"For two months I was the best of lovers. In her room, she had made a kind of magnificent chapel in which to keep this bit of mutton chop, which, as she thought, had made me commit that love-crime, and she worked up her religious enthusiasm in front of it every morning and evening. I had asked her to keep the matter secret, for fear, as I said, that I might be arrested, condemned and given over to Germany, and she kept her promise.
"Well, at the beginning of the summer, she was seized with an irresistible wish to see the scene of my exploit, and she begged her father so persistently (without telling him her secret reason), that he took her to Cologne, but without telling me of their trip, according to his daughter's wish.
"I need not tell you that I had not seen the interior of the cathedral. I do not know where the tomb (if there be a tomb), of the Eleven Thousand Virgins is, and then, it appears that it is unapproachable, alas!
"A week afterwards, I received ten lines, breaking off our engagement, and then an explanatory letter from her father, whom she had, somewhat late, taken into her confidence.
"At the sight of the shrine, she had suddenly seen through my trickery and my lie, and had also found out that I was innocent of any other crime. Having asked the keeper of the relics whether any robbery had been committed, the man began to laugh, and pointed out to them how impossible such a crime was, but from the moment I had plunged my profane hand into venerable relics, I was no longer worthy of my fair-haired and delicate betrothed.
"I was forbidden the house; I begged and prayed in vain, nothing could move the fair devotee, and I grew ill from grief. Well, last week, her cousin, Madame d'Arville, who is yours also, sent word to me that she should like to see me, and when I called, she told me on what conditions I might obtain my pardon, and here they are. I must bring her a relic, a real, authentic relic, certified to be such by Our Holy Father, the Pope, of some virgin and martyr, and I am going mad from embarrassment and anxiety.
"I will go to Rome, if needful, but I cannot call on the Pope unexpectedly, and tell him my stupid adventure; and, besides, I doubt whether they let private individuals have relics. Could not you give me an introduction to some cardinal, or only to some French prelate, who possesses some remains of a female saint? Or perhaps you may have the precious object she wants in your collection?
"Help me out of my difficulty, my dear Abbe, and I promise you that I will be converted ten years sooner than I otherwise should be!
"Madame d'Arville, who takes the matter seriously, said to me the other day:
"'Poor Gilberte will never marry.'
"My dear old schoolfellow, will you allow your cousin to die the victim of a stupid piece of business on my part? Pray prevent her from being the eleventh thousand and one virgin.
"Pardon me, I am unworthy, but I embrace you, and love you with all my heart.
"Your old friend,
THE MAN WITH THE BLUE EYES
Monsieur Pierre Agenor de Vargnes, the Examining Magistrate, was the exact opposite of a practical joker. He was dignity, staidness, correctness personified. As a sedate man, he was quite incapable of being guilty, even in his dreams, of anything resembling a practical joke, however remotely. I know nobody to whom he could be compared, unless it be the present president of the French Republic. I think it is useless to carry the analogy any further, and having said thus much, it will be easily understood that a cold shiver passed through me when Monsieur Pierre Agenor de Vargnes did me the honor of sending a lady to wait on me.
At about eight o'clock, one morning last winter, as he was leaving the house to go to the Palais de Justice, his footman handed him a card, on which was printed:
DOCTOR JAMES FERDINAND, Member of the Academy of Medicine, Port-au-Prince, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
At the bottom of the card, there was written in pencil:
From Lady Frogere
Monsieur de Vargnes knew the lady very well, who was a very agreeable Creole from Haiti, and whom he had met in many drawing-rooms, and, on the other hand, though the doctor's name did not awaken any recollections in him, his quality and titles alone required that he should grant him an interview, however short it might be. Therefore, although he was in a hurry to get out, Monsieur de Vargnes told the footman to show in his early visitor, but to tell him beforehand that his master was much pressed for time, as he had to go to the Law Courts.
When the doctor came in, in spite of his usual imperturbability, he could not restrain a movement of surprise, for the doctor presented that strange anomaly of being a negro of the purest, blackest type, with the eyes of a white man, of a man from the North, pale, cold, clear, blue eyes, and his surprise increased when, after a few words of excuse for his untimely visit, he added, with an enigmatical smile:
"My eyes surprise you, do they not? I was sure that they would, and, to tell you the truth, I came here in order that you might look at them well, and never forget them."
His smile, and his words, even more than his smile, seemed to be those of a madman. He spoke very softly, with that childish, lisping voice, which is peculiar to negroes, and his mysterious, almost menacing words, consequently, sounded all the more as if they were uttered at random by a man bereft of his reason. But his looks, the looks of those pale, cold, clear, blue eyes, were certainly not those of a madman. They clearly expressed menace, yes, menace, as well as irony, and, above all, implacable ferocity, and their glance was like a flash of lightning, which one could never forget.
"I have seen," Monsieur de Vargnes used to say, when speaking about it, "the looks of many murderers, but in none of them have I ever observed such a depth of crime, and of impudent security in crime."
And this impression was so strong, that Monsieur de Vargnes thought that he was the sport of some hallucination, especially as when he spoke about his eyes, the doctor continued with a smile, and in his most childish accents: "Of course, Monsieur, you cannot understand what I am saying to you, and I must beg your pardon for it. To-morrow, you will receive a letter which will explain it at all to you, but, first all, it was necessary that I should let you have a good, a careful look at my eyes, my eyes which are myself, my only and true self, as you will see."
With these words, and with a polite bow, the doctor went out, leaving Monsieur de Vargnes extremely surprised, and a prey to this doubt, as he said to himself:
"Is he merely a madman? The fierce expression, and the criminal depths of his looks are perhaps caused merely by the extraordinary contrast between his fierce looks and his pale eyes."
And absorbed in these thoughts, Monsieur de Vargnes unfortunately allowed several minutes to elapse, and then he thought to himself suddenly:
"No, I am not the sport of any hallucination, and this is no case of an optical phenomenon. This man is evidently some terrible criminal, and I have altogether failed in my duty in not arresting him myself at once, illegally, even at the risk of my life."
The judge ran downstairs in pursuit of the doctor, but it was too late; he had disappeared. In the afternoon, he called on Madame Frogere, to ask her whether she could tell him anything about the matter. She, however, did not know the negro doctor in the least, and was even able to assure him that he was a fictitious personage, for, as she was well acquainted with the upper classes in Haiti, she knew that the Academy of Medicine at Port-au-Prince had no doctor of that name among its members. As Monsieur de Vargnes persisted, and gave descriptions of the doctor, especially mentioning his extraordinary eyes, Madame Frogere began to laugh, and said:
"You have certainly had to do with a hoaxer, my dear Monsieur. The eyes which you have described, are certainly those of a white man, and the individual must have been painted."
On thinking it over, Monsieur de Vargnes remembered that the doctor had nothing of the negro about him, but his black skin, his woolly hair and beard, and his way of speaking, which was easily imitated, but nothing of the negro, not even the characteristic, undulating walk. Perhaps, after all, he was only a practical joker, and during the whole day, Monsieur de Vargnes took refuge in that view, which rather wounded his dignity as a man of consequence, but which appeased his scruples as a magistrate.
The next day, he received the promised letter, which was written, as well as addressed, in letters cut out of the newspapers. It was as follows:
* * * * *
"Doctor James Ferdinand does not exist, but the man whose eyes you saw does, and you will certainly recognize his eyes. This man has committed two crimes, for which he does not feel any remorse, but, as he is a psychologist, he is afraid of some day yielding to the irresistible temptation of confessing his crimes. You know better than anyone (and that is your most powerful aid), with what imperious force criminals, especially intellectual ones, feel this temptation. That great Poet, Edgar Poe, has written masterpieces on this subject, which express the truth exactly, but he has omitted to mention the last phenomenon, which I will tell you. Yes, I, a criminal, feel a terrible wish for somebody to know of my crimes, and, when this requirement is satisfied, my secret has been revealed to a confidant, I shall be tranquil for the future, and be freed from this demon of perversity, which only tempts us once. Well! Now that is accomplished. You shall have my secret; from the day that you recognize me by my eyes, you will try and find out what I am guilty of, and how I was guilty, and you will discover it, being a master of your profession, which, by-the-bye, has procured you the honor of having been chosen by me to bear the weight of this secret, which now is shared by us, and by us two alone. I say, advisedly, by us two alone. You could not, as a matter of fact, prove the reality of this secret to anyone, unless I were to confess it, and I defy you to obtain my public confession, as I have confessed it to you, and without danger to myself."
* * * * *
Three months later, Monsieur de Vargnes met Monsieur X—— at an evening party and at first sight, and without the slightest hesitation, he recognized in him those very pale, very cold, and very clear blue eyes, eyes which it was impossible to forget.
The man himself remained perfect impassive, so that Monsieur de Vargnes was forced to say to himself:
"Probably I am the sport of a hallucination at this moment, or else there are two pairs of eyes that are perfectly similar, in the world. And what eyes! Can it be possible?"
The magistrate instituted inquiries into his life, and he discovered this, which removed all his doubts.
Five years previously, Monsieur X—— had been a very poor, but very brilliant medical student, who, although he never took his doctor's degree, had already made himself remarkable by his microbiological researches.
A young and very rich widow had fallen in love with him and married him. She had one child by her first marriage, and in the space of six months, first the child and then the mother died of typhoid fever, and thus Monsieur X—— had inherited a large fortune, in due form, and without any possible dispute. Everybody said that he had attended to the two patients with the utmost devotion. Now, were these two deaths the two crimes mentioned in his letter?
But then, Monsieur X—— must have poisoned his two victims with the microbes of typhoid fever, which he had skillfully cultivated in them, so as to make the disease incurable, even by the most devoted care and attention. Why not?
"Do you believe it?" I asked Monsieur de Vargnes. "Absolutely," he replied. "And the most terrible thing about it is, that the villain is right when he defies me to force him to confess his crime publicly for I see no means of obtaining a confession, none whatever. For a moment, I thought of magnetism, but who could magnetize that man with those pale, cold, bright eyes? With such eyes, he would force the magnetizer to denounce himself as the culprit."
And then he said, with a deep sigh:
"Ah! Formerly there was something good about justice!"
And when he saw my inquiring looks, he added in a firm and perfectly convinced voice:
"Formerly, justice had torture at its command."
"Upon my word," I replied, with all an author's unconscious and simple egotism, "it is quite certain that without the torture, this strange tale would have no conclusion, and that is very unfortunate, as far as regards the story I intended to make of it."
One of my friends had said to me:—
"If you happen to be near Bordj-Ebbaba while you are in Algeria, be sure and go to see my old friend Auballe, who has settled there."
I had forgotten the name of Auballe and of Ebbaba, and I was not thinking of this planter, when I arrived at his house by pure accident. For a month, I had been wandering on foot through that magnificent district which extends from Algiers to Cherchell, Orleansville, and Tiaret. It is at the same time wooded and bare, grand and charming. Between two hills, one comes across large pine forests in narrow valleys, through which torrents rush in the winter. Enormous trees, which have fallen across the ravine, serve as a bridge for the Arabs, and also for the tropical creepers, which twine round the dead stems, and adorn them with new life. There are hollows, in little known recesses of the mountains, of a terribly beautiful character, and the sides of the brooks, which are covered with oleanders, are indescribably lovely.
But what has left behind it the most pleasant recollections of that excursion, is the long after-dinner walks along the slightly wooded roads on those undulating hills, from which one can see an immense tract of country from the blue sea as far as the chain of the Quarsenis, on whose summit there is the cedar forest of Teniet-el-Haad.
On that day I lost my way. I had just climbed to the top of a hill, whence, beyond a long extent of rising ground, I had seen the extensive plain of Metidja, and then, on the summit of another chain, almost invisible in the distances that strange monument which is called The Tomb of the Christian Woman, and which was said to be the burial-place of the kings of Mauritana. I went down again, going southward, with a yellow landscape before me, extending as far as the fringe of the desert, as yellow as if all those hills were covered with lions' skins sewn together, sometimes a pointed yellow peak would rise out of the midst of them, like the bristly back of a camel.
I walked quickly and lightly, like as one does when following tortuous paths on a mountain slope. Nothing seems to weigh on one in those short, quick walks through the invigorating air of those heights, neither the body, nor the heart, nor the thoughts, nor even cares. On that day I felt nothing of all that crushes and tortures our life; I only felt the pleasure of that descent. In the distance I saw an Arab encampment, brown pointed tents, which seemed fixed to the earth, like limpets are to a rock, or else gourbis, huts made of branches, from which a gray smoke rose. White figures, men and women, were walking slowly about, and the bells of the flocks sounded vaguely through the evening air.
The arbutus trees on my road hung down under the weight of their purple fruit, which was falling on the ground. They looked like martyred trees, from which blood-colored sweat was falling, for at the top of every tier there was a red spot, like a drop of blood.
The earth all round them was covered with it, and as my feet crushed the fruit, they left blood-colored traces behind them, and sometimes, as I went along, I would jump and pick one, and eat it.
All the valleys were by this time filled with a white vapor, which rose slowly, like the steam from the flanks of an ox, and on the chain of mountains that bordered the horizon, on the outskirts of the desert of Sahara, the sky was in flames. Long streaks of gold alternated with streaks of blood—blood again! Blood and gold, the whole of human history—and sometimes between the two there was a small opening in the greenish azure, far away like a dream.
How far away I was from all those persons and things with which one occupies oneself on the boulevards, far from myself also, for I had become a kind of wandering being, without thought or consciousness, far from any road, of which I was not even thinking, for as night came on, I found that I had lost my way.
The shades of night were falling onto the earth like a shower of darkness, and I saw nothing before me but the mountains, in the far distance. Presently, I saw some tents in the valley, into which I descended, and tried to make the first Arab I met understand in which direction I wanted to go. I do not know whether he understood me, but he gave me a long answer, which I did not in the least understand. In despair, I was about to make up my mind to pass the night wrapped up in a rug near the encampment, when among the strange words he uttered, I fancied that I heard the name, Bordj-Ebbaba, and so I repeated:
I showed him two francs that were a fortune to him, and he started off, while I followed him. Ah! I followed that pale phantom which strode on before me bare-footed along stony paths, on which I stumbled continually, for a long time, and then suddenly I saw a light, and we soon reached the door of a white house, a kind of fortress with straight walls, and without any outside windows. When I knocked, dogs began to bark inside, and a voice asked in French:
"Who is there?"
"Does Monsieur Auballe live here?" I asked.
The door was opened for me, and I found myself face to face with Monsieur Auballe himself, a tall man in slippers, with a pipe in his mouth and the looks of a jolly Hercules.
As soon as I mentioned my name, he put out both his hands and said:
"Consider yourself at home here, Monsieur."
A quarter of an hour later I was dining ravenously, opposite to my host, who went on smoking.
I knew his history. After having wasted a great amount of money on women, he had invested the remnants of his fortune in Algerian landed property and taken to money-making. It turned out prosperously; he was happy, and had the calm look of a happy and contented man. I could not understand how this fast Parisian could have grown accustomed to that monstrous life in such a lonely spot, and I asked him about it.
"How long have you been here?" I asked him.
"For nine years."
"And have you not been intolerably dull and miserable?"
"No, one gets used to this country, and ends by liking it. You cannot imagine how it lays hold on people by those small, animal instincts that we are ignorant of ourselves. We first become attached to it by our organs, to which it affords secret gratifications which we do not inquire into. The air and the climate overcome our flesh, in spite of ourselves, and the bright light with which it is inundated keeps the mind clear and fresh, at but little cost. It penetrates us continually by our eyes, and one might really say that it cleanses the somber nooks of the soul."
"But what about women?"
"Ah...! There is rather a dearth of them!"
"Well, yes ... rather. For one can always, even among the Arabs, find some complaisant, native women, who think of the nights of Roumi."
He turned to the Arab, who was waiting on me, who was a tall, dark fellow, with bright, black eyes, that flashed beneath his turban, and said to him:
"I will call you when I want you, Mohammed." And then, turning to me, he said:
"He understands French, and I am going to tell you a story in which he plays a leading part."
As soon as the man had left the room, he began:
"I had been here about four years, and scarcely felt quite settled yet in this country, whose language I was beginning to speak, and forced, in order not to break altogether with those passions that had been fatal to me in other places, to go to Algiers for a few days, from time to time.
"I had bought this farm, this bordj, which had been a fortified post, and was within a few hundred yards from the native encampment, whose man I employ to cultivate my land. Among the tribe that had settled here, and which formed a portion of the Oulad-Taadja, I chose, as soon as I arrived here, that tall fellow whom you have just seen, Mohammed ben Lam'har, who soon became greatly attached to me. As he would not sleep in a house, not being accustomed to it, he pitched his tent a few yards from my house, so that I might be able to call him from my window.
"You can guess what my life was, I dare say? Every day I was busy with cleanings and plantations; I hunted a little, I used to go and dine with the officers of the neighboring fortified posts, or else they came and dined with me. As for pleasures ... I have told you what they consisted in. Algiers offered me some which were rather more refined, and from time to time a complaisant and compassionate Arab would stop me when I was out for a walk, and offer to bring one of the women of his tribe to my house at night. Sometimes I accepted, but more frequently I refused, from fear of the disagreeable consequences and troubles it might entail upon me.
"One evening, at the beginning of summer, as I was going home, after going over the farm, as I wanted Mohammed, I went into his tent without calling him, as I frequently did, and there I saw a woman, a girl, sleeping almost naked, with her arms crossed under her head, on one of those thick, red carpets, made of the fine wool of Djebel-Amour, and which are as soft and as thick as a feather bed. Her body, which was beautifully white under the ray of light that came in through the raised covering of the tent, appeared to me to be one of the most perfect specimens of the human race that I had ever seen, and most of the women about here are beautiful and tall, and are a rare combination of features and shape. I let the edge of the tent fall in some confusion, and returned home.
"I love women! The sudden flash of this vision had penetrated and scorched me, and had rekindled in my veins that old, formidable ardor to which I owe my being here. It was very hot for it was July, and I spent nearly the whole night at my window, with my eyes fixed on the black Mohammed's tent made on the ground.
"When he came into my room the next morning, I looked him closely in the face, and he hung his head, like a man who was guilty and in confusion. Did he guess that I knew? I, however, asked him, suddenly:
"'So you are married, Mohammed?' and I saw that he got red, and he stammered out: 'No, mo'ssieuia!'
"I used to make him speak French to me, and to give me Arabic lessons, which was often productive of a most incoherent mixture of languages; however, I went on:
"'Then why is there a woman in your tent?'
"'She comes from the South,' he said, in a low, apologetic voice.
"'Oh! So she comes from the South? But that does not explain to me how she comes to be in your tent.'
"Without answering my question, he continued:
"'She is very pretty.'
"'Oh! Indeed. Another time, please, when you happen to receive a pretty woman from the South, you will take care that she comes to my gourbi, and not to yours. You understand me, Mohammed?'
"'Yes, mo'ssieuia,' he repeated, seriously.
"I must acknowledge that during the whole day I was in a state of aggressive excitement at the recollection of that Arab girl lying on the red carpet, and when I went in at dinner time, I felt very strongly inclined to go to Mohammed's tent again. During the evening, he waited on me just as usual, and hovered round me with his impassive face, and several times I was very nearly asking him whether he intended to keep that girl from the South, who was very pretty, in his camel skin tent for a long time.
"Towards nine o'clock, still troubled with that longing for female society which is as tenacious as the hunting instinct in dogs, I went out to get some fresh air, and to stroll about a little round that cone of brown skin through which I could see a brilliant speck of light. I did not remain long, however, for fear of being surprised by Mohammed in the neighborhood of his dwelling. When I went in an hour later, I clearly saw his outline in the tent, and then, taking the key out of my pocket, I went into the bordj, where besides myself, there slept my steward, two French laborers, and an old cook whom I had picked up in the Algiers. As I went up stairs, I was surprised to see a streak of light under my door, and when I opened it, I saw a girl with the face of a statue sitting on a straw chair by the side of the table, on which a wax candle was burning; she was bedizened with all those silver gew-gaws which women in the South wear on their legs, arms, breast, and even on their stomach. Her eyes, which were tinged with kohl, to make them look larger, regarded me earnestly, and four little blue spots, finely tatooed on her skin, marked her forehead, her cheeks, and her chin. Her arms, which were loaded with bracelets, were resting on her thighs, which were covered by the long, red silk skirt that she wore.
"When she saw me come in, she got up and remained standing in front of me, covered with her barbaric jewels, in an attitude of proud submission.
"'What are you doing here?' I said to her in Arabic.
"'I am here because Mohammed told me to come.'
"'Very well, sit down.'
"So she sat down and lowered her eyes, while I examined her attentively.
"She had a strange, regular, delicate, and rather bestial face, but mysterious as that of a Buddha. Her lips, which were rather thick and covered with a reddish efflorescence, which I discovered on the rest of her body as well, indicated a slight admixture of negro blood, although her hands and arms were of an irreproachable whiteness.
"I hesitated what to do with her, and felt excited, tempted and rather confused, so in order to gain time and to give myself an opportunity for reflection, I put other questions to her, about her birth, how she came into this part of the country, and what her connection with Mohammed was. But she only replied to those that interested me the least, and it was impossible for me to find out why she had come, with what intention, by whose orders, nor what had taken place between her and my servant. However, just as I was about to say to her: 'Go back to Mohammed's tent,' she seemed to guess my intention, for getting up suddenly, and raising her two bare arms, on which the jingling bracelets slipped down to her shoulders, she crossed her hands behind my neck and drew me towards her with an irresistible air of suppliant longing.
"Her eyes, which were bright from emotion, from that necessity of conquering man, which makes the looks of an impure woman as seductive as those of the feline tribe, allured me, enchained me, deprived me of all the power of resistance, and filled me with impetuous ardor. It was a short, sharp struggle of the eyes only, that eternal struggle between those two human brutes, the male and the female, in which the male is always beaten.
"Her hands, which had clasped behind my head, drew me irresistibly, with a gentle, increasing pressure, as if by mechanical force towards her red lips, on which I suddenly laid mine while, at the same moment, I clasped her body, that was covered with jingling silver rings, in an ardent embrace.
"She was as strong, as healthy, and as supple as a wild animal, with all the motions, the ways, the grace, and even something of the odor of a gazelle, which made me find a rare, unknown zest in her kisses, which was as strange to my senses as the taste of tropical fruits.
"Soon—I say soon, although it may have been towards morning—I wished to send her away, as I thought that she would go in the same way that she had come; I did not, even, at the moment, ask myself what I should do with her, or what she would do with me, but as soon as she guessed my intention, she whispered:
"'What do you expect me to do if you get rid of me now? I shall have to sleep on the ground in the open air at night. Let me sleep on the carpet, at the foot of your bed.'
"What answer could I give her, or what could I do? I thought that no doubt Mohammed also would be watching the window of my room, in which a light was burning, and questions of various natures, that I had not put to myself during the first minutes, formulated themselves clearly in my brain.
"'Stop here,' I replied, 'and we will talk.'
"My resolution was taken in a moment. As this girl had been thrown into my arms, in this manner, I would keep her; I would make her a kind of slave-mistress, hidden in my house, like women in a harem are. When the time should come that I no longer cared for her, it would be easy for me to get rid of her in some way or another, for on African soil those sort of creatures almost belong to us, body and soul, and so I said to her:
"'I wish to be kind to you, and I will treat you so that you shall not be unhappy, but I want to know who you are and where you come from?'
"She saw clearly that she must say something, and she told me her story, or rather a story, for no doubt she was lying from beginning to end, like all Arabs always do, with or without any motive.
"That is one of the most surprising and incomprehensible signs of the native character—the Arabs always lie. Those people in whom Islam has become so incarnate that it has become part of themselves, to such an extent as to model their instincts and modifies the entire race, and to differentiate it from others in morals just as much as the color of the skin differentiates a negro from a white man, are liars to the backbone, so that one can never trust a word that they say. I do not know whether they owe that to their religion, but one must have lived among them in order to know the extent to which lying forms part of their being, of their heart and soul, until it has become a kind of second nature, a very necessity of life, with them.
"Well, she told me that she was the daughter of a Caidi of the Ouled Sidi Cheik, and of a woman whom he had carried off in a raid against the Touaregs. The woman must have been a black slave, or, at any rate, have sprung from a first cross of Arab and negro blood. It is well known that negro women are in great request for harems, where they act as aphrodisiacs. Nothing of such an origin was to be noticed, however, except the purple color of her lips, and the dark nipples of her elongated breasts, which were as supple as if they were on springs. Nobody who knew anything about the matter, could be mistaken in that. But all the rest of her belonged to the beautiful race from the South, fair, supple and with a delicate face which was formed on straight and simple lines like those of a Hindoo figure. Her eyes, which were very far apart, still further heightened the somewhat god-like looks of this desert marauder.
"I knew nothing exactly about her real life. She related it to me in incoherent fragments, that seemed to rise up at random from a disordered memory, and she mixed up deliciously childish observations with them; a whole vision of a Nomad world, born of a squirrel's brain that had leapt from tent to tent, from encampment to encampment, from tribe to tribe. And all this was done with the severe looks that this reserved people always preserve, with the appearance of a brass idol, and rather comic gravity.
"When she had finished, I perceived that I had not remembered anything of that long story, full of insignificant events, that she had stored up in her flighty brain, and I asked myself whether she had not simply been making fun of me by her empty and would-be serious chatter, which told me nothing about her, nor about any real facts connected with her life.
"And I thought of that conquered race, among whom we have encamped, or, rather, who are encamping among us, whose language we are beginning to speak, whom we see every day, living under the transparent linen of their tents, on whom we have imposed our laws, our regulations, and our customs, and about whom we know nothing, nothing more whatever, I assure you, than if we were not here, and solely occupied in looking at them, for nearly sixty years. We know no more about what is going on in those huts made of branches, and under those small canvas cones that are fastened to the ground by stakes, which are within twenty yards of our doors, than we know what the so-called civilized Arabs of the Moorish houses in Algiers do, think, and are. Behind the white-washed walls of their town houses, behind the partition of their gourbi, which is made of branches, or behind that thin, brown, camel-haired curtain which the wind moves, they live close to us, unknown, mysterious, cunning, submissive, smiling, impenetrable. What if I were to tell you, that when I look at the neighboring encampment through my field glasses, I guess that there are superstitions, customs, ceremonies, a thousand practices of which we know nothing, and which we do not even suspect! Never previously, in all probability, did a conquered race know so well how to escape so completely from the real domination, the moral influence and the inveterate, but useless, investigations of the conquerors.
"Now I suddenly felt the insurmountable, secret barrier which incomprehensible nature had set up between the two races, more than I had ever felt it before, between this girl and myself, between this woman who had just given herself to me, who had yielded herself to my caresses and to me, who had possessed her, and, thinking of it for the first time, I said to her: 'What is your name?'
"She did not speak for some moments, and I saw her start, as if she had forgotten that I was there, and then, in her eyes that were raised to mine, I saw that that moment had sufficed for her to be overcome by sleep, by irresistible, sudden, almost overwhelming sleep, like everything that lays hold of the mobile senses of women, and she answered, carelessly, suppressing a yawn:
"'Do you want to go sleep?'
"'Yes,' she replied.
"'Very well then, go to sleep!'
"She stretched herself out tranquilly by my side, lying on her stomach, with her forehead resting on her folded arms, and I felt almost immediately that fleeting, untutored thoughts were lulled in repose, while I began to ponder, as I lay by her side, and tried to understand it all. Why had Mohammed given her to me? Had he acted the part of a magnanimous servant, who sacrifices himself for his master, even to the extent of giving up the woman whom he had brought into his own tent, to him? Or had he, on the other hand, obeyed a more complex and more practical, though less generous impulse, in handing over this girl who had taken my fancy, to my embrace? An Arab, when it is a question of women, is rigorously modest and unspeakably complaisant, and one can no more understand his rigorous and easy morality, than one can all the rest of his sentiments. Perhaps, when I accidentally went to his tent, I had merely forestalled the benevolent intentions of this thoughtful servant, who had intended this woman, who was his friend and accomplice, or perhaps even his mistress, for me.
"All these suppositions assailed me, and fatigued me so much, that, at last, in my turn, I fell into a profound sleep, from which I was roused by the creaking of my door, and Mohammed came in, to call me as usual. He opened the window, through which a flood of light streamed in, and fell onto Allouma who was still asleep; then he picked up my trousers, coat and waistcoat from the floor in order to brush them. He did not look at the woman who was lying by my side, did not seem to know or remark that she was there, and preserved his ordinary gravity, demeanor and looks. But the light, the movement, the slight noise which his bare feet made, the feeling of the fresh air on her skin and in her lungs, roused Allouma from her lethargy. She stretched out her arms, turned over, opened her eyes, and looked at me and then Mohammed with the same indifference; then she sat up in bed and said: 'I am hungry.'
"'What would you like?'
"'Coffee and bread and butter.'
"Mohammed remained standing close to our bed, with my clothes under his arm, waiting for my orders.
"'Bring breakfast for Allouma and me,' I said to him.
"He went out, without his face betraying the slightest astonishment or anger, and as soon as he had left the room, I said to the girl:
"'Will you live in my house?'
"'I should like to, very much.'
"'I will give you a room to yourself, and a woman to wait on you.'
"'You are very generous, and I am grateful to you.'
"'But if you behave badly, I shall send you away immediately.'
"'I will do everything that you wish me to.'
"She took my hand, and kissed it as a token of submission, and just then Mohammed came in, carrying a tray with our breakfast on it, and I said to him:—
"'Allouma is going to live here. You must spread a carpet on the floor of the room at the end of the passage, and get Abd-El-Kader-El-Hadara's wife to come and wait on her.'
"That was all.
"An hour later, my beautiful Arab was installed in a large, airy, light room, and when I went in to see that everything was in order, she asked me in a supplicating voice, to give her a wardrobe with a looking-glass in the doors. I promised her one, and then I left her squatting on the carpet from Djebel-Amour, with a cigarette in her mouth, and gossiping with the old Arab woman I had sent for, as if they had known each other for years."
"For a month I was very happy with her, and I got strangely attached to this creature belonging to another race, who seemed to me almost to belong to some other species, and to have been born on a neighboring planet.
"I did not love her; no, one does not love the women of that primitive continent. This small, pale blue flower of Northern countries never unfolds between them and us, or even between them and their natural males, the Arabs. They are too near to human animalism, their hearts are too rudimentary, their feelings are not refined enough to rouse that sentimental exaltation in us, which is the poetry of love. Nothing intellectual, no intoxication of thought or feeling is mingled with that sensual intoxication which those charming nonentities excite in us. Nevertheless, they captivate us like the others do, but in a different fashion, which is less tenacious, and, at the same time, less cruel and painful.
"I cannot even now explain precisely what I felt for her. I said to you just now that this country, this bare Africa, without any arts, void of all intellectual pleasures, gradually captivates us by its climate, by the continual mildness of the dawn and sunset, by its delightful light, and by the feeling of well-being with which it fills all our organs. Well, then! Allouma captivated me in the same manner, by a thousand hidden, physical, alluring charms, and by the procreative seductiveness, not of her embraces, for she was of thoroughly oriental supineness in that respect, but of her sweet self-surrender.
"I left her absolutely free to come and go as she liked, and she certainly spent one afternoon out of two with the wives of my native agricultural laborers. Often also, she would remain for nearly a whole day admiring herself in front of a mahogany wardrobe with a large looking-glass in the doors that I had got from Miliana.
"She admired herself conscientiously, standing before the glass doors, in which she followed her own movements with profound and serious attention. She walked with her head somewhat thrown back, in order to be able to see whether her hips and loins swayed properly; went away, came back again, and then, tired with her own movements, she sat down on a cushion and remained opposite to her own reflection, with her eyes fixed on her face in the glass, and her whole soul absorbed in that picture.
"Soon, I began to notice that she went out nearly every morning after breakfast, and that she disappeared altogether until evening, and as I felt rather anxious about this, I asked Mohammed whether he knew what she could be doing during all these long hours of absence, but he replied very calmly:
"'Do not be uneasy. It will be the Feast of Ramadan soon, and so she goes to say her prayers.'
"He also seemed delighted at having Allouma in the house, but I never once saw anything suspicious between them, and so I accepted the situation as it was, and let time, accident, and life act for themselves.
"Often, after I had inspected my farm, my vineyards, and my clearings, I used to take long walks. You know the magnificent forests in this part of Algeria, those almost impenetrable ravines, where fallen pine trees hem the mountain torrents, and those little valleys filled with oleanders, which look like oriental carpets stretching along the banks of the streams. You know that at every moment, in these woods and on these hills, where one would think that nobody had ever penetrated, one suddenly sees the white dome of a shrine that contains the bones of a humble, solitary marabout, which was scarcely visited from time to time, even by the most confirmed believers, who had come from the neighboring villages with a wax candle in their pocket, to set up before the tomb of the saint.
"Now one evening as I was going home, I was passing one of these Mohammedan chapels, and, looking in through the door, which was always open, I saw a woman praying before the altar. That Arab woman, sitting on the ground in that dilapidated building, into which the wind entered as it pleased, and heaped up the fine, dry pine needles in yellow heaps in the corners. I went near to see better, and recognized Allouma. She neither saw nor heard me, so absorbed was she with the saint, to whom she was speaking in a low voice, as she thought that she was alone with him, and telling this servant of God all her troubles. Sometimes she stopped for a short time to think, to try and recollect what more she had to say, so that she might not forget anything that she wished to confide to him; then, again, she would grow animated, as if he had replied to her, as if he had advised her to do something that she did not want to do, and the reasons for which she was impugning, and I went away as I had come, without making any noise, and returned home to dinner.
"That evening, when I sent for her, I saw that she had a thoughtful look, which was not usual with her.
"'Sit down there,' I said, pointing to her place on the couch by my side. As soon as she had sat down, I stooped to kiss her, but she drew her head away quickly, and, in great astonishment, I said to her:
"'Well, what is the matter?'
"'It is the Ramadan,' she said.
"I began to laugh, and said: 'And the Marabout has forbidden you to allow yourself to be kissed during the Ramadan?'
"Oh, yes; I am an Arab woman, and you are a Roumi!'
"'And it would be a great sin?'
"'So you ate nothing all day, until sunset?'
"'But you had something to eat after sundown?'
"'Well, then, as it is quite dark now, you ought not to be more strict about the rest than you are about your mouth.'
"She seemed irritated, wounded, and offended, and replied with an amount of pride that I had never noticed in her before:—
"'If an Arab girl were to allow herself to be touched by a Roumi during the Ramadan, she would be cursed for ever.'
"'And that is to continue for a whole month?'
"'Yes, for the whole of the month of Ramadan,' she replied, with great determination.
"I assumed an irritated manner and said:—'Very well, then, you can go and spend the Ramadan with your family.'
"She seized my hands, and, laying them on my heart, she said:—
"'Oh! Please do not be unkind, and you shall see how nice I will be. We will keep Ramadan together, if you like. I will look after you, and spoil you, but don't be unkind.'
"I could not help smiling at her funny manner and her unhappiness, and I sent her to go to sleep at home, but, an hour later, just as I was thinking about going to bed, there came two little taps at my door, which were so slight, however, that I scarcely heard them; but when I said:—'Come in,' Allouma appeared carrying a large tray covered with Arab dainties; fried balls of rice, covered with sugar, and a variety of other strange, Nomad pastry.
"She laughed, showing her white teeth, and repeated:—'Come, we will keep Ramadan together.'
"You know that the fast, which begins at dawn and ends at twilight, at the moment when the eye can no longer distinguish a black from a white thread, is followed every evening by small, friendly entertainments, at which eating is kept up until the morning, and the result is that for such of the natives as are not very scrupulous, Ramadan consists of turning day into night, and night into day. But Allouma carried her delicacy of conscience further than this. She placed her tray between us on the divan, and taking a small, sugared ball between her long, slender fingers, she put it into my mouth, and whispered:—'Eat it, it is very good.'
"I munched the light cake, which was really excellent, and asked her:—'Did you make that?'
"'Yes, for you.'
"'To enable me to support Ramadan?'
"'Oh! Don't be so unkind! I will bring you some every day.'
"Oh! the terrible month that I spent! A sugared, insipidly sweet month; a month that nearly drove me mad; a month of spoiling and of temptation, of anger and of vain efforts against an invincible resistance, but at last the three days of Beiram came, which I celebrated in my own fashion, and Ramadan was forgotten.
"The summer went on, and it was very hot, and in the first days of autumn, Allouma appeared to me to be pre-occupied and absent-minded, and, seemingly, taking no interest in anything, and, at last, when I sent for her one evening, she was not to be found in her room. I thought that she was roaming about the house, and I gave orders to look for her. She had not come in, however, and so I opened my window, and called out:—
"'Mohammed,' and the voice of the man, who was lying in his tent, replied:—
"'Do you know where Allouma is?'
"'No, mo'ssieuia ... it is not possible ... is Allouma lost?'
"A few moments later, my Arab came into my room, so agitated that he could not master his feelings, and I said:
"'Is Allouma lost?'
"'Yes, she is lost.'
"'It is impossible.'
"'Go and look for her,' I said.
"He remained standing where he was, thinking, seeking for her motives, and unable to understand anything about it. Then he went into the empty room, where Allouma's clothes were lying about, in oriental disorder. He examined everything, as if he had been a police officer, or, rather, he smelt like a dog, and then, incapable of a lengthened effort, he murmured, resignedly:—
"'She has gone, she has gone!'
"I was afraid that some accident had happened to her; that she had fallen into some ravine and sprained herself, and I immediately sent all the men about the place off with orders to look for her until they should find her, and they hunted for her all that night, all the next day, and all the week long, but nothing was discovered that could put us upon her track. I suffered, for I missed her very much; my house seemed empty, and my existence a void. And then, disgusting thoughts entered my mind. I feared that she might have been carried off, or even murdered, but when I spoke about it to Mohammed, and tried to make him share my fears, he invariably replied:
"'No; gone away.'
"Then he added the Arab word r'ezale, which means gazelle, as if he meant to say that she could run quickly, and that she was far away.
"Three weeks passed, and I had given up all hopes of seeing my Arab mistress again, when one morning Mohammed came into my room, with every sign of joy in his face, and said to me:
"'Mo'ssieuia, Allouma has come back.'
"I jumped out of bed and said:
"'Where is she?'
"'She does not dare to come in! There she is, under the tree.'
"And stretching out his arm, he pointed out to me, through the window, a whitish spot at the foot of an olive tree.
"I got up immediately, and went out to where she was. As I approached what looked like a mere bundle of linen thrown against the gnarled trunk of the tree, I recognized the large, dark eyes, the tattooed stars, and the long, regular features of that semi-wild girl who had so captivated my senses. As I advanced towards her, I felt inclined to strike her, to make her suffer pain, and to have my revenge, and so I called out to her from a little distance:
"'Where have you been?'
"She did not reply, but remained motionless and inert, as if she were scarcely alive, resigned to my violence, and ready to receive my blows. I was standing up, close to her, looking in stupefaction at the rags with which she was covered, at those bits of silk and muslin, covered with dust, torn and dirty, and I repeated, raising my hand, as if she had been a dog:
"'Where have you come from?'
"'From yonder,' she said, in a whisper.
"'Where is that?'
"'From the tribe.'
"'Why did you go away?'
"When she saw that I was not going to beat her, she grew rather bolder, and said in a low voice: "'I was obliged to do it.... I was forced to go, I could not stop in the house any longer.'
"I saw tears in her eyes, and immediately felt softened. I leaned over her, and when I turned round to sit down, I noticed Mohammed, who was watching us at a distance, and I went on, very gently:
"'Come, tell me why you ran away?'
"Then she told me, that for a long time in her Nomad's heart she had felt the irresistible desire to return to the tents, to lie, to run, to roll on the sand; to wander about the plains with the flocks, to feel nothing over her head, between the yellow stars in the sky and the blue stars in her face, except the thin, threadbare, patched stuff, through which she could see spots of fire in the sky, when she awoke during the night.
"She made me understand all that in such simple and powerful words, that I felt quite sure that she was not lying, and pitied her, and I asked her:
"'Why did you not tell me that you wished to go away for a time?'
"'Because you would not have allowed me...'
"'If you had promised to come back, I should have consented.'
"'You would not have believed me.'
"Seeing that I was not angry, she began to laugh, and said:
"'You see that is all over; I have come home again, and here I am. I only wanted a few days there. I have had enough of it now, it is finished and passed; the feeling is cured. I have come back, and have not that longing any more. I am very glad, and you are very kind.'
"'Come into the house,' I said to her.
"She got up, and I took her hand, her delicate hand, with its slender fingers, and triumphant in her rags, with her bracelets and her necklace ringing, she went gravely towards my house, where Mohammed was waiting for us, but before going in, I said:
"'Allouma, whenever you want to return to your own people, tell me, and I will allow you to go.'
"'Yes, I promise.'
"'And I will make you a promise also. When I feel ill or unhappy'—and here she put her hand to her forehead, with a magnificent gesture—'I shall say to you: "I must go yonder," and you will let me go.'
"I went with her to her room, followed by Mohammed, who was carrying some water, for there had been no time to tell the wife of Abd-el-Kader-el-Hadam that her mistress had returned. As soon as she got into the room, and saw the wardrobe with the looking-glass in the door, she ran up to it, like a child does when it sees its mother. She looked at herself for a few seconds, made a grimace, and then in a rather cross voice, she said to the looking-glass:
"'Just you wait a moment; I have some silk dresses in the wardrobe. I shall be beautiful in a few minutes.'
"And I left her alone, to act the coquette to herself.
"Our life began its usual course again, as formerly, and I felt more and more under the influence of the strange, merely physical attractions of that girl, for whom, at the same time, I felt a kind of paternal contempt. For two months all went well, and then I felt that she was again becoming nervous, agitated, and rather low-spirited, and one day I said to her:—
"'Do you want to return home again?'
"'And you did not dare to tell me?'
"'I did not venture to.'
"'Go, if you wish to; I give you leave.'
"She seized my hands and kissed them, as she did in all her outbursts of gratitude, and the same morning she disappeared.
"She came back, as she had done the first time, at the end of about three weeks, in rags, covered with dust, and satiated with her Nomad life of sand and liberty. In two years she returned to her own people four times in this fashion.
"I took her back, gladly, without any feelings of jealousy, for with me jealousy can only spring from love as we Europeans understand it. I might very likely have killed her if I had surprised her in the act of deceiving me, but I should have done it, just as one half kills a disobedient dog, from sheer violence. I should not have felt those torments, that consuming fire—Northern jealousy. I have just said that I should have killed her like a disobedient dog, and, as a matter of fact, I loved her somewhat in the same manner as one loves some very highly bred horse or dog, which it is impossible to replace. She was a splendid animal, a sensual animal, an animal made for pleasure, and which possessed the body of a woman.
"I cannot tell you what an immeasurable distance separated our two souls, although our hearts perhaps occasionally warmed towards each other. She was something belonging to my house, she was part of my life, she had become a very agreeable, daily, regular requirement with me, to which I clung, and which the sensual man in me loved, that in me which was only eyes and sensuality.
"Well, one morning, Mohammed came into my room with a strange look on his face, that uneasy look of the Arabs, which resembles the furtive look of a cat, face to face with a dog, and when I noticed his expression, I said:
"'What is the matter, now?'
"'Allouma has gone away.'
"I began to laugh, and said:—'Where has she gone to?'
"'Gone away altogether, mo'ssieuia!'
"'What do you mean by gone away altogether; you are mad, my man.'
"'Why has she gone away? Just explain yourself; come!'
"He remained motionless, and evidently did not wish to speak, and then he had one of those explosions of Arab rage, which make us stop in streets in front of two demoniacs, whose oriental silence and gravity suddenly give place to the most violent gesticulations, and the most ferocious vociferations, and I gathered, amidst his shouts, that Allouma had run away with my shepherd, and when I had partially succeeded in calming him, I managed to extract the facts from him one by one.
"It was a long story, but at last I gathered that he had been watching my mistress, who used to meet a sort of vagabond whom my steward had hired the month before, behind the neighboring cactus woods, or in the ravine where the oleanders flourished. The night before, Mohammed had seen her go out without seeing her return, and he repeated, in an exasperated manner:—'Gone, mo'ssieuia; she has gone away!'
"I do not know why, but his conviction, the conviction that she had run away with this vagabond, laid hold of me irresistibly in a moment. It was absurd, unlikely, and yet certain in virtue of that very unreasonableness, which constitutes female logic.
"Boiling over with indignation, I tried to recall the man's features, and I suddenly remembered having seen him the previous week, standing on a mound amidst his flock, and watching me. He was a tall Bedouin, the color of whose bare limbs was blended with that of his rags; he was a type of a barbarous brute, with high cheek bones, and a hooked nose, a retreating chin, thin legs, and a tall carcass in rags, with the shifty eyes of a jackal.
"I did not doubt for a moment that she had run away with that beggar. Why? Because she was Allouma, a daughter of the desert. A girl from the pavement in Paris would have run away with my coachman, or some thief in the suburbs.
"'Very well,' I said to Mohammed. Then I got up, opened my window, and began to draw in the stifling South wind, for the sirocco was blowing, and I thought to myself:—
"Good heavens! she is ... a woman, like so many others. Does anybody know what makes them act, what makes them love, what makes them follow, or throw over a man? One certainly does know, occasionally; but often one does not, and sometimes one is in doubt. Why did she run away with that repulsive brute? Why? Perhaps, because the wind had been blowing regularly from the South, for a month; that was enough; a breath of wind! Does she know, do they know, even the cleverest of them, why they act? No more than a weather-cock that turns with the wind. An imperceptible breeze, makes the iron, brass, zinc, or wooden arrow revolve, just in the same manner as some imperceptible influence, some undiscernible impression moves the female heart, and urges it on to resolutions, and it does not matter whether they belong to town or country, the suburbs or the desert.
"They can then feel, provided that they reason and understand, why they have done one thing rather than another, but, for the moment, they do not know, for they are the playthings of their own sensibility, the thoughtless, giddy-headed slaves of events, of their surroundings, of chance meetings, and of all the sensations with which their soul and their body trembles!"
Monsieur Auballe had risen, and, after walking up and down the room once or twice, he looked at me, and said, with a smile:—
"That is love in the desert!"
"Suppose she were to come back?" I asked him.
"Horrid girl!" he replied.
"But I should be very glad if she did return to me."
"And you would pardon the shepherd?"
"Good heavens, yes! With women, one must always pardon ... or else pretend not to see things."
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The Neuilly steam-tram had just passed the Porte Maillot, and was going along the broad avenue that terminates at the Seine. The small engine that was attached to the car whistled to warn any obstacle to get out of its way, sent out its steam, and panted like a person out of breath from running does, and its pistons made a rapid noise, like iron legs that were running. The oppressive heat of the end of a July day lay over the whole city, and from the road, although there was not a breath of wind stirring, there arose a white, chalky, opaque, suffocating, and warm dust, which stuck to the moist skin, filled the eyes, and got into the lungs, and people were standing in the doors of their houses in search of a little air.
The windows of the steam-tram were down, and the curtains fluttered in the wind, and there were very few passengers inside, because on such warm days people preferred the top or the platforms. Those few consisted of stout women in strange toilets, of those shopkeepers' wives from the suburbs, who made up for the distinguished looks which they did not possess, by ill-timed dignity; of gentlemen who were tired of the office, with yellow-faces, who stooped rather, and with one shoulder higher than the other, in consequence of their long hours of work bending over the desk. Their uneasy and melancholy faces also spoke of domestic troubles, of constant want of money, of former hopes, that had been finally disappointed; for they all belonged to that army of poor, threadbare devils who vegetate economically in mean, plastered houses, with a tiny piece of neglected garden in the midst of those fields where night soil is deposited, which are on the outskirts of Paris.
A short, fat man, with a puffy face and a big stomach, dressed all in black, and wearing a decoration in his button-hole, was talking to a tall, thin man, dressed in a dirty, white linen suit, that was all unbuttoned, with a white Panama hat on. The former spoke so slowly and hesitatingly, that it occasionally almost seemed as if he stammered; he was Monsieur Caravan, chief clerk in the Admiralty. The other, who had formerly been surgeon on board a merchant ship, had set up in practice in Courbevoie, where he applied the vague remnants of medical knowledge which he had retained after an adventurous life, to the wretched population of that district. His name was Chenet, and strange rumors were current as to his morality.
Monsieur Caravan had always led the normal life of a man in a Government office. For the last thirty years he had invariably gone the same way to his office every morning, and had met the same men going to business at the same time and nearly on the same spot, and he returned home every evening the same way, and again met the same faces which he had seen growing old. Every morning, after buying his halfpenny paper at the corner of the Faubourg Saint Honore, he bought his two rolls, and then he went into his office, like a culprit who is giving himself up to justice, and he got to his desk as quickly as possible, always feeling uneasy, as he was expecting a rebuke for some neglect of duty of which he might have been guilty.
Nothing had ever occurred to change the monotonous order of his existence, for no event affected him except the work of his office, perquisites, gratuities, and promotion. He never spoke of anything but of his duties, either at the Admiralty or at home, for he had married the portionless daughter of one of his colleagues. His mind, which was in a state of atrophy from his depressing daily work, had no other thoughts, hopes or dreams than such as related to the office, and there was a constant source of bitterness that spoilt every pleasure that he might have had, and that was the employment of so many commissioners of the navy, tinmen, as they were called, because of their silver-lace, as first-class clerks; and every evening at dinner he discussed the matter hotly with his wife, who shared his angry feelings, and proved to their own satisfaction that it was in every way unjust to give places in Paris, to men who ought to be employed in the navy.
He was old now, and had scarcely noticed how his life was passing, for school had merely been exchanged, without any transition, for the office, and the ushers, at whom he had formerly trembled, were replaced by his chiefs, whom he was terribly afraid of. When he had to go into the rooms of these official despots, it made him tremble from head to foot, and that constant fear had given him a very awkward manner in their presence, a humble demeanor, and a kind of nervous stammering.
He knew nothing more about Paris than a blind man could know, who was led to the same spot by his dog every day, and if he read the account of any uncommon events, or of scandals, in his halfpenny paper, they appeared to him like fantastic tales, which some pressman had made up out of his own head, in order to amuse the inferior employes. He did not read the political news, which his paper frequently altered, as the cause which subsidized them might require, for he was not fond of innovations, and when he went through the Avenue of the Champs-Elysees every evening, he looked at the surging crowd of pedestrians, and at the stream of carriages, like a traveler who has lost his way in a strange country.
As he had completed his thirty years of obligatory service that year, on the first of January, he had had the cross of the Legion of Honor bestowed upon him, which, in the semi-military public offices, is a recompense for the miserable slavery—the official phrase is, loyal services of unfortunate convicts who are riveted to their desk. That unexpected dignity gave him a high and new idea of his own capacities, and altogether altered him. He immediately left off wearing light trousers and fancy waistcoats, and wore black trousers and long coats, on which his ribbon, which was very broad, showed off better. He got shaved every morning, trimmed his nails more carefully, changed his linen every two days, from a legitimate sense of what was proper, and of respect for the national Order, of which he formed a part, and from that day he was another Caravan, scrupulously clean, majestic and condescending.
At home, he said, "my cross," at every moment, and he had become so proud of it, that he could not bear to see other men wearing any other ribbon in their button-holes. He got especially angry on seeing strange orders:—"Which nobody ought to be allowed to wear in France," and he bore Chenet a particular grudge, as he met him on a tramcar every evening, wearing a decoration of some sort or another, white, blue, orange, or green.
The conversation of the two men, from the Arc de Triomphe to Neuilly, was always the same, and on that day they discussed, first of all, various local abuses which disgusted them both, and the Mayor of Neuilly received his full share of their blame. Then, as invariably happens in the company of a medical man, Caravan began to enlarge on the chapter of illness, as, in that manner, he hoped to obtain a little gratuitous advice, if he was careful not to show his book. His mother had been causing him no little anxiety for some time; she had frequent and prolonged fainting fits, and, although she was ninety, she would not take care of herself.
Caravan grew quite tender-hearted when he mentioned her great age, and more than once asked Doctor Chenet, emphasizing the word doctor—although he had no right to the title, being only an Officier de Sante, and, as such, not fully qualified—whether he had often met anyone as old as that. And he rubbed his hands with pleasure; not, perhaps, that he cared very much about seeing the good woman last for ever here on earth, but because the long duration of his mother's life was, as it were, an earnest of old age for himself, and he continued:
"Oh! In my family, we last long, and I am sure that, unless I meet with an accident, I shall not die until I am very old."
The medico looked at him with pity, and glanced for a moment at his neighbor's red face, his short, thick neck, his "corporation," as Chenet called it to himself, that hung down between two flaccid, fat legs, and his apoplectic rotundity of the old, flabby official, and, lifting the white Panama hat which he wore, from his head, he said, with a snigger:—
"I am not so sure of that, old fellow; your mother is as tough as nails, and I should say that your life is not a very good one."
This rather upset Caravan, who did not speak again until the tram put them down at their destination, where the two friends got out, and Chenet asked his friend to have a glass of vermouth at the Cafe du Globe, opposite, which both of them were in the habit of frequenting. The proprietor, who was a friend of theirs, held out two fingers to them, which they shook across the bottles on the counter, and then they joined three of their friends, who were playing at dominoes, and who had been there since midday. They exchanged cordial greetings, with the usual inquiries:—"Anything fresh?" and then the three players continued their game, and held out their hands without looking up, when the others wished them "Good-night," and then they both went home to dinner.
Caravan lived in a small, two-storied house in Courbevoie, near where the roads meet; the ground floor was occupied by a hair-dresser. Two bedrooms, a dining-room and a kitchen, formed the whole of their apartments, and Madame Caravan spent nearly her whole time in cleaning them up, while her daughter, Marie-Louise, who was twelve, and her son, Philippe-Auguste, were running about with all the little, dirty, mischievous brats of the neighborhood, and playing in the gutters.
Caravan had installed his mother, whose avarice was notorious in the neighborhood, and who was terribly thin, in the room above them. She was always in a bad temper, and she never passed a day without quarreling and flying into furious tempers. She used to apostrophize the neighbors, who were standing at their own doors, the coster-mongers, the street-sweepers, and the street-boys, in the most violent language, and the latter, to have their revenge, used to follow her at a distance when she went out, and call out rude things after her.
A little servant from Normandy, who was incredibly giddy and thoughtless, performed the household work, and slept on the second floor, in the same room as the old woman, for fear of anything happening to her in the night.
When Caravan got in, his wife, who suffered from a chronic passion for cleaning, was polishing up the mahogany chairs that were scattered about the room, with a piece of flannel. She always wore cotton gloves, and adorned her head with a cap, which was ornamented with many colored ribbons, which was always tilted on one ear, and whenever anyone caught her polishing, sweeping, or washing, she used to say:—
"I am not rich; everything is very simple in my house, but cleanliness is my luxury, and that is worth quite as much as any other."
As she was gifted with sound, obstinate, practical common sense, she led her husband in everything. Every evening during dinner, and afterwards, when they were in bed, they talked over the business in the office for a long time, and, although she was twenty years younger than he, he confided everything to her, as if she had had the direction, and followed her advice in every matter.
She had never been pretty, and now she had grown ugly; in addition to that, she was short and thin, while her careless and tasteless way of dressing herself, hid her few, small feminine attributes, which might have been brought out if she had possessed any skill in dress. Her petticoats were always awry, and she frequently scratched herself, no matter on what place, totally indifferent as to who might see her, and so persistently that anybody who saw her, would think that she was suffering from something like the itch. The only ornaments that she allowed herself were silk ribbons, which she had in great profusion, and of various colors mixed together, in the pretentious caps which she wore at home.
As soon as she saw her husband she got up and said, as she kissed his whiskers:
"Did you remember Potin, my dear?"
He fell into a chair, in consternation, for that was the fourth time on which he had forgotten a commission that he had promised to do for her.
"It is a fatality," he said; "it is no good for me to think of it all day long, for I am sure to forget it in the evening."
But as she seemed really so very sorry, she merely said, quietly:
"You will think of it to-morrow, I daresay. Anything fresh at the office?"
"Yes, a great piece of news: another tinman has been appointed second chief clerk," and she became very serious.
"So he succeeds Ramon, this was the very post that I wanted you to have. And what about Ramon?"
"He retires on his pension."
She grew furious, and her cap slid down on her shoulder, and she continued:
"There is nothing more to be done in that shop now. And what is the name of the new commissioner?"
She took up the Naval Year Book, which she always kept close at hand, and looked him up.
"'Bonassot—Toulon. Born in 1851. Student-Commissioner in 1871. Sub-Commissioner in 1875.' Has he been to sea?" she continued, and at that question Caravan's looks cleared up, and he laughed until his sides shook.
"Just like Balin—just like Balin, his chief." And he added an old office joke, and laughed more than ever:
"It would not even do to send them by water to inspect the Point-du-Jour, for they would be sick on the penny steamboats on the Seine."
But she remained as serious as if she had not heard him, and then she said in a low voice, while she scratched her chin:
"If only we had a Deputy to fall back upon. When the Chamber hears everything that is going on at the Admiralty, the Minister will be turned out..."
She was interrupted by a terrible noise on the stairs. Marie-Louise and Philippe-Auguste, who had just come in from the gutter, were giving each other slaps all the way upstairs. Their mother rushed at them furiously, and taking each of them by an arm, she dragged them into the room, shaking them vigorously, but as soon as they saw their father, they rushed up to him, and he kissed them affectionately, and taking one of them on each knee, he began to talk to them.
Philippe-Auguste was an ugly, ill-kempt little brat, dirty from head to foot, with the face of an idiot, and Marie-Louise was already like her mother—spoke like her, repeated her words, and even imitated her movements. She also asked him whether there was anything fresh at the office, and he replied merrily:
"Your friend, Ramon, who comes and dines here every Sunday, is going to leave us, little one. There is a new second head-clerk."
She looked at her father, and with a precocious child's pity, she said:
"So somebody has been put over your head again!"
He stopped laughing, and did not reply, and then, in order, to create a diversion, he said, addressing his wife, who was cleaning the windows:
"How is mamma, up there?"
Madame Caravan left off rubbing, turned round, pulled her cap up, as it had fallen quite on to her back, and said, with trembling lips:
"Ah! yes; just speak to your mother about this, for she has created a pretty scene. Just think that a short time ago Madame Lebaudin, the hairdresser's wife, came upstairs to borrow a packet of starch of me, and, as I was not at home, your mother called her a beggar woman, and turned her out; but I gave it to the old woman. She pretended not to hear, like she always does when one tells her unpleasant truths, but she is no more deaf than I am, as you know. It is all a sham, and the proof of it is, that she went up to her own room immediately, without saying a word."
Caravan did not utter a word, and at that moment the little servant came in to announce dinner. In order to let his mother know, he took a broom-handle, which always stood in a corner, and rapped loudly on the ceiling three times, and they went into the dining-room. Madame Caravan, junior, helped the soup, and waited for the old woman, but she did not come, and the soup was getting cold, so they began to eat slowly, and when their plates were empty, they waited again, and Madame Caravan, who was furious, attacked her husband:
"She does it on purpose, you know that as well as I do. But you always uphold her."
He, in great perplexity between the two, sent Marie-Louise to fetch her grandmother, and he sat motionless, with his eyes down, while his wife tapped her glass angrily with her knife. In about a minute, the door flew open suddenly, and the child came in again, out of breath and very pale, and said very quickly:
"Grandmamma has fallen down on the ground."
Caravan jumped up, threw his table-napkin down, and rushed upstairs, while his wife, who thought it was some trick of her mother-in-law's, followed more slowly, shrugging her shoulders, as if to express her doubt. When they got upstairs, however, they found the old woman lying at full length in the middle of the room, and when they turned her over they saw that she was insensible and motionless, while her skin looked more wrinkled and yellow than usual, and her eyes were closed, her teeth clenched, and her thin body was stiff.
Caravan knelt down by her, and began to moan:
"My poor mother! my poor mother!" he said. But the other Madame Caravan said:
"Bah! She has only fainted again, that is all, and she has done it to prevent us from dining comfortably, you may be sure of that."
They put her on the bed, undressed her completely, and Caravan, his wife, and the servant began to rub her, but, in spite of their efforts, she did not recover consciousness, so they sent Rosalie, the servant, to fetch Doctor Chenet. He lived a long way off, on the quay going towards Suresnes, and so it was considerable time before he arrived. He came at last, however, and, after having looked at the old woman, felt her pulse, auscultated her, he said:—"It is all over."
Caravan threw himself on the body, sobbing violently; he kissed his mother's rigid face, and wept so, that great tears fell on the dead woman's face, like drops of water, and, naturally, Madame Caravan, Junior, showed a decorous amount of grief, and uttered feeble moans, as she stood behind her husband, while she rubbed her eyes vigorously.
But, suddenly, Caravan raised himself up, with his thin hair in disorder, and, looking very ugly in his grief, said:—
"But ... are you sure, doctor?... Are you quite sure?..."
The medical stooped over the body, and, handling it with professional dexterity, like a shopkeeper might do, when showing off his goods, he said:—"See, my dear friend, look at her eye."
He raised the eyelid, and the old woman's looks reappeared under his finger, and were altogether unaltered, unless, perhaps, the pupil was rather larger, and Caravan felt a severe shock at the sight. Then Monsieur Chenet took her thin arm, forced the fingers open, and said, angrily, as if he had been contradicted:
"Just look at her hand; I never make a mistake, you may be quite sure of that."
Caravan fell on the bed, and almost bellowed, while his wife, still whimpering, did what was necessary.
She brought the night-table, on which she spread a table napkin, and placed four wax candles on it, which she lighted; then she took a sprig of box, which was hanging over the chimney glass, and put it between the candles, into the plate, which she filled with clean water, as she had no holy water. But, after a moment's rapid reflection, she threw a pinch of salt into the water, no doubt, thinking she was performing some sort of act of consecration by doing that, and when she had finished, she remained standing motionless, and the medical man, who had been helping her, whispered to her:
"We must take Caravan away."
She nodded assent, and, going up to her husband, who was still on his knees, sobbing, she raised him up by one arm, while Chenet took him by the other.
They put him into a chair, and his wife kissed his forehead, and then began to lecture him. Chenet enforced her words, and preached firmness, courage, and resignation—the very things which are always wanting in such overwhelming misfortunes—and then both of them took him by the arms again and led him out.
He was crying like a great child, with convulsive hiccoughs; his arms were hanging down, and his legs seemed useless, and he went downstairs without knowing what he was doing, and moving his legs mechanically. They put him into the chair which he always occupied at dinner, in front of his empty soup plate. And there he sat, without moving, with his eyes fixed on his glass, and so stupefied with grief, that he could not even think.
In a corner, Madame Caravan was talking with the doctor, and asking what the necessary formalities were, as she wanted to obtain practical information. At last, Monsieur Chenet, who appeared to be waiting for something, took up his hat and prepared to go, saying that he had not dined yet; whereupon, she exclaimed:—
"What! you have not dined? But stop here, doctor; don't go. You shall have whatever we can give you, for, of course, you will understand that we do not fare sumptuously." However, he made excuses and refused, but she persisted, and said:—
"You really must stop; at times like this, people like to have friends near them, and, besides that, perhaps you will be able to persuade my husband to take some nourishment; he must keep up his strength."
The doctor bowed, and, putting down his hat, he said:—
"In that case, I will accept your invitation, Madame."
She gave Rosalie, who seemed to have lost her head, some orders, and then sat down, "to pretend to eat," as she said, "to keep the doctor company."
The soup was brought in again, and Monsieur Chenet took two helpings. Then there came a dish of tripe, which exhaled a smell of onions, and which Madame Caravan made up her mind to taste.
"It is excellent," the doctor said, at which she smiled, and, turning to her husband, she said:—
"Do take a little, my poor Alfred, only just to put something into your stomach. Remember you have got to pass the night watching by her!"
He held out his plate, docilely, just as he would have gone to bed, if he had been told to, obeying her in everything, without resistance and without reflection, and, therefore, he ate; the doctor helped himself three times, while Madame Caravan, from time to time, fished out a large piece at the end of her fork, and swallowed it with a sort of studied inattention.
When a salad bowl full of macaroni was brought in, the doctor said:
"By Jove! That is what I am very fond of." And this time, Madame Caravan helped everybody. She even filled the children's saucers, which they had scraped clean, and who, being left to themselves, had been drinking wine without any water, and were now kicking each other under the table.
Chenet remembered that Rossini, the composer, had been very fond of that Italian dish, and suddenly he exclaimed:—
"Why! that rhymes, and one could begin some lines like this:
"The Maestro Rossini Was fond of macaroni."
Nobody listened to him, however. Madame Caravan, who had suddenly grown thoughtful, was thinking of all the probable consequences of the event, while her husband made bread pellets, which he put on the table-cloth, and looked at with a fixed, idiotic stare. As he was devoured by thirst, he was continually raising his glass full of wine to his lips, and the consequences were that his senses, which had already been rather upset by the shock and grief, seemed to dance about vaguely in his head, as if they were going to vanish altogether.
Meanwhile, the doctor, who had been drinking away steadily, was getting visibly drunk, and Madame Caravan herself felt the reaction which follows all nervous shocks, and was agitated and excited, and although she had been drinking nothing but water, she felt her head rather confused.
By-and-bye, Chenet began to relate stories of deaths, that appeared funny to him. In that suburb of Paris, that is full of people from the provinces, one meets with that indifference towards death were it even a father or mother, which all peasants show; that want of respect, that unconscious ferociousness which is so common in the country, and so rare in Paris, and he said:
"Why, I was sent for last week to the Rue du Puteaux, and when I went, I found the sick person (and there was the whole family calmly sitting near the bed) finishing a bottle of liquor of aniseed, which had been bought the night before to satisfy the dying man's fancy."
But Madame Caravan was not listening; she was continually thinking of the inheritance, and Caravan was incapable of understanding anything.
Soon coffee was served, which had been made very strong, and as every cup was well qualified with cognac, it made all their faces red, and confused their ideas still more; to make matters still worse, Chenet suddenly seized the brandy bottle and poured out "a drop just to wash their mouths out with," as he termed it, for each of them, and then, without speaking any more, overcome in spite of themselves, by that feeling of animal comfort which alcohol affords after dinner, they slowly sipped the sweet cognac, which formed a yellowish syrup at the bottom of their cups.
The children had gone to sleep, and Rosalie carried them off to bed, and then, Caravan, mechanically obeying that wish to forget oneself which possesses all unhappy persons, helped himself to brandy again several times, and his dull eyes grew bright. At last the doctor rose to go, and seizing his friend's arm, he said:
"Come with me; a little fresh air will do you good. When one is in trouble, one must not stick to one spot."
The other obeyed mechanically, put on his hat, took his stick, and went out, and both of them went arm-in-arm towards the Seine, in the starlight night.
The air was warm and sweet, for all the gardens in the neighborhood were full of flowers at that season of the year, and their scent, which is scarcely perceptible during the day, seemed to awaken at the approach of night, and mingled with the light breezes which blew upon them in the darkness.
The broad avenue, with its two rows of gaslamps, that extended as far as the Arc de Triomphe, was deserted and silent, but there was the distant roar of Paris, which seemed to have a reddish vapor hanging over it. It was a kind of continual rumbling, which was at times answered by the whistle of a train at full speed, in the distance, traveling to the ocean, through the provinces.
The fresh air on the faces of the two men rather overcame them at first, made the doctor lose his equilibrium a little, and increased Caravan's giddiness, from which he had suffered since dinner. He walked as if he were in a dream; his thoughts were paralyzed, although he felt no grief, for he was in a state of mental torpor that prevented him from suffering, and he even felt a sense of relief which was increased by the mildness of the night.
When they reached the bridge they turned to the right, and they got the fresh breeze from the river. It rolled along, calm and melancholy, bordered by tall poplar trees, and the stars looked as if they were floating on the water and were moving with the current. A slight, white mist that floated over the opposite banks, filled their lungs with a sensation of cold, and Caravan stopped suddenly, for he was struck by that smell from the water, which brought back old memories to his mind. For he, suddenly, in his mind, saw his mother again, in Picardy, as he had seen her years before, kneeling in front of their door, and washing the heaps of linen, by her side, in the stream that ran through their garden. He almost fancied that he could hear the sound of the wooden beetle with which she beat the linen, in the calm silence of the country, and her voice, as she called out to him:
"Alfred, bring me some soap." And he smelt that odor of the trickling water, of the mist rising from the wet ground, the heap of wet linen, which he should never forget, and which came back to him on the very evening on which his mother died.
He stopped, with a feeling of despair, and felt heartbroken at that eternal separation. His life seemed cut in half, all his youth disappeared, swallowed up by that death. All the former life was over and done with, all the recollections of his youthful days would vanish; for the future, there would be nobody to talk to him of what had happened in days gone by, of the people he had known of old, of his own part of the country, and of his past life; that was a part of his existence which existed no longer, and the other might as well end now.
And then he saw Mamma as she was when younger, wearing well-worn dresses, which he remembered for such a long time that they seemed inseparable from her; he recollected her movements, the different tones of her voice, her habits, her manias, her fits of anger, the wrinkles on her face, the movements of her thin fingers, and all her well-known attitudes, which she would never have again, and clutching hold of the doctor, he began to moan and weep. His lank legs began to tremble, his whole, stout body was shaken by his sobs, all he could say was:
"My mother, my poor mother, my poor mother...!"
But his companion, who was still drunk, and who intended to finish the evening in certain places of bad repute that he frequented secretly, made him sit down on the grass by the riverside, and left him almost immediately, under the pretext that he had to see a patient.
Caravan went on crying for a long time, and then, when he had got to the end of his tears, when his grief had, so to say, run out of him, he again felt relief, repose, and sudden tranquillity.
The moon had risen, and bathed the horizon in its soft light.
The tall poplar trees had a silvery sheen on them, and the mist on the plain, looked like floating snow; the river, in which the stars were reflected, and which looked as if it were covered with mother-of-pearl, was rippled by the wind. The air was soft and sweet, and Caravan inhaled it almost greedily, and thought that he could perceive a feeling of freshness, of calm and of superhuman consolation pervading him.
He really tried to resist that feeling of comfort and relief, and kept on saying to himself:—"My mother, my poor mother!" ... and tried to make himself cry, from a kind of a conscientious feeling, but he could not succeed in doing so any longer and those sad thoughts, which had made him sob so bitterly a short time before, had almost passed away. In a few moments, he rose to go home, and returned slowly, under the influence of that serene night, and with a heart soothed in spite of himself.
When he reached the bridge he saw that the last tramcar was ready to start, and the lights through the windows of the Cafe du Globe, and he felt a longing to tell somebody of the catastrophe that had happened, to excite pity, to make himself interesting. He put on a woeful face, pushed open the door, and went up to the counter, where the landlord still was. He had counted on creating an effect, and had hoped that everybody would get up and come to him with outstretched hands, and say:—"Why, what is the matter with you?" But nobody noticed his disconsolate face, so he rested his two elbows on the counter, and, burying his face in his hands, he murmured: "Good heavens! Good heavens!"
The landlord looked at him and said: "Are you ill, Monsieur Caravan?"
"No, my friend," he replied, "but my mother has just died."
"Ah!" the other exclaimed, and as a customer at the other end of the establishment asked for a glass of Bavarian beer, he went to attend to him, left Caravan almost stupefied at his want of sympathy.
The three domino players were sitting at the same table which they had occupied before dinner, totally absorbed in their game, and Caravan went up to them, in search of pity, but as none of them appeared to notice him, he made up his mind to speak.
"A great misfortune has happened to me since I was here," he said.
All three slightly raised their heads at the same instant, but keeping their eyes fixed on the pieces which they held in their hands.
"What do you say?"
"My mother has just died;" whereupon one of them said:
"Oh! the devil," with that false air of sorrow which indifferent people assume. Another, who could not find anything to say, emitted a sort of sympathetic whistle, shaking his head at the same time, and the third turned to the game again, as if he were saying to himself: "Is that all!"
Caravan had expected some of those expressions that are said to "come from the heart," and when he saw how his news was received, he left the table, indignant at their calmness before their friend's sorrow, although at that moment he was so dazed with grief, that he hardly felt it, and went home. When he got in, his wife was waiting for him in her nightgown, and sitting in a low chair by the open window, still thinking of the inheritance.
"Undress yourself," she said; "we will talk when we are in bed."
He raised his head, and looking at the ceiling, he said:
"But ... there is nobody up there."
"I beg your pardon, Rosalie is with her, and you can go and take her place at three o'clock in the morning, when you have had some sleep."
He only partially undressed, however, so as to be ready for anything that might happen, and after tying a silk handkerchief round his head, he joined his wife, who had just got in between the sheets, and for some time they remained side by side, and neither of them spoke. She was thinking.
Even in bed, her night-cap was adorned with a red bow, and was pushed rather over one ear, as was the way with all the caps that she wore, and, presently, she turned towards him and said:
"Do you know whether your mother made a will?"
He hesitated for a moment, and then replied:
"I ... I do not think so.... No, I am sure that she did not."
His wife looked at him, and she said, in a low, furious voice:
"I call that infamous; here we have been wearing ourselves out for ten years in looking after her, and have boarded and lodged her! Your sister would not have done so much for her, nor I either, if I had known how I was to be rewarded! Yes, it is a disgrace to her memory! I daresay that you will tell me that she paid us, but one cannot pay one's children in ready money for what they do; that obligation is recognized after death; at any rate, that is how honorable people act. So I have had all my worry and trouble for nothing! Oh, that is nice! that is very nice!"
Poor Caravan, who felt nearly distracted, kept on saying:
"My dear, my dear, please, please be quiet."
She grew calmer by degrees, and, resuming her usual voice and manner, she continued:
"We must let your sister know, to-morrow."
He started, and said:
"Of course, we must; I had forgotten all about it; I will send her a telegram the first thing in the morning."
"No," she replied, like a woman who had foreseen everything; "no, do not send it before ten or eleven o'clock, so that we may have time to turn round before she comes. It does not take more than two hours to get here from Charenton, and we can say that you lost your head from grief. If we let her know in the course of the day, that will be soon enough, and will give us time to look round."
But Caravan put his hand to his forehead, and, in the same timid voice in which he always spoke of his chief, the very thought of whom made him tremble, he said:
"I must let them know at the office."
"Why?" she replied. "On such occasions like this, it is always excusable to forget. Take my advice, and don't let him know; your chief will not be able to say anything to you, and you will put him in a nice fix."
"Oh! yes, that I shall, and he will be in a terrible rage, too, when he notices my absence. Yes, you are right; it is a capital idea, and when I tell him that my mother is dead, he will be obliged to hold his tongue."
And he rubbed his hands in delight at the joke, when he thought of his chief's face; while the body of the dead old woman lay upstairs, and the servant was asleep close to it.
But Madame Caravan grew thoughtful, as if she were pre-occupied by something, which she did not care to mention, but at last she said:
"Your mother had given you her clock, had she not; the girl playing at cup and ball?"
He thought for a moment, and then replied:
"Yes, yes; she said to me (but it was a long time ago, when she first came here): 'I shall leave the clock to you, if you look after me well.'"
Madame Caravan was reassured, and regained her serenity, and said:
"Well, then, you must go and fetch it out of her room, for if we get your sister here, she will prevent us from having it."
"Do you think so?..."
That made her angry.
"I certainly think so; as soon as it is in our possession, she will know nothing at all about where it came from; it belongs to us. It is just the same with the chest of drawers with the marble top, that is in her room; she gave it me one day when she was in a good temper. We will bring it down at the same time."
Caravan, however, seemed incredulous, and said:
"But, my dear, it is a great responsibility!"
She turned on him furiously.
"Oh! Indeed! Will you never alter? You would let your children die of hunger, rather than make a move. Does not that chest of drawers belong to us, as she gave it to me? And if your sister is not satisfied, let her tell me so, me! I don't care a straw for your sister. Come, get up, and we will bring down what your mother gave us, immediately."
Trembling and vanquished, he got out of bed, and began to put on his trousers, but she stopped him:
"It is not worth while to dress yourself; your drawers are quite enough; I mean to go as I am."
They both left the room in their night clothes, went upstairs quite noiselessly, opened the door and went into the room, where the four lighted tapers and the plate with the sprig of box alone seemed to be watching the old woman in her rigid repose; for Rosalie, who was lying back in the easy chair with her legs stretched out, her hands folded in her lap, and her head on one side, was also quite motionless, and was snoring with her mouth wide open.
Caravan took the clock, which was one of those grotesque objects that were produced so plentifully under the Empire. A girl in gilt bronze was holding a cup and ball, and the ball formed the pendulum.
"Give that to me," his wife said, "and take the marble top off the chest of drawers."
He put the marble on his shoulder with a considerable effort, and they left the room. Caravan had to stoop in the door-way, and trembled as he went downstairs, while his wife walked backwards, so as to light him, and held the candlestick in one hand, while she had the clock under her other arm.
When they were in their own room, she heaved a sigh.
"We have got over the worst part of the job," she said; "so now let us go and fetch the other things."
But the drawers were full of the old woman's wearing apparel, which they must manage to hide somewhere, and Madame Caravan soon thought of a plan.
"Go and get that wooden box in the passage; it is hardly worth anything, and we may just as well put it here."
And when he had brought it upstairs, the change began. One by one, she took out all the collars, cuffs, chemises, caps, all the well-worn things that had belonged to the poor woman lying there behind them, and arranged them methodically in the wooden box, in such a manner as to deceive Madame Braux, the deceased woman's other child, who would be coming the next day.
When they had finished, they first of all carried the drawers downstairs, and the remaining portion afterwards, each of them holding an end, and it was some time before they could make up their minds where it would stand best; but at last they settled upon their own room, opposite the bed, between the two windows, and as soon as it was in its place, Madame Caravan filled it with her own things. The clock was placed on the chimney-piece in the dining-room, and they looked to see what the effect was, and they were both delighted with it, and agreed that nothing could be better. Then they got into bed, she blew out the candle, and soon everybody in the house was asleep.