THE Doctor’s house has not yet received the compliment of a description, and it is now high time that the omission were supplied, for the house is itself an actor in the story, and one whose part is nearly at an end. Two stories in height, walls of a warm yellow, tiles of an ancient ruddy brown diversified with moss and lichen, it stood with one wall to the street in the angle of the Doctor’s property. It was roomy, draughty, and inconvenient. The large rafters were here and there engraven with rude marks and patterns; the handrail of the stair was carved in countrified arabesque; a stout timber pillar, which did duty to support the dining-room roof, bore mysterious characters on its darker side, runes, according to the Doctor; nor did he fail, when he ran over the legendary history of the house and its possessors, to dwell upon the Scandinavian scholar who had left them. Floors, doors, and rafters made a great variety of angles; every room had a particular inclination; the gable had tilted towards the garden, after the manner of a leaning tower, and one of the former proprietors had buttressed the building from that side with a great strut of wood, like the derrick of a crane. Altogether, it had many marks of ruin; it was a house for the rats to desert; and nothing but its excellent brightness — the window-glass polished and shining, the paint well scoured, the brasses radiant, the very prop all wreathed about with climbing flowers — nothing but its air of a well-tended, smiling veteran, sitting, crutch and all, in the sunny corner of a garden, marked it as a house for comfortable people to inhabit. In poor or idle management it would soon have hurried into the blackguard stages of decay. As it was, the whole family loved it, and the Doctor was never better inspired than when he narrated its imaginary story and drew the character of its successive masters, from the Hebrew merchant who had re-edified its walls after the sack of the town, and past the mysterious engraver of the runes, down to the long-headed, dirty-handed boor from whom he had himself acquired it at a ruinous expense. As for any alarm about its security, the idea had never presented itself. What had stood four centuries might well endure a little longer.
Indeed, in this particular winter, after the finding and losing of the treasure, the Desprez’ had an anxiety of a very different order, and one which lay nearer their hearts. Jean-Marie was plainly not himself. He had fits of hectic activity, when he made unusual exertions to please, spoke more and faster, and redoubled in attention to his lessons. But these were interrupted by spells of melancholia and brooding silence, when the boy was little better than unbearable.
‘Silence,’ the Doctor moralised — ‘you see, Anastasie, what comes of silence. Had the boy properly unbosomed himself, the little disappointment about the treasure, the little annoyance about Casimir’s incivility, would long ago have been forgotten. As it is, they prey upon him like a disease. He loses flesh, his appetite is variable and, on the whole, impaired. I keep him on the strictest regimen, I exhibit the most powerful tonics; both in vain.’
‘Don’t you think you drug him too much?’ asked madame, with an irrepressible shudder.
‘Drug?’ cried the Doctor; ‘I drug? Anastasie, you are mad!’
Time went on, and the boy’s health still slowly declined. The Doctor blamed the weather, which was cold and boisterous. He called in his CONFRERE from Bourron, took a fancy for him, magnified his capacity, and was pretty soon under treatment himself — it scarcely appeared for what complaint. He and Jean-Marie had each medicine to take at different periods of the day. The Doctor used to lie in wait for the exact moment, watch in hand. ‘There is nothing like regularity,’ he would say, fill out the doses, and dilate on the virtues of the draught; and if the boy seemed none the better, the Doctor was not at all the worse.
Gunpowder Day, the boy was particularly low. It was scowling, squally weather. Huge broken companies of cloud sailed swiftly overhead; raking gleams of sunlight swept the village, and were followed by intervals of darkness and white, flying rain. At times the wind lifted up its voice and bellowed. The trees were all scourging themselves along the meadows, the last leaves flying like dust.
The Doctor, between the boy and the weather, was in his element; he had a theory to prove. He sat with his watch out and a barometer in front of him, waiting for the squalls and noting their effect upon the human pulse. ‘For the true philosopher,’ he remarked delightedly, ‘every fact in nature is a toy.’ A letter came to him; but, as its arrival coincided with the approach of another gust, he merely crammed it into his pocket, gave the time to Jean-Marie, and the next moment they were both counting their pulses as if for a wager.
At nightfall the wind rose into a tempest. It besieged the hamlet, apparently from every side, as if with batteries of cannon; the houses shook and groaned; live coals were blown upon the floor. The uproar and terror of the night kept people long awake, sitting with pallid faces giving ear.
It was twelve before the Desprez family retired. By half-past one, when the storm was already somewhat past its height, the Doctor was awakened from a troubled slumber, and sat up. A noise still rang in his ears, but whether of this world or the world of dreams he was not certain. Another clap of wind followed. It was accompanied by a sickening movement of the whole house, and in the subsequent lull Desprez could hear the tiles pouring like a cataract into the loft above his head. He plucked Anastasie bodily out of bed.
‘Run!’ he cried, thrusting some wearing apparel into her hands; ‘the house is falling! To the garden!’
She did not pause to be twice bidden; she was down the stair in an instant. She had never before suspected herself of such activity. The Doctor meanwhile, with the speed of a piece of pantomime business, and undeterred by broken shins, proceeded to rout out Jean-Marie, tore Aline from her virgin slumbers, seized her by the hand, and tumbled downstairs and into the garden, with the girl tumbling behind him, still not half awake.
The fugitives rendezvous’d in the arbour by some common instinct. Then came a bull’s-eye flash of struggling moonshine, which disclosed their four figures standing huddled from the wind in a raffle of flying drapery, and not without a considerable need for more. At the humiliating spectacle Anastasie clutched her nightdress desperately about her and burst loudly into tears. The Doctor flew to console her; but she elbowed him away. She suspected everybody of being the general public, and thought the darkness was alive with eyes.
Another gleam and another violent gust arrived together; the house was seen to rock on its foundation, and, just as the light was once more eclipsed, a crash which triumphed over the shouting of the wind announced its fall, and for a moment the whole garden was alive with skipping tiles and brickbats. One such missile grazed the Doctor’s ear; another descended on the bare foot of Aline, who instantly made night hideous with her shrieks.
By this time the hamlet was alarmed, lights flashed from the windows, hails reached the party, and the Doctor answered, nobly contending against Aline and the tempest. But this prospect of help only awakened Anastasie to a more active stage of terror.
‘Henri, people will be coming,’ she screamed in her husband’s ear.
‘I trust so,’ he replied.
‘They cannot. I would rather die,’ she wailed.
‘My dear,’ said the Doctor reprovingly, ‘you are excited. I gave you some clothes. What have you done with them?’
‘Oh, I don’t know — I must have thrown them away! Where are they?’ she sobbed.
Desprez groped about in the darkness. ‘Admirable!’ he remarked; ‘my grey velveteen trousers! This will exactly meet your necessities.’
‘Give them to me!’ she cried fiercely; but as soon as she had them in her hands her mood appeared to alter — she stood silent for a moment, and then pressed the garment back upon the Doctor. ‘Give it to Aline,’ she said — ‘poor girl.’
‘Nonsense!’ said the Doctor. ‘Aline does not know what she is about. Aline is beside herself with terror; and at any rate, she is a peasant. Now I am really concerned at this exposure for a person of your housekeeping habits; my solicitude and your fantastic modesty both point to the same remedy — the pantaloons.’ He held them ready.
‘It is impossible. You do not understand,’ she said with dignity.
By this time rescue was at hand. It had been found impracticable to enter by the street, for the gate was blocked with masonry, and the nodding ruin still threatened further avalanches. But between the Doctor’s garden and the one on the right hand there was that very picturesque contrivance — a common well; the door on the Desprez’ side had chanced to be unbolted, and now, through the arched aperture a man’s bearded face and an arm supporting a lantern were introduced into the world of windy darkness, where Anastasie concealed her woes. The light struck here and there among the tossing apple boughs, it glinted on the grass; but the lantern and the glowing face became the centre of the world. Anastasie crouched back from the intrusion.
‘This way!’ shouted the man. ‘Are you all safe?’ Aline, still screaming, ran to the new comer, and was presently hauled head-foremost through the wall.
‘Now, Anastasie, come on; it is your turn,’ said the husband.
‘I cannot,’ she replied.
‘Are we all to die of exposure, madame?’ thundered Doctor Desprez.
‘You can go!’ she cried. ‘Oh, go, go away! I can stay here; I am quite warm.’
The Doctor took her by the shoulders with an oath.
‘Stop!’ she screamed. ‘I will put them on.’
She took the detested lendings in her hand once more; but her repulsion was stronger than shame. ‘Never!’ she cried, shuddering, and flung them far away into the night.
Next moment the Doctor had whirled her to the well. The man was there and the lantern; Anastasie closed her eyes and appeared to herself to be about to die. How she was transported through the arch she knew not; but once on the other side she was received by the neighbour’s wife, and enveloped in a friendly blanket.
Beds were made ready for the two women, clothes of very various sizes for the Doctor and Jean-Marie; and for the remainder of the night, while madame dozed in and out on the borderland of hysterics, her husband sat beside the fire and held forth to the admiring neighbours. He showed them, at length, the causes of the accident; for years, he explained, the fall had been impending; one sign had followed another, the joints had opened, the plaster had cracked, the old walls bowed inward; last, not three weeks ago, the cellar door had begun to work with difficulty in its grooves. ‘The cellar!’ he said, gravely shaking his head over a glass of mulled wine. ‘That reminds me of my poor vintages. By a manifest providence the Hermitage was nearly at an end. One bottle — I lose but one bottle of that incomparable wine. It had been set apart against Jean-Marie’s wedding. Well, I must lay down some more; it will be an interest in life. I am, however, a man somewhat advanced in years. My great work is now buried in the fall of my humble roof; it will never be completed — my name will have been writ in water. And yet you find me calm — I would say cheerful. Can your priest do more?’
By the first glimpse of day the party sallied forth from the fireside into the street. The wind had fallen, but still charioted a world of troubled clouds; the air bit like frost; and the party, as they stood about the ruins in the rainy twilight of the morning, beat upon their breasts and blew into their hands for warmth. The house had entirely fallen, the walls outward, the roof in; it was a mere heap of rubbish, with here and there a forlorn spear of broken rafter. A sentinel was placed over the ruins to protect the property, and the party adjourned to Tentaillon’s to break their fast at the Doctor’s expense. The bottle circulated somewhat freely; and before they left the table it had begun to snow.
For three days the snow continued to fall, and the ruins, covered with tarpaulin and watched by sentries, were left undisturbed. The Desprez’ meanwhile had taken up their abode at Tentaillon’s. Madame spent her time in the kitchen, concocting little delicacies, with the admiring aid of Madame Tentaillon, or sitting by the fire in thoughtful abstraction. The fall of the house affected her wonderfully little; that blow had been parried by another; and in her mind she was continually fighting over again the battle of the trousers. Had she done right? Had she done wrong? And now she would applaud her determination; and anon, with a horrid flush of unavailing penitence, she would regret the trousers. No juncture in her life had so much exercised her judgment. In the meantime the Doctor had become vastly pleased with his situation. Two of the summer boarders still lingered behind the rest, prisoners for lack of a remittance; they were both English, but one of them spoke French pretty fluently, and was, besides, a humorous, agile-minded fellow, with whom the Doctor could reason by the hour, secure of comprehension. Many were the glasses they emptied, many the topics they discussed.
‘Anastasie,’ the Doctor said on the third morning, ‘take an example from your husband, from Jean-Marie! The excitement has done more for the boy than all my tonics, he takes his turn as sentry with positive gusto. As for me, you behold me. I have made friends with the Egyptians; and my Pharaoh is, I swear it, a most agreeable companion. You alone are hipped. About a house — a few dresses? What are they in comparison to the “Pharmacopoeia” — the labour of years lying buried below stones and sticks in this depressing hamlet? The snow falls; I shake it from my cloak! Imitate me. Our income will be impaired, I grant it, since we must rebuild; but moderation, patience, and philosophy will gather about the hearth. In the meanwhile, the Tentaillons are obliging; the table, with your additions, will pass; only the wine is execrable — well, I shall send for some to-day. My Pharaoh will be gratified to drink a decent glass; aha! and I shall see if he possesses that acme of organisation — a palate. If he has a palate, he is perfect.’
‘Henri,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘you are a man; you cannot understand my feelings; no woman could shake off the memory of so public a humiliation.’ The Doctor could not restrain a titter. ‘Pardon me, darling,’ he said; ‘but really, to the philosophical intelligence, the incident appears so small a trifle. You looked extremely well — ’
‘Henri!’ she cried.
‘Well, well, I will say no more,’ he replied. ‘Though, to be sure, if you had consented to indue — A PROPOS,’ he broke off, ‘and my trousers! They are lying in the snow — my favourite trousers!’ And he dashed in quest of Jean-Marie.
Two hours afterwards the boy returned to the inn with a spade under one arm and a curious sop of clothing under the other.
The Doctor ruefully took it in his hands. ‘They have been!’ he said. ‘Their tense is past. Excellent pantaloons, you are no more! Stay, something in the pocket,’ and he produced a piece of paper. ‘A letter! ay, now I mind me; it was received on the morning of the gale, when I was absorbed in delicate investigations. It is still legible. From poor, dear Casimir! It is as well,’ he chuckled, ‘that I have educated him to patience. Poor Casimir and his correspondence — his infinitesimal, timorous, idiotic correspondence!’
He had by this time cautiously unfolded the wet letter; but, as he bent himself to decipher the writing, a cloud descended on his brow.
‘BIGRE!’ he cried, with a galvanic start.
And then the letter was whipped into the fire, and the Doctor’s cap was on his head in the turn of a hand.
‘Ten minutes! I can catch it, if I run,’ he cried. ‘It is always late. I go to Paris. I shall telegraph.’
‘Henri! what is wrong?’ cried his wife.
‘Ottoman Bonds!’ came from the disappearing Doctor; and Anastasie and Jean-Marie were left face to face with the wet trousers. Desprez had gone to Paris, for the second time in seven years; he had gone to Paris with a pair of wooden shoes, a knitted spencer, a black blouse, a country nightcap, and twenty francs in his pocket. The fall of the house was but a secondary marvel; the whole world might have fallen and scarce left his family more petrified.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00