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- Mademoiselle Fifi - 2/13 -
In the dining-room they found three officers of lower rank; one lieutenant, Otto von Grossling, and two second-lieutenants, Fritz Scheuneberg and Markgraf Wilhelm von Eyrik, a tiny blond man, haughty and brutal with his men, harsh toward the vanquished foe, and violent like a fire-arm.
Since his arrival in France his comrade called him only Mademoiselle Fifi. This nickname was bestowed upon him on account of his coquettish style of dressing and manners, his slender waist, which looked as if it were laced in a corset, his pale face on which a nascent mustache could hardly be seen, and also on account of the habit he had acquired, in order to express his supreme contempt for persons and things, of using continually the French locution: "Fi! fi donc!" which he pronounced with a slight lisping.
The dining-room of the Chateau d'Uville was a large and regal hall, the ancient mirrors of which constellated with bullet holes, and the high Flanders tapestries, slashed with sword cuts and hanging in shreds at certain places, told the tale of Mademoiselle Fifi's favorite occupations and pastime during his hours of idleness.
On the walls, three family portraits, a warrior wearing his armor, a Cardinal and a Chief Justice, were smoking long porcelain pipes, while in its frame, ungilt by age, a noble lady in a tight waist, was showing with an arrogant air an enormous pair of mustache crayoned with charcoal.
And the Officers' luncheon went off almost silently in this mutilated room, darkened by the shower outside, sad and depressing in its vanquished appearance, the old oak parquet floor of which had become solid like the floor of a bar room.
Having finished eating, it was time for smoking; they began to drink and, reverting to their usual topic, they spoke of their monotonous and tedious life. Bottles of cognac and liqueur passed from hand to hand, and seating back on their chairs, they were all absorbing their liqueur in repeated sips, holding at the corner of their mouths the long curved pipes ending in a meerschaum bowl, invariably daubed as if to seduce Hottentots.
As soon as their glasses were empty, they refilled them with a gesture of resigned weariness. But Mademoiselle Fifi broke his glass every instant and then a soldier brought him immediately a new one.
A mist of acrid smoke bathed, drowned them, and they seemed to sink into a somnolent and sad inebriety, in that taciturn and morose intoxication peculiar to men who have nothing to do.
But suddenly the Baron sat up. A revolt shook him; he swore: "By heavens! this cannot go on indefinitely; we must in the end invent something."
Lieutenant Otto and Second-Lieutenant Fritz, two Teutons eminently endowed with heavy and serious German faces, replied together: "What shall we invent, Captain?"
He mused for a few seconds and resumed: "What? Well, we must organize an entertainment, if the Commander will permit."
The Major took his pipe out of his mouth: "What entertainment, Captain?"--
The Baron came nearer: "Leave it to me, Commander; I shall send Pflicht[*] to Rouen, and he will bring us some women I know where to get them. A supper will be prepared here; besides we have everything, and I may venture to say we shall spend a rather pleasant evening."
Graf Farlsberg, shrugged his shoulders and smiled: "You are crazy, my friend!"
But all the officers had risen, surrounding their chief and beseeching him: "Let the Captain go, Commander; it is so sad here!"
Finally the Major yielded: "All right!" said he; and immediately the Baron sent for Pflicht. Pflicht was an old non-commissioned officer, who had never been seen smiling, but who carried out with fanatical punctuality the orders of his superiors, no matter what they were.
Erect, with his impassive face, he received the Baron's instructions; then he left the room; and five minutes later a large military wagon, covered with miller's tarpaulin stretched in the shape of a dome, was being rapidly driven away under the heavy rain at the gallop of four horses.
At once an awakening thrill seemed to run through the group of officers and shook them from their lethargy; the languid poses straightened up, faces became animated and they began to talk.
Although the shower was continuing as heavy as ever, the Major affirmed that it was not so dark, and Lieutenant Otto announced positively that the weather was clearing up. Even Mademoiselle Fifi seemed unable to keep still. He rose and sat down again. His harsh and clear eye was looking for something to break; suddenly, glaring at the lady with the mustache, the young prig drew his revolver: "You shall not witness it, you!" said he, and, without leaving his seat, he aimed. Two bullets fired in rapid succession put out the eyes of the portrait.
Then he exclaimed: "Let us explode a mine!" And at once the conversation was interrupted, as if a powerful and new curiosity had taken hold of every one present.
A mine, that was his invention, his way of destroying, his favorite amusement.
When he hurriedly left his chateau, Comte Fernand d'Armoy d'Uville, the legitimate owner, had had no time to take with him nor hide away anything except the silver-plate, which he had stowed away in a hole made in a wall. Now as he was immensely wealthy and lived in great luxury, his large salon, the door of which communicated with the dining-room, presented the appearance of a Picture Gallery before the precipitate flight of the master.
Priceless paintings and aquarelles were hanging on the walls, while on the tables, the étagères and the elegant cabinets, thousands of bric à brac and bibelots, statuettes, Dresden and Chinese vases, old ivories and Venice pottery peopled the large room with their precious and odd multitude.
Hardly any were left by this time. Not that they had been stolen; the Major, Graf Farlsberg, would not have permitted nor tolerated it; but Mademoiselle Fifi once in a while exploded a mine; and on such occasions all the officers enjoyed themselves thoroughly for five minutes.
The little Markgraf went to the salon to fetch what he needed; he brought in a tiny and graceful Chinese tea-pot of the Rose family, which he filled with gun powder, and through the neck of which he carefully introduced a long piece of tinder, lighted it and, running, carried this infernal machine into the next room.
Then he returned quickly and closed the door behind him. All the Germans stood up and waited, their faces wreathed in childlike smiles of curiosity, and as soon as the explosion shook the Chateau, they hurried in all at once.
Mademoiselle Fifi, who had been the first one to rush in, was deliriously clapping his hands in front of a terra cotta Venus, whose head at last had been blown off; and each picked up broken pieces of China, wondering at the strange indentation of the fragments, examining the new damage done, claiming that some of the damage had been caused by previous explosions. And the Major was contemplating, with a paternal look, the large salon upset by this Neronian firework and strewn with the debris of the objects of Art. He came out first, declaring good- naturedly: "It was very successful this time!"
But such a spout of smoke had invaded the dining-room, mixing with the smoke of tobacco, that it was impossible to breathe. The Commander opened the window, and all the officers, who had come back to drink a last glass of cognac, crowded near it.
The damp air blew into the room bringing in a kind of water dust, which sprayed and powdered the beards, and a smell of inundation. They were looking at the tall trees bending under the shower, the broad valley darkened by this outflow of the black low clouds[*], and in the distance the Church spire rising like a gray point in the pelting rain.
[*][Note from Brett: The original uses "clowds," but I think "clouds" was intended.]
Since the arrival of the Germans, the Church bell had not rung. It was in fact the only resistance with which the invaders met in that neighborhood, the resistance of the bell-tower. The Curate had not refused to receive and feed Prussian soldiers; he had even, on several occasions, accepted to drink a bottle of beer or claret with the enemy Commander, who often used him as a benevolent intermediary. But it was useless to ask him for a single ring of his bell; he would rather have faced a firing squad. That was his way of protesting against invasion, a peaceful protest, the protest of silence, the only one, said he, that became a priest, a man of peace and not of blood. And everybody for ten miles around praised the firmness, the heroism of Father Chantavoine, who dared to affirm the public mourning and proclaim it by the obstinate mutism of his Church.
The entire village, enthusiastic about this resistance, was ready to support and back up its pastor to the bitter end, to risk anything, considering this tacit protest as a safeguard of the national honor. It seemed to the peasants that in this way they deserved better of their country than Belfort or Strasbourg, that they had given just as good an example, that the name of their hamlet would remain immortal for it; and with that single exception, they refused nothing to the victorious Prussians.
The Commander and his officers laughed in private at this manifestation of inoffensive courage, and as the entire neighborhood showed themselves obliging to them and docile to their orders, they willingly tolerated the priest's silent patriotism.
Little Markgraf Wilhelm was the only one who would have liked to compel the bell to ring; he was very indignant at the political
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