The Death of Olivier Becaille, by Émile Zola

Chapter III

The Procession

I cannot describe my agony during the morning of the following day. I remember it as a hideous dream in which my impressions were so ghastly and so confused that I could not formulate them. The persistent yearning for a sudden awakening increased my torture, and as the hour for the funeral drew nearer my anguish became more poignant still.

It was only at daybreak that I had recovered a fuller consciousness of what was going on around me. The creaking of hinges startled me out of my stupor. Mme Gabin had just opened the window. It must have been about seven o’clock, for I heard the cries of hawkers in the street, the shrill voice of a girl offering groundsel and the hoarse voice of a man shouting “Carrots!” The clamorous awakening of Paris pacified me at first. I could not believe that I should be laid under the sod in the midst of so much life; and, besides, a sudden thought helped to calm me. It had just occurred to me that I had witnessed a case similar to my own when I was employed at the hospital of Guerande. A man had been sleeping twenty-eight hours, the doctors hesitating in presence of his apparent lifelessness, when suddenly he had sat up in bed and was almost at once able to rise. I myself had already been asleep for some twenty-five hours; if I awoke at ten I should still be in time.

I endeavored to ascertain who was in the room and what was going on there. Dede must have been playing on the landing, for once when the door opened I heard her shrill childish laughter outside. Simoneau must have retired, for nothing indicated his presence. Mme Gabin’s slipshod tread was still audible over the floor. At last she spoke.

“Come, my dear,” she said. “It is wrong of you not to take it while it is hot. It would cheer you up.”

She was addressing Marguerite, and a slow trickling sound as of something filtering indicated that she had been making some coffee.

“I don’t mind owning,” she continued, “that I needed it. At my age sitting up IS trying. The night seems so dreary when there is a misfortune in the house. DO have a cup of coffee, my dear — just a drop.”

She persuaded Marguerite to taste it.

“Isn’t it nice and hot?” she continued, “and doesn’t it set one up? Ah, you’ll be wanting all your strength presently for what you’ve got to go through today. Now if you were sensible you’d step into my room and just wait there.”

“No, I want to stay here,” said Marguerite resolutely.

Her voice, which I had not heard since the previous evening, touched me strangely. It was changed, broken as by tears. To feel my dear wife near me was a last consolation. I knew that her eyes were fastened on me and that she was weeping with all the anguish of her heart.

The minutes flew by. An inexplicable noise sounded from beyond the door. It seemed as if some people were bringing a bulky piece of furniture upstairs and knocking against the walls as they did so. Suddenly I understood, as I heard Marguerite begin to sob; it was the coffin.

“You are too early,” said Mme Gabin crossly. “Put it behind the bed.”

What o’clock was it? Nine, perhaps. So the coffin had come. Amid the opaque night around me I could see it plainly, quite new, with roughly planed boards. Heavens! Was this the end then? Was I to be borne off in that box which I realized was lying at my feet?

However, I had one supreme joy. Marguerite, in spite of her weakness, insisted upon discharging all the last offices. Assisted by the old woman, she dressed me with all the tenderness of a wife and a sister. Once more I felt myself in her arms as she clothed me in various garments. She paused at times, overcome by grief; she clasped me convulsively, and her tears rained on my face. Oh, how I longed to return her embrace and cry, “I live!” And yet I was lying there powerless, motionless, inert!

“You are foolish,” suddenly said Mme Gabin; “it is all wasted.”

“Never mind,” answered Marguerite, sobbing. “I want him to wear his very best things.”

I understood that she was dressing me in the clothes I had worn on my wedding day. I had kept them carefully for great occasions. When she had finished she fell back exhausted in the armchair.

Simoneau now spoke; he had probably just entered the room.

“They are below,” he whispered.

“Well, it ain’t any too soon,” answered Mme Gabin, also lowering her voice. “Tell them to come up and get it over.”

“But I dread the despair of the poor little wife.”

The old woman seemed to reflect and presently resumed: “Listen to me, Monsieur Simoneau. You must take her off to my room. I wouldn’t have her stop here. It is for her own good. When she is out of the way we’ll get it done in a jiffy.”

These words pierced my heart, and my anguish was intense when I realized that a struggle was actually taking place. Simoneau had walked up to Marguerite, imploring her to leave the room.

“Do, for pity’s sake, come with me!” he pleaded. “Spare yourself useless pain.”

“No, no!” she cried. “I will remain till the last minute. Remember that I have only him in the world, and when he is gone I shall be all alone!”

From the bedside Mme Gabin was prompting the young man.

“Don’t parley — take hold of her, carry her off in your arms.”

Was Simoneau about to lay his hands on Marguerite and bear her away? She screamed. I wildly endeavored to rise, but the springs of my limbs were broken. I remained rigid, unable to lift my eyelids to see what was going on. The struggle continued, and my wife clung to the furniture, repeating, “Oh, don’t, don’t! Have mercy! Let me go! I will not — ”

He must have lifted her in his stalwart arms, for I heard her moaning like a child. He bore her away; her sobs were lost in the distance, and I fancied I saw them both — he, tall and strong, pressing her to his breast; she, fainting, powerless and conquered, following him wherever he listed.

“Drat it all! What a to-do!” muttered Mme Gabin. “Now for the tug of war, as the coast is clear at last.”

In my jealous madness I looked upon this incident as a monstrous outrage. I had not been able to see Marguerite for twenty-four hours, but at least I had still heard her voice. Now even this was denied me; she had been torn away; a man had eloped with her even before I was laid under the sod. He was alone with her on the other side of the wall, comforting her — embracing her, perhaps!

But the door opened once more, and heavy footsteps shook the floor.

“Quick, make haste,” repeated Mme Gabin. “Get it done before the lady comes back.”

She was speaking to some strangers, who merely answered her with uncouth grunts.

“You understand,” she went on, “I am not a relation; I’m only a neighbor. I have no interest in the matter. It is out of pure good nature that I have mixed myself up in their affairs. And I ain’t overcheerful, I can tell you. Yes, yes, I sat up the whole blessed night — it was pretty cold, too, about four o’clock. That’s a fact. Well, I have always been a fool — I’m too soft-hearted.”

The coffin had been dragged into the center of the room. As I had not awakened I was condemned. All clearness departed from my ideas; everything seemed to revolve in a black haze, and I experienced such utter lassitude that it seemed almost a relief to leave off hoping.

“They haven’t spared the material,” said one of the undertaker’s men in a gruff voice. “The box is too long.”

“He’ll have all the more room,” said the other, laughing.

I was not heavy, and they chuckled over it since they had three flights of stairs to descend. As they were seizing me by the shoulders and feet I heard Mme Gabin fly into a violent passion.

“You cursed little brat,” she screamed, “what do you mean by poking your nose where you’re not wanted? Look here, I’ll teach you to spy and pry.”

Dede had slipped her tousled head through the doorway to see how the gentleman was being put into the box. Two ringing slaps resounded, however, by an explosion of sobs. And as soon as the mother returned she began to gossip about her daughter for the benefit of the two men who were settling me in the coffin.

“She is only ten, you know. She is not a bad girl, but she is frightfully inquisitive. I do not beat her often; only I WILL be obeyed.”

“Oh,” said one of the men, “all kids are alike. Whenever there is a corpse lying about they always want to see it.”

I was commodiously stretched out, and I might have thought myself still in bed, had it not been that my left arm felt a trifle cramped from being squeezed against a board. The men had been right. I was pretty comfortable inside on account of my diminutive stature.

“Stop!” suddenly exclaimed Mme Gabin. “I promised his wife to put a pillow under his head.”

The men, who were in a hurry, stuffed in the pillow roughly. One of them, who had mislaid his hammer, began to swear. He had left the tool below and went to fetch it, dropping the lid, and when two sharp blows of the hammer drove in the first nail, a shock ran through my being — I had ceased to live. The nails then entered in rapid succession with a rhythmical cadence. It was as if some packers had been closing a case of dried fruit with easy dexterity. After that such sounds as reached me were deadened and strangely prolonged, as if the deal coffin had been changed into a huge musical box. The last words spoken in the room of the Rue Dauphine — at least the last ones that I heard distinctly — were uttered by Mme Gabin.

“Mind the staircase,” she said; “the banister of the second flight isn’t safe, so be careful.”

While I was being carried down I experienced a sensation similar to that of pitching as when one is on board a ship in a rough sea. However, from that moment my impressions became more and more vague. I remember that the only distinct thought that still possessed me was an imbecile, impulsive curiosity as to the road by which I should be taken to the cemetery. I was not acquainted with a single street of Paris, and I was ignorant of the position of the large burial grounds (though of course I had occasionally heard their names), and yet every effort of my mind was directed toward ascertaining whether we were turning to the right or to the left. Meanwhile the jolting of the hearse over the paving stones, the rumbling of passing vehicles, the steps of the foot passengers, all created a confused clamor, intensified by the acoustical properties of the coffin.

At first I followed our course pretty closely; then came a halt. I was again lifted and carried about, and I concluded that we were in church, but when the funeral procession once more moved onward I lost all consciousness of the road we took. A ringing of bells informed me that we were passing another church, and then the softer and easier progress of the wheels indicated that we were skirting a garden or park. I was like a victim being taken to the gallows, awaiting in stupor a deathblow that never came.

At last they stopped and pulled me out of the hearse. The business proceeded rapidly. The noises had ceased; I knew that I was in a deserted space amid avenues of trees and with the broad sky over my head. No doubt a few persons followed the bier, some of the inhabitants of the lodginghouse, perhaps — Simoneau and others, for instance — for faint whisperings reached my ear. Then I heard a psalm chanted and some Latin words mumbled by a priest, and afterward I suddenly felt myself sinking, while the ropes rubbing against the edges of the coffin elicited lugubrious sounds, as if a bow were being drawn across the strings of a cracked violoncello. It was the end. On the left side of my head I felt a violent shock like that produced by the bursting of a bomb, with another under my feet and a third more violent still on my chest. So forcible, indeed, was this last one that I thought the lid was cleft atwain. I fainted from it.

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