Fiction by Émile Zola
On that particular day, at about five o’clock in the morning, the sun
entered with delightful abruptness into the little room I occupied at the
house of my uncle Lazare, parish priest of the hamlet of Dourgues. A broad
yellow ray fell upon ray closed eyelids, and I awoke in light.
My room, which was whitewashed, and had deal furniture, was full of
attractive gaiety. I went to the window and gazed at the Durance, which
traced its broad course amidst the dark green verdure of the valley. Fresh
puffs of wind caressed my face, and the murmur of the trees and river
seemed to call me to them.
I gently opened my door. To get out I had to pass through my uncle’s room.
I proceeded on tip-toe, fearing the creaking of my thick boots might
awaken the worthy man, who was still slumbering with a smiling
countenance. And I trembled at the sound of the church bell tolling the
Angelus. For some days past my uncle Lazare had been following me about
everywhere, looking sad and annoyed. He would perhaps have prevented me
going over there to the edge of the river, and hiding myself among the
willows on the bank, so as to watch for Babet passing, that tall dark girl
who had come with the spring.
But my uncle was sleeping soundly. I felt something like remorse in
deceiving him and running away in this manner. I stayed for an instant and
gazed on his calm countenance, with its gentle expression enhanced by
rest, and I recalled to mind with feeling the day when he had come to
fetch me in the chilly and deserted home which my mother’s funeral was
leaving. Since that day, what tenderness, what devotedness, what good
advice he had bestowed on me! He had given me his knowledge and his
kindness, all his intelligence and all his heart.
I was tempted for a moment to cry out to him:
“Get up, uncle Lazare! let us go for a walk together along that path you
are so fond of beside the Durance. You will enjoy the fresh air and
morning sun. You will see what an appetite you will have on your return!”
And Babet, who was going down to the river in her light morning gown, and
whom I should not be able to see! My uncle would be there, and I would
have to lower my eyes. It must be so nice under the willows, lying flat on
one’s stomach, in the fine grass! I felt a languid feeling creeping over
me, and, slowly, taking short steps, holding my breath, I reached the
door. I went downstairs, and began running like a madcap in the
delightful, warm May morning air.
The sky was quite white on the horizon, with exquisitely delicate blue and
pink tints. The pale sun seemed like a great silver lamp, casting a shower
of bright rays into the Durance. And the broad, sluggish river, expanding
lazily over the red sand, extended from one end of the valley to the
other, like a stream of liquid metal. To the west, a line of low rugged
hills threw slight violet streaks on the pale sky.
I had been living in this out-of-the-way corner for ten years. How often
had I kept my uncle Lazare waiting to give me my Latin lesson! The worthy
man wanted to make me learned. But I was on the other side of the Durance,
ferreting out magpies, discovering a hill which I had not yet climbed.
Then, on my return, there were remonstrances: the Latin was forgotten, my
poor uncle scolded me for having torn my trousers, and he shuddered when
he noticed sometimes that the skin underneath was cut. The valley was
mine, really mine; I had conquered it with my legs, and I was the real
landlord by right of friendship. And that bit of river, those two leagues
of the Durance, how I loved them, how well we understood one another when
together! I knew all the whims of my dear stream, its anger, its charming
ways, its different features at each hour of the day.
When I reached the water’s edge on that particular morning, I felt
something like giddiness at seeing it so gentle and so white. It had never
looked so gay. I slipped rapidly beneath the willows, to an open space
where a broad patch of sunlight fell on the dark grass. There I laid me
down on my stomach, listening, watching the pathway by which Babet would
come, through the branches.
“Oh! how sound uncle Lazare must be sleeping!” I thought.
And I extended myself at full length on the moss. The sun struck gentle
heat into my back, whilst my breast, buried in the grass, was quite cool.
Have you never examined the turf, at close quarters, with your eyes on the
blades of grass? Whilst I was waiting for Babet, I pried indiscreetly into
a tuft which was really a whole world. In my bunch of grass there were
streets, cross roads, public squares, entire cities. At the bottom of it,
I distinguished a great dark patch where the shoots of the previous spring
were decaying sadly, then slender stalks were growing up, stretching out,
bending into a multitude of elegant forms, and producing frail colonnades,
churches, virgin forests. I saw two lean insects wandering in the midst of
this immensity; the poor children were certainly lost, for they went from
colonnade to colonnade, from street to street, in an affrighted, anxious
It was just at this moment that, on raising my eyes, I saw Babet’s white
skirts standing out against the dark ground at the top of the pathway. I
recognized her printed calico gown, which was grey, with small blue
flowers. I sunk down deeper in the grass, I heard my heart thumping
against the earth and almost raising me with slight jerks. My breast was
burning now, I no longer felt the freshness of the dew.
The young girl came nimbly down the pathway, her skirts skimming the
ground with a swinging motion that charmed me, I saw her at full length,
quite erect, in her proud and happy gracefulness. She had no idea I was
there behind the willows; she walked with a light step, she ran without
giving a thought to the wind, which slightly raised her gown. I could
distinguish her feet, trotting along quickly, quickly, and a piece of her
white stockings, which was perhaps as large as one’s hand, and which made
me blush in a manner that was alike sweet and painful.
Oh! then, I saw nothing else, neither the Durance, nor the willows, nor
the whiteness of the sky. What cared I for the valley! It was no longer my
sweetheart; I was quite indifferent to its joy and its sadness. What cared
I for my friends, the stories, and the trees on the hills! The river could
run away all at once if it liked; I would not have regretted it.
And the spring, I did not care a bit about the spring! Had it borne away
the sun that warmed my back, its leaves, its rays, all its May morning, I
should have remained there, in ecstasy, gazing at Babet, running along the
pathway, and swinging her skirts deliciously. For Babet had taken the
valley’s place in my heart, Babet was the spring, I had never spoken to
her. Both of us blushed when we met one another in my uncle Lazare’s
church. I could have vowed she detested me.
She talked on that particular day for a few minutes with the women who
were washing. The sound of her pearly laughter reached as far as me,
mingled with the loud voice of the Durance. Then she stooped down to take
a little water in the hollow of her hand; but the bank was high, and
Babet, who was on the point of slipping, saved herself by clutching the
grass. I gave a frightful shudder, which made my blood run cold. I rose
hastily, and, without feeling ashamed, without reddening, ran to the young
girl. She cast a startled look at me; then she began to smile. I bent
down, at the risk of falling. I succeeded in filling my right hand with
water by keeping my fingers close together. And I presented this new sort
of cup to Babet’ asking her to drink.
The women who were washing laughed. Babet, confused, did not dare accept;
she hesitated, and half turned her head away. At last she made up her
mind, and delicately pressed her lips to the tips of my fingers; but she
had waited too long, all the water had run away. Then she burst out
laughing, she became a child again, and I saw very well that she was
making fun of me.
I was very silly. I bent forward again. This time I took the water in both
hands and hastened to put them to Babet’s lips. She drank, and I felt the
warm kiss from her mouth run up my arms to my breast, which it filled with
“Oh! how my uncle must sleep!” I murmured to myself.
Just as I said that, I perceived a dark shadow beside me, and, having
turned round, I saw my uncle Lazare, in person, a few paces away, watching
Babet and me as if offended. His cassock appeared quite white in the sun;
in his look I saw reproaches which made me feel inclined to cry.
Babet was very much afraid. She turned quite red, and hurried off
“Thanks, Monsieur Jean, I thank you very much.”
As for me, wiping my wet hands, I stood motionless and confused before my
The worthy man, with folded arms, and bringing back a corner of his
cassock, watched Babet, who was running up the pathway without turning her
head. Then, when she had disappeared behind the hedges, he lowered his
eyes to me, and I saw his pleasant countenance smile sadly.
“Jean,” he said to me, “come into the broad walk. Breakfast is not ready.
We have half an hour to spare.”
He set out with his rather heavy tread, avoiding the tufts of grass wet
with dew. A part of the bottom of his cassock that was dragging along the
ground, made a dull crackling sound. He held his breviary under his arm;
but he had forgotten his morning lecture, and he advanced dreamily, with
bowed head, and without uttering a word.
His silence tormented me. He was generally so talkative. My anxiety
increased at each step. He had certainly seen me giving Babet water to
drink. What a sight, O Lord! The young girl, laughing and blushing, kissed
the tips of my fingers, whilst I, standing on tip-toe, stretching out my
arms, was leaning forward as if to kiss her. My action now seemed to me
frightfully audacious. And all my timidity returned. I inquired of myself
how I could have dared to have my fingers kissed so sweetly.
And my uncle Lazare, who said nothing, who continued walking with short
steps in front of me, without giving a single glance at the old trees he
loved! He was assuredly preparing a sermon. He was only taking me into the
broad walk to scold me at his ease. It would occupy at least an hour:
breakfast would get cold, and I would be unable to return to the water’s
edge and dream of the warm burns that Babet’s lips had left on my hands.
We were in the broad walk. This walk, which was wide and short, ran beside
the river; it was shaded by enormous oak trees, with trunks lacerated by
seams, stretching out their great, tall branches. The fine grass spread
like a carpet beneath the trees, and the sun, riddling the foliage,
embroidered this carpet with a rosaceous pattern in gold. In the distance,
all around, extended raw green meadows.
My uncle went to the bottom of the walk, without altering his step and
without turning round. Once there, he stopped, and I kept beside him,
understanding that the terrible moment had arrived.
The river made a sharp curve; a low parapet at the end of the walk formed
a sort of terrace. This vault of shade opened on a valley of light. The
country expanded wide before us, for several leagues. The sun was rising
in the heavens, where the silvery rays of morning had become transformed
into a stream of gold; blinding floods of light ran from the horizon,
along the hills, and spread out into the plain with the glare of fire.
After a moment’s silence, my uncle Lazare turned towards me.
“Good heavens, the sermon!” I thought, and I bowed my head. My uncle
pointed out the valley to me, with an expansive gesture; then, drawing
himself up, he said, slowly:
“Look, Jean, there is the spring. The earth is full of joy, my boy, and I
have brought you here, opposite this plain of light, to show you the first
smiles of the young season. Observe what brilliancy and sweetness! Warm
perfumes rise from the country and pass across our faces like puffs of
He was silent and seemed dreaming. I had raised my head, astonished,
breathing at ease. My uncle was not preaching.
“It is a beautiful morning,” he continued, “a morning of youth. Your
eighteen summers find full enjoyment amidst this verdure which is at most
eighteen days old. All is great brightness and perfume, is it not? The
broad valley seems to you a delightful place: the river is there to give
you its freshness, the trees to lend you their shade, the whole country to
speak to you of tenderness, the heavens themselves to kiss those horizons
that you are searching with hope and desire. The spring belongs to fellows
of your age. It is it that teaches the boys how to give young girls to
I hung my head again. My uncle Lazare had certainly seen me.
“An old fellow like me,” he continued, “unfortunately knows what trust to
place in the charms of spring. I, my poor Jean, I love the Durance because
it waters these meadows and gives life to all the valley; I love this
young foliage because it proclaims to me the coming of the fruits of
summer and autumn; I love this sky because it is good to us, because its
warmth hastens the fecundity of the earth. I should have had to tell you
this one day or other; I prefer telling it you now, at this early hour. It
is spring itself that is giving you the lesson. The earth is a vast
workshop wherein there is never a slack season. Observe this flower at our
feet; to you it is perfume; to me it is labour, it accomplishes its task
by producing its share of life, a little black seed which will work in its
turn, next spring. And, now, search the vast horizon. All this joy is but
the act of generation. If the country be smiling, it is because it is
beginning the everlasting task again. Do you hear it now, breathing hard,
full of activity and haste? The leaves sigh, the flowers are in a hurry,
the corn grows without pausing; all the plants, all the herbs are
quarrelling as to which shall spring up the quickest; and the running
water, the river comes to assist in the common labour, and the young sun
which rises in the heavens is entrusted with the duty of enlivening the
everlasting task of the labourers.”
At this point my uncle made me look him straight in the face. He concluded
in these terms:
“Jean, you hear what your friend the spring says to you. He is youth, but
he is preparing ripe age; his bright smile is but the gaiety of labour.
Summer will be powerful, autumn bountiful, for the spring is singing at
this moment, while courageously performing its work.”
I looked very stupid. I understood my uncle Lazare. He was positively
preaching me a sermon, in which he told me I was an idle fellow and that
the time had come to work.
My uncle appeared as much embarrassed as myself. After having hesitated
for some instants he said, slightly stammering:
“Jean, you were wrong not to have come and told me all–as you love Babet
and Babet loves you–“
“Babet loves me!” I exclaimed.
My uncle made me an ill-humoured gesture.
“Eh! allow me to speak. I don’t want another avowal. She owned it to me
“She owned that to you, she owned that to you!”
And I suddenly threw my arms round my uncle Lazare’s neck.
“Oh! how nice that is!” I added. “I had never spoken to her, truly. She
told you that at the confessional, didn’t she? I would never have dared
ask her if she loved me, and I would never have known anything. Oh! how I
My uncle Lazare was quite red. He felt that he had just committed a
blunder. He had imagined that this was not my first meeting with the young
girl, and here he gave me a certainty, when as yet I only dared dream of a
hope. He held his tongue now; it was I who spoke with volubility.
“I understand all,” I continued. “You are right, I must work to win Babet.
But you will see how courageous I shall be. Ah! how good you are, my uncle
Lazare, and how well you speak! I understand what the spring says: I,
also, will have a powerful summer and an autumn of abundance. One is well
placed here, one sees all the valley; I am young like it, I feel youth
within me demanding to accomplish its task–“
My uncle calmed me.
“Very good, Jean,” he said to me. “I had long hoped to make a priest of
you, and I imparted to you my knowledge with that sole aim. But what I saw
this morning at the waterside compels me to definitely give up my fondest
hope. It is Heaven that disposes of us. You will love the Almighty in
another way. You cannot now remain in this village, and I only wish you to
return when ripened by age and work. I have chosen the trade of printer
for you; your education will serve you. One of my friends, who is a
printer at Grenoble, is expecting you next Monday.”
I felt anxious.
“And I shall come back and marry Babet?” I inquired.
My uncle smiled imperceptibly; and, without answering in a direct manner,
“The remainder is the will of Heaven.”
“You are heaven, and I have faith in your kindness. Oh! uncle, see that
Babet does not forget me. I will work for her.”
Then my uncle Lazare again pointed out to me the valley which the warm
golden light was overspreading more and more.
“There is hope,” he said to me. “Do not be as old as I am, Jean. Forget my
sermon, be as ignorant as this land. It does not trouble about the autumn;
it is all engrossed with the joy of its smile; it labours, courageously
and without a care. It hopes.”
And we returned to the parsonage, strolling along slowly in the grass,
which was scorched by the sun, and chatting with concern of our
Breakfast was cold, as I had foreseen; but that did not trouble me much. I
had tears in my eyes each time I looked at my uncle Lazare. And, at the
thought of Babet, my heart beat fit to choke me.
I do not remember what I did during the remainder of the day. I think I
went and lay down under the willows at the riverside. My uncle was right,
the earth was at work. On placing my ear to the grass I seemed to hear
continual sounds. Then I dreamed of what my life would be. Buried in the
grass until nightfall, I arranged an existence full of labour divided
between Babet and my uncle Lazare. The energetic youthfulness of the soil
had penetrated my breast, which I pressed with force against the common
mother, and at times I imagined myself to be one of the strong willows
that lived around me. In the evening I could not dine. My uncle, no doubt,
understood the thoughts that were choking me, for he feigned not to notice
my want of appetite. As soon as I was able to rise from table, I hastened
to return and breathe the open air outside.
A fresh breeze rose from the river, the dull splashing of which I heard in
the distance. A soft light fell from the sky. The valley expanded,
peaceful and transparent, like a dark shoreless ocean. There were vague
sounds in the air, a sort of impassioned tremor, like a great flapping of
wings passing above my head. Penetrating perfumes rose with the cool air
from the grass.
I had gone out to see Babet; I knew she came to the parsonage every night,
and I went and placed myself in ambush behind a hedge. I had got rid of my
timidness of the morning; I considered it quite natural to be waiting for
her there, because she loved me and I had to tell her of my departure.
“When I perceived her skirts in the limpid night, I advanced noiselessly.
Then I murmured in a low voice:
“Babet, Babet, I am here.”
She did not recognise me, at first, and started with fright. When she
discovered who it was, she seemed still more frightened, which very much
“It’s you, Monsieur Jean,” she said to me. “What are you doing there? What
do you want?”
I was beside her and took her hand.
“You love me fondly, do you not?”
“I! who told you that?”
“My uncle Lazare.”
She stood there in confusion. Her hand began to tremble in mine. As she
was on the point of running away, I took her other hand. We were face to
face, in a sort of hollow in the hedge, and I felt Babet’s panting breath
running all warm over my face. The freshness of the air, the rustling
silence of the night, hung around us.
“I don’t know,” stammered the young girl, “I never said that–his
reverence the curé misunderstood–For mercy’s sake, let me be, I am in a
“No, no,” I continued, “I want you to know that I am going away to-morrow,
and to promise to love me always.”
“You are leaving to-morrow!”
Oh! that sweet cry, and how tenderly Babet uttered it! I seem still to
hear her apprehensive voice full of affliction and love.
“You see,” I exclaimed in my turn, “that my uncle Lazare said the truth.
Besides, he never tells fibs. You love me, you love me, Babet! Your lips
this morning confided the secret very softly to my fingers.”
And I made her sit down at the foot of the hedge. My memory has retained
my first chat of love in its absolute innocence. Babet listened to me like
a little sister. She was no longer afraid, she told me the story of her
love. And there were solemn sermons, ingenious avowals, projects without
end. She vowed she would marry no one but me, I vowed to deserve her hand
by labour and tenderness. There was a cricket behind the hedge, who
accompanied our chat with his chaunt of hope, and all the valley,
whispering in the dark, took pleasure in hearing us talk so softly.
On separating we forgot to kiss each other.
When I returned to my little room, it appeared to me that I had left it
for at least a year. That day which was so short, seemed an eternity of
happiness. It was the warmest and most sweetly-scented spring-day of my
life, and the remembrance of it is now like the distant, faltering voice
of my youth.
When I awoke at about three o’clock in the morning on that particular day,
I was lying on the hard ground tired out, and with my face bathed in
perspiration. The hot heavy atmosphere of a July night weighed me down.
My companions were sleeping around me, wrapped in their hooded cloaks;
they speckled the grey ground with black, and the obscure plain panted; I
fancied I heard the heavy breathing of a slumbering multitude. Indistinct
sounds, the neighing of horses, the clash of arms rang out amidst the
The army had halted at about midnight, and we had received orders to lie
down and sleep. We had been marching for three days, scorched by the sun
and blinded by dust. The enemy were at length in front of us, over there,
on those hills on the horizon. At daybreak a decisive battle would be
I had been a victim to despondency. For three days I had been as if
trampled on, without energy and without thought for the future. It was the
excessive fatigue, indeed, that had just awakened me. Now, lying on my
back, with my eyes wide open, I was thinking whilst gazing into the night,
I thought of this battle, this butchery, which the sun was about to light
up. For more than six years, at the first shot in each fight, I had been
saying good-bye to those I loved the most fondly, Babet and uncle Lazare.
And now, barely a month before my discharge, I had to say good-bye again,
and this time perhaps for ever.
Then my thoughts softened. With closed eyelids I saw Babet and my uncle
Lazare. How long it was since I had kissed them! I remembered the day of
our separation; my uncle weeping because he was poor, and allowing me to
leave like that, and Babet, in the evening, had vowed she would wait for
me, and that she would never love another. I had had to quit all, my
master at Grenoble, my friends at Dourgues. A few letters had come from
time to time to tell me they always loved me, and that happiness was
awaiting me in my well-beloved valley. And I, I was going to fight, I was
going to get killed.
I began dreaming of my return. I saw my poor old uncle on the threshold of
the parsonage extending his trembling arms; and behind him was Babet,
quite red, smiling through her tears. I fell into their arms and kissed
them, seeking for expressions–
Suddenly the beating of drums recalled me to stern reality. Daybreak had
come, the grey plain expanded in the morning mist. The ground became full
of life, indistinct forms appeared on all sides; a sound that became
louder and louder filled the air; it was the call of bugles, the galloping
of horses, the rumble of artillery, the shouting out of orders. War came
threatening, amidst my dream of tenderness. I rose with difficulty; it
seemed to me that my bones were broken, and that my head was about to
split. I hastily got my men together; for I must tell you that I had won
the rank of sergeant. We soon received orders to bear to the left and
occupy a hillock above the plain.
As we were about to move, the sergeant-major came running along and
“A letter for Sergeant Gourdon!”
And he handed me a dirty crumpled letter, which had been lying perhaps for
a week in the leather bags of the post-office. I had only just time to
recognise the writing of my uncle Lazare.
“Forward, march!” shouted the major.
I had to march. For a few seconds I held the poor letter in my hand,
devouring it with my eyes; it burnt my fingers; I would have given
everything in the world to have sat down and wept at ease whilst reading
it. I had to content myself with slipping it under my tunic against my
I have never experienced such agony. By way of consolation I said to
myself what my uncle had so often repeated to me: I was in the summer of
my life, at the moment of the fierce struggle, and it was essential that I
should perform my duty bravely, if I would have a peaceful and bountiful
autumn. But these reasons exasperated me the more: this letter, which had
come to speak to me of happiness, burnt my heart, which had revolted
against the folly of war. And I could not even read it! I was perhaps
going to die without knowing what it contained, without perusing my uncle
Lazare’s affectionate remarks for the last time.
We had reached the top of the hill. We were to await orders there to
advance. The battle-field had been marvellously chosen to slaughter one
another at ease. The immense plain expanded for several leagues, and was
quite bare, without a house or tree. Hedges and bushes made slight spots
on the whiteness of the ground. I have never since seen such a country, an
ocean of dust, a chalky soil, bursting open here and there, and displaying
its tawny bowels. And never either have I since witnessed a sky of such
intense purity, a July day so lovely and so warm; at eight o’clock the
sultry heat was already scorching our faces. O the splendid morning, and
what a sterile plain to kill and die in!
Firing had broken out with irregular crackling sounds, a long time since,
supported by the solemn growl of the cannon. The enemy, Austrians dressed
in white, had quitted the heights, and the plain was studded with long
files of men, who looked to me about as big as insects. One might have
thought it was an ant-hill in insurrection. Clouds of smoke hung over the
battle-field. At times, when these clouds broke asunder, I perceived
soldiers in flight, smitten with terrified panic. Thus there were currents
of fright which bore men away, and outbursts of shame and courage which
brought them back under fire.
I could neither hear the cries of the wounded, nor see the blood flow. I
could only distinguish the dead which the battalions left behind them, and
which resembled black patches. I began to watch the movements of the
troops with curiosity, irritated at the smoke which hid a good half of the
show, experiencing a sort of egotistic pleasure at the knowledge that I
was in security, whilst others were dying.
At about nine o’clock we were ordered to advance. We went down the hill at
the double and proceeded towards the centre which was giving way. The
regular beat of our footsteps appeared to me funeral-like. The bravest
among us panting, pale and with haggard features.
I have made up my mind to tell the truth. At the first whistle of the
bullets, the battalion suddenly came to a halt, tempted to fly.
“Forward, forward!” shouted the chiefs.
But we were riveted to the ground, bowing our heads when a bullet whistled
by our ears. This movement is instinctive; if shame had not restrained me,
I would have thrown myself flat on my stomach in the dust.
“Before us was a huge veil of smoke which we dared not penetrate. Red
flashes passed through this smoke. And, shuddering, we still stood still.
But the bullets reached us; soldiers fell with yells. The chiefs shouted
The rear ranks, which they pushed on, compelled us to march. Then, closing
our eyes, we made a fresh dash and entered the smoke.
We were seized with furious rage. When the cry of “Halt!” resounded, we
experienced difficulty in coming to a standstill. As soon as one is
motionless, fear returns and one feels a wish to run away. Firing
commenced. We shot in front of us, without aiming, finding some relief in
discharging bullets into the smoke. I remember I pulled my trigger
mechanically, with lips firmly set together and eyes wide open; I was no
longer afraid, for, to tell the truth, I no longer knew if I existed. The
only idea I had in my head, was that I would continue firing until all was
over. My companion on the left received a bullet full in the face and fell
on me; I brutally pushed him away, wiping my cheek which he had drenched
with blood. And I resumed firing.
I still remember having seen our colonel, M. de Montrevert, firm and erect
upon his horse, gazing quietly towards the enemy. That man appeared to me
immense. He had no rifle to amuse himself with, and his breast was
expanded to its full breadth above us. From time to time, he looked down,
and exclaimed in a dry voice:
“Close the ranks, close the ranks!”
We closed our ranks like sheep, treading on the dead, stupefied, and
continuing firing. Until then, the enemy had only sent us bullets; a dull
explosion was heard and a shell carried off five of our men. A battery
which must have been opposite us and which we could not see, had just
opened fire. The shells struck into the middle of us, almost at one spot,
making a sanguinary gap which we closed unceasingly with the obstinacy of
“Close the ranks, close the ranks!” the colonel coldly repeated.
We were giving the cannon human flesh. Each time a soldier was struck
down, I was taking a step nearer death, I was approaching the spot where
the shells were falling heavily, crushing the men whose turn had come to
die. The corpses were forming heaps in that place, and soon the shells
would strike into nothing more than a mound of mangled flesh; shreds of
limbs flew about at each fresh discharge. We could no longer close the
The soldiers yelled, the chiefs themselves were moved.
“With the bayonet, with the bayonet!”
And amidst a shower of bullets the battalion rushed in fury towards the
shells. The veil of smoke was torn asunder; we perceived the enemy’s
battery flaming red, which was firing at us from the mouths of all its
pieces, on the summit of a hillock. But the dash forward had commenced,
the shells stopped the dead only.
I ran beside Colonel Montrevert, whose horse had just been killed, and who
was fighting like a simple soldier. Suddenly I was struck down; it seemed
to me as if my breast opened and my shoulder was taken away. A frightful
wind passed over my face.
And I fell. The colonel fell beside me. I felt myself dying. I thought of
those I loved, and fainted whilst searching with a withering hand for my
uncle Lazare’s letter.
When I came to myself again I was lying on my side in the dust. I was
annihilated by profound stupor. I gazed before me with my eyes wide open
without seeing anything; it seemed to me that I had lost my limbs, and
that my brain was empty. I did not suffer, for life seemed to have
departed from my flesh.
The rays of a hot implacable sun fell upon my face like molten lead. I did
not feel it. Life returned to me little by little; my limbs became
lighter, my shoulder alone remained crushed beneath an enormous weight.
Then, with the instinct of a wounded animal, I wanted to sit up. I uttered
a cry of pain, and fell back upon the ground.
But I lived now, I saw, I understood. The plain spread out naked and
deserted, all white in the broad sunlight. It exhibited its desolation
beneath the intense serenity of heaven; heaps of corpses were sleeping in
the warmth, and the trees that had been brought down, seemed to be other
dead who were dying. There was not a breath of air. A frightful silence
came from those piles of inanimate bodies; then, at times, there were
dismal groans which broke this silence, and conveyed a long tremor to it.
Slender clouds of grey smoke hanging over the low hills on the horizon,
was all that broke the bright blue of the sky. The butchery was continuing
on the heights.
I imagined we were conquerors, and I experienced selfish pleasure in
thinking I could die in peace on this deserted plain. Around me the earth
was black. On raising my head I saw the enemy’s battery on which we had
charged, a few feet away from me. The struggle must have been horrible:
the mound was covered with hacked and disfigured bodies; blood had flowed
so abundantly that the dust seemed like a large red carpet. The cannon
stretched out their dark muzzles above the corpses. I shuddered when I
observed the silence of those guns.
Then gently, with a multitude of precautions, I succeeded in turning on my
stomach. I rested my head on a large stone all splashed with gore, and
drew my uncle Lazare’s letter from my breast. I placed it before my eyes;
but my tears prevented my reading it.
And whilst the sun was roasting me in the back, the acrid smell of blood
was choking me. I could form an idea of the woeful plain around me, and
was as if stiffened with the rigidness of the dead. My poor heart was
weeping in the warm and loathsome silence of murder.
Uncle Lazare wrote to me:
“My Dear Boy,–I hear war has been declared; but I still hope you will get
your discharge before the campaign opens. Every morning I beseech the
Almighty to spare you new dangers; He will grant my prayer; He will, one
of these days, let you close my eyes.
“Ah! my poor Jean, I am becoming old, I have great need of your arm. Since
your departure I no more feel your youthfulness beside me, which gave me
back my twenty summers. Do you remember our strolls in the morning along
the oak-tree walk? Now I no longer dare to go beneath those trees; I am
alone, I am afraid. The Durance weeps. Come quickly and console me,
assuage my anxiety—-“
The tears were choking me, I could not continue. At that moment a
heartrending cry was uttered a few steps away from me; I saw a soldier
suddenly rise, with the muscles of his face contracted; he extended his
arms in agony, and fell to the ground, where he writhed in frightful
convulsions; then he ceased moving.
“I have placed my hope in the Almighty,” continued my uncle, “He will
bring you back safe and sound to Dourgues, and we will resume our peaceful
existence. Let me dream out loud and tell you my plans for the future.
“You will go no more to Grenoble, you will remain with me; I will make my
child a son of the soil, a peasant who shall live gaily whilst tilling the
“And I will retire to your farm. In a short time my trembling hands will
no longer be able to hold the Host. I only ask Heaven for two years of
such an existence. That will be my reward for the few good deeds I may
have done. Then you will sometimes lead me along the paths of our dear
valley, where every rock, every hedge will remind me of your youth which I
so greatly loved—-“
I had to stop again. I felt such a sharp pain In my shoulder, that I
almost fainted a second time. A terrible anxiety had just taken possession
of me; it, seemed as if the sound of the fusillade was approaching, and I
thought with terror that our army was perhaps retreating, and that in its
flight it would descend to the plain and pass over my body. But I still
saw nothing but the slight cloud, of smoke hanging over the low hills.
My uncle Lazare added:
“And we shall be three to love one another. Ah! my well-beloved Jean, how
right you were to give her to drink that morning beside the Durance. I was
afraid of Babet, I was ill-humoured, and now I am jealous, for I can see
very well that I shall never be able to love you as much as she does,
‘Tell him,’ she repeated to me yesterday, blushing, ‘that if he gets
killed, I shall go and throw myself into the river at the spot where he
gave me to drink.’
“For the love of God! be careful of your life. There are things that I
cannot understand, but I feel that happiness awaits you here. I already
call Babet my daughter; I can see her on your arm, in the church, when I
shall bless your union. I wish that to be my last mass.
“Babet is a fine, tall girl now. She will, assist you in your work—-“
The sound of the fusillade had gone farther away. I was weeping sweet
tears. There were dismal moans among soldiers who were in their last
agonies between the cannon wheels. I perceived one who was endeavoring to
get rid of a comrade, wounded as he was, whose body was crushing his
chest; and, as this wounded man struggled and complained, the soldier
pushed him brutally away, and made him roll down the slope of the mound,
whilst the wretched creature yelled with pain. At that cry a murmur came
from the heap of corpses. The sun, which was sinking, shed rays of a light
fallow colour. The blue of the sky was softer.
I finished reading my uncle Lazare’s letter.
“I simply wished,” he continued, “to give you news of ourselves, and to
beg you to come as soon as possible and make us happy. And here I am
weeping and gossiping like an old child. Hope, my poor Jean, I pray, and
God is good.
“Answer me quickly, and give me, if possible, the date of your return.
Babet and I are counting the weeks. We trust to see you soon; be hopeful.”
The date of my return!–I kissed the letter, sobbing, and fancied for a
moment that I was kissing Babet and my uncle. No doubt I should never see
them again. I would die like a dog in the dust, beneath the leaden sun.
And it was on that desolated plain, amidst the death-rattle of the dying,
that those whom I loved dearly were saying good-bye. A buzzing silence
filled my ears; I gazed at the pale earth spotted with blood, which
extended, deserted, to the grey lines of the horizon. I repeated: “I must
die.” Then, I closed my eyes, and thought of Babet and my uncle Lazare.
I know not how long I remained in a sort of painful drowsiness. My heart
suffered as much as my flesh. Warm tears ran slowly down my cheeks. Amidst the nightmare that accompanied the fever, I heard a moan similar to the continuous plaintive cry of a child in suffering. At times, I awoke and
stared at the sky in astonishment.
At last I understood that it was M. de Montrevert, lying a few paces off,
who was moaning in this manner. I had thought him dead. He was stretched
out with his face to the ground and his arms extended. This man had been
good to me; I said to myself that I could not allow him to die thus, with
his face to the ground, and I began crawling slowly towards him.
Two corpses separated us. For a moment I thought of passing over the
stomachs of these dead men to shorten the distance; for, my shoulder made
me suffer frightfully at every movement. But I did not dare. I proceeded
on my knees, assisting myself with one hand. When I reached the colonel, I
gave a sigh of relief; it seemed to me that I was less alone; we would die
together, and this death shared by both of us no longer terrified me.
I wanted him to see the sun, and I turned him over as gently as possible.
When the rays fell upon his face, he breathed hard; he opened his eyes.
Leaning over his body, I tried to smile at him. He closed his eyelids
again; I understood by his trembling lips that he was conscious of his
“It’s you, Gourdon,” he said to me at last, in a feeble voice; “is the
“I think so, colonel,” I answered him.
There was a moment of silence. Then, opening his eyes and looking at me,
“Where are you wounded?”
“In the shoulder–and you, colonel?”
“My elbow must be smashed. I remember; it was the same bullet that
arranged us both like this, my boy.”
He made an effort to sit up.
“But come,” he said with sudden gaiety, “we are not going to sleep here?”
You cannot believe how much this courageous display of joviality
contributed towards giving me strength and hope. I felt quite different
since we were two to struggle against death.
“Wait,” I exclaimed, “I will bandage up your arm with my handkerchief, and
we will try and support one another as far as the nearest ambulance.”
“That’s it, my boy. Don’t make it too tight. Now, let us take each other
by the good hand and try to get up.”
We rose staggering. We had lost a great deal of blood; our heads were
swimming and our legs failed us. Any one would have mistaken us for
drunkards, stumbling, supporting, pushing one another, and making zigzags
to avoid the dead. The sun was setting with a rosy blush, and our gigantic
shadows danced in a strange way over the field of battle. It was the end
of a fine day.
The colonel joked; his lips were crisped by shudders, his laughter
resembled sobs. I could see that we were going to fall down in some corner
never to rise again. At times we were seized with giddiness, and were
obliged to stop and close our eyes. The ambulances formed small grey
patches on the dark ground at the extremity of the plain.
We knocked up against a large stone, and were thrown down one on the
other. The colonel swore like a pagan. We tried to walk on all-fours,
catching hold of the briars. In this way we did a hundred yards on our
knees. But our knees were bleeding.
“I have had enough of it,” said the colonel, lying down; “they may come
and fetch me if they will. Let us sleep.”
I still had the strength to sit half up, and shout with all the breath
that remained within me. Men were passing along in the distance picking up
the wounded; they ran to us and placed us side by side on a stretcher.
“Comrade,” the colonel said to me during the journey, “Death will not have
us. I owe you my life; I will pay my debt, whenever you have need of me.
Give me your hand.”
I placed my hand in his, and it was thus that we reached the ambulances.
They had lighted torches; the surgeons were cutting and sawing, amidst
frightful yells; a sickly smell came from the blood-stained linen, whilst
the torches cast dark rosy flakes into the basins.
The colonel bore the amputation of his arm with courage; I only saw his
lips turn pale and a film come over his eyes. When it was my turn, a
surgeon examined my shoulder.
“A shell did that for you,” he said; “an inch lower and your shoulder
would have been carried away. The flesh, only, has suffered.”
And when I asked the assistant, who was dressing my wound, whether it was serious, he answered me with a laugh:
“Serious! you will have to keep to your bed for three weeks, and make new
I turned my face to the wall, not wishing to show my tears. And with my
heart’s eyes I perceived Babet and my uncle Lazare stretching out their
arms towards me. I had finished with the sanguinary struggles of my summer day.
It was nearly fifteen years since I had married Babet In my uncle Lazare’s
little church. We had sought happiness in our dear valley. I had made
myself a farmer; the Durance, my first sweetheart, was now a good mother
to me, who seemed to take pleasure in making my fields rich and fertile.
Little by little, by following the new methods of agriculture, I became
one of the wealthiest landowners in the neighbourhood.
We had purchased the oak-tree walk and the meadows bordering on the river, at the death of my wife’s parents. I had had a modest house built on this land, but we were soon obliged to enlarge it; each year I found a means of rounding off our property by the addition of some neighbouring field, and
our granaries were too small for our harvests.
Those first fifteen years were uneventful and happy. They passed away in
serene joy, and all they have left within me is the remembrance of calm
and continued happiness. My uncle Lazare, on retiring to our home, had
realised his dream; his advanced age did not permit of his reading his
breviary of a morning; he sometimes regretted his dear church, but
consoled himself by visiting the young vicar who had succeeded him. He
came down from the little room he occupied at sunrise, and often
accompanied me to the fields, enjoying himself in the open air, and
finding a second youth amidst the healthy atmosphere of the country.
One sadness alone made us sometimes sigh. Amidst the fruitfulness by which we were surrounded, Babet remained childless. Although we were three to love one another we sometimes found ourselves too much alone; we would have liked to have had a little fair head running about amongst us, who would have tormented and caressed us.
Uncle Lazare had a frightful dread of dying before he was a great-uncle.
He had become a child again, and felt sorrowful that Babet did not give
him a comrade who would have played with him. On the day when my wife
confided to us with hesitation, that we would no doubt soon be four, I saw
my uncle turn quite pale, and make efforts not to cry. He kissed us,
thinking already of the christening, and speaking of the child as if it
were already three or four years old.
And the months passed in concentrated tenderness. We talked together in
subdued voices, awaiting some one. I no longer loved Babet: I worshipped
her with joined hands; I worshipped her for two, for herself and the
The great day was drawing nigh. I had brought a midwife from Grenoble who
never moved from the farm. My uncle was in a dreadful fright; he
understood nothing about such things; he went so far as to tell me that he
had done wrong in taking holy orders, and that he was very sorry he was
not a doctor.
One morning in September, at about six o’clock, I went into the room of my
dear Babet, who was still asleep. Her smiling face was peacefully reposing
on the white linen pillow-case. I bent over her, holding my breath. Heaven
had blessed me with the good things of this world. I all at once thought
of that summer day when I was moaning in the dust, and at the same time I
felt around me the comfort due to labour and the quietude that comes from
happiness. My good wife was asleep, all rosy, in the middle of her great
bed; whilst the whole room recalled to me our fifteen years of tender
I kissed Babet softly on the lips. She opened her eyes and smiled at me
without speaking. I felt an almost uncontrollable desire to take her in my
arms, and clasp her to my heart; but, latterly, I had hardly dared press
her hand, she seemed so fragile and sacred to me.
I seated myself at the edge of the bed, and asked her in a low voice:
“Is it for to-day?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied. “I dreamt I had a boy: he was already
very tall and wore adorable little black moustachios. Uncle Lazare told me
yesterday that he also had seen him in a dream.”
I acted very stupidly.
“I know the child better than you do,” I said. “I see it every night. It’s
And as Babet turned her face to the wall, ready to cry, I realised how
foolish I had been, and hastened to add:
“When I say a girl–I am not quite sure. I see a very small child with a
long white gown.–it’s certainly a boy.”
Babet kissed me for that pleasing remark.
“Go and look after the vintage,” she continued, “I feel calm this
“You will send for me if anything happens?”
“Yes, yes, I am very tired: I shall go to sleep again. You’ll not be angry
with me for my laziness?”
And Babet closed her eyes, looking languid and affected. I remained
leaning over her, receiving the warm breath from her lips in my face. She
gradually went off to sleep, without ceasing to smile. Then I disengaged
my hand from hers with a multitude of precautions. I had to manoeuvre for
five minutes to bring this delicate task to a happy issue. After that I
gave her a kiss on her forehead, which she did not feel, and withdrew with
a palpitating heart, overflowing with love.
In the courtyard below, I found my uncle Lazare, who was gazing anxiously
at the window of Babet’s room. So soon as he perceived me he inquired:
“Well, is it for to-day?”
He had been putting this question to me regularly every morning for the
“It appears not,” I answered him. “Will you come with me and see them
picking the grapes?”
He fetched his stick, and we went down the oak-tree walk. When we were at
the end of it, on that terrace which overlooks the Durance, both of us
stopped, gazing at the valley.
Small white clouds floated in the pale sky. The sun was shedding soft
rays, which cast a sort of gold dust over the country, the yellow expanse
of which spread out all ripe. One saw neither the brilliant light nor the
dark shadows of summer. The foliage gilded the black earth in large
patches. The river ran more slowly, weary at the task of having rendered
the fields fruitful for a season. And the valley remained calm and strong.
It already wore the first furrows of winter, but it preserved within it
the warmth of its last labour, displaying its robust charms, free from the
weeds of spring, more majestically beautiful, like that second youth, of
woman who has given birth to life.
My uncle Lazare remained silent; then, turning towards me, said:
“Do you remember, Jean? It is more than twenty years ago since I brought
you here early one May morning. On that particular day I showed you the
valley full of feverish activity, labouring for the fruits of autumn.
Look; the valley has just performed its task again.”
“I remember, dear uncle,” I replied. “I was quaking with fear on that day;
but you were good, and your lesson was convincing. I owe you all my
“Yes, you have reached the autumn. You have laboured and are gathering in
the harvest. Man, my boy, was created after the way of the earth. And we,
like the common mother, are eternal: the green leaves are born again each
year from dry leaves; I am born again in you, and you will be born again
in your children. I am telling you this so that old age may not alarm you,
so that you may know how to die in peace, as dies this verdure, which will
shoot out again from its own germs next spring.”
I listened to my uncle and thought of Babet, who was sleeping in her great
bed spread with white linen. The dear creature was about to give birth to
a child after the manner of this fertile soil which had given us fortune.
She also had reached the autumn: she had the beaming smile and serene
robustness of the valley. I seemed to see her beneath the yellow sun,
tired and happy, experiencing noble delight at being a mother. And I no
longer knew whether my uncle Lazare was talking to me of my dear valley,
or of my dear Babet.
We slowly ascended the hills. Below, along the Durance, were the meadows,
broad, raw green swards; next came the yellow fields, intersected here and
there by greyish olive and slender almond trees, planted wide apart in
rows; then, right up above, were the vines, great stumps with shoots
trailing along the ground.
The vine is treated in the south of France like a hardy housewife, and not
like a delicate young lady, as in the north. It grows somewhat as it
likes, according to the good will of rain and sun. The stumps, which are
planted in double rows, and form long lines, throw sprays of dark verdure
around them. Wheat or oats are sown between. A vineyard resembles an
immense piece of striped material, made of the green bands formed by the
vine leaves, and of yellow ribbon represented by the stubble.
Men and women stooping down among the vines, were cutting the bunches of
grapes, which they then threw to the bottom of large baskets. My uncle and
I walked slowly through the stubble. As we passed along, the vintagers
turned their heads and greeted us. My uncle sometimes stopped to speak to
some of the oldest of the labourers.
“Heh! Father André,” he said, “are the grapes thoroughly ripe? Will the
wine be good this year?”
And the countryfolk, raising their bare arms, displayed the long bunches,
which were as black as ink, in the sun; and when the grapes were pressed
they seemed to burst with abundance and strength.
“Look, Mr. Curé,” they exclaimed, “these are small ones. There are some
weighing several pounds. We have not had such a task these ten years.”
Then they returned among the leaves. Their brown jackets formed patches in
the verdure. And the women, bareheaded, with small blue handkerchiefs
round their necks, were stooping down singing. There were children rolling
in the sun, in the stubble, giving utterance to shrill laughter and
enlivening this open-air workshop with their turbulency. Large carts
remained motionless at the edge of the field waiting for the grapes; they
stood out prominently against the clear sky, whilst men went and came
unceasingly, carrying away full baskets, and bringing back empty ones.
I confess that in the centre of this field, I had feelings of pride. I
heard the ground producing beneath my feet; ripe age ran all powerful in
the veins of the vine, and loaded the air with great puffs of it. Hot
blood coursed in my flesh, I was as if elevated by the fecundity
overflowing from the soil and ascending within me. The labour of this
swarm of work-people was my doing, these vines were my children; this
entire farm became my large and obedient family. I experienced pleasure in
feeling my feet sink into the heavy land.
Then, at a glance, I took in the fields that sloped down to the Durance,
and I was the possessor of those vines, those meadows, that stubble, those
olive-trees. The house stood all white beside the oak-tree walk; the river
seemed like a fringe of silver placed at the edge of the great green
mantle of my pasture-land. I fancied, for a moment, that my frame was
increasing in size, that by stretching out my arms, I would be able to
embrace the entire property, and press it to my breast, trees, meadows,
house, and ploughed land.
And as I looked, I saw one of our servant-girls racing, out of breath, up
the narrow pathway that ascended the hill. Confused by the speed at which
she was travelling, she stumbled over the stones, agitating both her arms,
and hailing us with gestures of bewilderment. I felt choking with
“Uncle, uncle,” I shouted, “look how Marguerite’s running. I think it must
be for to-day.”
My uncle Lazare turned quite pale. The servant had at length reached the
plateau; she came towards us jumping over the vines. When she reached me,
she was out of breath; she was stifling and pressing her hands to her
“Speak!” I said to her. “What has happened?”
She heaved a heavy sigh, agitated her hands, and finally was able to
pronounce this single word:
I waited for no more.
“Come! come quick, uncle Lazare! Ah! my poor dear Babet!”
And I bounded down the pathway at a pace fit to break my bones. The
vintagers, who had stood up, smiled as they saw me running. Uncle Lazare,
who could not overtake me, shook his walking stick in despair.
“Heh! Jean, the deuce!” he shouted, “wait for me. I don’t want to be the
But I no longer heard Uncle Lazare, and continued running.
I reached the farm panting for breath, full of hope and terror. I rushed
upstairs and knocked with my fist at Babet’s door, laughing, crying, and
half crazy. The midwife set the door ajar, to tell me in an angry voice
not to make so much noise. I stood there abashed and in despair.
“You can’t come in,” she added. “Go and wait in the courtyard.”
And as I did not move, she continued: “All is going on very well. I will
The door was closed. I remained standing before it, unable to make up my
mind to go away. I heard Babet complaining in a broken voice. And, while I
was there, she gave utterance to a heartrending scream that struck me
right in the breast like a bullet. I felt an almost irresistible desire to
break the door open with my shoulder. So as not to give way to it, I
placed my hands to my ears, and dashed downstairs.
In the courtyard I found my uncle Lazare, who had just arrived out of
breath. The worthy man was obliged to seat himself on the brink of the
“Hallo! where is the child?” he inquired of me.
“I don’t know,” I answered; “they shut the door in my face–Babet is in
pain and in tears.” We gazed at one another, not daring to utter a word.
We listened in agony, without taking our eyes off Babet’s window,
endeavouring to see through the little white curtains. My uncle, who was
trembling, stood still, with both his hands resting heavily on his
walking-stick; I, feeling very feverish, walked up and down before him,
taking long strides. At times we exchanged anxious smiles.
The carts of the vintagers arrived one by one. The baskets of grapes were
placed against a wall of the courtyard, and bare-legged men trampled the
bunches under foot in wooden troughs. The mules neighed, the carters
swore, whilst the wine fell with a dull sound to the bottom of the vat.
Acrid smells pervaded the warm air.
And I continued pacing up and down, as if made tipsy by those perfumes. My
poor head was breaking, and as I watched the red juice run from the grapes
I thought of Babet. I said to myself with manly joy, that my child was
born at the prolific time of vintage, amidst the perfume of new wine.
I was tormented by impatience, I went upstairs again. But I did not dare
knock, I pressed my ear against the door, and heard Babet’s low moans and
sobs. Then my heart failed me, and I cursed suffering. Uncle Lazare, who
had crept up behind me, had to lead me back into the courtyard. He wished
to divert me, and told me the wine would be excellent; but he spoke
without attending to what he said. And at times we were both silent,
listening anxiously to one of Babet’s more prolonged moans.
Little by little the cries subsided, and became nothing more than a
painful murmur, like the voice of a child falling off to sleep in tears.
Then there was absolute silence. This soon caused me unutterable terror.
The house seemed empty, now that Babet had ceased sobbing. I was just
going upstairs, when the midwife opened the window noiselessly. She leant
out and beckoned me with her hand:
“Come,” she said to me.
I went slowly upstairs, feeling additional delight at each step I took. My
uncle Lazare was already knocking at the door, whilst I was only half way
up to the landing, experiencing a sort of strange delight in delaying the
moment when I would kiss my wife.
I stopped on the threshold, my heart was beating double. My uncle had
leant over the cradle. Babet, quite pale, with closed eyelids, seemed
asleep. I forgot all about the child, and going straight to Babet, took
her dear hand between mine. The tears had not dried on her checks, and her
quivering lips were dripping with them. She raised her eyelids wearily.
She did not speak to me, but I understood her to say: “I have suffered a
great deal, my dear Jean, but I was so happy to suffer! I felt you within
Then I bent down, I kissed Babet’s eyes and drank her tears. She laughed
with much sweetness; she resigned herself with caressing languidness. The
fatigue had made her all aches and pains. She slowly moved her hands from
the sheet, and taking me by the neck placed her lips to my ear:
“It’s a boy,” she murmured in a weak voice, but with an air of triumph.
Those were the first words she uttered after the terrible shock she had
“I knew it would be a boy,” she continued, “I saw the child every night.
Give him me, put him beside me.”
I turned round and saw the midwife and my uncle quarrelling.
The midwife had all the trouble in the world to prevent uncle Lazare
taking the little one in his arms. He wanted to nurse it.
I looked at the child whom the mother had made me forget. He was all rosy.
Babet said with conviction that he was like me; the midwife discovered
that he had his mother’s eyes; I, for my part, could not say, I was almost
crying, I smothered the dear little thing with kisses, imagining I was
still kissing Babet.
I placed the child on the bed. He kept on crying, but this sounded to us
like celestial music. I sat on the edge of the bed, my uncle took a large
arm-chair, and Babet, weary and serene, covered up to her chin, remained
with open eyelids and smiling eyes.
The window was wide open. The smell of grapes came in along with the
warmth of the mild autumn afternoon. One heard the trampling of the
vintagers, the shocks of the carts, the cracking of whips; at times the
shrill song of a servant working in the courtyard reached us. All this
noise was softened in the serenity of that room, which still resounded
with Babet’s sobs. And the window-frame enclosed a large strip of
landscape, carved out of the heavens and open country. We could see the
oak-tree walk in its entire length; then the Durance, looking like a white
satin ribbon, passed amidst the gold and purple leaves; whilst above this
square of ground were the limpid depths of a pale sky with blue and rosy
It was amidst the calm of this horizon, amidst the exhalations of the vat
and the joys attendant upon labour and reproduction, that we three talked
together, Babet, uncle Lazare, and myself, whilst gazing at the dear
little new-born babe.
“Uncle Lazare,” said Babet, “what name will you give the child?”
“Jean’s mother was named Jacqueline,” answered my uncle. “I shall call the
“Jacques, Jacques,” repeated Babet. “Yes, it’s a pretty name. And, tell
me, what shall we make the little man: parson or soldier, gentleman or
I began to laugh.
“We shall have time to think of that,” I said.
“But no,” continued Babet almost angry, “he will grow rapidly. See how
strong he is. He already speaks with his eyes.”
My uncle Lazare was exactly of my wife’s opinion. He answered in a very
“Make him neither priest nor soldier, unless he have an irresistible
inclination for one of those callings–to make him a gentleman would be a
Babet looked at me anxiously. The dear creature had not a bit of pride for
herself; but, like all mothers, she would have liked to be humble and
proud before her son. I could have sworn that she already saw him a notary
or a doctor. I kissed her and gently said to her:
“I wish our son to live in our dear valley. One day, he will find a Babet
of sixteen, on the banks of the Durance, to whom he will give some water.
Do you remember, my dear—-? The country has brought us peace: our son
shall be a peasant as we are, and happy as we are.”
Babet, who was quite touched, kissed me in her turn. She gazed at the
foliage and the river, the meadows and the sky, through the window; then
she said to me, smiling:
“You are right, Jean. This place has been good to us, it will be the same
to our little Jacques. Uncle Lazare, you will be the godfather of a
Uncle Lazare made a languid, affectionate sign of approval with the head.
I had been examining him for a moment, and saw his eyes becoming filmy,
and his lips turning pale. Leaning back in the arm-chair, opposite the
window, he had placed his white hands on his knees, and was watching the
heavens fixedly with an expression of thoughtful ecstasy.
I felt very anxious.
“Are you in pain, uncle Lazare?” I inquired of him, “What is the matter
with you? Answer, for mercy’s sake.”
He gently raised one of his hands, as if to beg me to speak lower; then he
let it fall again, and said in a weak voice:
“I am broken down,” he said. “Happiness, at my age, is mortal. Don’t make
a noise. It seems as if my flesh were becoming quite light: I can no
longer feel my legs or arms.”
Babet raised herself in alarm, with her eyes on uncle Lazare. I knelt down
before him, watching him anxiously. He smiled.
“Don’t be frightened,” he resumed. “I am in no pain; a feeling of calmness
is gaining possession of me; I believe I am going off into a good and just
sleep. It came over me all at once, and I thank the Almighty. Ah! my poor
Jean, I ran too fast down, the pathway on the hillside; the child caused
me too great joy.”
And as we understood, we burst out into tears. Uncle Lazare continued,
without ceasing to watch the sky:
“Do not spoil my joy, I beg of you. If you only knew how happy it makes
me, to fall asleep for ever in this armchair! I have never dared expect
such a consoling death. All I love is here, beside me–and see what a blue
sky! The Almighty has sent a lovely evening.”
The sun was sinking behind the oak-tree walk. Its slanting rays cast
sheets of gold beneath the trees, which took the tones of old copper. The
verdant fields melted into vague serenity in the distance. Uncle Lazare
became weaker and weaker amidst the touching silence of this peaceful
sunset, entering by the open window. He slowly passed away, like those
slight gleams that were dying out on the lofty branches.
“Ah! my good valley,” he murmured, “you are sending me a tender farewell.
I was afraid of coming to my end in the winter, when you would be all
We restrained our tears, not wishing to trouble this saintly death. Babet
prayed in an undertone. The child continued uttering smothered cries.
My uncle Lazare heard its wail in the dreaminess of his agony. He
endeavoured to turn towards Babet, and, still smiling, said:
“I have seen the child and die very happy.”
Then he gazed at the pale sky and yellow fields, and, throwing back his
head, heaved a gentle sigh.
No tremor agitated uncle Lazare’s body; he died as one falls asleep.
We had become so calm that we remained silent and with dry eyes. In the
presence of such great simplicity in death, all we experienced was a
feeling of serene sadness. Twilight had set in, uncle Lazare’s farewell
had left us confident, like the farewell of the sun which dies at night to
be born again in the morning.
Such was my autumn day, which gave me a son, and carried off my uncle
Lazare in the peacefulness of the twilight.
There are dreadful mornings in January that chill one’s heart. I awoke on
this particular day with a vague feeling of anxiety. It had thawed during
the night, and when I cast my eyes over the country from the threshold, it
looked to me like an immense dirty grey rag, soiled with mud and rent to
The horizon was shrouded in a curtain of fog, in which the oak-trees along
the walk lugubriously extended their dark arms, like a row of spectres
guarding the vast mass of vapour spreading out behind them. The fields had
sunk, and were covered with great sheets of water, at the edge of which
hung the remnants of dirty snow. The loud roar of the Durance was
increasing in the distance.
Winter imparts health and strength to one’s frame when the sun is clear
and the ground dry. The air makes the tips of your ears tingle, you walk
merrily along the frozen pathways, which ring with a silvery sound beneath
your tread. But I know of nothing more saddening than dull, thawing
weather: I hate the damp fogs which weigh one’s shoulders down.
I shivered in the presence of that copper-like sky, and hastened to retire
indoors, making up my mind that I would not go out into the fields that
day. There was plenty of work in and around the farm-buildings.
Jacques had been up a long time. I heard him whistling in a shed, where he
was helping some men remove sacks of corn. The boy was already eighteen
years old; he was a tall fellow, with strong arms. He had not had an uncle
Lazare to spoil him and teach him Latin, and he did not go and dream
beneath the willows at the riverside. Jacques had become a real peasant,
an untiring worker, who got angry when I touched anything, telling me I
was getting old and ought to rest.
And as I was watching him from a distance, a sweet lithe creature, leaping
on my shoulders, clapped her little hands to my eyes, inquiring:
“Who is it?”
I laughed and answered:
“It’s little Marie, who has just been dressed by her mamma.”
The dear little girl was completing her tenth year, and for ten years she
had been the delight of the farm. Having come the last, at a time when we
could no longer hope to have any more children, she was doubly loved. Her
precarious health made her particularly dear to us. She was treated as a
young lady; her mother absolutely wanted to make a lady of her, and I had not the heart to oppose her wish, so little Marie was a pet, in lovely
silk skirts trimmed with ribbons.
Marie was still seated on my shoulders.
“Mamma, mamma,” she cried, “come and look; I’m playing at horses.”
Babet, who was entering, smiled. Ah! my poor Babet, how old we were! I
remember we were shivering with weariness, on that day, gazing sadly at
one another when alone.
Our children brought back our youth.
Lunch was eaten in silence. We had been compelled to light the lamp. The
reddish glimmer that hung round the room was sad enough to drive one
“Bah!” said Jacques, “this tepid rainy weather is better than intense cold
that would freeze our vines and olives.”
And he tried to joke. But he was as anxious as we were, without knowing
why. Babet had had bad dreams. We listened to the account of her
nightmare, laughing with our lips but sad at heart.
“This weather quite upsets one,” I said to cheer us all up.
“Yes, yes, it’s the weather,” Jacques hastened to add. “I’ll put some vine
branches on the fire.”
There was a bright flame which cast large sheets of light upon the walls.
The branches burnt with a cracking sound, leaving rosy ashes. We had
seated ourselves in front of the chimney; the air, outside, was tepid; but
great drops of icy cold damp fell from the ceilings inside the farmhouse.
Babet had taken little Marie on her knees; she was talking to her in an
undertone, amused at her childish chatter.
“Are you coming, father?” Jacques inquired of me. “We are going to look at
the cellars and lofts.”
I went out with him. The harvests had been getting bad for some years
past. We were suffering great losses: our vines and trees were caught by
frost, whilst hail had chopped up our wheat and oats. And I sometimes said
that I was growing old, and that fortune, who is a woman, does not care
for old men. Jacques laughed, answering that he was young, and was going
to court fortune.
I had reached the winter, the cold season. I felt distinctly that all was
withering around me. At each pleasure that departed, I thought of uncle
Lazare, who had died so calmly; and with fond remembrances of him, asked
Daylight had completely disappeared at three o’clock. We went down into
the common room. Babet was sewing in the chimney corner, with her head
bent over her work; and little Marie was seated on the ground, in front of
the fire, gravely dressing a doll. Jacques and I had placed ourselves at a
mahogany writing-table, which had come to us from uncle Lazare, and were
engaged in checking our accounts.
The window was as if blocked up; the fog, sticking to the panes of glass,
formed a perfect wall of gloom. Behind this wall stretched emptiness, the
unknown. A great noise, a loud roar, alone arose in the silence and spread
through the obscurity.
We had dismissed the workpeople, keeping only our old woman-servant,
Marguerite, with us. When I raised my head and listened, it seemed to me
that the farmhouse hung suspended in the middle of a chasm. No human sound
came from the outside. I heard naught but the riot of the abyss. Then I
gazed at my wife and children, and experienced the cowardice of those old
people who feel themselves too weak to protect those surrounding them
against unknown peril.
The noise became harsher, and it seemed to us that there was a knocking at
the door. At the same instant, the horses in the stable began to neigh
furiously, whilst the cattle lowed as if choking. We had all risen, pale
with anxiety, Jacques dashed to the door and threw it wide open.
A wave of muddy water burst into the room.
The Durance was overflowing. It was it that had been making the noise,
that had been increasing in the distance since morning. The snow melting
on the mountains had transformed each hillside into a torrent which had
swelled the river. The curtain of fog had hidden from us this sudden rise
It had often advanced thus to the gates of the farm, when the thaw came
after severe winters. But the flood had never increased so rapidly. We
could see through the open door that the courtyard was transformed into a
lake. The water already reached our ankles.
Babet had caught up little Marie, who was crying and clasping her doll to
her. Jacques wanted to run and open the doors of the stables and
cowhouses; but his mother held him back by his clothes, begging him not to
go out. The water continued rising. I pushed Babet towards the staircase.
“Quick, quick, let us go up into the bedrooms,” I cried.
And I obliged Jacques to pass before me. I left the ground-floor the last.
Marguerite came down in terror from the loft where she happened to find
herself. I made her sit down at the end of the room beside Babet, who
remained silent, pale, and with beseeching eyes. We put little Marie into
bed; she had insisted on keeping her doll, and went quietly to sleep
pressing it in her arms. This child’s sleep relieved me; when I turned
round and saw Babet, listening to the little girl’s regular breathing, I
forgot the danger, all I heard was the water beating against the walls.
But Jacques and I could not help looking the peril in the face. Anxiety
made us endeavour to discover the progress of the inundation. We had
thrown the window wide open, we leant out at the risk of falling,
searching into the darkness. The fog, which was thicker, hung above the
flood, throwing out fine rain which gave us the shivers. Vague steel-like
flashes were all that showed the moving sheet of water, amidst the
profound obscurity. Below, it was splashing in the courtyard, rising along
the walls in gentle undulations. And we still heard naught but the anger
of the Durance, and the affrighted cattle and horses.
The neighing and lowing of these poor beasts pierced me to the heart.
Jacques questioned me with his eyes; he would have liked to try and
deliver them. Their agonising moans soon became lamentable, and a great
cracking sound was heard. The oxen had just broken down the stable doors.
We saw them pass before us, borne away by the flood, rolled over and over
in the current. And they disappeared amid the roar of the river.
Then I felt choking with anger. I became as one possessed, I shook my fist
at the Durance. Erect, facing the window, I insulted it.
“Wicked thing!” I shouted amidst the tumult of the waters, “I loved you
fondly, you were my first sweetheart, and now you are plundering me. You
come and disturb my farm, and carry off my cattle. Ah! cursed, cursed
thing.—-Then you gave me Babet, you ran gently at the edge of my
meadows. I took you for a good mother. I remembered uncle Lazare felt
affection for your limpid stream, and I thought I owed you gratitude. You
are a barbarous mother, I only owe you my hatred—-“
But the Durance stifled my cries with its thundering voice; and, broad and
indifferent, expanded and drove its flood onward with tranquil obstinacy.
I turned back to the room and went and kissed Babet, who was weeping.
Little Marie was smiling in her sleep.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said to my wife. “The water cannot always rise. It
will certainly go down. There is no danger.”
“No, there is no danger,” Jacques repeated feverishly. “The house is
At that moment Marguerite, who had approached the window, tormented by
that feeling of curiosity which is the outcome of fear, leant forward like
a mad thing and fell, uttering a cry. I threw myself before the window,
but could not prevent Jacques plunging into the water. Marguerite had
nursed him, and he felt the tenderness of a son for the poor old woman.
Babet had risen in terror, with joined hands, at the sound of the two
splashes. She remained there, erect, with open mouth and distended eyes,
watching the window.
I had seated myself on the wooden handrail, and my ears were ringing with
the roar of the flood. I do not know how long it was that Babet and I were
in this painful state of stupor, when a voice called to me. It was Jacques
who was holding on to the wall beneath the window. I stretched out my hand to him, and he clambered up.
Babet clasped him in her arms. She could sob now; and she relieved
No reference was made to Marguerite. Jacques did not dare say he had been
unable to find her, and we did not dare question him anent his search.
He took me apart and brought me back to the window.
“Father,” he said to me in an undertone, “there are more than seven feet
of water in the courtyard, and the river is still rising. We cannot remain
here any longer.”
Jacques was right. The house was falling to pieces, the planks of the
outbuildings were going away one by one. Then this death of Marguerite
weighed upon us. Babet, bewildered, was beseeching us. Marie alone
remained peaceful in the big bed? with her doll between her arms, and
slumbering with the happy smile of an angel.
The peril increased at every minute. The water was on the point of
reaching the handrail of the window and pouring into the room. Any one
would have said that it was an engine of war making the farmhouse totter
with regular, dull, hard blows. The current must be running right against
the facade, and we could not hope for any human assistance.
“Every minute is precious,” said Jacques in agony. “We shall be crushed
beneath the ruins. Let us look for boards, let us make a raft.”
He said that in his excitement. I would naturally have preferred a
thousand times to be in the middle of the river, on a few beams lashed
together, than beneath the roof of this house which was about to fall in.
But where could we lay hands on the beams we required? In a rage I tore
the planks from the cupboards, Jacques broke the furniture, we took away
the shutters, every piece of wood we could reach. And feeling it was
impossible to utilise these fragments, we cast them into the middle of the
room in a fury, and continued searching.
Our last hope was departing, we understood our misery and want of power.
The water was rising; the harsh voice of the Durance was calling to us in
anger. Then, I burst out sobbing, I took Babet in my trembling arms, I
begged Jacques to come near us. I wished us all to die in the same
Jacques had returned to the window. And, suddenly, he exclaimed:
“Father, we are saved!–Come and see.”
The sky was clear. The roof of a shed, torn away by the current, had come
to a standstill beneath our window. This roof, which was several yards
broad, was formed of light beams and thatch; it floated, and would make a
capital raft, I joined my hands together and would have worshipped this
wood and straw.
Jacques jumped on the roof, after having firmly secured it. He walked on
the thatch, making sure it was everywhere strong. The thatch resisted;
therefore we could adventure on it without fear.
“Oh! it will carry us all very well,” said Jacques joyfully. “See how
little it sinks into the water! The difficulty will be to steer it.”
He looked around him and seized two poles drifting along in the current,
as they passed by.
“Ah! here are oars,” he continued. “You will go to the stern, father, and
I forward, and we will manoeuvre the raft easily. There are not twelve
feet of water. Quick, quick! get on board, we must not lose a minute.”
My poor Babet tried to smile. She wrapped little Marie carefully up in her
shawl; the child had just woke up, and, quite alarmed, maintained a
silence which was broken by deep sobs. I placed a chair before the window
and made Babet get on the raft. As I held her in my arms I kissed her with
poignant emotion, feeling this kiss was the last.
The water was beginning to pour into the room. Our feet were soaking. I
was the last to embark; then I undid the cord. The current hurled us
against the wall; it required precautions and many efforts to quit the
The fog had little by little dispersed. It was about midnight when we
left. The stars were still buried in mist; the moon which was almost at
the edge of the horizon, lit up the night with a sort of wan daylight.
The inundation then appeared to us in all its grandiose horror. The valley
had become a river. The Durance, swollen to enormous proportions and
washing the two hillsides, passed between dark masses of cultivated land,
and was the sole thing displaying life in the inanimate space bounded by
the horizon. It thundered with a sovereign voice, maintaining in its anger
the majesty of its colossal wave. Clumps of trees emerged in places,
staining the sheet of pale water with black streaks. Opposite us I
recognised the tops of the oaks along the walk; the current carried us
towards these branches, which for us were so many reefs. Around the raft
floated various kinds of remains, pieces of wood, empty barrels, bundles
of grass; the river was bearing along the ruins it had made in its anger.
To the left we perceived the lights of Dourgues–flashes of lanterns
moving about in the darkness. The water could not have risen as high as
the village; only the low land had been submerged. No doubt assistance
would come. We searched the patches of light hanging over the water; it
seemed to us at every instant that we heard the sound of oars.
We had started at random. As soon as the raft was in the middle of the
current, lost amidst the whirlpools of the river, anguish of mind overtook
us again; we almost regretted having left the farm. I sometimes turned
round and gazed at the house, which still remained standing, presenting a
grey aspect on the white water. Babet, crouching down in the centre of the
raft, in the thatch of the roof, was holding little Marie on her knees,
the child’s head against her breast, to hide the horror of the river from
her. Both were bent double, leaning forward in an embrace, as if reduced
in stature by fear. Jacques, standing upright in the front, was leaning on
his pole with all his weight; from time to time he cast a rapid glance
towards us, and then silently resumed his task. I seconded him as well as
I could, but our efforts to reach the bank remained fruitless. Little by
little, notwithstanding our poles, which we buried into the mud until we
nearly broke them, we drifted into the open; a force that seemed to come
from the depths of the water drove us away. The Durance was slowly taking
possession of us.
Struggling, bathed in perspiration, we had worked ourselves into a
passion; we were fighting with the river as with a living being, seeking
to vanquish, wound, kill it. It strained us in its giant-like arms, and
our poles in our hands became weapons which we thrust into its breast. It
roared, flung its slaver into our faces, wriggled beneath our strokes. We
resisted its victory with clenched teeth. We would not be conquered. And
we had mad impulses to fell the monster, to calm it with blows from our
We went slowly towards the offing. We were already at the entrance to the
oak-tree walk. The dark branches pierced through the water, which they
tore with a lamentable sound. Death, perhaps, awaited us there in a
collision. I cried out to Jacques to follow the walk by clinging close to
the branches. And it was thus that I passed for the last time in the
middle of this oak-tree alley, where I had walked in my youth and ripe
age. In the terrible darkness, above the howling depth, I thought of uncle
Lazare, and saw the happy days of my youth smiling at me sadly.
The Durance triumphed at the end of the alley. Our poles no longer touched
the bottom. The water bore us along in its impetuous bound of victory. And
now it could do what it pleased with us. We gave ourselves up. We went
downstream with frightful rapidity. Great clouds, dirty tattered rags hung
about the sky; when the moon was hidden there came lugubrious obscurity.
Then we rolled in chaos. Enormous billows as black as ink, resembling the
backs of fish, bore us along, spinning us round. I could no longer see
either Babet or the children. I already felt myself dying.
I know not how long this last run lasted. The moon was suddenly unveiled,
and the horizon became clear. And in that light I perceived an immense
black mass in front of us which blocked the way, and towards which we were
being carried with all the violence of the current. We were lost, we would
be broken there.
Babet had stood upright. She held out little Marie to me:
“Take the child,” she exclaimed. “Leave me alone, leave me alone!”
Jacques had already caught Babet in his arms. In a loud voice he said:
“Father, save the little one–I will save mother.”
We had come close to the black mass. I thought I recognised a tree. The
shock was terrible, and the raft, split in two, scattered its straw and
beams in the whirlpool of water.
I fell, clasping little Marie tightly to me. The icy cold water brought
back all my courage. On rising to the surface of the river, I supported
the child, I half laid her on my neck and began to swim laboriously. If
the little creature had not lost consciousness but had struggled, we
should both have remained at the bottom of the deep.
And, whilst I swam, I felt choking with anxiety. I called Jacques, I tried
to see in the distance; but I heard nothing save the roar of the waters, I
saw naught but the pale sheet of the Durance. Jacques and Babet were at
the bottom. She must have clung to him, dragged him down in a deadly
strain of her arms. What frightful agony! I wanted to die; I sunk slowly,
I was going to find them beneath the black water. And as soon as the flood
touched little Marie’s face, I struggled again with impetuous anguish to
get near the waterside.
It was thus that I abandoned Babet and Jacques, in despair at having been
unable to die with them, still calling out to them in a husky voice. The
river cast me on the stones, like one of those bundles of grass it leaves
on its way. When I came to myself again, I took my daughter, who was
opening her eyes, in my arms. Day was breaking. My winter night was at an
end, that terrible night which had been an accomplice in the murder of my
wife and son.
At this moment, after years of regret, one last consolation remains to me.
I am the icy winter, but I feel the approaching spring stirring within me.
As my uncle Lazare said, we never die. I have had four seasons, and here I
am returning to the spring, there is my dear Marie commencing the
everlasting joys and sorrows over again.