CHAPTER XIV. THE PRUSSIANS IN FRANCE.
The Prussian army was more than two weeks on the road from Sedan to Paris and Versailles, and it was just one month after the French emperor surrendered before the king of Prussia made his headquarters in the beautiful city which seems to enshrine the memory of Louis XIV.
On Sunday, September 18, a scouting party of three Uhlans made their appearance at the gates of Versailles. They had in fact lost their way, and stumbled unawares upon the city; however, they rode boldly up to the gate, demanded admittance, and presented themselves at the mairie, bringing terror and dismay to the inhabitants. When the maire presented himself at their summons, they demanded on what terms Versailles would surrender? He replied that he could not treat with private soldiers, but must see their officers. "Oh, our officers are close at hand," they replied; "they are waiting with a large force in yonder woods. If you come to the gate, they will meet you there." The maire assented, and the audacious Uhlans galloped safely away. Let us hope that at their firesides in the far-off Fatherland they still laugh over this unparalleled adventure.
A few hours later, news was received at Versailles that fighting was going on towards the south of Paris between French troops and the Prussians; and all the inhabitants, including foreign residents, were busy in preparing supplies for the field-hospitals, - lint, bandages, water-cans, and pillows stuffed with torn paper. Before long, eight Prussians and an officer entered the city. They were thus described by one who saw them as they dashed up to the mairie through an excited crowd: -
"They were small men. They had light hair, but were very thick-set. They looked very tired, and were covered with dust and with torn clothes: but they had good horses. They wore the Prussian helmet and spike, and were well armed, with a sabre on one side and on the other a huge horse-pistol two feet long, while they carried carbines in their hands, all ready to shoot if occasion offered. But all the French soldiers had left Versailles, except a few National Guards. The inhabitants looked very sad; the women were crying, and the men looked as if they would like to. We walked on, when suddenly we saw a troop of horsemen come through an arch that spanned one of the main roads; behind came more, and more, and more. The first were fifty Uhlans. These fellows were in blue, on horseback, very handsome. Then came some men with silver death's-heads and crossbones on their caps; then hundreds and hundreds of mounted fellows with needle-guns and sabres; then three regiments of infantry, marching in superb time. Every five hundred men had a drum corps and fifes playing in perfect unison. You could almost feel the ground shake with the steady thud of their march as they tramped on. The men looked dirty and tired, but were fat, and many of them were laughing. Looking down the road as far as possible, we could still see helmets, spikes, and guns all leaning exactly the same way, and glittering in the sunshine. All the officers looked like gentlemen, with great whiskers, and jolly, fat faces. None of the men talked, much less sang, as the French do. When these had passed, there came a splendid band of sixty pieces, playing beautifully, and then regiment after regiment of cavalry (not carrying as much, nearly, as the French cavalry do). Their horses were in excellent order, many of them very handsome. Lots of the soldiers were smoking great German pipes.
"This was the army of the Crown Prince, less than a third of those that entered the city. They passed through Versailles, only stopping to repair the roads torn up by the peasantry. Next came artillery and baggage-wagons, and carts of ammunition; more infantry, more bands, fifty pontoons on carts; more cavalry; then hundreds of soldiers on peasants' carts, which they had requisitioned as they passed through the country; then ambulances and carts, full of wounded, who were brought to the Hotel des Reservoirs and to the Palace. They began to pass at half-past one, and were passing three hours; and I saw just as many more going by another road, where they passed till seven in the evening. There seemed, at times, to be a hunting corps, for every man would have a fat hare or rabbit, or hens, ducks, pheasants, or partridges slung on his back. One man I saw with a live sheep, full grown, over his shoulders.
"Only four regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and four batteries of artillery remained in Versailles that night. They camped upon the Place d'Armes, lit fires, and cooked. Everything was remarkable for neatness; the cannon and powder-carts were arranged in order in a circle, horses all fastened inside the circle, soldiers all sleeping round it. They took off their knapsacks, stacked their guns, put their helmets on the top of their bayonets, unrolled their great-coats, and lay down, still wearing sword and pistols, with their guns at arm's length. Thus they pass the night, rain or shine (they have no tents) and they look as hardy and strong as lions.