Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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away screaming, and the watch-dog barked.

"And the man who decided the victory at Eylau is to be
found here ! " said Derville to himself, as his eyes took in at
a glance the general effect of the squalid scene.

The house had been left in charge of three little boys.


One, who had climbed to the top of a cart loaded with hay,
was pitching stones into the chimney of a neighboring house,
in the hope that they might fall into a saucepan ; another was
trying to get a pig into a cart by the back board, which rested
on the ground ; while the third, hanging on in front, was
waiting till the pig had gotten into the cart, to hoist it by
making the whole thing tilt. When Derville asked them if
M. Chabert lived there, neither of them replied, but all three
looked at him with a sort of bright stupidity, if I may com-
bine these two words. Derville repeated his questions, but
without success. Provoked by the saucy cunning of these
three imps, he abused them with the sort of pleasantry which
young men think they have a right to address to little boys,
and they broke the silence with a horse-laugh. Then Derville
was angry.

The colonel, hearing him, now came out of a little low
room, close to the dairy, and stood on the threshold of his
doorway with indescribable military coolness. He had in
his mouth a very finely colored pipe a technical phrase to a
smoker a humble, short clay pipe of the kind called " briile-
gueulc." He lifted the peak of a dreadfully greasy cloth cap,
saw Derville, and came straight across the midden to join his
benefactor the sooner, calling out in friendly tones to the

" Silence in the ranks ! "

The children at once kept a respectful silence, which
showed the power the old soldier had over them.

"Why did you not write me?" he said to Derville.
"Go along by the cow-house! There the path is paved
there," he exclaimed, seeing the lawyer's hesitancy, for he
did not wish to wet his feet in the manure heap.

Jumping from one dry spot to another, Derville reached
the door by which the colonel had come out. Chabert seemed
but ill pleased at having to receive him in the bedroom he
occupied ; and, in fact, Derville found but one chair there.


The colonel's bed consisted of some trusses of straw, over
which his hostess had spread two or three of those old frag-
ments of carpet, picked up heaven knows where, which milk-
women use to cover the seats of their carts. The floor was
simply the trodden earth. The walls, sweating saltpetre,
green with mold, and full of cracks, were so excessively
damp that on the side where the colonel's bed was a reed mat
had been nailed. The famous box-coat hung on a nail. Two
pairs of old boots lay in a corner. There was not a sign of
linen. On the worm-eaten table the Bulletins de la Grande
Armee, reprinted by Plancher, lay open, and seemed to be
the colonel's reading ; his countenance was calm and serene
in the midst of this squalor. His visit to Derville seemed to
have altered his features ; the lawyer perceived in them traces
of a happy feeling, a particular gleam set there by hope.

"Does the smell of a pipe annoy you? " he said, placing
the dilapidated straw-bottom chair for his lawyer.

"But, colonel, you are dreadfully uncomfortable here!"
remarked Derville.

The speech was wrung from Derville by the distrust natural
to lawyers, and the deplorable experience which they derive
early in life from the appalling and obscure tragedies at which
they look on.

" Here," said he to himself, " is a man who has of course
spent my money in satisfying a trooper's three theological
virtues play, wine, and women ! "

" To be sure, monsieur, we are not distinguished for luxury

here. It is a camp lodging, tempered by friendship, but "

And the soldier shot a deep glance at the man of law " I
have done no one wrong, I have never turned my back on
anybody, and I sleep in peace."

Derville reflected that there would be some want of deli-
cacy in asking his client to account for the sums of money he
had advanced, so he merely said

" But why would you not come to Paris, where you might


have lived as cheaply as you do here, but where you would
have been better lodged? "

"Why," replied the colonel, " the good folks with whom
I am living had taken me in and fed me gratis for a year.
How could I leave them just when I had a little money. Be-
sides, the father of those three pickles is an old Egyptian ' '

"An Egyptian ! "

" We give that name to the troopers who came back from
the expedition into Egypt, of which I was one. Not merely
are all who get back brothers ; Vergniaud was in my regi-
ment. We have shared a draught of water in the desert ;
and, besides, I have not yet finished teaching his brats to

" He might have lodged you better for your money," said

"Bah!" said the colonel, "his children sleep on the
straw as I do. He and his wife have no better bed ; they are
very poor, you see. They have taken a bigger business than
they can manage. But if I recover my fortune How-
ever, it does very well. ' '

" Colonel, to-morrow or next day I shall receive your
papers from Heilsberg. The woman who dug you out is still

"Curse the money! To think I haven't got any ! " he
cried, flinging his pipe on the ground.

Now, a well-colored pipe is to a smoker a precious pos-
session ; but the impulse was so natural, the emotion so gen-
erous, that every smoker, and the excise office itself, would
have pardoned this crime of treason to tobacco. Perhaps the
angels may have picked up the pieces.

" Colonel, it is an exceedingly complicated business," said
Derville as they left the room to walk up and down in the

" To me," said the soldier, " it appears exceedingly simple.
I was thought to be dead, and here I am ! Give me back my


wife and my fortune ; give me the rank of general, to which I
have a right, for I was made colonel of the Imperial Guard
the day before the battle of Eylau."

"Things are not done so in the legal world," said Derville.
" Listen to me. You are Colonel Chabert, I am glad to
think it ; but it has to be proved judicially to persons whose
interest it will be to deny it. Hence, your papers will be
disputed. That contention will give rise to ten or twelve
preliminary inquiries. Every question will be sent under con-
tradiction up to the supreme court, and give rise to so many
costly suits, which will hang on for a long time, however
eagerly I may push them. Your opponents will demand an
inquiry, which we cannot refuse, and which may necessitate
the sending of a commission of investigation to Prussia. But
even if we hope for the best ; supposing that justice should at
once recognize you as Colonel Chabert can we know how
the questions will be settled that will arise out of the very
innocent bigamy committed by the Comtesse Ferraud ?

" In y mr case, the point of law is unknown to the code,
and can only be decided as a point in equity, as a jury de-
cides in the delicate cases presented by the social eccentricities
of some criminal prosecutions. Now, you had no children
by your marriage ; M. le Comte Ferraud has two. The judges
might pronounce against the marriage where the family ties
are weakest, to the confirmation of that where they are
stronger, since it was contracted in perfect good faith.
Would you be in a very becoming moral position if you in-
sisted, at your age and in your present circumstances, in
resuming your rights over a woman who no longer loves you ?
You will have both your wife and her husband against you,
two important persons who might influence the bench. Thus
there are many elements which would prolong the case; you
will have time to grow old in the bitterest regrets."

" And my fortune?"

" Do you suppose you had a fine fortune ? "


" Had I not thirty thousand francs a year?"

"My dear colonel, in 1799 you made a will before your
marriage, leaving one quarter of your property to hospitals."

"That is true."

" Well, when you were reported dead, it was necessary to
make a valuation, and have a sale, to give this quarter away.
Your wife was not particular about honesty to the poor. The
valuation, in which she no doubt took care not to include the
ready money or jewelry, or too much of the plate, and in
which the furniture would be estimated at two-thirds of its
actual cost, either to benefit her or to lighten the succession
duty, and also because a valuer can be held responsible for
the declared value the valuation thus made stood at six hun-
dred thousand francs. Your wife had a right to half for her
share. Everything was sold and bought in by her ; she got
something out of it all, and the hospitals got their seventy-
five thousand francs. Then, as the remainder went to the
state, since you had made no mention of your wife in your
will, the Emperor restored to your widow by decree the residue
which would have reverted to the exchequer. So, now, what
can you claim ? Three hundred thousand francs, no more,
and minus the costs."

"And you call that justice ! " said the colonel, in dismay.

"Why, certainly "

"A pretty kind of justice ! "

" So it is, my dear colonel. You see that what you thought
so easy is not so. Madame Ferraud might even choose to keep
the sum given to her by the Emperor."

" But she was not a widow. The decree is utterly void "

"I agree with you. But every case can get a hearing.
Listen to me. I think that under these circumstances a com-
promise would be both for her and for you the best solution
of the question. You will gain by it a more considerable
sum than you can prove a right to."

" That would be to sell my wife ! "


" With twenty-four thousand francs a year you could find a
woman who, in the position in which you are, would suit you
better than your own wife, and make you happier. I propose
going this very day to see the Comtesse Ferraud and sound-
ing the ground ; but I would not take such a step without
giving you due notice."

" Let us go together."

" What, just as you are ? " said the lawyer. " No, my dear
colonel, no. You might lose your case on the spot."

"Can I possibly gain it?"

" On every count," replied Derville. " But, my dear Col-
onel Chabert, you overlook one thing. I am not rich ; the
price of my connection is. not wholly paid up. If the bench
should allow you a maintenance, that is to say, a sum advanced
on your prospects, they will not do so till you have proved
that you are Comte Chabert, grand officer of the Legion of

' ' To be sure, I am a grand officer of the Legion of Honor;
I had forgotten that," said he simply.

"Well, until then," Derville went on, " will you not have
to engage pleaders, to have documents copied, to keep the
underlings of the law going, and to support yourself? The
expenses of the preliminary inquiries will, at a rough guess,
amount to ten or twelve thousand francs. I have not so much
to lend you I am crushed as it is by the enormous interest I
have to pay on the money I borrowed to buy my business ;
and you? Where can you find it?"

Large tears gathered in the poor veteran's faded eyes, and
rolled down his withered cheeks. This outlook of difficulties
discouraged him. The social and the legal world weighed on
his breast like a nightmare.

" I will go to the foot of the Vendome column ! " he cried.
" I will call out : ' I am Colonel Chabert who rode through
the Russian square at Eylau ! ' The statue he he will
know me."


"And you will find yourself in Charenton."

At this terrible name the soldier's transports collapsed.

" And will there be no hope for me at the ministry of war ? "

"The war office!" said Derville. "Well, go there; but
take a formal legal opinion with you, nullifying the certificate
of your death. The government offices would be only too
glad if they could annihilate the men of the Empire."

The colonel stood for a while speechless, motionless, his
eyes fixed, but seeing nothing, sunk in bottomless despair.
Military justice is ready and swift ; it decides with Turk-like
finality, and almost always rightly. This was the only justice
known to Chabert. As he saw the labyrinth of difficulties
into which he must plunge, and how much money would be
required for the journey, the poor old soldier was mortally hit
in that power peculiar to man, and called the will. He
thought it would be impossible to live as party to a lawsuit; it
seemed a thousand times simpler to remain poor and a beggar,
or to enlist as a trooper if any regiment would pass him.

His physical and mental sufferings had already impaired his
bodily health in some of the most important organs. He
was on the verge of one of those maladies for which medicine
has no name, and of which the seat is in some degree vari-
able, like the nervous system itself, the part most frequently
attacked of the whole human machine a malady which may
be designated as the heart-sickness of the unfortunate. How-
ever serious this invisible but real disorder might already be,
it could still be cured by a happy issue. But a fresh obstacle,
an unexpected incident, would be enough to wreck this vigor-
ous constitution, to break the weakened springs, and produce
the hesitancy, the aimless, unfinished movements, which physi-
ologists know well in men undermined by grief.

Derville, detecting in his client the symptoms of extreme
dejection, said to him :

" Take courage ; the end of the business cannot fail to be
in your favor. Only consider whether you can give me your


whole confidence and blindly accept the result I may think
best for your interests."

" Do what you will," said Chabert.

" Yes, but you surrender yourself to me like a man march-
ing to his death."

" Must I not be left to live without a position, without a
name ? Is that endurable ? ' '

" That is not my view of it," said the lawyer. " We will
try a friendly suit, to annul both your death certificate and
your marriage, so as to put you in possession of your rights.
You may even, by Comte Ferraud's intervention, have your
name replaced on the army-list as general, and no doubt you
will get a pension."

"Well, proceed then," said Chabert. "I put myself
entirely in your hands."

"I will send you a power of attorney to sign," said Der-
ville. " Good-by. Keep up your courage. If you want
money, rely on me."

Chabert warmly wrung the lawyer's hand, and remained
standing with his back against the wall, not having the
energy to follow him excepting with his eyes. Like all men
who know but little of legal matters, he was frightened by
this unforeseen struggle.

During their interview, several times, the figure of a man
posted in the street had come forward from behind one of the
gate-pillars, watching for Derville to depart, and he now
accosted the lawyer. He was an old man, wearing a blue
waistcoat and a white-pleated kilt, like a brewer's ; on his
head was an otter-skin cap. His face was tanned, hollow-
cheeked, and wrinkled, but ruddy on the cheek-bones by
hard work and exposure to the open air.

" Asking your pardon, sir," said he, taking Derville by the
arm, " if I take the liberty of speaking to you. But I
fancied, from the look of you, that you were a friend of our


"And what then?" replied Derville. "What concern
have you with him ? But who are you ? ' ' said the cautious

"I am Louis Vergniaud," he at once replied. "I have
two words to say to you."

" So you are the man who has lodged Comte Chabert as I
have found him ? "

" Asking your pardon, sir, he has the best room. I would
have given him mine if I had had but one; I could have
slept in the stable. A man who has suffered as he has, who
teaches my kids to read, a general, an Egyptian, the first
lieutenant I ever served under What do you think ? Of us
all, he is best served. I shared what I had with him. Unfor-
tunately, it is not much to boast of bread, milk, eggs. Well,
well; it's neighbors' fare, sir. And he is heartily welcome.
But he has hurt our feelings."


" Yes, sir, hurt our feelings. To be plain with you, I have
taken a larger business than I can manage, and he saw it.
Well, it worried him ; he must needs mind the horse ! I says

to him, ' Really, general ' ' Bah ! ' says he, ' I am not

going to eat my head off doing nothing. I learned to rub a
horse down many a year ago.' I had some bills out for the
purchase money of my dairy a fellow named Grados Do
you know him, sir ? "

"But, my good man, I have not time to listen to your
story. Only tell me how the colonel offended you."

" He hurt our feelings, sir, as sure as my name is Louis
Vergniaud, and my wife cried about it. He heard from our
neighbors that we had not a sou to begin to meet the bills
with. The old soldier, as he is, he saved up all you gave
him, he watched for the bill to come in, and he paid it.
Such a trick ! While my wife and me, we knew he had no
tobacco, poor old boy, and went without. Oh ! now yes,
he has his cigar every morning ! I would sell my soul for it


No, we are hurt. Well, so I wanted to ask you for he
said you were a good sort to lend us a hundred crowns on
the stock, so that we may get him some clothes, and furnish
his room. He thought he was getting us out of debt, you
see. Well, it's just the other way; the old man is running
us into debt and hurt our feelings ! He ought not to have
stolen a march on us like that. And we his friends, too !
On my word as an honest man, as sure as my name is Louis
Vergniaud, I would sooner sell out and enlist than fail to pay
you back your money "

Derville looked at the dairyman, and stepped back a few
paces to glance at the house, the yard, the manure-pool, the
cow-house, the rabbits, the children.

" On my honor, I believe it is characteristic of virtue to
have nothing to do with riches ! " thought he.

"All right, you shall have your hundred crowns, and
more. But I shall not give them to you ; the colonel will be
rich enough to help, and I will not deprive him of the
pleasure. ' '

" And will that be soon ? "

"Why, yes."

" Ah, dear God ! how glad my wife will be ! " and the
cow-keeper's tanned face seemed to expand.

" Now," said Derville to himself, as he got into his cab
again, " let us call on our opponent. We must not show
our hand, but try to see hers, and win the game at one
stroke. She must be frightened. She is a woman. Now
what frightens women most ? A woman is afraid of nothing
but "

And he set to work to study the Countess' position, falling
into one of those brown studies to which great politicians
give themselves up when concocting their own plans and
trying to guess the secrets of a hostile cabinet. Are not
attorneys, in a way, statesmen in charge of private affairs?

But a brief survey of the situation in which the Comte


Ferraud and his wife now found themselves is necessary for a
comprehension of the lawyer's cleverness.

Monsieur le Comte Ferraud was the only son of a former
councilor in the old Parlement of Paris, who had emigrated
during the Reign of Terror, and so, though he saved his head,
lost his fortune. He came back under the Consulate, and
remained persistently faithful to the cause of Louis XVIII.,
in whose circle his father had moved before the Revolution.
He thus was one of the party in the Faubourg Saint-Germain
which nobly stood out against Napoleon's blandishments.
The reputation for capacity gained by the young Count then
simply called Monsieur Ferraud made him the object of the
Emperor's advances, for he was often as well pleased at his
conquests among the aristocracy as at gaining a battle. The
Count was promised the restitution of his title, of such of his
estates as had not been sold, and he was shown in perspective '
a place in the ministry or as senator.

The Emperor fell.

At the time of Comte Chabert's death M. Ferraud was a
young man of six-and-twenty, without fortune, of pleasing
appearance, who had had his successes, and whom the Fau-
bourg Saint-Germain had adopted as doing it credit ; but
Madame la Comtesse Chabert had managed to turn her share
of her husband's fortune to such good account that, after
eighteen months of widowhood, she had about forty thousand
francs a year. Her marriage to the young Count was not
regarded as news in the circles of the Faubourg Saint-Ger-
main. Napoleon, approving of this union, which carried out
his idea of fusion, restored to Madame Chabert the money
falling to the exchequer under her husband's will ; but Napo-
leon's hopes were again disappointed. Madame Ferraud was
not only in love with her lover ; she had also been fascinated
by the notion of getting into the haughty society which, in
spite of its humiliation, was still predominant at the imperial
court. By this marriage all her vanities were as much grat-


ified as her passions. She was to become a real fine lady.
When the Faubourg Saint-Germain understood that the young
Count's marriage did not mean desertion, its drawing-rooms
were thrown open to his wife.

Then came the Restoration. The Count's political ad-
vancement was not rapid. He understood the exigencies of
the situation in which Louis XVIII. found himself; he was
one of the inner circle, who waited till the "Gulf of Revolu-
tion should be closed " for this phrase of the King's, at
which the Liberals laughed so heartily, had a political sense.
The order quoted in the lawyer's long preamble at the begin-
ning of this story had, however, put him in possession of two
tracts of forest, and of an estate which had considerably in-
creased in value during its sequestration. At the present
moment, though Comte Ferraud was a councilor of state and
a director-general, he regarded his position as merely the first
step of his political career.

Wholly occupied as he was by the anxieties of consuming
ambition, he had attached to himself, as secretary, a ruined
attorney named Delbecq, a more than clever man, versed in
all the resources of the law, to whom he left the conduct of
his private affairs. This shrewd practitioner had so well un-
derstood his position with the Count as to be honest in his
own interest. He hoped to get some place by his master's
influence, and he made the Count's fortune his first care.
His conduct so effectually gave the lie to his former life that
he was regarded as a slandered man. The Countess, with the
tact and shrewdness of which most women have a share more
or less, understood the man's motives, watched him quietly,
and managed him so well, that she had made good use of
him for the augmentation of her private fortune. She had
contrived to make Delbecq believe that she ruled her hus-
band, and had promised to get him appointed president of
an inferior court in some important provincial town, if he
devoted himself entirely to her interests.


The promise of a place, not dependent on changes of
ministry, which would allow of his marrying advantageously,
and rising subsequently to a high political position, by being
chosen deputy, made Delbecq the Countess' abject slave. He
had never allowed her to miss one of those favorable chances
which the fluctuations of the Bourse and the increased value
of property afforded to clever financiers in Paris during the
first three years after the Restoration. He had trebled his
protectress* capital, and all the more easily because the
Countess had no scruples as to the means which might make
her an enormous fortune as quickly as possible. The emolu-
ments derived by the Count from the places he held she spent
on the housekeeping, so as to reinvest her dividends ; and
Delbecq lent himself to these calculations of avarice without
trying to account for her motives. People of that sort never
trouble themselves about any secrets of which the discovery
is not necessary to their own interests. And, indeed, he
naturally found the reason in the thirst for money, which
taints almost every Parisian woman ; and as a fine fortune
was needed to support the pretensions of Comte Ferraud, the
secretary sometimes fancied that he saw in the Countess' greed
a consequence of her devotion to a husband with whom she
still was in love. The Countess buried the secrets of her
conduct at the bottom of her heart. There lay the secrets of
life and death to her, there lay the turning-point of this

At the beginning of the year 1818 the Restoration was set-

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 22 of 31)