“I have been instructed,” said General Montaudon, “to select an officer for a special duty. I have selected you.”
Now for days Lieutenant Fevrier’s duties had begun and ended with him driving the soldiers of his company from eating unripe fruit; and here, unexpectedly, he was chosen from all the officers of his division for a particular exploit. The Lieutenant trembled with emotion.
“My General!” he cried.
The General himself was moved.
“What your task will be,” he continued, “I do not known. You will go at once to the Mareschal’s headquarters when the chief of the staff, General Jarras, will inform you.”
Lieutenant Fevrier went immediately up to Metz. His division was entrenched on the right bank of the Mosel and beyond the forts, so that it was dark before he passed through the gates. He had never once been in Metz before; he had grown used to the monotony of camps; he had expected shuttered windows and deserted roads, and so the aspect of the town amazed him beyond measure. Instead of a town besieged, it seemed a town during a fairing. There were railway carriages, it is true, in the Place Royale doing duty as hospitals; the provision shops, too, were bare, and there were no horses visible.
But on the other hand, everywhere was a blaze of light and a bustle of people coming and going upon the footpaths. The cafés glittered and rang with noise. Here one little fat burgher was shouting that the town-guard was worth all the red-legs in the trenches; another as loudly was criticising the tactics of Bazaine and comparing him for his invisibility to a pasha in his seraglio; while a third sprang upon a table and announced fresh victories. An army was already on the way from Paris to relieve Metz. Only yesterday MacMahon had defeated the Prussians, any moment he might be expected from the Ardennes. Nor were they only civilians who shouted and complained. Lieutenant Fevrier saw captains, majors, and even generals who had left their entrenchments to fight the siege their own way with dominoes upon the marble tables of the cabarets.
“My poor France,” he said to himself, and a passer-by overhearing him answered:
“True, monsieur. Ah, but if we had a man at Metz!”
Lieutenant Fevrier turned his back upon the speaker and walked on. He at all events would not join in the criticisms. It was just, he reflected, because he had avoided the cafés of Metz that he was singled out for special distinction, and he fell to wondering what work it was he had to do that night. Was it to surprise a field-watch? Or to spike a battery? Or to capture a convoy? Lieutenant Fevrier raised his head. For any exploit in the world he was ready.
General Jarras was writing at a table when Fevrier was admitted to his office. The Chief of the Staff inclined his lamp-shade so that the light fell full upon Fevrier’s face, and the action caused the lieutenant to rejoice. So much care in the choice of the officer meant so much more important a duty.
“The General Montaudon tells me,” said Jarras, “that you are an obedient soldier.”
“Obedience, my General, is the soldier’s first lesson.”
“That explains to me why it is first forgotten,” answered Jarras, drily. Then his voice became sharp and curt. “You will choose fifty men. You will pick them carefully.”
“They shall be the best soldiers in the regiment,” said Fevrier.
“No, the worst.”
Lieutenant Fevrier was puzzled. When dangers were to be encountered, when audacity was needed, one requires the best soldiers. That was obvious, unless the mission meant annihilation. That thought came to Fevrier, and remembering the cafés and the officers dishonouring their uniforms, he drew himself up proudly and saluted. Already he saw his dead body recovered from the enemy, and borne to the grave beneath a tricolour. He heard the lamentations of his friends, and the firing of the platoon. He saw General Montaudon in tears. He was shaken with emotion. But Jarras’s next words fell upon him like cold water.
“You will parade your fifty men unarmed. You will march out of the lines, and to-morrow morning as soon as it is light enough for the Prussians to see you come unarmed you will desert to them. There are too many mouths to feed in Metz1.”
The Lieutenant had it on his lips to shout, “Then why not lead us out to die?” But he kept silence. He could have flung his kepi in the General’s face; but he saluted. He went out again into the streets and among the lighted cafés and reeled like a drunken man, thinking confusedly of many things; that he had a mother in Paris who might hear of his desertion before she heard of its explanation; that it was right to claim obedience but läche to exact dishonour—but chiefly and above all that if he had been wise, and had made light of his duty, and had come up to Metz to re-arrange the campaign with dominoes on the marble-tables, he would not have been specially selected for ignominy. It was true, it needed an obedient officer to desert! And so laughing aloud he reeled blindly down to the gates of Metz. And it happened that just by the gates a civilian looked after him, and shrugging his shoulders, remarked, “Ah! But if we had a Man at Metz!”
From Metz Lieutenant Fevrier ran. The night air struck cool upon him. And he ran and stumbled and fell and picked himself up and ran again until he reached the Belletonge farm.
“The General,” he cried, and so to the General a mud-plastered figure with a white, tormented face was admitted.
“What is it?” asked Montaudon. “What will this say?”
Lieutenant Fevrier stood with the palms of his hands extended, speechless like an animal in pain. Then he suddenly burst into tears and wept, and told of the fine plan to diminish the demands upon the commissariat.
“Courage, my old one!” said the General. “I had a fear of this. You are not alone—other officers in other divisions have the same hard duty,” and there was no inflection in the voice to tell Fevrier what his General thought of the duty. But a hand was laid soothingly upon his shoulder, and that told him. He took heart to whisper that he had a mother in Paris.
“I will write to her,” said Montaudon. “She will be proud when she receives the letter.”
Then Lieutenant Fevrier, being French, took the General’s hand and kissed it, and the General, being French, felt his throat fill with tears.
Fevrier left the headquarters, paraded his men, laid his sword and revolver on the ground, and ordered his fifty to pile their arms. Then he made them a speech—a very short speech, but it cost him much to make it in an even voice.
“My braves,” said he, “my fellow-soldiers, it is easy to fight for one’s country, it is not difficult to die for it. But the supreme test of patriotism is willingly to suffer shame for it. That test your country now claims of you. Attention! March!”
For the last time he exchanged a password with a French sentinel, and tramped out into the belt of ground between the French outposts and the Prussian field-watch. Now in this belt there stood a little village which Fevrier had held with skill and honour all the two days of the battle of Noisseville. Doubtless that recollection had something to do with his choice of the village. For in his martyrdom of shame he had fallen to wonder whether after all he had not deserved it, and any reassurance such as the gaping house-walls of Vaudère would bring to him, was eagerly welcomed. There was another reason, however, in the position of the village.
It stood in an abrupt valley at the foot of a steep vine-hill on the summit, and which was the Prussian forepost. The Prussian field-watch would be even nearer to Vaudère and dispersed amongst the vines. So he could get his ignominious work over quickly in the morning. The village would provide, too, safe quarters for the night, since it was well within range of the heavy guns in Fort St. Julien, and the Prussians on that account were unable to hold it.
He led his fifty soldiers then northwestward from his camp, skirted the Bois de Grimont, and marched into the village. The night was dark, and the sky so overhung with clouds that not a star was visible. The one street of Vaudère was absolutely silent. The glimmering white cottages showed their black rents on either side, but never the light of a candle behind any shutter. Lieutenant Fevrier left his men at the western or Frenchward end of the street, and went forward alone.
The doors of the houses stood open. The path was encumbered with the wreckage of their contents, and every now and then he smelt a whiff of paraffin, as though lamps had been broken or cans overset. Vaudère had been looted, but there were no Prussians now in the village.
He made sure of this by walking as far as the large house at the head of the village. Then he went back to his men and led them forward until he reached the general shop which every village has.
“It is not likely,” he said, “that we shall find even the makeshift of a supper. But courage, my friends, let us try!”
He could not have eaten a crust himself, but it had become an instinct with him to anticipate the needs of his privates, and he acted from habit. They crowded into the shop; one man shut the door, Fevrier lighted a match and disclosed by its light staved-in barrels, empty cannisters, broken boxes, fragments of lemonade bottles, but of food not so much as a stale biscuit.
“Go upstairs and search.”
They went and returned empty-handed.
“We have found nothing, monsieur,” said they.
“But I have,” replied Fevrier, and striking another match he held up what he had found, dirty and crumpled, in a corner of the shop. It was a little tricolour flag of painted linen upon a bamboo stick, a child’s cheap and gaudy toy. But Fevrier held it up solemnly, and of the fifty deserters no one laughed.
“The flag of the Patrie,” said Fevrier, and with one accord the deserters uncovered.
The match burned down to Fevrier’s fingers, he dropped it and trod upon it and there was a moment’s absolute stillness. Then in the darkness a ringing voice leapt out.
“Vive la France!”
It was not the lieutenant’s voice, but the voice of a peasant from the south of the Loire, one of the deserters.
“Ah, but that is fine, that cry,” said Fevrier.
He could have embraced that private on both cheeks. There was love in that cry, pain as well—it could not be otherwise—but above all a very passion of confidence.
“Again!” said Fevrier; and this time all his men took it up, shouting it out, exultantly. The little ruined shop, in itself a contradiction of the cry, rang out and clattered with the noise until it seemed to Fevrier that it must surely pierce across the country into Metz and pluck the Mareschal in his headquarters from his diffidence. But they were only fifty deserters in a deserted village, lost in the darkness, and more likely to be overheard by the Prussian sentries than by any of their own blood.
It was Fevrier who first saw the danger of their ebullition. He cut it short by ordering them to seek quarters where they could sleep until daybreak. For himself, he thrust the little toy flag in his breast and walked forward to the larger house at the end of the village beneath the vine-hill; and as he walked, again the smell of paraffin was forced upon his nostrils.
He walked more slowly. That odour of paraffin began to seem remarkable. The looting of the village had not occurred to-day, for there had been thick dust about the general shop. But the paraffin had surely been freshly spilt, or the odour would have evaporated.
Lieutenant Fevrier walked on thinking this over. He found the broken door of his house, and still thinking it over, mounted the stairs. There was a door fronting the stairs. He felt for the handle and opened it, and from a corner of the room a voice challenged him in German.
Fevrier was fairly startled. There were Germans in the village after all. He explained to himself now the smell of paraffin. Meanwhile he did not answer; neither did he move; neither did he hear any movement. He had forgotten for the moment that he was a deserter, and he stood holding his breath and listening. There was a tiny window opposite to the door, but it only declared itself a window, it gave no light. And illusions came to Lieutenant Fevrier, such as will come to the bravest man so long as he listens hard enough in the dark—illusions of stealthy footsteps on the floor, of hands scraping and feeling along the walls, of a man’s breathing upon his neck, of many infinitesimal noises and movements close by.
The challenge was repeated and Fevrier remembered his orders.
“I am Lieutenant Fevrier of Montaudon’s division.”
“You are alone.”
Fevrier now distinguished that the voice came from the right-hand corner of the room, and that it was faint.
“I have fifty men with me. We are deserters,” he blurted out, “and unarmed.”
There followed silence, and a long silence. Then the voice spoke again, but in French, and the French of a native.
“My friend, your voice is not the voice of a deserter. There is too much humiliation in it. Come to my bedside here. I spoke in German, expecting Germans. But I am the curé of Vaudère. Why are you deserters?”
Fevrier had expected a scornful order to marshal his men as prisoners. The extraordinary gentleness of the curé’s voice almost overcame him. He walked across to the bedside and told his story. The curé basely heard him out.
“It is right to obey,” said he, “but here you can obey and disobey. You can relieve Metz of your appetites, my friend, but you need not desert.” The curé reached up, and drawing Fevrier down, laid a hand upon his head. “I consecrate you to the service of your country. Do you understand?”
Fevrier leaned his mouth towards the curé’s ear.
“The Prussians are coming to-night to burn the village.”
“Yes, they came at dusk.”
Just at the moment, in fact, when Fevrier had been summoned to Metz, the Prussians had crept down into Vaudère and had been scared back to their répli by a false alarm.
“But they will come back you may be sure,” said the curé, and raising himself upon his elbow he said in a voice of suspense “Listen!”
Fevrier went to the window and opened it. It faced the hill-side, but no sounds came through it beyond the natural murmurs of the night. The curé sank back.
“After the fight here, there were dead soldiers in the streets—French soldiers and so French chassepôts. Ah, my friend, the Prussians have found out which is the better rifle—the chassepôt or the needle gun. After your retreat they came down the hill for those chassepôts. They could not find one. They searched every house, they came here and questioned me. Finally they caught one of the villagers hiding in a field, and he was afraid and he told where the rifles had been buried. The Prussians dug for them and the hole was empty. They believe they are still hidden somewhere in the village; they fancy, too, that there are secret stores of food; so they mean to burn the houses to the ground. They did not know that I was here this afternoon. I would have come into the French lines had it been possible, but I am tied here to my bed. No doubt God had sent you to me—you and your fifty men. You need not desert. You can make your last stand here for France.”
“And perish,” cried Fevrier, caught up from the depths of his humiliation, “as Frenchmen should, arms in hand.” Then his voice dropped again. “But we have no arms.”
The curé shook the lieutenant’s arm gently.
“Did I not tell you the chassepôts were not found? And why? Because too many knew where they were hidden. Because out of that many I feared there might be one to betray. There is always a Judas. So I got one man whom I knew, and he dug them up and hid them afresh.”
The question was put with a feverish eagerness—it seemed to the curé with an eagerness too feverish. He drew his hand, his whole body away.
“You have matches? Light one!” he said, in a startled voice.
“But the window—!”
Every moment of time was now of value. Fevrier took the risk and lit the match, shading it from the window so far as he could with his hand.
“That will do.”
Fevrier blew out the light. The curé had seen him, his uniform and his features. He, too, had seen the curé, had noticed his thin emaciated face, and the eyes staring out of it feverishly bright and preternaturally large.
“Shall I tell you your malady, father?” he said gently. “It is starvation.”
“What will you, my son? I am alone. There is not a crust from one end of Vaudère to the other. You cannot help me. Help France! Go to the church, stand with your back to the door, turn left, and advance straight to the churchyard wall. You will find a new grave there, the rifles in the grave. Quick! There is a spade in the tower. Quick! The rifles are wrapped from the damp, the cartridges too. Quick! Quick!”
Fevrier hurried downstairs, roused three of his soldiers, bade one of them go from house to house and bring the soldiers in silence to the churchyard, and with the others he went thither himself. In groups of two and three the men crept through the street, and gathered about the grave. It was already open. The spade was driven hard and quick, deeper and deeper, and at last rang upon metal. There were seventy chassepôts, complete with bayonets and ammunition. Fifty-one were handed out, the remaining nineteen were hastily covered in again. Fevrier was immeasurably cheered to notice his men clutch at their weapons and fondle them, hold them to their shoulders taking aim, and work the breech-blocks.
“It is like meeting old friends, is it not, my children, or rather new sweethearts?” said he. “Come! The Prussians may advance from the Brasserie at Lanvallier, from Servigny, from Montay, or from Noisseville, straight down the hill. The last direction is the most likely, but we must make no mistake. Ten men will watch on the Lanvallier road, ten on the Servigny, ten on the Montay, twenty will follow me. March!”
An hour ago Lieutenant Fevrier was in command of fifty men who slouched along with their hands in their pockets, robbed even of self-respect. Now he had fifty armed and disciplined soldiers, men alert and inspired. So much difference a chassepôt apiece had made. Lieutenant Fevrier was moved to the conception of another plan; and to prepare the way for its execution, he left his twenty men in a house at the Prussian end of Vaudère, and himself crept in among the vines and up the hill.
Somewhere near to him would be the sentries of the field-watch. He went down upon his hands and knees and crawled, parting the vine leaves, that the swish of them might not betray him. In a little knoll high above his head he heard the cracking of wood, the sound of men stumbling. The Prussians were coming down to Vaudère. He lay flat upon the ground waiting and waiting; and the sounds grew louder and approached. At last he heard that for which he waited—the challenge of the field-watch, the answer of the burning-party. It came down to him quite clearly through the windless air. “Sadowa.”
Lieutenant Fevrier turned about chuckling. It seemed that in some respects the world after all was not going so ill with him that night. He crawled downwards as quickly as he could. But it was now more than even inspiration that he should not be detected. He dared not stand up and run; he must still keep upon his hands and knees. His arms so ached that he was forced now and then to stop and lie prone to give them ease; he was soaked through and through with perspiration; his blood hammered at his temples; he felt his spine weaken as though the marrow had melted into water; and his heart throbbed until the effort to breathe was a pain. But he reached the bottom of the hill, he got refuge amongst his men, he even had time to give his orders before the tread of the first Prussian was heard in the street.
“They will make for the other end of Vaudère. They will give the village first as near to the French lines as it reaches and light the rest as they retreat. Let them go forward! We will cut them off. And remember, the bayonet! A shot will bring the Prussians down in force. It will bring the French too, so there is just the chance we may find the enemy as silent as ourselves.”
But the plan was to undergo alteration. For as Lieutenant Fevrier ended, the Prussians marched in single file into the street and halted. Fevrier from the corner within his doorway counted them; there were twenty-three in all. Well, he had twenty besides himself, and the advantage of the surprise; and thirty more upon the other roads, for whom, however, he had other work in mind. The officer in command of the Prussians carried a dark lantern, and he now turned the slide, so that the light shone out.
His men fell out of their rank, some to make a cursory search, others to sprinkle yet more paraffin. One man came close to Fevrier’s doorway, and even looked in, but he saw nothing, though Fevrier was within six feet of him, holding his breath. Then the officer closed his lantern, the men re-formed and marched on. But they left behind with Lieutenant Fevrier—an idea.
He thought it quickly over. It pleased him, it was feasible, and there was comedy in it. Lieutenant Fevrier laughed again, his spirits were rising, and the world was not after all going so ill with him.
He had noticed by the lantern light that the Prussians had not re-formed in the same order. They were in single file again, but the man who marched last before the halt, did not march last after it. Each soldier, as he came up, fell in in the rear of the file. Now Fevrier had in the darkness experienced some difficulty in counting the number of Prussians, although he had strained his eyes to that end.
He whispered accordingly some brief instructions to his men; he sent a message to the ten on the Servigny road, and when the Prussians marched on after their second halt, Lieutenant Fevrier and two Frenchmen fell in behind them. The same procedure was followed at the next halt and at the next; so that when the Prussians reached the Frenchward end of Vaudère there were twenty-three Prussians and ten Frenchmen in the file. To Fevrier’s thinking it was sufficiently comic. There was something artistic about it too.
Fevrier was pleased, but he had not counted on the quick Prussian step to which his soldiers were unaccustomed. At the fourth halt, the officer moved unsuspiciously first on one side of the street, then on the other, but gave no order to his men to fall out. It seemed that he had forgotten, until he came suddenly running down the file and flashed his lantern into Fevrier’s face. He had been secretly counting his men.
“The French,” he cried. “Load!”
The one word quite compensated Fevrier for the detection. The Germans had come down into Vaudère with their rifles unloaded, lest an accidental discharge should betray their neighbourhood to the French.
“Load!” cried the German. And slipping back he tugged at the revolver in his belt. But before he could draw it out, Fevrier dashed his bayonet through the lantern and hung it on the officer’s heart. He whistled, and his other ten men came running down the street.
“Vorwarts,” shouted Fevrier, derisively. “Immer Vorwarts.”
The Prussians surprised, and ignorant how many they had to face, fell back in disorder against a house-wall. The French soldiers dashed at them in the darkness, engaging them so that not a man had the chance to load.
That little fight in the dark street between the white-ruined cottages made Fevrier’s blood dance.
“Courage!” he cried. “The paraffin!”
The combatants were well matched, and it was hand-to-hand and bayonet-to-bayonet. Fevrier loved his enemies at that moment. It even occurred to him that it was worth while to have deserted. After the sense of disgrace, the prospect of imprisonment and dishonour, it was all wonderful to him—the feel of the thick coat yielding to the bayonet point, the fatigue of the beaten opponent, the vigour of the new one, the feeling of injury and unfairness when a Prussian he had wounded dropped in falling the butt of a rifle upon his toes.
Once he cried, “Voila pour la patrie!” but for the rest he fought in silence, as did the others, having other uses for their breath. All that could be heard was a loud and laborious panting, as of wrestlers in a match, the clang of rifle crossing rifle, the rattle of bayonet guarding bayonet, and now and then a groan and a heavy fall. One Prussian escaped and ran; but the ten who had been stationed on the Servigny road were now guarding the entrance from Noisseville. Fevrier had no fears of him. He pressed upon a new man, drove him against the wall, and the man shouted in despair:
“You, Philippe?” exclaimed Fevrier.
“That was a timely cry,” and he sprang back. There were six men standing, and the six saluted Fevrier; they were all Frenchmen. Fevrier mopped his forehead.
“But that was fine,” said he, “though what’s to come will be still better. Oh, but we will make this night memorable to our friends. They shall talk of us by their firesides when they are grown old and France has had many years of peace—we shall not hear, but they will talk of us, the deserters from Metz.”
Lieutenant Fevrier in a word was exalted, and had lost his sense of proportion. He did not, however, relax his activity. He sent off the six to gather the rest of his contingent. He made an examination of the Prussians, and found that sixteen had been killed outright, and eight were lying wounded. He removed their rifles and ammunition out of reach, and from dead and wounded alike took the coats and caps. To the wounded he gave instead French uniforms; and then, bidding twenty-three of his soldiers don the Prussian caps and coats, he snatched a moment wherein to run to the curé.
“It is over,” said he. “The Prussians will not burn Vaudère to-night.” And he jumped down the stairs again without waiting for any response. In the street he put on the cap and coat of the Prussian officer, buckled the sword about his waist, and thrust the revolver into his belt. He had now twenty-three men who at night might pass for Prussians, and thirteen others.
To these thirteen he gave general instructions. They were to spread out on the right and left, and make their way singly up through the vines, and past the field-watch if they could without risk of detection. They were to join him high up on the slope, and opposite to the bonfire which would be burning at the répli. His twenty-three he led boldly, following as nearly as possible the track by which the Prussians had descended. The party trampled down the vine-poles, brushed through the leaves, and in a little while were challenged.
“Sadowa,” said Fevrier, in his best imitation of the German accent.
“Pass Sadowa,” returned the sentry.
Fevrier and his men filed upwards. He halted some two hundred yards farther on, and went down upon his knees. The soldiers behind him copied his example. They crept slowly and cautiously forward until the flames of the bonfire were visible through the screen of leaves, until the faces of the officers about the bonfire could be read.
Then Fevrier stopped and whispered to the soldier next to him. That soldier passed the whisper on, and from a file the Frenchmen crept into line. Fevrier had now nothing to do but to wait; and he waited without trepidation or excitement. The night from first to last had gone very well with him. He could even think of Mareschal Bazaine without anger.
He waited for perhaps an hour, watching the faces round the fire increase in number and grow troubled with anxiety. The German officers talked in low tones staring through their night-glasses down the hill, to catch the first leaping flame from the roofs of Vaudère, pushing forward their heads to listen for any alarm. Fevrier watched them with the amusement of a spectator in a play house. He was fully aware that he was shortly to step upon the stage himself. He was aware too that the play was to have a tragic ending. Meanwhile, however, here was very good comedy! He had a Frenchman’s appreciation of the picturesque. The dark night, the glowing fire on the one broad level of grass, the French soldiers hidden in the vines, within a stone’s throw of the Germans, the Germans looking unconsciously on over their heads for the return of those comrades who never would return.—Lieutenant Fevrier was the dramatist who had created this striking and artistic situation. Lieutenant Fevrier could not but be pleased. Moreover there were better effects to follow. One occurred to him at this very moment, an admirable one. He fumbled in his breast and took out the flag. A minute later he saw the Colonel of the forepost join the group, hack nervously with his naked sword at a burning log, and dispatch a subaltern down the hill to the field-watch.
The subaltern came crashing back through the vines. Fevrier did not need to hear his words in order to guess at his report. It could only be that the Prussian party had given the password and come safely back an hour since. Besides, the Colonel’s act was significant.
He sent four men at once in different directions, and the rest of his soldiers he withdrew into the darkness behind the bonfire. He did not follow them himself until he had picked up and tossed a fusee into the fire. The fusee flared and spat and spurted, and immediately it seemed to Fevrier—so short an interval of time was there—that the country-side was alive with the hum of a stirring camp, and the rattle of harness-chains, as horses were yoked to guns.
For a third time that evening Fevrier laughed softly. The deserters had roused the Prussian army round Metz to the expectation of an attack in force. He touched his neighbour on the shoulder.
“One volley when I give the word. Then charge. Pass the order on!” and the word went along the line like a ripple across a pond.
He had hardly given it, the fusee had barely ceased to sputter, before a company doubled out on the open space behind the bonfire. That company had barely formed up, before another arrived to support it.
As the Prussian command was uttered, Fevrier was aware of a movement at his side. The soldier next to him was taking aim. Fevrier reached out his hand and stopped the man. Fevrier was going to die in five minutes, and meant to die chivalrously like a gentleman. He waited until the German companies had loaded, until they were ordered to advance, and then he shouted,
The little flames shot out and crackled among the vines. He saw gaps in the Prussian ranks, he saw the men waver, surprised at the proximity of the attack.
“Charge,” he shouted, and crashing through the few yards of shelter, they burst out upon the répli, and across the open space to the Prussian bayonets. But not one of the number reached the bayonets.
“Fire!” shouted the Prussian officer, in his turn.
The volley flashed out, the smoke cleared away, and showed a little heap of men silent between the bonfire and the Prussian ranks.
The Prussians loaded again and stood ready, waiting for the main attack. The morning was just breaking. They stood silent and motionless till the sky was flooded with light and the hills one after another came into view, and the files of poplars were seen marching on the plains. Then the Colonel approached the little heap. A rifle caught his eye, and he picked it up.
“They are all mad,” said he. Forced to the point of the bayonet was a gaudy little linen tri-colour flag.
1. See the Daily News War Correspondence, 1870. [back]