White Lies by Charles Reade
At Bayonne, a garrison town on the south frontier of France, two sentinels walked lethargically, crossing and recrossing before the governor's house. Suddenly their official drowsiness burst into energy; for a pale, grisly man, in rusty, defaced, dirty, and torn regimentals, was walking into the courtyard as if it belonged to him. The sentinels lowered their muskets, and crossed them with a clash before the gateway.
The scarecrow did not start back. He stopped and looked down with a smile at the steel barrier the soldiers had improvised for him, then drew himself a little up, carried his hand carelessly to his cap, which was nearly in two, and gave the name of an officer in the French army.
If you or I, dressed like a beggar who years ago had stolen regimentals and worn them down to civil garments, had addressed these soldiers with these very same words, the bayonets would have kissed closer, or perhaps the points been turned against our sacred and rusty person: but there is a freemasonry of the sword. The light, imperious hand that touched that battered cap, and the quiet clear tone of command told. The sentinels slowly recovered their pieces, but still looked uneasy and doubtful in their minds. The battered one saw this, and gave a sort of lofty smile; he turned up his cuffs and showed his wrists, and drew himself still higher.
The sentinels shouldered their pieces sharp, then dropped them simultaneously with a clatter and ring upon the pavement.
The rusty figure rang the governor's bell. A servant came and eyed him with horror and contempt. He gave his name, and begged to see the governor. The servant left him in the hall, and went up-stairs to tell his master. At the name the governor reflected, then frowned, then bade his servant reach him down a certain book. He inspected it. "I thought so: any one with him?"
"No, your excellency."
"Load my pistols, put them on the table, show him in, and then order a guard to the door."
The governor was a stern veteran with a powerful brow, a shaggy eyebrow, and a piercing eye. He never rose, but leaned his chin on his hand, and his elbow on a table that stood between them, and eyed his visitor very fixedly and strangely. "We did not expect to see you on this side the Pyrenees," said he gravely.
"Nor I myself, governor."
"What do you come for?"
"A suit of regimentals, and money to take me to Paris."
"And suppose, instead of that, I turn out a corporal's guard, and bid them shoot you in the courtyard?"
"It would be the drollest thing you ever did, all things considered," said the other coolly, but bitterly.
The governor looked for the book he had lately consulted, found the page, handed it to the rusty officer, and watched him keenly: the blood rushed all over his face, and his lip trembled; but his eye dwelt stern yet sorrowful on the governor.
"I have read your book, now read mine." He drew off his coat and showed his wrists and arms, blue and waled. "Can you read that, sir?"
"All the better for you: Spanish fetters, general." He showed a white scar on his shoulder. "Can you read that? This is what I cut out of it," and he handed the governor a little round stone as big and almost as regular as a musket-ball.
"Humph! that could hardly have been fired from a French musket."
"Can you read this?" and he showed him a long cicatrix on his other arm.
"Knife I think," said the governor.
"You are right, sir: Spanish knife. Can you read this?" and opening his bosom he showed a raw wound on his breast.
"Oh, the devil!" cried the governor.
The wounded man put his rusty coat on again, and stood erect, and haughty, and silent.
The general eyed him, and saw his great spirit shining through this man. The more he looked the less could the scarecrow veil the hero from his practised eye. He said there must be some mistake, or else he was in his dotage; after a moment's hesitation, he added, "Be seated, if you please, and tell me what you have been doing all these years."
"Not all the time, I suppose."
"But what? suffering what?"
"Cold, hunger, darkness, wounds, solitude, sickness, despair, prison, all that man can suffer."
"Impossible! a man would be dead at that rate before this."
"I should have died a dozen deaths but for one thing; I had promised her to live."
There was a pause. Then the old soldier said gravely, but more kindly, to the young one, "Tell me the facts, captain" (the first time he had acknowledged his visitor's military rank).
An hour had scarce elapsed since the rusty figure was stopped by the sentinels at the gate, when two glittering officers passed out under the same archway, followed by a servant carrying a furred cloak. The sentinels presented arms. The elder of these officers was the governor: the younger was the late scarecrow, in a brand-new uniform belonging to the governor's son. He shone out now in his true light; the beau ideal of a patrician soldier; one would have said he had been born with a sword by his side and drilled by nature, so straight and smart, yet easy he was in every movement. He was like a falcon, eye and all, only, as it were, down at the bottom of the hawk's eye lay a dove's eye. That compound and varying eye seemed to say, I can love, I can fight: I can fight, I can love, as few of you can do either.
The old man was trying to persuade him to stay at Bayonne, until his wound should be cured.
"No, general, I have other wounds to cure of longer standing than this one."
"Well, promise me to lay up at Paris."
"General, I shall stay an hour at Paris."
"An hour in Paris! Well, at least call at the War Office and present this letter."
That same afternoon, wrapped in the governor's furred cloak, the young officer lay at his full length in the coupe of the diligence, the whole of which the governor had peremptorily demanded for him, and rolled day and night towards Paris.
He reached it worn with fatigue and fevered by his wound, but his spirit as indomitable as ever. He went to the War Office with the governor's letter. It seemed to create some little sensation; one functionary came and said a polite word to him, then another. At last to his infinite surprise the minister himself sent down word he wished to see him; the minister put several questions to him, and seemed interested in him and touched by his relation.
"I think, captain, I shall have to send to you: where do you stay in Paris?"
"Nowhere, monsieur; I leave Paris as soon as I can find an easy- going horse."
"But General Bretaux tells me you are wounded."
"Pardon me, captain, but is this prudent? is it just to yourself and your friends?"
"Yes, I owe it to those who perhaps think me dead."
"You can write to them."
"I grudge so great, so sacred a joy to a letter. No! after all I have suffered I claim to be the one to tell her I have kept my word: I promised to live, and I live."
"Her? then I say no more, only tell me what road you take."
"The road to Brittany."
As the young officer was walking his horse by the roadside about a league and a half from Paris, he heard a clatter behind him, and up galloped an aide-de-camp and drew up alongside, bringing his horse nearly on his haunches.
He handed him a large packet sealed with the arms of France. The other tore it open; and there was his brevet as colonel. His cheek flushed and his eye glittered with joy. The aide-de-camp next gave him a parcel: "Your epaulets, colonel! We hear you are going into the wilds where epaulets don't grow. You are to join the army of the Rhine as soon as your wound is well."
"Wherever my country calls me."
"Your address, then, colonel, that we may know where to put our finger on a tried soldier when we want one."
"I am going to Beaurepaire."
"Beaurepaire? I never heard of it."
"You never heard of Beaurepaire? it is in Brittany, forty-five leagues from Paris, forty-three leagues and a half from here."
"Good! Health and honor to you, colonel."
"The same to you, lieutenant; or a soldier's death."
The new colonel read the precious document across his horse's mane, and then he was going to put one of the epaulets on his right shoulder, bare at present: but he reflected.
"No; she should make him a colonel with her own dear hand. He put them in his pocket. He would not even look at them till she had seen them. Oh, how happy he was not only to come back to her alive, but to come back to her honored."
His wound smarted, his limbs ached, but no pain past or present could lay hold of his mind. In his great joy he remembered past suffering and felt present pain--yet smiled. Only every now and then he pined for wings to shorten the weary road.
He was walking his horse quietly, drooping a little over his saddle, when another officer well mounted came after him and passed him at a hand gallop with one hasty glance at his uniform, and went tearing on like one riding for his life.
"Don't I know that face?" said Dujardin.
He cudgelled his memory, and at last he remembered it was the face of an old comrade. At least it strongly reminded him of one Jean Raynal who had saved his life in the Arno, when they were lieutenants together.
Yes, it was certainly Raynal, only bronzed by service in some hot country.
"Ah!" thought Camille; "I suppose I am more changed than he is; for he certainly did not recognize me at all. Now I wonder what that fellow has been doing all this time. What a hurry he was in! a moment more and I should have hailed him. Perhaps I may fall in with him at the next town."
He touched his horse with the spur, and cantered gently on, for trotting shook him more than he could bear. Even when he cantered he had to press his hand against his bosom, and often with the motion a bitterer pang than usual came and forced the water from his eyes; and then he smiled. His great love and his high courage made this reply to the body's anguish. And still his eyes looked straight forward as at some object in the distant horizon, while he came gently on, his hand pressed to his bosom, his head drooping now and then, smiling patiently, upon the road to Beaurepaire.
Oh! if anybody had told him that in five days his Josephine was to be married; and that the bronzed comrade, who had just galloped past him, was to marry her!
At Beaurepaire they were making and altering wedding-dresses. Rose was excited, and even Josephine took a calm interest. Dress never goes for nothing with her sex. The chairs and tables were covered, and the floor was littered. The baroness was presiding over the rites of vanity, and telling them what she wore at her wedding, under Louis XV., with strict accuracy, and what we men should consider a wonderful effort of memory, when the Commandant Raynal came in like a cannon-ball, without any warning, and stood among them in a stiff, military attitude. Exclamations from all the party, and then a kind greeting, especially from the baroness.
"We have been so dull without you, Jean."
"And I have missed you once or twice, mother-in-law, I can tell you. Well, I have got bad news; but you must consider we live in a busy time. To-morrow I start for Egypt."
Loud ejaculations from the baroness and Rose. Josephine put down her work quietly.
The baroness sighed deeply, and the tears came into her eyes. "Oh, you must not be down-hearted, old lady," shouted Raynal. "Why, I am as likely to come back from Egypt as not. It is an even chance, to say the least."
This piece of consolation completed the baroness's unhappiness. She really had conceived a great affection for Raynal, and her heart had been set on the wedding.
"Take away all that finery, girls," said she bitterly; "we shall not want it for years. I shall not be alive when he comes home from Egypt. I never had a son--only daughters--the best any woman ever had; but a mother is not complete without a son, and I shall never live to have one now."
"I hate General Bonaparte," said Rose viciously.
"Hate my general?" groaned Raynal, looking down with a sort of superstitious awe and wonder at the lovely vixen. "Hate the best soldier the world ever saw?"
"What do I care for his soldiership? He has put off our wedding. For how many years did you say?"
"No; he has put it on."
In answer to the astonished looks this excited, he explained that the wedding was to have been in a week, but now it must be to-morrow at ten o'clock.
The three ladies set up their throats together. "Tomorrow?"
"To-morrow. Why, what do you suppose I left Paris for yesterday? left my duties even."
"What, monsieur?" asked Josephine, timidly, "did you ride all that way, and leave your duties merely to marry me?" and she looked a little pleased.
"You are worth a great deal more trouble than that," said Raynal simply. "Besides, I had passed my word, and I always keep my word."
"So do I," said Josephine, a little proudly. "I will not go from it now, if you insist; but I confess to you, that such a proposal staggers me; so sudden--no preliminaries--no time to reflect; in short, there are so many difficulties that I must request you to reconsider the matter."
"Difficulties," shouted Raynal with merry disdain; "there are none, unless you sit down and make them; we do more difficult things than this every day of our lives: we passed the bridge of Arcola in thirteen minutes; and we had not the consent of the enemy, as we have yours--have we not?"
Her only reply was a look at her mother, to which the baroness replied by a nod; then turning to Raynal, "This empressement is very flattering; but I see no possibility: there is an etiquette we cannot altogether defy: there are preliminaries before a daughter of Beaurepaire can become a wife."
"There used to be all that, madam," laughed Raynal, putting her down good-humoredly; "but it was in the days when armies came out and touched their caps to one another, and went back into winter quarters. Then the struggle was who could go slowest; now the fight is who can go fastest. Time and Bonaparte wait for nobody; and ladies and other strong places are taken by storm, not undermined a foot a month as under Noah Quartorze: let me cut this short, as time is short."
He then drew a little plan of a wedding campaign. "The carriages will be here at 9 A.M.," said he; "they will whisk us down to the mayor's house by a quarter to ten: Picard, the notary, meets us there with the marriage contract, to save time; the contract signed, the mayor will do the marriage at quick step out of respect for me-- half an hour--quarter past ten; breakfast in the same house an hour and a quarter:--we mustn't hurry a wedding breakfast--then ten minutes or so for the old fogies to waste in making speeches about our virtues--my watch will come out--my charger will come round--I rise from the table--embrace my dear old mother--kiss my wife's hand--into the saddle--canter to Paris--roll to Toulon--sail to Egypt. But I shall leave a wife and a mother behind me: they will both send me a kind word now and then; and I will write letters to you all from Egypt, and when I come home, my wife and I will make acquaintance, and we will all be happy together: and if I am killed out there, don't you go and fret your poor little hearts about it; it is a soldier's lot sooner or later. Besides, you will find I have taken care of you; nobody shall come and turn you out of your quarters, even though Jean Raynal should be dead; I have got to meet Picard at Riviere's on that very business--I am off."
He was gone as brusquely as he came.
"Mother! sister!" cried Josephine, "help me to love this man."
"You need no help," cried the baroness, with enthusiasm, "not love him, we should all be monsters."
Raynal came to supper looking bright and cheerful. "No more work to-day. I have nothing to do but talk; fancy that."
This evening Josephine de Beaurepaire, who had been silent and thoughtful, took a quiet opportunity, and purred in his ear, "Monsieur!"
"Mademoiselle!" rang the trombone.
"Am I not to go to Egypt?"
Josephine drew back at this brusque reply like a sensitive plant. But she returned to the attack.
"But is it not a wife's duty to be by her husband's side to look after his comfort--to console him when others vex him--to soothe him when he is harassed?"
"Her first duty is to obey him."
"Well, when I am your husband, I shall bid you stay with your mother and sister while I go to Egypt."
"I shall obey you."
He told her bluntly he thought none the worse of her for making the offer; but should not accept it.
Camille Dujardin slept that night at a roadside inn about twelve miles from Beaurepaire, and not more than six from the town where the wedding was to take place next day.
It was a close race.
And the racers all unconscious of each other, yet spurred impartially by events that were now hurrying to a climax.