An Autumn Story
At the time of this story, the war had driven me far from my usual dwelling places. Two dreadful foreign armies were clashing on our soil, and most of us felt as if the ferocious campaign would rage on forever. Our population, as you can imagine, suffered direct, barbaric harm. And when the invaders slowly withdrew across the country, retreating before the other, the so-called liberating army, they made exorbitant demands for men and matériel. As a result, despite a spirit of patriotism and political compromise, a great number of people were forced to seek refuge for long months or even years in primitive areas, remote from the main highways. They abandoned their personal affairs, their property, even their families. Those who had the possibility or the temperament organized themselves for an armed resistance or even offensive. Others put up at least a passive resistance to the overbearing demands of the invaders. And still others, finally, just made sure they got away from the thick of the fighting.
Now since, you see, I belonged to one of those categories, I led the life of an outlaw for a long time. Indeed, considering the more or less inaccessible places I stayed in, my existence was that of a criminal, a hunted fugitive. Many people shared this life with me, as circumstances, in turn, pulled us apart or brought us together. But ultimately, I was left with only one companion. The two of us pushed on into the heart of an extremely wild and primitive mountain region that was, nevertheless, close to what is known as the civilized world. Then, one day in late autumn, because of a temporary conflict in our personal interests, we decided to part company, but only until nightfall. We had been told about a strong squad of armed men who were advancing along the deepest slopes. As usual, they were impressing others into their service. After agreeing on a meeting place, my friend and I separated in the densest part of the woods. I never saw him again.
I spent the whole morning in that forest. Toward noon, however, a violent downpour forced me to seek some kind of refuge, a shack of not a house, abandoned if not inhabited. No sooner had I gotten underway than I almost ran into a large patrol that was hunting for “draft dodgers”. The soldiers yelled at me to halt, and since I didn’t obey, the saluted me with a few musket shots. I had to scurry back into the woods, retracing my steps. I hoped they wouldn’t care to venture into an unfamiliar forest. But I soon heard them hot on my trail, smashing through the branches and foliage. They were stalking me. I was forced to strike off on a long trek through the mountains, moving closer and closer to the peaks of that awesome massif. Taking wide and exhausting twists and turns, I did my best to shake off my pursuers. At the same time, I didn’t want to move too far from my nocturnal meeting place. My pursuers, fanning out, had a numerical advantage over me, and I couldn’t reveal myself to them without risking my life. Now and then, I spotted other patrols, which, though not intentionally, were cutting off my path. My pursuers did not give up the chase until the sun was about to set.
I was out of danger for the moment, but I had gotten too far from my base of operations, and darkness was setting in on me, a dismal darkness. I decided to spend the night where I was, and I will leave it to the reader to imagine how I spent it, at an altitude of five thousand feet, soaked to the skin, with no refuge, almost no food. But I got through it, dozing off briefly, until I was aroused by the icy dawn wind.
There was little hope of meeting up with my friend, who, I knew, had been forced to keep shifting around all through the night. So I had no reason to go back to my starting point, from which the previous day’s events now kept me far away. Surveying the countryside from my high position, I thought I could make out a valley amid a majestic group of unfamiliar mountains. I could expect the valley to be inhabited, yet, considering how out of the way it was, not too overrun by the oppressors. I decided to go there. Alas! No sooner had I climbed down to the foot of my peak than I sighted a patrol. Even though they hadn’t seen me, they were heading straight toward me. I had to dodge the,. Next, to make a long story short, I had to dodge a second patrol, then a third, then others. So once again, I spent my entire day, alarmed and fleeing, unable to reach my planned destination. I had exhausted my meagre supply of food that morning, and I was overwhelmed by fatigue. I made up my mind to reach an inhabited place no matter what it might cost me, no matter the dangers I had to face. I would profit from the waning daylight. Taking cover as best I could in the underbrush, I began my descent.
The area I found myself in was a kind of huge, precipitous ravine. Reaching almost from the peak of the mountain, it opened, very nearly in a straight line, into some apparently flat ground perhaps thirty-five hundred feet below. The walls of the ravine were lined with dense vegetation. Despite my miserable condition when climbing down, I have never forgotten the savage beauty of that place, the dark fascination or dark terror that seemed to hover here. No doubt, my own shattered nerves contributed to that mood.
I had gotten halfway down the chasm when I paused, unsure of what to do next. Despite my earlier firm resolve, I could not help thinking that when I reached the valley it would still be light out. I would practically be running into the arms of the enemy, inasmuch as the patrols often bivouacked far from their barracks, in the most inaccessible parts of the mountain. On the other hand, if I were overtaken by night, I couldn’t possibly get my bearings in this completely unfamiliar environment, nor would I find anyone to shelter me. Furthermore, the chasm itself had become almost impassible. Huge, flat, slippery rocks, jutting high above one another, were hidden in the deeply entangled underbrush that flourished in their cracks.
But, as I sadly tried to figure out what to do, my eyes alighted on something that might be considered a path or a trail. Running a bit further down, it cut across the ravine, rising again and swinging around both shoulders, right and left. Upon venturing that far, I realized that this was indeed a shepherd’s path, although barely discernible. It was emphasized more by the scattered hoofprints of goats. Still, I decided to follow it. In this way, I wouldn’t have to climb too low and I could probably manage to stumble across some kind of shack. All I had to do now was determine my direction. Haphazardly, I headed left. Making my own way up the slope, I reached the top. And here, in my dreadful state, I was greeted by the most pleasant sight. The thing I had been hopelessly searching for was there at my feet, within range: a house! Furthermore, the chimney was emitting smoke that the wind shredded in the damp, darkening air. The smoke was rather mournful, but it made me deliriously happy. My heart opened; I moved toward the refuge that had been sent by providence.
It stood on a sort of tiny plateau, virtually a platform, completely ringed by crests and hills that the mountain formed in this area, a convergence of two or three massive slopes. Encircled by several outbuildings, the house looked huge and dignified, an aristocratic mansion or a manor rather than a farmhouse. I would surely be welcomed and offered food there – if such hospitality were extended to me.
And indeed, as I trudged that short distance after my first flush of delight, I was assailed by strong doubts. People did help wanderers in every possible way. They saw them as persecuted patriots. But this did not blind them to the accompanying dangers, compromises, and threats to their personal safety. Could a complete stranger with nothing to recommend him, armed, bearded, filthy, with a wild face and nothing trustworthy about him, really expect to be welcomed at twilight, in a remote house in the mountains? After all, how many patriots as well as evildoers, spies and traitors was the region teeming with? If the house, as seemed likely, was inhabited only by women and old people (that part of the population that had a chance of escaping some if not all the torments of the invaders and could risk staying on in their homes), wouldn’t these defenceless people bolt themselves in all the more securely and not even open their shutters to me? Especially since I was alone and, after all, could do little against a locked door?
Nevertheless, I decided to try and arouse the pity of the inhabitants, whoever they were. Leaving the underbrush, I hurried across the brief stretch of land, which had once been cultivated; then I veered through the orchard or garden that surrounded the house. I hoped to glimpse someone to call to, but the area seemed totally deserted, without human beings or domestic animals. Since the dogs in these places are particularly bellicose, I was surprised that none came charging towards me. Moreover, twilight had already yielded almost entirely to darkness, and I could barely make out the objects around me. Perhaps the dwellers and their animals were already locked in for the night. But I did not hear the slightest noise even from the outbuildings as I approached them, the sheds, stabled, or barns. Yet the house was certainly inhabited, as was amply proved by the smoke I had seen curling up some fifteen minutes earlier.
I walked over to the main façade, which loomed ashen in the dark air. A double stairway led up to a vast terrace connected to the house by the large front door. On the banisters of the stone stairway, I noted several stone pyramids and spheres, the kind to be found three or four centuries ago in every aristocratic manor throughout this region. On the terrace floor, I saw clumps of stinging nettles and other weeds growing between the tiles. Next to the front door, the wall had lost a huge piece of plaster. In other words, as far as I could judge at first sight, this was an old house going to rack and ruin.
Since no light was visible anywhere, I listened for a while. Again I couldn’t catch the faintest sound. Even the soft noises of the mountain had stopped – abruptly, as it were. A torrent in some distant valley had been softly murmuring in my ears all day, but now it seemed to have flowed down completely. The cloudburst deluging the area since morning had likewise stopped for now, and the whole of nature was caught in one of those curious moments of suspension, when everything seems held in precious and ominous equilibrium.
That absolute an woeful silence was beginning to grate on my already harried nerves. Not far from the front entrance, I discovered a ground-floor window protected by iron bars. The window was pitch-black. I decided to call out. My voice resounded without an echo in the empty air, but there was no response. After many such attempts, I resolutely grabbed the huge door-knocker and dropped it heavily. From the entrails of the mansion, there came a low dull sound that made me shiver. But there was not other response. After duly waiting, I started banging again, more and more violently. My luck did not improve, which was not unforeseeable, since in those times, this normal way of announcing oneself was not used by people with good intentions. If the residents hadn’t answered my repeated calls, they would be even less likely to respond to my knocking. All the same, I must confess that I felt a certain irrational and undefinable terror, which, in spire of my wretched condition, had a touch of curiosity. Aside from finding the necessary hospitality, I had to put an end to that whole business.