The Country Doctor
Honore de Balzac
Part 5 out of 5
if she had dealt sincerely with me she could not and ought not to love
another, or how could her whole life be anything but a lie? she must
be false either to her future husband or to me. Could she refuse to
the lover, who had been so misjudged and hardly entreated, the
devotion which she would have shown him as her husband, if the
marriage which had already taken place in our hearts had been
outwardly solemnized? Was not this to fall from the ideal of womanly
virtue? What woman would not love to feel that the promises of the
heart were more sacred and binding than the chains forged by the law?
I defended my errors; and in my appeal to the purity of innocence, I
left nothing unsaid that could touch a noble and generous nature. But
as I am telling you everything, I will look for her answer and my
farewell letter," said Benassis, and he went up to his room in search
He returned in a few moments with a worn pocketbook; his hands
trembled with emotion as he drew from it some loose sheets.
"Here is the fatal letter," he said. "The girl who wrote those lines
little knew the value that I should set upon the scrap of paper that
holds her thoughts. This is the last cry that pain wrung from me," he
added, taking up a second letter; "I will lay it before you directly.
My old friend was the bearer of my letter of entreaty; he gave it to
her without her parents' knowledge, humbling his white hair to implore
Evelina to read and to reply to my appeal. This was her answer:
" 'Monsieur . . .' But lately I had been her 'beloved,' the innocent
name she had found by which to express her innocent love, and now she
called me MONSIEUR! . . . That one word told me everything. But listen
to the rest of the letter:
" 'Treachery on the part of one to whom her life was to be intrusted
is a bitter thing for a girl to discover; and yet I could not but
excuse you, we are so weak! Your letter touched me, but you must not
write to me again, the sight of your handwriting gives me such
unbearable pain. We are parted for ever. I was carried away by your
reasoning; it extinguished all the harsh feelings that had risen up
against you in my soul. I had been so proud of your truth! But both of
us have found my father's reasoning irresistible. Yes, monsieur, I
ventured to plead for you. I did for you what I have never done
before, I overcame the greatest fears that I have ever known, and
acted almost against my nature. Even now I am yielding to your
entreaties, and doing wrong for your sake, in writing to you without
my father's knowledge. My mother knows that I am writing to you; her
indulgence in leaving me at liberty to be alone with you for a moment
has taught me the depth of her love for me, and strengthened my
determination to bow to the decree of my family, against which I had
almost rebelled. So I am writing to you, monsieur, for the first and
last time. You have my full and entire forgiveness for the troubles
that you have brought into my life. Yes, you are right; a first love
can never be forgotten. I am no longer an innocent girl; and, as an
honest woman, I can never marry another. What my future will be, I
know not therefore. Only you see, monsieur, that echoes of this year
that you have filled will never die away in my life. But I am in no
way accusing you. . . . "I shall always be beloved!" Why did you write
those words? Can they bring peace to the troubled soul of a lonely and
unhappy girl? Have you not already laid waste my future, giving me
memories which will never cease to revisit me? Henceforth I can only
give myself to God, but will He accept a broken heart? He has had some
purpose to fulfil in sending these afflictions to me; doubtless it was
His will that I should turn to Him, my only refuge here below. Nothing
remains to me here upon this earth. You have all a man's ambitions
wherewith to beguile your sorrows. I do not say this as a reproach; it
is a sort of religious consolation. If we both bear a grievous burden
at this moment, I think that my share of it is the heavier. He in whom
I have put my trust, and of whom you can feel no jealousy, has joined
our lives together, and He puts them asunder according to His will. I
have seen that your religious beliefs were not founded upon the pure
and living faith which alone enables us to bear our woes here below.
Monsieur, if God will vouchsafe to hear my fervent and ceaseless
prayers, He will cause His light to shine in your soul. Farewell, you
who should have been my guide, you whom once I had the right to call
"my beloved," no one can reproach me if I pray for you still. God
orders our days as it pleases Him. Perhaps you may be the first whom
He will call to himself; but if I am left alone in the world, then,
monsieur, intrust the care of the child to me.'
"This letter, so full of generous sentiments, disappointed my hopes,"
Benassis resumed, "so that at first I could think of nothing but my
misery; afterwards I welcomed the balm which, in her forgetfulness of
self, she had tried to pour into my wounds, but in my first despair I
wrote to her somewhat bitterly:
"Mademoiselle--that word alone will tell you that at your bidding I
renounce you. There is something indescribably sweet in obeying one we
love, who puts us to the torture. You are right. I acquiesce in my
condemnation. Once I slighted a girl's devotion; it is fitting,
therefore, that my love should be rejected to-day. But I little
thought that my punishment was to be dealt to me by the woman at whose
feet I had laid my life. I never expected that such harshness, perhaps
I should say, such rigid virtue, lurked in a heart that seemed to be
so loving and so tender. At this moment the full strength of my love
is revealed to me; it has survived the most terrible of all trials,
the scorn you have shown for me by severing without regret the ties
that bound us. Farewell for ever. There still remains to me the proud
humility of repentance; I will find some sphere of life where I can
expiate the errors to which you, the mediator between Heaven and me,
have shown no mercy. Perhaps God may be less inexorable. My
sufferings, sufferings full of the thought of you, shall be the
penance of a heart which will never be healed, which will bleed in
solitude. For a wounded heart--shadow and silence.
" 'No other image of love shall be engraven on my heart. Though I am
not a woman, I feel as you felt that when I said "I love you," it was
a vow for life. Yes, the words then spoken in the ear of "my beloved"
were not a lie; you would have a right to scorn me if I could change.
I shall never cease to worship you in my solitude. In spite of the
gulf set between us, you will still be the mainspring of all my
actions, and all the virtues are inspired by penitence and love.
Though you have filled my heart with bitterness, I shall never have
bitter thoughts of you; would it not be an ill beginning of the new
tasks that I have set myself if I did not purge out all the evil
leaven from my soul? Farewell, then, to the one heart that I love in
the world, a heart from which I am cast out. Never has more feeling
and more tenderness been expressed in a farewell, for is it not
fraught with the life and soul of one who can never hope again, and
must be henceforth as one dead? . . . Farewell. May peace be with you,
and may all the sorrow of our lot fall to me!' "
Benassis and Genestas looked at each other for a moment after reading
the two letters, each full of sad thoughts, of which neither spoke.
"As you see, this is only a rough copy of my last letter," said
Benassis; "it is all that remains to me to-day of my blighted hopes.
When I had sent the letter, I fell into an indescribable state of
depression. All the ties that hold one to life were bound together in
the hope of wedded happiness, which was henceforth lost to me for
ever. I had to bid farewell to the joys of a permitted and
acknowledged love, to all the generous ideas that had thronged up from
the depths of my heart. The prayers of a penitent soul that thirsted
for righteousness and for all things lovely and of good report, had
been rejected by these religious people. At first, the wildest
resolutions and most frantic thoughts surged through my mind, but
happily for me the sight of my son brought self-control. I felt all
the more strongly drawn towards him for the misfortunes of which he
was the innocent cause, and for which I had in reality only myself to
blame. In him I found all my consolation.
"At the age of thirty-four I might still hope to do my country noble
service. I determined to make a name for myself, a name so illustrious
that no one should remember the stain on the birth of my son. How many
noble thoughts I owe to him! How full a life I led in those days while
I was absorbed in planning out his future! I feel stifled," cried
Benassis. "All this happened eleven years ago, and yet to this day, I
cannot bear to think of that fatal year. . . . My child died, sir; I
The doctor was silent, and hid his face in his hands; when he was
somewhat calmer he raised his head again, and Genestas saw that his
eyes were full of tears.
"At first it seemed as if this thunderbolt had uprooted me," Benassis
resumed. "It was a blow from which I could only expect to recover
after I had been transplanted into a different soil from that of the
social world in which I lived. It was not till some time afterwards
that I saw the finger of God in my misfortunes, and later still that I
learned to submit to His will and to hearken to His voice. It was
impossible that resignation should come to me all at once. My
impetuous and fiery nature broke out in a final storm of rebellion.
"It was long before I brought myself to take the only step befitting a
Catholic; indeed, my thoughts ran on suicide. This succession of
misfortunes had contributed to develop melancholy feelings in me, and
I deliberately determined to take my own life. It seemed to me that it
was permissible to take leave of life when life was ebbing fast. There
was nothing unnatural, I thought about suicide. The ravages of mental
distress affected the soul of man in the same way that acute physical
anguish affected the body; and an intelligent being, suffering from a
moral malady, had surely a right to destroy himself, a right he shares
with the sheep, that, fallen a victim to the 'staggers,' beats its
head against a tree. Were the soul's diseases in truth more readily
cured than those of the body? I scarcely think so, to this day. Nor do
I know which is the more craven soul--he who hopes even when hope is
no longer possible, or he who despairs. Death is the natural
termination of a physical malady, and it seemed to me that suicide was
the final crisis in the sufferings of a mind diseased, for it was in
the power of the will to end them when reason showed that death was
preferable to life. So it is not the pistol, but a thought that puts
an end to our existence. Again, when fate may suddenly lay us low in
the midst of a happy life, can we be blamed for ourselves refusing to
bear a life of misery?
"But my reflections during that time of mourning turned on loftier
themes. The grandeur of pagan philosophy attracted me, and for a while
I became a convert. In my efforts to discover new rights for man, I
thought that with the aid of modern thought I could penetrate further
into the questions to which those old-world systems of philosophy had
"Epicurus permitted suicide. Was it not the natural outcome of his
system of ethics? The gratification of the senses was to be obtained
at any cost; and when this became impossible, the easiest and best
course was for the animate being to return to the repose of inanimate
nature. Happiness, or the hope of happiness, was the one end for which
man existed, for one who suffered, and who suffered without hope,
death ceased to be an evil, and became a good, and suicide became a
final act of wisdom. This act Epicurus neither blamed nor praised; he
was content to say as he poured a libation to Bacchus, 'As for death,
there is nothing in death to move our laughter or our tears.'
"With a loftier morality than that of the Epicureans, and a sterner
sense of man's duties, Zeno and the Stoic philosophers prescribed
suicide in certain cases to their followers. They reasoned thus: Man
differs from the brute in that he has the sovereign right to dispose
of his person; take away this power of life and death over himself and
he becomes the plaything of fate, the slave of other men. Rightly
understood, this power of life and death is a sufficient counterpoise
for all the ills of life; the same power when conferred upon another,
upon his fellow-man, leads to tyranny of every kind. Man has no power
whatever unless he has unlimited freedom of action. Suppose that he
has been guilty of some irreparable error, from the shameful
consequences of which there is no escape; a sordid nature swallows
down the disgrace and survives it, the wise man drinks the hemlock and
dies. Suppose that the remainder of life is to be one constant
struggle with the gout which racks our bones, or with a gnawing and
disfiguring cancer, the wise man dismisses quacks, and at the proper
moment bids a last farewell to the friends whom he only saddens by his
presence. Or another perhaps has fallen alive into the hands of the
tyrant against whom he fought. What shall he do? The oath of
allegiance is tendered to him; he must either subscribe or stretch out
his neck to the executioner; the fool takes the latter course, the
coward subscribes, the wise man strikes a last blow for liberty--in
his own heart. 'You who are free,' the Stoic was wont to say, 'know
then how to preserve your freedom! Find freedom from your own passions
by sacrificing them to duty, freedom from the tyranny of mankind by
pointing to the sword or the poison which will put you beyond their
reach, freedom from the bondage of fate by determining the point
beyond which you will endure it no longer, freedom from physical fear
by learning how to subdue the gross instinct which causes so many
wretches to cling to life.'
"After I had unearthed this reasoning from among a heap of ancient
philosophical writings, I sought to reconcile it with Christian
teachings. God has bestowed free-will upon us in order to require of
us an account hereafter before the Throne of Judgment. 'I will plead
my cause there!' I said to myself. But such thoughts as these led me
to think of a life after death, and my old shaken beliefs rose up
before me. Human life grows solemn when all eternity hangs upon the
slightest of our decisions. When the full meaning of this thought is
realized, the soul becomes conscious of something vast and mysterious
within itself, by which it is drawn towards the Infinite; the aspect
of all things alters strangely. From this point of view life is
something infinitely great and infinitely little. The consciousness of
my sins had never made me think of heaven so long as hope remained to
me on earth, so long as I could find a relief for my woes in work and
in the society of other men. I had meant to make the happiness of a
woman's life, to love, to be the head of a family, and in this way my
need of expiation would have been satisfied to the full. This design
had been thwarted, but yet another way had remained to me,--I would
devote myself henceforward to my child. But after these two efforts
had failed, and scorn and death had darkened my soul for ever, when
all my feelings had been wounded and nothing was left to me here on
earth, I raised my eyes to heaven, and beheld God.
"Yet still I tried to obtain the sanction of religion for my death. I
went carefully through the Gospels, and found no passage in which
suicide was forbidden; but during the reading, the divine thought of
Christ, the Saviour of men dawned in me. Certainly He had said nothing
about the immortality of the soul, but He had spoken of the glorious
kingdom of His Father; He had nowhere forbidden parricide, but He
condemned all that was evil. The glory of His evangelists, and the
proof of their divine mission, is not so much that they made laws for
the world, but that they spread a new spirit abroad, and the new laws
were filled with this new spirit. The very courage which a man
displays in taking his own life seemed to me to be his condemnation;
so long as he felt that he had within himself sufficient strength to
die by his own hands, he ought to have had strength enough to continue
the struggle. To refuse to suffer is a sign of weakness rather than of
courage, and, moreover, was it not a sort of recusance to take leave
of life in despondency, an abjuration of the Christian faith which is
based upon the sublime words of Jesus Christ: 'Blessed are they that
"So, in any case, suicide seemed to me to be an unpardonable error,
even in the man who, through a false conception of greatness of soul,
takes his life a few moments before the executioner's axe falls. In
humbling himself to the death of the cross, did not Jesus Christ set
for us an example of obedience to all human laws, even when carried
out unjustly? The word RESIGNATION engraved upon the cross, so clear
to the eyes of those who can read the sacred characters in which it is
traced, shone for me with divine brightness.
"I still had eighty thousand francs in my possession, and at first I
meant to live a remote and solitary life, to vegetate in some country
district for the rest of my days; but misanthropy is no Catholic
virtue, and there is a certain vanity lurking beneath the hedgehog's
skin of the misanthrope. His heart does not bleed, it shrivels, and my
heart bled from every vein. I thought of the discipline of the Church,
the refuge that she affords to sorrowing souls, understood at last the
beauty of a life of prayer in solitude, and was fully determined to
'enter religion,' in the grand old phrase. So far my intentions were
firmly fixed, but I had not yet decided on the best means of carrying
them out. I realized the remains of my fortune, and set forth on my
journey with an almost tranquil mind. PEACE IN GOD was a hope that
could never fail me.
"I felt drawn to the rule of Saint Bruno, and made the journey to the
Grande Chartreuse on foot, absorbed in solemn thoughts. That was a
memorable day. I was not prepared for the grandeur of the scenery; the
workings of an unknown Power greater than that of man were visible at
every step; the overhanging crags, the precipices on either hand, the
stillness only broken by the voices of the mountain streams, the
sternness and wildness of the landscape, relieved here and there by
Nature's fairest creations, pine trees that have stood for centuries
and delicate rock plants at their feet, all combine to produce sober
musings. There seemed to be no end to this waste solitude, shut in by
its lofty mountain barriers. The idle curiosity of man could scarcely
penetrate there. It would be difficult to cross this melancholy desert
of Saint Bruno's with a light heart.
"I saw the Grand Chartreuse. I walked beneath the vaulted roofs of the
ancient cloisters, and heard in the silence the sound of the water
from the spring, falling drop by drop. I entered a cell that I might
the better realize my own utter nothingness, something of the peace
that my predecessor had found there seemed to pass into my soul. An
inscription, which in accordance with the custom of the monastery he
had written above his door, impressed and touched me; all the precepts
of the life that I had meant to lead were there, summed up in three
Latin words--Fuge, late, tace."
Genestas bent his head as if he understood.
"My decision was made," Benassis resumed. "The cell with its deal
wainscot, the hard bed, the solitude, all appealed to my soul. The
Carthusians were in the chapel, I went thither to join in their
prayers, and there my resolutions vanished. I do not wish to criticise
the Catholic Church, I am perfectly orthodox, I believe in its laws
and in the works it prescribes. But when I heard the chanting and the
prayers of those old men, dead to the world and forgotten by the
world, I discerned an undercurrent of sublime egoism in the life of
the cloister. This withdrawal from the world could only benefit the
individual soul, and after all what was it but a protracted suicide? I
do not condemn it. The Church has opened these tombs in which life is
buried; no doubt they are needful for those few Christians who are
absolutely useless to the world; but for me, it would be better, I
thought, to live among my fellows, to devote my life of expiation to
"As I returned I thought long and carefully over the various ways in
which I could carry out my vow of renunciation. Already I began, in
fancy, to lead the life of a common sailor, condemning myself to serve
our country in the lowest ranks, and giving up all my intellectual
ambitions; but though it was a life of toil and of self-abnegation, it
seemed to me that I ought to do more than this. Should I not thwart
the designs of God by leading such a life? If He had given me
intellectual ability, was it not my duty to employ it for the good of
my fellow-men? Then, besides, if I am to speak frankly, I felt within
me a need of my fellow-men, an indescribable wish to help them. The
round of mechanical duties and the routine tasks of the sailor
afforded no scope for this desire, which is as much an outcome of my
nature as the characteristic scent that a flower breathes forth.
"I was obliged to spend the night here, as I have already told you.
The wretched condition of the countryside had filled me with pity, and
during the night it seemed as if these thoughts had been sent to me by
God, and that thus He had revealed His will to me. I had known
something of the joys that pierce the heart, the happiness and the
sorrow of motherhood; I determined that henceforth my life should be
filled with these, but that mine should be a wider sphere than a
mother's. I would expend her care and kindness on the whole district;
I would be a sister of charity, and bind the wounds of all the
suffering poor in a countryside. It seemed to me that the finger of
God unmistakably pointed out my destiny; and when I remembered that my
first serious thoughts in youth had inclined me to the study of
medicine, I resolved to settle here as a doctor. Besides, I had
another reason. FOR A WOUNDED HEART--SHADOW AND SILENCE; so I had
written in my letter; and I meant to fulfil the vow which I had made
"So I have entered into the paths of silence and submission. The fuge,
late, tace of the Carthusian brother is my motto here, my death to the
world is the life of this canton, my prayer takes the form of the
active work to which I have set my hand, and which I love--the work of
sowing the seeds of happiness and joy, of giving to others what I
myself have not.
"I have grown so used to this life, completely out of the world and
among the peasants, that I am thoroughly transformed. Even my face is
altered; it has been so continually exposed to the sun, that it has
grown wrinkled and weather-beaten. I have fallen into the habits of
the peasants; I have assumed their dress, their ways of talking, their
gait, their easy-going negligence, their utter indifference to
appearances. My old acquaintances in Paris, or the she-coxcombs on
whom I used to dance attendance, would be puzzled to recognize in me
the man who had a certain vogue in his day, the sybarite accustomed to
all the splendor, luxury, and finery of Paris. I have come to be
absolutely indifferent to my surroundings, like all those who are
possessed by one thought, and have only one object in view; for I have
but one aim in life--to take leave of it as soon as possible. I do not
want to hasten my end in any way; but some day, when illness comes, I
shall lie down to die without regret.
"There, sir, you have the whole story of my life until I came here--
told in all sincerity. I have not attempted to conceal any of my
errors; they have been great, though others have erred as I have
erred. I have suffered greatly, and I am suffering still, but I look
beyond this life to a happy future which can only be reached through
sorrow. And yet--for all my resignation, there are moments when my
courage fails me. This very day I was almost overcome in your presence
by inward anguish; you did not notice it but----"
Genestas started in his chair.
"Yes, Captain Bluteau, you were with me at the time. Do you remember
how, while we were putting little Jacques to bed, you pointed to the
mattress on which Mother Colas sleeps? Well, you can imagine how
painful it all was; I can never see any child without thinking of the
dear child I have lost, and this little one was doomed to die! I can
never see a child with indifferent eyes----"
Genestas turned pale.
"Yes, the sight of the little golden heads, the innocent beauty of
children's faces always awakens memories of my sorrows, and the old
anguish returns afresh. Now and then, too, there comes the intolerable
thought that so many people here should thank me for what little I can
do for them, when all that I have done has been prompted by remorse.
You alone, captain, know the secret of my life. If I had drawn my will
to serve them from some purer source than the memory of my errors, I
should be happy indeed! But then, too, there would have been nothing
to tell you, and no story about myself."
As Benassis finished his story, he was struck by the troubled
expression of the officer's face. It touched him to have been so well
understood. He was almost ready to reproach himself for having
distressed his visitor. He spoke:
"But these troubles of mine, Captain Bluteau----"
"Do not call me Captain Bluteau," cried Genestas, breaking in upon the
doctor, and springing to his feet with sudden energy, a change of
position that seemed to be prompted by inward dissatisfaction of some
kind. "There is no such person as Captain Bluteau. . . . I am a
With no little astonishment, Benassis beheld Genestas pacing to and
fro in the salon, like a bumble-bee in quest of an exit from the room
which he has incautiously entered.
"Then who are you, sir?" inquired Benassis.
"Ah! there now!" the officer answered, as he turned and took his stand
before the doctor, though he lacked courage to look at his friend. "I
have deceived you!" he went on (and there was a change in his voice).
"I have acted a lie for the first time in my life, and I am well
punished for it; for after this I cannot explain why I came here to
play the spy upon you, confound it! Ever since I have had a glimpse of
your soul, so to speak, I would far sooner have taken a box on the ear
whenever I heard you call me Captain Bluteau! Perhaps you may forgive
me for this subterfuge, but I shall never forgive myself; I, Pierre
Joseph Genestas, who would not lie to save my life before a court-
"Are you Commandant Genestas?" cried Benassis, rising to his feet. He
grasped the officer's hand warmly, and added: "As you said but a short
time ago, sir, we were friends before we knew each other. I have been
very anxious to make your acquaintance, for I have often heard M.
Gravier speak of you. He used to call you, 'one of Plutarch's men.' "
"Plutarch? Nothing of the sort!" answered Genestas. "I am not worthy
of you; I could thrash myself. I ought to have told you my secret in a
straightforward way at the first. Yet, now! It is quite as well that I
wore a mask, and came here myself in search of information concerning
you, for now I know that I must hold my tongue. If I had set about
this business in the right fashion it would have been painful to you,
and God forbid that I should give you the slightest annoyance."
"But I do not understand you, commandant."
"Let the matter drop. I am not ill; I have spent a pleasant day, and I
will go back to-morrow. Whenever you come to Grenoble, you will find
that you have one more friend there, who will be your friend through
thick and thin. Pierre Joseph Genestas' sword and purse are at your
disposal, and I am yours to the last drop of my blood. Well, after
all, your words have fallen on good soil. When I am pensioned off, I
will look for some out-of-the-way little place, and be mayor of it,
and try to follow your example. I have not your knowledge, but I will
study at any rate."
"You are right, sir; the landowner who spends his time in convincing a
commune of the folly of some mistaken notion of agriculture, confers
upon his country a benefit quite as great as any that the most skilful
physician can bestow. The latter lessens the sufferings of some few
individuals, and the former heals the wounds of his country. But you
have excited my curiosity to no common degree. Is there really
something in which I can be of use to you?"
"Of use?" repeated the commandant in an altered voice.
"Mon Dieu! I was about to ask you to do me a service which is all but
impossible, M. Benassis. Just listen a moment! I have killed a good
many Christians in my time, it is true; but you may kill people and
keep a good heart for all that; so there are some things that I can
feel and understand, rough as I look."
"But go on!"
"No, I do not want to give you any pain if I can help it."
"Oh! commandant, I can bear a great deal."
"It is a question of a child's life, sir," said the officer,
Benassis suddenly knitted his brows, but by a gesture he entreated
Genestas to continue.
"A child," repeated the commandant,"whose life may yet be saved by
constant watchfulness and incessant care. Where could I expect to find
a doctor capable of devoting himself to a single patient? Not in a
town, that much was certain. I had heard you spoken of as an excellent
man, but I wished to be quite sure that this reputation was well
founded. So before putting my little charge into the hands of this M.
Benassis of whom people spoke so highly, I wanted to study him myself.
"Enough," said the doctor; "so this child is yours?"
"No, no, M. Benassis. To clear up the mystery, I should have to tell
you a long story, in which I do not exactly play the part of a hero;
but you have given me your confidence and I can readily give you
"One moment, commandant," said the doctor. In answer to his summons,
Jacquotte appeared at once, and her master ordered tea. "You see,
commandant, at night when every one is sleeping, I do not sleep. . . .
The thought of my troubles lies heavily on me, and then I try to
forget them by taking tea. It produces a sort of nervous inebriation--
a kind of slumber, without which I could not live. Do you still
decline to take it?"
"For my own part," said Genestas, "I prefer your Hermitage."
"By all means. Jacquotte," said Benassis, turning to his housekeeper,
"bring in some wine and biscuits. We will both of us have our night-
cap after our separate fashions."
"That tea must be very bad for you!" Genestas remarked.
"It brings on horrid attacks of gout, but I cannot break myself of the
habit, it is too soothing; it procures for me a brief respite every
night, a few moments during which life becomes less of a burden. . . .
Come. I am listening; perhaps your story will efface the painful
impressions left by the memories that I have just recalled."
Genestas set down his empty glass upon the chimney-piece. "After the
Retreat from Moscow," he said, "my regiment was stationed to recruit
for a while in a little town in Poland. We were quartered there, in
fact, till the Emperor returned, and we bought up horses at long
prices. So far so good. I ought to say that I had a friend in those
days. More than once during the Retreat I had owed my life to him. He
was a quartermaster, Renard by name; we could not but be like brothers
(military discipline apart) after what he had done for me. They
billeted us on the same house, a sort of shanty, a rat-hole of a place
where a whole family lived, though you would not have thought there
was room to stable a horse. This particular hovel belonged to some
Jews who carried on their six-and-thirty trades in it. The frost had
not so stiffened the old father Jew's fingers but that he could count
gold fast enough; he had thriven uncommonly during our reverses. That
sort of gentry lives in squalor and dies in gold.
"There were cellars underneath (lined with wood of course, the whole
house was built of wood); they had stowed their children away down
there, and one more particularly, a girl of seventeen, as handsome as
a Jewess can be when she keeps herself tidy and has not fair hair. She
was as white as snow, she had eyes like velvet, and dark lashes to
them like rats' tails; her hair was so thick and glossy that it made
you long to stroke it. She was perfection, and nothing less! I was the
first to discover this curious arrangement. I was walking up and down
outside one evening, smoking my pipe, after they thought I had gone to
bed. The children came in helter-skelter, tumbling over one another
like so many puppies. It was fun to watch them. Then they had supper
with their father and mother. I strained my eyes to see the young
Jewess through the clouds of smoke that her father blew from his pipe;
she looked like a new gold piece among a lot of copper coins.
"I had never reflected about love, my dear Benassis, I had never had
time; but now at the sight of this young girl I lost my heart and head
and everything else at once, and then it was plain to me that I had
never been in love before. I was hard hit, and over head and ears in
love. There I stayed smoking my pipe, absorbed in watching the Jewess
until she blew out the candle and went to bed. I could not close my
eyes. The whole night long I walked up and down the street smoking my
pipe and refilling it from time to time. I had never felt like that
before, and for the first and last time in my life I thought of
"At daybreak I saddled my horse and rode out into the country, to
clear my head. I kept him at a trot for two mortal hours, and all but
foundered the animal before I noticed it----"
Genestas stopped short, looked at his new friend uneasily, and said,
"You must excuse me, Benassis, I am no orator; things come out just as
they turn up in my mind. In a room full of fine folk I should feel
awkward, but here in the country with you----"
"Go on," said the doctor.
"When I came back to my room I found Renard finely flustered. He
thought I had fallen in a duel. He was cleaning his pistols, his head
full of schemes for fastening a quarrel on any one who should have
turned me off into the dark. . . . Oh! that was just the fellow's way!
I confided my story to Renard, showed him the kennel where the
children were; and, as my comrade understood the jargon that those
heathens talked, I begged him to help me to lay my proposals before
her father and mother, and to try to arrange some kind of
communication between me and Judith. Judith they called her. In short,
sir, for a fortnight the Jew and his wife so arranged matters that we
supped every night with Judith, and for a fortnight I was the happiest
of men. You understand and you know how it was, so I shall not wear
out your patience; still, if you do not smoke, you cannot imagine how
pleasant it was to smoke a pipe at one's ease with Renard and the
girl's father and one's princess there before one's eyes. Oh! yes, it
was very pleasant!
"But I ought to tell you that Renard was a Parisian, and dependent on
his father, a wholesale grocer, who had educated his son with a view
to making a notary of him; so Renard had come by a certain amount of
book learning before he had been drawn by the conscription and had to
bid his desk good-bye. Add to this that he was the kind of man who
looks well in a uniform, with a face like a girl's, and a thorough
knowledge of the art of wheedling people. It was HE whom Judith loved;
she cared about as much for me as a horse cares for roast fowls.
Whilst I was in the seventh heaven, soaring above the clouds at the
bare sight of Judith, my friend Renard (who, as you see, fairly
deserved his name) arrived at an understanding with the girl, and to
such good purpose, that they were married forthwith after the custom
of her country, without waiting for permission, which would have been
too long in coming. He promised her, however, that if it should happen
that the validity of this marriage was afterwards called in question,
they were to be married again according to French law. As a matter of
fact, as soon as she reached France, Mme. Renard became Mlle. Judith
"If I had known all this, I would have killed Renard then and there,
without giving him time to draw another breath; but the father, the
mother, the girl herself, and the quartermaster were all in the plot
like thieves in a fair. While I was smoking my pipe, and worshiping
Judith as if she had been one of the saints above, the worthy Renard
was arranging to meet her, and managing this piece of business very
cleverly under my very eyes.
"You are the only person to whom I have told this story. A disgraceful
thing, I call it. I have always asked myself how it is that a man who
would die of shame if he took a gold coin that did not belong to him,
does not scruple to rob a friend of happiness and life and the woman
he loves. My birds, in fact, were married and happy; and there was I,
every evening at supper, moonstruck, gazing at Judith, responding like
some fellow in a farce to the looks she threw to me in order to throw
dust in my eyes. They have paid uncommonly dear for all this deceit,
as you will certainly think. On my conscience, God pays more attention
to what goes on in this world than some of us imagine.
"Down come the Russians upon us, the country is overrun, and the
campaign of 1813 begins in earnest. One fine morning comes an order;
we are to be on the battlefield of Lutzen by a stated hour. The
Emperor knew quite well what he was about when he ordered us to start
at once. The Russians had turned our flank. Our colonel must needs get
himself into a scrape, by choosing that moment to take leave of a
Polish lady who lived outside the town, a quarter of a mile away; the
Cossack advanced guard just caught him nicely, him and his picket.
There was scarcely time to spring into our saddles and draw up before
the town so as to engage in a cavalry skirmish. We must check the
Russian advance if we meant to draw off during the night. Again and
again we charged, and for three hours did wonders. Under cover of the
fighting the baggage and artillery set out. We had a park of artillery
and great stores of powder, of which the Emperor stood in desperate
need; they must reach him at all costs.
"Our resistance deceived the Russians, who thought at first that we
were supported by an army corps; but before very long they learned
their error from their scouts, and knew that they had only a single
regiment of cavalry to deal with and the invalided foot soldiers in
the depot. On finding it out, sir, they made a murderous onslaught on
us towards evening; the action was so hot that a good few of us were
left on the field. We were completely surrounded. I was by Renard's
side in the front rank, and I saw how my friend fought and charged
like a demon; he was thinking of his wife. Thanks to him, we managed
to regain the town, which our invalids had put more or less in a state
of defence, but it was pitiful to see it. We were the last to return--
he and I. A body of Cossacks appeared in our way, and on this we rode
in hot haste. One of the savages was about to run me through with a
lance, when Renard, catching a sight of his manoeuvre, thrust his
horse between us to turn aside the blow; his poor brute--a fine animal
it was, upon my word--received the lance thrust and fell, bringing
down both Renard and the Cossack with him. I killed the Cossack,
seized Renard by the arm, and laid him crosswise before me on my horse
like a sack of wheat.
" 'Good-bye, captain,' Renard said; 'it is all over with me.'
" 'Not yet,' I answered; 'I must have a look at you.' We had reached
the town by that time; I dismounted, and propped him up on a little
straw by the corner of the house. A wound in the head had laid open
the brain, and yet he spoke! . . . Oh! he was a brave man.
" 'We are quits,' he said. 'I have given you my life, and I had taken
Judith from you. Take care of her and of her child, if she has one.
And not only so--you must marry her.'
"I left him then and there sir, like a dog; when the first fury of
anger left me, and I went back again--he was dead. The Cossacks had
set fire to the town, and the thought of Judith then came to my mind.
I went in search of her, took her up behind me in the saddle, and,
thanks to my swift horse, caught up the regiment which was effecting
its retreat. As for the Jew and his family, there was not one of them
left, they had all disappeared like rats; there was no one but Judith
in the house, waiting alone there for Renard. At first, as you can
understand, I told her not a word of all that had happened.
"So it befell that all through the disastrous campaign of 1813 I had a
woman to look after, to find quarters for her, and to see that she was
comfortable. She scarcely knew, I think, the straits to which we were
reduced. I was always careful to keep her ten leagues ahead of us as
we drew back towards France. Her boy was born while we were fighting
at Hanau. I was wounded in the engagement, and only rejoined Judith at
Strasburg; then I returned to Paris, for, unluckily, I was laid up all
through the campaign in France. If it had not been for that wretched
mishap, I should have entered the Grenadier Guards, and then the
Emperor would have promoted me. As it was, sir, I had three broken
ribs and another man's wife and child to support! My pay, as you can
imagine, was not exactly the wealth of the Indies. Renard's father,
the toothless old shark, would have nothing to say to his daughter-in-
law; and the old father Jew had made off. Judith was fretting herself
to death. She cried one morning while she was dressing my wound.
" 'Judith,' said I, 'your child has nothing in this world----'
" 'Neither have I!' she said.
" 'Pshaw!' I answered, 'we will send for all the necessary papers, I
will marry you; and as for the child, I will look on him as mine----'
I could not say any more.
"Ah, my dear sir, what would not one do for the look by which Judith
thanked me--a look of thanks from dying eyes; I saw clearly that I had
loved, and should love her always, and from that day her child found a
place in my heart. She died, poor woman, while the father and mother
Jews and the papers were on the way. The day before she died, she
found strength enough to rise and dress herself for her wedding, to go
through all the usual performance, and set her name to their pack of
papers; then, when her child had a name and a father, she went back to
her bed again; I kissed her hands and her forehead, and she died.
"That was my wedding. Two days later, when I had bought the few feet
of earth in which the poor girl is laid, I found myself the father of
an orphan child. I put him out to nurse during the campaign of 1815.
Ever since that time, without letting any one know my story, which did
not sound very well, I have looked after the little rogue as if he
were my own child. I don't know what became of his grandfather; he is
wandering about, a ruined man, somewhere or other between Russia and
Persia. The chances are that he may make a fortune some day, for he
seemed to understand the trade in precious stones.
"I sent the child to school. I wanted him to take a good place at the
Ecole Polytechnique and to see him graduate there with credit, so of
late I have had him drilled in mathematics to such good purpose that
the poor little soul has been knocked up by it. He has a delicate
chest. By all I can make out from the doctors in Paris, there would be
some hope for him still if he were allowed to run wild among the
hills, if he was properly cared for, and constantly looked after by
somebody who was willing to undertake the task. So I thought of you,
and I came here to take stock of your ideas and your ways of life.
After what you have told me, I could not possibly cause you pain in
this way, for we are good friends already."
"Commandant," said Benassis after a moment's pause, "bring Judith's
child here to me. It is doubtless God's will to submit me to this
final trial, and I will endure it. I will offer up these sufferings to
God, whose Son died upon the cross. Besides, your story has awakened
tender feelings; does not that auger well for me?"
Genestas took both of Benassis' hands and pressed them warmly, unable
to check the tears that filled his eyes and coursed down his sunburned
"Let us keep silence with regard to all this," he said.
"Yes, commandant. You are not drinking?"
"I am not thirsty," Genestas answered. "I am a perfect fool!"
"Well, when will you bring him to me?"
"Why, to-morrow, if you will let me. He has been at Grenoble these two
"Good! Set out to-morrow morning and come back again. I shall wait for
you in La Fosseuse's cottage, and we will all four of us breakfast
"Agreed," said Genestas, and the two friends as they went upstairs
bade each other good-night. When they reached the landing that lay
between their rooms, Genestas set down his candle on the window ledge
and turned towards Benassis.
"Tonnerre de Dieu!" he said, with outspoken enthusiasm; "I cannot let
you go without telling you that you are the third among christened men
to make me understand that there is Something up there," and he
pointed to the sky.
The doctor's answer was a smile full of sadness and a cordial grasp of
the hand that Genestas held out to him.
Before daybreak next morning Commandant Genestas was on his way. On
his return, it was noon before he reached the spot on the highroad
between Grenoble and the little town, where the pathway turned that
led to La Fosseuse's cottage. He was seated in one of the light open
cars with four wheels, drawn by one horse, that are in use everywhere
on the roads in these hilly districts. Genestas' companion was a thin,
delicate-looking lad, apparently about twelve years of age, though in
reality he was in his sixteenth year. Before alighting, the officer
looked round about him in several directions in search of a peasant
who would take the carriage back to Benassis' house. It was impossible
to drive to La Fosseuse's cottage, the pathway was too narrow. The
park-keeper happened to appear upon the scene, and helped Genestas out
of his difficulty, so that the officer and his adopted son were at
liberty to follow the mountain footpath that led to the trysting-
"Would you not enjoy spending a year in running about in this lovely
country, Adrien? Learning to hunt and to ride a horse, instead of
growing pale over your books? Stay! look there!"
Adrien obediently glanced over the valley with languid indifference;
like all lads of his age, he cared nothing for the beauty of natural
scenery; so he only said, "You are very kind, father," without
checking his walk.
The invalid listlessness of this answer went to Genestas' heart; he
said no more to his son, and they reached La Fosseuse's house in
"You are punctual, commandant!" cried Benassis, rising from the wooden
bench where he was sitting.
But at the sight of Adrien he sat down again, and seemed for a while
to be lost in thought. In a leisurely fashion he scanned the lad's
sallow, weary face, not without admiring its delicate oval outlines,
one of the most noticeable characteristics of a noble head. The lad
was the living image of his mother. He had her olive complexion,
beautiful black eyes with a sad and thoughtful expression in them,
long hair, a head too energetic for the fragile body; all the peculiar
beauty of the Polish Jewess had been transmitted to her son.
"Do you sleep soundly, my little man?" Benassis asked him.
"Let me see your knees; turn back your trousers."
Adrien reddened, unfastened his garters, and showed his knee to the
doctor, who felt it carefully over.
"Good. Now speak; shout, shout as loud as you can." Adrien obeyed.
"That will do. Now give me your hands."
The lad held them out; white, soft, and blue-veined hands, like those
of a woman.
"Where were you at school in Paris?"
"At Saint Louis."
"Did your master read his breviary during the night?"
"So you did not go straight off to sleep?"
As Adrien made no answer to this, Genestas spoke. "The master is a
worthy priest; he advised me to take my little rascal away on the
score of his health," he told the doctor.
"Well," answered Benassis, with a clear, penetrating gaze into
Adrien's frightened eyes, "there is a good chance. Oh, we shall make a
man of him yet. We will live together like a pair of comrades, my boy!
We will keep early hours. I mean to show this boy of yours how to ride
a horse, commandant. He shall be put on a milk diet for a month or
two, so as to get his digestion into order again, and then I will take
out a shooting license for him, and put him in Butifer's hands, and
the two of them shall have some chamois-hunting. Give your son four or
five months of out-door life, and you will not know him again,
commandant! How delighted Butifer will be! I know the fellow; he will
take you over into Switzerland, my young friend; haul you over the
Alpine passes and up the mountain peaks, and add six inches to your
height in six months; he will put some color into your cheeks and
brace your nerves, and make you forget all these bad ways that you
have fallen into at school. And after that you can go back to your
work; and you will be a man some of these days. Butifer is an honest
young fellow. We can trust him with the money necessary for traveling
expenses and your hunting expeditions. The responsibility will keep
him steady for six months, and that will be a very good thing for
Genestas' face brightened more and more at every word the doctor
"Now, let us go in to breakfast. La Fosseuse is very anxious to see
you," said Benassis, giving Adrien a gentle tap on the cheek.
Genestas took the doctor's arm and drew him a little aside. "Then he
is not consumptive after all?" he asked.
"No more than you or I."
"Then what is the matter with him?"
"Pshaw!" answered Benassis; "he is a little run down, that is all."
La Fosseuse appeared on the threshold of the door, and Genestas
noticed, not without surprise, her simple but coquettish costume. This
was not the peasant girl of yesterday evening, but a graceful and
well-dressed Parisian woman, against whose glances he felt that he was
not proof. The soldier turned his eyes on the table, which was made of
walnut wood. There was no tablecloth, but the surface might have been
varnished, it was so well rubbed and polished. Eggs, butter, a rice
pudding, and fragrant wild strawberries had been set out, and the poor
child had put flowers everywhere about the room; evidently it was a
great day for her. At the sight of all this, the commandant could not
help looking enviously at the little house and the green sward about
it, and watched the peasant girl with an air that expressed both his
doubts and his hopes. Then his eyes fell on Adrien, with whom La
Fosseuse was deliberately busying herself, and handing him the eggs.
"Now, commandant," said Benassis, "you know the terms on which you are
receiving hospitality. You must tell La Fosseuse 'something about the
"But let the gentleman first have his breakfast in peace, and then,
after he has taken a cup of coffee----"
"By all means, I shall be very glad," answered the commandant; "but it
must be upon one condition: you will tell us the story of some
adventure in your past life, will you not, mademoiselle?"
"Why, nothing worth telling has ever happened to me, sir," she
answered, as her color rose. "Will you take a little more rice
pudding?" she added, as she saw that Adrien's plate was empty.
"If you please, mademoiselle."
"The pudding is delicious," said Genestas.
"Then what will you say to her coffee and cream?" cried Benassis.
"I would rather hear our pretty hostess talk."
"You did not put that nicely, Genestas," said Benassis. He took La
Fosseuse's hand in his and pressed it as he went on: "Listen, my
child; there is a kind heart hidden away beneath that officer's stern
exterior, and you can talk freely before him. We do not want to press
you to talk, do not tell us anything unless you like: but if ever you
can be listened to and understood, poor little one, it will be by the
three who are with you now at this moment. Tell us all about your love
affairs in the old days, that will not admit us into any of the real
secrets of your heart."
"Here is Mariette with the coffee," she answered, "and as soon as you
are all served, I will tell about my 'love affairs' very willingly.
But M. le Commandant will not forget his promise?" she added,
challenging the officer with a shy glance.
"That would be impossible, mademoiselle," Genestas answered
"When I was sixteen years old," La Fosseuse began, "I had to beg my
bread on the roadside in Savoy, though my health was very bad. I used
to sleep at Echelles, in a manger full of straw. The innkeeper who
gave me shelter was kind, but his wife could not abide me, and was
always saying hard things. I used to feel very miserable; for though I
was a beggar, I was not a naughty child; I used to say my prayers
every night and morning, I never stole anything, and I did as Heaven
bade me in begging for my living, for there was nothing that I could
turn my hands to, and I was really unfit for work--quite unable to
handle a hoe or to wind spools of cotton.
"Well, they drove me away from the inn at last; a dog was the cause of
it all. I had neither father nor mother nor friends. I had met with no
one, ever since I was born, whose eyes had any kindness in them for
me. Morin, the old woman who had brought me up, was dead. She had been
very good to me, but I cannot remember that she ever petted me much;
besides, she worked out in the fields like a man, poor thing; and if
she fondled me at times, she also used to rap my fingers with the
spoon if I ate the soup too fast out of the porringer we had between
us. Poor old woman, never a day passes but I remember her in my
prayers! If it might please God to let her live a happier life up
there than she did here below! And, above all things, if she might
only lie a little softer there, for she was always grumbling about the
pallet-bed that we both used to sleep upon. You could not possibly
imagine how it hurts one's soul to be repulsed by every one, to
receive nothing but hard words and looks that cut you to the heart,
just as if they were so many stabs of a knife. I have known poor old
people who were so used to these things that they did not mind them a
bit, but I was not born for that sort of life. A 'No' always made me
cry. Every evening I came back again more unhappy than ever, and only
felt comforted when I had said my prayers. In all God's world, in
fact, there was not a soul to care for me, no one to whom I could pour
out my heart. My only friend was the blue sky. I have always been
happy when there was a cloudless sky above my head. I used to lie and
watch the weather from some nook among the crags when the wind had
swept the clouds away. At such times I used to dream that I was a
great lady. I used to gaze into the sky till I felt myself bathed in
the blue; I lived up there in thought, rising higher and higher yet,
till my troubles weighed on me no more, and there was nothing but
"But to return to my 'love affairs.' I must tell you that the
innkeeper's spaniel had a dear little puppy, just as sensible as a
human being; he was quite white, with black spots on his paws, a
cherub of a puppy! I can see him yet. Poor little fellow, he was the
only creature who ever gave me a friendly look in those days; I kept
all my tidbits for him. He knew me, and came to look for me every
evening. How he used to spring up at me! And he would bite my feet, he
was not ashamed of my poverty; there was something so grateful and so
kind in his eyes that it brought tears into mine to see it. 'That is
the one living creature that really cares for me!' I used to say. He
slept at my feet that winter. It hurt me so much to see him beaten,
that I broke him of the habit of going into houses, to steal bones,
and he was quite contented with my crusts. When I was unhappy, he used
to come and stand in front of me, and look into my eyes; it was just
as if he said, 'So you are sad, my poor Fosseuse?'
"If a traveler threw me some halfpence, he would pick them up out of
the dust and bring them to me, clever little spaniel that he was! I
was less miserable so long as I had that friend. Every day I put away
a few halfpence, for I wanted to get fifteen francs together, so that
I might buy him of Pere Manseau. One day his wife saw that the dog was
fond of me, so she herself took a sudden violent fancy to him. The
dog, mind you, could not bear her. Oh, animals know people by
instinct! If you really care for them, they find it out in a moment. I
had a gold coin, a twenty-franc piece, sewed into the band of my
skirt; so I spoke to M. Manseau: 'Dear sir, I meant to offer you my
year's savings for your dog; but now your wife has a mind to keep him,
although she cares very little about him, and rather than that, will
you sell him to me for twenty francs? Look, I have the money here.'
" 'No, no, little woman,' he said; 'put up your twenty francs. Heaven
forbid that I should take their money from the poor! Keep the dog; and
if my wife makes a fuss about it, you must go away.'
"His wife made a terrible to-do about the dog. Ah! mon Dieu! any one
might have thought the house was on fire! You never would guess the
notion that next came into her head. She saw that the little fellow
looked on me as his mistress, and that she could only have him against
his will, so she had him poisoned; and my poor spaniel died in my
arms. . . . I cried over him as if he had been my child, and buried
him under a pine-tree. You do not know all that I laid in that grave.
As I sat there beside it, I told myself that henceforward I should
always be alone in the world; that I had nothing left to hope for;
that I should be again as I had been before, a poor lonely girl; that
I should never more see a friendly light in any eyes. I stayed out
there all through the night, praying God to have pity on me. When I
went back to the highroad I saw a poor little child, about ten years
old, who had no hands.
" 'God has heard me,' I thought. I had prayed that night as I had
never prayed before. 'I will take care of the poor little one; we will
beg together, and I will be a mother to him. Two of us ought to do
better than one; perhaps I should have more courage for him than I
have for myself.'
"At first the little boy seemed to be quite happy, and, indeed, he
would have been hard to please if he had not been content. I did
everything that he wanted, and gave him the best of all that I had; I
was his slave in fact, and he tyrannized over me, but that was nicer
than being alone, I used to think! Pshaw! no sooner did the little
good-for-nothing know that I carried a twenty-franc piece sewed into
my skirtband than he cut the stitches, and stole my gold coin, the
price of my poor spaniel! I had meant to have masses said with
it. . . . A child without hands, too! Oh, it makes one shudder!
Somehow that theft took all the heart out of me. It seemed as if I was
to love nothing but it should come to some wretched end.
"One day at Echelles, I watched a fine carriage coming slowly up the
hillside. There was a young lady, as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, in
the carriage, and a young man, who looked like the young lady. 'Just
look,' he said; 'there is a pretty girl!' and he flung a silver coin
"No one but you, M. Benassis, could understand how pleased I was with
the compliment, the first that I had ever had: but, indeed, the
gentleman ought not to have thrown the money to me. I was in a
flutter; I knew of a short cut, a footpath among the rocks, and
started at once to run, so that I reached the summit of the Echelles
long before the carriage, which was coming up very slowly. I saw the
young man again; he was quite surprised to find me there; and as for
me, I was so pleased that my heart seemed to be throbbing in my
throat. Some kind of instinct drew me towards him. After he had
recognized me, I went on my way again; I felt quite sure that he and
the young lady with him would leave the carriage to see the waterfall
at Couz, and so they did. When they alighted, they saw me once more,
under the walnut-trees by the wayside. They asked me many questions,
and seemed to take an interest in what I told them about myself. In
all my life I had never heard such pleasant voices as they had, that
handsome young man and his sister, for she was his sister, I am sure.
I thought about them for a whole year afterwards, and kept on hoping
that they would come back. I would have given two years of my life
only to see that traveler again, he looked so nice. Until I knew M.
Benassis these were the greatest events of my life. Although my
mistress turned me away for trying on that horrid ball-dress of hers,
I was sorry for her, and I have forgiven her, for candidly, if you
will give me leave to say so, I thought myself the better woman of the
two, countess though she was."
"Well," said Genestas, after a moment's pause, "you see that
Providence has kept a friendly eye on you, you are in clover here."
At these words La Fosseuse looked at Benassis with eyes full of
"Would that I was rich!" came from Genestas. The officer's exclamation
was followed by profound silence.
"You owe me a story," said La Fosseuse at last, in coaxing tones.
"I will tell it at once," answered Genestas. "On the evening before
the battle of Friedland," he went on, after a moment, "I had been sent
with a despatch to General Davoust's quarters, and I was on the way
back to my own, when at a turn in the road I found myself face to face
with the Emperor. Napoleon gave me a look.
" 'You are Captain Genestas, are you not?' he said.
" 'Yes, your Majesty.'
" 'You were out in Egypt?'
" 'Yes, your Majesty.'
" 'You had better not keep to the road you are on,' he said; 'turn to
the left, you will reach your division sooner that way.'
"That was what the Emperor said, but you would never imagine how
kindly he said it; and he had so many irons in the fire just then, for
he was riding about surveying the position of the field. I am telling
you this story to show you what a memory he had, and so that you may
know that he knew my face. I took the oath in 1815. But for that
mistake, perhaps I might have been a colonel to-day; I never meant to
betray the Bourbons, France must be defended, and that was all I
thought about. I was a Major in the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard;
and although my wound still gave me trouble, I swung a sabre in the
battle of Waterloo. When it was all over, and Napoleon returned to
Paris, I went too; then when he reached Rochefort, I followed him
against his orders; it was some sort of comfort to watch over him and
to see that no mishap befell him on the way. So when he was walking
along the beach he turned and saw me on duty ten paces from him.
" 'Well, Genestas,' he said, as he came towards me, 'so we are not yet
dead, either of us?'
"It cut me to the heart to hear him say that. If you had heard him,
you would have shuddered from head to foot, as I did. He pointed to
the villainous English vessel that was keeping the entrance to the
Harbor. 'When I see THAT,' he said, 'and think of my Guard, I wish
that I had perished in that torrent of blood.'
"Yes," said Genestas, looking at the doctor and at La Fosseuse, "those
were his very words.
" 'The generals who counseled you not to charge with the Guard, and
who hurried you into your traveling carriage, were not true friends of
yours,' I said.
" 'Come with me,' he cried eagerly, 'the game is not ended yet.'
" 'I would gladly go with your Majesty, but I am not free; I have a
motherless child on my hands just now.'
"And so it happened that Adrien over there prevented me from going to
" 'Stay,' he said, 'I have never given you anything. You are not one
of those who fill one hand and then hold out the other. Here is the
snuff-box that I have used though this last campaign. And stay on in
France; after all, brave men are wanted there! Remain in the service,
and keep me in remembrance. Of all my army in Egypt, you are the last
that I have seen still on his legs in France.' And he gave me a little
" 'Have "Honneur et patrie" engraved on it,' he said; 'the history of
our last two campaigns is summed up in those three words.'
"Then those who were going out with him came up, and I spent the rest
of the morning with them. The Emperor walked to and fro along the
beach; there was not a sign of agitation about him, though he frowned
from time to time. At noon, it was considered hopeless for him to
attempt to escape by sea. The English had found out that he was at
Rochefort; he must either give himself up to them, or cross the
breadth of France again. We were wretchedly anxious; the minutes
seemed like hours! On the one hand there were the Bourbons, who would
have shot Napoleon if he had fallen into their clutches; and on the
other, the English, a dishonored race: they covered themselves with
shame by flinging a foe who asked for hospitality away on a desert
rock, that is a stain which they will never wash away. Whilst they
were anxiously debating, some one or other among his suite presented a
sailor to him, a Lieutenant Doret, who had a scheme for reaching
America to lay before him. As a matter of fact, a brig from the States
and a merchant vessel were lying in the harbor.
" 'But how could you set about it, captain?' the Emperor asked him.
" 'You will be on board the merchant vessel, Sire,' the man answered.
'I will run up the white flag and man the brig with a few devoted
followers. We will tackle the English vessel, set fire to her, and
board her, and you will get clear away.'
" 'We will go with you!' I cried to the captain. But Napoleon looked
at us and said, 'Captain Doret, keep yourself for France.'
"It was the only time I ever saw Napoleon show any emotion. With a
wave of his hand to us he went in again. I watched him go on board the
English vessel, and then I went away. It was all over with him, and he
knew it. There was a traitor in the harbor, who by means of signals
gave warning to the Emperor's enemies of his presence. Then Napoleon
fell back on a last resource; he did as he had been wont to do on the
battlefield: he went to his foes instead of letting them come to him.
Talk of troubles! No words could ever make you understand the misery
of those who loved him for his own sake."
"But where is his snuff-box?" asked La Fosseuse.
"It is in a box at Grenoble," the commandant replied.
"I will go over to see it, if you will let me. To think that you have
something in your possession that his fingers have touched! . . . Had
he a well-shaped hand?"
"Can it be true that he is dead? Come, tell me the real truth?"
"Yes, my dear child, he is dead; there is no doubt about it."
"I was such a little girl in 1815. I was not tall enough to see
anything but his hat, and even so I was nearly crushed to death in the
crowd at Grenoble."
"Your coffee and cream is very nice indeed," said Genestas. "Well,
Adrien, how do you like this country? Will you come here to see
The boy made no answer; he seemed afraid to look at La Fosseuse.
Benassis never took his eyes off Adrien; he appeared to be reading the
lad's very soul.
"Of course he will come to see her," said Benassis. "But let us go
home again, I have a pretty long round to make, and I shall want a
horse. I daresay you and Jacquotte will manage to get on together
whilst I am away."
"Will you not come with us?" said Genestas to La Fosseuse.
"Willingly," she answered; "I have a lot of things to take over for
They started out for the doctor's house. Her visitors had raised La
Fosseuse's spirits; she led the way along narrow tracks, through the
loneliest parts of the hills.
"You have told us nothing about yourself, Monsieur l'Officier," she
said. "I should have liked to hear you tell us about some adventure in
the wars. I liked what you told us about Napoleon very much, but it
made me feel sad. . . . If you would be so very kind----"
"Quite right!" Benassis exclaimed. "You ought to tell us about some
thrilling adventure during our walk. Come, now, something really
interesting like that business of the beam in Beresina!"
"So few of my recollections are worth telling," said Genestas. "Some
people come in for all kinds of adventures, but I have never managed
to be the hero of any story. Oh! stop a bit though, a funny thing did
once happen to me. I was with the Grand Army in 1805, and so, of
course, I was at Austerlitz. There was a great deal of skirmishing
just before Ulm surrendered, which kept the cavalry pretty fully
occupied. Moreover, we were under the command of Murat, who never let
the grass grow under his feet.
"I was still only a sub-lieutenant in those days. It was just at the
opening of the campaign, and after one of these affairs, that we took
possession of a district in which there were a good many fine estates;
so it fell out that one evening my regiment bivouacked in a park
belonging to a handsome chateau where a countess lived, a young and
pretty woman she was. Of course, I meant to lodge in the house, and I
hurried there to put a stop to pillage of any sort. I came into the
salon just as my quartermaster was pointing his carbine at the
countess, his brutal way of asking for what she certainly could not
give the ugly scoundrel. I struck up his carbine with my sword, the
bullet went through a looking-glass on the wall, then I dealt my
gentleman a back-handed blow that stretched him on the floor. The
sound of the shot and the cries of the countess fetched all her people
on the scene, and it was my turn to be in danger.
" 'Stop!' she cried in German (for they were going to run me through
the body), 'this officer has saved my life!'
"They drew back at that. The lady gave me her handkerchief (a fine
embroidered handkerchief, which I have yet), telling me that her house
would always be open to me, and that I should always find a sister and
a devoted friend in her, if at any time I should be in any sort of
trouble. In short, she did not know how to make enough of me. She was
as fair as a wedding morning and as charming as a kitten. We had
dinner together. Next day, I was distractedly in love, but next day I
had to be at my place at Guntzburg, or wherever it was. There was no
help for it, I had to turn out, and started off with my handkerchief.
"Well, we gave them battle, and all the time I kept on saying to
myself, 'I wish a bullet would come my way! Mon Dieu! they are flying
"I had no wish for a ball in the thigh, for I should have had to stop
where I was in that case, and there would have been no going back to
the chateau, but I was not particular; a nice wound in the arm I
should have liked best, so that I might be nursed and made much of by
the princess. I flung myself on the enemy, like mad; but I had no sort
of luck, and came out of the action quite safe and sound. We must
march, and there was an end of it; I never saw the countess again, and
there is the whole story."
By this time they had reached Benassis' house; the doctor mounted his
horse at once and disappeared. Genestas recommended his son to
Jacquotte's care, so the doctor on his return found that she had taken
Adrien completely under her wing, and had installed him in M.
Gravier's celebrated room. With no small astonishment, she heard her
master's order to put up a simple camp-bed in his own room, for that
the lad was to sleep there, and this in such an authoritative tone,
that for once in her life Jacquotte found not a single word to say.
After dinner the commandant went back to Grenoble. Benassis'
reiterated assurances that the lad would soon be restored to health
had taken a weight off his mind.
Eight months later, in the earliest days of the following December,
Genestas was appointed to be lieutenant-colonel of a regiment
stationed at Poitiers. He was just thinking of writing to Benassis to
tell him of the journey he was about to take, when a letter came from
the doctor. His friend told him that Adrien was once more in sound
"The boy has grown strong and tall," he said; "and he is wonderfully
well. He has profited by Butifer's instruction since you saw him last,
and is now as good a shot as our smuggler himself. He has grown brisk
and active too; he is a good walker, and rides well; he is not in the
least like the lad of sixteen who looked like a boy of twelve eight
months ago; any one might think that he was twenty years old. There is
an air of self-reliance and independence about him. In fact he is a
man now, and you must begin to think about his future at once."
"I shall go over to Benassis to-morrow, of course," said Genestas to
himself, "and I will see what he says before I make up my mind what to
do with that fellow," and with that he went to a farewell dinner given
to him by his brother officers. He would be leaving Grenoble now in a
very few days.
As the lieutenant-colonel returned after the dinner, his servant
handed him a letter. It had been brought by a messenger, he said, who
had waited a long while for an answer.
Genestas recognized Adrien's handwriting, although his head was
swimming after the toasts that had been drunk in his honor; probably,
he thought, the letter merely contained a request to gratify some
boyish whim, so he left it unopened on the table. The next morning,
when the fumes of champagne had passed off, he took it up and began to
"My dear father----"
"Oh! you young rogue," was his comment, "you know how to coax whenever
you want something."
"Our dear M. Benassis is dead----"
The letter dropped from Genestas' hands; it was some time before he
could read any more.
"Every one is in consternation. The trouble is all the greater
because it came as a sudden shock. It was so unexpected. M.
Benassis seemed perfectly well the day before; there was not a
sign of ill-health about him. Only the day before yesterday he
went to see all his patients, even those who lived farthest away;
it was as if he had known what was going to happen; and he spoke
to every one whom he met, saying, 'Good-bye, my friends,' each
time. Towards five o'clock he came back just as usual to have
dinner with me. He was tired; Jacquotte noticed the purplish flush
on his face, but the weather was so very cold that she would not
get ready a warm foot-bath for him, as she usually did when she
saw that the blood had gone to his head. So she has been wailing,
poor thing, through her tears for these two days past, 'If I had
ONLY given him a foot-bath, he would be living now!'
"M Benassis was hungry; he made a good dinner. I thought that he
was in higher spirits than usual; we both of us laughed a great
deal, I had never seen him laugh so much before. After dinner,
towards seven o'clock, a man came with a message from Saint
Laurent du Pont; it was a serious case, and M. Benassis was
urgently needed. He said to me, 'I shall have to go, though I
never care to set out on horseback when I have hardly digested my
dinner, more especially when it is as cold as this. It is enough
to kill a man!'
"For all that, he went. At nine o'clock the postman Goguelat,
brought a letter for M. Benassis. Jacquotte was tired out, for it
was her washing-day. She gave me the letter and went off to bed.
She begged me to keep a good fire in our bedroom, and to have some
tea ready for M. Benassis when he came in, for I am still sleeping
in the little cot- bed in his room. I raked out the fire in the
salon, and went upstairs to wait for my good friend. I looked at
the letter, out of curiosity, before I laid it on the chimney-
piece, and noticed the handwriting and the postmark. It came from
Paris, and I think it was a lady's hand. I am telling you about it
because of things that happened afterwards.
"About ten o'clock, I heard the horse returning, and M. Benassis'
voice. He said to Nicolle, 'It is cold enough to-night to bring
the wolves out. I do not feel at all well.' Nicolle said, 'Shall I
go and wake Jacquotte?' And M. Benassis answered, 'Oh! no, no,'
and came upstairs.
"I said, 'I have your tea here, all ready for you,' and he smiled
at me in the way that you know, and said, 'Thank you, Adrien.'
That was his last smile. In a moment he began to take off his
cravat, as though he could not breathe. 'How hot it is in here!'
he said and flung himself down in an armchair. 'A letter has come
for you, my good friend,' I said; 'here it is;' and I gave him the
letter. He took it up and glanced at the handwriting. 'Ah! mon
Dieu!' he exclaimed, 'perhaps she is free at last!' Then his head
sank back, and his hands shook. After a little while he set the
lamp on the table and opened the letter. There was something so
alarming in the cry he had given that I watched him while he read,
and saw that his face was flushed, and there were tears in his
eyes. Then quite suddenly he fell, head forwards. I tried to raise
him, and saw how purple his face was.
" 'It is all over with me,' he said, stammering; it was terrible
to see how he struggled to rise. 'I must be bled; bleed me!' he
cried, clutching my hand. . . . 'Adrien,' he said again, 'burn
this letter!' He gave it to me, and I threw it on the fire. I
called for Jacquotte and Nicolle. Jacquotte did not hear me, but
Nicolle did, and came hurrying upstairs; he helped me to lay M.
Benassis on my little bed. Our dear friend could not hear us any
longer when we spoke to him, and although his eyes were open, he
did not see anything. Nicolle galloped off at once to fetch the
surgeon, M. Bordier, and in this way spread the alarm through the
town. It was all astir in a moment. M. Janvier, M. Dufau, and all
the rest of your acquaintance were the first to come to us. But
all hope was at an end, M. Benassis was dying fast. He gave no
sign of consciousness, not even when M. Bordier cauterized the
soles of his feet. It was an attack of gout, combined with an
"I am giving you all these details, dear father, because I know
how much you cared for him. As for me, I am very sad and full of
grief, for I can say to you that I cared more for him than for any
one else except you. I learned more from M. Benassis' talk in the
evenings than ever I could have learned at school.
"You cannot imagine the scene next morning when the news of his
death was known in the place. The garden and the yard here were
filled with people. How they sobbed and wailed! Nobody did any
work that day. Every one recalled the last time that they had seen
M. Benassis, and what he had said, or they talked of all that he
had done for them; and those who were least overcome with grief
spoke for the others. Every one wanted to see him once more, and
the crowd grew larger every moment. The sad news traveled so fast
that men and women and children came from ten leagues round; all
the people in the district, and even beyond it, had that one
thought in their minds.
"It was arranged that four of the oldest men of the commune should
carry the coffin. It was a very difficult task for them, for the
crowd was so dense between the church and M. Benassis' house.
There must have been nearly five thousand people there, and almost
every one knelt as if the Host were passing. There was not nearly
room for them in the church. In spite of their grief, the crowd
was so silent that you could hear the sound of the bell during
mass and the chanting as far as the end of the High Street; but
when the procession started again for the new cemetery, which M.
Benassis had given to the town, little thinking, poor man, that he
himself would be the first to be buried there, a great cry went
up. M. Janvier wept as he said the prayers; there were no dry eyes
among the crowd. And so we buried him.
"As night came on the people dispersed, carrying sorrow and
mourning everywhere with them. The next day Gondrin and Goguelat,
and Butifer, with others, set to work to raise a sort of pyramid
of earth, twenty feet high, above the spot where M. Benassis lies;
it is being covered now with green sods, and every one is helping
them. These things, dear father, have all happened in three days.
"M. Dufau found M. Benassis' will lying open on the table where he
used to write. When it was known how his property had been left,
affection and regret for his loss became even deeper if possible.
And now, dear father, I am writing for Butifer (who is taking this
letter to you) to come back with your answer. You must tell me
what I am to do. Will you come to fetch me, or shall I go to you
at Grenoble? Tell me what you wish me to do, and be sure that I
shall obey you in everything.
"Farewell, dear father, I send my love, and I am your affectionate
"Ah! well, I must go over," the soldier exclaimed.
He ordered his horse and started out. It was one of those still
December mornings when the sky is covered with gray clouds. The wind
was too light to disperse the thick fog, through which the bare trees
and damp house fronts seemed strangely unfamiliar. The very silence
was gloomy. There is such a thing as a silence full of light and
gladness; on a bright day there is a certain joyousness about the
slightest sound, but in such dreary weather nature is not silent, she
is dumb. All sounds seemed to die away, stifled by the heavy air.
There was something in the gloom without him that harmonized with
Colonel Genestas' mood; his heart was oppressed with grief, and
thoughts of death filled his mind. Involuntarily he began to think of
the cloudless sky on that lovely spring morning, and remembered how
bright the valley had looked when he passed through it for the first
time; and now, in strong contrast with that day, the heavy sky above
him was a leaden gray, there was no greenness about the hills, which
were still waiting for the cloak of winter snow that invests them with
a certain beauty of its own. There was something painful in all this
bleak and bare desolation for a man who was traveling to find a grave
at his journey's end; the thought of that grave haunted him. The lines
of dark pine-trees here and there along the mountain ridges against
the sky seized on his imagination; they were in keeping with the
officer's mournful musings. Every time that he looked over the valley
that lay before him, he could not help thinking of the trouble that
had befallen the canton, of the man who had died so lately, and of the
blank left by his death.
Before long, Genestas reached the cottage where he had asked for a cup
of milk on his first journey. The sight of the smoke rising above the
hovel where the charity-children were being brought up recalled vivid
memories of Benassis and of his kindness of heart. The officer made up
his mind to call there. He would give some alms to the poor woman for
his dead friend's sake. He tied his horse to a tree, and opened the
door of the hut without knocking.
"Good-day, mother," he said, addressing the old woman, who was sitting
by the fire with the little ones crouching at her side. "Do you
"Oh! quite well, sir! You came here one fine morning last spring and
gave us two crowns."
"There, mother! that is for you and the children"
"Thank you kindly, sir. May Heaven bless you!"
"You must not thank me, mother," said the officer; "it is all through
M. Benassis that the money had come to you."
The old woman raised her eyes and gazed at Genestas.
"Ah! sir," she said, "he has left his property to our poor
countryside, and made all of us his heirs; but we have lost him who
was worth more than all, for it was he who made everything turn out
well for us."
"Good-bye, mother! Pray for him," said Genestas, making a few playful
cuts at the children with his riding-whip.
The old woman and her little charges went out with him; they watched
him mount his horse and ride away.
He followed the road along the valley until he reached the bridle-path
that led to La Fosseuse's cottage. From the slope above the house he
saw that the door was fastened and the shutters closed. In some
anxiety he returned to the highway, and rode on under the poplars, now
bare and leafless. Before long he overtook the old laborer, who was
dressed in his Sunday best, and creeping slowly along the road. There
was no bag of tools on his shoulder.
"Good-day, old Moreau!"
"Ah! good-day, sir. . . . I mind who you are now!" the old fellow
exclaimed after a moment. "You are a friend of monsieur, our late
mayor! Ah! sir, would it not have been far better if God had only
taken a poor rheumatic old creature like me instead? It would not have
mattered if He had taken me, but HE was the light of our eyes."
"Do you know how it is that there is no one at home up there at La
The old man gave a look at the sky.
"What time is it, sir? The sun has not shone all day," he said.
"It is ten o'clock."
"Oh! well, then, she will have gone to mass or else to the cemetery.
She goes there every day. He has left her five hundred livres a year
and her house for as long as she lives, but his death has fairly
turned her brain, as you may say----"
"And where are you going, old Moreau?"
"Little Jacques is to be buried to-day, and I am going to the funeral.
He was my nephew, poor little chap; he had been ailing for a long
while, and he died yesterday morning. It really looked as though it
was M. Benassis who kept him alive. That is the way! All these younger
ones die!" Moreau added, half-jestingly, half-sadly.
Genestas reined in his horse as he entered the town, for he met
Gondrin and Goguelat, each carrying a pickaxe and shovel. He called to
them, "Well, old comrades, we have had the misfortune to lose him----"
"There, there, that is enough, sir!" interrupted Goguelat, "we know
that well enough. We have just been cutting turf to cover his grave."
"His life will make a grand story to tell, eh?"
"Yes," answered Goguelat, "he was the Napoleon of our valley, barring
As they reached the parsonage, Genestas saw a little group about the
door; Butifer and Adrien were talking with M. Janvier, who, no doubt,
had just returned from saying mass. Seeing that the officer made as
though he were about to dismount, Butifer promptly went to hold the
horse, while Adrien sprang forward and flung his arms about his
father's neck. Genestas was deeply touched by the boy's affection,
though no sign of this appeared in the soldier's words or manner.
"Why, Adrien," he said, "you certainly are set up again. My goodness!
Thanks to our poor friend, you have almost grown into a man. I shall
not forget your tutor here, Master Butifer."
"Oh! colonel," entreated Butifer, "take me away from here and put me
into your regiment. I cannot trust myself now that M. le Maire is
gone. HE wanted me to go for a soldier, didn't he? Well, then, I will
do what he wished. He told you all about me, and you will not be hard
on me, will you, M. Genestas?"
"Right, my fine fellow," said Genestas, as he struck his hand in the
other's. "I will find something to suit you, set your mind at rest----
And how is it with you, M. le Cure?"
"Well, like every one else in the canton, colonel, I feel sorrow for
his loss, but no one knows as I do how irreparable it is. He was like
an angel of God among us. Fortunately, he did not suffer at all; it
was a painless death. The hand of God gently loosed the bonds of a
life that was one continual blessing to us all."
"Will it be intrusive if I ask you to accompany me to the cemetery? I
should like to bid him farewell, as it were."
Genestas and the cure, still in conversation, walked on together.
Butifer and Adrien followed them at a few paces distance. They went in
the direction of the little lake, and as soon as they were clear of
the town, the lieutenant-colonel saw on the mountain-side a large
piece of waste land enclosed by walls.
"That is the cemetery," the cure told him. "He is the first to be
buried in it. Only three months before he was brought here, it struck
him that it was a very bad arrangement to have the churchyard round
the church; so, in order to carry out the law, which prescribes that
burial grounds should be removed a stated distance from human
dwellings, he himself gave this piece of land to the commune. We are
burying a child, poor little thing, in the new cemetery to-day, so we
shall have begun by laying innocence and virtue there. Can it be that
death is after all a reward? Did God mean it as a lesson for us when
He took these two perfect natures to Himself? When we have been tried
and disciplined in youth by pain, in later life by mental suffering,
are we so much nearer to Him? Look! there is the rustic monument which
has been erected to his memory."
Genestas saw a mound of earth about twenty feet high. It was bare as
yet, but dwellers in the district were already busily covering the
sloping sides with green turf. La Fosseuse, her face buried in her
hands, was sobbing bitterly; she was sitting on the pile of stones in
which they had planted a great wooden cross, made from the trunk of a
pine-tree, from which the bark had not been removed. The officer read
the inscription; the letters were large, and had been deeply cut in
D. O. M.
THE GOOD MONSIEUR BENASSIS
THE FATHER OF US ALL
PRAY FOR HIM.
"Was it you, sir," asked Genestas, "who----?"
"No," answered the cure; it is simply what is said everywhere, from
the heights up there above us down to Grenoble, so the words have been
Genestas remained silent for a few moments. Then he moved from where
he stood and came nearer to La Fosseuse, who did not hear him, and
spoke again to the cure.
"As soon as I have my pension," he said, "I will come to finish my
days here among you."
The following personage appears in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Murat, Joachim, Prince
The Gondreville Mystery
Back to Full Books