A distinguished Canadian novelist writes a wise and provocative story about a man who wanted to be protected from death itself
THE evening was a fine, luminous portion of the springtime, and Ernest Boismenu gave evidence of his satisfaction with life by taking out a life insurance policy for two thousand dollars.
He entered his home with short, quick steps, and waved the policy in front of his wife.
It was their wedding anniversary. Ernest had forgotten about it, but at Juliette’s look he remembered and immediately pretended he had been thinking of offering her the policy as a gift.
Juliette sighed. For some weeks she had wanted an inexpensive little hat she had noticed in a shop window in their district. She looked the other way. There seemed no point in speaking of the little hat again. She already knew Ernest’s answer only too well. “We’ve got to make hay while the sun shines. We’ve got to be careful while we’re young. We’ve got to look ahead.” They had been married after keeping company for eight years. And the day of the wedding had often been put off because of Ernest’s reckoning. “When I m making eighteen dollars a week,” he had first said. Then, “when I’m making twenty dollars a week . . .”
And now she saw that the bit of money in excess of their earnings was going to be looked on as insurance.
That night they slept together, and were ten miles fron each other. In a low, whispered tone Ernest said:
“You can’t say I’m not a prudent husband. You won’t be too poor when I die. At least you’ll have something to bury me with. Aren’t there a lot of husbands that leave their wives without a sou!”
He fell silent. And in that weighty silence of the night a new fear grew. Suppose Juliette were to die before him, then strangers could profit from his savings afterward, when he himself died. That thought kept bothering him for some days. At last he saw a remedy. He tightened
up their budget for food and clothing and took out a life insurance policy for Juliette.
The insurance salesman had introduced him to a very fine way of reasoning. That intelligent man had said: “If it’s worth the trouble to live life
surely it’s worth the trouble to insure it.” And at first Ernest, like any sincere believer wanting to become an adept, went everywhere repeating the very sensible axiom. After a while he thought he was very foolish to waste his time trying to open other people’s eyes. “Let them look after their own affairs!” He had enough to do to go his own way.
A FEW years passed by. Ernest and Juliette lived by depriving themselves of almost everything, but with the consoling prospect that if one of them happened to die the other would be able to provide a splendid burial. However, even this vision no longer succeeded in calming Ernest’s anxiety. He was a creature who, as he advanced in life, became like an animal in the forest and acquired skill in ferreting out snares. And he saw new ones at every turn for nothing invites foresight like foresight.
What weighed on him now was the fear that if by any chance he were to be sick for a few months, he would not be able to make the payments to the insurance company. Then he would lose everything, the protection and accumulated savings.
He unburdened himself to Juliette. Ernest always did as he liked, but pretended to attach great importance to his wife’s opinion. He would bother her for weeks to gain her consent, and, when he had it, he required her to be pleased. And Juliette was beginning to find such situations difficult.
She now knew that she would never have a child. Then she got into the habit of looking after neighbors’ babies; she offered to push baby carriages around the park. And later she began visiting day nurseries.
Juliette looked on babies as beautiful but fragile playthings. She seemed afraid to approach them or speak to them. One day at the nursery as she paused before a little white bed tiny hands reached out to her and a tiny prattling voice cried: “Ma-ma-ma-ma.”
Juliette fled like a poor woman who saw the very heavens open up before her eyes.
For a few weeks she said nothing about her excursions and then one evening she could stand it no longer. She gave Ernest a description of the little blue-eyed girl who had cried “Ma-ma.”
Ernest started to smile. Adopt a child? If the good God had wanted them to have children surely he would have seen to it that they did have them. And it was a very great risk. Did anyone know from what strange alliances the children of day nurseries came?
Juliette was stubborn for once. Then Ernest concluded by suggesting that they wait. Later perhaps, when he had his raise. Anyway, they would see . . .
ERNEST got a raise. At his office the young fit men were needed for the armed forces. Ernest was exempted because of a slight deafness, and he saw a sort of foresight therein, not actually within his control. It was nevertheless a foresight coming from his disposition, since this kindly deafness, which he had until then thought of as distressing, was now to his advantage and was just the same as if it had been a virtue.
His raise was quite a sizeable one. He was now getting $30 a week. As soon as he could depend on his bonus on life Ernest saw that it would be madness, once started, to stop, to begin spending when he was still young enough to deprive himself.
This time he took out an annuity and explained the numerous advantages to Juliette. In twenty years they would have a steady income. Their old age was safe, a quiet beautiful old age, without money worries, with no fear. Inclined to be facetious about it at times Ernest permitted himself little jokes like this. “You see, we’ll live at least until we’re 98 now we’ve got so much insurance.”
Because they were living for the time when they would be old, Juliette began to show signs of age. She had a tendency to be resigned. She offered very little more resistance. Sometimes she wondered whether Ernest were not right after all.
Ernest knew just how clever he had been when the income taxes doubled, then tripled. Owing to the various policies he held he could expect quite a sizeable exemption. “You see,” he said to Juliette, “what it is to see a bit past the end of your nose.”
Nevertheless he was still forced to pay a tax which he considered far too high. He thought up all sorts of exemptions. One day he bought a tenement house. For a long time Juliette had attached little importance to Ernest’s promises to buy a house. Nevertheless she had, to some extent, got into the habit of picturing a small cottage in the suburbs. In four bright rooms, sunny and kept spotlessly clean, she would spend what remained of her energy, polishing, and making things pretty.
She now saw no reason for the large gloomy house he had bought, with its huge rooms. But Ernest, ever patient and conciliatory, told her she would see, some day, what he was trying to do. She would thank him, some day, for the house and everything else.
Actually, he had purchased the house at the right time. The housing crisis followed almost immediately. Juliette let rooms. As far as she was concerned, when poor young folk came to the door, she would gladly have allowed them a reduced price. But Ernest kept within the regulations. He insisted on all the law allowed and even a little more if he could get it without being caught.
Soon Ernest’s house brought in more money than his job. He could tell the several acquaintances who had teased him on the purchase of the old uninviting house, “You see what it is to be farsighted.”
As his income became larger Ernest converted it into investments. “The time will come,” he explained, “when money will have very little value. Insurance and real estate are t he things to put away for the future.”
HE WAS insured against fire, he had life insurance, and a life annuity. He could not foresee any threats to their future.
One day, however, his serenity was shaken.
That afternoon he was so absorbed in his reckonings that he walked through a red traffic light and was hit by a car.
He did not lose consciousness. The shock was a slight one. After a few moments Ernest realized he was quite uninjured; he could go his way wit hout assistance. And yet for a long time it was not. in his soul to forget the peculiar thoughts that had come to him at the time of collision. They had no connection at all with the exact deductions of his 42 years of living. They were so stupefying that Ernest, once he had recovered, refused to consider them again, or credit them with any importance. But he was unable to rid himself of the highly disagreeable feeling of surprise which his hidden and unknown depths had given him.
After some time, on thinking the incident over more calmly, he came to the following way of thinking: “I could have been seriously hurt, who knows, perhaps break an arm, or a leg, or be
paralyzed for the rest of my life, and I would not have been able to get any equitable compensation. That’s what it is,” he thought, “to live in our age. A man’s always forgetting some precaution.”
He imagined other dangers against which he was, no doubt, not sufficiently on his guard. He took out accident insurance. Now he would be protected, or rather .Juliette would, were he to be injured on the street or in a car crash.
For several months Ernest, saw no new hazards rise beyond the closed-in life he lived. He could finally believe that there was nothing missing in his total of fortifications against fate. He had even seen to it that he could live paralyzed, in an invalid’s chair, and do that very placidly for thirty or forty years.
TTE REACHED the age of forty-three. Withthe J.X top of his head already smoothand shiny, with his tired-looking shoulders and heavy eyelids, he seemed ten or fifteen years older. But his affairs were “epataragonflante” as he called them. He now had two tenement houses, the second even uglier than the first, and they were always crowded with lodgers. Ernest, had discovered the perfect arrangement. By putting two or three large beds in each room he was doubling the returns from his property. He would have put four beds in if he could still have found people to fill them.
Stenographers, soldiers back from England with their little English wives, elderly people and whole families presented themselves at all hours of the day. And the poor ones were the ones that paid best, for they had no objection to crowding together with others. At such times Ernest’s excuse was, even though he was not asked for one, that everybody had a chance to do the same as he was doing. With his twenty-odd rooms to rent he was a sort, of little tin god. He let the large old buildings remain in need of repairs, but this did not prevent him from asking a good price. He very seriously declared that the rarity of a product was what gave it its value.
Insured ns he was against, broken bones, theft, and want, it was in vain that he racked his brains, looking for a camouflaged attack from blind chance, for he could see none coming. And yet he was not happy.
In that, moment when he could have died on the pavement too many unexplainable thoughts had come at. him. In pursuing them he had only succeeded in making them retreat into t hat, inarticulate part of the soul where, remaining partly concealed, they seemed to await, their chance to come out again, stronger, and better organized.
Ernest dragged himself through several more months without clearly understanding his mental discomfort. Juliette had long since stopped visiting day nurseries and taking out the neighbors’ babies. She no longer wished for anything. At times there still swam in that tired empty head, like a fleeting vision to which the heart no longer responds, a picture of a sky over country fields and a small house far from everything.
Then Ernest would say “That’ll come.” What was coming, exactly, Juliette no longer had the curiosity to ask him.
Ernest did not stop looking for the single precaution that he now seemed to have left out since he was still uneasy. Uneasiness presupposes apprehension of a danger, and Ernest, like a suspicious hunter, watched his anguish, sure that he would find a cure for it when he knew what it meant.
And this was how, one day, on passing a church, he discovered what was bothering him. What a fool he had been! At last he was aware of the one bit of carelessness in his life.
A retreat was being advocated in this church. A large poster in the portico indicated the times for the masses and sermons and confessions. And there, standing out in large let ters on the placard, like the advertisements for merchandise and amusements, was a very pertinent thought. For Ernest it was like a blow in the chest. He read it, and read it again. It said:
BE INSURED FOR ETERNITY
Although he considered
Continued on page 36
Continued from page 21
himself a religious man Ernest had not gone to church regularly. He went in in the middle of a sermon.
The preacher was talking about the obsession for personal gain. Ernest was subjugated right from the first words.
“You pile up goods for this world,” said the voice on the loud speaker, diffusing sound throughout the nave, and into the dark corners of the church. “Why not for the next, people of little foresight? Would you set out on a journey,” the metallic voice continued, “without any luggage or money, or the means to guard against chance happenings? Why do you not prepare yourselves, incautious travellers, for the crossing from life to death, for the truly dreadful passage?
“You buy insurance for yourselves here, war bonds, savings certificates,” went on the voice. “Why do you not obtain bonds for eternity? From this day get bonds for Heaven. They offer the best dividends. God is perfect justice. If you can put your trust in the government of men, how much more reasonable is it for you to maintain your belief in divine solvency.”
Had a final argument been needed to touch him Ernest could not have resisted that one.
He was plunged in thought as he left the church, his eyes finally opened to the deeper significance of life and death. And it was in that way, at the age of forty-five, with the same spirit with which he had lived, that Ernest began his preparations for eternity.
AS A BEGINNING he went and put . aside a good round sum; it was for masses to be sung for his benefit right after his death.
His wishes were very definite on that subject; three days after he had died Juliette would have the first of the 30 consecutive masses celebrated. This particular number seemed enough, being neither too ostentatious, nor too mean.
Ernest would also be granted indulgences—at least he expected to be —especially on All Souls’ Day, when he would be seen, hat in hand, coming out of the church, going in, coming out again, going in again, saying his beads.
He also tried to get Juliette to practice these devotions. He chided her on her lack of piety which he called indifference and constantly told her that she, too, must prepare herself for the other side.
In this way Ernest Boismenu grew yet a few years older. He was quite well off and he gave alms sometimes, having borne in mind out of all the evangelical words particularly the ones about promising a hundredfold for the drop of water offered to slake the thirst of the poor. But he was so afraid of making a mistake, by helping people not really poor, impostors, that he conducted searching investigations into the lives of persons he was helping. In that way his gifts gave rise to at least as much ill feeling as real gratitude.
He assisted charitable organizations. Every year he gave a considerable sum to youth groups, and to missions in Africa. He saw no better way to arrange the eternity coming to him. And he was less and less reassured.
WHEN he was forty-seven an apparently mild illness kept him away from his affairs for some weeks. Juliette’s solicitude vexed him. He called his doctor names; he claimed that his health was still as good as it ever was, but in his heart he was afraid. At last he agreed to go to the hospital for a complete examination.
He was not to come out alive. Everything was failing at the same time in his overworked body. And then persistent digestive pains were explained by a much more serious cause than the doctor had expected.
Faced with the vision of his death so quickly approaching Ernest at first used his old strategy. A danger looked at directly is often partly avoided. And just as a fierce dog may be foiled by advancing directly on him perhaps it would also be possible to give death the slip by keeping very calm, and speaking to him in a conciliatory way: “That’s all right, I’m expecting you.”
Such a game did not benefit him for long. Then he reminded himself of his good deeds, his almsgiving, the little sermonlike speeches he had made to -Juliette to induce her to save her soul. At that late hour Juliette began decking herself out, and covering herself with little baubles and funny colors.
He grew weaker. Death was not very far off. Some instinct—he always had been perspicacious when in danger —warned him it was but a matter of days. The pains in his stomach were too sharp to let him accept the doctor’s tactful diagnosis.
He was given enough morphine to subdue the shrill screams of cancer in its final stages, but not enough, never enough to keep his soul from searching in one direction, and in another, in front of him, behind, searching everywhere for a ray of light.
And there was no use recollecting the good things he had done—gifts to Negroes and unknown Annamites, prayers he had asked of the thoughtful little sisters. None of those things calmed his soul at the border of the land from which no echo has ever come.
It was like the day when, crossing the street against the red light, he had nearly met death. The same incomprehensible vision appeared before him, having neither point nor connection with the customary tenor of his reflections. And so he thought himself once again back in the distant time of the day of their wedding anniversary when he had bought Juliette an insurance policy instead of a hat. A new hat—a hat doubtless costing three or four dollars. But why, why did this hat, this little trifle, a lover’s coquetry, come again so clearly to his mind when he was about to die?
Then he again saw Juliette’s eyes at the time she had said: “The little baby put its arms out; it put out its arms, toward me; it tried to say Ma-ma and it couldn’t have been any more than a year eld. It was a little girl.” And what could such a memory really have to do with his death?
Tormented, Ernest Boismenu tried to get away from that longing look of Juliette’s, perhaps nearly as beseeching in itself as the baby’s cry. And all at once he saw another day in his life, which until then had succeeded in passing unnoticed in his memory. A young couple had presented themselves at the furnished house late at night. The young woman had been carrying an overheavy valise. The young man had a valise, too, and over it he had thrown a coat. The woman had said, staggering and leaning against the doorframe: “This makes eight times we’ve moved in three months.” And she had asked if there were not some small fairly inexpensive corner in the house for them. They couldn’t pay more than three dollars a week, she had explained.
And, suddenly, Ernest sat up very straight in his bed. And he cried out like a prisoner before the King’s Bench. “I didn’t have a three-dollar room. You know it was right for me to ask five dollars. I’ve done no worse than everybody else.”
Continued on page 39
Continued from page 36
They thought he was raving. They gave him a touch of morphine with the needle.
Juliette at the bedside stroked Ernest’s hand, holding it between her palms, and she repeated for him:
“You’ve done good in your time. It will be taken into account.”
Words falling like hot oil on an open wound.
Where had the young couple burdenéd with overloaded valises gone that night? The young woman, he suddenly remembered, had been limping as if she had a blistered foot. What had become of the sweet little girl the sisters had doubtless taught to say Mama? And the hat. Would any other woman have wanted it as much as Juliette and thanked her husband with tenderness and kisses because he had given her a present?
Ernest had a happy illusion, right then, a great beautiful glow for once raising him beyond himself.
“You go,” he said to Juliette gently, his eyes full of tenderness. “Go and get the little girl at the day nursery. We’ll call her Ernestine.”
After a moment in a still gentler, more moving tone he declared:
“Come in, gentleman and lady; you must be very tired. Why yes, come in; of course we’ll make room for you. And, mon Dieu, you pay what you can.” Then the illusion left him, he saw tenderness in the land, unharvested, the tenderness had rotted in its stagnation like sterile wheat without benevolent sickles to claim it.
He sank into a last spasm. Why, but why was there no insurance for eternity, a statement signed by many people to keep in a box with other important documents?
He raised himself again slightly. He murmured with an expectant smile, with a little gleam of hope in the corner of his eye:
“But do come in; come in; gentleman and lady . . .”