Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Beside a Dead Man

He was slowly dying, as consumptives die. I saw him sitting down every day at two o’clock under the windows of the hotel, facing the tranquil sea on an open-air bench. He remained for some time without moving, in the heat of the sun gazing mournfully at the Mediterranean. Every now and then, he cast a glance at the lofty mountains with vaporous summits which shuts in Mentone: then, with a very slow movement, he crossed his long legs, so thin that they seemed two bones, around which fluttered the cloth of his trousers, and he opened a book, which was always the same. And then he did not stir any more, but read on, read on with his eye and his mind; all his expiring body seemed to read, all his soul plunged, lost itself, disappeared, in this book, up to the hour when the cool air made him cough a little. Then, he got up and re-entered the hotel.

He was a tall German, with fair beard, who breakfasted and dined in his own room, and spoke to nobody.

A vague curiosity attracted me to him. One day I sat down by his side, having taken up a book, too, to keep up appearances, a volume of De Musset’s poems.

And I began to run through “Rolla.”

Suddenly my neighbor said to me, in good French:

“Do you know German, monsieur?”

“Not at all, monsieur.”

“I am sorry for that. Since chance has thrown us side by side, I could have lent you, I could have shown you, an inestimable thing — this book which I hold in my hand.”

“What is it pray?”

“It is a copy of my master, Schopenhauer, annotated with his own hand. All the margins, as you may see, are covered with his handwriting.”

I took the book from him reverently, and I gazed at those forms incomprehensible to me, but which revealed the immortal thoughts of the greatest shatterer of dreams who had ever dwelt on earth.

And De Musset’s verses arose in my memory:

“Hast thou found out, Voltaire, that it is bliss to die,
Or does thy hideous smile over thy bleached bones fly?”

And involuntarily I compared the childish sarcasm, the religious sarcasm, of Voltaire with the irresistible irony of the German philosopher whose influence is henceforth ineffaceable.

Let us protest and let us be angry, let us be indignant or let us be enthusiastic, Schopenhauer has marked humanity with the seal of his disdain and of his disenchantment.

A disabused pleasure-seeker, he overthrew beliefs, hopes, poetic ideal, and chimeras, destroyed the aspirations, ravaged the confidence of souls, killed love, dragged down the chivalrous worship of women, crushed the illusions of hearts and accomplished the most gigantic talk ever attempted by skepticism. He passed over everything with his mocking spirit, and left everything empty. And even today those who execrate him seem to carry portions of his thought, in spite of themselves, in their own souls.

“So, then, you were intimately acquainted with Schopenhauer?” I said to the German.

He smiled sadly.

“Up to the time of his death, monsieur.”

And he spoke to me about the philosopher and told me about the almost supernatural impression which this strange being made on all who came near him.

He gave me an account of the interview of the old iconoclast with a French politician, a doctrinaire Republican, who wanted to get a glimpse of this man, and found him in a noisy tavern, seated in the midst of his disciples, dry, wrinkled, laughing with an unforgettable laugh, eating and tearing ideas and beliefs with a single word, as a dog tears with one bite of his teeth the tissues with which he plays.

He repeated for me the comment of this Frenchman as he went away, scared and terrified:— “I thought I had spent an hour with the devil.”

Then he added,

“He had, indeed, monsieur, a frightful smile, which terrified us even after his death. I can tell you an anecdote about it not generally known, if it has any interest for you.”

And he began, in a tired voice, interrupted by frequent fits of coughing.

“Schopenhauer had just died, and it was arranged that we should watch, in turn, two by two, till morning.

“He was lying in a large apartment, very simple, vast, and gloomy. Two wax candles were burning on the bedside stand.

“It was midnight when I took up my task of watching along with one of our comrades. The two friends whom we replaced had left the apartment, and we came and sat down at the foot of the bed.

“The face was not changed. It was laughing. That pucker which we knew so well lingered still around the corners of the lips, and it seemed to us that he was about to open his eyes, to move, and to speak. His thought, or rather his thoughts, enveloped us. We felt ourselves more than ever in the atmosphere of his genius, absorbed, possessed by him. His domination seemed to be even more sovereign now that he was dead. A sense of mystery was blended with the power of this incomparable spirit.

“The bodies of these men disappear, but they remain themselves; and in the night which follows the stoppage of their heart’s beatings, I assure you, monsieur, they are terrifying.

“And in hushed tones we talked about him, recalling to mind certain sayings, certain formulas of his, those startling maxims which are like jets of flame flung, by means of some words, into the darkness of the Unknown Life.

“‘It seems to me that he is going to speak,’ said my comrade. And we stared with uneasiness bordering on fear at the motionless face with its eternal laugh. Gradually, we began to feel ill at ease, oppressed, on the point of fainting. I faltered:

“‘I don’t know what is the matter with me, but, I assure you, I am not well.’

“And at that moment we noticed that there was an unpleasant odor from the corpse.

“Then, my comrade suggested that we should go into the adjoining room, and leave the door open; and I assented to his proposal.

“I took one of the wax candles which burned on the bedside stand, and I left the second behind. Then we went and sat down at the other end of the adjoining apartment, so as to be able to see from where we were the bed and the corpse, clearly revealed by the light.

“But he still held possession of us. One would have said that his immaterial essence, liberated, free, all-powerful and dominating, was flitting around us. And sometimes, too, the dreadful smell of the decomposed body came towards us and penetrated us, sickening and indefinable.

“Suddenly a shiver passed through our bones: a sound, a slight sound, came from the death-chamber. Immediately we fixed our glances on him, and we saw, yes, monsieur, we saw distinctly, both of us, something white flying over the bed, falling on the carpet, and vanishing under an armchair.

“We were on our feet before we had time to think of anything, distracted by stupefying terror, ready to run away. Then we stared at each other. We were horribly pale. Our hearts throbbed so fiercely that our clothes swelled over our chests. I was the first to speak.

“‘You saw?’

“‘Yes, I saw.’

“‘Can it be that he is not dead?’

“‘Why not, when the body is putrefying?’

“‘What are we to do?’

“My companion said in a hesitating tone:

“‘We must go and look.’

“I took our wax candle and I entered first, searching with my eye through all the large apartment with its dark corners. There was not the least movement now, and I approached the bed. But I stood transfixed with stupor and fright: Schopenhauer was no longer laughing! He was grinning in a horrible fashion, with his lips pressed together and deep hollows in his cheeks. I stammered out:

“‘He is not dead!’

“But the terrible odor rose up to my nose and stifled me. And I no longer moved, but kept staring fixedly at him, scared as if in the presence of the apparition.

“Then my companion, having seized the other wax candle, bent forward. Then, he touched my arm without uttering a word. I followed his glance, and I saw on the ground, under the armchair by the side of the bed, all white on the dark carpet, open as if to bite, Schopenhauer’s set of artificial teeth.

“The work of decomposition, loosening the jaws, had made it jump out of his mouth.

“I was really frightened that day, monsieur.”

And as the sun was sinking towards the glittering sea, the consumptive German rose from his seat, gave me a parting bow, and retired into the hotel.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09