S8V

S8V

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La Méchain hurried into the kitchen, while Madame Caroline, whom suffering attracted, entered Sigismond's room. Its nudity was enlivened by a bright April sun, whose rays fell upon the little deal table, covered with memoranda, bulky portfolios, whence overflowed the labour of ten years; and there was nothing else except the two straw-bottomed chairs, the few volumes heaped upon the shelves, and the narrow bed in which Sigismond, propped up by three pillows, and clad to his waist in a short red flannel blouse, was talking, talking[Pg 420] incessantly, under the influence of that singular cerebral excitement which sometimes precedes the death of consumptives. He was delirious, but had moments of extraordinary lucidity; and in his thin face, framed with long, curling hair, his dilated eyes seemed to be questioning the void.

When Madame Caroline appeared, he seemed to know her at once, although they had never met. 'Ah! it is you, madame,' he said; 'I had seen you, I was calling you with all my strength. Come, come nearer, that I may speak to you in a low voice.'

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In spite of the little shudder of fear which had seized upon her, she approached, and sat down on a chair close to the bed.

'I did not know it, but I know it now,' continued Sigismond. 'My brother sells papers, and I have heard people weeping there, in his office. My brother, ah! it pierced my heart like a red-hot iron. Yes, it is that which has remained in my chest, it is always burning there because it is abominable, that money—the poor people who suffer. And by-and-by, when I am dead, my brother will sell my papers, and I do not wish it—no, I do not wish it!'

His voice gradually rose, assumed a tone of supplication. 'There, madame, there are my papers, on the table. Give them to me; we will make a parcel of them, and you shall carry them away, all of them. Oh, I was calling you, I was waiting for you! Think of it! My papers lost! all my life of study and effort annihilated!' And as she hesitated to give him what he asked, he clasped his hands: 'For pity's sake,' he said, 'give them to me, so that I may be sure that they are all there, before dying. My brother isn't here, so he won't say that I am killing myself. Come, I beg you.'

Upset by the ardour of his prayer, she yielded. 'But I do wrong,' said she, 'since your brother says that it does you harm.'

'Harm! Oh, no. And besides, what does it matter? Ah! I have at last succeeded in setting the society of the future on its feet, after so many nights of toil! Everything is foreseen, solved; there will be the utmost possible justice and[Pg 421] happiness. How I regret not having had the time to write the work itself, with all the necessary developments! But here are my notes, complete and classified. And you will save them, won't you? so that another may some day give them the definitive form of a book, and launch it through the world.'

He had taken the papers in his long thin hands, and was turning them over amorously, while a flame once more kindled in his large, fading eyes. He spoke very rapidly, in a curt monotonous tone, with the tic-tac of a clock-chain which the weight unwinds; and 'twas indeed the sound of the cerebral mechanism working without a pause whilst the death agony progressed.

'Ah! how I see it, how clearly it rises before me, the city of justice and happiness! There one and all labour, with a personal labour, obligatory, yet free. The nation is simply an immense co-operative society, the appliances become the property of all, the products are centralised in vast general warehouses. You have performed so much useful work; you have a right to so much social consumption. The hour's work is the common measure; an article is worth what it has cost in hours; there is nothing but exchange between all producers, by the aid of labour notes, and that under the management of the community, without any other deduction than the one tax to support the children and the aged, to renew the appliances and to defray the cost of gratuitous public services. No more money, and therefore no more speculation, no more robbery, no more abominable trafficking, no more of those crimes which cupidity prompts, girls married for their dowry's sake, aged parents strangled for their property, passers-by assassinated for their purses! No more hostile classes, employers and wage-workers, proletarians and bourgeois, and therefore no more restrictive laws or courts, no armed force protecting the iniquitous monopolies of the few against the mad hunger of the many! No more idlers of any sort, and therefore no more landlords living on rents, no more bondholders kept in sloth—in short, no more luxury and no more poverty! Ah! is not that the ideal equity, the sovereign[Pg 422] wisdom, none privileged, none wretched, each by his own effort securing happiness, the average human happiness!'

He was becoming excited, and his voice grew soft and distant, as if travelling far away, ascending to a great height, into the very future whose coming he announced.

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'Ah! if I entered into details. You see this separate sheet, with all these marginal notes: this is the organisation of the family, free contract, the education and support of children provided by the community. Yet this is not anarchy. Look at this other note; I desire that there should be a managing committee for each branch of production, so that by ascertaining the real wants of the community the output may be proportionate to the consumption. And here is another detail of the organisation: in the cities and the fields industrial and agricultural armies will man?uvre under the leadership of chiefs whom they will have elected, and obey regulations which they will have voted. Stay! I have also indicated here, by approximate calculations, how far the day's labour may be reduced twenty years hence. Thanks to the great number of new hands, thanks especially to machinery, men will work only four hours a day, perhaps only three; so you see how much time they will have left them to enjoy life! For this will not be a barracks, but a city of liberty and gaiety, in which each will be free to take his own pleasure, with plenty of time to satisfy his legitimate appetites, to taste the delights of love, strength, beauty and intelligence, and to take his share of inexhaustible nature.'

By the gesture he made, a gesture which swept round the miserable room, it seemed as though he possessed the whole world. In this nudity in which he had lived, in this poverty exempt from want in which he was dying, he made a fraternal distribution of the earth's goods. It was universal happiness, all that is good and that he had not enjoyed, which he thus distributed, knowing that he would never enjoy it. He had hastened his death that he might make this supreme gift to suffering humanity. And indeed his hands wandered, groping among the scattered notes, while his eyes, which could no longer see earthly things, filled as they were by the dazzling[Pg 423] of death, seemed to espy infinite perfection, beyond life, in an ecstatic rapture which illumined his entire face.

'Ah! how much more activity there will be, entire humanity at work, the hands of all the living improving the world! No more moors, no more marshes, no more waste lands of any kind! Arms of the sea are filled up, obstructive mountains disappear, deserts change into fertile valleys, with waters flowing from every direction. No prodigy is unrealisable; the great works of the ancients cause a smile, so timid and childish do they seem. The earth is at last inhabitable. And man is completely developed, full-grown, in the enjoyment of his true appetites, the real master at last. Schools and workshops are open; the child freely chooses his trade, which his aptitude determines. Years go by, and the selection is made after severe examinations. It no longer suffices that one should be able to pay for education, it is necessary to profit by it. Each one thus finds himself classed, utilised according to his degree of intelligence, by which means public functions are equitably distributed, in accordance with the indications of Nature herself. Each for all, according to his powers! Ah! active and joyous city, ideal city of healthy human work, in which the old prejudice against manual labour no longer exists, in which one sees great poets who are carpenters, locksmiths who are great savants! Ah! city of the blest, triumphal city towards which mankind has been marching for so many centuries, city whose white walls I see shining yonder—yonder, in the realm of happiness, in the blinding sunlight.'

His eyes paled: his last words came indistinctly, in a faint breath; and his head fell back, an ecstatic smile still playing about his lips. He was dead.

Overcome with pity and emotion, Madame Caroline was looking at him, when a whirlwind, as it were, suddenly swept into the room. It was Busch, coming back without a doctor, panting and worn out with anguish; while La Méchain, at his heels, explained that she had not yet been able to prepare the tisane, as the water had boiled over. But he had perceived his brother—his little child, as he called him—lying on his[Pg 424] back, motionless, with his mouth open and his eyes fixed; and he understood, and gave vent to a shriek like that of a slaughtered animal. With a bound he threw himself upon the body and raised it in his two big arms, as if to infuse life into it again. That terrible devourer of gold, who would have killed a man for ten sous, who had so long preyed upon the filth of Paris, now shrieked aloud with abominable suffering. His little child, O God! he whom he put to bed, whom he fondled like a mother! He would never have his little child with him any more! And, in a fit of mad despair, he seized upon the papers scattered over the bed, tore them up and crushed them, as if wishing to annihilate all that imbecile labour which he had ever been jealous of, and which had killed his brother.

Then Madame Caroline felt her heart melt. The poor man! he now filled her with divine pity. But where, then, had she heard that shriek before? Once only had the cry of human grief brought her such a shudder. And she suddenly remembered, it was at Mazaud's—the shriek of the mother and her little ones at sight of the father's corpse. As if incapable of withdrawing from this scene of suffering, she remained a few minutes longer, and rendered some services. Then, at the moment of starting off, finding herself alone again with La Méchain in the little office, she remembered that she had come to inquire about Victor. And so she questioned her. Oh, Victor—well, he was far away by this time, if he were still running! She, La Méchain, had scoured Paris for three months, without discovering the slightest trace of him. So she had given it up; the bandit would be found, sure enough, some day, on the scaffold. Madame Caroline listened, frozen and dumb. Yes, it was finished; the monster had been let loose upon the world, had gone forth to the future, to the unknown, like a beast frothing with hereditary virus, and fated to spread the evil with every bite.

Outside, on the footway of the Rue Vivienne, Madame Caroline was surprised by the mildness of the air. It was five o'clock; the sun, setting in a soft, clear sky, was gilding the signboards of the distant boulevard houses. This springtide,[Pg 425] so charming with its renewal of youth, seemed like a caress to her whole physical being—a caress which penetrated even to her heart. She took a deep breath and felt relieved, happier already, with a sensation of invincible hope returning and growing within her. It was doubtless the beautiful death of that dreamer, giving his last breath to his chimera of justice and love, which thus moved her, for she herself had dreamt of a humanity purged of the execrable evil of money; and it was also the shriek of that other one, the exasperated bleeding tenderness of that terrible lynx, whom she had supposed to be heartless, incapable of tears. Yet no, she had not gone away under the consoling impression of so much human kindness and so much sorrow; on the contrary, she had carried despair away with her—despair at the escape of that little monster, who was galloping along the roads and sowing the ferment of rottenness from which the earth could never be freed. Why, then, should she now feel renascent gaiety filling her whole being?

On reaching the boulevard she turned to the left and slackened her pace, amid the animation of the crowd. For a moment she stopped before a little hand-cart, full of bunches of lilac and gilliflowers, whose strong perfume enveloped her with a whiff of springtide. And within her, as she resumed her walk, she felt a flood of joy arising, as from a bubbling source, which she was fain to restrain, to press back with her hands. For she had understood, and did not wish it. No, no, the frightful catastrophes were too recent; she could not be gay, she could not surrender to that flow of eternal life which uplifted her. And she tried to continue mourning; she recalled herself to despair by recapitulating all the cruel memories. What! she would laugh again, after the downfall of everything, after such a frightful mass of miseries! Did she forget that she was an accomplice? And she recalled the facts, this one, that one, that other one, in weeping over which she ought to spend all her remaining days. But between her fingers pressed upon her heart the bubbling sap was growing more impetuous, the source of life was overflowing, thrusting obstacles aside in order to course more freely,[Pg 426] throwing the flotsam against either bank, so that it might flow along clear and triumphant in the sunlight.

From that moment Madame Caroline was conquered, and had to surrender to the irresistible force of Nature's rejuvenescence. As she sometimes said with a laugh, she could not remain sad. The trial was over; she had just touched the very depths of despair, and here was hope reviving again—broken, bleeding, but as tenacious as ever, growing and spreading from minute to minute. Certainly she retained no illusions; life, like Nature, was undoubtedly unjust and ignoble. Why, then, should one be so irrational as to love it, desire it, relying—like a child to whom is promised a pleasure ever deferred—on the far-off unknown goal towards which it is ever leading us? However, when she turned into the Rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin, she no longer even reasoned; the philosopher, the savante, the woman of letters that she was, had abdicated, weary of the vain inquiry into causes; and she remained a mere human creature, whom the beautiful sky and balmy atmosphere filled with happiness, who savoured the simple enjoyment of health, of listening to the firm tread of her little feet upon the pavement. Ah! the joy of being, is there really any other? Life! Give us life—life such as it is, however abominable it may be—life with its strength and its eternal hope!