Honoré de Balzac.

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us. I cannot conceal the facts. When fate made me a widow,
I was not a mother."

The colonel with a wave of his hand bid his wife be
silent, and for a mile and a half they sat without speaking a
single word. Chabert could fancy he saw the two little ones
before him.



" Monsieur."

" The dead are very wrong to come to life again."

" Oh, monsieur, no, no ! Do not think me ungrateful.
Only, you find me a lover, a mother, while you left me merely
a wife. Though it is no longer in my power to love, I know
how much I owe you, and I can still offer you all the affection
of a daughter."

"Rosine," said the old man in a softened tone, "I no
longer feel any resentment against you. We will forget every-
thing," he added, with one of those smiles which always re-
flect a noble soul ; "I have not so little delicacy as to de-
mand the mockery of love from a wife who no longer loves

The Countess gave him a flashing look full of such deep
gratitude that poor Chabert would have been glad to sink
again into his grave at Eylau. Some men have a soul strong
enough for such self-devotion, of which the whole reward
consists in the assurance that they have made the person they
love happy.

" My dear friend, we will talk all this over later when our
hearts have rested," said the Countess.

The conversation turned to other subjects, for it was im-
possible to dwell very long on this one. Though the couple
came back again and again to their singular position, either
by some allusion or of serious purpose, they had a delightful
drive, recalling the events of their former life together and
the times of the Empire. The Countess knew how to lend
peculiar charm to her reminiscences, and gave the conversa-
tion the tinge of melancholy that was needed to keep it seri-
ous. She revived his love without awakening his desires, and
allowed her first husband to discern the mental wealth she
had acquired while trying to accustom him to moderate his
pleasure to that which a father may feel in the society of a
favorite daughter.


The colonel had known the Countess of the Empire ; he
found her a Countess of the Restoration.

At last, by a cross-road, they arrived at the entrance to a
large park lying in the little valley which divides the heights
of Margency from the pretty village of Groslay. The Coun-
tess had there a delightful house, where the colonel on arriving
found everything in readiness for his stay there, as well as for
his wife's. Misfortune is a kind of talisman whose virtue con-
sists in its power to confirm our original nature ; in some
men it increases their distrust and malignancy, just as it im-
proves the goodness of those who have a kind heart.

Sorrow had made the colonel even more helpful and good
than he had always been, and he could understand some
secrets of womanly distress which are unrevealed to most men.
Nevertheless, in spite of his loyal trustfulness, he could not
help saying to his wife :

" Then you felt quite sure you would bring me here?"

"Yes," replied she, " if I found Colonel Chabert in Der-
ville's client."

The appearance of truth she contrived to give to this answer
dissipated the slight suspicions which the colonel was ashamed
to have felt. For three days the Countess was quite charm-
ing to her first husband. By tender attentions and unfailing
sweetness she seemed anxious to wipe out the memory of the
sufferings he had endured, and to earn forgiveness for the woes
which, as she confessed, she had innocently caused him. She
delighted in displaying for him the charms she knew he took
pleasure in, while at the same time she assumed a kind of
melancholy ; for men are more especially accessible to certain
ways, certain graces of the heart or of the mind which they
cannot resist. She aimed at interesting him in her position,
and appealing to his feelings so far as to take possession of his
mind and control him despotically.

Ready for anything to attain her ends, she did not yet
know what she was to do with this man ; but at any rate she


meant to annihilate him socially. On the evening of the third
day she felt that in spite of her efforts she could not conceal
her uneasiness as to the results of her manoeuvres. To give
herself a minute's reprieve she went up to her room, sat down
before her writing-table, and laid aside the mask of composure
which she wore in Chabert's presence, like an actress who,
returning to her dressing-room after a fatiguing fifth act, drops
half-dead, leaving with the audience an image of herself which
she no longer resembles. She proceeded to finish a letter she
had begun to Delbecq, whom she desired to go in her name
and demand of Derville the deeds relating to Colonel Cha-
bert, to copy them, and to come to her at once to Groslay.
She had hardly finished when she heard the colonel's step in
the passage ; uneasy at her absence, he had come to look for

" Alas ! " she exclaimed, " I wish I were dead ! My posi-
tion is intolerable ' '

" Why, what is the matter ? " asked the colonel.

"Nothing, nothing ! " she replied.

She rose, left the colonel, and went down to speak pri-
vately to her maid, whom she sent off to Paris, impressing on
her that she was herself to deliver to Delbecq the letter just
written, and to bring it back to the writer as soon as he had
read it. Then the Countess went out to sit on a bench suffi-
ciently in sight for the colonel to join her as soon as he might
choose. The colonel, who was looking for her, hastened up
and sat down by her.

" Rosine," said he, " what is the matter with you ? "

She did not answer.

It was one of those glorious, calm evenings in the month
of June, whose secret harmonies infuse such sweetness into
the sunset. The air was clear, the stillness perfect, so that
far away in the park they could hear the voices of some chil-
dren, which added a kind of melody to the sublimity of the


" You do not answer me ? " the colonel said to his wife.

"My husband " said the Countess, who broke off,

started a little, and with blush stopped to ask him, " What
am I to say when I speak of M. Ferraud ? "

" Call him your husband, my poor child," replied the
colonel, in a kind voice. " Is he not the father of your chil-

"Well, then," she said, "if he should ask what I came
here for, if he finds that I came here, alone, with a stranger,
what am I to say to him? Listen, monsieur," she went on,
assuming a dignified attitude, " decide my fate, I am resigned
to anything "

"My dear," said the colonel, taking possession of his
wife's hands, " I have made up my mind to sacrifice myself
entirely for your happiness "

"That is impossible!" she exclaimed, with a sudden
spasmodic movement. " Remember that you would have to
renounce your identity, and in an authenticated form."

" What ! " said the colonel. " Is not my word enough for

The word "authenticated" fell on the old man's heart,
and roused involuntary distrust. He looked at his wife in a
way that made her color, she cast down her eyes, and he
feared that he might find himself compelled to despise her.
The Countess was afraid lest she had scared the shy modesty,
the stern honesty, of a man whose generous temper and primi-
tive virtues were known to her. Though these feelings had
brought the clouds to their brow, they immediately recovered
their harmony. This was the way of it. A child's cry was
heard in the distance.

"Jules, leave your sister in peace," the Countess called

"What, are your children here?" said Chabert.

" Yes ; but I told them not to trouble you."

The old soldier understood the delicacy, the womanly tact


of so gracious a precaution, and took the Countess' hand to
kiss it.

"But let them come," said he.

The little girl ran up to complain of her brother.

" Mamma! "

"Mamma! "

"It was Jules "

" It was her "

Their little hands were held out to their mother, and the
two childish voices mingled ; it was an unexpected and
charming picture.

"Poor little things!" cried the Countess, no longer re-
straining her tears, " I shall have to leave them. To whom
will the law assign them ? A mother's heart cannot be di-
vided; I want them, I want them."

"Are you making mamma cry?" said Jules, looking
fiercely at the colonel.

" Silence, Jules ! " said the mother in a decided tone.

The two children stood speechless, examining their mother
and the stranger with a curiosity which it is impossible to
express in words.

"Oh, yes!" she cried. "If I am separated from the
Count, only leave me my children, and I will submit to any-
thing "

This was the decisive speech which gained all that she had
hoped from it.

" Yes," exclaimed the colonel, as if he were ending a
sentence already begun in his mind, " I must return under-
ground again. I had told myself so already."

" Can I accept such a sacrifice ? " replied his wife. " If
some men have died to save a mistress' honor, they gave
their life but once. But in this case you would be giving
your life every day. No, no. It is impossible. If it were
only your life, it would be nothing ; but to sign a declaration
that you are not Colonel Chabert, to acknowledge yourself an


impostor, to sacrifice your honor, and live a lie every hour
of the day ! Human devotion cannot go so far. Only
think ! No. But for my poor children I would have fled
with you by this time to the other end of the world."

"But," said Chabert, "can I not live here in your little
lodge as one of your relations ! I am as worn out as a
cracked cannon ; I want nothing but a little tobacco and the
ConstitutionneL ' '

The Countess melted into tears. There was a contest
of generosity between the Comtesse Ferraud and Colonel
Chabert, and the soldier came out victorious. One evening,
seeing this mother with her children, the soldier was bewitched
by the touching grace of a family picture in the country, in
the shade and the silence ; he made a resolution to remain
dead, and, frightened no longer at the authentication of a
deed, he asked what he was to do to secure beyond all risk
the happiness of this family.

"Do exactly as you like," said the Countess. "I declare
to you that I will have nothing to do with this affair. I
ought not."

Delbecq had arrived some days before, and, in obedience to
the Countess' verbal instructions, the intendant had succeeded
in gaining the old soldier's confidence. So on the following
morning Colonel Chabert went with the erewhile attorney to
Saint-Leu-Taverny, where Delbecq had caused the attorney to
draw up an affidavit in such terms that, after hearing it read,
the colonel started up and walked out of the office.

"Turf and thunder! What a fool you must think me!
Why, I should make myself out a swindler ! " he exclaimed.

"Indeed, monsieur," said Delbecq, "I should advise you
not to sign in haste. In your place I would get at least thirty
thousand francs a year out of the bargain. Madame would
pay them."

After annihilating this scoundrel emeritus by the lightning
look of an honest man insulted, the colonel rushed off, carried


away by a thousand contrary emotions. He was suspicious,
indignant, and calm again by turns.

Finally he made his way back into the park of Groslay by
a gap in the fence, and slowly walked on to sit down and
rest, and meditate at his ease, in a little room under a gazebo,
from which the road to Saint-Leu could be seen. The path
being strewn with the yellowish sand which is used instead
of river-gravel, the Countess, who was sitting in the upper
room of this little summer-house, did not hear the colonel's
approach, for she was too much preoccupied with the success
of her business to pay the smallest attention to the slight
noise made by her husband. Nor did the old man notice
that his wife was in the room over him.

"Well, Monsieur Delbecq, has he signed ?" the Countess
asked her secretary, whom she saw alone on the road beyond
the hedge of a haha.

" No, madame. I do not even know what has become of
our man. The old horse reared."

" Then we shall be obliged to put him into Charenton,"
said she, " since we have gotten him."

The colonel, who recovered the elasticity of youth to leap
the haha, in the twinkling of an eye was standing in front of
Delbecq, on whom he bestowed the two finest slaps that ever
a scoundrel's cheeks received.

" And you may add that old horses can also kick ! " the
colonel added.

His rage spent, the colonel no longer felt vigorous enough
to leap the ditch. He had seen the truth in all its nakedness.
The Countess' speech and Delbecq' s reply had revealed the
conspiracy of which he was to be the victim. The care taken
of him was but a bait to entrap him in a snare. That speech
was like a drop of subtle poison, bringing on in the old
soldier a return of all his sufferings, physical and moral. He
came back to the summer-house through the park gate, walk-
ing slowly like a broken man.


Then for him there was to be neither peace nor truce !
From this moment he must begin the odious warfare with this
woman of which Derville had spoken, enter on a life of liti-
gation, feed on gall, drink every morning of the cup of
bitterness. And then fearful thought ! where was he to find
the money needful to pay the cost of the first proceedings ?
He felt such disgust of life, that if there had been any water
at hand he would have thrown himself into it ; that if he
had had a pistol, he would have blown out his brains. Then
he relapsed into the indecision of mind which, since his con-
versation with Derville at the dairyman's, had changed his

At last, having reached the kiosque, he went up to the
gazebo, where little rose-windows afforded a view over each
lovely landscape of the valley, and where he found his wife
seated on a chair. The Countess was gazing at the distance,
and preserved a calm countenance, showing that impenetrable
face which women can assume when resolved to do their
worst. She wiped her eyes as if she had been weeping, and
played absently with the pink ribbons of her sash. Never-
theless, in spite of her apparent assurance, she could not help
shuddering slightly when she saw before her her venerable
benefactor, standing with folded arms, his face pale, his
brow stern.

" Madame," he said, after gazing at her fixedly for a mo-
ment and compelling her to blush, " Madame, I do not
curse you, I scorn you. I can now thank the chance that has
divided us. I do not feel even a desire for revenge ; I no
longer love you. I want nothing from you. Live in peace
on the strength of my word ; it is worth more than the scrawl
of all the notaries in Paris. I will never assert my claim to
the name I perhaps have made illustrious. I am henceforth
but a poor devil named Hyacinthe, who asks no more than
his share of the sunshine. Farewell ! "

The Countess threw herself at his feet; she would have


detained him by taking his hands, but he pushed her away
with disgust, saying

" Do not touch me ! "

The Countess' expression when she heard her husband's
retreating steps is quite indescribable. Then, with the deep
perspicacity given only by utter villainy, or by fierce worldly
selfishness, she knew that she might live in peace on the word
and the contempt of this loyal veteran.

Chabert, in fact, disappeared. The dairyman failed in
business, and became a hackney-cab driver. The colonel,
perhaps, took up some similar industry for a time. Perhaps,
like a stone flung into a chasm, he went falling from ledge to
ledge, to be lost in the mire of rags that seethes through the
streets of Paris.

Six months after this event, Derville, hearing no more of
Colonel Chabert or the Comtesse Ferraud, supposed that they
had no doubt come to a compromise, which the Countess, out
of revenge, had had arranged by some other lawyer. So one
morning he added up the sums he had advanced to the said
Chabert with the costs, and begged the Comtesse Ferraud to
claim from M. le Comte Chabert the amount of the bill,
assuming that she would know where to find her first husband.

The very next day Comte Ferraud's man of business, lately
appointed president of the county court in a town of some
importance, wrote this distressing note to Derville :

" MONSIEUR : Madame la Comtesse Ferraud desires me to
inform you that your client took complete advantage of your
confidence, and that the individual calling himself Comte
Chabert has acknowledged that he came forward under false
pretenses. Yours, etc., DELBECQ."

" One comes across people who are, on my honor, too stupid
by half," cried Derville. " They don't deserve to be Chris-
tians ! Be humane, generous, philanthropical, and a lawyer,


and you are bound to be cheated ! There is a piece of busi-
ness that will cost me two thousand-franc notes ! "

Some time after receiving this letter, Derville went to the
Palais de Justice in search of a pleader to whom he wished
to speak, and who was employed in the police court. As
chance would have it, Derville went into court number 6 at
the moment when the presiding magistrate was sentencing one
Hyacinthe to two months' imprisonment as a vagabond, and
subsequently to be taken to the Mendicity House of Deten-
tion, a sentence which, by magistrate's law, is equivalent to
perpetual imprisonment. On hearing the name of Hyacinthe,
Derville looked at the delinquent, sitting between two gen-
darmes on the bench for the accused, and recognized in the
condemned man his false Colonel Chabert.

The old soldier was placid, motionless, almost absent-minded.
In spite of his rags, in spite of the misery stamped on his
countenance, it gave evidence of noble pride. His eye had
a stoical expression which no magistrate ought to have mis-
understood ; but as soon as a man has fallen into the hands
of justice, he is no more than a moral entity, a matter of law
or of fact, just as to statists he has become a zero.

When the veteran was taken back to the lock-up, to be
removed later with the batch of vagabonds at that moment at
the bar, Derville availed himself of the privilege accorded to
lawyers of going wherever they please in the courts, and fol-
lowed him to the lock-up, where he stood scrutinizing him for
some minutes, as well as the curious crew of beggars among
whom he found himself. The passage to the lock-up at that
moment afforded one of those spectacles which, unfortunately,
neither legislators, nor philanthropists, nor painters, nor
writers come to study. Like all the laboratories of the law,
this anteroom is a dark and malodorous place ; along the
walls runs a wooden seat, blackened by the constant presence
there of the wretches who come to this meeting-place of every
form of social squalor, where not one of them is missing.


A poet might say that the day was ashamed to light up this
dreadful sewer through which so much misery flows ! There
is not a spot on that plank where some crime has not sat, in
embryo or matured ; not a corner where a man has never stood
who, driven to despair by the blight which justice has set
upon him after his first fault, has not there begun a career, at
the end of which looms the guillotine or the pistol-snap of
the suicide. All who fall on the pavement of Paris rebound
against these yellow-gray walls, on which a philanthropist,
who was not a speculator, might read a justification of the
numerous suicides complained of by hypocritical writers who
are incapable of taking a step to prevent them for that justi-
fication is written in that anteroom, like a preface to the
dramas of the morgue, or to those enacted on the Place de la

At this moment Colonel Chabert was sitting among these
men men with coarse faces, clothed in the horrible livery of
misery, and silent at intervals, or talking in a low tone, for
three gendarmes on duty paced to and fro, their sabres clat-
tering on the floor.

"Do you recognize me?" said Derville to the old man,
standing in front of him.

"Yes, sir," said Chabert, rising.

" If you are an honest man," Derville went on in an under-
tone, " how could you remain in my debt ? "

The old soldier blushed as a young girl might when accused
by her mother of a clandestine love affair.

" What ! Madame Ferraud has not paid you? " cried he in
a loud voice.

"Paid me?" said Derville. "She wrote to me that you
were a swindler."

The colonel cast up his eyes in a sublime impulse of horror
and imprecation, as if to call heaven to witness to this fresh

"Monsieur," said he, in a voice that was calm by sheer


huskiness, "get the gendarmes to allow me to go into the
lock-up, and I will sign an order which will certainly be

At a word from Derville to the sergeant he was allowed to
take his client into the room, where Hyacinthe wrote a few
lines, and addressed them to the Comtesse Ferraud.

"Send her that," said the soldier, " and you will be paid
your costs and the money you advanced. Believe me, mon-
sieur, if I have not shown you the gratitude I owe you for
your kind offices, it is not the less there," and he laid his
hand on his heart. "Yes, it is there, deep and sincere.
But what can the unfortunate do? They live, and that is all."

" What ! " said Derville. " Did you not stipulate for an

" Do not speak of it ! " cried the old man. "You cannot
conceive how deep my contempt is for the outside life to
which most men cling. I was suddenly attacked by a sick-
ness disgust of humanity. When I think that Napoleon is
at Saint Helena, everything on earth is a matter of indiffer-
ence to me. I can no longer be a soldier ; that is my only
real grief. After all," he added with a gesture of childish
simplicity, " it is better to enjoy luxury of feeling than of
dress. For my part, I fear nobody's contempt."

And the colonel sat down on his bench again.

Derville went away. On returning to his office, he sent
Godeschal, at that time his second clerk, to the Comtesse
Ferraud, who, on reading the note, at once paid the sum due
to Comte Chabert's lawyer.

In 1840, towards the end of June, Godeschal, now himself
an attorney, went to Ris with Derville, to whom he had suc-
ceeded. When they reached the avenue leading from the
high-road to Bicetre, they saw, under one of the elm-trees by
the wayside, one of those old, broken, and hoary paupers who
have earned the marshal's staff among beggars by living on at


Bicetre as poor women live on at La Salpgtriere. This man,
one of the two thousand poor creatures who are lodged in the
infirmary for the aged, was seated on a corner-stone, and
seemed to have concentrated all his intelligence on an opera-
tion well known to these pensioners, which consists in drying
their snuffy pocket-handkerchiefs in the sun, perhaps to save
washing them. This old man had an attractive countenance.
He was dressed in the reddish cloth wrapper-coat which the
workhouse affords to its inmates, a sort of horrible livery.

"I say, Derville," said Godeschal to his traveling com-
panion, " look at that old fellow. Isn't he like those gro-
tesque carved figures we get from Germany ? And it is alive,
perhaps it is happy."

Derville looked at the poor man through his eyeglass, and
with a little exclamation of surprise he said :

"That old man, my dear fellow, is a whole poem, or, as
the romantics say, a drama. Did you ever meet the Com-
tesse Ferraud ? ' '

"Yes; she is a clever woman, and agreeable; but rather
too pious," said Godeschal.

" That old Bicetre pauper is her lawful husband, Comte
Chabert, the old colonel. She has had him sent here, no
doubt. And if he is in this workhouse instead of living in a
mansion, it is solely because he reminded the pretty Countess
that he had taken her, like a hackney cab, on the street. I
can remember now the tiger's glare she shot at him at that

This opening having excited Godeschal's curiosity, Der-
ville related the story here told.

Two days later, on Monday morning, as they returned to
Paris, the two friends looked again at Bice'tre, and Derville
proposed that they should call on Colonel Chabert. Half-
way up the avenue they found the old man sitting on the
trunk of a felled tree.

"Good-morning, Colonel Chabert," said Derville.


"Not Chabert ! not Chabert ! My name is Hyacinthe,"
replied the veteran. " I am no longer a man, I am No. 164,

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 24 of 31)