By Guy de Maupassant
“Upon my word,” Colonel Laporte said, “I am old and gouty, my legs are as stiff as two pieces of wood, and yet if a pretty woman were to tell me to go through the eye of a needle, I believe I should take a jump at it, like a clown through a hoop. I shall die like that; it is in the blood. I am an old beau, one of the old school, and the sight of a woman, a pretty woman, stirs me to the tips of my toes. There!
“And then, we are all very much alike in France; we remain cavaliers, cavaliers of love and fortune, since God has been abolished, whose body-guard we really were. But nobody will ever get a woman out of our hearts; there she is, and there she will remain, and we love her, and shall continue to love her, and go on committing all kinds of frolics on her account, as long as there is a France on the map of Europe, and even if France were to be wiped off the map, there would always be Frenchmen left.
“When I am in the presence of a woman, of a pretty woman, I feel capable of anything. By Jove! When I feel her looks penetrating me, her confounded looks which set your blood on fire, I should like to do I don’t know what; to fight a duel, to have a row, to smash the furniture, in order to show that I am the strongest, the bravest, the most daring, and the most devoted of men.
“But I am not the only one, certainly not; the whole French army is like me, that I will swear to you. From the common soldier to the general, we all go forward, and to the very end, when there is a woman in the case, a pretty woman. Remember what Joan of Arc made us do formerly! Come, I will make a bet that if a pretty woman had taken command of the army on the eve of Sedan, when Marshal Mac-Mahon was wounded, we should have broken through the Prussian lines, by Jove! and have had a drink out of their guns.
“It was not Trochu, but Saint-Geneviève, who was required in Paris, and I remember a little anecdote of the war which proves that we are capable of everything in the presence of a woman.
“I was a captain, a simple captain, at the time, and I was in command of a detachment of scouts, who were retreating through a district which swarmed with Prussians. We were surrounded, pursued, tired out, and half dead with fatigue and hunger, and by the next day we were bound to reach Bar-sur-Tain, otherwise we should be done for, cut off from the main body and killed. I do not know how we managed to escape so far. However, we had ten leagues to go during the night, ten leagues through the snow, and with empty stomachs, and I thought to myself:
“‘It is all over; my poor devils of fellows will never be able to do it.’
“We had eaten nothing since the day before, and the whole day long we remained hidden in a barn, and huddled close together, so as not to feel the cold so much; we did not venture to speak or even move, and we slept by fits and starts, like one sleeps when one is worn out with fatigue.
“It was dark by five o’clock; that wan darkness caused by the snow, and I shook my men. Some of them would not get up; they were almost incapable oí moving or of standing upright, and their joints were stiff from the cold and want of motion.
“In front of us, there was a large expanse of flat, bare country; the snow was still falling like a curtain, in large, white flakes, which concealed everything under a heavy, thick, frozen mantle, a mattress of ice. One might have thought that it was the end of the world.
“‘Come, my lads, let us start.’
“They looked at the thick, white dust which was coming down, and they seemed to think: ‘We have had enough of this; we may just as well die here!’ Then I took out my revolver, and said:
“‘I will shoot the first man who flinches.’ And so they set off, but very slowly, like men whose legs were of very little use to them, and I sent four of them three hundred yards ahead, to scout, and the others followed pell-mell, walking at random and without any order. I put the strongest in the rear, with orders to quicken the pace of the sluggards with the points of their bayonets… in the back.
“The snow seemed as if it were going to bury us alive; it powdered our kepis and cloaks without melting, and made phantoms of us, a species of specters of dead soldiers, who were very tired, and I said to myself: ‘We shall never get out of this, except by a miracle.’
“Sometimes we had to stop for a few minutes, on account of those who could not follow us, and then we heard nothing except the falling snow, that vague, almost indiscernible sound which all those flakes make, as they come down together. Some of the men shook themselves, but others did not move, and so I gave the order to set off again; they shouldered their rifles, and with weary feet we set out, when suddenly the scouts fell back. Something had alarmed them; they had heard voices in front of them, and so I sent six men and a sergeant on ahead, and waited.
“All at once a shrill cry, a woman’s cry, pierced through the heavy silence of the snow, and in a few minutes they brought back two prisoners, an old man and a girl, and I questioned them in a low voice. They were escaping from the Prussians, who had occupied their house during the evening, and who had got drunk, The father had become alarmed on his daughter’s account, and, without even telling their servants, they had made their escape into the darkness. I saw immediately that they belonged to the upper classes, and, as I should have done in any case, I invited them to come with us, and we started off together, and as the old man knew the road, he acted as our guide.
“It had ceased snowing; the stars appeared, and the cold became intense. The girl, who was leaning on her father’s arm, walked wrearily, and with jerks, and several times she murmured:
“‘I have no feeling at all in my feet;’ and I suffered more than she did, I believe, to see that poor little woman dragging herself like that through the snow. But suddenly she stopped, and said:
“‘Father, I am so tired that I cannot go any further ther,’
“The old man wanted to carry her, but he could not even lift her up, and she fell on the ground, with a deep sigh. We all came round her, and as for me, I stamped on the ground, not knowing what to do, and quite unable to make up my mind to abandon that man and girl like that, when suddenly one of the soldiers, a Parisian, whom they had nicknamed Pratique, said:
“‘Come, comrades, we must carry the young lady, otherwise we shall not show ourselves Frenchmen, confound it!’
“I really believe that I swore with pleasure, and said: ‘That is very good of you, my children, and I will take my share of the burden.’
“We could indistinctly see the trees of a little wood on the left, through the darkness, and several men went into it, and soon came back with a bundle of branches twisted into a litter.
“‘Who will lend his cloak? It is for a pretty girl, comrades,’ Pratique said, and ten cloaks were thrown to him. In a moment, the girl was lying, warm and comfortable, among them, and was raised upon six shoulders. I placed myself at their head, on the right, and very pleased I was with my charge.
“We started off much more briskly, as if we had been having a drink of wine, and I even heard a few jokes. A woman is quite enough to electrify Frenchmen, you see. The soldiers, who were reanimated and warm, had almost reformed their ranks, and an old franc-tireur I who was following the litter, waiting for his turn to replace the first of his comrades who might give in, said to one of his neighbors, loud enough for me to hear:
“‘I am not a young man, now; but by ——, there is nothing like the women to make you feel queer from head to foot!'”
“We went on, almost without stopping, until three o’clock in the morning, when suddenly our scouts fell back again, and soon the whole detachment showed nothing but a vague shadow on the ground, as the men lay on the snow, and I gave my orders in a low voice, and heard the harsh, metallic sound of the cocking of rifles. For there, in the middle of the plain, some strange object was moving about. It might have been taken for some enormous animal running about, which unfolded itself like a serpent, or came together into a coil, suddenly went quickly to the right or left, stopped, and then went on again. But presently that wandering shape came near, and I saw a dozen lancers, one behind the other, who were trying to find their way, which they had lost.”
“They were so near by that time, that I could hear the panting of the horses, the clink of their swords, and the creaking of their saddles, and so cried: ‘Fire!'”
“Fifty rifle shots broke the stillness of the night, then there were four or five reports, and at last one single shot was heard, and when the smoke had cleared away, we saw that the twelve men and nine horses had fallen. Three of the animals were galloping away at a furious pace, and one of them was dragging the body of its rider, which rebounded from the ground in a terrible manner, whose foot had caught in the stirrup behind it.”
“One of the soldiers behind me gave a terrible laugh, and said: ‘There are a number of widows there!'”
“Perhaps he was married. And a third added: ‘It did not take long!'”
“A head was put out of the litter:
“‘What is the matter?’ she asked; ‘you are fighting?'”
“‘It is nothing, Mademoiselle,’ I replied; ‘we have got rid of a dozen Prussians!'”
“‘Poor fellows!’ she said. But as she was cold, she quickly disappeared beneath the cloaks again, and we started off once more. We marched on for a long time, and at last the sky began to grow pale. The snow became quite clear, luminous and bright, and a rosy tint appeared in the East, and suddenly a voice in the distance cried:
“‘Who goes there?'”
“The whole detachment halted, and I advanced to say who we were. We had reached the French lines, and as my men defiled before the outpost, a commandant on horseback, whom I had informed of what had taken place, asked in a sonorous voice, as he saw the litter pass him: ‘What have you there?'”
“And immediately, a small head, covered with light hair, appeared, disheveled and smiling, and replied:”
“‘It is I, Monsieur.'”
“At this, the men raised a hearty laugh, and we felt quite light-hearted, while Pratique, who was walking by the side of the litter, waved his kepi, and shouted:”
“‘Vive la France!’ And I felt really moved. I do not know why, except that I thought it a pretty and gallant thing to say.”
“It seemed to me as if we had just saved the whole of France, and had done something that other men could not have done, something simple and really patriotic. I shall never forget that little face, you may be sure, and if I had to give my opinion about abolishing drums, trumpets, and bugles, I should propose to replace them in every regiment by a pretty girl, and that would be even better than playing the Marseillaise. By Jove! It would put some spirit into a trooper to have a Madonna like that, a living Madonna, by the colonel’s side.”
He was silent for a few moments, and then continued, with an air of conviction, and jerking his head:
“All the same, we are very fond of women, we Frenchmen!”