Seraphita, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter v. Farewell

There is in man an almost hopeless phenomenon for thoughtful minds who seek a meaning in the march of civilization, and who endeavor to give laws of progression to the movement of intelligence. However portentous a fact may be, or even supernatural — if such facts exist — however solemnly a miracle may be done in sight of all, the lightning of that fact, the thunderbolt of that miracle is quickly swallowed up in the ocean of life, whose surface, scarcely stirred by the brief convulsion, returns to the level of its habitual flow.

A Voice is heard from the jaws of an Animal; a Hand writes on the wall before a feasting Court; an Eye gleams in the slumber of a king, and a Prophet explains the dream; Death, evoked, rises on the confines of the luminous sphere were faculties revive; Spirit annihilates Matter at the foot of that mystic ladder of the Seven Spiritual Worlds, one resting upon another in space and revealing themselves in shining waves that break in light upon the steps of the celestial Tabernacle. But however solemn the inward Revelation, however clear the visible outward Sign, be sure that on the morrow Balaam doubts both himself and his ass, Belshazzar and Pharoah call Moses and Daniel to qualify the Word. The Spirit, descending, bears man above this earth, opens the seas and lets him see their depths, shows him lost species, wakens dry bones whose dust is the soil of valleys; the Apostle writes the Apocalypse, and twenty centuries later human science ratifies his words and turns his visions into maxims. And what comes of it all? Why this — that the peoples live as they have ever lived, as they lived in the first Olympiad, as they lived on the morrow of Creation, and on the eve of the great cataclysm. The waves of Doubt have covered all things. The same floods surge with the same measured motion on the human granite which serves as a boundary to the ocean of intelligence. When man has inquired of himself whether he has seen that which he has seen, whether he has heard the words that entered his ears, whether the facts were facts and the idea is indeed an idea, then he resumes his wonted bearing, thinks of his worldly interests, obeys some envoy of death and of oblivion whose dusky mantle covers like a pall an ancient Humanity of which the moderns retain no memory. Man never pauses; he goes his round, he vegetates until the appointed day when his Axe falls. If this wave force, this pressure of bitter waters prevents all progress, no doubt it also warns of death. Spirits prepared by faith among the higher souls of earth can alone perceive the mystic ladder of Jacob.

After listening to Seraphita’s answer in which (being earnestly questioned) she unrolled before their eyes a Divine Perspective — as an organ fills a church with sonorous sound and reveals a musical universe, its solemn tones rising to the loftiest arches and playing, like light, upon their foliated capitals — Wilfrid returned to his own room, awed by the sight of a world in ruins, and on those ruins the brilliance of mysterious lights poured forth in torrents by the hand of a young girl. On the morrow he still thought of these things, but his awe was gone; he felt he was neither destroyed nor changed; his passions, his ideas awoke in full force, fresh and vigorous. He went to breakfast with Monsieur Becker and found the old man absorbed in the “Treatise on Incantations,” which he had searched since early morning to convince his guest that there was nothing unprecedented in all that they had seen and heard at the Swedish castle. With the childlike trustfulness of a true scholar he had folded down the pages in which Jean Wier related authentic facts which proved the possibility of the events that had happened the night before — for to learned men an idea is a event, just as the greatest events often present no idea at all to them. By the time they had swallowed their fifth cup of tea, these philosophers had come to think the mysterious scene of the preceding evening wholly natural. The celestial truths to which they had listened were arguments susceptible of examination; Seraphita was a girl, more or less eloquent; allowance must be made for the charms of her voice, her seductive beauty, her fascinating motions, in short, for all those oratorical arts by which an actor puts a world of sentiment and thought into phrases which are often commonplace.

“Bah!” said the worthy pastor, making a philosophical grimace as he spread a layer of salt butter on his slice of bread, “the final word of all these fine enigmas is six feet under ground.”

“But,” said Wilfrid, sugaring his tea, “I cannot image how a young girl of seventeen can know so much; what she said was certainly a compact argument.”

“Read the account of that Italian woman,” said Monsieur Becker, “who at the age of twelve spoke forty-two languages, ancient and modern; also the history of that monk who could guess thought by smell. I can give you a thousand such cases from Jean Wier and other writers.”

“I admit all that, dear pastor; but to my thinking, Seraphita would make a perfect wife.”

“She is all mind,” said Monsieur Becker, dubiously.

Several days went by, during which the snow in the valleys melted gradually away; the green of the forests and of the grass began to show; Norwegian Nature made ready her wedding garments for her brief bridal of a day. During this period, when the softened air invited every one to leave the house, Seraphita remained at home in solitude. When at last she admitted Minna the latter saw at once the ravages of inward fever; Seraphita’s voice was hollow, her skin pallid; hitherto a poet might have compared her lustre to that of diamonds — now it was that of a topaz.

“Have you seen her?” asked Wilfrid, who had wandered around the Swedish dwelling waiting for Minna’s return.

“Yes,” answered the young girl, weeping; “We must lose him!”

“Mademoiselle,” cried Wilfrid, endeavoring to repress the loud tones of his angry voice, “do not jest with me. You can love Seraphita only as one young girl can love another, and not with the love which she inspires in me. You do not know your danger if my jealousy were really aroused. Why can I not go to her? Is it you who stand in my way?”

“I do not know by what right you probe my heart,” said Minna, calm in appearance, but inwardly terrified. “Yes, I love him,” she said, recovering the courage of her convictions, that she might, for once, confess the religion of her heart. “But my jealousy, natural as it is in love, fears no one here below. Alas! I am jealous of a secret feeling that absorbs him. Between him and me there is a great gulf fixed which I cannot cross. Would that I knew who loves him best, the stars or I! which of us would sacrifice our being most eagerly for his happiness! Why should I not be free to avow my love? In the presence of death we may declare our feelings — and Seraphitus is about to die.”

“Minna, you are mistaken; the siren I so love and long for, she, whom I have seen, feeble and languid, on her couch of furs, is not a young man.”

“Monsieur,” answered Minna, distressfully, “the being whose powerful hand guided me on the Falberg, who led me to the saeter sheltered beneath the Ice-Cap, there —” she said, pointing to the peak, “is not a feeble girl. Ah, had you but heard him prophesying! His poem was the music of thought. A young girl never uttered those solemn tones of a voice which stirred my soul.”

“What certainty have you?” said Wilfrid.

“None but that of the heart,” answered Minna.

“And I,” cried Wilfrid, casting on his companion the terrible glance of the earthly desire that kills, “I, too, know how powerful is her empire over me, and I will undeceive you.”

At this moment, while the words were rushing from Wilfrid’s lips as rapidly as the thoughts surged in his brain, they saw Seraphita coming towards them from the house, followed by David. The apparition calmed the man’s excitement.

“Look,” he said, “could any but a woman move with that grace and langor?”

“He suffers; he comes forth for the last time,” said Minna.

David went back at a sign from his mistress, who advanced towards Wilfrid and Minna.

“Let us go to the falls of the Sieg,” she said, expressing one of those desires which suddenly possess the sick and which the well hasten to obey.

A thin white mist covered the valleys around the fiord and the sides of the mountains, whose icy summits, sparkling like stars, pierced the vapor and gave it the appearance of a moving milky way. The sun was visible through the haze like a globe of red fire. Though winter still lingered, puffs of warm air laden with the scent of the birch-trees, already adorned with their rosy efflorescence, and of the larches, whose silken tassels were beginning to appear — breezes tempered by the incense and the sighs of earth — gave token of the glorious Northern spring, the rapid, fleeting joy of that most melancholy of Natures. The wind was beginning to lift the veil of mist which half-obscured the gulf. The birds sang. The bark of the trees where the sun had not yet dried the clinging hoar-frost shone gayly to the eye in its fantastic wreathings which trickled away in murmuring rivulets as the warmth reached them. The three friends walked in silence along the shore. Wilfrid and Minna alone noticed the magic transformation that was taking place in the monotonous picture of the winter landscape. Their companion walked in thought, as though a voice were sounding to her ears in this concert of Nature.

Presently they reached the ledge of rocks through which the Sieg had forced its way, after escaping from the long avenue cut by its waters in an undulating line through the forest — a fluvial pathway flanked by aged firs and roofed with strong-ribbed arches like those of a cathedral. Looking back from that vantage-ground, the whole extent of the fiord could be seen at a glance, with the open sea sparkling on the horizon beyond it like a burnished blade.

At this moment the mist, rolling away, left the sky blue and clear. Among the valleys and around the trees flitted the shining fragments — a diamond dust swept by the freshening breeze. The torrent rolled on toward them; along its length a vapor rose, tinted by the sun with every color of his light; the decomposing rays flashing prismatic fires along the many-tinted scarf of waters. The rugged ledge on which they stood was carpeted by several kinds of lichen, forming a noble mat variegated by moisture and lustrous like the sheen of a silken fabric. Shrubs, already in bloom, crowned the rocks with garlands. Their waving foliage, eager for the freshness of the water, drooped its tresses above the stream; the larches shook their light fringes and played with the pines, stiff and motionless as aged men. This luxuriant beauty was foiled by the solemn colonnades of the forest-trees, rising in terraces upon the mountains, and by the calm sheet of the fiord, lying below, where the torrent buried its fury and was still. Beyond, the sea hemmed in this page of Nature, written by the greatest of poets, Chance; to whom the wild luxuriance of creation when apparently abandoned to itself is owing.

The village of Jarvis was a lost point in the landscape, in this immensity of Nature, sublime at this moment like all things else of ephemeral life which present a fleeting image of perfection; for, by a law fatal to no eyes but our own, creations which appear complete — the love of our heart and the desire of our eyes — have but one spring-tide here below. Standing on this breast-work of rock these three persons might well suppose themselves alone in the universe.

“What beauty!” cried Wilfrid.

“Nature sings hymns,” said Seraphita. “Is not her music exquisite? Tell me, Wilfrid, could any of the women you once knew create such a glorious retreat for herself as this? I am conscious here of a feeling seldom inspired by the sight of cities, a longing to lie down amid this quickening verdure. Here, with eyes to heaven and an open heart, lost in the bosom of immensity, I could hear the sighings of the flower, scarce budded, which longs for wings, or the cry of the eider grieving that it can only fly, and remember the desires of man who, issuing from all, is none the less ever longing. But that, Wilfrid, is only a woman’s thought. You find seductive fancies in the wreathing mists, the light embroidered veils which Nature dons like a coy maiden, in this atmosphere where she perfumes for her spousals the greenery of her tresses. You seek the naiad’s form amid the gauzy vapors, and to your thinking my ears should listen only to the virile voice of the Torrent.”

“But Love is there, like the bee in the calyx of the flower,” replied Wilfrid, perceiving for the first time a trace of earthly sentiment in her words, and fancying the moment favorable for an expression of his passionate tenderness.

“Always there?” said Seraphita, smiling. Minna had left them for a moment to gather the blue saxifrages growing on a rock above.

“Always,” repeated Wilfrid. “Hear me,” he said, with a masterful glance which was foiled as by a diamond breast-plate. “You know not what I am, nor what I can be, nor what I will. Do not reject my last entreaty. Be mine for the good of that world whose happiness you bear upon your heart. Be mine that my conscience may be pure; that a voice divine may sound in my ears and infuse Good into the great enterprise I have undertaken prompted by my hatred to the nations, but which I swear to accomplish for their benefit if you will walk beside me. What higher mission can you ask for love? what nobler part can woman aspire to? I came to Norway to meditate a grand design.”

“And you will sacrifice its grandeur,” she said, “to an innocent girl who loves you, and who will lead you in the paths of peace.”

“What matters sacrifice,” he cried, “if I have you? Hear my secret. I have gone from end to end of the North — that great smithy from whose anvils new races have spread over the earth, like human tides appointed to refresh the wornout civilizations. I wished to begin my work at some Northern point, to win the empire which force and intellect must ever give over a primitive people; to form that people for battle, to drive them to wars which should ravage Europe like a conflagration, crying liberty to some, pillage to others, glory here, pleasure there! — I, myself, remaining an image of Destiny, cruel, implacable, advancing like the whirlwind, which sucks from the atmosphere the particles that make the thunderbolt, and falls like a devouring scourge upon the nations. Europe is at an epoch when she awaits the new Messiah who shall destroy society and remake it. She can no longer believe except in him who crushes her under foot. The day is at hand when poets and historians will justify me, exalt me, and borrow my ideas, mine! And all the while my triumph will be a jest, written in blood, the jest of my vengeance! But not here, Seraphita; what I see in the North disgusts me. Hers is a mere blind force; I thirst for the Indies! I would rather fight a selfish, cowardly, mercantile government. Besides, it is easier to stir the imagination of the peoples at the feet of the Caucasus than to argue with the intellect of the icy lands which here surround me. Therefore am I tempted to cross the Russian steps and pour my triumphant human tide through Asia to the Ganges, and overthrow the British rule. Seven men have done this thing before me in other epochs of the world. I will emulate them. I will spread Art like the Saracens, hurled by Mohammed upon Europe. Mine shall be no paltry sovereignty like those that govern to-day the ancient provinces of the Roman empire, disputing with their subjects about a customs right! No, nothing can bar my way! Like Genghis Khan, my feet shall tread a third of the globe, my hand shall grasp the throat of Asia like Aurung-Zeb. Be my companion! Let me seat thee, beautiful and noble being, on a throne! I do not doubt success, but live within my heart and I am sure of it.”

“I have already reigned,” said Seraphita, coldly.

The words fell as the axe of a skilful woodman falls at the root of a young tree and brings it down at a single blow. Men alone can comprehend the rage that a woman excites in the soul of a man when, after showing her his strength, his power, his wisdom, his superiority, the capricious creature bends her head and says, “All that is nothing”; when, unmoved, she smiles and says, “Such things are known to me,” as though his power were nought.

“What!” cried Wilfrid, in despair, “can the riches of art, the riches of worlds, the splendors of a court —”

She stopped him by a single inflexion of her lips, and said, “Beings more powerful than you have offered me far more.”

“Thou hast no soul,” he cried — “no soul, if thou art not persuaded by the thought of comforting a great man, who is willing now to sacrifice all things to live beside thee in a little house on the shores of a lake.”

“But,” she said, “I am loved with a boundless love.”

“By whom?” cried Wilfrid, approaching Seraphita with a frenzied movement, as if to fling her into the foaming basin of the Sieg.

She looked at him and slowly extended her arm, pointing to Minna, who now sprang towards her, fair and glowing and lovely as the flowers she held in her hand.

“Child!” said Seraphitus, advancing to meet her.

Wilfrid remained where she left him, motionless as the rock on which he stood, lost in thought, longing to let himself go into the torrent of the Sieg, like the fallen trees which hurried past his eyes and disappeared in the bosom of the gulf.

“I gathered them for you,” said Minna, offering the bunch of saxifrages to the being she adored. “One of them, see, this one,” she added, selecting a flower, “is like that you found on the Falberg.”

Seraphitus looked alternately at the flower and at Minna.

“Why question me? Dost thou doubt me?”

“No,” said the young girl, “my trust in you is infinite. You are more beautiful to look upon than this glorious nature, but your mind surpasses in intellect that of all humanity. When I have been with you I seem to have prayed to God. I long —”

“For what?” said Seraphitus, with a glance that revealed to the young girl the vast distance which separated them.

“To suffer in your stead.”

“Ah, dangerous being!” cried Seraphitus in his heart. “Is it wrong, oh my God! to desire to offer her to Thee? Dost thou remember, Minna, what I said to thee up there?” he added, pointing to the summit of the Ice-Cap.

“He is terrible again,” thought Minna, trembling with fear.

The voice of the Sieg accompanied the thoughts of the three beings united on this platform of projecting rock, but separated in soul by the abysses of the Spiritual World.

“Seraphitus! teach me,” said Minna in a silvery voice, soft as the motion of a sensitive plant, “teach me how to cease to love you. Who could fail to admire you; love is an admiration that never wearies.”

“Poor child!” said Seraphitus, turning pale; “there is but one whom thou canst love in that way.”

“Who?” asked Minna.

“Thou shalt know hereafter,” he said, in the feeble voice of a man who lies down to die.

“Help, help! he is dying!” cried Minna.

Wilfrid ran towards them. Seeing Seraphita as she lay on a fragment of gneiss, where time had cast its velvet mantle of lustrous lichen and tawny mosses now burnished in the sunlight, he whispered softly, “How beautiful she is!”

“One other look! the last that I shall ever cast upon this nature in travail,” said Seraphitus, rallying her strength and rising to her feet.

She advanced to the edge of the rocky platform, whence her eyes took in the scenery of that grand and glorious landscape, so verdant, flowery, and animated, yet so lately buried in its winding-sheet of snow.

“Farewell,” she said, “farewell, home of Earth, warmed by the fires of Love; where all things press with ardent force from the centre to the extremities; where the extremities are gathered up, like a woman’s hair, to weave the mysterious braid which binds us in that invisible ether to the Thought Divine!

“Behold the man bending above that furrow moistened with his tears, who lifts his head for an instant to question Heaven; behold the woman gathering her children that she may feed them with her milk; see him who lashes the ropes in the height of the gale; see her who sits in the hollow of the rocks, awaiting the father! Behold all they who stretch their hands in want after a lifetime spent in thankless toil. To all peace and courage, and to all farewell!

“Hear you the cry of the soldier, dying nameless and unknown? the wail of the man deceived who weeps in the desert? To them peace and courage; to all farewell!

“Farewell, you who die for the kings of the earth! Farewell, ye people without a country and ye countries without a people, each, with a mutual want. Above all, farewell to Thee who knew not where to lay Thy head, Exile divine! Farewell, mothers beside your dying sons! Farewell, ye Little Ones, ye Feeble, ye Suffering, you whose sorrows I have so often borne! Farewell, all ye who have descended into the sphere of Instinct that you may suffer there for others!

“Farewell, ye mariners who seek the Orient through the thick darkness of your abstractions, vast as principles! Farewell, martyrs of thought, led by thought into the presence of the True Light. Farewell, regions of study where mine ears can hear the plaint of genius neglected and insulted, the sigh of the patient scholar to whom enlightenment comes too late!

“I see the angelic choir, the wafting of perfumes, the incense of the heart of those who go their way consoling, praying, imparting celestial balm and living light to suffering souls! Courage, ye choir of Love! you to whom the peoples cry, ‘Comfort us, comfort us, defend us!’ To you courage! and farewell!

“Farewell, ye granite rocks that shall bloom a flower; farewell, flower that becomes a dove; farewell, dove that shalt be woman; farewell, woman, who art Suffering, man, who art Belief! Farewell, you who shall be all love, all prayer!”

Broken with fatigue, this inexplicable being leaned for the first time on Wilfrid and on Minna to be taken home. Wilfrid and Minna felt the shock of a mysterious contact in and through the being who thus connected them. They had scarcely advanced a few steps when David met them, weeping. “She will die,” he said, “why have you brought her hither?”

The old man raised her in his arms with the vigor of youth and bore her to the gate of the Swedish castle like an eagle bearing a white lamb to his mountain eyrie.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31