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BOOK I: ANTHIME ARMAND-DUBOIS
"Pour ma part, mon choix est fait. J'ai opte pour l'atheisme social. Cet atheisme, je l'ai exprime depuis une quinzaine d'annees, dans une serie d'ouvrages. . . ." --GEORGES PALANTE. Chronique philosophique du Mercure de France (December, 1912).
In 1890, during the pontificate of Leo XIII, Anthime Armand-Dubois, unbeliever and freemason, visited Rome in order to consult Dr. X, the celebrated specialist for rheumatic complaints.
"What!" cried Julius de Baraglioul, his brother-in-law. "Is it your body you are going to treat in Rome? Pray Heaven you may realise when you get there that your soul is in far worse case."
To which Armand-Dubois replied in a tone of excessive commiseration:
"My poor dear fellow, just look at my shoulders."
Baraglioul was obliging; he raised his eyes and glanced, in spite of himself, at his brother-in-law's shoulders; they were quivering spasmodically as though laughter, deep-seated and irrepressible, were heaving them; and the sight of this huge half-crippled frame spending the last remnants of its physical strength in so absurd a parody, was pitiable enough. Well, well! They had taken up their positions once and for all. Baraglioul's eloquence wouldn't change matters. Time perhaps? Or the secret influence of holy surroundings? . . . Julius merely said in an infinitely discouraged manner:
"Anthime, you grieve me." (The shoulders stopped quivering at once, for Anthime was fond of his brother-in-law.) "When I go to see you in Rome three years hence; at the time of the Jubilee, I trust I may find you amended!"
Veronica, at any rate, accompanied her husband in a very different frame of mind. She was as pious as her sister Marguerite and as Julius himself, and this long stay in Rome was the fulfilment of one of her dearest wishes. She was a disappointed, barren woman who filled her monotonous life with trivial, religious observances and, for lack of a child, devoted herself to nursing her spiritual aspirations. She no longer had much hope left, alas! of bringing her Anthime back to the fold. Many years had taught her the obstinacy of which that broad brow was capable, and the power of denial with which it was stamped. Father Flons had warned her:
"Madam," said he, "the most unyielding wills are the worst. You need hope for nothing but a miracle."
She had even ceased to mind much. They had no sooner settled in Rome than they arranged their private lives independently of each other--he on his side, she on hers; Veronica in the care of the household and in the pursuit of her devotions, Anthime in his scientific researches. In this way they lived beside each other, close to each other and just able to bear the contact by turning their backs to one another. Thanks to this there reigned a kind of harmony between them; a sort of semi-felicity settled down upon them; the virtue of each found its modest exercise in putting up with the faults of the other.
Their apartment, which they found by the help of an agency, combined, like most Italian houses, unlooked-for advantages with extraordinary inconveniences. It occupied the whole first floor of the Palazzo Forgetti, Via in Lucina, and had the benefit of a fair-sized terrace, where Veronica immediately set to work growing aspidistras--so difficult to grow in Paris apartments. But in order to reach this terrace one had to go through the orangery, which Anthime had immediately seized on for a laboratory, and through which it was agreed she should be allowed to pass at certain stated hours of the day.
Veronica would push open the door noiselessly and then, with her eyes on the ground, would slip furtively by, much as a convert might pass a wall covered with obscene graffiti; at the other end of the room, Anthime, stooping over some villainous operation or other, with his enormous back bulging out of the arm-chair on to which he had hooked his crutch, was a sight she scorned to behold! Anthime, on his side, pretended not to hear her. But as soon as she had passed out again, he would rise heavily from his chair, drag himself to the door, and, with tightened lips and an imperious thrust of his forefinger, would viciously snap to the latch.
This was the time when Beppo, the procurer, would come in at the other door to take his orders.
He was a little ragamuffin of twelve or thirteen years old, without either family or home. It was in front of the hotel in the Via Bocca di Leone, where the couple had stayed for a few days while they were looking for rooms, that Anthime had noticed him, soon after their arrival in Rome. Here Beppo used to attract the attention of passers-by with a grasshopper which lay cowering under a few blades of grass in a little cage made out of twisted rushes. Anthime paid six soldi for the insect and then in his broken Italian gave the boy to understand, as best he could, that he wanted some rats to be taken to the apartment in Via in Lucina, into which he was going to move the next day. Anything that crept or swam or crawled or flew served to experiment on. He was a worker in live flesh.
Beppo was a procurer born; he would have brought to market the eagle or the she-wolf from the Capitol. The profession pleased him--indulged him in his taste for thieving. He was given ten soldi a day; he helped besides in the house. Veronica at first looked on him with no favourable eye; but the moment she saw him crossing himself as he passed the image of the Madonna at the north corner of the house, she forgave him his rags and allowed him to carry water, coal and fire-wood into the kitchen; he used even to carry the basket for Veronica when she went to market--on Tuesdays and Fridays, the days when Caroline, the maid they had brought with them from Paris, was too busy at home.
Beppo disliked Veronica; but he took a fancy to the learned Anthime, who soon, instead of going laboriously down to the court-yard to take over his victims, allowed the boy to come up to his laboratory. There was an entrance to it direct from the terrace, which was connected with the court-yard by a back staircase. Anthime's heart beat quicker when he heard the light patter of the little bare feet on the tiles. But he would show no sign of it; nothing disturbed him in his work.
The boy used not to knock at the glass door: he scratched; and as Anthime remained bending over his table without answering, he would step forward three or four paces and in his fresh voice fling out a "Permesso?" which filled the room with azure. From his voice one would have taken him for an angel; in reality he was an under-executioner. What new victim was he bringing in the bag which he dropped on to the torture table? Anthime was often too much absorbed to open the bag at once; he threw a hasty glance at it; if he saw it stirring, he was satisfied: rats, mice, sparrows, frogs--all were welcome to this Moloch. Sometimes Beppo brought him nothing; but he came in all the same. He knew that Armand-Dubois was expecting him even empty-handed; and while the boy, standing silent beside the man of science, leaned forward to watch some abominable experiment, I wish I could certify that the man of science experienced no thrill of pleasure--no false god's vanity--at feeling the child's astonished look fall, in turn, with terror upon the animal, and with admiration upon himself.
Anthime's modest pretension, before going on to deal with human beings, was merely to reduce all the animal activities he had under observation, to what he termed "tropisms." Tropisms! The word was no sooner invented than nothing else was to be heard of; an entire category of psychologists would admit nothing in the world but tropisms. Tropisms! A sudden flood of light emanated from these syllables! Organic matter was obviously governed by the same involuntary impulses as those which turn the flower of the heliotrope to face the sun (a fact which is easily to be explained by a few simple laws of physics and thermochemistry). The order of the universe could at last be hailed as reassuringly benign. In all the motions of life, however surprising, a perfect obedience to the agent could be universally recognised.
With the purpose of wringing from the helpless animal the acknowledgment of its own simplicity, Anthime Armand-Dubois had just invented a complicated system of boxes--boxes with passages, boxes with trap-doors, boxes with labyrinths, boxes with compartments (some with food in them, some with nothing, some sprinkled with a sternutatory powder), boxes with doors of different shapes and colours--diabolical instruments, which a little later became the rage in Germany under the name of Vexierkasten, and were of the greatest use in helping the new school of psycho-physiologists to take another step forward in the path of unbelief. And in order to act severally on one or other of the animal's senses, on one or other portion of its brain, he blinded some, deafened others, emasculated, skinned or brained them, depriving them of one organ after another, which you would have sworn indispensable, but which the animal, for Anthime's better instruction, did without.
His paper on "Conditional Reflexes" had just revolutionised the University of Upsal; it had given rise to an acrimonious controversy, in which many of the most distinguished men of science had taken part. In the meantime fresh problems were crowding into Anthime's mind; leaving his colleagues to indulge in empty verbiage, he pressed forward his investigations in other directions, for he was bold enough to aim at storming God in His most secret strongholds.
He was not content with admitting in a general way that all activity entails expenditure, and that an animal expends simply by the exercise of its muscles or senses. After each expenditure, he asked himself: "How much?." And if the extenuated sufferer attempted to recuperate, Anthime, instead of feeding him, weighed him. To have added any further elements to the following experiment would have led to excessive complications: six rats which had been bound and kept without food, were placed on the scales every day; two of them were blind, two were one-eyed, and two could see, but the eyesight of the two latter was continually being strained by the turning of a little mechanical mill. After five days' fast, what did their respective loss of weight amount to? Every day at noon, Armand-Dubois filled in his specially prepared tables with a fresh row of triumphant figures.
The Jubilee was at hand. The Armand-Dubois were expecting the Baragliouls from day to day. The morning that the telegram came announcing their arrival for the same evening, Anthime went out to buy himself a neck-tie.
Anthime went out very little--as seldom as possible, because of his difficulty in getting about; Veronica used often to do his shopping for him, or the tradespeople would come themselves to take his orders from his own patterns. Anthime was past the age for worrying about the fashion. But though he wanted his tie to be unobtrusive--a plain bow of black surah--still, he liked choosing it himself. The ends of the dark brown satin spread tie, which he had bought for the journey and worn during his stay at the hotel, were constantly coming out of his waistcoat, which he always wore cut very low. This tie had been replaced by a cream-coloured neckerchief, fastened with a pin, on which he had had mounted a large antique cameo of no particular value. Marguerite de Baraglioul would certainly not consider this neckwear dressy enough; it had been a great mistake to abandon the little ready-made black bows he used habitually to wear in Paris, and particularly foolish not to have kept one as a pattern. What makes would they show him? He would not settle on anything without having seen the principal shirt-makers in the Corso and the Via dei Condotti. For a man of fifty, loose ends were not staid enough; yes, a plain bow made of dull black silk was the thing. . . .
Lunch was not before one o'clock. Anthime came in about twelve with his parcel, in time to weigh his animals.
Though he was not vain, Anthime felt he must try on his tie before starting work. There was a broken bit of looking-glass lying on the table, which he had used on occasion for the purpose of provoking tropisms. He propped it up against a cage and leant forward to look at his own reflection.
Anthime wore his hair en brosse; it was still thick and had once been red; at the present time it was of the greyish yellow of worn silver-gilt; his whiskers, which were cut short and high, had kept the same reddish tinge as his stiff moustache. He passed the back of his hand over his flat cheeks and under his square chin, and muttered: "Yes, yes, I'll shave after lunch."
He took the tie out of its envelope and placed it before him; unfastened his cameo pin and then took off his neckerchief. Round his powerful neck, he wore a collar of medium height with turned-down corners. And now, notwithstanding my desire to relate nothing but what is essential, I cannot pass over in silence Anthime Armand-Dubois' wen. For until I have learnt to distinguish more surely between the accidental and the necessary, what can I demand from my pen but the most rigorous fidelity? And, indeed, who could affirm that this wen had no share, no weight, in the decisions of what Anthime called his free thought? He was more willing to overlook his sciatica; but this paltry trifle was a thing for which he could not forgive Providence.
It had made its appearance, without his knowing how, shortly after his marriage; and at first it had been merely an inconsiderable wart, south-east of his left ear, just where the hair begins to grow; for a long time he was able to conceal this excrescence in the thickness of his hair, which he combed over it in a curl; Veronica herself had not noticed it, till once, in the course of a nocturnal caress, her hand had suddenly encountered it.
"Dear me!" she had exclaimed. "What have you got there?"
And, as though the swelling, once discovered, had no further reason for discretion, it grew in a few months to the size of an egg--a partridge's--a guinea-fowl's--and then a hen's. There it stopped, while his hair, as it grew scantier, exposed it more and more to view between its meagre strands. At forty-six years of age, Anthime Armand-Dubois could have no further pretensions to good looks; he cut his hair close and adopted a style of collar of medium height, with a kind of recess in it, which hid and at the same time revealed the wen. But enough of Anthime's wen!