Captain Burle - Emile Zola
Having read a collection of stories by Guy de Maupassant for last week's Short Story Sunday, I have to say that I don't think I would be able to tell the difference between a Zola story and a de Maupassant one, as regards plot. Of course, as I am reading translated works, I can't comment on the differences, if any, in use of language between the two authors. Like many of the stories I read last week, Captain Burle is a farcical tale which seems humorous at times but ultimately has a tragic ending.
Captain Burle, his aged mother and young son live together in straightened circumstances in a provincial garrison town. Captain Burle, who has given up active duty and now grows flabby in a desk job as quartermaster, is a disappointment to his martinet of a mother who harbours thoughts of martial glory and honour for her son. She is determined to raise her grandson in a strict manner filling his head with ideas of soldierly daring and courage so that he is ready for military school as soon as possible. Captain Burle's son is a delicate, soft child who despairs at the thought of military life and war.
One stormy evening Major Laguitte (who has a marvellous catchphrase of "thunder and lightning!" which brings to mind Captain Haddock and his "thundering typhoons!") hammers on the door of Captain Burle's apartment in a furious rage. Captain Burle is not at home (he spends his evenings carousing with Melanie at the Cafe de Paris) so Major Laguitte tells the Captain's mother that he has discovered that his subordinate has been embezzling garrison funds. The Major served under Captain Burle's father and as a friend of the family is keen to avoid scandal by covering up the fraud and remonstrating with the Captain forcing him to mend his ways.
Where did the embezzled money go? Certainly not on Captain Burle's family. No, Captain Burle, who is considered an incorrigible philanderer (he is nicknamed Petticoat Burle by his men), spends his evenings flirting with Melanie, the owner of the local "bar", and spends his money on buying her affection. Major Laguitte marches over to the Cafe de Paris, hauls Captain Burle out of the bar and gives him a good talking to. It seems that the Major's intervention has reformed the Captain, as for the next few weeks he stays quietly at home and can be found snoring in bed at nine o'clock.
Major Laguitte begins to relax and thinks that the problem has been solved, until, one day, when casting his eye over the accounts he notices irregularities in Captain Burle's accounting once again. He can't understand where Captain Burle has been spending the money as apart from his duties he never leaves his home. He also realises that even if he urges Captain Burle to mend his ways countless times, the Captain will always return to his habit of cheating.
The Major resorts to a drastic course of action, in order to put an end to Captain Burle and the constant threat that he will sully the memory of his late father and dishonour his mother and son. Even though he only has the use of one leg, he decides to challenge Captain Burle to a duel - if he kills the Captain the problem will be solved and if he himself dies then he will not have to witness the shame that the Captain's actions bring on his family. As the Major is the Captain's superior he cannot get permission to duel without first resigning his commission. The papers take a long time to come through, but at last the much anticipated day of the duel arrives.
"The majority believed that Laguitte would be run through the body in three seconds, for it was madness for a man to fight with a paralyzed leg which did not even allow him to stand upright. A few, however, shook their heads. Laguitte had never been a marvel of intellect, that was true; for the last twenty years, indeed, he had been held up as an example of stupidity, but there had been a time when he was known as the best fencer of the regiment, and although he had begun as a drummer he had won his epaulets as the commander of a battalion by the sanguine bravery of a man who is quite unconscious of danger."The duel is fought and the Major is victorious. Shortly afterwards, Captain Burle's frail son, who desperately hoped not to attend the military academy, dies.