The Frenchman
It was not yet evening. The clock on the church tower was just striking four, but a large grey cloud rolled low over the valley like a heavy dream. A farmer came out onto his front walk and gazed searchingly into the forest and beyond at the mountains on the horizon. It's here, he thought. Snow could be smelt in the air. It was the day after St. Nicholas' and there had not yet been any snow, but today, today it would come. The sky grew dark and the village, already huddled, grew silent. Today they would get their money's worth.
The farmer relieved himself, noisily, and stamped his feet. He stamped his feet as if he were already shaking the snowflakes off, and his thin, pursed lips released a sound similar to laughter. The presentiment of snow, perhaps even a snowstorm, aroused a touch of merriment within him. An odd, somehow strangely fierce merriment with a hint of malice and protest. Even he did not know against whom.
Against his wife, whose ever-present, watchfully scrutinizing gaze followed his every step, which even now he glimpsed flashing behind the windows? Against the Good Lord, sitting in the warmth and comfort somewhere up above those grey clouds, who there again had surely never granted him a watchful gaze? He did not know. But he looked forward to the snow, even though he should much rather have been worried about it. But he wasn't. He was well prepared, so let it do its worst. In any case he had long stopped expecting anything good from anybody. Not even from his own children.
He was just about to go back in when the gate suddenly creaked open and in the doorway stood Michal, his son.
„Dad, come, come with me quickly. Please come quickly! I've run the whole way. Please come up over the sheep pen at the edge of the forest…“
Breathless and pale, his voice faltering, with a resemblance to his taciturn mother, he stood close up to the farmer, breathing into his face, his gnarled thin-fingered hand raised to the thick side of his father's fur coat.
„What's to do at the edge of the forest?“
Anything awful could have happened and something probably really had. The farmer knew it. But more than fright he felt repugnance. Repugnance towards this pale, trembling creature who was his son and who was so afraid of him that he was unable to finish his sentence.
„What's to do at the edge of the forest?“ he growled.
„Somebody's there, something's hap­pened to him…he's lying there bleeding, might be injured. Hurry up, we have to help him.“
„Who? Who is it?“
„I don't know. I don't know him. Some man, but…“ again he failed to complete his sentence.
„But what?“
„But he's not local and he's not…He's not one of us. He…he's suffering, moaning, you know…But I can't understand him.“
„Why not? Is he dying?“
„No…I don't know…I don't know. He's a foreigner.“
The farmer did not ask any more. What else could he have learnt from Michal? He was already clad and shod. On the way he prized an axe from a chopping block just to be sure, so he could say they were out for some wood if something…He seized it and they went off.
„Get a move on then, it'll be dark soon. And what on earth were you doing in the forest? You were only meant to check on the sheep pen, weren't you?“
A petite woman in a woollen scarf carefully crept out of the gate. They were now so far away that they could not see her and send her back in, but then again not so far away that she might lose them from view. They had not told her anything – nobody had told her what it was about, but she could clearly see that something had happened. She saw them talking and angrily gesticulating as they went…Something had happened and nobody had told her anything as always. She was only a woman – that's what he thinks. And it was true, but where would he be without her? Without her hands, industrious and acquisitive? Without her eyes that didn't miss a thing? Without her will and her strength? She was strong – she didn't look that way, but she always had been and still was. So let him not speak to her, he didn't need to and she didn't need to speak to him – she still knew everything important. All she had to do was look – he couldn't take that away from her. All she had to do was look and she knew everything. He couldn't stand it, she knew very well, he couldn't stand her looking at him. In complete silence and without reproach. Just looking. And she knew everything about him and he knew she knew, she didn't have to tell him. And this made him angry. Let him get angry, let him go right ahead and get angry, there was nothing he could do about it. He would have to gouge her eyes out. He would have to kill her and he wouldn't do that, even if he didn't like her, he was not capable of that and she knew it.
So she went after him with tiny little steps, her slender legs nimbly racing along. He would be angry if he saw her, but that would not happen, she would make sure of that. And if it did then it would be too late anyway. She would have found out what she wanted to.
The fellow lay in brushwood beneath a scarp. His head was tilted back and every so often he trembled or groaned. So he was still alive. His unusually styled jacket was sodden and one leg was soaked in blood. He opened his eyes and saw the two men.
„Thank God!“ he sighed. „I thought I was going to snuff it here.“
„What? What did he say?“ asked the farmer.
„I don't know,“ answered his son, surprised that his father was asking him for advice and disappointed that he couldn't give him any.
„It's not German,“ he at least added.
„Idiot! I can see that,“ the farmer let fly. No point asking him anything…
„Help!“ pleaded the man. „Please help me. Help, please help.“
He attempted to raise himself on his elbows but the pain forced him back down again. He was already so weak that he was unable. Even speaking hurt and required a lot of effort.
Perhaps there's no point saying anything else, he thought. They hardly understand me anyway, but it should be clear after all. They can see that I'm in a bad way and I need help, warmth and a doctor…His head fell back into the wet grass.
„We have to help him,“ said the farmer's son. „I'll take his shoulders, you take his legs.“
„Just hold on, hold on…It's not as easy as that.“
„We can carry him – he isn't a great hulk.“
„Idiot, that's not the point. I could carry him on my own if it came to that. But what actually is he? God knows what he is…“
And the farmer heaved a sigh. He felt sorry for him, that wasn't the point, but it's easy to say we'll help him…when you never know…
„He's not an Italian. You remember the one who painted the castle chapel? I heard him speaking – he kept getting angry, kept swearing. No, he's not an Italian. So come on, Dad, let's get a move on or he'll die on us here.“
„He's got a broken leg, look, twice over. He's not going to get far.“
„Why should he want to get far?“
„You don't know what he has on his conscience and what scum he might be.“
„It's his conscience, Dad. And he doesn't look like scum, he has decent clothes on. So what's to be done with him?“
„If only I knew.“
The foreigner groaned and again opened his eyes wide.
„Help! For God's sake, help!“
Christ Almighty, what were these two waiting for? For him to die? Did they want to take his boots or perhaps his jacket or his money? But they could have done that immediately…If they didn't help him he would not last another night. There was no risk for them. And if they don't want to rob him but they don't want to help him, then why for God's sake did they actually come? The young one had already been here. He'd thought he was going for help. Lord above, what kind of country had he found himself in? What kind of people was he among? He shouldn't have come here, everybody had tried to put him off but he'd only laughed. He saw no reason why silly Austria should be any worse than India or Egypt…Now he was beginning to understand.
„Help!“ he groaned.
Nothing, still nothing. They weren't going to do anything.
„And they'll say that we robbed him, or that we did it to him. He'll peg out before we manage to carry him down and people will say that we helped him and then fleeced him. I don't like it.“
„Come on, Dad, leave people out of this. God knows we have clear consciences. We can't leave him here, he'll die.“
„Everybody dies, sooner or later. I will and you will too. Not my idea. And you're not going to tell me what I can and cannot do. There are others to do that and there's enough of them without you.“
„I know, it's hard.“
„You don't know anything.“
„Mother would probably say you're right, but…“
The farmer froze, as if he felt those little watchful eyes in his back. Yes, she would most probably, she was so careful, so sensible…But she would say nothing, she would not say anything at all, if she did not agree with him, if he were going against her will. She would just look at him reproachfully. Only he was not afraid of that gaze and withstood it without batting an eyelid. He would do a good deed and he would not be afraid, certainly not of any woman. Perhaps this time it would be her who would not withstand his gaze and would speak…He turned his frowning face to his son to tell him to grab hold beneath the bloody man's shoulders then and to hurry up about it as it was getting dark.
The foreigner gathered his last strength. Perhaps there was no point, but he would try it again. Maybe they would at least understand a word here and there. He tried to speak clearly and very, very slowly. He couldn't do it any other way in any case.
„Please, please help me,“ he begged. „I am not dangerous. I am a decent, good man like you. I am legitimate and a Christian, a good Christian. Please help, I need help. I had an accident. I'm a journalist, an English journalist. I came to Austria because of the battle, you understand. Because of the battle with Napoleon…Battle…un­derstand? Austerlitz…Boom, boom…Napoleon, understand…boom, boom.“
„You see,“ gasped the farmer in shock, „Napoleon! I thought as much. I thought it wouldn't be straightforward. He's French! An enemy, agitator, revolutionary! You understand? We could have got very nastily involved. I should have realized straight away. Austerlitz, of course, my God, how could I have forgotten? It's only been a few days after all! That explains the injury – the little gentleman hobbled all the way here.“
„He couldn't have, Dad. He wouldn't have managed that. I think he fell from this scarp in the night.“
„I'm not interested in what you think. And what would he have been doing here in the night, eh? Come on.“
„Are we taking him?“
„No, not likely. We'll go and report everything to the office. Let them take him, if they want. Or let's not, you never know, and then…I'm not a rat, even if he is French. I'm not an informer and I hope you aren't either. We'll give him a chance.“
„But if we leave him here, he's not going to have any chance…“
„I've said. We're going. And hurry up…I don't want anybody to see us with him here.“
„Michal, pale and thin, hunched up as if the cloud hanging motionless over the valley without releasing its snow had placed its entire weight on his narrow un-farmerly back, and he glanced again unhappily at the injured man. He would have liked to have said something but did not know what and the Frenchman would not have understood him anyway. So he reached into the half-empty bag that he had been dragging around all day, took out a thick slice of bread and placed it on the ground beside the foreigner's hand. He couldn't do any more for him. The foreigner understood but could not believe it.
“No, my God, no! They're going! You can't…" he gasped in a muted, weak voice that even his compatriots would have found difficult to understand.
„For all the world, no! Nooo, don't leave me here! You stupid, blasted, bleeding Germans!“
So a Frenchman…thought the little woman hidden in the thicket. She had never seen a Frenchman before. Whatever did our Michal give him then? In the deepening gloom not even her sharp eyes could make out what it was. She left her hiding place and quietly, gently tiptoed closer. Kneeling beside him she quickly found out. Aha, bread…Just a piece of bread. But what a piece!
The foreigner opened his eyes again and saw two mousy eyes close above him. He did not say anything else. No, you won't help me, he thought. You haven't come to help me. I know you people now. You might even take this piece of bread off me, what do you say…? You begrudge it me, don't you? You'll be saying to yourself that it won't do me any good anyway. So take it…, just go ahead and take it.
And that is what she did.