Samuel Lover: The demon of war casts his shadows before
From He Would Be a Gentleman (1844)
It was a beautiful morning in spring, when the active inhabitants of two neighbouring villages in the province of Hainau, adjoining French Flanders, had just finished their morning meal, and were outgoing again to the fields, to continue the healthful industry with which the morning opened, when the blast of a trumpet attracted their attention, and the peaceful peasants were startled at the sound; for who could live in that province and not know that any day might bring the horrors of war to their door, and, though the little villages of Fontenoi and Antoine had hitherto escaped that perennial scourge of the Lower Countries, the sinking heart of every inhabitant foreboded that their hour was come at last; and the happy hamlets which hitherto had known no greater excitement than a wedding-feast or a christening, were about to have a burial-service celebrated on a large scale. The implements of husbandry, which had been cheerfully flung over the shoulders of sturdy men as they went a-field, were suddenly cast downwards again, and the listeners to the trumpet leant thoughtfully on spade and hoe, as they caught the first glimpse of the party whence the warlike warning proceeded, and some squadrons of French horse were seen approaching! Women and children now crowd the village streets, as the cavalry ride in and dismount, and appropriate houses and stables to their use, as they are billeted by the proper officer, – and when houses and stables can hold no more, the horses are picketed and the men bivouac.
When all is, so far, settled, the peasants go to work, but they cannot work with that heart-free spirit which makes toil pleasing. The demon of war
“Casts his shadow before,”
and all is darkened beneath it. The women in the villages are busy with ordinary cares; they are preparing “sops for Cerberus,” and hope to soften the hearts of the men of war by roasting and boiling. So far, so well. But, in another hour, the engineers arrive, and, shortly after, a group of officers of the higher rank gallop into the town, — rapid orders are given, and the officers depart swiftly, as they came, and then a terrible work of destruction commences. Whole families are turned out of their houses ; the engineers set to work, the rafters of the cottages are sawn through — in tumbles roof after roof, and each house is made the platform for a piece of artillery. Yes, the smoke of the happy hearth that curled in the golden mist of evening, and invited the weary traveller from afar, was to be replaced by the repellent vapour of the cannon’s mouth!
The hospitable village that afforded welcome and healthful fare, and wholesome slumber to the wayfarer, was preparing to hurl destruction on all who should approach it. The homes that heard the first fond whispers of bride and bridegroom, and the after holier blessings of fathers and mothers on their children, were soon to hear the roar of cannon thundering above their ruins.
When this work of destruction began, the men ran back from the fields, while the women and children stood in the streets into which they were turned, and looked on, — some with horror, others with the clamour that bereavement will produce in the most patient. Here was a woman, in silent despair, looking on at her dwelling tumbling into rubbish, – there was some youthful girl, struggling with a swarthy pioneer, endeavouring to stay the upraised axe, about to fell some favourite tree. The men, returning breathless from the field, add to the clamour in a different fashion; but curses or prayers are alike unavailing, – the work of destruction goes on.
Far apart, sitting by the road-side, was a woman, whose tears fell fast, as she held her baby to her bosom, — the fountains of life and of sorrow were both flowing. The unconscious baby smiled ever and anon, and looked up with its bright eyes at the weeping mother, while an elder child, who could just lisp its thoughts, was crying bitterly as she told her little grief -that the soldiers had trampled down all the pretty flowers in the garden…