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Title: Little French Masterpieces
Author: Balzac, Honoré de
Language: English
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HONORÉ DE BALZAC

Little French Masterpieces

By

HONORÉ DE BALZAC


Edited by

Alexander Jessup


An Introduction by

Ferdinand Brunetière


The Translation by

George Burnham Ives

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press

1903



Contents


  HONORÉ DE BALZAC
  THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE
  A SEASHORE DRAMA
  AN EPISODE UNDER THE TERROR
  LA GRANDE BRETÈCHE
  THE CONSCRIPT
  A PASSION IN THE DESERT



INTRODUCTION



HONORÉ DE BALZAC

(1799-1850)


Balzac's short stories, which we call in French _nouvelles_, are,
generally speaking, not the best-known or the most popular part of his
work; nor are they the part best fitted to give a true and complete
idea of his genius. But some of them are none the less masterpieces in
their kind; they have characteristics and a significance not always
possessed by their author's long novels, such as _Eugénie Grandet_ or
_Cousin Pons;_ and finally, for this very reason, they hold in the
unfinished structure of _The Human Comedy_ a place which it will be
interesting to try to determine. That is all that will be attempted in
this Introduction.

Some of the stories contained in the present volume were written
under curious circumstances. In the first place it is to be noted
that they all date from 1830, 1831, and 1832[1] and therefore precede
the conception and planning of _The Human Comedy_. Their value is far
from being diminished by that fact. _An Episode under the Terror_
(1830), for instance, was composed as an introduction to the _Memoirs_
of Sanson--that executioner who of all executioners in the world's
history probably despatched the fewest criminals and yet shed the most
blood; and the _Memoirs_ themselves, which are entirely apocryphal,
are also in part Balzac's own work. But, though composed in this way,
to order and as a piece of hack work, _An Episode under the Terror_ is
in its artistic brevity one of Balzac's most tragic and most finished
narratives. _La Grande Bretèche_ (1832) was at first only an episode
inserted among the more extended narratives of which it made part, as
in the old-fashioned novel of tales within tales of which _Gil Blas_
is the type; and brief as it is, Balzac nevertheless rewrote it three
or four times. It is therefore anything but an improvisation. Yet no
other of these short stories can give more vividly than _La Grande
Bretèche_ the impression of a work sprung at once in full completeness
from its author's brain, and conceived from the very first in its
indivisible unity. But, precisely, it is one of the characteristic
traits of Balzac's genius that we hardly need to know when or for
what purpose he wrote this or that one of his novels or stories.
He bore them all within him at once--we might say that the germ of
them was preëxistent in him before he had any conscious thought of
objectivising them. His characters were born in him, as though from
all eternity, before he knew them himself; and before he himself
suspected it, _The Human Comedy_ was alive, was confusedly moving,
was slowly shaping itself, in his brain. This point must be clearly
seen before he can be understood or appreciated at his true value.
However much interest a monograph on some animal or plant may have in
itself--and that interest, no doubt, is often great--it has far more
through the relations it bears to other monographs and to the whole
field of knowledge of which its subject is only a fragmentary part. So
it is with Balzac's novels and stories. Their interest is not limited
to themselves. They bring out one another's value and significance,
they illustrate and give importance to each other; they have, outside
themselves, a justification for existence. This will become clear if we
compare Mérimée's _Mateo Falcone_, for instance, with _A Seashore
Drama_ (1835). The subject is the same: in each case it is a father who
constitutes himself justiciary of the honour of his race. But while
Mérimée's work, though perhaps better written or at least engraved with
deeper tooling, is after all nothing but an anecdote, a sensational
news-item, a story of local manners, Balzac's is bound up with a
whole mass of ideas, not to say a whole social philosophy, of which it
is, properly speaking, only a _chapter;_ and of which _The Conscript_
(1831) is another.

But why did Balzac confine some of his subjects within the narrow
limits of the _nouvelle_, while he expanded others to the dimensions
of epic, we might say, or of history? It was because, though analogies
are numerous between natural history and what we may call social
history or the natural history of society, yet their resemblance is
not complete nor their identity absolute. There are peculiarities or
variations of passion which, though physiologically or pathologically
interesting, are _socially_ insignificant and can be left out of
account: for instance, _A Passion in the Desert_ (1830), or _The
Unknown Masterpiece_ (1831). It is rare, in art, for the passionate
pursuit of progress to result only, as with Frenhofer, in jumbling the
colours on a great painter's canvas; and, even were this less rare,
artists are not very numerous! So, if the writer gave to his narrative
of this painful but infrequent adventure as full a development, if he
diversified and complicated it with as many episodes and details as
the adventures of Baron Hulot in _Cousin Bette_ or those of Madame
de Mortsauf in _The Lily in the Valley_, he would thereby attribute
to it, _socially_ or _historically_, an importance it does not
possess. He would err, and would make us err with him, regarding the
true proportions of things. He would represent the humanity which
he was attempting to depict, in a manner far from consistent with
reality. Hence may be deduced the æsthetics of the _nouvelle_, and its
distinction from the _conte_, and also from the _roman_ or novel.

The _nouvelle_ differs from the _conte_ in that it always claims
to be a picture of ordinary life; and it differs from the novel in
that it selects from ordinary life, and depicts by preference and
almost exclusively, those examples of the strange, the rare, and the
extraordinary which ordinary life does in spite of its monotony
nevertheless contain. It is neither strange nor rare for a miser to
make all the people about him, including his wife and children, victims
of the passion to which he is himself enslaved; and that is the subject
of _Eugénie Grandet_. It is nothing extraordinary for parents of
humble origin to be almost disowned by their children whom they have
married too far above them, in another class of society; and that is
the subject of _Father Goriot_. But for a husband, as in _La Grande
Bretèche_, to wall up his wife's lover in a closet, and that before her
very eyes; and, through a combination of circumstances in themselves
quite out of the ordinary, for neither one of them to dare or be able
to make any defence against his vengeance--this is certainly somewhat
rare! Then read _The Conscript_, or _An Episode under the Terror;_
the plot is no ordinary one, and perhaps, with a little exaggeration,
we may say it can have occurred but once. Such, then, is the field of
the _nouvelle_. Let us set off from it the fantastic, in the style
of Hoffmann or Edgar Allan Poe, even though Balzac sometimes tried
that also, as in _The Wild Ass's Skin_, for instance, or in _Melmoth
Converted;_ for the fantastic belongs to the field of the _conte_.
But unusual events, especially such as result from an unforeseen
combination of circumstances; and really tragic adventures, which, like
Monsieur and Madame de Merret's in _La Grande Bretèche_ or Cambremer's
in _A Seashore Drama_, make human conscience hesitate to call the crime
by its name; and illogical variations, deviations, or perversions of
passion; and the pathology of feeling, as in _The Unknown Masterpiece;_
and still more generally, if I may so express myself, all those things
in life which are out of the usual run of life, which happen _on its
margin_, and so are beside yet not outside it; all that makes its
surprises, its differences, its _startlingness_, so to speak--all this
is the province of the _nouvelle_, bordering on that of the novel yet
distinct from it. Out of common every-day life you cannot really make
_nouvelles_, but only novels--miniature novels, when they are brief,
but still novels. In no French writer of the last century, I think, is
this distinction more evident or more strictly observed than it is in
_The Human Comedy;_ and unless I am much mistaken, this may serve to
solve, or at least to throw light on, the vexed question of Honoré de
Balzac's _naturalism_ or _romanticism_.

In the literal and even the etymological sense of the word
_naturalism_--that is, without taking account of the way in which Émile
Zola and some other Italians have _perverted its nature_--no one can
question that Balzac was a naturalist. One might as well deny that
Victor Hugo was a romanticist! Everybody to-day knows that neither
the freedom of his vocabulary, nor some very detailed descriptions
in _Notre Dame de Paris_ and especially in _Les Misérables_, nor his
coarse popular jokes, often in doubtful taste if not sometimes worse,
nor yet the interest in social questions which characterised him from
the very first--that nothing of all this, I say, prevents Victor Hugo
from having been, up to the day of his death, _the_ romanticist; we may
rest assured that in whatever way romanticism shall be defined, he will
always be, in the history of French literature, its living incarnation.
Balzac, on the other hand, will always be the living incarnation of
naturalism. And surely, if to be a naturalist is to confine the field
of one's art to the observation of contemporary life, and to try to
give a complete and adequate representation thereof, not drawing back
or hesitating, not abating one tittle of the truth, in the depiction of
ugliness and vice; if to be a naturalist is, like a portrait-painter,
to subordinate every æsthetic and moral consideration to the law
of likeness--then it is impossible to be more of a naturalist than
Balzac. But with all this, since his imagination is unruly, capricious,
changeable, with a strong tendency to exaggeration, audacious, and
corrupt; since he, as much as any of his contemporaries, feels the
need of startling us; since he habitually writes under the dominion of
a kind of hallucinatory fever sufficient of itself to mark what we may
call the romantic state of mind--romanticism is certainly not absent
from the work of this naturalist, but on the contrary would fill and
inspire the whole of it, were that result not prevented by the claims,
or conditions, of observation. A romantic imagination, struggling to
triumph over itself, and succeeding only by confining itself to the
study of the model--such may be the definition of Balzac's imagination
or genius; and, in a way, to justify this definition by his work we
need only to distinguish clearly his _nouvelles_ from his novels.

Balzac's _nouvelles_ represent the share of romanticism in his work.
_La Grande Bretèche_ is the typical romantic narrative, and we may say
as much of _The Unknown Masterpiece_. The observer shuts his eyes; he
now looks only within himself; he imagines "what might have been"; and
he writes _An Episode under the Terror_. It is for him a way of escape
from the obsession of the real:

    "The real is strait; the possible is vast."

His unbridled imagination takes free course. He works in dream. And,
since of course we can never succeed in building within ourselves
perfectly water-tight compartments, entirely separating dream from
memory and imagination from observation, reality does find its way into
his _nouvelles_ by way of exactness in detail, but their conception
remains essentially or chiefly romantic; just as in his long novels,
_Eugénie Grandet, A Bachelor's Establishment (Un Ménage de Garçon),
César Birotteau, A Dark Affair, Cousin Pons_, and _Cousin Bette_, his
observation remains naturalistic, and his imagination perverts it, by
magnifying or exaggerating, yet never intentionally or systematically
or to the extent of falsifying the true relations of things. Shall
I dare say, to English readers, that by this fact he belongs to
the family of Shakespeare? His long novels are his _Othello_, his
_Romeo_, his _Macbeth_, his _Richard III._, and _Coriolanus;_ and his
_nouvelles_, his short stories, are his _Tempest_, his _Twelfth Night_,
and his _Midsummer Night's Dream_.

This comparison, which really is not a comparison but a mere
analogy, such as might be drawn between Musset and Byron, may serve
to bring out one more characteristic of Balzac's _nouvelles_--they
are philosophic; in his _The Human Comedy_ it is under the title of
_Philosophic Studies_ that he brought together, whatever their origin,
such stories as _A Seashore Drama, The Unknown Masterpiece_, and even
_The Conscript_. By so doing he no doubt meant to imply that the
sensational stories on which they are based did not contain their whole
significance; that he was using them merely as a means of stating a
problem, of fixing the reader's attention for a moment on the vastness
of the mysterious or unknown by which we are, so to speak, enwrapped
about. "We might add this tragic story," he writes at the end of his
_The Conscript_, "to the mass of other observations on that sympathy
which defies the law of space--a body of evidence which some few
solitary scholars are collecting with scientific curiosity, and which
will one day serve as basis for a new science, a science which till now
has lacked only its man of genius." These are large words, it would
seem, with which to point the moral of a mere historical anecdote. But
if we consider them well, we shall see that, whatever we may think
of this "new science," Balzac wrote his _The Conscript_ for the sole
purpose of ending it with that sentence. Read, too, _A Seashore Drama_.
It is often said that "A fact is a fact"--and I scarcely know a more
futile sophism, unless it be the one which consists in saying that
"Of tastes and colours there is no disputing." Such is not Balzac's
opinion, at any rate. He believes that a fact is more than a fact, that
it is the expression or manifestation of something other or more than
itself; or again, that it is a piece of evidence, a _document_, which
it is not enough to have put on record, but in which we must also seek,
through contrasts and resemblances, its deep ulterior meaning. And this
is what he has tried to show in his _nouvelles_.

Thus we see what place they hold in his _The Human Comedy_. Balzac's
short stories are not, in his work, what one might be tempted to call
somewhat disdainfully "the chips of his workshop." Nor are they even,
in relation to his long novels, what a painter's sketches, rough
drafts, and studies are to his finished pictures. He did not write them
by way of practice or experiment; they have their own value, intrinsic
and well-defined. It would be a mistake, also, to consider them as
little novels, in briefer form, which more time or leisure might have
allowed their author to treat with more fullness. He conceived them for
their own sake; he would never have consented to give them proportions
which did not befit them. The truth of the matter is that by reason
of their dealing with the exceptional or extraordinary, they are, in
a way, the element of _romantic drama_ in Balzac's _Comedy;_ and by
reason of their philosophic or symbolic significance, they add the
element of mystery to a work which but for them would be somewhat
harshly illumined by the hard light of reality. Once more, that is why
he did not classify his _The Conscript_ with the _Scenes of Political
Life_, or his _A Seashore Drama_ with the _Scenes of Country Life_.
That, too, is what gives them their interest and their originality.
That is what distinguishes them from the stories of Prosper Mérimée,
or, later, those of Guy de Maupassant. So much being made clear, it
is not important now to ask whether they really have as much depth of
meaning as their author claimed for them. That is another question; and
I have just indicated why I cannot treat it in this brief Introduction.
Only in a complete study of Balzac could his _nouvelles_ be adequately
judged. Then their due place would be assigned to them, in the full
scheme of _The Human Comedy_. I shall be happy if the English reader
remembers this; and if the reading of these _nouvelles_, after having
for a moment charmed him, shall also inspire him with the wish to know
more closely and completely the greatest of French novelists.

F. Brunetière


[Footnote 1: According to Lovenjoul, _A Seashore Drama_ was first
published in the fourth edition of the _Philosophic Studies_, in
1835. But this fact in no wise lessens the force of M. Brunetière's
argument.--Ed.]



The Unknown Masterpiece


            TO A LORD:

    *     *     *     *     *     *
    *     *     *     *     *     *
    *     *     *     *     *     *

         1845.



I


GILLETTE


Late in the year 1612, one cold morning in December, a young man whose
garments seemed very thin was walking before the door of a house on Rue
des Grands-Augustins, Paris. After pacing that street for a long time,
with the indecision of a lover who dares not pay a visit to his first
mistress, however kind she may be, he at last crossed the threshold
of the door and asked if Master François Porbus was at home. Upon
receiving an affirmative reply from a woman who was sweeping a room on
the lower floor, the young man went slowly up-stairs, hesitating from
stair to stair, like a courtier of recent creation, apprehensive of the
greeting which he was to receive from the king. When he reached the
top of the winding staircase, he stood for a moment on the landing,
uncertain whether he should lift the grotesque knocker affixed to the
door of the studio where the painter of Henri IV., cast aside for
Rubens by Marie de Medici, was doubtless at work. The young man felt
that profound emotion which must cause the hearts of all great artists
to beat quickly, when, in the prime of youth and of their love for art,
they approach a man of genius, or some noble masterpiece.

There exists in all human sentiments a primitive flower, engendered
by a noble enthusiasm which grows constantly weaker and weaker,
until happiness ceases to be more than a memory and glory more than
a lie. Among these transitory sentiments, nothing bears so close a
resemblance to love as the youthful passion of an artist just beginning
to experience the delicious torture of his destiny of renown and of
misfortune, a passion full of audacity and shyness, of vague beliefs
and of certain discouragement. The youthful genius, with empty
pockets, whose heart has not throbbed upon appearing before a master,
will always lack one chord in his heart, some indefinable touch of the
brush, some feeling in his work, some shade of poetical expression.
If some boasters, puffed out with conceit, believe too early in the
future, they are considered people of intellect by fools alone. In this
regard, the young stranger seemed to possess real merit, if talent
is to be measured by that early timidity, that indescribable modesty
which people destined to glory gradually lose in the exercise of their
art, as pretty women lose theirs in the manoeuvring of coquetry. The
habitude of triumph lessens doubt, and modesty perhaps is a form of
doubt.

Overwhelmed by surprise and distress at that moment of his overweening
presumption, the poor neophyte would not have entered the studio of
the painter to whom we owe the admirable portrait of Henri IV., except
for an extraordinary reinforcement sent him by chance. An old man
ascended the stairs. From the oddity of his costume, the magnificence
of his lace ruff, the ponderous self-assurance of his gait, the young
man divined that he was either the painter's patron or his friend;
he drew back against the wall to make room for him, and gazed at him
curiously, hoping to find in him the kindly nature of an artist, or the
obliging disposition of those who love art; but he detected something
diabolical in that face, and above all that indefinable expression
which artists dote upon. Imagine a bald, prominent, even protuberant
forehead, overshadowing a small, flattened nose, turned up at the
end like Rabelais's or Socrates's; a smiling mouth, wrinkled at the
corners; a short chin, proudly raised, and adorned with a gray beard
trimmed to a point; sea-green eyes, apparently dulled by age, which,
however, by virtue of the contrast of the pearly-white in which the
pupils swam, sometimes emitted magnetic glances under the spur of
wrath or enthusiasm. The face was woefully ravaged by the fatigues of
age, and even more by the thoughts which tire mind and body alike. The
eyes had no lashes, and one could barely detect a trace of eyebrows
over their protruding arches. Place that head upon a slender and
fragile body, surround it with a lace ruff of snowy whiteness and of a
pattern as elaborate as that of a silver fish-knife, throw a heavy gold
chain over the old man's black doublet, and you will have an imperfect
image of that individual, to whom the dim light of the hall imparted
an even stranger colouring. You would have said that it was one of
Rembrandt's canvases, walking silently, without a frame, through the
dark atmosphere which that great painter made his own. The old man cast
a sagacious glance at the young one, tapped thrice on the door, and
said to a sickly-looking personage of about forty years, who opened it:

"Good morning, master."

Porbus bowed respectfully; he admitted the young man, thinking that
he had come with the other, and paid the less heed to him because the
neophyte was evidently under the spell which a born painter inevitably
experiences at the aspect of the first studio that he sees, where some
of the material processes of art are revealed to him. A window in
the ceiling lighted Master Porbus's studio. The light, concentrated
upon a canvas standing on the easel, which as yet bore only a few
light strokes, did not reach the dark recesses in the corners of that
enormous room; but a few stray gleams lighted up the silver bull's-eye
in the centre of a cavalryman's cuirass hanging on the wall in the
ruddy shadow; illuminated with a sudden beam the carved and polished
cornice of an old-fashioned sideboard, laden with curious vessels; or
studded with dazzling points of light the rough woof of certain old
curtains of gold brocade, with broad, irregular folds, scattered about
as drapery. Plaster casts, busts, and fragments of antique goddesses,
fondly polished by the kisses of centuries, lay about upon tables and
consoles. Innumerable sketches, studies in coloured chalk, in red lead,
or in pen and ink, covered the walls to the ceiling. Boxes of colours,
bottles of oil and of essences, and overturned stools, left only a
narrow path to the sort of halo projected by the high stained-glass
window, through which the light fell full upon Porbus's pale face and
upon the ivory skull of his strange visitor. The young man's attention
was soon exclusively absorbed by a picture which had already become
famous even in that epoch of commotion and revolution, and which was
visited by some of those obstinate enthusiasts to whom we owe the
preservation of the sacred fire during evil days. That beautiful canvas
represented _St. Mary the Egyptian_ preparing to pay for her passage in
the boat. That masterpiece, painted for Marie de Medici, was sold by
her in the days of her destitution.

"I like your saint," the old man said to Porbus, "and I would give you
ten golden crowns above the price that the queen is to pay; but meddle
in her preserves! the deuce!"

"You think it is well done, do you?"

"Hum!" said the old man, "well done? Yes and no. Your saint is not
badly put together, but she is not alive. You fellows think that you
have done everything when you have drawn a figure correctly and put
everything in its place according to the laws of anatomy. You colour
this feature with a flesh-tint prepared beforehand on your palette,
taking care to keep one side darker than the other; and because you
glance from time to time at a nude woman standing on a table, you think
that you have copied nature, you imagine that you are painters, and
that you have discovered God's secret! Bah! To be a great poet, it is
not enough to know syntax, and to avoid errors in grammar.

"Look at your saint, Porbus. At first glance she seems admirable; but
at the second, one sees that she is glued to the canvas, and that it
is impossible to walk about her body. She is a silhouette with but a
single face, a figure cut out of canvas, an image that can neither turn
nor change its position. I am not conscious of the air between that
arm and the background of the picture; space and depth are lacking.
However, everything is right so far as perspective is concerned, and
the gradation of light and shade is scrupulously observed; but, despite
such praise-worthy efforts, I am unable to believe that that beautiful
body is animated with the warm breath of life. It seems to me that,
if I should put my hand upon that firm, round breast, I should find
it as cold as marble. No, my friend, the blood does not flow beneath
that ivory skin; life does not swell with its purple dew the veins
and fibres which intertwine like network beneath the transparent,
amber-hued temples and breast. This place throbs with life, but that
other place is motionless; life and death contend in every detail; here
it is a woman, there a statue, and there a corpse. Your creation is
incomplete. You have been able to breathe only a portion of your soul
into your cherished work. The torch of Prometheus has gone out more
than once in your hands, and many parts of your picture have not been
touched by the celestial flame."

"But why, my dear master?" Porbus respectfully asked the old man, while
the young man had difficulty in repressing a savage desire to strike
him.

"Ah! it is this way," replied the little old man. "You have wavered
irresolutely between the two systems, between drawing and colour,
between the phlegmatic minuteness, the stiff precision of the old
German masters, and the dazzling ardour and happy plenitude of the
Italian painters. You have tried to imitate at the same time Hans
Holbein and Titian, Albert Dürer and Paul Veronese. Assuredly that was
a noble ambition! But what has happened? You have achieved neither the
severe charm of precision, nor the deceitful magic of the chiaroscuro.
In this spot, like melted bronze which bursts its too fragile mould,
the rich, light colouring of Titian brings out too prominently the
meagre outlines of Albert Dürer in which you moulded it. Elsewhere,
the features have resisted and held in check the superb polish of
the Venetian palette. Your face is neither perfectly drawn nor
perfectly painted, and bears everywhere the traces of that unfortunate
indecision. If you did not feel strong enough to melt together in
the flame of your genius the two rival systems, you should have
chosen frankly one or the other, in order to obtain the unity which
represents one of the conditions of life. You are accurate only in the
surroundings, your outlines are false, do not envelop each other, and
give no promise of anything behind.

"There is a touch of truth here," said the old man, pointing to the
saint's breast; "and here," he added, indicating the point where the
shoulder came to an end. "But here," he said, reverting to the middle
of the throat, "all is false. Let us not attempt to analyse anything;
it would drive you to despair."

The old man seated himself on a stool, put his face in his hands, and
said no more.

"Master," said Porbus, "I studied that throat very carefully in the
nude figure; but, unfortunately for us, there are true effects in
nature which seem improbable upon canvas."

"The mission of art is not to copy nature, but to express it! You
are not a vile copyist, but a poet!" cried the old man, hastily
interrupting Porbus with an imperious gesture. "Otherwise a sculptor
would reach the end of his labours by moulding a woman! But try to
mould your mistress's hand and to place it before you; you will find a
horrible dead thing without any resemblance, and you will be obliged to
resort to the chisel of the man who, without copying it exactly, will
impart motion and life to it. We have to grasp the spirit, the soul,
the physiognomy of things and of creatures. Effects! effects! why,
they are the accidents of life and not life itself.

"A hand--as I have taken that example--a hand does not simply belong to
the body; it expresses and carries out a thought, which you must grasp
and represent. Neither the painter, nor the poet, nor the sculptor
should separate the effect from the cause, for they are inseparably
connected! The real struggle is there! Many painters triumph by
instinct, without realising this axiom of art. You draw a woman, but
you do not see her! That is not the way that one succeeds in forcing
the secrets of nature. Your hand reproduces, without your knowledge,
the model that you have copied at your master's studio. You do not go
down sufficiently into the inmost details of form, you do not pursue it
with enough enthusiasm and perseverance in its windings and its flights.

"Beauty is a stern and exacting thing which does not allow itself to be
caught so easily; we must await its pleasure, watch for it, seize it,
and embrace it closely, in order to compel it to surrender. Form is a
Proteus much more difficult to seize and more fertile in evasions than
the Proteus of fable; only after long struggles can one compel it to
show itself in its real guise. You are content with the first aspect
under which it appears to you, or at most with the second or third;
that is not true of the victorious fighters! The invincible painters
do not allow themselves to be deceived by all these subterfuges; they
persevere until nature is reduced to the point where she must stand
forth naked and in her real shape.

"That was the process adopted by Raphael," said the old man, removing
his black velvet cap to express the respect inspired by the king of
art; "his great superiority comes from the secret perception which,
in him, seems determined to shatter form. In his figures form is what
it really is in us, an interpreter for the communication of ideas
and sensations, a vast poetic conception. Every figure is a world, a
portrait, whose model has appeared in a sublime vision, tinged with
light, indicated by an inward voice, disrobed by a divine figure, which
points out the sources of expression in the past of a whole life. You
give your women lovely robes of flesh, lovely draperies of hair; but
where is the blood which engenders tranquillity or passion, and which
causes special effects? Your saint is a dark woman, but this one, my
poor Porbus, is a blonde! Your figures are pale, coloured spectres
which you parade before our eyes, and you call that painting and art!

"Because you have made something which looks more like a woman than
like a house, you think that you have attained your end; and, overjoyed
because you no longer have to write beside your figures, _currus
venustus_, or _pulcher homo_, like the first painters, you fancy that
you are marvellous artists! Ah, no! you are not that yet, my good
fellows; you will have to use up more pencils and cover many canvases
before you reach that point! To be sure, a woman carries her head
like that, she wears her skirts as this one does, her eyes languish
and melt with that air of mild resignation, the quivering shadow of
the eyelashes trembles thus upon her cheek! That is accurate and it is
not accurate. What does it lack? A mere nothing, but that nothing is
everything. You produce the appearance of life, but you do not express
its overflow, that indefinable something which perhaps is the soul, and
which floats cloud-like upon the outer envelope; in a word, that flower
of life which Titian and Raphael discovered.

"Starting from the farthest point that you have reached, an excellent
painting might perhaps be executed; but you grow weary too soon.
The common herd admires, but the connoisseur smiles. O Mabuse, O my
master," added this extraordinary individual, "you are a thief; you
carried life away with you!--However," he continued, "this canvas is
worth more than the painting of that mountebank of a Rubens, with his
mountains of Flemish flesh powdered with vermillion, his waves of
red hair, and his wilderness of colours. At all events, you have here
colouring, drawing, and sentiment, the three essential parts of art."

"But that saint is sublime, my good man!" cried the young man, in a
loud voice, emerging from a profound reverie. "Those two figures,
of the saint and the boatman, have a delicacy of expression utterly
unknown to the Italian painters; I don't know a single one of them who
could have achieved the hesitation of the boatman."

"Does this little knave belong to you?" Porbus asked the old man.

"Alas! pray excuse my presumption, master," replied the neophyte,
blushing. I am a stranger, a dauber by instinct, only lately arrived in
this city, the source of all knowledge."

"To work!" said Porbus, handing him a pencil and a sheet of paper.

In a twinkling the stranger copied the _Mary_.

"O-ho!" cried the old man. "Your name?"

The young man wrote at the foot of the drawing: _Nicolas Poussin_.

"That is not bad for a beginner," said the strange creature who
harangued so wildly. "I see that we can safely talk painting before
you. I don't blame you for admiring Porbus's saint. It is a masterpiece
for the world, and only those who are initiated in the most profound
secrets of art can discover wherein it offends. But since you are
worthy of the lesson and capable of understanding, I will show you
how little is necessary to complete the work. Be all eyes and all
attention; such an opportunity for instruction will never occur again
perhaps.--Your palette, Porbus!"

Porbus went to fetch palette and brushes. The little old man turned
up his sleeves with a convulsive movement, passed his thumb over the
palette laden with colours, which Porbus handed to him, and snatched
rather than took from his hands a handful of brushes of all sizes;
his pointed beard twitched with the mighty efforts that denoted the
concupiscence of an amorous imagination. As he dipped his brush in the
paint, he grumbled between his teeth:

"These colours are good for nothing but to throw out of the window,
with the man who made them! They are disgustingly crude and false! How
can one paint with such things?"

Then, with feverish vivacity, he dipped the point of the brush in
different mounds of colour, sometimes running through the entire scale
more rapidly than a cathedral organist runs over his keyboard in
playing the _O Filii_ at Easter.

Porbus and Poussin stood like statues, each on one side of the canvas,
absorbed in the most intense contemplation.

"You see, young man," said the old man, without turning--"you see how,
by means of three or four touches and a little blue varnish, one can
make the air circulate around the head of the poor saint, who surely
must be stifling and feel imprisoned in that dense atmosphere! See how
that drapery flutters about now, and how readily one can realise that
the wind is raising it! Formerly it looked like starched linen held in
place by pins. Do you see how perfectly the satinlike gloss with which
I have touched the breast represents the supple plumpness of a maiden's
flesh, and how the mixture of reddish brown and ochre warms the gray
coldness of that tall ghost, in which the blood congealed instead of
flowing? Young man, young man, what I am showing you now, no master
could teach you! Mabuse alone possessed the secret of imparting life to
figures. Mabuse had but one pupil, and that was I. I have had none, and
I am growing old! You have intelligence enough to guess the rest from
this glimpse that I give you."

While he spoke, the strange old man touched all the parts of the
picture: here two strokes of the brush and there only one; but always
so opportunely that one would have said that it was a new painting,
but a painting drenched with light. He worked with such impassioned
zeal that the perspiration stood upon his high forehead; he moved so
swiftly, with such impatient, jerky little movements, that to young
Poussin it seemed as if there must be in that strange man's body a
demon acting through his hands and guiding them erratically, against
his will. The superhuman gleam of his eyes, the convulsions which
seemed to be the effect of resistance, gave to that idea a semblance of
truth, which was certain to act upon a youthful imagination. The old
man worked on, saying:

"Paff! paff! paff! this is how we do it, young man! Come, my little
touches, warm up this frigid tone for me! Come, come! pon! pon! pon!"
he said, touching up the points where he had indicated a lack of life,
effacing by a few daubs of paint the differences of temperament, and
restoring the unity of tone which a warm-blooded Egyptian demanded.
"You see, my boy, it is only the last stroke of the brush that counts.
Porbus has given a hundred, but I give only one. Nobody gives us credit
for what is underneath. Be sure to remember that!"

At last the demon paused, and, turning to Porbus and Poussin, who were
dumb with admiration, he said to them:

"This doesn't come up to my _Belle Noiseuse_; however, a man could
afford to put his name at the foot of such a work. Yes, I would sign
it," he added, rising and taking a mirror in which he looked at it.
"Now let us go to breakfast," he said. "Come to my house, both of you.
I have some smoked ham and some good wine! Despite the evil times, we
will talk painting. We are experts. This little man," he added, tapping
Nicolas Poussin on the shoulder, "has a facile touch."

Noticing the Norman's shabby jacket at that moment, he took from his
belt a goat-skin purse, opened it, took out two gold-pieces and said,
offering them to him:

"I will buy your sketch."

"Take it," said Porbus to Poussin, seeing him start and blush with
shame, for the young neophyte had all the pride of the poor man. "Take
it, he has the ransom of two kings in his wallet."

All three went down from the studio, and, discoursing on art as
they walked, bent their steps to a handsome wooden house near Pont
St.-Michel, the decorations of which, the knocker, the window-frames,
and the arabesques, aroused Poussin's wondering admiration. The
painter in embryo suddenly found himself in a room on the lower floor,
before a bright fire, beside a table laden with appetising dishes,
and, by incredible good fortune, in the company of two great artists
overflowing with good nature.

"Young man," said Porbus, seeing that he stood in open-mouthed
admiration before a picture, "don't look at that canvas too closely, or
you will be driven to despair."

It was the _Adam_ which Mabuse painted in order to obtain his release
from the prison in which his creditors kept him so long. In truth,
that face was of such startling reality that Nicolas Poussin began at
that moment to understand the true meaning of the old man's confused
remarks. The latter glanced at the picture with a satisfied expression,
but without enthusiasm, and seemed to say: "I have done better than
that!"

"There is life in it," he said; "my poor master surpassed himself; but
it still lacks a little truth in the background. The man is thoroughly
alive; he is about to rise and walk towards us. But the air, the sky,
the wind, which we breathe and see and feel, are not there. And then
there is only a man! Now the only man that ever came forth from the
hands of God ought to have something of the divine, which he lacks.
Mabuse himself said so with irritation, when he was not drunk."

Poussin glanced at the old man and Porbus in turn, with restless
curiosity. He approached the latter as if to ask him the name of their
host; but the painter put his finger to his lips with a mysterious air,
and the young man, intensely interested, kept silence, hoping that
sooner or later some chance remark would enable him to discover the
name of his host, whose wealth and talent were sufficiently attested
by the respect which Porbus manifested for him and by the marvellous
things collected in that room.

Seeing a superb portrait of a woman upon the oaken wainscoting, Poussin
exclaimed:

"What a beautiful Giorgione!"

"No," replied the old man; "you are looking at one of my first daubs."

"_Tu-dieu!_ then I must be in the house of the god of painting!" said
Poussin, ingenuously.

The old man smiled like one long familiar with such praise.

"Master Frenhofer!" said Porbus, "couldn't you send for a little of
your fine Rhine wine for me?"

"Two casks!" replied the old man; "one to pay for the pleasure which I
enjoyed this morning in seeing your pretty sinner, and the other as a
friendly gift."

"Ah! if I were not always ill," rejoined Porbus, "and if you would let
me see your _Belle Noiseuse_, I might be able to paint a picture, high
and wide and deep, in which the figures would be life-size."

"Show my work!" cried the old man, intensely excited. "No, no! I still
have to perfect it. Yesterday, towards night," he said, "I thought
that it was finished. The eyes seemed to me moist, the flesh quivered;
the tresses of the hair moved. It breathed! Although I have discovered
the means of producing upon flat canvas the relief and roundness of
nature, I realised my error this morning, by daylight. Ah! to attain
that glorious result, I have thoroughly studied the great masters of
colouring, I have analysed and raised, layer by layer, the pictures
of Titian, that king of light; like that sovereign painter, I have
sketched my figure in a light shade, with soft, thick colour--for
shading is simply an accident, remember that, my boy!--Then I
returned to my work, and by means of half-tints, and of varnish, the
transparency of which I lessened more and more, I made the shadows more
and, more pronounced, even to the deepest blacks; for the shadows of
ordinary painters are of a different nature from their light tones;
they are wood, brass, whatever you choose, except flesh in shadow. One
feels that, if a figure should change its posture, the shaded places
would not brighten, and would never become light. I have avoided that
fault, into which many of the most illustrious artists have fallen, and
in my work the whiteness of the flesh stands out under the darkness of
the deepest shadow.

"I have not, like a multitude of ignorant fools, who fancy that they
draw correctly because they make a carefully shaded stroke, marked
distinctly the outer lines of my figure and given prominence to the
most trivial anatomical details, for the human body does not end in
lines. In that regard, sculptors can approach the truth more nearly
than we can. Nature demands a succession of rounded outlines which
shade into one another. Strictly speaking, drawing does not exist!--Do
not laugh, young man! However strange that remark may seem to you, you
will understand its meaning some day.--The line is the means by which
man interprets the effect of light upon objects; but there are no lines
in nature, where everything is full; it is in modelling that one draws,
that is to say, that one removes things from the surroundings in which
they are; the distribution of light alone gives reality to the body!
So that I have not sharply outlined the features; I have spread over
the outlines a cloud of light, warm half-tints, the result being that
one cannot place one's finger upon the exact spot where the outline
ends and the background begins. Seen at close quarters, the work seems
cottony and to lack precision; but two yards away, everything becomes
distinct and stands out; the body moves, the forms become prominent,
and one can feel the air circulating all about. However, I am not
satisfied yet; I still have doubts.

"Perhaps I should not have drawn a single line; perhaps it would be
better to attack a figure in the middle, devoting one's self first to
the prominences which are most in the light, and passing then to the
darker portions. Is not that the way in which the sun, that divine
painter of the universe, proceeds? O Nature, Nature! who has ever
surprised thee in thy flights? I tell you that too much knowledge, like
ignorance, ends in a negation. I doubt my work!"

The old man paused, then continued:

"For ten years, young man, I have been working, but what are ten short
years when it is a question of contending with nature? We have no idea
how long a time Pygmalion employed in making the only statue that ever
walked!"

The old man fell into a profound reverie, and sat with staring eyes,
mechanically toying with his knife.

"He is conversing with his _spirit_ now!" said Porbus in an undertone.

At that word Nicolas Poussin became conscious of the presence of an
indefinable artistic curiosity. That old man with the white eyes,
staring and torpid, became in his eyes more than a man; he assumed the
aspect of an unreal genius living in an unknown sphere. He stirred a
thousand confused ideas in his mind. The mental phenomenon of that
species of fascination can no more be defined than one can define the
emotion aroused by a ballad which recalls the fatherland to the exile's
heart. The contempt which that old man affected to express for the
most beautiful works of art, his wealth, his manners, the deference
with which Porbus treated him, that work kept secret so long--a work
of patience and of genius doubtless, judging by the head of a _Virgin_
which young Poussin had so enthusiastically admired, and which, still
beautiful, even beside Mabuse's _Adam_, bore witness to the imperial
workmanship of one of the princes of art--everything, in short, about
the old man went beyond the bounds of human nature.

The one point which was perfectly clear and manifest to Nicolas
Poussin's fertile imagination was a complete image of the artistic
nature, of that irresponsible nature to which so many powers are
entrusted, and which too often misuses them, leading cold reason,
the honest bourgeois, and even some experts, through innumerable
rock-strewn paths, where there is nothing so far as they are concerned;
whereas that white-winged damsel, unreasoning in her fancies, discovers
these epic poems, châteaux, and works of art. A sardonic but kindly
nature; fertile but sterile. Thus, to the enthusiastic Poussin, that
old man had become, by an abrupt transfiguration, art itself, art with
its secrets, its unruly impulses, and its reveries.

"Yes, my dear Porbus," Frenhofer resumed, "I have failed thus far to
meet an absolutely flawless woman, a body the outlines of which are
perfectly beautiful, and whose colouring--But where is she to be found
in real life?" he asked, interrupting himself, "that undiscoverable
Venus of the ancients, so often sought, of whom we find only a few
scattered charms? Oh! to see for an instant, but a single time, that
divine, complete, in a word, ideal nature, I would give my whole
fortune. Aye, I would seek thee in the abode of the dead, O divine
beauty! Like Orpheus, I would go down into the hell of art to bring
life back thence."

"We may go away," said Porbus to Poussin; "he neither hears nor sees us
now."

"Let us go to his studio," suggested the wonder-struck youth.

"Oh! the old fellow knows how to keep people out. His treasures are too
well guarded for us to obtain a glimpse of them. I have not awaited
your suggestion and your longing before attacking the mystery."

"So there is a mystery?"

"Yes," Porbus replied. "Old Frenhofer is the only pupil whom Mabuse
would ever consent to take. Having become his friend, his saviour, his
father, Frenhofer sacrificed the greater part of his property to humour
Mabuse's passions; in exchange Mabuse bequeathed to him the secret
of _relief_, the power of imparting to figures that extraordinary
appearance of life, that touch of nature, which is our never-ending
despair, but of which he was such a thorough master that one day,
having sold and drunk the flowered damask which he was to wear on the
occasion of Charles V.'s entry into Paris, he attended his master in a
garment of paper painted to represent damask. The peculiar brilliancy
of the fabric worn by Mabuse surprised the Emperor, who, when he
attempted to compliment the old drunkard's patron, discovered the fraud.

"Frenhofer is passionately devoted to our art, and he looks higher and
farther ahead than other painters. He has given much profound thought
to the subject of colouring and to the absolute accuracy of lines;
but he has studied so much that he has reached the point where he is
uncertain of the very object of his studies. In his moments of despair
he declares that drawing does not exist and that only geometrical
figures can be made with lines; which is going beyond the truth, for
with lines and with black, which is not a colour, a human figure
maybe drawn; which proves that our art, like nature, is made up of
an infinite number of elements: drawing furnishes a skeleton, colour
gives life; but life without the skeleton is much less complete than
the skeleton without life. In short, there is one thing which is more
true than any of these, and that is that practice and observation are
everything with a painter, and that, if reason and poetic sense quarrel
with the brush, we arrive at doubt, like our excellent friend here,
who is as much madman as painter. A sublime artist, he was unfortunate
enough to be born rich, which permitted him to go astray; do not
imitate him! Work! Painters ought not to meditate, except with brush
in hand."

"We will find our way there!" cried Poussin, no longer listening to
Porbus, and undeterred by doubts.

Porbus smiled at the young stranger's enthusiasm, and, when they
parted, invited him to come to see him.

Nicolas Poussin walked slowly back to Rue de la Harpe, and passed,
unperceiving, the modest house in which he lodged. Ascending his
wretched staircase with anxious haste, he reached a room high up
beneath a roof supported by pillars, a simple and airy style of
architecture found in the houses of old Paris. Beside the single, dark
window of that room sat a girl, who, when she heard the door, sprang at
once to her feet with a loving impulse; she recognised the painter by
the way he raised the latch.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"The matter--the matter----" he cried, choking with joy; "the matter is
that I have come to feel that I am a painter. I have always doubted
myself before, but this morning I believe in myself! I tell you,
Gillette, we shall be rich, happy! There is gold in these brushes."

But suddenly he ceased to speak. His strong and serious face lost its
joyous expression when he compared the vastness of his hopes with the
paucity of his resources. The walls were covered with pieces of common
paper on which were sketches in pencil. He owned no clean canvases.
Paints commanded a high price in those days, and the poor young man's
palette was almost bare. In the depths of his poverty he possessed and
was conscious of an incredible store of courage and a superabundance of
all-consuming genius. Brought to Paris by a gentleman who was a friend
of his, or perhaps by his own talent, he had almost immediately fallen
in with a mistress, one of those noble and devoted souls who suffer
beside a great man, espouse his troubles, and try to understand his
caprices; strong in poverty and love, as other women are fearless in
bearing the burden of luxury and in parading their lack of feeling. The
smile that played about Gillette's lips diffused a golden light through
that garret, and overspread the sky with brightness. The sun did not
always shine, whereas she was always there, sedate in her passion,
clinging to her happiness and her suffering, encouraging the genius
which overflowed in love before seizing upon art.

"Listen, Gillette--come here."

The light-hearted, obedient girl jumped upon the painter's knees. She
was all grace, all beauty, lovely as a spring day, adorned by all
womanly charms, and illumining them with the glow of a lovely soul.

"O God!" he cried, "I shall never dare to tell her."

"A secret?" said she; "I insist upon knowing it."

Poussin seemed lost in thought.

"Speak, I say."

"Gillette--poor, beloved darling!"

"Ah! you want something of me, do you?"

"Yes."

"If you want me to pose for you as I did the other day," she said, with
a little pout, "I shall never consent; for at those times your eyes
have nothing at all to say to me. You forget all about me, and yet you
look at me."

"Would you prefer to see me painting another woman?"

"Perhaps so," she said, "if she was very ugly."

"Well," rejoined Poussin, in a serious tone, "suppose that, for any
future glory, to make me a great painter, it were necessary for you to
pose for another artist?"

"You can test me all you choose," she replied. "You know that I would
not go."

Poussin let his head fall on his breast, like one who surrenders to a
joy or a sorrow that is too great for his heart.

"Listen," said she, plucking at the sleeve of Poussin's threadbare
doublet, "I have told you, Nick, that I would give my life for you; but
I never promised to give up my love while I am alive."

"Give it up?" cried the young artist.

"If I should show myself like that to another man, you would cease to
love me, and I should deem myself unworthy of you. Is it not a most
simple and natural thing to obey your whims? In spite of myself, I am
happy, aye, proud, to do your dear will. But for another man--ah, no!"

"Forgive me, my Gillette," cried the painter, throwing himself at her
feet. "I prefer to be beloved rather than famous. In my eyes you are
fairer than wealth and honours. Go, throw away my brushes, burn these
sketches. I have made a mistake. My vocation is to love you. I am no
painter, I am a lover. Away with art and all its secrets!"

She gazed admiringly at him, happy, overjoyed. She was queen; she felt
instinctively that art was forgotten for her, and cast at her feet
like a grain of incense.

"And yet it is only an old man," continued Poussin. "He could see only
the woman in you--you are so perfect!"

"One must needs love," she cried, ready to sacrifice the scruples of
her love to repay her lover for all the sacrifices that he made for
her. "But," she added, "it would be my ruin. Ah! ruin for you--yes,
that would be very lovely! But you will forget me! Oh! what a wicked
idea this is of yours!"

"I conceived the idea, and I love you," he said with a sort of
contrition; "but am I for that reason a villain?"

"Let us consult Father Hardouin," she said.

"Oh, no! let it be a secret between us."

"Very good, I will go. But do not be there," she cried. "Stay at the
door, with your dagger drawn; if I cry out, come in and kill the
painter."

With no eyes for aught but his art, Poussin threw his arms about
Gillette.

"He no longer loves me!" thought Gillette, when she was alone.

Already she repented her decision. But she was soon seized by a terror
more painful than her regret; she strove to drive away a shocking
thought that stole into her mind. She fancied that she already loved
the painter less, because she suspected that he was less estimable than
she had hitherto believed.



II


CATHERINE LESCAULT


Three months after the meeting of Poussin and Porbus, the latter went
to see Master Frenhofer. The old man was then in the depths of one
of those periods of profound and sudden discouragement, the cause of
which, if we are to believe the mathematicians of medicine, consists
in bad digestion, the wind, the heat, or some disturbance in the
hypochondriac region; and, according to the spiritualists, in the
imperfection of our moral nature. The good man had simply tired himself
out in finishing his mysterious picture. He was languidly reclining
in an enormous chair of carved oak, upholstered in black leather; and
without changing his depressed attitude, he darted at Porbus the glance
of a man who had determined to make the best of his ennui.

"Well, master," said Porbus, "was the ultramarine, that you went to
Bruges for, very bad? Haven't you been able to grind our new white? Is
your oil poor, or are your brushes unmanageable?"

"Alas!" cried the old man, "I thought for a moment that my work was
finished; but I certainly have gone astray in some details, and
my mind will not be at rest until I have solved my doubts. I have
almost decided to travel, to go to Turkey, to Greece, and to Asia, in
search of a model, and to compare my picture with nature in different
climes. It may be that I have up-stairs," he continued with a smile
of satisfaction, "Nature herself. Sometimes I am almost afraid that a
breath will awaken that woman and that she will disappear."

Then he rose abruptly, as if to go.

"Ah!" replied Porbus; "I have come just in time to save you the expense
and the fatigue of the journey."

"How so?" asked Frenhofer in amazement.

"Young Poussin is loved by a woman whose incomparable beauty is
absolutely without a flaw. But, my dear master, if he consents to lend
her to you, you must at least let us see your picture."

The old man stood, perfectly motionless, in a state of utter
stupefaction.

"What!" he cried at last, in a heartrending voice, "show my creation,
my spouse? Tear away the veil with which I have modestly covered my
happiness? Why, that would be the most shocking prostitution! For ten
years I have lived with that woman; she is mine, mine alone, she loves
me. Does she not smile at every stroke of the brush which I give her?
She has a soul, the soul with which I have endowed her. She would blush
if other eyes than mine should rest upon her. Show her! Where is the
husband, the lover, base enough to lend his wife to dishonour? When
you paint a picture for the court, you do not put your whole soul into
it, you sell to the courtiers nothing more than coloured mannikins. My
painting is not a painting; it is a sentiment, a passion! Born in my
studio, it must remain there unsullied, and can not come forth until
it is clothed. Poesy and women never abandon themselves naked to any
but their lovers! Do we possess Raphael's model, Ariosto's Angelica,
or Dante's Beatrice? No! We see only their shapes. Very well; the
work which I have up-stairs under lock and key is an exception in our
art. It is not a canvas, it is a woman; a woman with whom I weep, and
laugh, and talk, and think. Do you expect me suddenly to lay aside a
joy that has lasted ten years, as one lays aside a cloak? Do you expect
me suddenly to cease to be father, lover, and God? That woman is not
a creature, she is a creation. Let your young man come--I will give
him my wealth; I will give him pictures by Correggio, Michelangelo,
or Titian; I will kiss his footprints in the dust; but make him my
rival? Shame! Ah! I am even more lover than painter. Yes, I shall
have the strength to burn my _Belle Noiseuse_ when I breathe my last;
but to force her to endure the glance of a man, of a young man, of a
painter? No, no! I would kill to-morrow the man who should sully her
with a look! I would kill you on the instant, my friend, if you did not
salute her on your knees! Do you expect me now to subject my idol to
the insensible glances and absurd criticisms of fools? Ah! love is a
mystery, it lives only in the deepest recesses of the heart, and all is
lost when a man says, even to his friend: 'This is she whom I love!'"

The old man seemed to have become young again; his eyes gleamed with
life; his pale cheeks flushed a bright red, and his hands shook.
Porbus, surprised by the passionate force with which the words were
spoken, did not know what reply to make to an emotion no less novel
than profound. Was Frenhofer sane or mad? Was he under the spell of
an artistic caprice, or did the ideas which he had expressed proceed
from that strange fanaticism produced in us by the long gestation of a
great work? Could one hope ever to come to an understanding with that
extraordinary passion?

Engrossed by all these thoughts, Porbus said to the old man:

"But is it not woman for woman? Will not Poussin abandon his mistress
to your eyes?"

"What mistress?" rejoined Frenhofer. "She will betray him sooner or
later. Mine will always be faithful to me!"

"Very well!" said Porbus, "let us say no more about it. But, perhaps,
before you find, even in Asia, a woman so lovely, so perfect as is she
of whom I speak, you will die without finishing your picture."

"Ah! it is finished," said Frenhofer. "Whoever should see it would
think that he was looking at a woman lying upon a velvet couch, behind
a curtain. Beside her is a golden tripod containing perfumes. You would
be tempted to seize the tassel of the cords which hold the curtain,
and you would fancy that you saw the bosom of Catherine Lescault, a
beautiful courtesan called _La Belle Noiseuse_, rise and fall with the
movement of her breath. However, I should like to be certain----"

"Oh! go to Asia," Porbus replied, as he detected a sort of hesitation
in Frenhofer's expression.

And Porbus walked towards the door of the room.

At that moment Gillette and Nicolas Poussin arrived at Frenhofer's
house. When the girl was about to enter, she stepped back, as if she
were oppressed by some sudden presentiment.

"Why have I come here, pray?" she asked her lover in a deep voice,
gazing at him steadfastly.

"Gillette, I left you entirely at liberty, and I mean to obey you in
everything. You are my conscience and my renown. Go back to the house;
I shall be happier perhaps than if you----"

"Do I belong to myself when you speak to me thus? Oh no! I am nothing
more than a child. Come," she added, apparently making a mighty effort;
"if our love dies, and if I plant in my heart a never-ending regret,
will not your fame be the reward of my compliance with your wishes? Let
us go in; it will be like living again to be always present as a memory
on your palette."

As they opened the door of the house, the two lovers met Porbus, who,
startled by the beauty of Gillette, whose eyes were then filled with
tears, seized her, trembling from head to foot as she was, and said,
leading her into the old man's presence:

"Look! is she not above all the masterpieces on earth?"

Frenhofer started. Gillette stood there in the ingenuous and unaffected
attitude of a young Georgian girl, innocent and timid, abducted by
brigands and offered for sale to a slave-merchant. A modest flush
tinged her cheeks, she lowered her eyes, her hands were hanging at her
side, her strength seemed to abandon her, and tears protested against
the violence done to her modesty. At that moment Poussin, distressed
beyond words because he had taken that lovely pearl from his garret,
cursed himself. He became more lover than artist, and innumerable
scruples tortured his heart when he saw the old man's kindling eye,
as, in accordance with the habit of painters, he mentally disrobed the
girl, so to speak, divining her most secret forms. Thereupon the young
man reverted to the savage jealousy of true love.

"Let us go, Gillette," he cried.

At that tone, at that outcry, his mistress looked up at him in
rapture, saw his face and ran into his arms.

"Ah! you do love me then?" she replied, melting into tears.

Although she had mustered energy to impose silence upon her suffering,
she lacked strength to conceal her joy.

"Oh! leave her with me for a moment," said the old painter, "and you
may compare her to my _Catherine_. Yes, I consent."

There was love in Frenhofer's cry, too. He seemed to be acting the part
of a coquette for his counterfeit woman, and to enjoy in advance the
triumph which the beauty of his creation would certainly win over that
of a girl of flesh and blood.

"Do not let him retract!" cried Porbus, bringing his hand down on
Poussin's shoulder. "The fruits of love soon pass away, those of art
are immortal."

"In his eyes," retorted Gillette, looking earnestly at Poussin and
Porbus, "in his eyes am I nothing more than a woman?"

She tossed her head proudly; but when, after a flashing glance at
Frenhofer, she saw her lover gazing at the portrait which he had
formerly mistaken for a Giorgione, she said:

"Ah! let us go up! He never looked at me like that."

"Old man," said Poussin, roused from his meditation by Gillette's
voice, "look at this sword: I will bury it in your heart at the first
word of complaint that this girl utters; I will set fire to your house
and no one shall leave it! Do you understand?"

Nicolas Poussin's face was dark, and his voice was terrible. The young
painter's attitude, and above all his gesture, comforted Gillette, who
almost forgave him for sacrificing her to painting and to his glorious
future. Porbus and Poussin remained at the door of the studio, looking
at each other in silence. Although, at first, the painter of _Mary the
Egyptian_ indulged in an exclamation or two: "Ah! she is undressing; he
is telling her to stand in the light; now he is comparing her with the
other!" he soon held his peace at the aspect of Poussin, whose face was
profoundly wretched; and although the old painters had none of those
scruples which seem so trivial in the presence of art, he admired them,
they were so attractive and so innocent. The young man had his hand on
the hilt of his dagger and his ear almost glued to the door. The two
men, standing thus in the darkness, resembled two conspirators awaiting
the moment to strike down a tyrant.

"Come in, come in," cried the old man, radiant with joy. "My work is
perfect, and now I can show it with pride. Never will painter, brushes,
colours, canvas, and light produce a rival to Catherine Lescault, the
beautiful courtesan!"

Impelled by the most intense curiosity, Porbus and Poussin hurried to
the centre of an enormous studio covered with dust, where everything
was in disorder, and where they saw pictures hanging on the walls here
and there. They paused at first in front of a life-size figure of a
woman, half nude, which aroused their admiration.

"Oh, don't pay any attention to that," said Frenhofer; "that is a
sketch that I dashed off to study a pose; it is worth nothing as a
picture. There are some of my mistakes," he continued, pointing to a
number of fascinating compositions hanging on the walls about them.

At those words, Porbus and Poussin, thunderstruck by his contempt
for such works, looked about for the famous portrait, but could not
discover it.

"Well, there it is!" said the old man, whose hair was dishevelled,
whose face was inflamed by superhuman excitement, whose eyes sparkled,
and who panted like a young man drunk with love. "Aha!" he cried, "you
did not expect such absolute perfection! You are before a woman, and
you are looking for a picture. There is so much depth on this canvas,
the air is so real, that you cannot distinguish it from the air that
surrounds us. Where is art? Lost, vanished! Behold the actual form
of a young girl. Have I not obtained to perfection the colour, the
sharpness of the line which seems to bound the body? Is it not the same
phenomenon presented by objects in the atmosphere, as well as by fishes
in the water? Observe how the outlines stand out from the background!
Does it not seem to you that you could pass your hand over that back?
Why, for seven years I studied the effects of the conjunction of light
and of objects. And that hair, does not the light fairly inundate it?
Why, she actually breathed, I believe!--Look at that bosom! Ah! who
would not adore her on his knees? The flesh quivers. She is going to
rise--wait!"

"Can you see anything?" Poussin asked Porbus.

"No. And you?"

"Nothing."

The two painters left the old man to his dreams, and looked to see
whether the light, falling straight upon the canvas to which he was
pointing, did not efface all the lines. They examined the picture from
the right, from the left, and in front, alternately stooping and rising.

"Yes, yes, it's really canvas," said Frenhofer, mistaking the purpose
of that careful scrutiny. "See, here is the frame and the easel, and
here are my colours and my brushes."

And he seized a brush and handed it to them with an artless gesture.

"The old villain is making sport of us," said Poussin, returning to
his position in front of the alleged picture. "I can see nothing but a
confused mass of colours, surrounded by a multitude of curious lines
which form a wall of painting."

"We were mistaken; look!" replied Porbus.

On going nearer, they saw in the corner of the canvas the end of a
bare foot emerging from that chaos of vague colours and shades, that
sort of shapeless mist; but a most lovely, a living foot! They stood
speechless with admiration before that fragment, which had escaped a
slow, relentless, incomprehensible destruction. That foot was like a
bust of Venus in Parian marble, rising amid the ruins of a burned city.

"There is a woman underneath!" cried Porbus, calling Poussin's
attention to the coats of paint which the old painter had laid on one
after another, thinking that he was perfecting his work.

The two artists turned impulsively towards Frenhofer, beginning to
understand, although but vaguely, the state of ecstasy in which he
lived.

"He acts in perfect good faith," said Porbus.

"Yes, my friend," said the old man, rousing himself, "one must have
faith, faith in art, and must live a long while with his work, to
produce such a creation. Some of those shadows have cost me many hours
of toil. See, on the cheek, just below the eye, there is a faint
penumbra, which, if you notice it in nature, will seem to you almost
beyond reproduction. Well, do you think that that effect did not cost
me unheard-of trouble? But look closely at my work, my dear Porbus,
and you will understand better what I said to you as to the method of
treating modelling and outlines. Look at the light on the breast, and
see how, by a succession of strongly emphasised touches and retouches,
I have succeeded in reproducing the real light, and in combining it
with the polished whiteness of the light tones; and how by the opposite
means, by effacing the lumps and the roughness of the colours, I have
been able, by softly retouching the outline of my figure, drowned
in the half-tint, to take away even a suggestion of drawing and of
artificial means, and to give it the aspect and the roundness of nature
itself. Go nearer, and you will see the work better. At a distance it
is imperceptible. Look, just here it is very remarkable, I think."

And with the end of his brush he pointed out to the two painters a
layer of light paint.

Porbus laid his hand on the old man's shoulder and said, turning to
Poussin:

"Do you know that we have before us a very great painter?"

"He is even more poet than painter," replied Poussin, gravely.

"Here," rejoined Porbus, pointing to the canvas, "here ends our art on
earth."

"And from here it soars upwards and disappears in the skies," said
Poussin.

"How much pleasure is concentrated on this piece of canvas!" cried
Porbus.

The old man, completely distraught, did not listen to them; he was
smiling at that ideal woman.

"But sooner or later he will discover that there is nothing on his
canvas!" exclaimed Poussin.

"Nothing on my canvas!" cried Frenhofer, gazing at the two painters and
at his alleged picture in turn.

"What have you done?" whispered Porbus to Poussin.

The old man grasped the young man's arm violently, and said to him:

"You see nothing, you clown! you boor! you idiot! you villain! Then why
did you come up here?--My dear Porbus," he continued, turning towards
the painter; "is it possible that you too would mock at me? I am your
friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?"

Porbus hesitated, not daring to say anything; but the anxiety depicted
on the old man's pale face was so heartrending that he pointed to the
canvas, saying:

"Look!"

Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment, and staggered.

"Nothing! nothing! and after working ten years!"

He sat down and wept.

"So I am an idiot, a madman! I have neither talent nor capacity! I am
nothing more than a rich man, who, when I walk, do nothing but walk!
So I have produced nothing!"

He gazed at his canvas through his tears; suddenly he rose with a
gesture of pride and cast a flashing glance at the two painters.

"By the blood, by the body, by the head of the Christ! you are jealous
hounds who wish to make me believe that it is spoiled, in order to
steal it from me! But I can see her!" he cried, "and she is wonderfully
lovely!"

At that moment, Poussin heard Gillette crying in a corner where she was
cowering, entirely forgotten.

"What is the matter, my angel?" asked the painter, suddenly become the
lover once more.

"Kill me!" she said. "I should be a shameless creature to love you
still, for I despise you. I admire you and I have a horror of you! I
love you, and I believe that I hate you already."

While Poussin listened to Gillette. Frenhofer covered his _Catherine_
with a green curtain, with the calm gravity of a jeweller closing his
drawers when he thinks that he is in the company of clever thieves. He
bestowed upon the two painters a profoundly cunning glance, full of
contempt and suspicion, and silently ushered them out of his studio,
with convulsive haste; then standing in his doorway, he said to them:

"Adieu, my little friends."

That "adieu" horrified the two painters. The next day Porbus, in his
anxiety, went again to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in
the night, after burning all his pictures.


1831.



A Seashore Drama


                                  To
               MADAME LA PRINCESSE CAROLINE GALITZIN DE
                    GENTHOD, NÉE COMTESSE WALEWSKA:
             _The author's homage and remembrances._


Young men almost always have a pair of compasses with which they
delight to measure the future; when their will is in accord with the
size of the angle which they make, the world is theirs. But this
phenomenon of moral life takes place only at a certain age. That age,
which in the case of all men comes between the years of twenty-two
and twenty-eight, is the age of noble thoughts, the age of first
conceptions, because it is the age of unbounded desires, the age at
which one doubts nothing; he who talks of doubt speaks of impotence.
After that age, which passes as quickly as the season for sowing, comes
the age of execution. There are in a certain sense two youths: one
during which one thinks, the other during which one acts; often they
are blended, in men whom nature has favoured, and who, like Caesar,
Newton, and Bonaparte, are the greatest among great men.

I was reckoning how much time a thought needs to develop itself;
and, compasses in hand, standing on a cliff a hundred fathoms above
the ocean, whose waves played among the reefs, I laid out my future,
furnishing it with works, as an engineer draws fortresses and palaces
upon vacant land. The sea was lovely; I had just dressed after bathing;
I was waiting for Pauline, my guardian angel, who was bathing in a
granite bowl full of white sand, the daintiest bath-tub that Nature
ever designed for any of her sea-fairies. We were at the extreme point
of Le Croisic, a tiny peninsula of Brittany; we were far from the
harbour, in a spot which the authorities considered so inaccessible
that the customs-officers almost never visited it. To swim in the air
after swimming in the sea! Ah! who would not have swum into the future?
Why did I think? Why does evil happen? Who knows? Ideas come to your
heart, or your brain, without consulting you. No courtesan was ever
more whimsical or more imperious than is conception in an artist; it
must be caught, like fortune, by the hair, when it comes. Clinging to
my thought, as Astolphe clung to his hippogriff, I galloped through the
world, arranging everything therein to suit my pleasure.

When I looked about me in search of some omen favourable to the
audacious schemes which my wild imagination advised me to undertake,
a sweet cry, the cry of a woman calling in the silence of the desert,
the cry of a woman coming from the bath, refreshed and joyous, drowned
the murmur of the fringe of foam tossed constantly back and forth by
the rising and falling of the waves in the indentations of the shore.
When I heard that note, uttered by the soul, I fancied that I had seen
on the cliff the foot of an angel, who, as she unfolded her wings,
had called to me: "Thou shalt have success!" I descended, radiant
with joy and light as air; I went bounding down, like a stone down a
steep slope. When she saw me, she said to me: "What is the matter?"
I did not answer, but my eyes became moist. The day before, Pauline
had understood my pain, as she understood at that moment my joy, with
the magical sensitiveness of a harp which follows the variations of
the atmosphere. The life of man has some glorious moments! We walked
silently along the shore. The sky was cloudless, the sea without a
ripple; others would have seen only two blue plains, one above the
other; but we who understood each other without need of speech, we
who could discover between those two swaddling-cloths of infinity the
illusions with which youth is nourished, we pressed each other's hand
at the slightest change which took place either in the sheet of water
or in the expanse of air; for we took those trivial phenomena for
material interpretations of our twofold thought.

Who has not enjoyed that unbounded bliss in pleasure, when the soul
seems to be released from the bonds of the flesh, and to be restored
as it were to the world whence it came? Pleasure is not our only guide
in those regions. Are there not times when the sentiments embrace
each other as of their own motion, and fly thither, like two children
who take each other's hands and begin to run without knowing why or
whither? We walked along thus.

At the moment that the roofs of the town appeared on the horizon,
forming a grayish line, we met a poor fisherman who was returning to
Le Croisic. His feet were bare, his canvas trousers were ragged on
the edges, with many holes imperfectly mended; he wore a shirt of
sail-cloth, wretched list suspenders, and his jacket was a mere rag.
The sight of that misery distressed us--a discord, as it were, in the
midst of our harmony. We looked at each other, to lament that we had
not at that moment the power to draw upon the treasury of Aboul-Cacem.
We saw a magnificent lobster and a crab hanging by a cord which the
fisherman carried in his right hand, while in the other he had his
nets and his fishing apparatus. We accosted him, with the purpose
of buying his fish, an idea which occurred to both of us, and which
expressed itself in a smile, to which I replied by slightly pressing
the arm which I held and drawing it closer to my heart. It was one
of those nothings which the memory afterward transforms into a poem,
when, sitting by the fire, we recall the time when that nothing moved
us, the place where it happened, and that mirage, the effects of which
have never been defined, but which often exerts an influence upon the
objects which surround us, when life is pleasant and our hearts are
full.

The loveliest places are simply what we make them. Who is the man,
however little of a poet he may be, who has not in his memory a bowlder
that occupies more space than the most famous landscape visited at
great expense? Beside that bowlder what tempestuous thoughts! there,
a whole life mapped out; here, fears banished; there, rays of hope
entered the heart. At that moment, the sun, sympathising with these
thoughts of love and of the future, cast upon the yellowish sides of
that cliff an ardent beam; some mountain wild-flowers attracted the
attention; the tranquillity and silence magnified that uneven surface,
in reality dark of hue, but made brilliant by the dreamer; then it was
beautiful, with its meagre vegetation, its warm-hued camomile, its
Venus's hair, with the velvety leaves. A prolonged festivity, superb
decorations, placid exaltation of human strength! Once before, the Lake
of Bienne, seen from Île St.-Pierre, had spoken to me thus; perhaps the
cliff of Le Croisic would be the last of those delights. But, in that
case, what would become of Pauline?

"You have had fine luck this morning, my good man," I said to the
fisherman.

"Yes, monsieur," he replied, stopping to turn towards us the tanned
face of those who remain for hours at a time exposed to the reflection
of the sun on the water.

That face indicated endless resignation; the patience of the fisherman,
and his gentle manners. That man had a voice without trace of
harshness, kindly lips, no ambition; an indefinably frail and sickly
appearance. Any other type of face would have displeased us.

"Where are you going to sell your fish?"

"At the town."

"How much will you get for the lobster?"

"Fifteen sous."

"And for the crab?"

"Twenty sous."

"Why so much difference between the lobster and the crab?"

"The crab is much more delicate, monsieur; and then it's as cunning as
a monkey, and don't often allow itself to be caught."

"Will you let us have both for a hundred sous?" said Pauline.

The man was thunderstruck.

"You sha'n't have them!" I said laughingly; "I will give ten francs. We
must pay for emotions all that they are worth."

"Very well," she replied, "I propose to have them; I will give ten
francs two sous."

"Ten sous."

"Twelve francs."

"Fifteen francs."

"Fifteen francs fifty," she said.

"One hundred francs."

"One hundred and fifty."

I bowed. At that moment we were not rich enough to carry the bidding
any farther. The poor fisherman did not know whether he ought to be
angry as at a practical joke, or to exult; we relieved him from his
dilemma by giving him the name of our landlady and telling him to take
the lobster and the crab to her house.

"Do you earn a living?" I asked him, in order to ascertain to what
cause his destitution should be attributed.

"With much difficulty and many hardships," he replied. "Fishing on the
seashore, when you have neither boat nor nets, and can fish only with
a line, is a risky trade. You see you have to wait for the fish or
the shell-fish to come, while the fishermen with boats can go out to
sea after them. It is so hard to earn a living this way, that I am the
only man who fishes on the shore. I pass whole days without catching
anything. The only way I get anything is when a crab forgets himself
and goes to sleep, as this one did, or a lobster is fool enough to stay
on the rocks. Sometimes, after a high sea, the wolf-fish come in, and
then I grab them."

"Well, take one day with another, what do you earn?"

"Eleven or twelve sous. I could get along with that if I were alone;
but I have my father to support, and the poor man can't help me, for
he's blind."

At that sentence, uttered with perfect simplicity, Pauline and I looked
at each other without a word.

"You have a wife or a sweetheart?"

He cast at us one of the most pitiful glances that I ever saw, as he
replied:

"If I had a wife, then I should have to let my father go; I couldn't
support him, and a wife and children too."

"Well, my poor fellow, how is it that you don't try to earn more by
carrying salt to the harbour, or by working in the salt marshes?"

"Oh? I couldn't do that for three months, monsieur. I am not strong
enough; and if I should die, my father would have to beg. What I must
have is a trade that requires very little skill and a great deal of
patience."

"But how can two people live on twelve sous a day?"

"Oh, monsieur, we eat buckwheat cakes, and barnacles that I take off
the rocks."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-seven."

"Have you ever been away from here?"

"I went to Guérande once, to draw my lot in the draft, and I went to
Savenay, to show myself to some gentlemen who measured me. If I had
been an inch taller I should have been drafted. I should have died on
the first long march, and my poor father would have been asking alms
to-day."

I had thought out many dramas; Pauline was accustomed to intense
emotions, living with a man in my condition of health; but neither
of us had ever listened to more touching words than those of that
fisherman. We walked some distance in silence, both of us measuring
the silent depths of that unknown life, admiring the nobility of that
self-sacrifice which was unconscious of itself; the strength of his
weakness surprised us; that unconscious generosity made us small in our
own eyes. I saw that poor creature, all instinct, chained to that rock
as a galley-slave is chained to his ball, watching for twenty years
for shell-fish to support himself, and sustained in his patience by a
single sentiment. How many hours passed on the edge of that beach! how
many hopes crushed by a squall, by a change of weather! He hung over
the edge of a granite shelf, his arms stretched out like those of an
Indian fakir, while his father, sitting on a stool, waited in silence
and darkness for him to bring him the coarsest of shell-fish and of
bread, if the sea were willing.

"Do you ever drink wine?" I asked him.

"Three or four times a year."

"Well, you shall drink some to-day, you and your father, and we will
send you a white loaf."

"You are very kind, monsieur."

"We will give you your dinner, if you will guide us along the shore as
far as Batz, where we are going, to see the tower which overlooks the
basin and the coast between Batz and Le Croisic."

"With pleasure," he said. "Go straight ahead, follow the road you are
now on; I will overtake you after I have got rid of my fish and my
tackle."

We nodded simultaneously, and he hurried off towards the town, light at
heart. That meeting held us in the same mental situation in which we
were previously, but it had lowered our spirits.

"Poor man!" said Pauline, with that accent which takes away from a
woman's compassion whatever there may be offensive in pity; "does it
not make one feel ashamed to be happy when one sees such misery?"

"Nothing is more cruel than to have impotent desires," I replied.
"Those two poor creatures, father and son, will no more know how keen
our sympathy is than the world knows how noble their lives are; for
they are laying up treasures in heaven."

"What a wretched country!" she said, as she pointed out to me, along
a field surrounded by a loose stone wall, lumps of cow-dung arranged
symmetrically. "I asked some one what those were. A peasant woman, who
was putting them in place, answered that she was _making wood_. Just
fancy, my dear, that when these blocks of dung are dried, these poor
people gather them, pile them up, and warm themselves with them. During
the winter they are sold, like lumps of peat. And what do you suppose
the best paid dressmaker earns? Five sous a day," she said, after a
pause; "but she gets her board."

"See," I said to her, "the winds from the ocean wither or uproot
everything; there are no trees; the wrecks of vessels that are beyond
use are sold to the rich, for the cost of transportation prevents
them from using the firewood in which Brittany abounds. This province
is beautiful only to great souls; people without courage could not
live here; it is no place for anybody except poets or barnacles. The
storehouse for salt had to be built on the cliff, to induce anybody
to live in it. On one side, the sea; on the other, the sands; above,
space."

We had already passed the town and were within the species of desert
which separates Le Croisic from the village of Batz. Imagine, my dear
uncle, a plain two leagues in length, covered by the gleaming sand that
we see on the seashore. Here and there a few rocks raised their heads,
and you would have said that they were gigantic beasts lying among the
dunes. Along the shore there is an occasional reef, about which the
waves play, giving them the aspect of great white roses floating on the
liquid expanse and coming to rest on the shore. When I saw that plain
bounded by the ocean on the right, and on the left by the great lake
that flows in between Le Croisic and the sandy heights of Guérande, at
the foot of which there are salt marshes absolutely without vegetation,
I glanced at Pauline and asked her if she had the courage to defy the
heat of the sun, and the strength to walk through the sand.

"I have on high boots; let us go thither," she said, pointing to the
tower of Batz, which circumscribed the view by its enormous mass,
placed there like a pyramid, but a slender, indented pyramid, so
poetically adorned that it allowed the imagination to see in it the
first ruins of a great Asiatic city. We walked a few yards and sat down
under a rock which was still in the shadow; but it was eleven o'clock
in the morning, and that shadow, which ceased at our feet, rapidly
disappeared.

"How beautiful the silence is," she said to me; "and how its intensity
is increased by the regular plashing of the sea on the beach!"

"If you choose to abandon your understanding to the three immensities
that surround us, the air, the water, and the sand, listening solely to
the repeated sound of the flow and the outflow," I replied, "you will
not be able to endure its language; you will fancy that you discover
therein a thought which will overwhelm you. Yesterday, at sunset, I had
that sensation; it prostrated me."

"Oh, yes, let us talk," she said, after a long pause. "No orator can
be more terrible than this silence. I fancy that I have discovered
the causes of the harmony which surrounds us," she continued. "This
landscape, which has only three sharp colours, the brilliant yellow
of the sand, the blue of the sky, and the smooth green of the sea, is
grand without being wild, it is immense without being a desert, it is
changeless without being monotonous; it has only three elements, but it
is diversified."

"Women alone can express their impressions thus," I replied; "you would
drive a poet to despair, dear heart, whom I divined so perfectly."

"The excessive noonday heat imparts a gorgeous colour to those three
expressions of infinity," replied Pauline, laughing. "I can imagine
here the poesy and the passion of the Orient."

"And I can imagine its despair."

"Yes," she said; "that dune is a sublime cloister."

We heard the hurried step of our guide; he had dressed himself in
his best clothes. We said a few formal words to him; he evidently
saw that our frame of mind had changed, and, with the reserve that
misfortune imparts, he kept silent. Although we pressed each other's
hands from time to time, to advise each other of the unity of our
impressions, we walked for half an hour in silence, whether because we
were overwhelmed by the heat, which rose in shimmering waves from the
sand, or because the difficulty of walking absorbed our attention. We
walked on, hand in hand, like two children; we should not have taken
a dozen steps if we had been arm in arm. The road leading to Batz was
not marked out; a gust of wind was enough to efface the footprints of
horses or the wheel-ruts; but our guide's practised eye recognised the
road by the droppings of cattle or of horses. Sometimes it went down
towards the sea, sometimes rose towards the upland, at the caprice of
the slopes, or to skirt a rock. At noon, we were only half-way.

"We will rest there," said I, pointing to a promontory formed of rocks
high enough to lead one to suppose that we should find a grotto there.

When I spoke, the fisherman, who had followed the direction of my
finger, shook his head and said:

"There's some one there! People who go from Batz to Le Croisic, or from
Le Croisic to Batz, always make a detour in order not to pass that
rock."

The man said this in a low voice, and we divined a mystery.

"Is he a thief, an assassin?"

Our guide replied only by a long-drawn breath which increased our
curiosity.

"But will anything happen to us if we pass by there?"

"Oh no!"

"Will you go with us?"

"No, monsieur."

"We will go then, if you assure us that we shall be in no danger."

"I don't say that," replied the fisherman hastily; "I say simply that
the man who is there won't say anything to you, or do any harm to you.
Oh, bless my soul! he won't so much as move from his place!"

"Who is he, pray?"

"A man!"

Never were two syllables uttered in such a tragic tone. At that moment
we were twenty yards from that reef, about which the sea was playing;
our guide took the road which skirted the rocks; we went straight
ahead, but Pauline took my arm. Our guide quickened his pace in order
to reach the spot where the two roads met again at the same time that
we did. He evidently supposed that, after seeing the man, we would
quicken our pace. That circumstance kindled our curiosity, which then
became so intense that our hearts throbbed as if they had felt a thrill
of fear. Despite the heat of the day and the fatigue caused by walking
through the sand, our hearts were still abandoned to the indescribable
languor of a blissful harmony of sensations; they were filled with
that pure pleasure which can only be described by comparing it to
the pleasure which one feels in listening to some lovely music, like
Mozart's _Andiano mio ben_. Do not two pure sentiments, which blend,
resemble two beautiful voices singing? In order fully to appreciate
the emotion which seized us, you must share the semivoluptuous
condition in which the events of that morning had enveloped us. Gaze
for a long while at a turtle-dove perched on a slender twig, near a
spring, and you will utter a cry of pain when you see a hawk pounce
upon it, bury its steel claws in its heart, and bear it away with the
murderous rapidity that powder communicates to the bullet.

When we had walked a yard or two across the open space that lay in
front of the grotto, a sort of platform a hundred feet above the ocean,
and sheltered from its rage by a succession of steep rocks, we were
conscious of an electric shock not unlike that caused by a sudden noise
in the midst of the night. We had spied a man seated on a bowlder of
granite, and he had looked at us. His glance, like the flash of a
cannon, came from two bloodshot eyes, and his stoical immobility could
be compared only to the unchanging posture of the masses of granite
which surrounded him. His eyes moved slowly; his body, as if it were
petrified, did not move at all. After flashing at us that glance which
gave us such a rude shock, he turned his eyes to the vast expanse of
the ocean, and gazed at it, despite the dazzling light which rose
therefrom, as the eagles are said to gaze at the sun, without lowering
the lids, which he did not raise again. Try to recall, my dear uncle,
one of those old druidical oaks, whose gnarled trunk, newly stripped
of its branches, rises fantastically above a deserted road, and you
will have an accurate image of that man. He had one of those shattered
herculean frames, and the face of Olympian Jove, but ravaged by age,
by the hard toil of the seafaring man, by grief, by coarse food, and
blackened as if struck by lightning. As I glanced at his calloused,
hairy hands, I saw chords which resembled veins of iron. However,
everything about him indicated a robust constitution. I noticed a large
quantity of moss in a corner of the grotto, and upon a rough table,
hewn out by chance in the midst of the granite, a broken loaf covering
an earthen jug. Never had my imagination, when it carried me back to
the deserts where the first hermits of Christianity lived, conceived a
face more grandly religious, or more appallingly penitent than was the
face of that man.

Even you, who have listened to confessions, my dear uncle, have perhaps
never met with such sublime remorse; but that remorse was drowned in
the waves of prayer, the incessant prayer of silent despair. That
fisherman, that sailor, that rude Breton, was sublime by virtue of
some unknown sentiment. But had those eyes wept? Had that statuelike
hand struck its fellow man? Was that stern forehead, instinct with
pitiless uprightness, on which, however, strength had left those marks
of gentleness which are the accompaniment of all true strength--was
that forehead, furrowed by wrinkles, in harmony with a noble heart?
Why was that man among the granite? Why the granite in that man? Where
was the man? Where was the granite? A whole world of thoughts rushed
through our minds. As our guide had anticipated, we had passed in
silence, rapidly; and when he met us, we were tremulous with terror, or
overwhelmed with amazement. But he did not use the fulfillment of his
prediction as a weapon against us.

"Did you see him?" he asked.

"Who is that man?" said I.

"They call him _The Man of the Vow_."

You can imagine how quickly our two faces turned towards our fisherman
at those words! He was a simple-minded man; he understood our silent
question; and this is what he said, in his own language, the popular
tone of which I shall try to retain:

"Madame, the people of Le Croisic, like the people of Batz, believe
that that man is guilty of something, and that he is doing a penance
ordered by a famous priest to whom he went to confess, a long way
beyond Nantes. Other people think that Cambremer--that's his name--has
an evil spell that he communicates to everybody who passes through
the air he breathes. So a good many people, before they pass that
rock, look to see what way the wind is. If it's from _galerne_," he
said, pointing towards the west, "they wouldn't go on, even if it
was a matter of searching for a piece of the true Cross; they turn
back, because they're frightened. Other people, the rich people of Le
Croisic, say that he's made a vow, and that's why he's called _The Man
of the Vow_. He is always there, night and day; never comes out.

"These reports about him have some appearance of sense. You see," he
added, turning to point out a thing which we had not noticed, "he
has stuck up there, on the left, a wooden cross, to show that he has
put himself under the protection of God, the Blessed Virgin, and the
saints. Even if he hadn't consecrated himself like that, the fear
everybody has of him would make him as safe there as if he were guarded
by soldiers. He hasn't said a word since he shut himself up there in
the open air; he lives on bread and water that his brother's daughter
brings him every morning--a little maid of twelve years, that he's left
his property to; and she's a pretty thing, as gentle as a lamb, a nice
little girl and very clever. She has blue eyes as long as that," he
said, holding up his thumb, "and a cherub's head of hair. When any one
says to her: 'I say, Pérotte' (that means Pierrette among us," he said,
interrupting himself: "she is consecrated to St. Pierre; Cambremer's
name is Pierre, and he was her godfather), 'I say, Pérotte, what does
your uncle say to you?' 'He don't say anything,' she'll answer, 'not
anything at all, nothing!' 'Well, then, what does he do to you?' 'He
kisses me on the forehead Sundays!' 'Aren't you afraid of him?' 'Why
no, he's my godfather.' He won't let any one else bring him anything
to eat. Pérotte says that he smiles when she comes; but that's like a
sunbeam in a fog, for they say he's as gloomy as a fog."

"But," I said, "you arouse our curiosity without gratifying it. Do you
know what brought him here? Was it grief, was it repentance, was it
insanity, was it a crime, was it----?"

"Oh! only my father and I know the truth of the thing, monsieur. My
dead mother worked for a judge to whom Cambremer told the whole story,
by the priest's order; for he wouldn't give him absolution on any other
condition, according to what the people at the harbour said. My poor
mother overheard what Cambremer said, without meaning to, because the
judge's kitchen was right next to his study, and she listened. She's
dead, and the judge who heard him is dead. My mother made father and me
promise never to tell anything to the people about here; but I can tell
you that the night my mother told it to us, the hair on my head turned
gray."

"Well, tell us, my fine fellow; we will not mention it to anybody."

The fisherman looked at us, and continued thus:

"Pierre Cambremer, whom you saw yonder, is the oldest of the
Cambremers, who have always been sailors, from father to son; that's
what their name says--the sea has always bent under them. The man you
saw was a boat fisherman. So he had boats and went sardine-fishing;
he went deep-sea fishing, too, for the dealers. He'd have fitted out
a vessel and gone after cod, if he hadn't been so fond of his wife; a
fine woman she was, a Brouin from Guérande; a magnificent girl, and she
had a big heart. She was so fond of Cambremer that she'd never let her
man leave her any longer than he had to, to go after sardines. They
used to live over there--look!" said the fisherman, ascending a hillock
to point to an islet in the little inland sea between the dunes, across
which we were walking, and the salt marshes of Guérande. "Do you see
that house? That was his.

"Jacquette Brouin and Cambremer never had but one child, a boy; and
they loved him like--like what shall I say?--indeed, like people love
their only child; they were mad over him. If their little Jacques had
put dirt in the saucepan, saving your presence, they'd have thought
it was sugar. How many times we've seen 'em at the fair, buying the
prettiest fallals for him! It was all nonsense--everybody told 'em so.
Little Cambremer, seeing that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted
to, became as big a rogue as a red ass. When any one went to the elder
Cambremer and told him: 'Your boy nearly killed little So-and-so,'
he'd laugh and say: 'Bah! he'll make a fine sailor! he'll command the
king's fleet.' And when somebody else said: 'Pierre Cambremer, do you
know that your boy put out the little Pougaud girl's eye?' Pierre said:
'He'll be fond of the girls!' He thought everything was all right. So
my little scamp, when he was ten years old, used to be at everybody and
amuse himself cutting off hens' heads, cutting pigs open; in short,
he rolled in blood like a polecat. 'He'll make a famous soldier!'
Cambremer would say; 'he s got a taste for blood.' I remembered all
that, you see," said the fisherman.

"And so did Cambremer too," he continued after a pause. "When he got
to be fifteen or sixteen years old, Jacques Cambremer was--what shall
I say?--a shark. He used to go to Guérande to enjoy himself, or to
Savenay to make love to the girls. Then he began to steal from his
mother, who didn't dare to say anything to her husband. Cambremer was
so honest that he'd travel twenty leagues to pay back two sous, if he
had been overpaid in settling an account. At last the day came when his
mother was stripped clean. While his father was away fishing, the boy
carried off the sideboard, the dishes, the sheets, the linen, and left
just the four walls; he'd sold everything to get money to go to Nantes
and raise the devil. The poor woman cried for whole days and nights.
She couldn't help telling the father about that, when he came home;
and she was afraid of the father--not for herself, oh no! When Pierre
Cambremer came home and found his house furnished with things people
had lent his wife, he said:

"'What does all this mean?'

"The poor woman was nearer dead than alive.

"'We've been robbed,' said she.

"'Where's Jacques?'

"'Jacques is on a spree.'

"No one knew where the villain had gone.

"'He goes on too many sprees!' said Pierre.

"Six months later, the poor man learned that his son was in danger of
falling into the hands of justice at Nantes. He went there on foot;
made the journey faster than he could have gone by sea, got hold of his
son, and brought him back here. He didn't ask him: 'What have you been
doing?' He just said to him:

"'If you don't behave yourself here with your mother and me for two
years, going fishing and acting like an honest man, you'll have an
account to settle with me!'

"The idiot, counting on his father's and mother's stupidity, made
a face at him. At that Pierre fetched him a crack that laid Master
Jacques up in bed for six months. The poor mother almost died of grief.
One night, when she was sleeping peacefully by her husband's side, she
heard a noise, got out of bed, and got a knife-cut on her arm. She
shrieked and some one brought a light. Pierre Cambremer found his wife
wounded; he thought that a robber did it--as if there was any such
thing in our province, where you can carry ten thousand francs in gold
from Le Croisic to St.-Nazaire, without fear, and without once being
asked what you've got under your arm! Pierre looked for Jacques, but
couldn't find him.

"In the morning, the little monster had the face to come home and
say that he'd been to Batz. I must tell you that his mother didn't
know where to hide her money. Cambremer always left his with Monsieur
Dupotet at Le Croisic. Their son's wild ways had eaten up crowns by
the hundred, francs by the hundred, and louis d'or; they were almost
ruined, and that was pretty hard for folks who used to have about
twelve thousand francs, including their island. No one knew what
Cambremer paid out at Nantes to clear his son. Bad luck raised the
deuce with the family. Cambremer's brother was in a bad way and needed
help. To encourage him, Pierre told him that Jacques and Pérotte (the
younger Cambremer's daughter) should marry. Then he employed him in
the fishing, so that he could earn his living; for Joseph Cambremer
was reduced to living by his work. His wife had died of a fever, and
he had had to pay for a wet-nurse for Pérotte. Pierre Cambremer's wife
owed a hundred francs to different people on the little girl's account,
for linen and clothes, and for two or three months' wages for that big
Frelu girl, who had a child by Simon Gaudry, and who nursed Pérotte.
Mère Cambremer had sewed a Spanish coin into the cover of her mattress,
and marked it: 'For Pérotte.' She had had a good education; she could
write like a clerk, and she'd taught her son to read; that was the
ruin of him. No one knew how it happened, but that scamp of a Jacques
scented the gold, stole it, and went off to Le Croisic on a spree.

"As luck would have it, Goodman Cambremer came in with his boat. As he
approached the beach, he saw a piece of paper floating; he picked it
up and took it in to his wife, who fell flat when she recognised her
own written words. Cambremer didn't say anything, but he went to Le
Croisic, and found out that his son was playing billiards; then he sent
for the good woman who keeps the cafe, and said:

"'I told Jacques not to spend a gold-piece that he'll pay you with;
I'll wait outside; you bring it to me, and I'll give you silver for
it.'

"The good woman brought him the money. Cambremer took it, said: 'All
right!' and went home. The whole town heard about that. But here's
something that I know, and that other people only suspect in a general
way. He told his wife to clean up their room, which was on the ground
floor; he made a fire on the hearth, lighted two candles, placed two
chairs on one side of the fireplace and a stool on the other. Then he
told his wife to put out his wedding clothes and to get into her own.
When he was dressed, he went to his brother and told him to watch in
front of the house and tell him if he heard any noise on either of the
beaches, this one or the one in front of the Guérande salt marshes.
When he thought that his wife was dressed, he went home again, loaded
a gun, and put it out of sight in the corner of the fireplace. Jacques
came at last; it was late; he had been drinking and playing billiards
till ten o'clock; he had come home by the point of Carnouf. His uncle
heard him hailing, crossed to the beach in front of the marsh to fetch
him, and rowed him to the island without a word. When he went into the
house, his father said to him:

"'Sit down there,' pointing to the stool. 'You are before your father
and mother, whom you have outraged, and who have got to try you.'

"Jacques began to bellow, because Cambremer's face was working in a
strange way. The mother sat as stiff as an oar.

"'If you call out, if you move, if you don't sit on your stool as
straight as a mast, I'll shoot you like a dog,' said Pierre, pointing
his gun at him.

"The son was dumb as a fish; the mother didn't say anything.

"'Here,' said Pierre to his son, 'is a paper that was wrapped round a
Spanish gold-piece; the gold-piece was in your mother's bed; nobody
else knew where she had put it; I found the paper on the water as I was
coming ashore; you gave this Spanish gold-piece to Mother Fleurant
to-night, and your mother can't find hers in her bed. Explain yourself!'

"Jacques said that he didn't take the money from his mother, and that
he had had the coin ever since he went to Nantes.

"'So much the better,' said Pierre. 'How can you prove it?'

"'I had it before.'

"'You didn't take your mother's?'

"'No.'

"'Will you swear it by your everlasting life?'

"He was going to swear; his mother looked up at him and said:

"'Jacques, my child, be careful; don't swear, if it isn't true. You may
mend your ways and repent; there's time enough still.'

"And she began to cry.

"'You're neither one thing nor the other,' he said, 'and you've always
wanted to ruin me.'

"Cambremer turned pale, and said:

"'What you just said to your mother will lengthen your account. Come
to the point! Will you swear?'

"'Yes.'

"'See,' said Pierre, 'did your piece have this cross which the
sardine-dealer who paid it to me had made on ours?'

"Jacques sobered off, and began to cry.

"'Enough talk,' said Pierre. 'I don't say anything about what you've
done before this. I don't propose that a Cambremer shall be put to
death on the public square at Le Croisic. Say your prayers, and make
haste! A priest is coming to confess you.'

"The mother went out, so that she needn't hear her son's sentence. When
she had left the room, Cambremer the uncle arrived with the rector of
Piriac; but Jacques wouldn't say anything to him. He was sly; he knew
his father well enough to be sure that he wouldn't kill him without
confession.

"'Thank you, monsieur; excuse us,' said Cambremer to the priest, when
he saw that Jacques was obstinate. 'I meant to give my son a lesson,
and I ask you not to say anything about it.--If you don't mend your
ways,' he said to Jacques, 'the next time will be the last, and I'll
put an end to it without confession.'

"He sent him off to bed. The boy believed what he had heard and
imagined that he could arrange matters with his father. He went to
sleep. The father sat up. When he saw that his son was sound asleep,
he stuffed his mouth with hemp and tied a strip of canvas over it very
tight; then he bound his hands and feet. Jacques stormed and wept
blood, so Cambremer told the judge. What could you expect! The mother
threw herself at the father's feet.

"'He has been tried,' he said; 'you must help me put him in the boat.'

"She refused. Cambremer took him to the boat all alone, laid him in
the bottom, tied a stone round his neck, and rowed abreast of the rock
where he is now. Then the poor mother, who had got her brother-in-law
to bring her over here, cried: 'Mercy!' All in vain; it had the effect
of a stone thrown at a wolf. The moon was shining; she saw the father
throw their son into the water, the son to whom her heart still clung;
and as there wasn't any wind, she heard a splash, then nothing more,
not a sound or a bubble; the sea's a famous keeper, I tell you! When he
came ashore here to quiet his wife, who was groaning, Cambremer found
her about the same as dead. The two brothers couldn't carry her, so
they had to put her in the boat that had just held the son, and they
took her home, going round through Le Croisic passage. Ah! _La Belle
Brouin_, as they called her, didn't last a week. She died asking her
husband to burn the accursed boat. He did it, too. As for him, he was
like a crazy man; he didn't know what he wanted, and he staggered when
he walked, like a man who can't carry his wine. Then he went off for
ten days, and when he came back he planted himself where you saw him,
and since he's been there he hasn't said a word."

The fisherman took only a moment or two in telling us this story, and
he told it even more simply than I have written it. The common people
make few comments when they tell a story; they select the point that
has made an impression on them, and interpret it as they feel it. That
narrative was as sharp and incisive as a blow with an axe.

"I shall not go to Batz," said Pauline, as we reached the upper end of
the lake.

We returned to Le Croisic by way of the salt marshes, guided through
their labyrinth by a fisherman who had become as silent as we.
The current of our thoughts had changed. We were both absorbed by
depressing reflections, saddened by that drama which explained the
swift presentiment that we had felt at the sight of Cambremer. We both
had sufficient knowledge of the world to divine all that our guide had
not told us of that triple life. The misfortunes of those three people
were reproduced before us as if we had seen them in the successive
scenes of a drama, to which that father, by thus expiating his
necessary crime, had added the dénouement. We dared not look back at
that fatal man who terrified a whole province.

A few clouds darkened the sky; vapours were rising along the horizon.
We were walking through the most distressingly desolate tract of land
that I have ever seen; the very soil beneath our feet seemed sickly and
suffering--salt marshes, which may justly be termed the scrofula of
the earth. There the ground is divided into parcels of unequal size,
all enclosed by enormous heaps of gray earth, and filled with brackish
water, to the surface of which the salt rises. These ravines, made
by the hand of man, are subdivided by causeways along which workmen
walk, armed with long rakes, with which they skim off the brine, and
carry the salt to round platforms built here and there, when it is in
condition to pile. For two hours we skirted that dismal checker-board,
where the salt is so abundant that it chokes the vegetation, and
where we saw no other living beings than an occasional _paludier_--the
name given to the men who gather the salt. These men, or rather this
tribe of Bretons, wear a special costume: a white jacket not unlike
that worn by brewers. They intermarry, and there has never been an
instance of a girl of that tribe marrying anybody except a _paludier_.
The ghastly aspect of those swamps, where the surface of the mire is
neatly raked, and of that grayish soil, which the Breton flora holds
in horror, harmonised with the mourning of our hearts. When we reached
the place where we were to cross the arm of the sea which is formed by
the eruption of the water into that basin, and which serves doubtless
to supply the salt marshes with their staple, we rejoiced to see the
meagre vegetation scattered along the sandy shore. As we crossed, we
saw, in the centre of the lake, the islet where the Cambremers lived;
we looked the other way.

When we reached our hotel, we noticed a billiard-table in a room on
the ground floor; and, when we learned that it was the only public
billiard-table in Le Croisic, we prepared for our departure that night.
The next day we were at Guérande. Pauline was still depressed, and I
could already feel the coming of the flame that is consuming my brain.
I was so cruelly tormented by my visions of those three lives that she
said to me:

"Write the story, Louis; in that way you will change the nature of this
fever."

So I have written it down for you, my dear uncle; but it has already
destroyed the tranquillity that I owed to the sea-baths and to our
visit here.


1835.



An Episode under the Terror


                    To MONSIEUR GUYONNET-MERVILLE:

    Would it not be well for me, my dear former master, to
    explain to those people who are curious to know everything,
    where I was able to learn enough of legal procedure to
    manage the business of my little circle, and at the same
    time to consecrate here the memory of the amiable and
    intellectual man who said to Scribe, another amateur lawyer,
    on meeting him at a ball: "Go to the office--I promise you
    that there is work enough there"? But do you need this
    public testimony in order to be assured of the author's
    affection? DE BALZAC.


On the twenty-second of January, 1793, about eight o'clock in the
evening, an old lady was descending the steep hill which ends in front
of the church of St.-Laurent, on Faubourg St.-Martin, Paris. It had
snowed so hard all day that footfalls could scarcely be heard. The
streets were deserted; the not unnatural dread inspired by the silence
was intensified by the terror under which France was then groaning; so
that the old lady had not as yet met anybody; her sight, which had long
been poor, made it impossible for her to see, in the distance, by the
dim light of the street-lanterns, the few people who were scattered
about like ghosts in the broad highway of the faubourg. She went her
way courageously, alone, through that solitude, as if her age were a
talisman certain to preserve her from all evil.

When she had passed Rue des Morts, she fancied that she could
distinguish the firm and heavy step of a man walking behind her. It
seemed to her that it was not the first time that she had heard that
sound; she was terrified at the thought that she had been followed, and
she tried to walk even faster, in order to reach a brightly lighted
shop, hoping to be able to set at rest in the light the suspicions
which had seized her. As soon as she had stepped beyond the horizontal
rays of light that shone from the shop, she suddenly turned her head
and caught sight of a human figure in the fog; that indistinct glimpse
was enough for her; she staggered for an instant under the weight of
the fear which oppressed her, for she no longer doubted that she had
been attended by the stranger from the first step that she had taken
outside of her home; and the frantic longing to escape a spy gave her
additional strength. Incapable of reasoning, she quickened her pace,
as if she could possibly elude a man who was surely more active than
she. After running for some minutes, she reached a pastry-cook's shop,
rushed in, and fell rather than sat down upon a chair in front of the
counter.

The instant that she rattled the latch of the door, a young woman,
who was engaged in embroidering, raised her eyes, recognised through
the glass door the old-fashioned mantle of violet silk in which the
old lady was wrapped, and hastily opened a drawer, as if to take out
something which she intended to give her. Not only did the young
woman's movement and expression denote a wish to be rid of the stranger
at once, as if she were one of those people whom one is not glad to
see, but she also uttered an impatient exclamation when she found the
drawer empty; then, without glancing at the lady, she rushed from
behind the counter, towards the back-shop, and called her husband, who
appeared instantly.

"Where have you put ---- ----?" she asked him with a mysterious
expression, indicating the old lady by a glance, and not finishing her
sentence.

Although the pastry-cook could see only the enormous black silk bonnet,
surrounded by violet ribbons, which the stranger wore upon her head, he
disappeared, after a glance at his wife, which seemed to say: "Do you
suppose that I am going to leave _that_ on your counter?"

Amazed by the old lady's silence and immobility, the trades-woman
walked towards her, and as she examined her she was conscious of a
feeling of compassion, and perhaps of curiosity as well. Although the
stranger's complexion was naturally sallow, like that of a person vowed
to secret austerities, it was easy to see that some recent emotion
had made her even paler than usual. Her bonnet was so arranged as
to conceal her hair, which was presumably whitened by age, for the
neatness of the collar of her dress indicated that she did not wear
powder. That lack of adornment imparted to her face a sort of religious
asceticism. Her features were serious and dignified. In the old
days the manners and customs of people of quality were so different
from those of people belonging to the lower classes, that one could
easily distinguish a person of noble birth. So that the young woman
was convinced that the stranger was a _ci-devant_, and that she had
belonged to the court.

"Madame," she said involuntarily and with respect, forgetting that that
title was proscribed.

The old lady did not reply. She kept her eyes fastened upon the
shop-window, as if some terrifying object were there apparent.

"What's the matter with you, citizeness?" asked the proprietor, who
reappeared at that moment.

The citizen pastry-cook aroused the lady from her revery by handing her
a little paste-board box covered with blue paper.

"Nothing, nothing, my friends," she replied in a mild voice.

She looked up at the pastry-cook as if to bestow a grateful glance
upon him; but when she saw a red cap on his head she uttered an
exclamation:

"Ah! you have betrayed me!"

The young woman and her husband replied by a gesture of horror which
made the stranger blush, perhaps for having suspected them, perhaps
with pleasure.

"Excuse me," she said with childlike gentleness.

Then, taking a louis d'or from her pocket, she handed it to the
pastry-cook.

"This is the price agreed upon," she added.

There is a sort of poverty which the poor are quick to divine. The
pastry-cook and his wife looked at each other and then at the old lady,
exchanging the same thought. That louis d'or was evidently the last.
The lady's hands trembled as she held out that coin, at which she gazed
sorrowfully but without avarice; but she seemed to realise the full
extent of the sacrifice. Fasting and poverty were written upon that
face, in lines as legible as those of fear and ascetic habits. There
were vestiges of past splendour in her clothes: they were worn silk; a
neat though old-fashioned cloak, and lace carefully mended--in a word,
the rags and tatters of opulence. The trades-people, wavering between
pity and self-interest, began by relieving their consciences in words:

"But, citizeness, you seem very weak----"

"Would madame like something to refresh herself?" asked the woman,
cutting her husband short.

"We have some very good soup," added the pastry-cook.

"It's so cold! perhaps madame was chilled by her walk? But you can rest
here and warm yourself a little."

"The devil is not as black as he is painted," cried the pastry-cook.

Won by the kind tone of the charitable shopkeeper's words, the lady
admitted that she had been followed by a stranger, and that she was
afraid to return home alone.

"Is that all?" replied the man with the red cap. "Wait for me,
citizeness."

He gave the louis to his wife; then, impelled by that species of
gratitude which finds its way into the heart of a tradesman when he
receives an extravagant price for goods of moderate value, he went to
don his National guardsman's uniform, took his hat, thrust his sabre
into his belt, and reappeared under arms. But his wife had had time to
reflect; and, as in many other hearts, reflection closed the open hand
of kindliness. Perturbed in mind, and fearing that her husband might
become involved in some dangerous affair, the pastry-cook's wife tried
to stop him by pulling the skirt of his coat; but, obeying a charitable
impulse, the good man at once offered to escort the old lady.

"It seems that the man who frightened the citizeness is still prowling
about the shop," said the young woman, nervously.

"I am afraid so," the lady artlessly replied.

"Suppose he should be a spy? Suppose it was a conspiracy? Don't go
with her, and take back the box."

These words, whispered in the pastry-cook's ear by his wife, congealed
the impromptu courage which had moved him.

"I'll just go out and say two words to him, and rid you of him in short
order!" cried the man, opening the door and rushing out.

The old lady, passive as a child and almost dazed, resumed her seat.
The worthy tradesman soon reappeared; his face, which was naturally
red, and moreover was flushed by the heat of his ovens, had suddenly
become livid; he was so terribly frightened that his legs trembled and
his eyes resembled a drunken man's.

"Do you mean to have our heads cut off, you miserable aristocrat?" he
cried angrily. "Just let us see your heels; don't ever show your face
here again, and don't count on me to supply you with materials for a
conspiracy!"

As he spoke, the pastry-cook tried to take from the old lady the small
box, which she had put in one of her pockets. But no sooner did the
man's insolent hands touch her clothing, than the stranger, preferring
to brave the dangers of the street with no other defender than God,
rather than to lose what she had purchased, recovered the agility of
her youth; she rushed to the door, opened it abruptly, and vanished
from the eyes of the dazed and trembling woman and her husband.

As soon as the stranger was out of doors, she walked rapidly away; but
her strength failed her, for she heard the snow creak beneath the heavy
step of the spy, by whom she was pitilessly followed. She was obliged
to stop, and he stopped; she dared neither speak to him nor look at
him, whether as a result of the fear which gripped her heart, or from
lack of intelligence. She continued her way, walking slowly; thereupon
the man slackened his pace, so as to remain at a distance, which
enabled him to keep his eye upon her. He seemed to be the very shadow
of the old woman. The clock was striking nine when the silent couple
again passed the church of St.-Laurent. It is in the nature of all
souls, even the weakest, that a feeling of tranquillity should succeed
violent agitation; for, although our feelings are manifold, our bodily
powers are limited. And so the stranger, meeting with no injury at the
hands of her supposed persecutor, chose to discover in him a secret
friend, zealous to protect her; she recalled all the circumstances
which had attended the unknown's appearance, as if to find plausible
arguments in favour of that comforting opinion; and she took pleasure
in detecting good rather than evil intentions in his behaviour.

Forgetting the terror which that man had inspired in the pastry-cook,
she walked with an assured step into the upper parts of Faubourg
St.-Martin. After half an hour she reached a house near the junction of
the main street of the faubourg and that which leads to the Barrière
de Pantin. Even to-day, that spot is one of the most solitary in
all Paris. The north wind, blowing over the Buttes Chaumont and
from Belleville, whistled through the houses, or rather the hovels,
scattered about in that almost uninhabited valley, where the dividing
walls are built of earth and bones. That desolate spot seemed to be
the natural refuge of poverty and despair. The man who had persisted
in following the wretched creature who was bold enough to walk through
those silent streets at night, seemed impressed by the spectacle
presented to his eyes. He became thoughtful, and stood in evident
hesitation, in the dim light of a lantern whose feeble rays barely
pierced the mist.

Fear gave eyes to the old woman, who fancied that she could detect
something sinister in the stranger's features; her former terror
reawoke, and, taking advantage of the uncertainty which had checked
his advance, to glide in the darkness towards the door of the solitary
house, she pressed a spring and disappeared with magical rapidity.

The stranger, motionless as a statue, gazed at that house, which was
in some measure the type of the wretched dwellings of the faubourg.
That unstable hovel, built of rough stones, was covered with a layer of
yellow plaster, so cracked that it seemed in danger of falling before
the slightest gust of wind. The roof, of dark brown tiles covered with
moss, had sunk in several places so that it seemed likely to give way
under the weight of the snow. On each floor there were three windows,
the sashes of which, rotted by the dampness and shrunken by the heat
of the sun, made it clear that the cold air must find an easy entrance
into the rooms. That isolated house resembled an old tower which time
had forgotten to destroy. A faint light shone through the irregular
windows of the attic at the top of the tumble-down structure, while all
the rest of the house was in absolute darkness. The old woman climbed,
not without difficulty, the steep, rough staircase, which was supplied
with a rope instead of a baluster; she knocked softly at the door of
the apartment in the attic, and dropped hastily upon a chair which an
old man offered her.

"Hide! hide yourself!" she said. "Although we go out very seldom,
everything that we do is known; our footsteps are watched."

"What is there new, pray?" asked another old woman who was seated by
the fire.

"The man who was prowling around the house last night followed me
to-night."

At these words the three occupants of the attic looked at each other
with indications of profound terror on their faces. The old man was
the least moved of the three, perhaps because he was in the greatest
danger. Under the weight of a great calamity, or under the yoke of
persecution, a courageous man begins, so to speak, by preparing to
sacrifice himself; he looks upon his days simply as so many victories
over destiny. The eyes of the two women, fastened upon this old man,
made it easy to divine that he was the sole object of their intense
anxiety.

"Why despair of God, my sisters?" he said in a low but powerful voice.
"We sang His praises amid the cries of the assassins and the shrieks
of the dying at the Carmelite convent. If He decreed that I should be
saved from that butchery, it was doubtless because He reserved me for
another destiny, which I must accept without a murmur. God protects His
people, He may dispose of them at His pleasure. It is of you, not of
me, we must think."

"No," said one of the old women; "what are our lives compared with that
of a priest?"

"When once I found myself outside of the Abbey of Chelles, I looked
upon myself as dead," said that one of the two women who had not gone
out.

"Here," replied the other, handing the priest the little box, "here are
the wafers.--But," she cried, "I hear some one coming up the stairs."

Thereupon all three listened intently. The noise ceased.

"Do not be alarmed," said the priest, "if some one should try to
enter. A person upon whose fidelity we can rely has undoubtedly taken
all necessary measures to cross the frontier, and will come here to
get the letters which I have written to the Duc de Langeais and to the
Marquis de Beauséant, asking them to consider the means of rescuing you
from this terrible country, from the death or destitution which awaits
you here."

"Then you do not mean to go with us?" cried the two nuns gently, with
manifestations of despair.

"My place is where there are victims," said the priest simply.

They held their peace and gazed at their companion with devout
admiration.

"Sister Martha," he said, addressing the nun who had gone to buy the
wafers, "the messenger I speak of will reply '_Fiat voluntas'_ to the
word '_Hosanna_.'"

"There is some one on the stairs!" cried the other nun, opening the
door of a hiding-place under the lower part of the roof.

This time they could plainly hear, amid the profound silence, the
footsteps of a man upon the stairs, which were covered with ridges of
hardened mud. The priest crept with difficulty into a sort of cupboard,
and the nuns threw over him a few pieces of apparel.

"You may close the door, Sister Agatha," he said in a muffled voice.

The priest was hardly hidden when three taps on the door caused a shock
to the two holy women, who consulted each other with their eyes, afraid
to utter a single word. Each of them seemed to be about sixty years
old. Secluded from the world for forty years, they were like plants
habituated to the air of a hot-house, which wilt if they are taken from
it. Accustomed to the life of a convent, they were unable to imagine
any other life. One morning, their gratings having been shattered, they
shuddered to find themselves free. One can readily imagine the species
of imbecility which the events of the Revolution had produced in their
innocent minds. Incapable of reconciling their conventual ideas with
the difficult problems of life, and not even understanding their
situation, they resembled children who had been zealously cared for
hitherto, and who, deserted by their motherly protector, prayed instead
of weeping. And so, in face of the danger which they apprehended at
that moment, they remained mute and passive, having no conception of
any other defence than Christian resignation.

The man who desired to enter interpreted that silence to suit himself;
he opened the door and appeared abruptly before them. The two nuns
shuddered as they recognised the man who had been prowling about their
house, making inquiries about them, for some time. They did not move,
but gazed at him with anxious curiosity, after the manner of the
children of savage tribes, who examine strangers in silence. He was
tall and stout; but there was nothing in his manner, or appearance, to
indicate an evil-minded man. He imitated the immobility of the nuns,
and moved his eyes slowly about the room in which he stood.

Two straw mats, laid upon boards, served the two nuns as beds. There
was a single table in the centre of the room, and upon it a copper
candlestick, a few plates, three knives, and a round loaf. The fire on
the hearth was very low, and a few sticks of wood piled in a corner
testified to the poverty of the two occupants. The walls, covered
with an ancient layer of paint, demonstrated the wretched condition
of the roof, for stains like brown threads marked the intrusion of
the rain-water. A relic, rescued doubtless during the pillage of the
Abbey of Chelles, adorned the mantel. Three chairs, two chests, and a
wretched commode completed the furniture of the room. A door beside the
chimney indicated the existence of an inner chamber.

The inventory of the cell was speedily made by the person who had
thrust himself into the bosom of that group under such alarming
auspices. A sentiment of compassion was expressed upon his face, and
he cast a kindly glance upon the two women, but seemed at least as
embarrassed as they. The strange silence preserved by all three lasted
but a short time, for the stranger at last divined the mental weakness
and the inexperience of the two poor creatures, and he said to them
in a voice which he tried to soften: "I do not come here as an enemy,
citizenesses."

He paused, and then resumed: "My sisters, if any misfortune should
happen to you, be sure that I have had no part in it. I have a favour
to ask of you."

They still remained silent.

"If I annoy you, if I embarrass you, tell me so frankly, and I will go;
but understand that I am entirely devoted to you; that if there is any
service that I can do you, you may employ me without fear; that I alone
perhaps am above the law, as there is no longer a king."

There was such a ring of truth in these words that Sister Agatha,
the one of the two nuns who belonged to the family of Langeais, and
whose manners seemed to indicate that she had formerly been familiar
with magnificent festivities and had breathed the air of courts,
instantly pointed to one of the chairs, as if to request their guest
to be seated. The stranger manifested a sort of mixture of pleasure
and melancholy when he saw that gesture; and he waited until the two
venerable women were seated, before seating himself.

"You have given shelter," he continued, "to a venerable unsworn priest,
who miraculously escaped the massacre at the Carmelite convent."

_"Hosanna!"_ said Sister Agatha, interrupting the stranger, and gazing
at him with anxious interest.

"I don't think that that is his name," he replied.

"But, monsieur," said Sister Martha hastily, "we haven't any priest
here, and----"

"In that case you must be more careful and more prudent," retorted the
stranger gently, reaching to the table and taking up a breviary. "I do
not believe that you know Latin, and----"

He did not continue, for the extraordinary emotion depicted on the
faces of the unhappy nuns made him feel that he had gone too far; they
were trembling, and their eyes were filled with tears.

"Do not be alarmed," he said to them cheerily; "I know the name of
your guest and your names; and three days ago I was informed of your
destitution and of your devotion to the venerable Abbé of ----"

"Hush!" said Sister Agatha innocently, putting her finger to her lips.

"You see, my sisters, that if I had formed the detestable plan of
betraying you, I might already have done it more than once."

When he heard these words, the priest emerged from his prison and
appeared in the middle of the room.

"I cannot believe, monsieur," he said to the stranger, "that you are
one of our persecutors, and I trust you. What do you want with me?"

The priest's saintlike confidence, the nobility of soul that shone
in all his features, would have disarmed an assassin. The mysterious
personage who had enlivened that scene of destitution and resignation
gazed for a moment at the group formed by those three; then he assumed
a confidential tone, and addressed the priest in these words:

"Father, I have come to implore you to celebrate a mortuary mass for
the repose of the soul of a--a consecrated person, whose body, however,
will never lie in holy ground."

The priest involuntarily shuddered. The two nuns, not understanding as
yet to whom the stranger referred, stood with necks outstretched, and
faces turned towards the two men, in an attitude of intense curiosity.
The priest scrutinised the stranger; unfeigned anxiety was depicted
upon his face, and his eyes expressed the most ardent entreaty.

"Very well," replied the priest; "to-night, at midnight, return here,
and I shall be ready to celebrate the only funeral service which we can
offer in expiation of the crime to which you refer."

The stranger started; but a feeling of satisfaction, at once
grateful and solemn, seemed to triumph over some secret grief.
Having respectfully saluted the priest and the two holy women, he
disappeared, manifesting a sort of mute gratitude which was understood
by those three noble hearts. About two hours after this scene the
stranger returned, knocked softly at the attic door, and was admitted
by Mademoiselle de Beauséant, who escorted him into the second room
of that humble lodging, where everything had been prepared for the
ceremony.

Between two flues of the chimney, the nuns had placed the old commode,
whose antiquated shape was covered by a magnificent altar-cloth of
green silk. A large crucifix of ebony and ivory, fastened upon the
discoloured wall, heightened the effect of its bareness and inevitably
attracted the eye. Four slender little tapers, which the sisters had
succeeded in standing upon that improvised altar by fixing them in
sealing-wax, cast a pale light, which the wall reflected dimly. That
faint gleam barely lighted the rest of the room; but, in that it
confined its illumination to the consecrated objects, it resembled a
ray of light from heaven upon that undecorated altar. The floor was
damp. The attic roof, which sloped sharply on both sides, had various
cracks through which a biting wind blew. Nothing less stately could be
imagined, and yet perhaps there could be nothing more solemn than this
lugubrious ceremony.

A silence so profound that it would have enabled them to hear the
faintest sound on distant thoroughfares, diffused a sort of sombre
majesty over that nocturnal scene. In short, the grandeur of the
occasion contrasted so strikingly with the poverty of the surroundings
that the result was a sensation of religious awe. The two old nuns,
kneeling on the damp floor on either side of the altar, heedless of
the deadly moisture, prayed in unison with the priest, who, clad in
his pontifical vestments, prepared a golden chalice adorned with
precious stones, a consecrated vessel rescued doubtless from the
plunderers of the Abbey of Chelles. Beside that pyx, an object of regal
magnificence, were the water and wine destined for the sacrament,
in two glasses hardly worthy of the lowest tavern. In default of a
missal, the priest had placed his breviary on a corner of the altar.
A common plate was provided for the washing of those innocent hands,
pure of bloodshed. All was majestic, and yet paltry; poor, but noble;
profane and holy in one. The stranger knelt piously between the two
nuns. But suddenly, when he noticed a band of crape on the chalice and
on the crucifix--for, having nothing to indicate the purpose of that
mortuary mass, the priest had draped God Himself in mourning--he was
assailed by such an overpowering memory that drops of sweat gathered
upon his broad forehead. The four silent actors in that scene gazed at
each other mysteriously; then their hearts, acting upon one another,
communicated their sentiments to each other and became blended into the
one emotion of religious pity; it was as if their thoughts had evoked
the royal martyr whose remains had been consumed by quicklime, but
whose shade stood before them in all its royal majesty. They celebrated
an _obit_ without the body of the deceased. Beneath those disjointed
tiles and laths, four Christians interceded with God for a king of
France, and performed his obsequies without a bier. It was the purest
of all possible devotions, an amazing act of fidelity performed without
one thought of self. Doubtless, in the eyes of God, it was like the
glass of water which is equal to the greatest virtues. The whole of
monarchy was there, in the prayers of a priest and of two poor nuns;
but perhaps the Revolution, too, was represented, by that man whose
face betrayed too much remorse not to cause a belief that he was acting
in obedience to an impulse of unbounded repentance.

Instead of saying the Latin words: "_Introibo ad altare Dei_," etc.,
the priest, obeying a divine inspiration, looked at the three persons
who represented Christian France, and said to them, in words which
effaced the poverty of that wretched place:

"We are about to enter into God's sanctuary!"

At these words, uttered with most impressive unction, a thrill of holy
awe seized the stranger and the two nuns. Not beneath the arches of
St. Peter's at Rome could God have appeared with more majesty than
He then appeared in that abode of poverty, before the eyes of those
Christians; so true it is that between man and Him every intermediary
seems useless, and that He derives His grandeur from Himself alone. The
stranger's fervour was genuine, so that the sentiment which joined
the prayers of those four servants of God and the king was unanimous.
The sacred words rang out like celestial music amid the silence. There
was a moment when tears choked the stranger's voice; it was during
the paternoster. The priest added to it this Latin prayer, which the
stranger evidently understood: "_Et remitte scelus regicidis sicut
Ludovicus eis remisit semetipse!_ (And forgive the regicides even as
Louis XVI. himself forgave them!)."

The two nuns saw two great tears leave a moist trace on the manly
cheeks of the stranger, and fall to the floor. The Office of the Dead
was recited. The _Domine salvum fac regem_, chanted in a low voice,
touched the hearts of those faithful royalists, who reflected that
the infant king, for whom they were praying to the Most High at that
moment, was a prisoner in the hands of his enemies. The stranger
shuddered at the thought that there might still be committed a new
crime, in which he would doubtless be compelled to take part. When the
service was at an end, the priest motioned to the two nuns to withdraw.
As soon as he was alone with the stranger, he walked towards him with a
mild and melancholy expression, and said to him in a fatherly tone:

"My son, if you have dipped your hands in the blood of the martyr king,
confess to me. There is no sin which, in God's eyes, may not be effaced
by repentance so touching and so sincere as yours seems to be."

At the first words of the priest, the stranger made an involuntary
gesture of terror; but his face resumed its tranquillity, and he met
the astonished priest's eye with calm assurance.

"Father," he said to him in a perceptibly tremulous voice, "no one is
more innocent than I of bloodshed."

"I am bound to believe you," said the priest.

There was a pause, during which he examined the penitent more closely;
then, persisting in taking him for one of those timid members of the
Convention who sacrificed a consecrated and inviolate head in order to
preserve their own, he continued in a solemn voice:

"Remember, my son, that to be absolved from that great crime, it is
not enough not to have actually taken part in it. Those who, when they
might have defended their king, left their swords in the scabbard, will
have a very heavy account to settle with the King of Heaven. Ah, yes!"
added the old priest, shaking his head with a most expressive movement,
"yes, very heavy! for, by remaining idle, they became the involuntary
accomplices of that ghastly crime."

"Do you think," inquired the thunderstruck stranger, "that indirect
participation will be punished? Is the soldier guilty who is ordered to
join the shooting-squad?"

The priest hesitated. Pleased with the dilemma in which he had placed
that puritan of royalty by planting him between the dogma of passive
obedience, which, according to the partisans of monarchy, should be
predominant in all military codes, and the no less important dogma
which sanctifies the respect due to the person of kings, the stranger
was too quick to see in the priest's hesitation a favourable solution
of the doubts by which he seemed to be perturbed. Then, in order to
give the venerable Jansenist no longer time to reflect, he said to him:

"I should blush to offer you any sort of compensation for the funeral
service which you have just performed for the repose of the king's
soul and for the relief of my conscience. A thing of inestimable value
can be paid for only by an offering which is beyond all price. Deign,
therefore, to accept, monsieur, the gift that I offer you of a blessed
relic. The day will come, perhaps, when you will realise its value."

As he said this, the stranger handed the ecclesiastic a small box of
light weight; the priest took it involuntarily, so to speak, for the
solemnity of the man's words, the tone in which he said them, and
the respect with which he handled the box, had surprised him beyond
measure. They returned then to the room where the two nuns were
awaiting them.

"You are," said the stranger, "in a house whose owner, Mucius Scævola,
the plasterer who lives on the first floor, is famous throughout
the section for his patriotism; but he is secretly attached to the
Bourbons. He used to be a huntsman in the service of Monseigneur le
Prince de Conti, and he owes his fortune to him. If you do not go out
of his house, you are safer than in any place in France. Stay here.
Devout hearts will attend to your necessities, and you may await
without danger less evil times. A year hence, on the twenty-first of
January (as he mentioned the date he could not restrain an involuntary
gesture), if you continue to occupy this dismal apartment, I will
return to celebrate again a mass of expiation."

He said no more. He bowed to the silent occupants of the attic, cast a
last glance upon the evidences of their poverty, and went away.

To the two innocent nuns, such an adventure had all the interest of a
romance; and so, as soon as the venerable abbé informed them of the
mysterious gift so solemnly bestowed upon him by that man, the box was
placed upon the table and the three anxious faces, dimly lighted by the
candle, betrayed an indescribable curiosity. Mademoiselle de Langeais
opened the box, and found therein a handkerchief of finest linen,
drenched with perspiration; and, on unfolding it, they saw stains.

"It is blood!" said the priest.

"It is marked with the royal crown!" cried the other nun.

The two sisters dropped the precious relic with a gesture of horror.
To those two ingenuous souls the mystery in which the stranger was
enveloped became altogether inexplicable; and as for the priest, from
that day he did not even seek an explanation of it.

The three prisoners soon perceived that a powerful arm was stretched
over them, in spite of the Terror.

In the first place, they received a supply of wood and provisions;
then the two nuns realised that a woman must be associated with their
protector, when some one sent them linen and clothing which enabled
them to go out without being noticed by reason of the aristocratic
cut of the garments which they had been forced to retain; and lastly,
Mucius Scævola gave them two cards of citizenship. It often happened
that information essential to the priest's safety reached him by
devious ways; and he found this advice so opportune that it could have
been given only by somebody initiated in state secrets.

Despite the famine which prevailed in Paris, the outcasts found at the
door of their lodging rations of white bread, which was brought there
regularly by invisible hands; they believed, however, that they could
identify Mucius Scævola as the mysterious agent of this beneficence,
which was always as ingenious as it was timely. The noble occupants
of the attic could not doubt that their protector was the person who
had come to ask the priest to celebrate the mortuary mass on the
evening of the twenty-second of January, 1793; so that he became the
object of a peculiar sort of worship to those three beings, who had
no hope except in him, and lived only through him. They had added
special prayers for him to their daily devotions; night and morning
those pious souls offered up entreaties for his happiness, for his
prosperity, for his salvation, and prayed to God to rescue him from all
snares, to deliver him from his enemies, and to grant him a long and
peaceful life. Their gratitude, being renewed every day, so to speak,
was necessarily accompanied by a feeling of curiosity which became
more intense from day to day. The circumstances which had attended the
appearance of the stranger were the subject of their conversation; they
formed innumerable conjectures about him, and the diversion which
their preoccupation with him afforded them was a benefaction of a new
sort. They were fully determined not to allow the stranger to evade
their friendship when he should return, according to his promise, to
commemorate the sad anniversary of the death of Louis XVI.

That night, so impatiently awaited, came at last. At midnight they
heard the sound of the stranger's heavy steps on the old, wooden
staircase; the room had been arrayed to receive him, the altar was in
place. This time the sisters opened the door beforehand and went forth
eagerly to light the staircase. Mademoiselle de Langeais even went down
a few steps in order to see her benefactor the sooner.

"Come," she said to him in a tremulous and affectionate voice, "come,
we are waiting for you."

The man raised his head, cast a gloomy glance upon the nun, and made
no reply. She felt as if a garment of ice had fallen upon her, and
she said no more; at sight of him, gratitude and curiosity expired
in all their hearts. He may have been less cold, less silent, less
awe-inspiring than he appeared to those poor souls, whom the exaltation
of their feeling inclined to an outpouring of friendliness. The three
unhappy prisoners, understanding that he proposed to remain a stranger
to them, resigned themselves to it. The priest fancied that he detected
upon the stranger's lips a smile that was instantly repressed when he
saw the preparations that had been made to receive him. He heard the
mass and prayed; but he disappeared after responding by a few words of
negative courtesy to Mademoiselle de Langeais's invitation to share the
little supper they had prepared.

After the ninth of Thermidor the nuns were able to go about Paris
without danger. The old priest's first errand was to a perfumer's shop,
at the sign of _La Reine des Fleurs_, kept by Citizen and Citizeness
Ragon, formerly perfumers to the Court, who had remained true to the
royal family, and of whose services the Vendeans availed themselves to
correspond with the princes and the royalist committee in Paris. The
abbé, dressed according to the style of the period, was standing on the
doorstep of that shop, between St.-Roch and Rue des Frondeurs, when a
crowd which filled Rue St.-Honoré prevented him from going out.

"What is it?" he asked Madame Ragon.

"Oh! it's nothing," she replied; "just the tumbril and the executioner,
going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we saw him very often last year; but
to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January,
we can look at that horrible procession without distress."

"Why so?" said the abbé; "what you say is not Christian."

"Why, it's the execution of Robespierre's accomplices; they defended
themselves as long as they could, but they're going now themselves
where they have sent so many innocent people."

The crowd passed like a flood. Abbé de Marolles, yielding to an impulse
of curiosity, saw over the sea of heads, standing on the tumbril, the
man who, three days before, had listened to his mass.

"Who is that," he said, "that man who----"

"That is the headsman," replied Monsieur Ragon, giving the executioner
his monarchical name.

"My dear, my dear," cried Madame Ragon, "monsieur l'abbé is fainting!"

And the old woman seized a phial of salts, in order to bring the old
priest to himself.

"Doubtless," said the old priest, "he gave me the handkerchief with
which the king wiped his brow when he went to his martyrdom! Poor man!
That steel knife had a heart, when all France had none!"

The perfumers thought that the unfortunate priest was delirious.


1830.



La Grande Bretèche


About one hundred yards from Vendôme, on the banks of the Loire, there
stands an old dark-coloured house, surmounted by a very high roof, and
so completely isolated that there is not in the neighbourhood a single
evil-smelling tannery or wretched inn, such as we see in the outskirts
of almost every small town. In front of the house is a small garden
bordering the river, in which the boxwood borders of the paths, once
neatly trimmed, now grow at their pleasure. A few willows, born in the
Loire, have grown as rapidly as the hedge which encloses the garden,
and half conceal the house. The plants which we call weeds adorn the
slope of the bank with their luxuriant vegetation. The fruit-trees,
neglected for ten years, bear no fruit; their offshoots form a dense
undergrowth. The espaliers resemble hornbeam hedges. The paths,
formerly gravelled, are overrun with purslane; but, to tell the truth,
there are no well-marked paths.

From the top of the mountain upon which hang the ruins of the old
château of the Dukes of Vendôme, the only spot from which the eye
can look into this enclosure, you would say to yourself that, at a
period which it is difficult to determine, that little nook was the
delight of some gentleman devoted to roses and tulips, to horticulture
in short, but especially fond of fine fruit. You espy an arbour, or
rather the ruins of an arbour, beneath which a table still stands, not
yet entirely consumed by time. At sight of that garden, which is no
longer a garden, one may divine the negative delights of the peaceful
life which provincials lead, as one divines the existence of a worthy
tradesman by reading the epitaph on his tombstone. To round out the
melancholy yet soothing thoughts which fill the mind, there is on one
of the walls a sun-dial, embellished with this commonplace Christian
inscription: ULTIMAM COGITA. The roof of the house is terribly
dilapidated, the blinds are always drawn, the balconies are covered
with swallow's-nests, the doors are never opened. Tall weeds mark with
green lines the cracks in the steps; the ironwork is covered with rust.
Moon, sun, winter, summer, snow, have rotted the wood, warped the
boards, and corroded the paint.

The deathly silence which reigns there is disturbed only by the birds,
the cats, the martens, the rats and the mice, which are at liberty
to run about, to fight, and to eat one another at their will. An
invisible hand has written everywhere the word MYSTERY. If, impelled
by curiosity, you should go to inspect the house on the street side,
you would see a high gate arched at the top, in which the children of
the neighbourhood have made numberless holes. I learned later that
that gate had been condemned ten years before. Through these irregular
breaches you would be able to observe the perfect harmony between the
garden front and the courtyard front. The same disorder reigns supreme
in both. Tufts of weeds surround the pavements. Enormous cracks furrow
the walls, whose blackened tops are enlaced by the countless tendrils
of climbing plants. The steps are wrenched apart, the bell-rope is
rotten, the gutters are broken. "What fire from heaven has passed this
way? What tribunal has ordered salt to be strewn upon this dwelling?
Has God been insulted here? Has France been betrayed?" Such are the
questions which one asks one's self. The reptiles crawl hither and
thither without answering. That empty and deserted house is an immense
riddle, the solution of which is known to no one.

It was formerly a small feudal estate and bore the name of La Grande
Bretèche. During my stay at Vendôme, where Desplein had left me to
attend a rich patient, the aspect of that strange building became
one of my keenest pleasures. Was it not more than a mere ruin? Some
souvenirs of undeniable authenticity are always connected with a
ruin; but that abode, still standing, although in process of gradual
demolition by an avenging hand, concealed a secret, an unknown
thought; at the very least, it betrayed a caprice. More than once, in
the evening, I wandered in the direction of the hedge, now wild and
uncared for, which surrounded that enclosure. I defied scratches, and
made my way into that ownerless garden, that estate which was neither
public nor private; and I remained whole hours there contemplating its
disarray. Not even to learn the story which would doubtless account
for that extraordinary spectacle would I have asked a single question
of any Vendômese gossip. Straying about there, I composed delightful
romances, I abandoned myself to little orgies of melancholy which
enchanted me.

If I had learned the cause of that perhaps most commonplace neglect, I
should have lost the unspoken poesy with which I intoxicated myself.
To me that spot represented the most diverse images of human life
darkened by its misfortunes; now it was the air of the cloister, minus
the monks; again, the perfect peace of the cemetery, minus the dead
speaking their epitaphic language; to-day, the house of the leper;
to-morrow, that of the Fates; but it was, above all, the image of
the province, with its meditation, with its hour-glass life. I have
often wept there, but never laughed. More than once I have felt an
involuntary terror, as I heard above my head the low rustling made by
the wings of some hurrying dove. The ground is damp; you must beware of
lizards, snakes, and toads, which wander about there with the fearless
liberty of nature; above all, you must not fear the cold, for, after a
few seconds, you feel an icy cloak resting upon your shoulders, like
the hand of the Commendator on the neck of Don Juan. One evening I had
shuddered there; the wind had twisted an old rusty weathervane, whose
shrieks resembled a groan uttered by the house at the moment that I
was finishing a rather dismal melodrama, by which I sought to explain
to myself that species of monumental grief. I returned to my inn, beset
by sombre thoughts. When I had supped, my hostess entered my room with
a mysterious air, and said to me:

"Here is Monsieur Regnault, monsieur."

"Who is Monsieur Regnault?"

"What! Monsieur doesn't know Monsieur Regnault? That's funny!" she
said, as she left the room.

Suddenly I saw a tall, slender man, dressed in black, with his hat in
his hand, who entered the room like a ram ready to rush at his rival,
disclosing a retreating forehead, a small, pointed head, and a pale
face, not unlike a glass of dirty water. You would have said that he
was the doorkeeper of some minister. He wore an old coat, threadbare at
the seams; but he had a diamond in his shirt-frill and gold rings in
his ears.

"To whom have I the honour of speaking, monsieur?" I asked him.

He took a chair, seated himself in front of my fire, placed his hat on
my table, and replied, rubbing his hands:

"Ah! it's very cold! I am Monsieur Regnault, monsieur."

I bowed, saying to myself:

"_Il Bondocani!_ Look for him!"

"I am the notary at Vendôme," he continued.

"I am delighted to hear it, monsieur," I exclaimed, "but I am not ready
to make my will, for reasons best known to myself."

"Just a minute," he rejoined, raising his hand as if to impose silence
upon me. "I beg pardon, monsieur, I beg pardon! I have heard that you
go to walk sometimes in the garden of La Grande Bretèche."

"Yes, monsieur!"

"Just a minute," he said, repeating his gesture; "that practice
constitutes a downright trespass. I have come, monsieur, in the name
and as executor of the late Madame Countess de Merret, to beg you to
discontinue your visits. Just a minute! I'm not a Turk, and I don't
propose to charge you with a crime. Besides, it may well be that you
are not aware of the circumstances which compel me to allow the finest
mansion in Vendôme to fall to ruin. However, monsieur, you seem to be
a man of education, and you must know that the law forbids entrance
upon an enclosed estate under severe penalties. A hedge is as good as
a wall. But the present condition of the house may serve as an excuse
for your curiosity. I would ask nothing better than to allow you to go
and come as you please in that house; but, as it is my duty to carry
out the will of the testatrix, I have the honour, monsieur, to request
you not to go into that garden again. Even I myself, monsieur, since
the opening of the will, have never set foot inside that house, which,
as I have had the honour to tell you, is a part of the estate of Madame
de Merret. We simply reported the number of doors and windows, in order
to fix the amount of the impost which I pay annually from the fund set
aside for that purpose by the late countess. Ah! her will made a great
deal of talk in Vendôme, monsieur."

At that, he stopped to blow his nose, the excellent man. I respected
his loquacity, understanding perfectly that the administration of
Madame de Merret's property was the important event of his life--his
reputation, his glory, his Restoration. I must needs bid adieu to my
pleasant reveries, to my romances; so that I was not inclined to scorn
the pleasure of learning the truth from an official source.

"Would it be indiscreet, monsieur," I asked him, "to ask you the reason
of this extraordinary state of affairs?"

At that question an expression which betrayed all the pleasure that a
man feels who is accustomed to ride a hobby passed over the notary's
face. He pulled up his shirt collar with a self-satisfied air, produced
his snuff-box, opened it, offered it to me, and at my refusal, took a
famous pinch himself. He was happy; the man who has no hobby has no
idea of the satisfaction that can be derived from life. A hobby is the
precise mean between passion and monomania. At that moment I understood
the witty expression of Sterne in all its extent, and I had a perfect
conception of the joy with which Uncle Toby, with Trim's assistance,
bestrode his battle-horse.

"Monsieur," said Monsieur Regnault, "I was chief clerk to Master Roguin
of Paris. An excellent office, of which you may have heard? No? Why, it
was made famous by a disastrous failure. Not having sufficient money
to practise in Paris, at the price to which offices had risen in 1816,
I came here and bought the office of my predecessor. I had relatives
in Vendôme, among others a very rich aunt, who gave me her daughter in
marriage. Monsieur," he continued after a brief pause, "three months
after being licensed by the Keeper of the Seals I was sent for one
evening, just as I was going to bed (I was not then married), by Madame
Countess de Merret, to come to her Château de Merret. Her maid, an
excellent girl who works in this inn to-day, was at my door with madame
countess's carriage. But, just a minute! I must tell you, monsieur,
that Monsieur Count de Merret had gone to Paris to die, two months
before I came here. He died miserably there, abandoning himself to
excesses of all sorts. You understand?--On the day of his departure
madame countess had left La Grande Bretèche and had dismantled it.
Indeed, some people declare that she burned the furniture and hangings,
and all chattels whatsoever now contained in the estate leased by
the said--What on earth am I saying? I beg pardon, I thought I was
dictating a lease.--That she burned them," he continued, "in the fields
at Merret. Have you been to Merret, monsieur? No?" he said, answering
his own question. "Ah! that is a lovely spot! for about three months,"
he continued, after a slight shake of the head, "monsieur count and
madame countess led a strange life.

"They received no guests; madame lived on the ground floor, and
monsieur on the first floor. When madame countess was left alone,
she never appeared except at church. Later, in her own house, at her
château, she refused to see the friends who came to see her. She was
already much changed when she left La Grande Bretèche to go to Merret.
The dear woman--I say 'dear,' because this diamond came from her; but
I actually only saw her once,--the excellent lady, then, was very ill;
she had doubtless despaired of her health, for she died without calling
a doctor; so that many of our ladies thought that she was not in full
possession of her wits. My curiosity was therefore strangely aroused,
monsieur, when I learned that Madame de Merret needed my services. I
was not the only one who took an interest in that story. That same
evening, although it was late, the whole town knew that I had gone to
Merret. The maid answered rather vaguely the questions that I asked her
on the road; she told me, however, that her mistress had received the
sacrament from the curé of Merret during the day, and that she did not
seem likely to live through the night.

"I reached the château about eleven o'clock; I mounted the main
staircase. After passing through divers large rooms, high and dark, and
as cold and damp as the devil, I reached the state bedchamber where the
countess was. According to the reports that were current concerning
that lady--I should never end, monsieur, if I should repeat all the
stories that are told about her--I had thought of her as a coquette.
But, if you please, I had much difficulty in finding her in the huge
bed in which she lay. To be sure, to light that enormous wainscoted
chamber of the old _régime_, where everything was so covered with dust
that it made one sneeze simply to look at it, she had only one of those
old-fashioned Argand lamps. Ah! but you have never been to Merret.
Well, monsieur, the bed is one of those beds of the olden time, with
a high canopy of flowered material. A small night-table stood beside
the bed, and I saw upon it a copy of the _Imitation of Jesus Christ_,
which, by the by, I bought for my wife, as well as the lamp. There was
also a large couch for the attendant, and two chairs. Not a spark of
fire. That was all the furniture. It wouldn't have filled ten lines in
an inventory.

"Oh! my dear monsieur, if you had seen, as I then saw it, that huge
room hung with dark tapestry, you would have imagined yourself
transported into a genuine scene from a novel. It was icy cold; and,
more than that, absolutely funereal," he added, raising his arm with
a theatrical gesture, and pausing for a moment. "By looking hard and
walking close to the bed, I succeeded in discovering Madame de Merret,
thanks to the lamp, the light of which shone upon the pillow. Her face
was as yellow as wax, and resembled two clasped hands. She wore a lace
cap, which revealed her lovely hair, as white as snow. She was sitting
up, and seemed to retain that position with much difficulty. Her great
black eyes, dulled by fever no doubt, and already almost lifeless,
hardly moved beneath the bones which the eyebrows cover--these," he
said, pointing to the arch over his eyes.--"Her brow was moist. Her
fleshless hands resembled bones covered with tightly-drawn skin; her
veins and muscles could be seen perfectly. She must have been very
beautiful; but at that moment I was seized with an indefinable feeling
at her aspect. Never before, according to those who laid her out, had
a living creature attained such thinness without dying. In short, she
was horrible to look at; disease had so wasted that woman that she
was nothing more than a phantom. Her pale violet lips seemed not to
move when she spoke to me. Although my profession had familiarised me
with such spectacles, by taking me sometimes to the pillows of dying
persons to take down their last wishes, I confess that the families in
tears and despair whom I had seen were as nothing beside that solitary,
silent woman in that enormous château.

"I did not hear the slightest sound, I could not detect the movement
which the breathing of the sick woman should have imparted to the
sheets that covered her; and I stood quite still, gazing at her in a
sort of stupor. It seems to me that I am there now. At last her great
eyes moved, she tried to raise her right hand, which fell back upon
the bed, and these words came from her mouth like a breath, for her
voice had already ceased to be a voice: 'I have been awaiting you with
much impatience.'--Her cheeks suddenly flushed. It was a great effort
for her to speak, monsieur.--'Madame,' I said. She motioned to me to
be silent. At that moment the old nurse rose and whispered in my ear:
'Don't speak; madame countess cannot bear to hear the slightest sound,
and what you said might excite her.'--I sat down. A few moments later,
Madame de Merret collected all her remaining strength, to move her
right arm and thrust it, not without infinite difficulty, beneath her
bolster; she paused for just a moment; then she made a last effort to
withdraw her hand, and when she finally produced a sealed paper, drops
of sweat fell from her brow.--'I place my will in your hands,' she
said. 'O _mon Dieu_, oh!' That was all. She grasped a crucifix that lay
on her bed, hastily put it to her lips, and died. The expression of her
staring eyes makes me shudder even now, when I think of it. She must
have suffered terribly! There was a gleam of joy in her last glance, a
sentiment which remained in her dead eyes.

"I carried the will away; and when it was opened, I found that Madame
de Merret had appointed me her executor. She left all her property
to the hospital at Vendôme with the exception of a few individual
legacies. But these were her provisions with respect to La Grande
Bretèche: She directed me to leave her house, for fifty years from the
day of her death, in the same condition as at the moment that she died;
forbidding any person whatsoever to enter the rooms, forbidding the
slightest repairs to be made, and even setting aside a sum in order to
hire keepers, if it should be found necessary, to assure the literal
execution of her purpose. At the expiration of that period, if the
desire of the testatrix has been carried out, the house is to belong
to my heirs, for monsieur knows that notaries cannot accept legacies.
If not, La Grande Bretèche is to revert to whoever is entitled to it,
but with the obligation to comply with the conditions set forth in
a codicil attached to the will, which is not to be opened until the
expiration of the said fifty years. The will was not attacked; and
so----"

At that, without finishing his sentence, the elongated notary glanced
at me with a triumphant air, and I made him altogether happy by
addressing a few compliments to him.

"Monsieur," I said, "you have made a profound impression upon me,
so that I think I see that dying woman, paler than her sheets; her
gleaming eyes terrify me; and I shall dream of her to-night. But you
must have formed some conjecture concerning the provisions of that
extraordinary will."

"Monsieur," he said with a comical reserve, "I never allow myself
to judge the conduct of those persons who honour me by giving me a
diamond."

I soon loosened the tongue of the scrupulous Vendômese notary, who
communicated to me, not without long digressions, observations due
to the profound politicians of both sexes whose decrees are law in
Vendôme. But those observations were so contradictory and so diffuse
that I almost fell asleep, despite the interest I took in that
authentic narrative. The dull and monotonous tone of the notary, who
was accustomed, no doubt, to listen to himself, and to force his
clients and his fellow citizens to listen to him, triumphed over my
curiosity.

"Aha! many people, monsieur," he said to me on the landing, "would
like to live forty-five years more; but just a minute!" and with a sly
expression he placed his right forefinger on his nose, as if he would
have said: "Just mark what I say."--"But to do that, to do that," he
added, "a man must be less than sixty."

I closed my door, having been roused from my apathy by this last
shaft, which the notary considered very clever; then I seated myself
in my easy-chair, placing my feet on the andirons. I was soon absorbed
in an imaginary romance _à la_ Radcliffe, based upon the judicial
observations of Monsieur Regnault, when my door, under the skillful
manipulation of a woman's hand, turned upon its hinges. My hostess
appeared, a stout, red-faced woman, of excellent disposition, who had
missed her vocation; she was a Fleming, who should have been born in a
picture by Teniers.

"Well, monsieur," she said, "no doubt Monsieur Regnault has given you
his story of La Grande Bretèche?"

"Yes, Mother Lepas."

"What did he tell you?"

I repeated in a few words the chilling and gloomy story of Madame de
Merret. At each sentence my hostess thrust out her neck, gazing at me
with the true innkeeper's perspicacity--a sort of happy medium between
the instinct of the detective, the cunning of the spy, and the craft of
the trader.

"My dear Madame Lepas," I added, as I concluded, "you evidently know
more, eh? If not, why should you have come up here?"

"Oh! on an honest woman's word, as true as my name's Lepas----"

"Don't swear; your eyes are big with a secret. You knew Monsieur de
Merret. What sort of a man was he?"

"Bless my soul! Monsieur de Merret was a fine man, whom you never could
see the whole of, he was so long; an excellent gentleman, who came here
from Picardy, and who had his brains very near his cap, as we say here.
He paid cash for everything, in order not to have trouble with anybody.
You see, he was lively. We women all found him very agreeable."

"Because he was lively?" I asked.

"That may be," she said. "You know, monsieur, that a man must have had
something in front of him, as they say, to marry Madame de Merret,
who, without saying anything against the others, was the loveliest and
richest woman in the whole province. She had about twenty thousand
francs a year. The whole town went to her wedding. The bride was dainty
and attractive, a real jewel of a woman. Ah! they made a handsome
couple at that time!"

"Did they live happily together?"

"Oh dear! oh dear! yes and no, so far as any one could tell; for, as
you can imagine, we folks didn't live on intimate terms with them.
Madame de Merret was a kind-hearted woman, very pleasant, who had to
suffer sometimes perhaps from her husband's quick temper; but although
he was a bit proud, we liked him. You see, it was his business to be
like that; when a man is noble, you know----"

"However, some catastrophe must have happened, to make Monsieur and
Madame de Merret separate so violently?"

"I didn't say there was any catastrophe, monsieur. I don't know
anything about it."

"Good! I am sure now that you know all about it."

"Well, monsieur, I'll tell you all I know. When I saw Monsieur Regnault
come up to your room, I had an idea that he would talk to you about
Madame de Merret in connection with La Grande Bretèche. That gave me
the idea of consulting with monsieur, who seems to me a man of good
judgment and incapable of playing false with a poor woman like me, who
never did anybody any harm, and yet who's troubled by her conscience.
Up to this time I've never dared to speak out to the people of this
neighbourhood, for they're all sharp-tongued gossips. And then,
monsieur, I've never had a guest stay in my inn so long as you have,
and to whom I could tell the story of the fifteen thousand francs."

"My dear Madame Lepas," I said, arresting the flood of her words, "if
your confidence is likely to compromise me, I wouldn't be burdened with
it for a moment, for anything in the world."

"Don't be afraid," she said, interrupting me; "you shall see."

This eagerness on her part made me think that I was not the only one to
whom my worthy hostess had communicated the secret, of which I dreaded
to be the only confidant, and I listened.

"Monsieur," she began, "when the Emperor sent Spanish or other
prisoners of war here, I had to board, at the expense of the
government, a young Spaniard who was sent to Vendôme on parole.
In spite of the parole, he went every day to show himself to the
subprefect. He was a Spanish grandee! Nothing less! He had a name
in _os_ and _dia_, something like Bagos de Férédia. I have his name
written on my register; you can read it if you wish. He was a fine
young man for a Spaniard, who they say are all ugly. He was only five
feet two or three inches tall, but he was well-built; he had little
hands, which he took care of--oh! you should have seen; he had as many
brushes for his hands as a woman has for all purposes! He had long,
black hair, a flashing eye, and rather a copper-coloured skin, which
I liked all the same. He wore such fine linen as I never saw before
on any one, although I have entertained princesses, and among others
General Bertrand, the Duke and Duchess d'Abrantès, Monsieur Decazes,
and the King of Spain. He didn't eat much; but he had polite and
pleasant manners, so that I couldn't be angry with him for it. Oh! I
was very fond of him, although he didn't say four words a day, and it
was impossible to have the slightest conversation with him; if any one
spoke to him, he wouldn't answer; it was a fad, a mania that they all
have, so they tell me. He read his breviary like a priest, he went to
mass and to all the services regularly. Where did he sit? We noticed
that later: about two steps from Madame de Merret's private chapel.
As he took his seat there the first time that he came to the church,
nobody imagined that there was any design in it. Besides, he never
took his face off his prayer-book, the poor young man! In the evening,
monsieur, he used to walk on the mountain, among the ruins of the
château. That was the poor man's only amusement; he was reminded of his
own country there. They say that there's nothing but mountains in Spain.

"Very soon after he came here he began to stay out late. I was anxious
when he didn't come home till midnight; but we all got used to his
whim; he would take the key of the door, and we wouldn't wait for
him. He lived in a house that we have on Rue de Casernes. Then one
of our stablemen told us that one night, when he took the horses to
drink, he thought he saw the Spanish grandee swimming far out in the
river, like a real fish. When he came back, I told him to be careful
of the eel-grass; he seemed vexed that he had been seen in the water.
At last, monsieur, one day, or rather one morning, we didn't find him
in his room; he hadn't come home. By hunting carefully everywhere, I
found a writing in his table drawer, where there were fifty of the
Spanish gold-pieces which they call _portugaises_, and which were worth
about five thousand francs; and then there was ten thousand francs'
worth of diamonds in a little sealed box. His writing said that in
case he didn't return, he left us this money and his diamonds, on
condition that we would found masses to thank God for his escape and
his salvation. In those days I still had my man, who went out to look
for him. And here's the funny part of the story: he brought back the
Spaniard's clothes, which he found under a big stone in a sort of shed
by the river, on the château side, almost opposite La Grande Bretèche.

My husband went there so early that no one saw him; he burned the
clothes after reading the letter, and we declared, according to Count
Férédia's wish, that he had escaped. The subprefect set all the
gendarmerie on his track, but, bless my soul! they never caught him.
Lepas believed that the Spaniard had drowned himself. For my part,
monsieur, I don't think it; I think rather that he was mixed up in
Madame de Merret's business, seeing that Rosalie told me that the
crucifix that her mistress thought so much of that she had it buried
with her was made of ebony and silver; now, in the early part of his
stay here, Monsieur Férédia had one of silver and ebony, which I didn't
see afterwards.--Tell me now, monsieur, isn't it true that I needn't
have any remorse about the Spaniard's fifteen thousand francs, and that
they are fairly mine?"

"Certainly. But did you never try to question Rosalie?" I asked her.

"Oh! yes, indeed, monsieur. But would you believe it? That girl is like
a wall. She knows something, but it's impossible to make her talk."

After conversing a moment more with me, my hostess left me beset by
undefined and dismal thoughts, by a romantic sort of curiosity, a
religious terror not unlike the intense emotion that seizes us when
we enter a dark church at night and see a dim light in the distance
under the lofty arches; a vague figure gliding along, or the rustling
of a dress or a surplice; it makes us shudder. La Grande Bretèche and
its tall weeds, its condemned windows, its rusty ironwork, its closed
doors, its deserted rooms, suddenly appeared before me in fantastic
guise. I tried to penetrate that mysterious abode, seeking there the
kernel of that sombre story, of that drama which had caused the death
of three persons. In my eyes Rosalie was the most interesting person
in Vendôme. As I scrutinised her, I detected traces of some inmost
thought, despite the robust health that shone upon her plump cheeks.
There was in her some seed of remorse or of hope; her manner announced
a secret, as does that of the devotee who prays with excessive fervour,
or that of the infanticide, who constantly hears her child's last cry.
However, her attitude was artless and natural, her stupid smile had
no trace of criminality, and you would have voted her innocent simply
by glancing at the large handkerchief with red and blue squares which
covered her vigorous bust, confined by a gown with white and violet
stripes.

"No," I thought, "I won't leave Vendôme without learning the whole
story of La Grande Bretèche. To obtain my end, I will become Rosalie's
friend, if it is absolutely necessary."

"Rosalie?" I said one evening.

"What is it, monsieur?"

"You are not married?"

She started slightly.

"Oh! I sha'n't lack men when I take a fancy to be unhappy!" she said
with a laugh.

She speedily overcame her inward emotion; for all women, from the great
lady down to the servant at an inn, have a self-possession which is
peculiar to them.

"You are fresh and appetising enough not to lack suitors. But tell
me, Rosalie, why did you go to work in an inn when you left Madame de
Merret's? Didn't she leave you some money?"

"Oh yes! but my place is the best in Vendôme, monsieur."

This reply was one of those which judges and lawyers call dilatory.
Rosalie seemed to me to occupy in that romantic story the position of
the square in the middle of the chessboard; she was at the very centre
of interest and of truth; she seemed to me to be tied up in the clew;
it was no longer an ordinary case of attempting seduction; there was
in that girl the last chapter of a romance; and so, from that moment,
Rosalie became the object of my attentions. By dint of studying the
girl, I observed in her, as in all women to whom we devote all our
thoughts, a multitude of good qualities: she was neat and clean, and
she was fine-looking--that goes without saying; she had also all the
attractions which our desire imparts to women, in whatever station
of life they may be. A fortnight after the notary's visit, I said to
Rosalie one evening, or rather one morning, for it was very early:

"Tell me all that you know about Madame de Merret."

"Oh, don't ask me that, Monsieur Horace!" she replied in alarm.

Her pretty face darkened, her bright colour vanished, and her eyes lost
their humid, innocent light. But I insisted.

"Well," she rejoined, "as you insist upon it, I will tell you; but keep
my secret!"

"Of course, of course, my dear girl; I will keep all your secrets with
the probity of a thief, and that is the most loyal probity that exists."

"If it's all the same to you," she said, "I prefer that it should be
with your own."

Thereupon she arranged her neckerchief, and assumed the attitude of a
story-teller; for there certainly is an attitude of trust and security
essential to the telling of a story. The best stories are told at a
certain hour, and at the table, as we all are now. No one ever told
a story well while standing, or fasting. But if it were necessary to
reproduce faithfully Rosalie's diffuse eloquence, a whole volume would
hardly suffice. Now, as the event of which she gave me a confused
account occupied, between the loquacity of the notary and that of
Madame Lepas, the exact position of the mean terms of an arithmetical
proportion between the two extremes, it is only necessary for me to
repeat it to you in a few words. Therefore I abridge.

The room which Madame de Merret occupied at La Grande Bretèche was on
the ground floor. A small closet, about four feet deep, in the wall,
served as her wardrobe. Three months before the evening, the incidents
of which I am about to narrate, Madame de Merret had been so seriously
indisposed that her husband left her alone in her room and slept
in a room on the first floor. By one of those chances which it is
impossible to foresee, he returned home, on the evening in question,
two hours later than usual, from the club to which he was accustomed to
go to read the newspapers and to talk politics with the people of the
neighbourhood. His wife supposed that he had come home, and had gone to
bed and to sleep. But the invasion of France had given rise to a lively
discussion; the game of billiards had been very close, and he had lost
forty francs, an enormous sum at Vendôme, where everybody hoards money,
and where manners are confined within the limits of a modesty worthy of
all praise, which perhaps is the source of a true happiness of which no
Parisian has a suspicion.

For some time past, Monsieur de Merret had contented himself with
asking Rosalie if his wife were in bed; at the girl's reply, always in
the affirmative, he went immediately to his own room with the readiness
born of habit and confidence. But on returning home that evening, he
took it into his head to go to Madame de Merret's room, to tell her of
his misadventure and perhaps also to console himself for it. During
dinner he had remarked that Madame de Merret was very coquettishly
dressed; he said to himself, as he walked home from the club, that his
wife was no longer ill, that her convalescence had improved her; but he
perceived it, as husbands notice everything, a little late. Instead of
calling Rosalie, who at that moment was busy in the kitchen, watching
the cook and the coachman play a difficult hand of _brisque_, Monsieur
de Merret went to his wife's room, lighted by his lantern, which he had
placed on the top step of the stairs. His footstep, easily recognised,
resounded under the arches of the corridor. At the instant that he
turned the knob of his wife's door, he fancied that he heard the
door of the closet that I have mentioned close; but when he entered,
Madame de Merret was alone, standing in front of the hearth. The
husband naively concluded that Rosalie was in the closet; however, a
suspicion, that rang in his ears like the striking of a clock, made him
distrustful; he looked at his wife and detected in her eyes something
indefinable of confusion and dismay.

"You come home very late," she said.

That voice, usually so pure and so gracious, seemed to him slightly
changed. He made no reply, but at that moment Rosalie entered the room.
That was a thunderclap to him. He walked about the room, from one
window to another, with a uniform step and with folded arms.

"Have you learned anything distressing, or are you ill?" his wife
timidly asked him, while Rosalie undressed her.

He made no reply.

"You may go," said Madame de Merret to her maid; "I will put on my
curl-papers myself."

She divined some catastrophe simply from the expression of her
husband's face, and she preferred to be alone with him. When Rosalie
was gone, or was supposed to be gone, for she stayed for some moments
in the corridor, Monsieur de Merret took his stand in front of his
wife, and said to her coldly:

"Madame, there is some one in your closet?"

She looked at her husband calmly, and replied simply:

"No, monsieur."

That "no" tore Monsieur de Merret's heart, for he did not believe it;
and yet his wife had never seemed to him purer and more holy than she
seemed at that moment. He rose to open the closet door; Madame de
Merret took his hand, stopped him, looked at him with a melancholy
expression, and said in a voice strangely moved:

"If you find no one, reflect that all is at an end between us!"

The indescribable dignity of his wife's attitude reawoke the
gentleman's profound esteem for her, and inspired in him one of those
resolutions which require only a vaster theatre in order to become
immortal.

"No," he said, "I will not do it, Josephine. In either case, we should
be separated forever. Listen; I know all the purity of your soul, and I
know that you lead the life of a saint, and that you would not commit a
mortal sin to save your life."

At these words, Madame de Merret looked at her husband with a haggard
eye.

"See, here is your crucifix; swear to me before God that there is no
one there, and I will believe you; I will never open that door."

Madame de Merret took the crucifix and said:

"I swear it."

"Louder," said the husband, "and repeat after me: 'I swear before God
that there is no one in that closet.'"

She repeated the words without confusion.

"It is well," said Monsieur de Merret, coldly. After a moment's
silence: "This is a very beautiful thing that I did not know you
possessed," he said, as he examined the crucifix of ebony encrusted
with silver and beautifully carved.

"I found it at Duvivier's; when that party of prisoners passed through
Vendôme last year, he bought it of a Spanish monk."

"Ah!" said Monsieur de Merret, replacing the crucifix on the nail. And
he rang. Rosalie did not keep him waiting. Monsieur de Merret walked
hastily to meet her, led her into the embrasure of the window looking
over the garden, and said to her in a low voice:

"I know that Gorenflot wants to marry you, that poverty alone prevents
you from coming together, and that you have told him that you would not
be his wife until he found some way to become a master mason. Well, go
to him, and tell him to come here with his trowel and his tools. Manage
so as not to wake anybody in his house but him; his fortune will exceed
your desires. Above all, go out of this house without chattering,
or----"

He frowned. Rosalie started, and he called her back.

"Here, take my pass-key," he said.

"Jean!" shouted Monsieur de Merret in the corridor, in a voice of
thunder.

Jean, who was both his coachman and his confidential man, left his game
of _brisque_ and answered the summons.

"Go to bed, all of you," said his master, motioning to him to come
near. And he added, but in an undertone: "When they are all asleep,
_asleep_, do you understand, you will come down and let me know."

Monsieur de Merret, who had not lost sight of his wife while giving his
orders, calmly returned to her side in front of the fire, and began to
tell her about the game of billiards and the discussion at the club.
When Rosalie returned, she found monsieur and madame talking most
amicably. The gentleman had recently had plastered all the rooms which
composed his reception-apartment on the ground floor. Plaster is very
scarce in Vendôme, and the cost of transportation increases the price
materially; so he had purchased quite a large quantity, knowing that
he would readily find customers for any that he might have left. The
circumstance suggested the design which he proceeded to carry out.

"Gorenflot is here, monsieur," said Rosalie in an undertone.

"Let him come in," replied the Picard gentleman aloud.

Madame de Merret turned pale when she saw the mason.

"Gorenflot," said her husband, "go out to the carriage-house and get
some bricks, and bring in enough to wall up the door of this closet;
you can use the plaster that I had left, to plaster the wall." Then,
beckoning Rosalie and the workman to him, he said in a low tone: "Look
you, Gorenflot, you will sleep here to-night. But to-morrow morning
you shall have a passport to go abroad, to a city which I will name to
you. I will give you six thousand francs for your journey. You will
remain ten years in that city; if you are not satisfied there, you can
settle in another city, provided that it is in the same country. You
will go by way of Paris, where you will wait for me. There I will give
you a guarantee to pay you six thousand francs more on your return, in
case you have abided by the conditions of our bargain. At that price
you should be willing to keep silent concerning what you have done here
to-night. As for you, Rosalie, I will give you ten thousand francs,
which will be paid to you on the day of your wedding, provided that
you marry Gorenflot; but, in order to be married, you will have to be
silent; if not, no dower."

"Rosalie," said Madame de Merret, "come here and arrange my hair.

The husband walked tranquilly back and forth, watching the door,
the mason, and his wife, but without any outward sign of injurious
suspicion. Gorenflot was obliged to make a noise; Madame de Merret
seized an opportunity, when the workman was dropping some bricks, and
when her husband was at the other end of the room, to say to Rosalie:

"A thousand francs a year to you, my dear child, if you can tell
Gorenflot to leave a crack at the bottom.--Go and help him," she said
coolly, aloud.

Monsieur and Madame de Merret said not a word while Gorenflot was
walling up the door. That silence was the result of design on the
husband's part, for he did not choose to allow his wife a pretext for
uttering words of double meaning; and on Madame de Merret's part, it
was either prudence or pride. When the wall was half built, the crafty
mason seized a moment when the gentleman's back was turned, to strike
his pickaxe through one of the panes of the glass door. That act gave
Madame de Merret to understand that Rosalie had spoken to Gorenflot.
At that moment all three saw a man's face, dark and sombre, with black
hair and fiery eyes. Before her husband had turned, the poor woman had
time to make a motion of her head to the stranger, to whom that signal
meant, "Hope!"

At four o'clock, about daybreak, for it was September, the work was
finished. The mason remained in the house under the eye of Jean, and
Monsieur de Merret slept in his wife's chamber. In the morning, on
rising, he said carelessly:

"Ah! by the way, I must go to the mayor's office for the passport."

He put his hat on his head, walked towards the door, turned back and
took the crucifix. His wife fairly trembled with joy.

"He will go to Duvivier's," she thought.

As soon as the gentleman had left the room, Madame de Merret rang for
Rosalie; then in a terrible voice she cried:

"The pickaxe! the pickaxe! and to work! I saw how Gorenflot understood
last night; we shall have time to make a hole, and stop it up."

In a twinkling Rosalie brought her mistress a sort of small axe, and
she, with an ardour which no words can describe, began to demolish the
wall. She had already loosened several bricks, when, as she stepped
back to deal a blow even harder than the preceding ones, she saw
Monsieur de Merret behind her; she fainted.

"Put madame on her bed," said the gentleman, coldly.

Anticipating what was likely to happen during his absence, he had laid
a trap for his wife; he had simply written to the mayor, and had sent a
messenger to Duvivier. The jeweller arrived just as the disorder in the
room had been repaired.

"Duvivier," asked Monsieur de Merret, "didn't you buy some crucifixes
from the Spaniards who passed through here?"

"No, monsieur."

"Very well; I thank you," he said, exchanging with his wife a tigerlike
glance.--"Jean," he added, turning towards his confidential servant,
"you will have my meals served in Madame de Merret's room; she is ill,
and I shall not leave her until she is well again."

The cruel man remained with his wife twenty days. During the first
days, when there was a noise in the walled-up closet and Josephine
attempted to implore him in behalf of the dying unknown, he replied,
not allowing her to utter a word:

"You have sworn on the cross that there was no one there."


1832.



The Conscript


TO MY DEAR FRIEND, ALBERT MARCHAND DE LA RIBELLERIE, TOURS, 1836.

    "Sometimes they saw him, by a phenomenon of vision or of
    locomotion, abolish space in its two elements of time
    and distance, one of which is intellectual and the other
    physical."--_Intellectual History of Louis Lambert._



On a certain evening in the month of November, 1793, the principal
people of Carentan were gathered in the salon of Madame de Dey, at
whose house the assembly was held daily. Some circumstances which would
not have attracted attention in a large city, but which were certain
to cause a flutter in a small one, lent to this customary meeting
an unusual degree of interest. Two days before, Madame de Dey had
closed her door to her guests, whom she had also excused herself from
receiving on the preceding day, on the pretext of an indisposition.
In ordinary times, these two occurrences would have produced the same
effect in Carentan that the closing of all the theatres would produce
in Paris. In those days existence was to a certain extent incomplete.
And in 1793 the conduct of Madame de Dey might have had the most
deplorable results. The slightest venturesome proceeding almost always
became a question of life or death for the nobles of that period. In
order to understand the intense curiosity and the narrow-minded cunning
which enlivened the Norman countenances of all those people during the
evening, but especially in order that we may share the secret anxiety
of Madame de Dey, it is necessary to explain the rôle that she played
at Carentan. As the critical position in which she found herself at
that moment was undoubtedly identical with that of many people during
the Revolution, the sympathies of more than one reader will give the
needed touch of colour to this narrative.

Madame de Dey, the widow of a lieutenant-general and chevalier of the
Orders, had left the court at the beginning of the emigration. As she
possessed considerable property in the neighbourhood of Carentan, she
had taken refuge there, hoping that the influence of the Terror would
not be much felt so far from Paris. This prevision, based upon exact
knowledge of the province, proved to be just. The Revolution did little
devastation in Lower Normandy. Although, when Madame de Dey visited
her estates formerly, she used to see only the noble families of the
province, she had from policy thrown her house open to the leading
_bourgeois_ of the town, and to the new authorities, striving to make
them proud of their conquest of her, without arousing either hatred
or jealousy in their minds. Gracious and amiable, endowed with that
indescribable gentleness of manner which attracts without resort to
self-abasement or to entreaties, she had succeeded in winning general
esteem by the most exquisite tact, the wise promptings of which had
enabled her to maintain her stand on the narrow line where she could
satisfy the demands of that mixed society, without humiliating the
self-esteem of the parvenus or offending that of her former friends.

About thirty-eight years of age, she still retained, not that fresh and
buxom beauty which distinguishes the young women of Lower Normandy, but
a slender, and, so to speak, aristocratic beauty. Her features were
small and refined, her figure slender and willowy. When she spoke, her
pale face would seem to brighten and to take on life. Her great black
eyes were full of suavity, but their placid and devout expression
seemed to indicate that the active principle of her existence had
ceased to be. Married in the flower of her youth to an old and jealous
soldier, the falseness of her position in the centre of a dissipated
court contributed much, no doubt, to cast a veil of serious melancholy
over a face on which the charm and vivacity of love must formerly have
shone bright. Constantly obliged to restrain the ingenuous impulses,
the emotions of a woman, at a time when she still feels instead of
reflecting, passion had remained unsullied in the depths of her
heart. So it was that her principal attraction was due to the youthful
simplicity which at intervals her face betrayed, and which gave to
her ideas a naïve expression of desire. Her aspect imposed respect,
but there were always in her bearing and in her voice symptoms of an
outreaching towards an unknown future, as in a young girl; the most
unsusceptible man soon found himself falling in love with her, and
nevertheless retained a sort of respectful dread, inspired by her
courteous manners, which were most imposing. Her soul, naturally great,
and strengthened by painful struggles, seemed to be too far removed
from the common herd, and men realised their limitations.

That soul necessarily demanded an exalted passion. So that Madame de
Dey's affections were concentrated in a single sentiment, the sentiment
of maternity. The happiness and pleasures of which her married life
had been deprived, she found in her excessive love for her son. She
loved him not only with the pure and profound devotion of a mother,
but with the coquetry of a mistress, the jealousy of a wife. She was
unhappy when separated from him, anxious during his absence, could
never see enough of him, lived only in him and for him. In order to
make men understand the strength of this feeling, it will suffice to
add that this son was not only Madame de Dey's only child, but her last
remaining relative, the only living being to whom she could attach the
fears, the hopes, and the joys of her life. The late Count de Dey was
the last scion of his family, as she was the last heiress of hers. Thus
human schemes and interests were in accord with the noblest cravings
of the soul to intensify in the countess's heart a sentiment which is
always strong in women. She had brought up her son only with infinite
difficulty, which had made him dearer than ever to her; twenty times
the doctors prophesied his death; but, trusting in her presentiments
and her hopes, she had the inexpressible joy of seeing him pass
through the dangers of childhood unscathed, and of exulting in the
upbuilding of his constitution in spite of the decrees of the faculty.

Thanks to constant care, her son had grown and had attained such
perfect development, that at twenty years of age he was considered
one of the most accomplished cavaliers at Versailles. Lastly--a piece
of good fortune which does not crown the efforts of all mothers--she
was adored by her son; their hearts were bound together by sympathies
that were fraternal. Even if they had not been connected by the
decree of nature, they would have felt instinctively for each other
that affection of one being for another so rarely met with in life.
Appointed sublieutenant of dragoons at eighteen, the young man had
complied with the prevailing ideas of the requirements of honour at
that period, by following the princes when they emigrated.

Thus Madame de Dey, of noble birth, wealthy, and the mother of an
émigré, was fully alive to the dangers of her painful situation. As
she had no other aim than to preserve a great fortune for her son, she
had renounced the happiness of accompanying him; but, when she read
the harsh laws by virtue of which the Republic daily confiscated the
property of the émigrés at Carentan, she applauded herself for her
courageous act. Was she not guarding her son's treasures at the peril
of her life? Then, when she learned of the shocking executions ordered
by the Convention, she slept undisturbed, happy to know that her only
treasure was in safety, far from all perils and all scaffolds. She took
pleasure in the belief that she had adopted the best course to save all
his fortunes at once. Making the concessions to this secret thought
which the disasters of the time demanded, without compromising her
womanly dignity or her aristocratic beliefs, she enveloped her sorrows
in impenetrable mystery. She had realised the difficulties which
awaited her at Carentan. To go thither and assume the first place in
society--was it not equivalent to defying the scaffold every day? But,
sustained by a mother's courage, she succeeded in winning the affection
of the poor by relieving all sorts of misery indiscriminately, and made
herself necessary to the rich by taking the lead in their pleasures.

She received the prosecuting attorney of the commune, the mayor, the
president of the district, the public accuser, and even the judges of
the Revolutionary Tribunal. The first four of these functionaries,
being unmarried, paid court to her, in the hope of marrying her,
whether by terrifying her by the injury which they had it in their
power to do her, or by offering her their protection. The public
accuser, formerly an attorney at Caen, where he had been employed by
the countess, tried to win her love by conduct full of devotion and
generosity. A dangerous scheme! He was the most formidable of all the
suitors. He alone was thoroughly acquainted with the condition of his
former client's large fortune. His passion was inevitably intensified
by all the cravings of an avarice which rested upon almost unlimited
power, upon the right of life or death throughout the district.
This man, who was still young, displayed so much nobility in his
behaviour that Madame de Dey had been unable as yet to make up her
mind concerning him. But, scorning the danger that lay in a contest of
wits with Normans, she employed the inventive genius and the cunning
which nature has allotted to woman, to play those rivals against one
another. By gaining time, she hoped to arrive safe and sound at the
end of her troubles. At that time, the royalists in the interior of
France flattered themselves that each day would see the close of the
Revolution; and that conviction was the ruin of a great many of them.

Despite these obstacles, the countess had skillfully maintained her
independence down to the day when, with incomprehensible imprudence,
she had conceived the idea of closing her door. The interest which she
inspired was so profound and so genuine that the people who came to
her house that evening were greatly distressed when they learned that
it was impossible for her to receive them; then, with the outspoken
curiosity which is a part of provincial manners, they inquired
concerning the misfortune, the sorrow, or the disease which had
afflicted Madame de Dey. To these questions, an old housekeeper called
Brigitte replied that her mistress had shut herself into her room, and
would not see anybody, not even her servants. The cloistral existence,
so to speak, which the people of a small town lead, gives birth in
them to such an unconquerable habit of analysing and commenting upon
the actions of other people, that, after expressing their sympathy for
Madame de Dey, without an idea whether she was really happy or unhappy,
they all began to speculate upon the causes of her abrupt seclusion.

"If she were ill," said one curious individual, "she would have sent
for the doctor; but the doctor was at my house all day, playing chess.
He said with a laugh that in these days there is but one disease, and
that is unfortunately incurable."

This jest was put forward apologetically. Thereupon, men, women, old
men, and maidens began to search the vast field of conjecture. Every
one fancied that he caught a glimpse of a secret, and that secret
engrossed the imaginations of them all. The next day, the suspicions
became embittered. As life in a small town is open to all, the women
were the first to learn that Brigitte had laid in more supplies than
usual at the market. That fact could not be denied. Brigitte had
been seen in the morning, in the square, and--a most extraordinary
thing--she had bought the only hare that was offered for sale. Now the
whole town knew that Madame de Dey did not like game. The hare became
the starting-point for endless suppositions. When taking their daily
walk, old men observed in the countess's house a sort of concentrated
activity which was made manifest by the very precautions which the
servants took to conceal it. The valet was seen beating a rug in the
garden; on the day before, no one would have paid any heed to it; but
that rug became a link in the chain of evidence to support the romances
which everybody was engaged in constructing. Every person had his own.

On the second day, when they learned that Madame de Dey proclaimed
that she was indisposed, the principal persons of Carentan met in the
evening at the house of the mayor's brother, an ex-merchant, a married
man, of upright character and generally esteemed, and for whom the
countess entertained a high regard. There all the aspirants to the
rich widow's hand had a more or less probable story to tell; and each
of them hoped to turn to his advantage the secret circumstances which
forced her to compromise herself thus. The public accuser imagined a
complete drama in which Madame de Dey's son was brought to her house
by night. The mayor favoured the idea of a priest who had not taken
the oath, arriving from La Vendée and asking her for shelter; but
the purchase of a hare on Friday embarrassed the mayor greatly. The
president of the district was strong in his conviction that it was a
leader of Chouans or of Vendeans, hotly pursued. Others suggested a
nobleman escaped from one of the prisons of Paris. In short, one and
all suspected the countess of being guilty of one of those acts of
generosity which the laws of that day stigmatised as crimes, and which
might lead to the scaffold. The public accuser said in an undertone
that they must hold their tongues, and try to snatch the unfortunate
woman from the abyss towards which she was rapidly precipitating
herself.

"If you talk about this business," he added, "I shall be obliged to
interfere, to search her house, and then----"

He did not finish his sentence, but they all understood his reticence.

The countess's sincere friends were so alarmed for her that, during
the morning of the third day, the procureur-syndic of the commune
caused his wife to write her a note to urge her to receive as usual
that evening. The old merchant, being bolder, called at Madame de
Dey's house in the morning. Trusting in the service which he proposed
to render her, he demanded to be shown to her presence, and was
thunderstruck when he saw her in the garden, engaged in cutting the
last flowers from the beds, to supply her vases.

"Doubtless she has been sheltering her lover," said the old man to
himself, seized with compassion for the fascinating woman.

The strange expression on the countess's face confirmed him in his
suspicions. Deeply touched by that devotion so natural to a woman, and
which always moves our admiration, because all men are flattered by
the sacrifices which a woman makes for a man, the merchant informed
the countess of the reports which were current in the town, and of the
dangerous position in which she stood.

"But," he said, as he concluded, "although there are some among our
officials who are not indisposed to forgive you for an act of heroism
of which a priest is the object, no one will pity you if they discover
that you are sacrificing yourself to the affections of the heart."

At these words Madame de Dey looked at the old man with an expression
of desperation and terror which made him shudder, old man though he was.

"Come," said she, taking his hand and leading him to her bedroom,
where, after making sure that they were alone, she took from her bosom
a soiled and wrinkled letter. "Read," she cried, making a violent
effort to pronounce the word.

She fell into her chair as if utterly overwhelmed. While the old
gentleman was feeling for his spectacles and wiping them, she fastened
her eyes upon him and scrutinised him for the first time with
curiosity; then she said softly, in an altered voice:

"I trust you."

"Am I not sharing your crime?" replied the old man, simply.

She started; for the first time her heart found itself in sympathy with
another heart in that little town. The old merchant suddenly understood
both the distress and the joy of the countess. Her son had taken part
in the Granville expedition; he wrote to his mother from prison,
imparting to her one sad but sweet hope. Having no doubt of his success
in escaping, he mentioned three days in which he might appear at her
house in disguise. The fatal letter contained heartrending farewells
in case he should not be at Carentan on the evening of the third day;
and he begged his mother to hand a considerable sum of money to the
messenger, who had undertaken to carry that letter to her through
innumerable perils. The paper shook in the old man's hand.

"And this is the third day!" cried Madame de Dey, as she sprang to her
feet, seized the letter, and began to pace the floor.

"You have been imprudent," said the merchant; "why did you lay in
provisions?"

"Why, he may arrive almost starved, worn out with fatigue, and----"

She did not finish.

"I am sure of my brother," said the old man, "and I will go and enlist
him on your side."

In this emergency the old tradesman recovered the shrewdness which
he had formerly displayed in his business, and gave advice instinct
with prudence and sagacity. After agreeing upon all that they were
both to say and to do, the old man went about, on cleverly devised
pretexts, to the principal houses of Carentan, where he announced that
Madame de Dey, whom he had just seen, would receive that evening in
spite of her indisposition. Pitting his shrewdness against the inborn
Norman cunning, in the examination to which each family subjected him
in regard to the nature of the countess's illness, he succeeded in
leading astray almost everybody who was interested in that mysterious
affair. His first visit produced a marvellous effect. He stated, in
the presence of a gouty old lady, that Madame de Dey had nearly died
of an attack of gout in the stomach; as the famous Tronchin had once
recommended her, in such a case, to place on her chest the skin of a
hare, flayed alive, and to stay in bed and not move, the countess, who
had been at death's door two days before, having followed scrupulously
Tronchin's advice, found herself sufficiently recovered to see those
who cared to call on her that evening. That fable had a prodigious
success, and the Carentan doctor, a royalist in secret, added to its
effect by the air of authority with which he discussed the remedy.
Nevertheless, suspicion had taken too deep root in the minds of some
obstinate persons, or some philosophers, to be entirely dispelled;
so that, in the evening, those who were regular habitués of Madame
de Dey's salon arrived there early; some in order to watch her face,
others from friendly regard; and the majority were impressed by the
marvellous nature of her recovery.

They found the countess seated at the corner of the huge fireplace
of her salon, which was almost as modestly furnished as those of
the people of Carentan; for, in order not to offend the sensitive
self-esteem of her guests, she denied herself the luxury to which she
had always been accustomed, and had changed nothing in her house.
The floor of the reception-room was not even polished. She left
old-fashioned dark tapestries on the walls, she retained the native
furniture, burned tallow candles, and followed the customs of the town,
espousing provincial life, and recoiling neither from the most rasping
pettinesses nor the most unpleasant privations. But, realising that her
guests would forgive her for any display of splendour which aimed at
their personal comfort, she neglected nothing when it was a question
of affording them enjoyment; so that she always gave them excellent
dinners. She even went so far as to make a pretence at miserliness, to
please those calculating minds; and after causing certain concessions
in the way of luxurious living to be extorted from her, she seemed to
comply with a good grace.

About seven o'clock in the evening, therefore, the best of the
uninteresting society of Carentan was assembled at her house, and
formed a large circle about the fireplace. The mistress of the house,
sustained in her misery by the compassionate glances which the old
tradesman bestowed upon her, submitted with extraordinary courage
to the minute questionings, the trivial and stupid reasoning of her
guests. But at every blow of the knocker at her door, and whenever she
heard footsteps in the street, she concealed her emotion by raising
some question of interest to the welfare of the province. She started
noisy discussions concerning the quality of the season's cider, and
was so well seconded by her confidant that her company almost forgot
to watch her, her manner was so natural and her self-possession
so imperturbable. The public accuser and one of the judges of the
Revolutionary Tribunal sat silent, carefully watching every movement
of her face and listening to every sound in the house, notwithstanding
the uproar; and on several occasions they asked her very embarrassing
questions, which, however, the countess answered with marvellous
presence of mind. Mothers have such an inexhaustible store of courage!
When Madame de Dey had arranged the card-tables, placed everybody at a
table of boston, reversis, or whist, she remained a few moments talking
with some young people, with the utmost nonchalance, playing her part
like a consummate actress. She suggested a game of loto--said that she
alone knew where it was, and disappeared.

"I am suffocating, my poor Brigitte!" she cried, wiping away the
tears that gushed from her eyes, which gleamed with fever, anxiety,
and impatience. "He does not come," she continued, looking about the
chamber to which she had flown. "Here, I breathe again and I live.
A few moments more, and he will be here; for he still lives, I am
certain; my heart tells me so! Do you hear nothing, Brigitte? Oh! I
would give the rest of my life to know whether he is in prison or
travelling through the country! I would like not to think----"

She looked about again to make sure that everything was in order in
the room. A bright fire was burning on the hearth; the shutters were
carefully closed; the furniture glistened with cleanliness; the way in
which the bed was made proved that the countess had assisted Brigitte
in the smallest details; and her hopes betrayed themselves in the
scrupulous care which seemed to have been taken in that room, where the
sweet charm of love and its most chaste caresses exhaled in the perfume
of the flowers. A mother alone could have anticipated the desires of a
soldier, and have arranged to fulfil them all so perfectly. A dainty
meal, choice wines, clean linen, and dry shoes--in a word, all that was
likely to be necessary or agreeable to a weary traveller was there set
forth, so that he need lack nothing, so that the joy of home might make
known to him a mother's love.

"Brigitte?" said the countess in a heartrending tone, as she placed a
chair at the table, as if to give reality to her longings, to intensify
the strength of her illusions.

"Oh! he will come, madame; he isn't far away. I don't doubt that he's
alive and on his way here," replied Brigitte. "I put a key in the Bible
and I held it on my fingers while Cottin read the Gospel of St. John;
and, madame, the key didn't turn."

"Is that a sure sign?" asked the countess.

"Oh! it is certain, madame; I would wager my salvation that he is still
alive. God can't make a mistake."

"Despite the danger that awaits him here, I would like right well to
see him."

"Poor Monsieur Auguste!" cried Brigitte; "I suppose he is somewhere on
the road, on foot!"

"And there is the church clock striking eight!" cried the countess, in
dismay.

She was afraid that she had remained longer than she ought in that
room, where she had faith in the life of her son because she looked
upon all that meant life to him. She went down-stairs; but before
entering the salon, she stood a moment in the vestibule, listening to
see if any sound woke the silent echoes of the town. She smiled at
Brigitte's husband, who was on sentry-duty, and whose eyes seemed dazed
by dint of strained attention to the murmurs in the square and in the
streets. She saw her son in everything and everywhere. In a moment she
returned to the salon, affecting a jovial air, and began to play loto
with some young girls; but from time to time she complained of feeling
ill, and returned to her chair at the fireplace.

       *       *       *       *       *

Such was the condition of persons and things in the house of Madame de
Dey, while, on the road from Paris to Cherbourg, a young man dressed
in a dark carmagnole, the regulation costume at that period, strode
along towards Carentan. At the beginning of the conscription, there was
little or no discipline. The demands of the moment made it impossible
for the Republic to equip all of its soldiers at once, and it was no
rare thing to see the roads covered with conscripts still wearing their
civilian dress. These young men marched in advance of their battalions
to the halting-places, or loitered behind, for their progress was
regulated by their ability to endure the fatigue of a long march.

The traveller with whom we have to do was some distance in advance
of the column of conscripts on its way to Cherbourg, which the
mayor of Carentan was momentarily expecting, in order to distribute
lodging-tickets among them. The young man walked with a heavy but
still firm step, and his bearing seemed to indicate that he had long
been familiar with the hardships of military life. Although the moon
was shining on the pastures about Carentan, he had noticed some great
white clouds which seemed on the point of discharging snow upon the
country, and the fear of being surprised by a storm doubtless quickened
his gait, which was more rapid than his weariness made comfortable.
He had an almost empty knapsack on his back, and carried in his hand
a boxwood cane, cut from one of the high, broad hedges formed by that
shrub around most of the estates in Lower Normandy. The solitary
traveller entered Carentan, whose towers, of fantastic aspect in the
moonlight, had appeared to him a moment before. His steps awoke the
echoes of the silent streets, where he met no one; he was obliged to
ask a weaver who was still at work to point out the mayor's abode.
That magistrate lived only a short distance away, and the conscript
soon found himself safe under the porch of his house, where he seated
himself on a stone bench, waiting for the lodging-ticket which he had
asked for. But, being summoned by the mayor, he appeared before him,
and was subjected to a careful examination. The soldier was a young man
of attractive appearance, who apparently belonged to some family of
distinction. His manner indicated noble birth, and the intelligence due
to a good education was manifest in his features.

"What is your name?" the mayor asked, with a shrewd glance at him.

"Julien Jussieu," replied the conscript.

"And you come from----?" said the magistrate, with an incredulous smile.

"From Paris."

"Your comrades must be far behind?" continued the Norman in a mocking
tone.

"I am three leagues ahead of the battalion."

"Doubtless some sentimental reason brings you to Carentan, citizen
conscript?" queried the mayor, slyly. "It is all right," he added,
imposing silence, with a wave of the hand, upon the young man, who was
about to speak. "We know where to send you. Here," he said, handing
him the lodging-ticket; "here, _Citizen Jussieu_."

There was a perceptible tinge of irony in the tone in which the
magistrate uttered these last two words, as he held out a ticket upon
which Madame de Dey's name was written. The young man read the address
with an air of curiosity.

"He knows very well that he hasn't far to go, and when he gets outside,
it won't take him long to cross the square," cried the mayor, speaking
to himself, while the young man went out. "He's a bold young fellow.
May God protect him! He has an answer for everything. However, if any
other than I had asked to see his papers, he would have been lost!"

At that moment the clock of Carentan struck half past nine; the torches
were being lighted in Madame de Dey's anteroom, and the servants were
assisting their masters and mistresses to put on their cloaks, their
overcoats, and their mantles; the card-players had settled their
accounts and were about to withdraw in a body, according to the usual
custom in all small towns.

"It seems that the public accuser proposes to remain," said a lady,
observing that that important functionary was missing when they were
about to separate to seek their respective homes, after exhausting all
the formulas of leave-taking.

The redoubtable magistrate was in fact alone with the countess, who
waited in fear and trembling until it should please him to go.

"Citizeness," he said at length, after a long silence in which there
was something horrible, "I am here to see that the laws of the Republic
are observed."

Madame de Dey shuddered.

"Have you no revelations to make to me?" he demanded.

"None," she replied in amazement.

"Ah, madame!" cried the accuser, sitting down beside her and changing
his tone, "at this moment, for lack of a word, either you or I may
bring our heads to the scaffold. I have observed your temperament, your
heart, your manners, too closely to share the error into which you have
led your guests to-night. You are expecting your son, I am absolutely
certain."

The countess made a gesture of denial; but she had turned pale, the
muscles of her face had contracted, by virtue of the overpowering
necessity to display a deceitful calmness, and the accuser's implacable
eye lost none of her movements.

"Very well; receive him," continued the revolutionary magistrate; "but
do not let him remain under your roof later than seven o'clock in the
morning. At daybreak I shall come here armed with a denunciation which
I shall procure."

She gazed at him with a stupefied air, which would have aroused the
pity of a tigress.

"I shall prove," he said in a gentle tone, "the falseness of the
denunciation by a thorough search, and the nature of my report will
place you out of the reach of any future suspicion. I shall speak of
your patriotic gifts, of your true citizenship, and we shall _all_ be
saved."

Madame de Dey feared a trap; she did not move, but her face was on fire
and her tongue was frozen. A blow of the knocker rang through the house.

"Ah!" cried the terrified mother, falling on her knees. "Save him! save
him!"

"Yes, let us save him," rejoined the public accuser, with a passionate
glance at her; "let us save him though it cost _us_ our lives."

"I am lost!" she cried, while the accuser courteously raised her.

"O madame!" he replied with a grand oratorical gesture, "I do not
choose to owe you to any one but yourself."

"Madame, here he----" cried Brigitte, who thought that her mistress was
alone.

At sight of the public accuser, the old servant, whose face was flushed
with joy, became rigid and deathly pale.

"What is it, Brigitte?" asked the magistrate, in a mild and meaning
tone.

"A conscript that the mayor has sent here to lodge," replied the
servant, showing the ticket.

"That is true," said the accuser, after reading the paper; "a battalion
is to arrive here to-night."

And he went out.

The countess was too anxious at that moment to believe in the sincerity
of her former attorney to entertain the slightest suspicion; she ran
swiftly up-stairs, having barely strength enough to stand upright; then
she opened the door of her bedroom, saw her son, and rushed into his
arms, well-nigh lifeless.

"O my son, my son!" she cried, sobbing, and covering him with frenzied
kisses.

"Madame----" said the stranger.

"Oh! it isn't he!" she cried, stepping back in dismay and standing
before the conscript, at whom she gazed with a haggard expression.

"Blessed Lord God, what a resemblance!" said Brigitte.

There was a moment's silence, and the stranger himself shuddered at the
aspect of Madame de Dey.

"Ah, monsieur!" she said, leaning upon Brigitte's husband, and feeling
then in all its force the grief of which the first pang had almost
killed her; "monsieur, I cannot endure to see you any longer; allow my
servants to take my place and to attend to your wants."

She went down to her own apartments, half carried by Brigitte and her
old servant.

"What, madame,!" cried the maid, "is that man going to sleep in
Monsieur Auguste's bed, wear Monsieur Auguste's slippers, eat the pie
that I made for Monsieur Auguste? They may guillotine me, but I----"

"Brigitte!" cried Madame de Dey.

"Hold your tongue, chatterbox!" said her husband in a low voice; "do
you want to kill madame?"

At that moment the conscript made a noise in his room, drawing his
chair to the table.

"I will not stay here," cried Madame de Dey; "I will go to the
greenhouse, where I can hear better what goes on outside during the
night."

She was still wavering between fear of having lost her son and the hope
of seeing him appear. The night was disquietingly silent. There was
one ghastly moment for the countess, when the battalion of conscripts
marched into the town, and each man repaired to his lodging. There
were disappointed hopes at every footstep and every sound; then nature
resumed its terrible tranquillity. Towards morning the countess was
obliged to return to her room. Brigitte, who watched her mistress every
moment, finding that she did not come out again, went to her room and
found the countess dead.

"She probably heard the conscript dressing and walking about in
Monsieur Auguste's room, singing their d----d _Marseillaise_ as if he
were in a stable!" cried Brigitte. "It was that which killed her!"

The countess's death was caused by a more intense emotion, and probably
by some terrible vision. At the precise moment when Madame de Dey
died at Carentan, her son was shot in Le Morbihan. We might add this
tragic story to the mass of other observations on that sympathy which
defies the law of space--documents which some few solitary scholars are
collecting with scientific curiosity, and which will one day serve as
basis for a new science, a science which till now has lacked only its
man of genius.


1831.



A Passion in the Desert


"The sight was fearful!" she cried, as we left the menagerie of
Monsieur Martin.

She had been watching that daring performer _work_ with his hyena, to
speak in the style of the posters.

"How on earth," she continued, "can he have tamed his animals so as to
be sure enough of their affection to----"

"That fact, which seems to you a problem," I replied, interrupting her,
"is, however, perfectly natural."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, while an incredulous smile flickered on her lip.

"Do you mean to say that you think that beasts are entirely devoid of
passions?" I asked her. "Let me tell you that we can safely give them
credit for all the vices due to our state of civilisation."

She looked at me with an air of astonishment.

"But," I continued, "when I first saw Monsieur Martin, I admit that
I exclaimed in surprise, as you did. I happened to be beside an old
soldier who had lost his right leg, and who had gone into the menagerie
with me. His face had struck me. It was one of those dauntless faces,
stamped with the seal of war, upon which Napoleon's battles are
written. That old trooper had above all a frank and joyous manner,
which always prejudices me favourably. Doubtless he was one of those
fellows whom nothing surprises, who find food for laughter in the last
contortions of a comrade, whom they bury or strip merrily; who defy
cannon-balls fearlessly, who never deliberate long, and who would
fraternise with the devil. After looking closely at the proprietor
of the menagerie as he came out of the dressing-room, my companion
curled his lip, expressing disdain by that sort of meaning glance which
superior men affect in order to distinguish themselves from dupes. And
so, when I waxed enthusiastic over Monsieur Martin's courage, he smiled
and said to me with a knowing look, shaking his head: 'I know all about
it!'

"'What? You do?' I replied. 'If you will explain what you mean, I shall
be very much obliged.'

"After a few moments, during which we introduced ourselves, we went
to dine at the first restaurant that we saw. At dessert, a bottle of
champagne made that interesting old soldier's memory perfectly clear.
He told me his history, and I saw that he was justified in exclaiming:
'I know all about it!'"

When we reached her house, she teased me so, and made me so many
promises, that I consented to repeat to her the soldier's story. And
so the next day she received this episode of an epic which might be
entitled _The French in Egypt_.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the time of General Desaix's expedition to Upper Egypt, a Provençal
soldier, having fallen into the hands of the Maugrabins, was taken by
those Arabs to the desert which lies beyond the cataracts of the Nile.
In order to place between themselves and the French army a sufficient
space to ensure their safety, the Maugrabins made a forced march
and did not halt until dark. They camped about a well, concealed by
palm-trees, near which they had previously buried some provisions.
Having no idea that the thought of flight would ever occur to their
prisoner, they simply bound his hands, and one and all went to sleep,
after eating a few dates and giving their horses some barley. When
the bold Provençal saw that his enemies had ceased to watch him, he
made use of his teeth to get possession of a scimitar; then, using his
knees to hold the blade in place, he cut the cords which prevented him
from using his hands, and was free. He at once seized a carbine and a
poniard, and took the precaution to lay in a supply of dried dates,
a small bag of barley, and some powder and ball; then he strapped a
scimitar about his waist, mounted a horse, and rode swiftly away in
the direction in which he supposed the French army to be. In his haste
to reach camp, he urged his already tired beast so hard that the poor
creature died, his flanks torn to shreds, leaving the Frenchman in the
midst of the desert.

After walking through the sand for a long time, with the courage of an
escaping convict, the soldier was obliged to stop; the day was drawing
to a close. Despite the beauty of the sky of an Eastern night, he did
not feel strong enough to go on. Luckily he had been able to reach an
elevation, on top of which rose a few palm-trees, whose foliage, seen
long before, had aroused the sweetest hope in his heart. His weariness
was so great that he lay down upon a rock shaped like a camp-bed,
and fell asleep there without taking the least precaution to protect
himself while asleep. The loss of his life seemed inevitable, and his
last thought was a regret. He had already repented of having left the
Maugrabins, whose wandering life had begun to seem delightful to him
since he was far away from them and helpless.

He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays, falling
perpendicularly upon the granite, caused an intolerable heat. For the
Provençal had been foolish enough to lie on the side opposite the
shadow cast by the majestic and verdant fronds of the palm-trees. He
looked at those solitary trunks, and shuddered. They reminded him of
the graceful shafts, crowned with long leaves, for which the columns
of the Saracen cathedral at Arles are noted. But when, after counting
the palm-trees, he glanced about him, the most ghastly despair settled
about his heart. He saw a boundless ocean; the sombre sands of the
desert stretched away in every direction as far as the eye could see,
and glittered like a steel blade in a bright light. He did not know
whether it was a sea of glass or a succession of lakes as smooth as a
mirror. Rising in waves, a fiery vapour whirled above that quivering
soil. The sky shone with a resplendent Oriental glare, of discouraging
purity, for it left nothing for the imagination to desire. Sky and
earth were aflame. The silence terrified by its wild and desolate
majesty. The infinite, vast expanse weighed upon the soul from every
side; not a cloud in the sky, not a breath in the air, not a rift on
the surface of the sand, which seemed to move in tiny waves; and the
horizon terminated, as at sea in fine weather, with a line of light
as slender as the edge of a sword. The Provençal embraced the trunk
of a palm-tree as if it were the body of a friend; then, sheltered by
the straight, slender shadow which the tree cast upon the stone, he
wept, seated himself anew, and remained there, gazing with profound
melancholy at the implacable scene before his eyes. He shouted as if to
tempt the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hillock, made
in the distance a faint sound which awoke no echo; the echo was in his
heart. The Provençal was twenty-two years old; he cocked his carbine.

"I shall have time enough for that!" he said to himself, as he placed
the weapon on the ground.

Gazing alternately at the dark stretch of sand and the blue expanse
of the sky, the soldier dreamed of France. He smelt with a thrill of
rapture the gutters of Paris, he recalled the towns through which he
had marched, the faces of his comrades, the most trivial details of
his life. In truth, his southern imagination soon brought before him
the stones of his dear Provence, in the eddying waves of heat which
shimmered above the vast sheet of the desert. Dreading all the perils
of that cruel mirage, he descended the slope opposite that by which he
had ascended the mound the night before. He was overjoyed to discover a
sort of cave, hollowed out by nature in the huge fragments of granite
which formed the base of that hillock. The remains of a mat indicated
that the shelter had once been inhabited. Then, a few steps away, he
saw some palm-trees laden with dates. At that sight the instinct which
attaches us to life reawoke in his heart. He hoped to live long enough
to await the passing of some Maugrabins; or perhaps he should soon hear
the roar of cannon; for at that moment Bonaparte was marching through
Egypt. Revived by that thought, the Frenchman shook down several
clusters of ripe fruit, beneath the weight of which the trees seemed to
bend, and he assured himself, on tasting that unlooked-for manna, that
the previous occupant of the grotto had cultivated the palm-trees; in
truth, the fresh and toothsome flesh of the dates demonstrated the care
of his predecessor. The Provençal passed abruptly from the gloomiest
despair to the most frantic joy.

He returned to the top of the hill, and employed himself during the
rest of the day cutting down one of the sterile palm-trees, which had
served him for a roof the night before. A vague memory brought to
his mind the beasts of the desert, and, anticipating that they might
come to drink at the spring which gushed out of the sand at the foot
of the bowlders, he determined to guard himself against their visits
by placing a barrier against the door of his hermitage. Despite his
zeal, despite the strength which the fear of being eaten up during
his sleep gave him, it was impossible for him to cut the palm-tree
into pieces during that day, but he succeeded in felling it. When,
towards evening, that king of the desert fell, the noise of its fall
echoed in the distance, and the solitude uttered a sort of moan; the
soldier shuddered as if he had heard a voice predicting disaster. But
like an heir who does not mourn long over the death of his parent, he
stripped that noble tree of the great green leaves which are its poetic
adornment, and used them to repair the mat, upon which he lay down to
sleep. Fatigued by the heat and hard work, he fell asleep beneath the
red vault of the grotto.

In the middle of the night, his slumber was disturbed by a peculiar
noise. He sat up, and the profound silence which prevailed enabled him
to recognise a breathing whose savage energy could not belong to a
human being. A terrible fear, increased by the dark, the silence, and
the bewilderment of the first waking moments, froze his heart. Indeed,
he already felt the painful contraction of his hair, when, by dint
of straining his eyes, he perceived in the darkness two faint amber
lights. At first he attributed those lights to the reflection of his
own eyes; but soon, the brilliancy of the night assisting him little by
little to distinguish the objects in the cavern, he discovered a huge
beast lying within two yards of him. Was it a lion? Was it a tiger? Was
it a crocodile?

The Provençal had not enough education to know to what species his
companion belonged; but his terror was the more violent in that
his ignorance led him to imagine all sorts of calamities at once.
He endured the fiendish tortures of listening, of noticing the
irregularities of that breathing, without losing a sound, and without
daring to make the slightest motion. An odour as pungent as that given
forth by foxes, but more penetrating, more weighty, so to speak, filled
the cave; and when the Provençal had smelled it, his terror reached
its height, for he could no longer doubt the nature of the terrible
companion whose royal den he had appropriated for a camp. Soon the
reflection of the moon, which was sinking rapidly towards the horizon,
lighted up the den, and little by little illuminated the spotted skin
of a panther.

The lion of Egypt was asleep, curled up like a huge dog in peaceable
possession of a luxuriant kennel at the door of a palace; its eyes,
which had opened for a moment, had closed again. Its head was turned
towards the Frenchman. A thousand conflicting thoughts passed through
the mind of the panther's prisoner; at first, he thought of killing her
with his carbine; but he saw that there was not room enough between
himself and the beast for him to take aim; the end of the barrel would
have reached beyond the panther. And suppose she should wake? That
supposition kept him perfectly still. As he listened to his heart beat
in the silence, he cursed the too violent pulsations caused by the
rushing of his blood, fearing lest they should disturb that slumber
which enabled him to devise some plan of escape. Twice he put his hand
to his scimitar, with the idea of cutting off his enemy's head; but the
difficulty of cutting through the close-haired skin made him abandon
the bold project. "If I missed, it would be sure death," he thought.

He preferred the chances of a fight, and determined to wait for
daylight. And the day was not long in coming. Then the Frenchman was
able to examine the beast; its muzzle was stained with blood.

"It has eaten a good meal," thought he, undisturbed as to whether the
meal had been of human flesh or not; "it will not be hungry when it
wakes."

It was a female; the hair on the stomach and thighs was a dazzling
white. A number of little spots, like velvet, formed dainty bracelets
around her paws. The muscular tail was white also, but ended in black
rings. The upper part of the coat, yellow as unpolished gold, but very
smooth and soft, bore the characteristic marking of rose-shaped spots
which serve to distinguish panthers from other varieties of the feline
family. That placid but formidable hostess lay snoring in an attitude
as graceful as that of a cat lying on the cushion of an ottoman. Her
blood-stained paws, muscular and provided with sharp claws, were above
her head, which rested on them; and from her muzzle projected a few
straight hairs called whiskers, like silver thread. If he had seen her
thus in a cage, the Provençal would certainly have admired the beast's
grace and the striking contrast of the bright colours which gave to her
coat an imperial gloss and splendour; but at that moment, his eyes
were bewildered by that terrible sight. The presence of the panther,
even though asleep, produced upon him the effect which the snake's
magnetic eyes are said to produce upon the nightingale. For a moment
the soldier's courage oozed away before that danger; whereas it would
doubtless have been raised to its highest pitch before the mouths of
cannon vomiting shot and shell. However, a bold thought entered his
mind and froze at its source the cold perspiration which stood on his
brow. Acting like those men who, driven to the wall by misfortune, defy
death and offer themselves defenceless to its blows, he detected in
that adventure a tragedy which he could not understand, and resolved to
play his part with honour to the last.

"The Arabs might have killed me day before yesterday," he thought.

Looking upon himself as dead, he waited with anxious curiosity for his
enemy to wake. When the sun appeared, the panther suddenly opened
her eyes; then she stretched her paws, as if to limber them and to
rid herself of the cramp; finally she yawned, showing her terrifying
arsenal of teeth, and her cloven tongue, hard as a file.

"She is like a dainty woman!" thought the Frenchman, as he watched her
roll about and go through the prettiest and most coquettish movements.

She licked off the blood which stained her paws and her nose, and
scratched her head again and again, with the most graceful of gestures.

"Good! give a little attention to your toilet!" said the Frenchman to
himself, his gayety returning with his courage; "in a moment we will
bid each other good day."

And he grasped the short poniard which he had taken from the Maugrabins.

At that moment the panther turned her face towards the Frenchman and
gazed steadfastly at him without moving. The rigidity of her steely
eyes, and their unendurable brilliancy, made the Provençal shudder,
especially when the beast walked towards him; but he gazed at her with
a caressing expression, and smiling at her as if to magnetise her,
allowed her to come close to him; then, with a touch as gentle and
loving as if he were caressing the fairest of women, he passed his hand
over her whole body from head to tail, scratching with his nails the
flexible vertebrae which formed the panther's yellow back. The animal
stiffened her tail with pleasure, her eyes became softer; and when the
Frenchman performed that self-interested caress for the third time,
she began to purr, as cats do to express pleasure; but the sound came
forth from a throat so deep and so powerful that it rang through the
grotto like the last notes of an organ through a church. The Provençal,
realising the importance of his caresses, repeated them in a way to
soothe, to lull the imperious courtesan. When he felt sure that he had
allayed the ferocity of his capricious companion, whose hunger had
certainly been sated the night before, he rose and started to leave the
grotto. The panther allowed him to go; but, when he had climbed the
hill, she bounded after him as lightly as a sparrow hops from branch to
branch, and rubbed against his legs, curving her back after the manner
of a cat; then, looking into her guest's face with an eye whose glare
had become less deadly, she uttered that wild cry which naturalists
liken to the noise made by a saw.

"She is very exacting!" exclaimed the Frenchman, with a smile.

He tried playing with her ears, patting her sides, and scratching
her head hard with his nails; and finding that he was successful,
he tickled her skull with the point of his dagger, watching for an
opportunity to kill her, but the hardness of the bones made him afraid
that he might not succeed.

The sultana of the desert approved her slave's talents by raising
her head, stretching out her neck, and demonstrating her delight by
the tranquillity of her manner. Suddenly the Frenchman thought that
to murder with a single blow that savage princess he would have to
stab her in the throat, and he had already raised his blade, when the
panther, satiated no doubt, gracefully lay down at his feet, casting on
him from time to time glances in which, despite their natural savagery,
there was a vague expression of kindness. The poor Provençal ate his
dates, leaning against one of the palm-trees; but he gazed by turns
at the desert in search of rescuers, and at his terrible companion to
observe the progress of her uncertain kindness. The panther watched
the place where the date-stones fell, whenever he threw one away, and
her eyes then expressed a most extraordinary degree of suspicion.
She examined the Frenchman with the prudent scrutiny of a tradesman;
but that scrutiny was evidently favourable to him, for, when he had
finished his meagre meal, she licked his shoes, and with her rough,
strong tongue removed as by a miracle the dust that had become caked
in the creases of the leather.

"But what will happen when she is hungry?" thought the Provençal.
Despite the shudder caused by that idea, the soldier began to observe
with a curious ardour the proportions of the panther, certainly one
of the finest examples of the species; for she was three feet in
height, and four feet long, not including the tail. That powerful
weapon, as round as a club, measured nearly three feet. The face,
which was as large as a lioness's, was distinguished by an expression
of extraordinary shrewdness; the unfeeling cruelty of the tiger was
predominant therein, but there was also a vague resemblance to the face
of an artful woman. At that moment, that solitary queen's features
disclosed a sort of merriment like that of Nero in his cups; she had
quenched her thirst in blood, and was inclined to play. The soldier
tried to come and go; the panther allowed him to do as he pleased,
contenting herself with following him with her eyes, resembling
not so much a faithful dog as a great Angora cat, distrustful of
everything, even her master's movements. When he turned, he saw beside
the spring the remains of his horse; the panther had brought the body
all that distance. About two-thirds of it were consumed. That spectacle
encouraged the Frenchman. It was easy then for him to explain the
panther's absence and the forbearance with which she had treated him
during his sleep. Emboldened by his good fortune to tempt the future,
he conceived the wild hope of living on good terms with the panther
from day to day, neglecting no method of taming her and of winning her
good graces.

He returned to her side and had the indescribable joy of seeing her
move her tail with an almost imperceptible movement. Thereupon he sat
down fearlessly beside her and they began to play together: he patted
her paws and her nose, twisted her ears, threw her over on her back,
and scratched roughly her soft, warm flanks. She made no objection,
and when the soldier attempted to smooth the hair on her paws, she
carefully withdrew her nails, which were curved like Damascus blades.
The Frenchman, who had one hand on his dagger, was still thinking of
thrusting it into the side of the too trustful panther; but he was
afraid of being strangled in her last convulsions. Moreover, he had in
his heart a sort of remorse, enjoining upon him to respect a harmless
creature. It seemed to him that he had found a friend in that boundless
desert.

Involuntarily he thought of his first sweetheart, whom he had nicknamed
Mignonne, by antiphrasis, because she was so fiendishly jealous that,
throughout all the time that their intercourse lasted, he had to be on
his guard against the knife with which she constantly threatened him.
That memory of his youth suggested to him the idea of trying to make
the young panther answer to that name; he admired her agility, her
grace, and her gentleness with less terror now.

Towards the close of the day, he had become accustomed to his hazardous
situation and he was almost in love with its dangers. His companion
had finally caught the habit of turning to him when he called, in a
falsetto voice:

"Mignonne!"

At sunset, Mignonne repeated several times a deep and melancholy cry.

"She has been well brought up," thought the light-hearted soldier, "she
is saying her prayers."

But that unspoken jest only came into his mind when he noticed the
peaceful attitude which his companion maintained.

"Come, my pretty blonde, I will let you go to bed first," he said,
relying upon the agility of his legs to escape as soon as she slept,
and trusting to find another resting-place for the night.

He waited impatiently for the right moment for his flight; and when it
came, he walked rapidly towards the Nile; but he had travelled barely
a quarter of a league through the sand, when he heard the panther
bounding after him, and uttering at intervals that sawlike cry, which
was even more alarming than the heavy thud of her bounds.

"Well, well!" he said, "she has really taken a fancy to me! It may be
that this young panther has never met a man before; it is flattering to
possess her first love!"

At that moment he stepped into one of those quicksands which are so
perilous to travellers, and from which it is impossible to extricate
one's self. Feeling that he was caught, he uttered a cry of alarm; the
panther seized him by the collar with her teeth, and with a powerful
backward leap rescued him from death as if by magic.

"Ah!" cried the soldier, caressing her enthusiastically, "it's a matter
of life or death between us now, Mignonne!--But no tricks!"

Then he retraced his steps.

From that moment the desert was, as it were, peopled for him. It
contained a living creature to whom the Frenchman could talk, and
whose ferocity was moderated for him, without any comprehension on his
part of the reasons for that extraordinary friendship. However desirous
the soldier was to remain up and on his guard, he fell asleep. When he
awoke he saw nothing of Mignonne; he ascended the hill, and saw her
in the far distance, bounding along according to the custom of these
animals, which are prevented from running by the extreme flexibility
of their spinal column. Mignonne arrived with bloody chops; she
received her companion's proffered caresses, manifesting her delight by
reiterated and deep purrs. Her eyes, full of languor, rested with even
more mildness than before on the Provençal, who spoke to her as to a
domestic animal:

"Aha! mademoiselle--for you are a good girl, aren't you? Upon my word!
how we like to be patted! Aren't you ashamed! Have you been eating up
some Arab? Never mind! they're animals like yourself. But don't go
eating Frenchmen, at all events. If you do, I shall not love you any
more!"

She played as a huge puppy plays with its master, allowing him to roll
her over and pat her by turns, and sometimes she challenged him, by
putting her paw upon him, with an appealing gesture.

Several days passed thus. That companionship enabled the Provençal
to admire the sublime beauties of the desert. From the moment that
he found there moments of dread and of security, food to eat, and a
creature of whom he could think, his mind was excited by contrasts.
It was a life full of opposing sensations. Solitude made manifest all
its secrets to him, enveloped him in all its charm. He discovered
spectacles unknown to the world, in the rising and setting of the
sun. He started when he heard above his head the soft whirring of the
wings of a bird--rare visitant!--or when he watched the clouds melt
together--ever-changing, many-tinted voyagers! During the night he
studied the effects of the moon on the ocean of sand, where the simoom
produced waves and undulations and swift changes. He lived in the
gorgeous light of the Orient, he admired its wonderful splendours; and
often, after enjoying the awful spectacle of a storm on that plain,
where the sand rose in a dry, red mist, in death-dealing clouds, he
rejoiced at the approach of night, for then the delicious coolness of
the stars fell upon the earth. He listened to imaginary music in the
skies. Solitude taught him, too, to seek the treasures of reverie. He
passed whole hours recalling trifles, comparing his past life with his
present one. Lastly, he conceived a warm regard for his panther, for
affection was a necessity to him.

Whether it was that his will, magnetically strong, had changed his
companion's disposition, or that she found abundant food, because of
the constant battles which were taking place in those deserts, she
spared the Frenchman's life, and he finally ceased to distrust her
when he found that she had become so tame. He employed most of his time
in sleeping; but he was obliged to watch at times, like a spider in the
midst of its web, in order not to allow the moment of his deliverance
to escape, if any human being should pass through the circle described
by the horizon. He had sacrificed his shirt to make a flag, which he
had hoisted to the top of a leafless palm-tree. Advised by necessity,
he invented a way to keep it unfolded by the use of sticks, for
the wind might not have stirred it at the moment when the expected
traveller should look across the desert.

But it was during the long hours when hope abandoned him that he played
with the panther. He had ended by learning the different inflections of
her voice, the different expressions of her eyes; he had studied all
the gradations of colour of her golden coat. Mignonne no longer even
growled when he seized the tuft of hair at the end of her redoubtable
tail, to count the black and white rings--a graceful ornament, which
shone in the sunlight like precious stones. He took pleasure in gazing
at the graceful and voluptuous lines of her figure, and the whiteness
of her stomach, as well as the shapeliness of her head. But it was
especially when she was playing that he delighted in watching her, and
the youthful agility of her movements always surprised him. He admired
her suppleness when she bounded, crept, glided, crouched, clung, rolled
over and over, darted hither and thither. However swift her bound,
however slippery the bowlder, she always stopped short at the word
"Mignonne."

One day, in the dazzling sunlight, an enormous bird hovered in the sky.
The Provençal left his panther to scrutinise that new guest; but after
waiting a moment, his neglected sultana uttered a low growl.

"God forgive me, I believe that she is jealous!" he cried, seeing that
her eyes had become steely once more. "Surely Virginie's soul has
passed into that body!"

The eagle disappeared while the soldier was admiring the panther's
rounded flank. There was so much youthful grace in her outlines! She
was as pretty as a woman. The light fur of her coat blended by delicate
shades with the dead-white of her thighs. The vivid sunshine caused
that living gold, those brown spots, to gleam in such wise as to make
them indescribably charming. The Provençal and his panther gazed at
each other with an air of comprehension; the coquette started when
she felt her friend's nails scratching her head; her eyes shone like
flashes of lightning, then she closed them tight.

"She has a soul!" he cried, as he studied the tranquil repose of that
queen of the sands, white as their pulsing light, solitary and burning
as they.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well," she said to me, "I have read your argument in favour of wild
beasts; but how did two persons so well fitted to understand each other
finally come out?"

"Ah! there you are! It ended as all great passions do, by a
misunderstanding. Each believes in some treachery; one refrains from
explaining from pride, the other quarrels from obstinacy."

"And sometimes, at the happiest moment," she said; "a glance, an
exclamation is enough--well, finish your story."

"It is very difficult, but you will understand what the old veteran had
already confided to me, when, as he finished his bottle of champagne,
he exclaimed:

"'I don't know how I hurt her, but she turned as if she had gone mad,
and wounded my thigh with her sharp teeth--a slight wound. I, thinking
that she meant to devour me, plunged my dagger into her throat. She
rolled over with a cry which tore my soul; I saw her struggle, gazing
at me without a trace of anger. I would have given anything in the
world, even my cross, which I had not then earned, to restore her
to life again. It was as if I had murdered a human being; and the
soldiers who had seen my flag and who hurried to my rescue found me
weeping. Well, monsieur,' he continued, after a moment's silence,
'since then I have fought in Germany, Spain, Russia, and France; I have
marched my poor old bones about, but I have seen nothing comparable to
the desert. Ah, that is magnificent, I tell you!'

"'What were your feelings there?' I asked.

"'Oh, they cannot be told, young man. Besides, I do not always regret
my panther and my palm-tree oasis: I must be very sad for that. But I
will tell you this: in the desert there is all--and yet nothing.'

"'Stay!--explain that.'

"'Well, then,' he said, with a gesture of impatience, 'God is there,
and man is not.'"


1830.





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