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 equally at home with all classes and equally welcome.
From one house to another, the pair continued that whole day. Everywhere the fields were carefully cultivated and the stock was cleanly housed. Laborers were busy clearing new land in the level spots and draining marshes. Everywhere the peasants gave credit to Benassis for inspiration.
Near evening, the two men called on La Fosseuse, a strange but beautiful girl who lived alone. She was supported by Benassis, for she had no talent with which to...
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earn a living. Left an orphan, she had been brought up in a rich household, but the family had cast her out when she was sixteen years old. For years she had been forced to beg. Her body was frail, and her spirit was changeable. All she could do was sew, but her attention wandered often, and she seldom did much work. Genestas was impressed by the great devotion La Fosseuse showed toward Benassis.
That evening at dinner, Genestas met the priest, the notary, the former mayor, and the justice of the peace. These dignitaries also showed great faith in Benassis’ leadership. The doctor was truly a great man.
On impulse Benassis confided to Genestas the secret of his life. Benassis had been born into a rich family. His father had sent him to good schools and eventually to Paris to study medicine. At first, Benassis was a willing student, but before long, he lost interest in his studies. Because his strict father gave him only a small allowance, the carefree life of Paris was far beyond his reach. He met a devoted young girl and lived with her in contentment. Under her influence he regained his zest for work.
When his father died, Benassis inherited a fortune. On his return to Paris, he was determined to cut a social figure, and he quickly ran through the inheritance after casting off his devoted mistress. Two years later, learning that the girl was dying, he went to see her. He made her a deathbed promise that he would care faithfully for their son.
Soon afterward he fell in love with the young daughter of a very religious family. On the advice of an older man, Benassis kept the story of his dead mistress and his child a secret, and the family came to look on him as a man of upright character and their own son. Finally his conscience forced him to tell the girl of his past; in sorrow, she renounced him. It was a crushing blow to Benassis. The final misfortune came when his son died. In expiation, Benassis had buried himself in the little village in the Grande Chartreuse and there devoted himself to the poor and miserable peasants of the region.
Genestas was moved by the story. A bond of sympathy with the doctor led him to tell his own story.
Genestas, with one of his friends, had been quartered in the house of a Jewish family in Poland after the retreat from Moscow. Judith, the daughter, had attracted him greatly, but she married his friend. Shortly afterward, the friend was killed in battle, and Judith was left pregnant. Before his death, however, he asked Genestas to marry Judith and look after the baby. After much scheming, Genestas got Judith to Paris, where her son was born. Genestas married her on her deathbed and took her son as his own.
The boy, Adrien, was living with a tutor. He was well educated but in poor health. Although he was sixteen years old, he looked twelve. Genestas wanted Benassis to take the boy into his own home and rebuild his health. After seeing Adrien, Benassis declared he was only run-down, not consumptive, as had been feared. Benassis let the boy run with the village hunter, and soon he was strong and healthy. His care of young Adrien was only one of his many good works throughout the countryside.
Genestas was given a regiment at Grenoble, his first real command. One day he received a letter from Adrien; Benassis was dead. Tired out, he had succumbed to a chill. Genestas hurried to the village and was told upon his arrival that Benassis had already been buried. Sorrowing workmen were erecting over his grave a huge mound topped with a monument. Weeping, La Fosseuse lay beside the grave.