I had returned to Virelogne for the first time in 15 years. It was autumn and I was there to hunt at the home of my friend, Serval. His house had finally been rebuilt, following its destruction at the hands of the Prussians.
I had a passionate, almost physical love for this part of the country: it had a delicious and sensual charm. There are many of us who are captivated by the land. It stirs in us happy memories of streams, woods, ponds and hills. A single glance is enough to send us back to that corner of forest, river bank, or orchard carpeted in flowers.
We remember these sights as we would remember a fresh-faced woman we pass on the street. Both sights would mark our flesh with the same kind of insatiable desire.
I loved every part of the countryside at Virelogne. There were small woods and the area was criss-crossed by brooks that ran into the soil, as if they carried the very blood of the Earth. There, we would fish for crayfish, trout and eel. We would also bathe and spot snipe in the tall grass that trails into the water.
I let my dogs roam ahead as I approached the house, as sure-footed as a goat. A hundred metres to my right, Serval was crossing an alfalfa field in search of game. As I reached the bushes that formed the edge of Saudres wood, I came across a thatched cottage, which now lay in ruins. There is nothing sadder than a dead house. Its crumbling skeleton looked sinister and foreboding.
The sight transported me back to 1869. At that time, the cottage was covered in vines and hens roamed in front of it. It had been a long day and a peasant woman offered me a glass of wine. Serval had told me of its former inhabitants. The father, an old poacher, had been killed by the police. I had seen the son; he was a large and brutish boy. We called them the Sauvages but I didn’t know if this was their real name. I called Serval and he bounded over like a wading bird.
I asked him: What became of the people who lived here? And this is the story he told me . . .
The Sauvage sons were 31 years-old when war was declared. They enlisted, leaving their mother alone in the house. Nobody felt sorry for her, though, because everybody assumed she was rich. The old woman stayed far from the village on the edge of the wood. But she was not afraid: like the men, she was tall, thin and sturdy. She rarely laughed or joked. The women of the fields hardly ever laughed. They all had sad, limited souls and led miserable lives that were not lit by sunlight,
Peasants may have a little fun at parties, but in general their company is serious and their faces are severe. The Sauvage mother led an ordinary life in her thatched cottage, which before long was covered in snow. Once a week, she would venture out into the village in search of bread and meat. There was talk of wolves, so she always carried a rifle on her back. It had belonged to her son. It was rusting and the grip had been worn down by repeated use. She must have been a curious sight: bent over, moving slowly forward, knee-deep in snow, with the chamber of the rifle extending past the black headdress that concealed her hair.
One day, the Prussians arrived and were billeted among the villagers. Since everybody assumed the Sauvage mother was rich, she was given four soldiers. They were plump, pale-skinned with blond beards and blue eyes. Despite being in a conquered nation, they were very kind to the old woman and spared her whenever possible from weariness and expense. As the Sauvage mother prepared soup, the soldiers would wash themselves around the well, splashing cold water on their pink and white flesh. Then they would clean the kitchen, scrub windows, chop wood, peel potatoes and generally all manner of household chores, just as any good son would do.
All the same, the Sauvage mother would think constantly of her own son. Hers was tall, slim and had a hooked nose. His eyes were brown and he had a thick moustache that formed a fold of black hair on his upper-lip. Each day she would ask the soldiers:
Do you know where the 23rd French regiment went? My son is with them.
No, I didn’t know him. I don’t know anything about it.
The Prussians understood the woman’s concern, because they had mothers of their own. So they hastened to run errands for her. The Sauvage mother liked these enemies of hers.
Peasants tend not to be patriotic (that was for the upper-classes). It is the humble folk who pay the highest price in war. They have no money, so burdens weigh heavily on them. They are the ones killed en masse and who, in the end, feel most keenly the atrocities of war. They are the weakest and are capable of the least resistance. They do not understand passion for war, or honour, or political manoeuvrings. In just six months, these things can lay waste to two nations, victorious and defeated alike.
And everybody still remarked how the soldiers had found a cushy billet.
One morning, the Sauvage mother was alone at home when she noticed a figure coming towards her from across the plain. She recognized his as the country postman, out on his rounds. He presented her with a folded piece of paper and she took out her glasses (which she kept in her sewing box) to read.
This letter bears sad news. Your son, Victor, was killed yesterday by cannon fire. I saw it happen, because we were fighting alongside one another. He had warned me that this might happen earlier that same day.
I took this watch from his pocket, which I return to you now that the war is over.
Césaire Rivot (Soldier of 2nd class and 23rd Regiment).
The letter was three weeks old. The old woman didn’t cry; she was too dazed to suffer. All she kept thinking was: Well, Victor has been killed. But, little by little, her eyes filled with tears and the pain took hold. Awful thoughts flashed suddenly into her mind.
Never again would she kiss her boy…The police had killed the father and now the Prussians had killed her son…He had been cut in two by cannon fire…The head falls; his eyes are open…He chews the corner of his thick moustache like he did when he was angry…What had they done with his body?…If only they had returned her child, as they had returned her husband, with the bullet wound in the centre of his chest.
The old woman heard the Prussians returning from the village and hid the letter inside her pocket. She wiped away her tears so she was able to greet them as if nothing had happened. They were laughing, captivated by the (probably stolen) rabbit they had brought back. They were gesturing to the old woman that, finally, they would all be eating well.
She set about preparing the meal. When it came to killing the rabbit, however, her heart failed her. One of the soldiers killed it with a blow to the head and the old woman removed its skin. Its blood was warm but had already begun to cool and congeal. The sight of it made her whole body tremble. All she saw was her son, cut in two and red like the quivering animal in her hands.
They laid the table together but she couldn’t eat a single mouthful. Her soldiers were devouring the rabbit without paying her much attention and she observed them from the corner of her without saying anything. The old woman was hatching a plot but she kept her face impassive.
I only know your given names and we’ve been together for a whole month.
With difficulty, the Prussians grasped her meaning and gave their full names. But this was not enough. Next, she asked them to write down their names alongside their home addresses. The old woman looked at the unfamiliar writing with her spectacles resting on the end of her long nose. And then she folded the paper and placed it into her pocket along with the letter she had received earlier.
When the meal was over, she said: Now I’ll do something for you. And she proceeded to shovel hay into the loft where the soldiers slept. They were taken aback by this gesture and they helped her once they knew the hay would keep them warm. Together, they piled bundles of hay as high as the straw roof. The hay formed a sort of large, hot and fragrant bedroom and its four lined walls would ensure the Prussians slept soundly
At dinner, one of the soldiers noticed that the Sauvage mother was still not eating. But she gave the excuse of a stomach ache. Then, she lit a hearty fire and the Germans took their usual staircase up to bed. Once the trapdoor was closed, the old woman removed the ladder, silently reopened the door from the outside and turned around to gather up bundles of straw which she used to fill the kitchen. She went barefoot out in the snow, so softly that nobody heard a sound. From time to time, she heard the loud snores of the four slumbering soldiers. When she had judged her work complete, she lit up one of the bundles in the hearth and scattered it among the others. She left the house and watched from outside.
At first, the inside of the cottage just shone brightly for several seconds. Then, it turned into a dreadful blaze, a huge and fierce oven whose glow escaped through the narrow window to cast a dazzling ray onto the snow. Next came loud shouting and yelling from the roof, followed by cries of agony and terror. The trapdoor had caved in from the inside and now a whirlwind of fire had been thrown from the loft. It burst through the straw roof and rose up into the sky like the flame of an immense torch.
The whole cottage burned brightly until nothing more could be heard inside except the fire crackling, the doors creaking and the beams collapsing. The roof suddenly gave way and its red-hot skeleton was hurled up into the air amid a cloud of smoke and sparks. The white countryside, lit by the conflagration, glistened like a silver tablecloth tainted with red.
Far away, a clock began to chime. The old woman remained in front of her demolished home, armed with her rifle in case the soldiers escaped. Once she saw it was truly over, she threw her weapon into the blaze.
Before long, peasants and Prussians alike came over. They found the woman sat on a tree stump, calm and satisfied. A German officer, who spoke French like a native, asked her: Where are your soldiers?
The old woman raised a thin arm towards the red heap of what remained of the fire, and replied in a firm voice: In there.
The onlookers crowded round as the Prussian asked: How did the fire start?
I started it.
At first, they did not believe her. They thought that perhaps the fire had made her mad. But then she told the whole story, from the arrival of the letter to the last cries of the Prussian soldiers. She explained how she had felt and everything she had done. When she had finished, she took two pieces of paper from her pocket and adjusted her spectacles to read them by the last embers of the fire.
Holding out one of them, she announced: This one is for Victor’s death. Showing the other, she added, nodding towards the ruins: And these are their family names for writing home. She calmly handed the white sheet to the officer, who took her by the shoulders. The old woman continued: You will write how it happened, and tell their parents who did it. Victory to the Sauvages! Don’t you forget it.
The officer gave his orders. The woman was seized and thrown against the hot wall of the house. Twelve men lined up opposite her at a distance of twenty metres. She didn’t move. She understood and now she was waiting. An order rang out, followed immediately by a lengthy roar of gunfire. Seconds later, a single coup de grâce was fired. The Sauvage mother did not fall, but rather crumpled as if her legs had been knocked from under her. The Prussian officer approached. She had almost been cleaved in two, and in her clenched fist she held her letter, bathed in blood.
. . . My friend Serval added: It was out of revenge that the Germans destroyed the mansion house, which belonged to me. But I was not really listening. I was thinking instead of the mothers of those four sweet boys who had burned inside, and of the shocking bravery of the other mother, who had been gunned down against this very wall. And I picked up a small stone, which was still blackened by the fire.