They had given him a grand public funeral, like they do victorious soldiers who have added some dazzling pages to the glorious annals of their country, who have restored courage to desponding heads and cast over other nations the proud shadow of their country’s flag, like a yoke under which those went who were no longer to have a country, or liberty.
During a whole bright and calm night, when falling stars made people think of unknown metamorphoses and the transmigration of souls, who knows whether tall cavalry soldiers in their cuirasses and sitting as motionless as statues on their horses, had watched by the dead man’s coffin, which was resting, covered with wreaths, under the porch of the heroes, every stone of which is engraved with the name of a brave man, and of a battle.
The whole town was in mourning, as if it had lost the only object that had possession of its heart, and which it loved. The crowd went silently and thoughtfully down the avenue of the Champs Elysées, and they almost fought for the commemorative medals and the common portraits which hawkers were selling, or climbed upon the stands which street boys had erected here and there, and whence they could see over the heads of the crowd. The Place de la Concorde had something solemn about it, with its circle of statues hung from head to foot with long crape coverings, which looked in the distance like widows, weeping and praying.
According to his last wish, Jean Ramel had been conveyed to the Pantheon in the wretched paupers’ hearse, which conveys them to the common grave at the shambling trot of some thin and broken-winded horse.
That dreadful, black conveyance without any drapery, without plumes and without flowers, which was followed by Ministers and deputies, by several regiments with their bands, and their flags flying above the helmets and the sabers, by children from the national schools, by delegates from the provinces, and an innumerable crowd of men in blouses, of women, of shop-keepers from every quarter, had a most theatrical effect, and while standing on the steps of the Pantheon, at the foot of the massive columns of the portico, the orators successively discanted on his apotheosis, tried to make their voices predominate over the noise, emphasized their pompous periods, and finished the performance by a poor third act, which makes people yawn and gradually empties the theater, people remembered who that man had been, on whom such posthumous honors were being bestowed, and who was having such a funeral: it was Jean Ramel.
Those three sonorous syllables called up a lionine head, with white hair thrown back in disorder, like a mane, with features that looked as if they had been cut out with a bill-hook, but which were so powerful, and in which there lay such a flame of life, that one forgot their vulgarity and ugliness; with black eyes under bushy eyebrows, which dilated and flashed like lightning, now were veiled as if in tears and then were filled with serene mildness, with a voice which now growled so as almost to terrify its hearers, and which would have filled the hall of some working men’s club, full of the thick smoke from strong pipes without being affected by it, and then would be soft, coaxing, persuasive and unctuous like that of a priest who is holding out promises of Paradise, or giving absolution for our sins.
He had had the good luck to be persecuted, to be in the eyes of the people, the incarnation of that lying formula which appears on every public edifice, of those three words of the Golden Age, which make those who think, those who suffer and those who govern, smile somewhat sadly, Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. Luck had been kind to him, had sustained, had pushed him on by the shoulders, and had set him up on his pedestal again when he had fallen down, like all idols do.
He spoke and he wrote, and always in order to announce the good news to all the multitudes who suffered — no matter to what grade of society they might belong — to hold out his hand to them and to defend them, to attack the abuses of the Code — that book of injustice and severity — to speak the truth boldly, even when it lashed his enemies as if it had been a whip.
His books were like Gospels, which are read chapter by chapter, and warmed the most despairing and the most sorrowing hearts, and brought comfort, hope and dreams to each.
He had lived very modestly until the end, and appeared to spend nothing; and he only kept one old servant, who spoke to him in the Basque dialect.
That chaste philosopher, who had all his life long feared women’s snares and wiles, who had looked upon love as a luxury made only for the rich and idle, which unsettles the brain and interferes with acuteness of thought, had allowed himself to be caught like an ordinary man, late in life, when his hair was white and his forehead deeply wrinkled.
It was not, however, as happens in the visions of solitary ascetics, some strange queen or female magician, with stars in her eyes and witchery in her voice, some loose woman who held up the symbolical lamp immodestly, to light up her radiant nudity, and the pink and white bouquet of her sweet-smelling skin, some woman in search of voluptuous pleasures, whose lascivious appeals it is impossible for any man to listen to, without being excited to the very depths of his being. Neither a princess out of some fairy tale, nor a frail beauty who was an expert in the art of reviving the ardor of old men, and of leading them astray, nor a woman who was disgusted with her ideals, that always turned out to be alike, and who dreamt of awakening the heart of one of those men who suffer, who have afforded so much alleviation to human misery, who seemed to be surrounded by a halo, and who never knew anything but the true, the beautiful and the good.
It was only a little girl of twenty, who was as pretty as a wild flower, who had a ringing laugh, white teeth, and a mind that was as spotless as a new mirror, in which no figure has been reflected as yet.
He was in exile at the time for having given public expression to what he thought, and he was living in an Italian village which was buried in chestnut trees and situated on the shores of a lake that was narrow and so transparent that it might have been taken for some nobleman’s fish pond that was like an emerald in a large park. The village consisted of about twenty red-tiled houses. Several paths paved with flint led up the side of the hill among the vines where the Madonna, full of grace and goodness extended her indulgence.
For the first time in his life Ramel remarked that there were some lips that were more desirable, more smiling than others, that there was hair in which it must be delicious to bury the fingers like in fine silk, and which it must be delightful to kiss, and that there were eyes which contained an infinitude of caresses, and he had spelled right through the eclogue, which at length revealed true happiness to him, and he had had a child, a son, by her.
This was the only secret that Ramel jealously concealed, and which no more than two or three of his oldest friends knew anything about, and while he hesitated about spending twopence on himself, and went to the Institute and to the Chamber of Deputies outside an omnibus, Pepa led the happy life of a millionaire who is not frightened of the tomorrow, and brought up her son like a little prince, with a tutor and three servants, who had nothing to do but to look after him.
All that Ramel made went into his mistress’s hands, and when he felt that his last hour was approaching, and that there was no hope of his recovery — in full possession of his faculties and joy in his dull eyes — he gave his name to Pepa, and made her his lawful widow, in the presence of all his friends. She inherited everything that her former lover left behind, a considerable income from his share of the annual profits on his books, and also his pension, which the State continued to pay to her.
Little Ramel throve wonderfully amidst all this luxury, and gave free scope to his instincts and his caprices, without his mother ever having the courage to reprove him in the least, and he did not bear the slightest resemblance to Jean Ramel.
Full of pranks, effeminate, a superfine dandy, and precociously vicious, he suggested the idea of those pages at the Court of Florence, whom we frequently meet with in The Decameron, and who were the playthings for the idle hands and tips of the patrician ladies.
He was very ignorant and lived at a great rate, bet on races, and played cards for heavy stakes with seasoned gamblers, old enough to be his father. And it was distressing to hear this lad joke about the memory of him whom he called the old man, and persecute his mother because of the worship and adoration which she felt for Jean Ramel, whom she spoke of as if he had become a demigod when he died, like in Roman theogony.
He would have liked altogether to have altered the arrangement of that kind of sanctuary, the drawing-room, where Pepa kept some of her husband’s manuscripts, the furniture that he had most frequently used, the bed on which he had died, his pens, his clothes and his weapons. And one evening, not knowing how to dress himself up more originally than the rest for a masked ball that stout Toinette Danicheff was going to give as her house-warming, without saying a word to his mother, he took down the Academician’s dress, the sword and cocked hat that had belonged to Jean Ramel, and put it on as if it had been a disguise on Shrove Tuesday.
Slightly built and with thin arms and legs, the wide clothes hung on him, and he was a comical sight with the embroidered skirt of his coat sweeping the carpet, and his sword knocking against his heels. The elbows and the collar were shiny and greasy from wear, for the Master had worn it until it was threadbare, to avoid having to buy another, and had never thought of replacing it.
He made a tremendous hit, and fair Liline Ablette laughed so at his grimaces and his disguise, that that night she threw over Prince Noureddin for him, although he had paid for her house, her horses and everything else, and allowed her six thousand francs a month — £240 — for extras and pocket money.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11