Boule de Suif
For several days in succession the remnants of a routed army had been passing through the City. They were not troops, but disorganized hordes. The men had long, dirty beards and tattered uniforms; they walked with a listless gait, without flag nor formation. All seemed exhausted, worn out, incapable of thought or resolve, marching only by force of habit and dropping with fatigue as soon as they stopped. One saw for the most part hastily mobilized men, peaceful business men and rentiers, bending under the weight of their rifles; young snappy volunteers, easily scared, but full of enthusiasm, ready to attack as well as to retreat; then, among them, a few red trousers, fragments of a division decimated in a great battle; despondent artillery men aligned with these non-descript infantrymen; and there and there the shining helmet of a heavy footed dragon who had difficulty in keeping step with the quicker pace of the soldiers of the line.
Legions of francs-tireurs with heroic names: “Avengers of Defeat”—“Citizens of the Tombs”—“Brothers in Death”—passed in their turn looking like bandits.
Their leaders, former drapers or grain merchants, tallow or soap dealers, warriors for the circumstance, who had been commissioned officers on account of their money or the length of their mustaches; covered with arms, flannel and stripes, they were talking in a high-sounding voice, discussing plans of campaign, and claiming that they alone supported on their shoulders agonizing France; as a matter of fact, these braggarts were afraid of their own men, scoundrels often brave to excess, but always ready for pillage and debauch.
It was rumored that the Prussians were going to enter Rouen.
The National Guard who, for the past two months, had been very carefully reconnoitering in the neighboring woods, at times shooting their own sentries and getting ready to fight when a little rabbit rustled in the bushes, had been mustered out and returned to their homes. Their arms, uniforms, all their deadly apparel, with which they had recently frightened the milestones along the national highways for three leagues around, had suddenly disappeared.
The last of the French soldiers had just crossed the Seine to go to Pont-Andemer by Saint Sever and Bourg-Achard; and following them all, their general, desperate, unable to attempt anything with such non-descript wrecks, himself dismayed in the crushing debacle of a people accustomed to conquer and now disastrously defeated despite their legendary bravery, was walking between two orderlies.
Then a profound calm, a trembling and silent expectancy hovered over the City. Many corpulent well to do citizens, emasculated by the business life they had led, were anxiously waiting for the victors, fearing lest they might consider as weapons their roasting spits or their large kitchen knives.