The messenger whom Leon had sent to Moret, could not reach there before seven o’clock. Supposing that he would find the ladies at table with their hosts, that the great news would cut the dinner short, and that there would be a carriage handy, Clementine and her aunt would probably be at Fontainebleau between ten and eleven o’clock. Young Renault rejoiced in advance over the happiness of his fiancée. What a joy it would be for her and for him when he should present to her the miraculous man whom she had protected against the horrors of the tomb, and whom he had resuscitated in answer to her entreaty!
Meanwhile Gothon, proud and happy to the same degree that she had before been scandalized and annoyed, spread the table for a dozen persons. Her yoke-fellow, a young rustic of eighteen, half-fledged in the commune of Sablons, helped her with all his might, and amused her with his conversation.
“Well, now, Ma’m’selle Gothon,” said he, setting down a pile of empty plates, “this is what one might call a ghost coming out of its box to upset the commissary and the sub-prefect!”
“Ghost, if you’ll have it so, Célestin; it’s certain-sure that he comes from a good ways, poor young man! But perhaps ‘ghost’ isn’t a proper word to use in speaking of our masters.”
“Is it true, then, that he has come to be our master too? Too many of them come every day. I’d like it better if more servants and help would come!”
“Shut up, you lizard of laziness! When the gentlemen leaves tips for us on going away, you don’t complain because there’s only two to divide ’em.”
“That’s all well enough as far as it goes! I’ve carried more than fifty buckets of water for him to simmer in, that Colonel of yours, and I know mighty well that he won’t give me a cent, for he hasn’t a farthing in his pockets. We’ve got to believe that money isn’t plenty in the country he just came from!”
“They say there’s wills in his favor in Strasburg; a gentleman who’d hurt his fortune ——”
“Tell me now, Ma’m’selle Gothon — you who read a little book every Sunday — where he could have been, our Colonel, while he was not in this world.”
“Eh! In purgatory, of course!”
“Then why don’t you ask him about that famous Baptiste, your sweetheart in 1837, who let himself tumble off a roof, and on whose account you have so many masses said? They ought to have met each other down there!”
“That’s very possible.”
“Unless Baptiste has left there since the time when you paid so much money to get him out.”
“Very well. I’ll go this very evening to the Colonel’s chamber, and, since he’s not proud, he’ll tell me all he knows about it. — But, Célestin, are’nt you never going to act different? Here you’ve rubbed my silver pickle knives on the grindstone again!”
The guests came into the parlor, where the Renault family with M. Nibor and the Colonel were already assembled. There were successively presented to M. Fougas the mayor of the city, Doctor Martout, Master Bonnivet the notary, M. Audret, and three members of the Paris committee; the other three had been obliged to return before dinner. The guests were not entirely at their ease; their sides, bruised by the first movements of Fougas, left room for them to suppose that possibly they were dining with a maniac. But curiosity was stronger than fear. The Colonel soon reassured them by a most cordial reception. He excused himself for acting the part of a man just returned from the other world. He talked a great deal — a little too much, perhaps; but they were so well pleased to listen to him, and his words borrowed such an importance from the singularity of recent events, that he gained an unqualified success. He was told that Dr. Martout had been one of the principal agents of his resuscitation, in conjunction with another person whom they promised soon to present to him. He thanked M. Martout warmly, and asked how soon he could evince his gratitude to the other person.
“I hope,” said Leon, “that you will see her this evening.”
No one came later than the colonel of the 23d of the line, M. Rollon. He made his way with no little difficulty through the crowds of people who filled the Rue de la Faisanderie. He was a man of forty-five, with a quick voice, and full figure. His hair was a little grizzled, but his brown mustache, full, and twisted at the ends, looked as young as ever. He said little, spoke to the point, knew a great deal, and did no boasting — all in all, he was a fine specimen of a colonel. He came right up to Fougas, and held out his hand like an old acquaintance.
“My dear comrade,” said he, “I have taken great interest in your resurrection, as much on my own account as on account of the regiment. The 23d which I have the honor to command, yesterday venerated you as an ancestor. From to-day, it will cherish you as a friend."— Not the slightest allusion to the affair of the morning, in which M. Rollon had undergone his pummelling with the rest.
Fougas answered becomingly, but with, a tinge of coldness:
“My dear comrade, I thank you for your kindly sentiments. It is singular that Destiny places me in the presence of my successor on the very day that I reopen my eyes to the light; for, after all, I am neither dead nor a general; I have not been transferred, nor have I been retired; yet I see another officer, more worthy, doubtless, at the head of my noble 23d. But if you have for your motto ‘Honor and Courage,’ as I am well satisfied you have, I have no right to complain, and the regiment is in good hands.”
Dinner was ready. Mme. Renault took Fougas’ arm. She had him sit at her right, and M. Nibor at her left. The Colonel and the Mayor took their places at the sides of M. Renault; the rest of the company distributed themselves as it happened, regardless of etiquette.
Fougas gulped down the soup and entrées, helping himself to every dish, and drinking in proportion. An appetite of the other world! “Estimable Amphitryon,” said he to M. Renault, “don’t get frightened at seeing me fall upon the rations. I always ate just so; except during the retreat in Russia. Consider, too, that I went to sleep last night, at Liebenfeld, without any supper.”
He begged M. Nibor to explain to him by what course of circumstances he had come from Liebenfeld to Fontainebleau.
“Do you remember,” said the doctor, “an old German who acted as interpreter for you before the court-martial?”
“Perfectly. An excellent man, with a violet-colored wig. I’ll remember him all my life, for there are not two wigs of that color in existence.”
“Very well; it was the man with the violet wig, otherwise known as the celebrated Doctor Meiser, who saved your life.”
“Where is he? I want to see him, to fall into his arms, to tell him ——”
“He was sixty-eight years old when he did you that little service; he would then be, to-day, in his hundred and fifteenth year, if he had waited for your acknowledgments.”
“And so, then, he is no more! Death has robbed him of my gratitude!”
“You do not yet know all that you owe to him. He bequeathed you, in 1824, a fortune of seventy-five thousand francs, of which you are the rightful owner. Now, since a sum invested at five per cent, doubles itself in fourteen years — thanks to compound interest — you were worth, in 1838, a trifle of seven hundred and fifty thousand francs; and in 1852, a million and a half. In fine, if you are satisfied to leave your property in the hands of Herr Nicholas Meiser, of Dantzic, that worthy man will owe you three millions at the commencement of 1866 — that is to say, in seven years. We will give you, this evening, a copy of your benefactor’s will; it is a very instructive document, and you can consider it when you go to bed.”
“I’ll read it willingly,” said Colonel Fougas. “But gold has no attractions for my eyes. Wealth engenders weakness. Me, to languish in the sluggish idleness of Sybaris! — to enervate my senses on a bed of roses! Never! The smell of powder is dearer to me than all the perfumes of Arabia. Life would have no charm or zest for me, if I had to give up the inspiriting clash of arms. On the day when you are told that Fougas no longer marches in the columns of the army, you can safely answer, ‘It is because Fougas is no more!’”
He turned to the new colonel of the 23d, and said:
“Oh! do you, my dear comrade, tell them that the proud pomp of wealth is a thousand times less sweet than the austere simplicity of the soldier — of a colonel, more than all. Colonels are the kings of the army. A colonel is less than a general, but nevertheless he has something more. He lives more with the soldier; he penetrates further into the intimacy of his command. He is the father, the judge, the friend of his regiment. The welfare of each one of his men is in his hands; the flag is placed under his tent or in his chamber. The colonel and the flag are not two separate existences; one is the soul, the other is the body.”
He asked M. Rollon’s permission to go to see and embrace the flag of the 23d.
“You shall see it to-morrow morning,” said the new colonel, “if you will do me the honor to breakfast with me in company with some of my officers.”
He accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, and flung himself into the midst of a thousand questions touching pay, the amount retained for clothing, promotion, roster, reserve, uniform, full and fatigue dress, armament, and tactics. He understood, without difficulty, the advantages of the percussion gun, but the attempt to explain rifled cannon to him was in vain. Artillery was not his forte; but he avowed, nevertheless, that Napoleon had owed more than one victory to his fine artillery.
While the innumerable roasts of Mme. Renault were succeeding each other on the table, Fougas asked — but without ever losing a bite — what were the principal wars in progress, how many nations France had on her hands, and if it was not intended ultimately to recommence the conquest of the world? The answers which he received, without completely satisfying him, did not entirely deprive him of hope.
“I did well to come,” said he; “there’s work to do.”
The African wars did not interest him much, although in them the 23d had won a good share of glory.
“As a school, it’s very well,” said he. “The soldier ought to train himself in other ways than in the Tivoli gardens, behind nurses’ petticoats. But why the devil are not five hundred thousand men flung upon the back of England? England is the soul of the coalition, I can tell you that.”
How many explanations were necessary to make him understand the Crimean war, where the English had fought by our sides!
“I can understand,” said he, “why we took a crack at the Russians — they made me eat my best horse. But the English are a thousand times worse. If this young man” (the Emperor Napoleon III.) “doesn’t know it, I’ll tell him. There is no quarter possible after what they did at St. Helena! If I had been commander-in-chief in the Crimea, I would have begun by properly squelching the Russians, after which I would have turned upon the English, and hurled them into the sea. It’s their element, anyhow.”
They gave him some details of the Italian campaign, and he was charmed to learn that the 23d had taken a redoubt under the eyes of the Marshal the Duke of Solferino.
“That’s the habit of the regiment,” said he, shedding tears in his napkin. “That brigand of a 23d will never act in any other way. The goddess of Victory has touched it with her wing.”
One of the things, for example, which greatly astonished him, was that a war of such importance was finished up in so short a time. He had yet to learn that within a few years the world had learned the secret of transporting a hundred thousand men, in four days, from one end of Europe to the other.
“Good!” said he; “I admit the practicability of it. But what astonishes me is, that the Emperor did not invent this affair in 1810; for he had a genius for transportation, a genius for administration, a genius for office details, a genius for everything. But (to resume your story) the Austrians are fortified at last, and you cannot possibly get to Vienna in less than three months.”
“We did not go so far, in fact.”
“You did not push on to Vienna?”
“Well, then, where did you sign the treaty of peace?”
“At Villafranca? That’s the capital of Austria, then?”
“No; it’s a village of Italy.”
“Monsieur, I don’t admit that treaties of peace are signed anywhere but in capitals. That was our principle, our A B C, the first paragraph of our theory. It seems as if the world must have changed a good deal while I was not in it. But patience!”
And now truth obliges me to confess that Fougas got drunk at dessert. He had drunk and eaten like a Homeric hero, and talked more fluently than Cicero in his best days. The fumes of wine, spices, and eloquence mounted into his brain. He became familiar, spoke affectionately to some and rudely to others, and poured out a torrent of absurdities big enough to turn forty mills. His drunkenness, however, had in it nothing brutal, or even ignoble; it was but the overflowing of a spirit young, affectionate, vain-glorious, and unbalanced. He proposed five or six toasts — to Glory, to the Extension of our Frontiers, to the Destruction of the last of the English, to Mlle. Mars — the hope of the French stage, to Affection — the tie, fragile but dear, which unites the lover to his sweetheart, the father to his son, the colonel to his regiment!
His style, a singular mixture of familiarity and impressiveness, provoked more than one smile among the auditory. He noticed it, and a spark of defiance flashed up at the bottom of his heart. From time to time he loudly asked if “those people there” were not abusing his ingenuousness.
“Confusion!” cried he, “Confusion to those who want me to take bladders for lanterns! The lantern may blaze out like a bomb, and carry consternation in its path!”
After a series of such remarks, there was nothing left for him to do but to roll under the table, and this dénoûement was generally expected. But the Colonel belonged to a robust generation, accustomed to more than one kind of excess, and strong to resist pleasure as well as dangers, privations, and fatigues. So when Madame Renault pushed back her chair, in indication that the repast was finished, Fougas arose without difficulty, gracefully offered his arm, and conducted his partner to the parlor. His gait was a little stiff and oppressively regular, but he went straight ahead, and did not oscillate the least bit. He took a couple of cups of coffee, and spirits in moderation, after which he began to talk in the most reasonable manner in the world. About ten o’clock, M. Martout, having expressed a wish to hear his history, he placed himself on a stool, collected his ideas for a moment, and asked for a glass of water and sugar. The company seated themselves in a circle around him, and he commenced the following narrative, the slightly antiquated style of which craves your indulgence.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50