In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

SEDAN


ONE OF the pleasantest streets in Viger was that which led from the thoroughfare of the village to the common.  It was a little street with little houses, but it looked as if only happy people lived there.  The enormous old willows which shaded it through its whole length made a perpetual shimmer of shadow and sun, and towered so above the low cottages that they seemed to have crept under the guardian trees to rest and doze a while.  There was something idyllic about this contented spot; it seemed to be removed from the rest of the village, to be on the boundaries of Arcadia, the first inlet to its pleasant, dreamy fields.  In the spring the boys made a veritable Arcadia of it, coming there in bands, cutting the willows for whistles, and entering into a blithe contest for supremacy in making them, accompanying their labours by a perpetual sounding of their pleasant pipes, as if a colony of uncommon birds had taken up their homes in the trees. [Page 37] Even in the winter there was something pleasant about it; the immense boles of the willows, presiding over the collection of houses, seemed to protect them, and the sunshine had always a suggestion of warmth as it dwelt in the long branches.  It was on this street, just a little distance from the corner, that Paul Arbique kept his inn, which was famous in its way.  He called it The Turenne, after the renowned commander of that name, for they had the same birthplace, and Arbique himself had been a soldier, as his medals would testify.  The location was favourable for such a house as Arbique was prepared to keep, and in choosing it he appealed to a crotchet in man which makes it pleasanter for him to go around the corner for anything he may require.  A pleasant place it was, particularly in summer.  The very exterior had an air about it, the green blinds and the green slatted door, and the shadows from the willow-leaves playing over the legend "Fresh Buttermilk," a sign dear to the lover of simple pleasures.
    From all the appearances one would have supposed that The Turenne was a great success, and everyone thought Arbique was romancing when he said he was just getting along, and that was all.  But so far as he knew he spoke the truth, for his wife managed everything, including himself.  There was only one thing she could not do; she could not make him stop drinking brandy.
    The Arbiques considered themselves very much superior to the village people, because they had come from old France.  "I am a Frenchman," Paul would say, when [Page 38] he had had too much brandy; but no one would take offence at him, he was too good a fellow.  When he had had a modicum of his favourite liquor he talked of his birthplace, Sedan, the dearest spot on earth to him, and his Crimean experiences; and when he had reached a stage beyond that he talked of his wife.  It was a pathetic sight to see him at such times, as he leaned close to his auditor, and explained to him how superior a woman Felice was, and what a cruel, inexplicable mistake she had made in marrying him, and how all his efforts to make her happy had failed, not through any fault of her own, but because it was impossible that he could ever make her happy; thus taking all the blame of their domestic infelicity upon his own shoulders, with the simple idea that it must be his own fault when no fault of any kind could possibly rest with Felice.
    He was a tall, chivalrous-looking fellow, with a military air, and despite his fifty years and the extent of his potations there was yet a brave flourish in his manner.  He was seen at his best on Sunday, when, clothed in a complete suit of black, with a single carnation in his buttonhole, and with an irreproachable silk hat, he promenaded with Madame Arbique on his arm.  Madame on such occasions was as fine as her lord, and held her silk gown far above the defilement of the street, in order to show her embroidered petticoat and a pair of pretty feet.  But no matter how finely she was dressed she always wore an expression of discontent.  She had the instincts of a miser, but she also had enough good sense not to let them interfere [Page 39] with the sources of profit, and so, although she was as keen to save a cent as anyone could have been, The Turenne showed no sign of it.  The provision for the entertainment of guests was ample and sufficient.  Felice had always had her own way, and owing to Paul's incapacity, which had overtaken him gradually, the affairs of the house had been left in her hands.
    They had only had one child, who had died when she was a baby, and this want of children was a great trial to Paul.  They had attempted to fill her place by adopting a little girl, but the experiment had not been a success, and she grew to be something between a servant and a poor relation working for her board.  This was owing to no fault of Paul's, who would have prevented it if he could, but his wife had taken a dislike to the child, and she simply neglected her.  Latulipe, for in the family she was known by no other name, was a strange girl.  She had been frightened and subdued by Madame Arbique, and at times she would scarcely speak a word, and then again she would talk boldly and defiantly, as if she were protesting, no matter how insignificant her remarks might be.  Her personal appearance was as odd as her manner; she had an abundance of hair, of a light, pleasant shade of red, her complexion was a clear white, her lips were intensely crimson, her dark eyes were small but quick, and very clear.  Her manner was shy, and rather awkward.  Her one claim to distinction was that she had some influence over Arbique, whom she could now and then prevent drinking.  He was sorry for her, and ashamed of the [Page 40] position she occupied in the house, which was so different from what he had intended.
    When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and for months before, The Turenne was the rendezvous for those of the villagers who had any desire to discuss the situation.  Arbique was the oracle of this group, and night after night he held forth on the political situation, on the art of war, and his personal experiences in the army.  There was only one habitué of The Turenne who was silent on these occasions, that was Hans Blumenthal, the German watchmaker.  He had had his corner in the bar-room ever since he had come to Viger, and was one of Arbique's best customers.  But when the war excitement broke out Arbique expected to see no more of him; the warmth of the discussions and the violence of the treatment his nation received nightly would have been expected to drive him away.  But instead, he returned again and again to his place at the little table by the window, peering through his glasses with his imperturbable, self-absorbed expression, not seeming to heed the wordy storms that beset his ears.
    Arbique, when hostilities had actually broken out, pasted a map of the seat of war upon the wall; above this he placed a coloured picture of a French chasseur, and scrawled below it the words "A Berlin!"  Even this did not disturb the German.  He took advantage of the map, and as Arbique had set pins, to which were attached red and blue pieces of wool, to show the positions of the armies, he even studied the locations and movements with interest.  He read his paper, gave his orders, paid his [Page 41] score, came and went as he had always done.  This made Paul very angry, and he would have turned him out of the house if he had not remembered that he was his guest, and his sense of honour would not permit it.  He was drinking very heavily and wanted to fight someone, but every one had agreed with him except the German, and he kept silence.  He had serious thoughts of challenging him to a duel, if the opportunity offered.
    Latulipe was the only one who stood up for Hans.  She had been accustomed to wait on the guests sometimes, when Arbique was incapacitated, and his gentle manner had won her regard.  One day he turned on Paul, who was abusing Hans behind his back, and gave him a piece of her mind.  She was so sudden and sharp with it that she sobered him a little, and in thinking it over he came to the conclusion that if he could help it she would see the German no more.  Hans noticed her absence, and said to Paul one night when he was ordering his beer: "Where is Madmoiselle Latulipe?"  By the way he said it, in his odd French, anyone could have told when he thought of Latulipe.  "Mademoiselle Latulipe," said Arbique, with a dramatic flourish, "is my daughter."  So Hans saw her no more in the evening.
    He had other trials besides this.  Once in a while the lads in the street hooted after him, and this sort of attention became more frequent.  One in a while the lads in the street hooted after him, and this sort of attention became more frequent.  One evening, after the news of Woerth had been received, someone threw a stone through the window of his shop.  That very night he stood before the map with his hands behind him, peering into it; as he [Page 42] altered the pins, which Arbique had now lost all interest in, he heard someone mutter "Scélérat!"  He thought it must be intended for him, but he drank his beer quietly and went home rather early.  After he had gone some of his enemies, becoming valiant with liquor, made a compact to go out when it was late enough, break into his house, and give him a sound beating.  But Latulipe overheard their plan from the stairway, and as soon as she could get away without being noticed, she ran over to the watchmaker's shop.  It was quite late and there was not a soul on the street.  She was wondering how she could warn him, but when she reached the door she noticed a ladder which led to a scaffold running along below the windows of the second storey, where some workmen had been making repairs.  There was a light burning in one of the second storey windows, and without waiting to reflect Latulipe ran up the ladder and tapped at the window.  Hans opened it, and said something in German when he saw who it was.  Latulipe did not wait for salutations, but told him exactly what he might expect.  When that was over she tried to escape as she had come, but the darkness below frightened her, and she could not go down the ladder.  Hans tried to coax her to come in at the window and go out by the street door, but she would not hear to that; she leaned against the house, shrinking away from the edge.  So Hans got out upon the scaffolding.  "Mademoiselle Latulipe," he said, in his rough French, "you need not be alarmed at me; I have only a good heart toward you."  He held out his hand, but Latulipe knew [Page 43] by the sound of his voice that he was going to make love to her, and before he could say another word she was at the bottom of the ladder.  When the bravos came to give Hans his beating he confronted them with a lamp in one hand and a pistol in the other, and they fell over one another in their haste to retreat.
    During the whole of the month of August Arbique had been wild with excitement; he could think of nothing but the war, and would talk of nothing else.  At first he would not believe in any reverse to the French arms; it was impossible—lies, lies, everything was lies.  His cry was "A Berlin!"  But although he could manage to deceive himself by this false enthusiasm, sometimes the truth would stab straight to his heart like a knife, and he would tremble as if he had the ague, for the honour of his country was the thing dearest to him in all the world.  If he could only have died for her!  But there, day after day, he saw the pins on the map, moved by that cold German, close around Metz.  He could no longer cry "A Berlin"; the French army was facing Paris, with Berlin at its back.  He drank fiercely now, and even Latulipe could do nothing with him.  Madame Arbique knew that he would drink himself to death, as his father had done.  He would sit and mutter by the hour, thinking all the time of what revenge he could have on Blumenthal, who had become to his eyes the incarnation of hated Prussia.  But so long as Hans came to the house quietly to sit at his table and drink his beer Arbique would not say an uncivil word to him. [Page 44]
    On the evening of the 28th of August there was an unusual crowd at The Turenne, and a group had surrounded the map gesticulating and discussing.  Hans had finished reading his paper, and went towards them.  They parted when they saw him coming, and he stood peering down at the map through his glasses.  Arbique had not been seen all evening, but he appeared suddenly, looking haggard and shattered, and caught sight of his friends grouped round the German.  He went slowly toward them, and he approached he heard Hans say: "There, there they must fight," and saw him put his finger on the map between Mézières and Carignan, almost over Sedan.
    Paul had been in bed all day, and had not had anything to drink, and when he saw the German with his finger on Sedan he could not stand it any longer.  He broke out: "No, not there—here," his voice trembling with rage.  "Here they will fight—you for your abonimable Prussia, I for my beautiful France."  He fell into a dramatic attitude.  Drawing two pistols from his pocket, he presented one to his nearest friend to hand to Blumenthal.  The man held the pistol for a moment, but Hans never moved.  Madame Arbique, seeing the commotion, and catching sight of the weapons, screamed as loud as she could, and Latulipe, running in, threw herself upon Arbique.  He turned deadly pale and had to use the girl's strength to keep from falling.  Hans went away quietly, and sat down near the window.  Arbique was fluttering like a leaf in the wind, and Latulipe and Felice half carried him upstairs.  The men left in the room shook their heads. [Page 45]
    The next evening Hans was walking in the starlight, under the willows.  With his dim vision he saw someone leaning against one of the trees, but when he passed again he knew it was Latulipe.  He stopped and spoke to her.  When she spoke she did not answer his question.  "Oh," she said, "he will never get better, never."  "Yes," said Hans, "he will be better."  "No," said Latulipe, "I know by the way he looks, and he says now that France is beaten and crushed he does not want to live."  "Brave soul!" said Hans.  "And when he goes," said Latulipe, "what is to become of me?"  He laid his hand upon her arm, and when she did not resist, he took her hand in both his own.  She was giving herself to the enemy.  A cloud above had taken the starlight, and in the willows a little rain fell with a timorous sound.  Latulipe was crying softly on Hans's shoulder. 
    It was September, and around Viger the harvest was nearly finished.  The days were clear as glass; already the maples were stroked with fire, with the lustre of wine and gold; early risers felt the keener air; the sunsets reddened the mists which lay light as lawn on the low fields.  But Paul Arbique thought and spoke of Sedan alone, the place where he was born, of the Meuse, the bridges, of his father's farm, just without the walls of the city, and of his boyhood, and the friends of his youth.  His thoughts were hardly of the war, or of the terror of the downfall which had a little while before so haunted him.
    It was the evening of the day upon which the news of the battle had come.  They had resolved not to tell him, [Page 46] but there was something in Latulipe's manner which disturbed him.  Waking from a light doze, he said: "That Prussian spy, what did he say?—they must fight there—between Mézières and Carignan?  I have been at Carignan—and he had his hound's paw on Sedan."  He was quiet for a while; then he said, dreamily: "They—have—fought."  Latulipe, who was watching with him, wept.  In the night his lips moved again.  "France," he murmured, "France will rise—again."  It was toward the morning of the next day when his true heart failed.  Latulipe had just opened the blinds.  A pale light came through the windows.  When she bent over him she caught his last word.  "Sedan."  He sighed.  "Sedan." [Page 47]