I found Armand in bed. On seeing me he held out a burning hand. “You are feverish,” I said to him. “It is nothing, the fatigue of a rapid journey; that is all.” “You have been to see Marguerite’s sister?” “Yes; who told you?” “I knew it. Did you get what you wanted?”
“Yes; but who told you of my journey, and of my reason for taking it?”
“The gardener of the cemetery.”
“You have seen the tomb?”
I scarcely dared reply, for the tone in which the words were spoken proved to me that the speaker was still possessed by the emotion which I had witnessed before, and that every time his thoughts or speech travelled back to that mournful subject emotion would still, for a long time to come, prove stronger than his will. I contented myself with a nod of the head.
“He has looked after it well?” continued Armand. Two big tears rolled down the cheeks of the sick man, and he turned away his head to hide them from me. I pretended not to see them, and tried to change the conversation. “You have been away three weeks,” I said.
Armand passed his hand across his eyes and replied, “Exactly three weeks.”
“You had a long journey.”
“Oh, I was not travelling all the time. I was ill for a fortnight or I should have returned long ago; but I had scarcely got there when I took this fever, and I was obliged to keep my room.”
“And you started to come back before you were really well?”
“If I had remained in the place for another week, I should have died there.”
“Well, now you are back again, you must take care of yourself; your friends will come and look after you; myself, first of all, if you will allow me.”
“I shall get up in a couple of hours.”
“It would be very unwise.”
“What have you to do in such a great hurry?”
“I must go to the inspector of police.”
“Why do you not get one of your friends to see after the matter? It is likely to make you worse than you are now.”
“It is my only chance of getting better. I must see her. Ever since I heard of her death, especially since I saw her grave, I have not been able to sleep. I can not realize that this woman, so young and so beautiful when I left her, is really dead. I must convince myself of it. I must see what God has done with a being that I have loved so much, and perhaps the horror of the sight will cure me of my despair. Will you accompany me, if it won’t be troubling you too much?”
“What did her sister say about it?”
“Nothing. She seemed greatly surprised that a stranger wanted to buy a plot of ground and give Marguerite a new grave, and she immediately signed the authorization that I asked her for.”
“Believe me, it would be better to wait until you are quite well.”
“Have no fear; I shall be quite composed. Besides, I should simply go out of my mind if I were not to carry out a resolution which I have set myself to carry out. I swear to you that I shall never be myself again until I have seen Marguerite. It is perhaps the thirst of the fever, a sleepless night’s dream, a moment’s delirium; but though I were to become a Trappist, like M. de Rance’, after having seen, I will see.”
“I understand,” I said to Armand, “and I am at your service. Have you seen Julie Duprat?”
“Yes, I saw her the day I returned, for the first time.”
“Did she give you the papers that Marguerite had left for you?”
Armand drew a roll of papers from under his pillow, and immediately put them back.
“I know all that is in these papers by heart,” he said. “For three weeks I have read them ten times over every day. You shall read them, too, but later on, when I am calmer, and can make you understand all the love and tenderness hidden away in this confession. For the moment I want you to do me a service.”
“What is it?”
“Your cab is below?”
“Well, will you take my passport and ask if there are any letters for me at the poste restante? My father and sister must have written to me at Paris, and I went away in such haste that I did not go and see before leaving. When you come back we will go together to the inspector of police, and arrange for tomorrow’s ceremony.”
Armand handed me his passport, and I went to Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. There were two letters addressed to Duval. I took them and returned. When I re-entered the room Armand was dressed and ready to go out.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the letters. “Yes,” he added, after glancing at the addresses, “they are from my father and sister. They must have been quite at a loss to understand my silence.”
He opened the letters, guessed at rather than read them, for each was of four pages; and a moment after folded them up. “Come,” he said, “I will answer tomorrow.”
We went to the police station, and Armand handed in the permission signed by Marguerite’s sister. He received in return a letter to the keeper of the cemetery, and it was settled that the disinterment was to take place next day, at ten o’clock, that I should call for him an hour before, and that we should go to the cemetery together.
I confess that I was curious to be present, and I did not sleep all night. Judging from the thoughts which filled my brain, it must have been a long night for Armand. When I entered his room at nine on the following morning he was frightfully pale, but seemed calm. He smiled and held out his hand. His candles were burned out; and before leaving he took a very heavy letter addressed to his father, and no doubt containing an account of that night’s impressions.
Half an hour later we were at Montmartre. The police inspector was there already. We walked slowly in the direction of Marguerite’s grave. The inspector went in front; Armand and I followed a few steps behind.
From time to time I felt my companion’s arm tremble convulsively, as if he shivered from head to feet. I looked at him. He understood the look, and smiled at me; we had not exchanged a word since leaving the house.
Just before we reached the grave, Armand stopped to wipe his face, which was covered with great drops of sweat. I took advantage of the pause to draw in a long breath, for I, too, felt as if I had a weight on my chest.
What is the origin of that mournful pleasure which we find in sights of this kind? When we reached the grave the gardener had removed all the flower-pots, the iron railing had been taken away, and two men were turning up the soil.
Armand leaned against a tree and watched. All his life seemed to pass before his eyes. Suddenly one of the two pickaxes struck against a stone. At the sound Armand recoiled, as at an electric shock, and seized my hand with such force as to give me pain.
One of the grave-diggers took a shovel and began emptying out the earth; then, when only the stones covering the coffin were left, he threw them out one by one.
I scrutinized Armand, for every moment I was afraid lest the emotions which he was visibly repressing should prove too much for him; but he still watched, his eyes fixed and wide open, like the eyes of a madman, and a slight trembling of the cheeks and lips were the only signs of the violent nervous crisis under which he was suffering.
As for me, all I can say is that I regretted having come.
When the coffin was uncovered the inspector said to the grave-digger: “Open it.” They obeyed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The coffin was of oak, and they began to unscrew the lid. The humidity of the earth had rusted the screws, and it was not without some difficulty that the coffin was opened. A painful odour arose in spite of the aromatic plants with which it was covered.
“O my God, my God!” murmured Armand, and turned paler than before.
Even the grave-digger drew back.
A great white shroud covered the corpse, closely outlining some of its contours. This shroud was almost completely eaten away at one end, and left one of the feet visible.
I was nearly fainting, and at the moment of writing these lines I see the whole scene over again in all its imposing reality.
“Quick,” said the inspector. Thereupon one of the men put out his hand, began to unsew the shroud, and taking hold of it by one end suddenly laid bare the face of Marguerite.
It was terrible to see, it is horrible to relate. The eyes were nothing but two holes, the lips had disappeared, vanished, and the white teeth were tightly set. The black hair, long and dry, was pressed tightly about the forehead, and half veiled the green hollows of the cheeks; and yet I recognised in this face the joyous white and rose face that I had seen so often.
Armand, unable to turn away his eyes, had put the handkerchief to his mouth and bit it.
For my part, it was as if a circle of iron tightened about my head, a veil covered my eyes, a rumbling filled my ears, and all I could do was to unstop a smelling bottle which I happened to have with me, and to draw in long breaths of it.
Through this bewilderment I heard the inspector say to Duval, “Do you identify?”
“Yes,” replied the young man in a dull voice.
“Then fasten it up and take it away,” said the inspector.
The grave-diggers put back the shroud over the face of the corpse, fastened up the coffin, took hold of each end of it, and began to carry it toward the place where they had been told to take it.
Armand did not move. His eyes were fixed upon the empty grave; he was as white as the corpse which we had just seen. He looked as if he had been turned to stone.
I saw what was coming as soon as the pain caused by the spectacle should have abated and thus ceased to sustain him. I went up to the inspector. “Is this gentleman’s presence still necessary?” I said, pointing to Armand.
“No,” he replied, “and I should advise you to take him away. He looks ill.”
“Come,” I said to Armand, taking him by the arm.
“What?” he said, looking at me as if he did not recognise me.
“It is all over,” I added. “You must come, my friend; you are quite white; you are cold. These emotions will be too much for you.”
“You are right. Let us go,” he answered mechanically, but without moving a step.
I took him by the arm and led him along. He let himself be guided like a child, only from time to time murmuring, “Did you see her eyes?” and he turned as if the vision had recalled her.
Nevertheless, his steps became more irregular; he seemed to walk by a series of jerks; his teeth chattered; his hands were cold; a violent agitation ran through his body. I spoke to him; he did not answer. He was just able to let himself be led along. A cab was waiting at the gate. It was only just in time. Scarcely had he seated himself, when the shivering became more violent, and he had an actual attack of nerves, in the midst of which his fear of frightening me made him press my hand and whisper: “It is nothing, nothing. I want to weep.”
His chest laboured, his eyes were injected with blood, but no tears came. I made him smell the salts which I had with me, and when we reached his house only the shivering remained.
With the help of his servant I put him to bed, lit a big fire in his room, and hurried off to my doctor, to whom I told all that had happened. He hastened with me.
Armand was flushed and delirious; he stammered out disconnected words, in which only the name of Marguerite could be distinctly heard.
“Well?” I said to the doctor when he had examined the patient.
“Well, he has neither more nor less than brain fever, and very lucky it is for him, for I firmly believe (God forgive me!) that he would have gone out of his mind. Fortunately, the physical malady will kill the mental one, and in a month’s time he will be free from the one and perhaps from the other.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07