Part 30 out of 31
I thought: "Here are people who have more than their share of amusement,
and apparently without reason. They must have planned some good joke.
Assuredly I am to be the victim of the joke. Attention!"
During the entire evening every one laughed in an exaggerated fashion.
I scented a practical joke in the air, as a dog scents game. But what
was it? I was watchful, restless. I did not let a word, or a meaning,
or a gesture escape me. Every one seemed to me an object of suspicion,
and I even looked distrustfully at the faces of the servants.
The hour struck for retiring; and the whole household came to escort me
to my room. Why?
They called to me: "Good-night." I entered the apartment, shut the door,
and remained standing, without moving a single step, holding the wax
candle in my hand.
I heard laughter and whispering in the corridor. Without doubt they were
spying on me. I cast a glance round the walls, the furniture, the
ceiling, the hangings, the floor. I saw nothing to justify suspicion.
I heard persons moving about outside my door. I had no doubt they were
looking through the keyhole.
An idea came into my head: "My candle may suddenly go out and leave me in
Then I went across to the mantelpiece and lighted all the wax candles
that were on it. After that I cast another glance around me without
discovering anything. I advanced with short steps, carefully examining
the apartment. Nothing. I inspected every article, one after the other.
Still nothing. I went over to the window. The shutters, large wooden
shutters, were open. I shut them with great care, and then drew the
curtains, enormous velvet curtains, and placed a chair in front of them,
so as to have nothing to fear from outside.
Then I cautiously sat down. The armchair was solid. I did not venture
to get into the bed. However, the night was advancing; and I ended by
coming to the conclusion that I was foolish. If they were spying on me,
as I supposed, they must, while waiting for the success of the joke they
had been preparing for me, have been laughing immoderately at my terror.
So I made up my mind to go to bed. But the bed was particularly
suspicious-looking. I pulled at the curtains. They seemed to be secure.
All the same, there was danger. I was going perhaps to receive a cold
shower both from overhead, or perhaps, the moment I stretched myself out,
to find myself sinking to the floor with my mattress. I searched in my
memory for all the practical jokes of which I ever had experience. And I
did not want to be caught. Ah! certainly not! certainly not! Then I
suddenly bethought myself of a precaution which I considered insured
safety. I caught hold of the side of the mattress gingerly, and very
slowly drew it toward me. It came away, followed by the sheet and the
rest of the bedclothes. I dragged all these objects into the very middle
of the room, facing the entrance door. I made my bed over again as best
I could at some distance from the suspected bedstead and the corner which
had filled me with such anxiety. Then I extinguished all the candles,
and, groping my way, I slipped under the bed clothes.
For at least another hour I remained awake, starting at the slightest
sound. Everything seemed quiet in the chateau. I fell asleep.
I must have been in a deep sleep for a long time, but all of a sudden I
was awakened with a start by the fall of a heavy body tumbling right on
top of my own, and, at the same time, I received on my face, on my neck,
and on my chest a burning liquid which made me utter a howl of pain. And
a dreadful noise, as if a sideboard laden with plates and dishes had
fallen down, almost deafened me.
I was smothering beneath the weight that was crushing me and preventing
me from moving. I stretched out my hand to find out what was the nature
of this object. I felt a face, a nose, and whiskers. Then, with all my
strength, I launched out a blow at this face. But I immediately received
a hail of cuffings which made me jump straight out of the soaked sheets,
and rush in my nightshirt into the corridor, the door of which I found
Oh, heavens! it was broad daylight. The noise brought my friends
hurrying into my apartment, and we found, sprawling over my improvised
bed, the dismayed valet, who, while bringing me my morning cup of tea,
had tripped over this obstacle in the middle of the floor and fallen on
his stomach, spilling my breakfast over my face in spite of himself.
The precautions I had taken in closing the shutters and going to sleep in
the middle of the room had only brought about the practical joke I had
been trying to avoid.
Oh, how they all laughed that day!
"Hello! there's Milial!" said somebody near me. I looked at the man who
had been pointed out as I had been wishing for a long time to meet this
He was no longer young. His gray hair looked a little like those fur
bonnets worn by certain Northern peoples, and his long beard, which fell
down over his chest, had also somewhat the appearance of fur. He was
talking to a lady, leaning toward her, speaking in a low voice and
looking at her with an expression full of respect and tenderness.
I knew his life, or at least as much as was known of it. He had loved
madly several times, and there had been certain tragedies with which his
name had been connected. When I spoke to women who were the loudest in
his praise, and asked them whence came this power, they always answered,
after thinking for a while: "I don't know--he has a certain charm about
He was certainly not handsome. He had none of the elegance that we
ascribe to conquerors of feminine hearts. I wondered what might be his
hid den charm. Was it mental? I never had heard of a clever saying of
his. In his glance? Perhaps. Or in his voice? The voices of some
beings have a certain irresistible attraction, almost suggesting the
flavor of things good to eat. One is hungry for them, and the sound of
their words penetrates us like a dainty morsel. A friend was passing.
I asked him: "Do you know Monsieur Milial?"
A minute later we were shaking hands and talking in the doorway. What he
said was correct, agreeable to hear; it contained no irritable thought.
The voice was sweet, soft, caressing, musical; but I had heard others
much more attractive, much more moving. One listened to him with
pleasure, just as one would look at a pretty little brook. No tension of
the mind was necessary in order to follow him, no hidden meaning aroused
curiosity, no expectation awoke interest. His conversation was rather
restful, but it did not awaken in one either a desire to answer, to
contradict or to approve, and it was as easy to answer him as it was to
listen to him. The response came to the lips of its own accord, as soon
as he had finished talking, and phrases turned toward him as if he had
naturally aroused them.
One thought soon struck me. I had known him for a quarter of an hour,
and it seemed as if he were already one of my old friends, that I had
known all about him for a long time; his face, his gestures, his voice,
his ideas. Suddenly, after a few minutes of conversation, he seemed
already to be installed in my intimacy. All constraint disappeared
between us, and, had he so desired, I might have confided in him as one
confides only in old friends.
Certainly there was some mystery about him. Those barriers that are
closed between most people and that are lowered with time when sympathy,
similar tastes, equal intellectual culture and constant intercourse
remove constraint--those barriers seemed not to exist between him and me,
and no doubt this was the case between him and all people, both men and
women, whom fate threw in his path.
After half an hour we parted, promising to see each other often, and he
gave me his address after inviting me to take luncheon with him in two
I forgot what hour he had stated, and I arrived too soon; he was not yet
home. A correct and silent domestic showed me into a beautiful, quiet,
softly lighted parlor. I felt comfortable there, at home. How often I
have noticed the influence of apartments on the character and on the
mind! There are some which make one feel foolish; in others, on the
contrary, one always feels lively. Some make us sad, although well
lighted and decorated in light-colored furniture; others cheer us up,
although hung with sombre material. Our eye, like our heart, has its
likes and dislikes, of which it does not inform us, and which it secretly
imposes on our temperament. The harmony of furniture, walls, the style
of an ensemble, act immediately on our mental state, just as the air from
the woods, the sea or the mountains modifies our physical natures.
I sat down on a cushion-covered divan and felt myself suddenly carried
and supported by these little silk bags of feathers, as if the outline of
my body had been marked out beforehand on this couch.
Then I looked about. There was nothing striking about the room; every-
where were beautiful and modest things, simple and rare furniture,
Oriental curtains which did not seem to come from a department store but
from the interior of a harem; and exactly opposite me hung the portrait
of a woman. It was a portrait of medium size, showing the head and the
upper part of the body, and the hands, which were holding a book. She
was young, bareheaded; ribbons were woven in her hair; she was smiling
sadly. Was it because she was bareheaded, was it merely her natural
expression? I never have seen a portrait of a lady which seemed so much
in its place as that one in that dwelling. Of all those I knew I have
seen nothing like that one. All those that I know are on exhibition,
whether the lady be dressed in her gaudiest gown, with an attractive
headdress and a look which shows that she is posing first of all before
the artist and then before those who will look at her or whether they
have taken a comfortable attitude in an ordinary gown. Some are standing
majestically in all their beauty, which is not at all natural to them in
life. All of them have something, a flower or, a jewel, a crease in the
dress or a curve of the lip, which one feels to have been placed there
for effect by the artist. Whether they wear a hat or merely their hair
one can immediately notice that they are not entirely natural. Why?
One cannot say without knowing them, but the effect is there. They seem
to be calling somewhere, on people whom they wish to please and to whom
they wish to appear at their best advantage; and they have studied their
attitudes, sometimes modest, Sometimes haughty.
What could one say about this one? She was at home and alone. Yes, she
was alone, for she was smiling as one smiles when thinking in solitude of
something sad or sweet, and not as one smiles when one is being watched.
She seemed so much alone and so much at home that she made the whole
large apartment seem absolutely empty. She alone lived in it, filled it,
gave it life. Many people might come in and converse, laugh, even sing;
she would still be alone with a solitary smile, and she alone would give
it life with her pictured gaze.
That look also was unique. It fell directly on me, fixed and caressing,
without seeing me. All portraits know that they are being watched, and
they answer with their eyes, which see, think, follow us without leaving
us, from the very moment we enter the apartment they inhabit. This one
did not see me; it saw nothing, although its look was fixed directly on
me. I remembered the surprising verse of Baudelaire:
And your eyes, attractive as those of a portrait.
They did indeed attract me in an irresistible manner; those painted eyes
which had lived, or which were perhaps still living, threw over me a
strange, powerful spell. Oh, what an infinite and tender charm, like a
passing breeze, like a dying sunset of lilac rose and blue, a little sad
like the approaching night, which comes behind the sombre frame and out
of those impenetrable eyes! Those eyes, created by a few strokes from a
brush, hide behind them the mystery of that which seems to be and which
does not exist, which can appear in the eyes of a woman, which can make
love blossom within us.
The door opened and M. Milial entered. He excused himself for being
late. I excused myself for being ahead of time. Then I said: "Might I
ask you who is this lady?"
He answered: "That is my mother. She died very young."
Then I understood whence came the inexplicable attraction of this man.
The north wind was blowing a hurricane, driving through the sky big,
black, heavy clouds from which the rain poured down on the earth with
A high sea was raging and dashing its huge, slow, foamy waves along the
coast with the rumbling sound of thunder. The waves followed each other
close, rolling in as high as mountains, scattering the foam as they
The storm engulfed itself in the little valley of Yport, whistling and
moaning, tearing the shingles from the roofs, smashing the shutters,
knocking down the chimneys, rushing through the narrow streets in such
gusts that one could walk only by holding on to the walls, and children
would have been lifted up like leaves and carried over the houses into
The fishing smacks had been hauled high up on land, because at high tide
the sea would sweep the beach. Several sailors, sheltered behind the
curved bottoms of their boats, were watching this battle of the sky and
Then, one by one, they went away, for night was falling on the storm,
wrapping in shadows the raging ocean and all the battling elements.
Just two men remained, their hands plunged deep into their pockets,
bending their backs beneath the squall, their woolen caps pulled down
over their ears; two big Normandy fishermen, bearded, their skin tanned
through exposure, with the piercing black eyes of the sailor who looks
over the horizon like a bird of prey.
One of them was saying:
"Come on, Jeremie, let's go play dominoes. It's my treat."
The other hesitated a while, tempted on one hand by the game and the
thought of brandy, knowing well that, if he went to Paumelle's, he would
return home drunk; held back, on the other hand, by the idea of his wife
remaining alone in the house.
"Any one might think that you had made a bet to get me drunk every night.
Say, what good is it doing you, since it's always you that's treating?"
Nevertheless he was smiling at the idea of all this brandy drunk at the
expense of another. He was smiling the contented smirk of an avaricious
Mathurin, his friend, kept pulling him by the sleeve.
"Come on, Jeremie. This isn't the kind of a night to go home without
anything to warm you up. What are you afraid of? Isn't your wife going
to warm your bed for you?"
"The other night I couldn't find the door--I had to be fished out of the
ditch in front of the house!"
He was still laughing at this drunkard's recollection, and he was
unconsciously going toward Paumelle's Cafe, where a light was shining in
the window; he was going, pulled by Mathurin and pushed by the wind,
unable to resist these combined forces.
The low room was full of sailors, smoke and noise. All these men, clad
in woolens, their elbows on the tables, were shouting to make themselves
heard. The more people came in, the more one had to shout in order to
overcome the noise of voices and the rattling of dominoes on the marble
Jeremie and Mathurin sat down in a corner and began a game, and the
glasses were emptied in rapid succession into their thirsty throats.
Then they played more games and drank more glasses. Mathurin kept
pouring and winking to the saloon keeper, a big, red-faced man, who
chuckled as though at the thought of some fine joke; and Jeremie kept
absorbing alcohol and wagging his head, giving vent to a roar of laughter
and looking at his comrade with a stupid and contented expression.
All the customers were going away. Every time that one of them would
open the door to leave a gust of wind would blow into the cafe, making
the tobacco smoke swirl around, swinging the lamps at the end of their
chains and making their flames flicker, and suddenly one could hear the
deep booming of a breaking wave and the moaning of the wind.
Jeremie, his collar unbuttoned, was taking drunkard's poses, one leg
outstretched, one arm hanging down and in the other hand holding a
They were alone now with the owner, who had come up to them, interested.
"Well, Jeremie, how goes it inside? Feel less thirsty after wetting your
"The more I wet it, the drier it gets inside."
The innkeeper cast a sly glance at Mathurin. He said:
"And your brother, Mathurin, where's he now?"
The sailor laughed silently:
"Don't worry; he's warm, all right."
And both of them looked toward Jeremie, who was triumphantly putting down
the double six and announcing:
Then the owner declared:
"Well, boys, I'm goin' to bed. I will leave you the lamp and the bottle;
there's twenty cents' worth in it. Lock the door when you go, Mathurin,
and slip the key under the mat the way you did the other night."
"Don't worry; it'll be all right."
Paumelle shook hands with his two customers and slowly went up the wooden
stairs. For several minutes his heavy step echoed through the little
house. Then a loud creaking announced that he had got into bed.
The two men continued to play. From time to time a more violent gust of
wind would shake the whole house, and the two drinkers would look up, as
though some one were about to enter. Then Mathurin would take the bottle
and fill Jeremie's glass. But suddenly the clock over the bar struck
twelve. Its hoarse clang sounded like the rattling of saucepans. Then
Mathurin got up like a sailor whose watch is over.
"Come on, Jeremie, we've got to get out."
The other man rose to his feet with difficulty, got his balance by
leaning on the table, reached the door and opened it while his companion
was putting out the light.
As soon as they were in the street Mathurin locked the door and then
"Well, so long. See you to-morrow night!"
And he disappeared in the darkness.
Jeremie took a few steps, staggered, stretched out his hands, met a wall
which supported him and began to stumble along. From time to time a gust
of wind would sweep through the street, pushing him forward, making him
run for a few steps; then, when the wind would die down, he would stop
short, having lost his impetus, and once more he would begin to stagger
on his unsteady drunkard's legs.
He went instinctively toward his home, just as birds go to their nests.
Finally he recognized his door, and began to feel about for the keyhole
and tried to put the key in it. Not finding the hole, he began to swear.
Then he began to beat on the door with his fists, calling for his wife to
come and help him:
"Melina! Oh, Melina!"
As he leaned against the door for support, it gave way and opened, and
Jeremie, losing his prop, fell inside, rolling on his face into the
middle of his room, and he felt something heavy pass over him and escape
in the night.
He was no longer moving, dazed by fright, bewildered, fearing the devil,
ghosts, all the mysterious beings of darkness, and he waited a long time
without daring to move. But when he found out that nothing else was
moving, a little reason returned to him, the reason of a drunkard.
Gently he sat up. Again he waited a long time, and at last, growing
bolder, he called:
His wife did not answer.
Then, suddenly, a suspicion crossed his darkened mind, an indistinct,
vague suspicion. He was not moving; he was sitting there in the dark,
trying to gather together his scattered wits, his mind stumbling over
incomplete ideas, just as his feet stumbled along.
Once more he asked:
"Who was it, Melina? Tell me who it was. I won't hurt you!"
He waited, no voice was raised in the darkness. He was now reasoning
with himself out loud.
"I'm drunk, all right! I'm drunk! And he filled me up, the dog; he did
it, to stop my goin' home. I'm drunk!"
And he would continue:
"Tell me who it was, Melina, or somethin'll happen to you."
After having waited again, he went on with the slow and obstinate logic
of a drunkard:
"He's been keeping me at that loafer Paumelle's place every night, so as
to stop my going home. It's some trick. Oh, you damned carrion!"
Slowly he got on his knees. A blind fury was gaining possession of him,
mingling with the fumes of alcohol.
"Tell me who it was, Melina, or you'll get a licking--I warn you!"
He was now standing, trembling with a wild fury, as though the alcohol
had set his blood on fire. He took a step, knocked against a chair,
seized it, went on, reached the bed, ran his hands over it and felt the
warm body of his wife.
Then, maddened, he roared:
"So! You were there, you piece of dirt, and you wouldn't answer!"
And, lifting the chair, which he was holding in his strong sailor's grip,
he swung it down before him with an exasperated fury. A cry burst from
the bed, an agonizing, piercing cry. Then he began to thrash around like
a thresher in a barn. And soon nothing more moved. The chair was broken
to pieces, but he still held one leg and beat away with it, panting.
At last he stopped to ask:
"Well, are you ready to tell me who it was?"
Melina did not answer.
Then tired out, stupefied from his exertion, he stretched himself out on
the ground and slept.
When day came a neighbor, seeing the door open, entered. He saw Jeremie
snoring on the floor, amid the broken pieces of a chair, and on the bed a
pulp of flesh and blood.
As we sat chatting after dinner, a party of men, the conversation turned
on women, for lack of something else.
One of us said:
"Here's a funny thing that happened to me on, that very subject." And he
told us the following story:
One evening last winter I suddenly felt overcome by that overpowering
sense of misery and languor that takes possession of one from time to
time. I was in my own apartment, all alone, and I was convinced that if
I gave in to my feelings I should have a terrible attack of melancholia,
one of those attacks that lead to suicide when they recur too often.
I put on my overcoat and went out without the slightest idea of what I
was going to do. Having gone as far as the boulevards, I began to wander
along by the almost empty cafes. It was raining, a fine rain that
affects your mind as it does your clothing, not one of those good
downpours which come down in torrents, driving breathless passers-by into
doorways, but a rain without drops that deposits on your clothing an
imperceptible spray and soon covers you with a sort of iced foam that
chills you through.
What should I do? I walked in one direction and then came back, looking
for some place where I could spend two hours, and discovering for the
first time that there is no place of amusement in Paris in the evening.
At last I decided to go to the Folies-Bergere, that entertaining resort
for gay women.
There were very few people in the main hall. In the long horseshoe curve
there were only a few ordinary looking people, whose plebeian origin was
apparent in their manners, their clothes, the cut of their hair and
beard, their hats, their complexion. It was rarely that one saw from
time to time a man whom you suspected of having washed himself
thoroughly, and his whole make-up seemed to match. As for the women,
they were always the same, those frightful women you all know, ugly,
tired looking, drooping, and walking along in their lackadaisical manner,
with that air of foolish superciliousness which they assume, I do not
I thought to myself that, in truth, not one of those languid creatures,
greasy rather than fat, puffed out here and thin there, with the contour
of a monk and the lower extremities of a bow-legged snipe, was worth the
louis that they would get with great difficulty after asking five.
But all at once I saw a little creature whom I thought attractive, not in
her first youth, but fresh, comical and tantalizing. I stopped her, and
stupidly, without thinking, I made an appointment with her for that
night. I did not want to go back to my own home alone, all alone;
I preferred the company and the caresses of this hussy.
And I followed her. She lived in a great big house in the Rue des
Martyrs. The gas was already extinguished on the stairway. I ascended
the steps slowly, lighting a candle match every few seconds, stubbing my
foot against the steps, stumbling and angry as I followed the rustle of
the skirt ahead of me.
She stopped on the fourth floor, and having closed the outer door she
"Then you will stay till to-morrow?"
"Why, yes. You know that that was the agreement."
"All right, my dear, I just wanted to know. Wait for me here a minute, I
will be right back."
And she left me in the darkness. I heard her shutting two doors and then
I thought I heard her talking. I was surprised and uneasy. The thought
that she had a protector staggered me. But I have good fists and a solid
back. "We shall see," I said to myself.
I listened attentively with ear and mind. Some one was stirring about,
walking quietly and very carefully. Then another door was opened and I
thought I again heard some one talking, but in a very low tone.
She came back carrying a lighted candle.
"You may come in," she said.
She said "thou" in speaking to me, which was an indication of possession.
I went in and after passing through a dining room in which it was very
evident that no one ever ate, I entered a typical room of all these
women, a furnished room with red curtains and a soiled eiderdown bed
"Make yourself at home, 'mon chat'," she said.
I gave a suspicious glance at the room, but there seemed no reason for
As she took off her wraps she began to laugh.
"Well, what ails you? Are you changed into a pillar of salt? Come,
I did as she suggested.
Five minutes later I longed to put on my things and get away. But this
terrible languor that had overcome me at home took possession of me
again, and deprived me of energy enough to move and I stayed in spite of
the disgust that I felt for this association. The unusual attractiveness
that I supposed I had discovered in this creature over there under the
chandeliers of the theater had altogether vanished on closer
acquaintance, and she was nothing more to me now than a common woman,
like all the others, whose indifferent and complaisant kiss smacked of
I thought I would say something.
"Have you lived here long?" I asked.
"Over six months on the fifteenth of January."
"Where were you before that?"
"In the Rue Clauzel. But the janitor made me very uncomfortable and I
And she began to tell me an interminable story of a janitor who had
talked scandal about her.
But, suddenly, I heard something moving quite close to us. First there
was a sigh, then a slight, but distinct, sound as if some one had turned
round on a chair.
I sat up abruptly and asked.
"What was that noise?"
She answered quietly and confidently:
"Do not be uneasy, my dear boy, it is my neighbor. The partition is so
thin that one can hear everything as if it were in the room. These are
wretched rooms, just like pasteboard."
I felt so lazy that I paid no further attention to it. We resumed our
conversation. Driven by the stupid curiosity that prompts all men to
question these creatures about their first experiences, to attempt to
lift the veil of their first folly, as though to find in them a trace of
pristine innocence, to love them, possibly, in a fleeting memory of their
candor and modesty of former days, evoked by a word, I insistently asked
her about her earlier lovers.
I knew she was telling me lies. What did it matter? Among all these
lies I might, perhaps, discover something sincere and pathetic.
"Come," said I, "tell me who he was."
"He was a boating man, my dear."
"Ah! Tell me about it. Where were you?"
"I was at Argenteuil."
"What were you doing?"
"I was waitress in a restaurant."
"'The Freshwater Sailor.' Do you know it?"
"I should say so, kept by Bonanfan."
"Yes, that's it."
"And how did he make love to you, this boating man?"
"While I was doing his room. He took advantage of me."
But I suddenly recalled the theory of a friend of mine, an observant and
philosophical physician whom constant attendance in hospitals has brought
into daily contact with girl-mothers and prostitutes, with all the shame
and all the misery of women, of those poor women who have become the
frightful prey of the wandering male with money in his pocket.
"A woman," he said, "is always debauched by a man of her own class and
position. I have volumes of statistics on that subject. We accuse the
rich of plucking the flower of innocence among the girls of the people.
This is not correct. The rich pay for what they want. They may gather
some, but never for the first time."
Then, turning to my companion, I began to laugh.
"You know that I am aware of your history. The boating man was not the
"Oh, yes, my dear, I swear it:"
"You are lying, my dear."
"Oh, no, I assure you."
"You are lying; come, tell me all."
She seemed to hesitate in astonishment. I continued:
"I am a sorcerer, my dear girl, I am a clairvoyant. If you do not tell
me the truth, I will go into a trance sleep and then I can find out."
She was afraid, being as stupid as all her kind. She faltered:
"How did you guess?"
"Come, go on telling me," I said.
"Oh, the first time didn't amount to anything.
"There was a festival in the country. They had sent for a special chef,
M. Alexandre. As soon as he came he did just as he pleased in the house.
He bossed every one, even the proprietor and his wife, as if he had been
a king. He was a big handsome man, who did not seem fitted to stand
beside a kitchen range. He was always calling out, 'Come, some butter-
some eggs--some Madeira!' And it had to be brought to him at once in a
hurry, or he would get cross and say things that would make us blush all
"When the day was over he would smoke a pipe outside the door. And as I
was passing by him with a pile of plates he said to me, like that: 'Come,
girlie, come down to the water with me and show me the country.' I went
with him like a fool, and we had hardly got down to the bank of the river
when he took advantage of me so suddenly that I did not even know what he
was doing. And then he went away on the nine o'clock train. I never saw
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Oh, I think Florentin belongs to him."
"Who is Florentin?"
"My little boy."
"Oh! Well, then, you made the boating man believe that he was the
father, did you not?"
"Did he have any money, this boating man?"
"Yes, he left me an income of three hundred francs, settled on
I was beginning to be amused and resumed:
"All right, my girl, all right. You are all of you less stupid than one
would imagine, all the same. And how old is he now, Florentin?"
"He is now twelve. He will make his first communion in the spring."
"That is splendid. And since then you have carried on your business
She sighed in a resigned manner.
"I must do what I can."
But a loud noise just then coming from the room itself made me start up
with a bound. It sounded like some one falling and picking themselves up
again by feeling along the wall with their hands.
I had seized the candle and was looking about me, terrified and furious.
She had risen also and was trying to hold me back to stop me, murmuring:
"That's nothing, my dear, I assure you it's nothing."
But I had discovered what direction the strange noise came from. I
walked straight towards a door hidden at the head of the bed and I opened
it abruptly and saw before me, trembling, his bright, terrified eyes
opened wide at sight of me, a little pale, thin boy seated beside a large
wicker chair off which he had fallen.
As soon as he saw me he began to cry. Stretching out his arms to his
mother, he cried:
"It was not my fault, mamma, it was not my fault. I was asleep, and I
fell off. Do not scold me, it was not my fault."
I turned to the woman and said:
"What does this mean?"
She seemed confused and worried, and said in a broken voice:
"What do you want me to do? I do not earn enough to put him to school!
I have to keep him with me, and I cannot afford to pay for another room,
by heavens! He sleeps with me when I am alone. If any one comes for one
hour or two he can stay in the wardrobe; he keeps quiet, he understands
it. But when people stay all night, as you have done, it tires the poor
child to sleep on a chair.
"It is not his fault. I should like to see you sleep all night on a
chair--you would have something to say."
She was getting angry and excited and was talking loud.
The child was still crying. A poor delicate timid little fellow, a
veritable child of the wardrobe, of the cold, dark closet, a child who
from time to time was allowed to get a little warmth in the bed if it
chanced to be unoccupied.
I also felt inclined to cry.
And I went home to my own bed.
THE MOUNTAIN POOL
Saint Agnes, May 6.
MY DEAR FRIEND:
You asked me to write to you often and to tell you in particular about
the things I might see. You also begged me to rummage among my
recollections of travels for some of those little anecdotes gathered from
a chance peasant, from an innkeeper, from some strange traveling
acquaintance, which remain as landmarks in the memory. With a landscape
depicted in a few lines, and a little story told in a few sentences you
think one can give the true characteristics of a country, make it living,
visible, dramatic. I will try to do as you wish. I will, therefore,
send you from time to time letters in which I will mention neither you
nor myself, but only the landscape and the people who move about in it.
And now I will begin.
Spring is a season in which one ought, it seems to me, to drink and eat
the landscape. It is the season of chills, just as autumn is the season
of reflection. In spring the country rouses the physical senses, in
autumn it enters into the soul.
I desired this year to breathe the odor of orange blossoms and I set out
for the South of France just at the time that every one else was
returning home. I visited Monaco, the shrine of pilgrims, rival of Mecca
and Jerusalem, without leaving any gold in any one else's pockets, and I
climbed the high mountain beneath a covering of lemon, orange and olive
Have you ever slept, my friend, in a grove of orange trees in flower?
The air that one inhales with delight is a quintessence of perfumes. The
strong yet sweet odor, delicious as some dainty, seems to blend with our
being, to saturate us, to intoxicate us, to enervate us, to plunge us
into a sleepy, dreamy torpor. As though it were an opium prepared by the
hands of fairies and not by those of druggists.
This is a country of ravines. The surface of the mountains is cleft,
hollowed out in all directions, and in these sinuous crevices grow
veritable forests of lemon trees. Here and there where the steep gorge
is interrupted by a sort of step, a kind of reservoir has been built
which holds the water of the rain storms.
They are large holes with slippery walls with nothing for any one to
grasp hold of should they fall in.
I was walking slowly in one of these ascending valleys or gorges,
glancing through the foliage at the vivid-hued fruit that remained on the
branches. The narrow gorge made the heavy odor of the flowers still more
penetrating; the air seemed to be dense with it. A feeling of lassitude
came over me and I looked for a place to sit down. A few drops of water
glistened in the grass. I thought that there was a spring near by and I
climbed a little further to look for it. But I only reached the edge of
one of these large, deep reservoirs.
I sat down tailor fashion, with my legs crossed under me, and remained
there in a reverie before this hole, which looked as if it were filled
with ink, so black and stagnant was the liquid it contained. Down
yonder, through the branches, I saw, like patches, bits of the
Mediterranean gleaming so that they fairly dazzled my eyes. But my
glance always returned to the immense somber well that appeared to be
inhabited by no aquatic animals, so motionless was its surface.
Suddenly a voice made me tremble. An old gentleman who was picking
flowers--this country is the richest in Europe for herbalists--asked me:
"Are you a relation of those poor children, monsieur?"
I looked at him in astonishment.
"What children, monsieur?"
He seemed embarrassed and answered with a bow:
"I beg your pardon. On seeing you sitting thus absorbed in front of this
reservoir I thought you were recalling the frightful tragedy that
Now I wanted to know about it, and I begged him to tell me the story.
It is very dismal and very heart-rending, my dear friend, and very
trivial at the same time. It is a simple news item. I do not know
whether to attribute my emotion to the dramatic manner in which the story
was told to me, to the setting of the mountains, to the contrast between
the joy of the sunlight and the flowers and this black, murderous hole,
but my heart was wrung, all my nerves unstrung by this tale which,
perhaps, may not appear so terribly harrowing to you as you read it in
your room without having the scene of the tragedy before your eyes.
It was one spring in recent years. Two little boys frequently came to
play on the edge of this cistern while their tutor lay under a tree
reading a book. One warm afternoon a piercing cry awoke the tutor who
was dozing and the sound of splashing caused by something falling into
the water made him jump to his feet abruptly. The younger of the
children, eight years of age, was shouting, as he stood beside the
reservoir, the surface of which was stirred and eddying at the spot where
the older boy had fallen in as he ran along the stone coping.
Distracted, without waiting or stopping to think what was best to do, the
tutor jumped into the black water and did not rise again, having struck
his head at the bottom of the cistern.
At the same moment the young boy who had risen to the surface was waving
his stretched-out arms toward his brother. The little fellow on land lay
down full length, while the other tried to swim, to approach the wall,
and presently the four little hands clasped each other, tightened in each
other's grasp, contracted as though they were fastened together. They
both felt the intense joy of an escape from death, a shudder at the
The older boy tried to climb up to the edge, but could not manage it, as
the wall was perpendicular, and his brother, who was too weak, was
sliding slowly towards the hole.
Then they remained motionless, filled anew with terror. And they waited.
The little fellow squeezed his brother's hands with all his might and
wept from nervousness as he repeated: "I cannot drag you out, I cannot
drag you out." And all at once he began to shout, "Help! Help!" But his
light voice scarcely penetrated beyond the dome of foliage above their
They remained thus a long time, hours and hours, facing each other, these
two children, with one thought, one anguish of heart and the horrible
dread that one of them, exhausted, might let go the hands of the other.
And they kept on calling, but all in vain.
At length the older boy, who was shivering with cold, said to the little
one: "I cannot hold out any longer. I am going to fall. Good-by, little
brother." And the other, gasping, replied: "Not yet, not yet, wait."
Evening came on, the still evening with its stars mirrored in the water.
The older lad, his endurance giving out, said: "Let go my hand, I am
going to give you my watch." He had received it as a present a few days
before, and ever since it had been his chief amusement. He was able to
get hold of it, and held it out to the little fellow who was sobbing and
who laid it down on the grass beside him.
It was night now. The two unhappy beings, exhausted, had almost loosened
their grasp. The elder, at last, feeling that he was lost, murmured once
more: "Good-by, little brother, kiss mamma and papa." And his numbed
fingers relaxed their hold. He sank and did not rise again . . . .
The little fellow, left alone, began to shout wildly: "Paul! Paul!" But
the other did not come to the surface.
Then he darted across the mountain, falling among the stones, overcome by
the most frightful anguish that can wring a child's heart, and with a
face like death reached the sitting-room, where his parents were waiting.
He became bewildered again as he led them to the gloomy reservoir. He
could not find his way. At last he reached the spot. "It is there; yes,
it is there!"
But the cistern had to be emptied, and the proprietor would not permit it
as he needed the water for his lemon trees.
The two bodies were found, however, but not until the next day.
You see, my dear friend, that this is a simple news item. But if you had
seen the hole itself your heart would have been wrung, as mine was, at
the thought of the agony of that child hanging to his brother's hands, of
the long suspense of those little chaps who were accustomed only to laugh
and to play, and at the simple incident of the giving of the watch.
I said to myself: "May Fate preserve me from ever receiving a similar
relic!" I know of nothing more terrible than such a recollection
connected with a familiar object that one cannot dispose of. Only think
of it; each time that he handles this sacred watch the survivor will
picture once more the horrible scene; the pool, the wall, the still
water, and the distracted face of his brother-alive, and yet as lost as
though he were already dead. And all through his life, at any moment,
the vision will be there, awakened the instant even the tip of his finger
touches his watch pocket.
And I was sad until evening. I left the spot and kept on climbing,
leaving the region of orange trees for the region of olive trees, and the
region of olive trees for the region of pines; then I came to a valley of
stones, and finally reached the ruins of an ancient castle, built, they
say, in the tenth century by a Saracen chief, a good man, who was
baptized a Christian through love for a young girl. Everywhere around me
were mountains, and before me the sea, the sea with an almost
imperceptible patch on it: Corsica, or, rather, the shadow of Corsica.
But on the mountain summits, blood-red in the glow of the sunset, in the
boundless sky and on the sea, in all this superb landscape that I had
come here to admire I saw only two poor children, one lying prone on the
edge of a hole filled with black water, the other submerged to his neck,
their hands intertwined, weeping opposite each other, in despair.
And it seemed as though I continually heard a weak, exhausted voice
saying: "Good-by, little brother, I am going to give you my watch."
This letter may seem rather melancholy, dear friend. I will try to be
more cheerful some other day.
Last Monday an Indian prince died at Etretat, Bapu Sahib Khanderao
Ghatay, a relation of His Highness, the Maharajah Gaikwar, prince of
Baroda, in the province of Guzerat, Presidency of Bombay.
For about three weeks there had been seen walking in the streets about
ten young East Indians, small, lithe, with dark skins, dressed all in
gray and wearing on their heads caps such as English grooms wear. They
were men of high rank who had come to Europe to study the military
institutions of the principal Western nations. The little band consisted
of three princes, a nobleman, an interpreter and three servants.
The head of the commission had just died, an old man of forty-two and
father-in-law of Sampatro Kashivao Gaikwar, brother of His Highness, the
Gaikwar of Baroda.
The son-in-law accompanied his father-in-law.
The other East Indians were called Ganpatrao Shravanrao Gaikwar, cousin
of His Highness Khasherao Gadhav; Vasudev Madhav Samarth, interpreter and
secretary; the slaves: Ramchandra Bajaji, Ganu bin Pukiram Kokate,
Rhambhaji bin Fabji.
On leaving his native land the one who died recently was overcome with
terrible grief, and feeling convinced that he would never return he
wished to give up the journey, but he had to obey the wishes of his noble
relative, the Prince of Baroda, and he set out.
They came to spend the latter part of the summer at Etretat, and people
would go out of curiosity every morning to see them taking their bath at
the Etablissment des Roches-Blanches.
Five or six days ago Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatay was taken with pains in
his gums; then the inflammation spread to the throat and became
ulceration. Gangrene set in and, on Monday, the doctors told his young
friends that their relative was dying. The final struggle was already
beginning, and the breath had almost left the unfortunate man's body when
his friends seized him, snatched him from his bed and laid him on the
stone floor of the room, so that, stretched out on the earth, our mother,
he should yield up his soul, according to the command of Brahma.
They then sent to ask the mayor, M. Boissaye, for a permit to burn the
body that very day so as to fulfill the prescribed ceremonial of the
Hindoo religion. The mayor hesitated, telegraphed to the prefecture to
demand instructions, at the same time sending word that a failure to
reply would be considered by him tantamount to a consent. As he had
received no reply at 9 o'clock that evening, he decided, in view of the
infectious character of the disease of which the East Indian had died,
that the cremation of the body should take place that very night, beneath
the cliff, on the beach, at ebb tide.
The mayor is being criticized now for this decision, though he acted as
an intelligent, liberal and determined man, and was upheld and advised by
the three physicians who had watched the case and reported the death.
They were dancing at the Casino that evening. It was an early autumn
evening, rather chilly. A pretty strong wind was blowing from the ocean,
although as yet there was no sea on, and swift, light, ragged clouds were
driving across the sky. They came from the edge of the horizon, looking
dark against the background of the sky, but as they approached the moon
they grew whiter and passed hurriedly across her face, veiling it for a
few seconds without completely hiding it.
The tall straight cliffs that inclose the rounded beach of Etretat and
terminate in two celebrated arches, called "the Gates," lay in shadow,
and made two great black patches in the softly lighted landscape.
It had rained all day.
The Casino orchestra was playing waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. A rumor
was presently circulated among the groups of dancers. It was said that
an East Indian prince had just died at the Hotel des Bains and that the
ministry had been approached for permission to burn the body. No one
believed it, or at least no one supposed that such a thing could occur so
foreign was the custom as yet to our customs, and as the night was far
advanced every one went home.
At midnight, the lamplighter, running from street to street,
extinguished, one after another, the yellow jets of flame that lighted up
the sleeping houses, the mud and the puddles of water. We waited,
watching for the hour when the little town should be quiet and deserted.
Ever since noon a carpenter had been cutting up wood and asking himself
with amazement what was going to be done with all these planks sawn up
into little bits, and why one should destroy so much good merchandise.
This wood was piled up in a cart which went along through side streets as
far as the beach, without arousing the suspicion of belated persons who
might meet it. It went along on the shingle at the foot of the cliff,
and having dumped its contents on the beach the three Indian servants
began to build a funeral pile, a little longer than it was wide. They
worked alone, for no profane hand must aid in this solemn duty.
It was one o'clock in the morning when the relations of the deceased were
informed that they might accomplish their part of the work.
The door of the little house they occupied was open, and we perceived,
lying on a stretcher in the small, dimly lighted vestibule the corpse
covered with white silk. We could see him plainly as he lay stretched
out on his back, his outline clearly defined beneath this white veil.
The East Indians, standing at his feet, remained motionless, while one of
them performed the prescribed rites, murmuring unfamiliar words in a low,
monotonous tone. He walked round and round the corpse; touching it
occasionally, then, taking an urn suspended from three slender chains, he
sprinkled it for some time with the sacred water of the Ganges, that East
Indians must always carry with them wherever they go.
Then the stretcher was lifted by four of them who started off at a slow
march. The moon had gone down, leaving the muddy, deserted streets in
darkness, but the body on the stretcher appeared to be luminous, so
dazzlingly white was the silk, and it was a weird sight to see, passing
along through the night, the semi-luminous form of this corpse, borne by
those men, the dusky skin of whose faces and hands could scarcely be
distinguished from their clothing in the darkness.
Behind the corpse came three Indians, and then, a full head taller than
themselves and wrapped in an ample traveling coat of a soft gray color,
appeared the outline of an Englishman, a kind and superior man, a friend
of theirs, who was their guide and counselor in their European travels.
Beneath the cold, misty sky of this little northern beach I felt as if I
were taking part in a sort of symbolical drama. It seemed to me that
they were carrying there, before me, the conquered genius of India,
followed, as in a funeral procession, by the victorious genius of England
robed in a gray ulster.
On the shingly beach the four bearers halted a few moments to take
breath, and then proceeded on their way. They now walked quickly,
bending beneath the weight of their burden. At length they reached the
funeral pile. It was erected in an indentation, at the very foot of the
cliff, which rose above it perpendicularly a hundred meters high,
perfectly white but looking gray in the night.
The funeral pile was about three and a half feet high. The corpse was
placed on it and then one of the Indians asked to have the pole star
pointed out to him. This was done, and the dead Rajah was laid with his
feet turned towards his native country. Then twelve bottles of kerosene
were poured over him and he was covered completely with thin slabs of
pine wood. For almost another hour the relations and servants kept
piling up the funeral pyre which looked like one of those piles of wood
that carpenters keep in their yards. Then on top of this was poured the
contents of twenty bottles of oil, and on top of all they emptied a bag
of fine shavings. A few steps further on, a flame was glimmering in a
little bronze brazier, which had remained lighted since the arrival of
The moment had arrived. The relations went to fetch the fire. As it was
barely alight, some oil was poured on it, and suddenly a flame arose
lighting up the great wall of rock from summit to base. An Indian who
was leaning over the brazier rose upright, his two hands in the air, his
elbows bent, and all at once we saw arising, all black on the immense
white cliff, a colossal shadow, the shadow of Buddha in his hieratic
posture. And the little pointed toque that the man wore on his head even
looked like the head-dress of the god.
The effect was so striking and unexpected that I felt my heart beat as
though some supernatural apparition had risen up before me.
That was just what it was--the ancient and sacred image, come from the
heart of the East to the ends of Europe, and watching over its son whom
they were going to cremate there.
It vanished. They brought fire. The shavings on top of the pyre were
lighted and then the wood caught fire and a brilliant light illumined the
cliff, the shingle and the foam of the waves as they broke on the beach.
It grew brighter from second to second, lighting up on the sea in the
distance the dancing crest of the waves.
The breeze from the ocean blew in gusts, increasing the heat of the flame
which flattened down, twisted, then shot up again, throwing out millions
of sparks. They mounted with wild rapidity along the cliff and were lost
in the sky, mingling with the stars, increasing their number. Some sea
birds who had awakened uttered their plaintive cry, and, describing long
curves, flew, with their white wings extended, through the gleam from the
funeral pyre and then disappeared in the night.
Before long the pile of wood was nothing but a mass of flame, not red but
yellow, a blinding yellow, a furnace lashed by the wind. And, suddenly,
beneath a stronger gust, it tottered, partially crumbling as it leaned
towards the sea, and the corpse came to view, full length, blackened on
his couch of flame and burning with long blue flames:
The pile of wood having crumbled further on the right the corpse turned
over as a man does in bed. They immediately covered him with fresh wood
and the fire started up again more furiously than ever.
The East Indians, seated in a semi-circle on the shingle, looked out with
sad, serious faces. And the rest of us, as it was very cold, had drawn
nearer to the fire until the smoke and sparks came in our faces. There
was no odor save that of burning pine and petroleum.
Hours passed; day began to break. Toward five o'clock in the morning
nothing remained but a heap of ashes. The relations gathered them up,
cast some of them to the winds, some in the sea, and kept some in a brass
vase that they had brought from India. They then retired to their home
to give utterance to lamentations.
These young princes and their servants, by the employment of the most
inadequate appliances succeeded in carrying out the cremation of their
relation in the most perfect manner, with singular skill and remarkable
dignity. Everything was done according to ritual, according to the rigid
ordinances of their religion. Their dead one rests in peace.
The following morning at daybreak there was an indescribable commotion in
Etretat. Some insisted that they had burned a man alive, others that
they were trying to hide a crime, some that the mayor would be put in
jail, others that the Indian prince had succumbed to an attack of
The men were amazed, the women indignant. A crowd of people spent the
day on the site of the funeral pile, looking for fragments of bone in the
shingle that was still warm. They found enough bones to reconstruct ten
skeletons, for the farmers on shore frequently throw their dead sheep
into the sea. The finders carefully placed these various fragments in
their pocketbooks. But not one of them possesses a true particle of the
That very night a deputy sent by the government came to hold an inquest.
He, however, formed an estimate of this singular case like a man of
intelligence and good sense. But what should he say in his report?
The East Indians declared that if they had been prevented in France from
cremating their dead they would have taken him to a freer country where
they could have carried out their customs.
Thus, I have seen a man cremated on a funeral pile, and it has given me a
wish to disappear in the same manner.
In this way everything ends at once. Man expedites the slow work of
nature, instead of delaying it by the hideous coffin in which one
decomposes for months. The flesh is dead, the spirit has fled. Fire
which purifies disperses in a few hours all that was a human being; it
casts it to the winds, converting it into air and ashes, and not into
This is clean and hygienic. Putrefaction beneath the ground in a closed
box where the body becomes like pap, a blackened, stinking pap, has about
it something repugnant and disgusting. The sight of the coffin as it
descends into this muddy hole wrings one's heart with anguish. But the
funeral pyre which flames up beneath the sky has about it something
grand, beautiful and solemn.
I was very much interested at that time in a droll little woman. She was
married, of course, as I have a horror of unmarried flirts. What
enjoyment is there in making love to a woman who belongs to nobody and
yet belongs to any one? And, besides, morality aside, I do not
understand love as a trade. That disgusts me somewhat.
The especial attraction in a married woman to a bachelor is that she
gives him a home, a sweet, pleasant home where every one takes care of
you and spoils you, from the husband to the servants. One finds
everything combined there, love, friendship, even fatherly interest, bed
and board, all, in fact, that constitutes the happiness of life, with
this incalculable advantage, that one can change one's family from time
to time, take up one's abode in all kinds of society in turn: in summer,
in the country with the workman who rents you a room in his house; in
winter with the townsfolk, or even with the nobility, if one is
I have another weakness; it is that I become attached to the husband as
well as the wife. I acknowledge even that some husbands, ordinary or
coarse as they may be, give me a feeling of disgust for their wives,
however charming they may be. But when the husband is intellectual or
charming I invariably become very much attached to him. I am careful if
I quarrel with the wife not to quarrel with the husband. In this way I
have made some of my best friends, and have also proved in many cases the
incontestable superiority of the male over the female in the human
species. The latter makes all sorts of trouble-scenes, reproaches, etc.;
while the former, who has just as good a right to complain, treats you,
on the contrary, as though you were the special Providence of his hearth.
Well, my friend was a quaint little woman, a brunette, fanciful,
capricious, pious, superstitious, credulous as a monk, but charming.
She had a way of kissing one that I never saw in any one else--but that
was not the attraction--and such a soft skin! It gave me intense delight
merely to hold her hands. And an eye--her glance was like a slow caress,
delicious and unending. Sometimes I would lean my head on her knee and
we would remain motionless, she leaning over me with that subtle,
enigmatic, disturbing smile that women have, while my eyes would be
raised to hers, drinking sweetly and deliciously into my heart, like a
form of intoxication, the glance of her limpid blue eyes, limpid as
though they were full of thoughts of love, and blue as though they were a
heaven of delights.
Her husband, inspector of some large public works, was frequently away
from home and left us our evenings free. Sometimes I spent them with her
lounging on the divan with my forehead on one of her knees; while on the
other lay an enormous black cat called "Misti," whom she adored. Our
fingers would meet on the cat's back and would intertwine in her soft
silky fur. I felt its warm body against my cheek, trembling with its
eternal purring, and occasionally a paw would reach out and place on my
mouth, or my eyelid, five unsheathed claws which would prick my eyelids,
and then be immediately withdrawn.
Sometimes we would go out on what we called our escapades. They were
very innocent, however. They consisted in taking supper at some inn in
the suburbs, or else, after dining at her house or at mine, in making the
round of the cheap cafes, like students out for a lark.
We would go into the common drinking places and take our seats at the end
of the smoky den on two rickety chairs, at an old wooden table. A cloud
of pungent smoke, with which blended an odor of fried fish from dinner,
filled the room. Men in smocks were talking in loud tones as they drank
their petits verres, and the astonished waiter placed before us two
She, trembling, charmingly afraid, would raise her double black veil as
far as her nose, and then take up her glass with the enjoyment that one
feels at doing something delightfully naughty. Each cherry she swallowed
made her feel as if she had done something wrong, each swallow of the
burning liquor had on her the affect of a delicate and forbidden
Then she would say to me in a low tone: "Let us go." And we would leave,
she walking quickly with lowered head between the drinkers who watched
her going by with a look of displeasure. And as soon as we got into the
street she would give a great sigh of relief, as if we had escaped some
Sometimes she would ask me with a shudder:
"Suppose they, should say something rude to me in those places, what
would you do?" "Why, I would defend you, parbleu!" I would reply in a
resolute manner. And she would squeeze my arm for happiness, perhaps
with a vague wish that she might be insulted and protected, that she
might see men fight on her account, even those men, with me!
One evening as we sat at a table in a tavern at Montmartre, we saw an old
woman in tattered garments come in, holding in her hand a pack of dirty
cards. Perceiving a lady, the old woman at once approached us and
offered to tell my friend's fortune. Emma, who in her heart believed in
everything, was trembling with longing and anxiety, and she made a place
beside her for the old woman.
The latter, old, wrinkled, her eyes with red inflamed rings round them,
and her mouth without a single tooth in it, began to deal her dirty cards
on the table. She dealt them in piles, then gathered them up, and then
dealt them out again, murmuring indistinguishable words. Emma, turning
pale, listened with bated breath, gasping with anxiety and curiosity.
The fortune-teller broke silence. She predicted vague happenings:
happiness and children, a fair young man, a voyage, money, a lawsuit, a
dark man, the return of some one, success, a death. The mention of this
death attracted the younger woman's attention. "Whose death? When? In
The old woman replied: "Oh, as to that, these cards are not certain
enough. You must come to my place to-morrow; I will tell you about it
with coffee grounds which never make a mistake."
Emma turned anxiously to me:
"Say, let us go there to-morrow. Oh, please say yes. If not, you cannot
imagine how worried I shall be."
I began to laugh.
"We will go if you wish it, dearie."
The old woman gave us her address. She lived on the sixth floor, in a
wretched house behind the Buttes-Chaumont. We went there the following
Her room, an attic containing two chairs and a bed, was filled with
strange objects, bunches of herbs hanging from nails, skins of animals,
flasks and phials containing liquids of various colors. On the table a
stuffed black cat looked out of eyes of glass. He seemed like the demon
of this sinister dwelling.
Emma, almost fainting with emotion, sat down on a chair and exclaimed:
"Oh, dear, look at that cat; how like it is to Misti."
And she explained to the old woman that she had a cat "exactly like that,
exactly like that!"
The old woman replied gravely:
"If you are in love with a man, you must not keep it."
Emma, suddenly filled with fear, asked:
The old woman sat down familiarly beside her and took her hand.
"It was the undoing of my life," she said.
My friend wanted to hear about it. She leaned against the old woman,
questioned her, begged her to tell. At length the woman agreed to do so.
"I loved that cat," she said, "as one would love a brother. I was young
then and all alone, a seamstress. I had only him, Mouton. One of the
tenants had given it to me. He was as intelligent as a child, and gentle
as well, and he worshiped me, my dear lady, he worshiped me more than one
does a fetish. All day long he would sit on my lap purring, and all
night long on my pillow; I could feel his heart beating, in fact.
"Well, I happened to make an acquaintance, a fine young man who was
working in a white-goods house. That went on for about three months on a
footing of mere friendship. But you know one is liable to weaken, it may
happen to any one, and, besides, I had really begun to love him. He was
so nice, so nice, and so good. He wanted us to live together, for
economy's sake. I finally allowed him to come and see me one evening. I
had not made up my mind to anything definite; oh, no! But I was pleased
at the idea that we should spend an hour together.
"At first he behaved very well, said nice things to me that made my heart
go pit-a-pat. And then he kissed me, madame, kissed me as one does when
they love. I remained motionless, my eyes closed, in a paroxysm of
happiness. But, suddenly, I felt him start violently and he gave a
scream, a scream that I shall never forget. I opened my eyes and saw
that Mouton had sprung at his face and was tearing the skin with his
claws as if it had been a linen rag. And the blood was streaming down
like rain, madame.
"I tried to take the cat away, but he held on tight, scratching all the
time; and he bit me, he was so crazy. I finally got him and threw him
out of the window, which was open, for it was summer.
"When I began to bathe my poor friend's face, I noticed that his eyes
were destroyed, both his eyes!
"He had to go to the hospital. He died of grief at the end of a year.
I wanted to keep him with me and provide for him, but he would not agree
to it. One would have supposed that he hated me after the occurrence.
"As for Mouton, his back was broken by the fall, The janitor picked up
his body. I had him stuffed, for in spite of all I was fond of him.
If he acted as he did it was because he loved me, was it not?"
The old woman was silent and began to stroke the lifeless animal whose
body trembled on its iron framework.
Emma, with sorrowful heart, had forgotten about the predicted death--or,
at least, she did not allude to it again, and she left, giving the woman
As her husband was to return the following day, I did not go to the house
for several days. When I did go I was surprised at not seeing Misti.
I asked where he was.
She blushed and replied:
"I gave him away. I was uneasy."
I was astonished.
"Uneasy? Uneasy? What about?"
She gave me a long kiss and said in a low tone:
"I was uneasy about your eyes, my dear."
Misti appeared in. Gil Blas of January 22, 1884, over the signature
Crazy people attract me. They live in a mysterious land of weird dreams,
in that impenetrable cloud of dementia where all that they have witnessed
in their previous life, all they have loved, is reproduced for them in an
imaginary existence, outside of all laws that govern the things of this
life and control human thought.
For them there is no such thing as the impossible, nothing is improbable;
fairyland is a constant quantity and the supernatural quite familiar.
The old rampart, logic; the old wall, reason; the old main stay of
thought, good sense, break down, fall and crumble before their
imagination, set free and escaped into the limitless realm of fancy, and
advancing with fabulous bounds, and nothing can check it. For them
everything happens, and anything may happen. They make no effort to
conquer events, to overcome resistance, to overturn obstacles. By a
sudden caprice of their flighty imagination they become princes,
emperors, or gods, are possessed of all the wealth of the world, all the
delightful things of life, enjoy all pleasures, are always strong, always
beautiful, always young, always beloved! They, alone, can be happy in
this world; for, as far as they are concerned, reality does not exist.
I love to look into their wandering intelligence as one leans over an
abyss at the bottom of which seethes a foaming torrent whose source and
destination are both unknown.
But it is in vain that we lean over these abysses, for we shall never
discover the source nor the destination of this water. After all, it is
only water, just like what is flowing in the sunlight, and we shall learn
nothing by looking at it.
It is likewise of no use to ponder over the intelligence of crazy people,
for their most weird notions are, in fact, only ideas that are already
known, which appear strange simply because they are no longer under the
restraint of reason. Their whimsical source surprises us because we do
not see it bubbling up. Doubtless the dropping of a little stone into
the current was sufficient to cause these ebullitions. Nevertheless
crazy people attract me and I always return to them, drawn in spite of
myself by this trivial mystery of dementia.
One day as I was visiting one of the asylums the physician who was my
"Come, I will show you an interesting case."
And he opened the door of a cell where a woman of about forty, still
handsome, was seated in a large armchair, looking persistently at her
face in a little hand mirror.
As soon as she saw us she rose to her feet, ran to the other end of the
room, picked up a veil that lay on a chair, wrapped it carefully round
her face, then came back, nodding her head in reply to our greeting.
"Well," said the doctor, "how are you this morning?"
She gave a deep sigh.
"Oh, ill, monsieur, very ill. The marks are increasing every day."
He replied in a tone of conviction:
"Oh, no; oh, no; I assure you that you are mistaken."
She drew near to him and murmured:
"No. I am certain of it. I counted ten pittings more this morning,
three on the right cheek, four on the left cheek, and three on the
forehead. It is frightful, frightful! I shall never dare to let any one
see me, not even my son; no, not even him! I am lost, I am disfigured
She fell back in her armchair and began to sob.
The doctor took a chair, sat down beside her, and said soothingly in a
"Come, let me see; I assure you it is nothing. With a slight
cauterization I will make it all disappear."
She shook her head in denial, without speaking. He tried to touch her
veil, but she seized it with both hands so violently that her fingers
went through it.
He continued to reason with her and reassure her.
"Come, you know very well that I remove those horrid pits every time and
that there is no trace of them after I have treated them. If you do not
let me see them I cannot cure you."
"I do not mind your seeing them," she murmured, "but I do not know that
gentleman who is with you."
"He is a doctor also, who can give you better care than I can."
She then allowed her face to be uncovered, but her dread, her emotion,
her shame at being seen brought a rosy flush to her face and her neck,
down to the collar of her dress. She cast down her eyes, turned her face
aside, first to the right; then to the left, to avoid our gaze and
"Oh, it is torture to me to let myself be seen like this! It is
horrible, is it not? Is it not horrible?"
I looked at her in much surprise, for there was nothing on her face, not
a mark, not a spot, not a sign of one, nor a scar.
She turned towards me, her eyes still lowered, and said:
"It was while taking care of my son that I caught this fearful disease,
monsieur. I saved him, but I am disfigured. I sacrificed my beauty to
him, to my poor child. However, I did my duty, my conscience is at rest.
If I suffer it is known only to God."
The doctor had drawn from his coat pocket a fine water-color paint brush.
"Let me attend to it," he said, "I will put it all right."
She held out her right cheek, and he began by touching it lightly with
the brush here and there, as though he were putting little points of
paint on it. He did the same with the left cheek, then with the chin,
and the forehead, and then exclaimed:
"See, there is nothing there now, nothing at all!"
She took up the mirror, gazed at her reflection with profound, eager
attention, with a strong mental effort to discover something, then she
"No. It hardly shows at all. I am infinitely obliged to you."
The doctor had risen. He bowed to her, ushered me out and followed me,
and, as soon as he had locked the door, said:
"Here is the history of this unhappy woman."
Her name is Mme. Hermet. She was once very beautiful, a great coquette,
very much beloved and very much in-love with life.
She was one of those women who have nothing but their beauty and their
love of admiration to sustain, guide or comfort them in this life. The
constant anxiety to retain her freshness, the care of her complexion, of
her hands, her teeth, of every portion of body that was visible, occupied
all her time and all her attention.
She became a widow, with one son. The boy was brought up as are all
children of society beauties. She was, however, very fond of him.
He grew up, and she grew older. Whether she saw the fatal crisis
approaching, I cannot say. Did she, like so many others, gaze for hours
and hours at her skin, once so fine, so transparent and free from
blemish, now beginning to shrivel slightly, to be crossed with a thousand
little lines, as yet imperceptible, that will grow deeper day by day,
month by month? Did she also see slowly, but surely, increasing traces
of those long wrinkles on the forehead, those slender serpents that
nothing can check? Did she suffer the torture, the abominable torture of
the mirror, the little mirror with the silver handle which one cannot
make up one's mind to lay down on the table, but then throws down in
disgust only to take it up again in order to look more closely, and still
more closely at the hateful and insidious approaches of old age? Did she
shut herself up ten times, twenty times a day, leaving her friends
chatting in the drawing-room, and go up to her room where, under the
protection of bolts and bars, she would again contemplate the work of
time on her ripe beauty, now beginning to wither, and recognize with
despair the gradual progress of the process which no one else had as yet
seemed to perceive, but of which she, herself, was well aware. She knows
where to seek the most serious, the gravest traces of age. And the
mirror, the little round hand-glass in its carved silver frame, tells her
horrible things; for it speaks, it seems to laugh, it jeers and tells her
all that is going to occur, all the physical discomforts and the
atrocious mental anguish she will suffer until the day of her death,
which will be the day of her deliverance.
Did she weep, distractedly, on her knees, her forehead to the ground, and
pray, pray, pray to Him who thus slays his creatures and gives them youth
only that he may render old age more unendurable, and lends them beauty
only that he may withdraw it almost immediately? Did she pray to Him,
imploring Him to do for her what He has never yet done for any one, to
let her retain until her last day her charm, her freshness and her
gracefulness? Then, finding that she was imploring in vain an inflexible
Unknown who drives on the years, one after another, did she roll on the
carpet in her room, knocking her head against the furniture and stifling
in her throat shrieks of despair?
Doubtless she suffered these tortures, for this is what occurred:
One day (she was then thirty-five) her son aged fifteen, fell ill.
He took to his bed without any one being able to determine the cause or
nature of his illness.
His tutor, a priest, watched beside him and hardly ever left him, while
Mme. Hermet came morning and evening to inquire how he was.
She would come into the room in the morning in her night wrapper,
smiling, all powdered and perfumed, and would ask as she entered the
"Well, George, are you better?"
The big boy, his face red, swollen and showing the ravages of fever,
"Yes, little mother, a little better."
She would stay in the room a few seconds, look at the bottles of
medicine, and purse her lips as if she were saying "phew," and then would
suddenly exclaim: "Oh, I forgot something very important," and would run
out of the room leaving behind her a fragrance of choice toilet perfumes.
In the evening she would appear in a decollete dress, in a still greater
hurry, for she was always late, and she had just time to inquire:
"Well, what does the doctor say?"
The priest would reply:
"He has not yet given an opinion, madame."
But one evening the abbe replied: "Madame, your son has got the small-
She uttered a scream of terror and fled from the room.
When her maid came to her room the following morning she noticed at once
a strong odor of burnt sugar, and she found her mistress, with wide-open
eyes, her face pale from lack of sleep, and shivering with terror in her
As soon as the shutters were opened Mme. Herrnet asked:
"How is George?"
"Oh, not at all well to-day, madame."
She did not rise until noon, when she ate two eggs with a cup of tea, as
if she herself had been ill, and then she went out to a druggist's to
inquire about prophylactic measures against the contagion of small-pox.
She did not come home until dinner time, laden with medicine bottles, and
shut herself up at once in her room, where she saturated herself with
The priest was waiting for her in the dining-room. As soon as she saw
him she exclaimed in a voice full of emotion:
"No improvement. The doctor is very anxious:"
She began to cry and could eat nothing, she was so worried.
The next day, as soon as it was light, she sent to inquire for her son,
but there was no improvement and she spent the whole day in her room,
where little braziers were giving out pungent odors. Her maid said also
that you could hear her sighing all the evening.
She spent a whole week in this manner, only going out for an hour or two
during the afternoon to breathe the air.
She now sent to make inquiries every hour, and would sob when the reports
On the morning of the eleventh day the priest, having been announced,
entered her room, his face grave and pale, and said, without taking the
chair she offered him:
"Madame, your son is very ill and wishes to see you."
She fell on her knees, exclaiming:
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I would never dare! My God! My God! Help
The priest continued:
"The doctor holds out little hope, madame, and George is expecting you!"
And he left the room.
Two hours later as the young lad, feeling himself dying, again asked for
his mother, the abbe went to her again and found her still on her knees,
still weeping and repeating:
"I will not . . . . I will not. . . . I am too much afraid . .
. . I will not. . . ."
He tried to persuade her, to strengthen her, to lead her. He only
succeeded in bringing on an attack of "nerves" that lasted some time and
caused her to shriek.
The doctor when he came in the evening was told of this cowardice and
declared that he would bring her in himself, of her own volition, or by
force. But after trying all manner of argument and just as he seized her
round the waist to carry her into her son's room, she caught hold of the
door and clung to it so firmly that they could not drag her away. Then
when they let go of her she fell at the feet of the doctor, begging his
forgiveness and acknowledging that she was a wretched creature. And then
she exclaimed: "Oh, he is not going to die; tell me that he is not going
to die, I beg of you; tell him that I love him, that I worship him. . ."
The young lad was dying. Feeling that he had only a few moments more to
live, he entreated that his mother be persuaded to come and bid him a
last farewell. With that sort of presentiment that the dying sometimes
have, he had understood, had guessed all, and he said: "If she is afraid
to come into the room, beg her just to come on the balcony as far as my
window so that I may see her, at least, so that I may take a farewell
look at her, as I cannot kiss her."
The doctor and the abbe, once more, went together to this woman and
assured her: "You will run no risk, for there will be a pane of glass
between you and him."
She consented, covered up her head, and took with her a bottle of
smelling salts. She took three steps on the balcony; then, all at once,
hiding her face in her hands, she moaned: "No . . . no . . . I
would never dare to look at him . . . never. . . . I am too much
ashamed . . . too much afraid . . . . No . . . I cannot."
They endeavored to drag her along, but she held on with both hands to the
railings and uttered such plaints that the passers-by in the street
raised their heads. And the dying boy waited, his eyes turned towards
that window, waited to die until he could see for the last time the
sweet, beloved face, the worshiped face of his mother.
He waited long, and night came on. Then he turned over with his face to
the wall and was silent.
When day broke he was dead. The day following she was crazy.
THE MAGIC COUCH
The Seine flowed past my house, without a ripple on its surface, and
gleaming in the bright morning sunlight. It was a beautiful, broad,
indolent silver stream, with crimson lights here and there; and on the
opposite side of the river were rows of tall trees that covered all the
bank with an immense wall of verdure.
The sensation of life which is renewed each day, of fresh, happy, loving
life trembled in the leaves, palpitated in the air, was mirrored in the
The postman had just brought my papers, which were handed to me, and I
walked slowly to the river bank in order to read them.
In the first paper I opened I noticed this headline, "Statistics of
Suicides," and I read that more than 8,500 persons had killed themselves
in that year.
In a moment I seemed to see them! I saw this voluntary and hideous
massacre of the despairing who were weary of life. I saw men bleeding,
their jaws fractured, their skulls cloven, their breasts pierced by a
bullet, slowly dying, alone in a little room in a hotel, giving no
thought to their wound, but thinking only of their misfortunes.
I saw others seated before a tumbler in which some matches were soaking,
or before a little bottle with a red label.
They would look at it fixedly without moving; then they would drink and
await the result; then a spasm would convulse their cheeks and draw their
lips together; their eyes would grow wild with terror, for they did not
know that the end would be preceded by so much suffering.
They rose to their feet, paused, fell over and with their hands pressed
to their stomachs they felt their internal organs on fire, their entrails
devoured by the fiery liquid, before their minds began to grow dim.
I saw others hanging from a nail in the wall, from the fastening of the
window, from a hook in the ceiling, from a beam in the garret, from a
branch of a tree amid the evening rain. And I surmised all that had
happened before they hung there motionless, their tongues hanging out of
their mouths. I imagined the anguish of their heart, their final
hesitation, their attempts to fasten the rope, to determine that it was
secure, then to pass the noose round their neck and to let themselves
I saw others lying on wretched beds, mothers with their little children,
old men dying of hunger, young girls dying for love, all rigid,
suffocated, asphyxiated, while in the center of the room the brasier
still gave forth the fumes of charcoal.
And I saw others walking at night along the deserted bridges. These were
the most sinister. The water flowed under the arches with a low sound.
They did not see it . . . they guessed at it from its cool breath!
They longed for it and they feared it. They dared not do it! And yet,
they must. A distant clock sounded the hour and, suddenly, in the vast
silence of the night, there was heard the splash of a body falling into
the river, a scream or two, the sound of hands beating the water, and all
was still. Sometimes, even, there was only the sound of the falling body
when they had tied their arms down or fastened a stone to their feet.
Oh, the poor things, the poor things, the poor things, how I felt their
anguish, how I died in their death! I went through all their
wretchedness; I endured in one hour all their tortures. I knew all the
sorrows that had led them to this, for I know the deceitful infamy of
life, and no one has felt it more than I have.
How I understood them, these who weak, harassed by misfortune, having
lost those they loved, awakened from the dream of a tardy compensation,
from the illusion of another existence where God will finally be just,
after having been ferocious, and their minds disabused of the mirages of
happiness, have given up the fight and desire to put an end to this
ceaseless tragedy, or this shameful comedy.
Suicide! Why, it is the strength of those whose strength is exhausted,
the hope of those who no longer believe, the sublime courage of the
conquered! Yes, there is at least one door to this life we can always
open and pass through to the other side. Nature had an impulse of pity;
she did not shut us up in prison. Mercy for the despairing!
As for those who are simply disillusioned, let them march ahead with free
soul and quiet heart. They have nothing to fear since they may take
their leave; for behind them there is always this door that the gods of
our illusions cannot even lock.
I thought of this crowd of suicides: more than eight thousand five
hundred in one year. And it seemed to me that they had combined to send
to the world a prayer, to utter a cry of appeal, to demand something that
should come into effect later when we understood things better. It
seemed to me that all these victims, their throats cut, poisoned, hung,
asphyxiated, or drowned, all came together, a frightful horde, like
citizens to the polls, to say to society:
"Grant us, at least, a gentle death! Help us to die, you who will not
help us to live! See, we are numerous, we have the right to speak in
these days of freedom, of philosophic independence and of popular
suffrage. Give to those who renounce life the charity of a death that
will not be repugnant nor terrible."
I began to dream, allowing my fancy to roam at will in weird and
mysterious fashion on this subject.
I seemed to be all at once in a beautiful city. It was Paris; but at
what period? I walked about the streets, looking at the houses, the
theaters, the public buildings, and presently found myself in a square
where I remarked a large building; very handsome, dainty and attractive.
I was surprised on reading on the facade this inscription in letters of
gold, "Suicide Bureau."
Oh, the weirdness of waking dreams where the spirit soars into a world of
unrealities and possibilities! Nothing astonishes one, nothing shocks
one; and the unbridled fancy makes no distinction between the comic and
I approached the building where footmen in knee-breeches were seated in
the vestibule in front of a cloak-room as they do at the entrance of a
I entered out of curiosity. One of the men rose and said:
"What does monsieur wish?"
"I wish to know what building this is."
"Then would monsieur like me to take him to the Secretary of the Bureau?"
I hesitated, and asked:
"But will not that disturb him?"
"Oh, no, monsieur, he is here to receive those who desire information."
"Well, lead the way."
He took me through corridors where old gentlemen were chatting, and
finally led me into a beautiful office, somewhat somber, furnished
throughout in black wood. A stout young man with a corporation was
writing a letter as he smoked a cigar, the fragrance of which gave
evidence of its quality.
He rose. We bowed to each other, and as soon as the footman had retired
"What can I do for you?"
"Monsieur," I replied, "pardon my curiosity. I had never seen this
establishment. The few words inscribed on the facade filled me with
astonishment, and I wanted to know what was going on here."
He smiled before replying, then said in a low tone with a complacent air:
"Mon Dieu, monsieur, we put to death in a cleanly and gentle--I do not
venture to say agreeable manner those persons who desire to die."
I did not feel very shocked, for it really seemed to me natural and
right. What particularly surprised me was that on this planet, with its
low, utilitarian, humanitarian ideals, selfish and coercive of all true
freedom, any one should venture on a similar enterprise, worthy of an
"How did you get the idea?" I asked.
"Monsieur," he replied, "the number of suicides increased so enormously
during the five years succeeding the world exposition of 1889 that some
measures were urgently needed. People killed themselves in the streets,
at fetes, in restaurants, at the theater, in railway carriages, at the
receptions held by the President of the Republic, everywhere. It was not
only a horrid sight for those who love life, as I do, but also a bad
example for children. Hence it became necessary to centralize suicides."
"What caused this suicidal epidemic?"
"I do not know. The fact is, I believe, the world is growing old.
People begin to see things clearly and they are getting disgruntled.
It is the same to-day with destiny as with the government, we have found
out what it is; people find that they are swindled in every direction,
and they just get out of it all. When one discovers that Providence
lies, cheats, robs, deceives human beings just as a plain Deputy deceives
his constituents, one gets angry, and as one cannot nominate a fresh
Providence every three months as we do with our privileged
representatives, one just gets out of the whole thing, which is decidedly
"Oh, as for me, I am not complaining."
"Will you inform me how you carry on this establishment?"
"With pleasure. You may become a member when you please. It is a club."
"Yes, monsieur, founded by the most eminent men in the country, by men of
the highest intellect and brightest intelligence. And," he added,
laughing heartily, "I swear to you that every one gets a great deal of
enjoyment out of it."