Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 33



A SAD, pale light penetrated the van. It was the frozen dawn. That wan light which throws into relief the mournful reality of objects that are blurred into spectral forms by the night did not waken the children, so soundly were they sleeping. The van was warm. Their breathings alternated like two peaceful waves. There was no longer any hurricane without. The light of dawn was slowly taking possession of the horizon; the constellations were being extinguished, like candles blown out one after the other,—only a few large stars resisted. The deep-toned song of the Infinite was coming from the sea. The fire in the stove was not quite out. The twilight changed gradually into daylight.

The boy slept less heavily than the girl. At length, a ray brighter than the others broke through the pane, and he opened his eyes. The sleep of childhood ends in forgetfulness. He lay in a state of semi-stupor, without knowing where he was or what was around him, and without making any effort to remember, gazing at the ceiling, and setting himself an aimless task as he dreamily surveyed the letters of the inscription, "Ursus, Philosopher," which, as he did not know how to read, he examined without the power of deciphering. The sound of a key grating in the lock of the door caused him to turn his head. The door turned on its hinges, the steps were let down. Ursus was returning. He ascended the steps, his extinguished lantern in his hand. At the same time the patter of four paws was heard on the steps. It was Homo, following Ursus, who had also returned to his home.

The frightened boy gave a sudden start as the wolf opened his mouth, disclosing two rows of glistening white teeth. The animal stopped when he had got half way up the steps, and placed both fore-paws inside the van, leaning on the threshold, like a preacher with his elbows on the edge of the pulpit. He sniffed at the chest from afar, not being in the habit of finding it occupied as it then was. At last he made up his mind to enter. The boy, seeing the wolf in the van, jumped out of the bear-skin, and placed himself in front of the infant, who was sleeping as soundly as ever.

Ursus had just hung the lantern up on the nail in the ceiling. Silently, and with mechanical deliberation, he unbuckled the belt which held his case, and replaced it on the shelf. He looked at nothing, and seemed to see nothing. His eyes were glassy. Something had evidently moved him deeply. His thoughts at length found vent, as usual, in a rapid flow of words.

"Better off, doubtless! Dead! stone dead!" he soliloquized.

He bent down, and put a shovelful of turf-mould into the stove; and as he poked the peat, he growled out:

"I had great trouble in finding her. She was buried under two feet of snow. Had it not been for Homo, who sees as clearly with his nose as Christopher Columbus did with his mind, I should still be there, digging at the avalanche, and playing hide-and-seek with Death. Diogenes took his lantern and sought for a man; I took my lantern and sought for a woman. He found a sarcasm; I found mourning. How cold she was! I touched her hand,—it was like stone! What silence in her eyes! How can any one be such a fool as to die and leave a child behind! It will not be convenient to pack three into this box. A pretty family I have now! A boy and a girl!"

While Ursus was speaking, Homo sidled up close to the stove. The hand of the sleeping infant was hanging down between the stove and the chest. The wolf set to licking it. He licked it so softly that he did not wake the little infant.

Ursus turned round. "Well done, Homo! I shall be father, and you shall be uncle."

Then he betook himself again to mending the fire with philosophical care, without pausing in his soliloquy, however.

"Adoption! It is settled; Homo is willing." He drew himself up. "I should like to know who is responsible for that woman's death? Is it man? or—" He raised his eyes, but looked beyond the ceiling, and his lips murmured, "Is it Thou?"

Then his head dropped, as if beneath a burden. Raising his eyes a moment afterwards they met those of the just-awakened boy, who was listening.

"What are you laughing at?" Ursus demanded abruptly.

"I am not laughing," replied the boy.

Ursus looked at him intently for a few minutes. "Then you are frightful to look upon!" he exclaimed.

The interior of the van, on the previous night, had been so dark that Ursus had not seen the boy's face at all. The broad daylight revealed it. He placed the palms of his hands on the two shoulders of the boy, and, examining his countenance more and more piercingly, exclaimed,—

"Do not laugh any more!"

"I am not laughing," said the child.

Ursus shuddered from head to foot. "You are laughing, I say!" Then seizing the boy with a grasp which would have been one of fury had it not been one of pity, he asked him, roughly: "Who did that to you?"

"I don't know what you mean, " the boy replied.

"How long have you had that laugh?"

"I have always been thus, " said the child.

Ursus turned away, saying in a low voice, "I thought that work was out of date now."

He took from under the head of the infant, very softly, so as not to awaken her, the book which he had placed there for a pillow. "Let us see Conquest," he murmured!

He turned the pages with his thumb, stopped at a certain one, and read: "'De Denasatis,' it is here." And he continued: "'Bucca fissa usque ad aures, gengivis denudatis, nasoque murdridato, masca eris, et ridebis semper.' There it is for certain."

Then he replaced the book on one of the shelves, growling, "It might not be advisable to inquire too deeply into a case of the kind. We will remain on the surface; laugh on, my boy!"

Just then the little girl awoke. Her good-day was a cry.

"Come, nurse, give her the breast, " said Ursus.

The infant sat up. Ursus taking the bottle from the stove, gave it to her to suck. Then the sun rose above the horizon. Its brilliant rays shone through the window straight into the face of the infant, which was turned towards it. Her eyeballs, fixed on the sun, reflected its light like two mirrors. The eyeballs were immovable, the eyelids also.

"Look!" exclaimed Ursus; "she is blind!"