“Silence!” I yelled.
Everything but the bell ceased.
Heedless of my attire, I rushed to a back window and repeated my command.
The bell stopped.
“Who are you that you dare wake us like that!” I scolded.
A boy between eighteen and nineteen let go the rope and stepped beneath the window. I could see his blond hair in the moonlight.
“Are you Madame Huard?”
“I’ve come with a message from your husband.”
I grew cold as ice. Good God, what had happened?
In a bound I was down stairs and had opened the front door.
“Is H. wounded?” I gasped.
I breathed again.
“Where was he when you saw him?”
“On the road between Villers-Cotterets and La Ferte Milon.”
“What’s your message?”
The boy put his hand to his breast pocket and drew forth a slip of paper. The full moon shining on the white facade of the chateau threw such a brilliant reflection that I recognized a sheet from a sketch book, and could distinguish the following words scribbled in pencil:
“Give bearer fifty francs, then in the name of the love you bear me, evacuate now; go south, not Paris.”
The last words were underscored three or four times.
“What time was it when H. gave you this?”
“Noon or thereabouts.”
“How did you come? On foot?”
“But it’s after midnight!”
“I know, but I got lost and had three bad punctures.”
Here were marching orders for fair, and if I intended obeying enough time had already been lost. To stay in spite of everything was to be responsible for all the young lives that looked to me, for protection. Could I promise it? No. Then go it was!
At that same moment and as though to reinforce my decision, the strange clattering noise I had observed growing nearer and nearer during the last two days broke on the night air.
“Hark!” said the boy. “La mitrailleuse!”
“The machine guns!” I echoed.
That sufficed. “We’ll be leaving in ten minutes. Go to the kitchen. I’ll send someone to look after you and we’ll go together.”
All this had transpired in less time than it takes to tell it. Awakened by the bell, the refugees in the stables came pouring into the courtyard. A second later, George, lantern in hand, came running towards me.
“Tell Leon to harness Cesar—then go and wake Julie and say that we are leaving in ten minutes. I expect her, and her family, with their horse, to be ready. The courtyard in ten minutes. Mind!”
On the landing I met Madame Guix already fully dressed.
“Nous partons,” was all I said. She understood and followed me towards Yvonne’s room.