The Merry Men

Page 80

'No; but I mean as I stole,' explained the other. 'For I had no choice. I think it is surely right to have bread; it must be right to have bread, there comes so plain a want of it. And then they beat me cruelly if I returned with nothing,' he added. 'I was not ignorant of right and wrong; for before that I had been well taught by a priest, who was very kind to me.' (The Doctor made a horrible grimace at the word 'priest.') 'But it seemed to me, when one had nothing to eat and was beaten, it was a different affair. I would not have stolen for tartlets, I believe; but any one would steal for baker's bread.'

'And so I suppose,' said the Doctor, with a rising sneer, 'you prayed God to forgive you, and explained the case to Him at length.'

'Why, sir?' asked Jean-Marie. 'I do not see.'

'Your priest would see, however,' retorted Desprez.

'Would he?' asked the boy, troubled for the first time. 'I should have thought God would have known.'

'Eh?' snarled the Doctor.

'I should have thought God would have understood me,' replied the other. 'You do not, I see; but then it was God that made me think so, was it not?'

'Little boy, little boy,' said Dr. Desprez, 'I told you already you had the vices of philosophy; if you display the virtues also, I must go. I am a student of the blessed laws of health, an observer of plain and temperate nature in her common walks; and I cannot preserve my equanimity in presence of a monster. Do you understand?'

'No, sir,' said the boy.

'I will make my meaning clear to you,' replied the doctor. 'Look there at the sky - behind the belfry first, where it is so light, and then up and up, turning your chin back, right to the top of the dome, where it is already as blue as at noon. Is not that a beautiful colour? Does it not please the heart? We have seen it all our lives, until it has grown in with our familiar thoughts. Now,' changing his tone, 'suppose that sky to become suddenly of a live and fiery amber, like the colour of clear coals, and growing scarlet towards the top - I do not say it would be any the less beautiful; but would you like it as well?'

'I suppose not,' answered Jean-Marie.

'Neither do I like you,' returned the Doctor, roughly. 'I hate all odd people, and you are the most curious little boy in all the world.'

Jean-Marie seemed to ponder for a while, and then he raised his head again and looked over at the Doctor with an air of candid inquiry. 'But are not you a very curious gentleman?' he asked.

The Doctor threw away his stick, bounded on the boy, clasped him to his bosom, and kissed him on both cheeks. 'Admirable, admirable imp!' he cried. 'What a morning, what an hour for a theorist of forty-two! No,' he continued, apostrophising heaven, 'I did not know such boys existed; I was ignorant they made them so; I had doubted of my race; and now! It is like,' he added, picking up his stick, 'like a lovers' meeting. I have bruised my favourite staff in that moment of enthusiasm. The injury, however, is not grave.' He caught the boy looking at him in obvious wonder, embarrassment, and alarm. 'Hullo!' said he, 'why do you look at me like that? Egad, I believe the boy despises me. Do you despise me, boy?'

'O, no,' replied Jean-Marie, seriously; 'only I do not understand.'

'You must excuse me, sir,' returned the Doctor, with gravity; 'I am still so young. O, hang him!' he added to himself. And he took his seat again and observed the boy sardonically. 'He has spoiled the quiet of my morning,' thought he. 'I shall be nervous all day, and have a febricule when I digest. Let me compose myself.' And so he dismissed his pre-occupations by an effort of the will which he had long practised, and let his soul roam abroad in the contemplation of the morning. He inhaled the air, tasting it critically as a connoisseur tastes a vintage, and prolonging the expiration with hygienic gusto. He counted the little flecks of cloud along the sky. He followed the movements of the birds round the church tower - making long sweeps, hanging poised, or turning airy somersaults in fancy, and beating the wind with imaginary pinions.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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