The Dream (Le Rêve), by Émile Zola

Chapter 2

Beaumont is composed of two villages, completely separated and quite distinct one from the other — Beaumont-l’Eglise, on the hill with its old Cathedral of the twelfth century, its Bishop’s Palace which dates only from the seventeenth century, its inhabitants, scarcely one thousand in number, who are crowded together in an almost stifling way in its narrow streets; and Beaumont-la-Ville, at the foot of the hill, on the banks of the Ligneul, an ancient suburb, which the success of its manufactories of lace and fine cambric has enriched and enlarged to such an extent that it has a population of nearly ten thousand persons, several public squares, and an elegant sub-prefecture built in the modern style. These two divisions, the northern district and the southern district, have thus no longer anything in common except in an administrative way. Although scarcely thirty leagues from Paris, where one can go by rail in two hours, Beaumont-l’Eglise seems to be still immured in its old ramparts, of which, however, only three gates remain. A stationary, peculiar class of people lead there a life similar to that which their ancestors had led from father to son during the past five hundred years.

The Cathedral explains everything, has given birth to and preserved everything. It is the mother, the queen, as it rises in all its majesty in the centre of, and above, the little collection of low houses, which, like shivering birds, are sheltered under her wings of stone. One lives there simply for it, and only by it. There is no movement of business activity, and the little tradesmen only sell the necessities of life, such as are absolutely required to feed, to clothe, and to maintain the church and its clergy; and if occasionally one meets some private individuals, they are merely the last representatives of a scattered crowd of worshippers. The church dominates all; each street is one of its veins; the town has no other breath than its own. On that account, this spirit of another age, this religious torpor from the past, makes the cloistered city which surrounds it redolent with a savoury perfume of peace and of faith.

And in all this mystic place, the house of the Huberts, where Angelique was to live in the future, was the one nearest to the Cathedral, and which clung to it as if in reality it were a part thereof. The permission to build there, between two of the great buttresses, must have been given by some vicar long ago, who was desirous of attaching to himself the ancestors of this line of embroiderers, as master chasuble-makers and furnishers for the Cathedral clergy. On the southern side, the narrow garden was barred by the colossal building; first, the circumference of the side chapels, whose windows overlooked the flower-beds, and then the slender, long nave, that the flying buttresses supported, and afterwards the high roof covered with the sheet lead.

The sun never penetrated to the lower part of this garden, where ivy and box alone grew luxuriantly; yet the eternal shadow there was very soft and pleasant as it fell from the gigantic brow of the apse — a religious shadow, sepulchral and pure, which had a good odour about it. In the greenish half-light of its calm freshness, the two towers let fall only the sound of their chimes. But the entire house kept the quivering therefrom, sealed as it was to these old stones, melted into them and supported by them. It trembled at the least of the ceremonies; at the High Mass, the rumbling of the organ, the voices of the choristers, even the oppressed sighs of the worshippers, murmured through each one of its rooms, lulled it as if with a holy breath from the Invisible, and at times through the half-cool walls seemed to come the vapours from the burning incense.

For five years Angelique lived and grew there, as if in a cloister, far away from the world. She only went out to attend the seven-o’clock Mass on Sunday mornings, as Hubertine had obtained permission for her to study at home, fearing that, if sent to school, she might not always have the best of associates. This old dwelling, so shut in, with its garden of a dead quiet, was her world. She occupied as her chamber a little whitewashed room under the roof; she went down in the morning to her breakfast in the kitchen, she went up again to the working-room in the second story to her embroidery. And these places, with the turning stone stairway of the turret, were the only corners in which she passed her time; for she never went into the Huberts’ apartments, and only crossed the parlour on the first floor, and they were the two rooms which had been rejuvenated and modernised. In the parlour, the beams were plastered over, and the ceiling had been decorated with a palm-leaf cornice, accompanied by a rose centre; the wall-paper dated from the First Empire, as well as the white marble chimney-piece and the mahogany furniture, which consisted of a sofa and four armchairs covered with Utrecht velvet, a centre table, and a cabinet.

On the rare occasions when she went there, to add to the articles exposed for sale some new bands of embroidery, if she cast her eyes without, she saw through the window the same unchanging vista, the narrow street ending at the portal of Saint Agnes; a parishioner pushing open the little lower door, which shut itself without any noise, and the shops of the plate-worker and wax-candle-maker opposite, which appeared to be always empty, but where was a display of holy sacramental vessels, and long lines of great church tapers. And the cloistral calm of all Beaumont-l’Eglise — of the Rue Magloire, back of the Bishop’s Palace, of the Grande Rue, where the Rue de Orfevres began, and of the Place du Cloitre, where rose up the two towers, was felt in the drowsy air, and seemed to fall gently with the pale daylight on the deserted pavement.

Hubertine had taken upon herself the charge of the education of Angelique. Moreover, she was very old-fashioned in her ideas, and maintained that a woman knew enough if she could read well, write correctly, and had studied thoroughly the first four rules of arithmetic. But even for this limited instruction she had constantly to contend with an unwillingness on the part of her pupil, who, instead of giving her attention to her books, preferred looking out of the windows, although the recreation was very limited, as she could see nothing but the garden from them. In reality, Angelique cared only for reading; notwithstanding in her dictations, chosen from some classic writer, she never succeeded in spelling a page correctly, yet her handwriting was exceedingly pretty, graceful, and bold, one of those irregular styles which were quite the fashion long ago. As for other studies, of geography and history and cyphering, she was almost completely ignorant of them. What good would knowledge ever do her? It was really useless, she thought. Later on, when it was time for her to be Confirmed, she learned her Catechism word for word, and with so fervent an ardour that she astonished everyone by the exactitude of her memory.

Notwithstanding their gentleness, during the first year the Huberts were often discouraged. Angelique, who promised to be skilful in embroidering, disconcerted them by sudden changes to inexplicable idleness after days of praiseworthy application. She was capricious, seemed to lose her strength, became greedy, would steal sugar to eat when alone, and her cheeks were flushed and her eyes looked wearied under their reddened lids. If reproved, she would reply with a flood of injurious words. Some days, when they wished to try to subdue her, her foolish pride at being interfered with would throw her into such serious attacks that she would strike her feet and her hands together, and seemed ready to tear her clothing, or to bite anyone who approached her. At such moments they drew away from her, for she was like a little monster ruled by the evil sprit within her.

Who could she be? Where did she come from? Almost always these abandoned children are the offspring of vice. Twice they had resolved to give her up and send her back to the Asylum, so discouraged were they and so deeply did they regret having taken her. But each time these frightful scenes, which almost made the house tremble, ended in the same deluge of tears, and the same excited expressions and acts of penitence, when the child would throw herself on the floor, begging them so earnestly to punish her that they were obliged to forgive her.

Little by little, Hubertine gained great authority over her. She was peculiarly adapted for such a task, with her kind heart, her gentle firmness, her common-sense and her uniform temper. She taught her the duty of obedience and the sin of pride and of passion. To obey was to live. We must obey God, our parents, and our superiors. There was a whole hierarchy of respect, outside of which existence was unrestrained and disorderly. So, after each fit of passion, that she might learn humility, some menial labour was imposed upon her as a penance, such as washing the cooking-utensils, or wiping up the kitchen floor; and, until it was finished, she would remain stooping over her work, enraged at first, but conquered at last.

With the little girl excess seemed to be a marked characteristic in everything, even in her caresses. Many times Hubertine had seen her kissing her hands with vehemence. She would often be in a fever of ecstasy before the little pictures of saints and of the Child Jesus, which she had collected; and one evening she was found in a half-fainting state, with her head upon the table, and her lips pressed to those of the images. When Hubertine confiscated them there was a terrible scene of tears and cries, as if she herself were being tortured. After that she was held very strictly, was made to obey, and her freaks were at once checked by keeping her busy at her work; as soon as her cheeks grew very red, her eyes dark, and she had nervous tremblings, everything was immediately made quiet about her.

Moreover, Hubertine had found an unexpected aid in the book given by the Society for the Protection of Abandoned Children. Every three months, when the collector signed it, Angelique was very low-spirited for the rest of the day. If by chance she saw it when she went to the drawer for a ball of gold thread, her heart seemed pierced with agony. And one day, when in a fit of uncontrollable fury, which nothing had been able to conquer, she turned over the contents of the drawer, she suddenly appeared as if thunderstruck before the red-covered book. Her sobs stifled her. She threw herself at the feet of the Huberts in great humility, stammering that they had made a mistake in giving her shelter, and that she was not worthy of all their kindness. From that time her anger was frequently restrained by the sight or the mention of the book.

In this way Angelique lived until she was twelve years of age and ready to be Confirmed. The calm life of the household, the little old-fashioned building sleeping under the shadow of the Cathedral, perfumed with incense, and penetrated with religious music, favoured the slow amelioration of this untutored nature, this wild flower, taken from no one knew where, and transplanted in the mystic soil of the narrow garden. Added to this was the regularity of her daily work and the utter ignorance of what was going on in the world, without even an echo from a sleepy quarter penetrating therein.

But, above all, the gentlest influence came from the great love of the Huberts for each other, which seemed to be enlarged by some unknown, incurable remorse. He passed the days in endeavouring to make his wife forget the injury he had done her in marrying her in spite of the opposition of her mother. He had realised at the death of their child that she half accused him of this punishment, and he wished to be forgiven. She had done so years ago, and now she idolised him. Sometimes he was not sure of it, and this doubt saddened his life. He wished they might have had another infant, and so feel assured that the obstinate mother had been softened after death, and had withdrawn her malediction. That, in fact, was their united desire — a child of pardon; and he worshipped his wife with a tender love, ardent and pure as that of a betrothed. If before the apprentice he did not even kiss her hand, he never entered their chamber, even after twenty years of marriage, without an emotion of gratitude for all the happiness that had been given him. This was their true home, this room with its tinted paintings, its blue wall-paper, its pretty hangings, and its walnut furniture. Never was an angry word uttered therein, and, as if from a sanctuary, a sentiment of tenderness went out from its occupants, and filled the house. It was thus for Angelique an atmosphere of affection and love, in which she grew and thrived.

An unexpected event finished the work of forming her character. As she was rummaging one morning in a corner of the working-room, she found on a shelf, among implements of embroidery which were no longer used, a very old copy of the “Golden Legend,” by Jacques de Voragine. This French translation, dating from 1549, must have been bought in the long ago by some master-workman in church vestments, on account of the pictures, full of useful information upon the Saints. It was a great while since Angelique had given any attention to the little old carved images, showing such childlike faith, which had once delighted her. But now, as soon as she was allowed to go out and play in the garden, she took the book with her. It had been rebound in yellow calf, and was in a good condition. She slowly turned over some of the leaves, then looked at the title-page, in red and black, with the address of the bookseller: “a Paris, en la rue Neufre Nostre-Dame, a l’enseigne Saint Jehan Baptiste;” and decorated with medallions of the four Evangelists, framed at the bottom by the Adoration of the Three Magi, and at the top by the Triumph of Jesus Christ, and His resurrection. And then picture after picture followed; there were ornamented letters, large and small, engravings in the text and at the heading of the chapters; “The Annunciation,” an immense angel inundating with rays of light a slight, delicate-looking Mary; “The Massacre of the Innocents,” where a cruel Herod was seen surrounded by dead bodies of dear little children; “The Nativity,” where Saint Joseph is holding a candle, the light of which falls upon the face of the Infant Jesus, Who sleeps in His mother’s arms; Saint John the Almoner, giving to the poor; Saint Matthias, breaking an idol; Saint Nicholas as a bishop, having at his right hand a little bucket filled with babies. And then, a little farther on, came the female saints: Agnes, with her neck pierced by a sword; Christina, torn by pincers; Genevieve, followed by her lambs; Juliana, being whipped; Anastasia, burnt; Maria the Egyptian, repenting in the desert, Mary of Magdalene, carrying the vase of precious ointment; and others and still others followed. There was an increasing terror and a piety in each one of them, making it a history which weighs upon the heart and fills the eyes with tears.

But, little by little, Angelique was curious to know exactly what these engravings represented. The two columns of closely-printed text, the impression of which remained very black upon the papers yellowed by time, frightened her by the strange, almost barbaric look of the Gothic letters. Still, she accustomed herself to it, deciphered these characters, learned the abbreviations and the contractions, and soon knew how to explain the turning of the phrases and the old-fashioned words. At last she could read it easily, and was as enchanted as if she were penetrating a mystery, and she triumphed over each new difficulty that she conquered.

Under these laborious shades a whole world of light revealed itself. She entered, as it were, into a celestial splendour. For now the few classic books they owned, so cold and dry, existed no longer. The Legend alone interested her. She bent over it, with her forehead resting on her hands, studying it so intently, that she no longer lived in the real life, but, unconscious of time, she seemed to see, mounting from the depths of the unknown, the broad expansion of a dream.

How wonderful it all was! These saints and virgins! They are born predestined; solemn voices announce their coming, and their mothers have marvellous dreams about them. All are beautiful, strong, and victorious. Great lights surround them, and their countenances are resplendent. Dominic has a star on his forehead. They read the minds of men and repeat their thoughts aloud. They have the gift of prophecy, and their predictions are always realised. Their number is infinite. Among them are bishops and monks, virgins and fallen women, beggars and nobles of a royal race, unclothed hermits who live on roots, and old men who inhabit caverns with goats. Their history is always the same. They grow up for Christ, believe fervently in Him, refuse to sacrifice to false gods, are tortured, and die filled with glory. Emperors were at last weary of persecuting them. Andrew, after being attached to the cross, preached during two days to twenty thousand persons. Conversions were made in masses, forty thousand men being baptised at one time. When the multitudes were not converted by the miracles, they fled terrified. The saints were accused of sorcery; enigmas were proposed to them, which they solved at once; they were obliged to dispute questions with learned men, who remained speechless before them. As soon as they entered the temples of sacrifice the idols were overthrown with a breath, and were broken to pieces. A virgin tied her sash around the neck of a statue of Venus, which at once fell in powder. The earth trembled. The Temple of Diana was struck by lightning and destroyed; and the people revolting, civil wars ensued. Then often the executioners asked to be baptised; kings knelt at the feet of saints in rags who had devoted themselves to poverty. Sabina flees from the paternal roof. Paula abandons her five children. Mortifications of the flesh and fasts purify, not oil or water. Germanus covers his food with ashes. Bernard cares not to eat, but delights only in the taste of fresh water. Agatha keeps for three years a pebble in her mouth. Augustinus is in despair for the sin he has committed in turning to look after a dog who was running. Prosperity and health are despised, and joy begins with privations which kill the body. And it is thus that, subduing all things, they live at last in gardens where the flowers are stars, and where the leaves of the trees sing. They exterminate dragons, they raise and appease tempests, they seem in their ecstatic visions to be borne above the earth. Their wants are provided for while living, and after their death friends are advised by dreams to go and bury them. Extraordinary things happen to them, and adventures far more marvellous than those in a work of fiction. And when their tombs are opened after hundreds of years, sweet odours escape therefrom.

Then, opposite the saints, behold the evil spirits!

“They often fly about us like insects, and fill the air without number. The air is also full of demons, as the rays of the sun are full of atoms. It is even like powder.” And the eternal contest begins. The saints are always victorious, and yet they are constantly obliged to renew the battle. The more the demons are driven away, the more they return. There were counted six thousand six hundred and sixty-six in the body of a woman whom Fortunatus delivered. They moved, they talked and cried, by the voice of the person possessed, whose body they shook as if by a tempest. At each corner of the highways an afflicted one is seen, and the first saint who passes contends with the evil spirits. They enter by the eyes, the ears, and by the mouth, and, after days of fearful struggling, they go out with loud groanings. Basilus, to save a young man, contends personally with the Evil One. Macarius was attacked when in a cemetery, and passed a whole night in defending himself. The angels, even at deathbeds, in order to secure the soul of the dying were obliged to beat the demons. At other times the contests are only of the intellect and the mind, but are equally remarkable. Satan, who prowls about, assumes many forms, sometimes disguising himself as a woman, and again, even as a saint. But, once overthrown, he appears in all his ugliness: “a black cat, larger than a dog, his huge eyes emitting flame, his tongue long, large, and bloody, his tail twisted and raised in the air, and his whole body disgusting to the last degree.” He is the one thing that is hated, and the only preoccupation. People fear him, yet ridicule him. One is not even honest with him. In reality, notwithstanding the ferocious appearance of his furnaces, he is the eternal dupe. All the treaties he makes are forced from him by violence or cunning. Feeble women throw him down: Margaret crushes his head with her feet, and Juliana beats him with her chain. From all this a serenity disengages itself, a disdain of evil, since it is powerless, and a certainty of good, since virtue triumphs. It is only necessary to cross one’s self, and the Devil can do no harm, but yells and disappears, while the infernal regions tremble.

Then, in this combat of legions of saints against Satan are developed the fearful sufferings from persecutions. The executioners expose to the flies the martyrs whose bodies are covered with honey; they make them walk with bare feet over broken glass or red-hot coals, put them in ditches with reptiles; chastise them with whips, whose thongs are weighted with leaden balls; nail them when alive in coffins, which they throw into the sea; hang them by their hair, and then set fire to them; moisten their wounds with quicklime, boiling pitch, or molten lead; make them sit on red-hot iron stools; burn their sides with torches; break their bones on wheels, and torture them in every conceivable way. And, with all this, physical pain counts for nothing; indeed, it seems to be desired. Moreover, a continual miracle protects them. John drinks poison but is unharmed. Sebastian smiles although pierced with arrows; sometimes they remain in the air at the right or left of the martyr, or, launched by the archer, they return upon himself and put out his eyes. Molten lead is swallowed as if it were ice-water. Lions prostrate themselves, and lick their hands as gently as lambs. The gridiron of Saint Lawrence is of an agreeable freshness to him. He cries, “Unhappy man, you have roasted one side, turn the other and then eat, for it is sufficiently cooked.” Cecilia, placed in a boiling bath, is refreshed by it. Christina exhorts those who would torture her. Her father had her whipped by twelve men, who at last drop from fatigue; she is then attached to a wheel, under which a fire is kindled, and the flame, turning to one side, devours fifteen hundred persons. She is then thrown into the sea, but the angels support her; Jesus comes to baptise her in person, then gives her to the charge of Saint Michael, that he may conduct her back to the earth; after that she is placed for five days in a heated oven, where she suffers not, but sings constantly. Vincent, who was exposed to still greater tortures, feels them not. His limbs are broken, he is covered with red-hot irons, he is pricked with needles, he is placed on a brazier of live coals, and then taken back to prison, where his feet are nailed to a post. Yet he still lives, and his pains are changed into a sweetness of flowers, a great light fills his dungeon, and angels sing with him, giving him rest as if he were on a bed of roses. The sweet sound of singing, and the fresh odour of flowers spread without in the room, and when the guards saw the miracle they were converted to the faith, and when Dacian heard of it, he was greatly enraged, and said, “Do nothing more to him, for we are conquered.” Such was the excitement among the persecutors, it could only end either by their conversion or by their death. Their hands are paralysed; they perish violently; they are choked by fish-bones; they are struck by lightning, and their chariots are broken. In the meanwhile, the cells of the martyrs are resplendent. Mary and the Apostles enter them at will, although the doors are bolted. Constant aid is given, apparitions descend from the skies, where angels are waiting, holding crowns of precious stones. Since death seems joyous, it is not feared, and their friends are glad when they succumb to it. On Mount Ararat ten thousand are crucified, and at Cologne eleven thousand virgins are massacred by the Huns. In the circuses they are devoured by wild beasts. Quirique, who, by the influence of the Holy Spirit, taught like a man, suffered martyrdom when but three years of age. Nursing-children reproved the executioners. The hope for celestial happiness deadened the physical senses and softened pain. Were they torn to pieces, or burnt, they minded it not. They never yielded, and they called for the sword, which alone could kill them. Eulalia, when at the stake, breathes the flame that she may die the more quickly. Her prayer is granted, and a white dove flies from her mouth and bears her soul to heaven.

Angelique marvelled greatly at all these accounts. So many abominations and such triumphant joy delighted her and carried her out of herself.

But other points in the Legend, of quite a different nature, also interested her; the animals, for instance, of which there were enough to fill an Ark of Noah. She liked the ravens and the eagles who fed the hermits.

Then what lovely stories there were about the lions. The serviceable one who found a resting-place in a field for Mary the Egyptian; the flaming lion who protected virgins or maidens in danger; and then the lion of Saint Jerome, to whose care an ass had been confided, and, when the animal was stolen, went in search of him and brought him back. There was also the penitent wolf, who had restored a little pig he had intended eating. Then there was Bernard, who excommunicates the flies, and they drop dead. Remi and Blaise feed birds at their table, bless them, and make them strong. Francis, “filled with a dove-like simplicity,” preaches to them, and exhorts them to love God. A bird was on a branch of a fig-tree, and Francis, holding out his hand, beckoned to it, and soon it obeyed, and lighted on his hand. And he said to it, “Sing my sister, and praise the Lord.” And immediately the bird began to sing, and did not go away until it was told to do so.

All this was a continual source of recreation to Angelique, and gave her the idea of calling to the swallows, and hoping they might come to her.

The good giant Christopher, who carried the Infant Christ on his shoulders, delighted her so much as to bring tears to her eyes.

She was very merry over the misadventures of a certain Governor with the three chambermaids of Anastasia, whom he hoped to have found in the kitchen, where he kissed the stove and the kettles, thinking he was embracing them. “He went out therefrom very black and ugly, and his clothes quite smutched. And when his servants, who were waiting, saw him in such a state, they thought he was the Devil. Then they beat him with birch-rods, and, running away, left him alone.”

But that which convulsed her most with laughter, was the account of the blows given to the Evil One himself, especially when Juliana, having been tempted by him in her prison cell, administered such an extraordinary chastisement with her chain. “Then the Provost commanded that Juliana should be brought before him; and when she came into his presence, she was drawing the Devil after her, and he cried out, saying, ‘My good lady Juliana, do not hurt me any more!’ She led him in this way around the public square, and afterwards threw him into a deep ditch.”

Often Angelique would repeat to the Huberts, as they were all at work together, legends far more interesting than any fairy-tale. She had read them over so often that she knew them by heart, and she told in a charming way the story of the Seven Sleepers, who, to escape persecution, walled themselves up in a cavern, and whose awakening greatly astonished the Emperor Theodosius. Then the Legend of Saint Clement with its endless adventures, so unexpected and touching, where the whole family, father, mother, and three sons, separated by terrible misfortunes, are finally re-united in the midst of the most beautiful miracles.

Her tears would flow at these recitals. She dreamed of them at night, she lived, as it were, only in this tragic and triumphant world of prodigy, in a supernatural country where all virtues are recompensed by all imaginable joys.

When Angelique partook of her first Communion, it seemed as if she were walking, like the saints, a little above the earth. She was a young Christian of the primitive Church; she gave herself into the hands of God, having learned from her book that she could not be saved without grace.

The Huberts were simple in their profession of faith. They went every Sunday to Mass, and to Communion on all great fete-days, and this was done with the tranquil humility of true belief, aided a little by tradition, as the chasubliers had from father to son always observed the Church ceremonies, particularly those at Easter.

Hubert himself had a tendency to imaginative fancies. He would at times stop his work and let fall his frame to listen to the child as she read or repeated the legends, and, carried away for the moment by her enthusiasm, it seemed as if his hair were blown about by the light breath of some invisible power. He was so in sympathy with Angelique, and associated her to such a degree with the youthful saints of the past, that he wept when he saw her in her white dress and veil. This day at church was like a dream, and they returned home quite exhausted. Hubertine was obliged to scold them both, for, with her excellent common-sense, she disliked exaggeration even in good things.

From that time she had to restrain the zeal of Angelique, especially in her tendency to what she thought was charity, and to which she wished to devote herself. Saint Francis had wedded poverty; Julien the Chaplain had called the poor his superiors; Gervasius and Protais had washed the feet of the most indigent, and Martin had divided his cloak with them. So she, following the example of Lucy, wished to sell everything that she might give. At first she disposed of all her little private possessions, then she began to pillage the house. But at last she gave without judgment and foolishly. One evening, two days after her Confirmation, being reprimanded for having thrown from the window several articles of underwear to a drunken woman, she had a terrible attack of anger like those when she was young; then, overcome by shame, she was really ill and forced to keep her bed for a couple of days.

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