The Merry Men

Page 78

'No, sir,' said the boy.

Madame Tentaillon and Desprez exchanged expressive glances.

'That is bad, my man,' resumed the latter, with a shade of sternness. 'Every one should be fond of the dying, or conceal their sentiments; and your master here is dying. If I have watched a bird a little while stealing my cherries, I have a thought of disappointment when he flies away over my garden wall, and I see him steer for the forest and vanish. How much more a creature such as this, so strong, so astute, so richly endowed with faculties! When I think that, in a few hours, the speech will be silenced, the breath extinct, and even the shadow vanished from the wall, I who never saw him, this lady who knew him only as a guest, are touched with some affection.'

The boy was silent for a little, and appeared to be reflecting.

'You did not know him,' he replied at last, 'he was a bad man.'

'He is a little pagan,' said the landlady. 'For that matter, they are all the same, these mountebanks, tumblers, artists, and what not. They have no interior.'

But the Doctor was still scrutinising the little pagan, his eyebrows knotted and uplifted.

'What is your name?' he asked.

'Jean-Marie,' said the lad.

Desprez leaped upon him with one of his sudden flashes of excitement, and felt his head all over from an ethnological point of view.

'Celtic, Celtic!' he said.

'Celtic!' cried Madame Tentaillon, who had perhaps confounded the word with hydrocephalous. 'Poor lad! is it dangerous?'

'That depends,' returned the Doctor grimly. And then once more addressing the boy: 'And what do you do for your living, Jean- Marie?' he inquired.

'I tumble,' was the answer.

'So! Tumble?' repeated Desprez. 'Probably healthful. I hazard the guess, Madame Tentaillon, that tumbling is a healthful way of life. And have you never done anything else but tumble?'

'Before I learned that, I used to steal,' answered Jean-Marie gravely.

'Upon my word!' cried the doctor. 'You are a nice little man for your age. Madame, when my CONFRERE comes from Bourron, you will communicate my unfavourable opinion. I leave the case in his hands; but of course, on any alarming symptom, above all if there should be a sign of rally, do not hesitate to knock me up. I am a doctor no longer, I thank God; but I have been one. Good night, madame. Good sleep to you, Jean-Marie.'


DOCTOR DESPREZ always rose early. Before the smoke arose, before the first cart rattled over the bridge to the day's labour in the fields, he was to be found wandering in his garden. Now he would pick a bunch of grapes; now he would eat a big pear under the trellice; now he would draw all sorts of fancies on the path with the end of his cane; now he would go down and watch the river running endlessly past the timber landing-place at which he moored his boat. There was no time, he used to say, for making theories like the early morning. 'I rise earlier than any one else in the village,' he once boasted. 'It is a fair consequence that I know more and wish to do less with my knowledge.'

The Doctor was a connoisseur of sunrises, and loved a good theatrical effect to usher in the day. He had a theory of dew, by which he could predict the weather. Indeed, most things served him to that end: the sound of the bells from all the neighbouring villages, the smell of the forest, the visits and the behaviour of both birds and fishes, the look of the plants in his garden, the disposition of cloud, the colour of the light, and last, although not least, the arsenal of meteorological instruments in a louvre- boarded hutch upon the lawn. Ever since he had settled at Gretz, he had been growing more and more into the local meteorologist, the unpaid champion of the local climate. He thought at first there was no place so healthful in the arrondissement. By the end of the second year, he protested there was none so wholesome in the whole department. And for some time before he met Jean-Marie he had been prepared to challenge all France and the better part of Europe for a rival to his chosen spot.

The Merry Men Page 79

Robert Louis Stevenson

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