André Maurois.

General Bramble online

. (page 1 of 7)
Online LibraryAndré MauroisGeneral Bramble → online text (page 1 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Andrew Sly, Chuck Greif and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




_translated by_



First Published 1921

First Published in The Week-End Library 1931




I. Portraits
II. Diplomacy
III. The Tower of Babel
IV. A Business Man in the Army
V. The Story of Private Biggs
VI. An Air Raid
VII. Love and the Infant Dundas
VIII. A Great Chef
IX. Prélude à la Soirée d'un Général
X. Private Brommit's Conversion
XI. Justice
XII. Variations
XIII. The Cure
XIV. The Beginning of the End
XV. Danse Macabre
XVI. The Glory of the Garden
XVII. Letter from Colonel Parker to Aurelle
XVIII. General Bramble's Return




"As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks
at it." - Whistler.

The French Mission in its profound wisdom had sent as liaison officer
to the Scottish Division a captain of Dragoons whose name was

"Are you any relation to the painter, sir?" Aurelle, the interpreter,
asked him.

"What did you say?" said the dragoon. "Say that again, will you? You
_are_ in the army, aren't you? You are a soldier, for a little time
at any rate? and you claim to know that such people as painters
exist? You actually admit the existence of that God-forsaken species?"

And he related how he had visited the French War Office after he had
been wounded, and how an old colonel had made friends with him and
had tried to find him a congenial job.

"What's your profession in civilian life, _capitaine_?" the old man
had asked as he filled in a form.

"I am a painter, sir."

"A painter?" the colonel exclaimed, dumbfounded. "A painter? Why,
damn it all!"

And after thinking it over for a minute he added, with the kindly
wink of an accomplice in crime, "Well, let's put down _nil_, eh? It
won't look quite so silly."

* * * * *

Captain Beltara and Aurelle soon became inseparable companions. They
had the same tastes and different professions, which is the
ideal recipe for friendship. Aurelle admired the sketches in
which the painter recorded the flexible lines of the Flemish
landscape; Beltara was a kindly critic of the young man's rather
feeble verses.

"You would perhaps be a poet," he said to him, "if you were not
burdened with a certain degree of culture. An artist must be an
idiot. The only perfect ones are the sculptors; then come the
landscape painters; then painters in general; after them the writers.
The critics are not at all stupid; and the really intelligent men
never do anything."

"Why shouldn't intelligence have an art of its own, as sensibility

"No, my friend, no. Art is a game; intelligence is a profession. Look
at me, for instance; now that I no longer touch my brushes, I
sometimes actually catch myself thinking; it's quite alarming."

"You ought to paint some portraits here, _mon capitaine_. Aren't
you tempted? These sunburnt British complexions - - "

"Of course, my boy, it is tempting; but I haven't got my things with
me. Besides, would they consent to sit?"

"Of course they would, for as long as you like. To-morrow I'll bring
round young Dundas, the aide-de-camp. He's got nothing to do; he'll
be delighted."

* * * * *

Next day Beltara made a three-crayon sketch of Lieutenant Dundas. The
young aide-de-camp turned out quite a good sitter; all he asked was
to be allowed to do something, which meant shouting his hunting
cries, cracking his favourite whip and talking to his dog.

"Ah," said Aurelle, at the end of the sitting, "I like that
immensely - really. It's so lightly touched - it's a mere nothing, and
yet the whole of England is there."

And, waving his hands with the ritual gestures of the infatuated
picture-lover, he praised the artlessness of the clear, wide eyes,
the delightful freshness of the complexion, and the charming candour
of the smile.

But the Cherub planted himself in front of his portrait, struck the
classical pose of the golfer, and, poising his arms and hitting at an
imaginary ball, pronounced judgment on the work of art with perfect

"My God," he said, "what an awful thing! How the deuce did you see,
old man, that my breeches were laced at the side?"

"What on earth can that matter?" asked Aurelle, annoyed.

"Matter! Would _you_ like to be painted with your nose behind your
ear? My God! It's about as much like me as it is like Lloyd George."

"Likeness is quite a secondary quality," said Aurelle condescendingly.
"The interesting thing is not the individual; it is the type,
the synthesis of a whole race or class."

"In the days when I was starving in my native South," said the
painter, "I used to paint portraits of tradesmen's wives for a fiver.
When I had done, the family assembled for a private view. 'Well,'
said the husband, 'it's not so bad; but what about the likeness, eh?
You put it in afterwards, I suppose?' 'The likeness?' I indignantly
replied. 'The likeness? My dear sir, I am a painter of ideals; I
don't paint your wife as she is, I paint her as she ought to be. Your
wife? Why, you see her every day - she cannot interest you. But my
painting - ah, you never saw anything like my painting!' And the
tradesman was convinced, and went about repeating in every café on
the Cannebière, 'Beltara, _mon bon_, is the painter of ideals;
he does not paint my wife as she is, he paints her as she ought
to be.'"

"Well," interrupted young Lieutenant Dundas, "if you can make my
breeches lace in front, I should be most grateful. I look like a
damned fool as it is now!"

* * * * *

The following week Beltara, who had managed to get hold of some
paints, made excellent studies in oil of Colonel Parker and Major
Knight. The major, who was stout, found his corporation somewhat

"Yes," said the painter, "but with the varnish, you know - - "

And with an expressive movement of his hands he made as if to restore
the figure to more normal dimensions.

The colonel, who was lean, wanted to be padded out.

"Yes," said Beltara, "but with the varnish, you know - - "

And his hands, moving back again, gave promise of astonishing

Having regained a taste for his profession, he tried his hand at some
of the finest types in the Division. His portraits met with various
verdicts; each model thought his own rotten and the others excellent.

The Divisional Squadron Commander found his boots badly polished. The
C.R.E. commented severely on the important mistakes in the order of
his ribbons; the Legion of Honour being a foreign order should not
have preceded the Bath, and the Japanese Rising Sun ought to have
followed the Italian Order for Valour.

The only unqualified praise came from the sergeant-major who acted as
chief clerk to General Bramble. He was a much-beribboned old warrior
with a head like a faun and three red hairs on top of it. He had the
respectful familiarity of the underling who knows he is indispensable,
and he used to come in at all times of the day and criticize the
captain's work.

"That's fine, sir," he would say, "that's fine."

After some time he asked Aurelle whether the captain would consent
"to take his photo." The request was accepted, for the old N.C.O.'s
beacon-like countenance tempted the painter, and he made a kindly

"Well, sir," the old soldier said to him, "I've seen lots of
photographer chaps the likes of you - I've seen lots at fairs in
Scotland - but I've never seen one as gives you a portrait so quick."

He soon told General Bramble of the painter's prowess; and as he
exercised a respectful but all-powerful authority over the general,
he persuaded him to come and give the French liaison officer a

The general proved an admirable model of discipline. Beltara, who was
very anxious to be successful in this attempt, demanded several
sittings. The general arrived punctually, took up his pose with
charming deliberation, and when the painter had done, said "Thank
you," with a smile, and went away without saying another word.

"Look here," Beltara said to Aurelle, "does this bore him or not? He
hasn't come one single time to look at what I have done. I can't
understand it."

"He'll look at it when you've finished," Aurelle replied. "I'm sure
he's delighted, and he'll let you see it when the time comes."

As a matter of fact after the last sitting, when the painter had said
"Thank you, sir, I think I could only spoil it now," the general
slowly descended from the platform, took a few solemn steps round
the easel, and stared at his portrait for some minutes.

"Humph!" he said at length, and left the room.

* * * * *

Dr. O'Grady, who was a man of real artistic culture, seemed somehow
to understand that keeping decorations in their correct order is not
the only criterion of the beauty of a portrait. The grateful Beltara
proposed to make a sketch of him, and during the sitting was pleased
to find himself in agreement with the doctor upon many things.

"The main point," said the painter, "is to see simply - outlines,
general masses. The thing is not to copy nature with childish

"No, of course not," replied the doctor. "Besides, it can't be done."

"Of course it can't, because nature is so endlessly full of details
which can never all be considered. The thing is to suggest their

"Quite so," said the doctor.

But when he came to gaze upon the face he loved so well, and saw it
transformed into outlines and general masses, he seemed a little

"Well, of course," he said, "it is excellent - oh, it's very, very
good - but don't you think you have made me a little too old? I have
no lines at the corner of my mouth, and my hair is not quite so

He appealed to the aide-de-camp who was just then passing by.

"Dundas, is this like me?"

"Certainly, Doc; but it's ten years younger."

The doctor's smile darkened, and he began rather insistently to
praise the Old Masters.

"Modern painting," he proclaimed, "is too brutal."

"Good heavens," said Aurelle, "a great artist cannot paint with a
powder-puff; you must be able to feel that the fellow with the pencil
was not a eunuch."

"Really," he went on, when the doctor had left in rather a bad
temper, "he's as ridiculous as the others. I think his portrait is
very vigorous, and not in the least a skit, whatever he may say."

"Just sit down there a minute, old man," said the painter. "I shall
be jolly glad to work from an intelligent model for once. They all
want to look like tailors' fashion-plates. Now, I can't change my
style; I don't paint in beauty paste, I render what I see - it's like
Diderot's old story about the amateur who asked a floral painter to
portray a lion. 'With pleasure,' said the artist, 'but you may expect
a lion that will be as like a rose as I can make him.'"

The conversation lasted a long time; it was friendly and technical.
Aurelle praised Beltara's painting; Beltara expressed his joy at
having found so penetrating and artistic a critic in the midst of
so many Philistines.

"I prefer your opinion to a painter's; it's certainly sincerer. Would
you mind turning your profile a bit more towards me? Some months
before the war I had two friends in my studio to whom I wished to
show a little picture I intended for the _Salon_. 'Yes,' said the
younger of them, 'it's all right, but there ought to be a light spot
in that corner; your lights are not well balanced.' 'Shut up, you
fool,' the other whispered to him, 'that'll make it _really_ good!'
Come on, old man, come and look; I think that sketch can be left as
it is."

Aurelle walked up to the painter, and, cocking his head on one side,
looked at the drawing.

"It's charming," he said at last with some reluctance. "It's charming.
There are some delightful touches - all that still life on the table,
it might be a Chardin - and I like the background very much indeed."

"Well, old man, I'm glad you like it. Take it back with you when you
go on leave and give it to your wife."

"Er - " sighed Aurelle, "thank you, _mon capitaine_; it's really very
kind of you. Only - you'll think me no end of a fool - you see, if it
is to be for my wife, I'd like you to touch up the profile just a
little. Of course you understand."

And Beltara, who was a decent fellow, adorned his friend's face with
the Grecian nose and the small mouth which the gods had denied him.



"We are not foreigners; we are English; it is _you_ that are
foreigners." - An English Lady Abroad.

When Dr. O'Grady and Aurelle had succeeded, with some difficulty, in
obtaining a room from old Madame de Vauclère, Colonel Parker went
over to see them and was charmed with the château and the park.

France and England, he said, were the only two countries in which
fine gardens were to be found, and he told the story of the American
who asked the secret of those well-mown lawns and was answered,
"Nothing is simpler: water them for twelve hundred years."

Then he inquired timidly whether he also might not be quartered at
the château.

"It wouldn't do very well, sir; Madame is mortally afraid of
new-comers, and she has a right, being a widow, to refuse to billet

"Aurelle, my boy, do be a good fellow, and go and arrange matters."

After much complaining, Madame de Vauclère consented to put the
colonel up: all her sons were officers, and she could not withstand
sentimental arguments for very long.

The next day Parker's orderly joined the doctor's in the château
kitchen, and together they annexed the fireplace. To make room for
their own utensils, they took down a lot of comical little French
articles, removed what they saw no use for, put the kettle on, and
whistled hymns as they filled the cupboards with tins of boot polish
in scientifically graded rows.

After adoring them on the first day, putting up with them on the
second, and cursing them on the third, the old cook came up to
Aurelle with many lamentations, and dwelt at some length on the sad
state of her saucepans; but she found the interpreter dealing with
far more serious problems.

Colonel Parker, suddenly realizing that it was inconvenient for the
general to be quartered away from his Staff, had decided to transfer
the whole H.Q. to the château of Vauclère.

"Explain to the old lady that I want a very good room for the
general, and the billiard-room for our clerks."

"Why, it's impossible, sir; she has no good room left."

"What about her own?" said Colonel Parker.

Madame de Vauclère, heart-broken, but vanquished by the magic word
"General," which Aurelle kept on repeating sixty times a minute,
tearfully abandoned her canopied bed and her red damask chairs,
and took refuge on the second floor.

Meanwhile the drawing-room with its ancient tapestries was filled
with an army of phlegmatic clerks occupied in heaping up innumerable
cases containing the history in triplicate of the Division, its men,
horses, arms and achievements.

"Maps" set up his drawing-board on a couple of arm-chairs;
"Intelligence" concealed their secrets in an Aubusson boudoir; and
the telephone men sauntered about in the dignified, slow, bantering
fashion of the British workman. They set up their wires in the park,
and cut branches off the oaks and lime trees; they bored holes in the
old walls, and, as they wished to sleep near their work they put up
tents on the lawns.

The Staff asked for their horses; and the animals were picketed in
the garden walks, as the stables were too small. In the garden
the Engineers made a dug-out in case of a possible bombardment.
The orderlies' football developed a distinct liking for the
window-panes of the summer-house. The park assumed the aspect
first of a building site and then of a training camp, and new-comers
said, "These French gardens _are_ badly kept!"

This methodical work of destruction had been going on for about a
week when "Intelligence" got going.

"Intelligence" was represented at the Division by Captain Forbes.

Forbes, who had never yet arrested a real spy, saw potential spies
everywhere, and as he was fond of the company of the great, he always
made his suspicions a pretext for going to see General Bramble or
Colonel Parker. One day he remained closeted for an hour with the
colonel, who summoned Aurelle as soon as he had left.

"Do you know," he said to him, "there are most dangerous things
going on here. Two old women are constantly being seen in this
château. What the deuce are they up to?"

"What do you mean?" gasped Aurelle. "This is their house, sir; it's
Madame de Vauclère and her maid."

"Well, you go and tell them from me to clear out as soon as possible.
The presence of civilians among a Staff cannot be tolerated; the
Intelligence people have complained about it, and they are perfectly

"But where are they to go to, sir?"

"That's no concern of mine."

Aurelle turned round furiously and left the room. Coming across Dr.
O'Grady in the park, he asked his advice about the matter.

"Why, doctor, she had a perfect right to refuse to billet us, and
from a military point of view we should certainly be better off at
Nieppe. She was asked to do us a favour, she grants it, and her
kindness is taken as a reason for her expulsion! I can't 'evacuate
her to the rear,' as Forbes would say; she'd die of it!"

"I should have thought," said the doctor, "that after three years you
knew the British temperament better than this. Just go and tell the
colonel, politely and firmly, that you refuse to carry out his
orders. Then depict Madame de Vauclère's situation in your grandest
and most tragic manner. Tell him her family has been living in the
château for the last two thousand years, that one of her ancestors
came over to England with William the Conqueror, and that her
grandfather was a friend of Queen Victoria's. Then the colonel will
apologize and place a whole wing at the disposal of your

Dr. O'Grady's prescription was carried out in detail by Aurelle with
most satisfactory results.

"You are right," said the colonel, "Forbes is a damned idiot. The old
lady can stay on, and if anybody annoys her, let her come to me."

"It's all these servants who are such a nuisance to her, sir," said
Aurelle. "It's very painful for her to see her own house turned

"Upside-down?" gasped the colonel. "Why, the house is far better kept
than it was in her time. I have had the water in the cisterns
analysed; I have had sweet-peas planted and the tennis lawn rolled.
What can she complain of?"

In the well-appointed kitchen garden, where stout-limbed pear trees
bordered square beds of sprouting lettuce, Aurelle joined O'Grady.

"Doctor, you're a great man, and my old lady is saved. But it appears
she ought to thank her lucky stars for having placed her under the
British Protectorate, which, in exchange for her freedom, provides
her with a faultless tennis lawn and microbeless water."

"There is nothing," said the doctor gravely, "that the British
Government is not ready to do for the good of the natives."



"Des barques romaines, disais-je. - Non, disais-tu,
portugaises." - Jean Giraudoux.

"Wot you require, sir," interrupted Private Brommit, "is a glass o'
boilin' 'ot milk an' whisky, with lots o' cinnamon."

Aurelle, who was suffering from an attack of influenza, was at
Estrées, under the care of Dr. O'Grady, who tirelessly prescribed
ammoniated quinine.

"I say, doctor," said the young Frenchman, "this is a drug that's
utterly unknown in France. It seems strange that medicines should
have a nationality."

"Why shouldn't they?" said the doctor. "Many diseases are national.
If a Frenchman has a bathe after a meal, he is stricken with
congestion of the stomach and is drowned. An Englishman never
has congestion of the stomach."

"No," said Aurelle; "he is drowned all the same, but his friends say
he had cramp, and the honour of Britain is saved."

Private Brommit knocked at the door and showed in Colonel Parker, who
sat down by the bed and asked Aurelle how he was getting on.

"He is much better," said the doctor; "a few more doses of
quinine - - "

"I am glad to hear that," replied the colonel, "because I shall want
you, Aurelle. G.H.Q. is sending me on a mission for a fortnight to
one of your Brittany ports; I am to organize the training of the
Portuguese Division. I have orders to take an interpreter with me. I
thought of you for the job."

"But," Aurelle put in, "I don't know a word of Portuguese."

"What does that matter?" said the colonel. "You're an interpreter,
aren't you? Isn't that enough?"

* * * * *

The following day Aurelle told his servant to try and find a
Portuguese in the little town of Estrées.

"Brommit is an admirable fellow," said Colonel Parker, "he found
whisky for me in the middle of the bush, and quite drinkable beer in
France. If I say to him, 'Don't come back without a Portuguese,' he
is sure to bring one with him, dead or alive."

As a matter of fact, that very evening he brought back with him a
nervous, talkative little man.

"Ze Poortooguez in fifteen days," exclaimed the little man,
gesticulating freely with his small plump hands "A language so rich,
so flexible, in fifteen days! Ah, you have ze luck, young man, to
'ave found in zis town Juan Garretos, of Portalègre, Master of Arts of
ze University of Coimbra, and positivist philosopher. Ze Poortooguez
in fifteen days! Do you know at least ze Low Latin? ze Greek?
ze Hebrew? ze Arabic? ze Chinese? If not, it is useless to
go furzer."

Aurelle confessed his ignorance.

"Never mind," said Juan Garretos indulgently; "ze shape of your 'ead
inspire me wiz confidence: for ten francs ze hour I accept you. Only,
mind, no chattering; ze Latins always talk too much. Not a single
word of ze English between us now. _Faz favor d'fallar Portuguez_ - do
me ze favour of speaking ze Poortooguez. Know first zat, in ze
Poortooguez, one speak in ze zird person. You must call your speaker

"What's that?" Aurelle interrupted. "I thought you had just had a
democratic revolution."

"Precisely," said the positivist philosopher, wringing his little
hands, "precisely. In France you made ze revoluçaoung in order zat
every man should be called 'citizen.' What a waste of energy! In
Poortugal we made ze revoluçaoung in order zat every man should be
called 'His Highness.' Instead of levelling down we levelled up. It
is better. Under ze old order ze children of ze poor were _rapachos_,
and zose of ze aristocracy were _meninos_: now zey are all _meninos_.
Zat is a revoluçaoung! _Faz favor d'fallar Portuguez._ Ze Latins
always talk too much."

Having thus earned his ten francs by an hour's unceasing eloquence,
he made a fairer proposal to Aurelle next day.

"I will arrange with you for a fixed sum," he said. "If I teach you
two souzand words, you give me fifty francs."

"Very well," replied Aurelle, "two thousand words will be a
sufficient vocabulary to begin with."

"All right," said Juan Garretos; "now listen to me. All ze words
which in ze English end with 'tion' are ze same in ze Poortooguez
wiz ze ending 'çaoung.' Revolution - _revoluçaoung_;
constitution - _constituçaoung_; inquisition - _inquisiçaoung_. Now
zere are in ze English two souzand words ending in 'tion.' Your
Excellency owes me fifty francs. _Faz favor d'fallar Portuguez._"

* * * * *

A fortnight later Colonel Parker and Aurelle stepped on to the
platform at B - - , where they were met by Major Baraquin, the officer
commanding the garrison, and Captain Pereira, the Portuguese liaison

Major Baraquin was a very old soldier. He had seen service - in the
1870 campaign. All strangers, Allies included, inspired him with a
distrust which even his respect for his superiors failed to remove.
When the French War Office ordered him to place his barracks at
the disposal of a British colonel, discipline required him to obey,
but hostile memories inspired him with savage resistance.

"After all, sir," said Aurelle to Parker, "his grandfather was at

"Are you quite sure," asked the colonel, "that he was not there

1 3 4 5 6 7

Online LibraryAndré MauroisGeneral Bramble → online text (page 1 of 7)