The Point Of Honor by Joseph Conrad
No man succeeds in everything he undertakes. In that sense we are all failures. The great point is not to fail in ordering and sustaining the effort of our life. In this matter vanity is what leads us astray. It is our vanity which hurries us into situations from which we must come out damaged. Whereas pride is our safeguard by the reserve it imposes on the choice of our endeavour, as much as by the virtue of its sustaining power.
General D'Hubert was proud and reserved. He had not been damaged by casual love affairs successful or otherwise. In his war-scarred body his heart at forty remained unscratched. Entering with reserve into his sister's matrimonial plans, he felt himself falling irremediably in love as one falls off a roof. He was too proud to be frightened. Indeed, the sensation was too delightful to be alarming.
The inexperience of a man of forty is a much more serious thing than the inexperience of a youth of twenty, for it is not helped out by the rashness of hot blood. The girl was mysterious, as all young girls are, by the mere effect of their guarded ingenuity; and to him the mysteriousness of that young girl appeared exceptional and fascinating. But there was nothing mysterious about the arrangements of the match which Madame Léonie had arranged. There was nothing peculiar, either. It was a very appropriate match, commending itself extremely to the young lady's mother (her father was dead) and tolerable to the young lady's uncle--an old émigré, lately returned from Germany, and pervading cane in hand like a lean ghost of the ancien régime in a long-skirted brown coat and powdered hair, the garden walks of the young lady's ancestral home.
General D'Hubert was not the man to be satisfied merely with the girl and the fortune--when it came to the point. His pride--and pride aims always at true success--would be satisfied with nothing short of love. But as pride excludes vanity, he could not imagine any reason why this mysterious creature, with deep and candid eyes of a violet colour, should have any feeling for him warmer than indifference. The young lady (her name was Adèle) baffled every attempt at a clear understanding on that point. It is true that the attempts were clumsy and timidly made, because by then General D'Hubert had become acutely aware of the number of his years, of his wounds, of his many moral imperfections, of his secret unworthiness--and had incidentally learned by experience the meaning of the word funk. As far as he could make it out she seemed to imply that with a perfect confidence in her mother's affection and sagacity she had no pronounced antipathy for the person of General D'Hubert; and that this was quite sufficient for a well-brought-up dutiful young lady to begin married life upon. This view hurt and tormented the pride of General D'Hubert. And yet, he asked himself with a sort of sweet despair, What more could he expect? She had a quiet and luminous forehead; her violet eyes laughed while the lines of her lips and chin remained composed in an admirable gravity. All this was set off by such a glorious mass of fair hair, by a complexion so marvellous, by such a grace of expression, that General D'Hubert really never found the opportunity to examine, with sufficient detachment, the lofty exigencies of his pride. In fact, he became shy of that line of inquiry, since it had led once or twice to a crisis of solitary passion in which it was borne upon him that he loved her enough to kill her rather than lose her. From such passages, not unknown to men of forty, he would come out broken, exhausted, remorseful, a little dismayed. He derived, however, considerable comfort from the quietist practice of sitting up now and then half the night by an open window, and meditating upon the wonder of her existence, like a believer lost in the mystic contemplation of his faith.
It must not be supposed that all these variations of his inward state were made manifest to the world. General D'Hubert found no difficulty in appearing wreathed in smiles: because, in fact, he was very happy. He followed the established rules of his condition, sending over flowers (from his sister's garden and hothouses) early every morning, and a little later following himself to have lunch with his intended, her mother, and her émigré uncle. The middle of the day was spent in strolling or sitting in the shade. A watchful deferential gallantry trembling on the verge of tenderness, was the note of their intercourse on his side--with a playful turn of the phrase concealing the profound trouble of his whole being caused by her inaccessible nearness. Late in the afternoon General D'Hubert walked home between the fields of vines, sometimes intensely miserable, sometimes supremely happy, sometimes pensively sad, but always feeling a special intensity of existence: that elation common to artists, poets, and lovers, to men haunted by a great passion, by a noble thought or a new vision of plastic beauty.
The outward world at that time did not exist with any special distinctness for General D'Hubert. One evening, however, crossing a ridge from which he could see both houses, General D'Hubert became aware of two figures far down the road. The day had been divine. The festal decoration of the inflamed sky cast a gentle glow on the sober tints of the southern land. The gray rocks, the brown fields, the purple undulating distances harmonised in luminous accord, exhaled already the scents of the evening. The two figures down the road presented themselves like two rigid and wooden silhouettes all black on the ribbon of white dust. General D'Hubert made out the long, straight-cut military capotes, buttoned closely right up to the black stocks, the cocked hats, the lean carven brown countenances--old soldiers--vieilles moustaches! The taller of the two had a black patch over one eye; the other's hard, dry countenance presented some bizarre disquieting peculiarity which, on nearer approach, proved to be the absence of the tip of the nose. Lifting their hands with one movement to salute the slightly lame civilian walking with a thick stick, they inquired for the house where the General Baron D'Hubert lived and what was the best way to get speech with him quietly.
"If you think this quiet enough," said General D'Hubert, looking round at the ripening vine-fields framed in purple lines and dominated by the nest of gray and drab walls of a village clustering around the top of a steep, conical hill, so that the blunt church tower seemed but the shape of a crowning rock--"if you think this quiet enough you can speak to him at once. And I beg you, comrades, to speak openly with perfect confidence."
They stepped back at this and raised again their hands to their hats with marked ceremoniousness. Then the one with the chipped nose, speaking for both, remarked that the matter was confidential enough and to be arranged discreetly. Their general quarters were in that village over there where the infernal clodhoppers--damn their false royalist hearts--looked remarkably cross-eyed at three unassuming military men. For the present he should only ask for the name of General D'Hubert's friends.
"What friends?" said the astonished General D'Hubert, completely off the track. "I am staying with my brother-in-law over there."
"Well, he will do for one," suggested the chipped veteran.
"We're the friends of General Feraud," interjected the other, who had kept silent till then, only glowering with his one eye at the man who had never loved the emperor. That was something to look at. For even the gold-laced Judases who had sold him to the English, the marshals and princes, had loved him at some time or other. But this man had never loved the emperor. General Feraud had said so distinctly.
General D'Hubert felt a sort of inward blow in his chest. For an infinitesimal fraction of a second it was as if the spinning of the earth had become perceptible with an awful, slight rustle in the eternal stillness of space. But that was the noise of the blood in his ears and passed off at once. Involuntarily he murmured:
"Feraud! I had forgotten his existence."
"He's existing at present, very uncomfortably it is true, in the infamous inn of that nest of savages up there," said the one-eyed cuirassier drily. "We arrived in your parts an hour ago on post horses. He's awaiting our return with impatience. There is hurry, you know. The general has broken the ministerial order of sojourn to obtain from you the satisfaction he's entitled to by the laws of honour, and naturally he's anxious to have it all over before the gendarmerie gets the scent."
The other elucidated the idea a little further.
"Get back on the quiet--you understand? Phitt! No one the wiser. We have broken out, too. Your friend the king would be glad to cut off our scurvy pittances at the first chance. It's a risk. But honour before everything."
General D'Hubert had recovered his power of speech.
"So you come like this along the road to invite me to a throat-cutting match with that--that..." A laughing sort of rage took possession of him.
"Ha! ha! ha! ha!"
His fists on his hips, he roared without restraint while they stood before him lank and straight, as unexpected as though they had been shot up with a snap through a trapdoor in the ground. Only four-and-twenty months ago the masters of Europe, they had already the air of antique ghosts, they seemed less substantial in their faded coats than their own narrow shadows falling so black across the white road--the military and grotesque shadows of twenty years of war and conquests. They had the outlandish appearance of two imperturbable bronzes of the religion of the sword. And General D'Hubert, also one of the ex-masters of Europe, laughed at these serious phantoms standing in his way.
Said one, indicating the laughing general with a jerk of the head:
"A merry companion that."
"There are some of us that haven't smiled from the day the Other went away," said his comrade.
A violent impulse to set upon and beat these unsubstantial wraiths to the ground frightened General D'Hubert. He ceased laughing suddenly. His urgent desire now was to get rid of them, to get them away from his sight quickly before he lost control of himself. He wondered at this fury he felt rising in his breast. But he had no time to look into that peculiarity just then.
"I understand your wish to be done with me as quickly as possible. Then why waste time in empty ceremonies. Do you see that wood there at the foot of that slope? Yes, the wood of pines. Let us meet there to-morrow at sunrise. I will bring with me my sword or my pistols or both if you like."
The seconds of General Feraud looked at each other.
"Pistols, general," said the cuirassier.
"So be it. Au revoir--to-morrow morning. Till then let me advise you to keep close if you don't want the gendarmerie making inquiries about you before dark. Strangers are rare in this part of the country."
They saluted in silence. General D'Hubert, turning his back on their retreating figures, stood still in the middle of the road for a long time, biting his lower lip and looking on the ground. Then he began to walk straight before him, thus retracing his steps till he found himself before the park gate of his intended's home. Motionless he stared through the bars at the front of the house gleaming clear beyond the thickets and trees. Footsteps were heard on the gravel, and presently a tall stooping shape emerged from the lateral alley following the inner side of the park wall.
Le Chevalier de Valmassigue, uncle of the adorable Adèle, ex-brigadier in the army of the princes, bookbinder in Altona, afterwards shoemaker (with a great reputation for elegance in the fit of ladies' shoes) in another small German town, wore silk stockings on his lean shanks, low shoes with silver buckles, a brocaded waistcoat. A long-skirted coat à la Française covered loosely his bowed back. A small three-cornered hat rested on a lot of powdered hair tied behind in a queue.
"Monsieur le Chevalier," called General D'Hubert softly.
"What? You again here, mon ami? Have you forgotten something?"
"By heavens! That's just it. I have forgotten something. I am come to tell you of it. No--outside. Behind this wall. It's too ghastly a thing to be let in at all where she lives."
The Chevalier came out at once with that benevolent resignation some old people display towards the fugue of youth. Older by a quarter of a century than General D'Hubert, he looked upon him in the secret of his heart as a rather troublesome youngster in love. He had heard his enigmatical words very well, but attached no undue importance to what a mere man of forty so hard hit was likely to do or say. The turn of mind of the generation of Frenchmen grown up during the years of his exile was almost unintelligible to him. Their sentiments appeared to him unduly violent, lacking fineness and measure, their language needlessly exaggerated. He joined the general on the road, and they made a few steps in silence, the general trying to master his agitation and get proper control of his voice.
"Chevalier, it is perfectly true. I forgot something. I forgot till half an hour ago that I had an urgent affair of honour on my hands. It's incredible but so it is!"
All was still for a moment. Then in the profound evening silence of the countryside the thin, aged voice of the Chevalier was heard trembling slightly.
"Monsieur! That's an indignity."
It was his first thought. The girl born during his exile, the posthumous daughter of his poor brother, murdered by a band of Jacobins, had grown since his return very dear to his old heart, which had been starving on mere memories of affection for so many years.
"It is an inconceivable thing--I say. A man settles such affairs before he thinks of asking for a young girl's hand. Why! If you had forgotten for ten days longer you would have been married before your memory returned to you. In my time men did not forget such things--nor yet what's due to the feelings of an innocent young woman. If I did not respect them myself I would qualify your conduct in a way which you would not like."
General D'Hubert relieved himself frankly by a groan.
"Don't let that consideration prevent you. You run no risk of offending her mortally."
But the old man paid no attention to this lover's nonsense. It's doubtful whether he even heard.
"What is it?" he asked. "What's the nature of..."
"Call it a youthful folly, Monsieur le Chevalier. An inconceivable, incredible result of..."
He stopped short. "He will never believe the story," he thought. "He will only think I am taking him for a fool and get offended." General D'Hubert spoke up again. "Yes, originating in youthful folly it has become..."
The Chevalier interrupted. "Well then it must be arranged."
"Yes. No matter what it may cost your amour propre. You should have remembered you were engaged. You forgot that, too, I suppose. And then you go and forget your quarrel. It's the most revolting exhibition of levity I ever heard of."
"Good heavens, Chevalier! You don't imagine I have been picking up that quarrel last time I was in Paris or anything of the sort. Do you?"
"Eh? What matters the precise date of your insane conduct!" exclaimed the Chevalier testily. "The principal thing is to arrange it..."
Noticing General D'Hubert getting restive and trying to place a word, the old émigré raised his arm and added with dignity:
"I've been a soldier, too. I would never dare to suggest a doubtful step to the man whose name my niece is to bear. I tell you that entre gallants hommes an affair can be always arranged."
"But, saperlotte, Monsieur le Chevalier, it's fifteen or sixteen years ago. I was a lieutenant of Hussars then."
The old Chevalier seemed confounded by the vehemently despairing tone of this information.
"You were a lieutenant of Hussars sixteen years ago?" he mumbled in a dazed manner.
"Why, yes! You did not suppose I was made a general in my cradle like a royal prince."
In the deepening purple twilight of the fields, spread with vine leaves, backed by a low band of sombre crimson in the west, the voice of the old ex-officer in the army of the princes sounded collected, punctiliously civil.
"Do I dream? Is this a pleasantry? Or do you mean me to understand that you have been hatching an affair of honour for sixteen years?"
"It has clung to me for that length of time. That is my precise meaning. The quarrel itself is not to be explained easily. We have been on the ground several times during that time of course."
"What manners! What horrible perversion of manliness! Nothing can account for such inhumanity but the sanguinary madness of the Revolution which has tainted a whole generation," mused the returned émigré in a low tone. "Who is your adversary?" he asked a little louder.
"What? My adversary! His name is Feraud." Shadowy in his tricorne and old-fashioned clothes like a bowed thin ghost of the ancien régime the Chevalier voiced a ghostly memory.
"I can remember the feud about little Sophie Derval between Monsieur de Brissac, captain in the Bodyguards and d'Anjorrant. Not the pockmarked one. The other. The Beau d'Anjorrant as they called him. They met three times in eighteen months in a most gallant manner. It was the fault of that little Sophie, too, who would keep on playing..."
"This is nothing of the kind," interrupted General D'Hubert. He laughed a little sardonically. "Not at all so simple," he added. "Nor yet half so reasonable," he finished inaudibly between his teeth and ground them with rage.
After this sound nothing troubled the silence for a long time till the Chevalier asked without animation:
"What is he--this Feraud?"
"Lieutenant of Hussars, too--I mean he's a general. A Gascon. Son of a blacksmith, I believe."
"There! I thought so. That Bonaparte had a special predilection for the canaille. I don't mean this for you, D'Hubert. You are one of us, though you have served this usurper who..."
"Let's leave him out of this," broke in General D'Hubert.
The Chevalier shrugged his peaked shoulders.
"A Feraud of sorts. Offspring of a blacksmith and some village troll.... See what comes of mixing yourself up with that sort of people."
"You have made shoes yourself, Chevalier."
"Yes. But I am not the son of a shoemaker. Neither are you, Monsieur D'Hubert. You and I have something that your Bonaparte's, princes, dukes, and marshals have not because there's no power on earth that could give it to them," retorted the émigré, with the rising animation of a man who has got hold of a hopeful argument. "Those people don't exist--all these Ferauds. Feraud! What is Feraud? A va-nu-pieds disguised into a general by a Corsican adventurer masquerading as an emperor. There is no earthly reason for a D'Hubert to s'encanailler by a duel with a person of that sort. You can make your excuses to him perfectly well. And if the manant takes it into his head to decline them you may simply refuse to meet him." "You say I may do that?" "Yes. With the clearest conscience." "Monsieur le Chevalier! To what do you think you have returned from your emigration?"
This was said in such a startling tone that the old exile raised sharply his bowed head, glimmering silvery white under the points of the little tricorne. For a long time he made no sound.
"God knows!" he said at last, pointing with a slow and grave gesture at a tall roadside cross mounted on a block of stone and stretching its arms of forged stone all black against the darkening red band in the sky. "God knows! If it were not for this emblem, which I remember seeing in this spot as a child, I would wonder to what we, who have remained faithful to our God and our king, have returned. The very voices of the people have changed."
"Yes, it is a changed France," said General D'Hubert. He had regained his calm. His tone was slightly ironic. "Therefore, I cannot take your advice. Besides, how is one to refuse to be bitten by a dog that means to bite? It's impracticable. Take my word for it. He isn't a man to be stopped by apologies or refusals. But there are other ways. I could, for instance, send a mounted messenger with a word to the brigadier of the gendarmerie in Senlac. These fellows are liable to arrest on my simple order. It would make some talk in the army, both the organised and the disbanded. Especially the disbanded. All canaille. All my comrades once--the companions in arms of Armand D'Hubert. But what need a D'Hubert care what people who don't exist may think? Or better still, I might get my brother-in-law to send for the mayor of the village and give him a hint. No more would be needed to get the three 'brigands' set upon with flails and pitchforks and hunted into some nice deep wet ditch. And nobody the wiser! It has been done only ten miles from here to three poor devils of the disbanded Red Lancers of the Guard going to their homes. What says your conscience, Chevalier? Can a D'Hubert do that thing to three men who do not exist?"
A few stars had come out on the blue obscurity, clear as crystal, of the sky. The dry, thin voice of the Chevalier spoke harshly.
"Why are you telling me all this?"
The general seized a withered, frail old hand with a strong grip.
"Because I owe you my fullest confidence. Who could tell Adèle but you? You understand why I dare not trust my brother-in-law nor yet my own sister. Chevalier! I have been so near doing these things that I tremble yet. You don't know how terrible this duel appears to me. And there's no escape from it."
He murmured after a pause, "It's a fatality," dropped the Chevalier's passive hand, and said in his ordinary conversational voice:
"I shall have to go without seconds. If it is my lot to remain on the ground, you at least will know all that can be made known of this affair."
The shadowy ghost of the ancien régime seemed to have become more bowed during the conversation.
"How am I to keep an indifferent face this evening before those two women?" he groaned. "General! I find it very difficult to forgive you."
General D'Hubert made no answer.
"Is your cause good at least?"
"I am innocent."
This time he seized the Chevalier's ghostly arm above the elbow, gave it a mighty squeeze.
"I must kill him," he hissed, and opening his hand strode away down the road.
The delicate attentions of his adoring sister had secured for the general perfect liberty of movement in the house where he was a guest. He had even his own entrance through a small door in one corner of the orangery. Thus he was not exposed that evening to the necessity of dissembling his agitation before the calm ignorance of the other inmates. He was glad of it. It seemed to him that if he had to open his lips, he would break out into horrible imprecation, start breaking furniture, smashing china and glasses. From the moment he opened the private door, and while ascending the twenty-eight steps of winding staircase, giving access to the corridor on which his room opened, he went through a horrible and humiliating scene in which an infuriated madman, with bloodshot eyes and a foaming mouth, played inconceivable havoc with everything inanimate that may be found in a well-appointed dining room. When he opened the door of his apartment the fit was over, and his bodily fatigue was so great that he had to catch at the backs of the chairs as he crossed the room to reach a low and broad divan on which he let himself fall heavily. His moral prostration was still greater. That brutality of feeling, which he had known only when charging sabre in hand, amazed this man of forty, who did not recognise in it the instinctive fury of his menaced passion. It was the revolt of jeopardised desire. In his mental and bodily exhaustion it got cleared, fined down, purified into a sentiment of melancholy despair at having, perhaps, to die before he had taught this beautiful girl to love him.
On that night General D'Hubert, either stretched on his back with his hands over his eyes or lying on his breast, with his face buried in a cushion, made the full pilgrimage of emotions. Nauseating disgust at the absurdity of the situation, dread of the fate that could play such a vile trick on a man, awe at the remote consequences of an apparently insignificant and ridiculous event in his past, doubt of his own fitness to conduct his existence and mistrust of his best sentiments--for what the devil did he want to go to Fouché for?--he knew them all in turn. "I am an idiot, neither more nor less," he thought. "A sensitive idiot. Because I overheard two men talk in a café... I am an idiot afraid of lies--whereas in life it is only truth that matters."
Several times he got up, and walking about in his socks, so as not to be heard by anybody downstairs, drank all the water he could find in the dark. And he tasted the torments of jealousy, too. She would marry somebody else. His very soul writhed. The tenacity of that Feraud, the awful persistence of that imbecile brute came to him with the tremendous force of a relentless fatality. General D'Hubert trembled as he put down the empty water ewer. "He will have me," he thought. General D'Hubert was tasting every emotion that life has to give. He had in his dry mouth the faint, sickly flavour of fear, not the honourable fear of a young girl's candid and amused glance, but the fear of death and the honourable man's fear of cowardice.
But if true courage consists in going out to meet an odious danger from which our body, soul and heart recoil together General D'Hubert had the opportunity to practise it for the first time in his life. He had charged exultingly at batteries and infantry squares and ridden with messages through a hail of bullets without thinking anything about it. His business now was to sneak out unheard, at break of day, to an obscure and revolting death. General D'Hubert never hesitated. He carried two pistols in a leather bag which he slung over his shoulder. Before he had crossed the garden his mouth was dry again. He picked two oranges. It was only after shutting the gate after him that he felt a slight faintness.
He stepped out disregarding it, and after going a few yards regained the command of his legs. He sucked an orange as he walked. It was a colourless and pellucid dawn. The wood of pines detached its columns of brown trunks and its dark-green canopy very clearly against the rocks of the gray hillside behind. He kept his eyes fixed on it steadily. That temperamental, good-humoured coolness in the face of danger, which made him an officer liked by his men and appreciated by his superiors, was gradually asserting itself. It was like going into battle. Arriving at the edge of the wood he sat down on a boulder, holding the other orange in his hand, and thought that he had come ridiculously early on the ground. Before very long, however, he heard the swishing of bushes, footsteps on the hard ground, and the sounds of a disjointed loud conversation. A voice somewhere behind him said boastfully, "He's game for my bag."
He thought to himself, "Here they are. What's this about game? Are they talking of me?" And becoming aware of the orange in his hand he thought further, "These are very good oranges. Leonie's own tree. I may just as well eat this orange instead of flinging it away."
Emerging from a tangle of rocks and bushes, General Feraud and his seconds discovered General D'Hubert engaged in peeling the orange. They stood still waiting till he looked up. Then the seconds raised their hats, and General Feraud, putting his hands behind his back, walked aside a little way.
"I am compelled to ask one of you, messieurs, to act for me. I have brought no friends. Will you?"
The one-eyed cuirassier said judicially:
"That cannot be refused."
The other veteran remarked:
"It's awkward all the same."
"Owing to the state of the people's minds in this part of the country there was no one I could trust with the object of your presence here," explained General D'Hubert urbanely. They saluted, looked round, and remarked both together:
"Why bother about ground, measurements, and so on. Let us simplify matters. Load the two pairs of pistols. I will take those of General Feraud and let him take mine. Or, better still, let us take a mixed pair. One of each pair. Then we will go into the wood while you remain outside. We did not come here for ceremonies, but for war. War to the death. Any ground is good enough for that. If I fall you must leave me where I lie and clear out. It wouldn't be healthy for you to be found hanging about here after that."
It appeared after a short parley that General Feraud was willing to accept these conditions. While the seconds were loading the pistols he could be heard whistling, and was seen to rub his hands with an air of perfect contentment. He flung off his coat briskly, and General D'Hubert took off his own and folded it carefully on a stone.
"Suppose you take your principal to the other side of the wood and let him enter exactly in ten minutes from now," suggested General D'Hubert calmly, but feeling as if he were giving directions for his own execution. This, however, was his last moment of weakness.
"Wait! Let us compare watches first."
He pulled out his own. The officer with the chipped nose went over to borrow the watch of General Feraud. They bent their heads over them for a time.
"That's it. At four minutes to five by yours. Seven to, by mine."
It was the cuirassier who remained by the side of General D'Hubert, keeping his one eye fixed immovably on the white face of the watch he held in the palm of his hand. He opened his mouth wide, waiting for the beat of the last second, long before he snapped out the word:
General D'Hubert moved on, passing from the glaring sunshine of the Provençal morning into the cool and aromatic shade of the pines. The ground was clear between the reddish trunks, whose multitude, leaning at slightly different angles, confused his eye at first. It was like going into battle. The commanding quality of confidence in himself woke up in his breast. He was all to his affair. The problem was how to kill his adversary. Nothing short of that would free him from this imbecile nightmare. "It's no use wounding that brute," he thought. He was known as a resourceful officer. His comrades, years ago, used to call him "the strategist." And it was a fact that he could think in the presence of the enemy, whereas Feraud had been always a mere fighter. But a dead shot, unluckily.
"I must draw his fire at the greatest possible range," said General D'Hubert to himself.
At that moment he saw something white moving far off between the trees. The shirt of his adversary. He stepped out at once between the trunks exposing himself freely, then quick as lightning leaped back. It had been a risky move, but it succeeded in its object. Almost simultaneously with the pop of a shot a small piece of bark chipped off by the bullet stung his ear painfully.
And now General Feraud, with one shot expended, was getting cautious. Peeping round his sheltering tree, General D'Hubert could not see him at all. This ignorance of his adversary's whereabouts carried with it a sense of insecurity. General D'Hubert felt himself exposed on his flanks and rear. Again something white fluttered in his sight. Ha! The enemy was still on his front then. He had feared a turning movement. But, apparently, General Feraud was not thinking of it. General D'Hubert saw him pass without special haste from one tree to another in the straight line of approach. With great firmness of mind General D'Hubert stayed his hand. Too far yet. He knew he was no marksman. His must be a waiting game--to kill.
He sank down to the ground wishing to take advantage of the greater thickness of the trunk. Extended at full length, head on to his enemy, he kept his person completely protected. Exposing himself would not do now because the other was too near by this time. A conviction that Feraud would presently do something rash was like balm to General D'Hubert's soul. But to keep his chin raised off the ground was irksome, and not much use either. He peeped round, exposing a fraction of his head, with dread but really with little risk. His enemy, as a matter of fact, did not expect to see anything of him so low down as that. General D'Hubert caught a fleeting view of General Feraud shifting trees again with deliberate caution. "He despises my shooting," he thought, with that insight into the mind of his antagonist which is of such great help in winning battles. It confirmed him in his tactics of immobility. "Ah! if I only could watch my rear as well as my front!" he thought, longing for the impossible.
It required some fortitude to lay his pistols down. But on a sudden impulse General D'Hubert did this very gently--one on each side. He had been always looked upon as a bit of a dandy, because he used to shave and put on a clean shirt on the days of battle. As a matter of fact he had been always very careful of his personal appearance. In a man of nearly forty, in love with a young and charming girl, this praiseworthy self-respect may run to such little weaknesses as, for instance, being provided with an elegant leather folding case containing a small ivory comb and fitted with a piece of looking-glass on the outside. General D'Hubert, his hands being free, felt in his breeches pockets for that implement of innocent vanity, excusable in the possessor of long silky moustaches. He drew it out, and then, with the utmost coolness and promptitude, turned himself over on his back. In this new attitude, his head raised a little, holding the looking-glass in one hand just clear of his tree, he squinted into it with one eye while the other kept a direct watch on the rear of his position. Thus was proved Napoleon's saying, that for a French soldier the word impossible does not exist. He had the right tree nearly filling the field of his little mirror.
"If he moves from there," he said to himself exultingly, "I am bound to see his legs. And in any case he can't come upon me unawares."
And sure enough he saw the boots of General Feraud flash in and out, eclipsing for an instant everything else reflected in the little mirror. He shifted its position accordingly. But having to form his judgment of the change from that indirect view, he did not realise that his own feet and a portion of his legs were now in plain and startling view of General Feraud.
General Feraud had been getting gradually impressed by the amazing closeness with which his enemy had been keeping cover. He had spotted the right tree with bloodthirsty precision. He was absolutely certain of it. And yet he had not been able to sight as much as the tip of an ear. As he had been looking for it at the level of about five feet ten inches it was no great wonder--but it seemed very wonderful to General Feraud.
The first view of these feet and legs determined a rush of blood to his head. He literally staggered behind his tree, and had to steady himself with his hand. The other was lying on the ground--on the ground! Perfectly still, too! Exposed! What did it mean?... The notion that he had knocked his adversary over at the first shot then entered General Feraud's head. Once there, it grew with every second of attentive gazing, overshadowing every other supposition--irresistible--triumphant--ferocious.
"What an ass I was to think I could have missed him!" he said to himself. "He was exposed en plein--the fool--for quite a couple of seconds."
And the general gazed at the motionless limbs, the last vestiges of surprise fading before an unbounded admiration of his skill.
"Turned up his toes! By the god of war that was a shot!" he continued mentally. "Got it through the head just where I aimed, staggered behind that tree, rolled over on his back and died."
And he stared. He stared, forgetting to move, almost awed, almost sorry. But for nothing in the world would he have had it undone. Such a shot! Such a shot! Rolled over on his back, and died!
For it was this helpless position, lying on the back, that shouted its sinister evidence at General Feraud. He could not possibly imagine that it might have been deliberately assumed by a living man. It was inconceivable. It was beyond the range of sane supposition. There was no possibility to guess the reason for it. And it must be said that General D'Hubert's turned-up feet looked thoroughly dead. General Feraud expanded his lungs for a stentorian shout to his seconds, but from what he felt to be an excessive scrupulousness, refrained for a while.
"I will just go and see first whether he breathes yet," he mumbled to himself, stepping out from behind his tree. This was immediately perceived by the resourceful General D'Hubert. He concluded it to be another shift. When he lost the boots out of the field of the mirror, he became uneasy. General Feraud had only stepped a little out of the line, but his adversary could not possibly have supposed him walking up with perfect unconcern. General D'Hubert, beginning to wonder where the other had dodged to, was come upon so suddenly that the first warning he had of his danger consisted in the long, early-morning shadow of his enemy falling aslant on his outstretched legs. He had not even heard a footfall on the soft ground between the trees!
It was too much even for his coolness. He jumped up instinctively, leaving the pistols on the ground. The irresistible instinct of most people (unless totally paralysed by discomfiture) would have been to stoop--exposing themselves to the risk of being shot down in that position. Instinct, of course, is irreflective. It is its very definition. But it may be an inquiry worth pursuing, whether in reflective mankind the mechanical promptings of instinct are not affected by the customary mode of thought. Years ago, in his young days, Armand D'Hubert, the reflective promising officer, had emitted the opinion that in warfare one should "never cast back on the lines of a mistake." This idea afterward restated, defended, developed in many discussions, had settled into one of the stock notions of his brain, became a part of his mental individuality. And whether it had gone so inconceivably deep as to affect the dictates of his instinct, or simply because, as he himself declared, he was "too scared to remember the confounded pistols," the fact is that General D'Hubert never attempted to stoop for them. Instead of going back on his mistake, he seized the rough trunk with both hands and swung himself behind it with such impetuosity that going right round in the very flash and report of a pistol shot, he reappeared on the other side of the tree face to face with General Feraud, who, completely unstrung by such a show of agility on the part of a dead man, was trembling yet. A very faint mist of smoke hung before his face which had an extraordinary aspect as if the lower jaw had come unhinged.
"Not missed!" he croaked hoarsely from the depths of a dry throat.
This sinister sound loosened the spell which had fallen on General D'Hubert's senses.
"Yes, missed--a bout portant" he heard himself saying exultingly almost before he had recovered the full command of his faculties. The revulsion of feeling was accompanied by a gust of homicidal fury resuming in its violence the accumulated resentment of a lifetime. For years General D'Hubert had been exasperated and humiliated by an atrocious absurdity imposed upon him by that man's savage caprice. Besides, General D'Hubert had been in this last instance too unwilling to confront death for the reaction of his anguish not to take the shape of a desire to kill.
"And I have my two shots to fire yet," he added pitilessly.
General Feraud snapped his teeth, and his face assumed an irate, undaunted expression.
"Go on," he growled.
These would have been his last words on earth if General D'Hubert had been holding the pistols in his hand. But the pistols were lying on the ground at the foot of a tall pine. General D'Hubert had the second's leisure necessary to remember that he had dreaded death not as a man but as a lover, not as a danger but as a rival--not as a foe to life but as an obstacle to marriage. And, behold, there was the rival defeated! Miserably defeated-crushed--done for!
He picked up the weapons mechanically, and instead of firing them into General Feraud's breast, gave expression to the thought uppermost in his mind.
"You will fight no more duels now."
His tone of leisurely, ineffable satisfaction was too much for General Feraud's stoicism.
"Don't dawdle then, damn you for a coldblooded staff-coxcomb!" he roared out suddenly out of an impassive face held erect on a rigid body.
General D'Hubert uncocked the pistols carefully. This proceeding was observed with a sort of gloomy astonishment by the other general.
"You missed me twice," he began coolly, shifting both pistols to one hand. "The last time within a foot or so. By every rule of single combat your life belongs to me. That does not mean that I want to take it now."
"I have no use for your forbearance," muttered General Feraud savagely.
"Allow me to point out that this is no concern of mine," said General D'Hubert, whose every word was dictated by a consummate delicacy of feeling. In anger, he could have killed that man, but in cold blood, he recoiled from humiliating this unreasonable being--a fellow soldier of the Grand Armée, his companion in the wonders and terrors of the military epic. "You don't set up the pretension of dictating to me what I am to do with what is my own."
General Feraud looked startled. And the other continued:
"You've forced me on a point of honour to keep my life at your disposal, as it were, for fifteen years. Very well. Now that the matter is decided to my advantage, I am going to do what I like with your life on the same principle. You shall keep it at my disposal as long as I choose. Neither more nor less. You are on your honour."
"I am! But sacrebleu! This is an absurd position for a general of the empire to be placed in," cried General Feraud, in the accents of profound and dismayed conviction. "It means for me to be sitting all the rest of my life with a loaded pistol in a drawer waiting for your word. It's... it's idiotic. I shall be an object of... of... derision."
"Absurd?... Idiotic? Do you think so?" queried argumentatively General D'Hubert with sly gravity. "Perhaps. But I don't see how that can be helped. However, I am not likely to talk at large of this adventure. Nobody need ever know anything about it. Just as no one to this day, I believe, knows the origin of our quarrel.... Not a word more," he added hastily. "I can't really discuss this question with a man who, as far as I am concerned, does not exist."
When the duellists came out into the open, General Feraud walking a little behind and rather with the air of walking in a trance, the two seconds hurried towards them each from his station at the edge of the wood. General D'Hubert addressed them, speaking loud and distinctly:
"Messieurs! I make it a point of declaring to you solemnly in the presence of General Feraud that our difference is at last settled for good. You may inform all the world of that fact."
"A reconciliation after all!" they exclaimed together.
"Reconciliation? Not that exactly. It is something much more binding. Is it not so, general?"
General Feraud only lowered his head in sign of assent. The two veterans looked at each other. Later in the day when they found themselves alone, out of their moody friend's earshot, the cuirassier remarked suddenly:
"Generally speaking, I can see with my one eye as far or even a little farther than most people. But this beats me. He won't say anything."
"In this affair of honour I understand there has been from first to last always something that no one in the army could quite make out," declared the chasseur with the imperfect nose. "In mystery it began, in mystery it went on, and in mystery it is to end apparently...."
General D'Hubert walked home with long, hasty strides, by no means uplifted by a sense of triumph. He had conquered, but it did not seem to him he had gained very much by his conquest. The night before he had grudged the risk of his life which appeared to him magnificent, worthy of preservation as an opportunity to win a girl's love. He had even moments when by a marvellous illusion this love seemed to him already his and his threatened life a still more magnificent opportunity of devotion. Now that his life was safe it had suddenly lost it special magnificence. It wore instead a specially alarming aspect as a snare for the exposure of unworthiness. As to the marvellous illusion of conquered love that had visited him for a moment in the agitated watches of the night which might have been his last on earth, he comprehended now its true nature. It had been merely a paroxysm of delirious conceit. Thus to this man sobered by the victorious issue of a duel, life appeared robbed of much of its charm simply because it was no longer menaced.
Approaching the house from the back through the orchard and the kitchen gardens, he could not notice the agitation which reigned in front. He never met a single soul. Only upstairs, while walking softly along the corridor, he became aware that the house was awake and much more noisy than usual. Names of servants were being called out down below in a confused noise of coming and going. He noticed with some concern that the door of his own room stood ajar, though the shutters had not been opened yet. He had hoped that his early excursion would have passed unperceived. He expected to find some servant just gone in; but the sunshine filtering through the usual cracks enabled him to see lying on the low divan something bulky which had the appearance of two women clasped in each other's arms. Tearful and consolatory murmurs issued mysteriously from that appearance. General D'Hubert pulled open the nearest pair of shutters violently. One of the women then jumped up. It was his sister. She stood for a moment with her hair hanging down and her arms raised straight up above her head, and then flung herself with a stifled cry into his arms. He returned her embrace, trying at the same time to disengage himself from it. The other woman had not risen. She seemed, on the contrary, to cling closer to the divan, hiding her face in the cushions. Her hair was also loose; it was admirably fair. General D'Hubert recognised it with staggering emotion. Mlle. de Valmassigue! Adèle! In distress!
He became greatly alarmed and got rid of his sister's hug definitely. Madame Léonie then extended her shapely bare arm out of her peignoir, pointing dramatically at the divan:
"This poor terrified child has rushed here two miles from home on foot--running all the way."
"What on earth has happened?" asked General D'Hubert in a low, agitated voice. But Madame Léonie was speaking loudly.
"She rang the great bell at the gate and roused all the household--we were all asleep yet. You may imagine what a terrible shock.... Adèle, my dear child, sit up."
General D'Hubert's expression was not that of a man who imagines with facility. He did, however, fish out of chaos the notion that his prospective mother-in-law had died suddenly, but only to dismiss it at once. He could not conceive the nature of the event, of the catastrophe which could induce Mlle, de Valmassigue living in a house full of servants, to bring the news over the fields herself, two miles, running all the way.
"But why are you in this room?" he whispered, full of awe.
"Of course I ran up to see and this child... I did not notice it--she followed me. It's that absurd Chevalier," went on Madame Léonie, looking towards the divan.... "Her hair's come down. You may imagine she did not stop to call her maid to dress it before she started.... Adèle, my dear, sit up.... He blurted it all out to her at half-past four in the morning. She woke up early, and opened her shutters, to breathe the fresh air, and saw him sitting collapsed on a garden bench at the end of the great alley. At that hour--you may imagine! And the evening before he had declared himself indisposed. She just hurried on some clothes and flew down to him. One would be anxious for less. He loves her, but not very intelligently. He had been up all night, fully dressed, the poor old man, perfectly exhausted! He wasn't in a state to invent a plausible story.... What a confidant you chose there!... My husband was furious! He said: 'We can't interfere now.' So we sat down to wait. It was awful. And this poor child running over here publicly with her hair loose. She has been seen by people in the fields. She has roused the whole household, too. It's awkward for her. Luckily you are to be married next week.... Adèle, sit up. He has come home on his own legs, thank God.... We expected you to come back on a stretcher perhaps--what do I know? Go and see if the carriage is ready. I must take this child to her mother at once. It isn't proper for her to stay here a minute longer."
General D'Hubert did not move. It was as though he had heard nothing. Madame Léonie changed her mind.
"I will go and see to it myself," she said. "I want also to get my cloak... Adèle..." she began, but did not say "sit up." She went out saying in a loud, cheerful tone: "I leave the door open."
General D'Hubert made a movement towards the divan, but then Adèle sat up and that checked him dead. He thought, "I haven't washed this morning. I must look like an old tramp. There's earth on the back of my coat, and pine needles in my hair." It occurred to him that the situation required a good deal of circumspection on his part.
"I am greatly concerned, mademoiselle," he began timidly, and abandoned that line. She was sitting up on the divan with her cheeks unusually pink, and her hair brilliantly fair, falling all over her shoulders--which was a very novel sight to the general. He walked away up the room and, looking out of the window for safety, said: "I fear you must think I behaved like a madman," in accents of sincere despair.... Then he spun round and noticed that she had followed him with her eyes. They were not cast down on meeting his glance. And the expression of her face was novel to him also. It was, one might have said, reversed. Her eyes looked at him with grave thoughtfulness, while the exquisite lines of her mouth seemed to suggest a restrained smile. This change made her transcendental beauty much less mysterious, much more accessible to a man's comprehension. An amazing ease of mind came to the general--and even some ease of manner. He walked down the room with as much pleasurable excitement as he would have found in walking up to a battery vomiting death, fire, and smoke, then stood looking down with smiling eyes at the girl whose marriage with him (next week) had been so carefully arranged by the wise, the good, the admirable Léonie.
"Ah, mademoiselle," he said in a tone of courtly deference. "If I could be certain that you did not come here this morning only from a sense of duty to your mother!"
He waited for an answer, imperturbable but inwardly elated. It came in a demure murmur, eyelashes lowered with fascinating effect.
"You mustn't be méchant as well as mad."
And then General D'Hubert made an aggressive movement towards the divan which nothing could check. This piece of furniture was not exactly in the line of the open door. But Madame Léonie, coming back wrapped up in a light cloak and carrying a lace shawl on her arm for Adèle to hide her incriminating hair under, had a vague impression of her brother getting-up from his knees.
"Come along, my dear child," she cried from the doorway.
The general, now himself again in the fullest sense, showed the readiness of a resourceful cavalry officer and the peremptoriness of a leader of men.
"You don't expect her to walk to the carriage," he protested. "She isn't fit. I will carry her downstairs."
This he did slowly, followed by his awed and respectful sister. But he rushed back like a whirlwind to wash away all the signs of the night of anguish and the morning of war, and to put on the festive garments of a conqueror before hurrying over to the other house. Had it not been for that, General D'Hubert felt capable of mounting a horse and pursuing his late adversary in order simply to embrace him from excess of happiness. "I owe this piece of luck to that stupid brute," he thought. "This duel has made plain in one morning what might have taken me years to find out--for I am a timid fool. No self-confidence whatever. Perfect coward. And the Chevalier! Dear old man!" General D'Hubert longed to embrace him, too.
The Chevalier was in bed. For several days he was much indisposed. The men of the empire, and the post-revolution young ladies, were too much for him. He got up the day before the wedding, and being curious by nature, took his niece aside for a quiet talk. He advised her to find out from her husband the true story of the affair of honour, whose claim so imperative and so persistent had led her to within an ace of tragedy. "It is very proper that his wife should know. And next month or so will be your time to learn from him anything you ought to know, my dear child."
Later on when the married couple came on a visit to the mother of the bride, Madame la Générale D'Hubert made no difficulty in communicating to her beloved old uncle what she had learned without any difficulty from her husband. The Chevalier listened with profound attention to the end, then took a pinch of snuff, shook the grains of tobacco off the frilled front of his shirt, and said calmly: "And that's all what it was."
"Yes, uncle," said Madame la Générale, opening her pretty eyes very wide. "Isn't it funny? C'est insensé--to think what men are capable of."
"H'm," commented the old émigré. "It depends what sort of men. That Bonaparte's soldiers were savages. As a wife, my dear, it is proper for you to believe implicitly what your husband says."
But to Léonie's husband the Chevalier confided his true opinion. "If that's the tale the fellow made up for his wife, and during the honeymoon, too, you may depend on it no one will ever know the secret of this affair."
Considerably later still, General D'Hubert judged the time come, and the opportunity propitious to write a conciliatory letter to General Feraud. "I have never," protested the General Baron D'Hubert, "wished for your death during all the time of our deplorable quarrel. Allow me to give you back in all form your forfeited life. We two, who have been partners in so much military glory, should be friendly to each other publicly."
The same letter contained also an item of domestic information. It was alluding to this last that General Feraud answered from a little village on the banks of the Garonne:
"If one of your boy's names had been Napoleon, or Joseph, or even Joachim, I could congratulate you with a better heart. As you have thought proper to name him Charles Henri Armand I am confirmed in my conviction that you never loved the emperor. The thought of that sublime hero chained to a rock in the middle of a savage ocean makes life of so little value that I would receive with positive joy your instructions to blow my brains out. From suicide I consider myself in honour debarred. But I keep a loaded pistol in my drawer."
Madame la Générale D'Hubert lifted up her hands in horror after perusing that letter.
"You see? He won't be reconciled," said her husband. "We must take care that he never, by any chance, learns where the money he lives on comes from. It would be simply appalling."
"You are a brave homme, Armand," said Madame la Générale appreciatively.
"My dear, I had the right to blow his brains out--strictly speaking. But as I did not we can't let him starve. He has been deprived of his pension for 'breach of military discipline' when he broke bounds to fight his last duel with me. He's crippled with rheumatism. We are bound to take care of him to the end of his days. And, after all, I am indebted to him for the radiant discovery that you loved me a little--you sly person. Ha! Ha! Two miles, running all the way!... It is extraordinary how all through this affair that man has managed to engage my deeper feelings."