The Merry Men

Page 90

'Have you been to Franchard, Jean-Marie?' inquired the Doctor. 'I fancy not.'

'Never,' replied the boy.

'It is ruin in a gorge,' continued Desprez, adopting his expository voice; 'the ruin of a hermitage and chapel. History tells us much of Franchard; how the recluse was often slain by robbers; how he lived on a most insufficient diet; how he was expected to pass his days in prayer. A letter is preserved, addressed to one of these solitaries by the superior of his order, full of admirable hygienic advice; bidding him go from his book to praying, and so back again, for variety's sake, and when he was weary of both to stroll about his garden and observe the honey bees. It is to this day my own system. You must often have remarked me leaving the "Pharmacopoeia" - often even in the middle of a phrase - to come forth into the sun and air. I admire the writer of that letter from my heart; he was a man of thought on the most important subjects. But, indeed, had I lived in the Middle Ages (I am heartily glad that I did not) I should have been an eremite myself - if I had not been a professed buffoon, that is. These were the only philosophical lives yet open: laughter or prayer; sneers, we might say, and tears. Until the sun of the Positive arose, the wise man had to make his choice between these two.'

'I have been a buffoon, of course,' observed Jean-Marie.

'I cannot imagine you to have excelled in your profession,' said the Doctor, admiring the boy's gravity. 'Do you ever laugh?'

'Oh, yes,' replied the other. 'I laugh often. I am very fond of jokes.'

'Singular being!' said Desprez. 'But I divagate (I perceive in a thousand ways that I grow old). Franchard was at length destroyed in the English wars, the same that levelled Gretz. But - here is the point - the hermits (for there were already more than one) had foreseen the danger and carefully concealed the sacrificial vessels. These vessels were of monstrous value, Jean-Marie - monstrous value - priceless, we may say; exquisitely worked, of exquisite material. And now, mark me, they have never been found. In the reign of Louis Quatorze some fellows were digging hard by the ruins. Suddenly - tock! - the spade hit upon an obstacle. Imagine the men fooling one to another; imagine how their hearts bounded, how their colour came and went. It was a coffer, and in Franchard the place of buried treasure! They tore it open like famished beasts. Alas! it was not the treasure; only some priestly robes, which, at the touch of the eating air, fell upon themselves and instantly wasted into dust. The perspiration of these good fellows turned cold upon them, Jean-Marie. I will pledge my reputation, if there was anything like a cutting wind, one or other had a pneumonia for his trouble.'

'I should like to have seen them turning into dust,' said Jean- Marie. 'Otherwise, I should not have cared so greatly.'

'You have no imagination,' cried the Doctor. 'Picture to yourself the scene. Dwell on the idea - a great treasure lying in the earth for centuries: the material for a giddy, copious, opulent existence not employed; dresses and exquisite pictures unseen; the swiftest galloping horses not stirring a hoof, arrested by a spell; women with the beautiful faculty of smiles, not smiling; cards, dice, opera singing, orchestras, castles, beautiful parks and gardens, big ships with a tower of sailcloth, all lying unborn in a coffin - and the stupid trees growing overhead in the sunlight, year after year. The thought drives one frantic.'

'It is only money,' replied Jean-Marie. 'It would do harm.'

'O, come!' cried Desprez, 'that is philosophy; it is all very fine, but not to the point just now. And besides, it is not "only money," as you call it; there are works of art in the question; the vessels were carved. You speak like a child. You weary me exceedingly, quoting my words out of all logical connection, like a parroquet.'

'And at any rate, we have nothing to do with it,' returned the boy submissively.

The Merry Men Page 91

Robert Louis Stevenson

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