Colonel Chabert (English translation) | Honoré de Balzac



Le Colonel Chabert (English: Colonel Chabert) is an 1832 novella by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). It is included in his series of novels (or Roman-fleuve) known as La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which depicts and parodies French society in the period of the Restoration (1815–1830) and the July Monarchy (1830–1848).

Présentation de l’ouvrage

Le Colonel Chabert (English: Colonel Chabert) is an 1832 novella by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). It is included in his series of novels (or Roman-fleuve) known as La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which depicts and parodies French society in the period of the Restoration (1815–1830) and the July Monarchy (1830–1848). This novella, originally published in Le Constitutionnel, was adapted for six different motion pictures, including two silent films.

Author's presentation

Honoré de Balzac, born Honoré Balzac in Tours on May 20, 1799 (1st prairial year VII of the republican calendar) and died in Paris on August 18, 1850 (aged 51), is a French writer. Novelist, playwright, literary critic, art critic, essayist, journalist and printer, he left one of the most imposing romantic works of French literature, with more than ninety novels and short stories published from 1829 to 1855. , united under the title La Comédie humaine. Added to this are Les Cent Contes drolatiques, as well as children’s novels published under pseudonyms and some twenty-five sketched works.

He is a master of the French novel, in which he has tackled several genres, from the philosophical novel with Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu to the fantastic novel with La Peau de chagrin or the poetic novel with Le Lys dans la Vallée. He excelled above all in the vein of realism, notably with Le Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet.

Other information

© Éditions Casamédia, 2021.
ISBN: 9798596235357
Front cover: drawing by Bertall engraved by Louis-Henri Brévière, 1863.
Back cover: daguerreotype of the author by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842.
Original edition: L’Artiste, 1832.

Author: Honoré de Balzac
Publication date: 17/01/2021
Number of pages: 108
Dimensions: 21x229x558

Short sequence


“HULLO! There is that old Box-coat again!”

This exclamation was made by a lawyer’s clerk of the class called in French offices a gutter-jumper—a messenger in fact—who at this moment was eating a piece of dry bread with a hearty appetite. He pulled off a morsel of crumb to make into a bullet, and fired it gleefully through the open pane of the window against which he was leaning. The pellet, well aimed, rebounded almost as high as the window, after hitting the hat of a stranger who was crossing the courtyard of a house in the Rue Vivienne, where dwelt Maitre Derville, attorney-at-law.

“Come, Simonnin, don’t play tricks on people, or I will turn you out of doors. However poor a client may be, he is still a man, hang it all!” said the head clerk, pausing in the addition of a bill of costs.

The lawyer’s messenger is commonly, as was Simonnin, a lad of thirteen or fourteen, who, in every office, is under the special jurisdiction of the managing clerk, whose errands and billets-doux keep him employed on his way to carry writs to the bailiffs and petitions to the Courts. He is akin to the street boy in his habits, and to the pettifogger by fate. The boy is almost always ruthless, unbroken, unmanageable, a ribald rhymester, impudent, greedy, and idle. And yet, almost all these clerklings have an old mother lodging on some fifth floor with whom they share their pittance of thirty or forty francs a month.

“If he is a man, why do you call him old Box-coat?” asked Simonnin, with the air of a schoolboy who has caught out his master.

And he went on eating his bread and cheese, leaning his shoulder against the window jamb; for he rested standing like a cab-horse, one of his legs raised and propped against the other, on the toe of his shoe.

“What trick can we play that cove?” said the third clerk, whose name was Godeschal, in a low voice, pausing in the middle of a discourse he was extemporizing in an appeal engrossed by the fourth clerk, of which copies were being made by two neophytes from the provinces.

Then he went on improvising:

But, in his noble and beneficent wisdom, his Majesty, Louis the Eighteenth—(write it at full length, heh! Desroches the learned—you, as you engross it!)—when he resumed the reins of Government, understood—(what did that old nincompoop ever understand?)—the high mission to which he had been called by Divine Providence!—(a note of admiration and six stops. They are pious enough at the Courts to let us put six)—and his first thought, as is proved by the date of the order hereinafter designated, was to repair the misfortunes caused by the terrible and sad disasters of the revolutionary times, by restoring to his numerous and faithful adherents—(‘numerous’ is flattering, and ought to please the Bench)—all their unsold estates, whether within our realm, or in conquered or acquired territory, or in the endowments of public institutions, for we are, and proclaim ourselves competent to declare, that this is the spirit and meaning of the famous, truly loyal order given in—Stop,” said Godeschal to the three copying clerks, “that rascally sentence brings me to the end of my page.—Well,” he went on, wetting the back fold of the sheet with his tongue, so as to be able to fold back the page of thick stamped paper, “well, if you want to play him a trick, tell him that the master can only see his clients between two and three in the morning; we shall see if he comes, the old ruffian!”

And Godeschal took up the sentence he was dictating—”given in—Are you ready?”

“Yes,” cried the three writers.

It all went all together, the appeal, the gossip, and the conspiracy.

Given in—Here, Daddy Boucard, what is the date of the order? We must dot our is and cross our ts, by Jingo! it helps to fill the pages.”

“By Jingo!” repeated one of the copying clerks before Boucard, the head clerk, could reply.

“What! have you written by Jingo?” cried Godeschal, looking at one of the novices, with an expression at once stern and humorous.

“Why, yes,” said Desroches, the fourth clerk, leaning across his neighbor’s copy, “he has written, We must dot our i’s and spelt it by Gingo!”

All the clerks shouted with laughter.

“Why! Monsieur Hure, you take ‘By Jingo’ for a law term, and you say you come from Mortagne!” exclaimed Simonnin.

“Scratch it cleanly out,” said the head clerk. “If the judge, whose business it is to tax the bill, were to see such things, he would say you were laughing at the whole boiling. You would hear of it from the chief! Come, no more of this nonsense, Monsieur Hure! A Norman ought not to write out an appeal without thought. It is the ‘Shoulder arms!’ of the law.”

Given in—in?” asked Godeschal.—”Tell me when, Boucard.”

“June 1814,” replied the head clerk, without looking up from his work.

A knock at the office door interrupted the circumlocutions of the prolix document. Five clerks with rows of hungry teeth, bright, mocking eyes, and curly heads, lifted their noses towards the door, after crying all together in a singing tone, “Come in!”

Boucard kept his face buried in a pile of papers—broutilles (odds and ends) in French law jargon—and went on drawing out the bill of costs on which he was busy.

The office was a large room furnished with the traditional stool which is to be seen in all these dens of law-quibbling. The stove-pipe crossed the room diagonally to the chimney of a bricked-up fireplace; on the marble chimney-piece were several chunks of bread, triangles of Brie cheese, pork cutlets, glasses, bottles, and the head clerk’s cup of chocolate. The smell of these dainties blended so completely with that of the immoderately overheated stove and the odor peculiar to offices and old papers, that the trail of a fox would not have been perceptible. The floor was covered with mud and snow, brought in by the clerks. Near the window stood the desk with a revolving lid, where the head clerk worked, and against the back of it was the second clerk’s table. The second clerk was at this moment in Court. It was between eight and nine in the morning.

The only decoration of the office consisted in huge yellow posters, announcing seizures of real estate, sales, settlements under trust, final or interim judgments,—all the glory of a lawyer’s office. Behind the head clerk was an enormous room, of which each division was crammed with bundles of papers with an infinite number of tickets hanging from them at the ends of red tape, which give a peculiar physiognomy to law papers. The lower rows were filled with cardboard boxes, yellow with use, on which might be read the names of the more important clients whose cases were juicily stewing at this present time. The dirty window-panes admitted but little daylight. Indeed, there are very few offices in Paris where it is possible to write without lamplight before ten in the morning in the month of February, for they are all left to very natural neglect; every one comes and no one stays; no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine—neither the attorney, nor the counsel, nor the clerks, trouble themselves about the appearance of a place which, to the youths, is a schoolroom; to the clients, a passage; to the chief, a laboratory. The greasy furniture is handed down to successive owners with such scrupulous care, that in some offices may still be seen boxes of remainders, machines for twisting parchment gut, and bags left by the prosecuting parties of the Chatelet (abbreviated to Chlet)—a Court which, under the old order of things, represented the present Court of First Instance (or County Court).

So in this dark office, thick with dust, there was, as in all its fellows, something repulsive to the clients—something which made it one of the most hideous monstrosities of Paris. Nay, were it not for the mouldy sacristies where prayers are weighed out and paid for like groceries, and for the old-clothes shops, where flutter the rags that blight all the illusions of life by showing us the last end of all our festivities—an attorney’s office would be, of all social marts, the most loathsome. But we might say the same of the gambling-hell, of the Law Court, of the lottery office, of the brothel.

But why? In these places, perhaps, the drama being played in a man’s soul makes him indifferent to accessories, which would also account for the single-mindedness of great thinkers and men of great ambitions.

“Where is my penknife?”

“I am eating my breakfast.”

“You go and be hanged! here is a blot on the copy.”

“Silence, gentlemen!”

These various exclamations were uttered simultaneously at the moment when the old client shut the door with the sort of humility which disfigures the movements of a man down on his luck. The stranger tried to smile, but the muscles of his face relaxed as he vainly looked for some symptoms of amenity on the inexorably indifferent faces of the six clerks. Accustomed, no doubt, to gauge men, he very politely addressed the gutter-jumper, hoping to get a civil answer from this boy of all work.

“Monsieur, is your master at home?”

The pert messenger made no reply, but patted his ear with the fingers of his left hand, as much as to say, “I am deaf.”

“What do you want, sir?” asked Godeschal, swallowing as he spoke a mouthful of bread big enough to charge a four-pounder, flourishing his knife and crossing his legs, throwing up one foot in the air to the level of his eyes.

“This is the fifth time I have called,” replied the victim. “I wish to speak to M. Derville.”

“On business?”

“Yes, but I can explain it to no one but—”

“M. Derville is in bed; if you wish to consult him on some difficulty, he does no serious work till midnight. But if you will lay the case before us, we could help you just as well as he can to¾¾”

The stranger was unmoved; he looked timidly about him, like a dog who has got into a strange kitchen and expects a kick. By grace of their profession, lawyers’ clerks have no fear of thieves; they did not suspect the owner of the box-coat, and left him to study the place, where he looked in vain for a chair to sit on, for he was evidently tired. Attorneys, on principle, do not have many chairs in their offices. The inferior client, being kept waiting on his feet, goes away grumbling, but then he does not waste time, which, as an old lawyer once said, is not allowed for when the bill is taxed.

“Monsieur,” said the old man, “as I have already told you, I cannot explain my business to any one but M. Derville. I will wait till he is up.”

Boucard had finished his bill. He smelt the fragrance of his chocolate, rose from his cane armchair, went to the chimney-piece, looked the old man from head to foot, stared at his coat, and made an indescribable grimace. He probably reflected that whichever way his client might be wrung, it would be impossible to squeeze out a centime, so he put in a few brief words to rid the office of a bad customer.

“It is the truth, monsieur. The chief only works at night. If your business is important, I recommend you to return at one in the morning.” The stranger looked at the head clerk with a bewildered expression, and remained motionless for a moment. The clerks, accustomed to every change of countenance, and the odd whimsicalities to which indecision or absence of mind gives rise in “parties,” went on eating, making as much noise with their jaws as horses over a manger, and paying no further heed to the old man.

“I will come again to-night,” said the stranger at length, with the tenacious desire, peculiar to the unfortunate, to catch humanity at fault.

The only irony allowed to poverty is to drive Justice and Benevolence to unjust denials. When a poor wretch has convicted Society of falsehood, he throws himself more eagerly on the mercy of God.

“What do you think of that for a cracked pot?” said Simonnin, without waiting till the old man had shut the door.

“He looks as if he had been buried and dug up again,” said a clerk.

“He is some colonel who wants his arrears of pay,” said the head clerk.

“No, he is a retired concierge,” said Godeschal.

“I bet you he is a nobleman,” cried Boucard.

“I bet you he has been a porter,” retorted Godeschal. “Only porters are gifted by nature with shabby box-coats, as worn and greasy and frayed as that old body’s. And did you see his trodden-down boots that let the water in, and his stock which serves for a shirt? He has slept in a dry arch.”

“He may be of noble birth, and yet have pulled the doorlatch,” cried Desroches. “It has been known!”

“No,” Boucard insisted, in the midst of laughter, “I maintain that he was a brewer in 1789, and a colonel in the time of the Republic.”

“I bet theatre tickets round that he never was a soldier,” said Godeschal.

“Done with you,” answered Boucard.

“Monsieur! Monsieur!” shouted the little messenger, opening the window.

“What are you at now, Simonnin?” asked Boucard.

“I am calling him that you may ask him whether he is a colonel or a porter; he must know.”

All the clerks laughed. As to the old man, he was already coming upstairs again.

“What can we say to him?” cried Godeschal.

“Leave it to me,” replied Boucard.

The poor man came in nervously, his eyes cast down, perhaps not to betray how hungry he was by looking too greedily at the eatables.

“Monsieur,” said Boucard, “will you have the kindness to leave your name, so that M. Derville may know¾¾”


“The Colonel who was killed at Eylau?” asked Hure, who, having so far said nothing, was jealous of adding a jest to all the others.

“The same, monsieur,” replied the good man, with antique simplicity. And he went away.


“Done brown!”





“The old rogue!”


“Sold again!”

“Monsieur Desroches, you are going to the play without paying,” said Hure to the fourth clerk, giving him a slap on the shoulder that might have killed a rhinoceros.

There was a storm of cat-calls, cries, and exclamations, which all the onomatopeia of the language would fail to represent.

“Which theatre shall we go to?”

“To the opera,” cried the head clerk.

“In the first place,” said Godeschal, “I never mentioned which theatre. I might, if I chose, take you to see Madame Saqui.”

“Madame Saqui is not the play.”

“What is a play?” replied Godeschal. “First, we must define the point of fact. What did I bet, gentlemen? A play. What is a play? A spectacle. What is a spectacle? Something to be seen—”

“But on that principle you would pay your bet by taking us to see the water run under the Pont Neuf!” cried Simonnin, interrupting him.

“To be seen for money,” Godeschal added.

“But a great many things are to be seen for money that are not plays. The definition is defective,” said Desroches.

“But do listen to me!”

“You are talking nonsense, my dear boy,” said Boucard.

“Is Curtius’ a play?” said Godeschal.

“No,” said the head clerk, “it is a collection of figures—but it is a spectacle.”

“I bet you a hundred francs to a sou,” Godeschal resumed, “that Curtius’ Waxworks forms such a show as might be called a play or theatre. It contains a thing to be seen at various prices, according to the place you choose to occupy.”

“And so on, and so forth!” said Simonnin.

“You mind I don’t box your ears!” said Godeschal.

The clerk shrugged their shoulders.

“Besides, it is not proved that that old ape was not making game of us,” he said, dropping his argument, which was drowned in the laughter of the other clerks. “On my honor, Colonel Chabert is really and truly dead. His wife is married again to Comte Ferraud, Councillor of State. Madame Ferraud is one of our clients.”

“Come, the case is remanded till to-morrow,” said Boucard. “To work, gentlemen. The deuce is in it; we get nothing done here. Finish copying that appeal; it must be handed in before the sitting of the Fourth Chamber, judgment is to be given to-day. Come, on you go!”

“If he really were Colonel Chabert, would not that impudent rascal Simonnin have felt the leather of his boot in the right place when he pretended to be deaf?” said Desroches, regarding this remark as more conclusive than Godeschal’s.

“Since nothing is settled,” said Boucard, “let us all agree to go to the upper boxes of the Francais and see Talma in ‘Nero.’ Simonnin may go to the pit.”

And thereupon the head clerk sat down at his table, and the others followed his example.

“Given in June eighteen hundred and fourteen (in words),” said Godeschal. “Ready?”

“Yes,” replied the two copying-clerks and the engrosser, whose pens forthwith began to creak over the stamped paper, making as much noise in the office as a hundred cockchafers imprisoned by schoolboys in paper cages.

And we hope that my lords on the Bench,” the extemporizing clerk went on. “Stop! I must read my sentence through again. I do not understand it myself.”

“Forty-six (that must often happen) and three forty-nines,” said Boucard.

“We hope,” Godeschal began again, after reading all through the document, “that my lords on the Bench will not be less magnanimous than the august author of the decree, and that they will do justice against the miserable claims of the acting committee of the chief Board of the Legion of Honor by interpreting the law in the wide sense we have here set forth¾¾”

“Monsieur Godeschal, wouldn’t you like a glass of water?” said the little messenger.

“That imp of a boy!” said Boucard. “Here, get on your double-soled shanks-mare, take this packet, and spin off to the Invalides.”

“Here set forth,” Godeschal went on. “Add in the interest of Madame la Vicomtesse (at full length) de Grandlieu.”

“What!” cried the chief, “are you thinking of drawing up an appeal in the case of Vicomtesse de Grandlieu against the Legion of Honor—a case for the office to stand or fall by? You are something like an ass! Have the goodness to put aside your copies and your notes; you may keep all that for the case of Navarreins against the Hospitals. It is late. I will draw up a little petition myself, with a due allowance of ‘inasmuch,’ and go to the Courts myself.”

This scene is typical of the thousand delights which, when we look back on our youth, make us say, “Those were good times.”

At about one in the morning Colonel Chabert, self-styled, knocked at the door of Maitre Derville, attorney to the Court of First Instance in the Department of the Seine. The porter told him that Monsieur Derville had not yet come in. The old man said he had an appointment, and was shown upstairs to the rooms occupied by the famous lawyer, who, notwithstanding his youth, was considered to have one of the longest heads in Paris.

Having rung, the distrustful applicant was not a little astonished at finding the head clerk busily arranging in a convenient order on his master’s dining-room table the papers relating to the cases to be tried on the morrow. The clerk, not less astonished, bowed to the Colonel and begged him to take a seat, which the client did.

“On my word, monsieur, I thought you were joking yesterday when you named such an hour for an interview,” said the old man, with the forced mirth of a ruined man, who does his best to smile.

“The clerks were joking, but they were speaking the truth too,” replied the man, going on with his work. “M. Derville chooses this hour for studying his cases, taking stock of their possibilities, arranging how to conduct them, deciding on the line of defence. His prodigious intellect is freer at this hour—the only time when he can have the silence and quiet needed for the conception of good ideas. Since he entered the profession, you are the third person to come to him for a consultation at this midnight hour. After coming in the chief will discuss each case, read everything, spend four or five hours perhaps over the business, then he will ring for me and explain to me his intentions. In the morning from ten to two he hears what his clients have to say, then he spends the rest of his day in appointments. In the evening he goes into society to keep up his connections. So he has only the night for undermining his cases, ransacking the arsenal of the code, and laying his plan of battle. He is determined never to lose a case; he loves his art. He will not undertake every case, as his brethren do. That is his life, an exceptionally active one. And he makes a great deal of money.”

As he listened to this explanation, the old man sat silent, and his strange face assumed an expression so bereft of intelligence, that the clerk, after looking at him, thought no more about him.

A few minutes later Derville came in, in evening dress; his head clerk opened the door to him, and went back to finish arranging the papers. The young lawyer paused for a moment in amazement on seeing in the dim light the strange client who awaited him. Colonel Chabert was as absolutely immovable as one of the wax figures in Curtius’ collection to which Godeschal had proposed to treat his fellow-clerks. This quiescence would not have been a subject for astonishment if it had not completed the supernatural aspect of the man’s whole person. The old soldier was dry and lean. His forehead, intentionally hidden under a smoothly combed wig, gave him a look of mystery. His eyes seemed shrouded in a transparent film; you would have compared them to dingy mother-of-pearl with a blue iridescence changing in the gleam of the wax lights. His face, pale, livid, and as thin as a knife, if I may use such a vulgar expression, was as the face of the dead. Round his neck was a tight black silk stock.

Below the dark line of this rag the body was so completely hidden in shadow that a man of imagination might have supposed the old head was due to some chance play of light and shade, or have taken it for a portrait by Rembrandt, without a frame. The brim of the hat which covered the old man’s brow cast a black line of shadow on the upper part of the face. This grotesque effect, though natural, threw into relief by contrast the white furrows, the cold wrinkles, the colorless tone of the corpse-like countenance. And the absence of all movement in the figure, of all fire in the eye, were in harmony with a certain look of melancholy madness, and the deteriorating symptoms characteristic of senility, giving the face an indescribably ill-starred look which no human words could render.

But an observer, especially a lawyer, could also have read in this stricken man the signs of deep sorrow, the traces of grief which had worn into this face, as drops of water from the sky falling on fine marble at last destroy its beauty. A physician, an author, or a judge might have discerned a whole drama at the sight of its sublime horror, while the least charm was its resemblance to the grotesques which artists amuse themselves by sketching on a corner of the lithographic stone while chatting with a friend.

On seeing the attorney, the stranger started, with the convulsive thrill that comes over a poet when a sudden noise rouses him from a fruitful reverie in silence and at night. The old man hastily removed his hat and rose to bow to the young man; the leather lining of his hat was doubtless very greasy; his wig stuck to it without his noticing it, and left his head bare, showing his skull horribly disfigured by a scar beginning at the nape of the neck and ending over the right eye, a prominent seam all across his head. The sudden removal of the dirty wig which the poor man wore to hide this gash gave the two lawyers no inclination to laugh, so horrible to behold was this riven skull. The first idea suggested by the sight of this old wound was, “His intelligence must have escaped through that cut.”

“If this is not Colonel Chabert, he is some thorough-going trooper!” thought Boucard.

“Monsieur,” said Derville, “to whom have I the honor of speaking?”

“To Colonel Chabert.”


“He who was killed at Eylau,” replied the old man.

On hearing this strange speech, the lawyer and his clerk glanced at each other, as much as to say, “He is mad.”

“Monsieur,” the Colonel went on, “I wish to confide to you the secret of my position.”

A thing worthy of note is the natural intrepidity of lawyers. Whether from the habit of receiving a great many persons, or from the deep sense of the protection conferred on them by the law, or from confidence in their missions, they enter everywhere, fearing nothing, like priests and physicians. Derville signed to Boucard, who vanished.

“During the day, sir,” said the attorney, “I am not so miserly of my time, but at night every minute is precious. So be brief and concise. Go to the facts without digression. I will ask for any explanations I may consider necessary. Speak.”

Having bid his strange client to be seated, the young man sat down at the table; but while he gave his attention to the deceased Colonel, he turned over the bundles of papers.

“You know, perhaps,” said the dead man, “that I commanded a cavalry regiment at Eylau. I was of important service to the success of Murat’s famous charge which decided the victory. Unhappily for me, my death is a historical fact, recorded in Victoires et Conquetes, where it is related in full detail. We cut through the three Russian lines, which at once closed up and formed again, so that we had to repeat the movement back again. At the moment when we were nearing the Emperor, after having scattered the Russians, I came against a squadron of the enemy’s cavalry. I rushed at the obstinate brutes. Two Russian officers, perfect giants, attacked me both at once. One of them gave me a cut across the head that crashed through everything, even a black silk cap I wore next my head, and cut deep into the skull. I fell from my horse. Murat came up to support me. He rode over my body, he and all his men, fifteen hundred of them—there might have been more! My death was announced to the Emperor, who as a precaution—for he was fond of me, was the master—wished to know if there were no hope of saving the man he had to thank for such a vigorous attack. He sent two surgeons to identify me and bring me into Hospital, saying, perhaps too carelessly, for he was very busy, ‘Go and see whether by any chance poor Chabert is still alive.’ These rascally saw-bones, who had just seen me lying under the hoofs of the horses of two regiments, no doubt did not trouble themselves to feel my pulse, and reported that I was quite dead. The certificate of death was probably made out in accordance with the rules of military jurisprudence.”

As he heard his visitor express himself with complete lucidity, and relate a story so probable though so strange, the young lawyer ceased fingering the papers, rested his left elbow on the table, and with his head on his hand looked steadily at the Colonel.

“Do you know, monsieur, that I am lawyer to the Countess Ferraud,” he said, interrupting the speaker, “Colonel Chabert’s widow?”

“My wife—yes monsieur. Therefore, after a hundred fruitless attempts to interest lawyers, who have all thought me mad, I made up my mind to come to you. I will tell you of my misfortunes afterwards; for the present, allow me to prove the facts, explaining rather how things must have fallen out rather than how they did occur. Certain circumstances, known, I suppose to no one but the Almighty, compel me to speak of some things as hypothetical. The wounds I had received must presumably have produced tetanus, or have thrown me into a state analogous to that of a disease called, I believe, catalepsy. Otherwise how is it conceivable that I should have been stripped, as is the custom in time of the war, and thrown into the common grave by the men ordered to bury the dead?

“Allow me here to refer to a detail of which I could know nothing till after the event, which, after all, I must speak of as my death. At Stuttgart, in 1814, I met an old quartermaster of my regiment. This dear fellow, the only man who chose to recognize me, and of whom I will tell you more later, explained the marvel of my preservation, by telling me that my horse was shot in the flank at the moment when I was wounded. Man and beast went down together, like a monk cut out of card-paper. As I fell, to the right or to the left, I was no doubt covered by the body of my horse, which protected me from being trampled to death or hit by a ball.

“When I came to myself, monsieur, I was in a position and an atmosphere of which I could give you no idea if I talked till to-morrow. The little air there was to breathe was foul. I wanted to move, and found no room. I opened my eyes, and saw nothing. The most alarming circumstance was the lack of air, and this enlightened me as to my situation. I understood that no fresh air could penetrate to me, and that I must die. This thought took off the sense of intolerable pain which had aroused me. There was a violent singing in my ears. I heard—or I thought I heard, I will assert nothing—groans from the world of dead among whom I was lying. Some nights I still think I hear those stifled moans; though the remembrance of that time is very obscure, and my memory very indistinct, in spite of my impressions of far more acute suffering I was fated to go through, and which have confused my ideas.

“But there was something more awful than cries; there was a silence such as I have never known elsewhere—literally, the silence of the grave. At last, by raising my hands and feeling the dead, I discerned a vacant space between my head and the human carrion above. I could thus measure the space, granted by a chance of which I knew not the cause. It would seem that, thanks to the carelessness and the haste with which we had been pitched into the trench, two dead bodies had leaned across and against each other, forming an angle like that made by two cards when a child is building a card castle. Feeling about me at once, for there was no time for play, I happily felt an arm lying detached, the arm of a Hercules! A stout bone, to which I owed my rescue. But for this unhoped-for help, I must have perished. But with a fury you may imagine, I began to work my way through the bodies which separated me from the layer of earth which had no doubt been thrown over us—I say us, as if there had been others living! I worked with a will, monsieur, for here I am! But to this day I do not know how I succeeded in getting through the pile of flesh which formed a barrier between me and life. You will say I had three arms. This crowbar, which I used cleverly enough, opened out a little air between the bodies I moved, and I economized my breath. At last I saw daylight, but through snow!

“At that moment I perceived that my head was cut open. Happily my blood, or that of my comrades, or perhaps the torn skin of my horse, who knows, had in coagulating formed a sort of natural plaster. But, in spite of it, I fainted away when my head came into contact with the snow. However, the little warmth left in me melted the snow about me; and when I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the middle of a round hole, where I stood shouting as long as I could. But the sun was rising, so I had very little chance of being heard. Was there any one in the fields yet? I pulled myself up, using my feet as a spring, resting on one of the dead, whose ribs were firm. You may suppose that this was not the moment for saying, ‘Respect courage in misfortune!’ In short, monsieur, after enduring the anguish, if the word is strong enough for my frenzy, of seeing for a long time, yes, quite a long time, those cursed Germans flying from a voice they heard where they could see no one, I was dug out by a woman, who was brave or curious enough to come close to my head, which must have looked as though it had sprouted from the ground like a mushroom. This woman went to fetch her husband, and between them they got me to their poor hovel.

“It would seem that I must have again fallen into a catalepsy—allow me to use the word to describe a state of which I have no idea, but which, from the account given by my hosts, I suppose to have been the effect of that malady. I remained for six months between life and death; not speaking, or, if I spoke, talking in delirium. At last, my hosts got me admitted to the hospital at Heilsberg.

“You will understand, Monsieur, that I came out of the womb of the grave as naked as I came from my mother’s; so that six months afterwards, when I remembered, one fine morning, that I had been Colonel Chabert, and when, on recovering my wits, I tried to exact from my nurse rather more respect than she paid to any poor devil, all my companions in the ward began to laugh. Luckily for me, the surgeon, out of professional pride, had answered for my cure, and was naturally interested in his patient. When I told him coherently about my former life, this good man, named Sparchmann, signed a deposition, drawn up in the legal form of his country, giving an account of the miraculous way in which I had escaped from the trench dug for the dead, the day and hour when I had been found by my benefactress and her husband, the nature and exact spot of my injuries, adding to these documents a description of my person.

“Well, monsieur, I have neither these important pieces of evidence, nor the declaration I made before a notary at Heilsberg, with a view to establishing my identity. From the day when I was turned out of that town by the events of the war, I have wandered about like a vagabond, begging my bread, treated as a madman when I have told my story, without ever having found or earned a sou to enable me to recover the deeds which would prove my statements, and restore me to society. My sufferings have often kept me for six months at a time in some little town, where every care was taken of the invalid Frenchman, but where he was laughed at to his face as soon as he said he was Colonel Chabert. For a long time that laughter, those doubts, used to put me into rages which did me harm, and which even led to my being locked up at Stuttgart as a madman. And indeed, as you may judge from my story, there was ample reason for shutting a man up.

“At the end of two years’ detention, which I was compelled to submit to, after hearing my keepers say a thousand times, ‘Here is a poor man who thinks he is Colonel Chabert’ to people who would reply, ‘Poor fellow!’ I became convinced of the impossibility of my own adventure. I grew melancholy, resigned, and quiet, and gave up calling myself Colonel Chabert, in order to get out of my prison, and see France once more. Oh, monsieur! To see Paris again was a delirium which I¾¾”

Without finishing his sentence, Colonel Chabert fell into a deep study, which Derville respected.

“One fine day,” his visitor resumed, “one spring day, they gave me the key of the fields, as we say, and ten thalers, admitting that I talked quite sensibly on all subjects, and no longer called myself Colonel Chabert. On my honor, at that time, and even to this day, sometimes I hate my name. I wish I were not myself. The sense of my rights kills me. If my illness had but deprived me of all memory of my past life, I could be happy. I should have entered the service again under any name, no matter what, and should, perhaps, have been made Field-Marshal in Austria or Russia. Who knows?”

“Monsieur,” said the attorney, “you have upset all my ideas. I feel as if I heard you in a dream. Pause for a moment, I beg of you.”

“You are the only person,” said the Colonel, with a melancholy look, “who ever listened to me so patiently. No lawyer has been willing to lend me ten napoleons to enable me to procure from Germany the necessary documents to begin my lawsuit—”

“What lawsuit?” said the attorney, who had forgotten his client’s painful position in listening to the narrative of his past sufferings.

“Why, monsieur, is not the Comtesse Ferraud my wife? She has thirty thousand francs a year, which belong to me, and she will not give me a son. When I tell lawyers these things—men of sense; when I propose—I, a beggar—to bring action against a Count and Countess; when I—a dead man—bring up as against a certificate of death a certificate of marriage and registers of births, they show me out, either with the air of cold politeness, which you all know how to assume to rid yourself of a hapless wretch, or brutally, like men who think they have to deal with a swindler or a madman—it depends on their nature. I have been buried under the dead; but now I am buried under the living, under papers, under facts, under the whole of society, which wants to shove me underground again!”

“Pray resume your narrative,” said Derville.

“‘Pray resume it!'” cried the hapless old man, taking the young lawyer’s hand. “That is the first polite word I have heard since¾¾”

The Colonel wept. Gratitude choked his voice. The appealing and unutterable eloquence that lies in the eyes, in a gesture, even in silence, entirely convinced Derville, and touched him deeply.

“Listen, monsieur,” said he; “I have this evening won three hundred francs at cards. I may very well lay out half that sum in making a man happy. I will begin the inquiries and researches necessary to obtain the documents of which you speak, and until they arrive I will give you five francs a day. If you are Colonel Chabert, you will pardon the smallness of the loan as it is coming from a young man who has his fortune to make. Proceed.”

The Colonel, as he called himself, sat for a moment motionless and bewildered; the depth of his woes had no doubt destroyed his powers of belief. Though he was eager in pursuit of his military distinction, of his fortune, of himself, perhaps it was in obedience to the inexplicable feeling, the latent germ in every man’s heart, to which we owe the experiments of alchemists, the passion for glory, the discoveries of astronomy and of physics, everything which prompts man to expand his being by multiplying himself through deeds or ideas. In his mind the Ego was now but a secondary object, just as the vanity of success or the pleasures of winning become dearer to the gambler than the object he has at stake. The young lawyer’s words were as a miracle to this man, for ten years repudiated by his wife, by justice, by the whole social creation. To find in a lawyer’s office the ten gold pieces which had so long been refused him by so many people, and in so many ways! The colonel was like the lady who, having been ill of a fever for fifteen years, fancied she had some fresh complaint when she was cured. There are joys in which we have ceased to believe; they fall on us, it is like a thunderbolt; they burn us. The poor man’s gratitude was too great to find utterance. To superficial observers he seemed cold, but Derville saw complete honesty under this amazement. A swindler would have found his voice.

“Where was I?” said the Colonel, with the simplicity of a child or of a soldier, for there is often something of the child in a true soldier, and almost always something of the soldier in a child, especially in France.

“At Stuttgart. You were out of prison,” said Derville.

“You know my wife?” asked the Colonel.

“Yes,” said Derville, with a bow.

“What is she like?”

“Still quite charming.”

The old man held up his hand, and seemed to be swallowing down some secret anguish with the grave and solemn resignation that is characteristic of men who have stood the ordeal of blood and fire on the battlefield.

“Monsieur,” said he, with a sort of cheerfulness—for he breathed again, the poor Colonel; he had again risen from the grave; he had just melted a covering of snow less easily thawed than that which had once before frozen his head; and he drew a deep breath, as if he had just escaped from a dungeon—”Monsieur, if I had been a handsome young fellow, none of my misfortunes would have befallen me. Women believe in men when they flavor their speeches with the word Love. They hurry then, they come, they go, they are everywhere at once; they intrigue, they assert facts, they play the very devil for a man who takes their fancy. But how could I interest a woman? I had a face like a Requiem. I was dressed like a sans-culotte. I was more like an Esquimaux than a Frenchman—I, who had formerly been considered one of the smartest of fops in 1799!—I, Chabert, Count of the Empire.

“Well, on the very day when I was turned out into the streets like a dog, I met the quartermaster of whom I just now spoke. This old soldier’s name was Boutin. The poor devil and I made the queerest pair of broken-down hacks I ever set eyes on. I met him out walking; but though I recognized him, he could not possibly guess who I was. We went into a tavern together. In there, when I told him my name, Boutin’s mouth opened from ear to ear in a roar of laughter, like the bursting of a mortar. That mirth, monsieur, was one of the keenest pangs I have known. It told me without disguise how great were the changes in me! I was, then, unrecognizable even to the humblest and most grateful of my former friends!

“I had once saved Boutin’s life, but it was only the repayment of a debt I owed him. I need not tell you how he did me this service; it was at Ravenna, in Italy. The house where Boutin prevented my being stabbed was not extremely respectable. At that time I was not a colonel, but, like Boutin himself, a common trooper. Happily there were certain details of this adventure which could be known only to us two, and when I recalled them to his mind his incredulity diminished. I then told him the story of my singular experiences. Although my eyes and my voice, he told me, were strangely altered, although I had neither hair, teeth, nor eyebrows, and was as colorless as an Albino, he at last recognized his Colonel in the beggar, after a thousand questions, which I answered triumphantly.

“He related his adventures; they were not less extraordinary than my own; he had lately come back from the frontiers of China, which he had tried to cross after escaping from Siberia. He told me of the catastrophe of the Russian campaign, and of Napoleon’s first abdication. That news was one of the things which caused me most anguish!

“We were two curious derelicts, having been rolled over the globe as pebbles are rolled by the ocean when storms bear them from shore to shore. Between us we had seen Egypt, Syria, Spain, Russia, Holland, Germany, Italy and Dalmatia, England, China, Tartary, Siberia; the only thing wanting was that neither of us had been to America or the Indies. Finally, Boutin, who still was more locomotive than I, undertook to go to Paris as quickly as might be to inform my wife of the predicament in which I was. I wrote a long letter full of details to Madame Chabert. That, monsieur, was the fourth! If I had had any relations, perhaps nothing of all this might have happened; but, to be frank with you, I am but a workhouse child, a soldier, whose sole fortune was his courage, whose sole family is mankind at large, whose country is France, whose only protector is the Almighty.—Nay, I am wrong! I had a father—the Emperor! Ah! if he were but here, the dear man! If he could see his Chabert, as he used to call me, in the state in which I am now, he would be in a rage! What is to be done? Our sun is set, and we are all out in the cold now. After all, political events might account for my wife’s silence!

“Boutin set out. He was a lucky fellow! He had two bears, admirably trained, which brought him in a living. I could not go with him; the pain I suffered forbade my walking long stages. I wept, monsieur, when we parted, after I had gone as far as my state allowed in company with him and his bears. At Carlsruhe I had an attack of neuralgia in the head, and lay for six weeks on straw in an inn. I should never have ended if I were to tell you all the distresses of my life as a beggar. Moral suffering, before which physical suffering pales, nevertheless excites less pity, because it is not seen. I remember shedding tears, as I stood in front of a fine house in Strassburg where once I had given an entertainment, and where nothing was given me, not even a piece of bread. Having agreed with Boutin on the road I was to take, I went to every post-office to ask if there were a letter or some money for me. I arrived at Paris without having found either. What despair I had been forced to endure! ‘Boutin must be dead! I told myself, and in fact the poor fellow was killed at Waterloo. I heard of his death later, and by mere chance. His errand to my wife had, of course, been fruitless.

“At last I entered Paris—with the Cossacks. To me this was grief on grief. On seeing the Russians in France, I quite forgot that I had no shoes on my feet nor money in my pocket. Yes, monsieur, my clothes were in tatters. The evening before I reached Paris I was obliged to bivouac in the woods of Claye. The chill of the night air no doubt brought on an attack of some nameless complaint which seized me as I was crossing the Faubourg Saint-Martin. I dropped almost senseless at the door of an ironmonger’s shop. When I recovered I was in a bed in the Hotel-Dieu. There I stayed very contentedly for about a month. I was then turned out; I had no money, but I was well, and my feet were on the good stones of Paris. With what delight and haste did I make my way to the Rue du Mont-Blanc, where my wife should be living in a house belonging to me! Bah! the Rue du Mont-Blanc was now the Rue de la Chausee d’Antin; I could not find my house; it had been sold and pulled down. Speculators had built several houses over my gardens. Not knowing that my wife had married M. Ferraud, I could obtain no information.

“At last I went to the house of an old lawyer who had been in charge of my affairs. This worthy man was dead, after selling his connection to a younger man. This gentleman informed me, to my great surprise, of the administration of my estate, the settlement of the moneys, of my wife’s marriage, and the birth of her two children. When I told him that I was Colonel Chabert, he laughed so heartily that I left him without saying another word. My detention at Stuttgart had suggested possibilities of Charenton, and I determined to act with caution. Then, monsieur, knowing where my wife lived, I went to her house, my heart high with hope.—Well,” said the Colonel, with a gesture of concentrated fury, “when I called under an assumed name I was not admitted, and on the day when I used my own I was turned out of doors.

“To see the Countess come home from a ball or the play in the early morning, I have sat whole nights through, crouching close to the wall of her gateway. My eyes pierced the depths of the carriage, which flashed past me with the swiftness of lightning, and I caught a glimpse of the woman who is my wife and no longer mine. Oh, from that day I have lived for vengeance!” cried the old man in a hollow voice, and suddenly standing up in front of Derville. “She knows that I am alive; since my return she has had two letters written with my own hand. She loves me no more!—I—I know not whether I love or hate her. I long for her and curse her by turns. To me she owes all her fortune, all her happiness; well, she has not sent me the very smallest pittance. Sometimes I do not know what will become of me!”

With these words the veteran dropped on to his chair again and remained motionless. Derville sat in silence, studying his client.

“It is a serious business,” he said at length, mechanically. “Even granting the genuineness of the documents to be procured from Heilsberg, it is not proved to me that we can at once win our case. It must go before three tribunals in succession. I must think such a matter over with a clear head; it is quite exceptional.”

“Oh,” said the Colonel, coldly, with a haughty jerk of his head, “if I fail, I can die—but not alone.”

The feeble old man had vanished. The eyes were those of a man of energy, lighted up with the spark of desire and revenge.

“We must perhaps compromise,” said the lawyer.

“Compromise!” echoed Colonel Chabert. “Am I dead, or am I alive?”

“I hope, monsieur,” the attorney went on, “that you will follow my advice. Your cause is mine. You will soon perceive the interest I take in your situation, almost unexampled in judicial records. For the moment I will give you a letter to my notary, who will pay to your order fifty francs every ten days. It would be unbecoming for you to come here to receive alms. If you are Colonel Chabert, you ought to be at no man’s mercy. I shall record these advances as a loan; you have estates to recover; you are rich.”

This delicate compassion brought tears to the old man’s eyes. Derville rose hastily, for it was perhaps not correct for a lawyer to show emotion; he went into the adjoining room, and came back with an unsealed letter, which he gave to the Colonel. When the poor man held it in his hand, he felt through the paper two gold pieces.

“Will you be good enough to describe the documents, and tell me the name of the town, and in what kingdom?” said the lawyer.

The Colonel dictated the information, and verified the spelling of the names of places; then he took his hat in one hand, looked at Derville, and held out the other—a horny hand, saying with much simplicity:

“On my honor, sir, after the Emperor, you are the man to whom I shall owe most. You are a splendid fellow!”

The attorney clapped his hand into the Colonel’s, saw him to the stairs, and held a light for him.

“Boucard,” said Derville to his head clerk, “I have just listened to a tale that may cost me five and twenty louis. If I am robbed, I shall not regret the money, for I shall have seen the most consummate actor of the day.”

When the Colonel was in the street and close to a lamp, he took the two twenty-franc pieces out of the letter and looked at them for a moment under the light. It was the first gold he had seen for nine years.

“I may smoke cigars!” he said to himself.