Roger de Toumeville was sitting astride a chair in the midst of his friends and talking; he held a cigar in his hand, and from time to time took a whiff and blew out a small cloud of smoke.
“We were at dinner when a letter was brought in and my father opened it. You know my father, who thinks that he is king of France ad interim. I call him Don Quixote, because for twelve years he has been running a tilt against the windmill of the Republic, without quite knowing whether it was in the name of the Bourbons or of the Orleans. At present he is holding the lance in the name of the Orleans alone, because there is nobody else but them left. In any case, he thinks himself the first gentleman in France, the best known, the most influential, the head of the party; and as he is an irremovable senator, he thinks that the neighboring kings’ thrones are very insecure.
“As for my mother, she is my father’s soul, she is the soul of the kingdom and of religion, the right arm of God, and the scourge of evil-thinkers.
“Well, so a letter was brought in while we were at dinner, and my father opened and read it, and then he said to my mother: ‘Your brother is dying.’ She grew very pale. My uncle was scarcely ever mentioned in the house, and I did not know him at all; all I knew from public talk was, that he had led, and was still leading, the life of a buffoon. After having spent his fortune with an incalculable number of women, he had only retained two mistresses, with whom he was living in small apartments in the Rue des Martyrs.
“An ex-peer of France and ex-colonel of cavalry, it was said that he believed in neither God nor devil. Not believing, therefore, in a future life he had abused this present life in every way, and he had become the living wound of my mother’s heart.
“‘Give me that letter, Paul,’ she said, and when she had read it, I asked for it in my turn. Here it is.
Monsieur le comte, I thinks I ought to lett you knaw that your
brother-law, count Fumeroll is going to dye. Perhapps you would
make preparations and not forgett that I told you.
“‘We must think,’ papa murmured. ‘In my position, I ought to watch over your brother’s last moments.’
“Mamma continued: ‘I will send for Abbé Poivron and ask his advice, and then I will go to my brother’s with the abbé and Roger. Stop here Paul, for you must not compromise yourself, but a woman can, and ought to do these things. But for a politician in your position, it is another matter. It would be a fine thing for one of your opponents to be able to bring one of your most laudable actions up against you.’ ‘You are right,’ my father said. ‘Do as you think best, my dear wife.’
“A quarter of an hour later, the Abbé Poivron came into the drawing-room, and the situation was explained to him, analyzed and discussed in all its bearings. If the Marquis de Fumerol, one of the greatest names in France, were to die without the succor of religion, it would assuredly be a terrible blow for the nobility in general, and for the Count de Toumeville in particular, and the freethinkers would be triumphant. The evilly disposed newspapers would sing songs of victory for six months; my mother’s name would be dragged through the mire and brought into the prose of Socialistic journals, and my father’s would be bespattered. It was impossible that such a thing should occur.
“A crusade was therefore immediately decided upon, which was to be led by the Abbé Poivron, a little fat, clean, slightly scented priest, a true vicar of a large church in a noble and rich quarter.
“The landau was ordered and we started all three, my mother, the Curé and I, to administer the last sacraments to my uncle.
“It had been decided first of all we should see Madame Mélani who had written the letter, and who was most likely the porter’s wife, or my uncle’s servant, and I got down as a scout in front of a seven-storied house and went into a dark passage, where I had great difficulty in finding the porter’s den. He looked at me distrustfully, and said:
“‘Madame Mélani, if you please.’ ‘Don’t know her!’ ‘But I have received a letter from her.’ ‘That may be, but don’t know her. Are you asking for some kept woman?’ ‘No, a servant probably. She wrote me about a place.’ ‘A servant? . . . a servant? . . . Perhaps it is the Marquis’s. Go and see, the fifth story on the left.’
“As soon as he found I was not asking for a kept woman, he became more friendly and came as far as the passage with me. He was a tall, thin man with white whiskers, the manners of a beadle and majestic movements.
“I climbed up a long spiral staircase, whose balusters I did not venture to touch, and I gave three discreet knocks at the left-hand door on the fifth story. It opened immediately, and an enormous dirty woman appeared before me, who barred the entrance with her open arms which she leant against the two doorposts, and grumbled:
“‘What do you want?’ ‘Are you Madame Mélani?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I am the Viscounte de Toumeville.’ ‘Ah! All right! Come in.’ ‘Well, the fact is my mother is downstairs with a priest.’ ‘Oh! All right; go and bring them up; but take care of the porter.’
“I went downstairs and came up again with my mother, who was followed by the abbé, and I fancied that I heard other footsteps behind us. As soon as we were in the kitchen, Mélani offered us chairs, and we all four sat down to deliberate.
“‘Is he very ill?’ my mother asked. ‘Oh! yes, Madame; he will not be here long.’ ‘Does he seem disposed to receive a visit from a priest?’ ‘Oh! I do not think so.’ ‘Can I see him?’ ‘Well . . . yes . . . Madame . . . only . . . only . . . those young ladies are with him.’ ‘What young ladies?’ ‘Why . . . why . . . his lady friends, of course.’ ‘Oh!’ Mamma had grown scarlet, and the Abbé Poivron had lowered his eyes.
“The affair began to amuse me, and I said: ‘Suppose I go in first? I shall see how he receives me, and perhaps I shall be able to prepare his heart for you.’
“My mother who did not suspect any trick, replied: ‘Yes, go my dear.’ But a woman’s voice cried out: ‘Mélani!’
“The fat servant ran out and said: ‘What do you want, Mademoiselle Claire?’ ‘The omelette, quickly.’ ‘In a minute, Mademoiselle.’ And coming back to us, she explained this summons.
“‘They ordered a cheese omelette at two o’clock as a slight collation.’ And immediately she began to break the eggs into a salad bowl, and began to whip them vigorously, while I went out onto the landing and pulled the bell, so as to announce my official arrival. Mélani opened the door to me, and made me sit down in an ante-room, while she went to tell my uncle, that I had come; then she came back and asked me to go in, while the Abbé hid behind the door, so that he might appear at the first sign.
“I was certainly very much surprised at seeing my uncle, for he was very handsome, very solemn and very elegant, was the old rake.
“Sitting, almost lying in a large armchair, his legs wrapped in blankets, with his hands, his long, white hands, over the arms of the chair, he was waiting death with Biblical dignity. His white beard fell onto his chest, and his hair, which was also white, mingled with it on his cheeks.
“Standing behind his armchair, as if to defend him against me, were two young women, two stout young women, who looked at me with the bold eyes of prostitutes. In their petticoats and morning wrappers, with bare arms, with coal black hair twisted up onto the nape of their neck, with embroidered Oriental slippers which showed their ankles and silk stockings, they looked like the immoral figures of some symbolical painting, by the side of the dying man. Between the easy-chair and the bed, there was a table covered with a white cloth, on which two plates, two glasses, two forks and two knives, were waiting for the cheese omelette which had been ordered some time before of Mélani.
“My uncle said in weak, almost breathless but clear voice: ‘Good morning, my child: it is rather late in the day to come and see me; our acquaintance will not last long.’ I stammered out: ‘It was not my fault, uncle,’ . . . and he replied: ‘No; I know that. It is your father and mother’s fault more than yours. . . . How are they?’ ‘Pretty well, thank you. When they heard that you were ill, they sent me to ask after you.’ ‘Ah! Why did they not come themselves?’
“I looked up at the two girls and said gently: ‘It is not their fault if they could not come, uncle. But it would be difficult for my father, and impossible for my mother to come in here. . . . ’ The old man did not reply, but raised his hand towards mine, and I took the pale, cold hand and kept it in my own.
“The door opened, Mélani came in with the omelette and put it on the table, and the two girls immediately sat down in front of their plates and began to eat without taking their eyes off me. Then I said: ‘Uncle, it would be a great pleasure for my mother to embrace you.’ ‘I also . . . ’ he murmured, ‘should like. . . . ’ He said no more, and I could think of nothing to propose to him, and nothing more was heard except the noise of the plates and that vague movement of eating mouths.
“Now the Abbé, who was listening behind the door, seeing our embarrassment, and thinking we had won the game, thought the time had come to interpose, and showed himself. My uncle was so stupefied at that apparition, that at first he remained motionless; but then he opened his mouth as if he meant to swallow up the priest, and shouted to him in a strong, deep, furious voice: ‘What are you doing here?’
“The Abbé, who was used to difficult situations came further in the room, murmuring: ‘I have come in your sister’s name, Monsieur le Marquis; she has sent me. . . . She would be so happy, Monsieur. . . . ’
“But the Marquis was not listening. Raising one hand, he pointed to the door with a proud and tragic gesture, and he said angrily and gasping for breath: ‘Leave this room . . . go out . . . robber of souls. . . . Go out from here, you violator of consciences. . . . Go out from here, you picklock of dying men’s doors!’
“The Abbé went backwards, and I also went to the door, beating a retreat with the clergyman; and the two little women who were avenged got up, leaving their omelette only half eaten, and went and stood on either side of my uncle’s armchair, putting their hands on his arms to calm him, and to protect him against the criminal enterprises of the Family and of Religion.
“The Abbé and I rejoined my mother in the kitchen, and Mélani again offered us chairs, ‘I knew quite well that it would not go of its own accord; we must try some other means, otherwise he will escape us.’ And they began deliberating afresh, my mother being of one opinion and the Abbé of another, while I held a third.
“We had been discussing the matter in a low voice for half an hour, perhaps, when a great noise of furniture being moved and of cries uttered by my uncle, more vehement and terrible even, than the former had been, made us all four jump up.
“Through the doors and walls we could hear him shouting: ‘Go out . . . out . . . rascals, . . . humbugs, get out scoundrels . . . get out . . . get out! . . . ’
“Mélani rushed in, but came back immediately to call me to help her, and I hastened in. Opposite to my uncle who was terribly excited by anger, almost standing up and vociferating, two men, one behind the other, seemed to be waiting till he should be dead with rage.
“By his long, ridiculous coat, his long English shoes, by his manners of a tutor out of a situation, by his high collar, white necktie and straight hair, by his humble face of a priest, I immediately recognized the first as a Protestant minister.
“The second was the porter of the house, who belonged to the reformed religion and had followed us, and having seen our defeat had gone to fetch his own priest, in hopes of a better fate. My uncle seemed mad with rage! If the sight of the Catholic priest, of the priest of his ancestors, had irritated the Marquis de Fumerol, who had become a freethinker, the sight of his porter’s minister made him altogether beside himself. I therefore took the two men by the arm and threw them out of the room so violently that they embraced each other twice, between the two doors which led to the staircase, and then I disappeared in my turn and returned to the kitchen, which was our headquarters, in order to take counsel with my mother and the Abbé.
“But Mélani came back in terror, sobbing out: ‘He is dying . . . he is dying . . . come immediately . . . he is dying. . . . ’
“My mother rushed out. My uncle had fallen onto the ground, full length along the floor, and did not move. I fancy he was already dead. My mother was superb at that moment! She went straight up to the two girls who were kneeling by the body and trying to raise it up, and pointing to the door with irresistible authority, dignity and majesty, she said: ‘Now it is for you to go out.’
“And they went out without a protest, and without saying a word. I must add, that I was getting ready to turn them out as unceremoniously as I had done the parson and the porter.
“Then the Abbé Poivron administered the last sacrament to my uncle with all the customary prayers and remitted all his sins, while my mother sobbed, kneeling near her brother. Suddenly, however, she exclaimed: ‘He recognized me; he pressed my hand; I am sure he recognized me!!! . . . and that he thanked me! Oh, God, what happiness!’
“Poor Mamma! If she had known or guessed to whom those thanks ought to have been addressed!
“They laid my uncle on his bed; he was certainly dead that time.
“‘Madame,’ Mélani said, ‘we have no sheets to bury him in; all the linen belongs to those two young ladies,’ and when I looked at the omelette which they had not finished, I felt inclined to laugh and to cry at the same time. There are some strange moments and some strange sensations in life, occasionally!
“We gave my uncle a magnificent funeral, with five speeches at the grave. Baron de Croiselles, the Senator, showed in admirable terms, that God always returns victorious into well-born souls which have gone astray for a moment. All the members of the Royalist and Catholic party followed the funeral procession with the enthusiasm of triumphers, speaking of that beautiful death, after a somewhat restless life.”
Viscount Roger ceased speaking, and those around him laughed. Then somebody said: “Bah! That is the story of conversions in Extremis.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58