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A LEAF IN THE STORM

A LEAF IN THE STORM

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 00:18
 
 

Bernadou clung to his home with a dogged devotion. He would not go from
it to fight unless compelled, but for it he would have fought like a
lion. His love for his country was only an indefinite shadowy existence
that was not clear to him; he could not save a land that he had never
seen, a capital that was only to him as an empty name; nor could he
comprehend the danger that his nation ran; nor could he desire to go
forth and spend his lifeblood in defence of things unknown to him. He
was only a peasant, and he could not read nor greatly understand. But
affection for his birthplace was a passion with him,--mute indeed, but
deep-seated as an oak. For his birthplace he would have struggled as a
man can struggle only when supreme love as well as duty nerves his arm.
Neither he nor Reine Allix could see that a man's duty might lie from
home, but in that home both were alike ready to dare anything and to
suffer everything. It was a narrow form of patriotism, yet it had
nobleness, endurance, and patience in it; in song it has been oftentimes
deified as heroism, but in modern warfare it is punished as the blackest
crime.

So Bernadou tarried in his cottage till he should be called, keeping
watch by night over the safety of his village and by day doing all he
could to aid the deserted wives and mothers of the place by tilling
their ground for them and by tending such poor cattle as were left in
their desolate fields. He and Margot and Reine Allix, between them, fed
many mouths that would otherwise have been closed in death by famine,
and denied themselves all except the barest and most meagre subsistence,
that they might give away the little they possessed.

And all this while the war went on, but seemed far from them, so seldom
did any tidings of it pierce the seclusion in which they dwelt. By and
by, as the autumn went on, they learned a little more. Fugitives coming
to the smithy for a horse's shoe; women fleeing to their old village
homes from their light, gay life in the city; mandates from the
government of defence sent to every hamlet in the country; stray
news-sheets brought in by carriers or hawkers and hucksters,--all these
by degrees told them of the peril of their country,--vaguely, indeed,
and seldom truthfully, but so that by mutilated rumors they came at last
to know the awful facts of the fate of Sedan, the fall of the Empire,
the siege of Paris. It did not alter their daily lives: it was still too
far off and too impalpable. But a foreboding, a dread, an unspeakable
woe settled down on them. Already their lands and cattle had been
harassed to yield provision for the army and large towns; already their
best horses had been taken for the siege-trains and the forage-wagons;
already their ploughshares were perforce idle, and their children cried
because of the scarcity of nourishment; already the iron of war had
entered into their souls.

The little street at evening was mournful and very silent: the few who
talked spoke in whispers, lest a spy should hear them, and the young
ones had no strength to play: they wanted food.

Bernadou, now that all means of defence was gone from him, and the only
thing left to him to deal with was his own life, had become quiet and
silent and passionless, as was his habit. He would have fought like a
mastiff for his home, but this they had forbidden him to do, and he was
passive and without hope. He closed his door, and sat down with his hand
in that of Reine Allix and his arm around his wife. "There is nothing to
do but wait" he said sadly. The day seemed very long in coming.

The firing (which had come nearer each day) ceased for a while; then its
roll commenced afresh, and grew still nearer to the village. Then again
all was still.

At noon a shepherd staggered into the place, pale, bleeding, bruised,
covered with mire. The Prussians, he told them, had forced him to be
their guide, had knotted him tight to a trooper's saddle, and had
dragged him with them until he was half dead with fatigue and pain. At
night he had broken from them and had fled: they were close at hand, he
said, and had burned the town from end to end because a man had fired at
them from a house-top. That was all he knew. Bernadou, who had gone out
to hear his news, returned into the house and sat down and hid his face
within his hands.

It grew dark. The autumn day died. The sullen clouds dropped scattered
rain. The red leaves were blown in millions by the wind. The little
houses on either side the road were dark, for the dwellers in them dared
not show any light that might be a star to allure to them the footsteps
of their foes. Bernadou sat with his arms on the table, and his head
resting on them. Margot nursed her son: Reine Allix prayed.

Suddenly in the street without there was the sound of many feet of
horses and of men, the shouting of angry voices, the splashing of quick
steps in the watery ways, the screams of women, the flash of steel
through the gloom. Bernadou sprang to his feet, his face pale, his blue
eyes dark as night. "They are come!" he said under his breath. It was
not fear that he felt, nor horror: it was rather a passion of love for
his birthplace and his nation,--a passion of longing to struggle and to
die for both. And he had no weapon!

He drew his house-door open with a steady hand, and stood on his own
threshold and faced these, his enemies. The street was full of
them,--some mounted, some on foots crowds of them swarmed in the woods
on the roads. They had settled on the village as vultures on a dead
lamb's body. It was a little, lowly place: it might well have been left
in peace. It had had no more share in the war than a child still unborn,
but it came in the victor's way, and his mailed heel crushed it as he
passed. They had heard that arms were hidden and francs-tireurs
sheltered there, and they had swooped down on it and held it hard and
fast. Some were told off to search the chapel; some to ransack the
dwellings; some to seize such food and bring such cattle as there might
be left; some to seek out the devious paths that crossed and recrossed
the field; and yet there still remained in the little street hundreds of
armed men, force enough to awe a citadel or storm a breach.

The people did not attempt to resist. They stood passive, dry-eyed in
misery, looking on whilst the little treasures of their household lives
were swept away forever, and ignorant what fate by fire or iron might be
their portion ere the night was done. They saw the corn that was their
winter store to save their offspring from famine poured out like
ditch-water. They saw oats and wheat flung down to be trodden into a
slough of mud and filth. They saw the walnut presses in their kitchens
broken open, and their old heirlooms of silver, centuries old, borne
away as booty. They saw the oak cupboard in their wives' bedchambers
ransacked, and the homespun linen and the quaint bits of plate that had
formed their nuptial dowers cast aside in derision or trampled into a
battered heap. They saw the pet lamb of their infants, the silver
earrings of their brides, the brave tankards they had drunk their
marriage wine in, the tame bird that flew to their whistle, all seized
for food or spoil. They saw all this, and had to stand by with mute
tongues and passive hands, lest any glance of wrath or gesture of
revenge should bring the leaden bullets in their children's throats or
the yellow flame amidst their homesteads. Greater agony the world cannot
hold.

--LOUISE DE LA RAMEE (Ouida).

[Footnote: This extract is taken from a story by the same title. The
chief characters are the peasant Bernadou, his wife Margot, and his old
grandmother Reine Allix. The scene is laid during the Franco-Prussian
War of 1870. The great defeat of the French at Sedan, and the surrender
of Paris from starvation after a long siege brought the war to an end.
The victorious Prussians took from France an indemnity of five billion
francs ($1,000,000,000), and two of their richest provinces, Alsace and
Lorraine.

What words in the first sentence show that it is not the beginning of
the story? Note the repeated use of antithesis (contrast) in the first
paragraph. By what details do you learn the state of the country? How
did the war affect even the people remote from the battlefields? How are
the terror and suffering of the people indicated? Notice the
effectiveness of the author's use of details. Have you read any prose or
poetry in which war is made to seem glorious? How does it seem here?
Does the author make the scene of the arrival of the Prussians vivid?
How is this done? Note the dramatic contrast between the arrival of the
Prussians and the actions of the peasants. How has the author drawn the
character of Bernadou? By what details does the author give special
poignancy to the pathos of her account? What is the significance of the
title "A Leaf in the Storm"?]
Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 October 2008 12:17
 
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