Many, many thanks to Waytoointoerik for helping me to upload this chapter. (For others in the same boat: apparently the trick is to export one of your other chapters into the document manager, replace the text, and then save it as the new chapter).
Guys, I know this is short, and I apologise for that, especially given my long absence, but it's a critical scene and deserves its own chapter. I wish I could promise that regular updates will follow, but I'm in the process of moving halfway around the world for a new and very demanding job, and as you can imagine, that doesn't leave much writing time. All I can promise is that I will try my best.
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Trivia: Cartridges for the Dreyse needle guns used by the Germans in this battle used a lead bullet in a paper wrapper. When fired, the wrapper burnt away.
Fire and Brimstone
The sun had not yet risen when the first heavy boom of a German cannon shook the ground and the explosions – two, three, several at once – tore into the night. Then silence.
The Ghost looked up from the corpse half-hidden in the grass. He shuddered. The rumble had been distant enough that the front garden and the street before it remained perfectly still. Yet vibration too low for sound still lingered in the ground, crawled through the wet grass and twisted roots, echoed from wall to wall in the empty street. A cloud of dust hovered above the rooftops near the Balan road, where the shells had struck. Lazily, it dissolved into the dark-blue sky. The air grew still again, but there remained a tense, ringing quality to the silence, the expectation of another blow. In the east, pale frightened stars winked out one by one.
The Ghost glanced at the body before him. A familiar dread gathered in his stomach at the sight of the man's collapsed mouth and eyes, and the cooling skin that was already turning yellow and tight. What had he been a minute ago? Not a sniper... One of the wounded left for dead? Yes, that was it, the Ghost remembered in a rush; the Bavarian's uniform had been torn from shoulder to ribcage by a bayonet and blood had begun to congeal over the etched steel of the gun he had clutched. His every laboured breath had made his dying flesh twitch, clench, twitch again. The Bavarian had been dying, had been halfway gone before the Ghost had even reached for the rope – yet the moment it fell on his neck, he had raised a hand to his killer's mask in transfixed, cowardly gratitude, as though seeing the Angel of Death come to relieve his suffering. Unable to bear that look, the Ghost had summoned his clipped, operatic German and told him, "You are going to Hell!" The fool had died with open horror in his eyes then, just like all the others before him. He had fine hands, the Ghost noticed now, strong and slender as a musician's. In its own way that was worse than the blood.
The Ghost jerked his noose off the dead man's neck, exposing bone. "Gott," he swore in the same false German, as if the corpse might hear him still; then added even more theatrically: "Tut mir Leid." I'm sorry. But it was a sham; the sorrow he voiced was as false as his mask, and gave no comfort. Indeed, he was not at all sorry. He was not anything; he was merely a Ghost sent to kill. Ghosts, angels, murderers – all had this in common: they existed only to fulfill their missions, and beyond that they had nothing. No future, no life.
The rope was damp and heavy with blood, hopelessly ruined. The Ghost let it drop into the grass – and in that moment two shells made whistling arcs in the sky.
The blasts did not take him by surprise, but they left him half-deaf and trembling, stunned by the fury of sound, the way it punched straight through the air. He scrambled to his feet gracelessly, clumsily, all at once a frightened man rather than ghost. He had to get back, now. The ammunition the Bavarian had carried was pitiful: three rounds, scarcely worth the delay.
The past few hours were a blur, an endless rehearsal of the same scene: quick flight from street to narrow street, a brief struggle, then the expected, predictable cessation of movement. Between these, nothing, a void. Each time he had thought it was the last, there had been another and another, not snipers for the most part but stragglers, deserters, the wounded whose injuries made them moan or sob like children after a beating. Each body had to be searched for ammunition. That was a revolting task fit only for vultures, but the Ghost had performed it all the same. From a sense of duty, he thought angrily, flinging the phrase as an insult through the barricaded streets towards the Vicomte, the wounded hero, as if to say, Do you see? A murderer has his duty too. I have not forgotten my part.
The battle was starting again. From the direction of the park came the agitated shouts of French soldiers, and all along the street windowpanes creaked and slammed open as householders scanned the horizon for the source of the falling shells. The Ghost could have informed them it was the batteries on the plateaus to the north, near La Moncelle and Daigny, the very ones he had observed the previous day. Another shell exploded further away, raising dust. It was dawning on him that despite the dreadful noise, none of the shells struck Bazeilles. He was still out of range. Out of range, for now. The Ghost did not look towards Sedan, where the courthouse was, but ran, stumbled, cursed, ran faster.
Not fast enough. When he reached the river, he saw a commotion; the sloshing of pontoon bridges was suddenly obscured by muffled echoing gunshots, then a roar of men lurched forward in a great flood: the assault was repulsed, but only just. The Bavarians were back.
Which way? He ran into the maze of dead dark streets. There was no possibility of taking the Sedan road directly, for the rifle fire was rapidly moving from the river deeper into the village, and the streets he had come by had been barricaded in the night. He was forced to zigzag between houses that at another time had been familiar, but which now rattled with the din like scenery being moved, blank façades appearing and vanishing in the thick pall of dust that hung in the air.
Screaming, indeterminate shapes thundered into the street in the half-light, accompanied by hoofbeats and the snorting of horses. The Ghost flattened himself against a garden wall. He could not make sense of the human limbs and pikes and feathers and helmets that passed him and swallowed the entire street; he could no longer distinguish uniforms or guns. As the distant roar of artillery was joined by the sputtering of grapeshot, he swallowed constricted lungfuls of smoke and sulfurous dust that blurred his eyes.
He had expected the smoke to clear, but instead it grew thicker, and a moment later he understood why: a house on the corner of the street was burning, the flames near-invisible against the eastern horizon. Fire, fire again! Clutching the sack of ammunition to his chest, terrified of being cornered by the flames, he ducked into a narrow side lane bounded by high windowless walls. Here was less smoke, but no less noise. Shells still rained outside the town, but the more immediate threat was the rapid fusillade in the cobbled street ahead. There was the Sedan road, and Erik thought with growing dread that he must cross it to reach Egrot's house, and that he could not do it alive.
He watched from the precarious safety of the dark mouth of the lane as French soldiers, desperate, fell back and back before the relentless onslaught, fighting all the way, but losing more and more ground. Then, before he could quite grasp it, a strange thing happened. The French line parted neatly aside and there – through the sudden gap – burst forth a wall of noise so sharp that the Ghost felt himself cry out in agony, but heard nothing save that rattle of fire.
Stunned, he thought he understood. The Germans had fallen into a trap, lured within range of one of the French mitrailleuses, machine guns. Now men were screaming, some in victory and some in death, while a forest of bayonets rose up to pursue those who still remained standing, each individual blade catching the sharp, lethal glint of morning.
What came next was slaughter such as the Ghost had never imagined.
Creeping up as close to the corner as he dared, he followed it, avid as a sideshow spectator – bayonets slicing human flesh, men stepping into the open sticky abdomens of their fallen comrades, the ripe stench of loosened bowels – and all the while more Bavarian ranks were advancing from the river, crushing the dead beneath them, an endless grinding tide that rose and grew and spilled out of the opaque white mist on the river. Those Bavarians who had witnessed the slaughter of their fellows seemed to turn to stone momentarily, and then their fury spread and rippled beneath the plumes of their helmets, growing dangerously, oh so dangerously, into a thirst for revenge. French soldiers tried to push harder, but too many had already fallen by the roadside, and there were no more ranks behind them, no swelling tide of their own to withstand the many, many Bavarians pouring in.
The horror and beauty of it knocked the wind from the Ghost's lungs, and he watched the dead mount before him with no more thoughts of reaching the other side of the street, that house where a handful of men just like these waited for the ammunition he carried. After all, what made them so different? These ones falling dead in the street, still holding their own murder weapons, were no less deserving than Egrot and the Vicomte...
He hit the ground a moment before the gunshot tore through the air where he had stood. More shots followed behind.
There was no time to waste. He left the lane and plummetted head-first into the mêlée of the battle in the main street, amid blue-clad soldiers aiming rifles, uniforms with plumed helmets, the wounded, bayonets, the buzz of bullets. A door up ahead gave way, and he realised they were storming a house. Soldiers burst in, splintering the door-frame in their haste, where a woman, young and drab, her hair whipping like a blonde sheet in the breeze, screeched something about a child inside, her child. A spray of blood hit the inside of an upstairs window a second before the glass disintegrated under a bullet, and a soldier's torso fell out. He hung from the windowsill with his arms spread wide, like an upturned crucifix or a carpet left out to dry.
One of the soldiers below gave a terrible cry and would have rushed forward had his fellows not kept him back. There was more fighting within; the Ghost watched it with an abstracted fascination, as though it no longer concerned him.
When it was over, one of the Bavarians dragged the woman who had screamed into the house, crushing her wrist in a way that made the Ghost remember exactly what it felt like to hold that fragile bone in his hand and let his hatred crush it, crunch it, feel her bright agony as an exact mirror of his own. He was not surprised when the Bavarian emerged clutching a pile of drapes torn from the window, nor when he lit the dry fabric and demanded by gesture and force that the woman toss it inside. When she would not, he threw her off and did it himself, and a minute later the house was afire.
The Ghost stood quite still as the battle flowed about him, momentarily blinded to the prospect of his own death by the spectacle of that burning house. Fire ran from the remaining drape on the window to the upholstered furniture, distorted and twisted behind the window glass. Soon the wooden pane and then the shutters were burning too, and the heat seared the sweat from his face and his chest.
This was not Hell. This was real: the end of all nightmares, every secret wish of revenge on the world torn from the Phantom's mind. The world was consuming itself before his eyes in a tremendous conflagration of ashes and death, and the distant booming explosions spoke of the same thing happening in every village, every town, every city to the ends of the Earth.
The Ghost watched the destruction with a fierce, monumental triumph – but within him, a broken little monster whimpered like a cur behind the walls of the Opera's little chapel, and prayed silently that someone might hear, that someone there, in the chapel, would turn away from the candlelight to whisper, "Don't cry. Please don't cry."
But nobody heard.
The battle spread from house to house, pulling with it a sheet of fire that caught at doors and billowed in hot gasps out of broken windows, turning what had been a street into a glowing inferno. When at last the sun rose into a blood-red circle behind the smoke, new Prussian artillery boomed its crescendo from across the river, and the ground itself shook and splintered under this new assault. The Ghost had found cover beneath a half-collapsed building; beyond that grey stone space and bitter choking smoke, with his hands clutching at the grass, he knew nothing at all.
Later, he thought it could not have lasted long. Several hours, that was all; it was scarcely late afternoon when the guns had finally died away. Some of the fires still burned red-hot, but their crackle served only to outline the shape of the silence, the vast emptiness, and at length even the sound of boots on the paving stones disappeared. All that remained was the hot smoke of guns and the foulness of fresh murder.
He emerged into what had been the Sedan road. It was now a corridor of broken paving stones carved between smouldering, eyeless buildings, littered with the dead. There was a gap of silence in his mind; no music, no requiem, no Totentanz playing for these remnants of the living. He felt vaguely drunk, and could not be sure that he did not sway as he walked.
Along the street, doors stood wide open in a parody of welcome. Here and there, groups of people, neighbours, friends, milled in the middle of the crossroads, blinking confusedly in the smoky afternoon sun. Some clutched bundles of possessions, uncertain now why they had thought to take this old clock or that cracked mirror, or what they would do with these things. A young girl, standing alone before the entrance to what had been a milliner's shop, held a cage with a songbird. The cage door was open, but the bird lay inside, its small eyes fogged by a grey membrane, its feet clenched. The girl hugged the cage close and did not seem to notice. She followed Erik with her eyes as he passed, lethargically and without true curiosity, and he thought suddenly of the children playing in the dirt of the construction site in Sedan before he had frightened them away.
His construction site... He raised his sleeve to wipe away the sticky grime from his neck, and found he still carried the sack of pilfered ammunition, although he had lost the German rifle somewhere along the way. His construction site...
He raised his eyes towards Sedan, and in the brilliant afternoon sunlight he thought he saw a tiny white dot, sailing like a kite above the fortress. He looked at it for a while, until he was certain. It was a flag.
A tap on the arm made him turn around.
"I'm hungry," the little girl with the birdcage informed him. She set the birdcage down at her feet, ever so carefully, and waited.
Erik hesitated, then dipped into the sack he carried, and brought out a handful of powder charges, wrapped like sweets. The girl studied these, then held out her two cupped hands and permitted Erik to pour the pretend sweets into them. She stood there a moment longer, then deposited the cartridges in her pockets and picked up the cage. Erik watched her stumble back over the rubble.
With a swift, violent spin, he kicked the sack, and the rest of the now-useless cartridges went rolling and bouncing over the cobbles. He ran all the way to the Egrots' house, but he could not outrun his shame, and he knew before he arrived what he would find there.
The house stood as it always had, with the geraniums fresh in the window-boxes, and the two surviving windows clean and sparkling in the sun. The front door hung open. Inside, beyond the pock-marked walls and fallen plaster, all was black.