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time at his bothered seconds, shrugged his shoulders slightly. This
affair had hopelessly and unreasonably complicated his existence for
him. One absurdity more or less in the development did not matter. All
absurdity was distasteful to him; but, urbane as ever, he produced a
faintly ironic smile and said in his calm voice:

"It certainly will do away to some extent with the monotony of the
thing."

But, left to himself, he sat down at a table and took his head into
his hands. He had not spared himself of late, and the marshal had been
working his aides-de-camp particularly hard. The last three weeks of
campaigning in horrible weather had affected his health. When overtired
he suffered from a stitch in his wounded side, and that uncomfortable
sensation always depressed him. "It's that brute's doing," he thought
bitterly.

The day before he had received a letter from home, announcing that his
only sister was going to be married. He reflected that from the time she
was sixteen, when he went away to garrison life in Strasburg, he had
had but two short glimpses of her. They had been great friends and
confidants; and now they were going to give her away to a man whom he
did not know - a very worthy fellow, no doubt, but not half good enough
for her. He would never see his old Léonie again. She had a capable
little head and plenty of tact; she would know how to manage the fellow,
to be sure. He was easy about her happiness, but he felt ousted from
the first place in her affection which had been his ever since the
girl could speak. And a melancholy regret of the days of his childhood
settled upon Captain D'Hubert, third aide-de-camp to the Prince of
Ponte-Corvo.

He pushed aside the letter of congratulation he had begun to write, as
in duty bound but without pleasure. He took a fresh sheet of paper
and wrote: "This is my last will and testament." And, looking at these
words, he gave himself up to unpleasant reflection; a presentiment
that he would never see the scenes of his childhood overcame Captain
D'Hubert. He jumped up, pushing his chair back, yawned leisurely, which
demonstrated to himself that he didn't care anything for presentiments,
and, throwing himself on the bed, went to sleep. During the night he
shivered from time to time without waking up. In the morning he rode
out of town between his two seconds, talking of indifferent things and
looking right and left with apparent detachment into the heavy morning
mists, shrouding the flat green fields bordered by hedges. He leaped a
ditch, and saw the forms of many mounted men moving in the low fog. "We
are to fight before a gallery," he muttered bitterly.

His seconds were rather concerned at the state of the atmosphere,
but presently a pale and sympathetic sun struggled above the vapours.
Captain D'Hubert made out in the distance three horsemen riding a little
apart; it was his adversary and his seconds. He drew his sabre and
assured himself that it was properly fastened to his wrist. And now the
seconds, who had been standing in a close group with the heads of their
horses together, separated at an easy canter, leaving a large, clear
field between him and his adversary. Captain D'Hubert looked at the pale
sun, at the dismal landscape, and the imbecility of the impending
fight filled him with desolation. From a distant part of the field
a stentorian voice shouted commands at proper intervals: _Au pas - Au
trot - Chargez!_ Presentiments of death don't come to a man for nothing
he thought at the moment he put spurs to his horse.

And therefore nobody was more surprised than himself when, at the very
first set-to, Captain Feraud laid himself open to a cut extending over
the forehead, blinding him with blood, and ending the combat almost
before it had fairly begun. The surprise of Captain Feraud might have
been even greater. Captain D'Hubert, leaving him swearing horribly and
reeling in the saddle between his two appalled friends, leaped the ditch
again and trotted home with his two seconds, who seemed rather awestruck
at the speedy issue of that encounter. In the evening, Captain D'Hubert
finished the congratulatory letter on his sister's marriage.

He finished it late. It was a long letter. Captain D'Hubert gave reins
to his fancy. He told his sister he would feel rather lonely after this
great change in her life. But, he continued, "the day will come for me,
too, to get married. In fact, I am thinking already of the time when
there will be no one left to fight in Europe, and the epoch of wars
will be over. I shall expect then to be within measurable distance of a
marshal's baton and you will be an experienced married woman. You shall
look out a nice wife for me. I will be moderately bald by then, and a
little blasé; I will require a young girl - pretty, of course, and with
a large fortune, you know, to help me close my glorious career with the
splendour befitting my exalted rank." He ended with the information
that he had just given a lesson to a worrying, quarrelsome fellow, who
imagined he had a grievance against him. "But if you, in the depth of
your province," he continued, "ever hear it said that your brother is of
a quarrelsome disposition, don't you believe it on any account. There
is no saying what gossip from the army may reach your innocent ears;
whatever you hear, you may assure our father that your ever loving
brother is not a duellist." Then Captain D'Hubert crumpled up the sheet
of paper with the words, "This is my last will and testament," and threw
it in the fire with a great laugh at himself. He didn't care a snap
for what that lunatic fellow could do. He had suddenly acquired the
conviction that this man was utterly powerless to affect his life in any
sort of way, except, perhaps, in the way of putting a certain special
excitement into the delightful gay intervals between the campaigns.

From this on there were, however, to be no peaceful intervals in the
career of Captain D'Hubert. He saw the fields of Eylau and Friedland,
marched and countermarched in the snow, the mud, and the dust of Polish
plains, picking up distinction and advancement on all the roads of
northeastern Europe. Meantime, Captain Feraud, despatched southward with
his regiment, made unsatisfactory war in Spain. It was only when the
preparations for the Russian campaign began that he was ordered north
again. He left the country of mantillas and oranges without regret.

The first signs of a not unbecoming baldness added to the lofty aspect
of Colonel D'Hubert's forehead. This feature was no longer white and
smooth as in the days of his youth, and the kindly open glance of his
blue eyes had grown a little hard, as if from much peering through the
smoke of battles. The ebony crop on Colonel Feraud's head, coarse and
crinkly like a cap of horsehair, showed many silver threads about the
temples. A detestable warfare of ambushes and inglorious surprises had
not improved his temper. The beaklike curve of his nose was unpleasantly
set off by deep folds on each side of his mouth. The round orbits of his
eyes radiated fine wrinkles. More than ever he recalled an irritable
and staring fowl - something like a cross between a parrot and an owl.
He still manifested an outspoken dislike for "intriguing fellows." He
seized every opportunity to state that he did not pick up his rank in
the anterooms of marshals.

The unlucky persons, civil or military, who, with an intention of being
pleasant, begged Colonel Feraud to tell them how he came by that very
apparent scar on the forehead, were astonished to find themselves
snubbed in various ways, some of which were simply rude and others
mysteriously sardonic. Young officers were warned kindly by their more
experienced comrades not to stare openly at the colonel's scar. But,
indeed, an officer need have been very young in his profession not
to have heard the legendary tale of that duel originating in some
mysterious, unforgivable offence.




III

The retreat from Moscow submerged all private feelings in a sea of
disaster and misery. Colonels without regiments, D'Hubert and Feraud
carried the musket in the ranks of the sacred battalion - a battalion
recruited from officers of all arms who had no longer any troops to
lead.

In that battalion promoted colonels did duty as sergeants; the generals
captained the companies; a marshal of France, Prince of the Empire,
commanded the whole. All had provided themselves with muskets picked
up on the road, and cartridges taken from the dead. In the general
destruction of the bonds of discipline and duty holding together the
companies, the battalions, the regiments, the brigades and divisions
of an armed host, this body of men put their pride in preserving some
semblance of order and formation. The only stragglers were those who
fell out to give up to the frost their exhausted souls. They plodded on
doggedly, stumbling over the corpses of men, the carcasses of horses,
the fragments of gun-carriages, covered by the white winding-sheet of
the great disaster. Their passage did not disturb the mortal silence of
the plains, shining with a livid light under a sky the colour of ashes.
Whirlwinds of snow ran along the fields, broke against the dark column,
rose in a turmoil of flying icicles, and subsided, disclosing it
creeping on without the swing and rhythm of the military pace. They
struggled onward, exchanging neither words nor looks - whole ranks
marched, touching elbows, day after day, and never raising their eyes,
as if lost in despairing reflections. On calm days, in the dumb black
forests of pines the cracking of overloaded branches was the only sound.
Often from daybreak to dusk no one spoke in the whole column. It was
like a _macabre_ march of struggling corpses towards a distant grave.
Only an alarm of Cossacks could restore to their lack-lustre eyes a
semblance of martial resolution. The battalion deployed, facing about,
or formed square under the endless fluttering of snowflakes. A cloud of
horsemen with fur caps on their heads, levelled long lances and yelled
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" around their menacing immobility, whence, with muffled
detonations, hundreds of dark-red flames darted through the air thick
with falling snow. In a very few moments the horsemen would disappear,
as if carried off yelling in the gale, and the battalion, standing
still, alone in the blizzard, heard only the wind searching their very
hearts. Then, with a cry or two of "_Vive l'Empereur!_" it would resume
its march, leaving behind a few lifeless bodies lying huddled up, tiny
dark specks on the white ground.

Though often marching in the ranks or skirmishing in the woods side
by side, the two officers ignored each other; this not so much from
inimical intention as from a very real indifference. All their store of
moral energy was expended in resisting the terrific enmity of Nature and
the crushing sense of irretrievable disaster.

Neither of them allowed himself to be crushed. To the last they counted
among the most active, the least demoralised of the battalion; their
vigorous vitality invested them both with the appearance of an heroic
pair in the eyes of their comrades. And they never exchanged more than
a casual word or two, except one day when, skirmishing in front of the
battalion against a worrying attack of cavalry, they found themselves
cut off by a small party of Cossacks. A score of wild-looking, hairy
horsemen rode to and fro, brandishing their lances in ominous silence.
The two officers had no mind to lay down their arms, and Colonel Feraud
suddenly spoke up in a hoarse, growling voice, bringing his firelock to
the shoulder:

"You take the nearest brute, Colonel D'Hubert; I'll settle the next one.
I am a better shot than you are."

Colonel D'Hubert only nodded over his levelled musket. Their shoulders
were pressed against the trunk of a large tree; in front, deep
snowdrifts protected them from a direct charge.

[Illustration: 088.jpg "You take the nearest brute, Colonel D'Hubert"]

Two carefully aimed shots rang out in the frosty air, two Cossacks
reeled in their saddles. The rest, not thinking the game good enough,
closed round their wounded comrades and galloped away out of range. The
two officers managed to rejoin their battalion, halted for the night.
During that afternoon they had leaned upon each other more than once,
and towards the last Colonel D'Hubert, whose long legs gave him an
advantage in walking through soft snow, peremptorily took the musket
from Colonel Feraud and carried it on his shoulder, using his own as a
staff.

On the outskirts of a village, half-buried in the snow, an old wooden
barn burned with a clear and immense flame. The sacred battalion of
skeletons muffled in rags crowded greedily the windward side, stretching
hundreds of numbed, bony hands to the blaze. Nobody had noted their
approach. Before entering the circle of light playing on the multitude
of sunken, glassy-eyed, starved faces, Colonel D'Hubert spoke in his
turn:

"Here's your firelock, Colonel Feraud. I can walk better than you."

Colonel Feraud nodded, and pushed on towards the warmth of the fierce
flames. Colonel D'Hubert was more deliberate, but not the less bent
on getting a place in the front rank. Those they pushed aside tried
to greet with a faint cheer the reappearance of the two indomitable
companions in activity and endurance. Those manly qualities had never,
perhaps, received a higher tribute than this feeble acclamation.

This is the faithful record of speeches exchanged during the retreat
from Moscow by Colonels Feraud and D'Hubert. Colonel Feraud's
taciturnity was the outcome of concentrated rage. Short, hairy,
black-faced with layers of grime, and a thick sprouting of a wiry beard,
a frost-bitten hand, wrapped in filthy rags, carried in a sling, he
accused fate bitterly of unparalleled perfidy towards the sublime Man of
Destiny. Colonel D'Hubert, his long moustache pendent in icicles on each
side of his cracked blue lips, his eyelids inflamed with the glare of
snows, the principal part of his costume consisting of a sheepskin coat
looted with difficulty from the frozen corpse of a camp follower
found in an abandoned cart, took a more thoughtful view of events. His
regularly handsome features now reduced to mere bony fines and fleshless
hollows, looked out of a woman's black velvet hood, over which was
rammed forcibly a cocked hat picked up under the wheels of an empty army
fourgon which must have contained at one time some general officer's
luggage. The sheepskin coat being short for a man of his inches, ended
very high up his elegant person, and the skin of his legs, blue with the
cold, showed through the tatters of his nether garments. This, under
the circumstances, provoked neither jeers nor pity. No one cared how the
next man felt or looked. Colonel D'Hubert himself hardened to exposure,
suffered mainly in his self-respect from the lamentable indecency of
his costume. A thoughtless person may think that with a whole host of
inanimate bodies bestrewing the path of retreat there could not have
been much difficulty in supplying the deficiency. But the great majority
of these bodies lay buried under the falls of snow, others had been
already despoiled; and besides, to loot a pair of breeches from a frozen
corpse is not so easy as it may appear to a mere theorist. It requires
time. You must remain behind while your companions march on. And Colonel
D'Hubert had his scruples as to falling out. They arose from a point of
honour, and also a little from dread. Once he stepped aside he could not
be sure of ever rejoining his battalion. And the enterprise demanded a
physical effort from which his starved body shrank. The ghastly intimacy
of a wrestling match with the frozen dead opposing the unyielding
rigidity of iron to your violence was repugnant to the inborn delicacy
of his feelings.

Luckily, one day grubbing in a mound of snow between the huts of a
village in the hope of finding there a frozen potato or some vegetable
garbage he could put between his long and shaky teeth, Colonel D'Hubert
uncovered a couple of mats of the sort Russian peasants use to line the
sides of their carts. These, shaken free of frozen snow, bent about his
person and fastened solidly round his waist, made a bell-shaped nether
garment, a sort of stiff petticoat, rendering Colonel D'Hubert a
perfectly decent but a much more noticeable figure than before.

Thus accoutred he continued to retreat, never doubting of his personal
escape but full of other misgivings. The early buoyancy of his belief
in the future was destroyed. If the road of glory led through such
unforeseen passages - he asked himself, for he was reflective, whether
the guide was altogether trustworthy. And a patriotic sadness not
unmingled with some personal concern, altogether unlike the unreasoning
indignation against men and things nursed by Colonel Feraud, oppressed
the equable spirits of Colonel D'Hubert. Recruiting his strength in a
little German town for three weeks, he was surprised to discover within
himself a love of repose. His returning vigour was strangely pacific in
its aspirations. He meditated silently upon that bizarre change of
mood. No doubt many of his brother officers of field rank had the same
personal experience. But these were not the times to talk of it. In one
of his letters home Colonel D'Hubert wrote: "All your plans, my dear
Leonie, of marrying me to the charming girl you have discovered in your
neighbourhood, seem farther off than ever. Peace is not yet. Europe
wants another lesson. It will be a hard task for us, but it will be done
well, because the emperor is invincible."

Thus wrote Colonel D'Hubert from Pomerania to his married sister Léonie,
settled in the south of France. And so far the sentiments expressed
would not have been disowned by Colonel Feraud who wrote no letters to
anybody; whose father had been in life an illiterate blacksmith; who had
no sister or brother, and whom no one desired ardently to pair off for a
life of peace with a charming young girl. But Colonel D'Hubert's letter
contained also some philosophical generalities upon the uncertainty of
all personal hopes if bound up entirely with the prestigious fortune of
one incomparably great, it is true, yet still remaining but a man in
his greatness. This sentiment would have appeared rank heresy to
Colonel Feraud. Some melancholy forebodings of a military kind expressed
cautiously would have been pronounced as nothing short of high treason
by Colonel Feraud. But Léonie, the sister of Colonel D'Hubert, read them
with positive satisfaction, and folding the letter thoughtfully remarked
to herself that "Armand was likely to prove eventually a sensible
fellow." Since her marriage into a Southern family she had become a
convinced believer in the return of the legitimate king. Hopeful and
anxious she offered prayers night and morning, and burned candles in
churches for the safety and prosperity of her brother.

She had every reason to suppose that her prayers were heard. Colonel
D'Hubert passed through Lutzen, Bautzen, and Leipsic, losing no limbs
and acquiring additional reputation. Adapting his conduct to the needs
of that desperate time, he had never voiced his misgivings. He concealed
them under a cheerful courtesy of such pleasant character that people
were inclined to ask themselves with wonder whether Colonel D'Hubert
was aware of any disasters. Not only his manners but even his glances
remained untroubled. The steady amenity of his blue eyes disconcerted
all grumblers, silenced doleful remarks, and made even despair pause.

This bearing was remarked at last by the emperor himself, for Colonel
D'Hubert, attached now to the Major-General's staff, came on several
occasions under the imperial eye. But it exasperated the higher strung
nature of Colonel Feraud. Passing through Magdeburg on service this last
allowed himself, while seated gloomily at dinner with the _Commandant
de Place_, to say of his lifelong adversary: "This man does not love
the emperor," - and as his words were received in profound silence Colonel
Feraud, troubled in his conscience at the atrocity of the aspersion,
felt the need to back it up by a good argument. "I ought to know him,"
he said, adding some oaths. "One studies one's adversary. I have met him
on the ground half a dozen times, as all the army knows. What more do
you want? If that isn't opportunity enough for any fool to size up his
man, may the devil take me if I can tell what is." And he looked around
the table with sombre obstinacy.

Later on, in Paris, while feverishly busy reorganising his regiment,
Colonel Feraud learned that Colonel D'Hubert had been made a general. He
glared at his informant incredulously, then folded his arms and turned
away muttering:

"Nothing surprises me on the part of that man."

And aloud he added, speaking over his shoulder: "You would greatly
oblige me by telling General D'Hubert at the first opportunity that his
advancement saves him for a time from a pretty hot encounter. I was only
waiting for him to turn up here."

The other officer remonstrated.

"Could you think of it, Colonel Feraud! At this time when every life
should be consecrated to the glory and safety of France!"

But the strain of unhappiness caused by military reverses had spoiled
Colonel Feraud's character. Like many other men he was rendered wicked
by misfortune.

"I cannot consider General D'Hubert's person of any account either
for the glory or safety of France," he snapped viciously. "You don't
pretend, perhaps, to know him better than I do - who have been with him
half a dozen times on the ground - do you?"

His interlocutor, a young man, was silenced. Colonel Feraud walked up
and down the room.

"This is not a time to mince matters," he said. "I can't believe that
that man ever loved the emperor. He picked up his general's stars under
the boots of Marshal Berthier. Very well. I'll get mine in another
fashion, and then we shall settle this business which has been dragging
on too long."

General D'Hubert, informed indirectly of Colonel Feraud's attitude, made
a gesture as if to put aside an importunate person. His thoughts were
solicited by graver cares. He had had no time to go and see his family.
His sister, whose royalist hopes were rising higher every day, though
proud of her brother, regretted his recent advancement in a measure,
because it put on him a prominent mark of the usurper's favour which
later on could have an adverse influence upon his career. He wrote
to her that no one but an inveterate enemy could say he had got his
promotion by favour. As to his career he assured her that he looked no
farther forward into the future than the next battlefield.

Beginning the campaign of France in that state of mind, General D'Hubert
was wounded on the second day of the battle under Laon. While being
carried off the field he heard that Colonel Feraud, promoted that moment
to general, had been sent to replace him in the command of his brigade.
He cursed his luck impulsively, not being able, at the first glance,
to discern all the advantages of a nasty wound. And yet it was by this
heroic method that Providence was shaping his future. Travelling slowly
south to his sister's country house, under the care of a trusty old
servant, General D'Hubert was spared the humiliating contacts and the
perplexities of conduct which assailed the men of the Napoleonic empire
at the moment of its downfall. Lying in his bed with the windows of his
room open wide to the sunshine of Provence, he perceived at last the
undisguised aspect of the blessing conveyed by that jagged fragment of
a Prussian shell which, killing his horse and ripping open his thigh,
saved him from an active conflict with his conscience. After fourteen
years spent sword in hand in the saddle and strong in the sense of his
duty done to the end, General D'Hubert found resignation an easy virtue.
His sister was delighted with his reasonableness. "I leave myself
altogether in your hands, my dear Léonie," he had said.

He was still laid up when, the credit of his brother-in-law's family
being exerted on his behalf, he received from the Royal Government not
only the confirmation of his rank but the assurance of being retained on
the active list. To this was added an unlimited convalescent leave.
The unfavourable opinion entertained of him in the more irreconcilable
Bonapartist circles, though it rested on nothing more solid than the
unsupported pronouncement of General Feraud, was directly responsible
for General D'Hubert's retention on the active list. As to General


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradThe Point Of Honor A Military Tale → online text (page 4 of 8)