There was not a sound in the forest save the indistinct, fluttering sound of the snow falling on the trees. It had been snowing since noon; a little fine snow, that covered the branches as with frozen moss, and spread a silvery covering over the dead leaves in the ditches, and covered the roads with a white, yielding carpet, and made still more intense the boundless silence of this ocean of trees.
Before the door of the forester's dwelling a young woman, her arms bare to the elbow, was chopping wood with a hatchet on a block of stone. She was tall, slender, strong-a true girl of the woods, daughter and wife of a forester.
A voice called from within the house:
"We are alone to-night, Berthine; you must come in. It is getting dark, and there may be Prussians or wolves about."
"I've just finished, mother," replied the young woman, splitting as she spoke an immense log of wood with strong, deft blows, which expanded her chest each time she raised her arms to strike. "Here I am; there's no need to be afraid; it's quite light still."
Then she gathered up her sticks and logs, piled them in the chimney corner, went back to close the great oaken shutters, and finally came in, drawing behind her the heavy bolts of the door.
Her mother, a wrinkled old woman whom age had rendered timid, was spinning by the fireside.
"I am uneasy," she said, "when your father's not here. Two women are not much good."
"Oh," said the younger woman, "I'd cheerfully kill a wolf or a Prussian if it came to that."
And she glanced at a heavy revolver hanging above the hearth.
Her husband had been called upon to serve in the army at the beginning of the Prussian invasion, and the two women had remained alone with the old father, a keeper named Nicolas Pichon, sometimes called Long-legs, who refused obstinately to leave his home and take refuge in the town.
This town was Rethel, an ancient stronghold built on a rock. Its inhabitants were patriotic, and had made up their minds to resist the invaders, to fortify their native place, and, if need be, to stand a siege as in the good old days. Twice already, under Henri IV and under Louis XIV, the people of Rethel had distinguished themselves by their heroic defence of their town. They would do as much now, by gad! or else be slaughtered within their own walls.
They had, therefore, bought cannon and rifles, organized a militia, and formed themselves into battalions and companies, and now spent their time drilling all day long in the square. All-bakers, grocers, butchers, lawyers, carpenters, booksellers, chemists-took their turn at military training at regular hours of the day, under the auspices of Monsieur Lavigne, a former noncommissioned officer in the dragoons, now a draper, having married the daughter and inherited the business of Monsieur Ravaudan, Senior.
He had taken the rank of commanding officer in Rethel, and, seeing that all the young men had gone off to the war, he had enlisted all the others who were in favor of resisting an attack. Fat men now invariably walked the streets at a rapid pace, to reduce their weight and improve their breathing, and weak men carried weights to strengthen their muscles.
And they awaited the Prussians. But the Prussians did not appear. They were not far off, however, for twice already their scouts had penetrated as far as the forest dwelling of Nicolas Pichon, called Long-legs.
The old keeper, who could run like a fox, had come and warned the town. The guns had been got ready, but the enemy had not shown themselves.
Long-legs' dwelling served as an outpost in the Aveline forest. Twice a week the old man went to the town for provisions and brought the citizens news of the outlying district.
On this particular day he had gone to announce the fact that a small detachment of German infantry had halted at his house the day before, about two o'clock in the afternoon, and had left again almost immediately. The noncommissioned officer in charge spoke French.
When the old man set out like this he took with him his dogs--two powerful animals with the jaws of lions-as a safeguard against the wolves, which were beginning to get fierce, and he left directions with the two women to barricade themselves securely within their dwelling as soon as night fell.
The younger feared nothing, but her mother was always apprehensive, and repeated continually:
"We'll come to grief one of these days. You see if we don't!"
This evening she was, if possible, more nervous than ever.
"Do you know what time your father will be back?" she asked.
"Oh, not before eleven, for certain. When he dines with the commandant he's always late."
And Berthine was hanging her pot over the fire to warm the soup when she suddenly stood still, listening attentively to a sound that had reached her through the chimney.
"There are people walking in the wood," she said; "seven or eight men at least."
The terrified old woman stopped her spinning wheel, and gasped:
"Oh, my God! And your father not here!"
She had scarcely finished speaking when a succession of violent blows shook the door.
As the woman made no reply, a loud, guttural voice shouted:
"Open the door!"
After a brief silence the same voice repeated:
"Open the door or I'll break it down!"
Berthine took the heavy revolver from its hook, slipped it into the pocket of her skirt, and, putting her ear to the door, asked:
"Who are you?" demanded the young woman. "What do you want?".
"The detachment that came here the other day," replied the voice.
"My men and I have lost our way in the forest since morning. Open the door or I'll break it down!"
The forester's daughter had no choice; she shot back the heavy bolts, threw open the ponderous shutter, and perceived in the wan light of the snow six men, six Prussian soldiers, the same who had visited the house the day before.
"What are you doing here at this time of night?" she asked dauntlessly.
"I lost my bearings," replied the officer; "lost them completely. Then I recognized this house. I've eaten nothing since morning, nor my men either."
"But I'm quite alone with my mother this evening," said Berthine.
"Never mind," replied the soldier, who seemed a decent sort of fellow. "We won't do you any harm, but you must give us something to eat. We are nearly dead with hunger and fatigue."
Then the girl moved aside.
"Come in;" she said.
Then entered, covered with snow, their helmets sprinkled with a creamy- looking froth, which gave them the appearance of meringues. They seemed utterly worn out.
The young woman pointed to the wooden benches on either side of the large table.
"Sit down," she said, "and I'll make you some soup. You certainly look tired out, and no mistake."
Then she bolted the door afresh.
She put more water in the pot, added butter and potatoes; then, taking down a piece of bacon from a hook in the chimney earner, cut it in two and slipped half of it into the pot.
The six men watched her movements with hungry eyes. They had placed their rifles and helmets in a corner and waited for supper, as well behaved as children on a school bench.
The old mother had resumed her spinning, casting from time to time a furtive and uneasy glance at the soldiers. Nothing was to be heard save the humming of the wheel, the crackling of the fire, and the singing of the water in the pot.
But suddenly a strange noise--a sound like the harsh breathing of some wild animal sniffing under the door-startled the occupants of the room.
The German officer sprang toward the rifles. Berthine stopped him with a gesture, and said, smilingly:
"It's only the wolves. They are like you--prowling hungry through the forest."
The incredulous man wanted to see with his own eyes, and as soon as the door was opened he perceived two large grayish animals disappearing with long, swinging trot into the darkness.
He returned to his seat, muttering:
"I wouldn't have believed it!"
And he waited quietly till supper was ready.
The men devoured their meal voraciously, with mouths stretched to their ears that they might swallow the more. Their round eyes opened at the same time as their jaws, and as the soup coursed down their throats it made a noise like the gurgling of water in a rainpipe.
The two women watched in silence the movements of the big red beards. The potatoes seemed to be engulfed in these moving fleeces.
But, as they were thirsty, the forester's daughter went down to the cellar to draw them some cider. She was gone some time. The cellar was small, with an arched ceiling, and had served, so people said, both as prison and as hiding-place during the Revolution. It was approached by means of a narrow, winding staircase, closed by a trap-door at the farther end of the kitchen.
When Berthine returned she was smiling mysteriously to herself. She gave the Germans her jug of cider.
Then she and her mother supped apart, at the other end of the kitchen.
The soldiers had finished eating, and were all six falling asleep as they sat round the table. Every now and then a forehead fell with a thud on the board, and the man, awakened suddenly, sat upright again.
Berthine said to the officer:
"Go and lie down, all of you, round the fire. There's lots of room for six. I'm going up to my room with my mother."
And the two women went upstairs. They could be heard locking the door and walking about overhead for a time; then they were silent.
The Prussians lay down on the floor, with their feet to the fire and their heads resting on their rolled-up cloaks. Soon all six snored loudly and uninterruptedly in six different keys.
They had been sleeping for some time when a shot rang out so loudly that it seemed directed against the very wall's of the house. The soldiers rose hastily. Two-then three-more shots were fired.
The door opened hastily, and Berthine appeared, barefooted and only half dressed, with her candle in her hand and a scared look on her face.
"There are the French," she stammered; "at least two hundred of them. If they find you here they'll burn the house down. For God's sake, hurry down into the cellar, and don't make a 'sound, whatever you do. If you make any noise we are lost."
"We'll go, we'll go," replied the terrified officer. "Which is the way?"
The young woman hurriedly raised the small, square trap-door, and the six men disappeared one after another down the narrow, winding staircase, feeling their way as they went.
But as soon as the spike of the out of the last helmet was out of sight Berthine lowered the heavy oaken lid--thick as a wall, hard as steel, furnished with the hinges and bolts of a prison cell--shot the two heavy bolts, and began to laugh long and silently, possessed with a mad longing to dance above the heads of her prisoners.
They made no sound, inclosed in the cellar as in a strong-box, obtaining air only from a small, iron-barred vent-hole.
Berthine lighted her fire again, hung the pot over it, and prepared more soup, saying to herself:
"Father will be tired to-night."
Then she sat and waited. The heavy pendulum of the clock swung to and fro with a monotonous tick.
Every now and then the young woman cast an impatient glance at the dial-a glance which seemed to say:
"I wish he'd be quick!"
But soon there was a sound of voices beneath her feet. Low, confused words reached her through the masonry which roofed the cellar. The Prussians were beginning to suspect the trick she had played them, and presently the officer came up the narrow staircase, and knocked at the trap-door.
"Open the door!" he cried.
"What do you want?" she said, rising from her seat and approaching the cellarway.
"Open the door!"
"I won't do any such thing!"
"Open it or I'll break it down!" shouted the man angrily.
"Hammer away, my good man! Hammer away!"
He struck with the butt-end of his gun at the closed oaken door. But it would have resisted a battering-ram.
The forester's daughter heard him go down the stairs again. Then the soldiers came one after another and tried their strength against the trapdoor. But, finding their efforts useless, they all returned to the cellar and began to talk among themselves.
The young woman heard them for a short time, then she rose, opened the door of the house; looked out into the night, and listened.
A sound of distant barking reached her ear. She whistled just as a huntsman would, and almost immediately two great dogs emerged from the darkness, and bounded to her side. She held them tight, and shouted at the top of her voice:
A far-off voice replied:
She waited a few seconds, then repeated:
The voice, nearer now, replied:
"Don't go in front of the vent-hole!" shouted his daughter. "There are Prussians in the cellar!"
Suddenly the man's tall figure could be seen to the left, standing between two tree trunks.
"Prussians in the cellar?" he asked anxiously. "What are they doing?"
The young woman laughed.
"They are the same as were here yesterday. They lost their way, and I've given them free lodgings in the cellar."
She told the story of how she had alarmed them by firing the revolver, and had shut them up in the cellar.
The man, still serious, asked:
"But what am I to do with them at this time of night?"
"Go and fetch Monsieur Lavigne with his men," she replied. "He'll take them prisoners. He'll be delighted."
Her father smiled.
"So he will-delighted."
"Here's some soup for you," said his daughter. "Eat it quick, and then be off."
The old keeper sat down at the table, and began to eat his soup, having first filled two plates and put them on the floor for the dogs.
The Prussians, hearing voices, were silent.
Long-legs set off a quarter of an hour later, and Berthine, with her head between her hands, waited.
The prisoners began to make themselves heard again. They shouted, called, and beat furiously with the butts of their muskets against the rigid trap-door of the cellar.
Then they fired shots through the vent-hole, hoping, no doubt, to be heard by any German detachment which chanced to be passing that way.
The forester's daughter did not stir, but the noise irritated and unnerved her. Blind anger rose in her heart against the prisoners; she would have been only too glad to kill them all, and so silence them.
Then, as her impatience grew, she watched the clock, counting the minutes as they passed.
Her father had been gone an hour and a half. He must have reached the town by now. She conjured up a vision of him telling the story to Monsieur Lavigne, who grew pale with emotion, and rang for his servant to bring him his arms and uniform. She fancied she could bear the drum as it sounded the call to arms. Frightened faces appeared at the windows. The citizen-soldiers emerged from their houses half dressed, out of breath, buckling on their belts, and hurrying to the commandant's house.
Then the troop of soldiers, with Long-legs at its head, set forth through the night and the snow toward the forest.
She looked at the clock. "They may be here in an hour."
A nervous impatience possessed her. The minutes seemed interminable. Would the time never come?
At last the clock marked the moment she had fixed on for their arrival. And she opened the door to listen for their approach. She perceived a shadowy form creeping toward the house. She was afraid, and cried out. But it was her father.
"They have sent me," he said, "to see if there is any change in the state of affairs."
Then he gave a shrill whistle. Soon a dark mass loomed up under the trees; the advance guard, composed of ten men.
"Don't go in front of the vent-hole!" repeated Long-legs at intervals.
And the first arrivals pointed out the much-dreaded vent-hole to those who came after.
At last the main body of the troop arrived, in all two hundred men, each carrying two hundred cartridges.
Monsieur Lavigne, in a state of intense excitement, posted them in such a fashion as to surround the whole house, save for a large space left vacant in front of the little hole on a level with the ground, through which the cellar derived its supply of air.
Monsieur Lavigne struck the trap-door a blow with his foot, and called:
"I wish to speak to the Prussian officer!"
The German did not reply.
"The Prussian officer!" again shouted the commandant.
Still no response. For the space of twenty minutes Monsieur Lavigne called on this silent officer to surrender with bag and baggage, promising him that all lives should be spared, and that he and his men should be accorded military honors. But he could extort no sign, either of consent or of defiance. The situation became a puzzling one.
The citizen-soldiers kicked their heels in the snow, slapping their arms across their chest, as cabdrivers do, to warm themselves, and gazing at the vent-hole with a growing and childish desire to pass in front of it.
At last one of them took the risk-a man named Potdevin, who was fleet. of limb. He ran like a deer across the zone of danger. The experiment succeeded. The prisoners gave no sign of life.
A voice cried:
"There's no one there!"
And another soldier crossed the open space before the dangerous vent- hole. Then this hazardous sport developed into a game. Every minute a man ran swiftly from one side to the other, like a boy playing baseball, kicking up the snow behind him as he ran. They had lighted big fires of dead wood at which to warm themselves, and the, figures of the runners were illumined by the flames as they passed rapidly from the camp on the right to that on the left.
Some one shouted:
"It's your turn now, Maloison."
Maloison was a fat baker, whose corpulent person served to point many a joke among his comrades.
He hesitated. They chaffed him. Then, nerving himself to the effort, he set off at a little, waddling gait, which shook his fat paunch and made the whole detachment laugh till they cried.
"Bravo, bravo, Maloison!" they shouted for his encouragement.
He had accomplished about two-thirds of his journey when a long, crimson flame shot forth from the vent-hole. A loud report followed, and the fat baker fell. face forward to the ground, uttering a frightful scream. No one went to his assistance. Then he was seen to drag himself, groaning, on all-fours through the snow until he was beyond danger, when he fainted.
He was shot in the upper part of the thigh.
After the first surprise and fright were over they laughed at him again. But Monsieur Lavigne appeared on the threshold of the forester's dwelling. He had formed his plan of attack. He called in a loud voice "I want Planchut, the plumber, and his workmen."
Three men approached.
"Take the eavestroughs from the roof."
In a quarter of an hour they brought the commandant thirty yards of pipes.
Next, with infinite precaution, he had a small round hole drilled in the trap-door; then, making a conduit with the troughs from the pump to this opening, he said, with an air of extreme satisfaction
"Now we'll give these German gentlemen something to drink."
A shout of frenzied admiration, mingled with uproarious laughter, burst from his followers. And the commandant organized relays of men, who were to relieve one another every five minutes. Then he commanded:
And, the pump handle having been set in motion, a stream of water trickled throughout the length of the piping, and flowed from step to step down the cellar stairs with a gentle, gurgling sound.
An hour passed, then two, then three. The commandant, in a state of feverish agitation, walked up and down the kitchen, putting his ear to the ground every now and then to discover, if possible, what the enemy were doing and whether they would soon capitulate.
The enemy was astir now. They could be heard moving the casks about, talking, splashing through the water.
Then, about eight o'clock in the morning, a voice came from the vent-hole "I want to speak to the French officer."
Lavigne replied from the window, taking care not to put his head out too far:
"Do you surrender?"
"Then put your rifles outside."
A rifle immediately protruded from the hole, and fell into the snow, then another and another, until all were disposed of. And the voice which had spoken before said:
"I have no more. Be quick! I am drowned."
"Stop pumping!" ordered the commandant.
And the pump handle hung motionless.
Then, having filled the kitchen with armed and waiting soldiers, he slowly raised the oaken trapdoor.
Four heads appeared, soaking wet, four fair heads with long, sandy hair, and one after another the six Germans emerged--scared, shivering and dripping from head to foot.
They were seized and bound. Then, as the French feared a surprise, they set off at once in two convoys, one in charge of the prisoners, and the other conducting Maloison on a mattress borne on poles.
They made a triumphal entry into Rethel.
Monsieur Lavigne was decorated as a reward for having captured a Prussian advance guard, and the fat baker received the military medal for wounds received at the hands of the enemy.