Captain Burle, by Émile Zola

Chapter IV


The regimental inspection was to take place at the end of the month. The major had ten days before him. On the very next morning, however, he crawled, limping, as far as the Cafe de Paris, where he ordered some beer. Melanie grew pale when she saw him enter, and it was with a lively recollection of a certain slap that Phrosine hastened to serve him. The major seemed very calm, however; he called for a second chair to rest his bad leg upon and drank his beer quietly like any other thirsty man. He had sat there for about an hour when he saw two officers crossing the Place du Palais — Morandot, who commanded one of the battalions of the regiment, and Captain Doucet. Thereupon he excitedly waved his cane and shouted: “Come in and have a glass of beer with me!”

The officers dared not refuse, but when the maid had brought the beer Morandot said to the major: “So you patronize this place now?”

“Yes — the beer is good.”

Captain Doucet winked and asked archly: “Do you belong to the divan, Major?”

Laguitte chuckled but did not answer. Then the others began to chaff him about Melanie, and he took their remarks good-naturedly, simply shrugging his shoulders. The widow was undoubtedly a fine woman, however much people might talk. Some of those who disparaged her would, in reality, be only too pleased to win her good graces. Then turning to the little counter and assuming an engaging air, he shouted:

“Three more glasses, madame.”

Melanie was so taken aback that she rose and brought the beer herself. The major detained her at the table and forgot himself so far as to softly pat the hand which she had carelessly placed on the back of a chair. Used as she was to alternate brutality and flattery, she immediately became confident, believing in a sudden whim of gallantry on the part of the “old wreck,” as she was wont to style the major when talking with Phrosine. Doucet and Morandot looked at each other in surprise. Was the major actually stepping into Petticoat Burle’s shoes? The regiment would be convulsed if that were the case.

Suddenly, however, Laguitte, who kept his eye on the square, gave a start.

“Hallo, there’s Burle!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, it is his time,” explained Phrosine. “The captain passes every afternoon on his way from the office.”

In spite of his lameness the major had risen to his feet, pushing aside the chairs as he called out: “Burle! I say — come along and have a glass.”

The captain, quite aghast and unable to understand why Laguitte was at the widow’s, advanced mechanically. He was so perplexed that he again hesitated at the door.

“Another glass of beer,” ordered the major, and then turning to Burle, he added, “What’s the matter with you? Come in. Are you afraid of being eaten alive?”

The captain took a seat, and an awkward pause followed. Melanie, who brought the beer with trembling hands, dreaded some scene which might result in the closing of her establishment. The major’s gallantry made her uneasy, and she endeavored to slip away, but he invited her to drink with them, and before she could refuse he had ordered Phrosine to bring a liqueur glass of anisette, doing so with as much coolness as if he had been master of the house. Melanie was thus compelled to sit down between the captain and Laguitte, who exclaimed aggressively: “I WILL have ladies respected. We are French officers! Let us drink Madame’s health!”

Burle, with his eyes fixed on his glass, smiled in an embarrassed way. The two officers, shocked at the proceedings, had already tried to get off. Fortunately the cafe was deserted, save that the domino players were having their afternoon game. At every fresh oath which came from the major they glanced around, scandalized by such an unusual accession of customers and ready to threaten Melanie that they would leave her for the Cafe de la Gare if the soldiery was going to invade her place like flies that buzzed about, attracted by the stickiness of the tables which Phrosine scoured only on Saturdays. She was now reclining behind the counter, already reading a novel again.

“How’s this — you are not drinking with Madame?” roughly said the major to Burle. “Be civil at least!”

Then as Doucet and Morandot were again preparing to leave, he stopped them.

“Why can’t you wait? We’ll go together. It is only this brute who never knows how to behave himself.”

The two officers looked surprised at the major’s sudden bad temper. Melanie attempted to restore peace and with a light laugh placed her hands on the arms of both men. However, Laguitte disengaged himself.

“No,” he roared, “leave me alone. Why does he refuse to chink glasses with you? I shall not allow you to be insulted — do you hear? I am quite sick of him.”

Burle, paling under the insult, turned slightly and said to Morandot, “What does this mean? He calls me in here to insult me. Is he drunk?”

With a wild oath the major rose on his trembling legs and struck the captain’s cheek with his open hand. Melanie dived and thus escaped one half of the smack. An appalling uproar ensued. Phrosine screamed behind the counter as if she herself had received the blow; the domino players also entrenched themselves behind their table in fear lest the soldiers should draw their swords and massacre them. However, Doucet and Morandot pinioned the captain to prevent him from springing at the major’s throat and forcibly let him to the door. When they got him outside they succeeded in quieting him a little by repeating that Laguitte was quite in the wrong. They would lay the affair before the colonel, having witnessed it, and the colonel would give his decision. As soon as they had got Burle away they returned to the cafe where they found Laguitte in reality greatly disturbed, with tears in his eyes but affecting stolid indifference and slowly finishing his beer.

“Listen, Major,” began Morandot, “that was very wrong on your part. The captain is your inferior in rank, and you know that he won’t be allowed to fight you.”

“That remains to be seen,” answered the major.

“But how has he offended you? He never uttered a word. Two old comrades too; it is absurd.”

The major made a vague gesture. “No matter. He annoyed me.”

He could never be made to say anything else. Nothing more as to his motive was ever known. All the same, the scandal was a terrible one. The regiment was inclined to believe that Melanie, incensed by the captain’s defection, had contrived to entrap the major, telling him some abominable stories and prevailing upon him to insult and strike Burle publicly. Who would have thought it of that old fogy Laguitte, who professed to be a woman hater? they said. So he, too, had been caught at last. Despite the general indignation against Melanie, this adventure made her very conspicuous, and her establishment soon drove a flourishing business.

On the following day the colonel summoned the major and the captain into his presence. He censured them sternly, accusing them of disgracing their uniform by frequenting unseemly haunts. What resolution had they come to, he asked, as he could not authorize them to fight? This same question had occupied the whole regiment for the last twenty-four hours. Apologies were unacceptable on account of the blow, but as Laguitte was almost unable to stand, it was hoped that, should the colonel insist upon it, some reconciliation might be patched up.

“Come,” said the colonel, “will you accept me as arbitrator?”

“I beg your pardon, Colonel,” interrupted the major; “I have brought you my resignation. Here it is. That settles everything. Please name the day for the duel.”

Burle looked at Laguitte in amazement, and the colonel thought it his duty to protest.

“This is a most serious step, Major,” he began. “Two years more and you would be entitled to your full pension.”

But again did Laguitte cut him short, saying gruffly, “That is my own affair.”

“Oh, certainly! Well, I will send in your resignation, and as soon as it is accepted I will fix a day for the duel.”

The unexpected turn that events had taken startled the regiment. What possessed that lunatic major to persist in cutting the throat of his old comrade Burle? The officers again discussed Melanie; they even began to dream of her. There must surely be something wonderful about her since she had completely fascinated two such tough old veterans and brought them to a deadly feud. Morandot, having met Laguitte, did not disguise his concern. If he — the major — was not killed, what would he live upon? He had no fortune, and the pension to which his cross of the Legion of Honor entitled him, with the half of a full regimental pension which he would obtain on resigning, would barely find him in bread. While Morandot was thus speaking Laguitte simply stared before him with his round eyes, persevering in the dumb obstinacy born of his narrow mind; and when his companion tried to question him regarding his hatred for Burle, he simply made the same vague gesture as before and once again repeated:

“He annoyed me; so much the worse.”

Every morning at mess and at the canteen the first words were: “Has the acceptance of the major’s resignation arrived?” The duel was impatiently expected and ardently discussed. The majority believed that Laguitte would be run through the body in three seconds, for it was madness for a man to fight with a paralyzed leg which did not even allow him to stand upright. A few, however, shook their heads. Laguitte had never been a marvel of intellect, that was true; for the last twenty years, indeed, he had been held up as an example of stupidity, but there had been a time when he was known as the best fencer of the regiment, and although he had begun as a drummer he had won his epaulets as the commander of a battalion by the sanguine bravery of a man who is quite unconscious of danger. On the other hand, Burle fenced indifferently and passed for a poltroon. However, they would soon know what to think.

Meanwhile the excitement became more and more intense as the acceptance of Laguitte’s resignation was so long in coming. The major was unmistakably the most anxious and upset of everybody. A week had passed by, and the general inspection would commence two days later. Nothing, however, had come as yet. He shuddered at the thought that he had, perhaps, struck his old friend and sent in his resignation all in vain, without delaying the exposure for a single minute. He had in reality reasoned thus: If he himself were killed he would not have the worry of witnessing the scandal, and if he killed Burle, as he expected to do, the affair would undoubtedly be hushed up. Thus he would save the honor of the army, and the little chap would be able to get in at Saint–Cyr. Ah, why wouldn’t those wretched scribblers at the War Office hurry up a bit? The major could not keep still but was forever wandering about before the post office, stopping the estafettes and questioning the colonel’s orderly to find out if the acceptance had arrived. He lost his sleep and, careless as to people’s remarks, he leaned more and more heavily on his stick, hobbling about with no attempt to steady his gait.

On the day before that fixed for the inspection he was, as usual, on his way to the colonel’s quarters when he paused, startled, to see Mme Burle (who was taking Charles to school) a few paces ahead of him. He had not met her since the scene at the Cafe de Paris, for she had remained in seclusion at home. Unmanned at thus meeting her, he stepped down to leave the whole sidewalk free. Neither he nor the old lady bowed, and the little boy lifted his large inquisitive eyes in mute surprise. Mme Burle, cold and erect, brushed past the major without the least sign of emotion or recognition. When she had passed he looked after her with an expression of stupefied compassion.

“Confound it, I am no longer a man,” he growled, dashing away a tear.

When he arrived at the colonel’s quarters a captain in attendance greeted him with the words: “It’s all right at last. The papers have come.”

“Ah!” murmured Laguitte, growing very pale.

And again he beheld the old lady walking on, relentlessly rigid and holding the little boy’s hand. What! He had longed so eagerly for those papers for eight days past, and now when the scraps had come he felt his brain on fire and his heart lacerated.

The duel took place on the morrow, in the barrack yard behind a low wall. The air was keen, the sun shining brightly. Laguitte had almost to be carried to the ground; one of his seconds supported him on one side, while on the other he leaned heavily, on his stick. Burle looked half asleep; his face was puffy with unhealthy fat, as if he had spent a night of debauchery. Not a word was spoken. They were all anxious to have it over.

Captain Doucet crossed the swords of the two adversaries and then drew back, saying: “Set to, gentlemen.”

Burle was the first to attack; he wanted to test Laguitte’s strength and ascertain what he had to expect. For the last ten days the encounter had seemed to him a ghastly nightmare which he could not fathom. At times a hideous suspicion assailed him, but he put it aside with terror, for it meant death, and he refused to believe that a friend could play him such a trick, even to set things right. Besides, Laguitte’s leg reasssured him; he would prick the major on the shoulder, and then all would be over.

During well-nigh a couple of minutes the swords clashed, and then the captain lunged, but the major, recovering his old suppleness of wrist, parried in a masterly style, and if he had returned the attack Burle would have been pierced through. The captain now fell back; he was livid, for he felt that he was at the mercy of the man who had just spared him. At last he understood that this was an execution.

Laguitte, squarely poised on his infirm legs and seemingly turned to stone, stood waiting. The two men looked at each other fixedly. In Burle’s blurred eyes there arose a supplication — a prayer for pardon. He knew why he was going to die, and like a child he promised not to transgress again. But the major’s eyes remained implacable; honor had spoken, and he silenced his emotion and his pity.

“Let it end,” he muttered between his teeth.

Then it was he who attacked. Like a flash of lightning his sword flamed, flying from right to left, and then with a resistless thrust it pierced the breast of the captain, who fell like a log without even a groan.

Laguitte had released his hold upon his sword and stood gazing at that poor old rascal Burle, who was stretched upon his back with his fat stomach bulging out.

“Oh, my God! My God!” repeated the major furiously and despairingly, and then he began to swear.

They led him away, and, both his legs failing him, he had to be supported on either side, for he could not even use his stick.

Two months later the ex-major was crawling slowly along in the sunlight down a lonely street of Vauchamp, when he again found himself face to face with Mme Burle and little Charles. They were both in deep mourning. He tried to avoid them, but he now only walked with difficulty, and they advanced straight upon him without hurrying or slackening their steps. Charles still had the same gentle, girlish, frightened face, and Mme Burle retained her stern, rigid demeanor, looking even harsher than ever.

As Laguitte shrank into the corner of a doorway to leave the whole street to them, she abruptly stopped in front of him and stretched out her hand. He hesitated and then took it and pressed it, but he trembled so violently that he made the old lady’s arm shake. They exchanged glances in silence.

“Charles,” said the boy’s grandmother at last, “shake hands with the major.” The boy obeyed without understanding. The major, who was very pale, barely ventured to touch the child’s frail fingers; then, feeling that he ought to speak, he stammered out: “You still intend to send him to Saint–Cyr?”

“Of course, when he is old enough,” answered Mme Burle.

But during the following week Charles was carried off by typhoid fever. One evening his grandmother had again read him the story of the Vengeur to make him bold, and in the night he had become delirious. The poor little fellow died of fright.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02