THE ATHEIST'S MASS
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Clara Bell
This is dedicated to Auguste Borget by his friend De Balzac
THE ATHEIST'S MASS
Bianchon, a physician to whom science owes a fine system of theoretical
physiology, and who, while still young, made himself a celebrity in the
medical school of Paris, that central luminary to which European doctors
do homage, practised surgery for a long time before he took up medicine.
His earliest studies were guided by one of the greatest of French
surgeons, the illustrious Desplein, who flashed across science like a
meteor. By the consensus even of his enemies, he took with him to the tomb
an incommunicable method. Like all men of genius, he had no heirs; he
carried everything in him, and carried it away with him. The glory of a
surgeon is like that of an actor: they live only so long as they are
alive, and their talent leaves no trace when they are gone. Actors and
surgeons, like great singers too, like the executants who by their
performance increase the power of music tenfold, are all the heroes of a
Desplein is a case in proof of this resemblance in the destinies of such
transient genius. His name, yesterday so famous, to-day almost forgotten,
will survive in his special department without crossing its limits. For
must there not be some extraordinary circumstances to exalt the name of a
professor from the history of Science to the general history of the human
race? Had Desplein that universal command of knowledge which makes a man
the living word, the great figure of his age? Desplein had a godlike eye;
he saw into the sufferer and his malady by an intuition, natural or
acquired, which enabled him to grasp the diagnostics peculiar to the
individual, to determine the very time, the hour, the minute when an
operation should be performed, making due allowance for atmospheric
conditions and peculiarities of individual temperament. To proceed thus,
hand in hand with nature, had he then studied the constant assimilation by
living beings, of the elements contained in the atmosphere, or yielded by
the earth to man who absorbs them, deriving from them a particular
expression of life? Did he work it all out by the power of deduction and
analogy, to which we owe the genius of Cuvier? Be this as it may, this man
was in all the secrets of the human frame; he knew it in the past and in
the future, emphasizing the present.
But did he epitomize all science in his own person as Hippocrates did and
Galen and Aristotle? Did he guide a whole school towards new worlds? No.
Though it is impossible to deny that this persistent observer of human
chemistry possessed that antique science of the Mages, that is to say,
knowledge of the elements in fusion, the causes of life, life antecedent
to life, and what it must be in its incubation or ever it is, it
must be confessed that, unfortunately, everything in him was purely
personal. Isolated during his life by his egoism, that egoism is now
suicidal of his glory. On his tomb there is no proclaiming statue to
repeat to posterity the mysteries which genius seeks out at its own cost.
But perhaps Desplein's genius was answerable for his beliefs, and for that
reason mortal. To him the terrestrial atmosphere was a generative
envelope; he saw the earth as an egg within its shell; and not being able
to determine whether the egg or the hen first was, he would not recognize
either the cock or the egg. He believed neither in the antecedent animal
nor the surviving spirit of man. Desplein had no doubts; he was positive.
His bold and unqualified atheism was like that of many scientific men, the
best men in the world, but invincible atheists—atheists such as
religious people declare to be impossible. This opinion could scarcely
exist otherwise in a man who was accustomed from his youth to dissect the
creature above all others—before, during, and after life; to hunt
through all his organs without ever finding the individual soul, which is
indispensable to religious theory. When he detected a cerebral centre, a
nervous centre, and a centre for aerating the blood—the first two so
perfectly complementary that in the latter years of his life he came to a
conviction that the sense of hearing is not absolutely necessary for
hearing, nor the sense of sight for seeing, and that the solar plexus
could supply their place without any possibility of doubt—Desplein,
thus finding two souls in man, confirmed his atheism by this fact, though
it is no evidence against God. This man died, it is said, in final
impenitence, as do, unfortunately, many noble geniuses, whom God may
The life of this man, great as he was, was marred by many meannesses, to
use the expression employed by his enemies, who were anxious to diminish
his glory, but which it would be more proper to call apparent
contradictions. Envious people and fools, having no knowledge of the
determinations by which superior spirits are moved, seize at once on
superficial inconsistencies, to formulate an accusation and so to pass
sentence on them. If, subsequently, the proceedings thus attacked are
crowned with success, showing the correlations of the preliminaries and
the results, a few of the vanguard of calumnies always survive. In our
day, for instance, Napoleon was condemned by our contemporaries when he
spread his eagle's wings to alight in England: only 1822 could explain
1804 and the flatboats at Boulogne.
As, in Desplein, his glory and science were invulnerable, his enemies
attacked his odd moods and his temper, whereas, in fact, he was simply
characterized by what the English call eccentricity. Sometimes very
handsomely dressed, like Crebillon the tragical, he would suddenly affect
extreme indifference as to what he wore; he was sometimes seen in a
carriage, and sometimes on foot. By turns rough and kind, harsh and
covetous on the surface, but capable of offering his whole fortune to his
exiled masters—who did him the honor of accepting it for a few days—no
man ever gave rise to such contradictory judgements. Although to obtain a
black ribbon, which physicians ought not to intrigue for, he was capable
of dropping a prayer-book out of his pocket at Court, in his heart he
mocked at everything; he had a deep contempt for men, after studying them
from above and below, after detecting their genuine expression when
performing the most solemn and the meanest acts of their lives.
The qualities of a great man are often federative. If among these colossal
spirits one has more talent than wit, his wit is still superior to that of
a man of whom it is simply stated that "he is witty." Genius always
presupposes moral insight. This insight may be applied to a special
subject; but he who can see a flower must be able to see the sun. The man
who on hearing a diplomate he has saved ask, "How is the Emperor?" could
say, "The courtier is alive; the man will follow!"—that man is not
merely a surgeon or a physician, he is prodigiously witty also. Hence a
patient and diligent student of human nature will admit Desplein's
exorbitant pretensions, and believe—as he himself believed—that
he might have been no less great as a minister than he was as a surgeon.
Among the riddles which Desplein's life presents to many of his
contemporaries, we have chosen one of the most interesting, because the
answer is to be found at the end of the narrative, and will avenge him for
some foolish charges.
Of all the students in Desplein's hospital, Horace Bianchon was one of
those to whom he most warmly attached himself. Before being a house
surgeon at the Hotel-Dieu, Horace Bianchon had been a medical student
lodging in a squalid boarding house in the Quartier Latin, known as
the Maison Vauquer. This poor young man had felt there the gnawing of that
burning poverty which is a sort of crucible from which great talents are
to emerge as pure and incorruptible as diamonds, which may be subjected to
any shock without being crushed. In the fierce fire of their unbridled
passions they acquire the most impeccable honesty, and get into the habit
of fighting the battles which await genius with the constant work by which
they coerce their cheated appetites.
Horace was an upright young fellow, incapable of tergiversation on a
matter of honor, going to the point without waste of words, and as ready
to pledge his cloak for a friend as to give him his time and his night
hours. Horace, in short, was one of those friends who are never anxious as
to what they may get in return for what they give, feeling sure that they
will in their turn get more than they give. Most of his friends felt for
him that deeply-seated respect which is inspired by unostentatious virtue,
and many of them dreaded his censure. But Horace made no pedantic display
of his qualities. He was neither a puritan nor a preacher; he could swear
with a grace as he gave his advice, and was always ready for a
jollification when occasion offered. A jolly companion, not more prudish
than a trooper, as frank and outspoken—not as a sailor, for nowadays
sailors are wily diplomates—but as an honest man who has nothing in
his life to hide, he walked with his head erect, and a mind content. In
short, to put the facts into a word, Horace was the Pylades of more than
one Orestes—creditors being regarded as the nearest modern
equivalent to the Furies of the ancients.
He carried his poverty with the cheerfulness which is perhaps one of the
chief elements of courage, and, like all people who have nothing, he made
very few debts. As sober as a camel and active as a stag, he was steadfast
in his ideas and his conduct.
The happy phase of Bianchon's life began on the day when the famous
surgeon had proof of the qualities and the defects which, these no less
than those, make Doctor Horace Bianchon doubly dear to his friends. When a
leading clinical practitioner takes a young man to his bosom, that young
man has, as they say, his foot in the stirrup. Desplein did not fail to
take Bianchon as his assistant to wealthy houses, where some complimentary
fee almost always found its way into the student's pocket, and where the
mysteries of Paris life were insensibly revealed to the young provincial;
he kept him at his side when a consultation was to be held, and gave him
occupation; sometimes he would send him to a watering-place with a rich
patient; in fact, he was making a practice for him. The consequence was
that in the course of time the Tyrant of surgery had a devoted ally. These
two men—one at the summit of honor and of his science, enjoying an
immense fortune and an immense reputation; the other a humble Omega,
having neither fortune nor fame—became intimate friends.
The great Desplein told his house surgeon everything; the disciple knew
whether such or such a woman had sat on a chair near the master, or on the
famous couch in Desplein's surgery, on which he slept. Bianchon knew the
mysteries of that temperament, a compound of the lion and the bull, which
at last expanded and enlarged beyond measure the great man's torso, and
caused his death by degeneration of the heart. He studied the
eccentricities of that busy life, the schemes of that sordid avarice, the
hopes of the politician who lurked behind the man of science; he was able
to foresee the mortifications that awaited the only sentiment that lay hid
in a heart that was steeled, but not of steel.
One day Bianchon spoke to Desplein of a poor water-carrier of the
Saint-Jacques district, who had a horrible disease caused by fatigue and
want; this wretched Auvergnat had had nothing but potatoes to eat during
the dreadful winter of 1821. Desplein left all his visits, and at the risk
of killing his horse, he rushed off, followed by Bianchon, to the poor
man's dwelling, and saw, himself, to his being removed to a sick house,
founded by the famous Dubois in the Faubourg Saint-Denis. Then he went to
attend the man, and when he had cured him he gave him the necessary sum to
buy a horse and a water-barrel. This Auvergnat distinguished himself by an
amusing action. One of his friends fell ill, and he took him at once to
Desplein, saying to his benefactor, "I could not have borne to let him go
to any one else!"
Rough customer as he was, Desplein grasped the water-carrier's hand, and
said, "Bring them all to me."
He got the native of Cantal into the Hotel-Dieu, where he took the
greatest care of him. Bianchon had already observed in his chief a
predilection for Auvergnats, and especially for water carriers; but as
Desplein took a sort of pride in his cures at the Hotel-Dieu, the pupil
saw nothing very strange in that.
One day, as he crossed the Place Saint-Sulpice, Bianchon caught sight of
his master going into the church at about nine in the morning. Desplein,
who at that time never went a step without his cab, was on foot, and
slipped in by the door in the Rue du Petit-Lion, as if he were stealing
into some house of ill fame. The house surgeon, naturally possessed by
curiosity, knowing his master's opinions, and being himself a rabid
follower of Cabanis (Cabaniste en dyable, with the y, which
in Rabelais seems to convey an intensity of devilry)—Bianchon stole
into the church, and was not a little astonished to see the great
Desplein, the atheist, who had no mercy on the angels—who give no
work to the lancet, and cannot suffer from fistula or gastritis—in
short, this audacious scoffer kneeling humbly, and where? In the Lady
Chapel, where he remained through the mass, giving alms for the expenses
of the service, alms for the poor, and looking as serious as though he
were superintending an operation.
"He has certainly not come here to clear up the question of the Virgin's
delivery," said Bianchon to himself, astonished beyond measure. "If I had
caught him holding one of the ropes of the canopy on Corpus Christi day,
it would be a thing to laugh at; but at this hour, alone, with no one to
see—it is surely a thing to marvel at!"
Bianchon did not wish to seem as though he were spying the head surgeon of
the Hotel-Dieu; he went away. As it happened, Desplein asked him to dine
with him that day, not at his own house, but at a restaurant. At dessert
Bianchon skilfully contrived to talk of the mass, speaking of it as
mummery and a farce.
"A farce," said Desplein, "which has cost Christendom more blood than all
Napoleon's battles and all Broussais' leeches. The mass is a papal
invention, not older than the sixth century, and based on the Hoc est
corpus. What floods of blood were shed to establish the Fete-Dieu, the
Festival of Corpus Christi—the institution by which Rome established
her triumph in the question of the Real Presence, a schism which rent the
Church during three centuries! The wars of the Count of Toulouse against
the Albigenses were the tail end of that dispute. The Vaudois and the
Albigenses refused to recognize this innovation."
In short, Desplein was delighted to disport himself in his most
atheistical vein; a flow of Voltairean satire, or, to be accurate, a vile
imitation of the Citateur.
"Hallo! where is my worshiper of this morning?" said Bianchon to himself.
He said nothing; he began to doubt whether he had really seen his chief at
Saint-Sulpice. Desplein would not have troubled himself to tell Bianchon a
lie, they knew each other too well; they had already exchanged thoughts on
quite equally serious subjects, and discussed systems de natura rerum,
probing or dissecting them with the knife and scalpel of incredulity.
Three months went by. Bianchon did not attempt to follow the matter up,
though it remained stamped on his memory. One day that year, one of the
physicians of the Hotel-Dieu took Desplein by the arm, as if to question
him, in Bianchon's presence.
"What were you doing at Saint-Sulpice, my dear master?" said he.
"I went to see a priest who has a diseased knee-bone, and to whom the
Duchesse d'Angouleme did me the honor to recommend me," said Desplein.
The questioner took this defeat for an answer; not so Bianchon.
"Oh, he goes to see damaged knees in church!—He went to mass," said
the young man to himself.
Bianchon resolved to watch Desplein. He remembered the day and hour when
he had detected him going into Saint-Sulpice, and resolved to be there
again next year on the same day and at the same hour, to see if he should
find him there again. In that case the periodicity of his devotion would
justify a scientific investigation; for in such a man there ought to be no
direct antagonism of thought and action.
Next year, on the said day and hour, Bianchon, who had already ceased to
be Desplein's house surgeon, saw the great man's cab standing at the
corner of the Rue de Tournon and the Rue du Petit-Lion, whence his friend
jesuitically crept along by the wall of Saint-Sulpice, and once more
attended mass in front of the Virgin's altar. It was Desplein, sure
enough! The master-surgeon, the atheist at heart, the worshiper by chance.
The mystery was greater than ever; the regularity of the phenomenon
complicated it. When Desplein had left, Bianchon went to the sacristan,
who took charge of the chapel, and asked him whether the gentleman were a
"For twenty years that I have been here," replied the man, "M. Desplein
has come four times a year to attend this mass. He founded it."
"A mass founded by him!" said Bianchon, as he went away. "This is as great
a mystery as the Immaculate Conception—an article which alone is
enough to make a physician an unbeliever."
Some time elapsed before Doctor Bianchon, though so much his friend, found
an opportunity of speaking to Desplein of this incident of his life.
Though they met in consultation, or in society, it was difficult to find
an hour of confidential solitude when, sitting with their feet on the
fire-dogs and their head resting on the back of an armchair, two men tell
each other their secrets. At last, seven years later, after the Revolution
of 1830, when the mob invaded the Archbishop's residence, when Republican
agitators spurred them on to destroy the gilt crosses which flashed like
streaks of lightning in the immensity of the ocean of houses; when
Incredulity flaunted itself in the streets, side by side with Rebellion,
Bianchon once more detected Desplein going into Saint-Sulpice. The doctor
followed him, and knelt down by him without the slightest notice or
demonstration of surprise from his friend. They both attended this mass of
"Will you tell me, my dear fellow," said Bianchon, as they left the
church, "the reason for your fit of monkishness? I have caught you three
times going to mass—— You! You must account to me for this
mystery, explain such a flagrant disagreement between your opinions and
your conduct. You do not believe in God, and yet you attend mass? My dear
master, you are bound to give me an answer."
"I am like a great many devout people, men who on the surface are deeply
religious, but quite as much atheists as you or I can be."
And he poured out a torrent of epigrams on certain political personages,
of whom the best known gives us, in this century, a new edition of
"All that has nothing to do with my question," retorted Bianchon. "I want
to know the reason for what you have just been doing, and why you founded
"Faith! my dear boy," said Desplein, "I am on the verge of the tomb; I may
safely tell you about the beginning of my life."
At this moment Bianchon and the great man were in the Rue des
Quatre-Vents, one of the worst streets in Paris. Desplein pointed to the
sixth floor of one of the houses looking like obelisks, of which the
narrow door opens into a passage with a winding staircase at the end, with
windows appropriately termed "borrowed lights"—or, in French, jours
de souffrance. It was a greenish structure; the ground floor occupied
by a furniture-dealer, while each floor seemed to shelter a different and
independent form of misery. Throwing up his arm with a vehement gesture,
"I lived up there for two years."
"I know; Arthez lived there; I went up there almost every day during my
first youth; we used to call it then the pickle-jar of great men! What
"The mass I have just attended is connected with some events which took
place at the time when I lived in the garret where you say Arthez lived;
the one with the window where the clothes line is hanging with linen over
a pot of flowers. My early life was so hard, my dear Bianchon, that I may
dispute the palm of Paris suffering with any man living. I have endured
everything: hunger and thirst, want of money, want of clothes, of shoes,
of linen, every cruelty that penury can inflict. I have blown on my frozen
fingers in that pickle-jar of great men, which I should like to see
again, now, with you. I worked through a whole winter, seeing my head
steam, and perceiving the atmosphere of my own moisture as we see that of
horses on a frosty day. I do not know where a man finds the fulcrum that
enables him to hold out against such a life.
"I was alone, with no one to help me, no money to buy books or to pay the
expenses of my medical training; I had not a friend; my irascible, touchy,
restless temper was against me. No one understood that this irritability
was the distress and toil of a man who, at the bottom of the social scale,
is struggling to reach the surface. Still, I had, as I may say to you,
before whom I need wear no draperies, I had that ground-bed of good
feeling and keen sensitiveness which must always be the birthright of any
man who is strong enough to climb to any height whatever, after having
long trampled in the bogs of poverty. I could obtain nothing from my
family, nor from my home, beyond my inadequate allowance. In short, at
that time, I breakfasted off a roll which the baker in the Rue du
Petit-Lion sold me cheap because it was left from yesterday or the day
before, and I crumbled it into milk; thus my morning meal cost me but two
sous. I dined only every other day in a boarding-house where the meal cost
me sixteen sous. You know as well as I what care I must have taken of my
clothes and shoes. I hardly know whether in later life we feel grief so
deep when a colleague plays us false as we have known, you and I, on
detecting the mocking smile of a gaping seam in a shoe, or hearing the
armhole of a coat split, I drank nothing but water; I regarded a cafe with
distant respect. Zoppi's seemed to me a promised land where none but the
Lucullus of the pays Latin had a right of entry. 'Shall I ever take
a cup of coffee there with milk in it?' said I to myself, 'or play a game
"I threw into my work the fury I felt at my misery. I tried to master
positive knowledge so as to acquire the greatest personal value, and merit
the position I should hold as soon as I could escape from nothingness. I
consumed more oil than bread; the light I burned during these endless
nights cost me more than food. It was a long duel, obstinate, with no sort
of consolation. I found no sympathy anywhere. To have friends, must we not
form connections with young men, have a few sous so as to be able to go
tippling with them, and meet them where students congregate? And I had
nothing! And no one in Paris can understand that nothing means nothing.
When I even thought of revealing my beggary, I had that nervous
contraction of the throat which makes a sick man believe that a ball rises
up from the oesophagus into the larynx.
"In later life I have met people born to wealth who, never having wanted
for anything, had never even heard this problem in the rule of three: A
young man is to crime as a five-franc piece is to X.—These gilded
idiots say to me, 'Why did you get into debt? Why did you involve yourself
in such onerous obligations?' They remind me of the princess who, on
hearing that the people lacked bread, said, 'Why do not they buy cakes?' I
should like to see one of these rich men, who complain that I charge too
much for an operation,—yes, I should like to see him alone in Paris
without a sou, without a friend, without credit, and forced to work with
his five fingers to live at all! What would he do? Where would he go to
satisfy his hunger?
"Bianchon, if you have sometimes seen me hard and bitter, it was because I
was adding my early sufferings on to the insensibility, the selfishness of
which I have seen thousands of instances in the highest circles; or,
perhaps, I was thinking of the obstacles which hatred, envy, jealousy, and
calumny raised up between me and success. In Paris, when certain people
see you ready to set your foot in the stirrup, some pull your coat-tails,
others loosen the buckle of the strap that you may fall and crack your
skull; one wrenches off your horse's shoes, another steals your whip, and
the least treacherous of them all is the man whom you see coming to fire
his pistol at you point blank.
"You yourself, my dear boy, are clever enough to make acquaintance before
long with the odious and incessant warfare waged by mediocrity against the
superior man. If you should drop five-and-twenty louis one day, you will
be accused of gambling on the next, and your best friends will report that
you have lost twenty-five thousand. If you have a headache, you will be
considered mad. If you are a little hasty, no one can live with you. If,
to make a stand against this armament of pigmies, you collect your best
powers, your best friends will cry out that you want to have everything,
that you aim at domineering, at tyranny. In short, your good points will
become your faults, your faults will be vices, and your virtues crime.
"If you save a man, you will be said to have killed him; if he reappears
on the scene, it will be positive that you have secured the present at the
cost of the future. If he is not dead, he will die. Stumble, and you fall!
Invent anything of any kind and claim your rights, you will be crotchety,
cunning, ill-disposed to rising younger men.
"So, you see, my dear fellow, if I do not believe in God, I believe still
less in man. But do not you know in me another Desplein, altogether
different from the Desplein whom every one abuses?—However, we will
not stir that mud-heap.
"Well, I was living in that house, I was working hard to pass my first
examination, and I had no money at all. You know. I had come to one of
those moments of extremity when a man says, 'I will enlist.' I had one
hope. I expected from my home a box full of linen, a present from one of
those old aunts who, knowing nothing of Paris, think of your shirts, while
they imagine that their nephew with thirty francs a month is eating
ortolans. The box arrived while I was at the schools; it had cost forty
francs for carriage. The porter, a German shoemaker living in a loft, had
paid the money and kept the box. I walked up and down the Rue des
Fosses-Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the Rue de l'Ecole de Medecine without
hitting on any scheme which would release my trunk without the payment of
the forty francs, which of course I could pay as soon as I should have
sold the linen. My stupidity proved to me that surgery was my only
vocation. My good fellow, refined souls, whose powers move in a lofty
atmosphere, have none of that spirit of intrigue that is fertile in
resource and device; their good genius is chance; they do not invent,
things come to them.
"At night I went home, at the very moment when my fellow lodger also came
in—a water-carrier named Bourgeat, a native of Saint-Flour. We knew
each other as two lodgers do who have rooms off the same landing, and who
hear each other sleeping, coughing, dressing, and so at last become used
to one another. My neighbor informed me that the landlord, to whom I owed
three quarters' rent, had turned me out; I must clear out next morning. He
himself was also turned out on account of his occupation. I spent the most
miserable night of my life. Where was I to get a messenger who could carry
my few chattels and my books? How could I pay him and the porter? Where
was I to go? I repeated these unanswerable questions again and again, in
tears, as madmen repeat their tunes. I fell asleep; poverty has for its
friends heavenly slumbers full of beautiful dreams.
"Next morning, just as I was swallowing my little bowl of bread soaked in
milk, Bourgeat came in and said to me in his vile Auvergne accent:
"'Mouchieur l'Etudiant, I am a poor man, a foundling from the
hospital at Saint-Flour, without either father or mother, and not rich
enough to marry. You are not fertile in relations either, nor well
supplied with the ready? Listen, I have a hand-cart downstairs which I
have hired for two sous an hour; it will hold all our goods; if you like,
we will try to find lodgings together, since we are both turned out of
this. It is not the earthly paradise, when all is said and done.'
"'I know that, my good Bourgeat,' said I. 'But I am in a great fix. I have
a trunk downstairs with a hundred francs' worth of linen in it, out of
which I could pay the landlord and all I owe to the porter, and I have not
a hundred sous.'
"'Pooh! I have a few dibs,' replied Bourgeat joyfully, and he pulled out a
greasy old leather purse. 'Keep your linen.'
"Bourgeat paid up my arrears and his own, and settled with the porter.
Then he put our furniture and my box of linen in his cart, and pulled it
along the street, stopping in front of every house where there was a
notice board. I went up to see whether the rooms to let would suit us. At
midday we were still wandering about the neighborhood without having found
anything. The price was the great difficulty. Bourgeat proposed that we
should eat at a wine shop, leaving the cart at the door. Towards evening I
discovered, in the Cour de Rohan, Passage du Commerce, at the very top of
a house next the roof, two rooms with a staircase between them. Each of us
was to pay sixty francs a year. So there we were housed, my humble friend
and I. We dined together. Bourgeat, who earned about fifty sous a day, had
saved a hundred crowns or so; he would soon be able to gratify his
ambition by buying a barrel and a horse. On learning of my situation—for
he extracted my secrets with a quiet craftiness and good nature, of which
the remembrance touches my heart to this day, he gave up for a time the
ambition of his whole life; for twenty-two years he had been carrying
water in the street, and he now devoted his hundred crowns to my future
Desplein at these words clutched Bianchon's arm tightly. "He gave me the
money for my examination fees! That man, my friend, understood that I had
a mission, that the needs of my intellect were greater than his. He looked
after me, he called me his boy, he lent me money to buy books, he would
come in softly sometimes to watch me at work, and took a mother's care in
seeing that I had wholesome and abundant food, instead of the bad and
insufficient nourishment I had been condemned to. Bourgeat, a man of about
forty, had a homely, mediaeval type of face, a prominent forehead, a head
that a painter might have chosen as a model for that of Lycurgus. The poor
man's heart was big with affections seeking an object; he had never been
loved but by a poodle that had died some time since, of which he would
talk to me, asking whether I thought the Church would allow masses to be
said for the repose of its soul. His dog, said he, had been a good
Christian, who for twelve years had accompanied him to church, never
barking, listening to the organ without opening his mouth, and crouching
beside him in a way that made it seem as though he were praying too.
"This man centered all his affections in me; he looked upon me as a
forlorn and suffering creature, and he became, to me, the most thoughtful
mother, the most considerate benefactor, the ideal of the virtue which
rejoices in its own work. When I met him in the street, he would throw me
a glance of intelligence full of unutterable dignity; he would affect to
walk as though he carried no weight, and seemed happy in seeing me in good
health and well dressed. It was, in fact, the devoted affection of the
lower classes, the love of a girl of the people transferred to a loftier
level. Bourgeat did all my errands, woke me at night at any fixed hour,
trimmed my lamp, cleaned our landing; as good as a servant as he was as a
father, and as clean as an English girl. He did all the housework. Like
Philopoemen, he sawed our wood, and gave to all he did the grace of
simplicity while preserving his dignity, for he seemed to understand that
the end ennobles every act.
"When I left this good fellow, to be house surgeon at the Hotel-Dieu, I
felt an indescribable, dull pain, knowing that he could no longer live
with me; but he comforted himself with the prospect of saving up money
enough for me to take my degree, and he made me promise to go to see him
whenever I had a day out: Bourgeat was proud of me. He loved me for my own
sake, and for his own. If you look up my thesis, you will see that I
dedicated it to him.
"During the last year of my residence as house surgeon I earned enough to
repay all I owed to this worthy Auvergnat by buying him a barrel and a
horse. He was furious with rage at learning that I had been depriving
myself of spending my money, and yet he was delighted to see his wishes
fulfilled; he laughed and scolded, he looked at his barrel, at his horse,
and wiped away a tear, as he said, 'It is too bad. What a splendid barrel!
You really ought not. Why, that horse is as strong as an Auvergnat!'
"I never saw a more touching scene. Bourgeat insisted on buying for me the
case of instruments mounted in silver which you have seen in my room, and
which is to me the most precious thing there. Though enchanted with my
first success, never did the least sign, the least word, escape him which
might imply, 'This man owes all to me!' And yet, but for him, I should
have died of want; he had eaten bread rubbed with garlic that I might have
coffee to enable me to sit up at night.
"He fell ill. As you may suppose, I passed my nights by his bedside, and
the first time I pulled him through; but two years after he had a relapse;
in spite of the utmost care, in spite of the greatest exertions of
science, he succumbed. No king was ever nursed as he was. Yes, Bianchon,
to snatch that man from death I tried unheard-of things. I wanted him to
live long enough to show him his work accomplished, to realize all his
hopes, to give expression to the only need for gratitude that ever filled
my heart, to quench a fire that burns in me to this day.
"Bourgeat, my second father, died in my arms," Desplein went on, after a
pause, visibly moved. "He left me everything he possessed by a will he had
had made by a public scrivener, dating from the year when we had gone to
live in the Cour de Rohan.
"This man's faith was perfect; he loved the Holy Virgin as he might have
loved his wife. He was an ardent Catholic, but never said a word to me
about my want of religion. When he was dying he entreated me to spare no
expense that he might have every possible benefit of clergy. I had a mass
said for him every day. Often, in the night, he would tell me of his fears
as to his future fate; he feared his life had not been saintly enough.
Poor man! he was at work from morning till night. For whom, then, is
Paradise—if there be a Paradise? He received the last sacrament like
the saint that he was, and his death was worthy of his life.
"I alone followed him to the grave. When I had laid my only benefactor to
rest, I looked about to see how I could pay my debt to him; I found he had
neither family nor friends, neither wife nor child. But he believed. He
had a religious conviction; had I any right to dispute it? He had spoken
to me timidly of masses said for the repose of the dead; he would not
impress it on me as a duty, thinking that it would be a form of repayment
for his services. As soon as I had money enough I paid to Saint-Sulpice
the requisite sum for four masses every year. As the only thing I can do
for Bourgeat is thus to satisfy his pious wishes, on the days when that
mass is said, at the beginning of each season of the year, I go for his
sake and say the required prayers; and I say with the good faith of a
sceptic—'Great God, if there is a sphere which Thou hast appointed
after death for those who have been perfect, remember good Bourgeat; and
if he should have anything to suffer, let me suffer it for him, that he
may enter all the sooner into what is called Paradise.'
"That, my dear fellow, is as much as a man who holds my opinions can allow
himself. But God must be a good fellow; He cannot owe me any grudge. I
swear to you, I would give my whole fortune if faith such as Bourgeat's
could enter my brain."
Bianchon, who was with Desplein all through his last illness, dares not
affirm to this day that the great surgeon died an atheist. Will not those
who believe like to fancy that the humble Auvergnat came to open the gate
of Heaven to his friend, as he did that of the earthly temple on whose
pediment we read the words—"A grateful country to its great men."
PARIS, January 1836.