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Title: A Passion in the Desert
Author: Balzac, Honoré de
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Passion in the Desert" ***


By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ernest Dowson


“The whole show is dreadful,” she cried coming out of the menagerie of
M. Martin. She had just been looking at that daring speculator “working
with his hyena,”--to speak in the style of the programme.

“By what means,” she continued, “can he have tamed these animals to such
a point as to be certain of their affection for----”

“What seems to you a problem,” said I, interrupting, “is really quite

“Oh!” she cried, letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips.

“You think that beasts are wholly without passions?” I asked her. “Quite
the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own
state of civilization.”

She looked at me with an air of astonishment.

“But,” I continued, “the first time I saw M. Martin, I admit, like you,
I did give vent to an exclamation of surprise. I found myself next to an
old soldier with the right leg amputated, who had come in with me. His
face had struck me. He had one of those heroic heads, stamped with
the seal of warfare, and on which the battles of Napoleon are written.
Besides, he had that frank, good-humored expression which always
impresses me favorably. He was without doubt one of those troopers
who are surprised at nothing, who find matter for laughter in
the contortions of a dying comrade, who bury or plunder him quite
light-heartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way of bullets;--in fact,
one of those men who waste no time in deliberation, and would not
hesitate to make friends with the devil himself. After looking very
attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie getting out of his box,
my companion pursed up his lips with an air of mockery and contempt,
with that peculiar and expressive twist which superior people assume to
show they are not taken in. Then, when I was expatiating on the courage
of M. Martin, he smiled, shook his head knowingly, and said, ‘Well

“‘How “well known”?’ I said. ‘If you would only explain me the mystery,
I should be vastly obliged.’

“After a few minutes, during which we made acquaintance, we went to dine
at the first restauranteur’s whose shop caught our eye. At dessert a
bottle of champagne completely refreshed and brightened up the memories
of this odd old soldier. He told me his story, and I saw that he was
right when he exclaimed, ‘Well known.’”

When she got home, she teased me to that extent, was so charming,
and made so many promises, that I consented to communicate to her the
confidences of the old soldier. Next day she received the following
episode of an epic which one might call “The French in Egypt.”

During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provencal
soldier fell into the hands of the Maugrabins, and was taken by these
Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the Nile.

In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the
French army, the Maugrabins made forced marches, and only halted when
night was upon them. They camped round a well overshadowed by palm trees
under which they had previously concealed a store of provisions. Not
surmising that the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner, they
contented themselves with binding his hands, and after eating a few
dates, and giving provender to their horses, went to sleep.

When the brave Provencal saw that his enemies were no longer watching
him, he made use of his teeth to steal a scimiter, fixed the blade
between his knees, and cut the cords which prevented him from using his
hands; in a moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and a dagger,
then taking the precautions to provide himself with a sack of dried
dates, oats, and powder and shot, and to fasten a scimiter to his waist,
he leaped on to a horse, and spurred on vigorously in the direction
where he thought to find the French army. So impatient was he to see
a bivouac again that he pressed on the already tired courser at such
speed, that its flanks were lacerated with his spurs, and at last the
poor animal died, leaving the Frenchman alone in the desert. After
walking some time in the sand with all the courage of an escaped
convict, the soldier was obliged to stop, as the day had already ended.
In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at night, he felt he had not
strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had been able to find a small
hill, on the summit of which a few palm trees shot up into the air; it
was their verdure seen from afar which had brought hope and consolation
to his heart. His fatigue was so great that he lay down upon a rock
of granite, capriciously cut out like a camp-bed; there he fell asleep
without taking any precaution to defend himself while he slept. He had
made the sacrifice of his life. His last thought was one of regret. He
repented having left the Maugrabins, whose nomadic life seemed to smile
upon him now that he was far from them and without help. He was awakened
by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite
and produced an intolerable heat--for he had had the stupidity to place
himself adversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant majestic heads
of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and shuddered--they
reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which
characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.

But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around
him, the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him
stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread
further than eye could reach in every direction, and glittered
like steel struck with bright light. It might have been a sea of
looking-glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapor
carried up in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the
quivering land. The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of
insupportable purity, leaving naught for the imagination to desire.
Heaven and earth were on fire.

The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity,
immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the
sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand, ever
moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day,
with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.

The Provencal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees,
as though it were the body of a friend, and then, in the shelter of the
thin, straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he wept. Then
sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness
the implacable scene, which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud,
to measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill,
sounded faintly, and aroused no echo--the echo was in his own heart. The
Provencal was twenty-two years old:--he loaded his carbine.

“There’ll be time enough,” he said to himself, laying on the ground the
weapon which alone could bring him deliverance.

Viewing alternately the dark expanse of the desert and the blue expanse
of the sky, the soldier dreamed of France--he smelled with delight the
gutters of Paris--he remembered the towns through which he had passed,
the faces of his comrades, the most minute details of his life. His
Southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved Provence,
in the play of the heat which undulated above the wide expanse of the
desert. Realizing the danger of this cruel mirage, he went down the
opposite side of the hill to that by which he had come up the day
before. The remains of a rug showed that this place of refuge had at one
time been inhabited; at a short distance he saw some palm trees full
of dates. Then the instinct which binds us to life awoke again in
his heart. He hoped to live long enough to await the passing of some
Maugrabins, or perhaps he might hear the sound of cannon; for at this
time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt.

This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the
weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this
unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the palms had been cultivated by a
former inhabitant--the savory, fresh meat of the dates were proof of
the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an
almost insane joy. He went up again to the top of the hill, and spent
the rest of the day in cutting down one of the sterile palm trees, which
the night before had served him for shelter. A vague memory made him
think of the animals of the desert; and in case they might come to drink
at the spring, visible from the base of the rocks but lost further down,
he resolved to guard himself from their visits by placing a barrier at
the entrance of his hermitage.

In spite of his diligence, and the strength which the fear of being
devoured asleep gave him, he was unable to cut the palm in pieces,
though he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the king of the
desert fell; the sound of its fall resounded far and wide, like a sigh
in the solitude; the soldier shuddered as though he had heard some voice
predicting woe.

But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased relative, he tore
off from this beautiful tree the tall broad green leaves which are
its poetic adornment, and used them to mend the mat on which he was to

Fatigued by the heat and his work, he fell asleep under the red curtains
of his wet cave.

In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary
noise; he sat up, and the deep silence around allowed him to distinguish
the alternative accents of a respiration whose savage energy could not
belong to a human creature.

A profound terror, increased still further by the darkness, the silence,
and his waking images, froze his heart within him. He almost felt
his hair stand on end, when by straining his eyes to their utmost
he perceived through the shadow two faint yellow lights. At first he
attributed these lights to the reflections of his own pupils, but soon
the vivid brilliance of the night aided him gradually to distinguish the
objects around him in the cave, and he beheld a huge animal lying but
two steps from him. Was it a lion, a tiger, or a crocodile?

The Provencal was not sufficiently educated to know under what species
his enemy ought to be classed; but his fright was all the greater, as
his ignorance led him to imagine all terrors at once; he endured a cruel
torture, noting every variation of the breathing close to him without
daring to make the slightest movement. An odor, pungent like that of
a fox, but more penetrating, more profound,--so to speak,--filled the
cave, and when the Provencal became sensible of this, his terror reached
its height, for he could no longer doubt the proximity of a terrible
companion, whose royal dwelling served him for a shelter.

Presently the reflection of the moon descending on the horizon lit up
the den, rendering gradually visible and resplendent the spotted skin of
a panther.

This lion of Egypt slept, curled up like a big dog, the peaceful
possessor of a sumptuous niche at the gate of an hotel; its eyes opened
for a moment and closed again; its face was turned towards the man. A
thousand confused thoughts passed through the Frenchman’s mind; first he
thought of killing it with a bullet from his gun, but he saw there was
not enough distance between them for him to take proper aim--the shot
would miss the mark. And if it were to wake!--the thought made his limbs
rigid. He listened to his own heart beating in the midst of the silence,
and cursed the too violent pulsations which the flow of blood brought
on, fearing to disturb that sleep which allowed him time to think of
some means of escape.

Twice he placed his hand on his scimiter, intending to cut off the
head of his enemy; but the difficulty of cutting the stiff short hair
compelled him to abandon this daring project. To miss would be to die
for CERTAIN, he thought; he preferred the chances of fair fight, and
made up his mind to wait till morning; the morning did not leave him
long to wait.

He could now examine the panther at ease; its muzzle was smeared with

“She’s had a good dinner,” he thought, without troubling himself as to
whether her feast might have been on human flesh. “She won’t be hungry
when she gets up.”

It was a female. The fur on her belly and flanks was glistening white;
many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet;
her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart
of her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the
characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which distinguish the
panther from every other feline species.

This tranquil and formidable hostess snored in an attitude as graceful
as that of a cat lying on a cushion. Her blood-stained paws, nervous and
well armed, were stretched out before her face, which rested upon them,
and from which radiated her straight slender whiskers, like threads of

If she had been like that in a cage, the Provencal would doubtless have
admired the grace of the animal, and the vigorous contrasts of vivid
color which gave her robe an imperial splendor; but just then his sight
was troubled by her sinister appearance.

The presence of the panther, even asleep, could not fail to produce the
effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on the

For a moment the courage of the soldier began to fail before this
danger, though no doubt it would have risen at the mouth of a cannon
charged with shell. Nevertheless, a bold thought brought daylight to his
soul and sealed up the source of the cold sweat which sprang forth on
his brow. Like men driven to bay, who defy death and offer their body to
the smiter, so he, seeing in this merely a tragic episode, resolved to
play his part with honor to the last.

“The day before yesterday the Arabs would have killed me, perhaps,” he
said; so considering himself as good as dead already, he waited bravely,
with excited curiosity, the awakening of his enemy.

When the sun appeared, the panther suddenly opened her eyes; then she
put out her paws with energy, as if to stretch them and get rid of
cramp. At last she yawned, showing the formidable apparatus of her teeth
and pointed tongue, rough as a file.

“A regular petite maitresse,” thought the Frenchman, seeing her roll
herself about so softly and coquettishly. She licked off the blood which
stained her paws and muzzle, and scratched her head with reiterated
gestures full of prettiness. “All right, make a little toilet,” the
Frenchman said to himself, beginning to recover his gaiety with his
courage; “we’ll say good morning to each other presently;” and he seized
the small, short dagger which he had taken from the Maugrabins.

At this moment the panther turned her head toward the man and looked at
him fixedly without moving. The rigidity of her metallic eyes and their
insupportable luster made him shudder, especially when the animal walked
towards him. But he looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in
order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him; then with
a movement both gentle and amorous, as though he were caressing the most
beautiful of women, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the
head to the tail, scratching the flexible vertebrae which divided the
panther’s yellow back. The animal waved her tail voluptuously, and her
eyes grew gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman accomplished
this interesting flattery, she gave forth one of those purrings by which
cats express their pleasure; but this murmur issued from a throat so
powerful and so deep that it resounded through the cave like the
last vibrations of an organ in a church. The man, understanding the
importance of his caresses, redoubled them in such a way as to surprise
and stupefy his imperious courtesan. When he felt sure of having
extinguished the ferocity of his capricious companion, whose hunger had
so fortunately been satisfied the day before, he got up to go out of the
cave; the panther let him go out, but when he had reached the summit of
the hill she sprang with the lightness of a sparrow hopping from twig to
twig, and rubbed herself against his legs, putting up her back after the
manner of all the race of cats. Then regarding her guest with eyes
whose glare had softened a little, she gave vent to that wild cry which
naturalists compare to the grating of a saw.

“She is exacting,” said the Frenchman, smilingly.

He was bold enough to play with her ears; he caressed her belly
and scratched her head as hard as he could. When he saw that he was
successful, he tickled her skull with the point of his dagger, watching
for the right moment to kill her, but the hardness of her bones made him
tremble for his success.

The sultana of the desert showed herself gracious to her slave; she
lifted her head, stretched out her neck and manifested her delight by
the tranquility of her attitude. It suddenly occurred to the soldier
that to kill this savage princess with one blow he must poniard her in
the throat.

He raised the blade, when the panther, satisfied no doubt, laid herself
gracefully at his feet, and cast up at him glances in which, in spite
of their natural fierceness, was mingled confusedly a kind of good will.
The poor Provencal ate his dates, leaning against one of the palm
trees, and casting his eyes alternately on the desert in quest of some
liberator and on his terrible companion to watch her uncertain clemency.

The panther looked at the place where the date stones fell, and every
time that he threw one down her eyes expressed an incredible mistrust.

She examined the man with an almost commercial prudence. However, this
examination was favorable to him, for when he had finished his meager
meal she licked his boots with her powerful rough tongue, brushing off
with marvelous skill the dust gathered in the creases.

“Ah, but when she’s really hungry!” thought the Frenchman. In spite
of the shudder this thought caused him, the soldier began to measure
curiously the proportions of the panther, certainly one of the most
splendid specimens of its race. She was three feet high and four feet
long without counting her tail; this powerful weapon, rounded like
a cudgel, was nearly three feet long. The head, large as that of a
lioness, was distinguished by a rare expression of refinement. The cold
cruelty of a tiger was dominant, it was true, but there was also a vague
resemblance to the face of a sensual woman. Indeed, the face of this
solitary queen had something of the gaiety of a drunken Nero: she had
satiated herself with blood, and she wanted to play.

The soldier tried if he might walk up and down, and the panther left him
free, contenting herself with following him with her eyes, less like
a faithful dog than a big Angora cat, observing everything and every
movement of her master.

When he looked around, he saw, by the spring, the remains of his horse;
the panther had dragged the carcass all that way; about two thirds of it
had been devoured already. The sight reassured him.

It was easy to explain the panther’s absence, and the respect she had
had for him while he slept. The first piece of good luck emboldened him
to tempt the future, and he conceived the wild hope of continuing on
good terms with the panther during the entire day, neglecting no means
of taming her, and remaining in her good graces.

He returned to her, and had the unspeakable joy of seeing her wag her
tail with an almost imperceptible movement at his approach. He sat down
then, without fear, by her side, and they began to play together; he
took her paws and muzzle, pulled her ears, rolled her over on her back,
stroked her warm, delicate flanks. She let him do what ever he liked,
and when he began to stroke the hair on her feet she drew her claws in

The man, keeping the dagger in one hand, thought to plunge it into the
belly of the too confiding panther, but he was afraid that he would be
immediately strangled in her last convulsive struggle; besides, he felt
in his heart a sort of remorse which bid him respect a creature that
had done him no harm. He seemed to have found a friend, in a boundless
desert; half unconsciously he thought of his first sweetheart, whom
he had nicknamed “Mignonne” by way of contrast, because she was so
atrociously jealous that all the time of their love he was in fear of
the knife with which she had always threatened him.

This memory of his early days suggested to him the idea of making the
young panther answer to this name, now that he began to admire with less
terror her swiftness, suppleness, and softness. Toward the end of the
day he had familiarized himself with his perilous position; he now
almost liked the painfulness of it. At last his companion had got into
the habit of looking up at him whenever he cried in a falsetto voice,

At the setting of the sun Mignonne gave, several times running,
a profound melancholy cry. “She’s been well brought up,” said the
lighthearted soldier; “she says her prayers.” But this mental joke only
occurred to him when he noticed what a pacific attitude his companion
remained in. “Come, ma petite blonde, I’ll let you go to bed first,”
 he said to her, counting on the activity of his own legs to run away as
quickly as possible, directly she was asleep, and seek another shelter
for the night.

The soldier waited with impatience the hour of his flight, and when
it had arrived he walked vigorously in the direction of the Nile; but
hardly had he made a quarter of a league in the sand when he heard the
panther bounding after him, crying with that saw-like cry more dreadful
even than the sound of her leaping.

“Ah!” he said, “then she’s taken a fancy to me, she has never met anyone
before, and it is really quite flattering to have her first love.” That
instant the man fell into one of those movable quicksands so terrible
to travelers and from which it is impossible to save oneself. Feeling
himself caught, he gave a shriek of alarm; the panther seized him with
her teeth by the collar, and, springing vigorously backwards, drew him
as if by magic out of the whirling sand.

“Ah, Mignonne!” cried the soldier, caressing her enthusiastically;
“we’re bound together for life and death but no jokes, mind!” and he
retraced his steps.

From that time the desert seemed inhabited. It contained a being to
whom the man could talk, and whose ferocity was rendered gentle by him,
though he could not explain to himself the reason for their strange
friendship. Great as was the soldier’s desire to stay upon guard, he

On awakening he could not find Mignonne; he mounted the hill, and in the
distance saw her springing toward him after the habit of these animals,
who cannot run on account of the extreme flexibility of the vertebral
column. Mignonne arrived, her jaws covered with blood; she received the
wonted caress of her companion, showing with much purring how happy it
made her. Her eyes, full of languor, turned still more gently than the
day before toward the Provencal, who talked to her as one would to a
tame animal.

“Ah! mademoiselle, you are a nice girl, aren’t you? Just look at that!
So we like to be made much of, don’t we? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?
So you have been eating some Arab or other, have you? That doesn’t
matter. They’re animals just the same as you are; but don’t you take to
eating Frenchmen, or I shan’t like you any longer.”

She played like a dog with its master, letting herself be rolled over,
knocked about, and stroked, alternately; sometimes she herself would
provoke the soldier, putting up her paw with a soliciting gesture.

Some days passed in this manner. This companionship permitted the
Provencal to appreciate the sublime beauty of the desert; now that he
had a living thing to think about, alternations of fear and quiet, and
plenty to eat, his mind became filled with contrast and his life began
to be diversified.

Solitude revealed to him all her secrets, and enveloped him in her
delights. He discovered in the rising and setting of the sun sights
unknown to the world. He knew what it was to tremble when he heard over
his head the hiss of a bird’s wing, so rarely did they pass, or when
he saw the clouds, changing and many colored travelers, melt one into
another. He studied in the night time the effect of the moon upon the
ocean of sand, where the simoom made waves swift of movement and rapid
in their change. He lived the life of the Eastern day, marveling at its
wonderful pomp; then, after having reveled in the sight of a hurricane
over the plain where the whirling sands made red, dry mists and
death-bearing clouds, he would welcome the night with joy, for then fell
the healthful freshness of the stars, and he listened to imaginary
music in the skies. Then solitude taught him to unroll the treasures
of dreams. He passed whole hours in remembering mere nothings, and
comparing his present life with his past.

At last he grew passionately fond of the panther; for some sort of
affection was a necessity.

Whether it was that his will powerfully projected had modified the
character of his companion, or whether, because she found abundant food
in her predatory excursions in the desert, she respected the man’s life,
he began to fear for it no longer, seeing her so well tamed.

He devoted the greater part of his time to sleep, but he was obliged to
watch like a spider in its web that the moment of his deliverance might
not escape him, if anyone should pass the line marked by the horizon. He
had sacrificed his shirt to make a flag with, which he hung at the top
of a palm tree, whose foliage he had torn off. Taught by necessity, he
found the means of keeping it spread out, by fastening it with little
sticks; for the wind might not be blowing at the moment when the passing
traveler was looking through the desert.

It was during the long hours, when he had abandoned hope, that he amused
himself with the panther. He had come to learn the different inflections
of her voice, the expressions of her eyes; he had studied the capricious
patterns of all the rosettes which marked the gold of her robe. Mignonne
was not even angry when he took hold of the tuft at the end of her tail
to count her rings, those graceful ornaments which glittered in the
sun like jewelry. It gave him pleasure to contemplate the supple, fine
outlines of her form, the whiteness of her belly, the graceful pose of
her head. But it was especially when she was playing that he felt most
pleasure in looking at her; the agility and youthful lightness of her
movements were a continual surprise to him; he wondered at the supple
way in which she jumped and climbed, washed herself and arranged her
fur, crouched down and prepared to spring. However rapid her spring
might be, however slippery the stone she was on, she would always stop
short at the word “Mignonne.”

One day, in a bright midday sun, an enormous bird coursed through
the air. The man left his panther to look at his new guest; but after
waiting a moment the deserted sultana growled deeply.

“My goodness! I do believe she’s jealous,” he cried, seeing her eyes
become hard again; “the soul of Virginie has passed into her body;
that’s certain.”

The eagle disappeared into the air, while the soldier admired the curved
contour of the panther.

But there was such youth and grace in her form! she was beautiful as a
woman! the blond fur of her robe mingled well with the delicate tints of
faint white which marked her flanks.

The profuse light cast down by the sun made this living gold,
these russet markings, to burn in a way to give them an indefinable

The man and the panther looked at one another with a look full of
meaning; the coquette quivered when she felt her friend stroke her head;
her eyes flashed like lightning--then she shut them tightly.

“She has a soul,” he said, looking at the stillness of this queen of
the sands, golden like them, white like them, solitary and burning like

“Well,” she said, “I have read your plea in favor of beasts; but how did
two so well adapted to understand each other end?”

“Ah, well! you see, they ended as all great passions do end--by a
misunderstanding. For some reason ONE suspects the other of treason;
they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part
from sheer obstinacy.”

“Yet sometimes at the best moments a single word or a look is
enough--but anyhow go on with your story.”

“It’s horribly difficult, but you will understand, after what the old
villain told me over his champagne. He said--‘I don’t know if I hurt
her, but she turned round, as if enraged, and with her sharp teeth
caught hold of my leg--gently, I daresay; but I, thinking she would
devour me, plunged my dagger into her throat. She rolled over, giving
a cry that froze my heart; and I saw her dying, still looking at me
without anger. I would have given all the world--my cross even, which I
had not got then--to have brought her to life again. It was as though I
had murdered a real person; and the soldiers who had seen my flag, and
were come to my assistance, found me in tears.’

“‘Well sir,’ he said, after a moment of silence, ‘since then I have
been in war in Germany, in Spain, in Russia, in France; I’ve certainly
carried my carcase about a good deal, but never have I seen anything
like the desert. Ah! yes, it is very beautiful!’

“‘What did you feel there?’ I asked him.

“‘Oh! that can’t be described, young man! Besides, I am not always
regretting my palm trees and my panther. I should have to be very
melancholy for that. In the desert, you see, there is everything and

“‘Yes, but explain----’

“‘Well,’ he said, with an impatient gesture, ‘it is God without

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