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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Price of Life
By Augustin Eugène Scribe (1791–1861)
 
JOSEPH, opening the parlor door, came to tell us the post-chaise was ready. My mother and sister threw themselves in my arms.  1
  “It is not too late,” they said. “Give up this journey. Stay with us.”  2
  “Mother, I am a gentleman; I am twenty years old; I must have a name in the country. I must make my way, either in the army or at court.”  3
  “And when you are gone, what will become of me, Bernard?”  4
  “You will be happy and proud to hear of your son’s success.”  5
  “And if you are killed in some battle?”  6
  “What matters it? What is life? Does a man think of that? When a man is twenty and a gentleman, he thinks only of glory. In a few years, mother, I’ll come back a colonel, or marshal, or else with a fine office at Versailles.”  7
  “Ah well! what will come of it if you do?”  8
  “I shall be respected and thought much of.”  9
  “What then?”  10
  “Then every one will salute me.”  11
  “And then?”  12
  “Then I will wed my cousin Henrietta, and settle my young sisters in marriage, and we will all live with you, tranquil and happy in my Bretagne domain.”  13
  “And why can’t you begin to-day? Didn’t your father leave us the finest fortune in the country? Is there a richer domain for ten leagues around, or a finer castle than Roche-Bernard? Do not your vassals respect you? As you go through the village, does any one fail to take off his hat? Don’t leave us, my son! Stay with your friends, your sisters, and your old mother who may not be here when you come back. Don’t squander in vainglory, or shorten by all kinds of cares and torments, the days that roll so fast anyway. Life is so sweet, my boy, and the sun of Bretagne so glorious!”  14
  While speaking, she pointed through the windows at the pretty paths of my park, the old chestnut-trees in blossom, the lilacs and honeysuckles which perfumed the air. In the antechamber the gardener and all his family had gathered sad and silent, seeming to express—“Don’t go, young master, don’t go.” Hortense, my elder sister, pressed me in her arms; and Amélie, my little sister, who was looking at the pictures in a volume of La Fontaine, offered me the book.  15
  “Read, read, brother,” she said weeping.  16
  It was the fable of the two pigeons! I rose brusquely; I pushed them all away.  17
  “I am twenty, and a gentleman: I must have honor and fame. Let me go.”  18
  And I hurried into the court. I was stepping into the post-chaise when a woman appeared on the steps. It was Henrietta. She did not weep, she did not utter a word; but, pale and trembling, she could scarcely support herself. With the white handkerchief in her hand she waved me a last good-by, then fell unconscious. I rushed to her, lifted her, pressed her in my arms, swore to love her always; and as she came to herself, leaving her to the care of my mother and sisters, I ran to my carriage without stopping or turning my head. If I had looked at Henrietta I could not have gone.  19
  A few minutes later the post-chaise was rolling along the thoroughfare. For a long time I thought of nothing but my sisters, my mother, and Henrietta, and all the happiness I was leaving behind me. But as the towers of Roche-Bernard gradually vanished, these ideas faded; and soon dreams of glory and ambition took possession of my mind. What projects, what castles in Spain, what fine actions, I created for myself in my post-chaise! Riches, honors, dignities, all kinds of success,—I denied myself nothing; I merited and received everything; finally, rising in rank as I proceeded, I became duke, peer, provincial governor, and marshal of France, before reaching my inn in the evening! My servant’s voice, modestly calling me “Monsieur,” forced me to return to myself and abdicate.  20
  The following days the same dreams, the same intoxication,—for my journey was a long one. I was going to the neighborhood of Sedan, to the Duke of C——; an old friend of my father, and patron of my family. He was to take me to Paris, where he was expected at the end of the month; present me at Versailles, and obtain for me through his influence a company of dragoons.  21
  I reached Sedan in the evening, and as it was late I postponed calling upon my patron until the morrow; and went to lodge at the Arms of France,—the finest hotel in the city, and the usual rendezvous for officers. For Sedan is a garrisoned town. The streets have a warlike aspect, and the citizens themselves a martial bearing, which seems to tell strangers, “We are compatriots of the great Turenne.”  22
  While chatting at the supper table I inquired the way to the Duke of C——’s castle, which was about three leagues from the town.  23
  “Any one will tell you,” they said. “It is well known about here. It is there that a great warrior, a celebrated man,—Marshal Fabert,—died.”  24
  And the conversation turned to Marshal Fabert, as was quite natural among young soldiers. They talked of his battles, his exploits, his modesty,—which made him refuse letters of nobility and the collar of his order offered him by Louis XIV. They spoke especially of the remarkable good fortune which had made the simple soldier—the son of a printer—a marshal of France. At that time he was the sole example of such advancement, which even during his life had seemed so extraordinary that the vulgar had not hesitated to assign it to supernatural causes. They said that from childhood he had busied himself with magic and sorcery; that he had made a compact with the devil.  25
  And our landlord, who added the credulity of the Breton to the stupidity of a peasant of Champagne, assured us with great coolness that in the castle where Fabert had died, a black man whom no one knew had been seen to go into his room, and had then disappeared, bearing with him the marshal’s soul, which belonged to him from an earlier purchase. He said that even yet, in May, the time of Fabert’s death, the black man appeared at evening carrying a little light.  26
  This story enlivened our dessert, and we drank a bottle of champagne to Fabert’s familiar demon, inviting him to take us also under his protection, and to make us gain a few battles like Colhoures and La Marféc.  27
  The next day I rose early, and made my way to the castle of the Duke of C——; an immense Gothic manor which at another time I might not have noticed especially, but which, remembering the account of the evening before, I now regarded with curiosity and emotion.  28
  The valet to whom I addressed myself answered that he did not know whether his master was at home, or if he could receive me. I gave him my name, and he left me alone in a kind of armory, hung with paraphernalia of the chase and family portraits.  29
  I waited for some time, and no one came. So the career of glory and honor I had dreamed began in the antechamber, I said to myself; and grew discontented and impatient. I had counted the family portraits and the beams of the ceiling two or three times, when I heard a slight sound. A door not quite closed had been blown ajar. I looked in, and saw a very pretty room, lighted by a glass door and by two great windows which looked upon a magnificent park. I took a few steps in this room, and then stopped at a sight I had not yet noticed. A man with his back toward me was lying on a sofa. He rose, and without noticing me, rushed to the window. Tears furrowed his cheeks. Profound despair seemed printed on all his features. He stood motionless for some time, with his head buried in his hands; then he began to stride up and down. Now he saw me and trembled. I, pained and abashed at my own indiscretion, wanted to withdraw, murmuring words of excuse.  30
  “Who are you? What do you want?” he said in a strong voice, holding my arm.  31
  “I am Sir Bernard of Roche-Bernard; and I have just arrived from Bretagne.”  32
  “I know, I know,” he said, and threw himself into my arms; then made me sit beside him, talking so eagerly of my father and all my family that I did not doubt he was the owner of the castle.  33
  “You are M. de C——?” I asked.  34
  He rose and looked at me excitedly. “I was, but I am no longer; I am nothing!” And seeing my astonishment, he exclaimed, “Not another word, young man: do not question me!”  35
  “But, sir, I have unintentionally witnessed your sorrow; and if my friendship, my devotion, can bring you any comfort—”  36
  “Yes, yes, you’re right. Not that you can change my fate, but at least you can receive my last wishes. That is all I ask of you!”  37
  He closed the door; then sat down again beside me, who, trembling and agitated, awaited his words. His physiognomy bore an expression I had never seen on any one. The brow I studied seemed marked by fatality. His face was pale; his black eyes flashed; from time to time his features, changed by suffering, contracted with an ironic, infernal smile.  38
  “What I am going to tell you,” he continued, “will confound your reason. You will doubt—you will not believe—I myself still doubt very often, at least I try to: but there are the proofs; and in all our surroundings—in our very organization—there are many other mysteries that we have to accept without understanding.”  39
  He stopped a moment as though to collect his ideas, passed a hand over his brow, and went on:—  40
  “I was born in this castle. I had two brothers, both older, who would inherit the property and titles of our family. There was nothing for me but an abbé’s mantle; and yet thoughts of glory and ambition fermented in my head, and made my heart beat. Unhappy in obscurity, hungry for renown, I dreamed only how to acquire it, and was insensible to all the pleasures and sweetness of life. The present was nothing to me; I lived only in the future, and that presented itself to me in darkest colors.  41
  “I was almost thirty, and had accomplished nothing. At that time, in the capital, literary reputations whose fame reached even our province were springing up everywhere.  42
  “Ah! I often said to myself, if I could only win a name in letters! That would give me the glory which is the only happiness!  43
  “As confidant of my sorrows I had an old servant, an aged negro, who had been in the castle before I was born, and was certainly the most ancient inmate, for no one remembered his coming. The country people declared even that he had known Marshal Fabert, and had witnessed his death.”  44
  I started; and the speaker asked me what was the matter.  45
  “Nothing,” I answered; but I could not help thinking of the black man about whom my landlord had been talking the evening before.  46
  M. de C—— continued: “One day, before Yago (that was the negro’s name), I yielded to the despair inspired by my obscurity and useless existence, and cried out, ‘I would give ten years of my life to be placed in the first rank of our authors!’  47
  “‘Ten years,’ he said coldly: ‘that is a great deal. That is a large price for a slight thing. Never mind. I accept your ten years. I will take them. Remember your promise; I will keep mine.’  48
  “I cannot paint my surprise at hearing this. I thought the years must have enfeebled his reason. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders; and a few days later I left this castle to go to Paris. There I found myself launched in literary circles. Their example encouraged me; and I published several works whose success I won’t recount now. All Paris hastened to applaud them; the journals resounded with my praises; the new name I had adopted became famous: and even yesterday, young man, you yourself were admiring it—”  49
  Here another gesture of surprise from me interrupted him.  50
  “Then you are not the Duke de C——?” I exclaimed.  51
  “No,” he answered coldly.  52
  And I said to myself, “A celebrated author!—is he Marmontel? is he d’Alembert? is he Voltaire?”  53
  My unknown smiled; a sigh of regret and contempt touched his lips, and he continued:—  54
  “The literary reputation I had desired soon ceased to satisfy a spirit as ardent as mine. I aspired to nobler success; and I said to Yago, who had followed me to Paris: ‘There is no real glory or veritable fame except in the career of arms. What is a man of letters, a poet? Nothing at all. Tell me of a great captain, a general,—that is the destiny for me; and for a grand military reputation I would give ten of the years which remain to me.’  55
  “‘I accept them,’ answered Yago. ‘I take them. They belong to me. Don’t forget it.’”  56
  At this point the unknown stopped again, seeing the trouble and hesitation in my face.  57
  “I told you, young man, you could not believe me. This seems a dream, a chimera, to you—to me also! And yet the rank, the honors I obtained, were no illusion: the soldiers I led under fire, the redoubts captured, the flags conquered, the victories with which all France resounded, were all my work;—all this glory was mine!”  58
  While he was walking up and down, talking thus with heat and enthusiasm, my surprise increased, and I thought: “Who is beside me? Is it Coigny? is it Richelieu? is it Marshal Saxe?”  59
  From a state of exaltation, my unknown fell into depression; and drawing near, he said gloomily:—  60
  “Yago was right; and later, when disgusted with the vain incense of military glory, I aspired to what is alone of real and positive value in this world,—when, at the price of five or six years of existence, I desired gold and riches, he granted them to me. Yes, young man; yes, I have seen fortune second and surpass all my wishes,—lands, forests, castles. This very morning all was still in my power; and if you don’t believe me, if you doubt Yago,—wait—wait—he is coming, and you will see for yourself, with your own eyes, that what confounds your reason and mine is unhappily only too real.”  61
  The unknown approached the mantelpiece, looked at the clock, made a gesture of horror, and said in a low voice:—  62
  “This morning at dawn I felt so weak and exhausted that I could scarcely rise. I rang for my valet. Yago appeared.  63
  “‘What is the matter with me?’ I said to him.  64
  “‘Master, nothing that is not very natural. The hour is approaching; the moment is at hand.’  65
  “‘And which—?’  66
  “‘Can’t you guess? Heaven had accorded you sixty years of life; you had had thirty when I began to obey you.’  67
  “‘Yago!’ I cried in terror, ‘are you speaking seriously?’  68
  “‘Yes, master; in five years you have expended in glory twenty-five years of existence. You gave them to me. They belong to me, and will now be added to mine.’  69
  “‘What! That was the price of your services?’  70
  “‘Others have paid still more; for example, Fabert, whom also I protected.’  71
  “‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ I said to him. ‘This isn’t possible. It isn’t true!’  72
  “‘As you will: but prepare yourself; for you have only half an hour to live.’  73
  “‘You are mocking me; you are deceiving me!’  74
  “‘Not at all. Calculate it yourself. Thirty-five years which you have really lived, and twenty-five that you have lost! Total, sixty. That is your account. To every one his own!’  75
  “And he wanted to go—and I felt myself growing weaker; I felt life escaping from me.  76
  “‘Yago! Yago! Give me a few hours—a few hours more!’  77
  “‘No, no,’ he answered. ‘That would shorten my account, and I know better than you the price of life. There is no treasure worth two hours of existence.’  78
  “And I could scarcely speak; my eyes were clouding, the coldness of death was chilling my veins.  79
  “‘Ah!’ I said with an effort, ‘take back the gifts for which I have sacrificed everything. For four hours more I will renounce my gold and all the opulence I so desired.’  80
  “‘So be it. You have been a good master, and I will grant you that.’  81
  “I felt my strength coming back; and I cried, ‘Four hours is so little! Yago! Yago! grant me four more, and I will give up my literary fame, and all the works which placed me so high in the esteem of the world.’  82
  “‘Four hours for that!’ said the negro disdainfully. ‘It is a great deal. Never mind: I will not refuse this last grace.’  83
  “‘No, not the last,’ I said clasping my hands. ‘Yago! Yago! I implore you, give me until evening,—the entire day,—and let my exploits and victories, my military fame, be forever effaced from the memory of men! This day, Yago, this whole day, and I will be content!’  84
  “‘You abuse my goodness,’ he answered; ‘and I am making a foolish bargain. But never mind again. You shall live till sunset. Ask no more. Then good-by until evening! I will come for you.’  85
  “And he went away,” continued the unknown despairingly, “and this day is the last which remains to me!” Then approaching the glass door which opened upon the park, he cried: “I shall no longer see this beautiful sky, these green lawns, this sparkling water; I shall no longer breathe the air fragrant with spring! Fool that I was! For twenty-five years longer I might still enjoy the good things which God bestows upon all, and whose sweetness I appreciate now for the first time! And I have exhausted my days! I have sacrificed them to a vain chimera, to a sterile fame, which did not make me happy, and which is dead before me! See—see—” he said, pointing to the peasants who were singing as they crossed the park to their work: “what would I not give to share their labor and poverty! But I have no longer anything to give nor anything to hope, here below—not even unhappiness!”  86
  At that moment a ray of sun, of the sun of May, lighted up his pale distracted features. He seized my arm with a kind of delirium and said:—  87
  “See—see them! How beautiful the sun is! How beautiful the country is! I must leave all that! Ah, at least let me enjoy it once more! Let me catch the full savor of this pure beautiful day: for me there will be no morrow!”  88
  He rushed out into the park, and disappeared down a winding path before I could stop him.  89
  In truth I had not strength to do it. I had fallen back on the sofa, overcome with what I had seen and heard. I rose and walked, to assure myself that I was not dreaming. Then the door opened, and a servant said to me:—  90
  “Here is my master, the Duke de C——.”  91
  A man of about sixty, of distinguished appearance, came forward, offering me his hand, and apologizing for keeping me waiting.  92
  “I was not at home,” he said. “I have just come from town, where I have been seeking advice upon the health of my younger brother.”  93
  “Is his life in danger?” I exclaimed.  94
  “No, monsieur, thank Heaven,” answered the duke: “but in his youth, thoughts of glory and ambition exalted his imagination; and recently a severe illness has left him prey to a kind of delusion, in which he is constantly convinced that he has only one day longer to live. It is his mania.”  95
  All was explained!  96
  “Now as to you, young man,” continued the duke: “we must see what we can do to advance you. We will start for Versailles at the end of the month. I will present you.”  97
  “I know your kind disposition toward me, monsieur, and wish to thank you; but—”  98
  “What! you have not renounced the court, and the advantages which await you there?”  99
  “Yes, monsieur.”  100
  “But remember that with my help you can make your way rapidly; and that with a little patience and perseverance you can in ten years—”  101
  “Ten lost years!” I exclaimed.  102
  “But then,” he continued in astonishment, “is that too dear a price for glory and fortune and honors? Come, come, young man, we will go to Versailles.”  103
  “No, duke: I am going back to Bretagne; and once more I beg you to receive my thanks, and those of my family.”  104
  “It is madness!” exclaimed the duke.  105
  And thinking of what I had seen and heard, I said to myself. “It is wisdom!”  106
  The next day I started; and with what delight I saw again my noble castle of Roche-Bernard, the old trees of my park, the glorious Bretagne sun! I had recovered my vassals, my sisters, my mother—and happiness! which has never deserted me since; for one week later I married Henrietta.  107
 
 
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READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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