And he took me along the large walkway of trees bordering, on this side, the Jardin des Plantes and the Boulevard de l’Hôpital. Here we sat down on a bench with a green backrest and he began:
"My dear fellow, here is a story for which one must search far and wide, like a bullet lost in the flesh of a felled animal. For oblivion much resembles the flesh of living things reshaped through events, impeding us, after a certain period of time, from seeing or suspecting anything at all, even the place. It was in the first years following the Restoration. A regiment of the guard went through the city of V.; and, having been forced to remain there for two days for who-knows-what military reason, the officers of this regiment decided to perform a salute in honor of the city. And indeed, the city had everything it needed for these officers of the guard to lavish it with honor and celebration. It was, as was said then, more royalist than the King. Proportionally speaking (this was a town of barely five to six thousand souls), it was abounding with nobility. More than thirty young people from its best families were serving at that time, either in the Gardes-du-Corps, or in those of Monsieur, and in V. they knew practically all the officers of the regiment.
"But the main reason for this martial celebration was the reputation of the town as 'swashbuckling,' in fact, as the most 'swashbuckling' town in France. The 1789 revolution had stripped nobles of the right to wear the sword. In V. they proved that if they could no longer carry arms, they could still be used. The martial celebration by the officers was brilliant. Here one saw all the dashing swordsmen of the country, and even all the amateur enthusiasts, the younger generation who had not cultivated, as was once cultivated, an art as complicated and difficult as fencing. And all showed such enthusiasm for the handling of the sword, the glory of our fathers, that a former Marshal of the Regiment, who had done three or four tours of duty and whose arm was covered with chevrons, thought that it would be a good place to open a fencing hall and spend the rest of his years. The colonel with whom he communicated approved his plan, and he was issued his leave and left for that place.
"The Marshal's family name was Stassin; but in the military he was nicknamed the 'Pointe-au-corps,' and there in V. he had an idea that was simply genius. For a long time there had not been a properly maintained fencing hall in V.; it was even one of these things discussed wistfully between these nobles, obliged to train their sons themselves or hand them over to a friend recently returned from military service, who barely knew or who knew not what he taught. The inhabitants of V. liked to put on airs of being difficult. In reality they were enthusiastically devoted to their vocation. For them it was not enough to kill their man; they wanted to kill him cleverly and artistically, in accordance with their principles. For them it was necessary, above all, that a man, as they said, be a dashing and graceful fighter, and they professed a profound contempt for those clumsy, robust fellows, who could be very dangerous in the field, but were not in the strict and true sense of the word what they called fencers. The Pointe-au-corps was a very handsome man in his youth and had retained his good looks. On the fields of Holland, still very young, he had thoroughly bested all other marshals and won a prize of two foils and two masks mounted in silver. As it were, he was one of those fencers who could not be produced by any school or academy if nature had not already exceptionally prepared them. Naturally, he was the admiration of V. And soon much more than that.
"Nothing equalizes like the sword. Under the old monarchy kings ennobled those men who taught them how to put a sword to fine use. If I remember correctly, didn't Louis XV give his master Danet, who would leave us a book on fencing, four fleurs-de-lis between two crossed swords for his heraldic crest? These gentlemen of the province, who still smacked of the monarchy, were soon on equal footing with the old Marshal as if he had been one of them all along.
"Up to that point things had been good, and there was nothing to do other than congratulate Stassin, dit Pointe-au-corps, on his good fortune. But unfortunately, this old Marshal only had a heart of red morocco leather on a padded plastron of white skin with which he covered his chest. Yet when he so brilliantly gave his lessons, he found that he had another heart beneath it. A heart, one should say, which would soon get out of hand in the town of V. where he had come seeking merely a safe haven for life. It seems that the heart of a soldier is always made with powder. For when time has dried out the powder, the heart catches fire even more quickly. In V. women are on the whole so pretty that sparks were teeming amidst the dried powder of my old Marshal; and his story would also turn out just like the story of many an old soldier.
"After having traversed all the countries of Europe and stolen the hearts of all the girls that the Devil had conspired to place in his way, this erstwhile soldier of the first Empire consummated his last love affair by marrying, now past fifty years of age – with all the formalities and the sacraments of the thing, in both the municipality and the Church – a young laborer from V. Whom, of course, I knew, as I know the women laborers of that country; I've delivered enough of them to know them! He was given a child, well and truly at the end of nine months to the day. And this child, who was a daughter, is nothing less, my dear sir, than the woman with the aura of a goddess who just passed by and grazed us insolently with the wind from her dress, taking no more notice of us than if we had not been there at all!"
"The Countess of Savigny!" I cried.
"Yes, the Countess of Savigny in the flesh! O, do not look closely at origins, any more for women than for nations. Never scrutinize anyone's cradle. I remember seeing in Stockholm the crib of Charles XII, which resembled a horse feeder broadly colored in red, not even sturdy on its four pickets. It is from there that he emerged, that tempest of a man! Fundamentally, all cribs and cradles are cesspits whose laundry one is forced to change several times a day. And this is never poetic, for those who believe in poetry; and even less so with regard to the child."
To support his axiom, the doctor at this point in his narrative struck his thigh with one of the buckskin gloves he was holding with his middle finger. The buckskin's thick snap demonstrated to those who understood music that the fellow was still rudely muscular.
He waited. I did not have anything to contradict his philosophy. Seeing that I had nothing to say, he continued:
"Besides, like all old soldiers who love even other people's children, the Pointe-au-corps went predictably crazy about his own. Again, there is nothing surprising about this. When a man already getting on in years has a child, he loves it more than he would have had he been young. Why? Because vanity, which doubles everything, also doubles paternal feelings. All the old soldiers whom I have seen having a child late in life simply adored their offspring. They were almost comically proud of them as if the whole thing had been a most remarkable feat. The persuasion of youth that nature, which had mocked them, ran through to their heart! I do not know a more exhilarating happiness or a more curious pride: this is when, instead of a single child, an old man in one fell swoop in fact makes two! The Pointe-au-corps did not possess the paternal pride of two twins; but it would be true to say that there was enough to carve two children out of his own.
"You have just seen his daughter, so you know whether she fulfilled her promise! She was a wonderful child in strength and beauty. The first matter of concern for the old Marshal was to find a godfather among all the nobles who perpetually haunted his fencing hall. From them he chose the Count of Avice, the dean of all the fencing-obsessed layabouts, who during his exile was himself Marshal in London at several guineas the lesson. The Count of Avice of Sortôville-en-Beaumont, already knight of Saint-Louis and captain of the dragoons before the revolution – he was at least, then, a septuagenarian – was still scoring 'touches' on young fencers, giving them what is called, in the lingo of the fencing hall, 'lovely hoods.' He was a wry old fox who in action fiercely ridiculed his opponents. For example, he loved to pass the square tip of his foil through the flame of a candle; and when he had thus hardened the blade he insolently dubbed this hard foil – which no longer folded over and instead shattered your sternum or ribs when he scored a touch – the 'rogue-catcher.' He held the Pointe-au-corps in high regard, and was on informal terms with him. 'The daughter of a man like you,' he told him, 'cannot be named after anything other than the épée of a valiant man. Call her then Haute-Claire!' And this was the name that he gave her.
"The parish priest of V. grimaced a bit at this unusual name, which he had never heard of in all his experience with baptismal records. But due to the fact that, on the one hand, the godfather was the Count of Avice and that there will always be, despite the liberals and their chirps and squeals, an indestructible closeness between the nobility and the clergy, and that, on the other hand, one noticed on the Roman calendar a saint by the name of Claire, the name of the sword of Olivier was passed on to the child without the town of V. getting too excited by the information. Such a name seemed to announce a destiny. The old Marshal, who loved his profession almost as much as his daughter, resolved to teach her and leave her his talent as a dowry. A sad dowry! A meager pittance, with the modern morals that this poor devil of a fencing master did not foresee! Therefore as soon as the child was able to stand, he began plying her with fencing exercises. And because this girl was a solid kid with fasteners and joints of stainless steel, he developed her in so strange a manner, that at ten years old, she seemed already to be fifteen, and she admirably did her part with her father and the strong fencers in the town of V.
"In fact, the only conversation topic in town was young Hauteclaire Stassin, who would later become Miss Hauteclaire Stassin. What arose, as you might well imagine, particularly on the part of the young damsels of the town, in whose society she – the daughter of Stassin, dit the Pointe-au-corps – could not possibly venture although she was on good terms with their fathers, an incredible, or rather a very believable curiosity, commingled with spite and envy. Their fathers and brothers spoke with astonishment and admiration for Hauteclaire in their very presence, and they would almost have wanted to behold from up close this female Saint-Georges, whose beauty, they said, equaled her talent for fencing. But they saw her only from a distance.
"It was at that time that I arrived in V., and I was often witness to this ardent curiosity. The Pointe-au-corps who, during the Empire, had served in the Hussars, and who with his fencing hall was earning a great deal of money, was allowed to buy a horse to give riding lessons to his daughter. And since that year he was breaking in young horses for some of his hall's regular patrons, he was often out on horseback with Hauteclaire on roads radiating from the city and its surroundings. I met them many a time returning from my house calls. And it was during these meetings that I could especially gauge the interest this fine young girl, so hastily developed, had evoked in the other girls of the region. I was always traveling during that time, and frequently encountered the coaches and carriages of their parents headed – with their daughters in tow – on visits to all the castles in the vicinity. Well, you will never be able to imagine with what avidity, and even with what imprudence, I would see them rushing to the door as soon as Miss Hauteclaire Stassin appeared, trotting or galloping in the vantage of a road, shod in buskins with her father.
"Yet it was almost unnecessary. Sitting in on my house calls to their mothers the next morning, it was almost always disappointment and regret that they expressed to me. They were never able to discern more than the shape of that girl born to be a horsewoman, who carried that shape – you just saw her after all – as you might imagine. But her face was always more or less hidden behind a coarse, overly thick blue veil. Miss Hauteclaire Stassin was little known to anyone apart from the men of the town of V.