At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 21

Death of M. Jérôme Coignard

Two days passed in cruel alternations. After that my good master became extremely weak.

“There is no more hope,” M. Coquebert told me. “Look how his head lies on the pillow, how thin his nose is.”

As a fact, my good master’s nose, formerly big and red, was nothing now but a bent blade, livid like lead.

“Tournebroche, my son,” he said to me in a voice still full and strong but of a sound quite strange to me, “I feel that I have but a short time to live. Go and fetch that good priest, that he may listen to my confession.”

The vicar was in his vineyard. There I went.

“The vintage is finished,” he said, “and more abundant than I had hoped for; now let’s go and help that poor fellow.”

I conducted him to my master’s bedside and we left him alone with the dying.

An hour later he came out again and said:

“I can assure you that M. Jérôme Coignard dies in admirable sentiments of piety and humility. At his request, and in consideration of his fervour, I’ll give him the viaticum. During the time necessary for putting on my holy garments, you, Madame Coquebert, will do me the favour to send to the vestry the boy who serves me at mass every morning and make the room ready for the reception of God.”

Madame Coquebert swept the room, put a white coverlet on the bed, placed a little table at the bedside, and covered it with a cloth; she put two candlesticks on the table and lit the candles, and an earthenware bowl wherein a sprig of box swam in the holy water.

Soon we heard the tinkling of the little bell, saw the cross coming in, carried by a child, and the priest clad in white carrying the holy vessels. Jahel, M. d’Anquetil, Madame Coquebert and I fell on our knees.

Pax huic domui,” said the priest.

Et omnibus habiantibus in en,” replied the servitor.

Then the vicar took holy water and sprayed it over the patient and the bed.

A moment longer he meditated and then he said with much solemnity:

“My son, have you no declaration to make?”

“Yes, sir,” said M. Abbe Coignard, with a firm voice, “I forgive my murderer.”

Then the priest gave him the holy wafer:

Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi.

My good master replied with a sigh:

“May I speak to my Lord, I who am naught but dust and ashes? How can I dare to come unto you, I who do not feel any good in me to give me courage? How can I introduce you into me, after having so often wounded your eyes full of kindness?”

And the Abbe Coignard received the holy viaticum in profound silence, interrupted by our sobs and by the great noise Madame Coquebert made blowing her nose.

After having received, my good master made me a sign to come near him, and said with a feeble but distinct voice:

“Jacques Tournebroche, my son, reject, along with the example I gave you, the maxims which I may have proposed to you during my period of lifelong folly. Be in fear of women and of books for the softness and pride accords the little ones a clearer intelligence than the wise one takes in them. Be humble of heart and spirit. God can give them. ’Tis He who gives all science. My boy, do not listen to those who, like me, subtilise on the good and the evil. Do not be taken in by the beauty and acuteness of their discourses, for the kingdom of God does not consist of words but of virtue.”

He remained quiet, exhausted. I took his hand, lying on the sheet, and covered it with kisses and tears. I told him that he was our master, our friend, our father, and that I could not live without him.

And for long hours I remained waiting at the foot of his bed.

He passed so peaceful a night that I conceived a quite desperate hope. In this state he remained part of the following day. But towards the evening he became agitated and pronounced words so indistinctly that they remained a secret between God and himself.

At midnight he fell into a kind of swoon, and nothing could be heard but the slight scratching of his finger nails on the sheet. He no longer knew me.

About two o’clock the death rattle began. The hoarse and rapid breathing which came from his breast was loud enough to be heard far away in the village street, and my ears were so full of it that I fancied I heard it long after that unhappy day. At daybreak he made a sign with his hand which we could not understand, and sighed long and deeply. It was his last. His features took in death a majesty worthy of the genius that had animated him, and the loss of which will never be repaired.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54