The May Bug: The Story of its Capture

An anonymous translation of the story “Le Hanneton” by J.-H. Rosny. The original was published in La Revue De Paris Et De Saint-Petersbourg, and this translation appeared in The Omaha Daily Bee, 30. September 1888.

A burst of shrill laughter rang through the court-yard. A girl’s face looked from the barred window of a cell.
It was beautiful face – set in a glory of golden hair- the parted lips were like the petals of a young rose! But the laughter was the wild, terrible laughter of the mad.
“I have it?’ she screamed, exultantly.
“What?” asked the keeper.
The keeper was made of gross material. He had a loose skin, full of large, dirty pores like an old sponge – a thick, brutal nose, pierced by narrow nostrils and a wide mouth – red-lipped and cruel.
His eyes were small, hard, brilliant and singularly opaque. They looked like little bits of blue china. The girl’s eyes were blue also, but with the tender blue of turquoise, yet full of clear, liquid, changing lights like the sapphire. She was pale, delicate, exquisite! A beautiful casket bereft of its precious treasure – the mind.
“What?” asked the keeper.
“The May Bug!”
Tho keeper grinned and winked his blue china eyes. He had heard before of this May Bug – a chimerical insect which troubled him little. He was not a bad man – taking him altogether – a trifle over-fond of turning the cold shower on the poor wretches intrusted to his tender care – not averse to using a stout leather strap in the interest and welfare of the more refractory – and he often exercised a little judicious economy at their expense, in setting before his family the bread intended for his patients. Not a nerve lodged amidst the bone and brawn of his gigantic body! The most frantic struggles of the maniacs filled him with amusement.
The most furious ravings brought a smile to his great lips. Oh! He was very good-natured!
He approached the window. “”Where is it?” he asked, curiously and idly.
“It is here! here!’’ cried the girl, full of excitement. And she pointed to a hole in the wall of her cell.
A hole in the wall!
The excellent keeper was annoyed.
He frowned blackly. He entered the cell and struck the woman on the face.
“See that thou makest no more holes in the wall!” he said roughly.
She trembled violently. Her eyes darted strange lights but she said nothing. She did not even cry out, although the blow was a cruel one. She only watched, with jealous, angry eyes, as the keeper thrust three fingers into the hole. There was no insect there. He stood ruminating a moment, after the manner of beasts. Presently he began slowly to scratch his head. The woman made a sudden movement toward him.
“Give it to me!” she cried imperatively. “It is mine! I will have it!
You shall not put it in your head! Give it to me! Give it to me!”
“Hush, fool’ he said, and he raised his hand threateningly. She cowered away from him and crouching in the corner of the cell, began to cry bitterly, wiping her eyes, now and then on a strand of the long yellow hair that lay on her shoulders. As the keeper opened the door to go out a ray of sun light fell on his rough hair which curled thickly over his temples. The girl bounded suddenly after hin like a tiger.
“Is it there!” she shrieked, shrilly.
“Ah! the pretty thing! Do not crush it!” for the man raised his hand involuntarily to the spot she indicated with her outstretched fingers; then, recollecting himself, he turned on her fiercely, and advancing deliberately, as she retreated from him, until he had driven her again to her corner, he stood a moment quelling her with the cold power of his eyes. It was an instant’s silent struggle! The force of reason prevailed. She sank shuddering – conquered – -in the angle of the smooth stone wall.
“Good!” he said, gruffly. “And no more of holes in the wall, Dost thou hear? I shall look tomorrow and see if the hole grows larger in the night. Tomorrow – aye! and again the next day and the next!” He thrust his ugly face down to hers. She shivered and shrank nearer the wall. “”Good!” he said again. His tone was fatherly. It was pleasant to him to see his power.
Ah! they feared him -these poor, helpless, hopeless, miserable creatures.
He left the cell, turning his face toward her as he closed the door. At last, trembling ray from the setting sun died on the matted hair above his left temple. A tremor shook the delicate body huddled in the corner. More than two hours passed, and still the girl crouched there. Her little white fingers worked nervously. Her eyes were never still. Her brow was drawn in deep, painful lines, as though the poor disordered brain beneath made some great physical effort to form thought. And so the darkness fell.
With morning came the keeper.
“Is there a hole in the wall?” He laughed maliciously. “Then we can have no bread to day,” and the excellent man passed on well satisfied. Had ho not inflicted punishment when punishment was due? And, moreover, his family lived on the bread which cost him nothing.
June passed and July – long summer days when the sun lay in the court-yard and there was always a warm corner in cell No. 80, where the beautiful insane girl was kept. The keeper liked to go there and lounge in the afternoons. She was afraid of him, and he found her terror diverting. It pleased him to see her standing with downcast eyes sending out those strange gleams from under the deep-fringed lids – with heaving breast from which the breath labored heavily – with trembling fingers locked so tightly together that the little nails grew white with the cruel pressure. It was a tribute to his power. A more observant person might have seen something here to suspect – might have analyzed this fear and found in it a trace of danger – might have declared this attitude to be that of a person detected – or in fear of detection in wrong-doing.
But the keeper, good man, was not one to analyze. He examined all the cells daily. It may be that his examination was sometimes clumsy. But why should he suspect this child? Or suspecting, why should he fear her? A slender, white-faced cowering thing who could only pick a hole in the wall to hunt for an imaginary May Bug! A poor, weak imbecile creature who shook at the sound of his voice! The keeper would have called your analyst a fool for his pains!
There were times when the girl did not shrink from him, but, instead, greeted him with her charming, childish smile. Then, were he in a good humor, he would talk with her. Truly a strange duet, this, between the man without intellect and the woman without reason. An interesting study of chiaroscuro, where the ideal subtlety of the maniac stood out intensely against the brutish, unimaginative stolidity of the keeper. Often his rough voice, like the bellowing of a bull, frightened her, but she listened to him with her adorable smile, and only when he turned his eyes away did that strange expression leap into her, the greedy, jealous light burn in the eyes which, stealthily, she raised to the ragged clumps of hair which lay upon his temples. Once he surprised the glance. He laughed loudly, derisively. He had not altogether forgotten the May Bug.
“Aha!” he laughed, “dost seek thy treasure? Oh! Oh! the fool! the idiot!
the lunatic! Oh! I have it! Here” tapping his forehead suggestively, and blinking his blue, china eyes, “here: I keep it safely!”
The girl made a sudden, uncontrollable movement as if she would spring upon him, and the strange look deepened in her eyes – the look of passionate desire now mingled with rage and hatred of the man who kept from her what she coveted. The keeper was enchanted at the success of his pleasantry.
Still laughing, he rose, stretched his leg comfortably, and lounged over to the window. Outside the court lay flooded in the sunlight, a gray fowl minced across the flagging, pecking at the tufts of grass which forced themselves between the stones of the walk. The flowers in the square garden-plot in the center of the court gave up their sweetness languidly to the caress of tho warm air. The keeper gazed stolidly through the crating. His hard little eyes rested unblinkingly on a great metal ball on which the dazzling sunlight sported bravely.
Softly she came – softly, lightly! With cheeks aflame with the strength of her desire! With gleaming sapphire eyes!
With quivering nostrils and parted lips through which the breath fluttered tremulously! Softly she came, with her lithe young body swaying, and her little, trembling hands before her! In an instant her dainty fingers had twisted themselves in the man’s rough hair, jerked the great head backwards, and began a furious scratching in the grizzled mop over the left temple. The keeper flung himself around with an imprecation and sent the woman spinning against the wall.
“Insolence!” he roared, rushing upon her. “Dost thou dare, indeed” In the name of Reason – of which thou knowst naught – take this – and this!”’ He struck her a crushing blow with his clenched fist. She smothered a cry and crouched, still with dangerous look in her eyes – crouched as if to spring at his great brutal throat.
“Have a care!” he muttered, threateningly, rushing upon her again. Slowly her expression changed. The corners of her pretty mouth trembled. She put out one fist faintly. Then with more assurance, and moving gently forward, she looked up, shyly, into his scowling face as one who would implore forgiveness. It was the keeper. How ready she was to confess his power!
How eager to sue his pardon! He was mollified.
“There!” said he, “no more of thy stupid tricks, fool!” And he went away.
The summer waned. No. 80 seemed dull and sober. She slept little, grew weak and thin, and, from out the pallor of her face, her great blue eyes shone unnaturally. She was silent for long hours at a time. She no longer talked of the lost May Bug. She looked like a student who seeks to solve great problems, and who loses his health and strength in long vigils. She left her bed at night and strange sounds were heard in her cell.
“She sleeps too warm, perhaps,” said the keeper: “give her a cooling shower!” And this merry follow bade them hold her under the icy douche until she fell, chilled and exhausted, to the ground. This occurred twice. After that there were no more nocturnal disturbances. The keeper chuckled.
“I know their tricks,” said he.
The girl became very quiet and circumspect. She began to manifest interest in objects about her. She was strangely observant, and occupied herself for hours in examining the scanty appointment of her cell. Once the keeper fancied he saw her fumbling with the bars of her grated window.
He went in and examined the place.
She watched him with stealthy eyes.
When he turned she spoke to him pleasantly. She was always gay with him now. The brave man never detected a false note in the clear, crystal tones of her laughter – his ear, like his eye, made no fine distinctions. After this episode, however, she was more prudent and gave no cause for suspicion.
She was thoughtful – oh! very thoughtful at times preoccupied but patient, good-tempered and obedient. Soon she began to talk rationally, and answered all questions with sense and judgment.
One day, in, the late fall, the keeper summoned the doctor.
“If Monsieur the Doctor would call and see No. 80, who seems quite recovered?”
Monsieur the Doctor called. But Monsieur the Doctor was, as it happened, an old and skillful practitioner, who for many years had studied every form of insanity under the light of his own interests. Monsieur the Doctor had no intention of speedily ridding the asylum of any patient who materially increased his income.
“H’m:” said the doctor, “wait a while longer! It is best to be Prudent”
“The girl is harmless?”
“Perfectly so!”
“She can be given a little liberty?”
“Assuredly, yes! She is quite harmless!” and the worthy physician smiled and rubbed his hands softly together, and, thinking of the clear, quiet eyes which met his own so steadily, the cool hand which rested obediently in his, the girl’s normal, composed manner, repeated to himself, “Oh, certainly! Quite harmless!”
It was after this that the keeper made himself easy. The examination of cell No. 80 was no longer considered necessary. No. 80 herself grow paler and ate but little. This could scarcely be said to distress the keeper, whose family profited thereby. Winter came, and from her grated window the poor young creature watched the year grow grey.
A few withered leaves fluttered in through the casement and she treasured them – poor dead things! They were redolent of the free life beyond cruel bars. The swallows in the courtyard complained shrilly of hunger, and beneath the eaves they huddled, pluming themselves and giving piteous little cries. She would have liked to have fed them, but the family of the keeper could use even the crumbs, and, harshly, he forbade her to waste good bread.
She was now very thin and her eyes were brilliant with fever – that consuming mental fever which burns in the eyes of all great toilers who fancy they see near them the desired end for which they have striven long and patiently.
Now came the long winter nights, when the white moonlight lay on the floor of the cell. The girl hated the moon. It was a great Eye, she thought.
Calm, impartial, all-seeing, why did it watch and watch, and wait and wait, the night through to see what she would do? And it was so cold – ah! so cold! And she turned her back to the window and crept to her bed, drawing the covers up over her head to shut out the hateful Eye. And at last it went away, and there were long dark hours when its silver face was hidden, and at last she could move stealthily about her cell at night, could go on, silently and swiftly, with the great work she had been planning, without feeling continually spying upon her the cold stare of this mysterious enemy. By this time she had won the entire confidence of the keeper.
She was so patient and docile.
Ah? more patient than this good man guessed, and more cautious, too, and more furtive!
And; at last, it happened on a cold, black night when the heavens were overcast by threatening clouds, and all earth’s creatures sought shelter from the bitter touch of Winter’s hand, a light figure crept between the loosened bars of a cell window and dropped noiselessly to the ground. Swift and straight it took its way across the court, never swerving, never hesitating in spite of the impenetrable darkness; for in the slow elaboration of this mighty idea, all had been calculated – recalculated – with the triple patience which comes of madness, of solitude and of imprisonment.
Veiled in the darkness, No. 80 took her silent way past the square garden-plot.
She moved with the noiselessness and the certainty of a cat. She never stopped, but as she moved rapidly she lifted her face to the free night air as if she loved it and had longed for it. Her face was like a moon beam against the shadows of the night. Its peculiar pallor seemed to radiate a faint, unearthly light. Almost as if she wore conscious of this, she bent her head and quickly covered her face with her long hair.
She passed on in the shadow of the asylum walls and paused before the keeper’s quarters. Here there was a small door. Well she knew it! Long and patiently had she waited to hear from some one through which door she must pass to accomplish her grand purpose.
She stood hero listening for an instant, then thrust into the keyhole something she held tightly in her hand. There was a faint clicking sound – then a sharp squeak, which might have been made by a mouse, and a little rectangle of darkness opened before her.
Silence!
The clouds gathered thickly over the mournful walls of the asylum. A wild night-wind sobbed in the gaunt arms of the leafless trees in the court-yard. A single star trembled for an instant in the black mass of moving clouds and was gone.
Suddenly a woman’s sharp cry smote the night air. It seemed to come from the keeper’s quarters, but one could scarcely tell whence it began, for it was instantly caught up by the startled creatures in the asylum and passed on from one to another with varying and terrible modulations of fear, of anger, of insensate joy! The night was soon hideous with their cries! The panic spread! From every cell came curses, shrieks, groans, wailings and sobbings: the sickening sound of human bodies beating against the invincible bars which held the captive; despairing cries mingled with snatches of obscene song.
Tho sonorous voice of some frenzied orator delivering his theories; the heartbreaking prayers of maniacs begging to be delivered from imaginary tortures, all the horrors of the bestial scene, indescribable as it is awful, enacted in these living hells where men and women live the lives of caged brutes, forsaken by Reason, and, seemingly, by God. The doors opened, and the director of the asylum made his appearance among the keepers. His face was pale.
This was unusually bad, he thought, even for the violent wards. Awakened from a deep sleep by the horrible uproar, he had feared a general riot among the patients. Suddenly a woman appeared at the end of the passage. She was in her night robe. She held a candle in her hand, and two children clung to her skirts.
“Here! Monsieur the Director! Here!
And oh! come quickly!”
The director moved toward her. He recognized tho wife of the keeper, Desambre.
Well?” he questioned briefly.
The woman began a mournful litany, broken by fitful sobbing. Alas! She could hardly tell! She had been sleeping! There had been something – she knew not what! Her husband had bounded up in the bed, had given a heavy groan, had fallen back on his pillow! Then a dark thing had sprung from the bed right by her side, glided across the room down tho stairs, perhaps – who knows? She had been unable to rouse her good man! Would not Monsieur the Director come to him?
Alas! Alas! And again – alas!
Tho director followed the woman to a room in the keeper’s quarters.
On the bed lay the body of the man Desambre.
Tho face was hideous. The eyes squinted horribly. The mouth was open. The teeth had closed upon the tongue.
“Alas! Alas!” wailed the woman.
The director examined the body.
A small brad had been driven through the left temple, obliquely into the skull.
There was no blood. The clumps of grizzled hair nearly concealed the wound. The nail was a slender thing, without a head, but it had been driven home with deadly force. A fine scratch extended to the eyebrow. It looked as if something had been picked from the wound and drawn sharply across the knotty forehead.
“The man is dead – quite dead,” said tho director, gravely.
He left the woman howling over the corpse. and notified the keeper.
“We will make the rounds immediately.”
The procession of lights moving up and down tho corridors was a grand festival for the maniacs. They had grown quieter under the forcible measures employed by the keepers, and now they gave fierce cries of pleasure. Only a few were enraged, and a few were sullen.
Number 80 was asleep.
The director bent over her bed with the lamp in his hand.
The light awakened her. She rubbed her eyes with one little hand. Then she smiled her adorable smile. The beautiful eyes were clear and serene – her face was joyous. She pushed back her glorious hair and raised herself a little from the pillow. Then she held out the other hand. It was tightly closed, as if something of great value. Slowly she extended the fingers that the director might see what she held. The little pink palm was empty. But she saw something there. She was quite satisfied.
“I have it,” she whispered, triumphantly.
The director patted her hand kindly.
You are dreaming!”’
He gave a cursory glance at the grating as he passed. He touched the bars at the window.
“Nothing wrong here,” said this wise and experienced man. “The girl has slept well.”