Those Who Return
Sous la lumière rouge
In the Light of the Red Lamp
Translated by Bérengère Drillien
DEAR SIR:Having finished reading, M. de Marbois returned the letter to his son.
“What do you say about it?” asked Claude.
“Good gracious! what I say is that M. Lesquenne does not seem to me destitute of a certain amount of common-sense, and that nothing in his letter justifies such a state of commotion on your part.”
“The fact that my life is broken…my hopes destroyed, is nothing then?”
“Your life is not broken, neither are your hopes destroyed, because this marriage is cancelled. Do you really love this girl?”
“Love her! …love her, did you say?”
For the space of a second, Claude was puzzled. When he came to think about it, was it really love, or only one of his many moods, that succeeded one another, affecting his mind for a short time, and then disappearing without any trace of their presence? …His father’s tone, and still more the attitude he had adopted goaded him to protest:
“Yes, I love her, you know I do, and so does her father. Any one who has seen us together must know it.”
M. de Marbois flicked off the ash at the end of his cigar:
“Maybe she does not love you?”
Claude shrugged his shoulders.
“You’re joking! No, it is something else. An engagement is not broken off like this, without giving any reason. This letter is made up of hollow phrases, and vague words. …Money and position are unquestionable on both sides; all that was settled before the formal proposal was made. …So what is it? …You must go and see him…”
“Hum!” murmured M. de Marbois.
“Is not that your opinion?”
“I’m thinking…it is a very delicate matter...”
“A delicate matter for a father to demand an explanation?”
“No…it’s no good…I can’t do it…” broke in M. de Marbois rising. “Besides I was very never keen on the marriage, and am not sorry to see it fall through.”
“And so you advise me to accept this refusal?”
“And not to seek the reason for it?”
“So you are satisfied with it! It is my opinion that you are both too young! You do not see the insult? But if you had been told the worst possible things about a man, you would express yourself in exactly the same way! Some one has been running me down to M. Lesquenne, and to Suzanne; what have they said? I do not know, but I will know, I promise you…unless…I fall back into the shadow, in I have been struggling so many years…”
M. de Marbois shrugged his shoulders:
“Got it again!”
“I’ve never been without it,” cried Claude. “For years, since I was old enough to think, nothing has been clear around me. I remain in darkness and ignorance about the most trivial details of my life. I go through life like a blind man. I take a step forward…and suddenly I am up against it. I go back, the shadow draws back with me. I go forward again, it precedes me! This sort of thing may go on for minutes or for weeks. At last, when I have dared everything to catch sight of the obstacle, when I have done my utmost to overcome it, I find that it is unsurmountable. I clench my fists, I stamp, I weep, and when, at last my strength fails me, my will gives way, I go round it…and I pass on! Only I pass on with the Unknown against which I struggle before me, and behind me the Unfathomed, whose shadow spreads out at each step I take, and leaps over my head!”
“It’s easy to say that. When I was a child, did I ever know one of the pleasures of children of my own age? I was four when my mother died, and I can remember just enough of her to know that I used to see her weep. How many times since I’ve asked the cause of those tears! …the answer was always the same: ‘she is inclined to melancholy’…And there are so many others things that I cannot remember! Now at last I am a man; I meet a girl whom I love and who loves me; I believe that I have found the road to happiness. I ask her to marry me. One fine morning, good-by to all my dreams, to all the plans and promises: all is over. And thus from childhood to manhood. If I had anything to reproach myself with…but there is nothing. Any one can inquire into my life without finding the least thing to complain of. Have you ever had to complain of me? Have I ever caused you annoyance, or worry? …Then, why, why…?”
Suddenly, his voice changed, and became timid, almost pleading:
“Forgive me for what I am going to say. This thing that has just happened is so unexpected, so painful, that you cannot be angry with me for imagining the most ridiculous things…”
“I hardly like to say… I am sure they are absurd…But suppose…it’s only a supposition…that there were something in your life…oh, nothing serious, just one of those ridiculous stories that cling to a man…I really do not know quite how to put it…Suppose…Help me…Understand what I leave unsaid…It is so painful to put into words…Do you follow me?”
“With the greatest interest,” murmured M. de Marbois, with his chin in his hand.
“If that were it, of course everything would be explained. I do not know how to say pretty things…I am not reproaching you, but you never encouraged me to show my feelings and I am as capable of filial affection as another…as open to decent feelings…And listen, I am going to say an extraordinary thing. If I were certain that M. Lesquenne were, indirectly, aiming at you, I feel sure, that far from being angry, I should care for you all the more, because of your sorrow, because of my duty to make your life happier…I should forget that you have not always been very kind to me…It is quite conceivable that a man who has suffered should retire within himself…In short, I should never have a bitter word or a sigh of regret, and I would blot out of my mind all that you had told me, as I respectfully beg you to banish from your mind the question I hardly dare ask.”
“Look here! what are you talking about?...You forgive me?”
“Please don’t be angry!”
“That’s enough!” cried M. de Marbois. “I forbid you to speak to me in that tone. I really don’t know what keeps me from pitching you outside, for daring to suggest such things. I advise you not to do it again, or…”
“And that is all your answer?” said Claude. “Very well, I was wrong. Then there is no excuse for you, and I need not pick my words. If a father has certain rights, he also has certain duties, and at this moment you are forgetting them…”
Without allowing him time to finish his sentence, M. de Marbois seized him by the collar:
“Let’s settle this once and for all! For twenty years I have put up with your crafty temper, and your shifty look, for twenty years I have endured you. And to reward my twenty years’ patience you dare to raise your voice? …What do you think you are? …What good are you? …What satisfaction have I ever had out of you?... The moment you grew up, ought you not to have taken yourself off? You are not even fit to earn your own living! …you good-for-nothing, you waster, you cannot even make use of your hands! Look at them! …look at your hands! …are you not ashamed of yourself? The hands of a man of twenty-seven who must be fed and clothed! Look at them!...”
Claude looked attentively at his father, and at his hands, and said:
“I am looking at them!”
Then freeing himself with a violent effort, he raised his clenched fist:
“Let me go, will you!”
A mad rage had taken possession of him. He felt that his hand was going to strike, that he was an instrument of murder, and the feeling expressed itself in his face, something terrible must have flashed from his eyes, for his father started back. But it was gone like lightning. Master of himself once more, M. de Marbois took a cigarette, lighted it slowly, took a step toward the door, looked his son up and down and said with a sneer:
Claude turned his head, and saw himself in the mirror. He was still standing in a threatening attitude. His face was livid, his eyelids bistred, his trembling lips were as white as his face, and he was afraid of his own reflection.
In his rage, he had dug the nails of his hands into his palms; with scared eyes he watched the drops of blood trickling down. Then, gradually, calm returned to him. Feeling nothing now but utter weariness, he sat down, and went over the scene that had just taken place, repeating the words his father had said, and his own replies, as though he wished to stamp them on his memory. He reviewed it all with a coolness of which he hardly believed himself capable. His fury had abated. He clearly examined cause and effect, and was astonished to find that he did not blame himself. Only an hour before, the idea of a son defying his father would have horrified him; now his attitude appeared excusable.
Did he regret it? No, indeed. He had defied his father, had insulted him, he had lifted his hand against him, with the feeling that the slightest thing would make him strike the blow. And the impulse caused him neither shame nor remorse. Deep down in his heart, he would have preferred to condemn the act. But no! All he could confess to was a regret at having given in to one of those impulses, against which he was always struggling, and which until today, he had been able to conquer.
Why, when it was his father who was in question, had his will failed him for the first time? And he repeated aloud:
“I have lifted my hand against my father! I have lifted my hand against my father!”
The words left him cold.
The footman came in:
“Will Monsieur take lunch?”
At first he did not reply, his thoughts becoming absolutely engrossed by other things.
“What claim have you on me? Since you grew up, ought you not to have earned your own living? What good are you here? …I endure you…”
He looked at the dining-room, the windows, the furniture. How far removed it all was! And yet he had lived here for many long years, memories slumbered in every corner…
Through the bay window, looking down on the garden, came the stifling heat that precedes a thunderstorm. What had become of the exquisite morning freshness?
In the heavy atmosphere he felt terribly alone; he felt that everything was strange to him, that he was a stranger to all things, and an indescribable discomfort took hold of him. He remembered a day like this, when, as a tiny child, he had stood in this same dining-room and watched his mother’s coffin pass out. He fancied he could see the poor dead woman; his present grief melted into the great sorrow of the past, and, filled with intense self-pity, he murmured:
“Mother! Oh, mother!”
The footman said to him a second time:
“Will Monsieur take lunch?”
As he passed the mirror he saw his face again. It was quite calm now, his eyes were heavy with fatigue, and two tears ran down his cheeks.
When he got off the train, Claude had to stop at Montaigu, to look for a conveyance, and, while waiting for the horses to be harnessed, went into an inn on the square.
As he sipped the drink he had ordered, he looked around him. Some peasants were playing at cards; in a corner a boy was doing his lessons. Now and again the sound of sabots, or the deep clang of a blacksmith’s hammer, broke the silence. Evening spread an impressive calm over the village. The man came in and said:
“The carriage is ready; we can start.”
Claude stretched himself, for he was tired and stiff with the journey, sat down on the seat beside the driver, and the little horse started off.
As they passed the last houses of the village, the driver entered into conversation:
“So, Monsieur is going to Trois-Tourelles?”
“Yes. It isn’t far, is it?”
“About an hour and a half.”
“As much as that?”
“At least. Monsieur does not know the country, it is probably the first time he has been here?”
“Yes, my parents used to come here.”
“Oh, they would remember it, for it has hardly changed. The country is not like the town. When once the houses are built, nobody touches them again. Everything remains in its place, people as well as things. The same farmers are here who were here more than forty years ago.”
“Of course if Monsieur is a friend of M. de Marbois, he knows all there is know. But M. de Marbois never comes here now. It is Chagne the tenant farmer, who is practically boss there. Sometimes, he even says he wishes the master would come along and take a look around.”
“Well, he will have his wish, then, for here I am!”
The man held back his horse:
“Ah…it is Monsieur…it is Monsieur’s son. Look at that now! people said you were ill…you know how people will talk when they don’t know…don’t you?”
These words roused Claude from his indifference, and he asked:
“Who says that?”
“I’ve heard it said…and if it is rest that Monsieur is needing, he will get that at the farm, it’s not so noisy there as Paris. The country is the best thing for any one whose nerves are not strong.”
Claude was not listening. Thus, wherever he went, his reputation preceded him. Even in this remote corner of the Bocage, people knew he was different from others, and this peasant who spoke of any one whose nerves are not strong probably thought more than what he said. He was on the point of telling him to go back, and to catch the next train home, but he felt too tired to spend another night traveling yet. Besides, the magic of the countryside, the scent of the fields, from which came the smell of newly-turned earth, the sight of the low hedges, and sturdy oaks, everything…even the fresh air, the bark of a watch-dog, soothed and lulled him, like an old, old song, the words of which are forgotten, but to which we listen fondly and recognize, remembering the refrain instinctively, before it is sung, because, when we were tiny children, hardly able to speak, a sleepy nurse sang it to us, as with careless hand she rocked our cradle.
This unknown country was more familiar to him than Paris. The straight road that stretched before him brought no memories with each turning; but every time it disclosed new details, a house on the edge of a field, a pond where the oxen had trampled the mud, he said to himself:
“I feel that I have seen these things before!”
The carriage lamps threw little dancing lights and shadows on the road. The bells tinkled more slowly, the horse slackened speed.
“A hill,” said the peasant.
At the end of the slope, a village appeared, they went down the other side, the horse picked his way, rolling from side to side, and the brake creaked along the wheels. Then they went up again. At last, crossing the village street, they turned a corner, and were amid fields, where a big farm with a huge farmyard, and uneven roofs, spread out before them.
At a distance, it looked asleep. No smoke floated from the chimneys, no light in any window. But as they drew nearer, they saw a tiny point of light piercing the darkness; a dog barked, awakened hens flapped their wings. A warm smell of straw litters came to them on the breeze. The light moved, disappeared, and appeared again under the door, and a voice said:
“That’s enough, Tambour.”
The dog stopped barking, and growled instead, and the voice inquired:
“Who is it? Where are you going?”
“Is it you, Chagne?” said the driver, “some one to see you.”
“Wait!” said the man suspiciously.
“Whoa!” said the peasant, and brought his horse to a standstill. Then, turning to Claude: “I don’t care about going any nearer, he’s a cross-grained fellow, and would have a shot at us as soon as look!...”
And, as a matter of fact, Père Chagne did arrive, escourted by his dog, and carrying a gun:
He stared at the carriage, the peasant, and the traveler; Claude got down:
“Père Chagne, I am M. Claude.”
“Excuse me, master,” stammered the farmer, “I did not know…”
“Did you not receive my telegram?”
“I did receive a telegram, but I cannot read. My son is at Nantes, so I was waiting till to-morrow.”
“There will always be some eggs and a glass of milk for my dinner, and a bed for me to sleep in, of course?”
“Ah, master! not eggs, we haven’t got so much as one. We took them all to market, and the milk. And we don’t milk again till the morning. And there isn’t a bed really fit. …”
What the man was saying was simple and comprehensible enough. Expecting no one, they had not prepared anything. Yet Claude felt furiously angry. Ever since he started, he had been thinking of his arrival at the farm. Old Chagne and all his sons assembled to welcome him, the house ready, the table set.
Instead of that they greeted him, gun in hand, nothing was prepared, everything was depressing, everything was ugly. The wrinkled old farmer impressed him disagreeably; everything here seemed hostile to him, even the dog, who sniffed around his legs growling. He struck him with his stick and sent him off, remarking in a surly voice to the peasant who had driven him: “Show me the light,” and preceded by the farmer, went into the house.
The pleasant, restful feeling he had experienced during the drive was now lost in one of utter weariness, and bored surprise in a need to hear nothing, see nothing, think of nothing, and to sleep. An old woman came out of an adjoining room:
“Wife,” said the farmer, “this is our master.”
The old woman became busy at once, hurried to the dresser, spread a cloth, and laid the table. She too made excuses; if they had only known, if they had only the least idea…but they would fix things up for to-night, and to-morrow…
The eagerness they showed in serving him, the regrets they reiterated, and, above all, the word “master” which recurred at nearly every other word, put him into a little better humor. Fits of anger, as well as fits of gayety did not last long with him. He asked about the crops, the price of the cattle, in the tone of a man who wants to know how things are, as quickly as possible. The old man had gone out, the farmer stood facing him, cap in hand. From the yard came a great sound of flapping wings, and the terrified squawks of fowls. Claude got up.
In the fowlhouse, deep in shadow, where the farmer’s wife was trying to catch a chicken, terror swept through the feathered world; the hens ran along, their necks outstretched, their wings wide-spread. One ran into Claude’s legs; he seized it.
“No, master, not that one,” said the woman, “it’s an old one…we want a young bird..look, that one. Eh! But you’re cleverer than I am.”
The creature was squawking dismally. It would seem as though the inhabitants of the poultry-yard have a vision of their approaching end, the moment they are caught, so despairing is their outcry.
“You will soil your hands, master,” said the farmer’s wife. “Give him to me, it will only take a minute.”
She shut the door, and sat down on a stump of wood, put the chicken between her knees, opened his beak with one hand, and with the other, plunged in the scissors, and gave a smart cut. There was a rattle, a spurt of blood; she lifted up the chicken by its wings, holding it at arm’s length, so as not to be bespattered, she let it bleed. First the blood flowed in a thin stream, then drop by drop, then more slowly, a heavier drop coagulated at the end of the beak, and all was over. While she rapidly plucked the chicken, Claude said:
“It doesn’t take long.”
“Well, no, master, you see it’s a young one, the feathers are only down, and come out easily.”
“I mean to kill it.”
“Yes, that one! but sometimes, it all depends…Some of them struggle. It isn’t very nice to look at…Now it’s plucked and emptied and all that remains to do is to fry it in the casserole.”
Claude returned with her to the kitchen, where a fire of vine branches was blazing. As he watched the preparations, he thought of the poor, terror-stricken chicken that ran against his legs. He heard its cry, its death-rattle, and as had done the day the dog was drowned, he realized that he had taken an ugly pleasure in looking on at the scene.
The butter was frizzling on the fire. The farmer’s wife turned around:
“In five minutes it will all be ready…”
Then looking at Claude’s hands, she took a towel:
“I told you, master, that you would soil your hands; your fingers are covered with blood.”
Interrupted in his thoughts, Claude took the towel mechanically, but, looking at his hands, overcome by a great fear, and a great shame, he said:
“No…it is not blood…it is the color…”
Once again the farm, the low-ceilinged room, and the hearth, where little bits of live coal fell amid the ashes, depressed him. He ate little, drank one glass of wine, took his candle, went into the room that had been prepared for him, and to bed. He turned and tossed for a long time, between the rough sheets unable to sleep, his ears buzzing as they do when silence succeeds prolonged noise. At last it stopped. He thought of his mother, who perhaps, had slept in that room, of the drowning dog, and the little bleeding chicken, of a thousand and one sad, confused things, then sleep came and took him.
For two months Claude lived with no other care than that of watching the grass grow, the wheat ripen, and the vine sprout. When the grass and the wheat were cut, and the grapes gathered, he watched the approach of Autumn.
The weather was still summer-like, but the nights, which were drawing in, heralded winter. The fields, where nothing now interrupted the view, spread out to right and left, the hill-sides covered themselves in fog, and the forest clothed itself in the red-brown tint of a newly baked loaf. By degrees Nature was teaching him her joys, and her secrets, filling him with wonder.
He saw none but the farm people, and thoroughly enjoyed sharing their quiet life. The children amused him, and sometimes he would sit for long hours besides the herds, silent like them, learning the cries that call the cattle together, or rouse the attention of absent-minded dogs. One day he stopped beside a brook whither a girl was leading some cattle.
She was sixteen or seventeen, with rough hands, and sunburned arms, round hips that undulated as she walked; her bosom swelled under the tight blouse, and her face was covered with freckles, and laughed at him from under her tangled eyes.
The day before he had hovered near her, without daring to address her with the same shyness that made him hesitate to speak to a girl in Paris. She saw him as he passed along, blushed and said:
“Good-day, my child.”
Politely, she picked up her bag, the pointed stick she used as a goad, and her ball of wool, stuck through with knitting-needles, and prepared to go away. He held her back:
“Are you afraid of me, child?”
He began to laugh, and sat down on a tree trunk; she remained standing, and he said:
“There’s room beside me.”
She took up her knitting again, and sat down: he asked her:
“Do you often come here?”
“Of course, master, you know very well I do.”
She meant nothing by this, and did not intend him to know she had noticed his by-play, but only to express the thought, that as he was the master, who knew everything that was going on on his estate, he must also know that. He did not understand her meaning, and blushed in his turn. He had always been timid with women, and the ragged dress of this one did not prevent him from feeling confused. With an unexpected fusion of ideas, the memory of his fiancée crossed his mind, and, suddenly, without the least idea why this question came to his lips, he said:
“Are you going to be married soon, child?”
She looked at him:
“I don’t know.”
“Haven’t you got a sweetheart?”
“I’ve no time for that.”
The answer amused him, the girl looked prettier, and he took her hand. He was going to speak again, when a voice made her raise her head:
“Hi, Marie! Come and do the washing…the boy will look after the cattle.”
She rolled up her stocking, took her bag and the white stick, and got up. Claude was annoyed at her departure, and murmured as he would have done to a lady in a drawing-room:
“You’ll come again to-morrow?”
She did not reply and joined her father. Claude hailed the old man:
“Are you all right, Père Gravelot?”
“If it please you, master.”
And, touching his cap, the old man pushed his daughter along in front of him.
Since then, he had often returned to the same spot, pensively, with burning head and twitching fingers, a prey to desires which he could neither express nor wholly disguise. But such shades of feeling are more within the scope of town rather than country women, and this country girl did not seem to notice them, unless it amused her to watch the growth of his fancy…
Time passed, the shooting season began, and, as much for the sake of forgetting a flirtation that was absorbing his time as for the pleasure of something new, Claude no longer came to the meadow beside the water.
Old Chagne had taught him how to fill cartridges; every evening, he sat at his table, beside the lighted lamp, and got his provision ready for the next day. As soon as daylight came, he was off across the plain. One day, when jumping across a ditch, he clumsily caught his gun in something, and it went off, just breaking the skin of his hand. As he had neither bandages nor antiseptic with him, he went to M. Coutelet, the village apothecary.
This was an old man with a reputation for learning. The country people asked his advice before consulting a doctor, and after doing so, consulted him forthwith, to find out if the prescription was any good. Claude knew him by sight, having caught a glimpse of him bending over his counter in the dim light of his shop, weighing out powders and ointments with careful fingers, and he had often wondered about the old man, with his long hair, and clean-shaven face.
He went in; a peasant was waiting for some medicine that was being made up:
“Your servant, Sir,” said the apothecary, and stopped tapping a bottle, “what can I do for you?”
“Only to bind up my hand…but finish with this good man first.”
He sat down and looked at the jars that stood in a line on the shelves. As he finished what he was doing. M. Coutelet gave the peasant advice:
“Give a dose every hour to your wife… and do not let her go out on any account.”
He shook the bottle, corked it carefully, gummed on a label, crinkled a green paper cap for it with his nimble fingers, gave it to the man, and went to the door with him:
“Now, Monsieur, I am at your service.”
“It is only a scratch,” said Claude, untying the handkerchief in which he had swathed his hand, “a fragment of powder tore the skin a little…”
“A little! Plague take it! You are pretty cool about it! Why your hand is covered with blood.”
“No, no, it’s a scratch, I tell you. It’s here…the rest is the color of my skin.”
“Ah, that’s very curious,” cried M. Coutelet. “Will you allow me to look? It is really strange.”
Claude frowned. He did not care to have too much notice taken of this peculiarity. The apothecary made no further remark, took a wad of cotton-wool, sponged away the blood, and while he spread a square piece of lint on the little wound, said:
“You are passing through here, I expect?”
“No, I am living at Trois-Tourelles.”
The old man looked up:
“So, you are M. de Marbois? I might have known…”
“Because you don’t look like one of our village folk.”
He placed one end of bandage on the hand and rolled it around.
“Have you lived long at Saint-Fulgent?”asked Claude.
“Forty-seven years,” answered the old man; “it’s a lease, you see. You are surprised to think any one can exist in such a hole, when life is so full of activity in Paris . But you don’t make your life, it is served out to you. I came here when I had finished my studies, to wait for something better. And the waiting has lasted nearly half a century. But when all’s said and done, it does not matter where you live, provided you do live. When you have your books, your microscope, and your memories, when you do all the good you can…”
“I believe you are right,” said Claude, “and I myself have made up my mind to live at Saint-Fulgent.”
“You have a fine property, and plenty to keep you busy. If you will take the trouble, you will make money out of your estate. The country-people round here, are honest and hard-working, but behind the times. I have studied different methods of modern agriculture, and if I had the time and money… But perhaps if I had the one, I should not have the other,” he finished with a laugh.
“You are a philosopher.”
“Philosophy is the tip life leaves you, when on the point of departing,Monsieur Claude.”
“You know my Christian name?”
“I carry all the parish registers in my head.”
“You probably knew my parents then?”
“I knew your mother best,” replied M. Coutelet, with a slight hesitation; “she was not very strong…poor lady…”
“Alas!” murmured Claude, “and did you know my father too?”
“Not so well…”
“What a voice!”
“We had not the same political opinions,” M. Coutelet explained, “my plain speaking had something to do with that…”
“Don’t excuse yourself; I understand all the more that people do not get along with him, because I…”
“In short, we were not in sympathy,” concluded M. Coutelet as he dried his hands.
After which he began to speak again of Mme. De Marbois. Claude listened attentively to him. Twelve o’clock struck, and still found him sitting there in a chair, stopping the conversation when a customer entered, resuming it as soon as he had gone;
“And you were saying?”
The old man went on with his story.
“If I may, I will come and see you sometimes, and we will talk about her,” suggested the young man, as he rose.
“With pleasure, as often as you like.”
And that is how they became great friends.
Out of the ten rooms in his house, Claude only occupied four, the drawing-room, the dining-room, the big bedroom, and a kind of office and library combined that smelt of moldy wood. And he very rarely entered that room, for the damp, speckled paper, and the dried flowers he had found between the leaves of a book, borrowed from the shelves, the last time he went in, had filled him with a strange feeling of depression.
The book was by de Maupassant. An ivy leaf marked the middle of the story, entitled Apparition. He began to read it.
As soon as he had read the first few words, the strangeness of the story piqued his curiosity. His was a soul that delighted in mystery, a mind ready to be seduced by the marvelous, and as soon as he read the description of the château, he noticed that it was strangely like his own house:
“The house seemed to have been abandoned for twenty years. In some extraordinary fashion, the gate, which was wide open and rotting away, still managed to stand upright. Weeds filled the paths, and hid the flower-beds on the lawn…”
He stopped reading, and looked pensively out of the window, through the dust-encrusted panes. The garden was still the same as the day he had arrived, and he muttered:
“Strange! …any one would think he had known Trois-Tourelles.”
He went on reading:
“The room was so dark, that at first I could not make out anything. I stopped struck by the moldy, sickly odor, as of rooms uninhabited, and condemned…dead rooms.”
This time the feeling was so strong that he shut the book, and drew his hand along his brow. Urged on by a force, superior to his will, however, he opened it again, and went on reading, but with his nerves on so much edge that he ground his teeth, and although the day was cold and damp the perspiration trickled down between his shoulders.
“…At last, as my eyes had grown quite used to the darkness, I gave up all hope of seeing more clearly, and went to the writing-table.
I seated myself, let down the flap, and opened the drawer of which I had been told. It was crammed full…”
“Now then! Now then!” said Claude, aloud, “you are not going to let yourself be influenced by this sort of thing!”
He took the book, and replaced it on the shelves, but, far from disappearing, the feeling of uneasiness became more pronounced. This unfamiliar house of his, where each wall seemed to shut in shadow and silence, disturbed him. A door, set in a corner, drew his attention, and he went up to it. He had hardly touched the handle, than it turned on its hinges, and the sour smell of a wine-cellar came straight at him, as though hunted forth by some underground breath.
He began to tremble. If there had not been the sound of cart-wheels on the road, he would not have dared to go in.
The window made a rectangular patch in the darkness. He opened it, and pushed back the shutters; the branches of the great cypress, fixed firmly against them, held them back. He took this to be a warning not to pursue his investigations any further, and drew away. But curiosity was stronger, and with his head full of the story he had just read, he went to the writing-table, and let down the flap.
A heap of different things lay there; empty cases, little cardboard boxes, letters thrown down anyhow, and a few books. Already he was smiling at this fears, when at the back of the drawer, he found a packet, carefully tied up. It contained letters, a bunch of dead flowers, and a photograph.
“Some relation,” thought he.
It was the portrait of a serious-looking man of about sixty, with a gentle, rather sad expression. He dived into his memory, but could not remember ever having seen the face, and yet he felt that it was not quite strange to him. On the other side of it was a date: 9th August, 1880,…and he was born April, 1881. Measuring time by the length of his own life, he thought:
“How old it is!”
Upon which, he put everything tidy again, and went back into the library to finish the story he had begun to read; the book, the title of which he had forgotten, could not be found anywhere.
This trifling incident made him think. Was it not the picture of his own life, this sudden glimpse of something, as bruskly removed from his sight? For the first time since his arrival, he was linking the present with the past, and less certainly than in Paris, but irritating, nevertheless, came the usual hesitation.
When night came, he ate his supper without appetite, and as soon as he had swallowed the last mouthful, returned to the library. But he fingered volume after volume in vain, searched all the shelves, tried to remember where he had put the book, but could not find it. He was getting angry, when Mère Chagne came in on tip-toe, and said:
“It is M. Coutelet who has come to call upon the master, if it does not disturb him!”
M. Coutelet! What did he want with him at that time of night?
He thrust back the books anyhow, dusted his hands, and replied:
“Very well, I will come…or stay…ask him if he will come up here…”
M. Coutelet apologized for coming out at such a late hour:
“If I am at all in your way, do not mind saying so. I was walking along, smoking my pipe, and, looking up, saw a light in your house, and rang the bell, just on chance…”
“You did very well,” replied Claude; “do please sit down.” The old man sat down in an armchair:
“It made me feel quite strange, seeing a light in this room.”
“Why?” asked Claude.
“Because for twenty-five years the shutters have never been opened…I can understand that you like to sit in this room; books are the greatest friends a man can have, and if I had the good fortune to own such an extensive library, I should spend the whole of my time here. Your mother was very fond of this room; sometimes I used to come and chat with her here. I borrowed her books, and I believe I have read the greater part of them …Do you read much?”
“I? very little…too little…but I am going to get to work and will ask you to help me choose to begin with…Perhaps even you can do me a service now. Just imagine! half an hour ago I was reading a book. I had to go into another room, and replaced it on a shelf. Now I can’t find it, and I am very interested in a story which I may never be able to finish…If only I remembered the title…”
“What was it about?”
“A story about…”
He related the first few pages. M. Coutelet interrupted him. “That is Apparition by de Maupassant, and the story is in the volume entitled Clair de Lune. It should be here.”
He took the lamp, got on a stool and pointed to a row of books, glanced at several, and said:
“I don’t see it; a book that is out of its place is as good as a book that is lost, but if you are anxious to hear the end, I can tell it to you.”
Claude listened to him more and more attentively.
When he had finished, he remarked in a low voice, his chin in his hands:
“That’s a strange adventure…and the sort of story I should write if I could write. I like tales of mystery, they respond to the thoughts that occupy my mind, I find in them points of contact with my deeper self. The mysterious attracts and terrifies me all at the same time; in spite of myself I seek it…”
“Heredity is a curious thing,” mused M. Coutelet; “your poor mother liked that sort of book; and the last I ever saw in her hands was the very one you cannot find.”
“The fact that I glanced through it, might be a warning then, a word from Behind the Veil?” murmured Claude.
“I do not believe in the manifestation of immaterial forces,” smiled the old man. “Once upon a time, I used to dabble in Spiritualism, and…”
He stopped. Claude looked him straight in the face:
“And,” went on M. Coutelet, in the tone of a man who regrets he has spoken lightly, “my opinion to-day is that there are things on which it is better not to dwell; it is only wise.”
“Wisdom and truth are not always the same,” objected Claude, “and I, who am only an ignorant, primitive fellow, am inclined to believe in a sort of fatal link, if the word does not displease you, used in this sense, between the fact that I chose the very book my mother loved to read, and the fact, guided by the hero of the story, I discovered in a room which otherwise I never should have entered, a writing-desk crammed full of letters, and the portrait of a man, whom I do not know, but whose face I swear is familiar to me…”
As he spoke he had gone to the inner room, had opened the writing-desk, and taken the photograph from the drawer. M. Coutlelet took it and looked at it, then at Claude, and gave it back without a word. His face wore a look of surprise, and his manner was a little nervous.
“Do you know who it is?” asked the young man.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you ever sure of anything?” replied the old man.
The lamp, which stood on a little table, lighted up the carpet on the floor; in front of the two men the writing-desk gaped open, the curtains, black at the top, less soiled at the bottom, hung before the windows; a picture on the wall was crooked, and a thick spider’s web was stretched across an angle, like a fragile nest.
“Is this not exactly the scene described in Apparition?” said Claude. “Does not this room strike you as uncanny? …I hardly dare to raise my voice, and you, yourself…”
“How amusing,” murmured M. Coutelet.
A smile curved Claude’s lips:
“Come, M. Coutelet! Tell the truth; you know whose photograph that is. What’s the good of denying it? I read faces better than books.”
“As a matter of fact,” replied the apothecary after a moment’s hesitation, “that face is not unknown to me…I must have seen it long ago…but after all these years, it is impossible to tell you where and when…”
Claude lifted the lamp, and noticed his white face:
“My word, M. Coutelet! you would not tremble more if you saw a ghost!”
“There are no such things as ghosts,” answered M. Coutelet, trying to laugh.
At the same moment, the light shone on the mirror, reflecting Claude’s face:
“No, no,” pronounced the old man with strange eagerness, “you must not believe in ghosts.”
Claude looked at his reflection in the glass, then at the photograph, and murmured in a voice hoarse with feeling:
“Are you sure? …Tell me, is it this light or a tendency of my imagination to exaggerate things? …It seems to me that we are not two men here, but three, that the face I am looking at in the glass is not mine, and that it resembles the photograph…”
“Let that be, let that be,” said M. Coutelet firmly, “you are the dupe of your imagination…How do you think there could be any such resemblance? …Come, let us go and have a smoke in the garden. The atmosphere of rooms long uninhabited is unhealthy in every respect. The fresh air will show you life as it really is and not as your novelists imagine it; and chance, which is responsible for many things, has not allowed you to find the de Maupassant book again. That sort of literature is bound to be bad for a bundle of nerves like you. I will find something better for you.”
“Very well, let us look,” said Claude, going towards the library.
“Later…some other time…tomorrow,” proposed M. Coutelet.
“If I were as nervy as you say I am,” said Claude, “do you not think I should see other reasons than a mere desire for the evening air, in your eagerness to leave this room?”
Then he blew out the lamp, drew aside to allow his guest to pass, shut the door, and locked it, and when they were on the stairs, continued:
“And, after all, it is only one more mystery…a little more shadow to follow other shadows…”
“It really grieves me to see you so upset,” said M. Coutelet, as they reached the gate.
“Sooner or later, it had to come,” answered Claude with sorrowful irony…
“As well as the fact that I was too happy in this village.”
Claude pushed open the door of the chemist’s shop, just as M. Coutelet was drawing the shutters to. It was night; the rain was sweeping over the houses, a gust of wind nearly threw the shutters against him.
“I don’t want to find fault,” cried M. Coutelet, “but you have fixed on a bad day to go out, and I was not expecting you in a gale. Take off your mackintosh. What a state you are in! Go behind, I will light the fire. Good Lord! Where have you been! You have torn yourself, you are hurt…”
“No, I’m not,” snapped Claude, “you know it’s the color of my hands.”
“I’d forgotten,” confessed M. Coutelet without taking offense at the exasperated tone of his young friend.
Claude dropped into a chair, while the apothecary threw logs on the fire, and held out his hands to the flame:
“A glass of rum?” suggested M. Coutelet.
“No, thank you, I never touch spirits.”
“Perhaps you are right; but you will not mind if I am less wise…”
He swallowed a mouthful, and sat down.
“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“You have no idea?”
“Not the least in the world…”
Claude looked at him, incredulous; he repeated:
“I assure you.”
“I thought everybody knew already,” said Claude. “Something…an incident happened this morning which is going to compel me to leave this place. I will tell you about it, frankly; promise that you will be frank with me.”
“I promise you.”
“You know little Marie Gravelot, the farmer’s daughter? She is a nice little girl, gentle and intelligent, to put it plainly, she attracted and interested a lonely fellow like me. I sometimes went to find her in the meadows. We chattered and laughed, now and again, I gave her a trifle to buy herself fineries. Well, this morning, maybe because these last few days I had felt so depressed, maybe because I liked her…I went near her…very near. She was not frightened.”
“The girls of this canton are not over prone to timidity,” remarked the old man, smiling.
“The fact remains,” went on Claude, “that I was going to kiss her, when as I bent over her, I suddenly had the thought to put my fingers round her neck. She began to laugh and said: ‘You aren’t going to strangle me, Monsieur Claude?’ And, urged on by some demon, I answered: yes, I am.”
“Of course, you were joking,” cried M. Coutelet.
“Nothing of the kind. Any such thought was far from my mind. The words I said were the expression of my desire, and that is where the thing becomes incomprehensible. Unreasoning, calm, with a definite knowledge that I was about to kill, I began to press so hard that she flung away from me, frightened. My fingers still gripped her… She threw herself backwards, and slipped so, that, thank God, she twisted my arm, and I let her go. At once the fit of madness, which had seized upon me, vanished. I kneeled down beside her, not to harm, but to help her, as much troubled at her hurt as I was horrified by the attack, as though I had not been author of both. She got up, and, seeing me beside her, unable to guess at the mysterious upheaval that had taken place inside me, she left her cattle and ran away. I followed her, so bewildered, so dazed that I did not know what I was doing, and passed her house without knowing it. Some women were gossiping on the doorstep; when they saw me they stopped talking; the child hid her face in her apron, but as I was passing the group, I heard her father growl:
“ ‘He thinks they are all like his mother…’ ”
“I thought I should leap upon him. No doubt I ought to have done so. But my shame was so great, that I pretended I had not heard, and went on my way.”
“Only, since then those words echo in my head, and I feel I shall never have any rest until they are explained… And I have come to you; you knew my mother…do you know what they mean?”
“Your mother was an admirable woman…gentle, charitable…and not very happy…”
“I know, I know…But the remark I quote refers to something else…It is not my mother’s personality that I seek to know at this moment, but something of her life. If that man said such a thing lightly, he’d better look out for himself…Otherwise, I will go away, and no one will ever hear of me again…You see what your silence means.”
“Are you going to treat a chance word, spoken in anger, so seriously?”
“Instead of trying to soothe me, give me an honest answer. I have been too long on the brink of my life’s mystery to draw back the moment I see any chance of solving it…Besides it is no good arguing; either you will tell me, or I will force that rascal to do so; no matter to what lengths I have to go, I will get the truth out of him. Perhaps I may avoid some serious solution, some irreparable act, in coming thus to you…For I swear to you, N. Coutelet, that if I leave your house without learning anything, I will go through with this matter to the end! You understand what that means, and that no one can foresee how far threat will take a man like me.”
He spoke with savage resolution, almost in a whisper, refusing to meet the other’s eye. The apothecary felt that he meant what he said, and that if he wished to avoid trouble, he himself must speak now. He did so, sadly, and kindly, in the tone of a man whom age and experience has rendered indulgent:
“Faith! my dear fellow, you are putting me in a sad fix. Before condemning village gossip with the vehemence of a Parisian, you should realize that villagers judge the life of Paris with a somewhat primitive sternness…the people here learn morality at church; to them it is the same for everybody, as though life did not make a point of complicating everything, even morality, so much so that they can hardly forgive Our Lord for having defended the woman taken in adultery.”
“So that was it!” cried Claude with his clenched hands on his mouth.
“No, no! Of course not! …I chose that example to make you see how much more difference there is than people think, between the mentality of country and town people. Your mother was a model wife.”
“Peasant curiosity goes farther back than marriage. You and I only ask a woman to give an account of her life from the moment she takes a husband. They go deeper into the past, pick it to pieces, with a severity which is…oh! less wicked than childish…and consider as sinning what to us is mere incident…”
He stopped, hoping that Claude would not compel him to into further details, but, buried deep in his arm-chair, his hands spread flat on his knees, Claude did not open his mouth. So he went on, correcting sentences and words, keeping back the revelation of truth.
“Suppose you married here; suppose you married a young girl? Everybody would want to know where she lived before, who her parents were, and how they got their money. A widow? What her first husband had died of, and if she had been a good wife. A divorced woman? The reasons for divorce, and if the verdict were for or against her. A woman who was none of these things and had lived an independent life?...”
“I understand,” said Claude slowly and distinctly… “My mother loved my father before she married him…”
M. Coutelet replied by a vague nod.
style='mso-tab-count: 1'> “Go on,” Claude insisted, “there is something else, and you have told me too much not to tell me all.”
“You are right,” said the old man; “and you would make a mountain out of what is a very frequent thing. Your mother was poor. A friend bought the house where you live, and the farm around it, in order to provide for her… She lived an irreproachable life here. Occasionally the friend came to see her, and went away again. It was then that M. de Marbois knew her,...loved her,…and married her…You know enough of the peasants by now, to realize how severely they would judge such a marriage…Now you know as much as I do.”
“Just one more word. Was this friend ever heard of after my mother’s marriage?”
“No. He died a short while before.”
“Ah! exclaimed Claude. “Death certainly does arrange things well…but let us go on…So my mother was rich?”
“I do not know, my dear fellow, I really do not know,” murmured M. Coutelet, visibly embarrassed.
“Let us go on then,” said Claude, smiling, “and could you tell me…about…when the friend died?”
“The end of August or beginning of September, 1880.”
“What a memory!” said Claude admiringly.
M. Coutelet bent down to take a log from his wood-chest; Claude watched him and went on:
“The death must have caused a deep impression on you, for you to remember the date so exactly, thirty years after.”
“Sometimes you forget important dates in your own life, and remember the date of an incident that concerns some one else. For instance, I remember…”
“Don’t trouble to tell me about things that I can very well conceive,” said Claude.
“The fact is you are a terrible examining magistrate!” M. Coutelet tried to speak jokingly. “You turn my answers inside out.”
He finished what was left in the glass beside him. With a hand on his shoulder, Claude pressed him into his chair again.
“Examining magistrate? What a word to use!... Yes, I am naturally curious, but haven’t you repeatedly told me that in a small town people attach importance to small things?...Thus, perhaps, you could tell me, what the…friend…died of?”
M. Coutelet pushed back his chair, and rose, suddenly; then he sat down again, and replied:
“I don’t know…”
“I should like to know,” murmured Claude. “Would you believe it, when I heard the date of his death, and compared it with that of my birth…”
“What beastly weather!” complained M. Coutelet, going to the window. “Excuse me while I fasten the shutters; the wind will blow them away.”
“Yes…yes…do!” answered Claude.
Then, as M. Coutelet came back to the fire, he went on in a careless tone:
“So you don’t know what he died of?”
“I’ve no idea…”
“Did he not die here, then?”
“Yes,” murmured the old man, more and more embarrassed.
“And no one sent for you, who knew my mother, and were as good as any doctor in this village? Think, M. Coutelet, that we are confronted by facts now, which are easily verified, and that it would be absolutely useless to try and hide anything from me.”
“As a matter of fact, my reticence was due to a desire not to worry you…The gentleman in question died of an accident…he was found one morning lying on the floor of the library…a clot of blood probably…”
“Now we’ve come to it!” ejaculated Claude with a sigh.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. Thank you for the information you have given me and which I will try to utilize. I feel better already for having spoken to you… But the rain is stopping, the wind too…I will go home again.”
He slipped into his mackintosh, and, just as he was about to go, changed his mind, put a hand into his pocket, and took out a photograph which he showed to M. Coutelet.
“I showed it to you the other day, and you told me that you did not know who it was. But now, if you think a moment, is it not the portrait of that friend? ...”
“Maybe,” replied the apothecary.
Claude tried to laugh:
“How vague your memory has suddenly become, when it was so true a moment ago.”
“I think perhaps it is the friend,” said M. Coutelet.
He was meditating deeply.
“You wish to add something?” asked Claude.
“No…no…not at all.”
“I thought perhaps you did…You looked so attentively, first at this and then at me…But there…I am not surprised; I have often looked often and long at that picture…”
Then putting an end to the conversation, he opened the door and looked out into the night. It was pitch dark. The lamp which M. Coutelet sheltered with one hand, threw a circle of light on the road. Claude gnawed at his mustache, and could not make up his mind to go.
“If you are afraid you will not find your way,” M. Coutelet proposed, “I have a spare room, and shall be only too delighted if you will use…”
“No, thank you…I must go home…I have work to do…things…”
He said the last words in a mysterious voice that made the old man uneasy.
“Nothing rash now,” he said to him in a fatherly tone.
“Do not worry,” Claude reassured him with a little laugh, “the time is not yet ripe.”
Saint-Fulgent, 12 AugustClaude brushed his hand across his brow and looked round him. In this room, perhaps in the very spot where he was sitting a man had died.
It never occurred to him that the article merely repeated what the apothecary had already told him. In print, the words had a harsher meaning, and several times he repeated his mother’s maiden name: Colette Fagant. He thought it pretty and pathetic, like everything that had to do with her, telling himself that he would rather it were his than de Marbois, which though finer-sounding, and more aristocratic, was brutal and proud.
The fire which had flamed up for a moment went out again; bits of charred wood fell from the logs with a sharp crack. Shadows were already gathering in the corners, blotting out the contents of the room. The words in the paper he held open before him ran into one another; he took another, unfolded it, and seeing nothing but a jumble of words, made up his mind that the fact of his not being able to see to read was a warning to seek no further…However, he lit his lamp, so that the light should banish all fancies that assailed him. But so far from bringing him respite, the light only gave a more definite turn to his thoughts. The words of the article were clear in his memory, and he conjured up in his mind the finding of the body lying across the floor. The room was probably in the same state then as it was to-day, and its disorder made the vision more clear. Since his visit to M. Coutelet, he had not quitted it. Pacing up and down between the four walls, moving one thing, pushing back a chair or tables, sleeping half the night on the couch, even eating on a corner of the table, without giving Mère Chagne a chance to sweep.
The night before, as he had not been able to sleep, he had read or tried to read, rummaging around among the books, trying to fix his attention on lines that slid away under his eyes, without leaving the least memory behind them, and, finally, putting the volumes back as fast as they bored him.
A great weariness made him want to lie down, a feeling of desperate loneliness made him afraid to sleep, a sleep that was sure to be heavy and haunted by bad dreams; but above all curiosity to see what the other two papers contained, kept him awake. …
So, he took the second copy, dated September 3, and this time, his eyes fell upon the same red-penciled cross that had drawn his attention to the first article: the heading was in large letters:
Claude let the paper drop; at a distance of thirty years, these details were full of strange significance. The veil, which until that moment had hidden his mother’s past, was torn in twain, and at the same moment a terrible question rose up to confront him: he asked himself without daring a reply, who was the young man of noble family, who had been seen in the village, and whose share in all of this seemed so strange.
He remembered the disparaging way in which his father spoke of “little provincial papers, full of venom and wickedness.” These articles certainly aimed at impartiality, and these were careful not to overstep the limits of mere information, but with what cruelty they inquired into the private life of his mother and with what malicious joy the country-people must have passed the papers round at that time, and read them aloud in the evenings, sitting around the fire.
He took up the third sheet. The same heading, The Mystery of Trois-Tourelles, sprawled across the front page. But, if in the preceding articles the tone had been calm, in this one, it became threatening:
The case of which during four weeks Mlle. Colette Fagant has been the heroine, is legally speaking at an end. What we mean by that is that the law no longer mentions it. But we, as impartial agents, have the right to pursue an inquiry, which public feeling demands. It is to every one’s advantage that full light should be thrown on such a case. The identity of the mysterious X who went, secretly, once at any rate, to the château has not yet been discovered. Does that signify that X only exists in the imagination of the village folk? As far as we are concerned, the answer is not doubtful. The examination was closed at the very moment when people were beginning to talk, and the inquiries were carried out with the most disconcerting nonchalance. Who can say whether a more careful search in the old house, with its many nooks and crannies, would not have yielded unexpected results? To-day, the tendency is to rely on chance alone, that great ally of examining magistrates; and is not that too simple a method, when we are concerned with the death of a man? … And if, as we should prefer to believe, no crime was committed, should not those whom public opinion suspects, be declared innocent in such a fashion, that they themselves could have the law on persons who, not later than yesterday, removed a wreath which had been placed upon the dead man’s grave?Two cuttings were pinned to the last paper. One said:
We are informed of the marriage of M. Marcel de Marbois, and Mlle. Colette Fagant.The other:
The Comtesse de Marbois has given birth to a son, Claude.The same hand which had penned the address on the wrapper had added two dates: October 7th, 1880, on the first cutting, and April 12th, 1881, on the second.
A sound made Claude start, and he drew his attention from the amazement with which the papers filled him. He looked round the room and saw that a book which he had placed on the shelf the night before, had fallen on the carpet. He picked it up, looked at it, turned it over, and seeing that it was open at the story, Apparition, uttered a cry, and flung it far from him, in terror.
Dawn was near, and Claude still searched the drawers in the bedroom. The discovery of the book, which for so long he had been unable to find, at the very moment when certain suspicions that he had not dared to formulate, were materializing, had thrown him into a state of excitement which verged on madness…
Madness traversed by lucid flashes, in which his thoughts linked themselves together, only to fall back into a chaos of anger and doubt, to come up against the loss of memory, to visions of inconceivable violence, which he thrust aside with savage energy, and recalled with childish weakness.
When exhaustion came, and his arms hung limp, his fingers were covered with greasy dust, his lips dry, his eyelids twitching, he egged himself on by word and gesture:
“Seek! Seek! Perhaps the truth is there!”…
Around him, linen, ribbons, and papers lay scattered. At first his hands felt about, turning the contents of the drawer upside down, then he put everything in order, stopping now and then to glance pityingly at an account book, containing his mother’s entries, or a bit of lace, to which he insisted a faint perfume still clung, in spite of the years. Then his anger melted into infinite regret, for the love that he had never been able to give or receive.
“If I have to spend my days and nights in turning everything over, to pull this house to pieces, brick by brick, to dig up the garden, and drain the lake, I will end by knowing.”
When he had emptied every drawer in the writing-table, he slipped his hand between the two supports, and drew out a little note-book which had fallen down behind, and which he opened in rather a perfunctory fashion. What chance was there that he would find a slip of paper or a note inside? His surprise was all the greater, therefore, to find a telegram addressed to C.F. poste restante, Nantes. It was stamped August 12, 1880, and in Paris, and said:
“Shall arrive to-night. Marcel.”He closed his eyes, and fell into a chair.
It was Sunday. On the stroke of nine, he heard Mère Chagne talking in the passage with somebody.
“If he is asleep, don’t disturb him,” said a voice.
“He must be surely up by now,” answered the woman, “that is, if he went to bed.”
The door opened gently; Claude turned his head, and looked pensively at Mère Chagne, and M. Coutelet, who was behind her.
“I told you so!” grumbled the farmer’s wife, “he spends whole nights like that! ...And during the day he stays as he is now, or with his nose glued to the window, taking no more notice of people than if they were talking double-dutch.”
M. Coutelet nodded his head.
“Not to mention the fact that he will be ill,” went on the good woman.
She went forward softly and called: “Are you wanting anything now, master?”
Claude turned his head away and looked towards the window. The old woman sighed and said confidentially: “Like his mother…as like as two peas. You speak to him, perhaps he will listen to you…”
M. Coutelet went up to Claude, put a hand on his shoulder, and remarked cheerfully: “Up already and at work?”
The lamp was going out with a smell of oil and smoke. The daylight crept waveringly through the shutters. Claude had not moved. The apothecary opened the window, pushed back the shutters, and pointing to the sky, which was flecked with white clouds, went on: “No one should stay in on such a day! As for me, I’ve shut up shop; people must not be ill on Sunday, and I’m going for a walk in the woods. Will you come?”
The only answer Claude made was to cover his eyes with his hand as though the light hurt them. M. Coutelet drew the curtains, and the room was again in darkness. Mère Chagne, who could not understand any one remaining silent when spoken to, repeated her question:
“Are you wanting anything now, master?”
Claude sighed, and stretched himself, pressing his shoulders against the back of the chair, and replied:
“No, thank you, you may leave us.”
He waited until she shut the door, and the noise of her footsteps had died away in the passage, and only then did he turn to M. Coutelet:
His face was drawn with fatigue, his cheeks were covered with black marks where his fingers had rested, his eyelids lifted and drooped again, slowly:
“Come,” said M. Coutelet, “what is the matter? It is surely not the incident with the child that has upset you to this extent? It has long been forgotten…The father made a fuss for the sake of appearances… All you have to do is make him a present of a quarter’s rent.”
“He hates me, and has reason to hate me,” said Claude with bent head.
“Good heavens, my dear fellow! As if the parents in this part of the country were compelled to hate every young man who hugged their daughters too closely! Do you forget that we are only a short distance from the Marais? You do not look as though that meant anything to you? Well, on the day of the fair, at the Marais, the girls and boys may do anything they like…anything except…Anyway that leaves a pretty good margin, don’t you think? …Ah! these old customs!”
And as he knew all the ways and manners of the countryside, partly for the pleasure of telling it, and partly to make his friend think of other things, he began to describe the appearance of the public room in the inns on fair day; where couples sat on benches lined against the walls, and, without caring who saw them, shamelessly amused themselves in a thousand different ways, which were anything but guileless. With the racy description, he mingled a knowledge of legend, medical terms, and the easy indulgence of an old fellow, who can talk on any and every subject with absolute unconcern.
Claude smoothed out the creases in the carpet with the point of his shoe, so deep in his thoughts, that the apothecary’s voice sounded like a humming in his ears.
“That is what is called the Maréchinage,” finished the old man. “Is it not a curious custom?”
Claude rose, went to the door, looked carefully to see that it was shut, and standing facing M. Coutelet, asked point blank:
“What sort of man was M. DeGuy?”
“M. DeGuy?” …repeated the apothecary, “M. DeGuy?”
“Yes, M. DeGuy who was found dead here the 13th August, 1880.” His first finger pointed to the floor in front of the bookcase.
“You know?” said the apothecary with effort.
Claude merely replied: “What do you think!” and shrugged his shoulders. Then, as M. Coutelet said no more, he added:
“You see, nothing is hidden from me, nothing can be hidden from me.”
He walked rapidly up and down the room.
By degrees, his voice grew calmer, his voice more gentle:
“It is a strange story, certainly, that of the poor man, who was so good, so generous, dying here, without being able to call for help. But, as a matter of fact, why did you not tell me his name the other day.”
M.Coutelet shook his head vaguely. Claude smiled.
“After all your secrets are your own, or perhaps I should say your reasons are your own.”
“What possible reason could I have for concealing a detail that happened so long ago, and is of so little interest?” asked M. Coutelet.
“Do you really think it is of so little interest?”
“Very well…we will not speak of it again… But how pale you are now.”
“I imagined you were, but I must be making another mistake,” replied Claude carelessly. “Is it loneliness, the depressing atmosphere of this house, the odor of ancient things that surrounds me, or only the desire for the supernatural, that has obsessed me these last days? …My senses, unless it be my imagination, are growing curiously alert, and show me things that I never dreamed of…”
“Hallucinations caused by nervous strain,” explained M. Coutelet.
“It must be something of the kind,” agreed Claude. “For instance, this portrait…”
He took from the mantelpiece the photograph he had found in the drawer, lifting it for the apothecary to see:
“…Yesterday morning, when I was looking at it, I had an extraordinary feeling. Would you believe that when I looked first at this face, then my own in the mirror, it struck me there was a remarkable resemblance between the two; the same slanting eyes, the same bushy eyebrows, the same high-bridged nose, the same shaped chin, hair growing the same way, ears straight and flat at the top, and with the lobes adhering…I was extremely struck by it…”
“Fancy!” murmured M. Coutelet.
“Do you think so? Then my brain must be very disturbed, or very stubborn,” he pronounced the last words with a sneer, “for at this very moment, I can see the same resemblance. Come, tell me, is it possible for one to delude oneself so greatly? …You who are a strong-minded man, and not a nervous wretch like me, you compare them… Dark is it? …That’s soon remedied.”
He went to the window, drew the curtains, came back holding the photograph in the tips of his fingers, and stood in three-quarter profile to the apothecary:
M. Coutelet turned away his head:
“Let that be, my dear fellow; throw that photograph in the fire…”
Claude clasped it to his breast:
“Throw it in the fire? …You can’t mean that! …You cannot imagine how I prize it. It is such a weird feeling to see myself as I shall be thirty years hence. But I realize that all this is only perceptible to myself, and, after all, what can it matter as I am the only one interested in this fact! And if I am the sport of fancy, as you say, I intend to stick to it.”
He replaced the photograph on the mantelpiece, beside the clock, looked at it, looked at himself in the glass, and repeated:
“In any case it is a strange fancy…”
He rubbed his hands together, and laughed like a man pleased with his joke.
A ray of sunshine lighted up the library; M. Coutelet took advantage of it to say:
“Do come out with me: the country is beautiful, and it will be pleasant to chat as we walk along.”
Claude shook his head:
“I cannot bring myself to leave this house; it contains more than the whole world for me. If I could tell you all it has taught me, you would be amazed. The silence is full of voices, the darkness of pictures, and to him who knows how to obey them, they reveal prodigious secrets. But what am I telling you, you a materialist? You do not believe in the survival of the soul, nor in the invisible worlds that surround you. It surprises you to see I know so much, for you looked upon me as a mere schoolboy until now. Science, faith, and truth, reveal themselves to whom they choose, and sometimes the forces Behind the Veil try their powers on the most humble. I should amaze you were I tell you one quarter of what I have learned these past five days. Perhaps I will tell you when the moment comes…Then…”
He spoke in the voice of a prophet, with radiant face and sweeping gestures: Suddenly he struck his forehead:
“But I have not told you the queerest thing of all! You remember de Maupassant’s book, that we looked for in vain one afternoon? Well, my dear M. Coutelet, there it is at your feet, in front of you! I do not flatter myself that I found it; it came to find me…and I may say that it came at the given moment. …Its disappearance was strange enough, but what name shall we give to its return?”
“Chance!” replied the old man.
“No!” said Claude sharply, “there is no such thing as chance; that is a word invented by man to hide his incapacity and failure to understand anything that lies beyond his scope. Chance does not exist, but hidden forces do; for everything is linked up. Nothing happens, however slight, futile, or fortuitous, which is not at the same time a consequence and a cause. Only nobody pays any attention to it! And so those, who like myself have been granted the gift of meditation, of reflection and deep thought during several days, so far removed from the world, that, as far as they are concerned, the present no longer exists, are looked upon as madmen, so lucid and reasonable have their minds become! …M. de Marbois had not waited my discovery of this intellectual retreat to give me the reputation of a lunatic. Would you believe it, one day, a few months ago, he wanted to send me to a madhouse? Oh, perhaps he was not altogether wrong, I am dangerous, very dangerous…Only it is not my fault…It is certain that sometimes my inmost thoughts are strangely cruel. …That child Marie…well, I swear to you, my good sir, that I very nearly strangled her. …At this moment, such an act seems monstrous to me; but I am quite unable to guarantee the next.”
He opened his hands wide, and expression of intense cruelty came on his face. Then at once the strained look left his face, a flush crept to his cheeks, and he went on in an ordinary voice:
“You are a delightful friend, M. Coutelet, and, what is more, a really learned man. What a pity you came and buried yourself in such a hole! If I had time and strength, I should ask you to teach me hundreds of things…you have read and studied and remembered so much! …The nervous fits that take possession of me are perhaps caused by irritation at knowing nothing, or so little. …Have you noticed that children are subject to fits of passionate temper that do not affect older people? Sometimes I think I have discovered a cure for my malady, a cure unsuspected by the greatest doctor, and at which, no doubt, he would laugh: study. Not the dry study of books, but the study of life…I think experimental science is marvelous. To me the most elementary explanations of the simplest phenomena are soothing. I tell you what, I will go out with you. As we go along, I will ask you about Nature and animals, and plants….I still think of the wonderful account you gave me in explanation of wireless telegraphy and electrical waves; and the other about the production of double, and triple and quadruple flowers. …”
He rammed his hat on his head, and kicking away the things scattered about him, said, as he opened the door.
“Go first, M. Coutelet, I am with you.”
“Like that?” cried the apothecary astonished. …“Make yourself a little bit tidier, at least…”
“I do not attach any importance to my rag of a body,” said Claude jokingly, “but if you really mind…”
He seized the water-jug that stood on the table, emptied it into the basin, which he finished filling with the contents of a dirty jar. The water was rusty, he dipped the end of a towel in it, and said as he held it to his face:
“How long has that water been here? Fifteen years? twenty perhaps? …When I think of that, I have no wish to use it; absurd, isn’t it? Water is never anything but water. …Still, I want fresh water, water drawn on purpose for me. …This, here…”
“Madame Chagne, bring me up a pail of water!”
As soon as it came, he turned up his sleeves, opened his shirt collar, and, without troubling to empty it into the basin, plunged his face into it, rubbing his neck and his cheeks, dipping his head right in with exclamations of cold and delight. Then he turned down his sleeves, parted his hair with a comb, put on a tie, and asked gaily:
“How will that do?”
“Splendid,” answered M. Coutelet.
Claude returned to the mirror, looked at himself complacently and remarked:
“It’ll do, it’ll do!”
His somber mood had left him, his movements were natural, and his voice cheerful. M. Coutelet rejoiced at the change:
“You see,” he remarked, wishing to point a moral, “man is not made for solitude, the best-balanced people get nervy and inclined to make much of their grievances, when they are lonely; the smallest worry takes on the proportions of a calamity, and, the shadow which blots out the design…”
“Do not speak of that again,” cried Claude; “from to-day, I want to become a different man, I want to learn things. …If it does not bore you too much, you shall be my teacher. …”
“Perhaps I shall be a tiresome pupil, I may ask you all sorts of questions, about all sorts of things, like a child. A child’s questions are sometimes tiresome, embarrassing, unexpected. …”
“I will do my best to answer them.”
“To begin with, I will ask you one that has worried me for a long time…”
He pointed to the red stain that marked his two hands:
“What do you call that?”
“A naelig;vus (from the mother), probably.”
“And that means?”
“A mark which the child has on its body when it is born.”
“And the reason?”
“A congenital deficiency in the production of a pigmentary matter…”
“That’s no explanation; at the best it is a definition.”
“If we attempt to solve the mystery of the formation of the human being, where will it lead us? …Science holds back, some worthy people, more simple-minded than savants, attribute these little defects to longings. For instance if a child has a strawberry mark on some part of his body, they say his mother had an unsatisfied longing for strawberries during her pregnancy; when another has a mark that looks like a mouse, they say that a mouse frightened his mother before he was born. In your case, married women would say that your mother had a longing for wine…”
“It looks more like blood than wine,” remarked Claude.
“Pooh! blood or wine it is only an old wife’s story…”
“Do you think it wise to make fun of that kind of thing? I have heard it said that popular beliefs often have a grain of truth in them. …Did not you yourself tell me, the day we met an idiot child, that his mother had had a terrible fright before he was born?”
“That is true, I remember.”
“The scientist, who makes no assertion without proof, does not, on principle, permit himself to deny anything, and, as we have no positive solution of this phenomenon, I grant you that any explanation is permissible.”
“Ah!” Claude ejaculated, throwing his hat on the table.
His face had grown serious again; he sat down and began to think.
“Let us go out,” said M. Coutelet.
Claude shook his head.
“….And I who thought you so reasonable, and was going to give you such interesting lessons! You really must have a little more sequence in your ideas.”
“You cannot imagine how tremendously they are in sequence,” answered Claude.
“It does not look much like it.”
“That is because you cannot read…nor can anybody for the matter of that…what is going on here,” said he, touching his forehead.
Then, he lay back, his hands shading his eyes.
Now and again his lips moved.
M. Coutelet looked at him, sadly.
“Of what are you thinking?”
“I am thinking,” replied Claude, “that this room, these books, the water that lay at the bottom of the jugs…everything that surrounds us, that we think dead, and which is only pretending…have seen strange happenings perhaps. I must question them again, I am sure they will speak to me. …Besides they have already begun to. …Only nobody must come between us. …When they have given me up their secrets, I will let you know. Oh! it will not take long; now that I am on the right track, two or three days will surely suffice. Look, come here. …Don’t you see? …those papers quivering! …those pages moving?”
“It is the wind,” murmured M. Coutelet, hoarsely.
“The wind? Do you really think so? I know it is their way of showing me they are here. …Listen, did you hear that?”
“The wood of an old piece of furniture cracking.”
Claude shrugged his shoulders.
“No! No! They want to speak to me. Generally these phenomena take place at night only. It must be something very urgent for them to speak like this, in broad daylight.”
M. Coutelet stared at him, utterly amazed: Claude took no notice of his surprise, and, leading him to the door, he murmured with affectionate politeness:
“You will excuse me, won’t you? …But it would rude of me to keep the Spirits waiting, and I think I should be mad not to take advantage of their services…”
“I will leave you,” said M. Coutelet with a sigh.
Claude listened to his retreating footsteps, and holding the curtain aside, watched him depart. When he reached the yard, M. Coutelet beckoned to Mère Chagne. In order to hear what they were saying, Claude went into a little dressing-room, the dormer window of which was wide open, and stood with his ear glued to it, listening:
“How did you find him?” asked the farmer’s wife. “Come, tell me, is he or is he not in his right senses?”
“He is peculiar, undoubtedly,” answered M. Coutelet.
“If there were any likelihood of it going on, Chagne and I would rather leave. The other night he was calling and crying like a child; it made me feel frightened and sorry at the same time. Who knows what he might do at such moments?”
M. Coutelet scratched his head:
“For the time being, I do not think there is any danger. Content yourself with watching him, without letting him see it, and in case of need, let me know. In the meanwhile I am going to send a telegram to M. de Marbois. He will come and decide what shall be done. It is a matter of thirty-six or forty-eight hours’ patience!”
Claude went towards his room, opened the door, with a clatter, shut it again, but did not go in, and went noiselessly down the stairs into the garden.
Out there it was adorably silent. The lawns glimmered like velvet in the moonlight; the flowers that still bloomed, sent out perfumes that thrilled one all the more, because neither their shape nor their color could be discerned in the darkness; slugs had left shining tracks on the grass; a huge toad was going the round of the flower-beds. The lighted window of M. de Marbois’ room alone broke the harmonious nocturne. Claude seated himself on a bench that he might gaze at it.
Now and then a shadow passed before the curtains. Once it stopped, the window opened, the light, no longer shaded by the lace curtains, appeared, dazzling, and M. de Marbois leaned out.
Presently, however, he drew back, closed the shutters, pulled the curtains together, and nothing remained of the light but a faint glimmer, until that too vanished at last, and the darkness and silence were complete.
With his eyes fixed on the window, heedless of the cool night air that stirred the branches, Claude sat whistling under his breath. The moon and the stars pursued their journey above him, and, following their imperceptible movement, he ecstatically imagined himself the master of the universe.
An hour went by thus, and then another. He began to show signs of impatience, leaning to the right, then to the left, stretching out his neck, listening intently. Three o’clock struck. Almost at the same moment a flash of light gleamed from M. de Marbois’ window. At once Claude sat still, a strange smile on his face.
Any one looking at him would have thought he could see what was taking place behind those walls. Presently he got up from the bench, crossed the lawn, entered the house, went upstairs on tiptoe, down the corridor, arrived at the library door, which he opened.
M. de Marbois, half-dressed, stood with his back to him: “Who is there?” he cried as he heard the noise.
“It is only I, don’t be frightened,” said Claude.
“What do you want?”
“I am rather like the owls,” explained Claude. “I can only see and hear clearly at night. Thinking I heard you call, like a host mindful of his guest’s comfort, I hastened to your help. That is all.”
M. de Marbois drew a hand across his brow and sighed.
“That is all…or nearly,” Claude corrected himself as he urged him slowly towards the bedroom.
M. de Marbois was trembling to such an extent, that he had to lean against the bed to keep from falling.
“You seem to be quite overcome,” remarked Claude with a smile. “Is it our conversation about Those-who-return, that troubles you so much? Have you seen some one, by chance?”
M. de Marbois attempted a smile.
“I must admit,” went on Claude, “that just at this moment I cannot see any, but maybe they are hiding? …Let us look for them together, shall we? I feel sure that you will not be afraid to look now that I am with you, and my eyes are so sharp they will be able to discover their hiding-place, when they try to slip out of sight.”
He lifted the curtains, shook them, opened the dressing-room door, came back to the middle of the room, and pulled aside a hanging.
“Stop that foolery!” said M. de Marbois indistinctly.
“Foolery?” cried Claude. “How irreverently you speak! At such a time and in such a place it would be more seemly to measure your words…But I see that your fear is feigned, and that you are making fun of me. …Or is it a bad dream from which you have not yet recovered, that disturbed your sleep? …I may have put some fantastic story on your table. …This one is open, you have read it, and imagination encroaching on reality. …Of course; it is ‘Apparition.’ That story has given me some ghastly hours too. It is not a nice book to read at night, I might even say that it made you open the writing desk?”
“Of course not…” said M. de Marbois.
“Be careful,” answered Claude, “or you will make me think that some one, neither you not I, has come into this room. I observe the smallest details with great care. A little while ago, the key was vertical in the lock, and now it is horizontal.”
“I must have touched it without meaning to.”
“That is possible. …Everything is possible. …But there is a very easy way to find out. …”
He let down the flap, at once faced completely round, and cried.
“Devil take it! The Spirits have gotten a finger in the pie, or a thief has gotten into the room! There was a telegram in that pigeon-hole just before you came in here…”
“A telegram?” murmured M. de Marbois in a voice that was almost inaudible.
“Yes, a telegram, an old, a very old telegram. …It’s been stolen.”
“What’s the use of worrying? was the telegram so important?”
“So important that I would give one of my arms to have it back! Ah! but it’s got to be found!”
He went to the window, calling:
“Are you mad? You would wake the house for a scrap of paper? Very well, then, yes…I took that telegram. …I burned it…not thinking what I was doing. …What about it?”
Claude planted himself before him with folded arms:
“And it never occurred to you that the fact of its having been kept for thirty years showed it to be of great value? But wait a moment…there was something else! Some newspapers; did you burn them too, ‘Not thinking?’ ”
He rushed to the fireplace, and, finding it empty, burst into a fit of laughter:
“I told you there were ghosts! Ah! an old and terrible story is coming to an end!”
“Claude, my child!”
M. de Marbois staggered. Claude seized him firmly by the arm, and dragged him to the library:
“You did not expect this? Thirty years have passed since that night of August 12th, 1880, and the story is as fresh as the dawn of the day that followed it! Would you like me to tell it you as it was told me by the things that surround me? Now dare you tell me there are no Spirits! Of course, they only show themselves when they feel inclined, and when a little encouragement is forthcoming. It looks as though they were disposed to be friendly towards me, as they have led me to the truth. …But first of all give me back that telegram and the papers that you did not burn.”
M. de Marbois pulled a bundle of papers crumpled from his pocket, and held them out, stammering:
“Claude, my child…!”
“There is no doubt,” went on Claude, “that you are not the strong-minded man I thought you. …Had I been in your place, I would have died rather than give them back. …Now you dare not look me straight in the face. You can tell that I know…and I know more than you dare think.”
He laughed, comfortably seated in the armchair. After giving vent to his delight, he got up, and, in a serious voice, began:
“It is not for me to judge my mother; whatever sins she may have committed were most surely remitted by what she suffered through you. Any one can forgive a poor girl who turns aside from the right path to escape destitution. M. DeGuy looked on things in that light, seeing that after providing for her for the time being, it was his intention to assure her future by marrying her.”
M. de Marbois was trembling; Claude took no notice of him:
“But let us go on, let us go on. …When she was only a poor girl you would not marry her, and you were careful not to seduce her. Once her lot was cast in with another’s, things took on a different aspect. You appear on the scenes again…you return to the assault. …You come to the house, to their house at night. M. DeGuy comes suddenly upon you here, in this very room. He is old, you are young. …You might get away, but you think that after such an escapade, the will in favor of the wretched woman will be annulled, the fortune escape you…and you remain. Ah! it does not take long, or rather it does take long, horribly long. A blow, strangling, would leave traces…you are no such fool! …You seize him in your arms, and press, until the breath leaves his body, until he suffocates, until he falls. You wait until life is extinct. …Then, and then alone, you let him go!”
M. de Marbois shook his head feebly. Claude burst into a terrible laugh:
“What do you think about it? A little imagination has been sufficient to reconstruct the drama, has it not?”
M. de Marbois stammered:
“You dare…to your father…”
Claude’s face became terrible in its gravity:
“You my father? Look here!”
He stretched out his wide-open hands. M de Marbois tried to utter a cry, but not a sound came from his mouth, and, putting up a hand to hide his face, he fell backwards.
“Now,” said Claude, “it’s your turn, my boy!”
He was standing with one foot on each side of the body, and muttered as he turned up his sleeves:
“This time I know why I am going to kill. This time it is not a poor dog whose torture I look on at, without knowing why, or a little girl that I am compelled to strangle when I thought I wanted to kiss her mouth…”
He put his fingers round the neck:
“You are shamming dead; you think I shall not have the strength nor the courage? I have both. I would rather you made a fight for it though, that you tried to scream, or bite, or struggle; and to prove it…”
M. de Marbois did not stir; his eyes turned up and showing the whites, seemed sightless; his face was bloodless.
Claude relaxed his grip and put a hand on the heart:
“Look here, you’re not going to fool me by dying of fright, I hope?... No you are breathing, God be praised!”
He was about to continue his task, when suddenly he stood upright and sneered:
“Death is nothing. The only thing that’s worth while is to watch its approach!...Who would not choose to die like this, unconscious of everything?...You deserve a better fate, my good man!”
And he went out on tip-toe.
Mère Chagne was feeding the chickens. Each time she threw a handful of grain into the air, she called, “Coopy! Coopy! Coopy!” She did this rhythmically and steadily, like a person who had done the same thing thousands of times, and, as the creatures pecked at her feet, she looked at the sky, and at the early autumn trees, to whose gold-tipped foliage a reflection of the summer sun still seemed to cling.
Although it was nearly eleven o’clock in the morning, the shutters of the master’s house were still closed. Now and then, without slackening or hastening her work, she glanced at them.
“Good-morning, Mère Chagne!” cried Claude.
In her surprise she nearly let the corner of her apron go, and spill the grain.
For two weeks, Claude had kept so much to himself, greeting people with such surly looks and speech, that his calm voice and cheerful voice amazed her:
“Fine day, isn’t it?”
She could hardly believe her eyes; was that M. Claude who only yesterday was shut in his room, with an old shawl wrapped round his shoulders, his hair tousled, his face unshaven, so bent and pale-faced, that when you caught a glimpse of him with his eyes glued to the window, he looked like a ghost?...
This morning, clad in a Norfolk coat, and brown gaiters, with his face clean-shaven, and hair carefully arranged, he looked like another man.
Dipping a hand into the old woman’s apron, Claude scattered the grain, calling to the chickens as she did. But they hesitated. He began to laugh.
“Just look at that! I give them food, and they only take to their heels.”
“Dumb creatures are like people,” explained Mère Chagne, “they only know who looks after them. If the master would only come here a few times, they would not be frightened, and would eat out of your hand.”
“Well, I’ll come,” he assured her, “it will amuse me. They are fine birds; what would they fetch at market?”
“Fed as these are? Not less than twenty francs a pair…when you come to think of what it costs to feed them.”
She spoke garrulously, glad to find her master interested in her work. He listened, questioning her as he had done when he first came to the place, in the days when he had not yet crossed the threshold of the library, and was learning the A.B.C. of his new life.
Chagne came up. Claude inquired about the sheep and the oxen, the price of the hay, and the produce of the vegetable garden. He asked to see what vegetables had been planted, the dairy which smelt of sour milk, and the hutches where the rabbits were nibbling cabbage leaves with quick and anxious veracity. Up at the farm, Chagne showed him a hare he had killed himself that morning:
“I spotted him so near the house, that after I had fired I wished I hadn’t, for fear it should wake the master.”
“I heard nothing,” said Claude.
“The master sleeps well, he is young.”
Claude was feeling where the shot had struck the creature. Mère Chagne held out her apron for him to wipe his hands. He praised Père Chagne for his smart shooting, and said he was sorry he had not been up to see it. Chagne told him he knew the whereabouts of another and bigger hare, and that if he liked they would try to get him.
“That’s a good idea,” said Claude approvingly.
As they chatted they had come around to the house again. From the lane came the sound of running footsteps and laughter:
“It’s the children coming out of school,” said Mère Chagne in explanation.
“What time is it then?”
“And my father still asleep!”
“Monsieur was tired after the journey,” said the farmer.
“Tired?” said Claude, in the jesting voice of a man who does not know what it is to be lazy and lie abed, “one is never tired in the country!”
“Oh!” ventured Mère Chagne, winking her eye, “the master is feeling very strong and well this morning; he has not always felt that way!”
“I was wrong; to-day the fresh air alone has made me feel better. All the more reason that I should wake up my father. Take up his breakfast to him, and tell him how delightful it is here under the trees.”
Mère Chagne went into the kitchen. He watched her while she arranged a tray with hot coffee, boiling milk, slices of brown bread and a pot of butter. Père Chagne who had plenty to say as soon as shooting was in question, told Claude of a place where he would find as many rabbits as he wanted, and a field, where, as soon as the sun burst through the morning mists, larks were as plentiful as flies round a bit of sugar.
“We don’t touch them, seeing as how shot is dear, but it will amuse the master who doesn’t mind about that.”
A scream made them start, and at the same moment they turned round. At a window on the first floor, between the shutters that flapped backwards and forewards, arms uplifted. Mère Chagne appeared:
“What is the matter?” cried Claude.
“The master’s father, Monsieur! the master’s father!”
Breathless with excitement, she could not say another word. Claude rushed to the house, followed by Chagne, ran up the stairs three at a time, and stopped at the door of the library.
As the old Chagnes were about to kneel down, and lift up M. de Marbois, he thrust them aside. Mère Chagne was biting the corner of her apron.
“Mother of mercy! is he dead?”
Claude dared not touch the body; Père Chagne murmured:
“He is breathing.”
She crossed herself thankfully, and as Claude slipped his hand under his father’s head, she stammered:
“He cut his head falling!...the master’s hands are covered with blood!”
“Nothing of the kind,” said Claude, glancing at them, “they are that color, as you very well know.”
She crossed herself a second time, then, reassured, speech became imperative:
“It is like…”
Père Chagne nudged her with his elbow; she stopped. Claude looked fixedly at her for a moment, she colored and went on:
“It is like as if M. de Comte had seen something that frightened him. …Look, he has hidden his face with his arm…”
“That is true,” Claude admitted.
Then he took hold of the body under his arms:
“You take his legs,” he ordered.
Père Chagne bent slowly down.
“Let us carry him on my bed,” said Claude.
And as the old man hesitated, he added:
“What are you waiting for?”
“Perhaps it would be better to leave M. le Comte as he is, until the arrival of…”
“…Of no one master,” replied the farmer, lifting the legs.
As soon as he was laid upon the bed, M. de Marbois opened his eyes:
“Well, father?” said Claude, bending over him: “what has happened to you?”
M. de Marbois’ lips moved, but nothing came from them but a meaningless sound:
“Lie still,” said Claude. “M. Chagne, go and let M. Coutelet know. Get a hot-water bottle ready, Mme. Chagne, then you can light the fire.”
M. de Marbois still held his arm over his face; after a moment he asked for “something to drink.” Claude poured some water in a glass, added a few drops of peppermint cordial and held it to him. While he went away from the bedside, M. de Marbois put his arm down and opened his eyes. When he saw Claude, he smiled. Then, suddenly the smile became fixed, and his cheeks livid. Still more, when Claude brought the glass nearer his lips. He turned his head, and tried to push away the hand stretched out to him. It was Claude’s turn to smile:
“Come, let me look after you.”
He gently held down the arm with his left hand. As the glass touched his teeth, M. de Marbois threw his head back, and a few drops of the liquid spattered his face; one fell on his lips, he wiped it off with the back of his fingers:
“Come,” insisted Claude, “be reasonable.”
With his face hidden in his arm again, M. de Marbois refused:
“What did you see?”
“I saw you…pour…”
“This?” said Claude, holding up a bottle, “it is a cordial. Drink…”
“Must I?” said M. de Marbois more audibly.
“I advise you to.”
M. de Marbois took the glass between his two hands, held it up for a moment, and swallowed a mouthful. After which, he gave it back and lay down again on his pillow. But his eyes were not so tightly shut that he did not see Claude drink what was left in the glass, and take up his motionless guard at the foot of the bed again. This reassured him, and at the same time, the cool drink revived him; he breathed more freely, his color came back, and he murmured:
“I beg forgiveness…”
Claude did not stir. He repeated: “I beg forgiveness,” so distinctly this time, that Claude said:
“Of whom do you beg forgiveness, and for what?”
“Of the man I…”
He stopped; Claude waited for him to finish his sentence. But the words he now had to pronounce were doubtless so terrible, that his courage failed him, and he contented himself with saying in a hollow voice:
“I know nothing, but I think you need rest; try to sleep.”
“I dreamt of a judge, sometimes, but I never imagined one so dreadful as you,” said M. de Marbois.
“Go to sleep!” repeated Claude.
Down in the kitchen, while she broke pieces of wood across her knee, Mère Chagne said to her husband:
“Isn’t it strange? …In the very same place as M. De Guy, as though it had been done on purpose!...”
Without replying, Père Chagne whistled to his dog, and went out.
When he arrived M. Coutelet found Claude sitting beside his father’s bed. He had feared a greater misfortune, and cried out in his relief:
“So have you given us a good fright now, M. de Marbois? What happened?”
He addressed the question to both. Claude answered:
“I do not know at all. Last night, when I left you, I went in to say goodnight to my father; he seemed perfectly well. As the night was warm, I went for a stroll in the garden, and then I went to bed. I got up early, and was having a look around the place, when, at about eleven o’clock, Mère Chagne, who had taken up his breakfast, found him lying on the library floor. I sent for you at once; that is all I know.”
M. Coutelet took hold of M. de Marbois’ wrist:
“The pulse is steady…a little quick but not feverish.”
He felt his temples and ankles, and rubbed a thumb-nail on his forehead:
“Your arteries are like a young man’s; you will soon be all right.”
M. de Marbois smiled faintly; the apothecary went on:
“Have you any pain? …you have? …you feel bruised all over, and your head aches, doesn’t it? I don’t wonder! It came into contact with the floor, you must have fallen straight backwards.”
“I do not remember,” answered M. de Marbois.
“You had no feeling of discomfort before it happened?”
“Maybe…I cannot remember…”
“You did not reach up to get a book down from one of the shelves?”
“I am very tired,” murmured M. de Marbois.
“We are going to leave you in peace; we will discuss the whole thing again, when you have slept a few hours.”
He patted his hand encouragingly and went out. Claude went with him. As they passed in front of the bookcase, M. Coutelet pointed to a place where the carpet was turned up:
“Was it here he fell?”
“It was here he was found.”
“Indeed,” remarked M. Coutelet, “and you have not the least notion what can have taken place? A man as strong as he is does not fall down in a faint for no reason… Have you never known him to be ill?”
“At present I think there is no danger, but later he must be examined by a doctor, he must be supervised…It is a pity I did not see what position he was lying in when he was found. Sometimes a mere attitude helps the diagnosis. Thus for example, a man will come to you, holding his arm in a certain position, which tells its own tale; fracture of the arm. Another bends over this, with his hand pressed flat over his thorax: a fractured rib…”
He went on, giving example after example, less for the sake of showing his knowledge, than for the pleasure of talking of what he had learned by experience, and proved by books. He also did it, to hide his uneasiness and preoccupation. Claude’s mood a few days before his father’s arrival, the sudden disappearance of his mad ideas, his attitude the night before, now moody, now jovial, a thousand things he had said at different times, the strange coincidence of M. de Marbois’ collapse on the very spot where M. DeGuy had been found, all these things worried him, and excited his curiosity.
There was something between the account given of the affair, and the truth, that was very certain…but what was it? He stopped what he was saying, asked point-blank:
“What about you? Were you all right last night?”
His doubt was becoming more definite. He remembered the incident of little Marie, and the excited state in which he had found Claude the following day. Supposing that a similar had occurred, it was only natural that M. de Marbois should be anxious not to reveal the fact. That must be the reason for his reticent, and vague replies…
He considered that his own responsibility was seriously involved in the matter. He alone knew of Claude’s morbid condition, and the dangerous lengths to which such a maniac might go. Had he taken things too lightly when he had not told the father exactly how they stood, and when he called “neurasthenia” what might, perhaps, be more serious?
He made up his mind to have a confidential talk with M. de Marbois as soon as possible; speaking as man to man, he would end by knowing the truth.
Claude did not seem to be aware of the mental travail going on within him, and answered:
“I? I never slept better in my life.”
He spoke so calmly that M. Coutelet doubted his own logic. Besides, Claude had gone back to the first part of their conversation.
“You were saying that a person’s attitude may help one to diagnose; that is when it relates to a surgical case, I imagine, but what about a medical case?...
“A medical case,” cried the apothecary, carried away by his subject, “why, my dear fellow, the most extraordinary things have been known to happen. I can remember…many years ago when I was completing my studies in Paris…a man who was found dead in bed. His servant was suspected of having killed, in order to rob him, and, ma foi, they were actually on the point of arresting him, when somebody was so struck with the expression of horror still reflected in the dead man’s eyes, that he was impelled to follow the direction of the look, the trajectory, so to speak, and saw, at the culminating point, a monstrous, and horrible spider. When he had caught sight of it, the old man had died of fright; syncope, sudden stopping of the heart, that sort of thing is well-known.”
“What you tell me is strange,” said Claude thoughtfully. “Now I remember a detail to which I attached no importance, and to which Mère Chagne called my attention. M de Marbois, my father, had his head hidden under his arm when we found him, so firmly too, that when I put him on the bed I had to make two attempts to bring his arm back to its normal position.”
“Ah!” exclaimed M. Coutelet, triumphantly, “here is something definite. We must follow that clue. Come with me.”
They turned on their steps, and went back to the library. M. Coutelet placed himself opposite the bookcase, standing in the same position that M. de Marbois must have done, when he fell, and looked straight ahead, to the right, to the left, and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, shook his head. But as he looked down at his feet, he saw the book that had not been picked up, and said:
“Your father has the same taste as you, he was reading Apparition!”
“Can it be that which impressed him to such an extent?” murmured Claude.
“You surely don’t think that,” answered M. Coutelet with a smile.
“I’m not thinking, I’m asking?” Claude corrected him.
“No,” M. Coutelet assured him, “we must look elsewhere.”
“Then we will look,” answered Claude, “But excuse me if I do not go to the gate with you; my father might be wanting me.”
Mère Chagne kept Claude company by his father’s bedside for several hours. When night came on, she left them. At once, M de Marbois, who until then had appeared to be sleeping, tried to get up. Claude stopped him.
“Are you not comfortable here? Where would you be better? You yourself assured me this was my mother’s favorite room; it must be full of memories for you…”
“I wish to get up,” said M. de Marbois decidedly. “I wish to leave this house. You will never hear of me again. …I will leave you all I possess.”
“Why speak of departure, of exile and of giving me all your fortune? On the contrary you will remain here.”
“Yes, yes,” murmured M. de Marbois, “you want a public confession…Yesterday, when I arrived, I felt that you knew. …That portrait, the book on my table…the telegram…this room where you have forced me to sleep…”
“A portrait? A book? A telegram?...There is only mother’s portrait here; I could not possibly tell you what book I put on your table, and as for the telegram, I have not received one since I came to Trois-Tourelles…”
“Your silent entry…your challenge…” went on M. de Marbois.
Claude appeared lost in amazement.
“I came in? I spoke to you? How could I have done? After taking you to your room, I went out with M. Coutelet, and did not see you again.”
“You did not come back here?”
“You did not show me a photograph?”
“You did not tell me some one had forced open the writing-desk?”
“I said to you: ‘Father, this your room; sleep well, and if you want anything call me.’ I said nothing else.”
“What is the good of lying, and speaking so kindly to me?” murmured M. de Marbois.
“Why should I lie, and why should I speak to you other than I do? By the way, you mentioned the writing-desk. Would you let me have the key of it?”
“It is in the lock,” said M. de Marbois in a voice that was hardly audible.
Claude went to the next room, opened the desk, and took out a piece of paper:
“Do you mean this?”
M. de Marbois uttered a cry:
“Give it to me.”
“Here it is.”
He read the telegram and was about to crumple it in his fingers. Claude took it from him in the most natural way and replaced it where he had found it, then, as he heard M. Coutelet talking to Mère Chagne in the garden, he went to meet him.
“How’s the patient?” asked the old man.
“Not very well. After a few hours’ sleep he woke in a state of great excitement. He tries to get up, utters words that seem senseless to me, cries that he is caught in a trap…”
“The devil!” ejaculated M. Coutelet, “that looks like the mania of persecution.”
“Is that serious?”
M. Coutelet pursed up his lips without replying.
They had reached the door. Seated on his bed, his knees drawn up under his chin, M. de Marbois’ face was hidden in his hands. At the sound of their footsteps, he jerked upright; M. Coutelet was struck by the violent start, but without showing it, began a friendly conversation with him, in which he provided both questions and answers. M. de Marbois seemed oblivious of everything. His eyes, now fixed in a glare, now roving round, refused to meet another’s. Once, wishing to force him to look him in the face, M. Coutelet caught hold of his shoulder. But he threw himself back with a scream, and, as the apothecary attempted to continue the conversation, he replied in a plaintive voice:
“I remember nothing…between the time when I undressed, and when I waked up in my bed, there is a gap…a great gap…”
“Yet,” put in Claude, “were you not telling me just now that some one had followed you into this room?”
“I can’t remember…”
“You also said something about a book…”
“Do what you like,” stammered M. de Marbois, closing his eyes, “I am waiting…”
“What are you waiting for?” asked M. Coutelet, curious to find what the irrelevant reply meant.
M. de Marbois jerked his head towards Claude:
M. Coutelet thought all persistence useless, said a few more encouraging words, and signed to Claude to follow him into the library:
“What is your opinion?” asked Claude as soon as they were alone:
“Not very encouraging,” grunted the apothecary, in the tone of a man worried by thoughts he would prefer not to express. He rubbed his chin, tapped his finger-tips on the books that lay upon the table.
“You are not anxious in any way?” asked Claude. His quiet manner induced Coutelet to reply:
“Yes, my boy, I am, and seriously too. …I am no savant, my science does not go much higher than that of a quack, but a quack sees things in the true light very often, because, when making a diagnosis, he often does not bother about the exceptions that worry the doctors…You can therefore accept my opinion, with reservations…although…Anyhow, were I in your place, I should send for a specialist from Paris…This morning it looked like a delirium brought on by a bad dream, or by hallucination when in a waking state…Now I fear the cause of the trouble is more deeply seated. A bad dream does not last four and twenty hours, daylight disposes of the fancies bred of night, and it is the same with hallucination…”
“But then,” murmured Claude, “do you mean that my father is…”
The door opened violently: M. de Marbois appeared:
“What are you waiting for? Do I look like a man who is trying to escape? I am ready, take me away. But no more pretense, no more plotting. Let us have done with it, I am here!”
He stretched out his arms and crossed his wrists. Claude was about to reply, M. Coutelet forestalled him:
M. de Marbois went back into his room; Claude looked at the apothecary:
“Why did you say that?”
“Because you must never contradict patients like that. You must not argue with a man who has a fixed idea in his head. The words your father said are evidently the result of such a thought…if you can call such a disconcerting and fantastic jumble by such a name…But do we know what that thought is? …And if we knew it what good would it be to reason, where reason no longer is.”
“Oh!” ejaculated Claude with a start.
This time the word had been said. After having turned it round and round in his mouth, and kept it back on his lips, old Coutelet felt relieved at having let it out, and began a long speech.
In the mediocrity of his present existence, the honest fellow had never forgotten the ambitions of his youth. At the back of his little shop, where all his knowledge resolved itself into the compounding of ointments and pills, commonplace duties, almost the same as those of a very fussy grocer, he loved to embellish his conversation with the souvenirs of his student days. A passion to show off his learning was rather a weak spot with him. Thus, forgetting that he was speaking of a father to his son he began a veritable lecture:
“What is madness? A lesion, more or less serious of the intellectual and mental faculties? The causes of it? So diverse in their kinds that I will not try to explain them to you.
“Here we have before us one who believes himself to be the victim of persecution; his conversation, his gestures, his attitude, everything point to it. The crisis now taking place is nothing but the climax of a thousand small crises that have already taken place without our knowledge.
“Furious as he was a few moments since, he is perhaps calm at this very moment. A deceiving calm that the smallest excitement would break. For these sufferers, forgetfulness is only momentary. That is why I advise you not to allude to anything that has taken place when you return to him…Now I tell you once again, the only person who can decide the matter is a specialist. Believe me, it would be wise to send for one at once…What about Dr. Charlier, for instance…I mention him…but if you have any one else to suggest…”
“Not in the least…If you really consider it necessary to send for him…”
“Then will you be good enough to send for him?”
“He can get here within forty-eight hours.”
“And,” said Claude slowly, “what do you think he will order?”
“Confinement in an asylum without the slightest doubt.”
“How awful!” murmured Claude, hiding his face in his hands.
But behind them, he began to laugh so hard, that he had to bite his lips in order to stop.
Instead of returning to M. de Marbois’ room, Claude went round, crossed a passage, and looked through a keyhole. Standing before the window, M. de Marbois was looking out into the garden, without daring, however, to go close up where he could be seen in the broad daylight. Now and then a shudder convulsed him, and he made as though to hide his face behind his arm again in the same way that had struck Mère Chagne so much. Then he drew a hand across the back of his neck, and a hoarse cry escaped him. Suddenly he began to run round and round the room, hitting at the wall with his fists:
“Growl away, bang away, the four walls are strong!”
This state of panic, which resembled that of a trapped beast, was followed by exhaustion, and flinging himself into an armchair M. de Marbois began to mutter unintelligible words.
“Oh!” thought Claude, “things are moving too rapidly, much too rapidly!”
His hate was counting on a more long-drawn-out feast. If he had overcome his desire to kill the evening before, it was in order to gloat over his victory, to taste its delights, to keep it going as he liked with his alternate kind words and threats.
A moment ago when M. Coutelet had mentioned the word asylum, he had laughed in his sleeve, because he knew, that in spite of appearances, M. de Marbois was not mad, and that uncertainty as to whether he was trying to spare him or ruin him, was the only reason for his incoherent replies, his fits of rage, and half-avowals which none but he himself could understand.
Now he began to wonder whether the old man was right, whether he was assisting at the shipwreck of that unyielding sanity the serenity of which had never been disturbed by any threat. If that were the case, good-by to punishment. In a few hours M. de Marbois would be nothing but a rag of humanity; you could insult, ill-treat, and take him away, without his realizing anything.
Truly, if his vengeance were to end at that, what a sell! It would be better to strike while a glimmer of reason remained. At least he would taste the physical joy of killing; that it would only last for a moment, he knew; but what a moment, and what a joy!
While he was thinking these things, M. de Marbois turned round and he saw his face in the full light of day.
These hours of waiting had turned him from the strong, handsome man that he was only yesterday, into an old one. His body was bent, his hands hung limp; under the open shirt collar his neck looked stringy; his cheek-bones stood out, his cheeks had fallen in, and his dim eyes looked upwards like the eyes of a condemned man on his way to the scaffold.
The sight was sweet to Claude! Truly he had accomplished a great work! He, the weak creature, whose opinion, whose requests, whose presence, even was despised; he who had gone through life as though apologizing for being there at all; he who was filled with wonder at the least bold move, he had done this thing!
He would have liked people to be able to see him confront this man and to say to them: “Which of us is afraid now, he or I?”
And yet he had not the courage to push open the door. Broken as he was M. de Marbois still dominated him. No one can tremble during twenty years at the mere sight of a person, without something of that fear remaining behind; it is long before the dog turned wolf again does not start at the sound of the whip, and oppressed peoples, even in apparent revolt, keep, for generations, the frightened timidity of slaves.
M. de Marbois leaped to his feet, ran to the window, and opened it. Claude thought he was going to throw himself out and have done with it… Fear of this dispersed all other fears, and he rushed into the room. Surprised at the suddenness of his appearance, M. de Marbois stopped.
“Ouf!” sighed Claude, “you did give me a fright?”
The words were simple, even affectionate, and in no way differed from those he had spoken since the day before. But his tone was so pointed that M. de Marbois felt his flesh go icy cold. Besides, Claude had given up pretending. After looking at his father from head to foot with the cynical air of a horse-dealer, he sat astride the arm of a chair and remarked:
“Well, and how goes it?”
M. de Marbois looked hard at the door.
“Ah, yes,” said Claude, as he went to close it, “you are expecting a visitor, I believe? But he will not be here yet awhile… Just a little later…”
M. de Marbois did not move; Claude pointed to a chair opposite his:
“We are in no hurry; we have so much to say to one another.”
“Now confess that you were surprised at my kindness this morning. You said to yourself: ‘that fellow is going off his head! After trying to kill me here he is, surrounding me with the tenderest care; after accusing me of a crime he makes not the least allusion to it.’ This sort of thing is enough to unhinge the most well-balanced brain. The whole thing is so bewildering, I wouldn’t mind betting that you have gone so far as to ask yourself if you are not the one to be going out of your mind; and if the scene that took place were not a bad dream? …That’s it, isn’t it? I have guessed; you are hesitating between the real and the unreal; at this very moment you cannot make up your mind… It must be a very unpleasant sensation not to be sure of one’s sanity… You say no word but your hands are eloquent. Come! A little more nerve! Devil take it, control yourself! You are going to need all your courage, for what you have seen and heard is nothing to what remains for you to see and hear.
“And first of all let me explain.
“If I spared you last night, it was not because of any fine feeling. Pity is unknown to me; from whom should I have learned it? …I had made up my mind to make you go mad, and ’pon my soul you were on the right track. I bet that at this moment you would not dare assert that I came into your room last night, nor to deny it? …My wish was that you should lose you reason slowly with here and there a lucid interval, that you should feel madness prowling around you, full of temptations and threats, something in the nature of what I have endured for such long years…only more so.
“But you really are not the strong-minded person I thought you! You staggered at the first onslaught…it’s hardly conceivable to one who knew you for such a devil of a fellow! But there! you would have been raving mad in less than forty-eight hours on the treatment I had prescribed for you! A little while since, I was watching you through this keyhole; you were pitiable. You did not think that any one could see you, did you? Now that is exactly what is worrying me, for it points to a terrific mental collapse in you. Suppose that some body, a detective, for instance, had been watching you instead of me…it would have settled his conviction, and you would have been done for… In the same way, so I’ve been told, examining magistrates have a certain number of tests, more or less infallible, calculated to make their prisoners confess; cross-examination at night, for instance, by the dim light of one lamp. Darkness…Silence…what auxillaries! …There is also physical fatigue. They forget to supply the accused with a chair, they keep him standing for one hour, two hours, and when, exhausted, he asks to sit down, they take no notice and go on with the inquiry…
“I should have made a good examining magistrate. But with a criminal like you there wouldn’t have been much pleasure in it; it is too easy. Think what you confessed when that good man, M. Coutelet, was here!”
For the first time M. de Marbois opened his lips:
“Yes, indeed, in so many words. Only it never entered the head of that most excellent man that you were a murderer, and he put it down to mania; a particular kind of mania, lasting and dangerous… He even gave it a name; the mania of persecution. And, as you know, when a doctor…and he is that to all extents and purposes…gives a name to an illness, the patient is bound to consent to have it.”
This jest seemed to him such a merry one, that he burst into laughter, slapping his knees:
“Whatever fault I may have committed,” began M. de Marbois.
“Fault? Gad, you are modest!”
“Whatever crime,” the wretched man corrected himself.
“That’s better,” exclaimed Claude.
“Remember that your mother…”
As the words left his mouth Claude rushed at him with uplifted hand:
“Don’t bring her name into all this! I can guess what you are coward enough to suggest, but I will not allow it! Not much! You would like to make me believe that she was your accomplice…”
“That is not what I was about to say,” murmured M. de Marbois. “Remember that your mother bore my name…that it is yours, too…”
“Ah!” exclaimed Claude with a sigh of relief, “that is good to hear! You are not as mad as I thought, indeed you are not mad at all, since in the middle of such an upheaval you can still find arguments that might convince any one except myself. Your name? It is not part of me any more than the clothing I wear. It is not my name, I will have none of it. It can be dragged in the gutter without a spatter of dirt touching me. To prove that you are nothing to me, I have only to mention two dates, the date of your marriage, and the date of my birth. No, really, if you have nothing better to offer me…”
As he spoke, he got up, and walked slowly up and down the room; M. de Marbois sat with bent head, lost in meditation. But in reality he was on the alert. His muscles, which an instant before, had appeared so slack, were gradually becoming taut. By imperceptible jerks he brought his elbows to rest on the arms of the chair again. He leaned against the flat of it, and placed his feet flat on the carpet. Soon his position was adjusted, and as Claude turned his back on him, he raised himself on his hands.
“Hi there!” cried Claude suddenly, facing round on him. “You cannot get rid of me like you did of M. Deguy! I am young and suspicious… And what would be the good of that? After you’ve done for me as well? A fine advance indeed! I have taken my precautions, my proofs are in a safe place…”
He lied with contemptuous assurance. M. de Marbois realized that he was the weaker and that it was necessary to gain time. However complete Claude’s calm might be, he guessed it was but short-lived, and that one of the fits of excitement which he had so often witnessed would suddenly take its place. Then the rôles would be reversed. He would seize him with both hands, Chagne and his wife would come rushing up in answer to his shouts, and it would be proved that the young fellow was mad… If that were not sufficient, if the terrified people hesitated to separate them…well then…he would press…he would press…like the other…
At the thought a faint smile came to his lips. But, already Claude had a new idea and went on:
“Come, we have wasted time enough already! You will realize that I did not come here without knowing what I was about. I have my plan, and will tell it to you. In two days, Dr. Charlier will be my guest. He is a well-known mental specialist, a great celebrity, world famous. Between now and then you must have made up your mind. I might impose my will upon you; I leave you to choose. You see, I am generous… When I say choose, I do not mean that exactly. I offer you two solutions. Either you will continue to act madness, and you are such a good actor that the great man will be taken in, or you will confess, …and that means a cell…and I need not tell you what will follow…
“Until then I will keep you company. Don’t be afraid. I shall not be in your way. If you care for conversation, we will talk. If you prefer silence you shall not hear the sound of my voice. I do not mind one way or the other, and shall be equally delighted to see the handcuffs put on you or the strait-waistcoat. And now allow me to rest, for these two days have rather tried my nerves.”
He sat down in an armchair, and stretched out his legs on another.
At mid-day, Mère Chagne brought in lunch, and laid the table for two. Claude deliberately unfolded his napkin, and proferred the dish.
“A little of this excellent fish?”
M. de Marbois pushed the dish away.
“Come, monsieur,” said Mère Chagne, “you must eat, it will make you strong; be good.”
And as he sat hunching up his shoulders, she persisted in the sing-song baby voice with which you encourage a sulky child:
“It is good, it is very good!”
He thumped the table with his fist:
“Get out you old witch! Get out, the whole lot of you!”
Mère Chagne stood still in blank amazement holding out a filet of sole on the end of a fork. Claude winked at her reassuringly and said in a low voice:
“Do not wait, Mère Chagne…I will get him to eat when he is quieter.”
With his fingers gripping the cloth, grasping his knife with trembling hand, M. de Marbois cast furious glances around him. Claude waited until the worthy soul had closed the door behind her, and remarked:
“You vote for madness then? Very well, it is your concern.” He then began to eat again. He had never felt so light-hearted. Calm descended on him. He reveled in its freshness, and in the mentality of a man who has nothing left to desire. The far-off past, veiled in doubt, the horror-laden days preceding the revelation which had devastated his reason, withdrew to make way for perfect peace.
When he had finished his meal, he folded his napkin, rubbed his hands, and with the little shiver down his back which follows on a well-digested meal, he looked out at the garden where rain had brightened up the yellow of the gravel paths, the bronze of the leaves and the green of the grass, and rejoiced at the thought of the coming winter.
Soon the white frost would powder the countryside, the sound of sabots clattering along the hard roads would be heard, the oxen, would come along, enveloped in clouds of steam, ice would cover the pond, and, quietly seated by his fireside, he would watch the dance of the flames in the black depth of the hearth.
After he had gazed earnestly at the picture conjured up in his mind, correcting and defining its details, and reveling in the delights of his freedom, the silence began to weigh on him.
Truth to tell, M. de Marbois was most placid for a condemned man; it almost looked as though he realized nothing; and did not understand the suffering contained in the word “cell.”
Therefore, in order to fill this gap, he began to talk, in the careless voice he had adopted about an hour ago.
“A mad-house is not really so terrible after all. The companions one meets with there must be anything but dull. Some of them may be dangerous, no doubt, but once the fit is over, they become sociable again. The keepers are a little severe, perhaps, the shower bath? the strait-waistcoat? …Bah! when you were proposing to send me away to stay in one of these establishments, you did not trouble… I know that if you were classed as ‘dangerous’ you would enjoy…if I may say so…a special treatment, for, knowing you as I do, you would prefer isolation in a padded cell to tiresome promiscuity…”
“Scoundrel!” growled M. de Marbois, seizing a knife that lay on the table.
Claude burst into a fit of laughter:
“What a pity there is no one to hear you! Shout, threaten, rouse the village, don’t let that worry you. Before long Dr. Charlier will be here, and it would be unfortunate if we had made him come here for nothing. But spare yourself the trouble of brandishing that weapon—the real knife is in my pocket. That one has only got a rotten silver blade. Ah, yes! I’m not tired of life yet. Once I could not understand why you cared so much about it; since this morning I do. The parts are reversed, that’s all…you in prison, and I free. What a juggling of fate! When you go away I’ll come and see you there, now and then we will exchange pleasant remarks on either side of the bars, and I will see that you lack nothing. People will say, “What a good son!”
He leaned his clenched fists on the table, and bending over with a terrible expression suddenly appearing on his face, added:
“But you and alone know what that means.”
M. de Marbois ground his teeth. Claude laughed the louder:
“The cleverest might well be taken in; you are such a good actor. You must behave just like that, and in no other way before Dr. Charlier. At this moment your expression is splendid. I am not lying…look at yourself in that glass; it is not a deceptive glass, it was the first to tell me the beginning of your life story and of mine. Time has not dimmed the clearness of it. Although the years have tarnished it, they could not wipe away the traces of the faces it reflected. Close beside your evil countenance I see that of two souls, my mother and M. Deguy. Take care, they are watching you; there are three of us around you, and those whose spirits alone are present are not the least to be feared.”
M. de Marbois lifted a chair and sent it crashing into the mirror. Claude looked at the fragments of glass that lay scattered on the floor, and shook his head:
“The dead are still there, just the same; ask M. Coutelet.”
The apothecary had just opened the door; Claude explained matters to him in a pitiful voice.
“He is rather excited, but he’s better now, are you not, father?”
M. de Marbois threw himself on the bed and hid his face in the pillow.
“Yes,” went on Claude, “it happened suddenly, and quite unprovoked. Mère Chagny and I were pressing him to eat, when he began to wave his arms about and to shout.”
“Alas!” sighed the apothecary, “I was right. Things are turning out as I expected. Of all the manias this particular one is the most terrible. When it gets hold of a person, it effaces everything. The patient lives in a constant state of terror ceaselessly obsessed by fears for what he considers his safety. He forgets to eat and drink, so that he may watch the deeds and words of those who surround him; he rushes at his keeper just at the very moment when he appears to have calmed down. I have brought the rope with me, if he becomes dangerous we can pinion him.”
“Have you got it with you?”
“Here it is.”
Claude opened the parcel, took out the rope, and, with trembling hands, began to feel it. He was filled with such intense joy that he turned away his head to hide the gleam in his eyes. As he helped him, M. Coutelet explained the way to use it:
“First of all you get hold of his feet, and fasten it in a slip knot; then you bring the rope up and put it once around the hips, then up to shoulders, round the arms, and finish off at the wrists. Thus bound the patient can only wriggle. It is the same principle as the strait-waistcoat.”
“Perhaps now that he is quiet it would be a good thing to fix it on,” suggested Claude.
“I would rather you waited a little,” replied M. Coutelet. “By giving him a good dose of chloral we shall gain a few hours. In the meantime, Dr. Charlier will have arrived.”
“Do you think he will?”
“He will be up at Trois-Tourelles to-morrow evening.”
Claude went up to the bed, and leaning over M. de Marbois, said in the same tone as Mère Chagne when she had been urging him to eat:
“Do you hear? To-morrow the good doctor will be hear to look after you.”
Leaning closer, he whispered:
“A cell, furnished with strong bars, where you will be able to weep and howl at your ease.”
He expected an explosion of rage, which would give him an immediate pretext for pinioning him, but M. de Marbois never stirred. The apothecary laid the rope on the couch, uncorked the bottle of medicine, and gave instructions to leave nothing he could use as a weapon, within the patient’s reach, and took his departure.
During the night, Claude kept silence. Darkness made him circumspect. Shadows flitted about the room. All around him was a kind of gentle gliding, a murmur of voices seeking one another, and, with his hands stretched out in the empty space, he seemed to take hold of cold gossamer veils. The keenness of his senses was so acute that he saw in the darkness, his ears heard infinitesimal sounds in the silence and, through the walls, the odors of the earth caressed his nostrils.
The sensation was delicious yet terrible. It made him doubt the reality of his existence and ask himself if he were not already in the kingdom of disembodied shapes, a wandering soul among other eager souls, seeking a body into which he could creep for the space of a second. He saluted the phantoms as they passed by; some of them smiled at him, others continued on their way. They were a mute, intangible multitude, the aggregation of millions of vapors, which had once been men. He recognized, but could assign to them neither features nor color. Once he stretched out his arms to a floating form that seemed more ethereal than the others, and cried:
“It is it you, mother?”
And he thought he heard the plaintive voice reply:
“Yes, my child, it is I.”
Again he spoke, his eyes filled with tears:
“Oh, mother! What ought I to do?”
The form had already faded away. He thought she had vanished in order to allow him to do the thing he wished. Besides, dawn was breaking, spreading before the window the outline of trees, the masses of cloud, and the wound which the rising sun makes in the side of the somber sky.
Then the notion of reality came to him again, and he went up to the bed on which M. de Marbois lay. M. de Marbois was asleep. His breast rose and fell to his quiet breathing, his hands lay limp, and, judging by his calm face, it was evident that no painful though troubled his sleep.
This discovery made him pensive. He compared that other’s state of mind with his own. He, possessed by the idea of justice alone, was troubled; with retribution at hand, the other man slept.
Soon, the house awoke; the stable doors opened, the dog barked, he heard the cries of the herds, and the voice of Mère Chagne as she scattered bread to her fowls. Then a train passed, whistling, and the church bell tinkled the call to matins.
“Come,” said he, tapping M. de Marbois on the shoulder, “you have slept long enough. Make the most of the hours of freedom left to you and look upon the things you will see no more.”
The face M. de Marbois turned to him was calm. He threw back the bedclothes, got up, and began to dress. After he had washed himself with much splashing, he brushed his hair, polished his nails on the palm of his hand, took a book, and sat down near the window. Yesterday’s pallor had disappeared; his eyes were clear, his gestures tranquil.
Claude began to fidget round him:
“You haven’t forgotten that it’s this evening?”
M. de Marbois lifted his eyes from his book, shook his head, and became engrossed in his reading again.
After a long silence, broken only by the rustle of the pages, Claude remarked again, as though he were talking to himself:
“I mustn’t forget to tell Père Chagne to get the omnibus ready, because they will be taking you away immediately, I imagine.”
“What are you talking about?” inquired M. de Marbois without interrupting his reading.
“I am curious to see how you behave before Dr. Charlier,” went on Claude. “That man’s eyes will seek out the very depths of your soul.”
And as M. de Marbois still kept an obstinate silence, he went on talking about the cell, the shower-bath, the straight-waistcoat, detailing the horrors of perpetual confinement, the shrieks and rages of the lunatics, the anguish of feeling one’s reason crumble.
“If the torture seems too great, you can always confess…in that way you will escape from this prison, and from life.”
M. de Marbois went on reading, and occasionally a smile appeared on his lips. Mère Chagne brought in lunch at twelve o’clock. M. de Marbois put a marker in his book and sat down at table.
“Are you hungry by chance?” sneered Claude, almost suffocating with rage.
“Why should I not be hungry?” answered M. de Marbois.
“I am glad to see Monsieur is well again,” put in Mère Chagne.
“Excellent woman!” remarked M. de Marbois, gratefully pouring himself out a glass of wine. “But you are not eating anything, Claude; you have tired yourself looking after me, my son.”
With set teeth and hands gripping the tablecloth, Claude stared at the man who mocked him. In order to hide his agitation, he tried to swallow a piece of bread, but it stuck in his throat. M. de Marbois talked affectionately to him, and ate of everything on the table.
He stopped speaking as soon as Mère Chagne went out, and went on with his reading.
At about four o’clock it began to grow dark. In the most ordinary voice M. de Marbois asked Claude to light the lamp. He replied that he was quite comfortable as he was, and that darkness was conducive to thought.
“As you please,” answered M. de Marbois, shutting up his book.
And they sat in silence, side by side, while the sky grew dark. The clock struck seven.
“Come,” said Claude, “this is the end. I am obliged to you for having spared me your lamentations, not that they would have moved me to pity, but sensitive and excitable as I know myself to be, I might have used harsh methods in compelling you to keep silence. So we will waste no time over these little formalities. The Paris express arrives at 7.15. I am going to pinion you, but not too tightly. When the doctor and M. Coutelet come, they will find you ready to start. Let us make haste, the train is whistling: in less than ten minutes they will be here. Your feet first…don’t you remember M. Coutelet’s explanation? …”
“Yes, yes,” affirmed M. de Marbois.
“Well, I’ve changed my mind; that is all.”
Claude threw down the rope which he was preparing to place in position:
“You prefer to confess?”
“Then I shall have to accuse you?”
“And what then?”
“What then?...the law courts…a trip…a trip at break of day, or at least, penal servitude…a pleasant prospect.”
“Not so bad as you say…Only it is nothing but a dream. The law is not indulgent, but it knows how to make the best of a bad job. Do the same. Have you never heard of what is called prescription? ...Even though they proved my guilt a hundred times over…and that is not so easy as you seem to think…I have nothing to fear from the law. Had I invented that law myself, I could not have done it better…That I shall have to render up my account some day, elsewhere, is a matter that concerns the devil and myself. In the meantime, what is the good of making a scandal? You can make up your mind to it, my boy, I’m free and intend to remain free. Let me pass. When these medical gentlemen arrive, you will make them my excuses for having disturbed them, and if, at all costs, they want to prove how clever they are, they can always busy themselves with you.”
Claude listened, speechless with amazement. Suddenly, as M. de Marbois stretched out a hand to open the door, he leaped upon him with such fury, that M. de Marbois, without being able to defend himself, fell backwards. But, hardly had his shoulders touched the floor, than he flung the other off with a jerk, and they began to fight without a word or a cry, arms and legs interlocked, a terrible couple, so closely united that they became one moving mass, now rearing upright, now staggering against the walls that shook under the impact.
Sometimes the violence of a rush, the agony of a bite, separated them: in the darkness they cursed and defied each other and quickly closed up again. After a bite that filled his mouth with the taste of blood, Claude attempted nothing else. With his head held firmly under the arm of M. de Marbois, he tore at the cloth that protected the flesh beneath. Presently, half-suffocated, he ceased his attack. M. de Marbois put a knee on his chest, and sneered, as fresh as though it had all been in play, his strong hands knotted around the thin neck:
Claude panted without replying; M. de Marbois believed him to be at his mercy and loosened his grip.
“Fool!” shouted Claude, raising himself with one bound, and burying the knife, which since yesterday had lain concealed in his pocket, in his neck.
A jet of blood gushed out, splashing his face. Then, every particle of reason that remained in him vanished, and he began to rain blows on the still face, striking with the handle of the knife, with the blade, heaping insults upon it, pinching it with his streaming fingers, seizing the head by the hair and banging it on the floor, and mingling plaintive cries with his yells, as though to offer the dead man to the spirits of the departed.
“Are you content? Now my hands are clean. …There is no more shadow. …All is clear, all is beautiful!”
Mère Chagne called from below:
“Are you there, master?”
He did not hear her, and went on raving:
“He would not die, the swine! he held out, but so did I! For twenty years, I have been living for this moment! How well we shall sleep to-night! …”
He sat down on the ground, and drew the back of his hand across his brow with an “ouf!” of relief, like a laborer, laying down his burden. His muscles relaxed deliciously, he was growing sleepy, and he sat there like a faithful watch-dog, proud of having defended his house.
Mère Chagne tapped discreetly at the door, and getting no reply, opened it. At first, in spite of the lamp, she could not see anything, and said, as she allowed Dr. Charlier and M. Coutelet to pass:
“I thought as much…he has fallen asleep, poor fellow!”
Claude saw the group, and, without rising, asked them to come in.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in! This will interest you, no doubt. Good evening, M. Coutelet.”
He rose to his knees and they saw his blood-bespattered face. The apothecary started back:
“Well, M. Coutelet,” cried Claude, surprised, “are you offended with me, that you don’t shake hands?”
He looked attentively at his hands on which the blood was coagulating in great patches:
“Is that what you object to? …My dear sir, I am what I am; you must take what friendship I offer or go away.”
Already he was getting up to cast forth the intruders, when his eyes fell on the corpse, and he stopped uncertainly. Blood was everywhere, on the floors, on the walls, on the furniture, the window panes…not a thing, not a corner that did not bear its scarlet mark, even his head and body were plastered with it.
“Wretched man!” cried M. Coutelet, while Dr. Charlier, horrified, bent over the dead body, and Mère Chagne took to her heels.
“Well,” said Claude, “what’s the matter with you all? Don’t you know who that is? It is Marbois the murderer, and I have killed him. Since when does one allow a criminal to remain at large? Kill, and thou shalt be killed. Yes, gentlemen, that is my rule. Applaud the chance that has permitted me to punish the guilty on this very spot. His death will appease two souls here. You do not see them; I see them, I hear them. If you only knew what they say to me! Just now, they were laughing; it was the first time I had ever heard them laugh, I their son! A son who never heard the laugh of his parents…is such a thing credible?”
Dr. Charlier tried to grasp the arm brandishing the knife. He pulled it away, furiously.
“You are not thinking of arresting me, when the murderer lies there? Why did you not get hold of him thirty years ago? For thirty years the bones of a dead man have lain rotting underground, a poor dead man, whom no one would avenge! But God be thanked, I was watching…”
He thought a moment, and shrugged his shoulder indulgently:
“After all you were not supposed to know; if things had not taken me into their confidence, I should never have known the secret. The story of this is more wonderful than all your science, M. Coutelet! I can tell it to you. But never repeat it! For, look you, I had but one love on earth, my mother, and it is of her I would speak with you. I would willingly give my hand to prevent the revelation of the slightest thing that might tarnish her memory. But first of all, who is that gentleman listening to me. …One of your friends? I can trust him?”
His voice echoed weirdly in the room dimly lighted by Mère Chagne’s green-shaded lamp.
“Truth came to me by paths as yet unknown of men. A new sense was offered me, as delicate as sight, as touch, as hearing. Have you ever stopped to think, M. Coutelet, what a human being, gifted with a dog’s sense of smell, would be? How many things, hidden from us, would be made clear to him! The sense of which I speak is a thousand-fold richer; it is the sense of the unknown. Who possesses it possesses all things. Thanks to it I roam in the past as through a garden. One wish…one concentrated desire, and the present vanishes, I lose the shape of your faces…I no longer hear your breathing…a wonderful silence surrounds me…Hush! I enter the garden of the past…
“A date; it is August 13, 1880. My mother is in sitting in her room. She is lost in thought, a book lying on her knees. How sad she looks, and how intently she listens! Yet the house is sleeping, and the wind is so light it hardly rustles the leaves of the trees. Her face contracts, she smiles; again her head droops. M. Deguy enters softly. He leans over her, strokes her hair, and whispers in her ear. She blushes. How quiet everything is, and how full of happiness. …The night is warm, yet my mother shivers. Then M. Deguy kisses her brow, and withdraws. She remains without moving, beside the window. Ten o’clock…eleven o’clock. A shadow crosses the park. It goes its way rapidly, keeping close to the hedges, then once more the door opens, and the shadow appears. Don’t you recognize it? It is M. de Marbois. My mother turns away from him. Her terror amuses him. He speaks:
“ ‘What are you afraid of? He’s asleep.’
“She implores him:
“ ‘Do go away!’
“He reassures her:
“ ‘No one can hear us. You must listen to me to-night. …Do you still refuse yourself? And yet you know quite well that one day, to-morrow perhaps…you will be mine. …You promised me. Then why, at this hour of love, do you turn away from me? Shall we wait until our youth fades…or is it that you no longer love me? The other did you say…? An old man who might be your father!’
“She is about to reply. Suddenly they start upright. M. Deguy stands on the threshold, so deathly white that his silvery hair and the skin of his temples seem one. Amazement stuns him at first, then he demands:
“ ‘What are you doing here?’
“He says the words in a terrible voice; then in a pitiful tone,
“ ‘Collette! Collette! is it possible!’
“My mother does not speak. The man sneers. Then M. Deguy seizes a chair and brandishes it. But the man drags it out of his hands, grips hold of him with both arms, and presses. My mother sits there watching all this. She wants to scream. …Terror gags her and binds her feet. All the horror in the world looks out of her eyes. She hides her face in the palms of her hands, then presses them flat against her sides, as though to hide the sight from every portion of her being. The man still presses. He staggers, give way under the dead weight dragging on him, and the body of M. Deguy crashes to the ground, there, between the fallen chair, and the book that my mother has dropped.
“Then my mother utters a terrible cry; the man puts his hand over her mouth and threatens:
“ ‘If you say a word, I am lost, and you with me.’
“She sinks on a couch, fainting. He carries her back to her bed, undresses her…naturally…to give the impression that she has heard nothing! Then he blows out the lamp, climbs over the balcony, drops into the shrubbery, and runs from lawn to lawn…so that he leaves no footmarks…scales the wall, and off he goes, away through the countryside.”
As he spoke, drops of sweat gathered on his brow, and his voice grew hoarse; he bounded here and there, imitating gestures and facial expressions. It seemed as though he were possessed of a sacred frenzy, that in turn he was the dead man, the unconscious woman, the murderer, and he hurried over his story, hastening to the end, as though the fragile past might melt before his eyes.
“Morning comes. Some one enters, and finds M. Deguy dead in the library, clad in trousers, dressing-gown, night-gown and slippers, like a man getting ready for bed.
“Another date now…October 7, 1880! M. le Comte de Marbois marries Mlle. Colette Fagant. Ghastly, isn’t it? …No indeed, gentlemen, it is nothing. To marry the mistress of the man you have murdered? A very commonplace crime! Who can tell how many others of the same kind have been committed. Like wolves men devour each other. In the one case it is for the sake of a prey; in the other for the sake of a dowry. And, ma foi, M. Deguy’s fortune is no small matter! Millions, gentlemen, millions! It is well worth strangling a man for. I tell you it is nothing, less than nothing! Before I became a judge have not I, too, desired to kill? You can hardly believe it, and yet…! One day I told a famous physician, and he did not believe me…if he had done, he would have had me locked up. And that would have been a great pity, as you are going to see.
“For here is the third date, 12 April, 1881; my birthday. Count! from October to April…six months. The shadow begins to disperse for you as it did for me, does it not? And to think that no one else thought of making such a calculation! Why, of course! you’ve grasped it; I am the son of M. Deguy. When the murder was committed before her I was in my mother’s womb! Yes, my mother, my wretched mother saw that deed! She looked on, a horror-stricken witness at that horrible thing! And that is why I came into the world with a tortured soul, a desire to kill, and these red hands. But now they are white, they will always be white; they had to be washed: I have washed them. Look here, look here! See! …”
He stretched his blood-stained hands above his head, moving them about, and uttering little cries of joy:
Suddenly his face paled; he put out a hand, and stammered:
“M. Coutelet? …Dr. Charlier?”
Neither of the men answered. Two tears ran down his cheeks, and he said no more. Reason was returning to her place.
A confused babel of voices came from the garden. The farm-people, and soon all the villagers had hastened thither in answer to the cries of Mère Chagne. Lighted lanterns darted about, men and women gesticulated and called one to another. The old people told the young all they knew of the by-gone tragedy, with muttered suspicions and vague threats, but without daring to go right up to the house which had been marked out for the second time by crime.
In the room Claude still wept. Accustomed as he was to such scenes, Dr. Charlier could not control his emotion. M. Coutelet stood with bent head. The murder roused the most terrible doubts within him. Out of the chaos of words and incoherent visions, a logical evocation stood out. A thousand details, hitherto of no importance, struck him with strange force. As he looked back on his conversations with Claude, he discerned the gloomy travail that had been accomplished in his brain.
Had not he himself, unconsciously, guided his research and awakened his suspicions? Wise and prudent man that he was, he had allowed himself to be tricked by a semimaniac, and he felt upon his old shoulders the weight of a dreadful responsibility.
In a corner, leaning against the wall, Claude stood motionless.
The contrast between his former vehemence and his present attitude was such that the doctor murmured:
“Is he really mad, or is his madness feigned? If I thought there were a particle of truth in all this, I should ask myself whether it was not more a case for an examining magistrate than for me. What is your opinion, Monsieur? You have lived here for forty years. Have you ever heard any of the things to which this young fellow alludes? Is it true that a man was found dead on this spot?”
“It is true,” answered M. Coutelet in a very low voice.
“Did you know the mother?”
M. Coutelet was about to reply. Claude stared fixedly at him.
“Yes,” murmured the apothecary.
“What sort of a woman was she?”
This time an expression of despair came into Claude’s face. His lips moved, he clasped his hands, and held them out in a frantic gesture of appeal.
“She was a delicate, gentle creature,” answered M. Coutelet, in a voice that shook with emotion. “Shy and charming, a good, loving, blameless mother. …She lived…I believe…a sinless life and died, as we say here, in a state of grace.”
“And so what we have just listened to?...”
“Is sheer madness. The crime and the story are the work of a madman…! And look, if we needed any further proof…”
Suddenly abandoning his calm attitude, Claude burst into a fit of laughter, then rolled over on the floor, clawing at his face with his hands.
“The rope, quickly!” ordered the doctor.
They seized him, pinioned him in a trice, and laid him on the couch; he still yelled, and struggled to free himself.
Dr. Charlier made sure that the rope was firmly fixed, and said with a sigh:
“It had been brought for the father, and has been used on the son!”
“Alas,” said M. Coutelet.
And, as he bent over Claude to free his head which was buried under the cushions, he heard him murmur in a gentle, graceful voice:
“You are a good man, M. Coutelet!”
Seated in a large armchair near the fire, his elbows on his knees, his hands held out to the warmth, he was talking slowly, interrupting himself abruptly now and again with a murmured: “Yes…yes…” as if he were trying to gather up, to make sure of his memories: then he would continue his sentence.
The table beside him was littered with papers, books, odds and ends of various kinds. The lamp was turned low: I could see nothing of him except his pallid face and his hands, long and thin in the fire-light.
The purring of a cat that lay on the hearthrug and the crackling of logs that sent up strangely-shaped flames were the only sounds that broke the silence. He was speaking in a faraway voice as a man might in his dream.
“Yes…yes…It was the great, the greatest misfortune of my life. I could have borne the loss of every penny I possess, of my health…anything…everything…but not that! To have lived for ten years with the woman you adore, and then to watch her die and be left to face life alone…quite alone…it was almost more than I could bear! …It is six months since I lost her… How long ago it seems! And how short the days used to be… If only she had been ill for some time, if only there had been some warning… It seems a horrible thing to say, but when you know beforehand the mind gets prepared, doesn’t it? …Little by little the heart readjusts its outlook…you grow used to the idea…but as it was…”
“But I thought she had been ill for some time?” I said.
He shook his head, “Not at all, not all… It was quite sudden… The doctors, were never even able to find out what was the matter with her… It all happened and was over in two days. Since then I don’t know how or why I have gone on living. All day long I wander round the house looking for some reminder of her that I never find, imagining that she will appear to me from behind the hangings, that a breath of her scent will come to me in the empty rooms…”
He stretched out his hand towards the table.
“Look, yesterday I found that….this veil, in one of my pockets. She gave it to me to carry one evening when we were at the theatre, and I try to believe it still smells of her perfume, is still warm from its contact with her face… But no! Nothing remains…except sorrow…though there is something, only it…it…In the first shock of grief you sometimes have extraordinary ideas… Can you believe I photographed her lying on her death-bed? I took my camera into the white, silent room, and lit the magnesium wire; yes, overwhelmed as I was with grief, I did with the most scrupulous precaution and care things from which I should shrink to-day, revolting things… Yet it is a great consolation to know she is there, that I shall be able to see her again as she looked that last day.”
“Where is this photograph?” I asked.
Leaning forward, he replied in a low voice: “I haven’t got it, or rather, I have it… I have the plate, but I have never had the courage to touch it… Yet how I have longed to see it!”
He laid his hand on my arm: “Listen…to-night…your visit…the way I have been able to talk about her…it makes me feel better, almost strong again…would you, will you come with me to the dark room? Will you help me develop the plate?”
He looked into my face with the anxious, questioning expression of a child who fears he may be refused something he longs to have.
“Of course I will,” I answered.
He rose quickly. “Yes…with you it will be different. With you I shall keep calm…and it will do me good…I shall be much happier…you’ll see…”
We went to the dark room, a closet with bottles ranged round on shelves. A trestle-table littered with dishes, glasses and books ran along one side of the wall.
By the light of a candle that threw flickering shadows round him, he silently examined the labels on the bottles and rubbed some dishes.
Presently he lit a lamp with red glass, blew out the candle, and said to me:
“Shut the door.”
There was something dramatic about the darkness relieved only by the blood-red light. Unexpected reflections touched the sides of the bottles, played on his wrinkled cheeks, on his hollow temples.
He said, “Is the door closely shut? Then I will begin.”
He opened a dark slide and took out the plate. Holding it carefully at the corners between his thumb and first fingers, he looked at it intently for a long time as if trying to see the invisible picture which was so soon to appear.”
With great care he let it glide into the bath and began to rock the dish.
I cannot say why, but it seemed to me that the tapping of the porcelain on the boards at regular intervals made a curiously mournful sound; the monotonous lapping of the liquid suggested a vague sobbing, and I could not lift my eyes from the milk-colored piece of glass which was slowly taking on a darker line round its edges.
I looked at my friend. His lips were trembling as he murmured words and sentences which I failed to catch.
He drew out the plate, held it up to the level of his eyes, and said as I leaned over his shoulder:
“It’s coming up…slowly…My developer is rather weak…But that’s nothing…Look, the high lights are coming…Wait!…you’ll see…”
He put the plate back, and it sank into the developer with a soft, sucking sound.
The gray color had spread uniformly over the whole plate. His head bent over it, he explained:
“That dark rectangle is the bed…up above, that square,” he pointed it out with a motion of his chin, “is the pillow: and in the middle, that lighter part with the pale streak outlined on the background…that is…Look, there is the crucifix I put between her fingers. My poor little one…my darling!”
His voice was hoarse with emotion: the tears were running down his cheeks as his chest rose and fell.
“The details are coming up,” he said presently, trying to control himself. “I can see the lighted candles and the flowers…her hair, which was so beautiful…the hands of which she was so proud…and the little white rosary that I found in her Book of Hours…Mon Dieu, how it hurts to see it all again, yet somehow it makes me happy…very happy…I am looking at her again, my poor darling…”
Feeling that emotion was overcoming him and wishing to soothe, I said:
“Don’t you think the plate is ready now?”
He held it up near the lamp, examined it closely, and put it back in the bath. After a short interval he drew it out afresh, re-examining it, and again put it back, murmuring:
Something in the tone of his voice and abruptness of his gesture struck me, but I had no time to think, for he at once began to speak again.
“There are still some details to come up…”
“It’s rather long, but as I told you my developer is weak…so they only come up one by one.”
He counted: “One…two…three…four…five…This time it will do. If I force it, I shall spoil it…”
He took out the plate, waved it vertically up and down, dipped it in clean water, and held it towards me:
But as I was stretching out my hand he started and I bent forward, holding the plate up to the lamp, and his face, lit up by the light, had become so ghastly that I cried:
“What is it? What’s the matter?
His eyes were fixed in a wide terrified stare, his lips were drawn back and showed teeth that were chattering: I could hear his heart beating in a way that made his body rock backwards and forwards.
I put my hand on his shoulder, and unable to imagine what could possibly cause such terrible anguish, I cried for the second time:
“But what is it? Tell me. What’s the matter?”
He turned his face to me, so drawn it no longer seemed human, and as his blood-shot eyes looked into mine he seized me by the wrist with a grip that sent his nails into my flesh.
Thrice he opened his mouth trying to speak; then brandishing the plate above his head, he shrieked into the crimson-lit darkness:
“The matter? …the matter? …I have murdered her! …She wasn’t dead! …the eyes have moved!…”