Memory of a Captain
I had come back to spend a day in this little town of L... where I was a lieutenant for a year, and where I feverishly sought to see everything again, places that love had rendered me incapable of thinking back on without a powerful quiver of sadness, and places, so humble however, like the walls of our barracks and our small garden, adorned only with the varying charms that the light brought with it according to the time of day, the inclination of the weather and the season. These simple places from there remain fixed for ever in the world of my imagination mantled in an immense sweetness, an immense beauty. Even when I had gone for months without thinking about them I would suddenly catch sight of them, just as at the turning of a climbing road one catches sight of a village, a church, a small wood in the harmonious light of evening. The courtyard of the barracks, the little garden or the summer my friends and I would dine together, it is the memory that without doubt paints you with this delightful freshness, as does the enchanting light of morning or evening. Every little detail is there to see, fully illuminated and seems beautiful to me. I see you as if from a hill. You are a small self-sufficient world, outside of me, that has a gentle beauty, in its bright unexpected light. And my heart, my gay heart of that time, now sad for me and yet uplifted, because in a moment it enraptures the other with its gaiety, the sick and sterile heart of today, my gay heart of that time is in this sunlit little garden, in the courtyard of the far off barracks and yet so close, so strangely close to me, so inside of me, and yet so outside of me, so impossible ever to reach again, my heart is in the little village of harmonious light and I hear a clear sound of bells that fills the road bathed in sunshine. So I had come back to spend a day in this little town of L... And I had felt the regret, less sharp than I feared, of rediscovering in it somewhat less than I rediscovered from moment to moment in my heart, in which however I was already rediscovering too little, which is truly sad, and minute by minute more disheartening... We have so many occasions that are pregnant with the means to disappoint us that idleness, like a tiny genie of unconsciousness and "non-thought", makes us lose. - Consequently I had once more found great melancholy surrounding the men and the objects from that place. And then again much gaiety that I could hardly explain and that only two or three friends could share because they were so much a part of my life during that period. But this is what I want to relate. Before going to dinner, in order to catch the train straight afterwards, I had gone to give instructions to my old orderly, now with a different company, destined for the other regiment in the town, barracked at the other end of town, to have sent on to me some books I had forgotten. I met him in the street, practically deserted at that hour, in front of the entrance gate of the barracks of his new regiment and we chatted for ten minutes there in the street, fully lit up by the evening light, our only witness being the duty corporal who was reading a newspaper sitting on a guard-stone, near the entrance gate. I do not remember his face very clearly, but he was very tall, quite slim with something delightfully refined and charming in his eyes and around his mouth. He exercised over me a quite mysterious seduction and I made myself pay attention to my words and my gestures, trying to please him and say rather admirable things, be it through a sense of delicacy, be it through an excess of indulgence or pride. I have forgotten to say that I was not in uniform, and that I was in a phaeton that I had stopped outside in order to chat with my orderly. But the duty corporal could not have helped but recognize the phaeton as belonging to the comte de C..., one of my old friends from my promotion to the rank of lieutenant and who had put it at my disposal for the day. My old orderly, furthermore, by ending each of his replies with: Captain, sir, could not help but make the corporal perfectly aware of my rank. But the usage is no more than the way a soldier pays his respects to officers out of uniform, unless they belong to his regiment.
I had the feeling that the corporal overheard me and he had raised his exquisite calm eyes towards us, which he lowered to his newspaper when I looked at him. Passionately anxious (why?) that he look at me, I put in my monocle and affected to look around me, avoiding looking in his direction. Time was advancing, I had to leave. I could no longer prolong the conversation with my orderly. I took my leave of him with a friendliness tempered with a certain haughtiness expressly for the sake of the corporal, and looking for a moment at the corporal who, reseating himself on his guard-stone, turned his exquisite calm eyes towards us, I saluted them both by raising my hat and nodding my head, whilst smiling at him slightly. He stood to attention and held his right hand open without letting it fall, as one does for a full second during a military salute, against the peak of his képi, looking straight at me, as per regulations, with extraordinary embarrassment. Then, while getting my horse ready to leave, I saluted him fully, and it were as if I were saying to him in my expression and in my smile something extremely affectionate as if he were already an old friend. And, forgetting reality, by that mysterious enchantment of looks that are like spirits and transport us into their mystical kingdom where all impossibilities are abolished, I remained bare-headed already borne away some distance by the horse, turned towards him as though I would never see him again. Saluting him truly and for ever with two looks of friendship, as though outside time and space, two looks of friendship already confident and established, that had crossed each other. I dined sadly and I spent two days in true anguish, and in my dreams this face would suddenly appear before me and I would be roused all in a tremble. Naturally I never saw him again, and I never shall see him again. - But in any case now, you see, I can no longer remember his face very well, and it appears to me only as being very gentle, in that place all warm and golden in the evening light, a little sad however on account of its mystery and its incompleteness.
Manuscript of uncertain date, c. 1896.
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