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.
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.
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!"
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.