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The Grip of Desire by Hector France

Part 2 out of 6

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endure my poor relations." So to have peace I tolerated my cousin. He,
convinced that little presents maintain friendship, used to make us little
presents. There were tickets for sacred concerts, lotteries for the benefit
of the little Chinese, rosaries blessed by the pope, pebbles from
Jerusalem. Nothing wrong so far. My wife availed herself of the concert
tickets; the rosaries were put into a drawer, and I threw the pebbles into
the garden. But soon his gifts changed their character. He brought us some
hairs of St. Pancratius, a tooth of St. Alacoque, a rag which had wiped
something or other off St. Anastasius or St. Cunegunda. My wife clasped her
hands, was in ecstasy and transported with joy, and I went and brought up
my dinner. I foresaw the time when he would bring us extraordinary things;
a louse of St. Labre, a testicle of St. Origen, the coccyx of St. Antony,
the parts of St. Gudule or the prepuce of Jesus Christ.

The Cure rose again.

--I see that my presence is _de trop_ here, Captain; pardon my having
disturbed you.

--Not at all. Good Lord. Not at all. Sit down. It gives me extraordinary
pleasure to talk to you. Besides, I have not finished the story of my
cousin. Sit down, I pray you; I resume.

He had given a very pretty engraving, a reproduction of a picture by
somebody, _Jesus and the woman taken in adultery_. My wife had had it
framed very carefully, and had hung it up in our bedroom: a bad sign. That
seemed to say to me, "See, my friend, imitate Jesus." One day returning
home very quietly, I surprised both of them, squeezed one against the
other, holding each others hand, looking at the picture with emotion. I
took the little cousin by the shoulders, and I threw him out of doors. I
never saw him again. Do you understand the moral?

--Yes, Captain, I understand, said Marcel rising again, and this time fully
decided to go away. But the door opened, and Suzanne showed herself on the
threshold.

XX.

KICKS.

"I should have wished, mischievously,
to put him in the wrong, and that a
thoughtless or insulting word on his
part, should serve as a justification for
the insult which I meditated."

A. DE VIGNY (_Servitude et Grandeur militaires_).

She had on her school-girl dress of black, which made the whiteness of her
complexion more dazzling, and imparted something grave and serious to her
beauty.

She was hardly eighteen, and already by the harmonious outlines of her
bust, by the undulating movements of her hips and above all by the flash of
her great dark eyes, one foresaw in this young girl, still a child to-day,
the woman of to-morrow: a daughter of Eve of our modern civilization;
forward, precocious, charming.

She was one of those the sight alone of whom is the most radiant and the
most dangerous of spectacles, and who, like others, distilling holiness and
blessings from heaven, shed around them a perfume of love.

The bright fire of their heart shines out in their look; it reveals itself
in the sound of their voice, in their gestures and in their walk.
Everything in them is soft, trembling, passionate. Sweet creatures who see
only one goal in life, love, and, when the goal is missed, death.

There are women who are but half women. They are quickly recognized; vulgar
and awkward, they hide under their ungraceful petticoats the instincts of
man, and masculinity is displayed up to their corsage. They form the
fantastical cohort of learned women, of the disciples of Stuart Mill and
rivals of Miss Taylor, hybrid natures which may possess a heart of gold and
a manly soul, but are incapable of being the joy of the hearth.

Others are women to the tips of their rosy nails, to the root of their
abundant hair; women above all by their faults, that is to say their
weaknesses, and this weakness is one of their attractions. Impressionable
and easily led, they become, according to the surroundings which hold them
and the destiny which urges them, heroines or saints, courtesans or nuns,
but invariably martyrs of that blind despot, their heart.

They are Magdalene or St. Theresa, Madame de Guyon or Heloise, the nun in
love with Jesus or the light girl in love with the passer-by.

In a second the priest had understood this sweet nature, or rather he had
felt it, and his quivering nostrils inhaled the keen perfume of pleasure,
while his look was lost in ecstasy. It was but a flash, but if beneath the
watchful eye of the Captain it appeared impossible, the young girl could
read the dumb language which every woman understands.

She came forward, blushing.

--This is my daughter, said the Captain.

--I believe, said the Cure, with a bow, that I have had the pleasure of
seeing Mademoiselle several times already in our modest church.

--And you concluded therefore that my daughter was going to increase the
blessed flock. Don't be misled, comrade.

Suzanne cast a look of reproach upon her father.

--What! said Marcel, hurt, must not Mademoiselle follow her religion? work
out her salvation?

--Her salvation? There is a word which always makes me laugh. It reminds me
of my Colonel's wife who, when her husband gave orders for a review and
parade for Sunday, said, "My dear, you want then to deprive the poor
soldiers of the holy Mass, ought they not to work out their salvation?" A
magnificent creature, sir, but too much inclined to the cassock.

Her husband, however, had nothing to complain of, for one fine morning he
picked up the stars of his epaulets in some sacristy or other. What have
you come for, my child?

--Nothing, papa. I knew Monsieur le Cure was there and I came in.

--I was having a little edifying conversation with Monsieur, and you have
interrupted us, but we can talk of something else: You hold the first rank
now, gentlemen, continued the Captain, I must do you that justice; and as
times go, it is better to be the son of a bishop than of a general. I
myself, if I had only had some high influential canon for my father, should
have reached the highest offices. Come, you seem to me to be a good fellow,
and I want to give you a word of advice. If papa is a bishop, make use of
him, and don't stagnate in this village, you will get no good there: I tell
you so on my word of honour! I suppose that with you, promotion is as it is
with us?

"The cup of humiliation is full," said Marcel to himself. Nevertheless, he
answered, I don't understand exactly what you mean by that.

--I mean by that that promotion is a lottery from which they begin by
withdrawing all the big numbers to distribute them to Monsieur Cretinard
whose papa is a millionaire, to Monsieur Tartuffe whose papa is a Jesuit,
or to a Marquis de Carabas whose mamma has the good graces of my Lord the
Bishop, and they make the poor devils draw from the rest. It is so in the
army--and with you?

--Among the clergy, sir, promotion is generally given to merit.

--I don't believe it; for if it were so, you would be a bishop at least.
Don't blush, it is the general report.

--Captain....

--No false modesty. I hear your virtues praised everywhere. There is a
chorus of praises from every quarter. My friend here was just declaring to
me that all the women are wild about you.

--Sir ... cried the Cure, blushing up to his ears, and not daring to raise
his eyes to Suzanne, who sat in a corner, convulsively turning over the
leaves of an album.

--Don't protest, we know that true merit is modest; besides, I was by way
of asking myself, if I should not beg you to complete my daughter's
education.

--You are making pleasant jokes, Captain, and I ask your pardon for not
being able to rise to the level of these witticisms. I see that my visit
has been unseasonable. It only remains for me to make my excuses and to say
to Mademoiselle, how pained I am to have made her acquaintance under such
unfavourable auspices, but I hope....

--Stop that, Monsieur le Cure, interrupted Durand in a curt tone.

Marcel made a low bow, but as he withdraw, he caught an appealing look from
Suzanne.

XXI.

THE PAST.

"Look not upon the past with grief, it
will not come back; wisely improve
the present, it is thine; and go onwards
fearlessly and with a strong heart
towards the mysterious future."

LONGFELLOW (_Hyperion_).

Marcel returned home exceedingly indignant. Although he had not expected an
over-cordial reception from the old Captain, whose irascible character and
surly ways were known to all, he did not think that he would have carried
so far his disregard of the most elementary propriety.

"It serves me right," he said to himself, "what business had I there?
Nevertheless, on reflection, I have lost nothing. My reception by this old
dotard has taken away for ever my wish to go back there: and who knows what
might have happened, if I had had free admission to that house, if I had
met a friendly face and a kindly welcome? Oh, fool! I have found all that
in the sweet look of his adorable daughter, that appealing look which
seemed to implore my indulgence and pardon for the malevolent words of that
ill-bred soldier. Come, think no more of it, drive back to the lowest
depths those foolish thoughts which excite the brain. All that he does, God
does well. I was on the brink of the abyss; one step more and I should have
rolled to the bottom. Let me stop then, there is still time. Let me forget,
forget. Forget! better still, I will write and ask to be changed. Could I
forget her if I were to meet again that burning look, which pursues me to
the steps of the altar, and troubles me to the bottom of my soul?"

He wrote in fact and began his letter ten times afresh. What could he say?
What reason could he bring? He had filled this cure for scarcely six
months. What pretext could he raise before his superiors? And how would any
complaint from him be received at the Palace?

Night came. He felt himself oppressed by a vague and indefinable grief.

Then little by little the present vanished. His infancy rose up before him.
He saw it again as in a glass, smiling, simple, pure; and he forgot himself
in these sweet memories.

In proportion as we advance in life, we are attached to the things of the
past. It clothes itself then with those brilliant colours with which we
love to invest what we have lost. Youthful years, bright with poetry and
sunlight, come and gild the gloomy and prosaic nooks of ripened age, the
twilight of the eternal night.

The young man full of illusions and dreams pursues his road without casting
a look backwards. What matters, indeed, the past to him? He expects nothing
but from the future. Proud at having escaped from infancy, at arriving at
the age of man, at flying on his wings, he pities the years when he was
small and weak, ignorant and credulous.

But when he has met with obstacles and ruts on that road which appeared to
him so wide and so fair, when he has torn his heart with the first briars
of life, when his thought has ripened beneath the sun of passions, and his
soul, stripped of its illusions, feels all chilly and bare amidst the ice
of reality, then he returns to the joys of infancy, he warms himself again
with the memory of his mother, and sits once again in the pleasant corner
of the family fire-side, on the little stool of his childhood.

Marcel saw himself again at the little seminary of Pont-a-Mousson, on the
benches, all blackened with ink, of the school-room, studying with ardour
the _Epitome_ or the _De Viris_ beneath the paternal eye of Father Martin,
a father aged 24, a deacon with curly hair, as timid as a maid. Then he ran
in the long corridors, or in the great square court lined with galleries
shaded by the chapel. He remembered his joy when he had slipped on some
excuse into the Seniors' garden: "Ah! there is little Marcel, come here,
you brat!" And everyone wished to give him a caress.

Then, the first time when he was called to the honour of serving the Mass.
He had thought of it a week beforehand, full of emotion and fear. At length
the day has come. He is dressed in the white surplice, wearing on his head
the red cap. He would have wished the whole world to see him; but the
pupils alone were present, and that diminished his happiness.

Father Barbelin, the censor, a severe but just man, officiated. He trembled
in every limb, as he responded the sacramental verses to this formidable
functionary. That was a great business; his little comrades called him in a
whisper from behind: Marcel! Marcel! and laughed and nudged each other,
while the elder ones, their nose in their book, with sanctimonious face and
ecstatic look were wrapt in God.

Then his success, his entrance to the great seminary at Nancy, his first
sermon in the chapel. His voice trembled at the commencement, but little by
little, growing stronger, taking courage, inspired by the sacred text, he
forgot everything, and the Superior, old Father Richard, who watched him
with his little bright cunning eyes, and the unmoved professors, and his
watchful fellow-students, jeering and scoffing at first, then at last
astonished and jealous. "There is the stuff of an orator in him," the
Professor of Sacred Eloquence had said, "we must push this lad forward."
"He is full of talent and virtue," the Superior had replied, "he will get
on. He is our chosen vessel." And the same day he had dined at the master's
table, and they had spoken of him to Monseigneur. He had in fact been
pushed forward ... and with his talents, his learning, his virtues and his
eloquence, he had come to teaching the catechism to the little peasants of
Althausen!

Althausen! That was the blow of the hammer which recalled him to reality.
He found himself again the poor village Cure, and he began to laugh.

"Poor fool!" he cried, "I shall never be but a common imbecile! Is not my
way all traced out? I must continue my career, and let myself go with the
current of life. Is it then so hard? Why delude myself with phantoms? I
will try to slay the muttering passions, to drive away the fits of ambition
which rise to my brain; and perhaps by dint of subduing all that is
rebellious in me, I shall come to follow piously the line marked out by my
superiors. I will watch patiently amidst my flock, by the corner of my
fire, among the Fathers and my weariness.

"Weariness, that cold demon with the gloomy eye, but I will remain chaste
... and after a life filled with little nothingnesses and little works I
shall pass away in peace in the bosom of the Lord. And there is my life.
Nothing else to choose. No turning aside to the right or to the left. I
must remain a martyr, a martyr to my duty, or an apostate, and infamous
renegade. The triumph or the shame!"

And, as he just uttered these words with bitterness, a soft voice answered
like an echo:

--The shame?

The Cure started and raised his head. His lamp was out, and the dying
embers on the hearth cast only a feeble light into the room.

He distinguished, however, a few steps from him the outline of a woman's
form.

--Who is there? he cried with a sort of terror.

The shadowy outline stood forth more clearly.

He recognized his servant.

--Why the shame? she said.

XXII.

THE SERVANT.

"I have already said that dame
Jacinthe although little superannuated,
had still kept her bloom. It is true that
she spared nothing to preserve it:
besides taking a clyster every day, she
swallowed some excellent jelly during
the day and on going to bed."

LE SAGE (_Gil-Blas_).

She looked at him fixedly with burning, feverish eyes.

She was a lusty lass, already arrived at the age of discretion, as Le Sage
says, that is to say, she had passed her fortieth year, the canonical
period for the servants of Cures, but was fair and fresh still, in spite of
some wrinkles and her hair growing gray. She possessed that modest and
appetizing plumpness, somewhat rare among mature virgins, the sign of a
quiet conscience, a good digestion and feelings satisfied.

What pious souls call holiness exuded from every pore: cast-down eyes,
chaste deportment, gentle movements. She did not walk, she glided over the
ground as if she already felt the wings of seraphim hanging on her
shoulders; she did not speak, she murmured unctuous words with a soft, low,
mysterious voice like a prayer. When she said: "Would Monsieur le Cure he
pleased to come to breakfast? Perhaps Monsieur le Cure could eat a boiled
egg?" or "Ah! the sermon which Monsieur le Cure has been pleased to give
has gone to my heart!" it was in the same tone as she would say: "_Lamb of
God which takest away the sins of the world_...." and one was tempted to
answer: _Kyrie eleison_.

And she wiped her moist eyelid, and cast on her master her veiled, long,
silent look.

She said so well: "my duty," "I wish to do my duty," that one felt filled
with admiration for this holy maid.

Oh! divine modesty, perfume of woman, sweet enchantment which gently
penetrates the heart of man, ready always to unfold.

Besides, what hearts had unfolded for her! what ravages had been caused by
her austere deportment and her substantial charms. More than one buxom
village lad had made warm proposals with honourable intentions, and the
gallant corporal of gendarmes had tried on several occasions to enter upon
this delicate subject with her.

But she had willed to remain a maid and virtuous, and vowed herself body
and soul to the service of the Church, to the glory of God, and the fortune
of her pastor.

She approached the hearth with slow steps, blew on the embers, relighted
the lamp, and placing it so as to throw the light on her master's face, she
said to him anxiously:

--You are in pain, are you not?

--You were there then? said the Cure dissatisfied.

--Yes, she answered him with the affectionate tone of a mother, I was
there, pardon me; I was going to bed, and I heard you talking aloud, there
was no light; I feared you were ill, and I ventured to come in.

--And you have heard?

--I have heard that you were not happy, that is all.

--No one is happy in this world, Veronica.

--Yes, we are so only in the other, I know that. And yet happiness is so
easy.

The Cure put his head between his hands without replying.

The servant went on:

--Can it be that I, your servant, a poor ignorant village girl, should say
that to you, Monsieur le Cure?

--What, Veronica?

--But what matters our condition on earth? We are in a state of transition.
Holy Mary, she too, was a poor servant and now she is far above a queen.

--Without doubt, said the Cure.

--We must then despise nobody. Under the most humble appearance, God often
conceals his most faithful servants.

--Most certainly. But what are you driving at?

--At this, Monsieur le Cure; that we must be good and indulgent to
everybody: that the great sometimes have need of the little, and that when
we are able to render a service to our neighbour we must do it without
hesitation.

--It is Jesus who commands it, Veronica. But explain yourself, I pray.

--Well! yes, I will speak, she replied, for I am pained to see you thus,
and the more so as it is certainly allowed me to tell you so, me who am
destined, please God, to live with you. I have only known you since you
were our Cure, but you have been so good to me that I love you like ... a
sister. I was all alone here, like a poor forsaken creature, after the
death of my old master, the Abbe Fortin--may God keep his soul,--and you
consented to keep me when taking the parsonage. It is good of you, for you
might have brought with you your former servant, or again some niece, as
many do.

--I have no niece, Veronica.

--A niece, or a sister, or a relation. After all you have kept me, although
you could have found a better than myself. Oh, very easily, I know ... and
I thank you from the bottom of my heart, yes, from the bottom of my heart.
But could you have found one more devoted, more discreet? I believe not; as
much, perhaps; but more, I believe not. Ah! I tell you here, Monsieur le
Cure, you can do everything you want, nobody shall ever know anything of
it.

The Cure looked at his servant with amazement.

--What do you mean by that, Veronica? he asked in a stern voice.

--Oh! nothing, I mean nothing. I mean that you can have entire confidence
in your poor servant.

--I thank you, Veronica, but I don't know what you mean.

--I explain myself badly doubtless, Monsieur le Cure. Ah! pardon me, I was
forgetting ... here, there is a letter which I have just found and which
has been slipped under the door at night.

He looked at the address. It was an elegant and bold hand, the hand of a
woman.

XXIII.

THE LETTER

"The beauty then, to end this war,
Offers but a single way which we can hardly guess."

R. IMBERT (_Nouvelles_).

A sweet perfume was exhaled from it.

He opened it with a trembling hand.

That strange intuition of the heart which is named presentiment, told him
that it came from Suzanne.

Pale with emotion he read:

"MONSIEUR L'ABBE,

"I do not wish the day to pass without coming to ask your pardon for my
father's conduct towards you, and assure you that he does not think a
single one of his wicked words.

"Do not keep, I pray, an evil memory of me, and believe that I should he
grieved if a single doubt were to remain in your mind as to the sympathy
and respect which you inspire in

"Suzanne Durand.

"P.S. I have much need of your counsels."

Marcel, full of a delicious trouble, read and re-read this letter. He did
not take careful note of his sensations, but he felt an ineffable joy
overflow his heart, and at the same time a vague anxiety.

His servant's voice recalled Him to himself.

--Doubtless it is a sick person who asks for religious aid, she said.

Was there a slight irony in that question?

The priest thought he saw it. He called out sharply:

--You are still there, Veronica? Who has called you? I don't want you any
longer.

--Pardon me, Monsieuur le Cure, she answered humbly and softly, I was
waiting.... I thought that perhaps you were going out _to visit this sick
person_ and that then I could be useful to you in some way.

--You cannot be useful to me in any way, Veronica, But truly you astonish
me. What have you then to say to me? Come, explain yourself at once.

--No, Monsieur le Cure, there is midnight striking. It is time to repose, I
wish you good-night, sir.

--Good-night, Veronica.

"What a strange woman," said Marcel to himself, "what can she want with me.
One would say that she had a secret to confide to me and that she does not
dare.... Could she have any suspicion? No, it is impossible. How could she
know what I want to hide from myself. She has caught two or three words
perhaps; but what could she understand, and what have I let drop to
compromise me? She has evidently heard others, for she was here before me,
and these old walls have been witnesses, I am sure, of many groanings of
the soul.... Let us be cautious, nevertheless, and repress within ourselves
the thoughts which would come forth. A wise precept. It was a precept of my
master of rhetoric. Yes, let us be cautious; in spite of this woman's
appearance of devotion, who would trust to such marks of affection? The
servant's enemy is his master; and I clearly see that independently of my
dignity, I must not make the least false step; what torments I should
reserve to myself for the future.

"And this letter of Suzanne, the adorable and lovely Suzanne! What an
emotion suddenly seized me at the sight of that unknown handwriting, which
I had a presentiment was here. Oh! what a strange mystery is man's heart.
I, a priest, with a nature said to be energetic and strong. I trembled and
was affected like a child, because it has pleased a little school-girl to
write me a couple of lines in order to excuse her father's rudeness. What
is more natural than such conduct? Is it not the act of a well-bred girl?
And yet already my foolish brain is beating the country and travelling into
the land of fancies ... of abominable fancies.

"She asks me for counsel; doubtless I will give it her. Is it not my duty
and business as priest? but where, but when can I see her?..."

And he went very thoughtfully to bed, with his head full of dreams.

XXIV.

THE FIRST MEETING.

"Ah! let him, my child,
Ah! let him proceed.
When I was a Curate
I did much the same."

ANONYMOUS (_Le chant du Cure_).

The first person he saw the next day at morning Mass was Suzanne Durand.
She had not yet come to these low Masses, which are affected usually by the
devout, because the church is then more empty, and they feel themselves
more alone with God or with the priest; therefore the Cure was deeply
affected by this pious eagerness.

It is doubtful whether, on that day, his prayers reached the throne of the
Eternal, for he brought but little fervour to the holy sacrifice.

A good woman who had given twenty sous to buy a place in the firmament for
her defunct spouse, was quite scandalized to remark that the Cure was
eating in a heedless manner the wafer which, for nearly 2000 years, serves
as a lodging for Christ.

His words rose with the incense to the arches of the old church, but his
soul remained below, fluttering round that fair young girl, as if to
envelop her with embraces.

When he had dismissed the faithful with the sacramental words _Ite missa
est_, he felt a momentary confusion and he felt his knees tremble. He was
afraid of himself, for he saw the Captain's daughter rise from her seat and
slowly make her way to the confessional.

What! It was perfectly true then, she had asked for his counsel, and while
he, the priest, was hesitating and seeking where he could converse with her
without exposing himself to the brutal invective of the father or the
senseless scandals of the village, this simple girl had found, without any
aid from him, the safest spot, the sanctuary of which he had inwardly
dreamed.

He was then about to listen all alone to the divine accents of that
charming mouth; to see her kneeling before him, her face wreathed with a
modest blush,--before him who had wished to kiss her foot-prints.

Oh, God supreme! who could depict his transports, his emotion, the thrill
which ran through all his frame. She, she so near to him, so near that her
sweet breath caresses his face like a breeze come from heaven.

He felt wild with joy. But she also is affected, she also trembles, and
beneath her palpitating breast, he seems to hear the beatings of her heart.
What passed? What avowal did this maiden of ardent feeling make to this
hot-passioned man? There is one of those mysteries which remain for ever
buried between priest and woman, between penitent and confessor. What they
said to one another no one knows, but from that confessional into which he
entered pensive, wavering, it is true, but still contending, he went out
with his face radiant, and his heart intoxicated with love.

XXV.

LOVE.

"All loves around us: all around is heard,
Hard by the warbler's quivering kiss,
That voiceless song of flowers, which the lark,
by love distracted, to his mate translates."

EMILE DARIO (_Sonnets_).

He returned to the parsonage with a light step, hearing the birds singing
in the lime-trees the same joyous song which his own heart was singing. He
breakfasted with a good appetite, smiled at his servant, and gave pleasant
answers to her questions.

It seemed to him that a new world was opening. New ideas sprang up in him,
and he discovered sensations till then unknown.

He felt better; life smiled upon him, and all the things of life.

The past had altogether vanished; the present was radiant, the future was
laden with rosy dreams.

That same morning he had risen as usual, with no settled wish, aimless and
hopeless. Till then, he had acted like a machine, hardly knowing whither he
went, following his road by chance, walking onwards in the line which had
been traced out for him, with no relish, full of weariness and sadness.

What was he expecting then? Nothing. He was clinging to the fragments of
his beliefs, he remained hanging there, not daring to stir, to think, or to
turn, for fear of rolling to the bottom of some unknown abyss. But suddenly
everything is changed, everything is transformed, everything takes another
aspect. The whole world is illumined. Religion, dogma, mysteries, altar,
priest, what is all that? God even. He thinks no more of him.

A woman's look has obliterated all.

A woman's voice has murmured in his ear and he perceives that he is young,
that he is strong, that he has a heart, and that all cries to him at once:
Love! Love!

Oh! what a wonderful thing love is! What frenzy, what delirium, what
madness! Sublime madness, ravishing delirium, delicious frenzy.

First and last mystery of nature, first and last voice of the universe.

It is thou, oh God, who givest life to all, who dost animate all, who art
the principle of all. Thou art Alpha and Omega; thou art the potent arm
which has caused the worlds to rise, which has re-united the scattered
forces of matter, which has made order out of chaos.

And there are found men, creatures, works of love like everything which
moves, breathes, buds, shoots forth, there are found creatures who have
dared to say: Love is evil.

They have sworn to renounce love. They have spat in thy face, fruitful,
creative Divinity, they have denied thee on their impure altars.

But it is their God who is evil, as Proudhon said, that senseless and
ludicrous God who delights in grotesque saturnalia, in ridiculous prayers,
in shameful mummeries, in vows contrary to nature.

Marcel felt himself transformed.

A new feeling was born in him and plunged him into ineffable delight.

Nevertheless, as I have said, he experienced a vague fear; he had had a
glimpse of the unknown, and he was one of those delicate and timid souls
with their thoughts in some way turned upon themselves, which are terrified
at the unknown.

Seized with a restless apprehension and with a mysterious trouble, he felt
the hour coming which was about to change his life.

XXVI.

OF YOUNG GIRLS IN GENERAL.

"You tell me, Madame, that this description
is neither in the taste of Ovid
nor that of Quinault. I agree, my
dear, but I am not in a humour to
say soft things."

VOLTAIRE (_Dict. Phil._).

The great fault, in my opinion, both of the writer and of the poet, is to
idealize woman too much, and especially the young girl.

On the stage just as in the novel, the heroines are placed on a sort of
pedestal where they receive haughtily the incense and homage of poor
mankind.

They are perfect beings, of superior essence, gifted with all the beauties
and all the virtues, whose white robes of innocence never receive, amidst
all the impurities, of our social state, the slightest splash.

Why then raise thus upon a pedestal of Parian marble these statues of clay?
Why place reverentially beneath a tabernacle of gold these pasteboard
divinities?

Good Heavens! women are women, that is to say: the females of man, nothing
more. They are above all what men make them, and as we are generally
vicious and spoilt, since from the most tender age we take care to defile
ourselves in the street, in the workshop or on the school-benches; as the
atmosphere we breathe is corrupt, we have no claim to believe that our
wives, our sisters and our daughters can remain unspotted by our touch, and
that this same atmosphere which they breathe, will purify itself in passing
through their chaste nostrils.

If then the woman is not worse than we, as some assert, assuredly she is no
better.

And how could they be better, who are our pupils, and when the share we
have given them in society is so slight and so strangely ordered that, if
they cannot by means of supreme efforts expand and grow in it morally and
intellectually, every latitude is allowed them on the other hand to corrupt
themselves in it beyond measure, and to fall lower than the man into the
lowest depths.

"Fools!" said Machiavelli, "you sow hemlock and pretend you see ears of
corn growing ripe."

Why then idealize and make a divinity of this creature, when we know that
the education she ordinarily receives, takes away from her, little by
little, all which remains attractive, divine and ideal!

Certainly a chaste and simple young girl, fair and fresh as a spring
morning, sweet as the perfume of the violet, and whose mind and body alike
are as pure as the petals of a half-opened lily, is the most heavenly and
the most adorable thing in the world.

But, outside the pages of your novel, how many of them have you met in the
world?

I have often heard the modest virtues of the middle classes extolled, and
it is from such surroundings that the novelist of to-day most frequently
draws his feminine ideal. It is among the middle classes indeed that all
the qualifications seem to unite at first. It is the intermediate
condition, the most happy of all, as the excellent Monsieur Daru said in
1820, since it is only disinherited of the highest favours of fortune, and
the social and intellectual advantages of it are accessible to a reasonable
ambition.

But they evidently benefit very little by their advantages, for I, and you
also, have always found them coquettish, ignorant, frivolous and vain,
bringing up their children very badly, but in revenge, generally deceiving
their husbands very well.

"In middle-class households, bickering; among fashionable people, adultery.
In fashionable middle-class households, either one or the other and
sometimes both."[1]

And how could it be otherwise?

The daughters of devout and consequently narrow-minded and ignorant
mothers, of sceptical and libertine fathers, they spend five or six years
at school, where they consummate the loss of what may have escaped the
baneful example of their family.

They have taken from their mother foolish vanity, ridiculous prejudices,
the art of lying; from their father scepticism and an elastic conscience;
perhaps they will preserve their virtue and modesty? The pernicious
contacts of the school soon carry them away.

They still have a blush on their face, a down-cast eye, a timid bearing.
But their affected timidity is the token of their knowledge of _good and
evil_; like Eve, if they have not yet tasted of the forbidden fruit, they
burn to taste it, for their thought is sullied, their imagination is
vagrant and at the bottom of their soul there is a germ of corruption.

They leave the boarding-school _virgins_, but chaste, never.

Let us then represent the world as it la, women such as they are, and not
such as they ought to be; let us call things by their names, and when there
is moral deformity somewhere, let us show that deformity.

When we make wonders of the heroines of a novel, possessing the charms of
the _three Graces_ and the virtues of the seven sages of Greece, who when
they fall, fall in spite of themselves, impelled by a fatal concurrence of
circumstances, but with so much candour and innocence, that we cannot do
otherwise than pardon their fall and even fail to comprehend that they have
fallen, we are completely amazed when we descend from this imaginary world
to enter the world of reality.

The idealization of woman has therefore, besides other faults, that of
causing as to take a dislike to our ordinary companions. How, indeed, after
being present at the devotion of Sophonisba, at the suicide of the chaste
Lucretia, at the display of the virtues of Mademoiselle Agnes, and at that
of the form of Venus at the bath, can we contemplate with ravished eye the
wife no less plain than lawful, who is sitting with sullen air at our
fire-side, who has no other care than that of her person, no other moral
capital than a round enough sum of prejudices and follies, and whose
charms, finally, resemble more those of a Hottentot Venus than those of
Venus Aphrodite.

The picture of virtues is an excellent thing, but still it is necessary
that these virtues should exist. We must not enunciate an idea simply
because it is moral, but because it is true. _Amicus Plato, sed magis amica
veritas_.

That is why I shall not depict the little person, whom I am going to make
better known to you, as a model of virtue. She is an inquisitive girl, she
is vehement, she has been brought up in an atmosphere where depravity is
more generally inhaled than holiness. I should then be badly advised in
presenting you with an angel of candour and wisdom.

An angel! She is at that age indeed, at which foolish men call women
angels.

"Before they are wed, they are angels so gentle,
But quickly they change to vulgarian scolds,
She-demons who truly make hell of their homes."

[Footnote 1: H. Taine (Notes sur Paris).]

XXVII.

OF SUZANNE IN PARTICULAR.

"An exalted, romantic imagination of
vivid dreams, peopled with sumptuous
hotels, with smart equipages, fetes,
balls, rubies, gold and azure. This is
what I have most surely gathered at
this school and is called: a brilliant
education."

V. SARDOU (_Maison Neuve_).

But she was a ravishing demon, this child, and more than one saint might
have damned himself for her black eyes, those deep limpid eyes which let
one read to her soul. And there one paused perfectly fascinated, for this
fresh resplendent soul displayed in large characters the radiant word,
Love.

Have you never read this word in a maiden's two eyes? Seek in your memory
and seek the fairest, and you will have the delightful portrait of Suzanne.

I am unable to say, however, that she was a perfect girl. What girl is
perfect here below? She had left school, and it would have been a miracle
if she were, and we know that away from Lourdes, God works no more
miracles.

She had even many faults: those of her age doubled by those which education
gives to girls. Many a time, when opening the holy Bible, the only book
capable of cheering me in the hours of sadness, I have come across these
words of Ezekiel,

"They are proud, full of appetites, abounding in idleness."

It is of the daughters of Sodom that the holy prophet is complaining! What
would he say to-day to _the young ladies_ of our modern Sodoms?

But if the little Suzanne had all the darling faults of forward flowers
forced in the warm soil of our enervating education, and our decayed
civilization, she was better than many plainer ones, and I do not think
that the sum total of her errors could weigh heavy on her conscience.
Perhaps she was culpable in thought; but if the imagination was sick, the
heart was good and sound. She had not sinned, but she said to herself, that
sinning would be sweet!

Well! there is no great crime there. Does not every woman love instinctive
pleasure? Among them there are few stoics. They who are so, are so by
compulsion, and so they cannot make a virtue of it. Suzanne loved pleasure
then, and she loved it the more because she only knew it by hear-say.

The education of Saint-Denis had contributed no little to develop her
natural disposition.

Everything has been said about the _House of the Legion of Honour_, about
its curious system of education with regard to young girls, nearly all of
them poor, and brought up as if, when they left school, they would find an
income of L2,000 a year.

It is known that in this establishment intended for the daughters of
officers _with no fortune_, everything is taught except that which is most
necessary for a woman to know. They leave having a barren, superficial
education, principally composed of words, and in which consequently, to the
exclusion of the intelligence and the heart, the memory plays the principal
part; none of the childish rules of ceremonial are spared them, none of the
frivolous accomplishments indispensable for access to a world which, for
the greater part, they will never be invited to see; and they return to
their father's humble roof, dreaming of balls, fetes, equipages, hotels,
drawing-rooms, the only surroundings in which they could profitably display
the useless accomplishments with which they have been endowed, but also
perfectly incapable of darning their stockings or of boiling an egg.

And so they soon blush at their father's obscure condition and evince a
mortal disgust of the modest joys of the poor fire-side.

"Heavens! how little it all is!" Such was the first word which escaped her
when she returned to her father's house.

She had grown, and everything she saw on her return had shrank; her father
like the rest, perhaps more than the rest. She loved him all the same, but
she could not help finding him common.

She, the dainty young lady, brought up with the daughters of
country-gentlemen and generals, she said to herself that she was only the
daughter of an obscure captain, and it humiliated her. Ah! if her haughty
friends with whom she had exchanged confidences and dreams, had seen her
coming down the sumptuous stairs of her castles in Spain to go and live in
a poor village, while her father perspired over his cabbage-planting.

Her dreams! You know them well, and have also told them in quiet at the age
when you know how to form them:

At the age when you cease to be called a little girl, when the dress-maker
has just lengthened your dress, when your father's friends are no longer
familiar, but say with a smile: _Mademoiselle_.

At the age, when you feel the attraction of the unknown redouble its power,
when for the first time you feel a conscious blush at the look of a man.

At the age when the likeness of the young cousin you saw yesterday, appears
all at once on the page of your history or grammar, and strange to say,
pursues you at your games; when the noisy games of your companions weary
you, and you betake yourself to solitude in order to screen your thoughts.

And solitude, a bad adviser, takes possession of your thoughts, isolates
them from the rest of the real world, in order to immerse them in imaginary
worlds, and then agitates, reflects, whirls, polishes all that marvellous
enchanted universe in which the daughters of Eve wander with each wild
license, whom the base-born sons of Adam approach only a single step.

But when that step is taken, the enchanted world vanishes. The scaffolding
cracks and falls down. Palaces, geail, heroes and bounteous fairies
disappear pell-mell into the lowest depth. The old farce of humanity, the
comedy of love is played out.

Ah! how ugly it all is then! Under the smoky lamp of reality you vaguely
distinguish the battered grotesque shapes, rising in the ruins.

Suzanne therefore, like all her young friends, like you, Mademoiselle, and
also like you formerly, Madame, had commenced her little romance, had
sketched her little plot. She had loved, oh truly loved, with a love
necessarily confined to the platonic state, the handsome young men with
tasty cravats, whom she had seen on days when she walked out. What
delightful chapters were sketched upon their brown or fair heads! Oh! when
would she be free? When would she cease to have the ever-open eye of an
inquisitive under-mistress upon her slightest gesture?

And then the day of liberty had come, and under the breath of that liberty,
so eagerly and impatiently expected, the chapters she had begun were
blotted out, and so was the handsome head of a cherub or an Amadis in a
sublieutenant's cap or in a chimney-pot.

Fallen from these enervating heights of fictitious passions and
hair-dressers' scents into the prosaic but generous and brave arms of
paternal lore, on the breast of true and mighty nature, she had forgotten
for a moment her dreams.

She lavished on her father all the treasures of affection which her heart
contained, and treated him with all manner of solicitude and caresses; and
the old soldier before this youthful future which shone before him, himself
forgot his dreams of the past.

XXVIII.

THE SHADOW.

"Troubled by a vague emotion, I said
to myself, I wanted to be loved, and
I looked around me; I saw no one
who inspired me with love, no one
who appeared to me capable of feeling it."

BENJAMIN CONSTANT (_Adolphe_).

But what is the liberty that a well-behaved girl can enjoy? She had run
like a wild thing in the meadows, letting her hair fly in the wind, and
elated by the kisses of the breeze. She had relished the long mornings of
idleness in bed, recollecting, in order to double her enjoyment, that at
that very moment the friends she had left at school, were turning pale
beneath the smoky lamps of the school-room; and in the evening she read the
delightful novels of Droz by her lamp, and thought with pleasure that her
same friends had been in bed for a long while. Then she closed her book,
and reflected again and said with a yawn: "They are asleep, poor little
things, and I am awake, I am free to be awake."

And she wrote long letters to them in which she told them, how happy she
was, assuming a charming air of superiority, treating them as children who
knew nothing yet of life. But she thought that she knew nothing more of it
herself, and yearned to be instructed.

She felt that there was something wanting, and that her father's affection
was not enough to fill her heart.

She had looked well about her, but she had found only what was commonplace.
No more young clerks with curled hair, who darted inflammatory looks at the
women from behind the shop-windows, no Saint-Cyrion with delicate
moustache, no doctors of twenty-five or poets of eighteen. Besides her
father and the notabilities of the village, middle-aged dignitaries,
nothing but peasants only.

She held the belief which all girls hold; a nice little belief very
convenient and very simple: the sweet Jesus, the Paschal Lamb, and the
Immaculate Conception. Around this trio gravitated all the rest, but
graceful and light as the mists which float at sun-rise.

Therefore the Captain had not thought it his duty to disappoint his
daughter, when she said to him one Sunday morning, "My darling papa, I am
going to Mass." He let her go, grumbling; and she noticed Marcel.

The fine figure of the priest struck her; she was touched by the sound of
his voice, and while she fixed her gaze upon him, she encountered his, and
their eyes fell.

In the days when she took her walks at Saint-Denis, and saw for the first
time that she was admired by some handsome young men, she had not
experienced a more delicious emotion.

She was astonished and almost ashamed at it, and nevertheless she returned
for Vespers on purpose to see the Cure. She soon gained the certainty that
she had attracted his attention, and she was flattered at it. What! she, a
little school-girl, was she distracting from his prayers, at the very foot
of the altar, a minister of the altar? She felt herself rise in importance.
But her natural modesty made her reflect directly: "Has he looked at me
because I am a stranger, or because I am pretty?"

She was almost afraid that it was not this latter reason; Marcel's eyes
reassured her.

Nevertheless, the first impulse of self-love satisfied, what did it concern
her? How did this priest's admiration affect her? Is a priest a man? It
must be no more thought of. But she could not prevent herself from thinking
of him, being pleased at his finding her pretty. Others, doubtless, had
found her pretty before he did; perhaps had told her so in a whisper, but
was that the same thing?

The silent admiration of this grave personage, clothed in a sacred
character, raised her all at once in her own eyes more than a thousand warm
glances or timid declarations from insignificant and common-place youths.
Besides, he was young, he was handsome, and his position, his studies
placed him far above the ignorant and common people, whom she elbowed since
her return.

At night, the pale fine countenance of the Cure of Althausen crossed her
dreams several times; she was not disturbed at it, but she said to herself
that she would like to have a closer acquaintance with this shepherd of
men, who had made so deep an impression on her.

She was affected by his grave voice, soft and sad, more than by his look,
and, with a school-girl's simplicity, she asked herself, if a heart could
not beat beneath that black robe.

The visit of Marcel filled her with a strange trouble, and she hesitated a
long time before showing herself to him. Then the bitter raillery of her
father tortured her heart and wounded her in her delicate maidenly
sentiments. She suffered more than he from the insults which he received,
and she vowed to herself to have them forgiven.

XXIX.

OTHER MEETINGS.

"There was no seduction on her part
or on mine: love simply came, and I
was her lover before I had even thought
that I could become so."

MAXIME DU CAMP (_Memoires d'un suicide_).

They saw one another again very soon: sometimes on the road which leads to
the little chapel of Saint Anne, sometimes behind the village gardens,
other times on the high-road lined with poplars. From the furthest point at
which he caught sight of her dress or her large straw-hat, trimmed with red
ribbon, he trembled and became pale.

The first time he quickened his pace as he passed her, as though he were
afraid of being retained by a force stronger than his own will, or perhaps
from fear of ridicule, and he bowed to her as one bows to a queen.

She returned his bow graciously, and that was all. He had his sum of
happiness for the rest of the day.

The second time they met, they had both thought so much of one another that
they accosted one another like old acquaintances. The heart of each had
broken the ice and made all the advances before they had taken the first
steps. The young girl had read in the priest's eyes the wish to accost her,
and he saw that he would be welcome.

Was anything more necessary? Therefore, mutually content, when they
separated, they each had the desire to see the other again.

It was very often then that they saw one another; but especially at the
morning Masses; then, when he turned towards the nave, and raising his look
towards the gallery encountered hers, he asked no other joy from heaven.

XXX.

SERAPHIC LOVE.

"How many times does it not occur
to me to blush at my tastes? to hide
them from myself? to feign with myself
that I have them not? to find some
covering for them beneath which I
conceal them, in order to play a part
a little less foolish in my own conscience?"

JULES SIMON (_Le Devoir_).

But one day the Cure awoke full of dismay. The first intoxication had
slightly dissipated, he had taken time to look closely within himself, and
when he sought to analyze in cool blood this new and ravishing sensation,
he saw the abyss beneath his feet.

"What! he said to himself, whither am I going? What am I doing? I, a
priest, a minister of the altar, I should be at that point a slave of sin;
I shall continue to cast myself from darkness to darkness until the
definite and final fall. Oh! Lord, stop me, come to my aid; suffer not this
shame and this crime."

But he altered his mind. When the devil has succeeded in bringing a soul to
sin, there is no artifice he does not use to blind him beforehand, and to
turn away his thought from everything capable of making him see the unhappy
state in which he is. That is what the Church teaches.

Soon he viewed this passion under a new aspect, and he asked himself why he
had not the right to love. Had not all the saints loved? Had not St. Jerome
loved St. Paula? Had not Francis de Sales loved Madame de Chantal? Had not
Fenelon loved Madame Guyon? St. Theresa, her spiritual director, and
Venillot, his cook?

Were there not two kinds of love? The ethereal, ideal, chaste, seraphic
love, the love of the creature grateful for the perfect work of the
creator; platonic love, free from all impurity, allowed to the virtuous
confessor for his virtuous penitent, the love of the wise man in fact;
or--the other. Then with that art of the rhetorician which sacred
scholasticism teaches to every Levite, he said to himself, "Yes, I can
love, for it is the spotless love of the angels."

But his conscience protested and cried to him: "It is the other!"

XXXI.

THE VIRGIN.

"In whatever place I was, whatever
occupation I imposed on myself, I
could not think of women, the sight
of a woman made me tremble. How
many times have I risen at night,
bathed in sweat, to fasten my mouth
on our ramparts, feeling myself ready
to suffocate."

A. DE MUSSET (_Confession d'un enfant du Siecle_).

It was the other. He was soon obliged to confess this to himself; for
slumber abandoned his couch.

In vain in the day-time he wearied his body under the labour which kills
thought. He sought to fly from the seductive image. He did not go out, for
fear of seeing her. He rushed upon every hard and unfruitful labour that he
could find. He rooted up his trees in order to re-plant them elsewhere; dug
useless banks in his garden; changed his library from its place, and
carried one after another his enormous folios to the upper story. He would
have liked to go upon the road, sit at the bottom of some ditch, and take
the stone-breaker's hammer.

But the thought which he silenced by day, took its revenge by night. How
many times, during the long silent hours, his servant heard him get up all
at once and march with long steps in his room, as if he had to accomplish
some terrible vow.

It was the devil, whispering low mysterious words in his ear, while his
impetuous desires constrained him with all the power of his vitality. He
walked like a madman from his bed to his window, which he dared not open.
He had often formerly, leant his elbows there during the hours of
sleeplessness, and breathed with delight the keen freshness of the valley.
But now he dared no longer; warm vapours rose up to him and completed the
conflagration of his senses. Nature was re-awakening from the long slumber
of winter, and already setting to work, was accomplishing from every
quarter the mysterious work of love. And within and without he felt its
formidable power growing and enveloping him.

Nameless thoughts tumultuously invaded his sick brain and ruled there as
despots. They attached themselves to him like an implacable furious old
woman, who attaches herself the more closely to her young lover, the more
she feels he is going to escape her.

He saw again in continual hallucinations, sometimes the lascivious player
as she had appeared to him near her little white bed, sometimes the fresh
face of the religious school-girl who smiled to him from the height of the
gallery. At other times he saw them both together, and each of them called
him and said to him: Come, come.

Oh! why all these obstacles, these doors, these walls, these prejudices and
that formidable barrier which he dared not pass, duty.

It seemed to him that a burning lava was escaping from his heart, running
into his veins and devouring him. His limbs were heavy and bruised; his
head was on fire like his heart, and his thoughts were enveloped in mire.
Often with his eye fixed on space, he contemplated some phantom visible to
himself alone; then big tears rolled slowly on his cheeks and fell one by
one on his bare chest, and he felt that they relieved him.

He had placed a statue of the Virgin at the foot of his bed: the one which
has a heart in flames and open arms. He looked on it as he went to sleep
and prayed the Mother, eternally chaste, to watch over his dreams.

But many times in his delirium he saw the Virgin come to life and take the
well-known face of her from whom he sought to flee, and come and find him
in his couch. And he woke with a start full of terror of himself at the
moment when, in his impious sacrilege, he felt the chaste bosom of the
Mother of God quiver beneath his kisses.

Then he opened his scared eyes and perceived before him the sweet form
which stretched its plaster arms to him in the shadow, and full of agony he
cried:

"_Mater inviolata, ora pro nobis_!"

But once he thought he heard a voice which answered:

"_Christe, audi nos_."

XXXII.

THE DEATH'S-HEAD.

"God is my witness that I did then
everything in the world to divert myself
and to heal myself."

A. DE MUSSET (_Confession d'un enfant du Siecle_).

One night he went out by stealth, crossed the market-place, and descended
the hill. He had the look of a man who was hiding himself, and he went back
several times, as if he was afraid of being followed. He reached the
cemetery, took a key from his pocket, cautiously opened the gate and closed
it behind him. At the bottom of the principal path there was a little
chapel which served for an ossuary. In it was a hideous accumulation of the
remains of several generations. The cemetery was becoming too full and it
had been necessary to make room. Here as elsewhere the cry was: "Room for
the young." And it is only justice. What would become of as if all the old
remained? There is overcrowding under ground as there is above. "Keep off!
Keep off!" Therefore their ancestors' bones were in the way, and they had
cast them into this retreat to wait for the common grave. But the common
grave is again a place which must be taken, and the recent gluttonous dead
want everything. "Keep off! Keep off!" Let us not say anything ourselves,
perhaps they will dispute with us the corner of ground which should shelter
our bones!

Marcel went into the gloomy chapel; he lighted a dark lantern and began to
search among the pile.

Then he returned to the parsonage like a thief, afraid of being caught, and
shut himself up in his room.

He had a parcel under his arm; he opened it and, carefully placing its
contents on the table, he sat down in front of it and contemplated it for a
long time.

XXXIII.

FRENZY.

"Abstinence has its deadly exhaustions."

BALZAC (_Le Lys dans la Vallee_).

A few days before, the gravedigger, while digging up the whitened bones of
the ancient dead, had broken up with his pick-axe a mouldering coffin, and
a head rolled to his feet It was of later date, for the lower jaw was still
fastened to it and it had not the calcareous colour of bones buried long
ago. It was the more horrible.

The gravedigger threw it into his wheel-barrow with its neighbour's
shin-bones, and carried it to the common heap. It was this _thing_ that the
Cure of Althausen had coveted and stolen.

He had then placed it on his table and contemplated it in silence. The top
of the skull was polished and blunt, the front narrow, the bones small and
apparently not having attained their full development. It was therefore a
youthful head, the head of an adolescent cut down at the moment, when life
completely unfolds itself to hope; while the elliptical shape of the lower
maxillary, the small and similarly-shaped teeth, the slight separation of
the nasal bones, a few long hairs still adhering to the occiput, clearly
indicated its feminine origin.

"A young girl!" murmured Marcel, "a young girl! beautiful perhaps; loved
without doubt ... and there is what remains. Ah! if he who was pleased to
kiss your lips, could see your dreadful laugh."

And, after he had meditated a long while, he went to his bed, took the
plaster virgin from its pedestal, and taking in his two hands the skull, he
put it in its place between the serge curtains.

And when the fever seized him, when he was burning with all the flames
which the fiery _simoom_ of passion breathed on him, and he felt the frenzy
taking possession of his pillow, he turned towards the wall and looked at
this new companion. Sometimes a moon-beam came and lighted up the hideous
skull and played in the gloomy cavities of its sightless eyes. The head
then seemed to become animate and its bare teeth gave an infernal grin.

This was his remedy for love.

But we grow used to everything. Custom destroys sensations. Death and its
mysteries, the horrible, and all its threatening shapes soon present
nothing to our eyes but worn-out pictures. He accustomed himself to
contemplate without emotion this lugubrious ruin. As before, the frenzy
seized him and shook him before the skull. It did more. It clothed it again
with flesh. It planted long hairs upon that shining, yellow forehead. It
placed in the hollow orbits large eyes full of love; it hid the wasted
cartillages under quivering nostrils, and upon that horrible jaw it laid
rosy lips and a sweet mouth, like a maiden's first kiss. And it is thus
that it appeared to him in the shadow, wrapped in the curtains of his bed,
like a modest girl who hides herself from sight.

"Oh! sweet phantom, return to life," he said. "Take again thy body adorned
with its graces and with its charms; come, clothed in thy sixteen years."

And he stretched his arms towards the enchanting vision, while the
death's-head, with its bare jaw, gave its eternal grin.

He woke and found himself kneeling near his bed, facing the wreck of
humanity.

Horror soiled him. His empty room was filled with spectres. He saw
hell-hags with death's-heads sporting and swarming on his bed. At the same
time, little sharp, hasty, shrill knocks shook his window.

Fall of terror he ran to open it. A gust of wind, mingled with rain and
hail, heat against his face. He was ashamed of his fears and leant his head
out to catch the beneficent shower. His brain cooled and his blood grew
calm.

He was there for a few minutes, when all at once, under the trees in the
market-place, he thought he distinguished two motionless shadows. He
thought for an instant that his hallucination lasted still, but soon the
shadows drew near. They seemed to walk carefully under the young foliage of
the limes in order to avoid the rain, and in one of them he recognized
distinctly Suzanne.

XXXIV.

THE PROHIBITION.

"Do you know any means of making
a woman do that which she has decided
that she will not do?"

ERNEST FEYDEAU (_La Comtesse de Chalis_).

That same day, after supper, the Captain had entered the drawing-room where
Suzanne was playing the _Requiem_ of Mozart.

--So you are playing Church airs now? he said to her.

--Don't you like this piece, father?

--Not at all.

--Perhaps, said Suzanne smiling, because it is a Mass.

--My dear child, do you want me to tell you what you are with all your
Masses?

--What?

--Where did you go this morning?

--At what time?

--At the time when you went out.

--I only went out to go to Mass.

--And the day before yesterday?

--Why this questioning, dearest papa?

--Ah! dearest papa, dearest papa. There is no dearest papa here, I want to
know the truth.

--But what truth? I have nothing wrong to hide from you. I went to Mass. Is
that forbidden?

--To Mass! Good Heavens! To Mass! That is most decidedly making up your
mind to disobey me!

--But papa, you have not forbidden it to me.

--Not in so many words, it is true; because I counted on your reason and
good sense. Have I not spoken loudly enough my way of thinking on this
subject?

--But, papa, your way of thinking is completely contrary to that which I
have been taught. You ought to have said when you sent me to Saint-Denis:
"You are not to teach my daughter any religion." They have taught me
religion, what is more natural than for me to follow it.

--And what has your religion in common with your Mass? If you want to pray
to God, can you not pray to him at home?

--Am I not a Catholic before all?

It was the first time that Suzanne had spoken to her father in this firm
and decided tone. Nothing more was wanted to irritate the irascible
soldier:

--Ah! I know the hidden and villainous insinuation! he cried, Catholic
before all! It is that indeed. Before being daughter! before being wife!
before being mother! the Church, the priest first; the rest only comes
after. The Mass, the Church! the Church, the Mass! With that they cover
every vileness. Well, do you want me to tell you what I think of women who
frequent churches? They are either lazy, or hypocrites, or idiots, or
finally hussies in love with the Cure. There are no others. In which
category do you want to be placed, my daughter?

--And all that because I discharge my religious duties!

--You have spoken to that Cure? I see it. Where have you spoken to him?

--I have nothing to hide from you, father; but Monsieur Marcel had not
given me any bad advice, I ask you to believe.

--So it is true then; you have spoken to this man: unknown to me, in
secret.

--I had no secret to make of it. I went to confession, that is all, as I
was accustomed to do at school.

--Confession! what, good Heavens! You went and knelt before that rascal,
after what I have told you concerning all his like!

--All priests are not alike.

--Ah! you are under his influence already. Doubtless, he is the pearl, the
model, the saint. Thunder of Heaven! my daughter too, but you do not know
that your mother died of remorse of soul because she found a saint, a model
of virtue in that black crew of scoundrels. Stay, be silent, you make me
say too much.

--I don't understand you.

--I will be obeyed and not questioned. Have I the right to expect that from
my daughter?

--You have every right, father.

--Well, I forbid you for the future to put your foot inside the church.

--In truth, father, would not one say that you were talking of some
ill-reputed place?

--Worse than that. Those who enter a place of ill-repute, know beforehand
where they go and to what they expose themselves, which the little fools
who frequent churches never know.

Suzanne made no reply and went down into the garden.

The old governess who bad brought her up and who loved her tenderly, came
to meet her.

--Your father is after the Cures again. What can these poor people of God
have done to the man?

They walked a long time round the kitchen-garden, then they sat down under
an arbour of honeysuckle.

--What time is it, Marianne? the young girl said all at once, fixing her
eyes on the window of her father's room.

--It is late, my child, it is ten o'clock at least; everybody in the
village has gone to bed. Come, your father has finished his newspaper,
there is no longer any light in his room; he has just blown out his lamp.
Let us go in.

They were near the little back-gate which led out to the meadows. Suzanne
opened it cautiously: "No, let us go out," she said.

XXXV.

THE SHELTER.

"Is it a chance? No. And besides;
chance, what is it after all but the
effect of a cause which escapes us?"

ERCHMAN-CHATRIAN (_Contes fantastiques_).

As soon as Marcel had recognized Suzanne, he did not take time to reflect,
and say to himself:

"What is it you are going to do, idiot?" He ran downstairs, stumbling like
a drunken man, and gently opened the door. What did he intend? He did not
know. Was he going to call these women? He did not know. He opened his
door, that was all, and his thought went no further.

The same morning at church, he had seen Suzanne, and said to himself, "I
will not look at her." He did not look at her. He kept his eyes lowered
when he turned towards the nave, but he could have said how many times
Suzanne lifted hers, if she were joyous or sad, and if she had a red ribbon
or a blue ribbon at her neck.

Oh! the eternal contradiction of mankind. He had not wanted to look at her
by day, and here he is throwing himself in her path in the middle of the
night.

The steps approached and his heart beat with violence; he was so agitated
that, at the moment when the two women passed before his door to reach the
lane which led to the bottom of the hill, he could hardly articulate in a
hesitating voice:

"Mademoiselle Durand."

They uttered a cry.

--It is I, he said coming forward. Is it possible? You here at such an hour
and in the rain?

--I had gone out with my maid, said Suzanne, and the rain has surprised us.

--Do not go farther. Shelter yourselves under my door. It is an April
shower; it will soon have passed.

At the same time he went down the steps before the house and took Suzanne's
hand. Never had he felt such boldness.

--I pray, Mademoiselle, do not refuse me the pleasure of offering you a
refuge for a few moments beneath my humble roof.

Suzanne accepted without making him plead any more. She went up the stairs
and entered the corridor. The servant followed her. At the end, on the
first steps of the stair-case, a lamp swung to and fro in the wind.

The Cure shut the door again and, passing near the two women, drawn up
against the wall, he brushed against the young girl's damp dress with his
hand.

--But you are wet, Mademoiselle, he said to her. Perhaps it would not be
wise to remain in this cold passage. Should I dare to ask you to go
upstairs an instant, and warm yourself at my fire?

His voice trembled with emotion, and he found that his hand was so near
hers that he had only to close his fingers to take Suzanne's. He seized it
therefore and inflicting on her a gentle violence: "Go up, I pray, go up,"
he said.

She allowed him to conduct her. He showed them into his library, which was
his favourite apartment, the sanctuary of his labours, his griefs and his
dreams. He took some vine-twigs which he threw in the fireplace, and soon a
cheerful flame lighted up the hearth.

XXXVI.

THE HOT WINE.

"I looked at her; she tried to show
nothing of what she felt in her heart.
She held herself straight, like an
oarsman who feels that the current is
carrying him away, and her nostrils
quivered."

CAMILLE LEMONNIER (_Contes flamands et wallons_).

Suzanne was sitting in the old arm-chair of straw, the seat of honour of
the parsonage, her huge dark eyes followed the curling flames, while
Marianne, standing up against one of the sides of the chimney-piece, cast
around her an inquisitive and timorous look. The priest with one knee on
the ground, was drawing up the fire.

--Here is quite a Christmas fire, he said as he got up. Come close,
Mademoiselle, your feet are doubtless damp. It is cold; don't you find it
so?

He was trembling in all his limbs as if indeed he were frozen near this
blazing fire.

Suzanne put forward a little delicate arched foot which she rested on one
of the fire-dogs. The priest's eyes stayed with ecstasy on the white line,
the breadth of two fingers, displayed between her boot and the bottom of
her dress.

--I am truly ashamed, she murmured, yes, truly ashamed to disturb you at
such an hour.

--Ought not the priest's house, said Marcel, to be open to all at any hour?
It is open to the poor man who passes by; it is open sometimes to the
vagabond; why should it not be to an angelic young lady who seeks a shelter
against the storm?

--It is true, it is the house of God, said Marianne. The young girl looked
at the priest, smiled and then became thoughtful. She appeared soon no
longer to be conscious where she was, nor of the priest who remained
standing before her. She knitted her eyebrows and a feverish shudder ran
through her frame.

Marcel stooped down towards her with anxiety.

--Are you in pain? he said.

She shook her head as if to drive away a world of thought which possessed
her and answered with a kind of hesitation:

--No, Monsieur, thank you; I am not in pain. But I tremble to find myself
here. What will my father say? And you, Monsieur, what will you think of
me?

--But what are you frightened at, Mademoiselle? said Marianne. We are here
because Monsieur le Cure has had the goodness to bring us in. Don't you
hear the rain outside? As to your father, he is not obliged to know that we
are at Monsieur le Cure's.

--Reassure yourself, Mademoiselle; your father cannot be offended because
you have accepted a shelter against the bad weather. You are here, as the
good Marianne has just said, in the house of God, and I will say in my
turn, beneath the eye of God. These are very great words about so small a
matter, he added with a smile. But you are in pain? Ah! you see, you have a
cold already.

He proposed making her take a little warm wine, which Marianne declared to
be a sovereign remedy, and spoke of going to wake up his servant.

Marianne opposed this with all her power.

--Since you have the kindness to offer something to our dear young lady,
she said, let me make it. Good Heavens! to wake up Mademoiselle Veronica!
what would she say? that I am good for nothing, and she would be right.

--Well, said Marcel, I am going to show you where you will find what is
necessary.

They both went down to the kitchen, as quietly as possible, so as not to
disturb Veronica's slumber, and Marianne declared that with an armful of
dry wood, she would have finished in a few minutes.

--Then I leave you, said the priest; I must not leave Mademoiselle Suzanne
alone.

He remained several seconds longer, hesitating, following the movements of
the old governess without seeing them, then all at once he quickly
remounted the stair-case.

XXXVI.

TETE-A-TETE.

"'Tis yours to use aright the hour
Which destiny may leave you,
To drain the cup of oldest wine,
And pluck the morning's roses."

A. BUSQUET (_La poesie des heures_).

He halted at the threshold, pale and trembling as if he were about to
commit a crime.

He passed his hand over his brow, it was damp with a cold sweat. What!
Suzanne was there, in his house, alone, in the middle of the night, in his
own room, beside his fire, seated in his arm-chair. Oh, blessed vision! Was
it possible? Was he dreaming? Would the charming picture disappear? And he
remained there, motionless, anxious, not daring to move a step, for fear of
seeing her disappear. But yes, it is she indeed; she has hidden her
charming face in her hands, and it seems to him that tears are stealing
through her fingers.

He sprang towards her.

--Oh! Mademoiselle, what is the matter? What is the matter? Why these
tears, which break my heart? Confide your troubles to me, and, I swear to
you, if it be in my power, I will alleviate them.

--You cannot, answered Suzanne sadly, lifting to him her great moist eyes.

--I cannot! do not believe that, my child: the priest can do many things;
he knows how to comfort souls, it is the most precious of his gifts. Do not
hesitate to confide your griefs to the priest, to the friend.

He sat down, facing her, waiting for her to speak. But she remained silent;
he only heard the rapid breathing of the young girl, and the storm which
raged in his own heart.

At length he broke the silence.

--Mademoiselle, dear young lady, he said with his most insinuating voice,
do you lack confidence then in me? Ah! I see but too well, your father's
prejudices have left their marks.

--Do not believe it, she cried eagerly, do not believe it.

--Thank you, dear young lady. I should so much wish to have your
confidence. And in whom could you better repose it? What others could
receive more discreetly than ourselves the trust of secret sufferings? Ah,
that is one of the benefits of our holy religion; it is on that account
that she is the consolation of those who are sad, the relief of those
who suffer, the refuge of the humble and the weak, the joy of all the
afflicted. Her strong arms are open to all human kind; but how small is
the number of the chosen who wish to profit by this maternal tenderness.
Be one of that number, dear child, come to us, to us who stretch out our
arms to you, to me, who now say to you: "Open your heart to me, confide
to me your troubles. However sick your soul may be, mine will understand
it."

The priest's voice was troubled, and it went to the bottom of Suzanne's
heart. She cast on him a look full of compassion: You are unhappy, she
asked.

--Do not say that, do not say that! Unhappy! yes, I may have been so, but
now I am so no longer. Are you not there? Has not your presence caused all
the dark clouds to fly away? No, I am no longer unhappy; it would be a
blasphemy to say so, when God has permitted you, by some way or other of
his mysterious and infinite wisdom, to come and bring happiness to my
hearth!

--Happiness! I bring happiness to you! But who am I? a little girl just out
of school, who knows nothing of life.

--And that is what makes you more charming. You are a rose which the breath
of morning, pure as it is, has not yet touched. Life! dear child, do not
seek to know it too soon. It is a vale of tears, and those who know it best
are those who have suffered most deception and weeping.

--But a priest is safe from deception and sorrows....

--Ah, Mademoiselle, you with that clear and honest look, you do not know
all that passes at the bottom of a man's heart.

Alas, we priests, we are but men, more miserable than others, that is the
difference ... yes, more miserable because we are more alone. Ah, you
cannot understand how painful it is never to have anybody to whom you can
open your heart; no one to partake your joys and mitigate your griefs; no
loved soul to respond to your soul; no intellect to understand your
intellect. Alone, eternally alone, that is our lot. We are men of all
families; friends of all, and we have no friends; counsellors to all, and
no one gives us salutary advice; directors of all consciences, and we have
no one to direct ours, but the evil thoughts which spring from our
weariness and our isolation. But why do I speak to you of all that, am I
mad? Let us talk about yourself. Come, dear child, I have made my little
disclosures to you, make yours to me, open your heart to me ... speak ...
speak.

--Well, yes, I wanted to see you, to speak with you, to ask your advice. I
used to meet you before from time to time in your walks, now you never go
out. I have gone to Mass, notwithstanding the displeasure it causes my
father, I thought your looks avoided mine. What have I done to you? I don't
believe I have done anything wrong. This evening I had a dispute with my
father. I went out not knowing where I went; the rain overtook us and I met
you.

Marcel trembled. He had taken the young girl's hand, but he quickly dropped
it, fearing she might observe his agitation.

--Ah! Suzanne continued, there are hours when I miss the school, my
companions, the long cold corridors, our silent school-room, even the
under-mistresses. I am ashamed of it, and angry with myself, but I
must-confess it. Is this then that liberty I so desired? I was a prisoner
then, but I was peaceful, I was happy: I see it now. Weariness consumes me
here. I see no aim for my life. I had one consolation; my religious duties.
That is taken away from me. For my father has formally forbidden me this
evening to go to church. If I go there again, I disobey my father and I
grieve him. If I obey his orders, I take away the only happiness of my
life.

She had spoken with volubility, and the priest listened to her in silence.
Hanging on her look, he drank in her words. He heard them without
comprehending exactly their meaning. It was sweet music which charmed him,
but he only thought of one thing. She had said: "Your looks avoided mine."

When she had finished speaking, he was surprised to hear her no longer and
listened afresh.

--I have spoken with open heart to my confessor, said Suzanne timidly,
astonished at this silence.

--To the confessor! no, no, dear child; to the friend, to the friend, is it
not? Do you want him? Will you trust yourself to me? Will you let yourself
be guided by me? I will bring you by a way from which I will remove all the
thorns.

--But my father?

This was like the blow from a club to Marcel.

--Your father! Ah, yes! your father! Well, but what are we going to do?

--I have just asked you.

--It is written in the Gospel: "No one can serve two masters at the same
time." You have a master who is God. Your father places himself between God
and your duty. You must choose.

Suzanne did not reply.

--Consult your conscience, my child. What says your conscience?

--My conscience says nothing to me.

Marcel thought perhaps he had gone a little too far, he added:

--You must decide nevertheless. It is also written, "Render unto Caesar the
things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

--How am I to unite the respect and submission which I owe to my father
with my duties as a Christian? That, repeated Suzanne, is what I wanted to
ask you.

--And we will solve the problem, dear child. Yes, we will come forth from
this evil pass, to our advantage and to our glory. Nothing happens but by
the will of God, and it is He, doubt it not, who has guided you into my
path in order that I may take care of your young and beautiful soul. The
ancients were in the habit of marking their happy days; I count already two
days in my life which I shall never obliterate from my memory, two days
marked in the golden book of my remembrances. The one is that on which I
saw you for the first time. You were in the gallery of our church. The
light was streaming behind you through the painted windows and surrounded
you with a halo. I said to myself: "Is it not one of the virgins detached
from the window?" The other is to-day.--Do you believe in presentiments,
Mademoiselle?

--Sometimes.

--Well! I had a presentiment as it were of this visit. Yes, shall I dare to
tell you so? The whole day I have been wild with joy! I had an intuition of
an approaching happiness, a very rare event with me, Mademoiselle.

--Of what happiness?

--Why of this, of this which I enjoy at this moment; this of seeing you
sitting at my hearth, in front of me, near to me, this of hearing your
sweet voice, and reading your pure eyes. But what am I saying? Pardon me,
Mademoiselle. See how happiness make us egotistic! I talk to you about
myself, while it is about you that we ought to occupy ourselves, of you,
and of your future.

And he looked at her with such glowing eyes, that she was a little
frightened.

XXXVIII

THE KISS.

"That strange kiss makes me shudder
still."

A. DE MUSSET (_Premieres poesies_).

--Are you not cold? said Marcel; and he stooped down to draw up the fire.

But on sitting down again it happened that his seat was quite close to that
of Suzanne, so close that their knees were touching, and that he had only
to make a slight movement to take one of her hands.

--Dear, dear child.

And he began to talk to her of God in his unctuous voice. He talked to her
also of her duties as a Christian, and of the probable struggles she would
have to undergo. He talked to her again of the purity of her heart and
compared her to the angels.

And while he talked, he began to fondle this little soft white hand,
lifting delicately the slender fingers with their rosy nails, drawing over
the soft and satiny tips his brown and muscular fingers.

Soon his warm hand became burning. Magnetic influences were evolved.
Invisible sparks broke forth suddenly at the contact of these two
epidermises, ran through his veins, inflamed his heart and set his brain
a-blaze.

[PLATE II: THE KISS. She tried to release her imprisoned hand, but he bent
over it, and pressed it to his lips.]

[Illustration]

He lost his presence of mind, his will wavered and sank in the molten lava
of his desires; he lost perception of his surroundings, of all those
formidable things which until then had bound him with the strong bands of
moral authority; he thought no longer of anything, he paused no longer at
anything, he saw nothing but this fair young girl whom he coveted, who was
alone with him, her hand in his, sitting by his fire-side, in the silence
and the mystery of the night. His clasp became convulsive. Under the fire
of his burning gaze Suzanne raised her head, and a second time fell back in
dismay. She tried to release her imprisoned hand, but he bent over it, and
pressed it to his lips.

The door opened wide.

--Don't get impatient, said Marianne, there is the hot wine. I have been a
long time, but the wood was green. Are you better?

But Suzanne, trembling all over, remained silent.

XXXIX.

THE DEVIL IN PETTICOATS.

"I know an infallible means of
drawing you back from the precipice
on which you stand."

CHARLES (_Des Illustres Francaises_).

--Wretch that I am. I have defiled a pure confiding child, who came in all
loyalty to sit at my fire-side. Vile and cowardly nature, like some base
Lovelace, I have grossly abused the confidence which was placed in me. My
priestly robe, far from being a safeguard, is but a cloke for my
iniquities. I have reached that pitch of cowardice that I am no longer
master of myself.

Incapable of commanding my feelings; become the slave and the plaything of
my shameful desires and of my lustful passions!... It must have happened.
Yes, it must have happened. Sooner or later I was obliged to fall: it is
the chastisement of my presumption and pride. Ah! wretch, you wish to
subdue the flesh, you wish to reform nature, you wish to be wiser than God.
They tried at the seminary by means of _nenuphar_ and _infusions of nitre_
to quench in you the desires of youth and its rebellious passion. Vain
efforts, senseless attempts, which served only to retard your fall. In vain
you try, in vain you struggle, in vain you invoke the angels and call God
to your aid; there comes a time, a moment, a minute, a second, in which all
your life of struggles and efforts is lost. The angry flesh subdues you in
its turn, baffled nature revolts, and the Creator, whose laws you have not
recognized, abandons the worthless creature and lets him roll over, falling
into an abyss of iniquity.

Oh! my God! where is all this going to bring me? What will become of me?
How can I show my brow all covered with shame? Is not my infamy written
there?... She, she, what will she think of me?... To kiss her hand, her
soft perfumed hand. Oh God, God all-powerful, where am I? where am I going?
I said it; martyrdom or shame! It is shame which awaits me.

So spoke the Cure, when Marianne had taken away her young mistress, and his

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