s the matter with you? You are keeping something from me.”
——”No, I swear to you. I ran to come. . . .”
He kissed her, saying that it was imprudent for either of them to talk any longer; and he wished to get back to the forest. She held him back. She was trembling.
——”Listen, perhaps it would be as well for you to stay here, all the same. . . . Nobody is looking for you, you’re not afraid of anything.”
——”Françoise, you are keeping something from me,” he repeated.
Again she swore she was keeping nothing from him. Only she had rather know that he was near; and she stammered out other reasons besides. She struck him as acting so queerly, that now he himself would not have been willing to leave her. Besides, he believed the French would return. Troops had been seen over Sauval way.
——”Ah! let them be in a hurry, let them be here as soon as possible!” he muttered fervently.
At this moment the Rocreuse church clock struck eleven. The strokes came clear and distinct. She sprang up in fright; it was two hours since she had left the mill.
——”Listen,” she said rapidly, “if we should need you, I will go up to my room and wave my handkerchief.”
And she left him, running, while Dominique, very anxious, stretched himself out on the edge of the ditch, to keep his eye on the mill. As she was just turning into Rocreuse, Françoise met an old beggar, old Bontemps, who knew the whole country. He bowed to her, he had just seen the miller in the midst of the Prussians; then, crossing himself and mumbling some disconnected words, he went on his way.
——”The two hours are over,” said the officer when Françoise appeared.
Old Merlier was there, sitting on the bench by the well. He was still smoking. The young girl once more implored, wept, fell upon her knees. She wished to gain time. The hope of seeing the French return had grown in her, and, while bewailing her fate, she thought she heard the measured tread of an army. Oh! if they had come, if they had delivered them all!
——”Listen, monsieur, one hour, one hour more. . . . You can surely grant me one hour!”
But the officer was still inflexible. He even ordered two men to take her in charge and lead her away, that they might proceed quietly with the old man’s execution. Then a frightful conflict went on in Françoise’s heart. She could not let her father be thus murdered. No, no, she would die with Dominique first; and she was bounding toward her room, when Dominique himself walked into the courtyard.
The officer and soldiers gave a shout of triumph. But he, as if no one but Françoise had been there, stepped up to her quietly, a little sternly.
——”That was wrong,” said he. “Why did n’t you bring me back with you? Old Bontemps had to tell me everything. . . . After all, here I am.”
It was three o’clock. Great black clouds had slowly filled the sky, the tail of some not distant thunderstorm. This yellow sky, these copper-colored rags, changed the valley of Rocreuse, so cheerful in the sunshine, to a cut-throat den, full of suspicious shadows. The Prussian officer had been content to have Dominique locked up, without saying anything about what fate he had in store for him. Ever since noon, Françoise had been a prey to abominable anguish. She would not leave the courtyard, in spite of her father’s urging. She was waiting for the French. But the hours passed by, night was at hand, and she suffered the more keenly that all this time gained did not seem likely to change the frightful catastrophe.
Nevertheless, at about three, the Prussians made preparations to go. A minute before, the officer had closeted himself with Dominique, as on the preceding day. Françoise saw that the young man’s life was being decided on. Then she clasped her hands and prayed. Old Merlier, beside her, maintained his mute and rigid attitude of an old peasant who does not struggle with the fatality of facts.
——”Oh, my God! oh, my God!” stammered Françoise, “they are going to kill him.”
The miller drew her close to him and took her upon his knees, like a child.
Just then the officer came out, while, behind him, two men led Dominique.
——”Never, never!” cried the latter. “I am ready to die.”
——”Think of it well,” replied the officer. “This service that you refuse us will be done for us by another. I offer you your life, I am generous. . . . It is only to be our guide to Montredon, through the woods. There must be paths.”
Dominique made no answer.
——”Then you are still obstinate?”
——”Kill me, and let us have done with it,” he answered.
Françoise, with hands clasped, implored him from across the yard. She had forgotten all, she would have urged him to some piece of cowardice. But old Merlier grasped her hands, that the Prussians might not see her delirious gesture.
——”He is right,” he murmured, “it’s better to die.”
The firing party was there. The officer was waiting for a moment of weakness on Dominique’s part. He still counted on winning him over. There was a dead silence. From the distance were heard violent claps of thunder. A sultry heat weighed upon the country; and, in the midst of this silence, a shriek burst forth,—
——”The French! the French!”
It was really they. On the Sauval road, on the outskirts of the wood, you could make out the line of red trousers. Inside the mill there was an extraordinary hubbub. The Prussian soldiers ran about with guttural exclamations. For the rest, not a shot had been fired yet.
——”The French! the French!” screamed Françoise, clapping her hands.
She was like mad. She had broken loose from her father’s embrace, and she laughed, her arms waving in the air. At last they were coming and they had come in time, since Dominique was still there, erect!
A terrible firing that burst upon her ears like a thunder-stroke made her turn round. The officer had just muttered:
——”First of all, let us finish this job.”
And, pushing Dominique up against the wall of a shed with his own hands, he had ordered, “Fire!” When Françoise turned round, Dominique was lying on the ground, his breast pierced with twelve bullets.
She did not weep; she stood there in a stupor. Her eyes were fixed, and she went and sat down under the shed, a few steps from the body. She looked at it; at moments she made a vague and childlike movement with her hand. The Prussians had laid hold of old Merlier as a hostage.
It was a fine fight. Rapidly the officer stationed his men, recognizing that he could not beat a retreat without being overpowered. It was as well to sell his life dearly. Now it was the Prussians who defended the mill and the French that made the attack. The firing began with unheard-of violence. For half an hour it did not stop. Then a dull explosion was heard, and a shot broke off one of the main branches of the hundred-year-old elm. The French had cannon. A battery, drawn up just above the ditch in which Dominique had hidden, swept the main street of Rocreuse. From this moment the struggle could not last long.
Ah! the poor mill! Shot pierced it through and through. Half the roofing was carried away. Two walls crumbled. But it was, above all, on the side toward the Morelle that the ruin done was piteous. The ivy, torn from the shattered walls, hung in rags; the river swept away debris of every sort, and through a breach you could see Françoise’s room, with her bed, the white curtains of which were carefully drawn. Shot upon shot, the old wheel received two cannon-balls, and gave one last groan: the paddles were washed away by the current, the carcass collapsed. The mill had breathed out its soul.
Then the French stormed the place. There was a furious fight with side-arms. Beneath the rust-colored sky, the cutthroat hollow of the valley was filled with killed. The broad meadows looked grim, with their great single trees, their rows of poplars streaking them with shadows. To the right and left, the forests were like the walls of a circus, shutting in the combatants; while the springs, the fountains, the running waters, gave forth sounds of sobbing, amid the panic of the countryside.
Under the shed, Françoise had not stirred, crouched down opposite Dominique’s body. Old Merlier was killed outright by a spent bullet. Then, when the Prussians had been annihilated, and the mill was burning, the French captain was the first man to enter the courtyard. From the beginning of the campaign it was the only success he had won. And, all aglow, drawing up his tall figure to its full height, he laughed with his gracious air of a fine cavalier. And, seeing Françoise, imbecile, between the dead bodies of her husband and father, amidst the smoking ruins of the mill, he gallantly saluted her with his sword, crying out:
Story first published in Jacques Damour, by Emile Zola. Translated by William Foster Apthorp. Published by Copeland & Day, 1895.
About the Author
Émile Zola (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was a French writer,