An ‘Attic’ Philosopher, by Émile Souvestre

Book 3.

Chapter 10

Our Country

October 12th, Seven O’clock A.M.

The nights are already become cold and long; the sun, shining through my curtains, no more wakens me long before the hour for work; and even when my eyes are open, the pleasant warmth of the bed keeps me fast under my counterpane. Every morning there begins a long argument between my activity and my indolence; and, snugly wrapped up to the eyes, I wait like the Gascon, until they have succeeded in coming to an agreement.

This morning, however, a light, which shone from my door upon my pillow, awoke me earlier than usual. In vain I turned on my side; the persevering light, like a victorious enemy, pursued me into every position. At last, quite out of patience, I sat up and hurled my nightcap to the foot of the bed!

(I will observe, by way of parenthesis, that the various evolutions of this pacific headgear seem to have been, from the remotest time, symbols of the vehement emotions of the mind; for our language has borrowed its most common images from them.)

But be this as it may, I got up in a very bad humor, grumbling at my new neighbor, who took it into his head to be wakeful when I wished to sleep. We are all made thus; we do not understand that others may live on their own account. Each one of us is like the earth, according to the old system of Ptolemy, and thinks he can have the whole universe revolve around himself. On this point, to make use of the metaphor alluded to: ‘Tous les hommes ont la tete dans le meme bonnet’.

I had for the time being, as I have already said, thrown mine to the other end of my bed; and I slowly disengaged my legs from the warm bedclothes, while making a host of evil reflections upon the inconvenience of having neighbors.

For more than a month I had not had to complain of those whom chance had given me; most of them only came in to sleep, and went away again on rising. I was almost always alone on this top story — alone with the clouds and the sparrows!

But at Paris nothing lasts; the current of life carries us along, like the seaweed torn from the rock; the houses are vessels which take mere passengers. How many different faces have I already seen pass along the landing-place belonging to our attics! How many companions of a few days have disappeared forever! Some are lost in that medley of the living which whirls continually under the scourge of necessity, and others in that resting-place of the dead, who sleep under the hand of God!

Peter the bookbinder is one of these last. Wrapped up in selfishness, he lived alone and friendless, and he died as he had lived. His loss was neither mourned by any one, nor disarranged anything in the world; there was merely a ditch filled up in the graveyard, and an attic emptied in our house.

It is the same which my new neighbor has inhabited for the last few days.

To say truly (now that I am quite awake, and my ill humor is gone with my nightcap)— to say truly, this new neighbor, although rising earlier than suits my idleness, is not the less a very good man: he carries his misfortunes, as few know how to carry their good fortunes, with cheerfulness and moderation.

But fate has cruelly tried him. Father Chaufour is but the wreck of a man. In the place of one of his arms hangs an empty sleeve; his left leg is made by the turner, and he drags the right along with difficulty; but above these ruins rises a calm and happy face. While looking upon his countenance, radiant with a serene energy, while listening to his voice, the tone of which has, so to speak, the accent of goodness, we see that the soul has remained entire in the half-destroyed covering. The fortress is a little damaged, as Father Chaufour says, but the garrison is quite hearty.

Decidedly, the more I think of this excellent man, the more I reproach myself for the sort of malediction I bestowed on him when I awoke.

We are generally too indulgent in our secret wrongs toward our neighbor. All ill-will which does not pass the region of thought seems innocent to us, and, with our clumsy justice, we excuse without examination the sin which does not betray itself by action!

But are we then bound to others only by the enforcement of laws? Besides these external relations, is there not a real relation of feeling between men? Do we not owe to all those who live under the same heaven as ourselves the aid not only of our acts but of our purposes? Ought not every human life to be to us like a vessel that we accompany with our prayers for a happy voyage? It is not enough that men do not harm one another; they must also help and love one another! The papal benediction, ‘Urbi et orbi’! should be the constant cry from all hearts. To condemn him who does not deserve it, even in the mind, even by a passing thought, is to break the great law, that which has established the union of souls here below, and to which Christ has given the sweet name of charity.

These thoughts came into my mind as I finished dressing, and I said to myself that Father Chaufour had a right to reparation from me. To make amends for the feeling of ill-will I had against him just now, I owed him some explicit proof of sympathy. I heard him humming a tune in his room; he was at work, and I determined that I would make the first neighborly call.

Eight o’clock P.M. — I found Father Chaufour at a table lighted by a little smoky lamp, without a fire, although it is already cold, and making large pasteboard boxes; he was humming a popular song in a low tone. I had hardly entered the room when he uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure.

“Eh! is it you, neighbor? Come in, then! I did not think you got up so early, so I put a damper on my music; I was afraid of waking you.”

Excellent man! while I was sending him to the devil he was putting himself out of his way for me!

This thought touched me, and I paid my compliments on his having become my neighbor with a warmth which opened his heart.

“Faith! you seem to me to have the look of a good Christian,” said he in a voice of soldierlike cordiality, and shaking me by the hand. “I do not like those people who look on a landing-place as a frontier line, and treat their neighbors as if they were Cossacks. When men snuff the same air, and speak the same lingo, they are not meant to turn their backs to each other. Sit down there, neighbor; I don’t mean to order you; only take care of the stool; it has but three legs, and we must put good-will in place of the fourth.”

“It seems that that is a treasure which there is no want of here,” I observed.

“Good-will!” repeated Chaufour; “that is all my mother left me, and I take it no son has received a better inheritance. Therefore they used to call me Monsieur Content in the batteries.”

“You are a soldier, then?”

“I served in the Third Artillery under the Republic, and afterward in the Guard, through all the commotions. I was at Jemappes and at Waterloo; so I was at the christening and at the burial of our glory, as one may say!”

I looked at him with astonishment.

“And how old were you then, at Jemappes?” asked I.

“Somewhere about fifteen,” said he.

“How came you to think of being a soldier so early?”

“I did not really think about it. I then worked at toy-making, and never dreamed that France would ask me for anything else than to make her draught-boards, shuttlecocks, and cups and balls. But I had an old uncle at Vincennes whom I went to see from time to time — a Fontenoy veteran in the same rank of life as myself, but with ability enough to have risen to that of a marshal. Unluckily, in those days there was no way for common people to get on. My uncle, whose services would have got him made a prince under the other, had then retired with the mere rank of sub-lieutenant. But you should have seen him in his uniform, his cross of St. Louis, his wooden leg, his white moustaches, and his noble countenance. You would have said he was a portrait of one of those old heroes in powdered hair which are at Versailles!

“Every time I visited him, he said something which remained fixed in my memory. But one day I found him quite grave.

“‘Jerome,’ said he, ‘do you know what is going on on the frontier?’

“‘No, lieutenant,’ replied I.

“‘Well,’ resumed he, ‘our country is in danger!’

“I did not well understand him, and yet it seemed something to me.

“‘Perhaps you have never thought what your country means,’ continued he, placing his hand on my shoulder; ‘it is all that surrounds you, all that has brought you up and fed you, all that you have loved! This ground that you see, these houses, these trees, those girls who go along there laughing — this is your country! The laws which protect you, the bread which pays for your work, the words you interchange with others, the joy and grief which come to you from the men and things among which you live — this is your country! The little room where you used to see your mother, the remembrances she has left you, the earth where she rests — this is your country! You see it, you breathe it, everywhere! Think to yourself, my son, of your rights and your duties, your affections and your wants, your past and your present blessings; write them all under a single name — and that name will be your country!’

“I was trembling with emotion, and great tears were in my eyes.

“‘Ah! I understand,’ cried I; ‘it is our home in large; it is that part of the world where God has placed our body and our soul.’

“‘You are right, Jerome,’ continued the old soldier; ‘so you comprehend also what we owe it.’

“‘Truly,’ resumed I, ‘we owe it all that we are; it is a question of love.’

“‘And of honesty, my son,’ concluded he. ‘The member of a family who does not contribute his share of work and of happiness fails in his duty, and is a bad kinsman; the member of a partnership who does not enrich it with all his might, with all his courage, and with all his heart, defrauds it of what belongs to it, and is a dishonest man. It is the same with him who enjoys the advantages of having a country, and does not accept the burdens of it; he forfeits his honor, and is a bad citizen!’

“‘And what must one do, lieutenant, to be a good citizen?’ asked I.

“‘Do for your country what you would do for your father and mother,’ said he.

“I did not answer at the moment; my heart was swelling, and the blood boiling in my veins; but on returning along the road, my uncle’s words were, so to speak, written up before my eyes. I repeated, ‘Do for your country what you would do for your father and mother.’ And my country is in danger; an enemy attacks it, while I— I turn cups and balls!

“This thought tormented me so much all night that the next day I returned to Vincennes to announce to the lieutenant that I had just enlisted, and was going off to the frontier. The brave man pressed upon me his cross of St. Louis, and I went away as proud as an ambassador.

“That is how, neighbor, I became a volunteer under the Republic before I had cut my wisdom teeth.”

All this was told quietly, and in the cheerful spirit of him who looks upon an accomplished duty neither as a merit nor a grievance.

While he spoke, Father Chaufour grew animated, not on account of himself, but of the general subject. Evidently that which occupied him in the drama of life was not his own part, but the drama itself.

This sort of disinterestedness touched me. I prolonged my visit, and showed myself as frank as possible, in order to win his confidence in return. In an hour’s time he knew my position and my habits; I was on the footing of an old acquaintance.

I even confessed the ill-humor the light of his lamp put me into a short time before. He took what I said with the touching cheerfulness which comes from a heart in the right place, and which looks upon everything on the good side. He neither spoke to me of the necessity which obliged him to work while I could sleep, nor of the deprivations of the old soldier compared to the luxury of the young clerk; he only struck his forehead, accused himself of thoughtlessness, and promised to put list round his door!

O great and beautiful soul! with whom nothing turns to bitterness, and who art peremptory only in duty and benevolence!

October 15th. — This morning I was looking at a little engraving I had framed myself, and hung over my writing-table; it is a design of Gavarni’s; in which, in a grave mood, he has represented a veteran and a conscript.

By often contemplating these two figures, so different in expression, and so true to life, both have become living in my eyes; I have seen them move, I have heard them speak; the picture has become a real scene, at which I am present as spectator.

The veteran advances slowly, his hand leaning on the shoulder of the young soldier. His eyes, closed for ever, no longer perceive the sun shining through the flowering chestnut-trees. In the place of his right arm hangs an empty sleeve, and he walks with a wooden leg, the sound of which on the pavement makes those who pass turn to look.

At the sight of this ancient wreck from our patriotic wars, the greater number shake their heads in pity, and I seem to hear a sigh or an imprecation.

“See the worth of glory!” says a portly merchant, turning away his eyes in horror.

“What a deplorable use of human life!” rejoins a young man who carries a volume of philosophy under his arm.

“The trooper would better not have left his plow,” adds a countryman, with a cunning air.

“Poor old man!” murmurs a woman, almost crying.

The veteran has heard, and he knits his brow; for it seems to him that his guide has grown thoughtful. The latter, attracted by what he hears around him, hardly answers the old man’s questions, and his eyes, vaguely lost in space, seem to be seeking there for the solution of some problem.

I seem to see a twitching in the gray moustaches of the veteran; he stops abruptly, and, holding back his guide with his remaining arm:

“They all pity me,” says he, “because they do not understand it; but if I were to answer them —”

“What would you say to them, father?” asks the young man, with curiosity.

“I should say first to the woman who weeps when she looks at me, to keep her tears for other misfortunes; for each of my wounds calls to mind some struggle for my colors. There is room for doubting how some men have done their duty; with me it is visible. I carry the account of my services, written with the enemy’s steel and lead, on myself; to pity me for having done my duty is to suppose I would better have been false to it.”

“And what would you say to the countryman, father?”

“I should tell him that, to drive the plow in peace, we must first secure the country itself; and that, as long as there are foreigners ready to eat our harvest, there must be arms to defend it.”

“But the young student, too, shook his head when he lamented such a use of life.”

“Because he does not know what self-sacrifice and suffering can teach. The books that he studies we have put in practice, though we never read them: the principles he applauds we have defended with powder and bayonet.”

“And at the price of your limbs and your blood. The merchant said, when he saw your maimed body, ‘See the worth of glory!"’

“Do not believe him, my son: the true glory is the bread of the soul; it is this which nourishes self-sacrifice, patience, and courage. The Master of all has bestowed it as a tie the more between men. When we desire to be distinguished by our brethren, do we not thus prove our esteem and our sympathy for them? The longing for admiration is but one side of love. No, no; the true glory can never be too dearly paid for! That which we should deplore, child, is not the infirmities which prove a generous self-sacrifice, but those which our vices or our imprudence have called forth. Ah! if I could speak aloud to those who, when passing, cast looks of pity upon me, I should say to the young man whose excesses have dimmed his sight before he is old, ‘What have you done with your eyes?’ To the slothful man, who with difficulty drags along his enervated mass of flesh, ‘What have you done with your feet?’ To the old man, who is punished for his intemperance by the gout, ‘What have you done with your hands?’ To all, ‘What have you done with the days God granted you, with the faculties you should have employed for the good of your brethren?’ If you cannot answer, bestow no more of your pity upon the old soldier maimed in his country’s cause; for he — he at least — can show his scars without shame.”

October 16th. — The little engraving has made me comprehend better the merits of Father Chaufour, and I therefore esteem him all the more.

He has just now left my attic. There no longer passes a single day without his coming to work by my fire, or my going to sit and talk by his board.

The old artilleryman has seen much, and likes to tell of it. For twenty years he was an armed traveller throughout Europe, and he fought without hatred, for he was possessed by a single thought — the honor of the national flag! It might have been his superstition, if you will; but it was, at the same time, his safeguard.

The word FRANCE, which was then resounding so gloriously through the world, served as a talisman to him against all sorts of temptation. To have to support a great name may seem a burden to vulgar minds, but it is an encouragement to vigorous ones.

“I, too, have had many moments,” said he to me the other day, “when I have been tempted to make friends with the devil. War is not precisely the school for rural virtues. By dint of burning, destroying, and killing, you grow a little tough as regards your feelings; ‘and, when the bayonet has made you king, the notions of an autocrat come into your head a little strongly. But at these moments I called to mind that country which the lieutenant spoke of to me, and I whispered to myself the well-known phrase, ‘Toujours Francais! It has been laughed at since. People who would make a joke of the death of their mother have turned it into ridicule, as if the name of our country was not also a noble and a binding thing. For my part, I shall never forget from how many follies the title of Frenchman has kept me. When, overcome with fatigue, I have found myself in the rear of the colors, and when the musketry was rattling in the front ranks, many a time I heard a voice, which whispered in my ear, ‘Leave the others to fight, and for today take care of your own hide!’ But then, that word Francais! murmured within me, and I pressed forward to help my comrades. At other times, when, irritated by hunger, cold, and wounds, I have arrived at the hovel of some Meinherr, I have been seized by an itching to break the master’s back, and to burn his hut; but I whispered to myself, Francais! and this name would not rhyme with either incendiary or murderer. I have, in this way, passed through kingdoms from east to west, and from north to south, always determined not to bring disgrace upon my country’s flag. The lieutenant, you see, had taught me a magic word — My country! Not only must we defend it, but we must also make it great and loved.”

October 17th. — To-day I have paid my neighbor a long visit. A chance expression led the way to his telling me more of himself than he had yet done.

I asked him whether both his limbs had been lost in the same battle.

“No, no!” replied he; “the cannon only took my leg; it was the Clamart quarries that my arm went to feed.”

And when I asked him for the particulars —

“That’s as easy as to say good-morning,” continued he. “After the great break-up at Waterloo, I stayed three months in the camp hospital to give my wooden leg time to grow. As soon as I was able to hobble a little, I took leave of headquarters, and took the road to Paris, where I hoped to find some relative or friend; but no — all were gone, or underground. I should have found myself less strange at Vienna, Madrid, or Berlin. And although I had a leg the less to provide for, I was none the better off; my appetite had come back, and my last sous were taking flight.

“I had indeed met my old colonel, who recollected that I had helped him out of the skirmish at Montereau by giving him my horse, and he had offered me bed and board at his house. I knew that the year before he had married a castle and no few farms, so that I might become permanent coat-brusher to a millionaire, which was not without its temptations. It remained to see if I had not anything better to do. One evening I set myself to reflect upon it.

“‘Let us see, Chaufour,’ said I to myself; ‘the question is to act like a man. The colonel’s place suits you, but cannot you do anything better? Your body is still in good condition, and your arms strong; do you not owe all your strength to your country, as your Vincennes uncle said? Why not leave some old soldier, more cut up than you are, to get his hospital at the colonel’s? Come, trooper, you are still fit for another stout charge or two! You must not lay up before your time.’

“Whereupon I went to thank the colonel, and to offer my services to an old artilleryman, who had gone back to his home at Clamart, and who had taken up the quarryman’s pick again.

“For the first few months I played the conscript’s part — that is to say, there was more stir than work; but with a good will one gets the better of stones, as of everything else. I did not become, so to speak, the leader of a column, but I brought up the rank among the good workmen, and I ate my bread with a good appetite, seeing I had earned it with a good will. For even underground, you see, I still kept my pride. The thought that I was working to do my part in changing rocks into houses pleased my heart. I said to myself, ‘Courage, Chaufour, my old boy; you are helping to beautify your country.’ And that kept up my spirit.

“Unfortunately, some of my companions were rather too sensible to the charms of the brandy-bottle; so much so, that one day one of them, who could hardly distinguish his right hand from his left, thought proper to strike a light close to a charged mine. The mine exploded suddenly, and sent a shower of stone grape among us, which killed three men, and carried away the arm of which I have now only the sleeve.”

“So you were again without means of living?” said I to the old soldier.

“That is to say, I had to change them,” replied he, quietly. “The difficulty was to find one which would do with five fingers instead of ten; I found it, however.”

“How was that?”

“Among the Paris street-sweepers.”

“What! you have been one —”

“Of the pioneers of the health force for a while, neighbor, and that was not my worst time either. The corps of sweepers is not so low as it is dirty, I can tell you! There are old actresses in it who could never learn to save their money, and ruined merchants from the exchange; we even had a professor of classics, who for a little drink would recite Latin to you, or Greek tragedies, as you chose. They could not have competed for the Monthyon prize; but we excused faults on account of poverty, and cheered our poverty by our good-humor and jokes. I was as ragged and as cheerful as the rest, while trying to be something better. Even in the mire of the gutter I preserved my faith that nothing is dishonorable which is useful to our country.

“‘Chaufour,’ said I to myself with a smile, ‘after the sword, the hammer; after the hammer, the broom; you are going downstairs, my old boy, but you are still serving your country.’”

“‘However, you ended by leaving your new profession?’ said I.”

“A reform was required, neighbor. The street-sweepers seldom have their feet dry, and the damp at last made the wounds in my good leg open again. I could no longer follow the regiment, and it was necessary to lay down my arms. It is now two months since I left off working in the sanitary department of Paris.

“At the first moment I was daunted. Of my four limbs, I had now only my right hand, and even that had lost its strength; so it was necessary to find some gentlemanly occupation for it. After trying a little of everything, I fell upon card-box making, and here I am at cases for the lace and buttons of the national guard; it is work of little profit, but it is within the capacity of all. By getting up at four and working till eight, I earn sixty-five centimes; my lodging and bowl of soup take fifty of them, and there are three sous over for luxuries. So I am richer than France herself, for I have no deficit in my budget; and I continue to serve her, as I save her lace and buttons.”

At these words Father Chaufour looked at me with a smile, and with his great scissors began cutting the green paper again for his cardboard cases. My heart was touched, and I remained lost in thought.

Here is still another member of that sacred phalanx who, in the battle of life, always march in front for the example and the salvation of the world! Each of these brave soldiers has his war-cry; for this one it is “Country,” for that “Home,” for a third “Mankind;” but they all follow the same standard — that of duty; for all the same divine law reigns — that of self-sacrifice. To love something more than one’s self — that is the secret of all that is great; to know how to live for others — that is the aim of all noble souls.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30