Part 2 out of 3
I turned towards her. Her name was Madame Montgeron or Montgerot. It
sounded funny to me. Why did she have that name? It seemed not to
suit her, or to be useless. It struck me how artificial words and
The meal was over. Almost everybody had gone out. Coffee cups and
sticky little liqueur glasses were scattered on the table on which a
sunbeam shone, mottling the tablecloth and making the glasses sparkle.
A coffee stain had dried on the cloth and gave out fragrance.
I joined in the conversation between Amy and Madame Lemercier. She
looked at me. I scarcely recognised her look, which I had seen so
The man-servant came in and whispered a few words to Madame Lemercier.
She rose, excused herself, and went out of the room. I was left with
Amy. There were only two or three people in the dining-room, who were
discussing what they were going to do in the afternoon.
I did not know what to say to her. The conversation flagged and died
out. She must have thought that she did not interest me--this woman,
whose heart I had seen, and whose destiny I knew as well as God
She reached for a newspaper lying on the table, read a line or two,
then folded it, rose and also left the room.
Sickened by the commonplaceness of life and dull from the heaviness of
the after-lunch hour, I leaned drowsily on the long, long table, the
sunlit table disappearing into infinity, and I made an effort to keep
my arms from giving way, my chin from dropping, and my eyes from
And in that disorderly room, where the servants were already hastening
quietly to clear the table and make ready for the evening meal, I
lingered almost alone, not knowing whether I was happy or unhappy, not
knowing what was real and what was supernatural.
Then I understood. It came upon me softly, heavily. I looked around
at all those simple, peaceful things. Then I closed my eyes, and said
to myself, like a seer who gradually becomes conscious of the nature of
the revelation he has seen, "The infinite--why, this is the infinite.
It is true. I can no longer doubt." It came upon me with force that
there is nothing strange on earth, that the supernatural does not
exist, or, rather, that it is everywhere. It is in reality, in
simplicity, in peace. It is here, inside these walls. The real and
the supernatural are one and the same. There can no more be mystery in
life than there can be a fourth dimension.
I, like other men, am moulded out of infinity. But how confused it all
was to me! And I dreamed of myself, who could neither know myself well
nor rid me of myself--myself who was like a deep shadow between my heart
and the sun.
The same background, the same half-light tarnishing them as when I
first saw them together. Amy and her lover were seated beside each
other, not far from me.
They seemed to have been talking for some time already.
She was sitting behind him, on the sofa, concealed by the shadow of the
evening and the shadow of the man. He was bending over, pale and
vaguely outlined, with his hands on his knees.
The night was still cloaked in the grey silken softness of evening.
Soon it would cast off this mantle and appear in all its bare darkness.
It was coming on them like an incurable illness. They seemed to have a
presentiment of it and sought refuge from the fatal shadows in talking
and thinking of other things.
They talked apathetically about this and that. I heard the names of
places and people. They mentioned a railway station, a public walk, a
All at once she stopped and hid her face in her hands.
He took her wrists, with a sad slowness that showed how much he was
used to these spells, and spoke to her without knowing what to say,
stammering and drawing as close as he could to her.
"Why are you crying? Tell me why you are crying."
She did not answer. Then she took her hands away from her eyes and
looked at him.
"Why? Do I know? Tears are not words."
. . . . .
I watched her cry--drown herself in a flood of tears. It is a great
thing to be in the presence of a rational being who cries. A weak,
broken creature shedding tears makes the same impression as an all-
powerful god to whom one prays. In her weakness and defeat Amy was
above human power.
A kind of superstitious admiration seized me before this woman's face
bathed from an inexhaustible source, this face sincere and truthful.
. . . . .
She stopped crying and lifted her head. Without his questioning her
again she said:
"I am crying because one is alone.
"One cannot get away from one's self. One cannot even confess
anything. One is alone. And then everything passes, everything
changes, everything takes flight, and as soon as everything takes
flight one is alone. There are times when I see this better than at
other times. And then I cannot help crying."
She was getting sadder and sadder, but then she had a little access of
pride, and I saw a smile gently stir her veil of melancholy.
"I am more sensitive than other people. Things that other people would
not notice awaken a distinct echo in me, and in such moments of
lucidity, when I look at myself, I see that I am alone, all alone, all
Disturbed to see her growing distress, he tried to raise her spirits.
"We cannot say that, we who have reshaped our destiny. You, who have
achieved a great act of will--"
But what he said was borne away like chaff.
"What good was it? Everything is useless. In spite of what I have
tried to do, I am alone. My sin cannot change the face of things.
"It is not by sin that we attain happiness, nor is it by virtue, nor is
it by that kind of divine fire by which one makes great instinctive
decisions and which is neither good nor evil. It is by none of these
things that one reaches happiness. One /never/ reaches happiness."
She paused, and said, as if she felt her fate recoiling upon her:
"Yes, I know I have done wrong, that those who love me most would
detest me if they knew. My mother, if she knew--she who is so
indulgent--would be so unhappy. I know that our love exists with the
reprobation of all that is wise and just and is condemned by my
mother's tears. But what's the use of being ashamed any more? Mother,
if you knew, you would have pity on my happiness."
"You are naughty," he murmured feebly.
She stroked the man's forehead lightly, and said in a tone of
"You know I don't deserve to be called naughty. You know what I am
saying is above a personal application. You know better than I do that
one is alone. One day when I was speaking about the joy of living and
you were as sad as I am to-day, you looked at me, and said you did not
know what I was thinking, in spite of my explanations. You showed me
that love is only a kind of festival of solitude, and holding me in
your arms, you ended by exclaiming, 'Our love--I am our love,' and I
gave the inevitable answer, alas, 'Our love--I am our love.'"
He wanted to speak, but she checked him.
"Stop! Take me, squeeze my hands, hold me close, give me a long, long
kiss, do with me what you want--just to bring yourself close to me,
close to me! And tell me that you are suffering. Why, don't you feel
He said nothing, and in the twilight shroud that wrapped them round, I
saw his head make the needless gesture of denial. I saw all the misery
emanating from these two, who for once by chance in the shadows did not
know how to lie any more.
It was true that they were there together, and yet there was nothing to
unite them. There was a void between them. Say what you will, do what
you will, revolt, break into a passion, dispute, threaten--in vain.
Isolation will conquer you. I saw there was nothing to unite them,
She kept on in the same strain.
He seemed to be used to these sad monologues, uttered in the same tone,
tremendous invocations to the impossible. He did not answer any more.
He held her in his arms, rocked her quietly, and caressed her with
delicate tenderness. He treated her as if she were a sick child he was
nursing, without telling her what was the matter.
But he was disturbed by her contact. Even when prostrate and desolate,
she quivered warm in his arms. He coveted this prey even though
wounded. I saw his eyes fixed on her, while she gave herself up freely
to her sadness. He pressed his body against hers. It was she whom he
wanted. Her words he threw aside. He did not care for them. They did
not caress him. It was she whom he wanted, she!
Separation! They were very much alike in ideas and temperament, and
just then they were helping each other as much as they could. But I
saw clearly--I who was a spectator apart from men and whose gaze soared
above them--that they were strangers, and that in spite of all
appearances they did not see nor hear each other any more. They
conversed as best they could, but neither could yield to the other, and
each tried to conquer the other. And this terrible battle broke my
. . . . .
She understood his desire. She said plaintively, like a child at
"I am not feeling well."
Then, in a sudden change of mood, she gave herself up to love, offering
her whole self with her wounded woman's heart.
* * * * * * * * *
They rose and shook off the dream that had cast them to the ground.
He was as dejected as she. I bent over to catch what he was saying.
"If I had only known!" he breathed in a whisper.
Prostrated but more distrustful of each other with a crime between
them, they went slowly over to the grey window, cleansed by a streak of
How much they were like themselves on the other evening. It /was/ the
other evening. Never had the impression been borne in upon me so
strongly that actions are vain and pass like phantoms.
The man was seized with a trembling. And, vanquished, despoiled of all
his pride, of all his masculine reserve, he no longer had the strength
to keep back the avowal of shamed regret.
"One can't master one's self," he stammered, hanging his head. "It is
They caught hold of each other's hands, shuddered slightly, panting,
dispirited, tormented by their hearts.
. . . . .
In so speaking they saw further than the flesh. In their remorse and
disgust it was not mere physical disillusionment that so crushed them.
They saw further. They were overcome by an impression of bleak truth,
of aridity, of growing nothingness, at the thought that they had so
many times grasped, rejected, and vainly grasped again their frail
They felt that everything was fleeting, that everything wore out, that
everything that was not dead would die, and that even the illusory ties
holding them together would not endure. Their sadness did not bring
them together. On the contrary, they were separated by all the force
of their two sorrows. To suffer together, alas, what disunion!
And the condemnation of love itself came from her, in a cry of agony:
"Oh, our great, our immense love! I feel that little by little I am
recovering from it!"
. . . . .
She threw back her head, and raised her eyes.
"Oh, the first time!" she said.
She went on, while both of them saw that first time when their hands
had found each other.
"I knew that some day all that emotion would die, and, in spite of our
promises, I wanted time to stand still.
"But time did not stand still, and now we scarcely love each other."
He made a gesture as of denial.
"It is not only you, my dear, who are drifting away," she continued.
"I am, too. At first I thought it was only you. But then I understood
my poor heart and realised that in spite of you, I could do nothing
She went on slowly, now with her eyes turned away, now looking at him.
"Alas, some day, I may say to you, 'I no longer love you.' Alas, alas,
some day I may say to you, 'I have never loved you!'
"This is the wound--time, which passes and changes us. The separation
of human beings that deceive themselves is nothing in comparison. One
can live even so. But the passage of time! To grow old, to think
differently, to die. I am growing old and I am dying, I. It has taken
me a long time to understand it. I am growing old. I /am/ not old,
but I am growing old. I have a few grey hairs already. The first grey
hair, what a blow!
"Oh, this blotting out of the colour of your hair. It gives you the
feeling of being covered with your shroud, of dry bones, and
She rose and cried out into the void:
"Oh, to escape the network of wrinkles!"
. . . . .
"I said to myself, 'By slow degrees you will get there. Your skin will
wither. Your eyes, which smile even in repose, will always be
watering. Your breasts will shrink and hang on your skeleton like loose
rags. Your lower jaw will sag from the tiredness of living. You will
be in a constant shiver of cold, and your appearance will be
cadaverous. Your voice will be cracked, and people who now find it
charming to listen to you will be repelled. The dress that hides you
too much now from men's eyes will not sufficiently hide your monstrous
nudity, and people will turn their eyes away and not even dare to think
She choked and put her hands to her mouth, overcome by the truth, as if
she had too much to say. It was magnificent and terrifying.
He caught her in his arms, in dismay. But she was as in a delirium,
transported by a universal grief. You would have thought that this
funereal truth had just come to her like a sudden piece of bad news.
"I love you, but I love the past even more. I long for it, I long for
it, I am consumed with longing for it. The past! I shall cry, I shall
suffer because the past will never come back again.
"But love the past as much as you will, it will never come back. Death
is everywhere, in the ugliness of what has been too long beautiful, in
the tarnishing of what has been clean and pure, in the forgetfulness of
what is long past, in daily habits, which are the forgetfulness of what
is near. We catch only glimpses of life. Death is the one thing we
really have time to see. Death is the only palpable thing. Of what
use is it to be beautiful and chaste? They will walk over our graves
just the same.
"A day is coming when I shall be no more. I am crying because I shall
surely die. There is an invincible nothingness in everything and
everybody. So when one thinks of that, dear, one smiles and forgives.
One does not bear grudges. But goodness won in that way is worse than
. . . . .
He bent over and kissed her hands. He enveloped her in a warm,
respectful silence, but, as always, I felt he was master of himself.
"I have always thought of death," she continued in a changed voice.
"One day I confessed to my husband how it haunted me. He launched out
furiously. He told me I was a neurasthenic and that he must look after
me. He made me promise to be like himself and never think of such
things, to be healthy and well-balanced, as he was.
"That was not true. It was he who suffered from the disease of
tranquillity and indifference, a paralysis, a grey malady, and his
blindness was an infirmity, and his peace was that of a dog who lives
for the sake of living, of a beast with a human face.
"What was I to do? Pray? No. That eternal dialogue in which you are
always alone is crushing. Throw yourself into some occupation? Work?
No use. Doesn't work always have to be done over again? Have children
and bring them up? That makes you feel both that you are done and
finished and that you are beginning over again to no purpose. However,
It was the first time that she softened.
"I have not been given the chance to practise the devotion, the
submission, the humiliation of a mother. Perhaps that would have
guided me in life. I was denied a little child."
For a moment, lowering her eyes, letting her hands fall, yielding to
the maternal impulse, she only thought of loving and regretting the
child that had not been vouchsafed to her--without perceiving that if
she considered it her only possible salvation, it was because she did
not have it.
"Charity? They say that it makes us forget everything. Oh, yes, to go
distributing alms on the snowy streets, in a great fur cloak," she
murmured and made a tired gesture, while the lover and I felt the
shiver of the cold rainy evening and of all the winters past and yet to
"All that is diversion, deception. It does not alter the truth a
particle. We shall die, we are going to die."
She stopped crying, dried her eyes and assumed a tone so positive and
calm that it gave the impression that she was leaving the subject.
"I want to ask you a question. Answer me frankly. Have you ever
dared, dear, even in the depths of your heart, to set a date, a date
relatively far off, but exact and absolute, with four figures, and to
say, 'No matter how old I shall live to be, on that day I shall be
dead--while everything else will go on, and little by little my empty
place will be destroyed or filled again?'"
The directness of her question disturbed him. But it seemed to me that
he tried most to avoid giving her a reply that would heighten her
And all at once, she remembered something he had once said to her, and
cleverly reminded him of it so as to close his mouth in advance and
torture herself still more.
"Do you remember? One evening, by lamplight. I was looking through a
book. You were watching me. You came to me, you knelt down and put
your arms around my waist, and laid your head in my lap. There were
tears in your eyes. I can still hear you. 'I am thinking,' you said,
'that this moment will never come again. I am thinking that you are
going to change, to die, and go away. I am thinking so truly, so
hotly, how precious these moments are, how precious you are, you who
will never again be just what you are now, and I adore your ineffable
presence as it is now.' You looked at my hand, you found it small and
white, and you said it was an extraordinary treasure, which would
disappear. Then you repeated, 'I adore you,' in a voice which trembled
so, that I have never heard anything truer or more beautiful, for you
were right as a god is right.
"Alas!" he said.
He saw the tears in her eyes. Then he bowed his head. When he lifted
it again, I had a vague intuition that he would know what to answer,
but had not yet formulated how to say it.
"Poor creatures, a brief existence, a few stray thoughts in the depths
of a room--that is what we are," she said, lifting her head and looking
at him, hoping for an impossible contradiction, as a child cries for a
"Who knows what we are?"
. . . . .
She interrupted him with a gesture of infinite weariness.
"I know what you are going to say. You are going to talk to me about
the beauty of suffering. I know your noble ideas. I love them, my
love, your beautiful theories, but I do not believe in them. I would
believe them if they consoled me and effaced death."
With a manifest effort, as uncertain of himself as she was of herself,
feeling his way, he replied:
"They would efface it, perhaps, if you believed in them."
She turned toward him and took one of his hands in both of hers. She
questioned him with inexorable patience, then she slipped to her knees
before him, like a lifeless body, humbled herself in the dust, wrecked
in the depths of despair, and implored him:
"Oh, answer me! I should be so happy if you could answer me. I feel
as though you really could!"
He bent over her, as if on the edge of an abyss of questioning:
"Do you know what we are?" he murmured. "Everything we say, everything
we think, everything we believe, is fictitious. We know nothing.
Nothing is sure or solid."
"You are wrong," she cried. "There /is/ something absolute, our
sorrow, our need, our misery. We can see and touch it. Deny
everything else, but our beggary, who can deny that?"
"You are right," he said, "it is the only absolute thing in the world."
. . . . .
"Then, /we/ are the only absolute thing in the world," he deduced.
He caught at this. He had found a fulcrum. "We--" he said. He had
found the cry against death, he repeated it, and tried again. "We--"
It was sublime to see him beginning to resist.
"It is we who endure forever."
"Endure forever! On the contrary, it is we who pass away."
"We see things pass, but we endure."
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of denial. There almost was
hatred in her voice as she said:
"Yes--no--perhaps. After all, what difference does it make to me? That
does not console me."
"Who knows--maybe we need sadness and shadow, to make joy and light."
"Light would exist without shadow," she insisted.
"No," he said gently.
"That does not console me," she said again.
. . . . .
Then he remembered that he had already thought out all these things.
"Listen," he said, in a voice tremulous and rather solemn as if he were
making a confession. "I once imagined two beings who were at the end
of their life, and were recalling all they had suffered."
"A poem!" she said, discouraged.
"Yes," he said, "one of those which might be so beautiful."
It was remarkable to see how animated he became. For the first time he
appeared sincere--when abandoning the living example of their own
destiny for the fiction of his imagination. In referring to his poem,
he had trembled. You felt he was becoming his genuine self and that he
had faith. She raised her head to listen, moved by her tenacious need
of hearing something, though she had no confidence in it.
"The man and the woman are believers," he began. "They are at the end
of their life, and they are happy to die for the reasons that one is
sad to live. They are a kind of Adam and Eve who dream of the paradise
to which they are going to return. The paradise of purity. Paradise
is light. Life on earth is obscurity. That is the motif of the song I
have sketched, the light that they desire, the shadow that they are."
"Like us," said Amy.
He told of the life of the man and the woman of his poem. Amy listened
to him, and accepted what he was saying. Once she put her hands on her
heart and said, "Poor people!" Then she got a little excited. She
felt he was going too far. She did not wish so much darkness, maybe
because she was tired or because the picture when painted by some one
else seemed exaggerated.
Dream and reality here coincided. The woman of the poem also protested
at this point.
I was carried away by the poet's voice, as he recited, swaying
slightly, in the spell of the harmony of his own dream:
"At the close of a life of pain and suffering the woman still looked
ahead with the curiosity she had when she entered life. Eve ended as
she had begun. All her subtle eager woman's soul climbed toward the
secret as if it were a kind of kiss on the lips of her life. She
wanted to be happy."
Amy was now more interested in her companion's words. The curse of the
lovers in the poem, sister to the curse she felt upon herself, gave her
confidence. But her personality seemed to be shrinking. A few moments
before she had dominated everything. Now she was listening, waiting,
"The lover reproached the woman for contradicting herself in claiming
earthly and celestial happiness at the same time. She answered him
with profundity, that the contradiction lay not in herself, but in the
things she wanted.
"The lover then seized another healing wand and with desperate
eagerness, he explained, he shouted, 'Divine happiness has not the same
form as human happiness. Divine happiness is outside of ourselves.'
"The woman rose, trembling.
"'That is not true! That is not true!' she exclaimed. 'No, my
happiness is not outside of me, seeing it is /my/ happiness. The
universe is God's universe, but I am the god of my own happiness. What
I want,' she added, with perfect simplicity, 'is to be happy, I, just
as I am, and with all my suffering.'"
Amy started. The woman in the poem had put her problem in a clearer
and deeper manner, and Amy was more like that woman than herself.
"'I, with all my suffering,' the man repeated.
"Suffering--important word! It leads us to the heart of reality. Human
suffering is a positive thing, which requires a positive answer, and
sad as it is, the word is beautiful, because of the absolute truth it
contains. 'I, with all my suffering!' It is an error to believe that
we can be happy in perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as a
formula. We are made too much out of shadow and some form of
suffering. If everything that hurts us were to be removed, what would
"And the woman said, 'My God, I do not wish for heaven!'"
"Well, then," said Amy, trembling, "it follows that we can be miserable
"Paradise is life," said the poet.
Amy was silent and remained with her head lifted, comprehending at last
that the whole poem was simply a reply to her question and that he had
revived in her soul a loftier and a juster thought.
"Life is exalted to perfection as it ends," the poet went on. "'It is
beautiful to reach the end of one's days,' said the lover. 'It is in
this way that we have lived paradise.'
"There is the truth," the poet concluded. "It does not wipe out death.
It does not diminish space, nor halt time. But it makes us what we are
in essential. Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes hand in hand with
sorrow. It is thanks to the shadow that we exist. We must not dream
of an absurd abstraction. We must guard the bond that links us to
blood and earth. 'Just as I am!' Remember that. We are a great
mixture. We are more than we believe. Who knows what we are?"
On the woman's face, which the terror of death had rigidly contracted,
a smile dawned. She asked with childish dignity:
"Why did you not tell me this right away when I asked you?"
"You would not have understood me then. You had run your dream of
distress into a blind alley. I had to take the truth along a different
way so as to present it to you anew."
. . . . .
After that they fell silent. For a fraction of time they had come as
close to each other as human beings can come down here below--because of
their august assent to the lofty truth, to the arduous truth (for it is
hard to understand that happiness is at the same time happy and
unhappy). She believed him, however, she, the rebel, she, the
unbeliever, to whom he had given a true heart to touch.
The window was wide open. In the dusty rays of the sunset I saw three
people with their backs to the long reddish-brown beams of light. An
old man, with a care-worn, exhausted appearance and a face furrowed
with wrinkles, seated in the armchair near the window. A tall young
woman with very fair hair and the face of a madonna. And, a little
apart, a woman who was pregnant.
She held her eyes fixed in front of her, seeming to contemplate the
future. She did not enter into the conversation, perhaps because of
her humbler condition, or because her thoughts were bent upon the event
to come. The two others were conversing. The man had a cracked,
uneven voice. A slight feverish tremour sometimes shook his shoulders,
and now and then he gave a sudden involuntary jerk. The fire had died
out of his eyes and his speech had traces of a foreign accent. The
woman sat beside him quietly. She had the fairness and gentle calm of
the northern races, so white and light that the daylight seemed to die
more slowly than elsewhere upon her pale silver face and the abundant
aureole of her hair.
Were they father and daughter or brother and sister? It was plain that
he adored her but that she was not his wife.
With his dimmed eyes he looked at the reflection of the sunlight upon
"Some one is going to be born, and some one is going to die," he said.
The other woman started, while the man's companion cried in a low tone,
bending over him quickly.
"Oh, Philip, don't say that."
He seemed indifferent to the effect he had produced, as though her
protest had not been sincere, or else were in vain.
Perhaps, after all, he was not an old man. His hair seemed to me
scarcely to have begun to turn grey. But he was in the grip of a
mysterious illness, which he did not bear well. He was in a constant
state of irritation. He had not long to live. That was apparent from
unmistakable signs--the look of pity in the woman's eyes mingled with
discreetly veiled alarm, and an oppressive atmosphere of mourning.
. . . . .
With a physical effort he began to speak so as to break the silence.
As he was sitting between me and the open window, some of the things he
said were lost in the air.
He spoke of his travels, and, I think, also of his marriage, but I did
not hear well.
He became animated, and his voice rose painfully. He quivered. A
restrained passion enlivened his gestures and glances and warmed his
language. You could tell that he must have been an active brilliant
man before his illness.
He turned his head a little and I could hear him better.
He told of the cities and countries that he had visited. It was like
an invocation to sacred names, to far-off different skies, Italy,
Egypt, India. He had come to this room to rest, between two stations,
and he was resting uneasily, like an escaped convict. He said he would
have to leave again, and his eyes sparkled. He spoke of what he still
wanted to see. But the twilight deepened, the warmth left the air, and
all he thought of now was what he had seen in the past.
"Think of everything we have seen, of all the space we bring with us."
They gave the impression of a group of travellers, never in repose,
forever in flight, arrested for a moment in their insatiable course, in
a corner of the world which you felt was made small by their presence.
. . . . .
Not daring to advance into the future, he intoxicated himself with
these recollections. I saw the effort he was making to draw near to
some luminous point in the days gone by.
"Carpi, Carpi," he cried. "Anna, do you remember that wonderful
brilliant morning? The ferryman and his wife were at table in the open
air. What a glow over the whole country! The table, round and pale
like a star. The stream sparkling. The banks bordered with oleander
and tamarisk. The sun made a flower of every leaf. The grass shone as
if it were full of dew. The shrubs seemed bejewelled. The breeze was
so faint that it was a smile, not a sigh."
She listened to him, placid, deep, and limpid as a mirror.
"The whole of the ferryman's family," he continued, "was not there.
The young daughter was dreaming on a rustic seat, far enough away not
to hear them. I saw the light-green shadow that the tree cast upon
her, there at the edge of the forest's violet mystery.
"And I can still hear the flies buzzing in that Lombardy summer over
the winding river which unfolded its charms as we walked along the
"The greatest impression I ever had of noonday sunlight," he continued,
"was in London, in a museum. An Italian boy in the dress of his
country, a model, was standing in front of a picture which represented
a sunlight effect on a Roman landscape. The boy held his head
stretched out. Amid the immobility of the indifferent attendants, and
in the dampness and drabness of a London day, this Italian boy radiated
light. He was deaf to everything around him, full of secret sunlight,
and his hands were almost clasped. He was praying to the divine
"We saw Carpi again," said Anna. "We had to pass through it by chance
in November. It was very cold. We wore all our furs, and the river
"Yes, and we walked on the ice."
He paused for a moment, then asked:
"Why are certain memories imperishable?"
He buried his face in his nervous hands and sighed:
"Why, oh, why?"
"Our oasis," Anna said, to assist him in his memories, or perhaps
because she shared in the intoxication of reviving them, "was the
corner where the lindens and acacias were on your estate in the
government of Kiev. One whole side of the lawn was always strewn with
flowers in summer and leaves in winter."
"I can still see my father there," he said. "He had a kind face. He
wore a great cloak of shaggy cloth, and a felt cap pulled down over his
ears. He had a large white beard, and his eyes watered a little from
"Why," he wondered after a pause, "do I think of my father that way and
no other way? I do not know, but that is the way he will live in me.
That is the way he will not die."
. . . . .
The day was declining. The woman seemed to stand out in greater relief
against the other two and become more and more beautiful.
I saw the man's silhouette on the faded curtains, his back bent, his
head shaking as in a palsy and his neck strained and emaciated.
With a rather awkward movement he drew a case of cigarettes from his
pocket and lit a cigarette.
As the eager little light rose and spread like a glittering mask, I saw
his ravaged features. But when he started to smoke in the twilight,
all you could see was the glowing cigarette, shaken by an arm as
unsubstantial as the smoke that came from it.
It was not tobacco that he was smoking. The odour of a drug sickened
He held out his hand feebly toward the closed window, modest with its
"Look--Benares and Allahabad. A sumptuous ceremony--tiaras--insignia,
and women's ornaments. In the foreground, the high priest, with his
elaborate head-dress in tiers--a vague pagoda, architecture, epoch,
race. How different we are from those creatures. Are /they/ right or
are /we/ right?"
Now he extended the circle of the past, with a mighty effort.
"Our travels--all those bonds one leaves behind. All useless.
Travelling does not make us greater. Why should the mere covering of
ground make us greater?"
The man bowed his wasted head.
. . . . .
He who had just been in ecstasy now began to complain.
"I keep remembering--I keep remembering. My heart has no pity on me."
"Ah," he mourned, a moment afterwards, with a gesture of resignation,
"we cannot say good-by to everything."
The woman was there, but she could do nothing, although so greatly
adored. She was there with only her beauty. It was a superhuman
vision that he evoked, heightened by regret, by remorse and greed. He
did not want it to end. He wanted it back again. He loved his past.
Inexorable, motionless, the past is endowed with the attributes of
divinity, because, for believers as well as for unbelievers, the great
attribute of God is that of being prayed to.
. . . . .
The pregnant woman had gone out. I saw her go to the door, softly with
maternal carefulness of herself.
Anna and the sick man were left alone. The evening had a gripping
reality. It seemed to live, to be firmly rooted, and to hold its
place. Never before had the room been so full of it.
"One more day coming to an end," he said, and went on as if pursuing
his train of thought:
"We must get everything ready for our marriage."
"Michel!" cried the young woman instinctively, as if she could not hold
the name back.
"Michel will not be angry at us," the man replied. "He knows you love
him, Anna. He will not be frightened by a formality, pure and simple--
by a marriage /in extremis,"/ he added emphatically, smiling as though
to console himself.
They looked at each other. He was dry, feverish. His words came from
deep down in his being. She trembled.
With his eyes on her, so white and tall and radiant, he made a visible
effort to hold himself in, as if not daring to reach her with a single
word. Then he let himself go.
"I love you so much," he said simply.
"Ah," she answered, "you will not die!"
"How good you were," he replied, "to have been willing to be my sister
for so long!"
"Think of all you have done for me!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands
and bending her magnificent body toward him, as if prostrating herself
You could tell that they were speaking open-heartedly. What a good
thing it is to be frank and speak without reticence, without the shame
and guilt of not knowing what one is saying and for each to go straight
to the other. It is almost a miracle.
They were silent. He closed his eyes, though continuing to see her,
then opened them again and looked at her.
"You are my angel who do not love me."
His face clouded. This simple sight overwhelmed me. It was the
infiniteness of a heart partaking of nature--this clouding of his face.
I saw with what love he lifted himself up to her. She knew it. There
was a great gentleness in her words, in her attitude toward him, which
in every little detail showed that she knew his love. She did not
encourage him, or lie to him, but whenever she could, by a word, by a
gesture, or by some beautiful silence, she would try to console him a
little for the harm she did him by her presence and by her absence.
After studying her face again, while the shadow drew him still nearer
to her in spite of himself, he said:
"You are the sad confidante of my love of you."
He spoke of their marriage again. Since all preparations had been
made, why not marry at once?
"My fortune, my name, Anna, the chaste love that will be left to you
from me when--when I shall be gone."
He wanted to transform his caress--too light, alas--into a lasting
benefit for the vague future. For the present all he aspired to was
the feeble and fictitious union implied in the word marriage.
"Why speak of it?" she said, instead of giving a direct answer, feeling
an almost insurmountable repugnance, doubtless because of her love for
Michel, which the sick man had declared in her stead. While she had
consented in principle to marrying him and had allowed the preliminary
steps to be taken, she had never replied definitely to his urgings.
But it looked to me as if she were about to make a different decision,
one contrary to her material interests, in all the purity of her soul,
which was so transparent--the decision to give herself to him freely.
"Tell me!" he murmured.
There was almost a smile on her mouth, the mouth to which supplications
had been offered as to an altar.
The dying man, feeling that she was about to accept, murmured:
"I love life." He shook his head. "I have so little time left, so
little time that I do not want to sleep at night any more."
Then he paused and waited for her to speak.
"Yes," she said, and lightly touched--hardly grazed--the old man's hand
with her own.
And in spite of myself, my inexorable, attentive eye could not help
detecting the stamp of theatrical solemnity, of conscious grandeur in
her gesture. Even though devoted and chaste, without any ulterior
motive, her sacrifice had a self-glorifying pride, which I perceived--I
who saw everything.
. . . . .
In the boarding-house, the strangers were the sole topic of
conversation. They occupied three rooms and had a great deal of
baggage, and the man seemed to be very rich, though simple in his
tastes. They were to stay in Paris until the young woman's delivery,
in a month or so. She expected to go to a hospital nearby. But the
man was very ill, they said. Madame Lemercier was extremely annoyed.
She was afraid he would die in her house. She had made arrangements by
correspondence, otherwise she would not have taken these people in--in
spite of the tone that their wealth might give to her house. She hoped
he would last long enough to be able to leave. But when you spoke to
her, she seemed to be worried.
When I saw him again, I felt he was really going to die soon. He sat
in his chair, collapsed, with his elbows on the arms of the chair and
his hands drooping. It seemed difficult for him to look at things, and
he held his face bowed down, so that the light from the window did not
reveal his pupils, but only the edge of the lower lids, which gave the
impression of his eyes having been put out. I remembered what the poet
had said, and I trembled before this man whose life was over, who
reviewed almost his entire existence like a terrible sovereign, and was
wrapped in a beauty that was of God.
Some one knocked at the door.
It was time for the doctor. The sick man raised himself uncertainly in
awe of the master.
"How have you been to-day?"
"Well, well," the doctor said lightly.
They were left alone together. The man dropped down again with a
slowness and awkwardness that would have seemed ridiculous if it had
not been so sad. The doctor stood between us.
"How has your heart been behaving?"
By an instinct which seemed tragic to me, they both lowered their
voices, and in a low tone the sick man gave his daily account of the
progress of his malady.
The man of science listened, interrupted, and nodded his head in
approval. He put an end to the recital by repeating his usual
meaningless assurances, in a raised voice now and with his usual broad
"Well, well, I see there's nothing new."
He shifted his position and I saw the patient, his drawn features and
wild eyes. He was all shaken up by this talking about the dreadful
riddle of his illness.
He calmed himself, and began to converse with the doctor, who let
himself down squarely into a chair, with an affable manner. He started
several topics, then in spite of himself returned to the sinister thing
he carried within him, his disease.
"Disgusting!" he said.
"Bah!" said the doctor, who was blase.
Then he rose.
"Well, till to-morrow!"
"Yes, for the consultation."
"Yes. Well, good-by!"
The doctor went out, lightly carrying the burden of misery and cruel
memories, the weight of which he had ceased to feel.
. . . . .
Evidently the consulting physicians had just finished their examination
of the patient in another room. The door opened, and two doctors
Their manner seemed to me to be stiff. One of them was a young man,
the other an old man.
They looked at each other. I tried to penetrate the silence of their
eyes and the night in their heads. The older man stroked his beard,
leaned against the mantelpiece, and stared at the ground.
"Hopeless," he said, lowering his voice, for fear of being overheard by
The other nodded his head--in sign of agreement--of complicity, you might
say. Both men fell silent like two guilty children. Their eyes met
"How old is he?"
"Lucky to live so long," the young doctor remarked.
To which the old man retorted philosophically:
"Yes, indeed. But his luck won't hold out any longer."
A silence. The man with the grey beard murmured:
"I detected sarcoma." He put his finger on his neck. "Right here."
The other man nodded--his head seemed to be nodding continually--and
"Yes. There's no possibility of operating."
"Of course not," said the old specialist, his eyes shining with a kind
of sinister irony. "There's only one thing that could remove it--the
guillotine. Besides, the malignant condition has spread. There is
pressure upon the submaxillary and subclavicular ganglia, and probably
the axillary ganglia also. His respiration, circulation and digestion
will soon be obstructed and strangulation will be rapid."
He sighed and stood with an unlighted cigar in his mouth, his face
rigid, his arms folded. The young man sat down, leaning back in his
chair, and tapped the marble mantelpiece with his idle fingers.
"What shall I tell the young woman?"
"Put on a subdued manner and tell her it is serious, very serious, but
no one can tell, nature is infinitely resourceful."
"That's so hackneyed."
"So much the better," said the old man.
"But if she insists on knowing?"
"Don't give in."
"Shall we not hold out a little hope? She is so young."
"No. For that very reason we mustn't. She'd become too hopeful. My
boy, never say anything superfluous at such a time. There's no use.
The only result is to make them call us ignoramuses and hate us."
"Does he realise?"
"I do not know. While I examined him--you heard--I tried to find out by
asking questions. Once I thought he had no suspicion at all. Then he
seemed to understand his case as well as I did."
"Sarcoma forms like the human embryo," said the younger doctor.
"Yes, like the human embryo," the other assented and entered into a
long elaboration of this idea.
"The germ acts on the cell, as Lancereaux has pointed out, in the same
way as a spermatozoon. It is a micro-organism which penetrates the
tissue, and selects and impregnates it, sets it vibrating, gives it
/another life./ But the exciting agent of this intracellular activity,
instead of being the normal germ of life, is a parasite."
He went on to describe the process minutely and in highly scientific
terms, and ended up by saying:
"The cancerous tissue never achieves full development. It keeps on
without ever reaching a limit. Yes, cancer, in the strictest sense of
the word, is infinite in our organism."
The young doctor bowed assent, and then said:
"Perhaps--no doubt--we shall succeed in time in curing all diseases.
Everything can change. We shall find the proper method for preventing
what we cannot stop when it has once begun. And it is then only that
we shall dare to tell the ravages due to the spread of incurable
diseases. Perhaps we shall even succeed in finding cures for certain
incurable affections. The remedies have not had time to prove
themselves. We shall cure others--that is certain--but we shall not cure
him." His voice deepened. Then he asked:
"Is he a Russian or a Greek?"
"I do not know. I see so much into the inside of people that their
outsides all look alike to me."
"They are especially alike in their vile pretense of being dissimilar
The young man seemed to shudder, as if the idea aroused a kind of
passion in him. He rose, full of anger, changed.
"Oh," he said, "what a disgraceful spectacle humanity presents. In
spite of its fearful wounds, humanity makes war upon humanity. We who
deal with the sores afflicting mankind are struck more than others by
all the evil men involuntarily inflict upon one another. I am neither
a politician nor a propagandist. It is not my business to occupy
myself with ideas. I have too much else to do. But sometimes I am
moved by a great pity, as lofty as a dream. Sometimes I feel like
punishing men, at other times, like going down on my knees to them."
The old doctor smiled sadly at this vehemence, then his smile vanished
at the thought of the undeniable outrage.
"Unfortunately you are right. With all the misery we have to suffer,
we tear ourselves with our own hands besides--the war of the classes,
the war of the nations, whether you look at us from afar or from above,
we are barbarians and madmen."
"Why, why," said the young doctor, who was getting excited, "why do we
continue to be fools when we recognise our own folly?"
The old practitioner shrugged his shoulders, as he had a few moments
before when they spoke of incurable diseases.
"The force of tradition, fanned by interested parties. We are not
free, we are attached to the past. We study what has always been done,
and do it over again--war and injustice. Some day perhaps humanity will
succeed in ridding itself of the ghost of the past. Let us hope that
some day we shall emerge from this endless epoch of massacre and
misery. What else is there to do than to hope?"
The old man stopped at this. The young man said:
The other man made a gesture with his hand.
"There is one great general cause for the world's ulcer," the younger
one kept on. "You have said it--servility to the past, prejudice which
prevents us from doing things differently, according to reason and
morality. The spirit of tradition infects humanity, and its two
frightful manifestations are--"
The old man rose from his chair, as if about to protest and as if to
say, "Don't mention them!"
But the young man could not restrain himself any more.
"--inheritance from the past and the fatherland."
"Hush!" cried the old man. "You are treading on ground on which I
cannot follow. I recognise present evils. I pray with all my heart
for the new era. More than that, I believe in it. But do not speak
that way about two sacred principles."
"You speak like everybody else," said the young man bitterly. "We must
go to the root of the evil, you know we must. /You/ certainly do."
And he added violently, "Why do you act as if you did not know it? If
we wish to cure ourselves of oppression and war, we have a right to
attack them by all the means possible--all!--the principle of inheritance
and the cult of the fatherland."
"No, we haven't the right," exclaimed the old man, who had risen in
great agitation and threw a look at his interlocutor that was hard,
"We have the right!" cried the other.
All at once, the grey head drooped, and the old man said in a low
"Yes, it is true, we have the right. I remember one day during the
war. We were standing beside a dying man. No one knew who he was. He
had been found in the debris of a bombarded ambulance--whether bombarded
purposely or not, the result was the same. His face had been mutilated
beyond recognition. All you could tell was that he belonged to one or
other of the two armies. He moaned and groaned and sobbed and shrieked
and invented the most appalling cries. We listened to the sounds that
he made in his agony, trying to find one word, the faintest accent,
that would at least indicate his nationality. No use. Not a single
intelligible sound from that something like a face quivering on the
stretcher. We looked and listened, until he fell silent. When he was
dead and we stopped trembling, I had a flash of comprehension. I
understood. I understood in the depths of my being that man is more
closely knit to man than to his vague compatriots.
"Yes, we have a right to attack oppression and war, we have a right to.
I saw the truth several times afterward again, but I am an old man, and
I haven't the strength to stick to it."
"My dear sir," said the young man, rising, with respect in his voice.
Evidently he was touched.
"Yes, I know, I know," the old scientist continued in an outburst of
sincerity. "I know that in spite of all the arguments and the maze of
special cases in which people lose themselves, the absolute, simple
truth remains, that the law by which some are born rich and others poor
and which maintains a chronic inequality in society is a supreme
injustice. It rests on no better basis than the law that once created
races of slaves. I know patriotism has become a narrow offensive
sentiment which as long as it lives will maintain war and exhaust the
world. I know that neither work nor material and moral prosperity, nor
the noble refinements of progress, nor the wonders of art, need
competition inspired by hate. In fact, I know that, on the contrary,
these things are destroyed by arms. I know that the map of a country
is composed of conventional lines and different names, that our innate
love of self leads us closer to those that are like-minded than to
those who belong to the same geographical group, and we are more truly
compatriots of those who understand and love us and who are on the
level of our own souls, or who suffer the same slavery than of those
whom we meet on the street. The national groups, the units of the
modern world, are what they are, to be sure. The love we have for our
native land would be good and praiseworthy if it did not degenerate, as
we see it does everywhere, into vanity, the spirit of predominance,
acquisitiveness, hate, envy, nationalism, and militarism. The
monstrous distortion of the patriotic sentiment, which is increasing,
is killing off humanity. Mankind is committing suicide, and our age is
The two men had the same vision and said simultaneously:
"A cancer, a cancer!"
The older scientist grew animated, succumbing to the evidence.
"I know as well as you do that posterity will judge severely those who
have made a fetich of the institutions of oppression and have
cultivated and spread the ideas supporting them. I know that the cure
for an abuse does not begin until we refuse to submit to the cult that
consecrates it. And I, who have devoted myself for half a century to
the great discoveries that have changed the face of the world, I know
that in introducing an innovation one encounters the hostility of
everything that is.
"I know it is a vice to spend years and centuries saying of progress,
'I should like it, but I do not want it.' But as for me, I have too
many cares and too much work to do. And then, as I told you, I am too
old. These ideas are too new for me. A man's intelligence is capable
of holding only a certain quantum of new, creative ideas. When that
amount is exhausted, whatever the progress around you may be, one
refuses to see it and help it on. I am incapable of carrying on a
discussion to fruitful lengths. I am incapable of the audacity of
being logical. I confess to you, my boy, I have not the strength to be
"My dear doctor," said the young man in a tone of reproach, meeting his
older colleague's sincerity with equal sincerity, "you have publicly
declared your disapproval of the men who publicly fought the idea of
patriotism. The influence of your name has been used against them."
The old man straightened himself, and his face coloured.
"I will not stand for our country's being endangered."
I did not recognise him any more. He dropped from his great thoughts
and was no longer himself. I was discouraged.
"But," the other put in, "what you just said--"
"That is not the same thing. The people you speak of have defied us.
They have declared themselves enemies and so have justified all
outrages in advance."
"Those who commit outrages against them commit the crime of ignorance,"
said the young man in a tremulous voice, sustained by a kind of vision.
"They fail to see the superior logic of things that are in the process
of creation." He bent over to his companion, and, in a firmer tone,
asked, "How can the thing that is beginning help being revolutionary?
Those who are the first to cry out are alone, and therefore ignored or
despised. You yourself just said so. But posterity will remember the
vanguard of martyrs. It will hail those who have cast a doubt on the
equivocal word 'fatherland,' and will gather them into the fold of all
the innovators who went before them and who are now universally
"Never!" cried the old man, who listened to this last with a troubled
look. A frown of obstinacy and impatience deepened in his forehead,
and he clenched his fists in hate. "No, that is not the same thing.
Besides, discussions like this lead nowhere. It would be better, while
we are waiting for the world to do its duty, for us to do ours and tell
this poor woman the truth."
The two women were alone beside the wide open window. In the full,
wise light of the autumn sun, I saw how faded was the face of the
All of a sudden a frightened expression came into her eyes. She reeled
against the wall, leaned there a second, and then fell over with a
Anna caught her in her arms, and dragged her along until she reached
the bell and rang and rang. Then she stood still, not daring to budge,
holding in her arms the heavy delicate woman, her own face close to the
face with the rolling eyes. The cries, dull and stifled at first,
burst out now in loud shrieks.
The door opened. People hurried in. Outside the door the servants
were on the watch. I caught sight of the landlady, who succeeded ill
in concealing her comic chagrin.
They laid the woman on the bed. They removed ornaments, unfolded
towels, and gave hurried orders.
The crisis subsided and the woman stopped shrieking. She was so happy
not to be suffering any more that she laughed. A somewhat constrained
reflection of her laugh appeared on the faces bending over her. They
undressed her carefully. She let them handle her like a child. They
fixed the bed. Her legs looked very thin and her set face seemed
reduced to nothing. All you saw was her distended body in the middle
of the bed. Her hair was undone and spread around her face like a
pool. Two feminine hands plaited it quickly.
Her laughter broke and stopped.
"It is beginning again."
A groan, which grew louder, a fresh burst of shrieks. Anna, her only
friend, remained in the room. She looked and listened, filled with
thoughts of motherhood. She was thinking that she, too, held within
her such travail and such cries.
This lasted the whole day. For hours, from morning until evening, I
heard the heart-rending wail rising and falling from that pitiful
At certain moments I fell back, overcome. I could no longer look or
listen. I renounced seeing so much truth. Then once more, with an
effort, I stood up against the wall and looked into the Room again.
Anna kissed the woman on her forehead, in brave proximity to the
When the cry was articulate, it was: "No, no! I do not want to!"
Serious, sickened faces, almost grown old in a few hours with fatigue,
passed and repassed.
I heard some one say:
"No need to help it along. Nature must be allowed to take her course.
Whatever nature does she does well."
And in surprise my lips repeated this lie, while my eyes were fixed
upon the frail, innocent woman who was a prey to stupendous nature,
which crushed her, rolled her in her blood, and exacted all the
suffering from her that she could yield.
The midwife turned up her sleeves and put on her rubber gloves. She
waved her enormous reddish-black, glistening hands like Indian clubs.
And all this turned into a nightmare in which I half believed. My head
grew heavy and I was sickened by the smell of blood and carbolic acid
poured out by the bottleful.
At a moment when I, feeling too harrowed, was not looking, I heard a
cry different from hers, a cry that was scarcely more than the sound of
a moving object, a light grating. It was the new being that had
unloosened itself, as yet a mere morsel of flesh taken from her flesh--
her heart which had just been torn away from her.
This shook me to the depths of my being. I, who had witnessed
everything that human beings undergo, I, at this first signal of human
life, felt some paternal and fraternal chord--I do not know what--
vibrating within me.
She laughed. "How quickly it went!" she said.
. . . . .
The day was coming to a close. Complete silence in the room. A plain
night lamp was burning, the flame scarcely flickering. The clock, like
a poor soul, was ticking faintly. There was hardly a thing near the
bed. It was as in a real temple.
She lay stretched out in bed, in ideal quiet, her eyes turned toward
the window. Bit by bit, she saw the evening descending upon the most
beautiful day in her life.
This ruined mass, this languid face shone with the glory of having
created, with a sort of ecstasy which redeemed her suffering, and one
saw the new world of thoughts that grew out of her experience.
She thought of the child growing up. She smiled at the joys and
sorrows it would cause her. She smiled also at the brother or sister
it would have some day.
And I thought of this at the same time that she did, and I saw her
martyrdom more clearly than she.
This massacre, this tragedy of flesh is so ordinary and commonplace
that every woman carries the memory and imprint of it, and yet nobody
really knows it. The doctor, who comes into contact with so much of
the same sort of suffering, is not moved by it any more. The woman,
who is too tender-hearted, never remembers it. Others who look on at
travail have a sentimental interest, which wipes out the agony. But I
who saw for the sake of seeing know, in all its horror, the agony of
childbirth. I shall never forget the great laceration of life.
The night lamp was placed so that the bed was plunged in shadow. I
could no longer see the mother. I no longer knew her. I believed in
The woman who had been confined was moved with exquisite care into the
next room, which she had occupied previously. It was larger and more
They cleaned the room from top to bottom, and I saw Anna and Philip
seated in the room again.
"Take care, Philip," Anna was saying, "you do not understand the
Christian religion. You really do not know /exactly/ what it is. You
speak of it," she added, with a smile, "as women speak of men, or as
men when they try to explain women. Its fundamental element is love.
It is a covenant of love between human beings who instinctively detest
one another. It is also a wealth of love in our hearts to which we
respond naturally when we are little children. Later all our
tenderness is added to it bit by bit, like treasure to treasure. It is
a law of outpouring to which we give ourselves up, and it is the source
of that outpouring. It is life, it is almost a work, it is almost a
"But, my dear Anna, that is not the Christian religion. That is you."
. . . . .
In the middle of the night, I heard talking through the partition. I
struggled with my sleepiness and got up.
The man was alone, in bed. A lamp was burning dimly. He was asleep
and talking in his sleep.
He smiled and said "No!" three times with growing ecstasy. Then his
smile at the vision he saw faded away. For a moment his face remained
set, as if he were waiting, then he looked terrified, and his mouth
opened. "Anna! Ah, ah!--Ah, ah!" he cried through gaping lips. At this
he awoke and rolled his eyes. He sighed and quieted down. He sat up
in bed, still struck and terrified by what had passed through his mind
a few seconds before.
He looked round at everything to calm himself and banish his nightmare
completely. The familiar sight of the room, with the lamp, so wise and
motionless, enthroned in the middle, reassured him. It was balm to
this man who had just seen what does not exist, who had just smiled at
phantoms and touched them, who had just been mad.
. . . . .
I rose the next morning, all broken up. I was restless. I had a
severe headache. My eyes were bloodshot. When I looked at them in the
mirror, it was as if I saw them through a veil of blood.
When I was alone, free from the visions and scenes to which I devoted
my life, all kinds of worries assailed me--worry about my position,
which I was risking, worry about the steps I ought to be taking and yet
was not taking, worry over myself that I was so intent upon casting off
all my obligations and postponing them, and repudiating my wage-earning
lot, by which I was destined to be held fast in the slow wheelwork of
I was also worried by all kinds of minutiae, annoying because they kept
cropping up every minute--not make any noise, not light a light when the
Room was dark, hide myself, and hide myself all the time. One evening
I got a fit of coughing while listening at the hole. I snatched up my
pillow and buried my head in it to keep the sound from coming out of my
Everything seemed to be in a league to avenge itself upon me for I did
not know what. I felt as though I should not be able to hold out much
longer. Nevertheless, I made up my mind to keep on looking as long as
my health and my courage lasted. It might be bad for me, but it was my
. . . . .
The man was sinking. Death was evidently in the house.
It was quite late in the evening. They were sitting at the table
opposite each other.
I knew their marriage had taken place that afternoon, and that its
purpose had been only to solemnise their approaching farewell. Some
white blossoms, lilies and azaleas, were strewn on the table, the
mantelpiece, and one armchair. He was fading away like those cut
"We are married," he said. "You are my wife. You are my wife, Anna!"
It was for the sweetness of saying, "You are my wife," that he had so
longed. Nothing more. But he felt so poor, with his few days of life,
that it was complete happiness to him.
He looked at her, and she lifted her eyes to him--to him who adored her
sisterly tenderness--she who had become devoted to his adoration. What
infinite emotion lay hidden in these two silences, which faced each
other in a kind of embrace; in the double silence of these two human
beings, who, I had observed, never touched each other, not even with
the tips of their fingers.
The girl lifted her head, and said, in an unsteady voice:
"It is late. I am going to sleep."
She got up. The lamp, which she set on the mantelpiece, lit up the
She trembled. She seemed to be in a dream and not to know how to yield
to the dream. Then she raised her arm and took the pins out of her
hair. It fell down her back and looked, in the night, as if it were
lit by the setting sun.
The man made a sudden movement and looked at her in surprise. Not a
She removed a gold brooch from the top of her blouse, and a bit of her
"What are you doing, Anna, what are you doing?"
She wanted to say this in a natural voice, but had not succeeded. He
replied with an inarticulate exclamation, a cry from his heart, which
was touched to the quick. Stupefaction, desperate regret, and also the
flash of an inconceivable hope agitated him, oppressed him.
"You are my husband."
"Oh," he said, "you know I am nothing." He spoke feebly in a tragic
tone. "Married for form's sake," he went on, stammering out
fragmentary, incoherent phrases. "I knew it, I knew it--formality--our
She stopped, with her hand hesitating on her blouse like a flower, and
"You are my husband. It is your right."
He made a faint gesture of denial. She quickly corrected herself.
"No, no, it is not your right. I want to do it."
I began to understand how kind she was trying to be. She wished to
give this man, this poor man who was sinking at her feet, a reward that
was worthy of her. She wanted to bestow upon him the gift of the sight
of her body.
But the thing was harder than the mere bestowal of a gift. It must not
look like the mere payment of a debt. He would not have consented to
that. She must make him believe it was a voluntary wifely act, a
willing caress. She must conceal her suffering and repugnance like a
vice. Feeling the difficulty of giving this delicate shade to her
sacrifice, she was afraid of herself.
"No, Anna--dear Anna--think--" He was going to say, "Think of Michel,"
but he did not have the strength at that moment to use this one
decisive argument, and only murmured, "You, you!"
"I want to do it," she repeated.
"But I do not want you to. No, no."
He said this in a weaker voice now, overcome by love. Through
instinctive nobility, he covered his eyes with his hand, but gradually
his hand surrendered and dropped.
She continued to undress, with uncertain movements that showed she
hardly knew what she was doing. She took off her black waist, and her
bust emerged like the day. When the light shone on her she quivered
and crossed her shining arms over her chest. Then she started to
unhook the belt of her skirt, her arms curved, her reddened face bent
down and her lips tightly compressed, as if she had nothing in mind but
the unhooking of her skirt. It dropped to the ground and she stepped
out of it with a soft rustle, like the sound the wind makes in a leafy
She leaned against the mantelpiece. Her movements were large,
majestic, beautiful, yet dainty and feminine. She pulled off her
stockings. Her legs were round and large and smooth as in a statue of
She shivered and stopped, overcome by repugnance.
"I feel a little cold," she said in explanation and went on undressing,
revealing her great modesty in violating it.
"Holy Virgin!" the man breathed in a whisper, so as not to frighten
. . . . .
I have never seen a woman so radiantly beautiful. I had never dreamed
of beauty like it. The very first day, her face had struck me by its
regularity and unusual charm, and her tall figure--taller than myself--
had seemed opulent, yet delicate, but I had never believed in such
splendid perfection of form.
In her superhuman proportions she was like some Eve in grand religious
frescoes. Big, soft and supple, broad-shouldered, with a full
beautiful bosom, small feet, and tapering limbs.
In a dreamy voice, going still further in the bestowal of her supreme
gift, she said:
"No one"--she stressed these words with an emphasis amounting to the
mention of a certain name--"/no one/--listen--no one, no matter what
happens, will ever know what I have just done."
And now she, the giver of a gift, knelt--knelt to her adorer who was
prostrated before her like a victim. Her shining knees touched the
cheap common carpet. Her chastity clothed her like a beautiful
garment. She murmured broken words of gratitude, as though she felt
that what she was doing was higher than her duty and more beautiful,
and that it glorified her.
. . . . .
After she dressed and left the room without their having dared to say
anything to each other, I wavered between two doubts. Was she right,
or was she wrong? I saw the man cry and I heard him mutter:
"Now I shall not be able to die."
The man was lying in bed. They moved about him carefully. He stirred
faintly, said a few words, asked for a drink, smiled and then became
silent under the rush of thoughts.
That morning they had seen him fold his hands, and they had asked him
whether he wanted them to send for a priest.
"Yes--no," he said.
They went out, and a few minutes later, as if he had been waiting
outside the door, a dark-robed priest entered. The two were left alone
The dying man turned his face toward the newcomer.
"I am going to die," he said.
"What is your religion?" asked the priest.
"The religion of my own country, the Greek Orthodox Church."
"That is a heresy which you must instantly abjure. There is only one
true religion, the Roman Catholic religion. Confess now. I will
absolve you and baptise you."
The other did not reply.
"Tell me what sins you have committed. You will repent and everything
will be forgiven you."
"Try to remember. Shall I help you?" He nodded toward the door. "Who
is that person?"
"My--wife," said the man with slight hesitation, which did not escape
the priest, who was leaning over him with ears pricked. He smelt a
"How long has she been your wife?"
"Oh, two days! Now I have struck it. And before that, you sinned with
"No," said the man.
The priest was put out of countenance.
"Well, I suppose you are not lying. Why didn't you sin? It is
unnatural. After all," he insisted, "you are a man."
The sick man was bewildered and began to get excited. Seeing this, the
"Do not be surprised, my son, if my questions are direct and to the
point. I ask you in all simplicity, as is my august duty as a priest.
Answer me in the same simple spirit, and you will enter into communion
with God," he added, not without kindness.
"She is a young girl," said the old man. "I took her under my
protection when she was quite a child. She shared the hardships of my
traveller's life, and took care of me. I married her before my death
because I am rich and she is poor."
"Was that the only reason--no other reason at all?"
He fixed his look searchingly on the dying man's face, then said, "Eh?"
smiling and winking an eye, almost like an accomplice.
"I love her," said the man.
"At last, you are confessing!" cried the priest. He buried his eyes in
the eyes of the dying man. The things he said fairly hit him as he lay
"So you desired this woman, the flesh of this woman, and for a long
time committed a sin in spirit? Didn't you? Eh?
"Tell me, when you were travelling together, how did you arrange for
rooms and beds in the hotels?
"You say she took care of you? What did she have to do for you?"
The two men scanned each other's faces keenly, and I saw the
misunderstanding between them growing.
The dying man withdrew into himself and became hardened, incredulous
before this stranger, with the vulgar appearance, in whose mouth the
words of God and truth assumed a grotesque aspect.
However, he made an effort:
"If I have sinned in spirit, to use your words," he said, "it proves
that I have not sinned in reality, and why should I repent of what was
suffering pure and simple?"
"No theories now. We are not here for theorising. I tell you, a sin
committed in spirit is committed in intention, and therefore in effect,
and must be confessed and redeemed. Tell me how often you succumbed to
guilty thoughts. Give me details."
"But I resisted," moaned the unfortunate man. "That is all I have to
"That is not enough. The stain--you are now convinced, I presume, of
the justice of the term--the stain ought to be washed out by the truth."
"Very well," said the dying man. "I confess I have committed the sin,
and I repent of it."
"That is not a confession, and is none of my business," retorted the
priest. "Now tell me, under exactly what circumstances did you yield
to temptation with that person, to the suggestions of the evil spirit?"
The man was swept by a wave of rebellion. He half rose and leaned on
his elbow, glaring at the stranger, who returned his look steadily.
"Why have I the evil spirit in me?" he demanded.
"You are not the only one. All men have it."
"Then it is God who put it into them, since it is God who made them."
"Ah, you are a debater! Well, if it gives you pleasure, I will answer
you. Man has both the spirit of good and the spirit of evil in him,
that is to say, the possibility of doing the one or the other. If he
succumbs to evil, he is damned. If he triumphs over it, he is
rewarded. To be saved, he must earn salvation by struggling with all
"Virtue and faith."
"And if he does not have enough virtue and faith, is that his fault?"
"Yes, because that comes from his having too much iniquity and
blindness in his soul."
The man sat up again, seized by a new fit of anger which consumed him
like a fever.
"Ah," he said, "original sin! There's nothing that can excuse the
suffering of good people on earth. It is an abomination."
The priest looked at the rebellious man blankly.
"How else could souls be tried?" he said quite calmly.
"Nothing can excuse the suffering of the good."
"God's designs are inscrutable."
The dying man flung out his emaciated arms. His eyes became hollow.
"You are a liar!"
"Enough," said the priest. "I have listened patiently to your
ramblings and feel sorry for you. But there's no good arguing. You
must prepare to appear before God, from whom you seem to have lived
apart. If you have suffered, you will be consoled in His bosom. Let
that suffice for you."
The invalid fell back and lay still for a while. He remained
motionless under the white spread, like a reclining sepulchral statue
of marble with a face of bronze.
He regained his voice.
"God cannot console me."
"My son, my son, what are you saying?"
"God cannot console me, because He cannot give me what I want."
"Ah, my poor child, how far gone you are in your blindness! Why did
you have me summoned?"
"I had hopes, I had hopes."
"Hopes? Hopes of what?"
"I do not know. The things we hope for are always the things we do not
His hands wavered in the air, then fell down again.
"Time is passing," said the priest and began all over again.
"Tell me the circumstances of your sin. Tell me. When you were alone
with this person, when you two were close together, did you talk to
each other, or did you keep quiet?"
"I do not believe in you," said the man.
The priest frowned.
"Repent, and tell me that you believe in the Catholic religion, which
will save you."
But the other man shook his head in utter anguish and denied all his
"Religion--" he began.
The priest interrupted brutally.
"You are not going to start over again! Keep quiet. All your
arguments are worthless. Begin by /believing/ in religion and then you
will see what it means. I have come to force you to believe."
It was a duel to the end. The two men at the edge of the grave glared
at each other like enemies.
"You must believe."
"I do not believe."
"You would make truth different from what it is by threats."
"Yes." He stressed the clear, elementary command. "Whether you are
convinced or not, believe. Evidence does not count. The one important
thing is faith. God does not deign to convince the incredulous. These
are no longer the days of miracles. The only miracle is in our hearts,
and it is faith. Believe!" He hurled the same word ceaselessly, like
"My son," he continued, more solemnly, standing up, with his large fat
hand uplifted, "I exact of you an act of faith."
"Get out!" said the man, with hatred.
But the priest did not stir. Goaded by the urgence of the case,
impelled by the necessity of saving this soul in spite of itself, he
"You are going to die," he said, "you are going to die. You have only
a few more minutes to live. Submit."
"No," said the man.
The black-robed priest caught hold of both his hands.
"Submit. No discussion. You are losing precious time. All your
reasoning is of no account. We are alone, you and I before God."
He shook his head with the low bulging forehead, the prominent fleshy
nose, wide moist nostrils dark with snuff, thin yellow lips like twine
tight across two projecting teeth that showed by themselves in the
darkness. There were lines on his forehead and between his eyebrows
and around his mouth. His cheeks and chin were covered with a grey
"I represent God," he said. "You are in my presence as if you were in
the presence of God. Simply say 'I believe,' and I will absolve you.
'I believe,' that is all. The rest makes no difference to me."
He bent lower and lower, almost gluing his face to that of the dying
man, trying to plant his absolution like a blow.
"Simply say with me, 'Our Father, who art in heaven.' I do not ask you
to do anything else."
The sick man's face contracted.
Suddenly the priest rose with a triumphant air.
"At last! You have said it."
"Ah!" muttered the priest between his teeth.
He twisted the man's hands in his. You felt he would have put his arms
around him to stifle him, assassinate him if his death rattle would
have brought a confession--so possessed was he with the desire to
persuade him, to snatch from him the words he had come to seek on his
He let the withered hands go, paced the room like a wild beast, then
came back and stationed himself in front of the bed again.
"Remember--you are going to die," he stammered to the miserable man.
"You will soon be in the earth. Say, 'Our Father,' just these two
words, nothing else."
He hung over him with his eyes on his mouth, his dark, crouching figure
like a demon lying in wait for a soul, like the whole Church over dying
"Say it! Say it! Say it!"
The sick man tried to wrest himself free. There was a rattle of fury
in his throat. With the remnant of his voice, in a low tone, he
"Scoundrel!" cried the priest.
And he struck him in the face. After that neither man made a move for
a while. Then the priest went at it again.
"At least you will die holding a crucifix," he snarled.
He drew a crucifix from his pocket, and put it down hard on his breast.
The other man shook himself in a dull horror, as if religion were
contagious, and threw the crucifix on the floor.
The priest stooped, mumbling insults. "Carrion, you want to die like a
dog, but I am here!" He picked up the crucifix, and with a gleam in
his eyes, sure of crushing him, waited for his final chance.
The dying man panted, completely at the end of his strength. The
priest, seeing him in his power, laid the crucifix on his breast again.
This time the other man let it stay there, unable to do anything but
look at it with eyes of hatred. But his eyes did not make it fall.
. . . . .
When the black man had gone out into the night, and the patient little
by little recovered from the struggle and felt free once more, it
occurred to me that the priest in his violence and coarseness was
horribly right. A bad priest? No, a good priest, who spoke strictly
according to his conscience and belief, and tried to apply his religion
simply, such as it was, without hypocritical concessions. Ignorant,
clumsy, gross--yes, but honest and logical even in his fearful attempt.
In the half-hour that I had listened to him, he had tried by all the
means that religion uses and recommends to follow his calling of making