À rebours  

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"To tell the truth, artifice was in Des Esseintes' philosophy the distinctive mark of human genius. As he used to say, Nature has had her day; she has definitely and finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments."--À rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

"What is the use of moving, when one can travel on a chair so magnificently? […] An overwhelming aversion for the trip, an imperious need of remaining tranquil, seized him with a more and more obvious and stubborn strength."--À rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

"This condition of soul Barbey d'Aurevilly came very near sharing. If he did not go as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious maledictions against the Saviour."--À rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

"Therefore soak yourself in mysticism, follow every intoxicating path to every impossible Beyond, be drunken with mediaevalism, occultism. Yet be sure that Nature is your home, and that from the farthest excursions you will return the more certainly to those fundamental instincts which are rooted in the zoological series at the summit of which we stand. For the whole spiritual cosmogony finally rests, not indeed on a tortoise, but on the emotional impulses of the mammal vertebrata which constitute us men. " --Havelock Ellis, introduction to À rebours.

"Barbaric in its profusion, violent in its emphasis, wearying in its splendor, it is - especially in regard to things seen - extraordinarily expressive, with all the shades of a painter's palette. Elaborately and deliberately perverse, it is in its very perversity that Huysmans' work - so fascinating, so repellent, so instinctively artificial - comes to represent, as the work of no other writer can be said to do, the main tendencies, the chief results, of the Decadent movement in literature."--"The Decadent Movement in Literature" (1893) by Arthur Symons

"À rebours can scarcely be called a novel, and Huysmans, in fact, does not call it so. It does not reveal a history, it has no action, but presents itself as a sort of portrayal or biography of a man whose habits, sympathies and antipathies, and ideas on all possible subjects, specially on art and literature, are related to us in great detail. This man is called Des Esseintes, and is the last scion of an ancient French ducal title."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"It was the strangest book he had ever read. [...] It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own…" --The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

{{Template}} À rebours (1884) is a novel by the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. It is a plotless novel which concentrates almost entirely on its protagonist, and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive dandy, aesthete, armchair traveler and antihero.

It is widely believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.


Similarities to American Psycho

"The text which most fully represents the spirit of Huysmans's À Rebours in recent years, both in terms of its 'nihilism' and its melancholy relationship to it, was published by Bret Easton Ellis in 1991. American Psycho is the fictional account of a New York executive called Patrick Bateman, whose determined retreat from reality is signified by his infatuation with brand name clothing and his slavish adherence to the prescriptions of the apparently inviolable texts such as the Zagat restaurant guide and Bruce Boyer's Elegance: A Guide to Quality in menswear" --Cynicism and Postmodernity (1997) - Timothy Bewes

Robert de Montesquiou is Des Esseintes

Robert de Montesquiou used his wit to shield himself from genuine human emotion, and in this form is remembered as a model for Des Esseintes in Huysmans's À Rebours, and the Baron de Charlus in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.


À rebours is French for backwards, the wrong way; against the grain. Rebours being from Vulgar Latin *rebursus, alteration of reburrus (“with bristing hair”) by analogy with reversus.


A rebours marked a watershed in Huysmans' career. His early works had been Naturalist in style, being realistic depictions of the drudgery and squalor of working- and lower-middle-class life in Paris. However, by the early 1880s, Huysmans regarded this approach to fiction as a dead end. As he wrote in his preface to the 1903 reissue of A rebours:
It was the heyday of Naturalism, but this school, which should have rendered the inestimable service of giving us real characters in precisely described settings, had ended up harping on the same old themes and was treading water. It scarcely admitted - in theory at least - any exceptions to the rule; thus it limited itself to depicting common existence, and struggled, under the pretext of being true to life, to create characters who would be as close as possible to the average run of mankind.
Huysmans decided to keep certain features of the Naturalist style, such as its use of minutely documented realistic detail, but apply them instead to a portrait of an exceptional individual: the protagonist Des Esseintes. In a letter of November 1882, Huysmans told Émile Zola, the leader of the Naturalist school of fiction, that he was changing his style of writing and had embarked on a "wild and gloomy fantasy". This "fantasy", originally entitled Seul (Alone), was to become A rebours. (Baldick p.115) The character of Des Esseintes is partly based on Huysmans himself and the two share many of the same tastes, although Huysmans on his modest civil service salary was hardly able to indulge them to the same extent as his upper-class hero. The writers and dandies Baudelaire and Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly also had some influence but the most important model was the notorious aristocratic aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who was also the basis for Baron de Charlus in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Montesquiou's furnishings bear a strong resemblance to those in Des Esseintes' house:
In 1883, to his eternal regret, Montesquiou admitted Stéphane Mallarmé [to his home]. It was late at night when the poet was shown over the house, and the only illumination came from a few scattered candelabra; yet in the flickering light Mallarmé observed that the door-bell was in fact a sacring-bell, that one room was furnished as a monastery cell and another as the cabin of a yacht, and that the third contained a Louis Quinze pulpit, three or four cathedral stalls, and a strip of altar railing. He was shown, too, a sled picturesquely placed on a snow-white bearskin, a library of rare books in suitably coloured bindings, and the remains of an unfortunate tortoise whose shell had been coated with gold paint. According to Montesquiou writing many years later in his memoirs, the sight of these marvels left Mallarmé speechless with amazement. 'He went away,' records Montesquiou, 'in a state of silent exaltation [...] I do not doubt therefore that it was in the most admiring, sympathetic and sincere good faith that he retailed to Huysmans what he had seen during the few moments he spent in Ali-Baba's Cave.'(Baldick pp.122-123)

Plot summary

Though the book is widely believed to have no structure whatsoever, it does tell a relatively simple story. Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he absconds to a house in the countryside.

He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris.

He conducts a survey of French and Latin literature, rejecting the works approved by the mainstream critics of his day. Amongst French authors, he shows nothing but contempt for the Romantics but adores the poetry of Baudelaire and that of the nascent Symbolist movement of Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé (In the 1903 preface, Huysmans writes that he would have included Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue had he known their work at the time.), as well as the decadent fiction of the unorthodox Catholic writers Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He rejects the academically respectable Latin authors of the "Golden Age" such as Virgil and Cicero, preferring later writers such as Petronius and Apuleius as well as works of early Christian literature, whose style was usually dismissed as the "barbarous" product of the Dark Ages. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surreal episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In one of the book's more comic episodes, he spontaneously decides to visit London. When he reaches the train station, he overhears some English visitors, whom he finds disgusting. Feeling that he now knows what London would be like, he immediately returns home.

Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.

Reception and influence

Huysmans predicted his novel would be a failure with the public and critics: "It will be the biggest fiasco of the year - but I don't care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say... However, when it appeared in May, 1884, the book created a storm of publicity; though many critics were scandalised, it appealed to a young generation of aesthetes and writers.

Richard Ellmann describes the impact of the book in his biography of Oscar Wilde:
Whistler rushed to congratulate Huysmans the next day on his ‘marvellous’ book. Bourget, at that time a close friend of Huysmans as of Wilde, admired it greatly; Paul Valéry called it his ‘Bible and his bedside book’ and this is what it became for Wilde. He said to the Morning News: ‘This last book of Huysmans is one of the best I have ever seen’. It was being reviewed everywhere as the guidebook of decadence. At the very moment that Wilde was falling in with social patterns, he was confronted with a book which even in its title defied them.

Huysmans' former mentor, Zola, was less impressed and gave the book a lukewarm reception. Huysmans initially tried to placate him by claiming the book was still in the Naturalist style and that Des Esseintes' opinions and tastes were not his own but when they met in July, Zola told Huysmans that the book had been a "terrible blow to Naturalism", and accused him of "leading the school astray" and "burning [his] boats with such a book", claiming that "no type of literature was possible in this genre, exhausted by a single volume".

While he slowly drifted away from the Naturalists, Huysmans won new friends among the Symbolist and Catholic writers whose work he had praised in his novel. Stéphane Mallarmé responded with the tribute "Prose pour des Esseintes", published in La Revue indépendante on January 1, 1885. This famous poem has been described as "perhaps the most enigmatic of Mallarmé's works". The opening stanza gives some of its flavour:
Hyperbole! de ma mémoire
Triomphalement ne sais-tu
Te lever, aujourd'hui grimoire
Dans un livre de fer vêtu...

Hyperbole! Can't you arise
From memory, and triumph, grow
Today a form of conjuration
Robed in an iron folio?
(Translated by Donald Davie)

The Catholic writer Léon Bloy praised the novel, describing Huysmans as "formerly a Naturalist, but now an Idealist capable of the most exalted mysticism, and as far removed from the crapulous Zola as if all the interplanetary spaces had suddenly accumulated between them." In his review, Barbey d'Aurevilly compared Huysmans to Baudelaire, recalling: "After Les Fleurs du mal I told Baudelaire it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross. But will the author of A Rebours make the same choice?" His prediction eventually proved true when Huysmans converted to Catholicism in the 1890s.

It is widely believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot is said to have dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live an amoral life of sin and hedonism. Although his reputation remains relatively untarnished (perhaps due to his charm and looks), the reputations of his "friends" seem to turn to dust as soon as he touches them. Ellmann writes:
Wilde does not name the book but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost, Huysmans’s A Rebours…To a correspondent he wrote that he had played a ‘fantastic variation’ upon A Rebours and some day must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters are deliberately inaccurate.


  • Robert Baldick: The Life of J.-K. Huysmans (originally published 1955; revised by Brendan King, Dedalus, 2006)
  • Huysmans: Romans (Volume 1) ed. Pierre Brunel et al. (Bouquins, Robert Laffont, 2005)
  • Huysmans: Against Nature translated by Robert Baldick (Penguin Classics)

Introduction to À rebours by Havelock Ellis

Preface to À rebours by Havelock Ellis

This text is also featured in Affirmations

IN trying to represent the man who wrote the extraordinary books grouped around "A Rebours" and "En Route," I find myself carried back to the decline of the Latin world. I recall those restless Africans who were drawn into the vortex of decadent Rome, who absorbed its corruptions with all the barbaric fervour of their race, and then with a more natural impetus of that youthful fervour threw themselves into the young current of Christianity, yet retaining in their flesh the brand of an exotic culture. Tertullian, Augustine, and the rest gained much of their power, as well as their charm, because they incarnated a fantastic mingling of youth and age, of decayed Latinity, of tumultuously youthful Christianity. Huysmans, too, incarnates the old and the new, but with a curious, a very vital difference. Today the rôles are reversed; it is another culture that is now young, with its aspirations after human perfection and social solidarity, while Christianity has exchanged the robust beauty of youth for the subtler beauty of age. "The most perfect analogy to our time which I can find," wrote Renan to his sister amid the tumults of Paris in 1848, a few weeks after Huysmans had been born in the same city, "is the moment when Christianity and paganism stood face to face." Huysmans had wandered from ancestral haunts of mediaeval peace into the forefront of the struggles of our day, bringing the clear, refined perceptions of old culture to the intensest vision of the modern world yet attained, but never at rest, never once grasping except on the purely aesthetic side of the significance of the new age, always haunted by the memory of the past and perpetually feeling his way back to what seems to him the home of his soul.--The fervent seeker of those early days, indeed, but à rebours!

This is scarcely a mere impression; one might be tempted to say that it is strictly the formula of this complex and interesting personality. Coming on the maternal side from an ordinary Parisian bourgeois stock, though there chanced to be a sculptor even along this line, on the paternal side he belongs to an alien aristocracy of art. From father to son his ancestors were painters, of whom at least one, Cornelius Huysmans, still figures honourably in our public galleries, while the last of them left Breda to take up his domicile in Paris. Here his son, Joris Karl, has been the first of the race to use the pen instead of the brush, yet retaining precisely those characters of "veracity of imitation, jewel-like richness of colour, perfection of finish, emphasis of character," which their historian finds in the painters of his land from the fourteenth century onwards. Where the Meuse approaches the Rhine valley we find the home of the men who, almost alone in the north, created painting and the arts that are grouped around painting, and evolved religious music. On the side of art the Church had found its chief builders in the men of these valleys, and even on the spiritual side also, for here is the northern home of mysticism. Their latest child has fixed his attention on the feverish activities of Paris with the concentrated gaze of a stranger in a strange land, held by a fascination which is more than half repulsion, always missing something, he scarcely knows what. He has ever been seeking the satisfaction he had missed, sometimes in the aesthetic vision of common things, sometimes in the refined Thebaïd of his own visions, at length more joyfully in the survivals of mediaeval mysticism. Yet as those early Africans still retained their acquired Roman instincts, and that fantastic style which could not be shaken off, so Huysmans will surely retain to the last the tincture of Parisian modernity.

Yet we can by no means altogether account for Huysmans by race and environment. Every man of genius is a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, mirroring the world in his mind as in those concave or convex mirrors which elongate or abbreviate absurdly all who approach them. No one ever had a keener sense of the distressing absurdity of human affairs than M. Huysmans. The Trocadero is not a beautiful building, but to no one else probably has it appeared as an old hag lying on her back and elevating her spindle shanks towards the sky. Such images of men's works and ways abound in Huysmans' books, and they express his unaffected vision of life, his disgust for men and things, a shuddering disgust, yet patient, half-amused. I can well recall an evening spent some years ago in M. Huysmans' company. His face, with the sensitive, luminous eyes, reminded one of Baudelaire's portraits, the face of a resigned and benevolent Mephistopheles who has discovered the absurdity of the Divine order but has no wish to make any improper use of his discovery. He talked in low and even tones, never eagerly, without any emphasis or gesture, not addressing any special person; human imbecility was the burden of nearly all that he said, while a faint twinkle of amused wonderment lit up his eyes. And throughout all his books until almost the last "l'éternelle bêtise de l'humanité" is the ever-recurring refrain.

Always leading a retired life, and specially abhorring the society and conversation of the average literary man, M. Huysmans has for many years been a government servant--a model official, it is said--at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [deputy espionage chief] Here, like our own officials at Whitehall, he serves his country in dignified leisure--on the only occasion on which I have seen him in his large and pleasant bureau, he was gazing affectionately at Chéret's latest affiche, which a lady of his acquaintance had just brought to show him--and such duties of routine, with the close contact with practical affairs they involve, must always be beneficial in preserving the sane equipoise of an imaginative temperament. In this matter Huysmans has been more fortunate than his intimate friend Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, who had wandered so far into the world of dreams that he lost touch with the external world and ceased to distinguish them clearly. One is at first a little surprised to hear of the patient tact and diplomacy which the author of "A Rebours" spent round the death-bed of the author of "Contes Cruels" to obtain the dying dreamer's consent to a ceremony of marriage which would legitimate his child. But Huysmans' sensitive nervous system and extravagant imagination have ever been under the control of a sane and forceful intellect; his very idealism has been nourished by the contemplation of a world which he has seen too vividly ever to ignore. We may read that in the reflective deliberation of his grave and courteous bearing, somewhat recalling, as more than one observer has noted, his own favourite animal, the cat, whose outward repose of Buddhistic contemplation envelops a highly-strung nervous system, while its capacity to enjoy the refinements of human civilization comports a large measure of spiritual freedom and ferocity. Like many another man of letters, Huysmans suffers from neuralgia and dyspepsia; but no novelist has described so persistently and so poignantly the pangs of toothache or the miseries of maux d'estomac, a curious proof of the peculiarly personal character of Huysmans' work throughout. His sole preoccupation has been with his own impressions. He possessed no native genius for the novel. But with a very sound instinct he set himself, almost at the outset of his career, to describe intimately and faithfully the crudest things of life, the things most remote from his own esoteric tastes but at that time counted peculiarly "real." There could be no better discipline for an idealist. Step by step he has left the region of vulgar actualities to attain his proper sphere, but the marvellous and slowly won power of expressing the spiritually impalpable in concrete imagery is the fruit of that laborious apprenticeship. He was influenced in his novels at first by Goncourt, afterwards a little by Zola, as he sought to reproduce his own vivid and personal vision of the world. This vision is like that of a man with an intense exaltation of the senses, especially the senses of sight and smell. Essentially Huysmans is less a novelist than a poet, with an instinct to use not verse but prose as his medium. Thus he early fell under the influence of Baudelaire's prose-poems. His small and slight first volume, "Le Drageoir à Epices," bears witness to this influence, while yet revealing a personality clearly distinct from Baudelaire's. This personality is already wholly revealed in the quaint audacity of the little prose-poem entitled "L'Extase." Here, at the very outset of Huysmans' career, we catch an unconscious echo of mediaeval asceticism, the voice, it might be, of Odo of Cluny, who nearly a thousand years before had shrunk with horror from embracing a "sack of dung"; "quomodo ipsum stercoris saccum amplecti desideramus!" "L'Extase" describes how the lover lies in the wood clasping the hand of the beloved and bathed in a rapture of blissful emotion; "suddenly she rose, disengaged her hand, disappeared in the bushes, and I heard as it were the rustling of rain on the leaves"; at once the delicious dream fled and the lover awakes to the reality of commonplace human things. That is a parable of the high-strung idealism, having only contempt for whatever breaks in on its ideal, which has ever been the mark of Huysmans. Baudelaire was also such a hyperaesthetic idealist, but the human tenderness which vibrates beneath the surface of Baudelaire's work has been the last quality to make itself more than casually felt in Huysmans. It is the defect which vitiated his early work in the novel, when he was still oscillating between the prose-poem and the novel, clearly conscious that while the first suited him best, only in the second could mastery be won. His early novels are sometimes portentously dull, with a lack of interest, or even attempt to interest, which itself almost makes them interesting, as frank ugliness is. They are realistic with a veracious and courageously abject realism, never like Zola's, carefully calculated for its pictorial effectiveness, but dealing simply with the trivialest and sordidest human miseries. His first novel "Marthe"--which inaugurated the long series of novels devoted to state-regulated prostitution in those slaughterhouses of love, as Huysmans later described them, where Desire is slain at a single stroke,--sufficiently repulsive on the whole, is not without flashes of insight which reveal the future artist, and to some readers indeed make it more interesting than "La Fille Elisa," which the Goncourts published shortly afterwards. Unlike the crude and awkward "Marthe"--though that book reveals the influence of the Goncourts--"La Fille Elisa" shows the hand of an accomplished artist, but it is also the work of a philanthropist writing with an avowed object, and of a fine gentleman ostentatiously anxious not to touch pitch with more than a finger-tip. The Preface to "Marthe" contains a declaration which remains true for the whole of Huysmans' work: "I set down what I see, what I feel, what I have lived, writing it as well as I am able, et voila tout!" But it has ever been a dangerous task to set down what one sees and feels and has lived; for no obvious reason except the subject, "Marthe" was immediately suppressed by the police. This first novel remains the least personal of Huysmans' books; in his next novel, "Les Soeurs Vatard"--a study of Parisian work-girls and their lovers--a more characteristic vision of the world begins to be revealed, and from that time forward there is a continuous though irregular development both in intellectual grip and artistic mastery. "Sac au Dos," which appeared in the Soirées de Médan, represents a notable stage in this development, for here, as he has since acknowledged, Huysmans' hero is himself. It is the story of a young student who serves during the great war in the Garde Mobile of the Seine, and is invalided with dysentery before reaching the front. There is no story, no striking impression to record--nothing to compare with Guy de Maupassant's incomparably more brilliant "Boule-de-Suif," also dealing with the fringe of war, which appears in the same volume--no opportunity for literary display, nothing but a record of individual feelings with which the writer seems satisfied because they are interesting to himself. It is, in fact, the germ of that method which Huysmans has since carried to so brilliant a climax in "En Route." All the glamour of war and the enthusiasm of patriotism are here-- long before Zola wrote his "Débâcle"--reduced to their simplest terms in the miseries of the individual soldier whose chief aspiration it becomes at last to return to a home where the necessities of nature may be satisfied in comfort and peace.

The best of Huysmans' early novels is undoubtedly "En Ménage." It is the intimate history of a young literary man who, having married a wife whom he shortly afterwards finds unfaithful, leaves her, returns to his bachelor life, and in the end becomes reconciled to her. This picture of a studious man who goes away with his books to fight over again the petty battles of bachelorhood with the bonne and the concierge and his own cravings for womanly love and companionship, reveals clearly for the first time Huysmans' power of analyzing states of mind that are at once simple and subtle. Perhaps no writer surprises us more by his revealing insight into the commonplace experiences which all a novelist's traditions lead him to idealize or ignore. As a whole, however, "En Ménage" is scarcely yet a master's work, a little laboured, with labour which cannot yet achieve splendour of effect. Nor can a much slighter story, "A Vau l'Eau," which appeared a little later, be said to mark a further stage in development, though it is a characteristic study, this sordid history of Folantin, the poor, lame, discontented, middle-aged clerk. Cheated and bullied on every side, falling a prey to the vulgar woman of the street who boisterously takes possession of him in the climax of the story, all the time feeling poignantly the whole absurdity of the situation, there is yet one spot where hope seems possible. He has no religious faith; "and yet," he reflects, "yet mysticism alone could heal the wound that tortures me." Thus Folantin, though like André in "En Ménage" he resigns himself to the inevitable stupidity of life, yet stretches out his hands towards the Durtal of Huysmans' latest work.

In all these novels we feel that Huysmans has not attained to full self-expression. Intellectual mastery, indeed, he is attaining, but scarcely yet the expression of his own personal ideals. The poet in Huysmans, the painter enamoured of beauty and seeking it in unfamiliar places, has little scope in these detailed pictures of sordid or commonplace life. At this early period it is still in prose-poems, especially in "Croquis Parisiens," that this craving finds satisfaction. Huysmans took up this form where Baudelaire and Mallarmé had left it, and sought to carry it yet further. In that he was scarcely successful. The excess of tension in the tortured language with which he elaborates his effects too often holds him back from the goal of perfection. We must yet value in "Croquis Parisiens" its highly wrought and individual effects of rhythm and colour and form. In France, at all events, Huysmans is held to inaugurate the poetic treatment of modern things--a characteristic already traceable in "Les Soeurs Vatard"--and this book deals with the aesthetic aspects of latter-day Paris, with the things that are "ugly and superb, outrageous and yet exquisite," as a type of which he selects the Folies-Bergère, at that time the most characteristic of Parisian music-halls, and he was thus the first to discuss the aesthetic value of the variety stage which has been made cheaper since. For the most part, however, these Croquis are of the simplest and most commonplace things--the forlorn Bièvre district, the poor man's café, the roast-chestnut seller--extracting the beauty or pathos or strangeness of all these things. "Thy garment is the palette of settings suns, the rust of old copper, the brown gilt of Cordovan leather, the sandal and saffron tints of the autumn foliage. . . . When I contemplate thy coat of mail I think of Rembrandt's pictures, I see again his superb heads, his sunny flesh, his gleaming jewels on black velvet. I see again his rays of light in the night, his trailing gold in the shade, the dawning of suns through dark arches." The humble bloater has surely never before been sung in language which recalls the Beloved of the "Song of Songs."

In 1884 "A Rebours" appeared. Not perhaps his greatest achievement, it must ever remain the central work in which he has most powerfully concentrated his whole vision of life. It sums up the progress he had already made, foretells the progress he was afterwards to make, in a style that is always individual, always masterly in its individuality. Technically, it may be said that the power of "A Rebours" lies in the fact that here for the first time Huysmans has succeeded in uniting the two lines of his literary development: the austere analysis in the novels of commonplace things mostly alien to the writer, and the freer elaboration in the prose-poems of his own more intimate personal impressions. In their union the two streams attain a new power and a more intimately personal note. Des Esseintes, the hero of this book, may possibly have been at a few points suggested by a much less interesting real personage in contemporary Paris, the Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, but in the main he was certainly created by Huysmans' own brain, as the representative of his author's hyperaesthetic experience of the world and the mouthpiece of his most personal judgments. The victim of over-wrought nerves, of neuralgia and dyspepsia, Des Esseintes retires for a season from Paris to the solitude of his country house at Fontenay, which he has fitted up, on almost cloistral methods, to soothe his fantasy and to gratify his complex aesthetic sensations, his love of reading and contemplation. The finest pictures of Gustave Moreau hang on the walls, with the fantastic engravings of Luyken, and the strange visions of Odilon Redon. He has a tortoise curiously inlaid with precious stones; he delights in all those exotic plants which reveal Nature's most unnatural freaks; he is a sensitive amateur of perfumes, and considers that the pleasures of smell are equal to those of sight or sound; he possesses a row of little barrels of liqueurs so arranged that he can blend in infinite variety the contents of this instrument, his "mouth-organ" he calls it, and produce harmonies which seem to him comparable to those yielded by a musical orchestra. But the solitary pleasures of this palace of art only increase the nervous strain he is suffering from; and at the urgent bidding of his doctor Des Esseintes returns to the society of his abhorred fellow-beings in Paris, himself opening the dyke that admitted the "waves of human mediocrity" to engulf his refuge. And this wonderful confession of aesthetic faith--with its long series of deliberately searching and decisive affirmations on life, religion, literature, art--ends with a sudden solemn invocation that is surprisingly tremulous: "Take pity, O Lord, on the Christian who doubts, on the skeptic who desires to believe, on the convict of life who embarks alone, in the night, beneath a sky no longer lit by the consoling beacons of ancient faith."

"He who carries his own most intimate emotions to their highest point becomes the first in file of a long series of men"; that saying is peculiarly true of Huysmans. But to be a leader of men one must turn one's back on men. Huysmans' attitude towards his readers was somewhat like that of Thoreau, who spoke with lofty disdain of such writers as "would fain have one reader before they die." As he has since remarked, Huysmans wrote "A Rebours" for a dozen persons, and was himself more surprised than any one at the wide interest it evoked. Yet that interest was no accident. Certain aesthetic ideals of the latter half of the nineteenth century are more quintessentially expressed in "A Rebours" than in any other book. Intensely personal, audaciously independent, it yet sums up a movement which has scarcely now worked itself out. We may read it and re-read, not only for the light which it casts on that movement, but upon every similar period of acute aesthetic perception in the past.


The aesthetic attitude towards art which "A Rebours" illuinmates is that commonly called decadent. Decadence in art, though a fairly simple phenomenon, and world-wide as art itself, is still so ill understood that it may be worth while to discuss briefly its precise nature, more especially as manifested in literature.

Technically, a decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style. It is simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization, the homogeneous, in Spencerian phraseology, having become heterogeneous. The first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts. Among our own early prose-writers Sir Thomas Browne represents the type of decadence in style. Swift's prose is classic, Pater's decadent. Hume and Gibbon are classic, Emerson and Carlyle decadent. Roman architecture is classic, to become in its Byzantine developments completely decadent, and St. Mark's is the perfected type of decadence in art; pure early Gothic is classic in the highest degree, while later Gothic, grown weary of the commonplaces of structure, is again decadent. In each case the earlier and classic manner--for the classic manner, being more closely related to the ends of utility, must always be earlier--subordinates the parts to the whole, and strives after those virtues which the whole may best express; the later manner depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtues of individualism. All art is the rising and falling of the slopes of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes.

Decadence suggests to us going down, falling, decay. If we walk down a real hill we do not feel that we commit a more wicked act than when we walked up it. But if it is a figurative hill then we view Hell at the bottom. The word "corruption"--used in a precise and technical sense to indicate the breaking up of the whole for the benefit of its parts--serves also to indicate a period or manner of decadence in art. This makes confusion worse, for here the moralist feels that surely he is on safe ground. But as Nietzsche, with his usual acuteness in cutting at the root of vulgar prejudice, has well remarked (in "Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft"), even as regards what is called the period of "corruption" in the evolution of societies, we are apt to overlook the fact that the energy which in more primitive times marked the operations of the community as a whole has now simply been transferred to the individuals themselves, and this aggrandizement of the individual really produces an even greater amount of energy. The individual has gained more than the community has lost. An age of social decadence is not only the age of sinners and degenerates, but of saints and martyrs, and decadent Rome produced an Antoninus as well as a Heliogabalus. No doubt social "corruption" and literary "corruption" tend to go together; an age of individualism is usually an age of artistic decadence, and we may note that the chief literary artists of America--Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman--are for the most part in the technical sense decadents.

Rome supplies the first clear types of classic and decadent literature, and the small group of recent French writers to whom the term has been more specifically applied were for the most part peculiarly attracted by later Latin literature. So far as I can make out, it is to the profound and penetrating genius of Baudelaire that we owe the first clear apprehension of the legitimate part which decadence plays in literature. We may trace it, indeed, in his own style, clear, pure, and correct as that style always remains, as well as in his literary preferences. He was a good Latinist, and his favourite Latin authors were Apuleius, Juvenal, Petronius, St. Augustine, Tertullian, and other writers in prose and verse of the early Christian Church. He himself wrote a love-poem in rhymed Latin verse, adding to it a note concerning the late Latin decadence regarded as "the supreme sign of a vigorous person already transformed and prepared for the spiritual life... . In this marvellous tongue," he added, "solecism and barbarism seem to me to render the forced negligence of a passion which forgets itself and mocks at rules. Words taken in a new meaning reveal the charming awkwardness of the northern barbarian kneeling before the Roman beauty." But the best early statement of the meaning of decadence in style--though doubtless inspired by Baudelaire--was furnished by Gautier in 1868 in the course of the essay on Baudelaire which is probably the most interesting piece of criticism he ever achieved:

"The poet of the 'Fleurs du Mal' loved what is improperly called the style of decadence, and which is nothing else but art arrived at that point of extreme maturity yielded by the slanting suns of aged civilizations: an ingenious complicated style, full of shades and of research, constantly pushing back the boundaries of speech, borrowing from all the technical vocabularies, taking colour from all palettes and notes from all keyboards, struggling to render what is most inexpressible in thought, what is vague and most elusive in the outlines of form, listening to translate the subtle confidences of neurosis, the dying confessions of passion grown depraved, and the strange hallucinations of the obsession which is turning to madness. The style of decadence is the ultimate utterance of the Word, summoned to final expression and driven to its last hiding-place. Unlike the classic style it admits shadow. . . One may well imagine that the fourteen hundred words of the Racinian vocabulary scarcely suffice the author who has undertaken the laborious task of rendering modern ideas and things in their infinite complexity and multiple colouration."


Some fifteen years later, Bourget, again in an essay on Baudelaire ("Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine"), continued the exposition of the theory of decadence, elaborating the analogy to the social organism which enters the state of decadence as soon as the individual life of the parts is no longer subordinated to the whole. "A similar law governs the development and decadence of that other organism which we call language. A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word." It was at this time (about 1884) that the term "decadent" seems first to have been applied by Barrès and others to the group of which Verlaine, Huysmans, Mallarmé were the most distinguished members, and in so far as it signified an ardent and elaborate search for perfection of detail beyond that attained by Parnassian classicality it was tolerated or accepted. Verlaine, indeed, was for the most part indifferent to labels, neither accepting nor rejecting them, and his work was not bound up with any theory. But Huysmans, with the intellectual passion of the pioneer in art, deliberate and relentless, has carried both the theory and the practice of decadence in style to the farthest point. In practice he goes beyond Baudelaire, who, however enamoured he may have been of what he called the phosphorescence of putrescence, always retained in his own style much of what is best in the classic manner. Huysmans' vocabulary is vast, his images, whether remote or familiar, always daring--"dragged," in the words of one critic, "by the hair or by the feet, down the worm-eaten staircase of terrified Syntax,"--but a heart-felt pulse of emotion is restrained beneath the sombre and extravagant magnificence of this style, and imparts at the best that modulated surge of life which only the great masters can control.

Des Esseintes's predilections in literature are elaborated through several chapters, and without question he faithfully reflects his creator's impressions. He was indifferent or contemptuous towards the writers of the Latin Augustan age; Virgil seemed to him thin and mechanical, Horace a detestable clown; the fat redundancy of Cicero, we are told, and the dry constipation of Caesar alike disgusted him; Sallust, Livy, Juvenal, even Tacitus and Plautus, though for these he had words of praise, seemed to him for the most part merely the delights of pseudoliterary readers. Latin only began to be interesting to Des Esseintes in Lucan, for here at least, in spite of the underlying hollowness, it became expressive and studded with brilliant jewels. The author whom above all he delighted in was Petronius--who reminded Des Esseintes of the modern French novelists he most admired-- and several eloquent pages are devoted to that profound observer, delicate analyst, and marvellous painter who modelled his own vivid and precise style out of all the idioms and slang of his day. After Petronius there was a gap in his collection of Latin authors until the second century of our own era is reached with Apuleius and the sterner Christian contemporaries of that jovial pagan, Tertullian and the rest, in whose hands the tongue that in Petronius had reached supreme maturity now began to dissolve. For Tertullian he had little admiration, and none for Augustine, though sympathizing with his "City of God" and his general disgust for the world. But the special odour which the Christians had by the fourth century imparted to decomposing pagan Latin was delightful to him in such authors as Commodian of Gaza, whose tawny, sombre, and tortuous style he even preferred to Claudian's sonorous blasts, in which the trumpet of paganism was last heard in the world. He was also able to maintain interest in Prudentius, Sedulius, and a host of unknown Christians who combined Catholic fervour with a Latinity which had become, as it were, completely putrid, leaving but a few shreds of torn flesh for the Christians to "marinate in the brine of their new tongue."

Des Esseintes is no admirer of Rabelais or Molière, of Voltaire or Rousseau. Among the older French writers he read only Villon, D'Aubigné, Bossuet, Bourdaloue, Nicole, and especially Pascal. Putting these aside, his French library began with Baudelaire, whose works he had printed in an edition of one copy, in episcopal letters, in large missal format, bound in flesh-coloured pig-skin; he found an unspeakable delight in reading this poet who, "in an age when verse only served to express the external aspects of things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible, by virtue of a muscular and sinewy speech which more than any other possessed the marvellous power of fixing with strange sanity of expression the most morbid, fleeting, tremulous states of weary brains and sorrowful souls."

After Baudelaire the few French books on Des Esseintes's shelves fall into two groups, one religious, one secular. Most of the French clerical writers he disregarded, for they yield a pale flux of words which seemed to him to come from a schoolgirl in a convent. Lacordaire he regarded as an exception, for his language had been fused and moulded by ardent eloquence, but for the most part the Catholic writers he preferred were outside the Church. For Hello's "Homme," especially, he cherished profound admiration, and an inevitable sympathy for its author, who seemed to him "a cunning engineer of the soul, a skilful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and to explain the play of the wheel-work," and yet united to this power of analysis all the fanaticism of a Biblical prophet, and the tortured ingenuity of a master of style--an ill-balanced, incoherent, yet subtle personality. But above all he delighted in Barbey d'Aurévilly, shut out from the Church as an unclean and pestiferous heretic, yet glorying to sing her praises, insinuating into that praise a note of almost sadistic sacrilege, a writer at once devout and impious, altogether after Des Esseintes's own heart, so that a special copy of the "Diaboliques," in episcopal violet and cardinal purple, printed on sanctified vellum with initials adorned by satanic tails, formed one of his most cherished possessions. In D'Aurévilly's style alone he truly recognized the same gaminess, the speckled morbidity, the flavour as of a sleepy pear which he loved in decadent Latin and the monastic writers of old time. Of contemporary secular books he possessed not many; certain selected works of the three great French novelists of his time--Flaubert, Goncourt, and Zola--for in all three he found in various forms, that "nostalgie des au-dela" by which he was himself haunted. With Baudelaire, these three were, in modern profane literature, the authors by whom he had chiefly been moulded. The scanty collection also included Verlaine, Mallarmé, Poe, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, whose firm fantastic style and poignantly ironic attitude towards the utilitarian modern world he found entirely to his taste. Finally, there only remained the little anthology of prose-poems. Des Esseintes thought it improbable that he would ever make any additions to his library; it seemed impossible to him that a decadent language--"struggling on its death-bed to repair all the omissions of joy and bequeath the subtlest memories of pain"--would ever go beyond Mallarmé.


We have to recognize that decadence is an aesthetic and not a moral conception. The power of words is great, but they need not befool us. The classic herring should suggest no moral superiority over the decadent bloater. We are not called upon to air our moral indignation over the bass end of the musical clef. We may well reserve our finest admiration for the classic in art, for therein are included the largest and most imposing works of human skill; but our admiration is of little worth if it is founded on incapacity to appreciate the decadent. Each has its virtues, each is equally right and necessary. One ignorant of plants might well say, on gazing at a seed-capsule with its seeds disposed in harmonious rows, that there was the eternally natural and wholesome order of things, and on seeing the same capsule wither and cast abroad its seeds to germinate at random in the earth, that here was an unwholesome and deplorable period of decay. But he would know little of the transmutations of life. And we have to recognize that those persons who bring the same crude notions into the field of art know as little of the life of the spirit.


For some years after the appearance of "A Rebours" Huysmans produced nothing of any magnitude. "En Rade," his next novel, the experience of a Parisian married couple who, under the stress of temporary pecuniary difficulties, go into the country to stay at an uncle's farm, dwells in the memory chiefly by virtue of two vividly naturalistic episodes, the birth of a calf and the death of a cat. More interesting, more intimately personal, are the two volumes of art criticism, "L'Art Moderne" and "Certains," which Huysmans published at about this period. Degas, Rops, Raffaelli, Odilon Redon are among the artists of very various temperament whom Huysmans either discovered, or at all events first appreciated in their full significance, and when he writes of them it is not alone critical insight which he reveals, but his own personal vision of the world.

To Huysmans the world has ever been above all a vision; it was no accident that the art that appeals most purely to the eyes is that of which he has been the finest critic. One is tempted, indeed, to suggest that this aptitude is the outcome of heredity. He has been intensely preoccupied with the effort to express those visible aspects of things which the arts of design were made to express, which the art of speech can perhaps never express. The tortured elaboration of his style is chiefly due to this perpetual effort to squeeze tones and colours out of this foreign medium. The painter's brain holds only a pen and cannot rest until it has wrung from it a brush's work. But not only is the sense of vision marked in Huysmans. We are conscious of a general hyperaesthesia, an intense alertness to the inrush of sensations, which we might well term morbid if it were not so completely intellectualized and controlled. Hearing, indeed, appears to be less acutely sensitive than sight, the poet is subordinated to the painter, though that sense still makes itself felt, and the heavy multicoloured paragraphs often fall at the close into a melancholy and poignant rhythm laden with sighs. It is the sense of smell which Huysmans' work would lead us to regard as most highly developed after that of sight. The serious way in which Des Esseintes treats perfumes is charactertistic, and one of the most curious and elaborate of the "Croquis Parisiens" is "Le Gousset," in which the capacities of language are strained to define and differentiate the odours of feminine arm-pits. Again, earlier, in a preface written for Hannon's "Rimes de Joie," Huysmans points out that that writer--who failed to fulfil his early promise--alone of contemporary poets possessed "la curiosité des parfums," and that his chief poem was written in honour of what Huysmans called "the libertine virtues of that glorious perfume," opoponax. This sensitiveness to odour is less marked in Huysmans' later work, but the dominance of vision remains.

The two volumes of essays on art incidentally serve to throw considerable light on Huysmans' conception of life. For special illustration we may take his attitude towards women, whom in his novels he usually treats, from a rather conventionally sexual point of view, as a fact in man's life rather than as a subject for independent analysis. In these essays we may trace the development of his own personal point of view, and in comparing the earlier with the later volume we find a change which is significant of the general evolution of Huysmans' attitude towards life. He is at once the ultra-modern child of a refined civilization and the victim of nostalgia for an ascetic mediaevalism; his originality lies in the fact that in him these two tendencies are not opposed but harmonious, although the second has only of late reached full development. In a notable passage in "En Rade," Jacques, the hero, confesses that he can see nothing really great or beautiful in a harvest field, with its anodyne toil, as compared with a workshop or a steamboat, "the horrible magnificence of machines, that one beauty which the modern world has been able to create." It is so that Huysmans views women also; he is as indifferent to the feminine ideals of classic art as to its literary ideals. In L'Art Moderne, speaking with admiration of a study of the nude by Gauguin, he proceeds to lament that no one has painted the unclothed modern woman without falsification or premeditated arrangement, real, alive in her own intimate personality, with her own joys and pains incarnated in the curves of her flesh, and the lash of childbirth traceable on her flanks. We go to the Louvre to learn how to paint, he remarks, forgetting that "beauty is not uniform and invariable, but changes with the age and the climate, that the Venus of Milo, for instance, is now not more beautiful and interesting than those ancient statues of the New World, streaked and tattooed and adorned with feathers; that both are but diverse manifestations of the same ideal of beauty pursued by different races; that at the present date there can be no question of reaching the beautiful by Venetian, Greek, Dutch, or Flemish rites; but only by striving to disengage it from contemporary life, from the world that surrounds us." "Un nu fatigué, délicat, affiné, vibrant" can alone conform to our own time; and he adds that no one has truly painted the nude since Rembrandt. It is instructive to turn from this essay to that on Degas, written some six years later. It may fairly be said that to Degas belongs the honour of taking up the study of the nude at the point where Rembrandt left it; and like Rembrandt, he has realized that the nude can only be rightly represented in those movements, postures, and avocations by which it is naturally and habitually exposed. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Huysmans at once grasped the full significance of the painter's achievement. But he has nothing now to say of the beauty that lies beneath the confinement of modern garments, "the delicious charm of youth, grown languid, rendered as it were divine by the debilitating air of cities." On the contrary, he emphasizes the vision which Degas presents of women at the bathtub revealing in every "frog-like and simian attitude" their pitiful homeliness, "the humid horror of a body which no washing can purify." Such a glorified contempt of the flesh, he adds, has never been achieved since the Middle Ages. There we catch what had now become the dominant tone in Huysmans' vision; the most modern things in art now suggest to him, they seem to merge into, the most mediaeval and ascetic. And if we turn to the essay of Félicien Rops in the same volume--the most masterly of his essays--we find the same point developed to the utmost. Rops in his own way is as modern and as daring an artist of the nude as Degas. But, as Huysmans perceives, in delineating the essentially modern he is scarcely a supreme artist, is even inferior to Forain, who in his own circumscribed region is insurpassable. Rops, as Huysmans points out, is the great artist of the symbolical rather than the naturalistic modern, a great artist who furnishes the counterpart to Memlinc and Fra Angelico. All art, Huysmans proceeds, "must gravitate, like humanity which has given birth to it and the earth which carries it, between the two poles of Purity and Wantonness, the Heaven and the Hell of art." Rops has taken the latter pole, in no vulgar nymphomaniacal shapes, but "to divulge its causes, to summarize it Catholically, if one may say so, in ardent and sorrowful images"; he has drawn women who are "diabolical Theresas, satanized saints." Following in the path initiated by Baudelaire and Barbey d'Aurévilly, Huysmans concludes, Rops has restored Wantonness to her ancient and Catholic dignity. Thus is Huysmans almost imperceptibly led back to the old standpoint from which woman and the Devil are one.

"Certains" was immediately followed by "Là-Bas." This novel is mainly a study of Satanism, in which Huysmans interested himself long before it attracted the general attention it has since received in France. There are, however, three lines of interest in the book, the story of Gilles de Rais and his Sadism, the discussion of Satanism culminating in an extraordinary description of a modern celebration of the Black Mass, and the narration of Durtal's liaison with Madame Chantelouve, wherein Huysmans reaches, by firm precision and triumphant audacity, the highest point he has attained in the analysis of the secrets of passion. But though full of excellent matter, the book loses in impressiveness from the multiplicity of these insufficiently compacted elements of interest.

While not among his finest achievements, however, it serves to mark the definite attainment of a new stage in both the spirit and the method of his work. Hitherto he had been a realist, in method if not in spirit, and had conquered the finest secrets of naturalistic art; by the help of "En Ménage" alone, as Hennequin, one of his earliest and best critics has said, "it will always be possible to restore the exact physiognomy of Paris today." At the outset of "Là-Bas" there is a discussion concerning the naturalistic novel and its functions which makes plain the standpoint to which Huysmans had now attained. Pondering the matter, Durtal, the hero of the book, considers that we need, on the one hand, the veracity of document, the precision of detail, the nervous strength of language, which realism has supplied; but also, on the other hand, we must draw water from the wells of the soul. We cannot explain everything by sexuality and insanity; we need the soul and the body in their natural reactions, their conflict and their union. "We must, in short, follow the great highway so deeply dug out by Zola, but it is also necessary to trace a parallel path in the air, another road by which we may reach the Beyond and the Afterward, to achieve thus, in one word, a spiritualistic naturalism." Dostoievsky comes nearest to this achievement, he remarks, and the real psychologist of the century is not Stendhal but Hello. In another form of art the early painters--Italian, German, especially Flemish--realized this ideal. Durtal sees a consummate revelation of such spiritual naturalism in Matthaeus Grünewald's crucifixion at Cassel--the Christ who was at once a putrid and unaureoled corpse and yet a manifest god bathed in invisible light, the union of outrageous realism and outrageous idealism. "Thus from triumphal ordure Grünewald extracted the finest mints of dilection, the sharpest essences of tears." One may say that the tendency Huysmans here so clearly asserts had ever been present in his work. But in his previous novels his own native impulse was always a little unduly oppressed by the naturalistic formulas of Goncourt and Zola. The methods of these great masters had laid a burden on his work, and although the work developed beneath, and because of, that burden, a sense of laborious pain and obscurity too often resulted. Henceforth this disappears. Huysmans retains his own complexity of style, but he has won a certain measure of simplicity and lucidity. It was a natural development, no doubt furthered also by the position which Huysmans had now won in the world of letters. "A Rebours," which he had written for his own pleasure, had found an echo in thousands of readers, and the consciousness of an audience inspired a certain clarity of speech. From this time we miss the insults directed at the bêtise of humanity. These characteristics clearly mark Huysmans' next and perhaps greatest book, in which the writer who had conquered all the secrets of decadent art now sets his face towards the ideals of classic art.

In "En Route," indeed, these new qualities of simplicity, lucidity, humanity, and intensity of interest attain so high a degree that the book has reached a vast number of readers who could not realize the marvellous liberation from slavery to its material which the slow elaboration of art has here reached. In "A Rebours" Huysmans succeeded in taking up the prose-poem into his novel form, while at the same time certainly sacrificing something of the fine analysis of familiar things which he had developed in "En Ménage." In "En Route" he takes the novel from the point he had reached in "A Rebours," incorporates into it that power of analysis which has now reached incomparable simplicity and acuity, and thus wields the whole of the artistic means which he has acquired during a quarter of a century to one end, the presentation of a spiritual state which has become of absorbing personal interest to himself.

I well remember hearing M. Huysmans, many years ago, tell how a muddle-headed person had wished to commission him to paint a head of Christ. It seemed then a deliciously absurd request to make of the author of "A Rebours," and his face wore the patient smile which the spectacle of human stupidity was wont to evoke, but I have since thought that that muddle-headed person was wiser than he knew. As we look back on Huysmans' earlier work it is now easy to see how he has steadily progressed towards his present standpoint. "En Route" does not represent, as some might imagine, the reaction of an exhausted debauchee or even the self-deception of a disappointed man of the world. The temperament of Durtal is that of André and Folantin and Des Esseintes; from the first, in the "Drageoir à Epices," Huysmans has been an idealist and a seeker, by no means an ascetic, rather a man whose inquisitive senses and restless imagination had led him to taste of every forbidden fruit, but never one to whom the vulgar pleasures of life could offer any abiding satisfaction. The more precise record of Des Esseintes's early sexual life may help us here; while for the penultimate stage Durtal's relations with Madame Chantelouve in "Là-Bas," and the mingled attraction and repulsion which he felt for her, are certainly significant. In "En Route" Durtal magnifies his own wickedness, as Bunyan did in his "Grace Abounding"; the saints have always striven to magnify their wickedness, leaving to the sinners the congenial function of playing at righteousness. To trace the real permanence of Huysmans' attitude towards religion it is enough to turn back to "A Rebours." Des Esseintes had been educated by the Jesuits, and it sometimes seemed to him that that education had put into him some extra-terrestrial ferment which never after ceased to work, driving him in search of a new world and impossible ideals. He could find no earthly place of rest; he sought to build for himself a "refined Thebaïd" as a warm and comfortable ark wherein to find shelter from the flood of human imbecility. He was already drawn towards the Church by many bonds, by his predilection for early Christian Latinity, by the exquisite beauty of the ecclesiastical art of the Middle Ages, by his love for monastic mediaeval music, "that emaciated music which acted instinctively on his nerves and seemed to him precious beyond all other. Just as Nietzsche was always haunted by the desire for a monastery for free-thinkers, so Des Esseintes dreamed of a hermitage, of the advantages of the cloistered life of convents, wherein men are persecuted by the world for meting out to it the just contempt of silence.

Des Esseintes, and even the Durtal of "Là-Bas," always put aside these thoughts with the reflection that, after all, the Church is only an out-worn legend, a magnificent imposture. In "En Route" Durtal has taken a decisive step. He has undergone that psychological experience commonly called "conversion." It is only of recent years that the phenomena of conversion have been seriously studied, but we know at all events that it is not intellectual, not even necessarily moral transformation, though it may react in either direction, but primarily an emotional phenomenon; and that it occurs especially in those who have undergone long and torturing disquietude, coming at last as the spontaneous resolution of all their doubts, the eruption of a soothing flood of peace, the silent explosion of inner light. The insight with which this state is described in "En Route" seems to testify to a real knowledge of it. No obvious moral or intellectual change is effected in Durtal, but he receives a new experience of reposeful faith, a conviction deeper than all argument. It is really the sudden emergence into consciousness of a very gradual process, and the concrete artistic temperament which had been subjected to the process reacts in its own way. A more abstract intelligence would have asked: "But, after all, is my faith true?" Durtal, in the presence of the growing structure of sensory and imaginative forms within him, which has become as it were a home, feels that the question of its truth has fallen into the background. Its perfect fitness has become the affirmation of its truth. Henceforth it is the task of his life to learn how best to adapt himself to what he recognizes as his eternal home. "En Route" represents a stage in this adaptation.

By a rare chance--a happier chance than befell Tolstoi under somewhat similar circumstances--a new development in artistic achievement has here run parallel, and in exquisite harmony, with the new spiritual development. The growing simplicity of Huysmans' work has reached a point beyond which it could not perhaps be carried without injury to his vivid and concrete style. And the new simplicity of spirit, of which it is the reflection, marks the final retreat into the background of that unreasonable contempt for humanity which ran through nearly all the previous books, and now at last passes even into an ecstasy of adoration in the passages concerning old Simon, the monastery swine-herd. Huysmans has chiefly shown his art, however, by relying almost solely for the interest of his book on his now consummate power of analysis. This power, which we may perhaps first clearly trace in "Sac au Dos," has developed in "En Ménage" into a wonderful skill to light up the unexplored corners of the soul and to lay bare those terrible thoughts which are, as he has somewhere said, the lamentable incarnation of "the unconscious ignominy of pure souls." In his earlier masterpiece, "A Rebours," however, it is little seen, having mostly passed into aesthetic criticism. The finest episode of emotional analysis here is the admirable chapter in which Des Esseintes's attempt to visit London is narrated. All his life he had wished to see two countries, Holland and England. He had been to Holland, and with visions from Rembrandt and Teniers he had returned disillusioned. Now he went to Galignani's, bought an English Baedeker, entered the bodega in the Rue de Rivoli to drink of that port which the English love, and then proceeded to a tavern opposite the Gare St. Lazare to eat what he imagined to be a characteristic English meal, surrounded by English people, and haunted by memories of Dickens. And as time went by he continued to sit still, while all the sensations of England seemed to pass along his nerves, still sat until at last the London mail had started. "Why stir," he asked himself, "when one can travel so magnificently in a chair? . . . Besides, what can one expect save fresh disillusionment, as in Holland? . . . And then I have experienced and seen what I wanted to experience and see. I have saturated myself with English life; it would be madness to lose by an awkward change of place these imperishable sensations. . . . He called a cab and returned with his portmanteaux, parcels, valises, rugs, umbrellas, and sticks to Fontenay, feeling the physical and mental fatigue of a man who returns home after a long and perilous journey." There could be no happier picture of the imaginative life of the artistic temperament. But in "En Route" analysis is the prime element of interest; from first to last there is nothing to hold us but this searching and poignant analysis of the fluctuations of Durtal's soul through the small section which he here travels in the road towards spiritual peace. There could, for instance, be no better statement than this of one of the mystic's secrets: "There are two ways of ridding ourselves of a thing which burdens us, casting it away or letting it fall. To cast away requires an effort of which we may not be capable, to let fall imposes no labour, is simpler, without peril, within reach of all. To cast away, again, implies a certain interest, a certain animation, even a certain fear; to let fall is absolute indifference, absolute contempt; believe me, use this method, and Satan will flee."

"En Route" is the first of a trilogy, and the names of the succeeding volumes, "La Cathédrale" and "L'Oblat," sufficiently indicate the end of the path on which Durtal, if not indeed his creator, has started. But however that may prove, whatever Huysmans' own final stage may be, there can be little doubt that he is the greatest master of style, and within his own limits the subtlest thinker and the acutest psychologist who in France today uses the medium of the novel. Only Zola can be compared with him, and between them there can be no kind of rivalry. Zola, with his immense and exuberant temperament, his sanity and width of view, his robust and plebeian art, has his own place on the high-road of modern literature. Huysmans, an intellectual and aesthetic aristocrat, has followed with unflinching sincerity the by-path along which his own more high-strung and exceptional temperament has led him, and his place, if seemingly a smaller one, is at least as sure; wherever men occupy themselves with the literature of the late nineteenth century they will certainly sometimes talk about Zola, sometimes read Huysmans. Zola's cyclopean architecture can only be seen as a whole when we have completed the weary task of investigating it in detail; in Huysmans we seek the expressiveness of the page, the sentence, the word. Strange as it may seem to some, it is the so-called realist who has given us the more idealized rendering of life; the concentrated vision of the idealist in his own smaller sphere has revealed not alone mysteries of the soul but even the exterior secrets of life. True it is that Huysmans has passed by with serene indifference, or else with contempt, the things which through the ages we have slowly learnt to count beautiful. But on the other hand, he has helped to enlarge the sphere of our delight by a new vision of beauty where before to our eyes there was no beauty, exercising the proper function of the artist who ever chooses the base and despised things of the world, even the things that are not, to put to nought the things that are. Therein the decadent has his justification. And while we may accept the pioneer's new vision of beauty, we are not called upon to reject those old familiar visions for which he has no eyes, only because his gaze must be fixed upon that unfamiliar height towards which he is leading the men who come after.


Huysmans very exquisitely represents one aspect of the complex modern soul, that aspect which shrinks from the grosser forces of Nature, from the bare simplicity of the naked sky or the naked body, the "incessant deluge of human foolishness," the eternal oppression of the commonplace, to find a sedative for its exasperated nerves in the contemplation of esoteric beauty and the difficult search for the mystic peace which passes all understanding. "Needs must I rejoice beyond the age," runs the motto from the old Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck set on the front of "A Rebours," "though the world has horror of my joy and its grossness cannot understand what I would say." Such is decadence; such, indeed, is religion, in the wide and true sense of the word. Christianity itself, as we know it in the western church, sprang from the baptism of young barbarism into Latin decadence. Pagan art and its clear serenity, science, rationalism, the bright, rough vigour of the sun and the sea, the adorable mystery of common life and commonplace human love, are left to make up the spirit that in any age we call "classic."

Thus what we call classic corresponds on the spiritual side to the love of natural things, and what we call decadent to the research for the things which seem to lie beyond Nature. "Corporea pulchritudo in pelle solummodo constat. Nam si viderent homines hoc quod subtus pellem est, sicut lynces in Beotia cernere interiore dicuntur, mulieres videre nausearent. Iste decor in flegmate et sanguine et humore ac felle constitit." That is St. Odo of Cluny's acute analysis of woman, who for man is ever the symbol of Nature: beauty is skin-deep, drowned in excretions which we should scarcely care to touch with the finger's tip. And for the classic vision of Nature, listen to that fantastic and gigantic Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby. He has been admitted by her maids to the bed-chamber of Venetia Stanley, the famous beauty who afterwards became his wife; she is still sleeping, and he cannot resist the temptation to undress and lie gently and reverently beside her, as half disturbed in her slumber she rolled on to her side from beneath the clothes; "and her smock was so twisted about her fair body that all her legs and best part of her thighs were naked, which lay so one over the other that they made a deep shadow where the never-satisfied eyes wished for the greatest light. A natural ruddiness did shine through the skin, as the sunbeams do through crystal or water, and ascertained him that it was flesh that he gazed upon, which yet he durst not touch for fear of melting it, so like snow it looked. Her belly was covered with her smock, which it raised up with a gentle swelling, and expressed the perfect figure of it through the folds of that discourteous veil. Her paps were like two globes--wherein the glories of the heaven and the earth were designed, and the azure veins seemed to divide constellations and kingdoms. . . out of that darkness did glisten a few drops of sweat like diamond sparks... ."

They play with the same counters, you observe, these two, Odo and Digby, with skin, sweat, and so forth, each placing upon them his own values. Idealists both of them, the one idealizes along the line of death, the other along the line of life which the whole race has followed, and both on their own grounds are irrefutable, the logic of life and the logic of death, alike solidly founded in the very structure of the world, of which man is the measuring-rod.

The classic party of Nature seems, indeed, the stronger-- in seeming only, and one recalls that, of the two witnesses just cited, the abbot of Cluny was the most venerated man of his age, while no one troubled even to publish Digby's "Memoirs" until our own century--but it carries weakness in its very strength, the weakness of a great political party formed by coalition. It has not alone idealists on its side, but for the most part also the blind forces of robust vulgarity. So that the more fine-strung spirits are sometimes driven to a reaction against Nature and rationalism, like that of which Huysmans, from "L'Extase" onwards, has been the consistent representative. At the present moment such a reaction has attained a certain ascendancy.

Christianity once fitted nearly every person born into the European world; there must needs be some to whom, in no modern devitalized form but in its purest essence, it is still the one refuge possible. No doubt conditions have changed; the very world itself is not what it was to the mediaeval man. For the mediaeval man,--as still today for the child in the darkness,--his dreams and his fancies, every organic thrill in eye or ear, seemed to be flashed on him from a world of angels and demons without. The average man of those days--not the finer or the coarser natures, it may well be-- might be said to be the victim of a species of madness, a paranoia, a sytematized persecutional delusion. He could not look serenely in the face of the stars or lie at rest among the fir-cones in the wood, for who knew what ambush of the Enemy might not lurk behind these things? Even in flowers, as St. Cyprian said, the Enemy lay hidden. There was only one spot where men might huddle together in safety--the church.

Huysmans, notwithstanding a very high degree of intellectual subtlety, is by virtue of his special aesthetic and imaginative temperament carried back to the more childlike attitude of this earlier age. The whole universe appears to him as a process of living images; he cannot reason in abstractions, cannot rationalize; that indeed is why he is inevitably an artist. Thus he is a born leader in a certain modern emotional movement.

That movement, as we know, is one of a group of movements now peculiarly active. We see them on every hand, occultism, theosophy, spiritualism, all those vague forms on the borderland of the unknown which call to tired men weary of too much living, or never strong enough to live at all, to hide their faces from the sun of nature and grope into cool, delicious darkness, soothing the fever of life. It is foolish to resent this tendency; it has its rightness; it suits some, who may well cling to their private dream if life itself is but a dream. At the worst we may remember that, however repugnant such movements may be, to let fall remains a better way of putting Satan to flight than to cast away. And at the best one should know that this is part of the vital process by which the spiritual world moves on its axis, alternating between darkness and light.

Therefore soak yourself in mysticism, follow every intoxicating path to every impossible Beyond, be drunken with mediaevalism, occultism. Yet be sure that Nature is your home, and that from the farthest excursions you will return the more certainly to those fundamental instincts which are rooted in the zoological series at the summit of which we stand. For the whole spiritual cosmogony finally rests, not indeed on a tortoise, but on the emotional impulses of the mammal vertebrata which constitute us men.

Full text (Havelock Ellis translation)[1]

Table of Contents: Notice Chapter I Chapter II Chapter III Chapter IV Chapter V Chapter VI Chapter VII Chapter VIII Chapter IX Chapter X Chapter XI Chapter XII Chapter XIII Chapter XIV Chapter XV Chapter XVI


To judge by such family portraits as were preserved in the Château de Lourps, the race of the Floressas des Esseintes had been composed in olden days of stalwart veterans of the wars, grim knights with scowling visages. Imprisoned in the old-fashioned picture frames that seemed all too narrow to contain their broad shoulders, they glared out alarmingly at the spectator, who was equally impressed by the fixed stare in the eyes, the martial curl of the moustaches and the noble development of the chests encased in enormous steel cuirasses. These were ancestral portraits; those representing subsequent generations were conspicuous by their absence. There was a gap in the series, a gap which one face alone served to fill and so connect the past and present,—a mysterious, world-weary countenance. The features were heavy and drawn, the prominent cheekbones touched with a spot of rouge, the hair plastered to the head and entwined with a string of pearls, the slender neck rising from amid the pleatings of a stiff ruff. Already in this picture of one of the most intimate friends of the Duc d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O, the vitiation of an exhausted race, the excess of lymph in the blood, were plainly to be traced. No doubt the gradual degeneration of this ancient house had followed a regular and unbroken course; the progressive 6 effemination of the men had gone on continuously from bad to worse. Moreover, to complete the deteriorating effect of time, the Des Esseintes had for centuries been in the habit of intermarrying among themselves, thus wasting the small remains of their original vigour and energy. Sole surviving descendant of this family, once so numerous that it covered nearly all the domains of the Ile-de-France and of La Brie, was the Duc Jean des Esseintes, a frail young man of thirty, anaemic and nervous, with hollow cheeks, eyes of a cold, steely blue, a small but still straight nose, and long, slender hands. By a curious accident of heredity, this last scion of a race bore a strong resemblance to the far-off ancestor, the mignon of Princes, from whom he had got the pointed beard of the very palest possible blonde and the ambiguous look of the eyes, at once languid and energetic in expression, which marked the portrait. His childhood had been beset with perils. Threatened with scrofulous affections, worn out with persistent attacks of fever, he had nevertheless successfully weathered the breakers of puberty, after which critical period his nerves had recovered the mastery, vanquished the languors and depressions of chlorosis and permitted the constitution to reach its full and complete development. The mother, a tall, silent, white-faced woman, died of general debility; then the father succumbed to a vague and mysterious malady. At the 7 time Des Esseintes was approaching his seventeenth birthday. The only recollection he retained of his parents was one of fear rather than of anything resembling gratitude or affection. His father, who generally resided in Paris, was almost a total stranger; his mother he only remembered as a chronic invalid, who never left the precincts of a shuttered bedroom in the Château de Lourps. It was only on rare occasions that husband and wife met, and of these meetings all he recalled was the drab, colourless dulness,—his father and mother seated on either side of a table lighted only by a deeply shaded lamp, for the Duchess could not endure light and noise without suffering from nervous attacks. In the semi-darkness, they would exchange two or three sentences at most; then the Duke would slip away with a yawn and take his departure by the first available train. At the Jesuits' College to which Jean was sent to be educated, his life proved pleasanter and less trying. The Fathers made much of the lad, whose intelligence amazed them; yet. in spite of all their efforts, they entirely failed to induce him to pursue any definite and disciplined course of study. He, devoted himself eagerly to certain tasks, acquired a precocious mastery of the Latin tongue; but on the other hand, he was absolutely incapable of construing three words of Greek, displayed no aptitude whatever for living languages and showed himself a perfect fool directly any 8 attempt was made to teach him the merest rudiments of the physical sciences. His family pretty much washed their hands of him; occasionally his father would pay him a visit at the College, but, "Good day, good evening, be a good boy and work hard," was about all he ever said to him. His summer holidays he used to spend at the Château de Lourps, where his presence quite failed to rouse his mother from her reveries; she hardly seemed to see him or, if she did, would gaze at him for a few moments with a painful smile, then sink back again into the artificial night in which the heavy curtains drawn across the windows wrapped the apartment. The domestics were old and tiresome. The boy, left to himself, would turn over the books in the library on wet days, or on fine afternoons take long walks in the country. It was his great delight to make his way down into the valley to Jutigny, a village standing at the foot of the hills, —a little cluster of cottages with thatched roofs tufted with moss. He would lie out in the meadows under the lee of the tall hayricks, listening to the dull rumble of the water-mills, filling his lungs with the fresh air of the Voulzie. Sometimes he would wander as far as the peat-workings, to the hamlet of Longueville with its hovels painted green and black; at another time climb the wind-swept hills and gaze out over the vast prospect. There he had below him on one side the valley of the Seine, losing itself in immensity and melting 9 into the blue haze of the far distance; on the other, high on the horizon line, the churches and Castle keep of Provins that seemed to shake and shiver in a sunlit dust-cloud. He spent the hours in reading or dreaming, drinking his fill of solitude till nightfall. By dint of constantly brooding over the same thoughts, his mind gained concentration and his still undeveloped ideas ripened towards maturity. After each vacation, he went back more thoughtful and more stubborn to his masters. These changes did not escape their notice, clearsighted and shrewd, taught by their profession to sound the deepest depths of the human soul, they were well aware of the qualities and limitations of this alert but indocile intelligence; they realized that this pupil of theirs would never enhance the fame of the House, and as his family was wealthy and appeared to take little interest in his future, they soon abandoned all idea of directing his energies towards any of the lucrative careers open to the successful student. Though he was ready enough to enter with them into those theological disputations that attracted him by their subtleties and casuistical distinctions, they never even thought of preparing him for Holy Orders, for despite their efforts, his faith remained feeble. In the last resort, out of prudence and a fear of the unknown, they left him to himself to work at such studies as he chose and neglect the rest, unwilling to alienate this independent spirit by petty restrictions such as lay ushers are so fond of imposing. 10 So he lived a perfectly contented life, scarcely conscious of the priests' fatherly yoke. He pursued his Latin and French studies after his own fashion, and, albeit Theology found no place in the curriculum of his classes, he completed the apprenticeship to that science which he had begun at the Château de Lourps in the library of books left by his great great-uncle Dom Prosper, erstwhile Prior of the Canons Regular of Saint-Ruf. The time, however, arrived when he must quit the Jesuit College; he was coming of age and would be master of his fortune; his cousin and guardian, the Comte de Montchevrel, gave him an account of his stewardship. The intimacy thus established was of short duration, for what point of contact could there be between the two, one of whom was an old man, the other a young one? Out of curiosity, lack of occupation, courtesy, Des Esseintes kept up relations with this family, and on several occasions, at his hotel in the Rue da la Chaise, endured evenings of a deadly dulness at which good ladies of his kin, as ancient as the hills, conversed about quarterings of nobility, heraldic scutcheons and ceremonial observances of years gone-by. Even more than these worthy dowagers, the men, gathered round a whist-table, betrayed their hopeless nullity; these descendants of the old preux chevaliers, last scions of the feudal houses, appeared to Des Esseintes under the guise of a parcel of snuffling, grotesque greybeards, repeating ad nauseam a wearisome string of insipid outworn platitudes. 11 Just as when you cut the stalk of a fern, you can see the mark of a lily, really a fleur-de-lis seemed to be the one and only impress left on the softened pulp that took the place of brains in these poor old heads. The young man was filled with an ineffable pity for these mummies buried in their rococo catafalques; for these crusty dandies who lived with eyes for ever fixed on a vaguely defined Land of Promise, an imaginary Canaan of good hope. After a few experiences of the kind, he firmly resolved, in spite of all invitations and reproaches, never again to set foot in this society. Thereupon he began to spend his days among young men of his own age and rank. Some of these, who had been brought up like himself at religious seminaries, had retained from this training a special character of their own. They attended church, communicated at Easter, frequented Catholic clubs and dropping their eyes in mock modesty, hid from each other, as if they had been crimes, their enterprises with women. For the most part they were witless fellows, with a sufficiency of good looks, but without a spark of mind or spirit; prime dunces who had exhausted their masters' patience, but had nevertheless fulfilled the latters' ambition to send out into the world obedient and pious sons of the Church. Others, reared in the Colleges of the State or at Lycées, were more outspoken and less of hypocrites, but they were 12 neither more interesting nor less narrow-minded. These were men of pleasure, devotees of operettas and races, playing lansquenet and baccarat, stalking fortunes on horses and cards,—all the diversions in fact that empty-headed folks love. After a year's trial of this life an enormous weariness resulted; he was sick and tired of these people whose indulgences struck him as paltry and commonplace, carried out without discrimination, without excitement, without any real stirring of blood or stimulation of nerves. Little by little, he left off frequenting their society, and approached the men of letters, with whom his mind must surely find more points of sympathy and feel itself more at ease in their company. It was a fresh disappointment; he was revolted by their spiteful and petty judgments, their conversation that was as hackneyed as a church-door, their nauseous discussions invariably appraising the merit of a work solely according to the number of editions and the amount of profit on the sales. At the same time, he discovered the apostles of freedom, the wiseacres of the bourgeoisie, the thinkers who clamoured for entire liberty, —liberty to strangle the opinions of other people,—to be a set of greedy, shameless hypocrites, whom as men of education he rated below the level of the village cobbler. His scorn of humanity grew by what it fed on; he realized in fact that the world is mostly made up of solemn humbugs and silly idiots. There was no room for doubt; he could entertain no hope of discovering in another the same 13 aspirations and the same antipathies, no hope of joining forces with a mind that, like his own, should find its satisfaction in a life of studious idleness; no hope of uniting a keen and doctrinaire spirit such as his, with that of a writer and a man of learning. His nerves were on edge, he was ill at ease; disgusted at the triviality of the ideas exchanged and received, he was growing to be like the men Nicole speaks of, who are unhappy everywhere; he was continually being chafed almost beyond endurance by the patriotic and social exaggerations he read every morning in the papers, overrating the importance of the triumphs which an allpowerful public reserves always and under all circumstances for works equally devoid of ideas and of style.

Already he was dreaming of a refined Thebaïd, a desert hermitage combined with modern comfort, an ark on dry land and nicely warmed, whither he could fly for refuge from the incessant deluge of human folly. One passion and one only, woman, might have arrested him in this universal disdain that was rising within him; but this too was exhausted. He had tasted the sweets of the flesh with the appetite of a sick man, an invalid debilitated andfull of whimsies, whose palate quickly loses savour. In the days when he had consorted with the coarse and carnalminded men of pleasure, he had participated like the rest in 14 some of those unconventional supper parties where tipsy women bare their bosoms at dessert and beat the table with dishevelled heads; he had been a visitor likewise behind the scenes, had had relations with actresses and popular singers, had endured, added to the natural and innate folly of the sex, the frantic vanity of women of the stage; then he had kept mistresses already famous for their gallantry and contributed to swell the exchequer of those agencies that supply, for a price, highly dubious gratifications; last of all, sick and satiated with this pretence of pleasure, of these stale caresses that are all alike, he had plunged into the nether depths, hoping to revive his flagging passions by sheer force of contrast, thinking to stimulate his exhausted senses by the very foulness of the filth and beastliness of low-bred vice. Try what he would, an overpowering sense of ennui weighed him down. But still he persisted, and presently had recourse to the perilous caresses of the experts in amorousness. But his health was unable to bear the strain and his nerves gave way; the back of the neck began to prick and the hands were tremulous,—steady enough still when a heavy object had to be lifted, but uncertain if they held anything quite light such as a wineglass. The physicians he consulted terrified him. It was indeed high time to change his way of life, to abandon these practices that were draining away his vitality. For a while, he led a quiet existence; but before long his passions awoke 15 again and once more piped to arms. Like young girls who, under the stress of poverty, crave after highly spiced or even repulsive foods, he began to ponder and presently to practise abnormal indulgences, unnatural pleasures. This was the end; as if all possible delights of the flesh were exhausted, he felt sated, worn out with weariness; his senses fell into a lethargy, impotence was not far off. So he found himself stranded, a lonely, disillusioned, sobered man, utterly and abominably tired, beseeching an end of it—an end the cowardice of his flesh forbade his winning. His projects of finding some retreat far from his fellows, of burying himself in a hermit's cell, deadening, as they do the noise of the traffic for sick people by laying down straw in the streets, the inexorable turmoil of life, these projects more and more attracted him. Besides, it was quite time to come to some definite decision for other reasons; he reckoned up the state of his finances and was appalled at the result. In reckless follies and riotous living generally, he had squandered the major part of his patrimony, while the balance, invested in land, brought him in only an insignificant revenue. He determined to sell the Château de Lourps, which he never visited and where he would leave behind him no tender memories, no fond regrets; by this means he paid off 16 all claims on the rest of his property, bought Government annuities and so secured himself an annual income of fifty thousand francs, while reserving, over and above, a round sum to buy and furnish the little house where he proposed to steep himself in a peace and quiet that should last his lifetime. He searched the outer suburbs of the capital and presently discovered a cottage for sale, above Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a remote spot, far from all neighbours, near the Fort. His dream was fulfilled; in this district, still unspoilt by intruders from Paris, he was secure against all harassment; the very difficulties of communication—the place was wretchedly served by a grotesquely inefficient railway at the far end of the little town and a rustic tramway that went and came according to a self-appointed time table—were a comfort to him. As he thought over the new existence he meant to make for himself, he experienced a lively sense of relief, seeing himself just far enough withdrawn for the flood of Paris activity not to touch his retreat, yet near enough for the proximity of the metropolis to add a spice to his solitariness. Indeed, in view of the well-known fact that for a man to find himself in a situation where it is impossible for him to visit a particular spot is of itself quite enough to fill him with an instant wish to go there, he was really guarding himself, by thus not entirely barring the road, from 17 any craving to renew intercourse with the world or any regret for having abandoned it. He set the masons to work on the house he had bought; then suddenly one day, without telling a soul of his plans, he got rid of his furniture, dismissed his servants and disappeared without leaving any address with the concierge. 18

Chapter I

MORE than two months slipped by before the time came when Des Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end. And yet, what endless inquiries had he not instituted, what lengthy lucubrations had he not indulged in, before finally entrusting his new home to the hands of the upholsterers! He had long been an expert in the right and wrong combinations and contrasts of tints. In other days, when he was still in the habit of inviting women to his house, he had fitted up a boudoir where, amid dainty carved furniture of the light-yellow camphor-wood of Japan, under a sort of tent of pink Indian satin, the flesh tints borrowed a soft, warm glow from the artfully disposed lights sifting down through the rich material. This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture. But, quite apart from the miracles wrought by this artificial atmosphere in the way of transfusing, or so it seemed, a new blood into tired veins and freshening up complexions 19 tarnished and worn by the habitual use of cosmetics and too frequent nights of love, he also tasted in his own person, in this luxurious retreat, special and peculiar satisfactions, pleasures exaggerated and rendered in a way more entrancing by the recollections of evil days overpast and vexations now outlived. So, in a spirit of hate and scorn of his unhappy boyhood, he had suspended from the ceiling of the room we speak of, a little cage of silver wire in which a cricket was kept prisoner to chirp as they had been used to do in old days among the cinders in the great fireplaces at the Château de Lourps. Whenever he heard this sound, which he had so often listened to on many an evening of constraint and silence in his mother's chamber, all the miseries of a wretched and neglected childhood would come crowding before the eye of memory. At such times, roused from his reveries by the movements of the woman he was fondling mechanically at the moment and whose words and laughter interrupted his thoughts of the past and recalled him to reality, there as he lay in the pink boudoir, a sudden commotion would shake his soul, a longing for revenge on dreary hours endured in former times, a mad craving to befoul with base and carnal acts his recollections of bygone family life, an overmastering temptation to assuage his lustful propensities on the soft cushion of a woman's body, to drain the cup of sensuality to its last and bitterest dregs. 20 Other times again, when despondency weighed heavy on his spirit, when on rainy Autumn days he felt a sick aversion for everything,—for the streets, for his own house, for the dingy mud-coloured sky, for the stony-looking clouds, he would fly to this refuge, set the cricket's cage swinging gently to and fro and watch its movement repeated ad infinitum in the surrounding mirrors, till at last his eyes would grow dazed and he seemed to see the cage itself at rest, but all the room tossing and turning, filling the whole apartment with a dizzy whirl of pink walls. Then, in the days when Des Esseintes still deemed it incumbent on him to play the eccentric, he had also installed strange and elaborate dispositions of furniture and fittings, partitioning off his salon into a series of niches, each differently hung and carpeted, and each harmonizing in a subtle likeness by a more or less vague similarity of tints, gay or sombre, refined or barbaric, with the special character of the Latin and French books he loved. He would then settle himself down to read in whichever of these recesses displayed in its scheme of decoration the closest correspondence with the intimate essence of the particular book his caprice of the moment led him to peruse. Last fancy of all, he had prepared a lofty hall in which to receive his tradesmen. These would march in, take seats side by side in a row of church stalls; then he would mount an imposing pulpit and preach them a sermon on dandyism, adjuring his bookmakers and tailors to conform with the 21 most scrupulous fidelity to his commandments in the matter of cut and fashion, threatening them with the penalty of pecuniary excommunication if they failed to follow out to the letter the instructions embodied in his monitories and bulls. He won a great reputation as an eccentric,—a reputation he crowned by adopting a costume of black velvet worn with a gold-fringed waistcoat and sticking by way of cravat a bunch of Parma violets in the opening of a very low-necked shirt. Then he would invite parties of literary friends to dinners that set all the world talking. In one instance in particular, modelling the entertainment on a banquet of the eighteenth century, he had organized a funeral feast in celebration of the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities. The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared. While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of silver besprinkled with tears. 22 The viands were served on black-bordered plates,—turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and bootblacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from dark-tinted glasses, - wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout. The invitations, which purported to be for a dinner in pious memory of the host's (temporarily) lost virility, were couched in the regulation phraseology of letters summoning relatives to attend the obsequies of a defunct kinsman. But these extravagances, that had once been his boast, had died a natural death; nowadays his only feeling was one of self-contempt to remember these puerile and out-of-date displays of eccentricity,—the extraordinary clothes he had donned and the grotesque decorations he had lavished on his house. His only thought henceforth was to arrange, for his personal gratification only and no longer in order to startle other people, a home that should be comfortable, yet at the same time rich and rare in its appointments, to contrive himself a peaceful and exquisitely organized abode, specially adapted to meet the exigencies of the solitary life he proposed to lead.

When at length the new house at Fontenay was ready and fitted up in accordance with his wishes and intentions by the architect he had engaged; when nothing else was left save to settle the scheme of furniture and decoration, once again he passed in review, carefully and methodically, the whole series of available tints.

What he wanted was colours the effect of which was confirmed and strengthened under artificial light; little he cared even if by daylight they should appear insipid or crude, for he lived practically his whole life at night, holding that then a man was more truly at home, more himself and his own master, and that the mind found its only real excitant and effective stimulation in contact with the shades of evening; moreover, he reaped a special and peculiar satisfaction from finding himself in a room brilliantly lighted up, the only place alive and awake among surrounding houses all buried in sleep and darkness,—a sort of enjoyment that is not free from a touch of vanity, a selfish mode of gratification familiar enough to belated workers when, drawing aside the window curtains, they note how all about them the world lies inert, dumb and dead.

Slowly, one by one, he sifted out the different tones. Blue, by candle light, assumes an artificial green tinge; if deep blue, like cobalt or indigo, it becomes black; if light, it changes to grey; it may be as true and soft of hue as a 24 turquoise, yet it looks dull and cold. Yes, it could only be employed as a supplement to help out some other colour; there could be no question of making blue the dominating note of a whole room. On the other hand, the iron greys are even more sullen and heavy; the pearl greys lose their azure tinge and are metamorphosed into a dirty white; as for the deep greens, such as emperor green and myrtle green, these suffer the same fate as the blues and become indistinguishable from black. Only the pale greens therefore remained, peacock green for instance, or the cinnabars and lacquer greens, but then in their case lamplight extracts the blue in them, leaving only the yellow, which for its part shows only a poor false tone and dull, broken sheen. Nor was it any use thinking of such tints as salmon-pink, maize, rose; their effeminate note would go dead against all his ideas of self-isolation; nor again were the violets worth considering, for they shed all their brightness by candle light; only red survives undimmed at night,—but then what a red! a sticky red, like wine-lees, a base, ignoble tint! Moreover, it struck him as quite superfluous to resort to this colour, inasmuch as after imbibing a certain small dose of santonin, a man sees violet, and it becomes the easiest thing in the world to change about at will and without ever altering the actual tint of his wall hangings. 25 All these colours being rejected, three only were left, viz. red, orange, yellow. Of these three, he preferred orange, so confirming by his own example the truth of a theory he used to declare was almost mathematically exact in its correspondence with the reality, to wit: that a harmony is always to be found existing between the sensual constitution of any individual of a genuinely artistic temperament and whatever colour his eyes see in the most pronounced and vivid way. In fact, if we leave out of account the common run of men whose coarse retinas perceive neither the proper cadence peculiar to each of the colours nor the subtle charm of their various modifications and shades; similarly leaving on one side those bourgeois eyes that are insensible to the pomp and splendour of the strong, vibrating colours; regarding therefore only persons of delicate, refined visual organs, well trained in appreciation by the lessons of literature and art, it appeared to him to be an undoubted fact that the eye of that man amongst them who has visions of the ideal, who demands illusions to satisfy his aspirations, who craves veils to hide the nakedness of reality, is generally soothed and satisfied by blue and its cognate tints, such as mauve, lilac, pearl-grey, provided always they remain tender and do not overpass the border where they lose their individuality and change into pure violets and unmixed greys. 26 The blustering, swaggering type of men, on the contrary, the plethoric, the sanguine, the stalwart go-ahead fellows who scorn compromises and by-roads to their goal, and rush straight at their object whatever it is, losing their heads at the first go-off, these for the most part delight in the startling tones of the reds and yellows, in the clash and clang of vermilions and chromes that blind their eyes and surfeit their senses. Last comes the class of persons, of nervous organization and enfeebled vigour, whose sensual appetite craves highly seasoned dishes, men of a hectic, over-stimulated constitution. Their eyes almost invariably hanker after that most irritating and morbid of colours, with its artificial splendours and feverish acrid gleams,—orange. What Des Esseintes' final choice then would be hardly admitted of a doubt; but indubitable difficulties still remained unsolved. If red and yellow are accentuated under artificial light, this is not always the case with their composite, orange, which is a hot-headed fellow and often blazes out into a crimson or a fire red. He studied carefully by candle light all its different shades, and finally discovered one he thought should not lose equilibrium or refuse to fulfil the offices he claimed of it. These preliminaries disposed of, he made a point of eschewing, so far as possible, at any rate in his study, the 27 use of Oriental stuffs and rugs, which in these days, when rich tradesmen can buy them in the fancy shops at a discount, have become so common and so much a mark of vulgar ostentation. Eventually he made up his mind to have his walls bound like his books in large-grained crushed morocco, of the best Cape skins, surfaced by means of heavy steel plates under a powerful press. The panelling once completed, he had the mouldings and tall plinths painted a deep indigo, a blue lacquer like what the coach-builders use for carriage bodies, while the ceiling, which was slightly coved, was also covered in morocco, displaying, like a magnified oeil-de-boeuf, framed in the orange leather, a circle of sky, as it were, of a rich blue, wherein soared silver angels, figures of seraphim embroidered long ago by the Weavers' Guild of Cologne for an ancient cope. After the whole was arranged and finished, all these several tints fell into accord at night and did not clash at all; the blue of the woodwork struck a stable note that was pleasing and satisfying to the eye, supported and warmed, so to say, by the surrounding shades of orange, which for their part shone out with a pure, unsullied gorgeousness, itself backed up and in a way heightened by the near presence of the blue. 28 As to furniture, Des Esseintes had no long or laborious searches to undertake, inasmuch as the one and only luxury of the apartment was to be books and rare flowers; while reserving himself the right later on to adorn the naked walls with drawings and pictures, he confined himself for the present to fitting up almost all round the room a series of bookshelves and bookcases of ebony, scattering tiger skins and blue-foxes' pelts about the floor: and installing beside a massive money-changer's table of the fifteenth century, several deep-seated, high-backed armchairs, together with an old church lectern of wrought iron, one of those antique service-desks whereon the deacon of the day used once to lay the Antiphonary, and which now supported one of the ponderous volumes of du Cange's Glossarium medaie et infimae Latinitatis. The windows, the glass of which was coarse and semiopaque, bluish in tinge and with many of the panes filled with the bottoms of bottles, the protuberances picked out with gilt, allowed no view of the outside world and admitted only a faint dim "religious" light. They were further darkened by curtains made out of old priestly stoles, the dull dead gold of whose embroideries faded off into a background of a subdued, almost toneless red. To complete the general effect, above the fireplace, the screen of which was likewise cut from the sumptuous silk of a Florentine dalmatic, midway between two monstrances of gilded copper in the Byzantine style which had come 29 originally from the Abbaye-aux-Bois at Bièvre, stood a marvellously wrought triptych, each of the three separate panels carved with a lacelike delicacy of workmanship; this now contained, guarded under glass let into the triple frame, copied on real vellum in beautiful missal lettering and adorned with exquisite illuminations, three pieces of Baudelaire's: right and left, the sonnets called "The Lovers' Death" and "The Enemy," in the middle, the prose poem that goes by the English title of "Anywhere out of the World." 30

Chapter II

AFTER the sale of his household goods, Des Esseintes kept on the two old servants who had looked after his invalid mother and between them had filled the double office of general factotum and hall-porter at the Château de Lourps. The latter had, up to the date of its being put up for sale, remained empty and untenanted. He took with him to Fontenay this pair of domestics broken in to play the part of sick-nurses, trained to the methodical habits of wardsmen at a hospital, accustomed to administer at stated hours spoonfuls of physic and doses of medicinal draughts, subdued to the rigid quietude of cloistered monks, shut off from all communication with the outer world, content to spend their lives in close rooms with doors and windows always shut. The husband's duty was to keep the rooms clean and fetch the provisions, the wife's to attend to the cooking. Their master gave up the first floor of the house for their accommodation, made them wear thick felt shoes, had double doors installed with well-oiled hinges and covered the floors with heavy carpeting so as to prevent his hearing the faintest sound of their footsteps overhead. Then he arranged with them a code of signals, fixing the precise significance of different rings on his bell, few or many, long or short, and appointed a particular spot on his writingdesk where each month the account books were to 31 be left; in fact, made every possible disposition so as to avoid the obligation of seeing them or speaking to them more often than was absolutely indispensable. More than this, as the woman must needs pass along the front of the house occasionally on her way to an outhouse where the wood was stored and he was resolved not to suffer the annoyance of seeing her commonplace exterior, he had a costume made for her of Flemish grogram, with a white mutch and a great black hood to muffle face and head, such as the Béguines still wear to this day at Ghent. The shadow of this mediaeval coif gliding by in the dusk gave him a conventual feeling, reminding him of those peaceful, pious settlements, those abodes of silence and solitude buried out of sight in a corner of the bustling, busy city. He fixed the hours of meals, too, in accordance with a never varying schedule; indeed his table was of the plainest and simplest, the feebleness of his digestion no longer permitting him to indulge in heavy or elaborate repasts. At five o'clock in winter, after dusk had closed in, he ate an abstemious breakfast of two boiled eggs, toast and tea; then came dinner at eleven; he used to drink coffee, sometimes tea or wine, during the night, and finally played with a bit of supper about five in the morning, before turning in. 32 These meals, the details and menu of which were settled once for all at the beginning of each season of the year, he took on a table placed in the middle of a small room communicating with his study by a padded corridor, hermetically closed and allowing neither smell nor sound to penetrate from one to the other of the two apartments it served to connect. The dining-room in question resembled a ship's cabin with its wooden ceiling of arched beams, its bulkheads and flooring of pitch-pine, its tiny window-opening cut through the woodwork as a porthole is in a vessel's side. Like those Japanese boxes that fit one inside the other, this room was inserted within a larger one,—the real diningroom as designed by the architect. This latter apartment was provided with two windows; one of these was now invisible, being hidden by the bulkhead or partition wall, which could however be dropped by touching a spring, so that fresh air might be admitted to circulate freely around and within the pitch-pine enclosure; the other was visible, being situated right opposite the porthole contrived in the woodwork, but was masked in a peculiar way, a large aquarium filling in the whole space intervening between the porthole and the real window in the real house-wall. Thus the daylight that penetrated into the cabin had first to pass through the outer window, the panes of which had been replaced by a single sheet of plain mirror 33 glass, then through the water and last of all through the glazing of the porthole, which was permanently fixed in its place. At the hour when the steaming samovar stood on the table, the moment when in Autumn the sun would be setting in the west, the water in the aquarium, dull and opaque by daylight, would redden and throw out fiery flashes as if from a glowing furnace over the light-coloured walls. Sometimes, of an afternoon, if Des Esseintes happened to be up and about at that time of day, he would turn the taps connected with a system of pipes and conduits that enabled the tank to be emptied and refilled with fresh water, and then by pouring in a few drops of coloured essences, he could enjoy at his pleasure all the tints, green or grey, opaline or silvery, that real rivers assume according to the hue of the heavens, the greater or less ardour of the sun's rays, the more or less threatening aspect of the rain-clouds, in a word according to the varying conditions of season and weather.

This done, he could picture himself in the 'tween-decks of a brig as he gazed curiously at a shoal of ingenious mechanical fishes that were wound up and swam by clockwork past the port-hole window and got entangled in artificial water-weeds; at other times, as he inhaled the strong smell of tar with which the room had been impregnated before he entered it, he would examine a series of coloured lithographs on the walls, of the sort one sees in packet-boat offices and shipping agencies, representing steamers at sea bound for Valparaiso or the River Plate, alongside framed placards giving the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet services and of the various Ocean liners, freighting charges and ports of call of the Transatlantic mail boats, etc.

Then presently, when he was tired of consulting these time tables, he would rest his eyes by looking over the collection of chronometers and mariner's compasses, sextants and dividers, binoculars and charts scattered about the table, whereon figured only a single book, bound in sea-green morocco, the "Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym," specially printed for his behoof on pure linen-laid paper, hand picked, bearing a sea-gull for water mark. In the last resort, he could turn his gaze upon a litter of fishing-rods, brown tanned nets, rolls of russet-coloured sails, a miniature anchor made of cork painted black, all heaped together near the door that communicated with the kitchen by a passage padded, like the corridor joining the dining-room and study, in such a way as to absorb every unpleasant smell and disturbing noise. By these means he could procure himself, without ever stirring from home, in a moment, almost instantaneously, all the sensations of a long voyage; the pleasure of moving from place to place, a pleasure which indeed hardly exists 35 save as a matter of after recollection, almost never as a present enjoyment at the moment of the actual journey, this he could savour to the full at his ease, without fatigue or worry, in this improvised cabin, whose ordered disorder, whose transitional look and temporary arrangement, corresponded closely enough with the nature of the flying visits he paid it and the limited time he devoted to his meals, while it offered an absolute contrast to his workingroom,—a fixed and final spot, a place of system and settled habit, a room manifestly contrived for the definite enjoyment of a life of cloistered and learned leisure. In fact it appeared to him a futile waste of energy to travel when, so he believed, imagination was perfectly competent to fill the place of the vulgar reality of actual prosaic facts. To his mind it was quite possible to satisfy all the cravings commonly supposed to be the hardest to content under the normal conditions of life, and this merely by a trifling subterfuge, by a more or less close simulation of the object aimed at by these desires. Thus it is a sufficiently wellknown fact that in these days the epicure who frequents those restaurants that have a reputation for the excellence of their cellars is really and truly gratifying his palate by drinking rare vintages artificially manufactured out of common, cheap wines treated after M. Pasteur's methods. Now, whether genuine or faked, these wines have the same aroma, the same colour, the same bouquet, whence it follows that the pleasure experienced in imbibing these fictitious, doctored beverages is absolutely identical with the satisfaction that would be enjoyed from tasting the pure, 36 unsophisticated liquor now unprocurable even at its weight in gold. Transferring this artful sophistication, this clever system of adulteration, into the world of the intellect, there is no doubt we can, and just as easily as in the material world, enjoy false, fictitious pleasures every whit as good as the true; no doubt, for instance, a man can undertake long voyages of exploration sitting in his armchair by the fireside, helping out, if needful, his recalcitrant or sluggish imagination by the perusal of some work descriptive of travels in distant lands; no doubt again that it is quite possible,—without ever stirring from Paris,—to obtain the health-giving impression of sea-bathing. In two words, all that is required in this last case is simply to take a walk to the "Bain Vigier," on a pontoon moored right out in the middle of the Seine. There, by just salting your bath and mixing with the water, according to the formula given in the Pharmacopoeia, a compound of sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by drawing from a box carefully secured by a screw-top a ball of twine or a scrap of rope's end bought for the purpose at one of those great marine store dealers' emporiums whose huge warehouses and cellars reek with the salty smell of the sea and sea-ports; by inhaling these odours which the twine or ropes end are bound to retain; by examining a lifelike photograph of the casino and industriously reading the "Guide Joanne" describing the beauties of the seaside resort where you would like to be; 37 by letting yourself be lulled by the waves raised in the bath by the passing river steamers as they steer close past the bathing pontoon, by listening to the sobbing of the wind as it blusters through the arches of the bridges and the dull rumble of the omnibuses rolling six feet above your head across the Pont Royal; just by doing and suffering these simple things, the illusion is undeniable, overmastering,perfect; you are as good as at the seaside. The whole secret is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate the mind on a single point, to attain to a sufficient degree of self-abstraction to produce the necessary hallucination and so substitute the vision of the reality for the reality itself.

To tell the truth, artifice was in Des Esseintes' philosophy the distinctive mark of human genius.

As he used to say, Nature has had her day; she has definitely and finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments. When all is said and done, what a narrow, vulgar affair it all is, like a petty shopkeeper selling one article of goods to the exclusion of all others; what a tiresome store of green fields and leafy trees, what a wearisome commonplace collection of mountains and seas! In fact, not one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and so wonderful, which the ingenuity of mankind cannot create; no Forest of Fontainebleau, no fairest moonlight landscape but can be reproduced by stage scenery illuminated by the electric light; no waterfall but can be imitated by the proper application of hydraulics, till there is no distinguishing the copy from the original; no mountain crag but painted pasteboard can adequately represent; no flower but well chosen silks and dainty shreds of paper can manufacture the like of!

Yes, there is no denying it, she is in her dotage and has long ago exhausted the simple-minded admiration of the true artist; the time is undoubtedly come when her productions must be superseded by art.

Why, to take the one of all her works which is held to be the most exquisite, the one of all her creations whose beauty is by general consent deemed the most original and most perfect,—woman to wit, have not men, by their own unaided effort, manufactured a living, yet artificial organism that is every whit her match from the point of view of plastic beauty? Does there exist in this world of ours a being, conceived in the joys of fornication and brought to birth amid the pangs of motherhood, the model, the type of which is more dazzlingly, more superbly beautiful than that of the two locomotives lately adopted for service on the Northern Railroad of France? One, the Crampton, an adorable blonde, shrill-voiced, slender-waisted, with her glittering corset of polished brass, 39 her supple, catlike grace, a fair and fascinating blonde, the perfection of whose charms is almost terrifying when, stiffening her muscles of steel, pouring the sweat of steam down her hot flanks, she sets revolving the puissant circle of her elegant wheels and darts forth a living thing at the head of the fast express or racing seaside special! The other, the Engerth, a massively built, dark-browed brunette, of harsh, hoarse-toned utterance, with thick-set loins, panoplied in armour-plating of sheet iron, a giantess with dishevelled mane of black eddying smoke, with her six pairs of low, coupled wheels, what overwhelming power when, shaking the very earth, she takes in tow, slowly, deliberately, the ponderous train of goods waggons. Of a certainty, among women, frail, fair-skinned beauties or majestic, brown-locked charmers, no such consummate types of dainty slimness and of terrifying force are to be found. Without fear of contradiction may we say: man has done, in his province, as well as the God in whom he believes. Thoughts like these would come to Des Esseintes at times when the breeze carried to his ears the far-off whistle of the baby railroad that plies shuttlewise backwards and forwards between Paris and Sceaux. His house was within a twenty minutes' walk or so of the station of Fontenay, but the height at which it stood and its isolated situation left it entirely unaffected by the noise and turmoil of the vile 40 hordes that are inevitably attracted on Sundays by the neighbourhood of a railway station. As for the village itself, he had hardly seen it. Only at night, from his window, he had looked out over the silent landscape that stretches down to the foot of a hill on the summit of which rise the batteries of the Bois de Verrieres. In the shadow, to right and left, loomed other dimly seen masses, terracing the hillside and dominated by other far-off batteries and fortifications, the high revetments of which seemed in the moonlight as if washed in with silver pigment upon a dark background of sky. The plain lay partly in the shadows cast by the hills, while the centre, where the moonlight fell, looked as if it were powdered with starch and smeared with cold-cream; in the warm air that fanned the pale grass and brought with it a spicy perfume, the trees stood out clearly silhouetted with their shaggy leaves and thin stems, which threw black bars of shadow across the chalky earth strewed with pebbles that sparkled like shards of broken crockery. The artificial, rather theatrical air of this landscape was to Des Esseintes' taste; but after that one afternoon devoted to the search for a house at the hamlet of Fontenay, he had never again trodden its streets by daylight. In fact, the green-cry of this district inspired him with no sort of interest, not offering even the dainty, melancholy charm to 41 be found in the pitiful, sickly vegetation that has so sore a struggle to live on the rubbish-heaps of suburban spots near the ramparts. Besides, on that memorable day, he had caught sight of paunchy citizens with flowing whiskers and smartly dressed individuals with moustaches, carrying their heads high, as if they were something sacrosanct, evidently magistrates or military officers; and after such a sight, his usual horror of the human face had been still further accentuated. During the last months of his residence in Paris, at the period when, utterly disillusioned, depressed by hypochondria, eaten up by spleen, he had reached such a pitch of nervous irritability that the mere sight of an unpleasant object or disagreeable person was deeply graven on his brain and several days were needed to efface the impress, even to a slight degree, of the human form that had formed one of his most agonizing torments when passed casually in the street. In positive fact, he suffered pain at the sight of certain types of face, resented almost as insults the condescending or crabbed expressions of particular visages, and felt himself sorely tempted to box the ears of such and such a worthy citizen who strolled by with half closed lids and a magisterial air, another who stood swinging his cane and admiring himself in the shop windows, or yet another who seemed to be pondering the fate of the universe, as he 42 absorbed with frowning brows the titbits and gossipy paragraphs of his morning paper. He scented such a depth of stupidity, such a lively hatred of all his own ideals, such a contempt for literature and art and everything he himself adored, implanted and profoundly fixed in the meagre brains of these tradesmen preoccupied to the exclusion of all else by schemes of swindling and money-grubbing and only accessible to the ignoble distraction that alone appeals to mean minds, politics, that he would rush back home in a fury and lock himself up with his books. Worst of all, he loathed with all his powers of hate the new types of self-made men, the hideous boors who feel themselves bound to talk loud and laugh uproariously in restaurants and cafés, who elbow you, without apology, on the pavements, who, without a word of polite excuse or so much as a bow, drive the wheels of a child's go-cart between your legs.

Chapter III

ONE division of the shelves fixed against the walls of his blue and orange working-room was occupied exclusively by Latin works,—those works which minds broken in to conventionality by listening year after year to the miserable teaching of School and College lecturers designate under the generic name of "The Decadence."

The truth is, the Latin language, as it was written at the period which learned professors still persist in calling the "Golden Age," roused his interest scarcely at all. That idiom, confined within such narrow limits, with its carefully counted, almost invariable turns of phrase, without suppleness of syntax, without colour or light and shade; that idiom, ironed smooth on every seam, pruned of the rugged but often picturesque expressions of earlier epochs, could at a pinch enunciate the pompous nullities, the vague commonplaces repeated ad nauseam by the rhetoricians and poets of that day, but so lacking was it in originality, so instinct with tediousness, that we must, in our studies of language and literature, come down to the French style of the age of Louis XIV, to find one so wilfully emasculated, so solemnly tiresome and sapless.

Among other authors, the gentle Virgil, he whom school ushers name the Swan of Mantua, presumably because he was not born in that city, appeared to him as one of the most terrible of pedants, one of the most dismal twaddlers Antiquity ever produced; his shepherd swains, all washed and beribboned, taking turn and turn about to empty over the unfortunate reader's head their slops of sententious, chilly verses, his Orpheus whom he compares with a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus blubbering over bees, his Aeneas, that weak-kneed, fluent personage who stalks, like a shadow figure at a show, with wooden gestures behind the ill-fitted and badly oiled screen of the poem, set him beside himself with exasperation. He might indeed have put up with the tedious fiddle-faddle these marionettes exchange by way of dialogue as a stage device; he might even have excused the impudent plagiarisms perpetrated on Homer, Theocritus, Ennius, Lucretius, the flagrant theft Macrobius has revealed to us of the whole Second Book of the Aeneid, copied almost word for word from a poem of Pisander's, he might have forgiven, in fact, all the indescribable dulness of this farrago of borrowed verses; but what revolted him more than all was the false ring of those hexameters, with their tinny tinkle like the rattle of a cracked pot, with their longs and shorts weighed out by the pound according to the unalterable laws of a pedantic, barren prosody; it was the framework of these stiff and formal lines that was beyond all bearing, with their official stamp and cringing subservience to grammatical propriety, these verses each mechanically bisected by an unmodifiable caesura, then stopped off at the tail, always in precisely the same way, by a dactyle knocking up against a final spondee.

Borrowed from the cast-iron system perfected by Catullus, that unvarying metrical scheme, unimaginative, inexorable, stuffed full of useless verbiage and endless amplifications, an array of ingeniously contrived pegs each fitting into its corresponding and expected hole, that poor trick of the Homeric "standing epithet," dragged in again and again without rhyme or reason, all that scanty vocabulary with its dull, flat tones, were a torment to his sensibility.

It is only fair to add that, if his admiration for Virgil was decidedly lukewarm and his appreciation of the light lucubrations of Ovid anything but marked, the disgust he felt for the elephantine graces of Horace, the twaddle of this unmitigated lout who smirks at his audience with the painted face and villainous jests of a superannuated clown, was limitless.

In prose, his enthusiasm was not a whit greater for the redundant figures and nonsensical digressions of "Chick-Pea" (Cicero); the braggadocio of his apostrophes, the claptrap of his never-ending appeals to patriotism, the exaggerated emphasis of his harangues, the ponderousness of his style, well-fed and full-fleshed, but run to fat and devoid of bones and marrow, the intolerable litter of his sonorous adverbs opening every sentence, the monotonous structure of his portly periods tied awkwardly to each other by a thread of conjunctions, worst of all his wearisome habits of tautology, were anything but attractive to him. Caesar again was little more to his taste, for all his reputation for conciseness; his was the opposite excess,—a dry-as-dust aridity, a deadly dulness, an unseasonable constipation of phrase that passes belief.

The end of it all was that he could find mental pabulum neither among these writers nor among that other class which still forms the delight of dilettante scholars,—Sallust, who indeed is less insipid than most of the rest; Livy, sentimental and pompous; Seneca, turgid and jejune; Suetonius, lymphatic and horrifying; Tacitus, the most nervous in his studied concision, the most biting, the most sinewy of them all. In poetry, Juvenal, despite some vigorously conceived lines, Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations, both left him cold. Neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the two Plinies. Statius, Martial of Bilbilis, Terence even and Plautus, whose jargon, full as it is of neologisms, made-up words and diminutives, might have pleased him, had not his low wit and coarse jocosity repelled him, Des Esseintes only began to be interested in the language of Rome on the appearance of Lucan, with whom it took on a wider range, becoming henceforth more expressive and less harsh; that author's laboured workmanship, his verse, veneered with enamels, studded with jewels, caught his fancy, albeit his exclusive preoccupation with form, his tinkling sonorities, his metallic brilliancies, did not entirely hide from his eyes this author's, vacuity of thought and the emptiness of the wind-bag phrases that plump out the carcase of the "Pharsalia."

The writer he really loved and who made him reject for good and all from among the books he read, Lucan and his sounding periods, was Petronius.

Petronius was an acute observer, a delicate analyst, a marvellous delineator; calmly, without prejudice, without animosity, he described the daily life of Rome, setting down in the lively little chapters of the Satyricon the manners, customs and morals of his day.

Noting facts as they occurred, putting them down in positive black and white, he disclosed the trivial, every-day existence of the commonalty, its incidents, its bestialities, its sensualities.

Here, we have the Inspector of Lodgings coming to inquire the names of the travellers lately arrived; there, it is a brothel where men are prowling round naked women standing beside placards giving name and price, while through the half-open doors of the rooms the couples can be seen at work; elsewhere again, now in country houses full of insolent luxury, amid a mad display of wealth and ostentation, now in poverty-stricken taverns with their brokendown pallet-beds swarming with fleas, the society of the period runs its race,—debauched cut-purses like Ascyltos and Eumolpus on the look-out for a piece of luck; old wantons of the male sex with their tucked-up gowns and cheeks plastered with ceruse and acacia red; minions of sixteen, plump and curly-headed; women frantic with hysteria; legacy hunters offering their boys and girls to gratify the lustful caprices of rich men; all these and more gallop across the pages, quarrel in the streets, finger each other at the baths, belabour each other with fisticuffs like the characters in a pantomime.

All this told with an extraordinary vigour and precision of colouring, in a style that borrows from every dialect, that cribs words from every language imported into Rome, that rejects all the limitations, breaks all the fetters of the so-called "Golden Age," that makes each man speak in his own peculiar idiom—freemen, without education, the vernacular Latin, the argot of the streets; foreigners, their barbarian lingo, saturated with African, Syrian, Greek expressions; idiotic pedants, like the Agamemnon of the Satyricon, a rhetoric of invented words. All these people are drawn with a free pencil, squatted round a dining-table, exchanging the imbecile conversation of tipsy revellers, mouthing dotards' wise saws and pointless proverbs, all eyes turned upon Trimalchio, the giver of the feast, who sits picking his teeth, offers the company chamber-pots, discourses of his insides, begging his guests to make themselves at home.

This realistic romance, this slice cut from the raw of Roman life, without one thought, whatever people may say, whether of reforming or satirizing society, without any moral purpose whatever or idea of moralizing, this tale,—there is neither intrigue nor action in it,—bringing before the reader the love adventures of male prostitutes, analyzing with calm address the joys and griefs of these amours and these amorous couples, depicting in language wrought to the perfection of a piece of goldsmith's work, without the writer once showing himself, without a word of comment, without one phrase of approbation or disapproval of his characters' deeds and thoughts, the vices of a decrepit civilization, an Empire falling to ruin, rivetted Des Esseintes' attention; he saw inthe refinements of its style, the keenness of its observation, its closely knit, methodical construction, a strange likeness, a curious analogy with the three or four modern French novels that he could stomach.

We may be sure he bitterly regretted the loss of the Eustion and the Albutia, two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciades Fulgentius, but now vanished beyond possibility of recovery; however, the bibliophile side of him came in to console the scholarly, as he fondled in reverent hands the example he owned of the superb edition of the Satyricon, the octavo edition bearing date 1585 printed by J. Dousa at Leyden.

After Petronius, his collection of Latin authors came to the Second Century of the Christian era, skipping over the declaimer Fronto, with his old-fashioned turns of speech and his ill-adjusted, ill-polished style, leaving on one side the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, his disciple and friend, a sagacious and inquisitive mind, but as a writer embarrassed by a sticky, glutinous style,—only stopping when he reached Apuleius, the editio princeps of which author he possessed the folio printed at Rome in 1469.

This African rhetorician was his delight; the Latin language was surely at its best and richest in him, rolling along in a full, copious flood, fed by many tributary streams from all the Provinces of the Empire, and combining all these different elements to form one strange, exotic dialect, hardly dreamed of before; in it new mannerisms, new details of Latin society found expression in new turns of phrase, invented in the stress of conversation in a little Roman town in a corner of Africa. Moreover, the man's bonhomie,—he was a fat, jovial boon companion, there could be no doubt of that,—and the warm-blooded exuberance of his southern nature tickled our hero's fancy. He had the air of a gay and genial comrade, not mealy-mouthed by any means, alongside of the Christian apologists, his contemporaries,—the soporific Minutius Felix, a pseudoclassic, ladling out in his Octavius Cicero's heavy periods, grown heavier than ever, or even Tertullian himself, whom he kept on his shelves more perhaps for the sake of the Aldine edition of his works than for any love of the matter.

Well equipped as he was for Theological disquisitions, the argumentations of the Montanists against the Catholic Church, the polemics of the latter against gnosticism, left him cold; so, despite the preciosity of Tertullian's style, a style rigorously compressed, full of quibbles and amphibologies, based on a liberal use of participles, emphasized by continual antitheses, crammed with puns and plays upon words, variegated with words borrowed from the language of jurisprudence and the diction of the Greek Fathers, he hardly ever now opened the Apologetica or the Tractate on Patience; the most he ever did was to skim through a page or two of the De Cultu Feminarum, in which Tertullian charges the sex not to bedeck their persons with jewels and precious stuffs and forbids them to make use of cosmetics because they are thereby trying to correct and improve on Nature.

These ideas, the precise opposite of his own, made him smile; though the part played by Tertullian as Bishop of Carthage seemed to him suggestive in the way of pleasant day-dreams. In a word, it was really the man more than his works that attracted him.

He had, in truth, lived in stormy times, at a period of fearful stress and strain, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under that amazing personage, the High-Priest of Emessa, Elagabalus; and he had gone on calmly and quietly writing his sermons, composing his dogmatic treatises, preparing his apologies and homilies, while the Roman Empire was tottering to its foundations, while the frantic follies of Asia and the foul vices of Paganism were at their worst; he was preaching with an air of perfect self-possession carnal abstinence, frugality of diet, sobriety of dress at the very moment when, treading on powder of silver and sand of gold, his head crowned with a tiara, his robes studded with precious stones, Elagabalus was at work, among his eunuchs, at women s tasks, calling himself by the title of Empress and every night lying with a new Emperor, selecting him for choice from the ranks of the Court barbers and scullions, or the charioteers from the Circus.

This contrast delighted him; then the Latin language, after attaining to supreme maturity in Petronius, was beginning to break up; the literature of Christianity was claiming its place, bringing in along with new ideas new words, unfamiliar constructions, strange verbs, adjectives of far-fetched meanings, abstract nouns, hitherto scarce in the Roman tongue, and of which Tertullian had been one of the first to introduce the usage.

Only this degeneration, which was carried further after Tertullian's death by his pupil St. Cyprian, by Arnobius, by the muddy Lactantius, was eminently unattractive. It was a gradual decay, slow and incomplete, marked by awkward attempts to return to the emphasis of the Ciceronian periods, not yet possessing that special raciness which in the Fourth and still more in the succeeding Centuries the odour of Christianity will give to the Pagan tongue, as it decomposes little by little, acquires a stronger and stronger aroma of decay, dropping bit by bit to pieces pari passu with the crumbling of the civilization of the Ancient World, with the collapse, before the advance of the Barbarian hordes, of the Empires rotted by the putrescence of the ages.

Only one Christian poet, Commodian of Gaza, was to be found in his library as representative of the art of the Third Century. The Carmen Apologeticum, written about 259 A.D., is a compendium of rules of conduct, tortured into acrostics, composed in rude hexameters, divided by a caesura after the fashion of heroic verse, but without any attention to quantity or the rules of hiatus and often eked out with rhymes of the kind ecclesiastical Latin later on afforded numerous examples of.

These strained, sombre verses, with their touch of savagery, full of common, vernacular expressions, of words deflected from their original meanings, appealed to him, interested him even more than the style, over-ripe and already decadent, the historians Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victor, of the letter-writer Symmachus and the compiler and grammarian Macrobius; he even preferred them to the lines, correctly scanned, and the variegated and superbly picturesque diction of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.

These were in their day the masters of the art; they filled the dying Empire with their swan songs,—the Christian Ausonius with his Cento Nuptialis and his copious and elaborate poem on the Moselle; Rutilius, with his hymns to the glory of Rome, his anathemas against the Jews and against the Monks, his itinerary of Cisalpine Gaul, where he manages sometimes to render certain aspects of the beauties of Nature, the vague charm of landscapes reflected in water, the mirage of mists, the flying vapours about the mountain tops.

Then there is Claudian, a kind of avatar of Lucan, who dominates all the Fourth Century with the terrific clarion of his verse—a poet who wrought a striking and sonorous hexameter, beating out, amid showers of sparks, the right epithet at a blow, attaining a certain grandeur, filling his work with a puissant breath of life. In the Western Empire falling more and more into ruin, amid the confusion of the repeated disasters that fall upon it, unchecked by the constant threat of invasion by the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the very gates of the Empire whose bolts and bars are cracking under the strain, he revivifies Antiquity, sings of the Rape of Proserpine, lays on his brilliant colours, goes by with all his fires ablaze in the gathering gloom that is overspreading the world.

Paganism lives again in him, sounding its last fanfare, raising its last great poet high above the Christianity that is from his day onwards utterly to submerge the language and for ever after remain absolute arbiter and master of poetry,—with Paulinus, pupil of Ausonius, with the Spanish priest Juvenous, who paraphrases the Gospels in verse, with Victorinus, author of the Macchabaei, with Sanctus Burdigalensis, who in an Eclogue copied from Virgil makes the herdsmen Egon and Buculus deplore the maladies of their flocks. Then these are succeeded by all the series of the Saints,—Hilary of Poitiers, the champion of the faith of Nicaea, the Athanasius of the West, as he was called; Ambrosius, the author of indigestible homilies, the wearisome Christian Cicero; Damasus, the fabricator of epigrams cut and polished like precious stones; Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius of Comminges who attacks the worship of the saints, the abuse of miracles and the practice of fasts, and already preaches, using arguments the ages will go on repeating one to the other, against monastic vows and the celibacy of the clergy.

At last, in the Fifth Century, comes Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Him Des Esseintes knew only too well, for he was the writer of all others most highly reputed by the Church, the founder of Christian orthodoxy, the theologian whom good Catholics regard as an oracle, a sovereign authority. Result: he never opened his books any more, albeit he had celebrated, in his Confessions, his disillusionment with this world and with groans of pious contrition; in his Civitas Dei, had endeavoured to assuage the woeful distress of the age by seductive promises of better things to come in a future life. In the years when he was an active theologian, he was already a tired man, sated with his own preachings and jeremiads, weary of his theories on predestination and grace, exhausted by his fights against the schisms.

Des Esseintes liked better to dip into the Psychomachia of Prudentius, the inventor of the allegorical poem, destined later on to flourish uninterruptedly in the Middle Ages, or the Works of Sidonius Apollinaris, whose correspondence, stuffed with sallies, points of wit, archaisms, enigmas, attracted him. He was always ready to read the panegyrics, wherein, in support of his pompous praises, he invokes the deities of Paganism, and in spite of his better judgment, could not but acknowledge a weakness for the affectations and hidden meanings of these poems put together by an ingenious mechanic who loves his machine, scrupulously oils its working parts, and is prepared at a pinch to invent new ones just as complicated and as useless as the old.

After Sidonius, again, he kept on familiar terms with the panegyrist Merobaudes; Sedulius, author of rhymed poems and alphabetical hymns of whichthe Church has appropriated portions to incorporate in her offices; Marius Victor, whose dark and dismal tractate on the Perversity of Morals is lit up here and there by lines that glitter like phosphorus; Paulinus of Pella, the poet of that icy production the Eucharisticon; Orientius, Bishop of Auch, who in the distichs of his Monitoria rails at the licence of women, whose faces, he declares, destroy the nations.

The interest that Des Esseintes felt in the Latin language remained as strong as ever even now when, rotten through and through, it hung a decaying carcase, losing its limbs, distilling its pus, barely keeping, in the utter corruption of its body, a few sound parts which the Christians abstracted to preserve them in the salt pickle of their new dialect.

The second half of the Fifth Century was come, the appalling period when unspeakable troubles afflicted the world. The Barbarians were ravaging Gaul; Rome, paralyzed, sacked by the Visigoths, felt her life frozen within her veins as she saw her outlying limbs, the East and the West, struggling in a sea of blood, growing more and more exhausted from day to day.

Amid the general dissolution, amid the assassinations of Caesars that follow close on each other's heels, amid the uproar of slaughter that rolls from end to end of Europe, a wild hurrah broke forth, terrifying men's hearts, and drowning all other sounds. On the banks of the Danube, thousands of men, perched on little horses, wrapt in rat-skin coats, hideous Tartars with immense heads, flat noses, chins furrowed with wounds and scars, jaundiced, hairless faces, are rushing down helter-skelter on the provinces of the Lower Empire, overwhelming everything in the whirlwind of their advance.

Civilization disappeared in the dust of their gallop, in the smoke of their fires. Darkness fell upon the world and the peoples trembled in consternation as they heard the dread host rush by with a sound of thunder. The horde of Huns swept over Europe, precipitated itself on Gaul, to be overwhelmed on the plains of Châlons where Aëtius heaped up its dead in a fearful carnage. The land was gorged with blood,—a very sea of rolling purple; two hundred thousand corpses barred the road and broke the onrush of this avalanche that, turned aside, fell like a thunderclap on Italy, whose ruined cities flamed up to heaven like so many fired hay-ricks.

The Eastern Empire crumbled under the shock; the expiring life it still dragged out in decrepitude and corruption was extinguished. The last end of the universe indeed seemed near at hand; the cities Attila had passed over were decimated by plague and famine. The Latin tongue, too, seemed to be perishing amid the ruins of a world.

Years rolled by; presently the Barbarian idioms grew more regular, began to emerge from their uncouth envelopes, to develop into true languages; Latin, rescued in the general cataclysm by the Monasteries, was limited to the Religious Houses and the secular cures. Only here and there a few poets appeared, cold, difficult versifiers,—the African Dracontius with his Hexameron; Claudius Mamert, with his liturgical poems; Avitus of Vienna; then presently biographers, such as Ennodius, who relates the miracles of St. Epiphanes, the acute and venerated diplomatist, the upright and vigilant pastor, such as Eugippus, who has recorded for us the incomparable life of St. Severin, the mysterious anchorite, the humble ascetic, who appeared like an angel of mercy to the mourning nations, mad with pain and fear; then again writers like Veranius of the Gevaudan, who composed a little treatise on Continence, like Aurelian and Ferreolus who compiled Church canons; historians like Rotherius of Agde, famed for a History of the Huns, now lost.

Works of the next succeeding centuries were few and far between on Des Esseintes' shelves. Still the Sixth Century was represented by Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns and the Vexilla Regis, hacked out of the ancient carcase of the Latin language, and flavoured with the aromatic spices of the Church, haunted his thoughts on certain days; by Boetius Gregory of Tours, and Jornandes. Then, in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries, inasmuch as, (over and above the Low Latin of the Chroniclers, such as Fredegarius and Paul the Deacon, and verses comprised in the Bangor Antiphonary, one hymn in which, the one that forms an acrostic and has one and the same rhyme ending every line, composed in honour of St. Comgill, he sometimes looked at), contemporary literature was almost exclusively confined to Lives of the Saints,—the legend of St. Columba by the cenobite Jonas and that of the Blessed Cuthbert compiled by the Venerable Bede from the notes of an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne, he confined himself to turning over at odd moments the pages of these Hagiographers and re-reading extracts from the Lives of St. Rusticula and St. Radegonde, related, the former by Defensorius, Synodite of Ligugé, the latter by the modest and simple-hearted Baudonivia, a Nun of Poitiers

However, certain singular productions of Latin literature in Anglo-Saxon lands were more to his liking; there was for instance the whole series of the enigmas of Aldhelm, of Tatwine, of Eusebius, those inheritors of Symphosius' mantle, and in especial the riddles composed by St. Boniface in the form of acrostics, where the answer is given by the initial letters of the lines of each stanza.

His predilection grew less and less towards the end of these two Centuries; finding small pleasure indeed in the ponderous prose of the Carlovingian Latinists, the Alcuins and Eginhards, he contented himself, by way of specimens of the language of the Ninth Century, with the anonymous chronicler of St. Gall, with Freculf and Reginon, with the poem on the Siege of Paris indited by Abbo Le Courbé, with the Hortulus, the didactic poem of the Benedictine Walafrid Strabo, whose canto devoted to the glorification of the pumpkin, symbol of fecundity, charmed his sense of humour. Another favourite was the poem of Ermold the Black, celebrating the exploits of Louis le Débonnaire, a poem written in regular hexameters, in a severe, black style, in a diction of iron tempered in monastic waters, with here and there threads of sentiment imbedded in the hard metal; yet another, the De Viribus Herbarum, a poem of Macer Floridus on simples, which particularly delighted him by its poetical recipes and the extraordinary virtues he attributes to certain herbs and flowers,—to the aristolochia or birthwort, for example, which mixed with beef and laid as a plaster on a woman's abdomen is an infallible specific to make her bear a male child, or the borage, which sprinkled in an infusion about a dining hall, ensures the guests being all merry, or the peony, the pounded root of which cures head-ache for good and all, or the fennel, which, applied to a woman's bosom, clarifies her discharges and stimulates the sluggishness of her periods.

Except for a few special volumes, unclassed, certain works, modern or undated, cabalistic, medical and botanical, sundry odd tomes of Migne's Patrology, preserving Christian poems not to be found elsewhere, and Wernsdorff's Anthology of the Minor Latin Poets, except for Meursius, Forberg's Manual of Classical Erotology, the Moechialogy and the Diaconals for the use of Father Confessors, which he would take down from the shelves to dust at long intervals, with these exceptions, his Latin collections stopped with the beginning of the Tenth Century.

For truly the quaint originality, the complex simplicity of Christian Latinity had likewise come to an end. Henceforth the fiddle-faddle of philosophers and scholiasts, the vain logomachies of the Schoolmen, were to reign in undisputed mastery. The sooty masses of chronicles and books of history, the leaden lumps of the Cartularies, were to rise in more and more mountainous heaps, while the stammering grace, the clumsy but often exquisite simplicity of the Monks setting in a pious hotchpotch the poetical relics of Antiquity were no more, the fabrication of verses of refined sweetness, of substantives smelling of incense, of quaint adjectives, roughly shaped out of gold, in the barbarous, fascinating taste of Gothic jewelry, ceased. The old editions, fondly cherished by Des Esseintes, came to an end,—and making a prodigious jump over the centuries, he loaded the rest of his shelves with modern, vernacular works that, heedless of the slow progression of the ages, came down at once to the French of the present day.

Chapter IV

A CARRIAGE stopped late one afternoon before the house at Fontenay. As Des Esseintes never received a visitor; as even the postman did not venture within these deserted precincts, never having either newspaper, review or letter to leave there, the servants hesitated, asking themselves if they ought to open. But presently, at the repeated summons of the bell outside the wall pulled with a vigorous hand, they went so far as to draw aside the judas let into the door; this done, they beheld a Gentleman whose whole breast was covered, from neck to waist, with a vast buckler of gold. They informed their master, who was at breakfast. "By all means," said he, "bring the gentleman in,"—for he remembered having on one occasion given his address to a lapidary to enable the man to deliver an article he had ordered. The Gentleman came in, made his bow and deposited in the dining-room, on the pitch-pine flooring, his gold shield, which swayed backwards and forwards, rising a little bit from the ground and extending at the extremity of a snakelike neck a turtle's head which next instant it drew back in a scare under its shell. This turtle was the result of a whim that had suddenly occurred to Des Esseintes a short while before his leaving Paris. Looking one day at an Oriental carpet with iridescent 64 gleams of colour and following with his eyes the silvery glints that ran across the web of the wool, the colours of which were an opaque yellow and a plum violet, he had told himself: it would be a fine experiment to set on this carpet something that would move about and the deep tint of which would bring out and accentuate these tones. Possessed by this idea, he had strolled at random through the streets; had arrived at the Palais-Royal, and in front of Chevet's window had suddenly struck his forehead,—a huge turtle met his eyes there, in a tank. He had bought the creature; then, once it was left to itself on the carpet, he had sat down before it and gazed long at it, screwing up his eyes. Alas! there was no doubt, the negro-head hue, the raw sienna tone of the shell dimmed the sheen of the carpet instead of bringing out the tints; the dominant gleams of silver now barely showed, clashing with the cold tones of scraped zinc alongside this hard, dull carapace. He gnawed his nails, searching in vain for a way to reconcile these discordances, to prevent this absolute incompatibility of tones. At last he discovered that his original notion of lighting up the fires of the stuff by the toand-fro movements of a dark object set on it was mistaken; the fact of the matter was, the carpet was still too bright, too crude, too new-looking. Its colours were not sufficiently softened and toned down; the thing was to reverse the 65 proposed expedient, to deaden the tints, to stifle them by the contrast of a brilliant object that should kill everything round it, casting the flash of gold over the pale sheen of silver. Thus looked at, the problem was easier to solve. Accordingly he resolved to have his turtle's back glazed over with gold. Once back from the jeweller's who had taken it in to board at his workshop, the beast blazed like a sun in splendour, throwing its flashing rays over the carpet, whose tones were weak and cold in comparison, looking for all the world like a Visigothic targe inlaid with shining scales, the handiwork of some Barbaric craftsman. At first, Des Esseintes was enchanted with the effect; but he soon came to the conclusion that this gigantic jewel was only half finished, that it would not be really complete and perfect till it was incrusted with precious stones. He selected from a collection of Japanese curios a design representing a great bunch of flowers springing from a thin stalk, took it to a jeweller's, sketched out a border to enclose this bouquet in an oval frame, and informed the dumbfounded lapidary that every leaf and every petal or the flowers was to be executed in precious stones and mounted in the actual scales of the turtle. The choice of the stones gave him pause; the diamond had grown singularly hackneyed now that every business man 66 wears one on his little finger; Oriental emeralds and rubies are less degraded and dart fine, flashing lights, but they are too reminiscent of those green and red eyes that shine as head-lights on certain lines of Paris omnibuses; as for topazes, burnt or raw, they are cheap stones, dear to the humble housewife who loves to lock up a jewel-case or two in a glasscupboard; of another sort, the amethyst, albeit the Church has given it something of a sacerdotal character, is yet a stone spoilt by its frequent use to ornament the red ears and bulbous hands of butchers' wives who are fain at a modest cost to bedeck their persons with genuine and heavy jewels. Alone among all these, the sapphire keeps its fires inviolate, unharmed by the folly of tradesmen and moneygrubbers. The brilliance of its fire that sparkles from a cold, limpid background has to some degree guaranteed against defilement its discreet and haughty nobility. But unfortunately by artificial light its bright flames flash no longer; the colour sinks back into itself and seems to go to sleep, only to wake and sparkle again at daybreak. No, not one of these stones satisfied Des Esseintes; besides, they were all too civilized, too familiar. He preferred other, more startling and uncommon, sorts. After fingering a number of these and letting them trickle through his hands, he finally picked out a series of stones, some real, some artificial, the combination of which should produce a harmony, at once fascinating and disconcerting. 67 He combined together the several parts of his bouquet in this way: the leaves were set with stones of a strong and definite green colour,—chrysoberyls, asparagus green; peridots, leek green; olives, olive green, springing from twigs of almandine and ouvarovite of a purple red, gems throwing out sparkles of a clear, dry brilliance like the incrustations of tartar that glitter on the insides of winecasks. For the blossoms that stood isolated, far removed from the stalk, he used an ashen blue, rejecting, however, definitely the Oriental turquoise that is used for brooches and rings, and which, along with the commonplace pearl and the odious coral form the delight of vulgar souls; he selected exclusively those European turquoises that, strictly speaking, are only a fossil ivory impregnated with coppery infiltrations and whose sea-green blue is heavy, opaque, sulphurous, as if jaundiced with bile. This done, he could now proceed to incrust the petals of such blossoms as grew in the middle of the bunch, those in closest neighbourhood of the stem, with certain translucent stones, possessing a glassy, sickly sheen with feverish, vivid bursts of fire. Three gems, and only three, he employed for this purpose, —Ceylon cat's-eyes, cymophanes and sapphirines. 68 All three were stones that flashed with mysterious, incalculable sparkles, painfully drawn from the chill interior of their turbid substance,—the cat's eye of a greenish grey, striped with concentric veins that seem to be endowed with motion, to stir and shift every instant according to the way the light falls; the cymophane with bluish waterings running across the milky hue that appears afloat within; the sapphirine that lights up blue, phosphorescent fires on a dull, chocolate-brown background. The lapidary took careful notes and measures as to the exact places where the stones were to be let in. "And the edges of the shell?" he presently asked Des Esseintes. The latter had thought at first of a border of opals and hydrophanes. But these stones, interesting as they are by their curious variations of colour and changes of sparkle, are too difficult and untrustworthy to deal with; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness, the play of its rays is entirely modified according to the degree of moisture, and of heat and cold, while the hydrophane has no fire, refuses to light up the grey glow of its furnace except in water, after it has been wetted. Finally he settled on stones whose hues would supplement each other,—the hyacinth of Compostella, mahogany red; the aquamarine, sea green; the balass ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermania ruby, pale slate-colour. Their comparatively feeble play of colours would suffice to light up the deadness 69 of the dull, grey shell, while leaving its full value to the brilliant bouquet of jewelled blossoms which they framed in a slender garland of uncertain splendours. Des Esseintes stood gazing at the turtle where it lay huddled together in one corner of the dining-room, flashing fire in the dim half light. He felt perfectly happy; his eyes were intoxicated with the splendours of these flowers flashing in jewelled flames against a golden background. Then, contrary to his use, he had an appetite and was dipping his slices of toast spread with super-excellent butter in a cup of tea, an impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-tann and Khansky,—yellow teas, imported from China into Russia by special caravans. This liquid perfume he drank from those cups of Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, so delicate and transparent are they; in the same way, just as he would have nothing to say to any other save this adorably dainty ware, he refused to use as dishes and plates anything else but articles of genuine antique silver-gilt, a trifle worn so that the underlying silver shows a little here and there under the film of gold, giving a tender, old-world look as of something fading away in a quiet death of exhaustion. After swallowing his last mouthful, he went back to his study, whither he directed a servant to bring the turtle, which obstinately declined to make the smallest effort towards locomotion. 70 Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight, ice arabesques glittered on the dark windows and the hoar-frost sparkled like crystals of sugar on the bottle-glass panes speckled with gold. A deep silence wrapped the little house that lay asleep in the darkness. Des Esseintes stood lost in dreams; the logs burning on the hearth filled the room with hot, stifling vapours, and presently he threw the window partly open. Like an overhanging canopy of reversed ermine, the sky rose before him, a black curtain dappled with white. An icy wind was blowing, that sent the snow spinning before it and soon reversed this first arrangement of black and white. The sky returned to the correct heraldic blazon, became a true ermine, white dappled with sable, where the black of night showed here and there through the general whiteness of the snowy mantle of descending snowflakes. He closed the window again. But this quick change, without any intermediate transition, from the torrid heat of the room to the cold of mid-winter had given him a shock; he crouched back beside the fire and thought he would swallow a dose of spirits to restore his bodily temperature. He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a 71 row of little barrels, ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part. This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap.

The organ was then open. The stops, labelled "flute," "horn," "vox humana," were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear. Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.

He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,—the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin. Nay, the similarity went to still greater length, analogies not only of qualities of instruments, but of keys were to be found in the music of liquors; thus, to quote only one example, Bénédictine figures, so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of the alcohols which the scores of wine-merchants' price-lists indicate under the name of green Chartreuse. These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless 73 melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum. He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer's motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages. Sometimes again, he would compose pieces of his own, would perform pastoral symphonies with the gentle blackcurrent ratafia that set his throat resounding with the mellow notes of warbling nightingales; with the dainty cacao-chouva, that sung sugarsweet madrigals, sentimental ditties like the "Romances d'Estelle"; or the "Ah! vous dirai-je maman," of former days. But tonight, Des Esseintes had no wish to "taste" the delights of music; he confined himself to sounding one single note on the keyboard of his instrument, filling a tiny cup with genuine Irish whisky and taking it away with him to enjoy at his leisure. He sank down in his armchair and slowly savoured this fermented spirit of oats and barley—a strongly marked, almost poisonous flavour of creosote diffused itself through his mouth. 74 Little by little, as he drank, his thoughts followed the impression thus re-awakened on his palate, and stimulated by the suggestive savour of the liquor, were roused by a fatal similarity of taste and smell to recollections half obliterated years ago. The acrid, carbolic flavour forcibly recalled the very same sensation that had filled his mouth and burned his tongue while the dentists were at work on his gums. Once started on this track, his recollections, at first wandering vaguely over all the different practitioners he had had to do with, drew to a point, converging on one of the whole number, the eccentric memory of whose proceedings was gravenwith particular emphasis on his memory. The thing had happened three years before: seized in the middle of the night with an abominable toothache, he had done everything a man does in such a case,—plugging his jaws with cotton-wool, stumbling against the furniture, pacing up and down his room like a madman. It was a molar that had been stopped again and again, and was past cure; only the dentist's forceps could end his misery. In a fever of agony, he waited for daylight, firmly resolved to bear the most atrocious operation if only it would put an end to his sufferings. 75 Still holding his jaws between his hands, he asked himself what to do. The dentists he usually consulted were well-todo practitioners who could not be seen at a moment's notice; a visit must be arranged beforehand, a regular appointment made. "That is out of the question, I cannot wait," he told himself; so he made up his mind to go to the first dentist he could find, to resort to any common, lowclass tooth-drawer, one of those fellows with fists of iron, who, ignorant as they may be of the art (a mighty useless art, be it said by the way) of attending to decayed teeth and stopping hollow ones, know how to extirpate with unparalleled rapidity the most obstinate of aching stumps. Places of the sort open at daybreak, and there is no waiting. Seven o'clock struck at last. He dashed out of doors, and remembering a name he knew of such a mechanic calling himself a dentist and living at the corner of a neighbouring street, he hurried thither, biting his handkerchief and keeping back his tears as best he might. Arrived in front of the house, which was advertised by a huge wooden placard, whereon the name "Gatonax" sprawled in enormous yellow letters on a black background and two little glazed cases in which artificial teeth were ranged in symmetrical lines in gums of pink composition joined together by mechanical springs of brass wire, he stood panting for breath, the sweat rolling from his temples; a horrid spasm shook him, a shudder ran over his skin,— and lo! relief came, the pain stopped, the tooth ceased to ache. 76 He halted irresolute on the pavement. But eventually he mastered his terror, climbed a dark staircase, mounting four steps at a time to the third floor. There he found on a door an enamelled plaque repeating in sky-blue lettering the same legend as on the board below. He pulled the bell; then, appalled at the great red blotches of expectoration he caught sight of on the steps, he suddenly turned tail, resolved to endure toothache all his life long, when a fearful screech reached his ears through the partition and re-echoed in the well of the staircase, nailing him to the spot in a trance of horror, while at the same instant a door opened and an old woman begged him to come in. Shame had won the day over fear; he was shown into a dining-room; then another door opened noisily, admitting a formidable grenadier of a man, dressed in a frock coat and black trousers that seemed carved in wood. Des Esseintes followed him into an inner sanctum. From that moment his sensations had been vague. Confusedly he remembered dropping into an armchair before a window, and stammering out, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has been stopped already; I am afraid there's nothing can be done." The man had cut short this explanation peremptorily, inserting an enormous fore-finger into his mouth; then, muttering something from under his lacquered, pointed moustaches, he had picked up an instrument from a table. 77 Thereupon the drama had begun. Clinging to the arms of the operating chair, Des Esseintes had felt a sensation of cold in his cheek, then his eyes had seen three dozen candles all at once, and so unspeakable were the tortures he was enduring, he had started beating the floor with his feet and bellowing like an animal under the slaughterer's knife. There was a loud crack, the molar had broken in coming away; he thought they were pulling off his head, smashing in his skull; he lost all control of himself, howled at the top of his voice; fought furiously against the man who now came at him again as if he would plunge his arm to the bottom of his belly; had then suddenly stepped back a pace and lifting the patient bodily by the tooth still sticking in his jaw, had let him fall back again violently in a sitting posture into the chair; next moment he was standing up blocking the window, and puffing and panting as he brandished at the end of his pincers a blue tooth with a red thread hanging from it. Half fainting, Des Esseintes had spit out a basin full of blood, waved away the old woman who now came in offering him the stump of his tooth, which she was preparing to wrap up in a piece of newspaper, and had fled, after paying two francs, taking his turn to leave his signature in bloody spittle on the steps; then he was once more in the street, a happy man, feeling ten years younger, ready to be interested in the veriest trifles. 78 "B'rrr. . . ." he shivered, horrified at these dismal reminiscences. He sprang up to break the horrid nightmare of his thoughts, and coming back to everyday matters, began to feel anxious about the turtle. It still lay quite still; he touched it, it was dead. Accustomed no doubt to a sedentary life, an uneventful existence spent under its humble carapace, it had not been able to support the dazzling splendour imposed on it, the glittering garment in which it had been clad, the pavement of precious stones wherewith they had inlaid its poor back like a jewelled pyx. 79

Chapter V

SIMULTANEOUSLY with his craving to escape a hateful world of degrading restrictions and pruderies, the longing never again to see pictures representing the human form toiling in Paris between four walls or roaming the streets in search of money, had obtained a more and more complete mastery over his mind. Having once divorced himself from contemporary existence, he was resolved to suffer in his hermit's cell no spectres of old repugnances and bygone dislikes; accordingly he had chosen only to possess pictures of a subtle, exquisite refinement, instinct with dreams of Antiquity, reminiscent it may be of antique corruption, but at any rate remote from our modern times and modern manners. He had selected for the diversion of his mind and the delight of his eyes works of a suggestive charm, introducing him to an unfamiliar world, revealing to him traces of new possibilities, stirring the nervous system by erudite phantasies, complicated dreams of horror, visions of careless wickedness and cruelty. Of all others there was one artist who most ravished him with unceasing transports of pleasure,—Gustave Moreau. He had purchased his two masterpieces, and night after night he would stand dreaming in front of one of these, a picture of Salomé.

The conception of the work was as follows: A throne, like the high altar of a Cathedral, stood beneath an endless vista of vaulted arches springing from thick-set columns resembling the pillars of a Romanesque building, encased in many coloured brickwork, incrusted with mosaics, set with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a Palace that recalled a basilica of an architecture at once Saracenic and Byzantine. In the centre of the tabernacle surmounting the altar, which was approached by steps in the shape of a recessed half circle, the Tetrarch Herod was seated, crowned with a tiara, his legs drawn together, with hands on knees. The face was yellow, like parchment, furrowed with wrinkles, worn with years; his long beard floated like a white cloud over the starry gems that studded the goldfringed robe that moulded his breast. Round about this figure, that sat motionless as a statue, fixed in a hieratic pose like some Hindu god, burned cressets from which rose clouds of scented vapour. Through this gleamed, like the phosphoric glint of wild beasts' eyes, the flash of the jewels set in the walls of the throne; then the smoke rolled higher, under the arcades of the roof, mingling its misty blue with the gold dust of the great beams of sunlight pouring in from the domes. 81 Amid the heady odour of the perfumes, in the hot, stifling atmosphere of the great basilica, Salomé, the left arm extended in a gesture of command, the right bent, holding up beside the face a great lotus-blossom, glides slowly forward on the points of her toes, to the accompaniment of a guitar whose strings a woman strikes, sitting crouched on the floor. Her face wore a thoughtful, solemn, almost reverent expression as she began the wanton dance that was to rouse the dormant passions of the old Herod; her bosoms quiver and, touched lightly by her swaying necklets, their rosy points stand pouting; on the moist skin of her body glitter clustered diamonds; from bracelets, belts, rings, dart sparks of fire; over her robe of triumph, bestrewn with pearls, broidered with silver, studded with gold, a corselet of chased goldsmith's work, each mesh of which is a precious stone, seems ablaze with coiling fiery serpents, crawling and creeping over the pink flesh like gleaming insects with dazzling wings of brilliant colours, scarlet with bands of yellow like the dawn, with patterned diapering like the blue of steel, with stripes of peacock green. With concentrated gaze and the fixed eyes of a sleep walker, she sees neither the Tetrarch, who sits there quivering, nor her mother, the ruthless Herodias, who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite or eunuch who stands sabre in hand on the lowest step of the throne, a terrible figure, veiled to below the eyes, the sexless dugs of the 82 creature hanging like twin gourds under his tunic barred with orange stripes. The thought of this Salomé, so full of haunting suggestion to the artist and the poet, had fascinated Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the Doctors in Theology of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of St. Matthew where it recounts in brief, naive phrases the beheading of the Precursor; how often had he dreamed dreams between the simple lines: "But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. "Whereupon, he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. "And she, being before instructed of her mother, said 'Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.' "And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. "And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. "And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother." 83 But neither St. Matthew, nor St. Mark, nor St. Luke, nor any other of the Sacred Writers had enlarged on the maddening charms and the active allurements of the dancer. She had always remained a dim, obliterated figure, lost with her mysterious fascination in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be realized by exact and pedestrian minds, only appealing to brains shaken and sharpened, made visionary as it were by hysteria; she had always eluded the grasp of fleshy painters, such as Rubens who travestied her as a Flemish butcher's wife; always baffled the comprehension of writers who have never yet succeeded in rendering the delirious frenzy of the wanton, the subtle grandeur of the murderess. In the work of Gustave Moreau, going for its conception altogether beyond the meagre facts supplied by the New Testament, Des Esseintes saw realized at last the Salomé, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles,—a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, 84 poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the old Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her. So understood, she belonged to the ancient Theogonies of the Far East; no longer she drew her origin from Biblical tradition; could not even be likened to the living image of Babylonish Whoredom, or the Scarlet Woman, the Royal Harlot of Revelations, bedecked like her with precious stones and purple, tired and painted like her; for she was not driven by a fateful power, by a supreme, irresistible force, into the alluring perversities of debauch. Moreover, the painter seemed to have wished to mark his deliberate purpose to keep outside centuries of history; to give no definite indication of race or country or period, setting as he does his Salomé in the midst of this strange Palace, with its confused architecture of a grandiose complexity; clothing her in sumptuous, fantastic robes, crowning her with a diadem of no land or time shaped like a Phoenician tower such as Salammbô wears, putting in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the sacred flower of Egypt and of India, the great lotus-blossom. Des Esseintes strove to fathom the meaning of this emblem. Did it bear the phallic signification the primordial religions of India give it; did it proclaim to the old Tetrarch a sacrifice of a woman's virginity, an exchange of blood, an incestuous embrace asked for and offered on the express condition of a murder? Or was it intended to suggest the 85 allegory of Fertility, the Hindu myth of Life, an existence held betwixt the fingers of woman, snatched away and defiled by the lustful hands of man, who is seized by a sudden madness, bewildered by the cry of the flesh? Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the revered lotus-flower, the painter had thought of the dancing harlot of all times, the mortal woman the temple of whose body is defiled,—cause of all the sins and all the crimes; perhaps he had remembered the sepulchral rites of ancient Egypt, the ritual ceremonies of the embalmment, when surgeons and priests stretch the dead woman's body on a slab of jasper, then with curved needles extract her brains through the nostrils, her entrails through an incision opened in the left side; finally, before gilding the nails and teeth, before coating the corpse with bitumen and precious essences, insert into her sexual parts, to purify them, the chaste petals of the divine flower. Be this as it may, an irresistible fascination breathed from the canvas; but the water-colour entitled "The Apparition" was perhaps even yet more troubling to the senses. In it, Herod's Palace towered aloft like an Alhambra on light columns iridescent with Moorish chequer-work, joined as with silver mortar, consolidated with cement of gold; arabesques surrounded lozenges of lapis lazuli and wound all along the cupolas, where on marquetries of mother-of- 86 pearl, wandered glittering rainbows, flashes of prismatic colour. The murder had been done; now the headsman stood there impassive, his hands resting on the pommel of his long sword, stained with blood. The decapitated head of the Saint had risen up from the charger where it lay on the flags, and the eyes were gazing out from the livid face with its discoloured lips and open mouth; the neck all crimson, dripping tears of gore. A mosaic encircled the face whence shone an aureola darting gleams of fire under the porticoes, illuminating the ghastly lifting of the head, revealing the glassy eyeballs, that seemed fixed, glued to the figure of the dancing wanton. With a gesture of horror, Salomé repulses the appalling vision that holds her nailed to the floor, balanced on her toe tips; her eyes are dilated, her hand grips her throat convulsively. She is almost naked; in the ardour of the dance the veils have unwound themselves, the brocaded draperies of her robes have slipped away; she is clad now only in goldsmith's artistries and translucent gems; a gorget clips her waist like a corselet; and for clasp a superb, a wondrous jewel flashes lightnings in the furrow between her bosoms; 87 lower, on the hips, a girdle swathes her, hiding the upper thighs, against which swings a gigantic pendant, a falling river of carbuncles and emeralds; to complete the picture: where the body shows bare betwixt gorget and girdle, the belly bulges, dimpled by the hollow of the navel that recalls a graven seal of onyx with its milky sheen and tint as of a rosy finger-nail. Beneath the ardent rays flashing from the Precursor's head, every facet of her jewelled bravery catches fire; the stones burn, outlining the woman's shape in flaming figures; neck, legs, arms, glitter with points of light, now red as burning brands, now violet as jets of gas, now blue as flames of alcohol, now white as moonbeams. The dreadful head flashes and flames, bleeding always, dripping gouts of dark purple that point the beard and hair. Visible to Salomé, alone, it embraces in the stare of its dead eyes neither Herodias, who sits dreaming of her hate satiated at last, nor the Tetrarch, who, leaning rather forward with hands on knees, still pants, maddened by the sight of the woman's nakedness, reeking with heady fumes, dripping with balms and essences, alluring with scents of incense and myrrh. Like the old King, Des Esseintes was overwhelmed, overmastered, dizzied before this figure of the dancing-girl, less majestic, less imposing, but more ensnaring to the senses than the Salomé of the oil painting. 88 In the callous and pitiless statue, in the innocent and deadly idol, the emotion, the terror of the human being had dawned; the great lotus-flower had disappeared, the goddess vanished; an atrocious nightmare now gripped the throat of the mime, intoxicated by the whirl of the dance, of the courtesan, petrified, hypnotized by terror. In this, she was altogether feminine, obedient to her temperament of a passionate, cruel woman; she was active and alive, more refined and yet more savage, more hateful and yet more exquisite; she was shown awakening more powerfully the sleeping passions of man; bewitching, subjugating more surely his will, with her unholy charm as of a great flower of concupiscence, born of a sacrilegious birth, reared in a hothouse of impiety. As Des Esseintes used to maintain: never before at any epoch had the art of water-colour succeeded in reaching such a brilliancy of tint; never had the poverty of chemical pigments been able thus to set down on paper such coruscating splendours of precious stones, such glowing hues as of painted windows illumined by the noonday sun, glories so amazing, so dazzling of rich garments and glowing flesh tints. And, falling into a reverie, he would ask himself what were the origin and antecedents of the great painter, the mystic, the Pagan, the man of genius who could live so remote from 89 the outside world as to behold, here and now in Paris, the splendid, cruel visions, the magic apotheoses of other ages. Who had been his predecessors? This Des Esseintes found it hard to say; here and there, he seemed influenced by vague recollections of Mantegna and Jacopo de Barbari; here and there, by confused memories of Da Vinci and the feverish colouring of Delacroix. But in the main, the effect produced by these masters' work on his own was imperceptible; the real truth was that Gustave Moreau was a pupil of no man. Without provable ancestors, without possible descendants, he remained, in contemporary art, a unique figure. Going back to the ethnographic sources of the nations, to the first origins of the mythologies whose blood-stained enigmas he compared and unriddled, reuniting, combining in one the legends derived from the Far East and metamorphosed by the beliefs of other peoples, he thus justified his architectonic combinations, his sumptuous and unexpected amalgamations of costumes, his hieratic and sinister allegories, made yet more poignant by the restless apperceptions of a nervous system altogether modern in its morbid sensitiveness; but his work was always painful, haunted by the symbols of superhuman loves and superhuman vices, divine abominations committed without enthusiasm and without hope. There breathed from his pictures, so despairing and so erudite, a strange magic, a sorcery that moved you to the bottom of the soul, like that of certain of Baudelaire's 90 poems, and you were left amazed, pensive, disconcerted by this art that crossed the last frontier-lines of painting, borrowing from literature its most subtle suggestions, from the art of the enameller its most marvellous effects of brilliancy, from the art of the lapidary and the engraver its most exquisite delicacies of touch. These two images of Salomé, for which Des Esseintes' admiration was boundless, were living things before his eyes where they hung on the walls of his working study on special panels reserved for them among the shelves of books. But this was by no means the end of the purchases of pictures he had made with a view to beautifying his solitude. True he had sacrificed all the first storey of his house, the only one above the ground floor, and occupied none of its rooms for his personal use, but the latter even by itself demanded a large number of pictures to cover the nakedness of its walls. This ground floor was distributed as follows: A dressingroom, communicating with the bedroom, occupied one angle of the building; from the bedroom you passed into the library, from the library into the dining-room, which formed the other angle. These rooms, making up one front of the house, extended in a straight line, pierced with windows giving on the valley of 91 Aunay. The opposite side of the edifice consisted of four rooms exactly corresponding, so far as size and disposition went, with the former. Thus a kitchen stood at the corner, answering to the dining-room; a large vestibule, serving as entrance hall to the dwelling, matched the library; a kind of boudoir, the bedroom; the closets and bathrooms, the dressing-room. All these latter rooms looked out on the side opposite to the valley of Aunay, towards the Tour du Croy and Châtillon. As to the staircase, it was built against one side of the house, on the outside, so that the servants' footsteps, trampling up the steps, reached Des Esseintes deadened and less noisy. He had had the boudoir hung with tapestry of a vivid red, and on each of the four walls were displayed in ebony frames prints by Jan Luyken, an old Dutch engraver, almost unknown in France. The works he possessed of this artist, at once fantastic and depressing, vigorous and brutal, included the series of his Religious Persecutions, a collection of appalling plates representing all the tortures which the savagery of religious intolerance has invented, plates exhibiting all the horrors of human agony,—men roasted over braziers, skulls laid open 92 by sword cuts, pierced with nails, riven asunder with saws, bowels drawn out of the belly, and twisted round rollers, finger-nails torn out one by one with pincers, eyes put out, eyelids turned back and transfixed with pins, limbs dislocated or carefully broken bones laid bare and scraped for hours with knives. These productions, replete with abominable imaginations, stinking of the stake, reeking with blood, echoing with curses and screams of agony, made Des Esseintes' flesh creep as he stood stifled with horror in the red boudoir. But, over and above the qualms of disgust they provoked, over and above the dreadful genius of the man and the extraordinary vividness he gave his figures, there were likewise to be found among the thronging multitudes that people his marvellous drawings, among the hosts of spectators sketched with a dexterity of hand reminding us of Callot, but with a power that amusing but trivial draughtsman never possessed, curious reconstructions of the life of other places and periods; architecture, costumes, manners and customs in the days of the Maccabees, at Rome during the persecutions of the Christians, in Spain under the Inquisition, in France in the Middle Ages and at the date of the St. Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were all noted with a scrupulous exactitude, and put on paper with a supreme skill. 93 These prints were mines of curious information; a man could look at them for hours and never weary; profoundly suggestive of ideas, they often helped Des Esseintes to kill the time on days when books refused to interest him. Moreover, Luyken's own life was yet another attraction to him, explaining indeed the wildness of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a hidebound sectary, a fanatic of hymns and prayers, he composed religious poems, which he illustrated with his burin, paraphrased the Psalms in verse, lost himself in deep studies of the Bible, from which he would emerge, haggard and enraptured, his brain haunted by bloody pictures, his mouth full of the maledictions of the Reformation, and roused to an ecstasy by its songs of terror and fury. Added to this, he was one who scorned this world, gave up his goods to the poor, lived on a crust of bread himself; in the end, he had taken boat along with an old servant-maid, carried away by a fanatic admiration of the man, put to sea at a venture, landing wherever his vessel came ashore and preaching the Gospel to all peoples, trying to live without eating, a madman and a savage almost at the last. In the adjoining room, the vestibule, a larger apartment panelled with cedar wood the colour of a cigar-box, were ranged in rows other engravings and drawings equally extraordinary. 94 Bresdin's Comedy of Death was one, where in an impossible landscape, bristling with trees, coppices and thickets taking the shape of demons and phantoms, swarming with birds having rats' heads and tails of vegetables, from a soil littered with human bones, vertebrae, ribs and skulls, spring willows, knotted and gnarled, surmounted by skeletons tossing their arms in unison and chanting a hymn of victory, while a Christ flies away to a sky dappled with little clouds; a hermit sits pondering, his head between his hands, in the recesses of a grotto; a beggar dies worn out with privations, exhausted with hunger, stretched on his back, his feet extended towards a stagnant pool. Another was the Good Samaritan by the same artist, an immense pen-and-ink drawing, lithographed,—a wild entanglement of palms, service-trees, oaks, growing all together in defiance of seasons and climates, an outburst of virgin forest, crammed with apes, owls and screech-owls, cumbered with old stumps shapeless as roots of coral,—a magic wood, pierced by a clearing dimly revealing far away, beyond a camel and the group of the Samaritan and the man who fell by the wayside, a river and behind it again a fairylike city climbing to the horizon line, rising to meet a strange-looking sky, dotted with birds, woolly with rolling clouds, swelling, as it were, with bales of vapour. You would have thought it the work of an Early Italian master or a half-developed Albert Durer, composed under 95 the influence of opium. But, much as he admired the delicacy of detail and the imposing conception of this plate, Des Esseintes was more particularly attracted by the other pictures that decorated the room. These were signed Odilon Redon. In their light frames of unpainted pear-wood, with a gold beading, they contained productions of an inconceivable eccentricity,—a head in a Merovingian style, placed upon a cup; a bearded man, having something about him recalling at one and the same time a Buddhist priest and an orator at a public meeting, touching with the tip of his finger a colossal cannonball; a horrible spider, with a human face lodged in the middle of its body. Then there were crayons that went further yet in the horrors of a nightmare dream. Here it was an enormous die that winked a mournful eye; there, a series of landscapes,—barren, parched, burnt-up plains, riven by earthquakes, rising in volcanic heights wreathed with wild clouds under a livid, stagnant sky. Sometimes even the subjects seemed to be borrowed from the dreams of science, to go back to prehistoric times; a monstrous flora spread over the rocks; everywhere were erratic blocks, glacial mud streams, and amongst them human beings whose ape-like type,—the heavy jaws, the projecting arches of the brows, the receding forehead, the flattened top of the skull, recalled the ancestral head, the head of the earliest quaternary period, when man was still a fruit-eater and speechless, a contemporary of the mammoth, the woolly-haired 96 rhinoceros and the giant bear. These drawings passed all bounds, transgressing in a thousand ways the established laws of pictorial art, utterly fantastic and revolutionary, the work of a mad and morbid genius. In fact, there were some of these faces, staring out with great, wild, insane eyes, some of these shapes exaggerated out of all measure or distorted as if seen refracted through water, that evoked in Des Esseintes' memory recollections of typhoid fever, remembrances that had stuck persistently in his head of hot nights of misery and horrid childish nightmares.

Overcome by an indefinable sense of distress before these designs,—the same distress he had formerly experienced at the sight of certain Proverbs of Goya's which they resembled, as also after reading some of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, whose mirages of hallucination and effects of terror Odilon Redon seemed to have transferred into a sister art, he would rub his eyes and gaze at a radiant figure that, amid these frenzied designs, rose calm and serene, a figure of Melancholia, seated before a round sun's disk, on rocks, in an attitude of depression and despondency.

Then the gloom would be dissipated as if by magic; a pleasing sadness, a languor of gentle mournfulness, would fill his thoughts, and he would meditate for hours before this work, which, with its splashes of colour-wash gleaming amid the heavy chalks, struck a brilliant note of liquid green 97 and pale gold to relieve the unbroken black of all these crayons and engravings. Besides this series of Redon's works, covering nearly all the panels of the vestibule, he had hung in his bedroom an extravagant design, a sketch by Théocopuli, a Christ with livid flesh tints, the drawing of which was exaggerated, the colouring crude, the vigour excessive and undisciplined, an example of that painter's second manner, when he was tormented with the one haunting idea of avoiding any resemblance to Titian at all costs. This gloomy work of art, with its tints of dead black and unhealthy green, corresponded in Des Esseintes' ideas with certain conclusions he came to with regard to the furnishing of the same apartment. There existed, according to him, two ways and only two of arranging a bedroom; either to make it a place for pleasure, contrived to excite the passions for nightly adventure; or else to regard it as a retreat dedicated to sleep and solitude, a home of quiet thoughts, a kind of oratory. In the first case, the Louis XV. style, was pre-eminently the one for refined minds, for people exhausted above all by stress and strain of mental sensibility; indeed, only the Eighteenth Century has known how to envelope woman in a vicious atmosphere, shaping its furniture on the model of her charms, copying the contortions of her ardour, imitating 98 the spasms of her amorousness in the waving lines and intricate convolutions of wood and copper, adding a spice to the sugar-sweet languor of the blonde by the vivid, bright tone of its ornamentation, mitigating the salty savour of the brunette by tapestries of subdued, liquid, almost insipid hues. A chamber of the sort he had already included in his Paris abode, with the broad, white bed that gives an added titillation, an enhanced satisfaction to the depraved senses of an old voluptuary, that is like a cynic's grin in face of pretended chastity, before Greuze's innocent sprigs of girlhood, before the artificial purity of naughty sheets that seem spread for children and young virgins. In the other case,—and now that he was determined to break with the agitating memories of his past life, this was the only one possible,—he must contrive a bed-chamber to resemble a monk's cell in a Religious House; but here came difficulty upon difficulty, for he refused absolutely to endure for his personal occupation the austere ugliness that marks such refuges for penitence and prayer. By dint of turning the question over this way and that and looking at it from every side, he arrived at the conclusion that the result to be aimed at amounted to this—to arrange by means of objects cheerful in themselves a melancholy whole, or rather, while preserving its character of plain ugliness, to impress on the general effect of the room thus 99 treated a kind of elegance and distinction; to reverse, in fact, the optical delusion of the stage, where cheap tinsel plays the part of expensive and sumptuous robes, to gain indeed precisely the opposite effect, using costly and magnificent materials so as to give the impression of common rags; in a word, to fit up a Trappist's cell that should have the look of the genuine article, and yet of course be nothing of the sort. He set about the task as follows: to imitate the ochre wash that is the invariable mark of administrative and clerical direction, he had the walls hung with saffron silk; to represent the chocolate brown of the wainscot, the regulation colour for suchlike places, he panelled the lower part of these same walls with wood painted a rich, deep purple. The effect was charmmg, recalling—though how different really!—the bald stiffness of the pattern he was copying,—with modifications. The ceiling, in the same way, was covered with unbleached white cloth, giving the appearance of plaster, but without its crude shiny look; then for the cold tiles of the floor; he mimicked these very successfully, thanks to a carpet with a pattern of red squares, interspersed with spots of a whitish hue where the occupants' sandals might have been supposed to leave their mark. This room he furnished with a little iron bedstead, a sham hermit's couch, constructed out of old pieces of wrought and polished iron, its plainness relieved at head and foot by 100 a leaf and flower ornamentation,—tulips and vine-tendrils intertwined, once part of the balustrade of the great staircase of an old chateau. By way of night-table, he installed an antique prie-Dieu, the inside of which would hold a utensil, while the top supported a book of offices of the Church; he erected against the opposite wall a state pew, surmounted by an open-work canopy decorated with ornaments carved in the solid wood; he used candelabra that had come from a desecrated church, in which he burned real wax tapers purchased at a special house patronized by the clergy, for he felt a genuine repugnance for all the modern methods of illumination, whether petroleum, rock-oil, gas or composite candles, all alike in their crude, dazzling effects. In bed in the morning, as he lay with his head on the pillow before falling asleep, he would gaze at his Théocopuli, the painful colouring of which modified to some degree the soft cheerfulness of the yellow silk on the walls and gave it a graver tone; at these times, he could easily picture himself living a hundred leagues from Paris, far from the world of men, in the depths of a Monastery. And, after all, the illusion was not difficult to sustain for truly he was living a life largely analogous to that of a Monk. In this way, he enjoyed the advantages of confinement in a cloister, while he escaped its inconveniences,—the quasi-military discipline, the lack of comfort, the dirt and herding together and the monotonous idleness. Just as he had made his cell 101 into a warm, luxurious bedchamber, so he had procured himself an existence carried on under normal conditions, without hardship or incommodity, sufficiently occupied, yet free from irksome restraints. Like an eremite, he was ripe for solitude, harassed by life's stress, expecting nothing more of existence; like a monk again, he was overwhelmed with an immense fatigue, a craving for peace and quiet, a longing to have nothing more to do henceforth with the vulgar, who were in his eyes all utilitarians and fools. In short, though he was conscious of no vocation for the state of grace, he felt in himself a genuine sympathy for the folks shut up in Monasteries, persecuted by a society that hates them and can never forgive the well-grounded contempt they entertain for it nor the wish they manifest to redeem, to expiate by long years of silence the everincreasing licentiousness of its grotesque or silly conversations. 102

Chapter VI

BURIED in a vast hooded armchair, his feet resting on the silver-gilt balls of the fire-dogs, his slippers roasting before the burning logs that shot out bright, crackling flames as if lashed by the furious blast of a blow-pipe, Des Esseintes laid down on a table the old quarto he was reading, stretched himself, lit a cigarette and presently lapsed into a delicious reverie, his mind hurrying full chase in pursuit of old-time reminiscences. For months he had not given these a thought, but now they were suddenly revived by the associations of a name that recurred without apparent reason to his memory. Once more he could see with surprising clearness his friend D'Aigurande's embarrassment when once, at a gathering of confirmed old bachelors, he had been forced to confess to the final completion of the arrangements for his marriage. Everybody protested and drew a harrowing picture for his benefit of the abominations of sleeping two in a bed. Nothing availed; he had lost his head, he believed implicitly in the good sense of his future wife and would have it he had discovered in her quite exceptional gifts of tenderness and devotion. Among them all, Des Esseintes had been the only one to encourage him in his design,—this after learning the fact that his comrade's fianceé wished to live at the corner of a newly constructed boulevard, in one of those modern flats that are built on a circular ground-plan. 103 Convinced of the merciless influence exerted by petty vexations, more disastrous as these are for highly strung temperaments than the great sorrows of life, and basing his calculations on the fact that D'Aigurande possessed no fortune of his own, while his wife's dowry was all but nonexistent, he foresaw in this harmless wish an indefinite vista of ludicrous miseries to come. D'Aigurande proceeded in due course to buy furniture all made on the round,—console-tables hollowed out at the back so as to form a semicircle, curtain-poles curved like a bow, carpets cut crescent-shaped,—a whole suite of furniture made specially to order. He spent twice as much as other people; then presently, when his wife, finding herself short of money for her dress, got tired of living in this round-house and removed to an ordinary square habitation at a lower rent, no single piece of furniture would fit in or look right. Little by little, these unconscionable chairs and tables and chests of drawers gave rise to endless squabbles; conjugal happiness, already worn thin by the friction of a life in common, grew week by week more and more ambiguous; mutual recriminations followed, as they found it impossible to live in their drawing-room where sofas and console-tables refused to touch the wall and, in spite of wedges and props, shook and shivered whenever you came near them. Funds were lacking for repairs and improvements, which, to tell the truth, were quite impracticable. Everything became a subject of bitterness and quarrelling, from the drawers that had warped in the 104 wobbling furniture to the petty thefts of the maidservant who took advantage of her master and mistress's squabbles to rob the cash-box. In one word, their life grew unbearable; he sought amusement out of doors, she tried to find in the arms of lovers an anodyne for the wretchedness of her overcast and monotonous life. By common consent, they cancelled the settlements and petitioned for a separation. "Yes, my plan of campaign was quite correct," Des Esseintes had told himself on hearing the news; he enjoyed the same satisfaction a strategist feels when his manoeuvres, planned long beforehand, end in victory. Now, sitting there before his fire and thinking over the break-up of this household which he had helped by his advice to bring together, he threw a fresh armful of wood onto the hearth, and so off again full cry in his dreams. Belonging to the same order of ideas, other memories now began to crowd upon him. It was some years ago now since one evening in the Rue de Rivoli, he had come across a young scamp of sixteen or so, a pale-faced, quick-eyed child, as seductive as a girl. He was sucking laboriously at a cigarette, the paper of which was bursting where the sharp ends of the coarse caporal had come through. Cursing the stuff, the lad was rubbing kitchen matches down his thigh; they would not light, and soon he came to the end of the box. Catching sight of Des 105 Esseintes who was watching him, he came up, touching his peaked cap, and asked politely for a light. Des Esseintes offered some of his own scented Dubeques, after which he entered into conversation with the lad and urged him to tell the story of his life. Nothing could well be more ordinary; his name was Auguste Langlois, and he worked at making pasteboard boxes; he had lost his mother and had a father who beat him unmercifully. Des Esseintes' thoughts were busy as he listened. "Come and have a drink," he said,—and took him to a café where he regaled him with goes of heady punch. The child drank his liquor without a word. "Look here," broke in Des Esseintes suddenly, "would you like some fun this evening? I'll pay the piper." And he had thereupon carried off the youngster to Madame Laure's, a lady who kept an assortment of pretty girls on the third floor of a house in the Rue Mosnier; there was a series of rooms with red walls diversified by circular mirrors, the rest of the furniture consisting mainly of couches and wash-basins. There, petrified with surprise, Auguste as he fingered his cloth cap, had stared with round eyes at a battalion of women whose painted lips exclaimed all together: "Oh! the little lad! Why, he is sweet!" 106 "But, tell us, my angel, you're not old enough yet, surely?" a brunette had interjected, a girl with prominent eyes and a hook nose who filled at Mine. Laure's establishment the indispensable rôle of the handsome Jewess. Quite at his ease, and very much at home, Des Esseintes was talking familiarly in a low voice with the mistress of the house. "Don't be afraid, stupid," he turned to the child to say; "come now, make your choice, it's my treat,"—and he pushed the lad gently towards a divan, onto which he fell between two women. They drew a little closer together, on a sign from Madame Laure, enveloping Auguste's knees in their peignoirs and bringing under his nose their powdered shoulders that emitted a warm, heady perfume. The child never stirred, but sat there with burning cheeks, a dry mouth and downcast eyes, darting from under their lids downward glances of curiosity, that refused obstinately to leave the upper part of the girls' thighs. Vanda, the handsome Jewess, kissed him, giving him good advice, telling him to do what father and mother told him, while her hands were straying all the time over the lad's person; a change came over his face and he threw himself back in a kind of transport on her bosom. "So it's not on your own account you've come tonight," observed Madame Laure to Des Esseintes. "But where the devil did you get hold of that baby?" she added, when Auguste had disappeared with the handsome Jewess. 107 "In the street, my dear lady." "Yet you're not drunk," muttered the old woman. Then, after thinking a bit, she proceeded, with a motherly smile: "Ah, I understand; you rascal, you like 'em young, do you?" Des Esseintes shrugged his shoulders.—"You're wide of the mark! oh! miles away from it," he laughed; "the plain truth is I am simply trying to train a murderer. Now just follow my argument. This boy is virgin and has reached the age when the blood begins to boil; he might, of course, run after the little girls of his neighbourhood, and still remain an honest lad while enjoying his bit of amusement; in fact, have his little share of the monotonous happiness open to the poor. On the contrary, by bringing him here and plunging him in a luxury he had never even suspected the existence of and which will make a lasting impression on his memory; by offering him every fortnight a treat like this, I shall make him acquire the habit of these pleasures which his means forbid his enjoying; let us grant it will take three months for them to become absolutely indispensable to him—and by spacing them out as I do, I avoid all risk of satiating him—well, at the end of the three months, I stop the little allowance I am going to pay you in advance for the benevolence you show him. Then he will take to thieving to pay for his visits here; he will stop at nothing that he may take his usual diversions on this divan in this fine gas-lit apartment. 108 "If the worst comes to the worst, he will, I hope, one fine day kill the gentleman who turns up just at the wrong moment as he is breaking open his desk; then my object will be attained, I shall have contributed, so far as in me lay, to create a scoundrel, an enemy the more for the odious society that wrings so heavy a ransom from us all."

The woman gazed at the speaker with eyes of amazement. "Ah! so there you are!' he exclaimed, as he saw Auguste creeping back into the room, red and shy, skulking behind the fair Vanda. "Come, youngster, it is getting late, make your bow to the ladies." Then he explained to him on their way downstairs that, once every fortnight, he might pay a visit to Madame Laure's without putting hand in pocket. Finally, on reaching the street, as they stood together on the pavement, he looked the abashed child in the face and said: "We shall not meet again after this; do you go back hot foot to your father, whose hand is itching for work to do, and never forget this half divine command: 'Do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.' With that to guide you you will go far."

"Good night, sir."

"But whatever you do, do not be ungrateful, let me hear tidings of you soon as may be,—in the columns of the Police News."

"The little Judas!" Des Esseintes muttered to himself on this occasion, as he stirred the glowing embers; "to think that I have never once seen his name in the newspapers! True, it has been out of my power to play a sure game; that I have foreseen, yet been unable to prevent certain contingencies, —old mother Laure's little tricks, for instance, pocketing the money and not delivering the goods; the chance of one of the women getting infatuated with Auguste, and, when the three months was up, letting him have his whack on tick; or even the possibility of the handsome Jewess's highly-spiced vices having scared the lad, too young and impatient to brook the slow and elaborate preliminaries, or stand the exhausting consummations of her caprices. Unless, therefore, he has been in trouble with the criminal courts since I have been at Fontenay where I never read the papers, I am dished." He got up from his chair and took two or three turns up and down the room. "It would be a thousand pities all the same," he mused, "for, by acting in this way, I had really been putting in practice the parable of lay instruction, the allegory of popular education, which, while tending to nothing else than to turn everybody into Langlois, instead of definitely and mercifully putting out the wretched creatures' eyes, tries its hardest to force them wide open that they may see all about them other lots unearned by any merit yet more benignant, 110 pleasures keener and more brightly gilded, and therefore more desirable and harder to come at." "And the fact is," went on Des Esseintes, pursuing his argument, "the fact is that, pain being the effect of education, seeing that it grows greater and more poignant the more ideas germinate, the more we endeavour to polish the intelligence and refine the nervous system of the poor and unfortunate, the more we shall be developing the germs, always so fiercely ready to sprout, of moral suffering and social hatred." The lamps were smoking. He turned them up and looked at his watch. Three o'clock in the morning. He kindled a cigarette and plunged himself again in the perusal, interrupted by his dreaming, of the old Latin poem De Laude Castitatis, written, in the reign of Gondebald, by Avitus, Bishop Metropolitan of Vienne. 111

Chapter VII

AFTER this evening when, without any apparent cause, he had dwelt upon the melancholy memory of Auguste Langlois, Des Esseintes lived his whole life over again. He was now incapable of understanding one word of the volumes he perused; his eyes themselves refused to read; it seemed to him that his mind, satiated with literature and art, declined absolutely to absorb any more. He lived on himself, fed on his own substance, like those hibernating animals that lie torpid in a hole all the winter; solitude had acted on his brain as a narcotic. At first, it had nerved and stimulated him, but its later effect was a somnolence haunted by vague reveries; it checked all his plans, broke down his will, led him through a long procession of dreams which he accepted with passive endurance without even an attempt to escape them. The confused mass of reading and meditation on artistic themes which he had accumulated since he had lived alone as a barrier to arrest the current of old recollections, had been suddenly carried away, and the flood was let loose, sweeping away present and future, submerging them under the waves of the past, drowning his spirit in a vast lake of melancholy, on the surface of which floated, like grotesque derelicts, trivial episodes of his existence, ridiculously unimportant incidents. 112 The book he was holding tumbled on to his knees; he did not try to resume it, but sat reviewing, full of fear and disgust, the years of his dead past; his thoughts pivoted, like swirling waters round a stake that stands firm and immovable in their midst, about the memories connected with Madame Laure and Auguste. What a time that was!— the period of evening parties, of race-meetings, of cardplaying, of love scenes, ordered in advance and served to the minute, at the stroke of midnight, in his pink boudoir! His mind was obsessed by glimpses of faces, looks, unmeaning words that stuck in his memory in the way popular tunes have of doing, which for a while you cannot help humming over and over, but are as suddenly forgotten without your being aware of it. This epoch was of short duration; then followed a siesta of memory, during which he buried himself once more in his Latin studies, anxious to efface every last trace of these recollections of by-gone years. But the game was fairly started; a second phase followed almost immediately on the first, when his thoughts clung persistently about his boyhood, and especially the part of it spent with the Jesuit fathers. These memories were more distant, yet clearer than the others, engraved on his heart more deeply and more ineffaceably; the leafy park, the long garden walks, the 113 flower beds, the benches, all the material details rose before him. Then the gardens filled with a throng of boys and masters; he could hear the former's shouts at play, the latter's laughter as they mingled in the lads' sports, playing tennis with tucked-up cassocks, the skirts passed between their legs, or else talking under the trees to their pupils without the least affectation of superiority, as if conversing with comrades of their own age. He recalled that paternal yoke which discountenanced any form of punishment, declined to inflict impositions of five hundred or one thousand lines, was content to have the unsatisfactory task done over again while the rest of the class were at recreation, more often than not preferred a mere reprimand, watched over the growing child with an active but loving care, striving to please his tastes, agreeing to walks in whatever direction he liked on Wednesday halfholidays, seizing the opportunity offered by all the little semi-official feast-days of the Church to add to the ordinary fare at meals a treat of cakes and wine or organize a country expedition,—a yoke under which the pupil was never brutalized, but was admitted to open discussion, was treated in fact like a grown man, while still being pampered like a spoilt child. In this way the Fathers succeeded in gaining a real ascendancy over the young, moulded to some extent the 114 minds they cultivated, guided them in the desired direction, engrafted particular modes of thought on their intelligence, secured the development of their character after the required pattern by an insinuating, wheedling method of treatment which they continued to pursue afterwards, making a point of following their subsequent course of life, backing them in their career, keeping up an affectionate correspondence with them,—letters of the sort the Dominican Lacordaire knew well how to write to his former pupils at Sorrèze. One by one, Des Esseintes went over the points of the training he had undergone, as he himself supposed without result; he quite appreciated its merits, albeit his temperament, recalcitrant and stubborn, carping and critical, eager to argue out every proposition, had prevented his being modelled by their discipline or ruled by what they taught him. Once outside the College walls, his scepticism had grown more acute; his intercourse with legitimist society, intolerant and narrow to the last degree, his talks with puzzle-headed church officials and half educated priests whose blunders tore away the veil so cleverly contrived by the Jesuits, had still further fortified his spirit of independence and increased his distrust in any and every form of belief. He deemed himself, in a word, released from every tie, free from every obligation; all he had hitherto preserved, differing herein from all his friends who had been educated 115 at Lycées or lay boarding-schools, was a highly favourable memory of his school and school-masters; yet now, he was actually examining his conscience, beginning to ask himself if the seed heretofore fallen on barren ground was not showing signs of fructifying. The fact is for some days he had been in an indescribably strange state of mind. For a brief moment he was a believer, an instinctive convert to religion; then, after the shortest interval of reflexion, all his attraction towards the Faith would evaporate. But all the time and in spite of everything, he was anxious and disturbed in spirit. Yet he was perfectly well aware, if he looked into his own heart, that he could never have the humility and contrition of a truly Christian soul; he knew beyond all possibility of doubt that the moment of which Lacordaire speaks, the moment of grace, "when the final ray of right penetrates the soul and draws together to a common centre the truths that lie dispersed therein," would never come for him; he experienced none of that craving for prayer and mortification without which, if we are to listen to the majority of priests, no conversion is possible; he felt no wish to supplicate a God, whose loving-kindness seemed to him highly problematical. At the same time the sympathy he still had for his former instructors was sufficient to interest him in their works and teachings; the inimitable accents of conviction he remembered, the ardent voices of men of superior intelligence he recalled, haunted his mind 116 and made him doubt his own ability and strength of intellect. Living the lonely life he now did, with no fresh food for thought, no novel impressions to stimulate imagination, no exchange of sensations coming from outside, from meeting friends or society, from living the same life as other men, confined within an unnatural prisonhouse which he refused to escape from, all sorts of problems, never thought of during his residence in Paris, demanded a solution with irritating persistency. His study of the Latin works he delighted in, works almost without exception written by bishops and monks, had no doubt played their part in determining this crisis. Surrounded by a cloistered atmosphere, wrapt in a fragrance of incense that intoxicated his brain, he had got into an overwrought condition of nerves, and then, by a natural association of ideas, these books had ended by dimming his recollections of his life as a young man, while throwing into high relief those connected with his boyhood among the Fathers. "There is no difficulty," Des Esseintes told himself with an effort after self-examination, "in accounting for this irruption of the Jesuit element at Fontenay; ever since I was a child, and without my knowing it myself, I have had this leaven, which had not previously fermented; is not this inclination I have always felt towards religious thoughts and things perhaps a proof of this?" But his efforts were all directed to persuading himself of the contrary, annoyed as he was to find himself no longer 117 absolute master of his own soul. He sought for motives to account for the change in himself; yes, he must have been forcibly drawn in the direction of the priesthood because the Church, and the Church only, has preserved the art, the lost beauty of the centuries; she has stereotyped, even in the cheap modern reproductions, the patterns of metal work, preserved the charm of chalices slim and tall as petunias, of sacred vessels of exquisite curves and contours, safeguarded, even in aluminium, in sham enamel, in coloured glass, the grace of the models of olden days. As a matter of fact, the main part of the precious objects exhibited in the Musée de Cluny, having escaped by a miracle the foul savagery of the sans-culottes, come from the old Abbeys of France. Just as in the Middle Ages the Church saved from barbarism, philosophy, history and letters, so she has saved plastic art, brought down to our own days those wondrous patterns in ecclesiastical robes and jewelry which the manufacturers of Church furniture and ornaments do their best to spoil, though they can never quite ruin the original beauty of form and colour. There was therefore no cause for surprise in the fact that he had sought eagerly for these antique curios, that like many another collector, he had acquired suchlike relics from the shops of the Parisian antiquaries and the stores of country dealers. But, despite all the good reasons he could call up to his aid, he could not quite manage to convince himself. No doubt, after due consideration, he still continued to look upon religion merely as a superb myth, as a magnificent 118 imposture; and yet, heedless of all his excuses and explanations, his scepticism was beginning to wear thin. There was the fact, odd as it might seem: he was less confident at the present moment than he had been in his boyhood, in the days when the Jesuits exercised direct supervision over his training, when their teaching had to be received, when he was entirely in their hands, was theirs, body and soul, without family ties, without any outside influences of any kind to react against their ascendancy. Moreover, they had instilled in him a certain taste for the marvellous that had slowly and stealthily taken root in his soul, and was now coming to a head in this solitary life that could not but exert its influence on his silent, self-centred nature, for ever moving within the narrow limits of certain fixed ideas. By dint of examining the processes of his thought, of striving to connect its threads together and discover its causes and conditioning circumstances, he eventually persuaded himself that its activities during his life in the world of men had their origin in the education he had received. Thus, his tendencies to artificiality, his longings for eccentricity, were these not, after all, results of plausible studies, supra-terrestrial refinements, semi-theological speculations; in ultimate analysis they amounted to the same thing as religious enthusiasms, aspirations towards an unknown universe, towards a far-off beatitude, just as 119 ardently to be desired as that promised to believers by the Scriptures. He pulled himself up short, broke off the thread of his reflexions. "Come, come," he chid himself angrily, "I am more seriously hit than I thought: here I am argufying with myself, like a casuist." He remained pensive, troubled by a secret fear. No doubt, if Lacordaire's theory was correct, he had nothing to dread, seeing that the magic touch of conversion does not come about in an instant; to produce the explosion, the ground must have been long and systematically mined. But if the novelists talk about the thunderclap of love at first sight, there is also a certain number of theologians who speak of the thunderclap of religion. Admitting the truth of this doctrine, no man then was safe against succumbing. There was no room left for self-analysis, no use in weighing presentiments, no object gained by taking preventive measures; the psychology of mysticism was futile. It was so because it was so, and there was no more to be said. "Why, I am growing crazy," Des Esseintes told himself; "the dread of the disease will end by bringing on the disease itself, if this goes on." He managed to shake off the influence of these preoccupations to some extent, but other morbid symptoms supervened. Now it was the subject matter of various 120 discussions that haunted him to the exclusion of everything else. The College garden, the school lessons, the Jesuit Fathers sank into the remote background, his whole mind was dominated by abstractions, his thoughts were busy, in spite of himself, with contradictory interpretations of dogmas, with long forgotten apostasies, denounced in his work on the Councils of the Church by Père Labbe. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies, which for centuries divided the Western and the Eastern Churches, haunted his memory. Here it was Nestorius, protesting against the Virgin's bearing the title of Mother of God, because in the mystery of the Incarnation, it was not God, but rather the human creature, she had carried in her womb; there it was Eutyches, maintaining that the image of Christ could not be like that of the rest of mankind, inasmuch as the Divinity had been domiciled in his body and had thereby changed its nature utterly and entirely; elsewhere again other quibblers would have it that the Redeemer had had no human body at all, that the language of the Holy Books on this point must be understood figuratively, while yet again Tertullian was found positing his famous quasimaterialistic axiom: "Nothing is incorporal save what is not; whatever is, has a body that is proper toitself," till finally we come to the old, old question debated for years: was the Christ bound alone to the cross, or did the Trinity, one in three persons, suffer, in its threefold hypostasis, on the gibbet of Calvary? All these difficulties tormented him, pressing for an answer,—and mechanically, like a lesson 121 already learnt by rote, he kept asking himself the questions and repeating the replies. For several succeeding days, his brain was seething with paradoxies and subtleties, puzzling over a host of hairsplitting distinctions, wrestling with a tangle of rule as complicated as so many points of law, open to any and every interpretation, admitting of every sort of quirk and quibble, leading up to a system of celestial jurisprudence of the most tenuous and burlesque subtlety. Then the abstract side fell in its turn into abeyance, and a whole world of plasticimpressions took its place, under the influence of the Gustave Moreaus hanging on the walls. He beheld a long procession pass before his eyes of prelates, archimandrites, patriarchs, blessing the kneeling multitudes with uplifted arms of gold, wagging their white beards in reading of the Scriptures and in prayer; he saw dim crypts receive the silent ranks of innumerable penitents; he looked on while men raised vast cathedrals where white-robed monks thundered from the pulpit. In the same fashion as de Quincey, after a dose of opium, would at the mere sound of the words "Consul Romanus" recall whole pages of Livy, would see the consuls coming on in solemn procession and the pompous array of the Roman legionaries marching stately by, so Des Esseintes, struck by some theological phrase, would halt in breathless awe as he pondered the flux and reflux of Nations, and beheld the forms of bishops of other days standing forth in the lamplit 122 gloom of basilicas; visions like these kept him entranced, travelling in fancy from age to age, coming down at last to the religious ceremonies of the present day, enfolded in an endless flood of music, mournful and tender. Now he was beyond all self-justification, the thing was decided beyond appeal; it was just an indefinable impression of veneration and fear; the artistic sense was dominated by the wellcalculated scenes of Catholic ceremonial. At these memories his nerves quivered; then, in a sudden mood of revolt, of swift revolution, ideas of monstrous depravity would attack him,—thoughts of the profanities foreseen in the Confessors' Manual, degraded and filthy abuses of the holy water and the consecrated oil. Face to face with an omnipotent God now stood up a rival full of energy, the Demon; and he thought a hideous glory must needs result from a crime committed in open church by a believer fiercely resolved, in a mood of horrid merriment, of a sadic satisfaction, to blaspheme, to overwhelm with insult and recrimination the things most deserving veneration; mad doings of magic, the black mass, the witches' sabbath, horrors of demoniac possession and exorcism rose before his imagination; he began to ask himself if he were not guilty of sacrilege in possessing articles once consecrated to holy uses,—church service-books, chasubles, pyx-covers. And, strange to say, this notion of living in a state of sin afforded him a sense of proud satisfaction and pleasure; he found a delight in these acts of sacrilege,—after all a possibly innocent sacrilege; in any case not a very serious offence, seeing he really loved these articles and put them 123 to no base usage. Thus he comforted himself with prudent, coward considerations, his half-hearted condition of soul forbidding open crimes, robbing him of the needful courage to accomplish real sins, deliberate, damning iniquities. Eventually, little by little, these casuistries disappeared. He looked out, as it were, from the summit of his mind, over the panorama of the Church and her hereditary influence over humanity, as old as the centuries; he pictured her to himself, solitary and impressive, proclaiming to mankind the horror of life, the inclemency of fate; preaching patience, contrition, the spirit of sacrifice; essaying to heal men's sores by exhibiting the bleeding wounds of the Christ; guaranteeing divine privileges, promising the best part of paradise to the afflicted; exhorting the human creature to suffer, to offer to God as a holocaust his tribulations and his offences, his vicissitudes and his sorrows. He saw her truly eloquent, a mother to the unfortunate, a pitiful father to the oppressed, a stern judge to oppressors and tyrants. At this point, Des Esseintes recovered footing. Doubtless he was content to accept this admission of social rottenness, but his mind revolted against the vague remedy offered, the hope of another life. Schopenhauer was more exact; his doctrine and the Church's started from a common point of view; he, too, took his stand on the wickedness and baseness of the world; he, too, cried out, with the Imitation of Our Lord, in bitterness of spirit: "Verily it is a pitiful 124 thing to be alive on the earth!" He, too, preached the nullity of existence, the advantages of solitude; warned humanity that, whatever it did, whichever way it turned, it must still be unhappy,—the poor man, because of the sufferings that spring from privations; the rich, by reason of the invincible ennui engendered by abundance. But he proclaimed no panacea, consoled you, as a cure for inevitable evils, with no alluring bait. Nor did he maintain the revolting dogma of original sin; did not try to convince you of the existence of a God supremely good and kind who protects the scoundrel, succours the fool, crushes infancy, brutalizes old age, chastises the innocent; he did not extol the benefits of a Providence which has invented that abomination, useless, incomprehensible, unjust and inept, physical pain; far from endeavouring, like the Church, to justify the necessity of torments and trials, he exclaimed in his indignant pity: "If a God had made this world, I should not like to be that God; the misery of the world would break my heart." Schopenhauer had seen the truth! What were all the evangelical pharmacopoeias beside his treatises of spiritual hygiene? He made no professions of healing, offered the sick no compensation, no hope; but his theory of Pessimism was, after all, the great consoler of chosen intellects, of lofty souls; it revealed society as it was, insisted on the innate foolishness of women, pointed you out the beaten tracks, saved you from disillusions by teaching you to 125 restrict, so far as possible, your expectations; never, if you felt yourself strong enough to check theimpulse, to let yourself come to the state of mind of believing yourself happy at last if only, when you least expected it, heaven did not send crashing on your head some murderous tile from the housetops. Setting out from the same starting-point as the Imitation, this theory found the very same goal, but without losing itself on the road among mysterious mazes and impossible bypaths, in resignation and passivity. Only, if this resignation, frankly based on the observation of a deplorable condition of things and the impossibility of effecting any alteration in them, was accessible to the rich in spirit, it was only the more hardly to be received by the poor, whose grievances and indignation the kindly hand of Religion was better adapted to appease. These reflexions relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden; the aphorisms of the great German thinker calmed the tumult of his thoughts, while at the same time the points of similarity between the two doctrines mutually helped each other to find a firm place in his memory, and he could never forget Catholicism, so poetical, so touching, in which he had been bathed as a boy and whose essence he had absorbed through every pore. 126 These returns towards religious convictions, these fears and doubts of uncertain faith had tormented him, especially since new complications had begun to show themselves in his health; they coincided with certain nervous disturbances that had lately arisen. Since his earliest childhood he had been tormented by inexplicable repulsions, shuddering spasms that froze his backbone and clenched his teeth, whenever, for instance, he saw a servant-maid in the act of wringing out wet linen. These instinctive dislikes had never changed, and to that day it caused him genuine suffering to hear a piece of stuff torn in two, to rub his finger over a lump of chalk, to stroke the surface of watered silk. The excesses of his bachelorhood, the abnormal strains put upon his brain had extraordinarily aggravated his original nervous weakness, still further impoverished the exhausted blood of his race; in Paris he had been obliged to resort to hydropathic treatment for trembling of the hands, for atrocious pains, for neuralgic agonies that seemed to cut his face in two, that beat with a never-ceasing hammering at his temples, sent stabbing throbs through his eyelids, provoked fits of nausea he could only subdue by stretching himself flat on his back in the dark. These inconveniences had gradually disappeared, thanks to a better regulated and quieter life; now they were making themselves felt again, though in a different shape, diffused 127 through the body generally; the pain left the head and attacked the stomach, which was swollen and hard; scorched the inwards as with a red-hot iron, brought on a condition of the bowels at once uneasy and constipated. Presently a nervous cough, dry and hacking, beginning always exactly at a set hour and lasting for precisely the same number of minutes, woke him half choking in his bed. Finally he lost all appetite; hot, gassy eructations rose like fire in his throat; the stomach was distended; he felt stifled, after each attempt to eat; he could not endure the least constriction about the body, a buttoned trouser-belt or a buckled waistcoat. He gave up spirituous liquors, coffee and tea, confined himself to a milk diet, resorted to bathing the body with cold water, stuffed himself with assafoetida, valerian and quinine; he even consented to leave the house and take strolls in the country when the days of rain came that make the roads silent and deserted; he forced himself to walk, to take exercise; as a last resource, he renounced reading altogether for the time being and, consumed with ennui, determined by way of filling up this time of enforced leisure to carry out a project the execution of which he had again and again postponed out of laziness and dislike of change since the first day of his settling at Fontenay. No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical enchantments of style, to fall into an ecstasy over the delicious witchery of the rare and well-chosen epithet that, 128 while still definite and precise, yet opens infinite perspectives, to the imagination of the initiate he resolved to complete the decoration of his dwelling, to fill it with costly hothouse flowers and so procure himself a material occupation that should distract his thoughts, calm his nerves and rest his brain. Moreover, he had hopes that the sight of their strange and magnificent colours might console him somewhat for the loss of the fancied or real shades of literary style which his abstention from all reading was to make him forget for the moment or lose altogether.

Chapter VIII

HE had always been madly fond of flowers, but this passion which, during his residence at Jutigny, had at the first embraced all flowers without distinction of species or genus, had in the end grown more discriminating and precise, limiting itself to a single type. For a long time now he had scorned the everyday plants that blossom on the counters of Parisian florists, in dripping flowerpots, under green awnings or red umbrellas. At the same time that his literary tastes, his preferences in art, had become more refined, no longer caring for any works but such as had been tried and sifted, the distillation of overwrought and subtle brains; at the same time that his disgust with generally accepted notions had reached its height, simultaneously his love of flowers had rid itself of all base residuum, all dregs of commonness, had been clarified, as it were, and purified.

He pleased his fancy by likening a horticulturist's shop to a microcosm wherein were represented all the different categories of society—poor, vulgar flowers, hovel flowers, so to speak, that are really in their proper place only on the window-sill of a garret, roots that are crammed in milk-tins and old earthen pots, the gilliflower for instance; pretentious, conventional, silly flowers, whose only place is in porcelain vases painted by young ladies, such as the rose; lastly, flowers of high lineage, such as the orchids, dainty and charming, trembling and delicate, such as the exotic flowers, exiles in Paris, kept in hothouses, in palaces of glass, Princesses of the vegetable world, living apart, having nothing whatever in common with the flowers of the street, the blossoms that are the delight of grocers' wives. In a word, he could do no more than feel a trivial interest, a slight pity, for the people's flowers, fading under the poisonous breath of sewers and sinks in squalid districts; to make up, he loathed those that go with the cream and gold reception-rooms in new houses; he reserved, in fact, for the full and perfect delectation of his eyes, rare plants of highbred type, coming from distant lands, kept alive by skill and pains in an artificial equatorial temperature maintained by carefully regulated furnaces.

But this choice of his, that had deliberately fallen on greenhouse flowers, had itself been further modified under the influence of his general ideas, his opinions that had now come to definite conclusions on all matters. In former days, in Paris, his innate preference for the artificial had led him to neglect the real flower for its copy, faithfully executed thanks to india-rubber and twine, glazed cotton and lustring, paper and velvet. He possessed in accordance with this taste a marvellous collection of tropical plants, produced by the cunning fingers of supreme masters of the craft, following Nature step by step, recreating her, taking the flower from its birth, 131 carrying it to maturity, imitating it to its final decease, observing every shade of its infinite variety, the most fleeting changes of its awakening and its sleep, noting the pose of its petals blown back by the wind or beaten down by the rain, sprinkling on its morning leaves little drops of gum to represent dew, fashioning it according to every season,—in full bloom, when the twigs bend under the weight of sap; or when it lifts its parched stem and ragged corolla as the petals drop away and the leaves fall. This admirable art had long fascinated him; but now he was dreaming of the construction of another sort of flora. He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted natural flowers imitating the false. He set himself to work out this problem, nor had he to search long or go far, for was not his house situated in the very middle of the district specially favoured by the great flower-growers? He went straight off to pay a visit to the hot-houses of the Avenue de Châtillon and the valley of Aunay, to return tired out and his purse empty, thinking of nothing but the strange species he had bought, ceaselessly haunted by his memories of superb and extraordinary blooms. Two days later the carts arrived. 132 List in hand, Des Esseintes called the roster, verified his purchases one by one. The gardeners unloaded from their vans a collection of Caladiums whose swollen, hairy stalks carried enormous leaves, shaped like a heart; while keeping a general look of kinship, they were every one different. They included some extraordinary specimens,—some rosyred, like the Virginale which seemed cut out in glazed cloth, in shiny court-plaster; some all white, like the Albane, that looked as if made of the semi-transparent membrane that lines an ox's ribs, or the diaphanous film of a pig's bladder. Others again, especially the one called Madame Maine, mimicked zinc, parodied pieces of stencilled metal coloured emperor-green, blotched with drops of oil paint, streaks of red-lead and ceruse: these,—the Bosphorus was an example,—gave the illusion of starched calico, spotted with crimson and myrtle-green; those, the Aurora Borealis for instance, had broad leaves the colour of raw meat, intersected by striations of a darker red and purplish threads, leaves that seemed swollen and sweating with dark liquor and blood.

This plant, the Aurora Borealis, and the Albane between them displayed the two opposite poles of constitution, the former bursting with apoplexy, the latter pallid with bloodlessness.

The men brought other and fresh varieties, in this case presenting the appearance of a fictitious skin marked by an imitation network of veins. Most of them, as if disfigured by syphilis or leprosy, displayed livid patches of flesh, reddened by measles, roughened by eruptions; others showed the bright pink of a half-closed wound or the red brown of the crusts that form over a scar; others were as if scorched with cauteries blistered with burns; others again offered hairy surfaces eaten into holes by ulcers and excavated by chancres. To finish the list, there were some that had just come from the doctor's hands, it seemed, plastered with black mercury dressing, smeared with green belladonna ointment, dusted over with the yellow grains of iodoform powder. Thus assembled all together, these strange blossoms struck Des Esseintes as more monstrous yet than when he had first seen them ranged side by side with others, like patients in a hospital ward, down the long conservatories. "Sapristi!" he exclaimed, stirred to the depths. A new plant, of a type similar to the Caladiums, the "Alocasia Metallica," moved his enthusiasm to a still higher pitch. Its leaves were overlaid with a layer of green bronze, shot with gleams of silver; it was the masterpiece, the fine flower of counterfeit; you might have thought it a bit of stove-pipe, cut out of sheet iron in the shape of a spearhead, by a jobbing blacksmith. 134 Next the men unloaded a tangled mass of leaves, lozengeshaped, bottle-green in hue; from their midst rose a switch on top of which trembled a great ace of hearts, as smooth and shiny as a capsicum; then, as if to defy all the familiar aspects of plants, from the middle of this ace of hearts, of an intense vermillion, sprang a fleshy tail, downy, white and yellow, upright in some cases, corkscrewed above the heart, like a pig's tail, in others. It was the Anthurium, one of the arum family, recently imported from Colombia; it formed part of a section of the same family to which also belonged an Amorphophallus, a plant from Cochin China, with long black stalks seamed with scars, like a negro's limbs after a thrashing. Des Esseintes' cup of joy was brimming over. Then they got out of the carts a fresh batch of monstrosities, the Echinopsis, showing a pink blossom like the stump of an amputated limb rising out of a compress of cotton-wool; the Nidularium, displaying in its sword-like leaves gaping, ragged hollows; the "Tillandsia Lindeni," like a brokentoothed cury-comb, of the colour of wine-must: the Cypripedium, with its involved, incoherent, incongruous contours that seem the invention of a madman. It was shaped like a wooden shoe, or a little rag-bag, above which was a human tongue retracted, with the tendon drawn tight, as you may see it represented in the plates of medical works treating of diseases of the throat and mouth; two miniature 135 wings, of a jujube red, that seemed borrowed from a child's toy windmill, completed this grotesque conjunction of the underside of a tongue, colour of wine-lees and slate, and a little glossy pocket, the lining of which distilled a viscous glue.

He could not take his eyes off this impossible-looking orchid, indigenous to India, till the gardeners, exasperated by these delays, began to read out aloud for themselves the labels fixed in the pots as they carried them in. Des Esseintes looked on in wonder, listened open-mouthed to the barbarous names of the herbaceous plants,—the "Encephalartos horridus," a gigantic artichoke, an iron spike painted rust colour, like the ones they stick on the top of park gates to prevent intruders climbing over; the "Cocos Micania," a sort of palm, with a notched and slender stem, everywhere surrounded with tall leaves like paddles and oars; the "Zamia Lehmanni," a huge pineapple, like an immense Cheshire cheese, growing in peaty soil and bristling at the apex with barbed spears and cruel looking arrows; the "Cibotium Spectabile," going one better ever than its congeners in the wild caprice of its structure, defying the maddest nightmare, throwing out from amid a clustered foliage of palm leaves a prodigious orang-outang's tail, a brown, hairy tail curling over at the tip like a bishop's crozier.

These, however, he barely glanced at, waiting impatiently for the series of plants that particularly fascinated him, those vegetable ghouls, the carnivorous plants,—the Flycatcher of the Antilles, with its shaggy edge, secreting a digestive liquid, provided with curved thorns folding into each other to form a barred grating over the insect it imprisons; the Drosera of the peat mosses, furnished with rows of stiff, glandulous hairs; the Sarracena; the Cephalothus, with deep, voracious cups capable of absorbing and digesting actual lumps of meat; last, but not least amazing, the Nepenthes whose eccentricity of shape overpasses all known limits. It seemed as though he could never weary of turning about in his hands the pot in which trembled this extravagant vagary of the flower tribe. It resembled the gum-tree in its long leaves of a sombre, metallic green, but from the end of these leaves depended a green string, a sort of umbilical cord, carrying a greenish coloured urn, veined with purple, a sort of German pipe in porcelain, a strange kind of bird's nest, that swung quietly to and fro, exhibiting an interior carpeted with a hairy growth. "That one is a veritable miracle," Des Esseintes murmured to himself. But he was forced to cut short his manifestations of delight, for now the gardeners, in a hurry to be gone, were unloading the last of their wares and setting down side by 137 side tuberous Begonias and black Crotons, flecked with redlead spots, like rusty iron. Then he noticed that one name was still left on the list, the Cattleya of New Granada. They pointed out to him a little winged bell-flower of a pale lilac, an almost invisible mauve; he drew near, put his nose to it and started back; it exhaled an odour of varnished deal, just the smell of a new box of toys, recalling irresistibly all the horrors of the New Year and New Year's presents. It struck him it would be well for him to beware of it, almost regretted having admitted among the scentless plants he had become possessor of the orchid that brought up the most unpleasant associations. He cast only one glance over this flood-tide of vegetation that swelled in his vestibule; there they were, all confounded together, intercrossing their sword-blades, their kreeses, their lance-heads, forming a tangled mass of green weapons of war, over which floated like barbarian pennons of battle, blossoms dazzling and cruel in their brilliance. The atmosphere of the room was clearer by now, and soon, in a dark corner, just above the floor, a light crept out, soft and white. He went up to it, to discover it was a cluster of Rhizomorphs, each of which, as it breathed, was shedding 138 this gleam like that cast by nightlights. "All the same, these plants are amazing things," he muttered to himself; then he stepped back and embraced in one view the whole collection. Yes, his object was attained; not one of them looked real; cloth, paper, porcelain, metal seemed to have been lent by man to Nature to enable her to create these monstrosities. When she had found herself incapable of copying human workmanship, she had been reduced to mimick the membranes of animals' insides, to borrow the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin. "It is all a matter of syphilis," reflected Des Esseintes, his eyes attracted, riveted on the hideous marking of the Caladiums, lit up at that moment by a shaft of daylight. And he had a sudden vision of the human race tortured by the virus of long past centuries. Ever since the beginning of the world, from sire to son, all living creatures were handing on the inexhaustible heritage, the everlasting malady that has devastated the ancestors of the men of to-day, has eaten to the very bone old fossil forms which we dig up at the present moment. Never wearying, it had travelled down the ages, to this day it was raging everywhere, disguised under ordinary symptoms of headache or bronchitis, hysteria or gout; from time to time, it would climb to the surface, attacking for choice badly cared-for, badly-fed people breaking out in 139 gold pieces, setting, in horrid irony, a Nautch-girl's parure of sequins on its wretched victim's brows, inscribing their skin, for a crown to their misery, with the very symbol of wealth and well-being. And lo! here it was reappearing, in its pristine splendour, on the bright-coloured petals of flowers! "It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, going back to the starting point of his argument, "it is true that, for most of the time, Nature is by herself incapable of producing species so morbid and perverse; she supplies the raw material, the germ and the soil, the procreative womb and the elements of the plant, which mankind rears, models, paints, carves afterwards to suit his caprice." Obstinate, confused, limited though she be, she has at last submitted, and her master has succeeded in changing by chemical reactions the substances of the earth, to utilize combinations long ripened for use, crossings slowly prepared for, to employ artful buddings, systematic graftings, so that nowadays he can make her produce blooms of different colours on the same bough; invents new hues for her; modifies, at his good pleasure, the age-old shapes of her plants. He clears off the rough from her halfhewn blocks, puts the finishing touches to her rude sketches, marks them with his signet, impresses on them his sign-manual of art. 140 "There is no more to be said," he cried, resuming his train of thought; "mankind is able in the course of a few years to bring about a selection which sluggish Nature can never effect but after centuries of time; no doubt of it, in these present times, the gardeners are the only and the true artists." He was a little weary and felt stifled in this atmosphere of hothouse plants; the walks he had taken during the last few days had exhausted him; the change from the open air to the warmth of the house, from the sedentary life of a recluse to the free activity of an outdoor existence, had been too sudden. He left the hall and went to lie down on his bed; but, bent on one single absorbing subject, as if wound up with a spring, the mind, though asleep all the while, went on paying out its chain, and he was soon wallowing in the gloomy fancies of a nightmare. He was standing in the middle of a ride in a great forest at dusk; he was walking side by side with a woman he did not know, had never seen before; she was tall and thin, had pale flaxen hair, a bulldog face, freckled cheeks, irregular teeth projecting below a flat nose. She wore a servant's white apron, a long kerchief crossed like a soldier's buff-belt over her chest, a Prussian grenadier's half-boots, a black bonnet trimmed with ruchings and a big bow. She had the look of a show-woman at a fair, a travelling mountebank or the like. 141 He asked himself who the woman was whom he somehow knew to have been a long while in the room, to have long been an intimate part of his life; in vain he strove to remember her origin, her name, her business, the explanation of her presence; no recollection would come to him of this inexplicable liaison, of which however there could be no doubt. He was still searching his memory when suddenly a strange figure appeared in front of them; it was on horseback and trotted on for a minute, then turned round in the saddle. His blood gave one bound within him and he remained nailed to the spot in utter horror. The ambiguous, sexless creature was green, and from under purple lids shone a pair of pale blue eyes, cold and terrible; two arms of an inordinate leanness, like a skeleton's bare to the elbows, shaking with fever, projected from ragged sleeves, and the fleshless thighs shuddered in churn-boots, a world too wide. The awful eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, piercing him, freezing him to the marrow of his bones; more terrified still, the bulldog woman pressed against him and yelled death and destruction, her head thrown back, her neck stiffened with a spasm of wild terror. And lo! in an instant he knew the meaning of the appalling vision. He had before his eyes the image of the Pox. 142 Mad with fear, beside himself with consternation, he dashed into a side path, ran at headlong speed to a summer-house standing among laburnums to the left of the road, where he dropped into a chair in a passage. In a few minutes when he was beginning to get his breath, the sound of sobs made him look up. The bulldog woman was before him; a piteous, grotesque spectacle. She stood weeping hot tears, declaring she had lost her teeth in her panic, and, drawing from the pocket of her servant's apron a number of clay pipes, she proceeded to break them and stuff bits of the stems into the holes in her gums. "Come now, she's quite ridiculous," Des Esseintes kept telling himself; "the pipes will never stick in,"—and as a matter of fact, they all came tumbling out of her jaws one after the other. At that moment, a galloping horse was heard approaching. A paralysing fear seized Des Esseintes; his limbs failed him. But the sound of hoofs grew momentarily louder; despair stung him to action like the lash of a whip; he threw himself upon the woman, who was now trampling the pipe bowls underfoot, beseeching her to be quiet and not betray him by the noise of her boots. She struggled; but he dragged her to the end of the passage, throttling her to stop her crying out. Suddenly, he saw an ale-house door, with green painted shutters, pushed it open, darted in and stopped dead. 143 In front of him, in the middle of a vast clearing in the woods, enormous white pierrots were jumping like rabbits in the moonlight. Tears of disappointment rose to his eyes; he could never, no, never cross the threshold of the door.—"I should be dashed to pieces," he thought,—and as if to justify his fears, the troop of giant pierrots was reinforced; their bounds now filled the whole horizon, the whole sky, which they knocked alternately with their heels and their heads. The horse came to a standstill, it was there, close by, behind a round window in the passage; more dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned round and saw through the circular opening two pricked ears, two rows of yellow teeth, nostrils breathing clouds of vapour that stank of phenol. He sank to the earth, abandoning all idea of resistance or even of flight; he shut his eyes so as not to see the dreadful eyes of the Syphilis glaring at him through the wall, which nevertheless forced their way under his lids, glided down his spine, enveloped his body, the hairs of which stood up on end in pools of cold sweat. He expected any and every torment, only hoped to have done with it with one final annihilating blow; an age, that beyond a doubt lasted a whole minute, went by; then he opened his eyes again with a shudder. 144 All had vanished; without transition, as if by a change of scene, by a stage delusion, a hideous metallic landscape was disappearing in the distance, a landscape wan, desert, cloven with ravines, dead and dreary; a light illumined this desolate place, a calm, white light, recalling the glint of phosphorus dissolved in oil. On the surface, something moved which took a woman's shape, a pallid, naked woman, green silk stockings moulding the legs. He gazed at her curiously. Like horsehair curled by over-hot irons, her locks were frizzled, with broken ends; urns of the Nepenthes hung at her ears; tints of boiled veal showed in her half-opened nostrils. With entranced eyes, she called him in a low voice. He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing; gleams of iridescent colours flashed in her eyes; her lips assumed the fierce red of the Anthuriums; the nipples of her bosom blazed out like two bright red pods of capsicum. A sudden intuition came to him; it is the Flower, he told himself; and the spirit of reasoning still persisted in the nightmare, drew the same conclusions as he had already in the daytime from the plants as the malevolence of the Virus. Then he noticed the terrifying irritation of the bosoms and of the mouth, discovered on the skin of the body stains of bistre and copper, and recoiled in horror; but the woman's 145 eye fascinated him, and he crept slowly, reluctantly towards her, trying to drive his heels into the ground to stay his advance, dropping to the earth, only to rise again to go to her. He was all but touching her when black Amorphophalli sprang up on every side, and made darts at her belly that was rising and falling like a sea. He put them away from him, pushed them back, feeling an infinite loathing to see these hot, moist, firm stems coiling between his fingers. Then, in a moment, the odious plants disappeared, and two arms were seeking to wind themselves about him. An agony of terror set his heart beating wildly, for the eyes, the dreadful eyes of the woman, had become pale, cold blue, terrible to look at. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embraces, but with an irresistible gesture she seized and held him, and haggard with horror, he saw the savage Nidularium blossom under her meagre thighs, with its sword blades gaping in blood-red hollows. His body was almost in contact with the hideous open wound of the plant; he felt himself a dying man, and awoke with a start, choking, frozen, frantic with fear, sobbing out: "Thank God, thank God! it is only a dream." 146

Chapter XI

THESE nightmares recurred again and again, till he was afraid to go to sleep. He would lie stretched on his bed, sometimes the victim of obstinate fits of insomnia and feverish restlessness, at others of abominable dreams only interrupted by the spasmodic awakening of a man losing foothold, pitching from top to bottom of a staircase, plunging into the depths of an abyss, without power to stop himself. For several days, the exhausting nervous disturbance gained the upper hand again, showing itself more violent and more obstinate than ever, though under new forms. Now the bedclothes were a weight not to be borne; he felt stifled under the sheets, while his whole body was tormented with tinglings; his thighs burned, his legs itched. To these symptoms were soon added a dull aching of the jaws and a sensation as if his temples were confined within a vice. His distress of mind grew more and more acute, but unfortunately the proper means of mastering the merciless complaint were lacking. He had tried without success to fit up an installation of hydropathic appliances in his dressing room; but the impossibility of bringing water to the top of the hill on which his house was perched, the preliminary difficulty indeed of getting water at all in sufficient quantity in a village supplied by public fountains which only trickled 147 sparingly at fixed hours, made his attempt abortive. Finding it impracticable to get himself douched with jets of water, which, shot freely and forcible against the bony rings of the vertebral columns, formed the only method powerful enough to subdue the insomnia and bring back peace of mind, he was reduced to the employment of short aspersions in his bath-room or his tub; mere cold aspersions followed by an energetic rubbing down with a horsehair glove at the hands of his valet. But these half measures were very far from scotching the disease; the most he felt was a temporary relief of a few hours, dearly bought, moreover, by a fresh access of the paroxysms returning to the charge with increased violence. He was consumed with infinite ennui. The pleasure he had felt in the possession of his amazing flowers was exhausted; he was tired already of looking at the texture of their leaves and the shades of their blossoms. Besides, for all the care he lavished upon them, most of his plants had died; these he had removed from the rooms, and then, to such a pitch of nervous irritability had he come, that the sight of the places left vacant for want of them wounded his eye and reduced him to a condition of further exasperation. To distract his attention and kill the interminable hours, he had recourse to his portfolios of prints and sorted his Goyas. The early states of certain plates of the Caprices, proofs distinguishable by their reddish tone, which he had bought 148 in former days at sales, at extravagant prices, struck his fancy, and he lost himself in their contemplation, as he followed the weird fancies of the artist with an unfailing delight in his bewildering imaginations,—witches riding black cats, women extracting a dead man's teeth at the foot of the gallows, bandits, succubi, devils and dwarfs. After this, he went through all the other series of the artist's etchings and aquatints, his Proverbs, so grotesque in their gloomy horror, his battle subjects, so ferocious in their bloodthirstiness, his plate of the Garotte, of which he possessed a superb proof before letters, printed on heavy paper, unsized, with visible watermark-lines showing in its substance. The savage vigour, the uncompromising, reckless talent of this artist captivated him. Yet, at the same time, the universal admiration his works had won put him off somewhat, and for years he had always refused to frame them, fearing, if he exhibited them, that the first noodle who might happen to see them would feel himself bound to talk inanities and fall into an ecstasy in stereotyped phrases as he stood in front of them.

It was the same with his Rembrandts, which he would examine now and again on the sly; and indeed it is very true that, just as the finest air in the world is vulgarized beyond all bearing once the public has taken to hum it and the street organs to play it, so the work of art that has appealed to the sham connoisseurs, that is admired by the uncritical, that is not content to rouse the enthusiasm of only a chosen few, becomes for this very reason, in the eyes of the elect, a thing polluted, commonplace, almost repulsive. This diffusion of appreciation among the common herd was in fact one of the sorest trials of his life; unaccountable triumphs had for ever spoilt his enjoyment in pictures and books he had once held dear; the approbation of the general voice always ended by making him discover some hitherto imperceptible blemish, and he would repudiate them, asking himself if his taste was not getting blunted and untrustworthy.

He shut his portfolios and once more fell into a state of indifference and ill humour. To change the current of his ideas, he tried a course of emollient reading; essayed, with a view to cooling his brain, some of the solanaceae of art; read those books so charming for convalescents and invalids whom sensational stories or works richer in phosphates would only fatigue: Charles Dickens' novels. But the volumes produced an effect just the opposite of what he looked for; his chaste lovers, his Protestant heroines, modestly draped to the chin, whose passions were so seraphic, who never went beyond a coy dropping of the eyes, a blush, a tear of happiness, a squeezing of hands, exasperated him. This exaggerated virtue drove him into the opposite extreme; in virtue of the law of contrasts, he 150 rushed into the contrary excess; thought of passionate, fullbodied loves; pictured the doings of frail, human couples; of ardent embraces mouth to mouth; of pigeon kisses, as ecclesiastical prudery calls them when tongue meets tongue in naughty wantonness. He threw away his book, and banishing the mock-modesty of Albion far from his thoughts, dreamed of the licentious practices, the salacious little sins the Church condemns. A commotion shook him; the insensibility of brain and body that he had supposed final and irrevocable was no more. Solitude has its influence, too, on broken nerves; he was filled with a craving, not now for religious conviction, but for the pleasant sins religion condemns. The habitual object of its threats and curses was the one thing that tempted him; the carnal side of his nature, that had lain dormant for months, roused, first of all, by the feebleness of the pious stuff he had been reading, then stirred to full wakefulness in a spasm of the nerves by the hateful English cant, now asserted itself, and the stimulated senses harking back to the past, he found himself wallowing in the memories of his old dissipations. He got up and gloomily opened a little box of silver-gilt, its lid set here and there with aventurines. It was full of bonbons of a violet colour; one of these he took and turned it about in his fingers, thinking over the strange properties of these sweetmeats, sprinkled over with 151 a powdering of sugar, like hoar-frost; formerly, in the days when his impotency was an established fact and he could dream of women without bitterness, regret or longing, he would place one of these sweetmeats on his tongue and let it melt in his mouth; then, in a moment, would recur with an infinite tenderness recollections, almost effaced, altogether soft and languishing, of the lascivious doings of other days. These bonbons, an invention of Siraudin's known under the ridiculous name of "Pearls of the Pyrenees," consisted of a drop of sarcanthus scent, a drop of essence of woman, crystallized in a piece of sugar; they entered by the papillae of the mouth, evoking reminiscences of water opalescent with rare vinegars; and deep, searching kisses, all fragrant with odours. As usual, his face broke into a smile, as he drank in this amorous aroma; this shadowy semblance of caresses that revived in a corner of his brain a sense of female nudity and re-awakened for a second the savour, once so adorable, of certain women. But today, it was no longer a muffled peal that was ringing; the drug's effect was no longer limited to reviving the memory of far away, half forgotten escapades; rather was it to tear the veils from before his eyes and show him the bodily reality, in all its brutal force and urgency. Heading the procession of mistresses that the taste of the sweetmeat helped to define in clear outlines, one riveted his attention, a woman with long, white teeth, a satiny skin, 152 rosy with health, a short nose, mouse-grey eyes, shortclipped, yellow hair. It was Miss Urania, an American girl with a supple figure, sinewy legs, muscles of steel, arms of iron. She had been one of the most famous of the acrobats at the Cirque. Whole evenings, Des Esseintes had watched her performing. The first few times she had struck him as being just what she was, a powerfully made, handsome woman, but he had felt no desire to come into any closer contact with her; she had nothing about her to appeal to the tastes of a worn man of the world, yet for all this he returned again and again to the Circus, drawn by some mysterious attraction, urged by some sentiment difficult to define. Little by little, as he watched her, his mind filled with strange notions. The more he admired her strength and suppleness, the more he seemed to see an artificial change of sex operating in her; her pretty allurements, her feminine affectations fell more and more into the background, while in their stead were developed the charms attaching to the agility and vigour of a male. In a word, after being a woman to begin with, then something very like an androgyne, she now seemed to become definitely and decisively and entirely a man. 153 "This being so, just as a robust athlete falls in love with a thin slip of a girl, thiswoman of the trapeze should by natural tendency love a feeble, backboneless weakling like myself," Des Esseintes told himself; by dint of considering his own qualities and giving the rein to his faculties of comparison, he presently arrived at the conclusion that, on his side, he was himself getting nearer and nearer the female type. This point reached, he was seized with a definite desire to possess this woman, craving for her as an anaemic young girl will for some great, rough Hercules whose arms can crush her to a jelly in their embrace. This change of sex between Urania and himself had stirred him deeply; we are made for each other, he would declare, while, added to this sudden admiration of brute force, a thing he had hitherto detested, was the spice of the selfdegradation involved in such a union,—the same base delight a common prostitute enjoys in paying dear for the clumsy caresses of a bully. Meantime, as his determination to seduce the acrobat, to make his dreams a reality, if the thing could be done, was maturing, he confined his cherished illusion by attributing the same series of inverted thoughts as his own to the unconscious brain of the woman, reading his own desires repeated in the fixed smile that hovered on the lips of the performer turning on her trapeze. 154 One fine evening, he made up his mind to open the campaign. Miss Urania deemed it necessary not to yield without some preliminary courting. Still she showed herself not very exacting, knowing from common report that Des Esseintes was wealthy and that his name was a help towards starting woman on a successful career. But no sooner were his wishes granted than his disappointment passed all bounds. He had pictured the pretty American athlete to be as stolid and brutal as the strong man at a fair, but her stupidity, alas! was purely feminine in its nature. No doubt she lacked education and refinement, possessed neither good sense nor good wit, while at table she gave tokens of a brutish greediness but all the childish weaknesses of a woman were there in full force; she had all the love of chatter and finery that marks the sex specially given up to trivialities; any such thing as a transmutation of masculine ideas into her feminine person was a pure figment of the imagination. Besides, she was quite a little Puritan and was altogether innocent of those rude, athletic caresses Des Esseintes at once desired and dreaded; she was not subject, as he had for a moment hoped she might be, to any morbid perversities of sex. Possibly, on searching the depths of her temperament, he might yet have discovered a penchant for a dainty, delicate, slimly-built paramour, for a nature precisely the opposite of her own; but in that case, it would have been a preference not for a young girl at all, but for some 155 merryhearted little shrimp of a man; for some skinny, queerfaced clown. Inevitably Des Esseintes resumed his part, momentarily forgotten, as a man; his impressions of femininity, of feebleness, of a sort of protection bought and paid for, of fear even, disappeared entirely. He could deceive himself no longer; Miss Urania was just a mistress like any other, not justifying in any way the cerebral curiosity she had excited. Though, just at first, the freshness and splendour of her beauty had surprised Des Esseintes and kept him captivated, it was not long before he sought to sever the connexion and bring about a speedy rupture, for his premature impotency grew yet more marked when confronted with the icy woman's caresses and prudish passivity. Nevertheless, she was the first to halt before him in the unbroken procession of these wanton memories; but, at bottom, if she had made a deeper impression on his mind than a host of other women whose allurements had been less fallacious and the pleasures they gave less limited, this came of the smell she exhaled as of a sound and wholesome animal. Her redundant health was the very antipodes of the anaemic, perfumed savour, whose delicate fragrance breathed from Siraudin's dainty sweetmeats. 156 By sheer contrast of fragrance, Miss Urania was bound to hold a foremost place in his memory, but almost immediately, Des Esseintes, startled for a moment by the unexpectedness of a natural, unsophisticated aroma, came back to more civilized scents and began inevitably to think of his other mistresses. They trooped across the field of memory in crowds; but, above them all, stood out the woman whose monstrous gift had for months given him such contentment. She was a brunette, a little lean woman, with black eyes and black hair worn in tight bandeaux, that looked as if they had been plastered on her head with a brush, and parted on one side near the temple like a boy's. He had made her acquaintance at a café-concert, where she was giving performances as a ventriloquist. To the amazement of a crowded audience who were half frightened at what they heard, she would give voices, turn and turn about, to half a dozen dolls of graduated sizes seated on chairs like a row of Pandean pipes; she would hold conversations with the little figures that seemed all but alive, while, in the auditorium itself, flies could be heard buzzing about the chandeliers and the spectators whispering on the benches though they had never opened their mouths. Then a string of imaginary carriages would roll up the room from the door to the stage, seeming almost to graze the elbows of the seated audience, who started back, instinctively surprised to find themselves there at all. 157 Des Esseintes had been fascinated; a crowd of new thoughts coursed through his brain. To open the campaign, he made all haste to reduce the fortress by the battery of bank notes, the ventriloquist catching his fancy by the very fact of the utter contrast she presented to the fair American. This brown beauty reeked of artfully prepared perfumes, heady and unhealthy scents, and she burned like the crater of a volcano. In spite of all his subterfuges, Des Esseintes' vigour was exhausted in a few hours; none the less he persisted in allowing himself to be drained dry by her, for more than the woman as a woman, her phenomenal endowments attracted him. In fact, the plans he had proposed to himself to carry out were ripe for execution. He resolved to accomplish a project hitherto impossible of realization. One night, he had a miniature sphinx brought in, carved in black marble, couched in the classic pose with outstretched paws and the head held rigid and upright together with a chimaera, in coloured earthenware, flourishing a bristlingmane, darting savage glances from ferocious eyes, lashing into furrows with its tail its flanks swollen like the bellows of a forge. He placed these monsters, one at each end of the room, put out the lamps, leaving only the red embers glowing on the hearth, to throw a vague and uncertain illumination about the chamber that exaggerated the apparent size of objects half lost in the semi-darkness. 158 This done, he stretched himself on the bed beside his mistress, whose unsmiling face was visible by the faint glow from the fireplace, and awaited developments. With weird intonations which he had made her long and patiently rehearse beforehand, she gave life and voice to the two monsters, without so much as moving her lips, without even a glance in their direction. Then, in the silence of the night, began the wondrous dialogue of the Chimaera and the Sphinx, spoken in deep, guttural tones, now hoarse, now shrill, like voices of another world. "Here, Chimaera, stop, I say." "No, never." Under the spell of Flaubert's marvellous prose, he listened trembling to the dreadful pair and a shudder shook his body from head to foot, when the Chimaera uttered the solemn and magic sentence: "I seek new perfumes, ampler blossoms, untried pleasures." Ah! it was to himself this voice, mysterious as an incantation, spoke; it was to him she told of her feverish desire for the unknown, her unsatisfied longing for the ideal, her craving to escape the horrible reality of existence, to overpass the confines of thought, to grope, without ever reaching it, after a certainty, in the mists of the regions 159 beyond the bounds of art! All the pitifulness of his own efforts filled his heart with sick disgust. Softly he. pressed to his breast the silent woman by his side, clung to her for comfort like a frightened child, never even seeing the sulky looks of the actress forced to play a part, to exercise her craft, at home, in her hours of rest, far away from the footlights. Their liaison went on, but before long Des Esseintes' feebleness grew more pronounced; the effervescence of his mental activities could no longer melt the icy fetters that held his bodily powers; the nerves refused to obey the mandates of the will; the lecherous caprices that appeal to old men dominated him. Feeling himself growing more and more inefficient as a lover, he had recourse to the most powerful stimulus of aged voluptuaries uncertain of their powers—fear. While he held the woman clasped in his arms, a hoarse, furious voice would burst out from behind the door: "Let me in, I say! I know you have a lover with you. Just wait a minute, and I'll let you know, you trollop."—Instantly, like the libertines whose passions are stimulated by terror of being caught in flagrante delicto in the open air, on the river banks, in the Tuileries Gardens, in a summer-house or on a bench, he would temporarily recover his powers, throw himself at the ventriloquist, whose voice went storming on outside the room, and he found an abnormal satisfaction in 160 this rush and scurry, this alarm of a man running a risk, interrupted, hurried in his fornication. Unhappily these sittings soon came to an end. In spite of the extravagant prices he paid, the ventriloquist sent him about his business, and the same night gave herself to a good fellow whose requirements were less complicated and his back stronger. Des Esseintes had regretted the woman, and when he recollected her artifices, other women seemed devoid of flavour; the affected graces of depraved children even appeared insipid, and so profound became his contempt for their monotonous grimaces that he could not bring himself to put up with them any more. Still chewing the bitter cud of his disillusionment, he was walking one day all alone in the Avenue de LatourMaubourg when he was accosted near the Invalides by a young man, almost a boy, who begged him to tell him the shortest way to go to the Rue de Babylone. Des Esseintes indicated his road and, as he was crossing the Esplanade too, they set off together. The lad's voice, insisting, it seemed to his companion quite needlessly, on fuller instructions as to the way;—"Then you think, do you? that by turning left, I should be taking the longer road; but I was told that if I cut obliquely across the 161 Avenue, I should get there all the quicker,"—was timid and appealing at the same time, very low and very gentle. Des Esseintes looked him up and down. He seemed to have just left school, was poorly dressed in a little cheviot jacket tight round the hips and barely coming below the break of the loins, a pair of close-fitting black breeches, a turn-down collar cut low to display a puffed cravat, deep blue with white lines, La Vallière shape. In his hand he carried a class book bound in boards, and on his head was a brown, flatbrimmed bowler hat. The face was at once pathetic and strangely attractive; pale and drawn, with regular features shaded by long black locks, it was lit up by great liquid eyes, the lids circled with blue, set near the nose, which was splashed with a few golden freckles and under which lurked a little mouth, but with fleshy lips divided by a line in the middle like a ripe cherry. They examined each other for a moment, eye to eye; then the young man dropped his and stepped nearer; soon his arm was rubbing against Des Esseintes',who slackened his pace, gazing with a thoughtful look at the lad's swaying walk. And lo! from this chance meeting sprang a mistrustful friendship that nevertheless was prolonged for months. To this day, Des Esseintes could not think of it without a 162 shudder; never had he experienced a more alluring liaison or one that laid a more imperious spell on his senses; never had he run such risks, nor had he ever been so well content with such a grievous sort of satisfaction. Among all the memories that pressed upon him in his solitude, the recollection of this attachment dominated all the rest. All the leaven of insanity that can torment a brain over-stimulated by nervous excitation was fermenting within him; moreover, to complete the satisfaction he found in these reminiscences, in this morose pleasure, as Theology names this recurrence of old doings of shame, he combined with the physical visions, spiritual ardours roused by his former readings of the casuists, writers like Busenbaum and Diana, Liguori and Sanchez, treating of sins against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue. While giving birth to an extra-human ideal in this soul which it had impregnated and which a hereditary tendency dating from the reign of Henry III. perhaps predisposed in the same direction, Religion had at the same time roused an illegitimate ideal of licentious pleasures; libertine and mystic obsessions haunted, in an inextricable union, his brain that thirsted with an obstinate craving to escape the vulgarities of life; to plunge, utterly regardless of revered usages, into new and original ecstasies; into excesses celestial or accursed, but equally ruinous in the waste of phosphorus they involve. 163 As a matter of fact, he issued from these reveries utterly exhausted, half dying; then he would at once kindle the candles and lamps, flooding the room with light, thinking in this way to hear less distinctly than in the darkness the dull, persistent, intolerable beating of the arteries that throbbed and throbbed unceasingly under the skin of the neck. 164

Chapter X

IN the course of that singular malady which plays such havoc with races of exhausted vitality, sudden intervals of calm succeed the crises. Without being able to explain the reason, Des Esseintes awoke quite strong and well one fine morning; no more hacking cough, no more wedges driven with a hammer into the back of the neck, but an ineffable sensation of well-being and a delightful clearness of brain, while his thoughts became cheerful; and instead of being opaque and dull, grew bright and iridescent, like brilliantly coloured soap bubbles. This lasted some days; then in a moment, one afternoon, hallucinations of the sense of smell appeared. His room was strong of frangipane. He looked to see if perhaps there was a bottle of the perfume lying about anywhere uncorked; but there was no such thing in the place. He visited his working-room and then the diningroom; the smell was there too. He rang for his servant. "Don't you smell something?" he asked, but the man, after sniffing the air, declared he noticed nothing. Doubt was impossible; the nervous derangement was come again, taking the form of a fresh delusion of the senses. Wearied by the persistency of this imaginary aroma, he resolved to plunge himself in a bath of real perfumes, 165 hoping that his nasal homeopathy might cure him or, at any rate, moderate the force of the overpowering frangipane. He betook himself to his study. There, beside an ancient font that served him as a wash-hand basin, under a long looking-glass in a frame of wrought iron that held imprisoned like a well-head silvered by the moonlight the pale surface of themirror, bottles of all sizes and shapes were ranged in rows on ivory shelves. He placed them on a table and divided them into two series, —first, the simple perfumes, extracts and distilled waters; secondly, composite scents, such as are described under the generic name of bouquets. He buried himself in an armchair and began to think. Years ago he had trained himself as an expert in the science of perfumes; he held that the sense of smell was qualified to experience pleasures equal to those pertaining to the ear and the eye, each of the five senses being capable, by dint of a natural aptitude supplemented by an erudite education, of receiving novel impressions, magnifying these tenfold, coordinating them, combining them into the whole that constitutes a work of art. It was not, in fact, he argued, more abnormal than an art should exist of disengaging odoriferous fluids than that other arts should whose function is to set up sonorous waves to strike the ear or variously coloured rays to impinge on the retina of the eyes; 166 only, just as no one, without a special faculty of intuition developed by study, can distinguish a picture by a great master from a worthless daub, a motif of Beethoven from a tune by Clapisson, so no one, without a preliminary initiation, can avoid confounding at the first sniff a bouquet created by a great artist with a pot-pourri compounded by a manufacturer for sale in grocers' shops and fancy bazaars. In this art of perfumes, one peculiarity had more than all others fascinated him, viz, the precision with which it can artificially imitate the real article. Hardly ever, indeed, are scents actually produced from the flowers whose name they bear; the artist who should be bold enough to borrow his element from Nature alone would obtain only a half-and-half-result, unconvincing, lacking in style and elegance, the fact being that the essence obtained by distillation from the flowers themselves could at the best present but a far-off, vulgarized analogy with the real aroma of the living and growing flower, shedding its fragrant effluvia in the open air. So, with the one exception of the jasmine, which admits of no imitation, no counterfeit, no copy, which refuses even any approximation, all flowers are perfectly represented by combinations of alcoholates and essences, extracting from the model its inmost individuality while adding that something, that heightened tone, that heady savour, that rare touch which makes a work of art. 167 In one word, in perfumery the artist completes and consummates the original natural odour, which he cuts, so to speak, and mounts as a jeweller improves and brings out the water of a precious stone. Little by little, the arcana of this art, the most neglected of all, had been revealed to Des Esseintes, who could now decipher its language,—a diction as varied, as subtle as that of literature itself, a style of unprecedented conciseness under its apparent vagueness and uncertainty. To reach this end, he had, first of all, been obliged to master the grammar, to understand the syntax of odours, to grasp the rules that govern them; then, once familiarized with this dialect, to study and compare the works of the divers masters of the craft, the Atkinsons and Lubins, the Chardins and Violets, the Legrands and Piesses, to analyze the construction of their sentences, to weigh the proportion of their words and the disposition of their periods. Next, in this idiom of essences, it was for experience to come to the assistance of theories too often incomplete and commonplace. The classic art of perfumery was, in truth, little diversified, almost colourless, uniformly run in a mould first shaped by old-world chemists; it was in its dotage, hide-bound in its ancient alembics, when the Romantic epoch dawned and 168 took its part in modifying, in rejuvenating it, in making it more malleable and more supple. Its history followed step by step that of the French language. The Louis XIII style, perfumed and fullflavoured, compounded of elements costly at that date, of iris powder, musk, civet, myrtle water, already known by the name of Angels' Water, barely sufficed to express the rude graces, the rather crude tints of the time which certain sonnets of Saint-Amand's have preserved for us. Later on, with the introduction of myrrh, frankincense, the mystic scents, powerful and austere, the pomp and stateliness of the Grand Siècle, the redundancy and artificiality of the orator's art, the full, sustained, wordy style of Bossuet and the great preachers became almost possible; later on again, the well-worn, sophisticated graces of French society under Louis XV. found a readier interpretation of their charm in the frangipane and maréchale, which offered in their way the very synthesis of the period. Then finally, after the indifference and incuriousness of the First Empire, which used Eau de Cologne and preparations of rosemary to excess, perfumery ran for inspiration, in the train of Victor Hugo and Gautier, to the lands of the sun; it created Oriental essences, selams overpowering with their spicy odours; invented new savours; tried and approved old tones and shades now rediscovered, which it made more complex, more subtle, more choice; definitely repudiating once for all the voluntary decrepitude to which the art had been reduced 169 by the Malesherbes, the Andrieux, the Baour-Lormians, the vulgar distillers of its poetry. Nor had the language of perfumes remained stationary since the epoch of 1830. Again it had progressed and following the march of the century had advanced side by side with the other arts. It, too, had complied with the whims of amateurs and artists, flying for motives to China and Japan, inventing scented albums, imitating the flowery nosegays of Takeoka; by a mingling of lavender and clove obtaining the perfume Rondeletia; by a union of patchouli and camphor, the singular aroma of India-ink; by compounding citron, clove and neroli (essence of orange blossoms), the odour, the Hovenia of Japan. Des Esseintes studied, analyzed the soul of these fluids, expounded these texts; he took a delight, for his own personal satisfaction, in playing the part of psychologist, in unmounting and remounting the machinery of a work, in unscrewing the separate pieces forming the structure of a complex odour, and by long practice of this sort, his sense of smell had arrived at the certainty of an almost infallible touch. Just as a wine-merchant knows the vintage by imbibing a single drop; as a hop-dealer, the instant he sniffs at a bag, can there and then name its precise quality and price; as a Chinese trader can declare at once the place of origin of the teas he examines, say on what farms of the Bohea 170 mountains, in what Buddhist Monasteries, each specimen was grown, and the date at which its leaves were gathered, can state precisely the degree of heat used and the effect produced by its contact with plum blossom, with the Aglaia, with the Olea fragrans, with all or any of the perfumes employed to modify its flavour, to give it an added piquancy, to brighten up its rather dry savour with a whiff of fresh and alien flowers; even so could Des Esseintes, by the merest sniff at a scent, detail instantly the doses of its composition, explain the psychology of its blending; all but quote the name of the particular artist who wrote it and impressed on it, thepersonal mark of his style. Needless to say, he possessed a collection of all the products used by perfume-makers; he had even some of the true Balm of Mecca, a very great rarity, to be procured only in certain regions of Arabia Petraea and guarded as a monopoly of the Grand Turk. Seated now in his study at his working table, he was pondering the creation of a new bouquet, and had reached that moment of hesitation so familiar to authors who, after months of idleness, are preparing to start upon a fresh piece of work. Like Balzac, who was haunted by an imperious craving to blacken reams of paper by way of getting his hand in, Des Esseintes felt the necessity of recovering his old cunning by dint of executing some task of minor importance. He 171 determined to make heliotrope, and measured out the proper quantities from phials of almond and vanilla; then he changed his mind and resolved to try sweet-pea. The phrases, the processes had escaped his memory. So he made experiments. No doubt in the fragrance of that flower, orange blossom was the dominant factor, he tried a number of combinations and ended by getting the right tone by blending the orange with the tuberose and rose, binding the three together with a drop of vanilla. All his uncertainties vanished; a fever of eagerness stirred him, he was ready to set to work in earnest. He compounded a fresh brew of tea, adding a mixture of cassia and iris; then, sure of himself, he resolved to march boldly forward, to strike a thundering note, the overmastering crash of which should bury the whisper of that insinuating frangipane which still stealthily impregnated the room. He handled amber; Tonquin musk, with its overpowering scent; patchouli, the most pronounced of all vegetable perfumes, whose blossom, in the natural state, gives off an odour compounded of wet wood and rusty iron. Do what he would, the associations of the eighteenth century haunted him, gowns with paniers and furbelows hovered before his eyes; memories of Boucher's "Venus," all flesh, without bones, stuffed with pink cotton-wool, beseiged him; recollections of the novel Thémidore and the exquisite Rosette with skirts high lifted in a fire-red despair, pursued 172 him. In a rage, he sprang up and, to shake himself free from the obsession, sniffed in with all his might that unadulterated essence of spikenard that is so dear to Easterns and so disagreeable to Europeans, by reason of its over-strong savour of valerian. He staggered under the violence of the shock; as if crushed under the blow of a mallet, the delicate fibrils of the dainty scent disappeared. He took advantage of the moment's respite to escape from the dead centuries, the old-time emanations, to enter, as he had been used to do in other days, on creations less limited in scope and more modern in fashion. Of old, he had loved to soothe his spirit with harmonies in perfumery; he would use effects analogous to those of the poets, would adopt, in a measure, the admirable metrical scheme characterizing certain pieces of Baudelaire's, for instance "l'Irréparable" and "le Balcon," where the last of the five lines composing the strophe is the echo of the first, returning like a refrain to drown the soul in infinite depths of melancholy and languor.

He wandered, lost in the dreams these aromatic stanzas called up in his brain, till suddenly recalled to his starting point, to the original motif of his meditations, by the recurrence of the initial theme, re-appearing at studied intervals in the fragrant orchestration of the poem. For the actual moment, he was fain to roam in freedom amid a landscape full of surprises and changes, and he began by a simple phrase,—ample, sonorous, at once opening a view over an immense stretch of country. With the help of his vaporizers, he injected into the room an essence composed of ambrosia, Mitcham lavender, sweetpea, compound bouquet,—an essence which, if distilled by a true artist, well deserves the name bestowed on it of "extract of meadow flowers"; then, into this meadow, he introduced a carefully modulated infusion of tuberose, orange and almond blossom, and instantly artificial lilacs came into being, while lindens swayed in the breeze, shedding on the ground about them their pale emanations, mimicked by the London extract of tilia. This scene, once arranged in a few imposing lines, melting to the horizon under his closed eyes, he insinuated a light rain of human, not to say half feline, essences, smacking of the petticoat, announcing woman powdered and painted,— the stephanotis, the ayapana, the opoponax, the chypre, the champaka, the sarcanthus, over which he superimposed a dash of seringa, to suggest, amid the factitious life of makeup and make-belief which they evoked, a natural flower of hearty, uncontrolled laughter, of the joys of existence in the eye of the sun.

Then he let these fragrant waves escape by a ventilator, keeping only the country scent, which he renewed and reinforced, strengthening the dose so as to force it to recur like the burden of a song at the end of each strophe. Little 174 by little, the feminine aroma disappeared, the country was left without inhabitants. Then, on the enchanted horizon, rose a row of factories whose tall chimneys flamed at their tops like so many bowls of punch. A breath as of manufactories, of chemical works now floated on the breeze which he raised by waving fans, though Nature still continued to sweeten with her fragrant emanations this foulness of the atmosphere. Des Esseintes proceeded to turn about and warm between his hands a ball of styrax, and a very curious odour filled the room, a smell at once repugnant and exquisite, blending the delicious scent of the jonquil with the filthy stench of guttapercha and coal tar. He disinfected his hands, shut away his resin in a box hermetically sealed, and the stinking factories vanished in their turn. Then, he tossed amid the revivified vapours of lindens and meadow-grass some drops of "new mown hay," and on the magic spot, instantly bared of its lilacs, rose mounds of hay, bringing with them a new season, scattering their delicate odours reminiscent of high summer. Last of all, when he had sufficiently savoured the sight, he hurriedly scattered about exotic perfumes, exhausted his vaporizers, concentrated his strongest essences, gave the rein to all his balms, and lo! the stifling closeness of the room was filled with an atmosphere, maddening and sublime, breathing powerful influences, impregnating with raging alcoholates an artificial breeze,—an atmosphere unnatural, yet delightful, paradoxical in its union of the allspice of the Tropics, the pungent savours of the sandalwood of China and the hediosmia of Japan with native odours of jasmine, hawthorn and vervain, forcing, to grow together, in despite of seasons and climates, trees of diverse essences, flowers of colours and fragrances the most opposite, creating by the blending and shock of all these tones one common perfume, unknown, unforeseen, extraordinary, wherein re-appeared at intervals as a persistent refrain, the decorative phrase of the opening, the odour of the broad meadows breathed over by the lilacs and the lindens. Suddenly a sharp agony assailed him; it felt as though a centre-bit were boring into his temples. He opened his eyes, to find himself once more in the middle of his study, seated before his working table; he got up and walked painfully, half-stunned, to the window, which he threw part open. A current of fresh air sweetened the stifling atmosphere that enveloped him; he marched up and down the room to recover the proper use of his limbs, going to and fro, his eyes fixed on the ceiling on which crabs and seaweed powdered with sea salt stood out in relief from a grained background, yellow as the sand of a beach. A similar design decorated the plinths bordering the panels, which in their turn were covered withJapanese crape, a watery green in colour and slightly waved to imitate the ripple of a windblown river, while down the gentle current floated a rose 176 leaf round which frolicked a swarm of little fishes dashed in with two strokes of the pen. But his eyes were still heavy; he left off pacing the short length of floor between the font and the bath and leant his elbows on the window sill. Presently his dizziness ceased, and after carefully recorking the bottles of scents and essences, he seized the opportunity to tidy his apparatus for making up the face,—his paints and powders and the like. He had not touched these things since his arrival at Fontenay, and he was almost astonished now at the sight of this collection once visited by so many women. One on top of the other, phials and porcelain pots littered the table confusion. Here was a china box, of the green sort, containing schnouda, that marvellous white cream which, once spread on the cheeks, changes under the influence of the air to a tender pink, then to a scarlet so natural that it gives an absolutely convincing illusion of a complexion mantling with red blood; there, jars incrusted with mothero'-pearl held Japanese gold and Athens green, coloured like the wing of the cantharides beetle, golds and greens that blend into a deep purple directly they are moistened; beside pots full of filbert paste, of serkis of the harem, of emulsions of Cashmere lilies, of lotions of strawberry and elderfiower for the skin, beside little phials of solutions of India-ink and rose-water for the eyes, lay a host of different instruments, of mother-o'-pearl, of ivory and of silver, mixed up with dainty brushes for the teeth and gums,— pincers, scissors, strigils, stumps, crimpers, powder-puffs, 177 back-scratchers, patches and files. He handled all this elaborate apparatus, bought in former days to please a mistress who found an ineffable pleasure in certain aromatics and certain balms, an ill-balanced, nerve-ridden woman, who loved to have her nipples macerated in scents, but who only really experienced a genuine and overmastering ecstasy when her head was tickled with a comb and she could, in the act of being caressed by a lover, breathe the smell of chimney soot, of wet plaster from a house building in rainy weather, or of dust churned up by the heavy thunder drops of a summer storm. He pondered these recollections, recalling particularly an afternoon spent, partly for want of anything better to do, partly out of curiosity, in this woman's company at her sister's house at Pantin, the memory of which stirred in his breast a whole forgotten world of long-ago thoughts and oldtime scents. While the two women were chattering and showing each other their frocks, he had gone to the window and, through the dusty panes, had looked out on the long, muddy street and heard its pavements echo under the incessant beat of heavy boots trampling through the puddles. The scene, now far away in the past, suddenly stood out before him with extraordinary vividness. Pantin lay there in front of his eyes, bustling and alive, imaged in the green, dead water of the mirror into which his eyes involuntarily gazed. A hallucination carried him far away from Fontenay; 178 the looking-glass reproduced for him the same reflections the street had once presented to his bodily eye, and buried in a dream, he said over the ingenious, melancholy yet consoling, anthem he had noted down on that former occasion on getting back to Paris: - "Yes, the time of the great rains is come; behold, the gutterpipes vomit their drippings on to the pavements, with a song of many waters, and the horse-dung lies fermenting in the puddles that fill the holes in the macadam with a coffeecoloured fluid; everywhere, for the humble wayfarer, are foot-baths full to overflowing. "Under the lowering sky, in the dull air, the walls of the houses drip black sweat and the cellar-openings stink; loathing of life is strong within the soul and the spleen is a torment to the flesh; the seeds of filthiness that every man has in his heart begin to bud; cravings for foul pleasures trouble the austerest and in the brain of respectable folks criminal desires spring up. "And yet, there I am, warming myself before a blazing fire, while a basket of blowing flowers on a table fills the room with a sweet savour of benzoin, geranium and bent-grass. In mid November, it is still spring-time at Pantin, in the Rue de Paris, and I find myself laughing in my sleeve to think of the timorous family parties that, in order to avoid the approach of winter, fly to Antibes or Cannes as fast as steam will take them. 179 "Inclement Nature goes for nothing in this strange phenomenon; it is to industry, to commerce, and that alone, be it said, that Pantin owes this artificial spring. "The truth is, these flowers are of lustring, mounted on brass-wire, and the spring-like fragrance floating in through the cracks of the window-frame, is exhaled by the neighbouring factories where Pinaud and Saint-James make their perfumes. "For the artisan exhausted by the hard labour of the workshops, for the small clerk, alas! only too often a father, the illusion of a breath or two of good air is a possibility— thanks to these manufacturers. "Indeed, out of this scarce believable illusion of the country may be developed a quite rational medical treatment. Fast livers affected by chest complaints who are now carted off to the South mostly die, broken down by the rupture of all their habits of life, by the homesick craving to return to the Parisian pleasures that have brought them to this pass by their excess. Here, in an artificial climate, heated and regulated by stoves, libertine recollections will return, gently and harmlessly, along with the languishing feminine emanations given off by scent factories. In lieu of the deadly dreariness of provincial existence, the physician can by this device supply his patient platonically with the longed-for atmosphere of Parisian boudoirs, of Parisian haunts of pleasure. 180 "In the majority of cases, all that will be required to complete the cure is for the sick man to possess a little touch of imagination. "Now, seeing that, in these times of ours, there is no single thing really genuine to be found; seeing that the wine we drink and the liberty we acclaim are equally adulterate and derisory; considering how remarkable a dose of credulity it takes to suppose the governing classes to deserve respect and the lower to be worthy either of relief or commiseration, it appears to me," concluded Des Esseintes, "neither more absurd nor more insane to demand of my neighbour a sum total of illusion barely equal to that he expends every day in his life for quite idiotic objects, that he may successfully persuade himself that the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice, a factitious Menton."

  • *

"All which," he exclaimed, rudely interrupted in his reflexions by a sudden failure of all his bodily powers, "does not alter the fact that I must beware of these delicious and abominable experiments that are killing me." He heaved a sigh: "Well, well, more pleasures to moderate, more precautions to take,"—and he retired for refuge to his study, thinking in this way to escape more easily from the haunting influence of the perfumes. 181 He threw the window wide open, delighted to enjoy an air bath; but next moment, the wind seemed to bring with it a vague breath of essence of bergamot, mingled with a smell of jasmine, cassia and rose-water. He shuddered, asking himself if he was not surely under the tyranny of one of those possessions by the devil that the Priests used to exorcise in the Middle Ages. Soon the odour changed and altered, however. An uncertain savour of tincture of tolu, balm of Peru, saffron, blended together by a few drops of amber and musk, now floated in from the sleeping village at the bottom of the hill; then, suddenly, in an instant, the metamorphosis was wrought, the scent of frangipane, of which his nostrils had caught the elements and were so familiar with the analysis, filled all the air from the valley of Fontenay away to the Fort, assailing his exhausted sense of smell, shaking afresh his shattered nerves, prostrating him to such a degree that he fell swooning and half dying across the window sill.

Chapter XI

THE terrified domestics hurried off in search of the Fontenay doctor, who did not understand one word of Des Esseintes' condition. He muttered sundry medical terms, felt the invalid's pulse and examined his tongue, tried in vain to make him speak, ordered sedatives and rest, promised to come back next day, and on Des Esseintes shaking his head, —he had regained strength enough to disapprove his servant's zeal and send the intruder about his business,— took his departure and went off to describe to every inhabitant of the village the eccentricities of the house, the furniture and appointments of which had struck him with amazement and frozen him where he stood. To the astonishment of the servants, who dared not stir from their quarters, their master recovered in a day or two, and they came upon him drumming on the window-panes and gazing up anxiously at the sky. One afternoon, the bells rang a peremptory summons, and Des Esseintes issued orders that his trunks were to be got ready for a long journey. While the old man and his wife were selecting, under his superintendence, such articles as were necessary, he was pacing feverishly up and down the cabin of his diningroom, consulting the time tables of steamers, going from window to window of his study, still scrutinizing the clouds with looks at once of impatience and satisfaction. 183 For a week past the weather had been atrocious. Sooty rivers pouring unceasingly across the grey plains of the heavens rolled along masses of clouds that looked like huge boulders torn up from the earth. Every few minutes storms of rain would sweep down and swallow up the valley under torrents of wet. But that day the firmament had changed its aspect. The floods of ink had dried up, the rugged clouds had melted; the sky was now one great flat plain, one vast watery film. Little by little this film seemed to fall lower, a moist haze wrapped the face of the land; no longer did the rain descend in cataracts, as it had the day before, but fell in a continuous drizzle, fine, penetrating, chilling, soaking the garden walks, churning up the roads, confounding together earth and sky. The daylight was darkened, and a livid gloom hung over the village now transformed into a lake of mud speckled by the rain-drops that pitted with spots of silver the muddy surface of the puddles. In the general desolation, all colour had faded to a drab uniformity, leaving only the roofs glittering with wet above the lifeless hues of the walls. "What weather!" sighed the old servant, depositing on a chair the clothes his master had called for, a suit ordered some time before from London. The only answer Des Esseintes vouchsafed was to rub his hands and take his stand before a glass-fronted bookcase in 184 which a collection of silk socks was arranged in the form of a fan. He hesitated a while over the best shade to choose, then rapidly, taking into consideration the gloom of the day and the depressing tints of his coat and trousers, and remembering the object he had in view, he selected a pair of drab silk and quickly drew them on. Next he donned laceup, brogued, shooting boots; put on the suit, mouse-grey with a check of a lighter grey and whitey spots, clapped a little round hat on his head, threw an inverness-cape round his shoulders, and followed by his servant staggering under the weight of a trunk, a collapsible valise, a carpet bag, a hat-box and a travelling rug wrapped round umbrellas and sticks, he made for the railway station. Arrived there, he informed the domestic that he could fix no definite date for his return, that he might be back in a year's time, next month, next week, sooner perhaps, gave orders that nothing should be changed or moved in the house during his absence, handed over the approximate sum required to keep up the establishment, during his absence, and got into the railway carriage, leaving the old fellow dumbfounded, arms dangling and mouth wide open, behind the barrier beyond which the train got into motion. He was alone in his compartment; a blurred, murky landscape, looking as if seen through the dirty water of an aquarium, whirled past the flying, rain-splashed train. Buried in his thoughts, Des Esseintes closed his eyes. 185 Once more, this solitude he had so ardently desired and won at last had resulted in poignant distress; this silence that had once appealed to him as a consolation for all the fools' chatter he had listened to for years, now weighed upon him with an intolerable burden. One morning, he had awoke as frenzied in mind as a man who finds himself locked up in a prison cell; his trembling lips moved to cry out, but no sound came, tears rose to his eyes, he felt choked like one who has been sobbing bitterly for hours. Devoured by a longing to move, to see a human face, to talk with a fellow human being, to mingle with the common life of mankind, he actually asked his servants to stay with him, after summoning them to his room on some pretext or other. But conversation was impossible; besides the fact that the two old people, bowed and bent under the weight of years of silence and broken in to the habits of sick-nurses, were next door to dumb, the distance which Des Esseintes had always maintained between himself and his dependents was not calculated to make them anxious to unclose their lips. Their brains, too, had grown sluggish and inert, and refused to supply more than monosyllabic answers to any questions they might be asked. There was nothing therefore to be hoped for from them in the way of relief or solace. But now a fresh phenomenon came to pass. The reading of Dickens which he had in the first instance carried out with the object of composing his nerves, but which had produced just the opposite effect to 186 what he had looked for in the matter of benefitting his health, now began to act little by little in an unexpected direction, inducing visions of English life over which he sat pondering for hours; gradually into these fictitious reveries came creeping notions of turning them into a positive reality, of making an actual voyage to England, of verifying his dreams, engrafted on all which was further a growing wish to experience novel impressions and so escape the divagations of a mind dizzied with grinding, grinding at nothing, which had so disastrously sapped his strength. Then the abominable weather with its everlasting fog and rain helped on his purpose, confirming as it did what he remembered from his reading, keeping constantly before his eyes a picture of what a land of mist and mud is like, and in this way focussing his ideas and holding them to their original starting point. He could resist no more, and one day had quite suddenly made up his mind. So great was his hurry to be off that he fled precipitately, impatient to be done with his present life, to feel himself hustled in the turmoil of a crowded street, in the crush and bustle of a railway station. "I can breathe now," he said to himself as the train slowed down in its dance and came to a halt in the rotunda of the Paris terminus of the Sceaux Railway, its last pirouettes accompanied by the crashes and jerks of the turn-tables. 187 Once out in the street, on the Boulevard d'Enfer, glad to be encumbered as he was with his trunks and rugs, he hailed a cabman. By the promise of a generous pourboire he soon came to an understanding with the man of the drab breeches and red waistcoat. "By the hour"; he ordered, "drive to the Rue de Rivoli and stop at the office of Galignani's Messenger"; his idea was to purchase before starting a Baedeker's or Murray's Guide to London.

The conveyance blundered off, throwing up showers of mud from the wheels. The streets were like a swamp; under the grey sky that seemed to rest on the roofs of the houses, the walls were dripping from top to bottom, the rain-gutters overflowing, the pavements coated with mud of the colour of gingerbread in which the passers-by slipped and slid. On the side-walks, as the omnibuses swept by, people would stop in crowded masses, and women, kilted to the knees and bending under sodden umbrellas, would press against the shop windows to escape the flying mire. The wet was coming in at the windows; so Des Esseintes had to put up the glass, which the rain streaked with little rivulets of water, while clots of mud flew like a firework in all directions from the moving vehicle. To the monotonous accompaniment of the storm beating down with a noise like a sack of pears being shaken out on his luggage and the carriage roof, Des Esseintes dreamed of his coming journey; it was already an instalment on account of rainy London he was now receiving at Paris in this dreadful 188 weather; the picture of a London, fog-bound, colossal, enormous, smelling of hot iron and soot, wrapt in a perpetual mantle of smoke and mist, unrolled itself before his mind's eye. Vistas of endless docks stretched farther than eye could see, crowded with cranes and capstans and bales of merchandise, swarming with men perched on masts, a-straddle across ship's yards, while on the quays myriads of others were bending, head down and rump in air, over casks which they were storing away in cellars. All this activity he could see in full swing on the riverbanks and in gigantic warehouses bathed by the foul, black water of an imaginary Thames, in a forest of masts, in vast entanglements of beams piercing the wan clouds of the loweringfirmament, while trains raced by, some tearing full steam across the sky, others rolling along in the sewers, shrieking out horrid screams, vomiting floods of smoke through the gaping mouths of wells, while along every avenue and every street, buried in an eternal twilight and disfigured by the monstrous, gaudy infamies of advertising, streams of vehicles rolled by between marching columns of men, all silent, all intent on business, eyes bent straight ahead, elbows pressedto the sides. Des Esseintes shuddered deliciously to feel himself lost in this terrible world of men of business, in this isolating fog, in this incessant activity, in this ruthless machine grinding to powder millions of the poor and powerless, whom 189 philanthropists urged, by way of consolation, to repeat verses of the Bible and sing the Psalms of David. Then, in a moment, the vision vanished as the vehicle gave a jolt that made him jump on the seat. He looked out of the window. Night had fallen; the gas lamps were winking through the fog, each surrounded by a dirty yellow halo; ribands of fire swam in the puddles and seemed to circle round the wheels of the carriages that jogged on through a sea of liquid, discoloured flame. He tried to see where he was, caught sight of the Arc du Carrousel, and in an instant, without rhyme or reason, perhaps simply from the reaction of his sudden fall from the high regions where his imagination had been roaming, his thoughts fell back on a quite trivial incident he now remembered for the first time, —how, when he stood looking on at his servant packing his trunks, the man had forgotten to put in a tooth-brush among his other toilet necessaries. Then he mentally reviewed the list of objects included; yes, they had all been duly arranged in his portmanteau, but the annoyance of this one omission pursued him obstinately till the coachman pulled up his horse and so broke the current ofhis reminiscences and regrets. He was now in the Rue de Rivoli, in front of Galignani's Messenger. On either side of a door of frosted glass, the panels covered with lettering and hung with Oxford frames containing cuttings from newspapers and telegrams in blue wrappers, were two broad windows crammed with books 190 and albums of views. He came nearer, attracted by the look of these volumes, some of them in paper covers, butcher'sblue and cabbage-green, lavishly decorated with gold and silver patterning, others bound in cloth of various colours, carmelite blue, leek green, goose yellow, current red, cold tooled on back and sides with black lines. All this had an anti-Parisian touch, a mercantile flavour, more vulgar but yet less cheap and tawdry than the way the book-hawkers' wares are got up in France; here and there, among open albums showing comic scenes by Du Maurier and John Leech or chromos of mad gallops across country by Caldecott, appeared a few French novels, tempering this riot of discordant colours with the plain and soothing commonplace of their yellow backs. At last, tearing himself away from this display, he pushed open the door and entered a vast library, crowded with people. Foreign females sat examining maps and jabbering remarks to one another in strange tongues. A clerk brought Des Esseintes a selection of guide-books. He, too, sat down and fell to turning over the volumes, whose flexible covers bent between his fingers. He glanced through them, but was presently arrested by a page of Baedeker describing the London Museums. His interest was roused by the brief, precise details supplied by the Guide; but it was not long before his attention wandered from the works of the old English painters to those of the new school which appealed to him more strongly. He recalled certain examples he had seen at International Exhibitions, and he thought that very 191 likely he would see them again in London,—pictures by Millais, the "Eve of St. Agnes," with its moonlight effect of silvery green; pictures by Watts, with their strange colouring, speckled with gamboge and indigo; works sketched by a Gustave Moreau fallen sick, painted in by a Michael Angelo gone anaemic, and retouched by a Raphael lost in a sea of blue. Among other canvases he remembered a "Cure of Cain," an "Ida," and more than one "Eve," wherein, under the weird and mysterious amalgamation of these three masters, lurked the personality, at once complex and essentially simple, of an erudite and dreamy Englishman, unfortunately haunted by a predilection for hideous tones. All these pictures came crowding into his head at once. The shopman, surprised to see a customer sitting at a table lost in a brown study and quite oblivious of his surroundings, asked him which of the Guides he had chosen. Des Esseintes looked up in a dazed way, then, with a word of excuse for his absence of mind, purchased a Baedeker and left the shop. The cold wind froze him to the bone; it was blowing crosswise, lashing the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli with a pelting rain. "Drive there," he cried to the cabman, pointing to a shop at the end of a section of the arcade standing at the corner of the street he was in and the Rue de Castiglione. With its shining panes lighted from within, it looked like a gigantic lantern, a beacon fire amid the perils of the fog and the horrors of the vile weather. 192 It was the "Bodega." Des Esseintes stood wondering to find himself in a great hall that ran back, like a broad corridor, the roof carried by iron pillars and lined along the walls on either side with tall casks standing up-ended on stocks. Hooped with iron, and having round their waist a miniature line of battlements resembling a pipe-rack in the notches of which hung tulip-shaped glasses upside down, with a hole drilled in the lower part in which was fixed an earthenware spigot, these barrels, blazoned with a Royal shield, displayed on coloured cards the name of the vintage each contained, the amount of liquor they held and the price of the same, whether by the hogshead, in bottle, or by the glass. In the passage-way left free between these rows of casks, under the gas jets that flared noisily in a hideous chandelier painted iron-grey, ran a long counter loaded with baskets of Palmer's biscuits, stale, salty cakes, plates piled with mincepies and sandwiches, hiding under their greasy wrappers great blotches of miniature mustard-plasters. Beside this stood a double row of chairs extending to the far extremity of this cellar-like room, lined all along with more hogsheads having smaller barrels laid across their tops, these last lying on their sides and having their names and descriptions branded with a hot iron in the oak. A reek of alcohol assailed his nostrils as he took a seat in this room where so many strong waters were stored. He 193 looked about him. Here, the great casks stood in a row, their labels announcing a whole series of ports, strong, fruity wines, mahogany or amaranth coloured, distinguished by laudatory titles, such as"Old Port," "Light Delicate," "Cockburn's Very Fine," "Magnificent Old Regina"; there, rounding their formidable bellies, crowded side by side enormous hogsheads containing the martial wine of Spain, the sherries and their congeners, topaz coloured whether light or dark,—San Lucar, Pasto, Pale Dry, Oloroso, Amontillado, sweet or dry. The cellar was crammed. Leaning his elbow on the corner of a table, Des Esseintes sat waiting for the glass of port he had ordered of a "gentleman" busy opening explosive sodas in egg-shaped bottles that reminded one, on an exaggerated scale, of those capsules of gelatine and gluten which chemists use to mask the taste of certain nauseous drugs. All round him were swarms of English,—ungainly figures of pale-faced clergymen, dressed in black from head to foot, with soft hats and monstrously long coats decorated down the front with little buttons, shaven chins, round spectacles, greasy hair plastered to the head; laymen with broad porkbutcher faces and bulldog muzzles, apoplectic necks, ears like tomatoes, wine-sodden cheeks, bloodshot, foolish eyes, beards and whiskers joining in a collar like some of the great apes. Further off, at the far end of the wine-shop, a tall, thin man like a string of sausages, with towy locks and a chin adorned with straggling grey hairs like the root of an 194 artichoke, was deciphering with a microscope the small print of an English newspaper; more to the front, a sort of American commodore, short and stout and round-about, with a smoke-dried complexion and a bottle nose, sat half asleep, a cigar stuck in the hairy orifice of his mouth, staring at the placards on the walls advertising champagnes, the trademarks of Perrier and Roederer, Heidsieck and Mumm, and a hooded monk's head with the name in Gothic lettering of Dom Pérignon, Rheims. A feeling of lassitude crept over Des Esseintes in this rude, garrison-town atmosphere; deafened by the chatter of these English folk talking to one another, he fell into a dream, calling up from the purple of the port wine that filled their glasses a succession of Dickens' characters, who were so partial to that beverage, peopling in imagination the cellar with a new set of customers, seeing in his mind's eye here Mr. Wickfield's white hair and red face, there, the phlegmatic and astute bearing and implacable eye of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the gloomy lawyer of Bleak House. Perfect in every detail, they all stood out clear in his memory, taking their places in the Bodega, with all their works and ways and gestures; hisrecollections, lately revived by a fresh perusal of the stories, were extraordinarily full and precise. The Novelist's town, the well lighted, well warmed house, cosy and comfortably appointed, the bottles slowly emptied by Little Dorrit, by Dora Copperfield, by Tom Pinch's sister Ruth, appeared to him sailing like a snug ark in a deluge of mire and soot. He loitered idly in this London of the 195 imagination, happy to be under shelter, seeming to hear on the Thames the hideous whistles of the tugs at work behind the Tuileries, near the bridge. His glass was empty; despite the mist that filled the room over-heated by the smoke of pipes and cigars, he experienced a little shudder of disgust as he came back to the realities of life in this moist and foul smelling weather. He asked for a glass of Amontillado, but then, as he sat before this pale, dry wine, the nerve-soothing stories, the gentle lenitives of the English author were scattered and the harsh revulsives, the cruel irritants of Edgar Allan Poe rose in their place. The chill nightmare of the cask of Amontillado, the story of the man walled up in an underground chamber, seized upon his fancy; the kindly, commonplace faces of the American and English customers who filled the hall seemed to him to reflect uncontrollable and abominable cravings, odious and instinctive plans of wickedness. Presently he noticed he was nearly the last there, that the dinner hour was close at hand; he paid his score, tore himself from his chair and made dizzily for the door. He got a wet buffet in the face the instant he set foot outside; drowned by the rain and driving squalls, the street lamps flickered feebly and gave hardly a gleam of light; the clouds ruled lower than ever, having come down several pegs, right to the middle of the house fronts. Des Esseintes looked along the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, bathed in shadow and dripping with moisture, and he thought he was standing in the dismal tunnel excavated beneath the 196 Thames. But the cravings of hunger recalled him to reality; he went back to his cab, threw the driver the address of the tavern in the Rue d'Amsterdam, near the Saint-Lazare railway station, and looked at his watch,—it was seven o'clock. He had just time enough to dine; the train did not start till eight-fifty, and he fell to counting up the time on his fingers, calculating the hours required for the crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven, and telling himself,—"If the figures in the railway-guide are right, I shall be in London tomorrow on the stroke of halfpast twelve noon. The vehicle stopped in front of the tavern, once more Des Esseintes left it and made his way into a long hall, with drab wills innocent of any gilding, and divided by means of breast-high partitions into a series of compartments like the loose-boxes in a stable. In this room, which opened out into a wider space by the door, rows of beer engines rose along a counter, side by side with hams as brown as old violins, lobsters of a bright metallic red, salted mackerel, along with slices of onion, raw carrots, pieces of lemon peel, bunches of bay leaves and thyme, juniper berries and coarse pepper swimming in a thick sauce. One of the boxes was unoccupied. He took possession of it and hailed a young man in a black coat, who nodded, muttering some incomprehensible words. While the table was being laid, Des Esseintes examined his neighbours. It was the same as at the Bodega; a crowd of islanders with china blue eyes, crimson faces and pompous, supercilious 197 looks, were skimming through foreign newspapers. There were some women amongst the rest, unaccompanied by male escort, dining by themselves,—sturdy English dames with boys' faces, teeth as big as tombstones, fresh, apple-red cheeks, long hands and feet. They were attacking with unfeigned enthusiasm a rumpsteak pie,—meat served hot in mushroom sauce and covered with a crust like a fruit tart. After his long loss of appetite, he looked on in amazement at these sturdy trencherwomen, whose voracity whetted his own hunger. He ordered a plate of oxtail, a soup that is at once unctuous and tasty, fat and satisfying; then he scrutinized the list of fish, asked for a smoked haddock, which struck him as worthy of all praise, and seized with a rabid fit of appetite at the sight of other people stuffing themselves, he ate a great helping of roast beef and boiled potatoes and absorbed a couple of pints of ale, his palate tickled by the little musky, cow-like smack of this fine, light-coloured beer. His hunger was nearly satisfied. He nibbled a bit of blue Stilton, a sweet cheese with an underlying touch of bitter, pecked at a rhubarb tart, and then, to vary the monotony, quenched his thirst with porter, that British black beer which tastes of liquorice juice from which the sugar had been extracted. He drew a deep breath; for years he had not guzzled and swilled so much. The change of habits, the choice of 198 unexpected and satisfying viands had roused the stomach from its lethargy. He sat back in his chair, lit a cigarette and prepared to enjoy his cup of coffee, which he laced with gin. The rain was still falling steadily; he could hear it rattling on the glass skylight that roofed the far end of the room and running in torrents along the gutters. Nobody stirred a finger; all were dozing; comfortable like himself with liqueur glasses before them. Presently tongues were lossened; as nearly everyone looked up in the air in talking, Des Esseintes concluded that these Englishmen were all discussing the weather. No one ever laughed, and all were dressed in suits of grey cheviot with nankin-yellow and blotting-paper red stripes. He cast a look of delight at his own clothes, the colour and cut of which did not sensibly differ from those of the people round him, highly pleased to find himself not out of tone with his surroundings, glad to be, in a kind of superficial way, a naturalized citizen of London. Then he gave a start,—"but what of the train time?" he asked himself. He consulted his watch,—ten minutes to eight; he had still nearly half-anhour to stay there, he told himself, and once more he fell to thinking over the plan he had framed. In the course of his sedentary life two countries only had tempted him to visit them, Holland and England. 199 He had fulfilled the first of these two wishes; attracted beyond his power to resist, he had left Paris one fine day and inspected the cities of the Low Countries one by one. The general result of the journey was a series of bitter disappointments. He had pictured to himself a Holland after the pattern of Teniers' pictures and Jan Steen's, Rembrandt's and Ostade's, fashioning beforehand for his own particular use and pleasure Jewries as richly sun-browned as pieces of Cordova leather, imagining prodigal kermesses, everlasting junketings in the country, expecting to see all that patriarchal goodfellowship, that riotous joviality limned by the old masters. No doubt Haarlem and Amsterdam had fascinated him; the common folk, seen in their unpolished state and in true rustic surroundings were very much as Van Ostade had painted them with their unlicked cubs of children and their old gossips as fat as butter, big-bosomed and huge-bellied. But of reckless merrymakings and general carousings not a sign. As a matter of fact, he found himself forced to admit that the Dutch School as represented in the Louvre had led him astray; it had merely supplied him with a spring-board, as it were, to start him off on his fancies; from it he had leapt off on a false trail and wandered away into an impossible dreamland, never to discover anywhere in this world the land of faery he had hoped to find real; nowhere to see peasants and peasant-maidens dancing on the greensward littered with wine-casks, crying with sheer 200 happiness, shouting with joy, relieving themselves under stress of uncontrollable laughter in their petticoats and their trunks! No, decidedly, nothing of the sort was to be seen; Holland was a country like any other, and to boot, a country by no means simple and primitive, by no means specially genial, for the Protestant faith was rampant there with its stern hypocrisies and solemn scruples. This past disillusionment recurred to his memory; again he consulted his watch,—there was then some minutes more before his train left. "It is high time to ask for my bill and be going," he muttered to himself. He felt an extreme heaviness of stomach and an overpowering general lethargy. "Come now, he exclaimed, by way of screwing up his courage, "let's drink the stirrup cup,"—and he poured himself out a glass of brandy, while waiting for his account. An individual in a black coat, a napkin under one arm, a sort of major-domo, with a pointed head very bald, a harsh beard turning grey and a shaved upper lip, came forward, a pencil behind his ear, took up a position, one leg thrown forward like a singer on the platform, drew a paper-book from his pocket, and fixing his eyes on the ceiling without once looking at his writing, scribbled out the items and added up the total. "Here you are, sir," he said, tearing out the leaf from his book and handing it to Des Esseintes, who examined it curiously, as if it had been some strange animal. "What an extraordinary specimen, this John Bull," 201 he thought, as he gazed at this phlegmatic personage whose clean-shaven lips gave him a vague resemblance to a helmsman of the American mercantile marine. At that moment, the door into the street opened, and a number of people came in, bringing with them a stench of drowned dog mingled with a smell of cooking which the wind beat back into the kitchen as the unlatched door banged to and fro. Des Esseintes could not stir a limb; a soothing, enervating lassitude, was creeping through every member, rendering him incapable of so much as lifting his hand to light a cigar. He kept telling himself: "Come, come now, get up, we must be off"; but instantly objections occurred to him in contravention of these orders. What was the good of moving, when a man can travel so gloriously sitting in a chair? Was he not in London, whose odours and atmosphere, whose denizens and viands and table furniture were all about him? What could he expect, if he really went there, save fresh disappointments, the same as in Holland? He had only just time enough left now to hurry to the station, and a mighty aversion for the journey, an imperious desire to stay quiet, came over him with a force that grew momentarily more and more powerful and peremptory. He sat dreaming and let the minutes slip by, thus cutting off his retreat, telling himself: "Now I should have to dash up to the barriers,, hustle with the luggage; how tiresome, what a nuisance that would be!"—Then, harking back, he told himself over again: "After all, I have felt and seen what I 202 wanted to feel and see. I have been steeped in English life ever since I left home; it would be a fool's trick to go and lose these imperishable impressions by a clumsy change of locality. Why, surely I must be out of my senses to have tried thus to repudiate my old settled convictions, to have condemned the obedient figment of my imagination, to have believed like the veriest ninny in the necessity, the interest, the advantage of a trip abroad?—There," he concluded, glancing at his watch, "the time is ripe to go back home again." And this time he did get to his feet, left the tavern and ordered the cabman to take him back to the Gare de Sceaux; thence he returned with his trunks, his packages, his portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and walking-sticks to Fontenay, feeling all the physical exhaustion and moral fatigue of a man restored to the domestic hearth after long and perilous journeyings. 203

Chapter XII

DURING the days that followed his return home Des Esseintes occupied himself in reviewing the books of his library, drawing from the thought that he might have been parted from them for a long period as genuine a satisfaction as he would have enjoyed if he had really been coming back to them after a serious absence. Under the stimulus of this feeling, the volumes appeared to him in a new light altogether, for he found beauties in them he had quite forgotten ever since the day he first purchased them.

Everything: books, bric-à-brac, furniture, acquired a peculiar charm in his eyes. His bed struck him as more downy, in comparison with the pallet he would have occupied in London; the discreet, silent bearing of his domestics enchanted him, harassed as he was to think of the noisy loquacity of hotel waiters; the methodical organization of his daily life seemed more than ever desirable, since the haphazard of travelling had become a possibility.

He plunged himself again in the bath of fixed habits to which artificial regrets added a more bracing and tonic quality.

But it was his books that chiefly attracted his interest. He examined them, arranged them afresh on the shelves, looking to see whether, since his coming to Fontenay, the heat and wet had not injured their bindings or foxed their costly papers.

He began by turning over all his Latin library, after which he re-marshalled the special works of Archelaüs, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully and Arnaud de Villanova treating of the kabbala and the occult sciences; lastly he verified, one by one, his modern books and was delighted to find they were all intact, dry and in good condition.

This collection had cost him considerable sums of money; the fact is that he could not endure to see the authors he specially cherished printed, like those in other people's libraries, on rag paper, wearing hob-nailed shoes like a clumsy peasant's.

In former days at Paris, he had certain volumes specially set up for him and printed off by specially hired workmen on hand-presses. Sometimes he would go to Perrin of Lyons, whose slim, clear types were suitable for archaic re-impressions of old tracts; sometimes he would send to England or the States, for new characters to print works of the present century; sometimes he would apply to a house at Lille which had for hundreds of years possessed a complete font of Gothic letters; sometimes again he would call in the help of the long-established Enschede press, of Haarlem, whose type-foundry preserves the stamps and matrices of the so-called "letters of civility."

He had followed the same course for his papers. Wearying one fine day of the ordinary papers de luxe,—the silvery Chinese, the pearly golden Japanese, the white Whatmans, the brown Dutch, the Turkey-grains and Seychal-mills tinted to resemble chamois leather, and long ago disgusted with the machine-made articles, lie had commissioned a laid paper run in special moulds from the ancient paper-mills at Vire, where they still use the old-fashioned stamps formerly employed to break the hemp. Then, to introduce a little variety in his collection, he had at various times imported from London dressed fabrics—flock-papers, repp-papers—while to further accentuate his scorn of the bibliophiles, a Lübeck tradesman was making him a glorified candle-paper, bluish in tint, crackling and rather brittle, in the substance of which the straw-lines were replaced by gold spangles like those that glitter in Dantzig liqueur-brandy.

By such means, he had secured a unique library, always choosing unusual sizes and shapes of page. These treasures he had had clothed by Lortic, by Trautz Bauzonnet, by Chainbolle, by the firm of Capé's Successors, in irreproachable bindings of antique silk, of stamped ox-leather, of Cape goat-skin, full bindings, panelled and mosaiced, with wavy or watered silk linings instead of end-papers, adorned like Church service-books with clasps and metal corners, sometimes evenornamented by Gruel-Engelmann in oxydized silver and transparent enamel.

On these lines, he had had printed in the admirable episcopal character of the ancient firm of Le Clere, a copy of Baudelaire in a large format, recalling that of a Missal, on a very light Japanese felt, spongy in texture, as soft as elder-pith and just faintly tinged with pink over its milky white. This edition, limited to a single copy and printed in a velvety India-ink black, had been clothed outside and covered within with a marvellous and authentic sow-skin, one picked out of a thousand, flesh colour all dotted with the bristle marks and decorated with a lacework in black executed with the cold iron, the designs miraculously assorted by a great artist.

To-day, Des Esseintes took down this incomparable volume from his shelves, and after fondling it reverently in his hands, re-read certain pieces, which in this simple but inimitable frame seemed to him more striking and significant than ever.

His admiration for the writer in question was limitless. To his mind, Literature had hitherto confined itself to exploring the mere surface of the soul or, at most, penetrating into such of its underground chambers as were readily accessible and well lighted, verifying here and there the stratification of the deadly sins, studying their seams and their origin, noting for instance with Balzac the geological formation of the soul possessed by the monomania of an overmastering passion,—by ambition, or avarice, or paternal infatuation, or senile love.

After all, it was entirely concerned with virtues and vices of a quite healthy and robust order, with the peaceable activity of brains of a perfectly ordinary conformation, with the practical reality of current ideas, with never a thought of morbid depravations, with no outlook beyond the pale of everyday; in a word, the speculations of these analysts of human nature stopped short at the ordinary classification of human acts by the Church into good and evil; it was all the simple investigation, the mere examination into normal conditions of a botanist who watches minutely the foreseen development of the everyday flora growing in common earth.

But Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had pushed his way along abandoned or unexplored galleries, had penetrated those districts of the soul where the monstrous vegetations of the sick mind flourish.

There, near the confines where aberrations of the intellect and diseases of the will sojourn,—the mystic tetanus, the burning fever of wantonness, the typhoids and yellow fevers of crime, he had found, hatching in the gloomy forcing-house of Ennui, the appalling reaction of age on the feelings and ideas.

He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind that has reached the October of its sensations, detailed the symptoms of souls challenged by grief, set apart by spleen; had demonstrated the ever incroaching caries of the impressions at a time when the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are faded; when there remains only the barren memory of miseries endured, of tyrannies suffered, of vexations undergone, in intelligences crushed by an incongruous fortune.

He had traced all the phases of this lamentable Autumn, as he watched the human creature, quick to grow embittered, ingenious at self-deception, forcing his thoughts to cheat each other, all to render his suffering more acute, spoiling in advance, thanks to his powers of analysis and observation, all possibility of happiness.

Next, following on this sensitivenes, this irritability of soul, on this ferocity of bitter reflexion that repulses the importunate ardour of acts of devotion, the benevolent insults of charity, he saw arise little by little the horror of those passions of age, those loves of maturity, where one is still ready to comply while the other remains aloof and on guard, where lassitude claims of the pair filial caresses whose false juvenility seems a something new, or maternal fondlings whose gentleness is so restful and affords, as it were, the stimulating remorse of a vague sort of incest.

In magnificent pages he had exposed these hybrid loves, pages exasperated by their powerlessness to express the whole truth, these dangerous subterfuges of stupefying and poisonous drugs called upon to help soothe pain and conquer the weariness of the flesh. At a period when Literature was wont to attribute the grief of living exclusively to the mischances of disappointed love or the jealousy of adulterous deceptions, he had said not a word of these childish maladies, but had sounded those more incurable, more poignant and more profound: wounds that are inflicted by satiety, disillusion and contempt in ruined souls tortured by the present, disgusted with the past, terrified and desperate of the future.

And the more Des Esseintes re-read his Baudelaire, the more fully he recognized an indescribable charm in this writer, who, in days when verse had ceased to serve any purpose save to depict the external aspect of men and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible, thanks to a sinewy and firm-bodied diction which, more than any other, possessed the wondrous power of defining with a strange sanity of phrase the most fleeting, the most evanescent of the morbid conditions of broken spirits and disheartened souls.

After Baudelaire, the number of French books that found a place on his shelves was very limited. He was assuredly insensible to the merits of those works which it is a mark of taste and cleverness to wax enthusiastic over. The side-shaking mirth of Rabelais, "the full-bodied vis comica of Molière" failed to rouse his sense of humor; indeed his antipathy towards these comicalities even went so far that he did not hesitate to liken them, from the point of view of art, to those rows of flaring sconces that contribute to the jollity of country fairs.

So far as older poets were concerned, his reading hardly went beyond Villon, whose mournful "ballades" touched him, and some stray morsels of D'Aubigné that stirred his blood by the incredible virulence of their apostrophes and anathemas.

In prose, he made small account of Voltaire and Rousseau, or even of Diderot, whose extravagantly lauded "Salons" struck him as being stuffed to a singular excess with moral twaddlings and nonsensical aspirations. Detesting all this balderdash, he confined his reading almost entirely to the masterpieces of Christian eloquence, to Bourdaloue and Bossuet, whose sonorous and elaborate periods impressed him; but, for choicer preference, he savoured those pithy aphorisms condensed in stern, strong phrases of the sort Nicole wrought, in his meditations, and still more Pascal, whose austere pessimism and agonizing sense of sin stirred him to the bottom of his heart.

Apart from these few books, French literature, so far as his library was concerned, began with the present century. It was classified into two groups, one comprising the ordinary, profane writers, the other the Catholic authors,—a special literature, almost unknown to the generality, albeit disseminated by long established and enormous bookselling firms to the four corners of the world.

He had had the courage to wander in these hidden places, and, the same as in secular literature, he had discovered, underneath a gigantic mass of insipidities, some works written by true masters.

The distinctive characteristic of this literature was the persistency, the unchangeableness of its ideas and diction; just as the Church has perpetuated the primordial shape and form of sacred objects, in the same way has she kept intact the relics of her dogmas and piously preserved the reliquary that enshrined them,—the oratorical phraseology of the Grand Siècle. As one of its own exponents even, Ozanam to wit, declared, the Christian style had nothing to learn from the language of Rousseau; its duty was to employ exclusively the dialect made use of by Bourdaloue and by Bossuet.

Despite this dictum, the Church, more tolerant than her disciple, winked at sundry expressions, sundry turns of phrase, borrowed from the lay speech of the same century, and the Catholic idiom had to some extent shaken itself free of its ponderous periods, weighed down, especially in Bossuet, by the length of its parentheses and the painful redundancy of its pronouns. But there the concessions had stopped; indeed. others would no doubt have been unavailing, for so lightened, this prose was adequate for the limited number of subjects which the Church condemned herself to treat.

Incapable of dealing with contemporary life, of making visible and palpable the simplest aspect of men and things, ill adapted to explain the complex ruses of a brain indifferent to the state of grace, this diction nevertheless excelled in the treatment of abstract subjects. Useful in the discussion of a controversy, in the demonstration of a theory, in the uncertainties of a commentary, it possessed more than any other the authority needful to lay down, without discussion, the value of a doctrine.

Unfortunately, there as everywhere, an innumerable army of pedants had invaded the sanctuary and degraded by their ignorance and want of talent its stern and uncompromising dignity. Then, to crown the calamity, pious ladies had taken up the pen, and ill-advised sacristies and rash drawing-rooms had extolled as veritable works of genius the wretched prattlings of these females.

Among other works of this sort that stirred his curiosity, Des Esseintes had read those of Madame Swetchine, the Russian General Officer's wife whose house at Paris was the rendezvous of the most fervent Catholics. They had filled him with an inexhaustible and overpowering sense of weariness; they were worse than bad, they were trivial; the whole thing suggested an echo hanging about a little chapel wherein a crowded congregation of bigoted, narrow-minded people knelt muttering prayers, asking after each others' news in whispers, repeating with looks of profound mystery a string of commonplaces on politics, the state of the barometer, the condition of the weather at the moment.

But there was a lower depth; there was Madame Augustus Craven, an accredited laureate of the Institut, the author of the "Récit d'une Soeur," of "Eliane," of "Fleurange," applauded with blaring trumpets and rolling organ by the whole Catholic press. Never, no never, had Des Esseintes imagined that anyone could write such poor stuff. The books were, from the point of view of general conception, so utterly silly and were written in so nauseous a style, that they actually attained a sort of individuality of their own, became curiosities in their way.

In any case, it was not among female writers that Des Esseintes, whose mind was naturally sophisticated and unsentimental, could find a literary refuge adapted to his peculiar idiosyncrasies.

Still he persevered and with a conscientiousness no impatience could modify, did his best to appreciate the work of that child of genius, the blue-stocking Virgin of this group, Eugénie de Guérin. His efforts were in vain, he could not stomach the famous "Journal" and "Letters" in which she extols, without tact or discretion, the prodigious talents of a brother who rhymed with such consummate ingenuity and grace that we must surely go back to the works of M. de Jouy and M. Ecouchard Lebrun to find any verses so boldly conceived and so fresh and new.

To no purpose had he tried to understand the charm of these productions in which we find such thrilling remarks as these:—"This morning I hung up beside papa's bed a cross a little girl gave him yesterday,"—"We are invited tomorrow, Mimi and I, to M. Roquiers', to attend the service of blessing a bell; I am very pleased to go,"—in which are recorded such momentous events as this: "I have just hung about my neck a medal of the Blessed Virgin, sent me by Louise as a safeguard against cholera,"—in which we come upon poetry of this calibre: "Oh, the lovely moonbeam that has just fallen on the Gospel I was reading!" or, to make an end, observations of the brilliant perspicacity of the following: "Whenever I see a man, on passing a crucifix, cross himself and take off his hat, I tell myself—That is a Christian going by."

This was the sort of thing that runs on page after page, without truce or respite, till the death of Maurice de Guérin, whom his sister bewails in still more rhapsodies, written in a wishy-washy prose interspersed here and there with tags of verse the poverty of which ended by moving Des Esseintes' pity.

Well, there was no denying it, the Catholic party was not hard to please in its choice of protégées, and far from critical! These pious muses it had made so much of and for whom it had exhausted the complaisance of its press, wrote one and all like Convent schoolgirls, in a colourless diction, in a flux of words no astringent can arrest!

The end was Des Esseintes turned away in horror from the stuff. But neither were the modern masters of sacred literature of a nature to offer him any sufficient compensations for his disappointment. These preachers and polemists were impeccable and correct in style, but the Christian dialect, in their sermons and books, had ended by becoming impersonal, stereotyped in a rhetoric whose movements and pauses were all fixed beforehand, arranged in a series of periods each constructed on one and the same model. In fact, the ecclesiastical authors all wrote alike, with a trifle more or a trifle less unconstraint and emphasis; the differences were all but imperceptible among these grey, colourless canvases, whether the work of Messeigneurs Dupanloup or Landriot, La Bouillerie or Gaume, of Dom Gueranger or the Père Ratisbonne, of Monseigneur Freppel or Monseigneur Perraud, of the Réverends Pères Ravignan or Gratry, the Jesuit Olivain, the Carmelite Dosithee, the Dominican Didon or of the erstwhile Prior of Saint-Maximin, the Réverend Chocarne.

Again and again, the conclusion had been forced upon Des Esseintes that it would need a very authentic talent, a very genuine originality, a firmly anchored conviction to thaw this frozen diction, to give life to this conventional style incapable of expressing a single unexpected idea, of upholding any thesis of the smallest audacity.

Nevertheless, one or two authors were to be found whose burning eloquence could melt and mould this inert phraseology,—Lacordaire first and foremost, one of the only real authors the Church has produced for many years.

Imprisoned, like all his colleagues, within the narrow circle of orthodox speculation, obliged, like them, to mark time and refrain from touching any ideas but such as had been originated and consecrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed by the masters of the pulpit, he yet managed to turn the obstacle, to rejuvenate, almost to modify, these time-honoured commonplaces by throwing them into a more personal and more living form.

Scattered up and down his Conférences de Notre-Dame, happy phrases, bold expressions, accents of loving-kindness, outbursts of enthusiasm, cries of gladness, ecstatic outpourings of spirit occurred that made the age-old style smoke under his pen. Then, over and above his talent as an orator,—and he was a true orator, this capable gentle-hearted monk whose intellect and industry were exhausted in the hopeless effort to conciliate the liberal doctrines of an advanced society with the authoritative dogmas of the Church, he was further endowed with a temperament of fervent charity, of diplomatic tenderness.

Then, again, the letters he used to write to young men often contained the loving words of a father exorting his sons,—smiling reprimands, indulgent expressions of forgiveness. Some were charming where he would avow all his greed for affection, others almost impressively serious when he was sustaining his correspondents' courage or dissipating their doubts by the statement of the irrefragable certainties of his own Faith. In a word, this feeling of fatherhood, which under his pen assumed a dainty, feminine touch, impressed on his prose an accent unique amid all the mass of clerical literature.

After him, very few were the ecclesiastics and monks who showed any individuality. At most, some pages of his pupil the Abbé Peyreyve were readable. He had left touching biographical notices of his master, written some amiable letters, composed articles conceived in the sonorous language of the pulpit, pronounced panegyrics in which the declamatory note is too dominant. Undoubtedly, the Abbé Peyreyve had neither the tenderness nor the fire of Lacordaire. He was too much a priest and too little a man; here and there nevertheless his rhetoric as a preacher was illuminated by telling analogies, broad and weighty phrases, purple patches rising almost to sublimity.

But it was only among writers who had not submitted to Ordination, among secular authors attached to the interests of Catholicism and devoted to its propaganda, that a prose style was to be found worthy to arrest the attention.

The episcopal diction, so feebly handled by our Prelates, had acquired new strength, regained something of masculine force and vigour in the hands of the Comte de Falloux. Under an appearance of moderation, this Academician distilled gall; his discourses pronounced in 1848 in Parliament were diffuse and dull, but his articles contributed to the Correspondant, and afterwards collected in book form, were biting and bitter under the exaggerated courtesy of their outward expression. Conceived as set speeches, they displayed a certain caustic wit, while they startled by the intolerance of their convictions.

Dangerous as a controversialist by reason of the pitfalls he dug for his adversaries and the crookedness of his logic, forever turning the enemy's flank and striking an unexpected blow, the Comte de Falloux had also written some striking pages on the death of Madame Swetchine, whose remains he had edited and whom he revered as a Saint.

But where this author's temperament really showed itself was in two pamphlets which appeared one in 1846 and the other in 1880, the latter entitled l'Unite nationale ("National Unity").

Filled with a cold fury, this implacable Legitimist delivered for once, contrary to his custom, a frontal attack, and by way of peroration hurled at the sceptics' heads this thunder of savage invective: -

"And you, Utopians of a system, who make an abstraction of human nature, panegyrists of atheism, nourished on hallucinations and detestations, emancipators of woman, destroyers of the family, genealogists of the simian race, you, whose name was once insult enough, be well content; you will have been the prophets and your disciples will be the high-priests of an abominable future!"

The other pamphlet bore for title: le Parti catholique ("The Catholic Party") and was directed against the despotism of the Univers and its editor Veuillot, whose name it refused to utter. Here the flank attacks were resumed, poison lurked under every line of the little book in which the gentleman, bruised and battered, answered with scornful sarcasms the brutal blows of the professional bully.

Between them they represented the two parties in the Church whose differences degenerate into ungovernable hatred. De Falloux, at once more arrogant and more crafty than his opponents, belonged to that liberal coterie which already embraced both Montalembert and Cochin, both Lacordaire and de Broglie; he adhered heart and soul to the principles advocated by the Correspondant, a review which strove to overlay with a varnish of tolerance the peremptory theories of the Church. Veuillot, more outspoken and frank, threw off the mask, avowed unhesitatingly the tyranny of ultramontane aspirations, openly admitted and loudly acclaimed the pitiless yoke of her dogmas.

The latter champion had forged himself for the struggle a special language, borrowed part from La Bruyère and part from the bully of the Gros-Caillou. This style, half pompous, half familiar, wielded by this brutal personality, had the crushing weight of a bludgeon. Extraordinarily stubborn and extraordinarily courageous, he had felled with this terrible weapon free-thinkers and bishops alike, hitting out might and main, rushing like a wild bull at his foes to whichever party they belonged. Distrusted by the Church, which approved neither his contraband diction nor his blackguard attitude, this religious mountebank had nevertheless made his mark by his undoubted talents, bringing about his heels the whole pack of the press, which he lashed till the blood came in his Odeurs de Paris, keeping at bay every assault, kicking off the whole base horde of low quill-drivers that tried to bite his calves.

Unfortunately, his incontestable talents only showed in a fight; in cold blood Veuillot was but an indifferent writer. His poetry and novels only inspired pity; his peppery invective lost its pungency when blows were no longer flying; the Catholic warrior was metamorphosed, in peaceful days, into a dyspeptic wheezing out trite litanies and stammering puerile canticles.

More narrow, more limited, more serious was the cherished apologist of the Church, the inquisitor of Christian diction, Ozanam. Difficult though he was to apprehend, Des Esseintes could not fail to be astonished by the aplomb of this author who would prate of the inscrutable purposes of God when he should have been adducing the proofs of the impossible assertions he was making; with the most perfect coolness he would travesty events, deny, more impudently still than the panegyrists of the other parties, the acknowledged facts of history, declare that the Church had never hidden the high esteem in which it held Science, describe heresies as foul miasmas, treat Buddhism and all other religions with such fine scorn that he excused himself from sullying Catholic prose by so much as an attack upon their doctrines.

There were occasions when religious passion breathed a certain ardour into his oratorical periods, beneath the ice of which boiled an undercurrent of suppressed violence; in his numerous writings on Dante, on St. Francis, on the author of the "Stabat," on the Franciscan poets, on Socialism, on Commercial Law, on everything, the man never failed to plead the defence of the Vatican which he deemed impeccable, judging all cases alike according as they approached more or less close or differed more or less widely from his own.

The same manner of looking at all questions from one point of view and one only equally belonged to that paltry scribbler whom some people held up as his rival, Nettement. The latter was less straitlaced and made less exalted and more worldly pretensions. He had repeatedly trespassed beyond the literary cloister in which Ozanam was a voluntary prisoner, and had dipped into profane writings with a view to appraising them. This region, indeed, he had penetrated groping, like a child in a cave, seeing nothing but darkness round him, perceiving in the general blackness only the flicker of the taper that lighted him onwards, throwing its glimmer a few feet ahead.

In this ignorance of the localities, in this obscurity, he had blundered at every step. Speaking of Mürger, he described him as "heedful of a polished and carefully finished style"; Victor Hugo was one who searched out the impure and filthy and he dared to compare N. de Laprade with him; Delacroix disdained all rules, while Paul Delaroche and the poet Reboul he extolled because they seemed to him to possess faith.

Des Esseintes could not help a shrug of the shoulders at these unfortunate criticisms, which were expressed in a laboured prose, the material of which, already worn threadbare, caught and tore on every corner of his sentences.

In another class, the productions of Poujoulat and Genoude, Montalembert, Nicolas and Carné failed to inspire him with any much more vivid interest; nor were his inclinations for History treated with painstaking erudition and in dignified language by the Duc de Broglie, nor his predilections for social and religious questions discussed by Henry Cochin, who had, however, revealed his true sentiments in a letter wherein he recounted a heart-stirring assumption of the veil at the Sacré-Coeur, very much more pronounced. For years, he had not looked into these books, and it was now a far-off day when he had thrown away as waste paper the puerile lucubrations of the dismal Pontmartin and pitiable Féval, and handed over to the servants for household purposes the little histories of Aubineau and Lesserre, those feeble hagiographers of the miracles wrought by M. Dupont de Tours and the Virgin.

In a word, Des Esseintes failed to extract from this literature even a passing distraction to his boredom; so he pushed away into the remote corners of his library this mass of volumes which he had studied in former days after leaving the Jesuits' seminary,—"I should have done better to leave them behind in Paris," he muttered, as he drew out from their lurking-place behind the rest two sets of books he found particularly unendurable, the works of the Abbé Lamennais and those of that unmitigated fanatic, so supremely, so pompously tiresome and futile, Count Joseph de Maistre.

A single volume only was left still in place on a shelf within reach of the hand, that entitled l'Homme, by Ernest Hello.

This writer was the absolute antithesis of his brethren in religion. Almost isolated in the pious group which was shocked by his ways of thought, Ernest Hello had ended by abandoning the great main road that leads from earth to heaven.

Sickened no doubt by the triteness of this highway and the throng of pilgrims of letters that had for centuries filed obediently along the same track, walking each in the foot-marks of his predecessor, stopping at the same halting-places, to exchange the same commonplaces on Religion, on the Fathers of the Church, on their identical beliefs, on their identical masters, he had diverged along by-paths, had come out into the gloomy forest clearing of Pascal, where he had tarried a long while to recover his wind; then he had pursued his journey and penetrated further into Jansenism, which all the time he abused, in the regions of human thought.

Full of subtlety and preciosity, erudite and elaborate, Hello with his hair-splitting minutiae of analysis reminded Des Esseintes of the laboured and meticulous studies of some of the psychological sceptics of the last and present centuries. There was in him a kind of Catholic Duranty, but more dogmatic and more astute, a practised master of the microscope, a trained engineer of the soul, a skilful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and explain minutely every wheel of the machinery.

In this oddly constituted mind were to be found associations of thought, analogies and contrasts scarcely to have been expected; added to which, a curious trick whereby he made the etymology of the words he used a spring-board for leaping off to fresh ideas, the combination of which was often trivial enough, but almost invariably ingenious and stimulating.

In this way, and in spite of the faulty equilibrium of his constructions, he had taken to pieces, so to speak, with remarkable perspicacity The Miser, The Mediocre Man, analysed "Popular Taste," "The Passion of Calamity," besides revealing the interesting comparisons that can be established between the processes of photography and those of memory.

But this adroitness in wielding this perfected weapon of analysis which he had stolen from the Church's enemies represented only one of the sides of the man's temperament.

Yet another being existed in him; his mind had a double aspect, and after the good side appeared the bad,—that of a religious fanatic and a Biblical prophet.

Like Hugo himself, whose contortions both of thought and phrase he recalled, Ernest Hello had loved to pose as a little St. John on Patmos to play the pontiff and enact the oracle from the top of a rock manufactured in the sacred image shops of the Rue Saint-Sulpice, haranguing the reader in an apocalyptic tongue salted here and there with the gall of an Isaiah.

He affected at that time exaggerated pretensions to profundity; some flatterers even hailed him as a genius, pretended to regard him as the great man of his day, the well of knowledge of his epoch,—a well perhaps, but one where you could very often not see one drop of water.

In his volume Paroles de Dieu ("Words of God"), in which he paraphrased the Scriptures and did his best to complicate their meaning when fairly obvious; in another book of his entitled l'Homme; in his pamphlet le Jour du Seigneur ("The Day of the Lord"), composed in a Biblical style, broken and obscure, he showed the qualities of a vindictive, haughty apostle, full of gall and bitterness; he revealed himself in the character of a crack-brained deacon, half mystic, half epileptic, of a De Maistre for once endowed with talent, of a harsh and ferocious sectary.

At the same time, reflected Des Esseintes, this morbid excess of zeal barred the way to inventive sallies of casuistry; with more intolerance than Ozanam, he repudiated absolutely whatever did not pertain to his own narrow world, announced the most amazing axioms, maintained with a disconcerting air of authority that "Geology had gone back to Moses," that Natural History, Chemistry, all contemporary Science was by way of verifying the scientific accuracy of the Bible; every page was full of the "sole and only Verity," "the superhuman wisdom of the Church," the whole interspersed with aphorisms more than dangerous, and savage imprecations poured out in foul torrents on theart and literature of the last century.

To this strange alloy was superadded a love of pious studies—translations of the Visions of Angèle de Foligno, a book of an unparalleled fluidity and folly; and of selected portions from Ruysbroek l'Admirable, a mystic of the thirteenth century, whose prose presents an incomprehensible but fascinating combination of gloomy ecstasies, outpourings of unction, transports of bitterness.

All this attitude of the overbearing high-priest, which was characteristic of Hello, had come out in full force in an astounding Preface he wrote for this book. It is his own remark that "extraordinary things can only be told in stammers," and he stammered accordingly, declaring that "the holy obscurity wherein Ruysbroek spreads his eagle's wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and the four horizons would be for him a garment all too narrow."

Let him be what he would, Des Esseintes felt himself attracted by this ill-balanced, but subtle mind; to complete the fusion between the adroit psychologist on the one hand and the pious pedant on the other, had proved impossible, and these jolts, these incoherences even constituted the personality of the man.

Recruits to his standard were certain other writers forming little bands that operated as skirmishers on the outskirts of the Clerical camp. They did not belong to the main body, but were, properly speaking, rather the scouts of a Religion that distrusted men of talent like Veuillot and Hello, whom it deemed too independent and not colourless enough. What it really wanted was soldiers who never reasoned, regiments of the purblind, mediocre sort of men whom Hello stigmatized with the indignation of one who had endured their yoke. Accordingly, Catholicism had made all haste to expel from the columns of its organs one of its own partisans, Leon Bloy, a savage pamphleteer, who wrote a style at once furious and artificial, coquettish and uncultivated, and had turned out of doors at its official bookshops, as one plague-stricken and unclean, another author who had yet bawled himself hoarse in celebrating its praises: Barbey d'Aurévilly.

Truth to tell, he was too compromising an ally, and too indocile a disciple. The rest would always in the long run bow the head under rebuke and fall back into line; he was the incorrigible urchin" the party could not recognize; he was a literary runagate after the girls, whom he brought bare-bosomed into the very sanctuary.

It was only due to that huge scorn with which Catholicism looks down on talent that an excommunication in due and proper form had not outlawed this strange servant who, under pretext of doing honour to his masters, was for breaking the church windows, mountebanking with the sacred vessels, executing fancy dances round the tabernacle.

Two works in particular of Barbey d'Aurévilly's fired Des Esseintes' imagination: the Prêtre marié ("Married Priest") and the Diabolique. Others, such as l'Ensorcelé ("The Bewitched"), the Chevalier des Touches, Une vieille Maîtresse ("An Old Mistress"), were no doubt better balanced and more complete works, but they appealed less warmly to Des Esseintes, who was genuinely interested only in sickly books with health undermined and exasperated by fever.

In these comparatively sane volumes Barbey d'Aurévilly was perpetually tacking to and fro between those two channels of Catholicism which eventually run into one,—mysticism and Sadism.

But in these two books which Des Esseintes was now turning over, Barbey had abandoned all prudence, had given the rein to his steed, had dashed off whip and spur along the roads he had then traversed to their extremest limits.

All the mysterious horror of the Middle Ages hovered over that improbable book the Prêtre marie; magic was mixed up with religion, gibberish with prayer, and more pitiless, more cruel than the Devil, the God of original sin tortured without respite or remorse the innocent Calixte, the victim of His abhorrence, branding her with a red cross on the brow, as of old He had had one of his angels mark the houses of unbelievers whom he was fain to slay.

Conceived by a fasting monk run delirious, these scenes succeeded one another in the broken language of a fever patient. But, unfortunately, among these creations as fantastic as the Coppélias galvanized into life by Hoffmann, there were some, the Néel de Néhou for example, that seemed to have been imagined in one of those periods of exhaustion that follow a crisis and were quite out of keeping amid these tales of gloom and madness, into which they imported the comic element that moves our involuntary mirth at sight of the little tin mannikin that plays the horn, in hunting boots, on the top of a mantelpiece clock.

Succeeding to these mystical divagations, the author had a period of comparative calm; then a terrible relapse followed.

The belief that man is a Buridan's ass, a being dragged this way and that by two forces of equal strength, which fight, turn and turn about victorious and vanquished, for his soul, the conviction that human life is no better than a doubtful struggle between hell and heaven, the faith in two opposed entities, Satan and the Christ, were bound fatally and inevitably to engender those inward discords where the soul, stimulated by an incessant combat, excited in a sort by promises and threats, ends by giving up the effort to resist and prostitutes itself to whichever of the two factions had been most obstinate in its pursuit.

In the Prêtre marié, the praises of the Christ, whose temptations had been successful, were sung by Barbey d'Aurévilly; in the Diaboliques, the author had surrendered to the Devil whom he then extolled. And then came the apparition of Sadism, that bastard birth of Catholicism, which Faith has for centuries, under all its shapes, pursued with its exorcisms and its fires.

This condition of mind, so strange and so ill-defined, cannot in fact arise in the soul of an unbeliever. It does not consist solely in a mad riot amid the excesses of the flesh, further stimulated by bloody outrages of cruelty, for in that case it would be merely an aberration of the sexual feelings, an instance of satyriasis arrived at its point of supreme maturity; it consists primarily and particularly in a course of sacrilegious acts, in a moral revolt, in a spiritual debauch, in an aberration purely ideal, purely Christian. Another essential characteristic is a joy tempered by fear, analogous to the naughty pleasure of disobedient children who insist on playing with forbidden articles for no other reason than because their parents have expressly forbidden them to go near them.

In truth, if it did not involve a sacrilege, Sadism would have no raison d'être on the other hand, sacrilege, which flows from the very existence of a religion, cannot be intentionally and effectively committed save by a believer, for a man would experience no satisfaction from profaning a faith that he did not believe in, or knew nothing of.

The force of Sadism then, the attraction it offers, lies wholly in the forbidden pleasure of transferring to Satan the homages and prayers we owe to God; it lies then in the non-observance of the Catholic precepts which we are actually respecting, though in an inverse sense, when we commit, in order the more scornfully to mock the Christ, the sins he had most expressly banned,—pollution of holy things and carnal orgies.

In reality, the vice to which the Marquis de Sade has given his name was as old as the Church herself; it had been rampant in the eighteenth century, reintroducing, to go back no farther, by a mere phenomenon of atavism, the impious practices of the mediaeval Witches' Sabbath.

By simply consulting the Malleus Maleficorum, Jacob Sprenger's terrible code of justice, which permitted the Church to exterminate by the fires of the stake thousands of necromancers and sorcerers, Des Esseintes was enabled to recognize in the ancient Sabbath all the obscene practices and all the blasphemies of Sadism. Over and above the unclean orgies dear to the Evil One, nights consecrated successively to lawful and unnatural coition, nights befouled by the bloody bestialities of ruttish animals, he found repeated the same parodies of Church processions, the same standing insults and defiances against God, the same ceremonies of devotion to his Rival, when was celebrated, with curses in lieu of blessings on the bread and wine, the Black Mass on the back of a woman crouching on all fours, whose rump, naked and polluted again and again; served for altar table, and the congregation communicated, in derision, with a black host on the face of which a figure of a he-goat was impressed.

The very same debauch of foul-mouthed raillery and degrading insults was to be seen in the Marquis de Sade, who added to his cruel and abominable sensualities the spice of sacrilegious profanities.

He defied Heaven, made invocation to Lucifer, called God a contemptible scoundrel, an idiot, an imbecile, spat on the communion, did all he could to degrade with vile obscenities a Deity he hoped would damn him, while declaring, the better to defy Him, that he had no existence.

This condition of soul Barbey d'Aurévilly came very near sharing. If he did not go as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious maledictions against the Saviour; if, more prudent or more timid, he always made a profession of honouring the Church, he none the less, as they did in the Middle Ages, addressed his pleadings to the Devil and fell, like the rest, by way of defying God, into demoniac erotomania, contriving sensual monstrosities of vice; borrowing even from the Philosophie dans le boudoir a certain episode, which he seasoned with new condiments, when he wrote the tale: le Diner d'un athée ("An Atheist's Dinner-Party").

This extraordinary book was Des Esseintes' delight; he had printed for him in violet ink, Bishop's violet, within a border of Cardinal purple, on an authentic parchment which the Church officials had blessed, a copy of the Diaboliques set up in "letters of civility," whose outlandish serifs and flourishes, twisted into horns and hoofs, affect a Satanic contour.

After certain pieces of Baudelaire's which, in imitations of the psalms chanted on the nights of the Witches' Sabbath, took the form of infernal Litanies, this volume was among all the works of contemporary apostolic literature the only one that bore witness to that condition of soul at once pious and impious, towards which the remembered claims of Catholicism, stimulated by the attacks of nervous disorder, had often urged Des Esseintes.

With Barbey d'Aurévilly, the series of religious writers came to an end. To tell the truth, this pariah belonged more, from every point of view, to secular literature than to the other in which he was for claiming a place that was denied him. His language, characterized by a romanticism run wild, crammed with contorted expressions, unusual turns of phrase, extravagant similes, whipped up his sentences which tore along with roar and rattle and clang of noise of bells from top to bottom of the page. In a word, d'Aurévilly appeared like a full-blooded stallion among the geldings that people the Ultramontane stables.

Such were Des Esseintes' reflexions as he re-read passages chosen at random from the book and compared its nervous and varied style with the lymphatic, stereotyped diction of his fellows, thinking at the same time of the evolution of language so rightly insisted on by Darwin.

Associating with the profane, educated in the romantic school, familiar with the new literature, accustomed to the business of modern publications, Barbey found himself inevitably in possession of a dialect which had undergone many and profound modifications, which had been changed and renovated, since the days of the Grand Siècle.

Very different had been the case with the ecclesiastical writers; confined to their own domain, imprisoned within an ancient and identical range of reading, knowing nothing of the literary movements of the centuries and firmly determined, if need be, to tear out their eyes rather than see, they necessarily employed a language incapable of change, like that speech of the eighteenth century which the descendants of the French settlers in Canada still speak and write as their mother tongue, without any selection of phraseology or words having ever been possible in their idiom, isolated as it is from the ancient metropolis and surrounded on all sides by the English language.

Matters were at this point when the silvery sound of a bell tinkling a tiny angelus informed Des Esseintes that breakfast was ready. He left his books, wiped his forehead and made for the dining-room, telling himself that among all the volumes he had been arranging on his shelves, the works of Barbey d'Aurévilly were still the only ones whose matter and style offered those gamey flavours, those stains of disease and decay, that cankered surface, that taste of rotten-ripeness which he so loved to savour among the decadent writers, Latin and Monastic, of the early ages.

Chapter XIII

THE weather went from bad to worse. That year the seasons seemed to have changed places; after a long succession of rain-storms and fogs, blazing skies, like sheets of white-hot metal, now hung over the earth from horizon to horizon. In two days, without any transition whatever, cold, wet mists and lashing showers were followed by a torrid heat, an atmosphere as heavy as lead. As if stirred to a fiery fury with giants, the sun glared,—a glowing furnace-mouth shooting forth an almost white light that scorched the eyes; a dust of flame rose from the burntup roads, grilling the parched trees, frying the dry grass. The reverberation from the white-washed house-walls, the flames thrown back from the zinc of roofs and panes of windows, blinded the sight; the temperature of a smeltinghouse in full blast weighed on Des Esseintes' house. Half stripped, he threw open a casement, to receive full in the face a puff of wind as hot as if coming from an oven; the dining-room, whither he fled for refuge, was burning, the rarefied air seemed to boil. In utter exhaustion, he sat down, for the excitement that had kept his mind active with dreams and fancies during the time when he was arranging his books had come to an end. As is the case with all sufferers from nervous disorders, the heat undermined his strength terribly; his anaemia, checked for the time being by the cold, recurred, exhausting a body debilitated by copious perspirations. 238 With shirt clinging to his moist back, perspiring perineum, dripping arms and legs, brow streaming with salt drops that poured down his cheeks, Des Esseintes lay back half fainting in his chair. The sight of the food on the table sickened him; he ordered it to be taken away and boiled eggs brought instead. He tried to swallow sippets of toast dipped in the yolk, but they stuck in his throat. He turned sick and drank a few drops of wine, but it seemed to burn his stomach like fire. He mopped his face; the sweat, hot just now, was now cold as it trickled from his temples; he tried sucking bits of ice to relieve the feeling of nausea,— but all to no purpose. An infinite lassitude glued him to his chair by the table; at last he got up, longing for air, but the sippets of toast had swelled and risen in his throat till they came near choking him. Never before had he felt so oppressed, so feeble, so ill at ease; his eyes, too, were affected, he saw things double and turning round and round; soon the sense of distance grew confused, his glass seemed to be a mile away from his hand. He told himself he was the victim of an optical delusion, but he could not throw off the sensation. Finally, he went and lay down on the sofa in the drawing-room; but then the rolling of a ship at sea began, increasing his nausea still further. He sprang up again, resolved to take a digestive to settle the eggs in his stomach. He returned to the dining-room and sadly compared himself, in his cabin, to passengers on a vessel attacked by seasickness. With staggering steps he made his way to the cupboard that contained his "mouth-organ," and examined 239 the latter, but without opening it he reached instead up to a higher shelf for a bottle of Bénédictine, which he selected to keep by him because of its shape which struck him as suggestive of ideas at once pleasantly festive and vaguely mystical. But for the moment, he remained indifferent, looking with a dull eye at the thick-set flagon of dark green glass which was wont at other times to call up before his mind's eye the Priors of the mediaeval Monastery as he looked at its antique monkish paunch, its head and neck wrapped in a parchment cowl, its stamp of red wax quartered with three silver mitres on a field azure, the cork tied over and sealed with lead like a Papal bull, and the label written in sonorous Latin, on paper yellowed and faded as if by age,—liquor Monachorum Benedictinorum Abbatiae Fiscanensis (Liqueur of the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Fécamp). Under this full monastic habit, certified by a cross and certain ecclesiastical initial letters,—P. O. M., within these parchments and bands that guarded it like an authentic charter, slumbered a saffron-coloured liquor of an exquisite delicacy. It distilled an aroma of the quintessence of angelica and hyssop mingled with sea-shore herbs rich in iodines and bromines disguised by sugary matters; it stimulated the palate with a spirituous heat dissimulated under a toothsomeness altogether virginal and innocent; 240 flattered the nose with a smack of rankness enwrapped in a soothing savour at once childlike and pious. This hypocrisy resulting from the startling discrepancy between the containing vessel and its contents, between the liturgical form of the bottle and the soul inside it, so feminine, so modern, had before now set him dreaming; he had indeed fallen many a time into a brown study as he sat before this liqueur, thinking of the monks who sold it, the Benedictines of the Abbey of Fécamp who, while belonging to the Congregation of Saint-Maur, famous for its researches in History, served under the rule of St. Benedict, yet did not follow the observances of the white monks of Citeaux and the black monks of Cluny. Irresistibly they came crowding before his mind's eye, in their daily life as they lived in the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating retorts, distilling in alembics sovereign panaceas, infallible cure-alls. He drank off a drop of the liqueur and felt a relief that lasted a minute or two; but very soon the same fire that a mouthful of wine had before kindled in his inwards burned there again. He tossed away his napkin and went back into his study, where he began pacing up and down; he felt as if he were under the bell of an air-pump in which a vacuum was being gradually produced, and a sensation of faintness, at once soothing and excruciating, ran from his brain down every limb. He pulled himself together and, unable to bear more, for the first time perhaps since his arrival at 241 Fontenay, fled for refuge to his garden, where he found shelter in the ring of shadow cast by a tree. Seated on the turf, he gazed with a dazed look at the beds of vegetables the servants had planted. But it was only after an hour had elapsed that his eyes saw what he was looking at, for a greenish mist floated before his eyes and prevented his making out more than the blurred images, as if viewed through deep water, of objects, whose appearance and colour kept continually changing. In the end, however, he recovered his balance and found himself able to distinguish clearly onions and cabbages, further off a broad patch of lettuce and in the background, all along the hedge, a row of white lilies standing motionless in the heavy air. A smile flitted over his lips, for suddenly he remembered a quaint comparison old Nicander makes, likening, from the point of view of shape, the pistil of a lily to an ass's genitals, while a passage from Albertus Magnus also occurred to him where that miracle-worker gives a singular formula for discovering by the use of a lettuce whether a girl is still virgin. These recollections gave him a moment's merriment. Then he fell to examining the garden, marking how the plants lay withered by the heat and the ground smoked in the glare of the dusty sunbeams. Presently, above the hedge separating the garden which lay at a lower level from the raised 242 roadway leading up to the Fort, he caught sight of a band of young rascals tumbling over each other in the blazing sunshine. His attention was still concentrated on them when another village lad appeared, a smaller mite than the rest. He was a squalid object; his hair looked like sea-weed sodden with sand, his nose was filthy, his mouth was disgusting, the lips smeared with a white paste from what he had been nibbling at,—skim-milk cheese spread on a piece of bread and sprinkled over with slices of raw green onion. Des Esseintes sniffed the air; a sudden longing, a perverse craving seized him; the nauseous dainty brought the water to his mouth. He thought somehow that his stomach, that rebelled against all food, would digest this horrid repast and his palate enjoy it like a royal feast. He sprang up, ran to the kitchen and gave instant orders to send to the village for a round loaf, some white cheese and a raw onion, directing that they should make him a meal exactly like what he had seen the child gnawing at. This done, he went back and resumed his seat under the tree. The lads were fighting now, snatching scraps of bread out of each other's hands, shoving them into their mouths and then licking their fingers. Kicks and fisticuffs were freely exchanged, and the weaker vessels got tumbled over in the 243 road, where they lay squalling as the jagged stones scraped their backsides. The sight gave new life to Des Esseintes; the interest he took in the combat diverted his thoughts from his own miseries. Looking on at the fury of these naughty youngsters, he reflected on the cruel and abominable law of the struggle for existence, and ignoble as the children were, he could not help sympathizing with their lot and concluding it would have been better for them had their mother never borne them. In fact, what was it all but scald-head, colics, fevers, measles, kicking and cuffings in infancy, hard knocks and degrading jobs of work at thirteen or so, women's trickeries, vile diseases and wives' unfaithfulness in manhood; then, in declining years, infirmities and a painful death in a workhouse or a hospital. When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions, whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the poor to endure more easily the physical 244 sufferings that broke down more mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich. What madness to beget children! reflected Des Esseintes. And to think that ecclesiastics, who have taken a vow of sterility, have actually pushed unreason so far as to canonize St. Vincent de Paul because he saved innocent little ones for useless torments! Thanks to his odious precautions, he had postponed for years the death of beings, devoid of intelligence and feeling, in such wise that, having in time grown almost understanding and at any rate capable of pain, they could foresee the future, could expect and dread the death they had hitherto not known so much as the name of; that they could, some of them, even call upon it to come, in very hatred of the condemnation to live he inflicted on them in virtue of an illogical code of Theology. Yes, and since the old Saint's death, his ideas had come to govern the world; children abandoned to die were rescued, instead of being left to perish quietly without their being conscious of aught amiss; while, at the same time, the life they preserved them for was growing day by day harsher and more barren! Under pretext of liberty and progress, Society had discovered yet another means of aggravating the miseries of man's existence, by dragging him from his home, tricking him out in an absurd costume, putting specially contrived weapons in his hands, brutalizing him in 245 a slavery identical with that from which they had, out of compassion, enfranchised the negro, and all this merely to put him in a condition to slaughter his fellows without risking the scaffold, as common murderers do who work in units, without uniform, with arms less noisy and less swift to kill. What a strange epoch, Des Esseintes told himself, is this, which, while invoking the sacred name of humanity, and striving to perfect anaesthetics to abolish physical pain, at the very same time provides such irritants to aggravate moral agonies! Ah! if ever, in the name of pity, useless procreation should be abolished, that time was now! But here, again, the laws promulgated by men like Portalis and Homais appeared, ferocious and self-contradictory. Justice deemed quite natural the ways men use to trick Nature in the marriage bed; it was a recognized, admitted fact; there was never a household, no matter how well-todo, that did not employ means to hinder procreation, use contrivances to be bought openly in the shops,—all artifices it would never occur to anybody to disapprove. Yet, if these means, these subterfuges proved ineffectual, if the trickery failed, and to make good the failure, recourse was had to more certain methods, there were not prisons and gaols and penal settlements enough to hold in durance vile people condemned to this punishment by judge and jury, who the 246 same night in the conjugal bed used every trickery they could devise not to beget youngsters of their own. The trickery itself therefore was no crime, but to make good its failure was one! In a word, Society regarded as a crime the act that consisted in killing a creature endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, the operator was surely destroying an animal, less fully formed, less alive and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat, which may be strangled at birth without penalty. It is right to add, thought Des Esseintes, for further proof how monstrous the injustice is, that it is not the unskilful operator, who generally makes off with all haste, but the woman, victim of his awkwardness, who pays the penalty for saving an innocent being from the burden of life. Verily the world must be extraordinarily prejudiced to want to suppress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, that the very savages of the South Seas have been led to practise them by the mere action of their own instinct. At this moment, his servant interrupted these charitable reflexions of his master by bringing Des Esseintes a silvergilt salver on which lay the nauseous dainty he had asked for. A spasm of disgust shook him; he had not the courage to touch the thing, for the morbid craving had now ceased. 247 A sensation of extreme malaise returned; he was forced to rise from where he sat; the sun, in moving westwards was little by little encroaching on the place, the air becoming more oppressive and the heat more scorching. "Go and pitch the thing," he ordered the man, "to those children yonder fighting in the road; I hope the weakest ones will be maimed and never get a scrap and, what's more, be soundly whipped by their parents when they get back home with trousers torn and eyes blackened; that will give them a foretaste of the merry life that awaits them!" Then he returned to the house, where he sank half fainting in an armchair. "Still I must try and eat something," he sighed,—and he proceeded to soak a biscuit in a glass of old Constantia (J. P. Cloete brand), a few bottles of which were still left in his cellar. This wine, the colour of onion skins slightly burnt, smacking of old Malaga and Port, but with a sugary bouquet of its own and an after-taste of grapes whose juices have been condensed and sublimated by burning suns, had often comfortedhis stomach and given a fillip to his digestion enfeebled by the forced fasts he was compelled to undergo; but the cordial, generally so efficacious, failed of its effect. Then, hoping an emollient might cool the hot irons that were burning his intestines, he had recourse to Nalifka, a Russian liqueur, contained in a flask patterned 248 over with dead-gold filigree; but this unctuous, fruity syrup was equally ineffective. Alas! the days were long past when Des Esseintes, still in the enjoyment of robust health, would, in the middle of the dog-days, mount a sledge he had at home, and then, closely wrapped in furs which he would pull up to his chin, force himself to shiver as he told himself through teeth that chattered of set purpose: "Ah! but the cold is Arctic; it's freezing, freezing hard!" till he actually persuaded himself it was cold weather! Alas! suchlike remedies were of no avail now that his sufferings were real. With all this, it was useless for him to have recourse to laudanum; instead of acting as a sedative, that drug only irritated his nerves and robbed him of sleep. In former times he had resorted to opium and haschisch in order to see visions, but the only result had been to bring on vomiting and intense nervous disturbances; he had been obliged forthwith to give up their use and without the help of these coarse excitants to ask his brain of itself alone to bear him far away from everyday life into the region of dreams. "What a day!" he moaned to himself on this occasion, as he sponged his neck, feeling as if every ounce of strength he had left was melting away in a fresh access of perspiration. A feverish restlessness still made it impossible for him to stay in one place; again he set off roaming through his rooms, trying all the seats one after the other. Wearied out at 249 last, he presently sank down before his writing-desk, and resting his elbow on the table, fell mechanically and without any ulterior motive to turning about in his hands an astrolabe, lying as a paper-weight on a heap of books and memoranda. He had purchased the instrument, which was of copper engraved and gilt, of German workmanship and dating from the seventeenth century, at a bric-à-brac shop in Paris, after a visit he had paid one day to the Musée de Cluny, where he had stood for hours enraptured before a wonderful astrolabe of carved ivory, the cabalistic look of which had fascinated him. The paper-weight in question stirred up in him a whole crowd of reminiscences. Influenced by the associations evoked by the sight of the little ornament, his thoughts flew from Fontenay to Paris, to the old curiosity shop where he had bought it, then returned to the Musée des Thermes, where he called up the mental picture of the ivory astrolabe, while his eyes still continued to dwell, but without seeing it, on the copper astrolabe on his writing table. Then, still led by memory, he quitted the Museum and, without leaving town, strolled up and down the streets. After roaming along the Rue Sommerard and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, he struck off into the adjoining streets and came to a halt in front of certain establishments whose frequency and peculiar character had often struck him. 250 Beginning with the astrolabe, this mental excursion ended by leading him to the beer-halls of the Quartier Latin. He recalled the great number of these places all along the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the Rue Vaugirard adjoining the Odéon; sometimes they stood cheek by jowl like the old riddecks in the Rue du Canal-aux-Harengs at Antwerp, stretching one after the other down the side-walk, which they overlook with a row of signboards all very much alike. Through the half open doors and the windows only partially obscured by coloured panes or curtains he could remember having caught glimpses of women walking up and down with dragging step and out-thrust neck, the way geese waddle; others lounging on benches were rubbing elbows on marble-topped tables, dreaming away the hours or singing to themselves, their heads drooped between their fists; yet others would be preening themselves before the looking-glass, patting with the tips of their fingers their false hair just dressed by a barber; others again would be drawing out of reticules with broken fastenings piles of silver and copper which they amused themselves by ranging methodically in little heaps. The majority had massive features, hoarse voices, flaccid bosoms and painted eyes, and all, like so many automata wound up at the same time with the same key, uttered in the same tone the same invitations, lavished the same smiles, 251 talked in the same silly phrases, indulged in the same absurd reflexions. Thoughts began to crystallize in Des Esseintes' mind and he found himself coming to a definite inference, now that he could look back in memory and take a bird's-eye view, as it were, of these crowded taverns and streets. He realized the meaning of these cafes, saw that they corresponded to the state of mind and imagination of a whole generation; he gathered from them material for the synthesis of the period. Indeed, the symptoms were plain and unmistakable; the legalized brothel was disappearing, and each time one of these closed its doors, a beer-tavern opened. This diminution of official prostitution, organized for the satisfaction of clandestine amours, was evidently to be accounted for by the incomprehensible illusions men indulge in from the carnal standpoint. Monstrous as this might seem, the fact was, the beer-tavern satisfied an ideal. True, the utilitarian tendencies transmitted hereditarily and further developed by the precocious discourtesies and constant brutalities of school and college had made the youth of the present day singularly coarse and also singularly opinionated and cold-hearted, but for all this, it 252 had preserved, deep down in its heart, an old-fashioned flower of sentiment, a vague, half decayed ideal of love. So nowadays, when the blood was hot within, it could no more consent just to march in, work its will, pay and go home again. This, in its eyes, was a bestial thing, like a dog covering a bitch without preliminary or preamble. Besides, vanity was in no sort of way gratified in these official houses of vice where there was no pretence of resistance on the woman's part, no semblance of victory on that of the man, where no special preference was to be expected, nor even any special liberality of favours from the prostitute who, as a tradeswoman should, measured her caresses in proportion to the price paid. On the other hand, to pay court to a girl at a beer-saloon was allowing for all these sentimentalities, all the delicacies of love. There were rivals in this case striving for her affection, and those to whom she agreed, for a sufficient consideration, to grant a rendezvous, imagined themselves, in all good faith, to have won a victory, to be the object of a flattering preference, the recipient of a precious favour. Yet, all the time, the creatures were every whit as stolid, as mercenary, as base and degraded as those who ply their trade in the houses with numbers. Like these, the tavern waitresses drank without being thirsty, laughed without being amused, were mad after the caresses of a fancy man from the streets, blackguarded each other and quarrelled and fought on the slightest provocation. Yet, in spite of 253 everything, the young Parisian rake had never learned that the servant wenches at these beer-halls were, from every point of view, whether of personal good looks or attractive poses or pretty dresses, altogether inferior to the women confined in the luxurious rooms of the other sort of establishment! Great God! Des Esseintes could not help exclaiming, what simpletons these fools must be who flutter round beer-halls, for, to say nothing of their ridiculous selfdeception, they have positively brought themselves to ignore the danger they run from the low-class, highly suspicious quality of the goods supplied, to think nothing of the money spent in drinks, all priced beforehand by the landlady, to forget the time wasted in waiting for delivery of the commodity,—a delivery put off and put off continually in order to raise the price, frittered away in delays and postponements endlessly repeated, all to quicken and stimulate the liberality of the client. This imbecile sentimentalism combined with ferocity in practice seemed to represent the dominant feeling of the age; these same fellows who would have gouged out their best friend's eye to make a sixpence, lost all clearness of vision, all perspicacity, in dealing with the disreputable tavern-wenches who bullied them without compunction and exploited them without mercy. Workmen toiled, families cheated one another in the name of trade, all to let themselves be swindled out of money by their sons, who in their turn allowed themselves to be plundered by these 254 women, who in the last resort were drained dry by their fancy lovers. From end to end of Paris, East to West and North to South, it was one unbroken chain of petty trickeries, a series of organized thefts repeated continually from one to another, —all this simply because, instead of satisfying lechers straight away, the suppliers of these goods were artful enough to keep their clients dangling about and waiting with what patience they might. At bottom, human wisdom might be summed up in the precept,—drag things out indefinitely, say no, then after a long time, yes; for indeed there was no way of managing mankind half so good as procrastination. "Ah! if only the same held good of the stomach," sighed Des Esseintes, seized with a sudden spasm of pain which instantly brought his thoughts back to Fontenay, recalling them from the far-away regions they had been roaming. 255

Chapter XIV

TWO or three days had jogged by more or less satisfactorily, thanks to various devices for cheating the stomach's reluctance, when one morning the highly spiced sauces which masked the smell of fat and savour of blood that go along with flesh-meat stirred Des Esseintes' gorge, and he asked himself anxiously whether his weakness, already alarming, was not getting worse and likely soon to force him to take to his bed. Suddenly, a gleam of light shone through his distress of mind; he remembered how one of his friends, who had been very ill at one time, had succeeded by using a "patent digester" in checking the anaemia, stopping the wasting, keeping what was left him of vigour from further dissipation. He despatched his servant to Paris to procure the precious apparatus, and in accordance with the directions the maker sent with it, himself instructed the cook how to cut up the beef into little bits, put it dry into the tin digester, to add a slice of leek and carrot, then screw on the lid and set the whole thing to boil in a hot-water pan for four hours. At the end of that time, the threads of meat were squeezed dry, and you drank a spoonful of the muddy, salty juice left at the bottom of the pot. Then you felt something slip down that was like absorbing warm marrow, something that soothed the stomach with a gentle, velvety caress. 256 This quintessence of nourishment stopped the spasms and nauseas of the empty stomach, stimulating its action till it no longer refused to keep down a few spoonsful of soup. Thanks to his "digester," Des Esseintes' nervous malady made no further progress, and he told himself: "Well, that is something gained, at any rate; perhaps the temperature will fall soon; the clouds will modify the glare of that odious sun that wears me out, and I shall then get along, without overmuch suffering, to the first fogs and frosts of Autumn." In his present state of apathy and the weariness of having nothing to occupy his thoughts, his library, the rearrangement of which still remained uncompleted, got on his nerves; no longer stirring from his chair, he had continually before his eyes the shelves appropriated to profane literature with the books on them lying about in disorder, propped up one against the other, piled up in heaps or tumbled like a pack of cards flat on their sides. This confusion shocked him the more when he contrasted it with the perfect order of his religious works, carefully drawn up, as if on parade, along the walls. He tried to remedy this confusion, but after ten minutes' labour he found himself bathed in perspiration; the effort was too much for his strength; he lay down exhausted on a couch and rang for his servant. 257 Following his directions, the old domestic set to work, bringing him the books one by one, which he then examined and pointed out the chosen place for each. The task was quite a short one, for Des Esseintes' library contained only a singularly limited number of non-religious books of the present day. By dint of passing them through the test of a severe mental review, in the same way as the wire-drawer passes strips of metal through a steel draw-plate from which they issue attenuated and light, reduced to almost invisible threads, he hadfinally come to possess only books which had proved capable of withstanding such a treatment and were solid enough of frame to bear the second rolling-mill of perusal. By this process of elimination, he had checked and pretty well sterilized all pleasure in reading, accentuating yet further the irreconcilable conflict between his ideas and those of the society in which chance had ordained he should be born. It had come to this at last that he found it impossible any longer to discover a book to satisfy his secret aspirations; nay, he had even ceased to admire the very volumes that had without a doubt done much to embitter his mind and fill it so full of subtle suspicions. Yet in literature and art, his opinions had started in the first instance from a simple enough point of view. For him, there were no such things as schools, only the writer's individual temperament mattered, only the working of the creator's 258 brain interested him, whatever the subject treated of. Unfortunately, this true criterion of appreciation, worthy of La Palisse, was as good as useless, for the simple reason that, while desiring to be rid of prejudice, to refrain from all passion, every man goes for choice to those works which correspond most intimately with his own temperament and he ends by relegating all the rest to the background. This work of selection had gone on slowly. He had at one time adored the great Balzac, but in proportion as his organism had lost balance, as his nerves had gained the upper hand, his inclinations had been modified and his preferences changed. Soon even, and this although he was well aware of his injustice towards the marvellous author of the Comédie Humaine, he had given up so much as ever opening his books, the sturdy art of which irritated him; other aspirations stirred him now, that were in a sense incapable of precise definition. By careful self-examination, however, he realized in the first place that a book to attract him must bear the character of singularity that Edgar Allan Poe craved; but Des Esseintes was ready and willing to adventure further along this road, demanding strange flowers of Byzantine fancy and complicated sophistries of diction; he preferred a vague, vexing indefiniteness, that left him to brood meditatively over it till he had made it, at will, yet more 259 vague, or more firmly outlined, according to the condition of his spirit at the moment. He wanted, in one word, a work of art both for what it was in itself and for what it allowed him to lend it of himself; he wanted to go along with it, thanks to its support, helped on his way by it as if supported by a friend's arm, as if borne forward by a vehicle, into a sphere where the sublimated stress of sensation roused in him an unexpected commotion, the exact causes of which he would strive long and even vainly to unravel. Lastly, ever since his leaving Paris, he shrunk more and more from the realities of life and above all from the society of his day which he regarded with an ever growing horror,-a detestation which had reacted strongly on his literary and artistic tastes; he refused, as far as possible, to have anything to do with pictures and books whose subjects were in any way connected with modern existence. Thus, losing the faculty of admiring beauty independently of the shape, whatever that may be, under which it presents itself, he now preferred, in Flaubert, the Tentation de SaintAntoine to the Education sentimentale; in De Goncourt, Faustin to Germinie Lacerteux; in Zola, La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret to L'Assommoir. This point of view seemed to him logical; these works, less direct indeed, but equally thrilling, equally human, let him penetrate further into the inmost secrets of temperament of these masters who displayed with a more unfeigned 260 frankness the most mysterious impulses of their being, while at the same time they raised him also, higher than the rest, out of that trivial life he was weary of. Moreover, he could enter in reading them into complete community ideas with the writers who had conceived them; because at the moment of writing, the authors had been in a state of mind closely analogous to his own. The truth is, when the period at which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is, unconsciously to himself, haunted by a sensation of morbid yearning for another century. Unable to bring himself into harmony, save at rare intervals, with the surroundings amid which he develops, ceasing to find in the study of these surroundings and in the beings who are subjected to them sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he feels the birth and growth in himself of phenomena of a singular sort. Confused cravings for a change of time and place spring up, which find their satisfaction in reflexion and reading. Instincts, sensations, preferences transmitted from his ancestors awake, grow more and more precise and govern his thoughts as masters. He recalls memories of persons and things he had never personally known, and there comes a time when he escapes impetuously from the prison-house of his century, and wanders forth, in freedom, in another 261 epoch, with which, by a crowning piece of self-deception, he believes he would have been in better accord. In some cases, it is a return to past ages, to vanished civilizations, to dead centuries; in others, it is an impulse towards the fantastic, the land of dreams, it is a vision more or less vivid of a time to come whose images reproduce, without his being aware, as a result of atavism, that of bygone epochs. In Flaubert's case, it was, a series of vast and solemn pictures, of grandiose and pompous spectacles, in the magnificent and barbaric frame of which moved beings sensitive and delicate, mysterious and proud, women endowed, in the perfection of their beauty, with sick and suffering souls, wherein he discerned secret horrors of infatuation and insane caprice, driven to desperation as they were even in their day by the miserable inadequacy of the pleasures they could hope to enjoy. The temperament of the great author was revealed in all its brilliance in those incomparable pages of the Tentation de Saint-Antoine and Salammbô in which, far from all associations of our petty modern life, he called up the Asiatic splendours of far-off ages, their mystic aspirations and discouragements, the morbid fancies of their idleness, the ferocities springing from the oppressive ennui that flows, even before its pleasures have been drained to the dregs, from alife of opulence and prayer. 262 In De Goncourt, on the other hand, it was a longing for the preceding century, a craving to return to the elegant trivialities of the eighteenth century, never to be renewed. The gigantic panorama of seas breaking upon piers of granite, of deserts beneath blazing skies stretching farther than eye can see, found no place in his work of imaginary reconstruction, which confined itself, within the boundaries of a great noble's park, to a boudoir warm with the alluring emanations of its fair occupant, a woman with a tired smile, a discontented mouth, restless yet pensive eyes. The soul wherewith he animated his characters was not now the soul Flaubert breathed into his creations, a soul in revolt beforehand at thought of the inexorable certainty that no new happiness was possible; rather was it a soul driven to revolt after trial, after experience, after all the fruitless efforts it had made to invent novel, less hackneyed liaisons, to give a new spice to the one, world-old pleasure that is repeated from age to age in the gratification, more or less ingeniously carried out, of a pair of lovers' lust. Albeit Faustin lived among us moderns and was body and soul of our age; yet, by ancestral influences, she was a being of the by-gone century, the captious heart and mental lassitude and sensual satiety of which she shared in full. This book of Edmond de Goncourt's was one of the volumes Des Esseintes most delighted in. Indeed, that suggestiveness, that invitation to dreamy reverie which he 263 loved, abounded in this, work, where underneath the written line peeped another visible to the soul only, indicated rather than expressed, which revealed depths of passion piercing through a reticence that allowed spiritual infinities to be defined such as no idiom of human language could have encompassed. It was very different from the diction of Flaubert, no doubt one of inimitable magnificence; here the style was at once clear and morbid, vigorous and deformed, careful to note the impalpable impression that strikes the senses and determines sensation; a style expert to modulate complicated shades of distinction of a period which was itself extraordinarily complex. In a word, it was the phraseology inevitably called for by decrepit civilizations which for the due expression of their needs demand, to whatever age they belong, special acceptations, special turns of phrase, novel moulds of sentences and words. At Rome, expiring Paganism had modified its prosody, transmuted its language, with Ausonious, Claudian, Rutilius, whose style, careful and scrupulous, full-bodied and sonorous, presented, particularly in passages descriptive of reflections, shadows, shades of meaning, an inevitable analogy with that of the De Goncourts. At Paris, a unique phenomenon in literary history had come about; this perishing society of the eighteenth century, which had produced painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, all influenced by its predilections, imbued with its be. liefs, had never succeeded in fashioning a veritable 264 writer capable of rendering its dying elegancies, or expressing the essential juice of its feverish pleasures, that were to be so cruelly expiated. It had had to wait for De Goncourt, whose temperament was made up of memories, of regrets stirred to life by the grevious spectacle of the intellectual poverty and the base aspirations of his own day, to resuscitate, not alone in his books of history, but likewise in a retrospective work like Faustin, the very soul of the epoch, to incarnate its nervous daintinesses in his actress heroine, so painfully eager to torment heart and head alike that she might savour to the verge of exhaustion the cruel revulsives of love and art. In Zola, the same feeling of neurotic longing, the craving to overpass the bounds of the present day, took a different form. In him there was no wish to travel to regions and systems of the past, to worlds vanished in the darkness of by-gone ages. His temperament, strong and powerful, enamoured of the luxuriances of life, of full-blooded vigour, of moral sturdiness, deterred him from the artificial graces, the painted and powdered pallors of the last century, as likewise from thehieratic solemnity, the brutal ferocity and the effeminate, dubious imaginations of the ancient East. The day when he, too, in his turn, had been attacked by this same yearning, this desire that is in essence poetry itself, to fly far from this contemporary society he was studying, he had hastened to an ideal country where the sap boiled in full sunshine; he had dreamed of fantastic concupiscences of heaven, of long passionate swoonings of earth, of fertilizing 265 showers of pollen falling on the panting genitals of flowers; he had arrived at a gigantic pantheism, had, all unconsciously perhaps, created, in these surroundings where, as in a Garden of Eden, he placed his Adam and Eve, a wondrous Hindu epic, celebrating in a style whose broad colours, laid on unmixed, had a sort of quaint brilliancy as of an Indian painting, the hymn of the flesh, matter, animated, living, revealing to human beings by its very frenzy of generation the forbidden fruit of love, its suffocating spasms, its instinctive caresses, its natural attitudes. With Baudelaire, these were the three masters who in all the range of French literature, modern and profane, had most caught and moulded Des Esseintes' tastes; but by dint of rereading them, of saturating his mind in their works, of knowing them by heart from end to end, he had been constrained in order to gain the power of absorbing them again, to force himself to forget them and leave them for a while undisturbed on his bookshelves. Accordingly, he barely opened them as the old servant handed them to him one by one. He confined himself to pointing out the place they were to occupy, taking care to see them arranged in good order and with plenty of elbow room. The domestic next brought him another series of books, which caused him more trouble. These were works to which 266 he had grown more and more partial, works which by the very fact of their imperfection, relieved the strain after the high perfections of writers of vaster powers. Here again, in his refining way, Des Esseintes had come to look for and find in pages otherwise ill put together occasional sentences which gave him a sort of galvanic shock and set him quivering as they discharged their electricity in a medium that had seemed at first entirely a non-conductor. The very imperfections themselves pleased him, provided they did not come from base parasitism and servility, and it may well be there was a modicum of truth in his theory that the subordinate writer of the decadence, the writer still individual though incomplete, distils a balm more active, more aperitive, more acid than the author of the same period who is really truly great, really and truly perfect. In his view, it was in their ill-constructed attempts that the most acute exaltations of sensibility were to be seen, the most morbid aberrations of psychology, the most extravagant eccentricities of language pushed to its last refusal to contain, to enclose the effervescent salts of sensations and ideas. So, in spite of himself, neglecting the masters, he now addressed himself to sundry minor writers, who were only the more agreeable and dear to him by reason of the contempt in which they were held by a public incapable of understanding them. 267 One of these, Paul Verlaine, had already made his debut with a volume of verse, the Poèmes Saturniens, a volume almost to be described as feeble, in which imitations of Leconte de Lisle jostled against experiments in romantic rhetoric, but which nevertheless revealed in certain pieces, such as the sonnet entitled Un Rêve familier, the real personality of the poet. Going back to his antecedents, Des Esseintes discovered underlying these attempts with their uncertain touch a talent already profoundly affected by Baudelaire, whose influence subsequently became much better marked, though without the contributions offered by the impeccable master being too flagrantly plagiarisms. Then later, some of his books, the Bonne Chanson, the Fêtes Galantes, the Romances sans paroles and finally his last volume, Sagesse, contained poems in which the original writer was revealed, making his mark among the mass of his contemporaries. Provided with rhymes contrived by using the tenses of verbs, sometimes even by lengthy adverbs preceded by a monosyllable. from which they fell as from a stone sill in a massive cascade of water, his verse, divided by impossible caesuras,was often singularly obscure with its daring ellipses and strange breaches of rule, that were yet not without a certain grace. 268 Handling metre better than most, he had endeavoured to rejuvenate the stereotyped forms of poetry, the sonnet, for instance, which he turned about, tail in air, like those Japanese fish of variegated earthenware we see which rest on their pedestai gills downwards. In other cases, he had degraded its form, employing only masculine rhymes, for which he seemed to show a predilection. Similarly and not unfrequently he had adopted a quaint form, a strophe of three lines, the middle one being left unrhymed, and a tercet, with one rhyme only, followed by a single line by way of refrain and recurring as an echo of itself, as in the popular pieces like "Dansons la Gigue." Yet other rhymes were to be found whose half-heard ring was only faintly to be caught in far-off strophes, like the distant sound of a bell. But his individuality was mainly conspicuous in the fact that he had known how to suggest vague and delicious secrets, in whispered voices, in the dusk of twilight. He alone had had the art to half reveal certain mysterious and troublous instincts of the soul, certain whisperings of thought so soft and low, certain avowals so gently murmured, so brokenly expressed, that the ear catching them was left hesitating, passing on to the mind languors stirred by the mystery of this breath of sound divined rather than heard. Verlaine's very spirit is in those admirable lines of the Fêtes Galantes: - Le soir tombait, un soir équivoque d'automne, Les belles se pendant rêveuses à nos bras, Dirent alors des mots si 269 spécieux tout bas, Que notre âme depuis ce temps tremble et s'étonne. Night was falling, a dubious night of Autumn; it was the hour when fair ones hanging pensive on our arms said words so specious in whispered tones that since that time our soul is lost in trembling and amaze. It was not now the limitless horizon revealed through unforgettable portals by Baudelaire, but rather, on a moonlit night, a chink half opened upon a field of view more restricted and more intimate; in a word, a field peculiar to the author. Indeed the latter, in verses that Des Esseintes greatly savoured, had formulated his own poetic system: - Car nous voulons la nuance encore, Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Et tout le reste est littérature. For what we still desire is the shade of colour, not the colour, nothing but the shade . . . and all the rest is literature. Gladly Des Esseintes had followed him through the series of his works, even the most diverse. After the publication of his Romances sans paroles, issued from the printing-office of a local newspaper at Sens, Verlaine had written nothing for a considerable interval; then, in charming lines touched with the gentle, moving charm of Villon, he had reappeared, celebrating the Virgin, "far from our days of carnal spirit 270 and dreary flesh." Often would Des Esseintes read and reread this book, Sagesse, and enjoy under its inspiration secret reveries, imaginations ofan occult passion for a Byzantine Madonna, transmuting at a given moment into a Cyprian goddess who had strayed into our century. She was so mysterious and so troublous to the senses that none could say whether she was craving for depravities of vice so monstrous that, once accomplished they would become irresistible by mankind; or whether she herself was immersed in a dream, an immaculate reverie, where the adoration of the soul should float about her in a love for ever unconfessed, for ever pure. There were other poets, too, who enticed him to trust their guidance. One was Tristan Corbière, who, in 1873, amid general indifference, had launched a volume of verses of the wildest eccentricity under the title of Les Amours Jaunes. Des Esseintes, who, in his hatred of the trivial and commonplace, would have welcomed the most unmitigated follies, the most grotesque extravagancies, spent some agreeable hours with this book where the burlesque was strangely combined with an inordinate vigour, where lines of a disconcerting brilliance occurred in poems that were as a whole utterly incomprehensible, such as the litanies in his Sommeil, which he himself in one passage stigmatized as: - Obscegrave; ne confesseur des dévotes mort-nées. Obscene confessor of fair bigots still-born. 271 It was barely French; the author was talking negro, using a sort of telegram language, passing all bounds in the suppression of verbs, affecting a ribald humour, condescending to quips and quibbles only worthy of a commercial traveller of the baser sort; then, in a moment, in this tangle of ludicrous conceits, of smirking affectations, would rise a cry of acute pain, like a violoncello string breaking. But with all this, in this style, rugged, arid, fleshless, bristling with unusual vocables and unexpected neologisms, flashed many a happy expression, many a stray verse, rhymeless yet superb; finally, to say nothing of his Poèmes Parisiens, from which Des Esseintes used to quote this profound definition of woman-kind: - Eternal féminin de l'éternel jocrisse. Eternal feminine of the eternal clown. Tristan Corbière had, in a style almost imposing in its conciseness, sung the seas of Brittany, the mariners' seraglios, the Pardon of St. Anne, and had even risen to the eloquence of hate in the invective he hurled, in connexion with the Camp of Conlie, at the individuals whom he reviled under the title of "mountebanks of the Fourth of September." This over-ripe flavour which Des Esseintes loved and which was offered him by this poet of the contorted epithets and beauties that are always of the rather suspect sort, he 272 found likewise in another poet, Théodore Hannon, a disciple of Baudelaire and Gautier, a writer animated by a very special sense of far-sought elegancies and factitious pleasures. Unlike Verlaine, who came direct, without cross, from the Baudelaire breed, particularly on the psychological side, the whimsical turn of his thought and the artful concentration of his sentiment, Théodore Hannon derived from the master, mainly on the plastic side, by his external envisagement of men and things. His fascinating corruption bore a fatal correspondence with Des Esseintes' predilections, and, in days of fog and rain, the latter would shut himself up in the retreat imagined by this poet, intoxicating his eyes with the glitter of his rich stuffs, with the flash of his jewels, with his sumptuosities, exclusively material, which all helped to excite the brain to frenzy and rose like a cantharides powder in a cloud of hot incense towards a Brussels Idol with painted face and belly tanned with perfumes. With the exception of these and of Stéphane Mallarmé, whom he directed his servant to set on one side, in order to give him a class apart, Des Esseintes was only very moderately drawn to the poets. For all his magnificence of technique, for all the impressive roll of his verse which moved with so fine a stateliness that 273 even Victor Hugo's hexameters seemed in comparison flat and dull, Leconte de Lisle could now no longer satisfy him. The ancient world, re-animated with so marvellous a vigour by Flaubert, remained dead and cold in his hands. There was no movement in his verse; it was all outside façade, with, most part of the time, never an idea to prop it up; there was no life in the dusty poems whose dull mythologies ended by chilling him. On the other hand, after having long cherished him as a prime favourite, Des Esseintes was coming to lose interest in Gautier's work; his admiration for that incomparable painter of pictures had been melting from day to day, and now he was more amazed than delighted before his descriptions, in a way impersonal as they are. The impression of objects had fixed itself on his eminently perceptive eye, but there it had, so to say, localized itself, had penetrated no further into brain and into body; like a marvellously contrived reflector, it had confined itself to repeating all things about it with an indifferent precision. No doubt Des Esseintes still loved the works of these two poets in the same way as he loved rare jewels, precious articles of dead matter, but none of the variations of these accomplished instrumentalists could any longer move him to ecstasy, for not one of them was conducive to reverie, not one of them opened, at any rate for him, one of those living outbursts that enabled him to speed the slow flight of the hours. 274 He left their books hungry and the same was true of Victor Hugo's. The Oriental and patriarchal side was too conventional, too empty to retain his interest, while the other side, at once good-natured and grandfatherly, got on his nerves. It was not till he came to the Chansons des rues et des bois that he felt himself bound to applaud the faultless jugglery of his metrical technique yet, when all was said and done, how gladly would he have given all these tours de force for one new poem of Baudelaire to match the old, for beyond a doubt the latter was almost the only author whose verses contained beneath their shining rind a really balsamic and nutritious kernel! To leap from one extreme to the other, from form devoid of ideas to ideas devoid of form, left Des Esseintes no less cold and circumspect in his admiration. The psychological labyrinths of Stendhal, the analytical divagations of Duranty attracted him; but their diction, official, colourless, dry; their mercenary prose, at most good for the ignoble consumption of the stage, repelled him. Besides, the interesting intricacies of their analyses appealed, after all, only to brains still stirred by passions that no longer moved him. Little he cared for the common emotions of humanity, for the ordinary associations of ideas, now that his mental reserve was growing more and more pronounced; and he was sensitive to none but superfine sensations and the doubts raised by Catholicism and sensual phenomena. 275 To enjoy a literature uniting, as he desired, with an incisive style, a penetrating, feline power of analysis, he must resort to that master of Induction, that strange, profound thinker, Edgar Allan Poe, for whom, since the moment when he had begun to re-read him, his predilection had suffered no possible diminution. Better than any other writer perhaps, Poe possessed those close affinities of spirit that fulfilled the demands Des Esseintes had formulated in the course of his meditations. While Baudelaire had deciphered in the hieroglyphics of the soul the period of recurrence of feelings and thoughts, he had, in the realm of morbid psychology, more particularly scrutinized the region of will. In literature, he had been the first, under the emblematic title of "The Demon of Perversity," to explore those irresistible impulses which the will submits to without understanding their nature and which cerebral pathology now accounts for with a fair degree of certainty; again, he was the first, if not to note, at any rate to make generally known, the depressing influence of fear acting on the will,like those anaesthetics that paralyze sensibility and that curare that annihilates the nervous elements of motion; it was on this point, this lethargy of the will, that he had focussed his studies, analysing the effects of this moral poison, pointing out the symptoms of its progress, the troubles incidental to it, beginning with anxiety, proceeding 276 to anguish, culminating finally in terror which stupefies the powers of volition, yet without the intelligence, however severely shaken, actually giving way. To death, which the dramatists had so lavishly abused, he had, in a manner, given a new and keener edge, made it other than it was, introducing into it an algebraic and superhuman element; yet, to say truly, it was not so much the actual death agony of the dying he depicted as the moral agony of the survivor, haunted before the bed of suffering by the monstrous hallucinations engendered by pain and fatigue. With a hideous fascination, he concentrated his gaze on the effects of terror, on the collapse of the will; applied to these horrors the cold light of reason; little by little choking the breath out of the throat of the reader who pants and struggles, suffocated before these mechanically reproduced nightmares of raging fever. Convulsed by hereditary nervous disorders, maddened by moral choreas, his characters lived only by the nerves; his women, the Morellas, the Ligeias, possessed a vast erudition, deeply imbrued with the foggy mists of German metaphysics and the cabalistic mysteries of the ancient East; all had the inert bosoms of boys or angels, all were, so to say, unsexual. Baudelaire and Poe, whose minds have often been compared because of their common poetical inspiration and the predilection they shared for the examination of mental 277 maladies, yet differed radically in their conceptions of love, —and these conceptions filled a large place in their works. Baudelaire's passion was a thirsty, ruthless thing, a thing of cruel disillusion that suggested only reprisals and tortures; Poe's a matter of chaste and ethereal amours, where the senses had no existence, and the brain alone was stirred to erethism with nothing to correspond in the bodily organs, which, if they existed at all, remained for ever frozen and virgin. This cerebral clinic where, vivisecting in a stifling atmosphere, this spiritual surgeon became, directly his attention flagged, the prey of his imagination, which sprayed about him, like delicious miasmas, apparitions whether of nightmare horrors or of angelic hosts, was for Des Esseintes a source of indefatigable conjectures. Now, however, when his nerves were all sick and on edge, there were days when such reading exhausted him, days when it left him with trembling hands and ears strained and watchful, feeling himself, like the lamentable Usher, seized by unreasoning pangs of dread, by a secret terror. So he felt bound to moderate his zeal, to indulge sparingly in these formidable elixirs, just as he could now no longer visit with impunity his red vestibule and intoxicate himself with the sight of Odilon Redon's gloomy paintings or Jan Luyken's representations of tortures. 278 And yet, when he was in these dispositions of mind, all literature struck him as vapid after these terrible philtres imported from America. Thereupon he turned his attention to Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in whose works he noted, here and there, observations equally unorthodox, vibrations equally spasmodic, but which, at any rate, with the exception of his Claire Lenoir, did not distil so overwhelming a sense of horror.

First published in 1867 in the Revue des lettres et des arts, this Claire Lenoir opened a series of romances included under the generic title of Histoires moroses. On a background of obscure speculations borrowed from old Hegel, moved a phantasmagoria of impossible beings, a Doctor Tribulat Bonhomet, pompous and puerile, a Claire Lenoir, comic and uncanny, wearing blue spectacles, as round and big as five franc pieces, concealing her almost lifeless eyes.

The romance turned on an ordinary adultery, but ended on an unspeakable note of horror, when Bonhomet, uncovering Claire's eyeballs on her death-bed and searching them with hideous probes, beheld distinctly reflected on the retina the picture of the offended husband brandishing in his extended hand the severed head of the lover; and, like a Kanaka savage, howling a war-song of triumph. Based on the physiological fact, more or less surely verified, that the eyes of some animals, oxen for instance, 279 preserve till decomposition sets in, in the same way as photographic plates, the image of the persons and things lying at the instant of their death within the range of their last look, the tale evidently derived from those of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom he copied the meticulous and appalling discussion of the details. The same might be said of the Intersigne, subsequently incorporated in the Contes cruels, a collection of stories displaying indisputable talent, and in which occurred Vera, a romance Des Esseintes regarded as a little masterpiece. Here the hallucination was impressed with an exquisite tenderness; there was nothing here of the gloomy imaginings of the American author, it was a vision of warmth and gentleness, almost celestial in its beauty. It formed, in an identical mode, the antithesis of Poe's Beatrices and Ligeias, those sad, wan phantoms engendered by the inexorable nightmare of black opium! This romance likewise brought into play the operations of the will, but it no longer treated of its enfeeblements and failures under the action of fear. On the contrary, it made a study of its exaltations under the impulse of a conviction become a fixed idea; it demonstrated its power, which even came to saturate the atmosphere and impose its faith on surrounding things. 280 Another book of Villiers', Isis, struck him as curious on other grounds. The philosophical lumber of Claire Lenoir cumbered this book no less than its predecessor, and it presented an incredible confusion of verbose, chaotic observations and reminiscences of old-fashioned melodramas, oubliettes, poniards, rope ladders, all those transpontine situations Villiers was to prove himself unable to revivify in his Elen and his Morgane, pieces long since forgotten, published by an obscure local printer, Monsieur Francisque Guyon, of Saint-Brieuc. The heroine of this book, a Marquise Tullia Fabriana, who was supposed to have assimilated the Chaldean learning of Poe's women together with the diplomatic wisdom of the Sanseverina-Taxis of Stendhal, had into the bargain put on the enigmatic air of a Bradamante added to an antique Circe These incompatible mixtures developed a smoky vapour through which philosophical and literary influences elbowed each other, without having been able to take order in the author's brain at the time he was writing the prolegomena to this work, which was planned to embrace not less than seven volumes. But in Villiers' temperament there existed another side, altogether more telling, more clearly defined, an element of grim pleasantry and savage raillery; it was no longer, when this came into play, a case of Poe's paradoxical mystifications, but rather. a cruel jeering, a gloomy jesting, of the same sort as Swift's black rage against humanity. A 281 whole series of pieces, les Memoiselles de Bienfilâtre, l'Affichage céleste, la Machine à gloire, le Plus beau dîner au monde, revealed a gift of satirical banter singularly inventive and effective. All the filth of utilitarian ideals, all the mercenary baseness of the century were glorified in pages the bitter irony of which moved Des Esseintes to ecstasy. In this special class of serious and biting pleasantry no other book existed in France; at most, a romance of Charles Cros, La Science de l'amour, published originally in the Revue du Monde-Nouveau, might well amaze readers by its wild eccentricities, its satiric humour, its coldly comic observations, but the pleasure was no more than relative, for the execution was fatally defective. Villiers' style, strong, varied, often original, had disappeared to give place to a sort of force-meat scraped from the shop-board of the first literary pork-butcher to hand. "Great God! how few books then there are that one can reread," sighed Des Esseintes, watching the servant as he stepped off the stool he had been perched on and drew aside to let his master cast a general look along the shelves. Des Esseintes nodded his approval. There now remained on his table only two thin volumes. He beckoned the old man to leave the room, and fell to skimming the pages of one of these, bound in wild ass's skin, first glazed under a hydraulic press, dappled in water-colour with silver clouds 282 and provided with "end-papers" of old China silk, the pattern of which, now rather dim with age, had that grace of faded splendour that Mallarmé celebrated in a singularly delightful poem. These pages, nine in all, contained extracts from unique copies of the two earliest Parnasses, printed on parchment, and preceded by a title-page bearing the words: Quelques vers de Mallaré, designed by a wonderful calligrapher in uncial letters, coloured and picked out, like the characters in an ancient manuscript, with points of gold.

Among the eleven pieces included in the collection some, Les fen&ecic;tres, l'Epilogue, Azur, attracted him; but one of all the rest, a fragment of the Hérodiade, mastered him like a veritable spell at certain times.

How many evenings, under the light of the lowered lamp flooding the silent room, had he not felt his senses stirred by this same Herodias who, in Gustave Moreau's masterpiece that, now half invisible in the dimness, gleamed merely as a vaguely seen white statue in the midst of a dull glowing brazier of jewels. The darkness hid the blood, dimmed the flash of colours and gold, buried in gloom the far corners of the temple, obscured the minor actors in the murderous drama where they stood wrapped in sad-coloured garments, sparing only the high lights of the painting, showing the white figure of 283 the woman emerging from her sheath of jewels and accentuating her nakedness.

Involuntarily he lifted his eyes and looked. There gleamed the never-to-be-forgotten outlines of her shape; she lived again, recalling to his lips those weird, sweet words that Mallarmé puts in her mouth:

". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O miroir!
"Eau froide par l'ennui dans ton cadre gelée,
Que de fois, et pendant les heures désolée
Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs qui sont
Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au trou profond,
Je m'apparus en toi comme une ombre lointaine!
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta sévère fontaine,
J'ai de mon rêve épars connu ta nudité."

O mirror! chill water-pool frozen by ennui within thy
frame, how many times, and for hours long, tortured by
dreams and searching my memories that are like dead
leaves under the glassy surface that covers thy depths
profound, have I seen myself in these like a far-off shadow!
But, horror! of evenings, in thy cruel fountain, have I
known the bare nudity of my broken vision!

He loved these verses as he loved all the works of this poet who, in an age of universal suffrage and an epoch of filthy lucre, lived aloof from literary society; sheltered against the folly of the world about him by his fine scorn; finding joy, 284 far from the crowd, in the surprises of the intellect, the visions of his brain; refining on thoughts already fine and specious, engrafting on them Byzantine conceits, perpetuating them in deductions just lightly hinted, deductions barely bound together by an imperceptible thread. These thoughts, interwoven and precious, he knotted into one with an adhesive diction, aloof and secret, full of contorted phrases, elliptical turns of speech, audacious tropes. Catching analogies the most remote, he would often designate by a word that suggests by an effect of likeness at once form, scent, colour, quality, brilliancy, the object or being to which he must have appended a host of different epithets to indicate all its aspects, all its lights and shades, if it had been merely referred to by its technical name. He thus contrived to do away with the formal statement of a comparison, which arose of itself in the reader's mind by analogy, once he had comprehended the symbol, and avoided dissipating the attention over each of the several qualities which might otherwise have been presented one by one by a series of adjectives strung in a row, concentrating it instead on one single word, on one whole, producing, as an artist does in a picture, one unique and complete effect, one general aspect. 285 The result was a sort of condensed literature, an essence of nutriment, a sublimate of art. It was a device which Mallarmé after first employing it only sparingly in his earlier works, had openly and boldly adopted in a piece he wrote on Théophile Gautier and in the l'Après-midi du faune, an eclogue in which the subtleties of sensual joys were unfolded in mysterious, softly suggestive verses, broken suddenly by this frantic, wild-beast cry of the Faun: "Alors m'éveillerai-je à la ferveur première, Droit et seul sous un flot antique de luminère, Lys! et l'un de vous tous pour l'ingénuité." Then shall I awake to the pristine fervour, standing upright and alone under an old-world flood of light, Flower of the lily! and the one of you all for innocence! The last verse, which with its monosyllable "Lys" thrown back to the beginning called up the idea of something rigid, tall, white, an indication further strengthened by the noun "ingénuité" brought in as a rhyme, expressed allegorically, in a single word, the passion, the effervescence, the passing moment of excitement of the virgin Faun, maddened to lust at sight of the Nymphs. In this extraordinary poem, surprises, novel images, unexpected conceptions awaited the reader in every line, as the poet went on to describe the emotions and regrets of the goat-foot standing by the marsh-side and gazing at the 286 clumps of rushes still keeping a fleeting impress of the rounded forms of the Naïds that had lain there. Then Des Esseintes also found a fanciful delight in handling the miniature volume, the covers of which, in Japanese felt, as white as curdled milk, were fastened with two silk cords, one China pink, the other black. Concealed behind the binding, the black riband met the pink one, which gave a note of velvety softness, a suspicion as of modern Japanese rouge, a suggestion of love and licence, to the antique severity of the pure white, the frankly natural tint of the book, which it entwined, knotting together in a small rosette its combre hue with the brighter tint of the other, suggesting a discreet intimation of the Faun's regrets, a vague foreshadowing of the melancholy that succeeds the transports of passion and the appeasing of the senses excited to frenzy by desire. Des Esseintes replaced on the table the Après-midi du faune, and glanced through another thin volume which he had had printed for his private use,—an anthology of prose poetry, a little shrine dedicated to Baudelaire as patron saint and opening with one of his pieces. The collection included selected passages from the Gaspard de la nuit of that fantastic author Aloysius Bertrand who has transferred Da Vinci's methods to prose and painted with his metallic oxides a series of little pictures whose brilliant 287 tints glitter like transparent enamels. To these Des Esseintes had added the Vox populi of Villiers, a piece superbly struck off in a style of gold recalling the type of Leconte de Lisle and Flaubert, and some extracts from that delicious trifle, the Livre de Jade, whose exotic perfume of ginseng and tea is mingled with the fresh fragrance of water babbling in the moonlight from cover to cover of the book. But, in this selection, had likewise been gathered sundry pieces rescued from dead and gone reviews:—le Demon de l'analogie, la Pipe, le Pauvre enfant pâle, le Spectacle interrompu, le Phénomène futur, and in particular the Plaintes d'automne et Frisson d'hiver. This last was one of Mallarmé's masterpieces, one of the masterpieces of prose poetry to boot, for they united a diction so magnificently ordered that it lulled the senses, like some mournful incantation, some intoxicating melody, with thoughts of an irresistible seductiveness, stirrings of soul of the sensitive reader whose quivering nerves vibrate with an acuteness that rises to ravishment, to pain itself. Of all forms of literature that of the prose poem was Des Esseintes' chosen favourite. Handled by an alchemist of genius, it should, according to him, store up in its small compass, like an extract of meat, so to say, the essence of the novel, while suppressing its long, tedious analytical passages and superfluous descriptions. Again and again Des Esseintes had pondered the distracting problem, how to write a novel concentrated in a few sentences, but which 288 shouldyet contain the cohobated juice of the hundreds of pages always taken up in describing the setting, sketching the characters, gathering together the necessary incidental observations and minor details. In that case, so inevitable and unalterable would be the words selected that they must take the place of all others; in so ingenious and masterly a fashion would each adjective be chosen that it could not with any justice be robbed of its right to be there, and would open up such wide perspectives as would set the reader dreaming for weeks together of its meaning, at once precise and manifold, and enable him to know the present, reconstruct the past, divine the future of the spiritual history of the characters, all revealed by the flash-light of this single epithet. The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would become a communion, an interchange of thought between a magic-working author and an ideal reader, a mental collaboration by consent between half a score persons of superior intellect scattered up and down the world, a delectable feast for epicures and appreciable by them only. In a word, the prose poem represented in Des Esseintes' eyes the concrete juice, the osmazone of literature, the essential oil of art. This succulence, developed and concentrated in a drop, already existed in Baudelaire, as also in those poems of 289 Mallarmé's which he savoured with so deep a delight. When he had closed his anthology, Des Esseintes told himself, here was the last book of his library, which would probably never receive another addition. In fact, the decadence of a literature, attacked by incurable organic disease, enfeebled by the decay of ideas, exhausted by the excess of grammatical subtlety, sensitive only to the whims of curiosity that torment a fever patient, and yet eager in its expiring hours to express every thought and fancy, frantic to make good all the omissions of the past, tortured on its deathbed by the craving to leave a record of the most subtle pangs of suffering, was incarnate in Mallarmé in the most consummate and exquisite perfection. Here was to be found, pushed to its completest expression, the quintessence of Baudelaire and Poe; here was the same powerful and refined basis yet further distilled and giving off new savours, new intoxications. It was the dying spasm of the old tongue which, after a progressive decay from century to century, was ending in a total dissolution, in the same deliquium the Latin language had suffered, as it expired finally in the mystic conceptions and enigmatic phrases of St. Boniface and St. Adhelm. For the rest, the decomposition of the French language had come about at a blow. In Latin, a lengthy period of 290 transition, a pause of four hundred years, had intervened between the variegated and magnificent phraseology of Claudian and Rutilius and the dialect of the eighth century with its taint of decomposition. Not so in French; here no interval of time, no long-drawn series of ages, occurred; the variegated and magnificent style of the De Goncourts and the tainted style of Verlaine and Mallarmé rubbed elbows at Paris, dwelling together at the same time, in the same period, in the same century. And Des Esseintes smiled to himself as he looked at one of the folios lying open on his church reading-desk, thinking how the moment might come when a learned scholar would compile for the decadence of the French language a glossary like that in which the erudite Du Cange has noted down the last stammering accents, the last spasmodic efforts, the last flashes of brilliancy, of the Latin tongue as it perished of old age, the death rattle sounding through the recesses of monkish cloisters.

Chapter XV

AFTER blazing up like a fire of straw, his enthusiasm for the "digester" was extinguished with a like rapidity. Soothed for the time being, his dyspepsia began again; presently, this over-stimulating essence of nourishment brought on such an irritation of the bowels that Des Esseintes was obliged to drop its use with all possible speed. The complaint resumed its course, hitherto unknown symptoms going with it. First nightmares, hallucinations of smell, disturbances of vision, a hacking cough, coming on at a fixed hour with the regularity of clockwork, a beating of the arteries and heart accompanied by cold sweats; then, delusions of hearing, all the mischiefs, in fact, that mark the last stage of the malady. Eaten up by a burning fever, Des Esseintes would suddenly hear the sound of running water, the buzz of wasps; then these noises would melt into a single one resembling the whirring of a lathe; then this would grow shriller and thinner, changing finally into the silvery tinkle of a bell. Then he would feel his maddened brain wafted away on waves of music, rolling among the billows of harmony familiar to his boyhood. The chants he had learned from the Jesuit Fathers recurred to him, recalling the college, the college chapel, where they had echoed; then the hallucination would pass on to the olfactory and visual 292 organs, wrapping them in the vapour of incense and the gloom of a sanctuary dimly lit through painted windows under lofty vaults. Among the Fathers, the rites of religion were performed with great pomp and ceremony; an excellent organist and a noteworthy choir made these spiritual exercises an artistic delight, to the great end of edification. The organist was a lover of the old masters, and on days of festival he would select one of Palestrina's or Orlando Lasso's masses, Marcello's psalms, Handel's oratorios, Sebastian Bach's motets, would play in preference to the sensuous, facile compilations of Father Lambillotte so much favoured by the average priest, certain "Laudi spirituali" of the sixteenth century whose stately beauty had many a time fascinated Des Esseintes. But above all, he had experienced ineffable pleasures in listening to the "plain-song," which the organist had kept up in spite of modern prejudices. This form, now looked down upon as an effete and Gothic type of the Christian liturgy, as an antiquarian curiosity, as a relic of barbarous centuries, was the life-word of the ancient Church, the very spirit of the Middle Ages; it was the prayer of all time set to music in tones modulated in accord with the aspirations of the soul, the never-ceasing hymn of praise that had risen for hundreds of years to the throne of the Most High. 293 This traditional melody was the only one that, with its mighty unison, its solemn, massive harmonies, like blocks of ashlar, could fitly go with the old basilicas and fill their romanesque vaults, of which it seemed the emanation and the living voice. How many times had not Des Esseintes been entranced and mastered by an irresistible awe when the "Christus factus est" of the Gregorian chant had swelled up in the nave whose pillars trembled amid the floating clouds of incense, or when the rolling bass of the "De profundis" groaned forth, mournful as a stifled sob, poignant as a despairing cry of mankind bewailing its mortal destiny, imploring the tender mercy of its Saviour. In comparison with this magnificent plain-song, created by the genius of the Church, impersonal, anonymous as the organ itself, whose inventor is unknown, all other religious music seemed to him secular, profane. At bottom, in all the works of Jomelli and Porpora, of Carissimi and Durante, in the most admirable conceptions of Handel and Bach, there was no real renunciation of popular triumph, no sacrifice of artistic success, no abdication of human pride listening to itself at prayer; at best, in those imposing masses of Lesueur's performed at Saint-Roch was the true religious style renewed, grave and august, making some approach to the unadorned nudity, the austre majesty of the old plainsong. 294 Since those days, utterly revolted by pretentious works like the Stabat mater of Rossini or the similar compositions of Pergolese, disgusted with all this intrusion of worldly art into the liturgical sanctum, Des Esseintes had held aloof altogether from these equivocal productions tolerated by an indulgent Mother Church. In fact, this fatal complacence, due partly to the greed for offertories, partly to a supposed attraction the music exercised on the faithful, had led directly to abuses,—airs borrowed from Italian operas, trivial cavatinas, unseemly quadrilles, performed with full orchestral accompaniment in the churches transformed into fine ladies' boudoirs, entrusted to theatre actors who bellowed aloft under the roof while down below the women fought a pitched battle of fine clothes with one another and quivered with soft emotion to hear the heroes of the opera whose wanton tones defiled the sacred notes of the organ! For years now he had positively refused to take part in these pious entertainments, resting satisfied with his memories of childhood, regretting even having heard sundry Te Deums by great masters, for did he not remember that admirable Te Deum of the plain-song, that hymn so simple and grandiose, composed by some Saint, a St. Ambrose or a St. Hilary, who, lacking the complicated resources of an orchestra, failing the mechanical music of modern music, displayed an ardent faith, a delirious joy, the essence of the soul of all 295 humanity expressed in burning, trustful, almost heavenly accents? In any case, Des Esseintes' ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed as to the other arts. In religious music, he really cared only for the monastic music of the Middle Ages, that ascetic music that acted instinctively on the nerves, like certain pages of the old Christian Latinity; besides, he admitted it himself, he was incapable of understanding the artful devices contemporary masters might have been able to introduce into Catholic art. The truth is, he had not studied music with the same passionate ardour he had applied to painting and to literature. He could play the piano like any other amateur, had come, after many fumblings, to be competent to read a score; but he knew nothing of harmony or the technique needful for really appreciating lights and shades of expression, for understanding nice points, for entering, with proper comprehension, into refinements and elaborations. Then, on another side, secular music is a promiscuous art which one cannot enjoy at home and alone, as one reads a book; to taste it, he must needs have mixed with that inevitable public that crowds to theatres and besieges the Cirque d'hiver where, under a broiling sun, in an atmosphere as muggy as a wash-house, you see a man with the look of a carpenter bawling a remoulade and massacring disconnected bits of Wagner to the huge delight of an ignorant crowd! 296 He had never had the courage to plunge into this bath of promiscuity in order to hear Berlioz; some fragments of whom had nevertheless won his admiration by their highwrought passion and abounding fire, while he realized with no less perspicacity that there was not a scene, not a phrase in any opera of the mighty Wagner that could be detached from its context without ruining it. The scraps thus cut from the whole and served up at a concert lost all meaning, all sense, for, like the chapters in a book that mutually complete each other and all concur to bring about the same conclusion, the same final effect, his melodies were used by Wagner to define the character of his personages, to incarnate their thoughts, to express their motives, visible or secret, and their ingenious and persistent repetitions were only intelligible for an audience which followed the subject from its first opening and watched the characters grow little by little more clearly defined, observed them develop in surroundings from which they could not be separated without seeing them perish like branches severed from a tree. So Des Esseintes thought, convinced that of all the horde of melomaniacs who every Sunday fell into ecstasies on the benches, twenty at most knew the score the musicians were massacring, when the box-openers were kind enough to hold their tongues and let the orchestra be heard. 297 The circumstance also being remembered that the intelligent patriotism of the French nation forbade the production of an opera of Wagner's at a Paris theatre, there was nothing left for the curious amateur who is unskilled in the arcana of music and cannot or will not travel to Bayreuth, save to stay at home, and that was the reasonable course Des Esseintes had adopted. On another side, more popular, easier music and detached morceaux taken from the old-fashioned operas scarcely appealed to him; the trivial tunes of Auber and Boieldieu, of Adam and Flotow, and the commonplaces of musical rhetoric favoured by Ambroise Thomas, Bazin and their like repelled him just as much as the antiquated sentimentalities and cheap graces of the Italian composers. He had therefore resolutely refused to have anything to do with music, and for all the years this renunciation lasted, he found nothing to look back upon with any pleasure save a few chamber concerts at which he had heard Beethoven and above all Schumann and Schubert, who had stimulated his nerves as keenly as the most telling and tragical poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Certain settings for the violoncello by Schumann had left him positively panting with emotion, gasping for breath under the stress of hysteria; but it was chiefly Schubert's lieder that had stirred him to the depths, lifted him out of himself, then prostrated him as after a wasteful outpouring of nervous fluid, after a mystic debauch of soul. 298 This music thrilled him to the very marrow, driving back an infinity of forgotten griefs, of old vexations, on a heart amazed to contain so many confused miseries and obscure sorrows. This music of desolation, crying from the deepest depths of being, terrified, while fascinating him. Never, without nervous tears rising to his eyes, had he been able to repeat the "Young Girl's Plaints," for in this lamento there was something more than heart-broken, something despairing that tore his entrails, something recalling the end of love's dream in a dismal landscape. Every time they came back to his lips, these exquisite and funereal laments called up before his fancy a lonely place beyond the city boundaries, a beggarly, forsaken locality, where noiselessly, in the distance, lines of poor folks, harassed by life's wretchedness, filed away, bent double, into the gloom of twilight, while,meantime, he himself, full of bitterness, overflowing with disgust, felt himself standing alone, all alone in the midst of weeping Nature, overborne by an unspeakable melancholy, by an obstinate distress, the mysterious intensity of which brooked no consolation, no comparison, no respite. Like a passing bell, the despairing air haunted his brain now that he lay in bed, enfeebled by fever and tormented by an anxiety the more implacable because he could no longer discover its cause. Eventually he surrendered himself to the current, let himself be swept away by the torrent of the music, suddenly barred for a brief minute by the plain-song of the psalms that rose with its 299 long-drawn bass notes in his head,whose temples seemed bruised and battered by the clappers of a hundred bells. One morning, however, these noises fell quiet; he was in better possession of his faculties and asked the servant to hand him a mirror. He hardly knew himself; his face was earthen in hue, the lips dry and swollen, the tongue furrowed, the skin wrinkled; his straggling hair and beard, which his man had not trimmed since the beginning of his illness, added to the horror of the sunken cheeks and staring, watery eyes that burned with a feverish brightness in this death's-head bristling with unkempt hair. Worse than his weakness, worse than his irrepressible fits of vomiting which rejected every attempt at taking food, worse than the wasting from which he suffered, this disfigurement of face alarmed him. He thought he was done for; then, in spite of the exhaustion that crushed him down, the fierce energy of a man at bay brought him to a sitting posture in his bed, lent him strength to write a letter to his Paris doctor and order his servant to go instantly to find him and bring him back with him, cost what it might, the same day. In an instant, he passed from the most absolute despair to the most comforting hope. The physician in question was a noted specialist, renowned for the cure of nervous disorders; "he must before now have cured more obstinate and more dangerous cases than mine," Des Esseintes told himself; "not a doubt of it, I shall be set up again in a few 300 days' time." But presently again this over-confidence was followed by a feeling of utter disenchantment; no matter how learned and how perspicacious they may be, doctors really know nothing about nervous disease, the very cause of which they cannot tell. Like all the rest, he would prescribe the everlasting oxide of zinc and quinine, bromide of potassium and valerian; "and who can say," he went on to himself, clinging to the last twig of hope, "if the reason why these remedies have hitherto failed me is not simply because I have not known how to employ them in proper doses." Despite everything, this waiting for expected relief gave him new life; but presently a fresh dread assailed him,— suppose the doctor should not be in town or should decline to disturb his arrangements; then came yet another panic lest his servant should have failed to find him at all. This threw him into the depths of despair. His mind began to fail again, jumping, moment by moment, from the most inordinate hopefulness to the most baseless apprehension, exaggerating both his chances of sudden recovery and his fears of immediate danger. Hour after hour slipped by, and a time arrived when, despairing and exhausted, convinced the doctor would never come, he told himself over and over again in impotent anger that, if only he had seen to it in time, he would undoubtedly have been saved; then after a while, his rage with his servant, his indignation at the doctor's delay, abated, and he began to cherish a bitter vexation against himself instead, blaming his own 301 procrastination in having waited so long before sending for help, persuading himself that he would have been perfectly well by now, if, even the night before only, he had provided himself with good, strong medicines and proper nursing. Gradually these alternate paroxysms of hope and fear that tormented his half-delirious brain grew milder, as these repeated panics wore down his strength. He dropped into a sleep of exhaustion broken by incoherent dreams, a kind of coma interrupted by periods of wakefulness too brief for consciousness to be regained. He had finally lost all notion of what he wished and what he feared so completely that he was merely bewildered, and felt neither surprise nor satisfaction, when suddenly the doctor made his appearance in the room. The servant no doubt had informed him of the manner of life Des Esseintes led and of various symptoms he had himself been in a position to notice since the day when he had picked up his master by the window where he lay, felled by theviolence of his perfumes, for he asked the patient very few questions, knowing indeed his antecedents for many years past. But he examined and sounded him and carefully scrutinized the urine, in which certain white streaks told him the secret of one of the chief determining causes of his nervous collapse. He wrote a prescription and took his leave without a word, saying he would come again. 302 His visit comforted Des Esseintes, albeit he was alarmed at the doctor's silence and besought his servant not to hide the truth from him any longer. The man assured him the doctor had showed no signs of anxiety and, suspicious as he was, Des Esseintes could detect no tokens whatever of prevarication or falsehood in the old man's calm face. Then his thoughts grew more cheerful; indeed the pain had stopped and the feebleness he had experienced in every limb had merged into a sort of agreeable languor, a feeling of placid content at once vague and slowly progressive. Then he was at once astonished and pleased to find his bedside table unlittered with drugs and medicine bottles, and a pale smile hovered over his lips when finally his servant brought him a nourishing enema compounded with peptone, and informed his master that he was to repeat the little operation three times every twenty-four hours.

The thing was successfully carried out, and Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on the event which was the coping stone, the crowning triumph, in a sort, of the life he had contrived for himself; his predilection for the artificial had now, and that without any initiative on his part, attained its supreme fulfilment! A man could hardly go farther; nourishment thus absorbed was surely the last aberration from the natural that could be committed. 303 "What a delicious thing," he said to himself, "it would be if one could, once restored to full health, go on with the same simple régime. What a saving of time, what a radical deliverance from the repugnance meat inspires in people who have lost their appetite! what a definite and final release from the lassitude that invariably results from the necessarily limited choice of viands! what a vigorous protest against the degrading sin of gluttony! last but not least, what a direct insult cast in the face of old Mother Nature, whose never varying exigencies would be for ever nullified!" In this vein, he went on talking to himself under his breath. Why, it would be easy enough to sharpen one's appetite by swallowing a strong aperient, then when one could truly tell oneself: "Come, what hour is it now? seems to me it must be high time to sit down to dinner, I have a wolf in my stomach," the table would be laid by depositing the noble instrument on the cloth,—and lo! before you had time so much as to say grace, the troublesome and vulgar task of eating would be suppressed. Some days later, the man handed his master an enema altogether different in colour and smell from the peptone suppositories. "Why, it's not the same!" exclaimed Des Esseintes, looking with consternation at the liquid poured into the apparatus. He demanded the menu as he might have done in a 304 restaurant and unfolding the physician's prescription, he read out - Cod-liver oil 20 grammes Beef-tea 200 " Burgundy 200 " Yolk of one egg He sat pensive. He had never succeeded, on account of the ruined state of his stomach, in taking a serious interest in the art of cookery; now he was surprised to find himself all of a sudden pondering over combinations of a posteriori gourmandise! Then a grotesque notion shot across his brain. Perhaps the doctor had imagined his patient's abnormal palate was wearied by this time of the flavour of peptone; perhaps, like a skilful chef, he had wished to vary the savour of the foods administered, to prevent the monotony of the dishes leading to a complete loss of appetite. Once started on this train of thought, Des Esseintes busied himself in composing novel recipes, contriving dinners for fast days and Fridays, strengthening the dose of cod-liver oil and wine, while striking out the beef-tea as being meat and therefore expressly forbidden by the Church. But, before very long, the necessity disappeared of deliberating about these nourishing liquids, for the doctor managed little by little to overcome the nausea and gave him, to be swallowed by the ordinary channel, a syrup of punch mixed with powdered meat and having a vague aroma of cocoa about it that was grateful to his genuine mouth. 305 Weeks passed and the stomach at last consented to act; occasionally fits of nausea still recurred, which, however, ginger beer and Rivière's anti-emetic draught were effectual in subduing. Eventually, little by little, the organs recovered with the help of the pepsines, and ordinary foods were digested. Strength returned and Des Esseintes was able to stand on his feet and try to walk about his bedroom, leaning on a stick and holding on to the furniture. Instead of being pleased with this success, he forgot all his past sufferings, was irritated by the length of his convalescence, and upbraided the doctor for protracting it in this slow fashion. True, sundry ineffectual experiments had delayed matters; no better than quinine did the stomach, tolerate iron, even when mitigated by the addition of laudanum, and these drugs had to be replaced by preparations of arsenic; this after a fortnight had been lost in useless efforts, as Des Esseintes noted with no small impatience. At last, the moment was reached when he could remain up for whole afternoons at a time and walk about his rooms without assistance. Then his working-room began to get on his nerves; defects to which custom had blinded his eyes now struck him forcibly on his coming back to the room after his long absence. The colours chosen to be seen by lamplight seemed to him discordant under the glare of daylight; he thought how best to alter them and spent hours in contriving artificial harmonies of hues, hybrid combinations of cloths and leathers. 306 "Without a doubt I am on the highroad to health," he told himself, as he noted the return of his former preoccupations and old predilections. One morning, as he was gazing at his orange and blue walls, dreaming of ideal hangings made out of stoles of the Greek Church, of gold-fringed Russian dalmatics, of brocaded copes patterned with Slavonic lettering, adorned with precious stones from the Urals and rows of pearls, the doctor came in and, noting what his patient's eyes were looking at, questioned him. Then Des Esseintes told him of his unrealizable ideals and began to plan out new experiments in colour, to speak of novel combinations and contrasts of hues that he meant to contrive, when the physician soused a sudden douche of cold water over his head, declaring in the most peremptory fashion that, come what might, it would not be in that house he could put his projects into execution. Then, without giving him time to recover breath, he announced that so far he had only attacked the most urgent necessity, the re-establishment of the digestive functions, but that now he must deal with the nervous derangements which were by no means mitigated and would require for their cure years of regimen and careful living. He concluded with the ultimatum that, before trying any course of cure, before beginning any sort of hydropathic treatment,— impracticable in any case at Fontenay,—he was bound to 307 abandon this solitary existence, to return to Paris and take part again in the common life of men; in a word, endeavour to find diversions the same as other people. "But they don't divert me, the pleasures other people enjoy," protested Des Esseintes, indignantly. Without discussing the question, the doctor simply assured his hearer that this radical change of life which he ordered was in his opinion a matter of life and death, of restored health or insanity followed at short notice by tuberculosis. "Then it is a case either of death or deportation!" cried Des Esseintes, in exasperation. The physician, who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world, only smiled and made for the door without vouchsafing an answer.

Chapter XVI

DES ESSEINTES shut himself up in his bedroom and turned a deaf ear to the knocking of the men's hammers who were nailing up the packing-cases the servants had got ready; each stroke seemed to beat on his heart and send a pang of pain through his flesh. The sentence pronounced by the doctor was being executed; the dread of enduring all over again the same sufferings he had borne before, the fear of an agonizing death, had exercised a more powerful influence over Des Esseintes than his hatred of the detestable existence to which the physician's orders condemned him could counteract. "And yet," he kept telling himself, "there are people who live alone, without a soul to speak to, self-absorbed and utterly aloof from society, like the Reclusionists and Trappists for instance, and there is nothing to show that these unfortunates, these wise men, run mad or develop consumption." These examples he had quoted to the doctor,—without effect; the latter had merely repeated in a dry tone admitting of no reply, that his verdict, confirmed moreover by all the writers on nervous diseases, was that distraction, amusement, cheerfulness, were the only means of benefitting this complaint which, on the mental side, remained unaffected by any remedies in the nature of drugs. Finally, annoyed by his patient's reproaches, he had once for all declared his refusal to go on with his case unless he 309 consented to take change of air and live under altered conditions of hygiene. Des Esseintes had immediately repaired to Paris, where he had consulted other specialists and frankly submitted his case to them; all had with one accord and unhesitatingly approved their colleague's prescriptions. Thereupon, he had taken a flat still vacant in a newly-built house; had returned to Fontenay and, white with rage, had given his servant orders to pack his boxes. Buried in his armchair, he was now pondering these express directions of the faculty which upset all his plans, broke all the ties binding him to his present life, made his future projects futile. So, his time of bliss was over! This haven, that sheltered him from the storms, he must abandon and put out again into the storm-tost ocean of human folly that had battered and bruised him so sorely. The doctors prated of amusement, of distraction; with whom, pray with what, did they expect him to be blithe and gay? Had he not deliberately put himself under a social ban? did he know one single friend who would be willing to essay a life, like his, of contemplation, of dreamy abstraction? did he know a single individual capable of appreciating the delicate shades of a style, the subtle joints of a picture, the 310 quintessence of a thought, one whose soul was so finely framed as to understand Mallarme and love Verlaine? Where, when, in what depths must he sound to discover a twin soul, a mind free of commonplace prejudices, blessing silence as a boon, ingratitude as a solace, suspicion as a port of security, a harbour of refuge? In the society he had frequented before he took his departure for Fontenay?—Why, the majority of the clowns he associated with in those times must, since that date, have yet further stultified themselves in drawing-rooms, grown more degraded sitting at gaming tables, reached lower depths in the arms of prostitutes. Nay, the most part must by now be married; after having enjoyed all their life hitherto the leavings of the street-loafers, it was their wives who at present owned the leavings of the street-walkers, for, master of the first-fruits, the vulgar herd was the one and only class that did not feed on refuse! "What a pretty change of partners, what a gallant interchange, this custom adopted by a society that still calls itself prudish!" Des Esseintes growled to himself. Yes, nobility was utterly decayed, dead; aristocracy had fallen into idiocy or filthy pleasures! It was perishing in the degeneracy of its members, whose faculties grew more debased with each succeeding generation till they ended with the instincts of gorillas quickened in the pates of 311 grooms and jockeys, or else, like the once famous houses of Choiseul-Praslin, Polignac, Chevreuse, wallowed in the mud of legal actions that brought them down to the same level of baseness as the other classes. The very mansions, the time-honoured scutcheons, the heraldic blazons, the stately pomp and ceremony of this ancient caste had disappeared. Its estates no longer yielded revenue, they and the great houses on them had come to the hammer, for money ran short to buy the smiles of women that bewitched and poisoned the besotted descendants of the old families. The least scrupulous, the least dull-witted, threw all shame to the winds; they mixed in low plots, stirred up the filth of base finance, appeared like common pickpockets at the bar of justice, serving at any rate to set off the tact of human justice which, finding it impossible to be always impartial, ended the matter by making them librarians in the prisons. This eagerness after gain, this itch for filthy lucre, had found a counterpart also in another class, the class that had always leant for support on the nobility,—the clergy to wit. Now were to be seen on the outside sheets of the papers advertisements of corns cured by a priest. The monasteries were transformed into apothecaries' laboratories and distilleries. They sold recipes or manufactured the stuff themselves; the Cistercians, chocolate, Trappistine, semolina, tincture of arnica; the Marist Brotherhood, 312 bisulphate of chalk for medical purposes and vulnerary water; the Jacobines, anti-apoplectic elixir; the disciples of St. Benedict, Bénédictine; the monks of St. Bruno, Chartreuse. Business had invaded the cloisters, where, in lieu of antiphonaries, fat ledgers lay on the lecterns. Like a leprosy, the greed of the century devastated the Church, kept the monks bending over inventories and invoices, turned the Fathers Superior into confectioners and quacksalvers, the lay brothers and novices into common packers and vulgar bottle-washers. And yet, spite of everything, it was still only among ecclesiastics that Des Esseintes could hope for relations congruent, up to a certain point, with his tastes. In the society of the clergy, generally learned and well educated men, he might have spent some affable and agreeable evenings; but then he must have shared their beliefs and not be a mere waverer between sceptical notions and spasms of conviction that came surging from time to time to the surface, buoyed up by the memories of childhood. He must needs have held identical views, refused to accept, as he was ready enough to do in his moments of ardour, a Catholicism spiced with a touch of magic, as under Henri III., and a trifle of Sadism, as at the end of the eighteenth century. This special brand of clericalism, this vitiated and artistically perverse type of mysticism, towards which he 313 was tending at certain seasons, could not even be discussed with a priest, who would either have failed to understand what he meant or would have excommunicated him there and then in sheer horror. For the twentieth time, the same insoluble problem tormented him. He would fain this state of suspicion and suspense against which he had struggled in vain at Fontenay should have an end; now that he was to turn over an entirely new leaf, he would fain have forced himself to possess faith, to seize it and clothe himself in it, to fasten it with clamps in his soul, to put it beyond the reach of all the reasonings that shake it and uproot it. But the more he desired it and the less the emptiness of his mind was filled, the more the visitation of the Saviour delayed its coming. Just in proportion, indeed, as his religious faith increased, as he craved with all his strength, as a ransom for the future and a help in the new life he was to lead, this faith that showed itself in glimpses, though the distance still dividing him from it appalled him, did doubts rise crowding his ever excited brain, upsetting his ill-poised will, repudiating on grounds of common sense, of mathematical demonstrations, the mysteries and dogmas of the Church. He should have been able to stop these discussions with himself, he told himself with a groan; he should have been able to shut his eyes, let himself be carried along with the stream, forget all the accursed discoveries that have 314 shattered the religious edifice from top to bottom during the last two centuries. "Yet, really and truly," he sighed, "it is neither the physiologists nor the sceptics who destroy Catholicism, it is the priests themselves, whose clumsy writings might well root up the most firmly grounded convictions." In the Dominican collection, was there not to be found a certain Doctor of Theology, Révérend Père Rouard de Card, a Preaching Brother, who in a brochure entitled:—"Of the Falsification of the Sacramental Substances," has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the major part of Masses were null and void, by reason of the fact that the materials used in the rite were sophisticated by dealers? For years, the holy oils had been adulterated with goosegrease; the taper-wax with burnt bones; the incense with common resin and old benzoin. But worse than all, the substances indispensable for the holy sacrifice, the two things without which no oblation was possible, had likewise been falsified,—the wine by repeated dilutings and the illicit addition of Pernambuco bark, elder-berries, alcohol, alum, salicylate, litharge; the bread, that bread of the Eucharist that must be kneaded of the fine flour of wheat, by ground haricotbeans, potash and pipeclay! Nay, now they had gone further yet; they had dared to suppress the wheat altogether and shameless dealers 315 manufactured out of potato meal nearly all the hosts! Now God declined to come down and be made flesh in potato flour. This was a surety, an indisputable fact; in the second volume of his Moral Theology, His Eminence Cardinal Gousset had also dealt at length with this question of adulteration from the divine standpoint, and, according to the authority of this master which there was no gainsaying, the celebrant could not consecrate bread made of oats, buckwheat or barley, and though the case of rye-bread at least admitted of doubt, no question could be raised, no argument sustained, when it came to using potato meal, which, to employ the ecclesiastical expression, was in no sense a substance competent for the Blessed Sacrament. By reason of the easy manipulation of this meal and the good appearance presented by the unleavened cakes made of this substance, the unworthy and fraudulent substitution had become so widely prevalent that the mystery of the transubstantiation could hardly be said to exist any longer, and priests and faithful laymen communicated, all unwittingly, with neutral elements! Ah! the days were far away when Rhadegond, Queen of France, used with her own hands to prepare the bread destined for the altars; the days when, by the custom of Cluny, three priests or three deacons, fasting, clad in alb and amice, after washing face and fingers, sorted out the wheat grain by grain, crushed it in the hand-mill, kneaded the 316 dough with cold spring-water and baked it themselves over a clear fire, singing psalms the while! "All this," Des Esseintes told himself, "cannot hinder the natural result, that this prospect of being constantly duped, even at the holy table itself, is not of a sort to establish beliefs already tottering; besides, how accept an omnipotence that is hindered by a pinch of potato meal or a drop of alcohol?" These thoughts still further darkened the aspect of his future existence and rendered his horizon yet more dark and threatening. Of a surety, no haven of refuge was open to him, no shore of safety left. What was to become of him in Paris yonder, where he had neither relatives nor friends? No tie bound him any more to the Faubourg Saint-Germain that was now quavering in its dotage, scaling away in a dust of desuetude, lying derelict—a worn-out, empty hull!—amid a new society! And what point of contact could there be between him and that bourgeois class that had little by little climbed to the top, taking advantage of every disaster to fill its coffers, stirring up every kind of catastrophe to make its crimes and thefts pass muster? After the aristocracy of birth, it was now the turn of the aristocracy of money; it was the Caliphate of the countinghouse, the despotism of the Rue du Sentier, the tyranny of 317 commerce with its narrow-minded, venal ideas, its ostentatious and rascally instincts. More nefarious, more vile than the nobility it had plundered and the clergy it had overthrown, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous love of show, their decrepit boastfulness, which it vulgarized by its lack of good manners, stole their defects which it aggravated into hypocritical vices. Obstinate and sly, base and cowardly, it shot down ruthlessly its eternal and inevitable dupe, the populace, which it had itself unmuzzled and set on to spring at the throat of the old castes! Now the victory was won. Its task once completed, the plebs had been for its health's sake bled to the last drop, while the bourgeois, secure in his triumph, throned it jovially by dint of his money and the contagion of his folly. The result of his rise to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art; in fact, the artists and men of letters, in their degradation, had fallen to their knees and were devouring with ardent kisses the unwashed feet of the high-placed horse-jockeys and low-bred satraps on whose alms they lived! In painting, it was a deluge of effeminate futilities; in literature, a welter of insipid style and spiritless ideas. What was a-lacking was common honesty in the business gambler, common honour in the freebooter who hunted for 318 a dowry for his son while refusing to pay his daughter's, common chastity in the Voltairean who accused the clergy of incontinence while he was off himself to sniff, like a dull fool and a hypocrite, pretending to be the rake he was not, in disorderly dens of pleasure, at the greasy water in toilet vessels and the hot, acrid effluvium of dirty petticoats. It was the vast, foul bagnio of America transported to our Continent; it was, in a word, the limitless, unfathomable, incommensurable firmament of blackguardism of the financier and the self-made man, beaming down, like a despicable sun, on the idolatrous city that grovelled on its belly, hymning vile songs of praise before the impious tabernacle of Commerce. "Well, crumble then, society! perish, old world!" cried Des Esseintes, indignant at the ignominy of the spectacle he had conjured up,—and the exclamation broke the nightmare that oppressed him. "Ah!" he groaned, "to think that all this is not a dream! to think that I am about to go back into the degraded and slavish mob of the century!" He tried to call up, for the healing of his wounded spirit, the consoling maxims of Schopenhauer; he said over to himself Pascal's grievous axiom: "The soul sees nothing that does not afflict it when it thinks of it"; but the words rang in his brain like sounds without sense; his weariness of spirit disintegrated them, 319 robbed them of all meaning, all consolatory virtue, all effective and soothing force. He realized, at last, that the arguments of pessimism were powerless to comfort him; that the impossible belief in a future life could be the only calmant. A fit of rage swept away like a hurricane his efforts after resignation, his attempts at indifference. He could deceive himself no more, there was nothing, nothing left for it, everything was over; the bourgeoisie were guzzling, as it might be at Clamart, on their knees, from paper parcels, under the grand old ruins of the Church, which had become a place of assignation, a mass of débris, defiled by unspeakable quibbles and indecent jests. Could it be that, to prove once for all that He existed, the terrible God of Genesis and the pale Crucified of Golgotha were not going to renew the cataclysms of an earlier day, to rekindle the rain of fire that consumed the ancient homes of sin, the cities of the Plain? Could it be that this foul flood was to go on spreading and drowning in its pestilential morass this old world where now only seeds of iniquity sprang up and harvests of shame flourished? Suddenly the door was unclosed; in the distance, framed in the opening, appeared men carrying lights in their caps, with clean-shaven cheeks and a tuft on the chin, handling packing-cases and shifting furniture; then the door closed 320 again after the servant, who marched off with a bundle of books under his arm. Des Esseintes dropped into a chair, in despair. "In two days more I shall be in Paris," he exclaimed; "well, all is over; like a flowing tide, the waves of human mediocrity rise to the heavens and they will engulf my last refuge; I am opening the sluice-gates myself, in spite of myself. Ah; but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!— Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the darkness of night, beneath a firmament illumined no longer by the consoling beaconfires of the ancient hope."

Full text (John Howard translation)

Against the Grain (tr. John Howard [Jacob Howard Lewis]), New York: Lieber & Lewis, 1922. With a frontispiece by Odilon Redon. This first translation was abridged, cutting out the whole of chapter six, and a part of chapter nine.

Title: Against The Grain

Author: Joris-Karl Huysmans

Release Date: May 14, 2004 [EBook #12341]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

Produced by Harrison Ainsworth

   Joris-Karl Huysmans
   Translated by John Howard

   Chapter 1
   Chapter 2
   Chapter 3
   Chapter 4
   Chapter 5
   Chapter 6
   Chapter 7
   Chapter 8
   Chapter 9
   Chapter 10
   Chapter 11
   Chapter 12
   Chapter 13
   Chapter 14
   Chapter 15
   Chapter 16

Chapter 1

The Floressas Des Esseintes, to judge by the various portraits preserved in the Chateau de Lourps, had originally been a family of stalwart troopers and stern cavalry men. Closely arrayed, side by side, in the old frames which their broad shoulders filled, they startled one with the fixed gaze of their eyes, their fierce moustaches and the chests whose deep curves filled the enormous shells of their cuirasses.

These were the ancestors. There were no portraits of their descendants and a wide breach existed in the series of the faces of this race. Only one painting served as a link to connect the past and present--a crafty, mysterious head with haggard and gaunt features, cheekbones punctuated with a comma of paint, the hair overspread with pearls, a painted neck rising stiffly from the fluted ruff.

In this representation of one of the most intimate friends of the Duc d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O, the ravages of a sluggish and impoverished constitution were already noticeable.

It was obvious that the decadence of this family had followed an unvarying course. The effemination of the males had continued with quickened tempo. As if to conclude the work of long years, the Des Esseintes had intermarried for two centuries, using up, in such consanguineous unions, such strength as remained.

There was only one living scion of this family which had once been so numerous that it had occupied all the territories of the Ile-de-France and La Brie. The Duc Jean was a slender, nervous young man of thirty, with hollow cheeks, cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight, thin nose and delicate hands.

By a singular, atavistic reversion, the last descendant resembled the old grandsire, from whom he had inherited the pointed, remarkably fair beard and an ambiguous expression, at once weary and cunning.

His childhood had been an unhappy one. Menaced with scrofula and afflicted with relentless fevers, he yet succeeded in crossing the breakers of adolescence, thanks to fresh air and careful attention. He grew stronger, overcame the languors of chlorosis and reached his full development.

His mother, a tall, pale, taciturn woman, died of anaemia, and his father of some uncertain malady. Des Esseintes was then seventeen years of age.

He retained but a vague memory of his parents and felt neither affection nor gratitude for them. He hardly knew his father, who usually resided in Paris. He recalled his mother as she lay motionless in a dim room of the Chateau de Lourps. The husband and wife would meet on rare occasions, and he remembered those lifeless interviews when his parents sat face to face in front of a round table faintly lit by a lamp with a wide, low-hanging shade, for the _duchesse_ could not endure light or sound without being seized with a fit of nervousness. A few, halting words would be exchanged between them in the gloom and then the indifferent _duc_ would depart to meet the first train back to Paris.

Jean's life at the Jesuit school, where he was sent to study, was more pleasant. At first the Fathers pampered the lad whose intelligence astonished them. But despite their efforts, they could not induce him to concentrate on studies requiring discipline. He nibbled at various books and was precociously brilliant in Latin. On the contrary, he was absolutely incapable of construing two Greek words, showed no aptitude for living languages and promptly proved himself a dunce when obliged to master the elements of the sciences.

His family gave him little heed. Sometimes his father visited him at school. "How are you . . . be good . . . study hard . . . "--and he was gone. The lad passed the summer vacations at the Chateau de Lourps, but his presence could not seduce his mother from her reveries. She scarcely noticed him; when she did, her gaze would rest on him for a moment with a sad smile--and that was all. The moment after she would again become absorbed in the artificial night with which the heavily curtained windows enshrouded the room.

The servants were old and dull. Left to himself, the boy delved into books on rainy days and roamed about the countryside on pleasant afternoons.

It was his supreme delight to wander down the little valley to Jutigny, a village planted at the foot of the hills, a tiny heap of cottages capped with thatch strewn with tufts of sengreen and clumps of moss. In the open fields, under the shadow of high ricks, he would lie, listening to the hollow splashing of the mills and inhaling the fresh breeze from Voulzie. Sometimes he went as far as the peat-bogs, to the green and black hamlet of Longueville, or climbed wind-swept hillsides affording magnificent views. There, below to one side, as far as the eye could reach, lay the Seine valley, blending in the distance with the blue sky; high up, near the horizon, on the other side, rose the churches and tower of Provins which seemed to tremble in the golden dust of the air.

Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form. After each vacation, Jean returned to his masters more reflective and headstrong. These changes did not escape them. Subtle and observant, accustomed by their profession to plumb souls to their depths, they were fully aware of his unresponsiveness to their teachings. They knew that this student would never contribute to the glory of their order, and as his family was rich and apparently careless of his future, they soon renounced the idea of having him take up any of the professions their school offered. Although he willingly discussed with them those theological doctrines which intrigued his fancy by their subtleties and hair-splittings, they did not even think of training him for the religious orders, since, in spite of their efforts, his faith remained languid. As a last resort, through prudence and fear of the harm he might effect, they permitted him to pursue whatever studies pleased him and to neglect the others, being loath to antagonize this bold and independent spirit by the quibblings of the lay school assistants.

Thus he lived in perfect contentment, scarcely feeling the parental yoke of the priests. He continued his Latin and French studies when the whim seized him and, although theology did not figure in his schedule, he finished his apprenticeship in this science, begun at the Chateau de Lourps, in the library bequeathed by his grand-uncle, Dom Prosper, the old prior of the regular canons of Saint-Ruf.

But soon the time came when he must quit the Jesuit institution. He attained his majority and became master of his fortune. The Comte de Montchevrel, his cousin and guardian, placed in his hands the title to his wealth. There was no intimacy between them, for there was no possible point of contact between these two men, the one young, the other old. Impelled by curiosity, idleness or politeness, Des Esseintes sometimes visited the Montchevrel family and spent some dull evenings in their Rue de la Chaise mansion where the ladies, old as antiquity itself, would gossip of quarterings of the noble arms, heraldic moons and anachronistic ceremonies.

The men, gathered around whist tables, proved even more shallow and insignificant than the dowagers; these descendants of ancient, courageous knights, these last branches of feudal races, appeared to Des Esseintes as catarrhal, crazy, old men repeating inanities and time-worn phrases. A _fleur de lis_ seemed the sole imprint on the soft pap of their brains.

The youth felt an unutterable pity for these mummies buried in their elaborate hypogeums of wainscoting and grotto work, for these tedious triflers whose eyes were forever turned towards a hazy Canaan, an imaginary Palestine.

After a few visits with such relatives, he resolved never again to set foot in their homes, regardless of invitations or reproaches.

Then he began to seek out the young men of his own age and set.

One group, educated like himself in religious institutions, preserved the special marks of this training. They attended religious services, received the sacrament on Easter, frequented the Catholic circles and concealed as criminal their amorous escapades. For the most part, they were unintelligent, acquiescent fops, stupid bores who had tried the patience of their professors. Yet these professors were pleased to have bestowed such docile, pious creatures upon society.

The other group, educated in the state colleges or in the _lycees_, were less hypocritical and much more courageous, but they were neither more interesting nor less bigoted. Gay young men dazzled by operettas and races, they played lansquenet and baccarat, staked large fortunes on horses and cards, and cultivated all the pleasures enchanting to brainless fools. After a year's experience, Des Esseintes felt an overpowering weariness of this company whose debaucheries seemed to him so unrefined, facile and indiscriminate without any ardent reactions or excitement of nerves and blood.

He gradually forsook them to make the acquaintance of literary men, in whom he thought he might find more interest and feel more at ease. This, too, proved disappointing; he was revolted by their rancorous and petty judgments, their conversation as obvious as a church door, their dreary discussions in which they judged the value of a book by the number of editions it had passed and by the profits acquired. At the same time, he noticed that the free thinkers, the doctrinaires of the bourgeoisie, people who claimed every liberty that they might stifle the opinions of others, were greedy and shameless puritans whom, in education, he esteemed inferior to the corner shoemaker.

His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles. Certainly, he could not hope to discover in others aspirations and aversions similar to his own, could not expect companionship with an intelligence exulting in a studious decrepitude, nor anticipate meeting a mind as keen as his among the writers and scholars.

Irritated, ill at ease and offended by the poverty of ideas given and received, he became like those people described by Nicole--those who are always melancholy. He would fly into a rage when he read the patriotic and social balderdash retailed daily in the newspapers, and would exaggerate the significance of the plaudits which a sovereign public always reserves for works deficient in ideas and style.

Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity.

A single passion, woman, might have curbed his contempt, but that, too, had palled on him. He had taken to carnal repasts with the eagerness of a crotchety man affected with a depraved appetite and given to sudden hungers, whose taste is quickly dulled and surfeited. Associating with country squires, he had taken part in their lavish suppers where, at dessert, tipsy women would unfasten their clothing and strike their heads against the tables; he had haunted the green rooms, loved actresses and singers, endured, in addition to the natural stupidity he had come to expect of women, the maddening vanity of female strolling players. Finally, satiated and weary of this monotonous extravagance and the sameness of their caresses, he had plunged into the foul depths, hoping by the contrast of squalid misery to revive his desires and stimulate his deadened senses.

Whatever he attempted proved vain; an unconquerable ennui oppressed him. Yet he persisted in his excesses and returned to the perilous embraces of accomplished mistresses. But his health failed, his nervous system collapsed, the back of his neck grew sensitive, his hand, still firm when it seized a heavy object, trembled when it held a tiny glass.

The physicians whom he consulted frightened him. It was high time to check his excesses and renounce those pursuits which were dissipating his reserve of strength! For a while he was at peace, but his brain soon became over-excited. Like those young girls who, in the grip of puberty, crave coarse and vile foods, he dreamed of and practiced perverse loves and pleasures. This was the end! As though satisfied with having exhausted everything, as though completely surrendering to fatigue, his senses fell into a lethargy and impotence threatened him.

He recovered, but he was lonely, tired, sobered, imploring an end to his life which the cowardice of his flesh prevented him from consummating.

Once more he was toying with the idea of becoming a recluse, of living in some hushed retreat where the turmoil of life would be muffled--as in those streets covered with straw to prevent any sound from reaching invalids.

It was time to make up his mind. The condition of his finances terrified him. He had spent, in acts of folly and in drinking bouts, the greater part of his patrimony, and the remainder, invested in land, produced a ridiculously small income.

He decided to sell the Chateau de Lourps, which he no longer visited and where he left no memory or regret behind. He liquidated his other holdings, bought government bonds and in this way drew an annual interest of fifty thousand francs; in addition, he reserved a sum of money which he meant to use in buying and furnishing the house where he proposed to enjoy a perfect repose.

Exploring the suburbs of the capital, he found a place for sale at the top of Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a secluded section near the fort, far from any neighbors. His dream was realized! In this country place so little violated by Parisians, he could be certain of seclusion. The difficulty of reaching the place, due to an unreliable railroad passing by at the end of the town, and to the little street cars which came and went at irregular intervals, reassured him. He could picture himself alone on the bluff, sufficiently far away to prevent the Parisian throngs from reaching him, and yet near enough to the capital to confirm him in his solitude. And he felt that in not entirely closing the way, there was a chance that he would not be assailed by a wish to return to society, seeing that it is only the impossible, the unachievable that arouses desire.

He put masons to work on the house he had acquired. Then, one day, informing no one of his plans, he quickly disposed of his old furniture, dismissed his servants, and left without giving the concierge any address.

Chapter 2

More than two months passed before Des Esseintes could bury himself in the silent repose of his Fontenay abode. He was obliged to go to Paris again, to comb the city in his search for the things he wanted to buy.

What care he took, what meditations he surrendered himself to, before turning over his house to the upholsterers!

He had long been a connoisseur in the sincerities and evasions of color-tones. In the days when he had entertained women at his home, he had created a boudoir where, amid daintily carved furniture of pale, Japanese camphor-wood, under a sort of pavillion of Indian rose-tinted satin, the flesh would color delicately in the borrowed lights of the silken hangings.

This room, each of whose sides was lined with mirrors that echoed each other all along the walls, reflecting, as far as the eye could reach, whole series of rose boudoirs, had been celebrated among the women who loved to immerse their nudity in this bath of warm carnation, made fragrant with the odor of mint emanating from the exotic wood of the furniture.

Aside from the sensual delights for which he had designed this chamber, this painted atmosphere which gave new color to faces grown dull and withered by the use of ceruse and by nights of dissipation, there were other, more personal and perverse pleasures which he enjoyed in these languorous surroundings,--pleasures which in some way stimulated memories of his past pains and dead ennuis.

As a souvenir of the hated days of his childhood, he had suspended from the ceiling a small silver-wired cage where a captive cricket sang as if in the ashes of the chimneys of the Chateau de Lourps. Listening to the sound he had so often heard before, he lived over again the silent evenings spent near his mother, the wretchedness of his suffering, repressed youth. And then, while he yielded to the voluptuousness of the woman he mechanically caressed, whose words or laughter tore him from his revery and rudely recalled him to the moment, to the boudoir, to reality, a tumult arose in his soul, a need of avenging the sad years he had endured, a mad wish to sully the recollections of his family by shameful action, a furious desire to pant on cushions of flesh, to drain to their last dregs the most violent of carnal vices.

On rainy autumnal days when melancholy oppressed him, when a hatred of his home, the muddy yellow skies, the macadam clouds assailed him, he took refuge in this retreat, set the cage lightly in motion and watched it endlessly reflected in the play of the mirrors, until it seemed to his dazed eyes that the cage no longer stirred, but that the boudoir reeled and turned, filling the house with a rose-colored waltz.

In the days when he had deemed it necessary to affect singularity, Des Esseintes had designed marvelously strange furnishings, dividing his salon into a series of alcoves hung with varied tapestries to relate by a subtle analogy, by a vague harmony of joyous or sombre, delicate or barbaric colors to the character of the Latin or French books he loved. And he would seclude himself in turn in the particular recess whose _decor_ seemed best to correspond with the very essence of the work his caprice of the moment induced him to read.

He had constructed, too, a lofty high room intended for the reception of his tradesmen. Here they were ushered in and seated alongside each other in church pews, while from a pulpit he preached to them a sermon on dandyism, adjuring his bootmakers and tailors implicitly to obey his briefs in the matter of style, threatening them with pecuniary excommunication if they failed to follow to the letter the instructions contained in his monitories and bulls.

He acquired the reputation of an eccentric, which he enhanced by wearing costumes of white velvet, and gold-embroidered waistcoats, by inserting, in place of a cravat, a Parma bouquet in the opening of his shirt, by giving famous dinners to men of letters, one of which, a revival of the eighteenth century, celebrating the most futile of his misadventures, was a funeral repast.

In the dining room, hung in black and opening on the transformed garden with its ash-powdered walks, its little pool now bordered with basalt and filled with ink, its clumps of cypresses and pines, the dinner had been served on a table draped in black, adorned with baskets of violets and scabiouses, lit by candelabra from which green flames blazed, and by chandeliers from which wax tapers flared.

To the sound of funeral marches played by a concealed orchestra, nude negresses, wearing slippers and stockings of silver cloth with patterns of tears, served the guests.

Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout.

The farewell dinner to a temporarily dead virility--this was what he had written on invitation cards designed like bereavement notices.

But he was done with those extravagances in which he had once gloried. Today, he was filled with a contempt for those juvenile displays, the singular apparel, the appointments of his bizarre chambers. He contented himself with planning, for his own pleasure, and no longer for the astonishment of others, an interior that should be comfortable although embellished in a rare style; with building a curious, calm retreat to serve the needs of his future solitude.

When the Fontenay house was in readiness, fitted up by an architect according to his plans, when all that remained was to determine the color scheme, he again devoted himself to long speculations.

He desired colors whose expressiveness would be displayed in the artificial light of lamps. To him it mattered not at all if they were lifeless or crude in daylight, for it was at night that he lived, feeling more completely alone then, feeling that only under the protective covering of darkness did the mind grow really animated and active. He also experienced a peculiar pleasure in being in a richly illuminated room, the only patch of light amid the shadow-haunted, sleeping houses. This was a form of enjoyment in which perhaps entered an element of vanity, that peculiar pleasure known to late workers when, drawing aside the window curtains, they perceive that everything about them is extinguished, silent, dead.

Slowly, one by one, he selected the colors.

Blue inclines to a false green by candle light: if it is dark, like cobalt or indigo, it turns black; if it is bright, it turns grey; if it is soft, like turquoise, it grows feeble and faded.

There could be no question of making it the dominant note of a room unless it were blended with some other color.

Iron grey always frowns and is heavy; pearl grey loses its blue and changes to a muddy white; brown is lifeless and cold; as for deep green, such as emperor or myrtle, it has the same properties as blue and merges into black. There remained, then, the paler greens, such as peacock, cinnabar or lacquer, but the light banishes their blues and brings out their yellows in tones that have a false and undecided quality.

No need to waste thought on the salmon, the maize and rose colors whose feminine associations oppose all ideas of isolation! No need to consider the violet which is completely neutralized at night; only the red in it holds its ground--and what a red! a viscous red like the lees of wine. Besides, it seemed useless to employ this color, for by using a certain amount of santonin, he could get an effect of violet on his hangings.

These colors disposed of, only three remained: red, orange, yellow.

Of these, he preferred orange, thus by his own example confirming the truth of a theory which he declared had almost mathematical correctness--the theory that a harmony exists between the sensual nature of a truly artistic individual and the color which most vividly impresses him.

Disregarding entirely the generality of men whose gross retinas are capable of perceiving neither the cadence peculiar to each color nor the mysterious charm of their nuances of light and shade; ignoring the bourgeoisie, whose eyes are insensible to the pomp and splendor of strong, vibrant tones; and devoting himself only to people with sensitive pupils, refined by literature and art, he was convinced that the eyes of those among them who dream of the ideal and demand illusions are generally caressed by blue and its derivatives, mauve, lilac and pearl grey, provided always that these colors remain soft and do not overstep the bounds where they lose their personalities by being transformed into pure violets and frank greys.

Those persons, on the contrary, who are energetic and incisive, the plethoric, red-blooded, strong males who fling themselves unthinkingly into the affair of the moment, generally delight in the bold gleams of yellows and reds, the clashing cymbals of vermilions and chromes that blind and intoxicate them.

But the eyes of enfeebled and nervous persons whose sensual appetites crave highly seasoned foods, the eyes of hectic and over-excited creatures have a predilection toward that irritating and morbid color with its fictitious splendors, its acid fevers--orange.

Thus, there could be no question about Des Esseintes' choice, but unquestionable difficulties still arose. If red and yellow are heightened by light, the same does not always hold true of their compound, orange, which often seems to ignite and turns to nasturtium, to a flaming red.

He studied all their nuances by candlelight, discovering a shade which, it seemed to him, would not lose its dominant tone, but would stand every test required of it. These preliminaries completed, he sought to refrain from using, for his study at least, oriental stuffs and rugs which have become cheapened and ordinary, now that rich merchants can easily pick them up at auctions and shops.

He finally decided to bind his walls, like books, with coarse-grained morocco, with Cape skin, polished by strong steel plates under a powerful press.

When the wainscoting was finished, he had the moulding and high plinths painted in indigo, a lacquered indigo like that which coachmakers employ for carriage panels. The ceiling, slightly rounded, was also lined with morocco. In the center was a wide opening resembling an immense bull's eye encased in orange skin--a circle of the firmament worked out on a background of king blue silk on which were woven silver seraphim with out-stretched wings. This material had long before been embroidered by the Cologne guild of weavers for an old cope.

The setting was complete. At night the room subsided into a restful, soothing harmony. The wainscoting preserved its blue which seemed sustained and warmed by the orange. And the orange remained pure, strengthened and fanned as it was by the insistent breath of the blues.

Des Esseintes was not deeply concerned about the furniture itself. The only luxuries in the room were books and rare flowers. He limited himself to these things, intending later on to hang a few drawings or paintings on the panels which remained bare; to place shelves and book racks of ebony around the walls; to spread the pelts of wild beasts and the skins of blue fox on the floor; to install, near a massive fifteenth century counting-table, deep armchairs and an old chapel reading-desk of forged iron, one of those old lecterns on which the deacon formerly placed the antiphonary and which now supported one of the heavy folios of Du Cange's _Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis_.

The windows whose blue fissured panes, stippled with fragments of gold-edged bottles, intercepted the view of the country and only permitted a faint light to enter, were draped with curtains cut from old stoles of dark and reddish gold neutralized by an almost dead russet woven in the pattern.

The mantel shelf was sumptuously draped with the remnant of a Florentine dalmatica. Between two gilded copper monstrances of Byzantine style, originally brought from the old Abbaye-au-Bois de Bievre, stood a marvelous church canon divided into three separate compartments delicately wrought like lace work. It contained, under its glass frame, three works of Baudelaire copied on real vellum, with wonderful missal letters and splendid coloring: to the right and left, the sonnets bearing the titles of _La Mort des Amants_ and _L'Ennemi_; in the center, the prose poem entitled, _Anywhere Out of the World--n'importe ou, hors du monde_.

Chapter 3

After selling his effects, Des Esseintes retained the two old domestics who had tended his mother and filled the offices of steward and house porter at the Chateau de Lourps, which had remained deserted and uninhabited until its disposal.

These servants he brought to Fontenay. They were accustomed to the regular life of hospital attendants hourly serving the patients their stipulated food and drink, to the rigid silence of cloistral monks who live behind barred doors and windows, having no communication with the outside world.

The man was assigned the task of keeping the house in order and of procuring provisions, the woman that of preparing the food. He surrendered the second story to them, forced them to wear heavy felt coverings over their shoes, put sound mufflers along the well-oiled doors and covered their floor with heavy rugs so that he would never hear their footsteps overhead.

He devised an elaborate signal code of bells whereby his wants were made known. He pointed out the exact spot on his bureau where they were to place the account book each month while he slept. In short, matters were arranged in such wise that he would not be obliged to see or to converse with them very often.

Nevertheless, since the woman had occasion to walk past the house so as to reach the woodshed, he wished to make sure that her shadow, as she passed his windows, would not offend him. He had designed for her a costume of Flemish silk with a white bonnet and large, black, lowered hood, such as is still worn by the nuns of Ghent. The shadow of this headdress, in the twilight, gave him the sensation of being in a cloister, brought back memories of silent, holy villages, dead quarters enclosed and buried in some quiet corner of a bustling town.

The hours of eating were also regulated. His instructions in this regard were short and explicit, for the weakened state of his stomach no longer permitted him to absorb heavy or varied foods.

In winter, at five o'clock in the afternoon, when the day was drawing to a close, he breakfasted on two boiled eggs, toast and tea. At eleven o'clock he dined. During the night he drank coffee, and sometimes tea and wine, and at five o'clock in the morning, before retiring, he supped again lightly.

His meals, which were planned and ordered once for all at the beginning of each season, were served him on a table in the middle of a small room separated from his study by a padded corridor, hermetically sealed so as to permit neither sound nor odor to filter into either of the two rooms it joined.

With its vaulted ceiling fitted with beams in a half circle, its bulkheads and floor of pine, and the little window in the wainscoting that looked like a porthole, the dining room resembled the cabin of a ship.

Like those Japanese boxes which fit into each other, this room was inserted in a larger apartment--the real dining room constructed by the architect.

It was pierced by two windows. One of them was invisible, hidden by a partition which could, however, be lowered by a spring so as to permit fresh air to circulate around this pinewood box and to penetrate into it. The other was visible, placed directly opposite the porthole built in the wainscoting, but it was blocked up. For a long aquarium occupied the entire space between the porthole and the genuine window placed in the outer wall. Thus the light, in order to brighten the room, traversed the window, whose panes had been replaced by a plate glass, the water, and, lastly, the window of the porthole.

In autumn, at sunset, when the steam rose from the samovar on the table, the water of the aquarium, wan and glassy all during the morning, reddened like blazing gleams of embers and lapped restlessly against the light-colored wood.

Sometimes, when it chanced that Des Esseintes was awake in the afternoon, he operated the stops of the pipes and conduits which emptied the aquarium, replacing it with pure water. Into this, he poured drops of colored liquids that made it green or brackish, opaline or silvery--tones similar to those of rivers which reflect the color of the sky, the intensity of the sun, the menace of rain--which reflect, in a word, the state of the season and atmosphere.

When he did this, he imagined himself on a brig, between decks, and curiously he contemplated the marvelous, mechanical fish, wound like clocks, which passed before the porthole or clung to the artificial sea-weed. While he inhaled the odor of tar, introduced into the room shortly before his arrival, he examined colored engravings, hung on the walls, which represented, just as at Lloyd's office and the steamship agencies, steamers bound for Valparaiso and La Platte, and looked at framed pictures on which were inscribed the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet, the Lopez and the Valery Companies, the freight and port calls of the Atlantic mail boats.

If he tired of consulting these guides, he could rest his eyes by gazing at the chronometers and sea compasses, the sextants, field glasses and cards strewn on a table on which stood a single volume, bound in sealskin. The book was "The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym", specially printed for him on laid paper, each sheet carefully selected, with a sea-gull watermark.

Or, he could look at fishing rods, tan-colored nets, rolls of russet sail, a tiny, black-painted cork anchor--all thrown in a heap near the door communicating with the kitchen by a passage furnished with cappadine silk which reabsorbed, just as in the corridor which connected the dining room with his study, every odor and sound.

Thus, without stirring, he enjoyed the rapid motions of a long sea voyage. The pleasure of travel, which only exists as a matter of fact in retrospect and seldom in the present, at the instant when it is being experienced, he could fully relish at his ease, without the necessity of fatigue or confusion, here in this cabin whose studied disorder, whose transitory appearance and whose seemingly temporary furnishings corresponded so well with the briefness of the time he spent there on his meals, and contrasted so perfectly with his study, a well-arranged, well-furnished room where everything betokened a retired, orderly existence.

Movement, after all, seemed futile to him. He felt that imagination could easily be substituted for the vulgar realities of things. It was possible, in his opinion, to gratify the most extravagant, absurd desires by a subtle subterfuge, by a slight modification of the object of one's wishes. Every epicure nowadays enjoys, in restaurants celebrated for the excellence of their cellars, wines of capital taste manufactured from inferior brands treated by Pasteur's method. For they have the same aroma, the same color, the same bouquet as the rare wines of which they are an imitation, and consequently the pleasure experienced in sipping them is identical. The originals, moreover, are usually unprocurable, for love or money.

Transposing this insidious deviation, this adroit deceit into the realm of the intellect, there was not the shadow of a doubt that fanciful delights resembling the true in every detail, could be enjoyed. One could revel, for instance, in long explorations while near one's own fireside, stimulating the restive or sluggish mind, if need be, by reading some suggestive narrative of travel in distant lands. One could enjoy the beneficent results of a sea bath, too, even in Paris. All that is necessary is to visit the Vigier baths situated in a boat on the Seine, far from the shore.

There, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, imperious, positive. It is achieved by salting the water of the bath; by mixing, according to the Codex formula, sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by extracting from a box, carefully closed by means of a screw, a ball of thread or a very small piece of cable which had been specially procured from one of those great rope-making establishments whose vast warehouses and basements are heavy with odors of the sea and the port; by inhaling these perfumes held by the ball or the cable end; by consulting an exact photograph of the casino; by eagerly reading the Joanne guide describing the beauties of the seashore where one would wish to be; by being rocked on the waves, made by the eddy of fly boats lapping against the pontoon of baths; by listening to the plaint of the wind under the arches, or to the hollow murmur of the omnibuses passing above on the Port Royal, two steps away.

The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself.

Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man's genius.

Nature had had her day, as he put it. By the disgusting sameness of her landscapes and skies, she had once for all wearied the considerate patience of aesthetes. Really, what dullness! the dullness of the specialist confined to his narrow work. What manners! the manners of the tradesman offering one particular ware to the exclusion of all others. What a monotonous storehouse of fields and trees! What a banal agency of mountains and seas!

There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create; no Fontainebleau forest, no moonlight which a scenic setting flooded with electricity cannot produce; no waterfall which hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection; no rock which pasteboard cannot be made to resemble; no flower which taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot simulate.

There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.

Closely observe that work of hers which is considered the most exquisite, that creation of hers whose beauty is everywhere conceded the most perfect and original--woman. Has not man made, for his own use, an animated and artificial being which easily equals woman, from the point of view of plastic beauty? Is there a woman, whose form is more dazzling, more splendid than the two locomotives that pass over the Northern Railroad lines?

One, the Crampton, is an adorable, shrill-voiced blonde, a trim, gilded blonde, with a large, fragile body imprisoned in a glittering corset of copper, and having the long, sinewy lines of a cat. Her extraordinary grace is frightening, as, with the sweat of her hot sides rising upwards and her steel muscles stiffening, she puts in motion the immense rose-window of her fine wheels and darts forward, mettlesome, along rapids and floods.

The other, the Engerth, is a nobly proportioned dusky brunette emitting raucous, muffled cries. Her heavy loins are strangled in a cast-iron breast-plate. A monstrous beast with a disheveled mane of black smoke and with six low, coupled wheels! What irresistible power she has when, causing the earth to tremble, she slowly and heavily drags the unwieldy queue of her merchandise!

Unquestionably, there is not one among the frail blondes and majestic brunettes of the flesh that can vie with their delicate grace and terrific strength.

Such were Des Esseintes' reflections when the breeze brought him the faint whistle of the toy railroad winding playfully, like a spinning top, between Paris and Sceaux. His house was situated at a twenty minutes' walk from the Fontenay station, but the height on which it was perched, its isolation, made it immune to the clatter of the noisy rabble which the vicinity of a railway station invariably attracts on a Sunday.

As for the village itself, he hardly knew it. One night he had gazed through his window at the silent landscape which slowly unfolded, as it dipped to the foot of a slope, on whose summit the batteries of the Verrieres woods were trained.

In the darkness, to left and right, these masses, dim and confused, rose tier on tier, dominated far off by other batteries and forts whose high embankments seemed, in the moonlight, bathed in silver against the sombre sky.

Where the plain did not fall under the shadow of the hills, it seemed powdered with starch and smeared with white cold cream. In the warm air that fanned the faded grasses and exhaled a spicy perfume, the trees, chalky white under the moon, shook their pale leaves, and seemed to divide their trunks, whose shadows formed bars of black on the plaster-like ground where pebbles scintillated like glittering plates.

Because of its enameled look and its artificial air, the landscape did not displease Des Esseintes. But since that afternoon spent at Fontenay in search of a house, he had never ventured along its roads in daylight. The verdure of this region inspired him with no interest whatever, for it did not have the delicate and doleful charm of the sickly and pathetic vegetation which forces its way painfully through the rubbish heaps of the mounds which had once served as the ramparts of Paris. That day, in the village, he had perceived corpulent, bewhiskered _bourgeois_ citizens and moustached uniformed men with heads of magistrates and soldiers, which they held as stiffly as monstrances in churches. And ever since that encounter, his detestation of the human face had been augmented.

During the last month of his stay in Paris, when he was weary of everything, afflicted with hypochondria, the prey of melancholia, when his nerves had become so sensitive that the sight of an unpleasant object or person impressed itself deeply on his brain--so deeply that several days were required before the impression could be effaced--the touch of a human body brushing against him in the street had been an excruciating agony.

The very sight of certain faces made him suffer. He considered the crabbed expressions of some, insulting. He felt a desire to slap the fellow who walked, eyes closed, with such a learned air; the one who minced along, smiling at his image in the window panes; and the one who seemed stimulated by a whole world of thought while devouring, with contracted brow, the tedious contents of a newspaper.

Such an inveterate stupidity, such a scorn for literature and art, such a hatred for all the ideas he worshipped, were implanted and anchored in these merchant minds, exclusively preoccupied with the business of swindling and money-making, and accessible only to ideas of politics--that base distraction of mediocrities--that he returned enraged to his home and locked himself in with his books.

He hated the new generation with all the energy in him. They were frightful clodhoppers who seemed to find it necessary to talk and laugh boisterously in restaurants and cafes. They jostled you on sidewalks without begging pardon. They pushed the wheels of their perambulators against your legs, without even apologizing.

Chapter 4

A portion of the shelves which lined the walls of his orange and blue study was devoted exclusively to those Latin works assigned to the generic period of "The Decadence" by those whose minds have absorbed the deplorable teachings of the Sorbonne.

The Latin written in that era which professors still persist in calling the Great Age, hardly stimulated Des Esseintes. With its carefully premeditated style, its sameness, its stripping of supple syntax, its poverty of color and nuance, this language, pruned of all the rugged and often rich expressions of the preceding ages, was confined to the enunciation of the majestic banalities, the empty commonplaces tiresomely reiterated by the rhetoricians and poets; but it betrayed such a lack of curiosity and such a humdrum tediousness, such a drabness, feebleness and jaded solemnity that to find its equal, it was necessary, in linguistic studies, to go to the French style of the period of Louis XIV.

The gentle Vergil, whom instructors call the Mantuan swan, perhaps because he was not born in that city, he considered one of the most terrible pedants ever produced by antiquity. Des Esseintes was exasperated by his immaculate and bedizened shepherds, his Orpheus whom he compares to a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus who simpers about bees, his Aeneas, that weak-willed, irresolute person who walks with wooden gestures through the length of the poem. Des Esseintes would gladly have accepted the tedious nonsense which those marionettes exchange with each other off-stage; or even the poet's impudent borrowings from Homer, Theocritus, Ennius and Lucretius; the plain theft, revealed to us by Macrobius, of the second song of the _Aeneid_, copied almost word for word from one of Pisander's poems; in fine, all the unutterable emptiness of this heap of verses. The thing he could not forgive, however, and which infuriated him most, was the workmanship of the hexameters, beating like empty tin cans and extending their syllabic quantities measured according to the unchanging rule of a pedantic and dull prosody. He disliked the texture of those stiff verses, in their official garb, their abject reverence for grammar, their mechanical division by imperturbable caesuras, always plugged at the end in the same way by the impact of a dactyl against a spondee.

Borrowed from the perfected forge of Catullus, this unvarying versification, lacking imagination, lacking pity, padded with useless words and refuse, with pegs of identical and anticipated assonances, this ceaseless wretchedness of Homeric epithet which designates nothing whatever and permits nothing to be seen, all this impoverished vocabulary of muffled, lifeless tones bored him beyond measure.

It is no more than just to add that, if his admiration for Vergil was quite restrained, and his attraction for Ovid's lucid outpourings even more circumspect, there was no limit to his disgust at the elephantine graces of Horace, at the prattle of this hopeless lout who smirkingly utters the broad, crude jests of an old clown.

Neither was he pleased, in prose, with the verbosities, the redundant metaphors, the ludicrous digressions of Cicero. There was nothing to beguile him in the boasting of his apostrophes, in the flow of his patriotic nonsense, in the emphasis of his harangues, in the ponderousness of his style, fleshy but ropy and lacking in marrow and bone, in the insupportable dross of his long adverbs with which he introduces phrases, in the unalterable formula of his adipose periods badly sewed together with the thread of conjunctions and, finally, in his wearisome habits of tautology. Nor was his enthusiasm wakened for Caesar, celebrated for his laconic style. Here, on the contrary, was disclosed a surprising aridity, a sterility of recollection, an incredibly undue constipation.

He found pasture neither among them nor among those writers who are peculiarly the delight of the spuriously literate: Sallust, who is less colorless than the others; sentimental and pompous Titus Livius; turgid and lurid Seneca; watery and larval Suetonius; Tacitus who, in his studied conciseness, is the keenest, most wiry and muscular of them all. In poetry, he was untouched by Juvenal, despite some roughshod verses, and by Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations. In neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the Plinies, Statius, Martial, even Terence and Plautus whose jargon full of neologisms, compound words and diminutives, could please him, but whose low comedy and gross humor he loathed, Des Esseintes only began to be interested in the Latin language with Lucan. Here it was liberated, already more expressive and less dull. This careful armor, these verses plated with enamel and studded with jewels, captivated him, but the exclusive preoccupation with form, the sonorities of tone, the clangor of metals, did not entirely conceal from him the emptiness of the thought, the turgidity of those blisters which emboss the skin of the _Pharsale_.

Petronius was the author whom he truly loved and who caused him forever to abandon the sonorous ingenuities of Lucan, for he was a keen observer, a delicate analyst, a marvelous painter. Tranquilly, without prejudice or hate, he described Rome's daily life, recounting the customs of his epoch in the sprightly little chapters of the _Satyricon_.

Observing the facts of life, stating them in clear, definite form, he revealed the petty existence of the people, their happenings, their bestialities, their passions.

One glimpses the inspector of furnished lodgings who has inquired after the newly arrived travellers; bawdy houses where men prowl around nude women, while through the half-open doors of the rooms couples can be seen in dalliance; the society of the time, in villas of an insolent luxury, a revel of richness and magnificence, or in the poor quarters with their rumpled, bug-ridden folding-beds; impure sharpers, like Ascylte and Eumolpe in search of a rich windfall; old incubi with tucked-up dresses and plastered cheeks of white lead and red acacia; plump, curled, depraved little girls of sixteen; women who are the prey of hysterical attacks; hunters of heritages offering their sons and daughters to debauched testators. All pass across the pages. They debate in the streets, rub elbows in the baths, beat each other unmercifully as in a pantomime.

And all this recounted in a style of strange freshness and precise color, drawing from all dialects, borrowing expressions from all the languages that were drifting into Rome, extending all the limits, removing all the handicaps of the so-called Great Age. He made each person speak his own idiom: the uneducated freedmen, the vulgar Latin argot of the streets; the strangers, their barbarous patois, the corrupt speech of the African, Syrian and Greek; imbecile pedants, like the Agamemnon of the book, a rhetoric of artificial words. These people are depicted with swift strokes, wallowing around tables, exchanging stupid, drunken speech, uttering senile maxims and inept proverbs.

This realistic novel, this slice of Roman life, without any preoccupation, whatever one may say of it, with reform and satire, without the need of any studied end, or of morality; this story without intrigue or action, portraying the adventures of evil persons, analyzing with a calm finesse the joys and sorrows of these lovers and couples, depicting life in a splendidly wrought language without surrendering himself to any commentary, without approving or cursing the acts and thoughts of his characters, the vices of a decrepit civilization, of an empire that cracks, struck Des Esseintes. In the keenness of the observation, in the firmness of the method, he found singular comparisons, curious analogies with the few modern French novels he could endure.

Certainly, he bitterly regretted the Eustion and the Albutiae, those two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciade Fulgence which are forever lost. But the bibliophile in him consoled the student, when he touched with worshipful hands the superb edition of the _Satyricon_ which he possessed, the octavo bearing the date 1585 and the name of J. Dousa of Leyden.

Leaving Petronius, his Latin collection entered into the second century of the Christian era, passed over Fronto, the declaimer, with his antiquated terms; skipped the _Attic Nights_ of Aulus Gellius, his disciple and friend,--a clever, ferreting mind, but a writer entangled in a glutinous vase; and halted at Apuleius, of whose works he owned the first edition printed at Rome in 1469.

This African delighted him. The Latin language was at its richest in the _Metamorphoses_; it contained ooze and rubbish-strewn water rushing from all the provinces, and the refuse mingled and was confused in a bizarre, exotic, almost new color. Mannerisms, new details of Latin society found themselves shaped into neologisms specially created for the needs of conversation, in a Roman corner of Africa. He was amused by the southern exuberance and joviality of a doubtlessly corpulent man. He seemed a salacious, gay crony compared with the Christian apologists who lived in the same century--the soporific Minucius Felix, a pseudo-classicist, pouring forth the still thick emulsions of Cicero into his _Octavius_; nay, even Tertullian--whom he perhaps preserved for his Aldine edition, more than for the work itself.

Although he was sufficiently versed in theology, the disputes of the Montanists against the Catholic Church, the polemics against the gnostics, left him cold. Despite Tertullian's curious, concise style full of ambiguous terms, resting on participles, clashing with oppositions, bristling with puns and witticisms, dappled with vocables culled from the juridical science and the language of the Fathers of the Greek Church, he now hardly ever opened the _Apologetica_ and the _Treatise on Patience_. At the most, he read several pages of _De culta feminarum_, where Tertullian counsels women not to bedeck themselves with jewels and precious stuffs, forbidding them the use of cosmetics, because these attempt to correct and improve nature.

These ideas, diametrically opposed to his own, made him smile. Then the role played by Tertullian, in his Carthage bishopric, seemed to him suggestive in pleasant reveries. More even than his works did the man attract him.

He had, in fact, lived in stormy times, agitated by frightful disorders, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under the astonishing High Priest of Emesa, Elagabalus, and he tranquilly prepared his sermons, his dogmatic writings, his pleadings, his homelies, while the Roman Empire shook on its foundations, while the follies of Asia, while the ordures of paganism were full to the brim. With the utmost sang-froid, he recommended carnal abstinence, frugality in food, sobriety in dress, while, walking in silver powder and golden sand, a tiara on his head, his garb figured with precious stones, Elagabalus worked, amid his eunuchs, at womanish labor, calling himself the Empress and changing, every night, his Emperor, whom he preferably chose among barbers, scullions and circus drivers.

This antithesis delighted him. Then the Latin language, arrived at its supreme maturity under Petronius, commenced to decay; the Christian literature replaced it, bringing new words with new ideas, unemployed constructions, strange verbs, adjectives with subtle meanings, abstract words until then rare in the Roman language and whose usage Tertullian had been one of the first to adopt.

But there was no attraction in this dissolution, continued after Tertullian's death by his pupil, Saint Cyprian, by Arnobius and by Lactantius. There was something lacking; it made clumsy returns to Ciceronian magniloquence, but had not yet acquired that special flavor which in the fourth century, and particularly during the centuries following, the odor of Christianity would give the pagan tongue, decomposed like old venison, crumbling at the same time that the old world civilization collapsed, and the Empires, putrefied by the sanies of the centuries, succumbed to the thrusts of the barbarians.

Only one Christian poet, Commodianus, represented the third century in his library. The _Carmen apologeticum_, written in 259, is a collection of instructions, twisted into acrostics, in popular hexameters, with caesuras introduced according to the heroic verse style, composed without regard to quantity or hiatus and often accompanied by such rhymes as the Church Latin would later supply in such abundance.

These sombre, tortuous, gamy verses, crammed with terms of ordinary speech, with words diverted from their primitive meaning, claimed and interested him even more than the soft and already green style of the historians, Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victorus, Symmachus the letter writer, and Macrobius the grammarian and compiler. Them he even preferred to the genuinely scanned lines, the spotted and superb language of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.

They were then the masters of art. They filled the dying Empire with their cries; the Christian Ausonius with his _Centon Nuptial_, and his exuberant, embellished _Mosella_; Rutilius, with his hymns to the glory of Rome, his anathemas against the Jews and the monks, his journey from Italy into Gaul and the impressions recorded along the way, the intervals of landscape reflected in the water, the mirage of vapors and the movement of mists that enveloped the mountains.

Claudian, a sort of avatar of Lucan, dominates the fourth century with the terrible clarion of his verses: a poet forging a loud and sonorous hexameter, striking the epithet with a sharp blow amid sheaves of sparks, achieving a certain grandeur which fills his work with a powerful breath. In the Occidental Empire tottering more and more in the perpetual menace of the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the Empire's yielding gates, he revives antiquity, sings of the abduction of Proserpine, lays on his vibrant colors and passes with all his torches alight, into the obscurity that was then engulfing his world.

Paganism again lives in his verse, sounding its last fanfare, lifting its last great poet above the Christianity which was soon entirely to submerge the language, and which would forever be sole master of art. The new Christian spirit arose with Paulinus, disciple of Ausonius; Juvencus, who paraphrases the gospels in verse; Victorinus, author of the _Maccabees_; Sanctus Burdigalensis who, in an eclogue imitated from Vergil, makes his shepherds Egon and Buculus lament the maladies of their flock; and all the saints: Hilaire of Poitiers, defender of the Nicean faith, the Athanasius of the Occident, as he has been called; Ambrosius, author of the indigestible homelies, the wearisome Christian Cicero; Damasus, maker of lapidary epigrams; Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius, who attacks the cult of saints and the abuse of miracles and fastings, and already preaches, with arguments which future ages were to repeat, against the monastic vows and celibacy of the priests.

Finally, in the fifth century came Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Des Esseintes knew him only too well, for he was the Church's most reputed writer, founder of Christian orthodoxy, considered an oracle and sovereign master by Catholics. He no longer opened the pages of this holy man's works, although he had sung his disgust of the earth in the _Confessions_, and although his lamenting piety had essayed, in the _City of God_, to mitigate the frightful distress of the times by sedative promises of a rosier future. When Des Esseintes had studied theology, he was already sick and weary of the old monk's preachings and jeremiads, his theories on predestination and grace, his combats against the schisms.

He preferred to thumb the _Psychomachia_ of Prudentius, that first type of the allegorical poem which was later, in the Middle Ages, to be used continually, and the works of Sidonius Apollinaris whose correspondence interlarded with flashes of wit, pungencies, archaisms and enigmas, allured him. He willingly re-read the panegyrics in which this bishop invokes pagan deities in substantiation of his vainglorious eulogies; and, in spite of everything, he confessed a weakness for the affectations of these verses, fabricated, as it were, by an ingenious mechanician who operates his machine, oils his wheels and invents intricate and useless parts.

After Sidonius, he sought Merobaudes, the panegyrist; Sedulius, author of the rhymed poems and abecedarian hymns, certain passages of which the Church has appropriated for its services; Marius Victorius, whose gloomy treatise on the _Pervesity of the Times_ is illumed, here and there, with verses that gleam with phosphorescence; Paulinus of Pella, poet of the shivering _Eucharisticon_; and Orientius, bishop of Auch, who, in the distichs of his _Monitories_, inveighs against the licentiousness of women whose faces, he claims, corrupt the people.

The interest which Des Esseintes felt for the Latin language did not pause at this period which found it drooping, thoroughly putrid, losing its members and dropping its pus, and barely preserving through all the corruption of its body, those still firm elements which the Christians detached to marinate in the brine of their new language.

The second half of the fifth century had arrived, the horrible epoch when frightful motions convulsed the earth. The Barbarians sacked Gaul. Paralyzed Rome, pillaged by the Visigoths, felt its life grow feeble, perceived its extremities, the occident and the orient, writhe in blood and grow more exhausted from day to day.

In this general dissolution, in the successive assassination of the Caesars, in the turmoil of carnage from one end of Europe to another, there resounded a terrible shout of triumph, stifling all clamors, silencing all voices. On the banks of the Danube, thousands of men astride on small horses, clad in rat-skin coats, monstrous Tartars with enormous heads, flat noses, chins gullied with scars and gashes, and jaundiced faces bare of hair, rushed at full speed to envelop the territories of the Lower Empire like a whirlwind.

Everything disappeared in the dust of their gallopings, in the smoke of the conflagrations. Darkness fell, and the amazed people trembled, as they heard the fearful tornado which passed with thunder crashes. The hordes of Huns razed Europe, rushed toward Gaul, overran the plains of Chalons where Aetius pillaged it in an awful charge. The plains, gorged with blood, foamed like a purple sea. Two hundred thousand corpses barred the way, broke the movement of this avalanche which, swerving, fell with mighty thunderclaps, against Italy whose exterminated towns flamed like burning bricks.

The Occidental Empire crumbled beneath the shock; the moribund life which it was pursuing to imbecility and foulness, was extinguished. For another reason, the end of the universe seemed near; such cities as had been forgotten by Attila were decimated by famine and plague. The Latin language in its turn, seemed to sink under the world's ruins.

Years hastened on. The Barbarian idioms began to be modulated, to leave their vein-stones and form real languages. Latin, saved in the debacle by the cloisters, was confined in its usage to the convents and monasteries.

Here and there some poets gleamed, dully and coldly: the African Dracontius with his _Hexameron_, Claudius Memertius, with his liturgical poetry; Avitus of Vienne; then, the biographers like Ennodius, who narrates the prodigies of that perspicacious and venerated diplomat, Saint Epiphanius, the upright and vigilant pastor; or like Eugippus, who tells of the life of Saint Severin, that mysterious hermit and humble ascetic who appeared like an angel of grace to the distressed people, mad with suffering and fear; writers like Veranius of Gevaudan who prepared a little treatise on continence; like Aurelianus and Ferreolus who compiled the ecclesiastical canons; historians like Rotherius, famous for a lost history of the Huns.

Des Esseintes' library did not contain many works of the centuries immediately succeeding. Notwithstanding this deficiency, the sixth century was represented by Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns and _Vexila regis_, carved out of the old carrion of the Latin language and spiced with the aromatics of the Church, haunted him on certain days; by Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Jornandez. In the seventh and eighth centuries since, in addition to the low Latin of the Chroniclers, the Fredegaires and Paul Diacres, and the poems contained in the Bangor antiphonary which he sometimes read for the alphabetical and mono-rhymed hymn sung in honor of Saint Comgill, the literature limited itself almost exclusively to biographies of saints, to the legend of Saint Columban, written by the monk, Jonas, and to that of the blessed Cuthbert, written by the Venerable Bede from the notes of an anonymous monk of Lindisfarn, he contented himself with glancing over, in his moments of tedium, the works of these hagiographers and in again reading several extracts from the lives of Saint Rusticula and Saint Radegonda, related, the one by Defensorius, the other by the modest and ingenious Baudonivia, a nun of Poitiers.

But the singular works of Latin and Anglo-Saxon literature allured him still further. They included the whole series of riddles by Adhelme, Tatwine and Eusebius, who were descendants of Symphosius, and especially the enigmas composed by Saint Boniface, in acrostic strophes whose solution could be found in the initial letters of the verses.

His interest diminished with the end of those two centuries. Hardly pleased with the cumbersome mass of Carlovingian Latinists, the Alcuins and the Eginhards, he contented himself, as a specimen of the language of the ninth century, with the chronicles of Saint Gall, Freculfe and Reginon; with the poem of the siege of Paris written by Abbo le Courbe; with the didactic _Hortulus_, of the Benedictine Walafrid Strabo, whose chapter consecrated to the glory of the gourd as a symbol of fruitfulness, enlivened him; with the poem in which Ermold the Dark, celebrating the exploits of Louis the Debonair, a poem written in regular hexameters, in an austere, almost forbidding style and in a Latin of iron dipped in monastic waters with straws of sentiment, here and there, in the unpliant metal; with the _De viribus herbarum_, the poem of Macer Floridus, who particularly delighted him because of his poetic recipes and the very strange virtues which he ascribes to certain plants and flowers; to the aristolochia, for example, which, mixed with the flesh of a cow and placed on the lower part of a pregnant woman's abdomen, insures the birth of a male child; or to the borage which, when brewed into an infusion in a dining room, diverts guests; or to the peony whose powdered roots cure epilepsy; or to the fennel which, if placed on a woman's breasts, clears her water and stimulates the indolence of her periods.

Apart from several special, unclassified volumes, modern or dateless, certain works on the Cabbala, medicine and botany, certain odd tomes containing undiscoverable Christian poetry, and the anthology of the minor Latin poets of Wernsdorf; apart from Meursius, the manual of classical erotology of Forberg, and the diaconals used by confessors, which he dusted at rare intervals, his Latin library ended at the beginning of the tenth century.

And, in fact, the curiosity, the complicated naïveté of the Christian language had also foundered. The balderdash of philosophers and scholars, the logomachy of the Middle Ages, thenceforth held absolute sway. The sooty mass of chronicles and historical books and cartularies accumulated, and the stammering grace, the often exquisite awkwardness of the monks, placing the poetic remains of antiquity in a ragout, were dead. The fabrications of verbs and purified essences, of substantives breathing of incense, of bizarre adjectives, coarsely carved from gold, with the barbarous and charming taste of Gothic jewels, were destroyed. The old editions, beloved by Des Esseintes, here ended; and with a formidable leap of centuries, the books on his shelves went straight to the French language of the present century.

Chapter 5

The afternoon was drawing to its close when a carriage halted in front of the Fontenay house. Since Des Esseintes received no visitors, and since the postman never even ventured into these uninhabited parts, having no occasion to deliver any papers, magazines or letters, the servants hesitated before opening the door. Then, as the bell was rung furiously again, they peered through the peep-hole cut into the wall, and perceived a man, concealed, from neck to waist, behind an immense gold buckler.

They informed their master, who was breakfasting.

"Ask him in," he said, for he recalled having given his address to a lapidary for the delivery of a purchase.

The man bowed and deposited the buckler on the pinewood floor of the dining room. It oscillated and wavered, revealing the serpentine head of a tortoise which, suddenly terrified, retreated into its shell.

This tortoise was a fancy which had seized Des Esseintes some time before his departure from Paris. Examining an Oriental rug, one day, in reflected light, and following the silver gleams which fell on its web of plum violet and alladin yellow, it suddenly occurred to him how much it would be improved if he could place on it some object whose deep color might enhance the vividness of its tints.

Possessed by this idea, he had been strolling aimlessly along the streets, when suddenly he found himself gazing at the very object of his wishes. There, in a shop window on the Palais Royal, lay a huge tortoise in a large basin. He had purchased it. Then he had sat a long time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect.

Decidedly, the Ethiopic black, the harsh Sienna tone of this shell dulled the rug's reflections without adding to it. The dominant silver gleams in it barely sparkled, crawling with lack-lustre tones of dead zinc against the edges of the hard, tarnished shell.

He bit his nails while he studied a method of removing these discords and reconciling the determined opposition of the tones. He finally discovered that his first inspiration, which was to animate the fire of the weave by setting it off against some dark object, was erroneous. In fact, this rug was too new, too petulant and gaudy. The colors were not sufficiently subdued. He must reverse the process, dull the tones, and extinguish them by the contrast of a striking object, which would eclipse all else and cast a golden light on the pale silver. Thus stated, the problem was easier to solve. He therefore decided to glaze the shell of the tortoise with gold.

The tortoise, just returned by the lapidary, shone brilliantly, softening the tones of the rug and casting on it a gorgeous reflection which resembled the irradiations from the scales of a barbaric Visigoth shield.

At first Des Esseintes was enchanted with this effect. Then he reflected that this gigantic jewel was only in outline, that it would not really be complete until it had been incrusted with rare stones.

From a Japanese collection he chose a design representing a cluster of flowers emanating spindle-like, from a slender stalk. Taking it to a jeweler, he sketched a border to enclose this bouquet in an oval frame, and informed the amazed lapidary that every petal and every leaf was to be designed with jewels and mounted on the scales of the tortoise.

The choice of stones made him pause. The diamond has become notoriously common since every tradesman has taken to wearing it on his little finger. The oriental emeralds and rubies are less vulgarized and cast brilliant, rutilant flames, but they remind one of the green and red antennae of certain omnibuses which carry signal lights of these colors. As for topazes, whether sparkling or dim, they are cheap stones, precious only to women of the middle class who like to have jewel cases on their dressing-tables. And then, although the Church has preserved for the amethyst a sacerdotal character which is at once unctuous and solemn, this stone, too, is abused on the blood-red ears and veined hands of butchers' wives who love to adorn themselves inexpensively with real and heavy jewels. Only the sapphire, among all these stones, has kept its fires undefiled by any taint of commercialism. Its sparks, crackling in its limpid, cold depths have in some way protected its shy and proud nobility from pollution. Unfortunately, its fresh fire does not sparkle in artificial light: the blue retreats and seems to fall asleep, only awakening to shine at daybreak.

None of these satisfied Des Esseintes at all. They were too civilized and familiar. He let trickle through his fingers still more astonishing and bizarre stones, and finally selected a number of real and artificial ones which, used together, should produce a fascinating and disconcerting harmony.

This is how he composed his bouquet of flowers: the leaves were set with jewels of a pronounced, distinct green; the chrysoberyls of asparagus green; the chrysolites of leek green; the olivines of olive green. They hung from branches of almandine and _ouwarovite_ of a violet red, darting spangles of a hard brilliance like tartar micas gleaming through forest depths.

For the flowers, separated from the stalk and removed from the bottom of the sheaf, he used blue cinder. But he formally waived that oriental turquoise used for brooches and rings which, like the banal pearl and the odious coral, serves to delight people of no importance. He chose occidental turquoises exclusively, stones which, properly speaking, are only a fossil ivory impregnated with coppery substances whose sea blue is choked, opaque, sulphurous, as though yellowed by bile.

This done, he could now set the petals of his flowers with transparent stones which had morbid and vitreous sparks, feverish and sharp lights.

He composed them entirely with Ceylon snap-dragons, cymophanes and blue chalcedony.

These three stones darted mysterious and perverse scintillations, painfully torn from the frozen depths of their troubled waters.

The snap-dragon of a greenish grey, streaked with concentric veins which seem to stir and change constantly, according to the dispositions of light.

The cymophane, whose azure waves float over the milky tint swimming in its depths.

The blue chalcedony which kindles with bluish phosphorescent fires against a dead brown, chocolate background.

The lapidary made a note of the places where the stones were to be inlaid. "And the border of the shell?" he asked Des Esseintes.

At first he had thought of some opals and hydrophanes; but these stones, interesting for their hesitating colors, for the evasions of their flames, are too refractory and faithless; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness; the play of its rays alters according to the humidity, the warmth or cold; as for the hydrophane, it only burns in water and only consents to kindle its embers when moistened.

He finally decided on minerals whose reflections vary; for the Compostelle hyacinth, mahogany red; the beryl, glaucous green; the balas ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermanian ruby, pale slate. Their feeble sparklings sufficed to light the darkness of the shell and preserved the values of the flowering stones which they encircled with a slender garland of vague fires.

Des Esseintes now watched the tortoise squatting in a corner of the dining room, shining in the shadow.

He was perfectly happy. His eyes gleamed with pleasure at the resplendencies of the flaming corrollae against the gold background. Then, he grew hungry--a thing that rarely if ever happened to him--and dipped his toast, spread with a special butter, in a cup of tea, a flawless blend of Siafayoune, Moyoutann and Khansky--yellow teas which had come from China to Russia by special caravans.

This liquid perfume he drank in those Chinese porcelains called egg-shell, so light and diaphanous they are. And, as an accompaniment to these adorable cups, he used a service of solid silver, slightly gilded; the silver showed faintly under the fatigued layer of gold, which gave it an aged, quite exhausted and moribund tint.

After he had finished his tea, he returned to his study and had the servant carry in the tortoise which stubbornly refused to budge.

The snow was falling. By the lamp light, he saw the icy patterns on the bluish windows, and the hoar-frost, like melted sugar, scintillating in the stumps of bottles spotted with gold.

A deep silence enveloped the cottage drooping in shadow.

Des Esseintes fell into revery. The fireplace piled with logs gave forth a smell of burning wood. He opened the window slightly.

Like a high tapestry of black ermine, the sky rose before him, black flecked with white.

An icy wind swept past, accelerated the crazy flight of the snow, and reversed the color order.

The heraldic tapestry of heaven returned, became a true ermine, a white flecked with black, in its turn, by the specks of darkness dispersed among the flakes.

He closed the window. This abrupt transition from torrid warmth to cold winter affected him. He crouched near the fire and it occurred to him that he needed a cordial to revive his flagging spirits.

He went to the dining room where, built in one of the panels, was a closet containing a number of tiny casks, ranged side by side, and resting on small stands of sandal wood.

This collection of barrels he called his mouth organ.

A stem could connect all the spigots and control them by a single movement, so that once attached, he had only to press a button concealed in the woodwork to turn on all the taps at the same time and fill the mugs placed underneath.

The organ was now open. The stops labelled flute, horn, celestial voice, were pulled out, ready to be placed. Des Esseintes sipped here and there, enjoying the inner symphonies, succeeded in procuring sensations in his throat analogous to those which music gives to the ear.

Moreover, each liquor corresponded, according to his thinking, to the sound of some instrument. Dry curacoa, for example, to the clarinet whose tone is sourish and velvety; _kummel_ to the oboe whose sonorous notes snuffle; mint and anisette to the flute, at once sugary and peppery, puling and sweet; while, to complete the orchestra, _kirschwasser_ has the furious ring of the trumpet; gin and whiskey burn the palate with their strident crashings of trombones and cornets; brandy storms with the deafening hubbub of tubas; while the thunder-claps of the cymbals and the furiously beaten drum roll in the mouth by means of the _rakis de Chio_.

He also thought that the comparison could be continued, that quartets of string instruments could play under the palate, with the violin simulated by old brandy, fumous and fine, piercing and frail; the tenor violin by rum, louder and more sonorous; the cello by the lacerating and lingering ratafia, melancholy and caressing; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and dark as the old bitters. If one wished to form a quintet, one could even add a fifth instrument with the vibrant taste, the silvery detached and shrill note of dry cumin imitating the harp.

The comparison was further prolonged. Tone relationships existed in the music of liquors; to cite but one note, benedictine represents, so to speak, the minor key of that major key of alcohols which are designated in commercial scores, under the name of green Chartreuse.

These principles once admitted, he succeeded, after numerous experiments, in enjoying silent melodies on his tongue, mute funeral marches, in hearing, in his mouth, solos of mint, duos of ratafia and rum.

He was even able to transfer to his palate real pieces of music, following the composer step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his nuances, by combinations or contrasts of liquors, by approximative and skilled mixtures.

At other times, he himself composed melodies, executed pastorals with mild black-currant which evoked, in his throat, the trillings of nightingales; with the tender chouva cocoa which sang saccharine songs like "The romance of Estelle" and the "Ah! Shall I tell you, mama," of past days.

But on this evening Des Esseintes was not inclined to listen to this music. He confined himself to sounding one note on the keyboard of his organ, by swallowing a little glass of genuine Irish whiskey.

He sank into his easy chair and slowly inhaled this fermented juice of oats and barley: a pronounced taste of creosote was in his mouth.

Gradually, as he drank, his thought followed the now revived sensitiveness of his palate, fitted its progress to the flavor of the whiskey, re-awakened, by a fatal exactitude of odors, memories effaced for years.

This carbolic tartness forcibly recalled to him the same taste he had had on his tongue in the days when dentists worked on his gums.

Once abandoned on this track, his revery, at first dispersed among all the dentists he had known, concentrated and converged on one of them who was more firmly engraved in his memory.

It had happened three years ago. Seized, in the middle of the night, with an abominable toothache, he put his hand to his cheek, stumbled against the furniture, pacing up and down the room like a demented person.

It was a molar which had already been filled; no remedy was possible. Only a dentist could alleviate the pain. He feverishly waited for the day, resolved to bear the most atrocious operation provided it would only ease his sufferings.

Holding a hand to his jaw, he asked himself what should be done. The dentists who treated him were rich merchants whom one could not see at any time; one had to make an appointment. He told himself that this would never do, that he could not endure it. He decided to patronize the first one he could find, to hasten to a popular tooth-extractor, one of those iron-fisted men who, if they are ignorant of the useless art of dressing decaying teeth and of filling holes, know how to pull the stubbornest stump with an unequalled rapidity. There, the office is opened early in the morning and one is not required to wait. Seven o'clock struck at last. He hurried out, and recollecting the name of a mechanic who called himself a dentist and dwelt in the corner of a quay, he rushed through the streets, holding his cheek with his hands repressing the tears.

Arrived in front of the house, recognizable by an immense wooden signboard where the name of "Gatonax" sprawled in enormous pumpkin-colored letters, and by two little glass cases where false teeth were carefully set in rose-colored wax, he gasped for breath. He perspired profusely. A horrible fear shook him, a trembling crept under his skin; suddenly a calm ensued, the suffering ceased, the tooth stopped paining.

He remained, stupefied, on the sidewalk; finally, he stiffened against the anguish, mounted the dim stairway, running up four steps at a time to the fourth story. He found himself in front of a door where an enamel plate repeated, inscribed in sky-blue lettering, the name on the signboard. He rang the bell and then, terrified by the great red spittles which he noticed on the steps, he faced about, resolved to endure his toothache all his life. At that moment an excruciating cry pierced the partitions, filled the cage of the doorway and glued him to the spot with horror, at the same time that a door was opened and an old woman invited him to enter.

His feeling of shame quickly changed to fear. He was ushered into a dining room. Another door creaked and in entered a terrible grenadier dressed in a frock-coat and black trousers. Des Esseintes followed him to another room.

From this instant, his sensations were confused. He vaguely remembered having sunk into a chair opposite a window, having murmured, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has already been filled and I am afraid nothing more can be done with it."

The man immediately suppressed these explanations by introducing an enormous index finger into his mouth. Muttering beneath his waxed fang-like moustaches, he took an instrument from the table.

Then the play began. Clinging to the arms of his seat, Des Esseintes felt a cold sensation in his cheek, and began to suffer unheard agonies. Then he beheld stars. He stamped his feet frantically and bleated like a sheep about to be slaughtered.

A snapping sound was heard, the molar had broken while being extracted. It seemed that his head was being shattered, that his skull was being smashed; he lost his senses, howled as loudly as he could, furiously defending himself from the man who rushed at him anew as if he wished to implant his whole arm in the depths of his bowels, brusquely recoiled a step and, lifting the tooth attached to the jaw, brutally let him fall back into the chair. Breathing heavily, his form filling the window, he brandished at one end of his forceps, a blue tooth with blood at one end.

Faint and prostrate, Des Esseintes spat blood into a basin, refused with a gesture, the tooth which the old woman was about to wrap in a piece of paper and fled, after paying two francs. Expectorating blood, in his turn, down the steps, he at length found himself in the street, joyous, feeling ten years younger, interested in every little occurrence.

"Phew!" he exclaimed, saddened by the assault of these memories. He rose to dissipate the horrible spell of this vision and, returning to reality, began to be concerned with the tortoise.

It did not budge at all and he tapped it. The animal was dead. Doubtless accustomed to a sedentary existence, to a humble life spent underneath its poor shell, it had been unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it, the rutilant cope with which it had been covered, the jewels with which its back had been paved, like a pyx.

Chapter 6

With the sharpening of his desire to withdraw from a hated age, he felt a despotic urge to shun pictures representing humanity striving in little holes or running to and fro in quest of money.

With his growing indifference to contemporary life he had resolved not to introduce into his cell any of the ghosts of distastes or regrets, but had desired to procure subtle and exquisite paintings, steeped in ancient dreams or antique corruptions, far removed from the manner of our present day.

For the delight of his spirit and the joy of his eyes, he had desired a few suggestive creations that cast him into an unknown world, revealing to him the contours of new conjectures, agitating the nervous system by the violent deliriums, complicated nightmares, nonchalant or atrocious chimerae they induced.

Among these were some executed by an artist whose genius allured and entranced him: Gustave Moreau.

Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them--a representation of Salome, conceived in this fashion:

A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.

In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.

His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.

Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.

In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salome, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.

Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green.

With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne--a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic.

This conception of Salome, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:

   But when Herod's birthday was kept, the
   daughter of Herodias danced before them, and
   pleased Herod.
   Whereupon he promised with an oath to give
   her whatsoever she would ask.
   And she, being before instructed of her
   mother, said: Give me here John Baptist's
   head in a charger.
   And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for
   the oath's sake, and them which sat with him
   at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
   And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
   And his head was brought in a charger, and
   given to the damsel: and she brought it to
   her mother.

But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher's wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.

In Gustave Moreau's work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes as last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salome of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.

Thus understood, she was associated with the theogonies of the Far East. She no longer sprang from biblical traditions, could no longer even be assimilated with the living image of Babylon, the royal Prostitute of the Apocalypse, garbed like her in jewels and purple, and painted like her; for she was not hurled by a fatidical power, by a supreme force, into the alluring vileness of debauchery.

The painter, moreover, seems to have wished to affirm his desire of remaining outside the centuries, scorning to designate the origin, nation and epoch, by placing his Salome in this extraordinary palace with its confused and imposing style, in clothing her with sumptuous and chimerical robes, in crowning her with a fantastic mitre shaped like a Phoenician tower, such as Salammbo bore, and placing in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the tall lotus, sacred flower of Egypt and India.

Des Esseintes sought the sense of this emblem. Had it that phallic significance which the primitive cults of India gave it? Did it enunciate an oblation of virginity to the senile Herod, an exchange of blood, an impure and voluntary wound, offered under the express stipulation of a monstrous sin? Or did it represent the allegory of fecundity, the Hindoo myth of life, an existence held between the hands of woman, distorted and trampled by the palpitant hands of man whom a fit of madness seizes, seduced by a convulsion of the flesh?

Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the venerated lotus, the painter had dreamed of the dancer, the mortal woman with the polluted Vase, from whom spring all sins and crimes. Perhaps he had recalled the rites of ancient Egypt, the sepulchral ceremonies of the embalming when, after stretching the corpse on a bench of jasper, extracting the brain with curved needles through the chambers of the nose, the chemists and the priests, before gilding the nails and teeth and coating the body with bitumens and essences, inserted the chaste petals of the divine flower in the sexual parts, to purify them.

However this may be, an irresistible fascination emanated from this painting; but the water-color entitled _The Apparition_ was perhaps even more disturbing.

There, the palace of Herod arose like an Alhambra on slender, iridescent columns with moorish tile, joined with silver beton and gold cement. Arabesques proceeded from lozenges of lapis lazuli, wove their patterns on the cupolas where, on nacreous marquetry, crept rainbow gleams and prismatic flames.

The murder was accomplished. The executioner stood impassive, his hands on the hilt of his long, blood-stained sword.

The severed head of the saint stared lividly on the charger resting on the slabs; the mouth was discolored and open, the neck crimson, and tears fell from the eyes. The face was encircled by an aureole worked in mosaic, which shot rays of light under the porticos and illuminated the horrible ascension of the head, brightening the glassy orbs of the contracted eyes which were fixed with a ghastly stare upon the dancer.

With a gesture of terror, Salome thrusts from her the horrible vision which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch.

She is almost nude. In the ardor of the dance, her veils had become loosened. She is garbed only in gold-wrought stuffs and limpid stones; a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet does the body and, like a superb buckle, a marvelous jewel sparkles on the hollow between her breasts. A girdle encircles her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs, against which beats a gigantic pendant streaming with carbuncles and emeralds.

All the facets of the jewels kindle under the ardent shafts of light escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones grow warm, outlining the woman's body with incandescent rays, striking her neck, feet and arms with tongues of fire,--vermilions like coals, violets like jets of gas, blues like flames of alcohol, and whites like star light.

The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salome alone, it does not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and myrrh.

Like the old king, Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, overwhelmed and seized with giddiness, in the presence of this dancer who was less majestic, less haughty but more disquieting than the Salome of the oil painting.

In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror.

It was here that she was indeed Woman, for here she gave rein to her ardent and cruel temperament. She was living, more refined and savage, more execrable and exquisite. She more energetically awakened the dulled senses of man, more surely bewitched and subdued his power of will, with the charm of a tall venereal flower, cultivated in sacrilegious beds, in impious hothouses.

Des Esseintes thought that never before had a water color attained such magnificent coloring; never before had the poverty of colors been able to force jeweled corruscations from paper, gleams like stained glass windows touched by rays of sunlight, splendors of tissue and flesh so fabulous and dazzling. Lost in contemplation, he sought to discover the origins of this great artist and mystic pagan, this visionary who succeeded in removing himself from the world sufficiently to behold, here in Paris, the splendor of these cruel visions and the enchanting sublimation of past ages.

Des Esseintes could not trace the genesis of this artist. Here and there were vague suggestions of Mantegna and of Jacopo de Barbari; here and there were confused hints of Vinci and of the feverish colors of Delacroix. But the influences of such masters remained negligible. The fact was that Gustave Moreau derived from no one else. He remained unique in contemporary art, without ancestors and without possible descendants. He went to ethnographic sources, to the origins of myths, and he compared and elucidated their intricate enigmas. He reunited the legends of the Far East into a whole, the myths which had been altered by the superstitions of other peoples; thus justifying his architectonic fusions, his luxurious and outlandish fabrics, his hieratic and sinister allegories sharpened by the restless perceptions of a pruriently modern neurosis. And he remained saddened, haunted by the symbols of perversities and superhuman loves, of divine stuprations brought to end without abandonment and without hope.

His depressing and erudite productions possessed a strange enchantment, an incantation that stirred one to the depths, just as do certain poems of Baudelaire, caused one to pause disconcerted, amazed, brooding on the spell of an art which leaped beyond the confines of painting, borrowing its most subtle effects from the art of writing, its most marvelous stokes from the art of Limosin, its most exquisite refinements from the art of the lapidary and the engraver. These two pictures of Salome, for which Des Esseintes' admiration was boundless, he had hung on the walls of his study on special panels between the bookshelves, so that they might live under his eyes.

But these were not the only pictures he had acquired to divert his solitude.

Although he had surrendered to his servants the second story of his house, which he himself never used at all, the ground floor had required a number of pictures to fit the walls.

It was thus arranged:

A dressing room, communicating with the bedroom, occupied one of the corners of the house. One passed from the bedroom to the library, and from the library into the dining room, which formed the other corner.

These rooms, whose windows looked out on the Aunay Valley, composed one of the sides of the dwelling.

The other side of the house had four rooms arranged in the same order. Thus, the kitchen formed an angle, and corresponded with the dining room; a long corridor, which served as the entrance, with the library; a small dressing room, with the bedroom; and the toilet, forming a second angle, with the dressing room.

These rooms received the light from the side opposite the Aunay Valley and faced the Towers of Croy and Chatillon.

As for the staircase, it was built outside, against one of the sides of the house, and the footsteps of his servants in ascending or descending thus reached Des Esseintes less distinctly.

The dressing room was tapestried in deep red. On the walls, in ebony frames, hung the prints of Jan Luyken, an old Dutch engraver almost unknown in France.

He possessed of the work of this artist, who was fantastic and melancholy, vehement and wild, the series of his _Religious Persecutions_, horrible prints depicting all the agonies invented by the madness of religions: prints pregnant with human sufferings, showing bodies roasting on fires, skulls slit open with swords, trepaned with nails and gashed with saws, intestines separated from the abdomen and twisted on spools, finger nails slowly extracted with pincers, eyes gouged, limbs dislocated and deliberately broken, and bones bared of flesh and agonizingly scraped by sheets of metal.

These works filled with abominable imaginings, offensive with their odors of burning, oozing with blood and clamorous with cries of horror and maledictions, gave Des Esseintes, who was held fascinated in this red room, the creeping sensations of goose-flesh.

But in addition to the tremblings they occasioned, beyond the terrible skill of this man, the extraordinary life which animates his characters, one discovered, among his astonishing, swarming throngs--among his mobs of people delineated with a dexterity which recalled Callot, but which had a strength never possessed by that amusing dauber--curious reconstructions of bygone ages. The architecture, costumes and customs during the time of the Maccabeans, of Rome under the Christian persecutions, of Spain under the Inquisition, of France during the Middle Ages, at the time of Saint Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were studied with a meticulous care and noted with scientific accuracy.

These prints were veritable treasures of learning. One could gaze at them for hours without experiencing any sense of weariness. Profoundly suggestive in reflections, they assisted Des Esseintes in passing many a day when his books failed to charm him.

Luyken's life, too, fascinated him, by explaining the hallucination of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a stubborn sectarian, unbalanced by prayers and hymns, he wrote religious poetry which he illustrated, paraphrased the psalms in verse, lost himself in the reading of the Bible from which he emerged haggard and frenzied, his brain haunted by monstrous subjects, his mouth twisted by the maledictions of the Reformation and by its songs of terror and hate.

And he scorned the world, surrendering his wealth to the poor and subsisting on a slice of bread. He ended his life in travelling, with an equally fanatical servant, going where chance led his boat, preaching the Gospel far and wide, endeavoring to forego nourishment, and eventually becoming almost demented and violent.

Other bizarre sketches were hung in the larger, adjoining room, as well as in the corridor, both of which had woodwork of red cedar.

There was Bresdin's _Comedy of Death_ in which, in the fantastic landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and tufts of grass resembling phantom, demon forms, teeming with rat-headed, pod-tailed birds, on earth covered with ribs, skulls and bones, gnarled and cracked willows rear their trunks, surmounted by agitated skeletons whose arms beat the air while they intone a song of victory. A Christ speeds across a clouded sky; a hermit in the depths of a cave meditates, holding his head in his hands; one wretch dies, exhausted by long privation and enfeebled by hunger, lying on his back, his legs outstretched in front of a pond.

The _Good Samaritan_, by the same artist, is a large engraving on stone: an incongruous medley of palms, sorbs and oaks grown together, heedless of seasons and climates, peopled with monkeys and owls, covered with old stumps as misshapen as the roots of the mandrake; then a magical forest, cut in the center near a glade through which a stream can be seen far away, behind a camel and the Samaritan group; then an elfin town appearing on the horizon of an exotic sky dotted with birds and covered with masses of fleecy clouds.

It could be called the design of an uncertain, primitive Durer with an opium-steeped brain. But although he liked the finesse of the detail and the imposing appearance of this print, Des Esseintes had a special weakness for the other frames adorning the room.

They were signed: Odilon Redon.

They enclosed inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped pear-tree wood. A head of a Merovingian style, resting against a bowl, a bearded man, at once resembling a Buddhist priest and an orator at a public reunion, touching the ball of a gigantic cannon with his fingers; a frightful spider revealing a human face in its body. The charcoal drawings went even farther into dream terrors. Here, an enormous die in which a sad eye winked; there, dry and arid landscapes, dusty plains, shifting ground, volcanic upheavals catching rebellious clouds, stagnant and livid skies. Sometimes the subjects even seemed to have borrowed from the cacodemons of science, reverting to prehistoric times. A monstrous plant on the rocks, queer blocks everywhere, glacial mud, figures whose simian shapes, heavy jaws, beetling eyebrows, retreating foreheads and flat skulls, recalled the ancestral heads of the first quaternary periods, when inarticulate man still devoured fruits and seeds, and was still contemporaneous with the mammoth, the rhinoceros and the big bear. These designs were beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.

And, indeed, certain of these faces, with their monstrous, insane eyes, certain of these swollen, deformed bodies resembling carafes, induced in Des Esseintes recollections of typhoid, memories of feverish nights and of the shocking visions of his infancy which persisted and would not be suppressed.

Seized with an indefinable uneasiness in the presence of these sketches, the same sensation caused by certain _Proverbs_ of Goya which they recalled, or by the reading of Edgar Allen Poe's tales, whose mirages of hallucination and effects of fear Odilon Redon seemed to have transposed to a different art, he rubbed his eyes and turned to contemplate a radiant figure which, amid these tormenting sketches, arose serene and calm--a figure of Melancholy seated near the disk of a sun, on the rocks, in a dejected and gloomy posture.

The shadows were dispersed as though by an enchantment. A charming sadness, a languid and desolate feeling flowed through him. He meditated long before this work which, with its dashes of paint flecking the thick crayon, spread a brilliance of sea-green and of pale gold among the protracted darkness of the charcoal prints.

In addition to this series of the works of Redon which adorned nearly every panel of the passage, he had hung a disturbing sketch by El Greco in his bedroom. It was a Christ done in strange tints, in a strained design, possessing a wild color and a disordered energy: a picture executed in the painter's second manner when he had been tormented by the necessity of avoiding imitation of Titian.

This sinister painting, with its wax and sickly green tones, bore an affinity to certain ideas Des Esseintes had with regard to furnishing a room.

According to him, there were but two ways of fitting a bedroom. One could either make it a sense-stimulating alcove, a place for nocturnal delights, or a cell for solitude and repose, a retreat for thought, a sort of oratory.

For the first instance, the Louis XV style was inevitable for the fastidious, for the cerebrally morbid. Only the eighteenth century had succeeded in enveloping woman with a vicious atmosphere, imitating her contours in the undulations and twistings of wood and copper, accentuating the sugary languor of the blond with its clear and lively _decors_, attenuating the pungency of the brunette with its tapestries of aqueous, sweet, almost insipid tones.

He had once had such a room in Paris, with a lofty, white, lacquered bed which is one stimulant the more, a source of depravity to old roues, leering at the false chastity and hypocritical modesty of Greuze's tender virgins, at the deceptive candor of a bed evocative of babes and chaste maidens.

For the second instance,--and now that he wished to put behind him the irritating memories of his past life, this was the only possible expedient--he was compelled to design a room that would be like a monastic cell. But difficulties faced him here, for he refused to accept in its entirety the austere ugliness of those asylums of penitence and prayer.

By dint of studying the problem in all its phases, he concluded that the end to be attained could thus be stated: to devise a sombre effect by means of cheerful objects, or rather to give a tone of elegance and distinction to the room thus treated, meanwhile preserving its character of ugliness; to reverse the practice of the theatre, whose vile tinsel imitates sumptuous and costly textures; to obtain the contrary effect by use of splendid fabrics; in a word, to have the cell of a Carthusian monk which should possess the appearance of reality without in fact being so.

Thus he proceeded. To imitate the stone-color of ochre and clerical yellow, he had his walls covered with saffron silk; to stimulate the chocolate hue of the dadoes common to this type of room, he used pieces of violet wood deepened with amarinth. The effect was bewitching, while recalling to Des Esseintes the repellant rigidity of the model he had followed and yet transformed. The ceiling, in turn, was hung with white, unbleached cloth, in imitation of plaster, but without its discordant brightness. As for the cold pavement of the cell, he was able to copy it, by means of a bit of rug designed in red squares, with whitish spots in the weave to imitate the wear of sandals and the friction of boots.

Into this chamber he introduced a small iron bed, the kind used by monks, fashioned of antique, forged and polished iron, the head and foot adorned with thick filigrees of blossoming tulips enlaced with vine branches and leaves. Once this had been part of a balustrade of an old hostel's superb staircase.

For his table, he installed an antique praying-desk the inside of which could contain an urn and the outside a prayer book. Against the wall, opposite it, he placed a church pew surmounted by a tall dais with little benches carved out of solid wood. His church tapers were made of real wax, procured from a special house which catered exclusively to houses of worship, for Des Esseintes professed a sincere repugnance to gas, oil and ordinary candles, to all modern forms of illumination, so gaudy and brutal.

Before going to sleep in the morning, he would gaze, with his head on the pillows, at his El Greco whose barbaric color rebuked the smiling, yellow material and recalled it to a more serious tone. Then he could easily imagine himself living a hundred leagues removed from Paris, far from society, in cloistral security.

And, all in all, the illusion was not difficult, since he led an existence that approached the life of a monk. Thus he had the advantages of monasticism without the inconveniences of its vigorous discipline, its lack of service, its dirt, its promiscuity and its monotonous idleness. Just as he had transformed his cell into a comfortable chamber, so had he made his life normal, pleasant, surrounded by comforts, occupied and free.

Like a hermit he was ripe for isolation, since life harassed him and he no longer desired anything of it. Again like a monk, he was depressed and in the grip of an obsessing lassitude, seized with the need of self-communion and with a desire to have nothing in common with the profane who were, for him, the utilitarian and the imbecile.

Although he experienced no inclination for the state of grace, he felt a genuine sympathy for those souls immured in monasteries, persecuted by a vengeful society which can forgive neither the merited scorn with which it inspires them, nor the desire to expiate, to atone by long silences, for the ever growing shamelessness of its ridiculous or trifling gossipings.

Chapter 7

Ever since the night when he had evoked, for no apparent reason, a whole train of melancholy memories, pictures of his past life returned to Des Esseintes and gave him no peace.

He found himself unable to understand a single word of the books he read. He could not even receive impressions through his eyes. It seemed to him that his mind, saturated with literature and art, refused to absorb any more.

He lived within himself, nourished by his own substance, like some torpid creature which hibernates in caves. Solitude had reacted upon his brain like a narcotic. After having strained and enervated it, his mind had fallen victim to a sluggishness which annihilated his plans, broke his will power and invoked a cortege of vague reveries to which he passively submitted.

The confused medley of meditations on art and literature in which he had indulged since his isolation, as a dam to bar the current of old memories, had been rudely swept away, and the onrushing, irresistible wave crashed into the present and future, submerging everything beneath the blanket of the past, filling his mind with an immensity of sorrow, on whose surface floated, like futile wreckage, absurd trifles and dull episodes of his life.

The book he held in his hands fell to his knees. He abandoned himself to the mood which dominated him, watching the dead years of his life filled with so many disgusts and fears, move past. What a life he had lived! He thought of the evenings spent in society, the horse races, card parties, love affairs ordered in advance and served at the stroke of midnight, in his rose-colored boudoir! He recalled faces, expressions, vain words which obsessed him with the stubbornness of popular melodies which one cannot help humming, but which suddenly and inexplicably end by boring one.

This phase had not lasted long. His memory gave him respite and he plunged again into his Latin studies, so as to efface the impressions of such recollections.

But almost instantly the rushing force of his memories swept him into a second phase, that of his childhood, especially of the years spent at the school of the Fathers.

Although more remote, they were more positive and more indelibly stamped on his brain. The leafy park, the long walks, the flower beds, the benches--all the actual details of the monastery rose before him, here in his room.

The gardens filled and he heard the ringing cries of the students, mingling with the laughter of the professors as they played tennis, with their cassocks tucked up between their knees, or perhaps chatted under the trees with the youngsters, without any posturing or hauteur, as though they were companions of the same age.

He recalled the easy yoke of the monks who declined to administer punishment by inflicting the committment of five hundred or a thousand lines while the others were at play, being satisfied with making those delinquents prepare the lesson that had not been mastered, and most often simply having recourse to a gentle admonition. They surrounded the children with an active but gentle watch, seeking to please them, consenting to whatever expeditions they wished to take on Tuesdays, taking the occasion of every minor holiday not formally observed by the Church to add cakes and wine to the ordinary fare, and to entertain them with picnics. It was a paternal discipline whose success lay in the fact that they did not seek to domineer over the pupils, that they gossiped with them, treating them as men while showering them with the attentions paid a spoiled child.

In this manner, the monks succeeded in assuming a real influence over the youngsters; in molding, to some extent, the minds which they were cultivating; in directing them, in a sense; in instilling special ideas; in assuring the growth of their thoughts by insinuating, wheedling methods with which they continued to flatter them throughout their careers, taking pains not to lose sight of them in their later life, and by sending them affectionate letters like those which the Dominican Lacordaire so skillfully wrote to his former pupils of Sorreze.

Des Esseintes took note of this system which had been so fruitlessly expended on him. His stubborn, captious and inquisitive character, disposed to controversies, had prevented him from being modelled by their discipline or subdued by their lessons. His scepticism had increased after he left the precincts of the college. His association with a legitimist, intolerant and shallow society, his conversations with unintelligent church wardens and abbots, whose blunders tore away the veil so subtly woven by the Jesuits, had still more fortified his spirit of independence and increased his scorn for any faith whatever.

He had deemed himself free of all bonds and constraints. Unlike most graduates of _lycees_ or private schools, he had preserved a vivid memory of his college and of his masters. And now, as he considered these matters, he asked himself if the seeds sown until now on barren soil were not beginning to take root.

For several days, in fact, his soul had been strangely perturbed. At moments, he felt himself veering towards religion. Then, at the slightest approach of reason, his faith would dissolve. Yet he remained deeply troubled.

Analyzing himself, he was well aware that he would never possess a truly Christian spirit of humility and penitence. He knew without a doubt that he would never experience that moment of grace mentioned by Lacordaire, "when the last shaft of light penetrates the soul and unites the truths there lying dispersed." He never felt the need of mortification and of prayer, without which no conversion in possible, if one is to believe the majority of priests. He had no desire to implore a God whose forgiveness seemed most improbable. Yet the sympathy he felt for his old teachers lent him an interest in their works and doctrines. Those inimitable accents of conviction, those ardent voices of men of indubitably superior intelligence returned to him and led him to doubt his own mind and strength. Amid the solitude in which he lived, without new nourishment, without any fresh experiences, without any renovation of thought, without that exchange of sensations common to society, in this unnatural confinement in which he persisted, all the questionings forgotten during his stay in Paris were revived as active irritants. The reading of his beloved Latin works, almost all of them written by bishops and monks, had doubtless contributed to this crisis. Enveloped in a convent-like atmosphere, in a heady perfume of incense, his nervous brain had grown excitable. And by an association of ideas, these books had driven back the memories of his life as a young man, revealing in full light the years spent with the Fathers.

"There is no doubt about it," Des Esseintes mused, as he reasoned the matter and followed the progress of this introduction of the Jesuitic spirit into Fontenay. "Since my childhood, although unaware of it, I have had this leaven which has never fermented. The weakness I have always borne for religious subjects is perhaps a positive proof of it." But he sought to persuade himself to the contrary, disturbed at no longer being his own master. He searched for motives; it had required a struggle for him to abandon things sacerdotal, since the Church alone had treasured objects of art--the lost forms of past ages. Even in its wretched modern reproductions, she had preserved the contours of the gold and silver ornaments, the charm of chalices curving like petunias, and the charm of pyxes with their chaste sides; even in aluminum and imitation enamels and colored glasses, she had preserved the grace of vanished modes. In short, most of the precious objects now to be found in the Cluny museum, which have miraculously escaped the crude barbarism of the philistines, come from the ancient French abbeys. And just as the Church had preserved philosophy and history and letters from barbarism in the Middle Ages, so had she saved the plastic arts, bringing to our own days those marvelous fabrics and jewelries which the makers of sacred objects spoil to the best of their ability, without being able to destroy the originally exquisite form. It followed, then, that there was nothing surprising in his having bought these old trinkets, in his having, together with a number of other collectors, purchased such relics from the antique shops of Paris and the second-hand dealers of the provinces.

But these reasons he evoked in vain. He did not wholly succeed in convincing himself. He persisted in considering religion as a superb legend, a magnificent imposture. Yet, despite his convictions, his scepticism began to be shattered.

This was the singular fact he was obliged to face: he was less confident now than in childhood, when he had been directly under the influence of the Jesuits, when their instruction could not be shunned, when he was in their hands and belonged to them body and soul, without family ties, with no outside influence powerful enough to counteract their precepts. Moreover, they had inculcated in him a certain tendency towards the marvelous which, interned and exercised in the close quarters of his fixed ideas, had slowly and obscurely developed in his soul, until today it was blossoming in his solitude, affecting his spirit, regardless of arguments.

By examining the process of his reasoning, by seeking to unite its threads and to discover its sources and causes, he concluded that his previous mode of living was derived from the education he had received. Thus, his tendencies towards artificiality and his craving for eccentricity, were no more than the results of specious studies, spiritual refinements and quasi-theological speculations. They were, in the last analysis, ecstacies, aspirations towards an ideal, towards an unknown universe as desirable as that promised us by the Holy Scriptures.

He curbed his thoughts sharply and broke the thread of his reflections.

"Well!" he thought, vexed, "I am even more affected than I had imagined. Here am I arguing with myself like a very casuist!"

He was left pensive, agitated by a vague fear. Certainly, if Lacordaire's theory were sound, he had nothing to be afraid of, since the magic touch of conversion is not to be consummated in a moment. To bring about the explosion, the ground must be constantly and assiduously mined. But just as the romancers speak of the thunderclap of love, so do theologians also speak of the thunderclap of conversion. No one was safe, should one admit the truth of this doctrine. There was no longer any need of self-analysis, of paying heed to presentiments, of taking preventive measures. The psychology of mysticism was void. Things were so because they were so, and that was all.

"I am really becoming stupid," thought Des Esseintes. "The very fear of this malady will end by bringing it on, if this continues."

He partially succeeded in shaking off this influence. The memories of his life with the Jesuits waned, only to be replaced by other thoughts. He was entirely dominated by morbid abstractions. Despite himself, he thought of the contradictory interpretations of the dogmas, of the lost apostasies of Father Labbe, recorded in the works on the Decrees. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies which for centuries had divided the Churches of the Orient and the Occident, returned to him.

Here, Nestorius denied the title of "Mother of God" to the Virgin because, in the mystery of the Incarnation, it was not God but rather a human being she had nourished in her womb; there, Eutyches declared that Christ's image could not resemble that of other men, since divinity had chosen to dwell in his body and had consequently entirely altered the form of everything. Other quibblers maintained that the Redeemer had had no body at all and that this expression of the holy books must be taken figuratively, while Tertullian put forth his famous, semi-materialistic axiom: "Only that which is not, has no body; everything which is, has a body fitting it." Finally, this ancient question, debated for years, demanded an answer: was Christ hanged on the cross, or was it the Trinity which had suffered as one in its triple hypostasis, on the cross at Calvary? And mechanically, like a lesson long ago learned, he proposed the questions to himself and answered them.

For several days his brain was a swarm of paradoxes, subtleties and hair-splittings, a skein of rules as complicated as the articles of the codes that involved the sense of everything, indulged in puns and ended in a most tenuous and singular celestial jurisprudence. The abstract side vanished, in its turn, and under the influence of the Gustave Moreau paintings of the wall, yielded to a concrete succession of pictures.

Before him he saw marching a procession of prelates. The archimandrites and patriarchs, their white beards waving during the reading of the prayers, lifted golden arms to bless kneeling throngs. He saw silent files of penitents marching into dim crypts. Before him rose vast cathedrals where white monks intoned from pulpits. Just as De Quincey, having taken a dose of opium and uttered the word "Consul Romanus," evoked entire pages of Livius, and beheld the solemn advance of the consuls and the magnificent, pompous march of the Roman armies, so he, at a theological expression, paused breathless as he viewed the onrush of penitents and the churchly apparitions which detached themselves from the glowing depths of the basilica. These scenes held him enchanted. They moved from age to age, culminating in the modern religious ceremonies, bathing his soul in a tender, mournful infinity of music.

On this plane, no reasonings were necessary; there were no further contests to be endured. He had an indescribable impression of respect and fear. His artistic sense was conquered by the skillfully calculated Catholic rituals. His nerves quivered at these memories. Then, in sudden rebellion, in a sudden reversion, monstrous ideas were born in him, fancies concerning those sacrileges warned against by the manual of the Father confessors, of the scandalous, impure desecration of holy water and sacred oil. The Demon, a powerful rival, now stood against an omnipotent God. A frightful grandeur seemed to Des Esseintes to emanate from a crime committed in church by a believer bent, with blasphemously horrible glee and sadistic joy, over such revered objects, covering them with outrages and saturating them in opprobrium.

Before him were conjured up the madnesses of magic, of the black mass, of the witches' revels, of terrors of possessions and of exorcisms. He reached the point where he wondered if he were not committing a sacrilege in possessing objects which had once been consecrated: the Church canons, chasubles and pyx covers. And this idea of a state of sin imparted to him a mixed sensation of pride and relief. The pleasures of sacrilege were unravelled from the skein of this idea, but these were debatable sacrileges, in any case, and hardly serious, since he really loved these objects and did not pollute them by misuse. In this wise he lulled himself with prudent and cowardly thoughts, the caution of his soul forbidding obvious crimes and depriving him of the courage necessary to the consummation of frightful and deliberate sins.

Little by little this tendency to ineffectual quibbling disappeared. In his mind's eye he saw the panorama of the Church with its hereditary influence on humanity through the centuries. He imagined it as imposing and suffering, emphasizing to man the horror of life, the infelicity of man's destiny; preaching patience, penitence and the spirit of sacrifice; seeking to heal wounds, while it displayed the bleeding wounds of Christ; bespeaking divine privileges; promising the richest part of paradise to the afflicted; exhorting humanity to suffer and to render to God, like a holocaust, its trials and offenses, its vicissitudes and pains. Thus the Church grew truly eloquent, the beneficent mother of the oppressed, the eternal menace of oppressors and despots.

Here, Des Esseintes was on firm ground. He was thoroughly satisfied with this admission of social ordure, but he revolted against the vague hope of remedy in the beyond. Schopenhauer was more true. His doctrine and that of the Church started from common premises. He, too, based his system on the vileness of the world; he, too, like the author of the _Imitation of Christ_, uttered that grievous outcry: "Truly life on earth is wretched." He, also, preached the nothingness of life, the advantages of solitude, and warned humanity that no matter what it does, in whatever direction it may turn, it must remain wretched, the poor by reason of the sufferings entailed by want, the rich by reason of the unconquerable weariness engendered by abundance; but this philosophy promised no universal remedies, did not entice one with false hopes, so as to minimize the inevitable evils of life.

He did not affirm the revolting conception of original sin, nor did he feel inclined to argue that it is a beneficent God who protects the worthless and wicked, rains misfortunes on children, stultifies the aged and afflicts the innocent. He did not exalt the virtues of a Providence which has invented that useless, incomprehensible, unjust and senseless abomination, physical suffering. Far from seeking to justify, as does the Church, the necessity of torments and afflictions, he cried, in his outraged pity: "If a God has made this world, I should not wish to be that God. The world's wretchedness would rend my heart."

Ah! Schopenhauer alone was right. Compared with these treatises of spiritual hygiene, of what avail were the evangelical pharmacopoeias? He did not claim to cure anything, and he offered no alleviation to the sick. But his theory of pessimism was, in the end, the great consoler of choice intellects and lofty souls. He revealed society as it is, asserted woman's inherent stupidity, indicated the safest course, preserved you from disillusionment by warning you to restrain hopes as much as possible, to refuse to yield to their allurement, to deem yourself fortunate, finally, if they did not come toppling about your ears at some unexpected moment.

Traversing the same path as the _Imitation_, this theory, too, ended in similar highways of resignation and indifference, but without going astray in mysterious labyrinths and remote roads.

But if this resignation, which was obviously the only outcome of the deplorable condition of things and their irremediability, was open to the spiritually rich, it was all the more difficult of approach to the poor whose passions and cravings were more easily satisfied by the benefits of religion.

These reflections relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden. The aphorisms of the great German calmed his excited thoughts, and the points of contact in these two doctrines helped him to correlate them; and he could never forget that poignant and poetic Catholicism in which he had bathed, and whose essence he had long ago absorbed.

These reversions to religion, these intimations of faith tormented him particularly since the changes that had lately taken place in his health. Their progress coincided with that of his recent nervous disorders.

He had been tortured since his youth by inexplicable aversions, by shudderings which chilled his spine and made him grit his teeth, as, for example, when he saw a girl wringing wet linen. These reactions had long persisted. Even now he suffered poignantly when he heard the tearing of cloth, the rubbing of a finger against a piece of chalk, or a hand touching a bit of moire.

The excesses of his youthful life, the exaggerated tension of his mind had strangely aggravated his earliest nervous disorder, and had thinned the already impoverished blood of his race. In Paris, he had been compelled to submit to hydrotherapic treatments for his trembling fingers, frightful pains, neuralgic strokes which cut his face in two, drummed maddeningly against his temples, pricked his eyelids agonizingly and induced a nausea which could be dispelled only by lying flat on his back in the dark.

These afflictions had gradually disappeared, thanks to a more regulated and sane mode of living. They now returned in another form, attacking his whole body. The pains left his head, but affected his inflated stomach. His entrails seemed pierced by hot bars of iron. A nervous cough racked him at regular intervals, awakening and almost strangling him in his bed. Then his appetite forsook him; gaseous, hot acids and dry heats coursed through his stomach. He grew swollen, was choked for breath, and could not endure his clothes after each attempt at eating.

He shunned alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea, and drank only milk. And he took recourse to baths of cold water and dosed himself with assafoetida, valerian and quinine. He even felt a desire to go out, and strolled about the country when the rainy days came to make it desolate and still. He obliged himself to take exercise. As a last resort, he temporarily abandoned his books and, corroded with ennui, determined to make his listless life tolerable by realizing a project he had long deferred through laziness and a dislike of change, since his installment at Fontenay.

Being no longer able to intoxicate himself with the felicities of style, with the delicious witchery of the rare epithet which, while remaining precise, yet opens to the imagination of the initiate infinite and distant vistas, he determined to give the finishing touches to the decorations of his home. He would procure precious hot-house flowers and thus permit himself a material occupation which might distract him, calm his nerves and rest his brain. He also hoped that the sight of their strange and splendid nuances would in some degree atone for the fanciful and genuine colors of style which he was for the time to lose from his literary diet.

Chapter 8

He had always been passionately fond of flowers, but during his residence at Jutigny, that love had been lavished upon flowers of all sorts; he had never cultivated distinctions and discriminations in regard to them. Now his taste in this direction had grown refined and self-conscious.

For a long time he had scorned the popular plants which grow in flat baskets, in watered pots, under green awnings or under the red parasols of Parisian markets.

Simultaneous with the refinement of his literary taste and his preoccupations with art, which permitted him to be content only in the presence of choice creations, distilled by subtly troubled brains, and simultaneous with the weariness he began to feel in the presence of popular ideas, his love for flowers had grown purged of all impurities and lees, and had become clarified.

He compared a florist's shop to a microcosm wherein all the categories of society are represented. Here are poor common flowers, the kind found in hovels, which are truly at home only when resting on ledges of garret windows, their roots thrust into milk bottles and old pans, like the gilly-flower for example.

And one also finds stupid and pretentious flowers like the rose which belongs in the porcelain flowerpots painted by young girls.

Then, there are flowers of noble lineage like the orchid, so delicate and charming, at once cold and palpitating, exotic flowers exiled in the heated glass palaces of Paris, princesses of the vegetable kingdom living in solitude, having absolutely nothing in common with the street plants and other bourgeois flora.

He permitted himself to feel a certain interest and pity only for the popular flowers enfeebled by their nearness to the odors of sinks and drains in the poor quarters. In revenge he detested the bouquets harmonizing with the cream and gold rooms of pretentious houses. For the joy of his eyes he reserved those distinguished, rare blooms which had been brought from distant lands and whose lives were sustained by artful devices under artificial equators.

But this very choice, this predilection for the conservatory plants had itself changed under the influence of his mode of thought. Formerly, during his Parisian days, his love for artificiality had led him to abandon real flowers and to use in their place replicas faithfully executed by means of the miracles performed with India rubber and wire, calico and taffeta, paper and silk. He was the possessor of a marvelous collection of tropical plants, the result of the labors of skilful artists who knew how to follow nature and recreate her step by step, taking the flower as a bud, leading it to its full development, even imitating its decline, reaching such a point of perfection as to convey every nuance--the most fugitive expressions of the flower when it opens at dawn and closes at evening, observing the appearance of the petals curled by the wind or rumpled by the rain, applying dew drops of gum on its matutinal corollas; shaping it in full bloom, when the branches bend under the burden of their sap, or showing the dried stem and shrivelled cupules, when calyxes are thrown off and leaves fall to the ground.

This wonderful art had held him entranced for a long while, but now he was dreaming of another experiment.

He wished to go one step beyond. Instead of artificial flowers imitating real flowers, natural flowers should mimic the artificial ones.

He directed his ideas to this end and had not to seek long or go far, since his house lay in the very heart of a famous horticultural region. He visited the conservatories of the Avenue de Chatillon and of the Aunay valley, and returned exhausted, his purse empty, astonished at the strange forms of vegetation he had seen, thinking of nothing but the species he had acquired and continually haunted by memories of magnificent and fantastic plants.

The flowers came several days later.

Des Esseintes holding a list in his hands, verified each one of his purchases. The gardeners from their wagons brought a collection of caladiums which sustained enormous heartshaped leaves on turgid hairy stalks; while preserving an air of relationship with its neighbor, no one leaf repeated the same pattern.

Others were equally extraordinary. The roses like the _Virginale_ seemed cut out of varnished cloth or oil-silks; the white ones, like the _Albano_, appeared to have been cut out of an ox's transparent pleura, or the diaphanous bladder of a pig. Some, particularly the _Madame Mame_, imitated zinc and parodied pieces of stamped metal having a hue of emperor green, stained by drops of oil paint and by spots of white and red lead; others like the _Bosphorous_, gave the illusion of a starched calico in crimson and myrtle green; still others, like the _Aurora Borealis_, displayed leaves having the color of raw meat, streaked with purple sides, violet fibrils, tumefied leaves from which oozed blue wine and blood.

The _Albano_ and the _Aurora_ sounded the two extreme notes of temperament, the apoplexy and chlorosis of this plant.

The gardeners brought still other varieties which had the appearance of artificial skin ridged with false veins, and most of them looked as though consumed by syphilis and leprosy, for they exhibited livid surfaces of flesh veined with scarlet rash and damasked with eruptions. Some had the deep red hue of scars that have just closed or the dark tint of incipient scabs. Others were marked with matter raised by scaldings. There were forms which exhibited shaggy skins hollowed by ulcers and relieved by cankers. And a few appeared embossed with wounds, covered with black mercurial hog lard, with green unguents of belladonna smeared with grains of dust and the yellow micas of iodoforme.

Collected in his home, these flowers seemed to Des Esseintes more monstrous than when he had beheld them, confused with others among the glass rooms of the conservatory.

"_Sapristi!_" he exclaimed enthusiastically.

A new plant, modelled like the Caladiums, the _Alocasia Metallica_, excited him even more. It was coated with a layer of bronze green on which glanced silver reflections. It was the masterpiece of artificiality. It could be called a piece of stove pipe, cut by a chimney-maker into the form of a pike head.

The men next brought clusters of leaves, lozenge-like in shape and bottle-green in color. In the center rose a rod at whose end a varnished ace of hearts swayed. As though meaning to defy all conceivable forms of plants, a fleshy stalk climbed through the heart of this intense vermilion ace--a stalk that in some specimens was straight, in others showed ringlets like a pig's tail.

It was the _Anthurium_, an aroid recently imported into France from Columbia; a variety of that family to which also belonged an _Amorphophallus_, a Cochin China plant with leaves shaped like fish-knives, with long dark stems seamed with gashes, like lambs flecked with black.

Des Esseintes exulted.

They brought a new batch of monstrosities from the wagon: _Echinopses_, issuing from padded compresses with rose-colored flowers that looked like the pitiful stumps; gaping _Nidularia_ revealing skinless foundations in steel plates; _Tillandsia Lindeni_, the color of wine must, with jagged scrapers; _Cypripedia_, with complicated contours, a crazy piece of work seemingly designed by a crazy inventor. They looked like sabots or like a lady's work-table on which lies a human tongue with taut filaments, such as one sees designed on the illustrated pages of works treating of the diseases of the throat and mouth; two little side-pieces, of a red jujube color, which appeared to have been borrowed from a child's toy mill completed this singular collection of a tongue's underside with the color of slate and wine lees, and of a glossy pocket from whose lining oozed a viscous glue.

He could not remove his eyes from this unnatural orchid which had been brought from India. Then the gardeners, impatient at his procrastinations, themselves began to read the labels fastened to the pots they were carrying in.

Bewildered, Des Esseintes looked on and listened to the cacophonous sounds of the names: the _Encephalartos horridus_, a gigantic iron rust-colored artichoke, like those put on portals of chateaux to foil wall climbers; the _Cocos Micania_, a sort of notched and slender palm surrounded by tall leaves resembling paddles and oars; the _Zamia Lehmanni_, an immense pineapple, a wondrous Chester leaf, planted in sweet-heather soil, its top bristling with barbed javelins and jagged arrows; the _Cibotium Spectabile_, surpassing the others by the craziness of its structure, hurling a defiance to revery, as it darted, through the palmated foliage, an enormous orang-outang tail, a hairy dark tail whose end was twisted into the shape of a bishop's cross.

But he gave little heed, for he was impatiently awaiting the series of plants which most bewitched him, the vegetable ghouls, the carnivorous plants; the Antilles Fly-Trap, with its shaggy border, secreting a digestive liquid, armed with crooked prickles coiling around each other, forming a grating about the imprisoned insect; the Drosera of the peat-bogs, provided with glandular hair; the Sarracena and the Cephalothus, opening greedy horns capable of digesting and absorbing real meat; lastly, the Nepenthes, whose capricious appearance transcends all limits of eccentric forms.

He never wearied of turning in his hands the pot in which this floral extravagance stirred. It imitated the gum-tree whose long leaf of dark metallic green it possessed, but it differed in that a green string hung from the end of its leaf, an umbilic cord supporting a greenish urn, streaked with jasper, a sort of German porcelain pipe, a strange bird's nest which tranquilly swung about, revealing an interior covered with hair.

"This is really something worth while," Des Esseintes murmured.

He was forced to tear himself away, for the gardeners, anxious to leave, were emptying the wagons of their contents and depositing, without any semblance of order, the tuberous _Begonias_ and black _Crotons_ stained like sheet iron with Saturn red.

Then he perceived that one name still remained on his list. It was the _Cattleya_ of New Granada. On it was designed a little winged bell of a faded lilac, an almost dead mauve. He approached, placed his nose above the plant and quickly recoiled. It exhaled an odor of toy boxes of painted pine; it recalled the horrors of a New Year's Day.

He felt that he would do well to mistrust it and he almost regretted having admitted, among the scentless plants, this orchid which evoked the most disagreeable memories.

As soon as he was alone his gaze took in this vegetable tide which foamed in the vestibule. Intermingled with each other, they crossed their swords, their krisses and stanchions, taking on a resemblance to a green pile of arms, above which, like barbaric penons, floated flowers with hard dazzling colors.

The air of the room grew rarefied. Then, in the shadowy dimness of a corner, near the floor, a white soft light crept.

He approached and perceived that the phenomenon came from the _Rhizomorphes_ which threw out these night-lamp gleams while respiring.

"These plants are amazing," he reflected. Then he drew back to let his eye encompass the whole collection at a glance. His purpose was achieved. Not one single specimen seemed real; the cloth, paper, porcelain and metal seemed to have been loaned by man to nature to enable her to create her monstrosities. When unable to imitate man's handiwork, nature had been reduced to copying the inner membranes of animals, to borrowing the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, their magnificent corruptions.

"All is syphilis," thought Des Esseintes, his eye riveted upon the horrible streaked stainings of the Caladium plants caressed by a ray of light. And he beheld a sudden vision of humanity consumed through the centuries by the virus of this disease. Since the world's beginnings, every single creature had, from sire to son, transmitted the imperishable heritage, the eternal malady which has ravaged man's ancestors and whose effects are visible even in the bones of old fossils that have been exhumed.

The disease had swept on through the centuries gaining momentum. It even raged today, concealed in obscure sufferings, dissimulated under symptoms of headaches and bronchitis, hysterics and gout. It crept to the surface from time to time, preferably attacking the ill-nourished and the poverty stricken, spotting faces with gold pieces, ironically decorating the faces of poor wretches, stamping the mark of money on their skins to aggravate their unhappiness.

And here on the colored leaves of the plants it was resurgent in its original splendor.

"It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, returning to the course of reasoning he had momentarily abandoned, "it is true that most often nature, left alone, is incapable of begetting such perverse and sickly specimens. She furnishes the original substance, the germ and the earth, the nourishing womb and the elements of the plant which man then sets up, models, paints, and sculpts as he wills. Limited, stubborn and formless though she be, nature has at last been subjected and her master has succeeded in changing, through chemical reaction, the earth's substances, in using combinations which had been long matured, cross-fertilization processes long prepared, in making use of slips and graftings, and man now forces differently colored flowers in the same species, invests new tones for her, modifies to his will the long-standing form of her plants, polishes the rough clods, puts an end to the period of botch work, places his stamp on them, imposes on them the mark of his own unique art."

"It cannot be gainsaid," he thought, resuming his reflections, "that man in several years is able to effect a selection which slothful nature can produce only after centuries. Decidedly the horticulturists are the real artists nowadays."

He was a little tired and he felt stifled in this atmosphere of crowded plants. The promenades he had taken during the last few days had exhausted him. The transition had been too sudden from the tepid atmosphere of his room to the out-of-doors, from the placid tranquillity of a reclusive life to an active one. He left the vestibule and stretched out on his bed to rest, but, absorbed by this new fancy of his, his mind, even in his sleep, could not lessen its tension and he was soon wandering among the gloomy insanities of a nightmare.

He found himself in the center of a walk, in the heart of the wood; twilight had fallen. He was strolling by the side of a woman whom he had never seen before. She was emaciated and had flaxen hair, a bulldog face, freckles on her cheeks, crooked teeth projecting under a flat nose. She wore a nurse's white apron, a long neckerchief, torn in strips on her bosom; half-shoes like those worn by Prussian soldiers and a black bonnet adorned with frillings and trimmed with a rosette.

There was a foreign look about her, like that of a mountebank at a fair.

He asked himself who the woman could be; he felt that she had long been an intimate part of his life; vainly he sought her origin, her name, her profession, her reason for being. No recollection of this liaison, which was inexplicable and yet positive, rewarded him.

He was searching his past for a clue, when a strange figure suddenly appeared on horse-back before them, trotting about for a moment and then turning around in its saddle. Des Esseintes' heart almost stopped beating and he stood riveted to the spot with horror. He nearly fainted. This enigmatic, sexless figure was green; through her violet eyelids the eyes were terrible in their cold blue; pimples surrounded her mouth; horribly emaciated, skeleton arms bared to the elbows issued from ragged tattered sleeves and trembled feverishly; and the skinny legs shivered in shoes that were several sizes too large.

The ghastly eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, penetrating him, freezing his very marrow; wilder than ever, the bulldog woman threw herself at him and commenced to howl like a dog at the killing, her head hanging on her rigid neck.

Suddenly he understood the meaning of the frightful vision. Before him was the image of Syphilis.

Pursued by fear and quite beside himself, he sped down a pathway at top speed and gained a pavillion standing among the laburnums to the left, where he fell into a chair, in the passage way.

After a few moments, when he was beginning to recover his breath, the sound of sobbing made him lift his head. The bulldog woman was in front of him and, grotesque and woeful, while warm tears fell from her eyes, she told him that she had lost her teeth in her flight. As she spoke she drew clay pipes from the pocket of her nurse's apron, breaking them and shoving pieces of the stems into the hollows of her gums.

"But she is really absurd," Des Esseintes told himself. "These stems will never stick." And, as a matter of fact, they dropped out one after another.

At this moment were heard the galloping sounds of an approaching horse. A fearful terror pierced Des Esseintes. His limbs gave way. The galloping grew louder. Despair brought him sharply to his senses. He threw himself upon the woman who was stamping on the pipe bowls, entreating her to be silent, not to give notice of their presence by the sound of her shoes. She writhed and struggled in his grip; he led her to the end of the corridor, strangling her to prevent her from crying out. Suddenly he noticed the door of a coffee house, with green Venetian shutters. It was unlocked; he pushed it, rushed in headlong and then paused.

Before him, in the center of a vast glade, huge white pierrots were leaping rabbit-like under the rays of the moon.

Tears of discouragement welled to his eyes; never, no never would he succeed in crossing the threshold. "I shall be crushed," he thought. And as though to justify his fears, the ranks of tall pierrots swarmed and multiplied; their somersaults now covered the entire horizon, the whole sky on which they landed now on their heads, now on their feet.

Then the hoof beats paused. He was in the passage, behind a round skylight. More dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned about and through the round window beheld projecting erect ears, yellow teeth, nostrils from which breathed two jets of vapor smelling of phenol.

He sank to the ground, renouncing all ideas of flight or of resistance. He closed his eyes so as not to behold the horrible gaze of Syphilis which penetrated through the wall, which even pierced his closed lids, which he felt gliding over his moist spine, over his body whose hair bristled in pools of cold sweat. He waited for the worst and even hoped for the _coup de grace_ to end everything. A moment which seemed to last a century passed. Shuddering, he opened his eyes. Everything had vanished. Without any transition, as though by some stage device, a frightful mineral landscape receded into the distance, a wan, dead, waste, gullied landscape. A light illumined this desolate site, a peaceful white light that recalled gleams of phosphorus dissolved in oil.

Something that stirred on the ground became a deathly pale, nude woman whose feet were covered with green silk stockings.

He contemplated her with curiosity. As though frizzed by overheated irons, her hair curled, becoming straight again at the end; her distended nostrils were the color of roast veal. Her eyes were desirous, and she called to him in low tones.

He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing. Flamboyant colors passed and repassed in her eyes. Her lips were stained with a furious Anthurium red. The nipples of her breasts flashed, painted like two pods of red pepper.

A sudden intuition came to him. "It is the Flower," he said. And his reasoning mania persisted in his nightmare.

Then he observed the frightful irritation of the breasts and mouth, discovered spots of bister and copper on the skin of her body, and recoiled bewildered. But the woman's eyes fascinated him and he advanced slowly, attempting to thrust his heels into the earth so as not to move, letting himself fall, and yet lifting himself to reach her. Just as he touched her, the dark _Amorphophalli_ leaped up from all sides and thrust their leaves into his abdomen which rose and fell like a sea. He had broken all the plants, experiencing a limitless disgust in seeing these warm, firm stems stirring in his hands. Suddenly the detested plants had disappeared and two arms sought to enlace him. A terrible anguish made his heart beat furiously, for the eyes, the horrible eyes of the woman, had become a clear, cold and terrible blue. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embrace, but she held him with an irresistible movement. He beheld the wild _Nidularium_ which yawned, bleeding, in steel plates.

With his body he touched the hideous wound of this plant. He felt himself dying, awoke with a start, suffocating, frozen, mad with fear and sighing: "Ah! thank God, it was but a dream!"

Chapter 9

These nightmares attacked him repeatedly. He was afraid to fall asleep. For hours he remained stretched on his bed, now a prey to feverish and agitated wakefulness, now in the grip of oppressive dreams in which he tumbled down flights of stairs and felt himself sinking, powerless, into abysmal depths.

His nervous attacks, which had abated for several days, became acute, more violent and obstinate than ever, unearthing new tortures.

The bed covers tormented him. He stifled under the sheets, his body smarted and tingled as though stung by swarms of insects. These symptoms were augmented by a dull pain in his jaws and a throbbing in his temples which seemed to be gripped in a vise.

His alarm increased; but unfortunately the means of subduing the inexorable malady were not at hand. He had unsuccessfully sought to install a hydropathic apparatus in his dressing room. But the impossibility of forcing water to the height on which his house was perched, and the difficulty of procuring water even in the village where the fountains functioned sparingly and only at certain hours of the day, caused him to renounce the project. Since he could not have floods of water playing on him from the nozzle of a hose, (the only efficacious means of overcoming his insomnia and calming his nerves through its action on his spinal column) he was reduced to brief sprays or to mere cold baths, followed by energetic massages applied by his servant with the aid of a horse-hair glove.

But these measures failed to stem the march of his nervous disorder. At best they afforded him a few hours' relief, dearly paid for by the return of the attacks in an even more virulent form.

His ennui passed all bounds. His pleasure in the possession of his wonderful flowers was exhausted. Their textures and nuances palled on him. Besides, despite the care he lavished on them, most of his plants drooped. He had them removed from his rooms, but in his state of extreme excitability, their very absence exasperated him, for his eyes were pained by the void.

To while away the interminable hours, he had recourse to his portfolios of prints, and arranged his Goyas. The first impressions of certain plates of the _Caprices_, recognizable as proofs by their reddish hues, which he had bought at auction at a high price, comforted him, and he lost himself in them, following the painter's fantasies, distracted by his vertiginous scenes, his witches astride on cats, his women striving to pluck out the teeth of a hanged man, his bandits, his succubi, his demons and dwarfs.

Then he examined his other series of etchings and aquatints, his _Proverbs_ with their macabre horror, his war subjects with their wild rage, finally his plate of the Garot, of which he cherished a marvelous trial proof, printed on heavy water-marked paper, unmounted.

Goya's savage verve and keenly fanciful talent delighted him, but the universal admiration his works had won nevertheless estranged him slightly. And for years he had refused to frame them for fear that the first blundering fool who caught sight of them might deem it necessary to fly into banal and facile raptures before them.

The same applied to his Rembrandts which he examined from time to time, half secretly; and if it be true that the loveliest tune imaginable becomes vulgar and insupportable as soon as the public begins to hum it and the hurdy-gurdies make it their own, the work of art which does not remain indifferent to the spurious artists, which is not contested by fools, and which is not satisfied with awakening the enthusiasm of the few, by this very fact becomes profaned, trite, almost repulsive to the initiate.

This promiscuity in admiration, furthermore, was one of the greatest sources of regret in his life. Incomprehensible successes had forever spoiled for him many pictures and books once cherished and dear. Approved by the mob, they began to reveal imperceptible defects to him, and he rejected them, wondering meanwhile if his perceptions were not growing blunted.

He closed his portfolios and, completely disconcerted, again plunged into melancholy. To divert the current of his thoughts and cool his brain, he sought books that would soothe him and turned to the romances of Dickens, those charming novels which are so satisfying to invalids and convalescents who might grow fatigued by works of a more profound and vigorous nature.

But they produced an effect contrary to his expectations. These chaste lovers, these protesting heroines garbed to the neck, loved among the stars, confined themselves to lowered eyes and blushes, wept tears of joy and clasped hands--an exaggeration of purity which threw him into an opposite excess. By the law of contrast, he leaped from one extreme to the other, let his imagination dwell on vibrant scenes between human lovers, and mused on their sensual kisses and passionate embraces.

His mind wandered off from his book to worlds far removed from the English prude: to wanton peccadilloes and salacious practices condemned by the Church. He grew excited. The impotence of his mind and body which he had supposed final, vanished. Solitude again acted on his disordered nerves; he was once more obsessed, not by religion itself, but by the acts and sins it forbids, by the subject of all its obsecrations and threats. The carnal side, atrophied for months, which had been stirred by the enervation of his pious readings, then brought to a crisis by the English cant, came to the surface. His stimulated senses carried him back to the past and he wallowed in memories of his old sin.

He rose and pensively opened a little box of vermeil with a lid of aventurine.

It was filled with violet bonbons. He took one up and pressed it between his fingers, thinking of the strange properties of this sugary, frosted sweetmeat. When his virility had been impaired, when the thought of woman had roused in him no sharp regret or desire, he had only to put one in his mouth, let it melt, and almost at once it induced misty, languishing memories, infinitely tender.

These bonbons invented by Siraudin and bearing the ridiculous name of "Perles des Pyrenees" were each a drop of sarcanthus perfume, a drop of feminine essence crystallized in a morsel of sugar. They penetrated the papillae of the tongue, recalling the very savor of voluptuous kisses.

Usually he smiled as he inhaled this love aroma, this shadow of a caress which for a moment restored the delights of women he had once adored. Today they were not merely suggestive, they no longer served as a delicate hint of his distant riotous past. They were become powerful, thrusting aside the veils, exposing before his eyes the importunate, corporeal and brutal reality.

At the head of the procession of mistresses whom the fragrance of the bonbons helped to place in bold relief, one paused, displaying long white teeth, a satiny rose skin, a snub nose, mouse-colored eyes, and close-cropped blond hair.

This was Miss Urania, an American, with a vigorous body, sinewy limbs, muscles of steel and arms of iron.

She had been one of the most celebrated acrobats of the Circus.

Des Esseintes had watched her attentively through many long evenings. At first, she had seemed to him what she really was, a strong and beautiful woman, but the desire to know her never troubled him. She possessed nothing to recommend her in the eyes of a blase man, and yet he returned to the Circus, allured by he knew not what, importuned by a sentiment difficult to define.

Gradually, as he watched her, a fantastic idea seized him. Her graceful antics and arch feminine ways receded to the background of his mind, replaced by her power and strength which had for him all the charm of masculinity. Compared with her, Des Esseintes seemed to himself a frail, effeminate creature, and he began to desire her as ardently as an anaemic young girl might desire some loutish Hercules whose arms could crush her in a strong embrace.

One evening he finally decided to communicate with her and dispatched one of the attendants on this errand. Miss Urania deemed it necessary not to yield before a preliminary courtship; but she showed herself amenable, as it was common gossip that Des Esseintes was rich and that his name was instrumental in establishing women.

But as soon as his wishes were granted, his disappointment surpassed any he had yet experienced. He had persuaded himself that the American woman would be as bestial and stupid as a wrestler at a county fair, and instead her stupidity was of an altogether feminine nature. Certainly, she lacked education and tact, had neither good sense nor wit, and displayed an animal voracity at table, but she possessed all the childish traits of a woman. Her manner and speech were coquettish and affected, those of a silly, scandal-loving young girl. There was absolutely nothing masculine about her.

Furthermore, she was withdrawn and puritanical in her embraces, displaying none of the brute force he had dreaded yet longed for, and she was subject to none of the perturbations of his sex.

Des Esseintes inevitably returned to the masculine role he had momentarily abandoned.

His impression of femininity, weakness, need of protection, of fear even, disappeared. The illusion was no longer possible! Miss Urania was an ordinary mistress, in no wise justifying the cerebral curiosity she had at first awakened in him.

Although the charm of her firm skin and magnificent beauty had at first astonished and captivated Des Esseintes, he lost no time in terminating this liaison, for his impotence was prematurely hastened by the frozen and prudish caresses of this woman.

And yet she was the first of all the women he had loved, now flitting through his revery, to stand out. But if she was more strongly imprinted on his memory than a host of others whose allurements had been less spurious and more seductive, the reason must be ascribed to her healthy animalism, to her exuberance which contrasted so strikingly with the perfumed anaemia of the others, a faint suggestion of which he found in the delicate Siraudin bonbon.

Miss Urania haunted him by reason of her very difference, but almost instantly, offended by the intrusion of this natural, crude aroma, the antithesis of the scented confection, Des Esseintes returned to more civilized exhalations and his thoughts reverted to his other mistresses. They pressed upon him in a throng; but above them all rose a woman whose startling talents had satisfied him for months.

She was a little, slender brunette, with black eyes and burnished hair parted on one side and sleeked down over her head. He had known her in a cafe where she gave ventriloqual performances.

Before the amazed patrons, she caused her tiny cardboard figures, placed near each other on chairs, to talk; she conversed with the animated mannikins while flies buzzed around the chandeliers. Then one heard the rustling of the tense audience, surprised to find itself seated and instinctively recoiling when they heard the rumbling of imaginary carriages.

Des Esseintes had been fascinated. He lost no time in winning over the ventriloquist, tempting her with large sums of money. She delighted him by the very contrast she exhibited to the American woman. This brunette used strong perfumes and burned like a crater. Despite all her blandishments, Des Esseintes wearied of her in a few short hours. But this did not prevent him from letting himself be fleeced, for the phenomenon of the ventriloquist attracted him more than did the charms of the mistress.

Certain plans he had long pondered upon ripened, and he decided to bring them to fruition.

One evening he ordered a tiny sphinx brought in--a sphinx carved from black marble and resting in the classic pose with outstretched paws and erect head. He also purchased a chimera of polychrome clay; it brandished its mane of hair, and its sides resembled a pair of bellows. These two images he placed in a corner of the room. Then he extinguished the lamps, permitting the glowing embers to throw a dim light around the room and to magnify the objects which were almost immersed in gloom.

Then he stretched out on a couch beside the woman whose motionless figure was touched by the ember gleams, and waited.

With strange intonations that he had long and patiently taught her, she animated the two monsters; she did not even move her lips, she did not even glance in their direction.

And in the silence followed the marvelous dialogue of the Chimera and the Sphinx; it was recited in deep guttural tones which were at first raucous, then turned shrill and unearthly.

"Here, Chimera, pause!"


Lulled by the admirable prose of Flaubert, he listened; he panted and shivering sensations raced through his frame, when the Chimera uttered the magical and solemn phrase:

"New perfumes I seek, stranger flowers I seek, pleasures not yet discovered."

Ah! it was to him that this voice, mysterious as an incantation, spoke; it was to him that this voice recounted her feverish agitation for the unknown, her insatiable ideals, her imperative need to escape from the horrible reality of existence, to leap beyond the confines of thought, to grope towards the mists of elusive, unattainable art. The poignant tragedy of his past failures rent his heart. Gently he clasped the silent woman at his side, he sought refuge in her nearness, like a child who is inconsolable; he was blind to the sulkiness of the comedienne obliged to perform off-scene, in her leisure moments, far from the spotlight.

Their liaison continued, but his spells of exhaustion soon became acute. His brain no longer sufficed to stimulate his benumbed body. No longer did his nerves obey his will; and now the crazy whims of dotards dominated him. Terrified by the approach of a disastrous weakness in the presence of his mistress, he resorted to fear--that oldest, most efficacious of excitants.

A hoarse voice from behind the door would exclaim, while he held the woman in his arms: "Open the door, woman, I know you're in there, and with whom. Just wait, wait!" Instantly, like a libertine stirred by fear of discovery in the open, he recovered his strength and hurled himself madly upon the ventriloquist whose voice continued to bluster outside the room. In this wise he experienced the pleasures of a panic-stricken person.

But this state, unfortunately, did not last long, and despite the sums he paid her, the ventriloquist parted to offer herself to someone less exigent and less complex.

He had regretted her defection, and now, recalling her, the other women seemed insipid, their childish graces and monotonous coquetry disgusting him.

In the ferment of his disordered brain, he delighted in mingling with these recollections of his past, other more gloomy pleasures, as theology qualifies the evocation of past, disgraceful acts. With the physical visions he mingled spiritual ardors brought into play and motivated by his old readings of the casuists, of the Busembaums and the Dianas, of the Liguoris and the Sanchezes, treating of transgressions against the sixth and ninth commandments of the Decalogue.

In awakening an almost divine ideal in this soul steeped in her precepts--a soul possibly predisposed to the teachings of the Church through hereditary influences dating back from the reign of Henry III, religion had also stirred the illegitimate, forbidden enjoyment of the senses. Licentious and mystical obsessions haunted his brain, they mingled confusedly, and he would often be troubled by an unappeasable desire to shun the vulgarities of the world and to plunge, far from the customs and modes held in such reverence, into convulsions and raptures which were holy or infernal and which, in either case, proved too exhausting and enervating.

He would arise prostrate from such reveries, fatigued and all but lifeless. He would light the lamps and candles so as to flood the room with light, for he hoped that by so doing he might possibly diminish the intolerably persistent and dull throbbing of his arteries which beat under his neck with redoubled strokes.

Chapter 10

During the course of this malady which attacks impoverished races, sudden calms succeed an attack. Strangely enough, Des Esseintes awoke one morning recovered; no longer was he tormented by the throbbing of his neck or by his racking cough. Instead, he had an ineffable sensation of contentment, a lightness of mind in which thought was sparklingly clear, turning from a turbid, opaque, green color to a liquid iridescence magical with tender rainbow tints.

This lasted several days. Then hallucinations of odor suddenly appeared.

His room was aromatic with the fragrance of frangipane; he tried to ascertain if a bottle were not uncorked--no! not a bottle was to be found in the room, and he passed into his study and thence to the kitchen. Still the odor persisted.

Des Esseintes rang for his servant and asked if he smelled anything. The domestic sniffed the air and declared he could not detect any perfume. There was no doubt about it: his nervous attacks had returned again, under the appearance of a new illusion of the senses.

Fatigued by the tenacity of this imaginary aroma, he resolved to steep himself in real perfumes, hoping that this homeopathic treatment would cure him or would at least drown the persistent odor.

He betook himself to his dressing room. There, near an old baptistery which he used as a wash basin, under a long mirror of forged iron, which, like the edge of a well silvered by the moon, confined the green dull surface of the mirror, were bottles of every conceivable size and form, placed on ivory shelves.

He set them on the table and divided them into two series: one of the simple perfumes, pure extracts or spirits, the other of compound perfumes, designated under the generic term of bouquets.

He sank into an easy chair and meditated.

He had long been skilled in the science of smell. He believed that this sense could give one delights equal to those of hearing and sight; each sense being susceptible, if naturally keen and if properly cultivated, to new impressions, which it could intensify, coordinate and compose into that unity which constitutes a creative work. And it was not more abnormal and unnatural that an art should be called into existence by disengaging odors than that another art should be evoked by detaching sound waves or by striking the eye with diversely colored rays. But if no person could discern, without intuition developed by study, a painting by a master from a daub, a melody of Beethoven from one by Clapisson, no more could any one at first, without preliminary initiation, help confusing a bouquet invented by a sincere artist with a pot pourri made by some manufacturer to be sold in groceries and bazaars.

In this art, the branch devoted to achieving certain effects by artificial methods particularly delighted him.

Perfumes, in fact, rarely come from the flowers whose names they bear. The artist who dared to borrow nature's elements would only produce a bastard work which would have neither authenticity nor style, inasmuch as the essence obtained by the distillation of flowers would bear but a distant and vulgar relation to the odor of the living flower, wafting its fragrance into the air.

Thus, with the exception of the inimitable jasmine which it is impossible to counterfeit, all flowers are perfectly represented by the blend of aromatic spirits, stealing the very personality of the model, and to it adding that nuance the more, that heady scent, that rare touch which entitled a thing to be called a work of art.

To resume, in the science of perfumery, the artist develops the natural odor of the flowers, working over his subject like a jeweler refining the lustre of a gem and making it precious.

Little by little, the arcana of this art, most neglected of all, was revealed to Des Esseintes who could now read this language, as diversified and insinuating as that of literature, this style with its unexpected concision under its vague flowing appearance.

To achieve this end he had first been compelled to master the grammar and understand the syntax of odors, learning the secret of the rules that regulate them, and, once familiarized with the dialect, he compared the works of the masters, of the Atkinsons and Lubins, the Chardins and Violets, the Legrands and Piesses; then he separated the construction of their phrases, weighed the value of their words and the arrangement of their periods.

Later on, in this idiom of fluids, experience was able to support theories too often incomplete and banal.

Classic perfumery, in fact, was scarcely diversified, almost colorless and uniformly issuing from the mold cast by the ancient chemists. It was in its dotage, confined to its old alambics, when the romantic period was born and had modified the old style, rejuvenating it, making it more supple and malleable.

Step by step, its history followed that of our language. The perfumed Louis XIII style, composed of elements highly prized at that time, of iris powder, musk, chive and myrtle water already designated under the name of "water of the angels," was hardly sufficient to express the cavalier graces, the rather crude tones of the period which certain sonnets of Saint-Amand have preserved for us. Later, with myrrh and olibanum, the mystic odors, austere and powerful, the pompous gesture of the great period, the redundant artifices of oratorial art, the full, sustained harmonious style of Bossuet and the masters of the pulpit were almost possible. Still later, the sophisticated, rather bored graces of French society under Louis XV, more easily found their interpretation in the almond which in a manner summed up this epoch; then, after the ennui and jadedness of the first empire, which misused Eau de Cologne and rosemary, perfumery rushed, in the wake of Victor Hugo and Gautier, towards the Levant. It created oriental combinations, vivid Eastern nosegays, discovered new intonations, antitheses which until then had been unattempted, selected and made use of antique nuances which it complicated, refined and assorted. It resolutely rejected that voluntary decrepitude to which it had been reduced by the Malesherbes, the Boileaus, the Andrieuxes and the Baour-Lormians, wretched distillers of their own poems.

But this language had not remained stationery since the period of 1830. It had continued to evolve and, patterning itself on the progress of the century, had advanced parallel with the other arts. It, too, had yielded to the desires of amateurs and artists, receiving its inspiration from the Chinese and Japanese, conceiving fragrant albums, imitating the Takeoka bouquets of flowers, obtaining the odor of Rondeletia from the blend of lavender and clove; the peculiar aroma of Chinese ink from the marriage of patchouli and camphor; the emanation of Japanese Hovenia by compounds of citron, clove and neroli.

Des Esseintes studied and analyzed the essences of these fluids, experimenting to corroborate their texts. He took pleasure in playing the role of a psychologist for his personal satisfaction, in taking apart and re-assembling the machinery of a work, in separating the pieces forming the structure of a compound exhalation, and his sense of smell had thereby attained a sureness that was all but perfect.

Just as a wine merchant has only to smell a drop of wine to recognize the grape, as a hop dealer determines the exact value of hops by sniffing a bag, as a Chinese trader can immediately tell the origin of the teas he smells, knowing in what farms of what mountains, in what Buddhistic convents it was cultivated, the very time when its leaves were gathered, the state and the degree of torrefaction, the effect upon it of its proximity to the plum-tree and other flowers, to all those perfumes which change its essence, adding to it an unexpected touch and introducing into its dryish flavor a hint of distant fresh flowers; just so could Des Esseintes, by inhaling a dash of perfume, instantly explain its mixture and the psychology of its blend, and could almost give the name of the artist who had composed and given it the personal mark of his individual style.

Naturally he had a collection of all the products used by perfumers. He even had the real Mecca balm, that rare balm cultivated only in certain parts of Arabia Petraea and under the monopoly of the ruler.

Now, seated in his dressing room in front of his table, he thought of creating a new bouquet; and he was overcome by that moment of wavering confidence familiar to writers when, after months of inaction, they prepare for a new work.

Like Balzac who was wont to scribble on many sheets of paper so as to put himself in a mood for work, Des Esseintes felt the necessity of steadying his hand by several initial and unimportant experiments. Desiring to create heliotrope, he took down bottles of vanilla and almond, then changed his idea and decided to experiment with sweet peas.

He groped for a long time, unable to effect the proper combinations, for orange is dominant in the fragrance of this flower. He attempted several combinations and ended in achieving the exact blend by joining tuberose and rose to orange, the whole united by a drop of vanilla.

His hesitation disappeared. He felt alert and ready for work; now he made some tea by blending cassie with iris, then, sure of his technique, he decided to proceed with a fulminating phrase whose thunderous roar would annihilate the insidious odor of almond still hovering over his room.

He worked with amber and with Tonkin musk, marvelously powerful; with patchouli, the most poignant of vegetable perfumes whose flower, in its habitat, wafts an odor of mildew. Try what he would, the eighteenth century obsessed him; the panier robes and furbelows appeared before his eyes; memories of Boucher's _Venus_ haunted him; recollections of Themidor's romance, of the exquisite Rosette pursued him. Furious, he rose and to rid himself of the obsession, with all his strength he inhaled that pure essence of spikenard, so dear to Orientals and so repulsive to Europeans because of its pronounced odor of valerian. He was stunned by the violence of the shock. As though pounded by hammer strokes, the filigranes of the delicate odor disappeared; he profited by the period of respite to escape the dead centuries, the antiquated fumes, and to enter, as he formerly had done, less limited or more recent works.

He had of old loved to lull himself with perfumes. He used effects analogous to those of the poets, and employed the admirable order of certain pieces of Baudelaire, such as _Irreparable_ and _le Balcon_, where the last of the five lines composing the strophe is the echo of the first verse and returns, like a refrain, to steep the soul in infinite depths of melancholy and languor.

He strayed into reveries evoked by those aromatic stanzas, suddenly brought to his point of departure, to the motive of his meditation, by the return of the initial theme, reappearing, at stated intervals, in the fragrant orchestration of the poem.

He actually wished to saunter through an astonishing, diversified landscape, and he began with a sonorous, ample phrase that suddenly opened a long vista of fields for him.

With his vaporizers, he injected an essence formed of ambrosia, lavender and sweet peas into this room; this formed an essence which, when distilled by an artist, deserves the name by which it is known: "extract of wild grass"; into this he introduced an exact blend of tuberose, orange flower and almond, and forthwith artificial lilacs sprang into being, while the linden-trees rustled, their thin emanations, imitated by extract of London tilia, drooping earthward.

Into this _decor_, arranged with a few broad lines, receding as far as the eye could reach, under his closed lids, he introduced a light rain of human and half feline essences, possessing the aroma of petticoats, breathing of the powdered, painted woman, the stephanotis, ayapana, opopanax, champaka, sarcanthus and cypress wine, to which he added a dash of syringa, in order to give to the artificial life of paints which they exhaled, a suggestion of natural dewy laughter and pleasures enjoyed in the open air.

Then, through a ventilator, he permitted these fragrant waves to escape, only preserving the field which he renewed, compelling it to return in his strophes like a ritornello.

The women had gradually disappeared. Now the plain had grown solitary. Suddenly, on the enchanted horizon, factories appeared whose tall chimneys flared like bowls of punch.

The odor of factories and of chemical products now passed with the breeze which was simulated by means of fans; nature exhaled its sweet effluvia amid this putrescence.

Des Esseintes warmed a pellet of storax, and a singular odor, at once repugnant and exquisite, pervaded the room. It partook of the delicious fragrance of jonquil and of the stench of gutta percha and coal oil. He disinfected his hands, inserted his resin in a hermetically sealed box, and the factories disappeared.

Then, among the revived vapors of the lindens and meadow grass, he threw several drops of new mown hay, and, amid this magic site for the moment despoiled of its lilacs, sheaves of hay were piled up, introducing a new season and scattering their fine effluence into these summer odors.

At last, when he had sufficiently enjoyed this sight, he suddenly scattered the exotic perfumes, emptied his vaporizers, threw in his concentrated spirits, poured his balms, and, in the exasperated and stifling heat of the room there rose a crazy sublimated nature, a paradoxical nature which was neither genuine nor charming, reuniting the tropical spices and the peppery breath of Chinese sandal wood and Jamaica hediosmia with the French odors of jasmine, hawthorn and verbena. Regardless of seasons and climates he forced trees of diverse essences into life, and flowers with conflicting fragrances and colors. By the clash of these tones he created a general, nondescript, unexpected, strange perfume in which reappeared, like an obstinate refrain, the decorative phrase of the beginning, the odor of the meadows fanned by the lilacs and lindens.

Suddenly a poignant pain seized him; he felt as though wimbles were drilling into his temples. Opening his eyes he found himself in his dressing room, seated in front of his table. Stupefied, he painfully walked across the room to the window which he half opened. A puff of wind dispelled the stifling atmosphere which was enveloping him. To exercise his limbs, he walked up and down gazing at the ceiling where crabs and sea-wrack stood out in relief against a background as light in color as the sands of the seashore. A similar _decor_ covered the plinths and bordered the partitions which were covered with Japanese sea-green crepe, slightly wrinkled, imitating a river rippled by the wind. In this light current swam a rose petal, around which circled a school of tiny fish painted with two strokes of the brush.

But his eyelids remained heavy. He ceased to pace about the short space between the baptistery and the bath; he leaned against the window. His dizziness ended. He carefully stopped up the vials, and used the occasion to arrange his cosmetics. Since his arrival at Fontenay he had not touched them; and now was quite astonished to behold once more this collection formerly visited by so many women. The flasks and jars were lying heaped up against each other. Here, a porcelain box contained a marvelous white cream which, when applied on the cheeks, turns to a tender rose color, under the action of the air--to such a true flesh-color that it procures the very illusion of a skin touched with blood; there, lacquer objects incrusted with mother of pearl enclosed Japanese gold and Athenian green, the color of the cantharis wing, gold and green which change to deep purple when wetted; there were jars filled with filbert paste, the serkis of the harem, emulsions of lilies, lotions of strawberry water and elders for the complexion, and tiny bottles filled with solutions of Chinese ink and rose water for the eyes. There were tweezers, scissors, rouge and powder-puffs, files and beauty patches.

He handled this collection, formerly bought to please a mistress who swooned under the influence of certain aromatics and balms,--a nervous, unbalanced woman who loved to steep the nipples of her breasts in perfumes, but who never really experienced a delicious and overwhelming ecstacy save when her head was scraped with a comb or when she could inhale, amid caresses, the odor of perspiration, or the plaster of unfinished houses on rainy days, or of dust splashed by huge drops of rain during summer storms.

He mused over these memories, and one afternoon spent at Pantin through idleness and curiosity, in company with this woman at the home of one of her sisters, returned to him, stirring in him a forgotten world of old ideas and perfumes; while the two women prattled and displayed their gowns, he had drawn near the window and had seen, through the dusty panes, the muddy street sprawling before him, and had heard the repeated sounds of galoches over the puddles of the pavement.

This scene, already far removed, came to him suddenly, strangely and vividly. Pantin was there before him, animated and throbbing in this greenish and dull mirror into which his unseeing eyes plunged. A hallucination transported him far from Fontenay. Beside reflecting the street, the mirror brought back thoughts it had once been instrumental in evoking, and plunged in revery, he repeated to himself this ingenious, sad and comforting composition he had formerly written upon returning to Paris:

"Yes, the season of downpours is come. Now behold water-spouts vomiting as they rush over the pavements, and rubbish marinates in puddles that fill the holes scooped out of the macadam.

"Under a lowering sky, in the damp air, the walls of houses have black perspiration and their air-holes are fetid; the loathsomeness of existence increases and melancholy overwhelms one; the seeds of vileness which each person harbors in his soul, sprout. The craving for vile debaucheries seizes austere people and base desires grow rampant in the brains of respectable men.

"And yet I warm myself, here before a cheerful fire. From a basket of blossoming flowers comes the aroma of balsamic benzoin, geranium and the whorl-flowered bent-grass which permeates the room. In the very month of November, at Pantin, in the rue de Paris, springtime persists. Here in my solitude I laugh at the fears of families which, to shun the approaching cold weather, escape on every steamer to Cannes and to other winter resorts.

"Inclement nature does nothing to contribute to this extraordinary phenomenon. It must be said that his artificial season at Pantin is the result of man's ingenuity.

"In fact, these flowers are made of taffeta and are mounted on wire. The springtime odor filters through the window joints, exhaled from the neighboring factories, from the perfumeries of Pinaud and Saint James.

"For the workmen exhausted by the hard labors of the plants, for the young employes who too often are fathers, the illusion of a little healthy air is possible, thanks to these manufacturers.

"So, from this fabulous subterfuge of a country can an intelligent cure arise. The consumptive men about town who are sent to the South die, their end due to the change in their habits and to the nostalgia for the Parisian excesses which destroyed them. Here, under an artificial climate, libertine memories will reappear, the languishing feminine emanations evaporated by the factories. Instead of the deadly ennui of provincial life, the doctor can thus platonically substitute for his patient the atmosphere of the Parisian women and of boudoirs. Most often, all that is necessary to effect the cure is for the subject to have a somewhat fertile imagination.

"Since, nowadays, nothing genuine exists, since the wine one drinks and the liberty one boldly proclaims are laughable and a sham, since it really needs a healthy dose of good will to believe that the governing classes are respectable and that the lower classes are worthy of being assisted or pitied, it seems to me," concluded Des Esseintes, "to be neither ridiculous nor senseless, to ask of my fellow men a quantity of illusion barely equivalent to what they spend daily in idiotic ends, so as to be able to convince themselves that the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice or a Menton.

"But all this does not prevent me from seeing," he said, forced by weakness from his meditations, "that I must be careful to mistrust these delicious and abominable practices which may ruin my constitution." He sighed. "Well, well, more pleasures to moderate, more precautions to be taken."

And he passed into his study, hoping the more easily to escape the spell of these perfumes.

He opened the window wide, glad to be able to breath the air. But it suddenly seemed to him that the breeze brought in a vague tide of bergamot with which jasmine and rose water were blent. Agitated, he asked himself whether he was not really under the yoke of one of those possessions exercised in the Middle Ages. The odor changed and was transformed, but it persisted. A faint scent of tincture of tolu, of balm of Peru and of saffron, united by several drams of amber and musk, now issued from the sleeping village and suddenly, the metamorphosis was effected, those scattered elements were blent, and once more the frangipane spread from the valley of Fontenay as far as the fort, assailing his exhausted nostrils, once more shattering his helpless nerves and throwing him into such a prostration that he fell unconscious on the window sill.

Chapter 11

The servants were seized with alarm and lost no time in calling the Fontenay physician who was completely at sea about Des Esseintes' condition. He mumbled a few medical terms, felt his pulse, examined the invalid's tongue, unsuccessfully sought to make him speak, prescribed sedatives and rest, promised to return on the morrow and, at the negative sign made by Des Esseintes who recovered enough strength to chide the zeal of his servants and to bid farewell to this intruder, he departed and was soon retailing through the village the eccentricities of this house whose decorations had positively amazed him and held him rooted to the spot.

To the great astonishment of the domestics, who no longer dared stir from the servants' quarters, their master recovered in a few days, and they surprised him drumming against the window panes, gazing at the sky with a troubled look.

One afternoon the bells were peremptorily rung and Des Esseintes commanded his trunks to be packed for a long voyage.

While the man and the woman were choosing, under his guidance, the necessary equipment, he feverishly paced up and down the cabin of the dining room, consulted the timetables of the steamers, walked through his study where he continued to gaze at the clouds with an air at once impatient and satisfied.

For a whole week, the weather had been atrocious. Streams of soot raced unceasing across the grey fields of the sky-masses of clouds like rocks torn from the earth.

At intervals, showers swept downward, engulfing the valley with torrents of rain.

Today, the appearance of the heavens had changed. The rivers of ink had evaporated and vanished, and the harsh contours of the clouds had softened. The sky was uniformly flat and covered with a brackish film. Little by little, this film seemed to drop, and a watery haze covered the country side. The rain no longer fell in cataracts as on the preceding evening; instead, it fell incessantly, fine, sharp and penetrating; it inundated the walks, covered the roads with its innumerable threads which joined heaven and earth. The livid sky threw a wan leaden light on the village which was now transformed into a lake of mud pricked by needles of water that dotted the puddles with drops of bright silver. In this desolation of nature, everything was gray, and only the housetops gleamed against the dead tones of the walls.

"What weather!" sighed the aged domestic, placing on a chair the clothes which his master had requested of him--an outfit formerly ordered from London.

Des Esseintes' sole response was to rub his hands and to sit down in front of a book-case with glass doors. He examined the socks which had been placed nearby for his inspection. For a moment he hesitated on the color; then he quickly studied the melancholy day and earnestly bethought himself of the effect he desired. He chose a pair the color of feuillemort, quickly slipped them on, put on a pair of buttoned shoes, donned the mouse grey suit which was checquered with a lava gray and dotted with black, placed a small hunting cap on his head and threw a blue raincoat over him. He reached the railway station, followed by the servant who almost bent under the weight of a trunk, a valise, a carpet bag, a hat box and a traveling rug containing umbrellas and canes. He informed his servant that the date of his return was problematical, that he might return in a year, in a month, in a week, or even sooner, and enjoined him to change nothing in the house. He gave a sum of money which he thought would be necessary for the upkeep of the house during his absence, and climbed into the coach, leaving the old man astounded, arms waving and mouth gaping, behind the rail, while the train got under way.

He was alone in his compartment; a vague and dirty country side, such as one sees through an aquarium of troubled water, receded rapidly behind the train which was lashed by the rain. Plunged in his meditations, Des Esseintes closed his eyes.

Once more, this so ardently desired and finally attained solitude had ended in a fearful distress. This silence which formerly would have appeared as a compensation for the stupidities heard for years, now weighed on him with an unendurable burden. One morning he had awakened, as uneasy as a prisoner in his cell; his lips had sought to articulate sounds, tears had welled to his eyes and he had found it impossible to breathe, suffocating like a person who had sobbed for hours.

Seized with a desire to walk, to behold a human figure, to speak to someone, to mingle with life, he had proceeded to call his domestics, employing a specious pretext; but conversation with them was impossible. Besides the fact that these old people, bowed down by years of silence and the customs of attendants, were almost dumb, the distance at which Des Esseintes had always kept them was hardly conducive to inducing them to open their mouths now. Too, they possessed dull brains and were incapable of answering his questions other than by monosyllables.

It was impossible, therefore, to find any solace in their society; but a new phenomenon now occurred. The reading of the novels of Dickens, which he had lately undertaken to soothe his nerves and which had only produced effects the opposite of those hoped for, began slowly to act in an unexpected manner, bringing on visions of English existence on which he mused for hours; little by little, in these fictive contemplations, ideas insinuated themselves, ideas of the voyage brought to an end, of verified dreams on which was imposed the desire to experience new impressions, and thus escape the exhausting cerebral debauches intent upon beating in the void.

With its mist and rain, this abominable weather aided his thoughts still more, by reinforcing the memories of his readings, by placing under his eyes the unfading image of a land of fog and mud, and by refusing to let his ideas wander idly.

One day, able to endure it no longer, he had instantly decided. Such was his haste that he even took flight before the designated time, for he wished to shun the present moment, wished to find himself jostled and shouldered in the hubbub of crowded streets and railway stations.

"I breathe!" he exclaimed when the train moderated its waltz and stopped in the Sceaux station rotunda, panting while its wheels performed its last pirouettes.

Once in the boulevard d'Enfer, he hailed a coachman. In some strange manner he extracted a pleasure from the fact that he was so hampered with trunks and rugs. By promising a substantial tip, he reached an understanding with the man of the brown trousers and red waistcoat.

"At once!" he commanded. "And when you reach the rue de Rivoli, stop in front of _Galignani's Messenger_." Before departing, he desired to buy a Baedeker or Murray guide of London.

The carriage got under way heavily, raising rings of mud around its wheels and moving through marsh-like ground. Beneath the gray sky which seemed suspended over the house tops, water gushed down the thick sides of the high walls, spouts overflowed, and the streets were coated with a slimy dirt in which passersby slipped. Thickset men paused on sidewalks bespattered by passing omnibuses, and women, their skirts tucked up to the knees, bent under umbrellas, flattened themselves against the shops to avoid being splashed.

The rain entered diagonally through the carriage doors. Des Esseintes was obliged to lift the carriage windows down which the water ran, while drops of mud furrowed their way like fireworks on each side of the _fiacre_. To the monotonous sound of sacks of peas shaking against his head through the action of the showers pattering against the trunks and on the carriage rug, Des Esseintes dreamed of his voyage. This already was a partial realization of his England, enjoyed in Paris through the means of this frightful weather: a rainy, colossal London smelling of molten metal and of soot, ceaselessly steaming and smoking in the fog now spread out before his eyes; then rows of docks sprawled ahead, as far as the eye could reach, docks full of cranes, hand winches and bales, swarming with men perched on masts or astride yard sails, while myriads of other men on the quays pushed hogsheads into cellars.

All this was transpiring in vast warehouses along the river banks which were bathed by the muddy and dull water of an imaginary Thames, in a forest of masts and girders piercing the wan clouds of the firmament, while trains rushed past at full speed or rumpled underground uttering horrible cries and vomiting waves of smoke, and while, through every street, monstrous and gaudy and infamous advertisements flared through the eternal twilight, and strings of carriages passed between rows of preoccupied and taciturn people whose eyes stared ahead and whose elbows pressed closely against their bodies.

Des Esseintes shivered deliciously to feel himself mingling in this terrible world of merchants, in this insulating mist, in this incessant activity, in this pitiless gearing which ground millions of the disinherited, urged by the comfort-distilling philanthropists to recite Biblical verses and to sing psalms.

Then the vision faded suddenly with a jolt of the _fiacre_ which made him rebound in his seat. He gazed through the carriage windows. Night had fallen; gas burners blinked through the fog, amid a yellowish halo; ribbons of fire swam in puddles of water and seemed to revolve around wheels of carriages moving through liquid and dirty flame. He endeavored to get his bearings, perceived the Carrousel and suddenly, unreasoningly, perhaps through the simple effect of the high fall from fanciful spaces, his thought reverted to a very trivial incident. He remembered that his domestic had neglected to put a tooth brush in his belongings. Then, he passed in review the list of objects packed up; everything had been placed in his valise, but the annoyance of having omitted this brush persisted until the driver, pulling up, broke the chain of his reminiscences and regrets.

He was in the rue de Rivoli, in front of _Galignani's Messenger_. Separated by a door whose unpolished glass was covered with inscriptions and with strips of passe-partout framing newspaper clippings and telegrams, were two vast shop windows crammed with albums and books. He drew near, attracted by the sight of these books bound in parrot-blue and cabbage-green paper, embossed with silver and golden letterings. All this had an anti-Parisian touch, a mercantile appearance, more brutal and yet less wretched than those worthless bindings of French books; here and there, in the midst of the opened albums, reproducing humorous scenes from Du Maurier and John Leech, or the delirious cavalcades of Caldecott, some French novels appeared, blending placid and satisfied vulgarities to these rich verjuice hues. He tore himself away from his contemplation, opened the door and entered a large library which was full of people. Seated strangers unfolded maps and jabbered in strange languages. A clerk brought him a complete collection of guides. He, in turns, sat down to examine the books with their flexible covers. He glanced through them and paused at a page of the Baedeker describing the London museums. He became interested in the laconic and exact details of the guide books, but his attention wandered away from the old English paintings to the moderns which attracted him much more. He recalled certain works he had seen at international expositions, and imagined that he might possibly behold them once more at London: pictures by Millais--the _Eve of Saint Agnes_ with its lunar clear green; pictures by Watts, strange in color, checquered with gamboge and indigo, pictures sketched by a sick Gustave Moreau, painted by an anaemic Michael Angelo and retouched by a Raphael submerged in blue. Among other canvasses, he recalled a _Denunciation of Cain_, an _Ida_, some _Eves_ where, in the strange and mysterious mixture of these three masters, rose the personality, at once refined and crude, of a learned and dreamy Englishman tormented by the bewitchment of cruel tones.

These canvasses thronged through his memory. The clerk, astonished by this client who was so lost to the world, asked him which of the guides he would take. Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, then excused himself, bought a Baedeker and departed. The dampness froze him to the spot; the wind blew from the side, lashing the arcades with whips of rain. "Proceed to that place," he said to the driver, pointing with his finger to the end of a passage where a store formed the angle of the rue de Rivoli and the rue Castiglione and, with its whitish panes of glass illumed from within, resembled a vast night lamp burning through the wretchedness of this mist, in the misery of this crazy weather.

It was the _Bodega_. Des Esseintes strayed into a large room sustained by iron pillars and lined, on each side of its walls, with tall barrels placed on their ends upon gantries, hooped with iron, their paunches with wooden loopholes imitating a rack of pipes and from whose notches hung tulip-shaped glasses, upside down. The lower sides were bored and hafted with stone cocks. These hogsheads painted with a royal coat of arms displayed the names of their drinks, the contents, and the prices on colored labels and stated that they were to be purchased by the cask, by the bottle or by the glass.

In the passage between these rows of casks, under the gas jets which flared at one end of an ugly iron-gray chandelier, tables covered with baskets of Palmers biscuits, hard and salty cakes, plates piled with mince pies and sandwiches concealing strong, mustardy concoctions under their unsavory covers, succeeded each other between a row of seats and as far as the end of this cellar which was lined with still more hogsheads carrying tiny barrels on their tops, resting on their sides and bearing their names stamped with hot metal into the oak.

An odor of alcohol assailed Des Esseintes upon taking a seat in this room heavy with strong wines. He looked about him. Here, the tuns were placed in a straight line, exhibiting the whole series of ports, the sweet or sour wines the color of mahogany or amaranth, and distinguished by such laudatory epithets as _old port_, _light delicate_, _Cockburn's very fine_, _magnificent old Regina_. There, protruding formidable abdomens pressed closely against each other, huge casks contained the martial Spanish wines, sherry and its derivatives, the _san lucar_, _pasto_, _pale dry_, _oloroso_ and _amontilla_.

The cellar was filled with people. Leaning on his elbows on a corner of the table, Des Esseintes sat waiting for his glass of port ordered of a gentleman who was opening explosive sodas contained in oval bottles which recalled, while exaggerating, the capsules of gelatine and gluten used by pharmacies to conceal the taste of certain medicines.

Englishmen were everywhere,--awkward pale clergymen garbed in black from head to foot, with soft hats, laced shoes, very long coats dotted in the front with tiny buttons, clean-shaved chins, round spectacles, greasy flat hair; faces of tripe dealers and mastiff snouts with apoplectic necks, ears like tomatoes, vinous cheeks, blood-shot crazy eyes, whiskers that looked like those of some big monkeys; farther away, at the end of the wine store, a long row of tow-headed individuals, their chins covered with white hair like the end of an artichoke, reading, through a microscope, the tiny roman type of an English newspaper; opposite him, a sort of American commodore, dumpy and thick-set, with smoked skin and bulbous nose, was sleeping, a cigar planted in the hairy aperture of his mouth. Opposite were frames hanging on the wall enclosing advertisements of Champagne, the trade marks of Perrier and Roederer, Heidsieck and Mumm, and a hooded head of a monk, with the name of Dom Perignon, Rheims, written in Gothic characters.

A certain enervation enveloped Des Esseintes in this guard house atmosphere; stunned by the prattle of the Englishmen conversing among themselves, he fell into a revery, evoking, before the purple port which filled the glasses, the creatures of Dickens that love this drink so very much, imaginatively peopling the cellar with new personages, seeing here, the white head of hair and the ruddy complexion of Mr. Wickfield; there, the phlegmatic, crafty face and the vengeful eye of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the melancholy solicitor in _Bleak House_. Positively, all of them broke away from his memory and installed themselves in the _Bodega_, with their peculiar characteristics and their betraying gestures. His memories, brought to life by his recent readings, attained a startling precision. The city of the romancer, the house illumined and warmed, so perfectly tended and isolated, the bottles poured slowly by little Dorrit and Dora Copperfield and Tom Pinch's sister, appeared to him sailing like an ark in a deluge of mire and soot. Idly he wandered through this imaginary London, happy to be sheltered, as he listened to the sinister shrieks of tugs plying up and down the Thames. His glass was empty. Despite the heavy fumes in this cellar, caused by the cigars and pipes, he experienced a cold shiver when he returned to the reality of the damp and fetid weather.

He called for a glass of amontillado, and suddenly, beside this pale, dry wine, the lenitive, sweetish stories of the English author were routed, to be replaced by the pitiless revulsives and the grievous irritants of Edgar Allen Poe; the cold nightmares of _The Cask of Amontillado_, of the man immured in a vault, assailed him; the ordinary placid faces of American and English drinkers who occupied the room, appeared to him to reflect involuntary frightful thoughts, to be harboring instinctive, odious plots. Then he perceived that he was left alone here and that the dinner hour was near. He payed his bill, tore himself from his seat and dizzily gained the door. He received a wet slap in the face upon leaving the place. The street lamps moved their tiny fans of flame which failed to illuminate; the sky had dropped to the very houses. Des Esseintes viewed the arcades of the rue de Rivoli, drowned in the gloom and submerged by water, and it seemed to him that he was in the gloomy tunnel under the Thames. Twitchings of his stomach recalled him to reality. He regained his carriage, gave the driver the address of the tavern in the rue d'Amsterdam near the station, and looked at his watch: seven o'clock. He had just time to eat dinner; the train would not leave until ten minutes of nine, and he counted on his fingers, reckoning the hours of travel from Dieppe to Newhaven, saying to himself: "If the figures of the timetable are correct, I shall be at London tomorrow at twelve-thirty."

The _fiacre_ stopped in front of the tavern. Once more, Des Esseintes alighted and entered a long dark plain room, divided into partitions as high as a man's waist,--a series of compartments resembling stalls. In this room, wider towards the door, many beer pumps stood on a counter, near hams having the color of old violins, red lobsters, marinated mackerel, with onions and carrots, slices of lemon, bunches of laurel and thym, juniper berries and long peppers swimming in thick sauce.

One of these boxes was unoccupied. He took it and called a young black-suited man who bent forward, muttering something in a jargon he could not understand. While the cloth was being laid, Des Esseintes viewed his neighbors. They were islanders, just as at the _Bodega_, with cold faience eyes, crimson complexions, thoughtful or haughty airs. They were reading foreign newspapers. The only ones eating were unescorted women in pairs, robust English women with boyish faces, large teeth, ruddy apple cheeks, long hands and legs. They attacked, with genuine ardor, a rumpsteak pie, a warm meat dish cooked in mushroom sauce and covered with a crust, like a pie.

After having lacked appetite for such a long time, he remained amazed in the presence of these hearty eaters whose voracity whetted his hunger. He ordered oxtail soup and enjoyed it heartily. Then he glanced at the menu for the fish, ordered a haddock and, seized with a sudden pang of hunger at the sight of so many people relishing their food, he ate some roast beef and drank two pints of ale, stimulated by the flavor of a cow-shed which this fine, pale beer exhaled.

His hunger persisted. He lingered over a piece of blue Stilton cheese, made quick work of a rhubarb tart, and to vary his drinking, quenched his thirst with porter, that dark beer which smells of Spanish licorice but which does not have its sugary taste.

He breathed deeply. Not for years had he eaten and drunk so much. This change of habit, this choice of unexpected and solid food had awakened his stomach from its long sleep. He leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette and prepared to sip his coffee into which gin had been poured.

The rain continued to fall. He heard it patter on the panes which formed a ceiling at the end of the room; it fell in cascades down the spouts. No one was stirring in the room. Everybody, utterly weary, was indulging himself in front of his wine glass.

Tongues were now wagging freely. As almost all the English men and women raised their eyes as they spoke, Des Esseintes concluded that they were talking of the bad weather; not one of them laughed. He threw a delighted glance on their suits whose color and cut did not perceivably differ from that of others, and he experienced a sense of contentment in not being out of tune in this environment, of being, in some way, though superficially, a naturalized London citizen. Then he suddenly started. "And what about the train?" he asked himself. He glanced at his watch: ten minutes to eight. "I still have nearly a half-hour to remain here." Once more, he began to muse upon the plan he had conceived.

In his sedentary life, only two countries had ever attracted him: Holland and England.

He had satisfied the first of his desires. Unable to keep away, one fine day he had left Paris and visited the towns of the Low Lands, one by one.

In short, nothing but cruel disillusions had resulted from this trip. He had fancied a Holland after the works of Teniers and Steen, of Rembrandt and Ostade, in his usual way imagining rich, unique and incomparable Ghettos, had thought of amazing kermesses, continual debauches in the country sides, intent for a view of that patriarchal simplicity, that jovial lusty spirit celebrated by the old masters.

Certainly, Haarlem and Amsterdam had enraptured him. The unwashed people, seen in their country farms, really resembled those types painted by Van Ostade, with their uncouth children and their old fat women, embossed with huge breasts and enormous bellies. But of the unrestrained joys, the drunken family carousals, not a whit. He had to admit that the Dutch paintings at the Louvre had misled him. They had simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions, unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all, on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly.

Decidedly nothing of all this was visible. Holland was a country just like any other country, and what was more, a country in no wise primitive, not at all simple, for the Protestant religion with its formal hypocricies and solemn rigidness held sway here.

The memory of that disenchantment returned to him. Once more he glanced at his watch: ten minutes still separated him from the train's departure. "It is about time to ask for the bill and leave," he told himself.

He felt an extreme heaviness in his stomach and through his body. "Come!" he addressed himself, "let us drink and screw up our courage." He filled a glass of brandy, while asking for the reckoning. An individual in black suit and with a napkin under one arm, a sort of majordomo with a bald and sharp head, a greying beard without moustaches, came forward. A pencil rested behind his ear and he assumed an attitude like a singer, one foot in front of the other; he drew a note book from his pocket, and without glancing at his paper, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, near a chandelier, wrote while counting. "There you are!" he said, tearing the sheet from his note book and giving it to Des Esseintes who looked at him with curiosity, as though he were a rare animal. What a surprising John Bull, he thought, contemplating this phlegmatic person who had, because of his shaved mouth, the appearance of a wheelsman of an American ship.

At this moment, the tavern door opened. Several persons entered bringing with them an odor of wet dog to which was blent the smell of coal wafted by the wind through the opened door. Des Esseintes was incapable of moving a limb. A soft warm languor prevented him from even stretching out his hand to light a cigar. He told himself: "Come now, let us get up, we must take ourselves off." Immediate objections thwarted his orders. What is the use of moving, when one can travel on a chair so magnificently? Was he not even now in London, whose aromas and atmosphere and inhabitants, whose food and utensils surrounded him? For what could he hope, if not new disillusionments, as had happened to him in Holland?

He had but sufficient time to race to the station. An overwhelming aversion for the trip, an imperious need of remaining tranquil, seized him with a more and more obvious and stubborn strength. Pensively, he let the minutes pass, thus cutting off all retreat, and he said to himself, "Now it would be necessary to rush to the gate and crowd into the baggage room! What ennui! What a bore that would be!" Then he repeated to himself once more, "In fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!"

"Well!" he exclaimed, consulting his watch, "it is now time to return home."

This time, he arose and left, ordered the driver to bring him back to the Sceaux station, and returned with his trunks, packages, valises, rugs, umbrellas and canes, to Fontenay, feeling the physical stimulation and the moral fatigue of a man coming back to his home after a long and dangerous voyage.

Chapter 12

During the days following his return, Des Esseintes contemplated his books and experienced, at the thought that he might have been separated from them for a long period, a satisfaction as complete as that which comes after a protracted absence. Under the touch of this sentiment, these objects possessed a renewed novelty to his mind, and he perceived in them beauties forgotten since the time he had purchased them.

Everything there, books, bric-a-brac and furniture, had an individual charm for him. His bed seemed the softer by comparison with the hard bed he would have occupied in London. The silent, discreet ministrations of his servants charmed him, exhausted as he was at the thought of the loud loquacity of hotel attendants. The methodical organization of his life made him feel that it was especially to be envied since the possibility of traveling had become imminent.

He steeped himself in this bath of habitude, to which artificial regrets insinuated a tonic quality.

But his books chiefly preoccupied him. He examined them, re-arranged them on the shelves, anxious to learn if the hot weather and the rains had damaged the bindings and injured the rare paper.

He began by moving all his Latin books; then he arranged in a new order the special works of Archelaus, Albert le Grand, Lully and Arnaud de Villanova treating of cabbala and the occult sciences; finally he examined his modern books, one by one, and was happy to perceive that all had remained intact.

This collection had cost him a considerable sum of money. He would not suffer, in his library, the books he loved to resemble other similar volumes, printed on cotton paper with the watermarks of _Auvergne_.

Formerly in Paris he had ordered made, for himself alone, certain volumes which specially engaged mechanics printed from hand presses. Sometimes, he applied to Perrin of Lyons, whose graceful, clear type was suitable for archaic reprints of old books. At other times he dispatched orders to England or to America for the execution of modern literature and the works of the present century. Still again, he applied to a house in Lille, which for centuries had possessed a complete set of Gothic characters; he also would send requisitions to the old Enschede printing house of Haarlem whose foundry still has the stamps and dies of certain antique letters.

He had followed the same method in selecting his papers. Finally growing weary of the snowy Chinese and the nacreous and gilded Japanese papers, the white Whatmans, the brown Hollands, the buff-colored Turkeys and Seychal Mills, and equally disgusted with all mechanically manufactured sheets, he had ordered special laid paper in the mould, from the old plants of Vire which still employ the pestles once in use to grind hemp. To introduce a certain variety into his collection, he had repeatedly brought from London prepared stuffs, paper interwoven with hairs, and as a mark of his disdain for bibliophiles, he had a Lubeck merchant prepare for him an improved candle paper of bottle-blue tint, clear and somewhat brittle, in the pulp of which the straw was replaced by golden spangles resembling those which dot Danzig brandy.

Under these circumstances he had succeeded in procuring unique books, adopting obsolete formats which he had bound by Lortic, by Trautz-Bauzonnet or Chambolle, by the successors of Cape, in irreproachable covers of old silk, stamped cow hide, Cape goat skin, in full bindings with compartments and in mosaic designs, protected by tabby or moire watered silk, ecclesiastically ornamented with clasps and corners, and sometimes even enamelled by Gruel Engelmann with silver oxide and clear enamels.

Thus, with the marvelous episcopal lettering used in the old house of Le Clere, he had Baudelaire's works printed in a large format recalling that of ancient missals, on a very light and spongy Japan paper, soft as elder pith and imperceptibly tinted with a light rose hue through its milky white. This edition, limited to one copy, printed with a velvety black Chinese ink, had been covered outside and then recovered within with a wonderful genuine sow skin, chosen among a thousand, the color of flesh, its surface spotted where the hairs had been and adorned with black silk stamped in cold iron in miraculous designs by a great artist.

That day, Des Esseintes took this incomparable book from his shelves and handled it devotedly, once more reading certain pieces which seemed to him, in this simple but inestimable frame, more than ordinarily penetrating.

His admiration for this writer was unqualified. According to him, until Baudelaire's advent in literature, writers had limited themselves to exploring the surfaces of the soul or to penetrating into the accessible and illuminated caverns, restoring here and there the layers of capital sins, studying their veins, their growths, and noting, like Balzac for example, the layers of strata in the soul possessed by the monomania of a passion, by ambition, by avarice, by paternal stupidity, or by senile love.

What had been treated heretofore was the abundant health of virtues and of vices, the tranquil functioning of commonplace brains, and the practical reality of contemporary ideas, without any ideal of sickly depravation or of any beyond. In short, the discoveries of those analysts had stopped at the speculations of good or evil classified by the Church. It was the simple investigation, the conventional examination of a botanist minutely observing the anticipated development of normal efflorescence abounding in the natural earth.

Baudelaire had gone farther. He had descended to the very bowels of the inexhaustible mine, had involved his mind in abandoned and unfamiliar levels, and come to those districts of the soul where monstrous vegetations of thought extend their branches.

There, near those confines, the haunt of aberrations and of sickness, of the mystic lockjaw, the warm fever of lust, and the typhoids and vomits of crime, he had found, brooding under the gloomy clock of Ennui, the terrifying spectre of the age of sentiments and ideas.

He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind which has attained the October of its sensations, recounted the symptoms of souls summoned by grief and licensed by spleen, and shown the increasing decay of impressions while the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are enfeebled and the only thing remaining is the arid memory of miseries borne, intolerances endured and affronts suffered by intelligences oppressed by a ridiculous destiny.

He had pursued all the phases of that lamentable autumn, studying the human creature, quick to exasperation, ingenious in deceiving himself, compelling his thoughts to cheat each other so as to suffer the more keenly, and frustrating in advance all possible joy by his faculty of analysis and observation.

Then, in this vexed sensibility of the soul, in this ferocity of reflection that repels the restless ardor of devotions and the well-meaning outrages of charity, he gradually saw arising the horror of those senile passions, those ripe loves, where one person yields while the other is still suspicious, where lassitude denies such couples the filial caresses whose apparent youthfulness seems new, and the maternal candors whose gentleness and comfort impart, in a sense, the engaging remorse of a vague incest.

In magnificent pages he exposed his hybrid loves who were exasperated by the impotence in which they were overwhelmed, the hazardous deceits of narcotics and poisons invoked to aid in calming suffering and conquering ennui. At an epoch when literature attributed unhappiness of life almost exclusively to the mischances of unrequited love or to the jealousies that attend adulterous love, he disregarded such puerile maladies and probed into those wounds which are more fatal, more keen and deep, which arise from satiety, disillusion and scorn in ruined souls whom the present tortures, the past fills with loathing and the future frightens and menaces with despair.

And the more Des Esseintes read Baudelaire, the more he felt the ineffable charm of this writer who, in an age when verse served only to portray the external semblance of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible in a muscular and brawny language; who, more than any other writer possessed a marvelous power to define with a strange robustness of expression, the most fugitive and tentative morbidities of exhausted minds and sad souls.

After Baudelaire's works, the number of French books given place in his shelves was strictly limited. He was completely indifferent to those works which it is fashionable to praise. "The broad laugh of Rabelais," and "the deep comedy of Moliere," did not succeed in diverting him, and the antipathy he felt against these farces was so great that he did not hesitate to liken them, in the point of art, to the capers of circus clowns.

As for old poetry, he read hardly anything except Villon, whose melancholy ballads touched him, and, here and there, certain fragments from d'Aubigne, which stimulated his blood with the incredible vehemence of their apostrophes and curses.

In prose, he cared little for Voltaire and Rousseau, and was unmoved even by Diderot, whose so greatly praised _Salons_ he found strangely saturated with moralizing twaddle and futility; in his hatred toward all this balderdash, he limited himself almost exclusively to the reading of Christian eloquence, to the books of Bourdaloue and Bossuet whose sonorously embellished periods were imposing; but, still more, he relished suggestive ideas condensed into severe and strong phrases, such as those created by Nicole in his reflections, and especially Pascal, whose austere pessimism and attrition deeply touched him.

Apart from such books as these, French literature began in his library with the nineteenth century.

This section was divided into two groups, one of which included the ordinary, secular literature, and the other the Catholic literature, a special but little known literature published by large publishing houses and circulated to the four corners of the earth.

He had had the hardihood to explore such crypts as these, just as in the secular art he had discovered, under an enormous mass of insipid writings, a few books written by true masters.

The distinctive character of this literature was the constant immutability of its ideas and language. Just as the Church perpetuated the primitive form of holy objects, so she has preserved the relics of her dogmas, piously retaining, as the frame that encloses them, the oratorical language of the celebrated century. As one of the Church's own writers, Ozanam, has put it, the Christian style needed only to make use of the dialect employed by Bourdaloue and by Bossuet to the exclusion of all else.

In spite of this statement, the Church, more indulgent, closed its eyes to certain expressions, certain turns of style borrowed from the secular language of the same century, and the Catholic idiom had slightly purified itself of its heavy and massive phrases, especially cleaning itself, in Bossuet, of its prolixity and the painful rallying of its pronouns; but here ended the concessions, and others would doubtless have been purposeless for the prose sufficed without this ballast for the limited range of subjects to which the Church confined itself.

Incapable of grappling with contemporary life, of rendering the most simple aspects of things and persons visible and palpable, unqualified to explain the complicated wiles of intellects indifferent to the benefits of salvation, this language was nevertheless excellent when it treated of abstract subjects. It proved valuable in the argument of controversy, in the demonstration of a theory, in the obscurity of a commentary and, more than any other style, had the necessary authority to affirm, without any discussion, the intent of a doctrine.

Unfortunately, here as everywhere, the sanctuary had been invaded by a numerous army of pedants who smirched by their ignorance and lack of talent the Church's noble and austere attire. Further to profane it, devout women had interfered, and stupid sacristans and foolish _salons_ had acclaimed as works of genius the wretched prattle of such women.

Among such works, Des Esseintes had had the curiosity to read those of Madame Swetchine, the Russian, whose house in Paris was the rendezvous of the most fervent Catholics. Her writings had filled him with insufferably horrible boredom; they were more than merely wretched: they were wretched in every way, resembling the echoes of a tiny chapel where the solemn worshippers mumble their prayers, asking news of one another in low voices, while they repeat with a deeply mysterious air the common gossip of politics, weather forecasts and the state of the weather.

But there was even worse: a female laureate licensed by the Institute, Madame Augustus Craven, author of _Recit d'une soeur_, of _Eliane_ and _Fleaurange_, puffed into reputation by the whole apostolic press. Never, no, never, had Des Esseintes imagined that any person could write such ridiculous nonsense. In the point of conception, these books were so absurd, and were written in such a disgusting style, that by these tokens they became almost remarkable and rare.

It was not at all among the works of women that Des Esseintes, whose soul was completely jaded and whose nature was not inclined to sentimentality, could come upon a literary retreat suited to his taste.

Yet he strove, with a diligence that no impatience could overcome, to enjoy the works of a certain girl of genius, the blue-stocking pucelle of the group, but his efforts miscarried. He did not take to the _Journal_ and the _Lettres_ in which Eugenie de Guerin celebrates, without discretion, the amazing talent of a brother who rhymed, with such cleverness and grace that one must go to the works of de Jouy and Ecouchard Lebrun to find anything so novel and daring.

He had also unavailingly attempted to comprehend the delights of those works in which one may find such things as these:

   This morning I hung on papa's bed a cross which a little
   girl had given him yesterday.


   Mimi and I are invited by Monsieur Roquiers to attend the
   consecration of a bell tomorrow. This does not displease
   me at all.

Or wherein we find such important events as these:

   On my neck I have hung a medal of the Holy Virgin which
   Louise had brought me, as an amulet against cholera.

Or poetry of this sort:

   O the lovely moonbeam which fell on the Bible I was reading!

And, finally, such fine and penetrating observations as these:

   When I see a man pass before a crucifix, lift his hat and
   make the sign of the Cross, I say to myself, 'There goes a

And she continued in this fashion, without pause, until after Maurice de Guerin had died, after which his sister bewailed him in other pages, written in a watery prose strewn here and there with bits of poems whose humiliating poverty ended by moving Des Esseintes to pity.

Ah! it was hardly worth mentioning, but the Catholic party was not at all particular in the choice of its proteges and not at all artistic. Without exception, all these writers wrote in the pallid white prose of pensioners of a monastery, in a flowing movement of phrase which no astringent could counterbalance.

So Des Esseintes, horror-stricken at such insipidities, entirely forsook this literature. But neither did he find atonement for his disappointments among the modern masters of the clergy. These latter were one-sided divines or impeccably correct controversialists, but the Christian language in their orations and books had ended by becoming impersonal and congealing into a rhetoric whose every movement and pause was anticipated, in a sequence of periods constructed after a single model. And, in fact, Des Esseintes discovered that all the ecclesiastics wrote in the same manner, with a little more or a little less abandon or emphasis, and there was seldom any variations between the bodiless patterns traded by Dupanloup or Landriot, La Bouillerie or Gaume, by Dom Gueranger or Ratisbonne, by Freppel or Perraud, by Ravignan or Gratry, by Olivain or Dosithee, by Didon or Chocarne.

Des Esseintes had often pondered upon this matter. A really authentic talent, a supremely profound originality, a well-anchored conviction, he thought, was needed to animate this formal style which was too frail to support any thought that was unforseen or any thesis that was audacious.

Yet, despite all this, there were several writers whose burning eloquence fused and shaped this language, notably Lacordaire, who was one of the few really great writers the Church had produced for many years.

Immured, like his colleagues, in the narrow circle of orthodox speculations, likewise obliged to dissipate his energies in the exclusive consideration of those theories which had been expressed and consecrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed by the masters of the pulpit, he succeeded in inbuing them with novelty and in rejuvenating, almost in modifying them, by clothing them in a more personal and stimulating form. Here and there in his _Conferences de Notre-Dame_, were treasures of expression, audacious usages of words, accents of love, rapid movements, cries of joy and distracted effusions. Then, to his position as a brilliant and gentle monk whose ingenuity and labors had been exhausted in the impossible task of conciliating the liberal doctrines of society with the authoritarian dogmas of the Church, he added a temperament of fierce love and suave diplomatic tenderness. In his letters to young men may be found the caressing inflections of a father exhorting his sons with smiling reprimands, the well-meaning advice and the indulgent forgiveness. Some of these Des Esseintes found charming, confessing as they did the monk's yearning for affection, while others were even imposing when they sought to sustain courage and dissipate doubts by the inimitable certainties of Faith. In fine, this sentiment of paternity, which gave his pen a delicately feminine quality, lent to his prose a characteristically individual accent discernible among all the clerical literature.

After Lacordaire, ecclesiastics and monks possessing any individuality were extremely rare. At the very most, a few pages of his pupil, the Abbe Peyreyve, merited reading. He left sympathetic biographies of his master, wrote a few loveable letters, composed treatises in the sonorous language of formal discourse, and delivered panegyrics in which the declamatory tone was too broadly stressed. Certainly the Abbe Peyreyve had neither the emotion nor the ardor of Lacordaire. He was too much a priest and too little a man. Yet, here and there in the rhetoric of his sermons, flashed interesting effects of large and solid phrasing or touches of nobility that were almost venerable.

But to find writers of prose whose works justify close study, one was obliged to seek those who had not submitted to Ordination; to the secular writers whom the interests of Catholicism engaged and devoted to its cause.

With the Comte de Falloux, the episcopal style, so stupidly handled by the prelates, recruited new strength and in a manner recovered its masculine vigor. Under his guise of moderation, this academician exuded gall. The discourse which he delivered to Parliament in 1848 was diffuse and abject, but his articles, first printed in the _Correspondant_ and since collected into books, were mordant and discerning under the exaggerated politeness of their form. Conceived as harangues, they contained a certain strong muscular energy and were astonishing in the intolerance of their convictions.

A dangerous polemist because of his ambuscades, a shrewd logician, executing flanking movements and attacking unexpectedly, the Comte de Falloux had also written striking, penetrating pages on the death of Madame Swetchine, whose tracts he had collected and whom he revered as a saint.

But the true temperament of the writer was betrayed in the two brochures which appeared in 1848 and 1880, the latter entitled _l'Unite nationale_.

Moved by a cold rage, the implacable legitimist this time fought openly, contrary to his custom, and hurled against the infidels, in the form of a peroration, such fulminating invectives as these:

"And you, systematic Utopians, who make an abstraction of human nature, fomentors of atheism, fed on chimerae and hatreds, emancipators of woman, destroyers of the family, genealogists of the simian race, you whose name was but lately an outrage, be satisfied: you shall have been the prophets, and your disciples will be the high-priests of an abominable future!"

The other brochure bore the title _le Parti catholique_ and was directed against the despotism of the _Univers_ and against Veuillot whose name he refused to mention. Here the sinuous attacks were resumed, venom filtered beneath each line, when the gentleman, clad in blue answered the sharp physical blows of the fighter with scornful sarcasms.

These contestants represented the two parties of the Church, the two factions whose differences were resolved into virulent hatreds. De Falloux, the more haughty and cunning, belonged to the liberal camp which already claimed Montalembert and Cochin, Lacordaire and De Broglie. He subscribed to the principles of the _Correspondant_, a review which attempted to cover the imperious theories of the Church with a varnish of tolerance. Veuillot, franker and more open, scorned such masks, unhesitatingly admitted the tyranny of the ultramontaine doctrines and confessed, with a certain compunction, the pitiless yoke of the Church's dogma.

For the conduct of this verbal warfare, Veuillot had made himself master of a special style, partly borrowed from La Bruyere and Du Gros-Caillou. This half-solemn, half-slang style, had the force of a tomahawk in the hands of this vehement personality. Strangely headstrong and brave, he had overwhelmed both free thinkers and bishops with this terrible weapon, charging at his enemies like a bull, regardless of the party to which they belonged. Distrusted by the Church, which would tolerate neither his contraband style nor his fortified theories, he had nevertheless overawed everybody by his powerful talent, incurring the attack of the entire press which he effectively thrashed in his _Odeurs de Paris_, coping with every assault, freeing himself with a kick of the foot of all the wretched hack-writers who had presumed to attack him.

Unfortunately, this undisputed talent only existed in pugilism. At peace, Veuillot was no more than a mediocre writer. His poetry and novels were pitiful. His language was vapid, when it was not engaged in a striking controversy. In repose, he changed, uttering banal litanies and mumbling childish hymns.

More formal, more constrained and more serious was the beloved apologist of the Church, Ozanam, the inquisitor of the Christian language. Although he was very difficult to understand, Des Esseintes never failed to be astonished by the insouciance of this writer, who spoke confidently of God's impenetrable designs, although he felt obliged to establish proof of the improbable assertions he advanced. With the utmost self-confidence, he deformed events, contradicted, with greater impudence even than the panegyrists of other parties, the known facts of history, averred that the Church had never concealed the esteem it had for science, called heresies impure miasmas, and treated Buddhism and other religions with such contempt that he apologized for even soiling his Catholic prose by onslaught on their doctrines.

At times, religious passion breathed a certain ardor into his oratorical language, under the ice of which seethed a violent current; in his numerous writings on Dante, on Saint Francis, on the author of _Stabat Mater_, on the Franciscan poets, on socialism, on commercial law and every imaginable subject, this man pleaded for the defense of the Vatican which he held indefectible, and judged causes and opinions according to their harmony or discord with those that he advanced.

This manner of viewing questions from a single viewpoint was also the method of that literary scamp, Nettement, whom some people would have made the other's rival. The latter was less bigoted than the master, affected less arrogance and admitted more worldly pretentions. He repeatedly left the literary cloister in which Ozanam had imprisoned himself, and had read secular works so as to be able to judge of them. This province he entered gropingly, like a child in a vault, seeing nothing but shadow around him, perceiving in this gloom only the gleam of the candle which illumed the place a few paces before him.

In this gloom, uncertain of his bearings, he stumbled at every turn, speaking of Murger who had "the care of a chiselled and carefully finished style"; of Hugo who sought the noisome and unclean and to whom he dared compare De Laprade; of Paul Delacroix who scorned the rules; of Paul Delaroche and of the poet Reboul, whom he praised because of their apparent faith.

Des Esseintes could not restrain a shrug of the shoulders before these stupid opinions, covered by a borrowed prose whose already worn texture clung or became torn at each phrase.

In a different way, the works of Poujoulat and Genoude, Montalembert, Nicolas and Carne failed to inspire him with any definite interest. His taste for history was not pronounced, even when treated with the scholarly fidelity and harmonious style of the Duc de Broglie, nor was his penchant for the social and religious questions, even when broached by Henry Cochin, who revealed his true self in a letter where he gave a stirring account of the taking of the veil at the Sacre-Coeur. He had not touched these books for a long time, and the period was already remote when he had thrown with his waste paper the puerile lucubrations of the gloomy Pontmartin and the pitiful Feval; and long since he had given to his servants, for a certain vulgar usage, the short stories of Aubineau and Lasserre, in which are recorded wretched hagiographies of miracles effected by Dupont of Tours and by the Virgin.

In no way did Des Esseintes derive even a fugitive distraction from his boredom from this literature. The mass of books which he had once studied he had thrown into dim corners of his library shelves when he left the Fathers' school. "I should have left them in Paris," he told himself, as he turned out some books which were particularly insufferable: those of the Abbe Lamennais and that impervious sectarian so magisterially, so pompously dull and empty, the Comte Joseph de Maistre.

A single volume remained on a shelf, within reach of his hand. It was the _Homme_ of Ernest Hello. This writer was the absolute opposite of his religious confederates. Almost isolated among the pious group terrified by his conduct, Ernest Hello had ended by abandoning the open road that led from earth to heaven. Probably disgusted by the dullness of the journey and the noisy mob of those pilgrims of letters who for centuries followed one after the other upon the same highway, marching in each other's steps, stopping at the same places to exchange the same commonplace remarks on religion, on the Church Fathers, on their similar beliefs, on their common masters, he had departed through the byways to wander in the gloomy glade of Pascal, where he tarried long to recover his breath before continuing on his way and going even farther in the regions of human thought than the Jansenist, whom he derided.

Tortuous and precious, doctoral and complex, Hello, by the piercing cunning of his analysis, recalled to Des Esseintes the sharp, probing investigations of some of the infidel psychologists of the preceding and present century. In him was a sort of Catholic Duranty, but more dogmatic and penetrating, an experienced manipulation of the magnifying glass, a sophisticated engineer of the soul, a skillful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and elucidate it by details of the wheel work.

In this oddly formed mind existed unsurmised relationships of thoughts, harmonies and oppositions; furthermore, he affected a wholly novel manner of action which used the etymology of words as a spring-board for ideas whose associations sometimes became tenuous, but which almost constantly remained ingenious and sparkling.

Thus, despite the awkwardness of his structure, he dissected with a singular perspicacity, the _Avare_, "the ordinary man," and "the passion of unhappiness," revealing meanwhile interesting comparisons which could be constructed between the operations of photography and of memory.

But such skill in handling this perfected instrument of analysis, stolen from the enemies of the Church, represented only one of the temperamental phases of this man.

Still another existed. This mind divided itself in two parts and revealed, besides the writer, the religious fanatic and Biblical prophet.

Like Hugo, whom he now and again recalled in distortions of phrases and words, Ernest Hello had delighted in imitating Saint John of Patmos. He pontificated and vaticinated from his retreat in the rue Saint-Sulpice, haranguing the reader with an apocalyptic language partaking in spots of the bitterness of an Isaiah.

He affected inordinate pretentions of profundity. There were some fawning and complacent people who pretended to consider him a great man, the reservoir of learning, the encyclopedic giant of the age. Perhaps he was a well, but one at whose bottom one often could not find a drop of water.

In his volume _Paroles de Dieu_, he paraphrased the Holy Scriptures, endeavoring to complicate their ordinarily obvious sense. In his other book _Homme_, and in his brochure _le Jour du Seigneur_, written in a biblical style, rugged and obscure, he sought to appear like a vengeful apostle, prideful and tormented with spleen, but showed himself a deacon touched with a mystic epilepsy, or like a talented Maistre, a surly and bitter sectarian.

But, thought Des Esseintes, this sickly shamelessness often obstructed the inventive sallies of the casuist. With more intolerance than even Ozanam, he resolutely denied all that pertained to his clan, proclaimed the most disconcerting axioms, maintained with a disconcerting authority that "geology is returning toward Moses," and that natural history, like chemistry and every contemporary science, verifies the scientific truth of the Bible. The proposition on each page was of the unique truth and the superhuman knowledge of the Church, and everywhere were interspersed more than perilous aphorisms and raging curses cast at the art of the last century.

To this strange mixture was added the love of sanctimonious delights, such as a translation of the _Visions_ by Angele de Foligno, a book of an unparalleled fluid stupidity, with selected works of Jean Rusbrock l'Admirable, a mystic of the thirteenth century whose prose offered an incomprehensible but alluring combination of dusky exaltations, caressing effusions, and poignant transports.

The whole attitude of this presumptuous pontiff, Hello, had leaped from a preface written for this book. He himself remarked that "extraordinary things can only be stammered," and he stammered in good truth, declaring that "the holy gloom where Rusbrock extends his eagle wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and for such as him the far horizons would be a too narrow garment."

However this might be, Des Esseintes felt himself intrigued toward this ill-balanced but subtile mind. No fusion had been effected between the skilful psychologist and the pious pedant, and the very jolts and incoherencies constituted the personality of the man.

With him was recruited the little group of writers who fought on the front battle line of the clerical camp. They did not belong to the regular army, but were more properly the scouts of a religion which distrusted men of such talent as Veuillot and Hello, because they did not seem sufficiently submissive and shallow. What the Church really desires is soldiers who do not reason, files of such blind combatants and such mediocrities as Hello describes with the rage of one who has submitted to their yoke. Thus it was that Catholicism had lost no time in driving away one of its partisans, an enraged pamphleteer who wrote in a style at once rare and exasperated, the savage Leon Bloy; and caused to be cast from the doors of its bookshops, as it would a plague or a filthy vagrant, another writer who had made himself hoarse with celebrating its praises, Barbey d'Aurevilly.

It is true that the latter was too prone to compromise and not sufficiently docile. Others bent their heads under rebukes and returned to the ranks; but he was the _enfant terrible_, and was unrecognized by the party. In a literary way, he pursued women whom he dragged into the sanctuary. Nay, even that vast disdain was invoked, with which Catholicism enshrouds talent to prevent excommunication from putting beyond the pale of the law a perplexing servant who, under pretext of honoring his masters, broke the window panes of the chapel, juggled with the holy pyxes and executed eccentric dances around the tabernacle.

Two works of Barbey d'Aurevilly specially attracted Des Esseintes, the _Pretre marie_ and the _Diaboliques_. Others, such as the _Ensorcele_, the _Chevalier des touches_ and _Une Vieille Maitresse_, were certainly more comprehensive and more finely balanced, but they left Des Esseintes untouched, for he was really interested only in unhealthy works which were consumed and irritated by fever.

In these all but healthy volumes, Barbey d'Aurevilly constantly hesitated between those two pits which the Catholic religion succeeds in reconciling: mysticism and sadism.

In these two books which Des Esseintes was thumbing, Barbey had lost all prudence, given full rein to his steed, and galloped at full speed over roads to their farthest limits.

All the mysterious horror of the Middle Ages hovered over that improbable book, the _Pretre marie_; magic blended with religion, black magic with prayer and, more pitiless and savage than the Devil himself, the God of Original Sin incessantly tortured the innocent Calixte, His reprobate, as once He had caused one of his angels to mark the houses of unbelievers whom he wished to slay.

Conceived by a fasting monk in the grip of delirium, these scenes were unfolded in the uneven style of a tortured soul. Unfortunately, among those disordered creatures that were like galvanized Coppelias of Hoffmann, some, like Neel de Nehou, seemed to have been imagined in moments of exhaustion following convulsions, and were discordant notes in this harmony of sombre madness, where they were as comical and ridiculous as a tiny zinc figure playing on a horn on a timepiece.

After these mystic divagations, the writer had experienced a period of calm. Then a terrible relapse followed.

This belief that man is a Buridanesque donkey, a being balanced between two forces of equal attraction which successively remain victorious and vanquished, this conviction that human life is only an uncertain combat waged between hell and heaven, this faith in two opposite beings, Satan and Christ, was fatally certain to engender such inner discords of the soul, exalted by incessant struggle, excited at once by promises and menaces, and ending by abandoning itself to whichever of the two forces persisted in the pursuit the more relentlessly.

In the _Pretre marie_, Barbey d'Aurevilly sang the praises of Christ, who had prevailed against temptations; in the _Diaboliques_, the author succumbed to the Devil, whom he celebrated; then appeared sadism, that bastard of Catholicism, which through the centuries religion has relentlessly pursued with its exorcisms and stakes.

This condition, at once fascinating and ambiguous, can not arise in the soul of an unbeliever. It does not merely consist in sinking oneself in the excesses of the flesh, excited by outrageous blasphemies, for in such a case it would be no more than a case of satyriasis that had reached its climax. Before all, it consists in sacrilegious practice, in moral rebellion, in spiritual debauchery, in a wholly ideal aberration, and in this it is exemplarily Christian. It also is founded upon a joy tempered by fear, a joy analogous to the satisfaction of children who disobey their parents and play with forbidden things, for no reason other than that they had been forbidden to do so.

In fact, if it did not admit of sacrilege, sadism would have no reason for existence. Besides, the sacrilege proceeding from the very existence of a religion, can only be intentionally and pertinently performed by a believer, for no one would take pleasure in profaning a faith that was indifferent or unknown to him.

The power of sadism and the attraction it presents, lies entirely then in the prohibited enjoyment of transferring to Satan the praises and prayers due to God; it lies in the non-observance of Catholic precepts which one really follows unwillingly, by committing in deeper scorn of Christ, those sins which the Church has especially cursed, such as pollution of worship and carnal orgy.

In its elements, this phenomenon to which the Marquis de Sade has bequeathed his name is as old as the Church. It had reared its head in the eighteenth century, recalling, to go back no farther, by a simple phenomenon of atavism the impious practices of the Sabbath, the witches' revels of the Middle Ages.

By having consulted the _Malleus maleficorum_, that terrible code of Jacob Sprenger which permits the Church wholesale burnings of necromancers and sorcerers, Des Esseintes recognized in the witches' Sabbath, all the obscene practices and all the blasphemies of sadism. In addition to the unclean scenes beloved by Malin, the nights successively and lawfully consecrated to excessive sensual orgies and devoted to the bestialities of passion, he once more discovered the parody of the processions, the insults and eternal threats levelled at God and the devotion bestowed upon His rival, while amid cursing of the wine and the bread, the black mass was being celebrated on the back of a woman on all fours, whose stained bare thighs served as the altar from which the congregation received the communion from a black goblet stamped with an image of a goat.

This profusion of impure mockeries and foul shames were marked in the career of the Marquis de Sade, who garnished his terrible pleasures with outrageous sacrileges.

He cried out to the sky, invoked Lucifer, shouted his contempt of God, calling Him rogue and imbecile, spat upon the communion, endeavored to contaminate with vile ordures a Divinity who he prayed might damn him, the while he declared, to defy Him the more, that He did not exist.

Barbey d'Aurevilly approached this psychic state. If he did not presume as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious curses against the Saviour; if, more prudent or more timid, he claimed ever to honor the Church, he none the less addressed his suit to the Devil as was done in medieval times and he, too, in order to brave God, fell into demoniac nymphomania, inventing sensual monstrosities, even borrowing from bedroom philosophy a certain episode which he seasoned with new condiments when he wrote the story _le Diner d'un athee_.

This extravagant book pleased Des Esseintes. He had caused to be printed, in violet ink and in a frame of cardinal purple, on a genuine parchment which the judges of the Rota had blessed, a copy of the _Diaboliques_, with characters whose quaint quavers and flourishes in turned up tails and claws affected a satanic form.

After certain pieces of Baudelaire that, in imitation of the clamorous songs of nocturnal revels, celebrated infernal litanies, this volume alone of all the works of contemporary apostolic literature testified to this state of mind, at once impious and devout, toward which Catholicism often thrust Des Esseintes.

With Barbey d'Aurevilly ended the line of religious writers; and in truth, that pariah belonged more, from every point of view, to secular literature than to the other with which he demanded a place that was denied him. His language was the language of disheveled romanticism, full of involved expressions, unfamiliar turns of speech, delighted with extravagant comparisons and with whip strokes and phrases which exploded, like the clangor of noisy bells, along the text. In short, d'Aurevilly was like a stallion among the geldings of the ultramontaine stables.

Des Esseintes reflected in this wise while re-reading, here and there, several passages of the book and, comparing its nervous and changing style with the fixed manner of other Church writers, he thought of the evolution of language which Darwin has so truly revealed.

Compelled to live in a secular atmosphere, raised in the heart of the romantic school, constantly being in the current of modern literature and accustomed to reading contemporary publications, Barbey d'Aurevilly had acquired a dialect which although it had sustained numerous and profound changes since the Great Age, had nevertheless renewed itself in his works.

The ecclesiastical writers, on the contrary, confined within specific limitations, restricted to ancient Church literature, knowing nothing of the literary progress of the centuries and determined if need be to blind their eyes the more surely not to see, necessarily were constrained to the use of an inflexible language, like that of the eighteenth century which descendants of the French who settled in Canada still speak and write today, without change of phrasing or words, having succeeded in preserving their original idiom by isolation in certain metropolitan centres, despite the fact that they are enveloped upon every side by English-speaking peoples.

Meanwhile the silvery sound of a clock that tolled the angelus announced breakfast time to Des Esseintes. He abandoned his books, pressed his brow and went to the dining room, saying to himself that, among all the volumes he had just arranged, the works of Barbey d'Aurevilly were the only ones whose ideas and style offered the gaminess he so loved to savor in the Latin and decadent, monastic writers of past ages.

Chapter 13

As the season advanced, the weather, far from improving, grew worse. Everything seemed to go wrong that year. After the squalls and mists, the sky was covered with a white expanse of heat, like plates of sheet iron. In two days, without transition, a torrid heat, an atmosphere of frightful heaviness, succeeded the damp cold of foggy days and the streaming of the rains. As though stirred by furious pokers, the sun showed like a kiln-hole, darting a light almost white-hot, burning one's face. A hot dust rose from the roads, scorching the dry trees, and the yellowed lawns became a deep brown. A temperature like that of a foundry hung over the dwelling of Des Esseintes.

Half naked, he opened a window and received the air like a furnace blast in his face. The dining room, to which he fled, was fiery, and the rarefied air simmered. Utterly distressed, he sat down, for the stimulation that had seized him had ended since the close of his reveries.

Like all people tormented by nervousness, heat distracted him. And his anaemia, checked by cold weather, again became pronounced, weakening his body which had been debilitated by copious perspiration.

The back of his shirt was saturated, his perinaeum was damp, his feet and arms moist, his brow overflowing with sweat that ran down his cheeks. Des Esseintes reclined, annihilated, on a chair.

The sight of the meat placed on the table at that moment caused his stomach to rise. He ordered the food removed, asked for boiled eggs, and tried to swallow some bread soaked in eggs, but his stomach would have none of it. A fit of nausea overcame him. He drank a few drops of wine that pricked his stomach like points of fire. He wet his face; the perspiration, alternately warm and cold, coursed along his temples. He began to suck some pieces of ice to overcome his troubled heart--but in vain.

So weak was he that he leaned against the table. He rose, feeling the need of air, but the bread had slowly risen in his gullet and remained there. Never had he felt so distressed, so shattered, so ill at ease. To add to his discomfort, his eyes distressed him and he saw objects in double. Soon he lost his sense of distance, and his glass seemed to be a league away. He told himself that he was the play-thing of sensorial illusions and that he was incapable of reacting. He stretched out on a couch, but instantly he was cradled as by the tossing of a moving ship, and the affection of his heart increased. He rose to his feet, determined to rid himself, by means of a digestive, of the food which was choking him.

He again reached the dining room and sadly compared himself, in this cabin, to passengers seized with sea-sickness. Stumbling, he made his way to the closet, examined the mouth organ without opening any of the stops, but instead took from a high shelf a bottle of benedictine which he kept because of its form which to him seemed suggestive of thoughts that were at once gently wanton and vaguely mystic.

But at this moment he remained indifferent, gazing with lack-lustre, staring eyes at this squat, dark-green bottle which, at other times, had brought before him images of the medieval priories by its old-fashioned monkish paunch, its head and neck covered with a parchment hood, its red wax stamp quartered with three silver mitres against a field of azure and fastened at the neck, like a papal bull, with bands of lead, its label inscribed in sonorous Latin, on paper that seemed to have yellowed with age: _Liquor Monachorum Benedictinorum Abbatiae Fiscannensis_.

Under this thoroughly abbatial robe, signed with a cross and the ecclesiastic initials 'D.O.M.', pressed in between its parchments and ligatures, slept an exquisitely fine saffron-colored liquid. It breathed an aroma that seemed the quintessence of angelica and hyssop blended with sea-weeds and of iodines and bromes hidden in sweet essences, and it stimulated the palate with a spiritous ardor concealed under a virginal daintiness, and charmed the sense of smell by a pungency enveloped in a caress innocent and devout.

This deceit which resulted from the extraordinary disharmony between contents and container, between the liturgic form of the flask and its so feminine and modern soul, had formerly stimulated Des Esseintes to revery and, facing the bottle, he was inclined to think at great length of the monks who sold it, the Benedictines of the Abbey of Fecamp who, belonging to the brotherhood of Saint-Maur which had been celebrated for its controversial works under the rule of Saint Benoit, followed neither the observances of the white monks of Citeaux nor of the black monks of Cluny. He could not but think of them as being like their brethren of the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating retorts and distilling faultless panaceas and prescriptions.

He tasted a drop of this liquor and, for a few moments, had relief. But soon the fire, which the dash of wine had lit in his bowels, revived. He threw down his napkin, returned to his study, and paced the floor. He felt as if he were under a pneumatic clock, and a numbing weakness stole from his brain through his limbs. Unable to endure it longer, he betook himself to the garden. It was the first time he had done this since his arrival at Fontenay. There he found shelter beneath a tree which radiated a circle of shadow. Seated on the lawn, he looked around with a besotted air at the square beds of vegetables planted by the servants. He gazed, but it was only at the end of an hour that he really saw them, for a greenish film floated before his eyes, permitting him only to see, as in the depths of water, flickering images of shifting tones.

But when he recovered his balance, he clearly distinguished the onions and cabbages, a garden bed of lettuce further off, and, in the distance along the hedge, a row of white lillies recumbent in the heavy air.

A smile played on his lips, for he suddenly recalled the strange comparison of old Nicandre, who likened, in the point of form, the pistils of lillies to the genital organs of a donkey; and he recalled also a passage from Albert le Grand, in which that thaumaturgist describes a strange way of discovering whether a girl is still a virgin, by means of a lettuce.

These remembrances distracted him somewhat. He examined the garden, interesting himself in the plants withered by the heat, and in the hot ground whose vapors rose into the dusty air. Then, above the hedge which separated the garden below from the embankment leading to the fort, he watched the urchins struggling and tumbling on the ground.

He was concentrating his attention upon them when another younger, sorry little specimen appeared. He had hair like seaweed covered with sand, two green bubbles beneath his nose, and disgusting lips surrounded by a dirty white frame formed by a slice of bread smeared with cheese and filled with pieces of scallions.

Des Esseintes inhaled the air. A perverse appetite seized him. This dirty slice made his mouth water. It seemed to him that his stomach, refusing all other nourishment, could digest this shocking food, and that his palate would enjoy it as though it were a feast.

He leaped up, ran to the kitchen and ordered a loaf, white cheese and green onions to be brought from the village, emphasizing his desire for a slice exactly like the one being eaten by the child. Then he returned to sit beneath the tree.

The little chaps were fighting with one another. They struggled for bits of bread which they shoved into their cheeks, meanwhile sucking their fingers. Kicks and blows rained freely, and the weakest, trampled upon, cried out.

At this sight, Des Esseintes recovered his animation. The interest he took in this fight distracted his thoughts from his illness. Contemplating the blind fury of these urchins, he thought of the cruel and abominable law of the struggle of existence; and, although these children were mean, he could not help being interested in their futures, yet could not but believe that it had been better for them had their mothers never given them birth.

In fact, all they could expect of life was rash, colic, fever, and measles in their earliest years; slaps in the face and degrading drudgeries up to thirteen years; deceptions by women, sicknesses and infidelity during manhood and, toward the last, infirmities and agonies in a poorhouse or asylum.

And the future was the same for every one, and none in his good senses could envy his neighbor. The rich had the same passions, the same anxieties, the same pains and the same illnesses, but in a different environment; the same mediocre enjoyments, whether alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation in evils, a sort of justice which re-established the balance of misfortune between the classes, permitting the poor to bear physical suffering more easily, and making it difficult for the unresisting, weaker bodies of the rich to withstand it.

How vain, silly and mad it is to beget brats! And Des Esseintes thought of those ecclesiastics who had taken vows of sterility, yet were so inconsistent as to canonize Saint Vincent de Paul, because he brought vain tortures to innocent creatures.

By means of his hateful precautions, Vincent de Paul had deferred for years the death of unintelligent and insensate beings, in such a way that when they later became almost intelligent and sentient to grief, they were able to anticipate the future, to await and fear that death of whose very name they had of late been ignorant, some of them going as far to invoke it, in hatred of that sentence of life which the monk inflicted upon them by an absurd theological code.

And since this old man's death, his ideas had prevailed. Abandoned children were sheltered instead of being killed and yet their lives daily became increasingly rigorous and barren! Then, under pretext of liberty and progress, Society had discovered another means of increasing man's miseries by tearing him from his home, forcing him to don a ridiculous uniform and carry weapons, by brutalizing him in a slavery in every respect like that from which he had compassionately freed the negro, and all to enable him to slaughter his neighbor without risking the scaffold like ordinary murderers who operate single-handed, without uniforms and with weapons that are less swift and deafening.

Des Esseintes wondered if there had ever been such a time as ours. Our age invokes the causes of humanity, endeavors to perfect anaesthesia to suppress physical suffering. Yet at the same time it prepares these very stimulants to increase moral wretchedness.

Ah! if ever this useless procreation should be abolished, it were now. But here, again, the laws enacted by men like Portalis and Homais appeared strange and cruel.

In the matter of generation, Justice finds the agencies for deception to be quite natural. It is a recognized and acknowledged fact. There is scarcely a home of any station that does not confide its children to the drain pipes, or that does not employ contrivances that are freely sold, and which it would enter no person's mind to prohibit. And yet, if these subterfuges proved insufficient, if the attempt miscarried and if, to remedy matters, one had recourse to more efficacious measures, ah! then there were not prisons enough, not municipal jails enough to confine those who, in good faith, were condemned by other individuals who had that very evening, on the conjugal bed, done their utmost to avoid giving birth to children.

The deceit itself was not a crime, it seemed. The crime lay in the justification of the deceit.

What Society considered a crime was the act of killing a being endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, one destroyed an animal that was less formed and living and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat, although it is permissible to strangle these creatures as soon as they are born.

It is only right to add, for the sake of fairness, thought Des Esseintes, that it is not the awkward man, who generally loses no time in disappearing, but rather the woman, the victim of his stupidity, who expiates the crime of having saved an innocent life.

Yet was it right that the world should be filled with such prejudice as to wish to repress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, the Polynesian savage, for instance, instinctively practices them?

The servant interrupted the charitable reflections of Des Esseintes, who received the slice of bread on a plate of vermeil. Pains shot through his heart. He did not have the courage to eat this bread, for the unhealthy excitement of his stomach had ceased. A sensation of frightful decay swept upon him. He was compelled to rise. The sun turned, and slowly fell upon the place that he had lately occupied. The heat became more heavy and fierce.

"Throw this slice of bread to those children who are murdering each other on the road," he ordered his servant. "Let the weakest be crippled, be denied share in the prize, and be soundly thrashed into the bargain, as they will be when they return to their homes with torn trousers and bruised eyes. This will give them an idea of the life that awaits them!"

And he entered the house and sank into his armchair.

"But I must try to eat something," he said. And he attempted to soak a biscuit in old Constantia wine, several bottles of which remained in his cellar.

That wine, the color of slightly burned onions, partaking of Malaga and Port, but with a specially luscious flavor, and an after-taste of grapes dried by fiery suns, had often comforted him, given a new energy to his stomach weakened by the fasts which he was forced to undergo. But this cordial, usually so efficacious, now failed. Then he thought that an emollient might perhaps counteract the fiery pains which were consuming him, and he took out the Nalifka, a Russian liqueur, contained in a bottle frosted with unpolished glass. This unctuous raspberry-flavored syrup also failed. Alas! the time was far off when, enjoying good health, Des Esseintes had ridden to his house in the hot summer days in a sleigh, and there, covered with furs wrapped about his chest, forced himself to shiver, saying, as he listened attentively to the chattering of his teeth: "Ah, how biting this wind is! It is freezing!" Thus he had almost succeeded in convincing himself that it was cold.

Unfortunately, such remedies as these had failed of their purpose ever since his sickness became vital.

With all this, he was unable to make use of laudanum: instead of allaying the pain, this sedative irritated him even to the degree of depriving him of rest. At one time he had endeavored to procure visions through opium and hashish, but these two substances had led to vomitings and intense nervous disturbances. He had instantly been forced to give up the idea of taking them, and without the aid of these coarse stimulants, demand of his brain alone to transport him into the land of dreams, far, far from life.

"What a day!" he said to himself, sponging his neck, feeling every ounce of his strength dissolve in perspiration; a feverish agitation still prevented him from remaining in one spot; once more he walked up and down, trying every chair in the room in turn. Wearied of the struggle, at last he fell against his bureau and leaning mechanically against the table, without thinking of anything, he touched an astrolabe which rested on a mass of books and notes and served as a paper weight.

He had purchased this engraved and gilded copper instrument (it had come from Germany and dated from the seventeenth century) of a second-hand Paris dealer, after a visit to the Cluny Museum, where he had stood for a long while in ecstatic admiration before a marvelous astrolabe made of chiseled ivory, whose cabalistic appearance enchanted him.

This paper weight evoked many reminiscences within him. Aroused and actuated by the appearance of this trinket, his thoughts rushed from Fontenay to Paris, to the curio shop where he had purchased it, then returned to the Museum, and he mentally beheld the ivory astrolabe, while his unseeing eyes continued to gaze upon the copper astrolabe on the table.

Then he left the Museum and, without quitting the town, strolled down the streets, wandered through the rue du Sommerard and the boulevard Saint-Michel, branched off into the neighboring streets, and paused before certain shops whose quite extraordinary appearance and profusion had often attracted him.

Beginning with an astrolabe, this spiritual jaunt ended in the cafes of the Latin Quarter.

He remembered how these places were crowded in the rue Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the rue de Vaugirard, touching the Odeon; sometimes they followed one another like the old _riddecks_ of the Canal-aux-Harengs, at Antwerp, each of which revealed a front, the counterpart of its neighbor.

Through the half-opened doors and the windows dimmed with colored panes or curtains, he had often seen women who walked about like geese; others, on benches, rested their elbows on the marble tables, humming, their temples resting between their hands; still others strutted and posed in front of mirrors, playing with their false hair pomaded by hair-dressers; others, again, took money from their purses and methodically sorted the different denominations in little heaps.

Most of them had heavy features, hoarse voices, flabby necks and painted eyes; and all of them, like automatons, moved simultaneously upon the same impulse, flung the same enticements with the same tone and uttered the identical queer words, the same odd inflections and the same smile.

Certain ideas associated themselves in the mind of Des Esseintes, whose reveries came to an end, now that he recalled this collection of coffee-houses and streets.

He understood the significance of those cafes which reflected the state of soul of an entire generation, and from it he discovered the synthesis of the period.

And, in fact, the symptoms were certain and obvious. The houses of prostitution disappeared, and as soon as one of them closed, a cafe began to operate.

This restriction of prostitution which proved profitable to clandestine loves, evidently arose from the incomprehensible illusions of men in the matter of carnal life.

Monstrous as it may appear, these haunts satisfied an ideal.

Although the utilitarian tendencies transmitted by heredity and developed by the precocious rudeness and constant brutalities of the colleges had made the youth of the day strangely crude and as strangely positive and cold, it had none the less preserved, in the back of their heads, an old blue flower, an old ideal of a vague, sour affection.

Today, when the blood clamored, youths could not bring themselves to go through the formality of entering, ending, paying and leaving; in their eyes, this was bestiality, the action of a dog attacking a bitch without much ado. Then, too, vanity fled unsatisfied from these houses where there was no semblance of resistance; there was no victory, no hoped for preference, nor even largess obtained from the tradeswoman who measured her caresses according to the price. On the contrary, the courting of a girl of the cafes stimulated all the susceptibilities of love, all the refinements of sentiment. One disputed with the others for such a girl, and those to whom she granted a rendezvous, in consideration of much money, were sincere in imagining that they had won her from a rival, and in so thinking they were the objects of honorary distinction and favor.

Yet this domesticity was as stupid, as selfish, as vile as that of houses of ill-fame. Its creatures drank without being thirsty, laughed without reason, were charmed by the caresses of a slut, quarrelled and fought for no reason whatever, despite everything. The Parisian youth had not been able to see that these girls were, from the point of plastic beauty, graceful attitudes and necessary attire, quite inferior to the women in the bawdy houses! "My God," Des Esseintes exclaimed, "what ninnies are these fellows who flutter around the cafes; for, over and above their silly illusions, they forget the danger of degraded, suspicious allurements, and they are unaware of the sums of money given for affairs priced in advance by the mistress, of the time lost in waiting for an assignation deferred so as to increase its value and cost, delays which are repeated to provide more tips for the waiters."

This imbecile sentimentality, combined with a ferociously practical sense, represented the dominant motive of the age. These very persons who would have gouged their neighbors' eyes to gain ten _sous_, lost all presence of mind and discrimination before suspicious looking girls in restaurants who pitilessly harassed and relentlessly fleeced them. Fathers devoted their lives to their businesses and labors, families devoured one another on the pretext of trade, only to be robbed by their sons who, in turn, allowed themselves to be fleeced by women who posed as sweethearts to obtain their money.

In all Paris, from east to west and from north to south, there existed an unbroken chain of female tricksters, a system of organized theft, and all because, instead of satisfying men at once, these women were skilled in the subterfuges of delay.

At bottom, one might say that human wisdom consisted in the protraction of all things, in saying "no" before saying "yes," for one could manage people only by trifling with them.

"Ah! if the same were but true of the stomach," sighed Des Esseintes, racked by a cramp which instantly and sharply brought back his mind, that had roved far off, to Fontenay.

Chapter 14

Several days slowly passed thanks to certain measures which succeeded in tricking the stomach, but one morning Des Esseintes could endure food no longer, and he asked himself anxiously whether his already serious weakness would not grow worse and force him to take to bed. A sudden gleam of light relieved his distress; he remembered that one of his friends, quite ill at one time, had made use of a Papin's digester to overcome his anaemia and preserve what little strength he had.

He dispatched his servant to Paris for this precious utensil, and following the directions contained in the prospectus which the manufacturer had enclosed, he himself instructed the cook how to cut the roast beef into bits, put it into the pewter pot, with a slice of leek and carrot, and screw on the cover to let it boil for four hours.

At the end of this time the meat fibres were strained. He drank a spoonful of the thick salty juice deposited at the bottom of the pot. Then he felt a warmth, like a smooth caress, descend upon him.

This nourishment relieved his pain and nausea, and even strengthened his stomach which did not refuse to accept these few drops of soup.

Thanks to this digester, his neurosis was arrested and Des Esseintes said to himself: "Well, it is so much gained; perhaps the temperature will change, the sky will throw some ashes upon this abominable sun which exhausts me, and I shall hold out without accident till the first fogs and frosts of winter."

In the torpor and listless ennui in which he was sunk, the disorder of his library, whose arrangement had never been completed, irritated him. Helpless in his armchair, he had constantly in sight the books set awry on the shelves propped against each other or lying flat on their sides, like a tumbled pack of cards. This disorder offended him the more when he contrasted it with the perfect order of his religious works, carefully placed on parade along the walls.

He tried to clear up the confusion, but after ten minutes of work, perspiration covered him; the effort weakened him. He stretched himself on a couch and rang for his servant.

Following his directions, the old man continued the task, bringing each book in turn to Des Esseintes who examined it and directed where it was to be placed.

This task did not last long, for Des Esseintes' library contained but a very limited number of contemporary, secular works.

They were drawn through his brain as bands of metal are drawn through a steel-plate from which they issue thin, light, and reduced to almost imperceptible wires; and he had ended by possessing only those books which could submit to such treatment and which were so solidly tempered as to withstand the rolling-mill of each new reading. In his desire to refine, he had restrained and almost sterilized his enjoyment, ever accentuating the irremediable conflict existing between his ideas and those of the world in which he had happened to be born. He had now reached such a pass that he could no longer discover any writings to content his secret longings. And his admiration even weaned itself from those volumes which had certainly contributed to sharpen his mind, making it so suspicious and subtle.

In art, his ideas had sprung from a simple point of view. For him schools did not exist, and only the temperament of the writer mattered, only the working of his brain interested him, regardless of the subject. Unfortunately, this verity of appreciation, worthy of Palisse, was scarcely applicable, for the simple reason that, even while desiring to be free of prejudices and passion, each person naturally goes to the works which most intimately correspond with his own temperament, and ends by relegating all others to the rear.

This work of selection had slowly acted within him; not long ago he had adored the great Balzac, but as his body weakened and his nerves became troublesome, his tastes modified and his admirations changed.

Very soon, and despite the fact that he was aware of his injustice to the amazing author of the _Comedie humaine_, Des Esseintes had reached a point where he no longer opened Balzac's books; their healthy spirit jarred on him. Other aspirations now stirred in him, somehow becoming undefinable.

Yet when he probed himself he understood that to attract, a work must have that character of strangeness demanded by Edgar Allen Poe; but he ventured even further on this path and called for Byzantine flora of brain and complicated deliquescences of language. He desired a troubled indecision on which he might brood until he could shape it at will to a more vague or determinate form, according to the momentary state of his soul. In short, he desired a work of art both for what it was in itself and for what it permitted him to endow it. He wished to pass by means of it into a sphere of sublimated sensation which would arouse in him new commotions whose cause he might long and vainly seek to analyze.

In short, since leaving Paris, Des Esseintes was removing himself further and further from reality, especially from the contemporary world which he held in an ever growing detestation. This hatred had inevitably reacted on his literary and artistic tastes, and he would have as little as possible to do with paintings and books whose limited subjects dealt with modern life.

Thus, losing the faculty of admiring beauty indiscriminately under whatever form it was presented, he preferred Flaubert's _Tentation de saint Antoine_ to his _Education sentimentale_; Goncourt's _Faustin_ to his _Germinie Lacerteux_; Zola's _Faute de l'abbe Mouret_ to his _Assommoir_.

This point of view seemed logical to him; these works less immediate, but just as vibrant and human, enabled him to penetrate farther into the depths of the temperaments of these masters who revealed in them the most mysterious transports of their being with a more sincere abandon; and they lifted him far above this trivial life which wearied him so.

In them he entered into a perfect communion of ideas with their authors who had written them when their state of soul was analogous to his own.

In fact, when the period in which a man of talent is obliged to live is dull and stupid, the artist, though unconsciously, is haunted by a nostalgia of some past century.

Finding himself unable to harmonize, save at rare intervals, with the environment in which he lives and not discovering sufficient distraction in the pleasures of observation and analysis, in the examination of the environment and its people, he feels in himself the dawning of strange ideas. Confused desires for other lands awake and are clarified by reflection and study. Instincts, sensations and thoughts bequeathed by heredity, awake, grow fixed, assert themselves with an imperious assurance. He recalls memories of beings and things he has never really known and a time comes when he escapes from the penitentiary of his age and roves, in full liberty, into another epoch with which, through a last illusion, he seems more in harmony.

With some, it is a return to vanished ages, to extinct civilizations, to dead epochs; with others, it is an urge towards a fantastic future, to a more or less intense vision of a period about to dawn, whose image, by an effect of atavism of which he is unaware, is a reproduction of some past age.

In Flaubert this nostalgia is expressed in solemn and majestic pictures of magnificent splendors, in whose gorgeous, barbaric frames move palpitating and delicate creatures, mysterious and haughty--women gifted, in the perfection of their beauty, with souls capable of suffering and in whose depths he discerned frightful derangements, mad aspirations, grieved as they were by the haunting premonition of the dissillusionments their follies held in store.

The temperament of this great artist is fully revealed in the incomparable pages of the _Tentation de saint Antoine_ and _Salammbo_ where, far from our sorry life, he evokes the splendors of old Asia, the age of fervent prayer and mystic depression, of languorous passions and excesses induced by the unbearable ennui resulting from opulence and prayer.

In de Goncourt, it was the nostalgia of the preceding century, a return to the elegances of a society forever lost. The stupendous setting of seas beating against jetties, of deserts stretching under torrid skies to distant horizons, did not exist in his nostalgic work which confined itself to a boudoir, near an aulic park, scented with the voluptuous fragrance of a woman with a tired smile, a perverse little pout and unresigned, pensive eyes. The soul with which he animated his characters was not that breathed by Flaubert into his creatures, no longer the soul early thrown in revolt by the inexorable certainty that no new happiness is possible; it was a soul that had too late revolted, after the experience, against all the useless attempts to invent new spiritual liaisons and to heighten the enjoyment of lovers, which from immemorial times has always ended in satiety.

Although she lived in, and partook of the life of our time, Faustin, by her ancestral influences, was a creature of the past century whose cerebral lassitude and sensual excesses she possessed.

This book of Edmond de Goncourt was one of the volumes which Des Esseintes loved best, and the suggestion of revery which he demanded lived in this work where, under each written line, another line was etched, visible to the spirit alone, indicated by a hint which revealed passion, by a reticence permitting one to divine subtle states of soul which no idiom could express. And it was no longer Flaubert's language in its inimitable magnificence, but a morbid, perspicacious style, nervous and twisted, keen to note the impalpable impression that strikes the senses, a style expert in modulating the complicated nuances of an epoch which in itself was singularly complex. In short, it was the epithet indispensable to decrepit civilizations, no matter how old they be, which must have words with new meanings and forms, innovations in phrases and words for their complex needs.

At Rome, the dying paganism had modified its prosody and transmuted its language with Ausonius, with Claudian and Rutilius whose attentive, scrupulous, sonorous and powerful style presented, in its descriptive parts especially, reflections, hints and nuances bearing an affinity with the style of de Goncourt.

At Paris, a fact unique in literary history had been consummated. That moribund society of the eighteenth century, which possessed painters, musicians and architects imbued with its tastes and doctrines, had not been able to produce a writer who could truly depict its dying elegances, the quintessence of its joys so cruelly expiated. It had been necessary to await the arrival of de Goncourt (whose temperament was formed of memories and regrets made more poignant by the sad spectacle of the intellectual poverty and the pitiful aspirations of his own time) to resuscitate, not only in his historical works, but even more in _Faustin_, the very soul of that period; incarnating its nervous refinements in this actress who tortured her mind and her senses so as to savor to exhaustion the grievous revulsives of love and of art.

With Zola, the nostalgia of the far-away was different. In him was no longing for vanished ages, no aspiring toward worlds lost in the night of time. His strong and solid temperament, dazzled with the luxuriance of life, its sanguine forces and moral health, diverted him from the artificial graces and painted chloroses of the past century, as well as from the hierarchic solemnity, the brutal ferocity and misty, effeminate dreams of the old orient. When he, too, had become obsessed by this nostalgia, by this need, which is nothing less than poetry itself, of shunning the contemporary world he was studying, he had rushed into an ideal and fruitful country, had dreamed of fantastic passions of skies, of long raptures of earth, and of fecund rains of pollen falling into panting organs of flowers. He had ended in a gigantic pantheism, had created, unwittingly perhaps, with this Edenesque environment in which he placed his Adam and Eve, a marvelous Hindoo poem, singing, in a style whose broad, crude strokes had something of the bizarre brilliance of an Indian painting, the song of the flesh, of animated living matter revealing, to the human creature, by its passion for reproduction the forbidden fruits of love, its suffocations, its instinctive caresses and natural attitudes.

With Baudelaire, these three masters had most affected Des Esseintes in modern, French, secular literature. But he had read them so often, had saturated himself in them so completely, that in order to absorb them he had been compelled to lay them aside and let them remain unread on his shelves.

Even now when the servant was arranging them for him, he did not care to open them, and contented himself merely with indicating the place they were to occupy and seeing that they were properly classified and put away.

The servant brought him a new series of books. These oppressed him more. They were books toward which his taste had gradually veered, books which diverted him by their very faults from the perfection of more vigorous writers. Here, too, Des Esseintes had reached the point where he sought, among these troubled pages, only phrases which discharged a sort of electricity that made him tremble; they transmitted their fluid through a medium which at first sight seemed refractory.

Their imperfections pleased him, provided they were neither parasitic nor servile, and perhaps there was a grain of truth in his theory that the inferior and decadent writer, who is more subjective, though unfinished, distills a more irritating aperient and acid balm than the artist of the same period who is truly great. In his opinion, it was in their turbulent sketches that one perceived the exaltations of the most excitable sensibilities, the caprices of the most morbid psychological states, the most extravagant depravities of language charged, in spite of its rebelliousness, with the difficult task of containing the effervescent salts of sensations and ideas.

Thus, after the masters, he betook himself to a few writers who attracted him all the more because of the disdain in which they were held by the public incapable of understanding them.

One of them was Paul Verlaine who had begun with a volume of verse, the _Poemes Saturniens_, a rather ineffectual book where imitations of Leconte de Lisle jostled with exercises in romantic rhetoric, but through which already filtered the real personality of the poet in such poems as the sonnet _Reve Familier_.

In searching for his antecedents, Des Esseintes discovered, under the hesitant strokes of the sketches, a talent already deeply affected by Baudelaire, whose influence had been accentuated later on, acquiesced in by the peerless master; but the imitation was never flagrant.

And in some of his books, _Bonne Chanson_, _Fetes Galantes_, _Romances sans paroles_, and his last volume, _Sagesse_, were poems where he himself was revealed as an original and outstanding figure.

With rhymes obtained from verb tenses, sometimes even from long adverbs preceded by a monosyllable from which they fell as from a rock into a heavy cascade of water, his verses, divided by improbable caesuras, often became strangely obscure with their audacious ellipses and strange inaccuracies which none the less did not lack grace.

With his unrivalled ability to handle metre, he had sought to rejuvenate the fixed poetic forms. He turned the tail of the sonnet into the air, like those Japanese fish of polychrome clay which rest on stands, their heads straight down, their tails on top. Sometimes he corrupted it by using only masculine rhymes to which he seemed partial. He had often employed a bizarre form--a stanza of three lines whose middle verse was unrhymed, and a tiercet with but one rhyme, followed by a single line, an echoing refrain like "Dansons la Gigue" in _Streets_. He had employed other rhymes whose dim echoes are repeated in remote stanzas, like faint reverberations of a bell.

But his personality expressed itself most of all in vague and delicious confidences breathed in hushed accents, in the twilight. He alone had been able to reveal the troubled Ultima Thules of the soul; low whisperings of thoughts, avowals so haltingly and murmuringly confessed that the ear which hears them remains hesitant, passing on to the soul languors quickened by the mystery of this suggestion which is divined rather than felt. Everything characteristic of Verlaine was expressed in these adorable verses of the _Fetes Galantes_:

   Le soir tombait, un soir equivoque
   Les belles se pendant reveuses a nos
   Dirent alors des mots si specieux tout
   Que notre ame depuis ce temps
     tremble et s'etonne

It was no longer the immense horizon opened by the unforgettable portals of Baudelaire; it was a crevice in the moonlight, opening on a field which was more intimate and more restrained, peculiar to Verlaine who had formulated his poetic system in those lines of which Des Esseintes was so fond:

   Car nous voulons la nuance encore,
   Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance.
   Et tout le reste est litterature.

Des Esseintes had followed him with delight in his most diversified works. After his _Romances sans paroles_ which had appeared in a journal, Verlaine had preserved a long silence, reappearing later in those charming verses, hauntingly suggestive of the gentle and cold accents of Villon, singing of the Virgin, "removed from our days of carnal thought and weary flesh." Des Esseintes often re-read _Sagesse_ whose poems provoked him to secret reveries, a fanciful love for a Byzantine Madonna who, at a certain moment, changed into a distracted modern Cydalise so mysterious and troubling that one could not know whether she aspired toward depravities so monstrous that they became irresistible, or whether she moved in an immaculate dream where the adoration of the soul floated around her ever unavowed and ever pure.

There were other poets, too, who induced him to confide himself to them: Tristan Corbiere who, in 1873, in the midst of the general apathy had issued a most eccentric volume entitled: _Les Amours jaunes_. Des Esseintes who, in his hatred of the banal and commonplace, would gladly have accepted the most affected folly and the most singular extravagance, spent many enjoyable hours with this work where drollery mingled with a disordered energy, and where disconcerting lines blazed out of poems so absolutely obscure as the litanies of _Sommeil_, that they qualified their author for the name of

   Obscene confesseur des devotes mort-nees.

The style was hardly French. The author wrote in the negro dialect, was telegraphic in form, suppressed verbs, affected a teasing phraseology, revelled in the impossible puns of a travelling salesman; then out of this jumble, laughable conceits and sly affectations emerged, and suddenly a cry of keen anguish rang out, like the snapping string of a violoncello. And with all this, in his hard rugged style, bristling with obsolescent words and unexpected neologisms, flashed perfect originalities, treasures of expression and superbly nomadic lines amputated of rhyme. Finally, over and above his _Poemes Parisiens_, where Des Esseintes had discovered this profound definition of woman:

   Eternel feminin de l'eternel jocrisse

Tristan Corbiere had celebrated in a powerfully concise style, the Sea of Brittany, mermaids and the Pardon of Saint Anne. And he had even risen to an eloquence of hate in the insults he hurled, apropos of the Conlie camp, at the individuals whom he designated under the name of "foreigners of the Fourth of September."

The raciness of which he was so fond, which Corbiere offered him in his sharp epithets, his beauties which ever remained a trifle suspect, Des Esseintes found again in another poet, Theodore Hannon, a disciple of Baudelaire and Gautier, moved by a very unusual sense of the exquisite and the artificial.

Unlike Verlaine whose work was directly influenced by Baudelaire, especially on the psychological side, in his insidious nuances of thought and skilful quintessence of sentiment, Theodore Hannon especially descended from the master on the plastic side, by the external vision of persons and things.

His charming corruption fatally corresponded to the tendencies of Des Esseintes who, on misty or rainy days, enclosed himself in the retreat fancied by the poet and intoxicated his eyes with the rustlings of his fabrics, with the incandescence of his stones, with his exclusively material sumptuousness which ministered to cerebral reactions, and rose like a cantharides powder in a cloud of fragrant incense toward a Brussel idol with painted face and belly stained by the perfumes.

With the exception of the works of these poets and of Stephane Mallarme, which his servant was told to place to one side so that he might classify them separately, Des Esseintes was but slightly attracted towards the poets.

Notwithstanding the majestic form and the imposing quality of his verse which struck such a brilliant note that even the hexameters of Hugo seemed pale in comparison, Leconte de Lisle could no longer satisfy him. The antiquity so marvelously restored by Flaubert remained cold and immobile in his hands. Nothing palpitated in his verses, which lacked depth and which, most often, contained no idea. Nothing moved in those gloomy, waste poems whose impassive mythologies ended by finally leaving him cold. Too, after having long delighted in Gautier, Des Esseintes reached the point where he no longer cared for him. The admiration he felt for this man's incomparable painting had gradually dissolved; now he was more astonished than ravished by his descriptions. Objects impressed themselves upon Gautier's perceptive eyes but they went no further, they never penetrated deeper into his brain and flesh. Like a giant mirror, this writer constantly limited himself to reflecting surrounding objects with impersonal clearness. Certainly, Des Esseintes still loved the works of these two poets, as he loved rare stones and precious objects, but none of the variations of these perfect instrumentalists could hold him longer, neither being evocative of revery, neither opening for him, at least, broad roads of escape to beguile the tedium of dragging hours.

These two books left him unsatisfied. And it was the same with Hugo; the oriental and patriarchal side was too conventional and barren to detain him. And his manners, at once childish and that of a grandfather, exasperated him. He had to go to the _Chansons des rues et des bois_ to enjoy the perfect acrobatics of his metrics. But how gladly, after all, would he not have exchanged all this _tour de force_ for a new work by Baudelaire which might equal the others, for he, decidedly, was almost the only one whose verses, under their splendid form, contained a healing and nutritive substance. In passing from one extreme to the other, from form deprived of ideas to ideas deprived of form, Des Esseintes remained no less circumspect and cold. The psychological labyrinths of Stendhal, the analytical detours of Duranty seduced him, but their administrative, colorless and arid language, their static prose, fit at best for the wretched industry of the theatre, repelled him. Then their interesting works and their astute analyses applied to brains agitated by passions in which he was no longer interested. He was not at all concerned with general affections or points of view, with associations of common ideas, now that the reserve of his mind was more keenly developed and that he no longer admitted aught but superfine sensations and catholic or sensual torments. To enjoy a work which should combine, according to his wishes, incisive style with penetrating and feline analysis, he had to go to the master of induction, the profound and strange Edgar Allen Poe, for whom, since the time when he re-read him, his preference had never wavered.

More than any other, perhaps, he approached, by his intimate affinity, Des Esseintes' meditative cast of mind.

If Baudelaire, in the hieroglyphics of the soul, had deciphered the return of the age of sentiment and ideas, Poe, in the field of morbid psychology had more especially investigated the domain of the soul.

Under the emblematic title, _The Demon of Perversity_, he had been the first in literature to pry into the irresistible, unconscious impulses of the will which mental pathology now explains more scientifically. He had also been the first to divulge, if not to signal the impressive influence of fear which acts on the will like an anaesthetic, paralyzing sensibility and like the curare, stupefying the nerves. It was on the problem of the lethargy of the will, that Poe had centered his studies, analyzing the effects of this moral poison, indicating the symptoms of its progress, the troubles commencing with anxiety, continuing through anguish, ending finally in the terror which deadens the will without intelligence succumbing, though sorely disturbed. Death, which the dramatists had so much abused, he had in some manner changed and made more poignant, by introducing an algebraic and superhuman element; but in truth, it was less the real agony of the dying person which he described and more the moral agony of the survivor, haunted at the death bed by monstrous hallucinations engendered by grief and fatigue. With a frightful fascination, he dwelt on acts of terror, on the snapping of the will, coldly reasoning about them, little by little making the reader gasp, suffocated and panting before these feverish mechanically contrived nightmares.

Convulsed by hereditary neurosis, maddened by a moral St. Vitus dance, Poe's creatures lived only through their nerves; his women, the Morellas and Ligeias, possessed an immense erudition. They were steeped in the mists of German philosophy and the cabalistic mysteries of the old Orient; and all had the boyish and inert breasts of angels, all were sexless.

Baudelaire and Poe, these two men who had often been compared because of their common poetic strain and predilection for the examination of mental maladies, differed radically in the affective conceptions which held such a large place in their works; Baudelaire with his iniquitous and debased loves--cruel loves which made one think of the reprisals of an inquisition; Poe with his chaste, aerial loves, in which the senses played no part, where only the mind functioned without corresponding to organs which, if they existed, remained forever frozen and virgin. This cerebral clinic where, vivisecting in a stifling atmosphere, that spiritual surgeon became, as soon as his attention flagged, a prey to an imagination which evoked, like delicious miasmas, somnambulistic and angelic apparitions, was to Des Esseintes a source of unwearying conjecture. But now that his nervous disorders were augmented, days came when his readings broke his spirit and when, hands trembling, body alert, like the desolate Usher he was haunted by an unreasoning fear and a secret terror.

Thus he was compelled to moderate his desires, and he rarely touched these fearful elixirs, in the same way that he could no longer with impunity visit his red corridor and grow ecstatic at the sight of the gloomy Odilon Redon prints and the Jan Luyken horrors. And yet, when he felt inclined to read, all literature seemed to him dull after these terrible American imported philtres. Then he betook himself to Villiers de L'Isle Adam in whose scattered works he noted seditious observations and spasmodic vibrations, but which no longer gave one, with the exception of his Claire Lenoir, such troubling horror.

This Claire Lenoir which appeared in 1867 in the _Revue des lettres et des arts_, opened a series of tales comprised under the title of _Histoires Moroses_ where against a background of obscure speculations borrowed from old Hegel, dislocated creatures stirred, Dr. Tribulat Bonhomet, solemn and childish, a Claire Lenoir, farcical and sinister, with blue spectacles, round and large as franc pieces, which covered her almost dead eyes.

This story centered about a simple adultery and ended with an inexpressible terror when Bonhomet, opening Claire's eyelids, as she lies in her death bed, and penetrating them with monstrous plummets, distinctively perceives the reflection of the husband brandishing the lover's decapitated head, while shouting a war song, like a Kanaka.

Based on this more or less just observation that the eyes of certain animals, cows for instance, preserve even to decomposition, like photographic plates, the image of the beings and things their eyes behold at the moment they expire, this story evidently derived from Poe, from whom he appropriated the terrifying and elaborate technique.

This also applied to the _Intersigne_, which had later been joined to the _Contes cruels_, a collection of indisputable talent in which was found _Vera_, which Des Esseintes considered a little masterpiece.

Here, the hallucination was marked with an exquisite tenderness; no longer was it the dark mirages of the American author, but the fluid, warm, almost celestial vision; it was in an identical genre, the reverse of the Beatrices and Legeias, those gloomy and dark phantoms engendered by the inexorable nightmare of opium.

This story also put in play the operations of the will, but it no longer treated of its defeats and helplessness under the effects of fear; on the contrary, it studied the exaltations of the will under the impulse of a fixed idea; it demonstrated its power which often succeeded in saturating the atmosphere and in imposing its qualities on surrounding objects.

Another book by Villiers de L'Isle Adam, _Isis_, seemed to him curious in other respects. The philosophic medley of Clair Lenoir was evident in this work which offered an unbelievable jumble of verbal and troubled observations, souvenirs of old melodramas, poniards and rope ladders--all the romanticism which Villiers de L'Isle Adam could never rejuvenate in his _Elen_ and _Morgane_, forgotten pieces published by an obscure man, Sieur Francisque Guyon.

The heroine of this book, Marquise Tullia Fabriana, reputed to have assimilated the Chaldean science of the women of Edgar Allen Poe, and the diplomatic sagacities of Stendhal, had the enigmatic countenance of Bradamante abused by an antique Circe. These insoluble mixtures developed a fuliginous vapor across which philosophic and literary influences jostled, without being able to be regulated in the author's brain when he wrote the prolegomenae of this work which could not have embraced less than seven volumes.

But there was another side to Villiers' temperament. It was piercing and acute in an altogether different sense--a side of forbidding pleasantry and fierce raillery. No longer was it the paradoxical mystifications of Poe, but a scoffing that had in it the lugubrious and savage comedy which Swift possessed. A series of sketches, _les Demoiselles de Bienfilatre_, _l'Affichage celeste_, _la Machine a gloire_, and _le Plus beau diner du monde_, betrayed a singularly inventive and keenly bantering mind. The whole order of contemporary and utilitarian ideas, the whole commercialized baseness of the age were glorified in stories whose poignant irony transported Des Esseintes.

No other French book had been written in this serious and bitter style. At the most, a tale by Charles Cros, _La science de l'amour_, printed long ago in the _Revue du Monde-Nouveau_, could astonish by reason of its chemical whims, by its affected humor and by its coldly facetious observations. But the pleasure to be extracted from the story was merely relative, since its execution was a dismal failure. The firm, colored and often original style of Villiers had disappeared to give way to a mixture scraped on the literary bench of the first-comer.

"Heavens! heavens! how few books are really worth re-reading," sighed Des Esseintes, gazing at the servant who left the stool on which he had been perched, to permit Des Esseintes to survey his books with a single glance.

Des Esseintes nodded his head. But two small books remained on the table. With a sigh, he dismissed the old man, and turned over the leaves of a volume bound in onager skin which had been glazed by a hydraulic press and speckled with silver clouds. It was held together by fly-leaves of old silk damask whose faint patterns held that charm of faded things celebrated by Mallarme in an exquisite poem.

These pages, numbering nine, had been extracted from copies of the two first Parnassian books; it was printed on parchment paper and preceded by this title: _Quelques vers de Mallarme_, designed in a surprising calligraphy in uncial letters, illuminated and relieved with gold, as in old manuscripts.

Among the eleven poems brought together in these covers, several invited him: _Les fenetres_, _l'epilogue_ and _Azur_; but one among them all, a fragment of the _Herodiade_, held him at certain hours in a spell.

How often, beneath the lamp that threw a low light on the silent chamber, had he not felt himself haunted by this Herodiade who, in the work of Gustave Moreau, was now plunged in gloom revealing but a dim white statue in a brazier extinguished by stones.

The darkness concealed the blood, the reflections and the golds, hid the temple's farther sides, drowned the supernumeraries of the crime enshrouded in their dead colors, and, only sparing the aquerelle whites, revealed the woman's jewels and heightened her nudity.

At such times he was forced to gaze upon her unforgotten outlines; and she lived for him, her lips articulating those bizarre and delicate lines which Mallarme makes her utter:

                           O miroir!
   Eau froide par l'ennui dans ton cadre
   Que de fois, et pendant les heures,
   Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs
     qui sont
   Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au
     trou profond,
   Je m'apparus en toi comme une ombre
   Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta
     severe fontaine,
   J'ai de mon reve epars connu la nudite!

These lines he loved, as he loved the works of this poet who, in an age of democracy devoted to lucre, lived his solitary and literary life sheltered by his disdain from the encompassing stupidity, delighting, far from society, in the surprises of the intellect, in cerebral visions, refining on subtle ideas, grafting Byzantine delicacies upon them, perpetuating them in suggestions lightly connected by an almost imperceptible thread.

These twisted and precious ideas were bound together with an adhesive and secret language full of phrase contractions, ellipses and bold tropes.

Perceiving the remotest analogies, with a single term which by an effect of similitude at once gave the form, the perfume, the color and the quality, he described the object or being to which otherwise he would have been compelled to place numerous and different epithets so as to disengage all their facets and nuances, had he simply contented himself with indicating the technical name. Thus he succeeded in dispensing with the comparison, which formed in the reader's mind by analogy as soon as the symbol was understood. Neither was the attention of the reader diverted by the enumeration of the qualities which the juxtaposition of adjectives would have induced. Concentrating upon a single word, he produced, as for a picture, the ensemble, a unique and complete aspect.

It became a concentrated literature, an essential unity, a sublimate of art. This style was at first employed with restraint in his earlier works, but Mallarme had boldly proclaimed it in a verse on Theophile Gautier and in _l'Apres-midi du faune_, an eclogue where the subtleties of sensual joys are described in mysterious and caressing verses suddenly pierced by this wild, rending faun cry:

   Alors m'eveillerai-je a la ferveur
   Droit et seul sous un flot antique de
   Lys! et l'un de vous tous pour

That line with the monosyllable _lys_ like a sprig, evoked the image of something rigid, slender and white; it rhymed with the substantive _ingenuite_, allegorically expressing, by a single term, the passion, the effervescence, the fugitive mood of a virgin faun amorously distracted by the sight of nymphs.

In this extraordinary poem, surprising and unthought of images leaped up at the end of each line, when the poet described the elations and regrets of the faun contemplating, at the edge of a fen, the tufts of reeds still preserving, in its transitory mould, the form made by the naiades who had occupied it.

Then, Des Esseintes also experienced insidious delights in touching this diminutive book whose cover of Japan vellum, as white as curdled milk, were held together by two silk bands, one of Chinese rose, the other of black.

Hidden behind the cover, the black band rejoined the rose which rested like a touch of modern Japanese paint or like a lascivious adjutant against the antique white, against the candid carnation tint of the book, and enlaced it, united its sombre color with the light color into a light rosette. It insinuated a faint warning of that regret, a vague menace of that sadness which succeeds the ended transports and the calmed excitements of the senses.

Des Esseintes placed _l'Apres-midi du faune_ on the table and examined another little book he had printed, an anthology of prose poems, a tiny chapel, placed under the invocation of Baudelaire and opening on the parvise of his poems.

This anthology comprised a selection of _Gaspard de la nuit_ of that fantastic Aloysius Bertrand who had transferred the behavior of Leonard in prose and, with his metallic oxydes, painted little pictures whose vivid colors sparkle like those of clear enamels. To this, Des Esseintes had joined _le Vox populi_ of Villiers, a superb piece of work in a hammered, golden style after the manner of Leconte de Lisle and of Flaubert, and some selections from that delicate _livre de Jade_ whose exotic perfume of ginseng and of tea blends with the odorous freshness of water babbling along the book, under moonlight.

But in this collection had been gathered certain poems resurrected from defunct reviews: _le Demon de l'analogie_, _la Pipe_, _le Pauvre enfant pale_, _le Spectacle interrompu_, _le Phenomene futur_, and especially _Plaintes d'automne_ and _Frisson d'hiver_ which were Mallarme's masterpieces and were also celebrated among the masterpieces of prose poems, for they united such a magnificently delicate language that they cradled, like a melancholy incantation or a maddening melody, thoughts of an irresistible suggestiveness, pulsations of the soul of a sensitive person whose excited nerves vibrate with a keenness which penetrates ravishingly and induces a sadness.

Of all the forms of literature, that of the prose poem was the form Des Esseintes preferred. Handled by an alchemist of genius, it contained in its slender volume the strength of the novel whose analytic developments and descriptive redundancies it suppressed. Quite often, Des Esseintes had meditated on that disquieting problem--to write a novel concentrated in a few phrases which should contain the essence of hundreds of pages always employed to establish the setting, to sketch the characters, and to pile up observations and minute details. Then the chosen words would be so unexchangeable that they would do duty for many others, the adjective placed in such an ingenious and definite fashion that it could not be displaced, opening such perspectives that the reader could dream for whole weeks on its sense at once precise and complex, could record the present, reconstruct the past, divine the future of the souls of the characters, revealed by the gleams of this unique epithet.

Thus conceived and condensed in a page or two, the novel could become a communion of thought between a magical writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration agreed to between ten superior persons scattered throughout the universe, a delight offered to the refined, and accessible to them alone.

To Des Esseintes, the prose poem represented the concrete juice of literature, the essential oil of art.

That succulence, developed and concentrated into a drop, already existed in Baudelaire and in those poems of Mallarme which he read with such deep joy.

When he had closed his anthology, Des Esseintes told himself that his books which had ended on this last book, would probably never have anything added to it.

In fact, the decadence of a literature, irreparably affected in its organism, enfeebled by old ideas, exhausted by excesses of syntax, sensitive only to the curiosities which make sick persons feverish, and yet intent upon expressing everything in its decline, eager to repair all the omissions of enjoyment, to bequeath the most subtle memories of grief in its death bed, was incarnate in Mallarme, in the most perfect exquisite manner imaginable.

Here were the quintessences of Baudelaire and of Poe; here were their fine and powerful substances distilled and disengaging new flavors and intoxications.

It was the agony of the old language which, after having become moldy from age to age, ended by dissolving, by reaching that deliquescence of the Latin language which expired in the mysterious concepts and the enigmatical expressions of Saint Boniface and Saint Adhelme.

The decomposition of the French language had been effected suddenly. In the Latin language, a long transition, a distance of four hundred years existed between the spotted and superb epithet of Claudian and Rutilius and the gamy epithet of the eighth century. In the French language, no lapse of time, no succession of ages had taken place; the stained and superb style of the de Goncourts and the gamy style of Verlaine and Mallarme jostled in Paris, living in the same period, epoch and century.

And Des Esseintes, gazing at one of the folios opened on his chapel desk, smiled at the thought that the moment would soon come when an erudite scholar would prepare for the decadence of the French language a glossary similar to that in which the savant, Du Cange, has noted the last murmurings, the last spasms, the last flashes of the Latin language dying of old age in the cloisters and sounding its death rattle.

Chapter 15

Burning at first like a rick on fire, his enthusiasm for the digester as quickly died out. Torpid at first, his nervous dyspepsia reappeared, and then this hot essence induced such an irritation in his stomach that Des Esseintes was quickly compelled to stop using it.

The malady increased in strength; peculiar symptoms attended it. After the nightmares, hallucinations of smell, pains in the eye and deep coughing which recurred with clock-like regularity, after the pounding of his heart and arteries and the cold perspiration, arose illusions of hearing, those alterations which only reveal themselves in the last period of sickness.

Attacked by a strong fever, Des Esseintes suddenly heard murmurings of water; then those sounds united into one and resembled a roaring which increased and then slowly resolved itself into a silvery bell sound.

He felt his delirious brain whirling in musical waves, engulfed in the mystic whirlwinds of his infancy. The songs learned at the Jesuits reappeared, bringing with them pictures of the school and the chapel where they had resounded, driving their hallucinations to the olfactory and visual organs, veiling them with clouds of incense and the pallid light irradiating through the stained-glass windows, under the lofty arches.

At the Fathers, the religious ceremonies had been practiced with great pomp. An excellent organist and remarkable singing director made an artistic delight of these spiritual exercises that were conducive to worship. The organist was in love with the old masters and on holidays celebrated masses by Palestrina and Orlando Lasso, psalms by Marcello, oratorios by Handel, motets by Bach; he preferred to render the sweet and facile compilations of Father Lambillotte so much favored by priests, the "Laudi Spirituali" of the sixteenth century whose sacerdotal beauty had often bewitched Des Esseintes.

But he particularly extracted ineffable pleasures while listening to the plain-chant which the organist had preserved regardless of new ideas.

That form which was now considered a decrepit and Gothic form of Christian liturgy, an archaeological curiosity, a relic of ancient time, had been the voice of the early Church, the soul of the Middle Age. It was the eternal prayer that had been sung and modulated in harmony with the soul's transports, the enduring hymn uplifted for centuries to the Almighty.

That traditional melody was the only one which, with its strong unison, its solemn and massive harmonies, like freestone, was not out of place with the old basilicas, making eloquent the Romanesque vaults, whose emanation and very spirit they seemed to be.

How often had Des Esseintes not thrilled under its spell, when the "Christus factus est" of the Gregorian chant rose from the nave whose pillars seemed to tremble among the rolling clouds from censers, or when the "De Profundis" was sung, sad and mournful as a suppressed sob, poignant as a despairing invocation of humanity bewailing its mortal destiny and imploring the tender forgiveness of its Savior!

All religious music seemed profane to him compared with that magnificent chant created by the genius of the Church, anonymous as the organ whose inventor is unknown. At bottom, in the works of Jomelli and Porpora, Carissimi and Durante, in the most wonderful compositions of Handel and Bach, there was never a hint of a renunciation of public success, or the sacrifice of an effect of art, or the abdication of human pride hearkening to its own prayer.

At the most, the religious style, august and solemn, had crystallized in Lesueur's imposing masses celebrated at Saint-Roch, tending to approach the severe nudity and austere majesty of the old plain-chant.

Since then, absolutely revolted by these pretexts at _Stabat Maters_ devised by the Pergolesis and the Rossinis, by this intrusion of profane art in liturgic art, Des Esseintes had shunned those ambiguous works tolerated by the indulgent Church.

In addition, this weakness brought about by the desire for large congregations had quickly resulted in the adoption of songs borrowed from Italian operas, of low cavatinas and indecent quadrilles played in churches converted to boudoirs and surrendered to stage actors whose voices resounded aloft, their impurity tainting the tones of the holy organ.

For years he had obstinately refused to take part in these pious entertainments, contenting himself with his memories of childhood. He even regretted having heard the _Te Deum_ of the great masters, for he remembered that admirable plain-chant, that hymn so simple and solemn composed by some unknown saint, a Saint Ambrose or Hilary who, lacking the complicated resources of an orchestra and the musical mechanics of modern science, revealed an ardent faith, a delirious jubilation, uttered, from the soul of humanity, in the piercing and almost celestial accents of conviction.

Des Esseintes' ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed regarding the other arts. In religious music, he approved only of the monastic music of the Middle Ages, that emaciated music which instinctively reacted on his nerves like certain pages of the old Christian Latin. Then (he freely confessed it) he was incapable of understanding the tricks that the contemporary masters had introduced into Catholic art. And he had not studied music with that passion which had led him towards painting and letters. He played indifferently on the piano and after many painful attempts had succeeded in reading a score, but he was ignorant of harmony, of the technique needed really to understand a nuance, to appreciate a finesse, to savor a refinement with full comprehension.

In other respects, when not read in solitude, profane music is a promiscuous art. To enjoy music, one must become part of that public which fills the theatres where, in a vile atmosphere, one perceives a loutish-looking man butchering episodes from Wagner, to the huge delight of the ignorant mob.

He had always lacked the courage to plunge in this mob-bath so as to listen to Berlioz' compositions, several fragments of which had bewitched him by their passionate exaltations and their vigorous fugues, and he was certain that there was not one single scene, not even a phrase of one of the operas of the amazing Wagner which could with impunity be detached from its whole.

The fragments, cut and served on the plate of a concert, lost all significance and remained senseless, since (like the chapters of a book, completing each other and moving to an inevitable conclusion) Wagner's melodies were necessary to sketch the characters, to incarnate their thoughts and to express their apparent or secret motives. He knew that their ingenious and persistent returns were understood only by the auditors who followed the subject from the beginning and gradually beheld the characters in relief, in a setting from which they could not be removed without dying, like branches torn from a tree.

That was why he felt that, among the vulgar herd of melomaniacs enthusing each Sunday on benches, scarcely any knew the score that was being massacred, when the ushers consented to be silent and permit the orchestra to be heard.

Granted also that intelligent patriotism forbade a French theatre to give a Wagnerian opera, the only thing left to the curious who know nothing of musical arcana and either cannot or will not betake themselves to Bayreuth, is to remain at home. And that was precisely the course of conduct he had pursued.

The more public and facile music and the independent pieces of the old operas hardly interested him; the wretched trills of Auber and Boieldieu, of Adam and Flotow and the rhetorical commonplaces of Ambroise Thomas and the Bazins disgusted him as did the superannuated affectations and vulgar graces of Italians. That was why he had resolutely broken with musical art, and during the years of his abstention, he pleasurably recalled only certain programs of chamber music when he had heard Beethoven, and especially Schumann and Schubert which had affected his nerves in the same manner as had the more intimate and troubling poems of Edgar Allen Poe.

Some of Schubert's parts for violoncello had positively left him panting, in the grip of hysteria. But it was particularly Schubert's lieders that had immeasurably excited him, causing him to experience similar sensations as after a waste of nervous fluid, or a mystic dissipation of the soul.

This music penetrated and drove back an infinity of forgotten sufferings and spleen in his heart. He was astonished at being able to contain so many dim miseries and vague griefs. This desolate music, crying from the inmost depths, terrified while charming him. Never could he repeat the "Young Girl's Lament" without a welling of tears in his eyes, for in this plaint resided something beyond a mere broken-hearted state; something in it clutched him, something like a romance ending in a gloomy landscape.

And always, when these exquisite, sad plaints returned to his lips, there was evoked for him a suburban, flinty and gloomy site where a succession of silent bent persons, harassed by life, filed past into the twilight, while, steeped in bitterness and overflowing with disgust, he felt himself solitary in this dejected landscape, struck by an inexpressibly melancholy and stubborn distress whose mysterious intensity excluded all consolation, pity and repose. Like a funeral-knell, this despairing chant haunted him, now that he was in bed, prostrated by fever and agitated by an anxiety so much the more inappeasable for the fact that he could not discover its cause. He ended by abandoning himself to the torrent of anguishes suddenly dammed by the chant of psalms slowly rising in his tortured head.

One morning, nevertheless, he felt more tranquil and requested the servant to bring a looking-glass. It fell from his hands. He hardly recognized himself. His face was a clay color, the lips bloated and dry, the tongue parched, the skin rough. His hair and beard, untended since his illness by the domestic, added to the horror of the sunken face and staring eyes burning with feverish intensity in this skeleton head that bristled with hair. More than his weakness, more than his vomitings which began with each attempt at taking nourishment, more than his emaciation, did his changed visage terrify him. He felt lost. Then, in the dejection which overcame him, a sudden energy forced him in a sitting posture. He had strength to write a letter to his Paris physician and to order the servant to depart instantly, seek and bring him back that very day.

He passed suddenly from complete depression into boundless hope. This physician was a celebrated specialist, a doctor renowned for his cures of nervous maladies "He must have cured many more dangerous cases than mine," Des Esseintes reflected. "I shall certainly be on my feet in a few days." Disenchantment succeeded his confidence. Learned and intuitive though they be, physicians know absolutely nothing of neurotic diseases, being ignorant of their origins. Like the others, this one would prescribe the eternal oxyde of zinc and quinine, bromide of potassium and valerian. He had recourse to another thought: "If these remedies have availed me little in the past, could it not be due to the fact that I have not taken the right quantities?"

In spite of everything, this expectation of being cured cheered him, but then a new fear entered. His servant might have failed to find the physician. Again he grew faint, passing instantly from the most unreasoning hopes to the most baseless fears, exaggerating the chances of a sudden recovery and his apprehensions of danger. The hours passed and the moment came when, in utter despair and convinced that the physician would not arrive, he angrily told himself that he certainly would have been saved, had he acted sooner. Then his rage against the servant and the physician whom he accused of permitting him to die, vanished, and he ended by reproaching himself for having waited so long before seeking aid, persuading himself that he would now be wholly cured had he that very last evening used the medicine.

Little by little, these alternations of hope and alarms jostling in his poor head, abated. The struggles ended by crushing him, and he relapsed into exhausted sleep interrupted by incoherent dreams, a sort of syncope pierced by awakenings in which he was barely conscious of anything. He had reached such a state where he lost all idea of desires and fears, and he was stupefied, experiencing neither astonishment or joy, when the physician suddenly arrived.

The doctor had doubtless been apprised by the servant of Des Esseintes' mode of living and of the various symptoms observed since the day when the master of the house had been found near the window, overwhelmed by the violence of perfumes. He put very few questions to the patient whom he had known for many years. He felt his pulse and attentively studied the urine where certain white spots revealed one of the determining causes of nervousness. He wrote a prescription and left without saying more than that he would soon return.

This visit comforted Des Esseintes who none the less was frightened by the taciturnity observed; he adjured his servant not to conceal the truth from him any longer. But the servant declared that the doctor had exhibited no uneasiness, and despite his suspicions, Des Esseintes could seize upon no sign that might betray a shadow of a lie on the tranquil countenance of the old man.

Then his thoughts began to obsess him less; his suffering disappeared and to the exhaustion he had felt throughout his members was grafted a certain indescribable languor. He was astonished and satisfied not to be weighted with drugs and vials, and a faint smile played on his lips when the servant brought a nourishing injection of peptone and told him he was to take it three times every twenty-four hours.

The operation succeeded and Des Esseintes could not forbear to congratulate himself on this event which in a manner crowned the existence he had created. His penchant towards the artificial had now, though involuntarily, reached the supreme goal.

Farther one could not go. The nourishment thus absorbed was the ultimate deviation one could possibly commit.

"How delicious it would be" he reflected, "to continue this simple regime in complete health! What economy of time, what a pronounced deliverance from the aversion which food gives those who lack appetite! What a complete riddance from the disgust induced by food forcibly eaten! What an energetic protestation against the vile sin of gluttony, what a positive insult hurled at old nature whose monotonous demands would thus be avoided."

And he continued, talking to himself half-aloud. One could easily stimulate desire for food by swallowing a strong aperitif. After the question, "what time is it getting to be? I am famished," one would move to the table and place the instrument on the cloth, and then, in the time it takes to say grace, one could have suppressed the tiresome and vulgar demands of the body.

Several days afterwards, the servant presented an injection whose color and odor differed from the other.

"But it is not the same at all!" Des Esseintes cried, gazing with deep feeling at the liquid poured into the apparatus. As if in a restaurant, he asked for the card, and unfolding the physician's prescription, read:

   Cod Liver Oil . . . . . . . .  20 grammes
   Beef Tea  . . . . . . . . . . 200 grammes
   Burgundy Wine . . . . . . . . 200 grammes
   Yolk of one egg.

He remained meditative. He who by reason of the weakened state of his stomach had never seriously preoccupied himself with the art of the cuisine, was surprised to find himself thinking of combinations to please an artificial epicure. Then a strange idea crossed his brain. Perhaps the physician had imagined that the strange palate of his patient was fatigued by the taste of the peptone; perhaps he had wished, like a clever chef, to vary the taste of foods and to prevent the monotony of dishes that might lead to want of appetite. Once in the wake of these reflections, Des Esseintes sketched new recipes, preparing vegetable dinners for Fridays, using the dose of cod liver oil and wine, dismissing the beef tea as a meat food specially prohibited by the Church. But he had no occasion longer to ruminate on these nourishing drinks, for the physician succeeded gradually in curing the vomiting attacks, and he was soon swallowing, in the normal manner, a syrup of punch containing a pulverized meat whose faint aroma of cacao pleased his palate.

Weeks passed before his stomach decided to function. The nausea returned at certain moments, but these attacks were disposed of by ginger ale and Rivieres' antiemetic drink.

Finally the organs were restored. Meats were digested with the aid of pepsines. Recovering strength, he was able to stand up and attempt to walk, leaning on a cane and supporting himself on the furniture. Instead of being thankful over his success, he forgot his past pains, grew irritated at the length of time needed for convalescence and reproached the doctor for not effecting a more rapid cure.

At last the day came when he could remain standing for whole afternoons. Then his study irritated him. Certain blemishes it possessed, and which habit had accustomed him to overlook, now were apparent. The colors chosen to be seen by lamp-light seemed discordant in full day. He thought of changing them and for whole hours he combined rebellious harmonies of hues, hybrid pairings of cloth and leathers.

"I am certainly on the road to recovery," he reflected, taking note of his old hobbies.

One morning, while contemplating his orange and blue walls, considering some ideal tapestries worked with stoles of the Greek Church, dreaming of Russian orphrey dalmaticas and brocaded copes flowered with Slavonic letters done in Ural stones and rows of pearls, the physician entered and, noticing the patient's eyes, questioned him.

Des Esseintes spoke of his unrealizable longings. He commenced to contrive new color schemes, to talk of harmonies and discords of tones he meant to produce, when the doctor stunned him by peremptorily announcing that these projects would never be executed here.

And, without giving him time to catch breath, he informed Des Esseintes that he had done his utmost in re-establishing the digestive functions and that now it was necessary to attack the neurosis which was by no means cured and which would necessitate years of diet and care. He added that before attempting a cure, before commencing any hydrotherapic treatment, impossible of execution at Fontenay, Des Esseintes must quit that solitude, return to Paris, and live an ordinary mode of existence by amusing himself like others.

"But the pleasures of others will not amuse me," Des Esseintes indignantly cried.

Without debating the matter, the doctor merely asserted that this radical change was, in his eyes, a question of life or death, a question of health or insanity possibly complicated in the near future by tuberculosis.

"So it is a choice between death and the hulks!" Des Esseintes exasperatedly exclaimed.

The doctor, who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world, smiled and reached the door without saying a word.

Chapter 16

Des Esseintes locked himself up in his bedroom, closing his ears to the sounds of hammers on packing cases. Each stroke rent his heart, drove a sorrow into his flesh. The physician's order was being fulfilled; the fear of once more submitting to the pains he had endured, the fear of a frightful agony had acted more powerfully on Des Esseintes than the hatred of the detestable existence to which the medical order condemned him.

Yet he told himself there were people who live without conversing with anyone, absorbed far from the world in their own affairs, like recluses and trappists, and there is nothing to prove that these wretches and sages become madmen or consumptives. He had unsuccessfully cited these examples to the doctor; the latter had repeated, coldly and firmly, in a tone that admitted of no reply, that his verdict, (confirmed besides by consultation with all the experts on neurosis) was that distraction, amusement, pleasure alone might make an impression on this malady whose spiritual side eluded all remedy; and made impatient by the recriminations of his patient, he for the last time declared that he would refuse to continue treating him if he did not consent to a change of air, and live under new hygienic conditions.

Des Esseintes had instantly betaken himself to Paris, had consulted other specialists, had impartially put the case before them. All having unhesitatingly approved of the action of their colleague, he had rented an apartment in a new house, had returned to Fontenay and, white with rage, had given orders to have his trunks packed.

Sunk in his easy chair, he now ruminated upon that unyielding order which was wrecking his plans, breaking the strings of his present life and overturning his future plans. His beatitude was ended. He was compelled to abandon this sheltering haven and return at full speed into the stupidity which had once attacked him.

The physicians spoke of amusement and distraction. With whom, and with what did they wish him to distract and amuse himself?

Had he not banished himself from society? Did he know a single person whose existence would approximate his in seclusion and contemplation? Did he know a man capable of appreciating the fineness of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea,--a man whose soul was delicate and exquisite enough to understand Mallarme and love Verlaine?

Where and when must he search to discover a twin spirit, a soul detached from commonplaces, blessing silence as a benefit, ingratitude as a solace, contempt as a refuge and port?

In the world where he had dwelt before his departure for Fontenay? But most of the county squires he had associated with must since have stultified themselves near card tables or ended upon the lips of women; most by this time must have married; after having enjoyed, during their life, the spoils of cads, their spouses now possessed the remains of strumpets, for, master of first-fruits, the people alone waste nothing.

"A pretty change--this custom adopted by a prudish society!" Des Esseintes reflected.

The nobility had died, the aristocracy had marched to imbecility or ordure! It was extinguished in the corruption of its descendants whose faculties grew weaker with each generation and ended in the instincts of gorillas fermented in the brains of grooms and jockeys; or rather, as with the Choiseul-Praslins, Polignacs and Chevreuses, wallowed in the mud of lawsuits which made it equal the other classes in turpitude.

The mansions themselves, the secular escutcheons, the heraldic deportment of this antique caste had disappeared. The land no longer yielding anything was put up for sale, money being needed to procure the venereal witchcraft for the besotted descendants of the old races.

The less scrupulous and stupid threw aside all sense of shame. They weltered in the mire of fraud and deceit, behaved like cheap sharpers.

This eagerness for gain, this lust for lucre had even reacted on that other class which had constantly supported itself on the nobility--the clergy. Now one perceived, in newspapers, announcements of corn cures by priests. The monasteries had changed into apothecary or liqueur workrooms. They sold recipes or manufactured products: the Citeaux order, chocolate; the trappists, semolina; the Maristes Brothers, biphosphate of medicinal lime and arquebuse water; the jacobins, an anti-apoplectic elixir; the disciples of Saint Benoit, benedictine; the friars of Saint Bruno, chartreuse.

Business had invaded the cloisters where, in place of antiphonaries, heavy ledgers reposed on reading-desks. Like leprosy, the avidity of the age was ravaging the Church, weighing down the monks with inventories and invoices.

And yet, in spite of everything, it was only among the ecclesiastics that Des Esseintes could hope for pleasurable contract. In the society of well-bred and learned canons, he would have been compelled to share their faith, to refrain from floating between sceptical ideas and transports of conviction which rose from time to time on the water, sustained by recollections of childhood.

He would have had to muster identical opinions and never admit (he freely did in his ardent moments) a Catholicism charged with a soupcon of magic, as under Henry the Third, and with a dash of sadism, as at the end of the last century. This special clericalism, this depraved and artistically perverse mysticism towards which he wended could not even be discussed with a priest who would not have understood them or who would have banished them with horror.

For the twentieth time, this irresolvable problem troubled him. He would have desired an end to this irresolute state in which he floundered. Now that he was pursuing a changed life, he would have liked to possess faith, to incrust it as soon as seized, to screw it into his soul, to shield it finally from all those reflections which uprooted and agitated it. But the more he desired it and the less his emptiness of spirit was evident, the more Christ's visitation receded. As his religious hunger augmented and he gazed eagerly at this faith visible but so far off that the distance terrified him, ideas pressed upon his active mind, driving back his will, rejecting, by common sense and mathematical proofs, the mysteries and dogmas. He sadly told himself that he would have to find a way to abstain from self-discussion. He would have to learn how to close his eyes and let himself be swept along by the current, forgetting those accursed discoveries which have destroyed the religious edifice, from top to bottom, since the last two centuries.

He sighed. It is neither the physiologists nor the infidels that demolish Catholicism, but the priests, whose stupid works could extirpate convictions the most steadfast.

A Dominican friar, Rouard de Card, had proved in a brochure entitled "On the Adulteration of Sacramental Substances" that most masses were not valid, because the elements used for worship had been adulterated by the manufacturers.

For years, the holy oils had been adulterated with chicken fat; wax, with burned bones; incense, with cheap resin and benzoin. But the thing that was worse was that the substances, indispensable to the holy sacrifice, the two substances without which no oblation is possible, had also been debased: the wine, by numerous dilutions and by illicit introductions of Pernambuco wood, danewort berries, alcohol and alum; the bread of the Eucharist that must be kneaded with the fine flour of wheat, by kidney beans, potash and pipe clay.

But they had gone even farther. They had dared suppress the wheat and shameless dealers were making almost all the Host with the fecula of potatoes.

Now, God refused to descend into the fecula. It was an undeniable fact and a certain one. In the second volume of his treatise on moral theology, Cardinal Gousset had dwelt at length on this question of the fraud practiced from the divine point of view. And, according to the incontestable authority of this master, one could not consecrate bread made of flour of oats, buckwheat or barley, and if the matter of using rye be less doubtful, no argument was possible in regard to the fecula which, according to the ecclesiastic expression, was in no way fit for sacramental purposes.

By means of the rapid manipulation of the fecula and the beautiful appearance presented by the unleavened breads created with this element, the shameless imposture had been so propagated that now the mystery of the transubstantiation hardly existed any longer and the priests and faithful were holding communion, without being aware of it, with neutral elements.

Ah! far off was the time when Radegonda, Queen of France, had with her own hands prepared the bread destined for the alters, or the time when, after the customs of Cluny, three priests or deacons, fasting and garbed in alb and amice, washed their faces and hands and then picked out the wheat, grain by grain, grinding it under millstone, kneading the paste in a cold and pure water and themselves baking it under a clear fire, while chanting psalms.

"All this matter of eternal dupery," Des Esseintes reflected, "is not conducive to the steadying of my already weakened faith. And how admit that omnipotence which stops at such a trifle as a pinch of fecula or a soupcon of alcohol?"

These reflections all the more threw a gloom over the view of his future life and rendered his horizon more menacing and dark.

He was lost, utterly lost. What would become of him in this Paris where he had neither family nor friends? No bond united him to the Saint-Germain quarters now in its dotage, scaling into the dust of desuetude, buried in a new society like an empty husk. And what contact could exist between him and that bourgeois class which had gradually climbed up, profiting by all the disasters to grow rich, making use of all the catastrophes to impose respect on its crimes and thefts.

After the aristocracy of birth had come the aristocracy of money. Now one saw the reign of the caliphates of commerce, the despotism of the rue du Sentier, the tyranny of trade, bringing in its train venal narrow ideas, knavish and vain instincts.

Viler and more dishonest than the nobility despoiled and the decayed clergy, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous ostentations, their braggadoccio, degrading these qualities by its lack of _savoir-vivre_; the bourgeoisie stole their faults and converted them into hypocritical vices. And, authoritative and sly, low and cowardly, it pitilessly attacked its eternal and necessary dupe, the populace, unmuzzled and placed in ambush so as to be in readiness to assault the old castes.

It was now an acknowledged fact. Its task once terminated, the proletariat had been bled, supposedly as a measure of hygiene. The bourgeoisie, reassured, strutted about in good humor, thanks to its wealth and the contagion of its stupidity. The result of its accession to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, in fact, the debased artists had fallen on their knees, and they eagerly kissed the dirty feet of the eminent jobbers and low satraps whose alms permitted them to live.

In painting, one now beheld a deluge of silliness; in literature, an intemperate mixture of dull style and cowardly ideas, for they had to credit the business man with honesty, the buccaneer who purchased a dot for his son and refused to pay that of his daughter, with virtue; chaste love to the Voltairian agnostic who accused the clergy of rapes and then went hypocritically and stupidly to sniff, in the obscene chambers.

It was the great American hulks transported to our continent. It was the immense, the profound, the incommensurable peasantry of the financier and the parvenu, beaming, like a pitiful sun, upon the idolatrous town which wallowed on the ground the while it uttered impure psalms before the impious tabernacle of banks.

"Well, then, society, crash to ruin! Die, aged world!" cried Des Esseintes, angered by the ignominy of the spectacle he had evoked. This cry of hate broke the nightmare that oppressed him.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "To think that all this is not a dream, to think that I am going to return into the cowardly and servile crowd of this century!" To console himself, he recalled the comforting maxims of Schopenhauer, and repeated to himself the sad axiom of Pascal: "The soul is pained by all things it thinks upon." But the words resounded in his mind like sounds deprived of sense; his ennui disintegrated, lifting all significance from the words, all healing virtue, all effective and gentle vigor.

He came at last to perceive that the reasonings of pessimism availed little in comforting him, that impossible faith in a future life alone would pacify him.

An access of rage swept aside, like a hurricane, his attempts at resignation and indifference. He could no longer conceal the hideous truth--nothing was left, all was in ruins. The bourgeoisie were gormandizing on the solemn ruins of the Church which had become a place of rendez-vous, a mass of rubbish, soiled by petty puns and scandalous jests. Were the terrible God of Genesis and the Pale Christ of Golgotha not going to prove their existence by commanding the cataclysms of yore, by rekindling the flames that once consumed the sinful cities? Was this degradation to continue to flow and cover with its pestilence the old world planted with seeds of iniquities and shames?

The door was suddenly opened. Clean-shaved men appeared, bringing chests and carrying the furniture; then the door closed once more on the servant who was removing packages of books.

Des Esseintes sank into a chair.

"I shall be in Paris in two days. Well, all is finished. The waves of human mediocrity rise to the sky and they will engulf the refuge whose dams I open. Ah! courage leaves me, my heart breaks! O Lord, pity the Christian who doubts, the sceptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith."

French text


À en juger par les quelques portraits conservés au château de Lourps, la famille des Floressas des Esseintes avait été, au temps jadis, composée d'athlétiques soudards, de rébarbatifs reîtres. Serrés, à l'étroit dans leurs vieux cadres qu'ils barraient de leurs fortes épaules, ils alarmaient avec leurs yeux fixes, leurs moustaches en yatagans, leur poitrine dont l'arc bombé remplissait l'énorme coquille des cuirasses.

Ceux-là étaient les ancêtres; les portraits de leurs descendants manquaient; un trou existait dans la filière des visages de cette race; une seule toile servait d'intermédiaire, mettait un point de suture entre le passé et le présent, une tête mystérieuse et rusée, aux traits morts et tirés, aux pommettes ponctuées d'une virgule de fard, aux cheveux gommés et enroulés de perles, au col tendu et peint, sortant des cannelures d'une rigide fraise.

Déjà, dans cette image de l'un des plus intimes familiers du duc d'Epernon et du marquis d'O, les vices d'un tempérament appauvri, la prédominance de la lymphe dans le sang, apparaissaient.

La décadence de cette ancienne maison avait, sans nul doute, suivi régulièrement son cours; l'effémination des mâles était allée en s'accentuant; comme pour achever l'oeuvre des âges, les des Esseintes marièrent, pendant deux siècles, leurs enfants entre eux, usant leur reste de vigueur dans les unions consanguines.

De cette famille naguère si nombreuse qu'elle occupait presque tous les territoires de l'Ile-de-France et de la Brie, un seul rejeton vivait, le duc Jean, un grêle jeune homme de trente ans, anémique et nerveux, aux joues caves, aux yeux d'un bleu froid d'acier, au nez éventé et pourtant droit, aux mains sèches et fluettes.

Par un singulier phénomène d'atavisme, le dernier descendant ressemblait à l'antique aïeul, au mignon, dont il avait la barbe en pointe d'un blond extraordinairement pâle et l'expression ambiguë, tout à la fois lasse et habile.

Son enfance avait été funèbre. Menacée de scrofules, accablée par d'opiniâtres fièvres, elle parvint cependant, à l'aide de grand air et de soins, à franchir les brisants de la nubilité, et alors les nerfs prirent le dessus, matèrent les langueurs et les abandons de la chlorose, menèrent jusqu'à leur entier développement les progressions de la croissance.

La mère, une longue femme, silencieuse et blanche, mourut d'épuisement; à son tour le père décéda d'une maladie vague; des Esseintes atteignait alors sa dix-septième année.

Il n'avait gardé de ses parents qu'un souvenir apeuré, sans reconnaissance, sans affection. Son père, qui demeurait d'ordinaire à Paris, il le connaissait à peine; sa mère, il se la rappelait, immobile et couchée, dans une chambre obscure du château de Lourps. Rarement, le mari et la femme étaient réunis, et de ces jours-là, il se remémorait des entrevues décolorées, le père et la mère assis, en face l'un de l'autre, devant un guéridon qui était seul éclairé par une lampe au grand abat-jour très baissé, car la duchesse ne pouvait supporter sans crises de nerfs la clarté et le bruit; dans l'ombre, ils échangeaient deux mots à peine, puis le duc s'éloignait indifférent et ressautait au plus vite dans le premier train.

Chez les jésuites où Jean fut dépêché pour faire ses classes, son existence fut plus bienveillante et plus douce. Les Pères se mirent à choyer l'enfant dont l'intelligence les étonnait; cependant, en dépit de leurs efforts, ils ne purent obtenir qu'il se livrât à des études disciplinées; il mordait à certains travaux, devenait prématurément ferré sur la langue latine, mais, en revanche, il était absolument incapable d'expliquer deux mots de grec, ne témoignait d'aucune aptitude pour les langues vivantes, et il se révéla tel qu'un être parfaitement obtus, dès qu'on s'efforça de lui apprendre les premiers éléments des sciences.

Sa famille se préoccupait peu de lui; parfois son père venait le visiter au pensionnat: « Bonjour, bonsoir, sois sage et travaille bien. » Aux vacances, l'été, il partait pour le château de Lourps; sa présence ne tirait pas sa mère de ses rêveries; elle l'apercevait à peine, ou le contemplait, pendant quelques secondes, avec un sourire presque douloureux, puis elle s'absorbait de nouveau dans la nuit factice dont les épais rideaux des croisées enveloppaient la chambre.

Les domestiques étaient ennuyés et vieux. L'enfant, abandonné à lui-même, fouillait dans les livres, les jours de pluie; errait, par les après-midi de beau temps, dans la campagne.

Sa grande joie était de descendre dans le vallon, de gagner Jutigny, un village planté au pied des collines, un petit tas de maisonnettes coiffées de bonnets de chaume parsemés de touffes de joubarbe et de bouquets de mousse. Il se couchait dans la prairie, à l'ombre des hautes meules, écoutant le bruit sourd des moulins à eau, humant le souffle frais de la Voulzie. Parfois, il poussait jusqu'aux tourbières, jusqu'au hameau vert et noir de Longueville, ou bien il grimpait sur les côtes balayées par le vent et d'où l'étendue était immense. Là, il avait d'un côté, sous lui, la vallée de la Seine, fuyant à perte de vue et se confondant avec le bleu du ciel fermé au loin; de l'autre, tout en haut, à l'horizon, les églises et la tour de Provins qui semblaient trembler, au soleil, dans la pulvérulence dorée de l'air.

Il lisait ou rêvait, s'abreuvait jusqu'à la nuit de solitude; à force de méditer sur les mêmes pensées, son esprit se concentra et ses idées encore indécises mûrirent. Après chaque vacance, il revenait chez ses maîtres plus réfléchi et plus têtu; ces changements ne leur échappaient pas; perspicaces et retors, habitués par leur métier à sonder jusqu'au plus profond des âmes, ils ne furent point les dupes de cette intelligence éveillée mais indocile; ils comprirent que jamais cet élève ne contribuerait à la gloire de leur maison, et comme sa famille était riche et paraissait se désintéresser de son avenir, ils renoncèrent aussitôt à le diriger sur les profitables carrières des écoles; bien qu'il discutât volontiers avec eux sur toutes les doctrines théologiques qui le sollicitaient par leurs subtilités et leurs arguties, ils ne songèrent même pas à le destiner aux Ordres, car malgré leurs efforts sa foi demeurait débile; en dernier ressort, par prudence, par peur de l'inconnu, ils le laissèrent travailler aux études qui lui plaisaient et négliger les autres, ne voulant pas s'aliéner cet esprit indépendant, par des tracasseries de pions laïques.

Il vécut ainsi, parfaitement heureux, sentant à peine le joug paternel des prêtres; il continua ses études latines et françaises, à sa guise, et, encore que la théologie ne figurât point dans les programmes de ses classes, il compléta l'apprentissage de cette science qu'il avait commencée au château de Lourps, dans la bibliothèque léguée par son arrière-grand-oncle Dom Prosper, ancien prieur des chanoines réguliers de Saint-Ruf.

Le moment échut pourtant où il fallut quitter l'institution des jésuites; il atteignait sa majorité et devenait maître de sa fortune; son cousin et tuteur le comte de Montchevrel lui rendit ses comptes. Les relations qu'ils entretinrent furent de durée courte, car il ne pouvait y avoir aucun point de contact entre ces deux hommes dont l'un était vieux et l'autre jeune. Par curiosité, par désoeuvrement, par politesse, des Esseintes fréquenta cette famille et il subit, plusieurs fois, dans son hôtel de la rue de la Chaise, d'écrasantes soirées où des parentes, antiques comme le monde, s'entretenaient de quartiers de noblesse, de lunes héraldiques, de cérémoniaux surannés.

Plus que ces douairières, les hommes rassemblés autour d'un whist, se révélaient ainsi que des êtres immuables et nuls; là, les descendants des anciens preux, les dernières branches des races féodales, apparurent à des Esseintes sous les traits de vieillards catarrheux et maniaques, rabâchant d'insipides discours, de centenaires phrases. De même que dans la tige coupée d'une fougère, une fleur de lis semblait seule empreinte dans la pulpe ramollie de ces vieux crânes.

Une indicible pitié vint au jeune homme pour ces momies ensevelies dans leurs hypogées pompadour à boiseries et à rocailles, pour ces maussades lendores qui vivaient, l'oeil constamment fixé sur un vague Chanaan, sur une imaginaire Palestine.

Après quelques séances dans ce milieu, il se résolut, malgré les invitations et les reproches, à n'y plus jamais mettre les pieds. Il se prit alors à frayer avec les jeunes gens de son âge et de son monde.

Les uns, élevés avec lui dans les pensions religieuses, avaient gardé de cette éducation une marque spéciale. Ils suivaient les offices, communiaient à Pâques, hantaient les cercles catholiques et ils se cachaient ainsi que d'un crime des assauts qu'ils livraient aux filles, en baissant les yeux. C'étaient, pour la plupart, des bellâtres inintelligents et asservis, de victorieux cancres qui avaient lassé la patience de leurs professeurs, mais avaient néanmoins satisfait à leur volonté de déposer, dans la société, des êtres obéissants et pieux.

Les autres, élevés dans les collèges de l'État ou dans les lycées, étaient moins hypocrites et plus libres, mais ils n'étaient ni plus intéressants ni moins étroits. Ceux-là étaient des noceurs, épris d'opérettes et de courses, jouant le lansquenet et le baccarat, pariant des fortunes sur des chevaux, sur des cartes, sur tous les plaisirs chers aux gens creux. Après une année d'épreuve, une immense lassitude résulta de cette compagnie dont les débauches lui semblèrent basses et faciles, faites sans discernement, sans apparat fébrile, sans réelle surexcitation de sang et de nerfs.

Peu à peu, il les quitta, et il approcha les hommes de lettres avec lesquels sa pensée devait rencontrer plus d'affinités et se sentir mieux à l'aise. Ce fut un nouveau leurre; il demeura révolté par leurs jugements rancuniers et mesquins, par leur conversation aussi banale qu'une porte d'église, par leurs dégoûtantes discussions, jaugeant la valeur d'une oeuvre selon le nombre des éditions et le bénéfice de la vente. En même temps il aperçut les libres penseurs, les doctrinaires de la bourgeoisie, des gens qui réclamaient toutes les libertés pour étrangler les opinions des autres, d'avides et d'éhontés puritains, qu'il estima, comme éducation, inférieurs au cordonnier du coin.

Son mépris de l'humanité s'accrut; il comprit enfin que le monde est, en majeure partie, composé de sacripants et d'imbéciles. Décidément, il n'avait aucun espoir de découvrir chez autrui les mêmes aspirations et les mêmes haines, aucun espoir de s'accoupler avec une intelligence qui se complût, ainsi que la sienne, dans une studieuse décrépitude, aucun espoir d'adjoindre un esprit pointu et chantourné tel que le sien, à celui d'un écrivain ou d'un lettré.

Énervé, mal à l'aise, indigné par l'insignifiance des idées échangées et reçues, il devenait comme ces gens dont a parlé Nicole, qui sont douloureux partout; il en arrivait à s'écorcher constamment l'épiderme, à souffrir des balivernes patriotiques et sociales débitées, chaque matin, dans les journaux, à s'exagérer la portée des succès qu'un tout-puissant public réserve toujours et quand même aux oeuvres écrites sans idées et sans style.

Déjà il rêvait à une thébaïde raffinée, à un désert confortable, à une arche immobile et tiède où il se réfugierait loin de l'incessant déluge de la sottise humaine.

Une seule passion, la femme, eût pu le retenir dans cet universel dédain qui le poignait, mais celle-là était, elle aussi, usée. Il avait touché aux repas charnels, avec un appétit d'homme quinteux, affecté de maladie, obsédé de fringales et dont le palais s'émousse et se blase vite; au temps où il compagnonnait avec les hobereaux, il avait participé à ces spacieux soupers où des femmes soûles se dégrafent au dessert et battent la table avec leur tête; il avait aussi parcouru les coulisses, tâté des actrices et des chanteuses, subi, en sus de la bêtise innée des femmes, la délirante vanité des cabotines; puis il avait entretenu des filles déjà célèbres et contribué à la fortune de ces agences qui fournissent, moyennant salaire, des plaisirs contestables; enfin, repu, las de ce luxe similaire, de ces caresses identiques il avait plongé dans les bas-fonds, espérant ravitailler ses désirs par le contraste, pensant stimuler ses sens assoupis par l'excitante malpropreté de la misère.

Quoi qu'il tentât, un immense ennui l'opprimait. Il s'acharna, recourut aux périlleuses caresses des virtuoses, mais alors sa santé faiblit et son système nerveux s'exacerba; la nuque devenait déjà sensible et la main remuait droite encore lorsqu'elle saisissait un objet lourd, capricante et penchée quand elle tenait quelque chose de léger tel qu'un petit verre.

Les médecins consultés l'effrayèrent. Il était temps d'enrayer cette vie, de renoncer à ces manoeuvres qui alitaient ses forces. Il demeura, pendant quelque temps, tranquille; mais bientôt le cervelet s'exalta, appela de nouveau aux armes. De même que ces gamines qui, sous le coup de la puberté, s'affament de mets altérés ou abjects, il en vint à rêver, à pratiquer les amours exceptionnelles, les joies déviées; alors, ce fut la fin; comme satisfaits d'avoir tout épuisé, comme fourbus de fatigues, ses sens tombèrent en léthargie, l'impuissance fut proche.

Il se retrouva sur le chemin, dégrisé, seul, abominablement lassé, implorant une fin que la lâcheté de sa chair l'empêchait d'atteindre.

Ses idées de se blottir, loin du monde, de se calfeutrer dans une retraite, d'assourdir, ainsi que pour ces malades dont on couvre la rue de paille, le vacarme roulant de l'inflexible vie, se renforcèrent.

Il était d'ailleurs temps de se résoudre; le compte qu'il fit de sa fortune l'épouvanta; en folies, en noces, il avait dévoré la majeure partie de son patrimoine, et l'autre partie, placée en terres, ne rapportait que des intérêts dérisoires.

Il se détermina à vendre le château de Lourps où il n'allait plus et où il n'oubliait derrière lui aucun souvenir attachant, aucun regret; il liquida aussi ses autres biens, acheta des rentes sur l'État, réunit de la sorte un revenu annuel de cinquante mille livres et se réserva, en plus, une somme ronde destinée à payer et à meubler la maisonnette où il se proposait de baigner dans une définitive quiétude.

Il fouilla les environs de la capitale, et découvrit une bicoque à vendre, en haut de Fontenay-aux-Roses, dans un endroit écarté, sans voisins, près du fort: son rêve était exaucé; dans ce pays peu ravagé par les Parisiens, il était certain d'être à l'abri; la difficulté des communications mal assurées par un ridicule chemin de fer, situé au bout de la ville, et par de petits tramways, partant et marchant à leur guise, le rassurait. En songeant à la nouvelle existence qu'il voulait organiser, il éprouvait une allégresse d'autant plus vive qu'il se voyait retiré assez loin déjà, sur la berge, pour que le flot de Paris ne l'atteignît plus et assez près cependant pour que cette proximité de la capitale le confirmât dans sa solitude. Et, en effet, puisqu'il suffit qu'on soit dans l'impossibilité de se rendre à un endroit pour qu'aussitôt le désir d'y aller vous prenne, il avait des chances, en ne se barrant pas complètement la route, de n'être assailli par aucun regain de société, par aucun regret.

Il mit les maçons sur la maison qu'il avait acquise, puis, brusquement, un jour, sans faire part à qui que ce fût de ses projets, il se débarrassa de son ancien mobilier, congédia ses domestiques et disparut, sans laisser au concierge aucune adresse.


Plus de deux mois s'écoulèrent avant que des Esseintes pût s'immerger dans le silencieux repos de sa maison de Fontenay; des achats de toute sorte l'obligeaient à déambuler encore dans Paris, à battre la ville d'un bout à l'autre.

Et pourtant à quelles perquisitions n'avait-il pas eu recours, à quelles méditations ne s'était-il point livré, avant que de confier son logement aux tapissiers!

Il était depuis longtemps expert aux sincérités et aux faux-fuyants des tons. Jadis, alors qu'il recevait chez lui des femmes, il avait composé un boudoir où, au milieu des petits meubles sculptés dans le pâle camphrier du Japon, sous une espèce de tente en satin rose des Indes, les chairs se coloraient doucement aux lumières apprêtées que blutait l'étoffe.

Cette pièce où des glaces se faisaient écho et se renvoyaient à perte de vue, dans les murs, des enfilades de boudoirs roses, avait été célèbre parmi les filles qui se complaisaient à tremper leur nudité dans ce bain d'incarnat tiède qu'aromatisait l'odeur de menthe dégagée par le bois des meubles.

Mais, en mettant même de côté les bienfaits de cet air fardé qui paraissait transfuser un nouveau sang sous les peaux défraîchies et usées par l'habitude des céruses et l'abus des nuits, il goûtait pour son propre compte, dans ce languissant milieu, des allégresses particulières, des plaisirs que rendaient extrêmes et qu'activaient, en quelque sorte, les souvenirs des maux passés, des ennuis défunts.

Ainsi, par haine, par mépris de son enfance, il avait pendu au plafond de cette pièce une petite cage en fil d'argent où un grillon enfermé chantait comme dans les cendres des cheminées du château de Lourps; quand il écoutait ce cri tant de fois entendu, toutes les soirées contraintes et muettes chez sa mère, tout l'abandon d'une jeunesse souffrante et refoulée, se bousculaient devant lui, et alors, aux secousses de la femme qu'il caressait machinalement et dont les paroles ou le rire rompaient sa vision et le ramenaient brusquement dans la réalité, dans le boudoir à terre, un tumulte se levait en son âme, un besoin de vengeance des tristesses endurées, une rage de salir par des turpitudes des souvenirs de famille, un désir furieux de panteler sur des coussins de chair, d'épuiser jusqu'à leurs dernières gouttes, les plus véhémentes et les plus âcres des folies charnelles.

D'autres fois encore, quand le spleen le pressait, quand par les temps pluvieux d'automne, l'aversion de la rue, du chez soi, du ciel en boue jaune, des nuages en macadam, l'assaillait, il se réfugiait dans ce réduit, agitait légèrement la cage et la regardait se répercuter à l'infini dans le jeu des glaces, jusqu'à ce que ses yeux grisés s'aperçussent que la cage ne bougeait point, mais que tout le boudoir vacillait et tournait, emplissant la maison d'une valse rose.

Puis, au temps où il jugeait nécessaire de se singulariser, des Esseintes avait aussi créé des ameublements fastueusement étranges, divisant son salon en une série de niches, diversement tapissées et pouvant se relier par une subtile analogie, par un vague accord de teintes joyeuses ou sombres, délicates ou barbares, au caractère des oeuvres latines et françaises qu'il aimait. Il s'installait alors dans celle de ces niches dont le décor lui semblait le mieux correspondre à l'essence même de l'ouvrage que son caprice du moment l'amenait à lire.

Enfin, il avait fait préparer une haute salle, destinée à la réception de ses fournisseurs; ils entraient, s'asseyaient les uns à côté des autres, dans des stalles d'église, et alors il montait dans une chaire magistrale et prêchait le sermon sur le dandysme, adjurant ses bottiers et ses tailleurs de se conformer, de la façon la plus absolue, à ses brefs en matière de coupe, les menaçant d'une excommunication pécuniaire s'ils ne suivaient pas, à la lettre, les instructions contenues dans ses monitoires et ses bulles.

Il s'acquit la réputation d'un excentrique qu'il paracheva en se vêtant de costumes de velours blanc, de gilets d'orfroi, en plantant, en guise de cravate, un bouquet de Parme dans l'échancrure décolletée d'une chemise, en donnant aux hommes de lettres des dîners retentissants un entre autres, renouvelé du XVIIIe siècle, où, pour célébrer la plus futile des mésaventures, il avait organisé un repas de deuil.

Dans la salle à manger tendue de noir, ouverte sur le jardin de sa maison subitement transformé, montrant ses allées poudrées de charbon, son petit bassin maintenant bordé d'une margelle de basalte et rempli d'encre et ses massifs tout disposés de cyprès et de pins, le dîner avait été apporté sur une nappe noire, garnie de corbeilles de violettes et de scabieuses, éclairée par des candélabres où brûlaient des flammes vertes et par des chandeliers où flambaient des cierges.

Tandis qu'un orchestre dissimulé jouait des marches funèbres, les convives avaient été servis par des négresses nues, avec des mules et des bas en toile d'argent, semée de larmes.

On avait mangé dans des assiettes bordées de noir, des soupes à la tortue, des pains de seigle russe, des olives mûres de Turquie, du caviar, des poutargues de mulets, des boudins fumés de Francfort, des gibiers aux sauces couleur de jus de réglisse et de cirage, des coulis de truffes, des crèmes ambrées au chocolat, des poudings, des brugnons, des raisinés, des mûres et des guignes; bu, dans des verres sombres, les vins de la Limagne et du Roussillon, des Tenedos, des Val de Pefias et des Porto; savouré, après le café et le brou de noix, des kwas, des porter et des stout.

Le dîner de faire-part d'une virilité momentanément morte, était-il écrit sur les lettres d'invitations semblables à celles des enterrements.

Mais ces extravagances dont il se glorifiait jadis s'étaient, d'elles-mêmes, consumées; aujourd'hui, le mépris lui était venu de ces ostentations puériles et surannées, de ces vêtements anormaux, de ces embellies de logements bizarres. Il songeait simplement à se composer, pour son plaisir personnel et non plus pour l'étonnement des autres, un intérieur confortable et paré néanmoins d'une façon rare, à se façonner une installation curieuse et calme, appropriée aux besoins de sa future solitude.

Lorsque la maison de Fontenay fut prête et agencée, suivant ses désirs et ses plans, par un architecte; lorsqu'il ne resta plus qu'à déterminer l'ordonnance de l'ameublement et du décor, il passa de nouveau et longuement en revue la série des couleurs et des nuances.

Ce qu'il voulait, c'étaient des couleurs dont l'expression s'affirmât aux lumières factices des lampes; peu lui importait même qu'elles fussent, aux lueurs du jour, insipides ou rêches, car il ne vivait guère que la nuit, pensant qu'on était mieux chez soi, plus seul, et que l'esprit ne s'excitait et ne crépitait réellement qu'au contact voisin de l'ombre; il trouvait aussi une jouissance particulière à se tenir dans une chambre largement éclairée, seul éveillé et debout, au milieu des maisons enténébrées et endormies, une sorte de jouissance où il entrait peut-être une pointe de vanité, une satisfaction toute singulière, que connaissent les travailleurs attardés alors que, soulevant les rideaux des fenêtres, ils s'aperçoivent autour d'eux que tout est éteint, que tout est muet, que tout est mort.

Lentement, il tria, un à un, les tons.

Le bleu tire aux flambeaux sur un faux vert; s'il est foncé comme le cobalt et l'indigo, il devient noir; s'il est clair, il tourne au gris; s'il est sincère et doux comme la turquoise, il se ternit et se glace.

À moins donc de l'associer, ainsi qu'un adjuvant, à une autre couleur, il ne pouvait être question d'en faire la note dominante d'une pièce.

D'un autre côté, les gris fer se renfrognent encore et s'alourdissent; les gris de perle perdent leur azur et se métamorphosent en un blanc sale; les bruns s'endorment et se froidissent; quant aux verts foncés, ainsi que les verts empereur et les verts myrte, ils agissent de même que les gros bleus et fusionnent avec les noirs; restaient donc les verts plus pâles, tels que le vert paon, les cinabres et les laques, mais alors la lumière exile leur bleu et ne détient plus que leur jaune qui ne garde, à son tour, qu'un ton faux, qu'une saveur trouble.

Il n'y avait pas à songer davantage aux saumons, aux maïs et aux roses dont les efféminations contrarieraient les pensées de l'isolement; il n'y avait pas enfin à méditer sur les violets qui se dépouillent; le rouge surnage seul, le soir, et quel rouge! un rouge visqueux, un lie-de-vin ignoble; il lui paraissait d'ailleurs bien inutile de recourir à cette couleur, puisqu'en s'ingérant de la santonine, à certaine dose, l'on voit violet et qu'il est dès lors facile de se changer, et sans y toucher, la teinte de ses tentures.

Ces couleurs écartées, trois demeuraient seulement: le rouge, l'orangé, le jaune.

À toutes, il préférait l'orangé, confirmant ainsi par son propre exemple, la vérité d'une théorie qu'il déclarait d'une exactitude presque mathématique: à savoir, qu'une harmonie existe entre la nature sensuelle d'un individu vraiment artiste et la couleur que ses yeux voient d'une façon plus spéciale et plus vive.

En négligeant, en effet, le commun des hommes dont les grossières rétines ne perçoivent ni la cadence propre à chacune des couleurs, ni le charme mystérieux de leurs dégradations et de leurs nuances; en négligeant aussi ces yeux bourgeois, insensibles à la pompe et à la victoire des teintes vibrantes et fortes; en ne conservant plus alors que les gens aux pupilles raffinées, exercées par la littérature et par l'art, il lui semblait certain que l'oeil de celui d'entre eux qui rêve d'idéal, qui réclame des illusions, sollicite des voiles dans le coucher, est généralement caressé par le bleu et ses dérivés, tels que le mauve, le lilas, le gris de perle, pourvu toutefois qu'ils demeurent attendris et ne dépassent pas la lisière où il aliènent leur personnalité et se transforment en de purs violets, en de francs gris.

Les gens, au contraire, qui hussardent, les pléthoriques, les beaux sanguins, les solides mâles qui dédaignent les entrées et les épisodes et se ruent, en perdant aussitôt la tête, ceux-là se complaisent, pour la plupart, aux lueurs éclatantes des jaunes et des rouges, aux coups de cymbales des vermillons et des chromes qui les aveuglent et qui les soûlent.

Enfin, les yeux des gens affaiblis et nerveux dont l'appétit sensuel quête des mets relevés par les fumages et les saumures, les yeux des gens surexcités et étiques chérissent, presque tous, cette couleur irritante et maladive, aux splendeurs fictives, aux fièvres acides: l'orangé.

Le choix de des Esseintes ne pouvait donc prêter au moindre doute; mais d'incontestables difficultés se présentaient encore. Si le rouge et le jaune se magnifient aux lumières, il n'en est pas toujours de même de leur composé, l'orangé, qui s'emporte, et se transmue souvent en un rouge capucine, en un rouge feu.

Il étudia aux bougies toutes ses nuances, en découvrit une qui lui parut ne pas devoir se déséquilibrer et se soustraire aux exigences qu'il attendait d'elle; ces préliminaires terminés, il tâcha de ne pas user, autant que possible pour son cabinet au moins, des étoffes et des tapis de l'Orient, devenus, maintenant que les négociants enrichis se les procurent dans les magasins de nouveautés, au rabais, si fastidieux et si communs.

Il se résolut, en fin de compte, à faire relier ses murs comme des livres, avec du maroquin, à gros grains écrasés, avec de la peau du Cap, glacée par de fortes plaques d'acier, sous une puissante presse.

Les lambris une fois parés, il fit peindre les baguettes et les hautes plinthes en un indigo foncé, en un indigo laqué, semblable à celui que les carrossiers emploient pour les panneaux des voitures, et le plafond, un peu arrondi, également tendu de maroquin, ouvrit tel qu'un immense oeil-de-boeuf, enchâssé dans sa peau d'orange, un cercle de firmament en soie bleu de roi, au milieu duquel montaient, à tire-d'ailes, des séraphins d'argent, naguère brodés par la confrérie des tisserands de Cologne, pour une ancienne chape.

Après que la mise en place fut effectuée, le soir, tout cela se concilia, se tempéra, s'assit: les boiseries immobilisèrent leur bleu soutenu et comme échauffé par les oranges qui se maintinrent, à leur tour, sans s'adultérer, appuyés et, en quelque sorte, attisés qu'ils furent par le souffle pressant des bleus.

En fait de meubles, des Esseintes n'eut pas de longues recherches à opérer, le seul luxe de cette pièce devant consister en des livres et des fleurs rares; il se borna, se réservant d'orner plus tard, de quelques dessins ou de quelques tableaux, les cloisons demeurées nues, à établir sur la majeure partie de ses murs des rayons et des casiers de bibliothèque en bois d'ébène, à joncher le parquet de peaux de bêtes fauves et de fourrures de renards bleus, à installer près d'une massive table de changeur du XVe siècle, de profonds fauteuils à oreillettes et un vieux pupitre de chapelle, en fer forgé, un de ces antiques lutrins sur lesquels le diacre plaçait jadis l'antiphonaire et qui supportait maintenant l'un des pesants in-folios du Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis de du Cange.

Les croisées dont les vitres, craquelées, bleuâtres, parsemées de culs de bouteille aux bosses piquetées d'or, interceptaient la vue de la campagne et ne laissaient pénétrer qu'une lumière feinte, se vêtirent, à leur tour, de rideaux taillés dans de vieilles étoles, dont l'or assombri et quasi sauré, s'éteignait dans la trame d'un roux presque mort.

Enfin, sur la cheminée dont la robe fut, elle aussi, découpée dans la somptueuse étoffe d'une dalmatique florentine, entre deux ostensoirs, en cuivre doré, de style byzantin, provenant de l'ancienne Abbaye-au-Bois de Bièvre, un merveilleux canon d'église, aux trois compartiments séparés, ouvragés comme une dentelle, contint, sous le verre de son cadre, copiées sur un authentique vélin, avec d'admirables lettres de missel et de splendides enluminures: trois pièces de Baudelaire: à droite et à gauche, les sonnets portant ces titres « la Mort des Amants » - « l'Ennemi »; - au milieu, le poème en prose intitulé: « anywhere out of the world. - N'importe où, hors du monde ».


Après la vente de ses biens, des Esseintes garda les deux vieux domestiques qui avaient soigné sa mère et rempli tout à la fois l'office de régisseurs et de concierges du château de Lourps, demeuré jusqu'à l'époque de sa mise en adjudication inhabité et vide.

Il fit venir à Fontenay ce ménage habitué à un emploi de garde-malade, à une régularité d'infirmiers distribuant, d'heure en heure, des cuillerées de potion et de tisane, à un rigide silence de moines claustrés, sans communication avec le dehors, dans des pièces aux fenêtres et aux portes closes.

Le mari fut chargé de nettoyer les chambres et d'aller aux provisions, la femme de préparer la cuisine. Il leur céda le premier étage de la maison, les obligea à porter d'épais chaussons de feutre, fit placer des tambours le long des portes bien huilées et matelasser leur plancher de profonds tapis de manière à ne jamais entendre le bruit de leurs pas, au-dessus de sa tête.

Il convint avec eux aussi du sens de certaines sonneries, détermina la signification des coups de timbre, selon leur nombre, leur brièveté, leur longueur; désigna, sur son bureau, la place où ils devaient, tous les mois, déposer, pendant son sommeil, le livre des comptes; il s'arrangea, enfin, de façon à ne pas être souvent obligé de leur parler ou de les voir.

Néanmoins, comme la femme devait quelquefois longer la maison pour atteindre un hangar où était remisé le bois, il voulut que son ombre, lorsqu'elle traversait les carreaux de ses fenêtres, ne fût pas hostile, et il lui fit fabriquer un costume en faille flamande, avec bonnet blanc et large capuchon, baissé, noir, tel qu'en portent encore, à Gand, les femmes du béguinage. L'ombre de cette coiffe passant devant lui, dans le crépuscule, lui donnait la sensation d'un cloître, lui rappelait ces muets et dévots villages, ces quartiers morts, enfermés et enfouis dans le coin d'une active et vivante ville.

Il régla aussi les heures immuables des repas; ils étaient d'ailleurs peu compliqués et très succincts, les défaillances de son estomac ne lui permettant plus d'absorber des mets variés ou lourds.

À cinq heures, l'hiver, après la chute du jour, il déjeunait légèrement de deux oeufs à la coque, de rôties et de thé; puis il dînait vers les onze heures; buvait du café, quelquefois du thé et du vin, pendant la nuit; picorait une petite dînette, sur les cinq heures du matin, avant de se mettre au lit.

Il prenait ces repas, dont l'ordonnance et le menu étaient, une fois pour toutes, fixés à chaque commencement de saison, sur une table, au milieu d'une petite pièce, séparée de son cabinet de travail par un corridor capitonné, hermétiquement fermé, ne laissant filtrer, ni odeur, ni bruit, dans chacune des deux pièces qu'il servait à joindre.

Cette salle à manger ressemblait à la cabine d'un navire avec son plafond voûté, muni de poutres en demi-cercle ses cloisons et son plancher, en bois de pitchpin, sa petite croisée ouverte dans la boiserie, de même qu'un hublot dans un sabord.

Ainsi que ces boîtes du Japon qui entrent, les unes dans les autres, cette pièce était insérée dans une pièce plus grande, qui était la véritable salle à manger bâtie par l'architecte.

Celle-ci était percée de deux fenêtres, l'une, maintenant invisible, cachée par la cloison qu'un ressort rabattait cependant, à volonté, afin de permettre de renouveler l'air qui par cette ouverture pouvait alors circuler autour de la boîte de pitchpin et pénétrer en elle; l'autre, visible, car elle était placée juste en face du hublot pratiqué dans la boiserie, mais condamnée; en effet, un grand aquarium occupait tout l'espace compris entre ce hublot et cette réelle fenêtre ouverte dans le vrai mur. Le jour traversait donc, pour éclairer la cabine, la croisée, dont les carreaux avaient été remplacés par une glace sans tain, l'eau, et, en dernier lieu, la vitre à demeure du sabord.

Au moment où le samowar fumait sur la table, alors que, pendant l'automne, le soleil achevait de disparaître, l'eau de l'aquarium durant la matinée vitreuse et trouble, rougeoyait et tamisait sur les blondes cloisons des lueurs enflammées de braises.

Quelquefois, dans l'après-midi, lorsque, par hasard, des Esseintes était réveillé et debout, il faisait manoeuvrer le jeu des tuyaux et des conduits qui vidaient l'aquarium et le remplissaient à nouveau d'eau pure, et il y faisait verser des gouttes d'essences colorées, s'offrant, à sa guise ainsi, les tons verts ou saumâtres, opalins ou argentés, qu'ont les véritables rivières, suivant la couleur du ciel, l'ardeur plus ou moins vive du soleil, les menaces plus ou moins accentuées de la pluie, suivant, en un mot, l'état de la saison et de l'atmosphère.

Il se figurait alors être dans l'entre-pont d'un brick, et curieusement il contemplait de merveilleux poissons mécaniques, montés comme des pièces d'horlogerie, qui passaient devant la vitre du sabord et s'accrochaient dans de fausses herbes; ou bien, tout en aspirant la senteur du goudron, qu'on insufflait dans la pièce avant qu'il y entrât, il examinait, pendues aux murs, des gravures en couleur représentant, ainsi que dans les agences des paquebots et des Lloyd, des steamers en route pour Valparaiso et la Plata, et des tableaux encadrés sur lesquels étaient inscrits les itinéraires de la ligne du Royal Mail Steam Packet, des compagnies Lopez et Valéry, les frets et les escales des services postaux de l'Atlantique.

Puis, quand il était las de consulter ces indicateurs, il se reposait la vue en regardant les chronomètres et les boussoles, les sextants et les compas, les jumelles et les cartes éparpillées sur une table au-dessus de laquelle se dressait un seul livre, relié en veau marin, les aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym, spécialement tiré pour lui, sur papier vergé, pur fil, trié à la feuille, avec une mouette en filigrane.

Il pouvait apercevoir enfin des cannes à pêche, des filets brunis au tan, des rouleaux de voiles rousses, une ancre minuscule en liège, peinte en noir, jetés en tas, près de la porte qui communiquait avec la cuisine par un couloir garni de capitons et résorbait, de même que le corridor rejoignant la salle à manger au cabinet de travail, toutes les odeurs et tous les bruits.

Il se procurait ainsi, en ne bougeant point, les sensations rapides, presque instantanées, d'un voyage au long cours, et ce plaisir du déplacement qui n'existe, en somme, que par le souvenir et presque jamais dans le présent, à la minute même où il s'effectue, il le humait pleinement, à l'aise, sans fatigue, sans tracas, dans cette cabine dont le désordre apprêté, dont la tenue transitoire et l'installation comme temporaire correspondaient assez exactement avec le séjour passager qu'il y faisait, avec le temps limité de ses repas, et contrastait, d'une manière absolue, avec son cabinet de travail, une pièce définitive, rangée, bien assise, outillée pour le ferme maintien d'une existence casanière.

Le mouvement lui paraissait d'ailleurs inutile et l'imagination lui semblait pouvoir aisément suppléer à la vulgaire réalité des faits. À son avis, il était possible de contenter les désirs réputés les plus difficiles à satisfaire dans la vie normale, et cela par un léger subterfuge, par une approximative sophistication de l'objet poursuivi par ces désirs mêmes. Ainsi, il est bien évident que tout gourmet se délecte aujourd'hui, dans les restaurants renommés par l'excellence de leurs caves, en buvant les hauts crus fabriqués avec de basses vinasses traitées suivant la méthode de M. Pasteur. Or, vrais et faux, ces vins ont le même arôme, la même couleur, le même bouquet, et par conséquent le plaisir qu'on éprouve en dégustant ces breuvages altérés et factices est absolument identique à celui que l'on goûterait en savourant le vin naturel et pur qui serait introuvable, même à prix d'or.

En transportant cette captieuse déviation, cet adroit mensonge dans le monde de l'intellect, nul doute qu'on ne puisse, et aussi facilement que dans le monde matériel, jouir de chimériques délices semblables, en tous points, aux vraies; nul doute, par exemple, qu'on ne puisse se livrer à de longues explorations, au coin de son feu, en aidant, au besoin, l'esprit rétif ou lent, par la suggestive lecture d'un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages; nul doute aussi, qu'on ne puisse, - sans bouger de Paris - acquérir la bienfaisante impression d'un bain de mer; il suffirait, tout bonnement de se rendre au bain Vigier, situé, sur un bateau, en pleine Seine.

Là, en faisant saler l'eau de sa baignoire et en y mêlant, suivant la formule du Codex, du sulfate de soude, de l'hydrochlorate de magnésie et de chaux; en tirant d'une boîte soigneusement fermée par un pas de vis, une pelote de ficelle ou un tout petit morceau de câble qu'on est allé exprès chercher dans l'une de ces grandes corderies dont les vastes magasins et les sous-sols soufflent des odeurs de marée et de port; en aspirant ces parfums que doit conserver encore cette ficelle ou ce bout de câble; en consultant une exacte photographie du casino et en lisant ardemment le guide Joanne décrivant les beautés de la plage où l'on veut être; en se laissant enfin bercer par les vagues que soulève, dans la baignoire, le remous des bateaux-mouches rasant le ponton des bains; en écoutant enfin les plaintes du vent engouffré sous les arches et le bruit sourd des omnibus roulant, à deux pas, au-dessus de vous, sur le pont Royal, l'illusion de la mer est indéniable, impérieuse, sûre.

Le tout est de savoir s'y prendre, de savoir concentrer son esprit sur un seul point, de savoir s'abstraire suffisamment pour amener l'hallucination et pouvoir substituer le rêve de la réalité à la réalité même.

Au reste, l'artifice paraissait à des Esseintes la marque distinctive du génie de l'homme.

Comme il le disait, la nature a fait son temps; elle a définitivement lassé, par la dégoûtante uniformité de ses paysages et de ses ciels, l'attentive patience des raffinés. Au fond, quelle platitude de spécialiste confinée dans sa partie, quelle petitesse de boutiquière tenant tel article à l'exclusion de tout autre, quel monotone magasin de prairies et d'arbres, quelle banale agence de montagnes et de mers!

Il n'est, d'ailleurs, aucune de ses inventions réputée si subtile ou si grandiose que le génie humain ne puisse créer; aucune forêt de Fontainebleau, aucun clair de lune que des décors inondés de jets électriques ne produisent; aucune cascade que l'hydraulique n'imite à s'y méprendre; aucun roc que le carton-pâte ne s'assimile; aucune fleur que de spécieux taffetas et de délicats papiers peints n'égalent!

À n'en pas douter, cette sempiternelle radoteuse a maintenant usé la débonnaire admiration des vrais artistes, et le moment est venu où il s'agit de la remplacer, autant que faire se pourra, par l'artifice.

Et puis, à bien discerner celle de ses oeuvres considérée comme la plus exquise, celle de ses créations dont la beauté est, de l'avis de tous, la plus originale et la plus parfaite: la femme; est-ce que l'homme n'a pas, de son côté, fabriqué, à lui tout seul, un être animé et factice qui la vaut amplement, au point de vue de la beauté plastique? est-ce qu'il existe, ici-bas, un être conçu dans les joies d'une fornication et sorti des douleurs d'une matrice dont le modèle, dont le type soit plus éblouissant, plus splendide que celui de ces deux locomotives adoptées sur la ligne du chemin de fer du Nord?

L'une, la Crampton, une adorable blonde, à la voix aiguë, à la grande taille frêle, emprisonnée dans un étincelant corset de cuivre, au souple et nerveux allongement de chatte, une blonde pimpante et dorée, dont l'extraordinaire grâce épouvante lorsque, raidissant, ses muscles d'acier, activant la sueur de ses flancs tièdes, elle met en branle l'immense rosace de sa fine roue et s'élance toute vivante, en tête des rapides et des marées?

L'autre, l'Engerth, une monumentale et sombre brune aux cris sourds et rauques, aux reins trapus, étranglés dans une cuirasse en fonte, une monstrueuse bête, à la crinière échevelée de fumée noire, aux six roues basses et accouplées, quelle écrasante puissance lorsque, faisant trembler la terre, elle remorque pesamment, lentement, la lourde queue de ses marchandises!

Il n'est certainement pas, parmi les frêles beautés blondes et les majestueuses beautés brunes, de pareils types de sveltesse délicate et de terrifiante force; à coup sûr, on peut le dire: l'homme a fait, dans son genre, aussi bien que le Dieu auquel il croit.

Ces réflexions venaient à des Esseintes quand la brise apportait jusqu'à lui le petit sifflet de l'enfantin chemin de fer qui joue de la toupie, entre Paris et Sceaux; sa maison était située à vingt minutes environ de la station de Fontenay, mais la hauteur où elle était assise, son isolement, ne laissaient pas pénétrer jusqu'à elle le brouhaha des immondes foules qu'attire invinciblement, le dimanche, le voisinage d'une gare.

Quant au village même, il le connaissait à peine. Par sa fenêtre, une nuit, il avait contemplé le silencieux paysage qui se développe, en descendant, jusqu'au pied d'un coteau, sur le sommet duquel se dressent les batteries du bois de Verrières.

Dans l'obscurité, à gauche, à droite, des masses confuses s'étageaient, dominées, au loin, par d'autres batteries et d'autres forts dont les hauts talus semblaient, au clair de la lune, gouachés avec de l'argent, sur un ciel sombre.

Rétrécie par l'ombre tombée des collines, la plaine paraissait, à son milieu, poudrée de farine d'amidon et enduite de blanc cold-cream; dans l'air tiède, éventant les herbes décolorées et distillant de bas parfums d'épices, les arbres frottés de craie par la lune, ébouriffaient de pâles feuillages et dédoublaient leurs troncs dont les ombres barraient de raies noires le sol en plâtre sur lequel des caillasses scintillaient ainsi que des éclats d'assiettes.

En raison de son maquillage et de son air factice, ce paysage ne déplaisait pas à des Esseintes; mais, depuis cette après-midi occupée dans le hameau de Fontenay à la recherche d'une maison, jamais il ne s'était, pendant le jour, promené sur les routes; la verdure de ce pays ne lui inspirait, du reste, aucun intérêt, car elle n'offrait même pas ce charme délicat et dolent que dégagent les attendrissantes et maladives végétations poussées, à grand-peine, dans les gravats des banlieues, près des remparts. Puis, il avait aperçu, dans le village, ce jour-là, des bourgeois ventrus, à favoris, et des gens costumés, à moustaches, portant, ainsi que des saints-sacrements, des têtes de magistrats et de militaires; et, depuis cette rencontre, son horreur s'était encore accrue, de la face humaine.

Pendant les derniers mois de son séjour à Paris, alors que, revenu de tout, abattu par l'hypocondrie, écrasé par le spleen, il était arrivé à une telle sensibilité de nerfs que la vue d'un objet ou d'un être déplaisant se gravait profondément dans sa cervelle, et qu'il fallait plusieurs jours pour en effacer même légèrement l'empreinte, la figure humaine frôlée, dans la rue, avait été l'un de ses plus lancinants supplices.

Positivement, il souffrait de la vue de certaines physionomies, considérait presque comme des insultes les mines paternes ou rêches de quelques visages, se sentait des envies de souffleter ce monsieur qui flânait, en fermant les paupières d'un air docte, cet autre qui se balançait, en se souriant devant les glaces; cet autre enfin qui paraissait agiter un monde de pensées, tout en dévorant, les sourcils contractés, les tartines et les faits divers d'un journal.

Il flairait une sottise si invétérée, une telle exécration pour ses idées à lui, un tel mépris pour la littérature, pour l'art, pour tout ce qu'il adorait, implantés, ancrés dans ces étroits cerveaux de négociants, exclusivement préoccupés de filouteries et d'argent et seulement accessibles à cette basse distraction des esprits médiocres, la politique, qu'il rentrait en rage chez lui et se verrouillait avec ses livres.

Enfin, il haïssait, de toutes ses forces, les générations nouvelles, ces couches d'affreux rustres qui éprouvent le besoin de parler et de rire haut dans les restaurants et dans les cafés, qui vous bousculent, sans demander pardon, sur les trottoirs, qui vous jettent, sans même s'excuser, sans même saluer, les roues d'une voiture d'enfant, entre les jambes.


Une partie des rayons plaqués contre les murs de son cabinet, orange et bleu, était exclusivement couverte par des ouvrages latins, par ceux que les intelligences qu'ont domestiquées les déplorables leçons ressassées dans les Sorbonnes désignent sous ce nom générique: la décadence.

En effet, la langue latine, telle qu'elle fut pratiquée à cette époque que les professeurs s'obstinent encore à appeler le grand siècle ne l'incitait guère. Cette langue restreinte, aux tournures comptées, presque invariables, sans souplesse de syntaxe, sans couleurs, ni nuances; cette langue, râclée sur toutes les coutures, émondée des expressions rocailleuses mais parfois imagées des âges précédents, pouvait, à la rigueur, énoncer les majestueuses rengaines, les vagues lieux communs rabâchés par les rhéteurs et par les poètes, mais elle dégageait une telle incuriosité, un tel ennui qu'il fallait, dans les études de linguistique, arriver au style français du siècle de Louis XIV, pour en rencontrer une aussi volontairement débilitée, aussi solennellement harassante et grise.

Entre autres le doux Virgile, celui que les pions surnomment le cygne de Mantoue, sans doute parce qu'il n'est pas né dans cette ville, lui apparaissait, ainsi que l'un des plus terribles cuistres, l'un des plus sinistres raseurs que l'antiquité ait jamais produits; ses bergers lavés et pomponnés, se déchargeant, à tour de rôle, sur la tête de pleins pots de vers sentencieux et glacés, son Orphée qu'il compare à un rossignol en larmes, son Aristée qui pleurniche à propos d'abeilles, son Enée, ce personnage indécis et fluent qui se promène, pareil à une ombre chinoise, avec des gestes en bois, derrière le transparent mal assujetti et mal huilé du poème, l'exaspéraient. Il eût bien accepté les fastidieuses balivernes que ces marionnettes échangent entre elles, à la cantonade; il eût accepté encore les impudents emprunts faits à Homère, à Théocrite, à Ennius, à Lucrèce, le simple vol que nous a révélé Macrobe du deuxième chant de l'Enéide presque copié, mots pour mots, dans un poème de Pisandre, enfin toute l'inénarrable vacuité de ce tas de chants; mais ce qui l'horripilait davantage c'était la facture de ces hexamètres, sonnant le fer blanc, le bidon creux, allongeant leurs quantités de mots pesés au litre selon l'immuable ordonnance d'une prosodie pédante et sèche; c'était la contexture de ces vers râpeux et gourmés, dans leur tenue officielle, dans leur basse révérence à la grammaire, de ces vers coupés, à la mécanique, par une imperturbable césure, tamponnés en queue, toujours de la même façon, par le choc d'un dactyle contre un spondée.

Empruntée à la forge perfectionnée de Catulle, cette invariable métrique, sans fantaisie, sans pitié, bourrée de mots inutiles, de remplissages, de chevilles aux boucles identiques et prévues; cette misère de l'épithète homérique revenant sans cesse, pour ne rien désigner, pour ne rien faire voir, tout cet indigent vocabulaire aux teintes insonores et plates, le suppliciaient.

Il est juste d'ajouter que si son admiration pour Virgile était des plus modérées et que si son attirance pour les claires éjections d'Ovide était des plus discrètes et des plus sourdes, son dégoût pour les grâces éléphantines d'Horace, pour le babillage de ce désespérant pataud qui minaude avec des gaudrioles plâtrées de vieux clown, était sans borne.

En prose, la langue verbeuse, les métaphores redondantes, les digressions amphigouriques du Pois Chiche, ne le ravissaient pas davantage; la jactance de ses apostrophes, le flux de ses rengaines patriotiques, l'emphase de ses harangues, la pesante masse de son style, charnu, nourri, mais tourné à la graisse et privé de moelles et d'os, les insupportables scories de ses longs adverbes ouvrant la phrase, les inaltérables formules de ses adipeuses périodes mal liées entre elles par le fil des conjonctions, enfin ses lassantes habitudes de tautologie, ne le séduisaient guère; et, pas beaucoup plus que Cicéron, César, réputé pour son laconisme, ne l'enthousiasmait; car l'excès contraire se montrait alors, une aridité de pète sec, une stérilité de memento, une constipation incroyable et indue.

Somme toute, il ne trouvait pâture ni parmi ces écrivains ni parmi ceux qui font cependant les délices des faux lettrés: Salluste moins décoloré que les autres pourtant; Tite-Live sentimental et pompeux; Sénèque turgide et blafard; Suétone, lymphatique et larveux; Tacite, le plus nerveux dans sa concision apprêtée, le plus âpre, le plus musclé d'eux tous. En poésie, Juvénal, malgré quelques vers durement bottés, Perse, malgré ses insinuations mystérieuses, le laissaient froid. En négligeant Tibulle et Properce, Quintilien et les Pline, Stace, Martial de Bilbilis, Térence même et Plaute dont le jargon plein de néologismes, de mots composés, de diminutifs, pouvait lui plaire, mais dont le bas comique et le gros sel lui répugnaient, des Esseintes commençait seulement à s'intéresser à la langue latine avec Lucain, car elle était élargie, déjà plus expressive et moins chagrine; cette armature travaillée, ces vers plaqués d'émaux, pavés de joaillerie, le captivaient, mais cette préoccupation exclusive de la forme, ces sonorités de timbres, ces éclats de métal, ne lui masquaient pas entièrement le vide de la pensée, la boursouflure de ces ampoules qui bossuent la peau de la Pharsale.

L'auteur qu'il aimait vraiment et qui lui faisait reléguer pour jamais hors de ses lectures les retentissantes adresses de Lucain, c'était Pétrone.

Celui-là était un observateur perspicace, un délicat analyste, un merveilleux peintre; tranquillement, sans parti pris, sans haine, il décrivait la vie journalière de Rome, racontait dans les alertes petits chapitres du Satyricon, les moeurs de son époque.

Notant à mesure les faits, les constatant dans une forme définitive, il déroulait la menue existence du peuple, ses épisodes, ses bestialités, ses ruts.

Ici, c'est l'inspecteur des garnis qui vient demander le nom des voyageurs récemment entrés; là, ce sont des lupanars où des gens rôdent autour de femmes nues, debout entre des écriteaux, tandis que par les portes mal fermées des chambres, l'on entrevoit les ébats des couples; là, encore, au travers des villas d'un luxe insolent, d'une démence de richesses et de faste, comme au travers des pauvres auberges qui se succèdent dans le livre, avec leurs lits de sangle défaits, pleins de punaises, la société du temps s'agite: impurs filous, tels qu'Ascylte et qu'Eumolpe, à la recherche d'une bonne aubaine; vieux incubes aux robes retroussées, aux joues plâtrées de blanc de plomb et de rouge acacia; gitons de seize ans, dodus et frisés; femmes en proie aux attaques de l'hystérie; coureurs d'héritages offrant leurs garçons et leurs filles aux débauches des testateurs; tous courent le long des pages, discutent dans les rues, s'attouchent dans les bains, se rouent de coups ainsi que dans une pantomime.

Et cela raconté dans un style d'une verdeur étrange, d'une couleur précise, dans un style puisant à tous les dialectes, empruntant des expressions à toutes les langues charriées dans Rome, reculant toutes les limites, toutes les entraves du soi-disant grand siècle, faisant parler à chacun son idiome: aux affranchis, sans éducation, le latin populacier, l'argot de la rue; aux étrangers leur patois barbare, mâtiné d'africain, de syrien et de grec; aux pédants imbéciles, comme l'Agamemnon du livre, une rhétorique de mots postiches. Ces gens sont dessinés d'un trait, vautrés autour d'une table, échangeant d'insipides propos d'ivrognes, débitant de séniles maximes, d'ineptes dictons, le mufle tourné vers le Trimalchio qui se cure les dents, offre des pots de chambre à la société, l'entretient de la santé de ses entrailles et vente, en invitant ses convives à se mettre à l'aise.

Ce roman réaliste, cette tranche découpée dans le vif de la vie romaine, sans préoccupation, quoi qu'on en puisse dire, de réforme et de satire, sans besoin de fin apprêtée et de morale; cette histoire, sans intrigue, sans action, mettant en scène les aventures de gibiers de Sodome; analysant avec une placide finesse les joies et les douleurs de ces amours et de ces couples; dépeignant, en une langue splendidement orfévrie, sans que l'auteur se montre une seule fois, sans qu'il se livre à aucun commentaire, sans qu'il approuve ou maudisse les actes et les pensées de ses personnages, les vices d'une civilisation décrépite, d'un empire qui se fêle poignait des Esseintes et il entrevoyait dans le raffinement du style, dans l'acuité de l'observation, dans la fermeté de la méthode, de singuliers rapprochements, de curieuses analogies, avec les quelques romans français modernes qu'il supportait.

À coup sûr, il regrettait amèrement l'Eustion et l'Albutia, ces deux ouvrages de Pétrone que mentionne Planciade Fulgence et qui sont à jamais perdus; mais le bibliophile qui était en lui consolait le lettré, maniant avec des mains dévotes la superbe édition qu'il possédait du Satyricon, l'in-8 portant le millésime 1585 et le nom de J. Dousa, à Leyde.

Partie de Pétrone, sa collection latine entrait dans le IIe siècle de l'ère chrétienne, sautait le déclamateur Fronton, aux termes surannés, mal réparés, mal revernis, enjambait les Nuits attiques d'Aulu-Gelle, son disciple et ami, un esprit sagace et fureteur, mais un écrivain empêtré dans une glutineuse vase et elle faisait halte devant Apulée dont il gardait l'édition princeps, in-folio, imprimée en 1469, à Rome.

Cet Africain le réjouissait; la langue latine battait le plein dans ses Métamorphoses; elle roulait des limons, des eaux variées, accourues de toutes les provinces, et toutes se mêlaient, se confondaient en une teinte bizarre, exotique, presque neuve; des maniérismes, des détails nouveaux de la société latine trouvaient à se mouler en des néologismes créés pour les besoins de la conversation, dans un coin romain de l'Afrique; puis sa jovialité d'homme évidemment gras, son exubérance méridionale amusaient. Il apparaissait ainsi qu'un salace et gai compère à côté des apologistes chrétiens qui vivaient, au même siècle, le soporifique Minucius Félix, un pseudo-classique, écoulant dans son Octavius les émulsines encore épaissies de Cicéron, voire même Tertullien qu'il conservait peut-être plus pour son édition de Alde, que pour son oeuvre même.

Bien qu'il fût assez ferré sur la théologie, les disputes des montanistes contre l'Église catholique, les polémiques contre la gnose, le laissaient froid; aussi, et malgré la curiosité du style de Tertullien, un style concis, plein d'amphibologies, reposé sur des participes, heurté par des oppositions, hérissé de jeux de mots et de pointes, bariolé de vocables triés dans la science juridique et dans la langue des Pères de l'Église grecque, il n'ouvrait plus guère l'Apologétique et le Traité de la Patience et, tout au plus, lisait-il quelques pages du De cultu feminarum où Tertullien objurgue les femmes de ne pas se parer de bijoux et d'étoffes précieuses, et leur défend l'usage des cosmétiques parce qu'ils essayent de corriger la nature et de l'embellir.

Ces idées, diamétralement opposées aux siennes, le faisaient sourire; puis le rôle joué par Tertullien, dans son évêché de Carthage, lui semblait suggestif en rêveries douces; plus que ses oeuvres, en réalité l'homme l'attirait.

Il avait, en effet, vécu dans des temps houleux, secoués par d'affreux troubles, sous Caracalla, sous Macrin, sous l'étonnant grand-prêtre d'Émèse, Élagabal, et il préparait tranquillement ses sermons, ses écrits dogmatiques, ses plaidoyers, ses homélies, pendant que l'Empire romain branlait sur ses bases, que les folies de l'Asie, que les ordures du paganisme coulaient à pleins bords il recommandait, avec le plus beau sang-froid, l'abstinence charnelle, la frugalité des repas, la sobriété de la toilette, alors que, marchant dans de la poudre d'argent et du sable d'or, la tête ceinte d'une tiare, les vêtements brochés de pierreries, Élagabal travaillait, au milieu de ses eunuques, à des ouvrages de femmes, se faisait appeler Impératrice et changeait, toutes les nuits, d'Empereur, l'élisant de préférence parmi les barbiers, les gâte-sauce, et les cochers de cirque.

Cette antithèse le ravissait; puis la langue latine, arrivée à sa maturité suprême sous Pétrone, allait commencer à se dissoudre; la littérature chrétienne prenait place, apportant avec des idées neuves, des mots nouveaux, des constructions inemployées, des verbes inconnus, des adjectifs aux sens alambiqués, des mots abstraits, rares jusqu'alors dans la langue romaine, et dont Tertullien avait, l'un des premiers, adopté l'usage.

Seulement, cette déliquescence continuée après la mort de Tertullien, par son élève saint Cyprien, par Arnobe, par le pâteux Lactance, était sans attrait. C'était un faisandage incomplet et alenti; c'étaient de gauches retours aux emphases cicéroniennes, n'ayant pas encore ce fumet spécial qu'au Ve siècle, et surtout pendant les siècles qui vont suivre, l'odeur du christianisme donnera à la langue païenne, décomposée comme une venaison, s'émiettant en même temps que s'effritera la civilisation du vieux monde, en même temps que s'écrouleront, sous la poussée des Barbares, les Empires putréfiés par la sanie des siècles.

Un seul poète chrétien, Commodien de Gaza représentait dans sa bibliothèque l'art de l'an Ill. Le Carmen apologeticum, écrit en 259, est un recueil d'instructions, tortillées en acrostiches, dans des hexamètres populaires, césurés selon le mode du vers héroïque, composés sans égard à la quantité et à l'hiatus et souvent accompagnés de rimes telles que le latin d'église en fournira plus tard de nombreux exemples.

Ces vers tendus, sombres, sentant le fauve, pleins de termes de langage usuel, de mots aux sens primitifs détournés, le requéraient, l'intéressaient même davantage que le style pourtant blet et déjà verdi des historiens Ammien Marcellin et Aurelius Victor, de l'épistolier Symmaque et du compilateur et grammairien Macrobe; il les préférait même à ces véritables vers scandés, à cette langue tachetée et superbe que parlèrent Claudien, Rutilius et Ausone.

Ceux-là étaient alors les maîtres de l'art; ils emplissaient l'Empire mourant, de leurs cris; le chrétien Ausone, avec son Centon Nuptial et son poème abondant et paré de la Moselle; Rutilius, avec ses hymnes à la gloire de Rome, ses anathèmes contre les juifs et contre les moines, son itinéraire d'Italie en Gaule, où il arrive à rendre certaines impressions de la vue, le vague des paysages reflétés dans l'eau, le mirage des vapeurs, l'envolée des brumes entourant les monts.

Claudien, une sorte d'avatar de Lucain, qui domine tout le IVe siècle avec le terrible clairon de ses vers; un poète forgeant un hexamètre éclatant et sonore, frappant, dans des gerbes d'étincelles, l'épithète d'un coup sec, atteignant une certaine grandeur, soulevant son oeuvre d'un puissant souffle. Dans l'Empire d'Occident qui s'effondre de plus en plus, dans le gâchis des égorgements réitérés qui l'entourent; dans la menace perpétuelle des Barbares qui se pressent maintenant en foule aux portes de l'Empire dont les gonds craquent, il ranime l'antiquité, chante l'enlèvement de Proserpine, plaque ses couleurs vibrantes, passe avec tous ses feux allumés dans l'obscurité qui envahit le monde.

Le paganisme revit en lui, sonnant sa dernière fanfare, élevant son dernier grand poète au-dessus du christianisme qui va désormais submerger entièrement la langue, qui va, pour toujours maintenant, rester seul maître de l'art, avec Paulin, l'élève d'Ausone; le prêtre espagnol, Juvencus, qui paraphrase en vers les Évangiles; Victorin, l'auteur des Macchabées; Sanctus Burdigalensis qui, dans une églogue imitée de Virgile, fait déplorer aux pâtres Egon et Buculus, les maladies de leurs troupeaux; et toute la série des saints: Hilaire de Poitiers, le défenseur de la foi de Nicée, l'Athanase de l'Occident, ainsi qu'on l'appelle; Ambroise, l'auteur d'indigestes homélies, l'ennuyeux Cicéron chrétien; Damase, le fabricant d'épigrammes lapidaires, Jérôme, le traducteur de la Vulgate, et son adversaire Vigilantius de Comminges qui attaque le culte des saints, l'abus des miracles, les jeûnes, et prêche déjà, avec des arguments que les âges se répéteront, contre les voeux monastiques et le célibat des prêtres.

Enfin au Ve siècle, Augustin, évêque d'Hippone. Celui-là, des Esseintes ne le connaissait que trop, car il était l'écrivain le plus réputé de l'Église, le fondateur de l'orthodoxie chrétienne, celui que les catholiques considèrent comme un oracle, comme un souverain maître. Aussi ne l'ouvrait-il plus, bien qu'il eût chanté, dans ses Confessions, le dégoût de la terre et que sa piété gémissante eût, dans sa Cité de Dieu, essayé d'apaiser l'effroyable détresse du siècle par les sédatives promesses de destinées meilleures. Au temps où il pratiquait la théologie, il était déjà las, saoul de ses prédications et de ses jérémiades, de ses théories sur la prédestination et sur la grâce, de ses combats contre les schismes.

Il aimait mieux feuilleter la Psychomachia de Prudence, l'inventeur du poème allégorique qui, plus tard, sévira sans arrêt, au moyen âge, et les oeuvres de Sidoine Apollinaire dont la correspondance lardée de saillies, de pointes, d'archaïsmes, d'énigmes, le tentait. Volontiers, il relisait les panégyriques où cet évêque invoque, à l'appui de ses vaniteuses louanges, les déités du paganisme, et, malgré tout, il se sentait un faible pour les affectations et les sous-entendus de ces poésies fabriquées par un ingénieux mécanicien qui soigne sa machine, huile ses rouages, en invente, au besoin, de compliqués et d'inutiles.

Après Sidoine, il fréquentait encore le panégyriste Mérobaudes; Sédulius, l'auteur de poèmes rimés et d'hymnes abécédaires dont l'Église s'est approprié certaines parties pour les besoins de ses offices; Marius Victor, dont le ténébreux traité sur la Perversité des moeurs s'éclaire, çà et là, de vers luisants comme du phosphore; Paulin de Pella, le poète du grelottant Eucharisticon; Orientius, l'évêque d'Auch, qui, dans les distiques de ses Monitoires, invective la licence des femmes dont il prétend que les visages perdent les peuples.

L'intérêt que portait des Esseintes à la langue latine ne faiblissait pas, maintenant que complètement pourrie, elle pendait, perdant ses membres, coulant son pus, gardant à peine, dans toute la corruption de son corps, quelques parties fermes que les chrétiens détachaient afin de les mariner dans la saumure de leur nouvelle langue.

La seconde moitié du Ve siècle était venue, l'épouvantable époque où d'abominables cahots bouleversaient la terre. Les Barbares saccageaient la Gaule; Rome paralysée, mise au pillage par les Wisigoths, sentait sa vie se glacer, voyait ses parties extrêmes, l'Occident et l'Orient, se débattre dans le sang, s'épuiser de jour en jour.

Dans la dissolution générale, dans les assassinats de césars qui se succèdent, dans le bruit des carnages qui ruissellent d'un bout de l'Europe à l'autre, un effrayant hourra retentit, étouffant les clameurs, couvrant les voix. Sur la rive du Danube, des milliers d'hommes, plantés sur de petits chevaux, enveloppés de casaques de peaux de rats, des Tartares affreux, avec d'énormes têtes, des nez écrasés, des mentons ravinés de cicatrices et de balafres, des visages de jaunisse dépouillés de poils, se précipitent, ventre à terre, enveloppent d'un tourbillon, les territoires des Bas-Empires.

Tout disparut dans la poussière des galops, dans la fumée des incendies. Les ténèbres se firent et les peuples consternés tremblèrent, écoutant passer, avec un fracas de tonnerre, l'épouvantable trombe. La horde des Huns rasa l'Europe, se rua sur la Gaule, s'écrasa dans les plaines de Châlons où Aétius la pila dans une effroyable charge. La plaine, gorgée de sang, moutonna comme une mer de pourpre, deux cent mille cadavres barrèrent la route, brisèrent l'élan de cette avalanche qui, déviée, tomba, éclatant en coups de foudre, sur l'Italie où les villes exterminées flambèrent comme des meules.

L'Empire d'Occident croula sous le choc; la vie agonisante qu'il traînait dans l'imbécillité et dans l'ordure s'éteignit; la fin de l'univers semblait d'ailleurs proche; les cités oubliées par Attila étaient décimées par la famine et par la peste; le latin parut s'effondrer, à son tour, sous les ruines du monde.

Des années s'écoulèrent; les idiomes barbares commençaient à se régler, à sortir de leurs gangues, à former de véritables langues; le latin sauvé dans la débâcle par les cloîtres se confina parmi les couvents et parmi les cures; çà et là, quelques poètes brillèrent, lents et froids: l'Africain Dracontius avec son Hexameron, Claudius Mamert, avec ses poésies liturgiques; Avitus de Vienne; puis des biographes, tels qu'Ennodius qui raconte les prodiges de saint Épiphane, le diplomate perspicace et vénéré, le probe et vigilant pasteur; tels qu'Eugippe qui nous a retracé l'incomparable vie de saint Séverin, cet ermite mystérieux, cet humble ascète, apparu, semblable à un ange de miséricorde, aux peuples éplorés, fous de souffrances et de peur; des écrivains tels que Véranius du Gévaudan qui prépara un petit traité sur la continence, tels qu'Aurélian et Ferreolus qui compilèrent des canons ecclésiastiques; des historiens tels que Rothérius d'Agde, fameux par une histoire perdue des Huns.

Les ouvrages des siècles suivants se clairsemaient dans la bibliothèque de des Esseintes. Le VIe siècle était cependant encore représenté par Fortunat, l'évêque de Poitiers, dont les hymnes et le Vexilla regis, taillés dans la vieille charogne de la langue latine, épicée par les aromates de l'Église, le hantaient à certains jours; par Boëce, le vieux Grégoire de Tours et Jornandès; puis, aux VIIe et VIIIe siècles, comme, en sus de la basse latinité des chroniqueurs, des Frédégaire et des Paul Diacre, et des poésies contenues dans l'antiphonaire de Bangor dont il regardait parfois l'hymne alphabétique et monorime, chantée en l'honneur de saint Comgill, la littérature se confinait presque exclusivement dans des biographies de saints, dans la légende de saint Columban écrite par le cénobite Jonas, et celle du bienheureux Cuthbert, rédigée par Bède le Vénérable sur les notes d'un moine anonyme de Lindisfarn, il se bornait à feuilleter, dans ses moments d'ennui, l'oeuvre de ces hagiographes et à relire quelques extraits de la vie de sainte Rusticula et de sainte Radegonde, relatées, l'une, par Defensorius, synodite de Ligugé, l'autre, par la modeste et la naïve Baudonivia, religieuse de Poitiers.

Mais de singuliers ouvrages de la littérature latine, anglo-saxonne, l'alléchaient davantage: c'était toute la série des énigmes d'Adhelme, de Tatwine, d'Eusèbe, ces descendants de Symphosius, et surtout les énigmes composées par saint Boniface, en des strophes acrostiches dont la solution se trouvait donnée par les lettres initiales des vers.

Son attirance diminuait avec la fin de ces deux siècles; peu ravi, en somme, par la pesante masse des latinistes carlovingiens, les Alcuin et les Eginhard, il se contentait, comme spécimen de la langue au IXe siècle, des chroniques de l'anonyme de saint Gall, de Fréculfe et de Réginon, du poème sur le siège de Paris tissé par Abbo le Courbé, de l'Hortulus, le poème didactique du bénédictin Walafrid Strabo, dont le chapitre consacré à la gloire de la citrouille, symbole de la fécondité, le mettait en liesse; du poème d'Ermold le Noir, célébrant les exploits de Louis le Débonnaire, un poème écrit en hexamètres réguliers, dans un style austère, presque noir, dans un latin de fer trempé dans les eaux monastiques, avec, çà et là, des pailles de sentiment dans le dur métal; du De viribus herbarum, le poème de Macer Floridus, qui le délectait particulièrement par ses recettes poétiques et les très étranges vertus qu'il prête à certaines plantes, à certaines fleurs: à l'aristoloche, par exemple, qui, mélangée à de la chair de boeuf et placée sur le bas-ventre d'une femme enceinte, la fait irrémédiablement accoucher d'un enfant mâle; à la bourrache qui, répandue en infusion dans une salle à manger, égaye les convives; à la pivoine dont la racine broyée guérit à jamais du haut mal; au fenouil qui, posé sur la poitrine d'une femme, clarifie ses eaux et stimule l'indolence de ses périodes.

À part quelques volumes spéciaux, inclassés; modernes ou sans date, certains ouvrages de kabbale, de médecine et de botanique; certains tomes dépareillés de la patrologie de Migne, renfermant des poésies chrétiennes introuvables, et de l'anthologie des petits poètes latins de Wernsdorff, à part le Meursius, le manuel d'érotologie classique de Forberg, la moechialogie et les diaconales à l'usage des confesseurs, qu'il époussetait à de rares intervalles, sa bibliothèque latine s'arrêtait au commencement du Xe siècle.

Et, en effet, la curiosité, la naïveté compliquée du langage chrétien avaient, elles aussi, sombré. Le fatras des philosophes et des scoliastes, la logomachie du moyen âge allaient régner en maîtres. L'amas de suie des chroniques et des livres d'histoire, les saumons de plomb des cartulaires allaient s'entasser, et la grâce balbutiante, la maladresse parfois exquise des moines mettant en un pieux ragoût les restes poétiques de l'antiquité, étaient mortes; les fabriques de verbes aux sucs épurés, de substantifs sentant l'encens, d'adjectifs bizarres, taillés grossièrement dans l'or; avec le goût barbare et charmant des bijoux goths, étaient détruites. Les vieilles éditions, choyées par des Esseintes, cessaient; et, en un saut formidable de siècles, les livres s'étageaient maintenant sur les rayons, supprimant la transition des âges, arrivant directement à la langue française du présent siècle.


Une voiture s'arrêta, vers une fin d'après-midi, devant la maison de Fontenay. Comme des Esseintes ne recevait aucune visite, comme le facteur ne se hasardait même pas dans ces parages inhabités, puisqu'il n'avait à lui remettre aucun journal, aucune revue, aucune lettre, les domestiques hésitèrent, se demandant s'il fallait ouvrir; puis, au carillon de la sonnette, lancée à toute volée contre le mur, ils se hasardèrent à tirer le judas incisé dans la porte et ils aperçurent un monsieur dont toute la poitrine était couverte, du col au ventre, par un immense bouclier d'or.

Ils avertirent leur maître qui déjeunait.

- Parfaitement, introduisez, fit-il; car il se souvenait d'avoir autrefois donné, pour la livraison d'une commande, son adresse à un lapidaire.

Le monsieur salua, déposa, dans la salle à manger, sur le parquet de pitch-pin son bouclier qui oscilla, se soulevant un peu, allongeant une tête serpentine de tortue qui, soudain effarée, rentra sous sa carapace.

Cette tortue était une fantaisie venue à des Esseintes quelque temps avant son départ de Paris. Regardant, un jour, un tapis d'Orient, à reflets, et, suivant les lueurs argentées qui couraient sur la trame de la laine, jaune aladin et violet prune, il s'était dit: il serait bon de placer sur ce tapis quelque chose qui remuât et dont le ton foncé aiguisât la vivacité de ces teintes.

Possédé par cette idée il avait vagué, au hasard des rues, était arrivé au Palais-Royal, et devant la vitrine de Chevet s'était frappé le front: une énorme tortue était là, dans un bassin. Il l'avait achetée: puis, une fois abandonnée sur le tapis, il s'était assis devant elle et il l'avait longuement contemplée, en clignant de l'oeil.

Décidément la couleur tête-de-nègre, le ton de Sienne crue de cette carapace salissait les reflets du tapis sans les activer; les lueurs dominantes de l'argent étincelaient maintenant à peine, rampant avec les tons froids du zinc écorché, sur les bords de ce test dur et terne.

Il se rongea les ongles, cherchant les moyens de concilier ces mésalliances, d'empêcher le divorce résolu de ces tons, il découvrit enfin que sa première idée, consistant à vouloir attiser les feux de l'étoffe par le balancement d'un objet sombre mis dessus était fausse en somme, ce tapis était encore trop voyant, trop pétulant, trop neuf. Les couleurs ne s'étaient pas suffisamment émoussées et amoindries; il s'agissait de renverser la proposition, d'amortir les tons, de les éteindre par le contraste d'un objet éclatant, écrasant tout autour de lui, jetant de la lumière d'or sur de l'argent pâle. Ainsi posée, la question devenait plus facile à résoudre. Il se détermina, en conséquence, à faire glacer d'or la cuirasse de sa tortue.

Une fois rapportée de chez le praticien qui la prit en pension, la bête fulgura comme un soleil, rayonna sur le tapis dont les teintes repoussées fléchirent, avec des irradiations de pavois wisigoth aux squames imbriquées par un artiste d'un goût barbare.

Des Esseintes fut tout d'abord enchanté de cet effet; puis il pensa que ce gigantesque bijou n'était qu'ébauché, qu'il ne serait vraiment complet qu'après qu'il aurait été incrusté de pierres rares.

Il choisit dans une collection japonaise un dessin représentant un essaim de fleurs partant en fusées d'une mince tige, l'emporta chez un joaillier, esquissa une bordure qui enfermait ce bouquet dans un cadre ovale, et il fit savoir, au lapidaire stupéfié que les feuilles, que les pétales de chacune de ces fleurs, seraient exécutés en pierreries et montés dans l'écaille même de la bête.

Le choix des pierres l'arrêta; le diamant est devenu singulièrement commun depuis que tous les commerçants en portent au petit doigt; les émeraudes et les rubis de l'Orient sont moins avilis, lancent de rutilantes flammes, mais ils rappellent par trop ces yeux verts et rouges de certains omnibus qui arborent des fanaux de ces deux couleurs, le long des tempes; quant aux topazes brûlées ou crues, ce sont des pierres à bon marché, chères à la petite bourgeoisie qui veut serrer des écrins dans une armoire à glace; d'un autre côté, bien que l'Église ait conservé à l'améthyste un caractère sacerdotal, tout à la fois onctueux et grave, cette pierre s'est, elle aussi, galvaudée aux oreilles sanguines et aux mains tubuleuses des bouchères qui veulent, pour un prix modique, se parer de vrais et pesants bijoux; seul, parmi ces pierres, le saphir a gardé des feux inviolés par la sottise industrielle et pécuniaire. Ses étincelles grésillant sur une eau limpide et froide, ont, en quelque sorte, garanti de toute souillure sa noblesse discrète et hautaine. Malheureusement, aux lumières, ses flammes fraîches ne crépitent plus; l'eau bleue rentre en elle-même, semble s'endormir pour ne se réveiller, en pétillant, qu'au point du jour.

Décidément aucune de ces pierreries ne contentait des Esseintes; elles étaient d'ailleurs trop civilisées et trop connues. Il fit ruisseler entre ses doigts des minéraux plus surprenants et plus bizarres, finit par trier une série de pierres réelles et factices dont le mélange devait produire une harmonie fascinatrice et déconcertante.

Il composa ainsi le bouquet de ses fleurs: les feuilles furent serties de pierreries d'un vert accentué et précis: de chrysobéryls vert asperge; de péridots vert poireau; d'olivines vert olive et elles se détachèrent de branches en almadine et en ouwarovite d'un rouge violacé, jetant des paillettes d'un éclat sec de même que ces micas de tartre qui luisent dans l'intérieur des futailles.

Pour les fleurs, isolées de la tige, éloignées du pied de la gerbe, il usa de la cendre bleue; mais il repoussa formellement cette turquoise orientale qui se met en broches et en bagues et qui fait, avec la banale perle et l'odieux corail, les délices du menu peuple; il choisit exclusivement des turquoises de l'Occident, des pierres qui ne sont, à proprement parler, qu'un ivoire fossile imprégné de substances cuivreuses et dont le bleu céladon est engorgé, opaque, sulfureux, comme jauni de bile.

Cela fait, il pouvait maintenant enchâsser les pétales de ses fleurs épanouies au milieu du bouquet, de ses fleurs les plus voisines, les plus rapprochées du tronc, avec des minéraux transparents, aux lueurs vitreuses et morbides, aux jets fiévreux et aigres.

Il les composa uniquement d'yeux de chat de Ceylan, de cymophanes et de saphirines.

Ces trois pierres dardaient en effet, des scintillements mystérieux et pervers, douloureusement arrachés du fond glacé de leur eau trouble.

L'oeil de chat d'un gris verdâtre, strié de veines concentriques qui paraissent remuer, se déplacer à tout moment, selon les dispositions de la lumière.

La cymophane avec des moires azurées courant sur la teinte laiteuse qui flotte à l'intérieur.

La saphirine qui allume des feux bleuâtres de phosphore sur un fond de chocolat, brun sourd.

Le lapidaire prenait note à mesure des endroits où devaient être incrustées les pierres. Et la bordure de la carapace, dit-il à des Esseintes?

Celui-ci avait d'abord songé à quelques opales et à quelques hydrophanes; mais ces pierres intéressantes par l'hésitation de leurs couleurs, par le doute de leurs flammes, sont par trop insoumises et infidèles; l'opale a une sensibilité toute rhumatismale; le jeu de ses rayons s'altère suivant l'humidité, la chaleur ou le froid; quant à l'hydrophane elle ne brûle que dans l'eau et ne consent à allumer sa braise grise qu'alors qu'on la mouille.

Il se décida enfin pour des minéraux dont les reflets devaient s'alterner: pour l'hyacinthe de Compostelle, rouge acajou; l'aigue marine, vert glauque; le rubis-balais, rose vinaigre; le rubis de Sudermanie, ardoise pâle. Leurs faibles chatoiements suffisaient à éclairer les ténèbres de l'écaille et laissaient sa valeur à la floraison des pierreries qu'ils entouraient d'une mince guirlande de feux vagues.

Des Esseintes regardait maintenant, blottie en un coin de sa salle à manger, la tortue qui rutilait dans la pénombre.

Il se sentit parfaitement heureux; ses yeux se grisaient à ces resplendissements de corolles en flammes sur un fond d'or; puis, contrairement à son habitude, il avait appétit et il trempait ses rôties enduites d'un extraordinaire beurre dans une tasse de thé, un impeccable mélange de Si-a-Fayoune, de Mo-you-tann, et de Khansky, des thés jaunes, venus de Chine en Russie par d'exceptionnelles caravanes.

Il buvait ce parfum liquide dans ces porcelaines de la Chine, dites coquilles d'oeufs, tant elles sont diaphanes et légères et, de même qu'il n'admettait que ces adorables tasses, il ne se servait également, en fait de couverts, que d'authentique vermeil, un peu dédoré, alors que l'argent apparaît un tantinet, sous la couche fatiguée de l'or et lui donne ainsi une teinte d'une douceur ancienne, toute épuisée, toute moribonde.

Après qu'il eut bu sa dernière gorgée, il rentra dans son cabinet et fit apporter par le domestique la tortue qui s'obstinait à ne pas bouger.

La neige tombait. Aux lumières des lampes, des herbes de glace poussaient derrière les vitres bleuâtres et le givre, pareil à du sucre fondu, scintillait dans les culs de bouteille des carreaux étiquetés d'or.

Un silence profond enveloppait la maisonnette engourdie dans les ténèbres.

Des Esseintes rêvassait; le brasier chargé de bûches emplissait d'effluves brûlants la pièce; il entrouvrit la fenêtre.

Ainsi qu'une haute tenture de contre-hermine, le ciel se levait devant lui, noir et moucheté de blanc.

Un vent glacial courut, accéléra le vol éperdu de la neige, intervertit l'ordre des couleurs.

La tenture héraldique du ciel se retourna, devint une véritable hermine blanche, mouchetée de noir, à son tour, par les points de nuit dispersés entre les flocons.

Il referma la croisée; ce brusque passage sans transition, de la chaleur torride, aux frimas du plein hiver l'avait saisi; il se recroquevilla près du feu et l'idée lui vint d'avaler un spiritueux qui le réchauffât.

Il s'en fut dans la salle à manger où, pratiquée dans l'une des cloisons, une armoire contenait une série de petites tonnes, rangées côte à côte, sur de minuscules chantiers de bois de santal, percées de robinets d'argent au bas du ventre.

Il appelait cette réunion de barils à liqueurs, son orgue à bouche.

Une tige pouvait rejoindre tous les robinets, les asservir à un mouvement unique, de sorte qu'une fois l'appareil en place, il suffisait de toucher un bouton dissimulé dans la boiserie, pour que toutes les cannelles, tournées en même temps, remplissent de liqueur les imperceptibles gobelets placés au-dessous d'elles.

L'orgue se trouvait alors ouvert. Les tiroirs étiquetés « flûte, cor, voix céleste » étaient tirés, prêts à la manoeuvre. Des Esseintes buvait une goutte, ici, là, se jouait des symphonies intérieures, arrivait à se procurer, dans le gosier, des sensations analogues à celles que la musique verse à l'oreille.

Du reste, chaque liqueur correspondait, selon lui, comme goût, au son d'un instrument. Le curaçao sec, par exemple, à la clarinette dont le chant est aigrelet et velouté; le kummel au hautbois dont le timbre sonore nasille; la menthe et l'anisette, à la flûte, tout à la fois sucrée et poivrée, piaulante et douce; tandis que, pour compléter l'orchestre, le kirsch sonne furieusement de la trompette; le gin et le whisky emportent le palais avec leurs stridents éclats de pistons et de trombones, l'eau-de-vie de marc fulmine avec les assourdissants vacarmes des tubas, pendant que roulent les coups de tonnerre de la cymbale et de la caisse frappés à tour de bras, dans la peau de la bouche, par les rakis de Chio et les mastics!

Il pensait aussi que l'assimilation pouvait s'étendre, que des quatuors d'instruments à cordes pouvaient fonctionner sous la voûte palatine, avec le violon représentant la vieille eau-de-vie, fumeuse et fine, aiguë et frêle; avec l'alto simulé par le rhum plus robuste, plus ronflant, plus sourd, avec le vespétro déchirant et prolongé, mélancolique et caressant comme un violoncelle; avec la contrebasse, corsée, solide et noire comme un pur et vieux bitter. On pouvait même, si l'on voulait former un quintette, adjoindre un cinquième instrument, la harpe, qu'imitait par une vraisemblable analogie, la saveur vibrante, la note argentine, détachée et grêle du cumin sec.

La similitude se prolongeait encore: des relations de tons existaient dans la musique des liqueurs; ainsi pour ne citer qu'une note, la bénédictine figure, pour ainsi dire, le ton mineur de ce ton majeur des alcools que les partitions commerciales désignent sous le signe de chartreuse verte.

Ces principes une fois admis, il était parvenu, grâce à d'érudites expériences, à se jouer sur la langue de silencieuses mélodies, de muettes marches funèbres à grand spectacle, à entendre, dans sa bouche, des solis de menthe, des duos de vespétro et de rhum.

Il arrivait même à transférer dans sa mâchoire de véritables morceaux de musique, suivant le compositeur, pas à pas, rendant sa pensée, ses effets, ses nuances, par des unions ou des contrastes voisins de liqueurs, par d'approximatifs et savants mélanges.

D'autres fois, il composait lui-même des mélodies, exécutait des pastorales avec le bénin cassis qui lui faisait roulader, dans la gorge, des chants emperlés de rossignol, avec le tendre cacao-chouva qui fredonnait de sirupeuses bergerades, telles que « les romances d'Estelle » et les « Ah! vous dirai-je, maman » du temps jadis.

Mais, ce soir-là, des Esseintes n'avait nulle envie d'écouter le goût de la musique; il se borna à enlever une note au clavier de son orgue, en emportant un petit gobelet qu'il avait préalablement rempli d'un véridique whisky d'Irlande.

Il se renfonça dans son fauteuil et huma lentement ce suc fermenté d'avoine et d'orge; un fumet prononcé de créosote lui empuantit la bouche.

Peu à peu, en buvant, sa pensée suivit l'impression maintenant ravivée de son palais, emboîta le pas à la saveur du whisky, réveilla, par une fatale exactitude d'odeurs, des souvenirs effacés depuis des ans.

Ce fleur phéniqué, âcre, lui remémorait forcément l'identique senteur dont il avait eu la langue pleine au temps où les dentistes travaillaient dans sa gencive.

Une fois lancé sur cette piste, sa rêverie, d'abord éparse sur tous les praticiens qu'il avait connus, se rassembla et convergea sur l'un d'entre eux dont l'excentrique rappel s'était plus particulièrement gravé dans sa mémoire.

Il y avait de cela, trois années; pris, au milieu d'une nuit, d'une abominable rage de dents, il se tamponnait la joue, butait contre les meubles, arpentait, semblable à un fou, sa chambre.

C'était une molaire déjà plombée; aucune guérison n'était possible; la clef seule des dentistes pouvait remédier au mal. Il attendait, tout enfièvré, le jour, résolu à supporter les plus atroces des opérations, pourvu qu'elles missent fin à ses souffrances.

Tout en se tenant la mâchoire, il se demandait comment faire. Les dentistes qui le soignaient étaient de riches négociants qu'on ne voyait point à sa guise; il fallait convenir avec eux de visites, d'heures de rendez-vous. C'est inacceptable, je ne puis différer plus longtemps, disait-il; il se décida à aller chez le premier venu, à courir chez un quenottier du peuple, un de ces gens à poigne de fer qui, s'ils ignorent l'art bien inutile d'ailleurs de panser les caries et d'obturer les trous, savent extirper, avec une rapidité sans pareille, les chicots les plus tenaces; chez ceux-là, c'est ouvert au petit jour et l'on n'attend pas. Sept heures sonnèrent enfin. Il se précipita hors de chez lui, et se rappelant le nom connu d'un mécanicien qui s'intitulait dentiste populaire et logeait au coin d'un quai, il s'élança dans les rues en mordant son mouchoir, en renfonçant ses larmes.

Arrivé devant la maison, reconnaissable à un immense écriteau de bois noir où le nom de « Gatonax » s'étalait en d'énormes lettres couleur de potiron, et en deux petites armoires vitrées où des dents de pâte étaient soigneusement alignées dans des gencives de cire rose, reliées entre elles par des ressorts mécaniques de laiton, il haleta, la sueur aux tempes; une transe horrible lui vint, un frisson lui glissa sur la peau, un apaisement eut lieu, la souffrance s'arrêta, la dent se tut.

Il restait, stupide, sur le trottoir; il s'était enfin roidi contre l'angoisse, avait escaladé un escalier obscur, grimpé quatre à quatre jusqu'au troisième étage. Là, il s'était trouvé devant une porte où une plaque d'émail répétait, inscrit avec des lettres d'un bleu céleste, le nom de l'enseigne. Il avait tiré la sonnette, puis, épouvanté par les larges crachats rouges qu'il apercevait collés sur les marches, il fit volte-face, résolu à souffrir des dents, toute sa vie, quand un cri déchirant perça les cloisons, emplit la cage de l'escalier, le cloua d'horreur, sur place, en même temps qu'une porte s'ouvrit et qu'une vieille femme le pria d'entrer.

La honte l'avait emporté sur la peur; il avait été introduit dans une salle à manger; une autre porte avait claqué, donnant passage à un terrible grenadier, vêtu d'une redingote et d'un pantalon noirs, en bois; des Esseintes le suivit dans une autre pièce.

Ses sensations devenaient, dès ce moment, confuses. Vaguement il se souvenait de s'être affaissé, en face d'une fenêtre, dans un fauteuil, d'avoir balbutié, en mettant un doigt sur sa dent: « elle a été déjà plombée; j'ai peur qu'il n'y ait rien à faire. »

L'homme avait immédiatement supprimé ces explications, en lui enfonçant un index énorme dans la bouche; puis, tout en grommelant sous ses moustaches vernies, en crocs, il avait pris un instrument sur une table. Alors la grande scène avait commencé. Cramponné aux bras du fauteuil, des Esseintes avait senti, dans la joue, du froid, puis ses yeux avaient vu trente-six chandelles et il s'était mis, souffrant des douleurs inouïes, à battre des pieds et à bêler ainsi qu'une bête qu'on assassine. Un craquement s'était fait entendre, la molaire se cassait, en venant; il lui avait alors semblé qu'on lui arrachait la tête, qu'on lui fracassait le crâne; il avait perdu la raison, avait hurlé de toutes ses forces, s'était furieusement défendu contre l'homme qui se ruait de nouveau sur lui comme s'il voulait lui entrer son bras jusqu'au fond du ventre, s'était brusquement reculé d'un pas, et levant le corps attaché à la mâchoire, l'avait laissé brutalement retomber, sur le derrière, dans le fauteuil, tandis que, debout, emplissant la fenêtre, il soufflait, brandissant au bout de son davier, une dent bleue où pendait du rouge!

Anéanti, des Esseintes avait dégobillé du sang plein une cuvette, refusé, d'un geste, à la vieille femme qui rentrait, l'offrande de son chicot qu'elle s'apprêtait à envelopper dans un journal et il avait fui, payant deux francs, lançant, à son tour, des crachats sanglants sur les marches, et il s'était retrouvé, dans la rue, joyeux, rajeuni de dix ans, s'intéressant aux moindres choses.

- Brou! fit-il, attristé par l'assaut de ces souvenirs. Il se leva pour rompre l'horrible charme de cette vision et, revenu dans la vie présente, il s'inquiéta de la tortue.

Elle ne bougeait toujours point, il la palpa - elle était morte. Sans doute habituée à une existence sédentaire, à une humble vie passée sous sa pauvre carapace, elle n'avait pu supporter le luxe éblouissant qu'on lui imposait, la rutilante chape dont on l'avait vêtue, les pierreries dont on lui avait pavé le dos, comme un ciboire.


En même temps que s'appointait son désir de se soustraire à une haïssable époque d'indignes muflements, le besoin de ne plus voir de tableaux représentant l'effigie humaine tâchant à Paris entre quatre murs, ou errant en quête d'argent par les rues, était devenu pour lui plus despotique.

Après s'être désintéressé de l'existence contemporaine, il avait résolu de ne pas introduire dans sa cellule des larves de répugnances ou de regrets, aussi, avait-il voulu une peinture subtile, exquise, baignant dans un rêve ancien, dans une corruption antique, loin de nos moeurs, loin de nos jours.

Il avait voulu, pour la délectation de son esprit et la joie de ses yeux, quelques oeuvres suggestives le jetant dans un monde inconnu, lui dévoilant les traces de nouvelles conjectures, lui ébranlant le système nerveux par d'érudites hystéries, par des cauchemars compliqués, par des visions nonchalantes et atroces.

Entre tous, un artiste existait dont le talent le ravissait en de longs transports, Gustave Moreau.

Il avait acquis ses deux chefs-d'oeuvre et, pendant des nuits, il rêvait devant l'un deux, le tableau de la Salomé ainsi conçu:

Un trône se dressait, pareil au maître-autel d'une cathédrale, sous d'innombrables voûtes jaillissant de colonnes trapues ainsi que des piliers romans, émaillées de briques polychromes, serties de mosaïques, incrustées de lapis et de sardoines, dans un palais semblable à une basilique d'une architecture tout à la fois musulmane et byzantine.

Au centre du tabernacle surmontant l'autel précédé de marches en forme de demi-vasques, le Tétrarque Hérode était assis, coiffé d'une tiare, les jambes rapprochées, les mains sur les genoux.

La figure était jaune, parcheminée, annelée de rides, décimée par l'âge; sa longue barbe flottait comme un nuage blanc sur les étoiles en pierreries qui constellaient la robe d'orfroi plaquée sur sa poitrine.

Autour de cette statue, immobile, figée dans une pose hiératique de dieu hindou, des parfums brûlaient, dégorgeant des nuées de vapeurs que trouaient, de même que des yeux phosphorés de bêtes, les feux des pierres enchâssées dans les parois du trône; puis la vapeur montait, se déroulait sous les arcades où la fumée bleue se mêlait à la poudre d'or des grands rayons de jour, tombés des dômes.

Dans l'odeur perverse des parfums, dans l'atmosphère surchauffée de cette église, Salomé, le bras gauche étendu, en un geste de commandement, le bras droit replié, tenant à la hauteur du visage un grand lotus, s'avance lentement sur les pointes, aux accords d'une guitare dont une femme accroupie pince les cordes.

La face recueillie, solennelle, presque auguste, elle commence la lubrique danse qui doit réveiller les sens assoupis du vieil Hérode; ses seins ondulent et, au frottement de ses colliers qui tourbillonnent, leurs bouts se dressent; sur la moiteur de sa peau les diamants, attachés, scintillent; ses bracelets, ses ceintures, ses bagues, crachent des étincelles; sur sa robe triomphale, couturée de perles, ramagée d'argent, lamée d'or, la cuirasse des orfèvreries dont chaque maille est une pierre, entre en combustion, croise des serpenteaux de feu, grouille sur la chair mate, sur la peau rose thé, ainsi que des insectes splendides aux élytres éblouissants, marbrés de carmin, ponctués de jaune aurore, diaprés de bleu d'acier, tigrés de vert paon.

Concentrée, les yeux fixes, semblable à une somnambule, elle ne voit ni le Tétrarque qui frémit, ni sa mère, la féroce Hérodias, qui la surveille, ni l'hermaphrodite ou l'eunuque qui se tient, le sabre au poing, en bas du trône, une terrible figure, voilée jusqu'aux joues, et dont la mamelle de châtré pend, de même qu'une gourde, sous sa tunique bariolée d'orange.

Ce type de la Salomé si hantant pour les artistes et pour les poètes, obsédait, depuis des années, des Esseintes. Combien de fois avait-il lu dans la vieille bible de Pierre Variquet, traduite par les docteurs en théologie de l'Université de Louvain, l'évangile de saint Mathieu qui raconte en de naïves et brèves phrases, la décollation du Précurseur; combien de fois avait-il rêvé, entre ces lignes:

« Au jour du festin de la Nativité d'Hérode, la fille d'Hérodias dansa au milieu et plut à Hérode.

« Dont lui promit, avec serment, de lui donner tout ce qu'elle lui demanderait.

« Elle donc, induite par sa mère, dit: Donne-moi, en un plat, la tête de Jean-Baptiste.

« Et le roi fut marri, mais à cause du serment et de ceux qui étaient assis à table avec lui, il commanda qu'elle lui fût baillée.

« Et envoya décapiter Jean, en la prison.

« Et fut la tête d'icelui apportée dans un plat et donnée à la fille et elle la présenta à sa mère. »

Mais ni saint Mathieu, ni saint Marc, ni saint Luc, ni les autres évangélistes ne s'étendaient sur les charmes délirants, sur les actives dépravations de la danseuse. Elle demeurait effacée, se perdait, mystérieuse et pâmée, dans le brouillard lointain des siècles, insaisissable pour les esprits précis et terre à terre, accessible seulement aux cervelles ébranlées, aiguisées, comme rendues visionnaires par la névrose rebelle aux peintres de la chair, à Rubens qui la déguisa en une bouchère des Flandres, incompréhensible pour tous les écrivains qui n'ont jamais pu rendre l'inquiétante exaltation de la danseuse la grandeur raffinée de l'assassine.

Dans l'oeuvre de Gustave Moreau, conçue en dehors de toutes les données du Testament, des Esseintes voyait enfin réalisée cette Salomé, surhumaine et étrange qu'il avait rêvée. Elle n'était plus seulement la baladine qui arrache à un vieillard, par une torsion corrompue de ses reins, un cri de désir et de rut; qui rompt l'énergie, fond la volonté d'un roi, par des remous de seins, des secousses de ventre, des frissons de cuisse; elle devenait, en quelque sorte, la déité symbolique de l'indestructible Luxure, la déesse de l'immortelle Hystérie, la Beauté maudite, élue entre toutes par la catalepsie qui lui raidit les chairs et lui durcit les muscles la Bête monstrueuse, indifférente, irresponsable, insensible, empoisonnant, de même que l'Hélène antique, tout ce qui l'approche, tout ce qui la voit, tout ce qu'elle touche.

Ainsi comprise, elle appartenait aux théogonies de l'extrême Orient; elle ne relevait plus des traditions bibliques, ne pouvait même plus être assimilée à la vivante image de Babylone, à la royale Prostituée de l'Apocalypse, accoutrée, comme elle, de joyaux et de pourpre, fardée comme elle; car celle-là n'était pas jetée par une puissance fatidique, par une force suprême, dans les attirantes abjections de la débauche.

Le peintre semblait d'ailleurs avoir voulu affirmer sa volonté de rester hors des siècles, de ne point préciser d'origine, de pays, d'époque, en mettant sa Salomé au milieu de cet extraordinaire palais, d'un style confus et grandiose, en la vêtant de somptueuses et chimériques robes, en la mitrant d'un incertain diadème en forme de tour phénicienne tel qu'en porte la Salammbô, en lui plaçant enfin dans la main le sceptre d'Isis, la fleur sacrée de l'Égypte et de l'Inde, le grand lotus.

Des Esseintes cherchait le sens de cet emblème. Avait-il cette signification phallique que lui prêtent les cultes primordiaux de l'Inde; annonçait-il au vieil Hérode, une oblation de virginité, un échange de sang, une plaie impure sollicitée, offerte sous la condition expresse d'un meurtre; ou représentait-il l'allégorie de la fécondité, le mythe hindou de la vie, une existence tenue entre des doigts de femme, arrachée, foulée par des mains palpitantes d'homme qu'une démence envahit, qu'une crise de la chair égare?

Peut-être aussi qu'en armant son énigmatique déesse du lotus vénéré, le peintre avait songé à la danseuse, à la femme mortelle, au Vase souillé, cause de tous les péchés et de tous les crimes; peut-être s'était-il souvenu des rites de la vieille Égypte, des cérémonies sépulcrales de l'embaumement, alors que les chimistes et les prêtres étendent le cadavre de la morte sur un banc de jaspe, lui tirent avec des aiguilles courbes la cervelle par les fosses du nez, les entrailles par l'incision pratiquée dans son flanc gauche, puis avant de lui dorer les ongles et les dents, avant de l'enduire de bitumes et d'essences, lui insèrent, dans les parties sexuelles, pour les purifier, les chastes pétales de la divine fleur.

Quoi qu'il en fût, une irrésistible fascination se dégageait de cette toile, mais l'aquarelle intitulée L'Apparition était peut-être plus inquiétante encore.

Là, le palais d'Hérode s'élançait, ainsi qu'un Alhambra, sur de légères colonnes irisées de carreaux moresques, scellés comme par un béton d'argent, comme par un ciment d'or; des arabesques partaient de losanges en lazuli, filaient tout le long des coupoles où, sur des marqueteries de nacre, rampaient des lueurs d'arc-en-ciel, des feux de prisme.

Le meurtre était accompli; maintenant le bourreau se tenait impassible, les mains sur le pommeau de sa longue épée, tachée de sang.

Le chef décapité du saint s'était élevé du plat posé sur les dalles et il regardait, livide, la bouche décolorée, ouverte, le cou cramoisi, dégouttant de larmes. Une mosaïque cernait la figure d'où s'échappait une auréole s'irradiant en traits de lumière sous les portiques, éclairant l'affreuse ascension de la tête, allumant le globe vitreux des prunelles, attachées, en quelque sorte crispées sur la danseuse.

D'un geste d'épouvante, Salomé repousse la terrifiante vision qui la cloue, immobile, sur les pointes; ses yeux se dilatent, sa main étreint convulsivement sa gorge.

Elle est presque nue; dans l'ardeur de la danse, les voiles se sont défaits, les brocarts ont croulé; elle n'est plus vêtue que de matières orfévries et de minéraux lucides; un gorgerin lui serre de même qu'un corselet la taille, et, ainsi qu'une agrafe superbe, un merveilleux joyau darde des éclairs dans la rainure de ses deux seins; plus bas, aux hanches, une ceinture l'entoure, cache le haut de ses cuisses que bat une gigantesque pendeloque où coule une rivière d'escarboucles et d'émeraudes; enfin, sur le corps resté nu, entre le gorgerin et la ceinture, le ventre bombe, creusé d'un nombril dont le trou semble un cachet gravé d'onyx, aux tons laiteux, aux teintes de rose d'ongle.

Sous les traits ardents échappés de la tête du Précurseur, toutes les facettes des joailleries s'embrasent; les pierres s'animent, dessinent le corps de la femme en traits incandescents; la piquent au cou, aux jambes, aux bras, de points de feu, vermeils comme des charbons, violets comme des jets de gaz, bleus comme des flammes d'alcool, blancs comme des rayons d'astre.

L'horrible tête flamboie, saignant toujours, mettant des caillots de pourpre sombre, aux pointes de la barbe et des cheveux. Visible pour la Salomé seule, elle n'étreint pas de son morne regard, l'Hérodias qui rêve à ses haines enfin abouties, le Tétrarque, qui, penché un peu en avant, les mains sur les genoux, halète encore, affolé par cette nudité de femme imprégnée de senteurs fauves, roulée dans les baumes, fumée dans les encens et dans les myrrhes.

Tel que le vieux roi, des Esseintes demeurait écrasé, anéanti, pris de vertige, devant cette danseuse, moins majestueuse, moins hautaine, mais plus troublante que la Salomé du tableau à l'huile.

Dans l'insensible et impitoyable statue, dans l'innocente et dangereuse idole, l'érotisme, la terreur de l'être humain s'étaient fait jour; le grand lotus avait disparu, la déesse s'était évanouie; un effroyable cauchemar étranglait maintenant l'histrionne, extasiée par le tournoiement de la danse, la courtisane, pétrifiée, hypnotisée par l'épouvante.

Ici, elle était vraiment fille; elle obéissait à son tempérament de femme ardente et cruelle; elle vivait, plus raffinée et plus sauvage, plus exécrable et plus exquise; elle réveillait plus énergiquement les sens en léthargie de l'homme, ensorcelait, domptait plus sûrement ses volontés, avec son charme de grande fleur vénérienne, poussée dans des couches sacrilèges, élevée dans des serres impies.

Comme le disait des Esseintes, jamais, à aucune époque, l'aquarelle n'avait pu atteindre cet éclat de coloris; jamais la pauvreté des couleurs chimiques n'avait ainsi fait jaillir sur le papier des coruscations semblables de pierres, des lueurs pareilles de vitraux frappés de rais de soleil, des fastes aussi fabuleux, aussi aveuglants de tissus et de chairs.

Et, perdu dans sa contemplation, il scrutait les origines de ce grand artiste, de ce païen mystique, de cet illuminé qui pouvait s'abstraire assez du monde pour voir, en plein Paris, resplendir les cruelles visions, les féeriques apothéoses des autres âges.

Sa filiation, des Esseintes la suivait à peine; çà et là, de vagues souvenirs de Mantegna et de Jacopo de Barbarj; çà et là, de confuses hantises du Vinci et des fièvres de couleurs à la Delacroix; mais l'influence de ces maîtres restait, en somme, imperceptible: la vérité était que Gustave Moreau ne dérivait de personne. Sans ascendant véritable, sans descendants possibles, il demeurait, dans l'art contemporain, unique. Remontant aux sources ethnographiques, aux origines des mythologies dont il comparait et démêlait les sanglantes énigmes; réunissant, fondant en une seule les légendes issues de l'Extrême Orient et métamorphosées par les croyances des autres peuples, il justifiait ainsi ses fusions architectoniques, ses amalgames luxueux et inattendus d'étoffes, ses hiératiques et sinistres allégories aiguisées par les inquiètes perspicuités d'un nervosisme tout moderne; et il restait à jamais douloureux, hanté par les symboles des perversités et des amours surhumaines, des stupres divins consommés sans abandons et sans espoirs.

Il y avait dans ses oeuvres désespérées et érudites un enchantement singulier, une incantation vous remuant jusqu'au fond des entrailles, comme celle de certains poèmes de Baudelaire, et l'on demeurait ébahi, songeur, déconcerté, par cet art qui franchissait les limites de la peinture, empruntait à l'art d'écrire ses plus subtiles évocations, à l'art du Limosin ses plus merveilleux éclats, à l'art du lapidaire et du graveur ses finesses les plus exquises. Ces deux images de la Salomé, pour lesquelles l'admiration de des Esseintes était sans borne, vivaient, sous ses yeux, pendues aux murailles de son cabinet de travail, sur des panneaux réservés entre les rayons des livres.

Mais là ne se bornaient point les achats de tableaux qu'il avait effectués dans le but de parer sa solitude.

Bien qu'il eût sacrifié tout le premier et unique étage de sa maison qu'il n'habitait personnellement pas, le rez-de-chaussée avait à lui seul nécessité des séries nombreuses de cadres pour habiller les murs.

Ce rez-de-chaussée était ainsi distribué:

Un cabinet de toilette, communiquant avec la chambre à coucher, occupait l'une des encoignures de la bâtisse; de la chambre à coucher l'on passait dans la bibliothèque, de la bibliothèque dans la salle à manger, qui formait l'autre encoignure.

Ces pièces composant l'une des faces du logement, s'étendaient, en ligne droite, percées de fenêtres ouvertes sur la vallée d'Aunay.

L'autre face de l'habitation était constituée par quatre pièces exactement semblables, en tant que disposition, aux premières. Ainsi la cuisine faisait coude, correspondait à la salle à manger; un grand vestibule, servant d'entrée au logis, à la bibliothèque; une sorte de boudoir, à la chambre à coucher; les privés dessinant un angle, au cabinet de toilette.

Toutes ces pièces prenaient jour du côté opposé à la vallée d'Aunay et regardaient la tour du Croy et Châtillon.

Quant à l'escalier, il était collé sur l'un des flancs de la maison, au-dehors; les pas des domestiques ébranlant les marches arrivaient ainsi moins distincts, plus sourds, à des Esseintes.

Il avait fait tapisser de rouge vif le boudoir, et sur toutes les cloisons de la pièce, accrocher dans des bordures d'ébène des estampes de Jan Luyken, un vieux graveur de Hollande, presque inconnu en France.

Il possédait de cet artiste fantasque et lugubre, véhément et farouche, la série de ses Persécutions religieuses, d'épouvantables planches contenant tous les supplices que la folie des religions a inventés, des planches où hurlait le spectacle des souffrances humaines, des corps rissolés sur des brasiers, des crânes décalottés avec des sabres, trépanés avec des clous, entaillés avec des scies, des intestins dévidés du ventre et enroulés sur des bobines, des ongles lentement arrachés avec des tenailles, des prunelles crevées, des paupières retournées avec des pointes, des membres disloqués, cassés avec soin, des os mis à nu, longuement râclés avec des lames.

Ces oeuvres pleines d'abominables imaginati