Chapter V: Elegies
As Benassis finished his story, he was struck by the troubled expression of the officer's face. It touched him to have been so well understood. He was almost ready to reproach himself for having distressed his visitor. He spoke:
"But these troubles of mine, Captain Bluteau----"
"Do not call me Captain Bluteau," cried Genestas, breaking in upon the doctor, and springing to his feet with sudden energy, a change of position that seemed to be prompted by inward dissatisfaction of some kind. "There is no such person as Captain Bluteau. . . . I am a scoundrel!"
With no little astonishment, Benassis beheld Genestas pacing to and fro in the salon, like a bumble-bee in quest of an exit from the room which he has incautiously entered.
"Then who are you, sir?" inquired Benassis.
"Ah! there now!" the officer answered, as he turned and took his stand before the doctor, though he lacked courage to look at his friend. "I have deceived you!" he went on (and there was a change in his voice). "I have acted a lie for the first time in my life, and I am well punished for it; for after this I cannot explain why I came here to play the spy upon you, confound it! Ever since I have had a glimpse of your soul, so to speak, I would far sooner have taken a box on the ear whenever I heard you call me Captain Bluteau! Perhaps you may forgive me for this subterfuge, but I shall never forgive myself; I, Pierre Joseph Genestas, who would not lie to save my life before a court- martial!"
"Are you Commandant Genestas?" cried Benassis, rising to his feet. He grasped the officer's hand warmly, and added: "As you said but a short time ago, sir, we were friends before we knew each other. I have been very anxious to make your acquaintance, for I have often heard M. Gravier speak of you. He used to call you, 'one of Plutarch's men.' "
"Plutarch? Nothing of the sort!" answered Genestas. "I am not worthy of you; I could thrash myself. I ought to have told you my secret in a straightforward way at the first. Yet, now! It is quite as well that I wore a mask, and came here myself in search of information concerning you, for now I know that I must hold my tongue. If I had set about this business in the right fashion it would have been painful to you, and God forbid that I should give you the slightest annoyance."
"But I do not understand you, commandant."
"Let the matter drop. I am not ill; I have spent a pleasant day, and I will go back to-morrow. Whenever you come to Grenoble, you will find that you have one more friend there, who will be your friend through thick and thin. Pierre Joseph Genestas' sword and purse are at your disposal, and I am yours to the last drop of my blood. Well, after all, your words have fallen on good soil. When I am pensioned off, I will look for some out-of-the-way little place, and be mayor of it, and try to follow your example. I have not your knowledge, but I will study at any rate."
"You are right, sir; the landowner who spends his time in convincing a commune of the folly of some mistaken notion of agriculture, confers upon his country a benefit quite as great as any that the most skilful physician can bestow. The latter lessens the sufferings of some few individuals, and the former heals the wounds of his country. But you have excited my curiosity to no common degree. Is there really something in which I can be of use to you?"
"Of use?" repeated the commandant in an altered voice.
"Mon Dieu! I was about to ask you to do me a service which is all but impossible, M. Benassis. Just listen a moment! I have killed a good many Christians in my time, it is true; but you may kill people and keep a good heart for all that; so there are some things that I can feel and understand, rough as I look."
"But go on!"
"No, I do not want to give you any pain if I can help it."
"Oh! commandant, I can bear a great deal."
"It is a question of a child's life, sir," said the officer, nervously.
Benassis suddenly knitted his brows, but by a gesture he entreated Genestas to continue.
"A child," repeated the commandant,"whose life may yet be saved by constant watchfulness and incessant care. Where could I expect to find a doctor capable of devoting himself to a single patient? Not in a town, that much was certain. I had heard you spoken of as an excellent man, but I wished to be quite sure that this reputation was well founded. So before putting my little charge into the hands of this M. Benassis of whom people spoke so highly, I wanted to study him myself. But now----"
"Enough," said the doctor; "so this child is yours?"
"No, no, M. Benassis. To clear up the mystery, I should have to tell you a long story, in which I do not exactly play the part of a hero; but you have given me your confidence and I can readily give you mine."
"One moment, commandant," said the doctor. In answer to his summons, Jacquotte appeared at once, and her master ordered tea. "You see, commandant, at night when every one is sleeping, I do not sleep. . . . The thought of my troubles lies heavily on me, and then I try to forget them by taking tea. It produces a sort of nervous inebriation-- a kind of slumber, without which I could not live. Do you still decline to take it?"
"For my own part," said Genestas, "I prefer your Hermitage."
"By all means. Jacquotte," said Benassis, turning to his housekeeper, "bring in some wine and biscuits. We will both of us have our night- cap after our separate fashions."
"That tea must be very bad for you!" Genestas remarked.
"It brings on horrid attacks of gout, but I cannot break myself of the habit, it is too soothing; it procures for me a brief respite every night, a few moments during which life becomes less of a burden. . . . Come. I am listening; perhaps your story will efface the painful impressions left by the memories that I have just recalled."
Genestas set down his empty glass upon the chimney-piece. "After the Retreat from Moscow," he said, "my regiment was stationed to recruit for a while in a little town in Poland. We were quartered there, in fact, till the Emperor returned, and we bought up horses at long prices. So far so good. I ought to say that I had a friend in those days. More than once during the Retreat I had owed my life to him. He was a quartermaster, Renard by name; we could not but be like brothers
(military discipline apart) after what he had done for me. They billeted us on the same house, a sort of shanty, a rat-hole of a place where a whole family lived, though you would not have thought there was room to stable a horse. This particular hovel belonged to some Jews who carried on their six-and-thirty trades in it. The frost had not so stiffened the old father Jew's fingers but that he could count gold fast enough; he had thriven uncommonly during our reverses. That sort of gentry lives in squalor and dies in gold.
"There were cellars underneath (lined with wood of course, the whole house was built of wood); they had stowed their children away down there, and one more particularly, a girl of seventeen, as handsome as a Jewess can be when she keeps herself tidy and has not fair hair. She was as white as snow, she had eyes like velvet, and dark lashes to them like rats' tails; her hair was so thick and glossy that it made you long to stroke it. She was perfection, and nothing less! I was the first to discover this curious arrangement. I was walking up and down outside one evening, smoking my pipe, after they thought I had gone to bed. The children came in helter-skelter, tumbling over one another like so many puppies. It was fun to watch them. Then they had supper with their father and mother. I strained my eyes to see the young Jewess through the clouds of smoke that her father blew from his pipe; she looked like a new gold piece among a lot of copper coins.
"I had never reflected about love, my dear Benassis, I had never had time; but now at the sight of this young girl I lost my heart and head and everything else at once, and then it was plain to me that I had never been in love before. I was hard hit, and over head and ears in love. There I stayed smoking my pipe, absorbed in watching the Jewess until she blew out the candle and went to bed. I could not close my eyes. The whole night long I walked up and down the street smoking my pipe and refilling it from time to time. I had never felt like that before, and for the first and last time in my life I thought of marrying.
"At daybreak I saddled my horse and rode out into the country, to clear my head. I kept him at a trot for two mortal hours, and all but foundered the animal before I noticed it----"
Genestas stopped short, looked at his new friend uneasily, and said, "You must excuse me, Benassis, I am no orator; things come out just as they turn up in my mind. In a room full of fine folk I should feel awkward, but here in the country with you----"
"Go on," said the doctor.
"When I came back to my room I found Renard finely flustered. He thought I had fallen in a duel. He was cleaning his pistols, his head full of schemes for fastening a quarrel on any one who should have turned me off into the dark. . . . Oh! that was just the fellow's way! I confided my story to Renard, showed him the kennel where the children were; and, as my comrade understood the jargon that those heathens talked, I begged him to help me to lay my proposals before her father and mother, and to try to arrange some kind of communication between me and Judith. Judith they called her. In short, sir, for a fortnight the Jew and his wife so arranged matters that we supped every night with Judith, and for a fortnight I was the happiest of men. You understand and you know how it was, so I shall not wear out your patience; still, if you do not smoke, you cannot imagine how pleasant it was to smoke a pipe at one's ease with Renard and the girl's father and one's princess there before one's eyes. Oh! yes, it was very pleasant!
"But I ought to tell you that Renard was a Parisian, and dependent on his father, a wholesale grocer, who had educated his son with a view to making a notary of him; so Renard had come by a certain amount of book learning before he had been drawn by the conscription and had to bid his desk good-bye. Add to this that he was the kind of man who looks well in a uniform, with a face like a girl's, and a thorough knowledge of the art of wheedling people. It was HE whom Judith loved; she cared about as much for me as a horse cares for roast fowls. Whilst I was in the seventh heaven, soaring above the clouds at the bare sight of Judith, my friend Renard (who, as you see, fairly deserved his name) arrived at an understanding with the girl, and to such good purpose, that they were married forthwith after the custom of her country, without waiting for permission, which would have been too long in coming. He promised her, however, that if it should happen that the validity of this marriage was afterwards called in question, they were to be married again according to French law. As a matter of fact, as soon as she reached France, Mme. Renard became Mlle. Judith once more.
"If I had known all this, I would have killed Renard then and there, without giving him time to draw another breath; but the father, the mother, the girl herself, and the quartermaster were all in the plot like thieves in a fair. While I was smoking my pipe, and worshiping Judith as if she had been one of the saints above, the worthy Renard was arranging to meet her, and managing this piece of business very cleverly under my very eyes.
"You are the only person to whom I have told this story. A disgraceful thing, I call it. I have always asked myself how it is that a man who would die of shame if he took a gold coin that did not belong to him, does not scruple to rob a friend of happiness and life and the woman he loves. My birds, in fact, were married and happy; and there was I, every evening at supper, moonstruck, gazing at Judith, responding like some fellow in a farce to the looks she threw to me in order to throw dust in my eyes. They have paid uncommonly dear for all this deceit, as you will certainly think. On my conscience, God pays more attention to what goes on in this world than some of us imagine.
"Down come the Russians upon us, the country is overrun, and the campaign of 1813 begins in earnest. One fine morning comes an order; we are to be on the battlefield of Lutzen by a stated hour. The Emperor knew quite well what he was about when he ordered us to start at once. The Russians had turned our flank. Our colonel must needs get himself into a scrape, by choosing that moment to take leave of a Polish lady who lived outside the town, a quarter of a mile away; the Cossack advanced guard just caught him nicely, him and his picket. There was scarcely time to spring into our saddles and draw up before the town so as to engage in a cavalry skirmish. We must check the Russian advance if we meant to draw off during the night. Again and again we charged, and for three hours did wonders. Under cover of the fighting the baggage and artillery set out. We had a park of artillery and great stores of powder, of which the Emperor stood in desperate need; they must reach him at all costs.
"Our resistance deceived the Russians, who thought at first that we were supported by an army corps; but before very long they learned their error from their scouts, and knew that they had only a single regiment of cavalry to deal with and the invalided foot soldiers in the depot. On finding it out, sir, they made a murderous onslaught on us towards evening; the action was so hot that a good few of us were left on the field. We were completely surrounded. I was by Renard's side in the front rank, and I saw how my friend fought and charged like a demon; he was thinking of his wife. Thanks to him, we managed to regain the town, which our invalids had put more or less in a state of defence, but it was pitiful to see it. We were the last to return-- he and I. A body of Cossacks appeared in our way, and on this we rode in hot haste. One of the savages was about to run me through with a lance, when Renard, catching a sight of his manoeuvre, thrust his horse between us to turn aside the blow; his poor brute--a fine animal it was, upon my word--received the lance thrust and fell, bringing down both Renard and the Cossack with him. I killed the Cossack, seized Renard by the arm, and laid him crosswise before me on my horse like a sack of wheat.
" 'Good-bye, captain,' Renard said; 'it is all over with me.'
" 'Not yet,' I answered; 'I must have a look at you.' We had reached the town by that time; I dismounted, and propped him up on a little straw by the corner of the house. A wound in the head had laid open the brain, and yet he spoke! . . . Oh! he was a brave man.
" 'We are quits,' he said. 'I have given you my life, and I had taken Judith from you. Take care of her and of her child, if she has one. And not only so--you must marry her.'
"I left him then and there sir, like a dog; when the first fury of anger left me, and I went back again--he was dead. The Cossacks had set fire to the town, and the thought of Judith then came to my mind. I went in search of her, took her up behind me in the saddle, and, thanks to my swift horse, caught up the regiment which was effecting its retreat. As for the Jew and his family, there was not one of them left, they had all disappeared like rats; there was no one but Judith in the house, waiting alone there for Renard. At first, as you can understand, I told her not a word of all that had happened.
"So it befell that all through the disastrous campaign of 1813 I had a woman to look after, to find quarters for her, and to see that she was comfortable. She scarcely knew, I think, the straits to which we were reduced. I was always careful to keep her ten leagues ahead of us as we drew back towards France. Her boy was born while we were fighting at Hanau. I was wounded in the engagement, and only rejoined Judith at Strasburg; then I returned to Paris, for, unluckily, I was laid up all through the campaign in France. If it had not been for that wretched mishap, I should have entered the Grenadier Guards, and then the Emperor would have promoted me. As it was, sir, I had three broken ribs and another man's wife and child to support! My pay, as you can imagine, was not exactly the wealth of the Indies. Renard's father, the toothless old shark, would have nothing to say to his daughter-in- law; and the old father Jew had made off. Judith was fretting herself to death. She cried one morning while she was dressing my wound.
" 'Judith,' said I, 'your child has nothing in this world----'
" 'Neither have I!' she said.
" 'Pshaw!' I answered, 'we will send for all the necessary papers, I will marry you; and as for the child, I will look on him as mine----' I could not say any more.
"Ah, my dear sir, what would not one do for the look by which Judith thanked me--a look of thanks from dying eyes; I saw clearly that I had loved, and should love her always, and from that day her child found a place in my heart. She died, poor woman, while the father and mother Jews and the papers were on the way. The day before she died, she found strength enough to rise and dress herself for her wedding, to go through all the usual performance, and set her name to their pack of papers; then, when her child had a name and a father, she went back to her bed again; I kissed her hands and her forehead, and she died.
"That was my wedding. Two days later, when I had bought the few feet of earth in which the poor girl is laid, I found myself the father of an orphan child. I put him out to nurse during the campaign of 1815. Ever since that time, without letting any one know my story, which did not sound very well, I have looked after the little rogue as if he were my own child. I don't know what became of his grandfather; he is wandering about, a ruined man, somewhere or other between Russia and Persia. The chances are that he may make a fortune some day, for he seemed to understand the trade in precious stones.
"I sent the child to school. I wanted him to take a good place at the Ecole Polytechnique and to see him graduate there with credit, so of late I have had him drilled in mathematics to such good purpose that the poor little soul has been knocked up by it. He has a delicate chest. By all I can make out from the doctors in Paris, there would be some hope for him still if he were allowed to run wild among the hills, if he was properly cared for, and constantly looked after by somebody who was willing to undertake the task. So I thought of you, and I came here to take stock of your ideas and your ways of life. After what you have told me, I could not possibly cause you pain in this way, for we are good friends already."
"Commandant," said Benassis after a moment's pause, "bring Judith's child here to me. It is doubtless God's will to submit me to this final trial, and I will endure it. I will offer up these sufferings to God, whose Son died upon the cross. Besides, your story has awakened tender feelings; does not that auger well for me?"
Genestas took both of Benassis' hands and pressed them warmly, unable to check the tears that filled his eyes and coursed down his sunburned face.
"Let us keep silence with regard to all this," he said.
"Yes, commandant. You are not drinking?"
"I am not thirsty," Genestas answered. "I am a perfect fool!"
"Well, when will you bring him to me?"
"Why, to-morrow, if you will let me. He has been at Grenoble these two days."
"Good! Set out to-morrow morning and come back again. I shall wait for you in La Fosseuse's cottage, and we will all four of us breakfast there together."
"Agreed," said Genestas, and the two friends as they went upstairs bade each other good-night. When they reached the landing that lay between their rooms, Genestas set down his candle on the window ledge and turned towards Benassis.
"Tonnerre de Dieu!" he said, with outspoken enthusiasm; "I cannot let you go without telling you that you are the third among christened men to make me understand that there is Something up there," and he pointed to the sky.
The doctor's answer was a smile full of sadness and a cordial grasp of the hand that Genestas held out to him.
Before daybreak next morning Commandant Genestas was on his way. On his return, it was noon before he reached the spot on the highroad between Grenoble and the little town, where the pathway turned that led to La Fosseuse's cottage. He was seated in one of the light open cars with four wheels, drawn by one horse, that are in use everywhere on the roads in these hilly districts. Genestas' companion was a thin, delicate-looking lad, apparently about twelve years of age, though in reality he was in his sixteenth year. Before alighting, the officer looked round about him in several directions in search of a peasant who would take the carriage back to Benassis' house. It was impossible to drive to La Fosseuse's cottage, the pathway was too narrow. The park-keeper happened to appear upon the scene, and helped Genestas out of his difficulty, so that the officer and his adopted son were at liberty to follow the mountain footpath that led to the trysting- place.
"Would you not enjoy spending a year in running about in this lovely country, Adrien? Learning to hunt and to ride a horse, instead of growing pale over your books? Stay! look there!"
Adrien obediently glanced over the valley with languid indifference; like all lads of his age, he cared nothing for the beauty of natural scenery; so he only said, "You are very kind, father," without checking his walk.
The invalid listlessness of this answer went to Genestas' heart; he said no more to his son, and they reached La Fosseuse's house in silence.
"You are punctual, commandant!" cried Benassis, rising from the wooden bench where he was sitting.
But at the sight of Adrien he sat down again, and seemed for a while to be lost in thought. In a leisurely fashion he scanned the lad's sallow, weary face, not without admiring its delicate oval outlines, one of the most noticeable characteristics of a noble head. The lad was the living image of his mother. He had her olive complexion, beautiful black eyes with a sad and thoughtful expression in them, long hair, a head too energetic for the fragile body; all the peculiar beauty of the Polish Jewess had been transmitted to her son.
"Do you sleep soundly, my little man?" Benassis asked him.
"Let me see your knees; turn back your trousers."
Adrien reddened, unfastened his garters, and showed his knee to the doctor, who felt it carefully over.
"Good. Now speak; shout, shout as loud as you can." Adrien obeyed.
"That will do. Now give me your hands."
The lad held them out; white, soft, and blue-veined hands, like those of a woman.
"Where were you at school in Paris?"
"At Saint Louis."
"Did your master read his breviary during the night?"
"So you did not go straight off to sleep?"
As Adrien made no answer to this, Genestas spoke. "The master is a worthy priest; he advised me to take my little rascal away on the score of his health," he told the doctor.
"Well," answered Benassis, with a clear, penetrating gaze into Adrien's frightened eyes, "there is a good chance. Oh, we shall make a man of him yet. We will live together like a pair of comrades, my boy! We will keep early hours. I mean to show this boy of yours how to ride a horse, commandant. He shall be put on a milk diet for a month or two, so as to get his digestion into order again, and then I will take out a shooting license for him, and put him in Butifer's hands, and the two of them shall have some chamois-hunting. Give your son four or five months of out-door life, and you will not know him again, commandant! How delighted Butifer will be! I know the fellow; he will take you over into Switzerland, my young friend; haul you over the Alpine passes and up the mountain peaks, and add six inches to your height in six months; he will put some color into your cheeks and brace your nerves, and make you forget all these bad ways that you have fallen into at school. And after that you can go back to your work; and you will be a man some of these days. Butifer is an honest young fellow. We can trust him with the money necessary for traveling expenses and your hunting expeditions. The responsibility will keep him steady for six months, and that will be a very good thing for him."
Genestas' face brightened more and more at every word the doctor spoke.
"Now, let us go in to breakfast. La Fosseuse is very anxious to see you," said Benassis, giving Adrien a gentle tap on the cheek.
Genestas took the doctor's arm and drew him a little aside. "Then he is not consumptive after all?" he asked.
"No more than you or I."
"Then what is the matter with him?"
"Pshaw!" answered Benassis; "he is a little run down, that is all."
La Fosseuse appeared on the threshold of the door, and Genestas noticed, not without surprise, her simple but coquettish costume. This was not the peasant girl of yesterday evening, but a graceful and well-dressed Parisian woman, against whose glances he felt that he was not proof. The soldier turned his eyes on the table, which was made of walnut wood. There was no tablecloth, but the surface might have been varnished, it was so well rubbed and polished. Eggs, butter, a rice pudding, and fragrant wild strawberries had been set out, and the poor child had put flowers everywhere about the room; evidently it was a great day for her. At the sight of all this, the commandant could not help looking enviously at the little house and the green sward about it, and watched the peasant girl with an air that expressed both his doubts and his hopes. Then his eyes fell on Adrien, with whom La Fosseuse was deliberately busying herself, and handing him the eggs.
"Now, commandant," said Benassis, "you know the terms on which you are receiving hospitality. You must tell La Fosseuse 'something about the army.' "
"But let the gentleman first have his breakfast in peace, and then, after he has taken a cup of coffee----"
"By all means, I shall be very glad," answered the commandant; "but it must be upon one condition: you will tell us the story of some adventure in your past life, will you not, mademoiselle?"
"Why, nothing worth telling has ever happened to me, sir," she answered, as her color rose. "Will you take a little more rice pudding?" she added, as she saw that Adrien's plate was empty.
"If you please, mademoiselle."
"The pudding is delicious," said Genestas.
"Then what will you say to her coffee and cream?" cried Benassis.
"I would rather hear our pretty hostess talk."
"You did not put that nicely, Genestas," said Benassis. He took La Fosseuse's hand in his and pressed it as he went on: "Listen, my child; there is a kind heart hidden away beneath that officer's stern exterior, and you can talk freely before him. We do not want to press you to talk, do not tell us anything unless you like: but if ever you can be listened to and understood, poor little one, it will be by the three who are with you now at this moment. Tell us all about your love affairs in the old days, that will not admit us into any of the real secrets of your heart."
"Here is Mariette with the coffee," she answered, "and as soon as you are all served, I will tell about my 'love affairs' very willingly. But M. le Commandant will not forget his promise?" she added, challenging the officer with a shy glance.
"That would be impossible, mademoiselle," Genestas answered respectfully.
"When I was sixteen years old," La Fosseuse began, "I had to beg my bread on the roadside in Savoy, though my health was very bad. I used to sleep at Echelles, in a manger full of straw. The innkeeper who gave me shelter was kind, but his wife could not abide me, and was always saying hard things. I used to feel very miserable; for though I was a beggar, I was not a naughty child; I used to say my prayers every night and morning, I never stole anything, and I did as Heaven bade me in begging for my living, for there was nothing that I could turn my hands to, and I was really unfit for work--quite unable to handle a hoe or to wind spools of cotton.
"Well, they drove me away from the inn at last; a dog was the cause of it all. I had neither father nor mother nor friends. I had met with no one, ever since I was born, whose eyes had any kindness in them for me. Morin, the old woman who had brought me up, was dead. She had been very good to me, but I cannot remember that she ever petted me much; besides, she worked out in the fields like a man, poor thing; and if she fondled me at times, she also used to rap my fingers with the spoon if I ate the soup too fast out of the porringer we had between us. Poor old woman, never a day passes but I remember her in my prayers! If it might please God to let her live a happier life up there than she did here below! And, above all things, if she might only lie a little softer there, for she was always grumbling about the pallet-bed that we both used to sleep upon. You could not possibly imagine how it hurts one's soul to be repulsed by every one, to receive nothing but hard words and looks that cut you to the heart, just as if they were so many stabs of a knife. I have known poor old people who were so used to these things that they did not mind them a bit, but I was not born for that sort of life. A 'No' always made me cry. Every evening I came back again more unhappy than ever, and only felt comforted when I had said my prayers. In all God's world, in fact, there was not a soul to care for me, no one to whom I could pour out my heart. My only friend was the blue sky. I have always been happy when there was a cloudless sky above my head. I used to lie and watch the weather from some nook among the crags when the wind had swept the clouds away. At such times I used to dream that I was a great lady. I used to gaze into the sky till I felt myself bathed in the blue; I lived up there in thought, rising higher and higher yet, till my troubles weighed on me no more, and there was nothing but gladness left.Next