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- Mademoiselle Fifi - 5/13 -
from the roofs, or the glorious army massacring those who defend themselves, taking away the others as prisoners, pillaging in the name of the sword and offering thanks to God to the thunder of the guns, are as many appalling scourges which disconcert any belief in eternal justice, all the trust we were taught to place in the protection of heaven and the reason of man.
Small detachments knocked at each door and then disappeared in the houses. It was occupation after invasion. Now the vanquished had to show themselves nice to their conquerors.
After a while, once the first terror had abated, a new tranquility settled down. In many houses the Prussian Officer took his meals with the family. Some were well bred, and out of politeness, showed sympathy for France and spoke of their reluctance to participate in the war. People were grateful for such sentiments; furthermore, they might have needed their protection any day. By being nice to them they would possibly have fewer men billeted to their houses. And why hurt the feelings of a man who had full power over them? To act in that way would be less bravery than temerity--and temerity is no longer a failing of the citizens of Rouen, as in the days of heroic defense when their City became famous. Last of all--supreme argument derived from French urbanity--they said that they could allow themselves to be polite in their own houses, provided they did not exhibit in public too much familiarity with the foreign soldier. On the streets they passed each other as strangers, but at home they willingly chatted, and every night the German stayed up later and later, warming himself at the family fire-place.
Even the City was gradually resuming some of its ordinary aspect. The French were seldom seen promenading in the Streets, but Prussian soldiers swarmed. Besides, the officers of the Blue Hussars, who arrogantly rattled their big instruments of death on the pavements, did not seem to have for the plain citizens enormously more contempt than the officers of the French Chasseurs who, the year before, had been drinking in the same Cafés.
There was, however, something in the air, something subtle and unknown, an intolerable foreign atmosphere like an offensive odor--the smell of invasion. It pervaded the houses and the public places, changed the taste of food and made you feel as if you were traveling in far distant lands, amid barbarians and dangerous tribes.
The conquerors exacted money, a great deal of money. The citizens kept on paying; they could afford to pay, they were rich. But the more a Norman businessman becomes opulent, the more he suffers when he has to make any sacrifice, or sees any parcel of his property pass into the hands of others.
And yet, within a distance of two or three leagues from the City, down the river, in the direction of Croisset, Dieppendalle or Biessart, boatmen and fishermen often hauled from the bottom of the water the body of some German swollen in his uniform, killed with a knife or by a blow of savate, his head crushed by a stone, or pushed from a bridge into the water. The mud of the river-bed buried such obscure, savage and yet legitimate vengeances, unknown acts of heroism, silent attacks more perilous than battles in the open, and yet without any of the halo and glamour of glory.
For hatred of the foreigner always arms some intrepid persons ready to die for an idea.
As the invaders, although subjecting the City to their inflexible discipline, had committed none of the horrors which rumor credited them with having perpetrated all along their triumphal march, people became bolder, and desire to do business belabored again the hearts of the local merchants. Some of them had large interest in Havre, which was occupied by the French Army, and they tried to reach that sea port in going by land to Dieppe and proceeding from there by boat.
They used the influence of the German Officers, with whom they had become acquainted, and a special permit was secured from the General in Chief. Now then, a large four-horse coach having been engaged for this trip, and ten persons having had their names booked with the driver, it was decided to leave on a Tuesday morning, before daybreak, to avoid attracting any crowd.
For some time past the frost had hardened the ground, and on that particular Monday, at about three o'clock, big black clouds coming from the North brought the snow which fell without interruption all that evening and during the whole night.
At half past four in the morning, the travelers met in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Normandie, where they were to take the coach.
They were still half asleep, and shivered with cold under their wraps. They could not see each other well in the darkness, and bundled in their heavy winter clothing, their bodies looked like fat priests in their long cassocks. Two men recognized each other; a third joined them; they talked:--"I am taking my wife with me--" said one;--"So am I"--"And I too"--The first speaker continued, "We shall not come back to Rouen, and if the Prussians should threaten Havre, we shall cross over to England"--They all had the same plans, being of similar disposition.
However, the horses were not yet harnessed. A small lantern, carried by a stable boy, came now and then out of a dark doorway, and immediately disappeared in another. Horses were stamping the ground, but their hooves being covered with dung and straw, the noise of the stamping was deadened; a man's voice talking to the animals and swearing at them was heard from the rear of the building. A faint tickle grew soon into a clear and continuous jingling, rhythmical with the movements of the horses, now stopping, now resuming in a sudden peal accompanied by the deadened noise of an iron-shod hoof, pawing the ground.
The door closed suddenly. All the noise ceased. The frozen passengers stopped talking: they stood motionless and stiff.
An uninterrupted curtain of white, glistening flakes ceaselessly fell on the ground; it obliterated the forms of things and powdered them with an icy foam; and in the great silence of the quiet City, buried under the winter, one could hear nothing save that vague, nameless rustle of the falling snow--a sensation rather than a sound--an intermingling of light atoms which seemed to fill the space and cover the whole world.
The man reappeared with his lantern, leading by a rope a sad-looking horse who followed him reluctantly. He placed him against the shaft, fastened the straps, turned around for a long time to make sure that the harness was properly fixed, for he could use only one hand, the other holding the lantern. As he was going to bring the second animal, he noticed that all the travelers were standing still, already white with snow, and he told them:--"Why don't you get in the coach? there you would be under shelter at least."
No doubt this had not occurred to them; at once there was a rush to get in. The three men installed their wives in the rear of the coach and then got in themselves; one after the other, the remaining indistinct and snow covered forms took the last seats without exchanging a single word.
The floor was covered with straw into which the feet sank. The ladies in the rear, having brought with them small copper foot-warmers, heated by means of a chemical coal, lighted these apparatuses, and for some time, in a low voice, they enumerated their advantages, repeating to each other things which they had not known for a long time.
At last six horses instead of four having been harnessed to the coach, on account of the difficult roads and heavier draft, a voice from the outside asked: "Is everybody in?"--To which a voice replied from the inside:--"Yes"--And the coach started.
The coach proceeded slowly, slowly, at a snail's pace. The wheels sank into the snow; the entire body of the carriage groaned with creaks; the animals were slipping, puffing, steaming, and the driver's gigantic whip was cracking continuously, flying in every direction, coiling up and unrolling itself like a thin snake, and suddenly lashing some rounded back, which then stretched out under a more violent effort.
Imperceptibly the day was breaking. Those light flakes that a traveler, a pure blood native of Rouen, had compared to a rain of cotton, had stopped falling. A murky light filtered through the big, dark and heavy clouds, which rendered more dazzling the whiteness of the country where one could see now a line of tall trees spangled with hoar frost, now a cottage with a snow hood.
Inside the coach, the travelers eyed each other inquisitively in the melancholy light of the dawn.
Way in the rear, on the best seats, facing each other, Mr. and Mrs. Loiseau, wholesale wine dealers of the Rue Grand-Pont, were slumbering.
Former clerk to a merchant who had been ruined in business, Loiseau had bought his employer's stock and made a fortune. He was selling very cheap very bad wine to small liquor dealers in the country, and was considered by his friends and acquaintances as a sharp crook, a real Norman full of wiles and joviality. His reputation as a crook was so well established that one evening at the Prefecture, Mr. Tournel, a writer of fables and songs, a biting and fine wit, a local literary glory, having proposed to the ladies' whom he saw rather drowsy, to play a game of "L'oiseau vole," (the bird steals--flies) the joke flew through the salons of the Prefect and from there, reaching those of the town, made all the jaws of the Province laugh for a whole month.
In addition to this unsavory reputation, Loiseau was famous for his various practical jokes, his good or bad tricks; and nobody could mention his name without adding immediately:--"Loiseau is merciless; he spares nobody!"--
Undersized, he had a balloon shaped stomach surmounted by a florid face between a pair of grayish whiskers.
His wife, tall, stout determined, with a loud voice, a woman of quick decision, represented order and arithmetic in the business house which her husband enlivened by his mirthful activity.
Beside them sat, more dignified and belonging to a superior class, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, a man of considerable standing, a leader in the cotton business, proprietor of three spinning mills, officer of the Legion of Honor and member of the General Council. During the Empire he had been the leader of the friendly opposition, solely for the purpose of commanding a higher price for his support when he rallied to the cause which he was fighting daily with courteous
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