PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
The Crimson Curtain
A considerable number of years ago I went to shoot waterfowl in the western marshes, and, as there was no railway then, I took the diligence, which passed the cross-roads near the Chateau de Reuil, and which at that precise moment contained only one passenger inside. This person, a very remarkable man in every respect, and whom I knew by having often met him in society, I will ask your permission to introduce as the Vicomte de Brassard. The precaution is probably useless! The few hundred people who constitute Parisian society are, no doubt, able to supply the real name. It was about five o’clock in the evening. The sun shed its slanting rays on a dusty road, edged with poplar trees and fields, through which we rattled, drawn by four stout horses, whose strong flanks rolled heavily at each crack of the postilion’s whip – a postilion always reminds me of life, there is a great deal too much of whip-cracking at the outset.
Vicomte de Brassard was at that time of life when he was no longer disposed to crack his whip. But he was one of those men worthy of being an Englishman (he was educated in England) who, if he had been mortally wounded, would have died declaring he was a live. In the world, and even in books, we are used to laugh at the pretensions to youth of those whose have passed the happy age of inexperience and foolishness – and the custom is not a bad one when the pretensions take a ridiculous form; but when they do not, but on the contrary assume a pride that will; not confess defeat, I do not say they are not senseless, for they are senseless, for they are useless, but they deserve respect, like many other senseless things. If it was heroic of the Guards of Waterloo to die and not surrender, it is the same when we are face to face with old age, which is not so romantic as bayonets. Some heads are built in a military manner, never to surrender, and that is the whole question, as it was at Waterloo.
Vicomte de Brassard, who has not surrendered – he is still alive, and I will tell you about him later, for it is worth knowing – Vicomte de Brassard was then, at the time when I travelled with him in the diligence, what the world, which is as spiteful as an old woman, rudely calls “ an old beau”. For those who care little for words or figures, and who deem that in the matter of age a man is only as old as he appears to be, Vicomte de Brassard might have passed for a “beau” without any qualification. At least, at that very time the Marquise de V… who was an expert judge of young men, and who had shaved a dozen mean as clean as Delilah shaved Samson – wore, with much pride in an enamelled gold bracelet, one of the ends of the Vicomte’s moustache, of which time, or the devil, had not changed the colour. Only , whether old or not, do not attach to the expression “ beau”, as the world has done, an idea of someone frivolous, lean, and cadaverous, for you would not have a proper idea of Vicomte de Brassard, in whom everything – intellect, manners physiognomy - was large, opulent redolent of patrician calmness, as befitted the most magnificent dandy I have ever known-- I, who have seen Brummell go mad, and d’Orsay die.
For he was really a true dandy. If he had been less so. he would certainly have become Marshall of France. He had been in his youth one of the most brilliant officers of the latter days of the First Empire. I have heard it said many times by his regimental comrades that he was distinguished by the bravery of Murat, added to that of Marmont, and that as he was cool and level-headed when the drums were not beating, he might in a short time have attained to the highest rank of the military hierarchy if it had not been for his dandyism. If you combine dandyism with the qualities which go to make an officer – discipline, regularity etc – you will see how much of the officer will remain in the combination, and whether he does not blow up like a powder-magazine. If the Vicomte de Brassard had never exploded, it was because, like all dandies, he was happy Mazarine would have employed him – and so would Mazarin’s nieces, but for another reason. He was superb.
He had had that beauty which is necessary to a soldier more than to anyone else, for there is no youth without beauty, and the army is the youth of France! It was that beauty, moreover, which not only seduces women, but circumstances themselves – the rascals - had not been the only protection spread over the head of Captain de Brassard. He was, I believe, of Norman family, of the race of William the Conqueror, and he had, it is said, conquered a good deal himself. After abdication of the Emperor, he had naturally gone over to the Bourbons, and, during the Hundred Days, had remained supernaturally faithful to them. Sol, when the Bourbons came back for the second time, the Vicomte was made a Chevalier of Saint Louis and decorated by Charles X (then Monsieur) with his own royal hand. During the whole time of the Restoration, the handsome de Brassard never once mounted Guard at the Tuileries without the Duchesse of Angouleme addressing a few gracious words to him as she passed. She in whom misfortune had slain graciousness, managed to find some for him. The Minister, seeing this favour, would have done all he could to advance the man whom Madame thus singled out; but, with the best will in the world, what could be done for this terrible dandy who, at a review, had drawn his sword on the inspecting general for having made some remark about his military duties? It was quite enough to save him from a court martial. This careless disdain of discipline always distinguished Vicomte de Brassard.
Except when on a campaign, when he was a thorough officer, he was never amenable to discipline. Many times he had been known – at the risk of being imprisoned for an indefinite period - to have secretly left a garrison, to go and amuse himself in some neighbouring town, and only to return when there was a review or a parade – warned by one of his soldiers, who loved him, for if his superiors scarcely cared to have him under their orders a man to whom were repugnant all routine and discipline, the soldiers, on the other hand, adored him. To them he was an excellent officer. He only required that they should be brave, punctilious, and careful in their person and dress, and thus realize the old type of the French soldier, as he is depicted in La permissioned dix heures, and in two or three old songs which are masterpieces in their way. He was, perhaps, too fond of making them fight duels, but he asserted that it was the best means he knew to develop the military spirit.” I am not the government,” he said, “ and I have no medals to give them when they fight bravely amongst themselves, but the Orders of which I am the grandmaster ( he had a considerable private fortune) are gloves, spare cross-belts, and whatever may spruce them up – so far as the regulations will allow.”
So the company which he commanded eclipsed, in the matter of equipment, all the other companies of the Grenadiers of the Guard, brilliant as they were. Thus he flattered to excess the soldiers, who in France are always prone to fatuity and coquetry, two permanent provocations, the one because of its tone, the other because of the envy it excites. It will easily be understood, after this, that all the other companies were jealous of his. The men would fight to get into it, and then had to fight not to get out of it.
Such had been , during the Restoration, the exceptional position of Captain Vicomte de Brassard. And as he had not then every day, as he had during the Empire, the resource of doing brave deeds which would have caused all to be forgiven, no one could have foreseen or guessed how long this insubordination which astonished his comrades, would have lasted, but the Revolution of 1830 happened just in time to prevent him from being cashiered. He was badly wounded during the Three Days, and disdained to take service under the new dynasty of the Orleans, for whom he had contempt. When the Revolution of July made them masters of a country they did not know how to keep, it found the Captain in bed, laid up with an injury to his foot he had received in dancing – as he would have charged – at the last ball of the Duchesse de Berry.
But at the first roll of the drum, he nevertheless, rose and joined his company, and as he would not put his boots on account of his wound, he went to the rioting as he would have gone to a ball, in varnished shoes and silk socks, and it was thus he led his grenadiers to the Place de la Bastille, with instructions to clear the whole length of the Boulevards.
Paris, in which no barricades had yet been erected, had a gloomy and terrible appearance. It was deserted. The sun glared down, and seemed a fiery rain, soon to be followed by another, when from behind the closed shutters of every window there should pour a deadly storm.
Captain de Brassard drew up his men in two lines, as close as possible to each row of houses so that each file of soldiers was only exposed only to the fire from the houses opposite, whilst he, more dandified than ever, walked down the middle of the road. Aimed at from both sides by thousands of guns ,pistols, and carbines, all the way from the Bastille to the Rue de Richilieu, he was not hit, in spite of the breadth of his chest, of which he was perhaps a little too proud – for Captain de Brassard swelled out his chest in a fight, as a pretty woman who wants to show off her charms does at a ball – when, just as he arrived In front of Frascati’s, at the corner of Rue de Richilieu, and at the moment when he commanded the troops to mass together in order to carry the first barricade which he had found on his road, he received a ball in his magnificent chest, which was doubly tempting, both on, account of its size and the long silver braid which went from one shoulder to the other, and he had also his arm broken by a stone – which did not prevent him from carrying the barricade, and proceeding as far as the Madeleine at the head of his excited soldiers.
There, two ladies in a carriage, who were fleeing from the insurrection in Paris, seeing an officer of the Guard wounded, covered with blood, and lying on the blocks of stone which at that time surrounded the Madeleine, which was still in course of construction, placed their carriage at his disposal, and he was taken by them to Gros Caillou, where the Marshal de Raguse was, to whom he said, in military fashion: ”Marshal, I have not, perhaps, more than two hours to live, but during these two hours put me wherever you like.”
Only he was wrong. He was good for more than two hours. The ball which passed through his body did not kill him. It was more than fifteen years later when I saw him, and he declared then that in defiance of the doctors, who had expressly forbidden him to drink as long as the fever caused by his wound continued, he had been saved from a certain death only by Bordeaux wine.
And how he did drink! – for, dandy as he was, he drank as he did everything else – he drank like a trooper. He had made for him a splendid goblet to Bohemian glass, which held a whole bottle of Bordeaux, by God, and he would drain it off at a draught. He would say, after he had drunk it, that he always drank like that -,and it was true. But in these days, when strength of every kind is continually diminishing and is no longer thought much of, it may seem that this feat is nothing to boast about He was like Bassompierre, and could take his wine as he did. I have seen him toss off his Bohemian glass a dozen times without seeming any the worse for it. I have often seen him on those occasions which respectable people call “orgies”, and never, after even the most inordinate bouts, did he appear tom be more than he called a “ little tight”. I – who wish to make you understand what sort of man he was, in order that you may follow my story – may as well tell you that I have known him to keep seven mistresses at the same time. He entitled them, poetically, “ the seven strings of his lyre” – and I must say that I disapprove of his speaking in this jesting and musical way of his immorality. But what would you have? If Captain Vicomte de Brassard had not been all that I have had the honour to tell you, my story would have been less sensational, and probably I should not have thought it worth while to relate it to you.