“My dear Leon,” said M. Renault, “you remind me of a college commencement. We have listened to your dissertation just as they listen to the Latin discourse of the professor of rhetoric; there are always in the audience a majority which learns nothing from it, and a minority which understands nothing of it. But every body listens patiently, on account of the sensations which are to come by and by. M. Martout and I are acquainted with Meiser’s works, and those of his distinguished pupil, M. Pouchet; you have, then, said too much that is in them, if you intended to speak for our benefit; and you have not said enough that is in them for these ladies and gentlemen who know nothing of the existing discussions regarding the vital and organic principles.
“Is life a principle of action which animates the organs and puts them into play? Is it not, on the contrary, merely the result of organization — the play of various functions of organized matter? This is a problem of the highest importance, which would interest the ladies themselves, if one were to place it plainly before them. It would be sufficient to say: ‘We inquire whether there is a vital principle — the source of all functions of the body, or if life be not merely the result of the regular play of the organs? The vital principle, in the eyes of Meiser and his disciple, does not exist; if it really existed, they say, one could not understand how it can leave a man and a tardigrade when they are desiccated, and return to them again when they are soaked.’ Now, if there be no vital principle, all the metaphysical and moral theories which have been hypothecated on its existence, must be reconstructed. These ladies have listened to you patiently, it is but justice to them to admit; but all that they have been able to gather from your slightly Latinish discourse, is that you have given them a dissertation instead of the romance you promised. But we all forgive you for the sake of the mummy you are going to show us. Open the colonel’s box.”
“We’ve well earned the sight!” cried Clementine, laughing.
“But suppose you were to get frightened?”
“I’d have you know, sir, that I’m not afraid of anybody, not even of live colonels!”
Leon took his bunch of keys and opened the long oak box on which he had been seated. The lid being raised, they saw a great leaden casket which enclosed a magnificent walnut box carefully polished on the outside, and lined on the inside with white silk, and padded. The others brought their lamps and candles near, and the colonel of the 23d of the line appeared as if he were in a chapel illuminated for his lying in state.
One would have said that the man was asleep. The perfect preservation of the body attested the paternal care of the murderer. It was truly a remarkable preparation, and would have borne comparison with the finest European mummies described by Vicq d’Azyr in 1779, and by the younger Puymaurin in 1787.
The part best preserved, as is always the case, was the face. All the features had maintained a proud and manly expression. If any old friend of the colonel had been present at the opening of the third box, he would have recognized him at first sight.
Undoubtedly the point of the nose was a little sharper, the nostrils less expanded and thinner, and the bridge a little more marked than in the year 1813. The eyelids were thinned, the lips pinched, the corners of the mouth drawn down, the cheek bones too prominent, and the neck visibly shrunken, which exaggerated the prominence of the chin and larynx. But the eyelids were closed without contraction, and the sockets much less hollow than one could have expected; the mouth was not at all distorted like the mouth of a corpse; the skin was slightly wrinkled but had not changed color; it had only become a little more transparent, showing, after a fashion, the color of the tendons, the fat and the muscles, wherever it rested directly upon them. It also had a rosy tint which is not ordinarily seen in embalmed corpses. Doctor Martout explained this anomaly by saying that if the colonel had actually been dried alive, the globules of the blood were not decomposed, but simply collected in the capillary vessels of the skin and subjacent tissues where they still preserved their proper color, and could be seen more easily than otherwise, on account of the semi-transparency of the skin.
The uniform had become much too large, as may be readily understood; though it did not seem, at a casual glance, that the members had become deformed. The hands were dry and angular, but the nails, although a little bent inward toward the root, had preserved all their freshness. The only very noticeable change was the excessive depression of the abdominal walls, which seemed crowded downward toward the posterior side; at the right, a slight elevation indicated the place of the liver. A tap of the finger on the various parts of the body, produced a sound like that from dry leather. While Leon was pointing out these details to his audience and doing the honors of his mummy he awkwardly broke off the lower part of the right ear, and a little piece of the Colonel remained in his hand.
This trifling accident might have passed unnoticed, had not Clementine, who followed with visible emotion all the movements of her lover, dropped her candle and uttered a cry of affright. All gathered around her. Leon took her in his arms and carried her to a chair. M. Renault ran after salts. She was as pale as death, and seemed on the point of fainting.
She soon recovered, however, and reassured them all by a charming smile.
“Pardon me,” she said, “for such a ridiculous exhibition of terror; but what Monsieur Leon was saying to us . . . and then . . . that figure which seemed sleeping . . . it appeared to me that the poor man was going to open his mouth and cry out when he was injured.”
Leon hastened to close the walnut box, while M. Martout picked up the piece of ear and put it in his pocket. But Clementine, while continuing to smile and make apologies, was overcome by a fresh accession of emotion and melted into tears. The engineer threw himself at her feet, poured forth excuses and tender phrases, and did all he could to console her inexplicable grief. Clementine dried her eyes, looked prettier than ever, and sighed fit to break her heart, without knowing why.
“Beast that I am!” muttered Leon, tearing his hair. “On the day when I see her again after three years’ absence, I can think of nothing more soul-inspiring than showing her mummies!” He launched a kick at the triple coffin of the Colonel, saying: “I wish the devil had the confounded Colonel!”
“No!” cried Clementine with redoubled energy and emotion. “Do not curse him, Monsieur Leon! He has suffered so much! Ah! poor, poor unfortunate man!”
Mlle. Sambucco felt a little ashamed. She made excuses for her niece, and declared that never, since her tenderest childhood, had she manifested such extreme sensitiveness. M. and Mme. Renault, who had seen her grow up; Doctor Martout who had held the sinecure of physician to her; the architect, the notary, in a word, everybody present was plunged into a state of absolute stupefaction. Clementine was no sensitive plant. She was not even a romantic school girl. Her youth had not been nourished by Anne Radcliffe, she did not trouble herself about ghosts, and she would go through the house very tranquilly at ten o’clock at night without a candle. When her mother died, some months before Leon’s departure, she did not wish to have any one share with her the sad satisfaction of watching and praying in the death-chamber.
“This will teach us,” said the aunt, “how to stay up after ten o’clock. What! It is midnight, all to quarter of an hour! Come, my child; you will get better fast enough after you get to bed.”
Clementine arose submissively, but at the moment of leaving the laboratory she retraced her steps, and with a caprice more inexplicable than her grief, she absolutely wished to see the mummy of the colonel again. Her aunt scolded in vain; in spite of the remarks of Mlle. Sambucco and all the persons present, she reopened the walnut box, kneeled down beside the mummy and kissed it on the forehead.
“Poor man!” said she, rising, “How cold he is! Monsieur Leon, promise me that if he is dead you will have him laid in consecrated ground!”
“As you please, Mademoiselle. I had intended to send him to the anthropological museum, with my father’s permission; but you know that we can refuse you nothing.”
They did not separate as gaily, by a good deal, as they had met. M. Renault and his son escorted Mlle. Sambucco and her niece to their door, and met the big colonel of cuirassiers who had been honoring Clementine with his attentions. The young girl tenderly pressed the arm of her betrothed and said: “Here is a man who never sees me without sighing. And what sighs! Gracious Heavens! It wouldn’t take more than two to fill the sails of a a ship. The race of colonels has vastly degenerated since 1813. One doesn’t see any more such fine looking ones as our unfortunate friend.”
Leon agreed with all she said. But he did not exactly see how he had become the friend of a mummy for which he had just paid twenty-five louis. To divert the conversation, he said to Clementine: “I have not yet shown you all the nice things I brought. His majesty, the Emperor of all the Russias, made me a present of a little enamelled gold star hanging at the end of a ribbon. Do you like button-hole ribbons?”
“Oh, yes!” answered she, “the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor. Did you notice? The poor colonel still has a shred of one on his uniform, but the cross is there no longer. Those wicked Germans tore it away from him when they took him prisoner!”
“It’s very possible,” said Leon.
When they reached Mlle. Sambucco’s house, it was time to separate. Clementine offered her hand to Leon, who would have been better pleased with her cheek.
Father and son returned home arm in arm, with slow steps, giving themselves up to endless conjectures regarding the whimsical emotions of Clementine.
Mme. Renault was waiting to put her son to bed; a time-honored and touching habit which mothers do not early lose. She showed him the handsome apartment above the parlor and M. Renault’s laboratory, which had been prepared for his future domicile.
“You will be as snug in here as a little cock in a pie,” said she, showing him a bed-chamber fairly marvellous in its comfort. “All the furniture is soft and rounded, without a single angle. A blind man could walk here without any fear of hurting himself. See how I understand domestic comfort! Why, each arm-chair can be a friend! This will cost you a trifle. Penon Brothers came from Paris expressly. But a man ought to be comfortable at home, so that he may have no temptation to go abroad.”
This sweet motherly prattle stretched itself over two good hours, and much of it related to Clementine, as you will readily suppose. Leon had found her prettier than he had dreamed her in his sweetest visions, but less loving. “Devil take me!” said he, blowing out his candle; “One might think that that confounded stuffed Colonel had come to thrust himself between us.”
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 15:08