The Point Of Honor by Joseph Conrad
The retreat from Moscow submerged all private feelings in a sea of disaster and misery. Colonels without regiments, D'Hubert and Feraud carried the musket in the ranks of the sacred battalion--a battalion recruited from officers of all arms who had no longer any troops to lead.
In that battalion promoted colonels did duty as sergeants; the generals captained the companies; a marshal of France, Prince of the Empire, commanded the whole. All had provided themselves with muskets picked up on the road, and cartridges taken from the dead. In the general destruction of the bonds of discipline and duty holding together the companies, the battalions, the regiments, the brigades and divisions of an armed host, this body of men put their pride in preserving some semblance of order and formation. The only stragglers were those who fell out to give up to the frost their exhausted souls. They plodded on doggedly, stumbling over the corpses of men, the carcasses of horses, the fragments of gun-carriages, covered by the white winding-sheet of the great disaster. Their passage did not disturb the mortal silence of the plains, shining with a livid light under a sky the colour of ashes. Whirlwinds of snow ran along the fields, broke against the dark column, rose in a turmoil of flying icicles, and subsided, disclosing it creeping on without the swing and rhythm of the military pace. They struggled onward, exchanging neither words nor looks--whole ranks marched, touching elbows, day after day, and never raising their eyes, as if lost in despairing reflections. On calm days, in the dumb black forests of pines the cracking of overloaded branches was the only sound. Often from daybreak to dusk no one spoke in the whole column. It was like a macabre march of struggling corpses towards a distant grave. Only an alarm of Cossacks could restore to their lack-lustre eyes a semblance of martial resolution. The battalion deployed, facing about, or formed square under the endless fluttering of snowflakes. A cloud of horsemen with fur caps on their heads, levelled long lances and yelled "Hurrah! Hurrah!" around their menacing immobility, whence, with muffled detonations, hundreds of dark-red flames darted through the air thick with falling snow. In a very few moments the horsemen would disappear, as if carried off yelling in the gale, and the battalion, standing still, alone in the blizzard, heard only the wind searching their very hearts. Then, with a cry or two of "Vive l'Empereur!" it would resume its march, leaving behind a few lifeless bodies lying huddled up, tiny dark specks on the white ground.
Though often marching in the ranks or skirmishing in the woods side by side, the two officers ignored each other; this not so much from inimical intention as from a very real indifference. All their store of moral energy was expended in resisting the terrific enmity of Nature and the crushing sense of irretrievable disaster.
Neither of them allowed himself to be crushed. To the last they counted among the most active, the least demoralised of the battalion; their vigorous vitality invested them both with the appearance of an heroic pair in the eyes of their comrades. And they never exchanged more than a casual word or two, except one day when, skirmishing in front of the battalion against a worrying attack of cavalry, they found themselves cut off by a small party of Cossacks. A score of wild-looking, hairy horsemen rode to and fro, brandishing their lances in ominous silence. The two officers had no mind to lay down their arms, and Colonel Feraud suddenly spoke up in a hoarse, growling voice, bringing his firelock to the shoulder:
"You take the nearest brute, Colonel D'Hubert; I'll settle the next one. I am a better shot than you are."
Colonel D'Hubert only nodded over his levelled musket. Their shoulders were pressed against the trunk of a large tree; in front, deep snowdrifts protected them from a direct charge.
Two carefully aimed shots rang out in the frosty air, two Cossacks reeled in their saddles. The rest, not thinking the game good enough, closed round their wounded comrades and galloped away out of range. The two officers managed to rejoin their battalion, halted for the night. During that afternoon they had leaned upon each other more than once, and towards the last Colonel D'Hubert, whose long legs gave him an advantage in walking through soft snow, peremptorily took the musket from Colonel Feraud and carried it on his shoulder, using his own as a staff.
On the outskirts of a village, half-buried in the snow, an old wooden barn burned with a clear and immense flame. The sacred battalion of skeletons muffled in rags crowded greedily the windward side, stretching hundreds of numbed, bony hands to the blaze. Nobody had noted their approach. Before entering the circle of light playing on the multitude of sunken, glassy-eyed, starved faces, Colonel D'Hubert spoke in his turn:
"Here's your firelock, Colonel Feraud. I can walk better than you."
Colonel Feraud nodded, and pushed on towards the warmth of the fierce flames. Colonel D'Hubert was more deliberate, but not the less bent on getting a place in the front rank. Those they pushed aside tried to greet with a faint cheer the reappearance of the two indomitable companions in activity and endurance. Those manly qualities had never, perhaps, received a higher tribute than this feeble acclamation.
This is the faithful record of speeches exchanged during the retreat from Moscow by Colonels Feraud and D'Hubert. Colonel Feraud's taciturnity was the outcome of concentrated rage. Short, hairy, black-faced with layers of grime, and a thick sprouting of a wiry beard, a frost-bitten hand, wrapped in filthy rags, carried in a sling, he accused fate bitterly of unparalleled perfidy towards the sublime Man of Destiny. Colonel D'Hubert, his long moustache pendent in icicles on each side of his cracked blue lips, his eyelids inflamed with the glare of snows, the principal part of his costume consisting of a sheepskin coat looted with difficulty from the frozen corpse of a camp follower found in an abandoned cart, took a more thoughtful view of events. His regularly handsome features now reduced to mere bony fines and fleshless hollows, looked out of a woman's black velvet hood, over which was rammed forcibly a cocked hat picked up under the wheels of an empty army fourgon which must have contained at one time some general officer's luggage. The sheepskin coat being short for a man of his inches, ended very high up his elegant person, and the skin of his legs, blue with the cold, showed through the tatters of his nether garments. This, under the circumstances, provoked neither jeers nor pity. No one cared how the next man felt or looked. Colonel D'Hubert himself hardened to exposure, suffered mainly in his self-respect from the lamentable indecency of his costume. A thoughtless person may think that with a whole host of inanimate bodies bestrewing the path of retreat there could not have been much difficulty in supplying the deficiency. But the great majority of these bodies lay buried under the falls of snow, others had been already despoiled; and besides, to loot a pair of breeches from a frozen corpse is not so easy as it may appear to a mere theorist. It requires time. You must remain behind while your companions march on. And Colonel D'Hubert had his scruples as to falling out. They arose from a point of honour, and also a little from dread. Once he stepped aside he could not be sure of ever rejoining his battalion. And the enterprise demanded a physical effort from which his starved body shrank. The ghastly intimacy of a wrestling match with the frozen dead opposing the unyielding rigidity of iron to your violence was repugnant to the inborn delicacy of his feelings.
Luckily, one day grubbing in a mound of snow between the huts of a village in the hope of finding there a frozen potato or some vegetable garbage he could put between his long and shaky teeth, Colonel D'Hubert uncovered a couple of mats of the sort Russian peasants use to line the sides of their carts. These, shaken free of frozen snow, bent about his person and fastened solidly round his waist, made a bell-shaped nether garment, a sort of stiff petticoat, rendering Colonel D'Hubert a perfectly decent but a much more noticeable figure than before.
Thus accoutred he continued to retreat, never doubting of his personal escape but full of other misgivings. The early buoyancy of his belief in the future was destroyed. If the road of glory led through such unforeseen passages--he asked himself, for he was reflective, whether the guide was altogether trustworthy. And a patriotic sadness not unmingled with some personal concern, altogether unlike the unreasoning indignation against men and things nursed by Colonel Feraud, oppressed the equable spirits of Colonel D'Hubert. Recruiting his strength in a little German town for three weeks, he was surprised to discover within himself a love of repose. His returning vigour was strangely pacific in its aspirations. He meditated silently upon that bizarre change of mood. No doubt many of his brother officers of field rank had the same personal experience. But these were not the times to talk of it. In one of his letters home Colonel D'Hubert wrote: "All your plans, my dear Leonie, of marrying me to the charming girl you have discovered in your neighbourhood, seem farther off than ever. Peace is not yet. Europe wants another lesson. It will be a hard task for us, but it will be done well, because the emperor is invincible."
Thus wrote Colonel D'Hubert from Pomerania to his married sister Léonie, settled in the south of France. And so far the sentiments expressed would not have been disowned by Colonel Feraud who wrote no letters to anybody; whose father had been in life an illiterate blacksmith; who had no sister or brother, and whom no one desired ardently to pair off for a life of peace with a charming young girl. But Colonel D'Hubert's letter contained also some philosophical generalities upon the uncertainty of all personal hopes if bound up entirely with the prestigious fortune of one incomparably great, it is true, yet still remaining but a man in his greatness. This sentiment would have appeared rank heresy to Colonel Feraud. Some melancholy forebodings of a military kind expressed cautiously would have been pronounced as nothing short of high treason by Colonel Feraud. But Léonie, the sister of Colonel D'Hubert, read them with positive satisfaction, and folding the letter thoughtfully remarked to herself that "Armand was likely to prove eventually a sensible fellow." Since her marriage into a Southern family she had become a convinced believer in the return of the legitimate king. Hopeful and anxious she offered prayers night and morning, and burned candles in churches for the safety and prosperity of her brother.
She had every reason to suppose that her prayers were heard. Colonel D'Hubert passed through Lutzen, Bautzen, and Leipsic, losing no limbs and acquiring additional reputation. Adapting his conduct to the needs of that desperate time, he had never voiced his misgivings. He concealed them under a cheerful courtesy of such pleasant character that people were inclined to ask themselves with wonder whether Colonel D'Hubert was aware of any disasters. Not only his manners but even his glances remained untroubled. The steady amenity of his blue eyes disconcerted all grumblers, silenced doleful remarks, and made even despair pause.
This bearing was remarked at last by the emperor himself, for Colonel D'Hubert, attached now to the Major-General's staff, came on several occasions under the imperial eye. But it exasperated the higher strung nature of Colonel Feraud. Passing through Magdeburg on service this last allowed himself, while seated gloomily at dinner with the Commandant de Place, to say of his lifelong adversary: "This man does not love the emperor,"--and as his words were received in profound silence Colonel Feraud, troubled in his conscience at the atrocity of the aspersion, felt the need to back it up by a good argument. "I ought to know him," he said, adding some oaths. "One studies one's adversary. I have met him on the ground half a dozen times, as all the army knows. What more do you want? If that isn't opportunity enough for any fool to size up his man, may the devil take me if I can tell what is." And he looked around the table with sombre obstinacy.
Later on, in Paris, while feverishly busy reorganising his regiment, Colonel Feraud learned that Colonel D'Hubert had been made a general. He glared at his informant incredulously, then folded his arms and turned away muttering:
"Nothing surprises me on the part of that man."
And aloud he added, speaking over his shoulder: "You would greatly oblige me by telling General D'Hubert at the first opportunity that his advancement saves him for a time from a pretty hot encounter. I was only waiting for him to turn up here."
The other officer remonstrated.
"Could you think of it, Colonel Feraud! At this time when every life should be consecrated to the glory and safety of France!"
But the strain of unhappiness caused by military reverses had spoiled Colonel Feraud's character. Like many other men he was rendered wicked by misfortune.
"I cannot consider General D'Hubert's person of any account either for the glory or safety of France," he snapped viciously. "You don't pretend, perhaps, to know him better than I do--who have been with him half a dozen times on the ground--do you?"
His interlocutor, a young man, was silenced. Colonel Feraud walked up and down the room.
"This is not a time to mince matters," he said. "I can't believe that that man ever loved the emperor. He picked up his general's stars under the boots of Marshal Berthier. Very well. I'll get mine in another fashion, and then we shall settle this business which has been dragging on too long."
General D'Hubert, informed indirectly of Colonel Feraud's attitude, made a gesture as if to put aside an importunate person. His thoughts were solicited by graver cares. He had had no time to go and see his family. His sister, whose royalist hopes were rising higher every day, though proud of her brother, regretted his recent advancement in a measure, because it put on him a prominent mark of the usurper's favour which later on could have an adverse influence upon his career. He wrote to her that no one but an inveterate enemy could say he had got his promotion by favour. As to his career he assured her that he looked no farther forward into the future than the next battlefield.
Beginning the campaign of France in that state of mind, General D'Hubert was wounded on the second day of the battle under Laon. While being carried off the field he heard that Colonel Feraud, promoted that moment to general, had been sent to replace him in the command of his brigade. He cursed his luck impulsively, not being able, at the first glance, to discern all the advantages of a nasty wound. And yet it was by this heroic method that Providence was shaping his future. Travelling slowly south to his sister's country house, under the care of a trusty old servant, General D'Hubert was spared the humiliating contacts and the perplexities of conduct which assailed the men of the Napoleonic empire at the moment of its downfall. Lying in his bed with the windows of his room open wide to the sunshine of Provence, he perceived at last the undisguised aspect of the blessing conveyed by that jagged fragment of a Prussian shell which, killing his horse and ripping open his thigh, saved him from an active conflict with his conscience. After fourteen years spent sword in hand in the saddle and strong in the sense of his duty done to the end, General D'Hubert found resignation an easy virtue. His sister was delighted with his reasonableness. "I leave myself altogether in your hands, my dear Léonie," he had said.
He was still laid up when, the credit of his brother-in-law's family being exerted on his behalf, he received from the Royal Government not only the confirmation of his rank but the assurance of being retained on the active list. To this was added an unlimited convalescent leave. The unfavourable opinion entertained of him in the more irreconcilable Bonapartist circles, though it rested on nothing more solid than the unsupported pronouncement of General Feraud, was directly responsible for General D'Hubert's retention on the active list. As to General Feraud, his rank was confirmed, too. It was more than he dared to expect, but Marshal Soult, then Minister of War to the restored king, was partial to officers who had served in Spain. Only not even the marshal's protection could secure for him active employment. He remained irreconcilable, idle and sinister, seeking in obscure restaurants the company of other half-pay officers, who cherished dingy but glorious old tricolour cockades in their breast pockets, and buttoned with the forbidden eagle buttons their shabby uniform, declaring themselves too poor to afford the expense of the prescribed change.
The triumphant return of the emperor, a historical fact as marvellous and incredible as the exploits of some mythological demi-god, found General D'Hubert still quite unable to sit a horse. Neither could he walk very well. These disabilities, which his sister thought most lucky, helped her immensely to keep her brother out of all possible mischief. His frame of mind at that time, she noted with dismay, became very far from reasonable. That general officer, still menaced by the loss of a limb, was discovered one night in the stables of the château by a groom who, seeing a light, raised an alarm of thieves. His crutch was lying half buried in the straw of the litter, and he himself was hopping on one leg in a loose box around a snorting horse he was trying to saddle. Such were the effects of imperial magic upon an unenthusiastic temperament and a pondered mind. Beset, in the light of stable lanterns, by the tears, entreaties, indignation, remonstrances and reproaches of his family, he got out of the difficult situation by fainting away there and then in the arms of his nearest relatives, and was carried off to bed. Before he got out of it again the second reign of Napoleon, the Hundred Days of feverish agitation and supreme effort passed away like a terrifying dream. The tragic year 1815, begun in the trouble and unrest of consciences, was ending in vengeful proscriptions.
How General Feraud escaped the clutches of the Special Commission and the last offices of a firing squad, he never knew himself. It was partly due to the subordinate position he was assigned during the Hundred Days. He was not given active command but was kept busy at the cavalry depot in Paris, mounting and despatching hastily drilled troopers into the field. Considering this task as unworthy of his abilities, he discharged it with no offensively noticeable zeal. But for the greater part he was saved from the excesses of royalist reaction by the interference of General D'Hubert.
This last, still on convalescent leave but able now to travel, had been despatched by his sister to Paris to present himself to his legitimate sovereign. As no one in the capital could possibly know anything of the episode in the stable, he was received there with distinction. Military to the very bottom of his soul, the prospect of rising in his profession consoled him from finding himself the butt of Bonapartist malevolence which pursued him with a persistence he could not account for. All the rancour of that embittered and persecuted party pointed to him as the man who had never loved the emperor--a sort of monster essentially worse than a mere betrayer.
General D'Hubert shrugged his shoulders without anger at this ferocious prejudice. Rejected by his old friends and mistrusting profoundly the advances of royalist society, the young and handsome general (he was barely forty) adopted a manner of punctilious and cold courtesy which at the merest shadow of an intended slight passed easily into harsh haughtiness. Thus prepared, General D'Hubert went about his affairs in Paris feeling inwardly very happy with the peculiar uplifting happiness of a man very much in love. The charming girl looked out by his sister had come upon the scene and had conquered him in the thorough manner in which a young girl, by merely existing in his sight, can make a man of forty her own. They were going to be married as soon as General D'Hubert had obtained his official nomination to a promised command.
One afternoon, sitting on the terrasse of the Café Tortoni, General D'Hubert learned from the conversation of two strangers occupying a table near his own that General Feraud, included in the batch of superior officers arrested after the second return of the king, was in danger of passing before the Special Commission. Living all his spare moments, as is frequently the case with expectant lovers a day in advance of reality, as it were, and in a state of bestarred hallucination, it required nothing less than the name of his perpetual antagonist pronounced in a loud voice to call the youngest of Napoleon's generals away from the mental contemplation of his betrothed. He looked round. The strangers wore civilian clothes. Lean and weather-beaten, lolling back in their chairs, they looked at people with moody and defiant abstraction from under their hats pulled low over their eyes. It was not difficult to recognise them for two of the compulsorily retired officers of the Old Guard. As from bravado or carelessness they chose to speak in loud tones, General D'Hubert, who saw no reason why he should change his seat, heard every word. They did not seem to be the personal friends of General Feraud. His name came up with some others; and hearing it repeated General D'Hubert's tender anticipations of a domestic future adorned by a woman's grace were traversed by the harsh regret of that warlike past, of that one long, intoxicating clash of arms, unique in the magnitude of its glory and disaster--the marvellous work and the special possession of his own generation. He felt an irrational tenderness toward his old adversary, and appreciated emotionally the murderous absurdity their encounter had introduced into his life. It was like an additional pinch of spice in a hot dish. He remembered the flavour with sudden melancholy. He would never taste it again. It was all over.... "I fancy it was being left lying in the garden that had exasperated him so against me," he thought indulgently.
The two strangers at the next table had fallen silent upon the third mention of General Feraud's name. Presently, the oldest of the two, speaking in a bitter tone, affirmed that General Feraud's account was settled. And why? Simply because he was not like some big-wigs who loved only themselves. The royalists knew that they could never make anything of him. He loved the Other too well.
The Other was the man of St. Helena. The two officers nodded and touched glasses before they drank to an impossible return. Then the same who had spoken before remarked with a sardonic little laugh:
"His adversary showed more cleverness."
"What adversary?" asked the younger as if puzzled.
"Don't you know? They were two Hussars. At each promotion they fought a duel. Haven't you heard of the duel that is going on since 1801?"
His friend had heard of the duel, of course. Now he understood the allusion. General Baron D'Hubert would be able now to enjoy his fat king's favour in peace.
"Much good may it do to him," mumbled the elder. "They were both brave men. I never saw this D'Hubert--a sort of intriguing dandy, I understand. But I can well believe what I've heard Feraud say once of him--that he never loved the emperor."
They rose and went away.
General D'Hubert experienced the horror of a somnambulist who wakes up from a complacent dream of activity to find himself walking on a quagmire. A profound disgust of the ground on which he was making his way overcame him. Even the image of the charming girl was swept from his view in the flood of moral distress. Everything he had ever been or hoped to be would be lost in ignominy unless he could manage to save General Feraud from the fate which threatened so many braves. Under the impulse of this almost morbid need to attend to the safety of his adversary General D'Hubert worked so well with hands and feet (as the French saying is) that in less than twenty-four hours he found means of obtaining an extraordinary private audience from the Minister of Police.
General Baron D'Hubert was shown in suddenly without preliminaries. In the dusk of the minister's cabinet, behind the shadowy forms of writing desk, chairs, and tables, between two bunches of wax candles blazing in sconces, he beheld a figure in a splendid coat posturing before a tall mirror. The old Conventional Fouché, ex-senator of the empire, traitor to every man, every principle and motive of human conduct, Duke of Otranto, and the wily artisan of the Second Restoration, was trying the fit of a court suit, in which his young and accomplished fiancée had declared her wish to have his portrait painted on porcelain. It was a caprice, a charming fancy which the Minister of Police of the Second Restoration was anxious to gratify. For that man, often compared in wiliness of intellect to a fox but whose ethical side could be worthily symbolised by nothing less emphatic than a skunk, was as much possessed by his love as General D'Hubert himself.
Startled to be discovered thus by the blunder of a servant, he met this little vexation with the characteristic effrontery which had served his turn so well in the endless intrigues of his self-seeking career. Without altering his attitude a hair's breadth, one leg in a silk stocking advanced, his head twisted over his left shoulder, he called out calmly:
"This way, general. Pray approach. Well? I am all attention."
While General D'Hubert, as ill at ease as if one of his own little weaknesses had been exposed, presented his request as shortly as possible, the minister went on feeling the fit of his collar, settling the lappels before the glass or buckling his back in his efforts to behold the set of the gold-embroidered coat skirts behind. His still face, his attentive eyes, could not have expressed a more complete interest in those matters if he had been alone.
"Exclude from the operations of the Special Commission a certain Feraud, Gabriel Florian, General of Brigade of the promotion of 1814?" he repeated in a slightly wondering tone and then turned away from the glass. "Why exclude him precisely?"
"I am surprised that your Excellency, so competent in the valuation of men of his time, should have thought it worth while to have that name put down on the list."
"A rabid Bonapartist."
"So is every grenadier and every trooper of the army, as your Excellency well knows. And the individuality of General Feraud can have no more weight than that of any casual grenadier. He is a man of no mental grasp, of no capacity whatever. It is inconceivable that he should ever have any influence."
"He has a well-hung tongue though," interjected Fouché.
"Noisy, I admit, but not dangerous."
"I will not dispute with you. I know next to nothing of him. Hardly his name in fact."
"And yet your Excellency had the presidency of the commission charged by the king to point out those who were to be tried," said General D'Hubert with an emphasis which did not miss the minister's ear.
"Yes, general," he said, walking away into the dark part of the vast room and throwing himself into a high-backed armchair whose overshadowed depth swallowed him up, all but the gleam of gold embroideries on the coat and the pallid patch of the face. "Yes, general. Take that chair there."
General D'Hubert sat down.
"Yes, general," continued the arch-master in the arts of intrigue and betrayal, whose duplicity as if at times intolerable to his self-knowledge worked itself off in bursts of cynical openness. "I did hurry on the formation of the proscribing commission and took its presidency. And do you know why? Simply from fear that if I did not take it quickly into my hands my own name would head the list of the proscribed. Such are the times in which we live. But I am minister of the king as yet, and I ask you plainly why I should take the name of this obscure Feraud off the list? You wonder how his name got there. Is it possible that you know men so little? My dear general, at the very first sitting of the commission names poured on us like rain off the tiles of the Tuileries. Names! We had our choice of thousands. How do you know that the name of this Feraud, whose life or death don't matter to France, does not keep out some other name?..."
The voice out of the armchair stopped. General D'Hubert sat still, shadowy, and silent. Only his sabre clinked slightly. The voice in the armchair began again. "And we must try to satisfy the exigencies of the allied sovereigns. The Prince de Talleyrand told me only yesterday that Nesselrode had informed him officially that his Majesty, the Emperor Alexander, was very disappointed at the small number of examples the government of the king intends to make--especially amongst military men. I tell you this confidentially."
"Upon my word," broke out General D'Hubert, speaking through his teeth, "if your Excellency deigns to favour me with any more confidential information I don't know what I will do. It's enough to make one break one's sword over one's knee and fling the pieces..."
"What government do you imagine yourself to be serving?" interrupted the minister sharply. After a short pause the crestfallen voice of General D'Hubert answered:
"The government of France."
"That's paying your conscience off with mere words, general. The truth is that you are serving a government of returned exiles, of men who have been without country for twenty years. Of men also who have just got over a very bad and humiliating fright.... Have no illusions on that score."
The Duke of Otranto ceased. He had relieved himself, and had attained his object of stripping some self-respect off that man who had inconveniently discovered him posturing in a gold-embroidered court costume before a mirror. But they were a hot-headed lot in the army, and it occurred to him that it would be inconvenient if a well-disposed general officer, received by him on the recommendation of one of the princes, were to go and do something rashly scandalous directly after a private interview with the minister. In a changed voice he put a question to the point:
"Your relation--this Feraud?"
"No. No relation at all."
"Intimate... yes. There is between us an intimate connection of a nature which makes it a point of honour with me to try..."
The minister rang a bell without waiting for the end of the phrase. When the servant had gone, after bringing in a pair of heavy silver candelabra for the writing desk, the Duke of Otranto stood up, his breast glistening all over with gold in the strong light, and taking a piece of paper out of a drawer held it in his hand ostentatiously while he said with persuasive gentleness:
"You must not talk of breaking your sword across your knee, general. Perhaps you would never get another. The emperor shall not return this time.... Diable d'homme! There was just a moment here in Paris, soon after Waterloo, when he frightened me. It looked as though he were going to begin again. Luckily one never does begin again really. You must not think of breaking your sword, general."
General D'Hubert, his eyes fixed on the ground, made with his hand a hopeless gesture of renunciation. The Minister of Police turned his eyes away from him and began to scan deliberately the paper he had been holding up all the time.
"There are only twenty general officers to be brought before the Special Commission. Twenty. A round number. And let's see, Feraud. Ah, he's there! Gabriel Florian. Parfaitement. That's your man. Well, there will be only nineteen examples made now."
General D'Hubert stood up feeling as though he had gone through an infectious illness.
"I must beg your Excellency to keep my interference a profound secret. I attach the greatest importance to his never knowing..."
"Who is going to inform him I should like to know," said Fouché, raising his eyes curiously to General D'Hubert's white face. "Take one of these pens and run it through the name yourself. This is the only list in existence. If you are careful to take up enough ink no one will be able to tell even what was the name thus struck out. But, par example, I am not responsible for what Clarke will do with him. If he persist in being rabid he will be ordered by the Minster of War to reside in some provincial town under the supervision of the police."
A few days later General D'Hubert was saying to his sister after the first greetings had been got over:
"Ah, my dear Léonie! It seemed to me I couldn't get away from Paris quick enough."
"Effect of love," she suggested with a malicious smile.
"And horror," added General D'Hubert with profound seriousness. "I have nearly died there of... of nausea."
His face was contracted with disgust. And as his sister looked at him attentively he continued:
"I have had to see Fouché. I have had an audience. I have been in his cabinet. There remains with one, after the misfortune of having to breathe the air of the same room with that man, a sense of diminished dignity, the uneasy feeling of being not so clean after all as one hoped one was.... But you can't understand."
She nodded quickly several times. She understood very well on the contrary. She knew her brother thoroughly and liked him as he was. Moreover, the scorn and loathing of mankind were the lot of the Jacobin Fouché, who, exploiting for his own advantage every weakness, every virtue, every generous illusion of mankind, made dupes of his whole generation and died obscurely as Duke of Otranto.
"My dear Armand," she said compassionately, "what could you want from that man?"
"Nothing less than a life," answered General D'Hubert. "And I've got it. It had to be done. But I feel yet as if I could never forgive the necessity to the man I had to save."
General Feraud, totally unable as is the case with most men to comprehend what was happening to him, received the Minister of War's order to proceed at once to a small town of Central France with feelings whose natural expression consisted in a fierce rolling of the eye and savage grinding of the teeth. But he went. The bewilderment and awe at the passing away of the state of war--the only condition of society he had ever known--the prospect of a world at peace frightened him. He went away to his little town firmly persuaded that this could not last. There he was informed of his retirement from the army, and that his pension (calculated on the scale of a colonel's half-pay) was made dependent on the circumspection of his conduct and on the good reports of the police. No longer in the army! He felt suddenly a stranger to the earth like a disembodied spirit. It was impossible to exist. But at first he reacted from sheer incredulity. This could not be. It could not last. The heavens would fall presently. He called upon thunder, earthquakes, natural cataclysms. But nothing happened. The leaden weight of an irremediable idleness descended upon General Feraud, who, having no resources within himself, sank into a state of awe-inspiring hebetude. He haunted the streets of the little town gazing before him with lack-lustre eyes, disregarding the hats raised on his passage; and the people, nudging each other as he went by, said: "That's poor General Feraud. His heart is broken. Behold how he loved the emperor!"
The other living wreckage of Napoleonic tempest to be found in that quiet nook of France clustered round him infinitely respectful of that sorrow. He himself imagined his soul to be crushed by grief. He experienced quickly succeeding impulses to weep, to howl, to bite his fists till blood came, to lie for days on his bed with his head thrust under the pillow; but they arose from sheer ennui, from the anguish of an immense, indescribable, inconceivable boredom. Only his mental inability to grasp the hopeless nature of his case as a whole saved him from suicide. He never even thought of it once. He thought of nothing; but his appetite abandoned him, and the difficulty of expressing the overwhelming horror of his feelings (the most furious swearing could do no justice to it) induced gradually a habit of silence:--a sort of death to a Southern temperament.
Great therefore was the emotion amongst the anciens militaires frequenting a certain little café full of flies when one stuffy afternoon "that poor General Feraud" let out suddenly a volley of formidable curses.
He had been sitting quietly in his own privileged corner looking through the Paris gazettes with about as much interest as a condemned man on the eve of execution could be expected to show in the news of the day. A cluster of martial, bronzed faces, including one lacking an eye and another lacking the tip of a nose frost-bitten in Russia, surrounded him anxiously.
"What's the matter, general?"
General Feraud sat erect, holding the newspaper at arm's length in order to make out the small print better. He was reading very low to himself over again fragments of the intelligence which had caused what may be called his resurrection.
"We are informed... till now on sick leave... is to be called to the command of the 5th Cavalry Brigade in..."
He dropped the paper stonily, mumbled once more... "Called to the command"... and suddenly gave his forehead a mighty slap.
"I had almost forgotten him," he cried in a conscience-stricken tone.
A deep-chested veteran shouted across the café:
"Some new villainy of the government, general?"
"The villainies of these scoundrels," thundered General Feraud, "are innumerable. One more, one less!..." He lowered his tone. "But I will set good order to one of them at least."
He looked all round the faces. "There's a pomaded curled staff officer, the darling of some of the marshals who sold their father for a handful of English gold. He will find out presently that I am alive yet," he declared in a dogmatic tone.... "However, this is a private affair. An old affair of honour. Bah! Our honour does not matter. Here we are driven off with a split ear like a lot of cast troop horses--good only for a knacker's yard. Who cares for our honour now? But it would be like striking a blow for the emperor.... Messieurs, I require the assistance of two of you."
Every man moved forward. General Feraud, deeply touched by this demonstration, called with visible emotion upon the one-eyed veteran cuirassier and the officer of the Chasseurs à cheval, who had left the tip of his nose in Russia. He excused his choice to the others.
"A cavalry affair this--you know."
He was answered with a varied chorus of "Parfaitement mon Général... C'est juste... Parbleu c'est connu..." Everybody was satisfied. The three left the café together, followed by cries of "Bonne chance."
Outside they linked arms, the general in the middle. The three rusty cocked hats worn en bataille, with a sinister forward slant, barred the narrow street nearly right across. The overheated little town of gray stones and red tiles was drowsing away its provincial afternoon under a blue sky. Far off the loud blows of some coopers hooping a cask, reverberated regularly between the houses. The general dragged his left foot a little in the shade of the walls.
"That damned winter of 1813 got into my bones for good. Never mind. We must take pistols, that's all. A little lumbago. We must have pistols. He's sure game for my bag. My eyes are as keen as ever. Always were. You should have seen me picking off the dodging Cossacks with a beastly old infantry musket. I have a natural gift for firearms."
In this strain General Feraud ran on, holding up his head with owlish eyes and rapacious beak. A mere fighter all his life, a cavalry man, a sabreur, he conceived war with the utmost simplicity as in the main a massed lot of personal contests, a sort of gregarious duelling. And here he had on hand a war of his own. He revived. The shadow of peace had passed away from him like the shadow of death. It was a marvellous resurrection of the named Feraud, Gabriel Florian, engagé volontaire of 1793, general of 1814, buried without ceremony by means of a service order signed by the War Minister of the Second Restoration.