The Red Egg by Anatole France
Translated by Mrs. Anna Eichberg
TO SAMUEL POZZI
Dr. N---- placed his coffee-cup on the mantelpiece, threw his cigar
into the fire, and said to me:
"My dear friend, you recently told me of the strange suicide of a
woman tortured by terror and remorse. Her nature was fine and she was
exquisitely cultivated. Being suspected of complicity in a crime of
which she had been the silent witness, in despair at her own
irreparable cowardice, she was haunted by a perpetual nightmare in
which her husband appeared to her dead and decomposing and pointing her
out with his finger to the inquisitive magistrates. She was the victim
of her own morbid imagination. In this condition an insignificant and
casual circumstance decided her fate.
"Her nephew, a child, lived with her. One morning he was, as usual,
studying his lessons in the dining-room where she happened to be. The
child began to translate word by word a verse of Sophocles, and as he
wrote he pronounced aloud both the Greek and the translation: Kara
Theon, the head divine; Iokartis, of Jokasta;
tethneke, is dead ...spos' komen, tearing her hair;
kalei, she calls; Laion nekron, Laïos
dead...eisedomen, we see; tin gunaik' kremasten, the
woman hung. He added a flourish which tore the paper, stuck out his
ink-stained tongue, and repeated in sing-song, 'Hung, hung, hung!'
"The wretched woman, whose will-power had been destroyed, passively
obeyed the suggestion in the word, repeated three times. She rose, and
without a word or look went straight to her room. Some hours later the
police-inspector, called to verify a violent death, made this
reflection: 'I have seen many women who have committed suicide, but
this is the first time I have seen one who has hanged herself.'
"We speak of suggestion. Here is an instance which is at once
natural and credible. I am a little doubtful, in spite of everything,
of those which are arranged in the medical schools.
"But that a being in whom the will-power is dead obeys every
external impulse is a truth which reason admits and which experience
proves. The example which you cited reminds me of another one somewhat
similar. It is that of my unfortunate comrade, Alexandre Le Mansel. A
verse of Sophocles killed your heroine. A phrase of Lampridius
destroyed the friend of whom I will tell you.
"Le Mansel, with whom I studied at the high school of Avranches, was
unlike all his comrades. He seemed at once younger and older than he
really was. Small and fragile, he was at fifteen years of age afraid of
everything that alarms little children. Darkness caused him an
overpowering terror, and he could never meet one of the servants of the
school, who happened to have a big lump on the top of his head, without
bursting into tears. And yet at times, when we saw him close at hand,
he looked quite old. His parched skin, glued to his temples, nourished
his thin hair very inadequately. His forehead was polished like that of
a middle-aged man. As for his eyes, they had no expression, and
strangers often thought he was blind. His mouth alone gave character to
his face. His sensitive lips expressed in turn a child-like joy and
strange sufferings. The sound of his voice was clear and charming. When
he recited his lessons he gave the verses their full harmony and
rhythm, which made us laugh very much. During recreation he willingly
joined our games, and he was not awkward, but he played with such
feverish enthusiasm, and yet he was so absent-minded, that some of us
felt an insurmountable aversion towards him.
"He was not popular, and we would have made him our butt had he not
rather overawed us by something of savage pride and by his reputation
as a clever scholar, for though he was unequal in his work he was often
at the head of his class. It was said that he would often talk in his
sleep and that he would leave his bed in the dormitory while sound
asleep. This, however, we had not observed for ourselves as we were at
the age of sound sleep.
"For a long time he inspired me with more surprise than sympathy.
Then of a sudden we became friends during a walk which the whole class
took to the Abbey of Mont St. Michel. We tramped barefooted along the
beach, carrying our shoes and our bread at the end of a stick and
singing at the top of our voices. We passed the postern, and having
thrown our bundles at the foot of the 'Michelettes,' we sat down side
by side on one of those ancient iron cannons corroded by five centuries
of rain and fog.
"Looking dreamily from the ancient stones to the sky, and swinging
his bare feet, he said to me: 'Had I but lived in the time of those
wars and been a knight, I would have captured these two old cannons; I
would have captured twenty, I would have captured a hundred! I would
have captured all the cannons of the English. I would have fought
single-handed in front of this gate. And the Archangel Michel would
have stood guard over my head like a white cloud.'
"These words and the slow chant in which he uttered them thrilled
me. I said to him, 'I would have been your squire. I like you, Le
Mansel; will you be my friend?' And I held my hand out to him and he
took it solemnly.
"At the master's command we put on our shoes, and our little band
climbed the steep ascent that leads to the abbey. Midway, near a
spreading fig-tree, we saw the cottage where Tiphaine Raguel, widow of
Bertrand de Guesclin, lived in peril of the sea.
"This dwelling is so small that it is a wonder that it was ever
inhabited. To have lived there the worthy Tiphaine must have been a
queer old body, or, rather, a saint living only the spiritual life. Le
Mansel opened his arms as if to embrace this sacred hut; then, falling
on his knees, he kissed the stones, heedless of the laughter of his
comrades who, in their merriment, began to pelt him with pebbles. I
will not describe our walk among the dungeons, the cloisters, the halls
and the chapel. Le Mansel seemed oblivious to everything. Indeed, I
should not have recalled this incident except to show how our
"In the dormitory the next morning I was awakened by a voice at my
ear which said:
"'Tiphaine is not dead.' I rubbed my eyes as I saw Le Mansel in his
shirt at my side. I requested him rather rudely to let me sleep, and I
thought no more of this singular communication.
"From that day on I understood the character of our fellow pupil
much better than before, and I discovered an inordinate pride which I
had never before suspected. It will not surprise you if I acknowledge
that at the age of fifteen I was but a poor psychologist. But Le
Mansel's pride was too subtle to strike one at once. It had no concrete
shape, but seemed to embrace remote phantasms. And yet it influenced
all his feelings and gave to his ideas, uncouth and incoherent though
they were, something of unity.
"During the holidays that followed our walk to the Mont St. Michel,
Le Mansel invited me to spend a day at the home of his parents, who
were farmers and landowners at Saint Julien.
"My mother consented with some repugnance. Saint Julien is six
kilometres from the town. Having put on a white waistcoat and a smart
blue tie I started on my way there early one Sunday morning.
"Alexandre stood at the door waiting for me and smiling like a
little child. He took me by the hand and led me into the 'parlour.' The
house, half country, half town-like, was neither poor nor ill
furnished. And yet my heart was deeply oppressed when I entered, so
great was the silence and sadness that reigned.
"Near the window, whose curtains were slightly raised as if to
satisfy some timid curiosity, I saw a woman who seemed old, though I
cannot be sure that she was as old as she appeared to be. She was thin
and yellow, and her eyes, under their red lids glowed in their black
sockets. Though it was summer her body and her head were shrouded in
some black woollen material. But that which made her look most ghastly
was a band of metal which encircled her forehead like a diadem.
"'This is mama,' Le Mansel said to me, 'she has a headache.'
"Madam Le Mansel greeted me in a plaintive voice, and doubtless
observing my astonished glance at her forehead, said, smiling:
"'What I wear on my forehead, young sir, is not a crown; it is a
magnetic band to cure my headache.' I did my best to reply when Le
Mansel dragged me away to the garden, where we found a bald little man
who flitted along the paths like a ghost. He was so thin and so light
that there seemed some danger of his being blown away by the wind. His
timid manner and his long and lean neck, when he bent forward, and his
head, no larger than a man's fist, his shy side-glances and his
skipping gait, his short arms uplifted like a pair of flippers, gave
him undeniably a great resemblance to a plucked chicken.
"My friend, Le Mansel, explained that this was his father, but that
they were obliged to let him stay in the yard as he really only lived
in the company of his chickens, and he had in their society quite
forgotten to talk to human beings. As he spoke his father suddenly
disappeared, and very soon an ecstatic clucking filled the air. He was
with his chickens.
"Le Mansel and I strolled several times around the garden and he
told me that at dinner, presently, I should see his grandmother, but
that I was to take no notice of what she said, as she was sometimes a
little out of her mind. Then he drew me aside into a pretty arbour and
"'I have written some verses about Tiphaine Raguel. I'll repeat them
to you some other time. You'll see, you'll see.'
"The dinner-bell rang and we went into the dining-room. M. Le Mansel
came in with a basket full of eggs.
"'Eighteen this morning,' he said, and his voice sounded like a
"A most delicious omelette was served. I was seated between Madame
Le Mansel, who was moaning under her crown, and her mother, an old
Normandy woman with round cheeks, who, having lost all her teeth,
smiled with her eyes. She seemed very attractive to me. While we were
eating roast-duck and chicken à la crème the good
lady told us some very amusing stories, and, in spite of what her
grandson had said, I did not observe that her mind was in the slightest
degree affected. On the contrary, she seemed to be the life of the
"After dinner we adjourned to a little sitting-room whose walnut
furniture was covered with yellow Utrecht velvet. An ornamental clock
between two candelabra decorated the mantelpiece, and on the top of its
black plinth, and protected and covered by a glass globe, was a red
egg. I do not know why, once having observed it, I should have examined
it so attentively. Children have such unaccountable curiosity. However,
I must say that the egg was of a most wonderful and magnificent colour.
It had no resemblance whatever to those Easter eggs dyed in the juice
of the beetroot, so much admired by the urchins who stare in at the
fruit-shops. It was of the colour of royal purple. And with the
indiscretion of my age I could not resist saying as much.
"M. Le Mansel's reply was a kind of crow which expressed his
"'That egg, young sir,' he added, 'has not been dyed as you seem to
think. It was laid by a Cingalese hen in my poultry-yard just as you
see it there. It is a phenomenal egg.'
"'You must not forget to say,' Madame Le Mansel added in a plaintive
voice, 'that this egg was laid the very day our Alexandre was
"'That's a fact,' M. Le Mansel assented.
"In the meantime the old grandmother looked at me with sarcastic
eyes, and pressed her loose lips together and made a sign that I was
not to believe what I heard.
"'Humph!' she whispered, 'chickens often sit on what they don't lay,
and if some malicious neighbour slips into their nest a----'
"Her grandson interrupted her fiercely. He was pale, and his hands
"'Don't listen to her,' he cried to me. 'You know what I told you.
"'It's a fact!' M. Le Mansel repeated, his round eye fixed in a side
glance at the red egg.
"My further connection with Alexandre Le Mansel contains nothing
worth relating. My friend often spoke of his verses to Tiphaine, but he
never showed them to me. Indeed, I very soon lost sight of him. My
mother sent me to Paris to finish my studies. I took my degree in two
faculties, and then I studied medicine. During the time that I was
preparing for my doctor's thesis I received a letter from my mother,
who told me that poor Alexandre had been very ailing, and that after a
serious attack he had become timid and excessively suspicious; that,
however, he was quite harmless, and in spite of the disordered state of
his health and reason he showed an extraordinary appetite for
mathematics. There was nothing in these tidings to surprise me. Often,
as I studied the diseases of the nervous centres, my mind reverted to
my poor friend at Saint Julien, and in spite of myself I foresaw for
him the general paralysis which inevitably threatened the offspring of
a mother racked by chronic headaches and a rheumatic, addle-brained
"The sequel, however, did not, apparently, prove me to be in the
right. Alexandre Le Mansel, as I heard from Avranches, regained his
normal health, and as he grew towards manhood gave active proof of the
brilliancy of his intellect. He worked with ardour at his mathematical
studies, and he even sent to the Academy of Sciences solutions of
several problems hitherto unsolved, which were found to be as elegant
as they were accurate. Absorbed in his work, he rarely found time to
write to me. His letters were affectionate, clear, and to the point,
and nothing could be found in them to arouse the mistrust of the most
suspicious neurologist. However, very soon after this our
correspondence ceased, and I heard nothing more of him for the next ten
"Last year I was greatly surprised when my servant brought me the
card of Alexandre Le Mansel, and said that the gentleman was waiting
for me in the ante-room.
"I was in my study consulting with a colleague on a matter of some
importance. However, I begged him to excuse me for a moment while I
hurried to greet my old friend. I found he had grown very old, bald,
haggard, and terribly emaciated. I took him by the arm and led him into
"'I am glad to see you again,' he said, 'and I have much to tell
you. I am exposed to the most unheard-of persecutions. But I have
courage, and I shall struggle bravely, and I shall triumph over my
"These words disquieted me, as they would have disquieted in my
place any other nerve specialist. I recognised a symptom of the disease
which, by the fatal laws of heredity, menaced my friend, and which had
appeared to be checked.
"'My dear friend,' I said, 'we will talk about that presently. Wait
here a moment. I just want to finish something. In the meantime take a
book and amuse yourself.'
"You know I have a great number of books, and my drawing-room
contains about six thousand volumes in three mahogany book-cases. Why,
then, should my unfortunate friend choose the very one likely to do him
harm, and open it at that fatal page? I conferred some twenty minutes
longer with my colleague, and having taken leave of him I returned to
the room where I had left Le Mansel. I found the unfortunate man in the
most fearful condition. He struck a book that lay open before him,
which I at once recognised as a translation of the Historia
Augusta. He recited at the top of his voice this sentence of
"'On the day of the birth of Alexander Severus, a chicken, belonging
to the father of the newly-born, laid a red egg--augury of the imperial
purple to which the child was destined.'
"His excitement increased to fury. He foamed at the mouth. He cried:
'The egg, the egg of the day of my birth. I am an Emperor. I know that
you want to kill me. Keep away, you wretch!' He strode down the room,
then, returning, came towards me with open arms. 'My friend,' he said,
'my old comrade, what do you wish me to bestow on you? An Emperor--an
Emperor...My father was right...the red egg. I must be an Emperor!
Scoundrel, why did you hide this book from me? This is a crime of high
treason; it shall be punished! I shall be Emperor! Emperor! Yes, it is
"He was gone. In vain I tried to detain him. He escaped me. You know
the rest. All the newspapers have described how, after leaving me, he
bought a revolver and blew out the brains of the sentry who tried to
prevent his forcing his way into the Elysée.
"And thus it happens that a sentence written by a Latin historian of
the fourth century was the cause, fifteen hundred years after, of the
death in our country of a wretched private soldier. Who will ever
disentangle the web of cause and effect?
"Who can venture to say, as he accomplishes some simple act: 'I know
what I am doing.' My dear friend, this is all I have to tell. The rest
is of no interest except in medical statistics. Le Mansel, shut up in
an insane asylum, remained for fifteen days a prey to the most violent
mania. Whereupon he fell into a state of complete imbecility, during
which he became so greedy that he even devoured the wax with which they
polished the floor. Three months later he was suffocated while trying
to swallow a sponge."
The doctor ceased and lighted a cigarette. After a moment of
silence, I said to him, "You have told me a terrible story,
"It is terrible," he replied, "but it is true. I should be glad of a