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.
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.
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.
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 Christian.'
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.
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.