They had sent for the doctor from Bourron before six. About eight some villagers came round for the performance, and were told how matters stood. It seemed a liberty for a mountebank to fall ill like real people, and they made off again in dudgeon. By ten Madame Tentaillon was gravely alarmed, and had sent down the street for Doctor Desprez.
The Doctor was at work over his manuscripts in one corner of the little dining-room, and his wife was asleep over the fire in another, when the messenger arrived.
‘Sapristi!’ said the Doctor, ‘you should have sent for me before. It was a case for hurry.’ And he followed the messenger as he was, in his slippers and skull-cap.
The inn was not thirty yards away, but the messenger did not stop there; he went in at one door and out by another into the court, and then led the way by a flight of steps beside the stable, to the loft where the mountebank lay sick. If Doctor Desprez were to live a thousand years, he would never forget his arrival in that room; for not only was the scene picturesque, but the moment made a date in his existence. We reckon our lives, I hardly know why, from the date of our first sorry appearance in society, as if from a first humiliation; for no actor can come upon the stage with a worse grace. Not to go further back, which would be judged too curious, there are subsequently many moving and decisive accidents in the lives of all, which would make as logical a period as this of birth. And here, for instance, Doctor Desprez, a man past forty, who had made what is called a failure in life, and was moreover married, found himself at a new point of departure when he opened the door of the loft above Tentaillon’s stable,
It was a large place, lighted only by a single candle set upon the floor. The mountebank lay on his back upon a pallet; a large man, with a Quixotic nose inflamed with drinking. Madame Tentaillon stooped over him, applying a hot water and mustard embrocation to his feet; and on a chair close by sat a little fellow of eleven or twelve, with his feet dangling. These three were the only occupants, except the shadows. But the shadows were a company in themselves; the extent of the room exaggerated them to a gigantic size, and from the low position of the candle the light struck upwards and produced deformed foreshortenings. The mountebank’s profile was enlarged upon the wall in caricature, and it was strange to see his nose shorten and lengthen as the flame was blown about by draughts. As for Madame Tentaillon, her shadow was no more than a gross hump of shoulders, with now and again a hemisphere of head. The chair legs were spindled out as long as stilts, and the boy set perched atop of them, like a cloud, in the corner of the roof.
It was the boy who took the Doctor’s fancy. He had a great arched skull, the forehead and the hands of a musician, and a pair of haunting eyes. It was not merely that these eyes were large, or steady, or the softest ruddy brown. There was a look in them, besides, which thrilled the Doctor, and made him half uneasy. He was sure he had seen such a look before, and yet he could not remember how or where. It was as if this boy, who was quite a stranger to him, had the eyes of an old friend or an old enemy. And the boy would give him no peace; he seemed profoundly indifferent to what was going on, or rather abstracted from it in a superior contemplation, beating gently with his feet against the bars of the chair, and holding his hands folded on his lap. But, for all that, his eyes kept following the Doctor about the room with a thoughtful fixity of gaze. Desprez could not tell whether he was fascinating the boy, or the boy was fascinating him. He busied himself over the sick man: he put questions, he felt the pulse, he jested, he grew a little hot and swore: and still, whenever he looked round, there were the brown eyes waiting for his with the same inquiring, melancholy gaze.
At last the Doctor hit on the solution at a leap. He remembered the look now. The little fellow, although he was as straight as a dart, had the eyes that go usually with a crooked back; he was not at all deformed, and yet a deformed person seemed to be looking at you from below his brows. The Doctor drew a long breath, he was so much relieved to find a theory (for he loved theories) and to explain away his interest.
For all that, he despatched the invalid with unusual haste, and, still kneeling with one knee on the floor, turned a little round and looked the boy over at his leisure. The boy was not in the least put out, but looked placidly back at the Doctor.
‘Is this your father?’ asked Desprez.
‘Oh, no,’ returned the boy; ‘my master.’
‘Are you fond of him?’ continued the Doctor.
‘No, sir,’ said the boy.
Madame Tentaillon and Desprez exchanged expressive glances.
‘That is bad, my man,’ resumed the latter, with a shade of sternness. ‘Every one should be fond of the dying, or conceal their sentiments; and your master here is dying. If I have watched a bird a little while stealing my cherries, I have a thought of disappointment when he flies away over my garden wall, and I see him steer for the forest and vanish. How much more a creature such as this, so strong, so astute, so richly endowed with faculties! When I think that, in a few hours, the speech will be silenced, the breath extinct, and even the shadow vanished from the wall, I who never saw him, this lady who knew him only as a guest, are touched with some affection.’
The boy was silent for a little, and appeared to be reflecting.
‘You did not know him,’ he replied at last, ‘he was a bad man.’
‘He is a little pagan,’ said the landlady. ‘For that matter, they are all the same, these mountebanks, tumblers, artists, and what not. They have no interior.’
But the Doctor was still scrutinising the little pagan, his eyebrows knotted and uplifted.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
‘Jean-Marie,’ said the lad.
Desprez leaped upon him with one of his sudden flashes of excitement, and felt his head all over from an ethnological point of view.
‘Celtic, Celtic!’ he said.
‘Celtic!’ cried Madame Tentaillon, who had perhaps confounded the word with hydrocephalous. ‘Poor lad! is it dangerous?’
‘That depends,’ returned the Doctor grimly. And then once more addressing the boy: ‘And what do you do for your living, Jean-Marie?’ he inquired.
‘I tumble,’ was the answer.
‘So! Tumble?’ repeated Desprez. ‘Probably healthful. I hazard the guess, Madame Tentaillon, that tumbling is a healthful way of life. And have you never done anything else but tumble?’
‘Before I learned that, I used to steal,’ answered Jean-Marie gravely.
‘Upon my word!’ cried the doctor. ‘You are a nice little man for your age. Madame, when my CONFRERE comes from Bourron, you will communicate my unfavourable opinion. I leave the case in his hands; but of course, on any alarming symptom, above all if there should be a sign of rally, do not hesitate to knock me up. I am a doctor no longer, I thank God; but I have been one. Good night, madame. Good sleep to you, Jean-Marie.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00