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Wolf Hunt-Armand Cabasson.

Wolf Hunt-Armand Cabasson. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров

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cheeks - he eats out of loneliness and despair. Straw-blond hair, thickset, bandy-legged, and he walks

      slowly. He has very blue eyes, and he seems young for his age. A regiment probably wouldn’t take him ... oh, what am I saying, of course they would! Regiments accept everyone. Soon battalions will be made up of children and old people.’

      It was already a bit like that, in fact. As for a lower age limit, there were child-soldiers as young as ten, platoon members as young as fourteen, and combatants as young as sixteen.

      ‘So what do you suggest, Captain?’

      ‘The prisoners are gathered—’

      ‘I’ve already been there.’

      Margont found her habit of interrupting him irritating but rather seductive.

      ‘Why do you keep looking in that direction?’ she asked, indicating Aspern.

      Although the ruins of the village were hidden by the woods surrounding it, fat columns of smoke, either white or black, signalled its presence. The Austrian woman was obviously observant.

      ‘I was there yesterday,’ replied Margont. ‘That’s where I was

      injured. My friends are probably still there. As everything has been destroyed, I’m wondering what is still burning.’

      ‘Even when war has ravaged everything, it must still burn the cinders.’

      Luise leant against a tree. Her face was filmed with perspiration. The heat was crushing, and the sight of the wounded made the atmosphere even more suffocating. ‘I’ll never find him. The war has plunged the world into chaos - who will care about an orphan?’

      ‘Me,’ retorted Margont.

      She laughed, perhaps mockingly - he could not tell.

      ‘Why?’

      Margont hesitated, then said more than he would have liked. ‘Because at a certain stage of my childhood, I also found myself more or less an orphan.’

      Either he had said too much or too little. Luise, however, unnerved him by replying: That doesn’t surprise me. I had guessed as much.’

      She paled and, forgetting about Margont, went over to a greying man who was wandering amongst the injured, trying to avoid looking at them. With his eyes reddened by crying and his black clothes, he looked like a crow of ill omen. When he saw her, he shook his head sadly. ‘He’s dead,’ he announced in German. ‘It’s not the war, he was murdered.’

      ‘That’s what we were afraid of, isn’t it?’ she answered with surprising calm.

      ‘Some French soldiers are guarding his remains. They asked me a great many questions and they don’t want to let us have the body. They think he was a spy or a partisan. And even worse, they’re exhibiting his body near Ebersdorf.’

      Their military failure is making them aggressive and stupid. They—’

      She stopped, realising that Margont might understand German. A good thought, but a little late ... She turned towards him and, tilting her head slightly to one side, said courteously in French: ‘I’ve just been told that Wilhelm has been found. Near here. Alas, he ...’

      She found it hard to continue.

      Margont spared her the necessity. ‘I speak your language.’

      Far from being embarrassed by that announcement, Luise went on: ‘It’s a very great sadness for us not to be able to bury the boy in consecrated ground. I know that I’m taking advantage, but perhaps, since you’re an officer, you would be able to help us sort out the misunderstanding by explaining things to the high command of your army. We only want to learn what happened and to offer him a decent burial. Please ...’

      She was trying to coax him by acting the weak young girl at a loss. But Margont felt certain that she was neither weak nor at a loss and he told himself to refuse, then gave in without knowing why. I'll do whatever I can.’

      Thank you, thank you so much,’ she hastened to accept his offer. Margont rejoined Jean-Quenin Brémond, cursing himself. The woman had manipulated him! And what on earth would he say to ‘the high command’? Yes, she had definitely taken advantage of him, but what was worse was that he had capitulated to her in full knowledge of what she was doing. Besides, the word ‘murder’ had been used. That was serious, and unforeseen.

      He asked Brémond to write him a safe-conduct, so that he would not be taken for a deserter. A bullet had nearly punctured his stomach - no need to risk dozens of others, delivered by the firing squad.

      ‘I won’t be long,’ he explained. ‘I don’t think I’m in a condition to fight, but I can move about...’

      Jean-Quenin Brémond agreed. 'Stop feeling guilty: you’re in no state to rejoin your company. In any case, the bridge linking us to the Austrian side has been destroyed again. And when it’s repaired our field marshals will prefer to use it to let through the regiments who haven’t fought yet, rather than a raggle-taggle band of cripples who don’t even know where their battalions are.’

      Jean-Quenin hated all the administrative formalities that the army was so fond of. He took malicious pleasure in rendering them ridiculous by conforming to them to the letter. He therefore

      scribbled an illegible note charging Margont with searching the surrounding area in order to find requisitions for the Army Medical Service: linen to make into lint, food, spirits ...

      ‘Don’t think that just because your injury is mild, you can do whatever you like,’ he added.

      Seeing that Margont was no longer listening to him, he tapped his friend’s wound. Margont paled in a convincing demonstration of Brémond’s point.

      ‘So, don’t over-exert yourself. I’ll lend you one of my horses; you will tire yourself less.’

      Margont thanked him warmly and mounted the horse that, spooked by the increasingly loud shots of the artillery, snorted and pawed the ground.

      The man who had found Wilhelm was called Bergen and he taught in the orphanage where the adolescent had lived. He convinced Luise Mitterburg not to come with them.

      She and the two servants followed them only as far as the western bank, using the large bridge, which the pontoniers were shoring up as quickly as possible, while anticipating another tree to destroy it again. As soon as she arrived on the other side of the river, the young Austrian walked rapidly away. She was finally realising what the news she had just been given meant. She was still managing to hold back her grief, but for how much longer? She did not want Margont to see her crying- She disappeared into a crowd of women. Racked with worry, they assailed her with questions but she had no answers for them.

      CHAPTER 4

      ELEVEN bodies were laid out by the side of the road linking Vienna to the village of Ebersdorf. In the heat of the sun, their nauseous emanations filled the air. Three men were lacerated, striped with wide gashes - the vehement work of hussars was evident. Some had no apparent wounds and seemed to contemplate the sky with their staring eyes. Almost all were wearing the grey greatcoat with red cuffs of the militia. The French army, finding itself well advanced into enemy territory, wanted to protect its rear, particularly its lines of communication. This meant that certain officers were pitiless with spies, both the civilians who organised ambushes and the soldiers who fought for the enemy.

      Bergen indicated Wilhelm. A bullet had struck him in the middle of the chest. His green jacket was stained with dried blood. Margont  noticed the most striking feature last, as if his soul had at first rendered him blind to the ‘detail’. The adolescent had been mutilated. His smile had been extended from ear to ear, with a

      knife. He looked as if he were roaring with demonic, absurd, atrocious laughter and this impression was so real and lifelike that it seemed to give the lie to his death. Yet, already the body was decomposing. Margont looked away.

      A second lieutenant was standing guard with two sentries. Recognising Bergen, he came to stand opposite Margont’s horse, saluted him and immediately

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