Stories by Foreign Authors (French III)/Laurette or the Red Seal
LAURETTE OR THE RED SEAL
ALFRED DE VIGNY
I. The Meeting on the Highway.
THE road from Artois to Flanders is a long and dreary one. It extends in a straight line, with neither trees nor ditches along its sides, over flat plains, covered at all seasons with a yellow clay. It was in the month of March, 1815, that, as I was passing along this road, I met with an adventure I have never forgotten.
I was alone; I rode on horseback; I had a good cloak, a black casque, pistols, and a heavy sabre. It had been raining in torrents during four days and four nights of my journey, and I remember that I was singing the "Joconde" at the top of my voice—I was so young. The bodyguard of the king, in 1814, was filled up with old men and boys; the empire seemed to have seized and killed off all the men.
My comrades were on the road, somewhat in advance of me, escorting Louis XVIII.; I saw their white cloaks and red coats on the very edge of the northern horizon. The Lancers of Bonaparte, who, step by step, watched and followed our retreat, showed from time to time the tri-colored pennons of their long lances at the opposite horizon. A lost shoe had somewhat retarded my horse; but he was young and strong, and I pushed him on, to rejoin my squadron. He set off on a quick trot; I put my hand to my belt—it was well furnished with gold; I heard the iron scabbard of my sword clank upon my stirrup, and I felt very proud and perfectly happy.
It rained on, and I sang on. However, I soon ceased, tired of hearing nobody but myself, and I then heard only the rain and the feet of my horse as they plashed in the ruts. The pavement of the road gave way; I sank down; and was obliged to have recourse to my feet. My high cavalry boots were covered on the outside with a crust of mud, yellow as ochre, and inside they were fast filling with water. I looked at my new epaulettes, my happiness and my consolation—they were ruined by the rain. That was no slight affliction!
My horse hung his head, and I did the same. I began to reflect, and for the first time asked myself where I was going. I knew absolutely nothing about it; but that did not trouble me long; I knew that my squadron was there, and there too was my duty. As I felt in my heart a profound and imperturbable tranquillity, I thanked that ineffable feeling of duty, and tried to explain it to myself. Seeing every day how gayly the most unaccustomed fatigues were borne by heads so fair or so white, how cavalierly a well-assured future was risked by men of a worldly and happy life, and taking my own share in that wonderful satisfaction which every man derives from the conviction that he cannot evade any of the obligations of honor, I saw clearly that self-abnegation was a far easier and more common thing than is generally imagined. I asked myself whether this abnegation of self was not an innate sentiment? what was this need of obeying, and of placing one's freedom of will in the hands of others, as a heavy and troublesome burden? whence came the secret pleasure of being rid of this burden? and why the pride of man never revolted at this? I perceived this mysterious instinct binding together, on every side, families and nations into masses powerful in their combination; but I nowhere saw the renunciation of one's own actions, words, wishes, and almost thoughts, so complete and formidable as in the army. In every direction I saw resistance possible and habitual. I beheld the citizen rendering an obedience that was discriminating and intelligent, examining for itself, and liable to stop at a certain point. I beheld even the tender submission of woman reach its limits, the law taking up her defence, when the authority she obeys commands a wrong. But military obedience is blind and dumb, because at the same time passive and active—receiving its order and executing it—striking with eyes shut, like the Fate of antiquity. I followed out, through all its possible consequences, this abnegation of the soldier, without retreat, without condition, and leading him sometimes to tasks of illest omen. Such were my reflections as I walked on at my horse's own pleasure; looking at my watch from time to time, and beholding the road as it stretched along for ever in a straight line, varied neither by house nor tree, and intersecting the plain as far as the horizon, like a yellow stripe on a gray cloth. Sometimes the liquid line was lost in the liquid ground that surrounded it; and when a little brightening of the dull and pale light of the day spread over that most melancholy expanse of land, I saw myself in the midst of a muddy ocean, following a current of clay and plaster.
Examining attentively the yellow line of the road, I observed upon it, at the distance of about a mile, a little black point, which was in motion. I was delighted with the sight,—it was somebody. I kept my eyes steadily fixed upon it. I saw that the black point was going in the same direction with myself, toward Lille, and that it went with a zigzag motion, as though with painful toil. I quickened my gait, and gained ground upon the object, which began to lengthen a little and increase in bulk to my sight. Reaching a firmer soil, I resumed a trot, and soon fancied that I could distinguish a little black wagon. I was hungry, and hoped that it was the wagon of a sutler; and, looking upon my poor horse as a vessel, I crowded all sail to arrive at that fortunate island in this sea of mud, where he sometimes sank down above his knees.
When about a hundred yards off, I at last distinguished plainly a little wagon of white wood, covered by a black oilcloth stretched over three hoops. It looked like a little cradle mounted on two wheels. The wheels sank down to the axletree; the little mule which drew it was wearisomely led by a man on foot, who held the bridle. I drew near, and took an attentive look at him.
He was a man of about fifty, moustachioed, tall and strong, and his back rounded, like that of the old infantry officers who have carried the knapsack. He had also their uniform; and you could see, from under a short and well-worn blue cloak, the epaulette of a chef-de-bataillon. His face was rough and hard, but good, as you so often see in the army. He looked at me sideways from under his heavy black eyebrows, and drawing a musket quickly out of the wagon, he cocked it, passing to the other side of the mule, of which he thus made a rampart. Having seen his white cockade, I simply showed him the sleeve of my red coat, when he replaced the musket in the wagon, saying:
"Oh; that's another matter. I took you for one of those coneys who are running after us. Will you take a drop?"
"With all my heart," I answered, drawing near; "it is four-and-twenty hours since I have tasted one."
He had round his neck a cocoa-nut, beautifully carved, and made into a bottle, with a silver neck, of which he seemed a little vain. He reached it to me, and I drank a little poor white wine with a great deal of satisfaction, and returned him the cocoa-nut.
"To the health of the king!" said he, drinking; "he has made me an officer of the Legion of Honor, and it is but right that I should follow him to the frontier. And as I have only my epaulette by which to live, I shall then rejoin my battalion. That's my duty."
As he thus spoke, to himself as it were, he set his little mule in march again, saying that we had no time to lose; and as I was of the same opinion, I resumed my route two or three steps in his rear. I still kept looking at him, but without asking any questions, as I never liked that talkative indiscretion which is so common among us.
We went on in silence for about a mile. As he then stopped to rest his poor little mule, which it was really painful to see, I halted too, and tried to press out the water which made my riding-boots like two reservoirs in which my legs were soaking.
"Your boots begin to stick to your feet?" said he to me.
"It is four nights since I have taken them off."
"Bah! in a week you will think no more of it," he replied, with his hoarse voice. "It is something to be alone in times like these, I can tell you. Do you know what I have got inside there?"
"No," said I.
"It is a woman."
"Ah!" was my answer, with no particular astonishment, as I quietly resumed my route at a walk again. He followed.
"This wretched covering here did not cost me very dear," he resumed, "nor the mule neither; but it is all that I need, although this road here is rather a long queue ribbon."
I offered him my horse to mount when he should be tired; and as I only spoke gravely and simply of his equipage, of which he feared the ridiculous appearance, he became suddenly quite at his ease, and approaching my stirrup, gave me a slap on the knee, and said:
"Come, you are a good fellow, though you are one of the red."
I felt in the bitterness of his accent, as he thus designated the four red companies, how many angry prejudices the luxury and rank of these corps of officers had created in the army at large.
"However," he added, "I will not accept your offer, considering that I do not know how to mount a horse, and that, for my part, that is not my business."
"But, commandant, you superior officers are obliged to."
"Bah! once a year for inspection, and then a hired hack. As for me, I was always a sailor, and afterwards in the infantry; so that I know nothing about riding."
He went on for about twenty steps, looking sideways at me, as if expecting a question; but as he heard none, he presently continued himself:
"You are not very inquisitive, that's a fact! That ought to astonish you a little, what I said there."
"I am not often astonished," said I.
"Ah, but if I were to tell you how I came to quit the sea, then we should see."
"Very well," I answered, "why don't you try? That will warm us, and make me forget the rain that is pouring in at my back, and only stopping at my heels."
The good chef-de-bataillon prepared himself deliberately to speak, with all the pleasure of a child. He adjusted his shako on his head, which was covered with black oilcloth, and gave that peculiar shrug of the shoulders, which none can imagine who have not served in the infantry,—that shrug of the shoulders which the soldier gives to raise his knapsack, and ease its weight for a moment. It is a habit of the soldier, which, when he becomes an officer, remains as a trick. After this jerking movement, he drank a little wine from his flask, administered a kick of encouragement to the little mule, and began.
II. Story of the Sealed Order.
"You must know then, in the first place, my boy, that I was born at Brest. I began by being troop-boy, gaining my half-ration, and my half-pay, at the age of nine years, as my father was a soldier in the Guards. But as I had a liking for the sea, one fine night when I was at Brest on leave of absence, I hid among the ropes of a merchant-ship bound to the Indies, and was not found until they were out at sea, when the captain preferred making a sailor-boy of me, to throwing me overboard. When the Revolution came on, I had made some headway, and was captain of a neat little trading vessel, having been tossed about the sea, like its foam, for fifteen years. As the old royal navy—a good old navy, faith, it was—found itself suddenly depopulated of its officers, they took their captains from the merchant service. I had had some little brushes with the pirates which I will tell you about some other time, and they gave me the Command of a small brig-of-war, named the Mara."
"On the 28th of Fructidor, 1797, I received orders to get ready for a voyage to Cayenne. I was to transport there sixty soldiers and a déporté, who had remained behind, of the one hundred and ninety-three which the frigate La Decade had taken on board some days before. I had orders to treat this individual with kindness, and the first letter of the Directory inclosed the second, sealed with three red seals, the middle one of which was of enormous size. I was forbidden to open this letter before reaching the first degree north latitude, and between the 27th and 28th of longitude—that is to say, when about crossing the line. This big letter was of a shape altogether peculiar. It was very long, and so tightly closed that I could not get at a word, either in at the corners or through the envelope. I am not superstitious, but it frightened me, that letter. I placed it in my cabin, under the glass of a poor little English clock, which was nailed up over my berth. Mine was a real sailor's bed, if you know what that is. But what am I talking about?—you have lived at most but sixteen summers; you can never have seen anything of that kind. A queen's chamber cannot be so neatly arranged as a sailor's cabin—be it said without boasting. Everything has its own place, and its own nail; nothing can move. The vessel may toss as much as she chooses, without putting anything out of order. The furniture is all made to fit the form of the vessel, and of one's own little room. My bed was a chest; when it was opened, I slept in it; and when it was shut, it was my sofa, and there I smoked my pipe. Sometimes it was my table, and then I sat on one of the little casks in the cabin. My floor was waxed and rubbed like mahogany, and shone like a jewel. A real looking-glass! Oh, what a sweet little cabin it was!—and my brig, too, was not to be sneezed at. There was some fine fun on board there, and the voyage began this time pleasantly enough, but for— But I must not anticipate.
"We had a fine breeze from the N. N. W., and I was busy putting away this letter under the glass of my clock, when my déporté entered my cabin; he had by the hand a beautiful little girl of about seventeen, and he told me that he himself was only nineteen. A handsome fellow, though a little too pale, and too fair for a man. He was a man though, and a man who behaved better on this occasion than many an old one would have done—you will see. He had his little wife under his arm: she was as fresh and gay as a child. They looked like two doves. It really was a pleasure to see them.
"So said I:
"'Ah, well, young ones, you come to pay a visit to the old captain, eh? That's kind of you. I am taking you rather far away: but all the better, for we shall have the longer to make one another's acquaintance. I am sorry to receive madame with my coat off, but you see I am nailing this big scamp of a letter up here. If you would only help me a little?'"
"They were really good little children. The little husband took the hammer, and the little wife the nails, and they would hand them to me, as I asked for them: and she would say, 'To the right—to the left—captain!'—all the time laughing, because the knocking made my clock swing. I think I hear her yet, with her little voice, 'To the right—to the left—captain!" She was making fun of me. 'Ah, ha,' said I, 'you little puss, I'll make your husband scold you, you'll see.' Then she jumped upon his neck and kissed him:—they were indeed a charming pair, and so our acquaintance began. We were all at once good friends.
"We had a fine passage, too. The weather seemed always made on purpose for us. As I had never had anything but dark faces on board my vessel, I made my two little lovers come to my table every day. It put me in spirits. When we had eaten our biscuit and fish, the little wife and her husband would sit looking at one another, as though they had never seen each other before. Then I would set to laughing with all my might, and making fun of them. They would laugh, too, with me. You would have laughed to have seen us there like three imbeciles, not knowing what was the matter with us. The fact is, it was really pleasant to see them so fond of one another. They were contented anywhere: they found anything which was given them good. Still they were on allowance, like the rest of us. I only added a little Swedish brandy when they dined with me; only a little glass, just to keep up my rank. They slept in a hammock, where the vessel rolled them about like those two pears I have here, in this wet handkerchief. They were lively and contented. I did like you, I asked them no questions; what use was there for me to know their name and their business—me, a traverser of the waves? I carried them from one side of the ocean to the other, as I might have carried two birds of paradise.
"After a month I came to look upon them as my children. Every day when I called them, they came and sat near me. The young man wrote on my table (that is to say, on my bed), and when I wished it, he helped me to take my observation; he soon knew how to do it as well as myself,—I was quite astonished sometimes. The young woman would sit down upon a barrel and sew.
"One day, when they were fixed so, I said to them: 'Do you know, my little friends, that we make quite a family picture as we now are? I don't wish to ask you any questions, but you probably have not any more money than you need, and you are very delicate, both of you, to dig and work, as the convicts at Cayenne do. It's a wretched country, I can tell you, from the bottom of my heart; but as for me, who am already an old wolf's skin dried in the sun, I could live there like a lord. If you have, as I rather fancy you have (without wishing to catechise you), ever so little regard for me, I would willingly leave my old brig, which is at best but an old wooden shoe, and establish myself there with you, if you liked it. I have no more family than a dog, and I am tired of it. You would make a nice little company for me. I could help you to many things, and I have got together, honestly enough, quite a snug little affair in the contraband way, on which we might live, and which I would leave to you, when I should come to kick the bucket,—to speak politely.'
"They looked, at each other with quite a bewildered air, as if they did not think I spoke the truth; and then the little one ran, as she always did, and threw herself on the neck of the other, and sat upon his knees all crimson and weeping. He pressed her very closely in his arms, and I saw tears in his eyes too. He gave me his hand, and became even paler than usual. She spoke in a low voice to him, and her long fair hair fell loose upon his shoulders. Its twist had got loosed like a cable suddenly unrolling, for she was as lively as a fish. That hair, if you had seen it!—it was just like gold. As they continued to speak together in a low voice, he kissing her forhead from time to time, I became impatient:
"'Well, does that suit you?' said I at length.
"'But—but—captain—you are very good, but you cannot live with convicts,—and—' He cast his eyes down as he spoke.
"'As for me,' said I, 'I don't know what you have done to be transported for. You will tell me that some of these days or never, if you choose. You don't look as if you had a very heavy conscience, and I am sure that I have done many a worse thing than you, in my life, my poor innocent little souls. Now, so long as you are under my guard, I shall not let you go, you may be sure of that; I would rather wring your necks like two pigeons. But the epaulette once off, I know no longer admiral nor anything else.'
"'The fact is,' he answered, mournfully shaking his brown head, though a little powdered, as was still the fashion of that day,—'the fact is, I think it would be dangerous for you, captain, to seem to know us. We laugh because we are young; we look happy because we love one another; but I have many a miserable moment when I think of the future, and I know not what will become of my poor Laura.' And he again pressed the head of his young wife to his bosom.
"'That was what I ought to say to the captain,' added he, 'was it not, my child? You would have said the same thing, would n't you?'
"I took my pipe, and rose, because I felt that my eyes were becoming somewhat moist, and that does n't become me very well.
"'Come, come,' said I, 'this will all clear up by and by; if the smoke of my pipe incommodes madame, she must go away.'
"She raised her face all scarlet and wet with tears, like a child which has been scolded.
"'Besides,' said she, looking at my clock, 'you forget that there—the letter?'
"I felt something that struck home to me at these words—something like a sudden pain at the roots of my hair as she spoke.
"'Pardieu! I did not think of that,' said I. 'This is a pretty piece of business, to be sure. If we had only crossed the first degree of north latitude, nothing would be left for me but to jump overboard. Can't I get tolerably happy, but this child here must remind me of that big scamp of a letter!'
"I looked quickly at my sea-chart, and when I saw that we had yet a week to sail, my head was relieved, but not my heart—I knew not why.
"'It's no joking matter with the Directory about the article obedience,' said I. 'Well, I am all straight this time. Time has passed so quickly, that I had completely forgotten that.'
"Well, sir, there we remained, all three of us, with our noses in the air, looking up at that letter, as if it could speak. What struck me forcibly was that the sun, as it shone through the bull's-eye, fell upon the glass of the clock, and lighting the spot, made the great red seal and the other small ones appear like the features of a face in the midst of fire.
"Would n't one say that its eyes were coming out of its head?' said I, to amuse them.
"'Oh, dearest!' said the girl, shuddering, 'they look like spots of blood!'
"'Nonsense,' said her husband, taking her in his arms, 'you deceive yourself, Laura; it looks like a wedding invitation. Come and rest yourself—come! Why do you trouble yourself about that letter?'
"They hurried off as if a ghost were after them, and went on deck.
"I remained alone with the big letter, and I remember that, as I smoked my pipe, I kept my gaze fixed on it as if it had riveted my eyes by meeting them, like those of a snake. Its great pale face—that third seal, larger than the eyes—open, ravenous, like the jaws of a wolf all that put me in a very bad humor. I took my coat and hung it over the clock, that I might see neither the hour nor that d—— of a letter.
"I went to finish my pipe on deck, and remained there till night. We were then about on a line with the Cape de Verd islands. The Marat cut through the water, wind astern, over ten knots with ease. The night was the most beautiful one I have ever seen near the tropic. The moon was just rising at the horizon, large as a sun; the sea divided it in the middle, and became all white, like a sheet of snow covered over with little diamonds. I looked at it all from the bench where I sat smoking. The officer of the watch and the sailors did not speak, and, like me, were looking at the shadow of the brig on the water. I was glad to hear nothing; I like silence and order. I had forbidden all noise and all fires. Nevertheless, I perceived a small red streak almost under my feet. I should immediately have put myself in a passion, but as it came from the cabin of my little convicts, I wished to satisfy myself what they were about before I got angry. I had only to lean over and I could see through the skylight of the little cabin, and I looked down. The young girl was on her knees at her prayers. There was a little lamp which cast its light upon her. She was in her night-dress, and I saw from above, her bare shoulders, her little naked feet, and her long fair hair all afloat. I thought I would retire; but, nonsense! said I to myself—an old soldier like me, what harm is there?—and so I remained.
"Her husband was seated on a small trunk, his head on his hands, watching her as she prayed. She raised her face as though to heaven, and I saw her large blue eyes wet like those of a Magdalen. Whilst she was praying he took the ends of her long hair and kissed them without disturbing her. When she had finished she made the sign of the cross, smiling as though she were just going to Paradise. I saw him also make the sign of the cross after her, but as if he were ashamed of it. And, indeed, for a man, such a thing is a little singular.
"She rose, kissed him, and stretched herself the first in the hammock, where he threw her in as they put to bed a child in a cradle. The heat was stifling, and she seemed to find pleasure in the rocking motion of the vessel. Her tiny white feet were crossed and raised to the level of her head, and her whole person wrapped in her long white dress. Oh! she was a perfect little love.
"'Dearest,' said she, already half asleep, 'are you not sleepy? Do you know it is very late?'
"He remained still with his head in his hands, without answering. This made her a little anxious, the sweet child, and she raised her pretty head out of the hammock, like a bird out of its nest, and looked at him with her lips parted, not venturing to speak again.
"At last he said: 'Oh! dear Laura! the nearer we approach to America, I cannot help it, but so much the sadder I become. I know not why it is, but I feel as if this voyage will have been the happiest part of our life.'
"'And so it seems to me,' said she, 'and I wish we might never arrive.'
"He looked at her, pressing his hands together with an expression of feeling you cannot imagine.
"'And yet, my angel, you always weep when you pray to God,' said he, 'and that distresses me sadly, for I well know whom you are thinking of, and I fear you are sorry for what you have done.'
"'I sorry!' said she, with a look of much pain,—'I sorry to have followed you, dearest! Do you think that because I had been yours so short a time, I loved you the less? Is one not a woman and does one not know one's duty at seventeen? My mother and my sisters, did they not say that it was my duty to follow you to Guiana? Did they not say I was doing nothing wonderful? I am only surprised that you should have been so touched by it, dearest: it was all perfectly natural. And now I do not know how you can imagine that I regret anything, when I am with you, to help you to live, or to die if you die.'
"She said all this with so sweet a voice, one would have thought it was music. I was a good deal moved by it, and said to myself: 'Good little wife—yes, indeed!'
"The young man sighed with grief as he stamped on the floor with his foot, and kissed a pretty little hand and a bare arm which she extended to him.
"'Oh, Laurette, my own Laurette!' said he, 'when I think, that if we had only delayed our marriage for a few days, I should have been seized alone, and sent off alone, I cannot forgive myself.'
"Then the beautiful girl stretched her beautiful white arms, bare to the shoulders, out of the hammock, and caressed his brow, his hair, his eyes, taking his head between her hands as though to carry it away and hide it in her bosom. She smiled like a child, and said a thousand sweet little womanly things, such as I, for my part, had never heard anything of the kind before. She shut his mouth playfully with her fingers, so as to have all the speaking to herself, and wiping his eyes with her long hair, as with a handkerchief, she said: 'And is it not a great deal better to have a wife with you who loves you—say, dearest? I am perfectly content to go to Cayenne; I shall see savages and cocoa-nut trees, like those of "Paul and Virginia," sha'n't I? We will each plant our own. We shall see who will be the best gardener. And we will make a little hut for us two. I will work all day and all night, if you wish. I am strong; see—look at my arms; see, I could almost lift you. Don't laugh at me. And besides, I am excellent in embroidering, and is there not some city thereabouts where embroiderers are wanted? And then I will give lessons in music and drawing, if they choose; and if they know how to read there, you can write, you know.'
"I remember that the poor fellow was in such despair that a loud cry escaped him as she spoke thus. 'To write!' he exclaimed, 'to write!' and he seized his right hand with his left, pressing it tightly at the wrist. 'Ah! to write! Why have I ever known how to write! To write! it is the trade of fools. I believed in their liberty of the press—where were my senses? And, to do what? To print five or six poor ideas, common-place enough, read only by those who like them, and thrown into the fire by those who hate them, serving no other end but to bring persecution upon us. As for me, it is of little consequence; but you, beautiful angel, scarcely four days a wife, what had you done! Tell me, tell me, I entreat of you, how I came to suffer you to carry your goodness so far as to follow me here! Do you know where you are, poor girl? and whither you are going? You will soon, my child, be sixteen hundred leagues away from your mother and your sisters. And for me! all this for me!'
"She hid her head for a moment in the hammock, and I, from above, could see she was weeping; but he from below did not perceive it, and when she uncovered her face it was already brightened by a smile, to enliven and cheer him.
"'In truth we are not very rich just now,' said she, bursting into a laugh; 'see, here is my purse, I have only one single louis. And you!'
"He began also to laugh like a child: 'Faith! I had a crown left, but I gave it to the little boy who carried your trunk.'
"'Oh, well! what difference does that make?' said she, snapping her little white fingers like castanets; 'people are never so merry as when they have nothing; and besides, have I not yet in reserve the two diamond rings that my mother gave me? Those are good everywhere, and for everything, are they not? Whenever you choose we will sell them. And besides, I am sure that that dear old soul, the captain, does not tell us all his good intentions for us, and that he knows very well what is in the letter. I am sure it is a recommendation for us to the Governor of Cayenne.'
"'Perhaps so,' said he, 'who knows?'
"'And then,' added his little wife, 'you are so good that I am sure the government has only exiled you for a short time, but has no thought of harm against you.'
"She had said that so sweetly, when she called me 'that dear old soul the captain,' that I was quite touched and melted, and I rejoiced in my very heart that she had perhaps guessed truly. They began anew to embrace one another; and I stamped loudly on the deck to make them stop.
"'Eh! how now, my little friends,' I cried, 'the order is to put out all the lights on board the ship; blow out your lamp if you please.'
"They obeyed, and I heard them laughing and talking below, in the dark, like school-children. I, for my part, relit my pipe and walked the deck by myself. All the tropical stars were at their posts, large as little moons. I watched them, and breathed an air which seemed fresh and sweet. I said to myself that the good little folks had certainly guessed the truth, and my spirits mounted at the thought. I would have wagered anything that one of the five Directors had changed his mind, and recommended them to my care. I did not very well explain to myself the how or the why of the matter, because there are affairs of state which I for my part never understood; but I fully believed it, and without knowing why, I was made happy by it.
"I took my little night lantern and went to look at the letter under my old uniform. It had altogether a different air now; it seemed to smile, and the seals to be the color of roses. I had no longer any suspicion of its good intentions, and gave it a little nod of friendship.
"However, notwithstanding all that, I hung my old coat over it; I was tired of it. We thought no more of looking at it for some days, and we were very merry. But as we approached the first degree of latitude, we began to leave off talking.
"One fine morning I awoke, surprised enough to feel no motion of the ship. The fact is, I sleep with only one eye shut, as they say, and as I missed the tossing, I opened them both. We had got into a dead calm, and it was under the first degree of north latitude and the twentieth of longitude. I put my head on deck; the sea was as smooth as if it were of oil, and the open sails hung down glued to the masts, like empty balloons. I immediately said to myself, as I gave a sidelong glance at the letter: 'Very well, I shall have plenty of time to read you,' and waited till the evening, till sunset. But it had to be done sooner or later, so I uncovered the clock, and drew from under it the sealed order. Well, sir, I held it in my hand for a quarter of an hour, without being able to open it. At last I said, This is too bad! and broke the three seals with one movement of my thumb, and as for the big red seal, I rubbed it to powder. When I had read it, I rubbed my eyes, thinking they must have deceived me.
"I read the letter over again from the beginning to the end; I read it through; I read it all over again and again. I began again at the last line and went up to the first; I could not believe it. My legs shook a little under me; I felt a peculiar quivering of the skin of my face, and I rubbed my cheeks with rum, and put some in the hollow of my hands. I was really ashamed of myself for being such a child—but it was only the affair of a moment. I went on deck to take a little air.
"Laurette was that day so pretty, that I would not go near her. She had on a little simple white dress, her arms bare to her neck, and her long hair flowing, as she always wore it. She was amusing herself with dipping her other dress into the sea, from the end of a cord, and laughed to see that the ocean was as tranquil and pure as a spring of which she could see the bottom.
"'Come and see the sand! come quick!' she cried, and her husband leaned upon her and bent over, but did not look at the water, for he was looking at her with a touching air of tenderness. I made a sign to the young man to come to speak to me on the quarter-deck. She turned round,—I don't know how I looked, but she let her rope drop, and grasped him convulsively by the arm, saying, 'Oh, don't go! he is so pale!' That might well be; it was enough to make one turn pale. Still he came toward me on the quarter-deck. She stood leaning against the main-mast, following us with her eyes, as we walked up and down without a word. I lit a cigar, which I found bitter, and spit it out into the water. He watched my eye; I took him by the arm—I was choking—upon my word I was choking.
"'Come, come, now,' said I at length, 'my little friend, tell me something of your history. What the d—— have you done to those five hounds of lawyers, who are there like five pieces of a king. They seem to owe you a heavy grudge. It's very queer.'
"He shrugged his shoulders, bending his head down—with such a sweet smile, poor boy!—and said:
"'Oh! captain, nothing much, depend upon it. Three satirical verses upon the Directory, that is all.'
"'It is n't possible!' said I.
"'Oh, yes, indeed! and the verses were not even very good ones. I was arrested the 15th of Fructidor, and taken to La Force; tried on the 16th, and sentenced first to death, then, through clemency, to transportation.'
"That's queer,' said I; 'these Directors must be very susceptible fellows, for that letter you know of orders me to shoot you.'
"He did not answer, and smiled with a manly face enough for a boy of nineteen. He only looked at his wife, and wiped his forehead, on which stood big drops of sweat; I had as many on my face, too, and others in my eyes. I continued:
"'It seems those citizens did not wish to do your business on shore; they thought that at sea it would not be so much noticed. But it's very hard for me! It's all of no use that you are such a fine fellow, I can't escape from it; the sentence of death is there complete, and the order for the execution signed and sealed; there's nothing omitted.'
"He bowed very politely, though his face was crimsoned, and said, with a voice as sweet as usual: 'I ask for nothing, captain; I should be grieved to make you fail in your duty. I should only like to speak a moment to Laurette, and to entreat you to protect her, in case she should survive me,—which I do not think she will.'
"'Ah! as for that, it is but right, my boy; and, if you have no objections, I will take her to her own family, on my return to France, and only leave her when she wishes to see me no more. But it strikes me you need not fear that she will recover from this blow—poor little soul!'
"He took my two hands, pressed them, and said:
"'My dear captain, you suffer more than I do, from what yet remains to be done. I feel it indeed, but it cannot be helped. I rely upon you to preserve for her the little that belongs to me, to watch over her, and to see that she receives whatever her aged mother may leave her, will you not? to guard her life, her honor; and that her health is also always well taken care of, will you not? You see,' he added, in a lower voice, 'I must tell you that she is very delicate, and often so much troubled by her breast as to faint several times a day. She must always keep herself well covered. In a word, you will take the place, as much as possible, of her father, her mother, and me, will you not? I should be glad if she could keep the rings her mother gave her. But, if it is necessary that they should be sold for her, be it so. My poor Laurette!—see how beautiful she is!'
"As this began to be a little too tender, I became tired of it, and set to knitting my brows. I had spoken cheerfully to him so as not to weaken him, but I could stand it no longer. 'Enough,' said I, 'we understand each other. Go and speak to her, and let us make haste.'
"I pressed his hand as a friend, and as he did not let it go, but kept looking at me with a singular expression, I added: 'I'll tell you what it is, if I had any advice to give you, it would be to say nothing to her about that matter. We will arrange the thing without her expecting it, nor you either; make yourself easy—that's my affair.'
"'Ah!' said he, 'I did not know that. That will certainly be better. Besides, those farewells!—those farewells!—they weaken one.'
"'Yes, yes,' said I, 'don't make a child of yourself, that's much the best way. Don't kiss her, if you can help it; if you do, you are lost.'
"I gave him another good grasp of the hand, and left him. Oh! all this was very hard for me!
"He seemed to me to keep the secret well; for they walked arm in arm for a quarter of an hour, and then returned to the edge of the water to take the rope and the dress which one of the cabin boys had fished up.
"Night came on suddenly. It was the moment I had resolved to seize. But that moment has lasted me till the present time, and I shall drag it along all my life, like a cannon-ball." Here the old commandant was obliged to stop, and I took care not to speak, for fear of turning his ideas out of their channel. He began again, striking his breast:
"That moment, I assure you, I can't understand it yet. I felt the deepest rage seize upon my whole heart, and at the same time something or other, I don't know what, was forcing me to obey, and pushing me forward. I summoned the officers and said to them:
"'Come! a boat in the water, since we are now executioners. Put that girl into it, and keep rowing off until you hear the report of firing; you will then return.'
"The idea of obeying a piece of paper that way!—for after all it was but that. There must have been something in the air which forced me on. I caught a glimpse of that young man—oh! it was horrible to see!—kneeling before his Laurette, and kissing her knees and her feet. Was n't it a hard case for me? I shouted like a madman, 'Separate them!—we are all a set of wretches—separate them! The poor Republic is a dead body—Directors, Directory, vermin all! I quit the sea for ever! I'm not afraid of all your lawyers! Let them tell them what I say—what do I care?' Oh! but I did care for them! I would have wished to have held them in my grasp, and shot them all five, the scoundrels! Oh, yes! I would have done it. I cared for my life about as much as for that water that's pouring there—yes, indeed,—as if I cared for that—a life like mine—ah, yes, indeed—mere life—bah—"
And the voice of the commandant gradually went out, and became as indistinct as his words; and he walked on biting his lips and knitting his brows in a terrific and fierce abstraction. He had little twitching movements, and gave his mule knocks with the scabbard of his sword, as if he wished to kill it. And what astonished me was to see the yellow skin of his face flush to a deep red. He undid his coat on his breast, and threw it violently open, baring it to the rain and the wind.
"I can well understand," said I, as though he had finished his story, "how, after so cruel an adventure, you should have taken an abhorrence to."
"Oh! as for the business, are you crazy?" said he, quickly; "it is not the business. No captain of a vessel will ever be forced to turn executioner, except when governments of assassins and thieves get on foot, who will take advantage of the habit a poor man has of always obeying, blindly obeying with a miserable mechanical compulsion in spite of his very self."
At the same time he drew out of his pocket a red handkerchief, and began to weep like a child. I stopped for a moment, as if to arrange my stirrup, and hanging back behind his wagon, walked some time after him, for I felt that he would be mortified if I perceived too plainly his streaming tears.
I had judged rightly, for in about a quarter of an hour he also came behind the poor little wagon, and asked me if I had any razors in my portmanteau; to which I simply answered, that, as I had no beard yet, they would be very unnecessary to me. But he did not care about that; it was to speak of something else. I soon was glad to see that he was returning to his story, for he suddenly said:
"You never have seen a ship, have you?"
"I never have," answered I, "excepting in the Panorama of Paris, and I would not trust much to the nautical science I derived from that."
"Then you do not know what the catheads are?"
"I have not the least idea," said I.
"They are a kind of beams projecting in front from the bows of the vessel, from which the anchor is thrown off. When a man is to be shot, he is usually placed there," he added in a low tone.
"Oh! I understand, so that he then falls into the water?"
He did not answer, but began to describe the small boats of a vessel. And then, and without any order in his ideas, he continued his tale, with that affected air of unconcern, which a long service in the army invariably gives, because you must show your inferiors your contempt of danger, your contempt of men, your contempt of life, your contempt of death, and even your contempt of yourself. And all this generally hides, under a rough envelope, very deep feelings. The roughness of a soldier is like a mask of iron over a noble face; like the stone dungeon that incloses a royal prisoner.
"These boats hold more than eight rowers," he continued. "They seized Laurette and placed her in one, before she had time either to cry or to speak. Ah! this is a thing which no honest man can ever find comfort for when it has been his doing. You may talk as you please, one never forgets such an affair. Ah, what weather this is!—what the d—— could have possessed me to tell you all this? Whenever I begin this, I can't stop. It is a story which makes me fairly drunk like the Jurançon wine. Ah, what weather it is! My cloak is soaked through!
"I was telling you, I believe, still about that little Laurette! Poor girl!—What clumsy people there are in the world! My sailors were so stupid as to take the boat straight ahead of the brig. After all, it's true one cannot foresee everything. For my own part, I had counted on the night to hide the matter, and did not think about the flash a dozen muskets would make, fired at once. And the fact is that from the boat she saw her husband fall into the water—shot. If there is a God up there, He only knows how what I am going to tell you took place; as for me, I know nothing about it, but it was seen and heard, as I see and hear you. At the moment of the fire, she raised her hand to her forehead, as if a ball had struck her there, and sat down in the boat without fainting, without screaming, and returned to the brig just when they wanted her, and just as they wanted her. I went to her, and talked to her a long time, the best I could. She seemed to be listening to me, and looked me in the face, rubbing her forehead with her hands. But she did not understand; and her face was quite pale, and her forehead red. She trembled all over, as if she was afraid of everybody. She has remained so ever since—in just the same state, poor little soul!—an idiot, or imbecile, as it were, or crazy, or whatever you please. Nobody has ever drawn a word out of her, except when she asks to have what she has in her head taken out.
"From that hour I became as melancholy as herself, and I felt something in me which said: 'Stand by her till the end of thy days, and watch over her.' I have done it. When I returned to France, I asked leave to pass with my rank into the army, having taken an aversion to the sea, for the innocent blood I had cast into it. I sought out Laurette's family. Her mother was dead, and her sisters, to whom I brought her crazy, did not want the trouble of her, and offered to place her at Charanton. I turned my back upon them, and kept her with me.
"If you want to see her, comrade, you have only to say the word. Here—hold on. Ho!—ho!—you beast!"
III. How I Continued my Journey.
And he stopped his poor mule, who seemed delighted that I had asked that question. At the same time he lifted the oilcloth cover of the little wagon, as if to arrange the straw, which nearly filled it, and I saw something very mournful. I saw two blue eyes, of enormous size, indeed, but of admirable shape, starting out from a face that was thin and lengthened, covered over with waves of loose, fair hair. In fact, I saw nothing but those two eyes, which seemed the whole of that poor woman, for all the rest was dead. Her forehead was red, and her cheeks hollow and pale, with a bluish tinge. She was bent double in the midst of the straw, so that only her two knees were seen out of it, on which she was playing dominoes all by herself. She looked at us for a moment, trembled for a long time, smiled a little at me, and went on with her game. She seemed to be trying to see how her right hand could beat her left.
"You see, she has been playing that game for a month," said the chef-de-bataillon, "to-morrow it will, perhaps, be another game, which will last a long time. It's queer, eh?"
At the same time he set about arranging the oilcloth of his shako, which the rain had somewhat disordered.
"Poor Laurette!" said I, "ah, you have lost the game for ever!"
I neared my horse to the wagon, and stretched out my hand to her; she gave me hers mechanically, and smiled with a great deal of sweetness. I observed with surprise two diamond rings on her long, thin fingers. I supposed they were still her mother's rings, and wondered how their poverty had left them there. For the world I would not have made a remark upon it to the old commandant, but as he followed my eyes, and saw them fixed on Laurette's fingers, he said, with a certain air of pride:
"They are pretty large diamonds, are they not? They might bring a good price if necessary. But I was never willing that she should part from them, poor child! If you but touch them she weeps; and she never leaves them off. Otherwise she never complains; and now and then she can sew. I have kept my word to her poor young husband, and, to tell the truth, I have never repented it, I have never left her, and have always said she was my crazy daughter. As such she has always been respected. These things are managed better in the army than they imagine in Paris. She went through all the wars of the Emperor with me, and I have always kept her out of harm's way. She has always been kept warm; with straw and a little wagon that is never impossible. She has had pretty comfortable things about her; and as I was a chef-de-bataillon, with good pay, my legion of honor pension, and the Napoleon month, the pay of which was double in those times, I was always well off, and she gave me no trouble. On the contrary, her pretty childish ways often amused the officers of the light 7th."
He then approached her, and slapped her gently on the shoulder, as he would have done to his little mule.
"Well, now, my daughter, talk a little to the lieutenant. Come—let's see—a little sign of the head!"
She busied herself anew with her dominoes.
"Oh!" said he, "she is a little cross to-day, because it rains. However, she never takes cold. Crazy people never get sick, you know; it's very convenient in that respect. At the Beresina, and through all the retreat from Moscow, she went bare-headed. Come, my dear child, play on, play on—don't let us disturb you; take your own way, then, Laurette."
She took hold of the coarse, black hand which he rested on her shoulder, and carried it timidly to her lips, like a poor slave. I felt my heart sink at that kiss, and turned my bridle quickly away.
"Shall we not resume our march, commandant?" said I, "it will be night before we reach Bcthune."
The commandant carefully scraped the mud from his boots with the end of his sword; he then mounted on the step of the wagon, drew forward over Laurette's head the hood of a little cloak she had on, took off his own black silk cravat, and put it round the neck of his adopted daughter; after which he gave a kick to his mule, and saying, "Get along, you lazy beast!" we continued our journey.
The rain was still falling gloomily; we found on the road only dead horses, abandoned, with their saddles. The gray sky and gray earth stretched out without end; a sort of dead light, a pale wet sun was sinking behind some large windmills, which did not turn, and we fell back into a long silence.
I looked at the old commandant; he walked on with long strides and untiring energy, whilst his mule could hardly keep along, and even my horse began to droop his head. The brave old fellow took off his shako from time to time, to wipe his bald forehead and the few gray hairs on his head, or his white moustache from which the rain was dripping. He did not think anything about the effect his recital might have produced on me; he had made himself out neither better nor worse than he was; he had not deigned to draw himself; he did not think of himself; and at the end of a quarter of an hour, he began on the same key a much longer story of a campaign of Marshal Massena, in which he had formed his battalion in a square against some cavalry or other. I did not listen to him, although he grew quite warm, in endeavoring to prove to me the superiority of infantry over cavalry.
Night came on; we did not get along fast; the mud became thicker and deeper. Nothing on the road, and nothing at the end of it. We stopped at the foot of a dead tree, the only tree on the road; he bestowed his first cares on his mule, as I did on my horse; he then looked into the wagon, as a mother would have done into the cradle of her child. I heard him say:
"Come, my dear, put this overcoat on your feet, and try to sleep. Come, that is right! she has not been touched by a drop of rain. Ah, the d—— she has broken my watch which I had left round her neck. Oh, my poor silver watch! Come, come, it's no matter, my child, try to sleep. The fine weather will soon come back again. It's queer, she always has a fever—that's the way with crazy people—see, here is some chocolate for you, my child."
He rested the wagon against the tree, and we sat down on the wheels, under cover from the everlasting rain, each with a little loaf,—a poor supper.
"I am sorry we have nothing but this," said he, "but it is better than horseflesh baked under ashes, with powder for salt, such as we had in Russia. The poor little soul, I must always give her the best I have; you see, I put it on one side for her; she cannot bear to suffer the vicinity of a man, since the affair of the letter. I am old, and she seems to fancy me to be her father; yet she would strangle me, if I attempted to kiss her, even upon her forehead. Their early education must always leave some impression on them, for I have never seen her once forget to veil herself like a nun. It's queer, eh?"
Whilst he was thus talking to me, we heard her sigh and say: "Take away this lead! take away this lead!" I rose in spite of myself; he made me sit down again.
"Stay, stay," said he; "it is no matter. She says that all her life, because she always fancies she feels a ball in her head. That does not hinder her doing all that she is told to do, and that with the greatest sweetness."
I listened mournfully to him, but without any reply. I calculated that, from 1797 to 1815, eighteen years had thus passed with this man. I remained a long while in silence by his side, trying to explain to myself such a character, and such a fate. I then abruptly gave him an enthusiastic shake of the hand; he did not know what to make of it.
"You are a worthy man," said I.
"What for?" he answered. "Because of this poor woman? You see perfectly well, my boy, that was a duty." And he began to talk again about Massena.
The next morning, by daylight, we arrived at Béthune, an ugly little fortified town, the ramparts of which, in narrowing their circle, seemed to have squeezed the houses together upon each other. All was in confusion; it was the moment of an alerte. The inhabitants were taking the white flags from the windows, and sewing the tricolors to their houses; the arms were beating the générale, and the trumpets sounded to horse! by order of the Duc de Berry. The long Picard wagons carrying the Hundred-Swiss and their baggage, the cannons of the Body-Guard hurrying to their ramparts, the carriages of the princes, the mustering the squadrons of the red companies, blocked up the town. The sight of the Gens-d'armes of the king, and the Mousquetaires, made me forget my old travelling companion. I rejoined my company, and lost sight of the little wagon and its poor occupant in the crowd. To my great regret, it was for ever that I lost them.
It was the first time in my life that I had read the depths of the true heart of a soldier. This adventure revealed to me an aspect of human nature, which I had not seen before, and which the nation little knows and ill rewards. I placed it from that time high in my esteem. I have often since sought around me for a man like that one, and capable of such an entire and careless abnegation of self. During the fourteen years I have lived in the army, it is only there, and above all in the poor and despised ranks of the infantry, that I have found those men of an antique stamp carrying out the feeling of duty to all its possible consequences; knowing neither remorse for obedience, nor shame for poverty; simple in their manners, and in their speech; proud of the glory of the nation, but careless of their own; shutting themselves up cheerfully in their own obscurity, to divide with the unfortunate the black bread they pay for with their blood.
I remained long ignorant of what had become of my poor chef-de-bataillon, especially as he had not told me his name, and I had not asked him. One day, however, at a coffee-house, I believe in 1825, an old captain of infantry to whom I was describing him, as we were waiting for parade, said:
"Eh, pardieu, I knew that poor devil! He was a brave fellow,—he came down by a ball at Waterloo. And he had, in fact, left a crazy girl with the baggage, whom we took to the hospital at Amiens, as we went to the army of the Loire, and who died there raving mad, at the end of three days."
"I can readily imagine it," said I, "she had lost her foster-father."