MY FRIEND Ledantec and I were each twenty-five, and we were visiting London for the first time in our lives. It was a Saturday evening in December, cold and foggy, and I think that this combination is more than enough to explain why my friend Ledantec and I managed to get abominably drunk, though, to tell the truth, we were not experiencing any discomfort from it. On the contrary, we were floating in an atmosphere of perfect bliss. We did not speak, certainly, for we were incapable of doing so, but then we had no inclination for conversation. What would be the good of it? We could easily read all our thoughts in each other’s eyes, the more so because we knew that we were thinking about nothing whatever.
It was not, however, in order to arrive at that state of delicious, intellectual nullity, that we had gone to mysterious Whitechapel. We had gone into the first public-house we saw, with the firm intention of studying manners and customs there,--not to mention morals,--as spectators, artists, and philosophers, but in the second public-house we entered, we ourselves began to resemble the objects of our investigations, that is to say, sponges soaked in alcohol. Between one public-house and the other, the outer air seemed to squeeze those sponges dry, and thus we rolled from public-house to public-house, till at last the sponges could hold no more.
Consequently, we had for some time bidden farewell to our studies in morals; they were now limited to two impressions: zigzags through the darkness outside, and a gleam of light outside the public houses. As to the imbibition of brandy, whisky, and gin, that was done mechanically, and our stomachs scarcely noticed it.
But what strange beings we had elbowed with during our long stoppages! What a number of faces to be remembered; what clothes, what attitudes, what talk, and what squalor!
At first we tried to note these things exactly in our memory, but there were so many of them, and our brains got muddled so quickly, that just then we had no very clear recollection of anything or anybody. Even objects immediately before us passed by in vague, dusky phantasmagoria, confounded with things farther away in an inextricable manner. The world became a sort of kaleidoscope to us, seen in a dream through the penumbra of an aquarium.
Suddenly we were roused from this state of somnolence, awakened as if by a blow on the chest, forced to fix our attention on what we saw, for, amid this whirl of strange sights, one stranger than all attracted our eyes, and seemed to say: “Look at me.”
It was at the open door of a public house. A ray of light streamed into the street through the half-open door, and the revealing ray fell right on to the specter that had just risen up there, dumb and motionless.
It was indeed a pitiful and terrible specter, and, above all, most real, as it stood out boldly against the dark background of the street, which it made darker still!
Young? Yes, the woman was certainly young. There could be no doubt about that, when one looked at her smooth skin, her smiling mouth showing white teeth, and the firm bust which could be plainly noted under her thin dress.
But then, how explain her perfectly white hair, not gray or growing gray, but absolutely white, as white as any octogenarian’s?
And then her eyes, those eyes beneath a smooth brow, were surely the eyes of an old woman? Certainly they were, and of how old a woman you could not tell, for it must have taken years of trouble and sorrow, of tears and of sleepless nights, and a long existence, thus to dull, wear out and roughen those vitreous pupils.
Vitreous? Not exactly that. For roughened glass still retains a dull and milky brightness, a recollection, as it were, o fits former transparency. But these eyes seemed rather to be of metal which had turned rusty, and really, if pewter could rust, I should have compared them to pewter covered with rust. They had the dead color of pewter, and at the same time emitted a glance which was the color of reddish water.
But it was not until some time later that I tried to define them approximately by retrospective analysis. At that moment, being altogether incapable of such effort, I could only realize in my own mind the idea of extreme decrepitude and horrible old age which they produced in my imagination.
Have I said that they were set in very puffy eyelids, which had no lashed whatever, and that on her unwrinkled forehead there was not a vestige of an eyebrow? When I tell you this, and emphasize the dullness of their look beneath the hair of an octogenarian, it is not surprising that Ledantec and I said in a low voice at the sight of this woman, who from her physique must have been young:
“Oh! Poor, poor old woman!”
Her age was further accentuated by the terrible poverty revealed by her dress. If she had been better dressed, her youthful looks would, perhaps, have struck us more; but her thin shawl, which was all that she had over her chemise, her single petticoat which was full of holes and almost in rags, not nearly reaching to her bare feet, her straw hat with ragged feathers and with ribbons of no particular color through age, seemed altogether so ancient, so prodigiously antique that we were deceived.
From what remote, superannuated, and obsolete period did they all spring? You could not guess, and by a perfectly natural association of ideas, you would infer that the unfortunate creature was as old as her clothes were. Now by “you” I mean by Ledantec and myself, that is to say, by two men who were abominably drunk and who were arguing with the peculiar logic of intoxication.
Under the softening influence of alcohol we looked at the vague smile on those lips hiding the teeth of a child, without considering the youthful beauty of the latter. We saw nothing but her fixed and almost idiotic smile, which no longer contrasted with the dull expression of her face, but, on the contrary, strengthened it. For in spite of her teeth, to us it was the smile of an old woman, and as for myself, I was really pleased at my acuteness when I inferred that this grandmother with such pale lips had the teeth of a young girl. Still, thanks to the softening influence of alcohol, I was not angry with her for this artifice. I even thought it particularly praiseworthy, since, after all, the poor creature thus conscientiously pursued her calling, which was to seduce men. For there was no possible doubt that this grandmother was nothing more nor less than a prostitute.
And then, drunk! Horribly drunk, much more drunk than Ledantec and I were, for we really could manage to say: “Oh! Pity the poor, poor old woman!” while she was incapable of articulating a single syllable, of making a gesture, or even of imparting a gleam of promise, a furtive flash of allurement to her eyes. With her hands crossed on her stomach, and leaning against the front of the public house, her whole body as stiff as if in a fit of catalepsy, she had nothing alluring about her, save her sad smile. This inspired us with all the more pity because she was even more tipsy than we were, and so, by an identical, spontaneous movement, we each seized her by an arm to take her into the public-house with us.
To our great astonishment she resisted, and sprang back into the shadow again, out of the ray of light which came through the door. At the same time, she started off through the darkness dragging us with her, for she was clinging to our arms. We went along with her without speaking, not knowing where we were going, but without the least uneasiness on that score. Only, when she suddenly burst into violent sobs as she walked, Ledantec and I began to sob in unison.
The cold and the fog had suddenly congested our brains again, and we had again lost all precise consciousness of our acts, our thoughts, and our sensations. Our sobs had nothing of grief in them; we were floating in an atmosphere of perfect bliss, and I can remember that at that moment it was no longer the exterior world at which I seemed to be looking as through the penumbra of an aquarium; it was myself, a self composed of three, which was changing into something that was floating adrift in something, though what it was I did not know, composed as it was of impalpable fog and intangible water. But it was exquisitely delightful.
From that moment I remember nothing more until something happened which had the effect of a clap of thunder on me, and made me sober in an instant.
Ledantec was standing in front of me, his face convulsed with horror, his hair standing on end, and his eyes staring out of his head. He shouted to me:
“Let us escape! Let us escape!” Whereupon I opened my eyes wide, and found myself lying on the floor, in a room into which daylight was shining. I saw some rags hanging against the wall, two chairs, a broken jug lying on the floor by my side, and in a corner a wretched bed on which a woman was lying, who was no doubt dead, for her head was hanging over the side, and her long white hair reached almost to my feet.
With a bound I was up, like Ledantec.
“What!” I said to him, while my teeth chattered: “Did you kill her?”
“No, no,” he replied. “But that makes no difference; let us be off.”
I felt completely sober by that time, but I did think that he was still suffering somewhat from the effects of last night’s drinking; otherwise, why should he wish to escape? Pity for the unfortunate woman forced me to say:
“What is the matter with her? If she is ill, me must look after her.”
I went over to the wretched bed, in order to put her head back on the pillow, and discovered that she was neither dead nor ill, but only sound asleep. I also noticed that she was quite young. She still wore that idiotic smile, but her teeth were her own and those of a girl. Her smooth skin and firm bust showed that she was not more than sixteen; perhaps not so much.
“There! You see it, you can see it!” said Ledantec. “Let us be off.”
He tried to drag me out. He was still drunk; I could see it by his feverish movements, his trembling hands, and his nervous looks. Then he said:
“I slept beside the old woman; but she is not old. Look at her; look at her; yes, she is old after all!”
And he lifted up her long hair by handfuls; it was like handfuls of white silk, and then he added, evidently in a sort of frenzy, which made me fear an attack of delirium tremens: “To think that I have begotten children, three, four children-who knows how many children, all in one night! And they were born immediately, and have grown up already! Let us be off.”
Decidedly it was an attack of madness. Poor Ledantec! What could I do for him? I took his arm and tried to calm him, but he thought that I was going to try and make him go over to her again, and he pushed me away and exclaimed with tears in his voice: “If you do not believe me, look under the bed; the children are there; they are there, I tell you. Look here, just look here.”
He threw himself down flat on his stomach, and actually pulled out one, two, three, four children, who had hidden under the bed. I do not exactly know whether they were boys or girls, but all, like the sleeping owmman, had white hair, the hair of octogenarians.
Was I still drunk, like Ledantec, or was I mad? What was the meaning of this strange hallucination? I hesitated for a moment, and shook myself to be sure that I was awake.
No, no, I had all my wits about me, and in reality saw that horrible lot of little brats. They all had their faces in their hands, and were crying and squalling; then one of them suddenly jumped on to the bed; all the others followed his example, and the woman woke up.
And there we stood, while those five pairs of eyes, without eyebrows or eyelashes, eyes of the color of dull pewter, with pupils the color of red water, were steadily fixed on us.
“Let us be off! let us be off!” Ledantec repeated, loosing his hold of me. This time I paid attention to what he said, and after throwing some small change on to the floor, I followed him to make him understand, when he became quite sober, that he saw before him a poor Albino unfortunate, who had several brothers and sisters.