A Leaf in the Storm, by Louise de la Ramee

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.


[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"?]

Louise de la Ramee