Stories by Foreign Authors (French I)/Another Gambler
From "Pastels of Men,"
translated by Miss Katherine P. Wormeley.
Published by Roberts Brothers.
Copyright, 1891, by Roberts Brothers.
A CHRISTMAS MEMORY
THOUGH he was your cousin," I said to Claude after reading a telegram which he handed to me, "you surely cannot grieve for his death. He has done justice on himself; and I did not expect it of him. His suicide spares your old uncle the scandal of a shocking trial. But what a history! That old woman murdered merely for the sake of her trumpery savings! To come to such an end, through degradation after degradation—he whom we once knew so proud, so elegant! I see him now when he first arrived in our old provincial town, just after he had been appointed lieutenant of artillery. We followed him in the streets with such boyish pride. He was twenty-seven, and you and I were not a third of his age. Ah, well, in spite of all—poor, poor Lucien!"
"Fate is often very strange," said my companion. As he said these words in a serious tone, which relieved them of all triteness, he was poking the fire and gazing into it—at what? It was the 24th of December. We had planned to go to the theatre and then to sup together at a restaurant on the boulevard. I had come with that intention, and yet, here we were talking over painful things instead of going out. The silence of the wintry night was absolute around that old Hôtel Sainte-Euverte, the right wing of which my friend inhabited alone. "Yes, very strange," he repeated; "and it is one of those coincidences which make me believe in occult causes that I should hear of this death to-day, Christmas Eve, and"—here he looked at the clock—"at this particular hour. What should you think," he continued, "if I were to tell you that at certain moments a sort of hallucination overcomes me and seems to place the responsibility for Lucien's conduct on me. The most inexplicable of all chances mixed me up in a very mysterious, almost fantastic manner (that was nevertheless very direct) with the first great fault of my cousin's life; I mean that dishonesty at cards in the Desaix Club at Clermont, in consequence of which he was forced to send in his resignation and leave the town. You know the rest, and how he has gone on since then."
"Yes, I remember it all," I replied. "Your uncle's hair turned white in a very short time after it happened. When we met on the avenue that winter you used to make me avoid him, for fear I should look into his eyes and see how sad they were. He always left his house the back way, by the street that runs near the wall of the building where they manufacture those aerated waters. I should like to know if the little boys of the present day still play as we did in that brook, and find bits of colored glass in it. What lots of such glass you and I picked up when your nurse Miette and my nurse Mion sat talking on a bench that was three trees off."'
"If I could not bear the sadness of my old uncle's eyes," continued Claude, "it was for stronger reasons than you have ever suspected. Ah! I'm talking about old, old matters. I have often felt tempted to tell you about them, but I have never dared." Then, as my face expressed, no doubt, a keen, though silent curiosity, he leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair and his forehead on his hand, covering his eyes, in the attitude of one who is striving to recall the past. "Do you remember," he said at last, "the little shop of old Père Commolet, the toy-seller?"
"Behind the cathedral, at the further end of the Rue des Notaires; you turn to the left into a long, narrow alley darkened by Gothic arches. We used to call it Cold Street. Gargoyles were overhead, with other hideous sculptures. On rainy days it was one long cascade, and when the wind blew how it did send you round the corner by the church!"
"Yes, but don't you remember how old Commolet's shop window brightened that gloomy place for all the children in town? A never-failing spring of temptation gushed from that shop. Behind its windows, always dirty, were ideal shepherdesses, herds of cattle, flocks of sheep of all colors ranged on grass-green meadows, fortresses defended by foot-soldiers that were round, whereas the tin soldiers of other dealers were flat. The horsemen against whom the foot-soldiers fought could be dismounted from their horses, and this simple matter made them as living, to us, as real cuirassiers and real dragoons. Then there were those boats with cabins and hatchways, and others that went by steam, with microscopic cannon which could be charged with real powder. As for me, the almost imperceptible hole bored in the breech of those guns by which to fire the charge took possession of my mind, and pursued me with the fascination of an eye. Try to remember it all as I do,—Commolet walking up and down among those enchanting things in that supernatural paradise, wearing his yellowish woollen cap with ear-pads, which never left his head. This spare individual with a steel-gray face, an interminable nose, and pale blue eyes, seemed to me a big toy himself, some queer and complicated mechanism placed among the others. You must surely remember how, when we could persuade our nurses to return from our walks along this dingy street (which is now pulled down), our hearts beat when the church came in sight above the roofs of the houses. But the year of which I am going to speak,—it was 1861, the year in which you were sent away to school,—I used to come this way alone as I returned from the lyceum, and among the bewitching things in those shop windows was a certain object which obliterated for me all the rest,—namely, a copper-gilt sabre. To my eyes that sabre literally filled Cold Street with sunshine. You can readily imagine that I became possessed by a frantic desire to possess it, for you know the fervor of my imagination and the feverish condition in which I lived up to my fifteenth year. The gold of that scabbard irradiated for me the gloomy lane; it bathed with effulgent beams the gray tints of the old stone buildings. The hilt was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the sword-belt was of red leather. To buckle that belt around my waist, to clasp that hilt, to draw that blade from its damascened sheath, became to my nine-year-old brain one of those dreams of infinite felicity so frantically cherished that they seem to our minds impossible of attainment. Alas, that golden sabre cost twenty-four francs. My sister Blanche, who often gave me books, knowing my desire for it, said to me: 'If you can lay by ten francs I will give you the rest.' To save ten francs out of my poor little schoolboy allowance—you know if I could! My only chance was that at Christmas my uncle might give me, as he had done before, a little money; but even then I was always told it was to be spent for books. My hopes were therefore very slight; but this increased rather than diminished the eagerness of my desire."
"Don't I know you, my poor Claude?" I interrupted, "I never heard the story of the sabre, but I once saw you desperately in love (I can't use any other term) with the horrible little diadem of some madonna blazing with mock jewels in the shop of a vendor of church furniture. You longed to crown Aline Verrier with it—that pretty, fair-haired Aline, who used to play spillikins with us at your sister's when I went there to lunch."
"Was it as horrible as all that?" he cried, shaking his head. "I see it even now, quite as beautiful as that diadem of Queen Constance which they show us in the treasury at Palermo. However, as you have not forgotten the fury of my fancies, you will the better understand the moral drama which was enacted within my soul on that Christmas evening, now twenty years ago. My sister Blanche was ill, as usual; her headache had been so severe during the day that she was forced to go to bed. My brother-in-law, foreseeing the approaching catastrophe, did not leave her bedside, and they both consented that I should go and dine with my uncle. She did not understand, my poor dear sister, that her sick-room, so warm and quiet, was the place I liked best in the world. You know how good she was to me after the death of my father and mother. If she had lived I should have been a different man! That room of hers looked out, as you know, on the Place d'Armes. From the windows could be seen the statue of a marshal of the First Empire, in full dress, with his arm extended as though giving an order. Having no friend but you,—and you could not come to me then for fear of disturbing my sister,—this room, which was hung in blue, and where I played alone and silently for hours, was often filled with life and metamorphosed by my fancy. The furniture became persons, to whom I gave gestures, intentions, acts. One of the chairs was you, another Aline; together we played imaginary games while Blanche read, lying on her couch beside the fire, with her poor consumptive face, that was only twenty-five years old. She was my elder by sixteen years. Through the closed window's I could hear the cries of the street boys, playing around the statue of the famous soldier. I was not very fond of going out, and yet, on this occasion, the idea of dining with my Uncle Gaspard pleased me. A secret hope possessed my soul that he would give me a gold-piece, the color of the sabre that lay glittering in the well-known window, the very image of which would often force me to close my eyes. Well, I went to my uncle's. You remember the dining-room With its sideboard and the other furniture in carved wood? My uncle presided, very tall and thin, with that finely shaped brow of his beneath a head of hair that was still black; on his little finger was a large emerald which we greatly envied him, and he wore a brown surtout coat. When I stooped (I was sitting beside him) to pick up my fork, I could see his arched feet in those famous boots he always wore,—a habit to which he declared he owed his complete exemption from colds and other aches and pains. My Aunt Laure sat opposite to him, with her black mittens and her two gray curls which depended from a cap with lilac ribbons down the whole length of that wrinkled, faded, weary face of hers, which was lighted by a pair of the softest black eyes. There was also present Monsieur Optat Viple, former inspector, who is represented in our family albums by a photograph in which he is looking at a flower stuck in his hat. He colored the flower himself with red in your family album, with blue in mine; the flower is the same,—a circumstance which caused us a puzzled amazement that never lessened. The other guests were Madame Alexis, Greslou the engineer, Captain Hippolyte Morin, old Monsieur Largeyx, Mademoiselle Elisa, and my other aunt Claudia, who had come from Saint-Saturn in for the holidays. She is the only one of those present except Uncle Gaspard and myself who is still living. My Cousin Lucien was there, of course; and he behaved very oddly during dinner, sometimes laughing and drinking hilariously, and then becoming taciturn. Though he was not in uniform his martial face bespoke the soldier. Since then, and looking back from a distance, I can see that something ambiguous floated in those brown eyes of his, and gathered at the corners of his mouth, which dropped a trifle, revealing a tendency to debauchery. You will understand presently why the chief topic of conversation has always remained in my memory. I was the only child at table, and too young for my elders to take notice whether I understood their talk or not. They spoke of presentiments, and so on to superstitions, apropos of the statue of the marshal in the Place d'Armes opposite to my sister's house. They told how at Eylau, and before he rode his cavalry to the charge, that brave man twice recoiled, as though he had seen death face to face. He struck his horse with whip and spur, saying to the nearest officer, 'I am like my poor Desaix,—I feel that the bullets won't respect me any longer.' Five minutes later he fell, shot through the breast. This anecdote served as the nucleus for twenty others. Madame Alexis related that after she had dreamed she saw the postman enter and give her a mourning letter, the letter did actually come and was given to her the following morning under the identical circumstances of her dream. Captain Morin had distinctly heard the voice of a friend calling to him; at that very hour the friend, of whose illness he knew nothing, died. Monsieur Largeyx was about to start on a journey, when his wife implored him not to go; and that entreaty probably saved his life, for an accident happened to the train he would otherwise have taken. Such tales are constantly repeated in conversations of this kind; they are all alike,—asserted in good faith and quite impossible to verify, so easily does our love for the marvellous strangle our memory. My uncle and Monsieur Viple listened to these tales with a smile of incredulity which you can well imagine,—worthy old devils that they were, born under the Emperor, and trained to the philosophy of the eighteenth century. They had attended Dupuytren's clinics in their youth, and they usually replied, with a glance at each other, when the supernatural was talked of, that 'they had never seen it dissected.' On this occasion they were, as usual, incredulous and ironical, winking their eyes, however, and nodding their heads to induce their guests to talk on. 'How is it with you, Lucien?' said Monsieur Viple. 'With me?' said the young man, 'well, I have my superstitions, though I never dissected them; I have been in battle, and I believe in presentiments; I have played cards and seen others play, and I believe in fetiches.'"
"Can you swear he was wrong," I exclaimed, laughing,—"you who could not play a hand at baccarat if Jacques Molan looked at you?"
"What do we really know of what we are pleased to call chance?" said Claude. "But at that time it was not the idea that struck my mind, it was the word. In those days all unknown terms, or words I could only half understand, fairly bewitched me. What a shudder ran through me when I heard those mysterious syllables, 'fetich'; I couldn't express the feeling even now to any one but you. From other remarks of my cousin, I guessed—as far as a child was capable of guessing—the meaning of the word, and I amused myself by repeating it, 'Fetich!' As soon as we returned to the salon after dinner, I seated myself as usual on that little low chair which you were so fond of, on the back of which is carved the fable of the Fox and the Stork, Mr. Fox, crouching down with his nose in the air, is looking at Madame Stork as she runs her long throat down the narrow neck of the bottle. Every part of the room, lighted on this occasion by four tall lamps, was in keeping with the countenances of the persons assembled there, who were discussing the same subjects and sitting on the same furniture (of the purest style of the Empire) as in the days of my grandfather, the old notary and Voltairean. His portrait, hanging on the wall, bore a most extraordinary likeness to my uncle. "He was a good man, but a heathen," my aunt often said to me,—another word which set me dreaming. My uncle was born to him when he was quite young; my father when he was old. I reflected that he must have known the marshal in person, and as my head grew heavy with sleep the talk going on about me seemed strangely mingled with what I knew of that old grandfather and his enigmatical portrait. All this, however, did not prevent me from being extremely anxious about the present which I fondly hoped my uncle would make me. So when I was told, about nine o'clock, that my nurse had come for me, it was with a beating heart that I offered my cheek to be kissed by all the old people present before I reached Uncle Gaspard, who then proceeded to draw from his pocket a little book wrapped in tissue paper. 'Open it when you get home,' he said. It was that delightful book on butterflies, with colored illustrations, which gave you and me so many excuses for torturing the poor insects by comparing them with the plates. But when I received the gift my disappointment, though I said, 'Thank you,' was bitter. Ah! how much better I should have liked some money to increase the little sum laid by in my savings' box, which was just like yours,—a stone apple painted green, which I shook daily for the pleasure of hearing the big sous rattle. My dream of the golden sabre lay buried in that box, and there, alas! I had to leave it. But how shall I tell you what I felt when my Cousin Lucien said to me, 'I have a present for you, too. Come into my bedroom.' I followed him. Taking two coins from his purse, one white and one yellow, he said, showing me the silver one, which was two francs, 'This is for you; and this other,' he added, holding up the yellow one, which was worth ten francs—my ten francs! 'look at it well; that is to be my fetich. I must have a run of luck to-night, do you hear me? You are to give that to the first beggar you meet after you leave the house. Don't fail, or you will bring me ill-luck.' I still hear those words across the intervening years, though they were half incomprehensible to me then. I took the two coins in my hand, which was covered with a thick knitted mitten, and I promised my cousin to do his commission faithfully. He then turned me over to my nurse Miette, who was waiting at the foot of the great staircase, with a brown hood on her head, goloshes on her feet, and a lantern in her hand."
"That's truly characteristic of a gambler," I interrupted; "it is like Italy, where on Saturdays they put a small boy, dressed in white for the occasion, to draw the numbers of the lottery."
"A good deal of snow had fallen the night before," continued Claude, paying no attention to my remark, "so that in order not to slip we had to walk very slowly through the silent streets. Miette held me by the left hand, and with the fingers of my right I clasped the bits of money tightly and felt that one was larger than the other. The shops were nearly all shut, but in most of the windows lights were still burning. To reach home we had to turn an angle of the cathedral and pass before the very shop,—the shop of old Commolet. My nurse, whom we called the Ant (don't you remember you named her because you saw a likeness in her to that industrious insect?)—well, she never talked, and I was looking about at that queer corner of the old town which seemed just then very weird. The graceful buttresses of the church stood darkly forth against their covering of snow. The heavens sparkled with stars, and Commolet's shop was close by. The image of that sabre flamed suddenly before my eyes with more intensity than ever, and I reflected that it might be mine if that bit, that little bit of gold, which I felt in my hand, belonged to me. Hardly had the two ideas entered my mind before they welded themselves together. 'If that bit of gold belonged to me? But, if I choose, it will belong to me. What hinders me from giving, not this bit but the other bit to a beggar? Who will see me do it? Besides, if I had told my desire to my cousin he would have given the ten francs to me; he is so kind and good.'—I had reached this stage in my reflections when we passed beneath the windows of the club to which my cousin belonged when he lived at home, I had heard my sister on one occasion call it a 'hell.' The word came back to my mind, and with it a sudden vision of hell such as Abbé Martel, you remember, used to describe in a way to make our flesh creep. 'If I take those ten francs,' I said to myself suddenly, 'it is stealing; and to steal is a mortal sin.' I saw myself damned. 'I'll give the ten francs to the first beggar,' I thought. 'But suppose we don't meet any?' Not one had I seen since we left my uncle's house. 'Well, if I don't meet one, I shall tell my cousin to-morrow, and I know he won't take the money back.' I reasoned thus, but I knew very well that I was telling myself a lie. We had to pass before the portico of the Capucin chapel. It was the regular rendezvous of beggars, and on Christmas eve they were sure to be there, waiting for the faithful who attended the midnight mass. It was one of the corners of the old town which we knew the best, for old Mother Giraud kept a stall there, where she sold apples in the autumn, barley-sugar in winter, and cherries, tied by a thread to a little stick, in spring. The angle of the portico served as a niche for a blind man, in whose withered face were two white eyes half covered by lids suffused with blood. Can't you see him now,—moving his head about and standing up straight in his blue blouse? In one hand he had a rusty chain fastened to the collar of a dirty white dog, and with the other he extended to the passers-by, as a kind of alms-basin, the headpiece of a black felt hat, the brim of which was missing. We had no sooner reached the chapel than I heard his whine: 'Charity, good people, charity.' The sound had scarcely reached my ears before the temptation to take that piece of gold came back to me, and this time it was irresistible. No other idea had time to enter my mind and drive away the thought which made me, almost mechanically, let go of my nurse's hand and deposit in the blind man's hat—"
"The silver coin?" I said as he hesitated.
"Yes," he replied, sighing, "the silver coin. The Capucin chapel was passed, and we had gone the whole length of the pavement in the Place du Taureau and had turned the corner by the hospital. We were close at home. A strange calm had succeeded my first agitation. The simple fact that the sin was committed, and irreparably, ended my hesitations and gave me for the moment peace. I have since understood, remembering those moments, why it is that criminals, as soon as the deed is done, often enter upon a period of real repose, which sometimes enables them even to sleep on the scene of a murder. However, the mysterious voice which says within us, 'That is wrong,' began to make me listen to it when I stood beside my sister. I had never, during the two years that I lived with her, had a single thought she did not know; and in my whole life, which was that of a good child, my only serious fault had been in gathering the best flowers in the garden, though forbidden to do so. I planted the stalks in my little barrow, which I had first of all filled with earth, intending to have a little garden all to myself. Surprised by a servant, I had taken the barrow in my arms, run up the staircase four steps at a time, and had flung the whole, earth and flowers, into a closet where they kept coal, at the end of a corridor, the door of which I could never, after that, pass without trembling, though no one spoke to me of my naughtiness. Once or twice my sister Blanche had looked at me rather strangely; so that one day I burst into tears and avowed my misdeed. She curled my hair round her fingers, as she was wont to do when she kept me by her for some time, and said with a smile, 'Did you really think you could hide anything from me?' And now, would she see in my eyes the sin I was wishing to hide,—greater far than my first little fault; would she see it, or would my brother-in-law the doctor, that serious man whose silent ways had always rather frightened me? But no; whether it were that Blanche was now too feeble, and my brother-in-law too preoccupied, or that I myself, as I grew older, had made more progress in the art of hypocrisy, I cannot tell; at any rate they merely asked me about my uncle and aunt, looked at the book I had received, and sent me to bed. My first act while Miette lighted the candle was to wrap the piece of gold in my handkerchief. I slipped it under my pillow so that when she undressed me my good nurse should not discover it. She took off my clothes as usual, and made me kneel down at the foot of the bed to say my prayers. She herself took my shoe and placed it in a corner of the fireplace to receive my Christmas presents. The wind had risen. It began to blow about the Place d'Armes with the mutterings that you and I have so often listened to together. Why should Miette, who never uttered twenty words an hour, suddenly say to me: 'Think of the poor folks who have no shelter on such a night as this!' So saying, she took the copper warming-pan out of my bed. The window curtains were drawn, the fire burned clear, in short, everything in my room told of the comfortable life I was then living with my dear sister Blanche. It was not the first time that a feeling of profound security, made tangible by the sight of these familiar objects, swelled my heart delightfully; but now, as I slid between the well-warmed sheets, instead of clinging to that feeling I suffered my thoughts to wander to the poor blind man standing in the church porch and lashed by the keen north wind. 'Charity, good people, charity,' said his voice. 'I have robbed that man,' I thought suddenly,—'robbed—robbed—robbed.' I repeated the word again and again. My nurse had blown out the light and left the room; the flickering of the embers on the hearth gave fantastic shapes to the objects about me. I felt for my handkerchief and took out the piece of gold, and held it in my hand to drive away the shame which brought the hot blood to my face, though I was all alone and no one to see me. Yes, it was in my hand; I held it, and with it I seemed to hold that coveted toy. But stay, not quite. I should have to explain to my sister how those ten francs came into my possession. Could I tell her that my uncle had given them to me? Impossible. She would speak of them. He would tell her he did not give them, and I should be lost. Should I wait a few weeks and declare they were the fruit of my saving? On the fingers of my empty hand I counted up the weeks, and found it would take half a year to give that tale any semblance of probability, and by that time the sabre might be sold. Bah! how silly I was not to have thought at once of a good way! I would go out with my nurse in the afternoon, taking the coin in the palm of my hand, and then, suddenly, I would stoop as if to pick it up, and show it to her. I was sharp-sighted and observing, and several times already I had found things in the street, the gold-piece would be only one find the more. Yes, that was a good plan; I decided on it and I turned over on my side to go to sleep. I could not sleep. I saw myself in my sister's presence telling her that lie. I felt, as I thought of it, that my cheeks would burn, and that all within me would cry out—what? My theft. Yes, a theft! To steal is to take something that does not belong to us, and that piece of gold did not belong to me. It belonged to the first beggar I met on the way home, and that beggar was the blind man at the Capucins. I suddenly heard him say, in that drawling voice of his, 'Thief—thief!' I was a thief. The thought wrung my heart with a feeling that was well-nigh intolerable. A thief! but that was the deepest of all disgraces! A thief! like the two men you and I once saw, don't you remember? one summer's evening crossing the Place d'Armes between two gendarmes,—in rags, their faces filthy with dust and sweat, their eyes surly, and their hands bound together with chains."
"I remember that your Cousin Lucien was with us on that occasion," I remarked.
"Well," continued Claude, "that picture of shame possessed me, oppressed me, crushed me, and with it came such intense disgust for my own action that when I thought of that gilded sabre I saw plainly that I should never have the slightest pleasure in wearing it. I imagined it hanging at my side. You or some one else would compliment me upon it. How could I look you in the face and take your congratulations? I put my arm out of bed and laid the stolen gold-piece on the table by my bedside. It seemed to burn me. 'No,' I said, 'no, I will not keep it. I will throw it away to-morrow, or I will give it to some other beggar.' This resolution taken, I signed myself with the cross and said an Ave to confirm it. I sat up, and in the darkness I hid that accursed coin in the depths of my table drawer, and then I tried to sleep. But these distresses had given me a sort of fever. My ideas were roused; never in my life had I thought so rapidly. The talk I had heard at my uncle's surged up in my mind. The conversation on presentiments and occult influences returned to me, and with it the recollection of my Cousin Lucien. 'That,' he had said, when he showed me the gold-piece, 'look at it well; that is my fetich.' The strange impression of mystery which the word forced upon me when I first heard it now came back to me, and I reasoned upon it. By not giving that gold-piece to the first beggar, I had not only committed a theft, but I had failed in my promise to Lucien. Perhaps I had brought him ill-luck; those very words had been used, back and forth, in the conversation. I then beheld, in thought and with something like the minuteness of an hallucination, my cousin leaving his own house and taking the same road that I had taken. His left leg dragged a little. The fur collar of his overcoat was pulled up; his right hand held his sword-cane,—a straight cane which only needed to be thrown forward with a slight but quick motion to send out a sharp steel blade about five inches long. I heard him whistle the favorite tune of that year, 'I am the major.' He turned the angle of the cathedral and went up the steps of the club. There my vision was blurred. I had never seen a card-room except on the cover of a book—"
"Place des Petits-Arbres on the stall of Père Duchier?" I said.
"Exactly," he replied. "Don't you remember that frightful engraving? It represented a mound of bank-bills and louis lying on a table, and a number of persons struggling in a frantic sort of way for them, and then, in a corner, a young man in the act of putting a pistol to his head. I was unable to put the vision of that engraving out of my mind. It is with children as it is with lovers: whatever is conceived of as possible is instantly accepted as a reality. I turned and re-turned in my bed, a prey to such anxiety that I finally sat up, lighted a candle, and looked at my watch. I had been lying there only one hour. I pondered. 'That must not happen,' I said aloud, and my own voice frightened me. That! what? I could not have answered, and yet I felt myself borne down by the expectation of some horrible disaster, 'This must be a presentiment,' I thought; and I remembered the death of the marshal whose heroic bronze face I had so often gazed at. This recollection of an actual fact gave a character of absolute reality to my fears. I was as much overcome with horror as if the thing dreaded were there before me. 'But what can I do? what can I do?' I kept saying in despair. By the light of my candle I looked at the piece of gold for the first time. It was a coin of the Republic of 1848, and was marked with a cross, which some gambler may have traced there with the point of a penknife. With my nerves all unstrung as they were, this cabalistic sign struck me with a sudden superstitious terror, the agony of which I can recall at this moment. Probably these ideas suggested the church to me. I saw the dog and the chain, the eyelids of the blind man, the hat held out; an idea, an irresistible idea, took possession of me. I must, at any risk, undo what I had done, and that very night, too. I must, I must go back to the church and put the gold-piece in the beggar's hat. A crazy resolution of course, but one that it was possible to carry out. I never for a moment thought of asking my nurse to do it for me; I should have had to explain to her, and death was preferable to that. My sister and her husband had gone to bed; the servants were waiting in the kitchen till it was time for the midnight mass. The kitchen was in the front of the house on the ground-floor. At the other end of the corridor, facing the entrance, was a door leading into the garden, which was latched. The garden communicated with the street by a low gate, the key of which hung in the woodshed. It was therefore easy enough for me to get out unseen, provided I made no noise. In a quarter of an hour I could go and return. Suppose I were caught? Well, I would say that I wanted to hear the midnight mass. I should be terribly scolded; but a sense of justice, common to children and to animals, made me accept the fear of some punishment for my wicked deed. Besides, it was enough for me to perceive the possibility of undoing my wickedness to have it become in my eyes an imperative necessity. My anguish had been too great, and the comfort was sure. Imagine me therefore slipping from my bed and putting on, one by one, the garments Miette had laid on a chair. My shoes I took in my hand—at the risk of losing my Christmas presents if the child Jesus came down the chimney in my absence. Then I crept down the staircase, my heart beating violently at the least sound, and opened the door into the garden, the creaking of which made me almost faint away. A minute more and I was in the street, all alone, for the first time in my life after eleven o'clock at night. You know how susceptible I was of being terrified, owing to that weakness of the nervous system which I had in common with my poor sister. Is there any childish panic that I have not endured? Beings and ideas both have always haunted me. I was afraid of that man hidden under the bed who is going to catch you by the leg; afraid of falling into a swoon and being buried alive; afraid of ghosts, afraid of demons, thieves, fairies, and heaven knows what. But now, at the moment of which I am telling you, as I ran upon the snow in those deserted streets, one fixed idea made me completely insensible to my ordinary terrors. I ran along the icy and slippery street with that accursed piece of money in my hand, my hat over my eyes, and thinking only of getting to the church as fast as possible. Ah! I shall live to be very old before I forget the awful despair which took possession of me as I turned the corner by the hospital, I made a misstep, my foot slipped, I fell on the snow, and as I fell the gold-piece dropped from my fingers. Vainly I searched for it, scratching up the snow with my nails; vainly I wept as I groped about me. Eleven o'clock was ringing from the bell-tower, I was forced to go home with empty hands and a heart tortured by unquenchable remorse. One misfortune was spared to me; I was able to get back without discovery."
"What followed?" I asked, finding that he remained silent.
"You know it only too well," he answered. "It was that very night that Lucien, having lost at baccarat a sum that was enormous for him, lost his head as well, and cheated. And he did it by the stupidest of all tricks, the one they call, in gambler's slang, poussette, which consists in pushing forward a banknote lying just across the line for the stakes when the stakes win, and drawing it back if they lose. Lucien was caught in the set. What more can I tell you? I know all you'll say,—that it was a mere coincidence, and probably not the first time my cousin had cheated; and that a passion for gambling like his is sure to ruin a man in the long run. But why have I never been able to overcome the remorse caused me by this one, solitary, dishonest action of my childhood, which made me an honest man for the rest of my life? Why should this Christmas Eve, so gay and happy for others, be to me the most melancholy, the most depressing of anniversaries?"
"Then," I said to him after another silence, "you don't care much, do you, for our midnight supper?"
"Do you?" he said.
"After such a history, no indeed," I replied. "Give me some tea and let us talk about Auvergne and our mountain excursions, and get rid of these sad thoughts."
Sad indeed they were, for even the conversation about our childhood, which usually had the privilege of distracting his mind in its darkest moments, did not succeed in chasing away the clouds these memories had gathered on his brow. I myself—for superstition is contagious—am not quite convinced that his remorse was morbid, and that he was not, in some slight degree, the cause of his cousin's disaster.