PAGES OF THE BOOK OF LIFE AT TWENTY
BY ALPHONSE DE LAMARTINE
ILLUSTRATED BY SANDOZ
SOCIETE DES BEAUX-ARTS PARIS, LONDON AND NEW YORK
Comedie d'Amour Series
It is all very well for Lamartine to explain, in his original prologue, that the touching, fascinating and pathetic story of Raphael was the experience of another man. It is well known that these feeling pages are but transcripts of an episode of his own heart-history. That the tale is one of almost feminine sentimentality is due, in some measure, perhaps, to the fact that, during his earliest and most impressionable years, Lamartine was educated by his mother and was greatly influenced by her ardent and poetical character. Who shall say how much depends on one's environment during these tender years of childhood, and how often has it not been proved that "the child is father to the man?" The marvel of it is that a man so exquisitely sensitive, of such extraordinary delicacy of feeling, should have been able, in later years, to stand the storm and stress of political life and the grave responsibilities of statesmanship.
Although not written in metrical form, Raphael is really a poem—a prose poem. Never upon canvas of painter were spread more delicate tints, hues, colors, shadings, blendings and suggestions, than in these pages. Not only do we find ourselves, in the descriptions of scenery, near to Nature's heart, but, in the story itself, near to the heart of man. Aix in Savoy was, in Lamartine's time, a fashionable resort for valitudinarians and invalids. Among the patrons of the place was Madame Charles, whose memory Lamartine has immortalized as "Julie" in Raphael and as "Elvire" in the beautiful lines of the Meditations. In drawing the character "Julie," idealism and sentimentalism have full play. The whole story is romantic in the extreme. The influence of Byron is clearly to be seen. The beautiful hills of Savoy, tinged with the melancholy tints of autumn, were a fit setting for the meeting with the fair invalid. Besides physical invalidism, the pair were soul-sick and heart-sick. Such were their points of sympathy, an affinity was the most natural thing in the world. "Ships that pass in the night" were these two creatures, stranded by illness, "out of the world's way, hidden apart." At the feast of pure, unselfish, romantic love that followed, there was always a death's-head present, always the sinking fear, always the mute resignation on one side or the other. Death and love have been a combination that poets have used since the world began. And so, as the early snow whitened the pines on the hilltops of Savoy, this pathetic and ultra-sentimental love-affair between the banished Parisienne and the poet had its beginning. That it could have but one ending the reader knows from the start. But with what breathless interest do we follow this history of love! We seem to be admitted to the confidences of beings of another sphere, to celestial heights of affection. We hear the heart-beats and see the glances of the languid, languorous eyes. The universe itself seems to stand still for these two lovers. Their heads are among the stars, their hearts in heaven. Their love is as pure as a sonnet of Keats, as ineffable as shimmering starlight. Day by day we trace its current, we cannot say growth because it sprang into life full-grown. Although Julie said that "her life was not worth a tear," she caused torrents of tears to flow. From the first, their love seemed centuries old, so entirely was it a part of their being. Day after day their souls were revealed to each other, their hearts became more united. Every pure chord of psychic affection was struck, even almost to the distracting discord of suicide together, that they might never part, and from which they were saved as by a miracle. In such unsullied love, there is an element of worship. It is the sublimation of passion, freed from sensuous dross, a spiritual efflorescence, a white flame of the soul.
The parting of the lover, the pursuit, their meeting again in Julie's home in Paris, the flickering candle of her waning life, burning down to its socket, the touching interchange of letters, the gathering shadows of the end, all these have stirred the hearts of entire Christendom, appealing to all ages and conditions. Raphael is a lovers' rosary.—C. C. STARKWEATHER.
LAMARTINE AND HIS WRITINGS
Lamartine was born at Macon, October 21, 1790. His father was imprisoned during the Terror, narrowly escaping the guillotine. Taught at first by his mother, young Lamartine was sent to a boarding school at Lyons, and later to the college of the Peres de la Foi at Belley. Here he remained till 1809, and after studying at home for two years, he traveled in Italy, taking notes and receiving impressions which were to prove so valuable to him in his literary work. He saw service in the Royal Body-Guard upon the restoration of the Bourbons. When Napoleon came back from Elba, Lamartine went to Switzerland and then to Aix in Savoy. At Aix he fell in love with Madame Charles, who died in 1817. This love-episode, ending so pathetically, became the subject of much of his verse, and forms the basis of the famous Raphael, a book of the purest, most delicate and elevated sentiment. Resigning from the guard, he enjoyed two more "wander-years," revisiting Switzerland, Savoy and Italy.
A collection of his poems, including the famous Lac, was published under the title Meditations Poetiques in 1820, and leaped into immediate popularity both with the sternest critics and the public at large. His literary success led to political preferment, and he entered the diplomatic service as Secretary to the French Embassy at Naples in 1823. That same year he was married at Geneva to an English lady, Marianne Birch. His second volume of poetry now appeared, the Nouvelles Meditations. He was transferred to Florence in 1824. In 1825 he published his continuation of Byron, Le Dernier Chant du Pelerinage de Childe Harold. A passage in this poem gave offense to an Italian officer, Colonel Pepe, with whom Lamartine fought a duel. The Harmonies Politiques et Religieuses appeared in 1829. He became active in politics, and was sent on a special mission to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, afterward King of the Belgians. He was elected during this year to the French Academy, at his second candidacy.
After the publication of his pamphlet La Politique Rationelle he was defeated in a contest for membership in the National Assembly. He started, in 1832, upon a long journey in the East with his wife and daughter, Julia. The latter died at Beyrout in 1833. A description of his travels was the theme of his Voyage en Orient, appearing in 1835. In his absence he had been elected from Bergues to the Assembly, in which, on his return, he made his first speech early in 1834. As a political orator his power was second to none.
His poems now became more philosophical. Jocelyn was printed in 1836, La Chute d'Un Ange in 1838, and Les Recueillements in 1839. A political as well as a literary sensation was produced by his Histoire des Girondins, 1847, which, in fact, was inspired by his newly acquired belief in democracy. He became Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government in 1848, was elected to the new Assembly from ten different departments, and became a member of the Executive Committee, which made him one of the most conspicuous statesmen of Europe. He was unsuited, however, for executive authority, and soon disappeared from power, being supplanted in popular favor by Cavaignac. His rise and fall in the field of statesmanship were equally sudden, the same year including both.
Lamartine now began to pay off his debts by literary labor. Les Confidences, containing Graziella and the ever popular Raphael came from the press in 1849, followed by the Nouvelles Confidences in 1851. Among his other works are: Genievre, 1849; Le Tailleur de Pierres de Saint Point, 1851; Fior d'Aliza, 1866; and the histories, Histoire de la Restauration, 1851-1853; Histoire de la Turquie, 1854; Histoire de la Russie, 1855. His wife died in 1863. He had not been able to save much money, and, in 1867, when he was an old man, the Government of France came to his assistance with a pension of 25,000 francs. He died, March 1, 1869, having profoundly influenced the literature of his time. His works have been translated into many languages. A beautiful monument to his memory was erected by public subscription near Macon, in 1874.
ALPHONSE DE LAMARTINE
THE LOVERS' COMPACT
RAPHAEL SEES JULIE IN PARIS
The real name of the friend who wrote these pages was not Raphael. We often called him so in sport, because in his boyhood he much resembled a youthful portrait of Raphael, which may be seen in the Barberini gallery at Rome, at the Pitti palace in Florence, and at the Museum of the Louvre. We had given him the name, too, because the distinctive feature of this youth's character was his lively sense of the beautiful in Nature and Art,—a sense so keen, that his mind was, so to speak, merely the shadowing forth of the ideal or material beauty scattered through-out the works of God and man. This feeling was the result of his exquisite and almost morbid sensibility,—morbid, at least, until time had somewhat blunted it. We would sometimes, in allusion to those who, from their ardent longings to revisit their country, are called home-sick, say that he was heaven-sick, and he would smile, and say that we were right.
This love of the beautiful made him unhappy; in another situation it might have rendered him illustrious. Had he held a pencil he would have painted the Virgin of Foligno; as a sculptor, he would have chiselled the Psyche of Canova; had he known the language in which sounds are written, he would have noted the aerial lament of the sea breeze sighing among the fibres of Italian pines, or the breathing of a sleeping girl who dreams of one she will not name; had he been a poet, he would have written the stanzas of Tasso's "Erminia," the moonlight talk of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," or Byron's portrait of Haidee.
He loved the good as well as the beautiful, but he loved not virtue for its holiness, he loved it for its beauty. He would have been aspiring in imagination, although he was not ambitious by character. Had he lived in those ancient republics where men attained their full development through liberty, as the free, unfettered body develops itself in pure air and open sunshine, he would have aspired to every summit like Caesar, he would have spoken as Demosthenes, and would have died as Cato. But his inglorious and obscure destiny confined him, against his will, in speculative inaction,—he had wings to spread, and no surrounding air to bear them up. He died young, straining his gaze into the future, and ardently surveying the space over which he was never to travel.
Every one knows the youthful portrait of Raphael to which I have alluded. It represents a youth of sixteen, whose face is somewhat paled by the rays of a Roman sun, but on whose cheek still blooms the soft down of childhood. A glancing ray of light seems to play on the velvet of the cheek. He leans his elbow on a table; the arm is bent upwards to support the head, which rests on the palm of the hand, and the admirably modelled fingers are lightly imprinted on the cheek and chin; the delicate mouth is thoughtful and melancholy; the nose is slender at its rise, and slightly tinged with blue, as though the azure veins shone through the fair transparency of the skin; the eyes are of that dark heavenly hue which the Apennines wear at the approach of dawn, and they gaze earnestly forward, but are slightly raised to heaven, as though they ever looked higher than Nature,—a liquid lustre illuminates their inmost depths, like rays dissolved in dew or tears. On the scarcely arched brow, beneath the delicate skin, we trace the muscles, those responsive chords of the instrument of thought; the temples seem to throb with reflection; the ear appears to listen; the dark hair, unskilfully cut by a sister or some young companion of the studio, casts a shadow upon the hand and cheek; and a small cap of black velvet, placed on the crown of the head, shades the brow. One cannot pass before this portrait without musing sadly, one knows not why. It represents the revery of youthful genius pausing on the threshold of its destiny. What will be the fate of that soul standing at the portal of life?
Now, in idea, add six years to the age of that dreaming boy; suppose the features bolder, the complexion more bronzed; place a few furrows on the brow, slightly dim the look, sadden the lips, give height to the figure, and throw out the muscles in bolder relief; let the Italian costume of the days of Leo X. be exchanged for the sombre and plain uniform of a youth bred in the simplicity of rural life, who seeks no elegance in dress,—and, if the pensive and languid attitude be retained, you will have the striking likeness of our "Raphael" at the age of twenty-two.
He was of a poor, though ancient family, from the mountainous province of Forez, and his father, whose sole dignity was that of honor (worth all others), had, like the nobles of Spain, exchanged the sword for the plough. His mother, still young and handsome, seemed his sister, so much did they resemble each other. She had been bred amid the luxurious elegancies of a capital; and as the balmy essence of the rose perfumes the crystal vase of the seraglio in which it has once been contained, so she, too, had preserved that fragrant atmosphere of manners and language which never evaporates entirely.
In her secluded mountains, with the loved husband of her choice, and with her children, in whom she had complacently centred all the pride of her maternal heart, she had regretted nothing. She closed the fair book of youth at these three words,—"God, husband, children." Raphael especially was her best beloved. She would have purchased for him a kingly destiny, but, alas, she had only her heart with which to raise him up, for their slender fortune, and their dreams of prosperity, would ever and anon crumble to their very foundation beneath the hand of fate.
Two holy men, driven by persecution to the mountains, had, soon after the Reign of Terror, taken refuge in her house. They had been persecuted as members of a mystical religious sect which dimly predicted a renovation of the age. They loved Raphael, who was then a mere child, and, obscurely prophesying his fate, pointed out his star in the heavens, and told his mother to watch over that son with all her heart. She reproached herself for being too credulous, for she was very pious; but still she believed them. In such matters, a mother is so easy of belief! Her credulity supported her under many trials, but spurred her to efforts beyond her means to educate Raphael, and ultimately deceived her.
I had known Raphael since he was twelve years old, and next to his mother he loved me best on earth. We had met since the conclusion of our studies, first in Paris, then at Rome, whither he had been taken by one of his father's relatives, for the purpose of copying manuscripts in the Vatican Library. There he had acquired the impassioned language and the genius of Italy. He spoke Italian better than his mother tongue. At evening he would sit beneath the pines of the Villa Pamphili, and gazing on the setting sun and on the white fragments scattered on the plain, like the bleached bones of departed Rome, would pour forth extemporaneous stanzas that made us weep; but he never wrote. "Raphael," would I sometimes say, "why do you not write?"
"Ah!" would he answer, "does the wind write what it sighs in this harmonious canopy of leaves? Does the sea write the wail of its shores? Nought that has been written is truly, really beautiful, and the heart of man never discloses its best and most divine portion. It is impossible! The instrument is of flesh, and the note is of fire! Between what is felt and what is expressed," would he add, mournfully, "there is the same distance as between the soul and the twenty-six letters of an alphabet! Immensity of distance! Think you a flute of reeds can give an idea of the harmony of the spheres?"
I left him to return to Paris. He was at that time striving, through his mother's interest, to obtain some situation in which he might by active employment remove from his soul its heavy weight, and lighten the oppressive burden of his fate. Men of his own age sought him, and women looked graciously on him as he passed them by. But he never went into society, and of all women he loved his mother only.
We suddenly lost sight of him for three years; though we afterwards learned that he had been seen in Switzerland, Germany, and Savoy; and that in winter he passed many hours of his nights on a bridge, or on one of the quays of Paris. He had all the appearance of extreme destitution. It was only many years afterwards that we learned more. We constantly thought of him, though absent, for he was one of those who could defy the forgetfulness of friends.
Chance reunited us once more after an interval of twelve years. It so happened that I had inherited a small estate in his province, and when I went there to dispose of it, I inquired after Raphael. I was told that he had lost father, mother, and wife in the space of a few years; that after these pangs of the heart, he had had to bear the blows of fortune, and that of all the domain of his fathers, nothing now remained to him but the old dismantled tower on the edge of the ravine, the garden, orchard, and meadow, with a few acres of unproductive land. These he ploughed himself, with two miserable cows; and was only distinguished from his peasant neighbors by the book which he carried to the field, and which he would sometimes hold in one hand, while the other directed the plough. For many weeks, however, he had not been seen to leave his wretched abode. It was supposed that he had started on one of those long journeys which with him lasted years. "It would be a pity," it was said, "for every one in the neighborhood loves him; though poor, he does as much good as any rich man. Many a warm piece of cloth has been made from the wool of his sheep; at night he teaches the little children of the surrounding hamlets how to read and write, or draw. He warms them at his hearth, and shares his bread with them, though God knows he has not much to spare when crops are short, as this year."
It was thus all spoke of Raphael. I wished to visit at least the abode of my friend, and was directed to the foot of the hillock, on the summit of which stood the blackened tower, with its surrounding sheds and stables, amid a group of hazel-trees. A trunk of a tree, which had been thrown across, enabled me to pass over the almost dried-up torrent of the ravine, and I climbed the steep path, the loose stones giving way under my feet. Two cows and three sheep were grazing on the barren sides of the hillock, and were tended by an old half-blind servant, who was telling his beads seated on an ancient escutcheon of stone, which had fallen from the arch of the doorway.
He told me that Raphael was not gone, but had been ill for the last two months; that it was plain he would never leave the tower but for the churchyard; and the old man pointed with his meagre hand to the burying ground on the opposite hill. I asked if I could see Raphael. "Oh, yes," said the old man; "go up the steps, and draw the string of the latch of the great hall-door on the left. You will find him stretched on his bed, as gentle as an angel, and," added he drawing the back of his hand across his eyes, "as simple as a child!" I mounted the steep and worn-out steps which wound round the outside of the tower, and ended at a small platform covered by a tiled roof, the broken tiles of which strewed the stone steps. I lifted the latch of the door on my left, and entered. Never shall I forget the sight. The chamber was vast, occupying all the space between the four walls of the tower; it was lighted from two windows, with stone cross-bars, and the dusty and broken lozenge-shaped panes of glass were set in lead. The huge beams of the ceiling were blackened by smoke, the floor was paved with bricks, and in a high chimney with roughly fluted wooden jambs, an iron pot filled with potatoes was suspended over a fire, where a long branch was burning, or rather smoking. The only articles of furniture were two high-backed arm-chairs, covered with a plain-colored stuff, of which it was impossible to guess the original color; a large table, half covered with an unbleached linen table-cloth in which a loaf was wrapped, the other half being strewed pell-mell with papers and books; and, lastly, a rickety, worm-eaten four-post bedstead, with its blue serge curtains looped back to admit the rays of the sun, and the air from the open window.
A man who was still young, but attenuated by consumption and want, was seated on the edge of the bed, occupied in throwing crumbs to a whole host of swallows which were wheeling their flight around him.
The birds flew away at the noise of my approach, and perched on the cornice of the hall, or on the tester of the bed. I recognized Raphael, pale and thin as he was. His countenance, though no longer youthful, had not lost its peculiar character; but a change had come over its loveliness, and its beauty was now of the grave. Rembrandt would have wished for no better model for his "Christ in the Garden of Olives." His dark hair clustered thickly on his shoulders, and was thrown back in disorder, as by the weary hand of the laborer when the sweat and toil of the day is over. The long untrimmed beard grew with a natural symmetry that disclosed the graceful curve of the lip, and the contour of the cheek; there was still the noble outline of the nose, the fair and delicate complexion, the pensive and now sunken eye. His shirt, thrown open on the chest, displayed his muscular though attenuated frame, which might yet have appeared majestic, had his weakness allowed him to sit erect.
He knew me at a glance, made one step forward with extended arms, and fell back upon the bed. We first wept, and then talked together. He related the past; how, when he had thought to cull the flowers or fruits of life, his hopes had ever been marred by fortune or by death,—the loss of his father, mother, wife, and child; his reverses of fortune, and the compulsory sale of his ancestral domain; he told how he retired to his ruined home, with no other companionship than that of his mother's old herdsman, who served him without pay, for the love he bore to his house; and lastly, spoke of the consuming languor which would sweep him away with the autumnal leaves, and lay him in the churchyard beside those he had loved so well. His intense imaginative faculty might be seen strong even in death, and in idea he loved to endow with a fanciful sympathy the turf and flowers which would blossom on his grave.
"Do you know what grieves me most?" said he, pointing to the fringe of little birds which were perched round the top of his bed. "It is to think that next spring these poor little ones, my latest friends, will seek for me in vain in the tower. They will no longer find the broken pane through which to fly in; and on the floor, the little flocks of wool from my mattress with which to build their nests. But the old nurse, to whom I bequeath my little all, will take care of them as long as she lives," he resumed, as if to comfort himself with the idea; "and after her—Well! God will; for He feedeth the young ravens."
He seemed moved while speaking of these little creatures. It was easy to see that he had long been weaned from the sympathy of men, and that the whole tenderness of his soul, which had been repulsed by them, was now transferred to dumb animals. "Will you spend any time among our mountains?" he inquired. "Yes," I replied. "So much the better," he added; "you will close my eyes, and take care that my grave is dug as close as possible to those of my mother, wife, and child."
He then begged me to draw towards him a large chest of carved wood, which was concealed beneath a bag of Indian corn at one end of the room. I placed the chest upon the bed, and from it he drew a quantity of papers which he tore silently to pieces for half an hour, and then bid his old nurse sweep them into the fire. There were verses in many languages, and innumerable pages of fragments, separated by dates, like memoranda. "Why should you burn all these?" I timidly suggested; "has not man a moral as well as a material inheritance to bequeath to those who come after him? You are perhaps destroying thoughts and feelings which might have quickened a soul."
"What matters it?" he said; "there are tears enough in this world, and we need not deposit a few more in the heart of man. These," said he, showing the verses, "are the cast-off, useless feathers of my soul; it has moulted since then, and spread its bolder wings for eternity!" He then continued to burn and destroy, while I looked out of the broken window at the dreary landscape.
At length he called me once more to the bedside. "Here," said he—"save this one little manuscript, which I have not courage to burn. When I am gone, my poor nurse would make bags for her seeds with it, and I would not that the name which fills its pages should be profaned. Take, and keep it till you hear that I am no more. After my death you may burn it, or preserve it till your old age, to think of me sometimes as you glance over it."
I hid the roll of paper beneath my cloak, and took my leave, resolving inwardly to return the next day to soothe the last moments of Raphael by my care and friendly discourse. As I descended the steps, I saw about twenty little children with their wooden shoes in their hands, who had come to take the lessons which he gave them, even on his death-bed. A little further on, I met the village priest, who had come to spend the evening with him. I bowed respectfully, and as he noted my swollen eyes, he returned my salute with an air of mournful sympathy.
The next day I returned to the tower. Raphael had died during the night, and the village bell was already tolling for his burial. Women and children were standing at their doors, looking mournfully in the direction of the tower, and in the little green field adjoining the church, two men, with spades and mattock, were digging a grave at the foot of a cross.
I drew near to the door. A cloud of twittering swallows were fluttering round the open windows, darting in and out, as though the spoiler had robbed their nests.
Since then I have read these pages, and now know why he loved to be surrounded by these birds, and what memories they waked in him, even to his dying day.
There are places and climates, seasons and hours, with their outward circumstance, so much in harmony with certain impressions of the heart, that Nature and the soul of man appear to be parts of one vast whole; and if we separate the stage from the drama, or the drama from the stage, the whole scene fades, and the feeling vanishes. If we take from Rene the cliffs of Brittany, or the wild savannahs from Atala, the mists of Swabia from Werther, or the sunny waves and scorched-up hills from Paul and Virginia, we can neither understand Chateaubriand, Bernardin de St. Pierre, or Goethe. Places and events are closely linked, for Nature is the same in the eye as in the heart of man. We are earth's children, and life is the same in sap as in blood; all that the earth, our mother, feels and expresses to the eye by her form and aspect, in melancholy or in splendor, finds an echo within us. One cannot thoroughly enter into certain feelings, save in the spot where they first had birth.
At the entrance of Savoy, that natural labyrinth of deep valleys, which descend like so many torrents from the Simplon, St. Bernard, and Mount Cenis, and direct their course towards France and Switzerland, one wider valley separates at Chambery from the Alpine chain, and, striking off towards Geneva and Annecy, displays its verdant bed, intersected with lakes and rivers, between the Mont du Chat and the almost mural mountains of Beauges.
On the left, the Mont du Chat, like a gigantic rampart, runs in one uninterrupted ridge for the space of two leagues, marking the horizon with a dark and scarcely undulated line. A few jagged peaks of gray rock at the eastern extremity alone break the almost geometrical monotony of its appearance, and tell that it was the hand of God, and not of man, that piled up these huge masses. Towards Chambery, the mountain descends by gentle steps to the plain, and forms natural terraces, clothed with walnut and chestnut trees, entwined with clusters of the creeping vine. In the midst of this wild, luxuriant vegetation, one sees here and there some country-house shining through the trees, the tall spire of a humble village, or the old dark towers and battlements of some castle of a bygone age. The plain was once a vast lake, and has preserved the hollowed form, the indented shores, and advanced promontories of its former aspect; but in lieu of the spreading waters, there are the yellow waves of the bending corn, or the undulating summit of the verdant poplars. Here and there, a piece of rising ground, which was once an island, may be seen with its clusters of thatched roofs, half hidden among the branches. Beyond this dried-up basin, the Mont du Chat rises more abrupt and bold, its base washed by the waters of a lake, as blue as the firmament above it. This lake, which is not more than six leagues in length, varies in breadth from one to three leagues, and is surrounded and hemmed in with bold, steep rocks on the French side; on the Savoy side, on the contrary, it winds unmolested into several creeks and small bays, bordered by vine-covered hillocks and well-wooded slopes, and skirted by fig-trees whose branches dip into its very waters. The lake then dwindles away gradually to the foot of the rocks of Chatillon, which open to afford a passage for the overflow of its waters into the Rhone. The burial-place of the princes of the house of Savoy, the abbey of Haute-Combe, stands on the northern side upon its foundation of granite, and projects the vast shadow of its spacious cloisters on the waters of the lake. Screened during the day from the rays of the sun by the high barrier of the Mont du Chat, the edifice, from the obscurity which envelops it, seems emblematical of the eternal night awaiting at its gates, the princes who descend from a throne into its vaults. Towards evening, however, a ray of the setting sun strikes and reverberates on its walls, as a beacon to mark the haven of life at the close of day. A few fishing boats, without sails, glide silently on the deep waters, beneath the shade of the mountain, and from their dingy color can scarcely be distinguished from its dark and rocky sides. Eagles, with their dusky plumage, incessantly hover over the cliffs and boats, as if to rob the nets of their prey, or make a sudden swoop at the birds which follow in the wake of the boats.
At no great distance, the little town of Aix, in Savoy, steaming with its hot springs, and redolent of sulphur, is seated on the slope of a hill covered with vineyards, orchards, and meadows. A long avenue of poplars, the growth of a century, connects the lake with the town, and reminds one of those far-stretching rows of cypresses which lead to Turkish cemeteries. The meadows and fields, on either side of this road, are intersected by the rocky beds of the often dried-up mountain torrents and shaded by giant walnut-trees, upon whose boughs vines as sturdy as those of the woods of America hang their clustering branches. Here and there, a distant vista of the lake shows its surface, alternately sparkling or lead-colored, as the passing cloud or the hour of the day may make it.
When I arrived at Aix, the crowd had already left it. The hotels and public places, where strangers and idlers flock during the summer, were then closed. All were gone, save a few infirm paupers, seated in the sun, at the door of the lowest description of inns; and some invalids, past all hope of recovery, who might be seen, during the hottest hours of the day, dragging their feeble steps along, and treading the withered leaves that had fallen from the poplars during the night.
The autumn was mild, but had set in early. The leaves which had been blighted by the morning frost fell in roseate showers from the vines and chestnut-trees. Until noon, the mist overspread the valley, like an overflowing nocturnal inundation, covering all but the tops of the highest poplars in the plain; the hillocks rose in view like islands, and the peaks of mountains appeared as headlands in the midst of ocean; but when the sun rose higher in the heavens, the mild southerly breeze drove before it all these vapors of earth. The rushing of the imprisoned winds in the gorges of the mountains, the murmur of the waters, and the whispering trees, produced sounds melodious or powerful, sonorous or melancholy, and seemed in a few minutes to run through the whole range of earth's joys and sorrows its strength or its melancholy. They stirred up one's very soul, then died away like the voices of celestial spirits, that pass and disappear. Silence, such as the ear has no preception of elsewhere, succeeded, and hushed all to rest. The sky resumed its almost Italian serenity; the Alps stood out once more against a cloudless sky; the drops from the dissolving mist fell pattering on the dry leaves, or shone like brilliants on the grass. These hours were quickly over; the pale blue shades of evening glided swiftly on, veiling the horizon with their cold drapery as with a shroud. It seemed the death of Nature, dying, as youth and beauty die, with all its charms, and all its serenity.
Scenes such as these exhibiting Nature in its languid beauty were too much in accordance with my feelings. While they gave an additional charm to my own languor, they increased it, and I voluntarily plunged into an abyss of melancholy. But it was a melancholy so replete with thoughts, impressions, and elevating desires, with so soft a twilight of the soul, that I had no wish to shake it off. It was a malady the very consciousness of which was an allurement, rather than a pain, and in which Death appeared but as a voluptuous vanishing into space. I had given myself up to the charm, and had determined to keep aloof from society, which might have dissipated it, and in the midst of the world to wrap myself in silence, solitude, and reserve. I used my isolation of mind as a shroud to shut out the sight of men, so as to contemplate God and Nature only.
Passing by Chambery, I had seen my friend, Louis de ——; I had found him in the same state of mind as myself, disgusted with the bitterness of life, his genius, unappreciated, the body worn out by the mind, and all his better feelings thrown back upon his heart.
Louis had mentioned to me a quiet and secluded house, in the higher part of the town of Aix, where invalids were admitted to board. The establishment was conducted by a worthy old doctor (who had retired from the profession), and communicated with the town by a narrow pathway, which lay between the streams that issue from the hot springs. The back of the house looked on a garden surrounded by trellis and vine arbors; and beyond that there were paths where goats only were to be seen, which led to the mountain through sloping meadows, and through woods of chestnut and walnut-trees. Louis had promised to join me at Aix, as soon as he should have settled some business, consequent on the death of his mother, which detained him at Chambery. I looked forward with pleasure to his arrival, for we understood each other, and the same feeling of disenchantment was common to us both. Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger links than common joys. Louis was, at that particular time, the only person whose society was not distasteful to me, and yet I awaited his arrival without eagerness or impatience.
I was kindly and graciously received in the house of the old doctor, and a room was allotted to me, which overlooked the garden and the country beyond. Almost all the other rooms were untenanted, and the long table d'hote was deserted. At meal times a few invalids from Chambery and Turin, who had over-stayed the season, assembled with the family. These boarders had arrived late, when most of the visitors of the baths were already gone, in hopes of finding cheaper lodgings, and a style of living in accordance with their poverty. There was no one with whom I could converse or form a passing acquaintance. This the old doctor and his wife soon saw, and threw the blame on the advanced season, and on the bathers who had left too soon. They often spoke with visible enthusiasm, and tender and compassionate respect, of a young stranger, a lady, who had remained at the baths in a weak and languid state of health, which it was feared would degenerate into slow consumption. She had lived alone with her maid for the last three months, in one of the most retired apartments of the house, taking her meals in her own rooms; and was never seen except at her window that looked towards the garden, or on the stairs when she returned from a donkey ride in the mountains.
I felt compassion for this young creature, a stranger like myself in a foreign land, who must be ill, since she had come in quest of health, and was doubtless sad, since she avoided the bustle and even the sight of company; but I felt no desire to see her spite of the admiration her grace and beauty had excited on those around me. My worn-out heart was wearied with wretched and short-lived attachments, of which I blushed to preserve the memories; not one of which I could recur to with pious regret, save that of poor Antonina. I was penitent and ashamed of my past follies and disorders; disgusted and satiated of vulgar allurements; and being naturally of a timid and reserved disposition, without that self-confidence which prompts some men to court adventures, or to seek the familiarity of chance acquaintances, I neither wished to see nor to be seen. Still less did I dream of love. On the contrary, I rejoiced, in my stern and mistaken pride, to think that I had forever stifled that weakness in my heart, and that I was alone to feel, or to suffer in this nether world. As to happiness, I no longer believed in it.
I passed my days in my room with no other company than some books which my friend had sent me from Chambery. In the afternoon, I used to ramble alone amid the wild mountains which, on the Italian side, form the boundary of the valley of Aix; and returning home in the evening, harassed and fatigued, would sit down to supper, and then retire to my room and spend whole hours seated at my window. I gazed at the blue firmament above, which, like the abyss attracting him who leans over it, ever attracts the thoughts of men as though it had secrets to reveal. Sleep found me still wandering on a sea of thoughts, and seeking no shore. When morning came, I was awaked by the rays of the sun and by the murmur of the hot springs; and I would plunge into my bath, and after breakfast recommence the same rambles and the same melancholy musings as the day before. Sometimes in the evening, when I looked out of my window into the garden, I saw another lighted window not far from my own and the face of a female, who, with one hand throwing back the long black tresses from her brow, gazed like myself on the mountains, the sky, and moonlit garden. I could only distinguish the pale, pure, and almost transparent profile and the long, dark waves of the hair, which was smoothed down at the temples. I used to see this face standing out on the brilliant background of the window, which was lighted from a lamp in the bedroom. At times, too, I had heard a woman's voice saying a few words or giving some orders in the apartment. The slightly foreign, though pure accent, the vibrations of that soft, languid, and yet marvellously sonorous voice, of which I heard the harmony without understanding the words had interested me. Long after my window was closed that voice remained in my ear like the prolonged sound of an echo. I had never heard any like it, even in Italy; it sounded through the half-closed teeth like those small metallic lyres that the children of the Islands of the Archipelago use when they play on the seashore. It was more like a ringing sound than like a voice; I had noticed it, little dreaming that that voice would ring loud and deep forever through my life. The next day I thought no more of it.
One day, however, on returning home earlier, and entering by the little garden-door near the arbor, I had a nearer view of the stranger, who was seated on a bench under the southern wall, enjoying the warm rays of the sun. She thought herself alone, for she had not heard the sound of the door as I closed it behind me, and I could contemplate her unobserved. We were within twenty paces of each other, and were only separated by a vine, which was half-stripped of its leaves. The shade of the vine-leaves and the rays of the sun played and chased each other alternately over her face. She appeared larger than life, as she sat like one of those marble statues enveloped in drapery, of which we admire the beauty without distinguishing the form. The folds of her dress were loose and flowing, and the drapery of a white shawl, folded closely round her, showed only her slender and rather attenuated hands, which were crossed on her lap. In one, she carelessly held one of those red flowers which grow in the mountains beneath the snow, and are called, I know not why, "poets' flowers." One end of her shawl was thrown over her head like a hood, to protect her from the damp evening air. She was bent languidly forward, her head inclined upon her left shoulder; and the eyelids, with their long dark lashes, were closed against the dazzling rays of the sun. Her complexion was pale, her features motionless, and her countenance so expressive of profound and silent meditation, that she resembled a statue of Death; but of that Death which bears away the soul beyond the reach of human woes to the regions of eternal light and love. The sound of my footsteps on the dry leaves made her look up. Her large half-closed eyes were of that peculiar tint resembling the color of lapis lazuli, streaked with brown, and the drooping lid had that natural fringe of long dark lashes, which Eastern women strive by art to imitate, in order to impart a voluptuous wildness to their look and energy even to their languor. The light of those eyes seemed to come from a distance which I have never measured in any other mortal eye. It was as the rays of the stars, which seem to seek us out, and to approach us as we gaze, and yet have travelled millions of miles through the heavens. The high and narrow forehead seemed as if compressed by intense thought, and joined the nose by an almost straight and Grecian line. The lips were thin and slightly depressed at the corners with an habitual expression of sadness; the teeth of pearl, rather than of ivory, as is the case with the daughters of the sea or islands. The face was oval, slightly emaciated in the lower part and at the temples, and, on the whole she seemed rather an embodying of thought than a human being. Besides this general expression of revery there was a languid look of suffering and passion, which made it impossible to gaze once on that face without bearing its ineffaceable image stamped forever in the memory. In a word, hers was a contagious sickness of the soul, veiled in a shape of beauty the most majestic and attractive that the dreams of mortal man ever embodied.
I passed rapidly before her, bowing respectfully, and my deferential air and downcast eyes seemed to ask forgiveness for having disturbed her. A slight blush tinged her pale cheeks at my approach. I returned to my room trembling and wondering that the evening air should thus have chilled me. A few minutes later I saw her re-enter the house, and cast one indifferent look at my window. I saw her again on the following days, at the same hour, both in the garden and in the court, but never dared to think of accosting her. I even met her sometimes near the chalets, with the little girls who drove her donkey or picked strawberries for her, at other times, in her boat on the lake; but I never showed any sign of recognition or interest, beyond a grave and respectful bow; she would return it with an air of melancholy abstraction, and we each went our separate ways, on the hills or on the waters.
And yet when I had not met her in the course of the day, I felt sad and disturbed; when evening came, I would go down to the garden, I knew not why, and stay there, with my eyes riveted on her windows, spite of the cold night air. I could not make up my mind to return to the house until I had caught a glimpse of her shadow on the curtains, or heard a note of her piano, or one of the strange tones of her voice.
The apartment she occupied was contiguous to my room, from which it was separated by a strong oaken door with two bolts. I could hear confusedly the sound of her footsteps, the rustling of her gown, or the crumpling of the leaves of her book as she turned over the pages. I sometimes fancied I heard her breathe. Instinctively I placed my writing-table on which my lamp stood near the door, for I felt less lonely when I heard these sounds of life around me. It seemed to me that this unknown neighbor, who insensibly occupied all my time, shared my life. In a word, before I had the slightest idea that I loved, I had already all the thoughts, the fancies, and the refinements of passion. Love did not consist for me in one particular symptom, look, or confession, in any one external circumstance against which I could have fortified myself. It was an invisible miasma diffused in the surrounding atmosphere; it was in the air and light, in the expiring season, in my lonely life, in the mysterious proximity of another equally isolated existence; it was in the long excursions which took me from her and made me feel the more forcibly the unconscious attraction which recalled me; in her white dress, seen at a distance through the mountain firs; in her dark hair loosened by the wind on the lake; in the light at her window, in the slight creaking of the wooden floor under her tread, in the rustling of her pen on the paper when she wrote, in the very silence of those long autumnal evenings which she spent in reading, writing, or in thought within a few paces of me; and lastly, it was in the fascination of her fantastic beauty, too much seen though scarcely beheld, and which, when I closed my eyes, I still saw through the wall, as though it had been transparent.
With this feeling, however, there mingled no desire or eager curiosity, on my part, to find out the secret reason of her solitude, or to break down the fragile barrier of our almost voluntary separation. What to me was this woman whom I had met by chance among the mountains of a foreign land, ill in health and sick at heart though she might be? I had shaken the dust from my feet, or at least I thought I had, and felt no wish to hold to the world once more by any link of the mind, or of the senses, still less by any weakness of the heart. I felt supreme contempt for love, for under its name I had met only with affectation, coquetry, fickleness, and levity; if I except the love of Antonina, which had been but a childish ecstasy, a flower fallen from the stem before its hour of perfume.
Again, who was this woman? Was she a being like myself, or one of those visions which, like living meteors, shoot athwart the sky of our imagination, dazzling the eye? Was she of my own country, or from some distant land, from some island of the tropics, or the far East, whither I could not follow her? After adoring her for a few days, might I not have to mourn forever her absence? Was her heart free to respond to mine? Was it likely that enthralling beauty such as hers should have traversed the world and reached maturity without kindling love in some of those upon whom the glance of her eye had fallen? Had she a father or a mother, brothers or sisters? Was she not married? Was there not one man in the world who, though separated from her by inexplicable circumstances, lived for her only, as she lived for him?
All this I said to myself, to drive away this one besetting, hopeless fancy. I scorned even to make inquiries. I was too much of a stoic to strive to penetrate the unknown, and thought it more dignified, or perhaps more pleasant, to go on dreaming in uncertainty.
The old doctor and his family had not the pride of heart that induced me to respect her secret. At table our hosts, with the curiosity natural to all those who live by strangers, would interpret every circumstance, discuss every probability, and collect even the vaguest notions concerning the stranger. I soon learned all that had transpired respecting her, although I never interrogated and even studiously avoided making her the subject of our discourse. In vain I sought to turn the conversation into another channel; every day the same subject recurred; men, women, children, bathers, and servants, the guides of the mountains, and the boatmen on the lake, had all been equally struck and charmed by her, although she spoke to no one. She was an object of universal respect and admiration.
There are some beings who, by their dazzling radiance, draw all around them into their sphere of attraction without desiring or even perceiving it. It seems as though certain natures were like the suns of some moral system, obliging the looks, thoughts, and hearts of their satellites to gravitate around them. Their moral and physical beauty is a spell, their fascination a chain, love is but their emanation. We track their upward course from earth to heaven, and when they vanish in their youth and beauty, all else seems dark to the eye that has been blinded by their brilliancy. The vulgar, even, recognize these superior beings by some mysterious sign. They admire without comprehending, as the blind enjoy the sunshine, who have never seen the sun.
It was thus I learned that the young stranger lived in Paris. Her husband was an old man, who had rendered his name illustrious, at the close of the last century, by many discoveries which held a high place in the history of science. He had been struck with the beauty and talent of this young girl, and had adopted her in order to bequeath to her his name and fortune. She loved him as a father, wrote to him every day, and sent him a journal of her feelings and impressions. Two years ago she had fallen into a declining state, which had alarmed him. She had been recommended to remove southward and try change of air, and her husband, being too infirm to accompany her, had confided her to the care of some friends from Lausanne, with whom she had travelled all over Italy and Switzerland. The change had not restored her to health, and a Genevese doctor, fearing a disease of the heart, had recommended the baths of Aix; he was to come to fetch her, and take her back to Paris at the beginning of the winter.
This was all I learned of a life already so dear. Still I persisted in fancying that all these details were indifferent to me. I felt a tender pity for this enchanting and beautiful being, blighted in the flower of youth by a disease which, while it consumes life, renders the sensations more acute and stimulates the flame which it is destined to extinguish. When I met the stranger on the staircase, I sought to discover the trace of her sufferings in the scarcely perceptible lines of pain round her somewhat pale lips, or in the dark circle which want of sleep had left round her beautiful blue eyes. I was interested by her beauty, but still more by the shadow of death by which she was overcast, and which made her appear more as a phantom of the night than as a reality. This was all. Our lives rolled on; we continued to live in close proximity as far as distance was concerned, but morally, as widely separated as ever.
I had given up my mountain excursions since the snow had fallen on the highest peaks of Savoy, for the gentle warmth of the latter days of October seemed to have taken refuge in the valley; and on the banks of the lake the weather was still mild. The long avenue of poplars was my delight, with its gleams of sunshine, waving tops, and murmuring branches. I spent, also, a great part of my time on the water. The boatmen all knew me, and I am told they still remember how we used to sail into the wildest creeks and remotest bays of France and Savoy. The young stranger, too, would sometimes embark in the middle of the day for less distant expeditions. The boatmen, who were proud of her confidence, always took care to give her notice of the least symptom of wind or cold weather, thinking far more of her health and safety than of their own gains. On one occasion, however, they were themselves deceived. They had undertaken to row her safely over to Haute-Combe, on the opposite shore of the lake, in order to visit the ruins of the Abbey. They had scarcely got over two-thirds of the distance, when a sudden gust of wind, rushing forth from the narrow gorges of the valley of the Rhone, stirred up the waves of the lake, and produced one of those short seas which so often prove fatal. The sail of the little boat was soon gone, and it seemed like a nutshell dancing on the still-increasing waves. It was impossible to think of returning, and full half an hour of fatigue and danger must elapse before the boat could be moored in safety under the hanging cliffs of Haute-Combe. Fate willed that my wandering sail should be on the lake at the same hour. I was in a larger boat, with four stout oarsmen, and was going to visit M. de Chatillon, a relation of my Chambery friend. His chateau was situated on the summit of a rock, in a small island at one end of the lake. A few strokes of the oar would have brought us into the harbor of Chatillon, but I, who had unconsciously been watching the other boat and saw it struggling against the wind, perceived the danger in which it was placed. We put about immediately, and with one heart affronted the tempest and the dangers of the lake, to try and succor the little craft, which every now and then disappeared, and was lost in a mist of foam and spray. My anxiety was intense during the hour that was required to cross the lake before we could join the little bark. When we came up to it, the shore was close at hand, and one long wave lodged it in safety before our eyes on the sand at the foot of the ruined Abbey.
We shouted for joy, and rushed through the water to the boat, in order to carry the invalid ashore. The poor boatman was making signs of distress, and calling for help; he was pointing to the bottom of the boat, at something we could not see. On reaching the spot where he stood, we found that the stranger had fainted, and was lying at the bottom of the boat. Her body and arms were completely immersed in water, and her head rested like that of a corpse against the little wooden chest at the stern, in which the boatmen put their tackle and provisions. Her hair streamed in disorder about her neck and shoulders, like the dark wings of a lifeless bird floating on the surface of the waters. Her face, from which all color had not fled, was calm and peaceful as in slumber and shone with that preternatural beauty death leaves on the countenance of those who die young; like the last and fairest ray of retiring life, lingering on the brow from which it is about to depart, or the first beam of dawning immortality on the features which are henceforward to be hallowed in the memory of those who survive. I had never before, and have never since, seen her so divinely transfigured. Was Death the most perfect form of her celestial beauty, or did Providence intend this first and solemn impression, as a foreshadowing of that unchangeable image of beauty, which I was destined to entomb in my memory, and eternally evoke!
We jumped into the boat, to take up the apparently dying woman, and carry her beyond the rocks. I placed my hand upon her heart, and approached my ear to her lips, as I would to those of a sleeping infant. The heart beat irregularly, but with strong pulsations; the breath was warm, and I saw that she had only fainted from terror and from cold. One of the boatmen took up her feet, I supported the shoulders and the head, which rested on my breast. She gave no sign of life while we carried her thus to a fisherman's house, below the rocks of Haute-Combe, which serves as an inn for the boatmen, when they conduct strangers to the ruins. This poor dwelling consisted merely in one long, dark, smoky room, furnished with a table upon which were wine, bread, and cheese. A wooden ladder led to an upper room, which was lighted by a single round window without glass, looking towards the lake. Almost the whole space of this room was occupied by three beds, which could be closed up by wooden doors, like large presses. The whole family slept there. We confided the stranger, who was still insensible, to the care of the two girls of the house and their mother, and we stood outside the door, while they extended a mattress near the chimney, and having lighted a fire of furze, undressed her, dried her clothes, chafed her limbs, and wrung her streaming hair; they then carried her upstairs, and placed her in one of the beds, on which they had spread clean sheets, which had been warmed with one of the heated hearth-stones, according to the custom of the peasants of that country. They tried in vain to make her swallow a few drops of wine and vinegar to bring her to life; but finding all their efforts unavailing, gave way to tears and lamentations, which soon recalled us into the house. "The lady is dead! the lady is dead! We can only weep, and send for a priest." The boatmen mingled their cries with those of the women, and increased their confusion. I rushed up the ladder and entered the room. The dim twilight still showed the bed over which I bent. I touched her forehead; it was burning hot; I could distinguish the low and regular breathing which made the coarse brown sheet alternately rise and fall on the chest. I bid the women be quiet, and giving some money to one of the boatmen, ordered him to fetch a doctor, who, I was told, lived two leagues off, in a little village on the Mont du Chat. The boatman set off at full speed; the others, comforted by the assurance that the lady was not dead, sat down to eat. The women went and came from the parlor to the cellar, and from the cellar to the poultry-yard, to make preparations for supper. I remained seated on one of the bags of Indian corn at the foot of the bed, my hands clasped on my knees, and my eyes fixed on the inanimate face and closed eyelids of the sufferer. Night had closed in. One of the young girls had fastened the shutter, and suspended a small copper lamp against the wall; its rays fell on the sheets and on the sleeping countenance like the light of holy tapers on a death-bed. Since then, I have thus watched, alas, by other bedsides, but the sleepers never woke!
Never perhaps was the heart of man absorbed for so many long hours in one strange and overwhelming speculation. Suspended between death and love, I was unable to divine, as I gazed on the angel form that lay sleeping before me, whether this night in its mystery would bring-forth endless anguish, or whether undying love would come in the morning, with returning life and joy. In the convulsive movements of her troubled sleep she had thrown the sheet off one of her shoulders upon which fell the long luxuriant curls of her lustrous hair. The neck had yielded to the weight of the head, which was thrown back on the pillow, and slightly inclined towards the left shoulder; one of the arms was disengaged from the cover-lid and was placed beneath the head, showing the ivory whiteness of the elbow, which stood out on the coarse brown linen in which the peasant women had dressed her. On one of the fingers of the hand, which was half concealed in the masses of dark hair, there was a small gold ring with a sparkling ruby, on which the rays of the lamp flashed. The girls had lain down on the floor without undressing, and their mother had fallen asleep with her hands folded on the back of a wooden chair. As soon as the cock crowed in the yard, they got up, and taking their wooden shoes in their hands, noiselessly descended the ladder to go to work. I remained alone.
The first gleams of dawn came through the closed shutter in almost imperceptible streaks of light. I opened the window in the hope that the balmy morning air from the lake and mountains, which awakened all Nature, would have the same effect on one whom I would willingly have revived at the cost of my own life. The chill air rushed into the room, and extinguished the expiring lamp. Nothing stirred on the bed. I heard the poor women below joining in common prayer, before commencing their day's labor. The thought of praying likewise entered my heart. I felt, as all do who have exhausted the whole strength of their soul, the wish to superadd the force of some mysterious and preterhuman power to the impotent tension of ardent desires. I knelt on the floor, with my hands clasped on the edge of the bed, and my eyes riveted on the face of the sleeper. I wept, and prayed long and fervently; the tears chased each other down my face and hid from my blinded eyes the features of the one whose recovery I so ardently desired. My whole heart and soul were so absorbed in one feeling and one sensation, that I might have remained hours in the same attitude without being aware of the lapse of time, or the pain of kneeling on the stone floor; when suddenly, while I was unconsciously wiping away my tears, I felt a hand touch mine, part the hair from my face, and gently rest upon my head, as if to bless me.
I looked up with a cry of delight; I saw her unclosed eyes, her smiling lips, her hand extended towards mine, and heard these words: "O God! I thank thee. I have now a brother!"
The cool morning air had awakened her, while I was praying by her bedside, with my face buried in my hands. She had noted my ardent pity, and my ardent prayer, and had recognized me by the clear light of morning, which now streamed into the chamber. When she had fainted she was lonely and indifferent, and had revived under the tender care, and perhaps the love of a pitying stranger. She, who, in the neglected flower of her days, had been deprived of all the kindred ties of the heart, had unexpectedly found in me the care and pity, the tears and prayers, of a youthful brother; and that tender name had escaped her lips at the moment that returning life gave her the consciousness of so great a joy.
"A brother! Ah, no, not a brother!" I exclaimed, reverently removing her hand from my brow, as though I had not been worthy of her touch, "not a brother, but a slave, a living shadow following on your steps, who asks but one blessing of Heaven, and one felicity on earth—the right of remembering this night; who only desires to preserve eternally the image of the superhuman vision he would wish to follow unto death, or for whom alone he could bear to live." As I faltered out these words in a low voice, the rosy tints of life gradually reappeared on her cheeks, a sad smile, implying an obstinate unbelief in happiness, played round her mouth, and she raised her eyes to the ceiling, as though they listened to words which responded not to the ear, but to the thoughts. Never was the change from life to death, from a dream to reality, so rapid; on her countenance, now blooming with youth and refreshed by rest, surprise, languor, delight, repose, joy and melancholy, timidity and grace were all painted in quick succession. Her radiance seemed to illumine the dark recess more than the light of morning. There existed more languor, more revealings, more sympathy in her looks and silence, than in millions of words. The human face speaks a language to the eye, and in youth the countenance is an instrument of which one look of passion sweeps the keys. It transmits from soul to soul mysteries of mute communion, which cannot be translated into words. My countenance, too, must have revealed what I felt to those eyes which were bent so earnestly upon me. My damp clothes, my long, dishevelled hair, my eyes heavy with watching, my pale and anxious looks, the pious enthusiasm with which I bent before the holiness of suffering beauty, my emotion, joy, and surprise, the dimness of the room in which I durst not take a step for fear of dispelling the enchantment of so divine a dream, the first rays of sun, which showed the tears still glistening in my eyes,—all conspired to lend to my countenance a power of expression, and a look of tenderness, which it will doubtless never wear again in the course of a long life.
Unable to bear any longer the reaction of these feelings, and the internal vibration of such silence, I called up the women. On entering the room, they broke out into repeated exclamations of surprise at the sight of a resurrection which appeared to them a miracle. At the same moment the doctor made his appearance. He prescribed repose and an infusion of certain plants of the mountain which allay the irregular movements of the heart. He reassured every one by telling us that the lady's malady was one of youth, produced by excessive sensibility, and which time would mitigate; that it was but a superabundance of life, although it often wore the appearance of death, and was never fatal, except when inward grief or some moral cause changed its character into one of habitual melancholy, or an unconquerable distaste to life. While some of the women went out into the fields, to gather the samples ordered by the doctor, and others were ironing out her damp clothes in the lower room, I left the house to wander alone among the ruins of the old Abbey.
But my heart was too full of its own emotions to feel interested in the anchorites of the Abbey. The enthusiasm and self-denial of the early monasteries had subsided into a profession; and at a later period their lives, unlinked with those of their fellow-beings, had fruitlessly evaporated within these cloisters, and left no trace behind. I felt no regret as I stood upon their tombs, but only wondered, as I noted how speedily Nature seizes on the empty dwellings and deserted abodes of man, and how superior is the living architecture of shrubs and briers, waving ivy, wall-flowers and creeping plants, throwing their mantle on the ruined walls, to the cold symmetry of stones, or the lifeless ornaments of the chiselled monuments of men.
There was now more sunshine, music, and perfume, more holy psalmody of the winds and waters, of birds, and sonorous echoes of the lakes and forests, beneath the crumbling pillars, dismantled nave, and shattered roof of the empty Abbey, than there had been holy tapers, fumes of incense and monotonous chants in the ceremonies and processions that filled it night and day. Nature is the high priest, the noblest decorator, the holiest poet and most inspired musician of God. The young swallows in their nests below the broken cornice, greeting their mother with their cheerful chirping; the sighing of the breeze, which seems to bear to the unpeopled cloisters the sound of flapping sails, the lament of the waves, and the dying notes of the fisherman's song; the balmy emanations which now and then are wafted through the nave; the flowers which shed their leaves upon the tombs, the waving of the green drapery which clothes the walls; the sonorous and reverberated echoes of the stranger's steps upon the vaults where sleep the dead,—are all as full of piety, holy thoughts, and unbounded aspirations, as was the monastery in its days of sacred splendor. Man is no longer there, with all his miserable passions contracted by the narrow pale in which they were confined, but not extinguished; but God is there, never so plainly seen as in the works of Nature,—God whose unshadowed splendor seems to re-enter once more these intellectual graves, whose vaulted roofs no longer intercept the glorious sunshine and the light of heaven.
I was not at the time sufficiently composed to understand my own feelings. I felt as one just relieved from a heavy burden, who breathes freely, relaxes his contracted muscles, and walks to and fro in his strength, as though he could devour space, and inhale all the air of heaven. My own heart was the burden of which I had been relieved, and, in giving it to another, I felt as if I had for the first time entered into the fulness of life. Man is so truly born to love, that it is only when he has the consciousness of loving fully and entirely that he feels himself really a man. Until then he is disturbed and restless, inconstant and wandering in his thoughts; but from thenceforward all his waverings cease, he feels at rest, and sees his destiny before him.
I sat down upon the ivy-covered wall of a high dilapidated terrace which overlooked the lake. My eyes wandered over the bright expanse of water and the luminous immensity of the sky; they were so well blended in the azure line of the horizon that it would have been impossible to define where the sky commenced, and where the lake terminated. I seemed to float in the pure ether, or to be merged in a universal ocean. But the inward joy which inundated my soul was far more infinite, radiant, and incommensurate, than the atmosphere with which I seemed to mingle. I could not have defined my joy, or rather my inward serenity. It was as some unfathomable secret revealed to me by feelings instead of words,—as the sensation of the eye passing from darkness into light, or as the rapture of some mystical soul, secure in the possession of its God. It was dazzling light, intoxication without giddiness, repose without heaviness, or immobility. I could have lived on thus during as many thousand years as there were ripples on the lake, or sands upon its shores, without perceiving that more seconds had elapsed than were required for a single respiration. When the immortal dwellers in heaven first lose the consciousness of the duration of time, they must feel thus; it was an immutable thought, in the eternity of an instant.
These sensations were not precise, or definable. They were too complete to be scanned; thought could not divide, nor reflection analyze them. They did not take their rise in the loveliness of the superhuman creature that I adored, for the shadow of death still lay between her beauty and my eyes; or in the pride of being loved by her, for I knew not if I was more in her sight than a dream of morning; or in the hope of possessing her charms, for my respect was too far above such vile gratifications of the senses even to stoop to them in thought; or in the satisfaction of displaying my triumph, for selfish vanity held no place in my heart, and I knew no one in that secluded spot before whom I could profane my love by disclosing it; or in the hope of linking her fate with mine, for I knew she was another's; or in the certainty of seeing her, and the happiness of following her steps, for I was as little free as she was, and in a few days fate was to divide us; nor, lastly, in the certainty of being beloved, for I knew nothing of her heart, except the one word and look of gratitude that she had addressed to me.
Mine was another feeling; pure, calm, disinterested, and immaterial. It was repose of the heart, after having met with the long sought-for, and till then unfound, object of its restless adoration; the long-desired idol of that vague, unquiet adoration of supreme beauty which agitates the soul until the divinity has been discovered, and that our heart has clung to as a straw to the magnet, or mingled with as sighs with the surrounding air.
Strange to say, I felt no impatience to see her once more, to hear her voice, to be near her, or to converse freely with one who had become the sole object of my life and thoughts. I had seen her and she had become part of myself. Henceforward nothing could rob my soul of its possession; far or near, present or absent, I bore her with me; all else was indifferent. Perfect love is patient, because it is absolute, and knows itself to be eternal. No power could tear her from my heart. I felt that henceforward her image was completely mine; it was to me what light is to the eye that has once seen it, air to the lungs that have once inhaled it, or thought to the mind in which it has once been conceived. I defied Heaven itself to rob me of this divine embodying of my desires. I had seen her, and that was enough. For the contemplative, to see is to enjoy. It scarcely mattered to me whether she loved me, or whether she passed me by without perceiving me. I had been touched by her splendor, and was still enveloped in her rays; she could no more withdraw them from me than the sun can take from the earth the beams which he has shed upon it. I felt that darkness and night had fled forever from my heart, and that she would evermore shine there, as she then shone, though I lived for a thousand years.
This conviction gave to my love all the security of immutability, the calm of certainty, the overflowing ecstasy of joy that would never be impaired. I took no note of time, knowing that I had before me hours without end, and that each in succession would give me back her inward presence. I might be separated from her during a century without reducing by one day the eternity of my love. I went and came; sat down and got up again. I ran, then stopped and walked on without feeling the ground beneath my feet, like those phantoms which glide upon earth, upheld by their impalpable, ethereal nature. I extended my arms to grasp the air, the light, the lake; I would have clasped all Nature in one vast embrace in thankfulness that she had become incarnate, for me, in a being that united all her charms and splendor, power, and delights. I knelt on the stones and briers of the ruins without feeling them and on the brink of precipices without perceiving them. I uttered inarticulate words, which were lost in the sound of the noisy waters of the lake; I strove to pierce the vaults of heaven, and to carry my song of gratitude, and my ecstasy of joy, into the very presence of God. I was no longer a man, I was a living hymn of praise, prayer, adoration, worship of overflowing, speechless thankfulness. I felt an intoxication of the heart, a madness of the soul; my body had lost the consciousness of its materiality and I no longer believed in time, or space, or death. The new life of love which had gushed forth in my heart gave me the consciousness, the anticipated enjoyment, of the fulness of immortality.
I was made aware of the flight of time by seeing the meridian sun striking on the summit of the Abbey walls. I came down the hill through the woods bounding from rock to rock, and from tree to tree. My heart beat as though it would burst. As I approached the little inn, I saw the stranger in a sloping meadow behind the house. She was seated at the foot of a sunny wall, against which the inhabitants of the place had piled a few stones. Her white dress shone out on the verdant meadow, and the shade of a haystack screened her face from the sun. She was reading in a little book that lay open on her lap, and every now and then interrupted her reading to play with the children from the mountain, who came to offer her flowers, or chestnuts. On seeing me, she attempted to rise as if to meet me half-way, and her gesture was quite sufficient to encourage me to approach. She received me with a blushing look and tremulous lip, which I perceived, and which increased my own bashfulness. The strangeness of our situation was so embarrassing, that we remained some time without finding a word to say to each other. At last, with a timid and scarcely intelligible gesture, she motioned to me to sit down on the hay, not far from her; it seemed to me that she has expected me, and had kept a place for me. I sat down respectfully at some distance. Our silence remained unbroken, and it was evident that we were both ineffectually seeking to exchange some of those commonplace phrases which may be called the base coin of conversation, and serve to conceal thoughts instead of revealing them. Fearing to say too much or too little, we gave no utterance to what was in our hearts; we remained mute, and our silence increased our embarrassment. At length, our downcast eyes were raised at the same moment and met; I saw such depth of sensibility in hers, and she read in mine so much suppressed rapture, truth, and deep feeling, that we could no longer take them off each other's face, and tears rising to our eyes, at the same instant, from both our hearts we each instinctively put up our hands as if to veil our thoughts.
I know not how long we remained thus. At last, in a trembling voice, and with a somewhat constrained and impatient tone, she said: "You have wept over me; I have called you brother, you have adopted me for your sister, and yet we dare not look at each other? A tear," she added, "a disinterested tear from an unknown heart is more than my life is worth,—more than it has ever yet called forth!" Then with a slightly reproachful accent she said: "Am I then become once more a stranger to you, since I no longer require your care? Oh, as to me," she proceeded in a resolute tone of confidence, "I know nothing of you but your name and countenance, but I know your heart! A century could not teach me more!"
"For my part," said I, faltering, "I would wish to learn nothing of all that makes you a being like unto ourselves, and bound by the same links as us to this wretched world. I require but to know this,—that you have traversed it, and that you have allowed me to contemplate you from afar, and to remember you always."
"Oh, do not deceive yourself thus!" she replied; "do not see in me a deified delusion of your own heart; I should have to suffer too much when the chimera vanished. View me as I am; as a poor woman, who is dying in despondency and solitude, and who will take with her from earth no feeling more divine than that of pity. You will understand this, when I tell you who I am," added she; "but first answer me on one point, which has disquieted me since the day I first saw you in the garden. Why, young and gentle as you seem to be, are you so lonely and so sad? Why do you fly from the company and conversation of our host, to wander alone on the lake, and in the most secluded parts of the mountains, or to retire into your room? Your light burns far into the night, I am told. Have you some secret in your heart that you confine to solitude?" She waited my answer with visible anxiety, and kept her eyes closed, as if to conceal the impression it might make upon her. "My secret," said I, "is to have none; to feel the weight of a heart that no enthusiasm upheld until this hour; of a heart which I have endeavored to engage in unsatisfactory attachments, and which I have ever been obliged to resume with such bitterness and loathing, as forever to discourage me, young and feeling as I am, from loving." I then told her, without concealment, as I would have spoken before Heaven, of all that could interest her in my life. I related my birth, my humble and poor condition; I spoke of my father, a soldier of former days; my mother, a woman of exquisite sensibility, whose youth had been passed in all the refinement and elegance of letters; my young sisters, their pious and angelic simplicity; I mentioned my education among the children of my native mountains; my ready enthusiasm for study; my involuntary inaction; my travels; my first thrill of the heart beside the youthful daughter of the Neapolitan fisherman; the unprofitable acquaintances I formed in Paris,—the levity, misconduct, and self-abasement which had been the result; my desire for a soldier's life, which peace had counteracted at the very time I entered the army; my leaving my regiment; my wanderings without an object; my hopeless return to the paternal roof; my wasting melancholy; my wish to die; my weariness of everything; and lastly, I spoke of my physical languor, A proceeding from heaviness of the soul, and of that premature decrepitude of the heart, and distaste of life, which was concealed beneath the appearance and features of a man of four-and-twenty. I dwelt with inward satisfaction on the disappointments, weariness, and bitterness of my life, for I no longer felt them! A single look had regenerated me. I spoke of myself as of one that was dead; a new man was born within me. When I had ended, I raised my eyes to her, as towards my judge. She was trembling and pale with emotion. "Heavens," she exclaimed, "how you alarmed me!" "And why?" said I. "Because," she rejoined, "if you had not been unhappy and lonely here below, there would have been one link the less between us. You would have felt no desire to pity another; and I should have quitted life without having seen a shadow of myself, save in the heartless mirror where my own cold image is reflected."
"The history of your life," she continued, "is the history of mine, with the change of a few particulars. Only yours commences, and mine—" I would not let her conclude. "No, no!" said I hoarsely pressing my lips to her feet, which I embraced convulsively as if to hold her down to earth; "no, no! you will not, must not die; or, if you do, I feel two lives will end at once!"
I was alarmed at my own gesture and at the exclamation which had involuntarily escaped me; and I durst not raise my face off the ground, from which she had withdrawn her feet. "Rise," she said, in a grave voice, but without anger; "do not worship dust—dust as lowly as that in which you are soiling your fine hair, and which will be scattered as light and as impalpable by the first autumnal wind. Do not deceive yourself as to the poor creature you see before you. I am but the shadow of youth, of beauty, and of love,—of the love you will one day feel and inspire, when this shadow shall long have passed away. Keep your heart for those who are to live, and only give to the dying what the dying ask, a gentle hand to support their last steps, and tears to mourn their loss."
The grave and serious tone-with which she said these words struck to my heart. Yet as I looked on her, and saw the glowing tints of the setting sun illumining her face, which shone with hourly increasing youth and serenity of expression, as though a new sun had risen in her heart, I could not believe in death concealed under these glorious signs of life. Besides, what cared I? If that heavenly vision was death, well, it was death I loved. It might be that the vast and perfect love for which I thirsted was only to be found in death. It might be that God had only showed me its nearly extinguished light on earth, to urge me to follow the trace of its ray into the grave, and from thence to heaven.
"Do not stay dreaming thus," she said, "but listen to me!" This was not said with the accent of one who loves, and affects a sportive seriousness, but with the tone of a still youthful mother, or an elder sister counselling a brother or a son. "I do not wish you to attach yourself to a false appearance, a delusion, a dream; I wish you to know her to whom you so rashly pledge a heart which she could only retain by deceiving you. Falsehood has always been so odious and so impossible to me, that I could not desire the supreme felicity of heaven, if I must enter heaven by deceit. Stolen happiness would not be happiness for me, it would be remorse."
As she spoke, there was so much candor on her lips, so much sincerity in her tone, and limpid purity in her eyes, that I fancied as I looked at her that under her pure and lovely form I saw immortal Truth, in the broad light of day, pouring her voice into the ear, her look into the eye, and her soul into the heart. I stretched myself on the hay at her feet and, with my elbow leaning on the ground, I rested my head upon my hand; my eyes were riveted upon her lips, of which I strove not to lose a single motion, a single modulation, or a single sigh.
"I was born," she said, "in the same land as Virginia (for the poet's fancy has given a real birthplace to his dream), in an island of the tropics. You may have guessed it from the color of my hair, and from my complexion, which is paler than that of European women. You must have perceived, too, the accent which still lingers on my lips. In truth, I rather wish to preserve that accent as my only memento of my native land; it recalls to my mind the plaintive and harmonious sounds of the sea-breeze that are heard at noon beneath the lofty palms. You may also have noticed that incorrigible indolence of walk and attitude, so different from the vivacity of French women, which indicates in the Creole a wild and natural frankness that knows not how to feign or to dissemble.
"My family name is D——, and my own is Julie. My mother was lost in a boat in attempting to leave our native island during an insurrection of the blacks. I was washed ashore and saved by a black woman, who took care of me for several years, and then delivered me over to my father. He brought me to France when I was six years old, with an elder sister, and a short time after he died in poverty and exile in the house of some poor relations, who had hospitably received us in Brittany. The second mother whom I had found in exile provided for my education until her death, and, at twelve years old, I was adopted by the government as being the daughter of a man who had done some service to his country.
"I was brought up in all the luxurious splendor, and amid the choice friendships of those sumptuous houses, in which the State receives the daughters of those who die for their country. I grew in years, in talent, and also, it was said, in beauty. Mine was a grave and saddened grace, like the flower of some tropical plant blooming awhile beneath a foreign sky. But my useless beauty and my unavailing talents gladdened no eye or heart beyond the narrow precincts in which I was confined. My companions, with whom I had formed those close intimacies which make the friends of childhood the kindred of the heart, had all left, one by one, to join their mothers, or to follow their husbands. No mother took me home; no relation came to visit me; no young man heard of me, or sought me for his wife. I was saddened by these successive departures of all my friends, and felt sorrowful to think I was forsaken by the whole world, and doomed to an eternal bereavement of the heart without ever having loved. I often wept in secret, and regretted that the poor black woman had not allowed me to perish in the waves of my native shore, more merciful to me than the ocean, of the world on which I was cast.
"Now and then, an old man of great celebrity would come to visit, in the name of the Emperor, the national house of education, and inquire into the progress of the pupils in the arts and sciences, which were taught by the first masters of the capital; I was always pointed out to him as the brightest example of the education bestowed on the orphans. He invariably treated me with peculiar predilection from my childhood. 'How I regret,' he would sometimes say, loud enough for me to hear, 'that I have no son!'
"One day I was called down to the parlor of the Superior. I found there my illustrious and venerable friend, who seemed as discomposed as I was myself. 'My child,' said he, at length, 'years roll on for every one,—slowly for you, swiftly for me. You are now seventeen; in a few months you will have attained the age at which you must leave this house for the world; but there is no world to receive you. You have no country, no home, no fortune, and no family in France; your unprotected and dependent situation has made me feel anxious on your account for many years. The life of a young girl who earns her livelihood by her labor is full of snares and bitterness, and a home offered by friends is both precarious and humiliating to the spirit. The extreme beauty that Nature has bestowed upon you will, by its brightness, dispel the obscurity of your fate and attract vice, as the brightness of gold induces theft. Where do you mean to take shelter from the sorrows and dangers of life?' 'I know not,' I answered; 'and I have thought sometimes that death alone can save me from my fate!' 'Oh,' he replied, with a sad and irresolute smile, 'I have thought of another mode of escape, but I scarcely dare propose it.' 'Speak without fear, sir,' I answered; 'you have during so many years spoken to me with the look and accent of a father, that I shall fancy I am obeying mine, in obeying you.' 'Ah, he would be happy indeed,' he replied, 'who had a daughter such as you! Forgive me if I have sometimes indulged in such a dream! Listen to me,' he added in a more tender and serious tone; 'and answer me in thorough frankness and liberty of heart.