FICTION

Dead Leaves

GABRIELLE ROY June 1 1947
FICTION

Dead Leaves

GABRIELLE ROY June 1 1947

Dead Leaves

GABRIELLE ROY

ALL ABOUT him, in the little empty hollow-sounding waiting room, was the terrible whiteness of the walls. Somebody gave the stretcher a shove and Constantin Simoneau, wrapped in several woollen blankets, shivered with the cold. Everywhere, in his mind’s eye and on the ceiling, he could see his hospital expenses written in huge figures.

A few days after the operation he gave evidence of disquiet. Anyone coming near him was met with the same question:

“Are they going to let me leave soon?”

In reply he was told not to toss about, and to let matters take their course. Also that he was progressing very nicely.

He was, however, unable to see just how he could be progressing, since as the weeks went by further imperfections in his organs continued to be discovered. He was uneasy. The money which for 10 years he had been at such pains to save had just gone to pay for his bed. Then there was the doctor and the anaesthetist and, most important of all, the X-rays. He humbly agreed that an invention so remarkable, a contrivance so amazing as to permit one to see through the human body, must be expensive. He had no wish to be sulky; but whenever he was taken into the darkness of that room in which first voices, then zigzags of light reached him, he seemed to hear the very insides of the machine grind out the words: “That’s 10 dollars, that’s 15 dollars.”

After a time his scar was less discolored. A very little blood had returned to his cheeks. But now he was being prepared for another operation; he was fed for it; from day to day a tonic was injected into his veins and he was asked if he did not feel the benefit. But he became very weak when he learned that the injections were costing two dollars each, and he made a determined effort to see an improvement in his condition. There was then something frightening in his wan smile, remote and twisted with fear, pulling his cheeks in to the very skeleton of his face.

He was also worried about his room rent. His landlady, Madame Chartrand, was not “easy.” At one time he feared something would happen to his books and engravings, and his prints of famous paintings—in his way he had been a sort of collector—thinking that the kindly but irritated woman would one day put them all in the basement. At other times he reproached himself for having yielded to the appeal of book displays—although indeed that was the only temptation to which life had subjected him. Should he not have foreseen this operation and prepared for it, curbing all his spending impulses to provide for this eventuality?

But with these trials there was another still more cruel, the fear that if his illness were protracted he would lose his job. He could not help wondering what good it would do to be cured if he were to lose everything as a result.

He even began to express it aloud. The exact words of his complaint were these: “I can’t afford to be sick, you understand?

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1 can’t afford itHe said it so seriously and with such evident frankness that the little nurse laughed. So did the other occupants of the* public ward, who had no use for such scruples.

But since he was stubborn and kept repeating: “I can’t afford it, 1 tell

you . . .” he was scolded for it.

He did not have many visitors. Constantin Simoneau had always been rather solitary, bound to life by little pleasures that most men would have thought dull and insignificant. On attempting to recall events in his life he found they were few: walks in season in Lafontaine Park; evenings of reading in the public library; and at infrequent intervals, in various restaurants, a nice little supper as a change from Madame Chart rand’s boiled cabbage. These memories were so slender and fragile that they scarcely weighed in the balance against the pull of death, and yet at times they presented themselves to Constantin Simoneau with the most indefinable sweetness. One day,through some illusion, he thought he heard the shrill quacking of ducks coming from the park nearby. His heart leaped with gladness. And thinking that it was weeks since he had been to feed his friends the young ducks their bits of bread, he was seized with a desire to live, not a violent one, but sad, like a song of death, for his desire was tinged with fright, because of the really tremendous pile of debts he had to pay off.

HOWBVKlv. one day Stanislaus, the taxi driver living at the same boardinghouse, came to see him, followed by Pirmin, who was a härtender in a hotel. Mademoiselle Dalbee, the seamstress, had not come yet. Constantin ventured very timidly to remark on it to Finnin. ’Then, tinfollowing Sunday, Mademoiselle I )a!bec came. She came with Finnin. As soon as they entered the public ward Constantin saw it: they were together. He also saw7 that the seamstress was wearing a little new hat that was quite gay, and made her look young, transforming her.

Or rather for sick persons are very perspicacious Constantin Simoneau was aware that it was not so much the liât that transformed Mademoiselle Dalbee, but a flood of inner happiness that lit her eyes. He had no need to see more for a dream to die inside him, one of those dreams so timid and so fearful that one wonders whether they ever existed. There are such dreams, feeble hopes no more lit than wisps of shrubs to stand against all the winds and storms; only they have never been aggressive enough to get nourishment for more than a few calm days. Constantin had permitted one of t hosesickly yet so odiferous shrubs to grow inside him. Some time ago scared little reckonings had succeeded in occupying his mind. Mademoiselle Dalbee was no longer very young she was in her forties. .So then, was he being too bold in feeling that her singleness was a burden to her and one day perhaps . . . He had not had the courage to think beyond that .

Yet there had been the night Mademoiselle Dalbee had accepted his invitation to supper; and that other time, oh marvellous inspiration of his life! when he had had the audacity to get two tickets for the symphony concert at the Chalet on the mountain, and when there was nothing could change the most insignificant detail of his memory —a taxi in front of the door at exactly eight o’clock, and then Mademoiselle Dalbee preceding him,

her fur piece over her shoulders, and dressed up for him. Alter that there were the books he had lent her. Ami that was the end. There was nothing more to add. except that today, seeing Mademoiselle Dalbee and l-’irmin together, lucould congratulate himself on not having taken his taise hope seriously.

His visitors were in very fine health. The autumn wind had tinted their cheeks with its rough caress; and in their firm limbs and manner was still all the elasticity of walking in the open air. They gave Constantin a little scolding.

“Come now, you must have courage. After all, life is good. The main thing is to think of getting better, as quickly as possible.”

“Don’t you know,” repeated Mademoiselle Dalbee.” that life and everything in it is no good without health? Health is the best thing anybody can have, which people don’t apparently realize so long as they aren’t sick.”

Then Firmin, perhaps embarrassed by his well-being and as if to explain it, began to describe the lovely sunshine over the city that day and the number of people he had seen “weren’t there, Mademoiselle Dalbee?” on theway to the mountain or the river, some with children, and even some with baskets, as if they were going on a picnic.

Flat on his back, his belly cut open, but uncomplaining, Constantin Simoneau heard these inducements to live; and visualizing once again the great trees he had loved, some little path in the park where he had got to know the squirrels, or recalling some pleasure at no one knows what period of his existence, he closed his eyes against these visions, and withdrew into himself still more.

So despite the good reasons given him for his recovery, Constantin did not make the effort expected of him. It may be that he took some vagut pleasure in the scoldings, as a sort of revenge for the incomprehensible difficult ies of his fate.

He was letting himself sink slowly. As a matter of fact, lie was not so much stubborn as frightened by all t he complications of his malady, and he would doubtless have remained so until his death if there had not been among the doctors a man who instinctively knew the only way to arouse Constant in Simoneau.

THIS WAS a young doctor sufficient ly acquainted with the workings of the human mind to know that sometimes the only resource left some patients was the interest aroused in them by the intensity of t heir ailments. He began by expressing surprise that Constantin was alive. He explained to him that thenwas no scientific reason for his continuing to live. And it was, in fact, pleasant for Constantin Simoneau to think that he with his frail, feeble person was defying the learned brotherhood of doctors.

The name of the young doctor was Armand Mongeau. F-very day he told Constantin that any one of the ailments with which he was afflicted would have sufficed to lay low any man with less hidden resistance. This resistance was due to what the doctor called inexplicable forces. And gradually Constantin acquired a self-esteem, an astonishment at himself that acted on him like a tonic. In place of tliemist rust with which he had formerlyregarded his organic defects, he was now experiencing a sort of vast sympathy for the endangered parts of his body7, and also a little of that vital glow, the absorbed attention of a spectator following the course of an exciting game. Moreover, 1Hwas acquiring a prestige in the eyes of other patients that he had formerly lacked in his relations with human beings. He was a man defying death. His liver complaint was complicated by anaemia; so il was difficult to treat him for one without aggravating the other. The doctors calk'd this a vicious circle. Humble as Constantin had been all his life, he discovered in the situation, it must be admitted, certain very evident aspects of superiority over the other patients.

Since he had gauged this proud, timid soul with such accuracy, Doctor Mongeau explained frankly that there was only one chance in a thousand of his surviving the final operation. This ratio appealed to Constantin, although figures still tortured him. “One chance in a thousand!” he thought.

Those words made Constantin’s malady seem like' a game to him. He took pride in his fight, and was vaguely aware of a drama about him distinguishing him from his fellows, he, Constantin Sirnoneau, whose life had until then been buta miserable preoccupation with the effort to make both ends meet.

Interns and doctors were taking a great interest in the affair. And when the day set for the operation came, Constantin, surrounded by all those strange, serious, anxious faces masked to the eyes; faced with this dramaticlooking apparatus, these oxygen tanks, tubes and receptacles for plasma ready to be used on him; with all this attention focused on him, Constantin, just before inhaling the anaesthetic, had the dazzling sensation that the greatest moment of his paltry prudent life was corne.

HE GOT better. It would, perhaps, be closer to the truth to say that he could eat and walk and help himself. The feeling of excitement by which he had been sustained in his days of strife was gone. He felt let down, as if some great emotion were gone forever. He had won his frantic fight for “one chance in a thousand” and now it left him somewhat indifferent. He had, however, gained a few pounds, just enough to fill in the large hollows in his cheeks. Constantin regained just enough strength to stand erect without staggering; then he was let out.

A very wholesome diet, rich in vitamins and proteins, was prescribed for him, and he was told to get plenty of rest rest was very important. He was told to take a tonic, and some good wine now and then, to eat plenty of fresh vegetables and. lastly, not to worry. Then it was hinted that he go soon, as soon as possible, please, as the bed was needed for someone else.

He was outside, where the rude wind snatched up the dead leaves, twirling them furiously high up in the air, as if to take away all the joy that could possibly be left those shrivelled bits of foliage. In front of the hospital was the park he had loved. Constantin Sirnoneau, stiff with cold, sat down on a bench, with no vest ige of interest in the life he was about to resume. With greedy eyes he sought out the window of the room he had had in the hospital, and a kind of nostalgia momentarily overcame him when lie had located it bycounting from the large centre door.

People on the street hurried by. They walked briskly, as if they' had some tremendous task that urgently needed doing. The thought of persons so intensely occupied called forth a kind of sad envy in Constantin. Why hadn’t he, too, some such definite and pressing aim?

Shivering in the naked park, it occurred to him that he must surely have some real reason for existing. He plunged into introspection: then suddenly lie saw it; it was so vast that there

seemed no possibility of his not having been aware of it before. He brought the idea to the surface of his mind, quite excited about the tragic discovery. And it was his debts, his cruel debts, which, added on to one another to make a long, arid trail, showed him his way of life.

He stood up, facing the wind. Yes, now he had to think of paying off those debts, of gaining bit by bit, day by day on that string of figures. It was not for nothing that he had been snatched from the grave. The mournful month of November, with its sudden bursts of sleet, told him that plainly enough.

And what sustained him as he moved forward on the darkening street was not just a feeling of gratitude, much less a feeling of joy, but something stronger and more insistent, the feeling that there was a ransom imperiouslydemanding payment before he could be easy in his mind. Or, if you wish, he saw the matter this way; just so long as he had not paid the hospital, the doctor, and the cost of the treatments, he could not consider himself cured.

HE APPLIED himself to his task a very few days after his discharge from the hospital, although his waxy face still caused people some little fright, his enormous eyes seeming to have opened on a world of anguish whose menace most human beings did not wish to recognize. His former employer was willing to take him back, but at a reduced salary. He said that Constantin had been absent a long time, and that it. had been necessary to take on a younger bookkeeper who, as it happened, was very satisfactory. However, although he did not really need two bookkeepers, he would take Monsieur Sirnoneau back as an acknowledgement of his former services. Constantin accepted this explanation with a good grace. He was well aware of the indulgence shown him in the arrangement.

But business had more than doubled at the draper’s and so Constantin had to work, at lower wages, harder than he had before his illness. He did not dare complain. And imagining that he had lost his old skill and fearing they might just then accuse him of slowness, Constantin got into the habit of working overtime. In the evenings he often went back to the little corner of a room that was his office. He straightened rows of figures, balanced the columns and verified his addition. And sometimes, his mind more occupied with figures bearing him a closer personal relationship, he marked the huge total of his hospital expenses in the margin against his slender fortnightly wage.

He did not stay at his old boardinghouse, but left Madame Chartrand some of his books as security on several weeks’ unpaid rent. The cost of living in the boardinghouse now seemed quite high and he often wondered how for years he could have thrown his money away there.

He had found himself a very moderately priced room in one of those sad little streets of Montreal where almost as many laborers as badly paid officials live, a place where social differences between manual and white-collared workers disappear almost entirely. Constantin would formerly have considered this promiscuity with people from the docks and markets a disgrace. But now, absorbed in his great desire to pay off his debts as soon as possible, he hardly noticed it.

Nevertheless he did not invite any of his acquaintances to visit him in this district, not even Stanislaus, whose very human stories he had much enjoyed. He did not dare have very much to do with his friends for fear of going beyond the financial limits he had set himself.

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HE GOT his meals at various places where the cost was least likely to exceed 25 cents. Other places you had to pay a tax, which happened to be the hospital tax; but Constantin, since the tax could not be applied toward the payment of his debts, would go elsewhere. For months he looked for one of those wretched pothouses where three courses, soup, meat and dessert, are to be had at a fixed price and where customers are not expected to tip. For that had proved to be his worst humiliation during those dismal months. Though he had always been poor it had been a habit to slip a little piece of silver under the plate. Now whenever he was ready to leave a restaurant, a dreadful struggle went on inside him. Because of his undue sensitiveness he imagined waitresses watched bim and guessed his inward deliberation. So, quite often after he had discovered a semirespectable restaurant, embarrassment at the glance of one of the girls drove him to look for another quick-lunch bar.

The food was almost always tainted, quite different from what had been recommended for his diet. He had been told to abstain from fried things and fats and pastries. But neither had he the money, debts or no debts, to treat himself to underdone mutton, slices of roast beef, or fruits and vegetables which had not first been preserved.

He began to suffer with his stomach again. He took no notice; then, when the pain became unbearable, he went into drugstores for lozenges and powders whose efficacy he had heard praised on the radio. Sometimes he experienced relief, and at other times he felt worse; then he simply changed his medicine.

This did not mean, however, that Constantin was really unhappy in those months. The surprising thing was that, in a way, he was less crushed than before. For he was paying his debts. His former landlady was paid first, because she used to send Constantin little acrid notes that tormented him beyond endurance. Then he went personally to the hospital every week to make a payment.

One day he beseeched the management not to continue sending him statements; he promised to keep up his payments regularly and without being asked. His sensitiveness magnified things and, through opening envelopes which invariably contained statements of accounts, he had come to dread everything that came by the mail. He also had the idea that the wretched woman at whose place he lived, as well as the postman and other persons informed by gossip, were aware of the significance of the letters, and because of them drew conclusions discrediting to himself.

WINTER CAME, and perhaps one never really understands how hard it is on those who are alone. Constantin lived at some distance from the draper’s, hut had resolved to make this journey afoot no matter what the weather. And how many cruel evenings there were in Constantin’s life when, buffeted by icy blasts, he made his way painfully along the snow-covered sidewalks! He would stop in front of greasy windows, with dirty sheets of paper glued inside for menus. Then he would look at the prices, and hesitate. Sometimes he would go further along, to compare the prices at the next street corner. Then he would go where the best bargains were. He would wait docilely for someone to take his order, for he was too timid to shout above the hubbub of the smoke-filled restaurants in which he always felt ill at ease.

Almost as soon as he had eaten his suffering began. Then, when he thought no one was looking, he would take a small box from his pocket, select a lozenge, and swallow it. But almost always he would catch sight of his reflection in the mirror and in his tormented mind he would believe that he had attracted critical attention to himself.

However Constantin’s life consisted of other things too. He lived not so much in the miserable present as in his hopes. He was keeping up his payments to the hospital, and he even began to envision the day when he would no longer find in his mail those poisonous statements and those curt commercial forms. For that day he longed with all his heart.

Winter dallied, and Constantin had caught a cold which, instead of leaving him on the approach of milder weather, seemed to get worse. He nursed it as well as he could, with various products which he had read would cure bronchitis in just three days. Experience had taught him the cost of seeing a doctor.

He was through the winter without mishap; but he was thin, and people turned to look at him as he passed. He was very pale. Experiencing a rather severe pain in his right side, a little below the waist, he explored the sensitive region, and seemed to feel a hard lump there. He was also coughing frequently, although the weather was now fine.

The sweltering days of summer soon came, and Constantin, collapsed on a park bench after his day’s work, longed for the very winds from which he had fled, and often expected the still, dustladen leaves above him to begin to tremble.

Nevertheless Constantin Simoneau was happy. He had paid the hospital bill, including charges for extras such as fruit juice, rubbing alcohol and restoratives. Rut now that he was restricting himself to the barest necessities, the fruit juice and capsuled vitamins seemed to have been a great extravagance!

He had also nearly paid off Doctor Mongeau. There would be other minor debts, hut first he was determined to square himself with Doctor Mongeau who in particular had saved his life.

Every fortnight he sent the doctor 10 dollars rolled in a sheet of white paper on which he always liked to mention that the money was paid “with the thanks and gratitude of your devoted Constantin Simoneau.”

He was reserving for himself a last gesture. When he reached the final payment he would himself take it to the doctor. There he would be, money in hand. He would say—he had long since prepared his little speech—“I’m very glad I have finally been able to pay you and my only regret is that it has taken so long to do it.” And then they would shake hands and the man of science and himself would be on good terms at last, the man of science and the little bookkeeper who had had the privilege of such remarkable treatment.

EXACTLY a year had passed since his discharge from the hospital. The night was cold and forbidding when Constantin, taking a streetcar for the first time in a long while, went to Doctor Mongeau’s attractive home in Outremont.

He opened the door and entered a crowded waiting room, and the sight of so many people—all of whom seemed to be in remarkably good health increased his already high regard for the doctor. For months now he had talked to hardly anyone. But that evening he felt as if he were freed from some great weight, and he looked about him amiably and sincerely. He looked first at theengravings,thenat the magazines; and then, finding his sudden desire for society not satisfied by such things, he sought a kind listener and very gently began to explain the truly wonderful significance of his presence there. He lowered his voice slightly to confide in his neighbor: “Just imagine, I had only one chance in a thousand.” He could at last take pride in the battle he had won and think of it as a personal victory.

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He repeated these words when he saw people looking at him with what he took to be disbelief, but which was really the discomfort these reasonably healthy persons experienced at the sight of Constantin with his smiling, feverish eyes.

His turn came. But before he could take the money out of his pocket and put it on the table with that proud and long-premedita ted gesture, before he could even begin to make his speech, the young doctor was on him, ordering him to open his mouth and say “Ah, ah,” and poking a finger, as if by instinct, at the very place in which Constantin had experienced the sensation of heaviness. The doctor was suddenly seized with anger.

“A man I cured by a miracle!” he said. “A feat of surgery you wouldn’t see twice a year. And now this!”

The doctor needed no further examination to see that his complexion was caused by cirrhosis of the liver, and that those spots on the cheekbones indicated the advanced stages of tuberculosis.

Discouraged, the doctor let his arms fall to his sides, a sense of failure like an enormous iron weight inside him.

Before him, Constantin Simoneau was silent, seated on the edge of his chair, twisting the brim of his faded fedora. Timidly, his glance wandered to surrealist paintings, expensive vases, fine bindings; then he looked at the doctor’s angry face again, and his eyes filled with a strange, very humble light, as if he were asking to be pardoned. ★