It was at the end of the dinner opening at the house of Marquis de Piccard. Eleven ministers, eight young women, and the doctor of the neighborhood were seated around the great illuminated table covered with fruits and flowers.
They came to speak of love, and a great discussion arose, the most common discussion, as to whether one could love truly only once or many times. They cited examples of people who had loved no one else in their life but just one. The men argued that love like a malady can strike a person many times. The women, whose opinion depended upon poesy more than on observation, affirmed that love, true love, the great love could only fall once upon a mortal and it’s like a thunderbolt burning the heart that it strikes.
The marquis, having loved much, spoke “I will tell you that, one can love many times with all his strength and all his soul. You all cite to me people who have killed themselves for love as proof of the impossibility of falling in love again. I say that if they had not killed themselves and, removed themselves from all chance of another fall, they would have been healed and they would have recommenced again and again, until their natural death. Lovers are just like drunkards. He who had drunk will drink and he who has loved will love.”
They chose the doctor as arbitrator and begged him to give his opinion.
The doctor continued “I have known of one passion which lasted fifty-five years without a day of respite and which was ended only by death.”
“This is beautiful”, said a lady. “What a dream to be so loved! What happiness to live fifty-five years enveloped in a deep, living affection! How happy must be the life of one who is adored like that!”
The doctor laughed:
“In fact, Madame,” said he,” you are mistaken on that point, because the one loved was a man. You know him, its monsieur James, the village chemist. And as for the woman you know her too, it is the old woman who mends the chairs and came every year to this house.”
The enthusiasm of the women fell. On their faces a look of disgust seemed to say “horrible”! - As if love could strike only fine and distinguished creatures.
The doctor continued:
“I was called three months ago, to the bedside of this old woman. She was dying and related to me the story of her life. I have never heard anything more affecting or more emotional.”
Her father made chair seats and so did her mother. As a little girl, she went with them ragged and dirty. No one ever talked to her. When the child went too far away or made acquaintance with some village urchin, the angry voice of her father would call her: “come back here you brat!” and these were the only words of tenderness she ever heard.
When she grew older they sent her around to collect the worn out chairs to be mended. Then she made some acquaintances among the street children.
Often the boys would throw stones at her. Sometimes ladies would give her a few pennies.
One day when she was twelve years old, she met little James crying, because someone had stolen two sous from him. The tears of this little rich citizen, the kind of people who never glanced at her, quite upset her. She went up to him and when she learned the cause of the trouble she poured into his hands all her savings, which he took happily, drying his tears. Then, mad with joy she had the audacity to hug him. As he was more interested in counting the money, he allowed her to do so. Seeing that she was neither repulsed nor beaten, she hugged him again and kissed him slightly on the cheek. Then she ran away.
What could have taken place inside her childish brain after that? Did she attach herself to him because she had sacrificed her miserable savings or because she had given to him her first tender kiss?
For months she dreamed of this boy. In hope of seeing him again, she robbed her parents, keeping back some money which she got for her work.
She wandered throughout the village in order to catch a glimpse of the one her little heart adored. She found him in his father’s drug store and, she loved him more, charmed and aroused to ecstasy.
This picture became an undeletable memory, and when she saw him the next year playing marbles with his friends, she threw herself upon him and kissed him so violently that he began to howl with fear. Then in order to please him, she gave him all her money – seventy sous, a treasure which he looked at with bulging eyes and he let her caress him.
During the next four years she turned into his hands all her savings, which he pocketed in exchange for some kisses. She thought of nothing but him and he waited for her to return with certain impatience, running to meet her, which made the heart of the poor girl leap with joy
This continued for a year more and then he disappeared. He went to college. She found it out by skillful questioning.
She went pass his place every day and for two years she did not see him; then she scarcely recognized him, he looked so handsome in his coat, so imposing. He feigned not to see her and passed proudly by near her.
She wept over it for two days, and her grief never ceased.
Every year she returned to his village, passing him without ever getting a look from him. She loved him passionately and said to me “doctor, he is the only man I have seen on earth; I don’t know that there are others existing”.
Her parents died and she continued their trade. Her solitary existence had no meaning and she only wished for him, only lived for him.
One day she saw a young woman walking, with her hands holding those of her beloved. She was his wife. He was married.
That evening she threw herself into a pond and a beggar got her out and took her to the pharmacy. James, the son came down and without appearing to recognize her said to her in a hard voice: “my! You are foolish! Why do you make a beast of yourself like this?”
That was sufficient to cure her. He had spoken to her! She was happy for a long time. She made chair seats and thought of James all her life was spent like this. She had the habit of buying from him useless medicines. In this way she could see him, speak to him and give him a little money”.
“As I told you she died this spring, after relating her sad history , she begged me to give to him, whom she had so patiently loved, all her savings because she had worked only for him , fasting even in order to save money so that he would at least think of her once after she was dead.
She gave me two thousand three hundred and twenty seven francs. After her approval , twenty seven francs were spent on her burial.
Next day, I went to house of the chemist. The husband and wife had just finished breakfast and were sitting opposite each other, feeling happy and important.
They made me be seated and offered tea which I accepted: then I commenced in an emotional voice, persuaded that they were going to weep.
When he understood that he had been loved by this vagabond, a chair mender, a nobody, James jumped with indignation, as if he was robbed of his reputation, of his honor and pride, which was dearer to him than life.
His wife also shocked, kept repeating “the beggar! The beggar!” without being able to find any other word.
He got up and walked about in anger and muttered “if I had known this while she was alive I would have had her arrested and shut up in prison”.
I was stupefied at the result. I neither knew what to say nor what to do. But I had to complete my task. I said: “she has charged me to give you all her savings, which amount to two thousand three hundred francs. As what I have told you seem to be so disagreeable to you, perhaps it would be better to give this money to the poor.”
They looked at me, impotent from shock. I drew the money from my pocket and asked “what do you decide?”
Mrs. James spoke first. She said ‘since, this was the last wish of the beggar it seems inappropriate to refuse it’
I remarked dryly ‘as you wish’
He continued “yes, give it to us. We can always find means of using it in some good work’’
I laid down the money and went out. I could not say a word because a druggist and a doctor should not be enemies.
This is the only profound love I have ever seen in my life”.
The room was filled with sighs and it was decided that it’s only the woman who know how to love.
(I would like to thank my friend Erwan, who helped me with the French theme, this story is a tribute to all lovers.)