The Dream (Le Rêve), by Émile Zola

Chapter 17

The marriage was fixed for the early part of March. But Angelique remained very feeble, notwithstanding the joy which radiated from her whole person. She had wished after the first week of her convalescence to go down to the workroom, persisting in her determination to finish the panel of embroidery in bas-relief which was to be used for the Bishop’s chair.

“It would be,” she said cheerfully, “her last, best piece of work; and besides, no one ever leaves,” she added, “an order only half-completed.”

Then exhausted by the effort, she was again forced to keep her chamber. She lived there, happy and smiling, without regaining the full health of former times, always white and immaterial as the sacred sacramental oils; going and coming with a gentle step like that of a vision, and after having occasionally made the exertion of walking as far as from her table to the window, finding herself obliged to rest quietly for hours and give herself up to her sweet thoughts. At length they deferred the wedding-day, thinking it better to wait for her complete recovery, which must certainly come if she were well nursed and cared for.

Every afternoon Felicien went up to see her. Hubert and Hubertine were there, and they passed together most delightful hours, during which they continually made and re-made the same bright projects. Seated in her great chair she laughed gaily, seemed trembling with life and vivacity, as she was the first to talk of the days which would be so well filled when together they could take long journeys; and of all the unknown joys that would come to them after they had restored the old Chateau d’Hautecoeur. Anyone, to have seen her then, would have considered her saved and regaining her strength in the backward spring, the air of which, growing warmer and warmer daily, entered by the open window. In fact, she never fell back into the deep gravities of her dreams, except when she was entirely alone and was not afraid of being seen. In the night, voices still appeared to be near her: then it seemed as if the earth were calling to her; and at last the truth was clearly revealed to her, so that she fully understood that the miracle was being continued only for the realisation of her dream. Was she not already dead, having simply the appearance of living, thanks to the respite which had been granted her from Divine Grace? This idea soothed her with deep gentleness in her hours of solitude, and she did not feel a moment’s regret at the thought of being called away from life in the midst of her happiness, so certain was she of always realising to its fullest extent her anticipated joy. The cheerfulness she had hitherto shown became simply a little more serious; she abandoned herself to it quietly, forgetting her physical weakness as she indulged in the pure delights of fancy. It was only when she heard the Huberts open the door, or when Felicien came to see her, that she was able to sit upright, to bring her thoughts back to her surroundings, and to appear as if she were regaining her health, laughing pleasantly while she talked of their years of happy housekeeping far away, in the days to come.

Towards the end of March Angelique grew very restless and much weaker. Twice, when by herself, she had long fainting fits. One morning she fell at the foot of her bed, just as Hubert was bringing her up a cup of milk; by a great effort of will she conquered herself, and, that she might deceive him, she remained on the floor and smiled, as she pretended to be looking for a needle that had been dropped. The following day she was gayer than usual, and proposed hastening the marriage, suggesting that at all events it should not be put off any later than the middle of April. All the others exclaimed at this idea, asking if it would not be advisable to wait awhile, since she was still so delicate. There was no need of being in such a hurry. She, however, seemed feverishly nervous, and insisted that the ceremony should take place immediately — yes, as soon as possible. Hubertine, surprised at the request, having a suspicion as to the true motive of this eagerness, looked at her earnestly for a moment, and turned very pale as she realised how slight was the cold breath which still attached her daughter to life. The dear invalid had already grown calm, in her tender need of consoling others and keeping them under an illusion, although she knew personally that her case was hopeless. Hubert and Felicien, in continual adoration before their idol, had neither seen nor felt anything unusual. Then Angelique, exerting herself almost supernaturally, rose up, and was more charming than ever, as she slowly moved back and forth with the light step of former days. She continued to speak of her wish, saying if it were granted she would be so happy, and that after the wedding she would certainly be cured. Moreover, the question should be left to Monseigneur; he alone should decide it. That same evening, when the Bishop was there, she explained her desire to him, fixing her eyes on his, regarding him steadily and beseechingly, and speaking in her sweet, earnest voice, under which there was hidden an ardent supplication, unexpressed in words. Monseigneur realised it, and understood the truth, and he appointed a day in the middle of April for the ceremony.

Then they lived in great commotion from the necessary bustle attendant upon the preparations for the marriage. Notwithstanding his official position as guardian, Hubert was obliged to ask permission, or rather the consent of the Director of Public Assistance, who always represented the family council, Angelique not yet being of age; and Monsieur Grandsire, the Justice of the Peace, was charged with all legal details, in order to avoid as much as possible the painful side of the position to the young girl and to Felicien. But the dear child, realising that something was being kept back, asked one day to have her little book brought up to her, wishing to put it herself into the hands of her betrothed. She was now, and would henceforth remain, in a state of such sincere humility that she wished him to know thoroughly from what a low position he had drawn her, to elevate her to the glory of his well-honoured name and his great fortune. These were her parchments, her titles to nobility; her position was explained by this official document, this entry on the calendar where there was only a date followed by a number. She turned over all the leaves once more, then gave it to him without being confused, happy in thinking that in herself she was nothing, but that she owed everything to him. So deeply touched was he by this act, that he knelt down, kissed her hands while tears came to his eyes, as if it were she who had made him the one gift, the royal gift of her heart.

For two weeks the preparations occupied all Beaumont, both the upper and the lower town being in a state of great excitement therefrom. It was said that twenty working-girls were engaged day and night upon the trousseau. The wedding-dress alone required three persons to make it, and there was to be a corbeille, or present from the bridegroom, to the value of a million of francs: a fluttering of laces, of velvets, of silks and satins, a flood of precious stones — diamonds worthy a Queen. But that which excited the people more than all else was the great amount given in charity, the bride having wished to distribute to the poor as much as she had received herself. So another million was showered down upon the country in a rain of gold. At length she was able to gratify all her old longings of benevolence, all the prodigalities of her most exaggerated dreams, as with open hands she let fall upon the wretched and needy a stream of riches, an overflow of comforts. In her little, white, bare chamber, confined to her old armchair, she laughed with delight when the Abbe Cornille brought to her the list of the distributions he had made. “Give more! Give more!” she cried, as it seemed to her as if not enough were done. She would, in reality, have liked to have seen the Pere Mascart seated for ever at a table before a princely banquet; the Chouteaux living in palatial luxury; the mere Gabet cured of her rheumatism, and by the aid of money to have renewed her youth. As for the Lemballeuse, the mother and daughters, she absolutely wished to load them with silk dresses and jewellery. The hail of golden pieces redoubled over the town as in fairy-tales, far beyond the daily necessities, as if merely for the beauty and joy of seeing the triumphal golden glory, thrown from full hands, falling into the street and glittering in the great sunlight of charity.

At last, on the eve of the happy day, everything was in readiness. Felicien had bought a large house on the Rue Magloire, at the back of the Bishop’s palace, which had been fitted up and furnished most luxuriously. There were great rooms hung with admirable tapestries, filled with the most beautiful articles imaginable; a salon in old, rare pieces of hand embroidery; a boudoir in blue, soft as the early morning sky; and a sleeping-room, which was particularly attractive: a perfect little corner of white silk and lace — nothing, in short, but white, airy, and light — an exquisite shimmering of purity. But Angelique had constantly refused to go to see all these wonderful things, although a carriage was always ready to convey her there. She listened to the recital of that which had been done with an enchanted smile, but she gave no orders, and did not appear to wish to occupy herself with any of the arrangements. “No, no,” she said, for all these things seemed so far away in the unknown of that vast world of which she was as yet totally ignorant. Since those who loved her had prepared for her so tenderly this happiness, she desired to partake thereof, and to enter therein like a princess coming from some chimerical country, who approaches the real kingdom where she is to reign for ever. In the same way she preferred to know nothing, except by hearsay, of the corbeille, which also was waiting for her — a superb gift from her betrothed, the wedding outfit of fine linen, embroidered with her cipher as marchioness, the full-dress costumes tastefully trimmed, the old family jewels valuable as the richest treasures of a cathedral, and the modern jewels in their marvellous yet delicate mountings, precious stones of every kind, and diamonds of the purest water. It was sufficient to her that her dream had come to pass, and that this good future awaited her in her new home, radiant in the reality of the new life that was opening before her. The only thing she saw was her wedding-dress, which was brought to her on the marriage morning.

That day, when she awoke, Angelique, still alone, had in her great bed a moment of intense exhaustion, and feared that she would not be able to get up at all. She attempted to do so, but her knees bent under her; and in contrast to the brave serenity she had shown for weeks past, a fearful anguish, the last, perhaps, took utter possession of her. Then, as in a few minutes Hubertine came into the room, looking unusually happy, she was surprised to find that she could really walk, for she certainly did not do so from her own strength, but aid came to her from the Invisible, and friendly hands sustained and carried her. They dressed her; she no longer seemed to weigh anything, but was so slight and frail that her mother was astonished, and laughingly begged her not to move any more if she did not wish to fly quite away. During all the time of preparing her toilette, the little fresh house of the Huberts, so close to the side of the Cathedral, trembled under the great breath of the Giant, of that which already was humming therein, of the preparations for the ceremony, the nervous activity of the clergy, and especially the ringing of the bells, a continuous peal of joy, with which the old stones were vibrating.

In the upper town, for over an hour there had been a glorious chiming of bells, as on the greatest holy days. The sun had risen in all its beauty, and on this limpid April morning a flood of spring rays seemed living with the sonorous peals which had called together all the inhabitants of the place. The whole of Beaumont was in a state of rejoicing on account of the marriage of this little embroiderer, to whom their hearts were so deeply attached, and they were touched by the fact of her royal good fortune. This bright sunlight, which penetrated all the streets, was like the golden rain, the gifts of fairy-tales, rolling out from her delicate hands. Under this joyful light, the multitude crowded in masses towards the Cathedral, filling the side-aisles of the church, and coming out on to the Place du Cloitre. There the great front of the building rose up, like a huge bouquet of stone, in full blossom, of the most ornamental Gothic, above the severe Romanesque of the foundation. In the tower the bells still rung, and the whole facade seemed to be like a glorification of these nuptials, expressive of the flight of this poor girl through all the wonders of the miracle, as it darted up and flamed, with its open lace-work ornamentations, the lily-like efflorescence of its little columns, its balustrades, and its arches, the niches of saints surmounted with canopies, the gable ends hollowed out in trefoil points, adorned with crossettes and flowers, immense rose-windows opening out in the mystic radiation of their mullions.

At ten o’clock the organs pealed. Angelique and Felicien were there, walking with slow steps towards the high altar, between the closely-pressed ranks of the crowd. A breath of sincere, touching admiration came from every side. He, deeply moved, passed along proud and serious, with his blonde beauty of a young god appearing slighter than ever from his closely-fitting black dress-coat. But she, above all, struck the hearts of the spectators, so exquisite was she, so divinely beautiful with a mystic, spiritual charm. Her dress was of white watered silk, simply covered with rare old Mechlin lace, which was held by pearls, a whole setting of them designing the ruches of the waist and the ruffles of the skirt. A veil of old English point was fastened to her head by a triple crown of pearls, and falling to her feet, quite covered her. That was all — not a flower, not a jewel, nothing but this slight vision, this delicate, trembling cloud, which seemed to have placed her sweet little face between two white wings, like that of the Virgin of the painted glass window, with her violet eyes and her golden hair.

Two armchairs, covered with crimson velvet, had been placed for Felicien and Angelique before the altar; and directly behind them, while the organs increased their phrases of welcome, Hubert and Hubertine knelt on the low benches which were destined for the family. The day before an intense joy had come to them, from the effects of which they had not yet recovered, and they were incapable of expressing their deep, heartfelt thanks for their own happiness, which was so closely connected with that of their daughter. Hubertine, having gone once more to the cemetery, saddened by the thought of their loneliness, and the little house, which would seem so empty after the departure of the dearly-beloved child, had prayed to her mother for a long time; when suddenly she felt within her an inexplicable relief and gladness, which convinced her that at last her petition had been granted. From the depths of the earth, after more than twenty years, the obstinate mother had forgiven them, and sent them the child of pardon so ardently desired and longed for. Was this the recompense of their charity towards the poor forlorn little creature whom they had found one snowy day at the Cathedral entrance, and who to-day was to wed a prince with all the show and pomp of the greatest ceremony? They remained on their knees, without praying in formulated words, enraptured with gratitude, their whole souls overflowing with an excess of infinite thanksgiving. And on the other side of the nave, seated on his high, official throne, Monseigneur was also one of the family group. He seemed filled with the majesty of the God whom he represented; he was resplendent in the glory of his sacred vestments, and the expression of his countenance was that of a proud serenity, as if he were entirely freed from all worldly passions. Above his head, on the panel of wonderful embroidery, were two angels supporting the brilliant coat of arms of Hautecoeur.

Then the solemn service began. All the clergy connected with the cathedral were present to do honour to their Bishop, and priests had come from the different parishes to assist them. Among the crowd of white surplices which seemed to overflow the grating, shone the golden capes of the choristers, and the red robes of the singing-boys. The almost eternal night of the side-aisles, crushed down by the weight of the heavy Romanesque chapels, was this morning slightly brightened by the limpid April sunlight, which struck the painted glass of the windows so that they seemed to be a burning of gems, a sacred bursting into blossom of luminous flowers. But the background of the nave particularly blazed with a swarming of wax-tapers, tapers as innumerable as the stars of evening in a summer sky. In the centre, the high altar seemed on fire from them, a true “burning bush,” symbolic of the flame that consumes souls; and there were also candles in large candelabra and in chandeliers, while before the plighted couple, two enormous lustres with round branches looked like two suns. About them was a garden of masses of green plants and of living blossoms, where were in flower great tufts of white azaleas, of white camellias, and of lilacs. Away to the back of the apse sparkled bits of gold and silver, half-seen skirts of velvet and of silk, a distant dazzling of the tabernacle among the sombre surroundings of green verdure. Above all this burning the nave sprang out, and the four enormous pillars of the transept mounted upward to support the arched vaulting, in the trembling movement of these myriads of little flames, which almost seemed to pale at times in the full daylight which entered by the high Gothic windows.

Angelique had wished to be married by the good Abbe Cornille, and when she saw him come forward in his surplice, and with the white stole, followed by two clerks, she smiled. This was at last the triumphant realisation of her dream — she was wedding fortune, beauty, and power far beyond her wildest hopes. The church itself was singing by the organs, radiant with its wax-tapers, and alive with the crowd of believers and priests, whom she knew to be around her on every side. Never had the old building been more brilliant or filled with a more regal pomp, enlarged as it were in its holy, sacred luxury, by an expansion of happiness. Angelique smiled again in the full knowledge that death was at her heart, celebrating its victory over her, in the midst of this glorious joy. In entering the Cathedral she had glanced at the Chapel d’Hautecoeur, where slept Laurette and Balbine, the “Happy Dead,” who passed away when very young, in the full happiness of their love. At this last hour she was indeed perfect. Victorious over herself, reclaimed, renewed, having no longer any feeling of passion or of pride at her triumph, resigned at the knowledge that her life was fast leaving her, in this beautiful Hosanna of her great friend, the blessed old church. When she fell upon her knees, it was as a most humble, most submissive servant, entirely free from the stain of original sin; and in her renunciation she was thoroughly content.

The Abbe Cornille, having mounted to the altar, had just come down again. In a loud voice he made the exhortation; he cited as an example the marriage which Jesus had contracted with the Church; he spoke of the future, of days to come when they would live and govern themselves in the true faith; of children whom they must bring up as Christians; and then, once more, in face of this hope, Angelique again smiled sweetly, while Felicien trembled at the idea of all this happiness, which he believed to be assured. Then came the consecrated demands of the ritual, the replies which united them together for their entire existence, the decisive “Yes”— which she pronounced in a voice filled with emotion from the depths of her heart, and which he said in a much louder tone, and with a tender earnestness. The irrevocable step was taken, the clergyman had placed their right hands together, one clasping the other, as he repeated the prescribed formula: “I unite you in matrimony, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Ghost.” But there were still rings to be blessed, the symbols of inviolable fidelity, and of the eternity of the union, which is lasting. In the silver basin, above the rings of gold, the priest shook back and forth the asperges brush, and making the sign of the Cross over each one, said, “Bless, O Lord, this ring.”

Then he presented them to the young couple, to testify to them that the Church sanctified their union; that for the husband henceforth his heart was sealed, and no other woman could ever enter therein; and the husband was to place the ring upon his wife’s finger in order to show her, in his turn, that henceforth he alone among all men existed for her. This was the strict union, without end, the sign of her dependence upon him, which would recall to her constantly the vows she had made; it was also the promise of a long series of years, to be passed together, as if by this little circle of gold they were attached to each other even to the grave.

And while the priest, after the final prayers, exhorted them once more, Angelique wore always the sweet expression of renunciation; she, the pure soul, who knew the truth.

Then, as the Abbe Cornille withdrew, accompanied by his clerks, the organs again burst forth with peals of joy. Monseigneur, motionless until now, bent towards the young couple with an expression of great mildness in his eagle-like eyes. Still on their knees, the Huberts lifted their heads, blinded by their tears of joy. And the enormous depths of the organs’ peals rolled and lost themselves by degrees in a hail of little sharp notes, which were swept away under the high arches, like the morning song of the lark. There was a long waving movement, a half-hushed sound amongst the reverential crowd, who filled to overflowing even the side-aisles and the nave. The church, decorated with flowers, glittering with the taper lights, seemed beaming with joy from the Sacrament.

Then there were nearly two hours more of solemn pomp; the Mass being sung and the incense being burnt.

The officiating clergyman had appeared, dressed in his white chasuble, accompanied by the director of the ceremonies, two censer-bearers carrying the censer and the vase of incense, and two acolytes bearing the great golden candlesticks, in which were lighted tapers.

The presence of Monseigneur complicated the rites, the salutations, and the kisses. Every moment there were bowings, or bendings of the knee, which kept the wings of the surplices in constant motion. In the old stalls, with their backs of carved wood, the whole chapter of canons rose; and then again, at other times it was as if a breath from heaven prostrated at once the clergy, by whom the whole apse was filled. The officiating priest chanted at the altar. When he had finished, he went to one side, and took his seat while the choir in its turn for a long time continued the solemn phrases of the services in the fine, clear notes of the young choristers, light and delicate as the flutes of archangels. Among these voices was a very beautiful one, unusually pure and crystalline, that of a young girl, and most delicious to hear. It was said to be that of Mademoiselle Claire de Voincourt, who had wished and obtained permission to sing at this marriage, which had been so wonderfully secured by a miracle. The organ which accompanied her appeared to sigh in a softened manner, with the peaceful calm of a soul at ease and perfectly happy.

There were occasionally short spells of silence. Then the music burst out again with formidable rollings, while the master of the ceremonies summoned the acolytes with their chandeliers, and conducted the censer-bearers to the officiating clergyman, who blessed the incenses in the vases. Now there was constantly heard the movements of the censer, with the silvery sound of the little chains as they swung back and forth in the clear light. There was in the air a bluish, sweet-scented cloud, as they incensed the Bishop, the clergy, the altar, the Gospel, each person and each thing in its turn, even the close crowd of people, making the three movements, to the right, to the left, and in front, to mark the Cross.

In the meantime Angelique and Felicien, on their knees, listened devoutly to the Mass, which is significant of the mysterious consummation of the marriage of Jesus and the Church. There had been given into the hands of each a lighted candle, symbol of the purity preserved since their baptism. After the Lord’s Prayer they had remained under the veil, which is a sign of submission, of bashfulness, and of modesty; and during this time the priest, standing at the right-hand side of the altar, read the prescribed prayers. They still held the lighted tapers, which serve also as a sign of remembrance of death, even in the joy of a happy marriage. And now it was finished, the offering was made, the officiating clergyman went away, accompanied by the director of the ceremonies, the incense-bearers, and the acolytes, after having prayed God to bless the newly-wedded couple, in order that they might live to see and multiply their children, even to the third and fourth generation.

At this moment the entire Cathedral seemed living and exulting with joy. The March Triumphal was being played upon the organs with such thunder-like peals that they made the old edifice fairly tremble. The entire crowd of people now rose, quite excited, and straining themselves to see everything; women even mounted on the chairs, and there were closely-pressed rows of heads as far back as the dark chapels of the outer side-aisles. In this vast multitude every face was smiling, every heart beat with sympathetic joy. In this final adieu the thousands of tapers appeared to burn still higher, stretching out their flames like tongues of fire, vacillating under the vaulted arches. A last Hosanna from the clergy rose up through the flowers and the verdure in the midst of the luxury of the ornaments and the sacred vessels. But suddenly the great portal under the organs was opened wide, and the sombre walls of the church were marked as if by great sheets of daylight. It was the clear April morning, the living sun of the spring-tide, the Place du Cloitre, which was now seen with its tidy-looking, white houses; and there another crowd, still more numerous, awaited the coming of the bride and bridegroom, with a more impatient eagerness, which already showed itself by gestures and acclamations. The candles had grown paler, and the noises of the street were drowned in the music of the organs.

With a slow step, between the double hedge of the worshippers, Angelique and Felicien turned towards the entrance-door. After the triumphant carrying out of her dream, she was now about to enter into the reality of life. This porch of broad sunlight opened into the world of which as yet she was entirely ignorant. She retarded her steps as she looked earnestly at the rows of houses, at the tumultuous crowd, at all which greeted and acclaimed her. Her weakness was so intense that her husband was obliged to almost carry her. However, she was still able to look pleased, as she thought of the princely house, filled with jewels and with queenly toilettes, where the nuptial chamber awaited her, all decorated with white silk and lace. Almost suffocated, she was obliged to stop when halfway down the aisle; then she had sufficient strength to take a few steps more. She glanced at her wedding ring, so recently placed upon her finger, and smiled at this sign of eternal union. Then, on the threshold of the great door, at the top of the steps which went down into the Place du Cloitre, she tottered. Had she not really arrived at the summit of her happiness? Was not it there that the joy of her life, being perfected, was to end? With a last effort she raised herself as much as possible, that she might put her lips upon the lips of Felicien. And in that kiss of love she passed away for ever.

But her death was without sadness. Monseigneur, with his habitual movement of pastoral benediction, aided this pure soul to free itself from the frail body. He had regained his calmness, and had once more found in the fulfillment of his sacred calling the desired-for peace.

The Huberts, unconscious of what had taken place, were still kneeling, grateful for the pardon at last granted them, and feeling as if re-entering into existence. For them, as well as for their beloved daughter, the dream was accomplished. All the Cathedral and the whole town were en fete. The organs sounded louder than ever; the bells pealed joyously; the multitude waited to greet the loving couple on the threshold of the mystic church under the glorious spring sunlight.

It was indeed a beautiful death. Angelique, happy and pure, carried away suddenly at the moment of the realisation of her fondest dream, taken into the heavenly life from the dark Romanesque chapels with the flamboyant, Gothic-vaulted ceiling, from among the gilded decorations and paintings of ancient times, in the full Paradise of Golden Legends. What more could she have asked for?

Felicien held in his arms simply a soft and tender form, from which life had departed; this bridal robe of lace and pearls seemed like the light wings of a bird, still warm to the touch. For a long time he had well known that he could claim but a shadow. The exquisite vision that came from the Invisible had returned to the Invisible.

It was merely a semblance, which effaced itself; the vanishing of an illusion.

Everything is only a dream.

And so, at the moment of supreme earthly happiness, Angelique had disappeared in the slight breath of a loving kiss.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06