“Upon my word, I laughed at it as much as the rest,” Navarette exclaimed; “I laughed at it with that profound, cruel pitilessness which we all of us, who are well made and vigorous, feel for those whom their step-mother, Nature, has disfigured in some way or other, for those laughable, feeble creatures who are, however, more to be pitied than those poor deformed wretches from whom we turn away in spite of ourselves.
“I had been the first to make fun of him at the club, to find those easy words which are remembered, and to turn that smooth, flabby, pink, ugly face, like that of an old woman, and of a Levantine eunuch in which the mouth is like a piece of inert flesh, and where the small eyes glisten with concentrated cunning, and remind us of the watchful, angry eyes of a gorilla, at the same time, into ridicule. I knew that he was selfish, without any affection, unreliable, full of whims, turning like a weathercock with every wind that blows, and caring for nothing in the world except gambling and old Dresden china.
“However, our intercourse was invariably limited to a careless, ‘Good morning,’ and to the usual shake of the hands which men exchange when they meet at the theater or the club, and so I had neither to defend him, nor to uphold him as a friend. But I can swear to you that now I reproach myself for all these effusive jeers and bitter things, and they weigh on my conscience now that I have been told the other side, the equivocal enigma of that existence.”
“A Punch and Judy secret,” Bob Shelley said, throwing the end of his cigar into the fire.
“Oh! yes; we were a hundred miles from the truth when we merely supposed that he was unfit for service. This unhappy Lantosque, a well-born, clever man, and very rich to boot, might have exhibited himself in some traveling booth, for he was an hermaphrodite; do you understand? an hermaphrodite. And his whole life was one of long, incessant torture, of physical and moral suffering, which was more maddening than that which Tantalus endured on the banks of the river Acheron. He had nearly everything of the woman about him; he was a ridiculous caricature of our sex, with his shrill voice, his large hips, his bust concealed by a loose, wide coat, his cheeks, his chin, and upper lip without a vestige of hair, and he had to appear like a man, to restrain and stifle his instincts, his tastes, desires, and dreams, to fight ceaselessly against himself, and never to allow anything of that which he endured, nor what he longed for, nor that which was sapping his very life, to be discovered.
“Once only he was on the point of betraying himself, in spite of himself. He ardently loved a man, as Chloe must have loved Daphnis. He could not master himself, or calm his feverish passion, and went towards the abyss as if seized by mental giddiness. He could imagine nothing handsomer, more desirable, or more charming than that chance friend. He had sudden transports, fits of surprise, tenderness, curiosity, jealousy, the ardent longings of an old maid who is afraid of dying a virgin, who is waiting for love as for her deliverance, who attaches herself and devotes herself to a lover with her whole being, and who grows emaciated and dries up, and remains misunderstood and despised.
“And as they have both disappeared now, the lover dead from a sword thrust in the middle of the chest, at Milan, on account of some ballet girl, and as he certainly died without knowing that he had inspired such a passion, I may tell you his name.
“He was Count Sebinico, who used to deal at faro with such delicate, white hands, and who wore rings on nearly every finger, who had such a musical voice, and who, with his wavy hair, and his delicate profile, looked like a handsome, Florentine Condottiere.
“It must be very terrible to be thus ashamed of oneself, to have that longing for kisses which console the most wretched in their misery, which satisfy hunger and thirst, and assuage pain; that illusion of delicious, intoxicating kisses, the delight and the balm of which such a person can never know; the horror of that dishonor of being pointed at, made fun of, driven away like unclean creatures that prostitute their sex, and make love vile by unmentionable rites; oh! the constant bitterness of seeing that the person we love makes fun of us, ill-uses us, and does not show us even the slightest friendship!”
“Poor devil!” Jean d’Orthyse said, in a sad and moved voice. “In his place, I should have blown my brains out.”
“Everybody says that, my dear fellow, but how few there are who venture to forestall that intruder, who always come too quickly.”
“Lantosque had splendid health, and declared that he had never put a penny into a doctor’s pocket, and if he had allowed himself to have been looked after when he was confined to his bed two months before, by an attack of influenza, we should still be hearing him propose a game of poker before dinner, in his shrill voice. His death, however, was as tragic and mysterious as all those tales from beyond the grave are, on which the Invisible rests.”
“Although he had a cough, which threatened to tear his chest to pieces, and although he was haunted by the fear of death, of that great depth of darkness in which we lose ourselves in the abyss of Annihilation and Oblivion, he obstinately refused to have his chest sounded, and repulsed Doctor Pertuzés almost furiously, who thought he had gone out of his mind.”
“He cowered down, and covered himself with the bed-clothes up to his chin, and found strength enough to tear up the prescriptions, and to drive everyone, whether friend or relation, who tried to make him listen to reason, and who could not understand his attacks of rage and neurosis from his bedside. He seemed to be possessed by some demon, like those women in hysterical convulsions, whom the bishops used formerly to exorcise writh much pomp. It was painful to see him.”
“That went on for a week, during which time the pneumonia had ample opportunities for ravaging and giving the finishing stroke to his body, which had been so robust and free from ailments hitherto, and he died, trying to utter some last words which nobody understood, and endeavoring to point out one particular article of furniture in the room.”
“His nearest relation was a cousin, the Marquis de Territet, a skeptic, who lived in Burgundy, and whom all this disturbance had upset in his habits, and whose only desire was to get it all over, the legal formalities, the funeral, and all the rest of it, as soon as possible.
“Without reflecting on the strange suggestiveness of that death-bed, and without looking to see whether there might not be, somehow or other, a will in which Lantosque expressed his last wishes, he wanted to spare his corpse the contact of mercenary hands, and to lay him out himself.
“You may judge of his surprise when, on throwing back the bed-clothes, he first of all saw that Lantosque was dressed from head to foot in tights, which accentuated, rather than otherwise, his female form.
“Much alarmed, feeling that he must have been violating some supreme order, and comprehending it all, he went to his cousin’s writing-table, opened it, and successively searched every drawer, and soon found an envelope fastened with five seals, and addressed to him. He broke them and read as follows, written on a sheet of black-edged paper:
“‘This is my only will. I leave all that I possess to my cousin, Roland de Territet, on condition that he will undertake my funeral; that in his own presence, he will have me wrapped up in the sheets of the bed on which I die, and have me put into the coffin so, without any further preparations. I wish to be cremated at Père-Lachaise, and not to be subjected to any examination, or post-mortem, whatever may happen.’”
“And how came the marquis to betray the secret?” Bob Shelley asked.
“The marquis is married to a charming Parisian woman, and was any married man, who loved his wife, ever known to keep a secret from her?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53