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Brander Matthews (1852–1929). The Short-Story. 1907.

By Alphonse Daudet

XVI The Siege of Berlin

WE were going up the Champs Elysées with Dr. V——, gathering from the walls pierced by shell, the pavement plowed by grape shot, the history of the besieged Paris, when just before reaching the Place de l’Etoile, the Doctor stopped and pointed out to me one of those large corner houses, so pompously grouped around the Arc de Triomphe.

“Do you see,” said he, “those four closed windows on the balcony up there? In the beginning of August that terrible month of August of ’70, so laden with storm and disaster, I was summoned there to attend a case of apoplexy. The sufferer was Colonel Jouve, an old Cuirassier of the First Empire, full of enthusiasm for glory and patriotism, who, at the commencement of the war, had taken an apartment with a balcony in the Champs Elysées—for what do you think? To assist at the triumphal entry of our troops! Poor old man! The news of Wissembourg arrived as he was rising from table. On reading the name of Napoleon at the foot of that bulletin of defeat he fell senseless.

“I found the old Cuirassier stretched upon the floor, his face bleeding and inert as from the blow of a club. Standing, he would have been very tall; lying, he looked immense; with fine features, beautiful teeth, and white curling hair, carrying his eighty years as though they had been sixty. Beside him knelt his granddaughter in tears. She resembled him. Seeing them side by side, they reminded me of two Greek medallions stamped with the same impress, only the one was antique, earth-stained, its outlines somewhat worn; the other beautiful and clear, in all the luster of freshness.

“The child’s sorrow touched me. Daughter and granddaughter of soldiers,—for her father was on MacMahon’s staff,—the sight of this old man stretched before her evoked in her mind another vision no less terrible. I did my best to reassure her, though in reality I had but little hope. We had to contend with hæmoptysis from which at eighty there is small chance of recovery.

“For three days the patient remained in the same condition of immobility and stupor. Meanwhile came the news of Reichshofen—you remember how strangely? Till the evening we all believed in a great victory—twenty thousand Prussians killed, the Crown Prince prisoner.

“I cannot tell by what miracle, by what magnetic current, an echo of this national joy can have reached our poor invalid, hitherto deaf to all around him; but that evening, on approaching the bed, I found a new man. His eye was almost clear, his speech less difficult, and he had the strength to smile and to stammer:—

“‘Victory, victory.’

“‘Yes, Colonel, a great victory.’ And as I gave the details of MacMahon’s splendid success I saw his features relax and his countenance brighten.

“When I went out his granddaughter was waiting for me, pale and sobbing.—

“‘But he is saved,’ said I, taking her hands.

“The poor child had hardly courage to answer me. The true Reichshofen had just been announced, MacMahon a fugitive, the whole army crushed. We looked at each other in consternation, she anxious at the thought of her father, I trembling for the grandfather. Certainly he would not bear this new shock. And yet what could we do? Let him enjoy the illusion which had revived him? But then we should have to deceive him.

“‘Well, then, I will deceive him,’ said the brave girl, and hastily wiping away her tears she reëntered her grandfather’s room with a beaming face.

“It was a hard task she had set herself. For the first few days it was comparatively easy, as the old man’s head was weak, and he was as credulous as a child. But with returning health came clearer ideas. It was necessary to keep him au courant with the movements of the army and to invent military bulletins. It was pitiful to see that beautiful girl bending night and day over her map of Germany, marking it with little flags, forcing herself to combine the whole of a glorious campaign—Bazaine on the road to Berlin, Frossard in Bavaria, MacMahon on the Baltic. In all this she asked my counsel, and I helped her as far as I could, but it was the grandfather who did the most for us in this imaginary invasion. He had conquered Germany so often during the First Empire. He knew all the moves beforehand. ‘Now they should go there. This is what they will do,’ and his anticipations were always realized, not a little to his pride. Unfortunately, we might take towns and gain battles, but we never went fast enough for the Colonel. He was insatiable. Every day I was greeted with a fresh feat of arms.

“‘Doctor, we have taken Mayence,’ said the young girl, coming to meet me with a heartrending smile, and through the door I heard a joyous voice crying:—

“‘We are getting on. We are getting on. In a week we shall enter Berlin.’

“At that moment the Prussians were but a week from Paris. At first we thought it might be better to move to the provinces, but once out of doors, the state of the country would have told him all, and I thought him still too weak, too enervated, to know the truth. It was therefore decided that they should stay where they were.

“On the first day of the investment I went to see my patient—much agitated, I remember, and with that pang in my heart which we all felt at knowing that the gates of Paris were shut, that the war was under our walls, that our suburbs had become our frontiers.

“I found the old man jubilant and proud.

“‘Well,’ said he, ‘the siege has begun.’

“I looked at him stupefied.

“‘How, Colonel, do you know?’

“His granddaughter turned to me, ‘Oh, yes, Doctor, it is great news. The siege of Berlin has commenced.’

“She said this composedly, while drawing out her needle. How could he suspect anything? He could not hear the cannon nor see that unhappy Paris, so sullen and disorderly. All that he saw from his bed was calculated to keep up his delusion. Outside was the Arc de Triomphe, and in the room quite a collection of souvenirs of the First Empire. Portraits of marshals, engravings of battles, the King of Rome in his baby robes; the stiff consoles, ornamented with trophies in brass, were covered with Imperial relics, medals, bronzes; a stone from St. Helena under a glass shade; miniatures all representing the same becurled lady, in ball dress, in a yellow gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves, and light eyes; and all—the consoles, the King of Rome, the medals, the yellow ladies with short waists and sashes under their arms—in that style of awkward stiffness which was the grace of 1806.—Good Colonel! it was this atmosphere of victory and conquest, rather than all we could say, which made him believe so naïvely in the siege of Berlin.

“From that day our military operations became much simpler. Taking Berlin was merely a matter of patience. Every now and then, when the old man was tired of waiting, a letter from his son was read to him—an imaginary letter, of course, as nothing could enter Paris, and as, since Sedan, MacMahon’s aid-de-camp had been sent to a German fortress. Can you not imagine the despair of the poor girl, without tidings of her father, knowing him to be a prisoner, deprived of all comforts, perhaps ill, and yet obliged to make him speak in cheerful letters, somewhat short, as from a soldier in the field, always advancing in a conquered country. Sometimes, when the invalid was weaker than usual, weeks passed without fresh news. But was he anxious and unable to sleep, suddenly a letter arrived from Germany which she read gayly at his bedside, struggling hard with her tears. The Colonel listened religiously, smiling with an air of superiority, approving, criticising, explaining; but it was in the answers to his son that he was at his best. ‘Never forget that you are a Frenchman,’ he wrote; ‘be generous to those poor people. Do not make the invasion too hard for them.’ His advice was never ending; edifying sermons about respect of property, the politeness due to ladies,—in short, quite a code of military honor for the use of conquerors. With all this he put in some general reflections on politics and the conditions of the peace to be imposed on the vanquished. With regard to the latter, I must say he was not exacting:—

“‘The war indemnity and nothing else. It is no good to take provinces. Can one turn Germany into France?’

“He dictated this with so firm a voice, and one felt so much sincerity in his words, so much patriotic faith, that it was impossible to listen to him unmoved.

“Meanwhile the siege went on—not the siege of Berlin, alas! We were at the worst period of cold, of bombardment, of epidemic, of famine. But, thanks to our care, and the indefatigable tenderness which surrounded him, the old man’s serenity was never for a moment disturbed. Up to the end I was able to procure white bread and fresh meat for him, but for him only. You could not imagine anything more touching than those breakfasts of the grandfather, so innocently egotistic, sitting up in bed, fresh and smiling, the napkin tied under his chin, at his side his granddaughter, pale from her privations, guiding his hands, making him drink, helping him to eat all these good, forbidden things. Then, revived by the repast, in the comfort of his warm room with the wintry wind shut out and the snow eddying about the window, the old Cuirassier would recall his Northern campaigns and would relate to us that disastrous retreat in Russia where there was nothing to eat but frozen biscuit and horseflesh.

“‘Can you understand that, little one? We ate horseflesh.’

“I should think she did understand it. For two months she had tasted nothing else. As convalescence approached, our task increased daily in difficulty. The numbness of the Colonel’s senses, as well as of his limbs, which had hitherto helped us so much, was beginning to pass away. Once or twice already, those terrible volleys at the Porte Maillot had made him start and prick up his ears like a war horse; we were obliged to invent a recent victory of Bazaine’s before Berlin and salvoes fired from the Invalides in honor of it. Another day (the Thursday of Buzenval, I think it was) his bed had been pushed to the window, whence he saw some of the National Guard massed upon the Avenue de la Grande Armée.

“‘What soldiers are those?’ he asked, and we heard him grumbling beneath his teeth:—

“‘Badly drilled, badly drilled.’

“Nothing came of this, but we understood that henceforth greater precautions were necessary. Unfortunately, we were not careful enough.

“One evening I was met by the child in much trouble.

“‘It is to-morrow they make their entry,’ she said.

“Could the grandfather’s door have been opened? In thinking of it since, I remember that all that evening his face wore an extraordinary expression. Probably he had overheard us; only we spoke of the Prussians and he thought of the French, of the triumphal entry he had so long expected, MacMahon descending the Avenue amidst flowers and flourish of trumpets, his own son riding beside the marshal, and he himself on his balcony, in full uniform as at Lützen, saluting the ragged colors and the eagles blackened by powder.

“Poor Colonel Jouve! He no doubt imagined that we wished to prevent his assisting at the defile of our troops, lest the emotion should prove too much for him, and therefore took care to say nothing to us; but the next day, just at the time the Prussian battalions cautiously entered the long road leading from the Porte Maillot to the Tuileries, the window up there was softly opened and the Colonel appeared on the balcony with his helmet, his sword, all his long unused, but glorious apparel of Milhaud’s Cuirassiers.

“I often ask myself what supreme effort of will, what sudden impulse of fading vitality, had placed him thus erect in harness.

“All we know is that he was there, standing at the railing, wondering to find the wide avenue so silent, the shutters all closed, Paris like a great lazaret, flags everywhere, but such strange ones, white with red crosses, and no one to meet our soldiers.

“For a moment he may have thought himself mistaken.

“But no! there, behind the Arc de Triomphe, there was a confused sound, a black line advancing in the growing daylight—then, little by little, the spikes of the helmets glisten, the little drums of Jena begin to beat, and under the Arc de l’Etoile, accompanied by the heavy tramp of the troops, by the clatter of sabers, bursts forth Schubert’s Triumphal March.

“In the dead silence of the streets was heard a cry, a terrible cry:—

“‘To arms!—to arms!—the Prussians.’ And the four Uhlans of the advance guard might have seen up there, on the balcony, a tall old man stagger, wave his arms, and fall. This time Colonel Jouve was dead.”