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CHARACTERS ROUGON, a Belgian peasant
JEAN, a peasant boy

SCENEThe main room of a ruined cottage on the outskirts of a small Belgian village. The rear wall has two enormous breaches made by the shells of the artillery. The right wall is partly hidden by a mass of wreckage from the roof, which has caved in leaving a jagged hole through which the sky can be seen. The ceiling slants drunkenly downward toward the right, ending abruptly in a ragged edge of splintered boards and beams which forms a fantastic fretwork against the sky. The floor is littered with all kinds of debris.

  In the rear wall near the right corner, a window, its panes of glass all broken, with a torn white curtain. No trace of the door­way to the road remains. The larger breach in the rear wall is used as exit and entrance.

  The left wall, with a door in the middle, is uninjured. Over the door a large black crucifix hangs from a nail.

  In the center of the room, an overturned table. A solitary chair, the only thing left standing, is beside it. On the right of the table a smashed armchair.

  The time is about sundown on a September day. Through the breaches in the wall a dark green vista of rolling fields can be seen. Where they meet the horizon they are already shimmering in the golden dust of the sunset. Muffled and far-off the booming of distant cannon reverberates slowly over the fields.

  The sound of shuffling footsteps is heard from the road before the cottage and a great hulking old man of sixty-five or so appears at the larger breach in the rear wall. He is dressed in the usual peasant fashion and wears wooden sabots on his feet. He is bent under some burden which, as he enters the room, is seen to be the body of a young man dressed in the uniform of a Belgian infantryman. He lays the body down carefully in a cleared space between the table and the left wall, pillowing the soldier's head upon his knapsack. The body lies with its feet toward the rear wall.

  He stands looking down at the still form, his attitude one of abject despair. A heavy sob shakes his round shoulders. He murmurs brokenly: "Charles! My little one!", then turns abruptly and stumbles to the middle of the room where he mechanically rights the overturned table. He sits down on the chair, and stares at the ruins about him with an expression of dazed bewilderment on his broad face, his round, child-like eyes wandering dully from one object to another. His gaze finally rests on the smashed armchair on the other side of the table, and suddenly overcome by a flood of anguished horror, he hides his face in his hands' rocking from side to side on his chair, moaning to himself like a wounded animal.

  The slight black-robed figure of a priest appears on the road outside. He casts a quick glance into the room and, seeing the bowed figure on the chair quickly picks his way to the peasant's side. The priest is old, white-haired, with a kindly, spiritual face.

  THE PRIEST—Rougon!

  ROUGON—(not hearing him) God, oh God!

  THE PRIEST—(laying a thin white hand compassionately on Rougon's broad back) There, there, my son! It is the will of God.

  ROUGON—(startled by the sound of a voice, jumps up from his chair) Eh? (stares at the priest with dazed eyes)

  THE PRIEST—(with a sad smile) Oh, come now, it isn't possible that you've forgotten me.

  ROUGON—(snatching off his cap respectfully) Pardon, Father. I was—I didn't know—you see—all this—

  THE PRIEST—(gently) I have heard of your loss. I understand.

  ROUGON—But take the chair, Father. (bitterly) I am lucky to have it left to offer you.

  THE PRIEST—(sitting down) You must not brood over your misfortunes. Many, a great many, have suffered even more than you. You must learn to bear these burdens as they come, at such a dreadful time as this, and pray to God for strength. We must all bow ourselves before His will.

  ROUGON—His will? Ha! No, the good God would not punish me so,—I, who have harmed no one. (furiously) It is all these cursed Pruss—

  THE PRIEST—Ssshh! (after a pause) Such thoughts may rest in the heart, but to let them rise to the lips is hardly wise—now.

  ROUGON—What matter if they should hear? I am finished, me! They can do no more but kill me. (He sits on the edge of the table. A heavy sob shakes his bowed shoulders.)

  THE PRIEST—(after a pause during which he gazes sadly at the face of the dead young soldier) You must not mourn his loss so bitterly. He has given his life for his country. He is at rest with God. You should feel proud of him.

  ROUGON—(dully) Yes, he is—at rest—in heaven. And, look you, Father, you remember, this was the day—today he was to have been married.

  THE PRIEST—(in accents of deep grief) True, true, I had forgotten. Poor boy, poor boy—and poor Louise!

  ROUGON—And my poor old woman—Ah, good God, what have we done? All this—in one day!

  THE PRIEST—Your wife—she doesn't know?

  ROUGON—No. This morning, look you, I sent her away. It was Charles who came to me this morning—in his new uniform—he who lies there so still now—he whom they have murdered, those cursed Prussians!

  THE PRIEST—Ssshh! Would you bring more misfortune upon yourself?

  ROUGON—(springing to his feet in a frenzy) Ah, how I would love to slaughter them, to grind my heel in their fat faces, to,—to—

  THE PRIEST—Calm yourself, for the love of heaven, my good Rougon! Will it improve matters, think you, to have you, too, shot? Do not forget your poor old wife. You must be careful for her sake, if for nothing else.

  ROUGON—(sullenly slouching back to his seat on the table) It is hard, name of a dog, it is hard. I feel like a coward, me, to stand by and do nothing.

  THE PRIEST—(in low tones) Be comforted. The hour of retribution will yet strike. The end is not yet. Your son Charles will be avenged.

  ROUGON—(shaking his head doubtfully) There are so many.

  THE PRIEST—But you were telling me about your wife. You sent her away this morning?

  ROUGON—If the good God so pleases she is in Brussels by now. For, look you, Charles came to me this morning. "My father" he said, "I am afraid there will be fighting here today. I have warned the family of Louise and she is to flee with them to Brussels. I have arranged that Mother should go with them; and you, too, my father." "But no," I said, "It is right for your mother. She shall go. As you say, it will be no place for women if there be fighting. But me, no, I shall stay." "Mind you, then, Father, no shooting!" Charles said as he kissed me good-bye and ran to join the regiment on the village place, "or they will shoot you like a dog".

  THE PRIEST—You see! Your son gave you the best advice. Remember you are not a soldier.

  ROUGON—(proudly) If I were not too old I should have been in a uniform this long time gone. Too old! The fools! As if I could not shoot straighter than all these boys!

  THE PRIEST—There are other things to consider, my poor Rougon. Someone must gather in the harvest if we are not all to starve.

  ROUGON—(fiercely) The harvest? What is there left? First it is the French who take away my two fine horses that I have saved up every centime two years to buy—and leave me a scrap of paper; then—

  THE PRIEST—The French are our friends; in due time you shall be paid.

  ROUGON—Bah, promises!

  THE PRIEST—(earnestly) At a time like this all must bear their share of sacrifice.

  ROUGON—All who wanted war, yes; but we who desired nothing more than to be left in peace to till our fields? Look you, my Father, why should we be robbed and plundered and our homes blown apart by their accursed cannon?

  THE PRIEST—(shaking his head, sadly) God knows. Our poor country is a lamb among wolves.

  ROUGON—(raising his voice excitedly) The first shell that burst in our village—do you know where it struck?


  ROUGON—Out there—on my barn—setting it in flames—killing my two cows one of which I was to have given Charles, with half of my farm, as a wedding present—burning up all my hay I had gathered for the winter. (stamping his foot in his rage) Ah, those dirty beasts!

  THE PRIEST—Ssshh! They arc all around.

  ROUGON—And then, look you, the cavalry ride over my fields trampling my grain beneath their horses, the artillery wheels tear up the earth, the cannon blow my home to pieces—as you see. (bitterly) Harvest? There is nothing left to harvest but dirt and stones!

  THE PRIEST—(to change the subject which is rapidly infuriating the old man) You may well give thanks to the good God that your wife is safe in Brussels.

  ROUGON—They started early this morning, as I have said, and the family of Louise has relatives in Brussels. She is safe, God be thanked. (with a grief-stricken glance at the body of his son) But when she knows—and Louise who also loved him so—Oh, my God! (He chokes back a sob.)

  THE PRIEST—God give them strength to bear it.

  ROUGON—(indicating his son) He wanted me to go with them. He was afraid I would do something rash if I stayed. But I have been calm. But, name of a dog, it has been hard—when I saw them trampling my wheat—those pigs—when I saw the ashes which had been my barn—and this house, as you see, where I had lived so many years—this finger itched to press the trigger and send at least one to hell for payment.

  THE PRIEST—My son, my son!

  ROUGON—Your pardon, my Father. Had it not been for the promise I had given Charles, I would have taken the old rifle from where I have it hidden in there (he indicates with a nod of his head the room on the left) and—

  THE PRIEST—(casting an apprehensive glance toward the street) Ssshh! Be careful what you say in so loud a tone. Their soldiers are everywhere. But where were you when all this fighting was taking place?

  ROUGON—I was hiding in the well. I had placed a board across, on which I could stand and see what took place through the chinks in the stones. I wanted to see—him.

  THE PRIEST—See—Charles? How could—

  ROUGON—His part of the regiment was behind the wall in the orchard not one hundred meters away. I could watch him clearly.

  THE PRIEST—(to himself, half-aloud) Poor man!

  ROUGON—At first it was all right. Their infantry came up so close to each other that not even a child could have missed them. Bang! and they were toppled over before they had even reached the foot of the hill. I laughed. I thought it was all finished. I could see Charles laughing and talking with his comrades—and then—(He stops, shaking his head despondently.)

  THE PRIEST—And then?

  ROUGON—One of their devilish flying machines which look like the great birds flew overhead, far-up. All shot at it but it was too far away. It flew back to them, and a minute later, look you, I saw white puffs of smoke on all the hills over to the west; then bang! crash! I could not hear; my ears were cracked with the din. There was dust, and falling walls, and my barn blazing. Ah, those accursed cannon! I climbed out of the well and ran to the barn.

  THE PRIEST—In the midst of all those bursting shells?

  ROUGON—I trembled with rage. I had no fear of their cannon. I remembered only the cow, the pretty little cow, I was to give to Charles. But I could do nothing. Not all the fire-engines in Belgium could have saved it. I ran back to the well. Ssszzz! went the bullets all round. As I was climbing over I was stunned by a terrible crash. The roof of this house tumbled in—as you see.

  THE PRIEST—And you remained in the well all during the battle?

  ROUGON—Yes—until I saw Charles fall. He was just aiming his rifle over the wall when I saw him throw up his hands, spin around like a top, and fall on his face. I ran down and carried him back on my shoulders to the well—but it was too late. He was dead. (He stops abruptly, choking back a sob.)

  THE PRIEST—(after a pause) Requiescat in pace. His life was ever a happy one. He never knew the cares and worries that come with the years and the ceaseless struggle for bread. He loved and was loved. He died the death of the brave. (gently) Is it not better after all—as it is? (Rougon does not answer.) Can you not console yourself with that thought?

  ROUGON—Perhaps. Who knows? But, look you, it is hard for me—and for Louise—and most of all for his mother whose baby he was.

  THE PRIEST—You all loved him, did everything in your power to make him happy. You have nothing with which to reproach yourselves.

  ROUGON—But now—what shall I do? Look you, it was for him we worked and saved, his mother and I; that he might never have to know, as we had known, what it is to be poor and hungry. (despondently) And now—we are old—what use to work? There is nothing left but death.

  THE PRIEST—You have each other.

  ROUGON—Yes, we have each other. Were it not for the thought of my poor Margot I had let these butchers kill me before this.

  THE PRIEST—(sternly) I do not like to hear you talk in that manner. You must realize well, that in its time of stress, your country has need of you; as much need of you as of her soldiers. You must not be rash. You must live and help and bear your part of her burden as best you can. It is your duty.

  ROUGON—Yes, yes, I well know it; but—

  THE PRIEST—Above all, you have to exercise control over your hasty temper. You must realize that you will best serve your country and revenge your personal wrongs by living and helping, not by willfully seeking death. You must remember you are a civilian and, according to the rules of war, you have no right to fight. Your part lies elsewhere. Let others shoot the guns.

  ROUGON—(disgustedly) Bah! The children they have as soldiers cannot shoot. With my little rifle in there I could pick off more Prussian swine than a whole regiment of youngsters like my poor Charles. (scornfully) Yet they tell me I am too old to enlist! Dolts!

  THE PRIEST—(rising and laying his hand on Rougon's back—with solemn earnestness) My son, before I leave, I want you to swear to me before the God who watches over us, that you will remember what I have said and not allow your temper to force you to violence.

  ROUGON—(sullenly) I promise. I swear it.

  THE PRIEST—(patting him on the back) There, now you are sensible, more like yourself. (He stands looking down at Charles.) I would advise you as to the burial of Charles. (Rougon groans.) Let it be done as secretly as possible. Let us avoid all provocation, and on their heads be it if misfortune happens. Perhaps tonight would be best.

  ROUGON—Ah, no, no, no! Please, my Father, not yet! Tonight let him remain here in his home, the house he was born in, with me.

  THE PRIEST—So be it. Tomorrow night, then. You will let me know what time you wish it to be.

  ROUGON—Very well, my Father.

  THE PRIEST—And now I must go; but first let us kneel down and humbly offer up a prayer for the repose of his soul. (They kneel down beside the dead body. The priest commences to intone a prayer in which the words "Almighty God," "Merciful," "Infinite justice," "Infinite love," "Infinite pity," "Thy son Jesus," "We, Thy children," "Praise Thy infinite goodness," stand out from the general mumble of sing-song sentences. Perhaps a sense of the crushing irony of this futile prayer penetrates the sorrow-numbed brain of Rougon and proves the last straw which breaks down his self-control; for he interrupts the droning supplications of the priest with a groan of agony, throws himself beside the young soldier's body, and sobs brokenly: "Charles, Charles, my little one! Oh, why did not God take me instead!")

  THE PRIEST—(after a pause—wiping the tears from his eyes with his large handkerchief) Come, come, it is hard, I know, but you must bear it like a man. God's will be done! He, too, had a Son who died for others. Pray to Him and He will comfort you in your affliction.

  ROUGON—(placing his hand gently on his son's face) Cold! Cold! He who was so alive and smiling only this morning. (A step is heard on the road outside. The two get hastily to their feet as a young man in the grey uniform of a German captain of infantry appears at one of the gaps of the wall.)

  THE CAPTAIN—(entering and turning to the priest) Are you the—(seeing the body on the floor) I beg your pardon.

  THE PRIEST—(coldly) What is your wish?

  THE CAPTAIN—(twirling his blond mustache fiercely to hide his embarrassment) Again, I ask pardon. I meant no disrespect. (Taking off his helmet impressively—he is a very young captain.) I honor the brave dead on whichever side they fall.

  THE PRIEST—(indicating Rougon who has slunk off to the other side of the table and is controlling his hatred and rage with very apparent effort) It is his son.

  THE CAPTAIN—Ah! Too bad! The fortunes of war. Today, him; tomorrow, me, perhaps. Are you the cure of the village?


  THE CAPTAIN—I have been seeking you ever since we occupied the place.

  THE PRIEST—I returned but a short time ago from Brussels where I had been called to make my report to the Bishop. I knew nothing of the fighting here or I should have returned sooner. (sadly) There were many, perhaps, who died needing me. But what is it you wish?

  THE CAPTAIN—I was sent by the colonel to find you and deliver his orders. There seems to be no one of civil authority left in the village—else I should not intrude upon you.

  THE PRIEST—I am listening.

  THE CAPTAIN—(oratorically) It is the colonel's wish that you warn the inhabitants against committing any violence against our soldiers. Civilians caught with arms will be immediately shot. (The priest casts a significant glance at Rougon who scowls and mutters to himself.) Is that clear?


  THE CAPTAIN—On the other hand all we demand of you will be paid for in cash. Let all your parishioners return to their work without fear of molestation. We make no war upon the helpless. (with complacent pride) I hope I make my meaning clear. I flatter myself my French is not so bad.

  THE PRIEST—(with cold politeness) You speak it very well, Monsieur. You may tell your colonel that I will do all in my power to impress his words upon the minds of my people—not that I respect his orders or admit his right to give them to a man of peace, but because I have the welfare of my people at heart.

  THE CAPTAIN—Good. I will tell him. And now I will say "au revolt" for 1, too, have my duties to perform. We march from here immediately.

  THE PRIEST—(significantly) Adieu. (The Captain goes out.)

  ROUGON—(raging) Dog of a Prussian!

  THE PRIEST—Silence! Are you a fool? (While he is speaking an awkward peasant boy of about fifteen with a broad face appears at the breech in the rear wall. His clothes are mud-stained and ragged and he is trembling with fear. He breathes in great shuddering gasps. There is a cut on his forehead beneath which the blood has dried in reddish-brown streaks.)

  ROUGON—(hears the noise) What's that? (They both turn around and see the boy.)

  THE PRIEST—Why, it's Jean! Whatever are you doing skulking around like that?

  JEAN—(stopping uneasily as if he intended to run away again) Nothing, nothing.

  THE PRIEST—Come over here. (Jean does not move but stares at him with frightened eyes.) Don't you hear me speaking to you? What is the matter with you?

  JEAN—(faintly) I am afraid.

  THE PRIEST—Of me? Come, this is ridiculous.

  JEAN—(his lips trembling) I am afraid—of them. Everything—blows up.

  ROUGON—Come to the good father when he speaks to you, stupid dolt! Or I shall find a good strong stick and—

  THE PRIEST—Hush, you are only frightening him. Come to me, Jean, like a good boy. (Jean goes slowly to the priest who puts an arm about his shoulders.) Why, you're trembling like a leaf! Did the battle frighten you?

  JEAN—No, no, no! I don't know.

  ROUGON—(contemptuously) The battle? He was never near the fighting. It was bad enough for we others without having this half-wilted calf around. So we sent him away with the women this morning. (to Jean) Answer me, you, how is it you are back here?

  JEAN—(trembling) I don't know.

  ROUGON—(roughly) Name of a dog, what do you know? Did we send you away with the women this morning or didn't we?

  JEAN—(uncertainly) Yes—I went away—this morning.

  THE PRIEST—Hush, Rougon, you are only frightening the poor fellow. Jean, listen to me and stop trembling. I shall not let anyone hurt you. I have always been your good friend, have I not?

  JEAN—Yes—you are my friend.

  THE PRIEST—Of course I am; and while I am around there is nothing you need fear. Come now, tell me like a good lad; you went away with the others this morning, didn't you?

  JEAN—Yes, Father.

  THE PRIEST—Then how do you happen to be here now? Why did you return to the village? Your clothes are in a shocking state. Where have you been hiding and how did you get that cut on your forehead?

  JEAN—(feeling the cut on his forehead with a dazed air) It hurts.

  THE PRIEST—You will come home with me presently and we will wash that nasty cut and wrap it up in a nice clean bandage. Then you may be sure you will no longer feel any hurt at all. But first tell me—

  JEAN—I don't know. I ran and ran—and I came here.

  THE PRIEST—But something must have happened to make you run. Come, tell us, what was it?

  JEAN—(vaguely) We left here and walked a long, long ways. Some rode in wagons but I was walking.

  ROUGON—And did you see Mother Rougon there, and Louise?

  JEAN—(in a strange tone—with a shudder) Yes, I saw them, I saw them. (Rougon gives a grunt of satisfaction.)

  THE PRIEST—Go on, my son, tell us what happened next.

  JEAN—We could hear shots. We hurried faster. The horses galloped. The women commenced to scream and cry. Always the firing was louder. We didn't see any soldiers for a long time. Then we came upon lots of bodies—men from our army and others dressed in grey.

  ROUGON—(in growing alarm) Name of a dog, why didn't you turn back, eh?

  JEAN—(vaguely) I don't know. (He drones on in his expressionless voice.) The women were praying. They were afraid. They wanted us to hurry up and get to Brussels. We beat the horses. The hills were covered with white spots like,—like daisies; and they floated 'way up in the air. (He makes a queer awkward gesture upward.)

  ROUGON—Idiot! What is all this foolish talk?

  THE PRIEST—(gently) It was the smoke from the guns you saw, my child.

  JEAN—(very slowly—trying his best to imitate the exact sound) Boom! Boom! Boom! I couldn't hear what anyone was saying. (He pauses.)

  ROUGON—Why do you stop, stupid? Go on, go on, or—(He shakes his clenched fist at the boy.)

  THE PRIEST—Silence, Rougon! Give the poor lad a chance.

  JEAN—(in flat, monotonous tones) Something blew up in a field by the road and threw dirt and stones on us. The horses were afraid. They ran faster. Then we came to the top of a hill. Lots of the soldiers in our army were there hiding in a long ditch. They shouted for us to run away. Then—then—then—

  THE PRIEST—(anxiously) Yes? (Rougon stands tensely with averted face as if afraid to listen.)

  JEAN—(throwing both his arms into the air with a wild gesture) Then everything around blew up. (in flat tones) Something hit me on the head. I laid down for a while. When I got up I couldn't see any of the rest. There were bodies all around. I saw Mother Rougon—

  THE PRIEST—(clinging to a last shred of hope) Alive and unharmed? (But Rougon has guessed the worst and stands as if in a stupor, clenching and unclenching his big red hands, his features working convulsively.)

  JEAN—She was lying on the ground. She had a big hole here (pointing to his chest) and blood all over—bright and red like—like flowers.

  ROUGON—(dully) Dead! She, too!

  JEAN—And Louise had a hole in her head, here (pointing to his forehead) and—

  THE PRIEST—(distracted with horror) Enough! Stop! We have heard all we care to, do you hear?

  JEAN—So I ran, and ran, and ran, and ran, and ran. (His words die away into a murmur—He stares straight before him like one in a trance.)

  THE PRIEST—Merciful God, have pity!

  ROUGON—(slowly—as if the meaning of Jean's words were just commencing to dawn on him) So—they are gone, too—the old woman—and Louise—(licks his lips with his dry tongue) Everything is gone.

  (There is a long silence. The priest dabs with his big handkerchief at the tears which are welling into his eyes. jean wanders over to the breach in the wall and stands looking down the road. A loud bugle call is heard. Jean darts back into the room.)

  JEAN—(waving his arms, cries in terrified tones) They are coming. They are coming this way! (He runs to the right corner of the room and crouches there trembling, seeking to hide himself in the fallen ruins.)

  ROUGON—So—they are coming? (He strides resolutely across the room and enters the room on left.)

  THE PRIEST—(alarmed by the expression on Rougon's face) Rougon! Rougon! What are you going to do? (He receives no answer. A moment later Rougon re-enters the room carrying a long-barreled rifle.)

  THE PRIEST—(seizing him by the arm) No, no, I beseech you!

  ROUGON—(roughly throwing the priest aside) Let me alone! (He half-kneels beside one of the breeches in the wall—then speaks in a voice of deadly calmness.) They will not pass here. They are going to turn off at the fork in the road. It is near enough, however. (The rhythmic tramp of the marching troops can be faintly heard.)

  THE PRIEST—(in agony) In the name of God I implore you—

  ROUGON—Bah, God! (He takes careful aim and fires.) That for Margot! (loads and fires again) That for Louise! (Cries of rage and running footsteps are heard. Rougon is reloading his rifle when the Captain and four German privates rush in. Rougon struggles but is disarmed and forced back to the wall on left. He stands proudly, calmly awaiting his fate. One of the soldiers seizes the priest.)

  THE SOLDIER—(to the Captain) Was mit dem Priester?

  ROUGON—(to the Captain) The good father did nothing. He but did his best to hold my arm and stop me. It is I alone who did the shooting, Dog of a Prussian!

  THE CAPTAIN—Is this true, priest?

  THE PRIEST—It is as he tells you. I tried to restrain him—not for your sakes, but for his own.

  THE CAPTAIN—(to the soldier) Las den Priester gehen! (The soldier releases the priest. The Captain turns to Rougon.) If you have a prayer to say, be quick! (The four soldiers line up in front of Rougon and face him across the body of Charles.)

  ROUGON—(with angry scorn) I want no prayers!

  THE PRIEST—Rougon!

  ROUGON—(furiously) To hell with your prayers!

  THE PRIEST—(supplicatingly) Make your peace with God, my son!

  ROUGON—(spitting on the floor, fiercely) That for your God who allows such things to happen! (to the Captain) I am ready, pig!

  THE CAPTAIN—(to the soldiers) Gewehr! Heraus! (The soldiers take aim.)

  THE PRIEST—May God have mercy on—

  THE CAPTAIN—Feuer! (A crashing report. Rougon pitches forward on his face, quivers for a moment, is still. The soldiers file out to the road. The Captain turns to the horrified priest.)

  THE CAPTAIN—(shrugging his shoulders) It is the law. (He follows the soldiers.)

  THE PRIEST—(looking down with infinite compassion at the still bodies of father and son) Alas, the laws of men! (The sun has set. The twilight is fading grayly into night. From the heap of wreckage in the right corner comes the sound of stifled weeping.)

(The Curtain Falls)

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