Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 32
MISANTHROPY PLAYS ITS PRANKS.
A STRANGE and alarming grinding of teeth reached the boy through the darkness. It was enough to drive one back; but he advanced. To those to whom silence has become dreadful, even a howl is comforting. That fierce growl reassured him; that threat was a promise. There must be some creature alive and awake there, though it might be a wild beast. He advanced in the direction whence the snarl had come.
The boy turned the corner of a wall, and, behind it, in the sepulchral light made by the reflection of snow and sea, he saw a thing placed as if for shelter. It was a cart; that is, unless it was a hovel. It had wheels, so it was a carriage; it had a roof, so it was a dwelling. From the roof arose a funnel, and out of the funnel came smoke. This smoke was red, and seemed to imply a good fire in the interior. Behind, projecting hinges indicated a door; and in the centre of this door a square opening revealed a light inside the van.
The boy approached. The creature that had growled evidently perceived his approach, and became furious. It was no longer a growl which he had to encounter, it was a roar. He heard a sharp sound, as of a chain violently pulled to its full length; and suddenly under the door, between the hind wheels, two rows of sharp white teeth appeared. At the same instant a head was put through the window.
"Be quiet there!" said the head.
The mouth was silent. The head began again:—
"Is anybody there?"
"Yes," the child answered.
"Who is it?"
"You? Who are you? Where did you come from?"
"I am tired," said the child.
"What time is it?"
"I am cold."
"What are you doing here?"
"I am hungry."
"Every one cannot be as happy as a lord," the head replied. "Go away."
The head was withdrawn and the window closed.
The boy folded the sleeping infant closer in his arms, and summoned up all his strength to resume his journey; he had already taken a few steps, and was hurrying away. But as the window of the wagon closed, the door opened; a step was let down, and the voice which had spoken to the boy cried out angrily from the interior of the van,—
"Well! why don't you come in?"
The boy turned back.
"Come in," resumed the voice. "Who ever heard of a fellow like this,—a fellow who is hungry and cold, and yet who does not come in?"
The boy, at once repulsed and invited, stood motionless.
"You are told to come in, you young rascal," the voice continued.
The boy made up his mind, and placed one foot on the lowest step. There was a loud growl from under the van. The boy drew back; the gaping jaws had reappeared.
"Be quiet!" cried the voice of the man.
The jaws retreated, the growling ceased.
"Come up!" continued the man.
The boy with some difficulty climbed up the three steps, his movements being impeded by the infant that was so completely enveloped in the jacket that nothing could be distinguished of her, and she was little more than a shapeless bundle. He ascended the three steps; and having reached the threshold, stopped. There was no light in the van except that which proceeded from the opening at the top of the stove, in which sparkled a peat fire. On the stove stood a porringer and a saucepan, apparently containing something to eat, for a savory odour was perceptible. The inside was furnished with a chest, a stool, and an unlighted lantern which hung from the ceiling. There were also a number of hooks on the walls, from which all sorts of things hung; and there were shelves upon which stood rows of glasses and bottles, a granulator, an alembic, and other chemical instruments, as well as cooking utensils. The van was oblong in shape, the stove being in front. It was not even a little room into which the boy entered,—it was only a big box. There was more light outside from the snow than inside from the stove. Everything in the van was indistinct and misty; nevertheless, the reflection of the fire on the ceiling enabled the spectator to read in large letters,—
The boy, in fact was entering the abode of Homo and Ursus. It was the former that he had just heard growling. Having reached the threshold, he perceived near the stove a tall, smooth-faced, thin old man dressed in grey, whose head, as he stood erect, touched the roof. The man could not have raised himself on tiptoe. The van was just his height.
"Come in!" said the man, who was Ursus. The boy entered.
"Put down your bundle."
The boy placed his burden carefully on the top of the chest, for fear of awakening and terrifying his charge.
The man continued: "How gently you put it down! You could not be more careful if it were a case of relics. Are you afraid of tearing a hole in your rags? What are you doing in the streets at this hour, you vagabond? Who are you? Answer! But, no; I forbid you to answer. You are cold; warm yourself as quick as you can," and he shoved him by the shoulders in front of the fire.
"How wet you are! You're frozen through! A nice state you are in to enter a man's house! Take off those rags, you villain!" and as he hastily tore off the boy's rags with one hand, with the other he took down from a nail a man's shirt, and one of those knitted jackets which are up to this day called kiss-me-quicks. "Here are some clothes," he added gruffly. He picked up a woollen rag, and chafed before the fire the limbs of the exhausted and bewildered child, who at that moment felt as if he were seeing and touching heaven. The limbs having been rubbed, the man next wiped the boy's feet.
"You're all right!" he exclaimed. "I was fool enough to fancy you had frozen your hind-legs or fore-paws. You will not lose the use of them this time. Dress yourself!"
The boy put on the shirt, and the man slipped the knitted jacket over it.
"Now—" The man pushed the stool forward and made the boy sit down; then he pointed with his finger to the porringer which was smoking upon the stove. What the child saw in the porringer was again heaven to him,—namely, a potato and a bit of bacon.
"You are hungry—eat!" said the man; and he took from the shelf a crust of bread and an iron fork, and handed them to the child.
The boy hesitated.
"Perhaps you expect me to lay the cloth," said the man, as he placed the porringer on the child's lap. "Gobble that up! he exclaimed imperiously.
Hunger overcame astonishment. The boy began to eat. He devoured rather than ate the food.
"Not so fast, you horrid glutton!" grumbled the man. "Is n't he a greedy scoundrel? When such scum are hungry, they eat in a revolting fashion. You should see a lord sup. In my time, I have seen dukes eat; they don't eat like the common herd. They drink, however. Come, you pig! stuff yourself!"
The deafness which is the concomitant of a hungry stomach caused the child to take little heed of these violent epithets, tempered as they were by such beneficent charity of action. For the moment he was absorbed by two ecstasies,—food and warmth.
Ursus continued his imprecations, muttering to himself: "I have seen King James supping in propriâ personâ, in the Banqueting House, adorned with the paintings of the famous Rubens. His Majesty touched nothing. This beggar here gorges himself. What put it into my head to come to this Weymouth, seven times devoted to the infernal deities? I have sold nothing since morning; I have harangued the snow; I have played the flute to the hurricane; I have not pocketed a farthing; and now, to-night, beggars drop in. Horrid place! There is battle, struggle, competition between the fools in the street and myself. They try to give me nothing but farthings. I try to give them nothing but drugs. Well! to-day I've made nothing,—not an idiot on the highway; not a penny in the till. Eat away, hell-born boy! tear and crunch! We have fallen on times when nothing can equal the cynicism of spongers. Fatten at my expense, parasite! This wretched boy is more than hungry; his is not appetite, it is ferocity. Perhaps he has the plague. Have you the plague, you thief? Suppose he were to give it to Homo! No, never! Let the populace die, but not my wolf. By-the-bye, I am hungry myself. I declare, all this is very disagreeable. I have worked far into the night. There are times in a man's life when he is hard pressed; I was to-night, by hunger. I was alone. I made a fire. I had but one potato, one crust of bread, a mouthful of bacon, and a drop of milk, and I put it to warm. I said to myself, 'How good it smells!' I fancy I am going to eat, when lo and behold! this crocodile drops in at the very moment; he installs himself between my food and myself. See how my larder is devastated! Eat, pike! eat, you shark! How many teeth have you in your jaws? Guzzle, wolf-cub!—no, I withdraw that word; I respect wolves. Swallow up my food, you boa! I have worked all day, and far into the night, on an empty stomach; my throat is sore; my pancreas is in distress; my entrails are torn; and my reward is to see another eat! 'Tis all one, though. We will divide. He shall have the bread, the potato, and the bacon, but I will have the milk."
Just then a wail, touching and prolonged, arose in the hut. The man listened. "You cry, sycophant! Why do you cry?"
The boy turned towards him; it was evident that it was not he who had cried. He had his mouth full. Yet the cry continued. The man went to the chest.
"So it is your bundle that wails! Vale of Jehoshaphat! Who ever heard of a screeching parcel! What the devil has your bundle got to croak about?"
He unrolled the jacket; an infant's head appeared, the mouth open and crying.
"Well! Who goes there?" said the man. "Here is another of them. When is this to end? Who is this! To arms! Corporal, call out the guard! Here is another intruder in the camp! What have you brought me, thief? Don't you see it is thirsty? The little one must have a drink. So, now, I shall not even have the milk!"
He took down from the things lying in disorder on the shelf a roll of linen, a sponge, and a phial, muttering savagely, "What an infernal scrape this is!" Then he looked at the infant. "'T is a girl! one can tell that by her scream; and she too is drenched to the skin!"
He dragged off as he had done from the boy the tatters in which the infant was tied up rather than dressed, and swathed her in a rag, which though of coarse linen was clean and dry. This rough and hurried toilet made the infant angry. "How atrociously she screeches!" he exclaimed.
He bit off a long narrow piece of sponge, tore from the roll a square piece of linen, took the saucepan containing the milk from the stove, filled the bottle with milk, pushed the sponge half-way down into its neck, covering the protruding end with linen, tied it with a bit of thread, applied his cheeks to the phial to be sure that it was not too hot, and then seizing under his left arm the bewildered infant which was still crying, said:
"Come! take your supper, creature! Let me suckle you," at the same time putting the neck of the bottle to its mouth.
The little infant drank greedily. He held the phial at the necessary incline, grumbling,—
"They are all the same, the cowards! While they get all they want they are quiet!"
The child drank so ravenously, and seized so eagerly this breast offered by a cross-grained Providence, that she was taken with a violent fit of coughing.
"You are going to choke!" growled Ursus. "A fine gobbler this one is too!"
He drew away the sponge which she was sucking, allowed the cough to subside, and then replaced the phial to her lips, saying, "Suck! you little wretch!"
In the mean time the boy had laid down his fork. Seeing the infant drink made him forget to eat. The moment before, while he ate, the expression on his face was satisfaction; now it was gratitude. He watched the infant's renewal of life; and the completion of the restoration begun by himself filled his eyes with an ineffable brilliancy. Ursus went on muttering angry words between his teeth. The boy now and then lifted to him eyes moist with the deep emotion which the poor little being felt, but was unable to express.
"Eat, eat, I tell you!" Ursus said to the boy, savagely.
"And you?" said the boy, trembling all over, and with tears in his eyes,—" you will have nothing!"
"Will you be kind enough to eat it all up, you cub? As there was not enough for me, there cannot be too much for you."
The boy took up his fork, but did not eat.
"Eat!" shouted Ursus. "What have you to do with me? Who speaks of me? Wretched little barefooted clerk of Poverty Parish! eat it all up, I tell you! You are here to eat, drink, and sleep; eat, or I will kick you out, both of you."
The boy, at this threat, began to eat again. He had not much trouble in finishing what was left in the porringer.
Ursus muttered to himself now: "This building is badly constructed. The cold comes in through that window-pane."
A pane had indeed been broken in front, either by a jolt of the van or by a stone thrown by some mischievous boy. Ursus had placed a piece of paper over the fracture, but it had become unpasted, letting in the wind again. He was seated on the chest; the infant, cradled in his arms, was sucking rapturously at the bottle, in the blissful somnolency of cherubim before their Creator and infants at their mothers' breast.
"She is surfeited!" said Ursus; and he added: "After this, preach sermons on temperance!"
The wind tore from the pane the plaster of paper, and blew it across the van; but this mattered little to the children who were entering life anew. While the little girl drank, and the little boy ate, Ursus grumbled to himself:—
"Intemperance begins in the infant in swaddling clothes. What useless trouble Bishop Tillotson gives himself, thundering against excessive drinking!—What an odious draught of wind! and then my stove is old, and allows enough smoke to escape to give you trichiasis. Fire has its inconveniences as well as cold; one cannot see clearly.—That creature over there abuses my hospitality. Well, I have not been able to distinguish the animal's face yet.—Comfort is wanting here. By Jove! I am a great admirer of exquisite banquets in well closed rooms! I have missed my vocation; I was born to be a sensualist. The greatest of sages was Philoxenus, who wished to possess the neck of a crane, in order to enjoy the pleasures of the table longer.—Receipts to-day, naught; nothing sold all day. Inhabitants, servants, and tradesmen, here is the doctor, here are the drugs! You are losing your time, old friend; pack up your physic,—every one is well, down here. Accursed town, where everybody is well! The skies alone have diarrhœa! How it snows! Anaxagoras taught that the snow was black; and he was right, cold being blackness: ice is night. What a hurricane! I can fancy the delight of those at sea. A hurricane is like the passage of demons; it is the row the tempest-fiends make in galloping and rolling head-over-heels over our bone-boxes. In the cloud this one has a tail, that one has horns, another a flame for a tongue, another claws to its wings, another a lord chancellor's paunch, another an academician's pate: each new gust is a fresh demon. Zounds! there are folks at sea, that is certain. My friends, get through the storm as best you can; I have enough to do to get through life.—Come now, do I keep an inn, or do I not? Why should I harbour these travellers? The universal distress sends its spatterings even as far as my poverty; into my cabin fall hideous drops of the far-spreading scum of mankind. I am the victim of the voracity of travellers; I am a prey,—the prey of those dying of hunger. Winter, night, a pasteboard hut, an unfortunate friend below and without, the storm, a potato, a fire as big as my fist, the wind penetrating through every cranny, not a half-penny,—and bundles are brought to me which set to howling! I open them, and find beggars inside! Is this fair? Besides, the laws are violated. See, a vagabond with a vagabond child! Mischievous pick-pocket, evil-minded abortion! so you walk the streets after curfew? If our good king only knew it, would he not have you thrown into the bottom of a ditch, just to teach you better? My lord walks out at night with my lady, with the thermometer at fifteen degrees below the freezing-point, bare-headed and bare-footed. You should understand that such things are forbidden. There are rules and regulations, you lawless wretches! Vagabonds are punished; honest folks who have houses are guarded and protected. Kings are the fathers of their people. I have my own house. You would have been whipped in the public street had you chanced to have been met; and quite right, too. Order must be maintained in a city. For my own part, I did wrong not to denounce you to the constable. But I am such a fool! I understand what is right and do what is wrong. Oh, the ruffian! to come here in such a state! I did not see the snow upon them when they came in; it has melted, and here's my whole house swamped. I have an inundation in my home. I shall have to burn an incredible amount of coals to dry up this lake,—and coals at twelve farthings, the miners' standard! How am I going to manage to fit three into this van? My career is ended; there is nothing left for me now but to become a wet-nurse. I am going to have on my hands the weaning of the future beggardom of England. It seems destined to be my employment, office, and function to bring up the offspring of that colossal Prostitute, Misery; to bring to perfection future gallows' birds, and teach young thieves the forms of philosophy. The tongue of the wolf is the warning of God! And to think that if I had not been eaten up by creatures of this kind for the last thirty years, I should be rich, and Homo would be fat; I should have a medicine-chest full of rarities, as many surgical instruments as Doctor Linacre surgeon to King Henry VIII., divers animals of all kinds, Egyptian mummies and similar curiosities; I should be a member of the College of Physicians, and have the right of using the library built in 1652 by the celebrated Hervey, and of studying in the lantern of that dome whence you can see the whole of London; I could continue my observations of solar obfuscation, and prove that a caliginous vapour arises from the planet.—Such was the opinion of John Kepler, who was born the year before the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and who was mathematician to the emperor.—The sun is a chimney which sometimes smokes; so does my stove; hence my stove is as good as the sun. Yes, I should have made my fortune; my career would have been a very different one. I should not be the insignificant fellow I am. I should not degrade science in the highways; for the crowd is not worthy of the doctrine, the crowd being nothing better than a confused mixture of all ages, sexes, humours, and conditions that wise men of all periods have not hesitated to despise, and whose absurdities and passions are detested even by the most charitable. Oh, I am weary of existence! After all, one does not live long; this human life is soon over. But no,—it is long. At intervals, in order that we may not become too discouraged, and that we may have the stupidity to consent to endure existence, and not profit. by the magnificent opportunities to hang ourselves which ropes and nails afford. Nature pretends to take a little care of man—not to-night, though! The rogue causes the wheat to spring up, ripens the grape, gives song to the nightingale. From time to time we get a ray of sunshine or a glass of gin,—and that is what we call happiness! It is a narrow border of good round a huge winding-sheet of evil. We have a destiny of which the devil has woven the stuff, and God has sewn the hem. In the mean time, you have eaten all my supper up, you thief!"
The infant, whom he was holding tenderly in his arms all the while he was vituperating it, shut its eyes languidly,—a sign of repletion.
Ursus examined the phial, and grumbled: "She has drunk it all up, the impudent creature!"
He arose, and holding the infant in his left arm, with his right he raised the lid of the chest and drew out a bear-skin,—the one he called his real skin, as the reader may remember. While he was doing this he heard the other child eating, and glanced at him sideways.
"I shall have my hands full if I have to feed that growing glutton," he muttered. "It will be a worm gnawing at the vitals of my industry."
He spread out, still with one arm, the bear-skin on the chest, working his elbow and managing his movements so as not to disturb the sleep into which the infant was just sinking. Then he laid her down on the fur, on the side of the chest next the fire. Having done so, he placed the phial on the stove, and exclaimed, "I'm confoundedly thirsty myself!"
He looked into the pot. There were a few mouthfuls of milk left in it; he raised it to his lips. As he was about to drink, his eye fell on the little girl. He replaced the pot on the stove, took the phial, uncorked it, poured into it all the milk that remained, which was just sufficient to fill it, replaced the sponge and the linen rag over it, and tied it round the neck of the bottle.
"I'm hungry and thirsty all the same," he observed. Then he added: "When one cannot get bread, one must drink water."
Behind the stove there was a jug with the spout broken off. He took it and handed it to the boy. "Do you want a drink?"
The boy drank, and then went on eating. Ursus seized the pitcher again, and raised it to his mouth. The temperature of the water which it contained had been greatly modified by the proximity of the stove. He swallowed a mouthful and made a grimace. Then he said:—
"Water! pretending to be pure, thou resemblest false friends. Thou art warm at the top and cold at the bottom."
In the mean time the boy had finished his supper. The porringer was more than empty; it was cleaned out. He picked up and ate pensively a few crumbs caught in the folds of the knitted jacket on his lap.
Ursus turned towards him. "Now, a word with you. The mouth is not made only for eating; it is made for speaking. Now that you are warmed and stuffed, you beast, give an account of yourself. You are going to answer my questions. Where did you come from?"
"I do not know," the boy replied.
"Why do you say you don't know?"
"I was abandoned this evening on the sea-shore."
"You little scamp! what's your name? He is so good for nothing that even his relatives desert him."
"I have no relatives."
"Have a care! I don't like people who sing a tune of fibs. You must have relatives, since you have a sister."
"She is not my sister."
"She is not your sister?"
"Who is she then?"
"It is a baby that I found."
"What! did you pick her up?"
"Where? If you lie I'll thrash you within an inch of your life!"
"I found her on the breast of a woman who was lying dead in the snow."
"About an hour ago."
"A league from here."
The arched brows of Ursus contracted and assumed that pointed shape which characterizes emotion on the brow of a philosopher. "Dead! Lucky for her! We had better leave her in the snow. She is better off there. In which direction?"
"In the direction of the sea."
"Did you cross the bridge?"
Ursus opened the window at the back of the van and looked out. The weather had not improved. The snow was falling thick and fast. He shut the window. Then he filled the broken pane with a rag, heaped the stove with peat, spread out as far as he could the bear-skin on the chest, took a large book which he had in a corner, placed it under the skin for a pillow, and laid the head of the sleeping infant on it. Then he turned to the boy.
"Lie down here," he said.
The boy obeyed, and stretched himself at full length by the side of the infant. Ursus rolled the bear-skin over the two children, and tucked it under their feet. He took down from a shelf, and tied round his waist, a linen belt with a large pocket containing, no doubt, a case of instruments and bottles of restoratives. Then he took the lantern from where it hung on the ceiling, and lighted it. It was a dark-lantern. When lighted, it still left the children in shadow.
Ursus half opened the door, and said: "I am going out; do not be afraid. I shall return. Go to sleep."
Then letting down the steps, he called Homo. He was answered by a loving growl. Ursus, holding the lantern in his hand, descended. The steps were replaced, the door was reclosed. The children were left alone.
From without, a voice, the voice of Ursus, said: "Say, you, boy, who have just eaten up my supper, are you already asleep?"
"No," replied the child.
"Well, if she cries, give her the rest of the milk."
The clanking of a chain was heard, and the sound of a man's footsteps, mingled with the soft patter of an animal's paws, died away in the distance. A few minutes after, both children were sound asleep. Such dreams as are prone to visit beings of that age floated from one to the other; beneath their closed eyelids there shone, perhaps, the light of the spheres. If the word "marriage" were not inappropriate to the situation, they were husband and wife after the fashion of the angels. Such innocence in such darkness, such purity in such an embrace, such foretastes of heaven, are possible only to childhood, and no immensity approaches the greatness of little children. The fearful perpetuity of the dead chained beyond life, the mighty animosity of the ocean to a wreck, the whiteness of the snow over buried bodies, do not equal in pathos two children's mouths meeting divinely in sleep,—a meeting which is not even a kiss: a betrothal perchance; perchance a catastrophe. The unknown overhangs this juxtaposition. It charms, it terrifies,—who knows which? It stays the pulse. Innocence is greater than virtue; innocence is holy ignorance. They slept; they were at peace; they were warm. The nakedness of their interlaced bodies imaged the virginity of their souls. They lay there, as it were, on the bosom of the infinite Father of all.