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"Hand it over to me," said Raphael.
The foreman held it out by way of a joke. The Marquis readily handled it; it was cool and flexible between his fingers. An exclamation of alarm went up; the workmen fled in terror. Valentin was left alone with Planchette in the empty workshop.
"There is certainly something infernal in the thing!" cried Raphael, in desperation. "Is no human power able to give me one more day of existence?"
"I made a mistake, sir," said the mathematician, with a penitent expression; "we ought to have subjected that peculiar skin to the action of a rolling machine. Where could my eyes have been when I suggested compression!"
"It was I that asked for it," Raphael answered.
The mathematician heaved a sigh of relief, like a culprit acquitted by a dozen jurors. Still, the strange problem afforded by the skin interested him; he meditated a moment, and then remarked:
"This unknown material ought to be treated chemically by re-agents. Let us call on Japhet--perhaps the chemist may have better luck than the mechanic."
Valentin urged his horse into a rapid trot, hoping to find the chemist, the celebrated Japhet, in his laboratory.
"Well, old friend," Planchette began, seeing Japhet in his armchair, examining a precipitate; "how goes chemistry?"
"Gone to sleep. Nothing new at all. The Academie, however, has recognized the existence of salicine, but salicine, asparagine, vauqueline, and digitaline are not really discoveries----"
"Since you cannot invent substances," said Raphael, "you are obliged to fall back on inventing names."
"Most emphatically true, young man."
"Here," said Planchette, addressing the chemist, "try to analyze this composition; if you can extract any element whatever from it, I christen it diaboline beforehand, for we have just smashed a hydraulic press in trying to compress it."
"Let's see! let's have a look at it!" cried the delighted chemist; "it may, perhaps, be a fresh element."
"It is simply a piece of the skin of an ass, sir," said Raphael.
"Sir!" said the illustrious chemist sternly.
"I am not joking," the Marquis answered, laying the piece of skin before him.
Baron Japhet applied the nervous fibres of his tongue to the skin; he had skill in thus detecting salts, acids, alkalis, and gases. After several experiments, he remarked:
"No taste whatever! Come, we will give it a little fluoric acid to drink."
Subjected to the influence of this ready solvent of animal tissue, the skin underwent no change whatsoever.
"It is not shagreen at all!" the chemist cried. "We will treat this unknown mystery as a mineral, and try its mettle by dropping it in a crucible where I have at this moment some red potash."
Japhet went out, and returned almost immediately.
"Allow me to cut away a bit of this strange substance, sir," he said to Raphael; "it is so extraordinary----"
"A bit!" exclaimed Raphael; "not so much as a hair's-breadth. You may try, though," he added, half banteringly, half sadly.
The chemist broke a razor in his desire to cut the skin; he tried to break it by a powerful electric shock; next he submitted it to the influence of a galvanic battery; but all the thunderbolts his science wotted of fell harmless on the dreadful talisman.
It was seven o'clock in the evening. Planchette, Japhet, and Raphael, unaware of the flight of time, were awaiting the outcome of a final experiment. The Magic Skin emerged triumphant from a formidable encounter in which it had been engaged with a considerable quantity of chloride of nitrogen.
"It is all over with me," Raphael wailed. "It is the finger of God! I shall die!----" and he left the two amazed scientific men.
"We must be very careful not to talk about this affair at the Academie; our colleagues there would laugh at us," Planchette remarked to the chemist, after a long pause, in which they looked at each other without daring to communicate their thoughts. The learned pair looked like two Christians who had issued from their tombs to find no God in the heavens. Science had been powerless; acids, so much clear water; red potash had been discredited; the galvanic battery and electric shock had been a couple of playthings.
"A hydraulic press broken like a biscuit!" commented Planchette.
"I believe in the devil," said the Baron Japhet, after a moment's silence.
"And I in God," replied Planchette.
Each spoke in character. The universe for a mechanician is a machine that requires an operator; for chemistry--that fiendish employment of decomposing all things--the world is a gas endowed with the power of movement.
"We cannot deny the fact," the chemist replied.
"Pshaw! those gentlemen the doctrinaires have invented a nebulous aphorism for our consolation--Stupid as a fact."
"Your aphorism," said the chemist, "seems to me as a fact very stupid."
They began to laugh, and went off to dine like folk for whom a miracle is nothing more than a phenomenon.
Valentin reached his own house shivering with rage and consumed with anger. He had no more faith in anything. Conflicting thoughts shifted and surged to and fro in his brain, as is the case with every man brought face to face with an inconceivable fact. He had readily believed in some hidden flaw in Spieghalter's apparatus; he had not been surprised by the incompetence and failure of science and of fire; but the flexibility of the skin as he handled it, taken with its stubbornness when all means of destruction that man possesses had been brought to bear upon it in vain--these things terrified him. The incontrovertible fact made him dizzy.
"I am mad," he muttered. "I have had no food since the morning, and yet I am neither hungry nor thirsty, and there is a fire in my breast that burns me."
He put back the skin in the frame where it had been enclosed but lately, drew a line in red ink about the actual configuration of the talisman, and seated himself in his armchair.
"Eight o'clock already!" he exclaimed. "To-day has gone like a dream."
He leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair, propped his head with his left hand, and so remained, lost in secret dark reflections and consuming thoughts that men condemned to die bear away with them.
"O Pauline!" he cried. "Poor child! there are gulfs that love can never traverse, despite the strength of his wings."
Just then he very distinctly heard a smothered sigh, and knew by one of the most tender privileges of passionate love that it was Pauline's breathing.
"That is my death warrant," he said to himself. "If she were there, I should wish to die in her arms."
A burst of gleeful and hearty laughter made him turn his face towards the bed; he saw Pauline's face through the transparent curtains, smiling like a child for gladness over a successful piece of mischief. Her pretty hair fell over her shoulders in countless curls; she looked like a Bengal rose upon a pile of white roses.
"I cajoled Jonathan," said she. "Doesn't the bed belong to me, to me who am your wife? Don't scold me, darling; I only wanted to surprise you, to sleep beside you. Forgive me for my freak."
She sprang out of bed like a kitten, showed herself gleaming in her lawn raiment, and sat down on Raphael's knee.
"Love, what gulf were you talking about?" she said, with an anxious expression apparent upon her face.
"You hurt me," she answered. "There are some thoughts upon which we, poor women that we are, cannot dwell; they are death to us. Is it strength of love in us, or lack of courage? I cannot tell. Death does not frighten me," she began again, laughingly. "To die with you, both together, to-morrow morning, in one last embrace, would be joy. It seems to me that even then I should have lived more than a hundred years. What does the number of days matter if we have spent a whole lifetime of peace and love in one night, in one hour?"
"You are right; Heaven is speaking through that pretty mouth of yours. Grant that I may kiss you, and let us die," said Raphael.
"Then let us die," she said, laughing.
Towards nine o'clock in the morning the daylight streamed through the chinks of the window shutters. Obscured somewhat by the muslin curtains, it yet sufficed to show clearly the rich colors of the carpet, the silks and furniture of the room, where the two lovers were lying asleep. The gilding sparkled here and there. A ray of sunshine fell and faded upon the soft down quilt that the freaks of live had thrown to the ground. The outlines of Pauline's dress, hanging from a cheval glass, appeared like a shadowy ghost. Her dainty shoes had been left at a distance from the bed. A nightingale came to perch upon the sill; its trills repeated over again, and the sounds of its wings suddenly shaken out for flight, awoke Raphael.
"For me to die," he said, following out a thought begun in his dream, "my organization, the mechanism of flesh and bone, that is quickened by the will in me, and makes of me an individual MAN, must display some perceptible disease. Doctors ought to understand the symptoms of any attack on vitality, and could tell me whether I am sick or sound."
He gazed at his sleeping wife. She had stretched her head out to him, expressing in this way even while she slept the anxious tenderness of love. Pauline seemed to look at him as she lay with her face turned towards him in an attitude as full of grace as a young child's, with her pretty, half-opened mouth held out towards him, as she drew her light, even breath. Her little pearly teeth seemed to heighten the redness of the fresh lips with the smile hovering over them. The red glow in her complexion was brighter, and its whiteness was, so to speak, whiter still just then than in the most impassioned moments of the waking day. In her unconstrained grace, as she lay, so full of believing trust, the adorable attractions of childhood were added to the enchantments of love.
Even the most unaffected women still obey certain social conventions, which restrain the free expansion of the soul within them during their waking hours; but slumber seems to give them back the spontaneity of life which makes infancy lovely. Pauline blushed for nothing; she was like one of those beloved and heavenly beings, in whom reason has not yet put motives into their actions and mystery into their glances. Her profile stood out in sharp relief against the fine cambric of the pillows; there was a certain sprightliness about her loose hair in confusion, mingled with the deep lace ruffles; but she was sleeping in happiness, her long lashes were tightly pressed against her cheeks, as if to secure her eyes from too strong a light, or to aid an effort of her soul to recollect and to hold fast a bliss that had been perfect but fleeting. Her tiny pink and white ear, framed by a lock of her hair and outlined by a wrapping of Mechlin lace, would have made an artist, a painter, an old man, wildly in love, and would perhaps have restored a madman to his senses.
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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.