The Death of Olivier Becaille, by Émile Zola

Chapter II

Funeral Preparations

Marguerite’s cries had attracted attention, for all at once the door was opened and a voice exclaimed: “What is the matter, neighbor? Is he worse?”

I recognized the voice; it was that of an elderly woman, Mme Gabin, who occupied a room on the same floor. She had been most obliging since our arrival and had evidently become interested in our concerns. On her own side she had lost no time in telling us her history. A stern landlord had sold her furniture during the previous winter to pay himself his rent, and since then she had resided at the lodginghouse in the Rue Dauphine with her daughter Dede, a child of ten. They both cut and pinked lamp shades, and between them they earned at the utmost only two francs a day.

“Heavens! Is it all over?” cried Mme Gabin, looking at me.

I realized that she was drawing nearer. She examined me, touched me and, turning to Marguerite, murmured compassionately: “Poor girl! Poor girl!”

My wife, wearied out, was sobbing like a child. Mme Gabin lifted her, placed her in a dilapidated armchair near the fireplace and proceeded to comfort her.

“Indeed, you’ll do yourself harm if you go on like this, my dear. It’s no reason because your husband is gone that you should kill yourself with weeping. Sure enough, when I lost Gabin I was just like you. I remained three days without swallowing a morsel of food. But that didn’t help me — on the contrary, it pulled me down. Come, for the Lord’s sake, be sensible!”

By degrees Marguerite grew calmer; she was exhausted, and it was only at intervals that she gave way to a fresh flow of tears. Meanwhile the old woman had taken possession of the room with a sort of rough authority.

“Don’t worry yourself,” she said as she bustled about. “Neighbors must help each other. Luckily Dede has just gone to take the work home. Ah, I see your trunks are not yet all unpacked, but I suppose there is some linen in the chest of drawers, isn’t there?”

I heard her pull a drawer open; she must have taken out a napkin which she spread on the little table at the bedside. She then struck a match, which made me think that she was lighting one of the candles on the mantelpiece and placing it near me as a religious rite. I could follow her movements in the room and divine all her actions.

“Poor gentleman,” she muttered. “Luckily I heard you sobbing, poor dear!” Suddenly the vague light which my left eye had detected vanished. Mme Gabin had just closed my eyelids, but I had not felt her finger on my face. When I understood this I felt chilled.

The door had opened again, and Dede, the child of ten, now rushed in, calling out in her shrill voice: “Mother, Mother! Ah, I knew you would be here! Look here, there’s the money — three francs and four sous. I took back three dozen lamp shades.”

“Hush, hush! Hold your tongue,” vainly repeated the mother, who, as the little girl chattered on, must have pointed to the bed, for I guessed that the child felt perplexed and was backing toward the door.

“Is the gentleman asleep?” she whispered.

“Yes, yes — go and play,” said Mme Gabin.

But the child did not go. She was, no doubt, staring at me with widely opened eyes, startled and vaguely comprehending. Suddenly she seemed convulsed with terror and ran out, upsetting a chair.

“He is dead, Mother; he is dead!” she gasped.

Profound silence followed. Marguerite, lying back in the armchair, had left off crying. Mme Gabin was still rummaging about the room and talking under her breath.

“Children know everything nowadays. Look at that girl. Heaven knows how carefully she’s brought up! When I send her on an errand or take the shades back I calculate the time to a minute so that she can’t loiter about, but for all that she learns everything. She saw at a glance what had happened here — and yet I never showed her but one corpse, that of her uncle Francois, and she was then only four years old. Ah well, there are no children left — it can’t be helped.”

She paused and without any transition passed to another subject.

“I say, dearie, we must think of the formalities — there’s the declaration at the municipal offices to be made and the seeing about the funeral. You are not in a fit state to attend to business. What do you say if I look in at Monsieur Simoneau’s to find out if he’s at home?”

Marguerite did not reply. It seemed to me that I watched her from afar and at times changed into a subtle flame hovering above the room, while a stranger lay heavy and unconscious on my bed. I wished that Marguerite had declined the assistance of Simoneau. I had seen him three or four times during my brief illness, for he occupied a room close to ours and had been civil and neighborly. Mme Gabin had told us that he was merely making a short stay in Paris, having come to collect some old debts due to his father, who had settled in the country and recently died. He was a tall, strong, handsome young man, and I hated him, perhaps on account of his healthy appearance. On the previous evening he had come in to make inquiries, and I had much disliked seeing him at Marguerite’s side; she had looked so fair and pretty, and he had gazed so intently into her face when she smilingly thanked him for his kindness.

“Ah, here is Monsieur Simoneau,” said Mme Gabin, introducing him.

He gently pushed the door ajar, and as soon as Marguerite saw him enter she burst into a flood of tears. The presence of a friend, of the only person she knew in Paris besides the old woman, recalled her bereavement. I could not see the young man, but in the darkness that encompassed me I conjured up his appearance. I pictured him distinctly, grave and sad at finding poor Marguerite in such distress. How lovely she must have looked with her golden hair unbound, her pale face and her dear little baby hands burning with fever!

“I am at your disposal, madame,” he said softly. “Pray allow me to manage everything.”

She only answered him with broken words, but as the young man was leaving, accompanied by Mme Gabin, I heard the latter mention money. These things were always expensive, she said, and she feared that the poor little body hadn’t a farthing — anyhow, he might ask her. But Simoneau silenced the old woman; he did not want to have the widow worried; he was going to the municipal office and to the undertaker’s.

When silence reigned once more I wondered if my nightmare would last much longer. I was certainly alive, for I was conscious of passing incidents, and I began to realize my condition. I must have fallen into one of those cataleptic states that I had read of. As a child I had suffered from syncopes which had lasted several hours, but surely my heart would beat anew, my blood circulate and my muscles relax. Yes, I should wake up and comfort Marguerite, and, reasoning thus, I tried to be patient.

Time passed. Mme Gabin had brought in some breakfast, but Marguerite refused to taste any food. Later on the afternoon waned. Through the open window I heard the rising clamor of the Rue Dauphine. By and by a slight ringing of the brass candlestick on the marble-topped table made me think that a fresh candle had been lighted. At last Simoneau returned.

“Well?” whispered the old woman.

“It is all settled,” he answered; “the funeral is ordered for tomorrow at eleven. There is nothing for you to do, and you needn’t talk of these things before the poor lady.”

Nevertheless, Mme Gabin remarked: “The doctor of the dead hasn’t come yet.”

Simoneau took a seat beside Marguerite and after a few words of encouragement remained silent. The funeral was to take place at eleven! Those words rang in my brain like a passing bell. And the doctor coming — the doctor of the dead, as Mme Gabin had called him. HE could not possibly fail to find out that I was only in a state of lethargy; he would do whatever might be necessary to rouse me, so I longed for his arrival with feverish anxiety.

The day was drawing to a close. Mme Gabin, anxious to waste no time, had brought in her lamp shades and summoned Dede without asking Marguerite’s permission. “To tell the truth,” she observed, “I do not like to leave children too long alone.”

“Come in, I say,” she whispered to the little girl; “come in, and don’t be frightened. Only don’t look toward the bed or you’ll catch it.”

She thought it decorous to forbid Dede to look at me, but I was convinced that the child was furtively glancing at the corner where I lay, for every now and then I heard her mother rap her knuckles and repeat angrily: “Get on with your work or you shall leave the room, and the gentleman will come during the night and pull you by the feet.”

The mother and daughter had sat down at our table. I could plainly hear the click of their scissors as they clipped the lamp shades, which no doubt required very delicate manipulation, for they did not work rapidly. I counted the shades one by one as they were laid aside, while my anxiety grew more and more intense.

The clicking of the scissors was the only noise in the room, so I concluded that Marguerite had been overcome by fatigue and was dozing. Twice Simoneau rose, and the torturing thought flashed through me that he might be taking advantage of her slumbers to touch her hair with his lips. I hardly knew the man and yet felt sure that he loved my wife. At last little Dede began to giggle, and her laugh exasperated me.

“Why are you sniggering, you idiot?” asked her mother. “Do you want to be turned out on the landing? Come, out with it; what makes you laugh so?”

The child stammered: she had not laughed; she had only coughed, but I felt certain she had seen Simoneau bending over Marguerite and had felt amused.

The lamp had been lit when a knock was heard at the door.

“It must be the doctor at last,” said the old woman.

It was the doctor; he did not apologize for coming so late, for he had no doubt ascended many flights of stairs during the day. The room being but imperfectly lighted by the lamp, he inquired: “Is the body here?”

“Yes, it is,” answered Simoneau.

Marguerite had risen, trembling violently. Mme Gabin dismissed Dede, saying it was useless that a child should be present, and then she tried to lead my wife to the window, to spare her the sight of what was about to take place.

The doctor quickly approached the bed. I guessed that he was bored, tired and impatient. Had he touched my wrist? Had he placed his hand on my heart? I could not tell, but I fancied that he had only carelessly bent over me.

“Shall I bring the lamp so that you may see better?” asked Simoneau obligingly.

“No it is not necessary,” quietly answered the doctor.

Not necessary! That man held my life in his hands, and he did not think it worth while to proceed to a careful examination! I was not dead! I wanted to cry out that I was not dead!

“At what o’clock did he die?” asked the doctor.

“At six this morning,” volunteered Simoneau.

A feeling of frenzy and rebellion rose within me, bound as I was in seemingly iron chains. Oh, for the power of uttering one word, of moving a single limb!

“This close weather is unhealthy,” resumed the doctor; “nothing is more trying than these early spring days.”

And then he moved away. It was like my life departing. Screams, sobs and insults were choking me, struggling in my convulsed throat, in which even my breath was arrested. The wretch! Turned into a mere machine by professional habits, he only came to a deathbed to accomplish a perfunctory formality; he knew nothing; his science was a lie, since he could not at a glance distinguish life from death — and now he was going — going!

“Good night, sir,” said Simoneau.

There came a moment’s silence; the doctor was probably bowing to Marguerite, who had turned while Mme Gabin was fastening the window. He left the room, and I heard his footsteps descending the stairs.

It was all over; I was condemned. My last hope had vanished with that man. If I did not wake before eleven on the morrow I should be buried alive. The horror of that thought was so great that I lost all consciousness of my surroundings — ’twas something like a fainting fit in death. The last sound I heard was the clicking of the scissors handled by Mme Gabin and Dede. The funeral vigil had begun; nobody spoke.

Marguerite had refused to retire to rest in the neighbor’s room. She remained reclining in her armchair, with her beautiful face pale, her eyes closed and her long lashes wet with tears, while before her in the gloom Simoneau sat silently watching her.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06