ROUGON, a Belgian peasant
THE VILLAGE PRIEST
A GERMAN CAPTAIN
FOUR PRIVATES OF
JEAN, a peasant boy
room of a ruined cottage on the outskirts of a small Belgian village. The
rear wall has two enormous breaches made by the shells of the artillery.
The right wall is partly hidden by a mass of wreckage from the roof, which
has caved in leaving a jagged hole through which the sky can be seen. The
ceiling slants drunkenly downward toward the right, ending abruptly in a
ragged edge of splintered boards and beams which forms a fantastic
fretwork against the sky. The floor is littered with all kinds of debris.
In the rear wall near the right corner, a window, its panes of glass
all broken, with a torn white curtain. No trace of the doorway to the
road remains. The larger breach in the rear wall is used as exit and
The left wall, with a door in the middle, is uninjured. Over the door
a large black crucifix hangs from a nail.
In the center of the room, an overturned table. A solitary chair, the
only thing left standing, is beside it. On the right of the table a
The time is about sundown on a September day. Through the breaches in
the wall a dark green vista of rolling fields can be seen. Where they
meet the horizon they are already shimmering in the golden dust of the
sunset. Muffled and far-off the booming of distant cannon reverberates
slowly over the fields.
The sound of shuffling footsteps is heard from the road before the
cottage and a great hulking old man of sixty-five or so appears at the
larger breach in the rear wall. He is dressed in the usual peasant
fashion and wears wooden sabots on his feet. He is bent under some
burden which, as he enters the room, is seen to be the body of a young
man dressed in the uniform of a Belgian infantryman. He lays the body
down carefully in a cleared space between the table and the left wall,
pillowing the soldier's head upon his knapsack. The body lies with its
feet toward the rear wall.
He stands looking down at the still form, his attitude one of abject
despair. A heavy sob shakes his round shoulders. He murmurs brokenly:
"Charles! My little one!", then turns abruptly and stumbles to the
middle of the room where he mechanically rights the overturned table. He
sits down on the chair, and stares at the ruins about him with an expression of dazed bewilderment on
his broad face, his round, child-like eyes wandering dully from one
object to another. His gaze finally rests on the smashed armchair on
the other side of the table, and suddenly overcome by a flood of
anguished horror, he hides his face in his hands' rocking from side to
side on his chair, moaning to himself like a wounded animal.
The slight black-robed figure of a priest appears on the road
outside. He casts a quick glance into the room and, seeing the bowed
figure on the chair quickly picks his way to the peasant's side. The
priest is old, white-haired, with a kindly, spiritual face.
ROUGON—(not hearing him) God, oh God!
THE PRIEST—(laying a thin white hand compassionately on Rougon's
broad back) There, there, my son! It is the will of God.
ROUGON—(startled by the sound of a voice, jumps up from his chair)
Eh? (stares at the priest with dazed eyes)
THE PRIEST—(with a sad smile) Oh, come now, it isn't possible that
you've forgotten me.
ROUGON—(snatching off his cap respectfully) Pardon, Father.
I was—I didn't know—you see—all this—
THE PRIEST—(gently) I have heard of your loss. I understand.
ROUGON—But take the chair, Father. (bitterly) I am lucky to have it
left to offer you.
THE PRIEST—(sitting down) You must not brood over your misfortunes.
Many, a great many, have suffered even more than you. You must learn to
bear these burdens as they come, at such a dreadful time as this, and
pray to God for strength. We must all bow ourselves before His will.
ROUGON—His will? Ha! No, the good God would not punish me so,—I, who
have harmed no one. (furiously) It is all these cursed Pruss—
THE PRIEST—Ssshh! (after a pause) Such thoughts may rest in the
heart, but to let them rise to the lips is hardly wise—now.
ROUGON—What matter if they should hear? I am finished,
me! They can do no more but kill me. (He sits on the edge of the table.
A heavy sob shakes his bowed shoulders.)
THE PRIEST—(after a pause
during which he gazes sadly at the face of the dead young soldier) You
must not mourn his loss so bitterly. He has given his life for his
country. He is at rest with God. You should feel proud of him.
ROUGON—(dully) Yes, he is—at rest—in heaven. And, look you, Father,
you remember, this was the day—today he was to have been married.
THE PRIEST—(in accents of deep grief) True, true, I had forgotten.
Poor boy, poor boy—and poor Louise!
ROUGON—And my poor old woman—Ah,
good God, what have we done? All this—in one day!
THE PRIEST—Your wife—she doesn't know?
ROUGON—No. This morning, look
you, I sent her away. It was Charles who came to me this morning—in his
new uniform—he who lies there so still now—he whom they have murdered,
those cursed Prussians!
THE PRIEST—Ssshh! Would you bring more misfortune upon yourself?
to his feet in a frenzy) Ah, how I would love to slaughter them, to
grind my heel in their fat faces, to,—to—
THE PRIEST—Calm yourself, for the love of heaven, my good Rougon!
Will it improve matters, think you, to have you, too, shot? Do not
forget your poor old wife. You must be careful for her sake, if for
ROUGON—(sullenly slouching back to his seat on the table) It is hard,
name of a dog, it is hard. I feel like a coward, me, to stand by and do
THE PRIEST—(in low tones) Be comforted. The hour of retribution
will yet strike. The end is not yet. Your son Charles will be avenged.
his head doubtfully) There are so many.
THE PRIEST—But you were telling me about your wife. You sent her away this
ROUGON—If the good God so pleases she is in Brussels by now. For,
look you, Charles came to me this morning. "My father" he said, "I am
afraid there will be fighting here today. I have warned the family of
Louise and she is to flee with them to Brussels. I have arranged that Mother should go with them;
and you, too, my father." "But no," I said, "It is right for your
mother. She shall go. As you say, it will be no place for women if there
be fighting. But me, no, I shall stay." "Mind you, then, Father, no
shooting!" Charles said as he kissed me good-bye and ran to join the
regiment on the village place, "or they will shoot you like a dog".
THE PRIEST—You see! Your son gave you the best advice. Remember you are
not a soldier.
ROUGON—(proudly) If I were not too old I should have been in a
uniform this long time gone. Too old! The fools! As if I could not shoot
straighter than all these boys!
THE PRIEST—There are other things to consider, my poor Rougon.
Someone must gather in the harvest if we are not all to starve.
The harvest? What is there left? First it is the French who take away my
two fine horses that I have saved up every centime two years to buy—and
leave me a scrap of paper; then—
THE PRIEST—The French are our friends; in due time you shall be paid.
THE PRIEST—(earnestly) At a time like this all must bear their share
ROUGON—All who wanted war, yes; but we who desired nothing more than
to be left in peace to till our fields? Look you, my Father, why should
we be robbed and plundered and our homes blown apart by their accursed
THE PRIEST—(shaking his head, sadly) God knows. Our poor country is a
lamb among wolves.
ROUGON—(raising his voice excitedly) The first shell that burst in
our village—do you know where it struck?
ROUGON—Out there—on my barn—setting it in flames—killing my two cows
one of which I was to have given Charles, with half of my farm, as a
wedding present—burning up all my hay I had gathered for the winter.
(stamping his foot in his rage) Ah, those dirty beasts!
THE PRIEST—Ssshh! They arc all around.
ROUGON—And then, look you, the
cavalry ride over my fields trampling my grain beneath their horses, the artillery wheels
tear up the earth, the cannon blow my home to pieces—as you see.
(bitterly) Harvest? There is nothing left to harvest but dirt and
THE PRIEST—(to change the subject which is rapidly
infuriating the old man) You may well give thanks to the good God that
your wife is safe in Brussels.
ROUGON—They started early this morning, as I have said, and the
family of Louise has relatives in Brussels. She is safe, God be thanked.
(with a grief-stricken glance at the body of his son) But when she
knows—and Louise who also loved him so—Oh, my God! (He chokes back a
THE PRIEST—God give them strength to bear it.
son) He wanted me to go with them. He was afraid I would do something
rash if I stayed. But I have been calm. But, name of a dog, it has been hard—when
I saw them trampling my wheat—those pigs—when I saw the ashes which had
been my barn—and this house, as you see, where I had lived so many years—this
finger itched to press the trigger and send at least one to hell for
THE PRIEST—My son, my son!
my Father. Had it not been for the promise I had given Charles, I would
have taken the old rifle from where I have it hidden in there (he
indicates with a nod of his head the room on the left) and—
THE PRIEST—(casting an apprehensive glance toward the street) Ssshh!
Be careful what you say in so loud a tone. Their soldiers are
everywhere. But where were you when all this fighting was taking place?
ROUGON—I was hiding in the well. I had placed a board across, on
which I could stand and see what took place through the chinks in the
stones. I wanted to see—him.
THE PRIEST—See—Charles? How
ROUGON—His part of the regiment was
behind the wall in the orchard not one hundred meters away. I could
watch him clearly.
THE PRIEST—(to himself, half-aloud) Poor man!
ROUGON—At first it was
all right. Their infantry came up so close to each other that not even a
child could have missed them. Bang! and they were toppled over before
they had even reached the foot of the hill. I laughed. I thought it was all finished.
I could see Charles laughing and talking with his comrades—and then—(He
stops, shaking his head despondently.)
THE PRIEST—And then?
ROUGON—One of their devilish flying machines which look like the
great birds flew overhead, far-up. All shot at it but it was too far
away. It flew back to them, and a minute later, look you, I saw white
puffs of smoke on all the hills over to the west; then bang! crash! I
could not hear; my ears were cracked with the din. There was dust, and
falling walls, and my barn blazing. Ah, those accursed cannon! I climbed
out of the well and ran to the barn.
THE PRIEST—In the midst of all those bursting shells?
trembled with rage. I had no fear of their cannon. I remembered only the
cow, the pretty little cow, I was to give to Charles. But I could do
nothing. Not all the fire-engines in Belgium could have saved it. I ran
back to the well. Ssszzz! went the bullets all round. As I was climbing
over I was stunned by a terrible crash. The roof of this house tumbled
in—as you see.
THE PRIEST—And you remained in the well all during the battle?
ROUGON—Yes—until I saw Charles fall. He was just aiming his rifle
over the wall when I saw him throw up his hands, spin around like a top,
and fall on his face. I ran down and carried him back on my shoulders to
the well—but it was too late. He was dead. (He stops abruptly, choking
back a sob.)
THE PRIEST—(after a pause) Requiescat in pace. His life was ever a
happy one. He never knew the cares and worries that come with the years
and the ceaseless struggle for bread. He loved and was loved. He died
the death of the brave. (gently) Is it not better after all—as it is? (Rougon
does not answer.) Can you not console yourself with that thought?
ROUGON—Perhaps. Who knows? But, look you, it is hard for me—and for
Louise—and most of all for his mother whose baby he was.
THE PRIEST—You all loved him, did everything in your power to make
him happy. You have nothing with which to reproach yourselves.
ROUGON—But now—what shall I do? Look you, it was for him we worked and
saved, his mother and I; that he might never have to know, as we had
known, what it is to be poor and hungry. (despondently) And now—we are old—what use to work? There is nothing left but death.
have each other.
ROUGON—Yes, we have each other. Were it not for the thought of my
poor Margot I had let these butchers kill me before this.
THE PRIEST—(sternly) I do not like to hear you talk in that manner.
You must realize well, that in its time of stress, your country has need
of you; as much need of you as of her soldiers. You must not be rash.
You must live and help and bear your part of her burden as best you can.
It is your duty.
ROUGON—Yes, yes, I
well know it; but—
THE PRIEST—Above all, you have to exercise control over your hasty
temper. You must realize that you will best serve your country and
revenge your personal wrongs by living and helping, not by willfully
seeking death. You must remember you are a civilian and, according to
the rules of war, you have no right to fight. Your part lies elsewhere.
Let others shoot the guns.
ROUGON—(disgustedly) Bah! The children they have as soldiers cannot
shoot. With my little rifle in there I could pick off more Prussian
swine than a whole regiment of youngsters like my poor Charles.
(scornfully) Yet they tell me I am too old to enlist! Dolts!
THE PRIEST—(rising and laying his hand on Rougon's back—with solemn
earnestness) My son, before I leave, I want you to swear to me before
the God who watches over us, that you will remember what I have said and
not allow your temper to force you to violence.
ROUGON—(sullenly) I promise. I swear it.
him on the back) There, now you are sensible, more like yourself. (He
stands looking down at Charles.) I would advise you as to the burial
of Charles. (Rougon groans.) Let it be done as
secretly as possible. Let us avoid all provocation, and on their heads
be it if misfortune happens. Perhaps tonight would be best.
ROUGON—Ah, no, no, no! Please, my Father, not yet!
Tonight let him remain here in his home, the house he was born in, with
THE PRIEST—So be it. Tomorrow night, then. You will let me know
what time you wish it to be.
ROUGON—Very well, my Father.
THE PRIEST—And now I must go; but first let us kneel down and humbly
offer up a prayer for the repose of his soul. (They kneel down beside
the dead body. The priest commences to intone a prayer in which the
words "Almighty God," "Merciful," "Infinite justice," "Infinite love,"
"Infinite pity," "Thy son Jesus," "We, Thy children," "Praise Thy
infinite goodness," stand out from the general mumble of sing-song
sentences. Perhaps a sense of the crushing irony of this futile prayer
penetrates the sorrow-numbed brain of Rougon and proves the last straw
which breaks down his self-control; for he interrupts the droning
supplications of the priest with a groan of agony, throws himself
beside the young soldier's body, and sobs brokenly: "Charles, Charles,
my little one! Oh, why did not God take me instead!")
THE PRIEST—(after a pause—wiping the tears from his eyes with his
large handkerchief) Come, come, it is hard, I know, but you must bear it
like a man. God's will be done! He, too, had a Son who died for others.
Pray to Him and He will comfort you in your affliction.
ROUGON—(placing his hand gently on his son's face) Cold! Cold! He who
was so alive and smiling only this morning. (A step is heard on the road
outside. The two get hastily to their feet as a young man in the grey
uniform of a German captain of infantry appears at one of the gaps of
THE CAPTAIN—(entering and turning to the priest) Are you the—(seeing
the body on the floor) I beg your pardon.
THE PRIEST—(coldly) What is your wish?
THE CAPTAIN—(twirling his blond mustache fiercely to hide his
embarrassment) Again, I ask pardon. I meant no disrespect. (Taking off
his helmet impressively—he is a very young captain.) I honor the brave
dead on whichever side they fall.
THE PRIEST—(indicating Rougon who has slunk off to the other side of
the table and is controlling his hatred and rage with very apparent
effort) It is his son.
THE CAPTAIN—Ah! Too bad! The fortunes of war. Today, him; tomorrow,
me, perhaps. Are you the cure of the village?
THE PRIEST—I am.
THE CAPTAIN—I have been seeking you ever since we
occupied the place.
THE PRIEST—I returned but a short time ago from Brussels where I had
been called to make my report to the Bishop. I knew nothing of the
fighting here or I should have returned sooner. (sadly) There were many,
perhaps, who died needing me. But what is it you wish?
THE CAPTAIN—I was sent by the colonel to find you and deliver his
orders. There seems to be no one of civil authority left in the
village—else I should not intrude upon you.
THE PRIEST—I am listening.
THE CAPTAIN—(oratorically) It is the colonel's wish that you warn
the inhabitants against committing any violence against our soldiers.
Civilians caught with arms will be immediately shot. (The priest casts
a significant glance at Rougon who scowls and mutters to himself.) Is
THE CAPTAIN—On the other hand all we demand of you will be paid for
in cash. Let all your parishioners return to their work without fear of
molestation. We make no war upon the helpless. (with complacent pride) I
hope I make my meaning clear. I flatter myself my French is not so bad.
THE PRIEST—(with cold politeness) You speak it very well, Monsieur.
You may tell your colonel that I will do all in my power to impress his
words upon the minds of my people—not that I respect his orders or admit
his right to give them to a man of peace, but because I have the welfare
of my people at heart.
THE CAPTAIN—Good. I will tell him. And now I will say "au revolt" for
1, too, have my duties to perform. We march from here immediately.
THE PRIEST—(significantly) Adieu. (The Captain goes out.)
ROUGON—(raging) Dog of a Prussian!
THE PRIEST—Silence! Are you a fool? (While he is speaking an awkward
peasant boy of about fifteen with a broad face appears at the breech in
the rear wall. His clothes are mud-stained and ragged and he is
trembling with fear. He breathes in great shuddering gasps. There is a cut on his forehead beneath which the blood has
dried in reddish-brown streaks.)
ROUGON—(hears the noise) What's that?
(They both turn around and see the boy.)
THE PRIEST—Why, it's Jean! Whatever are you doing skulking around
JEAN—(stopping uneasily as if he intended to run away again) Nothing,
THE PRIEST—Come over here. (Jean does not move but stares at him with
frightened eyes.) Don't you hear me speaking to you? What is the matter
JEAN—(faintly) I am afraid.
me? Come, this is ridiculous.
JEAN—(his lips trembling)
I am afraid—of them. Everything—blows up.
ROUGON—Come to the good father when he speaks to you, stupid dolt! Or
I shall find a good strong stick and—
THE PRIEST—Hush, you are only
frightening him. Come to me, Jean, like a good boy. (Jean goes slowly to
the priest who puts an arm about his shoulders.) Why, you're trembling
like a leaf! Did the battle frighten you?
JEAN—No, no, no! I don't know.
ROUGON—(contemptuously) The battle? He
was never near the fighting. It was bad enough for we others without
having this half-wilted calf around. So we sent him away with the women
this morning. (to Jean) Answer me, you, how is it you are back here?
JEAN—(trembling) I don't know.
ROUGON—(roughly) Name of a dog, what do you know? Did we send you
away with the women this morning or didn't we?
Yes—I went away—this morning.
THE PRIEST—Hush, Rougon, you are only frightening the poor fellow. Jean, listen to me and
stop trembling. I shall not let anyone hurt you. I have always been your
good friend, have I not?
JEAN—Yes—you are my friend.
THE PRIEST—Of course I am; and while I am around there is nothing you
need fear. Come now, tell me like a good lad; you went away with the
others this morning, didn't you?
THE PRIEST—Then how do you happen to be here now?
Why did you return to the village? Your clothes are in a shocking state.
Where have you been hiding and how did you get that cut on your
JEAN—(feeling the cut on his forehead with a dazed air) It hurts.
will come home with me presently and we will wash that nasty cut and wrap
it up in a nice clean bandage. Then you may be sure you will no longer
feel any hurt at all. But first tell me—
JEAN—I don't know.
I ran and ran—and I came here.
something must have happened to make you run. Come, tell us, what was
JEAN—(vaguely) We left here and walked a long, long ways. Some rode
in wagons but I was walking.
ROUGON—And did you see Mother Rougon there,
JEAN—(in a strange tone—with a shudder) Yes, I saw them, I saw them.
(Rougon gives a grunt of satisfaction.)
on, my son, tell us what happened next.
hear shots. We hurried faster. The horses galloped. The women commenced
to scream and cry. Always the firing was louder. We didn't see any
soldiers for a long time. Then we came upon lots of bodies—men from our
army and others dressed in grey.
ROUGON—(in growing alarm) Name of a dog, why didn't you turn back,
JEAN—(vaguely) I don't know. (He drones on in his expressionless
voice.) The women were praying. They were afraid. They wanted us to
hurry up and get to Brussels. We beat the horses. The hills were covered
with white spots like,—like daisies; and they floated 'way up in the
air. (He makes a queer awkward gesture upward.)
ROUGON—Idiot! What is all this foolish talk?
THE PRIEST—(gently) It was the smoke from the guns you saw, my child.
JEAN—(very slowly—trying his best to imitate the exact sound) Boom!
Boom! Boom! I couldn't hear what anyone was saying. (He pauses.)
ROUGON—Why do you stop, stupid? Go on, go on, or—(He shakes his clenched
fist at the boy.)
THE PRIEST—Silence, Rougon!
Give the poor lad a chance.
JEAN—(in flat, monotonous tones) Something blew up in a field
by the road and threw dirt and stones on us. The horses were afraid.
They ran faster. Then we came to the top of a hill. Lots of the soldiers
in our army were there hiding in a long ditch. They shouted for us to
run away. Then—then—then—
THE PRIEST—(anxiously) Yes? (Rougon stands tensely with averted face
as if afraid to listen.)
JEAN—(throwing both his arms into the air with a wild gesture) Then
everything around blew up. (in flat tones) Something hit me on the
head. I laid down for a while. When I got up I couldn't see any of the
rest. There were bodies all around. I saw Mother Rougon—
THE PRIEST—(clinging to a last shred of hope) Alive and unharmed?
(But Rougon has guessed the worst and stands as if in a stupor,
clenching and unclenching his big red hands, his features working
JEAN—She was lying on the ground. She had a big hole here (pointing
to his chest) and blood all over—bright and red like—like flowers.
ROUGON—(dully) Dead! She, too!
JEAN—And Louise had
a hole in her head, here (pointing to his forehead) and—
THE PRIEST—(distracted with horror) Enough! Stop! We have heard all
we care to, do you hear?
JEAN—So I ran, and ran, and ran, and ran, and ran. (His words die
away into a murmur—He stares straight before him like one in a trance.)
THE PRIEST—Merciful God, have pity!
ROUGON—(slowly—as if the meaning
of Jean's words were just commencing to dawn on him) So—they are gone, too—the old woman—and Louise—(licks his lips with his dry tongue)
Everything is gone.
(There is a long silence. The priest dabs with his big handkerchief
at the tears which are welling into his eyes. jean wanders over to the
breach in the wall and stands looking down the road. A loud bugle call
is heard. Jean darts back into the room.)
JEAN—(waving his arms, cries in terrified tones) They are coming. They
are coming this way! (He runs to the right corner of the room and
crouches there trembling, seeking to hide himself in the fallen ruins.)
ROUGON—So—they are coming? (He strides resolutely across the room and
enters the room on left.)
THE PRIEST—(alarmed by the expression on Rougon's face) Rougon!
Rougon! What are you going to do? (He receives no answer. A moment later Rougon re-enters the room carrying a long-barreled rifle.)
THE PRIEST—(seizing him by the arm) No, no, I beseech you!
ROUGON—(roughly throwing the priest aside) Let me alone! (He
half-kneels beside one of the breeches in the wall—then speaks in a
voice of deadly calmness.) They will not pass here. They are going to
turn off at the fork in the road. It is near enough, however. (The
rhythmic tramp of the marching troops can be faintly heard.)
agony) In the name of God I implore you—
ROUGON—Bah, God! (He takes careful aim and fires.) That for Margot!
(loads and fires again) That for Louise! (Cries of rage and running
footsteps are heard. Rougon is reloading his rifle when the Captain and
four German privates rush in. Rougon struggles but is disarmed and
forced back to the wall on left. He stands proudly, calmly awaiting his
fate. One of the soldiers seizes the priest.)
THE SOLDIER—(to the Captain) Was mit dem Priester?
Captain) The good father did nothing. He but did his best to hold my arm
and stop me. It is I alone who did the shooting, Dog of a Prussian!
THE CAPTAIN—Is this true, priest?
THE PRIEST—It is as he tells you. I tried to restrain him—not for
your sakes, but for his own.
THE CAPTAIN—(to the soldier) Las den Priester gehen! (The soldier
releases the priest. The Captain turns to Rougon.) If you have a prayer
to say, be quick! (The four soldiers line up in front of Rougon and face
him across the body of Charles.)
angry scorn) I want no prayers!
ROUGON—(furiously) To hell with your prayers!
THE PRIEST—(supplicatingly) Make your peace with God, my son!
ROUGON—(spitting on the floor, fiercely) That for your God who allows
such things to happen! (to the Captain) I am ready, pig!
THE CAPTAIN—(to the soldiers) Gewehr! Heraus! (The soldiers take aim.)
God have mercy on—
THE CAPTAIN—Feuer! (A crashing report. Rougon pitches forward on his
face, quivers for a moment, is still. The soldiers file out to the road.
The Captain turns to the horrified priest.)
THE CAPTAIN—(shrugging his shoulders) It is the law. (He follows the
THE PRIEST—(looking down with infinite compassion at the still bodies
of father and son) Alas, the laws of men! (The sun has set. The twilight
is fading grayly into night. From the heap of wreckage in the right corner
comes the sound of stifled weeping.)
(The Curtain Falls)