THE CONFESSION OF
A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
ALFRED DE MUSSET
THE life must be lived before the history of a life can be written, hence it is not my life that I am writing.
Having been attacked in early youth by an abominable moral malady, I relate what has happened to me during three years. If I were the only victim of this disease, I would say nothing, but as there are many others who suffer from the same evil, I write for them, although I am not sure that they will pay any attention to it; in case my warning is unheeded, I shall still have derived this benefit from my words in having cured myself, and, like the fox caught in a trap, I shall have devoured my captive foot.
DURING the wars of the Empire, while the husbands and brothers were in Germany, the anxious mothers brought forth an ardent, pale, nervous generation. Conceived between two battles, educated amidst the noises of war, thousands of children looked about them with a somber eye while testing their puny muscles. From time to time their blood-stained fathers would appear, raise them on their gold-laced bosoms, then place them on the ground and remount their horses.
The life of Europe was centered in one man; all were trying to fill their lungs with the air which he had breathed. Every year France presented that man with three hundred thousand of her youth; it was the tax paid to Caesar, and, without that troop behind him, he could not follow his fortune. It was the escort he needed that he might traverse the world, and then perish in a little valley in a deserted island, under the weeping willow.
Never had there been so many sleepless nights as in the time of that man; never had there been seen, hanging over the ramparts of the cities, such a nation of desolate mothers; never was there such a silence about those who spoke of death. And yet there was never such joy, such life, such fanfares of war, in all hearts. Never was there such pure sunlight as that which dried all this blood. God made the sun for this man, they said, and they called it the Sun of Austerlitz. But he made this sunlight himself with his ever-thundering cannons which dispelled all clouds but those which succeed the day of battle.
It was this air of the spotless sky, where shone so much glory, where glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed. They well knew that they were destined to the hecatomb; but they regarded Murat as invulnerable, and the emperor had been seen to cross a bridge where so many bullets whistled that they wondered if he could die. And even if one must die, what did it matter? Death itself was so beautiful, so noble, so illustrious, in his battle-scarred purple! It borrowed the color of hope, it reaped so many ripening harvests that it became young, and there was no more old age. All the cradles of France, as all its tombs, were armed with shield and buckler; there were no more old men, there were corpses or demi-gods.
Nevertheless, the immortal emperor stood one day on a hill watching seven nations engaged in mutual slaughter; as he did not know whether he would be master of all the world or only half, Azrael passed along, touched him with the tip of his wing, and pushed him into the Ocean. At the noise of his fall, the dying powers sat up in their beds of pain; and stealthily advancing with furtive tread, all the royal spiders made the partition of Europe, and the purple of Caesar became the frock of Harlequin.
Just as the traveler, sure of his way, hastens night and day through rain and sunlight, regardless of vigils or of dangers; but when he has reached his home and seated himself before the fire, he is seized upon by a feeling of extreme lassitude and can hardly drag himself to his bed: thus France, the widow of Caesar, suddenly felt her wound. She fell through sheer exhaustion, and lapsed into a sleep so profound that her old kings, believing her dead, wrapped about her a white shroud. The old army, its hair whitened in service, returned exhausted with fatigue, and the hearths of deserted castles sadly flickered into life.
Then the men of the Empire, who had been through so much, who had lived in such carnage, kissed their emaciated wives and spoke of their first love; they looked into the fountains of their natal prairies and found themselves so old, so mutilated, that they bethought themselves of their sons, in order that they might close their eyes in peace. They asked where they were; the children came from the schools, and seeing neither sabers, nor cuirasses, neither infantry nor cavalry, they asked in turn where were their fathers. They were told that the war was ended, that Caesar was dead, and that the portraits of Wellington and of Blucher were suspended in the antechambers of the consulates and the embassies, with these two words beneath: Salvatoribus mundi.
Then there seated itself on a world in ruins an anxious youth. All the children were drops of burning blood which had inundated the earth; they were born in the bosom of war, for war. For fifteen years they had dreamed of the snows of Moscow and of the sun of the pyramids. They had not gone beyond their native towns; but they were told that through each gate of these towns lay the road to a capital of Europe. They had in their heads all the world; they beheld the earth, the sky, the streets and the highways; all these were empty, and the bells of parish churches resounded faintly in the distance.
Pale fantoms shrouded in black robes, slowly traversed the country; others knocked at the doors of houses, and when admitted, drew from their pockets large well-worn documents with which they drove out the tenants. From every direction came men still trembling with the fear which had seized them when they fled twenty years before. All began to urge their claims, disputing loudly and crying for help; it was strange that a single death should attract so many crows.
The king of France was on his throne, looking here and there to see if he could perchance find a bee in the royal tapestry. Some held out their hats, and he gave them money; others showed him a crucifix, and he kissed it; others contented themselves with pronouncing in his ear great names of powerful families, and he replied to these by inviting them into his grand' salle, where the echoes were more sonorous; still others showed him their old cloaks, when they had carefully effaced the bees, and to these he gave new apparel.
The children saw all this, thinking that the spirit of Caesar would soon land at Cannes and breathe upon this larva; but the silence was unbroken and they saw floating in the sky only the paleness of the lily. When these children spoke of glory, they were answered: "Become priests;" when they spoke of hope, of love, of power, of life: "Become priests."
And yet there mounted the rostrum a man who held in his hand a contract between the king and the people; he began by saying that glory was a beautiful thing, and ambition and war as well; but there was something still more beautiful, and it was called liberty.
The children raised their heads and remembered that their grandfathers had spoken thus. They remembered having seen in certain obscure corners of the paternal home mysterious marble busts with long hair and a Latin inscription; they remembered seeing their grandsires shake their heads and speak of a stream of blood more terrible than that of the emperor. There was something in that word liberty that made their hearts beat with the memory of a terrible past and the hope of a glorious future.
They trembled at the word; but returning to their homes they encountered on the street three panniers which were being borne to Clamart; there were, within, three young men who had pronounced that word liberty too distinctly.
A strange smile hovered on their lips at that sad sight; but other speakers, mounted on the rostrum, began to publicly estimate what ambition had cost and how very dear was glory; they pointed out the horror of war and called the hecatombs butcheries. And they spoke so often and so long that all human illusions, like the trees in autumn, fell leaf by leaf about them, and those who listened passed their hands over their foreheads as though awakened from a feverish dream.
Some said: "The emperor has fallen because the people wished no more of him;" others added: "The people wished the king; no, liberty; no, reason; no, religion; no, the English constitution; no, absolutism;" and the last one said: "No, none of these things, but repose."
Three elements entered into the life which offered itself to these children: behind them a past forever destroyed, moving uneasily on its ruins with all the fossils of centuries of absolutism; before them the aurora of an immense horizon, the first gleams of the future; and between these two worlds—something like the Ocean which separates the old world from Young America, something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage, traversed from time to time by some distant sail or some ship breathing out a heavy vapor; the present, in a word, which separates the past from the future, which is neither the one nor the other, which resemble both, and where one can not know whether, at each step, one is treading on a seed or a piece of refuse.
It was in this chaos that choice must be made; this was the aspect presented to children full of spirit and of audacity, sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution.
As for the past, they would none of it, they had no faith in it; the future, they loved it, but how? As Pygmalion loved Galatea: it was for them a lover in marble and they waited for the breath of life to animate that breast, for the blood to color those veins.
There remained then, the present, the spirit of the time, angel of the dawn who is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime sack filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of that specter, half mummy and half fetus; they approached it as the traveler who is shown at Strasburg the daughter of an old count of Sarvenden, embalmed in her bride's dress: that childish skeleton makes one shudder, for her slender and livid hand wears the wedding-ring and her head falls into dust in the midst of orange blossoms.
As upon the approach of a tempest there passes through the forests a terrible sound which makes all the trees shudder, to which profound silence succeeds, thus had Napoleon, in passing, shaken the world; kings felt their crowns vacillate in the storm and, raising their hands to steady them, they found only their hair, bristling with terror. The pope had traveled three hundred leagues to bless him in the name of God and to crown him with the diadem; but Napoleon had taken it from his hands. Thus everything trembled in that dismal forest of old Europe; then silence succeeded.
It is said that when you meet a mad dog if you keep quietly on your way without turning, the dog will merely follow you a short distance growling and showing his teeth; but if you allow yourself to be frightened into a movement of terror, if you but make a sudden step, he will leap at your throat and devour you; when the first bite has been taken there is no escaping him.
In European history it has often happened that a sovereign has made that movement of terror and his people have devoured him; but if one had done it, all had not done it at the same time, that is to say, one king had disappeared, but not all royal majesty. Before the sword of Napoleon majesty made this movement, this gesture which loses everything, and not only majesty, but religion, nobility, all power both human and divine.
Napoleon dead, human and divine power were re-established, but belief in them no longer existed. A terrible danger lurks in the knowledge of what is possible, for the mind always goes farther. It is one thing to say: "That may be" and another thing to say: "That has been;" it is the first bite of the dog.
The deposition of Napoleon was the last flicker of the lamp of despotism; it destroyed and it parodied kings as Voltaire the Holy Scripture. And after him was heard a great noise: it was the stone of St. Helena which had just fallen on the ancient world. Immediately there appeared in the heavens the cold star of reason, and its rays, like those of the goddess of the night, shedding light without heat, enveloped the world in a livid shroud.
There had been those who hated the nobles, who cried out against priests, who conspired against kings; abuses and prejudices had been attacked; but all that was not so great a novelty as to see a smiling people. If a noble or a priest or a sovereign passed, the peasants who had made war possible began to shake their heads and say: "Ah! when we saw this man at such a time and place he wore a different face." And when the throne and altar were mentioned, they replied: "They are made of four planks of wood; we have nailed them together and torn them apart." And when some one said: "People, you have recovered from the errors which led you astray; you have recalled your kings and your priests," they replied: "We have nothing to do with those prattlers." And when some one said: "People, forget the past, work and obey," they arose from their seats and a dull rumbling could be heard. It was the rusty and notched saber in the corner of the cottage chimney. Then they hastened to add: "Then keep quiet, at least; if no one harms you, do not seek to harm." Alas! they were content with that.
But youth was not content. It is certain that there are in man two occult powers engaged in a death struggle: the one, clear-sighted and cold, is concerned with reality, calculation, weight, and judges the past; the other is thirsty for the future and eager for the unknown. When passion sways man, reason follows him weeping and warning him of his danger; but when man listens to the voice of reason, when he stops at her request and says: "What a fool I am; where am I going?" passion calls to him: "And must I die?"
A feeling of extreme uneasiness began to ferment in all young hearts. Condemned to inaction by the powers which governed the world, delivered to vulgar pedants of every kind, to idleness and to ennui, the youth saw the foaming billows which they had prepared to meet, subside. All these gladiators, glistening with oil, felt in the bottom of their souls an insupportable wretchedness. The richest became libertines; those of moderate fortune followed some profession and resigned themselves to the sword or to the robe. The poorest gave themselves up with cold enthusiasm to great thoughts, plunged into the frightful sea of aimless effort. As human weakness seeks association and as men are herds by nature, politics became mingled with it. There were struggles with the garde du corps on the steps of the legislative assembly; at the theater, Talma wore a peruke which made him resemble Caesar; every one flocked to the burial of a liberal deputy.
But of the members of the two parties there was not one who, upon returning home, did not bitterly realize the emptiness of his life and the feebleness of his hands.
While life outside was so colorless and so mean, the interior life of society assumed a somber aspect of silence; hypocrisy ruled in all departments of conduct; English ideas of devotion, gaiety even, had disappeared. Perhaps Providence was already preparing new ways, perhaps the herald angel of future society was already sowing in the hearts of women the seeds of human independence. But it is certain that a strange thing suddenly happened: in all the salons of Paris the men passed to one side and the women to the other; and thus, the one clad in white like a bride and the other in black like an orphan began to take measurements with the eye.
Let us not be deceived: that vestment of black which the men of our time wear is a terrible symbol; before coming to this, the armor must have fallen piece by piece and the embroidery flower by flower. Human reason has overthrown all illusions; but it bears in itself sorrow, in order that it may be consoled.
The customs of students and artists, those customs so free, so beautiful, so full of youth, began to experience the universal change. Men in taking leave of women whispered the word which wounds to the death: contempt. They plunged into the dissipation of wine and courtesans. Students and artists did the same; love was treated as glory and religion: it was an old illusion. The grisette, that class so dreamy, so romantic, so tender, and so sweet in love, abandoned herself to the counting-house and to the shop. She was poor and no one loved her; she wanted dresses and hats and she sold herself. O, misery! the young man who ought to love her, whom she loved, who used to take her to the woods of Verrieres and Romainville, to the dances on the lawn, to the suppers under the trees; he who used to talk with her as she sat near the lamp in the rear of the shop on the long winter evenings; he who shared her crust of bread moistened with the sweat of her brow, and her love at once sublime and poor; he, that same man, after having abandoned her, finds her after a night of orgie, pale and leaden, forever lost, with hunger on her lips and prostitution in her heart.
About this time two poets, whose genius was second only to that of Napoleon, consecrated their lives to the work of collecting all the elements of anguish and of grief scattered over the universe. Goethe, the patriarch of a new literature, after having painted in "Werther" the passion which leads to suicide, traced in his "Faust" the most somber human character which has ever represented evil and unhappiness. His writings began to pass from Germany into France. From his studio, surrounded by pictures and statues, rich, happy and at ease, he watched with a paternal smile, his gloomy creations marching in dismal procession across the frontiers of France. Byron replied to him by a cry of grief which made Greece tremble, and suspended "Manfred" over the abyss as if nothingness had been the answer of the hideous enigma, with which he enveloped him.
Pardon me! O, great poets! who are now but ashes and who sleep in peace! Pardon me; you are demi-gods and I am only a child who suffers. But while writing all this I can not help cursing you. Why did you not sing of the perfume of flowers, of the voices of nature, of hope and of love, of the vine and the sun, of the azure heavens and of beauty. You must have understood life, you must have suffered, and the world was crumbling to pieces about you, you wept on its ruins and you despaired; and your mistresses were false; your friends calumniated, your compatriots misunderstood; and your heart was empty; death was in your eyes, and you were the very Colossi of grief. But tell me, you noble Goethe, was there no more consoling voice in the religious murmur of your old German forests? You, for whom beautiful poesy was the sister of science, could you with their aid find in immortal nature no healing plant for the heart of their favorite? You, who were a pantheist, and antique poet of Greece, a lover of sacred forms, could you not put a little honey in the beautiful vases you made; you, who had only to smile and allow the bees to come to your lips? And thou, thou Byron, hadst thou not near Ravenna, under thy orange trees of Italy, under thy beautiful Venetian sky, near thy dear Adriatic, hadst thou not thy well beloved? O, God! I who speak to you and who am only a feeble child, I have perhaps known sorrows that you have never suffered, and yet I believe and I hope, and yet I bless God.
When English and German ideas passed thus over our heads there ensued disgust and mournful silence, followed by a terrible convulsion. For to formulate general ideas is to change saltpeter into powder, and the Homeric brain of the great Goethe had sucked up, as an alembic, all the juice of the forbidden fruit. Those who did not read him did not believe it, knew nothing of it. Poor creatures! The explosion carried them away like grains of dust into the abyss of universal doubt.
It was a degeneration of all things of heaven and of earth that might be termed disenchantment, or if you preferred, despair; as if humanity in lethargy had been pronounced dead by those who held its place. Like a soldier who was asked: "In what do you believe?" and who replied: "In myself." Thus the youth of France, hearing that question, replied: "In nothing."
Then they formed into two camps: on one side the exalted spirits, sufferers, all the expansive souls who had need of the infinite, bowed their heads and wept; they wrapt themselves in unhealthy dreams and there could be seen nothing but broken reeds on an ocean of bitterness. On the other side the men of the flesh remained standing, inflexible in the midst of positive joys, and cared for nothing except to count the money they had acquired. It was only a sob and a burst of laughter, the one coming from the soul, the other from the body.
This is what the soul said:
"Alas! Alas! religion has departed; the clouds of heaven fall in rain; we have no longer either hope or expectation, not even two little pieces of black wood in the shape of a cross before which to clasp our hands. The star of the future is loath to rise; it can not get above the horizon; it is enveloped in clouds, and like the sun in winter its disk is the color of blood, as in '93. There is no more love, no more glory. What heavy darkness over all the earth! And we shall be dead when the day breaks."
This is what the body said:
"Man is here below to satisfy his senses, he has more or less of white or yellow metal to which he owes more or less esteem. To eat, to drink and to sleep, that is life. As for the bonds which exist between men, friendship consists in loaning money; but one rarely has a friend whom he loves enough for that. Kinship determines inheritance; love is an exercise of the body; the only intellectual joy is vanity."
Like the Asiatic plague exhaled from the vapors of the Ganges, frightful despair stalked over the earth. Already Chateaubriand, prince of poesy, wrapping the horrible idol in his pilgrim's mantle, had placed it on a marble altar in the midst of perfumes and holy incense. Already the children were tightening their idle hands and drinking in their bitter cup the poisoned brewage of doubt. Already things were drifting toward the abyss, when the jackals suddenly emerged from the earth. A cadaverous and infected literature which had no form but that of ugliness, began to sprinkle with fetid blood all the monsters of nature.
Who will dare to recount what was passing in the colleges? Men doubted everything: the young men denied everything. The poets sung of despair; the youth came from the schools with serene brow, their faces glowing with health and blasphemy in their mouths. Moreover, the French character, being by nature gay and open, readily assimilated English and German ideas; but hearts too light to struggle and to suffer withered like crushed flowers. Thus the principle of death descended slowly and without shock from the head to the bowels. Instead of having the enthusiasm of evil we had only the negation of the good; instead of despair, insensibility. Children of fifteen seated listlessly under flowering shrubs, conversed for pastime on subjects which would have made shudder with terror the motionless groves of Versailles. The Communion of Christ, the host, those wafers that stand as the eternal symbol of divine love, were used to seal letters; the children spit upon the bread of God.
Happy they who escaped those times! Happy they who passed over the abyss while looking up to Heaven. There are such, doubtless, and they will pity us.
It is unfortunately true that there is in blasphemy a certain discharge of power which solaces the burdened heart. When an atheist, drawing his watch, gave God a quarter of an hour in which to strike him dead, it is certain that it was a quarter of an hour of wrath and of atrocious joy. It was the paroxysm of despair, a nameless appeal to all celestial powers; it was a poor wretched creature squirming under the foot that was crushing him; it was a loud cry of pain. And who knows? In the eyes of Him who sees all things, it was perhaps a prayer.
Thus these youth found employment for their idle powers in a fondness of despair. To scoff at glory, at religion, at love, at all the world, is a great consolation for those who do not know what to do; they mock at themselves and in doing so prove the correctness of their view. And then it is pleasant to believe oneself unhappy when one is only idle and tired. Debauchery, moreover, the first conclusion of the principle of death, is a terrible millstone for grinding the energies.
The rich said: "There is nothing real but riches, all else is a dream; let us enjoy and then let us die." Those of moderate fortune said: "There is nothing real but oblivion, all else is a dream; let us forget and let us die." And the poor said: "There is nothing real but unhappiness, all else is a dream; let us blaspheme and die."
This is too black? It is exaggerated? What do you think of it? Am I a misanthrope? Allow me to make a reflection.
In reading the history of the fall of the Roman Empire, it is impossible to overlook the evil that the Chustions, so admirable in the desert, did the state when they were in power. "When I think," said Montesquieu, "of the profound ignorance into which the Greek clergy plunged the laity, I am obliged to compare them to the Scythians of whom Herodotus speaks, who put out the eyes of their slaves in order that nothing might distract their attention from their work. . . . No affair of state, no peace, no truce, no negotiation, no marriage could be transacted by any one but the clergy. The evils of this system were beyond belief."
Montesquieu might have added: Christianity destroyed the emperors but it saved the people. It opened to the barbarians the palaces of Constantinople, but it opened the doors of cottages to the ministering angels of Christ. It had much to do with the great ones of earth. And what is more interesting than the death-rattle of an empire corrupt to the very marrow of its bones, than the somber galvanism under the influence of which the skeleton of tyranny danced upon the tombs of Heliogabalus and Caracalla! What a beautiful thing that mummy of Rome, embalmed in the perfumes of Nero and swathed in the shroud of Tiberius! It had to do, messieurs the politicians, with finding the poor and giving them life and peace; it had to do with allowing the worms and tumors to destroy the monuments of shame, while drawing from the ribs of this mummy a virgin as beautiful as the mother of the Redeemer, hope, the friend of the oppressed.
That is what Christianity did; and now, after many years, what have they who destroyed it done? They saw that the poor allowed themselves to be oppressed by the rich, the feeble by the strong, because of that saying: "The rich and the strong will oppress me on earth; but when they wish to enter paradise, I shall be at the door and I will accuse them before the tribunal of God." And so, alas! they were patient.
The antagonists of Christ therefore said to the poor: "You wait patiently for the day of justice: there is no justice; you wait for the life eternal to achieve your vengeance: there is no life eternal; you gather up your tears and those of your family, the cries of children and the sobs of women, to place them at the feet of God at the hour of death: there is no God."
Then it is certain that the poor man dried his tears, that he told his wife to check her sobs, his children to come with him, and that he stood upon the earth with the power of a bull. He said to the rich: "Thou who oppressest me, thou art only man;" and to the priest: "Thou who hast consoled me, thou hast lied." That was just what the antagonists of Christ desired. Perhaps they thought this was the way to achieve man's happiness, sending him out to the conquest of liberty.
But, if the poor man, once satisfied that the priests deceive him, that the rich rob him, that all men have rights, that all good is of this world, and that misery is impiety; the poor man, believing in himself and in his two arms, says to himself some fine day: "War on the rich! for me, happiness here in this life, since there is no other! for me, the earth, since heaven is empty! for me and for all, since all are equal." Oh! reasoners sublime who have led him to this, what will you say to him if he is conquered?
Doubtless you are philanthropists, doubtless you are right about the future, and the day will come when you will be blessed; but thus far, we have not blessed you. When the oppressor said: "This world for me!" the oppressed replied: "Heaven for me!" Now what can he say?
All the evils of the present come from two causes: the people who have passed through 1793 and 1814, nurse wounds in their hearts. That which was is no more; what will be, is not yet. Do not seek elsewhere the cause of our malady.
Here is a man whose house falls in ruins; he has torn it down in order to build another. The rubbish encumbers the spot, and he waits for fresh materials for his new home. At the moment he has prepared to cut the stone and mix the cement, while standing, pick in hand, with sleeves rolled up, he is informed that there is no more stone, and is advised to whiten the old material and make the best possible use of that. What can you expect this man to do who is unwilling to build his nest out of ruins? The quarry is deep, the tools too weak to hew out the stones. "Wait!" they say to him, "we will draw out the stones one by one; hope, work, advance, withdraw." What do they not tell him? And in the meantime he has lost his old house, and has not yet built the new; he does not know where to protect himself from the rain, or how to prepare his evening meal, nor where to work, nor where to sleep, nor where to die; and his children are newly born.
I am much deceived if we do not resemble that man. O, people of the future! when on a warm summer day you bend over your plows in the green fields of your native land; when you see, in the pure sunlight under a spotless sky, the earth, your fruitful mother, smiling in her matutinal robe on the workman, her well-beloved child; when drying on your brow the holy baptism of sweat, you cast your eye over the vast horizon, when there will not be one blade higher than another in the human harvest, but only violets and marguerites in the midst of ripening sheafs. Oh! free men! when you thank God that you were born for that harvest, think of those who are no more, tell yourself that we have dearly purchased the repose which you enjoy; pity us more than all your fathers, for we have suffered the evil which entitled them to pity and we have lost that which consoled them.
I MUST explain how I was first taken with the malady of the age.
I attended a great supper, after a masquerade. About me my friends richly costumed, on all sides young men and women, all sparkling with beauty and joy; on the right and on the left exquisite dishes, flagons, splendor, flowers; above my head a fine orchestra, and before me my mistress, a superb creature, whom I idolized.
I was then nineteen; I had experienced no great misfortune, I had suffered from no disease; my character was at once haughty and frank, my heart full of the hopes of youth. The fumes of wine fermented in my head; it was one of those moments of intoxication when all that one sees and hears, speaks to one of the adored. All nature appeared then a beautiful stone with a thousand facets on which was engraven the mysterious name. One would willingly embrace all who smile, and one feels that he is brother of all who live. My mistress had granted me a rendezvous for the night and I was gently raising my glass to my lips while my eyes were fixed on her.
As I turned to take a napkin, my fork fell. I stooped to pick it up, and not finding it at first I raised the table-cloth to see where it had rolled. I then saw under the table my mistress's foot; it rested on that of a young man seated beside her; from time to time they exchanged a gentle pressure.
Perfectly calm, I asked for another fork and continued my supper. My mistress and her neighbor were also, on their side, very quiet, talking but little and never looking at each other. The young man had his elbows on the table and was chatting with another woman who was showing him her necklace and bracelets. My mistress sat motionless, her eyes fixed and filled with languor. I watched both of them during the entire supper and I saw nothing either in their gestures or in their faces that could betray them. Finally, at dessert, I dropped my napkin, and stooping down saw that they were still in the same position.
I had promised to take my mistress to her home that night. She was a widow and therefore quite at liberty, living alone with an old relative who served as chaperon. As I was crossing the hall she called to me:
"Come, Octave!" she said; "here I am, let us go."
I laughed and passed out without replying. After walking a short distance I sat down on a stone projecting from a wall. I do not know what my thoughts were; I sat as though stupefied by the infidelity of that woman of whom I had never been jealous, whom I had never had cause to suspect. What I had seen left no room for doubt, I was stunned as though by a blow from a club. The only thing I remember doing as I sat there, was looking mechanically up at the sky, and, seeing a star spin across the heavens, I saluted that fugitive gleam in which poets see a blasted world and gravely took off my hat to it.
I returned to my home very quietly, experiencing nothing, as though deprived of sensation and reflection. I undressed and retired; hardly had my head touched the pillow when the spirit of vengeance seized me with such force that I suddenly sat bolt upright against the wall as though all my muscles were made of wood. I jumped from my bed with a cry of pain; I could walk only on my heels, the nerves in my toes were so irritated. I passed an hour in this way, completely foolish and stiff as a skeleton. It was the first burst of passion I had ever experienced.
The man I had surprised with my mistress was one of my most intimate friends. I went to his house the next day in company with a young lawyer named Desgenais; we took pistols, another witness, and repaired to the woods of Vincennes. On the way I avoided speaking to my adversary or even approaching him; thus I resisted the temptation to insult or strike him, a useless form of violence at a time when the law recognized the code. But I could not remove my eyes from him. He was the companion of my childhood and we had lived in the closest intimacy for many years. He understood perfectly my love for my mistress and had several times intimated that bonds of this kind were sacred to a friend, and that he would be incapable of an attempt to supplant me even if he loved the same woman. In short, I had perfect confidence in him and I had perhaps never pressed the hand of any human creature more cordially than his.
My glance was eager and curious as I scrutinized this man whom I had heard speak of love as an antique hero and whom I had caught caressing my mistress. It was the first time in my life I had seen a monster; I measured him with a haggard eye to see how he was made. He whom I had known since he was ten years old, with whom I had lived in the most perfect friendship, it seemed to me I had never seen him. Allow me a comparison.
There is a Spanish play, familiar to all the world, in which a stone statue comes to sup with a debauchee, sent thither by divine justice. The debauchee puts a good face on the matter and forces himself to affect indifference; but the statue asks for his hand, and when he has extended it he feels himself seized by a mortal chill and falls in convulsions.
Whenever I have loved and confided in any one, either friend or mistress, and suddenly discover that I have been deceived, I can only describe the effect produced on me by comparing it to the clasp of that marble hand. It is the actual impression of marble, it is as though a man of stone had kissed me. Alas! this horrible apparition has knocked more than once at my door; more than once we have supped together.
When the arrangements were all made we placed ourselves in line, facing each other and slowly advancing. My adversary fired the first shot, wounding me in the right arm. I immediately seized my pistol in the other hand; but my strength failed, I could not raise it; I fell on one knee.
Then I saw my enemy running up to me with an expression of great anxiety on his face, and very pale. My seconds hastened to my side, seeing that I was wounded; but he pushed them aside and seized my wounded arm. His teeth were set and I could see that he was suffering intense anguish. His agony was the most frightful that man can experience.
"Go!" he cried, "go dress your wound at the house of—"
He choked, and so did I.
I was placed in a cab where I found a physician. My wound was not dangerous, the bone being untouched, but I was in such a state of excitation that it was impossible to properly dress my wound. As they were about to drive from the field I saw a trembling hand at the door of my cab; it was my adversary. I shook my head in reply; I was in such a rage that I could not pardon him, although I felt that his repentance was sincere.
By the time I reached home I had lost much blood and felt relieved, for feebleness saved me from the force of anger which was doing me more harm than my wound. I willingly retired to my bed and called for a glass of water, which I quickly swallowed with relish.
But I was soon attacked by fever. It was then I began to shed tears. I could understand that my mistress had ceased to love me, but not that she could deceive me. I could not comprehend why a woman who was forced to it by neither duty nor interest could lie to one man when she loved another. Twenty times a day I asked my friend Desgenais how that could be possible.
"If I were her husband," I said, "or if I supported her I could easily understand how she might be tempted to deceive me; but if she no longer loves me, why deceive me?"
I did not understand how any one could lie for love; I was but a child then, but I confess that I do not understand it yet. Every time I have loved a woman I have told her of it, and when I ceased to love her I confessed it to her with the same sincerity, having always thought that in matters of this kind the will was not concerned and that there was no crime but falsehood.
To all this Desgenais replied:
"She is unworthy; promise me that you will never see her again."
I solemnly promised. He advised me, moreover, not to write to her, not even to reproach her, and if she wrote to me not to reply. I promised all that with some surprise that he should consider it necessary to exact such a promise.
Nevertheless the first thing I did when I was able to leave my room was to visit my mistress. I found her alone, seated in the corner of the room with an expression of sorrow on her face and an appearance of general disorder in her surroundings. I overwhelmed her with violent reproaches; I was intoxicated with despair. In a paroxysm of grief I fell on the bed and gave free course to my tears.
"Ah! faithless one! wretch!" I cried between my sobs, "you knew that it would kill me. Did the prospect please you? What have I done to you?"
She threw her arms around my neck, saying that she had been seduced, that my rival had intoxicated her at that fatal supper, but that she had never been his; that she had abandoned herself in a moment of forgetfulness; that she had committed a fault but not a crime; but that if I would not pardon her, she, too, would die. All that sincere repentance has of tears, all that sorrow has of eloquence, she exhausted to console me; pale and distressed, her dress deranged and her hair falling over her shoulders she kneeled in the middle of her chamber; never have I seen anything so beautiful and I shuddered with horror as my senses revolted at the sight.
I went away crushed, scarcely able to direct my tottering steps. I wished never to see her again; but in a quarter of an hour I returned. I do not know what desperate resolve I had formed; I experienced a dull desire to possess her once more, to drain the cup of tears and bitterness to the dregs and then to die with her. In short, I abhorred her and I idolized her; I felt that her love was my ruin, but that to live without her was impossible. I mounted the stairs like a flash; I spoke to none of the servants, but, familiar with the house, opened the door of her chamber.
I found her seated calmly before her toilet-table, covered with jewels; she held in her hand a piece of crepe which she passed gently over her cheeks. I thought I was dreaming; it did not seem possible that this was the woman I had left, just fifteen minutes before, overwhelmed with grief, abased to the floor; I was as motionless as a statue. She, hearing the door open, turned her head and smiled:
"Is it you?" she said.
She was going to the ball and was expecting my rival. As she recognized me, she compressed her lips and frowned.
I started to leave the room. I looked at her bare neck, lithe and perfumed, on which rested her knotted hair confined by a jeweled comb; that neck, the seat of vital force, was blacker than Hades; two shining tresses had fallen there and some light silvern hairs balanced above it. Her shoulders and neck, whiter than milk, displayed a heavy growth of down. There was in that knotted head of hair something indescribably immodest which seemed to mock me when I thought of the disorder in which I had seen her a moment before. I suddenly stepped up to her and struck that neck with the back of my hand. My mistress gave vent to a cry of terror, and fell on her hands, while I hastened from the room.
When I reached my room I was again attacked by fever and was obliged to take to my bed. My wound had reopened and I suffered great pain. Desgenais came to see me and I told him what had happened. He listened in silence, then paced up and down the room as though undecided as to his course. Finally he stopped before my bed and burst out laughing.
"Is she your first mistress?" he asked.
"No!" I replied, "she is my last."
Toward midnight, while sleeping restlessly, I seemed to hear in my dreams a profound sigh. I opened my eyes and saw my mistress standing near my bed with arms crossed, looking like a specter. I could not restrain a cry of fright, believing it to be an apparition conjured up by my diseased brain. I leaped from my bed and fled to the farther end of the room; but she followed me.
"It is I!" said she; putting her arms around me she drew me to her.
"What do you want of me?" I cried. "Leave me! I fear I shall kill you!"
"Very well, kill me!" she said. "I have deceived you, I have lied to you, I am an infamous wretch and I am miserable; but I love you, and I can not live without you."
I looked at her; how beautiful she was! Her body was quivering; her eyes languid with love and moist with voluptuousness; her bosom was bare, her lips burning. I raised her in my arms.
"Very well," I said, "but before God who sees us, by the soul of my father, I swear that I will kill you and that I will die with you."
I took a knife from the table and placed it under the pillow.
"Come, Octave," she said, smiling and kissing me, "do not be foolish. Come, my dear, all these horrors have unsettled your mind; you are feverish. Give me that knife."
I saw that she wished to take it.
"Listen to me," I then said; "I do not know what comedy you are playing, but as for me I am in earnest. I have loved you as only a man can love and to my sorrow I love you still. You have just told me that you love me, and I hope it is true; but, by all that is sacred, if I am your lover to-night, no one shall take my place to-morrow. Before God, before God," I repeated, "I would not take you back as my mistress, for I hate you as much as I love you. Before God, if you consent to stay here to-night I will kill you in the morning."
When I had spoken these words I fell into a delirium. She threw her cloak over her shoulders and fled from the room.
When I told Desgenais about it he said:
"Why did you do that? You must be very much disgusted, for she is a beautiful woman."
"Are you joking?" I asked. "Do you think such a woman could be my mistress? Do you think I would ever consent to share her with another? Do you know that she confesses that another possesses her and do you expect me, loving her as I do, to share my love? If that is the way you love, I pity you."
Desgenais replied that he was not so particular.
"My dear Octave," he added, "you are very young. You want many things, beautiful things, which do not exist. You believe in a singular sort of love; perhaps you are capable of it; I believe you are, but I do not envy you. You will have other mistresses, my friend, and you will live to regret what happened last night. If that woman came to you it is certain that she loved you; perhaps she does not love you at this moment, indeed she may be in the arms of another; but she loved you last night in that room; and what should you care for the rest? You will regret it, believe me, for she will not come again. A woman pardons everything except such a slight. Her love for you must have been something terrible when she came to you knowing and confessing herself guilty, risking rebuff and contempt at your hands. Believe me, you will regret it, for I am satisfied that you will soon be cured."
There was such an air of simple conviction about my friend's words, such a despairing certainty based on experience, that I shuddered as I listened. While he was speaking I felt a strong desire to go to my mistress, or to write to her to come to me. I was so weak that I could not leave my bed and that saved me from the shame of finding her waiting for my rival or perhaps in his company. But I could write to her; in spite of myself I doubted whether she would come if I should write.
When Desgenais left me I became so desperate that I resolved to put an end to my trouble. After a terrible struggle horror got the better of love. I wrote my mistress that I would never see her again and begged her not to try to see me unless she wished to be exposed to the shame of being refused admittance. I called a servant and ordered him to deliver the letter at once. He had hardly closed the door when I called him back. He did not hear me; I did not dare call again; covering my face with my hands I yielded to an overwhelming sense of despair.
THE following morning the first question that occurred to my mind was: "What shall I do?"
I had no occupation. I had studied medicine and law without being able to decide on either of the two professions; I had worked for a banker for six months and my services were so unsatisfactory that I was obliged to resign to avoid being discharged. My studies had been varied but superficial; my memory was active but not retentive.
My only treasure after love, was independence. In my childhood I had devoted myself to a morose cult, and had, so to speak, consecrated my heart to it. One day my father, solicitous about my future, spoke to me of several careers between which he allowed me to choose. I was leaning on the window-sill, looking at a solitary poplar-tree that was swaying in the breeze down in the garden. I thought over all the various occupations and wondered which one I should choose. I turned them all over, one after another, in my mind, and then not feeling inclined to any of them I allowed my thoughts to wander. Suddenly it seemed to me that I felt the earth move and that a secret invisible force was slowly dragging me into space and becoming tangible to my senses; I saw it mount into the sky; I seemed to be on a ship; the poplar near my window resembled a mast; I arose, stretched out my arms, and cried:
"It is little enough to be a passenger for one day on this ship floating through space; it is little enough to be a man, a black point on that ship; I will be a man but not any particular kind of man."
Such was the first vow that, at the age of fourteen, I pronounced in the face of nature, and since then I have tried to do nothing except in obedience to my father, never being able to overcome my repugnance.
I was therefore free, not through indolence but by choice; loving, moreover, all that God had made and very little that man had made. Of life I knew nothing but love, of the world only my mistress, and I did not care to know anything more. So falling in love upon leaving college I sincerely believed that it was for life and every other thought disappeared.
My life was sedentary. I was accustomed to pass the day with my mistress; my greatest pleasure was to lead her through the fields on beautiful summer days, the sight of nature in her splendor having ever been for me the most powerful incentive to love. In winter, as she enjoyed society, we attended numerous balls and masquerades, and because I thought of no one but her I fondly imagined her equally true to me.
To give you an idea of my state of mind I can not do better than compare it to one of those rooms such as we see in these days where are collected and confounded all the furniture of all times and all countries. Our age has no form of its own. We have impressed the seal of our time on neither our houses nor our gardens nor anything that is ours. On the street may be seen men who have their beards cut as in the time of Henry III, others who are clean shaven, others who have their hair arranged as in the time of Raphael, others as in the time of Christ. So the homes of the rich are cabinets of curiosities: the antique, the Gothic, the taste of the Renaissance, that of Louis XIII, all pell-mell. In short, we have every century except our own—a thing which has never been seen at any other epoch: eclecticism is our taste; we take everything we find, this for beauty, that for utility, this other for antiquity, such another for its ugliness even, so that we live surrounded by debris as though the end of the world were at hand.
Such was the state of my mind; I had read much; moreover I had learned to paint. I knew by heart a great many things, but nothing in order, so that my head was like a sponge, swollen but empty. I fell in love with all the poets one after another; but being of an impressionable nature the last comer always disgusted me with the rest. I had made of myself a great warehouse of ruins, so that having no more thirst after drinking of the novel and the unknown, I became a ruin myself.
Nevertheless, about that ruin there was still something of youth: it was the hope of my heart which was still childlike.
That hope, which nothing had withered or corrupted and that love had exalted to excess, had now received a mortal wound. The perfidy of my mistress had struck deep, and when I thought of it, I felt in my soul a swooning away, a convulsive flutter as of a wounded bird in agony.
Society which works so much evil is like that serpent of the Indies whose dwelling is the leaf of a plant which cures its sting; it presents, in nearly every case, the remedy by the side of the suffering it has caused. For example, the man whose life is one of routine, who has his business cares to claim his attention upon rising, visits at such an hour, loves at another, can lose his mistress and suffer no evil effects. His occupations and his thoughts are like impassive soldiers ranged in line of battle; a single shot strikes one down, his neighbors fill up the gap and the line is intact.
I had not that resource since I was alone: nature, the kind mother, seemed, on the contrary, more vast and more empty than ever. If I had been able to forget my mistress I would have been saved. How many there are who can be cured with even less than that. Such men are incapable of loving a faithless woman and their conduct, under the circumstances, is admirable in its firmness. But is it thus that one loves at nineteen when, knowing nothing of the world, desiring everything, the young man feels within him the germ of all the passions? On the right, on the left, below, on the horizon, everywhere some voice which calls him. All is desire, all is reverie. There is no reality which holds him when the heart is young; there is no oak so gnarled that it may not give birth to a dryad; and if one had a hundred arms one need not fear to open them; one has but to clasp his mistress and all is well.
As for me I did not understand what else there was to do besides love, and when any one spoke to me of another occupation I did not reply. My passion for my mistress had something fierce about it, as all my life had been severely monachal. I wish to cite a single example. She gave me her portrait in miniature in a medallion; I wore it over my heart, a practise much affected by men; but one day while idly rummaging about a shop filled with curiosities I found an iron "discipline whip," such as was used by the mediaeval flagellants; at the end of this whip was a metal plate bristling with sharp iron points; I had the medallion riveted to this plate and then returned it to its place over my heart. The sharp points pierced my bosom with every movement and caused such a strange voluptuous anguish that I sometimes pressed it down with my hand in order to intensify the sensation. I knew very well that I was committing folly; love is responsible for many others.
When that woman deceived me I removed the cruel medallion. I can not tell with what sadness I detached that iron girdle and what a sigh escaped me when it was gone.
"Ah! poor wounds!" I said, "you will soon heal, but what balm is there for that other deeper wound?"
I had reason to hate that woman, she was, so to speak, mingled with the blood of my veins; I cursed her but I dreamed of her. What could I do with a dream? By what effort of the will could I drown memory of flesh and blood? Macbeth having killed Duncan saw that the ocean would not wash his hands clean again; it would not have washed away my wounds. I said to Desgenais: "When I sleep, her head is on my pillow."
My life had been wrapped up in that woman; to doubt her was to doubt all; to deny her, to curse all; to lose her, to renounce all. I no longer went out; the world seemed to be peopled with monsters, with horned deer and crocodiles. To all that was said to distract my mind I replied:
"Yes, that is all very well, but you may rest assured I shall do nothing of the kind."
I sat in my window and said:
"She will come, I am sure of it, she is coming, she is turning the corner at this moment, I can feel her approach. She can no more live without me than I without her. What shall I say? How shall I receive her?"
Then the thought of her perfidy recurred to me.
"Ah! let her come! I will kill her!"
Since my last letter I had heard nothing of her.
"What is she doing?" I asked myself. "She loves another? Then I will love another also. Whom shall I love?"
While casting about I heard a far distant voice crying:
"Thou, love another? Two beings who love, who embrace, and who are not thou and I! Is such a thing possible? Are you a fool?"
"Coward!" said Desgenais, "when will you forget that woman? Is she such a great loss? Take the first comer and console yourself."
"No," I replied, "it is not such a great loss. Have I not done what I ought? Have I not driven her away from here? What have you to say to that? The rest concerns me; the bull wounded in the arena is at liberty to go to sleep in a corner with the sword of the matador in his shoulder, and die in peace. What can I do, tell me? What do you mean by first comer? You will show me a cloudless sky, trees and houses, men who talk, drink, sing, women who dance and horses that gallop. All that is not life, it is the noise of life. Go, go, leave me in peace."
WHEN Desgenais saw that my despondency was incurable, that I would neither listen to any advice nor leave my room, he took the matter seriously. I saw him enter one evening with an expression of gravity on his face; he spoke of my mistress and continued in his tone of sadness, saying all manner of evil of women. While he was speaking I was leaning on my elbow, and, rising in my bed, I listened attentively.
It was one of those somber evenings when the sighing of the wind resembles the moans of a dying man; a storm was brewing, and between the splashes of rain on the windows there was the silence of death. All nature suffers in such moments; the trees writhe in pain and twist their heads; the birds of the fields cower under the bushes; the streets of cities are deserted. I was suffering from my wound. But a short time before I had a mistress and a friend. The mistress had deceived me and the friend had stretched me on a bed of pain. I could not clearly distinguish what was passing in my head; it seemed to me that I was under the influence of a horrible dream and that I had but to awake to find myself cured; at times it seemed that my entire life had been a dream, ridiculous and childish, the falseness of which had just been disclosed. Desgenais was seated near the lamp at my side; he was firm and serious, although a smile hovered about his lips. He was a man of heart, but as dry as a pumice-stone. An early experience had made him bald before his time; he knew life and had suffered; but his grief was a cuirass; he was a materialist and he waited for death.
"Octave," he said, "after what has happened to you I see that you believe in love such as the poets and romancers have represented; in a word, you believe in what is said here below and not in what is done. That is because you do not reason soundly and it may lead you into great misfortune.
"The poets represent love as the sculptors design beauty, as the musicians create melody; that is to say, endowed with an exquisite nervous organization, they gather up with discerning ardor the purest elements of life, the most beautiful lines of matter, and the most harmonious voices of nature. There was, it is said, at Athens a great number of beautiful girls; Praxiteles designed them all, one after another; then from all these diverse types of beauty, each one of which had its defects, he formed a single faultless beauty and created Venus. The first man who created a musical instrument and who gave to that art its rules and its laws, had for a long time listened to the murmuring of reeds and the singing of birds. Thus the poets who understand life, after having known much of love, more or less transitory, after having felt that sublime exaltation which passion can for the moment inspire, deducting from human nature all elements which degrade it, created the mysterious names which through the ages are passed from lip to lip: Daphne and Chloe, Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe.
"To try to find in real life such love as this, eternal and absolute, is the same thing as to seek on the public squares such a woman as Venus or to expect nightingales to sing the symphonies of Beethoven.
"Perfection does not exist; to comprehend it is the triumph of human intelligence; to desire to possess it, the most dangerous of follies. Open your window, Octave; do you not see the infinite? You try to form some idea of a thing that has no limits, you who were born yesterday and who will die to-morrow? This spectacle of immensity in every country in the world, produces the wildest illusions. Religions are born of it; it was to possess the infinite that Cato cut his throat, that the Christians delivered themselves to lions, the Huguenots to the Catholics; all the people of the earth have stretched out their hands to that immensity and have longed to plunge into it. The fool wishes to possess heaven; the sage admires it, kneels before it, but does not desire it.
"Perfection, my friend, is no more made for us than infinity. We must seek for nothing in it, demand nothing of it, neither love nor beauty, happiness nor virtue; but we must love it if we would be virtuous, if we would attain the greatest happiness of which man is capable.
"Let us suppose you have in your study a picture by Raphael that you consider perfect; let us suppose that upon a close examination you discover in one of the figures a gross defect of design, a limb distorted, or a muscle that belies nature, such as has been discovered, they say, in one of the arms of an antique gladiator; you would experience a feeling of displeasure, but you would not throw that picture in the fire; you would merely say that it is not perfect but that it has qualities that are worthy of admiration.
"There are women whose natural singleness of heart and sincerity are such that they could not have two lovers at the same time. You believed your mistress such a one; that is best, I admit. You have discovered that she has deceived you; does that oblige you to despise and to abuse her, to believe her deserving of your hatred?
"Even if your mistress had never deceived you, even if at this moment she loved none other than you, think, Octave, how far her love would still be from perfection, how human it would be, how small, how restrained by the hypocrisies and conventionalities of the world; remember that another man possessed her before you, that many others will possess her after you.
"Reflect: what drives you at this moment to despair is the idea of perfection in your mistress, the idea that has been shattered. But when you understand that the first idea itself was human, small and restricted, you will see that it is little more than a round in the rotten ladder of human imperfection.
"I think you will readily admit that your mistress has had other admirers and that she will have still others in the future; you will doubtless reply that it matters little, so long as she loved you. But I ask you, since she has had others, what difference does it make whether it was yesterday or two years ago? Since she loves but one at a time what does it matter whether it is during an interval of two years or the course of a single night? Are you a man, Octave? Do you see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun rising and setting? Do you hear the ticking of the clock of time with each pulsation of your heart? Is there, then, such a difference between the love of a year and the love of an hour? I challenge you to answer that, you fool, as you sit there looking out at the infinite through a window not larger than your hand.
"You consider that woman faithful who loves you two years; you must have an almanac that will indicate just how long it takes for an honest man's kisses to dry on a woman's lips. You make a distinction between the woman who sells herself for money and the one who gives herself for pleasure, between the one who gives herself through pride and the one who gives herself through devotion. Among women who are for sale, some cost more than others; among those who are sought for pleasure some inspire more confidence than others; and among those who are worthy of devotion there are some who receive a third of a man's heart, others a quarter, others a half, depending upon her education, her manner, her name, her birth, her beauty, her temperament, according to the occasion, according to what is said, according to the time, according to what you have had to drink for dinner.
"You love women, Octave, because you are young, ardent, because your features are regular and your hair dark and glossy, but you do not, for all that, understand woman.
"Nature, having all, desires the reproduction of beings; everywhere, from the summit of the mountain to the bottom of the sea, life is opposed to death. God, to conserve the work of his hands, has established this law that the greatest pleasure of all loving beings shall be the act of generation.
"Oh! my friend, when you feel bursting on your lips the vow of eternal love, do not be afraid to yield, but do not confound wine with intoxication; do not think the cup divine because the draft is of celestial flavor; do not be astonished to find it broken and empty in the evening. It is but woman, it is a fragile vase, made of earth by a potter.
"Thank God for giving you a glimpse of heaven, but do not imagine yourself a bird because you can flap your wings. The birds themselves can not escape the clouds; there is a sphere where air fails them and the lark rising with its song into the morning fog, sometimes falls back dead in the field.
"Take love as a sober man takes wine; do not become a drunkard. If your mistress is sincere and faithful, love her for that; but if she is not, if she is merely young and beautiful, love her for that; if she is agreeable and spirituelle, love her for that; if she is none of these things but merely loves you, love her for that. Love does not come to us every day.
"Do not tear your hair and stab yourself because you have a rival. You say that your mistress deceives you for another; it is your pride that suffers; but change the words, say that it is for you that she deceives him, and behold you are happy.
"Do not make a rule of conduct and do not say that you wish to be loved exclusively, for in saying that, as you are a man and inconstant yourself, you are forced to add tacitly: 'As far as possible.'
"Take time as it comes, the wind as it blows, woman as she is. The Spaniards first, among women, love faithfully; their heart is sincere and violent, but they wear a dagger just above it. Italian women are lascivious. The English are exalted and melancholy, cold and unnatural. The German women are tender and sweet, but colorless and monotonous. The French are spirituelle, elegant, and voluptuous, but they lie like demons.
"Above all, do not accuse women of being what they are; we have made them thus, undoing the work of nature.
"Nature, who thinks of everything, made the virgin for love; but with her first child her bosom loses its form, her beauty its freshness. Woman is made for motherhood. Man would perhaps abandon her, disgusted by the loss of beauty; but his child clings to him and weeps. Behold the family, the human law; everything that departs from this law is monstrous.
"Civilization thwarts the ends of nature. In our cities, according to our customs, the virgin destined by nature for the open air, made to bask in the sunlight, to admire the nude wrestlers, as in Lacedemonia, to choose, and to love, is shut up in close confinement and bolted in; yet she hides romance under her cross; pale and idle she fades away and loses in the silence of the nights that beauty that stifles her and which has need of the open air. Then she is suddenly taken from this solitude, knowing nothing, loving nothing, desiring everything; an old woman instructs her, a mysterious word is whispered in her ear, and she is thrown into the arms of a stranger. There you have marriage—that is to say, the civilized family. A child is born. This poor creature has lost her beauty and she has never loved. The child is brought to her with the words: 'You are a mother.' She replies: 'I am not a mother; take that child to some woman who can nurse it. I can not.' Her husband tells her that she is right, that her child would be disgusted with her. She receives careful attention and is soon cured of the disease of maternity. A month later she may be seen at the Tuileries, at the ball, at the opera: her child is at Chaillot, at Auxerre; her husband with another woman. Then young men speak to her of love, of devotion, of sympathy, of all that is in the heart. She takes one, draws him to her bosom; he dishonors her and returns to the Bourse. She cries all night, but discovers that tears make her eyes red. She takes a consoler, for the loss of whom another consoles her; thus up to the age of thirty or more. Then, blase and corrupted, with no human sentiment, not even disgust, she meets a fine youth with raven locks, ardent eye and hopeful heart; she recalls her own youth, she remembers what she has suffered, and telling him the story of her life, she teaches him to shun love.
"That is woman as we have made her; such are your mistresses. But you say they are women and there is something good in them!
"But if your character is formed, if you are truly a man, sure of yourself and confident of your strength, you may taste of life without fear and without reserve; you may be sad or joyous, deceived or respected; but be sure you are loved, for what matters the rest?
"If you are mediocre and ordinary, I advise you to consider your course very carefully before deciding, but do not expect too much of your mistress.
"If you are weak, dependent upon others, inclined to allow yourself to be dominated by opinion, to take root wherever you see a little soil, make for yourself a shield that will resist everything, for if you yield to your weaker nature you will not grow, you will dry up like a dead plant, and you will bear neither fruit nor flowers. The sap of your life will dissipate into the formation of a useless bark; all your actions will be as colorless as the leaves of the willow; you will have no tears to water you, but those from your own eyes, to nourish you, no heart but your own.
"But if you are of exalted nature, believing in dreams and wishing to realize them, I say to you plainly. Love does not exist.
"For to love is to give body and soul, or, better, it is to make a single being of two; it is to walk in the sunlight, in the open air through the boundless prairies with a body having four arms, two heads and two hearts. Love is faith, it is the religion of earthly happiness, it is a luminous triangle suspended in the temple of the world. To love is to walk freely through that temple and to have at your side a being capable of understanding why a thought, a word, a flower makes you pause and raise your eyes to that celestial triangle. To exercise the noble faculties of man is a great good, and that is why genius is glorious; but to double those faculties, to place a heart and an intelligence upon a heart and an intelligence—that is supreme happiness. God has nothing better for man; that is why love is better than genius. But tell me, is that the love of our women? No, no, it must be admitted. Love, for them, is another thing; it is to go out veiled, to write in secret, to make trembling advances, to heave chaste sighs under a starched and unnatural robe, then to draw bolts and throw it aside, to humiliate a rival, to deceive a husband, to render a lover desolate; to love, for our women, is to play at lying, as children play at hide and seek, the hideous debauchee of a heart, worse than all the lubricity of the Romans, or the Saturnalia of Priapus; bastard parody of vice itself as well as of virtue; loathsome comedy where all is whispering and oblique glances, where all is small, elegant and deformed like the porcelain monsters brought from China; lamentable derision of all that is beautiful and ugly, divine and infernal; a shadow without a body, a skeleton of all that God has made."
Thus spoke Desgenais; and the shadows of night began to fall.
THE next morning I rode through the Bois de Boulogne; the day was dark and threatening. At the Porte Maillot I dropped the reins on the back of my horse and abandoned myself to reverie, revolving in my mind the words spoken by Desgenais the evening before.
Suddenly I heard my name called. Turning my head I spied one of my mistress's most intimate friends in an open carriage. She called to me to stop, and, holding out her hand with a friendly air, invited me to dine with her if I had no other engagement.
This woman, Madame Levasseur by name, was small, stout, and decidedly blonde; I had never liked her and my attitude toward her had always been one of studied politeness. But I could not resist a desire to accept her invitation; I pressed her hand and thanked her; I was sure we would talk of my mistress.
She sent a servant to lead my horse and I entered her carriage; she was alone and we at once took the road to Paris. Rain began to fall, and the carriage curtains were drawn; thus shut up together we rode on in silence. I looked at her with inexpressible sadness; she was not only the friend of my faithless one but her confidante. She had often formed one of our party when I called on my mistress in the evening! With what impatience had I endured her presence. How often I counted the minutes that must elapse before she would leave! That was probably the cause of my aversion for her. I knew that she approved of our love; she even went so far as to defend me in our quarrels. In spite of the services she had rendered me, I considered her ugly and tiresome. Alas! now I found her beautiful! I looked at her hands, her clothes; every gesture went straight to my heart; all the past was associated with her. She noticed the change in manner and understood that I was oppressed by sad memories of the past. Thus we rode on our way, I looking at her; she smiling at me. When we reached Paris she took my hand:
"Well?" she said.
"Well?" I replied, sobbing, "tell her if you wish." Tears rushed from my eyes.
After dinner we sat before the fire.
"But tell me," she said, "is it irrevocable? Can nothing be done?"
"Alas! madame," I replied, "there is nothing irrevocable except the grief that is killing me. My condition can be expressed in a few words: I can not love her, I can not love another, and I can not cease loving."
At these words she moved uneasily in her chair and I could see an expression of compassion on her face. For some time she seemed to be reflecting, as though pondering over my fate and seeking some remedy for my sorrow. Her eyes were closed and she appeared lost in reverie. She extended her hand and I took it in mine.
"And I, too," she murmured, "that is just my experience." She stopped, overcome by emotion.
Of all the sisters of love, the most beautiful is pity. I held Madame Levasseur's hand as she began to speak of my mistress, saying all she could think of in her favor. My sadness increased. What could I reply? Finally she came to speak of herself.
Not long since, she said, a man who loved her had abandoned her. She had made great sacrifices for him; her fortune was compromised as well as her honor and her name. Her husband, whom she knew to be vindictive, had made threats. Her tears flowed as she continued, and I began to forget my own sorrow in my sympathy for her. She had been married against her will; she struggled a long time; but she regretted nothing except that she had not been able to inspire a more sincere affection. I believe she even accused herself because she had not been able to hold her lover's heart, and because she had been guilty of apparent indifference.
When she had unburdened her heart she became silent.
"Madame," I said, "it was not chance that brought about our meeting in the Bois de Boulogne. I believe that human sorrows are but wandering sisters and that some good angel unites the trembling hands that are stretched out for aid. Do not repent having told me your sorrow. The secret you have confided to me is only a tear which has fallen from your eye, but has rested on my heart. Permit me to come again and let us suffer together."
Such lively sympathy took possession of me that without reflection I kissed her; it did not occur to my mind that it could offend her and she did not appear even to notice it.
Our conversation continued in this tone of great friendship. She told me her sorrows, I told her mine, and between those two experiences which touched each other, I felt arise a sweetness, as of a celestial accord born of two voices in anguish. All this time I had seen nothing but her face. Suddenly I noticed that her dress was in disorder. It appeared singular to me that, seeing my embarrassment, she did not rearrange it, and I turned my head to give her an opportunity. She did nothing. Finally meeting her eyes and seeing that she was perfectly aware of the state she was in, I felt as though I had been struck by a thunderbolt, for I clearly understood that I was the plaything of her monstrous effrontery, that grief itself was for her but a means of seducing the senses. I took my hat without a word, bowed profoundly and left the room.
UPON returning to my apartments I found a large box in the center of the room. One of my aunts had died and I was one of the heirs to her fortune, which was not large. The box contained, among other things, a number of musty old books. Not knowing what to do and being affected with ennui, I began to read one of them. They were for the most part romances of the time of Louis XV; my pious aunt had probably inherited them herself and never read them, for they were, so to speak, catechisms of vice.
I was singularly disposed to reflect on everything that came to my notice, to give everything a mental and moral significance; I treated events as pearls in a necklace which I tried to string together.
It struck me that there was something significant about the arrival of these books at this time. I devoured them with a bitterness and a sadness born of despair. "Yes, you are right," I said to myself, "you alone possess the secret of life, you alone dare to say that nothing is true and real but debauchery, hypocrisy and corruption. Be my friends, throw on the wound in my soul your corrosive poisons, teach me to believe in you."
While buried in these shadows I allowed my favorite poets and text-books to accumulate dust. I even ground them under my feet in excess of wrath. "You wretched dreamers," I said to them; "you who teach me only suffering, miserable shufflers of words, charlatans if you knew the truth, fools if you speak in good faith, liars in either case, who make fairy tales of the human heart, I will burn every one of you!"
Then tears came to my aid and I perceived that there was nothing real but my grief. "Very well," I cried, in my delirium, "tell me, good and bad genii, counsellors for good or evil, tell me what to do! Choose an arbiter and let him speak."
I seized an old Bible which lay on my table and read the first passage that caught my eye.
"Reply to me, thou book of God," I said, "what word have you for me?" My eye fell on this passage in Ecclesiastes, chapter ix:
I pondered all these things in my heart, and I sought diligently for wisdom. There are just and wise men and their works are in the hands of God; nevertheless man does not know whether he is worthy of love or hatred.
And the future is unknown, for there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good, and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and him that sacrificeth not. The righteous is treated as the sinner and the perjurer as him who speaks the truth.
There is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, and there is one event to all. Therefore the hearts of the children of men are full of evil and madness while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
When I read these words I was astounded; I did not know that there was such a sentiment in the Bible. "And thou, too, as all others, thou book of hope!"
What do the astronomers think when they predict at a given hour and place the passage of a comet, that most eccentric of celestial travelers? What do the naturalists think when they reveal the myriad forms of life concealed in a drop of water? Do they think they have invented what they see and that their microscopes and lenses make the law of nature? What did the first lawgiver think when, seeking for the corner-stone in the social edifice, angered doubtless by some idle importunity, he struck the tables of brass and felt in his bowels the yearning for a law of retaliation? Did he then invent justice? And the first who plucked the fruit planted by his neighbor and who fled cowering under his mantle, did he invent shame? And he who, having overtaken that same thief who had robbed him of the product of his toil, forgave him his sin, and instead of raising his hand to smite him, said, "Sit thou down and eat thy fill"; when after having thus returned good for evil he raised his eyes toward Heaven and felt his heart quivering, tears welling from his eyes, and his knees bending to the earth, did he invent virtue? Oh! Heaven! here is a woman who speaks of love and who deceives me, here is a man who speaks of friendship, and who counsels me to seek consolation in debauchery; here is another woman who weeps and would console me with the flesh; here is a Bible that speaks of God and says: "Perhaps; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked."
I ran to the open window: "Is it true that you are empty?" I cried, looking up at the pale expanse of sky which spread above me. "Reply, reply! Before I die grant that I may clasp in these arms of mine something more than a dream!"
Profound silence reigned. As I stood with arms outstretched, eyes lost in space, a swallow uttered a plaintive cry; in spite of myself I followed it with my eyes; while the swallow disappeared from sight like a flash, a little girl passed, singing.
YET I was not willing to yield. Before taking life on its pleasant side after having seen its evil side so dearly, I resolved to test everything. I remained thus for some time a prey to countless sorrows, tormented by terrible dreams.
The great obstacle to my cure was my youth. Wherever I happened to be, whatever my occupation, I could think of nothing but women; the sight of a woman made me tremble.
I had been so fortunate as to give to love my virginity. But the result of this was that all my senses were united in the idea of love; there was the cause of my unhappiness. For not being able to think of anything but women, I could not help turning over in my head, day and night, all the ideas of debauchery, of false love and of feminine treason with which my mind was filled. To possess a woman was for me to love her; for I thought of nothing but women and I did not believe in the possibility of true love.
All this suffering inspired me with a sort of rage, and at times I was tempted to imitate the monks and murder myself in order to conquer my senses; at times I felt like going out into the street and throwing myself at the feet of the first woman I met and vowing eternal love.
God is my witness that I did all in my power to cure myself. Preoccupied from the first with the idea that the society of men was the haunt of vice and hypocrisy, where all were like my mistress, I resolved to separate myself from them and live in complete isolation. I resumed my neglected studies, I plunged into history, poetry, and anatomy. There happened to be on the fourth floor of the same house an old German who was well versed in lore. I determined to learn his tongue; the German was poor and friendless and willingly accepted the task of instructing me. My perpetual state of distraction worried him. How many times seated near him with a smoking lamp between us, he waited in patient astonishment while I sat with my arms crossed on my book, lost in reverie, oblivious of his presence and of his pity.
"My dear sir," said I to him one day, "all this is useless, but you are the best of men. What a task you have undertaken! You must leave me to my fate; we can do nothing, neither you nor I."
I do not know that he understood my meaning, but he grasped my hand and there was no more talk of German.
I soon realized that solitude instead of curing me was doing me harm, and so completely changed my system. I went to the country and galloped through the woods with the huntsmen; I rode until I was out of breath, I tried to break myself with fatigue, and when after a day of sweat in the fields, I reached my bed in the evening smelling of powder and the stable, I buried my head in the pillow, I rolled about under the covers and I cried: "Fantom, fantom! are you not tired? Will you leave me for one night?"
But why these vain efforts? Solitude sent me to nature, and nature to love. When I stood in the street of Observation I saw myself surrounded by corpses, and, drying my hands on my bloody apron, stifled by the odor of putrefaction, I turned my head in spite of myself, and I saw floating before my eyes green harvests, balmy fields and the pensive harmony of the evening. "No," I said, "science can not console me; I can not plunge into dead nature, I would die there myself and float about like a livid corpse amidst the debris of shattered hopes. I would not cure myself of my youth; I will live where there is life, or I will at least die in the sun." I began to mingle with the throngs at Sevres and Chaville; I lay down in the midst of a flowery dale, in a secluded part of Chaville. Alas! all these forests and prairies cried to me:
"What do you seek here? We are green, poor child, we wear the colors of hope."
Then I returned to the city; I lost myself in its obscure streets; I looked up at the lights in all its windows, all those mysterious family nests; I watched the passing carriages; I saw man jostling against man. Oh! what solitude! How sad the smoke on those roofs! What sorrow in those tortuous streets where all are hurrying hither and thither, working and sweating, where thousands of strangers rub against your elbows; a cloaca where there is only society of bodies, while souls are solitary and alone, where all who hold out a hand to you are prostitutes! "Become corrupt, corrupt, and you will cease to suffer!" This has been the cry of all cities to man; it is written with charcoal on city walls, on its streets with mud, on its faces with extravasated blood.
And at times, when seated in the corner of some salon I watched the women as they danced, some rosy, some blue, and others white, their arms bare and hair clustered gracefully about their shapely heads, looking like cherubim drunk with light, floating in their spheres of harmony and beauty, I would think: "Ah, what a garden, what flowers to gather, to breathe! Ah! Marguerites, Marguerites! What will your last petal say to him who plucks it? A little, a little, but not all. That is the moral of the world, that is the end of your smiles. It is over this terrible abyss that you are walking in your flower-strewn gauze; it is on this hideous truth you run like gazelles on the tips of your little toes!"
"But why take things so seriously?" said Desgenais. "That is something that is never seen. You complain because bottles become empty? There are many casks in the vaults, and many vaults in the hills. Make me a good fish-hook gilded with sweet words, with a drop of honey for bait, and quick! catch for me in the stream of oblivion a pretty consoler, as fresh and slippery as an eel; you will still have the hook when the fish shall have glided from your hands. Youth must pass away, and if I were you I would carry off the queen of Portugal rather than study anatomy."
Such was the advice of Desgenais. I made my way home with swollen heart, my face concealed under my cloak. I kneeled at the side of my bed and my poor heart dissolved in tears. What vows! what prayers! Galileo struck the earth, crying: "Nevertheless it moves!" Thus I struck my heart.