The Man With The Broken Ear, by Edmond About

Chapter 18.

The Colonel Tries to Relieve Himself of a Million which Incumbers Him.

Fougas had left Paris for Berlin the day after his audience. He took three days to make the trip, because he stopped some time at Nancy. The Marshal had given him a letter of introduction to the Prefect of Meurthe, who received him very politely, and promised to aid him in his investigations. Unfortunately, the house where he had loved Clementine Pichon was no longer standing. The authorities had demolished it in 1827, in cutting a street through. It is certain that the commissioners had not demolished the family with the house, but a new difficulty all at once presented itself: the name of Pichon abounded in the city, the suburbs, and the department. Among this multitude of Pichons, Fougas did not know which one to hug. Tired of hunting, and eager to hasten forward on,the road to fortune, he left this note for the commissioner of police:

“Search, on the registers of personal statistics and elsewhere, for a young girl named Clementine Pichon. She was eighteen years old in 1813; her parents kept an officers’ boarding-house. If she is alive, get her address; if she is dead, look up her heirs. A father’s happiness depends upon it!”

On reaching Berlin, the Colonel found that his reputation had preceded him. The note from the Minister of War had been sent to the Prussian Government through the French legation; Leon Renault, despite his grief, had found time to write a word to Doctor Hirtz; the papers had begun to talk, and the scientific societies to bestir themselves. The Prince Regent, even, had not disdained to ask information on the subject from his physician. Germany is a queer country, where science interests the very princes.

Fougas, who had read Doctor Hirtz’s letter annexed to Herr Meiser’s will, thought that he owed some acknowledgments to that excellent gentleman. He made a call upon him, and embraced him, addressing him as the oracle of Epidaurus. The doctor at once took possession of him, had his baggage brought from the hotel and gave him the best chamber in his house. Up to the 29th day of the month, the Colonel was cared for as a friend, and exhibited as a phenomenon. Seven photographers disputed the possession of so precious a sitter. The cities of Greece did no more for our poor old Homer. His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, wished to see him in propriâ personâ, and begged Herr Hirtz to bring him to the palace. Fougas scratched his ear a little, and intimated that a soldier ought not to associate with the enemy, seeming to think himself still in 1813.

The Prince is a distinguished soldier, having commanded in person at the famous siege of Rastadt. He took pleasure in Fougas’ conversation; the heroic simplicity of the young old-time soldier charmed him. He paid him huge compliments and said that the Emperor of France was very fortunate in having around him officers of so much merit.

“He has not a great many,” replied the Colonel. “If there were but four or five hundred of my stamp, your Europe would have been bagged long ago!”

This answer seemed more amusing than threatening, and no addition was immediately made to the available portion of the Prussian army.

His Royal Highness directly informed Fougas that his indemnity had been fixed at two hundred and fifty thousand francs, and that he could receive the amount at the treasury whenever he should find it agreeable.

“My Lord,” replied he, “it is always agreeable to pocket the money of an enemy —— a foreigner. But wait! I am not a censor-bearer to Plutus: give me back the Rhine and Posen, and I’ll leave you your two hundred and fifty thousand francs.”

“Are you dreaming?” said the Prince, laughing. “The Rhine and Posen!”

“The Rhine belongs to France, and the Posen to Poland, much more legitimately than this money to me. But so it is with great lords: they make it a duty to pay little debts, and a point of honor to ignore big ones!”

The Prince winced a little, and all the faces of the court gave a sympathetic twitch. It was discovered that M. Fougas had evinced bad taste in letting a crumb of truth fall into a big plateful of follies.

But a pretty little Viennese baroness, who was at the presentation, was much more charmed with his appearance than scandalized at his remarks. The ladies of Vienna have made for themselves a reputation for hospitality which they always attempt to support, even when they are away from their native land.

The baroness of Marcomarcus had still another reason for getting hold of the Colonel: for two or three years she had, as a matter of course, been making a photographic collection of celebrated men. Her album was peopled with generals, statesmen, philosophers, and pianists, who had given their portraits to her, after writing on the back: “With respects of ——” There were to be found there several Roman prelates, and even a celebrated cardinal; but a more direct envoy from the other world was still wanting. She wrote Fougas, then, a note full of impatience and curiosity, inviting him to supper. Fougas, who was going to start for Dantzic next day, took a sheet of paper embossed with a great eagle, and set to work to excuse himself politely. He feared — the delicate and chivalrous soul! — that an evening of conversation and enjoyment in the society of the loveliest women of Germany might be a sort of moral infidelity to the recollection of Clementine. He accordingly hunted up an eligible formula of address, and wrote:

“Too indulgent Beauty, I——” The muse dictated nothing more. He was not in the mood for writing. He felt rather more in the mood for supper. His scruples scattered like clouds driven before a brisk North East wind; he put on the frogged surtout, and carried his reply himself. It was the first time that he had been out to supper since his resuscitation. He gave evidence of a good appetite, and got moderately drunk, but not as much so as usual. The Baroness de Marcomarcus, astonished at his high spirits and inexhaustible vivacity, kept him as long as she could. And moreover she said to her friends, on showing them the Colonel’s portrait, “Nothing is needed but these French officers to conquer the world!”

The next day he packed a black leather trunk which he had bought at Paris, drew his money from the treasury, and set out for Dantzic. He went to sleep in the cars because he had been out to supper the night before. A terrible snoring awoke him. He looked around for the snorer, and, not finding him near him, opened the door into the adjoining compartment (for the German cars are much larger than the French), and shook a fat gentleman, who seemed to have a whole organ playing in his person. At one of the stations he drank a bottle of Marsala and ate a couple of dozen sandwiches, for last night’s supper seemed to have hollowed out his stomach. At Dantzic, he rescued his black trunk from the hands of an enormous baggage-snatcher who was trying to take possession of it.

He went to the best hotel in the place, ordered his supper, and hastened to Meiser’s house. His friends at Berlin had given him accounts of that charming family. He knew that he would have to deal with the richest and most avaricious of sharpers: that was why he assumed the cavalier tone that may have seemed strange to more than one reader in the preceding chapter.

Unhappily, he let himself become a little too human as soon as he had his million in his pocket. A curiosity to investigate the long yellow bottles all the way to the bottom, came near doing him an ugly turn. His reason wandered, about one o’clock in the morning, if I am to believe the account he himself gave. He said that, after saying “good night” to the excellent people who had treated him so well, he tumbled into a large and deep well, whose rim was hardly raised above the level of the street, and ought at least to have had a lamp by it. “I came to” (it is still he speaking) “in water, very fresh and of a pleasant taste. After swimming around a minute or two, looking for a firm place to take hold of, I seized a big rope, and climbed without any trouble to the surface of the earth, which was not more than forty feet off. It required nothing but wrists and a little gymnastic skill, and was not much of a feat, anyhow. On getting on to the pavement, I found myself in the presence of a sort of night watchman, who was bawling the hours through the street, and who asked me insolently what I was doing there. I thrashed him for his impudence, and the gentle exercise did me good, as it set my blood well in circulation again. Before getting back to the inn, I stopped under a street lamp, opened my pocket-book, and saw with pleasure that my million was not wet. The leather was thick, and the clasp firm; moreover, I had enveloped Herr Meiser’s check in a half-dozen hundred-franc bills, in a roll as fat as a monk. These surroundings had preserved it.”

This examination being made, he went home, went to bed, and slept with his fists clenched. The next morning he received, on getting up, the following memoranda, which came from the Nancy police:

“Clementine Pichon, aged eighteen, minor daughter of Auguste Pichon, hotel-keeper, and Leonie Francelot, was married, in this town, January 11, 1814, to Louis Antoine Langevin; profession not stated.

“The name of Langevin is as rare in this department, as the name of Pichon is common. With the exception of the Hon. M. Victor Langevin, Counsellor to the Prefecture at Nancy, there is only known Langevin (Pierre), usually called Pierrot, miller in the commune of Vergaville, canton of Dieuze.”

Fougas jumped nearly to the ceiling, crying,

“I have a son!”

He called the hotel-keeper, and said to him:

“Make out my bill, and send my baggage to the depot. Take my ticket for Nancy; I shall not stop on the way. Here are two hundred francs, with which I want you to drink to the health of my son! He is called Victor, after me! He is counsellor of the Prefecture! I’d rather he were a soldier; but never mind! Ah! first get somebody to show me the way to the bank! I must go and get a million for him!”

As there is no direct connection between Dantzic and Nancy, he was obliged to stop at Berlin. M. Hirtz, whom he met accidentally, told him that the scientific societies of the city were preparing an immense banquet in his honor; but he declined positively.

“It’s not,” said he, “that I despise an opportunity to drink in good company, but Nature has spoken: her voice draws me on! The sweetest intoxication to all rightly constituted hearts is that of paternal love!”

To prepare, his dear child for the joy of a return so little expected, he enclosed his million in an envelope addressed to M. Victor Langevin, with a long letter which closed thus:

“A father’s blessing is more precious than all the gold in the world!

Victor Fougas.”

The infidelity of Clementine Pichon touched his amour-propre a little, but he soon consoled himself for it.

“At least,” thought he, “I’ll not have to marry an old woman, when there’s a young one waiting for me at Fontainebleau. And, moreover, my son has a name, and a very presentable name. Fougas would be a great deal better, but Langevin is not bad.”

He arrived, on the 2d of September, at six o’clock in the evening, at that large and beautiful but somewhat stupid city which constitutes the Versailles of Lorraine. His heart was beating fit to burst. To recuperate his energies, he took a good dinner. The landlord, when catechized at dessert, gave him the very best accounts of M. Victor Langevin: a man still young, married for the past six years, father of a boy and a girl, respected in the neighborhood, and prosperous in his affairs.

“I was sure of it!” said Fougas.

He poured down a bumper of a certain kirsch-wasser from the Black Forest, which he fancied delicious with his maccaroni.

The same evening, M. Langevin related to his wife how, on returning from the club at ten o’clock, he had been brutally accosted by a drunken man. He at first took him for a robber, and prepared to defend himself; but the man contented himself with embracing him, and then ran away with all his might. This singular accident threw the two spouses into a series of conjectures, each less probable than the preceding. But as they were both young, and had been married barely seven years, they soon changed the subject.

The next morning, Fougas, laden down like a miller’s ass with bon-bons, presented himself at M. Langevin’s. In order to make himself welcome to his two grandchildren, he had skimmed the shop of the celebrated Lebègue — the Boissier of Nancy. The servant who opened the door for him asked if he were the gentleman her master expected.

“Good!” said he; “my letter has come?”

“Yes, sir; yesterday morning. And your baggage?”

“I left it at the hotel.”

“Monsieur will not be satisfied at that. Your room is ready, up stairs.”

“Thanks! thanks! thanks! Take this hundred franc note for the good news.”

“Oh, monsieur! it was not worth so much.”

“But where is he? I want to see him — to embrace him — to tell him ——”

“He’s dressing, monsieur; and so is madame.”

“And the children — my dear grandchildren?”

“If you want to see them, they’re right here, in the dining room.”

“If I want to! Open the door right away!”

He discovered that the little boy resembled him, and was overjoyed to see him in the dress of an artillerist playing with a sabre. His pockets were soon emptied on the floor; and the two children, at the sight of so many good things, hung about his neck.

“O philosophers!” cried the Colonel, “do you dare to deny the existence of the voice of Nature?”

A pretty little lady (all the young women are pretty in Nancy) ran in at the joyous cries of the little brood.

“My daughter-in-law!” cried Fougas, opening his arms.

The lady of the house modestly recoiled, and said, with a slight smile:

“You are mistaken, sir; I am not your daughter-in-law;9 I am Madame Langevin.”

9 The original here contains a neat little conceit, which cannot be translated, but which is too good to be lost. The French for daughter-in-law is belle fille, literally “beautiful girl.” To Fougas’ address ”Ma belle fille!“ Mme. Langevin replies: ”I am not beautiful, and I am not a girl.“ It suggests the similar retort received by Faust from Marguerite, when he addressed her as beautiful young lady!

“What a fool I am!” thought the Colonel. “Here I was going to tell our family secrets before these children. Mind your manners, Fougas! You are in fine society, where the ardor of the sweetest sentiments is hidden under the icy mask of indifference.”

“Be seated,” said Mme. Langevin. “I hope that you have had a pleasant journey?”

“Yes, madame. Only steam seemed too slow for me!”

“I did not know that you were in such a hurry to get here.”

“You did not, then, appreciate that I was fairly burning to be with you?”

“I am glad to hear it; it is a proof that Reason and Family Affection have made themselves heard at last.”

“Was it my fault that family ties did not speak effectually sooner?”

“Well, after all, the main thing is that you have listened to them. We will exert ourselves to prevent your finding Nancy uninteresting.”

“How could I, since I am to live with you?”

“Thank you! Our house will be yours. Try to imagine yourself entirely at home.”

“In imagination, and affection too, madame.”

“And you’ll not think of Paris again?”

“Paris! —— I don’t care any more for it than I do for doomsday!”

“I forewarn you that people are not in the habit of fighting duels here.”

“What? You know already ——”

“We know all about it, even to the history of that famous supper with those rather volatile ladies.”

“How the devil did you hear of that? But that time, believe me, I was very excusable.”

M. Langevin here made his appearance, freshly shaven and rubicund — a fine specimen of the sub-prefect in embryo.

“It’s wonderful,” thought Fougas, “how well all our family bear their years! One wouldn’t call that chap over thirty-five, and he’s forty-six if he’s a day. He doesn’t look a bit like me, by the way; he takes after his mother!”

“My dear!” said Mme. Langevin, “here’s a tough subject, who promises to be wiser in future.”

“You are welcome, young man!” said the Counsellor, offering his hand to Fougas.

This reception appeared cold to our poor hero. He had been dreaming of a shower of kisses and tears, and here his children contented themselves with offering their hands.

“My chi —— monsieur,” said he to Langevin, “there is one person still needed to complete our reunion. A few mutual wrongs, and those smoothed over by time, ought not to build an insurmountable barrier between us. May I venture to request the favor of being presented to your mother?”

M. Langevin and his wife opened their eyes in astonishment.

“How, monsieur?” said the husband. “Paris life must have affected your memory. My poor mother is no more. It is now three years since we lost her!”

The good Fougas burst into tears.

“Forgive me!” said he; “I didn’t know it. Poor woman!”

“I don’t understand you! You knew my mother?”

“Ingrate!”

“Why, you’re an amusing fellow! But your parents were invited to the funeral, were they not?”

“Whose parents?”

“Your father and mother!”

“Eh! What’s this you’re cackling to me about? My mother was dead before yours was born!”

“Your mother dead?”

“Yes, certainly; in ‘89!”

“What! Wasn’t it your mother who sent you here?”

“Monster! It was my fatherly heart that brought me!”

“Fatherly heart? —— Why, then you’re not young Jamin, who has been cutting up didoes in the capital, and has been sent to Nancy to go through the Agricultural School?”

The Colonel answered with the voice of Jupiter tonans:

“I am Fougas!”

“Very well!”

“If Nature says nothing to you in my behalf, ungrateful son, question the spirit of your mother!”

“Upon my soul, sir,” cried the Counsellor, “we can play at cross purposes a good while! Sit down there, if you please, and tell me your business —— Marie, take away the children.”

Fougas did not require any urging. He detailed the romance of his life, without omitting anything, but with many delicate touches for the filial ears of M. Langevin. The Counsellor heard him patiently, with an appearance of perfect disinterestedness.

“Monsieur,” said he, at last, “at first I took you for a madman; but now I remember that the newspapers have contained some scraps of your history, and I see that you are the victim of a mistake. I am not forty-six years old, but thirty-four. My mother’s name was not Clementine Pichon, but Marie Herval. She was not born at Nancy, but at Vannes, and she was but seven years old in 1813. Nevertheless, I am happy to make your acquaintance.”

“Ah! you’re not my son!” replied Fougas, angrily. “Very well! So much the worse for you! No one seems to want a father of the name of Fougas! As for sons by the name of Langevin, one only has to stoop to pick them up. I know where to find one who is not a Counsellor of the Prefecture, it is true, and who does not put on a laced coat to go to mass, but who has an honest and simple heart, and is named Pierre, just like me! But, I beg your pardon, when one shows gentlemen the door, one ought at least to return what belongs to them.”

“I don’t prevent your collecting the bon-bons which my children have scattered over the floor.”

“Yes, I’m talking about bon-bons with a vengeance! My million, sir!”

“What million?”

“Your brother’s million! —— No! The million that belongs to him who is not your brother — to Clementine’s son, my dear and only child, the only scion of my race, Pierre Langevin, called Pierrot, a miller at Vergaville!”

“But I assure you, monsieur, that I haven’t your million, or anybody’s else.”

“You dare to deny it, scoundrel, when I sent it to you by mail, myself!”

“Possibly you sent it, but I certainly have not received it!”

“Aha! Defend yourself!”

He made at his throat, and perhaps France would have lost a Counsellor of Prefecture that day, if the servant had not come in with two letters in her hand. Fougas recognized his own handwriting and the Berlin postmark, tore open the envelope, and displayed the check.

“Here,” said he, “is the million I intended for you, if you had seen fit to be my son! Now it’s too late for you to retract. The voice of Nature calls me to Vergaville. Your servant, sir!”

On the 4th of September, Pierre Langevin, miller at Vergaville, celebrated the marriage of Cadet Langevin, his second son. The miller’s family was numerous, respectable, and in comfortable circumstances. First, there was the grandfather, a fine, hale old man, who took his four meals a day, and doctored his little ailings with the wine of Bar or Thiaucourt. The grandmother, Catharine, had been pretty in her day, and a little frivolous; but she expiated by absolute deafness the crime of having listened too tenderly to gallants. M. Pierre Langevin, alias Pierrot, alias Big Peter, after having sought his fortune in America (a custom becoming quite general in the rural districts), had returned to the village in pretty much the condition of the infant Saint John, and God only knows how many jokes were perpetrated over his ill luck. The people of Lorraine are terrible wags, and if you are not fond of personal jokes, I advise you not to travel in their neighborhood. Big Peter, stung to the quick, and half crazed at having run through his inheritance, borrowed money at ten per cent., bought the mill at Vergaville, worked like a plough-horse in heavy land, and repaid his capital and the interest. Fortune, who owed him some compensations, gave him gratis pro Deo, a half dozen superb workers — six big boys, whom his wife presented him with, one annually, as regularly as clock-work. Every year, nine months, to a day, after the fête of Vergaville, Claudine (otherwise known as Glaudine) presented one for baptism. At last she died after the sixth, from eating four huge pieces of quiche before her churching. Big Peter did not marry again, having concluded that he had workers enough, and he continued to add to his fortune nicely. But, as standing jokes last a long time in villages, the miller’s comrades still spoke to him about those famous millions which he did not bring back from America, and Big Peter grew very red under his flour, just as he used to in his earlier days.

On the 4th of September, then, he married his second son to a good big woman of Altroff, who had fat and blazing cheeks: this being a kind of beauty much affected in the country. The wedding took place at the mill, because the bride was orphaned of father and mother, and had previously lived with the nuns of Molsheim.

A messenger came and told Pierre Langevin that a gentleman wearing decorations had something to say to him, and Fougas appeared in all his glory. “My good sir,” said the miller, “I am far from being in a mood to talk business, as we just took a good pull at white wine before mass; but we are going to drink some red wine that’s by no means bad, at dinner, and if your heart prompts you, don’t be backward! The table is a long one. We can talk afterwards. You don’t say no? Then that’s yes.”

“For once,” thought Fougas, “I am not mistaken. This is surely the voice of Nature! I would have liked a soldier better, but this genial rustic, so comfortably rounded, satisfies my heart. I cannot be indebted to him for many gratifications of my pride; but never mind! I am sure of his good-will.”

Dinner was served, and the table more heavily laden with viands than the stomach of Gargantua. Big Peter, as proud of his big family as of his little fortune, made the Colonel stand by as he enumerated his children. And Fougas was joyful at learning that he had six welcome grandchildren.

He was seated at the right of a little stunted old woman who was presented to him as the grandmother of the youngsters. Heavens! how changed Clementine appeared to him. Save the eyes which were still lively and sparkling, there was no longer anything about her that could be recognized. “See,” thought Fougas, “what I would have been like to-day, if the worthy John Meiser had not desiccated me!” He smiled to himself on regarding Grandfather Langevin, the reputed progenitor of this numerous family. “Poor old fellow,” murmured Fougas, “you little think what you owe to me!”

They dine boisterously at village weddings. This is an abuse which, I sincerely hope, Civilization will never reform. Under cover of the noise, Fougas entered into conversation, or thought he did, with his left-hand neighbor. “Clementine!” he said to her. She raised her eyes, and her nose too, and responded:

“Yes, monsieur.”

“My heart has not deceived me, then? — you are indeed my Clementine!”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“And you have recognized me, noble and excellent woman!”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“But how did you conceal your emotion so well? —— How strong women are! —— I fall from the skies into the midst of your peaceful existence, and you see me without moving a muscle!”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Have you forgiven me for a seeming injury for which Destiny alone is responsible?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Thanks! A thousand thanks! —— What a charming family you have about you! This good Pierre, who almost opened his arms on seeing me approach, is my son, is he not?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Rejoice! He shall be rich! He already has happiness; I bring him fortune. His portion shall be a million. Oh, Clementine! what a commotion there will be in this simple assembly, when I raise my voice and say to my son: ‘Here! this million is for you!’ Is it a good time now? Shall I speak? Shall I tell all?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

Fougas immediately arose, and requested silence. The people thought he was going to sing a song, and all kept quiet.

“Pierre Langevin,” said he with emphasis, “I have come back from the other world, and brought you a million.”

If Big Peter did not want to get angry, he at least got red, and the joke seemed to him in bad taste. But when Fougas announced that he had loved the grandmother in her youth, grandfather Langevin no longer hesitated to fling a bottle at his head. The Colonel’s son, his splendid grandchildren, and even the bride all jumped up in high dudgeon and there was a very pretty scrimmage indeed.

For the first time in his life, Fougas did not get the upper hand. He was afraid that he might injure some of his family. Paternal affection robbed him of three quarters of his power.

But having learned during the clamor that Clementine was called Catharine, and that Pierre Langevin was born in 1810, he resumed the offensive, blacked three eyes, broke an arm, mashed two noses, knocked in four dozen teeth, and regained his carriage with all the honors of war.

“Devil take the children!” said he, while riding in a post-chaise toward the Avricourt station. “If I have a son, I wish he may find me!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/about/edmond/man-with-the-broken-ear/chapter18.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:59