Colonel Chabert

Colonel Chabert

COLONEL CHABERT HONORE DE BALZAC "HULLO! There is that old Box-coat again!" This exclamation was made by a lawyer's clerk of the class called in French offices a gutter-jumper--a messenger in fact--who at this moment was eating a piece of dry bread with a hearty appetite. He pulled off a morsel of crumb to make into a bullet and fired it gleefully through the open pane of the window against which he was leaning. The pellet well aimed rebounded almost as high as the window after hitting the hat of a stranger who was crossing the courtyard of a house in the Rue Vivienne where dwelt Maitre Derville attorney-at-law. "Come Simonnin don't play tricks on people or I will turn you out of doors. However poor a client may be he is still a man hang it all!" said the head clerk pausing in the addition of a bill of costs. The lawyer's messenger is commonly as was Simonnin a lad of thirteen or fourteen who in every office is under the special jurisdiction of the managing clerk whose errands and /billets-doux/ keep him employed on his way to carry writs to the bailiffs and petitions to the Courts. He is akin to the street boy in his habits and to the pettifogger by fate. The boy is almost always ruthless unbroken unmanageable a ribald rhymester impudent greedy and idle. And yet almost all these clerklings have an old mother lodging on some fifth floor with whom they share their pittance of thirty or forty francs a month. "If he is a man why do you call him old Box-coat?" asked Simonnin with the air of a schoolboy who has caught out his master. And he went on eating his bread and cheese leaning his shoulder against the window jamb; for he rested standing like a cab-horse one of his legs raised and propped against the other on the toe of his shoe. "What trick can we play that cove?" said the third clerk whose name was Godeschal in a low voice pausing in the middle of a discourse he was extemporizing in an appeal engrossed by the fourth clerk of which copies were being made by two neophytes from the provinces. Then he went on improvising: "/But in his noble and beneficent wisdom his Majesty Louis the Eighteenth/--(write it at full length heh! Desroches the learned-- you as you engross it!)--/when he resumed the reins of Government understood/--(what did that old nincompoop ever understand?)--/the high mission to which he had been called by Divine Providence!/--(a note of admiration and six stops. They are pious enough at the Courts to let us put six)--/and his first thought as is proved by the date of the order hereinafter designated was to repair the misfortunes caused by the terrible and sad disasters of the revolutionary times by restoring to his numerous and faithful adherents/--('numerous' is flattering and ought to please the Bench)--/all their unsold estates whether within our realm or in conquered or acquired territory or in the endowments of public institutions for we are and proclaim ourselves competent to declare that this is the spirit and meaning of the famous truly loyal order given in/--Stop" said Godeschal to the three copying clerks "that rascally sentence brings me to the end of my page.--Well" he went on wetting the back fold of the sheet with his tongue so as to be able to fold back the page of thick stamped paper "well if you want to play him a trick tell him that the master can only see his clients between two and three in the morning; we shall see if he comes the old ruffian!" And Godeschal took up the sentence he was dictating--"/given in/--Are you ready?" "Yes" cried the three writers. It all went all together the appeal the gossip and the conspiracy. "/Given in/--Here Daddy Boucard what is the date of the order? We must dot our /i/'s and cross our /t/'s by Jingo! it helps to fill the pages." "By Jingo!" repeated one of the copying clerks before Boucard the head clerk could reply. "What! have you written /by Jingo/?" cried Godeschal looking at one of the novices with an expression at once stern and humorous. "Why yes" said Desroches the fourth clerk leaning across his neighbor's copy "he has written '/We must dot our i's/' and spelt it /by Gingo/!" All the clerks shouted with laughter. "Why! Monsieur Hure you take 'By Jingo' for a law term and you say you come from Mortagne!" exclaimed Simonnin. "Scratch it cleanly out" said the head clerk. "If the judge whose business it is to tax the bill were to see such things he would say you were laughing at the whole boiling. You would hear of it from the chief! Come no more of this nonsense Monsieur Hure! A Norman ought not to write out an appeal without thought. It is the 'Shoulder arms!' of the law." "/Given in--in/?" asked Godeschal.--"Tell me when Boucard." "June 1814" replied the head clerk without looking up from his work. A knock at the office door interrupted the circumlocutions of the prolix document. Five clerks with rows of hungry teeth bright mocking eyes and curly heads lifted their noses towards the door after crying all together in a singing tone "Come in!" Boucard kept his face buried in a pile of papers--/broutilles/ (odds and ends) in French law jargon--and went on drawing out the bill of costs on which he was busy. The office was a large room furnished with the traditional stool which is to be seen in all these dens of law-quibbling. The stove-pipe crossed the room diagonally to the chimney of a bricked-up fireplace; on the marble chimney-piece were several chunks of bread triangles of Brie cheese pork cutlets glasses bottles and the head clerk's cup of chocolate. The smell of these dainties blended so completely with that of the immoderately overheated stove and the odor peculiar to offices and old papers that the trail of a fox would not have been perceptible. The floor was covered with mud and snow brought in by the clerks. Near the window stood the desk with a revolving lid where the head clerk worked and against the back of it was the second clerk's table. The second clerk was at this moment in Court. It was between eight and nine in the morning. The only decoration of the office consisted in huge yellow posters announcing seizures of real estate sales settlements under trust final or interim judgments--all the glory of a lawyer's office. Behind the head clerk was an enormous room of which each division was crammed with bundles of papers with an infinite number of tickets hanging from them at the ends of red tape which give a peculiar physiognomy to law papers. The lower rows were filled with cardboard boxes yellow with use on which might be read the names of the more important clients whose cases were juicily stewing at this present time. The dirty window-panes admitted but little daylight. Indeed there are very few offices in Paris where it is possible to write without lamplight before ten in the morning in the month of February for they are all left to very natural neglect; every one comes and no one stays; no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine --neither the attorney nor the counsel nor the clerks trouble themselves about the appearance of a place which to the youths is a schoolroom; to the clients a passage; to the chief a laboratory. The greasy furniture is handed down to successive owners with such scrupulous care that in some offices may still be seen boxes of /remainders/ machines for twisting parchment gut and bags left by the prosecuting parties of the Chatelet (abbreviated to /Chlet/)--a Court which under the old order of things represented the present Court of First Instance (or County Court). So in this dark office thick with dust there was as in all its fellows something repulsive to the clients--something which made it one of the most hideous monstrosities of Paris. Nay were it not for the mouldy sacristies where prayers are weighed out and paid for like groceries and for the old-clothes shops where flutter the rags that blight all the illusions of life by showing us the last end of all our festivities--an attorney's office would be of all social marts the most loathsome. But we might say the same of the gambling-hell of the Law Court of the lottery office of the brothel. But why? In these places perhaps the drama being played in a man's soul makes him indifferent to accessories which would also account for the single-mindedness of great thinkers and men of great ambitions. "Where is my penknife?" "I am eating my breakfast." "You go and be hanged! here is a blot on the copy." "Silence gentlemen!" These various exclamations were uttered simultaneously at the moment when the old client shut the door with the sort of humility which disfigures the movements of a man down on his luck. The stranger tried to smile but the muscles of his face relaxed as he vainly looked for some symptoms of amenity on the inexorably indifferent faces of the six clerks. Accustomed no doubt to gauge men he very politely addressed the gutter-jumper hoping to get a civil answer from this boy of all work. "Monsieur is your master at home?" The pert messenger made no reply but patted his ear with the fingers of his left hand as much as to say "I am deaf." "What do you want sir?" asked Godeschal swallowing as he spoke a mouthful of bread big enough to charge a four-pounder flourishing his knife and crossing his legs throwing up one foot in the air to the ...