I FOUND Armand in bed.
When he saw me, he held out his hand. It was hot.
'You have a temperature, ' I said.
'It won't come to anything? the fatigue of a hurried journey, nothing more.'
'Have you come from Marguerite's sister's?'
'Yes, who told you?'
'I just know. And did you get what you wanted?'
'Yes, again. But who told you about my journey and my reasons for making it?'
'The gardener at the cemetery.'
'You saw the grave?'
I scarcely dared answer, for the tone of these words convinced me that the person who had said them was still in the grip of the same distress I had already witnessed, and that every time his thoughts or something that someone said brought him back to this painful subject, then for a long time to come, his emotions would go on getting the better of his will.
I settled therefore for answering with a nod.
'Has he taken good care of it?' continued Armand.
Two large tears rolled down the sick man's cheeks, and he turned his head away to hide them from me. I pretended not to notice and tried to change the subject.
'You've been away three weeks, ' I said.
Armand passed his hand over his eyes and answered:
'Three weeks exactly.'
'It was a long journey, then.'
'Oh! I wasn't travelling all the time. I was ill for a fortnight. Otherwise I would have been back long ago; but I'd only just arrived when a bout of fever got me and I was forced to keep to my room.
'And you set off again without being fully fit.'
'If I'd stayed another week in that place, I would have died there.'
'But now you're back, you must look after yourself. Your friends will call to see you. And I shall be the first among them, if you'll allow me.'
'In two hours I shall get up.'
'This is most unwise!'
'What have you to do that's so urgent?'
'I have a call to pay on the superintendent of police.'
'Why not let someone else see to a matter that may well make you more ill than you are now?'
'It's the only thing that can make me well. I must see her. Ever since I've known she was dead, and especially since seeing her grave, I haven't been able to sleep. I cannot conceive that the woman I left so young and beautiful can really be dead. I must check for myself. I have to see what God has done with a being I loved so very much, and then perhaps the loathesomeness of the sight will chase away the despair of my memories; you will come with me, won't you...unless you'd find it too tiresome?'
'What did her sister tell you?'
'Nothing. She seemed very surprised that a stranger should wish to buy a burial plot and have a headstone put up to Marguerite, and she signed the authorization I asked her for at once.'
'Take my advice: wait until you are properly fit before having the body transferred.'
'Oh! Don't worry: I shall be strong. Anyway I should go mad if I didn't get what I've decided over and done with as quickly as possible: the need to see it through has become part of my grief. I swear to you that I shall not rest easy until I've seen Marguerite. It may be a craving of the fever which burns in me, a dream born of sleepless nights, an effect of my ravings; but even if I have to become a Trappist monk first to manage it, then like Monsieur de Rance, once I have seen, I shall see.'
'I can understand that, ' I told Armand, 'and you have my complete support. Did you see Julie Duprat?'
'Yes. Oh, I saw her the day I got back, the first time I returned.'
'Did she hand over the papers which Marguerite had left for you?'
Armand pulled a roll of papers from beneath his pillow, then put it back immediately.
'I know what these papers contain by heart, ' he said. 'These last three weeks, I have re-read them ten times each day. You shall read them too, but later, when I'm calmer and can make you understand how much feeling and love this confession reveals. For the moment, I have a favour to ask you.'
'What is it?'
'You have a carriage downstairs?'
'Well, would you be so good as to take my passport, call at the bureau and ask if they are holding any letters for me poste restante? My father and my sister must have written to me here in Paris, and I left in such a hurry that I didn't take time to see before I set off. When you get back, we'll go together to inform the police superintendent of tomorrow's ceremony.'
Armand handed me his passport and I went round to the rue Jean- Jacques-Roussear.
There were two letters in the name of Duval. I picked them up and returned.
When I reappeared, Armand was fully dressed and ready to go out.
'Thank you, 'he said, taking the letters. 'Yes, ' he added, after glancing at the addresses, 'yes, they are from my father and my sister. They must have been totally mystified by my silence.'
He opened the letters and guessed at, rather than read their contents, for each was four pages long, and after a moment he folded them up again.
'Let's be off, ' he said, 'I'll reply tomorrow.'
We went to see the superintendent of police, and Armand handed over Marguerite's sister's letter of attorney.
In return, the superintendent gave him an advice note for the cemetery keeper; it was agreed that the transfer of the remains should take place the following day at ten in the morning, that I should come and collect him an hour beforehand and that we would drive to the cemetery together.
I too was curious to be present at the spectacle, and I confess I did not sleep that night.
Judging by the thoughts which assailed me, it must have been a long night for Armand.
When I entered his apartment at nine the following morning, he was horribly pale, but appeared calm.
He smiled at me and held out his hand.
His candles had burned right down and, before leaving, Armand picked up a very thick letter, addressed to his father, which had doubtless been the confidant of the night's reflections.
Half an hour later, we were at Montmartre.
The superintendent was already waiting for us.
We made our way slowly in the direction of Marguerite's grave. The superintendent led the way, Armand and I following a few paces behind.
From time to time, I felt my companion's arm tremble convulsively, as though a series of shudders had suddenly coursed through him. When this happened, I would look at him; he understood my look and smiled at me, but from the time we left his apartment we had not exchanged a single word.
Armand stopped just short of the grave to wipe his face which was streaming with large drops of perspiration.
I took advantage of the halt to catch my breath, for I myself felt as though my heart was being squeezed in a vice.
Why is it that we should find a mixture of pain and pleasure in sights of this kind? By the time we reached the grave, the gardener had taken the pots of flowers away, the iron railings had been removed and two men were digging with picks.
Armand leaned against a tree and watched.
The whole of his life seemed to be concentrated in those eyes of his.
Suddenly, one of the picks grated on a stone.
At the sound, Armand recoiled as though from an electric shock, and he grasped my hand with such strength that he hurt me.
One grave-digger took a wide shovel and little by little emptied the grave; when there remained only the stones which are always used to cover the coffin, he threw them out one by one.
I kept an eye on Armand, for I was afraid that his sensations, which he was visibly repressing, might get the better of him at any moment; but he went on watching, his eyes fixed and staring like a madman's, and a slight twitching of the cheeks and lips was the only indication of a violent nervous crisis.
For my own part, I can say only one thing: that I regretted having come.
When the coffin was completely exposed, the superintendent said to the grave-Diggers:
'Open it up.'
The men obeyed, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world.
The coffin was made of oak, and they set about unscrewing the upper panel which served as a lid. The dampness of the earth had rusted the screws, and it was not without considerable effort that the coffin was opened. A foul odour emerged, despite the aromatic herbs with which it had been strewn.
'Dear God! Dear God!' Armand murmured, and he grew paler than ever.
The grave-diggers themselves stepped back a pace.
A large white winding-sheet covered the corpse and partly outlined its misshapen contours. This shroud had been completely eaten away at one end, and allowed one of the dead woman's feet to protrude.
I was very near to feeling sick, and even now as I write these lines, the memory of this scene comes back to me in all its solemn reality.
'Let's get on with it, ' said the superintendent.
At this, one of the men reached out his hand, began unstitching the shroud and, seizing it by one end suddenly uncovered Marguerite's face.
It was terrible to behold and it is horrible to relate.
The eyes were simply two holes, the lips had gone, and the white teeth were clenched. The long, dry, black hair was stuck over the temples and partly veiled the green hollows of the cheeks, and yet in this face I recognized the pink and white, vivacious face which I had seen so often.
Armand, helpless to avert his eyes from her countenance, had put his handkerchief to his mouth and was biting on it.
As for me, I felt as though my head was being constricted by an iron band: a mist settled over my eyes, my ears were filled with buzzing noises, and it was as much as I could manage to open a small bottle I had brought with me just in case, and take deep breaths of the salts which it contained.
At the height of my dizziness, I heard the superintendent say to Monsieur Duval:
'Do you identify the body?'
'Yes, ' the young man answered dully.
'All right, close it up and take it away, ' the superintendent said.
The grave-diggers pulled the shroud back over the dead woman's face, closed up the coffin, took one end each and headed for the spot which had been pointed out to them.
Armand did not move. His eyes were riveted on the empty grave: he was as pale as the corpse which we had just seen...He might have been turned to stone.
I saw what would happen when, away from this scene, his grief subsided and would consequently be no longer able to sustain him.
I went up to the superintendent.
'Is the presence of this gentleman, ' I said, gesturing towards Armand, 'required for anything else?'
'No, ' he said, ' and I would strongly advise you to take him away, for he seems to be unwell.'
'Come, ' I said to Armand, taking him by the arm.
'What? ' he said, looking at me as though he did not recognize me.
'It's over, ' I added, ' you must come away, my friend. You look pale, you're cold, you'll kill yourself with such emotions.'
'You're right, let's go, ' he replied mechanically, but without moving one step.
So I took him by the arm and dragged him away.
He allowed himself to be led off like a little child, merely muttering from time to time:
'Did you see the eyes?'
And he turned round as though the sight of them had called him back.
But his stride became jerky; he no longer seemed capable of walking without staggering; his teeth chattered, his hands were cold, violent nervous convulsions took possession of his entire body.
I spoke to him; he did not reply.
It was as he could do to allow himself to be led.
At the gate, we found a cab. And none too soon.
He had scarcely sat down inside, when the trembling grew stronger, and he had a severe nervous seizure. Through it, his fears of alarming me made him murmur as he pressed my hand:
'It's nothing, nothing, I simply want to weep.'
And I heard him take deep breaths, and the blood rushed to his eyes, but the tears would not come.
I made him inhale from the smelling bottle which had helped me and, by the time we reached his apartment, only the trembling was still in evidence.
I put him to bed with the help of his servant, ordered a large fire to be lit in his bedroom, and hurried off to fetch my own doctor to whom I explained what had just happened.
He came at once.
Armand was blue in the face. He was raving and stammering disconnected words through which only the name of Marguerite could be distinctly heard.
'How is he?' I asked the doctor when he had examined the patient.
'Well now, he has brain fever, no more and no less, and it's as well for him. For I do believe that otherwise, God forgive me, he would have gone mad. Fortunately, his physical sickness will drive out his mental sickness, and most likely in a month he will be out of danger from both of them.'