THE EBONY BOX
BY A. E. W. MASON
"No, no," said Colonel von Altrock abruptly. "It
is not always true."
The conversation died away at once, and every
one about that dinner table in the Rue St. Florentin
looked at him expectantly. He played nervously
with the stem of his wineglass for a few moments,
as though the complete silence distressed him. Then he resumed with
a more diffident air:
"War no doubt inspires noble actions and brings out great qualities
in men from whom you expected nothing. But there is another side
to it which becomes apparent, not at once, but after a few months of
campaigning. Your nerves get overstrained, fatigue and danger tell
their tale. You lose your manners, sometimes you degenerate into a
brute. I happen to know. Thirty years have passed since the siege
of Paris, yet even to-day there is no part of my life which I regret so
much as the hours between eleven and twelve o'clock of Christmas
night in the year 'seventy. I will tell you about it if you like, although
the story may make us late for the opera."
"It will not matter if we are a little late," said his hostess, the
Baroness Hammerstein, and her guests agreed with her.
"It is permitted to smoke?" asked the Colonel. For a moment
the flame of a match lit up and exaggerated the hollows and the lines
upon his lean, rugged face. Then, drawing in his chair to the table,
he told his story.
* * * * * * *
I was a lieutenant of the fifth company of the second battalion of
the 103rd Regiment, which belonged to the 23rd Infantry Division.
It is as well to be exact. That division was part of the 12th Army
Corps under the Crown Prince of Saxony, and in the month of
December formed the south-eastern segment of our circle about Paris.
On Christmas night I happened to be on duty at a forepost in advance
of Noisy-le-Grand. The Centigrade thermometer was down to twelve
degrees below zero, and our little wooden hut with the sloping roof,
which served us at once as kitchen, mess-room, and dormitory, seemed
to us all a comfortable shelter. Outside its door the country glimmered
away into darkness, a great white silent plain of snow. Inside, the
camp-bedsteads were neatly ranged along the wall where the roof was
lowest. A long table covered with a white cloth—for we were luxurious
on Christmas night—occupied the middle of the floor; in a corner stood
a fine big barrel of Bavarian beer which had arrived that morning as a
Christmas present from my mother at Leipzig. We were none of us
anxious to turn out into the bitter cold, I can tell you. But we were
not colonels in those days, and while the Hauptmann was proposing my
mother's health the door was thrust open and an orderly muffled up to
the eyes stood on the threshold at the salute.
"The Herr Oberst wishes to see the Herr Lieutenant von Altrock,"
said he, and before I had time even to grumble he turned on his heels
and marched away.
I took down my great-coat, drew the cape over my head, and went
out of the hut. There was no wind, nor was the snow falling, but the
cold was terrible, and to me who had come straight from the noise of
my companions the night seemed unnaturally still. I plodded away
through the darkness. Behind me in the hut the Hauptmann struck
up a song, and the words came to me quite clearly and very plaintively
across the snow:
Ich hatte einen Kamaraden
Einen besseren findest du nicht.
I wondered whether in the morning, like that comrade, I should
be a man to be mentioned in the past tense. For more than once a
sentinel had been found frozen dead at his post, and I foresaw
a long night's work before me. My Colonel had acquired a
habit of choosing me for special services, and indeed to his
kindness in this respect I owed my commission.
I found him sitting at a little table drawn close to the fire
in a bare, dimly-lighted room. A lamp stood on the table, and
he was peering at a crumpled scrap of paper and smoothing
out its creases. So engrossed was he, indeed, in his scrutiny
that it was some minutes before he raised his head and saw me
waiting for his commands.
"Lieutenant von Altrock," he said, "you must ride to
Raincy was only five miles distant, as the crow flies. Yes, but the
French had made a sortie on the 21st, they had pushed back our lines,
and they now held Ville Evrart and Maison Blanche between Raincy
and Noisy-le-Grand. I should have to make a circuit; my five miles
became ten. I did not like the prospect at all. I liked it still less
when the Colonel added:
"You must be careful. More than one German soldier has of late
been killed upon that road. There are francs-tireurs about. And you
must reach Raincy."
It was a verbal message which he gave me, and I was to deliver
it in person to the commandant of the battery at Raincy.
"There is a horse ready for you at the stables," said the Colonel,
and with a nod he turned again to his scrap of paper. I saluted
and walked to the door. As my hand was on the knob he called
"What do you make of it?" he asked, holding the paper out to
me. "It was picked out of the Marne in a sealed wine-bottle."
I took the paper, and saw that a single sentence was written upon
it in a round and laborious hand with the words misspelt. The
meaning of the sentence seemed simple enough. It was apparently a
message from a M. Bonnet to his son in the Mobiles at Paris, and it
stated that the big black cat had had five kittens.
"What do you make of it?" repeated the Colonel.
"Why, that M. Bonnet's black cat has kittens," said I.
I handed the paper back. The Colonel looked at it again, shrugged
his shoulders, and laughed.
"Well, after all, perhaps it does mean no more than that," said he.
But for the Colonel's suspicions I should not have given another
thought to that misspelt scrawl. M. Bonnet was probably some little
peasant engrossed in domestic affairs, who thought that no message
could be more consoling to his son locked up in Paris than this great
news about the black cat.
The wildest rumours were flying about our camp at that time, as I
think will always happen when you have a large body of men living
under a great strain of cold and privation and
peril. They perplexed the seasoned officers and
they were readily swallowed by the youngsters,
of whom I was one. Now, this scrap of paper
happened to fit in with the rumour which most
of all exercised our imaginations.
It was known that in spite of all our
precautions news was continually leaking into Paris which we did not
think it good for the Parisians to have. On that very Christmas Day
they already knew that General Faidherbe, at Pont Noyelles, had
repulsed a portion of our first army under General Manteuffel. How
did they know? We were not satisfied that pigeons and balloons
completely explained the mystery. No, we believed that the news
passed somewhere through our lines on the south-east of Paris—news
in cipher which was passed on and on to a house close to our lines,
whence, as occasion served, it was carried into Paris.
That was the rumour. There may have been truth in it, or it
may have been entirely false. But, at all events, it had just the
necessary element of fancy to appeal to the imagination of a very young
man, and as I walked to the stables and mounted the horse which the
Colonel had lent me, I kept wondering whether this message, so simple
in appearance, had travelled so, and was covering its last stage between
the undiscovered château and Paris in the sealed wine-bottle. I tried
to make out what the black cat stood for in the cipher, and whose
identity was concealed under the pseudonym of M. Bonnet. So I rode
down the slope of Noisy-le-Grand.
But at the bottom of the slope these speculations passed entirely
from my mind. In front, hidden away in the darkness, lay the dangers
of Ville Evrart and Maison Blanche. German soldiers had ridden along
this path and had not returned; the francs-tireurs were abroad. Yet
I must reach Raincy. Moreover, in my own mind, I was equally convinced
that I must return. I saw the little beds against the wall of the
hut under the sloping roof. I rode warily, determined to sleep in one
of them that night, determined to keep my life if it could be kept.
I crossed the Marne and turned off the road into a forest path.
Ville Evrart with its French garrison lay now upon my left behind the
screen of trees. Fortunately there was no moon that night and a mist
hung in the air. The snow, too, deadened the sound of my horse's
hoofs. But I rode, nevertheless, very gently and with every
sense alert. Each moment I expected the challenge of a
sentinel in French.
I came to the end of the wood and rode
on to Chesnay. Here the country was more
open, and I had passed Ville Evrart. But I
did not feel any greater security. I was
possessed with a sort of rage to get my business
done and live—yes, at all costs live. A
mile beyond Chesnay I came to cross-roads,
and within the angle which the two roads made a little cabin stood upon
a plot of grass. I was in doubt which road to take. The cabin was all
dark, and riding up to the door I hammered upon it with the butt of
my pistol. It was not immediately opened. There must indeed have
been some delay, since the inmates were evidently in bed. But I was
not in any mood to show consideration. I wanted to get on—to get
on and live. A little window was within my reach. I dashed the butt
of the pistol violently through the glass.
"Will that waken you, eh?" I cried, and almost before I had
finished I heard a shuffling footstep in the passage and the door was
opened. A poor old peasant-woman, crippled with rheumatism, stood
in the doorway shading a lighted candle with a gnarled, trembling hand.
In her haste to obey she had merely thrown a petticoat over the
shoulders of her nightdress, and there she stood with bare feet, shivering
in the cold, an old bent woman of eighty, and apologised.
"I am sorry, monsieur," she said meekly. "But I cannot move as
quickly as I could when I was young. How can I serve monsieur?"
Not a word of reproach about her broken window. You would
think that the hardest man must have felt some remorse. I merely
broke in upon her apologies with a rough demand for information.
"The road upon your right leads to Chelles, monsieur," she
answered. "That upon your left to Raincy."
I rode off without another word. It is not a pretty description
which I am giving to you, but it is a true one. That is my regret, it is
a true one. I forgot that old peasant-woman the moment I had passed
the cabin. I thought only of the long avenues of trees which stretched
across that flat country, and which could hide whole companies of
francs-tireurs. I strained my eyes forwards. I listened for the sound
of voices. But the first voice which I heard spoke in my own tongue.
It was the voice of a sentry on the outposts of Raincy, and I could
have climbed down from my saddle and hugged him to my heart.
Instead, I sat impassively in my saddle and gave him the countersign.
I was conducted to the quarters of the commandant of artillery and I
delivered my message.
"You have come quickly," he said. "What road did you take?"
"That of Chesnay and Gagny."
The commandant looked queerly at me.
"Did you?" said he. "You are lucky. You will return by
Montfermeil and Chelles, Lieutenant von Altrock, and I will send
an escort with you. Apparently we are better informed at Raincy
than you at Noisy-le-Grand."
"I knew there was danger, sir," I
A regiment of dragoons was quartered
at Raincy, and from it two privates and
a corporal were given me for escort. In
the company of these men I started back
by the longer road in the rear of our lines.
And it was a quarter to ten when I started.
For I noticed the time of a clock in the
commandant's quarters. I should think
that it must have taken three-quarters of
an hour to reach Montfermeil, for the snow
was deep here and the mist very thick.
Beyond Montfermeil, however, we came
to higher ground; there were fewer drifts of snow, and the night
began to clear, so that we made better going. We were now, of course,
behind our lines, and the only risk we ran was that a few peasants
armed with rifles from a battlefield or a small band of francs-tireurs
might be lurking on the chance of picking off a straggler. But that
risk was not very great now that there were four of us. I rode therefore
with an easier mind, and the first thing which entered my thoughts
was—what do you think? The old peasant-woman's cabin with the
broken window? Not a bit of it. No, it was M. Bonnet's black cat.
Had M. Bonnet's cat five kittens? Or was that intended to inform
the people in Paris how many companies of recruits had joined one
of the French armies still in the field—say, General Faidherbe's, at
Bapaume, and so to keep up their spirits and prolong the siege? I
was still puzzling over this problem when in a most solitary place I
came suddenly upon a château with lighted windows. This was the
Château Villetaneuse. I reined in my horse and stopped. My escort
halted behind me. It was, after all, an astonishing sight. There
were many châteaux about Paris then, as there are now, but not one
that I had ever come across was inhabited by more than a caretaker.
The owners had long since fled. Breached walls, trampled gardens,
gaping roofs, and silence and desertion—that is what we meant when
we spoke of a château near Paris in those days. But here was one
with lighted windows on the first and second stories staring out calmly
on the snow as though never a Prussian soldier had crossed the Rhine.
A thick clump of trees sheltered it behind, and it faced the eastern
side of the long ridge of Mont Guichet, along the foot of which I rode—the
side farthest from Paris. From the spot where I and my escort
had halted an open park stretched level to the door. The house had,
no doubt, a very homelike look on that cold night. It should have
spoken to me, no doubt, of the well-ordered family life and the gentle
occupations of women. But I was thinking of M. Bonnet's black cat.
Was this solitary château the undiscovered last station on the underground
road through which the news passed into Paris? If not, why was
it still inhabited? Why did the lights blaze out upon the snow so late?
I commanded my escort to be silent. We rode across the park,
and half-way to the door we came upon a wire fence and a gate. There
we dismounted, and walked our horses. We tethered them to a tree
about twenty yards from the house. I ordered one of my dragoons to
go round the house, and watch any door which he might find at the
back. I told the other two to stay where they were, and I advanced
alone to the steps, but before I had reached them the front door was
thrown open, and a girl with a lantern in her hand came out.
She held the lantern high above her head and peered forward, so
that the light fell full upon her hair, her face, and dress. She was
a tall girl and slight of figure, with big, dark eyes, and a face pretty and
made for laughter. It was very pale now, however, and the brows
were drawn together in a frown. She wore a white evening frock,
which glistened in the lantern light, and over her bare shoulders she
had flung a heavy black military cloak. So she stood and swung the
lantern slowly from side to side as she stared into the darkness, while
the lights and shadows chased each other swiftly across her white frock,
her anxious face, and the waves of her fair hair.
"Whom do you expect at this hour, mademoiselle?" I asked.
I was quite close to her, but she had not seen me, for I stood at
the bottom of the steps, and she was looking out over my head. Yet
she did not start or utter any cry. Only the lantern rattled in her
hand. Then she stood quite still for a moment or two, and afterwards
lowered her arm until the light shone upon me.
"You are Prussian?" she said.
"A lieutenant of foot," I answered. "You have nothing
"I am not afraid," she replied quietly.
"Whom do you expect?"
"No one," she replied. "I thought that I heard the rattle
of iron as though a horse moved and a stirrup rang. It is lonely
here since our neighbours have fled. I came out to see."
"The lantern then, was not a signal, mademoiselle?" I
She looked at me in perplexity, and certainly the little piece of
acting, I thought, was very well done.
"A signal?" she repeated. "To whom?"
"To some man hiding in the woods of Mont Guichet, a signal to
him that he may come and fetch the news for Paris which has lately—very
lately—been brought to the house."
She bent forward and peered down at me, drawing the cloak closer
about her neck.
"You are under some strange mistake, monsieur," she said. "No
news for Paris has been brought to this house by any one."
"Indeed?" I answered. "And is that so?" Then I stretched
out my hand and said triumphantly: "You will tell me perhaps that
the cloak upon your shoulders is a woman's cloak?"
And she laughed! It was humiliating; it is always humiliating
to a young man not to be taken seriously, isn't it? There was I thinking
that I had fairly cross-examined her into a trap, and she laughed
indulgently. And she explained indulgently, too.
"The cloak I am wearing belongs to a wounded French officer who
was taken prisoner and released upon parole. He is now in our house."
"Then I think I will make his acquaintance," I said, and over my
shoulder I called to the corporal. As he advanced to my side, a look
of alarm came into the girl's face.
"You are not alone," she said, and suddenly her face became
wistful and her voice began to plead. "You have not come for him?
He has done no harm. He could not, even if he would. And he
would not, for he has given his parole. Oh, you are not going to take
"That we shall see, mademoiselle."
I left one dragoon at the door. I ordered the corporal to wait in the
hall, and I followed the girl up the stairs to the first floor. All her pride
had gone; she led the way with a submission of manner which seemed
to me only a fresh effort to quiet my suspicions. But they were not
quieted. I distrusted her; I believed that I had under my fingers the
proof of that rumour which flew about our camp. She stopped at a
door, and as she turned the handle she said:
"This is my own room, monsieur. We all use it now, for it is
warmer than the others, and all our servants but one have fled."
It was a pretty room, and cheery enough to one who came into it
from the darkness and the snow. A piano stood open in a corner with
a rug thrown upon it to protect the strings from the cold; books lay
upon the tables, heavy curtains were drawn close over the windows,
there were cushioned sofas and deep arm-chairs, and a good fire of logs
blazed upon the hearth. These details I took in at once. Then I looked
at the occupants. A young man lay stretched upon a sofa close to the fire
with a wrap covering his legs. The wrap was raised by a cradle to keep
off its weight. His face must have been, I think, unusually handsome
when he had his health; at the moment it was so worn and pale, and
the eyes were so sunk, that all its beauty had gone. The pallor was
accentuated by a small black moustache he wore and his black hair.
He lay with his head supported upon a pillow, and was playing a
game of chess with an old lady who sat at a little table by his side.
I advanced to the fire and warmed my hands at it.
"You, sir, are the wounded officer on parole?" I said in French.
The officer bowed.
"And you, madame?" I asked of the old lady. The sight of my
uniform seemed to have paralysed her with terror. "Come, come,
madame," I exclaimed impatiently; "it is a simple question."
"Monsieur, you frighten her," said the young lady. "It is my
aunt, the Baroness Granville."
"You tell me nothing of yourself," I said to her, and she looked at
me in surprise.
"Since you have come with an escort to this house I imagined you
must know to whom it belonged. I am Sophie de Villetaneuse."
"Exactly," I replied, as though I had known all along, and had
merely asked the question to see whether she would speak the truth.
"Now, mademoiselle, will you please explain to me how it is that while
your neighbours have fled you remain at your château?"
"It is quite simple," she answered. "My mother is bed-ridden.
She could not be moved. She could not be left alone."
"You will pardon me," said I, "if I test that statement."
The wounded officer raised himself upon his elbow as though to protest,
but Mademoiselle de Villetaneuse put out a hand and checked him.
She showed me a face flushed with anger, but she spoke quite quietly.
"I will myself take you to my mother's room."
I laughed. I said: "That is just what I expected. You will take
me to your mother's room and leave your friends here to make any little
preparations in the way of burning awkward papers which they may
think desirable. Thank you, no! I am not so easily caught."
Mademoiselle Sophie was becoming irritated.
"There are no awkward papers!" she exclaimed.
"That statement, too, I shall put to the
I went to the door, and standing so that I could still keep an eye
upon the room, I called the corporal.
"You will search the house thoroughly," I said, "and quickly.
Bring me word how many people you find in it. You, mademoiselle,
will remain in the room with us."
She shrugged her shoulders as I closed the door and came back into
"You were wounded, monsieur," I said to the Frenchman.
"In the sortie on Le Bourget."
"And you came here the moment you were released on your
The wounded officer turned with a smile to Mademoiselle Sophie.
"Yes, for here live my best friends."
He took her hand, and with a Frenchman's grace he raised it to
his lips and kissed it. And I was suddenly made acquainted with the
relationship in which these two, youth and maid, stood to one another.
Mademoiselle Sophie had cried out on the steps against the possibility
that I might have come to claim my prisoner. But though she spoke
no word, she was still more explicit now. With the officer that
caress was plainly no more than a pretty way of saying thanks; it
had the look of a habit, it was so neatly given, and he gave it
without carelessness, it is true, but without warmth. But she
received it very differently. He did not see, because his head
was bent above her hand, but I did.
I saw the look of pain in her face, the slight contraction
of her shoulders and arms, as if to meet a blow. The kiss hurt
her—no, not the kiss, but the finished grace with which it was
given, the proof, in a word, that it was a way of saying "Thanks"—and
nothing more. Here was a woman who loved and a man who
did not love, and the woman knew.
I resumed my questions:
"Your doctor, monsieur, is in the house?"
"At this hour? No."
"Ah. That is a pity."
The young man lifted his head from his pillow and looked me over
from head to foot with a stare of disdain.
"I do not quite understand. You doubt my word, monsieur!"
"Why not?" I asked sharply.
It was quite possible that the cradle, this rug across his legs, the
pillow, were all pretences. This young officer might very well have
brought in a cipher message to the Château Villetaneuse. Mademoiselle
Sophie might very well have waved her lantern at the door to summon
a fresh messenger.
"No; why should I not doubt your word?" I repeated.
He turned his face to the old lady. "It is your move, Baronne,"
he said, and she placed the piece she held upon a square of the board.
Mademoiselle Sophie took her stand by the table between the players,
and the game went on just as though there were no intruder in the
room. It was uncomfortable for me. I shifted my feet. I tried to
appear at my ease; finally I sat down in a chair. They took no notice
of me whatever. I was very glad when at last the corporal opened the
door. He had searched the house—he had found no one but Madame
de Villetaneuse and an old servant who was watching by her bed.
"Very well," said I, and the corporal returned to the hall.
Mademoiselle Sophie moved away from the chess-table. She came
and stood opposite to me, and though her face was still, her eyes were
hard with anger.
"And now perhaps you will tell me to what I owe your visit?"
"Certainly," I returned. I fixed my eyes on her, and I said slowly,
"I have come to ask for more news of M. Bonnet's black cat."
Mademoiselle Sophie stared as if she was not sure whether I was
mad or drunk, but was very sure I was one or the other. The young
Frenchman started upon his couch, with the veins swelling upon his
forehead and a flushed face.
"This is an insult," he cried savagely, and no less savagely I
"Hold your tongue!" I cried. "You forget too often that though
you are on parole you are still a prisoner."
He fell back upon the sofa with a groan of pain, and the girl hurried
to his side.
Meanwhile I had been looking about the room for a box or a case
where the cipher messages might be hid. I saw nothing of the kind.
Of course they might be hidden between the pages of a book. I went
from table to table, taking them by the boards and shaking the leaves.
Not a scrap of paper tumbled out. There was another door in the room
besides that which led on to the landing.
"Mademoiselle, what room is that?" I asked.
"My bedroom," she answered simply, and with a gesture full of
dignity she threw open the door.
I carried the mud and snow and the grime of a camp without a
scruple of remorse into that neat and pretty chamber. Mademoiselle
Sophie followed me as I searched wardrobe and drawer and box. At
last I came to one drawer in her dressing-table which was locked. I
looked suddenly at the young lady. She was watching me out of the
corners of her eyes with a peculiar intentness.
"Open that drawer, mademoiselle," I said.
"It contains only some private things."
"Open that drawer or I burst it open."
"No," she cried, as I jerked the handle. "I will open it."
She fetched the key out of another drawer which was unlocked,
and fitted it into the lock of the dressing-table. And all the while I
saw that she was watching me. She meant to play me some trick,
I was certain. So I watched, too, and I did well to watch. She
turned the key, opened the drawer, and then snatched out something
with extraordinary rapidity and ran as hard as she could to the door—not
the door through which we had entered, but a second door which
gave on to the passage. She ran very fast and she ran very lightly,
and she did not stumble over a chair as I did in pursuit of her. But
she had to unlatch the door and pull it open. I caught her up and
closed my arms about her. It was a little carved ebony box which
she held, the very thing for which I searched.
"I thought so," I cried, with a laugh. "Drop the box, mademoiselle.
Drop it on the floor!"
The noise of our struggle had been heard in the next room.
The Baroness rushed through the doorway.
"What has happened?" she cried. "Mon Dieu! you are
"Drop that box, mademoiselle!"
And as I spoke she threw it away. She threw it through the
doorway; she tried to throw it over the banisters of the stairs, but my
arms were about hers, and it fell in the passage just beyond the door.
I darted from her and picked it up. When I returned with it she was
taking a gold chain from her neck. At the end of the chain hung a
little gold key. This she held out to me.
"Open it here," she said in a low, eager voice.
The sudden change only increased my suspicions, or rather my
conviction, that I had now the proof which I needed.
"Why, if you are so eager to show me the contents, did you try
to throw it away?" I asked.
"I tried to throw it down into the hall," she answered.
"My corporal would have picked it up."
"Oh, what would that matter?" she exclaimed impatiently.
"You would have opened it in the hall. That was what I wanted.
Open it here! At all events open it here!"
The very urgency of her pleading made me determined to refuse
"No, you have some other ruse, mademoiselle," said I. "Perhaps
you wish to gain time for your friend in the next room. No, we will
return there and open it comfortably by the fire."
I kept a tight hold upon the box. I shook it. To my delight I
felt that there were papers within it. I carried it back to the fireside
and sat down on a chair. Mademoiselle Sophie followed me close, and
as I fixed the little gold key into the lock she laid her hand very gently
upon my arm.
"I beg you not to unlock that box," she said; "if you do you will
bring upon me a great humiliation and upon yourself much remorse.
There is nothing there which concerns you. There are just my little
secrets. A girl may have secrets, monsieur, which are sacred to her."
She was standing quite close to me, and her back was towards the
French officer and her aunt. They could not see her face, and they
could hardly have heard more than a word here and there of what she
said. I answered her only by turning the key in the lock. She took her
hand from my arm and laid it on the lid to hinder me from opening it.
"I wore the key on a chain about my neck, monsieur," she
whispered. "Does that teach you nothing? Even though you are
young, does it teach you nothing? I said that if you unlocked that
box you would cause me great humiliation, thinking that would be
enough to stop you. But I see I must tell you more. Read the
letters, monsieur, question me about them, and you will make my life
a very lonely one. I think so. I think you will destroy my chance
of happiness. You would not wish that, monsieur. It is true that we
are enemies, but some day this war will end, and you would not wish
to prolong its sufferings beyond the end. Yet you will be doing that,
monsieur, if you open that box."
It seems now almost impossible to me that I could have doubted
her sincerity: she spoke with so much simplicity,
and so desperate an appeal looked out from her
dark eyes. Ever since that Christmas night I can
see her quite clearly at will, standing as she then
stood—all the sincerity of her which I would not
acknowledge, all the appeal which I would not
hear; and I see her many times when for my peace
I would rather not. She was pleading for her pride, and to do that the
better she laid her pride aside; yet she never lost her dignity. She was
pleading for her chance of happiness, foreseeing that it was likely to be
destroyed, without any reason or any profit to a living being, by a
stranger who would the next moment pass out of her life. Yet there
was no outcry, and there were no tears. Had it been a trick—I ask
the ladies—would there not have been tears?
But I thought it a trick and a cheap one. She was trying to make
me believe that there were love-letters in the box—compromising love-letters.
Now, I knew that there were no love-letters in the box. I
had seen the Frenchman's pretty way of saying thanks. I had
noticed how the caress hurt her just through what it lacked. He was
the friend, you see, and nothing more; she was the lover and the only
lover of the pair.
I opened the box accordingly. Mademoiselle Sophie turned away
abruptly, and sitting down in a chair shaded her eyes with her hand.
I emptied the letters out on to a table, turning the box upside down,
and thus the first which I took up and read was the one which lay at
the very bottom. As I read it it seemed that every suspicion I had
formed was established. She had hinted at love-letters, she had
spoken of secrets sacred to a girl; and the letter was not even
addressed to her. It was addressed to Madame de Villetaneuse;
it was a letter which, if it meant no more than what was implied
upon the surface, would have long since found destruction in the
waste-paper basket. For it purported to be merely the acceptance
of an invitation to dinner at the town house of Madame de
Villetaneuse in the Faubourg St. Germain. It was signed only
by a Christian name, "Armand," and the few sentences which
composed the letter explained that M. Armand was a distant
kinsman of Madame de Villetaneuse who had just come to Paris
to pursue his studies, and who, up till now, had no acquaintance
with the family.
I looked at Mademoiselle Sophie sternly. "So all this
pother was about a mere invitation to dinner! Once let it be
known that M. Armand will dine with Madame de Villetaneuse
in the Faubourg St. Germain, and you are humiliated, you lose
your chance of happiness, and I, too, shall find myself in good
time suffering the pangs of remorse," and I read the letter
slowly aloud to her, word by word.
She returned no answer. She sat with her hand shading her face,
and she rocked her head backwards and forwards continually and rather
quickly, like a child with a racking headache. Of course, to my mind
all that was part of the game. The letter was dated two years back, but
the month was December, and, of course, to antedate would be the
"Come, mademoiselle," I said, changing my tone, "I invite you
very seriously to make a clean breast of it. I wish to take no harsh
measures with you if I can avoid them. Tell me frankly what news
this letter, plainly translated, gives to General Trochu in Paris."
"None," she answered.
"Very well," said I, and I took up the next letter. Ah, M. Armand
writes again a week later. It was evidently a good dinner, and M.
Armand is properly grateful.
The gratitude, indeed, was rather excessive, rather provincial. It
was just the effusion which a young man who had not yet learned self-possession
might have written on his first introduction to the highest
social life of Paris. Certainly the correspondence was very artfully
designed. But what did it hide? I puzzled over the question; I
took the words and the dates, and it seemed to me that I began to
see light. So much stress was laid upon the dinner, that the word
must signify some event of importance. The first letter spoke of a
dinner in the future. I imagined that it had not been possible
to pass this warning into Paris. The second letter mentioned
with gratitude that the dinner had been successful. Well, suppose
"dinner" stood for "engagement"! The letter would refer to the
sortie from Paris which pushed back our lines and captured Ville
Evrart and Maison Blanche. That seemed likely. Madame de Villetaneuse
gave the dinner; General Trochu made the sortie. Then
"Madame de Villetaneuse" stood for "General Trochu." Who would
be Armand? Why, the French people outside Paris—the provincials!
I had the explanation of that provincial expression of gratitude. Ah,
no doubt it all seems far-fetched now that we sit quietly about this
table. But put yourself in the thick of the war and
take twenty years off your lives! Suppose yourselves
young and green, eager for advancement, and just
off your balance from want of sleep, want of food,
want of rest, want of everything. There are very
few things which would seem far-fetched. It seemed
to me that I was deciphering these letters with
absolute accuracy. I saw myself promoted to captain,
seconded to the staff.
I went on with the letters, hoping to find an
explanation there. The third letter was addressed to Mademoiselle de
Villetaneuse, who had evidently written to M. Armand on behalf of
her mother, inviting him to her box at the opera. M. Armand regretted
that he had not been fortunate enough to call at a time when
mademoiselle was at home, and would look forward to the pleasure of
seeing her at the Opera.
"Mademoiselle," I cried, "what does the Opera stand for?"
Mademoiselle Sophie laughed disdainfully.
"For music, monsieur, for art, for refinement, for many things you
do not understand."
I sprang up in excitement. What did it matter what she said?
M. Armand stood for the Army of the Loire. It was that army which
had been expected at Ville Evrart. Here was a pledge that it would
come to the help of Paris at the next sortie. That was valuable news—it
could not but bring recognition to the man who brought evidence of
it into the Prussian lines. I hurriedly read through the other letters,
quoting a passage here and there, trying to startle Mademoiselle de
Villetaneuse into a confession. But she never changed her attitude,
she did not answer a word.
Her conduct was the more aggravating, for I began to get lost
among these letters. They were all in the same handwriting; they
were all signed "Armand," and they seemed to give a picture of the
life of a young man in Paris during the two years which preceded the
war. They recorded dinner-parties, visits to the theatres, examinations
passed, prizes won and lost, receptions, rides in the Bois, and Sunday
excursions into the country. All these phrases, these appointments,
these meetings, might have particular meanings. But if so, how
stupendous a cipher! Besides, how was it that none of these messages
had been passed into Paris? Very reluctantly I began to doubt my
own conjecture. I read some more letters, and then I suddenly turned
back to the earlier ones. I compared them with the later notes. I
began to be afraid the correspondence, after all, was genuine, for the
tone of the letters changed and changed so gradually,
and yet so clearly, that the greatest literary
art could hardly have deliberately composed
them. I seemed to witness the actual progress
of M. Armand, a hobbledehoy from the provinces,
losing his awkwardness, acquiring ease and
polish in his contact with the refinement
of Paris. The last letters had the postmark
of Paris, the first that of Auvergne.
They were genuine, then. And they were not love-letters. I
looked at Mademoiselle Sophie with an increased perplexity. Why did
she now sit rocking her head like a child in pain? Why had she so
struggled to hinder me from opening them? They recorded a beginning
of acquaintanceship and the growth of that into friendship between a
young man and a young girl—nothing more. The friendship might
eventually end in marriage, no doubt, if left to itself, but there was not
a word of that in the letters. I was still wondering, when the French
officer raised himself from his sofa and dragged himself across the room
to Mademoiselle Sophie's chair. His left trouser leg had been slit down
the side from the knee to the foot and laced lightly so as to make room
for a bandage. He supported himself from chair to chair with evident
pain, and I could not doubt that his wound was as genuine as
He bent down and gently took her hand away from her face.
"Sophie," he said, "I did not dare to think that you kept this
place for me in your thoughts. A little more courage and I should
long since have said to you what I say now. I beg your permission to
ask Madame de Villetaneuse to-morrow for your hand in marriage."
My house of cards tumbled down in a second. The French officer
was M. Armand. With the habit women have of treasuring tokens of
the things which have happened, Mademoiselle Sophie had kept all these
trifling notes and messages, and had even gathered to them the letters
written to her mother, so that the story might be complete. But
without M. Armand's knowledge; he was not to know; her pride must
guard her secret from him. For she was the lover and he only the
friend, and she knew it. Even in the little speech which he had just
made, there was just too much formality, just too little sincerity of
voice. I understood why she had tried to throw the ebony box down
into the hall so that I might open it there—I understood that I had
caused her great humiliation. But that was not all there was for me
In answer to Armand she raised her eyes quietly, and shook
"You wish to spare me shame," she said, "and I thank you very
much. But it is because of these letters that you spoke. I must think
that. I must always think it."
"No!" he exclaimed.
"But yes," she replied firmly. "If monsieur had not unlocked that
box—I don't know—but some day perhaps—oh, not yet, no, not yet—but
some day perhaps you might have come of your own accord and
said what you have just said. And I should have been very happy.
But now you never must. For you see I shall always think that the
letters are prompting you."
And M. Armand bowed.
I had taken from her her chance of happiness. The friendship
between them might have ended in marriage if left to itself. But I had
not left it to itself.
"Mademoiselle," I said, "I am very sorry."
She turned her dark eyes on me.
"Monsieur, I warned you. It is too late to be sorry." And as I
stood shuffling awkwardly from one foot to the other, in great remorse
as she had foretold, she added, gently, "Will you not go, monsieur?"
I went out of the room, called together my escort, mounted and
rode off. It was past midnight now, and the night was clear. But I
thought neither of the little beds under the slope of the roof nor of any
danger on the road. There might have been a franc-tireur behind
every tree. I would never have noticed it until one of them had
brought me down. Remorse was heavy upon me. I had behaved
without consideration, without chivalry, without any manners at all.
I had not been able to distinguish truth when it stared me in the face,
or to recognise honesty when it looked out from a young girl's dark
eyes. I had behaved, in a word, like the brute six months of war had
made of me. I wondered with a vague hope whether after all time might
not set matters right between M. Armand and Mademoiselle Sophie.
And I wonder now whether it has. But even if I knew that it had, I
should always remember that Christmas night of 1870 with acute regret.
The only incident, indeed, which I can mention with the slightest
satisfaction is this: On the way back to Noisy-le-Grand I came to a
point where the road from Chelles crossed the road from Montfermeil.
I halted at a little cabin which stood upon a grass-plot within the angle
of the roads, and tying up all the money I had on me in a pocket-handkerchief
I dropped the handkerchief through a broken window-pane.
* * * * * * *
The Colonel let the end of his cigar fall upon his plate, and pushed
back his chair from the table. "But I see we shall be late for the
opera," he said, as he glanced at the clock.