Robert Tronge 3

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robert tronge
Robert Tronge

Pale phantoms, shrouded in black robes, slowly traversed the countryside; some knocked at the doors of houses, and, when admitted, drew from their pockets large, well-worn documents with which they evicted the tenants. From every direction came men still trembling with the fear that had seized them when they had fled twenty years before. All began to urge their claims, disputing loudly and crying for help; strange that a single death should attract so many buzzards. The King of France was on his throne, looking here and there to see if he could perchance find a bee [symbol of Napoleon D.W.] in the royal tapestry. Some men held out their hats, and he gave them money; others extended a crucifix and he kissed it; others contented themselves with pronouncing in his ear great names of powerful families, and he replied to these by inviting them into his grand salle, where the echoes were more sonorous; still others showed him their old cloaks, when they had carefully effaced the bees, and to these he gave new robes. The children saw all this, thinking that the spirit of Caesar would soon land at Cannes and breathe upon this larva; but the silence was unbroken, and they saw floating in the sky only the paleness of the lily. When these children spoke of glory, they met the answer: "Become priests;" when they spoke of hope, of love, of power, of life: "Become priests." And yet upon the rostrum came a man who held in his hand a contract between king and people. He began by saying that glory was a beautiful thing, and ambition and war as well; but there was something still more beautiful, and it was called liberty. The children raised their heads and remembered that thus their grandfathers had spoken. They remembered having seen in certain obscure corners of the paternal home mysterious busts with long marble hair and a Latin inscription; they remembered how their grandsires shook their heads and spoke of streams of blood more terrible than those of the Empire. Something in that word liberty made their hearts beat with the memory of a terrible past and the hope of a glorious future. They trembled at the word; but returning to their homes they encountered in the street three coffins which were being borne to Clamart; within were three young men who had pronounced that word liberty too distinctly. A strange smile hovered on their lips at that sad sight; but other speakers, mounted on the rostrum, began publicly to estimate what ambition had cost and how very dear was glory; they pointed out the horror of war and called the battle-losses butcheries. They spoke so often and so long that all human illusions, like the trees in autumn, fell leaf by leaf about them, and those who listened passed their hands over their foreheads as if awakening from a feverish dream. Some said: "The Emperor has fallen because the people wished no more of him;" others added: "The people wished the king; no, liberty; no, reason; no, religion; no, the English constitution; no, absolutism;" and the last one said: "No, none of these things, but simply peace." Three elements entered into the life which offered itself to these children: behind them a past forever destroyed, still quivering on its ruins with all the fossils of centuries of absolutism; before them the aurora of an immense horizon, the first gleams of the future; and between these two worlds--like the ocean which separates the Old World from the New--something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage, traversed from time to time by some distant sail or some ship trailing thick clouds of smoke; the present, in a word, which separates the past from the future, which is neither the one nor the other, which resembles both, and where one can not know whether, at each step, one treads on living matter or on dead refuse. It was in such chaos that choice had to be made; this was the aspect presented to children full of spirit and of audacity, sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution. As for the past, they would none of it, they had no faith in it; the future, they loved it, but how? As Pygmalion before Galatea, it was for them a lover in marble, and they waited for the breath of life to animate that breast, for blood to color those veins. There remained then the present, the spirit of the time, angel of the dawn which is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime-sack filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of that spectre, half mummy and half foetus; they approached it as does the traveller who is shown at Strasburg the daughter of an old count of Sarvenden, embalmed in her bride's dress: that childish skeleton makes one shudder, for her slender and livid hand wears the wedding-ring and her head decays enwreathed in orange-blossoms. As on the approach of a tempest there passes through the forests a terrible gust of wind which makes the trees shudder, to which profound silence succeeds, so had Napoleon, in passing, shaken the world; kings felt their crowns oscillate in the storm, and, raising hands to steady them, found only their hair, bristling with terror. The Pope had travelled three hundred leagues to bless him in the name of God and to crown him with the diadem; but Napoleon had taken it from his hands. Thus everything trembled in that dismal forest of old Europe; then silence succeeded. It is said that when you meet a mad dog, if you keep quietly on your way without turning, the dog will merely follow you a short distance growling and showing his teeth; but if you allow yourself to be frightened into a movement of terror, if you but make a sudden step, he will leap at your throat and devour you; that when the first bite has been taken there is no escaping him.