Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola

9.

Dr. Pascal then resumed his professional visits in the town and the surrounding country. And he was generally accompanied by Clotilde, who went with him into the houses of the poor, where she, too, brought health and cheerfulness.

But, as he had one night confessed to her in secret, his visits were now only visits of relief and consolation. If he had before practised with repugnance it was because he had felt how vain was medical science. Empiricism disheartened him. From the moment that medicine ceased to be an experimental science and became an art, he was filled with disquiet at the thought of the infinite variety of diseases and of their remedies, according to the constitution of the patient. Treatment changed with every new hypothesis; how many people, then, must the methods now abandoned have killed! The perspicacity of the physician became everything, the healer was only a happily endowed diviner, himself groping in the dark and effecting cures through his fortunate endowment. And this explained why he had given up his patients almost altogether, after a dozen years of practise, to devote himself entirely to study. Then, when his great labors on heredity had restored to him for a time the hope of intervening and curing disease by his hypodermic injections, he had become again enthusiastic, until the day when his faith in life, after having impelled him, to aid its action in this way, by restoring the vital forces, became still broader and gave him the higher conviction that life was self-sufficing, that it was the only giver of health and strength, in spite of everything. And he continued to visit, with his tranquil smile, only those of his patients who clamored for him loudly, and who found themselves miraculously relieved when he injected into them only pure water.

Clotilde now sometimes allowed herself to jest about these hypodermic injections. She was still at heart, however, a fervent worshiper of his skill; and she said jestingly that if he performed miracles as he did it was because he had in himself the godlike power to do so. Then he would reply jestingly, attributing to her the efficacy of their common visits, saying that he cured no one now when she was absent, that it was she who brought the breath of life, the unknown and necessary force from the Beyond. So that the rich people, the bourgeois, whose houses she did not enter, continued to groan without his being able to relieve them. And this affectionate dispute diverted them; they set out each time as if for new discoveries, they exchanged glances of kindly intelligence with the sick. Ah, this wretched suffering which revolted them, and which was now all they went to combat; how happy they were when they thought it vanquished! They were divinely recompensed when they saw the cold sweats disappear, the moaning lips become stilled, the deathlike faces recover animation. It was assuredly the love which they brought to this humble, suffering humanity that produced the alleviation.

“To die is nothing; that is in the natural order of things,” Pascal would often say. “But why suffer? It is cruel and unnecessary!”

One afternoon the doctor was going with the young girl to the little village of Sainte-Marthe to see a patient, and at the station, for they were going by train, so as to spare Bonhomme, they had a reencounter. The train which they were waiting for was from the Tulettes. Sainte-Marthe was the first station in the opposite direction, going to Marseilles. When the train arrived, they hurried on board and, opening the door of a compartment which they thought empty, they saw old Mme. Rougon about to leave it. She did not speak to them, but passing them by, sprang down quickly in spite of her age, and walked away with a stiff and haughty air.

“It is the 1st of July,” said Clotilde when the train had started. “Grandmother is returning from the Tulettes, after making her monthly visit to Aunt Dide. Did you see the glance she cast at me?”

Pascal was at heart glad of the quarrel with his mother, which freed him from the continual annoyance of her visits.

“Bah!” he said simply, “when people cannot agree it is better for them not to see each other.”

But the young girl remained troubled and thoughtful. After a few moments she said in an undertone:

“I thought her changed — looking paler. And did you notice? she who is usually so carefully dressed had only one glove on — a yellow glove, on the right hand. I don’t know why it was, but she made me feel sick at heart.”

Pascal, who was also disturbed, made a vague gesture. His mother would no doubt grow old at last, like everybody else. But she was very active, very full of fire still. She was thinking, he said, of bequeathing her fortune to the town of Plassans, to build a house of refuge, which should bear the name of Rougon. Both had recovered their gaiety when he cried suddenly:

“Why, it is to-morrow that you and I are to go to the Tulettes to see our patients. And you know that I promised to take Charles to Uncle Macquart’s .”

Felicite was in fact returning from the Tulettes, where she went regularly on the first of every month to inquire after Aunt Dide. For many years past she had taken a keen interest in the madwoman’s health, amazed to see her lasting so long, and furious with her for persisting in living so far beyond the common term of life, until she had become a very prodigy of longevity. What a relief, the fine morning on which they should put under ground this troublesome witness of the past, this specter of expiation and of waiting, who brought living before her the abominations of the family! When so many others had been taken she, who was demented and who had only a spark of life left in her eyes, seemed forgotten. On this day she had found her as usual, skeleton-like, stiff and erect in her armchair. As the keeper said, there was now no reason why she should ever die. She was a hundred and five years old.

When she left the asylum Felicite was furious. She thought of Uncle Macquart. Another who troubled her, who persisted in living with exasperating obstinacy! Although he was only eighty-four years old, three years older than herself, she thought him ridiculously aged, past the allotted term of life. And a man who led so dissipated a life, who had gone to bed dead drunk every night for the last sixty years! The good and the sober were taken away; he flourished in spite of everything, blooming with health and gaiety. In days past, just after he had settled at the Tulettes, she had made him presents of wines, liqueurs and brandy, in the unavowed hope of ridding the family of a fellow who was really disreputable, and from whom they had nothing to expect but annoyance and shame. But she had soon perceived that all this liquor served, on the contrary, to keep up his health and spirits and his sarcastic humor, and she had left off making him presents, seeing that he throve on what she had hoped would prove a poison to him. She had cherished a deadly hatred toward him since then. She would have killed him if she had dared, every time she saw him, standing firmly on his drunken legs, and laughing at her to her face, knowing well that she was watching for his death, and triumphant because he did not give her the pleasure of burying with him all the old dirty linen of the family, the blood and mud of the two conquests of Plassans.

“You see, Felicite,” he would often say to her with his air of wicked mockery, “I am here to take care of the old mother, and the day on which we both make up our minds to die it would be through compliment to you — yes, simply to spare you the trouble of running to see us so good-naturedly, in this way, every month.”

Generally she did not now give herself the disappointment of going to Macquart’s, but inquired for him at the asylum. But on this occasion, having learned there that he was passing through an extraordinary attack of drunkenness, not having drawn a sober breath for a fortnight, and so intoxicated that he was probably unable to leave the house, she was seized with the curiosity to learn for herself what his condition really was. And as she was going back to the station, she went out of her way in order to stop at Macquart’s house.

The day was superb — a warm and brilliant summer day. On either side of the path which she had taken, she saw the fields that she had given him in former days — all this fertile land, the price of his secrecy and his good behavior. Before her appeared the house, with its pink tiles and its bright yellow walls, looking gay in the sunshine. Under the ancient mulberry trees on the terrace she enjoyed the delightful coolness and the beautiful view. What a pleasant and safe retreat, what a happy solitude was this for an old man to end in joy and peace a long and well-spent life!

But she did not see him, she did not hear him. The silence was profound. The only sound to be heard was the humming of the bees circling around the tall marshmallows. And on the terrace there was nothing to be seen but a little yellow dog, stretched at full length on the bare ground, seeking the coolness of the shade. He raised his head growling, about to bark, but, recognizing the visitor, he lay down again quietly.

Then, in this peaceful and sunny solitude she was seized with a strange chill, and she called:

“Macquart! Macquart!”

The door of the house under the mulberry trees stood wide open. But she did not dare to go in; this empty house with its wide open door gave her a vague uneasiness. And she called again:

“Macquart! Macquart!”

Not a sound, not a breath. Profound silence reigned again, but the humming of the bees circling around the tall marshmallows sounded louder than before.

At last Felicite, ashamed of her fears, summoned courage to enter. The door on the left of the hall, opening into the kitchen, where Uncle Macquart generally sat, was closed. She pushed it open, but she could distinguish nothing at first, as the blinds had been closed, probably in order to shut out the heat. Her first sensation was one of choking, caused by an overpowering odor of alcohol which filled the room; every article of furniture seemed to exude this odor, the whole house was impregnated with it. At last, when her eyes had become accustomed to the semi-obscurity, she perceived Macquart. He was seated at the table, on which were a glass and a bottle of spirits of thirty-six degrees, completely empty. Settled in his chair, he was sleeping profoundly, dead drunk. This spectacle revived her anger and contempt.

“Come, Macquart,” she cried, “is it not vile and senseless to put one’s self in such a state! Wake up, I say, this is shameful!”

His sleep was so profound that she could not even hear him breathing. In vain she raised her voice, and slapped him smartly on the hands.

“Macquart! Macquart! Macquart! Ah, faugh! You are disgusting, my dear!”

Then she left him, troubling herself no further about him, and walked around the room, evidently seeking something. Coming down the dusky road from the asylum she had been seized with a consuming thirst, and she wished to get a glass of water. Her gloves embarrassed her, and she took them off and put them on a corner of the table. Then she succeeded in finding the jug, and she washed a glass and filled it to the brim, and was about to empty it when she saw an extraordinary sight — a sight which agitated her so greatly that she set the glass down again beside her gloves, without drinking.

By degrees she had begun to see objects more clearly in the room, which was lighted dimly by a few stray sunbeams that filtered through the cracks of the old shutters. She now saw Uncle Macquart distinctly, neatly dressed in a blue cloth suit, as usual, and on his head the eternal fur cap which he wore from one year’s end to the other. He had grown stout during the last five or six years, and he looked like a veritable mountain of flesh overlaid with rolls of fat. And she noticed that he must have fallen asleep while smoking, for his pipe — a short black pipe — had fallen into his lap. Then she stood still, stupefied with amazement — the burning tobacco had been scattered in the fall, and the cloth of the trousers had caught fire, and through a hole in the stuff, as large already as a hundred-sous piece, she saw the bare thigh, whence issued a little blue flame.

At first Felicite had thought that it was linen — the drawers or the shirt — that was burning. But soon doubt was no longer possible, she saw distinctly the bare flesh and the little blue flame issuing from it, lightly dancing, like a flame wandering over the surface of a vessel of lighted alcohol. It was as yet scarcely higher than the flame of a night light, pale and soft, and so unstable that the slightest breath of air caused it to change its place. But it increased and spread rapidly, and the skin cracked and the fat began to melt.

An involuntary cry escaped from Felicite’s throat.

“Macquart! Macquart!”

But still he did not stir. His insensibility must have been complete; intoxication must have produced a sort of coma, in which there was an absolute paralysis of sensation, for he was living, his breast could be seen rising and falling, in slow and even respiration.

“Macquart! Macquart!”

Now the fat was running through the cracks of the skin, feeding the flame, which was invading the abdomen. And Felicite comprehended vaguely that Uncle Macquart was burning before her like a sponge soaked with brandy. He had, indeed, been saturated with it for years past, and of the strongest and most inflammable kind. He would no doubt soon be blazing from head to foot, like a bowl of punch.

Then she ceased to try to awaken him, since he was sleeping so soundly. For a full minute she had the courage to look at him, awe-stricken, but gradually coming to a determination. Her hands, however, began to tremble, with a little shiver which she could not control. She was choking, and taking up the glass of water again with both hands, she emptied it at a draught. And she was going away on tiptoe, when she remembered her gloves. She went back, groped for them anxiously on the table and, as she thought, picked them both up. Then she left the room, closing the door behind her carefully, and as gently as if she were afraid of disturbing some one.

When she found herself once more on the terrace, in the cheerful sunshine and the pure air, in face of the vast horizon bathed in light, she heaved a sigh of relief. The country was deserted; no one could have seen her entering or leaving the house. Only the yellow dog was still stretched there, and he did not even deign to look up. And she went away with her quick, short step, her youthful figure lightly swaying. A hundred steps away, an irresistible impulse compelled her to turn round to give a last look at the house, so tranquil and so cheerful on the hillside, in the declining light of the beautiful day.

Only when she was in the train and went to put on her gloves did she perceive that one of them was missing. But she supposed that it had fallen on the platform at the station as she was getting into the car. She believed herself to be quite calm, but she remained with one hand gloved and one hand bare, which, with her, could only be the result of great agitation.

On the following day Pascal and Clotilde took the three o’clock train to go to the Tulettes. The mother of Charles, the harness-maker’s wife, had brought the boy to them, as they had offered to take him to Uncle Macquart’s, where he was to remain for the rest of the week. Fresh quarrels had disturbed the peace of the household, the husband having resolved to tolerate no longer in his house another man’s child, that do-nothing, imbecile prince’s son. As it was Grandmother Rougon who had dressed him, he was, indeed, dressed on this day, again, in black velvet trimmed with gold braid, like a young lord, a page of former times going to court. And during the quarter of an hour which the journey lasted, Clotilde amused herself in the compartment, in which they were alone, by taking off his cap and smoothing his beautiful blond locks, his royal hair that fell in curls over his shoulders. She had a ring on her finger, and as she passed her hand over his neck she was startled to perceive that her caress had left behind it a trace of blood. One could not touch the boy’s skin without the red dew exuding from it; the tissues had become so lax through extreme degeneration that the slightest scratch brought on a hemorrhage. The doctor became at once uneasy, and asked him if he still bled at the nose as frequently as formerly. Charles hardly knew what to answer; first saying no, then, recollecting himself, he said that he had bled a great deal the other day. He seemed, indeed, weaker; he grew more childish as he grew older; his intelligence, which had never developed, had become clouded. This tall boy of fifteen, so beautiful, so girlish-looking, with the color of a flower that had grown in the shade, did not look ten.

At the Tulettes Pascal decided that they would first take the boy to Uncle Macquart’s . They ascended the steep road. In the distance the little house looked gay in the sunshine, as it had looked on the day before, with its yellow walls and its green mulberry trees extending their twisted branches and covering the terrace with a thick, leafy roof. A delightful sense of peace pervaded this solitary spot, this sage’s retreat, where the only sound to be heard was the humming of the bees, circling round the tall marshmallows.

“Ah, that rascal of an uncle!” said Pascal, smiling, “how I envy him!”

But he was surprised not to have already seen him standing at the edge of the terrace. And as Charles had run off dragging Clotilde with him to see the rabbits, as he said, the doctor continued the ascent alone, and was astonished when he reached the top to see no one. The blinds were closed, the hill door yawned wide open. Only the yellow dog was at the threshold, his legs stiff, his hair bristling, howling with a low and continuous moan. When he saw the visitor, whom he no doubt recognized, approaching, he stopped howling for an instant and went and stood further off, then he began again to whine softly.

Pascal, filled with apprehension, could not keep back the uneasy cry that rose to his lips:

“Macquart! Macquart!”

No one answered; a deathlike silence reigned over the house, with its door yawning wide open, like the mouth of a cavern. The dog continued to howl.

Then Pascal grew impatient, and cried more loudly.

“Macquart! Macquart!”

There was not a stir; the bees hummed, the sky looked down serenely on the peaceful scene. Then he hesitated no longer. Perhaps Macquart was asleep. But the instant he pushed open the door of the kitchen on the left of the hall, a horrible odor escaped from it, an odor of burned flesh and bones. When he entered the room he could hardly breathe, so filled was it by a thick vapor, a stagnant and nauseous cloud, which choked and blinded him. The sunbeams that filtered through the cracks made only a dim light. He hurried to the fireplace, thinking that perhaps there had been a fire, but the fireplace was empty, and the articles of furniture around appeared to be uninjured. Bewildered, and feeling himself growing faint in the poisoned atmosphere, he ran to the window and threw the shutters wide open. A flood of light entered.

Then the scene presented to the doctor’s view filled him with amazement. Everything was in its place; the glass and the empty bottle of spirits were on the table; only the chair in which Uncle Macquart must have been sitting bore traces of fire, the front legs were blackened and the straw was partially consumed. What had become of Macquart? Where could he have disappeared? In front of the chair, on the brick floor, which was saturated with grease, there was a little heap of ashes, beside which lay the pipe — a black pipe, which had not even broken in falling. All of Uncle Macquart was there, in this handful of fine ashes; and he was in the red cloud, also, which floated through the open window; in the layer of soot which carpeted the entire kitchen; the horrible grease of burnt flesh, enveloping everything, sticky and foul to the touch.

It was the finest case of spontaneous combustion physician had ever seen. The doctor had, indeed, read in medical papers of surprising cases, among others that of a shoemaker’s wife, a drunken woman who had fallen asleep over her foot warmer, and of whom they had found only a hand and foot. He had, until now, put little faith in these cases, unwilling to admit, like the ancients, that a body impregnated with alcohol could disengage an unknown gas, capable of taking fire spontaneously and consuming the flesh and the bones. But he denied the truth of them no longer; besides, everything became clear to him as he reconstructed the scene — the coma of drunkenness producing absolute insensibility; the pipe falling on the clothes, which had taken fire; the flesh, saturated with liquor, burning and cracking; the fat melting, part of it running over the ground and part of it aiding the combustion, and all, at last — muscles, organs, and bones — consumed in a general blaze. Uncle Macquart was all there, with his blue cloth suit, and his fur cap, which he wore from one year’s end to the other. Doubtless, as soon as he had begun to burn like a bonfire he had fallen forward, which would account for the chair being only blackened; and nothing of him was left, not a bone, not a tooth, not a nail, nothing but this little heap of gray dust which the draught of air from the door threatened at every moment to sweep away.

Clotilde had meanwhile entered, Charles remaining outside, his attention attracted by the continued howling of the dog.

“Good Heavens, what a smell!” she cried. “What is the matter?”

When Pascal explained to her the extraordinary catastrophe that had taken place, she shuddered. She took up the bottle to examine it, but she put it down again with horror, feeling it moist and sticky with Uncle Macquart’s flesh. Nothing could be touched, the smallest objects were coated, as it were, with this yellowish grease which stuck to the hands.

A shudder of mingled awe and disgust passed through her, and she burst into tears, faltering:

“What a sad death! What a horrible death!”

Pascal had recovered from his first shock, and he was almost smiling.

“Why horrible? He was eighty-four years old; he did not suffer. As for me, I think it a superb death for that old rascal of an uncle, who, it may be now said, did not lead a very exemplary life. You remember his envelope; he had some very terrible and vile things upon his conscience, which did not prevent him, however, from settling down later and growing old, surrounded by every comfort, like an old humbug, receiving the recompense of virtues which he did not possess. And here he lies like the prince of drunkards, burning up of himself, consumed on the burning funeral pile of his own body!”

And the doctor waved his hand in admiration.

“Just think of it. To be drunk to the point of not feeling that one is on fire; to set one’s self aflame, like a bonfire on St. John’s day; to disappear in smoke to the last bone. Think of Uncle Macquart starting on his journey through space; first diffused through the four corners of the room, dissolved in air and floating about, bathing all that belonged to him; then escaping in a cloud of dust through the window, when I opened it for him, soaring up into the sky, filling the horizon. Why, that is an admirable death! To disappear, to leave nothing of himself behind but a little heap of ashes and a pipe beside it!”

And he picked up the pipe to keep it, as he said, as a relic of Uncle Macquart; while Clotilde, who thought she perceived a touch of bitter mockery in his eulogistic rhapsody, shuddered anew with horror and disgust. But suddenly she perceived something under the table — part of the remains, perhaps.

“Look at that fragment there.”

He stooped down and picked up with surprise a woman’s glove, a yellow glove.

“Why!” she cried, “it is grandmother’s glove; the glove that was missing last evening.”

They looked at each other; by a common impulse the same explanation rose to their lips, Felicite was certainly there yesterday; and a sudden conviction forced itself on the doctor’s mind — the conviction that his mother had seen Uncle Macquart burning and that she had not quenched him. Various indications pointed to this — the state of complete coolness in which he found the room, the number of hours which he calculated to have been necessary for the combustion of the body. He saw clearly the same thought dawning in the terrified eyes of his companion. But as it seemed impossible that they should ever know the truth, he fabricated aloud the simplest explanation:

“No doubt your grandmother came in yesterday on her way back from the asylum, to say good day to Uncle Macquart, before he had begun drinking.”

“Let us go away! let us go away!” cried Clotilde. “I am stifling here; I cannot remain here!”

Pascal, too, wished to go and give information of the death. He went out after her, shut up the house, and put the key in his pocket. Outside, they heard the little yellow dog still howling. He had taken refuge between Charles’ legs, and the boy amused himself pushing him with his foot and listening to him whining, without comprehending.

The doctor went at once to the house of M. Maurin, the notary at the Tulettes, who was also mayor of the commune. A widower for ten years past, and living with his daughter, who was a childless widow, he had maintained neighborly relations with old Macquart, and had occasionally kept little Charles with him for several days at a time, his daughter having become interested in the boy who was so handsome and so much to be pitied. M. Maurin, horrified at the news, went at once with the doctor to draw up a statement of the accident, and promised to make out the death certificate in due form. As for religious ceremonies, funeral obsequies, they seemed scarcely possible. When they entered the kitchen the draught from the door scattered the ashes about, and when they piously attempted to collect them again they succeeded only in gathering together the scrapings of the flags, a collection of accumulated dirt, in which there could be but little of Uncle Macquart. What, then, could they bury? It was better to give up the idea. So they gave it up. Besides, Uncle Macquart had been hardly a devout Catholic, and the family contented themselves with causing masses to be said later on for the repose of his soul.

The notary, meantime, had immediately declared that there existed a will, which had been deposited with him, and he asked Pascal to meet him at his house on the next day but one for the reading; for he thought he might tell the doctor at once that Uncle Macquart had chosen him as his executor. And he ended by offering, like a kindhearted man, to keep Charles with him until then, comprehending how greatly the boy, who was so unwelcome at his mother’s, would be in the way in the midst of all these occurrences. Charles seemed enchanted, and he remained at the Tulettes.

It was not until very late, until seven o’clock, that Clotilde and Pascal were able to take the train to return to Plassans, after the doctor had at last visited the two patients whom he had to see. But when they returned together to the notary’s on the day appointed for the meeting, they had the disagreeable surprise of finding old Mme. Rougon installed there. She had naturally learned of Macquart’s death, and had hurried there on the following day, full of excitement, and making a great show of grief; and she had just made her appearance again to-day, having heard the famous testament spoken of. The reading of the will, however, was a simple matter, unmarked by any incident. Macquart had left all the fortune that he could dispose of for the purpose of erecting a superb marble monument to himself, with two angels with folded wings, weeping. It was his own idea, a reminiscence of a similar tomb which he had seen abroad — in Germany, perhaps — when he was a soldier. And he had charged his nephew Pascal to superintend the erection of the monument, as he was the only one of the family, he said, who had any taste.

During the reading of the will Clotilde had remained in the notary’s garden, sitting on a bench under the shade of an ancient chestnut tree. When Pascal and Felicite again appeared, there was a moment of great embarrassment, for they had not spoken to one another for some months past. The old lady, however, affected to be perfectly at her ease, making no allusion whatever to the new situation, and giving it to be understood that they might very well meet and appear united before the world, without for that reason entering into an explanation or becoming reconciled. But she committed the mistake of laying too much stress on the great grief which Macquart’s death had caused her. Pascal, who suspected the overflowing joy, the unbounded delight which it gave her to think that this family ulcer was to be at last healed, that this abominable uncle was at last out of the way, became gradually possessed by an impatience, an indignation, which he could not control. His eyes fastened themselves involuntarily on his mother’s gloves, which were black.

Just then she was expressing her grief in lowered tones:

“But how imprudent it was, at his age, to persist in living alone — like a wolf in his lair! If he had only had a servant in the house with him!”

Then the doctor, hardly conscious of what he was saying, terrified at hearing himself say the words, but impelled by an irresistible force, said:

“But, mother, since you were there, why did you not quench him?”

Old Mme. Rougon turned frightfully pale. How could her son have known? She looked at him for an instant in open-mouthed amazement; while Clotilde grew as pale as she, in the certainty of the crime, which was now evident. It was an avowal, this terrified silence which had fallen between the mother, the son, and the granddaughter — the shuddering silence in which families bury their domestic tragedies. The doctor, in despair at having spoken, he who avoided so carefully all disagreeable and useless explanations, was trying desperately to retract his words, when a new catastrophe extricated him from his terrible embarrassment.

Felicite desired to take Charles away with her, in order not to trespass on the notary’s kind hospitality; and as the latter had sent the boy after breakfast to spend an hour or two with Aunt Dide, he had sent the maid servant to the asylum with orders to bring him back immediately. It was at this juncture that the servant, whom they were waiting for in the garden, made her appearance, covered with perspiration, out of breath, and greatly excited, crying from a distance:

“My God! My God! come quickly. Master Charles is bathed in blood.”

Filled with consternation, all three set off for the asylum. This day chanced to be one of Aunt Dide’s good days; very calm and gentle she sat erect in the armchair in which she had spent the hours, the long hours for twenty-two years past, looking straight before her into vacancy. She seemed to have grown still thinner, all the flesh had disappeared, her limbs were now only bones covered with parchment-like skin; and her keeper, the stout fair-haired girl, carried her, fed her, took her up and laid her down as if she had been a bundle. The ancestress, the forgotten one, tall, bony, ghastly, remained motionless, her eyes, only seeming to have life, her eyes shining clear as spring water in her thin withered face. But on this morning, again a sudden rush of tears had streamed down her cheeks, and she had begun to stammer words without any connection; which seemed to prove that in the midst of her senile exhaustion and the incurable torpor of madness, the slow induration of the brain and the limbs was not yet complete; there still were memories stored away, gleams of intelligence still were possible. Then her face had resumed its vacant expression. She seemed indifferent to every one and everything, laughing, sometimes, at an accident, at a fall, but most often seeing nothing and hearing nothing, gazing fixedly into vacancy.

When Charles had been brought to her the keeper had immediately installed him before the little table, in front of his great-great-grandmother. The girl kept a package of pictures for him — soldiers, captains, kings clad in purple and gold, and she gave them to him with a pair of scissors, saying:

“There, amuse yourself quietly, and behave well. You see that to-day grandmother is very good. You must be good, too.”

The boy raised his eyes to the madwoman’s face, and both looked at each other. At this moment the resemblance between them was extraordinary. Their eyes, especially, their vacant and limpid eyes, seemed to lose themselves in one another, to be identical. Then it was the physiognomy, the whole face, the worn features of the centenarian, that passed over three generations to this delicate child’s face, it, too, worn already, as it were, and aged by the wear of the race. Neither smiled, they regarded each other intently, with an air of grave imbecility.

“Well!” continued the keeper, who had acquired the habit of talking to herself to cheer herself when with her mad charge, “you cannot deny each other. The same hand made you both. You are the very spit-down of each other. Come, laugh a bit, amuse yourselves, since you like to be together.”

But to fix his attention for any length of time fatigued Charles, and he was the first to lower his eyes; he seemed to be interested in his pictures, while Aunt Dide, who had an astonishing power of fixing her attention, as if she had been turned into stone, continued to look at him fixedly, without even winking an eyelid.

The keeper busied herself for a few moments in the little sunny room, made gay by its light, blue-flowered paper. She made the bed which she had been airing, she arranged the linen on the shelves of the press. But she generally profited by the presence of the boy to take a little relaxation. She had orders never to leave her charge alone, and now that he was here she ventured to trust her with him.

“Listen to me well,” she went on, “I have to go out for a little, and if she stirs, if she should need me, ring for me, call me at once; do you hear? You understand, you are a big enough boy to be able to call one.”

He had looked up again, and made a sign that he had understood and that he would call her. And when he found himself alone with Aunt Dide he returned to his pictures quietly. This lasted for a quarter of an hour amid the profound silence of the asylum, broken only at intervals by some prison sound — a stealthy step, the jingling of a bunch of keys, and occasionally a loud cry, immediately silenced. But the boy must have been tired by the excessive heat of the day, for sleep gradually stole over him. Soon his head, fair as a lily, drooped, and as if weighed down by the too heavy casque of his royal locks, he let it sink gently on the pictures and fell asleep, with his cheek resting on the gold and purple kings. The lashes of his closed eyelids cast a shadow on his delicate skin, with its small blue veins, through which life pulsed feebly. He was beautiful as an angel, but with the indefinable corruption of a whole race spread over his countenance. And Aunt Dide looked at him with her vacant stare in which there was neither pleasure nor pain, the stare of eternity contemplating things earthly.

At the end of a few moments, however, an expression of interest seemed to dawn in the clear eyes. Something had just happened, a drop of blood was forming on the edge of the left nostril of the boy. This drop fell and another formed and followed it. It was the blood, the dew of blood, exuding this time, without a scratch, without a bruise, which issued and flowed of itself in the laxity of the degenerate tissues. The drops became a slender thread which flowed over the gold of the pictures. A little pool covered them, and made its way to a corner of the table; then the drops began again, splashing dully one by one upon the floor. And he still slept, with the divinely calm look of a cherub, not even conscious of the life that was escaping from him; and the madwoman continued to look at him, with an air of increasing interest, but without terror, amused, rather, her attention engaged by this, as by the flight of the big flies, which her gaze often followed for hours.

Several minutes more passed, the slender thread had grown larger, the drops followed one another more rapidly, falling on the floor with a monotonous and persistent drip. And Charles, at one moment, stirred, opened his eyes, and perceived that he was covered with blood. But he was not frightened; he was accustomed to this bloody spring, which issued from him at the slightest cause. He merely gave a sigh of weariness. Instinct, however, must have warned him, for he moaned more loudly than before, and called confusedly in stammering accents:

“Mamma! mamma!”

His weakness was no doubt already excessive, for an irresistible stupor once more took possession of him, his head dropped, his eyes closed, and he seemed to fall asleep again, continuing his plaint, as if in a dream, moaning in fainter and fainter accents:

“Mamma! mamma!”

Now the pictures were inundated; the black velvet jacket and trousers, braided with gold, were stained with long streaks of blood, and the little red stream began again to flow persistently from his left nostril, without stopping, crossed the red pool on the table and fell upon the ground, where it at last formed a veritable lake. A loud cry from the madwoman, a terrified call would have sufficed. But she did not cry, she did not call; motionless, rigid, emaciated, sitting there forgotten of the world, she gazed with the fixed look of the ancestress who sees the destinies of her race being accomplished. She sat there as if dried up, bound; her limbs and her tongue tied by her hundred years, her brain ossified by madness, incapable of willing or of acting. And yet the sight of the little red stream began to stir some feeling in her. A tremor passed over her deathlike countenance, a flush mounted to her cheeks. Finally, a last plaint roused her completely:

“Mamma! mamma!”

Then it was evident that a terrible struggle was taking place in Aunt Dide. She carried her skeleton-like hand to her forehead as if she felt her brain bursting. Her mouth was wide open, but no sound issued from it; the dreadful tumult that had arisen within her had no doubt paralyzed her tongue. She tried to rise, to run, but she had no longer any muscles; she remained fastened to her seat. All her poor body trembled in the superhuman effort which she was making to cry for help, without being able to break the bonds of old age and madness which held her prisoner. Her face was distorted with terror; memory gradually awakening, she must have comprehended everything.

And it was a slow and gentle agony, of which the spectacle lasted for several minutes more. Charles, silent now, as if he had again fallen asleep, was losing the last drops of blood that had remained in his veins, which were emptying themselves softly. His lily-like whiteness increased until it became a deathlike pallor. His lips lost their rosy color, became a pale pink, then white. And, as he was about to expire, he opened his large eyes and fixed them on his great-great-grandmother, who watched the light dying in them. All the waxen face was already dead, the eyes only were still living. They still kept their limpidity, their brightness. All at once they became vacant, the light in them was extinguished. This was the end — the death of the eyes, and Charles had died, without a struggle, exhausted, like a fountain from which all the water has run out. Life no longer pulsed through the veins of his delicate skin, there was now only the shadow of its wings on his white face. But he remained divinely beautiful, his face lying in blood, surrounded by his royal blond locks, like one of those little bloodless dauphins who, unable to bear the execrable heritage of their race, die of decrepitude and imbecility at sixteen.

The boy exhaled his latest breath as Dr. Pascal entered the room, followed by Felicite and Clotilde. And when he saw the quantity of blood that inundated the floor, he cried:

“Ah, my God! it is as I feared, a hemorrhage from the nose! The poor darling, no one was with him, and it is all over!”

But all three were struck with terror at the extraordinary spectacle that now met their gaze. Aunt Dide, who seemed to have grown taller, in the superhuman effort she was making, had almost succeeded in raising herself up, and her eyes, fixed on the dead boy, so fair and so gentle, and on the red sea of blood, beginning to congeal, that was lying around him, kindled with a thought, after a long sleep of twenty-two years. This final lesion of madness, this irremediable darkness of the mind, was evidently not so complete but that some memory of the past, lying hidden there, might awaken suddenly under the terrible blow which had struck her. And the ancestress, the forgotten one, lived again, emerged from her oblivion, rigid and wasted, like a specter of terror and grief.

For an instant she remained panting. Then with a shudder, which made her teeth chatter, she stammered a single phrase:

“The gendarme! the gendarme!”

Pascal and Felicite and Clotilde understood. They looked at one another involuntarily, turning very pale. The whole dreadful history of the old mother — of the mother of them all — rose before them, the ardent love of her youth, the long suffering of her mature age. Already two moral shocks had shaken her terribly — the first, when she was in her ardent prime, when a gendarme shot down her lover Macquart, the smuggler, like a dog; the second, years ago, when another gendarme shattered with a pistol shot the skull of her grandson Silvere, the insurgent, the victim of the hatred and the sanguinary strife of the family. Blood had always bespattered her. And a third moral shock finished her; blood bespattered her again, the impoverished blood of her race, which she had just beheld flowing slowly, and which lay upon the ground, while the fair royal child, his veins and his heart empty, slept.

Three times — face to face with her past life, her life red with passion and suffering, haunted by the image of expiation — she stammered:

“The gendarme! the gendarme! the gendarme!”

Then she sank back into her armchair. They thought she was dead, killed by the shock.

But the keeper at this moment at last appeared, endeavoring to excuse herself, fearing that she would be dismissed. When, aided by her, Dr. Pascal had placed Aunt Dide on the bed, he found that the old mother was still alive. She was not to die until the following day, at the age of one hundred and five years, three months, and seven days, of congestion of the brain, caused by the last shock she had received.

Pascal, turning to his mother, said:

“She will not live twenty-four hours; to-morrow she will be dead. Ah! Uncle Macquart, then she, and this poor boy, one after another. How much misery and grief!”

He paused and added in a lower tone:

“The family is thinning out; the old trees fall and the young die standing.”

Felicite must have thought this another allusion. She was sincerely shocked by the tragic death of little Charles. But, notwithstanding, above the horror which she felt there arose a sense of immense relief. Next week, when they should have ceased to weep, what a rest to be able to say to herself that all this abomination of the Tulettes was at an end, that the family might at last rise, and shine in history!

Then she remembered that she had not answered the involuntary accusation made against her by her son at the notary’s ; and she spoke again of Macquart, through bravado:

“You see now that servants are of no use. There was one here, and yet she prevented nothing; it would have been useless for Uncle Macquart to have had one to take care of him; he would be in ashes now, all the same.”

She sighed, and then continued in a broken voice:

“Well, well, neither our own fate nor that of others is in our hands; things happen as they will. These are great blows that have fallen upon us. We must only trust to God for the preservation and the prosperity of our family.”

Dr. Pascal bowed with his habitual air of deference and said:

“You are right, mother.”

Clotilde knelt down. Her former fervent Catholic faith had revived in this chamber of blood, of madness, and of death. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and with clasped hands she was praying fervently for the dear ones who were no more. She prayed that God would grant that their sufferings might indeed be ended, their faults pardoned, and that they might live again in another life, a life of unending happiness. And she prayed with the utmost fervor, in her terror of a hell, which after this miserable life would make suffering eternal.

From this day Pascal and Clotilde went to visit their sick side by side, filled with greater pity than ever. Perhaps, with Pascal, the feeling of his powerlessness against inevitable disease was even stronger than before. The only wisdom was to let nature take its course, to eliminate dangerous elements, and to labor only in the supreme work of giving health and strength. But the suffering and the death of those who are dear to us awaken in us a hatred of disease, an irresistible desire to combat and to vanquish it. And the doctor never tasted so great a joy as when he succeeded, with his hypodermic injections, in soothing a paroxysm of pain, in seeing the groaning patient grow tranquil and fall asleep. Clotilde, in return, adored him, proud of their love, as if it were a consolation which they carried, like the viaticum, to the poor.

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