Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  The Comet

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

Émile Erckmann (1822–1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826–1890)

The Comet

LAST year, before the festivities of the carnival, the news reached Hunebourg that the world was coming to an end. The unpleasant information was first spread by Dr. Zacharias Piper, of Colmar. He had read it in the Lame Messenger, in the Perfect Christian, and in half a hundred other almanacs.

The doctor’s calculations amounted to this: that on Shrove Tuesday a comet would descend from heaven; that it would have a tail consisting of boiling water, thirty-five millions of leagues in length, with which it would sweep the earth, causing the snow on the mountain-tops to be melted, the trees to be dried up, and the people to be consumed.

A worthy scholar of Paris, M. Popinot, it is true, affirmed a little later that, though the comet would undoubtedly come, its tail would be composed of such thin and harmless vapors that it would trouble no one; so that every one could go quietly about his business. For the truth of this assertion he made himself answerable, and, indeed, it calmed all fears. But, unfortunately, we have living at Hunebourg, in the Three-Pots Lane, an old wool-spinner, named Maria Finck. She is a small, wrinkled, white-haired old woman, whom people consult in all the delicate affairs of life. She lives in a low room, the ceiling of which is hung with painted eggs, little chains of red, blue, and gilded nuts, and a thousand other curious things. She wears old-fashioned furbelows, and lives on buns—facts which give her a great reputation throughout the country.

Maria Finck, instead of approving the opinion of good, honest M. Popinot, took sides with Dr. Zacharias Piper, saying:

“Pray and repent of your sins; make your peace with Heaven. For the end is near; the end is near!”

At one end of her room you may see a picture of hell, whither people descend upon a road strewn with roses. Not one suspects the real direction of the road; but some go dancing and swinging a bottle, and others hold a ham or a string of sausages, while a fiddler, in beribboned hat, plays a tune to make the journey merrier. Some of these people are joyfully embracing, and all are carelessly approaching a flaming chimney, into which the foremost are already falling, with arms extended and legs in air.

Imagine the reflections of all reasonable beings on seeing this representation. Not one of us is so virtuous but he has a certain number of sins on his conscience, and no one can flatter himself that he will be placed immediately at the right hand of the Lord. No, it would be very presumptuous to imagine that things will turn out like that; it would be a sign of very condemnable pride. So most people said, “We will have no carnival, but spend Shrove Tuesday in acts of contrition.”

Never was the like seen before. The adjutant and the captain of the place, as well as the sergeants and corporals of the Third Company of the —th, in garrison at Hunebourg, were really in despair. All the preparations for the feast, such as the great town hall, that had been decorated with plants and with military trophies, the stage that had been raised for the orchestra, the beer, the Kirschwasser, the Bischoffs, which had been ordered for the refreshment hall—in a word, all the good things would be entirely lost, simply because the girls of the town would not hear of dancing.

“I am not wicked,” said Sergeant Duchêne, “but if I had hold of that Dr. Zacharias Piper of yours, it would fare ill with him.”

But the most disappointed mortals were Daniel Spitz, the secretary of the mayoralty, Jérôme Bertha, the postmaster’s son, the tax-collector Dujardin, and myself. We had traveled to Strasburg a week before to get costumes. In order that nothing should be wanting, Uncle Toby had given me fifty francs out of his own pocket. I had chosen my get-up as Pierrot at Mlle. Dardenai’s in the Arcade. This costume consisted of a shirt with large folds and huge sleeves. The latter were adorned with onion-shaped buttons as large as one’s fist, and one could toss them from chin to thigh. One covered one’s head with a black cap, whitened one’s face with powder, and, provided one had a long nose, hollow cheeks, and well-shaded eyes, it was admirable.

Dujardin, because of his large paunch, had chosen a Turk’s costume embroidered at all the seams. Spitz had a Punch’s coat made up of a thousand bits of red, green, and yellow, a hump in front, another behind, and a big policeman’s hat, set well back on his head—you never saw anything handsomer. Jérôme Bertha was to be a savage, with parrot-feathers. We were sure, first of all, that the girls would desert the soldiers for us, and, when one has gone to such expense, to see everything going to the deuce on account of an old fool like Dr. Zacharias Piper—why, it’s enough to make one hate one’s kind. But, then, what can you expect? People have always been the same, and the fools always have the best of it.

Shrove Tuesday came, with a sky full of snow. People gazed to the right, to the left, above, below—no comet! The girls looked confused, the boys ran to their cousins, aunts, or godmothers, to all the houses: “Do you see now that old woman Finck is crazy,” they cried, “and all your ideas about the comet mere folly? Do comets ever come in winter? Don’t they always appear in vintage-time? Come, come, we must decide something, and, the deuce, there is still time enough!”

As for the sergeant and corporals, they went into the kitchens, exhorted the servants, and loaded them with reproaches, so that a few recovered their courage. Old men and women came to see the great hall of the mayoralty, and to admire the suns between the windows, made of sabers and daggers, and little tricolored flags. There came a change. All remembered that it was Shrove Tuesday. The young girls hastened to get their frocks out of their wardrobes, and waxed their little shoes. At ten o’clock the great town hall was thronged. We had won the battle, and not a young girl in all the town was missing at that roll-call. The clarionets, the trombones, and the big drum resounded, the high windows shone out into the night, the waltzers spun round like mad, and the country dances went on merrily. The girls and boys were jubilant beyond words, and the old grandmothers sat comfortably near the stove, and laughed with all their hearts. They jostled each other in the refreshment hall; enough could hardly be provided, and Father Zimmer, who had been permitted to furnish all these good things, could boast of having made that night worth his while. Along the whole length of the outer staircase you could see people who had partaken too freely of the liquid refreshments, and who now came stumbling out. Out-of-doors the snow was falling steadily.

Uncle Toby had given me his latch-key, so that I might go home when I wished. I had not missed a single waltz up to two o’clock, but then I had enough. Besides, I was beginning to feel the effects of all the good beverages. Once out in the street, I felt better, and debated with myself whether I should go back, or home and to bed. I should have enjoyed another dance, but I was sleepy. So I decided to go home, and started for the Rue Saint Sylvestre. I helped myself along by the wall, turning over many matters in my mind.

I had been proceeding in this way for about ten minutes, and was about to turn the corner by the fountain, when, raising my nose by chance, I saw on the ramparts behind the trees a moon, red as coal, that was coming through the air. Though it was still millions of miles away, it was going so fast that it was bound to reach us within a quarter of an hour. The sight upset me utterly; the hair of my head stood on end, and I said to myself, “It’s the comet! Zacharias Piper was right!” And, hardly knowing what I was about, I started back to the mayoralty at a run. I rushed up the staircase, overturned those who were coming down, and cried in a terrified voice, “The comet! The comet!”

The ball was just at its height. The big drum was thundering away, the boys were stamping their feet, kicking up their legs, when they turned—the girls were red as poppies. But, when they heard the voice in the hall, “The comet! The comet!” a sudden silence invaded the place, and the people, looking about, saw each other pale, with drawn cheeks and sharp noses.

Sergeant Duchêne darted to the door, stopped me, and put his hand over my mouth, saying:

“Are you mad? Will you hold your tongue?” But I threw myself back, and continued to repeat in a voice of despair, “The comet!”

Footsteps were already thumping down the stairs; people rushed out; the women groaned; the tumult was frightful. Some old women, put off their guard by Shrove Tuesday, raised their hands to Heaven, and stammered out, “Jesus! Maria! Joseph!”

In a few seconds the hall was empty. Duchêne left me leaning quite exhausted against a window-sill. I looked out at the people running up the street, and I was nearly crazy with fright. Passing through the refreshment room, I saw the sutler, Catherine Lagoutte, and Corporal Bouquet finishing off the last of a bowl of punch.

“Since all is to end,” they said, “let it end well!” Below on the staircase many sat and confessed to each other. One said, “I have practised usury!” Another, “I have used false weights!” Another, “I have cheated at cards!” They all talked at once, except now and then, when they stopped short, and cried out together, “Lord, have mercy on us!” I recognized Fèvre, the old baker, and Mme. Lauritz. They were beating their breasts like miserable sinners. But these things did not interest me, who had sins of my own to account for.

Soon I reached some who were running toward the fountain. You should have heard their groans. All recognized the comet, and I saw that it had doubled in size.

The crowd stood in the dark, and wailed:

“It is all over! Oh, Lord, it is all over, and we are lost!”

And the women invoked St. Joseph and St. Christopher and St. Nicholas—in short, all the saints in the calendar.

At this moment I passed in review all the sins I had committed since coming to years of discretion, and I felt horrified at myself. I grew cold under my tongue, thinking that we were all going to be burned up, and, as the old beggar Balthazar was standing near me, leaning on his crutch, I embraced him, saying:

“Balthazar, when you rest in Abraham’s bosom, you will take pity on me, won’t you?”

Then he replied, sobbing:

“I am a great sinner, M. Christian. These thirty years I have deceived the community from my love of idleness; for I am not nearly so lame as I seem.”

“And I, Balthazar,” lamented I, “I am the greatest sinner in Hunebourg!”

We wept on each other’s necks.

You see, that is how people will be at the judgment; kings with bootblacks, good citizens with barefoot ragamuffins. They will no longer be ashamed of one another, but call one another brothers; and, because fire purifies everything, the newly shaven will not shrink from embracing the stubble-bearded, for the fear of being burned makes your heart tender. Oh, if there were no hell, we should not see so many good Christians! That is the best part of our holy religion.

At last, when we had all been on our knees for a quarter of an hour, Sergeant Duchêne arrived all out of breath. He had run first to the arsenal, and, seeing nothing there, had come back by the Rue des Capucins.

“Well,” said he, “what have you been making such a fuss about?” Then, perceiving the comet, “The devil! What is that?”

“It’s the end of the world, sergeant,” said Balthazar.

“The end of the world?”

“Yes; the comet!”

Then he began to swear like the devil, and exclaimed, “Now, if the adjutant were here, they might know the countersign!”

Then, all at once, drawing his sword and marching along the wall, he cried, “Forward! I don’t care what it is! It must be investigated!”

Every one admired his courage, and, inspired by his example, I followed him. We went gently, ever so gently, staring at the comet, which became plainer every second, seemingly moving at the rate of thousands of miles an hour. Finally we came to the corner of the old Capuchin convent. The comet seemed to be rising; and the farther we advanced, the higher it rose. We had to raise our heads, so that, at last, Duchêne’s neck was almost broken with gazing into the air. Twenty paces farther I saw the comet, a little to one side. I questioned the prudence of advancing, when the sergeant stopped. “I’ll be d——d,” muttered he; “it’s the reflector.”

“The reflector,” said I, coming up; “is it possible?” And I looked very much astonished.

It was really the old reflector of the Capuchin convent. Since the Capuchins had gone in 1798, it had never been lighted, and at Hunebourg every one went to bed with the chickens. But the night-watchman, Burrhus, foreseeing that a good many people would be drunk that night, had charitably put a candle into it to prevent them from rolling into the ditch that runs around the old cloister; and then he had gone home to the wife of his bosom.

We distinguished the parts of the lantern very well. The wick was as big as your thumb, and, when the wind blew a little, the wick would flare up and flash, and that is why it moved like a comet. Seeing this, I was going to call out to the others, when the sergeant said to me, “Will you be quiet! They would make fun of us if they knew we had charged on a lantern. Attention!”

He unhooked the rusty chain, and, with a tremendous crash, down came the reflector. Then we both ran away. The others waited a long time. But, finding the comet extinguished, they took heart, and went to bed.

Next day the report spread that the prayer of Maria Finck had moved the comet to put itself out; so, since that day, she has been regarded as a holier saint than ever.

Such things happen occasionally in the good little town of Hunebourg.