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A Tale of the Conscription by E. C. Grenville Murray

One afternoon, some years ago, I was walking along a narrow old road which leads from Le Crotay, a fishing-village in Picardy, to the town of St. Valéry-sur-Somme. It was in the month of February, and one of those luckless days on which cold, wind and rain all seem banded in league against the comfort of mankind: the sky, dull and lowering, presented to the eye nothing but a bleak, cheerless desert of gray, relieved only by troops of dark, inky clouds, which would at moments, as though flying the fury of a raging storm, roll pell-mell through the air like an army in rout, pouring down at the same time through the thick, black fog that covered land and sea like a pall a deluge of cold, heavy water, which occasional blasts of a violent north-west wind would lash into whistling, pelting and drenching gusts. It was wretched weather; and how I came to be out in it I am sure I forget; but perhaps it was that the morning had been a bright one, and that, beguiled by the clear winter sun, which threw its will-o'-the-wisp rays on my table like gold-edged invitation cards to be stirring, I had set out joyously in hopes of a good bracing walk on the hard, frost-dried roads, which, seen from my windows, gleamed smooth and glistening as white marble, or, again, in expectation of a gay stroll through the crisp, clean snow which draped the fields with its downy folds and reflected the morning light in opal tints like the glossy satin of a wedding-dress.

But in any case, and whatever may have been my reasons for so doing, certain it is that about noon I had ventured out; and equally so that some two hours after I had good reasons to regret my presumption, for at three, having already wandered far from home, I found myself tramping on the road I have named, wearily plodding my way through a slough of thawing snow, teeth chattering, eyes watering and fingers numbed, whilst a wind fit to dethrone all the weather-cocks in Christendom was ploughing up the earth in showers of mud around me, blowing my hat off my head and howling in my ears like a maniac who has broken his chains and got loose.

I groaned pitifully amidst all this: in the first place, because I had no umbrella; and in the second, because I had no companion to be drenched through with me; for it is a curious fact, and one aptly illustrative of the happy way in which man is constituted, that, whereas I should most certainly have scrupled to ask a dog out on such a day, yet I should have felt the most pleasurable relief in seeing a fellow-being soaked like a towel in my company. The fact is, man is a sociable animal, and, loving to share his emotions with his neighbors, steps into a puddle with a lighter heart when a bosom friend is being wetted to the skin by his side.

Lacking a partner, however, I trudged on alone, plish-plash-plosh, through the clayey sludge, cold, dripping and miserable, stopping occasionally to turn my back to the wind or to tie up a wayward shoestring, and pondering dolefully in my mind that I had full two hours to go, not only before reaching home, but perhaps before finding a shelter of any kind. I think I must have been walking thus three-quarters of an hour when I suddenly heard the music of two pairs of hobnailed boots splashing in the dirt behind me, and forming between them a symphony, the charms of which those only who have been in the same predicament as I can appreciate. "Thank the Fates!" I murmured, and stopped to allow the comers to reach me, noting with a grim smile that they were covered with mud from top to toe, and as damp as a couple of Malvern hydropaths. Their plight was every whit as pitiable as mine; and although the rain had not abated its flow or the wind its strength, yet I almost felt as though it had grown fine again. Corroborative proof of the sociability of the human race.

The two men who were stepping along the road in my direction, and reconciling me by their crestfallen demeanor with the inclemencies of the season, were peasants. The one was an old man, gray-haired, stooping, and apparently sixty years of age: the other, his son, as I afterward found out, was a mere youth of, at the most, twenty. They were strikingly alike in physiognomy, notwithstanding the difference in their years, but neither had anything at all remarkable either in his looks or general appearance: both were small, clumsy-limbed, somewhat simple-faced, rather ugly; and on the whole they were a very commonplace, every-day-to-be-seen pair of countrymen.

Both mechanically raised their rusty beaver hats as they approached me; but after wishing me a short "Good-evening" continued, much to my surprise and no less to my disappointment, to walk on without taking the slightest notice of me, or, indeed, seeming to remember that I existed; and this although I stepped by their side and tried to keep pace with them.

"This is poor weather," I observed, in hopes of starting a conversation with my fellow-wayfarers.

"Yes, sir," was the curt reply, and both relapsed again into silence, receiving in monosyllables or with simple shrugs of the shoulders every attempt of mine—and I made many—to renew an intercourse.

As such uncivil taciturnity is very rare amongst Frenchmen, I began to examine my companions with more attention than I had hitherto done, in order to discover, if I could, some clue to their strange behavior. I scanned them curiously, and it was then I noticed for the first time that their faces wore a look of the most profound dejection—so profound indeed that I wondered how it was that I had not observed it at once upon seeing them. Their features were pale and drawn; their eyes, rimmed with black, were cast moodily on the ground, and their heads, hanging heavily upon their chests, had, seemingly, a weighty load of sorrow to press them down.

Besides this, their gait was uneven, undecided, I might almost say spasmodical: they did not keep step, although close side by side, for now one and now the other, as though goaded by a troublesome thought which he wished to avoid, would of a sudden quicken his pace and break into a hasty, feverish walk, or, contrarily, as though held back by the chain of some unhappy reflection, lag in his stride and draw his hand across his brow with a gesture of pain.

Each seemed so wrapped in the gloom of his own musings as to be unconscious of all around him, and I began to feel angry with myself for having intruded upon the privacy of this grief with my idle and silly chattering. A feeling of remorse, too, sprang up in me as I remembered that for a moment I had accused these poor people of churlishness and set down the sensitiveness of their sorrow to a sulky rudeness. There must be something very revolting to the feeling of our better nature in the sense of an injustice done even in thought, for I declare I felt for a minute as if I ought to confess my ideas to my companions and beg their pardon for having wronged them, though only in mind. "Who knows," I muttered, "what efforts it may have cost them to answer me with the composure they did? and am I sure that I myself, under similar circumstances, should have suffered with the same forbearance the company of a stranger, whose presence must have been both irksome and galling?"

Once it seemed to me that the two turned to gaze earnestly into each other's eyes and then to clasp their hands in a quick nervous grasp, as though each hoped, by so doing, to take from the other a part of the sorrow they appeared to share in common. Neither spoke, however, but the mute sympathetic touch was doubtless more eloquent than words. Once again both stopped, at once and together, as if their minds, acting in unison and following the same strain, had arrived simultaneously at a point where rest and relief were needed. The old man placed his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "Courage, Henri!" he said, and hastily walked on.

Tears rose to my eyes, but how or why I can scarcely tell, unless it be indeed that grief is contagious, and that the angel who hovers over those who mourn cannot bear to see a heart indifferent: yes, tears started to my eyes, and pity with them. The features of the two peasants became transformed for me: they were no longer ugly and uninteresting: how could they be so, brightened by the halo with which sympathy crowned them?

"Have you far to go, sir?" suddenly asked the old man, breaking in abruptly upon the course of my reflections.

"About a league," I answered.

He made no reply, and we walked on again in silence, the rain continuing meanwhile to pour down in torrents, and the wind lashing itself by degrees into the fury of a hurricane.

After a few minutes we reached a spot where the road branched off in two directions: my path lay to the right. The wayfarers paused as though to take the left: both looked at me.

"This is no weather for such as you, sir, to be out in," said the elder considerately, but in the shy, hesitating tone usual to the poor when addressing those whom they fancy their betters. "If you go a league more in the plight in which you are, you will be in a sad state before reaching home;" and he pointed significantly to my clothes, every stitch of which was dripping with mud and water.

"Yes, indeed," I replied, "but what is to be done?"

"Why, sir," he answered, "two hundred yards or so from this I've a cottage, and if nothing else, I can at least offer you a fire to dry yourself at."

Certainly I was in good need of a shelter, for I was tired as well as cold and wet, but still I am sure that I should have refused this invitation from the fear that it had been made out of mere courtesy, and that my acceptance of it might, in fact, be unwelcome. A few words spoken by the younger man convinced me, however, of the contrary.

"Yes, sir," said he, "come;" and he added in a low voice to the other, "it will do mother good to have a visitor to divert her this evening. She will fret less."

"Thank you, then," I assented, moved now by a feeling of painful curiosity; and we all three marched on.

A few minutes' walk brought us in sight of a small one-storied cottage, built with flintstones, and standing isolated near a tilled field of about two acres: before it stood a small kitchen-garden, and at one end of it an open shed half filled with firewood. A thin wreath of blue smoke curling through its single chimney gave to the house, thanks to the desolate appearance of all the country around, an attractive look which on a finer day it might not have possessed.

"That's my home," exclaimed the old man, but as we approached it I noticed that both he and Henri slackened their pace and seemed to dread advancing: at last both stopped and began to whisper. They were evidently much moved, and the fear that I might be in their way occurring to me again, I told them of it, and expressed a hope that I was not intruding.

"No, no, sir," cried they together, turning their poor sorrow-thinned faces toward me, as though they had interpreted my words as a reproach. "No, no, sir, we are very glad to see you;" and they led the way to their cottage door. Here, however, they paused again, and looked dismally at me. Their emotion, too long pent up, was mastering them. "The fact is, sir," said the old man, trying, but in vain, to smile as he saw my eyes fixed upon him—"The fact is, sir, we have not been quite hap—py, not quite hap—py, to—day—sir;" and he looked at me apologetically, as though his grief had been a fault to him, whilst two big tears, for a time kept in by an effort, rolled stealthily down his cheeks.

I am but a poor comforter even at the best of moments, but in this instance, not knowing upon what chord to touch, my speaking could be of very little avail; nevertheless, I hazarded a few consolatory words, such as we always have at hand to exhort sufferers to bear their ills with patience and look beyond the cloud surrounding them to hopes of better things; but I am afraid all I said was very meaningless, for the affliction of which I had been the witness, without knowing its cause, having in a manner impregnated my own heart, I was too much in need of comfort myself to be able to impart any to others. The two men thanked me, however, artlessly, naïvely, and seemed about to initiate me into the secret of their distress, when the cottage door by which we were standing opened, and a woman with an anxious, inquiring expression on her face came out to meet us. She was old, being perhaps fifty-five years of age, but Time had dealt less harshly with her features than Grief, and the wrinkles which furrowed her cheeks and contracted her forehead into thin, shriveled folds showed less the footprints of departed seasons than the marks of that hard iron hand of Sorrow whose least touches sear more surely than fire. Her hair was white as spun-glass, and neatly confined under one of those high Norman caps of which the long starched frills, encircling the face, lend a cold, severe expression to the wearer: her gait was stooping, her steps feeble, and her whole appearance denoted lassitude and weakness. She was, as I guessed, the wife of the elder and the mother of the younger of my companions; and the glance she threw at these when she saw them told as plainly as the language of a wife's and mother's eyes can tell what a large and willing share she claimed of all their trials. As she appeared her husband hastily turned his face from her to dry his tears and to assume with a loving, simple hypocrisy a cheerful countenance, with which he fondly hoped to hide the trouble of his heart. "Madeleine," he said in a voice which, poor man! he meant to be gay—"Madeleine, I bring you a stranger very cold, very wet, and, I've no doubt, very hungry. You must try to—" but here he stopped short: his wife's eyes were fixed upon him with a look of quiet reproach.

"François," she asked in a low, slightly tremulous tone, "you have some news to give me?" and at the same time she glanced from him to her son. A moment's silence followed. Henri and his father exchanged a timid look, but before either had spoken the wife had thrown herself into her husband's arms: what need had she of an answer—she, who for years had been used to read every thought, every wish, every feeling of those she loved, long ere they gave expression to them?

I shall never forget that scene—father, mother and son clasped in each other's embrace, and giving free course to their grief in tears of which each tried to stop the flow from the other's eyes, forgetful of the bitter stream which ran from his own; each striving to find in his heart a word of comfort for the other, and each seeking in vain a like word for himself.

"We must hope," faltered the old man.

"Yes, mother," echoed Henri, "we must hope."

"Ay, my poor boy," said Madeleine, "hope, hope!—in God!" and she pointed upward.

This was the story of the poor family: François Derblay was a peasant, born and brought up in Picardy, and the son of poor parents, who, at dying, had left him little to add to what Nature had given him—a pair of strong arms and a sound, honest mind. With this fortune François had begun early to till the fields, and by the age of twenty-five had laid by a little store sufficient to marry on. His choice had been happy, and Madeleine, although poor and untaught, had been a good and loving wife to him. By her thrift and his own hard work his little store quickly increased, and within a few years Derblay reached the goal to which all poor Frenchmen so ardently aspire—the position of a landowner. He had bought himself a few acres of ground, and their produce was sufficient not only to feed his family, but also to enable him to lay by each year a little sum wherewith to enlarge his property. For some time, prosperous in all his undertakings, François was really happy, and at the age of forty could reasonably look forward to passing a quiet, comfortable old age; but, as so often occurs in life, at the very moment when the man deemed himself most secure in his ease, misfortunes began to rain upon him. Dazzled by the accounts of some successful ventures made by neighbors, Derblay began to dream of doubling his capital by speculation, and accordingly invested the two or three thousand francs of his savings in shares which were to bring him fifteen per cent., but which ultimately left him without a sixpence. To make matters worse, his land was bought by a railway company, and this sale, by placing in his hands a round sum of ready money, prompted him with the delusive hope of regaining his losses: he speculated again, and this time as unhappily as the first, swamping all his funds in some worthless enterprise, which on the strength of its prospectus he had believed "safe as the Bank of France." To fill the cup of his sorrows to the brim, four of his five children were carried off by illness, the only one spared being Henri, the youngest. At forty-eight, François and his wife, but five years younger than himself, were thus obliged to begin life again, poorer than at first, for they had no longer youth, as when they married. They were not disheartened, however: they had their boy to live for, and set to work so bravely that after ten years' struggle they found themselves owners of the cottage and field I have described. Still, they were not happy, for a painful anticipation was constantly dwelling on their minds and souring every moment of their existence. Henri, their only boy, had reached his twentieth year, and the time had come when he must "draw for the conscription;" that is, stake upon the chances of a lottery-ticket the seven best years of his own life and all the happiness of theirs. This thought it was which, like a heavy storm-cloud, was day and night hanging over their peace, and throwing them into a tremor of doubt and sickening anxiety that made them watch the flight of each hour which brought them nearer to the minute they dreaded with aching, panting hearts. How should they bear it, how could they bear it, if their loved boy, their one child, upon whom all their affections and all their hopes were centred, was enrolled and taken rudely from them against his will, as against theirs, to be a soldier? How could they support this cruel bereavement at an age when, life having lost all its sweets for them, they lived but in the happiness and in the presence of their boy, and, like weak plants drooping toward the earth, were kept from falling only by the young and vigorous prop beside them?

Had it come to this, that after all the projects, all the vows, all the prayers, all the charming aspirations made for the one hope of their declining years, the simple hazard of a figured paper was to be called upon to realize the dreams of their lives or to blast all their cherished schemes in a moment? to decide whether they should be happy or eternally afflicted, or, in short, whether they should continue to live or hasten quickly to their graves; for a seven years' separation would be an eternity to them, and how could they expect to drag themselves through it?

They were sad moments, those in which the parents asked themselves these questions, looking woefully before them, and neglecting the happiness they might enjoy in the present to mourn over its possible loss in the future; counting the hours as they raced by, and turning pale at the risks their son was to face, as though his hand were already in the urn and his fingers grasping the little ticket upon which was inscribed his destiny.

Ah, how often had they seen it in their dreams, that dreadful mahogany cylinder turning lazily upon its pivot and rolling in its womb, along with that of a hundred others, the fate of all that was dear to them on earth! How often, too, had their poor brains, racked and fired by doubt, fear and anguish, followed their child as he stood beside it, and grown dizzy as they watched him plunge his hand through its lid and tear open the little white slip which might be his sentence of slavery, his order of exile, or—O God! who knows?—his death-warrant!

One night the father and mother had started up in their sleep together: they had dreamt that all was over: giddy with terror, they had rushed into Henri's room. Thank Heaven! he was still there, and asleep: they knelt by his bed and wept.

"Mother," he said on awaking, "I've been dreaming that they had taken me."

Another night Madeleine saw herself in a field somewhere. All around and before her were soldiers; by them stood lines of cannon; here and there were horses, and by the light of a few bivouac-fires she perceived some bleeding heaps of dead. Of a sudden she stumbled: a corpse was barring her way. She stooped over it: it was her boy!

Once again she fancied herself seated by her cottage door: the sun was setting, and down the small road which led to the house galloped an orderly, a dragoon, covered with dust. "Are you Madeleine Derblay?" he asked.—"Yes."—He drew from his sack a letter sealed with black. "Madame," he said, "your son has died for his country, but he has gained this on the field of battle;" and he handed her the cross of the Legion of Honor. "Give me back my child!" she had shrieked: "take away your reward! Give me back my child! I won't sell him for that cross."

And Henri the while? His heart was as heavy as that of his parents, for he well knew that the day which doomed him to a seven years' absence would also condemn him to orphanhood. His father and mother were too aged by sorrow to be able to abide his return: they would soon die; and if not, who would be there to tend them, to earn them bread, to find them the comforts which their old arms were unfit to earn by themselves? These reflections were terrible; and besides, to make his pain more torturing, he was in love. A young girl of his own age had been destined for him by his parents and by hers, and she was to become his wife at once if—if—and ever uppermost to cloud all his prospects came that fatal if—if he should draw a lucky number at the conscription. But what if he should not? How could he ask her to wait for him seven years? or how, indeed, could he expect that her friends would allow her to do so? They were poor people, as he knew, and it was but natural that they should wish to see their daughter speedily settled. This thought filled the unhappy boy with despair; and as the twentieth of February, the day appointed for the conscription, approached, he was almost beside himself with anxiety. For a long while his father and his mother, trusting to their arms and their economy, had lived in the hope of being able to buy him off. Two thousand three hundred francs were needed to do this, and neither hard work, self-denial nor thrift had been spared to collect the money; but it was a large sum, and notwithstanding all the hard toil of father and son, and all the frugality of the mother, they had not been able in five years' time to collect more than two-thirds of it. An accident had then happened to them: Madeleine, whose love, deep and boundless as Heaven, had pushed her to pinch and stint herself almost to starvation in order to save, had fallen ill under her efforts, and her life had only been saved after a three months' combat with death, during which doctor's fees, medicines and little comforts had swallowed up five hundred francs of what had been laid by. At the beginning of February there were, therefore, nearly fourteen hundred francs wanting to make up the amount needed.

In this emergency, François Derblay had thought of a person to whom he had once rendered a service of importance—a tradesman who lived in a neighboring town, who was known to be rich, and who had promised his benefactor in the first flush of his gratitude that if ever he could discharge the obligation under which he lay, he would do so at any cost and with the sincerest joy. Poor, guileless Derblay! measuring the words of others by the same simple and honest standard of truth by which he was used to mete his own sayings and promises, he innocently believed in the sterling worth of his debtor's assurance, and starting off to visit him with his son, naïvely asked the man to lend him the fourteen hundred francs he so much needed. Of course the worthy shopkeeper would have been, as he said, delighted to do so: day and night had he thought of his dear friend, and prayed Providence to send him an occasion of showing his gratitude. But why, alas! had not François come but half an hour before? He should then have had the sum, and double, treble the sum, had he pleased; whereas now—and dear! dear! what an unfortunate thing it was!—now it was completely out of his power to comply with the request, for he had just paid in to a creditor five thousand francs, "the last money he had or should have for some months." The good soul was grieved beyond expression, wept, and affectionately showed his visitors to the door.

It was on their return from this bootless errand the day previous to the drawing of the conscription that I had fallen in with the two peasants. They had cast their last die but one, and unsuccessfully: a single chance yet remained—that of drawing a lucky ticket—but on this they dared not even hope. Their match against Fortune they considered already lost, and told me so.

"No, no," I exclaimed in as cheering a tone as possible, "you must not despair, Monsieur Derblay: your son has as good a chance of drawing happily as any one else."

"Ay," answered the old man, "but few have a good chance at all this year;" and he then explained that owing to the Mexican expedition, there was a greater demand for soldiers than usual, and also that, by a strange fatality, the number of young men of age to draw—that is, of twenty—was smaller that year than usual. Some one hundred and ten only were to be chosen from, and of these about eighty would be conscripts.

"Well, well," I cried, "there will still be thirty winning numbers."

Henri shook his head: "We cannot count so many as that, sir, for of the eighty taken twenty at least will claim exemption on the ground of infirmities, as being only sons of widows, or as having elder brothers already in the service. The government will thus be obliged to press twenty more, and this will bring the number of losing figures up to one hundred."

"The odds are ten to one against him," sadly muttered the father, drawing from his pocket a paper covered with figures. "We have it all written down here: I've calculated it;" and for perhaps the thousandth time the old man recommenced his dismal arithmetic.

At this moment we heard a knock at the door of the cottage, where we were all four seated round the fire. "It is Louise, poor girl!" cried Madeleine, rising: "she told me she would come;" and she opened the door to give admittance to two women. The first was a tall, neatly-dressed, middle-aged woman: the second, her daughter, was a young, slight, fair-haired girl of twenty. She was not pretty, but her features wore a look of honesty and candor which gave a bright and pleasing expression to her face, and one could see at a glance that although poor and possibly untaught, that part of her education had not been neglected which was to render her a good and virtuous woman. I was not long in finding out that she was the betrothed of Henri Derblay, and I could not wonder that the poor lad should grieve at the prospect of losing her.

Casting her eyes timidly around for her lover, she blushed as she entered upon seeing a stranger, and passing by me with a little curtsey went to greet François and his wife.

"God bless you, dear child!" cried Madeleine, caressing her: "we are in sad need of your bright, sunny face to cheer us;" and she led the young girl toward Henri, who, leaning against the chimney, was affecting a composure strangely at variance with the trembling of his limbs and the violent quivering of his upper lip.

Louise walked up to him, and seeming to forget my presence innocently held up her forehead for him to kiss. "Tu as du chagrin, mon pauvre ami?" she said in tones of exquisite delicacy and tenderness, and took one of his hands in hers.

A few minutes after I rose to take my leave: François accompanied me to the door. "I think, sir," he said hesitatingly, "you might perhaps bring good-luck to our poor boy by going to-morrow to see the conscription. Would you do us the favor of joining us? We shall all be at St. Valéry."

"Certainly," I replied, shaking his hand, and starting off with my heart so full that the league's walk from the cottage to my lodgings filled up one of the saddest hours I have ever spent.

I passed a dull night: how indeed could I do otherwise? And I am sure that I never so sincerely lamented the want of wealth as upon that occasion, when a thousand francs might have given me the joy of making four people happy.

The next day, the twentieth of February, dawned brightly—so brightly indeed that I began to draw from the smiling appearance of the heavens a good augury for the luck of Henri Derblay. It was about eight when I set out. The conscription was to begin at nine, but already the one straggling, narrow street which bisects the old bathing-town was filled with country-people hastening in groups or singly toward the market-place, where the town-hall was situated. The scene presented here was of a most animated kind. The market had some time since begun, and in and out amongst the stalls of the sellers moved a crowd of people of all trades, of all ranks and of all appearances. Fishermen, tradesmen, peasants, soldiers—knots of all these were there, some from curiosity or to accompany a friend or relation to the urn; some laughing, some shouting, some drinking, some dancing in a boisterous round to the music of a barrel-organ; some bawling a popular song in a gay, ever-repeated chorus; some raffling for nuts and biscuits at smartly-decked fair-booths, or playing at Chinese billiards for painted mugs or huge cakes of gilt gingerbread; some listening to the stump orations of an extempore fortuneteller, who promised the bâton of the field-marshal to any conscript who would give him a penny; and some buying by yards the patriotic, soul-stirring songs of Béranger, and reciting them in every tone, in every key and to every tune. One of these songsters was a young soldier, a lancer, with a bright intelligent look: he was standing outside a cabaret with several companions, and trolling in a rich, clear voice a melody which seemed thoroughly to spring from his heart. His eye alternately sparkled or dimmed as his words were animated or affecting, and the expression he breathed into his notes was full of feeling and admirably suited to all he sang. The last stanza of his ballad was especially well given, and it seemed so entirely the interpretation of his sentiments that I am sure more than one person in the crowd must have thought that the young soldier was repeating a composition of his own. This was the final strophe:

Ah, depuis si longtemps je prolonge mon rêve,

La route est commencée, il faut que je l'achève;

Il est trop tard pour m'arrêter.

Que la gloire m'oublie, ou qu'elle me couronne,

Quel que soit mon destin, à lui je m'abandonne,

J'ai besoin de chanter.

I am not sure whether these verses are by Béranger or not, but they certainly deserve to be.

As the song ended, the market-place was being rapidly filled by streams of people who came pouring into it from all directions. The crowd was now mostly composed of country-people, all dressed in holiday garments, but in appearance, nevertheless, for the greater part at least, the very reverse of happy. In almost every case the families of peasants as they arrived walked into the church, of which the doors were wide open to invite the faithful to mass, and from which flowed occasionally into the tumult of the crowd without, like a little brook of pure water into a bubbling, surging lake, a few waves of gentle, calm religious music. Each one of the poor people who entered to pray went up, as I noticed, to the charity-box and dropped in a mite, in the hope, no doubt, that this good action might buy fair fortune for a son or brother about to "draw." I also remarked that it was toward the chapel of the Virgin that most of the suppliants bent their steps, and more than one mother and sister, moved by a naïve faith which one can only respect, carried with them large nosegays of winter flowers to lay at the feet of the Holy Mother's image.

As I left the church and stood looking at a poor ploughboy who, pale with apprehension, was endeavoring to give to himself a look of unconcern by smoking a big cigar in company with some soldiers, who were laughing at him for his pains, a hand touched my arm, and upon turning round I saw François Derblay with his wife and Henri and Louise. A year's illness could not have aged them more than the night they had just spent: they all seemed completely worn out, and when the old man tried to speak his voice was so hollow and harsh that it frightened me. "Look at Louise, sir," he said at last, slowly shaking his white head: "she and Madeleine there have been sitting up all night praying to God."

"'Cast thy bread upon the waters,'" I answered, "'and thou shalt find it after many days.'"

"Yes, sir," said Louise: "our curate tells us that prayers are like letters—when properly stamped with faith they always reach their address."

"Ay," exclaimed Henri, "but does God always answer them?"

François drew a mass-book from his pocket and finding the Lord's Prayer, "Look," he said as he pointed to the words, Fiat voluntas tua in terra ut in coelo.

A few minutes after the church-clock struck nine, and by a common impulse all the population of the market-place hurried simultaneously toward the town-hall. The door and ground-floor windows of this building opened at the same time, and we could see the mayor of St. Valéry, with the commissioner of police and a captain of infantry in full uniform, seated at a table upon which stood a cylindrical box horizontally between two pivots. This was the urn. Two gendarmes, one upon each side, stood watching over it with their arms folded. A man came to the window and shouted something which I could not catch, and at the same moment half a dozen mayors of districts, girt with their tri-color sashes, ran up the steps of the Hôtel de Ville to draw for the order in which their respective communes were to present themselves. This formality occupied five minutes, and the mayors then came out again to marshal their people into separate groups. The district in which the Derblays lived was to go up third, and as he came to tell us this the mayor of N—— patted François on the back and told him that three was an odd number and therefore lucky. Poor Madeleine was so weak that she could hardly stand up: Louise and I were obliged to support her.

At half-past nine, punctually, the conscription began, and amidst a breathless silence one of the mayor's assistants came to the window and called out the first name: "Adolphe Monnier, of the commune of S——;" and a tall country-boy, elbowing his way through the crowd, walked up into the town-hall. The commissioner of police gave the round box a touch, and as it turned round some six or seven times one might almost have heard a raindrop fall. "Now," said he laughing, "good luck to you!" and the peasant, plunging his hand into the trap of the box, drew out a little piece of card-board rolled into a curl. "No. 17," shouted the infantry captain, taking it from his hands and reading it, whilst a loud roar of laughter from the mob hailed the dismal face with which the unhappy lad heard of his ill-success.

"Oh, what a head for a soldier!" cried some wag in the crowd. "Yes," screamed another, "he'll make the Russians run." "Have you chosen your regiment yet?" barked a third. "Why, of course!" yelped a fourth: "he is to be fife-player in the second battalion of the pope's horse-beadles."

And amid a shower of jokes equally witty No. 17 came down, and a second name was called. After him came a third, and then a fourth, and so on, all equally unlucky; and no wonder, since all the numbers up to one hundred were losing ones. There were great differences in the way in which the youths bore their discomfiture: some went up crying to the urn and trembled as in an ague whilst it was rolling round; three stamped and sobbed like children when they had lost, and the crowd, ever charitable in its doings, threw about their ears by way of comfort a volley of epigrams which pricked them like so many wasps; others, on the contrary, went up laughing, and upon drawing a bad number stuck the card in their hats and came down bandying jokes with the mob as unconcernedly as though they had been only taking a pinch of snuff instead of selling seven long years of their lives. Others, again, trying to imitate the latter, but in reality too miserable to do so with ease, only succeeded in making themselves ridiculous, drawing upon themselves an extra amount of squibs from the spectators; upon which, like young steers worried by mosquitoes, they would begin distributing kicks and blows right and left with most liberal profusion, to the no small disgust of the mayor and the immense amusement of the infantry captain, who laughed like an ox in a clover-field.

At last a boy went up and drew the number 109: frantic cheers greeted this check to fortune, and the lucky fellow rushed down with such wild demonstrations of joy that it would have been no great folly to have mistaken him for a criminal just reprieved.

A few minutes after the commune of Henri Derblay was called up. Henri himself was sixth on the roll. His father's face had become livid; his mother hung so heavily on my arm that I fancied at one moment she had fainted; Louise was as white as a sheet, and her lips, bloodless and cold, looked blue and frozen as ice.

"Courage, Henri!" I said: "more than forty have drawn, and but one winning number has come out yet: you will have at least nine good chances."

"Henri Derblay, of the commune of N——," cried an official, and we all started as though a gun had been fired. The moment had come: a minute more and the doubt would become certainty.

"Courage, mother!" whispered the boy, stooping over Madeleine and repeating in a faltering tone the words I had just spoken to him.

The poor woman was speechless: she tried to smile, but her face twitched as though in a convulsion. "My child—" she whispered, and stopped short.

"Henri Derblay!" cried the voice again, and the crowd around repeated the cry: "Be quick, Derblay, they are waiting for you."

The boy drew his sleeve across his eyes and tottered up to the steps of the hall. Louise fell down on her knees; François and his wife did the same; for myself, my temples throbbed as in fever, my hands were dry as wood, and my eyes, fixed on the conscription-urn, seemed starting out of their sockets.

Henri walked up to the box.

"Allons, mon garçon," said the mayor, "un peu d'aplomb;" and he opened the lid. Derblay thrust in his hand: his face was turned toward us, and I could see him draw out his ticket and give it to the captain: a moment's deep silence.

"No. 3!" roared the officer; and a howl of derision from the mob covered his words. Henri had become a soldier.

I could not well see what then followed: there was a sudden hush, a chorus of exclamations, a rush toward the steps of the town-hall, and then the crowd fell back to make way for two gendarmes who were carrying a body between them.

"Is he dead?" asked a number of voices.

"Oh no," tittered the two men—"only fainted: he'll soon come round again." And the mob burst into a laugh.