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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Glimpses of Napoleon III.
By Émile Zola (1840–1902)
 
From ‘La Débâcle’ (The Downfall)

THEY had no more than sat down at table when Delaherche, burning to relieve himself of the subject that filled his mind, began to relate his experiences of the day before.  1
  “You know I saw the Emperor at Baybel.”  2
  He was fairly started, and nothing could stop him. He began by describing the farm-house; a large structure with an interior court, surrounded by an iron railing, and situated on a gentle eminence overlooking Mouzon, to the left of the Carignan road. Then he came back to the Twelfth Corps, whom he had visited in their camp among the vines on the hillsides; splendid troops they were, with their equipments brightly shining in the sunlight, and the sight of them had caused his heart to beat with patriotic ardor.  3
  “And there I was, sir, when the Emperor, who had alighted to breakfast and rest himself a bit, came out of the farm-house. He wore a general’s uniform and carried an overcoat across his arm, although the sun was very hot. He was followed by a servant bearing a camp-stool. He did not look to me like a well man; ah no, far from it: his stooping form, the sallowness of his complexion, the feebleness of his movements, all indicated him to be in a very bad way. I was not surprised; for the druggist at Mouzon, when he recommended me to drive on to Baybel, told me that an aide-de-camp had just been in his shop to get some medicine—you understand what I mean—medicine for—” The presence of his wife and mother prevented him from alluding more explicitly to the nature of the Emperor’s complaint, which was an obstinate diarrhœa that he had contracted at Chêne, and which compelled him to make those frequent halts at houses along the road. “Well, then the attendant opened the campstool and placed it in the shade of a clump of trees at the edge of a field of wheat, and the Emperor sat down on it. Sitting there in a limp, dejected attitude, perfectly still, he looked for all the world like a small shopkeeper taking a sun-bath for his rheumatism. His dull eyes wandered over the wide horizon, the Meuse coursing through the valley at his feet, before him the range of wooded heights whose summits recede and are lost in the distance, on the left the waving tree-tops of Dieulet forest, on the right the verdure-clad eminence of Sommanthe. He was surrounded by his military family, aides and officers of rank; and a colonel of dragoons, who had already applied to me for information about the country, had just motioned me not to go away, when all at once—” Delaherche rose from his chair, for he had reached the point where the dramatic interest of his story culminated, and it became necessary to reinforce words by gestures. “All at once there was a succession of sharp reports; and right in front of us, over the wood of Dieulet, shells are seen circling through the air. It produced on me no more effect than a display of fireworks in broad daylight, sir, upon my word it didn’t! The people about the Emperor, of course, showed a good deal of agitation and uneasiness. The colonel of dragoons comes running up again to ask if I can give them an idea whence the firing proceeds. I answer him off-hand: ‘It is at Beaumont; there is not the slightest doubt about it.’ He returns to the Emperor, on whose knees an aide-de-camp was unfolding a map. The Emperor was evidently of opinion that the fighting was not at Beaumont, for he sent the colonel back to me a third time. But I couldn’t well do otherwise than stick to what I had said before, could I, now?—the more that the shells kept flying through the air, nearer and nearer, following the line of the Mouzon road. And then, sir, as sure as I see you standing there, I saw the Emperor turn his pale face toward me. Yes, sir, he looked at me a moment with those dim eyes of his, that were filled with an expression of melancholy and distrust. And then his face declined upon his map again, and he made no further movement.”  4
  Delaherche, although he was an ardent Bonapartist at the time of the plébiscite, had admitted after our early defeats that the government was responsible for some mistakes; but he stood up for the dynasty, compassionating and excusing Napoleon III., deceived and betrayed as he was by every one. It was his firm opinion that the men at whose door should be laid the responsibility for all our disasters, were none other than those Republican deputies of the Opposition who had stood in the way of voting the necessary men and money.  5
  “And did the Emperor return to the farm-house?” asked Captain Beaudoin.  6
  “That’s more than I can say, my dear sir: I left him sitting on his stool. It was midday, the battle was drawing nearer, and it occurred to me that it was time to be thinking of my own return. All that I can tell you besides is, that a general to whom I pointed out the position of Carignan in the distance, in the plain to our rear, appeared greatly surprised to learn that the Belgian frontier lay in that direction, and was only a few miles away. Ah, that the poor Emperor should have to rely on such servants!”…  7
  While Delaherche was raising himself on tiptoe, and trying to peer through the windows of the rez-de-chaussée, an old woman at his side, some poor day-worker of the neighborhood, with shapeless form, and hands calloused and distorted by many years of toil, was mumbling between her teeth:—  8
  “An emperor—I should like to see one once—just once—so I could say I had seen him.”  9
  Suddenly Delaherche exclaimed, seizing Maurice by the arm:—  10
  “See, there he is! at the window to the left. I had a good view of him yesterday; I can’t be mistaken. There, he has just raised the curtain; see, that pale face, close to the glass.”  11
  The old woman had overheard him, and stood staring with wide-open mouth and eyes; for there, full in the window, was an apparition that resembled a corpse more than a living being: its eyes were lifeless, its features distorted; even the mustache had assumed a ghastly whiteness in the final agony. The old woman was dumbfounded; forthwith she turned her back and marched off with a look of supreme contempt.  12
  “That thing an emperor! a likely story.”  13
  A zouave was standing near,—one of those fugitive soldiers who were in no haste to rejoin their commands. Brandishing his chassepot and expectorating threats and maledictions, he said to his companion:—  14
  “Wait! see me put a bullet in his head!”  15
  Delaherche remonstrated angrily; but by that time the Emperor had disappeared. The hoarse murmur of the Meuse continued uninterruptedly; a wailing lament, inexpressibly mournful, seemed to pass above them through the air, where the darkness was gathering intensity. Other sounds rose in the distance, like the hollow muttering of the rising storm: were they the “March! march!”—that terrible order from Paris which had driven that ill-starred man onward day by day, dragging behind him along the roads of his defeat the irony of his imperial escort, until now he was brought face to face with the ruin he had foreseen and come forth to meet? What multitudes of brave men were to lay down their lives for his mistakes; and how complete the wreck, in all his being, of that sick man,—that sentimental dreamer, awaiting in gloomy silence the fulfillment of his destiny!…  16
  “O M. Delaherche! isn’t this dreadful! Here, quick! this way, if you would like to see the Emperor.”  17
  On the left of the corridor a door stood ajar; and through the narrow opening a glimpse could be had of the sovereign, who had resumed his weary, anguished tramp between the fireplace and the window. Back and forth he shuffled with heavy, dragging steps, and ceased not, despite his unendurable suffering. An aide-de-camp had just entered the room,—it was he who had failed to close the door behind him,—and Delaherche heard the Emperor ask him in a sorrowfully reproachful voice:—  18
  “What is the reason of this continued firing, sir, after I gave orders to hoist the white flag?”  19
  The torture to him had become greater than he could bear,—this never-ceasing cannonade, that seemed to grow more furious with every minute. Every time he approached the window it pierced him to the heart. More spilling of blood, more useless squandering of human life! At every moment the piles of corpses were rising higher on the battle-field, and his was the responsibility. The compassionate instincts that entered so largely into his nature revolted at it, and more than ten times already he had asked that question of those who approached him.  20
  “I gave orders to raise the white flag: tell me, why do they continue firing?”  21
  The aide-de-camp made answer in a voice so low that Delaherche failed to catch its purport. The Emperor, moreover, seemed not to pause to listen, drawn by some irresistible attraction to that window; at which, each time he approached it, he was greeted by that terrible salvo of artillery that rent and tore his being. His pallor was greater even than it had been before; his poor, pinched, wan face, on which were still visible traces of the rouge which had been applied that morning, bore witness to his anguish.  22
  At that moment a short, quick-motioned man in dust-soiled uniform, whom Delaherche recognized as General Lebrun, hurriedly crossed the corridor and pushed open the door, without waiting to be announced. And scarcely was he in the room when again was heard the Emperor’s so oft repeated question:  23
  “Why do they continue to fire, General, when I have given orders to hoist the white flag?”  24
  The aide-de-camp left the apartment, shutting the door behind him, and Delaherche never knew what was the general’s answer. The vision had faded from his sight.  25
 
 
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