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A Beleaguered City (orig. ed. 1879, this ed. 1900)

by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant


THERE are few who have not heard something of the sufferings of a siege. Whether within or without, it is the most terrible of all the experiences of war. I am old enough to recollect the trenches before Sebastopol, and all that my countrymen and the English endured there. Sometimes I endeavoured to think of this to distract me from what we ourselves endured. But how different was it! We had neither shelter nor support. We had no weapons, nor any against whom to wield them. We were cast out of our homes in the midst of our lives, in the midst of our occupations, and left there helpless, to gaze at each other, to blind our eyes trying to penetrate the darkness before us. Could we have done anything, the oppression might have been less terrible -- but what was there that we could do? Fortunately (though I do not deny that I felt each desertion) our band grew less and less every day. Hour by hour some one stole away -- first one, then another, dispersing themselves among the villages near, in which many had friends. The accounts which these men gave were, I afterwards learnt, of the most vague description. Some talked of wonders they had seen, and were laughed at -- and some spread reports of internal division among us. Not till long after did I know all the reports that went abroad. It was said that there had been fighting in Semur, and that we were divided into two factions, one of which had gained the mastery, and driven the other out. This was the story current in La Rochette, where they are always glad to hear anything to the discredit of the people of Semur; but no credence could have been given to it by those in authority, otherwise M. le Préfet, however indifferent to our interests, must necessarily have taken some steps for our relief. Our entire separation from the world was indeed one of the strangest details of this terrible period. Generally the diligence, though conveying on the whole few passengers, returned with two or three, at least, visitors or commercial persons, daily -- and the latter class frequently arrived in carriages of their own; but during this period no stranger came to see our miserable plight. We made shelter for ourselves under the branches of the few trees that grew in the uncultivated ground on either side of the road -- and a hasty erection, half tent half shed, was put up for a place to assemble in, or for those who were unable to bear the heat of the day or the occasional chills of the night. But the most of us were too restless to seek repose, and could not bear to be out of sight of the city. At any moment it seemed to us the gates might open, or some loophole be visible by which we might throw ourselves upon the darkness and vanquish it. This was what we said to ourselves, forgetting how we shook and trembled whenever any contact had been possible with those who were within. But one thing was certain, that though we feared, we could not turn our eyes from the place. We slept leaning against a tree, or with our heads on our hands, and our faces toward Semur. We took no count of day or night, but ate the morsel the women brought to us, and slept thus, not sleeping, when want or weariness overwhelmed us. There was scarcely an hour in the day that some of the women did not come to ask what news. They crept along the roads in twos and threes, and lingered for hours sitting by the way weeping, starting at every breath of wind.

  Meanwhile all was not silent within Semur. The Cathedral bells rang often, at first filling us with hope, for how familiar was that sound! The first time, we all gathered together and listened, and many wept. It was as if we heard our mother's voice. M. de Bois-Sombre burst into tears. I have never seen him within the doors of the Cathedral since his marriage; but he burst into tears. "Mon Dieu! if I were but there!" he said. We stood and listened, our hearts melting, some falling on their knees. M. le Curé stood up in the midst of us and began to intone the psalm: [He has a beautiful voice. It is sympathetic, it goes to the heart.] "I was glad when they said to me, Let us go up ----" And though there were few of us who could have supposed themselves capable of listening to that sentiment a little while before with any sympathy, yet a vague hope rose up within us while we heard him, while we listened to the bells. What man is there to whom the bells of his village, the carillon of his city, is not most dear? It rings for him through all his life; it is the first sound of home in the distance when he comes back -- the last that follows him like a long farewell when he goes away. While we listened, we forgot our fears. They were as we were, they were also our brethren, who rang those bells. We seemed to see them trooping into our beautiful Cathedral. Ah! only to see it again, to be within its shelter, cool and calm as in our mother's arms! It seemed to us that we should wish for nothing more.

  When the sound ceased we looked into each other's faces, and each man saw that his neighbour was pale. Hope died in us when the sound died away, vibrating sadly through the air. Some men threw themselves on the ground in their despair.

  And from this time forward many voices were heard, calls and shouts within the walls, and sometimes a sound like a trumpet, and other instruments of music. We thought, indeed, that noises as of bands patrolling along the ramparts were audible as our patrols worked their way round and round. This was a duty which I never allowed to be neglected, not because I put very much faith in it, but because it gave us a sort of employment. There is a story somewhere which I recollect dimly of an ancient city which its assailants did not touch, but only marched round and round till the walls fell, and they could enter. Whether this was a story of classic times or out of our own remote history, I could not recollect. But I thought of it many times while we made our way like a procession of ghosts, round and round, straining our ears to hear what those voices were which sounded above us, in tones that were familiar, yet so strange. This story got so much into my head (and after a time all our heads seemed to get confused and full of wild and bewildering expedients) that I found myself suggesting -- I, a man known for sense and reason -- that we should blow trumpets at some time to be fixed, which was a thing the ancients had done in the strange tale which had taken possession of me. M. le Curé looked at me with disapproval. He said, "I did not expect from M. le Maire anything that was disrespectful to religion." Heaven forbid that I should be disrespectful to religion at any time of life, but then it was impossible to me. I remembered after that the tale of which I speak, which had so seized upon me, was in the sacred writings; but those who know me will understand that no sneer at these writings or intention of wounding the feelings of M. le Curé was in my mind.

  I was seated one day upon a little inequality of the ground, leaning my back against a half-withered hawthorn, and dozing with my head in my hands, when a soothing, which always diffuses itself from her presence, shed itself over me, and opening my eyes, I saw my Agnès sitting by me. She had come with some food and a little linen, fresh and soft like her own touch. My wife was not gaunt and worn like me, but she was pale and as thin as a shadow. I woke with a start, and seeing her there, there suddenly came a dread over me that she would pass away before my eyes, and go over to Those who were within Semur. I cried "Non, mon Agnès; non, mon Agnès: before you ask, No!" seizing her and holding her fast in this dream, which was not altogether a dream. She looked at me with a smile, that smile that has always been to me as the rising of the sun over the earth.

  "Mon ami," she said surprised, "I ask nothing, except that you should take a little rest and spare thyself." Then she added, with haste, what I knew she would say, "Unless it were this, mon ami. If I were permitted, I would go into the city -- I would ask those who are there what is their meaning: and if no way can be found -- no act of penitence. -- Oh! do not answer in haste! I have no fear; and it would be to save thee."

  A strong throb of anger came into my throat. Figure to yourself that I looked at my wife with anger, with the same feeling which had moved me when the deserters left us; but far more hot and sharp. I seized her soft hands and crushed them in mine. "You would leave me!" I said. "You would desert your husband. You would go over to our enemies!"

  "O Martin, say not so," she cried, with tears. "Not enemies. There is our little Marie, and my mother, who died when I was born."

  "You love these dead tyrants. Yes," I said, "you love them best. You will go to -- the majority, to the strongest. Do not speak to me! Because your God is on their side, you will forsake us too."

  Then she threw herself upon me and encircled me with her arms. The touch of them stilled my passion; but yet I held her, clutching her gown, so terrible a fear came over me that she would go and come back no more.

  "Forsake thee!" she breathed out over me with a moan. Then, putting her cool cheek to mine, which burned, "But I would die for thee, Martin."

  "Silence, my wife: that is what you shall not do," I cried, beside myself. I rose up; I put her away from me. That is, I know it, what has been done. Their God does this, they do not hesitate to say -- takes from you what you love best, to make you better -- you! and they ask you to love Him when He has thus despoiled you! "Go home, Agnès," I said, hoarse with terror. "Let us face them as we may; you shall not go among them, or put thyself in peril. Die for me! Mon Dieu! and what then, what should I do then? Turn your face from them; turn from them; go! go! and let me not see thee here again."

  My wife did not understand the terror that seized me. She obeyed me, as she always does, but, with the tears falling from her white cheeks, fixed upon me the most piteous look. "Mon ami," she said, "you are disturbed, you are not in possession of yourself; this cannot be what you mean.

  "Let me not see thee here again!" I cried. "Would you make me mad in the midst of my trouble? No! I will not have you look that way. Go home! go home!" Then I took her into my arms and wept, though I am not a man given to tears. "Oh! my Agnès," I said, "give me thy counsel. What you tell me I will do; but rather than risk thee, I would live thus for ever, and defy them."

  She put her hand upon my lips. "I will not ask this again," she said, bowing her head; "but defy them -- why should you defy them? Have they come for nothing? Was Semur a city of the saints? They have come to convert our people, Martin -- thee too, and the rest. If you will submit your hearts, they will open the gates, they will go back to their sacred homes: and we to ours. This has been borne in upon me sleeping and waking; and it seemed to me that if I could but go, and say, 'Oh! my fathers, oh! my brothers, they submit,' all would be well. For I do not fear them, Martin. Would they harm me that love us? I would but give our Marie one kiss ----"

  "You are a traitor!" I said. "You would steal yourself from me, and do me the worst wrong of all ----"

  But I recovered my calm. What she said reached my understanding at last. "Submit!" I said, "but to what? To come and turn us from our homes, to wrap our town in darkness, to banish our wives and our children, to leave us here to be scorched by the sun and drenched by the rain, -- this is not to convince us, my Agnès. And to what then do you bid us submit ----?"

  "It is to convince you, mon ami, of the love of God, who has permitted this great tribulation to be, that we might be saved," said Agnès. Her face was sublime with faith. It is possible to these dear women; but for me the words she spoke were but words without meaning. I shook my head. Now that my horror and alarm were passed, I could well remember often to have heard words like these before.

  "My angel!" I said, all this I admire, I adore in thee; but how is it the love of God? -- and how shall we be saved by it? Submit! I will do anything that is reasonable; but of what truth have we here the proof ----?"

  Some one had come up behind as we were talking. When I heard his voice I smiled, notwithstanding my despair. It was natural that the Church should come to the woman's aid. But I would not refuse to give ear to M. le Curé, who had proved himself a man, had he been ten times a priest.

  "I have not heard what Madame has been saying, M. le Maire, neither would I interpose but for your question. You ask of what truth have we the proof here? It is the Unseen that has revealed itself. Do we see anything, you and I? Nothing, nothing, but a cloud. But that which we cannot see, that which we know not, that which we dread -- look! it is there." I turned unconsciously as he pointed with his hand. Oh, heaven, what did I see! Above the cloud that wrapped Semur there was a separation, a rent in the darkness, and in mid heaven the Cathedral towers, pointing to the sky. I paid no more attention to M. le Curé. I sent forth a shout that roused all, even the weary line of the patrol that was marching slowly with bowed heads round the walls; and there went up such a cry of joy as shook the earth. "The towers, the towers!" I cried. These were the towers that could be seen leagues off, the first sign of Semur; our towers, which we had been born to love like our father's name. I have had joys in my life, deep and great. I have loved, I have won honours, I have conquered difficulty; but never had I felt as now. It was as if one had been born again. When we had gazed upon them, blessing them and thanking God, I gave orders that all our company should be called to the tent, that we might consider whether any new step could now be taken: Agnès with the other women sitting apart on one side and waiting. I recognised even in the excitement of such a time that theirs was no easy part. To sit there silent, to wait till we had spoken, to be bound by what we decided, and to have no voice -- yes, that was hard. They thought they knew better than we did: but they were silent, devouring us with their eager eyes. I love one woman more than all the world; I count her the best thing that God has made; yet would I not be as Agnès for all that life could give me. It was her part to be silent, and she was so, like the angel she is, while even Jacques Richard had the right to speak. Mon Dieu! but it is hard, I allow it; they have need to be angels. This thought passed through my mind even at the crisis which had now arrived. For at such moments one sees everything, one thinks of everything, though it is only after that one remembers what one has seen and thought. When my fellow-citizens gathered together (we were now less than a hundred in number, so many had gone from us), I took it upon myself to speak. We were a haggard, worn-eyed company, having had neither shelter nor sleep nor even food, save in hasty snatches. I stood at the door of the tent and they below, for the ground sloped a little. Beside me were M. le Curé, M. de Bois-Sombre, and one or two others of the chief citizens. "My friends," I said, "you have seen that a new circumstance has occurred. It is not within our power to tell what its meaning is, yet it must be a symptom of good. For my own part, to see these towers makes the air lighter. Let us think of the Church as we may, no one can deny that the towers of Semur are dear to our hearts."

  "M. le Maire," said M. de Bois-Sombre, interrupting, "I speak I am sure the sentiments of my fellow-citizens when I say that there is no longer any question among us concerning the Church; it is an admirable institution, a universal advantage ----"

  "Yes, yes," said the crowd, "yes, certainly!" and some added, "It is the only safeguard, it is our protection," and some signed themselves. In the crowd I saw Riou, who had done this at the octroi. But the sign did not surprise me now.

  M. le Curé stood by my side, but he did not smile. His countenance was dark, almost angry. He stood quite silent, with his eyes on the ground. It gave him no pleasure, this profession of faith.

  "It is well, my friends," said I, "we are all in accord; and the good God has permitted us again to see these towers. I have called you together to collect your ideas. This change must have a meaning. It has been suggested to me that we might send an ambassador -- a messenger, if that is possible, into the city ----"

  Here I stopped short; and a shiver ran through me -- a shiver which went over the whole company. We were all pale as we looked in each other's faces; and for a moment no one ventured to speak. After this pause it was perhaps natural that he who first found his voice should be the last who had any right to give an opinion. Who should it be but Jacques Richard?

  "M. le Maire," cried the fellow, "speaks at his ease -- but who will thus risk himself?" Probably he did not mean that his grumbling should be heard, but in the silence every sound was audible; there was a gasp, a catching of the breath, and all turned their eyes again upon me. I did not pause to think what answer I should give. "I!" I cried. "Here stands one who will risk himself, who will perish if need be ----"

  Something stirred behind me. It was Agnès who had risen to her feet, who stood with her lips parted and quivering, with her hands clasped, as if about to speak. But she did not speak. Well! she had proposed to do it. Then why not I?

  "Let me make the observation," said another of our fellow-citizens, Bordereau the banker, "that this would not be just. Without M. le Maire we should be a mob without a head. If a messenger is to be sent, let it be some one not so indispensable ----"

  "Why send a messenger?" said another, Philip Leclerc. "Do we know that these Messieurs will admit any one? and how can you speak, how can you parley with those ----" and be too, was seized with a shiver -- "whom you cannot see?"

  Then there came another voice out of the crowd. It was one who would not show himself, who was conscious of the mockery in his tone. "If there is any one sent, let it be M. le Curé," it said. M. le Curé stepped forward. His pale countenance flushed red. "Here am I," he said, "I am ready; but he who spoke speaks to mock me. Is it befitting in this presence?"

  There was a struggle among the men. Whoever it was who had spoken (I did not wish to know), I had no need to condemn the mocker: they themselves silenced him; then Jacques Richard (still less worthy of credit) cried out again with a voice that was husky. What are men made of? Notwithstanding everything, it was from the cabaret, from the wineshop, that he had come. He said, "Though M. le Maire will not take my opinion, yet it is this. Let them reopen the chapel in the hospital. The ladies of St. Jean ----"

  "Hold thy peace," I said, "miserable!" But a murmur rose. "Though it is not his part to speak, I agree," said one. "And I." "And I." There was well-nigh a tumult of consent: and this made me angry. Words were on my lips which it might have been foolish to utter, when M. de Bois-Sombre, who is a man of judgment, interfered.

  "M. le Maire," he said, "as there are none of us here who would show disrespect to the Church and holy things -- that is understood -- it is not necessary to enter into details. Every restriction that would wound the most susceptible is withdrawn; not one more than another, but all. We have been indifferent in the past, but for the future you will agree with me that everything shall be changed. The ambassador -- whoever he may be ----" he added with a catching of his breath, "must be empowered to promise -- everything -- submission to all that may be required."

  Here the women could not restrain themselves; they all rose up with a cry, and many of them began to weep. "Ah!" said one with a hysterical sound of laughter in her tears. "Sainte Mère! it will be heaven upon earth."

  M. le Curé said nothing; a keen glance of wonder, yet of subdued triumph, shot from under his eyelids. As for me, I wrung my hands: "What you say will be superstition: it will be hypocrisy," I cried.

  But at that moment a further incident occurred. Suddenly, while we deliberated, a long loud peal of a trumpet sounded into the air. I have already said that many sounds had been heard before; but this was different; there was not one of us that did not feel that this was addressed to himself. The agitation was extreme; it was a summons, the beginning of some distinct communication. The crowd scattered; but for myself, after a momentary struggle, I went forward resolutely. I did not even look back at my wife. I was no longer Martin Dupin, but the Maire of Semur, the saviour of the community. Even Bois-Sombre quailed: but I felt that it was in me to hold head against death itself; and before I had gone two steps I felt rather than saw that M. le Curé had come to my side. We went on without a word; gradually the others collected behind us, following yet straggling here and there upon the inequalities of the ground.

  Before us lay the cloud that was Semur, a darkness defined by the shining of the summer day around, the river escaping from that gloom as from a cavern, the towers piercing through, but the sunshine thrown back on every side from that darkness. I have spoken of the walls as if we saw them, but there were no walls visible, nor any gate, though we all turned like blind men to where the Porte St. Lambert was. There was the broad vacant road leading up to it, leading into the gloom. We stood there at a little distance. Whether it was human weakness or an invisible barrier, how can I tell? We stood thus immovable, with the trumpet pealing out over us, out of the cloud. It summoned every man as by his name. To me it was not wonderful that this impression should come, but afterwards it was elicited from all that this was the feeling of each. Though no words were said, it was as the calling of our names. We all waited in such a supreme agitation as I cannot describe for some communication that was to come.

  When suddenly, in a moment, the trumpet ceased; there was an interval of dead and terrible silence; then, each with a leap of his heart as if it would burst from his bosom, we saw a single figure slowly detach itself out of the gloom. "My God!" I cried. My senses went from me; I felt my head go round like a straw tossed on the winds.

  To know them so near, those mysterious visitors -- to feel them, to hear them, was not that enough? But, to see! who could bear it? Our voices rang like broken chords, like a tearing and rending of sound. Some covered their faces with their hands; for our very eyes seemed to be drawn out of their sockets, fluttering like things with a separate life.

  Then there fell upon us a strange and wonderful calm. The figure advanced slowly; there was weakness in it. The step, though solemn, was feeble; and if you can figure to yourself our consternation, the pause, the cry -- our hearts dropping back as it might be into their places -- the sudden stop of the wild panting in our breasts: when there became visible to us a human face well known, a man as we were. "Lecamus!" I cried; and all the men round took it up, crowding nearer, trembling yet delivered from their terror; some even laughed in the relief. There was but one who had an air of discontent, and that was M. le Curé. As he said "Lecamus!" like the rest, there was impatience, disappointment, anger in his tone.

  And I, who had wondered where Lecamus had gone; thinking sometimes that he was one of the deserters who had left us! But when he came nearer his face was as the face of a dead man, and a cold chill came over us. His eyes, which were cast down, flickered under the thin eyelids in which all the veins were visible. His face was gray like that of the dying. "Is he dead?" I said. But, except M. le Curé, no one knew that I spoke.

  "Not even so," said M. le Curé, with a mortification in his voice, which I have never forgotten. "Not even so. That might be something. They teach us not by angels -- by the fools and offscourings of the earth."

  And he would have turned away. It was a humiliation. Was not he the representative of the Unseen, the vice-gerent, with power over heaven and hell? but something was here more strong than he. He stood by my side in spite of himself to listen to the ambassador. I will not deny that such a choice was strange, strange beyond measure, to me also.

  "Lecamus," I said, my voice trembling in my throat, I have you been among the dead, and do you live?"

  "I live," he said; then looked around with tears upon the crowd. "Good neighbours, good friends," he said, and put out his hand and touched them; he was as much agitated as they.

  "M. Lecamus," said I, we are here in very strange circumstances, as you know; do not trifle with us. If you have indeed been with those who have taken the control of our city, do not keep us in suspense. You will see by the emblems of my office that it is to me you must address yourself; if you have a mission, speak."

  "It is just," he said, I it is just -- but bear with me one moment. It is good to behold those who draw breath; if I have not loved you enough, my good neighbours, forgive me now!"

  "Rouse yourself, Lecamus," said I with some anxiety. "Three days we have been suffering here; we are distracted with the suspense. Tell us your message -- if you have anything to tell."

  "Three days!" he said, wondering; "I should have said years. Time is long when there is neither night nor day." Then, uncovering himself, he turned towards the city. "They who have sent me would have you know that they come, not in anger but in friendship: for the love they bear you, and because it has been permitted ----"

  As he spoke his feebleness disappeared. He held his head high; and we clustered closer and closer round him, not losing a half word, not a tone, not a breath.

  "They are not the dead. They are the immortal. They are those who dwell -- elsewhere. They have other work, which has been interrupted because of this trial. They ask, 'Do you know now -- do you know now?' this is what I am bidden to say.

  "What" -- I said (I tried to say it, but my lips were dry), "What would they have us to know?"

  But a clamour interrupted me. "Ah! yes, yes, yes!" the people cried, men and women; some wept aloud, some signed themselves, some held up their hands to the skies. "Never more will we deny religion," they cried, "never more fail in our duties. They shall see how we will follow every office, how the churches shall be full, how we will observe the feasts and the days of the saints! M. Lecamus," cried two or three together; "go, tell these Messieurs that we will have masses said for them, that we will obey in everything. We have seen what comes of it when a city is without piety. Never more will we neglect the holy functions; we will vow ourselves to the holy Mother and the saints ----"

  "And if those ladies wish it," cried Jacques Richard, there shall be as many masses as there are priests to say them in the Hospital of St. Jean."

  "Silence, fellow!" I cried; is it for you to promise in the name of the Commune?" I was almost beside myself. "M. Lecamus. is it for this that they have come?"

  His head had begun to droop again, and a dimness came over his face. "Do I know?" he said. "It was them I longed for, not to know their errand; but I have not yet said all. You are to send two -- two whom you esteem the highest -- to speak with them face to face."

  Then at once there rose a tumult among the people -- an eagerness which nothing could subdue. There was a cry that the ambassadors were already elected, and we were pushed forward, M. le Curé and myself, towards the gate. They would not hear us speak. "We promise," they cried, "we promise everything; let us but get back." Had it been to sacrifice us they would have done the same; they would have killed us in their passion, in order to return to their cty -- and afterwards mourned us and honoured us as martyrs. But for the moment they had neither ruth nor fear. Had it been they who were going to reason not with flesh and blood, it would have been different; but it was we, not they; and they hurried us on as not willing that a moment should be lost. I had to struggle, almost to fight, in order to provide them with a leader, which was indispensable. before I myself went away. For who could tell if we should ever come back? For a moment I hesitated, thinking that it might be well to invest M. de Bois-Sombre as my deputy with my scarf of office; but then I reflected that when a man goes to battle, when he goes to risk his life, perhaps to lose it, for his people, it is his right to bear those signs which distinguish him from common men, which show in what office, for what cause, he is ready to die.

  Accordingly I paused, struggling against the pressure of the people, and said in a loud voice, "In the absence of M. Barbou, who has forsaken us, I constitute the excellent M. Felix de Bois-Sombre my representative. In my absence my fellow-citizens will respect and obey him as myself." There was a cry of assent. They would have given their assent to anything that we might but go on. What was it to them? They took no thought of the heaving of my bosom, the beating of my heart. They left us on the edge of the darkness with our faces towards the gate. There we stood one breathless moment. Then the little postern slowly opened before us, and once more we stood within Semur.

(End of chapter 4.)

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