How is it that the sunlight gives us such joy? Why does this radiance when it falls on the earth fill us with so much delight of living? The sky is all blue, the fields are all green, the houses all white; and our ravished eyes drink in those bright colors which bring mirthfulness to our souls. And then there springs up in our hearts a desire to dance, a desire to run, a desire to sing, a happy lightness of thought, a sort of enlarged tenderness; we feel a longing to embrace the sun.
The blind, as they sit in the doorways, impassive in their eternal darkness, remain as calm as ever in the midst of this fresh gayety, and, not comprehending what is taking place around them, they keep every moment stopping their dogs from gamboling.
When, at the close of the day, they are returning home on the arm of a young brother or a little sister, if the child says: “It was a very fine day!” the other answers: “I could notice that ’twas fine. Loulou wouldn’t keep quiet.”
I have known one of these men whose life was one of the most cruel martyrdoms that could possibly be conceived.
He was a peasant, the son of a Norman farmer. As long as his father and mother lived, he was more or less taken care of; he suffered little save from his horrible infirmity; but as soon as the old people were gone, an atrocious life of misery commenced for him. A dependent on a sister of his, everybody in the farmhouse treated him as a beggar who is eating the bread of others. At every meal the very food he swallowed was made a subject of reproach against him; he was called a drone, a clown; and although his brother-inlaw had taken possession of his portion of the inheritance, the soup was given to him grudgingly — just enough to save him from dying.
His face was very pale, and his two big white eyes were like wafers; and he remained unmoved in spite of the insults inflicted upon him, so shut up in himself that one could not tell whether he felt them at all.
Moreover, he had never known any tenderness, his mother having always treated him unkindly, and caring scarcely at all for him; for in country places the useless are obnoxious, and the peasants would be glad, like hens, to kill the infirm of their species.
As soon as the soup had been gulped down, he went to the door in summer-time and sat down, to the chimney-corner in winter time, and, after that, never stirred all night. He made no gesture, no movement; only his eyelids, quivering from some nervous affection, fell down sometimes over his white, sightless orbs. Had he any intellect, any thinking faculty, any consciousness of his own existence? Nobody cared to inquire as to whether he had or no.
For some years things went on in this fashion. But his incapacity for doing anything as well as his impassiveness eventually exasperated his relatives, and he became a laughing-stock, a sort of martyred buffoon, a prey given over to native ferocity, to the savage gaiety of the brutes who surrounded him.
It is easy to imagine all the cruel practical jokes inspired by his blindness. And, in order to have some fun in return for feeding him, they now converted his meals into hours of pleasure for the neighbors and of punishment for the helpless creature himself.
The peasants from the nearest houses came to this entertainment; it was talked about from door to door, and every day the kitchen of the farmhouse was full of people. Sometimes they put on the table, in front of his plate, when he was beginning to take the soup, some cat or some dog. The animal instinctively scented out the man’s infirmity, and, softly approaching, commenced eating noiselessly, lapping up the soup daintily; and, when a rather loud licking of the tongue awakened the poor fellow’s attention, it would prudently scamper away to avoid the blow of the spoon directed at it by the blind man at random!
Then the spectators huddled against the walls burst out laughing, nudged each other, and stamped their feet on the floor. And he, without ever uttering a word, would continue eating with the aid of his right hand, while stretching out his left to protect and defend his plate.
At another time they made him chew corks, bits of wood, leaves, or even filth, which he was unable to distinguish.
After this, they got tired even of these practical jokes; and the brother-inlaw, mad at having to support him always, struck him, cuffed him incessantly, laughing at the useless efforts of the other to ward off or return the blows. Then came a new pleasure — the pleasure of smacking his face. And the plough-men, the servant girls, and even every passing vagabond were every moment giving him cuffs, which caused his eyelashes to twitch spasmodically. He did not know where to hide himself, and remained with his arms always held out to guard against people coming too close to him.
At last he was forced to beg.
He was placed somewhere on the high-road on market-days, and as soon as he heard the sound of footsteps or the rolling of a vehicle, he reached out his hat, stammering:—
“Charity, if you please!”
But the peasant is not lavish, and for whole weeks he did not bring back a sou.
Then he became the victim of furious, pitiless hatred. And this is how he died.
One winter the ground was covered with snow, and it froze horribly. Now his brother-inlaw led him one morning at this season a great distance along the high-road in order that he might solicit alms. The blind man was left there all day, and when night came on, the brother-inlaw told the people of his house that he could find no trace of the mendicant. Then he added:
“Pooh! best not bother about him! He was cold, and got someone to take him away. Never fear! he’s not lost. He’ll turn up soon enough tomorrow to eat the soup.”
Next day, he did not come back.
After long hours of waiting, stiffened with the cold, feeling that he was dying, the blind man began to walk. Being unable to find his way along the road, owing to its thick coating of ice, he went on at random, falling into dykes, getting up again, without uttering a sound, his sole object being to find some house where he could take shelter.
But by degrees the descending snow made a numbness steal over him, and his feeble limbs being incapable of carrying him farther, he had to sit down in the middle of an open field. He did not get up again.
The white flakes which kept continually falling buried him, so that his body, quite stiff and stark, disappeared under the incessant accumulation of their rapidly thickening mass; and nothing any longer indicated the place where the corpse was lying.
His relatives made pretense of inquiring about him and searching for him for about a week. They even made a show of weeping.
The winter was severe, and the thaw did not set in quickly. Now, one Sunday, on their way to mass, the farmers noticed a great flight of crows, who were whirling endlessly above the open field, and then, like a shower of black rain, descended in a heap at the same spot, ever going and coming.
The following week these gloomy birds were still there. There was a crowd of them up in the air, as if they had gathered from all corners of the horizon; and they swooped down with a great cawing into the shining snow, which they filled curiously with patches of black, and in which they kept rummaging obstinately. A young fellow went to see what they were doing, and discovered the body of the blind man, already half devoured, mangled. His wan eyes had disappeared, pecked out by the long, voracious beaks.
And I can never feel the glad radiance of sunlit days without sadly remembering and gloomily pondering over the fate of the beggar so disinherited in life that his horrible death was a relief for all those who had known him.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53