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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Anatole France (1844–1924)

Finding an Apartment

From “Monsieur Bergeret”

THE USUAL thing happened. M. Bergeret went to look for an apartment; it was his sister who found it. Such advantages has the positivist spirit over the speculative. Let us recognize the fact that Mlle. Zoë’s choice had been a good one. She lacked neither experience of life nor a sense of the fitness of things. She had traveled in Russia, and lived in Western Europe. She had observed the various manners of men. She knew the world, and hence found it easy to know Paris.

“There it is,” she said to her brother, stopping in front of a new house that overlooked the Luxembourg gardens.

“The stairs are neat,” said M. Bergeret, “but a little steep.”

“Be quiet, Lucien! You are young enough to go up five little flights of stairs without getting tired.”

“Do you think so?” asked Lucien, flattered.

She was careful to observe that the carpet on the stairs extended to the top floor.

He smilingly reproached her for being sensible of these little vanities.

“But perhaps,” he added, “I myself might be a little shocked if the carpet were to come to an end on the floor below mine. One pretends to wisdom and remains vain in one particular respect. This observation recalls to me something that I saw yesterday while passing a church. The marble steps of the church were covered with a red carpet, over which the marriage procession of some wealthy people was to pass out after the ceremony. Some poor people who wanted to be married, too, waited with their poor guests without until the rich were done. They laughed at the people stalking so gravely over the red carpet, and the poor little bride put her bare feet on it. But the attendants made her step back, and it was not until this huge article of nuptial pomp had been rolled up into a huge cylinder that the poor wedding-party was allowed to enter the church. I observed that these good people were much amused at their adventure, and agreed with graceful ease to this display of social inequality, and I thought of Lamennais’s saying that society reposes on the resignation of the poor.”

“We are at the top,” said Mlle. Bergeret.

“I am out of breath,” said M. Bergeret.

“That is because you talked so much. One does not tell long stories when one climbs up five flights of stairs.”

“After all,” said M. Bergeret, “it is the common lot of sages to live under the roof. Science and meditation generally flourish in the garret. And when one considers all things, a garret adorned with high thoughts is better than a marble gallery.”

“This room,” said Mlle. Bergeret, “is not a garret. It is lighted by a beautiful window, and you can make it your study.”

Upon hearing these words, M. Bergeret looked upon the four walls as if possessed by a mortal fear, and assumed the air of a man at the edge of an abyss.

“What is the matter?” asked his sister uneasily.

But he did not answer her. That small square room, with its light wall-paper, seemed to him filled with the shadow of an unknown future. He entered it with a slow and fearful step, as if apprehending some mysterious fate. He selected the position for his writing-table.

“I shall sit there,” he said. “It is not well to consider with too much sentiment the ideas of the past and the future. Those are abstract ideas, which man does not have at first, but which he acquires laboriously and to his own sorrow. Is not the idea of the past in itself most sorrowful? No one, I suppose, would care to pass through life again by the same stages by which he had come so far. There are lovely hours, exquisite moments—that I do not deny. But they are the pearls and shining crystals woven into the coarse and somber texture of our days. The current of past years, brief in itself, seems tediously slow, and if there is anything sweet in its remembrance it is because we can rest our spirits on a few luminous points. Yet how pale is that sweetness, and how sad. As for the future, we hardly dare to look into its face; so many threats overcast that vision. When you remarked, Zoë, that this would be my study, I looked into the future and braved that unendurable sight. I believe I have sometimes shown courage; but I am given to reflection, and reflection undermines daring.”

“What was really hard,” said Mlle. Zoë, “was to find three bedrooms.”

“Assuredly,” answered M. Bergeret, “humanity in its youth did not conceive of a past or a future. These ideas which devour us have no external reality. We know nothing of life! Its development in time is a pure illusion. It is by a mere infirmity of our senses that we do not see to-morrow realized as yesterday. It is quite possible to imagine beings so organized as to be able to perceive simultaneously phenomena that appear separated by appreciable intervals of time. We ourselves do not perceive light and sound in their temporal order. The light of the stars that appears at once to our eyes blends in itself centuries and thousands of centuries. With more perfect perceptions we could behold ourselves dead in the midst of life. For, since time does not exist in reality, and since the succession of events is apparent only, all facts are realized at once, and our future will never come to pass. It exists now; only we discover it later. Do you see now, Zoë, why I remained silent on the threshold of this room, which is to be mine? Time is a pure idea. And space has no more reality than time.”

“Very likely,” said Zoë. “But living in Paris is very expensive, and that fact had to be considered in taking an apartment. I don’t believe you’re even curious to see my room. Come, perhaps you will be interested in Pauline’s.”

“We will inspect both of them,” said M. Bergeret, obediently trailing his animal machine across the little square carpets. Nevertheless, he continued the course of his reflections.

“Savages,” said he, “do not make the distinction between the past, the present, and the future. And their languages, which are certainly the oldest monuments of humanity, permit us to gain an insight into the condition of the race before it had begun metaphysical speculation.”

As he was discoursing thus, he returned into the room that was to be his study, and which at his first entrance into it had seemed to him so full of the ominous shadows of the future. Mlle. Bergeret opened the window.

“Look, Lucien.”

And M. Bergeret looked at the bare tops of the trees, and said smiling:

“These black branches will assume violet tints under the gentle sun of April, and then break forth into tender foliage. That will be charming, Zoë, and you are very wise and good, a kind nurse and a dear sister. Come and let me kiss you.”

M. Bergeret kissed his sister, and said, “You are a good girl, Zoë.”

And Mlle. Zoë answered, “Our parents were both good.”

M. Bergeret would have kissed her a second time, but she said:

“You’ll make my hair untidy, Lucien, and I hate that.”