Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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"What do you want, sir?" asked Godeschal, swallowing
as he spoke a mouthful of bread big enough to charge a four-
pounder, flourishing his knife and crossing his legs, throwing
up one foot in the air to the level of his eyes.

"This is the fifth time I have called," replied the victim.
" I wish to speak to Monsieur Derville."

" On business? "

" Yes, but I can explain it to no one but "

" M. Derville is in bed; if you want to consult him on
some difficulty, he does no serious work till midnight. But
if you will lay the case before us, we could help you just as
well as he can to "

The stranger was unmoved ; he looked timidly about him,
like a dog who has gotten into a strange kitchen and expects
a kick. By grace of their profession, lawyers' clerks have no
fear of thieves ; they did not suspect the owner of the box-
coat, and left him to study the place, where he looked in vain
for a chair to sit on, for he was evidently tired. Attorneys,
on principle, do not have many chairs in their offices. The
inferior client, being kept waiting on his feet, goes away
grumbling, but then he does not waste time, which, as an old
lawyer once said, is not allowed for when the bill is taxed.

"Monsieur," said the old man, " as I have already told
you, I cannot explain my business to any one but M. Derville.
I will wait till he is up."

Boucard had finished his bill. He smelt the fragrance of
his chocolate, rose from his cane armchair, went to the
chimney-piece, looked the old man from head to foot, stared



COLONEL CHABERT. 241

at his coat, and made an indescribable grimace. He probably
reflected that whichever way this client might be wrung, it
would be impossible to squeeze out a centime, so he put in a
few brief words to rid the office of a bad customer.

"It is the truth, monsieur. The chief only works at night.
If your business is important, I recommend you to return at
one in the morning." The stranger looked at the head clerk
with a bewildered expression, and remained motionless for a
moment. The clerks, accustomed to every change of counte-
nance, and the odd whimsicalities to which indecision or
absence of mind gives rise in "parties," went on eating,
making as much noise with their jaws as horses over a manger,
and paying no further heed to the old man.

"I will come again to-night," said the stranger at length,
with the tenacious desire, peculiar to the unfortunate, to catch
humanity at fault.

The only irony allowed to poverty is to drive justice and
benevolence to unjust denials. When a poor wretch has
once convicted society of falsehood, he throws himself more
eagerly on the mercy of God.

"What do you think of that for a cracked pot?" said
Simonnin, without waiting till the old man had shut the door.

"He looks as if he had been buried and dug up again,"
said a clerk.

"He is some colonel who wants his arrears of pay," said
the head clerk.

"No, he is a retired concierge," said Godeschal.

" I bet you he is a nobleman," cried Boucard.

"I bet you he has been a porter," retorted Godeschal.
" Only porters are gifted by nature with shabby box-coats ; as
worn and greasy and frayed as that old body's. And did you
see his trodden-down boots that let the water in, and his stock
which serves for a shirt ? He has slept in a dry arch."

" He may be of noble birth, and yet have pulled the door-
latch," cried Desroches. "It has been known ! "
16



242 COLONEL CHABERT.

"No," Boucard insisted, in the midst of laughter, "I
maintain that he was a brewer in 1789 and a colonel in the
time of the Republic."

"I bet theatre tickets round that he never was a soldier,"
said Godeschal.

" Done with you," answered Boucard.

"Monsieur! monsieur!" shouted the little messenger,
opening the window.

"What are you at now, Simonnin?" asked Boucard.

"I am calling him that you may ask him whether he is a
colonel or a porter; he must know."

All the clerks laughed. As to the old man, he was already
coming upstairs again.

" What can we say to him ! " cried Godeschal.

"Leave it to me," replied Boucard.

The poor man came in nervously, his eyes cast down, per-
haps not to betray how hungry he was by looking too greedily
at the eatables.

"Monsieur," said Boucard, "will you have the kindness to
leave your name, so that M. Derville may know "

"Chabert."

"The colonel who was killed at Eylau?" asked Hure,
who, having so far said nothing, was jealous of adding a jest
to all the others.

"The same, monsieur," replied the good man, with antique
simplicity. And he went away.

"Whew!"

"Done brown!"

"Poof!"

"Oh!"

"Ah!"

"Bourn!"

" The old rogue ! "

" Ting-a-ring-ting ! "

" Sold again ! "



COLONEL CHABERT. 243

" Monsieur Desroches, you are going to the play without
paying," said Hure to the fourth clerk, giving him a slap on
the shoulder that might have killed a rhinoceros.

There was a storm of cat-calls, cries, and exclamations,
which all the onomatopeia of the language would fail to
represent.

" Which theatre shall we go to ?"

" To the opera," cried the head clerk.

"In the first place," said Godeschal, "I never mentioned
which theatre. I might, if I chose, take you to see Madame
Saqui."

" Madame Saqui is not the play."

"What is a play? " replied Godeschal. "First, we must
define the point of fact. What did I bet, gentlemen? A
play. What is a play ? A spectacle. What is a spectacle ?
Something to be seen "

" But on that principle you would pay your bet by taking
us to see the water run under the Pont Neuf ! " cried Simon-
inn, interrupting him.

" To be seen for money," Godeschal added.

" But a great many things are to be seen for money that
are not plays. The definition is defective," said Desroches.

"But do listen to me ! "

"You are talking nonsense, my dear boy," said Boucard.

" Is ' Curtius ' a play ? " asked Godeschal.

" No," said the head clerk, " it is a collection of figures
but it is a spectacle."

" I bet you a hundred francs to a sou," Godeschal resumed,
" that Curtius' Waxworks form such a show as might be
called a play or theatre. It contains a thing to be seen at
various prices, according to the place you choose to occupy."

"And so on, and so forth ! " said Simonnin.

"You mind I don't box your ears ! " said Godeschal.

The clerks shrugged their shoulders.

" Besides, it is not proved that that old ape was not making



244 COLONEL CHABERT.

game of us," he said, dropping his argument, which was
drowned in the laughter of the other clerks. " On my honor,
Colonel Chabert is really and truly dead. His wife is married
again to Comte Ferraud, councilor of state. Madame Ferraud
is one of our clients."

"Come, the case is remanded till to-morrow," said Bou-
card. "To work, gentlemen. The deuce is in it; we get
nothing done here. Finish copying that appeal ; it must be
handed in before the sitting of the fourth chamber, judgment
is to be given to-day. Come, on you go ! "

"If he really were Colonel Chabert, would not that impu-
dent rascal Simonnin have felt the leather of his boot in the
right place when he pretended to be deaf? " said Desroches,
regarding this timely remark as certainly more conclusive than
Godeschal's.

" Since nothing is settled," said Boucard, " let us all agree
to go to the upper boxes of the Frangais and see Talma in
' Nero.' Simonnin may go to the pit."

And thereupon the head clerk sat down at his table, and
the others followed his example.

" Given in June eighteen hundred and fourteen (in words),"
said Godeschal. ' ' Ready ? ' '

" Yes," replied the two copying clerks and the engrosser,
whose pens forthwith began to creak over the stamped paper,
making as much noise in the office as a hundred cockchafers
imprisoned by schoolboys in paper cages.

" And we hope that my lords on the bench" the extempor-
izing clerk went on. " Stop ! I must read my sentence
through again. I do not understand it myself."

" Forty-six (that must often happen) and three forty-nines,"
said Boucard.

" We hope" Godeschal began again, after reading all
through the document, "that my lords on the bench will not
be less magnanimous than the august author of the decree, and
that they will do justice against the miserable claims of the acting



COLOXEL CHABERT. 245

committee of the chief board of the Legion of Honor by inter-
preting the law in the wide sense we have here set forth "

" Monsieur Godeschal, wouldn't you like a glass of water?"
said the little messenger.

"That imp of a boy!" said Boucard. "Here, get on
your double-soled shanks-mare, take this packet, and spin off
to the Invalides."

"Here set forth," Godeschal went on. "Add in the interest
of Madame la Vicomtesse (at full length) de Grandlieu"

" What ! " cried the chief, " are you thinking of drawing
up an appeal in the case of Vicomtesse de Grandlieu against
the Legion of Honor a case for the office to stand or fall
by ? You are something like an ass ! Have the goodness to
put aside your copies and your notes ; you may keep all that
for the case of Navarreins against the Hospitals. It is late;
I will draw up a little petition myself, with a due allowance
of ' inasmuch,' and go to the courts myself."

This scene is typical of the thousand delights which, when
we look back on our youth, make us say, " Those were good
times."

At about one in the morning Colonel Chabert, self-styled,
knocked at the door of Maitre Derville, attorney to the court
of first instance in the department of the Seine. The porter
told him that Monsieur Derville had not yet come in. The
old man said he had an appointment, and was shown upstairs
to the rooms occupied by the famous lawyer, who, notwith-
standing his youth, was considered to have one of the longest
heads in Paris.

Having rung, the distrustful applicant was not a little
astonished at finding the head clerk busily arranging in con-
venient order on his master's dining-room table the papers
relating to the cases to be tried on the morrow. The clerk,
not less astonished, bowed to the colonel and begged him to
take a seat, which the client did.



246 COLONEL CHABERT.

"On my word, monsieur, I thought you were joking yes-
terday when you named such an hour for an interview," said
the old man, with the forced mirth of a ruined man, who
does his best to smile.

"The clerks were joking, but they were speaking the truth
too," replied the man, going on with his work. " M. Der-
ville chooses this hour for studying his cases, taking stock of
their possibilities, arranging how to conduct them, deciding
on the line of defense. His prodigious intellect is freer at
this hour the only time when he can have the silence
and quiet needed for the conception of good ideas. Since
he entered the profession, you are the third person to come
to him for a consultation at this midnight hour. After com-
ing in, the chief will discuss each case, read everything,
spend four or five hours perhaps over the business, then he
will ring for me and explain to me his intentions. In the
morning, from ten till two, he hears what his clients have to
say, then he spends the rest of his day in appointments. In
the evening he goes into society to keep up his connections.
So he has only the night for undermining his cases, ransack-
ing the arsenal of the code, and laying his plan of battle.
He is determined never to lose a case ; he loves his art.
He will not undertake every case, as his brethren do. That
is his life, an exceptionally active one. And he makes a great
deal of money."

As he listened to this explanation the old man sat silent,
and his strange face assumed an expression so bereft of intel-
ligence that the clerk, after looking at him, thought no more
about him.

A few minutes later Derville came in, in evening dress ; his
head clerk opened the door to him, and went back to finish
arranging the papers. The young lawyer paused for a mo-
ment in amazement on seeing in the dim light the strange
client who awaited him. Colonel Chabert was as absolutely
immovable as one of the wax figures in Curtius' collection to



COLONEL CHABERT. 247

which Godeschal had proposed to treat his fellow-clerks. This
quiescence would not have been a subject for astonishment if
it had not completed the supernatural aspect of the man's
whole person. The old soldier was dry and lean. His fore-
head, intentionally hidden under a smoothly combed wig,
gave him a look of mystery. His eyes seemed shrouded in a
transparent film ; you would have compared them to dingy
mother-of-pearl with a blue iridescence changing in the gleam
of the wax-lights. His face, pale, livid, and as thin as a
knife, if I may use such a vulgar expression, was the face of
the dead. Round his neck was a tight black silk stock.

Below the dark line of this rag the body was so completely
hidden in shadow that a man of imagination might have sup-
posed the old head was due to some chance play of light and
shade, or have taken it for a portrait by Rembrandt, without
a frame. The brim of the hat which covered the old man's
brow cast a black line of shadow on the upper part of the
face. This grotesque effect, though natural, threw into relief
by contrast the white furrows, the cold wrinkles, the colorless
tone of the corpse-like countenance. And the absence of all
movement in the figure, of all fire in the eye, were in harmony
with a certain look of melancholy madness and the deteriorat-
ing symptoms characteristic of senility, giving the face an
indescribably ill-starred look which no human words could
render.

But an observer, especially a lawyer, could also have read
in this stricken man the signs of deep sorrow, the traces of
grief which had worn into this face, as drops of water from
the sky falling on fine marble at last destroy its beauty. A
physician, an author, or a judge might have discerned a whole
drama at the sight of its sublime horror, while the least charm
was its resemblance to the grotesques which artists amuse
themselves by sketching on a corner of the lithographic stone
while chatting with a friend.

On seeing the attorney, the stranger started, with the con-



248 COLONEL CHABERT.

vulsive thrill that comes over a poet when a sudden noise
rouses him from a fruitful reverie in silence and at night.
The old man hastily removed his hat and rose to bow to the
young man ; the leather lining of his hat was doubtless very
greasy ; his wig stuck to it without his noticing it, and left his
head bare, showing his skull horribly disfigured by a scar
beginning at the nape of the neck and ending over the right
eye, a prominent seam all across his head. The sudden
removal of the dirty wig which the poor man wore to hide
this gash gave the two lawyers no inclination to laugh, so
horrible to behold was this riven skull. The first idea sug-
gested by the sight of this old wound was, " His intelligence
must have escaped through that cut."

"If this is not Colonel Chabert, he is some thorough-going
trooper!" thought Boucard.

" Monsieur," said Derville, " to whom have I the honor of
speaking?"

"To Colonel Chabert."

"Which?"

" He who was killed at Eylau," replied the old man.

On hearing this strange speech, the lawyer and his clerk
glanced at each other, as much as to say, " He is mad."

"Monsieur," the colonel went on, "I wish to confide to
you the secret of my position."

A thing well worthy of note is the natural intrepidity of
lawyers. Whether from the habit of receiving a great many
persons, or from the deep sense of the protection conferred
on them by the law, or from confidence in their mission, they
enter everywhere, fearing nothing, like priests and physicians.
Derville signed to Boucard, who vanished.

"During the day, sir," said the attorney, "I am not so
miserly of my time, but at night every minute is precious.
So be brief and concise. Go to the facts without digression.
I will ask for any explanations I may consider necessary.
Speak."



COLONEL CHABERT. 249

Having bid his strange client to be seated, the young man
sat down at the table ; but while he gave his attention to the
deceased colonel, he turned over the bundles of papers.

"You know, perhaps," said the dead man, "that I com-
manded a cavalry regiment at Eylau. I was of important
service to the success of Murat's famous charge which decided
the victory. Unhappily for me, my death is a historical fact,
recorded in Victoires et Conquetes, where it is related in full
detail. We cut through the three Russian lines, which at
once closed up and formed again, so that we had to repeat
the movement back again. At the moment when we were
nearing the Emperor, after having scattered the Russians, I
came against a squadron of the enemy's cavalry. I rushed at
the obstinate brutes. Two Russian officers, perfect giants,
attacked me both at once. One of them gave me a cut
across the head that crashed through everything, even a black
silk cap I wore next my head, and cut deep into the skull.
I fell from my horse. Murat came up to support me ; he
rode over my body, he and all his men, fifteen hundred of
them there might have been more ! My death was announced
to the Emperor, who as a precaution for he was fond of me,
was the master wished to know if there were no hope of
saving the man he had to thank for such a vigorous attack.
He sent two surgeons to identify me and bring me into the
hospital, saying, perhaps too carelessly, for he was very busy,
' Go and see whether by any chance poor Chabert is still
alive.' These rascally saw-bones, who had just seen me
lying under the hoofs of the horses of two regiments, no
doubt did not trouble themselves to feel my pulse, and re-
ported that I was quite dead. The certificate of death was
probably made out in accordance with the rules of military
jurisprudence."

As he heard his visitor express himself with complete
lucidity, and relate a story so probable though so strange, the
young lawyer ceased fingering the papers, rested his left elbow



250 COLONEL CHABERT.

on the table, and with his head on his hand looked steadily
at the colonel.

" Do you know, monsieur, that I am lawyer to the Com-
tesse Ferraud," he said, interrupting the speaker, " Colonel
Chabert's widow?"

" My wife yes, monsieur. Therefore, after a hundred
fruitless attempts to interest lawyers, who have all thought me
mad, I made up my mind to come to you. I will tell you of
my misfortunes afterwards; for the present, allow me to
prove the facts, explaining rather how things must have fallen
out rather than how they did occur. Certain circumstances,
known, I suppose, to no one but the Almighty, compel me to
speak of some things as hypothetical. The wounds I had
received must presumably have produced tetanus, or have
thrown me into a state analogous to that of a disease called, I
believe, catalepsy. Otherwise how is it conceivable that I
should have been stripped, as is the custom in time of war,
and thrown into the common grave by the men ordered to
bury the dead ?

"Allow me here to refer to a detail of which I could know
nothing till after the event, which, after all, I must speak of as
my death. At Stuttgart, in 1814, I met an old quartermaster
of my regiment. This dear fellow, the only man who chose
to recognize me, and of whom I will tell you more later,
explained the marvel of my preservation, by telling me that
my horse was shot in the flank at the moment when I was
wounded. Man and beast went down together, like a monk
cut out of card-paper. As I fell, to the right or to the left, I
was no doubt covered by the body of my horse, which pro-
tected me from being trampled to death or hit by a ball.

" When I came to myself, monsieur, I was in a position
and an atmosphere of which I could give you no idea if I
talked till to-morrow. The little air there was to breathe was
foul. I wanted to move, and found no room. I opened my
eyes, and saw nothing. The most alarming circumstance was



COLONEL CHABERT. 251

the lack of air, and this enlightened me as to my situation.
I understood that no fresh air could penetrate to me, and
that I must die. This thought took off the sense of intoler-
able pain which had aroused me. There was a violent singing
in my ears. I heard or I thought I heard, I will assert
nothing groans from the world of dead among whom I was
lying. Some nights I still think I hear those stifled moans ;
though the remembrance of that time is very obscure, and
my memory very indistinct, in spite of my impressions of far
more acute suffering I was fated to go through, and which
have confused my ideas.

"But there was something more awful than cries; there
was a silence such as I have never known elsewhere literally,
the silence of the grave. At last, by raising my hands and
feeling the dead, I discerned a vacant space between my head
and the human carrion above. I could thus measure the
space, granted by a chance of which I knew not the cause.
It would seem that, thanks to the carelessness and the haste
with which we had been pitched into the trench, two dead
bodies had leaned across and against each other, forming an
angle like that made by two cards when a child is building a
card castle. Feeling about me at once, for there was no time
for play, I happily felt an arm lying detached, the arm of a
Hercules ! A stout bone, to which I owed my rescue. But
for this unhoped-for help, I must have perished. But, with a
fury you may imagine, I began to work my way through the
bodies which separated me from the layer of earth which had
no doubt been thrown over us I say us, as if there had been
others living ! I worked with a will, monsieur, for here I
am ! But to this day I do not know how I succeeded in
getting through the pile of flesh which formed a barrier
between me and life. You will say I had three arms. This
crowbar, which I used cleverly enough, opened out a little air
between the bodies I moved, and I economized my breath.
At last I saw daylight, but through snow !



252 COLONEL CHABERT.

"At that moment I perceived that my head was cut open.
Happily my blood, or that of my comrades, or perhaps the
torn skin of my horse, who knows, had in coagulating formed
a sort of natural plaster. But, in spite of it, I fainted away
when my head came into contact with the snow. However,
the little warmth left in me melted the snow about me ; and
when I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the middle
of a round hole, where I stood shouting as long as I could.
But the sun was rising, so I had very little chance of being
heard. Was there any one in the fields yet ? I pulled
myself up, using my feet as a spring, resting on one of the
dead, whose ribs were firm. You may suppose that this was
not the moment for saying, ' Respect courage in misfortune ! '
In short, monsieur, after enduring the anguish, if the word is
strong enough for my frenzy of seeing for a long time, yes,
quite a long time, those cursed Germans flying from a voice
they heard where they could see no one, I was dug out by a
woman, who was brave or curious enough to come close to my
head, which must have looked as though it had sprouted from
the ground like a mushroom. This woman went to fetch her
husband, and between them they got me to their poor hovel.

" It would seem that I must have again fallen into a cata-
lepsy allow me to use the word to describe a state of which
I have no idea, but which, from the account given by my
hosts, I suppose to have been the effect of that malady. I
remained for six months between life and death ; not speak-
ing, or, if I spoke, talking in delirium. At last, my hosts
got me admitted to the hospital at Heilsberg. You will
understand, monsieur, that I came out of the womb of the
grave as naked as I came from my mother's ; so that six
months afterwards, when I remembered, one fine morning,
that I had been Colonel Chabert, and when, on recovering
my wits, I tried to exact from my nurse rather more respect
than she paid to any poor devil, all my companions in the
ward began to laugh. Luckily for me, the surgeon, out of



COLONEL CHABERT. 253

professional pride, had answered for my cure, and was
naturally interested in his patient. When I told him coher-
ently about my former life, this good man, named Sparch-
mann, signed a deposition, drawn up in the legal form of
his country, giving an account of the miraculous way in
which I had escaped from the trench dug for the dead, the
day and hour when I had been found by my benefactress and
her husband, the nature and exact spot of my injuries, adding
to these documents a description of my person.

" Well, monsieur, I have neither these important pieces of



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 20 of 31)