Honoré de Balzac.

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evidence nor the declaration I made before a notary at
Heilsberg, with a view of establishing my identity. From
the day when I was turned out of that town by the events of
war, I have wandered about like a vagabond, begging my
bread, treated as a madman when I have told my story, with-
out ever having found or earned a sou to enable me to recover
the deeds which would prove my statements and restore me
to society. My sufferings have often kept me for six months
at a time in some little town, where every care was taken of
the invalid Frenchman, but where he was laughed at to his
face as soon as he said he was Colonel Chabert. For a long
time that laughter, those doubts, used to put me into rages
which did me harm, and which even led to my being locked
up at Stuttgart as a madman. And, indeed, as you may judge
from my story, there was ample reason for shutting such a
man up.

"At the end of two years' detention, which I was com-
pelled to submit to, after hearing my keepers say a thousand
times, ' Here is a poor man who thinks he is Colonel Cha-
bert ' to people who would reply, ' Poor fellow ! ' I became
convinced of the impossibility of my own adventure. I grew
melancholy, resigned and quiet, and gave up calling myself
Colonel Chabert, in order to get out of my prison, and see
France once more. Oh, monsieur ! To see Paris again was
a delirium which I "



254 COLONEL CHABERT.

Without finishing his sentence, Colonel Chabert fell into a
deep study, which Derville respected.

"One fine day," his visitor resumed, "one spring day,
they gave me the key of the fields, as we say, and ten thalers,
admitting that I talked quite sensibly on all subjects, and no
longer called myself Colonel Chabert. On my honor, at that
time, and even to this day, sometimes I hate my name. I
wish I were not myself. The sense of my rights kills me. If
my illness had but deprived me of all memory of my past life,
I could be happy. I should have entered the service again
under any name, no matter what, and should, perhaps, have
been made a field-marshal in Austria or Russia. Who knows ?"

"Monsieur," said the attorney, "you have upset all my
ideas. I feel as if I heard you in a dream. Pause for a
moment, I beg of you."

"You are the only person," said the colonel, with a melan-
choly look, " who ever listened to me so patiently. No
lawyer has been willing to lend me ten napoleons to enable
me to procure from Germany the necessary documents to
begin my lawsuit "

"What lawsuit?" said the attorney, who had forgotten his
client's painful position in listening to the narrative of his
past sufferings.

"Why, monsieur, is not the Comtesse Ferraud my wife?
She has thirty thousand francs a year, which belong to me,
and she will not give me a sou. When I tell lawyers these
things men of sense ; when I propose I, a beggar to
bring an action against a count and countess; when I a dead
man bring up as against a certificate of death a certificate
of marriage and registers of births, they show me out, either
with the air of cold politeness, which you all know how to
assume to rid yourselves of a hapless wretch, or brutally, like
men who think they have to deal with a swindler or a madman
it depends on their nature. I have been buried under the
dead ; but now I am buried under the living, under papers,



COLONEL CtiABERT. 255

under facts, under the whole of society, which wants to shove
me underground again ! ' '

"Pray resume your narrative," said Derville.

"'Pray resume it!'" cried the hapless old man, taking
the young lawyer's hand. "That is the first polite word I
have heard since "

The colonel wept. Gratitude choked his voice. The ap-
pealing and unutterable eloquence that lies in the eyes, in a
gesture, even in silence, entirely convinced Derville, and
touched him deeply.

"Listen, monsieur," said he; "I have this evening won
three hundred francs at cards. I may very well lay out half
that sum in making a man happy. I will begin the inquiries
and researches necessary to obtain the documents of which
you speak, and until they arrive I will give you five francs a
day. If you are Colonel Chabert, you will pardon the small-
ness of the loan as coming from a young man who has his
fortune to make. Proceed."

The colonel, as he called himself, sat for a moment motion-
less and bewildered ; the depth of his woes had no doubt
destroyed his powers of belief. Though he was eager in pur-
suit of his military distinction, of his fortune, of himself,
perhaps it was in obedience to the inexplicable feeling, the
latent germ in every man's heart, to which we owe the experi-
ments of alchemists, the passion for glory, the discoveries of
astronomy and of physics, everything which prompts man to
expand his being by multiplying himself through deeds or
ideas. In his mind the Ego was now but a secondary object,
just as the vanity of success or the pleasure of winning
become dearer to the gambler than the object he has at stake.
The young lawyer's words were as a miracle to this man, for
ten years repudiated by his wife, by justice, by the whole social
creation. To find in a lawyer's office the ten gold-pieces
which had so long been refused him by so many people, and
in so many ways ! The colonel was like the lady who, hav-



256 COLONEL CHABERT.

ing been ill of a fever for fifteen years, fancied she had some
fresh complaint when she was cured. There are joys in
which we have ceased to believe ; they fall on us, it is like a
thunderbolt ; they burn us. The poor man's gratitude was
too great to find utterance. To superficial observers he
seemed cold, but Derville saw complete honesty under this
amazement. A swindler would have found his voice.

" Where was I ? " said the colonel, with the simplicity of a
child or of a soldier, for there is often something of the child
in a true soldier, and almost always something of the soldier
in a child, especially in France.

"At Stuttgart. You were just out of prison," said M.
Derville, the attorney.

" You know my wife ? " asked the colonel.
" Yes," said Derville, with a bow.
"What is she like?"
"Still quite charming."

The old man held up his hand, and seemed to be swallow-
ing down some secret anguish with the grave and solemn
resignation that is so characteristic of men who have stood
the ordeal of blood and fire on the battlefield.

" Monsieur," said he, with a sort of cheerfulness for he
breathed again, the poor colonel ; he had again risen from
the grave ; he had just melted a covering of snow less easily
thawed than that which had once before frozen his head ; and
he drew a deep breath, as if he had just escaped from a dun-
geon " Monsieur, if I had been a handsome young fellow,
none of my misfortunes would have befallen me. Women
believe in men when they flavor their speeches with the word
love. They hurry then, they come, they go, they are every-
where at once ; they intrigue, they assert facts, they play the
very devil for a man who takes their fancy. But how could
I interest a woman ? I had a face like a requiem. I was
dressed like a sans-culotte. I was more like an Esquimaux
than a Frenchman I, who had formerly been considered one



COLONEL CHABERT. 257

of the smartest of fops in 1799 ! I, Chabert, Count of the
Empire.

"Well, on the very day when I was turned out into the
streets like a dog, I met the quartermaster of whom I just now
spoke. This old soldier's name was Boutin. The poor devil
and I made the queerest pair of broken-down hacks I ever set
eyes on. I met him out walking; but though I recognized
him, he could not possibly guess who I was. We went into a
tavern together. In there, when I told him my name, Bou-
tin's mouth opened from ear to ear in a roar of laughter, like
the bursting of a mortar. That mirth, monsieur, was one of
the keenest pangs I have known. It told me without diguise
how great were the changes in me ! I was, then, unrecog-
nizable even to the humblest and most grateful of my former
friends !

"I had once saved Boutin's life, but it was only the repay-
ment of a debt I owed him. I need not tell you how he did
me this service ; it was at Ravenna, in Italy. The house
where Boutin prevented my being stabbed was not extremely
respectable. At that time I was not a colonel, but, like Boutin
himself, a common trooper. Happily there were certain
details of this adventure which could be known only to us
two, and when I recalled them to his mind his incredulity
diminished. I then told him the story of my singular expe-
riences. Although my eyes and my voice, he told me, were
strangely altered, although I had neither hair, teeth, nor eye-
brows, and was as colorless as an Albino, he at last recognized
his colonel in the beggar, after a thousand questions, which I
answered triumphantly.

" He related his adventures ; they were not less extraordi-
nary than my own ; he had lately come back from the frontiers
of China, which he had tried to cross after escaping from
Siberia. He told me of the catastrophe of the Russian
campaign, and of Napoleon's first abdication. That news
was one of the things which caused me most anguish !
17



258 COLONEL CHASER T.

" We were two curious derelicts, having been rolled over
the globe as pebbles are rolled by the ocean when storms bear
them from shore to shore. Between us we had seen Egypt,
Syria, Spain, Russia, Holland, Germany, Italy and Dalmatia,
England, China, Tartary, Siberia ; the only thing wanting
was that neither of us had been to America or the Indies.
Finally Boutin, who still was more locomotive than I, under-
took to go to Paris as quickly as might be to inform my wife
of the predicament in which I was. I wrote a long letter full
of details to Madame Chabert. That, monsieur, was the
fourth ! If I had had any relations, perhaps nothing of all
this might have happened ; but, to be frank with you, I am
but a workhouse child, a soldier, whose sole fortune was his
courage, whose sole family is mankind at large, whose country
is France, whose only protector is the Almighty. Nay, I am
wrong ! I had a father the Emperor. Ah ! if he were but
here, the dear man ! If he could see his Chabert, as he used
to call me, in the state in which I am now, he would be in a
rage ! What is to be done ? Our sun is set, and we are all
out in the cold now. After all, political events might account
for my wife's silence !

"Boutin set out. He was a lucky fellow! He had two
bears, admirably trained, which brought him in a living. I
could not go with him ; the pain I suffered forbade my walk-
ing long stages. I wept, monsieur, when we parted, after I
had gone as far as my state allowed in company with him and
his bears. At Carlsruhe I had an attack of neuralgia in the
head, and lay for six weeks on straw in an inn. I should
never have ended if I were to tell you all the distresses of my
life as a beggar. Moral suffering, before which physical
suffering pales, nevertheless excites less pity, because it is not
seen. I remember shedding tears, as I stood in front of a fine
house in Strassburg where I once had given an entertainment,
and where nothing was given me, not even a piece of bread.
Having agreed with Boutin on the road I was to take, I went



COLONEL CHABERT. 259

to every postoffice to ask if there were a letter or some money
for me. I arrived at Paris without having found either. What
despair I had been forced to endure ! ' Boutin must be dead 1 '
I told myself, and in fact the poor fellow was killed at Water-
loo. I heard of his death later, and by mere chance. His
errand to my wife had, of course, been fruitless.

" At last I entered Paris with the Cossacks. To me this
was grief on grief. On seeing the Russians in France, I
quite forgot that I had no shoes on my feet nor money in my
pocket. Yes, monsieur, my clothes were in tatters. The
evening before I reached Paris I was obliged to bivouac in the
woods of Claye. The chill of the night air no doubt brought
on an attack of some nameless complaint which seized me as
I was crossing the Faubourg Saint-Martin. I dropped almost
senseless at the door of an ironmonger's shop. When I re-
covered I was in a bed in the Hotel-Dieu. There I stayed
very contentedly for about a month. I was then turned out ;
I had no money, but I was well, and my feet were on the
good stones of Paris. With what delight and haste did I
make my way to the Rue du Mont-Blanc, where my wife
should be living in a house belonging to me ! Bah ! the Rue
du Mont-Blanc was now the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin; I
could not find my house ; it had been sold and pulled down.
Speculators had built several houses over my gardens. Not
knowing that my wife had married M. Ferraud, I could obtain
no information.

" At last I went to the house of an old lawyer who had
been in charge of my affairs. This worthy man was dead,
after selling his connections to a younger man. This gentle-
man informed me, to my great surprise, of the administration
of my estate, the settlement of the moneys, of my wife's
marriage, and the birth of her two children. When I told
him that I was Colonel Chabert, he laughed so heartily that I
left him without saying another word. My detention at
Stuttgart had suggested possibilities of Charenton, and I de-



260 COLONEL CHABERT.

termined to act with caution. Then, monsieur, knowing
where my wife lived, I went to her house, my heart high with
hope. Well," said the colonel, with a gesture of concen-
trated fury, " when I called under an assumed name I was not
admitted, and on the day when I used my own I was turned
out of doors.

" To see the Countess come home from a ball or the play
in the early morning, I have sat whole nights through, crouch-
ing close to the wall of her gateway. My eyes pierced the
depths of the carriage, which flashed past me with the swift-
ness of lightning, and I caught a glimpse of the woman who
is my wife and no longer mine. Oh, from that day I have
lived for vengeance ! " cried the old man in a hollow voice,
and suddenly standing up in front of Derville. " She knows
that I am alive ; since my return she has had two letters writ-
ten with my own hand. She loves me no more ! I I know
not whether I love or hate her. I long for her and curse her
by turns. To me she owes all her fortune, all her happiness ;
well, she has not sent me the very smallest pittance. Some-
times I do not know what will become of me ! "

With these words the veteran dropped on to his chair again
and remained motionless. Derville sat in silence, studying
his client.

"It is a serious business," he said at length, mechanically.
" Even granting the genuineness of the documents to be pro-
cured from Heilsberg, it is not proved to me that we can at
once win our case. It must go before three tribunals in suc-
cession. I must think such a matter over with a clear head ;
it is quite exceptional."

" Oh," said the colonel, coldly, with a haughty jerk of his
head, "if I fail, I can die but not alone."

The feeble old man had vanished. The eyes now were those
of a man of energy, lighted up with the spark of desire and
revenge.

"We must perhaps compromise," said the lawyer.



COLONEL CHABERT. 261

" Compromise ! " echoed Colonel Chabert. " Am I dead,
or am I alive? "

"I hope, monsieur," the attorney went on, " that you will
follow my advice. Your cause is mine. You will soon per-
ceive the interest I take in your situation, almost unexampled
in judicial records. For the moment I will give you a letter
to my notary, who will pay you to your order fifty francs
every ten days. It would be unbecoming for you to come
here to receive alms. If you are Colonel Chabert, you ought
to be at no man's mercy. I shall regard these advances as a
loan ; you have estates to recover; you are rich."

This delicate compassion brought tears to the old man's
eyes. Derville rose hastily, for it was perhaps not correct for
a lawyer to show emotion ; he went into the adjoining room,
and came back with an unsealed letter, which he gave to the
colonel. When the poor man held it in his hand he felt
through the paper two gold-pieces.

"Will you be good enough to describe the documents, and
tell me the name of the town, and in what kingdom?" said
the lawyer.

The colonel dictated the information, and verified the
spelling of the names of places ; then he took his hat in one
hand, looked at Derville, and held out the other a horny
hand, saying with much simplicity

"On my honor, sir, after the Emperor, you are the man
to whom I shall owe the most. You are, indeed, a splendid
fellow!"

The attorney clapped his hand into the colonel's, saw him
to the stairs, and held a light for him.

" Boucard," said Derville to his head clerk, " I have just
listened to a tale that may cost me five-and-twenty louis. If
I am robbed, I shall not regret the money, for I shall have
seen the most consummate actor of the day."

When the colonel was in the street and close to a lamp, he
took the two twenty-franc pieces out of the letter and looked



262 COLONEL CHABERT.

at them for a moment under the light. It was the first gold
he had seen for nine years.

" I may smoke cigars ! " he said to himself.

About three months after this interview, at night, in Der-
ville's room, the notary commissioned to advance the half-
pay on Derville's account to his eccentric client came to
consult the attorney on a serious matter, and began by beg-
ging him to refund the six hundred francs that the old soldier
had received.

" Are you amusing yourself with pensioning the old
army ? ' ' said the notary, laughing a young man named
Crottat, who had just bought up the office in which he had
been head clerk, his chief having fled in consequence of a
disastrous bankruptcy.

" I have to thank you, my dear sir, for reminding me of
that affair," replied Derville. "My philanthropy will not
carry me beyond twenty-five louis; I have, I fear, already
been the dupe of my patriotism."

As Derville finished the sentence, he saw on his desk the
papers his head clerk had laid out for him. His eye was
struck by the appearance of the stamps long, square, and
triangular, in red and blue ink, which distinguished a letter
that had come through the Prussian, Austrian, Bavarian, and
French postoffices.

"Ah, ha! " said he with a laugh, "here is the last act of
the comedy; now we shall see if I have been taken in ! "

He took up the letter and opened it ; but he could not
read it ; it was written in German.

" Boucard, go yourself and have this letter translated, and
bring it back immediately," said Derville, half opening his
study door, and giving the letter to the head clerk.

The notary at Berlin, to whom the lawyer had written, in-
formed him that the documents he had been requested to
forward would arrive within a few days of this note announc-



COLONEL CHABERT. 263

ing them. They were, he said, all perfectly regular and duly
witnessed, and legally stamped to serve as evidence in law.
He also informed him that almost all the witnesses to the
facts recorded under these affidavits were still to be found at
Eylau, in Prussia, and that the woman to whom M. le Comte
Chabert owed his life was still living in a suburb of Heilsberg.

"This looks like business," cried Derville, when Boucard
had given him the substance of the letter. " But look here,
my boy," he went on, addressing the notary, "I shall want
some information which ought to exist in your office. Was it
not that old rascal Roguin ? "

"We will say that unfortunate, that ill-used Roguin,"
interrupted Alexandre Crottat with a laugh.

" Well, was it not that ill-used man who has just carried
off eight hundred thousand francs of his clients' money, and
reduced several families to despair, who effected the settlement
of Chabert 's estate ? I fancy I have seen that in the docu-
ments in our case of Ferraud."

"Yes," said Crottat. "It was when I was third clerk; I
copied the papers and studied them thoroughly. Rose Cha-
potel, wife and widow of Hyacinthe, called Chabert, Count
of the Empire, grand officer of the Legion of Honor. They
had married without settlement ; thus they held all the prop-
erty in common. To the best of my recollection, the per-
sonalty was about six hundred thousand francs. Before his
marriage, Comte Chabert had made a will in favor of the
hospitals of Paris, by which he left them one-quarter of the
fortune he might possess at the time of his decease, the state
to take the other quarter. The will was contested, there was
a forced sale, and then a division, for the attorneys went at a
pace. At the time of the settlement the monster who was
then governing France handed over to the widow, by special
decree, the portion bequeathed to the treasury."

"So that Comte Chabert's personal fortune was no more
than three hundred thousand francs?"



264 COLONEL CHABERT.

"Consequently so it was, old fellow!" said Crottat.
" You lawyers sometimes are very clear-headed, though you
are accused of false practices in pleading for one side or the
other."

Colonel Chabert, whose address was written at the bottom
of the first receipt he had given the notary, was lodging in
the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, Rue du Petit-Banquier, with an
old quartermaster of the Imperial Guard, now a cow-keeper,
named Vergniaud. Having reached the spot, Derville was
obliged to go on foot in search of his client, for his coach-
man declined to drive along an unpaved street, where the
ruts were rather too deep for cab-wheels. Looking about
him on all sides, the lawyer at last discovered at the end of
the street nearest to the boulevard, between two walls built of
stones and mud, two shabby stone gate-posts, much knocked
about by carts, in spite of two wooden stumps that served as
blocks. These posts supported a cross-beam with a pent-
house coping of tiles, and on the beam, in red letters, were
the words, "Vergniaud, dairyman." To the right of this
inscription were some eggs, to the left a cow, all painted in
white. The gate was open, and no doubt remained open all
day. Beyond a good-sized yard there was a house facing the
gate, if indeed the name of house may be applied to one of
the hovels built in the neighborhood of Paris, which are like
nothing else, not even the most wretched dwellings in the
country, of which they have all the poverty without their
poetry.

Indeed, in the midst of fields, even a hovel may have a
certain grace derived from the pure air, the verdure, the open
country a hill, a serpentine road, vineyards, quick-set
hedges, moss-grown thatch and rural implements ; but pov-
erty in Paris gains dignity only by horror. Though recently
built, this house seemed ready to fall into ruins. None of its
materials had found a legitimate use ; they had been collected
from the various demolitions which are going on every day in



COLONEL CHABERT. 265

Paris. On a shutter made of the boards of a shop-sign Der-
ville read the words, "Fancy Goods." The windows were
all mismatched and grotesquely placed. The ground floor,
which seemed to be the habitable part, was on one side raised
above the soil, and on the other sunk in the rising ground.
Between the gate and the house lay a puddle full of stable
litter, into which flowed the rain-water and house-waste.
The back wall of this frail construction, which seemed rather
more solidly built than the rest, supported a row of barred
hutches, where rabbits bred their numerous families. To the
right of the gate was the cow-house, with a loft above for fod-
der ; it communicated with the house through the dairy. To
the left was a poultry-yard, with a stable and pig-styes, the
roofs finished, like that of the house, with rough deal boards
nailed so as to overlap, and shabbily thatched with rushes.

Like most of the places where the elements of the huge
meal daily devoured by Paris are every day prepared, the yard
Derville now entered showed traces of the hurry that comes
of the necessity for being ready at a fixed hour. The large
pot-bellied tin cans in which milk is carrried, and the little
pots for cream, were flung pell-mell at the dairy door, with
their linen-covered stoppers. The rags that were used to
clean them fluttered in the sunshine, riddled with holes,
hanging to strings fastened to poles. The placid horse, of a
breed known only to milk-women, had gone a few steps from
the cart, and was standing in front of the stable, the door
being shut. A goat was munching the shoots of a starved
and dusty vine that clung to the cracked yellow wall of the
house. A cat, squatting on the cream jars, was licking them
over. The fowls, scared by Derville's approach, scuttered



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 21 of 31)