The Neuilly steam-tram had just passed the Porte Maillot, and was going along the broad avenue that terminates at the Seine. The small engine that was attached to the car whistled to warn any obstacle to get out of its way, sent out its steam, and panted like a person out of breath from running does, and its pistons made a rapid noise, like iron legs that were running. The oppressive heat of the end of a July day lay over the whole city, and from the road, although there was not a breath of wind stirring, there arose a white, chalky, opaque, suffocating, and warm dust, which stuck to the moist skin, filled the eyes, and got into the lungs, and people were standing in the doors of their houses in search of a little air.
The windows of the steam-tram were down, and the curtains fluttered in the wind, and there were very few passengers inside, because on such warm days people preferred the top or the platforms. Those few consisted of stout women in strange toilets, of those shopkeepers’ wives from the suburbs, who made up for the distinguished looks which they did not possess, by ill-timed dignity; of gentlemen who were tired of the office, with yellow-faces, who stooped rather, and with one shoulder higher than the other, in consequence of their long hours of work bending over the desk. Their uneasy and melancholy faces also spoke of domestic troubles, of constant want of money, of former hopes, that had been finally disappointed; for they all belonged to that army of poor, threadbare devils who vegetate economically in mean, plastered houses, with a tiny piece of neglected garden in the midst of those fields where night soil is deposited, which are on the outskirts of Paris.
A short, fat man, with a puffy face and a big stomach, dressed all in black, and wearing a decoration in his button-hole, was talking to a tall, thin man, dressed in a dirty, white linen suit, that was all unbuttoned, with a white Panama hat on. The former spoke so slowly and hesitatingly, that it occasionally almost seemed as if he stammered; he was Monsieur Caravan, chief clerk in the Admiralty. The other, who had formerly been surgeon on board a merchant ship, had set up in practice in Courbevoie, where he applied the vague remnants of medical knowledge which he had retained after an adventurous life, to the wretched population of that district. His name was Chenet, and strange rumors were current as to his morality.
Monsieur Caravan had always led the normal life of a man in a Government office. For the last thirty years he had invariably gone the same way to his office every morning, and had met the same men going to business at the same time and nearly on the same spot, and he returned home every evening the same way, and again met the same faces which he had seen growing old. Every morning, after buying his halfpenny paper at the corner of the Faubourg Saint Honoré, he bought his two rolls, and then he went into his office, like a culprit who is giving himself up to justice, and he got to his desk as quickly as possible, always feeling uneasy, as he was expecting a rebuke for some neglect of duty of which he might have been guilty.
Nothing had ever occurred to change the monotonous order of his existence, for no event affected him except the work of his office, perquisites, gratuities, and promotion. He never spoke of anything but of his duties, either at the Admiralty or at home, for he had married the portionless daughter of one of his colleagues. His mind, which was in a state of atrophy from his depressing daily work, had no other thoughts, hopes or dreams than such as related to the office, and there was a constant source of bitterness that spoilt every pleasure that he might have had, and that was the employment of so many commissioners of the navy, tinmen, as they were called, because of their silver-lace, as first-class clerks; and every evening at dinner he discussed the matter hotly with his wife, who shared his angry feelings, and proved to their own satisfaction that it was in every way unjust to give places in Paris, to men who ought to be employed in the navy.
He was old now, and had scarcely noticed how his life was passing, for school had merely been exchanged, without any transition, for the office, and the ushers, at whom he had formerly trembled, were replaced by his chiefs, whom he was terribly afraid of. When he had to go into the rooms of these official despots, it made him tremble from head to foot, and that constant fear had given him a very awkward manner in their presence, a humble demeanor, and a kind of nervous stammering.
He knew nothing more about Paris than a blind man could know, who was led to the same spot by his dog every day, and if he read the account of any uncommon events, or of scandals, in his halfpenny paper, they appeared to him like fantastic tales, which some pressman had made up out of his own head, in order to amuse the inferior employés. He did not read the political news, which his paper frequently altered, as the cause which subsidized them might require, for he was not fond of innovations, and when he went through the Avenue of the Champs–Elysées every evening, he looked at the surging crowd of pedestrians, and at the stream of carriages, like a traveler who has lost his way in a strange country.
As he had completed his thirty years of obligatory service that year, on the first of January, he had had the cross of the Legion of Honor bestowed upon him, which, in the semi-military public offices, is a recompense for the miserable slavery — the official phrase is, loyal services of unfortunate convicts who are riveted to their desk. That unexpected dignity gave him a high and new idea of his own capacities, and altogether altered him. He immediately left off wearing light trousers and fancy waistcoats, and wore black trousers and long coats, on which his ribbon, which was very broad, showed off better. He got shaved every morning, trimmed his nails more carefully, changed his linen every two days, from a legitimate sense of what was proper, and of respect for the national Order, of which he formed a part, and from that day he was another Caravan, scrupulously clean, majestic and condescending.
At home, he said, “my cross,” at every moment, and he had become so proud of it, that he could not bear to see other men wearing any other ribbon in their button-holes. He got especially angry on seeing strange orders:— “Which nobody ought to be allowed to wear in France,” and he bore Chenet a particular grudge, as he met him on a tramcar every evening, wearing a decoration of some sort or another, white, blue, orange, or green.
The conversation of the two men, from the Arc de Triomphe to Neuilly, was always the same, and on that day they discussed, first of all, various local abuses which disgusted them both, and the Mayor of Neuilly received his full share of their blame. Then, as invariably happens in the company of a medical man, Caravan began to enlarge on the chapter of illness, as, in that manner, he hoped to obtain a little gratuitous advice, if he was careful not to show his book. His mother had been causing him no little anxiety for some time; she had frequent and prolonged fainting fits, and, although she was ninety, she would not take care of herself.
Caravan grew quite tender-hearted when he mentioned her great age, and more than once asked Doctor Chenet, emphasizing the word doctor — although he had no right to the title, being only an Officier de Santé, and, as such, not fully qualified — whether he had often met anyone as old as that. And he rubbed his hands with pleasure; not, perhaps, that he cared very much about seeing the good woman last for ever here on earth, but because the long duration of his mother’s life was, as it were, an earnest of old age for himself, and he continued:
“Oh! In my family, we last long, and I am sure that, unless I meet with an accident, I shall not die until I am very old.”
The medico looked at him with pity, and glanced for a moment at his neighbor’s red face, his short, thick neck, his “corporation,” as Chenet called it to himself, that hung down between two flaccid, fat legs, and his apoplectic rotundity of the old, flabby official, and, lifting the white Panama hat which he wore, from his head, he said, with a snigger:—
“I am not so sure of that, old fellow; your mother is as tough as nails, and I should say that your life is not a very good one.”
This rather upset Caravan, who did not speak again until the tram put them down at their destination, where the two friends got out, and Chenet asked his friend to have a glass of vermouth at the Café du Globe, opposite, which both of them were in the habit of frequenting. The proprietor, who was a friend of theirs, held out two fingers to them, which they shook across the bottles on the counter, and then they joined three of their friends, who were playing at dominoes, and who had been there since midday. They exchanged cordial greetings, with the usual inquiries:— “Anything fresh?” and then the three players continued their game, and held out their hands without looking up, when the others wished them “Good-night,” and then they both went home to dinner.
Caravan lived in a small, two-storied house in Courbevoie, near where the roads meet; the ground floor was occupied by a hair-dresser. Two bedrooms, a dining-room and a kitchen, formed the whole of their apartments, and Madame Caravan spent nearly her whole time in cleaning them up, while her daughter, Marie–Louise, who was twelve, and her son, Philippe–Auguste, were running about with all the little, dirty, mischievous brats of the neighborhood, and playing in the gutters.
Caravan had installed his mother, whose avarice was notorious in the neighborhood, and who was terribly thin, in the room above them. She was always in a bad temper, and she never passed a day without quarreling and flying into furious tempers. She used to apostrophize the neighbors, who were standing at their own doors, the coster-mongers, the street-sweepers, and the street-boys, in the most violent language, and the latter, to have their revenge, used to follow her at a distance when she went out, and call out rude things after her.
A little servant from Normandy, who was incredibly giddy and thoughtless, performed the household work, and slept on the second floor, in the same room as the old woman, for fear of anything happening to her in the night.
When Caravan got in, his wife, who suffered from a chronic passion for cleaning, was polishing up the mahogany chairs that were scattered about the room, with a piece of flannel. She always wore cotton gloves, and adorned her head with a cap, which was ornamented with many colored ribbons, which was always tilted on one ear, and whenever anyone caught her polishing, sweeping, or washing, she used to say:—
“I am not rich; everything is very simple in my house, but cleanliness is my luxury, and that is worth quite as much as any other.”
As she was gifted with sound, obstinate, practical common sense, she led her husband in everything. Every evening during dinner, and afterwards, when they were in bed, they talked over the business in the office for a long time, and, although she was twenty years younger than he, he confided everything to her, as if she had had the direction, and followed her advice in every matter.
She had never been pretty, and now she had grown ugly; in addition to that, she was short and thin, while her careless and tasteless way of dressing herself, hid her few, small feminine attributes, which might have been brought out if she had possessed any skill in dress. Her petticoats were always awry, and she frequently scratched herself, no matter on what place, totally indifferent as to who might see her, and so persistently that anybody who saw her, would think that she was suffering from something like the itch. The only ornaments that she allowed herself were silk ribbons, which she had in great profusion, and of various colors mixed together, in the pretentious caps which she wore at home.
As soon as she saw her husband she got up and said, as she kissed his whiskers:
“Did you remember Potin, my dear?”
He fell into a chair, in consternation, for that was the fourth time on which he had forgotten a commission that he had promised to do for her.
“It is a fatality,” he said; “it is no good for me to think of it all day long, for I am sure to forget it in the evening.”
But as she seemed really so very sorry, she merely said, quietly:
“You will think of it tomorrow, I daresay. Anything fresh at the office?”
“Yes, a great piece of news: another tinman has been appointed second chief clerk,” and she became very serious.
“So he succeeds Ramon, this was the very post that I wanted you to have. And what about Ramon?”
“He retires on his pension.”
She grew furious, and her cap slid down on her shoulder, and she continued:
“There is nothing more to be done in that shop now. And what is the name of the new commissioner?”
She took up the Naval Year Book, which she always kept close at hand, and looked him up.
“‘Bonassot — Toulon. Born in 1851. Student–Commissioner in 1871. Sub–Commissioner in 1875.’ Has he been to sea?” she continued, and at that question Caravan’s looks cleared up, and he laughed until his sides shook.
“Just like Balin — just like Balin, his chief.” And he added an old office joke, and laughed more than ever:
“It would not even do to send them by water to inspect the Point-du-Jour, for they would be sick on the penny steamboats on the Seine.”
But she remained as serious as if she had not heard him, and then she said in a low voice, while she scratched her chin:
“If only we had a Deputy to fall back upon. When the Chamber hears everything that is going on at the Admiralty, the Minister will be turned out . . . ”
She was interrupted by a terrible noise on the stairs. Marie–Louise and Philippe–Auguste, who had just come in from the gutter, were giving each other slaps all the way upstairs. Their mother rushed at them furiously, and taking each of them by an arm, she dragged them into the room, shaking them vigorously, but as soon as they saw their father, they rushed up to him, and he kissed them affectionately, and taking one of them on each knee, he began to talk to them.
Philippe–Auguste was an ugly, ill-kempt little brat, dirty from head to foot, with the face of an idiot, and Marie–Louise was already like her mother — spoke like her, repeated her words, and even imitated her movements. She also asked him whether there was anything fresh at the office, and he replied merrily:
“Your friend, Ramon, who comes and dines here every Sunday, is going to leave us, little one. There is a new second head-clerk.”
She looked at her father, and with a precocious child’s pity, she said:
“So somebody has been put over your head again!”
He stopped laughing, and did not reply, and then, in order, to create a diversion, he said, addressing his wife, who was cleaning the windows:
“How is mamma, up there?”
Madame Caravan left off rubbing, turned round, pulled her cap up, as it had fallen quite on to her back, and said, with trembling lips:
“Ah! yes; just speak to your mother about this, for she has created a pretty scene. Just think that a short time ago Madame Lebaudin, the hairdresser’s wife, came upstairs to borrow a packet of starch of me, and, as I was not at home, your mother called her a beggar woman, and turned her out; but I gave it to the old woman. She pretended not to hear, like she always does when one tells her unpleasant truths, but she is no more deaf than I am, as you know. It is all a sham, and the proof of it is, that she went up to her own room immediately, without saying a word.”
Caravan did not utter a word, and at that moment the little servant came in to announce dinner. In order to let his mother know, he took a broom-handle, which always stood in a corner, and rapped loudly on the ceiling three times, and they went into the dining-room. Madame Caravan, junior, helped the soup, and waited for the old woman, but she did not come, and the soup was getting cold, so they began to eat slowly, and when their plates were empty, they waited again, and Madame Caravan, who was furious, attacked her husband:
“She does it on purpose, you know that as well as I do. But you always uphold her.”
He, in great perplexity between the two, sent Marie–Louise to fetch her grandmother, and he sat motionless, with his eyes down, while his wife tapped her glass angrily with her knife. In about a minute, the door flew open suddenly, and the child came in again, out of breath and very pale, and said very quickly:
“Grandmamma has fallen down on the ground.”
Caravan jumped up, threw his table-napkin down, and rushed upstairs, while his wife, who thought it was some trick of her mother-inlaw’s, followed more slowly, shrugging her shoulders, as if to express her doubt. When they got upstairs, however, they found the old woman lying at full length in the middle of the room, and when they turned her over they saw that she was insensible and motionless, while her skin looked more wrinkled and yellow than usual, and her eyes were closed, her teeth clenched, and her thin body was stiff.
Caravan knelt down by her, and began to moan:
“My poor mother! my poor mother!” he said. But the other Madame Caravan said:
“Bah! She has only fainted again, that is all, and she has done it to prevent us from dining comfortably, you may be sure of that.”
They put her on the bed, undressed her completely, and Caravan, his wife, and the servant began to rub her, but, in spite of their efforts, she did not recover consciousness, so they sent Rosalie, the servant, to fetch Doctor Chenet. He lived a long way off, on the quay going towards Suresnes, and so it was considerable time before he arrived. He came at last, however, and, after having looked at the old woman, felt her pulse, auscultated her, he said:— “It is all over.”
Caravan threw himself on the body, sobbing violently; he kissed his mother’s rigid face, and wept so, that great tears fell on the dead woman’s face, like drops of water, and, naturally, Madame Caravan, Junior, showed a decorous amount of grief, and uttered feeble moans, as she stood behind her husband, while she rubbed her eyes vigorously.
But, suddenly, Caravan raised himself up, with his thin hair in disorder, and, looking very ugly in his grief, said:—
“But . . . are you sure, doctor? . . . Are you quite sure? . . . ”
The medical stooped over the body, and, handling it with professional dexterity, like a shopkeeper might do, when showing off his goods, he said:— “See, my dear friend, look at her eye.”
He raised the eyelid, and the old woman’s looks reappeared under his finger, and were altogether unaltered, unless, perhaps, the pupil was rather larger, and Caravan felt a severe shock at the sight. Then Monsieur Chenet took her thin arm, forced the fingers open, and said, angrily, as if he had been contradicted:
“Just look at her hand; I never make a mistake, you may be quite sure of that.”
Caravan fell on the bed, and almost bellowed, while his wife, still whimpering, did what was necessary.
She brought the night-table, on which she spread a table napkin, and placed four wax candles on it, which she lighted; then she took a sprig of box, which was hanging over the chimney glass, and put it between the candles, into the plate, which she filled with clean water, as she had no holy water. But, after a moment’s rapid reflection, she threw a pinch of salt into the water, no doubt, thinking she was performing some sort of act of consecration by doing that, and when she had finished, she remained standing motionless, and the medical man, who had been helping her, whispered to her:
“We must take Caravan away.”
She nodded assent, and, going up to her husband, who was still on his knees, sobbing, she raised him up by one arm, while Chenet took him by the other.
They put him into a chair, and his wife kissed his forehead, and then began to lecture him. Chenet enforced her words, and preached firmness, courage, and resignation — the very things which are always wanting in such overwhelming misfortunes — and then both of them took him by the arms again and led him out.
He was crying like a great child, with convulsive hiccoughs; his arms were hanging down, and his legs seemed useless, and he went downstairs without knowing what he was doing, and moving his legs mechanically. They put him into the chair which he always occupied at dinner, in front of his empty soup plate. And there he sat, without moving, with his eyes fixed on his glass, and so stupefied with grief, that he could not even think.
In a corner, Madame Caravan was talking with the doctor, and asking what the necessary formalities were, as she wanted to obtain practical information. At last, Monsieur Chenet, who appeared to be waiting for something, took up his hat and prepared to go, saying that he had not dined yet; whereupon, she exclaimed:—
“What! you have not dined? But stop here, doctor; don’t go. You shall have whatever we can give you, for, of course, you will understand that we do not fare sumptuously.” However, he made excuses and refused, but she persisted, and said:—
“You really must stop; at times like this, people like to have friends near them, and, besides that, perhaps you will be able to persuade my husband to take some nourishment; he must keep up his strength.”
The doctor bowed, and, putting down his hat, he said:—
“In that case, I will accept your invitation, Madame.”
She gave Rosalie, who seemed to have lost her head, some orders, and then sat down, “to pretend to eat,” as she said, “to keep the doctor company.”
The soup was brought in again, and Monsieur Chenet took two helpings. Then there came a dish of tripe, which exhaled a smell of onions, and which Madame Caravan made up her mind to taste.
“It is excellent,” the doctor said, at which she smiled, and, turning to her husband, she said:—
“Do take a little, my poor Alfred, only just to put something into your stomach. Remember you have got to pass the night watching by her!”
He held out his plate, docilely, just as he would have gone to bed, if he had been told to, obeying her in everything, without resistance and without reflection, and, therefore, he ate; the doctor helped himself three times, while Madame Caravan, from time to time, fished out a large piece at the end of her fork, and swallowed it with a sort of studied inattention.
When a salad bowl full of macaroni was brought in, the doctor said:
“By Jove! That is what I am very fond of.” And this time, Madame Caravan helped everybody. She even filled the children’s saucers, which they had scraped clean, and who, being left to themselves, had been drinking wine without any water, and were now kicking each other under the table.
Chenet remembered that Rossini, the composer, had been very fond of that Italian dish, and suddenly he exclaimed:—
“Why! that rhymes, and one could begin some lines like this:
“The Maestro Rossini Was fond of macaroni.“
Nobody listened to him, however. Madame Caravan, who had suddenly grown thoughtful, was thinking of all the probable consequences of the event, while her husband made bread pellets, which he put on the table-cloth, and looked at with a fixed, idiotic stare. As he was devoured by thirst, he was continually raising his glass full of wine to his lips, and the consequences were that his senses, which had already been rather upset by the shock and grief, seemed to dance about vaguely in his head, as if they were going to vanish altogether.
Meanwhile, the doctor, who had been drinking away steadily, was getting visibly drunk, and Madame Caravan herself felt the reaction which follows all nervous shocks, and was agitated and excited, and although she had been drinking nothing but water, she felt her head rather confused.
By-and-bye, Chenet began to relate stories of deaths, that appeared funny to him. In that suburb of Paris, that is full of people from the provinces, one meets with that indifference towards death were it even a father or mother, which all peasants show; that want of respect, that unconscious ferociousness which is so common in the country, and so rare in Paris, and he said:
“Why, I was sent for last week to the Rue du Puteaux, and when I went, I found the sick person (and there was the whole family calmly sitting near the bed) finishing a bottle of liquor of aniseed, which had been bought the night before to satisfy the dying man’s fancy.”
But Madame Caravan was not listening; she was continually thinking of the inheritance, and Caravan was incapable of understanding anything.
Soon coffee was served, which had been made very strong, and as every cup was well qualified with cognac, it made all their faces red, and confused their ideas still more; to make matters still worse, Chenet suddenly seized the brandy bottle and poured out “a drop just to wash their mouths out with,” as he termed it, for each of them, and then, without speaking any more, overcome in spite of themselves, by that feeling of animal comfort which alcohol affords after dinner, they slowly sipped the sweet cognac, which formed a yellowish syrup at the bottom of their cups.
The children had gone to sleep, and Rosalie carried them off to bed, and then, Caravan, mechanically obeying that wish to forget oneself which possesses all unhappy persons, helped himself to brandy again several times, and his dull eyes grew bright. At last the doctor rose to go, and seizing his friend’s arm, he said:
“Come with me; a little fresh air will do you good. When one is in trouble, one must not stick to one spot.”
The other obeyed mechanically, put on his hat, took his stick, and went out, and both of them went arm-inarm towards the Seine, in the starlight night.
The air was warm and sweet, for all the gardens in the neighborhood were full of flowers at that season of the year, and their scent, which is scarcely perceptible during the day, seemed to awaken at the approach of night, and mingled with the light breezes which blew upon them in the darkness.
The broad avenue, with its two rows of gaslamps, that extended as far as the Arc de Triomphe, was deserted and silent, but there was the distant roar of Paris, which seemed to have a reddish vapor hanging over it. It was a kind of continual rumbling, which was at times answered by the whistle of a train at full speed, in the distance, traveling to the ocean, through the provinces.
The fresh air on the faces of the two men rather overcame them at first, made the doctor lose his equilibrium a little, and increased Caravan’s giddiness, from which he had suffered since dinner. He walked as if he were in a dream; his thoughts were paralyzed, although he felt no grief, for he was in a state of mental torpor that prevented him from suffering, and he even felt a sense of relief which was increased by the mildness of the night.
When they reached the bridge they turned to the right, and they got the fresh breeze from the river. It rolled along, calm and melancholy, bordered by tall poplar trees, and the stars looked as if they were floating on the water and were moving with the current. A slight, white mist that floated over the opposite banks, filled their lungs with a sensation of cold, and Caravan stopped suddenly, for he was struck by that smell from the water, which brought back old memories to his mind. For he, suddenly, in his mind, saw his mother again, in Picardy, as he had seen her years before, kneeling in front of their door, and washing the heaps of linen, by her side, in the stream that ran through their garden. He almost fancied that he could hear the sound of the wooden beetle with which she beat the linen, in the calm silence of the country, and her voice, as she called out to him:
“Alfred, bring me some soap.” And he smelt that odor of the trickling water, of the mist rising from the wet ground, the heap of wet linen, which he should never forget, and which came back to him on the very evening on which his mother died.
He stopped, with a feeling of despair, and felt heartbroken at that eternal separation. His life seemed cut in half, all his youth disappeared, swallowed up by that death. All the former life was over and done with, all the recollections of his youthful days would vanish; for the future, there would be nobody to talk to him of what had happened in days gone by, of the people he had known of old, of his own part of the country, and of his past life; that was a part of his existence which existed no longer, and the other might as well end now.
And then he saw Mamma as she was when younger, wearing well-worn dresses, which he remembered for such a long time that they seemed inseparable from her; he recollected her movements, the different tones of her voice, her habits, her manias, her fits of anger, the wrinkles on her face, the movements of her thin fingers, and all her well-known attitudes, which she would never have again, and clutching hold of the doctor, he began to moan and weep. His lank legs began to tremble, his whole, stout body was shaken by his sobs, all he could say was:
“My mother, my poor mother, my poor mother . . .!”
But his companion, who was still drunk, and who intended to finish the evening in certain places of bad repute that he frequented secretly, made him sit down on the grass by the riverside, and left him almost immediately, under the pretext that he had to see a patient.
Caravan went on crying for a long time, and then, when he had got to the end of his tears, when his grief had, so to say, run out of him, he again felt relief, repose, and sudden tranquillity.
The moon had risen, and bathed the horizon in its soft light.
The tall poplar trees had a silvery sheen on them, and the mist on the plain, looked like floating snow; the river, in which the stars were reflected, and which looked as if it were covered with mother-of-pearl, was rippled by the wind. The air was soft and sweet, and Caravan inhaled it almost greedily, and thought that he could perceive a feeling of freshness, of calm and of superhuman consolation pervading him.
He really tried to resist that feeling of comfort and relief, and kept on saying to himself:— “My mother, my poor mother!” . . . and tried to make himself cry, from a kind of a conscientious feeling, but he could not succeed in doing so any longer and those sad thoughts, which had made him sob so bitterly a short time before, had almost passed away. In a few moments, he rose to go home, and returned slowly, under the influence of that serene night, and with a heart soothed in spite of himself.
When he reached the bridge he saw that the last tramcar was ready to start, and the lights through the windows of the Café du Globe, and he felt a longing to tell somebody of the catastrophe that had happened, to excite pity, to make himself interesting. He put on a woeful face, pushed open the door, and went up to the counter, where the landlord still was. He had counted on creating an effect, and had hoped that everybody would get up and come to him with outstretched hands, and say:— “Why, what is the matter with you?” But nobody noticed his disconsolate face, so he rested his two elbows on the counter, and, burying his face in his hands, he murmured: “Good heavens! Good heavens!”
The landlord looked at him and said: “Are you ill, Monsieur Caravan?”
“No, my friend,” he replied, “but my mother has just died.”
“Ah!” the other exclaimed, and as a customer at the other end of the establishment asked for a glass of Bavarian beer, he went to attend to him, left Caravan almost stupefied at his want of sympathy.
The three domino players were sitting at the same table which they had occupied before dinner, totally absorbed in their game, and Caravan went up to them, in search of pity, but as none of them appeared to notice him, he made up his mind to speak.
“A great misfortune has happened to me since I was here,” he said.
All three slightly raised their heads at the same instant, but keeping their eyes fixed on the pieces which they held in their hands.
“What do you say?”
“My mother has just died;” whereupon one of them said:
“Oh! the devil,” with that false air of sorrow which indifferent people assume. Another, who could not find anything to say, emitted a sort of sympathetic whistle, shaking his head at the same time, and the third turned to the game again, as if he were saying to himself: “Is that all!”
Caravan had expected some of those expressions that are said to “come from the heart,” and when he saw how his news was received, he left the table, indignant at their calmness before their friend’s sorrow, although at that moment he was so dazed with grief, that he hardly felt it, and went home. When he got in, his wife was waiting for him in her nightgown, and sitting in a low chair by the open window, still thinking of the inheritance.
“Undress yourself,” she said; “we will talk when we are in bed.”
He raised his head, and looking at the ceiling, he said:
“But . . . there is nobody up there.”
“I beg your pardon, Rosalie is with her, and you can go and take her place at three o’clock in the morning, when you have had some sleep.”
He only partially undressed, however, so as to be ready for anything that might happen, and after tying a silk handkerchief round his head, he joined his wife, who had just got in between the sheets, and for some time they remained side by side, and neither of them spoke. She was thinking.
Even in bed, her night-cap was adorned with a red bow, and was pushed rather over one ear, as was the way with all the caps that she wore, and, presently, she turned towards him and said:
“Do you know whether your mother made a will?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then replied:
“I . . . I do not think so. . . . No, I am sure that she did not.”
His wife looked at him, and she said, in a low, furious voice:
“I call that infamous; here we have been wearing ourselves out for ten years in looking after her, and have boarded and lodged her! Your sister would not have done so much for her, nor I either, if I had known how I was to be rewarded! Yes, it is a disgrace to her memory! I daresay that you will tell me that she paid us, but one cannot pay one’s children in ready money for what they do; that obligation is recognized after death; at any rate, that is how honorable people act. So I have had all my worry and trouble for nothing! Oh, that is nice! that is very nice!”
Poor Caravan, who felt nearly distracted, kept on saying:
“My dear, my dear, please, please be quiet.”
She grew calmer by degrees, and, resuming her usual voice and manner, she continued:
“We must let your sister know, tomorrow.”
He started, and said:
“Of course, we must; I had forgotten all about it; I will send her a telegram the first thing in the morning.”
“No,” she replied, like a woman who had foreseen everything; “no, do not send it before ten or eleven o’clock, so that we may have time to turn round before she comes. It does not take more than two hours to get here from Charenton, and we can say that you lost your head from grief. If we let her know in the course of the day, that will be soon enough, and will give us time to look round.”
But Caravan put his hand to his forehead, and, in the same timid voice in which he always spoke of his chief, the very thought of whom made him tremble, he said:
“I must let them know at the office.”
“Why?” she replied. “On such occasions like this, it is always excusable to forget. Take my advice, and don’t let him know; your chief will not be able to say anything to you, and you will put him in a nice fix.”
“Oh! yes, that I shall, and he will be in a terrible rage, too, when he notices my absence. Yes, you are right; it is a capital idea, and when I tell him that my mother is dead, he will be obliged to hold his tongue.”
And he rubbed his hands in delight at the joke, when he thought of his chief’s face; while the body of the dead old woman lay upstairs, and the servant was asleep close to it.
But Madame Caravan grew thoughtful, as if she were preoccupied by something, which she did not care to mention, but at last she said:
“Your mother had given you her clock, had she not; the girl playing at cup and ball?”
He thought for a moment, and then replied:
“Yes, yes; she said to me (but it was a long time ago, when she first came here): ‘I shall leave the clock to you, if you look after me well.’”
Madame Caravan was reassured, and regained her serenity, and said:
“Well, then, you must go and fetch it out of her room, for if we get your sister here, she will prevent us from having it.”
“Do you think so? . . . ”
That made her angry.
“I certainly think so; as soon as it is in our possession, she will know nothing at all about where it came from; it belongs to us. It is just the same with the chest of drawers with the marble top, that is in her room; she gave it me one day when she was in a good temper. We will bring it down at the same time.”
Caravan, however, seemed incredulous, and said:
“But, my dear, it is a great responsibility!”
She turned on him furiously.
“Oh! Indeed! Will you never alter? You would let your children die of hunger, rather than make a move. Does not that chest of drawers belong to us, as she gave it to me? And if your sister is not satisfied, let her tell me so, me! I don’t care a straw for your sister. Come, get up, and we will bring down what your mother gave us, immediately.”
Trembling and vanquished, he got out of bed, and began to put on his trousers, but she stopped him:
“It is not worth while to dress yourself; your drawers are quite enough; I mean to go as I am.”
They both left the room in their night clothes, went upstairs quite noiselessly, opened the door and went into the room, where the four lighted tapers and the plate with the sprig of box alone seemed to be watching the old woman in her rigid repose; for Rosalie, who was lying back in the easy chair with her legs stretched out, her hands folded in her lap, and her head on one side, was also quite motionless, and was snoring with her mouth wide open.
Caravan took the clock, which was one of those grotesque objects that were produced so plentifully under the Empire. A girl in gilt bronze was holding a cup and ball, and the ball formed the pendulum.
“Give that to me,” his wife said, “and take the marble top off the chest of drawers.”
He put the marble on his shoulder with a considerable effort, and they left the room. Caravan had to stoop in the door-way, and trembled as he went downstairs, while his wife walked backwards, so as to light him, and held the candlestick in one hand, while she had the clock under her other arm.
When they were in their own room, she heaved a sigh.
“We have got over the worst part of the job,” she said; “so now let us go and fetch the other things.”
But the drawers were full of the old woman’s wearing apparel, which they must manage to hide somewhere, and Madame Caravan soon thought of a plan.
“Go and get that wooden box in the passage; it is hardly worth anything, and we may just as well put it here.”
And when he had brought it upstairs, the change began. One by one, she took out all the collars, cuffs, chemises, caps, all the well-worn things that had belonged to the poor woman lying there behind them, and arranged them methodically in the wooden box, in such a manner as to deceive Madame Braux, the deceased woman’s other child, who would be coming the next day.
When they had finished, they first of all carried the drawers downstairs, and the remaining portion afterwards, each of them holding an end, and it was some time before they could make up their minds where it would stand best; but at last they settled upon their own room, opposite the bed, between the two windows, and as soon as it was in its place, Madame Caravan filled it with her own things. The clock was placed on the chimney-piece in the dining-room, and they looked to see what the effect was, and they were both delighted with it, and agreed that nothing could be better. Then they got into bed, she blew out the candle, and soon everybody in the house was asleep.
It was broad daylight when Caravan opened his eyes again. His mind was rather confused when he woke up, and he did not clearly remember what had happened, for a few minutes; when he did, he felt it painfully, and jumped out of bed, almost ready to cry again.
He very soon went to the room overhead, where Rosalie was still sleeping in the same position as the night before, for she did not wake up once during the whole time. He sent her to do her work, put fresh tapers in the place of those that had burnt out, and then he looked at his mother, revolving in his brain those apparently profound thoughts, those religious and philosophical commonplaces, which trouble people of mediocre minds, in the face of death.
But he went down stairs as soon as his wife called him. She had written out a list of what had to be done during the morning, which rather frightened him when he saw that he would have to do all this:
1. Give information of the death to the Mayor’s officer. 2. See the doctor who had attended her. 3. Order the coffin. 4. Give notice at the church. 5. Go to the undertaker. 6. Order the notices of her death at the printer’s. 7. Go to the lawyer. 8. Telegraph the news to all the family.
Besides all this there were a number of small commissions; so he took his hat and went out, and as the news had got abroad, Madame Caravan’s female friends and neighbors soon began to come in, and begged to be allowed to see the body. There had been a scene at the hairdresser’s, on the ground floor, about the matter, between husband and wife, while he was shaving a customer; for while she was knitting the woman had said: “Well, there is one less, and as great a miser as one ever meets with. I certainly was not very fond of her; but, nevertheless, I must go and have a look at her.”
The husband, while lathering his patient’s chin, said: “That is another queer fancy! Nobody but a woman would think of such a thing. It is not enough for them to worry you during life, but they cannot even leave you at peace when you are dead.” But his wife, without disconcerting herself the least, replied: “The feeling is stronger than I, and I must go. It has been on me since the morning. If I was not to see her, I should think about it all my life, but when I have had a good look at her, I shall be satisfied.”
The knight of the razor shrugged his shoulders, and remarked in a low voice to the gentleman whose cheek he was scraping: “I just ask you, what sort of ideas do you think these confounded females have? I should not amuse myself by going to see a corpse!” But his wife had heard him, and replied very quietly: “But it is so, it is so.” And then, putting her knitting on the counter, she went upstairs, to the first floor, where she met two other neighbors, who had just come, and who were discussing the event with Madame Caravan, who was giving them the details, and they all went together to the mortuary chamber. The four women went in softly, and, one after the other, sprinkled the bed clothes with the holy water, knelt down, made the sign of the cross while they mumbled a prayer, then they got up, and open-mouthed, regarded the corpse for a long time, while the daughter-inlaw of the dead woman, with her handkerchief to her face, pretended to be sobbing piteously.
When she turned about to walk away, whom should she perceive standing close to the door but Marie–Louise and Philippe–Auguste, who were curiously taking stock of things. Then, forgetting to control her chagrin, she threw herself upon them with uplifted hands, crying out in a furious voice, “Will you get out of this, you filthy brats.”
Ten minutes later, in going upstairs again with another contingent of neighbors, she prayed, wept profusely, performed all her duties, and found once more her two children, who had followed her up stairs. She again boxed their ears soundly, but the next time she paid no heed to them, and at each fresh arrival of visitors the two urchins always followed in the wake, crowded themselves up in a corner, and imitating slavishly everything they saw their mother do.
When the afternoon came round the crowds of curious people began to diminish, and soon there were no more visitors. Madame Caravan, returning to her own apartments, began to make the necessary preparations for the funeral ceremony, and the defunct was hence left by herself.
The window of the room was open. A torrid heat entered along with the clouds of dust; the flames of the four candles were flickering in the direction of the immobile corpse, and upon the cloth which covered the face, the closed eyes, the two hands stretched out, small flies alighted, came, went, and careered up and down incessantly, being the only companions of the old woman during the next hour.
Marie–Louise and Philippe–Auguste, however, had now left the house, and were running up and down the street. They were soon surrounded by their playmates, by little girls, especially, who were older, and who were much more interested to inquire into all the mysteries of life, asking questions after the manner of persons of great importance.
“Then your grandmother is dead?” “Yes, she died yesterday evening.” “How, in what way did she meet her death?”
Then Marie began to explain, telling all about the candles and the cadaverous face. It was not long before great curiosity was aroused in the breasts of all the children, and they asked to be allowed to go upstairs to look at the departed.
It was not long before Marie–Louise had arranged a group for a first visit, consisting of five girls and two boys — the biggest and the most courageous. She made them take off their shoes so that they might not be discovered. The troupe filed into the house and mounted the stairs as stealthily as an army of mice.
Once in the chamber, the little girl, imitating her mother, regulated the ceremony. She solemnly walked in advance of her comrades, went down on her knees, made the sign of the cross, moistened her lips with the holy water, stood up again, sprinkled the bed, and while the children, all crowded together, were approaching — frightened and curious, and eager to look at the face and hands of the deceased — she began suddenly to simulate sobbing, and to bury her eyes in her little handkerchief. Then, becoming instantly consoled, on thinking of the other children who were downstairs waiting at the door, she withdrew in haste, returning in a minute with another group, then a third, for all the little ruffians of the country-side, even to the little beggars in rags, had congregated in order to participate in this new pleasure; and each time she repeated her mother’s grimaces with absolute perfection.
At length, however, she became tired. Some game or other attracted the children away from the house, and the old grandmother was left alone, forgotten suddenly by everybody.
A dismal gloom pervaded the chamber, and upon the dry and rigid features of the corpse, the dying flames of the candles cast occasional gleams of light.
Towards 8 o’clock, Caravan ascended to the chamber of death, closed the windows, and renewed the candles. On entering now he was quite composed, evidently accustomed already to regard the corpse as though it had been there for a month. He even went the length of declaring that, as yet, there was not any signs of decomposition, making this remark just at the moment when he and his wife were about to sit down at table. “Pshaw!” she responded, “she is now in wood; she will keep there for a year.”
The soup was eaten without a word being uttered by anyone. The children, who had been free all day, now worn out by fatigue, were sleeping soundly on their chairs, and nobody ventured on breaking the silence.
Suddenly the flame of the lamp went down. Mdme. Caravan immediately turned up the wick, a prolonged gurgling noise ensued, and the light went out. It had been forgotten during the day to buy oil. To send for it now to the grocers’ would keep back the dinner, and everybody began to look for candles, but none were to be found except the night lights which had been placed upon the tables upstairs, in the death chamber.
Mdme. Caravan, always prompt in her decisions, quickly dispatched Marie–Louise to fetch two, and her return was awaited in total darkness.
The footsteps of the girl who had ascended the stairs were distinctly heard. There followed now a silence for a few seconds, then the child descended precipitately. She threw open the door affrighted, and in a choked voice murmured: “Oh! papa, grandmamma is dressing herself!”
Caravan bounded to his feet with such precipitance that his chair rolled over against the chair. He stammered out: “You say? . . . What is that you say?”
But Marie–Louise, gasping with emotion, repeated: “Grand . . . grand . . . grandmamma is putting on her clothes, she is coming down stairs.”
Caravan rushed boldly up the staircase, followed by his wife, dumbfounded; but he came to a standstill before the door of the second floor, overcome with terror, not daring to enter. What was he going to see? Mdme. Caravan, more courageous, turned the handle of the door and stepped forward into the room.
The room seemed to become darker, and in the middle of it, a tall emaciated figure moved about. The old woman stood upright, and in awakening from her lethargic sleep, before even full consciousness had returned to her, in turning upon her side, and raising herself on her elbow, she had extinguished three of the candles which burned near the mortuary bed. Then, recovering her strength, she got out of bed and began to seek for her things. The absence of her chest of drawers had at first given her some trouble, but, after a little, she had succeeded in finding her things at the bottom of the wooden trunk, and was now quietly dressing. She emptied the plateful of holy water, replaced the box which contained the latter behind the looking-glass and arranged the chairs in their places, and was ready to go downstairs when there appeared before her her son and daughter-inlaw.
Caravan rushed forward, seized her by the hands, embraced her with tears in his eyes, while his wife, who was behind him, repeated in a hypocritical tone of voice: “Oh, what a blessing! Oh, what a blessing!”
But the old woman, without being at all moved, without even appearing to understand, as rigid as a statue, and with glazed eyes, simply asked: “Will the dinner soon be ready?”
He stammered out, not knowing what he said: “O, yes, mother, we have been waiting for you.”
And with an alacrity, unusual in him, he took her arm, while Mdme. Caravan, the younger, seized the candle and lighted them downstairs, walking backwards in front of them, step by step, just as she had done the previous night, in front of her husband, who was carrying the marble.
On reaching the first floor, she ran up against people who were ascending. It was the Charenton family, Mdme. Braux, followed by her husband.
The wife, tall, fleshy, with a dropsical stomach which threw her trunk far out behind her, opened wide her astonished eyes, ready to take flight. The husband, a shoemaker socialist, a little hairy man, the perfect image of a monkey, murmured, quite unconcerned: “Well, what next? Is she resurrected?”
As soon as Mdme. Caravan recognized them, she made despairing signs to them, then, speaking aloud, she said: “Mercy! How do you mean! . . . Look there! What a happy surprise!”
But Mdme. Braux, dumbfounded, understood nothing; she responded in a low voice: “It was your dispatch which made us come; we believed it was all over.”
Her husband, who was behind her, pinched her to make her keep silent. He added with a malignant laugh, which his thick beard concealed: “It was very kind of you to invite us here. We set out in post haste.” — which remark showed clearly the hostility which had for a long time reigned between the households. Then, just as the old woman had arrived at the last steps, he pushed forward quickly and rubbed against her cheeks the hair which covered his face, bawling out in her ear, on account of her deafness: “How well you look, mother; sturdy as usual, hey!”
Mdme. Braux, in her stupor at seeing the old woman whom they all believed to be dead, dared not even embrace her; and her enormous belly blocked up the passage and hindered the others from advancing. The old woman, uneasy and suspicious, but without speaking, looked at everyone around her; and her little gray eyes, piercing and hard, fixed themselves now on the one and now on the other, and they were so terrible in their expression that the children became frightened.
Caravan, to explain matters, said: “She has been somewhat ill, but she is better now; quite well, indeed, are you not, mother?”
Then the good woman, stopping in her walk, responded in a husky voice, as though it came from a distance: “It was syncope. I heard you all the while.”
An embarrassing silence followed. They entered the dining-room, and in a few minutes they all sat down to an improvised dinner.
Only M. Braux had retained his self-possession; his gorilla features grinned wickedly, while he let fall some words of double meaning which painfully disconcerted everyone.
But the clock in the hall kept on ticking every second; and Rosalie, lost in astonishment, came to seek out Caravan, who darted a fierce glance at her, as she threw down his serviette. His brother-inlaw even asked him whether it was not one of his days to hold a reception, to which he stammered out, in answer: “No, I have only been executing a few commissions; nothing more.”
Next, a packet was brought in, which he began to open sadly, and from which dropped out unexpectedly a letter with black borders. Then, reddening up to the very eyes, he picked up the letter hurriedly, and pushed it into his waistcoat pocket.
His mother had not seen it! She was looking intently at her clock, which stood on the mantelpiece, and the embarrassment increased in midst of a glacial silence. Turning her face towards her daughter, the old woman, from whose eyes flashed fierce malice, said: “On Monday, you must take me away from here, so that I can see your little girl. I want so much to see her.” Madame Braux, her features illuminated, exclaimed: “Yes, mother, that I will,” while Mdme. Caravan, the younger, became pale, and seemed to be enduring the most excruciating agony. The two men, however, gradually drifted into conversation, and soon became embroiled in a political discussion. Braux maintained the most revolutionary and communistic doctrines, gesticulating and throwing about his arms, his eyes darting like a blood-hound’s. “Property, sir,” he said, “is robbery perpetrated on the working classes; the land is the common property of every man; hereditary rights are an infamy and a disgrace.” But, hereupon, he suddenly stopped, having all the appearance of a man who has just said something foolish; then, resuming, after a pause, he said, in softer tones: “But I can see quite well that this is not the proper moment to discuss such things.”
The door was opened, and Doctor Chenet appeared. For a moment he seemed bewildered, but regaining his usual smirking expression of countenance, he jauntily approached the old woman, and said: “Ah, hah! mamma, you are better today. Oh! I never had any doubt but you would come round again; in fact, I said to myself as I was mounting the staircase, ‘I have an idea that I shall find the old one on her feet once more;’” and he tapped her gently on the back: “Ah! she is as solid as the Pont–Neuf, she will see us all out; you shall see if she does not.”
He sat down, accepted the coffee that was offered him, and soon began to join in the conversation of the two men, backing up Braux, for he himself had been mixed up in the Commune.
Now, the old woman, feeling herself fatigued, wished to leave the room, at which Caravan rushed forward. She thereupon fixed him in the eyes and said to him: “You, you, must carry my clock and chest of drawers up stairs again without a moment’s delay.” “Yes, mamma,” he replied, yawning; “yes, I will do so.” The old woman then took the arm of her daughter and withdrew from the room. The two Caravans remained rooted to the floor, silent, plunged in the deepest despair, while Braux rubbed his hands and sipped his coffee, gleefully.
Suddenly Mdme. Caravan, consumed with rage, rushed at him, exclaiming: “You are a thief, a footpad, a cur. I would spit in your face, if . . . I would . . . I . . . would. . . . ” She could find nothing further to say, suffocating as she was, with rage, while he still sipped his coffee, with a smile.
His wife returning just then, looked menacingly at her sister-inlaw, and both — the one with her enormous fat stomach, the other, epileptic and spare, voice changed, hands trembling — flew at one another and seized each other by the throat.
Chenet and Braux now interposed, and the latter taking his better half by the shoulders pushed her out of the door in front of him, shouting to his sister-inlaw: “Go away, you slut: you are a disgrace to your relations;” and the two were heard in the street bellowing and shouting at the Caravans, until after they had disappeared from sight.
M. Chenet also took his departure, leaving the Caravans alone, face to face. The husband soon fell back on his chair, and with the cold sweat standing out in beads on his temples, murmured: “What shall I say to my chief tomorrow?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58