Part 2 out of 5
Upon awaking the following morning I experienced a feeling of such deep
disgust with myself, and felt so degraded in my own eyes that a horrible
temptation assailed me. Then I sat down and looked gloomily about the
room, my eyes resting mechanically on a brace of pistols that decorated
When the suffering mind stretches its hands, so to speak, toward
annihilation, when the soul forms some violent resolution, there seems to
be an independent physical horror in the act of touching the cold steel
of some deadly weapon; the fingers stiffen in anguish, the arm grows cold
and hard. Nature recoils as the condemned walks to death. I can not
express what I experienced, unless it was as if my pistol had said to me:
"Think what you are about to do."
Since then I have often wondered what would have happened to me if the
girl had departed immediately. Doubtless the first flush of shame would
have subsided; sadness is not despair, and God has joined them in order
that the one should not leave us alone with the other. Once relieved of
the presence of that woman, my heart would have become calm. There would
remain only repentance, for the angel of pardon has forbidden man to
kill. But I was doubtless cured for life; debauchery was once for all
driven from my door, and I would never again know the feeling of disgust
with which its first visit had inspired me.
But it happened otherwise. The struggle which was going on within, the
poignant reflections which overwhelmed me, the disgust, the fear, the
wrath, even (for I experienced all these emotions at the same time), all
these fatal powers nailed me to my chair; and, while I was thus a prey to
dangerous delirium, the creature, standing before my mirror, thought of
nothing but how best to arrange her dress and fix her hair, smiling the
while. This lasted more than a quarter of an hour, during which I had
almost forgotten her. Finally some slight noise attracted my attention
to her, and turning about with impatience I ordered her to leave the room
in such a tone that she at once opened the door and threw me a kiss
before going out.
At the same moment some one rang the bell of the outer door. I arose
precipitately, and had only time to open the closet door and motion the
creature into it, when Desgenais entered the room with two friends.
The great currents that are found in the middle of the ocean resemble
certain events in life. Fatality, Chance, Providence, what matters the
name? Those who quarrel over the word admit the fact. Such are not
those who, speaking of Napoleon or Caesar, say:
"He was a man of Providence." They apparently believe that heroes merit
the attention which Heaven shows them, and that the color of purple
attracts gods as well as bulls.
As to what rules the course of these little events, or what objects and
circumstances, in appearance the least important, lead to changes in
fortune, there is not, to my mind, a deeper cause and opportunity for
thought. For something in our ordinary actions resembles the little
blunted arrows we shoot at targets; little by little we make of our
successive deeds an abstract and regular entity that we call our prudence
or our will. Then comes a gust of wind, and lo! the smallest of these
arrows, the very lightest and most ineffective, is wafted beyond our
vision, beyond the very horizon to the dwelling-place of God himself.
What a strange feeling of unrest seizes us then! What becomes of those
phantoms of tranquil pride, the will and prudence? Force itself, that
mistress of the world, that sword of man in the combat of life, in vain
do we brandish it over our heads in wrath, in vain do we seek to ward off
with it a blow which threatens us; an invisible power turns aside the
point, and all the impetus of effort, deflected into space, serves only
to precipitate our fall.
Thus, at the moment I was hoping to cleanse myself from the sin I had
committed, perhaps to inflict the penalty, at the very instant when a
great horror had taken possession of me, I learned that I had to sustain
a dangerous test.
Desgenais was in good humor; stretching himself out on my sofa he began
to chaff me about my appearance, which indicated, he said, that I had not
slept well. As I was little disposed to indulge in pleasantry I begged
him to spare me.
He appeared to pay no attention to me, but, warned by my tone, soon
broached the subject that had brought him to me. He informed me that my
mistress had not only two lovers at a time, but three; that is to say,
she had treated my rival as badly as she had treated me; the poor boy,
having discovered her inconstancy, made a great ado and all Paris knew
it. At first I did not catch the meaning of Desgenais's words, as I was
not listening attentively; but when he had repeated his story three times
in detail I was so stupefied that I could not reply. My first impulse
was to laugh, for I saw that I had loved the most unworthy of women;
but it was no less true that I loved her still. "Is it possible?" was
all I could say.
Desgenais's friends confirmed all he had said. My mistress had been
surprised in her own house between two lovers, and a scene ensued that
all Paris knew by heart. She was disgraced, obliged to leave Paris or
remain exposed to the most bitter taunts.
It was easy for me to see that in all this ridicule a great part was
directed at me, not only on account of my duel in connection with this
woman, but from my whole conduct in regard to her. To say that she
deserved severest censure, that she had perhaps committed far worse sins
than those she was charged with, was but to make me feel that I had been
one of her dupes.
All this did not please me; but Desgenais had undertaken the task of
curing me of my love, and was prepared to treat my disease heroically.
A long friendship, founded on mutual services, gave him certain rights,
and as his motive appeared praiseworthy I allowed him to have his way.
Not only did he not spare me, but when he saw my trouble and my shame
increase, he pressed me the harder. My impatience was so obvious that he
could not continue, so he stopped and remained silent--a course that
irritated me still more.
In my turn I began to ask questions; I paced to and fro in my room.
Although the recital of the story was well-nigh insupportable, I wished
to hear it again. I tried to assume a smiling face and tranquil air, but
in vain. Desgenais suddenly became silent after having shown himself to
be a most virulent gossip. While I was pacing up and down my room he
looked at me calmly, as if I were a caged fox.
I can not express my state of mind. That a woman who had so long been
the idol of my heart, and who, since I had lost her, had caused me such
deep affliction, the only one I had ever loved, for whom indeed I might
sorrow till death, should become suddenly a shameless wretch, the subject
of coarse jests, of universal censure and scandal! It seemed to me that
I felt on my shoulder the brand of a glowing iron and that I was marked
with a burning stigma.
The more I reflected, the more the darkness thickened about me. From
time to time I turned my head and saw a cold smile or a curious glance.
Desgenais did not leave me; he knew very well what he was doing, and saw
that I might go to any lengths in my present desperate condition.
When he found that he had brought me to the desired point, he did not
hesitate to deal the finishing stroke.
"Does that story displease you?" he asked. "The best is yet to come.
My dear Octave, the scene I have described took place on a certain night
when the moon was shining brightly. While the two lovers were
quarrelling over their fair one, and talking of cutting her throat as she
sat before the fire, down in the street a certain shadow was seen to pass
up and down before the house, a shadow that resembled you so closely that
it was decided it must be you."
"Who says so?" I asked, "who saw me in the street?"
"Your mistress herself; she told it to every one who cared to listen,
just as cheerfully as we tell you her story. She claims that you love
her still, that you keep guard at her door, in short--everything you can
think of; but you ought to know that she talks about you publicly."
I have never been able to lie, for whenever I have tried to disguise the
truth my face has betrayed me. 'Amour propre', the shame of confessing
my weakness before witnesses induced me, however, to make the effort.
"It is very true that I was in the street," I thought, "but had I known
that my mistress was as bad as she is, I should not have been there."
Finally I persuaded myself that I had not been seen distinctly; I
attempted to deny it. A deep flush suffused my face and I felt the
futility of my feint. Desgenais smiled.
"Take care," said he, "take care, do not go too far."
"But," I protested, "how did I know it, how could I know--"
Desgenais compressed his lips as if to say:
"You knew enough."
I stopped short, mumbling the remnant of my sentence. My blood became so
hot that I could not continue.
"I in the street bathed in tears, in despair, and during that time that
encounter within! What! that very night! Mocked by her! Surely,
Desgenais, you are dreaming. Is it true? Can it be possible? What can
you know about it?"
Thus talking at haphazard, I lost my head and an irresistible feeling of
wrath began to rise within me. Finally I sat down exhausted.
"My friend," said Desgenais, "do not take the thing so seriously. The
solitary life you have been leading for the last two months has made you
ill; I see you have need of distraction. Come to supper with me this
evening, and tomorrow morning we will go to the country."
The tone in which he said this hurt me more than anything else; in vain I
tried to control myself. "Yes," I thought, "deceived by that woman,
poisoned by horrible suggestions, having no refuge either in work or in
fatigue, having for my only safeguard against despair and ruin a sacred
but frightful grief. O God! it is that grief, that sacred relic of my
sorrow, that has just crumbled in my hands! It is no longer, my love, it
is my despair that is insulted. Mockery! She mocks at me as I weep!"
That appeared incredible to me. All the memories of the past crowded
about my heart when I thought of it. I seemed to see the spectres of our
nights of love; they hung over a bottomless, eternal abyss, black as
chaos, and from the bottom of that abyss arose a shriek of laughter,
sweet but mocking, that said: "Behold your reward!"
Had I been told that the world mocked at me I would have replied: "So
much the worse for it," and I should not have been angry; but at the same
time I was told that my mistress was a shameless wretch. Thus, on one
side, the ridicule was public, vouched for, stated by two witnesses who,
before telling what they knew, must have felt that the world was against
me; and, on the other hand, what reply could I make? How could I escape?
What could I do when the centre of my life, my heart itself, was ruined,
killed, annihilated. What could I say when the woman for whom I had
braved all, ridicule as well as blame, for whom I had borne a load of
misery, whom I loved, and who loved another, of whom I demanded no love,
of whom I desired nothing but permission to weep at her door, no favor
but that of vowing my youth to her memory and of writing her name, her
name alone, on the tomb of my hopes!--Ah! when I thought of it, I felt
the hand of death heavy upon me. That woman mocked me, it was she who
first pointed her finger at me, singling me out to the idle crowd which
surrounded her; it was she, it was those lips erstwhile so many times
pressed to mine, it was that body, that soul of my life, my flesh and my
blood, it was from that source the injury came; yea, the last pang of
all, the most cowardly and the most bitter, the pitiless laugh that
sneers in the face of grief.
The more I thought of it the more enraged I became. Did I say enraged?
I do not know what passion possessed me. What I do know is that an
inordinate desire for vengeance entered into my soul. How could I
revenge myself on a woman? I would have paid any price for a weapon
that could be used against her. But I had none, not even the one she
had employed; I could not pay her in her own coin.
Suddenly I noticed a shadow moving behind the curtain before the closet.
I had forgotten my prisoner.
"Listen to me!" I cried, rising, "I have loved, I have loved like a
fool. I deserve all the ridicule you have subjected me to. But, by
Heaven! I will show you something that will prove to you that I am not
such a fool as you think."
With these words I pulled aside the curtain and exposed the interior of
the closet. The girl was trying to conceal herself in a corner.
"Go in, if you choose," I said to Desgenais; "you who call me a fool for
loving a woman, see how your teaching has affected me. Do you think I
passed last night under the windows of--? But that is not all," I added,
"that is not all I have to say. You give a supper to-night and to-morrow
go to the country; I am with you, and shall not leave you from now on.
We will not separate, but will pass the entire day together. Are you
with me? Agreed! I have tried to make of my heart the mausoleum of my
love, but I will bury my love in another tomb."
With these words I sat down, marvelling how indignation can solace grief
and restore happiness. Whoever is astonished to learn that, from that
day, I completely changed my course of life does not know the heart of
man, and does not understand that a young man of twenty may hesitate
before taking a step, but does not retreat when he has once taken it.
THE CHOSEN WAY
The first steps in debauchery resemble vertigo, for one feels a sort of
terror mingled with sensuous delight, as if peering downward from some
giddy--height. While shameful, secret dissipation ruins the noblest of
men, in the frank and open defiance of conventionality there is something
that compels respect even in the most depraved. He who goes at
nightfall, muffled in his cloak, to sully his life in secret, and
clandestinely to shake off the hypocrisy of the day, resembles an Italian
who strikes his enemy from behind, not daring to provoke him to open
quarrel. There are assassinations in the dark corners of the city under
shelter of the night. He who goes his way without concealment says:
"Every one does it and conceals it; I do it and do not conceal it."
Thus speaks pride, and once that cuirass has been buckled on, it glitters
with the refulgent light of day.
It is said that Damocles saw a sword suspended over his head. Thus
libertines seem to have something over their heads which says: "Go on,
but remember, I hang not by a thread." Those masked carriages that
are seen during Carnival are the faithful images of their life.
A dilapidated open wagon, flaming torches lighting up painted faces;
some laugh, some sing. Among them you see what appear to be women;
they are in fact what once were women, with human semblance. They are
caressed and insulted; no one knows who they are or what their names.
They float and stagger under the flaming torches in an intoxication that
thinks of nothing, and over which, it is said, a pitying God watches.
But if the first impression be astonishment, the second is horror, and
the third pity. There is evident so much force, or rather such an abuse
of force, that often the noblest characters and the strongest
constitutions are ruined. The life appears hardy and dangerous to these;
they would make prodigies of themselves; bound to debauchery as Mazeppa
to his horse, they gallop, making Centaurs of themselves and seeing
neither the bloody trail that the shreds of their flesh leave, nor the
eyes of the wolves that gleam in hungry pursuit, nor the desert, nor the
Launched into that life by the circumstances that I have recounted, I
must now describe what I saw there.
Before I had a close view of one of those famous gatherings called
theatrical masked balls, I had heard the debauchery of the Regency spoken
of, and a reference to the time when a queen of France appeared disguised
as a violet-seller. I found there flower-merchants disguised as
vivandieres. I expected to find libertinism there, but in fact I found
none at all. One sees only the scum of libertinism, some blows, and
drunken women lying in deathlike stupor on broken bottles.
Ere I saw debauchery at table I had heard of the suppers of Heliogabolus
and of the philosophy of Greece, which made the pleasures of the senses a
kind of natural religion. I expected to find oblivion or something like
joy; I found there the worst thing in the world: ennui trying to live,
and some Englishmen who said: "I do this or that, and so I amuse myself.
I have spent so many sovereigns, and have procured so much pleasure."
And thus they wear out their life on that grindstone.
I had known nothing of courtesans when I heard of Aspasia, who sat on
the knees of Alcibiades while discussing philosophy with Socrates.
I expected to find something bold and insolent, but gay, free, and
vivacious, something with the sparkle of champagne; I found a yawning
mouth, a fixed eye, and light fingers.
Before I saw titled courtesans I had read Boccaccio and Bandello; above
all, I had read Shakespeare. I had dreamed of those beautiful triflers;
of those cherubim of hell. A thousand times I had drawn those heads so
poetically foolish, so enterprising in audacity, heads of harebrained
mistresses who wreck a romance with a glance, and who pass through life
by waves and by pulsations, like the sirens of the tides. I thought of
the fairies of the modern tales, who are always drunk with love if not
with wine. I found, instead, writers of letters, exact arrangers of
assignations, who practised lying as an art and cloaked their baseness
under hypocrisy, whose only thought was to give themselves for profit and
Ere first I looked on the gaming-table I had heard of floods of gold,
of fortunes made in a quarter of an hour, and of a lord of the court of
Henry IV, who won on one card a hundred thousand louis. I found a narrow
room where workmen who had but one shirt rented a suit for the evening
for twenty sous, police stationed at the door, and starving wretches
staking a crust of bread against a pistol-shot.
Unknown to me were those dance-halls, public or other, open to any of
those thirty thousand women who are permitted to sell themselves in
Paris; I had heard of the saturnalia of all ages, of every imaginable
orgy, from Babylon to Rome, from the temple of Priapus to the Parc-aux-
Cerfs, and I have always seen written on the sill of that door the word,
"Pleasure." I found nothing suggestive of pleasure, but in its place
another word; and it has always seemed ineffaceable, not graven in that
glorious metal that takes the sun's light, but in the palest of all, the
cold colors of which seem tinted by the moonlight silver.
The first time I saw a mob, it was a depressing morning--Ash Wednesday,
near Courtille. A cold, fine rain had been falling since the evening
before; the streets were covered with pools of water. Carriages with
blinds down were strung out hither and thither, crowding between hedges
of hideous men and women standing on the sidewalks. That sinister wall
of spectators had tigerish eyes, red with wine, gleaming with hatred.
The carriage-wheels splashed mud over them, but they did not move. I was
standing on the front seat of an open carriage; from time to time a man
in rags would step out from the wall, hurl a torrent of abuse at us, then
cover us with a cloud of flour. Mud would soon follow; yet we kept on
our way toward the Isle of Love and the pretty wood of Romainville,
consecrated by so many sweet kisses. One of my friends fell from his
seat into the mud, narrowly escaping death on the paving. The people
threw themselves on him to overpower him, and we were obliged to hasten
to his assistance. One of the trumpeters who preceded us on horseback
was struck on the shoulder by a paving-stone; the flour had given out.
I had never heard of anything like that.
I began to understand the time and comprehend the spirit of the age.
Desgenais had planned a reunion of young people at his country house.
The best wines, a splendid table, gaming, dancing, hunting, nothing was
lacking. Desgenais was rich and generous. He combined an antique
hospitality with modern ways. Moreover one could always find in his
house the best books; his conversation was that of a man of learning and
culture. He was a problem.
I took with me a taciturn humor that nothing could overcome; he respected
it scrupulously. I did not reply to his questions and he dropped the
subject; he was satisfied that I had forgotten my mistress. I went to
the chase and appeared at the table, and was as convivial as the best;
he asked no more.
One of the most unfortunate tendencies of inexperienced youth is to judge
of the world from first impressions; but it must be confessed that there
is a race of men who are also very unhappy; a race which says to youth:
"You are right in believing in evil, for we know what it is." I have
heard, for example, a curious thing spoken of, a medium between good and
evil, a certain arrangement between heartless women and men worthy of
them--apparently love, but in reality a passing sentiment. They speak of
love as of an engine constructed by a wagon-builder or a building-
contractor. They said to me: "This and that are agreed upon, such and
such phrases are spoken, and certain others are repeated in reply;
letters are written in a prescribed manner, you kneel in a certain
attitude." All is regulated as in a parade.
This made me laugh. Unfortunately for me, I can not tell a woman whom I
despise that I love her, even when I know that it is only a convention
and that she will not be deceived by it. I have never bent my knee to
the ground when my heart did not go with it. So that class of women
known as facile is unknown to me, or if I allow myself to be taken with
them, it is without knowing it, and through innate simplicity.
I can understand that one's soul can be put aside, but not that it should
be handled. That there is some pride in this, I confess, but I do not
intend either to boast or abase myself. Above all things I hate those
women who laugh at love, and I permit them to reciprocate the sentiment;
there will never be any dispute between us.
Such women are beneath courtesans, for courtesans may lie as well as
they; but courtesans are capable of love, and these women are not. I
remember a woman who loved me, and who said to a man many times richer
than I, with whom she was living: "I am weary of you, I am going to my
lover." That woman is worth more than many others who are not despised
I passed the entire season with Desgenais, and learned that my mistress
had left France; that news left in my heart a feeling of languor which I
could not overcome.
At the sight of that world which surrounded and was so new to me,
I experienced at first a kind of bizarre curiosity, at once sad and
profound, which made me look timorously at things as does a restless
horse. Then an incident occurred which made a deep impression on me.
Desgenais had with him a very beautiful woman who loved him much.
One evening as I was walking with him I told him that I considered her
admirable, as much on account of her attachment for him as because of her
beauty. In short, I praised her highly and with warmth, giving him to
understand that he ought to be happy.
He made no reply. It was his manner, for he was the dryest of men. That
night when all had retired, and I had been in bed some fifteen minutes I
heard a knock at my door. I supposed it was some one of my friends who
could not sleep, and invited him to enter.
There appeared before my astonished eyes a woman, very pale, carrying a
bouquet in her hands, to which was attached a piece of paper bearing
these words "To Octave, from his friend Desgenais."
I had no sooner read these words than a flash of light came to me.
I understood the meaning of this action of Desgenais in making me this
African gift. It made me think. The poor woman was weeping and did not
dare dry her tears for fear I would see them. I said to her: "You may
return and fear nothing."
She replied that if she should return Desgenais would send her back to
Paris. "Yes," I replied, "you are beautiful and I am susceptible to
temptation, but you weep, and your tears not being shed for me, I care
nothing for the rest. Go, therefore, and I will see to it that you are
not sent back to Paris."
One of my peculiarities is that meditation, which with many is a firm and
constant quality of the mind, is in my case an instinct independent of
the will, and seizes me like a fit of passion. It comes to me at
intervals in its own good time, regardless of my will and in almost any
place. But when it comes I can do nothing against it. It takes me
whither it pleases by whatever route seems good to it.
When the woman had left, I sat up.
"My friend," I said to myself, "behold what has been sent you. If
Desgenais had not seen fit to send you his mistress he would not have
been mistaken, perhaps, in supposing that you might fall in love with
"Have you well considered it? A sublime and divine mystery is
accomplished. Such a being costs nature the most vigilant maternal care;
yet man, who would cure you, can think of nothing better than to offer
you lips which belong to him in order to teach you how to cease to love.
"How was it accomplished? Others than you have doubtless admired her,
but they ran no risk. She might employ all the seduction she pleased;
you alone were in danger.
"It must be that Desgenais has a heart, since he lives. In what respect
does he differ from you. He is a man who believes in nothing, fears
nothing, who knows no care or ennui, perhaps, and yet it is clear that a
scratch on the finger would fill him with terror, for if his body
abandons him, what becomes of him? He lives only in the body. What sort
of creature is he who treats his soul as the flagellants treat their
bodies? Can one live without a head?
"Think of it. Here is a man who possesses one of the most beautiful
women in the world; he is young and ardent; he finds her beautiful and
tells her so; she replies that she loves him. Some one touches him on
the shoulder and says to him: 'She is unfaithful.' Nothing more, he is
sure of himself. If some one had said: 'She is a poisoner,' he would,
perhaps have continued to love her, he would not have given her a kiss
less; but she is unfaithful, and it is no more a question of love with
him than of the star of Saturn.
"What is there in that word? A word that is merited, positive,
withering, at will. But why? It is still but a word. Can you kill a
body with a word?
"And if you love that body? Some one pours a glass of wine and says to
you: 'Do not love that, for you can get four for six francs.' And it may
"But Desgenais loves his mistress, since he keeps her; he must,
therefore, have a peculiar fashion of loving? No, he has not; his
fashion of loving is not love, and he cares no more for the woman who
merits affection than for her who is unworthy. He loves no one, simply
"What has led him to this? Was he born thus? To love is as natural as
to eat and to drink. He is not a man. Is he a dwarf or a giant? Is he
always so impassive? Upon what does he feed, what beverage does he
drink? Behold him at thirty like old Mithridates; poisons are his
"There is the great secret, my child, the key you must grasp. By
whatever process of reasoning debauchery may be defended, it will be
proven that it is natural at a given day, hour, or night, but not to-
morrow nor every day. There is not a nation on earth which has not
considered woman either the companion and consolation of man or the
sacred instrument of life, and has not under either of these two forms
honored her. And yet here is an armed warrior who leaps into the abyss
that God has dug with His own hands between man and brute; as well might
he deny that fact. What mute Titan is this who dares repress under the
kisses of the body the love of the soul, and place on human lips the
stigma of the brute, the seal of eternal silence?
"There is a word that should be studied. In it you hear the faint moan
of those dismal labyrinths we know as secret societies, mysteries that
the angels of destruction whisper in the ear of night as it descends upon
the earth. That man is better or worse than God has made him. He is
like a sterile woman, in whom nature has not completed her work, or there
is distilled in the shadow of his life some venomous poison.
"Ah! yes, neither occupation nor study has been able to cure you, my
friend. To forget and to learn, that is your device. You turn the
leaves of dead books; you are too young for antiquities. Look about you,
the pale throng of men surrounds you. The eyes of life's sphynx glitter
in the midst of divine hieroglyphics; decipher the book of life!
Courage, scholar, launch out on the Styx, the deathless flood, and let
the waves of sorrow waft you to oblivion or to God."
"All the good there was in it, supposing there was some good in it, was
that false pleasures were the seeds of sorrow and of bitterness which
fatigued me to the point of exhaustion." Such are the simple words
spoken with reference to his youth by a man who was the most manly of any
who have lived--St. Augustine. Of those who have done as I, few would
say those words; all have them in their hearts; I have found no others in
Returning to Paris in the month of December, I passed the winter
attending pleasure parties, masquerades, suppers, rarely leaving
Desgenais, who was delighted with me: not so was I with him. The more
I went about, the more unhappy I became. It seemed to me after a short
time that the world which had at first appeared so strange would hamper
me, so to speak, at every step; yet where I had expected to see a
spectre, I discovered, upon closer inspection, a shadow.
Desgenais asked what ailed me.
"And you?" I asked. "What is the matter with you? Have you lost some
relative? Or do you suffer from some wound?"
At times he seemed to understand and did not question me. Occasionally
we sat down at a cafe table and drank until our heads swam; or in the
middle of the night took horses and rode ten or twelve leagues into the
country; returning to the bath, then to table, then to gambling, then to
bed; and on reaching mine, I fell on my knees and wept. That was my
Strange to say, I took pride in passing for what I was not, I boasted of
being worse than I really was, and experienced a sort of melancholy
pleasure in doing so. When I had actually done what I claimed, I felt
nothing but ennui, but when I invented an account of some folly, some
story of debauchery, or a recital of an orgy with which I had nothing to
do, it seemed to me that my heart was better satisfied, although I know
Whenever I joined a party of pleasure-seekers and visited some spot made
sacred by tender associations I became stupid, went off by myself, looked
gloomily at the trees and bushes as if I would like to trample them under
my feet. Upon my return I would remain silent for hours.
The baleful idea that truth is nudity beset me on every occasion.
"The world," I said to myself, "is accustomed to call its disguise
virtue, its chaplet religion, its flowing mantle convenience. Honor and
Morality are man's chambermaids; he drinks in his wine the tears of the
poor in spirit who believe in him; while the sun is high in the heavens
he walks about with downcast eye; he goes to church, to the ball, to the
assembly, and when evening has come he removes his mantle and there
appears a naked bacchante with the hoofs of a goat."
But such thoughts aroused a feeling of horror, for I felt that if the
body was under the clothing, the skeleton was under the body. "Is it
possible that that is all?." I asked in spite of myself. Then I
returned to the city, I saw a little girl take her mother's arm, and I
became like a child.
Although I had followed my friends into all manner of dissipation, I had
no desire to resume my place in the world of society. The sight of women
caused me intolerable pain; I could not touch a woman's hand without
trembling. I had decided never to love again.
Nevertheless I returned from the ball one evening so sick at heart that I
feared that it was love. I happened to have had beside me at supper the
most charming and the most distinguished woman whom it had ever been my
good fortune to meet. When I closed my eyes to sleep I saw her image
before me. I thought I was lost, and I at once resolved that I would
avoid meeting her again. A sort of fever seized me, and I lay on my bed
for fifteen days, repeating over and over the lightest words I had
exchanged with her.
As there is no spot on earth where one can be so well-known by his
neighbors as in Paris, it was not long before the people of my
acquaintance who had seen me with Desgenais began to accuse me of being a
great libertine. In that I admired the discernment of the world: in
proportion as I had passed for inexperienced and sensitive at the time of
my rupture with my mistress, I was now considered corrupt and hardened.
Some one had just told me that it was clear I had never loved that woman,
that I had doubtless merely played at love, thereby paying me a
compliment which I really did not deserve; but the truth of it was that
I was so swollen with vanity I was charmed with it.
My desire was to pass as blase, even while I was filled with desires and
my exalted imagination was carrying me beyond all limits. I began to say
that I could not make any headway with the women; my head was filled with
chimeras which I preferred to realities. In short, my unique pleasure
consisted in altering the nature of facts. If a thought were but
extraordinary, if it shocked common sense, I became its ardent champion
at the risk of advocating the most dangerous sentiments.
My greatest fault was imitation of everything that struck me, not by its
beauty but by its strangeness, and not wishing to confess myself an
imitator I resorted to exaggeration in order to appear original.
According to my idea, nothing was good or even tolerable; nothing was
worth the trouble of turning the head, and yet when I had become warmed
up in a discussion it seemed as if there was no expression in the French
language strong enough to sustain my cause; but my warmth would subside
as soon as my opponents ranged themselves on my side.
It was a natural consequence of my conduct. Although disgusted with the
life I was leading I was unwilling to change it:
Simigliante a quells 'nferma
Che non puo trovar posa in su le piume,
Ma con dar volta suo dolore scherma.--DANTE.
Thus I tortured my mind to give it change, and I fell into all these
vagaries in order to get away from myself.
But while my vanity was thus occupied, my heart was suffering, so that
ever within me were a man who laughed and a man who wept. It was a
perpetual struggle between my head and my heart. My own mockeries
frequently caused me great pain and my deepest sorrows aroused a desire
to burst into laughter.
One day a man boasted of being proof against superstitious fears, in
fact, fear of every kind. His friends put a human skeleton in his bed
and then concealed themselves in an adjoining room to wait for his
return. They did not hear any noise, but in the morning they found him
dressed and sitting on the bed playing with the bones; he had lost his
I might be that man but for the fact that my favorite bones are those of
a well-beloved skeleton; they are the debris of my first love, all that
remains of the past.
But it must not be supposed that there were no joyous moments in all this
maddened whirl. Among Desgenais's companions were several young men of
distinction and a number of artists. We sometimes passed together
delightful evenings imagining ourselves libertines. One of them was
infatuated with a beautiful singer, who charmed us with her fresh and
expressive voice. How many times we sat listening to her while supper
was waiting! How many times, when the flagons had been emptied, one of
us held a volume of Lamartine and read aloud in a voice choked by
emotion! Every other thought disappeared. The hours passed by unheeded.
What strange "libertines" we were! We did not speak a word and there
were tears in our eyes.
Desgenais especially, habitually the coldest and dryest of men,
was inexplicable on such occasions; he delivered himself of such
extraordinary sentiments that he might have been a poet in delirium.
But after these effusions he would be seized with furious joy. When
warmed by wine he would break everything within reach; the genius of
destruction stalked forth in him armed to the teeth. I have seen him
pickup a chair and hurl it through a closed window.
I could not help making a study of this singular man. He appeared to me
the exact type of a class which ought to exist somewhere but which was
unknown to me. One could never tell whether his outbursts were the
despair of a man sick of life, or the whim of a spoiled child.
During the fete, in particular, he was in such a state of nervous
excitement that he acted like a schoolboy. Once he persuaded me to go
out on foot with him, muffled in grotesque costumes, with masks and
instruments of music. We promenaded all night, in the midst of the most
frightful din of horrible sounds. We found a driver asleep on his box
and unhitched his horses; then, pretending we had just come from the
ball, set up a great cry. The coachman started up, cracked his whip,
and his horses started off on a trot, leaving him seated on the box.
That same evening we had passed through the Champs Elysees; Desgenais,
seeing another carriage passing, stopped it after the manner of a
highwayman; he intimidated the coachman by threats and forced him to
climb down and lie flat on his stomach. He opened the carriage door and
found within a young man and a lady motionless with fright. He whispered
to me to imitate him, and we began to enter one door and go out by the
other, so that in the obscurity the poor young people thought they saw a
procession of bandits going through their carriage.
As I understand it, the men who say that the world gives experience ought
to be astonished if they are believed. The world is merely a number of
whirlpools, each one independent of the others; they circle in groups
like flocks of birds. There is no resemblance between the different
quarters of the same city, and the denizen of the Chaussee d'Antin has as
much to learn at Marais as at Lisbon. It is true that these various
whirlpools are traversed, and have been since the beginning of the world,
by seven personages who are always the same: the first is called hope;
the second, conscience; the third, opinion; the fourth, desire; the
fifth, sorrow; the sixth, pride; and the seventh, man.
"But," the reader objects, "where are the women in all this?"
Oh! creatures who bear the name of women and who have passed like dreams
through a life that was itself a dream, what shall I say of you? Where
there is no shadow of hope can there be memory? Where shall I seek for
it? What is there more dumb in human memory? What is there more
completely forgotten than you?
If I must speak of women I will mention two; here is one of them:
I ask what would be expected of a poor sewing-girl, young and pretty,
about eighteen, with a romantic affair on her hands that is purely a
question of love; with little knowledge of life and no idea of morals;
eternally sewing near a window before which processions were not allowed
to pass by order of the police, but near which a dozen young women
prowled who were licensed and recognized by these same police; what could
you expect of her, when after wearying her hands and eyes all day long on
a dress or a hat, she leans out of that window as night falls? That
dress she has sewed, that hat she has trimmed with her poor and honest
hands in order to earn a supper for the household, she sees passing along
the street on the head or on the body of a notorious woman. Thirty times
a day a hired carriage stops before the door, and there steps out a
dissolute character, numbered as is the hack in which she rides, who
stands before a glass and primps, taking off and putting on the results
of many days' work on the part of the poor girl who watches her. She
sees that woman draw from her pocket gold in plenty, she who has but one
louis a week; she looks at her feet and her head, she examines her dress
and eyes her as she steps into her carriage; and then, what can you
expect? When night has fallen, after a day when work has been scarce,
when her mother is sick, she opens her door, stretches out her hand and
stops a passerby.
Such is the story of a girl I once knew. She could play the piano, knew
something of accounts, a little designing, even a little history and
grammar, and thus a little of everything. How many times have I regarded
with poignant compassion that sad work of nature, mutilated by society!
How many times have I followed in the darkness the pale and vacillating
gleams of a spark flickering in abortive life! How many times have I
tried to revive the fire that smouldered under those ashes! Alas! her
long hair was the color of ashes, and we called her Cendrillon.
I was not rich enough to help her; Desgenais, at my request, interested
himself in the poor creature; he made her learn over again all of which
she had a slight knowledge. But she could make no appreciable progress.
When her teacher left her she would fold her arms and for hours look
silently across the public square. What days! What misery! One day I
threatened that if she did not work she should have no money; she
silently resumed her task, and I learned that she stole out of the house
a few minutes later. Where did she go? God knows. Before she left I
asked her to embroider a purse for me. I still have that sad relic, it
hangs in my room, a monument of the ruin that is wrought here below.
But here is another case:
It was about ten in the evening when, after a riotous day, we repaired to
Desgenais's, who had left us some hours before to make his preparations.
The orchestra was ready and the room filled when we arrived.
Most of the dancers were girls from the theatres.
As soon as we entered I plunged into the giddy whirl of the waltz. That
delightful exercise has always been dear to me; I know of nothing more
beautiful, more worthy of a beautiful woman and a young man; all dances
compared with the waltz are but insipid conventions or pretexts for
insignificant converse. It is truly to possess a woman, in a certain
sense, to hold her for a half hour in your arms, and to draw her on in
the dance, palpitating in spite of herself, in such a way that it can not
be positively asserted whether she is being protected or seduced. Some
deliver themselves up to the pleasure with such modest voluptuousness,
with such sweet and pure abandon, that one does not know whether he
experiences desire or fear, and whether, if pressed to the heart, they
would faint or break in pieces like the rose. Germany, where that dance
was invented, is surely the land of love.
I held in my arms a superb danseuse from an Italian theatre who had come
to Paris for the carnival; she wore the costume of a Bacchante with a
robe of panther's skin. Never have I seen anything so languishing as
that creature. She was tall and slender, and while dancing with extreme
rapidity, had the appearance of allowing herself to be led; to see her
one would think that she would tire her partner, but such was not the
case, for she moved as if by enchantment.
On her bosom rested an enormous bouquet, the perfume of which intoxicated
me. She yielded to my encircling arms as would an Indian vine, with
a gentleness so sweet and so sympathetic that I seemed enveloped with
a perfumed veil of silk. At each turn there could be heard a light
tinkling from her metal girdle; she moved so gracefully that I thought
I beheld a beautiful star, and her smile was that of a fairy about to
vanish from human sight. The tender and voluptuous music of the dance
seemed to come from her lips, while her head, covered with a wilderness
of black tresses, bent backward as if her neck was too slender to support
When the waltz was over I threw myself on a chair; my heart beat wildly:
"Oh, heaven!" I murmured, "how can it be possible? Oh, superb monster!
Oh! beautiful reptile! How you writhe, how you coil in and out, sweet
adder, with supple and spotted skin! Thy cousin the serpent has taught
thee to coil about the tree of life holding between thy lips the apple of
temptation. Oh! Melusina! Melusina! The hearts of men are thine. You
know it well, enchantress, with your soft languor that seems to suspect
nothing! You know very well that you ruin, that you destroy;
you know that he who touches you will suffer; you know that he dies who
basks in your smile, who breathes the perfume of your flowers and comes
under the magic influence of your charms; that is why you abandon
yourself so freely, that is why your smile is so sweet, your flowers so
fresh; that is why you place your arms so gently on our shoulders. Oh,
heaven! what is your will with us?"
Professor Halle has said a terrible thing: "Woman is the nervous part of
humanity, man the muscular." Humboldt himself, that serious thinker, has
said that an invisible atmosphere surrounds the human nerves.
I do not quote the dreamers who watch the wheeling flight of
Spallanzani's bat, and who think they have found a sixth sense in nature.
Such as nature is, her mysteries are terrible enough, her powers mighty
enough--that nature which creates us, mocks at us, and kills us--without
our seeking to deepen the shadows that surround us. But where is the man
who thinks he has lived that will deny woman's power over us? Has he
ever taken leave of a beautiful dancer with trembling hands? Has he ever
felt that indefinable enervating magnetism which, in the midst of the
dance, under the influence of music, and the warmth, making all else seem
cold, that comes from a young woman, electrifying her and leaping from
her to him as the perfume of aloes from the swinging censer?
I was struck with stupor. I was familiar with that sensation similar to
drunkenness which characterizes love; I knew that it was the aureole
which crowned my well-beloved. But that she should excite such heart-
throbs, that she should evoke such phantoms with nothing but her beauty,
her flowers, her motley costume, and a certain trick of dancing she had
learned from some merry-andrew; and that without a word, without a
thought, without even appearing to know it! What was chaos, if it
required seven days to make such a being?
It was not love, however, that I felt, and I do not know how to describe
it unless I call it thirst. For the first time I felt vibrating in my
body a cord that was not attuned to my heart. The sight of that
beautiful animal had aroused a responsive roar from another animal in my
nature. I felt sure I could never tell that woman that I loved her, or
that she pleased me, or even that she was beautiful; there was nothing on
my lips but a desire to kiss her, and say to her: "Make a girdle of those
listless arms and lean that head on my breast; place that sweet smile on
my lips." My body loved hers; I was under the influence of beauty as of
Desgenais passed and asked what I was doing there.
"Who is that woman?" I asked.
"What woman? Of whom do you speak?"
I took his arm and led him into the hall. The Italian saw us coming and
smiled. I stopped and stepped back.
"Ah!" said Desgenais, "you have danced with Marco?"
"Who is Marco?" I asked.
"Why, that idle creature who is laughing over there. Does she please
"No," I replied, "I have waltzed with her and wanted to know her name;
I have no further interest in her."
Shame led me to speak thus, but when Desgenais turned away I followed
"You are very prompt," he said, "Marco is no ordinary woman. She was
almost the wife of M. de ------, ambassador to Milan. One of his friends
brought her here. Yet," he added, "you may rest assured I shall speak to
her. We shall not allow you to die so long as there is any hope for you
or any resource left untried. It is possible that she will remain to
He left me, and I was alarmed to see him approach her. But they were
soon lost in the crowd.
"Is it possible," I murmured; "have I come to this? Oh! heavens! is this
what I am going to love? But after all," I thought, "my senses have
spoken, but not my heart."
Thus I tried to calm myself. A few minutes later Desgenais tapped me on
"We shall go to supper at once," said he. "You will give your arm to
"Listen," I said; "I hardly know what I am experiencing. It seems to me
I see limping Vulcan covering Venus with kisses while his beard smokes
with the fumes of the forge. He fixes his staring eyes on the dazzling
skin of his prey. His happiness in the possession of his prize makes him
laugh for joy, and at the same time shudder with happiness, and then he
remembers his father, Jupiter, seated on high among the gods."
Desgenais looked at me but made no reply; taking me by the arm he led me
"I am tired," he said, "and I am sad; this noise wearies me. Let us go
to supper, that will refresh us."
The supper was splendid, but I could not touch it.
"What is the matter with you?" asked Marco.
I sat like a statue, making no reply and looking at her from head to foot
She began to laugh, and Desgenais, who could see us from his table,
joined her. Before her was a large crystal glass cut in the shape of a
chalice, which reflected the glittering lights on its thousand sparkling
facets, shining like the prism and revealing the seven colors of the
rainbow. She listlessly extended her arm and filled it to the brim with
Cyprian and a sweetened Oriental wine which I afterward found so bitter
on the deserted Lido.
"Here," she said, presenting it to me, "per voi, bambino mio."
"For you and for me," I said, presenting her my glass in turn.
She moistened her lips while I emptied my glass, unable to conceal the
sadness she seemed to read in my eyes.
"Is it not good?" she asked.
"No," I replied.
"Perhaps your head aches?"
"Or you are tired?"
"Ah! then it is the ennui of love?"
With these words she became serious, for in spite of herself, in speaking
of love, her Italian heart beat the faster.
A scene of folly ensued. Heads were becoming heated, cheeks were
assuming that purple hue with which wine suffuses the face as if to
prevent shame appearing there. A confused murmur, like to that of a
rising sea, could be heard all over the room; here and there eyes would
become inflamed, then fixed and empty; I know not what wind stirred above
this drunkenness. A woman rises, as in a tranquil sea the first wave
that feels the tempest's breath foams up to announce it; she makes a sign
with her hand to command silence, empties her glass at a gulp and with
the same movement undoes her hair, which falls in shining tresses over
her shoulders; she opens her mouth as if to start a drinking-song; her
eyes are half closed. She breathes with an effort; twice a harsh sound
comes from her throat; a mortal pallor overspreads her features and she
drops into her chair.
Then came an uproar which lasted an hour. It was impossible to
distinguish anything, either laughter, songs, or cries.
"What do you think of it?" asked Desgenais.
"Nothing," I replied. "I have stopped my ears and am looking at it."
In the midst of this Bacchanalian orgy the beautiful Marco remained mute,
drinking nothing and leaning quietly on her bare arm. She seemed neither
astonished nor affected by it.
"Do you not wish to do as they?" I asked. "You have just offered me
Cyprian wine; why do you not drink some yourself?"
With these words I poured out a large glass full to the brim. She raised
it to her lips and then placed it on the table, and resumed her listless
The more I studied that Marco, the more singular she appeared; she took
pleasure in nothing and did not seem to be annoyed by anything.
It appeared as difficult to anger her as to please her; she did what
was asked of her, but no more. I thought of the genius of eternal
repose, and I imagined that if that pale statue should become
somnambulant it would resemble Marco.
"Are you good or bad?" I asked. "Are you sad or gay? Are you loved?
Do you wish to beloved? Are you fond of money, of pleasure, of what?
Horses, the country, balls? What pleases you? Of what are you
To all these questions the same smile on her part, a smile that expressed
neither joy nor sorrow, but which seemed to say, "What does it matter?"
and nothing more.
I held my lips to hers; she gave me a listless kiss and then passed her
handkerchief over her mouth.
"Marco," I said, "woe to him who loves you."
She turned her dark eyes on me, then turned them upward, and raising her
finger with that Italian gesture which can not be imitated, she
pronounced that characteristic feminine word of her country:
And then dessert was served. Some of the party had departed, some were
smoking, others gambling, and a few still at table; some of the women
danced, others slept. The orchestra returned; the candles paled and
others were lighted. I recalled a supper of Petronius, where the lights
went out around the drunken masters, and the slaves entered and stole the
silver. All the while songs were being sung in various parts of the
room, and three Englishmen, three of those gloomy figures for whom the
Continent is a hospital, kept up a most sinister ballad that must have
been born of the fogs of their marshes.
"Come," said I to Marco, "let us go."
She arose and took my arm.
"To-morrow!" cried Desgenais to me, as we left the hall.
When approaching Marco's house, my heart beat violently and I could not
speak. I could not understand such a woman; she seemed to experience
neither desire nor disgust, and I could think of nothing but the fact
that my hand was trembling and hers motionless.
Her room was, like her, sombre and voluptuous; it was dimly lighted by an
alabaster lamp. The chairs and sofa were as soft as beds, and there was
everywhere suggestion of down and silk. Upon entering I was struck with
the strong odor of Turkish pastilles, not such as are sold here on the
streets, but those of Constantinople, which are more powerful and more
dangerous. She rang, and a maid appeared. She entered an alcove without
a word, and a few minutes later I saw her leaning on her elbow in her
habitual attitude of nonchalance.
I stood looking at her. Strange to say, the more I admired her, the more
beautiful I found her, the more rapidly I felt my desires subside. I do
not know whether it was some magnetic influence or her silence and
listlessness. I lay down on a sofa opposite the alcove, and the coldness
of death settled on my soul.
The pulsation of the blood in the arteries is a sort of clock, the
ticking of which can be heard only at night. Man, free from exterior
attractions, falls back upon himself; he hears himself live. In spite of
my fatigue I could not close my eyes; those of Marco were fixed on me; we
looked at each other in silence, gently, so to speak.
"What are you doing there?" she asked.
She heaved a gentle sigh that was almost a plaint.
I turned my head and saw that the first gleams of morning light were
shining through the window.
I arose and opened the window; a bright light penetrated every corner of
the room. The sky was clear.
I motioned to her to wait. Considerations of prudence had led her to
choose an apartment some distance from the centre of the city; perhaps
she had other quarters, for she sometimes received a number of visitors.
Her lover's friends sometimes visited her, and this room was doubtless
only a petite maison; it overlooked the Luxembourg, the gardens of which
extended as far as my eye could reach.
As a cork held under water seems restless under the hand which holds it,
and slips through the fingers to rise to the surface, thus there stirred
in me a sentiment that I could neither overcome nor escape. The gardens
of the Luxembourg made my heart leap and banished every other thought.
How many times had I stretched myself out on one of those little mounds,
a sort of sylvan school, while I read in the cool shade some book filled
with foolish poetry! For such, alas, were the extravagances of my
childhood. I saw many souvenirs of the past among those leafless trees
and faded lawns. There, when ten years of age, I had walked with my
brother and my tutor, throwing bits of bread to some of the poor half-
starved birds; there, seated under a tree, I had watched a group of
little girls as they danced, and felt my heart beat in unison with the
refrain of their childish song. There, returning from school, I had
followed a thousand times the same path, lost in meditation upon some
verse of Virgil and kicking the pebbles at my feet.
"Oh, my childhood! You are there!" I cried. "Oh, heaven! now I am
I turned around. Marco was asleep, the lamp had gone out, the light of
day had changed the aspect of the room; the hangings which had at first
appeared blue were now a faded yellow, and Marco, the beautiful statue,
was livid as death.
I shuddered in spite of myself; I looked at the alcove, then at the
garden; my head became drowsy and fell on my breast. I sat down before
an open secretary near one of the windows. A piece of paper caught my
eye; it was an open letter and I looked at it mechanically. I read it
several times before I thought what I was doing. Suddenly a gleam of
intelligence came to me, although I could not understand everything. I
picked up the paper and read what follows, written in an unskilled hand
and filled with errors in spelling:
"She died yesterday. She began to fail at twelve the night before. She
called me and said: 'Louison, I am going to join my companion; go to the
closet and take down the cloth that hangs on a nail; it is the mate of
the other.' I fell on my knees and wept, but she took my hand and said:
'Do not weep, do not weep!' And she heaved such a sigh--"
The rest was torn, I can not describe the impression that sad letter made
on me; I turned it over and saw on the other side Marco's address and the
date that of the evening previous.
"Is she dead? Who is dead?" I cried going to the alcove. "Dead! Who?"
Marco opened her eyes. She saw me with the letter in my hand.
"It is my mother," she said, "who is dead. You are not coming?"
As she spoke she extended her hand.
"Silence!" I said, "sleep, and leave me to myself."
She turned over and went to sleep. I looked at her for some time to
assure myself that she would not hear me, and then quietly left the
One evening I was seated before the fire with Desgenais. The window was
open; it was one of the early days in March, a harbinger of spring.
It had been raining, and a light odor came from the garden.
"What shall we do this spring?" I asked. "I do not care to travel."
"I shall do what I did last year," replied Desgenais. "I shall go to the
country when the time comes."
"What!" I replied. "Do you do the same thing every year? Are you going
to begin life over again this year?"
"What would you expect me to do?"
"What would I expect you to do?" I cried, jumping to my feet. "That is
just like you. Ah! Desgenais, how all this wearies me! Do you never
tire of this sort of life?"
"No," he replied.
I was standing before an engraving of the Magdalen in the desert.
Involuntarily I joined my hands.
"What are you doing?" asked Desgenais.
"If I were an artist," I replied, "and wished to represent melancholy,
I would not paint a dreamy girl with a book in her hands."
"What is the matter with you this evening?" he asked, smiling.
"No, in truth," I continued, "that Magdalen in tears has a spark of hope
in her bosom; that pale and sickly hand on which she supports her head,
is still sweet with the perfume with which she anointed the feet of her
Lord. You do not understand that in that desert there are thinking
people who pray. This is not melancholy."
"It is a woman who reads," he replied dryly.
"And a happy woman," I continued, "with a happy book."
Desgenais understood me; he saw that a profound sadness had taken
possession of me. He asked if I had some secret cause of sorrow.
I hesitated, but did not reply.
"My dear Octave," he said, "if you have any trouble, do not hesitate to
confide in me. Speak freely and you will find that I am your friend!"
"I know it," I replied, "I know I have a friend; that is not my trouble."
He urged me to explain.
"But what will it avail," I asked, "since neither of us can help matters?
Do you want the fulness of my heart or merely a word and an excuse?"
"Be frank!" he said.
"Very well," I replied, "you have seen fit to give me advice in the past
and now I ask you to listen to me as I have listened to you. You ask
what is in my heart, and I am about to tell you.
"Take the first comer and say to, him: 'Here are people who pass their
lives drinking, riding, laughing, gambling, enjoying all kinds of
pleasures; no barrier restrains them, their law is their pleasure, women
are their playthings; they are rich. They have no cares, not one. All
their days are days of feasting.' What do you think of it? Unless that
man happened to be a severe bigot, he would probably reply that it was
the greatest happiness that could be imagined.
"'Then take that man into the centre of the whirl, place him at a table
with a woman on either side, a glass in his hand, a handful of gold every
morning and say to him: 'This is your life. While you sleep near your
mistress, your horses neigh in the stables; while you drive your horses
along the boulevards, your wines are ripening in your vaults; while you
pass away the night drinking, the bankers are increasing your wealth.
You have but to express a wish and your desires are gratified. You are
the happiest of men. But take care lest some night of carousal you drink
too much and destroy the capacity of your body for enjoyment. That would
be a serious misfortune, for all the ills that afflict human flesh can be
cured, except that. You ride some night through the woods with joyous
companions; your horse falls and you are thrown into a ditch filled with
mud, and it may be that your companions, in the midst of their happy
shoutings will not hear your cry of anguish; it may be that the sound of
their trumpets will die away in the distance while you drag your broken
limbs through the deserted forest.
"'Some night you will lose at the gaming-table; fortune has its bad days.
When you return home and are seated before the fire, do not strike your
forehead with your hands, and allow sorrow to moisten your cheeks with
tears; do not anxiously cast your eyes about here and there as if
searching for a friend; do not, under any circumstances, think of those
who, under some thatched roof, enjoy a tranquil life and who sleep
holding each other by the hand; for before you on your luxurious bed
reclines a pale creature who loves--your money. From her you will seek
consolation for your grief, and she will remark that you are very sad and
ask if your loss was considerable; the tears from your eyes will concern
her deeply, for they may be the cause of allowing her dress to grow old
or the rings to drop from her fingers. Do not name him who won your
money that night, for she may meet him on the morrow, and may make sweet
eyes at him that would destroy your remaining happiness.
"'That is what is to be expected of human frailty; have you the strength
to endure it? Are you a man? Beware of disgust, it is an incurable
evil; death is more to be desired than a living distaste for life. Have
you a heart? Beware of love, for it is worse than disease for a
debauchee, and it is ridiculous. Debauchees pay their mistresses, and
the woman who sells herself has no right but that of contempt for the
purchaser. Are you passionate? Take care of your face. It is shameful
for a soldier to throw down his arms and for a debauchee to appear to
hold to anything; his glory consists in touching nothing except with
hands of marble that have been bathed in oil in order that nothing may
stick to them.
"'Are you hot-headed? If you desire to live, learn how to kill, for wine
is a wrangler. Have you a conscience? Take care of your slumber, for a
debauchee who repents too late is like a ship that leaks: it can neither
return to land nor continue on its course; the winds can with difficulty
move it, the ocean yawns for it, it careens and disappears. If you have
a body, look out for suffering; if you have a soul, despair awaits you.
"'O unhappy one! beware of men; while they walk along the same path with
you, you will see a vast plain strewn with garlands where a happy throng
of dancers trip the gladsome farandole standing in a circle, each a link
in an endless chain. It is but a mirage; those who look down know that
they are dancing on a silken thread stretched over an abyss that swallows
up all who fall and shows not even a ripple on its surface. What foot is
sure? Nature herself seems to deny you her divine consolation; trees and
flowers are yours no more; you have broken your mother's laws, you are no
longer one of her foster children; the birds of the field become silent
when you appear.
"'You are alone! Beware of God! You are face to face with Him, standing
like a cold statue upon the pedestal of will. The rain from heaven no
longer refreshes you, it undermines and weakens you. The passing wind no
longer gives you the kiss of life, its benediction on all that lives and
breathes; it buffets you and makes you stagger. Every woman who kisses
you takes from you a spark of life and gives you none in return; you
exhaust yourself on phantoms; wherever falls a drop of your sweat there
springs up one of those sinister weeds that grow in graveyards. Die!
You are the enemy of all who love; blot yourself from the face of the
earth, do not wait for old age; do not leave a child behind you, do not
perpetuate a drop of your corrupted blood; vanish as does the smoke, do
not deprive a single blade of living grass of a ray of sunlight.'"
When I had spoken these words I fell back in my chair, and a flood of
tears streamed from my eyes.
"Ah! Desgenais," I cried, sobbing, "this is not what you told me. Did
you not know it? And if you did, why did you not tell me of it?"
But Desgenais sat still with folded hands; he was as pale as a shroud,
and a tear trickled slowly down his cheek.
A moment of silence ensued. The clock struck; I suddenly remembered that
it was on this hour and this day one year ago that my mistress deceived
"Do you hear that clock?" I cried, "do you hear it? I do not know what
it means at this moment, but it is a terrible hour, and one that will
count in my life."
I was beside myself, and scarcely knew what I was saying. But at that
instant a servant rushed into the room; he took my hand and led me aside,
whispering in my ear:
"Sir, I have come to inform you that your father is dying; he has just
been seized with an attack of apoplexy and the physicians despair of his
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
A terrible danger lurks in the knowledge of what is possible
Accustomed to call its disguise virtue
All that is not life, it is the noise of life
Become corrupt, and you will cease to suffer
Began to forget my own sorrow in my sympathy for her
Beware of disgust, it is an incurable evil
Death is more to be desired than a living distaste for life
Despair of a man sick of life, or the whim of a spoiled child
Do they think they have invented what they see
Force itself, that mistress of the world
Galileo struck the earth, crying: "Nevertheless it moves!"
Grief itself was for her but a means of seducing
He lives only in the body
Human weakness seeks association
I boasted of being worse than I really was
I can not love her, I can not love another
I do not intend either to boast or abase myself
Ignorance into which the Greek clergy plunged the laity
In what do you believe?
Indignation can solace grief and restore happiness
Is he a dwarf or a giant
Men doubted everything: the young men denied everything
Of all the sisters of love, the most beautiful is pity
Perfection does not exist
Resorted to exaggeration in order to appear original
Sceptic regrets the faith he has lost the power to regain
Seven who are always the same: the first is called hope
Ticking of which (our arteries) can be heard only at night
When passion sways man, reason follows him weeping and warning
Wine suffuses the face as if to prevent shame appearing there
You believe in what is said here below and not in what is done
You turn the leaves of dead books
Youth is to judge of the world from first impressions
CONFESSION OF A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
(Confession d'un Enfant du Siecle)
By ALFRED DE MUSSET
DEATH, THE INEVITABLE
My father lived in the country some distance from Paris. When I arrived
I found a physician in the house, who said to me:
"You are too late; your father expressed a desire to see you before he
I entered, and saw my father dead. "Sir," I said to the physician,
"please have everyone retire that I may be alone here; my father had
something to say to me, and he will say it."
In obedience to my order the servants left the room. I approached the
bed and raised the shroud which covered the face. But when my eyes fell
on that countenance, I stooped to kiss it and lost consciousness.
When I recovered, I heard some one say:
"If he requests it, you must refuse him on some pretext or other."
I understood that they wanted to get me away from the bed of death, and
so I feigned that I had heard nothing. When they saw that I was resting
quietly, they left me. I waited until the house was quiet, and then took
a candle and made my way to my father's room. I found there a young
priest seated near the bed.
"Sir," I said, "to dispute with an orphan the last vigil at a father's
side is a bold enterprise. I do not know what your orders may be. You
may remain in the adjoining room; if anything happens, I alone am
He retired. A single candle on the table shone on the bed. I sat down
in the chair the priest had just left, and again uncovered those features
I was to see for the last time.
"What do you wish to say to me, father?" I asked. "What was your last
thought concerning your child?"
My father had a book in which he was accustomed to write from day to day
the record of his life. That book lay on the table, and I saw that it
was open; I kneeled before it; on the page were these words and no more:
"Adieu, my son, I love you and I die."
I did not shed a tear, not a sob came from my lips; my throat was swollen
and my mouth sealed; I looked at my father without moving.
He knew my life, and my irregularities had caused him much sorrow and
anxiety. He did not refer to my future, to my youth and my follies.
His advice had often saved me from some evil course, and had influenced
my entire life, for his life had been one of singular virtue and
kindness. I supposed that before dying he wished to see me to try once
more to turn me from the path of error; but death had come too swiftly;
he felt that he could express all he had to say in one word, and he wrote
in his book that he loved me.
THE BALM OF SOLITUDE
A little wooden railing surrounded my father's grave. According to his
expressed wish, he was buried in the village cemetery. Every day I
visited his tomb and passed part of the day on a little bench in the
interior of the vault. The rest of the time I lived alone in the house
in which he died, and kept with me only one servant.
Whatever sorrows the passions may cause, the woes of life are not to be
compared with those of death. My first thought as I sat beside my
father's bedside was that I was a helpless child, knowing nothing,
understanding nothing; I can not say that my heart felt physical pain,
but I sometimes bent over and wrung my hands, as one who wakens from a
During the first months of my life in the country I had no thought either
of the past or of the future. It did not seem to be I who had lived up
to that time; what I felt was not despair, and in no way resembled the
terrible griefs I had experienced in the past; there was a sort of
languor in every action, a sense of disgust with life, a poignant
bitterness that was eating out my heart. I held a book in my hand all
day long, but I did not read; I did not even know what I dreamed about.
I had no thoughts; within, all was silence; I had received such a violent
blow, and yet one that was so prolonged in its effects, that I remained a
purely passive being and there seemed to be no reaction.
My servant, Larive by name, had been much attached to my father; he was,
after my father himself, probably the best man I had ever known. He was
of the same height, and wore the clothes my father had left him, having
He was of about the same age--that is, his hair was turning gray, and
during the twenty years he had lived with my father, he had learned some
of his ways. While I was pacing up and down the room after dinner,
I heard him doing the same in the hall; although the door was open he did
not enter, and not a word was spoken; but from time to time we would look
at each other and weep. The entire evening would pass thus, and it would
be late in the night before I would ask for a light, or get one myself.
Everything about the house was left unchanged, not a piece of paper was
moved. The great leather armchair in which my father used to sit stood
near the fire; his table and his books were just as he left them; I
respected even the dust on these articles, which in life he never liked
to see disturbed. The walls of that solitary house, accustomed to
silence and a most tranquil life, seemed to look down on me in pity as I
sat in my father's chair, enveloped in his dressing-gown. A feeble voice
seemed to whisper: "Where is the father? It is plain to see that this is
I received several letters from Paris, and replied to each that I desired
to pass the summer alone in the country, as my father was accustomed to
do. I began to realize that in all evil there is some good, and that
sorrow, whatever else may be said of it, is a means of repose. Whatever
the message brought by those who are sent by God, they always accomplish
the happy result of awakening us from the sleep of the world, and when
they speak, all are silent. Passing sorrows blaspheme and accuse heaven;
great sorrows neither accuse nor blaspheme--they listen.
In the morning I passed entire hours in the contemplation of nature.
My windows overlooked a valley, in the midst of which arose a village
steeple; all was plain and calm. Spring, with its budding leaves and
flowers, did not produce on me the sinister effect of which the poets
speak, who find in the contrasts of life the mockery of death. I looked
upon the frivolous idea, if it was serious and not a simple antithesis
made in pleasantry, as the conceit of a heart that has known no real
experience. The gambler who leaves the table at break of day, his eyes
burning and hands empty, may feel that he is at war with nature, like the
torch at some hideous vigil; but what can the budding leaves say to a
child who mourns a lost father? The tears of his eyes are sisters of the
rose; the leaves of the willow are themselves tears. It is when I look
at the sky, the woods and the prairies, that I understand men who seek
Larive had no more desire to console me than to console himself. At the
time of my father's death he feared I would sell the property and take
him to Paris. I did not know what he had learned of my past life, but I
had noticed his anxiety, and, when he saw me settle down in the old home,
he gave me a glance that went to my heart. One day I had a large
portrait of my father sent from Paris, and placed it in the dining-room.
When Larive entered the room to serve me, he saw it; he hesitated, looked
at the portrait and then at me; in his eyes there shone a melancholy joy
that I could not fail to understand. It seemed to say: "What happiness!
We are to suffer here in peace!"
I gave him my hand, which he covered with tears and kisses.
He looked upon my grief as the mistress of his own. When I visited my
father's tomb in the morning I found him there watering the flowers; when
he saw me he went away and returned home. He followed me in my rambles;
when I was on my horse I did not expect him to follow me, but when I saw
him trudging down the valley, wiping the sweat from his brow, I bought a
small horse from a peasant and gave it to him; thus we rode through the
In the village were some people of our acquaintance who frequently
visited us. My door was closed to them, although I regretted it; but I
could not see any one with patience. Some time, when sure to be free
from interruption, I hoped to examine my father's papers. Finally Larive
brought them to me, and untying the package with trembling hand, spread
them before me.
Upon reading the first pages I felt in my heart that vivifying freshness
that characterizes the air near a lake of cool water; the sweet serenity
of my father's soul exhaled as a perfume from the dusty leaves I was
unfolding. The journal of his life lay open before me; I could count the
diurnal throbbings of that noble heart. I began to yield to the
influence of a dream that was both sweet and profound, and in spite of
the serious firmness of his character, I discovered an ineffable grace,
the flower of kindness. While I read, the recollection of his death
mingled with the narrative of his life, I can not tell with what sadness
I followed that limpid stream until its waters mingled with those of the
"Oh! just man," I cried, "fearless and stainless! what candor in thy
experience! Thy devotion to thy friends, thy admiration for nature, thy
sublime love of God, this is thy life, there is no place in thy heart for
anything else. The spotless snow on the mountain's summit is not more
pure than thy saintly old age; thy white hair resembles it. Oh! father,
father! Give thy snowy locks to me, they are younger than my blond head.
Let me live and die as thou hast lived and died. I wish to plant in the
soil over your grave the green branch of my young life; I will water it
with my tears, and the God of orphans will protect that sacred twig
nourished by the grief of youth and the memory of age."
After examining these precious papers, I classified them and arranged
them in order. I formed a resolution to write a journal myself.
I had one made just like that of my father's, and, carefully searching
out the minor details of his life, I tried to conform my life to his.
Thus, whenever I heard the clock strike the hour, tears came to my eyes:
"This," said I, "is what my father did at this hour," and whether it was
reading, walking, or eating, I never failed to follow his example. Thus
I accustomed myself to a calm and regular life; there was an indefinable
charm about this orderly conduct that did me good. I went to bed with a
sense of comfort and happiness such as I had not known for a long time.
My father spent much of his time about the garden; the rest of the day
was devoted to walking and study, a nice adjustment of bodily and mental
At the same time I followed his example in doing little acts of
benevolence among the unfortunate. I began to search for those who
were in need of my assistance, and there were many of them in the valley.
I soon became known among the poor; my message to them was: "When the
heart is good, sorrow is sacred!" For the first time in my life I was
happy; God blessed my tears and sorrow taught me virtue.
One evening, as I was walking under a row of lindens at the entrance to
the village, I saw a young woman come from a house some distance from the
road. She was dressed simply and veiled so that I could not see her
face; but her form and her carriage seemed so charming that I followed
her with my eyes for some time. As she was crossing a field, a white
goat, straying at liberty through the grass, ran to her side; she
caressed it softly, and looked about as if searching for some favorite
plants to feed to it. I saw near me some wild mulberry; I plucked a
branch and stepped up to her holding it in my hand. The goat watched my
approach with apprehension; he was afraid to take the branch from my
hand. His mistress made him a sign as if to encourage him, but he looked
at her with an air of anxiety; she then took the branch from my hand, and
the goat promptly accepted it from hers. I bowed, and she passed on her
On my return home I asked Larive if he knew who lived in the house I
described to him; it was a small house, modest in appearance, with a
garden. He recognized it; there were but two people in the house, an
old woman who was very religious, and a young woman whose name was Madame
Pierson. It was she I had seen. I asked him who she was, and if she
ever came to see my father. He replied that she was a widow, that she
led a retired life, and that she had visited my father, but rarely.
When I had learned all he knew, I returned to the lindens and sat down
on a bench.
I do not know what feeling of sadness came over me as I saw the goat
approaching me. I arose from my seat, and, for distraction, I followed
the path I had seen Madame Pierson take, a path that led to the
It was nearly eleven in the evening before I thought of returning;
as I had walked some distance, I directed my steps toward a farmhouse,
intending to ask for some milk and bread. Drops of rain began to splash
at my feet, announcing a thunder-shower which I was anxious to escape.
Although there was a light in the place, and I could hear the sound of
feet going and coming through the house, no one responded to my knock,
and I walked around to one of the windows to ascertain if there was any
I saw a bright fire burning in the lower hall; the farmer, whom I knew,
was sitting near his bed; I knocked on the window-pane and called to him.
Just then the door opened, and I was surprised to see Madame Pierson, who
inquired who was there.
I waited a moment in order to conceal my astonishment. I then entered
the house, and asked permission to remain until the storm should pass.
I could not imagine what she was doing at such an hour in this deserted
spot; suddenly I heard a plaintive voice from the bed, and turning my
head I saw the farmer's wife lying there with the seal of death on her
Madame Pierson, who had followed me, sat down before the old man who was
bowed with sorrow; she made me a sign to make no noise as the sick woman
was sleeping. I took a chair and sat in a corner until the storm passed.
While I sat there I saw her rise from time to time and whisper something
to the farmer. One of the children, whom I took upon my knee, said that
she had been coming every night since the mother's illness. She
performed the duties of a sister of charity; there was no one else in the
country who could do it; there was but one physician, and he was densely
"That is Brigitte la Rose," said the child; "don't you know her?"
"No," I replied in a low voice. "Why do you call her by such a name?"
He replied that he did not know, unless it was because she had been rosy
and the name had clung to her.
As Madame Pierson had laid aside her veil I could see her face; when the
child left me I raised my head. She was standing near the bed, holding
in her hand a cup, which she was offering the sick woman who had
awakened. She appeared to be pale and thin; her hair was ashen blond.
Her beauty was not of the regular type. How shall I express it? Her
large dark eyes were fixed on those of her patient, and those eyes that
shone with approaching death returned her gaze. There was in that simple
exchange of kindness and gratitude a beauty that can not be described.
The rain was falling in torrents; a heavy darkness settled over the
lonely mountain-side, pierced by occasional flashes of lightning. The
noise of the storm, the roaring of the wind, the wrath of the unchained
elements made a deep contrast with the religious calm which prevailed in
the little cottage. I looked at the wretched bed, at the broken windows,
the puffs of smoke forced from the fire by the tempest; I observed the
helpless despair of the farmer, the superstitious terror of the children,
the fury of the elements besieging the bed of death; and in the midst of
all, seeing that gentle, pale-faced woman going and coming, bravely
meeting the duties of the moment, regardless of the tempest and of our
presence, it seemed to me there was in that calm performance something
more serene than the most cloudless sky, something, indeed, superhuman
about this woman who, surrounded by such horrors, did not for an instant
lose her faith in God.
What kind of woman is this, I wondered; whence comes she, and how long
has she been here? A long time, since they remember when her cheeks were
rosy. How is it I have never heard of her? She comes to this spot alone
and at this hour? Yes. She has traversed these mountains and valleys
through storm and fair weather, she goes hither and thither bearing life
and hope wherever they fail, holding in her hand that fragile cup,
caressing her goat as she passes. And this is what has been going on in
this valley while I have been dining and gambling; she was probably born
here, and will be buried in a corner of the cemetery, by the side of her
father. Thus will that obscure woman die, a woman of whom no one speaks
and of whom the children say: "Don't you know her?"
I can not express what I experienced; I sat quietly in my corner scarcely
breathing, and it seemed to me that if I had tried to assist her, if I
had reached out my hand to spare her a single step, I should have been
guilty of sacrilege, I should have touched sacred vessels.
The storm lasted two hours. When it subsided the sick woman sat up in
her bed and said that she felt better, that the medicine she had taken
had done her good. The children ran to the bedside, looking up into
their mother's face with great eyes that expressed both surprise and joy.
"I am very sure you are better," said the husband, who had not stirred
from his seat, "for we have had a mass celebrated, and it cost us a large
At that coarse and stupid expression I glanced at Madame Pierson; her
swollen eyes, her pallor, her attitude, all clearly expressed fatigue and
the exhaustion of long vigils.
"Ah! my poor man!" said the farmer's wife, "may God reward you!"
I could hardly contain myself, I was so angered by the stupidity of these
brutes who were capable of crediting the work of charity to the avarice
of a cure.
I was about to reproach them for their ingratitude and treat them as they
deserved, when Madame Pierson took one of the children in her arms and
said, with a smile:
"You may kiss your mother, for she is saved."
I stopped when I heard these words.
Never was the simple contentment of a happy and benevolent heart painted
in such beauty on so sweet a face. Fatigue and pallor seemed to vanish,
she became radiant with joy.
A few minutes later Madame Pierson told the children to call the farmer's
boy to conduct her home. I advanced to offer my services; I told her
that it was useless to awaken the boy as I was going in the same
direction, and that she would do me an honor by accepting my offer. She
asked me if I was not Octave de T--------.
I replied that I was, and that she doubtless remembered my father.
It struck me as strange that she should smile at that question;
she cheerfully accepted my arm and we set out on our return.
We walked along in silence; the wind was going down; the trees quivered
gently, shaking the rain from the boughs. Some distant flashes of
lightning could still be seen; the perfume of humid verdure filled the
warm air. The sky soon cleared and the moon illumined the mountain.
I could not help thinking of the whimsicalness of chance, which had seen
fit to make me the solitary companion of a woman of whose existence I
knew nothing a few hours before. She had accepted me as her escort on
account of the name I bore, and leaned on my arm with quiet confidence.
In spite of her distraught air it seemed to me that this confidence was
either very bold or very simple; and she must needs be either the one or
the other, for at each step I felt my heart becoming at once proud and
We spoke of the sick woman she had just quitted, of the scenes along the
route; it did not occur to us to ask the questions incident to a new
acquaintance. She spoke to me of my father, and always in the same tone
I had noted when I first revealed my name--that is, cheerfully, almost
gayly. By degrees I thought I understood why she did this, observing
that she spoke thus of all, both living and dead, of life and of
suffering and death. It was because human sorrows had taught her nothing
that could accuse God, and I felt the piety of her smile.
I told her of the solitary life I was leading. Her aunt, she said,
had seen more of my father than she, as they had sometimes played cards
together after dinner. She urged me to visit them, assuring me a
When about half way home she complained of fatigue and sat down to rest
on a bench that the heavy foliage had protected from the rain. I stood
before her and watched the pale light of the moon playing on her face.
After a moment's silence she arose and, in a constrained manner,
"Of what are you thinking? It is time for us to think of returning."
"I was wondering," I replied, "why God created you, and I was saying to
myself that it was for the sake of those who suffer."
"That is an expression that, coming from you, I can not look upon except
as a compliment."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you appear to be very young."
"It sometimes happens," I said, "that one is older than the face would
seem to indicate."
"Yes," she replied, smiling, "and it sometimes happens that one is
younger than his words would seem to indicate."
"Have you no faith in experience?"
"I know that it is the name most young men give to their follies and
their disappointments; what can one know at your age?"
"Madame, a man of twenty may know more than a woman of thirty. The
liberty which men enjoy enables them to see more of life and its
experiences than women; they go wherever they please, and no barrier
restrains them; they test life in all its phases. When inspired by hope,
they press forward to achievement; what they will they accomplish. When
they have reached the end, they return; hope has been lost on the route,
and happiness has broken its word."
As I was speaking we reached the summit of a little hill which sloped
down to the valley; Madame Pierson, yielding to the downward tendency,
began to trip lightly down the incline. Without knowing why, I did the
same, and we ran down the hill, arm in arm, the long grass under our feet
retarded our progress. Finally, like two birds, spent with flight, we
reached the foot of the mountain.
"Behold!" cried Madame Pierson, "just a short time ago I was tired, but
now I am rested. And, believe me," she added, with a charming smile,
"you should treat your experience as I have treated my fatigue. We have
made good time, and shall enjoy supper the more on that account."
I went to see her in the morning. I found her at the piano, her old aunt
at the window sewing, the little room filled with flowers, the sunlight
streaming through the blinds, a large bird-cage at her side.
I expected to find her something of a religieuse, at least one of those
women of the provinces who know nothing of what happens two leagues away,
and who live in a certain narrow circle from which they never escape.
I confess that such isolated life, which is found here and there in small
towns, under a thousand unknown roofs, had always had on me the effect of
stagnant pools of water; the air does not seem respirable: in everything
on earth that is forgotten, there is something of death.
On Madame Pierson's table were some papers and new books; they appeared
as if they had not been more than touched. In spite of the simplicity of
everything around her, of furniture and dress, it was easy to recognize
mode, that is to say, life; she did not live for this alone, but that
goes without saying. What struck me in her taste was that there was
nothing bizarre, everything breathed of youth and pleasantness.
Her conversation indicated a finished education; there was no subject on
which she could not speak well and with ease. While admitting that she
was naive, it was evident that she was at the same time profound in
thought and fertile in resource; an intelligence at once broad and free
soared gently over a simple heart and over the habits of a retired life.
The sea-swallow, whirling through the azure heavens, soars thus over the
blade of grass that marks its nest.
We talked of literature, music, and even politics. She had visited Paris
during the winter; from time to time she dipped into the world; what she
saw there served as a basis for what she divined.
But her distinguishing trait was gayety, a cheerfulness that, while not
exactly joy itself, was constant and unalterable; it might be said that
she was born a flower, and that her perfume was gayety.
Her pallor, her large dark eyes, her manner at certain moments, all led
me to believe that she had suffered. I know not what it was that seemed
to say that the sweet serenity of her brow was not of this world but had
come from God, and that she would return it to Him spotless in spite of
man; and there were times when she reminded one of the careful housewife,
who, when the wind blows, holds her hand before the candle.
After I had been in the house half an hour I could not help saying what
was in my heart. I thought of my past life, of my disappointment and my
ennui; I walked to and fro, breathing the fragrance of the flowers and
looking at the sun. I asked her to sing, and she did so with good grace.
In the mean time I leaned on the window-sill and watched the birds
flitting about the garden. A saying of Montaigne's came into my head: "I
neither love nor esteem sadness, although the world has invested it, at a
given price, with the honor of its particular favor. They dress up in it
wisdom, virtue, conscience. Stupid and absurd adornment."
"What happiness!" I cried, in spite of myself. "What repose! What joy!
What forgetfulness of self!"
The good aunt raised her head and looked at me with an air of
astonishment; Madame Pierson stopped short. I became red as fire when
conscious of my folly, and sat down without a word.
We went out into the garden. The white goat I had seen the evening
before was lying in the grass; it came up to her and followed us about
When we reached the end of the garden walk, a large young man with a pale
face, clad in a kind of black cassock, suddenly appeared at the railing.
He entered without knocking and bowed to Madame Pierson; it seemed to me
that his face, which I considered a bad omen, darkened a little when he
saw me. He was a priest I had often seen in the village, and his name
was Mercanson; he came from St. Sulpice and was related to the cure of
He was large and at the same time pale, a thing which always displeases
me and which is, in fact, unpleasant; it impresses me as a sort of
diseased healthfulness. Moreover, he had the slow yet jerky way of
speaking that characterizes the pedant. Even his manner of walking,
which was not that of youth and health, repelled me; as for his glance,
it might be said that he had none. I do not know what to think of a man
whose eyes have nothing to say. These are the signs which led me to an
unfavorable opinion of Mercanson, an opinion which was unfortunately
He sat down on a bench and began to talk about Paris, which he called the
modern Babylon. He had been there, he knew every one; he knew Madame de
B------, who was an angel; he had preached sermons in her salon and was
listened to on bended knee. (The worst of this was that it was true.)
One of his friends, who had introduced him there, had been expelled from
school for having seduced a girl; a terrible thing to do, very sad.
He paid Madame Pierson a thousand compliments for her charitable deeds
throughout the country; he had heard of her benefactions, her care for
the sick, her vigils at the bed of suffering and of death. It was very
beautiful and noble; he would not fail to speak of it at St. Sulpice.
Did he not seem to say that he would not fail to speak of it to God?
Wearied by this harangue, in order to conceal my rising disgust, I sat
down on the grass and began to play with the goat. Mercanson turned on
me his dull and lifeless eye:
"The celebrated Vergniaud," said he, "was afflicted with the habit of
sitting on the ground and playing with animals."
"It is a habit that is innocent enough," I replied. "If there were none
worse the world would get along very well, without so much meddling on
the part of others."
My reply did not please him; he frowned and changed the subject. He was
charged with a commission; his uncle the cure had spoken to him of a poor
devil who was unable to earn his daily bread. He lived in such and such
a place; he had been there himself and was interested in him; he hoped
that Madame Pierson--
I was looking at her while he was speaking, wondering what reply she
would make and hoping she would say something in order to efface the
memory of the priest's voice with her gentle tones. She merely bowed and
When he had gone our gayety returned. We entered a greenhouse in the
rear of the garden.
Madame Pierson treated her flowers as she did her birds and her peasants:
everything about her must be well cared for, each flower must have its
drop of water and ray of sunlight in order that it might be gay and happy
as an angel; so nothing could be in better condition than her little
greenhouse. When we had made the round of the building, she said:
"This is my little world; you have seen all I possess, and my domain ends
"Madame," I said, "as my father's name has secured for me the favor of
admittance here, permit me to return, and I will believe that happiness
has not entirely forgotten me."
She extended her hand and I touched it with respect, not daring to raise
it to my lips.
I returned home, closed my door and retired. There danced before my eyes
a little white house; I saw myself walking through the village and
knocking at the garden gate. "Oh, my poor heart!" I cried. "God be
praised, you are still young, you are still capable of life and of love!"
One evening I was with Madame Pierson. More than three months had
passed, during which I had seen her almost every day; and what can I say
of that time except that I saw her? "To be with those we love," said
Bruyere, "suffices; to dream, to talk to them, not to talk to them, to
think of them, to think of the most indifferent things, but to be near
them, that is all."
I loved. During the three months we had taken many long walks; I was
initiated into the mysteries of her modest charities; we passed through
dark streets, she on her pony, I on foot, a small stick in my hand; thus
half conversing, half dreaming, we went from cottage to cottage. There
was a little bench near the edge of the wood where I was accustomed to
rest after dinner; we met here regularly, as though by chance. In the
morning, music, reading; in the evening, cards with the aunt as in the
days of my father; and she always there, smiling, her presence filling my
heart. By what road, O Providence! have you led me? What irrevocable
destiny am I to accomplish? What! a life so free, an intimacy so
charming, so much repose, such buoyant hope! O God! Of what do men
complain? What is there sweeter than love?
To live, yes, to feel intensely, profoundly, that one exists, that one is
a sentient man, created by God, that is the first, the greatest gift of
love. We can not deny, however, that love is a mystery, inexplicable,
profound. With all the chains, with all the pains, and I may even say,
with all the disgust with which the world has surrounded it, buried as it
is under a mountain of prejudices which distort and deprave it, in spite
of all the ordure through which it has been dragged, love, eternal and
fatal love, is none the less a celestial law as powerful and as
incomprehensible as that which suspends the sun in the heavens.