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Emile Zola. The Downfall

Produced by Dagny, John Bickers, and David Widger

THE DOWNFALL

(LA DEBACLE)

(The Smash-up)

BY

EMILE ZOLA

Translated By

E. P. Robins

THE DOWNFALL

PART FIRST

I.

In the middle of the broad, fertile plain that stretches away in the direction of the Rhine, a mile and a quarter from Mulhausen, the camp was pitched. In the fitful light of the overcast August day, beneath the lowering sky that was filled with heavy drifting clouds, the long lines of squat white shelter-tents seemed to cower closer to the ground, and the muskets, stacked at regular intervals along the regimental fronts, made little spots of brightness, while over all the sentries with loaded pieces kept watch and ward, motionless as statues, straining their eyes to pierce the purplish mists that lay on the horizon and showed where the mighty river ran.

It was about five o'clock when they had come in from Belfort; it was now eight, and the men had only just received their rations. There could be no distribution of wood, however, the wagons having gone astray, and it had therefore been impossible for them to make fires and warm their soup. They had consequently been obliged to content themselves as best they might, washing down their dry hard-tack with copious draughts of brandy, a proceeding that was not calculated greatly to help their tired legs after their long march. Near the canteen, however, behind the stacks of muskets, there were two soldiers pertinaciously endeavoring to elicit a blaze from a small pile of green wood, the trunks of some small trees that they had chopped down with their sword-bayonets, and that were obstinately determined not to burn. The cloud of thick, black smoke, rising slowly in the evening air, added to the general cheerlessness of the scene.

There were but twelve thousand men there, all of the 7th corps that the general, Felix Douay, had with him at the time. The 1st division had been ordered to Froeschwiller the day before; the 3d was still at Lyons, and it had been decided to leave Belfort and hurry to the front with the 2d division, the reserve artillery, and an incomplete division of cavalry. Fires had been seen at Lorrach. The sous-prefet at Schelestadt had sent a telegram announcing that the Prussians were preparing to pass the Rhine at Markolsheim. The general did not like his unsupported position on the extreme right, where he was cut off from communication with the other corps, and his movement in the direction of the frontier had been accelerated by the intelligence he had received the day before of the disastrous surprise at Wissembourg. Even if he should not be called on to face the enemy on his own front, he felt that he was likely at any moment to be ordered to march to the relief of the 1st corps. There must be fighting going on, away down the river near Froeschwiller, on that dark and threatening Saturday, that ominous 6th of August; there was premonition of it in the sultry air, and the stray puffs of wind passed shudderingly over the camp as if fraught with tidings of impending evil. And for two days the division had believed that it was marching forth to battle; the men had expected to find the Prussians in their front, at the termination of their forced march from Belfort to Mulhausen.

The day was drawing to an end, and from a remote corner of the camp the rattling drums and the shrill bugles sounded retreat, the sound dying away faintly in the distance on the still air of evening. Jean Macquart, who had been securing the tent and driving the pegs home, rose to his feet. When it began to be rumored that there was to be war he had left Rognes, the scene of the bloody drama in which he had lost his wife, Francoise and the acres that she brought him; he had re-enlisted at the age of thirty-nine, and been assigned to the 106th of the line, of which they were at that time filling up the cadres, with his old rank of corporal, and there were moments when he could not help wondering how it ever came about that he, who after Solferino had been so glad to quit the service and cease endangering his own and other people's lives, was again wearing the capote of the infantry man. But what is a man to do, when he has neither trade nor calling, neither wife, house, nor home, and his heart is heavy with mingled rage and sorrow? As well go and have a shot at the enemy, if they come where they are not wanted. And he remembered his old battle cry: Ah! bon sang! if he had no longer heart for honest toil, he would go and defend her, his country, the old land of France!

When Jean was on his legs he cast a look about the camp, where the summons of the drums and bugles, taken up by one command after another, produced a momentary bustle, the conclusion of the business of the day. Some men were running to take their places in the ranks, while others, already half asleep, arose and stretched their stiff limbs with an air of exasperated weariness. He stood waiting patiently for roll-call, with that cheerful imperturbability and determination to make the best of everything that made him the good soldier that he was. His comrades were accustomed to say of him that if he had only had education he would have made his mark. He could just barely read and write, and his aspirations did not rise even so high as to a sergeantcy. Once a peasant, always a peasant.

But he found something to interest him in the fire of green wood that was still smoldering and sending up dense volumes of smoke, and he stepped up to speak to the two men who were busying themselves over it, Loubet and Lapoulle, both members of his squad.

'Quit that! You are stifling the whole camp.'

Loubet, a lean, active fellow and something of a wag, replied:

'It will burn, corporal; I assure you it will-why don't you blow, you!'

And by way of encouragement he bestowed a kick on Lapoulle, a colossus of a man, who was on his knees puffing away with might and main, his cheeks distended till they were like wine-skins, his face red and swollen, and his eyes starting from their orbits and streaming with tears. Two other men of the squad, Chouteau and Pache, the former stretched at length upon his back like a man who appreciates the delight of idleness, and the latter engrossed in the occupation of putting a patch on his trousers, laughed long and loud at the ridiculous expression on the face of their comrade, the brutish Lapoulle.

Jean did not interfere to check their merriment. Perhaps the time was at hand when they would not have much occasion for laughter, and he, with all his seriousness and his humdrum, literal way of taking things, did not consider that it was part of his duty to be melancholy, preferring rather to close his eyes or look the other way when his men were enjoying themselves. But his attention was attracted to a second group not far away, another soldier of his squad, Maurice Levasseur, who had been conversing earnestly for near an hour with a civilian, a red- haired gentleman who was apparently about thirty-six years old, with an intelligent, honest face, illuminated by a pair of big protruding blue eyes, evidently the eyes of a near-sighted man. They had been joined by an artilleryman, a quartermaster-sergeant from the reserves, a knowing, self-satisfied-looking person with brown mustache and imperial, and the three stood talking like old friends, unmindful of what was going on about them.

In the kindness of his heart, in order to save them a reprimand, if not something worse, Jean stepped up to them and said:

'You had better be going, sir. It is past retreat, and if the lieutenant should see you-' Maurice did not permit him to conclude his sentence:

'Stay where you are, Weiss,' he said, and turning to the corporal, curtly added: 'This gentleman is my brother- in-law. He has a pass from the colonel, who is acquainted with him.'

What business had he to interfere with other people's affairs, that peasant whose hands were still reeking of the manure-heap? He was a lawyer, had been admitted to the bar the preceding autumn, had enlisted as a volunteer and been received into the 106th without the formality of passing through the recruiting station, thanks to the favor of the colonel; it was true that he had condescended to carry a musket, but from the very start he had been conscious of a feeling of aversion and rebellion toward that ignorant clown under whose command he was.

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