The clock has struck the hour to leave! In front of the cottages stands a handsome young man, his traveller’s stick across his shoulder, a bag on his back. His glance, usually so bright, wanders slowly about him; his expression is calm, and everything about him seems to suggest great peace of mind; and yet his heart is beating fast, and his weighed-down bosom painfully rises and falls. His mother grips one of his hands and pours out upon him the signs of the most ardent affection; the poor woman does not weep; her cheeks tremble under the effort she makes to hide her sorrow. She smiles at her child to comfort him, but her smile, forced and pained, is sadder than the most heart-rending cries. The other widow is busy calming the little boy, and tries to convince him that Jean will come back soon; but the child has understood from the sadness that has overcome his family for the past year that separation is a terrible misfortune, and now he is crying loudly. Inside, the grandfather and Catherine are making the last preparations for the journey: they hollow out a rye loaf and fill it with butter. They go outside with the provisions for the journey and stand near the young man. The cowshed is open; the bull looks sadly at his master, and from time to time makes a soft, melancholy lowing; it is as if the animal understands what is about to happen. Everything is ready: he is about to leave. He has already squeezed his mother’s hand with a harder grip and taken a step forward; but he casts his gaze around him, casts an affectionate glance over the humble cottage that held his cradle, the heath and woods that witnessed his childhood and the arid fields so often watered with the sweat of his youth! Then his eye meets in turn the eyes of all those whom he loves, and those of that bull, too, companion of his hard labours; he covers his face with his hand, hides the tears that run down his cheeks, and says in a voice than can scarcely be understood: Farewell.
He raises his head, shakes the thick hair that falls over his neck like a mane, and steps firmly forward. But they all follow him; the moment of separation has not yet come. At a certain point on the way to the village, at the place where the roads cross, stands a lime tree, on which is hung an image of the Holy Virgin. Trine put it there on a beautiful May evening, and Jean made a prie-dieu of turf at the foot of the tree. It is in this holy place, where every day, one of them would come to thank and to praise God, that the heart-rending words of farewell will escape their trembling lips…
In the distance can already be seen the lime tree, the point at which the inevitable separation must begin. The young man slows his pace, while his mother, still lavishing caresses upon him, says: Jean, my son, never forget what I have told you. Always have God before your eyes, and never fail to say your prayers before you go to bed. As long as you do that, you will always be good; but if it should happen that one evening you forget to pray, think of me the next day, think of your mother, and you will be good and brave again; for the man who thinks of God and of his mother, is protected from all evil, my dear child.
I shall always, always, think of you, my mother, said the young man with a sigh, but in a calm voice; if I am sad, and I lose courage, your memory will be my support and my consolation; and I feel it, I shall be unhappy, I love you all too dearly.
And then you mustn’t swear, you know, or lead a bad life. You’ll go to church, won’t you? You’ll give us news about your Health as often as possible, and you won’t forget that the smallest word from her child makes a mother happy, isn’t that so? Oh, I’ll say a prayer every day to your blessed guardian Angel, praying that he will never abandon you! Jean is deeply moved by his mother’s soft, penetrating voice; he dare not look at her, so much is he struck at this solemn moment by the worthy woman’s clear look: it is with bowed head that he listens. His only answer is from time to time a tighter handclasp, and a long sigh, with which now and then are mingled the words, Mother, dear Mother! They approached the crossroads in silence; the grandfather stood on the other side of the young man, and said to him in a grave voice: Jean, my boy, you’ll do your duty without reluctance and with love, won’t you? You’ll be obedient to your superiors, and you’ll put up with an injustice without complaining about it, if one should be done to you? You’ll be considerate and obliging to everyone, you’ll show you’re willing, and you’ll carry out courageously all the orders you’re given? Then God will help you, your officers and comrades will love you. Trine, his mother, and the little boy were already under the lime tree, praying on their knees on the turf bench. Jean had no time to reply to his grandfather’s recommendations; his Mother drew him towards the bench. They all knelt and prayed with hands raised to heaven.
The wind murmurs softly in the branches of the pines, the spring sunshine gilds the sandy road with its joyful rays, the birds sing their gay song; and yet a solemn silence reigns, for one can clearly hear the prayers rising from around the lime tree... It is done; they all rise, but from every eye falls a torrent of tears. The mother embraces her son while giving heart-rending cries, and though the others’ arms were already opened wide for the sad farewell embrace, she does not let her child go, she staunches with her kisses the tears that bathe his cheeks, and utters unintelligible words of anxiety and love, and she weeps on his shoulder.
At last, the poor woman, worn out, exhausted and still weeping, goes and sinks down on the bench. Jean hastily kisses his grandfather and Trine’s mother; he releases himself with gentle force from the embrace of his despairing little brother, runs back to his mother, presses her tightly in his arms, places a kiss on her forehead and shouts in an agonizing voice: Farewell!
And without daring to look back, he walks rapidly in the direction of the village, until at the corner of the wood, he has disappeared from his family’s sight.
(Conscience, Le conscrit)1