The Man With The Broken Ear, by Edmond About

Chapter 20.

A Thunderbolt from a Clear Sky.

“Mlle. Virginie Sambucco has the honor to announce to you the marriage of Mlle. Clementine Sambucco, her niece, to M. Leon Renault, civil engineer.

“M. and Mme. Renault have the honor to announce to you the marriage of M. Leon Renault, their son, to Mlle. Clementine Sambucco;

“And invite you to be present at the nuptial benediction which will be given them on the 11th of September, 1859, in the church of Saint Maxcence, in their parish, at eleven o’clock precisely.”

Fougas absolutely insisted that his name should figure on the cards. They had all the trouble in the world to cure him of this whim. Mme. Renault lectured him two full hours. She told him that in the eyes of society, as well as in the eyes of the law, Clementine was the granddaughter of M. Langevin; that, moreover, M. Langevin had acted very liberally in legitimizing by marriage, a daughter that was not his own; finally, that the publication of such a family secret would be an outrage against the sanctity of the grave and would tarnish the memory of poor Clementine Pichon. The Colonel answered with the warmth of a young man, and the obstinacy of an old one:

“Nature has her rights; they are anterior to the conventions of society, and a thousand times more exalted. The honor of her I called my Ægle, is dearer to me than all the treasures of the world, and I would cleave the soul of any rash being who should attempt to tarnish it. In yielding to the ardor of my vows, she but conformed to the custom of a great epoch when the uncertainty of life and the constant existence of war simplified all formalities. And in conclusion, I do not wish that my grandchildren, yet to be born, should be ignorant that the source of their blood is in the veins of Fougas. Your Langevin is but an intruder who covertly slipped into my family. A commissary! It’s almost a sutler! I spurn under foot the ashes of Langevin!”

His obstinacy would not yield to the arguments of Mme. Renault, but it succumbed to the entreaties of Clementine. The young creole twisted him around her finger with irresistible grace.

“My good Grandpa this, my pretty little Grandpa that; my old baby of a Grandpa, we’ll send you off to college if you’re not reasonable!”

She used to seat herself familiarly on Fougas’ knee, and give him little love pats on the cheeks. The Colonel would assume the gruffest possible voice, and then his heart would overflow with tenderness, and he would cry like a child.

These familiarities added nothing to the happiness of Leon Renault; I even think that they slightly tempered his joy. Yet he certainly did not doubt either the love of his betrothed or the honor of Fougas. He was forced to admit that between a grandfather and his granddaughter such little liberties are natural and proper and could justly offend no one. But the situation was so new and so unusual that he needed a little time to adapt his feelings to it, and forget his chagrin. This grandfather, for whom he had paid five-hundred francs, whose ear he had broken, for whom he had bought a burial-place in the Fontainebleau cemetery: this ancestor younger than himself, whom he had seen drunk, whom he had found agreeable, then dangerous, then insupportable: this venerable head of the family who had begun by demanding Clementine’s hand and ended by pitching his future grandson into the heliotropes, could not all at once obtain unmingled respect and unreserved affection.

M. and Mme. Renault exhorted their son to submission and deference. They represented M. Fougas to him as a relative who ought to be treated with consideration.

“A few days of patience!” said the good mother. “He will not stay with us long; he is a soldier and can’t live out of the army any better than a fish out of water.”

But Leon’s parents, in the bottom of their hearts, held a bitter remembrance of so many pangs and mortifications. Fougas had been the scourge of the family; the wounds which he had made could not heal over in a day. Even Gothon bore him ill will without confessing it. She heaved great sighs while preparing for the wedding festivities at Mlle. Sambucco’s .

“Ah! my poor Célestin!” said she to her acolyte. “What a little rascal of a grandfather we’re going to have to be sure!”

The only person who was perfectly at ease was Fougas. He had passed the sponge over his pranks; out of all the evil he had done, he retained no ill will against any one. Very paternal with Clementine, very gracious with M. and Mme. Renault, he evinced for Leon the most frank and cordial friendship.

“My dear boy,” said he to him, “I have studied you, I know you, and I love you thoroughly; you deserve to be happy, and you shall be. You shall soon see that in buying me for twenty-five napoleons, you didn’t make a bad bargain. If gratitude were banished from the universe, it would find a last abiding place in the heart of Fougas!”

Three days before the marriage, M. Bonnivet informed the family that the colonel had come into his office to ask for a conference about the contract. He had scarcely cast his eyes on the sheet of stamped paper, when Rrrrip! it was in pieces in the fireplace.

“Mister Note-scratcher,” he said, “do me the honor of beginning your chef-d’oeuvre over again. The granddaughter of Fougas does not marry with an annuity of eight thousand francs. Nature and Friendship give her a million. Here it is!”

Thereupon he took from his pocket a bank check for a million, paced the study proudly, making his boots creak, and threw a thousand-franc note on a clerk’s desk, crying in his clearest tones:

“Children of the Law! Here’s something to drink the health of the Emperor and the Grand Army with!”

The Renault family strongly remonstrated against this liberality. Clementine, on being told of it by her intended, had a long discussion, in the presence of Mlle. Sambucco, with the young and terrible grandpapa; she tried to impress upon him that he was but twenty-four years old, that he would be getting married some day, and that his property belonged to his future family.

“I do not wish,” said she, “that your children should accuse me of having robbed them. Keep your millions for my little uncles and aunts!”

But for once, Fougas would not yield an inch.

“Are you mocking me?” he said to Clementine. “Do you think that I will be guilty of the folly of marrying now? I do not promise you to live like a monk of La Trappe, but at my age, a man put together like I am can find enough to talk to around the garrisons without marrying anybody. Mars does not borrow the torch of Hymen to light the little aberrations of Venus! Why does man ever tie himself in matrimonial bonds? . . . For the sake of being a father. I am one already, in the comparative degree, and in a year, if our brave Leon does a man’s part, I shall assume the superlative. Great-grandfather! That’s a lovely position for a trooper twenty-five years old! At forty-five or fifty, I shall be great-great-grandfather. At seventy . . . the French language has no more words to express what I shall become! But we can order one from those babblers of the Academy! Are you afraid that I’ll want for anything in my old age? I have my pay, in the first place, and my officer’s cross. When I reach the years of Anchises or Nestor, I will have my halt-pay. Add to all this the two hundred and fifty thousand francs from the king of Prussia, and you shall see that I have not only bread, but all essential fixings in the bargain, up to the close of my career. Moreover, I have a perpetual grant, for which your husband has paid in advance, in the Fontainebleau cemetery. With all these possessions, and simple tastes, one is sure not to eat up one’s resources!”

Willing or unwilling, they had to concede all he required and accept his million. This act of generosity made a great commotion in the town, and the name of Fougas, already celebrated in so many ways, acquired a new prestige. The signature of the bride was attested by the Marshal the Duke of Solferino and the illustrious Karl Nibor, who but a few days before had been elected to the Academy of Sciences. Leon modestly retained the old friends whom he had long since chosen, M. Audret the architect, and M. Bonnivet the notary.

The Mayor was brilliant in his new scarf. The curé addressed to the young couple an affecting allocution on the inexhaustible goodness of Providence, which still occasionally performs a miracle for the benefit of true Christians. Fougas, who had not discharged his religious duties since 1801, soaked two handkerchiefs with tears.

“One must always part from those nearest the heart,” said he on going out of church. “But God and I are made to understand each other! After all, what is God but a little more universal Napoleon!”

A Pantagruelic feast, presided over by Mlle. Virginie Sambucco in a dress of puce-colored silk, followed immediately upon the marriage ceremony. Twenty-four persons were present at this family fête, among others the new colonel of the 23d and M. du Marnet, who was almost well of his wound.

Fougas took up his napkin with a certain anxiety. He hoped that the Marshal had brought his brevet as brigadier general. His expressive countenance manifested lively disappointment at the empty plate.

The Duke of Solferino, who had been seated at the place of honor, noticed this physiognomical display, and said aloud:

“Don’t be impatient, my old comrade! I know what you miss; it was not my fault that the fête was not complete. The minister of war was out when I dropped in on my way here. I was told however, at the department, that your affair was kept in suspense by a technical question, but that you would receive a letter from the office within twenty-four hours.”

“Devil take the documents!” cried Fougas. “They’ve got them all, from my birth-certificate, down to the copy of my brevet colonel’s commission. You’ll find out that they want a certificate of vaccination or some such six-penny shinplaster!”

“Oh! Patience, young man! You’ve time enough to wait. It’s not such a case as mine: without the Italian campaign, which gave me a chance to snatch the baton, they would have slit my ear like a condemned horse, under the empty pretext that I was sixty-five years old. You’re not yet twenty-five, and you’re on the point of becoming a brigadier: the Emperor promised it to you before me. In four or five years from now, you’ll have the gold stars, unless some bad luck interferes. After which you’ll need nothing but the command of an army and a successful campaign to make you Marshal of France and Senator, which may nothing prevent!”

“Yes,” responded Fougas; “I’ll reach it. Not only because I am the youngest of all the officers of my grade, and because I have been in the mightiest of wars and followed the lessons of the master of Bellona’s fields, but above all because Destiny has marked me with her sign. Why did the bullets spare me in more than twenty battles? Why have I sped over oceans of steel and fire without my skin receiving a scratch? It is because I have a star, as He had. His was the grander, it is true, but it went out at St. Helena, while mine is burning in Heaven still! If Doctor Nibor resuscitated me with a few drops of warm water, it was because my destiny was not yet accomplished. If the will of the French people has re-established the imperial throne, it was to furnish me a series of opportunities for my valor, during the conquest of Europe which we are about to recommence! Vive l’Empereur, and me too! I shall be duke or prince in less than ten years, and . . . why not? One might try to be at roll-call on the day when crowns are distributed! In that case, I will adopt Clementine’s oldest son: we will call him Pierre Victor II., and he shall succeed me on the throne just as Louis XV. succeeded his grandfather Louis XIV.!”

As he was finishing this wonderful speech, a gendarme entered the dining room, asked for Colonel Fougas, and handed him a letter from the Minister of War.

“Gad!” cried the Marshal, “it would be pleasant to have your promotion arrive at the end of such a discourse. For once, we would prostrate ourselves before your star! The Magi kings would be nowhere compared with us.”

“Read it yourself,” said he to the Marshal, holding out to him the great sheet of paper. “But no! I have always looked Death in the face; I will not turn my eyes away from this paper thunder if it is killing me.

Colonel:

“In preparing the Imperial decree which elevated you to the rank of brigadier general, I found myself in the presence of an insurmountable obstacle: viz., your certificate of birth. It appears from that document that you were born in 1789, and that you have already passed your seventieth year. Now, the limit of age being fixed at sixty years for colonels, sixty-two for brigadier generals and sixty-five for generals of division, I find myself under the absolute necessity of placing you upon the retired list with the rank of colonel. I know, Monsieur, how little this measure is justified by your apparent age, and I sincerely regret that France should be deprived of the services of a man of your capacity and merit. Moreover, it is certain that an exception in your favor would arouse no dissatisfaction in the army and would meet with nothing but sympathetic approval. But the law is express, and the Emperor himself cannot violate or elude it. The impossibility resulting from it is so absolute that if, in your ardor to serve the country, you were willing to lay aside your epaulettes for the sake of beginning upon a new career, your enlistment could not be received in a single regiment of the army. It is fortunate, Monsieur, that the Emperor’s government has been able to furnish you the means of subsistence in obtaining from His Royal Highness the Regent of Prussia the indemnity which was due you; for there is not even an office in the civil administration in which, even by special favor, a man seventy years old could be placed. You will very justly object that the laws and regulations now in force date from a period when experiments on the revivification of men had not yet met with favorable results. But the law is made for the mass of mankind, and cannot take any account of exceptions. Undoubtedly attention would be directed to its amendment if cases of resuscitation were to present themselves in sufficient number.

“Accept, &c.”

A gloomy silence succeeded the reading. The Mene mene tekel upharsin of the oriental legends could not have more completely produced the effect of thunderbolts. The gendarme was still there, standing in the position of the soldier without arms, awaiting Fougas’ receipt. The Colonel called for pen and ink, signed the paper, gave the gendarme drink-money, and said to him with ill-suppressed emotion:

“You are happy, you are! No one prevents you from serving the country. Well,” added he, turning toward the Marshal, “what do you say to that?”

“What would you have me say, my poor old boy? It breaks me all up. There’s no use in arguing against the law; it’s express. The stupid thing on our parts was not to think of it sooner. But who the Devil would have thought of the retired list in the presence of such a fellow as you are?”

The two colonels avowed that such an objection would never have entered their heads; now that it had been suggested, however, they could not see what to rebut it with. Neither of them would have been able to enlist Fougas as a private soldier, despite his ability, his physical strength and his appearance of being twenty-four years old.

“If some one would only kill me!” cried Fougas. “I can’t set myself to weighing sugar or planting cabbages. It was in the career of arms that I took my first steps; I must continue in it or die. What can I do? What can I become? Take service in some foreign army? Never! The fate of Moreau is still before my eyes. . . . Oh Fortune! What have I done to thee that I should be dashed so low, when thou wast preparing to raise me so high?”

Clementine tried to console him with soothing words.

“You shall live near us,” said she. “We will find you a pretty little wife, and you can rear your children. In your leisure moments you can write the history of the great deeds you have done. You will want for nothing: youth, health, fortune, family, all that makes up the happiness of men, is yours. Why then should you not be happy?”

Leon and his parents talked with him in the same way. Everything appertaining to the festive occasion was forgotten in the presence of an affliction so real and a dejection so profound.

He roused himself little by little, and even sang, at dessert, a little song which he had prepared for the occasion.

Here’s a health to these fortunate lovers

Who, on this thrice blessed day,

Have singed with the torch of chaste Hymen,

The wings with which Cupid doth stray.

And now, little volatile boy-god,

You must keep yourself quiet at home —

Enchained there by this happy marriage

Where Genius and Beauty are one.

He’ll make it, henceforth, his endeavor

To keep Pleasure in Loyalty’s power,

Forgetting his naughty old habit

Of roaming from flower to flower.

And Clementine makes the task easy,

For roses spring up at her smile:

From thence the young rascal can steal them

As well as in Venus’s isle.

The verses were loudly applauded, but the poor Colonel smiled sadly, talked but little, and did not get fuddled at all. The man with the broken ear could not at all console himself for having a slit ear.11 He took part in the various diversions of the day, but was no longer the brilliant companion who had inspired everything with his impetuous gayety.

11 The reader will bear in mind Marshal Leblanc’s allusion to condemned horses.

The Marshal buttonholed him during the evening and said: “What are you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking of the old messmates who were happy enough to fall at Waterloo with their faces toward the enemy. That old fool of a Dutchman who preserved me for posterity, did me but a sorry service. I tell you, Leblanc, a man ought to live in his own day. Later is too late.”

“Oh, pshaw, Fougas, don’t talk nonsense! There’s nothing desperate in the case. Devil take it! I’ll go to see the Emperor to-morrow. The matter shall be looked into. It will all be set straight. Men like you! Why France hasn’t got them by the dozen that she should fling them among the soiled linen.”

“Thanks! You’re a good old boy, and a true one. There were five hundred thousand of us, of the same, same sort, in 1812; there are but two left; say, rather, one and a half.”

About ten o’clock in the evening, M. Rollon, M. du Marnet and Fougas accompanied the Marshal to the cars. Fougas embraced his comrade and promised him to be of good cheer. After the train left, the three colonels went back to town on foot. In passing M. Rollon’s house, Fougas said to his successor:

“You’re not very hospitable to-night; you don’t even offer us a pony of that good Andaye brandy!”

“I thought you were not in drinking trim,” said M. Rollon. “You didn’t take anything in your coffee or afterwards. But come up!”

“My thirst has come back with a vengeance.”

“That’s a good symptom.”

He drank in a melancholy fashion, and scarcely wet his lips in his glass. He stopped a little while before the flag, took hold of the staff, spread out the silk, counted the holes that cannon balls and bullets had made in it, and could not repress his tears. “Positively,” said he, “the brandy has taken me in the throat; I’m not a man to-night. Good evening, gentlemen.”

“Hold on! We’ll go back with you.”

“Oh, my hotel is only a step.”

“It’s all the same. But what’s your idea in staying at a hotel when you have two houses in town at your service?”

“On the strength of that, I am going to move to-morrow.”

The next morning, about eleven o’clock, the happy Leon was at his toilet when a telegram was brought to him. He opened it without noticing that it was addressed to M. Fougas, and uttered a cry of joy. Here is the laconic message which brought him so much pleasure:

“To Colonel Fougas, Fontainebleau.

“Just left the Emperor. You to be brevet brigadier until something better turns up. If necessary, corps legislatif will amend law.

Leblanc.”

Leon dressed himself, ran to the hotel of the blue sundial, and found Fougas dead in his bed.

It is said in Fontainebleau, that M. Nibor made an autopsy, and found that serious disorders had been produced by desiccation. Some people are nevertheless satisfied that Fougas committed suicide. It is certain that Master Bonnivet received, by the penny post, a sort of a will, expressed thus:

“I leave my heart to my country, my memory to natural affection, my example to the army, my hate to perfidious Albion, fifty thousand francs to Gothon, and two hundred thousand to the 23d of the line. And forever Vive l’Empereur!

Fougas.”

Resuscitated on the 17th of August, between three and four in the afternoon, he died on the 17th of the following month, at what hour we shall never know. His second life had lasted a little less than thirty-one days. But it is simple justice to say that he made good use of his time. He reposes in the spot which young Renault had bought for him. His granddaughter Clementine left off her mourning about a year since. She is beloved and happy, and Leon will have nothing to reproach himself with if she does not have plenty of children.

Bourdonnel, August, 1861.

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