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Chapter 1

THE FALL.

I was coming back from my fourth exile--an exile in Belgium, a small
matter. It was one of the last days of September, 1871. I was
re-entering France by the Luxembourg frontier. I had fallen asleep in
the carriage. Suddenly the jolt of the train coming to a standstill
awoke me. I opened my eyes.

The train had stopped in the middle of a charming landscape.

I was in the half-consciousness of an interrupted sleep; and ideas, as
yet half-dreams, hazy and diffuse, hovered between myself and reality. I
experienced the undefinable and confused sensation of awakening.

A river flowed by the side of the railway, clear, around a bright and
verdant island. This vegetation was so thick that the moor-hens, on
reaching it, plunged beneath it and disappeared. The river wound through
a valley, which appeared like a huge garden. Apple-trees were there,
which reminded one of Eve, and willows, which made one think of Galatea.
It was, as I have said, in one of those equinoctial months when may be
felt the peculiar charm of a season drawing to a close. If it be winter
which is passing away, you hear the song of approaching spring; if it be
summer which is vanishing, you see glimmering on the horizon the
undefinable smile of autumn. The wind lulled and harmonized all those
pleasant sounds which compose the murmur of the fields; the tinkling of
the sheep-bells seemed to soothe the humming of the bees; the last
butterflies met together with the first grapes; this hour of the year
mingles the joy of being still alive with the unconscious melancholy of
fast approaching death; the sweetness of the sun was indescribable.
Fertile fields streaked with furrows, honest peasants' cottages; under
the trees a turf covered with shade, the lowing of cattle as in Virgil,
and the smoke of hamlets penetrated by rays of sunshine; such was the
complete picture. The clanging of anvils rang in the distance, the
rhythm of work amidst the harmony of nature. I listened, I mused
vaguely. The valley was beautiful and quiet, the blue heavens seemed as
though resting upon a lovely circle of hills; in the distance were the
voices of birds, and close to me the voices of children, like two songs
of angels mingled together; the universal purity enshrouded me: all this
grace and all this grandeur shed a golden dawn into my soul....

Suddenly a fellow-traveller asked,--

"What place is this?"

Another answered,--

"Sedan."

I shuddered.

This paradise was a tomb.

I looked around. The valley was circular and hollow, like the bottom of
a crater; the winding river resembled a serpent; the high hills, ranged
one behind the other, surrounded this mysterious spot like a triple line
of inexorable walls; once there, there is no means of exit. It reminded
me of the amphitheatres. An indescribable disquieting vegetation which
seemed to be an extension of the Black Forest, overran all the heights,
and lost itself in the horizon like a huge impenetrable snare; the sun
shone, the birds sang, carters passed by whistling; sheep, lambs, and
pigeons were scattered about, leaves quivered and rustled; the grass, a
densely thick grass, was full of flowers. It was appalling.

I seemed to see waving over this valley the flashing of the avenging
angel's sword.

This word "Sedan" had been like a veil abruptly torn aside. The
landscape had become suddenly filled with tragedy. Those shapeless eyes
which the bark of trees delineates on the trunks were gazing--at what?
At something terrible and lost to view.

In truth, that was the place! And at the moment when I was passing by
thirteen months all but a few days had elapsed. That was the place where
the monstrous enterprise of the 2d of December had burst asunder. A
fearful shipwreck.

The gloomy pathways of Fate cannot be studied without profound anguish
of the heart.

Victor Hugo