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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Laurette, or the Red Seal

By Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863)

THE GRAND route of Artois and Flanders is long and desolate. It extends in a straight line, without trees, without ditches, through countries flat and covered with yellow mud at all times. In the month of March 1815 I passed along this route, and had a rencontre which I have never since forgotten.

I was alone. My comrades were ahead on the route in the suite of the King, Louis XVIII. I saw their white capes and red capes at the very horizon of the north. A lost shoe retarded my horse. He was young and strong. I urged him on to rejoin my squadron; he started at a rapid trot. It still rained, and I still sang. But I soon stopped, tired of hearing only my own self; and then I heard only the rain, and my horses’ feet which plashed the beaten track. On examining intently this yellow line of the road, I remarked at about a quarter of a mile distant a small black point which moved. This gave me pleasure: it was some person. I hurried my steps. At about a hundred paces I could clearly distinguish a little wagon of white wood, covered with three circles and black oilcloth; it resembled a little cradle placed on two wheels; the wheels sank to their hubs in the mud. The little mule which dragged it was carefully led by a man on foot who held the bridle. He was a man of about fifty years, with white mustache, strong and tall. He had a hard but good face, such as is frequently seen in the army. Having seen his white cockade, I contented myself with showing him the sleeve of my red coat, and then he replaced his gun in the cart.—“Will you have a drop?”—“Willingly,” I replied, approaching: “I have not drunk in twenty-four hours.” He had at his neck a cocoanut very well carved, made into a flagon, with a silver mouthpiece, of which he seemed rather proud. He passed it to me, and I drank a little of the bad white wine with much pleasure. I returned the cocoanut to him. We went on for about a quarter of a mile without saying anything. Then as he stopped to rest his poor little mule, which it pained me to look at, I stopped too, to empty my boots of the water which filled them. “Your boots begin to stick to your feet,” said he. “It is four nights since I took them off,” said I. “Bah! in eight days you will no longer think of them,” he replied in his hoarse voice. “Do you know what I have in there?” “No,” said I to him.—“It is a woman.”—I said, “Ah!” without too much surprise, and I began to walk tranquilly on. He followed me. “You do not care? What I said then ought to astonish you.”—“I am but little astonished,” I said.—“Oh! but if I should tell you how I left the sea, we should see.”—“Well,” replied I, “why not try? That would warm you up, and would make me forget that the rain is running down my back and out at my heels.”…

“You must know first, my boy, that I was born at Brest. I started by being the child of the troop, earning my half-rations and my half-stipend from the age of nine; my father being a soldier in the guards. But as I loved the sea,—on a beautiful night while I was on leave of absence in Brest, I hid myself in the hold of a merchant vessel leaving for the Indies: I was only discovered in mid-ocean, and the captain preferred making me a cabin-boy to throwing me overboard. When the Revolution came I had made my way, and had in my turn become captain of a little merchant vessel,—full of zest, having skimmed the ocean for fifteen years. As the royal ex-marine—ma foi! the good old marine—all of a sudden found itself depopulated of officers, captains were taken from the merchant marine. I had had some filibustering affairs, of which I may tell you later. They gave me command of a brig of war named the Marat. The 28th Fructidor 1797 I received orders to weigh for Cayenne. I was to convey sixty soldiers; and one exile, who was left over from the one hundred and ninety-three taken on board by the frigate La Decade a few days before. I had orders to treat this individual with consideration; and the first letter of the Directoire contained a second, closed with three red seals, one amongst them of unusual size. I was forbidden to open this letter before the first degree of latitude north from the twenty-seventh to the twenty-eighth of longitude,—that is, near to passing the line. This big letter had a shape all its own. It was long, and so tightly closed that I could not read between the angles, nor through the envelope. I am not superstitious, but it made me afraid….

“I was occupied in putting this letter under the glass of the clock when my exile entered my room; he held by the hand a beautiful young girl, about seventeen years old. He told me that he was nineteen; a fine-looking boy, though a little pale, and too white for a man. His little wife was fresh and gay as a child. They looked like two turtle-doves. It gave me pleasure to see them. I said to them, ‘Well, my children, you have come to visit the old captain? That is very good of you. I am taking you rather far away, but so much the better: we shall have time to become acquainted. I am sorry to receive madame without my coat, but I was nailing that great rascally letter ’way up there. If you would help me a little?’ That made good little children of them. The little husband took the hammer, and the little wife the nails, and they passed them to me as I asked for them; and she called to me, “To the right! to the left! captain!” laughing as she did so, for the pitching made my clock unsteady. ‘Ah!’ I said, ‘little mischief! I shall make your husband scold you, see if I do not.’ Then she threw her arms about his neck and kissed him. They were really very nice. We immediately became good friends. The trip was beautiful. I always did have weather made to order. As I had none but black faces on board, I made the two little lovers come to my table every other day. It enlivened me. When we had eaten the biscuits and fish, the little wife and her husband would remain gazing at each other, as if they had never seen one another before. Then I would begin to laugh with all my heart, and make fun of them. They too would laugh with me. You would have laughed too, to see us laughing like three imbeciles, not knowing what was the matter with us…. They slept in a hammock, where the vessel would roll them over and over like these two pears, which I have here in my wet handkerchief. They were lively and contented. I did as you do: I did not question. What need was there that I should know their name and their affairs? I was taking them across the sea, as I would have taken two birds of Paradise…. I ended after a month by looking on them as my children. All day long, when I called them, they would come and sit by me. The young man wrote at my table,—that is, on my bed: and when I wished it, he would help me to keep my course; he soon knew how to do it as well as I, and I was sometimes forbidden to do it. The young woman would seat herself on a little barrel, and sew. One day as they were thus sitting, I said to them:—

“‘Do you know, little friends, that we make a fine family picture as we are now? I do not want to question you; but probably you have not more money than you need, and you are both prodigiously delicate to spade and hoe, as the exiles do in Cayenne. It is an ugly country; I tell you the truth: but I, who am an old wolfskin dried in the sun, I could live there like a lord. If you have, as it seems to me you have (without wishing to question you), a little friendship for me, I will willingly leave my old brig, which is only a sabot now, and establish myself with you, if it would please you. I have no more family than a dog, and that worries me: you would be a little society for me. I would help you in many things: I have saved up a nice little heap, on which we can live, and which I shall leave to you when I come to turn up my eyes, as we say politely.’ Astonished, they looked at one another, apparently believing that I had not spoken the truth; then the little one ran, as she always did, threw herself on the bosom of the other, and sat on his knee, all red and weeping. He pressed her close in his arms, and I saw tears in his eyes too; he stretched out his hand to me and became paler than usual. She spoke softly to him, and her long blonde tresses fell on his shoulder; her twist had become undone, like a cable which unrolls suddenly. That hair—if you had seen it! it was like gold.

“As they still spoke low, the young man kissing her brow from time to time, and she weeping, I grew impatient. ‘Well, does that suit you?’ I said at last. ‘But—but, captain, you are very good;’ said the husband, ‘but—you could not live with deported convicts—’ he lowered his eyes.

“‘I,’ said I, ‘do not know what you have done to be exiled; but you shall tell me some day if you choose, or you shall not if you choose. You do not seem to me to have a very heavy conscience; I am very sure that I have done much more in my life than you, poor innocents! For instance, as long as you are under my guard, I shall not let you go: you need not expect it; I would sooner cut your throats as I would two pigeons. But once my epaulet removed, I know no longer either admiral or anything else.’

“‘What I am thinking is,’ he replied, sadly shaking his brown head, slightly powdered as it was still worn in those days, ‘that it would be dangerous for you, captain, to seem to know us. We laugh because we are so young; we seem to be happy because we love each other: but I have some ugly moments when I think of the future, and I do not know what will become of my poor Laure.’ He again pressed the young wife’s head to his breast. ‘That was what I should say to the captain, was it not, my child? Would you not have said the same thing?’

“I took my pipe and got up; for I began to feel my eyes growing moist, and that was not becoming to me.

“‘Come, come!’ I said: ‘that will all be cleared up after a while. If the tobacco is unpleasant to madame, her absence will be necessary.’ She arose, her face all on fire and wet with tears, like a child that has been scolded.

“‘And yet,’ she said, looking at my clock, ‘you two do not think about it—that letter!’

“I felt as if something had struck me. I had a kind of pain up under my hair when she said that to me.

“‘Pardieu! I did not think of it,’ I said. ‘Ah, here indeed is a pretty affair! If we have passed the first degree north, all I can do is to throw myself overboard!’ I must be lucky: that child reminded me of that devilish letter!

“I looked quickly at my marine map; and when I saw that there was still a week ahead of us, my head felt easier, but not my heart,—I could not tell why.

“‘It is because the Directory does not joke about the article obedience!’ I said. ‘Good! I am once more afloat this time. Time flew so quickly that I had entirely forgotten it.’

“Well, sir, we remained all three with our noses in the air, looking at that letter as if it were going to speak to us. What struck me very much was that the sun, which slipped in through the skylight, lit up the glass of the clock, and made the big red seal and the other little ones seem like features of a face in the midst of fire.

“‘Would not one say that the eyes were starting from his head?’ I said to amuse them.

“‘Oh! my friend,’ said the young woman, ‘it looks like blood stains.’

“‘Bah! bah!’ said her husband, laying her arm in his, ‘you are mistaken, Laure: it looks like a card of announcement of a marriage. Come and rest yourself, come: why let that letter bother you?’

“They went off. I remained alone with that big letter; and I remember that while smoking my pipe, I continued to look at it, as if those red eyes had attached mine to them by drawing them ever as do the eyes of a serpent.

“The night was more beautiful than any I had ever seen in my life so near the tropics. The moon rose on the horizon as large as a sun; the sea cut it in half, and became all white, like a cloth of snow covered with little diamonds. I was glad to hear nothing. I love silence and order. I had forbidden all noises and all fires. Nevertheless I perceived a small red line almost under my feet. I should have got into a temper instantly; but as it was in the cabin of my little convicts, I wished to be sure of what they were doing before I grew angry. I had only to bend down: I could see through the big hatchway into the little room, and I looked. The young wife was on her knees praying. A small lamp threw its light on her. I thought I would slip away, but I said, ‘Bah! an old soldier, what does it matter?’ And I remained to see. While she prayed, her husband took the ends of her long hair and kissed them noiselessly. When she had finished she made the sign of the cross, with the air of going to paradise. She got up, kissed him, and stretched herself in the hammock, into which he had tossed her without saying a word, as one sets a child on a seesaw. There was a choking heat: with pleasure she felt herself swinging with the motion of the vessel, and seemed to begin to fall asleep. ‘My friend,’ said she, half asleep, ‘are you not sleepy? Do you know that it is very late?’…

“On a beautiful morning I awoke, astonished to feel no motion of the vessel. We had fallen in a dead calm, and it was on the first degree of north latitude and the twenty-seventh of longitude. I poked my nose out: the sea was as smooth as a bowl of oil. The sails, all spread, fell glued to the masts like empty balloons. I said quickly, ‘I’ve got time enough before me yet to read you,’ looking sideways at the letter. I waited till sundown that night. But it had to come: I opened the clock and quickly took out the sealed order. Well, my dear sir, I held it there for a quarter of an hour before I could make up my mind to read it. At last I said, ‘This is too much!’ and I broke the three seals with one thumb-stroke; and the great red seal I ground into dust. After I had read it I rubbed my eyes, thinking I was mistaken. I re-read the letter entirely; I read it over again; I began it again at the last line, and went up to the first. I did not believe it. My legs trembled a little under me; I sat down; I felt a twitching of the skin on my face; I rubbed my cheeks a little with rum, and I poured some in the hollow of my hands, and I pitied myself for being such a fool: but it was only an affair of a moment. I went up into the open air. Laurette was so pretty that day that I did not want to go near her: she wore a little white dress quite simple, her arms bare to the shoulder, and her long hair hanging as she always wore it….

“I made a sign to the young man to come and speak to me on the quarter-deck behind. She turned. I do not know how I looked, but— she took him by the arm violently, and said, ‘Oh! do not go: he is so pale!’

“He came, though, close to me on the quarter-deck; she looked at us, leaning against the great mast. We walked to and fro for a long time without speaking. I was smoking a cigar, which I found bitter, and I spat into the water. He followed me with his eyes; I took his arm: I was choking; on my word of honor I was choking.

“‘Ah, here!’ I said to him, ‘tell me something of your history, my little friend. What in the devil have you done to those dogs of lawyers there, setting themselves up like the King’s five-franc pieces? They seem to have a bad grudge against you. It’s funny!’

“He shrugged his shoulders, hanging his head (with such a sweet air, the poor boy), and said to me:—

“‘O my heavens, captain! no great thing, I assure you: three couplets of vaudeville on the Directory, that is all.’

“‘Impossible!’ I said.

“‘O my God, yes! The couplets were not even very good. I was arrested the 15th Fructidor, and conducted to La Force; condemned first to death, then through benevolence to exile.’

“‘It is curious,’ I said. ‘The Directeurs are very susceptible comrades; for that letter, you know, gives me the order to shoot you.’

“He did not answer, but smiled, putting a good enough face on it for a young man of nineteen. He only looked at his wife, and wiped his forehead, from which great drops of sweat fell. I had fully as many on my face, and other drops in my eyes.

“I began again:—

“‘It seems to me those citizens did not wish to do this business on land: they thought that here it would be kept more quiet. But it is very hard on me, my child; for though you are a good child, I cannot but obey. The sentence of death is there all regular and correct, the order of execution signed with flourish and seal. Nothing has been left out.’

“He bowed to me politely, blushing.

“‘I ask for nothing, captain,’ he said in a voice as sweet as usual. ‘I should be distressed to make you fail in your duty. I only want to speak a little with Laure, and pray you to protect her in case she should survive me, which I do not believe she will.’

“‘Oh, as for that, it’s all right, my boy: if it does not displease you, I shall take her to her family on my return to France, and I shall only leave her when she no longer cares to see me. But to my mind, you may flatter yourself that she will never recover from that stroke, poor little woman!’

“‘My brave captain, you will suffer more than I in what remains for you to do, I feel sure; but what can we do? I may count upon you to keep for her all that belongs to me, to protect her, to see that she receives what her old mother may leave her, may I not?—to guarantee her life, her honor? And also to see that her health is cared for. See, I must tell you further that she is very delicate,’ he added in a lower voice: ‘her chest is often affected so that she faints many times a day; she must always wrap herself well. But you will replace her father, her mother, and me, as much as possible, will you not? If she could keep her rings, which her mother gave her, I should be very glad. But if it is necessary to sell them for her, it must be done. My poor Laurette! see how beautiful she is.’

“I pressed his hand as a friend; but he still held mine, and looked at me in a curious way.

“‘Look here: if I have any advice to give you,’ I added, ‘it is not to speak to her about it. We will arrange the thing so that she shall not know it, or you either, be sure of that: that concerns me.’

“‘Ah! that is different,’ said he: ‘I did not know. That would be better indeed. Besides, good-bys, good-bys, they weaken one.’

“‘Yes, yes,’ I said to him, ‘do not be a child: it is better so. Do not embrace her, my friend; do not embrace her if you can help it, or you are lost.’

“It seemed to me that he did not keep the secret well; for they walked arm in arm during a quarter of an hour….

“Night came all of a sudden. It was the moment I had resolved to take. But that moment has lasted for me up to this day, and I shall drag it after me all my life, like a ball.”

Here the old commandant was forced to stop. I was careful not to speak, for fear of turning the course of his ideas; he began again, striking himself on the breast:—

“That moment, I tell you—I cannot yet understand it. I felt a fury seizing me by the hair; and at the same time I do not know what made me obey, and pushed me on. I called the officers, and said to one of them, ‘Come, a skiff overboard, as we are now executioners! You will put that woman into it, you will take her farther and farther away until you hear gun-shots! Then you will return.’ To obey a piece of paper! for after all, that was what it came to. There must have been something in the air which pushed me on. I saw from afar the young man—oh, it was horrible to see—kneel before his Laurette, and kiss her knees, her feet.

“These small boats hold six men,” he continued. “They threw themselves into it, and carried Laure off with them, without her having time to cry or speak. Oh! there are things for which no honest man can console himself if he has caused them. There is no use in saying one forgets such things.

“I was speaking to you still, I think, of the little Laurette! Poor woman! How stupid some men are in this world! The officer was fool enough to steer the boat before the brig. After this, it is right to say we cannot foresee everything. I counted upon night to hide the business; and I did not count upon the light of twelve guns fired all at once. And, ma foi! from the boat she saw her husband fall into the sea, shot.

“If there is a God up there, he knows how what I am going to tell you happened; as for me, I do not know, but it was seen and heard, as I see and hear you. At the moment of the shot she raised her hand to her head as if a ball had struck her brow, and sat in the boat without fainting, without crying, without speaking, and returned to the brig when they wanted, and as they wanted. I went to her, and spoke to her for a long time, and as well as I could. She seemed to listen to me, and looked me in the face, rubbing her forehead. She did not understand, and her brow was red, and her face all pale. She trembled all over as though afraid of every one. That trembling remains still with her. She is still the same poor little one: idiot, or imbecile, or crazy, as you choose. Never has a word been drawn from her, except when she asks to have taken out what she has in her head.

“From that moment I became as sad as she; and I felt something in me that said to me, ‘Stay by her the rest of your days, and take care of her.’ I have done it. When I returned to France, I asked to pass with the same rank into the land troops; having a hatred to the sea, because I had thrown into it innocent blood. I sought for Laure’s family. Her mother was dead. Her sisters, to whom I took her insane, would have none of her, and proposed to put her into Charenton. I turned my back on them, and kept her with me.

“Ah! my God, comrade, if you wish to see her, it rests only with yourself.”

“Is she in there?” I asked.

“Certainly, here! Wait! ho! ho! mule.” And he stopped his poor mule, which seemed relieved at the command. At the same time he raised the oilcloth of his little cart, as if to arrange the straw which almost filled it; and I saw something very painful. I saw two blue eyes, large beyond measure, admirable in shape, looking out of a pale emaciated face, inundated with straight light hair. She looked at us a moment, trembled, smiled faintly at me. I noticed with astonishment that on her long fingers she had two diamond rings.