|After being buried in a tomb
With the battlefield dead
He finds himself in Hell
Among the living.
Here is the tale of
LE COLONEL CHABERT
By Honoré de Balzac
"Monsieur," said Derville, "to whom have I the honor of speaking?"
"To Colonel Chabert."
"He who was killed at Eylau," replied the old man.
On hearing this strange speech, the lawyer and his clerk glanced at
each other, as much as to say, "He is mad."
"Monsieur," the Colonel went on, "I wish to confide to you the secret
of my position."
A thing worthy of note is the natural intrepidity of lawyers. Whether
from the habit of receiving a great many persons, or from the deep
sense of the protection conferred on them by the law, or from
confidence in their missions, they enter everywhere, fearing nothing,
like priests and physicians. Derville signed to Boucard, who vanished.
"During the day, sir," said the attorney, "I am not so miserly of my
time, but at night every minute is precious. So be brief and concise.
Go to the facts without digression. I will ask for any explanations I
may consider necessary. Speak."
Having bid his strange client to be seated, the young man sat down at
the table; but while he gave his attention to the deceased Colonel, he
turned over the bundles of papers.
"You know, perhaps," said the dead man, "that I commanded a cavalry
regiment at Eylau. I was of important service to the success of
Murat's famous charge which decided the victory. Unhappily for me, my
death is a historical fact, recorded in /Victoires et Conquetes/,
where it is related in full detail. We cut through the three Russian
lines, which at once closed up and formed again, so that we had to
repeat the movement back again. At the moment when we were nearing the
Emperor, after having scattered the Russians, I came against a
squadron of the enemy's cavalry. I rushed at the obstinate brutes. Two
Russian officers, perfect giants, attacked me both at once. One of
them gave me a cut across the head that crashed through everything,
even a black silk cap I wore next my head, and cut deep into the
skull. I fell from my horse. Murat came up to support me. He rode over
my body, he and all his men, fifteen hundred of them--there might have
been more! My death was announced to the Emperor, who as a precaution
--for he was fond of me, was the master--wished to know if there were
no hope of saving the man he had to thank for such a vigorous attack.
He sent two surgeons to identify me and bring me into Hospital,
saying, perhaps too carelessly, for he was very busy, 'Go and see
whether by any chance poor Chabert is still alive.' These rascally
saw-bones, who had just seen me lying under the hoofs of the horses of
two regiments, no doubt did not trouble themselves to feel my pulse,
and reported that I was quite dead. The certificate of death was
probably made out in accordance with the rules of military
As he heard his visitor express himself with complete lucidity, and
relate a story so probable though so strange, the young lawyer ceased
fingering the papers, rested his left elbow on the table, and with his
head on his hand looked steadily at the Colonel.
"Do you know, monsieur, that I am lawyer to the Countess Ferraud," he
said, interrupting the speaker, "Colonel Chabert's widow?"
"My wife--yes monsieur. Therefore, after a hundred fruitless attempts
to interest lawyers, who have all thought me mad, I made up my mind to
come to you. I will tell you of my misfortunes afterwards; for the
present, allow me to prove the facts, explaining rather how things
must have fallen out rather than how they did occur. Certain
circumstances, known, I suppose to no one but the Almighty, compel me
to speak of some things as hypothetical. The wounds I had received
must presumably have produced tetanus, or have thrown me into a state
analogous to that of a disease called, I believe, catalepsy. Otherwise
how is it conceivable that I should have been stripped, as is the
custom in time of the war, and thrown into the common grave by the men
ordered to bury the dead?
"Allow me here to refer to a detail of which I could know nothing till
after the event, which, after all, I must speak of as my death. At
Stuttgart, in 1814, I met an old quartermaster of my regiment. This
dear fellow, the only man who chose to recognize me, and of whom I
will tell you more later, explained the marvel of my preservation, by
telling me that my horse was shot in the flank at the moment when I
was wounded. Man and beast went down together, like a monk cut out of
card-paper. As I fell, to the right or to the left, I was no doubt
covered by the body of my horse, which protected me from being
trampled to death or hit by a ball.
"When I came to myself, monsieur, I was in a position and an
atmosphere of which I could give you no idea if I talked till
to-morrow. The little air there was to breathe was foul. I wanted to
move, and found no room. I opened my eyes, and saw nothing. The most
alarming circumstance was the lack of air, and this enlightened me as
to my situation. I understood that no fresh air could penetrate to me,
and that I must die. This thought took off the sense of intolerable
pain which had aroused me. There was a violent singing in my ears. I
heard--or I thought I heard, I will assert nothing--groans from the
world of dead among whom I was lying. Some nights I still think I hear
those stifled moans; though the remembrance of that time is very
obscure, and my memory very indistinct, in spite of my impressions of
far more acute suffering I was fated to go through, and which have
confused my ideas.
"But there was something more awful than cries; there was a silence
such as I have never known elsewhere--literally, the silence of the
grave. At last, by raising my hands and feeling the dead, I discerned
a vacant space between my head and the human carrion above. I could
thus measure the space, granted by a chance of which I knew not the
cause. It would seem that, thanks to the carelessness and the haste
with which we had been pitched into the trench, two dead bodies had
leaned across and against each other, forming an angle like that made
by two cards when a child is building a card castle. Feeling about me
at once, for there was no time for play, I happily felt an arm lying
detached, the arm of a Hercules! A stout bone, to which I owed my
rescue. But for this unhoped-for help, I must have perished. But with
a fury you may imagine, I began to work my way through the bodies
which separated me from the layer of earth which had no doubt been
thrown over us--I say us, as if there had been others living! I worked
with a will, monsieur, for here I am! But to this day I do not know
how I succeeded in getting through the pile of flesh which formed a
barrier between me and life. You will say I had three arms. This
crowbar, which I used cleverly enough, opened out a little air between
the bodies I moved, and I economized my breath. At last I saw
daylight, but through snow!
"At that moment I perceived that my head was cut open. Happily my
blood, or that of my comrades, or perhaps the torn skin of my horse,
who knows, had in coagulating formed a sort of natural plaster. But,
in spite of it, I fainted away when my head came into contact with the
snow. However, the little warmth left in me melted the snow about me;
and when I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the middle of a
round hole, where I stood shouting as long as I could. But the sun was
rising, so I had very little chance of being heard. Was there any one
in the fields yet? I pulled myself up, using my feet as a spring,
resting on one of the dead, whose ribs were firm. You may suppose that
this was not the moment for saying, 'Respect courage in misfortune!'
In short, monsieur, after enduring the anguish, if the word is strong
enough for my frenzy, of seeing for a long time, yes, quite a long
time, those cursed Germans flying from a voice they heard where they
could see no one, I was dug out by a woman, who was brave or curious
enough to come close to my head, which must have looked as though it
had sprouted from the ground like a mushroom. This woman went to fetch
her husband, and between them they got me to their poor hovel.
"It would seem that I must have again fallen into a catalepsy--allow
me to use the word to describe a state of which I have no idea, but
which, from the account given by my hosts, I suppose to have been the
effect of that malady. I remained for six months between life and
death; not speaking, or, if I spoke, talking in delirium. At last, my
hosts got me admitted to the hospital at Heilsberg.
"You will understand, Monsieur, that I came out of the womb of the
grave as naked as I came from my mother's; so that six months
afterwards, when I remembered, one fine morning, that I had been
Colonel Chabert, and when, on recovering my wits, I tried to exact
from my nurse rather more respect than she paid to any poor devil, all
my companions in the ward began to laugh. Luckily for me, the surgeon,
out of professional pride, had answered for my cure, and was naturally
interested in his patient. When I told him coherently about my former
life, this good man, named Sparchmann, signed a deposition, drawn up
in the legal form of his country, giving an account of the miraculous
way in which I had escaped from the trench dug for the dead, the day
and hour when I had been found by my benefactress and her husband, the
nature and exact spot of my injuries, adding to these documents a
description of my person.
"Well, monsieur, I have neither these important pieces of evidence,
nor the declaration I made before a notary at Heilsberg, with a view
to establishing my identity. From the day when I was turned out of
that town by the events of the war, I have wandered about like a
vagabond, begging my bread, treated as a madman when I have told my
story, without ever having found or earned a sou to enable me to
recover the deeds which would prove my statements, and restore me to
society. My sufferings have often kept me for six months at a time in
some little town, where every care was taken of the invalid Frenchman,
but where he was laughed at to his face as soon as he said he was
Colonel Chabert. For a long time that laughter, those doubts, used to
put me into rages which did me harm, and which even led to my being
locked up at Stuttgart as a madman. And indeed, as you may judge from
my story, there was ample reason for shutting a man up.
"At the end of two years' detention, which I was compelled to submit
to, after hearing my keepers say a thousand times, 'Here is a poor man
who thinks he is Colonel Chabert' to people who would reply, 'Poor
fellow!' I became convinced of the impossibility of my own adventure.
I grew melancholy, resigned, and quiet, and gave up calling myself
Colonel Chabert, in order to get out of my prison, and see France once
more. Oh, monsieur! To see Paris again was a delirium which I----"
Without finishing his sentence, Colonel Chabert fell into a deep
study, which Derville respected.
"One fine day," his visitor resumed, "one spring day, they gave me the
key of the fields, as we say, and ten thalers, admitting that I talked
quite sensibly on all subjects, and no longer called myself Colonel
Chabert. On my honor, at that time, and even to this day, sometimes I
hate my name. I wish I were not myself. The sense of my rights kills
me. If my illness had but deprived me of all memory of my past life, I
could be happy. I should have entered the service again under any
name, no matter what, and should, perhaps, have been made
Field-Marshal in Austria or Russia. Who knows?"
"Monsieur," said the attorney, "you have upset all my ideas. I feel as
if I heard you in a dream. Pause for a moment, I beg of you."
"You are the only person," said the Colonel, with a melancholy look,
"who ever listened to me so patiently. No lawyer has been willing to
lend me ten napoleons to enable me to procure from Germany the
necessary documents to begin my lawsuit--"
"What lawsuit?" said the attorney, who had forgotten his client's
painful position in listening to the narrative of his past sufferings.
"Why, monsieur, is not the Comtesse Ferraud my wife? She has thirty
thousand francs a year, which belong to me, and she will not give me a
son. When I tell lawyers these things--men of sense; when I propose
--I, a beggar--to bring action against a Count and Countess; when I--a
dead man--bring up as against a certificate of death a certificate of
marriage and registers of births, they show me out, either with the
air of cold politeness, which you all know how to assume to rid
yourself of a hapless wretch, or brutally, like men who think they
have to deal with a swindler or a madman--it depends on their nature.
I have been buried under the dead; but now I am buried under the
living, under papers, under facts, under the whole of society, which
wants to shove me underground again!"
"Pray resume your narrative," said Derville.
"'Pray resume it!'" cried the hapless old man, taking the young
lawyer's hand. "That is the first polite word I have heard since----"
The Colonel wept. Gratitude choked his voice. The appealing and
unutterable eloquence that lies in the eyes, in a gesture, even in
silence, entirely convinced Derville, and touched him deeply.
"Listen, monsieur," said he; "I have this evening won three hundred
francs at cards. I may very well lay out half that sum in making a man
happy. I will begin the inquiries and researches necessary to obtain
the documents of which you speak, and until they arrive I will give
you five francs a day. If you are Colonel Chabert, you will pardon the
smallness of the loan as it is coming from a young man who has his
fortune to make. Proceed."
The Colonel, as he called himself, sat for a moment motionless and
bewildered; the depth of his woes had no doubt destroyed his powers of
belief. Though he was eager in pursuit of his military distinction, of
his fortune, of himself, perhaps it was in obedience to the
inexplicable feeling, the latent germ in every man's heart, to which
we owe the experiments of alchemists, the passion for glory, the
discoveries of astronomy and of physics, everything which prompts man
to expand his being by multiplying himself through deeds or ideas. In
his mind the /Ego/ was now but a secondary object, just as the vanity
of success or the pleasures of winning become dearer to the gambler
than the object he has at stake. The young lawyer's words were as a
miracle to this man, for ten years repudiated by his wife, by justice,
by the whole social creation. To find in a lawyer's office the ten
gold pieces which had so long been refused him by so many people, and
in so many ways! The colonel was like the lady who, having been ill of
a fever for fifteen years, fancied she had some fresh complaint when
she was cured. There are joys in which we have ceased to believe; they
fall on us, it is like a thunderbolt; they burn us. The poor man's
gratitude was too great to find utterance. To superficial observers he
seemed cold, but Derville saw complete honesty under this amazement. A
swindler would have found his voice.
"Where was I?" said the Colonel, with the simplicity of a child or of
a soldier, for there is often something of the child in a true
soldier, and almost always something of the soldier in a child,
especially in France.
"At Stuttgart. You were out of prison," said Derville.
"You know my wife?" asked the Colonel.
"Yes," said Derville, with a bow.
"What is she like?"
"Still quite charming."
The old man held up his hand, and seemed to be swallowing down some
secret anguish with the grave and solemn resignation that is
characteristic of men who have stood the ordeal of blood and fire on
"Monsieur," said he, with a sort of cheerfulness--for he breathed
again, the poor Colonel; he had again risen from the grave; he had
just melted a covering of snow less easily thawed than that which had
once before frozen his head; and he drew a deep breath, as if he had
just escaped from a dungeon--"Monsieur, if I had been a handsome young
fellow, none of my misfortunes would have befallen me. Women believe
in men when they flavor their speeches with the word Love. They hurry
then, they come, they go, they are everywhere at once; they intrigue,
they assert facts, they play the very devil for a man who takes their
fancy. But how could I interest a woman? I had a face like a Requiem.
I was dressed like a /sans-culotte/. I was more like an Esquimaux than
a Frenchman--I, who had formerly been considered one of the smartest
of fops in 1799!--I, Chabert, Count of the Empire.
"Well, on the very day when I was turned out into the streets like a
dog, I met the quartermaster of whom I just now spoke. This old
soldier's name was Boutin. The poor devil and I made the queerest pair
of broken-down hacks I ever set eyes on. I met him out walking; but
though I recognized him, he could not possibly guess who I was. We
went into a tavern together. In there, when I told him my name,
Boutin's mouth opened from ear to ear in a roar of laughter, like the
bursting of a mortar. That mirth, monsieur, was one of the keenest
pangs I have known. It told me without disguise how great were the
changes in me! I was, then, unrecognizable even to the humblest and
most grateful of my former friends!
"I had once saved Boutin's life, but it was only the repayment of a
debt I owed him. I need not tell you how he did me this service; it
was at Ravenna, in Italy. The house where Boutin prevented my being
stabbed was not extremely respectable. At that time I was not a
colonel, but, like Boutin himself, a common trooper. Happily there
were certain details of this adventure which could be known only to us
two, and when I recalled them to his mind his incredulity diminished.
I then told him the story of my singular experiences. Although my eyes
and my voice, he told me, were strangely altered, although I had
neither hair, teeth, nor eyebrows, and was as colorless as an Albino,
he at last recognized his Colonel in the beggar, after a thousand
questions, which I answered triumphantly.
"He related his adventures; they were not less extraordinary than my
own; he had lately come back from the frontiers of China, which he had
tried to cross after escaping from Siberia. He told me of the
catastrophe of the Russian campaign, and of Napoleon's first
abdication. That news was one of the things which caused me most
"We were two curious derelicts, having been rolled over the globe as
pebbles are rolled by the ocean when storms bear them from shore to
shore. Between us we had seen Egypt, Syria, Spain, Russia, Holland,
Germany, Italy and Dalmatia, England, China, Tartary, Siberia; the
only thing wanting was that neither of us had been to America or the
Indies. Finally, Boutin, who still was more locomotive than I,
undertook to go to Paris as quickly as might be to inform my wife of
the predicament in which I was. I wrote a long letter full of details
to Madame Chabert. That, monsieur, was the fourth! If I had had any
relations, perhaps nothing of all this might have happened; but, to be
frank with you, I am but a workhouse child, a soldier, whose sole
fortune was his courage, whose sole family is mankind at large, whose
country is France, whose only protector is the Almighty.--Nay, I am
wrong! I had a father--the Emperor! Ah! if he were but here, the dear
man! If he could see /his Chabert/, as he used to call me, in the
state in which I am now, he would be in a rage! What is to be done?
Our sun is set, and we are all out in the cold now. After all,
political events might account for my wife's silence!
"Boutin set out. He was a lucky fellow! He had two bears, admirably
trained, which brought him in a living. I could not go with him; the
pain I suffered forbade my walking long stages. I wept, monsieur, when
we parted, after I had gone as far as my state allowed in company with
him and his bears. At Carlsruhe I had an attack of neuralgia in the
head, and lay for six weeks on straw in an inn. I should never have
ended if I were to tell you all the distresses of my life as a beggar.
Moral suffering, before which physical suffering pales, nevertheless
excites less pity, because it is not seen. I remember shedding tears,
as I stood in front of a fine house in Strassburg where once I had
given an entertainment, and where nothing was given me, not even a
piece of bread. Having agreed with Boutin on the road I was to take, I
went to every post-office to ask if there were a letter or some money
for me. I arrived at Paris without having found either. What despair I
had been forced to endure! 'Boutin must be dead! I told myself, and in
fact the poor fellow was killed at Waterloo. I heard of his death
later, and by mere chance. His errand to my wife had, of course, been
"At last I entered Paris--with the Cossacks. To me this was grief on
grief. On seeing the Russians in France, I quite forgot that I had no
shoes on my feet nor money in my pocket. Yes, monsieur, my clothes
were in tatters. The evening before I reached Paris I was obliged to
bivouac in the woods of Claye. The chill of the night air no doubt
brought on an attack of some nameless complaint which seized me as I
was crossing the Faubourg Saint-Martin. I dropped almost senseless at
the door of an ironmonger's shop. When I recovered I was in a bed in
the Hotel-Dieu. There I stayed very contentedly for about a month. I
was then turned out; I had no money, but I was well, and my feet were
on the good stones of Paris. With what delight and haste did I make my
way to the Rue du Mont-Blanc, where my wife should be living in a
house belonging to me! Bah! the Rue du Mont-Blanc was now the Rue de
la Chausee d'Antin; I could not find my house; it had been sold and
pulled down. Speculators had built several houses over my gardens. Not
knowing that my wife had married M. Ferraud, I could obtain no
"At last I went to the house of an old lawyer who had been in charge
of my affairs. This worthy man was dead, after selling his connection
to a younger man. This gentleman informed me, to my great surprise, of
the administration of my estate, the settlement of the moneys, of my
wife's marriage, and the birth of her two children. When I told him
that I was Colonel Chabert, he laughed so heartily that I left him
without saying another word. My detention at Stuttgart had suggested
possibilities of Charenton, and I determined to act with caution.
Then, monsieur, knowing where my wife lived, I went to her house, my
heart high with hope.--Well," said the Colonel, with a gesture of
concentrated fury, "when I called under an assumed name I was not
admitted, and on the day when I used my own I was turned out of doors.
"To see the Countess come home from a ball or the play in the early
morning, I have sat whole nights through, crouching close to the wall
of her gateway. My eyes pierced the depths of the carriage, which
flashed past me with the swiftness of lightning, and I caught a
glimpse of the woman who is my wife and no longer mine. Oh, from that
day I have lived for vengeance!" cried the old man in a hollow voice,
and suddenly standing up in front of Derville. "She knows that I am
alive; since my return she has had two letters written with my own
hand. She loves me no more!--I--I know not whether I love or hate her.
I long for her and curse her by turns. To me she owes all her fortune,
all her happiness; well, she has not sent me the very smallest
pittance. Sometimes I do not know what will become of me!"
With these words the veteran dropped on to his chair again and
remained motionless. Derville sat in silence, studying his client.
"It is a serious business," he said at length, mechanically. "Even
granting the genuineness of the documents to be procured from
Heilsberg, it is not proved to me that we can at once win our case. It
must go before three tribunals in succession. I must think such a
matter over with a clear head; it is quite exceptional."
"Oh," said the Colonel, coldly, with a haughty jerk of his head, "if I
fail, I can die--but not alone."
The feeble old man had vanished. The eyes were those of a man of
energy, lighted up with the spark of desire and revenge.
"We must perhaps compromise," said the lawyer.
"Compromise!" echoed Colonel Chabert. "Am I dead, or am I alive?"
"I hope, monsieur," the attorney went on, "that you will follow my
advice. Your cause is mine. You will soon perceive the interest I take
in your situation, almost unexampled in judicial records. For the
moment I will give you a letter to my notary, who will pay to your
order fifty francs every ten days. It would be unbecoming for you to
come here to receive alms. If you are Colonel Chabert, you ought to be
at no man's mercy. I shall record these advances as a loan; you have
estates to recover; you are rich."
This delicate compassion brought tears to the old man's eyes. Derville
rose hastily, for it was perhaps not correct for a lawyer to show
emotion; he went into the adjoining room, and came back with an
unsealed letter, which he gave to the Colonel. When the poor man held
it in his hand, he felt through the paper two gold pieces.
"Will you be good enough to describe the documents, and tell me the
name of the town, and in what kingdom?" said the lawyer.
The Colonel dictated the information, and verified the spelling of the
names of places; then he took his hat in one hand, looked at Derville,
and held out the other--a horny hand, saying with much simplicity:
"On my honor, sir, after the Emperor, you are the man to whom I shall
owe most. You are a splendid fellow!"
The attorney clapped his hand into the Colonel's, saw him to the
stairs, and held a light for him.
"Boucard," said Derville to his head clerk, "I have just listened to a
tale that may cost me five and twenty louis. If I am robbed, I shall
not regret the money, for I shall have seen the most consummate actor
of the day."
When the Colonel was in the street and close to a lamp, he took the
two twenty-franc pieces out of the letter and looked at them for a
moment under the light. It was the first gold he had seen for nine
"I may smoke cigars!" he said to himself.
Photos: Scenes from the film:
"Le Colonel Chabert".