The broad sunlight threw its burning rays on the fields, and under this shower of flame life burst forth in glowing vegetation from the earth. As far as the eye could see, the soil was green; and the sky was blue to the verge of the horizon. The Norman farms scattered through the plain seemed at a distance like little woods inclosed each in a circle of thin beech-trees. Coming closer, on opening the worm-eaten stile, one fancied that he saw a giant garden, for all the old apple-trees, as knotted as the peasants, were in blossom. The weather-beaten black trunks, crooked, twisted, ranged along the inclosure, displayed beneath the sky their glittering domes, rosy and white. The sweet perfume of their blossoms mingled with the heavy odors of the open stables and with the fumes of the steaming dunghill, covered with hens and their chickens. It was midday. The family sat at dinner in the shadow of the pear-tree planted before the door–the father, the mother, the four children, the two maidservants, and the three farm laborers. They scarcely uttered a word. Their fare consisted of soup and of a stew composed of potatoes mashed up in lard.
From time to time one of the maidservants rose up, and went to the cellar to fetch a pitcher of cider.
The husband, a big fellow of about forty, stared at a vine-tree, quite exposed to view, which stood close to the farmhouse, twining like a serpent under the shutters the entire length of the wall.
He said, after a long silence:
“The father’s vine-tree is blossoming early this year. Perhaps it will bear good fruit.”
The peasant’s wife also turned round, and gazed at the tree without speaking.
This vine-tree was planted exactly in the place where the father of the peasant had been shot.
It was during the war of 1870. The Prussians were in occupation of the entire country. General Faidherbe, with the Army of the North, was at their head.
Now the Prussian staff had taken up its quarters in this farmhouse. The old peasant who owned it, Père Milon, received them, and gave them the best treatment he could.
For a whole month the German vanguard remained on the lookout in the village. The French were posted ten leagues away without moving, and yet, each night, some of the uhlans disappeared.
All the isolated scouts, those who were sent out on patrol, whenever they started in groups of two or three, never came back.
They were picked up dead in the morning in a field, near a farmyard, in a ditch. Their horses even were found lying on the roads with their throats cut by a saber stroke. These murders seemed to have been accomplished by the same men, who could not be discovered.
The country was terrorized. Peasants were shot on mere information, women were imprisoned, attempts were made to obtain revelations from children by fear.
But, one morning, Père Milon was found stretched in his stable with a gash across his face.
Two uhlans ripped open were seen lying three kilometers away from the farmhouse. One of them still grasped in his hand his blood-stained weapon. He had fought and defended himself.
A council of war having been immediately constituted, in the open air, in front of the farmhouse, the old man was brought before it.
He was sixty-eight years old. He was small, thin, a little crooked, with long hands resembling the claws of a crab. His faded hair, scanty and slight, like the down on a young duck, allowed his scalp to be plainly seen. The brown, crimpled skin of his neck showed the big veins which sank under his jaws and reappeared at his temples. He was regarded in the district as a miser and a hard man in business transactions.
He was placed standing between four soldiers in front of the kitchen table, which had been carried out of the house for the purpose. Five officers and the Colonel sat facing him. The Colonel was the first to speak.
“Père Milon,” he said, in French, “since we came here we have had nothing to say of you but praise. You have always been obliging, and even considerate toward us. But to-day a terrible accusation rests on you, and the matter must be cleared up. How did you get the wound on your face?”
The peasant gave no reply.
The Colonel went on:
“Your silence condemns you, Père Milon. But I want you to answer me, do you understand? Do you know who has killed the two uhlans who were found this morning near the crossroads?”
The old man said in a clear voice:
“It was I!”
The Colonel, surprised, remained silent for a second, looking steadfully at the prisoner. Père Milon maintained his impassive demeanor, his air of rustic stupidity, with downcast eyes, as if he were talking to his cure. There was only one thing that could reveal his internal agitation, the way in which he slowly swallowed his saliva with a visible effort, as if he were choking.
The old peasant’s family–his son Jean, his daughter-in-law, and two little children stood ten paces behind, scared and dismayed.
The Colonel continued:
“Do you know also who killed all the scouts of our army whom we have found every morning, for the past month, lying here and there in the fields?”
The old man answered with the same brutal impassiveness:
“It was I!”
“It is you, then, that killed them all?”
“All of them-yes, it was I.”
“Tell me the way you managed to do it?”
This time the peasant appeared to be affected; the necessity of speaking at some length incommoded him.
“I know myself. I did it the way I found easiest.”
The Colonel proceeded:
“I warn you, you must tell me everything. You will do well, therefore, to make up your mind about it at once. How did you begin it?”
The peasant cast an uneasy glance toward his family, who remained in a listening attitude behind him. He hesitated for another second or so, then all of a sudden he came to a resolution on the matter.
“I came home one night about ten o’clock, and the next day you were here. You and your soldiers gave me fifty crowns for forage with a cow and two sheep. Said I to myself: ‘As long as I get twenty crowns out of them, I’ll sell them the value of it.’ But then I had other things in my heart, which I’ll tell you about now. I came across one of your cavalrymen smoking his pipe near my dike, just behind my barn. I went and took my scythe off the hook, and I came back with short steps from behind, while he lay there without hearing anything. And I cut off his head with one stroke, like a feather, while he only said ‘Oof!’ You have only to look at the bottom of the pond; you’ll find him there in a coal bag with a big stone tied to it.
“I got an idea into my head. I took all he had on him from his boots to his cap, and I hid them in the bakehouse in the Martin wood behind the farmyard.”
The old man stopped. The officers, speechless, looked at one another. The examination was resumed, and this is what they were told.
Once he had accomplished this murder, the peasant lived with only one thought: “To kill the Prussians!” He hated them with the sly and ferocious hatred of a countryman who was at the same time covetous and patriotic. He had got an idea into his head, as he put it. He waited for a few days.
He was allowed to go and come freely, to go out and return just as he pleased, as long as he displayed humility, submissiveness, and complaisance toward the conquerors.
Now, every evening he saw the cavalrymen bearing dispatches leaving the farmhouse; and he went out, one night, after discovering the name of the village to which they were going, and after picking up by associating with the soldiers the few words of German he needed.
He made his way through his farmyard, slipped into the wood, reached the bakehouse, penetrated to the end of the long passage, and having found the clothes of the soldier which he had hidden there, he put them on. Then he went prowling about the fields, creeping along, keeping to the slopes so as to avoid observation, listening to the least sounds, restless as a poacher.
When he believed the time had arrived he took up his position at the roadside, and hid himself in a clump of brushwood. He still waited. At length, near midnight, he heard the galloping of a horse’s hoofs on the hard soil of the road. The old man put his ear to the ground to make sure that only one cavalryman was approaching; then he got ready.
The uhlan came on at a very quick pace, carrying some dispatches. He rode forward with watchful eyes and strained ears. As soon as he was no more than ten paces away, Père Milon dragged himself across the road, groaning: “Hilfe! hilfe!” (“Help! help!”).
The cavalryman drew up, recognized a German soldier dismounted, believed that he was wounded, leaped down from his horse, drew near the prostrate man, never suspecting anything, and, as he stooped over the stranger, he received in the middle of the stomach the long, curved blade of the saber. He sank down without any death throes, merely quivering with a few last shudders.
Then the Norman, radiant with the mute joy of an old peasant, rose up, and merely to please himself, cut the dead soldier’s throat. After that, he dragged the corpse to the dike and threw it in.
The horse was quietly waiting for its rider, Père Milon got on the saddle and started across the plain at the gallop.
At the end of an hour, he perceived two more uhlans approaching the staff-quarters side by side. He rode straight toward them, crying: “Hilfe! hilfe!” The Prussians let him come on, recognizing the uniform without any distrust.
And like a cannon ball the old man shot between the two, bringing both of them to the ground with his saber and a revolver. The next thing he did was to cut the throats of the horses–the German horses! Then, softly he re-entered the bakehouse and hid the horse he had ridden himself in the dark passage. There he took off the uniform, put on once more his own old clothes, and going to his bed, slept till morning.
For four days, he did not stir out, awaiting the close of the open inquiry as to the cause of the soldiers’ deaths; but, on the fifth day, he started out again, and by a similar stratagem killed two more soldiers.
Thenceforth, he never stopped. Each night he wandered about, prowled through the country at random, cutting down some Prussians, sometimes here, sometimes there, galloping through the deserted fields under the moonlight, a lost uhlan, a hunter of men. Then, when he had finished his task, leaving behind him corpses lying along the roads, the old horseman went to the bakehouse where he concealed both the animal and the uniform. About midday he calmly returned to the spot to give the horse a feed of oats and some water, and he took every care of the animal, exacting therefore the hardest work.
But, the night before his arrest, one of the soldiers he attacked put himself on his guard, and cut the old peasant’s face with a slash of a saber.
He had, however, killed both of them. He had even managed to go back and hide his horse and put on his everyday garb, but, when he reached the stable, he was overcome by weakness and was not able to make his way into the house.
He had been found lying on the straw, his face covered with blood.
When he had finished his story, he suddenly lifted his head and glanced proudly at the Prussian officers.
The Colonel, tugging at his mustache, asked:
“Have you anything more to say?”
“No, nothing more; we are quits. I killed sixteen, not one more, not one less.”
“You know you have to die?”
“I ask for no quarter!”
“Have you been a soldier?”
“Yes, I served at one time. And ’tis you killed my father, who was a soldier of the first Emperor, not to speak of my youngest son François, whom you killed last month near Evreux. I owed this to you, and I’ve paid you back. ‘Tis tit for tat!”
The officers stared at one another.
The old man went on:
“Eight for my father, eight for my son–that pays it off! I sought for no quarrel with you. I don’t know you! I only know where you came from. You came to my house here and ordered me about as if the house was yours. I have had my revenge, and I’m glad of it!”
And stiffening up his old frame, he folded his arms in the attitude of a humble hero.
The Prussians held a long conference. A captain, who had also lost a son the month before defended the brave old farmer.
Then the Colonel rose up, and, advancing toward Père Milon, he said, lowering his voice:
“Listen, old man! There is perhaps one way of saving your life–it is–”
But the old peasant was not listening to him, and, fixing his eyes directly on the German officer, while the wind made the scanty hair move to and fro on his skull, he made a frightful grimace, which shriveled up his pinched countenance scarred by the saber-stroke, and, puffing out his chest, he spat, with all his strength, right into the Prussian’s face.
The Colonel, stupefied, raised his hand, and for the second time the peasant spat in his face.
All the officers sprang to their feet and yelled out orders at the same time.
In less than a minute the old man, still as impassive as ever, was stuck
up against the wall and shot, while he cast a smile at Jean, his eldest
son, and then at his daughter-in-law and the two children, who were
staring with terror at the scene.