We were walking up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with Dr. V——, trying to read the story of the siege of Paris in the shell-scarred walls and the sidewalks plowed up by grape-shot. Just before we reached the Circle, the doctor stopped and, pointing out to me one of the big corner houses so pompously grouped around the Arc de Triomphe, told me this story.
You see those four closed windows above the balcony? During the first day of August, that terrible August of last year, so full of storms and disaster, I was called there to attend a very severe case of apoplexy. The patient was Colonel Jouve, once a cuirassier of the First Empire, and now an old gentleman mad about glory and patriotism. At the outbreak of war he had gone to live in the Champs-Élysées, in an apartment with a balcony. Can you guess why? That he might be present at the triumphant return of our troops. Poor old boy! The news of Wissemburg reached him just as he was leaving the table. When he read the name of Napoleon at the foot of that bulletin of defeat, he had a stroke and fell.
I found the old cuirassier stretched out on the carpet with his face bleeding and motionless as if struck by a heavy blow. If he had been standing, he would have seemed a tall man. Stretched out as he was, he seemed immense. He had a fine face, magnificent teeth, a thick head of curly white hair, and though eighty years old did not look more than sixty. Near him his granddaughter knelt weeping. There was a strong family resemblance between them. Seeing them side by side, you thought of two beautiful Greek medals struck from the same matrix, but one old and worn and the other bright and clear-cut with all the brilliancy and smoothness of a first impression.
I found the child’s grief very touching. Daughter and granddaughter of a soldier (her father was on Mac Mahon’s staff), the sight of this splendid old man stretched out before her had suggested to her another scene, no less terrible. I did all I could to reassure her, but in my own mind I was not any too hopeful. There was no question that the stroke had been apoplectic, and that is the sort of thing from which at eighty one does not recover. As it turned out, the sick man remained in a state of coma for three days.
Meanwhile, the news of the battle of Reichshoffen reached Paris. You will remember in what form that news reached us first. Until evening we all believed that we had won a great victory, with 20,000 Prussians killed and the Crown Prince captured. Through some miracle, some magnetic current, an echo of this national rejoicing must have reached the sufferer, deaf and speechless and unable to move though he was. That evening when I went to his bedside, I found a different man. His eye was clear, his tongue was no longer thick, and he had strength enough to smile at me and to stammer, “Vic-to-ry!”
“Yes, Colonel, a great victory!”
And the more details I gave him of Mac Mahon’s brilliant success, the more his face relaxed and brightened.
As I left, I found the little girl waiting for me outside the door. She was pale and was crying.
“But he is going to get well,” I said, taking her hands in mine.
The poor child had hardly courage to answer me. The true story of the battle of Reichshoffen had just appeared on the bulletin boards. Mac Mahon was retreating and the army cut to pieces. Surprised and shocked, our eyes met, she thinking of her father and I of my patient. Surely he would succumb to this new blow; and yet what could we do? Leave him the joy, the illusion that had brought him back to life? That meant keeping him alive with lies.
“Very well, I will tell them,” said the child, and quickly wiping away her tears she went back to her grandfather’s room with a smile on her face.
It was not an easy task which she had set herself. For the first few days she had no great difficulty. The old gentleman’s head was very weak and he was as easily deceived as a child, but as his strength came back his mind became clearer. He wanted to be kept in touch with troop movements and to have the War Department Bulletin read to him. It was pathetic to see the little girl, night and day, bent over her map of Germany, sticking in pins with little flags on them, and trying hard to invent to the last detail a successful campaign: Bazaine advancing on Berlin, Frossard penetrating Bavaria, and Mac Mahon reaching the Baltic.
To work this all out she needed help, and I helped her as much as I could. But the one who helped her most was her grandfather himself. He had conquered Germany so many times during the First Empire, he knew every move. “This will be the enemy’s next move, here,” he would say, “and ours will be this.” His anticipations were always justified by the event, which made him not a little proud.
Unhappily, no matter how fast we took cities and won battles, we never went fast enough for him. The old fellow was insatiable. Each day as I came in, I learned of some new success.
“Doctor, we have taken Mayence,” said the little girl coming to meet me with a smile that went to your heart, and through the door I heard his glad salutation, “We’re getting on! In another week we shall be in Berlin.”
At that time the Prussians were only a week’s march from Paris. At first we wondered whether we had not better carry our patient into the country. Then we reflected that as soon as he was taken out of the house, he would learn the true state of affairs, and I decided that he was still too feeble, too stunned by his stroke, to let him find out the truth. So we decided to stay where we were.
The first day of the Prussian occupation, I climbed the stairs to his apartment, I remember, with a heavy heart at the thought of all the closed doors of Paris and the fighting going on under her walls, in the suburbs which were now on the frontier. I found the old gentleman sitting up in bed jubilant and proud.
“Well,” he said, “the siege has begun.”
I looked at him in amazement. “So you know now, Colonel?”
His grandchild turned to me; “Why, yes, doctor. That is the great news to-day. The siege of Berlin has begun.”
And while she spoke, she went on with her sewing as calmly as you please. How could he suspect what was happening? He couldn’t hear the guns at the fortifications. He couldn’t see the city in its fear and sorrow.
From his bed he could see one side of the Arc de Triomphe, and his room was filled with odds and ends of the period of the First Empire—all admirably fitted to sustain his illusions. Portraits of Napoleon’s marshals, battle prints, a picture of the little King of Rome in his baby dress; big stiff consoles decorated with trophies, covered with imperial relics, medallions, bronzes, a piece of the rock of St. Helena under a glass case, miniatures all representing the same blue-eyed lady, now with hair curled, now in a ball dress, now in a yellow gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves. And all this—consoles, King of Rome, marshals, yellow-gowned, short-waisted ladies, with that prim stiffness which was considered graceful in 1806, this atmosphere of victory and conquest—it was this more than anything we could say to him that made him accept so naïvely the siege of Berlin.
After that day, our military operations grew simpler and simpler. Nothing but a little patience was needed in order to take Berlin. Every little while, when the old gentleman grew listless, we read him a letter from his son, an imaginary letter of course, as Paris was by now cut off, and as since Sedan, the aide-de-camp of Mac Mahon had been sent to a German fortress.
You can easily imagine the despair of the poor child who heard nothing from her father, knowing that he was a prisoner, deprived of even comfort and perhaps sick, while she had to write letters in his name that were full of joy, brief indeed, such as a soldier would write from the field, a soldier advancing day by day through the enemy’s country. Sometimes it was too much for her, and weeks went by without a letter. The old man began to worry and to be unable to sleep. Then presto! a letter from Germany would arrive, and she would read it gayly at her grandfather’s bedside, holding back her tears.
The old colonel would listen gravely, smile knowingly, approve, criticize, and explain to us any passage which seemed confused. But it was in the replies that he made to his son that he was magnificent. “Never forget that you are French,” he wrote. “Be generous to the poor Germans. Don’t let them suffer more than is inevitable from the invasion of their country.” And then came suggestions without end, charming, moralizing on property rights, the courtesy due to women, a veritable code of honor for conquerors. All this was interwoven with reflections on politics and discussions of the peace terms. On this last point he was not unduly exacting. “Indemnity, and nothing more—what good would their provinces be to us? A France could never be made out of a Germany.” He dictated that in a firm voice, and one could not hear him without emotion, there was so much sincerity, so beautiful a patriotism in what he said.
Meanwhile, the siege was progressing—not the siege of Berlin, unfortunately! We had reached the period of severe cold, the bombardment, the epidemics, the famine. But thanks to our efforts, to the infinite tenderness which enfolded him, the serenity of the old old man was never troubled. To the end, I was able to get white bread and fresh meat for him—for him alone, of course. You can’t imagine anything more touching than these luncheons so innocent in their egotism—the old gentleman sitting up in bed, fresh and smiling, his napkin tucked under his chin, and his pale little granddaughter at hand to guide his hand, make him drink, and help him as he ate all these forbidden good things.
Then, animated by his meal, in the comfort of his warm room, while the winter’s wind whistled outside and the snow flakes whirled around the windows, the ex-cuirassier told us for the hundredth time the story of the retreat from Russia when frozen biscuit and horse flesh was all that there was to eat.
“Do you realize what that means, little one? We had to eat horse!”
Did she realize what that meant! For two months she had eaten no other meat.
As time went on and the old gentleman recovered little by little, our task increased in difficulty. The numbness of the senses which had made it so easy to deceive him was disappearing day by day. Two or three times already the terrible cannonading at the Porte Maillot had made him jump, his ear as keen as a hunting dog’s, and we had been obliged to invent a last victory for Bazaine at the gates of Berlin and salvos fired at the Invalides in honor of the event.
Another day, when his bed had been brought over to the window (it was, I think, the Thursday on which the battle of Buzenval was fought), he distinctly saw the troops of the National Guard formed on the Avenue de la Grand Armé.
“What are those troops?” asked the old gentleman, and we heard him mutter, “Not well set up.”
It went no farther, but we understood that thereafter we must take every precaution. Unfortunately we were not sufficiently careful. One evening as I reached the house, the little girl came to meet me, considerably troubled. “It is to-morrow that they enter the city,” she said.
Was the door of her grandfather’s bedroom open? In thinking it all over afterward, I remember that this evening his face wore a very striking expression. Probably he had overheard us; but while we were talking of the entry of the Prussians, the old gentleman was thinking of the triumphant return of the French troops, for which he had so long been waiting—Mac Mahon marching down the avenue in the midst of flowers, his son at the marshal’s side, and he himself on his balcony wearing his full dress uniform as he did at Lutzen, saluting the riddled flags and the powder-blackened eagles.
Poor old Jouve! No doubt he thought that we did not want him to participate in this review of our troops in the fear that his emotion would be too much for him, so he carefully avoided speaking of it. But the next day, at the very minute when the Prussian battalions started on their march from the Porte Maillot to the Tuileries, the window up there opened gently and the Colonel appeared on the balcony wearing his helmet, his saber and all the old-fashioned but still glorious regalia of one of Milhaud’s cuirassiers.
I still wonder what will power, what spurt of vitality it had taken to put him on his feet again in all the trappings of war. At all events, there he was, standing erect behind the rail, surprised to find the avenues so large, so silent, the window curtains down, and Paris as gloomy as a great pesthouse; flags everywhere, but such strange flags bearing a red cross on a white field, and no crowd to meet our soldiers.
For an instant he thought he might be mistaken; but no, below, behind the Arc de Triomphe, there came an indistinct rattle and then a black line advanced in the early light. Then, little by little, the eagles on the tops of helmets could be seen shining in the sun, the little drums of Jena began to beat, and under the Arc de L’Etoile, accented by the heavy tread of marching men and by the clash of sidearms, Schubert’s Triumphal March burst out.
Suddenly the silence of the Place de L’Etoile was broken by a terrible cry: “To arms! To arms! The Prussians!” And the four Uhlans at the head of the column could see up there on the balcony a tall old man stagger and fall. This time Colonel Jouve was really dead.