The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 1/Scenes of the Siege of Paris
Scenes of the Siege of Paris.
From the French of Alphonse Daudet.
[Alphonse Daudet, the most brilliant of French novelists alive, was born at Nimes in 1840. His parents were not rich, and he started life by drudging as an usher. Then he resolved to break his chains, and to earn his bread at Paris with his pen. He began by painting in the Figaro, with great graphic power, the miseries of ushers in provincial schools. Then he turned to writing stories, with the success to which he owes his world-wide fame. Most of his novels are well known in England; but the characteristic little stories here translated will probably be new to English readers.]
I.—THE BOY SPY.
"HE WOULD TAKE HIS PLACE IN THE LONG LINE."
He was a thorough child of Paris; delicate-looking, pale, about ten years old—perhaps fifteen—one never can tell the ages of these scaramouches. His mother was dead; his father, an old marine, used to guard a square in the Temple quarter. Babies, nursemaids, the old women with folding-chairs, poor mothers—all the leisurely-moving world of Paris which puts itself out of the way of carriages in those gardens—knew Father Stenne, and worshipped him. People knew that under that bristling moustache, the terror of dogs and tramps, there lurked a tender, pleasant, almost a maternal smile; and that to see it one had only to say to the good man—
"How is your little boy?"
Father Stenne was very fond of his son. He was never so happy as in the evening after school when the little fellow came to fetch him, and when they went together round the walks, halting at every bench to speak to the regular loungers, and to reply to their civil greetings.
With the siege all this unfortunately changed. The square was closed; petroleum had been stored in it, and poor Stenne, obliged to keep watch incessantly, passed his life amid the deserted, and partly destroyed, clumps of trees without being able to smoke, and without the company of his son until he returned home late in the evening. You should have seen his moustache when he spoke of the Prussians!
Little Stenne, however, did not complain very much of this new life. A siege is such fun for the street boys! No more school; no lessons; holidays all the time, and the streets just like a fair! The lad stayed out all day till quite evening, running about. He would accompany the battalions of the quarter on their turn of duty to the ramparts, choosing those specially which had good bands; and on this question little Stenne was quite critical. He would have told you plainly that the band of the Ninety-sixth was not good for much; but that the Fifty-fifth had an excellent one. At other times he watched the mobiles drilling, and then there were the queues to occupy him.
With his basket on his arm he would take his place in the long lines which, in the half-light of the winter mornings—those gasless mornings—were formed outside the gates of the butchers and bakers. There the people, waiting for rations, their feet in the puddles, talked politics and made acquaintances; and, as the son of M. Stenne, every one asked the lad his opinion. But the greatest fun of all was the cork-throwing parties—the famous game of galoche—which the Breton mobiles had introduced during the siege. When little Stenne was not on the ramparts, or at the distribution of rations, you would surely find him in the Place Château d'Eau. He did not play galoche himself, you must understand: too much money was needed for that. He contented himself by watching the players "with all his eyes."
One lad—a big fellow in a blue jacket—who never ventured aught but five-franc pieces, especially excited the admiration of little Stenne. When this fellow moved about you could hear the coins jingling in his pocket.
One day, when picking up a piece that had rolled to the feet of our hero, the big boy said to him:
"Ah! that makes your mouth water, eh? Well, if you wish, I will tell you where to find some like this."
When the game was finished he led Stenne to a corner of the Place, and proposed that he should go with him and sell newspapers to the Germans—at thirty francs the trip! At first Stenne indignantly refused, and he did not go again to watch the game for three whole days—three terrible days. He no longer ate nor slept. At night he had visions of heaps of galoches at the foot of His bed, and five-franc pieces rolling and shining brightly. The temptation was too strong. On the fourth day he returned to the Château d'Eau, saw the big boy again, and permitted himself to be led astray!
One snowy morning they set out carrying a linen bag, and with a number of newspapers stuffed under their blouses. When they reached the Flanders Gate it was scarcely daylight. The big boy took Stenne by the hand and approaching the sentry—a brave "stay-at-home," who had a red nose, and a good-natured expression—said to him, in a whining tone:
"Let us pass, good sir; our mother is ill, papa is dead. We are going—my little brother and I—to pick up some potatoes in the fields."
He began to cry. Stenne, shame-faced, hung down his head. The sentry looked at the lads for a moment, and then glanced down the white, deserted road.
"Get on with you, quick!" he said, turning away; and then they were in the Aubervilliers-road. The big boy laughed heartily!
Confusedly, as in a dream, little Stenne saw the factories, now converted into barracks; abandoned barricades decked out with wet rags, and high chimneys, now smokeless, standing up, half in ruins, against the misty sky. At certain distances were sentries; officers, cloaked and hooded, sweeping the horizon with their field glasses; and small tents saturated by the melting snow beside the expiring watch-fires. The big boy knew the paths, and took his way across the fields so as to avoid the outposts.
Presently, however, they came upon a strong guard of Franc-tireurs, and were unable to pass by unnoticed. The men were in a number of small huts concealed in a ditch full of water all along the line of the Soissons railway. Here it was no avail for the big boy to tell his story; the Franc-tireurs would not let him pass. But while he was lamenting, an old sergeant, with white hair and wrinkled face, came out from the guard-house; he was something like Father Stenne.
"Come, come, you brats, don't cry any more!" he said. "You may go and fetch your potatoes; but first come in and warm yourselves a little. The youngster there looks nearly frozen!"
Alas! little Stenne was not trembling from cold, but for fear, for very shame!
In the guardhouse were some soldiers huddled round a very poor fire—a true "widow's fire," at which they were toasting biscuits on the points of their bayonets. The men sat up close to make room for the boys, and gave them a drop of coffee. While they were drinking it an officer came to the door and summoned the sergeant of the guard. He spoke to him very rapidly in a low tone and went off in a hurry.
"My lads," said the sergeant, as he turned round with a beaming countenance, "There will be tobacco to-night! The watch-word of the Prussians has been discovered, and this time we shall take that cursed Bourget from them!"
"THE BOYS CRAWLED ON
There was an explosion of "bravos" and laughter. The men danced, sang, and clashed their sword-bayonets, while the lads, taking advantage of the tumult, wended on then way.
The trench crossed, the plain lay extended in front of them; beyond it was a long white wall, loopholed for musketry. Towards this wall they made their way, halting at every step, pretending to pick up potatoes.
"Let us go back; do not go there," little Stenne kept saying. But the other only shrugged his shoulders, and continued to advance. Suddenly they heard the click of a fire-lock.
"Lie down," cried the big boy, throwing himself flat on the ground as he spoke.
As soon as he was down he whistled. Another whistle came across the snow in reply. The boys crawled on. In front of the wall, on the level of the plain, appeared a pair of yellow moustaches under a dirty forage-cap. The big boy leaped into the trench beside the Prussian.
"This is my brother," he said, indicating his companion.
He was so small, this little Stenne, that the Prussian laughed when he looked at him, and he was obliged to lift him up to the embrasure.
On the further side of the wall were great mounds of earth, felled trees, dark holes in the snow, and in every hole was a dirty cap and a yellow moustache, whose wearer grinned as the lads passed.
In one corner stood a gardener's cottage, casemated with trunks of trees. The lower storey was filled with soldiers playing cards, or busy making soup over a clear fire. How good the cabbage and bacon smelt! What a difference from the bivouac of the Franc-tireurs! Upstairs the officers were quartered. Someone was playing a piano, while from time to time the popping of champagne corks was also audible.
When the Parisians entered a cheer of welcome assailed them. They distributed their newspapers, had something to drink, and the officers "drew them out." These officers wore a haughty and disdainful air, but the big boy amused them with his street slang and vulgar smartness. Little Stenne would rather have spoken, to have proved that he was not a fool, but something restrained him. opposite to him was seated a Prussian older and more serious than the rest, who was reading, or rather pretending to read, for his gaze was fixed on little Stenne. In his steadfast look were tenderness and reproach, as if he had at home a child of the same age as Stenne—as if he was saying to himself—
"I would rather die than see my own son engaged in such a business!"
From that moment Stenne felt as if a heavy hand had been laid upon his heart, and that its beatings were checked—stifled.
To escape from this terrible feeling he began to drink. Soon the room and its occupants were turning round him. In a vague way he heard his companion, amidst loud laughter, making game of the National Guard—of their style of drill; imitating a rush to arms; a night alarm on the ramparts. Subsequently the "big fellow" lowered his tone, the officers drew nearer, their faces became more grave. The wretch was about to tell them of the intended attack of the Franc-tireurs.
Then little Stenne stood up in a rage, as his senses returned to him; he cried out, "None of that, big one, none of that!" but the other only laughed and continued. Ere he had finished, all the officers were on their feet. One of them opened the door.
"Get out," he said to the boys. "Be off!"
Then they began to converse among themselves in German. The big boy walked out as proud as the Doge, clinking his money in his pocket. Stenne followed him with drooping head, and as he passed the elderly Prussian, whose glance had so discomposed him, he heard him say in a sad tone in broken French, "This is bad! Very bad!"
Tears came into Stenne's eyes. Once in the plain again, the lads set out running, and returned quickly. The bag was full of potatoes which the Prussians had given them, and with it they passed the Franc-tireurs unmolested. The troops were preparing for the attack that night; bodies of men were coming up silently and massing themselves behind the walls. The old sergeant was present, engaged in posting his men, and seemed quite happy. As the lads passed he nodded at them, and smiled kindly in recognition.
Ah! how bad Stenne felt when he saw that smile: he felt inclined to cry out—
"Don't advance yonder; we have betrayed you!"
But the "big one" had told him that if he said anything they would both be shot; and fear restrained him.
At La Courneuve the pair went into an empty house to divide the money. Truth compels me to state that the division was honourably made, and little Stenne did not feel his crime weigh so heavily on his mind when he heard the coins jingling in his pocket, and thought of the prospective games of galoche!
But—unhappy child!—when he was left alone! When, after they had passed the gate, and his companion had left him—oh, then his pocket weighed heavily, and the hand which pressed upon his heart was hard indeed! Paris was no longer the same. The people passing looked at him severely, as if they were aware of his mission. The word spy seemed to ring in his ears, and he heard it above the din of carriages, and in the rolling of the drums along the canal.
At length he reached home, and was very glad to find that his father had not yet come in. He hurried upstairs to his room to hide the crowns which had become so burdensome to him.
Never had Father Stenne been in such spirits, never in such good humour, as on that evening when he returned home. News had come in from the provinces: things were going better. As he ate his supper the old soldier gazed at his musket which was hanging on the wall, and exclaimed: "Hey, my lad, how you would go at the Prussians if you were big enough!"
About eight o'clock the sound of cannon was heard.
"That's Aubervilliers; they are fighting at Bourget," said the good old man, who knew all the forts. Little Stenne turned pale, and feigning fatigue went to bed, but not to sleep. The thunder of the cannon continued. He pictured to himself the Franc-tireurs marching in the darkness to surprise the Prussians, and falling into an ambuscade themselves. He recalled the sergeant who had smiled, and pictured him, with many others, extended lifeless on the snow. The price of all this blood was then under his pillow, and he—he, the son of M. Stenne, a soldier—what had he done? Tears choked him. He could hear his father walking about in the next room; he heard him open the window. In the Place below the rappel was being beaten; a battalion of mobiles was mustering. Yes! it was a real battle—no mistake about it! The unhappy lad could not repress his sobs.
"Why, what's the matter?" cried Father Stenne, coming into the bedroom.
The lad could bear it no longer; he jumped out of bed, and was about to throw himself at his father's feet when the silver coins rolled out upon the floor.
"What's this? Have you robbed anyone?" asked the old soldier in a tremulous voice.
Then, all in a breath, little Stenne told him how he had gone to the Prussian lines and what he had done. As he continued to speak the weight on his heart grew less—it was a relief to accuse himself. Father Stenne listened; his face was terrible to see. When the lad had finished his narrative the old man buried his face in his hands and wept aloud.
"Oh, father! father!"—
The boy would have spoken, but the old man pushed him aside, and picked up the money without a word.
"Is this all?" he asked.
Little Stenne made a sign in the affirmative. The old soldier took down his musket and cartouche-box, and putting the silver money in his pocket, said calmly:
"Very well; I am going to pay it back to them!"
Then, without another word, without even turning his head, he descended the stairs, and joined the mobiles who were marching out into the darkness.
No one ever saw him again!
HERE is a story which I heard this very week in a drinking-shop at Montmartre. To do the tale justice I ought to possess the faubourg accents of Master Belisaire, and his great carpenter's apron; and to drink two or three cups of that splendid white wine of Montmartre, which is capable of imparting a Parisian accent to even a native of Marseilles. Then I might be able to make your flesh creep, and your blood run cold, as Belisaire did when he related this lugubrious and veracious story to his boon companions.
"It was the day after the 'amnesty' (Belisaire meant armistice). My wife wished me to take our child across to Villeneuve-la-Garenne to look after a little cottage we had there, and of which we had heard and seen nothing since the siege had commenced. I felt nervous about taking the little chap with me, for I knew that we should fall in with the Prussians; and as I had not yet encountered them, I was afraid that something unpleasant would happen. But his mother was determined. 'Get out!' she cried. 'Let the lad have a breath of fresh air!'
"And the fact is he wanted it badly, poor little chap, after five months of the siege operations and privations.
"So we started off together across the fields. I suppose he was happy, poor mite, in seeing the trees and the birds again, and in dabbling himself with mud in the ploughed land; but I was not so comfortable myself; there were too many spiked helmets about for me. All the way from the canal to the island we met them every moment; and how insolent they were! It was as much as I could do to restrain myself from knocking some of them down. But I did feel my temper getting the better of me as we reached Villeneuve, and saw our poor gardens all in disorder, plants rooted up, the houses open and pillaged, and those bandits established in them! They were shouting to each other from the windows, and drying their clothes on our trellises. Fortunately the lad was trotting along close beside me, and I thought when I looked at him, if my hands itched more than usual, 'Keep cool, Belisaire; take care that no harm befall the brat!'
"WE STARTED OFF TOGETHER."
"Nothing but this feeling prevented me from committing some foolish act. Then I understood why his mother had been so determined about my bringing the boy out.
"The hut is at the end of the open space, the last on the right hand on the quay. I found it empty from top to bottom, like all the others. Not an article of furniture, not a pane of glass, was left in it! There was nothing except some bundles of straw and the last leg of the big arm-chair, which was smouldering in the chimney. These signs were Prussian all over; but I could see nothing of the Germans.
"I SEIZED THE BENCH-IRON"
"Nevertheless it seemed to me that somebody was stirring in the basement. I had a bench down there at which I used to amuse myself on Sundays. So I told the child to wait for me, and went down.
"No sooner had I opened the door than a great hulking soldier of William's army rose growling from the shavings and came at me, his eyes starting from his head, swearing strange oaths which I did not understand. I could perceive that the brute meant mischief, for at the first word that I attempted to speak he began to draw his sword.
"My blood boiled in a second. All the bile which had been aroused during the previous hour or so rushed to my face. I seized the bench-iron and struck him with it. You know, my lads, whether my fist is usually a light one, but it seemed to me that that day I had a thunderbolt at the end of my arm. At the first blow the Prussian measured his length upon the floor. I thought he was only stunned. Ah! well, yes! But all I had to do was to clear out, to get myself out of the pickle.
"It seemed queer to me, who had never killed anything—not even a lark—in my life, to see the great body lying there. My faith! but he was a fine fair-haired fellow, with a curly beard like deal shavings. My legs trembled as I looked—and now the brat upstairs was beginning to feel lonely, and to yell out, 'Papa, papa!' at the top of his voice.
"There were some Prussians passing along the road. I could see their sabres and their long legs through the casement of the underground room. Suddenly the idea struck me—'If they enter the child is lost.' That was enough. I trembled no longer. In a second I dragged the corpse under the bench, covered it with planks and shavings, and hurried up the stairs to join the child.
"'Here I am!' I said.
"'What is the matter, papa? How pale you are!'
"'Come, let us get on!'
"I declare to you that the 'Cossacks' might hustle me, or regard me with suspicion, but I would not take any notice of them. It seemed that some one was running after me, and crying out behind us all the time. Once when a horseman came galloping up, I thought I would have fallen down in a faint! However, after I had passed the bridges I began to pull myself together. Saint Denis was full of people. There was no risk of our being fished out of the crowd. Then I only thought of our little cottage. The Prussians would surely burn it when they found their comrade, to say nothing of the risk of Jaquot, my neighbour, the water-bailiff, who, being the only Frenchman left in the hamlet, would be held responsible for the dead soldier! Truly it was scarcely plucky to save myself in such a way!
"I felt that I must arrange for the concealment of the body somehow! The nearer we came to Paris the closer I cherished this idea. I could not leave that Prussian in my basement. So at the ramparts I hesitated no longer.
"'You go on.' I said to the brat, 'I have another place to visit in Saint Denis.'
"I embraced him, and turned back. My heart was beating rather fast, but all the same I felt easier in my mind, not having the child with me then.
"When I again reached Villeneuve, night was approaching. I kept my eyes open, you may depend, and advanced foot by foot. The place seemed quiet enough, however. I could discern the hut still standing yonder in the mist. There was a long black line, or row, upon the quay. This 'palisade' was composed of Prussians calling the roll. A splendid opportunity to find the house deserted. As I made my way along I noticed Father Jaquot engaged in drying his nets. Decidedly nothing was known yet. I entered my house, I went down into the basement and felt about among the shavings. The Prussian was there! There were also a couple of rats already busy at work at his helmet, and, for a moment, I had a horrible fright, when I felt his chinstrap move! Was he reviving? No; his head was heavy and cold.
"I crouched in a corner and waited. I had the idea to throw the body into the Seine when the others were all asleep.
"I do not know whether it was the proximity of the dead, but I was uncommonly sorry when the Prussians sounded the 'retreat' that night. Loud trumpet blasts resounded—Ta-ta-ta! three by three, regular toad's music. It is not to such music that our fellows wish to go to bed!
"For some five minutes I heard the clanking of sabres, the tapping at doors; and then the soldiers entered the court-yard and began to shout—
"Poor Hofmann remained quite quiet under his shavings; but 'twas I who was on the alert. Every instant I expected to see the guard enter. I had picked up the dead man's sabre, and there I was ready, but saying to myself, 'If you get out of this scrape, my boy, you will owe a splendid wax taper to Saint John the Baptist of Belleville!'
"However, after they had called several times my tenants decided to return. I could hear their heavy boots upon the staircase, and in a few moments the whole house was snoring like a country clock. This was all I had been waiting for. I looked out.
"The place was deserted; all the houses were in darkness. Good for me! I re-descended quickly, drew my Hofmann from beneath the bench, stood him upright, raised him on my back, like a burden, or a bale. But wasn't he heavy, the brigand! What with his weight, my terror, and the want of food, I was afraid that I should not have strength to reach my destination. Then no sooner had I reached the centre of the quay than I heard someone walking behind me. I turned round. There was no one! The moon was rising. I said to myself, 'I must look out; the sentries will fire!'
"To add to my trouble the Seine was low. If I had cast the corpse on the bank it would have remained there as in a cistern. I went on; no water! I could not go out any farther: my breath came thick and short. I panted. At length when I thought I had gone far enough, I threw down my load. There he goes into the mud! I pushed and pushed! Hue! There!
"Fortunately a puff of wind came up from the east, the river rose a little, and I felt the 'Maccabee' leave his moorings gently. Pleasant journey to him! I took a draught of water, and quickly mounted the bank.
"As I passed the bridge at Villeneuve the people were gazing at something black in the water. At that distance it had the appearance of a wherry. It was my Prussian, who was coming down on the current, in the middle of the stream!"