Part 2 out of 4
And, indeed, certain of these faces, with their monstrous, insane
eyes, certain of these swollen, deformed bodies resembling carafes,
induced in Des Esseintes recollections of typhoid, memories of
feverish nights and of the shocking visions of his infancy which
persisted and would not be suppressed.
Seized with an indefinable uneasiness in the presence of these
sketches, the same sensation caused by certain _Proverbs_ of Goya
which they recalled, or by the reading of Edgar Allen Poe's tales,
whose mirages of hallucination and effects of fear Odilon Redon seemed
to have transposed to a different art, he rubbed his eyes and turned
to contemplate a radiant figure which, amid these tormenting sketches,
arose serene and calm--a figure of Melancholy seated near the disk of
a sun, on the rocks, in a dejected and gloomy posture.
The shadows were dispersed as though by an enchantment. A charming
sadness, a languid and desolate feeling flowed through him. He
meditated long before this work which, with its dashes of paint
flecking the thick crayon, spread a brilliance of sea-green and of
pale gold among the protracted darkness of the charcoal prints.
In addition to this series of the works of Redon which adorned nearly
every panel of the passage, he had hung a disturbing sketch by El
Greco in his bedroom. It was a Christ done in strange tints, in a
strained design, possessing a wild color and a disordered energy: a
picture executed in the painter's second manner when he had been
tormented by the necessity of avoiding imitation of Titian.
This sinister painting, with its wax and sickly green tones, bore an
affinity to certain ideas Des Esseintes had with regard to furnishing
According to him, there were but two ways of fitting a bedroom. One
could either make it a sense-stimulating alcove, a place for nocturnal
delights, or a cell for solitude and repose, a retreat for thought, a
sort of oratory.
For the first instance, the Louis XV style was inevitable for the
fastidious, for the cerebrally morbid. Only the eighteenth century had
succeeded in enveloping woman with a vicious atmosphere, imitating her
contours in the undulations and twistings of wood and copper,
accentuating the sugary languor of the blond with its clear and lively
_decors_, attenuating the pungency of the brunette with its tapestries
of aqueous, sweet, almost insipid tones.
He had once had such a room in Paris, with a lofty, white, lacquered
bed which is one stimulant the more, a source of depravity to old
roues, leering at the false chastity and hypocritical modesty of
Greuze's tender virgins, at the deceptive candor of a bed evocative of
babes and chaste maidens.
For the second instance,--and now that he wished to put behind him the
irritating memories of his past life, this was the only possible
expedient--he was compelled to design a room that would be like a
monastic cell. But difficulties faced him here, for he refused to
accept in its entirety the austere ugliness of those asylums of
penitence and prayer.
By dint of studying the problem in all its phases, he concluded that
the end to be attained could thus be stated: to devise a sombre effect
by means of cheerful objects, or rather to give a tone of elegance and
distinction to the room thus treated, meanwhile preserving its
character of ugliness; to reverse the practice of the theatre, whose
vile tinsel imitates sumptuous and costly textures; to obtain the
contrary effect by use of splendid fabrics; in a word, to have the
cell of a Carthusian monk which should possess the appearance of
reality without in fact being so.
Thus he proceeded. To imitate the stone-color of ochre and clerical
yellow, he had his walls covered with saffron silk; to stimulate the
chocolate hue of the dadoes common to this type of room, he used
pieces of violet wood deepened with amarinth. The effect was
bewitching, while recalling to Des Esseintes the repellant rigidity of
the model he had followed and yet transformed. The ceiling, in turn,
was hung with white, unbleached cloth, in imitation of plaster, but
without its discordant brightness. As for the cold pavement of the
cell, he was able to copy it, by means of a bit of rug designed in red
squares, with whitish spots in the weave to imitate the wear of
sandals and the friction of boots.
Into this chamber he introduced a small iron bed, the kind used by
monks, fashioned of antique, forged and polished iron, the head and
foot adorned with thick filigrees of blossoming tulips enlaced with
vine branches and leaves. Once this had been part of a balustrade of
an old hostel's superb staircase.
For his table, he installed an antique praying-desk the inside of
which could contain an urn and the outside a prayer book. Against the
wall, opposite it, he placed a church pew surmounted by a tall dais
with little benches carved out of solid wood. His church tapers were
made of real wax, procured from a special house which catered
exclusively to houses of worship, for Des Esseintes professed a
sincere repugnance to gas, oil and ordinary candles, to all modern
forms of illumination, so gaudy and brutal.
Before going to sleep in the morning, he would gaze, with his head on
the pillows, at his El Greco whose barbaric color rebuked the smiling,
yellow material and recalled it to a more serious tone. Then he could
easily imagine himself living a hundred leagues removed from Paris,
far from society, in cloistral security.
And, all in all, the illusion was not difficult, since he led an
existence that approached the life of a monk. Thus he had the
advantages of monasticism without the inconveniences of its vigorous
discipline, its lack of service, its dirt, its promiscuity and its
monotonous idleness. Just as he had transformed his cell into a
comfortable chamber, so had he made his life normal, pleasant,
surrounded by comforts, occupied and free.
Like a hermit he was ripe for isolation, since life harassed him and
he no longer desired anything of it. Again like a monk, he was
depressed and in the grip of an obsessing lassitude, seized with the
need of self-communion and with a desire to have nothing in common
with the profane who were, for him, the utilitarian and the imbecile.
Although he experienced no inclination for the state of grace, he felt
a genuine sympathy for those souls immured in monasteries, persecuted
by a vengeful society which can forgive neither the merited scorn with
which it inspires them, nor the desire to expiate, to atone by long
silences, for the ever growing shamelessness of its ridiculous or
Ever since the night when he had evoked, for no apparent reason, a
whole train of melancholy memories, pictures of his past life returned
to Des Esseintes and gave him no peace.
He found himself unable to understand a single word of the books he
read. He could not even receive impressions through his eyes. It
seemed to him that his mind, saturated with literature and art,
refused to absorb any more.
He lived within himself, nourished by his own substance, like some
torpid creature which hibernates in caves. Solitude had reacted upon
his brain like a narcotic. After having strained and enervated it, his
mind had fallen victim to a sluggishness which annihilated his plans,
broke his will power and invoked a cortege of vague reveries to which
he passively submitted.
The confused medley of meditations on art and literature in which he
had indulged since his isolation, as a dam to bar the current of old
memories, had been rudely swept away, and the onrushing, irresistible
wave crashed into the present and future, submerging everything
beneath the blanket of the past, filling his mind with an immensity of
sorrow, on whose surface floated, like futile wreckage, absurd trifles
and dull episodes of his life.
The book he held in his hands fell to his knees. He abandoned himself
to the mood which dominated him, watching the dead years of his life
filled with so many disgusts and fears, move past. What a life he had
lived! He thought of the evenings spent in society, the horse races,
card parties, love affairs ordered in advance and served at the stroke
of midnight, in his rose-colored boudoir! He recalled faces,
expressions, vain words which obsessed him with the stubbornness of
popular melodies which one cannot help humming, but which suddenly and
inexplicably end by boring one.
This phase had not lasted long. His memory gave him respite and he
plunged again into his Latin studies, so as to efface the impressions
of such recollections.
But almost instantly the rushing force of his memories swept him into
a second phase, that of his childhood, especially of the years spent
at the school of the Fathers.
Although more remote, they were more positive and more indelibly
stamped on his brain. The leafy park, the long walks, the flower beds,
the benches--all the actual details of the monastery rose before him,
here in his room.
The gardens filled and he heard the ringing cries of the students,
mingling with the laughter of the professors as they played tennis,
with their cassocks tucked up between their knees, or perhaps chatted
under the trees with the youngsters, without any posturing or hauteur,
as though they were companions of the same age.
He recalled the easy yoke of the monks who declined to administer
punishment by inflicting the committment of five hundred or a thousand
lines while the others were at play, being satisfied with making those
delinquents prepare the lesson that had not been mastered, and most
often simply having recourse to a gentle admonition. They surrounded
the children with an active but gentle watch, seeking to please them,
consenting to whatever expeditions they wished to take on Tuesdays,
taking the occasion of every minor holiday not formally observed by
the Church to add cakes and wine to the ordinary fare, and to
entertain them with picnics. It was a paternal discipline whose
success lay in the fact that they did not seek to domineer over the
pupils, that they gossiped with them, treating them as men while
showering them with the attentions paid a spoiled child.
In this manner, the monks succeeded in assuming a real influence over
the youngsters; in molding, to some extent, the minds which they were
cultivating; in directing them, in a sense; in instilling special
ideas; in assuring the growth of their thoughts by insinuating,
wheedling methods with which they continued to flatter them throughout
their careers, taking pains not to lose sight of them in their later
life, and by sending them affectionate letters like those which the
Dominican Lacordaire so skillfully wrote to his former pupils of
Des Esseintes took note of this system which had been so fruitlessly
expended on him. His stubborn, captious and inquisitive character,
disposed to controversies, had prevented him from being modelled by
their discipline or subdued by their lessons. His scepticism had
increased after he left the precincts of the college. His association
with a legitimist, intolerant and shallow society, his conversations
with unintelligent church wardens and abbots, whose blunders tore away
the veil so subtly woven by the Jesuits, had still more fortified his
spirit of independence and increased his scorn for any faith whatever.
He had deemed himself free of all bonds and constraints. Unlike most
graduates of _lycees_ or private schools, he had preserved a vivid
memory of his college and of his masters. And now, as he considered
these matters, he asked himself if the seeds sown until now on barren
soil were not beginning to take root.
For several days, in fact, his soul had been strangely perturbed. At
moments, he felt himself veering towards religion. Then, at the
slightest approach of reason, his faith would dissolve. Yet he
remained deeply troubled.
Analyzing himself, he was well aware that he would never possess a
truly Christian spirit of humility and penitence. He knew without a
doubt that he would never experience that moment of grace mentioned by
Lacordaire, "when the last shaft of light penetrates the soul and
unites the truths there lying dispersed." He never felt the need of
mortification and of prayer, without which no conversion in possible,
if one is to believe the majority of priests. He had no desire to
implore a God whose forgiveness seemed most improbable. Yet the
sympathy he felt for his old teachers lent him an interest in their
works and doctrines. Those inimitable accents of conviction, those
ardent voices of men of indubitably superior intelligence returned to
him and led him to doubt his own mind and strength. Amid the solitude
in which he lived, without new nourishment, without any fresh
experiences, without any renovation of thought, without that exchange
of sensations common to society, in this unnatural confinement in
which he persisted, all the questionings forgotten during his stay in
Paris were revived as active irritants. The reading of his beloved
Latin works, almost all of them written by bishops and monks, had
doubtless contributed to this crisis. Enveloped in a convent-like
atmosphere, in a heady perfume of incense, his nervous brain had grown
excitable. And by an association of ideas, these books had driven back
the memories of his life as a young man, revealing in full light the
years spent with the Fathers.
"There is no doubt about it," Des Esseintes mused, as he reasoned the
matter and followed the progress of this introduction of the Jesuitic
spirit into Fontenay. "Since my childhood, although unaware of it, I
have had this leaven which has never fermented. The weakness I have
always borne for religious subjects is perhaps a positive proof of
it." But he sought to persuade himself to the contrary, disturbed at
no longer being his own master. He searched for motives; it had
required a struggle for him to abandon things sacerdotal, since the
Church alone had treasured objects of art--the lost forms of past
ages. Even in its wretched modern reproductions, she had preserved the
contours of the gold and silver ornaments, the charm of chalices
curving like petunias, and the charm of pyxes with their chaste sides;
even in aluminum and imitation enamels and colored glasses, she had
preserved the grace of vanished modes. In short, most of the precious
objects now to be found in the Cluny museum, which have miraculously
escaped the crude barbarism of the philistines, come from the ancient
French abbeys. And just as the Church had preserved philosophy and
history and letters from barbarism in the Middle Ages, so had she
saved the plastic arts, bringing to our own days those marvelous
fabrics and jewelries which the makers of sacred objects spoil to the
best of their ability, without being able to destroy the originally
exquisite form. It followed, then, that there was nothing surprising
in his having bought these old trinkets, in his having, together with
a number of other collectors, purchased such relics from the antique
shops of Paris and the second-hand dealers of the provinces.
But these reasons he evoked in vain. He did not wholly succeed in
convincing himself. He persisted in considering religion as a superb
legend, a magnificent imposture. Yet, despite his convictions, his
scepticism began to be shattered.
This was the singular fact he was obliged to face: he was less
confident now than in childhood, when he had been directly under the
influence of the Jesuits, when their instruction could not be shunned,
when he was in their hands and belonged to them body and soul, without
family ties, with no outside influence powerful enough to counteract
their precepts. Moreover, they had inculcated in him a certain
tendency towards the marvelous which, interned and exercised in the
close quarters of his fixed ideas, had slowly and obscurely developed
in his soul, until today it was blossoming in his solitude, affecting
his spirit, regardless of arguments.
By examining the process of his reasoning, by seeking to unite its
threads and to discover its sources and causes, he concluded that his
previous mode of living was derived from the education he had
received. Thus, his tendencies towards artificiality and his craving
for eccentricity, were no more than the results of specious studies,
spiritual refinements and quasi-theological speculations. They were,
in the last analysis, ecstacies, aspirations towards an ideal, towards
an unknown universe as desirable as that promised us by the Holy
He curbed his thoughts sharply and broke the thread of his
"Well!" he thought, vexed, "I am even more affected than I had
imagined. Here am I arguing with myself like a very casuist!"
He was left pensive, agitated by a vague fear. Certainly, if
Lacordaire's theory were sound, he had nothing to be afraid of, since
the magic touch of conversion is not to be consummated in a moment. To
bring about the explosion, the ground must be constantly and
assiduously mined. But just as the romancers speak of the thunderclap
of love, so do theologians also speak of the thunderclap of
conversion. No one was safe, should one admit the truth of this
doctrine. There was no longer any need of self-analysis, of paying
heed to presentiments, of taking preventive measures. The psychology
of mysticism was void. Things were so because they were so, and that
"I am really becoming stupid," thought Des Esseintes. "The very fear
of this malady will end by bringing it on, if this continues."
He partially succeeded in shaking off this influence. The memories of
his life with the Jesuits waned, only to be replaced by other
thoughts. He was entirely dominated by morbid abstractions. Despite
himself, he thought of the contradictory interpretations of the
dogmas, of the lost apostasies of Father Labbe, recorded in the works
on the Decrees. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies
which for centuries had divided the Churches of the Orient and the
Occident, returned to him.
Here, Nestorius denied the title of "Mother of God" to the Virgin
because, in the mystery of the Incarnation, it was not God but rather
a human being she had nourished in her womb; there, Eutyches declared
that Christ's image could not resemble that of other men, since
divinity had chosen to dwell in his body and had consequently entirely
altered the form of everything. Other quibblers maintained that the
Redeemer had had no body at all and that this expression of the holy
books must be taken figuratively, while Tertullian put forth his
famous, semi-materialistic axiom: "Only that which is not, has no
body; everything which is, has a body fitting it." Finally, this
ancient question, debated for years, demanded an answer: was Christ
hanged on the cross, or was it the Trinity which had suffered as one
in its triple hypostasis, on the cross at Calvary? And mechanically,
like a lesson long ago learned, he proposed the questions to himself
and answered them.
For several days his brain was a swarm of paradoxes, subtleties and
hair-splittings, a skein of rules as complicated as the articles of
the codes that involved the sense of everything, indulged in puns and
ended in a most tenuous and singular celestial jurisprudence. The
abstract side vanished, in its turn, and under the influence of the
Gustave Moreau paintings of the wall, yielded to a concrete succession
Before him he saw marching a procession of prelates. The
archimandrites and patriarchs, their white beards waving during the
reading of the prayers, lifted golden arms to bless kneeling throngs.
He saw silent files of penitents marching into dim crypts. Before him
rose vast cathedrals where white monks intoned from pulpits. Just as
De Quincey, having taken a dose of opium and uttered the word "Consul
Romanus," evoked entire pages of Livius, and beheld the solemn advance
of the consuls and the magnificent, pompous march of the Roman armies,
so he, at a theological expression, paused breathless as he viewed the
onrush of penitents and the churchly apparitions which detached
themselves from the glowing depths of the basilica. These scenes held
him enchanted. They moved from age to age, culminating in the modern
religious ceremonies, bathing his soul in a tender, mournful infinity
On this plane, no reasonings were necessary; there were no further
contests to be endured. He had an indescribable impression of respect
and fear. His artistic sense was conquered by the skillfully
calculated Catholic rituals. His nerves quivered at these memories.
Then, in sudden rebellion, in a sudden reversion, monstrous ideas were
born in him, fancies concerning those sacrileges warned against by the
manual of the Father confessors, of the scandalous, impure desecration
of holy water and sacred oil. The Demon, a powerful rival, now stood
against an omnipotent God. A frightful grandeur seemed to Des
Esseintes to emanate from a crime committed in church by a believer
bent, with blasphemously horrible glee and sadistic joy, over such
revered objects, covering them with outrages and saturating them in
Before him were conjured up the madnesses of magic, of the black mass,
of the witches' revels, of terrors of possessions and of exorcisms. He
reached the point where he wondered if he were not committing a
sacrilege in possessing objects which had once been consecrated: the
Church canons, chasubles and pyx covers. And this idea of a state of
sin imparted to him a mixed sensation of pride and relief. The
pleasures of sacrilege were unravelled from the skein of this idea,
but these were debatable sacrileges, in any case, and hardly serious,
since he really loved these objects and did not pollute them by
misuse. In this wise he lulled himself with prudent and cowardly
thoughts, the caution of his soul forbidding obvious crimes and
depriving him of the courage necessary to the consummation of
frightful and deliberate sins.
Little by little this tendency to ineffectual quibbling disappeared.
In his mind's eye he saw the panorama of the Church with its
hereditary influence on humanity through the centuries. He imagined it
as imposing and suffering, emphasizing to man the horror of life, the
infelicity of man's destiny; preaching patience, penitence and the
spirit of sacrifice; seeking to heal wounds, while it displayed the
bleeding wounds of Christ; bespeaking divine privileges; promising the
richest part of paradise to the afflicted; exhorting humanity to
suffer and to render to God, like a holocaust, its trials and
offenses, its vicissitudes and pains. Thus the Church grew truly
eloquent, the beneficent mother of the oppressed, the eternal menace
of oppressors and despots.
Here, Des Esseintes was on firm ground. He was thoroughly satisfied
with this admission of social ordure, but he revolted against the
vague hope of remedy in the beyond. Schopenhauer was more true. His
doctrine and that of the Church started from common premises. He, too,
based his system on the vileness of the world; he, too, like the
author of the _Imitation of Christ_, uttered that grievous outcry:
"Truly life on earth is wretched." He, also, preached the nothingness
of life, the advantages of solitude, and warned humanity that no
matter what it does, in whatever direction it may turn, it must remain
wretched, the poor by reason of the sufferings entailed by want, the
rich by reason of the unconquerable weariness engendered by abundance;
but this philosophy promised no universal remedies, did not entice one
with false hopes, so as to minimize the inevitable evils of life.
He did not affirm the revolting conception of original sin, nor did he
feel inclined to argue that it is a beneficent God who protects the
worthless and wicked, rains misfortunes on children, stultifies the
aged and afflicts the innocent. He did not exalt the virtues of a
Providence which has invented that useless, incomprehensible, unjust
and senseless abomination, physical suffering. Far from seeking to
justify, as does the Church, the necessity of torments and
afflictions, he cried, in his outraged pity: "If a God has made this
world, I should not wish to be that God. The world's wretchedness
would rend my heart."
Ah! Schopenhauer alone was right. Compared with these treatises of
spiritual hygiene, of what avail were the evangelical pharmacopoeias?
He did not claim to cure anything, and he offered no alleviation to
the sick. But his theory of pessimism was, in the end, the great
consoler of choice intellects and lofty souls. He revealed society as
it is, asserted woman's inherent stupidity, indicated the safest
course, preserved you from disillusionment by warning you to restrain
hopes as much as possible, to refuse to yield to their allurement, to
deem yourself fortunate, finally, if they did not come toppling about
your ears at some unexpected moment.
Traversing the same path as the _Imitation_, this theory, too, ended
in similar highways of resignation and indifference, but without going
astray in mysterious labyrinths and remote roads.
But if this resignation, which was obviously the only outcome of the
deplorable condition of things and their irremediability, was open to
the spiritually rich, it was all the more difficult of approach to the
poor whose passions and cravings were more easily satisfied by the
benefits of religion.
These reflections relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden. The
aphorisms of the great German calmed his excited thoughts, and the
points of contact in these two doctrines helped him to correlate them;
and he could never forget that poignant and poetic Catholicism in
which he had bathed, and whose essence he had long ago absorbed.
These reversions to religion, these intimations of faith tormented him
particularly since the changes that had lately taken place in his
health. Their progress coincided with that of his recent nervous
He had been tortured since his youth by inexplicable aversions, by
shudderings which chilled his spine and made him grit his teeth, as,
for example, when he saw a girl wringing wet linen. These reactions
had long persisted. Even now he suffered poignantly when he heard the
tearing of cloth, the rubbing of a finger against a piece of chalk, or
a hand touching a bit of moire.
The excesses of his youthful life, the exaggerated tension of his mind
had strangely aggravated his earliest nervous disorder, and had
thinned the already impoverished blood of his race. In Paris, he had
been compelled to submit to hydrotherapic treatments for his trembling
fingers, frightful pains, neuralgic strokes which cut his face in two,
drummed maddeningly against his temples, pricked his eyelids
agonizingly and induced a nausea which could be dispelled only by
lying flat on his back in the dark.
These afflictions had gradually disappeared, thanks to a more
regulated and sane mode of living. They now returned in another form,
attacking his whole body. The pains left his head, but affected his
inflated stomach. His entrails seemed pierced by hot bars of iron. A
nervous cough racked him at regular intervals, awakening and almost
strangling him in his bed. Then his appetite forsook him; gaseous, hot
acids and dry heats coursed through his stomach. He grew swollen, was
choked for breath, and could not endure his clothes after each attempt
He shunned alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea, and drank only milk.
And he took recourse to baths of cold water and dosed himself with
assafoetida, valerian and quinine. He even felt a desire to go out,
and strolled about the country when the rainy days came to make it
desolate and still. He obliged himself to take exercise. As a last
resort, he temporarily abandoned his books and, corroded with ennui,
determined to make his listless life tolerable by realizing a project
he had long deferred through laziness and a dislike of change, since
his installment at Fontenay.
Being no longer able to intoxicate himself with the felicities of
style, with the delicious witchery of the rare epithet which, while
remaining precise, yet opens to the imagination of the initiate
infinite and distant vistas, he determined to give the finishing
touches to the decorations of his home. He would procure precious
hot-house flowers and thus permit himself a material occupation which
might distract him, calm his nerves and rest his brain. He also hoped
that the sight of their strange and splendid nuances would in some
degree atone for the fanciful and genuine colors of style which he was
for the time to lose from his literary diet.
He had always been passionately fond of flowers, but during his
residence at Jutigny, that love had been lavished upon flowers of all
sorts; he had never cultivated distinctions and discriminations in
regard to them. Now his taste in this direction had grown refined and
For a long time he had scorned the popular plants which grow in flat
baskets, in watered pots, under green awnings or under the red
parasols of Parisian markets.
Simultaneous with the refinement of his literary taste and his
preoccupations with art, which permitted him to be content only in the
presence of choice creations, distilled by subtly troubled brains, and
simultaneous with the weariness he began to feel in the presence of
popular ideas, his love for flowers had grown purged of all impurities
and lees, and had become clarified.
He compared a florist's shop to a microcosm wherein all the categories
of society are represented. Here are poor common flowers, the kind
found in hovels, which are truly at home only when resting on ledges
of garret windows, their roots thrust into milk bottles and old pans,
like the gilly-flower for example.
And one also finds stupid and pretentious flowers like the rose which
belongs in the porcelain flowerpots painted by young girls.
Then, there are flowers of noble lineage like the orchid, so delicate
and charming, at once cold and palpitating, exotic flowers exiled in
the heated glass palaces of Paris, princesses of the vegetable kingdom
living in solitude, having absolutely nothing in common with the
street plants and other bourgeois flora.
He permitted himself to feel a certain interest and pity only for the
popular flowers enfeebled by their nearness to the odors of sinks and
drains in the poor quarters. In revenge he detested the bouquets
harmonizing with the cream and gold rooms of pretentious houses. For
the joy of his eyes he reserved those distinguished, rare blooms which
had been brought from distant lands and whose lives were sustained by
artful devices under artificial equators.
But this very choice, this predilection for the conservatory plants
had itself changed under the influence of his mode of thought.
Formerly, during his Parisian days, his love for artificiality had led
him to abandon real flowers and to use in their place replicas
faithfully executed by means of the miracles performed with India
rubber and wire, calico and taffeta, paper and silk. He was the
possessor of a marvelous collection of tropical plants, the result of
the labors of skilful artists who knew how to follow nature and
recreate her step by step, taking the flower as a bud, leading it to
its full development, even imitating its decline, reaching such a
point of perfection as to convey every nuance--the most fugitive
expressions of the flower when it opens at dawn and closes at evening,
observing the appearance of the petals curled by the wind or rumpled
by the rain, applying dew drops of gum on its matutinal corollas;
shaping it in full bloom, when the branches bend under the burden of
their sap, or showing the dried stem and shrivelled cupules, when
calyxes are thrown off and leaves fall to the ground.
This wonderful art had held him entranced for a long while, but now he
was dreaming of another experiment.
He wished to go one step beyond. Instead of artificial flowers
imitating real flowers, natural flowers should mimic the artificial
He directed his ideas to this end and had not to seek long or go far,
since his house lay in the very heart of a famous horticultural
region. He visited the conservatories of the Avenue de Chatillon and
of the Aunay valley, and returned exhausted, his purse empty,
astonished at the strange forms of vegetation he had seen, thinking of
nothing but the species he had acquired and continually haunted by
memories of magnificent and fantastic plants.
The flowers came several days later.
Des Esseintes holding a list in his hands, verified each one of his
purchases. The gardeners from their wagons brought a collection of
caladiums which sustained enormous heartshaped leaves on turgid hairy
stalks; while preserving an air of relationship with its neighbor, no
one leaf repeated the same pattern.
Others were equally extraordinary. The roses like the _Virginale_
seemed cut out of varnished cloth or oil-silks; the white ones, like
the _Albano_, appeared to have been cut out of an ox's transparent
pleura, or the diaphanous bladder of a pig. Some, particularly the
_Madame Mame_, imitated zinc and parodied pieces of stamped metal
having a hue of emperor green, stained by drops of oil paint and by
spots of white and red lead; others like the _Bosphorous_, gave the
illusion of a starched calico in crimson and myrtle green; still
others, like the _Aurora Borealis_, displayed leaves having the color
of raw meat, streaked with purple sides, violet fibrils, tumefied
leaves from which oozed blue wine and blood.
The _Albano_ and the _Aurora_ sounded the two extreme notes of
temperament, the apoplexy and chlorosis of this plant.
The gardeners brought still other varieties which had the appearance
of artificial skin ridged with false veins, and most of them looked as
though consumed by syphilis and leprosy, for they exhibited livid
surfaces of flesh veined with scarlet rash and damasked with
eruptions. Some had the deep red hue of scars that have just closed or
the dark tint of incipient scabs. Others were marked with matter
raised by scaldings. There were forms which exhibited shaggy skins
hollowed by ulcers and relieved by cankers. And a few appeared
embossed with wounds, covered with black mercurial hog lard, with
green unguents of belladonna smeared with grains of dust and the
yellow micas of iodoforme.
Collected in his home, these flowers seemed to Des Esseintes more
monstrous than when he had beheld them, confused with others among the
glass rooms of the conservatory.
"_Sapristi!_" he exclaimed enthusiastically.
A new plant, modelled like the Caladiums, the _Alocasia Metallica_,
excited him even more. It was coated with a layer of bronze green on
which glanced silver reflections. It was the masterpiece of
artificiality. It could be called a piece of stove pipe, cut by a
chimney-maker into the form of a pike head.
The men next brought clusters of leaves, lozenge-like in shape and
bottle-green in color. In the center rose a rod at whose end a
varnished ace of hearts swayed. As though meaning to defy all
conceivable forms of plants, a fleshy stalk climbed through the heart
of this intense vermilion ace--a stalk that in some specimens was
straight, in others showed ringlets like a pig's tail.
It was the _Anthurium_, an aroid recently imported into France from
Columbia; a variety of that family to which also belonged an
_Amorphophallus_, a Cochin China plant with leaves shaped like
fish-knives, with long dark stems seamed with gashes, like lambs
flecked with black.
Des Esseintes exulted.
They brought a new batch of monstrosities from the wagon:
_Echinopses_, issuing from padded compresses with rose-colored flowers
that looked like the pitiful stumps; gaping _Nidularia_ revealing
skinless foundations in steel plates; _Tillandsia Lindeni_, the color
of wine must, with jagged scrapers; _Cypripedia_, with complicated
contours, a crazy piece of work seemingly designed by a crazy
inventor. They looked like sabots or like a lady's work-table on which
lies a human tongue with taut filaments, such as one sees designed on
the illustrated pages of works treating of the diseases of the throat
and mouth; two little side-pieces, of a red jujube color, which
appeared to have been borrowed from a child's toy mill completed this
singular collection of a tongue's underside with the color of slate
and wine lees, and of a glossy pocket from whose lining oozed a
He could not remove his eyes from this unnatural orchid which had been
brought from India. Then the gardeners, impatient at his
procrastinations, themselves began to read the labels fastened to the
pots they were carrying in.
Bewildered, Des Esseintes looked on and listened to the cacophonous
sounds of the names: the _Encephalartos horridus_, a gigantic iron
rust-colored artichoke, like those put on portals of chateaux to foil
wall climbers; the _Cocos Micania_, a sort of notched and slender palm
surrounded by tall leaves resembling paddles and oars; the _Zamia
Lehmanni_, an immense pineapple, a wondrous Chester leaf, planted in
sweet-heather soil, its top bristling with barbed javelins and jagged
arrows; the _Cibotium Spectabile_, surpassing the others by the
craziness of its structure, hurling a defiance to revery, as it
darted, through the palmated foliage, an enormous orang-outang tail, a
hairy dark tail whose end was twisted into the shape of a bishop's
But he gave little heed, for he was impatiently awaiting the series of
plants which most bewitched him, the vegetable ghouls, the carnivorous
plants; the _Antilles Fly-Trap_, with its shaggy border, secreting a
digestive liquid, armed with crooked prickles coiling around each
other, forming a grating about the imprisoned insect; the _Drosera_ of
the peat-bogs, provided with glandular hair; the _Sarracena_ and the
_Cephalothus_, opening greedy horns capable of digesting and absorbing
real meat; lastly, the _Nepenthes_, whose capricious appearance
transcends all limits of eccentric forms.
He never wearied of turning in his hands the pot in which this floral
extravagance stirred. It imitated the gum-tree whose long leaf of dark
metallic green it possessed, but it differed in that a green string
hung from the end of its leaf, an umbilic cord supporting a greenish
urn, streaked with jasper, a sort of German porcelain pipe, a strange
bird's nest which tranquilly swung about, revealing an interior
covered with hair.
"This is really something worth while," Des Esseintes murmured.
He was forced to tear himself away, for the gardeners, anxious to
leave, were emptying the wagons of their contents and depositing,
without any semblance of order, the tuberous _Begonias_ and black
_Crotons_ stained like sheet iron with Saturn red.
Then he perceived that one name still remained on his list. It was the
_Cattleya_ of New Granada. On it was designed a little winged bell of
a faded lilac, an almost dead mauve. He approached, placed his nose
above the plant and quickly recoiled. It exhaled an odor of toy boxes
of painted pine; it recalled the horrors of a New Year's Day.
He felt that he would do well to mistrust it and he almost regretted
having admitted, among the scentless plants, this orchid which evoked
the most disagreeable memories.
As soon as he was alone his gaze took in this vegetable tide which
foamed in the vestibule. Intermingled with each other, they crossed
their swords, their krisses and stanchions, taking on a resemblance to
a green pile of arms, above which, like barbaric penons, floated
flowers with hard dazzling colors.
The air of the room grew rarefied. Then, in the shadowy dimness of a
corner, near the floor, a white soft light crept.
He approached and perceived that the phenomenon came from the
_Rhizomorphes_ which threw out these night-lamp gleams while
"These plants are amazing," he reflected. Then he drew back to let his
eye encompass the whole collection at a glance. His purpose was
achieved. Not one single specimen seemed real; the cloth, paper,
porcelain and metal seemed to have been loaned by man to nature to
enable her to create her monstrosities. When unable to imitate man's
handiwork, nature had been reduced to copying the inner membranes of
animals, to borrowing the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, their
"All is syphilis," thought Des Esseintes, his eye riveted upon the
horrible streaked stainings of the Caladium plants caressed by a ray
of light. And he beheld a sudden vision of humanity consumed through
the centuries by the virus of this disease. Since the world's
beginnings, every single creature had, from sire to son, transmitted
the imperishable heritage, the eternal malady which has ravaged man's
ancestors and whose effects are visible even in the bones of old
fossils that have been exhumed.
The disease had swept on through the centuries gaining momentum. It
even raged today, concealed in obscure sufferings, dissimulated under
symptoms of headaches and bronchitis, hysterics and gout. It crept to
the surface from time to time, preferably attacking the ill-nourished
and the poverty stricken, spotting faces with gold pieces, ironically
decorating the faces of poor wretches, stamping the mark of money on
their skins to aggravate their unhappiness.
And here on the colored leaves of the plants it was resurgent in its
"It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, returning to the course of
reasoning he had momentarily abandoned, "it is true that most often
nature, left alone, is incapable of begetting such perverse and sickly
specimens. She furnishes the original substance, the germ and the
earth, the nourishing womb and the elements of the plant which man
then sets up, models, paints, and sculpts as he wills. Limited,
stubborn and formless though she be, nature has at last been subjected
and her master has succeeded in changing, through chemical reaction,
the earth's substances, in using combinations which had been long
matured, cross-fertilization processes long prepared, in making use of
slips and graftings, and man now forces differently colored flowers in
the same species, invests new tones for her, modifies to his will the
long-standing form of her plants, polishes the rough clods, puts an
end to the period of botch work, places his stamp on them, imposes on
them the mark of his own unique art."
"It cannot be gainsaid," he thought, resuming his reflections, "that
man in several years is able to effect a selection which slothful
nature can produce only after centuries. Decidedly the horticulturists
are the real artists nowadays."
He was a little tired and he felt stifled in this atmosphere of
crowded plants. The promenades he had taken during the last few days
had exhausted him. The transition had been too sudden from the tepid
atmosphere of his room to the out-of-doors, from the placid
tranquillity of a reclusive life to an active one. He left the
vestibule and stretched out on his bed to rest, but, absorbed by this
new fancy of his, his mind, even in his sleep, could not lessen its
tension and he was soon wandering among the gloomy insanities of a
He found himself in the center of a walk, in the heart of the wood;
twilight had fallen. He was strolling by the side of a woman whom he
had never seen before. She was emaciated and had flaxen hair, a
bulldog face, freckles on her cheeks, crooked teeth projecting under a
flat nose. She wore a nurse's white apron, a long neckerchief, torn in
strips on her bosom; half-shoes like those worn by Prussian soldiers
and a black bonnet adorned with frillings and trimmed with a rosette.
There was a foreign look about her, like that of a mountebank at a
He asked himself who the woman could be; he felt that she had long
been an intimate part of his life; vainly he sought her origin, her
name, her profession, her reason for being. No recollection of this
liaison, which was inexplicable and yet positive, rewarded him.
He was searching his past for a clue, when a strange figure suddenly
appeared on horse-back before them, trotting about for a moment and
then turning around in its saddle. Des Esseintes' heart almost stopped
beating and he stood riveted to the spot with horror. He nearly
fainted. This enigmatic, sexless figure was green; through her violet
eyelids the eyes were terrible in their cold blue; pimples surrounded
her mouth; horribly emaciated, skeleton arms bared to the elbows
issued from ragged tattered sleeves and trembled feverishly; and the
skinny legs shivered in shoes that were several sizes too large.
The ghastly eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, penetrating him,
freezing his very marrow; wilder than ever, the bulldog woman threw
herself at him and commenced to howl like a dog at the killing, her
head hanging on her rigid neck.
Suddenly he understood the meaning of the frightful vision. Before him
was the image of Syphilis.
Pursued by fear and quite beside himself, he sped down a pathway at
top speed and gained a pavillion standing among the laburnums to the
left, where he fell into a chair, in the passage way.
After a few moments, when he was beginning to recover his breath, the
sound of sobbing made him lift his head. The bulldog woman was in
front of him and, grotesque and woeful, while warm tears fell from her
eyes, she told him that she had lost her teeth in her flight. As she
spoke she drew clay pipes from the pocket of her nurse's apron,
breaking them and shoving pieces of the stems into the hollows of her
"But she is really absurd," Des Esseintes told himself. "These stems
will never stick." And, as a matter of fact, they dropped out one
At this moment were heard the galloping sounds of an approaching
horse. A fearful terror pierced Des Esseintes. His limbs gave way. The
galloping grew louder. Despair brought him sharply to his senses. He
threw himself upon the woman who was stamping on the pipe bowls,
entreating her to be silent, not to give notice of their presence by
the sound of her shoes. She writhed and struggled in his grip; he led
her to the end of the corridor, strangling her to prevent her from
crying out. Suddenly he noticed the door of a coffee house, with green
Venetian shutters. It was unlocked; he pushed it, rushed in headlong
and then paused.
Before him, in the center of a vast glade, huge white pierrots were
leaping rabbit-like under the rays of the moon.
Tears of discouragement welled to his eyes; never, no never would he
succeed in crossing the threshold. "I shall be crushed," he thought.
And as though to justify his fears, the ranks of tall pierrots swarmed
and multiplied; their somersaults now covered the entire horizon, the
whole sky on which they landed now on their heads, now on their feet.
Then the hoof beats paused. He was in the passage, behind a round
skylight. More dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned about and through
the round window beheld projecting erect ears, yellow teeth, nostrils
from which breathed two jets of vapor smelling of phenol.
He sank to the ground, renouncing all ideas of flight or of
resistance. He closed his eyes so as not to behold the horrible gaze
of Syphilis which penetrated through the wall, which even pierced his
closed lids, which he felt gliding over his moist spine, over his body
whose hair bristled in pools of cold sweat. He waited for the worst
and even hoped for the _coup de grace_ to end everything. A moment
which seemed to last a century passed. Shuddering, he opened his eyes.
Everything had vanished. Without any transition, as though by some
stage device, a frightful mineral landscape receded into the distance,
a wan, dead, waste, gullied landscape. A light illumined this desolate
site, a peaceful white light that recalled gleams of phosphorus
dissolved in oil.
Something that stirred on the ground became a deathly pale, nude woman
whose feet were covered with green silk stockings.
He contemplated her with curiosity. As though frizzed by overheated
irons, her hair curled, becoming straight again at the end; her
distended nostrils were the color of roast veal. Her eyes were
desirous, and she called to him in low tones.
He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing.
Flamboyant colors passed and repassed in her eyes. Her lips were
stained with a furious Anthurium red. The nipples of her breasts
flashed, painted like two pods of red pepper.
A sudden intuition came to him. "It is the Flower," he said. And his
reasoning mania persisted in his nightmare.
Then he observed the frightful irritation of the breasts and mouth,
discovered spots of bister and copper on the skin of her body, and
recoiled bewildered. But the woman's eyes fascinated him and he
advanced slowly, attempting to thrust his heels into the earth so as
not to move, letting himself fall, and yet lifting himself to reach
her. Just as he touched her, the dark _Amorphophalli_ leaped up from
all sides and thrust their leaves into his abdomen which rose and fell
like a sea. He had broken all the plants, experiencing a limitless
disgust in seeing these warm, firm stems stirring in his hands.
Suddenly the detested plants had disappeared and two arms sought to
enlace him. A terrible anguish made his heart beat furiously, for the
eyes, the horrible eyes of the woman, had become a clear, cold and
terrible blue. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her
embrace, but she held him with an irresistible movement. He beheld the
wild _Nidularium_ which yawned, bleeding, in steel plates.
With his body he touched the hideous wound of this plant. He felt
himself dying, awoke with a start, suffocating, frozen, mad with fear
and sighing: "Ah! thank God, it was but a dream!"
These nightmares attacked him repeatedly. He was afraid to fall
asleep. For hours he remained stretched on his bed, now a prey to
feverish and agitated wakefulness, now in the grip of oppressive
dreams in which he tumbled down flights of stairs and felt himself
sinking, powerless, into abysmal depths.
His nervous attacks, which had abated for several days, became acute,
more violent and obstinate than ever, unearthing new tortures.
The bed covers tormented him. He stifled under the sheets, his body
smarted and tingled as though stung by swarms of insects. These
symptoms were augmented by a dull pain in his jaws and a throbbing in
his temples which seemed to be gripped in a vise.
His alarm increased; but unfortunately the means of subduing the
inexorable malady were not at hand. He had unsuccessfully sought to
install a hydropathic apparatus in his dressing room. But the
impossibility of forcing water to the height on which his house was
perched, and the difficulty of procuring water even in the village
where the fountains functioned sparingly and only at certain hours of
the day, caused him to renounce the project. Since he could not have
floods of water playing on him from the nozzle of a hose, (the only
efficacious means of overcoming his insomnia and calming his nerves
through its action on his spinal column) he was reduced to brief
sprays or to mere cold baths, followed by energetic massages applied
by his servant with the aid of a horse-hair glove.
But these measures failed to stem the march of his nervous disorder.
At best they afforded him a few hours' relief, dearly paid for by the
return of the attacks in an even more virulent form.
His ennui passed all bounds. His pleasure in the possession of his
wonderful flowers was exhausted. Their textures and nuances palled on
him. Besides, despite the care he lavished on them, most of his plants
drooped. He had them removed from his rooms, but in his state of
extreme excitability, their very absence exasperated him, for his eyes
were pained by the void.
To while away the interminable hours, he had recourse to his
portfolios of prints, and arranged his Goyas. The first impressions of
certain plates of the _Caprices_, recognizable as proofs by their
reddish hues, which he had bought at auction at a high price,
comforted him, and he lost himself in them, following the painter's
fantasies, distracted by his vertiginous scenes, his witches astride
on cats, his women striving to pluck out the teeth of a hanged man,
his bandits, his succubi, his demons and dwarfs.
Then he examined his other series of etchings and aquatints, his
_Proverbs_ with their macabre horror, his war subjects with their wild
rage, finally his plate of the Garot, of which he cherished a
marvelous trial proof, printed on heavy water-marked paper, unmounted.
Goya's savage verve and keenly fanciful talent delighted him, but the
universal admiration his works had won nevertheless estranged him
slightly. And for years he had refused to frame them for fear that the
first blundering fool who caught sight of them might deem it necessary
to fly into banal and facile raptures before them.
The same applied to his Rembrandts which he examined from time to
time, half secretly; and if it be true that the loveliest tune
imaginable becomes vulgar and insupportable as soon as the public
begins to hum it and the hurdy-gurdies make it their own, the work of
art which does not remain indifferent to the spurious artists, which
is not contested by fools, and which is not satisfied with awakening
the enthusiasm of the few, by this very fact becomes profaned, trite,
almost repulsive to the initiate.
This promiscuity in admiration, furthermore, was one of the greatest
sources of regret in his life. Incomprehensible successes had forever
spoiled for him many pictures and books once cherished and dear.
Approved by the mob, they began to reveal imperceptible defects to
him, and he rejected them, wondering meanwhile if his perceptions were
not growing blunted.
He closed his portfolios and, completely disconcerted, again plunged
into melancholy. To divert the current of his thoughts and cool his
brain, he sought books that would soothe him and turned to the
romances of Dickens, those charming novels which are so satisfying to
invalids and convalescents who might grow fatigued by works of a more
profound and vigorous nature.
But they produced an effect contrary to his expectations. These chaste
lovers, these protesting heroines garbed to the neck, loved among the
stars, confined themselves to lowered eyes and blushes, wept tears of
joy and clasped hands--an exaggeration of purity which threw him into
an opposite excess. By the law of contrast, he leaped from one extreme
to the other, let his imagination dwell on vibrant scenes between
human lovers, and mused on their sensual kisses and passionate
His mind wandered off from his book to worlds far removed from the
English prude: to wanton peccadilloes and salacious practices
condemned by the Church. He grew excited. The impotence of his mind
and body which he had supposed final, vanished. Solitude again acted
on his disordered nerves; he was once more obsessed, not by religion
itself, but by the acts and sins it forbids, by the subject of all its
obsecrations and threats. The carnal side, atrophied for months, which
had been stirred by the enervation of his pious readings, then brought
to a crisis by the English cant, came to the surface. His stimulated
senses carried him back to the past and he wallowed in memories of his
He rose and pensively opened a little box of vermeil with a lid of
It was filled with violet bonbons. He took one up and pressed it
between his fingers, thinking of the strange properties of this
sugary, frosted sweetmeat. When his virility had been impaired, when
the thought of woman had roused in him no sharp regret or desire, he
had only to put one in his mouth, let it melt, and almost at once it
induced misty, languishing memories, infinitely tender.
These bonbons invented by Siraudin and bearing the ridiculous name of
"Perles des Pyrenees" were each a drop of sarcanthus perfume, a drop
of feminine essence crystallized in a morsel of sugar. They penetrated
the papillae of the tongue, recalling the very savor of voluptuous
Usually he smiled as he inhaled this love aroma, this shadow of a
caress which for a moment restored the delights of women he had once
adored. Today they were not merely suggestive, they no longer served
as a delicate hint of his distant riotous past. They were become
powerful, thrusting aside the veils, exposing before his eyes the
importunate, corporeal and brutal reality.
At the head of the procession of mistresses whom the fragrance of the
bonbons helped to place in bold relief, one paused, displaying long
white teeth, a satiny rose skin, a snub nose, mouse-colored eyes, and
close-cropped blond hair.
This was Miss Urania, an American, with a vigorous body, sinewy limbs,
muscles of steel and arms of iron.
She had been one of the most celebrated acrobats of the Circus.
Des Esseintes had watched her attentively through many long evenings.
At first, she had seemed to him what she really was, a strong and
beautiful woman, but the desire to know her never troubled him. She
possessed nothing to recommend her in the eyes of a blase man, and yet
he returned to the Circus, allured by he knew not what, importuned by
a sentiment difficult to define.
Gradually, as he watched her, a fantastic idea seized him. Her
graceful antics and arch feminine ways receded to the background of
his mind, replaced by her power and strength which had for him all the
charm of masculinity. Compared with her, Des Esseintes seemed to
himself a frail, effeminate creature, and he began to desire her as
ardently as an anaemic young girl might desire some loutish Hercules
whose arms could crush her in a strong embrace.
One evening he finally decided to communicate with her and dispatched
one of the attendants on this errand. Miss Urania deemed it necessary
not to yield before a preliminary courtship; but she showed herself
amenable, as it was common gossip that Des Esseintes was rich and that
his name was instrumental in establishing women.
But as soon as his wishes were granted, his disappointment surpassed
any he had yet experienced. He had persuaded himself that the American
woman would be as bestial and stupid as a wrestler at a county fair,
and instead her stupidity was of an altogether feminine nature.
Certainly, she lacked education and tact, had neither good sense nor
wit, and displayed an animal voracity at table, but she possessed all
the childish traits of a woman. Her manner and speech were coquettish
and affected, those of a silly, scandal-loving young girl. There was
absolutely nothing masculine about her.
Furthermore, she was withdrawn and puritanical in her embraces,
displaying none of the brute force he had dreaded yet longed for, and
she was subject to none of the perturbations of his sex.
Des Esseintes inevitably returned to the masculine role he had
His impression of femininity, weakness, need of protection, of fear
even, disappeared. The illusion was no longer possible! Miss Urania
was an ordinary mistress, in no wise justifying the cerebral curiosity
she had at first awakened in him.
Although the charm of her firm skin and magnificent beauty had at
first astonished and captivated Des Esseintes, he lost no time in
terminating this liaison, for his impotence was prematurely hastened
by the frozen and prudish caresses of this woman.
And yet she was the first of all the women he had loved, now flitting
through his revery, to stand out. But if she was more strongly
imprinted on his memory than a host of others whose allurements had
been less spurious and more seductive, the reason must be ascribed to
her healthy animalism, to her exuberance which contrasted so
strikingly with the perfumed anaemia of the others, a faint suggestion
of which he found in the delicate Siraudin bonbon.
Miss Urania haunted him by reason of her very difference, but almost
instantly, offended by the intrusion of this natural, crude aroma, the
antithesis of the scented confection, Des Esseintes returned to more
civilized exhalations and his thoughts reverted to his other
mistresses. They pressed upon him in a throng; but above them all rose
a woman whose startling talents had satisfied him for months.
She was a little, slender brunette, with black eyes and burnished hair
parted on one side and sleeked down over her head. He had known her in
a cafe where she gave ventriloqual performances.
Before the amazed patrons, she caused her tiny cardboard figures,
placed near each other on chairs, to talk; she conversed with the
animated mannikins while flies buzzed around the chandeliers. Then one
heard the rustling of the tense audience, surprised to find itself
seated and instinctively recoiling when they heard the rumbling of
Des Esseintes had been fascinated. He lost no time in winning over the
ventriloquist, tempting her with large sums of money. She delighted
him by the very contrast she exhibited to the American woman. This
brunette used strong perfumes and burned like a crater. Despite all
her blandishments, Des Esseintes wearied of her in a few short hours.
But this did not prevent him from letting himself be fleeced, for the
phenomenon of the ventriloquist attracted him more than did the charms
of the mistress.
Certain plans he had long pondered upon ripened, and he decided to
bring them to fruition.
One evening he ordered a tiny sphinx brought in--a sphinx carved from
black marble and resting in the classic pose with outstretched paws
and erect head. He also purchased a chimera of polychrome clay; it
brandished its mane of hair, and its sides resembled a pair of
bellows. These two images he placed in a corner of the room. Then he
extinguished the lamps, permitting the glowing embers to throw a dim
light around the room and to magnify the objects which were almost
immersed in gloom.
Then he stretched out on a couch beside the woman whose motionless
figure was touched by the ember gleams, and waited.
With strange intonations that he had long and patiently taught her,
she animated the two monsters; she did not even move her lips, she did
not even glance in their direction.
And in the silence followed the marvelous dialogue of the Chimera and
the Sphinx; it was recited in deep guttural tones which were at first
raucous, then turned shrill and unearthly.
"Here, Chimera, pause!"
Lulled by the admirable prose of Flaubert, he listened; he panted and
shivering sensations raced through his frame, when the Chimera uttered
the magical and solemn phrase:
"New perfumes I seek, stranger flowers I seek, pleasures not yet
Ah! it was to him that this voice, mysterious as an incantation,
spoke; it was to him that this voice recounted her feverish agitation
for the unknown, her insatiable ideals, her imperative need to escape
from the horrible reality of existence, to leap beyond the confines of
thought, to grope towards the mists of elusive, unattainable art. The
poignant tragedy of his past failures rent his heart. Gently he
clasped the silent woman at his side, he sought refuge in her
nearness, like a child who is inconsolable; he was blind to the
sulkiness of the comedienne obliged to perform off-scene, in her
leisure moments, far from the spotlight.
Their liaison continued, but his spells of exhaustion soon became
acute. His brain no longer sufficed to stimulate his benumbed body. No
longer did his nerves obey his will; and now the crazy whims of
dotards dominated him. Terrified by the approach of a disastrous
weakness in the presence of his mistress, he resorted to fear--that
oldest, most efficacious of excitants.
A hoarse voice from behind the door would exclaim, while he held the
woman in his arms: "Open the door, woman, I know you're in there, and
with whom. Just wait, wait!" Instantly, like a libertine stirred by
fear of discovery in the open, he recovered his strength and hurled
himself madly upon the ventriloquist whose voice continued to bluster
outside the room. In this wise he experienced the pleasures of a
But this state, unfortunately, did not last long, and despite the sums
he paid her, the ventriloquist parted to offer herself to someone less
exigent and less complex.
He had regretted her defection, and now, recalling her, the other
women seemed insipid, their childish graces and monotonous coquetry
In the ferment of his disordered brain, he delighted in mingling with
these recollections of his past, other more gloomy pleasures, as
theology qualifies the evocation of past, disgraceful acts. With the
physical visions he mingled spiritual ardors brought into play and
motivated by his old readings of the casuists, of the Busembaums and
the Dianas, of the Liguoris and the Sanchezes, treating of
transgressions against the sixth and ninth commandments of the
In awakening an almost divine ideal in this soul steeped in her
precepts--a soul possibly predisposed to the teachings of the Church
through hereditary influences dating back from the reign of Henry III,
religion had also stirred the illegitimate, forbidden enjoyment of the
senses. Licentious and mystical obsessions haunted his brain, they
mingled confusedly, and he would often be troubled by an unappeasable
desire to shun the vulgarities of the world and to plunge, far from
the customs and modes held in such reverence, into convulsions and
raptures which were holy or infernal and which, in either case, proved
too exhausting and enervating.
He would arise prostrate from such reveries, fatigued and all but
lifeless. He would light the lamps and candles so as to flood the room
with light, for he hoped that by so doing he might possibly diminish
the intolerably persistent and dull throbbing of his arteries which
beat under his neck with redoubled strokes.
During the course of this malady which attacks impoverished races,
sudden calms succeed an attack. Strangely enough, Des Esseintes awoke
one morning recovered; no longer was he tormented by the throbbing of
his neck or by his racking cough. Instead, he had an ineffable
sensation of contentment, a lightness of mind in which thought was
sparklingly clear, turning from a turbid, opaque, green color to a
liquid iridescence magical with tender rainbow tints.
This lasted several days. Then hallucinations of odor suddenly
His room was aromatic with the fragrance of frangipane; he tried to
ascertain if a bottle were not uncorked--no! not a bottle was to be
found in the room, and he passed into his study and thence to the
kitchen. Still the odor persisted.
Des Esseintes rang for his servant and asked if he smelled anything.
The domestic sniffed the air and declared he could not detect any
perfume. There was no doubt about it: his nervous attacks had returned
again, under the appearance of a new illusion of the senses.
Fatigued by the tenacity of this imaginary aroma, he resolved to steep
himself in real perfumes, hoping that this homeopathic treatment would
cure him or would at least drown the persistent odor.
He betook himself to his dressing room. There, near an old baptistery
which he used as a wash basin, under a long mirror of forged iron,
which, like the edge of a well silvered by the moon, confined the
green dull surface of the mirror, were bottles of every conceivable
size and form, placed on ivory shelves.
He set them on the table and divided them into two series: one of the
simple perfumes, pure extracts or spirits, the other of compound
perfumes, designated under the generic term of bouquets.
He sank into an easy chair and meditated.
He had long been skilled in the science of smell. He believed that
this sense could give one delights equal to those of hearing and
sight; each sense being susceptible, if naturally keen and if properly
cultivated, to new impressions, which it could intensify, coordinate
and compose into that unity which constitutes a creative work. And it
was not more abnormal and unnatural that an art should be called into
existence by disengaging odors than that another art should be evoked
by detaching sound waves or by striking the eye with diversely colored
rays. But if no person could discern, without intuition developed by
study, a painting by a master from a daub, a melody of Beethoven from
one by Clapisson, no more could any one at first, without preliminary
initiation, help confusing a bouquet invented by a sincere artist with
a pot pourri made by some manufacturer to be sold in groceries and
In this art, the branch devoted to achieving certain effects by
artificial methods particularly delighted him.
Perfumes, in fact, rarely come from the flowers whose names they bear.
The artist who dared to borrow nature's elements would only produce a
bastard work which would have neither authenticity nor style, inasmuch
as the essence obtained by the distillation of flowers would bear but
a distant and vulgar relation to the odor of the living flower,
wafting its fragrance into the air.
Thus, with the exception of the inimitable jasmine which it is
impossible to counterfeit, all flowers are perfectly represented by
the blend of aromatic spirits, stealing the very personality of the
model, and to it adding that nuance the more, that heady scent, that
rare touch which entitled a thing to be called a work of art.
To resume, in the science of perfumery, the artist develops the
natural odor of the flowers, working over his subject like a jeweler
refining the lustre of a gem and making it precious.
Little by little, the arcana of this art, most neglected of all, was
revealed to Des Esseintes who could now read this language, as
diversified and insinuating as that of literature, this style with its
unexpected concision under its vague flowing appearance.
To achieve this end he had first been compelled to master the grammar
and understand the syntax of odors, learning the secret of the rules
that regulate them, and, once familiarized with the dialect, he
compared the works of the masters, of the Atkinsons and Lubins, the
Chardins and Violets, the Legrands and Piesses; then he separated the
construction of their phrases, weighed the value of their words and
the arrangement of their periods.
Later on, in this idiom of fluids, experience was able to support
theories too often incomplete and banal.
Classic perfumery, in fact, was scarcely diversified, almost colorless
and uniformly issuing from the mold cast by the ancient chemists. It
was in its dotage, confined to its old alambics, when the romantic
period was born and had modified the old style, rejuvenating it,
making it more supple and malleable.
Step by step, its history followed that of our language. The perfumed
Louis XIII style, composed of elements highly prized at that time, of
iris powder, musk, chive and myrtle water already designated under the
name of "water of the angels," was hardly sufficient to express the
cavalier graces, the rather crude tones of the period which certain
sonnets of Saint-Amand have preserved for us. Later, with myrrh and
olibanum, the mystic odors, austere and powerful, the pompous gesture
of the great period, the redundant artifices of oratorial art, the
full, sustained harmonious style of Bossuet and the masters of the
pulpit were almost possible. Still later, the sophisticated, rather
bored graces of French society under Louis XV, more easily found their
interpretation in the almond which in a manner summed up this epoch;
then, after the ennui and jadedness of the first empire, which misused
Eau de Cologne and rosemary, perfumery rushed, in the wake of Victor
Hugo and Gautier, towards the Levant. It created oriental
combinations, vivid Eastern nosegays, discovered new intonations,
antitheses which until then had been unattempted, selected and made
use of antique nuances which it complicated, refined and assorted. It
resolutely rejected that voluntary decrepitude to which it had been
reduced by the Malesherbes, the Boileaus, the Andrieuxes and the
Baour-Lormians, wretched distillers of their own poems.
But this language had not remained stationery since the period of
1830. It had continued to evolve and, patterning itself on the
progress of the century, had advanced parallel with the other arts.
It, too, had yielded to the desires of amateurs and artists, receiving
its inspiration from the Chinese and Japanese, conceiving fragrant
albums, imitating the _Takeoka_ bouquets of flowers, obtaining the
odor of _Rondeletia_ from the blend of lavender and clove; the
peculiar aroma of Chinese ink from the marriage of patchouli and
camphor; the emanation of Japanese _Hovenia_ by compounds of citron,
clove and neroli.
Des Esseintes studied and analyzed the essences of these fluids,
experimenting to corroborate their texts. He took pleasure in playing
the role of a psychologist for his personal satisfaction, in taking
apart and re-assembling the machinery of a work, in separating the
pieces forming the structure of a compound exhalation, and his sense
of smell had thereby attained a sureness that was all but perfect.
Just as a wine merchant has only to smell a drop of wine to recognize
the grape, as a hop dealer determines the exact value of hops by
sniffing a bag, as a Chinese trader can immediately tell the origin of
the teas he smells, knowing in what farms of what mountains, in what
Buddhistic convents it was cultivated, the very time when its leaves
were gathered, the state and the degree of torrefaction, the effect
upon it of its proximity to the plum-tree and other flowers, to all
those perfumes which change its essence, adding to it an unexpected
touch and introducing into its dryish flavor a hint of distant fresh
flowers; just so could Des Esseintes, by inhaling a dash of perfume,
instantly explain its mixture and the psychology of its blend, and
could almost give the name of the artist who had composed and given it
the personal mark of his individual style.
Naturally he had a collection of all the products used by perfumers.
He even had the real Mecca balm, that rare balm cultivated only in
certain parts of Arabia Petraea and under the monopoly of the ruler.
Now, seated in his dressing room in front of his table, he thought of
creating a new bouquet; and he was overcome by that moment of wavering
confidence familiar to writers when, after months of inaction, they
prepare for a new work.
Like Balzac who was wont to scribble on many sheets of paper so as to
put himself in a mood for work, Des Esseintes felt the necessity of
steadying his hand by several initial and unimportant experiments.
Desiring to create heliotrope, he took down bottles of vanilla and
almond, then changed his idea and decided to experiment with sweet
He groped for a long time, unable to effect the proper combinations,
for orange is dominant in the fragrance of this flower. He attempted
several combinations and ended in achieving the exact blend by joining
tuberose and rose to orange, the whole united by a drop of vanilla.
His hesitation disappeared. He felt alert and ready for work; now he
made some tea by blending cassie with iris, then, sure of his
technique, he decided to proceed with a fulminating phrase whose
thunderous roar would annihilate the insidious odor of almond still
hovering over his room.
He worked with amber and with Tonkin musk, marvelously powerful; with
patchouli, the most poignant of vegetable perfumes whose flower, in
its habitat, wafts an odor of mildew. Try what he would, the
eighteenth century obsessed him; the panier robes and furbelows
appeared before his eyes; memories of Boucher's _Venus_ haunted him;
recollections of Themidor's romance, of the exquisite Rosette pursued
him. Furious, he rose and to rid himself of the obsession, with all
his strength he inhaled that pure essence of spikenard, so dear to
Orientals and so repulsive to Europeans because of its pronounced odor
of valerian. He was stunned by the violence of the shock. As though
pounded by hammer strokes, the filigranes of the delicate odor
disappeared; he profited by the period of respite to escape the dead
centuries, the antiquated fumes, and to enter, as he formerly had
done, less limited or more recent works.
He had of old loved to lull himself with perfumes. He used effects
analogous to those of the poets, and employed the admirable order of
certain pieces of Baudelaire, such as _Irreparable_ and _le Balcon_,
where the last of the five lines composing the strophe is the echo of
the first verse and returns, like a refrain, to steep the soul in
infinite depths of melancholy and languor.
He strayed into reveries evoked by those aromatic stanzas, suddenly
brought to his point of departure, to the motive of his meditation, by
the return of the initial theme, reappearing, at stated intervals, in
the fragrant orchestration of the poem.
He actually wished to saunter through an astonishing, diversified
landscape, and he began with a sonorous, ample phrase that suddenly
opened a long vista of fields for him.
With his vaporizers, he injected an essence formed of ambrosia,
lavender and sweet peas into this room; this formed an essence which,
when distilled by an artist, deserves the name by which it is known:
"extract of wild grass"; into this he introduced an exact blend of
tuberose, orange flower and almond, and forthwith artificial lilacs
sprang into being, while the linden-trees rustled, their thin
emanations, imitated by extract of London tilia, drooping earthward.
Into this _decor_, arranged with a few broad lines, receding as far as
the eye could reach, under his closed lids, he introduced a light rain
of human and half feline essences, possessing the aroma of petticoats,
breathing of the powdered, painted woman, the stephanotis, ayapana,
opopanax, champaka, sarcanthus and cypress wine, to which he added a
dash of syringa, in order to give to the artificial life of paints
which they exhaled, a suggestion of natural dewy laughter and
pleasures enjoyed in the open air.
Then, through a ventilator, he permitted these fragrant waves to
escape, only preserving the field which he renewed, compelling it to
return in his strophes like a ritornello.
The women had gradually disappeared. Now the plain had grown solitary.
Suddenly, on the enchanted horizon, factories appeared whose tall
chimneys flared like bowls of punch.
The odor of factories and of chemical products now passed with the
breeze which was simulated by means of fans; nature exhaled its sweet
effluvia amid this putrescence.
Des Esseintes warmed a pellet of storax, and a singular odor, at once
repugnant and exquisite, pervaded the room. It partook of the
delicious fragrance of jonquil and of the stench of gutta percha and
coal oil. He disinfected his hands, inserted his resin in a
hermetically sealed box, and the factories disappeared.
Then, among the revived vapors of the lindens and meadow grass, he
threw several drops of new mown hay, and, amid this magic site for the
moment despoiled of its lilacs, sheaves of hay were piled up,
introducing a new season and scattering their fine effluence into
these summer odors.
At last, when he had sufficiently enjoyed this sight, he suddenly
scattered the exotic perfumes, emptied his vaporizers, threw in his
concentrated spirits, poured his balms, and, in the exasperated and
stifling heat of the room there rose a crazy sublimated nature, a
paradoxical nature which was neither genuine nor charming, reuniting
the tropical spices and the peppery breath of Chinese sandal wood and
Jamaica hediosmia with the French odors of jasmine, hawthorn and
verbena. Regardless of seasons and climates he forced trees of diverse
essences into life, and flowers with conflicting fragrances and
colors. By the clash of these tones he created a general, nondescript,
unexpected, strange perfume in which reappeared, like an obstinate
refrain, the decorative phrase of the beginning, the odor of the
meadows fanned by the lilacs and lindens.
Suddenly a poignant pain seized him; he felt as though wimbles were
drilling into his temples. Opening his eyes he found himself in his
dressing room, seated in front of his table. Stupefied, he painfully
walked across the room to the window which he half opened. A puff of
wind dispelled the stifling atmosphere which was enveloping him. To
exercise his limbs, he walked up and down gazing at the ceiling where
crabs and sea-wrack stood out in relief against a background as light
in color as the sands of the seashore. A similar _decor_ covered the
plinths and bordered the partitions which were covered with Japanese
sea-green crepe, slightly wrinkled, imitating a river rippled by the
wind. In this light current swam a rose petal, around which circled a
school of tiny fish painted with two strokes of the brush.
But his eyelids remained heavy. He ceased to pace about the short
space between the baptistery and the bath; he leaned against the
window. His dizziness ended. He carefully stopped up the vials, and
used the occasion to arrange his cosmetics. Since his arrival at
Fontenay he had not touched them; and now was quite astonished to
behold once more this collection formerly visited by so many women.
The flasks and jars were lying heaped up against each other. Here, a
porcelain box contained a marvelous white cream which, when applied on
the cheeks, turns to a tender rose color, under the action of the
air--to such a true flesh-color that it procures the very illusion of
a skin touched with blood; there, lacquer objects incrusted with
mother of pearl enclosed Japanese gold and Athenian green, the color
of the cantharis wing, gold and green which change to deep purple when
wetted; there were jars filled with filbert paste, the serkis of the
harem, emulsions of lilies, lotions of strawberry water and elders for
the complexion, and tiny bottles filled with solutions of Chinese ink
and rose water for the eyes. There were tweezers, scissors, rouge and
powder-puffs, files and beauty patches.
He handled this collection, formerly bought to please a mistress who
swooned under the influence of certain aromatics and balms,--a
nervous, unbalanced woman who loved to steep the nipples of her
breasts in perfumes, but who never really experienced a delicious and
overwhelming ecstacy save when her head was scraped with a comb or
when she could inhale, amid caresses, the odor of perspiration, or the
plaster of unfinished houses on rainy days, or of dust splashed by
huge drops of rain during summer storms.
He mused over these memories, and one afternoon spent at Pantin
through idleness and curiosity, in company with this woman at the home
of one of her sisters, returned to him, stirring in him a forgotten
world of old ideas and perfumes; while the two women prattled and
displayed their gowns, he had drawn near the window and had seen,
through the dusty panes, the muddy street sprawling before him, and
had heard the repeated sounds of galoches over the puddles of the
This scene, already far removed, came to him suddenly, strangely and
vividly. Pantin was there before him, animated and throbbing in this
greenish and dull mirror into which his unseeing eyes plunged. A
hallucination transported him far from Fontenay. Beside reflecting the
street, the mirror brought back thoughts it had once been instrumental
in evoking, and plunged in revery, he repeated to himself this
ingenious, sad and comforting composition he had formerly written upon
returning to Paris:
"Yes, the season of downpours is come. Now behold water-spouts
vomiting as they rush over the pavements, and rubbish marinates in
puddles that fill the holes scooped out of the macadam.
"Under a lowering sky, in the damp air, the walls of houses have black
perspiration and their air-holes are fetid; the loathsomeness of
existence increases and melancholy overwhelms one; the seeds of
vileness which each person harbors in his soul, sprout. The craving
for vile debaucheries seizes austere people and base desires grow
rampant in the brains of respectable men.
"And yet I warm myself, here before a cheerful fire. From a basket of
blossoming flowers comes the aroma of balsamic benzoin, geranium and
the whorl-flowered bent-grass which permeates the room. In the very
month of November, at Pantin, in the rue de Paris, springtime
persists. Here in my solitude I laugh at the fears of families which,
to shun the approaching cold weather, escape on every steamer to
Cannes and to other winter resorts.
"Inclement nature does nothing to contribute to this extraordinary
phenomenon. It must be said that his artificial season at Pantin is
the result of man's ingenuity.
"In fact, these flowers are made of taffeta and are mounted on wire.
The springtime odor filters through the window joints, exhaled from
the neighboring factories, from the perfumeries of Pinaud and Saint
"For the workmen exhausted by the hard labors of the plants, for the
young employes who too often are fathers, the illusion of a little
healthy air is possible, thanks to these manufacturers.
"So, from this fabulous subterfuge of a country can an intelligent
cure arise. The consumptive men about town who are sent to the South
die, their end due to the change in their habits and to the nostalgia
for the Parisian excesses which destroyed them. Here, under an
artificial climate, libertine memories will reappear, the languishing
feminine emanations evaporated by the factories. Instead of the deadly
ennui of provincial life, the doctor can thus platonically substitute
for his patient the atmosphere of the Parisian women and of boudoirs.
Most often, all that is necessary to effect the cure is for the
subject to have a somewhat fertile imagination.
"Since, nowadays, nothing genuine exists, since the wine one drinks
and the liberty one boldly proclaims are laughable and a sham, since
it really needs a healthy dose of good will to believe that the
governing classes are respectable and that the lower classes are
worthy of being assisted or pitied, it seems to me," concluded Des
Esseintes, "to be neither ridiculous nor senseless, to ask of my
fellow men a quantity of illusion barely equivalent to what they spend
daily in idiotic ends, so as to be able to convince themselves that
the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice or a Menton.
"But all this does not prevent me from seeing," he said, forced by
weakness from his meditations, "that I must be careful to mistrust
these delicious and abominable practices which may ruin my
constitution." He sighed. "Well, well, more pleasures to moderate,
more precautions to be taken."
And he passed into his study, hoping the more easily to escape the
spell of these perfumes.
He opened the window wide, glad to be able to breath the air. But it
suddenly seemed to him that the breeze brought in a vague tide of
bergamot with which jasmine and rose water were blent. Agitated, he
asked himself whether he was not really under the yoke of one of those
possessions exercised in the Middle Ages. The odor changed and was
transformed, but it persisted. A faint scent of tincture of tolu, of
balm of Peru and of saffron, united by several drams of amber and
musk, now issued from the sleeping village and suddenly, the
metamorphosis was effected, those scattered elements were blent, and
once more the frangipane spread from the valley of Fontenay as far as
the fort, assailing his exhausted nostrils, once more shattering his
helpless nerves and throwing him into such a prostration that he fell
unconscious on the window sill.
The servants were seized with alarm and lost no time in calling the
Fontenay physician who was completely at sea about Des Esseintes'
condition. He mumbled a few medical terms, felt his pulse, examined
the invalid's tongue, unsuccessfully sought to make him speak,
prescribed sedatives and rest, promised to return on the morrow and,
at the negative sign made by Des Esseintes who recovered enough
strength to chide the zeal of his servants and to bid farewell to this
intruder, he departed and was soon retailing through the village the
eccentricities of this house whose decorations had positively amazed
him and held him rooted to the spot.
To the great astonishment of the domestics, who no longer dared stir
from the servants' quarters, their master recovered in a few days, and
they surprised him drumming against the window panes, gazing at the
sky with a troubled look.
One afternoon the bells were peremptorily rung and Des Esseintes
commanded his trunks to be packed for a long voyage.
While the man and the woman were choosing, under his guidance, the
necessary equipment, he feverishly paced up and down the cabin of the
dining room, consulted the timetables of the steamers, walked through
his study where he continued to gaze at the clouds with an air at once
impatient and satisfied.
For a whole week, the weather had been atrocious. Streams of soot
raced unceasing across the grey fields of the sky-masses of clouds
like rocks torn from the earth.
At intervals, showers swept downward, engulfing the valley with
torrents of rain.
Today, the appearance of the heavens had changed. The rivers of ink
had evaporated and vanished, and the harsh contours of the clouds had
softened. The sky was uniformly flat and covered with a brackish film.
Little by little, this film seemed to drop, and a watery haze covered
the country side. The rain no longer fell in cataracts as on the
preceding evening; instead, it fell incessantly, fine, sharp and
penetrating; it inundated the walks, covered the roads with its
innumerable threads which joined heaven and earth. The livid sky threw
a wan leaden light on the village which was now transformed into a
lake of mud pricked by needles of water that dotted the puddles with
drops of bright silver. In this desolation of nature, everything was
gray, and only the housetops gleamed against the dead tones of the
"What weather!" sighed the aged domestic, placing on a chair the
clothes which his master had requested of him--an outfit formerly
ordered from London.
Des Esseintes' sole response was to rub his hands and to sit down in
front of a book-case with glass doors. He examined the socks which had
been placed nearby for his inspection. For a moment he hesitated on
the color; then he quickly studied the melancholy day and earnestly
bethought himself of the effect he desired. He chose a pair the color
of feuillemort, quickly slipped them on, put on a pair of buttoned
shoes, donned the mouse grey suit which was checquered with a lava
gray and dotted with black, placed a small hunting cap on his head and
threw a blue raincoat over him. He reached the railway station,
followed by the servant who almost bent under the weight of a trunk, a
valise, a carpet bag, a hat box and a traveling rug containing
umbrellas and canes. He informed his servant that the date of his
return was problematical, that he might return in a year, in a month,
in a week, or even sooner, and enjoined him to change nothing in the
house. He gave a sum of money which he thought would be necessary for
the upkeep of the house during his absence, and climbed into the
coach, leaving the old man astounded, arms waving and mouth gaping,
behind the rail, while the train got under way.
He was alone in his compartment; a vague and dirty country side, such
as one sees through an aquarium of troubled water, receded rapidly
behind the train which was lashed by the rain. Plunged in his
meditations, Des Esseintes closed his eyes.
Once more, this so ardently desired and finally attained solitude had
ended in a fearful distress. This silence which formerly would have
appeared as a compensation for the stupidities heard for years, now
weighed on him with an unendurable burden. One morning he had
awakened, as uneasy as a prisoner in his cell; his lips had sought to
articulate sounds, tears had welled to his eyes and he had found it
impossible to breathe, suffocating like a person who had sobbed for
Seized with a desire to walk, to behold a human figure, to speak to
someone, to mingle with life, he had proceeded to call his domestics,
employing a specious pretext; but conversation with them was
impossible. Besides the fact that these old people, bowed down by
years of silence and the customs of attendants, were almost dumb, the
distance at which Des Esseintes had always kept them was hardly
conducive to inducing them to open their mouths now. Too, they
possessed dull brains and were incapable of answering his questions
other than by monosyllables.
It was impossible, therefore, to find any solace in their society; but
a new phenomenon now occurred. The reading of the novels of Dickens,
which he had lately undertaken to soothe his nerves and which had only
produced effects the opposite of those hoped for, began slowly to act
in an unexpected manner, bringing on visions of English existence on
which he mused for hours; little by little, in these fictive
contemplations, ideas insinuated themselves, ideas of the voyage
brought to an end, of verified dreams on which was imposed the desire
to experience new impressions, and thus escape the exhausting cerebral
debauches intent upon beating in the void.
With its mist and rain, this abominable weather aided his thoughts
still more, by reinforcing the memories of his readings, by placing
under his eyes the unfading image of a land of fog and mud, and by
refusing to let his ideas wander idly.
One day, able to endure it no longer, he had instantly decided. Such
was his haste that he even took flight before the designated time, for
he wished to shun the present moment, wished to find himself jostled
and shouldered in the hubbub of crowded streets and railway stations.
"I breathe!" he exclaimed when the train moderated its waltz and
stopped in the Sceaux station rotunda, panting while its wheels
performed its last pirouettes.
Once in the boulevard d'Enfer, he hailed a coachman. In some strange
manner he extracted a pleasure from the fact that he was so hampered
with trunks and rugs. By promising a substantial tip, he reached an
understanding with the man of the brown trousers and red waistcoat.
"At once!" he commanded. "And when you reach the rue de Rivoli, stop
in front of _Galignani's Messenger_." Before departing, he desired to
buy a Baedeker or Murray guide of London.
The carriage got under way heavily, raising rings of mud around its
wheels and moving through marsh-like ground. Beneath the gray sky
which seemed suspended over the house tops, water gushed down the
thick sides of the high walls, spouts overflowed, and the streets were
coated with a slimy dirt in which passersby slipped. Thickset men
paused on sidewalks bespattered by passing omnibuses, and women, their
skirts tucked up to the knees, bent under umbrellas, flattened
themselves against the shops to avoid being splashed.
The rain entered diagonally through the carriage doors. Des Esseintes
was obliged to lift the carriage windows down which the water ran,
while drops of mud furrowed their way like fireworks on each side of
the _fiacre_. To the monotonous sound of sacks of peas shaking against
his head through the action of the showers pattering against the
trunks and on the carriage rug, Des Esseintes dreamed of his voyage.
This already was a partial realization of his England, enjoyed in
Paris through the means of this frightful weather: a rainy, colossal
London smelling of molten metal and of soot, ceaselessly steaming and
smoking in the fog now spread out before his eyes; then rows of docks
sprawled ahead, as far as the eye could reach, docks full of cranes,
hand winches and bales, swarming with men perched on masts or astride
yard sails, while myriads of other men on the quays pushed hogsheads
All this was transpiring in vast warehouses along the river banks
which were bathed by the muddy and dull water of an imaginary Thames,
in a forest of masts and girders piercing the wan clouds of the
firmament, while trains rushed past at full speed or rumpled
underground uttering horrible cries and vomiting waves of smoke, and
while, through every street, monstrous and gaudy and infamous
advertisements flared through the eternal twilight, and strings of
carriages passed between rows of preoccupied and taciturn people whose
eyes stared ahead and whose elbows pressed closely against their
Des Esseintes shivered deliciously to feel himself mingling in this
terrible world of merchants, in this insulating mist, in this
incessant activity, in this pitiless gearing which ground millions of
the disinherited, urged by the comfort-distilling philanthropists to
recite Biblical verses and to sing psalms.
Then the vision faded suddenly with a jolt of the _fiacre_ which made
him rebound in his seat. He gazed through the carriage windows. Night
had fallen; gas burners blinked through the fog, amid a yellowish
halo; ribbons of fire swam in puddles of water and seemed to revolve
around wheels of carriages moving through liquid and dirty flame. He
endeavored to get his bearings, perceived the Carrousel and suddenly,
unreasoningly, perhaps through the simple effect of the high fall from
fanciful spaces, his thought reverted to a very trivial incident. He
remembered that his domestic had neglected to put a tooth brush in his
belongings. Then, he passed in review the list of objects packed up;
everything had been placed in his valise, but the annoyance of having
omitted this brush persisted until the driver, pulling up, broke the
chain of his reminiscences and regrets.
He was in the rue de Rivoli, in front of _Galignani's Messenger_.
Separated by a door whose unpolished glass was covered with
inscriptions and with strips of passe-partout framing newspaper
clippings and telegrams, were two vast shop windows crammed with
albums and books. He drew near, attracted by the sight of these books
bound in parrot-blue and cabbage-green paper, embossed with silver and
golden letterings. All this had an anti-Parisian touch, a mercantile
appearance, more brutal and yet less wretched than those worthless
bindings of French books; here and there, in the midst of the opened
albums, reproducing humorous scenes from Du Maurier and John Leech, or
the delirious cavalcades of Caldecott, some French novels appeared,
blending placid and satisfied vulgarities to these rich verjuice hues.
He tore himself away from his contemplation, opened the door and
entered a large library which was full of people. Seated strangers
unfolded maps and jabbered in strange languages. A clerk brought him a
complete collection of guides. He, in turns, sat down to examine the
books with their flexible covers. He glanced through them and paused
at a page of the Baedeker describing the London museums. He became
interested in the laconic and exact details of the guide books, but
his attention wandered away from the old English paintings to the
moderns which attracted him much more. He recalled certain works he
had seen at international expositions, and imagined that he might
possibly behold them once more at London: pictures by Millais--the
_Eve of Saint Agnes_ with its lunar clear green; pictures by Watts,
strange in color, checquered with gamboge and indigo, pictures
sketched by a sick Gustave Moreau, painted by an anaemic Michael
Angelo and retouched by a Raphael submerged in blue. Among other
canvasses, he recalled a _Denunciation of Cain_, an _Ida_, some _Eves_
where, in the strange and mysterious mixture of these three masters,
rose the personality, at once refined and crude, of a learned and
dreamy Englishman tormented by the bewitchment of cruel tones.
These canvasses thronged through his memory. The clerk, astonished by
this client who was so lost to the world, asked him which of the
guides he would take. Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, then excused
himself, bought a Baedeker and departed. The dampness froze him to the
spot; the wind blew from the side, lashing the arcades with whips of
rain. "Proceed to that place," he said to the driver, pointing with
his finger to the end of a passage where a store formed the angle of
the rue de Rivoli and the rue Castiglione and, with its whitish panes
of glass illumed from within, resembled a vast night lamp burning
through the wretchedness of this mist, in the misery of this crazy
It was the _Bodega_. Des Esseintes strayed into a large room sustained
by iron pillars and lined, on each side of its walls, with tall
barrels placed on their ends upon gantries, hooped with iron, their
paunches with wooden loopholes imitating a rack of pipes and from
whose notches hung tulip-shaped glasses, upside down. The lower sides
were bored and hafted with stone cocks. These hogsheads painted with a
royal coat of arms displayed the names of their drinks, the contents,
and the prices on colored labels and stated that they were to be
purchased by the cask, by the bottle or by the glass.
In the passage between these rows of casks, under the gas jets which
flared at one end of an ugly iron-gray chandelier, tables covered with
baskets of Palmers biscuits, hard and salty cakes, plates piled with
mince pies and sandwiches concealing strong, mustardy concoctions
under their unsavory covers, succeeded each other between a row of
seats and as far as the end of this cellar which was lined with still
more hogsheads carrying tiny barrels on their tops, resting on their
sides and bearing their names stamped with hot metal into the oak.
An odor of alcohol assailed Des Esseintes upon taking a seat in this
room heavy with strong wines. He looked about him. Here, the tuns were
placed in a straight line, exhibiting the whole series of ports, the
sweet or sour wines the color of mahogany or amaranth, and
distinguished by such laudatory epithets as _old port_, _light
delicate_, _Cockburn's very fine_, _magnificent old Regina_. There,
protruding formidable abdomens pressed closely against each other,
huge casks contained the martial Spanish wines, sherry and its
derivatives, the _san lucar_, _pasto_, _pale dry_, _oloroso_ and
The cellar was filled with people. Leaning on his elbows on a corner
of the table, Des Esseintes sat waiting for his glass of port ordered
of a gentleman who was opening explosive sodas contained in oval
bottles which recalled, while exaggerating, the capsules of gelatine
and gluten used by pharmacies to conceal the taste of certain
Englishmen were everywhere,--awkward pale clergymen garbed in black
from head to foot, with soft hats, laced shoes, very long coats dotted
in the front with tiny buttons, clean-shaved chins, round spectacles,
greasy flat hair; faces of tripe dealers and mastiff snouts with
apoplectic necks, ears like tomatoes, vinous cheeks, blood-shot crazy
eyes, whiskers that looked like those of some big monkeys; farther
away, at the end of the wine store, a long row of tow-headed
individuals, their chins covered with white hair like the end of an
artichoke, reading, through a microscope, the tiny roman type of an
English newspaper; opposite him, a sort of American commodore, dumpy
and thick-set, with smoked skin and bulbous nose, was sleeping, a
cigar planted in the hairy aperture of his mouth. Opposite were frames
hanging on the wall enclosing advertisements of Champagne, the trade
marks of Perrier and Roederer, Heidsieck and Mumm, and a hooded head
of a monk, with the name of Dom Perignon, Rheims, written in Gothic
A certain enervation enveloped Des Esseintes in this guard house
atmosphere; stunned by the prattle of the Englishmen conversing among
themselves, he fell into a revery, evoking, before the purple port
which filled the glasses, the creatures of Dickens that love this
drink so very much, imaginatively peopling the cellar with new
personages, seeing here, the white head of hair and the ruddy
complexion of Mr. Wickfield; there, the phlegmatic, crafty face and
the vengeful eye of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the melancholy solicitor in
_Bleak House_. Positively, all of them broke away from his memory and
installed themselves in the _Bodega_, with their peculiar
characteristics and their betraying gestures. His memories, brought to
life by his recent readings, attained a startling precision. The city
of the romancer, the house illumined and warmed, so perfectly tended
and isolated, the bottles poured slowly by little Dorrit and Dora
Copperfield and Tom Pinch's sister, appeared to him sailing like an
ark in a deluge of mire and soot. Idly he wandered through this
imaginary London, happy to be sheltered, as he listened to the
sinister shrieks of tugs plying up and down the Thames. His glass was
empty. Despite the heavy fumes in this cellar, caused by the cigars
and pipes, he experienced a cold shiver when he returned to the
reality of the damp and fetid weather.
He called for a glass of amontillado, and suddenly, beside this pale,
dry wine, the lenitive, sweetish stories of the English author were
routed, to be replaced by the pitiless revulsives and the grievous
irritants of Edgar Allen Poe; the cold nightmares of _The Cask of
Amontillado_, of the man immured in a vault, assailed him; the
ordinary placid faces of American and English drinkers who occupied
the room, appeared to him to reflect involuntary frightful thoughts,
to be harboring instinctive, odious plots. Then he perceived that he
was left alone here and that the dinner hour was near. He payed his
bill, tore himself from his seat and dizzily gained the door. He
received a wet slap in the face upon leaving the place. The street
lamps moved their tiny fans of flame which failed to illuminate; the
sky had dropped to the very houses. Des Esseintes viewed the arcades
of the rue de Rivoli, drowned in the gloom and submerged by water, and
it seemed to him that he was in the gloomy tunnel under the Thames.
Twitchings of his stomach recalled him to reality. He regained his
carriage, gave the driver the address of the tavern in the rue
d'Amsterdam near the station, and looked at his watch: seven o'clock.
He had just time to eat dinner; the train would not leave until ten
minutes of nine, and he counted on his fingers, reckoning the hours of
travel from Dieppe to Newhaven, saying to himself: "If the figures of
the timetable are correct, I shall be at London tomorrow at
The _fiacre_ stopped in front of the tavern. Once more, Des Esseintes
alighted and entered a long dark plain room, divided into partitions
as high as a man's waist,--a series of compartments resembling stalls.
In this room, wider towards the door, many beer pumps stood on a
counter, near hams having the color of old violins, red lobsters,
marinated mackerel, with onions and carrots, slices of lemon, bunches
of laurel and thym, juniper berries and long peppers swimming in thick
One of these boxes was unoccupied. He took it and called a young
black-suited man who bent forward, muttering something in a jargon he
could not understand. While the cloth was being laid, Des Esseintes
viewed his neighbors. They were islanders, just as at the _Bodega_,
with cold faience eyes, crimson complexions, thoughtful or haughty
airs. They were reading foreign newspapers. The only ones eating were
unescorted women in pairs, robust English women with boyish faces,
large teeth, ruddy apple cheeks, long hands and legs. They attacked,
with genuine ardor, a rumpsteak pie, a warm meat dish cooked in
mushroom sauce and covered with a crust, like a pie.
After having lacked appetite for such a long time, he remained amazed
in the presence of these hearty eaters whose voracity whetted his
hunger. He ordered oxtail soup and enjoyed it heartily. Then he
glanced at the menu for the fish, ordered a haddock and, seized with a
sudden pang of hunger at the sight of so many people relishing their
food, he ate some roast beef and drank two pints of ale, stimulated by