Tuesday, October 2, 2007



It was nine o'clock. The little town of Vauchamp, dark and silent,
had just retired to bed amid a chilly November rain. In the Rue des
Recollets, one of the narrowest and most deserted streets of the
district of Saint-Jean, a single window was still alight on the
third floor of an old house, from whose damaged gutters torrents of
water were falling into the street. Mme Burle was sitting up before
a meager fire of vine stocks, while her little grandson Charles
pored over his lessons by the pale light of a lamp.
The apartment, rented at one hundred and sixty francs per annum,
consisted of four large rooms which it was absolutely impossible to
keep warm during the winter. Mme Burle slept in the largest
chamber, her son Captain and Quartermaster Burle occupying a
somewhat smaller one overlooking the street, while little Charles
had his iron cot at the farther end of a spacious drawing room with
mildewed hangings, which was never used. The few pieces of
furniture belonging to the captain and his mother, furniture of the
massive style of the First Empire, dented and worn by continuous
transit from one garrison town to another, almost disappeared from
view beneath the lofty ceilings whence darkness fell. The flooring
of red-colored tiles was cold and hard to the feet; before the
chairs there were merely a few threadbare little rugs of povertystricken
aspect, and athwart this desert all the winds of heaven
blew through the disjointed doors and windows.
Near the fireplace sat Mme Burle, leaning back in her old yellow
velvet armchair and watching the last vine branch smoke, with that
stolid, blank stare of the aged who live within themselves. She
would sit thus for whole days together, with her tall figure, her
long stern face and her thin lips that never smiled. The widow of a
colonel who had died just as he was on the point of becoming a
general, the mother of a captain whom she had followed even in his
campaigns, she had acquired a military stiffness of bearing and
formed for herself a code of honor, duty and patriotism which kept
her rigid, desiccated, as it were, by the stern application of
discipline. She seldom, if ever, complained. When her son had
become a widower after five years of married life she had undertaken
the education of little Charles as a matter of course, performing
her duties with the severity of a sergeant drilling recruits. She
watched over the child, never tolerating the slightest waywardness
or irregularity, but compelling him to sit up till midnight when his
exercises were not finished, and sitting up herself until he had
completed them. Under such implacable despotism Charles, whose
constitution was delicate, grew up pale and thin, with beautiful
eyes, inordinately large and clear, shining in his white, pinched
During the long hours of silence Mme Burle dwelt continuously upon
one and the same idea: she had been disappointed in her son. This
thought sufficed to occupy her mind, and under its influence she
would live her whole life over again, from the birth of her son,
whom she had pictured rising amid glory to the highest rank, till
she came down to mean and narrow garrison life, the dull, monotonous
existence of nowadays, that stranding in the post of a
quartermaster, from which Burle would never rise and in which he
seemed to sink more and more heavily. And yet his first efforts had
filled her with pride, and she had hoped to see her dreams realized.
Burle had only just left Saint-Cyr when he distinguished himself at
the battle of Solferino, where he had captured a whole battery of
the enemy's artiliery with merely a handful of men. For this feat
he had won the cross; the papers had recorded his heroism, and he
had become known as one of the bravest soldiers in the army. But
gradually the hero had grown stout, embedded in flesh, timorous,
lazy and satisfied. In 1870, still a captain, he had been made a
prisoner in the first encounter, and he returned from Germany quite
furious, swearing that he would never be caught fighting again, for
it was too absurd. Being prevented from leaving the army, as he was
incapable of embracing any other profession, he applied for and
obtained the position of captain quartermaster, "a kennel," as he
called it, "in which he would be left to kick the bucket in peace."
That day Mme Burle experienced a great internal disruption. She
felt that it was all over, and she ever afterward preserved a rigid
attitude with tightened lips.
A blast of wind shook the Rue des Recollets and drove the rain
angrily against the windowpanes. The old lady lifted her eyes from
the smoking vine roots now dying out, to make sure that Charles was
not falling asleep over his Latin exercise. This lad, twelve years
of age, had become the old lady's supreme hope, the one human being
in whom she centered her obstinate yearning for glory. At first she
had hated him with all the loathing she had felt for his mother, a
weak and pretty young lacemaker whom the captain had been foolish
enough to marry when he found out that she would not listen to his
passionate addresses on any other condition. Later on, when the
mother had died and the father had begun to wallow in vice, Mme
Burle dreamed again in presence of that little ailing child whom she
found it so hard to rear. She wanted to see him robust, so that he
might grow into the hero that Burle had declined to be, and for all
her cold ruggedness she watched him anxiously, feeling his limbs and
instilling courage into his soul. By degrees, blinded by her
passionate desires, she imagined that she had at last found the man
of the family. The boy, whose temperament was of a gentle, dreamy
character, had a physical horror of soldiering, but as he lived in
mortal dread of his grandmother and was extremely shy and
submissive, he would echo all she said and resignedly express his
intention of entering the army when he grew up.
Mme Burle observed that the exercise was not progressing. In fact,
little Charles, overcome by the deafening noise of the storm, was
dozing, albeit his pen was between his fingers and his eyes were
staring at the paper. The old lady at once struck the edge of the
table with her bony hand; whereupon the lad started, opened his
dictionary and hurriedly began to turn over the leaves. Then, still
preserving silence, his grandmother drew the vine roots together on
the hearth and unsuccessfully attempted to rekindle the fire.
At the time when she had still believed in her son she had
sacrificed her small income, which he had squandered in pursuits she
dared not investigate. Even now he drained the household; all its
resources went to the streets, and it was through him that she lived
in penury, with empty rooms and cold kitchen. She never spoke to
him of all those things, for with her sense of discipline he
remained the master. Only at times she shuddered at the sudden fear
that Burle might someday commit some foolish misdeed which would
prevent Charles from entering the army.
She was rising up to fetch a fresh piece of wood in the kitchen when
a fearful hurricane fell upon the house, making the doors rattle,
tearing off a shutter and whirling the water in the broken gutters
like a spout against the window. In the midst of the uproar a ring
at the bell startled the old lady. Who could it be at such an hour
and in such weather? Burle never returned till after midnight, if
he came home at all. However, she went to the door. An officer
stood before her, dripping with rain and swearing savagely.
"Hell and thunder!" he growled. "What cursed weather!"
It was Major Laguitte, a brave old soldier who had served under
Colonel Burle during Mme Burle's palmy days. He had started in life
as a drummer boy and, thanks to his courage rather than his
intellect, had attained to the command of a battalion, when a
painful infirmity--the contraction of the muscles of one of his
thighs, due to a wound--obliged him to accept the post of major. He
was slightly lame, but it would have been imprudent to tell him so,
as he refused to own it.
"What, you, Major?" said Mme Burle with growing astonishment.
"Yes, thunder," grumbled Laguitte, "and I must be confoundedly fond
of you to roam the streets on such a night as this. One would think
twice before sending even a parson out."
He shook himself, and little rivulets fell from his huge boots onto
the floor. Then he looked round him.
"I particularly want to see Burle. Is the lazy beggar already in
"No, he is not in yet," said the old woman in her harsh voice.
The major looked furious, and, raising his voice, he shouted: "What,
not at home? But in that case they hoaxed me at the cafe, Melanie's
establishment, you know. I went there, and a maid grinned at me,
saying that the captain had gone home to bed. Curse the girl! I
suspected as much and felt like pulling her ears!"
After this outburst he became somewhat calmer, stamping about the
room in an undecided way, withal seeming greatly disturbed. Mme
Burle looked at him attentively.
"Is it the captain personally whom you want to see?" she said at
"Yes," he answered.
"Can I not tell him what you have to say?"
She did not insist but remained standing without taking her eyes off
the major, who did not seem able to make up his mind to leave.
Finally in a fresh burst of rage he exclaimed with an oath: "It
can't be helped. As I am here yot may as well know--after all, it
is, perhaps, best."
He sat down before the chimney piece, stretching out his muddy boots
as if a bright fire had been burning. Mme Burle was about to resume
her own seat when she remarked that Charles, overcome by fatigue,
had dropped his head between the open pages of his dictionary. The
arrival of the major had at first interested him, but, seeing that
he remained unnoticed, he had been unable to struggle against his
sleepiness. His grandmother turned toward the table to slap his
frail little hands, whitening in the lamplight, when Laguitte
stopped her.
"No--no!" he said. "Let the poor little man sleep. I haven't got
anything funny to say. There's no need for him to hear me."
The old lady sat down in her armchair; deep silence reigned, and
they looked at one another.
"Well, yes," said the major at last, punctuating his words with an
angry motion of his chin, "he has been and done it; that hound Burle
has been and done it!"
Not a muscle of Mme Burle's face moved, but she became livid, and
her figure stiffened. Then the major continued: "I had my doubts.
I had intended mentioning the subject to you. Burle was spending
too much money, and he had an idiotic look which I did not fancy.
Thunder and lightning! What a fool a man must be to behave so
Then he thumped his knee furiously with his clenched fist and seemed
to choke with indignation. The old woman put the straightforward
"He has stolen?"
"You can't have an idea of it. You see, I never examined his
accounts; I approved and signed them. You know how those things are
managed. However, just before the inspection--as the colonel is a
crotchety old maniac--I said to Burle: 'I say, old man, look to your
accounts; I am answerable, you know,' and then I felt perfectly
secure. Well, about a month ago, as he seemed queer and some nasty
stories were circulating, I peered a little closer into the books
and pottered over the entries. I thought everything looked straight
and very well kept--"
At this point he stopped, convulsed by such a fit of rage that he
had to relieve himself by a volley of appalling oaths. Finally he
resumed: "It isn't the swindle that angers me; it is his disgusting
behavior to me. He has gammoned me, Madame Burle. By God! Does he
take me for an old fool?"
"So he stole?" the mother again questioned.
"This evening," continued the major more quietly, "I had just
finished my dinner when Gagneux came in--you know Gagneux, the
butcher at the corner of the Place aux Herbes? Another dirty beast
who got the meat contract and makes our men eat all the diseased cow
flesh in the neighborhood! Well, I received him like a dog, and
then he let it all out--blurted out the whole thing, and a pretty
mess it is! It appears that Burle only paid him in driblets and had
got himself into a muddle--a confusion of figures which the devil
himself couldn't disentangle. In short, Burle owes the butcher two
thousand francs, and Gagneux threatens that he'll inform the colonel
if he is not paid. To make matters worse, Burle, just to blind me,
handed me every week a forged receipt which he had squarely signed
with Gagneux's name. To think he did that to me, his old friend!
Ah, curse him!"
With increasing profanity the major rose to his feet, shook his fist
at the ceiling and then fell back in his chair. Mme Burle again
repeated: "He has stolen. It was inevitable."
Then without a word of judgment or condemnation she added simply:
"Two thousand francs--we have not got them. There are barely thirty
francs in the house."
"I expected as much," said Laguitte. "And do you know where all the
money goes? Why, Melanie gets it--yes, Melanie, a creature who has
turned Burle into a perfect fool. Ah, those women! Those fiendish
women! I always said they would do for him! I cannot conceive what
he is made of! He is only five years younger than I am, and yet he
is as mad as ever. What a woman hunter he is!"
Another long silence followed. Outside the rain was increasing in
violence, and throughout the sleepy little town one could hear the
crashing of slates and chimney pots as they were dashed by the blast
onto the pavements of the streets.
"Come," suddenly said the major, rising, "my stopping here won't
mend matters. I have warned you--and now I'm off."
"What is to be done? To whom can we apply?" muttered the old woman
"Don't give way--we must consider. If I only had the two thousand
francs--but you know that I am not rich."
The major stopped short in confusion. This old bachelor, wifeless
and childless, spent his pay in drink and gambled away at ecarte
whatever money his cognac and absinthe left in his pocket. Despite
that, however, he was scrupulously honest from a sense of
"Never mind," he added as he reached the threshold. "I'll begin by
stirring him up. I shall move heaven and earth! What! Burle,
Colonel Burle's son, condemned for theft! That cannot be! I would
sooner burn down the town. Now, thunder and lightning, don't worry;
it is far more annoying for me than for you."
He shook the old lady's hand roughly and vanished into the shadows
of the staircase, while she held the lamp aloft to light the way.
When she returned and replaced the lamp on the table she stood for a
moment motionless in front of Charles, who was still asleep with his
face lying on the dictionary. His pale cheeks and long fair hair
made him look like a girl, and she gazed at him dreamily, a shade of
tenderness passing over her harsh countenance. But it was only a
passing emotion; her features regained their look of cold, obstinate
determination, and, giving the youngster a sharp rap on his little
hand, she said:
"Charles--your lessons."
The boy awoke, dazed and shivering, and again rapidly turned over
the leaves. At the same moment Major Laguitte, slamming the house
door behind him, received on his head a quantity of water falling
from the gutters above, whereupon he began to swear in so loud a
voice that he could be heard above the storm. And after that no
sound broke upon the pelting downpour save the slight rustle of the
boy's pen traveling over the paper. Mme Burle had resumed her seat
near the chimney piece, still rigid, with her eyes fixed on the dead
embers, preserving, indeed, her habitual attitude and absorbed in
her one idea.
The Cafe de Paris, kept by Melanie Cartier, a widow, was situated on
the Place du Palais, a large irregular square planted with meager,
dusty elm trees. The place was so well known in Vauchamp that it
was customary to say, "Are you coming to Melanie's?" At the farther
end of the first room, which was a spacious one, there was another
called "the divan," a narrow apartment having sham leather benches
placed against the walls, while at each corner there stood a marbletopped
table. The widow, deserting her seat in the front room,
where she left her little servant Phrosine, spent her evenings in
the inner apartment, ministering to a few customers, the usual
frequenters of the place, those who were currently styled "the
gentlemen of the divan." When a man belonged to that set it was as
if he had a label on his back; he was spoken of with smiles of
mingled contempt and envy.
Mme Cartier had become a widow when she was five and twenty. Her
husband, a wheelwright, who on the death of an uncle had amazed
Vauchamp by taking the Cafe de Paris, had one fine day brought her
back with him from Montpellier, where he was wont to repair twice a
year to purchase liqueurs. As he was stocking his establishment he
selected, together with divers beverages, a woman of the sort he
wanted--of an engaging aspect and apt to stimulate the trade of the
house. It was never known where he had picked her up, but he
married her after trying her in the cafe during six months or so.
Opinions were divided in Vauchamp as to her merits, some folks
declaring that she was superb, while others asserted that she looked
like a drum-major. She was a tall woman with large features and
coarse hair falling low over her forehead. However, everyone agreed
that she knew very well how to fool the sterner sex. She had fine
eyes and was wont to fix them with a bold stare on the gentlemen of
the divan, who colored and became like wax in her hands. She also
had the reputation of possessing a wonderfully fine figure, and
southerners appreciate a statuesque style of beauty.
Cartier had died in a singular way. Rumor hinted at a conjugal
quarrel, a kick, producing some internal tumor. Whatever may have
been the truth, Melanie found herself encumbered with the cafe,
which was far from doing a prosperous business. Her husband had
wasted his uncle's inheritance in drinking his own absinthe and
wearing out the cloth of his own billiard table. For a while it was
believed that the widow would have to sell out, but she liked the
life and the establishment just as it was. If she could secure a
few customers the bigger room might remain deserted. So she limited
herself to repapering the divan in white and gold and recovering the
benches. She began by entertaining a chemist. Then a vermicelli
maker, a lawyer and a retired magistrate put in an appearance; and
thus it was that the cafe remained open, although the waiter did not
receive twenty orders a day. No objections were raised by the
authorities, as appearances were kept up; and, indeed, it was not
deemed advisable to interfere, for some respectable folks might have
been worried.
Of an evening five or six well-to-do citizens would enter the front
room and play at dominoes there. Although Cartier was dead and the
Cafe de Paris had got a queer name, they saw nothing and kept up
their old habits. In course of time, the waiter having nothing to
do, Melanie dismissed him and made Phrosine light the solitary gas
burner in the corner where the domino players congregated.
Occasionally a party of young men, attracted by the gossip that
circulated through the town, would come in, wildly excited and
laughing loudly and awkwardly. But they were received there with
icy dignity. As a rule they did not even see the widow, and even if
she happened to be present she treated them with withering disdain,
so that they withdrew, stammering and confused. Melanie was too
astute to indulge in any compromising whims. While the front room
remained obscure, save in the corner where the few townsfolk rattled
their dominoes, she personally waited on the gentlemen of the divan,
showing herself amiable without being free, merely venturing in
moments of familiarity to lean on the shoulder of one or another of
them, the better to watch a skillfully played game of ecarte.
One evening the gentlemen of the divan, who had ended by tolerating
each other's presence, experienced a disagreeable surprise on
finding Captain Burle at home there. He had casually entered the
cafe that same morning to get a glass of vermouth, so it seemed, and
he had found Melanie there. They had conversed, and in the evening
when he returned Phrosine immediately showed him to the inner room.
Two days later Burle reigned there supreme; still he had not
frightened the chemist, the vermicelli maker, the lawyer or the
retired magistrate away. The captain, who was short and dumpy,
worshiped tall, plump women. In his regiment he had been nicknamed
"Petticoat Burle" on account of his constant philandering. Whenever
the officers, and even the privates, met some monstrous-looking
creature, some giantess puffed out with fat, whether she were in
velvet or in rags, they would invariably exclaim, "There goes one to
Petticoat Burle's taste!" Thus Melanie, with her opulent presence,
quite conquered him. He was lost--quite wrecked. In less than a
fortnight he had fallen to vacuous imbecility. With much the
expression of a whipped hound in the tiny sunken eyes which lighted
up his bloated face, he was incessantly watching the widow in mute
adoration before her masculine features and stubby hair. For fear
that he might be dismissed, he put up with the presence of the other
gentlemen of the divan and spent his pay in the place down to the
last copper. A sergeant reviewed the situation in one sentence:
"Petticoat Burle is done for; he's a buried man!"
It was nearly ten o'clock when Major Laguitte furiously flung the
door of the cafe open. For a moment those inside could see the
deluged square transformed into a dark sea of liquid mud, bubbling
under the terrible downpour. The major, now soaked to the skin and
leaving a stream behind him, strode up to the small counter where
Phrosine was reading a novel.
"You little wretch," he yelled, "you have dared to gammon an
officer; you deserve--"
And then he lifted his hand as if to deal a blow such as would have
felled an ox. The little maid shrank back, terrified, while the
amazed domino players looked, openmouthed. However, the major did
not linger there--he pushed the divan door open and appeared before
Melanie and Burle just as the widow was playfully making the captain
sip his grog in small spoonfuls, as if she were feeding a pet
canary. Only the ex-magistrate and the chemist had come that
evening, and they had retired early in a melancholy frame of mind.
Then Melanie, being in want of three hundred francs for the morrow,
had taken advantage of the opportunity to cajole the captain.
"Come." she said, "open your mouth; ain't it nice, you greedy piggywiggy?"
Burle, flushing scarlet, with glazed eyes and sunken figure, was
sucking the spoon with an air of intense enjoyment.
"Good heavens!" roared the major from the threshold. "You now play
tricks on me, do you? I'm sent to the roundabout and told that you
never came here, and yet all the while here you are, addling your
silly brains."
Burle shuddered, pushing the grog away, while Melanie stepped
angrily in front of him as if to shield him with her portly figure,
but Laguitte looked at her with that quiet, resolute expression well
known to women who are familiar with bodily chastisement.
"Leave us," he said curtly.
She hesitated for the space of a second. She almost felt the gust
of the expected blow, and then, white with rage, she joined Phrosine
in the outer room.
When the two men were alone Major Laguitte walked up to Burle,
looked at him and, slightly stooping, yelled into his face these two
words: "You pig!"
The captain, quite dazed, endeavored to retort, but he had not time
to do so.
"Silence!" resumed the major. "You have bamboozled a friend. You
palmed off on me a lot of forged receipts which might have sent both
of us to the gallows. Do you call that proper behavior? Is that
the sort of trick to play a friend of thirty years' standing?"
Burle, who had fallen back in his chair, was livid; his limbs shook
as if with ague. Meanwhile the major, striding up and down and
striking the tables wildly with his fists, continued: "So you have
become a thief like the veriest scribbling cur of a clerk, and all
for the sake of that creature here! If at least you had stolen for
your mother's sake it would have been honorable! But, curse it, to
play tricks and bring the money into this shanty is what I cannot
understand! Tell me--what are you made of at your age to go to the
dogs as you are going all for the sake of a creature like a
"YOU gamble--" stammered the captain.
"Yes, I do--curse it!" thundered the major, lashed into still
greater fury by this remark. "And I am a pitiful rogue to do so,
because it swallows up all my pay and doesn't redound to the honor
of the French army. However, I don't steal. Kill yourself, if it
pleases you; starve your mother and the boy, but respect the
regimental cashbox and don't drag your friends down with you."
He stopped. Burle was sitting there with fixed eyes and a stupid
air. Nothing was heard for a moment save the clatter of the major's
"And not a single copper," he continued aggressively. "Can you
picture yourself between two gendarmes, eh?"
He then grew a little calmer, caught hold of Burle's wrists and
forced him to rise.
"Come!" he said gruffly. "Something must be done at once, for I
cannot go to bed with this affair on my mind--I have an idea."
In the front room Melanie and Phrosine were talking eagerly in low
voices. When the widow saw the two men leaving the divan she moved
toward Burle and said coaxingly: "What, are you going already,
"Yes, he's going," brutally answered Laguitte, "and I don't intend
to let him set foot here again."
The little maid felt frightened and pulled her mistress back by the
skirt of her dress; in doing so she imprudently murmured the word
"drunkard" and thereby brought down the slap which the major's hand
had been itching to deal for some time past. Both women having
stooped, however, the blow only fell on Phrosine's back hair,
flattening her cap and breaking her comb. The domino players were
"Let's cut it," shouted Laguitte, and he pushed Burle on the
pavement. "If I remained I should smash everyone in the place."
To cross the square they had to wade up to their ankles in mud. The
rain, driven by the wind, poured off their faces. The captain
walked on in silence, while the major kept on reproaching him with
his cowardice and its disastrous consequences. Wasn't it sweet
weather for tramping the streets? If he hadn't been such an idiot
they would both be warmly tucked in bed instead of paddling about in
the mud. Then he spoke of Gagneux--a scoundrel whose diseased meat
had on three separate occasions made the whole regiment ill. In a
week, however, the contract would come to an end, and the fiend
himself would not get it renewed.
"It rests with me," the major grumbled. "I can select whomsoever I
choose, and I'd rather cut off my right arm than put that poisoner
in the way of earning another copper."
Just then he slipped into a gutter and, half choked by a string of
oaths, he gasped:
"You understand--I am going to rout up Gagneux. You must stop
outside while I go in. I must know what the rascal is up to and if
he'll dare to carry out his threat of informing the colonel
tomorrow. A butcher--curse him! The idea of compromising oneself
with a butcher! Ah, you aren't over-proud, and I shall never
forgive you for all this."
They had now reached the Place aux Herbes. Gagneux's house was
quite dark, but Laguitte knocked so loudly that he was eventually
admitted. Burle remained alone in the dense obscurity and did not
even attempt to seek any shelter. He stood at a corner of the
market under the pelting rain, his head filled with a loud buzzing
noise which prevented him from thinking. He did not feel impatient,
for he was unconscious of the flight of time. He stood there
looking at the house, which, with its closed door and windows,
seemed quite lifeless. When at the end of an hour the major came
out again it appeared to the captain as if he had only just gone in.
Laguitte was so grimly mute that Burle did not venture to question
him. For a moment they sought each other, groping about in the
dark; then they resumed their walk through the somber streets, where
the water rolled as in the bed of a torrent. They moved on in
silence side by side, the major being so abstracted that he even
forgot to swear. However, as they again crossed the Place du
Palais, at the sight of the Cafe de Paris, which was still lit up,
he dropped his hand on Burle's shoulder and said, "If you ever reenter
that hole I--"
"No fear!" answered the captain without letting his friend finish
his sentence.
Then he stretched out his hand.
"No, no," said Laguitte, "I'll see you home; I'll at least make sure
that you'll sleep in your bed tonight."
They went on, and as they ascended the Rue des Recollets they
slackened their pace. When the captain's door was reached and Burle
had taken out his latchkey he ventured to ask:
"Well," answered the major gruffly, "I am as dirty a rogue as you
are. Yes! I have done a scurrilous thing. The fiend take you!
Our soldiers will eat carrion for three months longer."
Then he explained that Gagneux, the disgusting Gagneux, had a
horribly level head and that he had persuaded him--the major--to
strike a bargain. He would refrain from informing the colonel, and
he would even make a present of the two thousand francs and replace
the forged receipts by genuine ones, on condition that the major
bound himself to renew the meat contract. It was a settled thing.
"Ah," continued Laguitte, "calculate what profits the brute must
make out of the meat to part with such a sum as two thousand
Burle, choking with emotion, grasped his old friend's hands,
stammering confused words of thanks. The vileness of the action
committed for his sake brought tears into his eyes.
"I never did such a thing before," growled Laguitte, "but I was
driven to it. Curse it, to think that I haven't those two thousand
francs in my drawer! It is enough to make one hate cards. It is my
own fault. I am not worth much; only, mark my words, don't begin
again, for, curse it--I shan't."
The captain embraced him, and when he had entered the house the
major stood a moment before the closed door to make certain that he
had gone upstairs to bed. Then as midnight was striking and the
rain was still belaboring the dark town, he slowly turned homeward.
The thought of his men almost broke his heart, and, stopping short,
he said aloud in a voice full of compassion:
"Poor devils! what a lot of cow beef they'll have to swallow for
those two thousand francs!"
The regiment was altogether nonplused: Petticoat Burle had quarreled
with Melanie. When a week had elapsed it became a proved and
undeniable fact; the captain no longer set foot inside the Cafe de
Paris, where the chemist, it was averred, once more reigned in his
stead, to the profound sorrow of the retired magistrate. An even
more incredible statement was that Captain Burle led the life of a
recluse in the Rue des Recollets. He was becoming a reformed
character; he spent his evenings at his own fireside, hearing little
Charles repeat his lessons. His mother, who had never breathed a
word to him of his manipulations with Gagneux, maintained her old
severity of demeanor as she sat opposite to him in her armchair, but
her looks seemed to imply that she believed him reclaimed.
A fortnight later Major Laguitte came one evening to invite himself
to dinner. He felt some awkwardness at the prospect of meeting
Burle again, not on his own account but because he dreaded awakening
painful memories. However, as the captain was mending his ways he
wished to shake hands and break a crust with him. He thought this
would please his old friend.
When Laguitte arrived Burle was in his room, so it was the old lady
who received the major. The latter, after announcing that he had
come to have a plate of soup with them, added, lowering his voice:
"Well, how goes it?"
"It is all right," answered the old lady.
"Nothing queer?"
"Absolutely nothing. Never away--in bed at nine--and looking quite
"Ah, confound it," replied the major, "I knew very well he only
wanted a shaking. He has some heart left, the dog!"
When Burle appeared he almost crushed the major's hands in his
grasp, and standing before the fire, waiting for the dinner, they
conversed peacefully, honestly, together, extolling the charms of
home life. The captain vowed he wouldn't exchange his home for a
kingdom and declared that when he had removed his braces, put on his
slippers and settled himself in his armchair, no king was fit to
hold a candle to him. The major assented and examined him. At all
events his virtuous conduct had not made him any thinner; he still
looked bloated; his eyes were bleared, and his mouth was heavy. He
seemed to be half asleep as he repeated mechanically: "Home life!
There's nothing like home life, nothing in the world!"
"No doubt," said the major; "still, one mustn't exaggerate--take a
little exercise and come to the cafe now and then."
"To the cafe, why?" asked Burle. "Do I lack anything here? No, no,
I remain at home."
When Charles had laid his books aside Laguitte was surprised to see
a maid come in to lay the cloth.
"So you keep a servant now," he remarked to Mme Burle.
"I had to get one," she answered with a sigh. "My legs are not what
they used to be, and the household was going to rack and ruin.
Fortunately Cabrol let me have his daughter. You know old Cabrol,
who sweeps the market? He did not know what to do with Rose--I am
teaching her how to work."
Just then the girl left the room.
"How old is she?" asked the major.
"Barely seventeen. She is stupid and dirty, but I only give her ten
francs a month, and she eats nothing but soup."
When Rose returned with an armful of plates Laguitte, though he did
not care about women, began to scrutinize her and was amazed at
seeing so ugly a creature. She was very short, very dark and
slightly deformed, with a face like an ape's: a flat nose, a huge
mouth and narrow greenish eyes. Her broad back and long arms gave
her an appearance of great strength.
"What a snout!" said Laguitte, laughing, when the maid had again
left the room to fetch the cruets.
"Never mind," said Burle carelessly, "she is very obliging and does
all one asks her. She suits us well enough as a scullion."
The dinner was very pleasant. It consisted of boiled beef and
mutton hash. Charles was encouraged to relate some stories of his
school, and Mme Burle repeatedly asked him the same question: "Don't
you want to be a soldier?" A faint smile hovered over the child's
wan lips as he answered with the frightened obedience of a trained
dog, "Oh yes, Grandmother." Captain Burle, with his elbows on the
table, was masticating slowly with an absent-minded expression. The
big room was getting warmer; the single lamp placed on the table
left the corners in vague gloom. There was a certain amount of
heavy comfort, the familiar intimacy of penurious people who do not
change their plates at every course but become joyously excited at
the unexpected appearance of a bowl of whipped egg cream at the
close of the meal.
Rose, whose heavy tread shook the floor as she paced round the
table, had not yet opened her mouth. At last she stopped behind the
captain's chair and asked in a gruff voice: "Cheese, sir?"
Burle started. "What, eh? Oh yes--cheese. Hold the plate tight."
He cut a piece of Gruyere, the girl watching him the while with her
narrow eyes. Laguitte laughed; Rose's unparalleled ugliness amused
him immensely. He whispered in the captain's ear, "She is ripping!
There never was such a nose and such a mouth! You ought to send her
to the colonel's someday as a curiosity. It would amuse him to see
More and more struck by this phenomenal ugliness, the major felt a
paternal desire to examine the girl more closely.
"Come here," he said, "I want some cheese too."
She brought the plate, and Laguitte, sticking the knife in the
Gruyere, stared at her, grinning the while because he discovered
that she had one nostril broader than the other. Rose gravely
allowed herself to be looked at, waiting till the gentleman had done
She removed the cloth and disappeared. Burle immediately went to
sleep in the chimney corner while the major and Mme Burle began to
chat. Charles had returned to his exercises. Quietude fell from
the loft ceiling; the quietude of a middle-class household gathered
in concord around their fireside. At nine o'clock Burle woke up,
yawned and announced that he was going off to bed; he apologized but
declared that he could not keep his eyes open. Half an hour later,
when the major took his leave, Mme Burle vainly called for Rose to
light him downstairs; the girl must have gone up to her room; she
was, indeed, a regular hen, snoring the round of the clock without
"No need to disturb anybody," said Laguitte on the landing; "my legs
are not much better than yours, but if I get hold of the banisters I
shan't break any bones. Now, my dear lady, I leave you happy; your
troubles are ended at last. I watched Burle closely, and I'll take
my oath that he's guileless as a child. Dash it--after all, it was
high time for Petticoat Burle to reform; he was going downhill
The major went away fully satisfied with the house and its inmates;
the walls were of glass and could harbor no equivocal conduct. What
particularly delighted him in his friend's return to virtue was that
it absolved him from the obligation of verifying the accounts.
Nothing was more distasteful to him than the inspection of a number
of ledgers, and as long as Burle kept steady, he--Laguitte--could
smoke his pipe in peace and sign the books in all confidence.
However, he continued to keep one eye open for a little while longer
and found the receipts genuine, the entries correct, the columns
admirably balanced. A month later he contented himself with
glancing at the receipts and running his eye over the totals. Then
one morning, without the slightest suspicion of there being anything
wrong, simply because he had lit a second pipe and had nothing to
do, he carelessly added up a row of figures and fancied that he
detected an error of thirteen francs. The balance seemed perfectly
correct, and yet he was not mistaken; the total outlay was thirteen
francs more than the various sums for which receipts were furnished.
It looked queer, but he said nothing to Burle, just making up his
mind to examine the next accounts closely. On the following week he
detected a fresh error of nineteen francs, and then, suddenly
becoming alarmed, he shut himself up with the books and spent a
wretched morning poring over them, perspiring, swearing and feeling
as if his very skull were bursting with the figures. At every page
he discovered thefts of a few francs--the most miserable petty
thefts--ten, eight, eleven francs, latterly, three and four; and,
indeed, there was one column showing that Burle had pilfered just
one franc and a half. For two months, however, he had been steadily
robbing the cashbox, and by comparing dates the major found to his
disgust that the famous lesson respecting Gagneux had only kept him
straight for one week! This last discovery infuriated Laguitte, who
struck the books with his clenched fists, yelling through a shower
of oaths:
"This is more abominable still! At least there was some pluck about
those forged receipts of Gagneux. But this time he is as
contemptible as a cook charging twopence extra for her cabbages.
Powers of hell! To pilfer a franc and a half and clap it in his
pocket! Hasn't the brute got any pride then? Couldn't he run away
with the safe or play the fool with actresses?"
The pitiful meanness of these pilferings revolted the major, and,
moreover, he was enraged at having been duped a second time,
deceived by the simple, stupid dodge of falsified additions. He
rose at last and paced his office for a whole hour, growling aloud.
"This gives me his measure. Even if I were to thresh him to a jelly
every morning he would still drop a couple of coins into his pocket
every afternoon. But where can he spend it all? He is never seen
abroad; he goes to bed at nine, and everything looks so clean and
proper over there. Can the brute have vices that nobody knows of?"
He returned to the desk, added up the subtracted money and found a
total of five hundred and forty-five francs. Where was this
deficiency to come from? The inspection was close at hand, and if
the crotchety colonel should take it into his head to examine a
single page, the murder would be out and Burle would be done for.
This idea froze the major, who left off cursing, picturing Mme Burle
erect and despairing, and at the same time he felt his heart swell
with personal grief and shame.
"Well," he muttered, "I must first of all look into the rogue's
business; I will act afterward."
As he walked over to Burle's office he caught sight of a skirt
vanishing through the doorway. Fancying that he had a clue to the
mystery, he slipped up quietly and listened and speedily recognized
Melanie's shrill voice. She was complaining of the gentlemen of the
divan. She had signed a promissory note which she was unable to
meet; the bailiffs were in the house, and all her goods would be
sold. The captain, however, barely replied to her. He alleged that
he had no money, whereupon she burst into tears and began to coax
him. But her blandishments were apparently ineffectual, for Burle's
husky voice could be heard repeating, "Impossible! Impossible!"
And finally the widow withdrew in a towering passion. The major,
amazed at the turn affairs were taking, waited a few moments longer
before entering the office, where Burle had remained alone. He
found him very calm, and despite his furious inclination to call him
names he also remained calm, determined to begin by finding out the
exact truth.
The office certainly did not look like a swindler's den. A caneseated
chair, covered with an honest leather cushion, stood before
the captain's desk, and in a corner there was the locked safe.
Summer was coming on, and the song of a canary sounded through the
open window. The apartment was very neat and tidy, redolent of old
papers, and altogether its appearance inspired one with confidence.
"Wasn't it Melanie who was leaving here as I came along?" asked
Burle shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes," he mumbled. "She has been dunning me for two hundred francs,
but she can't screw ten out of me--not even tenpence."
"Indeed!" said the major, just to try him. "I heard that you had
made up with her."
"I? Certainly not. I have done with the likes of her for good."
Laguitte went away, feeling greatly perplexed. Where had the five
hundred and forty-five francs gone? Had the idiot taken to drinking
or gambling? He decided to pay Burle a surprise visit that very
evening at his own house, and maybe by questioning his mother he
might learn something. However, during the afternoon his leg became
very painful; latterly he had been feeling in ill-health, and he had
to use a stick so as not to limp too outrageously. This stick
grieved him sorely, and he declared with angry despair that he was
now no better than a pensioner. However, toward the evening, making
a strong effort, he pulled himself out of his armchair and, leaning
heavily on his stick, dragged himself through the darkness to the
Rue des Recollets, which he reached about nine o'clock. The street
door was still unlocked, and on going up he stood panting on the
third landing, when he heard voices on the upper floor. One of
these voices was Burle's, so he fancied, and out of curiosity he
ascended another flight of stairs. Then at the end of a passage on
the left he saw a ray of light coming from a door which stood ajar.
As the creaking of his boots resounded, this door was sharply
closed, and he found himself in the dark.
"Some cook going to bed!" he muttered angrily. "I'm a fool."
All the same he groped his way as gently as possible to the door and
listened. Two people were talking in the room, and he stood aghast,
for it was Burle and that fright Rose! Then he listened, and the
conversation he heard left him no doubt of the awful truth. For a
moment he lifted his stick as if to beat down the door. Then he
shuddered and, staggering back, leaned against the wall. His legs
were trembling under him, while in the darkness of the staircase he
brandished his stick as if it had been a saber.
What was to be done? After his first moment of passion there had
come thoughts of the poor old lady below. And these made him
hesitate. It was all over with the captain now; when a man sank as
low as that he was hardly worth the few shovelfuls of earth that are
thrown over carrion to prevent them from polluting the atmosphere.
Whatever might be said of Burle, however much one might try to shame
him, he would assuredly begin the next day. Ah, heavens, to think
of it! The money! The honor of the army! The name of Burle, that
respected name, dragged through the mire! By all that was holy this
could and should not be!
Presently the major softened. If he had only possessed five hundred
and forty-five francs! But he had not got such an amount. On the
previous day he had drunk too much cognac, just like a mere sub, and
had lost shockingly at cards. It served him right--he ought to have
known better! And if he was so lame he richly deserved it too; by
rights, in fact, his leg ought to be much worse.
At last he crept downstairs and rang at the bell of Mme Burle's
flat. Five minutes elapsed, and then the old lady appeared.
"I beg your pardon for keeping you waiting," she said; "I thought
that dormouse Rose was still about. I must go and shake her."
But the major detained her.
"Where is Burle?" he asked.
"Oh, he has been snoring since nine o'clock. Would you like to
knock at his door?"
"No, no, I only wanted to have a chat with you."
In the parlor Charles sat at his usual place, having just finished
his exercises. He looked terrified, and his poor little white hands
were tremulous. In point of fact, his grandmother, before sending
him to bed, was wont to read some martial stories aloud so as to
develop the latent family heroism in his bosom. That night she had
selected the episode of the Vengeur, the man-of-war freighted with
dying heroes and sinking into the sea. The child, while listening,
had become almost hysterical, and his head was racked as with some
ghastly nightmare.
Mme Burle asked the major to let her finish the perusal. "Long live
the republic!" She solemniy closed the volune. Charles was as
white as a sheet.
"You see," said the old lady, "the duty of every French soldier is
to die for his country."
"Yes, Grandmother."
Then the lad kissed her on the forehead and, shivering with fear,
went to bed in his big room, where the faintest creak of the
paneling threw him into a cold sweat.
The major had listened with a grave face. Yes, by heavens! Honor
was honor, and he would never permit that wretched Burle to disgrace
the old woman and the boy! As the lad was so devoted to the
military profession, it was necessary that he should be able to
enter Saint-Cyr with his head erect.
When Mme Burle took up the lamp to show the major out, she passed
the door of the captain's room, and stopped short, surprised to see
the key outside, which was a most unusual occurrence.
"Do go in," she said to Laguitte; "it is bad for him to sleep so
And before he could interpose she had opened the door and stood
transfixed on finding the room empty. Laguitte turned crimson and
looked so foolish that she suddenly understood everything,
enlightened by the sudden recollection of several little incidents
to which she had previously attached no importance.
"You knew it--you knew it!" she stanmered. "Why was I not told?
Oh, my God, to think of it! Ah, he has been stealing again--I feel
She remained erect, white and rigid. Then she added in a harsh
"Look you--I wish he were dead!"
Laguitte caught hold of both her hands, which for a moment he kept
tightly clasped in his own. Then he left her hurriedly, for he felt
a lump rising in his throat and tears coming to his eyes. Ah, by
all the powers, this time his mind was quite made up.
The regimental inspection was to take place at the end of the month.
The major had ten days before him. On the very next morning,
however, he crawled, limping, as far as the Cafe de Paris, where he
ordered some beer. Melanie grew pale when she saw him enter, and it
was with a lively recollection of a certain slap that Phrosine
hastened to serve him. The major seemed very calm, however; he
called for a second chair to rest his bad leg upon and drank his
beer quietly like any other thirsty man. He had sat there for about
an hour when he saw two officers crossing the Place du Palais--
Morandot, who commanded one of the battalions of the regiment, and
Captain Doucet. Thereupon he excitedly waved his cane and shouted:
"Come in and have a glass of beer with me!"
The officers dared not refuse, but when the maid had brought the
beer Morandot said to the major: "So you patronize this place now?"
"Yes--the beer is good."
Captain Doucet winked and asked archly: "Do you belong to the divan,
Laguitte chuckled but did not answer. Then the others began to
chaff him about Melanie, and he took their remarks good-naturedly,
simply shrugging his shoulders. The widow was undoubtedly a fine
woman, however much people might talk. Some of those who disparaged
her would, in reality, be only too pleased to win her good graces.
Then turning to the little counter and assuming an engaging air, he
"Three more glasses, madame."
Melanie was so taken aback that she rose and brought the beer
herself. The major detained her at the table and forgot himself so
far as to softly pat the hand which she had carelessly placed on the
back of a chair. Used as she was to alternate brutality and
flattery, she immediately became confident, believing in a sudden
whim of gallantry on the part of the "old wreck," as she was wont to
style the major when talking with Phrosine. Doucet and Morandot
looked at each other in surprise. Was the major actually stepping
into Petticoat Burle's shoes? The regiment would be convulsed if
that were the case.
Suddenly, however, Laguitte, who kept his eye on the square, gave a
"Hallo, there's Burle!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, it is his time," explained Phrosine. "The captain passes
every afternoon on his way from the office."
In spite of his lameness the major had risen to his feet, pushing
aside the chairs as he called out: "Burle! I say--come along and
have a glass."
The captain, quite aghast and unable to understand why Laguitte was
at the widow's, advanced mechanically. He was so perplexed that he
again hesitated at the door.
"Another glass of beer," ordered the major, and then turning to
Burle, he added, "What's the matter with you? Come in. Are you
afraid of being eaten alive?"
The captain took a seat, and an awkward pause followed. Melanie,
who brought the beer with trembling hands, dreaded some scene which
might result in the closing of her establishment. The major's
gallantry made her uneasy, and she endeavored to slip away, but he
invited her to drink with them, and before she could refuse he had
ordered Phrosine to bring a liqueur glass of anisette, doing so with
as much coolness as if he had been master of the house. Melanie was
thus compelled to sit down between the captain and Laguitte, who
exclaimed aggressively: "I WILL have ladies respected. We are
French officers! Let us drink Madame's health!"
Burle, with his eyes fixed on his glass, smiled in an embarrassed
way. The two officers, shocked at the proceedings, had already
tried to get off. Fortunately the cafe was deserted, save that the
domino players were having their afternoon game. At every fresh
oath which came from the major they glanced around, scandalized by
such an unusual accession of customers and ready to threaten Melanie
that they would leave her for the Cafe de la Gare if the soldiery
was going to invade her place like flies that buzzed about,
attracted by the stickiness of the tables which Phrosine scoured
only on Saturdays. She was now reclining behind the counter,
already reading a novel again.
"How's this--you are not drinking with Madame?" roughly said the
major to Burle. "Be civil at least!"
Then as Doucet and Morandot were again preparing to leave, he
stopped them.
"Why can't you wait? We'll go together. It is only this brute who
never knows how to behave himself."
The two officers looked surprised at the major's sudden bad temper.
Melanie attempted to restore peace and with a light laugh placed her
hands on the arms of both men. However, Laguitte disengaged
"No," he roared, "leave me alone. Why does he refuse to chink
glasses with you? I shall not allow you to be insulted--do you
hear? 1 am quite sick of him."
Burle, paling under the insult, turned slightly and said to
Morandot, "What does this mean? He calls me in here to insult me.
Is he drunk?"
With a wild oath the major rose on his trembling legs and struck the
captain's cheek with his open hand. Melanie dived and thus escaped
one half of the smack. An appalling uproar ensued. Phrosine
screamed behind the counter as if she herself had received the blow;
the domino players also entrenched themselves behind their table in
fear lest the soldiers should draw their swords and massacre them.
However, Doucet and Morandot pinioned the captain to prevent him
from springing at the major's throat and forcibly let him to the
door. When they got him outside they succeeded in quieting him a
little by repeating that Laguitte was quite in the wrong. They
would lay the affair before the colonel, having witnessed it, and
the colonel would give his decision. As soon as they had got Burle
away they returned to the cafe where they found Laguitte in reality
greatly disturbed, with tears in his eyes but affecting stolid
indifference and slowly finishing his beer.
"Listen, Major," began Morandot, "that was very wrong on your part.
The captain is your inferior in rank, and you know that he won't be
allowed to fight you."
"That remains to be seen," answered the major.
"But how has he offended you? He never uttered a word. Two old
cornrades too; it is absurd."
The major made a vague gesture. "No matter. He annoyed me."
He could never be made to say anything else. Nothing more as to his
motive was ever known. All the same, the scandal was a terrible
one. The regiment was inclined to believe that Melanie, incensed by
the captain's defection, had contrived to entrap the major, telling
him some aboininable stories and prevailing upon him to insult and
strike Burle publicly. Who would have thought it of that old fogy
Laguitte, who professed to be a woman hater? they said. So he, too,
had been caught at last. Despite the general indignation against
Melanie, this adventure made her very conspicuous, and her
establishment soon drove a flourishing business.
On the following day the colonel summoned the major and the captain
into his presence. He censured them sternly, accusing them of
disgracing their uniform by frequenting unseemly haunts. What
resolution had they come to, he asked, as he could not authorize
them to fight? This same question had occupied the whole regiment
for the last twenty-four hours. Apologies were unacceptable on
account of the blow, but as Laguitte was almost unable to stand, it
was hoped that, should the colonel insist upon it, some
reconciliation might be patched up.
"Come," said the colonel, "will you accept me as arbitrator?"
"I beg your pardon, Colonel," interrupted the major; "I have brought
you my resignation. Here it is. That settles everything. Please
name the day for the duel."
Burle looked at Laguitte in amazement, and the colonel thought it
his duty to protest.
"This is a most serious step, Major," he began. "Two years more and
you would be entitled to your full pension."
But again did Laguitte cut him short, saying gruffly, "That is my
own affair."
"Oh, certainly! Well, I will send in your resignation, and as soon
as it is accepted I will fix a day for the duel."
The unexpected turn that events had taken startled the regiment.
What possessed that lunatic major to persist in cutting the throat
of his old comrade Burle? The officers again discussed Melanie;
they even began to dream of her. There must surely be something
wonderful about her since she had completely fascinated two such
tough old veterans and brought them to a deadly feud. Morandot,
having met Laguitte, did not disguise his concern. If he--the
major--was not killed, what would he live upon? He had no fortune,
and the pension to which his cross of the Legion of Honor entitled
him, with the half of a full regimental pension which he would
obtain on resigning, would barely find him in bread. While Morandot
was thus speaking Laguitte simply stared before him with his round
eyes, persevering in the dumb obstinacy born of his narrow mind; and
when his companion tried to question him regarding his hatred for
Burle, he simply made the same vague gesture as before and once
again repeated:
"He annoyed me; so much the worse."
Every morning at mess and at the canteen the first words were: "Has
the acceptance of the major's resignation arrived?" The duel was
impatiently expected and ardently discussed. 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. On the other
hand, Burle fenced indifferently and passed for a poltroon.
However, they would soon know what to think.
Meanwhile the excitement became more and more intense as the
acceptance of Laguitte's resignation was so long in coming. The
major was unmistakably the most anxious and upset of everybody. A
week had passed by, and the general inspection would commence two
days later. Nothing, however, had come as yet. He shuddered at the
thought that he had, perhaps, struck his old friend and sent in his
resignation all in vain, without delaying the exposure for a single
minute. He had in reality reasoned thus: If he himself were killed
he would not have the worry of witnessing the scandal, and if he
killed Burle, as he expected to do, the affair would undoubtedly be
hushed up. Thus he would save the honor of the army, and the little
chap would be able to get in at Saint-Cyr. Ah, why wouldn't those
wretched scribblers at the War Office hurry up a bit? The major
could not keep still but was forever wandering about before the post
office, stopping the estafettes and questioning the colonel's
orderly to find out if the acceptance had arrived. He lost his
sleep and, careless as to people's remarks, he leaned more and more
heavily on his stick, hobbling about with no attempt to steady his
On the day before that fixed for the inspection he was, as usual, on
his way to the colonel's quarters when he paused, startled, to see
Mme Burle (who was taking Charles to school) a few paces ahead of
him. He had not met her since the scene at the Cafe de Paris, for
she had remained in seclusion at home. Unmanned at thus meeting
her, he stepped down to leave the whole sidewalk free. Neither he
nor the old lady bowed, and the little boy lifted his large
inquisitive eyes in mute surprise. Mme Burle, cold and erect,
brushed past the major without the least sign of emotion or
recognition. When she had passed he looked after her with an
expression of stupefied compassion.
"Confound it, I am no longer a man," he growled, dashing away a
When he arrived at the colonel's quarters a captain in attendance
greeted him with the words: "It's all right at last. The papers
have come."
"Ah!" murmured Laguitte, growing very pale.
And again he beheld the old lady walking on, relentlessly rigid and
holding the little boy's hand. What! He had longed so eagerly for
those papers for eight days past, and now when the scraps had come
he felt his brain on fire and his heart lacerated.
The duel took place on the morrow, in the barrack yard behind a low
wall. The air was keen, the sun shining brightly. Laguitte had
almost to be carried to the ground; one of his seconds supported him
on one side, while on the other he leaned heavily, on his stick.
Burle looked half asleep; his face was puffy with unhealthy fat, as
if he had spent a night of debauchery. Not a word was spoken. They
were all anxious to have it over.
Captain Doucet crossed the swords of the two adversaries and then
drew back, saying: "Set to, gentlemen."
Burle was the first to attack; he wanted to test Laguitte's strength
and ascertain what he had to expect. For the last ten days the
encounter had seemed to him a ghastly nightmare which he could not
fathom. At times a hideous suspicion assailed him, but he put it
aside with terror, for it meant death, and he refused to believe
that a friend could play him such a trick, even to set things right.
Besides, Laguitte's leg reasssured him; he would prick the major on
the shoulder, and then all would be over.
During well-nigh a couple of minutes the swords clashed, and then
the captain lunged, but the major, recovering his old suppleness of
wrist, parried in a masterly style, and if he had returned the
attack Burle would have been pierced through. The captain now fell
back; he was livid, for he felt that he was at the mercy of the man
who had just spared him. At last he understood that this was an
Laguitte, squarely poised on his infirm legs and seemingly turned to
stone, stood waiting. The two men looked at each other fixedly. In
Burle's blurred eyes there arose a supplication--a prayer for
pardon. He knew why he was going to die, and like a child he
promised not to transgress again. But the major's eyes remained
implacable; honor had spoken, and he silenced his emotion and his
"Let it end," he muttered between his teeth.
Then it was he who attacked. Like a flash of lightning his sword
flamed, flying from right to left, and then with a resistless thrust
it pierced the breast of the captain, who fell like a log without
even a groan.
Laguitte had released his hold upon his sword and stood gazing at
that poor old rascal Burle, who was stretched upon his back with his
fat stomach bulging out.
"Oh, my God! My God!" repeated the major furiously and
despairingly, and then he began to swear.
They led him away, and, both his legs failing him, he had to be
supported on either side, for he could not even use his stick.
Two months later the ex-major was crawling slowly along in the
sunlight down a lonely street of Vauchamp, when he again found
himself face to face with Mme Burle and little Charles. They were
both in deep mourning. He tried to avoid them, but he now only
walked with difficulty, and they advanced straight upon him without
hurrying or slackening their steps. Charles still had the same
gentle, girlish, frightened face, and Mme Burle retained her stern,
rigid demeanor, looking even harsher than ever.
As Laguitte shrank into the corner of a doorway to leave the whole
street to them, she abruptly stopped in front of him and stretched
out her hand. He hesitated and then took it and pressed it, but he
trembled so violently that he made the old lady's arm shake. They
exchanged glances in silence.
"Charles," said the boy's grandmother at last, "shake hands with the
major." The boy obeyed without understanding. The major, who was
very pale, barely ventured to touch the child's frail fingers; then,
feeling that he ought to speak, he stammered out: "You still intend
to send him to Saint-Cyr?"
"Of course, when he is old enough," answered Mme Burle.
But during the following week Charles was carried off by typhoid
fever. One evening his grandmother had again read him the story of
the Vengeur to make him bold, and in the night he had become
delirious. The poor little fellow died of fright.
It was on a Saturday, at six in the morning, that I died after a
three days' illness. My wife was searching a trunk for some linen,
and when she rose and turned she saw me rigid, with open eyes and
silent pulses. She ran to me, fancying that I had fainted, touched
my hands and bent over me. Then she suddenly grew alarmed, burst
into tears and stammered:
"My God, my God! He is dead!"
I heard everything, but the sounds seemed to come from a great
distance. My left eye still detected a faint glimmer, a whitish
light in which all objects melted, but my right eye was quite bereft
of sight. It was the coma of my whole being, as if a thunderbolt
had struck me. My will was annihilated; not a fiber of flesh obeyed
my bidding. And yet amid the impotency of my inert limbs my
thoughts subsisted, sluggish and lazy, still perfectly clear.
My poor Marguerite was crying; she had dropped on her knees beside
the bed, repeating in heart-rending tones:
"He is dead! My God, he is dead!"
Was this strange state of torpor, this immobility of the flesh,
really death, although the functions of the intellect were not
arrested? Was my soul only lingering for a brief space before it
soared away forever? From my childhood upward I had been subject to
hysterical attacks, and twice in early youth I had nearly succumbed
to nervous fevers. By degrees all those who surrounded me had got
accustomed to consider me an invalid and to see me sickly. So much
so that I myself had forbidden my wife to call in a doctor when I
had taken to my bed on the day of our arrival at the cheap
lodginghouse of the Rue Dauphine in Paris. A little rest would soon
set me right again; it was only the fatigue of the journey which had
caused my intolerable weariness. And yet I was conscious of having
felt singularly uneasy. We had left our province somewhat abruptly;
we were very poor and had barely enough money to support ourselves
till I drew my first month's salary in the office where I had
obtained a situation. And now a sudden seizure was carrying me off!
Was it really death? I had pictured to myself a darker night, a
deeper silence. As a little child I had already felt afraid to die.
Being weak and compassionately petted by everyone, I had concluded
that I had not long to live, that I should soon be buried, and the
thought of the cold earth filled me with a dread I could not master--
a dread which haunted me day and night. As I grew older the same
terror pursued me. Sometimes, after long hours spent in reasoning
with myself, I thought that I had conquered my fear. I reflected,
"After all, what does it matter? One dies and all is over. It is
the common fate; nothing could be better or easier."
I then prided myself on being able to look death boldly in the face,
but suddenly a shiver froze my blood, and my dizzy anguish returned,
as if a giant hand had swung me over a dark abyss. It was some
vision of the earth returning and setting reason at naught. How
often at night did I start up in bed, not knowing what cold breath
had swept over my slumbers but clasping my despairing hands and
moaning, "Must I die?" In those moments an icy horror would stop my
pulses while an appalling vision of dissolution rose before me. It
was with difficulty that I could get to sleep again. Indeed, sleep
alarmed me; it so closely resembled death. If I closed my eyes they
might never open again--I might slumber on forever.
I cannot tell if others have endured the same torture; I only know
that my own life was made a torment by it. Death ever rose between
me and all I loved; I can remember how the thought of it poisoned
the happiest moments I spent with Marguerite. During the first
months of our married life, when she lay sleeping by my side and I
dreamed of a fair future for her and with her, the foreboding of
some fatal separation dashed my hopes aside and embittered my
delights. Perhaps we should be parted on the morrow--nay, perhaps
in an hour's time. Then utter discouragement assailed me; I
wondered what the bliss of being united availed me if it were to end
in so cruel a disruption.
My morbid imagination reveled in scenes of mourning. I speculated
as to who would be the first to depart, Marguerite or I. Either
alternative caused me harrowing grief, and tears rose to my eyes at
the thought of our shattered lives. At the happiest periods of my
existence I often became a prey to grim dejection such as nobody
could understand but which was caused by the thought of impending
nihility. When I was most successful I was to general wonder most
depressed. The fatal question, "What avails it?" rang like a knell
in my ears. But the sharpest sting of this torment was that it came
with a secret sense of shame, which rendered me unable to confide my
thoughts to another. Husband and wife lying side by side in the
darkened room may quiver with the same shudder and yet remain mute,
for people do not mention death any more than they pronounce certain
obscene words. Fear makes it nameless.
I was musing thus while my dear Marguerite knelt sobbing at my feet.
It grieved me sorely to be unable to comfort her by telling her that
I suffered no pain. If death were merely the annihilation of the
flesh it had been foolish of me to harbor so much dread. I
experienced a selfish kind of restfulness in which all my cares were
forgotten. My memory had become extraordinarily vivid. My whole
life passed before me rapidly like a play in which I no longer acted
a part; it was a curious and enjoyable sensation--I seemed to hear a
far-off voice relating my own history.
I saw in particular a certain spot in the country near Guerande, on
the way to Piriac. The road turns sharply, and some scattered pine
trees carelessly dot a rocky slope. When I was seven years old I
used to pass through those pines with my father as far as a
crumbling old house, where Marguerite's parents gave me pancakes.
They were salt gatherers and earned a scanty livelihood by working
the adjacent salt marshes. Then I remembered the school at Nantes,
where I had grown up, leading a monotonous life within its ancient
walls and yearning for the broad horizon of Guerande and the salt
marshes stretching to the limitless sea widening under the sky.
Next came a blank--my father was dead. I entered the hospital as
clerk to the managing board and led a dreary life with one solitary
diversion: my Sunday visits to the old house on Piriac road. The
saltworks were doing badly; poverty reigned in the land, and
Marguerite's parents were nearly penniless. Marguerite, when merely
a child, had been fond of me because I trundled her about in a
wheelbarrow, but on the morning when I asked her in marriage she
shrank from me with a frightened gesture, and I realized that she
thought me hideous. Her parents, however, consented at once; they
looked upon my offer as a godsend, and the daughter submissively
acquiesced. When she became accustomed to the idea of marrying me
she did not seem to dislike it so much. On our wedding day at
Guerande the rain fell in torrents, and when we got home my bride
had to take off her dress, which was soaked through, and sit in her
That was all the youth I ever had. We did not remain long in our
province. One day I found my wife in tears. She was miserable;
life was so dull; she wanted to get away. Six months later I had
saved a little money by taking in extra work after office hours, and
through the influence of a friend of my father's I obtained a petty
appointment in Paris. I started off to settle there with the dear
little woman so that she might cry no more. During the night, which
we spent in the third-class railway carriage, the seats being very
hard, I took her in my arms in order that she might sleep.
That was the past, and now I had just died on the narrow couch of a
Paris lodginghouse, and my wife was crouching on the floor, crying
bitterly. The white light before my left eye was growing dim, but I
remembered the room perfectly. On the left there was a chest of
drawers, on the right a mantelpiece surmounted by a damaged clock
without a pendulum, the hands of which marked ten minutes past ten.
The window overlooked the Rue Dauphine, a long, dark street. All
Paris seemed to pass below, and the noise was so great that the
window shook.
We knew nobody in the city; we had hurried our departure, but I was
not expected at the office till the following Monday. Since I had
taken to my bed I had wondered at my imprisonment in this narrow
room into which we had tumbled after a railway journey of fifteen
hours, followed by a hurried, confusing transit through the noisy
streets. My wife had nursed me with smiling tenderness, but I knew
that she was anxious. She would walk to the window, glance out and
return to the bedside, looking very pale and startled by the sight
of the busy thoroughfare, the aspect of the vast city of which she
did not know a single stone and which deafened her with its
continuous roar. What would happen to her if I never woke up again--
alone, friendless and unknowing as she was?
Marguerite had caught hold of one of my hands which lay passive on
the coverlet, and, covering it with kisses, she repeated wildly:
"Olivier, answer me. Oh, my God, he is dead, dead!"
So death was not complete annihilation. I could hear and think. I
had been uselessly alarmed all those years. I had not dropped into
utter vacancy as I had anticipated. I could not picture the
disappearance of my being, the suppression of all that I had been,
without the possibility of renewed existence. I had been wont to
shudder whenever in any book or newspaper I came across a date of a
hundred years hence. A date at which I should no longer be alive, a
future which I should never see, filled me with unspeakable
uneasiness. Was I not the whole world, and would not the universe
crumble away when I was no more?
To dream of life had been a cherished vision, but this could not
possibly be death. I should assuredly awake presently. Yes, in a
few moments I would lean over, take Marguerite in my arms and dry
her tears. I would rest a little while longer before going to my
office, and then a new life would begin, brighter than the last.
However, I did not feel impatient; the commotion had been too
strong. It was wrong of Marguerite to give way like that when I had
not even the strength to turn my head on the pillow and smile at
her. The next time that she moaned out, "He is dead! Dead!" I
would embrace her and murmer softly so as not to startle her: "No,
my darling, I was only asleep. You see, I am alive, and I love you."
Marguerite's cries had attracted attention, for all at once the door
was opened and a voice exclaimed: "What is the matter, neighbor? Is
he worse?"
I recognized the voice; it was that of an elderly woman, Mme Gabin,
who occupied a room on the same floor. She had been most obliging
since our arrival and had evidently become interested in our
concerns. On her own side she had lost no time in telling us her
history. A stern landlord had sold her furniture during the
previous winter to pay himself his rent, and since then she had
resided at the lodginghouse in the Rue Dauphine with her daughter
Dede, a child of ten. They both cut and pinked lamp shades, and
between them they earned at the utmost only two francs a day.
"Heavens! Is it all over?" cried Mme Gabin, looking at me.
I realized that she was drawing nearer. She examined me, touched me
and, turning to Marguerite, murmured compassionately: "Poor girl!
Poor girl!"
My wife, wearied out, was sobbing like a child. Mme Gabin lifted
her, placed her in a dilapidated armchair near the fireplace and
proceeded to comfort her.
"Indeed, you'll do yourself harm if you go on like this, my dear.
It's no reason because your husband is gone that you should kill
yourself with weeping. Sure enough, when I lost Gabin I was just
like you. I remained three days without swallowing a morsel of
food. But that didn't help me--on the contrary, it pulled me down.
Come, for the Lord's sake, be sensible!"
By degrees Marguerite grew calmer; she was exhausted, and it was
only at intervals that she gave way to a fresh flow of tears.
Meanwhile the old woman had taken possession of the room with a sort
of rough authority.
"Don't worry yourself," she said as she bustled about. "Neighbors
must help each other. Luckily Dede has just gone to take the work
home. Ah, I see your trunks are not yet all unpacked, but I suppose
there is some linen in the chest of drawers, isn't there?"
I heard her pull a drawer open; she must have taken out a napkin
which she spread on the little table at the bedside. She then
struck a match, which made me think that she was lighting one of the
candles on the mantelpiece and placing it near me as a religious
rite. I could follow her movements in the room and divine all her
"Poor gentleman," she muttered. "Luckily I heard you sobbing, poor
dear!" Suddenly the vague light which my left eye had detected
vanished. Mme Gabin had just closed my eyelids, but I had not felt
her finger on my face. When I understood this I felt chilled.
The door had opened again, and Dede, the child of ten, now rushed
in, calling out in her shrill voice: "Mother, Mother! Ah, I knew
you would be here! Look here, there's the money--three francs and
four sous. I took back three dozen lamp shades."
"Hush, hush! Hold your tongue," vainly repeated the mother, who, as
the little girl chattered on, must have pointed to the bed, for I
guessed that the child felt perplexed and was backing toward the
"Is the gentleman asleep?" she whispered.
"Yes, yes--go and play," said Mme Gabin.
But the child did not go. She was, no doubt, staring at me with
widely opened eyes, startled and vaguely comprehending. Suddenly
she seemed convulsed with terror and ran out, upsetting a chair.
"He is dead, Mother; he is dead!" she gasped.
Profound silence followed. Marguerite, lying back in the armchair,
had left off crying. Mme Gabin was still rummaging about the room
and talking under her breath.
"Children know everything nowadays. Look at that girl. Heaven
knows how carefully she's brought up! When I send her on an errand
or take the shades back I calculate the time to a minute so that she
can't loiter about, but for all that she learns everything. She saw
at a glance what had happened here--and yet I never showed her but
one corpse, that of her uncle Francois, and she was then only four
years old. Ah well, there are no children left--it can't be
She paused and without any transition passed to another subject.
"I say, dearie, we must think of the formalities--there's the
declaration at the municipal offices to be made and the seeing about
the funeral. You are not in a fit state to attend to business.
What do you say if I look in at Monsieur Simoneau's to find out if
he's at home?"
Marguerite did not reply. It seemed to me that I watched her from
afar and at times changed into a subtle flame hovering above the
room, while a stranger lay heavy and unconscious on my bed. I
wished that Marguerite had declined the assistance of Simoneau. I
had seen him three or four times during my brief illness, for he
occupied a room close to ours and had been civil and neighborly.
Mme Gabin had told us that he was merely making a short stay in
Paris, having come to collect some old debts due to his father, who
had settled in the country and recently died. He was a tall,
strong, handsome young man, and I hated him, perhaps on account of
his healthy appearance. On the previous evening he had come in to
make inquiries, and I had much disliked seeing him at Marguerite's
side; she had looked so fair and pretty, and he had gazed so
intently into her face when she smilingly thanked him for his
"Ah, here is Monsieur Simoneau," said Mme Gabin, introducing him.
He gently pushed the door ajar, and as soon as Marguerite saw him
enter she burst into a flood of tears. The presence of a friend, of
the only person she knew in Paris besides the old woman, recalled
her bereavement. I could not see the young man, but in the darkness
that encompassed me I conjured up his appearance. I pictured him
distinctly, grave and sad at finding poor Marguerite in such
distress. How lovely she must have looked with her golden hair
unbound, her pale face and her dear little baby hands burning with
"I am at your disposal, madame," he said softly. "Pray allow me to
manage everything."
She only answered him with broken words, but as the young man was
leaving, accompanied by Mme Gabin, I heard the latter mention money.
These things were always expensive, she said, and she feared that
the poor little body hadn't a farthing--anyhow, he might ask her.
But Simoneau silenced the old woman; he did not want to have the
widow worried; he was going to the municipal office and to the
When silence reigned once more I wondered if my nightmare would last
much longer. I was certainly alive, for I was conscious of passing
incidents, and I began to realize my condition. I must have fallen
into one of those cataleptic states that I had read of. As a child
I had suffered from syncopes which had lasted several hours, but
surely my heart would beat anew, my blood circulate and my muscles
relax. Yes, I should wake up and comfort Marguerite, and, reasoning
thus, I tried to be patient.
Time passed. Mme Gabin had brought in some breakfast, but
Marguerite refused to taste any food. Later on the afternoon waned.
Through the open window I heard the rising clamor of the Rue
Dauphine. By and by a slight ringing of the brass candlestick on
the marble-topped table made me think that a fresh candle had been
lighted. At last Simoneau returned.
"Well?" whispered the old woman.
"It is all settled," he answered; "the funeral is ordered for
tomorrow at eleven. There is nothing for you to do, and you needn't
talk of these things before the poor lady."
Nevertheless, Mme Gabin remarked: "The doctor of the dead hasn't
come yet."
Simoneau took a seat beside Marguerite and after a few words of
encouragement remained silent. The funeral was to take place at
eleven! Those words rang in my brain like a passing bell. And the
doctor coming--the doctor of the dead, as Mme Gabin had called him.
HE could not possibly fail to find out that I was only in a state of
lethargy; he would do whatever might be necessary to rouse me, so I
longed for his arrival with feverish anxiety.
The day was drawing to a close. Mme Gabin, anxious to waste no
time, had brought in her lamp shades and summoned Dede without
asking Marguerite's permission. "To tell the truth," she observed,
"I do not like to leave children too long alone."
"Come in, I say," she whispered to the little girl; "come in, and
don't be frightened. Only don't look toward the bed or you'll catch
She thought it decorous to forbid Dede to look at me, but I was
convinced that the child was furtively glancing at the corner where
I lay, for every now and then I heard her mother rap her knuckles
and repeat angrily: "Get on with your work or you shall leave the
room, and the gentleman will come during the night and pull you by
the feet."
The mother and daughter had sat down at our table. I could plainly
hear the click of their scissors as they clipped the lamp shades,
which no doubt required very delicate manipulation, for they did not
work rapidly. I counted the shades one by one as they were laid
aside, while my anxiety grew more and more intense.
The clicking of the scissors was the only noise in the room, so I
concluded that Marguerite had been overcome by fatigue and was
dozing. Twice Simoneau rose, and the torturing thought flashed
through me that he might be taking advantage of her slumbers to
touch her hair with his lips. I hardly knew the man and yet felt
sure that he loved my wife. At last little Dede began to giggle,
and her laugh exasperated me.
"Why are you sniggering, you idiot?" asked her mother. "Do you want
to be turned out on the landing? Come, out with it; what makes you
laugh so?"
The child stammered: she had not laughed; she had only coughed, but
I felt certain she had seen Simoneau bending over Marguerite and had
felt amused.
The lamp had been lit when a knock was heard at the door.
"It must be the doctor at last," said the old woman.
It was the doctor; he did not apologize for coming so late, for he
had no doubt ascended many flights of stairs during the day. The
room being but imperfectly lighted by the lamp, he inquired: "Is the
body here?"
"Yes, it is," answered Simoneau.
Marguerite had risen, trembling violently. Mme Gabin dismissed
Dede, saying it was useless that a child should be present, and then
she tried to lead my wife to the window, to spare her the sight of
what was about to take place.
The doctor quickly approached the bed. I guessed that he was bored,
tired and impatient. Had he touched my wrist? Had he placed his
hand on my heart? I could not tell, but I fancied that he had only
carelessly bent over me.
"Shall I bring the lamp so that you may see better?" asked Simoneau
"No it is not necessary," quietly answered the doctor.
Not necessary! That man held my life in his hands, and he did not
think it worth while to proceed to a careful examination! I was not
dead! I wanted to cry out that I was not dead!
"At what o'clock did he die?" asked the doctor.
"At six this morning," volunteered Simoneau.
A feeling of frenzy and rebellion rose within me, bound as I was in
seemingly iron chains. Oh, for the power of uttering one word, of
moving a single limb!
"This close weather is unhealthy," resumed the doctor; "nothing is
more trying than these early spring days."
And then he moved away. It was like my life departing. Screams,
sobs and insults were choking me, struggling in my convulsed throat,
in which even my breath was arrested. The wretch! Turned into a
mere machine by professional habits, he only came to a deathbed to
accomplish a perfunctory formality; he knew nothing; his science was
a lie, since he could not at a glance distinguish life from death--
and now he was going--going!
"Good night, sir," said Simoneau.
There came a moment's silence; the doctor was probably bowing to
Marguerite, who had turned while Mme Gabin was fastening the window.
He left the room, and I heard his footsteps descending the stairs.
It was all over; I was condemned. My last hope had vanished with
that man. If I did not wake before eleven on the morrow I should be
buried alive. The horror of that thought was so great that I lost
all consciousness of my surroundings--'twas something like a
fainting fit in death. The last sound I heard was the clicking of
the scissors handled by Mme Gabin and Dede. The funeral vigil had
begun; nobody spoke.
Marguerite had refused to retire to rest in the neighbor's room.
She remained reclining in her armchair, with her beautiful face
pale, her eyes closed and her long lashes wet with tears, while
before her in the gloom Simoneau sat silently watching her.
I cannot describe my agony during the morning of the following day.
I remember it as a hideous dream in which my impressions were so
ghastly and so confused that I could not formulate them. The
persistent yearning for a sudden awakening increased my torture, and
as the hour for the funeral drew nearer my anguish became more
poignant still.
It was only at daybreak that I had recovered a fuller consciousness
of what was going on around me. The creaking of hinges startled me
out of my stupor. Mme Gabin had just opened the window. It must
have been about seven o'clock, for I heard the cries of hawkers in
the street, the shrill voice of a girl offering groundsel and the
hoarse voice of a man shouting "Carrots! The clamorous awakening of
Paris pacified me at first. I could not believe that I should be
laid under the sod in the midst of so much life; and, besides, a
sudden thought helped to calm me. It had just occurred to me that I
had witnessed a case similar to my own when I was employed at the
hospital of Guerande. A man had been sleeping twenty-eight hours,
the doctors hesitating in presence of his apparent lifelessness,
when suddenly he had sat up in bed and was almost at once able to
rise. I myself had already been asleep for some twenty-five hours;
if I awoke at ten I should still be in time.
I endeavored to ascertain who was in the room and what was going on
there. Dede must have been playing on the landing, for once when
the door opened I heard her shrill childish laughter outside.
Simoneau must have retired, for nothing indicated his presence. Mme
Gabin's slipshod tread was still audible over the floor. At last
she spoke.
"Come, my dear," she said. "It is wrong of you not to take it while
it is hot. It would cheer you up."
She was addressing Marguerite, and a slow trickling sound as of
something filtering indicated that she had been making some coffee.
"I don't mind owning," she continued, "that I needed it. At my age
sitting up IS trying. The night seems so dreary when there is a
misfortune in the house. DO have a cup of coffee, my dear--just a
She persuaded Marguerite to taste it.
"Isn't it nice and hot?" she continued, "and doesn't it set one up?
Ah, you'll be wanting all your strength presently for what you've
got to go through today. Now if you were sensible you'd step into
my room and just wait there."
"No, I want to stay here," said Marguerite resolutely.
Her voice, which I had not heard since the previous evening, touched
me strangely. It was changed, broken as by tears. To feel my dear
wife near me was a last consolation. I knew that her eyes were
fastened on me and that she was weeping with all the anguish of her
The minutes flew by. An inexplicable noise sounded from beyond the
door. It seemed as if some people were bringing a bulky piece of
furniture upstairs and knocking against the walls as they did so.
Suddenly I understood, as I heard Marguerite begin to sob; it was
the coffin.
"You are too early," said Mme Gabin crossly. "Put it behind the
What o'clock was it? Nine, perhaps. So the coffin had come. Amid
the opaque night around me I could see it plainly, quite new, with
roughly planed boards. Heavens! Was this the end then? Was I to
be borne off in that box which I realized was lying at my feet?
However, I had one supreme joy. Marguerite, in spite of her
weakness, insisted upon discharging all the last offices. Assisted
by the old woman, she dressed me with all the tenderness of a wife
and a sister. Once more I felt myself in her arms as she clothed me
in various garments. She paused at times, overcome by grief; she
clasped me convulsively, and her tears rained on my face. Oh, how I
longed to return her embrace and cry, "I live!" And yet I was lying
there powerless, motionless, inert!
"You are foolish," suddenly said Mme Gabin; "it is all wasted."
"Never mind," answered Marguerite, sobbing. "I want him to wear his
very best things."
I understood that she was dressing me in the clothes I had worn on
my wedding day. I had kept them carefully for great occasions.
When she had finished she fell back exhausted in the armchair.
Simoneau now spoke; he had probably just entered the room.
"They are below," he whispered.
"Well, it ain't any too soon," answered Mme Gabin, also lowering her
voice. "Tell them to come up and get it over."
"But I dread the despair of the poor little wife."
The old woman seemed to reflect and presently resumed: "Listen to
me, Monsieur Simoneau. You must take her off to my room. I
wouldn't have her stop here. It is for her own good. When she is
out of the way we'll get it done in a jiffy."
These words pierced my heart, and my anguish was intense when I
realized that a struggle was actually taking place. Simoneau had
walked up to Marguerite, imploring her to leave the room.
"Do, for pity's sake, come with me!" he pleaded. "Spare yourself
useless pain."
"No, no!" she cried. "I will remain till the last minute. Remember
that I have only him in the world, and when he is gone I shall be
all alone!"
From the bedside Mme Gabin was prompting the young man.
"Don't parley--take hold of her, carry her off in your arms."
Was Simoneau about to lay his hands on Marguerite and bear her away?
She screamed. I wildly endeavored to rise, but the springs of my
limbs were broken. I remained rigid, unable to lift my eyelids to
see what was going on. The struggle continued, and my wife clung to
the furniture, repeating, "Oh, don't, don't! Have mercy! Let me
go! I will not--"
He must have lifted her in his stalwart arms, for I heard her
moaning like a child. He bore her away; her sobs were lost in the
distance, and I fancied I saw them both--he, tall and strong,
pressing her to his breast; she, fainting, powerless and conquered,
following him wherever he listed.
"Drat it all! What a to-do!" muttered Mme Gabin. "Now for the tug
of war, as the coast is clear at last."
In my jealous madness I looked upon this incident as a monstrous
outrage. I had not been able to see Marguerite for twenty-four
hours, but at least I had still heard her voice. Now even this was
denied me; she had been torn away; a man had eloped with her even
before I was laid under the sod. He was alone with her on the other
side of the wall, comforting her--embracing her, perhaps!
But the door opened once more, and heavy footsteps shook the floor.
"Quick, make haste," repeated Mme Gabin. "Get it done before the
lady comes back."
She was speaking to some strangers, who merely answered her with
uncouth grunts.
"You understand," she went on, "I am not a relation; I'm only a
neighbor. I have no interest in the matter. It is out of pure good
nature that I have mixed myself up in their affairs. And I ain't
overcheerful, I can tell you. Yes, yes, I sat up the whole blessed
night--it was pretty cold, too, about four o'clock. That's a fact.
Well, I have always been a fool--I'm too soft-hearted."
The coffin had been dragged into the center of the room. As I had
not awakened I was condemned. All clearness departed from my ideas;
everything seemed to revolve in a black haze, and I experienced such
utter lassitude that it seemed almost a relief to leave off hoping.
"They haven't spared the material," said one of the undertaker's men
in a gruff voice. "The box is too long."
"He'll have all the more room," said the other, laughing.
I was not heavy, and they chuckled over it since they had three
flights of stairs to descend. As they were seizing me by the
shoulders and feet I heard Mme Gabin fly into a violent passion.
"You cursed little brat," she screamed, "what do you mean by poking
your nose where you're not wanted? Look here, I'll teach you to spy
and pry."
Dede had slipped her tousled head through the doorway to see how the
gentleman was being put into the box. Two ringing slaps resounded,
however, by an explosion of sobs. And as soon as the mother
returned she began to gossip about her daughter for the benefit of
the two men who were settling me in the coffin.
"She is only ten, you know. She is not a bad girl, but she is
frightfully inquisitive. I do not beat her often; only I WILL be
"Oh," said one of the men, "all kids are alike. Whenever there is a
corpse lying about they always want to see it."
I was commodiously stretched out, and I might have thought myself
still in bed, had it not been that my left arm felt a trifle cramped
from being squeezed against a board. The men had been right. I was
pretty comfortable inside on account of my diminutive stature.
"Stop!" suddenly exclaimed Mme Gabin. "I promised his wife to put a
pillow under his head."
The men, who were in a hurry, stuffed in the pillow roughly. One of
them, who had mislaid his hammer, began to swear. He had left the
tool below and went to fetch it, dropping the lid, and when two
sharp blows of the hammer drove in the first nail, a shock ran
through my being--I had ceased to live. The nails then entered in
rapid succession with a rhythmical cadence. It was as if some
packers had been closing a case of dried fruit with easy dexterity.
After that such sounds as reached me were deadened and strangely
prolonged, as if the deal coffin had been changed into a huge
musical box. The last words spoken in the room of the Rue Dauphine--
at least the last ones that I heard distinctly--were uttered by Mme
"Mind the staircase," she said; "the banister of the second flight
isn't safe, so be careful."
While I was being carried down I experienced a sensation similar to
that of pitching as when one is on board a ship in a rough sea.
However, from that moment my impressions became more and more vague.
I remember that the only distinct thought that still possessed me
was an imbecile, impulsive curiosity as to the road by which I
should be taken to the cemetery. I was not acquainted with a single
street of Paris, and I was ignorant of the position of the large
burial grounds (though of course I had occasionally heard their
names), and yet every effort of my mind was directed toward
ascertaining whether we were turning to the right or to the left.
Meanwhile the jolting of the hearse over the paving stones, the
rumbling of passing vehicles, the steps of the foot passengers, all
created a confused clamor, intensified by the acoustical properties
of the coffin.
At first I followed our course pretty closely; then came a halt. I
was again lifted and carried about, and I concluded that we were in
church, but when the funeral procession once more moved onward I
lost all consciousness of the road we took. A ringing of bells
informed me that we were passing another church, and then the softer
and easier progress of the wheels indicated that we were skirting a
garden or park. I was like a victim being taken to the gallows,
awaiting in stupor a deathblow that never came.
At last they stopped and pulled me out of the hearse. The business
proceeded rapidly. The noises had ceased; I knew that I was in a
deserted space amid avenues of trees and with the broad sky over my
head. No doubt a few persons followed the bier, some of the
inhabitants of the lodginghouse, perhaps--Simoneau and others, for
instance--for faint whisperings reached my ear. Then I heard a
psalm chanted and some Latin words mumbled by a priest, and
afterward I suddenly felt myself sinking, while the ropes rubbing
against the edges of the coffin elicited lugubrious sounds, as if a
bow were being drawn across the strings of a cracked violoncello.
It was the end. On the left side of my head I felt a violent shock
like that produced by the bursting of a bomb, with another under my
feet and a third more violent still on my chest. So forcible,
indeed, was this last one that I thought the lid was cleft atwain.
I fainted from it.
It is impossible for me to say how long my swoon lasted. Eternity
is not of longer duration than one second spent in nihility. I was
no more. It was slowly and confusedly that I regained some degree
of consciousness. I was still asleep, but I began to dream; a
nightmare started into shape amid the blackness of my horizon, a
nightmare compounded of a strange fancy which in other days had
haunted my morbid imagination whenever with my propensity for
dwelling upon hideous thoughts I had conjured up catastrophes.
Thus I dreamed that my wife was expecting me somewhere--at Guerande,
I believe--and that I was going to join her by rail. As we passed
through a tunnel a deafening roll thundered over our head, and a
sudden subsidence blocked up both issues of the tunnel, leaving our
train intact in the center. We were walled up by blocks of rock in
the heart of a mountain. Then a long and fearful agony commenced.
No assistance could possibly reach us; even with powerful engines
and incessant labor it would take a month to clear the tunnel. We
were prisoners there with no outlet, and so our death was only a
question of time.
My fancy had often dwelt on that hideous drama and had constantly
varied the details and touches. My actors were men, women and
children; their number increased to hundreds, and they were ever
furnishing me with new incidents. There were some provisions in the
train, but these were soon exhausted, and the hungry passengers, if
they did not actually devour human flesh, at least fought furiously
over the last piece of bread. Sometimes an aged man was driven back
with blows and slowly perished; a mother struggled like a she-wolf
to keep three or four mouthfuls for her child. In my own
compartment a bride and bridegroom were dying, clasped in each
other's arms in mute despair.
The line was free along the whole length of the train, and people
came and went, prowling round the carriages like beasts of prey in
search of carrion. All classes were mingled together. A
millionaire, a high functionary, it was said, wept on a workman's
shoulder. The lamps had been extinguished from the first, and the
engine fire was nearly out. To pass from one carriage to another it
was necessary to grope about, and thus, too, one slowly reached the
engine, recognizable by its enormous barrel, its cold, motionless
flanks, its useless strength, its grim silence, in the overwhelming
night. Nothing could be more appalling than this train entombed
alive with its passengers perishing one by one.
I gloated over the ghastliness of each detail; howls resounded
through the vault; somebody whom one could not see, whose vicinity
was not even suspected, would suddenly drop upon another's shoulder.
But what affected me most of all was the cold and the want of air.
I have never felt so chilled; a mantle of snow seemed to enwrap me;
heavy moisture rained upon my skull; I was gasping; the rocky vault
seemed to crush my chest; the whole mountain was seemingly weighing
upon me.
Suddenly a cry of deliverance sounded. For some time past we
fancied that we could hear a dull sound, and we tried to hope that
men were at work and that help was coming, but it came not thus.
One of the passengers, however, had discovered an air shaft in the
tunnel, and, crowding round, we all saw this shaft, above which we
could discern a blue patch about the size of a wafer. That blue
patch filled us with rapture, for it was the sky. We stretched
ourselves and stood on tiptoes to breathe more freely. Then we
distinguished some black specks moving about, specks that must
surely be workmen about to deliver us. A furious clamor arose. The
cry "Saved! Saved!" burst from every mouth, while trembling arms
were uplifted toward the tiny azure patch above.
That roar of voices aroused me. Where was I? In the tunnel, of
course. I was lying at full length; hard walls were pressing
against my ribs. Then I attempted to rise and struck my head
roughly. Was it the rock closing in on all sides? The blue speck
had vanished--aye, the sky had disappeared and I was still
suffocating, shivering, with chattering teeth.
All at once I remembered. Intense horror raised my hair on end. I
felt the hideous truth freeze me from head to foot like ice. I had
shaken off the long coma which for many hours had stricken me with
corpselike rigidity. Yes, I could move; my hands could feel the
boards of my coffin; my lips parted; words came to me, and
instinctively I called out Marguerite's name. It was a scream I
raised. In that deal box my voice took so hoarse and weird a sound
that it terrified me. Oh, my God, was this thing true? I was able
to walk, speak, cry out that I was living, and yet my voice could
not be heard; I was entombed under the earth.
I made a desperate effort to remain calm and reflect. Was there no
means of getting out? Then my dream began afresh in my troubled
brain. The fanciful air shaft with the blue bit of sky overhead was
mingled with the real grave in which I was lying. I stared at the
darkness with widely opened eyes; perhaps I might discover a hole, a
slit, a glimmer of light, but only sparks of fire flitted through
that night, with rays that broadened and then faded away. I was in
a somber abyss again. With returning lucidity I struggled against
these fatal visions. Indeed, I should need all my reason if I meant
to try to save myself.
The most immediate peril lay in an increasing sense of suffocation.
If I had been able to live so long without air it was owing to
suspended animation, which had changed all the normal conditions of
my existence, but now that my heart beat and my lungs breathed I
should die, asphyxiated, if I did not promptly liberate myself. I
also suffered from cold and dreaded lest I should succumb to the
mortal numbness of those who fall asleep in the snow, never to wake
again. Still, while unceasingly realizing the necessity of
remaining calm, I felt maddening blasts sweep through my brain, and
to quiet my senses I exhorted myself to patience, trying to remember
the circumstances of my burial. Probably the ground had been bought
for five years, and this would be against my chances of selfdeliverance,
for I remembered having noticed at Nantes that in the
trenches of the common graves one end of the last lowered coffins
protruded into the next open cavity, in which case I should only
have had to break through one plank. But if I were in a separate
hole, filled up above me with earth, the obstacles would prove too
great. Had I not been told that the dead were buried six feet deep
in Paris? How was I to get through the enormous mass of soil above
me? Even if I succeeded in slitting the lid of my bier open the
mold would drift in like fine sand and fill my mouth and eyes. That
would be death again, a ghastly death, like drowning in mud.
However, I began to feel the planks carefully. The coffin was
roomy, and I found that I was able to move my arms with tolerable
ease. On both sides the roughly planed boards were stout and
resistive. I slipped my arm onto my chest to raise it over my head.
There I discovered in the top plank a knot in the wood which yielded
slightly at my pressure. Working laboriously, I finally succeeded
in driving out this knot, and on passing my finger through the hole
I found that the earth was wet and clayey. But that availed me
little. I even regretted having removed the knot, vaguely dreading
the irruption of the mold. A second experiment occupied me for a
while. I tapped all over the coffin to ascertain if perhaps there
were any vacuum outside. But the sound was everywhere the same. At
last, as I was slightly kicking the foot of the coffin, I fancied
that it gave out a clearer echoing noise, but that might merely be
produced by the sonority of the wood.
At any rate, I began to press against the boards with my arms and my
closed fists. In the same way, too, I used my knees, my back and my
feet without eliciting even a creak from the wood. I strained with
all my strength, indeed, with so desperate an effort of my whole
frame, that my bruised bones seemed breaking. But nothing moved,
and I became insane.
Until that moment I had held delirium at bay. I had mastered the
intoxicating rage which was mounting to my head like the fumes of
alcohol; I had silenced my screams, for I feared that if I again
cried out aloud I should be undone. But now I yelled; I shouted;
unearthly howls which I could not repress came from my relaxed
throat. I called for help in a voice that I did not recognize,
growing wilder with each fresh appeal and crying out that I would
not die. I also tore at the wood with my nails; I writhed with the
contortions of a caged wolf. I do not know how long this fit of
madness lasted, but I can still feel the relentless hardness of the
box that imprisoned me; I can still hear the storm of shrieks and
sobs with which I filled it; a remaining glimmer of reason made me
try to stop, but I could not do so.
Great exhaustion followed. I lay waiting for death in a state of
somnolent pain. The coffin was like stone, which no effort could
break, and the conviction that I was powerless left me unnerved,
without courage to make any fresh attempts. Another suffering--
hunger--was presently added to cold and want of air. The torture
soon became intolerable. With my finger I tried to pull small
pinches of earth through the hole of the dislodged knot, and I
swallowed them eagerly, only increasing my torment. Tempted by my
flesh, I bit my arms and sucked my skin with a fiendish desire to
drive my teeth in, but I was afraid of drawing blood.
Then I ardently longed for death. All my life long I had trembled
at the thought of dissolution, but I had come to yearn for it, to
crave for an everlasting night that could never be dark enough. How
childish it had been of me to dread the long, dreamless sleep, the
eternity of silence and gloom! Death was kind, for in suppressing
life it put an end to suffering. Oh, to sleep like the stones, to
be no more!
With groping hands I still continued feeling the wood, and suddenly
I pricked my left thumb. That slight pain roused me from my growing
numbness. I felt again and found a nail--a nail which the
undertaker's men had driven in crookedly and which had not caught in
the lower wood. It was long and very sharp; the head was secured to
the lid, but it moved. Henceforth I had but one idea--to possess
myself of that nail--and I slipped my right hand across my body and
began to shake it. I made but little progress, however; it was a
difficult job, for my hands soon tired, and I had to use them
alternately. The left one, too, was of little use on account of the
nail's awkward position.
While I was obstinately persevering a plan dawned on my mind. That
nail meant salvation, and I must have it. But should I get it in
time? Hunger was torturing me; my brain was swimming; my limbs were
losing their strength; my mind was becoming confused. I had sucked
the drops that trickled from my punctured finger, and suddenly I bit
my arm and drank my own blood! Thereupon, spurred on by pain,
revived by the tepid, acrid liquor that moistened my lips, I tore
desperately at the nail and at last I wrenched it off!
I then believed in success. My plan was a simple one; I pushed the
point of the nail into the lid, dragging it along as far as I could
in a straight line and working it so as to make a slit in the wood.
My fingers stiffened, but I doggedly persevered, and when I fancied
that I had sufficiently cut into the board I turned on my stomach
and, lifting myself on my knees and elbows thrust the whole strength
of my back against the lid. But although it creaked it did not
yield; the notched line was not deep enough. I had to resume my old
position--which I only managed to do with infinite trouble--and work
afresh. At last after another supreme effort the lid was cleft from
end to end.
I was not saved as yet, but my heart beat with renewed hope. I had
ceased pushing and remained motionless, lest a sudden fall of earth
should bury me. I intended to use the lid as a screen and, thus
protected, to open a sort of shaft in the clayey soil.
Unfortunately I was assailed by unexpected difficulties. Some heavy
clods of earth weighed upon the boards and made them unmanageable; I
foresaw that I should never reach the surface in that way, for the
mass of soil was already bending my spine and crushing my face.
Once more I stopped, affrighted; then suddenly, while I was
stretching my legs, trying to find something firm against which I
might rest my feet, I felt the end board of the coffin yielding. I
at once gave a desperate kick with my heels in the faint hope that
there might be a freshly dug grave in that direction.
It was so. My feet abruptly forced their way into space. An open
grave was there; I had only a slight partition of earth to displace,
and soon I rolled into the cavity. I was saved!
I remained for a time lying on my back in the open grave, with my
eyes raised to heaven. It was dark; the stars were shining in a sky
of velvety blueness. Now and then the rising breeze wafted a
springlike freshness, a perfume of foliage, upon me. I was saved!
I could breathe; I felt warm, and I wept and I stammered, with my
arms prayerfully extended toward the starry sky. O God, how sweet
seemed life!
My first impulse was to find the custodian of the cemetery and ask
him to have me conducted home, but various thoughts that came to me
restrained me from following that course. My return would create
general alarm; why should I hurry now that I was master of the
situation? I felt my limbs; I had only an insignificant wound on my
left arm, where I had bitten myself, and a slight feverishness lent
me unhoped-for strength. I should no doubt be able to walk unaided.
Still I lingered; all sorts of dim visions confused my mind. I had
felt beside me in the open grave some sextons' tools which had been
left there, and I conceived a sudden desire to repair the damage I
had done, to close up the hole through which I had crept, so as to
conceal all traces of my resurrection. I do not believe that I had
any positive motive in doing so. I only deemed it useless to
proclaim my adventure aloud, feeling ashamed to find myself alive
when the whole world thought me dead. In half an hour every trace
of my escape was obliterated, and then I climbed out of the hole.
The night was splendid, and deep silence reigned in the cemetery;
the black trees threw motionless shadows over the white tombs. When
I endeavored to ascertain my bearings I noticed that one half of the
sky was ruddy, as if lit by a huge conflagration; Paris lay in that
direction, and I moved toward it, following a long avenue amid the
darkness of the branches.
However, after I had gone some fifty yards I was compelled to stop,
feeling faint and weary. I then sat down on a stone bench and for
the first time looked at myself. I was fully attired with the
exception that I had no hat. I blessed my beloved Marguerite for
the pious thought which had prompted her to dress me in my best
clothes--those which I had worn at our wedding. That remembrance of
my wife brought me to my feet again. I longed to see her without
At the farther end of the avenue I had taken a wall arrested my
progress. However, I climbed to the top of a monument, reached the
summit of the wall and then dropped over the other side. Although
roughly shaken by the fall, I managed to walk for a few minutes
along a broad deserted street skirting the cemetery. I had no
notion as to where I might be, but with the reiteration of monomania
I kept saying to myself that I was going toward Paris and that I
should find the Rue Dauphine somehow or other. Several people
passed me but, seized with sudden distrust, I would not stop them
and ask my way. I have since realized that I was then in a burning
fever and already nearly delirious. Finally, just as I reached a
large thoroughfare, I became giddy and fell heavily upon the
Here there is a blank in my life. For three whole weeks I remained
unconscious. When I awoke at last I found myself in a strange room.
A man who was nursing me told me quietly that he had picked me up
one morning on the Boulevard Montparnasse and had brought me to his
house. He was an old doctor who had given up practicing.
When I attempted to thank him he sharply answered that my case had
seemed a curious one and that he had wished to study it. Moreover,
during the first days of my convalescence he would not allow me to
ask a single question, and later on he never put one to me. For
eight days longer I remained in bed, feeling very weak and not even
trying to remember, for memory was a weariness and a pain. I felt
half ashamed and half afraid. As soon as I could leave the house I
would go and find out whatever I wanted to know. Possibly in the
delirium of fever a name had escaped me; however, the doctor never
alluded to anything I may have said. His charity was not only
generous; it was discreet.
The summer had come at last, and one warm June morning I was
permitted to take a short walk. The sun was shining with that
joyous brightness which imparts renewed youth to the streets of old
Paris. I went along slowly, questioning the passers-by at every
crossing I came to and asking the way to Rue Dauphine. When I
reached the street I had some difficulty in recognizing the
lodginghouse where we had alighted on our arrival in the capital. A
childish terror made me hesitate. If I appeared suddenly before
Marguerite the shock might kill her. It might be wiser to begin by
revealing myself to our neighbor Mme Gabin; still I shrank from
taking a third party into confidence. I seemed unable to arrive at
a resolution, and yet in my innermost heart I felt a great void,
like that left by some sacrifice long since consummated.
The building looked quite yellow in the sunshine. I had just
recognized it by a shabby eating house on the ground floor, where we
had ordered our meals, having them sent up to us. Then I raised my
eyes to the last window of the third floor on the left-hand side,
and as I looked at it a young woman with tumbled hair, wearing a
loose dressing gown, appeared and leaned her elbows on the sill. A
young man followed and printed a kiss upon her neck. It was not
Marguerite. Still I felt no surprise. It seemed to me that I had
dreamed all this with other things, too, which I was to learn
For a moment I remained in the street, uncertain whether I had
better go upstairs and question the lovers, who were still laughing
in the sunshine. However, I decided to enter the little restaurant
below. When I started on my walk the old doctor had placed a fivefranc
piece in my hand. No doubt I was changed beyond recognition,
for my beard had grown during the brain fever, and my face was
wrinkled and haggard. As I took a seat at a small table I saw Mme
Gabin come in carrying a cup; she wished to buy a penny-worth of
coffee. Standing in front of the counter, she began to gossip with
the landlady of the establishment.
"Well," asked the latter, "so the poor little woman of the third
floor has made up her mind at last, eh?"
"How could she help herself?" answered Mme Gabin. "It was the very
best thing for her to do. Monsieur Simoneau showed her so much
kindness. You see, he had finished his business in Paris to his
satisfaction, for he has inherited a pot of money. Well, he offered
to take her away with him to his own part of the country and place
her with an aunt of his, who wants a housekeeper and companion.
The landlady laughed archly. I buried my face in a newspaper which
I picked off the table. My lips were white and my hands shook.
"It will end in a marriage, of course," resumed Mme Gabin. "The
little widow mourned for her husband very properly, and the young
man was extremely well behaved. Well, they left last night--and,
after all, they were free to please themselves."
Just then the side door of the restaurant, communicating with the
passage of the house, opened, and Dede appeared.
"Mother, ain't you coming?" she cried. "I'm waiting, you know; do
be quick."
"Presently," said the mother testily. "Don't bother."
The girl stood listening to the two women with the precocious
shrewdness of a child born and reared amid the streets of Paris.
"When all is said and done," explained Mme Gabin, "the dear departed
did not come up to Monsieur Simoneau. I didn't fancy him overmuch;
he was a puny sort of a man, a poor, fretful fellow, and he hadn't a
penny to bless himself with. No, candidly, he wasn't the kind of
husband for a young and healthy wife, whereas Monsieur Simoneau is
rich, you know, and as strong as a Turk."
"Oh yes!" interrupted Dede. "I saw him once when he was washing--
his door was open. His arms are so hairy!"
"Get along with you," screamed the old woman, shoving the girl out
of the restaurant. "You are always poking your nose where it has no
business to be."
Then she concluded with these words: "Look here, to my mind the
other one did quite right to take himself off. It was fine luck for
the little woman!"
When I found myself in the street again I walked along slowly with
trembling limbs. And yet I was not suffering much; I think I smiled
once at my shadow in the sun. It was quite true. I WAS very puny.
It had been a queer notion of mine to marry Marguerite. I recalled
her weariness at Guerande, her impatience, her dull, monotonous
life. The dear creature had been very good to me, but I had never
been a real lover; she had mourned for me as a sister for her
brother, not otherwise. Why should I again disturb her life? A
dead man is not jealous.
When I lifted my eyelids I saw the garden of the Luxembourg before
me. I entered it and took a seat in the sun, dreaming with a sense
of infinite restfulness. The thought of Marguerite stirred me
softly. I pictured her in the provinces, beloved, petted and very
happy. She had grown handsomer, and she was the mother of three
boys and two girls. It was all right. I had behaved like an honest
man in dying, and I would not commit the cruel folly of coming to
life again.
Since then I have traveled a good deal. I have been a little
everywhere. I am an ordinary man who has toiled and eaten like
anybody else. Death no longer frightens me, but it does not seem to
care for me now that I have no motive in living, and I sometimes
fear that I have been forgotten upon earth.

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