Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac

Le Colonel Chabert
Colonel Chabert

The novel opens with a humorous scene set in the office of Paris attorney Derville. The clerks are on a break which consists of eating a snack and throwing bread spitballs. Simonnin, an errand boy is described as a street urchin–and they are different in Paris than anywhere else on earth–ruthless, headstrong, impudent and lazy, yet helping to support his mother on his earnings of thirty or forty francs a month. He is making fun of a stranger he calls Old Greatcoat. It is Colonel Chabert. Godeschal wants to play a trick on the stranger whose knock is answered in unison by the five young clerks.

The office itself is littered with bits of left-over food and reeks of the odor peculiar to offices. The floor is covered with mud and snow which the clerks have tracked in. The only decorations are the huge yellow posters announcing seizures of real estate, sales, settlements under trust, final or interim judgments, etc. An entire wall is covered with pigeonholes containing legal documents and shelves of yellowed cardboard boxes. The windows are dirty and the room is dusty. There are no chairs for visitors as they are not invited to remain long.

This is Colonel Chabert’s fifth try to have a conference with Derville and he won’t explain his case to the clerks. When he desires to wait, he is told to return at one a.m. As soon as he leaves, the clerks begin speculating on who he is and what his occupation could have been. When Boucard says that he was a colonel (they don’t yet know his name), in the Republic, Godeschal wagers tickets for all to a show that he was not a soldier.

The irrepressible Simonnin calls out the window and tells his companions that he is going to ask him as he must know. The cagey rascal tells the stranger that they need his name for the appointment book. On hearing the name Chabert, Hure asks, “Isn’t that the Colonel who died at Eylau?” Chabert simply replies, “The same, monsieur,” and leaves.

Another humorous scene follows with the clerks trying to decide the definition of a show in settlement of the bet. Godeschal also contends that the stranger may be playing a trick on them as Colonel Chabert is dead and his wife, a client of theirs, is remarried to Count Ferraud. The head clerk, Boucard, says they should all go to the Comedie Francaise to see Talma and with that, they all return to work.

Colonel Chabert now arrives for his one a.m. appointment and is surprised that it wasn’t a hoax. Boucard is arranging the files Derville will need to review the cases of the day to come. Derville arrives in evening clothes.

When Chabert rises to greet him, his wig comes off with his hat and reveals his horribly mutilated skull. When he says he is Colonel Chabert who died at Eylau, Derville and and his clerk exchange glances as if the man is insane. He wishes to tell his story in private, so Derville dismisses his head clerk.

Chabert relates his ordeal beginning when, thought to be dead, he was buried alive in the mass grave on the battlefield. He tells how, horribly wounded, he finally became conscious and was able to almost gain the surface and was discovered by a peasant woman who took him to her home and nursed him for six months. Finally, he was admitted to a hospital and eventually released, but was penniless. His surgeon, when hearing the details of his ordeal, completed legal forms and these, with other statements, were in the office of a Heilsberg attorney.

As he tried to make his way home to Paris, anyone to whom he told his story thought him crazy and he was even locked up in Stuttgart for two years. He became resigned to the fact that no one would believe his story and even stopped calling himself Colonel Chabert. He was then given a small token amount of money and released.

Derville stops Chabert for a moment, saying he is confused. Chabert sadly says that Derville is the only person who would even listen to him and that he hadn’t been able to find an attorney to advance him the money needed to send to Germany for the papers necessary to begin the lawsuit.

When Derville asks, “What lawsuit?” Chabert tells him that his wife, now Countess Ferraud, has an income of thirty thousand francs a year which belongs to him and she won’t give him a sou or even recognize him.

Chabert weeps with gratitude upon hearing Derville use the word please when asking him to go on with his story. Derville mentions that he won three hundred francs at cards and will use half of it for Chabert’s benefit, sending for the papers and giving him a small amount on which to live while waiting.

Chabert relates how he met an old quartermaster named Boutin and how, once convinced of his identity, Boutin (who had extraordinary adventures of his own) was to proceed quickly to Paris and let Chabert’s wife know all. But Chabert eventually arrived himself in Paris and, having no word from Boutin, feels he must have died somewhere along the way.

Having no money, Chabert had to sleep in the woods, the cold night made him sick and he spent another month in a hospital. Arriving at the location of his former home, he discovered that it had been sold and demolished. His garden was now a housing development. His attorney had sold his business to a young man and was now dead. The young man told him of the hearing on his estate, his wife’s marriage and the birth of two children. He laughed when Chabert told him his name.

Chabert was able to find out where his wife was living. She refused to see him and he used to wait just to see her carriage drive past.

Derville says that this is very serious, and very unusual. They may not win the case even with the papers from Heilsberg and they may have to compromise.

After Chabert leaves, Derville says to Boucard: “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.”

Outside, Chabert looks at the first advance which Derville gave him and says, “I may smoke cigars!”

Three months have passed and Crottat, who has been giving Chabert his daily living expenses, pays a visit to Derville to request reimbursement for his funds. It was Roguin’s office that settled Chabert’s estate. Crottat was third clerk at the time.

Just when Derville begins to believe he was duped by Chabert, he receives word from the Berlin notary that the requested documents should arrive in a few days and that they are in perfect order and legally admissible in court. Also, nearly all the witnesses, including the woman who saved Chabert’s life, are still living in the area.

Derville goes to visit Chabert where he is now staying, with an old quarter-master named Louis Vergniaud who had served with Chabert in Egypt and also with Luigi Porta (The Vendetta). Vergniaud has a wife and three children. The dwelling is described as a hovel made of materials from demolished buildings. Derville thinks it is very degrading for Chabert to live in this setting.

Hearing Derville, Chabert comes outside. His clothes are still very disreputable, but he has his tobacco and the respect of the three children to whom he calls out in a friendly tone, “Silence in the ranks!”

Chabert directs Derville along a path so he doesn’t have to “slop through the dungheap” to the little room near the dairy. The room is damp and has an earth floor. It is so dreary and poverty-stricken looking that Derville can’t help but exclaim that the Colonel must be miserably uncomfortable. He thinks that Chabert has been spending his money on wine, women and song.

Chabert replies that it is made tolerable by friendship. When Derville asks why Chabert doesn’t move to Paris, Chabert exclaims that the good people have fed him free for a year and he won’t leave them now just because he has a little money and anyway he hasn’t finished teaching the children to read.

When Derville tries to explain that it is a complicated case, Chabert says that it seems quite simple to him, “I was thought to be dead, and here I am!” He wants his wife, his money and the rank of General which he earned.

Derville tries to explain that everything will be contested and it could take years to go through the many courts. The courts might even annul his marriage since there were no children and his wife has two children with Ferraud. He explains that his fortune couldn’t exceed three hundred thousand francs less expenses. He advises Chabert to settle but Chabert says that would be like selling his wife.

Derville says that the preliminary hearing expenses would cost ten to fifteen thousand francs and he does not have that much money to advance Chabert. Unused to any but rapid military justice, Chabert thinks it sounds simpler to remain a poor beggar and enlist as a trooper. He has lost his will with this final blow. When Derville asks him to trust that he will work in his best interests, Chabert tells him he will leave the matter entirely in his hands. They shake hands warmly and Chabert, leaning against the wall, watches as Derville walks away. He was frightened by the prospect of a legal struggle and had not the energy to escort Derville on his way.

As Derville leaves Chabert, he is approached by a man who has been watching. It is Louis Vergniaud with whom Chabert is lodging.

When Derville exclaims about the condition of Chabert’s lodging, Vergniaud informs him that he has the best room. He goes on to say that Chabert has hurt the feelings of himself and his wife by working around the place and then paying their debt so that they now feel very indebted to him. Vergniaud asks Derville for a loan so they can buy Chabert some clothes and furnish his room.

As Derville looks around at the poverty-stricken place, he thinks it is characteristic of virtue to have nothing to do with riches. He tells the man than soon Chabert will be rich enough himself to help. As he climbs into his cab, he begins to plan his campaign.

We learn about the Ferrauds as Derville plans how he can frighten Countess Ferraud into settling with Colonel Chabert.

Count Ferraud is the son of a Parliamentary Councillor who sacrificed his fortune and fled during the Terror, to save his life. The young Count returned and resumed his father’s Royalist connections and was also courted by Napoleon who wanted an entry into the society of Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Monsieur (as he was then) Ferraud was an attractive man of twenty-six at the time of Colonel Chabert’s “death”, but without a fortune.

By eighteen months after her husband’s death, Countess Chabert had an income of around forty thousand francs and her marriage to Ferraud pleased both Napoleon and the haughty society. She loved her husband, but another reason for her marriage was her desire to enter the society which still dominated the Imperial Court.

Busy with his political career, Ferraud hired the bankrupt attorney Delbecq to manage his private affairs, including some of the former Ferraud family property which had been returned to him. The Countess also made use of Delbecq, and as she had no scruples in business dealings, he tripled her capital. Meanwhile she was using only her husband’s money to run the household.

Now, just when the Countess has it all, love, a fortune of her own and her husband’s and acceptance in society, Ferraud begins to regret his marriage because she has no family connections who can help him politically and certain flaws in her education made her unfit to aid him in that sphere. It was a remark Ferraud made about Tallyrand’s marriage which enlightened the Countess to this fact. This is why she fears Chabert’s return. She is on her own, being afraid to confide in Delbecq or the police.

As Derville considers what he knows of the situation of the Ferrauds, he wonders why the Count isn’t already a peer of France. Derville thinks that if the Ferraud marriage would be annulled, then the King (time has passed and it is the period of the Restoration) might give him the title of one of the old peers who has only daughters. At any rate, Derville realizes this is a possibility with which he can frighten the Countess.

Countess Ferraud receives Derville while at breakfast in the pretty winter dining-room where she is playing with a pet monkey. Derville sees a rich, attractive and spoiled woman and he sees a woman living on the spoils of her marriage to Chabert while the Colonel is housed in a lean-to on the property of a poverty-stricken dairy-man.

First she tells him that the Count is not in; then when he says that is good as it concerns her affairs, she tries to send for Delbecq. In order to get her to take him seriously, Derville bluntly tells her that Colonel Chabert is alive which causes her to burst out laughing.

Derville mentions authentic documents and says that once the death certificate is nullified, the rest will follow favorably. Derville then mentions a letter from Chabert which she received prior to her remarriage. When she denies it, he tricks her and adds, “You are caught, madame, in the first snare laid for you by an attorney, and you fancy you could fight against Justice.”

After hearing how Chabert is living in poverty, she says that the courts will uphold her second marriage because of the children and the worst that can happen is that she would have to restore 225,000 francs of his fortune to Chabert.

Derville tells her that is not necessarily the case but he wants to shield her from another danger–that if Ferraud heard that his marriage to her could be annulled he would be free to marry the only daughter of a Peer and obtain the father’s title. When she turns pale, Derville realizes he has found her weakness.

Derville suggests a compromise. When asked if Chabert still loves her, Derville merely says, “Well, I do not think he can do otherwise.” This gives her hope that she can cunningly play on Chabert’s affections to win her case.

About a week later, the Countess and the Colonel travel from opposite ends of Paris to Derville’s office. Chabert arrives first and is taken to an inner office. He is well attired with a wig and his Legion of Honor ribbon. His hopes are reflected in his face and he even looks younger. When the Countess arrives, Derville tells her that she does not need to see Chabert, that they can discuss the agreement in adjoining rooms with him as the intermediary.

Derville begins and the impatient Countess tells him to skip the preliminaries. He continues but she again interrupts saying that these conditions do not suit her. Unable to ascertain what she does want, Derville finally says, “You want him to remain dead?” She counters by saying she will go to court before paying Chabert 24,000 francs a year. Chabert bursts into the room and, standing with one hand in his waistcoat, answers, “Yes, we will go to law.”

At the first sight of her husband, Countess Ferraud knows it is him, but argues that he is an imposter. When Chabert begins to mention how and where they met, she takes offense and leaves.

Chabert is furious at her behavior. Derville says that he knows she recognized him but says she now knows that his ordeal has rendered him unrecognizable. When Chabert blurts out “I will kill her!” Derville reminds him that he would be caught and executed and that, anyway, he might miss. Derville warns Chabert to be careful because she is capable of setting a trap for him and getting him locked up in an asylum.

As the Colonel reaches the last landing on his way to the street, the Countess appears and graciously takes his arm, escorting him to her carriage. She tells the servant to take them to Groslay.

As the carriage sets off across Paris, the Countess exclaims, “Monsieur!” which seems to have many meanings. She confesses that she knew him at once and he replies that those words are a balm to make him forget his misfortunes. She adds that she did not want to be compromised in front of a stranger but would like to keep it in the family.

Rosine, as Chabert calls her, says that her mistake was innocent as his letters reached her thirteen months after the battle of Eyla and that “they were opened, dirty, the writing was unrecognizable.” She believed them to be a fraud. She then speaks charmingly, as a daughter, of their life together.

After three days, during which the Countess is sweet and attentive to Chabert, she writes to Delbecq to read and copy Derville’s documents pertaining to Chabert and bring them to her. As she finishes her letter, Chabert arrives and the Countess exclaims, “Alas! I wish I were dead! My position is intolerable.” When he asks what is the matter, she goes first to her maid, privately, to have her send the letter. Then she sits outside to await Chabert. It is an exquisite, calm June evening.

Blushing, Rosine asks Chabert how she should refer to Ferraud and Chabert replies to call him her husband as he is the father of her two children. She wonders what she should tell her husband when he inquires why she came to Groslay and what to say if he learns she has been in the company of a stranger all this time. She tells Chabert that he must decide her fate, that she is resigned to anything.

Chabert begins, “I have made up my mind to sacrifice myself entirely for your happiness . .” but she interrupts to say it is impossible as he would have to renounce his identity and file the authentic forms.

At the word authentic, Chabert is hurt and also distrustful. He asks, “Is not my word enough for you?”

The tension is broken by a child’s cry in the distance. Chabert is surprised to find that her children are at Groslay. She mentions that she had told them not to bother him and he says to let them come. When they rush to her, it makes a charming scene. The Countess cries that she will have to leave them and then says she will suffer anything if she can keep her children. This final touch causes Chabert to say, “I must return underground again. I had told myself so already.” Rosine says it would be too much of a sacrifice and adds that were it not for her two children she would already have fled with him.

Chabert says he is tired and wonders why he can’t just live there at Groslay as one of her relatives; that all he needs is a little tobacco and Le Constitutionnel. In the days that follow, the Colonel is charmed by seeing the mother with her children and soon agrees to sign any documents. Delbecq has arrived and, following the Countess’ instructions, gained Chabert’s trust, so one morning the two men set out to see a notary that has drawn up the papers.

But when Chabert hears the crude document read, he exclaims that it makes him out to be a swindler. The cagey Delbecq advises him not to sign too quickly because the Countess would surely give him at least a 30,000 franc annuity. Chabert sees through the plan. Feeling suspicious, outraged, distrustful and calm in turn, he makes his way to Groslay and sits downstairs in the small garden house to think. Unknown to him, the Countess is in the room above; she did not hear him arrive.

When the Countess sees Delbecq outside, she calls out to ask if Chabert signed the documents. He says no and that he doesn’t even know where he is as the old horse has bolted. The Countess replies, “So while he’s still within our grasp, let’s have him locked up in Charenton.”

Chabert storms out to Delbecq and slaps him on both cheeks saying, “You can add that old horses know how to kick.” Knowing the Countess’ sweetness and attention was a ploy, he realizes there will be no truce and no peace, but where will he get the funds to pay for the hateful litigation.

Entering the garden house, Chabert confronts the Countess and tells her he despises her and thanks fate for severing their ties. He wants nothing from her, not even vengeance, and tells her to live peacefully on the honor of his word which is worth more than the scribblings of all the notaries in Paris. Henceforward he will only be a poor devil named Hyacinthe who only wants to sit in the sun.

Chabert, in fact, disappeared. Poor Louis Vergniaud went bankrupt, so the Countess’ stinginess also had an entire family as further victims.

After not hearing from Chabert or Mme Ferraud for six months, Derville prepares his bill and sends it to Mme Ferraud. The next day he receives a brief note from Delbecq to the effect that the man claiming to be Colonel Chabert was a fraud. Derville is rather put out that his generosity caused him to be cheated out of more than two thousand francs.

But some time later Derville happens to be in the Palais de Justice when a judge sentences a man named Hyacinthe. It is the old soldier!

Upon hearing from Derville about the money owing, Chabert exclaims, “What? Mme Ferraud has not paid you?” He is stricken to discover that she denounced him as a swindler instead of paying the bill.

Chabert writes a note for Derville to present to the Countess and says that he is very grateful for his kindness. Derville, in his turn, is surprised to hear that Chabert did not ask for an annuity for himself.

Godeschal, now the second clerk, is sent to Mme Ferraud with the note from Chabert. She immediately pays the bill in full.

Some considerable time later (1840), Godeschal and Derville are traveling together. A broken pauper sitting on a stone drying his tobacco-stained handkerchief causes Godeschal to remark that he looks like a grotesque gargoyle from Germany, only happy.

Derville starts when he recognizes Chabert and tells Godeschal that the old man is a whole poem and the lawful husband of Countess Ferraud. He adds that the reason he is living in this almshouse is because he reminded the Countess that he had found her in the street.

Two days later, on their way back the two men decide to visit Chabert. When Derville greets him by name, the old soldier answers: “Not Chabert! not Chabert! My name is Hyacinthe. I am no longer a man, I am No. 164, Room 7.

Chabert asks the men if they are there to watch the execution and remarks about the condemned man, “He is not married! He is very lucky!”

Godeschal asks if he needs some money for tobacco and Chabert eagerly holds out his hand to each of them. A fellow inmate mentions that Chabert was there as long ago as 1820 and some days he is very sharp.

Derville remarks about Chabert’s life and the way he ended up and says that priests, doctors and lawyers all wear black robes, maybe because they are in mourning for all virtue and hope. He then recounts some of the horrors he has seen during his practice and says he is sick of Paris and wants to live in the country with his wife. Godeschal replies that he has already seen plenty also.


Read it here

Summary by Dagny, May 2008

One comment on “Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Pamela thomas says:

    I found this story intriguing but didn’t much like the resolution. It seemed to me bizarre that Col. Chabert would somehow spend 2 years in a mental institution, and even more bizarre that he wouldn’t have a good bargaining position to at least get money from his wife. After all, if he exposes her then her children are illegitimate and her aristocratic marriage is over. And yet she seemed to hold all the cards, and he gave up rather easily. How could this be the same man who lead Napoleon’s troops? Perhaps Balzac was depicting him just as a man who wanted his wife and home back, but he didn’t quite persuade me. I might have bought it if Chabert had not been befriended by anyone, but I believe he had the cards to play a better game.


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