© by Jules Verne (2100 words)
A story that is different from the author's usual science adventure stories.
The wind is blowing. The rain is pouring down. The roaring storm bends the trees on the Volsinian shore and crashes against the flanks of the Crimma Mountains. On the coast, the high rocks are relentlessly gnawed away by the sharp teeth of the Megalocridian Sea.
Deep within the shelter of the bay lies the little village of Luktrop -- barely a few hundred houses whose green belvederes try vainly to defend themselves from the ocean winds. Four or five narrow streets climb the mountainside, looking more like gullies than streets, paved with pebbles and choked with rubble spat from the eruptive cone that rises in the background. The Vanglor volcano is not far away. During the day the inner cauldron releases sulphur fumes. At night, at regular intervals, it spews forth long flames. Visible at a distance of a hundred and fifty kertses, like a lighthouse, the Vanglor pinpoints the port of Luktrop to coasting vessels, felzane ships, verley boats and even light balanzes whose bows cut through the icy Megalocridian waters.
At the far end of the village, next to a handful of Crimmerian ruins, are the Arab quarters: a casbah with whitewashed walls, round roofs and terraces gobbled up by the sun. The Casbah resembles a pile of stone cubes, of dice with the edges worn thin by time.
Among the notable buildings of Luktrop is the Six-Four, a bizarre construction with a square roof, six windows at the front and four at the back. A steeple dominates the village: the square tower of Saint Philifenus, whose bells are tolling in the storm. When this happens the villagers tremble with fear. 'An evil omen!' they say.
This is Luktrop. Farther away -- but not too far -- are a few miserable hovels scattered around the village in a landscape of brushes and ferns, somewhat like Britanny. But this is not Britanny.
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Someone has knocked discreetly on the narrow door of Six-Four, at the left hand corner of Messagliere Street. It is certainly one the most comfortable houses in the village - if the word can used when referring to Luktrop; one of the richest - if earning a few thousand fretzers can be considered a sign of wealth.
The knock has been answered by a savage snarl - something like the barking of a wolf. A window is raised above the Six-Four entrance.
'Go to hell, you nuisance, whoever you may be!' cries out an ill-humoured voice.
A young girl, shivering under the rain, wrapped in a tattered shawl, asks whether Doctor Trifulgas is in.
'Maybe yes, maybe no; it all depends.'
'It's about my father, he's dying!'
'Where is he dying?'
'Near Val Karniou, some four kertses from here.'
'And his name?"
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A hard man, this Doctor Trifulgas, not very compassionate. He only sees a patient after receiving payment in cash. Old Hurzof, the doctor's dog, half bulldog and half spaniel, has probably got a kinder heart. Six-Four only opens its doors to the rich. Every illness has a fixed price: one for curing typhoid fever, another for a cold, yet another for pericarditis or other such diseases which doctors invent by the dozen. Vort Kartif is a poor man, born of a poor family. Why should Doctor Trifulgas bother, especially on a night like this?
'Just getting me out of bed would have cost her ten fretzers!' he mutters, and lies down again.
Some twenty minutes later the iron knocker is heard once more. With a curse the doctor leaves his bed for the second time and leans out the window.
'Who's there?' he cries.
'I'm Vort Kartif's wife.'
'Vort Kartif of Val Karniou?'
'Yes, and if you refuse to come he'll die!'
'Fine, then you'll be a widow.'
'Here are twenty fretzers --'
'Twenty fretzers to go all the way to Val Karniou, four kertses away?'
'For pity's sake!'
'Go to hell!'
And the window slams shut. Twenty fretzers! What a fortune! To risk catching cold for twenty fretzers, especially when he is expected in Kiltreno tomorrow to look after rich Mr. Edzingov's gout at fifty fretzers a visit!
With this happy thought, Doctor Trifulgas falls into a deeper sleep than before.
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The beating of the storm is suddenly joined by three knocks on the door, this time from a firmer hand. The doctor is asleep. He wakes up, but in what a mood! Through the open window the storm enters like the blast of a machine-gun.
'It's about Vort Kartif --'
'I'm his mother!'
'May his mother, his wife and his daughter perish with him!"
'He's had a seizure!'
'So let him fight back!'
'We've been given some money on the house; we're selling it to Dontrup on Messagliere Street. But if you don't come now my grand-daughter won't have a father, my daughter-in-law won't have a husband, and I won't have a son!'
It is pitiful and terrible to hear the old woman's voice, to imagine the wind freezing her blood and the rain soaking her thin flesh to the bones.
'A seizure is two hundred fretzers!' answers the heartless Trifulgas.
'We only have a hundred and twenty!'
And the window closes once more.
However, after some careful thought, he concludes that a hundred and twenty fretzers for a hour and a half's walk, plus half an hour's visit, is about sixty fretzers and hour - a fretzer a minute. A small profit, yet not to be neglected.
Instead of going back to bed, the doctor puts on his outdoor clothes, his heavy marsh-boots, his fur cape, his woolen hood and his warm mittens. He leaves the lamp burning next to his Codex open at page 197. Then he pushes the door of Six-Four and steps outside.
The old woman is still there, leaning on her stick, wasted by her eighty years of misery.
'The hundred and twenty fretzers?'
'Here, here . . . and may God make them a thousand in your pocket!'
'God! God's money! Has anyone ever seen God's money?'
The doctor whistles for Hurzof, hangs a small lamp from the brute's mouth, and takes the road towards the sea.
The old woman follows.
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What weather, my God, what weather! The bells of Saint Philifenus are tolling in the wind: a bad sign. But Doctor Trifulgas is not superstitious. In fact he believes in nothing, not even science -- except in the profit it makes.
What weather! And what a road! Pebbles and rubble, rubble and pebbles. Pebbles slippery with seaweed, rubble that crackles like slag. No light except the one carried by Hurzof, dim and faltering. Sometimes they see Vanglor's leaping flames in which quaint figures seem to struggle.
The doctor and the old woman follow the pattern of small inlets that form the coast. The sea looks white, livid, mourning-white. It dazzles the eye as it shatters against the phosphorescent rim of the surf, spilling bucketfuls of glistening worms on the sand.
Both figures continue to climb until the road turns between soft dunes where the broom and reeds are thrown against each other by the wind with the click of bayonets. Here the old woman stops and with a trembling finger points to a reddish light in the shadows. Vort Kartif's house.
'There?' asks the doctor.
'Yes,' answers the old woman.
The dog howls.
Suddenly the Vanglor shakes to its very roots. A sheaf of flames sprouts up into the sky, cleaving the clouds. Doctor Trifulgas falls backwards.
He swears like a damned soul. Then he scrambles to his feet and looks around him. The old woman is no longer there. Has she been swallowed by a gap in the ground or has she disappeared into the booming clouds? The dog is still there, sitting on its hind legs, the extinguished lamp still hanging from its mouth.
'Cowards,' grumbles Doctor Trifulgas.
The honest man has received his hundred and twenty fretzers: now he feels he must earn them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The small dot of light is about half a kertse away. The dying man's lamp . . . the dead man's lamp, perhaps . . . There is his house, as the old woman pointed out. There is no mistaking it.
Beneath the whistling wind, the beating rain, the rolling storm, Doctor Trifulgas marches on with hasty steps. As he advances, the house becomes clearer, standing alone in the middle of the hearth. It looks like the doctor's house, Six-Four, in Luktrop. Same windows at the front, same narrow door . . .
Doctor Trifulgas hurries on as fast as the wind will allow him. The door is ajar, he has only to push. He pushes, he steps inside, and the wind slams it shut behind his back.
Outside, Hurzof the dog starts to howl once again, pausing at regular intervals, like a cantor between the versicles of a psalm.
How very odd! It is almost as if Doctor Trifulgas had returned to his own house. However, he is certain he has not lost his way, he had not turned his back. He is now in Val Karniou, not in Luktrop. And yet here is the same corridor, low and vaulted, the same wooden spiral staircase with its heavy handrail worn down by the palms of many hands . . .
He climbs it. He arrives on the landing. A faint beam shines softly under the chamber door.
Is it his imagination? In the weak light he recognizes his own room, the yellow sofa to the right, the pearwood cupboard to the left, the steel-banded chest where he would have put his hundred and twenty fretzers. Here is his leather-patched armchair, here his bandy-legged table, and here, next to the dying lamp, his Codex open at page 197.
'What is happening to me?" he says in a low voice.
Doctor Trifulgas is afraid. His eyes shine wide open, he body seems contracted, diminished. A cold sweat runs down him. He is trembling.
Nevertheless he must hurry! The lamp will go out for lack of oil - like the lamp, the sick man is dying.
Yes, the bed is there -- his own bed, surrounded by columns, his canopied bed closed by heavy curtains. Can this be a poor man's bed? With a shaking hand Doctor Trifulgas pulls the curtain apart and peers inside.
The dying man, his head barely above the sheets, is lying motionless as if hardly able to breathe. The doctor leans over him.
Doctor Trifulgas' cry is echoed outside by a sinister howl.
The dying man is not Vort Kartif: it is Doctor Trifulgas himself. He has been struck down by a congestion of the lungs; an apoplectic seizure has paralysed half his body.
It is himself he has come to see, it is for himself that a hundred and twenty fretzers have been paid. Himself, who had refused to attend the dying man; himself who is going to die.
Doctor Trifulgas thinks he is going mad. He feels utterly lost. His hands no longer obey him. With a supreme effort he manages to control himself.
What can he do? Diminish the blood pressure by bleeding the patient? Doctor Trifulgas is dead if he hesitates.
He opens his bag, takes out a lancet and pierces a vein in the dying man's arm. But the blood does not rise. He vigorously rubs the dying man's chest -- he feels the beating of his own chest slowing down. He burns the dying man's feet with scorching stones -- his own feet grow cold as ice.
The man in bed tries to sit up, struggles, and utters one final cry . . .
And Doctor Trifulgas, in spite of all the tricks which science has taught him, falls back dead in his own arms.
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Next morning a body was found in Six-Four: that of Doctor Trifulgas. He was bathed in beer, placed in a wooden coffin and conducted with great pomp to Luktrop cemetery, where he now lies buried with so many others.
Translated from the French by Alberto Manguel.
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