Translated by Brian Stableford
Originally published in 1845
With regard to good stories, here is one that was told to me by a trustworthy man, who claimed to be the friend of a friend of an eye-witness who played a significant role in the drama that I am about to relate to you briefly, not without making the ardent wish that the story in question might be honored before long by an adaptation for the theater — which is, as everyone knows, the greatest honor that can be desired nowadays.
Not six weeks ago, a young Englishman named Belfort was dying, quite simply from a bad chest and a few crazy years recklessly spent. The young man, although he was nearing the end, did not regret losing his life too much, for he had had his fair share of amours, duels, bad debts, picnics, and even fine sermons — in short, his fair share of all the Parisian joys.
One of his friends, a man of science but a good enough fellow regardless, seeing that Charles Belfort would soon render his last breath, came to say to him, in his softest voice: “If it wouldn’t displease you too much, my dear invalid, I’ll use my abilities to magnetize you, and I’ll choose the moment when you render up your soul; it seems to me that it will be a fine experiment, and that there’s nothing about it likely to displease you. What do you say?”
“Not only doesn’t your experiment displease me,” the other replied, “but it seems to me to be very amusing and interesting, and I thank you for having thought of me for the proof, which will be decisive. Count on me, my dear doctor; you’ll be content with my patience, I hope, and I’ll be sure to let you know when the moment comes.”
With those words, the two friends shook hands and separated, saying that they would see one another again soon. They were both full of hope, and it would have been difficult to decide which of the two was the more content, the moribund or the magnetizer.
Two days went by — two centuries — while the magnetizer waited impatiently for the final agony, which did not seem to want to arrive for good and all. The dying man, for his part, lost patience, and he said to his friend: “Damn it, my dear chap, it’s not my fault if death is treating me with such ill-will, but what consoles me is that you won’t lose anything by waiting, and I’ll be a magnificent subject.”
On the night following this conversation, the sick man had a final crisis and fell into a comatose ecstasy; he started sketching fantastic spider-webs with his finger, and yet, in the midst of the most abominable grimaces, he still had the presence of mind to say to his comrade: “You have to lift my head, to hide the light that is hurting my eyes.”
The other obeyed. He propped his moribund up in a sitting position, took away every importunate light and set about the operation; which is to say that never, absolutely never, had such beautiful passes and counter-passes — the whole customary apparatus, in short — been performed. The magnetizer was in the swim; but in the end, when he had enveloped the moribund — who lent himself to it with exemplary willingness — with his all-powerful fluid, and saw that his subject had arrived at magnetic perfection, the magnetizer started to interrogate him.
“How are you doing, Belfort? Where are you?”
“My dear friend,” the other said, “I’m just dying; you’ve caught me just at the moment when the breath was leaving my body, and now it depends entirely on you to let me finish the job or to keep me here, suspended between being and non-being, which doesn’t seem to me to be a disagreeable state, so far.”
“Let’s wait,” said the magnetizer. “There’s no hurry, Belfort, my friend.” And with that, the magnetizer went to dinner, without taking the trouble to demagnetize his friend.
The next day the maker of magnetism reappeared in the mortuary chamber; everything was in its place, including the cadaver.
“Belfort,” said the scientist, after a few preliminary passes, “what have you been doing since you died?”
“In truth, my dear chap,” the dead man replied, “I’ve been obliged to follow you everywhere you went.”
And with that, the dead man told the living one everything that the latter had done the day before: he had dined in a cheap eatery, and from there he had gone to stand on the steps of the Café de Paris; he had been given a ticket to the Vaudeville and he had seen some young women who were pretty enough, but some of whom sang out of tune; finally he had gone back home, and read a little of a novel that he had picked up on the way.
“And if you’ll permit me to make an observation,” the dead man said, “so long as I’m attached to you by a thread that only you can break, eat better, I beg you, remembering that I’m sharing the experience. You know that I like music, so don’t expose me to hearing quavering voices that would spoil the most beautiful faces. All alone here, I’m getting bored, and I wouldn’t be sorry if you were to read a good novel from time to time, but at least, for pity’s sake, read it all the way through. Finally, if you please, don’t go to bed so late; I become irritated not sleeping, because for twenty-four hours, I ought to have been sleeping eternally.”
With these words, the man slumped back, and the magnetizer left the room, slightly discomfited by the strange spy that was dogging his heels.
The next day, the living man came back, and found his dead man a trifle numb. He warmed him up with a further dose of magnetic fluid, rendering him, if not life, at least a little color and the ability to speak.
“Ah!” said the dead man, raising himself up. “You’re not showing me any charity. What! You go to see such hideous sick people, and I have to hear them coughing, spitting, howling, moaning and all the rest! In the street you follow a horrible woman reeking of musk, a woman in old shoes and a dirty skirt, and I have to keep you company counting the holes and the stains of the filthy creature! Then you go to meet up with some young people, and you tell them about your good luck! You make the streetwalker into a duchess, and a cotton apron into a silk skirt! When you’re dead, you know, lying makes you feel ill. And what makes you feel even worse, when you’re dead, is stupidity — some quip that would have made me laugh when I was of this world appears to me to be utter nonsense now that I can hear your mind with the ears of my own. So try to talk better my dear chap, and, if it’s all the same to you, I’d be obliged if you didn’t get drunk on adulterated wine; my throat’s been torn apart by the alcohol you’ve swallowed.”
Who do you think pulled a face? It was the living man, who was beginning to think that his dead man was damnable hard to please — because, after all, the previous evening’s indulgence hadn’t been deserving of such scorn. As for the lady with the worn-out shoes, the living man hadn’t noticed the shoe, but only the foot and a little bit of the leg. However, he was fond to his dead man, and he resolved to keep a better eye on himself, in order not to give poor Belfort further reason for discontentment.
When he came back two days later, he found the deceased in a state of incredible excitement. The dead man was sweating copiously, with indignation legible on his distressed face.
First of all, the magnetizer set about trying to calm that anger; he blew his most soothing breath upon those irritated nerves, and appeased that motionless and frozen heart as best he could, which beat in memory.
“What is it, Master Belfort? Who’s upset you? And for God’s sake, what’s the matter with you?”
“What’s the matter with me?” replied the cadaver, after a long pause. “What’s the matter with me, imbecile that you are? A curse upon the brazen threads that attach me to a fool like you! What’s the matter with me! But my dear chap, for two days you’ve been going from one stupidity to another. The day before yesterday, it’s true, you were well-groomed and well-dressed, but you’d fastened your belt too tight and I nearly choked. Your boots — or, rather, our boots — were well-polished, but they were too small, and if I could still walk, I’m sure that I’d be limping with my right foot.
“I’ve nothing to say about the lovely salon to which you took me; it was pleasant and it was calm; the clothes weren’t at all garish; the mature ladies kept to their place, leaving the foreground to the young women; no one played the slightest sonata or read the slightest sonnet; people only spoke in even voices, neither too loud nor too quiet, and said the nicest things — trivial but light, benevolent and sonorous. In brief, had it not been for your belt and our footwear, I would have blessed you for having taken me to such a beautiful place. But good heavens! Could you have been any more gauche, maladroit and absurd?
“In a corner of the little room to the left, a more beautiful woman than I ever saw with my mortal eyes was sitting; by dint of attention and will-power, via your terrestrial intermediation. I had attracted the benevolent interest of that amiable lady; already she was looking at me with a certain tenderness, and she was about to smile at me; our two souls were no longer any but one, and we were about to fall in love, when you turned your head like an idiot to greet I don’t know what starchy spirit. Then the image of my beautiful lady fled, and if you live for a hundred years you won’t find either another face as beautiful or another heart as noble.
“Idiot that you are, having done that, what do you do next? You know that I’ve left some glaring debts, and that I don’t even have a tomb. You haven’t a sou yourself; you live from hand to mouth; your rent hasn’t been paid and never will be; in brief, you’re as poor as a poet and an actor rolled into one — which is to say, abominably poor! Well, you sit down at a card-table, tremulously risk a wretched pistole, and, having won the hand, you pocket the money and run away like a thief!
“Now, do you know what you did there, Monsieur Idiot? You renounced getting your hands on a round sum of four lovely thousand louis d’or, for you’d have won the next thirteen hands, my son! With your four thousand louis you’d have had a carriage and I’d have had a first-class funeral. You’d have had a new suit and I’d have had an embroidered shroud. You’d have gone to seek your supper in the chorus of the Opéra, and I’d have gone to look for Monsieur Gannal.1
“Damn your feeble intelligence — you can’t make use of what little sense you have, but you amuse yourself dragging another man’s intelligence around with you. Go away — you make me sick, wretched living individual that you are!”
When our magnetizer finally understood that whatever he did would surely attract criticism or sarcasm, he fell silent. Now that he felt that he was being followed and observed at close range by some invisible entity that he had retained on the boundary between the two worlds, the scientist dare not take a step in the street; he scarcely dared answer yes or no to the simplest questions that were addressed to him; it was as if he were deaf and dumb. At times he wondered whether he might be the magnetized man and the magnetizer that great motionless — but not speechless — cadaver, the mere sight of which had ended up making him shiver.
An idea, a thought, is such a powerful thing, even independent of life! An idea pursues you, obsesses you, more tenacious than a shadow, as eloquent as remorse or hope, full of starts, excitations and perils!
However, our man went back to his friend Belfort three days later. This time, once again, a great change was evident in his inanimate face; pure and simple scorn had replaced indignation and anger. The half-closed eyes seemed to be saying: “Away with you!” The tight lips were expressing an indescribable disdain. Every muscle, taut from top to bottom, held a contempt suspended from every thread connecting it to the soul.
“What’s the matter now, my friend?” cried the living man, “You seem dazed. You can’t say this time that I’ve done or said anything stupid, because I’ve stayed at home, alone, entirely given over to my thoughts.”
“Oh, my dear fellow,” the dead man said, “it’s the contemplation of your thoughts that’s giving me nausea. Motionless as you were, I was forced to look into the depths of that chaos you call your soul. But what kind of animal are you to occupy yourself with so many ignoble, frivolous and shameful things? When I was alive and I called you my friend, everyone said that you were a gallant fellow; you had a reputation for keen, even eloquent wit; you were credited with philosophy, probity and tact.
“For three days, unable to help it, I’ve been watching you very attentively — but my dear fellow, you’re a complete mess! What you know, you know poorly; what you don’t know, you replace with words as empty as your head. Your generosity is a certain organic weakness that ends up making your eyes red, and that’s all. Your intelligence is represented by a few mechanical cog-wheels that rotate of their own accord like the wheel of a water-mill incessantly repeating the same tick-tock. Your courage — I’ve seen all the way its depths, your courage! — is a cardboard mask that frightens children. Your probity — let’s talk about your probity! — is written in the margins of the commercial Code and the penal Code.
“Shame upon your vices, those of a badly brought-up child! I wouldn’t give four sous for your vices; they make me sick, your wicked shameful vices: they’re like a kind of boasting! As for your virtues, they’re so worthless I wouldn’t even give them to my lackeys; there’s something limp and vain about your virtue, which bears some resemblance to a badly-cooked broth. Oh, I advise you not to lay bare the inside of your brain and your heart — it’s not a pretty sight, although, on the other hand, it’s very sad.
“And what ideas you have about other men! What thwarted ambitions! And I don’t envy your work at all, my poor sir! What! You aren’t ashamed, even of your castles in Spain, when you amuse yourself rambling on for entire hours in petty daydreams?
“Anyway, Monsieur, let’s leave it at that — but I’m damnably sorry that I ever called you my friend!”
It would not have taken much on this occasion for the magnetizer to destroy his work and liberate himself from the unwelcome thought that was obsessing him. He left the mortuary chamber in a very bad mood, and on the way home he said to himself that it was, after all, quite an accomplishment to have stopped Belfort’s discontented soul half-way.
Then again, the living man said to himself, sadly, what good has it done me to have retained that dead man in the edge of his grave? To have myself told such rude home-truths, to hear the story of my everyday life told in such a cruel and grotesque fashion, no longer to be alone with my conscience, my thoughts, my ambitions, my self? If the clairvoyant that sees everything were, at least, to indicate some unknown science to me — a remedy for the gout or some hidden treasure easy to extract — I’d be rewarded for my troubles, but no! For having carried out the most difficult task, the most excellent miracle that magnetism has ever accomplished, here I am dragging behind me a bilious inquisitor who isn’t content with anything, and who’ll end up making me disgusted with myself.
Thus the clever man reasoned; he was very annoyed, and firmly resolved to put an end to his dealings with such a miscreant, no matter what it cost.
As he was unable to sleep, the magnetizer went back to Belfort’s house that same evening, at midnight.
Belfort watched him come in, and without waiting to be interrogated — for the magnetic fluid becomes, it seems, a habit, and replaces life as a well-lit candle replaces with winter sun — the dead man cried: “I’ll tell you what you’ve just done, amiable doctor! You’ve quite simply decided to murder me! Yes, you’re jealous of this artificial life, you’re furious at my revelations, and you’ve decided to extract me abruptly from magnetic sleep in order to return me to dust and silence!
“That’s handsome of you, Monsieur, it’s glorious, what you’re doing, coming to murder…a dead man! Coming to trouble a cadaver in his coffin! Attacking the thought of a man because the man, having become, thanks to you, a part of eternal life, is no longer able and no longer wants to flatter you!
“Well, get on with it, then, and turn me to dust — but that dust, when you’ve cast it to the wind, will summon to its aid another, bolder thought, to follow in your tracks, another gaze, even more clairvoyant, to read the depths of your soul, another avenger, even more implacable: remorse!”
At these threats the magnetizer fled, but, in his distress, he left the door ajar.
The neighbors of both sexes, who had initially kept their distance, took the chance, one after another, and finally all together, of coming to greet and interrogate the dead man, and picked up, here and there, some of those fine verities — I mean a few of those eternal, ever-living truths — that only the dead know how to voice appropriately. Husbands, wives, children, tenants, owners, masters and servants, the rich and the poor, all the way to the porter, each obtained a parcel of justice addressed to them.
The dead man spoke true words and expressed true notions, and what he said was, admittedly, cruel. If you asked him where fortune lay, he would point out a wart on the end of your nose; if you mentioned ambition to him, he would talk to you about modesty, economy and bonhomie. The female neighbors found him so ungallant that they slammed the door violently.
That was all that the late Monsieur Belfort wanted.
A week went by without the magnetized and the magnetizer seeing one another again; they were sulking, but it was obviously not up to the dead man to make the first move. The scientist finally understood that, and came back to his subject’s bedside.
“I’ve thought about everything that has happened,” Belfort said to him, “and I’d be glad if you were to carry through the plan you made the other day. You’re right: wake me up, so that I can finish dying quietly. It had made such a good beginning, when you came along to disrupt it, that I’d already be devoured by worms and returned via the thousand pores of universal decomposition into the ocean of life and light. Wake me up, then, and I’ll die entirely — and joyfully, for, this time, I’ll amuse myself by gazing, not at your soul, which isn’t beautiful, but at your body, which is very ugly.
“Only the other day — I caught you in that agreeable occupation — you were telling yourself how fortunate you were before, but please, where are these women who can look lovingly at an ape like you? You’re badly-formed; you always have one shoulder higher than the other, this one over that one or that one over this one. Your hair started falling out a long time ago, and what’s left is hanging on to rotten roots, like last year’s thatch after the winter. Your eyes can still see, but I can see some sort of pellicle extending over your line of sight that doesn’t augur anything good.
“Oh, if you could see those layers of yellow chalk encrusted in the joints of your fingers, which are corrupting your bones and are going to break them bit by bit, like the boot of torture, but more slowly, more insidiously and with a more obstinate verve!
“Your heart is swollen, my dear chap, and the point is being torn by some viscera or other that is wounded in its turn. Your left lung isn’t much better than my right lung. Gradually infiltrating between your skin and your softened tendons I can see layers of thick fat which makes you resemble some sort of sea-cow. Your teeth are already turning yellow; they’re loose in their bloody cavities. In your brain I can see veins swollen with apoplectic blood, ready to burst. You’re doomed, you see, and — give me your hand — you’re dead!”
On hearing those lugubrious words, the magnetizer begs the magnetized for mercy, pity and forgiveness. And, in order to free himself from the vision that is obsessing him, to expel from his mind that voice, which is pursuing him with such bruising stubbornness, in order not to remain exposed to that mockery and those prophecies of misfortune, the magnetizer sets about countermanding the magnetic fluid and destroying that artificial life.
The dead man resists, but in vain; it is necessary that a corpse, which is dead, should yield to a man who is still alive.
Gradually, the voice fades away. It utters one last gasp, and then Belfort, so eloquent a little while before, is no longer more than I don’t know what, that which I don’t know how to name in any language….
It was, in fact, for three weeks already that death had had possession of the cadaver, and now the magnetic breath had ceased, corruption and the worm took hold of their prey again and did not let go.
One shivers at the mere idea that the magnetizer might have died before having demagnetized his friend Belfort. How long eternity would have seemed to the latter then — unless his thought, obedient all the way to the abyss, or to Heaven, had followed the soul of magnetizer.
That would be another trial to attempt!
1 Jean-Nicolas Gannal (1791−1852) was the pharmacist and inventor who founded and developed the modern techniques of embalming in the early 1830s, winning the Prix Montyon three times by virtue of the benefits thus provided to human society. In 1837 he obtained a patent for his embalming fluid and set up a commercial laboratory in the Rue Saint-Hippolyte.