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Chapter 8

I was there, thoughtful. I looked on these fields, these ravines, these
hills, shuddering. I would willingly have insulted this terrible place.

But sacred horror held me back.

The station-master of Sedan came to my carriage, and explained to me
what I had before my eyes. I seemed to see, through his words, the pale
lightnings of the battle. All these distant cottages, scattered about
and charming in the sun, had been burnt; they were rebuilt; Nature, so
quickly diverted, had repaired everything, had cleaned everything, had
swept everything, had replaced everything. The ferocious convulsion of
men had vanished, eternal order had resumed its sway. But, as I have
said, the sun was there in vain, all this valley was smoke and darkness.
In the distance, upon an eminence to my left, I saw a huge castle; it
was Vandresse. There lodged the King of Prussia. Halfway up this height,
along the road, I distinguished above the trees three pointed gables; it
was another castle, Bellevue; there Louis Bonaparte surrendered to
William; there he had given and delivered up our army; it was there
that, not being immediately admitted, and requested to exercise a little
patience, he had remained for nearly an hour silent and wan before the
door, bringing his disgrace, and waiting until it should please William
to open the door to him; it was there that before receiving it the King
of Prussia had made the sword of France dangle about in an ante-chamber.
Lower down, nearer, in the valley, at the beginning of a road leading to
Vandresse, they pointed out to me a species of hovel. There they told
me, while waiting for the King of Prussia, the Emperor Napoleon III. had
got down, livid; he had gone into a little courtyard, which they pointed
out to me, and where a dog growled on the chain; he had seated himself
on a stone close by a dunghill, and he had said, "I am thirsty." A
Prussian soldier had brought him a glass of water.

Terrible end of the _coup d'état_! Blood when it is drunk does not
quench the thirst. An hour was to come when the unhappy one should utter
the cry of fever and of agony. Disgrace reserved for him this thirst,
and Prussia this glass of water.

Fearful dregs of Destiny.

Beyond the road, at a few steps from me, five trembling and pale poplars
sheltered the front of the house, the single story of which was
surmounted by a sign. On this sign was written in great letters this
name: DROUET. I became haggard. _Drouet_ I read _Varennes_. Tragical
Chance, which mingled Varennes with Sedan, seemed to wish to bring the
two catastrophes face to face, and to couple in a manner with the same
chain the Emperor a prisoner of the foreigner, to the King a prisoner of
his people.

The mist of reverie veiled this plain from me. The Meuse appeared to me
to wear a ruddy reflection, the neighboring isle, whose verdure I had
admired, had for its subsoil a tomb: Fifteen hundred horses, and as many
men, were buried there: thence the thick grass. Here and there, as far
as could be seen, mounds, covered with ill-favored vegetation, dotted
the valley; each of these patches of vegetation marked the place of a
buried regiment. There Guyomar's Brigade had been annihilated; there,
the Lhéritier Division had been exterminated; here the 7th Corps had
perished; there, without having even reached the enemy's infantry, had
fallen "beneath the cool and well-aimed firing," as the Prussian report
states, the whole of General Margueritte's cavalry. From these two
heights, the most elevated of this circle of hills, Daigny, opposite
Givonne, which is 266 mètres high, Fleigneux, opposite Illy, 296 mètres
high, the batteries of the Prussian Royal Guard had crushed the French
Army. It was done from above, with the terrible authority of Destiny. It
seemed as though they had come there purposely, these to kill, the
others to die. A valley for a mortar, the German Army for a pestle, such
is the battle of Sedan. I gazed, powerless to avert my eyes, at this
field of disaster, at this undulating country which had proved no
protection to our regiments, at this ravine where all our cavalry were
demolished, at all this amphitheatre where the catastrophe was spread
out, at the gloomy escarpments of La Marphée, at these thickets, at
these declivities, at these precipices, at these forests filled with
ambushes, and in this terrible shadow, O Thou the Invisible! I saw Thee.

Victor Hugo