Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 29
THE EFFECT OF SNOW.
THE child followed in this track for some time; but unfortunately the footprints became more and more indistinct, for the snow was falling thick and fast. It was at the very same time that the hooker was encountering the furious snow-storm at sea. The child, in distress like the vessel, but in a different fashion, had, in the inextricable confusion of shadows that rose up before him, no guide but the footsteps in the snow, and he held to it as the thread of the labyrinth.
Suddenly, whether the snow had filled them up entirely, or for some other reason, the footsteps ceased. All became even, level, smooth, without a stain, without an irregularity. There was now nothing but a white mantle drawn over the earth, and a black one over the sky. It seemed as if the pedestrian must have flown away. The child, in despair, bent down and searched; but in vain. As he arose he fancied that he heard some indistinct sound, but he could not be sure of it. It resembled a voice, a breath, a shadow; it was more human than animal, more sepulchral than living. It was not a sound, but rather the shadow of a sound. He looked, but saw nothing. Solitude, wide and naked, stretched before him. He listened: that which he had thought he heard had faded away. Perhaps it had been only fancy. He still listened: all was silent. He went on his way again, walking on at random, with nothing thenceforth to guide him.
As the child moved away the noise began again. This time he could doubt no longer. It was a groan, almost a sob. He turned and peered eagerly into the darkness, but saw nothing. The sound arose once more. It was the most penetrating and piercing, yet feeble voice imaginable, for it certainly was a voice. It arose from a soul. There was a strange palpitation in the murmur; nevertheless, it seemed uttered almost unconsciously. It was an appeal from some one in suffering, and yet from some one who was scarcely conscious of that suffering or the appeal for relief. The cry—perhaps a first breath, perhaps a last sigh—was equally removed from the rattle which ends life and the wail with which it commences. It breathed a gloomy supplication from the depths of night. The child gazed intently everywhere,—far, near, on high, below. There was no one in sight. He listened. The voice arose again; he heard it distinctly. The sound somewhat resembled the bleating of a lamb. Then he was frightened, and thought for an instant of flight. The sound arose again; this was the fourth time. It was strangely miserable and plaintive; one felt that after that last effort, which was more mechanical than voluntary, the cry would probably be extinguished. It was an expiring exclamation, instinctively appealing to the amount of aid lying dormant in space. It was an agonized appeal to a possible Providence.
The child advanced in the direction from which the sound seemed to proceed. Still he saw nothing. He advanced again, watchfully. The wail continued; inarticulate and confused as it was, it had become clear, almost vibrating. The child was near the voice; but where was it? While he was hesitating between an impulse which urged him to fly and an instinct which commanded him to remain, he perceived in the snow at his feet, a few steps before him, a sort of undulation of the dimensions of a human body, a little eminence, low, long, and narrow, like the mound over a grave,—a sepulchre in a white church-yard. At the same time the voice cried out again. It was from beneath the undulation that it proceeded. The child crouched down beside the undulation, and with both his hands began to clear it away. Beneath the snow which he removed the lines of a human form soon became visible, and suddenly in the hollow he had made a pale face appeared.
The cry had not proceeded from this face, for the eyes were shut, and the mouth, though open, was full of snow. The form remained motionless; it stirred not under the benumbed hands of the child. He shuddered when he touched it. It was a woman's form. Her dishevelled hair was mingled with the snow; she was dead.
Again the child set to work to brush away the snow. The neck of the dead woman appeared; then her shoulders, clothed in rags. Suddenly he felt something move feebly under his touch. It was something small that was buried, and that stirred. The child swiftly cleared away the snow, revealing a wretched little body—thin, and icy cold, but still alive—lying naked on the dead woman's naked breast. It was a little girl.
It had been swaddled up, but in rags so scanty that in its struggles it had freed itself from its tatters. Its attenuated limbs, which yet contained a little warmth, and its feeble breath, had somewhat melted the snow. A nurse would have said that the baby was live or six months old; but perhaps it might be a year old, for growth, in poverty, suffers deplorable drawbacks, which sometimes even produce rachitis. When the baby's face was exposed to the air it gave a cry, the continuation of its moan of distress. For the mother not to have heard that sob proved her irrevocably dead. The child took the infant in his arms.
The stiffened body of the mother was a fearful sight. A spectral light seemed to proceed from her face. Her parted, breathless lips seemed to be forming in the mysterious language of shadows her answer to the questions put to the dead by the Invisible. The ghastly reflection of the icy plains was on her countenance. There was a youthful forehead under the brown hair, an almost indignant knitting of the eyebrows, pinched nostrils, closed eyelids, the lashes glued together by the rime, and from the corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth extended a channel of frozen tears. The snow lighted up the corpse. Winter and death are not unlike; the corpse is a human circle. The nakedness of the dead woman's breasts was pathetic. They had fulfilled their purpose. On them was a sublime blight of the life infused into one being by another from whom life has fled, and maternal majesty was there instead of virginal purity. At the point of one of the nipples was a white pearl. It was a drop of frozen milk.
Let us explain at once. On the plain over which the deserted boy was passing a beggar woman, nursing her infant and searching for a refuge, had lost her way a few hours before. Benumbed with cold she had fallen on the snow, and was unable to rise again. The falling snow covered her. As long as she was able she had clasped her little girl to her bosom; and thus she died.
The infant had tried to suck the marble breast of the mother. Blind trust, inspired by Nature; for it seems that it is possible for a woman to suckle her child even after her last sigh. But the lips of the infant had been unable to find the breast where the drop of milk had frozen, while under the snow the child, more accustomed to the cradle than the tomb, had wailed despairingly. The deserted child had heard the cry of the dying child. He disinterred it. He took it in his arms.
When the infant found herself in his arms she ceased crying. The faces of the two children touched each other, and the purple lips of the infant sought the cheek of the boy, as it had been a breast. The little girl had nearly reached the moment when the congealed blood stops the action of the heart. Her mother had touched her with the chill of death, for a corpse communicates death; its numbness is infectious. The infant's feet, hands, arms, knees, seemed paralyzed by cold. The boy felt the terrible chill. He had on him one garment dry and warm,—his pilot jacket. He placed the infant on the breast of the corpse, took off his jacket, wrapped the infant in it, which he took up again in his arms; and then, almost naked, under the blast of the north wind which covered him with eddies of snow-flakes, carrying the infant, he continued his journey. The little one having succeeded in again finding the boy's cheek, again applied her lips to it; and, soothed by the warmth, she fell asleep. First kiss of those two souls in the darkness!
The mother lay there on her back upon the snow, her face turned up to the night; but perhaps at the moment when the boy stripped himself to clothe the little girl, the mother saw him from the depths of infinity.