The Death of Olivier Becaille
by Emile Zola
CHAPTER I. MY PASSING
It was on a Saturday, at six in the morning, that I died after a
three days' illness. My wife was searching a trunk for some linen,
and when she rose and turned she saw me rigid, with open eyes and
silent pulses. She ran to me, fancying that I had fainted, touched
my hands and bent over me. Then she suddenly grew alarmed, burst
into tears and stammered:
"My God, my God! He is dead!"
I heard everything, but the sounds seemed to come from a great
distance. My left eye still detected a faint glimmer, a whitish
light in which all objects melted, but my right eye was quite bereft
of sight. It was the coma of my whole being, as if a thunderbolt
had struck me. My will was annihilated; not a fiber of flesh obeyed
my bidding. And yet amid the impotency of my inert limbs my
thoughts subsisted, sluggish and lazy, still perfectly clear.
My poor Marguerite was crying; she had dropped on her knees beside
the bed, repeating in heart-rending tones:
"He is dead! My God, he is dead!"
Was this strange state of torpor, this immobility of the flesh,
really death, although the functions of the intellect were not
arrested? Was my soul only lingering for a brief space before it
soared away forever? From my childhood upward I had been subject to
hysterical attacks, and twice in early youth I had nearly succumbed
to nervous fevers. By degrees all those who surrounded me had got
accustomed to consider me an invalid and to see me sickly. So much
so that I myself had forbidden my wife to call in a doctor when I
had taken to my bed on the day of our arrival at the cheap
lodginghouse of the Rue Dauphine in Paris. A little rest would soon
set me right again; it was only the fatigue of the journey which had
caused my intolerable weariness. And yet I was conscious of having
felt singularly uneasy. We had left our province somewhat abruptly;
we were very poor and had barely enough money to support ourselves
till I drew my first month's salary in the office where I had
obtained a situation. And now a sudden seizure was carrying me off!
Was it really death? I had pictured to myself a darker night, a
deeper silence. As a little child I had already felt afraid to die.
Being weak and compassionately petted by everyone, I had concluded
that I had not long to live, that I should soon be buried, and the
thought of the cold earth filled me with a dread I could not master--
a dread which haunted me day and night. As I grew older the same
terror pursued me. Sometimes, after long hours spent in reasoning
with myself, I thought that I had conquered my fear. I reflected,
"After all, what does it matter? One dies and all is over. It is
the common fate; nothing could be better or easier."
I then prided myself on being able to look death boldly in the face,
but suddenly a shiver froze my blood, and my dizzy anguish returned,
as if a giant hand had swung me over a dark abyss. It was some
vision of the earth returning and setting reason at naught. How
often at night did I start up in bed, not knowing what cold breath
had swept over my slumbers but clasping my despairing hands and
moaning, "Must I die?" In those moments an icy horror would stop my
pulses while an appalling vision of dissolution rose before me. It
was with difficulty that I could get to sleep again. Indeed, sleep
alarmed me; it so closely resembled death. If I closed my eyes they
might never open again--I might slumber on forever.
I cannot tell if others have endured the same torture; I only know
that my own life was made a torment by i asleep. You see, I am alive, and I love you."
CHAPTER II. FUNERAL PREPARATIONS
Marguerite's cries had attracted attention, for all at once the door
was opened and a voice exclaimed: "What is the matter, neighbor? Is
I recognized the voice; it was that of an elderly woman, Mme Gabin,
who occupied a room on the same floor. She had been most obliging
since our arrival and had evidently become interested in our
concerns. On her own side she had lost no time in telling us her
history. A stern landlord had sold her furniture during the
previous winter to pay himself his rent, and since then she had
resided at the lodginghouse in the Rue Dauphine with her daughter
Dede, a child of ten. They both cut and pinked lamp shades, and
between them they earned at the utmost only two francs a day.
"Heavens! Is it all over?" cried Mme Gabin, looking at me.
I realt. Death ever rose between
me and all I loved; I can remember how the thought of it poisoned
the happiest moments I spent with Marguerite. During the first
months of our married life, when she lay sleeping by my side and I
dreamed of a fair future for her and with her, the foreboding of
some fatal separation dashed my hopes aside and embittered my
delights. Perhaps we should be parted on the morrow--nay, perhaps
in an hour's time. Then utter discouragement assailed me; I
wondered what the bliss of being united availed me if it were to end
in so cruel a disruption.
My morbid imagination reveled in scenes of mourning. I speculated
as to who would be the first to depart, Marguerite or I. Either
alternative caused me harrowing grief, and tears rose to my eyes at
the thought of our shattered lives. At the happiest periods of my
existence I often became a prey to grim dejection such as nobody
could understand but which was caused by the thought of impending
nihility. When I was most successful I was to general wonder most
depressed. The fatal question, "What avails it?" rang like a knell
in my ears. But the sharpest sting of this torment was that it came
with a secret sense of shame, which rendered me unable to confide my
thoughts to another. Husband and wife lying side by side in the
darkened room may quiver with the same shudder and yet remain mute,
for people do not mention death any more than they pronounce certain
obscene words. Fear makes it nameless.
I was musing thus while my dear Marguerite knelt sobbing at my feet.
It grieved me sorely to be unable to comfort her by telling her that
I suffered no pain. If death were merely the annihilation of the
flesh it had been foolish of me to harbor so much dread. I
experienced a selfish kind of restfulness in which all my cares were
forgotten. My memory had become extraordinarily vivid. My whole
life passed before me rapidly like a play in which I no longer acted
a part; it was a curious and enjoyable sensation--I seemed to hear a
far-off voice relating my own history.
I saw in particular a certain spot in the country near Guerande, on
the way to Piriac. The road turns sharply, and some scattered pine
trees carelessly dot a rocky slope. When I was seven years old I
used to pass through those pines with my father as far as a
crumbling old house, where Marguerite's parents gave me pancakes.
They were salt gatherers and earned a scanty livelihood by working
the adjacent salt marshes. Then I remembered the school at Nantes,
where I had grown up, leading a monotonous life within its ancient
wallis and yearning for the broad horizon of Guerande and the salt
marshes stretching to the limitless sea widening under the sky.
Next came a blank--my father was dead. I entered the hospital as
clerk to the managing board and led a dreary life with one solitary
diversion: my Sunday visits to the old house on Piriac road. The
saltworks were doing badly; poverty reigned in the land, and
Marguerite's parents were nearly penniless. Marguerite, when merely
a child, had been fond of me because I trundled her about in a
wheelbarrow, but on the morning when I asked her in marriage she
shrank from me with a frightened gesture, and I realized that she
thought me hideous. Her parents, however, consented at once; they
looked upon my offer as a godsend, and the daughter submissively
acquiesced. When she became accustomed to the idea of marrying me
she did not seem to dislike it so much. On our wedding day at
Guerande the rain fell in torrents, and when we got home my bride
had to take off her dress, which was soaked through, and sit in her
That was all the youth I ever had. We did not remain long in our
province. One day I found my wife in tears. She was miserable;
life was so dull; she wanted to get away. Six months later I had
saved a little money by taking in extra work after office hours, and
through the influence of a friend of my father's I obtained a petty
appointment in Paris. I started off to settle there with the dear
little woman so that she might cry no more. During the night, which
we spent in the third-class railway carriage, the seats being very
hard, I took her in my arms in order that she might sleep.
That was the past, and now I had just died on the narrow couch of a
Paris lodginghouse, and my wife was crouching on the floor, crying
bitterly. The white light before my left eye was growing dim, but I
remembered the room perfectly. On the left there was a chest of
drawers, on the right a mantelpiece surmounted by a damaged clock
without a pendulum, the hands of which marked ten minutes past ten.
The window overlooked the Rue Dauphine, a long, dark street. All
Paris seemed to pass below, and the noise was so great that the
We knew nobody in the city; we had hurried our departure, but I was
not expected at the office till the following Monday. Since I had
taken to my bed I had wondered at my imprisonment in this narrow
room into which we had tumbled after a railway journey of fifteen
hours, followed by a hurried, confusing transit through the noisy
streets. My wife had nursed me with smiling tenderness, but I knew
that she was anxious. She would walk to the window, glance out and
return to the bedside, looking very pale and startled by the sight
of the busy thoroughfare, the aspect of the vast city of which she
did not know a single stone and which deafened her with its
continuous roar. What would happen to her if I never woke up again--
alone, friendless and unknowing as she was?
Marguerite had caught hold of one of my hands which lay passive on
the coverlet, and, covering it with kisses, she repeated wildly:
"Olivier, answer me. Oh, my God, he is dead, dead!"
So death was not complete annihilation. I could hear and think. I
had been uselessly alarmed all those years. I had not dropped into
utter vacancy as I had anticipated. I could not picture the
disappearance of my being, the suppression of all that I had been,
without the possibility of renewed existence. I had been wont to
shudder whenever in any book or newspaper I came across a date of a
hundred years hence. A date at which I should no longer be alive, a
future which I should never see, filled me with unspeakable
uneasiness. Was I not the whole world, and would not the universe
crumble away when I was no more?
To dream of life had been a cherished vision, but this could not
possibly be death. I should assuredly awake presently. Yes, in a
few moments I would lean over, take Marguerite in my arms and dry
her tears. I would rest a little while longer before going to my
office, and then a new life would begin, brighter than the last.
However, I did not feel impatient; the commotion had been too
strong. It was wrong of Marguerite to give way like that when I had
not even the strength to turn my head on the pillow and smile at
her. The next time that she moaned out, "He is dead! Dead!" I
would embrace her and murmer softly so as not to startle her: "No,
my darling, I was onlyzed that she was drawing nearer. She examined me, touched me
and, turning to Marguerite, murmured compassionately: "Poor girl!
My wife, wearied out, was sobbing like a child. Mme Gabin lifted
her, placed her in a dilapidated armchair near the fireplace and
proceeded to comfort her.
"Indeed, you'll do yourself harm if you go on like this, my dear.
It's no reason because your husband is gone that you should kill
yourself with weeping. Sure enough, when I lost Gabin I was just
like you. I remained three days without swallowing a morsel of
food. But that didn't help me--on the contrary, it pulled me down.
Come, for the Lord's sake, be sensible!"
By degrees Marguerite grew calmer; she was exhausted, and it was
only at intervals that she gave way to a fresh flow of tears.
Meanwhile the old woman had taken possession of the room with a sort
of rough authority.
"Don't worry yourself," she said as she bustled about. "Neighbors
must help each other. Luckily Dede has just gone to take the work
home. Ah, I see your trunks are not yet all unpacked, but I suppose
there is some linen in the chest of drawers, isn't there?"
I heard her pull a drawer open; she must have taken out a napkin
which she spread on the little table at the bedside. She then
struck a match, which made me think that she was lighting one of the
candles on the mantelpiece and placing it near me as a religious
rite. I could follow her movements in the room and divine all her
"Poor gentleman," she muttered. "Luckily I heard you sobbing, poor
dear!" Suddenly the vague light which my left eye had detected
vanished. Mme Gabin had just closed my eyelids, but I had not felt
her finger on my face. When I understood this I felt chilled.
The door had opened again, and Dede, the child of ten, now rushed
in, calling out in her shrill voice: "Mother, Mother! Ah, I knew
you would be here! Look here, there's the money--three francs and
four sous. I took back three dozen lamp shades."
"Hush, hush! Hold your tongue," vainly repeated the mother, who, as
the little girl chattered on, must have pointed to the bed, for I
guessed that the child felt perplexed and was backing toward the
"Is the gentleman asleep?" she whispered.
"Yes, yes--go and play," said Mme Gabin.
But the child did not go. She was, no doubt, staring at me with
widely opened eyes, startled and vaguely comprehending. Suddenly
she seemed convulsed with terror and ran out, upsetting a chair.
"He is dead, Mother; he is dead!" she gasped.
Profound silence followed. Marguerite, lying back in the armchair,
had left off crying. Mme Gabin was still rummaging about the room
and talking under her breath.
"Children know everything nowadays. Look at that girl. Heaven
knows how carefully she's brought up! When I send her on an errand
or take the shades back I calculate the time to a minute so that she
can't loiter about, but for all that she learns everything. She saw
at a glance what had happened here--and yet I never showed her but
one corpse, that of her uncle Francois, and she was then only four
years old. Ah well, there are no children left--it can't be
She paused and without any transition passed to another subject.
"I say, dearie, we must think of the formalities--there's the
declaration at the municipal offices to be made and the seeing about
the funeral. You are not in a fit state to attend to business.
What do you say if I look in at Monsieur Simoneau's to find out if
he's at home?"
Marguerite did not reply. It seemed to me that I watched her from
afar and at times changed into a subtle flame hovering above the
room, while a stranger lay heavy and unconscious on my bed. I
wished that Marguerite had declined the assistance of Simoneau. I
had seen him three or four times during my brief illness, for he
occupied a room close to ours and had been civil and neighborly.
Mme Gabin had told us that he was merely making a short stay in
Paris, having come to collect some old debts due to his father, who
had settled in the country and recently died. He was a tall,
strong, handsome young man, and I hated him, perhaps on account of
his healthy appearance. On the previous evening he had come in to
make inquiries, and I had much disliked seeing him at Marguerite's
side; she had looked so fair and pretty, and he had gazed so
intently into her face when she smilingly thanked him for his
"Ah, here is Monsieur Simoneau," said Mme Gabin, introducing him.
He gently pushed the door ajar, and as soon as Marguerite saw him
enter she burst into a flood of tears. The presence of a friend, of
the only person she knew in Paris besides the old woman, recalled
her bereavement. I could not see the young man, but in the darkness
that encompassed me I conjured up his appearance. I pictured him
distinctly, grave and sad at finding poor Marguerite in such
distress. How lovely she must have looked with her golden hair
unbound, her pale face and her dear little baby hands burning with
"I am at your disposal, madame," he said softly. "Pray allow me to
She only answered him with broken words, but as the young man was
leaving, accompanied by Mme Gabin, I heard the latter mention money.
These things were always expensive, she said, and she feared that
the poor little body hadn't a farthing--anyhow, he might ask her.
But Simoneau silenced the old woman; he did not want to have the
widow worried; he was going to the municipal office and to the
When silence reigned once more I wondered if my nightmare would last
much longer. I was certainly alive, for I was conscious of passing
incidents, and I began to realize my condition. I must have fallen
into one of those cataleptic states that I had read of. As a child
I had suffered from syncopes which had lasted several hours, but
surely my heart would beat anew, my blood circulate and my muscles
relax. Yes, I should wake up and comfort Marguerite, and, reasoning
thus, I tried to be patient.
Time passed. Mme Gabin had brought in some breakfast, but
Marguerite refused to taste any food. Later on the afternoon waned.
Through the open window I heard the rising clamor of the Rue
Dauphine. By and by a slight ringing of the brass candlestick on
the marble-topped table made me think that a fresh candle had been
lighted. At last Simoneau returned.
"Well?" whispered the old woman.
"It is all settled," he answered; "the funeral is ordered for
tomorrow at eleven. There is nothing for you to do, and you needn't
talk of these things before the poor lady."
Nevertheless, Mme Gabin remarked: "The doctor of the dead hasn't
Simoneau took a seat beside Marguerite and after a few words of
encouragement remained silent. The funeral was to take place at
eleven! Those words rang in my brain like a passing bell. And the
doctor coming--the doctor of the dead, as Mme Gabin had called him.
HE could not possibly fail to find out that I was only in a state of
lethargy; he would do whatever might be necessary to rouse me, so I
longed for his arrival with feverish anxiety.
The day was drawing to a close. Mme Gabin, anxious to waste no
time, had brought in her lamp shades and summoned Dede without
asking Marguerite's permission. "To tell the truth," she observed,
"I do not like to leave children too long alone."
"Come in, I say," she whispered to the little girl; "come in, and
don't be frightened. Only don't look toward the bed or you'll catch
She thought it decorous to forbid Dede to look at me, but I was
convinced that the child was furtively glancing at the corner where
I lay, for every now and then I heard her mother rap her knuckles
and repeat angrily: "Get on with your work or you shall leave the
room, and the gentleman will come during the night and pull you by
The mother and daughter had sat down at our table. I could plainly
hear the click of their scissors as they clipped the lamp shades,
which no doubt required very delicate manipulation, for they did not
work rapidly. I counted the shades one by one as they were laid
aside, while my anxiety grew more and more intense.
The clicking of the scissors was the only noise in the room, so I
concluded that Marguerite had been overcome by fatigue and was
dozing. Twice Simoneau rose, and the torturing thought flashed
through me that he might be taking advantage of her slumbers to
touch her hair with his lips. I hardly knew the man and yet felt
sure that he loved my wife. At last little Dede began to giggle,
and her laugh exasperated me.
"Why are you sniggering, you idiot?" asked her mother. "Do you want
to be turned out on the landing? Come, out with it; what makes you
The child stammered: she had not laughed; she had only coughed, but
I felt certain she had seen Simoneau bending over Marguerite and had
The lamp had been lit when a knock was heard at the door.
"It must be the doctor at last," said the old woman.
It was the doctor; he did not apologize for coming so late, for he
had no doubt ascended many flights of stairs during the day. The
room being but imperfectly lighted by the lamp, he inquired: "Is the
"Yes, it is," answered Simoneau.
Marguerite had risen, trembling violently. Mme Gabin dismissed
Dede, saying it was useless that a child should be present, and then
she tried to lead my wife to the window, to spare her the sight of
what was about to take place.
The doctor quickly approached the bed. I guessed that he was bored,
tired and impatient. Had he touched my wrist? Had he placed his
hand on my heart? I could not tell, but I fancied that he had only
carelessly bent over me.
"Shall I bring the lamp so that you may see better?" asked Simoneau
"No it is not necessary," quietly answered the doctor.
Not necessary! That man held my life in his hands, and he did not
think it worth while to proceed to a careful examination! I was not
dead! I wanted to cry out that I was not dead!
"At what o'clock did he die?" asked the doctor.
"At six this morning," volunteered Simoneau.
A feeling of frenzy and rebellion rose within me, bound as I was in
seemingly iron chains. Oh, for the power of uttering one word, of
moving a single limb!
"This close weather is unhealthy," resumed the doctor; "nothing is
more trying than these early spring days."
And then he moved away. It was like my life departing. Screams,
sobs and insults were choking me, struggling in my convulsed throat,
in which even my breath was arrested. The wretch! Turned into a
mere machine by professional habits, he only came to a deathbed to
accomplish a perfunctory formality; he knew nothing; his science was
a lie, since he could not at a glance distinguish life from death--
and now he was going--going!
"Good nighought helped to calm me. It had just occurred to me that I
had witnessed a case similar to my own when I was employed at the
hospital of Guerande. A man had been sleeping twenty-eight hours,
the doctors hesitating in presence of his apparent lifelessness,
when suddenly he had sat up in bed and was almost at once able to
rise. I myself had already been asleep for some twenty-five hours;
if I awoke at ten I should still be in time.
I endeavored to ascertain who was in the room and what was going on
there. Dede must have been playing on the landing, for once when
the door opened I heard her shrill childish laughter outside.
Simoneau must have retired, for nothing indicated his presence. Mme
Gabin's slipshod tread was still audible over the floor. At last
"Come, my dear," she said. "It is wrong of you not to take it while
it is hot. It, sir," said Simoneau.
There came a moment's silence; the doctor was probably bowing to
Marguerite, who had turned while Mme Gabin was fastening the window.
He left the room, and I heard his footsteps descending the stairs.
It was all over; I was condemned. My last hope had vanished with
that man. If I did not wake before eleven on the morrow I should be
buried alive. The horror of that thought was so great that I lost
all consciousness of my surroundings--'twas something like a
fainting fit in death. The last sound I heard was the clicking of
the scissors handled by Mme Gabin and Dede. The funeral vigil had
begun; nobody spoke.
Marguerite had refused to retire to rest in the neighbor's room.
She remained reclining in her armchair, with her beautiful face
pale, her eyes closed and her long lashes wet with tears, while
before her in the gloom Simoneau sat silently watching her.
CHAPTER III. THE PROCESSION
I cannot describe my agony during the morning of the following day.
I remember it as a hideous dream in which my impressions were so
ghastly and so confused that I could not formulate them. The
persistent yearning for a sudden awakening increased my torture, and
as the hour for the funeral drew nearer my anguish became more
It was only at daybreak that I had recovered a fuller consciousness
of what was going on around me. The creaking of hinges startled me
out of my stupor. Mme Gabin had just opened the window. It must
have been about seven o'clock, for I heard the cries of hawkers in
the street, the shrill voice of a girl offering groundsel and the
hoarse voice of a man shouting "Carrots! The clamorous awakening of
Paris pacified me at first. I could not believe that I should be
laid under the sod in the midst of so much life; and, besides, a
sudden tht would cheer you up."
She was addressing Marguerite, and a slow trickling sound as of
something filtering indicated that she had been making some coffee.
"I don't mind owning," she continued, "that I needed it. At my age
sitting up IS trying. The night seems so dreary when there is a
misfortune in the house. DO have a cup of coffee, my dear--just a
She persuaded Marguerite to taste it.
"Isn't it nice and hot?" she continued, "and doesn't it set one up?
Ah, you'll be wanting all your strength presently for what you've
got to go through today. Now if you were sensible you'd step into
my room and just wait there."
"No, I want to stay here," said Marguerite resolutely.
Her voice, which I had not heard since the previous evening, touched
me strangely. It was changed, broken as by tears. To feel my dear
wife near me was a last consolation. I knew that her eyes were
fastened on me and that she was weeping with all the anguish of her
The minutes flew by. An inexplicable noise sounded from beyond the
door. It seemed as if some people were bringing a bulky piece of
furniture upstairs and knocking against the walls as they did so.
Suddenly I understood, as I heard Marguerite begin to sob; it was
"You are too early," said Mme Gabin crossly. "Put it behind the
What o'clock was it? Nine, perhaps. So the coffin had come. Amid
the opaque night around me I could see it plainly, quite new, with
roughly planed boards. Heavens! Was this the end then? Was I to
be borne off in that box which I realized was lying at my feet?
However, I had one supreme joy. Marguerite, in spite of her
weakness, insisted upon discharging all the last offices. Assisted
by the old woman, she dressed me with all the tenderness of a wife
and a sister. Once more I felt myself in her arms as she clothed me
in various garments. She paused at times, overcome by grief; she
clasped me convulsively, and her tears rained on my face. Oh, how I
longed to return her embrace and cry, "I live!" And yet I was lying
there powerless, motionless, inert!
"You are foolish," suddenly said Mme Gabin; "it is all wasted."
"Never mind," answered Marguerite, sobbing. "I want him to wear his
very best things."
I understood that she was dressing me in the clothes I had worn on
my wedding day. I had kept them carefully for great occasions.
When she had finished she fell back exhausted in the armchair.
Simoneau now spoke; he had probably just entered the room.
"They are below," he whispered.
"Well, it ain't any too soon," answered Mme Gabin, also lowering her
voice. "Tell them to come up and get it over."
"But I dread the despair of the poor little wife."
The old woman seemed to reflect and presently resumed: "Listen to
me, Monsieur Simoneau. You must take her off to my room. I
wouldn't have her stop here. It is for her own good. When she is
out of the way we'll get it done in a jiffy."
These words pierced my heart, and my anguish was intense when I
realized that a struggle was actually taking place. Simoneau had
walked up to Marguerite, imploring her to leave the room.
"Do, for pity's sake, come with me!" he pleaded. "Spare yourself
"No, no!" she cried. "I will remain till the last minute. Remember
that I have only him in the world, and when he is gone I shall be
From the bedside Mme Gabin was prompting the young man.
"Don't parley--take hold of her, carry her off in your arms."
Was Simoneau about to lay his hands on Marguerite and bear her away?
She screamed. I wildly endeavored to rise, but the springs of my
limbs were broken. I remained rigid, unable to lift my eyelids to
see what was going on. The struggle continued, and my wife clung to
the furniture, repeating, "Oh, don't, don't! Have mercy! Let me
go! I will not--"
He must have lifted her in his stalwart arms, for I heard her
moaning like a child. He bore her away; her sobs were lost in the
distance, and I fancied I saw them both--he, tall and strong,
pressing her to his breast; she, fainting, powerless and conquered,
following him wherever he listed.
"Drat it all! What a to-do!" muttered Mme Gabin. "Now for the tug
of war, as the coast is clear at last."
In my jealous madness I looked upon this incident as a monstrous
outrage. I had not been able to see Marguerite for twenty-four
hours, but at least I had still heard her voice. Now even this was
denied me; she had been torn away; a man had eloped with her even
before I was laid under the sod. He was alone with her on the other
side of the wall, comforting her--embracing her, perhaps!
But the door opened once more, and heavy footsteps shook the floor.
"Quick, make haste," repeated Mme Gabin. "Get it done before the
lady comes back."
She was speaking to some strangers, who merely answered her with
"You understand," she went on, "I am not a relation; I'm only a
neighbor. I have no interest in the matter. It is out of pure good
nature that I have mixed myself up in their affairs. And I ain't
overcheerful, I can tell you. Yes, yes, I sat up the whole blessed
night--it was pretty cold, too, about four o'clock. That's a fact.
Well, I have always been a fool--I'm too soft-hearted."
The coffin had been dragged into the center of the room. As I had
not awakened I was condemned. All clearness departed from my ideas;
everything seemed to revolve in a black haze, and I experienced such
utter lassitude that it seemed almost a relief to leave off hoping.
"They haven't spared the material," said one of the undertaker's men
in a gruff voice. "The box is too long."
"He'll have all the more room," said the other, laughing.
I was not heavy, and they chuckled over it since they had three
flights of stairs to descend. As they were seizing me by the
shoulders and feet I heard Mme Gabin fly into a violent passion.
"You cursed little brat," she screamed, "what do you mean by poking
your nose where you're not wanted? Look here, I'll teach you to spy
Dede had slipped her tousled head through the doorway to see how the
gentleman was being put into the box. Two ringing slaps resounded,
however, by an explosion of sobs. And as soon as the mother
returned she began to gossip about her daughter for the benefit of
the two men who were settling me in the coffin.
"She is only ten, you know. She is not a bad girl, but she is
frightfully inquisitive. I do not beat her often; only I WILL be
"Oh," said one of the men, "all kids are alike. Whenever there is a
corpse lying about they always want to see it."
I was commodiously stretched out, and I might have thought myself
still in bed, had it not been that my left arm felt a trifle cramped
from being squeezed against a board. The men had been right. I was
pretty comfortable inside on account of my diminutive stature.
"Stop!" suddenly exclaimed Mme Gabin. "I promised his wife to put a
pillow under his head."
The men, who were in a hurry, stuffed in the pillow roughly. One of
them, who had mislaid his hammer, began to swear. He had left the
tool below and went to fetch it, dropping the lid, and when two
sharp blows of the hammer drove in the first nail, a shock ran
through my being--I had ceased to live. The nails then entered in
rapid succession with a rhythmical cadence. It was as if some
packers had been closing a case of dried fruit with easy dexterity.
After that such sounds as reached me were deadened and strangely
prolonged, as if the deal coffin had been changed into a huge
musical box. The last words spoken in the room of the Rue Dauphine--
at least the last ones that I heard distinctly--were uttered by Mme
"Mind the staircase," she said; "the banister of the second flight
isn't safe, so be careful."
While I was being carried down I experienced a sensation similar to
that of pitching as when one is on board a ship in a rough sea.
However, from that moment my impressions became more and more vague.
I remember that the only distinct thought that still possessed me
was an imbecile, impulsive curiosity as to the road by which I
should be taken to the cemetery. I was not acquainted with a single
street of Paris, and I was ignorant of the position of the large
burial grounds (though of course I had occasionally heard their
names), and yet every effort of my mind was directed toward
ascertaining whether we were turning to the right or to the left.
Meanwhile the jolting of the hearse over the paving stones, the
rumbling of passing vehicles, the steps of the foot passengers, all
created a confused clamor, intensified by the acoustical properties
of the coffin.
At first I followed our course pretty closely; then came a halt. I
was again lifted and carried about, and I concluded that we were in
church, but when the funeral procession once more moved onward I
lost all consciousness of the road we took. A ringing of bells
informed me that we were passing another church, and then the softer
and easier progress of the wheels indicated that we were skirting a
garden or park. I was like a victim being taken to the gallows,
awaiting in stupor a deathblow that never came.
At last they stopped and pulled me out of the hearse. The business
proceeded rapidly. The noises had ceased; I knew that I was in a
deserted space amid avenues of trees and with the broad sky over my
head. No doubt a few persons followed the bier, some of the
inhabitants of the lodginghouse, perhaps--Simoneau and others, for
instance--for faint whisperings reached my ear. Then I heard a
psalm chanted and some Latin words mumbled by a priest, and
afterward I suddenly felt myself sinking, while the ropes rubbing
against the edges of the coffin elicited lugubrious sounds, as if a
bow were being drawn across the strings of a cracked violoncello.
It was the end. On the left side of my head I felt a violent shock
like that produced by the bursting of a bomb, with another under my
feet and a third more violent still on my chest. So forcible,
indeed, was this last one that I thought the lid was cleft atwain.
I fainted from it.
CHAPTER IV. THE NAIL
It is impossible for me to say how long my swoon lasted. Eternity
is not of longer duration than one second spent in nihility. I was
no more. It was slowly and confusedly that I regained some degree
of consciousness. I was still asleep, but I began to dream; a
nightmare started into shape amid the blackness of my horizon, a
nightmare compounded of a strange fancy which in other days had
haunted my morbid imagination whenever with my propensity for
dwelling upon hideous thoughts I had conjured up catastrophes.
Thus I dreamed that my wife was expecting me somewhere--at Guerande,
I believe--and that I was going to join her by rail. As we passed
through a tunnel a deafening roll thundered over our head, and a
sudden subsidence blocked up both issues of the tunnel, leaving our
train intact in the center. We were walled up by blocks of rock in
the heart of a mountain. Then a long and fearful agony commenced.
No assistance could possibly reach us; even with powerful engines
and incessant labor it would take a month to clear the tunnel. We
were prisoners there with no outlet, and so our death was only a
question of time.
My fancy had often dwelt on that hideous drama and had constantly
varied the details and touches. My actors were men, women and
children; their number increased to hundreds, and they were ever
furnishing me with new incidents. There were some provisions in the
train, but these were soon exhausted, and the hungry passengers, if
they did not actually devour human flesh, at least fought furiously
over the last piece of bread. Sometimes an aged man was driven back
with blows and slowly perished; a mother struggled like a she-wolf
to keep three or four mouthfuls for her child. In my own
compartment a bride and bridegroom were dying, clasped in each
other's arms in mute despair.
The line was free along the whole length of the train, and people
came and went, prowling round the carriages like beasts of prey in
search of carrion. All classes were mingled together. A
millionaire, a high functionary, it was said, wept on a workman's
shoulder. The lamps had been extinguished from the first, and the
engine fire was nearly out. To pass from one carriage to another it
was necessary to grope about, and thus, too, one slowly reached the
engine, recognizable by its enormous barrel, its cold, motionless
flanks, its useless strength, its grim silence, in the overwhelming
night. Nothing could be more appalling than this train entombed
alive with its passengers perishing one by one.
I gloated over the ghastliness of each detail; howls resounded
through the vault; somebody whom one could not see, whose vicinity
was not even suspected, would suddenly drop upon another's shoulder.
But what affected me most of all was the cold and the want of air.
I have never felt so chilled; a mantle of snow seemed to enwrap me;
heavy moisture rained upon my skull; I was gasping; the rocky vault
seemed to crush my chest; the whole mountain was seemingly weighing
Suddenly a cry of deliverance sounded. For some time past we
fancied that we could hear a dull sound, and we tried to hope that
men were at work and that help was coming, but it came not thus.
One of the passengers, however, had discovered an air shaft in the
tunnel, and, crowding round, we all saw this shaft, above which we
could discern a blue patch about the size of a wafer. That blue
patch filled us with rapture, for it was the sky. We stretched
ourselves and stood on tiptoes to breathe more freely. Then we
distinguished some black specks moving about, specks that must
surely be workmen about to deliver us. A furious clamor arose. The
cry "Saved! Saved!" burst from every mouth, while trembling arms
were uplifted toward the tiny azure patch above.
That roar of voices aroused me. Where was I? In the tunnel, of
course. I was lying at full length; hard walls were pressing
against my ribs. Then I attempted to rise and struck my head
roughly. Was it the rock closing in on all sides? The blue speck
had vanished--aye, the sky had disappeared and I was still
suffocating, shivering, with chattering teeth.
All at once I remembered. Intense horror raised my hair on end. I
felt the hideous truth freeze me from head to foot like ice. I had
shaken off the long coma which for many hours had stricken me with
corpselike rigidity. Yes, I could move; my hands could feel the
boards of my coffin; my lips parted; words came to me, and
instinctively I called out Marguerite's name. It was a scream I
raised. In that deal box my voice took so hoarse and weird a sound
that it terrified me. Oh, my God, was this thing true? I was able
to walk, speak, cry out that I was living, and yet my voice could
not be heard; I was entombed under the earth.
I made a desperate effort to remain calm and reflect. Was there no
means of getting out? Then my dream began afresh in my troubled
brain. The fanciful air shaft with the blue bit of sky overhead was
mingled with the real grave in which I was lying. I stared at the
darkness with widely opened eyes; perhaps I might discover a hole, a
slit, a glimmer of light, but only sparks of fire flitted through
that night, with rays that broadened and then faded away. I was in
a somber abyss again. With returning lucidity I struggled against
these fatal visions. Indeed, I should need all my reason if I meant
to try to save myself.
The most immediate peril lay in an increasing sense of suffocation.
If I had been able to live so long without air it was owing to
suspended animation, which had changed all the normal conditions of
my existence, but now that my heart beat and my lungs breathed I
should die, asphyxiated, if I did not promptly liberate myself. I
also suffered from cold and dreaded lest I should succumb to the
mortal numbness of those who fall asleep in the snow, never to wake
again. Still, while unceasingly realizing the necessity of
remaining calm, I felt maddening blasts sweep through my brain, and
to quiet my senses I exhorted myself to patience, trying to remember
the circumstances of my burial. Probably the ground had been bought
for five years, and this would be against my chances of self-
deliverance, for I remembered having noticed at Nantes that in the
trenches of the common graves one end of the last lowered coffins
protruded into the next open cavity, in which case I should only
have had to break through one plank. But if I were in a separate
hole, filled up above me with earth, the obstacles would prove too
great. Had I not been told that the dead were buried six feet deep
in Paris? How was I to get through the enormous mass of soil above
me? Even if I succeeded in slitting the lid of my bier open the
mold would drift in like fine sand and fill my mouth and eyes. That
would be death again, a ghastly death, like drowning in mud.
However, I began to feel the planks carefully. The coffin was
roomy, and I found that I was able to move my arms with tolerable
ease. On both sides the roughly planed boards were stout and
resistive. I slipped my arm onto my chest to raise it over my head.
There I discovered in the top plank a knot in the wood which yielded
slightly at my pressure. Working laboriously, I finally succeeded
in driving out this knot, and on passing my finger through the hole
I found that the earth was wet and clayey. But that availed me
little. I even regretted having removed the knot, vaguely dreading
the irruption of the mold. A second experiment occupied me for a
while. I tapped all over the coffin to ascertain if perhaps there
were any vacuum outside. But the sound was everywhere the same. At
last, as I was slightly kicking the foot of the coffin, I fancied
that it gave out a clearer echoing noise, but that might merely be
produced by the sonority of the wood.
At any rate, I began to press against the boards with my arms and my
closed fists. In the same way, too, I used my knees, my back and my
feet without eliciting even a creak from the wood. I strained with
all my strength, indeed, with so desperate an effort of my whole
frame, that my bruised bones seemed breaking. But nothing moved,
and I became insane.
Until that moment I had held delirium at bay. I had mastered the
intoxicating rage which was mounting to my head like the fumes of
alcohol; I had silenced my screams, for I feared that if I again
cried out aloud I should be undone. But now I yelled; I shouted;
unearthly howls which I could not repress came from my relaxed
throat. I called for help in a voice that I did not recognize,
growing wilder with each fresh appeal and crying out that I would
not die. I also tore at the wood with my nails; I writhed with the
contortions of a caged wolf. I do not know how long this fit of
madness lasted, but I can still feel the relentless hardness of the
box that imprisoned me; I can still hear the storm of shrieks and
sobs with which I filled it; a remaining glimmer of reason made me
try to stop, but I could not do so.
Great exhaustion followed. I lay waiting for death in a state of
somnolent pain. The coffin was like stone, which no effort could
break, and the conviction that I was powerless left me unnerved,
without courage to make any fresh attempts. Another suffering--
hunger--was presently added to cold and want of air. The torture
soon became intolerable. With my finger I tried to pull small
pinches of earth through the hole of the dislodged knot, and I
swallowed them eagerly, only increasing my torment. Tempted by my
flesh, I bit my arms and sucked my skin with a fiendish desire to
drive my teeth in, but I was afraid of drawing blood.
Then I ardently longed for death. All my life long I had trembled
at the thought of dissolution, but I had come to yearn for it, to
crave for an everlasting night that could never be dark enough. How
childish it had been of me to dread the long, dreamless sleep, the
eternity of silence and gloom! Death was kind, for in suppressing
life it put an end to suffering. Oh, to sleep like the stones, to
be no more!
With groping hands I still continued feeling the wood, and suddenly
I pricked my left thumb. That slight pain roused me from my growing
numbness. I felt again and found a nail--a nail which the
undertaker's men had driven in crookedly and which had not caught in
the lower wood. It was long and very sharp; the head was secured to
the lid, but it moved. Henceforth I had but one idea--to possess
myself of that nail--and I slipped my right hand across my body and
began to shake it. I made but little progress, however; it was a
difficult job, for my hands soon tired, and I had to use them
alternately. The left one, too, was of little use on account of the
nail's awkward position.
While I was obstinately persevering a plan dawned on my mind. That
nail meant salvation, and I must have it. But should I get it in
time? Hunger was torturing me; my brain was swimming; my limbs were
losing their strength; my mind was becoming confused. I had sucked
the drops that trickled from my punctured finger, and suddenly I bit
my arm and drank my own blood! Thereupon, spurred on by pain,
revived by the tepid, acrid liquor that moistened my lips, I tore
desperately at the nail and at last I wrenched it off!
I then believed in success. My plan was a simple one; I pushed the
point of the nail into the lid, dragging it along as far as I could
in a straight line and working it so as to make a slit in the wood.
My fingers stiffened, but I doggedly persevered, and when I fancied
that I had sufficiently cut into the board I turned on my stomach
and, lifting myself on my knees and elbows thrust the whole strength
of my back against the lid. But although it creaked it did not
yield; the notched line was not deep enough. I had to resume my old
position--which I only managed to do with infinite trouble--and work
afresh. At last after another supreme effort the lid was cleft from
end to end.
I was not saved as yet, but my heart beat with renewed hope. I had
ceased pushing and remained motionless, lest a sudden fall of earth
should bury me. I intended to use the lid as a screen and, thus
protected, to open a sort of shaft in the clayey soil.
Unfortunately I was assailed by unexpected difficulties. Some heavy
clods of earth weighed upon the boards and made them unmanageable; I
foresaw that I should never reach the surface in that way, for the
mass of soil was already bending my spine and crushing my face.
Once more I stopped, affrighted; then suddenly, while I was
stretching my legs, trying to find something firm against which I
might rest my feet, I felt the end board of the coffin yielding. I
at once gave a desperate kick with my heels in the faint hope that
there might be a freshly dug grave in that direction.
It was so. My feet abruptly forced their way into space. An open
grave was there; I had only a slight partition of earth to displace,
and soon I rolled into the cavity. I was saved!
I remained for a time lying on my back in the open grave, with my
eyes raised to heaven. It was dark; the stars were shining in a sky
of velvety blueness. Now and then the rising breeze wafted a
springlike freshness, a perfume of foliage, upon me. I was saved!
I could breathe; I felt warm, and I wept and I stammered, with my
arms prayerfully extended toward the starry sky. O God, how sweet
CHAPTER V. MY RESURRECTION
My first impulse was to find the custodian of the cemetery and ask
him to have me conducted home, but various thoughts that came to me
restrained me from following that course. My return would create
general alarm; why should I hurry now that I was master of the
situation? I felt my limbs; I had only an insignificant wound on my
left arm, where I had bitten myself, and a slight feverishness lent
me unhoped-for strength. I should no doubt be able to walk unaided.
Still I lingered; all sorts of dim visions confused my mind. I had
felt beside me in the open grave some sextons' tools which had been
left there, and I conceived a sudden desire to repair the damage I
had done, to close up the hole through which I had crept, so as to
conceal all traces of my resurrection. I do not believe that I had
any positive motive in doing so. I only deemed it useless to
proclaim my adventure aloud, feeling ashamed to find myself alive
when the whole world thought me dead. In half an hour every trace
of my escape was obliterated, and then I climbed out of the hole.
The night was splendid, and deep silence reigned in the cemetery;
the black trees threw motionless shadows over the white tombs. When
I endeavored to ascertain my bearings I noticed that one half of the
sky was ruddy, as if lit by a huge conflagration; Paris lay in that
direction, and I moved toward it, following a long avenue amid the
darkness of the branches.
However, after I had gone some fifty yards I was compelled to stop,
feeling faint and weary. I then sat down on a stone bench and for
the first time looked at myself. I was fully attired with the
exception that I had no hat. I blessed my beloved Marguerite for
the pious thought which had prompted her to dress me in my best
clothes--those which I had worn at our wedding. That remembrance of
my wife brought me to my feet again. I longed to see her without
At the farther end of the avenue I had taken a wall arrested my
progress. However, I climbed to the top of a monument, reached the
summit of the wall and then dropped over the other side. Although
roughly shaken by the fall, I managed to walk for a few minutes
along a broad deserted street skirting the cemetery. I had no
notion as to where I might be, but with the reiteration of monomania
I kept saying to myself that I was going toward Paris and that I
should find the Rue Dauphine somehow or other. Several people
passed me but, seized with sudden distrust, I would not stop them
and ask my way. I have since realized that I was then in a burning
fever and already nearly delirious. Finally, just as I reached a
large thoroughfare, I became giddy and fell heavily upon the
Here there is a blank in my life. For three whole weeks I remained
unconscious. When I awoke at last I found myself in a strange room.
A man who was nursing me told me quietly that he had picked me up
one morning on the Boulevard Montparnasse and had brought me to his
house. He was an old doctor who had given up practicing.
When I attempted to thank him he sharply answered that my case had
seemed a curious one and that he had wished to study it. Moreover,
during the first days of my convalescence he would not allow me to
ask a single question, and later on he never put one to me. For
eight days longer I remained in bed, feeling very weak and not even
trying to remember, for memory was a weariness and a pain. I felt
half ashamed and half afraid. As soon as I could leave the house I
would go and find out whatever I wanted to know. Possibly in the
delirium of fever a name had escaped me; however, the doctor never
alluded to anything I may have said. His charity was not only
generous; it was discreet.
The summer had come at last, and one warm June morning I was
permitted to take a short walk. The sun was shining with that
joyous brightness which imparts renewed youth to the streets of old
Paris. I went along slowly, questioning the passers-by at every
crossing I came to and asking the way to Rue Dauphine. When I
reached the street I had some difficulty in recognizing the
lodginghouse where we had alighted on our arrival in the capital. A
childish terror made me hesitate. If I appeared suddenly before
Marguerite the shock might kill her. It might be wiser to begin by
revealing myself to our neighbor Mme Gabin; still I shrank from
taking a third party into confidence. I seemed unable to arrive at
a resolution, and yet in my innermost heart I felt a great void,
like that left by some sacrifice long since consummated.
The building looked quite yellow in the sunshine. I had just
recognized it by a shabby eating house on the ground floor, where we
had ordered our meals, having them sent up to us. Then I raised my
eyes to the last window of the third floor on the left-hand side,
and as I looked at it a young woman with tumbled hair, wearing a
loose dressing gown, appeared and leaned her elbows on the sill. A
young man followed and printed a kiss upon her neck. It was not
Marguerite. Still I felt no surprise. It seemed to me that I had
dreamed all this with other things, too, which I was to learn
For a moment I remained in the street, uncertain whether I had
better go upstairs and question the lovers, who were still laughing
in the sunshine. However, I decided to enter the little restaurant
below. When I started on my walk the old doctor had placed a five-
franc piece in my hand. No doubt I was changed beyond recognition,
for my beard had grown during the brain fever, and my face was
wrinkled and haggard. As I took a seat at a small table I saw Mme
Gabin come in carrying a cup; she wished to buy a penny-worth of
coffee. Standing in front of the counter, she began to gossip with
the landlady of the establishment.
"Well," asked the latter, "so the poor little woman of the third
floor has made up her mind at last, eh?"
"How could she help herself?" answered Mme Gabin. "It was the very
best thing for her to do. Monsieur Simoneau showed her so much
kindness. You see, he had finished his business in Paris to his
satisfaction, for he has inherited a pot of money. Well, he offered
to take her away with him to his own part of the country and place
her with an aunt of his, who wants a housekeeper and companion.
The landlady laughed archly. I buried my face in a newspaper which
I picked off the table. My lips were white and my hands shook.
"It will end in a marriage, of course," resumed Mme Gabin. "The
little widow mourned for her husband very properly, and the young
man was extremely well behaved. Well, they left last night--and,
after all, they were free to please themselves."
Just then the side door of the restaurant, communicating with the
passage of the house, opened, and Dede appeared.
"Mother, ain't you coming?" she cried. "I'm waiting, you know; do
"Presently," said the mother testily. "Don't bother."
The girl stood listening to the two women with the precocious
shrewdness of a child born and reared amid the streets of Paris.
"When all is said and done," explained Mme Gabin, "the dear departed
did not come up to Monsieur Simoneau. I didn't fancy him overmuch;
he was a puny sort of a man, a poor, fretful fellow, and he hadn't a
penny to bless himself with. No, candidly, he wasn't the kind of
husband for a young and healthy wife, whereas Monsieur Simoneau is
rich, you know, and as strong as a Turk."
"Oh yes!" interrupted Dede. "I saw him once when he was washing--
his door was open. His arms are so hairy!"
"Get along with you," screamed the old woman, shoving the girl out
of the restaurant. "You are always poking your nose where it has no
business to be."
Then she concluded with these words: "Look here, to my mind the
other one did quite right to take himself off. It was fine luck for
the little woman!"
When I found myself in the street again I walked along slowly with
trembling limbs. And yet I was not suffering much; I think I smiled
once at my shadow in the sun. It was quite true. I WAS very puny.
It had been a queer notion of mine to marry Marguerite. I recalled
her weariness at Guerande, her impatience, her dull, monotonous
life. The dear creature had been very good to me, but I had never
been a real lover; she had mourned for me as a sister for her
brother, not otherwise. Why should I again disturb her life? A
dead man is not jealous.
When I lifted my eyelids I saw the garden of the Luxembourg before
me. I entered it and took a seat in the sun, dreaming with a sense
of infinite restfulness. The thought of Marguerite stirred me
softly. I pictured her in the provinces, beloved, petted and very
happy. She had grown handsomer, and she was the mother of three
boys and two girls. It was all right. I had behaved like an honest
man in dying, and I would not commit the cruel folly of coming to
Since then I have traveled a good deal. I have been a little
everywhere. I am an ordinary man who has toiled and eaten like
anybody else. Death no longer frightens me, but it does not seem to
care for me now that I have no motive in living, and I sometimes
fear that I have been forgotten upon earth.