DOCTOR DESPREZ always rose early. Before the smoke arose, before the first cart rattled over the bridge to the day’s labour in the fields, he was to be found wandering in his garden. Now he would pick a bunch of grapes; now he would eat a big pear under the trellice; now he would draw all sorts of fancies on the path with the end of his cane; now he would go down and watch the river running endlessly past the timber landing-place at which he moored his boat. There was no time, he used to say, for making theories like the early morning. ‘I rise earlier than any one else in the village,’ he once boasted. ‘It is a fair consequence that I know more and wish to do less with my knowledge.’
The Doctor was a connoisseur of sunrises, and loved a good theatrical effect to usher in the day. He had a theory of dew, by which he could predict the weather. Indeed, most things served him to that end: the sound of the bells from all the neighbouring villages, the smell of the forest, the visits and the behaviour of both birds and fishes, the look of the plants in his garden, the disposition of cloud, the colour of the light, and last, although not least, the arsenal of meteorological instruments in a louvre-boarded hutch upon the lawn. Ever since he had settled at Gretz, he had been growing more and more into the local meteorologist, the unpaid champion of the local climate. He thought at first there was no place so healthful in the arrondissement. By the end of the second year, he protested there was none so wholesome in the whole department. And for some time before he met Jean-Marie he had been prepared to challenge all France and the better part of Europe for a rival to his chosen spot.
‘Doctor,’ he would say — ‘doctor is a foul word. It should not be used to ladies. It implies disease. I remark it, as a flaw in our civilisation, that we have not the proper horror of disease. Now I, for my part, have washed my hands of it; I have renounced my laureation; I am no doctor; I am only a worshipper of the true goddess Hygieia. Ah, believe me, it is she who has the cestus! And here, in this exiguous hamlet, has she placed her shrine: here she dwells and lavishes her gifts; here I walk with her in the early morning, and she shows me how strong she has made the peasants, how fruitful she has made the fields, how the trees grow up tall and comely under her eyes, and the fishes in the river become clean and agile at her presence. — Rheumatism!’ he would cry, on some malapert interruption, ‘O, yes, I believe we do have a little rheumatism. That could hardly be avoided, you know, on a river. And of course the place stands a little low; and the meadows are marshy, there’s no doubt. But, my dear sir, look at Bourron! Bourron stands high. Bourron is close to the forest; plenty of ozone there, you would say. Well, compared with Gretz, Bourron is a perfect shambles.’
The morning after he had been summoned to the dying mountebank, the Doctor visited the wharf at the tail of his garden, and had a long look at the running water. This he called prayer; but whether his adorations were addressed to the goddess Hygieia or some more orthodox deity, never plainly appeared. For he had uttered doubtful oracles, sometimes declaring that a river was the type of bodily health, sometimes extolling it as the great moral preacher, continually preaching peace, continuity, and diligence to man’s tormented spirits. After he had watched a mile or so of the clear water running by before his eyes, seen a fish or two come to the surface with a gleam of silver, and sufficiently admired the long shadows of the trees falling half across the river from the opposite bank, with patches of moving sunlight in between, he strolled once more up the garden and through his house into the street, feeling cool and renovated.
The sound of his feet upon the causeway began the business of the day; for the village was still sound asleep. The church tower looked very airy in the sunlight; a few birds that turned about it, seemed to swim in an atmosphere of more than usual rarity; and the Doctor, walking in long transparent shadows, filled his lungs amply, and proclaimed himself well contented with the morning.
On one of the posts before Tentaillon’s carriage entry he espied a little dark figure perched in a meditative attitude, and immediately recognised Jean-Marie.
‘Aha!’ he said, stopping before him humorously, with a hand on either knee. ‘So we rise early in the morning, do we? It appears to me that we have all the vices of a philosopher.’
The boy got to his feet and made a grave salutation.
‘And how is our patient?’ asked Desprez.
It appeared the patient was about the same.
‘And why do you rise early in the morning?’ he pursued.
Jean-Marie, after a long silence, professed that he hardly knew.
‘You hardly know?’ repeated Desprez. ‘We hardly know anything, my man, until we try to learn. Interrogate your consciousness. Come, push me this inquiry home. Do you like it?’
‘Yes,’ said the boy slowly; ‘yes, I like it.’
‘And why do you like it?’ continued the Doctor. ‘(We are now pursuing the Socratic method.) Why do you like it?’
‘It is quiet,’ answered Jean-Marie; ‘and I have nothing to do; and then I feel as if I were good.’
Doctor Desprez took a seat on the post at the opposite side. He was beginning to take an interest in the talk, for the boy plainly thought before he spoke, and tried to answer truly. ‘It appears you have a taste for feeling good,’ said the Doctor. ‘Now, there you puzzle me extremely; for I thought you said you were a thief; and the two are incompatible.’
‘Is it very bad to steal?’ asked Jean-Marie.
‘Such is the general opinion, little boy,’ replied the Doctor.
‘No; but I mean as I stole,’ explained the other. ‘For I had no choice. I think it is surely right to have bread; it must be right to have bread, there comes so plain a want of it. And then they beat me cruelly if I returned with nothing,’ he added. ‘I was not ignorant of right and wrong; for before that I had been well taught by a priest, who was very kind to me.’ (The Doctor made a horrible grimace at the word ‘priest.’) ‘But it seemed to me, when one had nothing to eat and was beaten, it was a different affair. I would not have stolen for tartlets, I believe; but any one would steal for baker’s bread.’
‘And so I suppose,’ said the Doctor, with a rising sneer, ‘you prayed God to forgive you, and explained the case to Him at length.’
‘Why, sir?’ asked Jean-Marie. ‘I do not see.’
‘Your priest would see, however,’ retorted Desprez.
‘Would he?’ asked the boy, troubled for the first time. ‘I should have thought God would have known.’
‘Eh?’ snarled the Doctor.
‘I should have thought God would have understood me,’ replied the other. ‘You do not, I see; but then it was God that made me think so, was it not?’
‘Little boy, little boy,’ said Dr. Desprez, ‘I told you already you had the vices of philosophy; if you display the virtues also, I must go. I am a student of the blessed laws of health, an observer of plain and temperate nature in her common walks; and I cannot preserve my equanimity in presence of a monster. Do you understand?’
‘No, sir,’ said the boy.
‘I will make my meaning clear to you,’ replied the doctor. ‘Look there at the sky — behind the belfry first, where it is so light, and then up and up, turning your chin back, right to the top of the dome, where it is already as blue as at noon. Is not that a beautiful colour? Does it not please the heart? We have seen it all our lives, until it has grown in with our familiar thoughts. Now,’ changing his tone, ‘suppose that sky to become suddenly of a live and fiery amber, like the colour of clear coals, and growing scarlet towards the top — I do not say it would be any the less beautiful; but would you like it as well?’
‘I suppose not,’ answered Jean-Marie.
‘Neither do I like you,’ returned the Doctor, roughly. ‘I hate all odd people, and you are the most curious little boy in all the world.’
Jean-Marie seemed to ponder for a while, and then he raised his head again and looked over at the Doctor with an air of candid inquiry. ‘But are not you a very curious gentleman?’ he asked.
The Doctor threw away his stick, bounded on the boy, clasped him to his bosom, and kissed him on both cheeks. ‘Admirable, admirable imp!’ he cried. ‘What a morning, what an hour for a theorist of forty-two! No,’ he continued, apostrophising heaven, ‘I did not know such boys existed; I was ignorant they made them so; I had doubted of my race; and now! It is like,’ he added, picking up his stick, ‘like a lovers’ meeting. I have bruised my favourite staff in that moment of enthusiasm. The injury, however, is not grave.’ He caught the boy looking at him in obvious wonder, embarrassment, and alarm. ‘Hullo!’ said he, ‘why do you look at me like that? Egad, I believe the boy despises me. Do you despise me, boy?’
‘O, no,’ replied Jean-Marie, seriously; ‘only I do not understand.’
‘You must excuse me, sir,’ returned the Doctor, with gravity; ‘I am still so young. O, hang him!’ he added to himself. And he took his seat again and observed the boy sardonically. ‘He has spoiled the quiet of my morning,’ thought he. ‘I shall be nervous all day, and have a febricule when I digest. Let me compose myself.’ And so he dismissed his pre-occupations by an effort of the will which he had long practised, and let his soul roam abroad in the contemplation of the morning. He inhaled the air, tasting it critically as a connoisseur tastes a vintage, and prolonging the expiration with hygienic gusto. He counted the little flecks of cloud along the sky. He followed the movements of the birds round the church tower — making long sweeps, hanging poised, or turning airy somersaults in fancy, and beating the wind with imaginary pinions. And in this way he regained peace of mind and animal composure, conscious of his limbs, conscious of the sight of his eyes, conscious that the air had a cool taste, like a fruit, at the top of his throat; and at last, in complete abstraction, he began to sing. The Doctor had but one air — ‘Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre;’ even with that he was on terms of mere politeness; and his musical exploits were always reserved for moments when he was alone and entirely happy.
He was recalled to earth rudely by a pained expression on the boy’s face. ‘What do you think of my singing?’ he inquired, stopping in the middle of a note; and then, after he had waited some little while and received no answer, ‘What do you think of my singing?’ he repeated, imperiously.
‘I do not like it,’ faltered Jean-Marie.
‘Oh, come!’ cried the Doctor. ‘Possibly you are a performer yourself?’
‘I sing better than that,’ replied the boy.
The Doctor eyed him for some seconds in stupefaction. He was aware that he was angry, and blushed for himself in consequence, which made him angrier. ‘If this is how you address your master!’ he said at last, with a shrug and a flourish of his arms.
‘I do not speak to him at all,’ returned the boy. ‘I do not like him.’
‘Then you like me?’ snapped Doctor Desprez, with unusual eagerness.
‘I do not know,’ answered Jean-Marie.
The Doctor rose. ‘I shall wish you a good morning,’ he said. ‘You are too much for me. Perhaps you have blood in your veins, perhaps celestial ichor, or perhaps you circulate nothing more gross than respirable air; but of one thing I am inexpugnably assured:— that you are no human being. No, boy’ — shaking his stick at him — ‘you are not a human being. Write, write it in your memory — “I am not a human being — I have no pretension to be a human being — I am a dive, a dream, an angel, an acrostic, an illusion — what you please, but not a human being.” And so accept my humble salutations and farewell!’
And with that the Doctor made off along the street in some emotion, and the boy stood, mentally gaping, where he left him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00