Pierre Joseph Genestas had long been a simple soldier. He always did his duty well and silently; this lack of ostentation and his reserved nature made his promotion slow. He had followed Napoleon from Egypt to Moscow, but the monarchy showed him little gratitude or recognition for his services. Now he rode slowly along a mountain road in the direction of the Grande Chartreuse to seek out Dr. Benassis.
A rather sullen peasant woman gave him a drink of milk and pointed out Benassis’ house, but when he got there the doctor was out. When he finally found the man he sought, Genestas came upon a strange scene. A cretin was on his deathbed in a miserable hovel. It seemed to Genestas that the whole village must have crowded around the humble cottage in a remote section of the town, for they regarded the dying cretin with superstitious awe. As the religious procession entered the hut, Genestas and the doctor took their leave. The soldier was curious about what he had seen. Benassis told him that not long before he had been stoned in the same poor quarter of the town.
Eight years ago, when Benassis first came to practice in the village, the place had only seven hundred inhabitants; now there were two thousand. At one time the district where the cretin died had been a settlement of mental defectives. Benassis, as the only health official in the town, had condemned the district and removed all but one of the cretins to an asylum. This change had been accomplished against the will of the village, but gradually the inhabitants had come to understand the doctor’s unselfish wisdom.
Although the village was not far from Grenoble, the peasants could not trade with the big city because there was no road between the town and the village. Benassis’ first project had been to build a road across the valley. Now it was a broad, straight highway lined with Lombardy poplars, and the peasants’ carts went constantly to Grenoble with produce.
Benassis, having been elected mayor, was shrewd enough to get the former mayor on his side. Many projects, all encouraged and financed by the mayor, brought jobs and money to the town. There were tile works, an osier-basket works, a mill, and many more farms. With selfless devotion, the mayor had built up both the population and the prosperity of the village.
On the excuse that his old wounds needed attention, Genestas arranged to stay for a time with the mayor. When he was ready to go to bed the first night, he found his own room comfortable, even luxurious. By contrast, Benassis’ room was monastic in simplicity. Genestas resolved to pierce the secret of this strange doctor-mayor.
In the morning, Genestas made the rounds with his doctor host. They visited two houses of mourning where the fathers had just died. Among the poorer folk, death was a natural occurrence; among the richer people, the father’s death was a sign for much lamentation, many visitors, and elaborate mourning garments. The contrast emphasized the fact that Benassis was...
(The entire section is 1240 words.)