I was not very fond of going to inspect that asylum for old, infirm men, officially, as I was obliged to go over it in company of the superintendent, who was talkative, and a statistician. But then, the grandson of the foundress accompanied us, who was evidently pleased at that minute inspection, and he was a charming man, and the owner of a large forest, where he had given me permission to shoot, and I was, of course, obliged to pretend to be interested in his grandmother’s philanthropic work. So with a smile on my lips I endured the superintendent’s interminable discourse, punctuating it here and there, as best I could, by a:
“Ah! really! . . . Very strange, indeed! . . . I should never have believed it! . . . ”
I was absolutely ignorant of the matter to which I replied thus, for my thoughts were lulled to repose by the constant humming of our loquacious guide. I was only vaguely conscious that no doubt the persons and things would have appeared worthy of attention to me if I had been there alone as an idler, for in that case, I should certainly have asked the superintendent:
“Who is this Babette, whose name appears so constantly in the complaints of so many of the inmates?”
Quite a dozen men and women had spoken to us about her, now to complain of her, now to praise her; and especially the women, as soon as they saw the superintendent, cried out:
“M’sieur, Babette has again been . . . ”
“There! that will do, that will do!” he interrupted them, his gentle voice suddenly becoming harsh.
At other times he would amicably question some old man with a happy countenance, and say:
“Well, my friend! I suppose you are very happy here?”
Many replied with fervent expressions of gratitude, with which Babette’s name was frequently mingled, and when he heard them speak so, the superintendent put on an ecstatic air; looking up to heaven with clasped hands, he said, slowly shaking his head: “Ah! Babette is a very precious woman, very precious!”
Yes, it would certainly interest one to know who that creature was, but not under present circumstances, and so, rather than to undergo any more of this, I made up my mind to remain in ignorance of who Babette was, for I could pretty well guess what she would be like. I pictured her to myself as a flower that had sprung up in a corner of these dull courtyards, like a ray of sun shining through the sepulchral gloom of these dismal passages.
I pictured her so clearly to myself that I did not even feel any wish to know her, but yet she was dear to me, because of the happy expression which they all put on when they spoke of her, and I was angry with the old women who spoke against her. One thing certainly puzzled me, and that was, that the superintendent was among those who went into ecstasies over her, and this made me strongly disinclined to question him about her, though I had no other reason for this feeling.
But all this passed through my mind in rather a confused manner, and without my taking the trouble to fix or to formulate any ideas and sensations, for I continued to dream, rather than to think effectively, and it is very probable that, when my visit was over, I should not have remembered much about it, not even with regard to Babette, if I had not been suddenly awakened by the sight of her in the person, and been quite upset by the difference that there was between my fancy and the reality.
We had just crossed a small back yard, and had gone into a very dark passage, when a door suddenly opened at the other end of it, and an unexpected apparition appeared through another door, and we could indistinctly see that it was the figure of a woman. At the same moment, the superintendent called out in a furious voice:
He had mechanically quickened his pace, and almost ran, and we followed him, and he quickly opened the door through which the apparition had vanished, and which led on to a staircase, and he again called out, and a burst of stifled laughter was the only reply. I looked over the balusters, and saw a woman down below, who was looking at us fixedly.
She was an old woman; there could be no doubt of that, from her wrinkled face and her few straggling gray locks which appeared under her cap. But one did not think of that when one saw her eyes, which were wonderfully youthful, for then, one saw nothing but them. They were profound eyes, of a deep, almost violet blue; the eyes of a child.
Suddenly the superintendent called out to her: “You have been with la Friezê again!”
The old woman did not reply, but shook with laughter, as she had done just before, and then she ran off, giving the superintendent a look, which said as plainly as words could have done: “Do you think I care a fig for you?”
Those insulting words were clearly written in her face, and at the same time I noticed that the old woman’s eyes had utterly changed, for during that short moment of bravado the childish eyes had become the eyes of a monkey, of some ferocious, obstinate baboon.
That time, in spite of any dislike to question him further, I could not help saying to him: “That is Babette, I suppose?”
“Yes,” he replied, growing rather red, as if he guessed that I understood the old woman’s insulting looks.
“Is she the woman who is so precious?” I added, with a touch of irony, which made him grow altogether crimson.
“That is she,” he said, walking on quickly, so as to escape my further questions.
But I was egged on by curiosity, and I made a direct appeal to our host’s complaisance. “I should like to see this Friezê,” I said. “Who is Friezê?”
He turned round and said: “Oh! nothing, nothing, he is not at all interesting. What is the good of seeing him? It is not worth while.”
And he ran downstairs, two at a time. He who was usually so delicate, and so very careful to explain everything, was now in a hurry to get finished, and our visit was cut short.
The next day I had to leave that part of the country, without hearing anything more about Babette, but I came back about four months later, when the shooting season began. I had not forgotten her during that time, for nobody could ever forget her eyes, and so I was very glad to have as my traveling companion on my three hours’ diligence journey from the station to my friend’s house, a man who talked to me about her all the time.
He was a young magistrate whom I had already met, and who had much interested me by his wit and his close manner of observing things, and by his singularly refined casuistry, and, above all, by the contrast between his professional severity, and his tolerant philosophy.
But he never appeared so attractive to me as he did on that day, when he told me the history of that mysterious Babette.
He had inquired into it, and had applied all his faculties as an examining magistrate to it, for, like me, his visit to the asylum had roused his curiosity. This is what he had learned and what he told me.
When she was ten years old, Babette had been violated by her own father, and at thirteen she had been sent to the house of correction for vagabondage and debauchery. From the time she was twenty until she was forty she had been a servant in the neighborhood, frequently changing her situation, and being nearly everywhere her employer’s mistress, and she had ruined several families without getting any money herself, or without gaining any definite position. A shopkeeper had committed suicide on her account, and a respectable young fellow had turned thief and incendiary, and had finished at the hulks.
She had been married twice, and had twice been left a widow, and for ten years, until she was fifty, she had been the only commodity in the district, for pleasure, to which five villages came to amuse themselves on holidays.
“She was very pretty, I suppose?”
“No; she never was that. It seems she was short, thin, with no bust or hips, at her best, I am told, and nobody can remember that she was pretty, even when she was young.”
“Then how can you explain . . .?”
“How?” the magistrate exclaimed. “Well! what about the eyes? You could not have looked at them?”
“Yes, yes, you are right,” I replied. “Those eyes explain many things, certainly. They are the eyes of an innocent child.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed again, enthusiastically, “Cleopatra, Diana of Poiters, Ninon de L’Enclos, all the queens of love who were adored when they were growing old, must have had eyes like hers. A woman who has such eyes can never grow old. But if Babette lives to be a hundred, she will always be loved as she has been, and as she is.”
“As she is! Bah! By whom, pray?”
“By all the old men in the asylum, by all those who have preserved a fiber that can be touched, a corner of their heart that can be inflamed, or the least spark of desire left.”
“Do you think so?”
“I am sure of it. And the superintendent loves her more than any of them do.”
“I would stake my head on it.”
“Well, after all, it is possible, and even probable; it is even certain. I now remember . . . ”
And again I saw the insulting, ferocious, familiar look which she had given the superintendent.
“And who is la Friezê?” I asked the magistrate “I suppose you know that also?”
“He is a retired butcher, who had both his legs frozen in the war of 1870, and whom she is very fond of. No doubt he is a cripple, with two wooden legs, but still a vigorous man enough, in spite of his fifty-three years. The loins of a Hercules and the face of a satyr. The superintendent is quite jealous of him!”
I thought the matter over again, and it seemed very probable to me. “Does she love la Friezê?”
“Yes; he is the chosen lover.”
When we arrived at the host’s house a short time afterwards, we were surprised to find everybody in a terrible state of excitement. A crime had been committed in the asylum; the gendarmes were there and our host was with them, so we instantly joined them. La Friezê had murdered the superintendent, and they gave us the details, which were horrible. The former butcher had hidden behind a door, and catching hold of the other, had rolled onto the ground with him and bitten him in the throat, tearing out his carotid, from which the blood spurted into the murderer’s face.
I saw him, la Friezê. His fat face, which had been badly washed, was still blood-stained; he had a low forehead, square jaws, pointed ears, sticking out from his head, and flat nostrils, like the muzzle of some wild animal; but above all, I saw Babette.
She was smiling, and at that moment, her eyes had not their monkey-like and ferocious expression, but they were pleading and tender, with all of their sweetest childlike candor.
“You know,” my host said to me in a low voice, “that the poor woman has fallen into senile imbecility, and that is the cause of her looks, which are so strange, considering the terrible sight she has seen.
“Do you think so?” the magistrate said. “You must remember that she is not yet sixty, and I do not think that it is a case of senile imbecility, but that she is quite conscious of the crime that has been committed.”
“Then why should she smile?”
“Because she is pleased at what she has done.”
“Oh! no; you are really too subtle!”
The magistrate suddenly turned to Babette, and, looking at her steadily, he said:
“I suppose you know what has happened, and why this crime was committed?”
She left off smiling, and her pretty, childlike eyes became her abominable monkey’s eyes again, and then the answer was, suddenly to pull up her petticoats and to show us the lower part of her person. Yes, the magistrate had been quite right. That old woman had been a Cleopatra, a Diana, a Ninon de L’Enclos, and the rest of her body had remained like a child’s, even more than her eyes. We were thunderstruck at the sight.
“Pigs! Pigs!” la Friezê shouted to us. “You also wanted to have something to do with her!”
And I saw that actually the magistrate’s face was pale and contracted, and that his hands and lips trembled like those of a man caught in the act of doing wrong.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53