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"I was not reading, my dear angel; I was looking at you."
Just then the gravel walk outside the conservatory rang with the sound of the gardener's heavily nailed boots.
"I beg your pardon, my Lord Marquis--and yours, too, madame--if I am intruding, but I have brought you a curiosity the like of which I never set eyes on. Drawing a bucket of water just now, with due respect, I got out this strange salt-water plant. Here it is. It must be thoroughly used to water, anyhow, for it isn't saturated or even damp at all. It is as dry as a piece of wood, and has not swelled a bit. As my Lord Marquis certainly knows a great deal more about things than I do, I thought I ought to bring it, and that it would interest him."
Therewith the gardener showed Raphael the inexorable piece of skin; there were barely six square inches of it left.
"Thanks, Vaniere," Raphael said. "The thing is very curious."
"What is the matter with you, my angel; you are growing quite white!" Pauline cried.
"You can go, Vaniere."
"Your voice frightens me," the girl went on; "it is so strangely altered. What is it? How are you feeling? Where is the pain? You are in pain!--Jonathan! here! call a doctor!" she cried.
"Hush, my Pauline," Raphael answered, as he regained composure. "Let us get up and go. Some flower here has a scent that is too much for me. It is that verbena, perhaps."
Pauline flew upon the innocent plant, seized it by the stalk, and flung it out into the garden; then, with all the might of the love between them, she clasped Raphael in a close embrace, and with languishing coquetry raised her red lips to his for a kiss.
"Dear angel," she cried, "when I saw you turn so white, I understood that I could not live on without you; your life is my life too. Lay your hand on my back, Raphael mine; I feel a chill like death. The feeling of cold is there yet. Your lips are burning. How is your hand? --Cold as ice," she added.
"Mad girl!" exclaimed Raphael.
"Why that tear? Let me drink it."
"O Pauline, Pauline, you love me far too much!"
"There is something very extraordinary going on in your mind, Raphael! Do not dissimulate. I shall very soon find out your secret. Give that to me," she went on, taking the Magic Skin.
"You are my executioner!" the young man exclaimed, glancing in horror at the talisman.
"How changed your voice is!" cried Pauline, as she dropped the fatal symbol of destiny.
"Do you love me?" he asked.
"Do I love you? Is there any doubt?"
"Then, leave me, go away!"
The poor child went.
"So!" cried Raphael, when he was alone. "In an enlightened age, when we have found out that diamonds are a crystallized form of charcoal, at a time when everything is made clear, when the police would hale a new Messiah before the magistrates, and submit his miracles to the Academie des Sciences--in an epoch when we no longer believe in anything but a notary's signature--that I, forsooth, should believe in a sort of Mene, Tekel, Upharsin! No, by Heaven, I will not believe that the Supreme Being would take pleasure in torturing a harmless creature.--Let us see the learned about it."
Between the Halle des Vins, with its extensive assembly of barrels, and the Salpetriere, that extensive seminary of drunkenness, lies a small pond, which Raphael soon reached. All sorts of ducks of rare varieties were there disporting themselves; their colored markings shone in the sun like the glass in cathedral windows. Every kind of duck in the world was represented, quacking, dabbling, and moving about--a kind of parliament of ducks assembled against its will, but luckily without either charter or political principles, living in complete immunity from sportsmen, under the eyes of any naturalist that chanced to see them.
"That is M. Lavrille," said one of the keepers to Raphael, who had asked for that high priest of zoology.
The Marquis saw a short man buried in profound reflections, caused by the appearance of a pair of ducks. The man of science was middle-aged; he had a pleasant face, made pleasanter still by a kindly expression, but an absorption in scientific ideas engrossed his whole person. His peruke was strangely turned up, by being constantly raised to scratch his head; so that a line of white hair was left plainly visible, a witness to an enthusiasm for investigation, which, like every other strong passion, so withdraws us from mundane considerations, that we lose all consciousness of the "I" within us. Raphael, the student and man of science, looked respectfully at the naturalist, who devoted his nights to enlarging the limits of human knowledge, and whose very errors reflected glory upon France; but a she-coxcomb would have laughed, no doubt, at the break of continuity between the breeches and striped waistcoat worn by the man of learning; the interval, moreover, was modestly filled by a shirt which had been considerably creased, for he stooped and raised himself by turns, as his zoological observations required.
After the first interchange of civilities, Raphael thought it necessary to pay M. Lavrille a banal compliment upon his ducks.
"Oh, we are well off for ducks," the naturalist replied. "The genus, moreover, as you doubtless know, is the most prolific in the order of palmipeds. It begins with the swan and ends with the zin-zin duck, comprising in all one hundred and thirty-seven very distinct varieties, each having its own name, habits, country, and character, and every one no more like another than a white man is like a negro. Really, sir, when we dine off a duck, we have no notion for the most part of the vast extent----"
He interrupted himself as he saw a small pretty duck come up to the surface of the pond.
"There you see the cravatted swan, a poor native of Canada; he has come a very long way to show us his brown and gray plumage and his little black cravat! Look, he is preening himself. That one is the famous eider duck that provides the down, the eider-down under which our fine ladies sleep; isn't it pretty? Who would not admire the little pinkish white breast and the green beak? I have just been a witness, sir," he went on, "to a marriage that I had long despaired of bringing about; they have paired rather auspiciously, and I shall await the results very eagerly. This will be a hundred and thirty-eighth species, I flatter myself, to which, perhaps, my name will be given. That is the newly matched pair," he said, pointing out two of the ducks; "one of them is a laughing goose (anas albifrons), and the other the great whistling duck, Buffon's anas ruffina. I have hesitated a long while between the whistling duck, the duck with white eyebrows, and the shoveler duck (anas clypeata). Stay, that is the shoveler--that fat, brownish black rascal, with the greenish neck and that coquettish iridescence on it. But the whistling duck was a crested one, sir, and you will understand that I deliberated no longer. We only lack the variegated black-capped duck now. These gentlemen here, unanimously claim that that variety of duck is only a repetition of the curve-beaked teal, but for my own part,"--and the gesture he made was worth seeing. It expressed at once the modesty and pride of a man of science; the pride full of obstinacy, and the modesty well tempered with assurance.
"I don't think it is," he added. "You see, my dear sir, that we are not amusing ourselves here. I am engaged at this moment upon a monograph on the genus duck. But I am at your disposal."
While they went towards a rather pleasant house in the Rue du Buffon, Raphael submitted the skin to M. Lavrille's inspection.
"I know the product," said the man of science, when he had turned his magnifying glass upon the talisman. "It used to be used for covering boxes. The shagreen is very old. They prefer to use skate's skin nowadays for making sheaths. This, as you are doubtless aware, is the hide of the raja sephen, a Red Sea fish."
"But this, sir, since you are so exceedingly good----"
"This," the man of science interrupted, as he resumed, "this is quite another thing; between these two shagreens, sir, there is a difference just as wide as between sea and land, or fish and flesh. The fish's skin is harder, however, than the skin of the land animal. This," he said, as he indicated the talisman, "is, as you doubtless know, one of the most curious of zoological products."
"But to proceed----" said Raphael.
"This," replied the man of science, as he flung himself down into his armchair, "is an ass' skin, sir."
"Yes, I know," said the young man.
"A very rare variety of ass found in Persia," the naturalist continued, "the onager of the ancients, equus asinus, the koulan of the Tartars; Pallas went out there to observe it, and has made it known to science, for as a matter of fact the animal for a long time was believed to be mythical. It is mentioned, as you know, in Holy Scripture; Moses forbade that it should be coupled with its own species, and the onager is yet more famous for the prostitutions of which it was the object, and which are often mentioned by the prophets of the Bible. Pallas, as you know doubtless, states in his Act. Petrop. tome II., that these bizarre excesses are still devoutly believed in among the Persians and the Nogais as a sovereign remedy for lumbago and sciatic gout. We poor Parisians scarcely believe that. The Museum has no example of the onager.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de BalzacBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.