To Édouard Manet
"Illusions," said my friend, "are perhaps as unlimited as the connections between one person and another, or between people and things. And when the illusion disappears – that is to say, when we see its being or fact as it exists outside of us – we experience a strange feeling, a complicated mix of regret for the departed ghost and surprise in face of such novelty, in face of the real. If there is one phenomenon that is evident, trivial, always likely, and of a nature from which it would be impossible to be fooled, it is maternal love: a mother without maternal love is as difficult to imagine as a light without heat. So is it then not perfectly acceptable to attribute to maternal love all a mother's actions and words that relate to her child? This notwithstanding, listen now to a little tale in which I was singularly mystified by the most natural of illusions.
"My profession as painter routinely obliges me to pay close attention to faces and physiognomies that appear on my routes, and you know what joy we derive from our faculty to see life in more vivid and vital colors than what others perceive. In the remote quarter where I live and where vast lawns still keep each building at a distance, I often observed a child whose ardent and mischievous physiognomy attracted me more than all the others. He posed for me more than once, and I transformed the little gypsy into both an angel and the Love of mythology. I had him carry a vagabond's violin, a Crown of Thorns, the Nails of the Passion, and the Torch of Eros. From the comic oddness of this boy I took such great pleasure that one day I beseeched his parents – rather poor folk – to let me have him, promising to dress him well, to grant him an allowance, and to give him no other task apart from cleaning my paint brushes and running my errands. Scrubbed and washed, this child became charming, and the life he led at my place seemed like a paradise in comparison to what he had been subjected in his parents' hovel. Yet I have to say that this little man would sometimes surprise me with his precocious fits of melancholy and his immoderate appetite for sweets and liqueurs. And so one day when I discovered that, despite my numerous warnings, he had committed another crime of this type, I threatened to send him back to his parents. Then I left, and business kept me from home for quite a while.
"You can imagine my horror and astonishment when I returned home only to find the little fellow, my mischievous companion through life, hanging from the side of the armoire! His feet almost touched the floor; next to him a chair undoubtedly pushed away at the last second was toppled over; his head was leaning convulsively on one shoulder; his bloated face and his eyes, open in a frightening stare, first induced the illusion of life. Getting him down from there was not as easy as you might think: he was already quite stiff, and I was overcome by an inexplicable repugnance when I let him tumble to the floor. I had to hold him up with one arm and cut the rope with the other – but once I did this, there was still more to come. The little monster had used a cord so fine as to have wedged it deep into his flesh; and now to disengage his neck I had to look for the rope between the swelling rolls of fat with a pair of small scissors.
"I neglected to mention that I had screamed for help, yet all my neighbors had refused to come to my aid, faithful to those habits of civilized souls who never wish – I know not why – to involve themselves in the affairs of a hanged man. At length a doctor arrived who pronounced the child dead, apparently for many hours. When we later had to undress him for the burial, the rigidity of his cadaver was such that we had to slice and cut away his clothes, so unable were we to bend his limbs.
"The commissioner to whom, needless to say, I had to give a full report of the occurrence, looked askance at me and said: 'Here's a shady business!' moved, I'm certain, by an inveterate desire to scare both the innocent and the guilty without any distinction.
"There remained one last task to which I had to attend, and the very thought of it caused me terrific angst: I had to inform his parents. My feet refused to obey my commands. Finally I mustered the courage; but, to my great surprise, his mother was impassive – not a tear oozed from the corner of her eye. I imputed this strangeness to the horror she was experiencing, and I recalled that famous phrase: 'The most terrible pain is pain unspoken.' As for the father, he resigned himself to a certain dreamy dullness: 'It might be better this way after all; he was always going to come to a bad end!'
"All this time his body lay upon my sofa, and assisted by a serving girl, I was seeing to the final preparations when his mother entered my small apartment. She said she wanted to see the body of her son. I could not really prevent her from drowning in her misery, or refuse her this last and somber consolation. Then she asked to be shown the place where the lad hanged himself. 'Oh no, Madame,' I replied, 'this would hurt you greatly.' And then, as my eyes involuntarily turned towards that morbid armoire, I noticed with disgust mixed with horror and anger that the nail had remained wedged in the door with a long piece of rope still dangling. I threw myself upon it to rip out the last vestiges of misery, and as I was about to cast it out the open window the poor woman seized my arm and told me in an irresistible voice: 'Oh, sir! Let me have this! I beg you! I implore you!' Her despair seemed to me so unhinged, so mad, that she would now express tenderness for what had brought death upon her son and now wanted to keep it like some dear and horrible relic. And here she grabbed the nail and cord.
"At last, at last! It was over. There was nothing more for me to do than go back to work, now with more vigor than before – if but to chase away the little corpse that haunted the creases of my brain whose ghost tired me with his large staring eyes. Yet the next day I received a package of letters: some were from the tenants, others from neighboring buildings; one was from the first floor, another from the second, a third from the third, and so forth, some in a half-pleasant style, as if wanting to cloak with jest the sincerity of the demand; others were cheeky and filled with spelling mistakes; yet all of them veered towards the same goal, that is, to obtain from me a piece of the beatific and fateful rope. Among the signatories were, I must say, more women than men; but not one of them, believe me, belonged to the petty and vulgar class. I kept the letters.
"And then it suddenly dawned on me, and I understood why his mother so wanted to rip off that cord and with what she intended on comforting herself."