Cousin Pons/Section 19

While the Abbe Duplanty was persuading Pons to engage Mme. Cantinet as his nurse, Fraisier had sent for her. He had plied the beadle's wife with sophistical reasoning and subtlety. It was difficult to resist his corrupting influence. And as for Mme. Cantinet—a lean, sallow woman, with large teeth and thin lips—her intelligence, as so often happens with women of the people, had been blunted by a hard life, till she had come to look upon the slenderest daily wage as prosperity. She soon consented to take Mme. Sauvage with her as general servant.

Mme. Sauvage had had her instructions already. She had undertaken to weave a web of iron wire about the two musicians, and to watch them as a spider watches a fly caught in the toils; and her reward was to be a tobacconist's license. Fraisier had found a convenient opportunity of getting rid of his so-called foster-mother, while he posted her as a detective and policeman to supervise Mme. Cantinet. As there was a servant's bedroom and a little kitchen included in the apartment, La Sauvage could sleep on a truckle-bed and cook for the German. Dr. Poulain came with the two women just as Pons drew his last breath. Schmucke was sitting beside his friend, all unconscious of the crisis, holding the hand that slowly grew colder in his grasp. He signed to Mme. Cantinet to be silent; but Mme. Sauvage's soldierly figure surprised him so much that he started in spite of himself, a kind of homage to which the virago was quite accustomed.

"M. Duplanty answers for this lady," whispered Mme. Cantinet by way of introduction. "She once was cook to a bishop; she is honesty itself; she will do the cooking."

"Oh! you may talk out loud," wheezed the stalwart dame. "The poor gentleman is dead. . . . He has just gone."

A shrill cry broke from Schmucke. He felt Pons' cold hand stiffening in his, and sat staring into his friend's eyes; the look in them would have driven him mad, if Mme. Sauvage, doubtless accustomed to scenes of this sort, had not come to the bedside with a mirror which she held over the lips of the dead. When she saw that there was no mist upon the surface, she briskly snatched Schmucke's hand away.

"Just take away your hand, sir; you may not be able to do it in a little while. You do not know how the bones harden. A corpse grows cold very quickly. If you do not lay out a body while it is warm, you have to break the joints later on. . . ."

And so it was this terrible woman who closed the poor dead musician's eyes.

With a business-like dexterity acquired in ten years of experience, she stripped and straightened the body, laid the arms by the sides, and covered the face with the bedclothes, exactly as a shopman wraps a parcel.

"A sheet will be wanted to lay him out.—Where is there a sheet?" she demanded, turning on the terror-stricken Schmucke.

He had watched the religious ritual with its deep reverence for the creature made for such high destinies in heaven; and now he saw his dead friend treated simply as a thing in this packing process—saw with the sharp pain that dissolves the very elements of thought.

"Do as you vill——" he answered mechanically. The innocent creature for the first time in his life had seen a man die, and that man was Pons, his only friend, the one human being who understood him and loved him.

"I will go and ask Mme. Cibot where the sheets are kept," said La Sauvage.

"A truckle-bed will be wanted for the person to sleep upon," Mme. Cantinet came to tell Schmucke.

Schmucke nodded and broke out into weeping. Mme. Cantinet left the unhappy man in peace; but an hour later she came back to say:

"Have you any money, sir, to pay for the things?"

The look that Schmucke gave Mme. Cantinet would have disarmed the fiercest hate; it was the white, blank, peaked face of death that he turned upon her, as an explanation that met everything.

"Dake it all and leaf me to mein prayers and tears," he said, and knelt.

Mme. Sauvage went to Fraisier with the news of Pons' death. Fraisier took a cab and went to the Presidente. To-morrow she must give him the power of attorney to enable him to act for the heirs.

Another hour went by, and Mme. Cantinet came again to Schmucke.

"I have been to Mme. Cibot, sir, who knows all about things here," she said. "I asked her to tell me where everything is kept. But she almost jawed me to death with her abuse. . . . Sir, do listen to me. . . ."

Schmucke looked up at the woman, and she went on, innocent of any barbarous intention, for women of her class are accustomed to take the worst of moral suffering passively, as a matter of course.

"We must have linen for the shroud, sir, we must have money to buy a truckle-bed for the person to sleep upon, and some things for the kitchen—plates, and dishes, and glasses, for a priest will be coming to pass the night here, and the person says that there is absolutely nothing in the kitchen."

"And what is more, sir, I must have coal and firing if I am to get the dinner ready," echoed La Sauvage, "and not a thing can I find. Not that there is anything so very surprising in that, as La Cibot used to do everything for you—"

Schmucke lay at the feet of the dead; he heard nothing, knew nothing, saw nothing. Mme. Cantinet pointed to him. "My dear woman, you would not believe me," she said. "Whatever you say, he does not answer."

"Very well, child," said La Sauvage; "now I will show you what to do in a case of this kind."

She looked round the room as a thief looks in search of possible hiding-places for money; then she went straight to Pons' chest, opened the first drawer, saw the bag in which Schmucke had put the rest of the money after the sale of the pictures, and held it up before him. He nodded mechanically.

"Here is money, child," said La Sauvage, turning to Mme. Cantinet. "I will count it first and take enough to buy everything we want—wine, provisions, wax-candles, all sorts of things, in fact, for there is nothing in the house. . . . Just look in the drawers for a sheet to bury him in. I certainly was told that the poor gentleman was simple, but I don't know what he is; he is worse. He is like a new-born child; we shall have to feed him with a funnel."

The women went about their work, and Schmucke looked on precisely as an idiot might have done. Broken down with sorrow, wholly absorbed, in a half-cataleptic state, he could not take his eyes from the face that seemed to fascinate him, Pons' face refined by the absolute repose of Death. Schmucke hoped to die; everything was alike indifferent. If the room had been on fire he would not have stirred.

"There are twelve hundred and fifty francs here," La Sauvage told him.

Schmucke shrugged his shoulders.

But when La Sauvage came near to measure the body by laying the sheet over it, before cutting out the shroud, a horrible struggle ensued between her and the poor German. Schmucke was furious. He behaved like a dog that watches by his dead master's body, and shows his teeth at all who try to touch it. La Sauvage grew impatient. She grasped him, set him in the armchair, and held him down with herculean strength.

"Go on, child; sew him in his shroud," she said, turning to Mme. Cantinet.

As soon as this operation was completed, La Sauvage set Schmucke back in his place at the foot of the bed.

"Do you understand?" said she. "The poor dead man lying there must be done up, there is no help for it."

Schmucke began to cry. The women left him and took possession of the kitchen, whither they brought all the necessaries in a very short time. La Sauvage made out a preliminary statement accounting for three hundred and sixty francs, and then proceeded to prepare a dinner for four persons. And what a dinner! A fat goose (the cobbler's pheasant) by way of a substantial roast, an omelette with preserves, a salad, and the inevitable broth—the quantities of the ingredients for this last being so excessive that the soup was more like a strong meat-jelly.

At nine o'clock the priest, sent by the curate to watch by the dead, came in with Cantinet, who brought four tall wax candles and some tapers. In the death-chamber Schmucke was lying with his arms about the body of his friend, holding him in a tight clasp; nothing but the authority of religion availed to separate him from his dead. Then the priest settled himself comfortably in the easy-chair and read his prayers while Schmucke, kneeling beside the couch, besought God to work a miracle and unite him to Pons, so that they might be buried in the same grave; and Mme. Cantinet went on her way to the Temple to buy a pallet and complete bedding for Mme. Sauvage. The twelve hundred and fifty francs were regarded as plunder. At eleven o'clock Mme. Cantinet came in to ask if Schmucke would not eat a morsel, but with a gesture he signified that he wished to be left in peace.

"Your supper is ready, M. Pastelot," she said, addressing the priest, and they went.

Schmucke, left alone in the room, smiled to himself like a madman free at last to gratify a desire like the longing of pregnancy. He flung himself down beside Pons, and yet again he held his friend in a long, close embrace. At midnight the priest came back and scolded him, and Schmucke returned to his prayers. At daybreak the priest went, and at seven o'clock in the morning the doctor came to see Schmucke, and spoke kindly and tried hard to persuade him to eat, but the German refused.

"If you do not eat now you will feel very hungry when you come back," the doctor told him, "for you must go to the mayor's office and take a witness with you, so that the registrar may issue a certificate of death."

"I must go!" cried Schmucke in frightened tones.

"Who else? . . . You must go, for you were the one person who saw him die."

"Mein legs vill nicht carry me," pleaded Schmucke, imploring the doctor to come to the rescue.

"Take a cab," the hypocritical doctor blandly suggested. "I have given notice already. Ask some one in the house to go with you. The two women will look after the place while you are away."

No one imagines how the requirements of the law jar upon a heartfelt sorrow. The thought of it is enough to make one turn from civilization and choose rather the customs of the savage. At nine o'clock that morning Mme. Sauvage half-carried Schmucke downstairs, and from the cab he was obliged to beg Remonencq to come with him to the registrar as a second witness. Here in Paris, in this land of ours besotted with Equality, the inequality of conditions is glaringly apparent everywhere and in everything. The immutable tendency of things peeps out even in the practical aspects of Death. In well-to-do families, a relative, a friend, or a man of business spares the mourners these painful details; but in this, as in the matter of taxation, the whole burden falls heaviest upon the shoulders of the poor.

"Ah! you have good reason to regret him," said Remonencq in answer to the poor martyr's moan; "he was a very good, a very honest man, and he has left a fine collection behind him. But being a foreigner, sir, do you know that you are like to find yourself in a great predicament—for everybody says that M. Pons left everything to you?"

Schmucke was not listening. He was sounding the dark depths of sorrow that border upon madness. There is such a thing as tetanus of the soul.

"And you would do well to find some one—some man of business—to advise you and act for you," pursued Remonencq.

"Ein mann of pizness!" echoed Schmucke.

"You will find that you will want some one to act for you. If I were you, I should take an experienced man, somebody well known to you in the quarter, a man you can trust. . . . I always go to Tabareau myself for my bits of affairs—he is the bailiff. If you give his clerk power to act for you, you need not trouble yourself any further."

Remonencq and La Cibot, prompted by Fraisier, had agreed beforehand to make a suggestion which stuck in Schmucke's memory; for there are times in our lives when grief, as it were, congeals the mind by arresting all its functions, and any chance impression made at such moments is retained by a frost-bound memory. Schmucke heard his companion with such a fixed, mindless stare, that Remonencq said no more.

"If he is always to be idiotic like this," thought Remonencq, "I might easily buy the whole bag of tricks up yonder for a hundred thousand francs; if it is really his. . . . Here we are at the mayor's office, sir."

Remonencq was obliged to take Schmucke out of the cab and to half-carry him to the registrar's department, where a wedding-party was assembled. Here they had to wait for their turn, for, by no very uncommon chance, the clerk had five or six certificates to make out that morning; and here it was appointed that poor Schmucke should suffer excruciating anguish.

"Monsieur is M. Schmucke?" remarked a person in a suit of black, reducing Schmucke to stupefaction by the mention of his name. He looked up with the same blank, unseeing eyes that he had turned upon Remonencq, who now interposed.

"What do you want with him?" he said. "Just leave him in peace; you can plainly see that he is in trouble."

"The gentleman has just lost his friend, and proposes, no doubt, to do honor to his memory, being, as he is, the sole heir. The gentleman, no doubt, will not haggle over it, he will buy a piece of ground outright for a grave. And as M. Pons was such a lover of the arts, it would be a great pity not to put Music, Painting, and Sculpture on his tomb—three handsome full-length figures, weeping—"

Remonencq waved the speaker away, in Auvergnat fashion, but the man replied with another gesture, which being interpreted means "Don't spoil sport"; a piece of commercial free-masonry, as it were, which the dealer understood.

"I represent the firm of Sonet and Company, monumental stone-masons; Sir Walter Scott would have dubbed me Young Mortality," continued this person. "If you, sir, should decide to intrust your orders to us, we would spare you the trouble of the journey to purchase the ground necessary for the interment of a friend lost to the arts—"

At this Remonencq nodded assent, and jogged Schmucke's elbow.

"Every day we receive orders from families to arrange all formalities," continued he of the black coat, thus encouraged by Remonencq. "In the first moment of bereavement, the heir-at-law finds it very difficult to attend to such matters, and we are accustomed to perform these little services for our clients. Our charges, sir, are on a fixed scale, so much per foot, freestone or marble. Family vaults a specialty.—We undertake everything at the most moderate prices. Our firm executed the magnificent monument erected to the fair Esther Gobseck and Lucien de Rubempre, one of the finest ornaments of Pere-Lachaise. We only employ the best workmen, and I must warn you, sir, against small contractors—who turn out nothing but trash," he added, seeing that another person in a black suit was coming up to say a word for another firm of marble-workers.