THE GRIP OF DESIRE
THE STORY OF A PARISH-PRIEST
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF HECTOR FRANCE
Love is a familiar; love is a devil; there is no evil angel but love. Yet was Samson so tempted, and he had an excellent strength; yet was Solomon so seduced, and he had a very good wit.
Love's Labour Lost.
With an engraved portrait of the Author
Other Works in English
By HECTOR FRANCE
Mansour's Chastisement, the Loves and Intrigues of an Arab Don Juan, done into English by ALFRED ALLINSON, and embellished with Seven fine Engravings by THEVENIN, after Drawings by BAZEILHAC.
Musk, Hashish and Blood, with Twenty-One Engravings by PAUL AVRIL. (In the Press.)
The Attack on the Brothels, A Realistic Account of the Civilizing of "Barbarians". With Illustrations. (In Hand.)
The Daughter of the Christ; The most original and philosophic work of the last twenty years. This work will be sumptuously illustrated by leading French Artists. (In Preparation.)
TO THE READER
The truth, the bitter truth.
Oh, sons and brothers, oh, poets When the thing exists, speak the word.
I do not assert that all the personages in this story are models of virtue. To some of them has been given a part which severe morality reproves. But I am a realist and not an idealist, and for that I beg the reader a thousand pardons. I have tried to paint what I saw and not that of which I dreamed. If my figures are not chaste, the fault is not mine, but of those who passed before me and whose features I sketched as my pen ran on.
You are warned therefore, Madam, that when you open this book, you will not find a "Treatise on Morality". Here are only the simple and pastoral loves of a poor and obscure village priest. An idyll in the shade of the parsonage limes and under the motionless eye of the weather-cock on the belfry.
If then you come across any word which offends your chaste ears, any picture which distresses your modest eye, blame only your own curiosity.
LIST OF CHAPTERS.
Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are Defiled and Unbelieving is nothing pure: but even their mind and conscience is Defiled. They profess that they know God; but in Works they Deny Him, being Abominable and Disobedient, and unto every good work Reprobate.
LIST OF CHAPTERS.
I. The Cure II. The Confessional III. The Parsonage IV. Expectation V. The Meeting VI. The Look VII. The Salute VIII. The Fever IX. During Vespers X. In Parenthesis XI. The Flesh XII. The Temptation XIII. The Resolution XIV. The Captain XV. Memories XVI. The Epaulet XVII. The Voltairian XVIII. The Visit XIX. Hard Words XX. Kicks XXI. The Past XXII. The Servant XXIII. The Letter XXIV. The First Meeting XXV. Love XXVI. Of Young Girls in General XXVII. Of Suzanne in Particular XXVIII. The Shadow. XXIX. Other Meetings XXX. Seraphic Love XXXI. The Virgin XXXII. The Death's-Head XXXIII. Frenzy XXXIV. The Prohibition XXXV. The Shelter XXXVI. The Hot Wine XXXVII. Tete-a-Tete XXXVIII. The Kiss XXXIX. The Devil in Petticoats XL. Little Confessions XLI. Moral Reflections XLII. Memory Looking Back XLIII. Espionage XLIV. The Garret Window XLV. Treacherous Manoeuvre XLVI. The Letter XLVII. Good News XLVIII. Reconcilliation XLIX. Confidences L. Mammosa Virgo LI. Chamber Morality LII. The Posset LIII. The Leg LIV. Mater Saeva Cupidunum LV. In the Foot-Path LVI. Double Remorse LVII. The Explosion LVIII. Provocation LIX. Acts and Words LX. Talks LXI. Le Pere Hyacinthe LXII. The Happy Cure LXIII. The Miracles LXIV. The Two Augurs LXV. Table-Talk LXVI. Good Counsel LXVII. In A Glass LXVIII. The Rose Chamber LXIX. The Gust of Wind LXX. The Ambuscade LXXI. The Breach LXXII. The Assault LXXIII. Audaces Fortuna Juvat LXXIV. Before Mass LXXV. During Mass LXXVI. Awakening LXXVII. Consolations LXXVIII. False Alarms LXXIX. In the Diligence LXXX. An Old Acquaintance LXXXI. A Little Confession LXXXII. The Church-Woman LXXXIII. Conventicle LXXXIV. At the Palace LXXXV. Little Pastimes LXXXVI. Serious Talk LXXXVII. The Seminary LXXXVIII. The Fair One LXXXIX. Love Again XC. Le Cygne de la Croix XCI. The Calves XCII. The Scapular XCIII. From the Dark to the Fair XCIV. The Change XCV. The Cure of St. Marie XCVI. Finis Coronet Opus
"I will sing thy praises on the harp, oh Lord. But, my soul, whence cometh thy sadness, and wherefore art thou troubled."
(The Introito of the Mass).
The Cure of Althausen was reputed to be chaste. Was he so really? To tell the truth, I never believed him so; at thirty men are not chaste; they may try to be so; they rarely succeed. However that might be, he was a singular man.
He had a profound reverence for common sense, and it was said that he taught a strange doctrine to his flock; for example, that a day of work was more pleasing to God than a day of prayer; that the temples were for those who labour not, and that a good action was well worth a mass.
He maintained too that we purchase nothing with money in the other world, and that the coins, so appreciated among ourselves, have no currency beyond the grave, and a hundred other oddities of this kind, which in the good old times would have brought him to the stake. The Bishop had severely reprimanded him for all these heresies; but he seemed to pay no attention to it. Every Sunday, from the height of his pulpit, he continued to brave shamelessly the thunders of his Bishop and the thunders of heaven.
I went one day to hear him. His voice was sweet, persuasive, with a clear and harmonious tone. He said simply: "Love one another. That is the true religion of Christ. Love one another! everything is there: religion, philosophy and morality. Charity, properly understood, that which comes from the heart, is more pleasing to God than all the prayers. There are people who in order to pray neglect their home duties, their duties as wife and as mother. To them, I say of a truth, God remains deaf. He wills, before aught else, that you should fulfil your duties to your own. Every prayer which causes another to suffer is an impiety." Such was pretty near the essence of his sermons: they were short and simple. No great sonorous words, no pompous digressions, no Latin quotations which no one would have understood, no declamations on Our Lady of Lourdes or of La Salotte, on the miracle of Roses or the Immaculate Conception.
Thus he placed himself on a level with the simple souls who heard him, addressed himself only to their good sense and to their heart, and did not waste their time. He thought that after having worked hard throughout the week, it was well to spend the Sunday in rest and not in fresh fatigue.
But that which struck me most in him was his intelligent and expressive countenance, and I was astonished that a man hall-marked with such originality, should consent to vegetate, obscure and future-less, in the care of a poor village.
They said he was chaste. In truth that must be a task more arduous for him than for any other, for he bore on his face the impress of ardent passions. A disciple of Lavater would doubtless have sought for and found the secret of hidden dramas in the fine pale face. From his looks, now full of feverish ardour, now laden with sweet caresses, like the limpid eyes of a bride, the desires of the flesh in rebellion against deadly duty, seemed to burst forth with bold prolific thoughts.
One saw at times that his thoughts escaped in moments of forgetfulness from the clerical fetter.
Wild, wandering and licentious, they plunged with delight into the ocean of reverie. They left far behind them on the misty shore our conventions, our prejudices and our follies, and all those toils of spider-web which beset and catch and destroy so well the silly crowd, and which we call social rules, opinion and propriety.
Then the priest was gone; the man alone remained, the man of thirty, robust and full of life and yearning for all the joys of life. And beneath his gold-embroidered chasuble, near that altar laden with lustres and with flowers, amidst the floods of light and the floods of perfume, in that atmosphere saturated with the intoxicating waves of incense and the breath of maidens; surrounded by all those women, by all these girls on their knees before him or hanging on his lips; before all these modest or burning looks fixed upon his gaze, a strange sensation rose to his brain; the perspiration stood upon his forehead, he blushed and grew pale by turns; a shiver ran through his frame, and trying to subdue the ardour of his gaze, he turned towards the crowd of young girls, and said to them in a trembling voice:
—Et cum spiritu tuo, answered the choir of maidens. Oh, how willingly instead of the name of God would he have cast to them his heart.
"In the course of the holy missions to which I have consecrated a great portion of my life, I have often come across upright souls, disposed to make great progress in perfection, if they had found a skilful director."
THE REV. FATHER J.B. SCAROMELLI (The Spiritual Guide).
However, almost in spite of myself, I was interested in this young priest, and although disposed to believe that he was a knave like the rest, I was sensible of something in him so upright and so loyal that I was, from the very first, prejudiced in his favour.
And besides, these flashes of fiery passion which at times betrayed him, could they serve as an accusation against him? Could one take offence at his not having completely stifled at thirty years the fierce passions of youth and his violent desires? Was it not a proof on the contrary of his victorious struggles and of his energy?
And even though he should succumb before the imperious needs of potent nature, which would be the more culpable, he or the women who surrounded him, enveloped him with their gaze, encompassed him with their seductions; he or the husbands and fathers who seemed tacitly to say to him: "You are young, ardent, fall of passion and vigour, there is my daughter, there is my wife, I hand them to you, receive their confessions, dive into their looks, read in their soul, listen month to month to their most secret confidences, but beware of touching their lips."
Fools! And when the priest succumbs and their shame is noised abroad, they make a great uproar and complain to all the echoes, instead of bowing their head and humbly saying: mea culpa.
What? silly fool, you cast the modesty of your young wife and the virginity of your daughter as food for that envious celibate, you leave them alone in the mysterious tete-a-tete of the confessional, with no obstacle between his burning lust and the object of that lost, between those mouths which speak so low!
What will stop them? Duty? Virtue? His duty to himself? Laughable obstacles. Fragile plank on which you place your honour.
Her own virtue? Trust not to it overmuch, for he will know how to lead her to the will of his appetite. He will form her in such a way that she will pass by all the roads by which he will wish to guide her. It is a gate which he will contrive sooner or later to force, however it may be bolted, however it may be guarded by those sleepy gaolers which we call Principles.
The Confessional! Marvellous invention of greedy curiosity, satanic work of some hoary sinner! Hallowed goad of concupiscence, blessed antechamber which leads to the alcove, mysterious retreat where the priest sits between husband and wife, listens to their private talk and stands by, panting at all their excesses. Refuge more secret than the best padded boudoir. Formidable entrenchment sacred to all! What jealous lover would dare to lift that curtain of serge behind which are murmured so many secret confidences?
It is there that the artless virgin utters her first confessions; there, that the plighted maid reveals the beatings of her heart; there, that the blushing bride unveils the secrets of the nuptial couch.
He, the man of God, he listens ... he collects all their voluptuous nothings and out of them creates worlds. Do you see him give ear? His face has kept its sanctimonious expression, but the fire gleams forth beneath his drooping eye-lid. He is leaning near, as near as possible to those stammering lips.... The penitent is silent. What! already? everything said already? Oh! that is not enough. She has passed too quickly over certain faults the remembrance of which covers her forehead with a blush. He is not satisfied. He wishes to know further. He reproves gently, "Why hesitate? God is full of pity; but in order that the pardon may be complete, the confession must be complete," and anew he questions, he presses ... his temples throb, his blood boils, his hands burn, the demon of the flesh completely embraces him.
Come, incautious girl, speak, explain, give details, and by the confession of your pleasant faults, plunge into ecstasy the ruttish confessor.
[Footnote 1: In the confessionals of the Church of St. Gudule at Brussels and in those of the majority of Belgian churches an opening may be seen contrived in the screen, through which it is easy for mouths to meet.]
"The pretty parsonage encircled with verdure, With its white pigeons cooing on the roof, Assumes to the sun a saucy air of sanctity And permits a smell of cooking to go forth."
CAMILLE DELTHIL (Les Rustiques).
The parsonage is seated on the summit of the hill and overlooks a part of the village and of the plain. The traveller perceives from far its white outline in the midst of a nest of verdure, and feels delighted at the view. Nothing more simple than this peaceful house. A single story above the ground-floor, with four windows from which the panes shine cheerfully in the first rays of the sun, and upon the red-tiled roof two attics with pointed gable. The door, which one reaches by a broad stone stair, is framed by two vines, their vigorous branches stretching up to the side of the windows, yielding to the hand, when September is come, their velvety, ruby bunches. Behind the house, a little garden surrounded by a hedge of green, at once an orchard, flower and kitchen garden.
In front, two hundred paces away, the old church with its stained walls on which the ivy clings, and its pointed belfry. The distance between is partly filled by several rows of lime-trees, which, seen from a distance, give to the parsonage the calm and cheerful look of those peaceful retreats where we sometimes dream of burying our existence. "Is not this the harbour!" says the tempest-beaten way-farer. "Oh! how happy must be the dweller in this calm abode!"
He might enter; he was welcome. The door was open to all, and this house, like that of the wise man, seemed to be of glass.
And all the women, young or old, knew hour by hour how their Cure spent his time, and in spite of all the perseverance which, according to principle, they had applied to discover some mystery in his life or the knot of a secret intrigue, they acknowledged unanimously that no one could give less hold for scandal than he.
Every day, when he had said mass, pruned his trees, watered his flowers, visited some poor or sick person, he shut himself up with his books and lived with them till the evening, until his servant came and said to him, "It is time for supper." Then he rose, ate his supper in silence, after putting aside the portion for the poor, and then returned to his books. That was all his life.
On Sunday, if the weather was fine, he took his breviary, and walked with slow steps along the high-road.
The children would stop their games and run forward to meet him in order to receive a caress from him, while the young girls whispered together and seemed to avoid him. The bolder ones met his gaze with a blush: perhaps they too would have liked, just as the little children, to receive a caress from the handsome Cure of Althausen. But he passed on without ever stopping, answering their timid salutations with an almost frigid gravity.
He acted wisely. He was full of distrust of himself, and kept himself in prudent reserve in face of the enemy. For he knew full well that the enemy was there, in these sweet woman's eyes and those smiles which wished him welcome.
Then the pagan intoxications of the Catholic rites were no more surrounding him to over-excite him and betray the trouble of his heart and the straying of his thoughts, and if he felt affected before the smiles of these marriageable girls, he armed himself with force sufficient to thrust back carefully to his inmost being his boldness and his desires.
It was no more the ardent passionate man who disclosed himself sometimes in rapid moments of forgetfulness, it was the priest austere and calm, the functionary salaried by the State to teach the religion of the State.
"And the days and the hours glided on, and withdrawn within itself, affected by sorrows and joys unknown, the soul stretched its mysterious wing over a new life soon to dawn."
LAMENNAIS (Une voix de prison).
One of his greatest pleasures was to plunge into the woods which surround the village. He sought silence and solitude there, and when he heard the steps of a keeper or of some pedestrian, or even the happy voices of young couples calling one another, he concealed himself behind the masses of foliage, and hid himself with a kind of shame like a criminal. He wished to be alone, completely alone, so as to dream at his ease. Then he stretched himself in the sun on the warm grass, opened his breviary, the discreet confidant of all wandering thoughts, the screen for the priest's looks and thoughts, and listened to the insects' hum.
He followed the goings and comings of an ant or the capricious flight of a bumble-bee; then with his eyes lost in space, immersed in the profundity of nature, he dreamed....
One could have seen by his smile that he was wandering in spirit in the laughing and limit-less garden of hope, pausing here and there on rosy illusions and fair chimeras like a butterfly on flowers.
They were delicious hours which he passed thus, full of forgetfulness and indolence. He enjoyed the present moment, the present, poor, humble and obscure, but which held neither disquietude nor care.
Sometimes regrets for a past of which no one was aware came and knocked at the door of his dreams, but he drove them for away, saying like Werther:
"The past is past."
The hand of time revolved without his giving heed, and often night surprised him in his fantastic reveries. The good country-folk bad been sorely puzzled by these solitary walks in the depths of the woods.
They talked at first of some scandalous intrigue, and the Cure had no difficulty in discovering that he was followed and watched by rigid parishioners, anxious about his morality and his virtue. More than once through the foliage he believed he saw vigilant sentinels who watched him carefully.
Lost labour! Never did those who tried with such unwearied perseverance to detect his secret amours, have the pleasure of beholding that mistress whom they would have been so happy to cover with shame and scorn.
They were obliged to renounce it, for his mistress then was that admirable fairy, invisible and dumb to the common herd, who displays her beauties to the gaze of a chosen race alone, as she murmurs her divine and chaste sonnets in their ear.
It was nature all radiant, which caressed his brow with the breeze, which sang by his ear with the mysterious harmony of the woods, which gladdened his sight with the flower of the fields, the verdant meadow, the golden harvest. His loves were the hollow path which is lost in the mountain, the old willow which leans over the edge of the pool, the sparrow which chatters among the leaves, the splendours of the starry sky, the magic mirages of the evening.
They were all the melodies which poets have made to vibrate on the strings of lyres, and in those moments of delicious ecstasy he forgot the vexations, the littlenesses and the miseries of the world, and if anyone had asked him what was the aim of his life, he would have replied like Anaxagoras:
"To love Nature, and to contemplate the sky."
But among his uncouth surroundings, who would have been capable of understanding these sweet pleasures and that over-excitement of soul and brain, by means of which he sought to benumb his senses and to change the current of his heart, that heart which like the body has its imperious needs.
He had reached that fatal epoch when man experiences an insatiable hunger for love, and for want of a woman will nourish some monstrous fantasy, or even, like the prisoner of Saintine, become enamoured of a flower.
"Skilled physicians have remarked that an emanation of infinitely projectile forces continually takes place from the eyes of impassioned persons, of lovers or of lascivious women, which communicates insensibly to those who listen to or behold them, the same agitation by which they are affected."
RESTIF DE LA BRETONNE (Le Paysan perverte).
One afternoon, while returning to the village, the Cure chanced to meet a young girl who was unknown to him. She was but poorly dressed, and her shoes were white with dust; but youth and gaiety shone forth beneath the glow of her cheeks, her blue eye sparkled under the dark arch of her eyebrows, and the voluptuous opulence of her shape made one forget the poverty of her dress. From her straw hat with its faded ribbons escaped heavy tresses which shone like gold.
Bending over his breviary, the Cure passed, casting a sidelong look, one of those priestly looks which see without being seen; but the stranger compelled him to raise his head. She had stood still and was fixing on him smiling a bright and confident look.
On seeing this, the Cure stood still also.
Certainly, in the white flock of his congregation he counted just as lovely creatures every Sunday, he encountered just as provoking smiles. Nevertheless, he was troubled; he felt a secret flame course through his veins; a kind of charm emanated front this girl. He remembered reading that magnetic currents flow forth from certain women which inflame the senses, and he took a step backwards; but the charm operated in spite of himself, his eyes remained fixed on the seductive outlines of the figure of the unknown. She enquired of him politely the way to the Mairie. In pointing it out to her the Cure perhaps displayed more earnestness than was necessary, he even took a few steps with her as far as the entrance to the village, then he returned home, thinking of this pretty girl.
During supper his servant told him that some mountebanks had arrived in the village, and that they were going to give a performance the same evening in the market-place. In fact a drum was heard beating the call, and the hoarse voice of the clown announcing "a grand acrobatic spectacle, accompanied with dances and followed by a pantomime."
Involuntarily the Cure's thought turned to the stranger; he went upstairs into his study and behind his half-closed shutters he could take part in the spectacle.
As he expected, the pretty girl was there, and seen from this distance in the night, half-lighted by a few smoky lamps, with her little bodice of velvet, her gauze skirt spangled with gold, her flesh-coloured tights, she was really charming. At that moment she was dancing, with wonderful lightness and grace, some lascivious fandango, while she accompanied herself with the castanets.
She was smiling at the crowd, delighting in the effect which she knew how to produce with her sparkling eye and her white teeth and her rosy lips, and the Cure was intoxicated by that smile. Then he cast his eyes over the rough crowd, and ha was grieved at so much cost for such an audience: Margaritas ante porcos, he murmured, Margaritas ante porcos.
In order to admire her better, he had taken a field-glass and lost none of her gestures.
Her bosom was boldly bared, and he feasted his eyes upon the sweet furrow of her breasts, he followed the delicious outline of her leg, and found his heart melting before the undulating movements of her graceful bust and her sturdy hips.
He abruptly left the window, took up a book at random and tried to read.
But this was in vain; his eyes only were reading, his thoughts were elsewhere; they were in the market-place which was in frolic with the dancer.
He wished to stop this libertine thought; he read aloud: "The fall is great after great efforts. The soul risen so high in heroism and holiness falls very heavily to the earth.... Sick and embittered it plunges into evil with a savage hunger, as though to avenge itself for having believed."
At another time, he would have said: "It is a warning." But he saw not the warning, he only saw the dancer, and he murmured: "How beautiful is she!"
He took the hundred paces round his table; but his body only was there, his thoughts always were hovering on the market-place round the spangled petticoat.
He returned to the window. All was over; the lamps were put out, the crowd was slowly dispersing; five or six inquisitive ones were standing round the heavy carriage of the company, from which some gleam of light escaped.
He remained a long time leaning on his elbow at his window, looking at the stars and listening mechanically to all the noises outside. The market-place became empty. Only the stamping of the horses was to be heard fastened near by, in the thick shade of the old lime-trees. A slender thread of light again filtered up to hint.
"His pupils glowed in the dim twilight, like burning coals."
LEON CLAUDEL (Les Va-nu-pieds).
It was like a lover attracting him, a magic thread which fastened yonder was unwinding itself to his eye. He could not withdraw it thence, and armed with his glass he tried to reach the bottom of the mysterious light. Two or three times he saw a figure which he thought he recognized, pass and repass in the lighted square.
Then the devil tempted him, like Jesus on the mountain. He did not show him the kingdoms of the earth, but he gave him a glimpse of the mountebank undressed. "Go not there," his good angel cried to him. But the Cure turned a deaf ear; he went down noiselessly from his room and ventured into the market-place.
In order to approach the carriage, he displayed all the strategy of a skilful general; he first walked the length of the parsonage, then crossed the market-place, then little by little, artfully, disappeared beneath the lime-trees.
[PLATE I: THE LOOK. No one could have detected him plunging his burning gaze into the depth of the little room where the fair dancer, stripped of her tights, appeared to him half-naked.]
The house on wheels was only a few paces away, silent, motionless, crammed up. Within those ten feet of planks was perceptible an excess of lives, passions, miseries, joys, of comedies and dramas; quite a world in miniature.
Breathings and rustlings issued now and then from this living coffin. It wan the heavy slumber of fatigue, of fever, or of drink.
One window was lighted still, and the half-drawn curtain allowed a room to be seen the size of a sentry-box.
He passed slowly by, and gave a look.
A strange emotion seized him: he would have wished not to have seen, and he felt full of a delicious trouble at having seen.
He looked round him with alarm; he was quite alone. No one had detected him, no one could have detected him, plunging his burning gaze into the depth of the little room where the fair dancer, stripped of her tights, appeared to him half-naked and dazzling like a goddess of Rubens.
"She is fair, she is white, and her golden hair Sweetly frames her rosy face: The limpid look of her azure eyes Beguiles near as much as her half-closed lip."
N. CHANNARD (Poesies inedites).
The next day, from break of dawn, the strolling players were already making their preparations for departure.
He saw the fair dancer again.
No longer had she on her gauze dress with golden spangles, nor the tights which displayed her shape, nor her glittering diadem, nor the imitation pearls in her hair. She had resumed her poor dress of printed cotton, her darned stockings and her coarse shoes; but there was still her blue eye with its strange light, her pleasant face, her silky hair falling in thick tresses on her sunburnt neck, and beneath her cotton bodice the figure of an empress was outlined with the same opulence.
A knot of women was there, laughing and talking scandal. What were these stupid peasants laughing at?
At length the heavy vehicle began to move, drawn by two broken-winded horses.
The fair girl is at the little window and watches, inquisitive and smiling, the silly scoffing crowd.
"Pass on, daughter of Bohemia, and despise these men who jest at your poverty, these women who cast a look of scorn and hate. They scorn and hate you, because they have not your splendid hair, nor the brightness of your eyes, nor your white teeth, nor your fresh smile, nor your suppleness, grace and vigour, nor your bewitching shape; despise them in your turn, but envy them not, them who despise and envy you."
Thus the Cure murmured to himself as the carriage was passing by.
She is there still at her little window, like a youthfull picture by Greuze. She lifts her eyes and recognizes the priest, and bows with that smile which has already so affected him. What grace in that simple gesture! What promises in those gentle eyes! In the midst of the hostile scornful looks of that foolish crowd she has met a friendly face; she has read sympathy and perhaps a secret admiration on the intelligent countenance of the priest.
The Cure replied to her salute, and for a long while his gaze pursued the carriage.
Meanwhile the good ladies whispered among themselves, and said to one another with a scandalized air: "Did you see? He bowed to the mountebank!"
"Who has not had those troubled nights, when the storm rages within, when the soul, miserably oppressed with shameful desires, floats in the mud of a swamp?"
He was quite aware of his imprudence, but was unable to withdraw his eyes from the road, and his thoughts still followed the carriage long after it had disappeared behind the tall poplars. It seemed to him that it was a portion of himself which was going away for ever.
What! was the madman then beginning to cast his heart thus on the roads, and could he feel smitten by this creature whom he had scarcely met?
No, it was not she whom he loved, but she had just made the over-full cup run over. She or another, it was indifferent to him. His altered feelings of desire needed at length to drink freely. He was thirsty, what signified to him the vessel?
Hitherto he had only felt that ordinary confusion which the chaste man experiences in presence of the woman, for hitherto his sight bad only paused complacently upon pretty fresh faces, and if his thought wandered beyond, he drove it back with care to his very inmost being; but now that he had seen the naked breast of a pretty girl, that he had relished it with his gaze, embraced it with his desire, that he had yielded to a fatal forgetfulness, his flesh, so long subdued and humiliated, profited by that moment of error, and subdued him in its turn.
A kind of frenzy had taken possession of his being in a moment, and in the sleepless night which he had just passed, he had given himself up to an absolute orgy in his over-excited imagination.
That wandering girl who had just disappeared, had carried away his modesty.
He felt his heart beating for her; but he felt that his heart was beating for all alike; girls or women, he wanted them all, he defiled them all with his thoughts.
And so, after ten years of struggles, the virtue of the Cure of Althausen dissolved one evening before the naked breast of a rope-dancer, like snow before the sun.
That day was a Sunday, and, as he did not come downstairs, his servant came to warn him that the time for Mass was drawing near.
She stood struck with the strange look on his countenance, at the fatigue displayed on his features, and anxiously enquired of him the cause.
The Cure assured her that she was mistaken, that he bad never felt better; but at the same time he gave a glance at his mirror.
He was frightened at his face and he remained a long time thoughtful, contemplating the gloomy fire of his own look.
That sinister countenance seemed to him to presage some approaching calamity.
Thus, there are men whom fate has marked on the forehead with a fatal stamp. The mysterious sign is not displayed at every time and before all; but at certain epochs of life, when the unknown breath caresses the predestinated or cursed head, the mark all at once appeals, like a tawny light in the depth of night.
A curse! Fatality has moulded that man's brain, it has left its potent impress on his skull.
—With what seal then am I marked? he cried. Is it that of reprobation which God has stamped upon my face?
No, simpleton that thou art, it is the phosphorus of thy brain, which catches fire from time to time.
"There is a beautiful girl of sixteen, white as milk, rosy as a rose-bud, fresh as a spring morning,—and chaste as Vesta."
A. DELVAU (Le Fumier d'Ennius).
He went up into the pulpit, and preached a sermon on this text: "Blessed are the pure in heart." He had prepared it the day before, previous to the arrival of that enchanting player, and his thoughts had been since then too occupied with very different subjects for him to search for another theme.
Bitter mockery! What could he say to these good people about hearts pure and chaste? He tried, all the same, and said some excellent things. He spoke above all about temptation, which, following the expression of a Father of the Church, "is only, to commence with, an ant which tickles, and finishes by becoming a devouring lion."
"Alas," he said, "how many, without meaning it, have been thus devoured, beginning perhaps with this pious individual."
His sermon took great effect. An old woman wept, and several members of the congregation appeared to sigh and think that it was a long time since they had been devoured thus.
He had an inclination to laugh, as he came down from the pulpit, at the words which he had just uttered on purity of heart, and he wondered that he had been able to bring so much conviction and warmth to bear upon a subject to which he was henceforth completely a stranger.
His own scepticism terrified him, and he saw that he had taken a long step into evil Nevertheless he did concern himself at that, and from his place near the pulpit he turned his impassioned gaze with more assurance on the group of young girls.
Passion is a brutal level which equalizes us all. There remained in him nothing more of the priest, there only remained the man full of desires, and he flung his desires in riot upon that gyneceum which he thought belonged to him.
In certain village churches, all the young girls are placed apart, near the choir, sometimes even in the choir itself, under the eyes of the priest, as if they wished to leave the most convenient choice to that never satiated Priapus.
The handsome Cure of Althausen made his choice therefore at his ease and without the least shame.
This one was fair and pale, that other dark and high in colour; this one was thin and delicate, that one fat and plump; this one was prettier, that other more graceful. He knew not upon which to stop. He would have wished for them all, for they all had that provoking beauty which pleases the devil so much: exuberant youth.
And he could not grow weary of contemplating all these fresh faces; his look, more than once, encountered sweet looks, and then he experienced a delicious shock which stirred his heart.
It was not only the faces which excited his longings. In spite of himself, the opulent breast of the fair player entered his imagination and his thoughts seemed to search each one's neckerchief, seeking this powerful nourishment for his appetite. He bad tried to drive away these abominable desires, but it was in vain: the forbidden fruit was there and something seemed to tell him that he had only to stretch out his hand to seize it.
As he tried to escape from this diabolical hallucination, he remarked all at once in the gallery set apart for the wives of the principal inhabitants, a young girl, a stranger, whose beauty struck him.
She was pale and dark, and her full lips, of a brilliant red, were lightly pencilled with a black down.
Her deep, burning eyes darted flames, and were fixed on the priest with a persistency which made him blush.
The erotic fever which had possessed him disappeared at once. He was ashamed of himself and of his secret thoughts, for it seemed to him that this stranger read to the bottom of his soul.
This flaming look which he had caught sight of, weighed upon him like remorse.
In the evening, at the Salut he saw again the same face and the same burning eyes, fastened on his own; but be thought he discovered that there was nothing terrible about them, and that what in his trouble he had taken for inquisition and wrath, might in reality be nothing but tenderness and sweetness.
He made skilful enquiries regarding the stranger; she was Mademoiselle Suzanne Durand, who had just completed her education at Saint-Denis, the daughter of Captain Durand, "a bad parishioner," his servant told him, "who paid little regard to the service and treated the priests as humbugs."
"Is it meet for you to be among such vicious people? Envy, anger and avarice reign among some; modesty is banished among others; these abandon themselves to intemperance and sloth, and the pride of these rises to insolence. It is all over; I will dwell no longer among the seven deadly sins."
LE SAGE (Gil-Blas).
I must take my courage with both hands to continue to unfold before you the events however simple of this simple tale. Already I hear the eternal flock of hypocrites and fools protesting and crying out at outraged morality. I know them, these indignant voices of the defenders of morality. They arise every time that we unveil the vilenesses, that we expose the gangrenes of our institutions; corrupt magistracy, vicious clergy, rotten army; tottering tripod which holds up that worm-eaten scaffolding which is called social order.
But the sages of the present day and a great number of those of former times have always made me laugh, particularly where beneath the mask of the venerable philosopher or the hood of the austere monk, I discovered the grin of the rogue.
I shall stop my ears then to their clamours and I shall continue the task I have undertaken.
Nevertheless, some sincere persons may object: "What sort then is this cynical priest which you display to us? Is there nothing then remaining to him, and in default of modesty and morality, in default of his energy, which has foundered thus all at once, could he not still lay hold of the wrecks of faith?"
Faith? It had fled away long ago, since the day when he had laid aside his dress of catechumen, and, initiated in the secrets of the sanctuary, he had laid hand on the priestly jugglings.
Then he had been filled with an infinite sorrow. But he had prudently repressed it deep within, and in this centre of devout hypocrisy and holy intrigue, he had covered himself again, like all the rest, with a varnish of sanctity.
Faith! What priest is he who, amidst the religious pageants, the public falsehoods and the private apostacies, the burlesque scenes behind the stage preceding the solemn performance, what priest is he who has preserved his faith?
What priest is he, upright and wishing to remain upright—there are such lost in obscure positions—who has not said quietly to himself, in his inmost being, all alone with his conscience, what the Cure of Althausen often repeated to himself:
"Faith, bitter mockery! to believe by order, without examination and without reply!
"Annihilation of the individual, murder of the thought, criminal denial of the intelligence, the most sublime of man's gifts!
"Oh miseries of the soul! filth of the body! vileness of the spirit! unfathomable depths of human folly! What am I and what are we, and whom do we wish to deceive?
"What are we, we who say to others, 'Be just, humble, chaste, pitiful? Have faith.' Oh! priests, my brethren, and you, my masters, you have tried to close my soul as we close a book, to extinguish my thought like a too lively flame and to bend my rebellious reason; but my soul unfolds in spite of you; the book swollen with doubts, bursts under the clasp, my thought rekindles at the first spark, and my reason rises to its full height to protest from the deeps of darkness where you would bury it.
"For I have followed you step by step in the tortuous ways of your dark lives. I have listened to your words and I have seen your deeds, and the deeds gave the lie to your words.
"Then I said to myself: Perhaps we are living in an evil period. The curse is upon this age. And I have sought to relieve my thoughts in less gloomy pictures. I have ransacked history to find there the golden age of Catholicism. But the pages of Catholic history are stained with mire and blood. The dealers of the temple, more powerful than Christ, have in their turn driven him out of the sanctuary. Humanity, imprisoned in the round of hypocritical conventions and nefarious laws, revolves unceasingly on itself, the eternal Ixion fastened to the eternal wheel.
"Whither are we going? Whither are we going in the ocean of social tempests, of political knaveries, of religious falsehoods? Centuries pass, empires fall, nations disappear, religions, at first blazing torches, then smoky harmful lamps, die out one by one, generations succeed generations with hands stretched out towards the future whence the new light must spring, and the future, gloomy gulf, will swallow up all, men and things, worlds and gods.
"I have ransacked history and I have discovered that yesterday as to-day, there were among those men who call themselves shepherds of souls, pride, falsehood, injustice, thirst of riches, hatred and luxury, but neither belief, nor truth, nor faith."
Do not cry out, saintly souls, virtuous prelates, gentle apostles, frank and rosy curates, but let him among you who is without any of his sins, rise up and cast the first stone at the Cure of Althausen.
"The man tries in vain, he must yield to his nature: A woman excites him untying her girdle."
Eight days had passed away.
Eight days, during which he had tried with supreme efforts to silence his senses, and to chain down his wild thoughts.
He had become calmer and more master of himself.
The species of vertigo which had seized him is an accident frequent enough among young priests, who in spite of all the seductions which surround them and the occasions of falling, wish to remain steadfast in duty.
"For we do not deny ourselves the inclinations of nature with impunity, it is an age at which the physical delights of love become necessary to every well organized being, and it is never but at the expense of health, and of the repose of the whole life, that we can he faithful to the vows of perpetual chastity."
The crisis, according to the temperament of the subject, is more or less violent, and occurs again several times, until he finally yields to the temptation, or again until madness seizes him.
Then everybody is terrified to learn one day in the Gazette des Tribunaux the horrible details of some crime so abominable that one would believe it sprung from the horrors of a nightmare.
Let them not be astonished! the wretch who has committed it was in reality overcome by hallucination. In the struggles of the will against the appetites, the reason expires.
Madness has clasped the brain, too feeble to strive against the flesh in revolt, and the latter has avenged itself as the brute avenge itself by the act of a brute.
"The torch of reason completely extinguished, the victim of senseless vows has brought the piece to an end by a catastrophe which alarms modesty, astonishes nature and disconcerts religion."
Meanwhile, I repeat, the Cure seemed calmer: to the crisis had succeeded a kind of depression and languor.
He resumed his studies with more eagerness, and only went out in order to go from the parsonage to the church, conscientiously occupying himself in his profession.
His senses were slumbering again.
But the mischievous devil was at his heels and did not lose sight of him.
The old serpent, says the apostle, finds the means of tempting by the very virtues which we possess, even to making them the occasions of sin to us; how would he not tempt us when it is sin itself which dwells in our heart?
[Footnote 1: Dictionnaire des Sciences Medicales. Vol. VI.]
[Footnote 2: The inconveniences of compulsory chastity are more or less grave according to different cases: with youthful subjects, vigorous, and fed on succulent foods, mental derangement under the most horrible forms, such as Satyriasis, Priapism, Erotomania, Nymphomania and even death may quickly result from it. Instances are numerous. (Sciences medicales).]
"Alas! to return alone to our deserted home With no open window to herald our approach, If, when from the horizon we behold our roof, We cannot say, 'My return gladdens my home'."
It was at Sunday's Mass, in the sanctuary itself, that he waited for his prey. The priest had scarcely reached the steps of the altar, his hands laden with the holy vessels, when, lifting his eyes to the gallery, he encountered the look he dreaded.
Suzanne Durand was there, fixing on him her eyes, filled with magnetic force.
He returned once again full of trouble.
His servant, surprised at his agitation, overwhelmed him with inquisitive questions; he escaped from her and hastened towards the woods. He cast himself on the moss at the foot of an old oak and began to reflect. The dark eyes followed him everywhere.
"Whither am I going?" he said to himself. "Why does the sight of this young girl agitate my heart in this way?" And he examined his heart and found it saturated with bitterness, disgust, weariness and regret, and in the midst of all that, something unknown was springing up. It was like a germ of hope which all at once had risen out of nothingness, a fleeting light which flickered in the dense gloom of his life.
He heard the sound of a voice at some distance, a fresh, gay, melodious voice, to which a deeper note was answering. Spring, youth and love were mingling their accents together. Between the foliage he saw them slowly passing. They did not see him. Absorbed in the contemplation of themselves, arm in arm, with joined hands, their faces together, they passed along with bright looks, and open hearts, rejoicing in the seventh heaven.
Now and again they stopped, and he all in play, took hold of her thick knot of hair, drew her head backwards and gave her a long kiss on the lips. He did not tire of it, but she pushed him back with all her strength, putting her hand on his mouth and saying to him, "That's enough, naughty boy, that's enough." The Cure knew them well. She was the best and prettiest girl in his congregation, and he, the happy rogue, sang in the choir. And he began to envy the happiness of this rustic; he would have wished to be for a moment this rude ignorant peasant, and who knows, for a moment? why not always? Would he not be happier going each morning to till the fruitful soil, to sow the furrow, and then to cut the sheaves of the golden harvest, than to vegetate as he was, casting his sterile grain upon arid souls.
After the hard toil of the day, when he returned in the evening to his roof of thatch, he would meet with a smile of welcome, the smile of a loved wife, which would compensate him for his fatigues.
He followed them with his eyes, full of envy and bitterness at heart, and when they had buried themselves behind the young underwood, when he no longer heard the sound of steps, or fresh bursts of laughter, he rose and sadly resumed his way to the village.
Evening had come. The twilight was stretching its dark veil over all. The peasants dressed in their Sunday clothes were chatting on their door-steps while they waited for supper. Near the inns there rose the confused sound of gamblers' voices and drunkards' songs; but here and there through the windows he saw the bright fire of vine-twigs blazing merrily on the hearth, while the mother or the eldest daughter poured the steaming soup into the large blue-flowered plates ranged on the white wood table.
He saw it all, and he walked with slow steps to his solitary abode.
He thought of his life wasted, of the years of his prime which were passing away, without leaving any more traces than the skimming of the swallow's wing leaves upon the verdant brook.
Oh! the fleeting time which carries all away, the hour which glides away dull and empty, the barren youth which flies, and the white hairs which come with disillusion, discouragement and despair. "Stay, stay, oh youth; stay but another day!"
But what matters his youth to him? What joys has it brought him; what pleasures has he tasted? has he breathed the burning breath of life, of that fair life at twenty which unfolds like a ripe pomegranate, and casts to the warm sun its treasures and its perfumes?
"My life was blighted, my universe was changed; I had entangled myself without knowing it in an inextricable drama. I must get out of it at any cost, and I had no way of unravelling it. I resolved by all means to find one."
J. JANIN (L'Ans morte).
He sat by his desolate hearth and began to think with terror of the eternal solitude of that hearth. Alone! always alone! Already he had said to himself very often that he had chosen the wrong road, that this arid and desolate path was not the one needful to his ardent soul, that the hopes with which he had formerly been deluded, were falsehoods in reality, and that the God whom they had made him believe that he loved with such ardour, left his soul empty and barren.
To love God! The love of God! High-sounding, hollow words which enable hypocrites to take advantage of the common people; fantastic passion kindled in the heart of fools for the amazement of the simple!
Ah! how willingly would he have replaced the worn-out vision of this chimerical phantom with the likeness of some young girl, with sweet look and smile, full of promise.
And the burning memory of the wanton player came and blended with the fresh and radiant memory of the charming pupil of Saint-Denis.
"But why, priest, dost thou permit thy fevered guilty imagination to wander thus? Pursue thy course, pursue it without stopping, without looking back; henceforth it is too late to retrace thy path; anyhow be chaste, be chaste under pain of shame and infamy.
"Thou must not be chaste in view of recompense like a slave, thou must be chaste without expectance."
He took up a book, his sovereign remedy in hours of temptation. It was the life of St. Antony, written by his companion, St. Athanasius.
"The demons presented to his mind thoughts of impurity, but Antony repulsed them by prayer. The devil excited his senses, but Antony blushed with shame, as though the fault were his own, and strengthened his body by faith, by prayer and by vigil. The devil, seeing himself vanquished thus, took the shape of a young and lovely woman and imitated the most lascivious actions in order to beguile him, but Antony raising his thoughts towards heaven and considering the loftiness and excellence of the soul which is given to us, extinguished these burning coals by which the devil hoped to inflame his heart through this deception, and drove away the devilish creature."
Marcel shrugged his shoulders and closed the book. How many times already he had tried all those means without success.
He leant his burning forehead on his hands and, in self-contemplation, tried to see to the bottom of his soul.
Chaste! always chaste! What! Was the flower of his youth wasted away thus, in incessant, barren struggles? If only peace of heart, and a quiet conscience remained to him; if quietude sat by his hearth, as his masters many a time had promised him! But no, alone with himself, he felt himself to be with an enemy.
For many years, it had been so, and a lying voice had cried to him without ceasing: "Wait for happiness, for sweet pure joys, wait for it till to-morrow: to-morrow all this fury will have passed away, these raging blasts which rise to thy brain will have vanished; thy vanquished senses will leave thee in peace, and calm and strong, thou shalt rejoice over an untroubled conscience and over the satisfaction of duty fulfilled."
And he had waited in vain. Now he had reached ripe age, and the future is visible ever more gloomy; to-morrow has come, as sad, as empty, and as desolate as yesterday.
He was tired at last of waiting, patiently, humbly, resigned like the beast of burden which awaits the slaughterhouse. Beasts of burden! Are we not that, all we who with brow bent under humiliation, injustice, thankless toil; with the heart embittered by tedious deception and tedious despair, miseries of heart and miseries of body, wait, wait ever, wait vainly for a more brilliant sun to shine at last, until at the end of the day there rises before us the only guest we have never expected, on whom we counted not,—the solution of the great problem, the radical cure for all our ills—DEATH.
Death, which with its brutal hand, seizes us at the moment when perhaps at last we are going to rest ourselves and rejoice.
No, that shall not be. He will not continue to vegetate without happiness in these dull, common-place surroundings; to walk at random in this road bristling with thorns; to pursue his disheartening career, enclosed by miserable vices.
Nothing around him but stupid, vulgar prosiness, foolish moral annihilation. No poetry, no golden ray, no rainbow! Everything most low, unsightly, pitiful. Such was his lot as priest.
Complaints of the soul, wandering flashes of the imagination, criminal aspirations of the heart, sinful desires ... these ... that was all.
Was this then life?
Was it for this that God had created him, that his mother had drawn him painfully forth from her entrails, that nature had one day counted one intelligent being the more?
Ah! he felt full well it was not so. He felt full well it was not so by his thirst for emotions and enjoyment, by his altered lips, by his aspirations for an unknown world. He was in haste to strip off for once at least this old man's shell which enveloped him, this black, hideous, hardened covering of the bad priest, beneath which he felt his vitality, his youth, his strength, his heart of thirty, bounding, boiling, roaring, like burning lava.
The next day be remembered that though it was nearly six months since he had taken possession of his cure, his pastoral visits were not yet completed.
In fact, he had gone everywhere, even to Captain Durand's. Only, he had found the door closed and, after the information he received, he had fully resolved not to go there again.
[Footnote 1: The Antigone of Soto.]
"The disposition of a man of sixty is nearly always the happy or sad reflection of his life. Young people are such as Nature has made them; old men have been fashioned by the often awkward hands of society."
ED. ABOUT (Trente et Quarante).
The old Captain was in fact a bad parishioner, as his servant had told him, and had only one good quality in the eyes of that careful housekeeper, "that he was always shining like a new halfpenny."
Durand, in fact, was what is called in a regiment "a smart soldier," which means to say "a clean soldier." And still, one of his most important occupations was to brush his things. The son of peasants, without patronage, fortune or backstairs influence, he had raised himself, a rare and difficult thing nowadays; therefore he was proud of himself, and would say to anyone who would listen to him: "I am the son of my own deeds."
He had been one of those serious-minded officers of whom Jules Noriac speaks, who instead of dividing their many spare hours between the goddess of play and the goddess of the bar, employ themselves in regimental reforms.
The dimensions of a spur-rowel, the length and thickness of a trouser-strap, the improvement of a whitening for belts which does not fall off, were questions which had more importance and interest for him than a question of State.
The slave of his duties, he was excessively severe in the service, and this stiffness and severity he had brought, it was said, into his household.
With these military qualities; passive obedience, scrupulous cleanliness and the vulgar courage necessary for a son of Mars, Durand, with a good reputation and full of zeal, had had when very young, a rapid advance. At one moment he had foreseen a brilliant future, but his ambitious hopes had been quickly deceived. He saw the Baron de Chipotier, the Comte de Boisflottant, and the son of Pillardin, the lucky millionaire, successively come into the regiment, and these sprigs of lofty lineage, full of brilliancy and loquacity, naturally eclipsed the modest qualities of the obscure upstart soldier. Spending their life in cafes, overwhelmed with debt, loved by the women, they laughed among themselves at all the minutiae of the service, which they treated as beneath their notice, ridiculed their superiors, and especially the serious-minded officers. Everything was forgiven them, they were rich. Durand was filled with indignation; he saw everything he had respected become an object of sarcasm to these young men, and his most cherished convictions turned into ridicule. He was like those devout persons who, when they hear an unseemly oath or an impious word, tremble and pray heaven not to cast its avenging lightning; he asked himself if social order was not overthrown, if the army was not marching to its ruin. He began to talk of his apprehensions, of this pitiable state of things, and they laughed in his face. But when these frivolous, turbulent, incapable officers became his chiefs, chiefs over him, the studious, model officer, the upright man, the slave to the regulations, he began to mistrust everything, society, France, the empire, the justice of God, and himself. It was from this period that the crabbed character dated, by which he was known.
He passed a long season thus, full of anger and jealousy: then the time for his retirement arrived, that time to which all the forgotten, the obscure, the pariahs of the army look forward during long years, and which casts them forth into the social world, ignorant and strangers.
Then he had retired to his own village, dividing his time between the tending of his garden, and the cares which were occasioned him by his daughter Suzanne.
"Often risen from humble origin, he has gained the respect of all and the public esteem; but this cannot prevent his having a restless spirit; he misses the duty which has called him for so long at the appointed hour. Around him are scattered the memorials of his regiment, his eye catches them and a mist comes over it."
ERNEST BILLAUDEL (Les Hommes d'epee).
He was up by dawn, and the villagers on their way to their fields sometimes stopped to cast an inquisitive look over his garden palings. They saw him dressed in a linen jacket, with the glorious ribbon adorning his button-hole, weeding his flower-garden, turning up his walks, pruning his trees, clearing his flowers of caterpillars, watering his borders, with great drops of sweat pouring down, bending over his labour like a negro under the lash.
"What a pity!" they said, "for a rich man to give himself so much trouble! If it only repaid him!" And they shouted to him: "Good-morning, Captain Durand, how are you to-day?"—"Pretty well, thank you," replied Durand, in a peevish tone.—"Still warm to-day, Captain; but you had it warmer in Africa, didn't you?" At the word Africa, the old soldier's eyes brightened, his forehead lost its wrinkles, and a smile came to his lips. All his past rose before him. Africa, the Bedouins, the gunshots, the razzias, the bare desert, the fresh oases, the life in camp, the glasses of absinthe, the days of rain and sun, the ostrich chases, the watch for the jackal and the races over the plain. All this, helter-skelter, in crowds, crossing, following, multiplying, like the sheaves of sparks which burst forth from a rocket.
Ah! Ah! that was the happy time. And then he would stop and forget his work, his flowers, his grafts, and his espaliers; he would forget the peasants who were there, laughing quietly and nudging one another, and saying: "The old man is gone in the head."
For they understood nothing of the tear, which all at once trickled from the corner of his eye-lid, a bitter drop which overflowed from the too full cup of his heart.
Ah! youth has but one time, and they do well, who when the sun gilds their brow, cast their sap to its warm caresses. The winter, gloomy shadow, will come but too soon to freeze their slowly opened buds, leaving only a trunk, dry and bare.
Then, when nothing more than a few warm cinders remain at the bottom of the human engine, we try to warm ourselves again at this cold hearth, and to search among those dying sparks which we call memories.
And these memories of a time for ever fled, these lights which gladden or stir again your old heart sad and cold, these are the simple and fruitful beliefs, the transports of the soul, the insane devotions, the ardent passions, and all those orgies of heart and sense, all those frenzies of imagination, and all those follies of youth, which cause the wise to cry out so loudly, and which are the only feast-days of life.
Hasten then, young man, hasten; take the good which comes to thee, and be not decoyed by idle fancies; wait not till to-morrow to be glad. To-morrow is the age of ripeness, of the falling fruit, the wrinkled brow, the faded flower; it is the vanished locks; it is the blood which grows cold, the smile which comes not back; it is in fine the worm of deceptions, which is ever growing larger and gnawing what may be left of thy heart.
"Really, yes! I love my calling. This active adventurous life is amusing, do you see? there is something as regards discipline itself which has its charm; it is wholesome and relieves the spirit to have one's life ordered in advance with no possible dispute, and consequently with no irresolution or regret. Thence comes lightness of heart and gaiety. We know what we must do, we do it, and we are content."
EMILE AUGIER et JULES SANDEAU (Le Gendre de M. Poirier).
And Durand threw down his rake or his spade.
—Well! here you are already, cried the old housekeeper; breakfast is not ready.
—My paper? he said shortly.
Sometimes the paper had not yet arrived; then he sat down near the window and watched impatiently for the carrier. There he is, coming out of the next street. He goes down with all haste to open the door himself, and take the precious Moniteur.
For it is the Moniteur de l'Armee! and he unfolds it with the respect which we owe to holy things, and he reads it all religiously from the first article to the everlasting advertisement of Rob Boyreau Laffecteur. He reads it all, not because he is studying tactics or has need of Rob, but because he has set himself the task of reading it all. His servant brings him his morning coffee and brandy, and he believes himself still at father Etienne's or mother Gaspard's, at the garrison cafe; this makes him quite sprightly.
"Come, mother Gaspard, It is not late, Another glass! Come, mother Gaspard, It is not late, To midnight it wants a quarter!"
But it is not the long, tedious military articles which first attract his eye, nor the ministerial decrees, nor the studies on the sabretache, nor the biographies of celebrated skin breeches, nor the improvement of gaiter buttons, nor the changes of police caps; PROMOTIONS AND CHANGES, that is what he wants.
PROMOTIONS AND CHANGES! divine rubrics which have caused so many hearts to beat.
You all recollect it, my old brothers in arms, who have waited long, like me. Years and years have passed. At length the hour is come and the newspaper which is going to transform your life. That folded paper gleams with all the fires of hope, it glitters like a sun, for it contains the magic word which out of nothing is going to make you everything, to draw you out of the obscure ranks to place you in the brilliant phalanx, which, from a passive despised instrument, is going to create you an active and respected head.
How you are dazzled as you open it; with what palpitations and haste you look for the blessed page, skipping the regiments, glancing over the ranks, flying over the names in order to arrive at your own. Ah! you know well where it ought to be; it is among the last; but what does it matter, it is here above all that the last can arrive first.
Here it is! here it is at last! What intoxication! young and old, we all were twenty once.
And meanwhile, the best days of your youth are lost in barren, vulgar, common-place, at times repulsive occupations. Your spirit is extinguished, your responsibility as an intelligent man is destroyed at settled hours by the sound of the bugle or of the trumpet, those flourishes of gilded servitude; and beneath the heavy hammer of passive obedience your temples are already growing grey; you have wrinkles on your forehead and on your heart, for you have reached that part of the cup of life, at which one drinks little else than bitterness ... But you forget all that; a new life full of enchantment is beginning. You are an officer! an officer! Ah! those who have never borne the harness, do not know what fairy-land that magic word contains. But you—you know it, and you took at your name, you spell each letter of it and you say: "At last! It is I, it is really I! Sub-lieutenant! I am sub-lieutenant!"
Thus, ten to fifteen years of struggles, tribulation, obstacles, humiliations, devotion, dangers, in order to reach the salary of a grocer's clerk!
But the old Captain, what was he looking for in the columns of the Service newspaper?
He had nothing to expect. No new promotion could swell his aged breast. He had completed his career. Like a rejected charger whose ear has been slit, or whose right flank has been branded, he had been laid aside for ever. Henceforth he had nothing else to do but to plant his cabbages, until his legs were seized by anchylosis, absolutely forgotten.
And so with all those who go away.
Amidst the thousand incidents of military life, so filled in its leisure and so empty in its employments, has anyone the time to give a thought to the absent one who must return no more? His place is taken; a new face is seated there where we used to see him, and his is no longer familiar to us. A few years hence and his name will be known no more. The army is for the young!
But does he forget? Does a man forget his youth, his glory, his dearest memories, his whole life? Retired into some country nook, completely buried in an obscure market-town, or become the modest citizen of some provincial city, the old officer follows afar off with solicitude and envy the different fortunes of his brothers in arms, living ever in thought amidst that forgetful and ungrateful family which he loves as much as his own—the Regiment.
And that is why you, brave veterans, understand it well, that is why Captain Durand used to read the Moniteur.
"For them religion is the most skillful of juggling, the most favourable veil, the most respectable disguise under which man can conceal himself to lie and deceive."
BARNUM (Les Blagues de l'Univers).
But, as I have said, he was a bad parishioner, a bunch of tare in the field of God, a scabby sheep in the flock of the Lord.
Taking no heed of his religious duties, reading the Siecle, speaking evil of priests and refusing the blessed bread, he was the scandal of the godly and not one of them in the village augured any good of him.
Never did a publican from Belleville or a novice of freemasonry proclaim with so much boldness his contempt for the things which everybody venerates. He did not uncover himself in presence of funerals, saying he did not want to bow to the dead; he called the church the priests' bank, the altar a parade of mountebanks, the confessional the antechamber to the brothel.
"That man will perish on the scaffold!" the former Cure of the village cried out one day in righteous indignation.
How had he come by this hatred, vigorous as that which Alcestis demands from virtuous souls against hypocrites and evil-doers? What had the black-coats done to him? He did not say, and perhaps he would have been embarrassed to say. There are certain natures which will love at any price, there are others on the contrary which need to hate. He was doubtless one of the latter, and he discharged all his excess of gall on the servants of Jesus.
"They are criminals," he cried, "all without exception, from the first to the last. Hypocrisy engenders wickedness. It is a sore which spreads and becomes leprosy. Everything which touches it catches it. Those who associate with hypocrites become hypocrites, and then scoundrels, slowly but surely by infection. That is the logic of the scab. It is not necessary to dress up in a black gown and to swallow God in public to make a perfect priestling, it is enough to rub against the priest's cap. Look at the sacristans, the beadles, the lackeys of the Bishop's palace, the hirers of chairs, the choir-men, the sellers of tapers, the tradesmen by appointment to the religious houses, the beggar who stretches out his hand to you at the door, and the man who hands you the holy-water sprinkler, have they not all the same hypocritical face, the same cunning, devoutly sanctimonious look? Well! scratch the skins of the godly and you will find the hide of the scoundrel."
An honourable man and brutally frank like many old soldiers he had kept in private life the tone and ways of barracks and camps. As he said himself, he did not mince the truth to anybody, and he repeated readily, without understanding it, the saying of Gonsalvo of Cordova, the great captain, "The cloth of honour should be coarsely woven."
When one evening, on returning home, he found the card of the Cure, he nearly fell backwards.
—What, he has had the audacity to come to my house, this holy water merchant. They have not told him then what I am!
—Good heavens, I cried, my dear Captain, what has this poor man done to you?
—To me! nothing at all. I don't know him. He is part of the holy priesthood; that is enough for me. He is a scoundrel like the rest.
—But it is not enough to call a man scoundrel, you must prove that he is.
—Don't trouble me about your proofs. Do you suppose I am going to rummage into this gentleman's private life and see what passes in his alcove? No, indeed, I have no desire to do so, and I leave that care to my cook.
—Come, Captain, you admit that this is to vilify a man on rather slender grounds. There are fagots and fagots, and so there are Cures and Cures. This one, I assure you, is an excellent fellow.
—It may be so, but as I have no desire to make his acquaintance, I laugh at his good qualities.
—Everybody is not of your opinion, and it appears that all the women are distracted about him.
—Another reason why I detest him; women usually place their affections very badly.
—And he turns the heads of all the girls.
—That is good! Oh, the good Cure. He reminds me of the one at Djidjelly when I was a non-commissioned officer, the greatest girl-hunter that I have ever known. The Kabyles used to call him Bou-Zeb, which means capable of the thirteenth labour of Hercules, and they held him in high esteem, but when he went near their tents they used to make all the women go inside. Ah! that was a famous Cure! I wish that ours resembled him, and that he would get a child out of all the girls, and that he would make cuckolds of all the husbands.
—To teach these idiots to let their wives and their daughters be idle and dance attendance at the churches, and relate all the details of their household and their little sins to these bullies, as to their grand-dad.
—I grant there is some danger when the confidant is a handsome bachelor.
—There is no need to be handsome, sir. With the women, the cassock gives charms to the ugliest. I have known a sweet and lovely creature become mad after one of these rogues who had a head like a pitchfork. He did with her what he wished. He made her devout, shrewish, and the worst of whores. Yes, yes, they say that the red breeches get over the women, but the black gown bewitches them. Explain that if you can. They want to know what is underneath that wicked cassock. Something strange, mysterious, monstrous attracts them. Women love enormities, and besides it must be said, especially and above all, forbidden fruit.
The Captain had mounted his favourite hobby, I could only let him go on.
—They are vice incarnate, and know how to employ every means to seduce. Religion, the confessional, the bible, the Mass, Vespers, the New Testament, all the holy business is an auxiliary for them. For instance, conceive anything more disgusting than that pardon promised beforehand to guilty women. Play the whore all your life, deceive your husband, have fifty lovers, provided that at the end you lament your faults, God will have only tenderness for you, and will receive you with open arms. I should like to know if by chance their Jesus had taken a wife, what would have been his opinion then of the woman taken in adultery; but he remained single and consequently incompetent to decide upon that delicate matter. All that, you see, is an encouragement to debauchery and a stimulant to lewdness. A devout woman, when she is young and pretty, is on a slope which leads quite straight to Monsieur le Cure's bed.
"Stupefied, the pedant closed his mouth, and opened his eyes."
LEON CLADEL (Titi Foyssac IV).
If there are any beings as blind as the husbands, they are certainly the fathers; with the latter, as with the former, blindness reaches its utmost limits. Since Moliere no one laughs at them any more, and I don't know why, for they always deserve to be laughed at, while all the sarcasms have fallen on the head of the unhappy husbands.
Folly and injustice! Conjugal love is as respectable as paternal affection. Love is as good as affection, and what the heart chooses is quite as good as what the blood gives you.
Why then do they complain if it is papa who is deceived, and laugh if it is a husband. Exactly the contrary ought to occur. Paternal love is egotistic. It is for the most part vanity and self-love. The father looks for his own likeness in his offspring, and if he believes himself to be an eagle, his son naturally must be an eaglet. Most frequently he is only a foolish gosling, but the father insists on finding on him an eagle's plumes. If then he is deceived in his hopes, which are only a deduction from his own infatuation, it is certainly permissible to laugh at it.
While the husband....
This is what I observed to Durand, which put him in a great passion.
—Because my daughter has gone to Mass? And you say: "fathers are blind." Here is a self-contradictory individual. One can see plainly that you are not a father, or you would alter your theories. Hang it! You can't say I am enchanted at it, but you must put yourself in a man's place. She is a child, who leaves school, mark that well, where she was obliged, compelled to perform her religious duties, and one does not break off in a couple of days the habits of ten years like that. Give her time to reach it. I reason with her; hang it, I can't do everything in a day. When she goes from time to time to Mass, on Sunday, it does not follow that she is becoming religious. I am a free-thinker, but I am a father also, and what would you have a father do when two pretty arms take hold of your neck and a sweet little coaxing voice whispers to you, "Let me go there, my darling papa." Hang it, one is not made of wood, after all!
—Neither is the Cure made of wood.
—You make one shiver. Can my daughter have anything in common with your peasants' Cure? I say again that it is purely for diversion that she goes to Mass. And I understand it. Where can she show her new dress? And what place is more favourable for this little display than going into and coming out of church?
—Then the Church is a spectacle like another. There are chants, music, tapers, perfumes, flowers, the half-light which comes through the coloured windows.
—Without speaking of the fellows covered with gold-tinsel who repeat in unknown language the pater-nosters to which no one listens. It is enough to make one burst with laughing, and, if I had not my cabbages to plant, I would go myself now and again and entertain myself at these masquerades which are as good as the theatres at the fair, and to complete the resemblance, it only costs a couple of sous.
—But the principal person of the troop attracts the looks, and the danger is there.
—Your priestling is young then?
—And vigorous. Strong appetites. When I see him rambling in the village, I begin to say: "Good people, the cock is loose, take care of your hens." It is like your Cure of Djidjelly.
—I am easy on that ground. The black cock will not come and rub his wings here. He knows now that he has mistaken the door; they have informed him regarding me, and he will not be so rude as to come again.
But just at that moment the servant came into the room quite scared, and said:
—Here is Monsieur le Cure.
—Who? what? said Durand; and turning towards me, Shall I receive him? Well, we shall have a laugh!
He was still undecided, when Marcel glided into the room.
"I will speak, Madame, with the liberty of a soldier who knows but ill how to varnish the truth."
The old soldier, upright, with his hand leaning on the back of his arm-chair, let the priest come forward with all the agreeableness of a mastiff which is making ready to bite.
The latter bowed gravely, and, although he felt himself to be in hostile quarters, took the seat offered him with an easy air.
Meanwhile his bearing and pleasant look produced their usual effect.
Imbued with the theories of the army, which of all surroundings is that in which one judges most by the appearance, where a good carriage is the first condition of success, where in fact they salute the stripes and not the man, the Captain was, in presence of this handsome young fellow, recalled to less aggressive sentiments.
—Hang it! he said to himself, what a splendid cuirassier this fellow would have made! What devil of an idea has shoved him into a cassock?
War being the most sublime of arts, as Maurice de Saxe remarked, there are few old officers who understand how a man can choose another profession by inclination.
—I come, Monsieur le Capitaine, said Marcel, to pay you my visit as pastor, although perhaps a little late. But you are aware doubtless that I have had the honour of knocking once already at your door.
—You should not have troubled yourself, my dear sir, and you should adhere to that; I belong so little to the holy flock.
—I owe myself to all, said Marcel smiling, to the bad sheep—I mean to the wandering sheep, just as to the good ones; to watch over the one, to bring back and cure the others.
—Oh! Oh! Well, sir shepherd, you are losing your time finely, for I am a worn-out goat.
—There will be more joys in heaven over one sinner that repenteth....
—That is the story of the 99 just persons that you are going to tell us; we know it, and, let me tell you, it is not encouraging for the 99 just persons.
The Cure, seeing himself on dangerous ground, hastened to leap elsewhere.
—This is a charming little house, Captain; it is a sweet retreat after toilsome and glorious years, for you have had numerous campaigns, have you not?
—Fifteen years in Africa, thirty-two campaigns, thirty years' service, two wounds, one of them received at Rome when we fought for that old bully Pius IX.
Marcel had gone astray again; he quickly seized hold of the wounds.
—Ah! two wounds! And are they still painful?
—Sometimes, when the weather is stormy. And yours?
—Mine, Captain! but I have none. I have not had like you the honour of shedding any blood for our Holy Father.
—A pretty cuckoo. It doesn't matter, you may have got a wound somewhere else.
—Where? enquired Marcel simply.
—How do I know? We get them right and left, when we are least thinking of it.
—Like all accidents.
—Well, if you had been the chaplain of my regiment, you would have had a famous accident. He was a right worthy apostle. He wanted to teach the catechism to the daughter of our cantiniere, a bud of sixteen, and the little one put so much ardour into the study that the Holy Spirit made her hatch. Her parents beat her unmercifully, and the poor girl died of grief. Our hero, who knew how to get himself out of it with unction as white as snow, did not all the same betake himself to Paradise. A pretty Italian gave him his reckoning. Quinte, quatorze and the point. Game finished. He died in the hospital pulling an ugly face. That was the best action of his life. Well, old boy, what do you say to that?
—I have not exactly understood, replied Marcel, trying to keep his countenance.
—You are very hard of understanding. I will tell you another story and I will be clearer. I see what you want—the dots on the i's.
Marcel rose up alarmed.
—No, no, cried Durand. Don't get up. Don't go away. Since you are here, we must talk a little. Stay, it will not be long. It is the story of a cousin of mine, or rather a cousin of my wife. Another of your confraternity. He was curate or deacon, or canon, in fact I don't know what rank in your regiment. At any rate, a bitter hypocrite; you will see. Under pretence of relationship, he used to pay us frequent visits. You can think if that suited me, who already adored the cassock! Besides, on principle, I detested cousins. It is the sore of households, gentlemen; you must avoid it like the plague. Monsieur le Cure, if you have a pretty servant, beware of cousins. I only say that. My wife used to say to me: "What has this poor boy done to you that you receive him so badly? Are you jealous of him? Ah! I know very well, it is because he belongs to my family, and you cannot endure my poor relations." So to have peace I tolerated my cousin. He, convinced that little presents maintain friendship, used to make us little presents. There were tickets for sacred concerts, lotteries for the benefit of the little Chinese, rosaries blessed by the pope, pebbles from Jerusalem. Nothing wrong so far. My wife availed herself of the concert tickets; the rosaries were put into a drawer, and I threw the pebbles into the garden. But soon his gifts changed their character. He brought us some hairs of St. Pancratius, a tooth of St. Alacoque, a rag which had wiped something or other off St. Anastasius or St. Cunegunda. My wife clasped her hands, was in ecstasy and transported with joy, and I went and brought up my dinner. I foresaw the time when he would bring us extraordinary things; a louse of St. Labre, a testicle of St. Origen, the coccyx of St. Antony, the parts of St. Gudule or the prepuce of Jesus Christ.
The Cure rose again.
—I see that my presence is de trop here, Captain; pardon my having disturbed you.
—Not at all. Good Lord. Not at all. Sit down. It gives me extraordinary pleasure to talk to you. Besides, I have not finished the story of my cousin. Sit down, I pray you; I resume.
He had given a very pretty engraving, a reproduction of a picture by somebody, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. My wife had had it framed very carefully, and had hung it up in our bedroom: a bad sign. That seemed to say to me, "See, my friend, imitate Jesus." One day returning home very quietly, I surprised both of them, squeezed one against the other, holding each others hand, looking at the picture with emotion. I took the little cousin by the shoulders, and I threw him out of doors. I never saw him again. Do you understand the moral?
—Yes, Captain, I understand, said Marcel rising again, and this time fully decided to go away. But the door opened, and Suzanne showed herself on the threshold.
"I should have wished, mischievously, to put him in the wrong, and that a thoughtless or insulting word on his part, should serve as a justification for the insult which I meditated."
A. DE VIGNY (Servitude et Grandeur militaires).
She had on her school-girl dress of black, which made the whiteness of her complexion more dazzling, and imparted something grave and serious to her beauty.
She was hardly eighteen, and already by the harmonious outlines of her bust, by the undulating movements of her hips and above all by the flash of her great dark eyes, one foresaw in this young girl, still a child to-day, the woman of to-morrow: a daughter of Eve of our modern civilization; forward, precocious, charming.
She was one of those the sight alone of whom is the most radiant and the most dangerous of spectacles, and who, like others, distilling holiness and blessings from heaven, shed around them a perfume of love.
The bright fire of their heart shines out in their look; it reveals itself in the sound of their voice, in their gestures and in their walk. Everything in them is soft, trembling, passionate. Sweet creatures who see only one goal in life, love, and, when the goal is missed, death.
There are women who are but half women. They are quickly recognized; vulgar and awkward, they hide under their ungraceful petticoats the instincts of man, and masculinity is displayed up to their corsage. They form the fantastical cohort of learned women, of the disciples of Stuart Mill and rivals of Miss Taylor, hybrid natures which may possess a heart of gold and a manly soul, but are incapable of being the joy of the hearth.
Others are women to the tips of their rosy nails, to the root of their abundant hair; women above all by their faults, that is to say their weaknesses, and this weakness is one of their attractions. Impressionable and easily led, they become, according to the surroundings which hold them and the destiny which urges them, heroines or saints, courtesans or nuns, but invariably martyrs of that blind despot, their heart.
They are Magdalene or St. Theresa, Madame de Guyon or Heloise, the nun in love with Jesus or the light girl in love with the passer-by.
In a second the priest had understood this sweet nature, or rather he had felt it, and his quivering nostrils inhaled the keen perfume of pleasure, while his look was lost in ecstasy. It was but a flash, but if beneath the watchful eye of the Captain it appeared impossible, the young girl could read the dumb language which every woman understands.
She came forward, blushing.
—This is my daughter, said the Captain.
—I believe, said the Cure, with a bow, that I have had the pleasure of seeing Mademoiselle several times already in our modest church.
—And you concluded therefore that my daughter was going to increase the blessed flock. Don't be misled, comrade.
Suzanne cast a look of reproach upon her father.
—What! said Marcel, hurt, must not Mademoiselle follow her religion? work out her salvation?
—Her salvation? There is a word which always makes me laugh. It reminds me of my Colonel's wife who, when her husband gave orders for a review and parade for Sunday, said, "My dear, you want then to deprive the poor soldiers of the holy Mass, ought they not to work out their salvation?" A magnificent creature, sir, but too much inclined to the cassock.
Her husband, however, had nothing to complain of, for one fine morning he picked up the stars of his epaulets in some sacristy or other. What have you come for, my child?
—Nothing, papa. I knew Monsieur le Cure was there and I came in.
—I was having a little edifying conversation with Monsieur, and you have interrupted us, but we can talk of something else: You hold the first rank now, gentlemen, continued the Captain, I must do you that justice; and as times go, it is better to be the son of a bishop than of a general. I myself, if I had only had some high influential canon for my father, should have reached the highest offices. Come, you seem to me to be a good fellow, and I want to give you a word of advice. If papa is a bishop, make use of him, and don't stagnate in this village, you will get no good there: I tell you so on my word of honour! I suppose that with you, promotion is as it is with us?
"The cup of humiliation is full," said Marcel to himself. Nevertheless, he answered, I don't understand exactly what you mean by that.
—I mean by that that promotion is a lottery from which they begin by withdrawing all the big numbers to distribute them to Monsieur Cretinard whose papa is a millionaire, to Monsieur Tartuffe whose papa is a Jesuit, or to a Marquis de Carabas whose mamma has the good graces of my Lord the Bishop, and they make the poor devils draw from the rest. It is so in the army—and with you?
—Among the clergy, sir, promotion is generally given to merit.
—I don't believe it; for if it were so, you would be a bishop at least. Don't blush, it is the general report.
—No false modesty. I hear your virtues praised everywhere. There is a chorus of praises from every quarter. My friend here was just declaring to me that all the women are wild about you.
—Sir ... cried the Cure, blushing up to his ears, and not daring to raise his eyes to Suzanne, who sat in a corner, convulsively turning over the leaves of an album.
—Don't protest, we know that true merit is modest; besides, I was by way of asking myself, if I should not beg you to complete my daughter's education.
—You are making pleasant jokes, Captain, and I ask your pardon for not being able to rise to the level of these witticisms. I see that my visit has been unseasonable. It only remains for me to make my excuses and to say to Mademoiselle, how pained I am to have made her acquaintance under such unfavourable auspices, but I hope....
—Stop that, Monsieur le Cure, interrupted Durand in a curt tone.
Marcel made a low bow, but as he withdraw, he caught an appealing look from Suzanne.
"Look not upon the past with grief, it will not come back; wisely improve the present, it is thine; and go onwards fearlessly and with a strong heart towards the mysterious future."
Marcel returned home exceedingly indignant. Although he had not expected an over-cordial reception from the old Captain, whose irascible character and surly ways were known to all, he did not think that he would have carried so far his disregard of the most elementary propriety.
"It serves me right," he said to himself, "what business had I there? Nevertheless, on reflection, I have lost nothing. My reception by this old dotard has taken away for ever my wish to go back there: and who knows what might have happened, if I had had free admission to that house, if I had met a friendly face and a kindly welcome? Oh, fool! I have found all that in the sweet look of his adorable daughter, that appealing look which seemed to implore my indulgence and pardon for the malevolent words of that ill-bred soldier. Come, think no more of it, drive back to the lowest depths those foolish thoughts which excite the brain. All that he does, God does well. I was on the brink of the abyss; one step more and I should have rolled to the bottom. Let me stop then, there is still time. Let me forget, forget. Forget! better still, I will write and ask to be changed. Could I forget her if I were to meet again that burning look, which pursues me to the steps of the altar, and troubles me to the bottom of my soul?"
He wrote in fact and began his letter ten times afresh. What could he say? What reason could he bring? He had filled this cure for scarcely six months. What pretext could he raise before his superiors? And how would any complaint from him be received at the Palace?
Night came. He felt himself oppressed by a vague and indefinable grief.
Then little by little the present vanished. His infancy rose up before him. He saw it again as in a glass, smiling, simple, pure; and he forgot himself in these sweet memories.
In proportion as we advance in life, we are attached to the things of the past. It clothes itself then with those brilliant colours with which we love to invest what we have lost. Youthful years, bright with poetry and sunlight, come and gild the gloomy and prosaic nooks of ripened age, the twilight of the eternal night.
The young man full of illusions and dreams pursues his road without casting a look backwards. What matters, indeed, the past to him? He expects nothing but from the future. Proud at having escaped from infancy, at arriving at the age of man, at flying on his wings, he pities the years when he was small and weak, ignorant and credulous.
But when he has met with obstacles and ruts on that road which appeared to him so wide and so fair, when he has torn his heart with the first briars of life, when his thought has ripened beneath the sun of passions, and his soul, stripped of its illusions, feels all chilly and bare amidst the ice of reality, then he returns to the joys of infancy, he warms himself again with the memory of his mother, and sits once again in the pleasant corner of the family fire-side, on the little stool of his childhood.
Marcel saw himself again at the little seminary of Pont-a-Mousson, on the benches, all blackened with ink, of the school-room, studying with ardour the Epitome or the De Viris beneath the paternal eye of Father Martin, a father aged 24, a deacon with curly hair, as timid as a maid. Then he ran in the long corridors, or in the great square court lined with galleries shaded by the chapel. He remembered his joy when he had slipped on some excuse into the Seniors' garden: "Ah! there is little Marcel, come here, you brat!" And everyone wished to give him a caress.
Then, the first time when he was called to the honour of serving the Mass. He had thought of it a week beforehand, full of emotion and fear. At length the day has come. He is dressed in the white surplice, wearing on his head the red cap. He would have wished the whole world to see him; but the pupils alone were present, and that diminished his happiness.
Father Barbelin, the censor, a severe but just man, officiated. He trembled in every limb, as he responded the sacramental verses to this formidable functionary. That was a great business; his little comrades called him in a whisper from behind: Marcel! Marcel! and laughed and nudged each other, while the elder ones, their nose in their book, with sanctimonious face and ecstatic look were wrapt in God.